Friday, April 27, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich

Today the world lost one of it's greatest musicians: Mstislav Rostropovich. Not only was he a master of the cello, Rostropovich was a gifted conductor and pianist, accompanying his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.

I know the world will discuss his recordings and performances today, but what I most admired about Rostropovich was his ability to use his enthusiasm and talents to defend others who were unable to think and act freely due to political or artistic oppression.

Hindsight may diminish the bravery of those who choose to take a stand for what they believe in, but I think we are extremely susceptible to the pressures of fitting in, of not rocking the boat, of not wanting to be out of fashion. But time and time again, Rostropovich's choices both as an artist and a human being proved to be the correct ones.

When the contemporary music scene was dominated by composers who followed Pierre Boulez, Rostropovich continued to support composers like Britten, Henze and Dutilleux who were no less rigorous than the serialists, but whose music didn't reject the grace, beauty and sensuous pleasure of the previous 200 years of music making. He supported the Polish composers after the political thaw of the late '50 and '60, and had he not come to the aid of Alfred Schnittke, how much more music would we have lost from this master had Rostropovich not offered him commission after commission, allowing Schnittke to complete some of his finest works before his untimely death.

But when Rostropovich and his wife harbored Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when he was on the run, his sacrifices could not have been more personal. Here, Rostropovich put his own life at risk because of his belief in the freedom of all people to express themselves without fear of persecution, imprisonment, torture or even death. And while we can all say that was a different time, in a different country, we know that the world's capacity for this kind of oppression has not diminished in the intervening years, but has grown to encompass east and west, rich and poor, democracies and dictatorships, and yet the members of the artistic community who act as selflessly as Rostropovich grows fewer and fewer. As always, we took Slava for granted when he was alive, but let's not forget his example in our own lives, no matter what our vocation or profession might be.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


My mom just called a few minutes ago with a story she read on the web. I have no idea if it's true, but it's quite beautiful nonetheless. Here it is:

Albert Einstein was fasinated by Mohandas Gandhi. He watched newsreel after newsreel of Gandhi's doings in India. having seen Gandhi greet people in the street with his hands placed together, as if in prayer, and with a bow, he wondered what Gandhi was saying (newsreels had no sound in those days). Einstein wrote Gandhi and asked him what he was saying. The simple reply: "Namaste." Einstein then wrote again to ask the meaning of this hindu word, "Namaste", and the reply was: "I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the place in you of light, love, truth, peace and wisdom. I honor the place in you where, when you are in that place, and I am in that place, there is only one of us."

My natural reflex is to distance myself from all labels and associations, primarily due to my stance that one must take on all the good as well as the bad of any group if you chose to be a member, but reading this makes me intensely proud of my ancestors, and it's probably something I've tacitly understood my whole life. Strange that so much technology (google, cell phone, etc) was necessary in bringing this word's meaning to light. Namaste.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Eagles

Here's a clip from the Eagles' "When Hell Freezes Over Tours". Don Henley's song of coming to terms with the end of a relationship may come off as a little cheesy to some hipper musical tastes, but I think the band's musicianship is undeniable. Not only is Henley's voice still intact, but the backing vocals by the rest of the band are simply staggering. Even though their use of vibrato and non-vibrato voice might seem a little forced, these guys bring so much more emotional weight than the throngs of country-rock band they spawned that it's not hard to think of them as one of the best groups America ever produced. Anyone know the next time Hell might freeze over? =)

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Boulez Problem

A few weeks ago a friend of mine in Toronto asked me what my thoughts were on Boulez. Below you'll find my response.

The case of Boulez if very sad. At 23, he arguable wrote a work, his Piano Sonata No.2, which shows a technical mastery that only Brahms had at a similar age. Let me be clear about this, Brahms and Boulez, in their very early 20s, surpassed the technical achievements of their day, and deployed that technique with a sense of poetry that rivaled all other composers. Not Bach, not Mozart, not Beethoven, not Wagner, not even Schoenberg and Stravinsky could do with these men did before the age of 25. Brahms spent the rest of his career slightly modifying and refining his command of the language whereas most music aficionados can't tell the difference between early and late works.

The tragedy of Boulez is that his particular artistic gift only led in one direction, the destruction of everything that came before him. The Boulez Sonata takes Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata as point of departure, and uses it to thwart everything that western music should do. It's not just harmony that is assaulted in this twelve-tone work, but form, meter, and generally-help modes of expression are setup as if they are going to behave in expected ways, only to undergo a merciless and savage destruction.

