Monday, October 31, 2005

heroes, goblins, and bass excerpts

Autumn seems to have come to South Florida for the first time since I've been here, and not content to just shed a few leaves, it has stripped the trees bare, knocked down the branches and sometimes the trunks as well. The trees here tend to be crooked and mangled to begin with, but seeing them defoliated and piled in stacks on the side of the road sets a spooky mood for Halloween.

Double bass audition excerpts can be scary too, and not just "audition's a week away!" scary. Playing through my lists today, I realized that there is some honestly frightening music here - the witches' dance from Symphonie Fantastique, the opening of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, Strauss Death and Transfiguration, the pre-murder music from Verdi's Otello... Somehow we bassists seem to get more than our share of harrowing symphonic moments.

I think it has something to do with the slightly otherworldly nature of our instrument. I've often heard the cello's sonority described as the closest to the human voice, and the bass of course is not far away from the cello in timbre. Still, that difference - deeper, darker, more cloaked and distant - is perhaps what makes it so haunting. It's a voice that could almost, but not quite, come from a living human being.

My camera is malfunctioning, so in lieu of scary pictures I wanted to share one of my favorite (sort of) scary passages in literature. It also happens to describe a famous double bass excerpt, from Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Happy Halloween!

...Helen said to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

"On the what, dear?"

"On the drum, Aunt Juley."

"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Helen pushed her way out during the applause. She desired to be alone. The music had summed up to her all that had happened or could happen in her career.

She read it as a tangible statement, which could never be superseded. The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning. She pushed right out of the building and walked slowly down the outside staircase, breathing the autumnal air, and then she strolled home.

- Howard's End by E.M. Forster, from Chapter 5, Modern Library edition p. 30-31
The entire novel is available (and searchable!) online thanks to The Literature Network.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

MTT and Strauss' Don Juan

I know it's still a little early for Thanksgiving, but lately I've been quite grateful to be among brilliant musicians and to get the opportunity to hear and learn from them. One of my favorites is pianist Jeremy Denk, who this weekend wrote a captivating blog posting on fortune cookies and chamber music.

Also, I've been intending for a while to set down some of my favorite moments from the past few weeks' visit by New World Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas. MTT is one of the most inspiring musicians I know, so I try to keep my ears open whenever he's around.

I thought I would divide my collection of wisdom culled from MTT's rehearsals and seminars into three posts, with one for general musical advice and one specifically for bass players. In this first post, though, I want to share some ideas about one of his most brilliant interpretations, Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Juan.

"a musical evocation of the desire to party"

The opening of Don Juan contains some of the most exciting, frenetic, instinctual music ever written for orchestra. It's also among the most technically demanding, a reminder that "the enjoyment of classical music is inseparable from analysis." That was a lesson MTT's teacher Ingolf Dahl taught him, a challenge to never get so carried away by the impulsive momentum of a piece that we lose track of its intellectual framework. In this case, MTT described the opening as a melange of hyperactive overture styles from Wagner, Weber, and Berlioz.

If music is a delicate balance between instinct and intellect, most of us naturally fall to one or the other side. Only very rarely can someone ideally combine thought and passion without careful training and practice. And that practice doesn't only involve technical ability, but our emotional makeup as performers. Within the whole heirarchy of technical knowledge, musical understanding, and instinctual emotion that we bring to a piece of music, there is a level of personal involvement which MTT emphasized quite a bit. He encouraged us to develop our own associations to the music we play - a dizzyingly fast slew of triplets might trigger memories of a raucous party and the rush of tossing a friend into the pool.

"amorous snarls"

That's how MTT describes the muted horn part in an early section of Don Juan, just after the maniacally thrusting opening. It is just a brief moment, but a representative one in a piece he calls "a musical character study in selfish male sexuality." Finding the right colors and characters to make it all work is a challenge for the whole orchestra (not just the sexually selfish males!)

I find his approach to developing a musical character really fascinating. He talks about taking things apart, finding the right feeling in your head and heart outside of the musical context. When he demonstrates this, he will sing a fragment repeatedly, often just an interval or a short motive, in a strange and very expressive voice - he sounds like some kind of moaning animal at times, and yet he finds just the element of longing or despair or amorous snarling that he wants us to capture.

