16 March 2007

Chiara String Quartet: Club Scene at ‘The Brick’

Chiara String Quartet

N  o holds barred! Chamber music in ANY chamber! The Chiara Quartet is forging a new path for the string quartet. The Chiara transforms the audience experience from mere listening to active engagement with the music.”
  — poster for Chiara String Quartet gig at The Brick, KCMO music bar

CMT: Look at this SRO crowd, 120 people in this 1,600 square-foot downtown bar! The Chiaras are packing them in!

Floorplan, The Brick, 1727 McGee, KCMO
DSM: [ . . . listens; . . . orders another drink; looks at wrist watch: it’s 10:15 p.m. ] Okay, let’s examine this first set. How was it put together? Here’s some of the playlist that the Chiara just did.
  • JEFFERSON FRIEDMAN, String Quartet No. 3, First Movement (rhythmic)
  • BÉLA BARTÓK, String Quartet No. 4, Last Movement (aggressive, fast)
  • PIERRE JALBERT, “Icefield Sonnets,” Second Movement (austere, cold, slow)
  • GABRIELA LENA FRANK, “Leyendas” and “Tarqueada” (South American folk)
  • W. A. MOZART, Quartet K. 590, Fourth Movement (joyous and syncopated)
  • PAUL HINDEMITH, Quartet No. 3, Slow Movement (mesmerized, detached)
  • JOHANNES BRAHMS, Adagio in B-flat (romantic, warm, reverent)
  • ZHOU LONG, Song of the Ch'in (emphatic, plucked, wavered, scooped emulation of Pipa-like/Sanxian-like sounds on normal viols)
  • LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN, Große Fuge (edgy, huge, 200 years later still feels avant-garde)
  • PRINCE, “Let’s Go Crazy”

CMT: This is lyrical, really inspired playing. And Chiara members were “feeding” on the excitement they transmitted into this packed club, which comes back 10X bigger from the crowd to the tiny stage. No inhibitions. And yet nice control. It’s not common to see artists this physical, so palpably enthusiastic in conventional classical music performance settings. The flow of energy from the ensemble to the audience is like a “Noreaster” or a tropical depression—it picks up more energy as the storm moves out over the warm sea of people, and moves back onto the stage even stronger, a “Category 5”!

DSM: Yes, the Chiara Quartet members are very responsive. And the club audience here is very appreciative. The publicity in advance of the Chiara’s gig had been good: local music critic, Paul Horsley, had a 1,000 word piece on them in last Sunday’s paper. One thousand words is a huge amount of space for a single article on classical music performance in a U.S. daily paper. But the crowd here is not just turning out to hear something unusual they read about. This is not a ‘curious’ crowd hoping to be amused. It’s a ‘hungry’ crowd, expecting their ears and minds to be nourished!

CMT: The piece by Zhou Long, Visiting Professor of Composition at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, was fantastic! Very warmly accepted by these springjacketed and bluejeaned people. I think the Ying Quartet also does this piece regularly, as part of their ‘Musical Dim Sum’ program.

DSM: The Zhou Long is totally accessible, and anyone wary of Chinese music need have no fears. Complex but approachable work, this Chinese and Western music fusion.

CMT: Did you notice? During the playing, this bar audience is respectfully quiet. Not totally or obsessively quiet. Yes, drinks rising to meet lips; the occasional icecube sound against highball glass. But quietude during the playing, borne out of fascination, not decorum. Quietude, out of “What happens next?”; out of “I’ve never heard anything like this! Ever!” amazement; out of rapt absorption in experiencing music played in this way.

DSM: They’re getting thousands and thousands of ‘plays’ of their MP3s on the Chiara MySpace page.

CMT: Well, what do you need to carry this chamber-music-in-bars thing off? How can other quartets or chamber artists do club gigs like this, and be reasonably assured of a success?

DSM: First, you need programming and acoustical engineering savvy about the club venues. That’s something that the artists/ensembles tend not to have, unless they've gone to school at Berklee or places like that.

