Monday, July 28, 2008

Pop: Get Innocuous!

No, this isn't a post about LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver, which is probably one of the best records of the last five years (some competition that isn't), and it would be if "All My Friends" were the only good song on the disc (it isn't). I was, however, reminded of the first track off Sound when I heard Vampire Weekend's eponymous album.

"Innocuous" is a pretty good descriptive adjective for the LP. Now, let me say at the outset that they're talking about stuff that I don't have as much facility with as others. I went to an all-male college in the Midwest, and I am now, for whatever bizarre reason, doing a "summer start" program at IUSL-B. My perspective is, to borrow a word from David Byrne, a little skewed on songs like "Campus" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa."

I know people who would probably say "That happened to me sophomore year," or "It's like they know me," but I sure ain't one of them. Of course, there is something approximating chilling uniformity to the upper-middle-class collegiate experience (referring more to the college than the actual socioeconomic post one inhabits), so there are some shared points of reference. Let's not, however, assume that the themes in this one are universally applicable, though I'm not sure how far one can take the collision of worlds business (James Spader vs. Molly Ringwald, for lack of a better analogy).

All that is, as Justice Scalia would no doubt say in this heavily armed post-Heller world, a preamble with little bearing on the substantive commentary which will follow.

I really like this record. Now, most of the songs sound like they were written in postgraduate hope that Wes Anderson will either use your songs or, better still, commission a bunch of new songs for his new movie about a family or something. The world can be a scary place when all that stands between a man and bone-crushing poverty is a liberal-arts degree, which is isn't exactly a golden parachute. I know that's an unflattering supposition, but it's the best way to get my point across vis-à-vis their sound.

It's clearly influenced by afropop, but not too deeply, as David Byrne notes when he - and he's welcome to correct me on this (I offer only because it's unlikely) - more or less implies that they're musically name-checking Soukous guitar. Of course, there's a history of upbeat New-York-scene place commentaries, so many of their songs are world-music-tinged successors to stuff like Steely Dan's "Barrytown" (Pretzel Logic). Indeed, the songs on Vampire Weekend could well be the music made by the kids of the folks who rocked out to Steely Dan; by that, of course, I mean that it's got a similar lyrical feel (more on that anon)- though the musical styles are clearly pretty divergent. I'll just say that I hear as much Mark Mothersbaugh here, especially in his work for Wes Anderson, as any world-music influence, though the harpsichord-and-string arrangement for "M79" seems to hearken back to a certain style of music from the 1970s. Very Paper Chase in its own way.

As I listen to the songs, which are pretty obtuse and obscure as far as their lyrics go, I think more and more that Vampire Weekend has combined Steely Dan's lyrical style with fairly diverse (within the genre of nice, quirky pop) musical influences. Indeed, despite the discussion of the music and its diversity, I think the interesting story here is the sweet, slightly ironic tone of the lyrical side of things. Now, I wouldn't say that Vampire Weekend matches Messrs. Becker and Fagen, but I would say that they're working in the same building, if not the same room.

That is, taken as a whole, the sort of charm of Vampire Weekend: Nothing is earth-shatteringly new, but it's done with such a seeming naiveté that the old ideas and styles seem new. I keep coming back to Steely Dan, and I think I've finally figured out the relationship - Steely Dan is the knowing, world-weary brother to Vampire Weekend's happy, fun, and slightly wussy (but still clever in his own way) recent grad.

N.B. It's getting near the middle of summer, which means that we're in the blog equivalent to the Sargasso Sea, and buddy is it ever becalmed here. I can get away with this stuff because, exaggerating for humorous effect, I'm just about the only game in town at the moment.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Brideshead to Bill Murray

I'm not going to waste a lot of space here dealing with the new Brideshead Revisited movie. I haven't seen it, and I have no plan to do so. From all accounts, at least from people whose judgment on such matters I trust, it sounds like it augered in at the start, and I'm not at all surprised.

Indeed, my Schadenfreude centers lit up when I heard that the movie wasn't going to be fighting for an Academy Award. I just couldn't bear it.