"the bruise you keep on poking"

There is a long, plaintive oboe solo midway through the piece which spins out around one repeated note. MTT had a great extramusical description of that obsessive quality: it is as though you've developed a bruise on your arm, a sensitive spot that hurts every time you touch it. And yet just can't stop poking at that spot, compulsively reliving the painful sensation again and again.

Melodic repeated notes often demand our most imaginative efforts to avoid sounding dull and prosaic. I love the analogy of the poked bruise, because it suggests how each repetition might carry a new painful twinge. MTT suggested treating a repeated note as a singer might, giving a different word to each repetition. Just as one can never step in the same river twice, we should hopefully never reproduce the same note in the exact same way!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Saramago's Blindness: magic realism that snaps

I wrote recently about reading Haruki Murakami's short stories, which I liken to an enormous rubber band, stretching around the reader. Murakami draws us into some completely unremarkable life: a man wakes up, has some coffee and toast, reads the newspaper - then something happens to start stretching that rubber band. An elephant has vanished - or a little green monster has appeared - or an inexorable hunger is felt which will not be fulfilled by any amount of butter cookies and beer. The stretch at first seems to operate between everyday reality and the author's imagination, and we wonder how long he can maintain this exquisite tension. Somehow though he not only maintains it, but convinces us that the real tension is between our limited view of reality and the unimaginable mysteries of the world that surrounds us. When the rubber band finally snaps, its twang resounds against our own comfortable false notions.

A similarly magical elasticity, stretched to almost unbearable proportions, propels José Saramago's novel Blindness. The premise is an incurable epidemic of blindness, beginning with one man alone at a stoplight and then quickly spreading to everyone it contacts. The one exception is "the doctor's wife," whose preserved vision serves the reader and a small group of blind prisoners, trying to avoid the savagery developing around them. It is a stunningly bleak and horrific view of human nature.

As a reader I tried in vain to reduce Blindness to an allegory, only to find its implications ever wider and more tensely poised to snap. We'd like to dismiss the story as an impossible invention, yet we need only look to modern history to see how quickly a shelter or quarantine can become a concentration camp. All the reviews I have read seem to struggle with the book's refusal to yield to any convenient interpretation - we wait for some simple, clear symbolic meanings, like those hungry blind prisoners in the mental asylum waiting for their food rations, and we are denied them.

Saramago uses Blindness as a prism to show all the filth, the horror, and the inhumanity lurking beneath civilization, and yet ultimately the novel seems redemptive and hopeful to me. Having just muddled through one minor natural disaster, and watched a much larger one destroy a city, my urge is to read it as a prescient account of the collapse of human society. And yet, the novel reminds its reader that we are subject to all sorts of blindness, of which perhaps the worst is a blindness to the suffering of others. So for me the snap of Blindness is a call to a compassion that might overcome one's own short-sightedness.

I last wrote about Saramago and his more recent novel The Double in a post titled souls and clowns.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

the day after Wilma

a tree collapses across from the library in South Beach Posted by Picasa

curious residents swarm the wreckage Posted by Picasa

restoring the South Beach way of life Posted by Picasa

Wilma teaches new meanings for "Xtreme" Posted by Picasa

...but South Beach is quickly back on its feet. And its back. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Wilma's wrath cut me off while posting the other day, which might have left the disturbing impression that I had just been blown off to sea while furiously clutching at my keyboard. Actually, I'm all right, just without electrical power at my apartment. Power was restored yesterday on Lincoln Road, where the New World Symphony's office and rehearsal spaces are located, so we have an incentive to come in and practice.

Posted by PicasaIt's been a fascinating few days, learning what South Beach looks like without the glare of electrical lights, how it sounds without the hum of air conditioning and the blare of techno music. Actually the techno was restored alarmingly quickly - I went out on Monday evening and found that some restaurants on Ocean Drive had already reopened, and one had a Lexus parked in front with its windows open, playing - what else? - loud techno.

In all seriousness, it has been a nice camping trip at home, being able to see the stars and get a couple of full nights' sleep. Sure I miss refrigeration, and all those other little comforts of electricity, but it feels silly complaining too much - I was probably one of the lucky ones in this hurricane.

