Sunday, August 23, 2009

Classical Music Isn't Dead, It Just Needs a Rest

A Los Angeles Sunday Times "Arts and Culture" article gave me pause. It's called Alexy Steele, Classical Underground Impresario by Scott Timberg. In the print edition it's entitled "Mad for Classical".

Here's the story ...

An artist, Alexy Steele, a person who creates new art to earn his living, holds classical music concerts in his loft. He calls the series "Classical Underground". People flock to them. And these events are held up as a way to save classical music.

We are told ...
The Classical Underground series was inspired by Steele repeatedly being told that classical music was dead. "Whenever I get to this point," he exclaims, wheeling back on his chair as he pours more beer, "my ears would pop!"
What bothers me, of course, is that the music presented to these gatherings of creative people is all from the classical canon. Nothing mentioned in the article seems very current or adventurous. The article did refer to one piece by Prokofiev (d.1953) plus some improvisations on Bach.

I'm reminded that one principal reason people love classical music is that it helps them relax. And maybe they need to network at loft parties. All that is easier with familiar, comfortable classics; music which barely changes from one performance to the next. I conclude that in such situations the music is not meant to offer a contemporary perspective. They have other forms of art for that. I fear this music is more like a spa treatment for ones ears.

I remember a story told by Dorrance Stalvey, for many years director of the Monday Evening Concerts back when they were sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of (what else?) Art.

Dorrance programmed a concert of music which living artists played while they worked. He asked them "What do you listen to while you work?" and they told him. He was dismayed how the result was mostly from the baroque and classical periods.

Apparently these contemporary artists - some of them cutting edge - had no clue about contemporary music. I guess that they didn't find any inspiration in modern music. More charitably, maybe listening to something of actual relevance would distract their creative process. It's easier to ignore familiar things when you need to concentrate.

The fact that visually creative people, who I would have thought ought to have an interest in other forms of contemporary creativity, instead prefer a solidly unchanging body of old music, fills me with wonderment. How would they react to musicians who only cared to view paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries?

Thankfully, the world of creative music persists even without visual artists. Another article in the Times, just one day before, outlines local activities of creative music here in the LA area - all of it improvised. Read Finding Jazz in a Cool Place. (The title is "Jazz at a cool spot" in print.)

Alas, nothing in that article speaks about creative classical music either. The words "creative" and "classical" are ideas which aren't mutually supportive. Competing against the classical favorites is not easy.

Maybe we could have a moratorium on the classical warhorses - just stop playing them for ten or fifteen years. There are plenty of other classical-style pieces for people to listen to. Audiences need a chance to catch up.

Meanwhile the words "jazz" and "creative" certainly support one another these days. I wonder if there are visual artists who would like listening to cutting-edge improvisations in their lofts. There are plenty of creative musicians looking for places to perform.


Alexy Steele's Website: High Art Forever

Other Mixed Meters attacks on artists:
Our Culture Overvalues the Wrong Things
What's on David Hockney's iPod?

Other Mixed Meters attacks on the classics:
Everybody Loves Beethoven (Probably)
One Goldberg Equals Twelve Abbas
A Fine Line Between Classical and Parody
Me and Mahler, Me and Iowa
Combining Four Letter Words: Oboe + Blog

Underground Tags: . . . . . .

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Auto Destructive Rag

To the everlasting shame of National Public Radio my interest in offbeat English humor began with their early 1970's broadcasts of the Goon Show. Lately I've been listening to the Goon-inspired I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, a BBC radio show starring John Cleese and no one else familiar to Americans.

One of the hallmarks of the avant-garde in music is the presence of parodies. This is a tradition extending from Punkt contrapunkt (1958) to Einstein on the Fritz (1989). But I'm drawing a blank for avant-garde music parodies in the last two decades. I guess the a.g. is really dead and gone this time.

I was amused by a song in one particular ISIRTA episode (Series 6/11, March 23, 1969) This was a time (as we are reminded recently by the nostalgia industry) of Abbey Road, Woodstock and the Moon Landing. All of those were fictitious events, of course, mere government hoaxes.

But in 1969 The Avant Garde was alive. This is proven by a song called "Auto Destructive Rag". Lavishly orchestrated and Tom Lehrer-esque, only the strangest among us would find it amusing. I liked it.

The singer and composer is uncredited - probably Bill Oddie. You can listen to this clip or read my transcription of the lyrics if you want an even duller, more avant-garde, experience.

And now, here is an urgent reptile joke. What changes color and goes "I say, I say, I say"?

I don't know. What does change color and goes "I say, I say, I say"?

A music hall chameleon!

