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electric Boulez

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NYRB's Christopher Carroll looks back to the time when Boulez went electric:

Pierre Boulez, the radical modernist composer who later in his career became one of the most sought-after conductors in the world, was famous for his polemics. "I suggested that it was not enough to add a moustache to the Mona Lisa," he once said.
It should simply be destroyed. All I meant was just to urge the public to grow up and once for all to cut the umbilical cord attaching it to the past. The artists I admire--Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Berlioz--have not followed tradition but have been able to force tradition to follow them. We need to restore the spirit of irreverence in music.

"This was not simply abuse for its own sake," Carroll continues, "but an attempt to underscore what Boulez felt was the urgent need for innovation in the postwar era:"

The musical forms of the twentieth century, he believed, had been creatively exhausted. His search for the new led Boulez to a brief experiment in the early Fifties with total serialism, which applied Schoenberg's technique of serial ordering not just to pitch, but to rhythm, dynamics, tempo, timbre, and even the way in which notes were attacked. Though he soon distanced himself from the technique--later suggesting that excessive devotion to serialism was a form of "frenetic arithmetic masturbation"--for many this is the image of Boulez that has stuck: a bullying, icy modernist whose music was forbidding and academic, full of jagged asperity and rhythms that unfold in what Alex Ross aptly called "a rapid sequence of jabbing gestures, like the squigglings of a seismograph."

"Yet of all his compositions," writes Carroll, "the one that may give the most pleasure on first listening is one that must be heard in person in order to truly appreciate, and that--perhaps unsurprisingly--is hardly ever performed:"

That work is Répons, a late electronic composition for orchestra, six soloists, and an audio-acoustic system that was recently staged at the Park Avenue Armory by the Ensemble Intercontemporain. [...]

The piece, which Boulez revisited several times, ultimately extending it to a length of about forty-five minutes, is written for three separate groups: an orchestra, six soloists, and what the score calls an electro-acoustic system of computers and loudspeakers. The orchestra sits at the center, surrounded by the audience, which is in turn surrounded by six soloists playing percussion instruments--the cimbalom (a kind of Hunagarian zither); harp; vibraphone; xylophone doubled with glockenspiel; and two pianos, one of which is doubled with an electric organ. Each of these solo instruments is hooked up to the electro-acoustic system, which analyzes, transforms, and spatially rearranges their sounds, dispersing them through a set of six loudspeakers.

Boulez's Répons at the Park Avenue Armory, 2017 (Stephanie Berger)

Carroll is quite laudatory about both the piece and its performance:

Far from stifling the human element, the use of electronics in Répons helps bring it to life, giving the piece an almost living, breathing mutability. Hearing it live made it clear why Boulez once said that listening to a recording of the piece was the equivalent of looking at a photo of one of Calder's mobiles.

Nat Hentoff, RIP

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Eulogized all over for his passionate advocacy (of jazz and free speech, among other necessities), Nat Hentoff is missed deeply by The Nation:

In well over a half-century of writing and advocacy, Hentoff passionately defended the importance of freedom in the most capacious sense--as the unqualified right of expression, whether that meant a riff from John Coltrane's sax or an unpopular, even offensive idea.

One of his early "Indigenous Music" columns [which ran from 1976 to 1980], Hentoff reminisced about Billie Holiday, "whose music he was reportedly listening to in his last moments alive:"

In 1957, less than two years before she died, Robert Herridge, Whitney Balliett and I put together The Sound of Jazz for CBS-TV, and the section of that hour which has been replayed most often has Billie, sitting on a high stool, singing Fine and Mellow to her once and former very good friend, Lester Young. They had not spoken for a long time, but that afternoon they connected in and through the blues, looking directly into each other's eyes, their music softly overwhelming everything else around and beneath them. And in the control room, the engineers, the director, the producer, all of us had tears in our eyes. None of us was the least embarrassed either. We were grateful.

It doesn't get any better than that.

"If there's one thing we can learn from his life," writes Hemant Mehta at Patheos, "it's that there's power in forging your own path and following the evidence, as you see it, even if it may not sit well with those in your circles:"

Hentoff didn't hold certain positions just because they were expected of him. He came to his own conclusions and fought for them passionately. That's never easy to do when some of your opinions are bound to create friction. It's also why people are mourning the loss of the kind of voice we rarely hear these days.

The Federalist mentions that Hentoff wrote "more than 30 books" and was prolific in periodicals as well:

Hentoff's columns appeared regularly in such far-flung and incongruous places as the Washington Post, the Village Voice, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and at conservative and libertarian outlets like Jewish World Review, the Washington Times and the Cato Institute, where he was a fellow.

In the early 1980s, his vocal championing of the pro-life cause was such a rejection of the liberal orthodoxy that it perplexed and infuriated his colleagues at the Village Voice, the iconic New York broadsheet he did so much to establish in the 1950s. For conservatives, of course, his heterodox, civil libertarian views (especially on the War on Terror) could be equally incensing. While he loved smashing expectations and arguing, it was never a put-on; Hentoff's sincerity and intellectual rigor won him the respect of those with whom he differed on any one of these issues.

"Hentoff's greatest desire was his success in presenting jazz," continues the piece, "this country's signature artistic innovation--and his lifelong love--as a serious intellectual pursuit:"

For him, that meant respecting the craft and the artistic ambitions of the musicians themselves, and the sacrifices these musicians made to attain mastery and success.

He disdained the caricature of the primitive, emotion-driven African American musician who seemed to spontaneously create without study and practice. As a later book very much in the tradition of Hentoff's work would exclaim in its title, this music was "as serious as your life."