Monday, October 24, 2005


We've been getting extremely strong winds for several hours, and while the sun hasn't risen enough to see much outside, it looks as though a lot of powerful weather is affecting Miami Beach. I'm glad I moved my car to the garage. It sounds from the news reports as though it might pass us by this afternoon - hopefully its early morning arrival will have kept people out of the worst of the storm. I'll try and post some more news and maybe some pictures later on.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

waiting up on Wilma

Hurricanes can be exasperating - it's sort of like having to wait around for a dinner guest who you didn't invite to begin with. Wilma has been taking her time getting here, and while it sounds like she is finally on her way, the waiting does strange things to people. All the TV meteorologists get this strange giddiness, like it's Christmas Eve for them, and they pull up endless graphics of radar maps, wind speed readings, temperatures, barometers - I don't know, maybe this is their last chance to hold our attention until next hurricane season.

Those of us non-weather people, after two or three permutations of the same boring pre-hurricane conversation ("Heard it might come tonight" - "Hope it misses us" - "Yeah, did you get your water yet?"), turn to making fun of the news coverage. That's sort of where I am now, I guess. It seems sort of awful to become so jaded and cynical about something so serious and potentially deadly. We can only think, worry, and talk so much about a thing so out of our control, though, before it just becomes a big, dark joke. Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 21, 2005

Haruki Murakami

My most recently discovered favorite author is Haruki Murakami, whose short stories I have been reading compulsively the last few days. Actually, my fixation started several weeks ago, around the time I read this passage from a Murakami story in The New Yorker:
For me, on the other hand, it was the Year of Funerals. Friends and former friends died one after another, like ears of corn withering in a drought. I was twenty-eight. My friends were all about the same age -- twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. Not the right age to die.

A poet dies at twenty-one, a revolutionary or a rock star at twenty-four. But after that you assume that everything is going to be all right. You've made it past Dead Man's Curve and you're out of the tunnel, cruising straight for your destination down a six-lane highway -- whether you want to be or not. You get your hair cut; you shave every morning. You aren't a poet anymore, or a revolutionary or a rock star. You don't pass out drunk in phone booths or blast the Doors at four in the morning. Instead, you buy life insurance from your friend's company, drink in hotel bars, and keep your dental bills for medical deductions. That's normal at twenty-eight.

But that was exactly when the unexpected massacre started in our lives. It was like a surprise attack on a lazy spring day -- as if someone, on top of a metaphysical hill, holding a metaphysical machine gun, had sprayed us with bullets. One minute we were changing our clothes, and the next minute they didn't fit anymore: the sleeves were inside out, and we had one leg in one pair of pants and the other in a different pair. It was a mess....

-from "New York Mining Disaster," issue of Jan. 11, 1999, p. 75
A passage like that would be mesmerizing on any occasion, but I happened read it on the day before my twenty-eighth birthday. I wasn't sure if this was a prophecy or a call to action, whether to warn my friends or run for metaphysical cover. I knew this was great writing, though, and I had to read more of it.

I don't want to tempt the copyright gods any more than I already have, but I do want to recommend another Murakami story which I just read today. It is called "Sleep," and it is published in the collection The Elephant Vanishes. The narrator is a somewhat happily married woman who after a bizarre and harrowing night-time experience she finds that she no longer needs to sleep. A whole series of discoveries and changes follows, as she is set free to live her own inner life in all those extra waking hours, and realizes just how much she has been imprisoned by routines and relationships.

Murakami's writing is often classified as "magic realism," meaning that an unexplainable phenomenon permeates an otherwise conventional life, offering a profound glimpse into that life's inner workings. I looked up magic realism in the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, and found that it extends to painting and film as well as literature - not music though. I guess all music is a sort of magic realism, in which scientists sing arias and lovers' sighs transform into fugal counterpoint.

I'm sure more experienced Murakami readers can recommend dozens of fascinating stories I've yet to discover, and I haven't even touched the novels yet. For others new to this author, a great place to start is the official Murakami website, which features reviews, art, and even samples of music mentioned in his stories and novels. Enjoy, and please watch out for metaphysical bullets!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

hearing double

This evening I went to hear Karen Birch, a New World oboe fellow and the new director of community engagement, presenting an Inside the Music program on Hindemith's Sonata for English Horn and Piano. After playing the piece, she talked about familiarity in music, and gave the audience some analysis and history before performing the piece a second time. The familiarity of a second hearing would hopefully breed understanding and engagement, rather than contempt.

