Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bist du verrückt, Gelb, mein Sohn?

          I’m quickly realizing that maybe school needs to get out at, like, 10 am so we can all keep up with the newest Metropolitan Opera mini-scandals.
          As of yesterday, the now-infamous Peter Gelb has struck and un-struck the press with another disapproval of criticism.


Robert Lepage
Gelb has been the Met Opera’s general manager since 2006, and in the past few months, it seems he has received nothing but criticism. The company’s “Ring” Cycle productions have been the talk of the opera/music community for a while due to the previous promises of greatness and grand staging. Despite the buildup, the Met’s cycle (more specifically, Robert Lepage’s staging) have been called distracting, disappointing, “puny,” and, in one of the most negative sentences I’ve seen Alex Ross write in a while, “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.”

The set everyone seemed to hear about 
         The reason for a large fraction of the Met’s recent criticisms, however, is not necessarily the production itself, but Gelb. “Revolutionary,” the word Gelb used to describe Lepage’s work on the productions, has been repeated by many with raised eyebrows and exclamations of “really?” Gelb has continued this over-laudatory behavior in past weeks, which one can only liken to the parent of the child whose mommy says “they’re good at everything.” You know, the one whose kid always seems to win the board games.
         On three separate occasions, Gelb has contacted the source of negative reviews and complained, resulting in their retraction, deletion, or discontinuation. At the beginning of May, Olivia Giovetti of WQXR posted a negative rant about Gelb and the Met’s productions on the Operavore blog of the radio station’s website. WQXR pulled the piece a mere day after its publication. While executives of the station say it was a decision due to their own dissatisfaction with the piece, Gelb’s strange hypersensitivity begs to differ. The New York Times reported him saying: “I told [Laura Walker, president of WNYC] I thought it was objectionable… It was an awful and nasty piece, which in my opinion was totally unjustified.”
        And now, just a few weeks after the WQXR incident, Gelb has fashioned another guard for a mouth of criticism. Opera News, a widely read opera magazine, published a well-written review by Fred Cohn critical of Lepage’s staging of the final installment in the cycle, “Götterdämmerung.” The magazine then announced it would stop publishing reviews about the Met altogether, with pressure from Gelb to do so.  However, just a day later, Gelb retracted his decision, saying he “think [he] made a mistake” (New York Times). Seeing as Opera News is published by the Met Guild, it seems only logical that the magazine would have to report on the productions of its mother organization; Gelb thinks the opposite. Again, from the article in the New York Times by Daniel J. Wakin:

Mr. Gelb said in an interview on Monday that the decision was made “in collaboration with the guild” but that he never liked the idea that an organization created to support the Met had a publication passing judgment on its productions. Worse yet, he said, is a publication that “continuously rips into” an institution that its parent is supposed to help.

His pseudo-reasoning is also humorous (from the same article): “Clearly the public would miss Opera News not being able to review the Met, and we are responding to that.”
        Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but criticism is usually negative. It’s also a large part of putting on a production, or doing anything in life. So it’s a little frustrating when we see a man like Gelb, someone who is supposed to be leading the Met in the best direction he can, wasting his and our time with his immature handling of criticism. If you are going to put on a production, especially in one of the most famous venues in the US, you’d better be prepared for criticism from the most common and strangest corners of the internet and papers. This is almost inevitable and cannot be stopped. It’s pretentious and pathetic to ask for criticism to be removed, for you are only masking the problem with a mask made of glass. A better solution would be to tweak the performance that is creating the negative reviews rather than the reviews themselves.
        In the next 4 years of Gelb’s presumed stay at the Met, the company has said they will be performing 62 productions, 17 of which are new (including Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys"). That is an ambitious and heavy load. I can only hope that Lepage’s future staging will garner more positive reactions, if he continues to partner with the Met, and Gelb learns to open his eyes from the filtering squint they seem to be in nowadays.