I'll just say this: It is something approaching a sad commentary on modern life that a straightforward, relatively facile read like Brideshead, which spawned a pretty darned good miniseries (from what I saw, which wasn't much: I refused to watch it on other grounds), has to be made into a movie. The book can be read, if one doesn't do much else, in a weekend or maybe three days. Who has time for that, these days? Certainly not the target audience of this movie, this attempt at having Evelyn Waugh do script work on a remake of Howards End, which seems to be the thrust of the posters.

So very, very wrong. Oh, well, Schadenfreude ist die schönste Freude.

Quoting Caddyshack, then, "I've got that going for me."

Monday, July 21, 2008

So I've heard (July 2008)

Since class has started and, while I have several drafts kicking around the ether, I haven't had the time or the energy to make a full-scale attempt at a "real" post. I thought, however, that I would mention a few recordings that I've acquired and that are worth a spin. I won't get too in-depth, for the foregoing reasons, as well as the fact that I am shooting for a sort of in-a-nutshell review.

Beethoven, Sonatas nos. 22-26, András Schiff/2008 (ECM)

Schiff's Beethoven cycle presses on, and it's probably tautological to say that this release is obviously deeply considered and intelligently played. Ultimately, I prefer Wilhelm Backhaus in Les Adieux, largely for the same reasons I prefer Backhaus in a lot of cases, though not all (Pollini's Hammerklavier, for example, has made pretty significant inroads with me, coming abreast of Gould, but not quite trumping yet) but Schiff makes a convincing case for his interpretation. I don't really have to say that Schiff has clearly devoted a lot of thought to his Beethoven, and the sonatas on this disc are both well-known and well-recorded. His playing can tend toward the mannered at times, but he's come a long way since that 1983 Goldberg recording. His additions to the discography, in any event, come from the intelligence he brings to something like the Appassionata, which tends, in my view, to become a caricature of itself in some readings. I don't know that I'll be pushing some of my favorites aside for Schiff, but I do know that I'll find room somewhere for the sets.

Bruckner, Symphony no. 9, Goodall/BBCSO/1974 (BBC Legends)

It's worth noting at the outset that this is an "official" release of a pirated (they put it more felicitously) copy of a broadcast recording done in studio. It is, accordingly, lacking in the finer nuances of analog sound circa 1974. If you're used to historical recordings, then the SQ won't bother you. If not, try another record.

Goodall is known for his glacial Wagner (which, in some places, makes Levine look like Pierre Boulez on uppers), and he seems to have a reputation as an opera conductor. His Bruckner is pretty slow and not to everyone's taste. Indeed, some of his recordings have been panned pretty roundly, but praised by others, most notably (in the instant case) by the American Record Guide. Regardless of who likes it and who doesn't, I find that it's either going to work for you or it isn't. I like Goodall's approach to the 9th: the breadth manages to work without slipping into Celibidache-like excess or, worse still, torpor. There is something fundamentally grand about the last three of Bruckner's symphonies, and Goodall seems to bring that out without running into the trap of seeming self-consciously grand.

Bruckner, Symphony no. 4, Tennstedt/LPO/1989 (LPO)

I have long harbored the suspicion that Klaus Tennstedt was a great conductor. His EMI Mahler 8th is pretty good confirmation of that fact, but his live recordings do just as good of a job. The problem is that it's hard to tell precisely what is going on with them. There's a Beethoven 9th and a Haydn Schöpfung pretty well rendered second-rate by the boomy, over-reverberant acoustics. This Bruckner 4th, however, is pretty clear and detailed. It's worth noting that the former two come from the mid-1980s, while this one comes from 1989.

This is, simply put, a thrilling recording of Bruckner's (in my opinion) most accessible score. Celibidache's 1988 Munich recording tends to get mentioned as a contender for tops in this category, and I can honestly say that I think Tennstedt knocks the tar out of that recording down the line. The timings are pretty comparable in the first three movements, with Celibidache drawing the finale out a bit, but Tennstedt and the LPO have a verve and vigor that really seems palpable at times. Tennstedt achieves as much as the other major recordings of the 4th, but he does so in an engaging and seemingly open way.