CMT: You need the sense of a re-mix DJ. You need a producer. You need a brilliant engineer. A chamber ensemble can’t afford to hire those. So, ideally, at least one of the musicians needs to be serious and experienced in those aspects. You need all of these skills, rolled into one person. Not to say that’s impossible. But it’s going to be pretty unusual. A virtuoso musician is rare enough. A virtuoso musician who’s a recording engineer and technical geek is rare as hens’ teeth.

DSM: Yup. But there are crazed geek polymaths in all walks of life, geekish renaissance persons of all ages. This is no different. And, what if this new-music, new-venue thing takes off in the next few years? If it does, if it’s really successful and chamber music ensembles and the classical establishment all see it being successful, then you’ll see more Berklee-type programs in other schools’ music departments and conservatories—to grow these skills in their students. They only hire faculties and build new programs when there’s an unmet need to fill, when there’s clear-and-present demand.

CMT: What else do you need? You need really decent monitors and miking and amps. You don’t want to suffer with any old junk that your garden-variety rock group puts up with. You’ve got to have sound equipment that’s capable of picking up every tiny, subtle sound and ornament clearly. What do you see up there on the stage where Chiara’s sitting? A $1,000 boom mic next to each player, plus dual Shure SM7B mics on the stand in the center between them . . .

DSM: You need rock-solid music stands and chairs with rubber feet that aren’t going to slip off the edge of a tiny stage. You need high-intensity LED micro goose-neck lamps on your music stand—ones that aren’t depending on house AC power to shine enough light on your music.

CMT: You need jazzband type music folders that can stand up to hard use on the road. You need to put plastic tabs on the edges of your music, to enable you to confidently turn pages—dog-earing the page corners as you would do for conventional concert-hall performance won’t cut it. You need to have some approach for preventing the draft—coming from the club’s A/C system or overhead ceiling fans that the bar may have spinning at high RPMs—keep it from blowing your music or flipping your pages.

DSM: You need to choose a wardrobe that’s flexible and designed for insuring your comfort—with pieces you can put on if the A/C is cranked down really cold, and with pieces you can take off if the crowd is packed in and the place is really hot. If you’re a pianist, you need to get there early-early, to check out and, if possible, fix whatever funkiness may be plaguing the instrument up there, if it’s not your own. Jazz musicians are used to dealing with these contingencies, taking them in stride without a fuss.

CMT: To return to the earlier comment, you want a house-music artist. If no member of the ensemble has a knack for this, doesn’t have an innate sense for this, then you need to enlist the help of a friend or collaborator who does have this gift and expertise. You want highly crafted playlists/mixes. The mixes mustn’t pander to the “obvious” next chart if a more exotic alternative is the one that’s capable of generating mass-bliss or excitement on a club-wide level.

DSM: You need to innovate radically. You need the mix to stay faithful to clubbing ideals – awe-inspiring breakdowns, huge rushes of energy, frenzy-inducing sonatas. You want to emulate the Ministry of Sound in London but with a pure chamber music repertoire. You want some familiar pieces, but you want radical new music, and you want “Ah ha!” pairings of disparate pieces, where you draw parallels that nobody’s heard before and that the composers would never have acknowledged, even if they lived concurrently.

CMT: Is Chen Yi here?

DSM: Haven’t seen her yet. Did you know that the Chiara Quartet was recently awarded the Guarneri Quartet Residency Award for artistic excellence by Chamber Music America. They are only the second group to receive this honor.

CMT: What else? You need a very good console surface, a front-of-house (FOH) rack housing the system's mix engine. You need a Stage Rack with recallable, remote-controlled preamps, and a multichannel digital snake.

DSM: Your engineer needs to keep a clean house. If your console has plug-ins installed that you know you definitely won’t need, disable them from the Options/Plug-ins list, so you won't get any “surprises” during a set. You want to keep your input faders around the unity-gain (0 dB) mark to prevent clipping.