Criticism?? SEIZE IT, SIGFRIED. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How It's Made

          I painted my nails 2 days ago.
          WHOAAAA, you guys. Don’t get too excited.
Alright, alright. It really wasn’t that exciting. After getting a Schoenberg record at my local record store and listening to Nadia Sirota’s channel on Q2, I painted my nails with Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme symbols (H on the left, in regards to the dominant hand) and thought, why is it so strangely satisfying to manifest our love for music in non-sonic ways?

I'm mainly into this photo because I look like I'm emerging from the depths ofThe Schoenberg Shadows.

                Like Andrew Ford said in his recent spot-on essay about why we need music, music is the most abstract of the arts. He discusses that most everyone is able to “think musically,” and this is why music is loved by everyone and is an art that (for the most part) requires no expertise to enjoy and experience.
                As Ford and most music lovers iterate, we love music because of its ability to adapt to any situation, to go with us everywhere, and to be the art that reaches the core of our ability to feel. But there are some times when even the aficionados of wordless, pictureless art want something visual or constant to hold on to. Something partially tangible we can recognize in the sounds we hear through the black foam of the speakers.
                To me, this seems like a reason, while definitely not the main one, composers create new musical theories. I’m not talking about the basic organizers of music, but the newly formed, purposefully-engineered systems or modes that composers weave through their pieces for listeners and theorists to analyze. When listening to the third movement of John Adams’s “Naïve and Sentimental Music,” “Chain to the Rhythm,” for example, it’s a fulfilling thing to look at the score and watch the cells of the chain go by. While most of the music lover’s satisfaction of listening to this movement will be from the chugging strings and cries of brass, denying enjoyment from seeing and understanding a concept of the piece is difficult.
                In the mid-20th century, many new theories were created, seemingly, for only academic or rebellious reasons. But I have a feeling that being able to represent sound with rules or specific notation was satisfying for the composer. It certainly is for the listener. Whether simple or complex, these patterns offer some definitely awesome connectedness.
                One of the pioneering composers in the 20th century, Béla Bartók was also a pioneer of composition techniques. Bartók was influenced heavily by folk melodies from Magyar and Asia, but incorporated influences from modern composers during his time, such as Debussy and Strauss. This combination makes Bartók’s music rich with tones that humans naturally respond to as well as the flavors of modernism that call for more than just one listen. He’s a braid with one strand traditional, one strand modern, and one strand pure creativity (with countless other strands weaved in, so he would be... a rope?). Bartók achieved this balance with different methods, one of them being the axis system. The axis system relates notes through “axes,” or poles that represent relationships between notes through various pitches they share as relatives; these pairs of notes can then be used as substitutions for each other. For example, Eb and A are related through their common minor thirds C and F#. Eb and A are a tritone away from each other, as are C and F#. There are three axes: tonic, dominant, and subdominant that, together, include the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. Each axis has a primary pole and a secondary branch (the relationship between two notes), each of which has a pole and a counterpole (the two notes in that branch).

Béla, looking molto bella(o). 

A wonderful, wonderful diagram from Erno Lendvai's essay entitled "Symmetries of Music: An Introduction to the Semantics of Music," published 1993 by  the Kodaly Institute in Kecskemet. 

                For Bartók, the axis system allowed for tonal substitutions in his compositions, which probably account for a lot of the reason he can sound traditional and modern at the same time. Bluebeard’s Castle, his gorgeous/creepy one-act opera, uses the system not only in singular notes and chords, but in the relationships between different scenes and themes, as pointed out by this webpage on the system. It’s actually quite mystical how everything is related—the Night Theme and Light Theme both end on, start on, and utilize F# and C (respectively). The relationship between the flower-garden and lake of tears (both areas that lie behind doors in Bluebeard’s castle) is the same, only using Eb and A. There are many other examples of the system throughout the work—they can be found in countless, small chord relationships. And, as Chris McGovern pointed out to me on Twitter, the opera’s endless connections continue with a bunch of people (3) with B-alliterated names involved.