Like The Nation, The Federalist also cites the Holiday/Young recording:

Holiday singing "Fine and Mellow" stands out, 50 years on, as one of the most beloved performances in jazz history, due largely for the empathy evident between the pair during Young's solo (at 1:25), which is the perfect example of the tenor giant's vibrato-less, years-behind-the-beat artistry. [...] "Fine and Mellow" is all the more poignant knowing that the performance was the last time Young and Holiday would see each other before their deaths in spring and summer of 1959. In 2000, NPR interviewed Hentoff about the take:
The song she sang that, to most people (including me), was the climax of the show was one of the few songs that she herself ever wrote: 'Fine and Mellow.' It's a basic 12-bar blues. It may be the only blues song she ever wrote, although the language of the blues, the texture of the blues, the cry of the blues was always part of what she did.

What made this the climax of the show was this: She and Lester Young -- she had given him his nickname, Pres, and he was the guy who called her Lady Day, which other people came to call her. They had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show.

Lester was not feeling well... When it came to his solo, in the middle of 'Fine and Mellow,' Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard.

Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true -- it sounds corny -- in the control room, [Robert] Herridge, the producer, had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving. I think for all the times she sang this song, on records and in night clubs, this was the performance that I think meant the most to her, and it came through on 'The Sound of Jazz.'

After it was all over, she was so pleased with how it went--it was live, by the way--she came over and kissed me. And that's worth more to me than the Congressional Medal of Honor.

There are worse ways to spend your time today than listening to the Hentoff-produced jazz tracks that the article so thoughtfully includes. Bravo!

"Somebody to Love"

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Open Culture looks at a track I listened to a few times over Christmas weekend: George Michael's performance of "Somebody to Love" at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992. Open Culture's assessment is that "while he lacked Mercury's range, he nearly matched the former Queen singer in power and charisma:"

Immediately after Michael's death, this rehearsal video began making the rounds on social media, and people highlighted not only his mastery of a very challenging vocal melody, but the appreciation of fellow Mercury tribute performer David Bowie, whom we see nodding along in the wings at around 3:00. It's a very poignant moment, in hindsight, that underlines some of the significant similarities between the two stars. Not only were they both sexually adventurous chameleons and riveting performers, but--as we learned in story after story shared in their many posthumous tributes--both men used their status to help others, often anonymously.

Here is the rehearsal:

Here is the concert:

It's worth remembering both Mercury and Michael as exemplifying the best of pop-music artistry.

George Michael

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George Michael, writes Slate, was the gay icon we didn't know we needed, beginning with the "I Want Your Sex" controversy back in the Faith era:

At a time when the mainstream associated gay sex with the AIDS crisis, Michael was finally a pop icon who exalted its joys. Here was a gay celebrity who loved to fuck.

A decade later, a different notoriety was obtained when he "was arrested for a 'lewd act' in a public bathroom by an undercover cop:"

1998 was an early time to come out in our contemporary history, and when Michael did, he wore the cultural stigma as a badge of honor. Michael may not have had the freedom he craved in his own life, but he certainly cleared the way for others. [...] Michael showed no remorse for the act itself. Instead, he gave an almost insouciant response: "I don't feel ashamed and I don't believe I should," he told CNN.

Michael further embraced the incident later that year, when he released the single "Outside," a disco anthem that celebrates cruising and flagrant, illicit public displays of affection. The single works as a statement of Michael's own personal coming-out process: What was once veiled in subtext had been brought wide into the open. [...] It's a bold, radical, campy video that still feels remarkably defiant in today's political environment.

Also interesting is George Michael's interview in the October 2004 issue of GQ:

George went into therapy as soon as Anselmo was diagnosed [in 1991], and it was three years after his death [in 1993] before he felt able to consider another relationship. Then, in 1996, he met Kenny Goss the chisel-jawed Texan who shares his life to this day. [...]

"My biggest problem in life is fear of more loss. I fear Kenny's death far more than my own. I don't want to outlive him. I'd rather have a short life and not have to go through being torn apart again.

The piece also notes "another George Michael revelation... sexually, he swings both ways:"

"When I walk into a restaurant I check out the women before the men, because they're more glamorous. If I wasn't with Kenny, I would have sex with women, no question," he enthuses. "But I would never be able to have a relationship with a woman because I'd feel like a fake. I regard sexuality as being about who you pair off with, and I wouldn't pair off with a woman and stay with her. Emotionally, I'rn definitely a gay man."

"George had worked out he was bisexual," the piece observes, "during the making of Wham!'s second album" way back in 1984:

He told Andrew Ridgeley and close friends immediately, and was ready to tell the world. "I had very little fear about it, but basically my straight friends talked me out of it. I think they thought as I was bisexual, there was no need to. [...] But it's amazing how much more complicated it became because I didn't come out in the early days. I often wonder if my career would have taken a different path if I had."

"One of the complications," the piece continues, "was not being able to be completely honest with people:"

"I used to sleep with women quite a lot in the Wham! days but never felt it could develop into a relationship because I knew that, emotionally, I was a gay man. I didn't want to commit to them but I was attracted to them. Then I became ashamed that I might be using them. I decided I had to stop, which I did when I began to worry about AIDS, which was becoming prevalent in Britain. Although I had always had safe sex, I didn't want to sleep with a woman without telling her I was bisexual. I felt that would be irresponsible. Basically, I didn't want to have that uncomfortable conversation that might ruin the moment, so I stopped sleeping with them."

A 1999 Advocate interview asks, "Why, after a career-long battle to keep his personal life away from the press, is George Michael sitting down with The Advocate and doing what he swore he'd never do?"

"People are still telling me to be careful," he sighed. "But at the end of the day, all I can be is honest. I've reached a very good point of self-acceptance. I don't have any shame about my sexuality. I don't think people are going to desert me because they know more about me--"

Here are some bits from the Q&A:

How did your father react to your arrest?

He was great, actually. He called me the next day and said, "Tell them to fuck off. You are who you are." I was very impressed with that.

