An aspirational goal for teaching (more music)

Andy Narell frequently plays and teaches with young people. Here he is visiting with the UNT steel band, playing with their admirable jazz ensemble. Everyone here is making music at a high level, but compare the affect–expressions, body language, everything–of the kids on the left side of the screen (who are actually wearing uniforms, symbols of identity suppression and servility) with those on the right (who are not). Which would you like your students to display?

How do we make this happen in, say, a statistics class?

Donald and “The Snake”

Oscar Brown, Jr. is a jazz legend; Sin and Soul will live forever (I’m humming “Signifyin’ Monkey”, from an anonymous African fabulist, as I write).  Not just an influential musician but a social critic and engaged citizen; Nat Hentoff described him as “authentically hip”.

His song, “The Snake” covers an Aesop legend, the farmer who takes a near-frozen snake indoors and is rewarded by being bitten; reproached, the viper says “you knew I was a snake before you took me in”.  The only possible interpretion of this allegory today is that Donald Trump revealed his true nature in the campaign and before, and yet we “took him in”. But he read the words aloud today himself, smirking as usual, at a rally! It’s not only despicable that Trump would dare to besmirch Brown’s memory by associating himself with it, but completely mystifying that he would present himself as that snake so transparently  at a large public event.

Maybe this is for the best: Brown’s reputation will survive, along with his music, and now we have a new, perfectly tailored moniker for the Donald provided by Donald Jeenius Trump, the only man alive stupid enough to walk into such a trap.

“Snake Trump”:  I like it!

[update 23/II: A colleague let me know that Ezra Klein was on this months ago]

Art on the economic rack

All what I said yesterday about the economics of content applies in spades to music.  US recorded music sales (CDs, streaming, and LPs) are down about half in real dollars since 2006. Musicians depend on live performance, and treat their CDs as advertising for concerts: live performance revenue is about double recording sales.

What this means is that the music itself has to change: every gig is under pressure to get as many people in the seats as possible. Some music is designed for this: it’s simplified to survive amplification in a stadium,  where what you see from distant seats is out of sync with the garbled auditory signal, and it can be improved with fireworks, lighting, and I guess ecstasy distribution.  Some music is not suitable for this kind of venue, but a series of club dates or performances in 500-seat halls with good acoustics cannot support a band, or even a soloist. The relentless pressures resulting from the impossibility of monetizing nearly all person-hours of music listening (recorded content) leads to ridiculous, absurd events like the concert for which I just received an ad from Cal Performances: Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile (great, wow!)…at the 8500-seat open-air Greek Theatre at Berkeley.  At the what??!!

These guys are virtuosi of acoustic instruments, none nearly loud enough to be heard in that space. Their musicianship comprises the subtlety of fine distinctions in timbre,  intonation, and rhythm, absolutely none of which will be audible potted up for that venue and bounced around in it, not to mention that from most of the seats (toward the rear), Ma’s right arm will zig while the sound he’s making zags.  How is a pasticcio like this a better experience than hearing the same performance as recorded in a good studio, perhaps as a video? Nothing wrong with big crowds getting together for a social event, but this is a truly bizarre sound track to accompany that.

What about dynamics, if timbre, pitch and rhythm don’t work? Well, another interesting thing has happened to music, more gradually, over the last century or so. Once upon a time, loudness was the most expensive element of music with which to get a big effect: to sound twice as loud, you need ten times as many musicians, which is why the chorus at the opera doesn’t sound anything like fifty times as loud as the soloist.  Now, dynamics is the cheapest element; just turn up the pot on the mixing board (or your iPhone)!  At the same time, the relative (to everything else) cost of excellent musicians and singers for live performance has gone up enormously because they have seen none of the productivity improvements that have made almost everything else cheaper–it still takes two person-hours of trained talent to perform a half-hour string quartet   same as it took in Mozart’s time.  So: make it louder, enough louder that an audience accustomed to really loud will think it is hearing something special. Sound levels, in earphones and at venues, drive a positive feedback loop that has measurably deafened the audience with volumes OSHA would forbid in a workplace: they can’t hear subtleties at higher frequencies, so the only thing to do is…louder still!