                Another concrete idea to describe an aspect of modern music is micropolyphony. In a way, the “concrete” term (is it strange to quote a word I just typed approximately 4 seconds ago?) is used to describe the seemingly abstract—those dissonant chords that slowly shift over time, creating a buzzing-bee-hive effect. György Ligeti, the composer who developed (and frequently composed with) the texture, used a dream he had as inspiration for the technique:

As a small child I once had a dream that I could not get to my cot, to my safe haven, because the whole room was filled with a dense confused tangle of fine filaments. It looked like the web I had seen silkworms fill their box with as they change into pupas. I was caught up in the immense web together with both living things and objects of various kinds—huge moths, a variety of beetles—which tried to get to the flickering flame of the candle in the room… Every time a beetle or a moth moved, the entire web started shaking so that the big, heavy pillows were swinging about, which, in turn, made the web rock harder… The succession of these sudden, unexpected events gradually brought about a change in the internal structure, in the texture of the web. In places knots formed, thickening into an almost solid mass, caverns opened up where shreds of the original web were floating about like gossamer. All these changes seemed like an irreversible process, never returning to earlier states again. An indescribable sadness hung over these shifting forms and structure, the hopelessness of passing time and the melancholy of unalterable past events. (from Richard Steinitz’s book György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination)
(is it safe to say that little György was destined to be an avant-garde composer since childhood?)

Much of micropolyphony has to do with the multiplication and ever-thinning of the pulse. Stephen Taylor wrote in “Chopin, Pygmies, and Tempo Fugue: Ligeti's ‘Automne a Varsovie’”,

In many earlier [Ligeti] works, the pulse is divided into two, three, and so on--even thirteenth-tuplets occasionally appear. The effect of these different subdivisions, especially when they occur simultaneously, is to blur the sonic landscape, creating a micropolyphonic web of sound. The smallest common denominator of all these subdivisions is a microscopic fraction of a beat; no one can hear it, much less count it.

Ligeti took these strange, otherworldly flavors, created clouds of sound, and developed a technique around it. It gives understanding to the force while not taking any of the magic away from it. It’s satisfying. This technique is still ubiquitous today, being used by composers like Haas or Penderecki.

The last example I’ll talk about is set theory. I don’t even know if I really understand yet, but it’s pretty damn cool, so we’re going for it. I would like to preface this section by saying that if I got anything drastically (or minimally) wrong, please let me know! Here's a lovely website for understanding this idea. 
Set theory was developed because of the complete redefining of music organization that Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg brought to the world. Because the traditional organization methods of tonality were completely expelled by the Second Viennese School, music theorists such as Howard Hanson and Allen Forte analyzed the work of modern composers and, quite mathematically, created ways to order and manipulate pitches; these are the techniques that created the 12-tone pieces we know today.
The basic beginnings of set theory are pitch class sets. Basically, any group of notes on the scale can made into a pitch class set. There are 12 pitches, starting with C, numbered 0-11. A popular set class during the explosion of the Second Viennese School was The Viennese Trichord, also known as 0, 1, 6, or C, Db, Gb.
These set classes are then inverted and transposed (or, how you would say in math, reflected and translated). Inversion is done by switching the direction of the set class’s intervals, and transposing is done by moving the entire set by a certain interval.  From there, the sets can be put into handfuls of different formulas and forms. Normal form and prime form are two examples of ways to organize a set class into specific sizes or positions, while an interval class vector is a space between two notes that are inverted onto each other.
Here’s a blurry-not-iPhone-cell-phone-picture of a page in the 90s textbook that every high school seems to have, the page that encompasses the idea that all these musical set theory rules seem to adhere to:

Did I mention the blurriness? And would you look at the early-90ness of that mathematician? I also believe you were not allowed to appear in textbooks of the past decades if you did not own overalls or fluffy hair.  

                These three examples make up only a miniscule fraction of the various theories, modes, symbols, and techniques that emerge every decade in the field of music. They are created to rebel. They are created to redefine or enlighten. Maybe a couple of them are created just to mess with us. But, all in all, most are satisfying to understand, because they allow our love for music to be somewhat visually or logically manifested. It’s a small part of the brain that craves that, but without that part, we wouldn’t have genius shows like this one: 

Don't tell me you've never seen this...