"What's really interesting," he said later, "is that it [revealing his bisexuality] didn't stop the women:"

It actually made the women more involved. It was a challenge. I wasn't really gay; they could change me. I got that a lot. I slept with quite a lot of women, especially at the end of my Wham! days, because I was still thinking, Maybe I could still be straight. It would make life easier. But suddenly it turned into a time where bisexuality seemed to be the most dangerous form of sexuality--and I suppose it still is--so I felt like the bad guy. I couldn't have it both ways with AIDS around.

AIDS changed what bisexuality meant. It used to be a safer place to be.

And quite cool. You just had more options. But gay and straight people look at me with suspicion when I say, "I'm bisexual." They want me to be one way or another.

reclaiming records

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In a teaser for the book Old Records Never Die: One Man's Quest for His Vinyl and His Past, Eric Spitznagel explains the aftermath of purchasing his first CD in 1988. "Over the coming months, I began selling off my records," he writes, noting that "It never occurred to me that I might ever run out of records:"

The last time I counted, somewhere around 1987, I had in the ballpark of two thousand. The first purge of three hundred barely left a dent. And from there, it was just a few records here, a few dozen there, as I needed them. I never made the conscious decision to deep-six my vinyl. It was always just, "Shit, I need beer money for the weekend. Oh wait, I still have that copy of the Stooges' Raw Power!" It was like a low-interest-bearing savings account with guilt-free withdrawals. I was never going to get rich on a bunch of old Elvis Costello records held together with Scotch tape, or a Purple Rain that was so warped it sounded like the doves were crying because Prince was having a stroke. These weren't investments, they were just antiques from my past that had small yet immediate monetary value.

As someone who has purged not just records, but also books and comics, during various life changes, I'm interested in reading about the rest of his quest.

Angus Batey opens his ears to the Miles Davis classics Agharta and Pangaea, calling them "Extreme music, made by a man at the end of his rope, leading a band who were ready to run through walls to make something new and exciting every night:"

Davis - never one to settle for re-doing what he'd already tried - seemed to have succeeded in alienating almost everybody. He pissed off the jazz purists at the end of the 1960s when he brought British electric guitarist John McLaughlin into the studio to help make the album In a Silent Way.

If that wasn't bad enough, the follow-up, Bitches Brew, took Davis further down the same road.

His next disc, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, was a commercial disappointment. "While jazz aficionados were deriding him for 'selling out'," writes Batey, "Miles's new music was in fact so pioneering and different that it was going over everyone's heads:"

On the Corner, released in 1972, was vilified at the time, and has had the balance reset far too heavily since in reappraisals that hail it as a masterpiece. The record has easily as much wrong as right with it, and in many ways it represents the sound of almost two decades of careful and craftsmanlike refinement of ideas, sounds and style being driven at a steady pace and with care and deliberation into a solidly built brick wall.

"This band was all about the art," he continues:

...everything, from composition and set-structure to the intensity of the performances to the sheer volume at which they played, was an exercise in immersing the audience in the sound, overwhelming the senses with musical data, building a new sonic world that the listener has to inhabit and discover for themselves. [...]

No two sets were ever exactly the same, but neither were the performances unstructured or chaotic. The band knew exactly what they were doing, but there was no pre-planning about what changes would happen when. They would take their cues from Miles, who would tell them when to change tack, and what piece of music to segue into next, by playing deft little musical cues or by physically signalling to cut off certain passages and start others.

Audiences at the time--and many even today--were "unable to classify the work according to our established taxonomies:"

We lack not only a map, but also a functioning compass. Therefore we conclude that this is 'difficult music', that these forbiddingly long chunks of improperly named, barely navigable, often very abstractly shapeless blocks of sound have been built into walls so high we cannot climb them - so daunting and monolithic we can only stand awestruck in their presence before retreating to the comforts and securities of three-minute songs with recognisable hooks and names that relate to the images the tunes conjure or the lyrics a vocalist weaves in and around the tune.

On the reissue front, he opines that "one sincerely hopes there's something spectacular being lined up to honour the 1975 vintage band:"

Bootlegs exist of other gigs from that Japanese tour, as well as of shows back in the States later in the year, some of which are reckoned to be better than Agharta and Pangaea. An official release for as many of these as decent-quality recordings exist of would satisfy listeners approaching this music from both traditional and non-traditional routes: an extended immersion, complete with the usually detailed sessionography and scene-setting booklet notes the series delivers, would help demystify this astonishing music and place it in an enhanced and broadened context - while those who crave this music of excess would simply delight in being able to immerse themselves in even more of it.

The takeaway?

"This is some of the most adventurous, committed, spirited, inventive, beguiling, consciousness-expanding, exhilarating, and exciting music ever made."

The albums, as can be heard below, are the very antithesis of easy listening--but they can be very rewarding. Here's the Agharta album:

Open Culture discusses Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea (1938), wherein:

... the stricken protagonist Antoine Roquentin cures his existential horror and sickness with jazz--specifically with an old recording of the song "Some of These Days." Which recording? We do not know. "I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date," writes critic Ted Gioia in a newly published essay, "I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst."

Ted Gioia''s fractious fiction piece calls Sartre "the last writer to reach the highest levels of success as both philosophy and literature," and comments that "as a longtime jazz lover, I am secretly pleased at the cure for the existential nausea:"

Sartre called jazz "the music of the future" and made an effort to get to know Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and listen to John Coltrane. His writings on the subject are more atmospheric than analytical, but it is likely that Sartre saw jazz as the musical manifestation of the existential freedom he described in his philosophical texts. Jazz musicians, he once explained, are "speaking to the best part of you, the toughest, the freest."