CMT: The P.A. does not automatically or magically manage the room’s sound and, as such, sound system designers must include the room’s characteristics in their audio equation. Does the space have an echo? Does it sound boomy? The Brick is box-like, boomy. Do you remember what it was like at 09:00 p.m., before the place filled up? The engineer behind us was tremendously busy fixing that. He was back and forth to the stage 6 times before he was satisfied with the mic placements.

DSM: Does the sound system envelop the audience member as if the gallery is actually in the second row of tables? For acoustical and sound system consultants, matching the right rig with a venue’s sonic signature—and the playlist that will be played in that space on that night—is imperative. Otherwise, the audience will never hear the music in the way it was intended.

CMT: It’s no different, really, than a studio engineer’s craft. The studio mix must render okay in whatever playback medium the consumer listens on. So the studio engineer must choose the gear and the settings and effects and the acoustical design so that the energy generated onstage renders adequately in the room and musically meets the needs of the crowd.

DSM: Are there issues with maintaining sight lines in a place like this? The Brick has that little stage up there and the engineer raised up on a deck behind our booth here. Does the room exhibit a long reverberation time? There’s this little dog-leg in the back of The Brick, the path to the toilets. There’s also the “neighbor factor.” Is the club venue located in an urban or suburban environment where the sound from passing city buses or subways is intruding? You don’t want to be a string quartet and arrive and discover that fact 20 minutes before you go on! I don’t care if you’ve got a kilowatt of amps and monitors all over the place. You do not want that.

CMT: You may want a trellis to suspend the loudspeakers. A string quartet may want to talk with their local studio people, to get advice on this. A very small club—like Munchies in Houston used to be with their string quartets every Friday and Saturday 25 years ago—they didn’t need it. But in this black box that is The Brick, it’d be nice if they had a trellis—for visual as well as acoustic reasons.

DSM: You want a sound system that delivers lingering, enveloping sound characteristics with supplemental loudspeakers—one that can simulate reflections and reverberation using digital delay-line effects. Something like an Electro-Voice X-Array as part of a distributed reinforcement system, which provides direct or frontal sound, delivering clarity to everybody in the audience. A rock audience wouldn’t give a care. But a chamber music audience in a club would care. You want them to be thrilled, blown away!

CMT: You want to fire the acoustic energy at the listener and not outside the area. The violinists in Chiara are doing fine. I’d like to hear a bit more viola, more cello. Maybe they’ll tweak with that in the second set.

DSM: In addition, the geometry of the tables seating arrangement here isn’t as conducive to the horizontal coverage pattern of the monitor array they have, such as it is. I think I’d want to visit with the club owner ahead of time to adjust the tables a bit, if I were the engineer.

CMT: Hardly matters, though, with this packed-in, standing-up crowd, does it!? Whatever they did an hour ago has long since been undone and redone by the pumped-up club-goers shifting chairs and tables around.

DSM: I was thinking more of the musicians’ needs, not the audience. The front row of tables is too close for comfort, if it were me. The bar’s got a standard 8-foot ceiling, and the stage they’re on is a riser about 12 inches off the floor—and you can’t do anything about that. But the resulting low ceiling height on the stage has a detrimental impact on the acoustic environment onstage from the performers’ point of view/hearing. You need to give ‘em a bit more space in front of them. And you ought to have at least a couple of small monitors pointed back at them so they can hear each other better, given that the ceiling above them is so low.

CMT: You don’t want an excessive amount of sound being held onstage that would reduce the clarity of sound as picked up by microphones either. Actually, the Chiara’s engineer has achieved a nice, clean signal in his mics. Ideally, you’d like orchestra-type risers that allow the musicians to feel the vibrations created by cellos and bass instruments. A floating floor with rigid interconnections and resilient materials to maximize cross-stage vibrations. But no bar can afford that. Not even Sculler’s in Boston.