There are more records to be discussed, but I'd rather save my energies for a discussion that I've been turning over in my head for a little while.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mahler's saturation point

This blog post by Tristan Jakob-Hoff, from the Guardian Online, deals with the not-unknown phenomenon of finding Gustav Mahler's music a bit too much. He notes,
What is striking is that I don't seem to be the only one. Last year, a fellow fan announced that he had finally had it with Mahler. He could no longer listen to his music: it was just too cloying, too riven by insecurity, even - whisper it - too long. These were the sorts of accusations my girlfriend - who had never really "got" Mahler - had often levelled at his music. But to hear it from a fan - and, worse, to find myself secretly agreeing - was deeply concerning. Perhaps it wasn't just me - maybe the collective consciousness had moved on too.
He goes on to say,
So has the shine finally come off Mahler? In a post-9/11 world - a world in which we are fed a constant, wearying diet of terrorism, climate change, genocide and epic natural disasters, but one in which we are crucially short on optimism - has our appetite for Mahler's brand of dualism been diminished? Perhaps the problem is that, while the more extreme passages in his music seem to reflect all too accurately the world in which we live, the sentimental aspects feel more and more like false consolation.
In other words, this is a sort of logical antipode to the Lewis Thomas / Leonard Bernstein approach to Mahler. The thing, though, is that there have been some new approaches (i.e., post-1970) to Mahler's works, even the 9th, that have adopted - as a premise - clear-eyed and rational approaches to the works. The two most notable conductors to do this are, of course, Pierre Boulez and Michael Gielen.

That isn't to repeat the old saw about Boulez being cold, however; having been in the hall for his Mahler 7th, I can tell you that there is both a lot of precision and a lot of power. There is, however, an absence of emotion for its own sake, which was, in my view, the hallmark of a couple of other conductors.

I would also raise the point that Mahler wrote eight other symphonies, a symphonic song-cycle, and substantial parts (in draft form, orchestrated and not) of a tenth symphony. Of those symphonies, I would say that the 9th makes pretty substantial emotional demands, though not to the level of Das Lied von der Erde. In my view, however, one cannot discuss Mahler's symphonies without mentioning the 4th and the 7th, neither of which necessarily exude angst or are Mahler's personal expressions of his emotional state. The 8th, which is Mahler's most difficult symphony (in my book) by a furlong, isn't exactly a lighthearted romp around the Maypole, but neither is it a dour symphonic tearjerker.

Now, the foregoing is not to say that I dismiss Mr. Jakob-Hoff's position out of hand. Indeed, I think it's an interesting commentary on something that I would assume most art-music lovers have experienced themselves. I would say, though, on the matter of Mahler, the larger issues are more complicated that one might first imagine (and I've purposely avoided bringing irony into the mix).

Sunday, July 06, 2008

"Hard it as may be, I know you should be with me"

This might come as a shock, but I had never really seen Luchino Visconti's 1971 Death in Venice, based, obviously, on Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Der Tod in Venedig. I spent the last academic year working with Mann's story, going so far, after having done some work on it for a class, to arrange an independent study. My work focused on Gustav von Aschenbach's classicizing rhetoric and its implications vis-à-vis Friedrich Nietzsche's Die Geburt der Tragödie. This really isn't the place to unpack my argument, nor am I really hot about doing so tonight. I will say, however, that Mann did some really very subtle things in Der Tod.

Visconti's film, however, is notable, also, for its heavy use of Gustav Mahler's music (the 3rd and the Adagietto from the 5th). It seemed appropriate, since I have a few days (quite literally) before class starts up again, that I should take an evening and watch the movie. Perhaps it was being overfamiliar with Mann's novella, but I really was left with mixed feelings at the end of the film. So many important themes and subtexts are lost in the movie that one feels almost compelled to go through it with a copy of Mann's book and say, "When Dirk Bogarde is looking pained there, it's because Aschenbach is thinking about this (or that or what-have-you)." The movie, to function in the same way as Mann's original, requires a lot of knowledge of that latter work. Otherwise, it's a little mysterious.