Gioia wonders about the possibility that "perhaps jazz does cure existential angst:"

Maybe it delivers more value for money than a trip to the psychiatrist's couch or the latest advertised chemical cure for your woes. In our current age, when people are increasingly looking for alternative treatments, here's one that can be had for a song.

Sartre's "I Discovered Jazz in America" calls jazz our "national pastime:"

At Nick's bar, in New York, the national pastime is presented. Which means that one sits in a smoke-filled hall among sailors, longshoremen, chippies, society women. Tables, booths. No one speaks. [...] No one speaks, no one moves, the jazz holds forth. From ten o'clock to three in the morning the jazz holds forth. [...]

They are speaking to the best part of you, to the toughest, to the freest, to the part which wants neither melody nor refrain, but the deafening climax of the moment. [...] You will leave a little worn out, a little drunk, but with a kind of dejected calm, like the aftermath of a great nervous exhaustion.

Boulez est mort

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Kyle Gann [author of No Such Thing As Silence on John Cage's 4'33"] remarks that "I have little to say, but I couldn't pass up the chance to use a headline I've been holding in reserve for three decades:"

When I interviewed Pierre Boulez in Chicago in 1987, we touched on his notorious 1954 article "Schoenberg est mort," and I asked him if someone would someday need to write an article "Boulez est mort." He laughed, and said, "Maybe I should write it myself." And then he lived another 28 years. [...]

The greater significance for me is that an entire generation is now dead, a generation around which I formed part of my musical personality in high school. Boulez, Stockhausen, Maderna, Pousseur, Ferrari, Ligeti, Barraqué, Kagel, Zimmermann, Berio, Nono, Bussotti, Xenakis - I loved them, I explored them, I was inspired by them, I carried their vinyl Deutsche Grammophon and Wergo records to college with me; because I had already been seduced by Copland, Harris, Shuman, and Bernstein on one hand and Ives, Cage, and Feldman on the other, I could not totally succumb to them; because they spoke in dictatorial terms I developed a genial oedipal hatred for them. As happens, now that they are all gone only the affectionate feelings remain. In grad school I analyzed every note of Boulez's Second Piano Sonata, which I had never heard - and I knew it so well that when I finally listened to the recording, I cried.

"I will listen to Pli selon pli this afternoon," he writes somberly, "and tonight I will drink to all of the great European masters of my youth, and to having outlived them." The obligatory NYT obituary is more prim and proper, noting that Boulez "was a dominant figure in classical music for over half a century:"

Mr. Boulez belonged to an extraordinary generation of European composers who, while still in their 20s, came to the forefront during the decade or so after World War II. They wanted to change music radically, and Mr. Boulez took a leading role. His "Marteau Sans Maître" ("Hammer Without a Master") was one of this group's first major achievements, and it remains a central work of modern music. [...]

From [1960] on, he began starting more works than he ever brought to completion, while at the same time submitting older pieces to rounds of revision.

NYT's conclusion is that "the achievements contained in his published works and recordings are formidable, and his influence was incalculable:"

The tasks he took on were heroic: to continue the great adventure of musical modernism, and to carry with him the great musical institutions and the widest possible audience.

Speaking of audience breadth, NPR's photo of Boulez with Frank Zappa

(Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images)

is a fitting accompaniment to Bill Chappell's observation that "Boulez famously challenged his peers and his audience to rethink their ideas of sound and harmony:"

Boulez, who won 26 Grammy awards, had a prodigiously broad musical reach. In the 1970s, he founded the IRCAM music and science research center at the Pompidou Center in Paris. That's where, in 1984, he conducted music from Frank Zappa's album The Perfect Stranger.

David Hart's open letter to Bitches Brew at McSweeney's is hilarious:

Your nearly 90-minute double album has been described as "one of the most remarkable creative statements of the last half-century, in any artistic form." You're also nearly unlistenable to anyone over the age of 15 without massive loads of drugs, and even then you've gotta be kidding me. [...]

But seriously, your title track is almost 27 minutes long. Couldn't lose even one note of "bleebloorfruuuh"? I thought jazz was supposed to be about the space between the notes, but you didn't leave any.

Part of the problem, he continues, is that "jazz music almost always sucks:"

I think it's time for you to go into a bag and off to Housing Works donation bin, where some other moronic teenager can enjoy you and be warped by your awful music.

Thank you, Bitches Brew. Also, fuck you, Bitches Brew. Or, to put it in terms you can understand...


Over at PopMatters, Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn have a long-running feature called Counterbalance that examines discs from the rock-and-roll canon; for their latest outing, they venture into the jazz realm to take on the 1959 Miles Davis/John Coltrane classic Kind of Blue. Mendelsohn gets in the piece's best lines:

I think my copy of Kind of Blue is broken--no matter how loud I play it, this record still makes me want to take a nap. Am I doing something wrong? Should I try turning the volume up even higher? [...]

I have a healthy respect for the genre and the talents required to play it properly [but] I've never been able to hear it. I don't dislike it and I don't find it intimidating, but there is still a disconnect in my brain that is unable to push my appreciation for jazz into anything more than just that.

Likening Kind of Blue to the proverbial Bible in everyone's house, Mendelsohn then calls the disc "boring:"

It's well-respected, immediately identifiable, everyone has a copy, everyone says they love it, but no one ever really listens to it. It's on your shelf to make you look good and because you want to represent yourself as a pious music fan with wide-ranging tastes.

Klinger responds that "even if you're right that most people are only pretending to like Kind of Blue because it makes them look suave and sophisticated, that still doesn't detract from the brilliance of this album:"

Miles brought together some of the best players in the business, and their styles meshed together perfectly. Pianist Bill Evans' more impressionistic touch works surprisingly well with Coltrane's more aggressive approach. And through it all there's Miles, cool, never flashy, and always pursuing a vision that defies what's expected of him. Kind of Blue wasn't the first time Davis changed jazz, and it wasn't the last, but it provides a perfect entry point into this music. And even if only a percentage of people dig deeper as a result of Kind of Blue, I'm calling that a victory.