DSM: Chiara—if they do this routinely in NYC—maybe could get their favorite club to install a Yamaha Active Field Control [AFC] system to control acoustical conditions based on the ambient room properties by using the system’s acoustical feedback to balance the room. You want to tune the room to be as neutral and quiet as possible—get your reverb time down below 2 milliseconds—knowing that you can increase it to whatever setting you want—for the Zhou Long or other atmospheric pieces. If you need to damp it, you know you can damp it with a vengeance, once you’ve quieted the room down with AFC.

CMT: What if you were building a brand new club? What would you say to your architect, knowing that you want to book amplified chamber music gigs in your club?

DSM: First, make sure your architect has an acoustic engineer on-staff or available. Get Johns Manville ceiling treatments for their acoustical value. Put Johns Manville soundboard or other studio-grade stuff on all the walls. Soften the floors with some industrial-grade cork or rubber—something acoustically good that’s durable and that can be swabbed clean night after night.

CMT: The wall and ceiling shapes allow sound to be reflected across the stage, providing musicians with cross-stage communication. I’d ask the architect to put inlay, raised-panel things on some of the walls. Plan ahead so that you can swap out acoustic baffling in some pocket-door-like wall recesses if you need to—you could motorize those, like you would conference-room projection screens.

DSM: No trees or water features or free-standing partitions or other visual fluff. None of that velvety stage draping, sheesh. Techno cloth-backed seating with quiet Teflon slides on the chair legs.

CMT: You gonna buy one of Chiara’s “New Voice Singles” label CDs over there?

DSM: Sure! What else? You know why this thing is cooking tonight?
  • Every number has a “story” to help the audience get into it.
  • Each piece announced from the stage. Jonah and his colleagues are really personable!
  • When playing two sets, the second set could get away with a complete 4-movement string quartet piece, but with applause between movements entirely okay. I have to admit I prefer instead this eclectic playlist like the first set we just heard.
  • The playlist is altered dynamically, based on intensity and strength of audience feeling or artist mood.

CMT: Who else could do this most readily do you think? Manny Ax? Jeremy Denk? Eric Kim? Susan Graham?

DSM: Orion String Quartet? Miró String Quartet? Turtle Island String Quartet? Kronos Quartet? Jupiter Quartet? Parker Quartet?

CMT: In Italy, there’s Pierrot Lunaire’s Gudrun. There’s Opus Avantra. In Germany, you have Krautrock bearing the marks of Stockhausen’s composing techniques leading to many adventures, not all of them very listenable. The ensemble, Bartock, and some others have chamber music roots, although their members would not be thought of as first-rank virtuosic by any means.

DSM: Well—wherever the opportunity arises, whenever we get a chance—this bears repeating! The audience is loving it. And the Chiara’s, too. More, please! Thank you, Brick! Thank you, Chiara!

Chiara String Quartet
T  his idea of a string quartet in a club: Is it working?” [SRO crowd roars ‘Yes’; exuberant clapping continues]
  —  Jonah Sirota, Violist, Chiara String Quartet gig at The Brick, KCMO music bar

15 March 2007

Fontijn’s ‘Desperate Measures’: Confabulating a Plausible Bembo

 La Donna Musicale and Claire Fontijn

It may come as something of a surprise to learn that at least four of the Venetian students of Francesco Cavalli were women: the singer-composer Barbara Strozzi; Betta Mocenigo; Fiorenza Grimani; and the young singer Antonia Padoani.”

  —  Claire Fontijn

CMT: It’s a popular thing in publishing and in movies these days: fan fiction, speculative extension of what’s known. Star Trek’s James T. Kirk when he was at the Academy, in a way that Roddenberry would never have conceived. Taking liberties with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The wildly speculative Da Vinci Code. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, extended ad infinitum; episodes addressed to a seemingly endless demand.

