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.
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:
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!
Just heard on Spanish radio, I’ve no idea who said it:
Music is a weapon of mass construction.
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.
I can’t honestly say that I always — or even ever — wanted to know what would happen if David Bowie and Bing Crosby worked together. But some producers had the daft-sounding idea and it turned out very well indeed:
Remarkable backstory here.
As anyone learning it as a second language will tell you, English could use some tidying up. The orthography alone is a mess: a “Spelling Bee” would be completely silly in most other languages, where letters are used with some relationship to phonetics. Never mind Chinese. Then we have all those idiomatic traps (in front of, but behind); illogicalities, real and seeming: loosen = unloosen, raveled = unraveled, inflammable=flammable; and all the words whose negating barnacles can no longer be pried off:
It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened….
What we don’t have, and could use, is the wonderful Italian kit of modifying suffixes . I know, when you have two words for everything from Latin and German, plus colonial uploads like bungalow, yada yada… But wouldn’t you like to be able to stick -accio/a on something to tersely express disdain in the middle of a noncommittal sentence (Tea Partaccia), or signal affection by just saying “Spotuccio!” when your dog brings your unchewed slippers?
They stack, too: “Spotinuccio” for the little pug. This needs care, however, as they can trip over each others’ feet, so if you try this, heed the following, what happens when rough and untrained hands are allowed to meddle with machinery.
The violin was christened a “small viol” (violino). It isn’t really a viol (square shoulders, tuned in fifths, etc.), but violino/violin it is, OK. A double bass is a great big one, violone, and it really is exactly that. The tenor of the violin family was named a “small big viol”, or violoncello (its official name, also in English, and note the second o) even though it’s more properly a violinone (skipping the viola, but see below) and not any kind of viol. Worse, the pieces got disconnected, and we absurdly call this second-largest of the strings a cello, literally “a small”. By curdled analogy, the tenor, larger mandolin (mandolino = small mandola, OK so far) is a mandocello.
The Germans got off this derailing train with Geige, Bratsche , and Bass-Geige, but even they passed up Kleine Bass-Geige for violoncello. Bratsche is its own mystery, supposedly an attempt to bring viola da braccia, “arm viol”, across the Alps. But (i) how can that word not denote a horn? and (ii) how could it not have been called violaccia from the start?
John Leach has passed away. He was a multi-talented composer and musician with many artistic achievements to his credit. He also made a small but important contribution to the ambience of the spate of espionage films that emerged from Britain in the 1960s and eventually became a world wide phenomenon.
The theme music of many of these movies featured sonorous notes — at times evocatively asynchronous — that came from a cimbalom, a hammer dulcimer from Hungary that Leach mastered. The musical touchstone is the theme to The Ipcress File (Michael Caine’s superb first outing as Harry Palmer). The music was written by the legendary John Barry with Leach adding his own magic, and the resulting style was widely copied in later films using either a cimbalon or other instruments that could generate a similar effect (e.g., the plucked strings of a piano or a properly tuned electric bass guitar).
When I hear those intoxicating notes, I see in my mind a hundred ultra-cool, glumly professional spooks in overcoats, walking down dark streets and battling it out with their opposite numbers in The East. Music really can help define and enrich a film genre. Well done Mr. Leach. R.I.P.