The piece dealt more with jazz as a whole than with Kind of Blue in particular, a flaw which I hope is remedied in their upcoming discussions of Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Davis' Bitches Brew.

PsychCentral reports (h/t: Disinformation) that teens who are more into music than reading are more likely to be depressed:

...young people who were exposed to the most music, compared to those who listened to music the least, were 8.3 times more likely to be depressed.

Reading appears to show protective value as those who read books the most were one-tenth as likely to be depressed.

The other media exposures were not significantly associated with depression.

I'd be interested in a larger study--this one had only 106 participants--to see if different musical genres had any effect on the results. For more information, see the press release from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Combined data from British and American studies link classical music to high intelligence (h/t: Simon at Classical Values):

"[M]ore intelligent Americans are more likely to prefer instrumental music such as big band, classical and easy listening than less-intelligent Americans." [...] "On the other extreme, as suspected, preference for rap music is significantly negatively correlated with intelligence. However, preference for gospel music is even more strongly negatively correlated with it."

The study "Why More Intelligent Individuals like Classical Music," by Satoshi Kanazawa [author of the study linking liberalism and atheism to IQ] and Kaja Perina, is forthcoming from the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. The study's abstract observed the following:

Recent work on the evolution of music suggests that music in its evolutionary origin was always vocal and that purely instrumental music is evolutionarily novel. The Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis would then imply that more intelligent individuals are more likely to prefer purely instrumental music than less intelligent individuals, but general intelligence has no effect on the preference for vocal music. [...] Additional analyses suggest that the effect of intelligence on musical preference is not a function of the cognitive complexity of music.

I have some speculation between the type of music that is conducive to one's occupation and the correlation between occupation and IQ.

From slaves in the fields to chain gangs in prison, manual labor has a long association with vocal music, which may perhaps carry over to the modern variants (pop, rock, country, R&B) that one might hear on an assembly line or at a construction site. I wonder if the lyrics of those genres might interfere with whiter-collar work that often employs language (scientists, engineers, technical workers, writers).

When I'm reading a technical manual, writing a procedural document, or juggling database tables, I gravitate toward instrumental music (Bach's Art of the Fugue, Brandenburg Concertos, cello suites, and the Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven's piano sonatas and string quartets; Mahler's symphonies; almost anything by Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, or Monk) and will shun most vocal music that I otherwise enjoy--but only if it's sung in English. I don't remember enough German for Schubert's lieder or Wagner's Ring to become distracting.

If simultaneous language tasks can overwhelm the brain's speech centers, could this lead to a preference for instrumental music?


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I don't watch the Grammys, so I was completely unaware that the phenomenal singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding won the "best new artist" award.

Read more about her at her website, at Wikipedia, or from my posts here and here. To top it all off, NPR reposted this 17-minute video of her playing a few songs during an in-studio concert. That video couldn't be embedded, but here's the next-best thing--a duet between Spalding and Bobby McFerrin during the pre-telecast:

I mentioned musical chills before, which MSNBC revealed was the subject of a recent study:

PET scans showed the participants' brains pumped out more dopamine in a region called the striatum when listening to favorite pieces of music than when hearing other pieces. Functional MRI scans showed where and when those releases happened.

Dopamine surged in one part of the striatum during the 15 seconds leading up to a thrilling moment, and a different part when that musical highlight finally arrived.

[study co-author Robert] Zatorre said that makes sense: The area linked to anticipation connects with parts of the brain involved with making predictions and responding to the environment, while the area reacting to the peak moment itself is linked to the brain's limbic system, which is involved in emotion.

The McGill University study by Robert Zatorre and Valorie Salimpoor (HTML, PDF) explains that "Pleasure is a subjective phenomenon that is difficult to assess objectively:"

However, physiological changes occur during moments of extreme pleasure, which can be used to index pleasurable states in response to music. We used the 'chills' or 'musical frisson' response, a well-established marker of peak emotional responses to music. Chills involve a clear and discrete pattern of autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal, which allows for objective verification through psychophysiological measurements.

The study observes that "through complex cognitive mechanisms, humans are able to obtain pleasure from music ... which is comparable to the pleasure experienced from more basic biological stimuli:"

Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.

Music isn't the only way to soothe the savage breast; the abstract from this study (h/t: Skeptical Humanities) informs us of the following:

A recent study showed that people evaluate products more positively when they are physically associated with art images than similar non-art images. [...] These findings are consistent with our hypothesis, leading us to propose that the appeal of visual art involves activation of reward circuitry based on artistic status alone and independently of its hedonic value.

multiple holidays

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Today certainly qualifies as a multiple-holiday day: it's Winter Solstice, there was a total lunar eclipse [see also NASA and Sky & Telescope], and it's both the final day of Zappadan and International Rush Day.

I saw some of the eclipse this morning--the first one on the Winter Solstice for over four centuries--while I was out for a slightly-earlier-than-usual run. Despite my thirst after the first few miles, I heeded Zappa's advice and stayed well clear of the yellow snow:

I would have loved a few of these yellow snow cupcakes after I got home, though:


Speaking of Zappa, I finally finished reading the MOJO special issue on him and his work:

It was an interesting read, and now I need to find one of these buttons:

Last but not least, it's also International Rush Day (Americans write today's date as 12/21, but it's 21/12 for much of the rest of the world).

Whatever you choose to celebrate, don't forget that axial tilt is the reason for the season!


sad songs

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Daniel Watternberg asked "What Makes a Song Sad?" in The Atlantic, noting that:

Scientific American recently reported on a Tufts University study that purportedly lends experimental reinforcement to the widely accepted, albeit vague, notion that the interval of a minor third (two pitches separated by one full tone and one semi-tone) conveys sadness, in speech as in song.