DSM: The sequel-prequel approach is natural, I suppose—for authors and for publishers and marketers. You have a ‘brand’ or ‘franchise’—a ready-made, existing market; people already familiar with the subjects and themes; who find them appealing; who identify with them, and who buy them—and you just continue it.

CMT: The last ten years has seen an explosion of this because of the Web. Anybody who wants to write fan fiction can now do it, with almost zero investment other than their time. And, increasingly, some originators of the intellectual property are relinquishing certain rights to their characters or works—at least in idioms that they themselves do not intend to pursue. That was the subject of one of the pieces on the NPR Morning Edition program this morning . . .

DSM: It’s surprising, though, to see instances of this when the phenomenon touches some of the more arcane dimensions of classical music and early music. We are not astonished to see a film like Amadeus appear, but would we be astonished to see Claire Fontijn’s biography of Antonia Padoani Bembo made into a feature film?

CMT: Well, it would be exotic, I admit. But Fontijn’s book and the accompanying CD are juicy. Bembo was a larger-than-life figure. She was blocked by the church from divorcing her abusive husband and fled from Venice to Paris, where she worked as a composer at the court of Louis XIV. There are a number of aspects that would resonate with feminists in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. ‘Desperate Measures’ is bona fide biography—fastidiously respecting historical details and the preserved correspondence of Antonia Padoani Bembo; all the extant details—as befits Fontijn’s role as Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Music at Wellesley College in Boston. But the book is a page-turner! It reads like an A.S. Byatt book. I can see that ‘Desperate Measures’ could readily be turned into a successful screenplay. This book is not the mere publication of Fontijn’s 1994 doctoral thesis!

Claire Fontijn, Venice
DSM: Antonia Padoani Bembo fled the abusive situation and had to leave her children in Venice, is that right? Her rapport with Louis XIV, according to Fontijn, caused Louis XIV to change his views of women generally—not just women as composers, but women as equals of men in all respects?

CMT: She lived with Louis XIV’s sponsorship in a flat near the church of Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle. But her situation was still precarious and highly dependent upon Louis XIV—both financially and socially. So don’t get carried away with your notions of ‘equal’ or Louis XIV’s progressiveness. Bembo continued to worry about people revealing where she lived. The scanty correspondence that Bembo left gives us few factual clues as to why this concern persisted, years after her departure from Venice.

DSM: But there is no evidence of paranoia or other psychiatric issues. ‘Desperate Measures’ is perfect—very Byatt-like in its portraying the backstory of Fontijn’s own sleuthing to deduce the motives and causes behind Bembo’s life!

CMT: So Fontijn takes her thesis and wants to write a story, wants to make it accessible to a large audience. Perhaps more to the point, she gets further and further into researching Antonia and discovers a story so rich and multi-faceted that it’s just begging for her to write it. It’s been nibbling at her ankles for ten years now, keeping her up at night with promises of great literature yet to be, and distracting her when she has all sorts of other commitments at Wellesley and with La Donna Musicale and other groups she performs with. She already knows the characters—Louis XIV and many others of them are canon. She embellishes with a few of her own, given that they’ve probably been talking in her head since she began her doctoral program. And she’s got a Creativity Demon. Good for her! The story has legs! It practically writes itself!

DSM: So she writes it down. Fontijn writes what she knows about Bembo’s story, and she writes the way that works for her. She writes best when she does each scene in order, rather than skipping ahead and back and forth—although the Byattish historian in Fontijn does do some chapters that provide character background and context. Some of my writing friends work well when they write the dialogue first, then go back and add descriptions. Some people write the last paragraph or last page, then go to the beginning and see if they get to that point. Some people—my friend Teresa, for example, writes an outline and religiously works from that.

CMT: Plots are very important to this process, and that is something that Fontijn does very well. It must amaze her editor at Oxford University Press! While you can write an academic monograph without a plot (PWP = Plot? What Plot?), if you’re addressing a broad audience and you aspire to selling a screenplay, then you probably want to start with a good plot! In fact, that’s probably the nature of Fontijn’s Creativity Demon: a plot that just won’t go away.