A line from her program notes on Hindemith reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Election: "He was a highly moral and ethical man, and his emotional struggles are reflected in his music." One of the movie's jokes is that Matthew Broderick's character is always asking his students to distinguish between morals and ethics, though not even he and his fellow teachers can really tell the difference. I think sometimes we just like to have two words for something - just as we see with two eyes, and hear with two ears, the duality adds an extra dimension, even if the meanings are practically indistinguishable.

The Hindemith Sonata itself seemed like a good example of this kind of dual thinking, with its two instruments, two main melodic ideas, two tempos, all complementary and intertwined. When Karen asked for our initial reactions, one woman said it sounded sad, another said forlorn, a man said it sounded like it followed a long journey. As Karen pointed out, our words seem to slide around the meaning of music, or maybe the music slides around our words - we end up repeating ourselves, or speaking in cryptic riddles, in an effort to pin down those elusive sounds. Still, it often helps to add a second word - "forlorn and resigned," or "allegro pesante," the second word always gives us an angle on the first.

If the piece seems reminiscent of a journey, probably it is the use of variation that propels that sense. The six movements are in three groups of slow/fast, so there is a real sense of returning with new understanding, hearing a theme in a new light. Karen talked about three different modes of approaching a new piece: auditory, analytical, and informational. No matter how familiar a piece is, it only takes shape within our minds, and all the background, analysis, and commentary we've heard surely impact the form it takes. Still, a great piece of music can sweep all that aside and create its own mold; sometimes it can even reshape us in the process.

At one point Karen was countering a prevailing criticism of Hindemith's style, but she couldn't think of the word - the audience tried to help her out - "bookish? formal? academic?" No, intellectual was the word she was looking for; but her experience of this piece was not intellectual at all, but "heartbreaking."

My experience of Hindemith has often been closer to this description of one of Leonard Bernstein's less successful pieces:
It seems a parody, a spoof of Jewish existential anguish; recently, when I put on a recording of it, my wife looked at me in horror, and my noisy fifteen-year-old son, stunned, sat down glumly, as if he were being punished.
-David Denby, "The Trouble With Lenny," The New Yorker August 17, 1998, p. 50
Not Jewish existential anguish, but a sense of self-conscious discipline does seem to dry out a lot of Hindemith's works. Or maybe that's just the filter I impose on them - this was a glum work, but one filled with subtlety of expression. Karen's performance and discussion was far from a punishment, and everyone seemed to enjoy the opportunity to hear and hear again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

positive double negatives

Two local papers published reviews of Saturday's opening night concert of the New World Symphony, and both were quite positive. Lawrence Budmen's Miami Herald review has me scratching my head though, due to lines like this one:
The Immortal Beethoven offered a program of familiar works by that ultimate creative revolutionary. Tilson Thomas's perceptive, intellectually probing performances redefined Beethoven's musical discourse and uncovered sonic layers often obscured in less fastidious, matter-of-fact renditions.
Does the word 'less' modify 'matter-of-fact' as well as 'fastidious'? Is there an insult hiding beneath all these superlatives? No wonder I'm chronically insecure, I can't stop digging negatives out of positives.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into these reviews - I sometimes wonder if they are less about the concert itself and more about the reviewer's skill with adjectives. Nevertheless, it would be hard to not enjoy a line like this one, from Lawrence Johnson's Sun-Sentinel review:
With fleet tempos and precisely observed dynamics, the conductor and New World players put across Beethoven's epic canvas naturally, without special pleading or obtrusive gestures. Not a single bar sounded routine; the dislocating harmonic shifts were aptly jarring and the playing had a coiled intensity and polished gleam, with daunting muscle in reserve.
He makes us sound like less an orchestra than a gang of paramilitary soldiers. I'm pretty sure it wasn't any of my muscle that daunted Mr. Johnson, as I didn't leave all that much in reserve. Still, it's nice to be written about in such glowing (as well as coiled and polished) phrases. Thanks to both Larrys, and to everyone else who attended the concert last Saturday!