The Scientific American article about communicating sadness in a minor third quotes Meagan Curtis from Tufts's Music Cognition Lab:

"Historically, people haven't thought of pitch patterns as conveying emotion in human speech like they do in music," Curtis said. "Yet for sad speech there is a consistent pitch pattern. The aspects of music that allow us to identify whether that music is sad are also present in speech."

Her co-authored paper "The Minor Third Communicates Sadness in Speech, Mirroring Its Use in Music" (PDF) suggests that "human vocal expressions of sadness and anger use pitch patterns that approximate those used in music to convey the same emotions:"

The pitch patterns that were used similarly across domains to encode sadness were the descending minor third (300 cents) and the descending minor second (100 cents). The ascending minor second (100 cents) was used to encode anger across domains. [...] The ascending interval of 600 cents (the diminished fifth) was positively associated with a small proportion of variance in the happiness and pleasantness ratings of the speech samples.

The authors admit that these conclusions may be biased by the specificity of their sample:

Given that the present findings are specific to patterns produced by speakers of American English, it is necessary to examine the prosodic patterns produced across cultures to determine whether the minor third is used universally to communicate sadness. Such findings will elucidate the whether the minor third is a vocal pattern tied to the physiological manifestations of sadness.

In addition to its minor key and dirge-like tempo, the melodic line of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," that ubiquitous aural accompaniment to tragedy, is replete with minor thirds (if music theory isn't your strong suite, Wikipedia can help you out). Thomas Larson's book The Saddest Music Ever Written discusses the Adagio in depth, and it's on my TBR list.

A British group called Cage Against the Machine is promoting John Cage's famed "silent" composition 4'33" in an attempt to make it the top song (h/t: Bonnie Alter at TreeHugger) during Xmas this year. The Guardian has a nice article here, and a video of the entire recording session is here.

I have to thank Norman Lebrecht for mentioning the publication of the 4'33" score by Edition Peters. Leaving a copy of it on a music stand would be an interesting conversation-starter; interested parties can see images of it here without coughing up $5 for a copy:


Note: Since it's still Zappadan, I should mention that the 2-disc set A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute features a FZ rendition of 4"33".


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There's a neophyte-friendly "Remembering Frank Zappa" piece at PopMatters, observing that Zappa "was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it's difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy:"
Zappa's dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding, and likely to be dissected several generations from now. [...] His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. [...] His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious, and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category.
The piece inexplicably fails to mention Zappadan, the annual holiday between the dates of Zappa's death (4 December) and birth (21 December). I recommend the ongoing Zappadan series over at Mock, Paper, Scissors, which features various Zappa clips (musical and otherwise). During Zappadan this year, I'll be listening to The Grand Wazoo (my first Zappa album), Joe's Garage (an old favorite), and Yellow Shark (a new favorite). Zappa's serious talent didn't mean that he couldn't be wickedly funny. For example, here is Zappa's response to the Christianist "Parental Advisory" warning stickers on CDs:

Dave Brubeck

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Today is the 90th birthday of pianist/composer/bandleader Dave Brubeck, best known for the ubiquitous jazz-in-odd-meters disc Time Out. The Brubeck Quartet's great alto sax player Paul Desmond wrote the classic "Take Five," which also features a nice solo by drummer Joe Morello: For further listening, I would suggest the CD box sets Original Album Classics 1 and Original Album Classics 2.They each consist of five classic albums from the Quintet's quintessential fifties-to-sixties era, and can be had for about $30 a piece--quite a bargain!

too much Miles?

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PopMatters' Will Layman asks "How Much Is Enough?" in the continued reissues of Miles Davis albums, noting that although "His 40-year body of work is one of the highlights of 20th century art...the record companies who control his legacy have shown seemingly little restraint in repackaging Davis:"

In 2010, they are not only selling a re-mastered box set of Bitches Brew, but they are re-releasing nearly all of Davis' recorded output for Columbia in a new trumpet case format and have even licensed a micro-brew in Davis' honor: Dogfish Head's Bitches Brew. [I discussed both the box set and the beer here.]

It's a marketing blitz that begs a question. Is there any reasonable limit on the re-selling of Miles Davis? How much can we really value Bitches Brew, or any cherished favorite, just because it comes in a new wrapper?

Haunted by the specter of Miles' post-retirement Warner albums being collected into a box set, Layman asks, "do we really want to hear outtakes from Doo-Bop or The Man With The Horn?"

Maybe it's just me, but I think that my Miles Davis Box Set days are behind me. I crave the long booklets and the whiff of the "Good ol' Days," sure, but I mainly crave just listening to the music. I don't think that these releases are damaging, but sometimes I fear that they just crowd out vital new music that should be heard.

But, to be sure, I still listen to Miles--boy, do I. This month, it's Bitches Brew I'm reinvestigating. Forty years on, it still sounds jarring and beautiful, thrilling and inevitable. May it ring like that forever.

Too much Miles is probably impossible, but too much marketing is an all-too-common problem.

Colin Eatock's "What's Wrong with Classical Music?" identifies "a litany of reasons - or at least perceptions - that collectively go a long way to explain why large swaths of society can be driven away by my favourite music:"

Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid - and often there's no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff. The sound of a symphony orchestra is bland and over-refined, and even a big orchestra can't pack the punch of a four-piece rock group in a stadium. A lot of classical music is purely instrumental, so there's no text to give the music meaning. And when there are singers, in concerts and opera, their vocal style is contrived and unnatural: so much shrieking and bellowing. The words are unintelligible, even if they're not in a foreign language.