DSM: Or maybe she just had a scenario. What’s the difference? A scenario is “Bembo, displaced from her kids, composes her heart out.” A plot is, “Bembo goes to Paris where she is transformed into a prominent social and political figure, threatening in many ways to elements of the Ancien Regime, and has to adjust to her new lifestyle in the middle of negotiating a trade agreement.” Maybe ten years ago she couldn't tell someone else what the rising and falling action is, or what the goal is that the character Antonia Bembo is seeking. But incubate it awhile! Maybe Fontijn needed to take ten years before she could figure it out for herself.

CMT: No, I think that, given Fontijn’s careful scholarly publications and journal articles, she clearly knew what she had from the start. But what did it mean to her, in 2001, when her story was already over 1 megabyte of juicy story and still wasn’t anywhere near finished? Well, she clearly wasn’t spending too much time going over the same ground. And she wasn’t struggling to stitch fragments together. She realized that this wasn’t just a static ‘plight of baroque woman’ scenario! She had an honest-to-god Plot! She had Antonia and Louis. Are they spending a lot of time thinking long paragraphs about their feelings for each other? She breaks away from the lead characters for a bit and works on a subplot. No, not just one! A second, a third, a fourth plot, related to the main plot. All of these plots may come together at the end (in many good stories, they do, and in many, they remain separate like in real life).

DSM: And in fact this helps to focus her main plot once she’s distanced herself, even if just for a scene or two. Claire Fontijn teaches courses on Early Music, Opera, Women Composers, and German Lieder. She has appeared as a singer and baroque flutist with La Donna Musicale of Boston, the Washington DC Bach Consort, and Le Concert Spirituel of Paris, among other ensembles. Her students must count themselves very lucky!

D   esperate Measures stands midway between scholarly work and novel—with the rigor of the former and the readability of the latter.”

  —  Giovanni Zanovello, Padua, Italy

Desperate Measures

13 March 2007

My Lives / Writing as Resistance: Journaling Classical Music

Man Ray, Self Portrait

W  riting autobiography allows me to open up a vein of self-scrutiny, to peer through the slippery veil of what you call ‘character’—to define my own peculiar subjectivity.”
  — Patricia Foster

CMT: A writer’s always preoccupied with gathering and prioritizing the material that will be retained in what she/he is writing. If there’s a nucleus of this, it inevitably permeates the writer’s world. It’s like beach sand—it gets into everything, no matter what the Editor’s instructions are. These things become virtual necessities, inevitabilities. Necessaries.

DSM: It’s a hammer looking for a nail. It’s in the DNA. It just has to come express itself. Your peculiar fascination with Deleuze and Lacan and Derrida—I’m sure you can’t help it. Is that what you’re saying?

CMT: I’m just saying: there are latent ideas and resonances, and these conversations we have are just triggers for them. These conversations are just occasions for synthesizing the observations that are, up until the moment they emerge from our mouths, just glimmers, little scintillations. They happen regardless of whether we’re together. But I’d never remember them if we didn’t set ourselves to conversing and making these little transcripts for each other.

DSM: Well, thank you. Gratifying occasions—to capture some sparks that might kindle something bigger, in someone else who happens to see them online. Maybe something more for us, as well. The minor chore of assembling the lists of links as we do here is at least potentially useful to others. Even when we don’t necessarily receive comments on a piece, we can see the click-throughs to the Amazon and Arkiv and other links at the bottom. We have a pretty good idea of what readers are finding interesting or useful . . .

CMT: For me, the moment when I realized what my favorite conception of art was, was in December 1995, a month after Gilles Deleuze died at age 70—young. I had read his several books long before then. But it was the occasion of his dying that led me to re-visit what I knew of him and his philosophy of music. I recognized immediately that he was the embodiment of my subject. In adopting the stance that he had put forward, I could at last be dealing with the material and the priorities that were ‘necessary’ to me. And I was grateful that he had bothered to write as much as he had.