But just like the punks of the 70s, what do you do next after you ripped to shreds what came before you? What do you do next? There's only so many times the public will tolerate the same act over an over again. How many times can we see Johnny Rotten act cheeky without it becoming expected, even boring? Stravinsky found a way out by working through neo-classicism, where the general public can hear enough of what they expect to feel their having a genuine musical experience, while all of us musical cognoscenti smile with every broken rule or inside joke that Stravinsky throws our way.

Boulez instead took it upon himself to be a phoenix-like character, who would create all the new rules and set things straight after had cleared the air of all of the past's hypocrisies and incongruencies. The problem was, there was nothing in his character to suggest that he would be capable of doing this. His early biographies are filed with his outbursts, his cursing in church, smashing furniture, and skewering his enemies. And his music was filled with this kind of passion. His way forward would be in direct opposition to his true nature, and what's even more tragic, Boulez knew this. And slowly his music grew more lifeless, his wrote less and less, and he avoided writing by conducting. And he did this to himself to ensure a lifelong career. Yes, he did invent some techniques that are interesting to anyone interested in late-20th century music, but the price of that is he's a shell of his former self who betrayed the young, brilliant composer that he was when we was a kid. I often deride Boulez in public, but I've studies many of his scores, and the Sonata No.2 is one of the reasons I devoted my life to music.

Yes, that Schoenberg is Dead article is terrible, and he is right about most concerning Schoenberg's historical position, but now it seems inelegant and distasteful. At this point, he's like a young Muhammad Ali, trash talking and doing what he does best: destroying the enemy. But while Ali went on fighting too long and is even more a hero to us now, Boulez is now an also-ran, appearing on the equivalent of sports talk shows (symposiums, pre-concert lectures, film) on the strengths of those early fights he fought so long ago. Boulez est mort. Vive Boulez!!

Labi Siffre

Old poets, what's to become of them? While digging around on YouTube for Madness' "It Must Be Love", I found an alternate version of the song from some British TV variety show. The performance was by the song's composer, Labi Siffre, and everything from the clothes to the multi-ethnic cast to presentation of the song in a medley with Siffre other hit "There's Nothing in the World like Love" reflected the glow of optimism and hope that so much of the earlier 1970 seemed to espouse.

After a quick Wikipedia search on Siffre I learned that he was one of Britain first openly gay public figures, and that he was a poet of note and had concerned himself with matter of social justice over the intervening years.

A link at the bottom of the page took me to Siffre own site, and I have to say I was quite saddened by what I saw. Not the smiling, exuberant face of years gone by greets you at the top of his web page, but an older, sullen face of a man who had fought many battles in his life, possibly robbing him of the will to write such perfect pieces of pop.

He did produce other songs that were hits in England, such as the protest song, "Something Inside So Strong", but I began to wonder the sacrifice was too much for people like Siffre, while we benefited from his activism and strength, did it also rob them of some of the simple, light pleasures of being human. Is it too hard to look away, once your eyes have been open to the tyranny of the world, or is there guilt in having fun when you know others are suffering? I'd love to know what Siffre has to say on these matters, and I'd like to know if the weight of these things might also extinguish the light of my own eyes as the years progress.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Good Shepherd

i just watched The Good Shepherd last night and I'm struck by the amount of music that accompany the film. I'd have to take a second look, but it felt like there were very few moments in De Niro's CIA flick that weren't accompanied by some kind of orchestral music. of the score also appear to be the product of a very fine sample library, similar to the current offerings by East-West and Vienna Instruments. I'm not saying that the score we hear is of an entirely of virtual nature (although that is certainly within the realm of possibilities with today's software), anyone who is familiar with these orchestral libraries will recognize the kinds of dynamics and articulation, or rather the absence of certain kinds dynamics and articulation. This isn't a criticism of the score, in fact I quite enjoyed the harmonic and timbrel variety of the soundtrack, I fear that it may be the beginning of a narrowing in the kinds of soundtracks one is likely hear in film. I suppose the trade-off is that even though a homogenization of orchestral scores may occur, more filmmakers will be able to afford these kind of soundtracks due to the cost associated with digital audio and music. Soundtrack aside, I thought The Good Shepard was a great movie and I highly recommended it for anyone interested in them American postwar politics.