Monday, October 17, 2005

blogs, kids, MTT, and mockery

Welcome to visitors new to hella frisch, and many thanks for the recent links posted on Miami Beach 411 by Gus and on San Bei Ji by Joe. Today on San Bei Ji, Joe lamented the dwindling usefulness of Technorati as irrelevant blogs clog the search process. That's too bad, since one of the cool things about the blogosphere has always been the possibility of finding people living a continent away who share one's obsessions. I've actually never met Joe in person, yet I've been able to get to know him quite well, enjoy his musical epiphanies, sympathize with his technical frustrations, etc. - San Bei Ji rates much higher than #208,844 in my book, no matter what Technorati may say.

Posted by Picasa
Highlights of this coming week for me include a kids' concert next weekend, audition masterclasses with MTT, and a mock audition on Wednesday. I've been appointed the coordinator for New World's official mock auditions, which happen every month or so and feature guest artists as panelists, a screen, and comments. I want them to be as realistic as possible, so I am going for an atmosphere of serious professionalism tinged with senseless bureaucracy. I probably won't get to say the speech - "the committee wishes to thank everyone, they appreciate all your time and expense to be here, and they have decided to not advance anyone from this group - have a good day" - but I'm thinking of scheduling people in hourly groups, and then making them draw numbers and practice together in a cramped green room. Somehow auditions seem to bring out my sadomasochistic tendencies.

I'll probably have more to write about these subjects later in the week....

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Oktoberfest pictures

Last weekend's Oktoberfest was a rousing success despite periodic rain squalls. After compiling these pictures, I noticed that bass player James is strangely ubiquitous - it seems fitting, though, since James is "Festmeister designate," replacing timpanist Alex Orfaly, the chief organizer of this year's party.

8:30 am - James and the giant pig Posted by Picasa

4 pm - preparations underway Posted by Picasa

8 pm - the party continues, the pig doesn't Posted by Picasa

8:30 pm - Raging Wurst get raunchy Posted by Picasa

11 pm - decorations unravel, partygoers perseverePosted by Picasa

souvenirs: t-shirt, beer stein, hangover (not pictured) Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 14, 2005

on Beethoven's art and heroism

I sometimes think that in approaching Beethoven, we emphasize his greatness so much that we forget his humanity. This week the New World Symphony has been rehearsing Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica," and our music director Michael Tilson Thomas made some comments about the composer's Heiligenstadt Testament that got me thinking about the emotional alchemy of artistic creation.

Beethoven wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament at the age of 32, in a state of nearly suicidal despair. His hearing had been in steep decline for four years - yet Beethoven's lament was not for his abilities to perform and improvise, or the fame that came with them. MTT emphasized a subtler reading, and a loss that Beethoven felt even more keenly:
My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished. I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed.
We don't shout our innermost thoughts and wishes - we whisper them intimately to someone we trust completely. I think of being at a loud party, or with a hearing-impaired grandparent, and how in speaking at the top of my voice I seem to be limited to the most banal and boring subjects. Even then, there is no guarantee that any real connection has been made, or that any sort of communication has transpired. For me this may be a trivial frustration, but for Beethoven it was to be his life - banished to wretched isolation even among friends, forced to pretend he had heard what he couldn't, and to hide what he most longed to express.

Of course, he did find an outlet for that expression through his art, and a means to communicate not only with his immediate contemporaries but with people of all times and places. His music was fiercely original, passionate, and uncompromising - it is also deeply, stirringly human. He wrote his "Eroica" symphony soon after the Heiligenstadt Testament, and to hear the one and read the other is a startling reminder: he may have addressed those lines to his brothers, but he was writing for all humankind, and his message was very much intended for people of the future like ourselves.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Borges on Joyce's Ulysses

I confess I have not cleared a path through all seven hundred pages, I confess to having examined only bits and pieces, and yet I know what it is, with that bold and legitimate certainty with which we assert our knowledge of a city, without ever having been rewarded with the intimacy of all the many streets it includes.

After reading Ulysses this summer, I feel exactly like Jorge Luis Borges did - I've only barely scratched the surface, but I've scratched deep enough to know some of the wonders that lie beneath. Borges wrote that line in a 1925 review, just a few years after the first published edition of 1922. I've had much more time than he did, but - what can I say? - I'm a slow reader.