DSM: And Derrida was and is like that for me. He lived to 74 years of age, young still—died in 2004. The world has moved on quite a bit, moved on very quickly. His writing, for me, was a wonderful tapestry, a web of loyalties and enmities. He became my vehicle and my guide to what had always been waiting at the back of my mind. He didn’t especially write about music theory, yet his philosophical writing consistently served as a prism through which my own thinking about music was—and is—refracted.

CMT: Writing is always about problem-solving. Whether in fiction, biography, memoir, scholarly exposition, whatever—certain questions have to be resolved. I have never written fiction, and essays or memoir may be as close as I ever get to it. No more than a biography or a novel is memoir true-to-life. Because life is just one thing after another. The writer’s job is to find the narrative shape in unruly Life and tell the story. Not to serve the Truth, but just to serve the Story. There really is no other choice. A reporter is in service to the Fact. A eulogist is in service to the Family of the Dead. But, in general, a regular writer serves only the Story. There really are no other competing claims.

DSM: That’s a ruthless perspective! You make it sound cold or detached, commodified.

CMT: Well, no. A writer who cannot separate herself/himself from the charaters in the narrative and see them within the full spectrum of their human qualities degenerates into sentimentality. If you’re writing about music, you degenerate into uncritical promotion. Bathos does no honor to anybody, and it sure doesn’t sell papers! It surely doesn’t attract repeat visitors to a blog!

Music77, Stockholm
DSM: The right voice in which to write—the voice in which I talk to you—comes to me from my music teachers. It comes to me from Bruce Pearson, Dick Whitbeck, Herb Pilhofer, Dan Tetzlaff. None of them interested in exotic theory. But each of them tenacious about detail and nuance.

CMT: But you’re extemporizing with me on topics that can’t be informed by anything you did with those people 35 years ago! You’re not spinning memoirs in these conversations!

DSM: What is it that we learn, though, from other people? I inherited from them a tenacious, curious disposition. I absorbed their pedagogical approach and made it my own. It’s not ‘memoir’ but autobiography, what we’re doing here. The moment we put fingers to keyboard, the essential nature of Life—the random one thing after another—is displaced. No matter how ambiguous you try to make the conversation/story, no matter how many ends you leave hanging, no matter how faithfully you capture our oral detours and dead-ends—in print it’s still an objectified thing, packaged, decorated.

CMT: Everything that happens between us is not in the stories in this blog. How could it be? Memory is selective; storytelling insists on itself. Even the long, diffuse posts are only a poor simulacrum of the real deal. There’s nothing in these posts that didn’t happen. They’re edited, but they are all true.

DSM: Shades of true anyhow. Your truth; my truth. The provocation’s legitimate, so long as we don’t interfere with or libel anybody. The process we follow may be a bit chaotic, but it’s not unlike Eric Newby or other travel writers. We respond to the events, writing, performances, and recordings we encounter, such as they are—and to each other. If the ideas about music that occur to us had instead stayed in our heads or in a drawer, what value would they have? None. So, instead, we indulge ourselves here, engage in some constructive resistance, discover some new paths, reveal some of what’s necessary to our inadvertent autobiographies or travelogues, and find new friends and kindred spirits along the way. We don’t have the privilege of making a living writing about music like professional critics and reviewers and academics do. But this is a passable substitute!

CMT: In a 2005 study, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 11 million Americans have created blogs, and more than 25 percent of Internet users read them. The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 44% of U.S. Internet users have contributed material to the online commons. And that was 2 years ago! Netroots infancy!

Music77, Stockholm

Charles Rosen: Journaling Classical Music, Musical Ambition

Charles Rosen

M usic is not just sound or even significant sound. There has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard.”
  — Charles Rosen

DSM: Years ago, I picked up a copy of one of Charles Rosen’s collections of essays, Frontiers of Meaning. To me, that was true journalism. It was other things as well, of course.