Culturally speaking, classical music is insignificant, with record sales that would be considered a joke in the pop music industry. Indeed, classical music is so un-popular that it can't survive in the free market, and requires government subsidy just to exist. Yet even with public support, tickets to classical concerts are prohibitively expensive. The concerts themselves are stuffy and convention-bound - and the small, aging audience that attends them is an uncool mixture of snobs, eggheads and poseurs pretending to appreciate something they don't. In a word, classical music is "elitist": originally intended for rich Europeans who thought they were better than everyone else, and composed by a bunch of dead white males. It has nothing to do with the contemporary world - and its oldness appeals only to people who cling to obsolete values. You say there are living composers who still write classical music? Never heard of them.

Classical aficionados, writes Eatock, "are denizens of a strange subculture, outside the mainstream."

People who have heard nothing but popular music all their lives (again, a considerable chunk of the population) will, of necessity, develop certain assumptions about what music is "supposed to" sound like. Someone who only knows a repertoire of three-minute Top 40 songs in verse-chorus form may find a lengthy, textless orchestral work daunting and interminable. Someone weaned on percussive rock or rap music at high volumes may hear a string quartet as feeble and wimpy. And someone who admires the "natural" voices of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, may experience Plácido Domingo as artificial and overwrought.

These sorts of reactions are, I believe, the greatest challenges facing the classical-music world - because they underscore a fundamental rupture with the core values of the music itself. How does one "fix" the "problem" that a violin is not an especially loud musical instrument, or that Schubert's Octet has no words, or that Mahler's Symphony No. 9 is an hour and a half long? Ultimately, classical music is what it is, and its survival depends upon some portion of the population accepting it - and embracing it - on its own terms.

out of the limelight

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Over at GeekDad, Dave Banks writes "21--no, 12 Geeky Reasons Why Rush Should Be Inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame." He mentions their 24 gold- and 14 platinum-selling records and their 40 million discs sold, but his justification goes far beyond mere mercantilism. Read it, and go sign the petition for Rush's induction. It's been a few years since I saw Rush live, and an Induction ceremony set would make me quite happy.

While examining the list of HOF inductees, it appears that the most obvious omission besides Rush is Yes--I don't understand how that seminal progressive-rock group could have been overlooked, either.

So, about that upcoming box set "Mahler: The People's Edition" that I mentioned a while ago...

DC's classical station WETA issued a plea to "Make the People's Mahler Interesting" (h/t: Jens Laurson at Ion Arts), noting that "one could create a marvelous, superbly interesting Mahler cycle of individualistic, rare, splendid interpretations that would be a boon to obsessed Mahlerites everywhere, even (and especially) the seasoned collector:"

Could is the operating word here, because the worst case scenario is that where the People's Edition merely mirrors the fame of recordings and ends up something where all included symphonies are already readily available, and/or are already in Universal's big box "Mahler, Complete Edition". What a terrific opportunity completely gone to waste that would be.

Go here to vote; voting closes on 15 September, with the box set due in November.

Columbia is at it again. 2009 saw the release of an enormous (70 CD, 1 DVD) Miles Davis box set from late last year called The Complete Columbia Album Collection:


They've announced an even more elaborate set due to drop on 14 September. At a cost of $1200, the limited-edition Genius of Miles Davis collection will contain all eight of the metal-spine "Complete Columbia Edition" box sets, and is packaged in a trumpet-style case along with an art print, a t-shirt, and a reproduction of Miles' favorite trumpet mouthpiece.


The music in these sets (all of which I've listened to repeatedly) is fabulous, but why hasn't Columbia remastered some of the Miles Davis live discs instead of repackaging these box sets? Agharta and Pangaea belong together in a remastered set, and the 1965 Plugged Nickel box set is long overdue for similar treatment. Instead of remastering those rare gems, Columbia has chosen to repackage the more readily available ones.

The 50th anniversary set for Kind of Blue and the upcoming 40th for Bitches Brew have some enticing extras, but the "Genius" set is just marketing run amok.

What would Miles do?

Dogfish Head, a boutique brewery in Delaware, is producing a Bitches Brew beer as a tribute to the legendary Miles album:

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the original release of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis' 1970 paradigm-shifting landmark fusion breakthrough, we've created our own Bitches Brew - a bold, dark beer that's a fusion of three threads imperial stout and one thread honey beer with gesho root, a gustatory analog to Miles' masterpiece.


I've enjoyed several of the Dogfish brews, and this one sounds like another winner!

I already have three box sets for Mahler's 150th anniversary--multi-conductor complete sets from EMI and Deutsche Grammophon along with a symphony cycle by Bernstein. There's at least one more set scheduled for release later this year (h/t: Zach Carstensen at Gathering Note): DG's Mahler: The People's Edition is to contain a cycle of his symphonies selected from the vast DG/Decca archives, based on votes tallied online here.


[The title and cover art seem more appropriate for a Soviet composer--think Khachaturian, Prokofiev, or Shostakovich--than an Austrian like Mahler, but I'm here to write about the music.]

I see two general possibilities for this set. The first would be a best-of-catalog box set--perfect for new Mahler fans who don't have a complete symphony cycle in their collection. The second would be a best-of-the-unavailable-discs set--better suited for seasoned Mahlerites who have several cycles in our collections already , and whose preferences tend toward the rare and unusual. Jens Laurson at IonArts points out that with our votes, we can make:

The difference between a cycle no one needs, because it just duplicates what we already have at home, or one that everyone will want to run out and grab. The key to that, apart from finding enough willing supporters of this idea, is to pick the most interesting, difficult-to-get, and out-of-print albums that DG/Decca offers us.

Laurson offers a full slate of suggestions, none of which I have heard. I would not ordinarily recommend unfamiliar recordings, but this voting opportunity may be the easiest way to get these rarities back on shelves. (Several of the other options interest me, and I hope that the long-OOP Boston/Ozawa recordings will be re-released as another complete cycle.)