Here's another line from the same review, some of the most poetic criticism I've ever read:
The duality of existence dwells within this book, an ontological anxiety that is amazed not merely at being, but at being in this particular world where there are entranceways and words and playing cards and electric writing upon the translucence of the night.
In case you were wondering, ontological means "relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being." The world of Ulysses is so fantastic, so all-encompassing, and often so overwhelming - I found it useful to bring a guide, and a dictionary. Reading Borges' impressions makes me anxious to return to that world, though, and wander down those elusive streets again.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

'The Birth of Feeling'

Feelings are not as old as time. Just as there was a first instant when someone rubbed two sticks together to make a spark, there was a first time joy was felt, and a first time for sadness. For a while, new feelings were being invented all the time. Desire was born early, as was regret. When stubbornness was felt for the first time, it started a chain reaction, creating the feeling of resentment on the one hand, and alienation and loneliness on the other. It might have been a certain counterclockwise movement of the hips that marked the birth of ecstasy; a bolt of lightning that caused the first feeling of awe. Or maybe it was the body of a girl named Alma. Contrary to logic, the feeling of surprise wasn't born immediately. It only came after people had enough time to get used to things as they were. And when enough time had passed, and someone felt the first feeling of surprise, someone, somewhere else, felt the first pang of nostalgia.

It's also true that sometimes people felt things and, because there was no word for them, they went unmentioned. The oldest emotion in the world may be that of being moved; but to describe it - just to name it - must have been like trying to catch something invisible.

(Then again, the oldest feeling in the world might simply have been confusion.)

Having begun to feel, people's desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It's possible that this is how art was born. New kinds of joy were forged, along with new kinds of sadness: The eternal disappointment of life as it is; the relief of unexpected reprieve; the fear of dying.

Even now, all possible feelings do not yet exist. There are still those that lie beyond our capacity and our imagination. From time to time, when a piece of music no one has ever written, or a painting no one has ever painted, or something else impossible to predict, fathom, or yet describe takes place, a new feeling enters the world. And then, for the millionth time in the history of feeling, the heart surges, and absorbs the impact.

- The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, p. 106-7

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Oktoberfest and party technique

Last week the New World Symphony was reading the Strauss tone poem Don Juan, and MTT said of the opening of that piece: "This is a musical depiction of the desire to party!" Later that week, reading the last movement of Brahms' Second Symphony, he said the exact same thing.

There are a lot of musical depictions of parties, and the New World Symphony is perhaps the orchestra most adept at throwing one. This weekend, in fact, is our biggest party of the year, Oktoberfest, a NWS holiday celebrating the beginning of the season and the massive consumption of beer. And, of course, the somewhat horrific but traditional skewered pig, seen here with bassist James Goode, one of several musicians who guarded it through the night.

Of course, not every New World Symphony musician is a world-class partygoer. I personally have difficulty hanging around at a party for much longer than an hour, so I've developed a technique of taking strategic breaks. I'll go out, mingle, maybe drink something, then retreat into my room for a while to read or listen to music. I suppose it's a little bit pathetic and anti-social, but it helps me sustain myself through the marathon parties which New World tends to throw.

Of course, I couldn't very easily take a party break last weekend when my fellow musicians threw me a surprise birthday party. Most surprise birthday parties are perhaps not such big surprises, but this one was a complete (though very pleasant) shock. I was just getting ready for bed, when oboist Dwight and percussionist Seth knocked on my door and said they had to "show me something." I followed them downstairs, to the pool where a bunch of friends had gathered - Rick had made some brownies, Seth brought some vegetables and dip, James made mojitos, and Aimee and others collaborated on some decorations (above).

A rain storm began just as they finished singing happy birthday, but we quickly moved the party indoors. I was surrounded by everyone and just sort of sat there beaming, not knowing what to say. The other day another bassist, Matt Way, told me, "You must be the happiest bass player alive" - I guess I smile a lot, though I don't think of myself as an unusually happy person. On this occasion, though, I definitely fit that description - I didn't even feel the need to take any breaks.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