If Ma and his pals could make a living from recordings, they wouldn’t have to collaborate in deeply anti-musical outrages like this concert. Fewer people would be able to attend live concerts, but those who did would actually hear the music.  How to allocate the scarce resource of small-hall seats at top-level talent events, other than by price and scalping, is a legitimate problem, but making a hash of this kind of music through zillion-watt amplification in a stadium isn’t distributing the experience.

 

 

How to make America great

A failing I often have to highlight in student public policy papers is a confusion of ends and means. Often they mistake an admirable object of a policy, say, “increase arts education in public schools”  for something someone could actually do to make it happen, and I have to ask that the next draft distinguish among funding after-school art classes, shifting some number of class hours away from math or English to art, hiring artists as provisional teachers, getting the English teachers to teach art, and so on.  Actually accomplishing something frequently has this awkward need to fix on a series of actual steps a real entity can take within the law, and within constraints of stuff like gravity, conservation of matter, the second law of thermodynamics, and like that.

It has been so widely noted as to need no links that Donald Trump’s promises are process-free in the dreamy way of these student papers, couched in the skilled shtick of a practiced grifter: ‘I’m going to make you rich, and we’re going to do it by cheating that nasty fellow behind the tree’.  What is the historically grounded, basis of such nonsense? I have found it in the reign of a real emperor, what the Donald aspires to become, and it goes like this:

[the citizens of Titipu have told the Emperor that Nanki-Poo was put to death per his instructions, but he turns up alive and well]
Ko-ko: When your Majesty says, ‘Let a thing be done,’ it’s as good as done – practically,
it is done – because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, ‘Kill a gentleman,’ and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead – practically, he is dead – and if he is dead, why not say so?
Mikado: I see. Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory!
….
All:
Then let the throng
Our joy advance,
With laughing song
And merry dance,
With joyous shout and ringing cheer,
Inaugurate our new career!

Theater headsup

I’ve known for years of the existence of the 1954 musical The Golden Apple, with music by Jerome Moross and book and lyrics by John Latouche, but not much more than that. You may know the standard “It’s a lazy afternoon” from the first act. John Latouche was a well-known lefty (he wrote the lyrics for Earl Robinson’s Ballad for Americans and would certainly have been blacklisted if he hadn’t died in 1956 at 41), so it was probably background consciousness from my red-diaper-baby early youth. The show opened off-Broadway and moved to Broadway to pyrotechnic reviews and a Drama Circle award, but failed commercially and has spent the last decades in the memory of a small group of devotees, with very rare revivals in this or that community theater.

My exchange of comments with James in Mark’s recent post, where I suggested that the classical character most like Trump was Paris, brought it to mind, and exploring the interwebs, I was able to hear it all the way through and have completely fallen in love with it. It’s as much opera as musical, through-composed (not songs plugged into a spoken script that carries the plot; think of The Most Happy Fella).  The story is the Iliad and The Odyssey, placed in Washington State in 1900-1910; the book is erudite, witty, and both poignant and clever, and the music is endlessly inventive.  It even references the Brecht/Weill opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, prizefight and all. I love Stoppardian theater like this, that treats the audience as though they know something, but doesn’t lecture, preach, or condescend.

I made in all, four wonderful discoveries. To wit:

  • There is finally a complete recording, from an excellent 2015 production at the Irving, Texas Lyric Stage, on two CDs available at Amazon. Until now, there was only a one-LP original cast recording of some of the numbers.
  • Th Lyric Stage recording is also on Spotify.
  • The complete libretto is available here.
  • And best of all, it’s coming to the New York City Center next May!  Tickets go on sale Sept. 26; mark your calendars. See you there!

Abe Lincoln

Wednesday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death.  It’s hard to spend too much time reflecting on Lincoln; I use the first thing he ever published, comparing two infrastructure projects in a local election campaign, as an example of policy analysis avant la lettre, and he just gets better and better from there. Even David Brooks says he becomes a better man spending quiet time in the Lincoln Memorial.  The second inaugural is one of great works of public discourse; terse, just, humane.  I think French’s portrait nails it: brilliant, menschlich, determined; open hand, closed fist.  Lincoln makes everyone reach a little higher.

I listened the grooves off this wonderful cantata when I was a kid, and I’m pleased to find that someone has posted it here , here, and here.  It was performed live, after fifty years on the shelf, in 2009.

There’s no video; remember how to make your own pictures in your own head? Take a half-hour, just to be sure we don’t forget what a real American is.