Indeed, when it comes to Aschenbach's motivations, the movie deviates wildly, coming 'round the other side, so to speak. You have the ongoing debates between Aschenbach and his friend about beauty - is it created or merely expressed and the like - which really don't appear in the book. The idealization of beauty does appear in Mann, but it doesn't work in quite the same way as in the movie. Indeed, it is Aschenbach's intellectualization of beauty that sets up some of the major problems of the novella (in addition to setting up the fundamental Nietzschean conflict, though that's reversed by the end of the story). Visconti, in other words, has made a very compelling film based, more or less structurally, on Thomas Mann's novella, but let's call a spade a spade - it's a loose adaptation in many ways.

That is, I suppose, the problem posed by a book as tightly packed with symbolism and omniscient narration as Der Tod in Venedig. Maintaining absolute fidelity to Mann's text would probably create a very long very dense movie. At the same time, Visconti's movie has a sort of languor and mystery that Mann's novella never has. With some outside knowledge, there is a very clear and precise internal logic to Der Tod. Nothing just "happens," at least in the way that it does with Visconti's movie. Indeed, missing such crucial structural elements such as the swamp scene at the beginning, the two Phaedrus scenes, the "other God" ["Der fremde Gott!"] scene, and the specific characterization of the old fop and Aschenbach's later transformation (a connection that is left to the viewer) as it does, Visconti's film introduces a lot of ambiguity where Thomas Mann left clues to the reader. To put it another way, some of the clear themes of Mann's novella are considerably less clear in the film.

I also have to take particular umbrage with the clumsy half-completed interpolation of a scene from Doktor Faustus (where Leverkühn is led to a disorderly house, plays some music from Freischütz, and runs out after Esmeralda touches him) into the life of Gustav von Aschenbach. Recasting the latter as a composer, clearly modeled on Gustav Mahler (an allusion Mann disavowed beyond the physical make up of the recently ennobled author of Maya), I suppose makes the leap from Aschenbach to Leverkühn superficially facile; it is, of course, highly inappropriate given the differing thematic content of the two works. In other words, Visconti, with this little alteration, was merely sloppy.

Now, this criticism should be taken with a grain of salt - someone who has spent a lot of time with (some might say obsessing over) Der Tod is necessarily going to have easily disappointed expectations for the movie. At the same time, however, it isn't like Visconti only discarded the least essential components of the novella. No. Some major themes were pretty much cut out and themes that had pretty clear subtexts and secondary meanings were taken at face value. This highlights, though, an issue that most filmed adaptations of works of literature face: how close does one play to the literary basis for the work?

It would be pretty hard to find a blow-for-blow adaptation of a novel. Some works cry out for it, while others don't seem to need it. For example, Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film, Barry Lyndon, which I have contended for a while and still contend is his greatest movie, follows the Thackeray book with some license. Indeed, Kubrick (like he did later with Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers, which you really should read) made a movie, which happened to be based on the Thackeray novel. That is to say that Kubrick's movie, which stands on its own merits, is actually better than Thackeray's book. Making a 2001-like jump-cut from the particular to the general, then, it is safe to say that adaptations that can stand on their own need not be scrupulous with regard to the source material. Indeed, such scrupulosity can hobble a director's vision; Kubrick's was such that hobbling it would have been (1) likely impossible and (2) a bigger crime than any textual infidelities that might have crept in to the movies.

The question, then, is whether Visconti's vision was sufficient to create a movie that stands on its own. My answer is "Probably not." What I didn't mention is that Kubrick, even when improvising on the source material, always kept the feel of the text in his film. Watch Barry Lyndon, and tell me that it isn't entirely in keeping with Thackeray's tone and feel. You'll find that a tall order, at best. Visconti, in discarding what he did and redirecting the emphasis, lost the feel (intellectually speaking, of course) of Der Tod. Mann's book is, of course, so dense and tightly argued - so to speak - that it would be difficult to rearrange much without losing the feel. There would have been, on the other hand, ways to do it. Introducing Mann's all-important narrator would go a long way to preserving the feel of the book.

There is, I understand, the chance that in preserving the feel of the book one will make a boring, didactic, and ultimately unenjoyable movie. So I admit that my position more or less creates either a very narrow tightrope or a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't Morton's Fork for the director, but that's why a good director is a good director. That, then, is my conclusion on the matter: only the best directors should be in the business of making adaptations of books, and, even then, they should have an understanding of which books cry out for adaptation.