NPR's atomic coverage

Two radio stories on John Adams' new opera Doctor Atomic appeared yesterday, and both are available online. The Performance Today story features audio clips and commentary by the composer and by Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker:
The sound of the orchestra in Doctor Atomic is simply in itself one of the most amazing things that I've encountered since I've been a critic. He's moved to some level in terms of his orchestration... It just goes all over the map from extremely dissonant language - which, in general in his career John Adams has been known for backing away from...he's the composer who stepped away from twelve-tone music and atonality and dissonance and rediscovered romanticism and a new kind of tonality. Here he siezes hold of all that "scary modern music style," if you want to call it that, but he uses it in a very particular way and it's constantly juxtaposed with its extreme opposite, some simple and ravishingly lyrical writing with the orchestra often sounding like Debussy, like impressionist music, as well as some dark, glowering chords and textures which are right out of Wagner. And I think this is not just a piece about the atomic bomb but it's really about 20th-century music in a way, all being pulled together and reflected upon.
-Alex Ross, speaking with Fred Child on Performance Today
The sound clips heard in the story are short but intriguing, with a violent energy that reminds me of moments in Harmonielehre. Meanwhile, Robert Siegel's All Things Considered piece is a longer interview with John Adams:
RS: Then there are parts of the libretto that are literally prosaic - they are taken from documented dialogue, if not I guess some government documents as well -

Some actually declassified government documents. Peter Sellers is fond of saying "This is the first time a composer has set a declassified government document!"

And you had to write to that or - how does that work? I hate to ask you the perennial question but -

JA: Music or words?

Yes, exactly - what do you do when you think that well, there's going to be a declassified government document about what happened at Los Alamos now?

As the Italians say, it is always prima la parola - I need the words, and the words are what generate the musical images. I would say that the wonderful thing about writing for the stage is that it stretches me as a composer. You know, I think the big challenge for me was of course the end - I knew that I couldn't compete with George Lucas when it came to putting an explosion of that nature on the stage. In the end I called Richard Rhodes and I asked him, "Would it have been possible to see this bomb from 200 miles away, from Los Alamos where Kitty Oppenheimer was," and I got the message back that they would have known that dawn was coming from the wrong direction, so in the end, at the very last moment, we suddenly retreat 200 miles and you experience the bomb from a great distance, but it's still very, very upsetting and profoundly disturbing in the theater.
He also has some fascinating things to say about opera's relevance to audiences today:
JA: Well, I think opera is in danger of marginalizing itself as a really important and decisive element on the cultural radar screen. I think if opera is actually going to be a part of our lives and if operas are going to express what it means to be alive right now as an American in 2005 with the kinds of anxieties and consciousness that we carry around with us, I think it has to deal with contemporary topics. I think that the atomic bomb in particular is an intensely important theme because the moment that bomb went off we switched - the human species changed from being part of all the other species that were living on this planet to the medium or the instrument through which the Earth potentially could be destroyed.
I love that a modern composer like Adams is able to make a thoughtful, eloquent statement drawing people's attention to the dangers we face today, and not just the seemingly narrow concerns of his art form. Those dangers are largely within ourselves, not from any external source, and I know of few artists who can depict internal conflicts with the intensity and immediacy of John Adams.

Friday, October 07, 2005

eponymous envy

My friend Lydia notified me yesterday about a feature article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, something about people exploiting the Americans with Disabilities Act for financial gain. The article was titled "Rolling Thunder", but what really made it interesting was the name of the author: Matthew Heller.

I realize it is not an uncommon name - still, it's not that common either, and so it's a little shocking to see it in print. I was even more shocked to come across the art work shown here, a piece entitled "Deep Bass" by still another Matthew Heller. You can view his works at the website

As I told Lydia, it's always been one of my fears that somewhere there exists a better version of me - nicer, funnier, more successful and attractive, with a cooler website... I suppose growing up with a twin brother those fears are natural, and I've basically accepted that I may not always be the best expression of my genetic code. Having all these clever, well-spoken, talented Matthew Hellers floating around might be more than I can contend with, though.

It reminds me a little of a competition I had in preschool - there were two Matthews in our class, and for some reason neither of us wanted to be tagged with the awful name "Matt." So we had a competition to see who could spell "Matthew" correctly, and earn the rights to the name. I was very proud to win, and would let no one call me Matt until the 7th grade, when I realized that Matthew was the dorkiest name ever.