CMT: His recordings are spectacular. But he writes in an irrepressible way—which I imagine is what makes you say it is true journalism. He holds a Ph.D. in French Literature from Princeton University, and has taught at Harvard, Oxford University, and he’s emeritus now from the University of Chicago. But the way he communicates is in terms of insatiable curiosity. It isn’t ‘mere’ journalism, and it surely isn’t an academician’s prose. It’s Journalism writ large!

DSM: I especially admire his regular contributions to The New York Review of Books. Those are wonderful examples of reaching across market segments in an exciting way.

CMT: Despite his penchant for detail, Rosen’s accounts of how music works are highly readable—any interested amateur musician will be captivated by them. He contends that because music has no fixed meaning, the only conclusion we can reach is that music makes sense when we are comfortable with it. That’s something of a populist notion, don’t you think?

DSM: Rosen’s demonstrations with familiar passages from works by Beethoven and Chopin and Hadyn and Mozart are particularly accessible for general audiences. He argues that, because each new style of music creates its own meaning, methods of musical analysis must constantly change. This is not a relativistic or permissive statement. Instead, it’s an invitation for listeners to engage and make their own assessments over time. It reminds me in some ways of how expert sommeliers and oenologists talk with people who are new to wine. By way of example, Rosen shows how Beethoven’s music—which often perplexed his contemporaries—gave rise to analytical methods that are localized to the works of classical composers. Its like a disquisition on wine by Hugh Johnson . . .

Charles Rosen
CMT: You’re right. Despite his virtuosity, he’s a populist at heart. For example, in his 03-NOV-2005 review of Robert Philip’s book, Performing Music in the Age of Recording, Rosen noted that, at one time in the U.S., performing music at the piano was, like breakfast and dinner, a routine part of life at home. Yes, more exceptionally, music could be heard in public places. But the public realm was essentially a complement to the private one. The plight of chamber music—and the arts in general—can be traced to the progressively passive, ‘spectator’ culture in western society, where the majority of people do not actively ‘do’ anything. They just watch ready-made productions and consume things. There are those who would chalk it all up to the erosion of arts and music training in the schools. But it’s more than that. The situation that the arts are currently in has more, I think, to do with the appalling passiveness of many people.

DSM: To me, Rosen’s discussion of the physical factors involved in performance are the most illuminating—and maybe the most inspiring. Rosen’s expository writing is as exciting as listening to a star athlete or coach explain sports technique—Rosen’s descriptions of the movements of the fingers, arms, feet, and torso that introduce dance and gesture into the pianist’s interpretations. He comments on the sublimation of technique and how the sublimation affects how the score appears to have been interpreted, at the time the listener perceives it. Possibly he would be offended by this, but Rosen’s play-by-play commentary is consummate sport journalism . . .

CMT: He spends a lot of time detailing the effects of a hall’s acoustics, too—the audience interruptions, the particulars of the instrument played—how all of these affect a performance. In that respect, the play-by-play mimics a classic sports announcer, explaining to the audience the good luck and the bad.

DSM: In recordings, a pianist tends to strive instead for perfection because a recorded performance is ‘forever’. But Rosen’s fastidiousness is not obsessive. His writing—like his playing—is generous, as though he fully expects to live to perform another day. That open, cavalier posture back-handedly enables each piece to breathe.

CMT: Yes, and his writing is the same. His is a special brand of lucid, persuasive prose. Spellbinding reading, even if you’re not a pianist. A wonderful example that’s a worthy model for any music writer to emulate.

DSM: Charles Rosen recently gave a talk on “Musical Ambition in the Eighteenth Century” at the Yale Whitney Humanities Center on March 1. And this Saturday (17-MAR) he is performing at Walnut Creek. And he will give a talk at 11:45 a.m. Sunday (18-MAR) in San Francisco as well.

Charles Rosen