Visconti, for whatever reason (and this could, admittedly, be a function of my overfamiliarity with Der Tod), seems to have either misjudged Mann's book or his own talent.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The war for the hearts, minds, and middle names of the electorate

I saw this, first-hand from some folks with whom I went to college.

Now, it's just the interweb - and Facebook at that - but let's get real, here.

Let's say I were really into the band Steely Dan. Now, I am, as it happens, really into the work of Messrs. Becker and Fagen, but that's not entirely the point. Let's say that I thought that judicious compulsory listening of, I don't know, either Pretzel Logic or Aja would bring about lasting change in the Republic. Now, such a project might, in fact, cure some of the ills current in the nation, but sooner or later we'd have to get to Countdown to Ecstasy, The Royal Scam, or Katy Lied - and the folks rocking out to "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" or "Peg" might start getting a little balky, though that's more of a slur on them than Messrs. Becker and Fagen, but I digress.

My point is this, friend: If someone thought that such a program of Steely Dan listening was the hope for the future, then would they be rational if they wanted to change their name to John Walter Becker and Donald Fagen Public?

Of course not. That is not a rational act, even in the pretend interweb world, no offense, of course, to Messrs. Becker and Fagen. Why, then, is it any more rational vis-à-vis a figure who has, arguably, contributed considerably less to the life of the Republic than Messrs. Becker and Fagen?

Short answer: It's not. Personal comment: It's going to be a long summer.

Varviso's Meistersinger: Take One

I said that I'd get to Varviso's 1974 Bayreuth Meistersinger later when my post on the Wagner Cube ran long (over Levine's Parsifal, fittingly enough). Here, then, is my opinion. The commentator here who was "impressed" by the orchestral contribution and less so by the singing was, in my view, correct. The problem, of course, is the fact that Wagnerian singing took a major downturn at the end of the 1960s - even on the Green Hill - and it took twenty or so years to begin a recovery, which, even at that, was far from complete. Karl Ridderbusch is the star of the Varviso set, and, while an excellent Hagen, he was not an ideal Sachs. The rest of the cast is, at best, second-rate (including but not limited to Jean Cox' Walther von Stolzing). The choral work, though, is really very good.

Varviso's orchestral contribution is and should be the main draw to this set (though that's misleading, since the other 29 CDs in the Cube might be more of a draw seriatim or otherwise). In a way, I think Varviso's approach is the logical complement to Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1943 Bayreuth set. The latter, though technically primitive (not unlistenable, just not great), shows a concept of really solid internal dignity. Now, I don't mean to imply that oft-cited "granitic" adjective that is usually thrown around when Otto Klemperer is mentioned. I mean that the orchestral contribution is well-honed and balanced. Furtwängler, even in this Wagnerian comedy, brings a fundamental dignity to it. Nothing is overplayed or underplayed. Varviso's approach is similar, but he brings an internal lightness and buoyancy that suits the material just as well as Furtwängler's approach.

It's a quick interpretation, but I wouldn't say that it's unnecessarily or unduly fast. Given the general approach, a slower reading would seem a little out of place. Let me put it another way: It runs quicker than a standard reference version like Von Karajan's 1970 EMI set (which has, oddly enough, a far better cast), but it is still - to my ears - idiomatic. It does, for lack of a more felicitous phrase, glisten and gleam. Varviso's lightness, while avoiding the trap of turning Meistersinger into Figaro or Così, creates an atmosphere that isn't quite as heavy as Karajan's set. One must remember, too, that there is much celebrating in the drama. Varviso manages to affect a sort of festival atmosphere, while matching the moment-by-moment mood of the plot.

That's just my take on it, though, and I'll probably need a few more run-through listenings before I can make a final judgment on it. That's the thing, there are some impressions that can be had quickly and easily, but others require some time to form. Meistersinger is a deceptively difficult music-drama, passing itself off as a comedy, but like the Mozart-DaPonte collaborations, there is much more going on there than mere comedy. It does, then, take some time to form a coherent and reasonably rational opinion of it, just like the rest of Wagner's mature oeuvre.