I don't know what sort of contest I could arrange with my fellow Matthew Hellers, and I have the dismaying sense that I would probably lose in any case. So for now I guess I'll have to resign myself to being the third-coolest Matthew Heller around. Oops, make that fourth-coolest: I forgot about television filmmaker Matt Heller. His credits include costume designer for a short film called "Doppelganger." If you know of others, please don't tell me - I would like to remain in the top five, at least in my own mind.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Retratos and the perils of publishing

Last weekend I caught the final day of an exhibit of portraits by Latin American artists at the Bass Museum of Art, Retratos. The show includes this self-portrait by Frida Kahlo; from Miami it moves on to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

It is not a huge exhibit - I was able to see the whole thing in less than an hour without feeling too hurried. The portraits seemed extremely thoughtfully and well chosen, though, demonstrating a wide range of artists, styles, and time periods without utterly overwhelming the visitor.

Among my favorites was Diego Rivera's 1946 "Elisa Saldívar de Gutiérrez Roldán". The dancer is elegantly framed by a green curtain and looks off with a curious and pensive gaze. I was struck by how a great portrait can capture so much about a person - not just by the costume and symbolic objects displaying her status, but the pose and facial expression which reveal her inner life. I found myself surrounded by intriguing characters like Elisa, none of whom I could ever hope to meet in person!

Many of the exhibit's most intriguing characters were the artists themselves, such as Lasar Segall, a Lithuanian-born Brazilian represented by "Autorretrato III." He stares suspiciously at the viewer while in the act of drawing, as though to underscore the ambivalent relationship of artist and audience. He seems anxious to protect his creation from our eyes, while at the same time his own gaze seems to strip us bare.

- - - - - -

I've been thinking about the conflicts of artists and their audiences quite a bit the past few days. This was partly inspired by a New Yorker article I read earlier this week about Ernest Hemingway, "Last Words" by Joan Didion. Hemingway instructed his survivors and publishers to destroy many of the letters and unpublished works he left behind at his death - nevertheless, those instructions were largely ignored. Didion writes:
The peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one's own words in print. The risk of publication is the grave fact of life and, even among writers less inclined than Hemingway to construe words as the manifest expression of personal honor, the notion that words one has not risked publishing should be open to "continuing investigation" by "serious students of literature" could not be calculated to kindle enthusiasm.
- The New Yorker, November 9, 1988, p. 76-77
The same holds true of artists and composers - perhaps even bloggers, on occasion! Brahms exemplified the most extreme reaction against this kind of invasion, destroying practically all his sketches and correspondence just before his death. As curious listeners we mourn the loss of those artifacts; yet it seems somehow fitting for an artist who, as Michael Tilson Thomas told our orchestra this morning, always strove to express so much while keeping so much hidden.

Keeping unfinished or unsatisfactory work hidden is much more difficult for artists in the Internet age - one recent example is Fiona Apple, as reported in The New Yorker and on NPR. Following a dispute with her producers at Sony, a preliminary version of her latest album Exraordinary Machine was circulated over the Internet. After hearing both versions, I think the official release is superior in many ways to the pirated album. Even were it not a great deal better, I think the artist deserves that her work be heard (and paid for!) as she intended.

Of course, one of the miracles of a work of art, no matter how carefully and intentionally created, is that once it leaves the artist's hand it takes on a life of its own. In many cases this is a truly beautiful thing - Diego Rivera probably never imagined the millions of souls his painting of Elisa would touch - while in others the unintended consequences are less gratifying. I wrote a post some time ago about an author I met named Robert Spirko, never thinking I might damage his career. A commenter today suggested that was exactly what I did, and so I want to offer Mr. Spirko my most sincere apologies.

Monday, October 03, 2005

blogger / frogger?

Last evening after a nice dinner party and a lot of wine, I was persuaded to go out "frogging" on the Miami Beach golf course. After a rain storm, the frogs come out in droves - actually toads, as reptile loving oboist Dwight explained. Along the way to the golf course we stopped at the Holocaust Memorial, where Dwight showed an almost parental concern for some tadpoles which had inadvertently beached themselves.

enjoying a damp evening in Miami Beach Posted by Picasa

Apparently it is very enjoyable holding a toad in your hands, feeling it puff up to full size and then gradually deflate as it resigns itself to being fondled. Part of the reason I brought my camera along was so I would have an excuse not to handle any frogs personally. Those who did, like Aimee below, seemed to have a great time, though, and I suppose the toads were no worse for it.

the toad is also grinning, just not noticeably Posted by Picasa