When BBC Music Magazine ran a story on Wagner's Ring cycle, there was an omission that I felt needed to be rectified. Here's what I sent them:

Michael Scott Rohan's "What's Wrong with Wagner?" article from your April issue was an encouragement to this "perfect Mahlerite" who has been somewhat daunted by the sheer scale of the Ring cycle. In the sidebar entitled "Five steps to Wagner fulfillment," Rohan mentioned--among various examples of "light relief"--a 1989 graphic novel version by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, which was described as "vivid but straight."

I would like to draw your attention to a more recent version of The Ring, completed over the course of five years and collected in a pair of softcover volumes in 2002 [Rheingold and Valkyrie; Siegfried and Gotterdammerung] by another legendary artist: P. Craig Russell. At four hundred pages, Russell's Ring adaptation is twice the length of Kane's--and of correspondingly greater depth as well.

Russell is no dilettante when it comes to recreating musical drama on the printed page--his other adaptations include everything from Wagner's Parsifal and Mozart's Magic Flute to Salome, Ariane & Bluebeard, Pelleas & Melisande, "The Godfather's Code" (from Cavalleria Rusticana), "The Clowns" (from I Pagliacci), and a pair of Mahler's lieder ("The Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow" and "Unto This World").

In addition to illustrating numerous stories both classic (everything from Kipling's Jungle Book and Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales to a Robert E. Howard Conan tale) and contemporary (Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman), Russell has also illustrated several of his own stories. His work has a visual inventiveness that is well worth investigating; opera fans who remain unfamiliar with Russell's art are doing themselves a disservice.

Interestingly, Wikipedia's page on the Ring Cycle mentions neither the 1989 Roy Thomas/Gil Kane adaptation nor Russell's far superior version. The opening page from Das Rheingold is a prime example of his artistry:


I'm just doing my part to help turn some "Ring nuts" into comic-book fans.

Russell's website is here, and fellow fan François Peneaud has posted many samples of PCR's art here.

update (5/30 @ 10:14pm):
PCR was interviewed on the public radio show "Here and Now" (the audio is here), which echoes this LA Times piece.

A big tip-of-the-hat to Scott Payne at League of Ordinary Gentlemen for linking to this video:

Rock Sugar isn't exactly typical listening for a music snob like me, but it's hilarious! While I'm in the mood, here's another great mashup:

Joanne Lipman's NYT Times op-ed "And the Orchestra Played On" will no doubt elicit comparisons to the maudlin movie melodrama Mr Holland's Opus, as both feature student musicians gathering for a final performance in honor of former bandleaders--except that this story is real:

Mr. K. pushed us harder than our parents, harder than our other teachers, and through sheer force of will made us better than we had any right to be. He scared the daylight out of us. I doubt any of us realized how much we loved him for it.

Which is why, decades later, I was frantically searching for an instrument whose case still bore the address of my college dorm. After almost a half-century of teaching, at the age of 81, Mr. K. had died of Parkinson's disease. And across the generations, through Facebook and e-mail messages and Web sites, came the call: it was time for one last concert for Mr. K. -- performed by us, his old students and friends.


When I showed up at a local school for rehearsal, there they were: five decades worth of former students. There were doctors and accountants, engineers and college professors. There were people who hadn't played in decades, sitting alongside professionals like Mr. K.'s daughter Melanie, now a violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There were generations of music teachers.

They flew in from California and Oregon, from Virginia and Boston. They came with siblings and children; our old quartet's cellist, Miriam, took her seat with 13 other family members. They came because Mr. K. understood better than anyone the bond music creates among people who play it together.

Many who have experienced that bond can relate to the conclusion of Lipman's piece:

Back when we were in high school, Mr. K. had arranged for Melanie and our quartet to play at the funeral of a classmate killed in a horrific car crash. The boy had doted on his little sister, a violinist. We were a reminder of how much he loved to listen to her play.

As the far-flung orchestra members arrived for Mr. K.'s final concert, suddenly we saw her, that little girl, now grown, a professional musician herself. She had never stopped thinking about her brother's funeral, she told me, and when she heard about this concert, she flew from Denver in the hope that she might find the musicians who played in his honor. For 30 years, she had just wanted the chance to say, "Thank you."

As did we all.

I hope that her violin continues to be an outlet for her, and a source of comfort in times of distress. Would that we all had the opportunity to so honor our former teachers in the company of old friends.

Last week, Alex Ross announced that his next book will be released on 28 September. Entitled Listen to This, and utilizing this New Yorker article as the basis for its first chapter, Ross aims to "approach music not as a self-sufficient sphere but as a way of knowing the world."

Given how much I enjoyed his twentieth-century music appreciation book The Rest Is Noise, I'll be pre-ordering Listen to This as soon as it's available.

A recent WSJ piece showed that actual playing time in NFL games is about 10 minutes and 43 seconds. As the article noted, football "is the rare sport where it's common for the clock to run for long periods of time while nothing is happening:"

After a routine play is whistled dead, the clock will continue to run, even as the players are peeling themselves off the turf and limping back to their huddles. The team on offense has a maximum of 40 seconds after one play ends to snap the ball again. A regulation NFL game consists of four quarters of 15 minutes each, but because the typical play only lasts about four seconds, the ratio of inaction to action is approximately 10 to 1.

Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey were performing on stage during the halftime show for about 12 minutes, probably exceeding the time of the players' on-field efforts. The veteran rockers said as much during a press conference last week:

"We're going to be playing for about 12 minutes at halftime," he said. "But I've heard if you take out the commercials, there's about 11 minutes of playing."

"We're going to be playing longer than the players," Townshend added.

Their ages (65 and 64 respectively) mark this as a past-their-prime performance, but at least they played better than Peyton Manning.

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