And now, an educational, meaningful song. Nowadays we have Auto Destructive Art - (Look it up.) - and twelve-tone music. Will these, in a few years time, be looked back on as the good old days. (Who cares?)



Some like jazz
Some like swing
I don't like
Unless it's got the feeling of tomorrow.

Make it wild
Make it weird
With a beard
If it's soft and sweet it went out long ago.

I like music pure and cold and hard
(Like it is)(?)
I'm a member of the avant ga-ga-garde

Play me a tune that has nothing to do with a Melody.
Play me a tune that has nothing to do with a tune.

Give me a suite
with no
rhythm or beat
and no harmony.

Open the thing
and dismember the strings
with a spoon.

Take a good old-fashioned geetar
And plug it in the mains.

Bash it
Beat it
Try to
Eat it
Play me a suite with the brains

Play to me soon
and don't
bother to tune
up your

Oh gimme, oh gimme
That Auto Destructive Rag.

Give me a tune
that has something
to do with

Play me some bump
on a stick
Ah ah - ohohoh

Twentieth century's
full of adventures

I wanna dance
to the
sound of a man
being sick.


Bring it all back!

Everybody's hummin'
A catchy twelve-tone song
No bars
No key
Come on.
Sing along.

[imitates operatic soprano]
oh OH oh.
Ohoh oh.
Oh oh oh Oh oh.

Come on, you're not singing.

Don't you like
Doin' that
Come on
And do with that

Oh gimme, oh gimme
That Auto Destructive Rag.

[over break]
Oh, that's terrible.

Oh they're playing our tune.

The sounds are all around us
It's the music of today [Ahh!]
Scratch it
Scrape it
Wreck it
Rape it
Everybody can play.


Play me a tune
that has
nothing to do
with a Melody.
Oh gimme, oh gimme
That Auto Destructive ...
Oh gimme, oh gimme
That Auto Destructive ...
That Auto Destructive ...

Yoko. Oh! No!!!!!!!!!

Gimme that Auto Destructive Raaaaaaaag.
Da da daa dada dah...

And now it's serial time.

Here's adventure. Here's romance.
Here's a paper and pencil
See if you can do any better.

Reach For the Sky - Part Two (The link to listen to the Goon Show "First Albert Memorial to the Moon" should still work.)
Ice Cream Wishes (Mixed Meters meets the work of Yoko Ono while eating sweet, frozen dairy fat.)
The DOcker Award for Mainstream Avant Garde (BBC related video of nothing much.)

Rag Tags: . . . . . .

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Taggers With Spellcheck

I've been noticing graffiti consisting of whole, correctly spelled English words. Unusual.

Pathos graffiti
Corpse graffiti
Zeal graffiti
Riot graffiti
Ghost graffiti
Click a picture if a larger font size will help you read the words.

Similar silly MM photo essays: Crooked and Musical Merchants and Branches Before Blue and Gloves In the Wild and Fence Shadows and Graffiti Animals of California and Buckets for Babies in Pasadena and HALF GRASSED.

For extra credit use all the words "pathos" "corpse" "zeal" "riot" and "ghost" in a sentence.

For even more credit, identify the word in this picture:

Tagger Boom or Bottom
This is not a test.

Tags: . . . . . .

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Schoenberg In Hell

In my daily "spare moment" I've been reading "A Windfall of Musicians, Hitler's Emigres and Exiles in Southern California" by Dorothy Lamb Crawford. It's now $32.00 at Amazon. (When I purchased it 3 weeks ago, it sold for $25.20 - just enough to qualify for free shipping.)

The book chronicles an era that was completely finished by the time I, an exile from the Middle West, arrived in Southern California. Many things have changed here since Los Angeles received a host of Europe's greatest unwanted creative minds. Some things haven't. A fascinating book.

A Windfall of Musicians by Dorothy Lamb Crawford
I just finished Chapter 6 entitled "Arnold Schoenberg". It deals specifically with Schoenberg's attempts to cope with life on the opposite side of the planet from his known world. I found the story of Schoenberg's exile extremely depressing, even tragic.

Schoenberg, of course, was a talented sincere artist of great psychological extremes. He had keen awareness of the history of music and his own contributions to it. He worked hard to explain the logic of what he did without ever denying the importance of inspiration. And he was an elitist called to point out that the future of all music would indeed reflect his influences.

Here in California he could squeeze out a living only by teaching. He found his American students woefully unprepared. The history of important European art music, like any other history, must have seemed terribly distant to them.

While on the faculty of UCLA he formulated giant plans for a conservatory-like program for all musicians, not just composers. There would even be a school for copyists! Of course his ideas were ignored. His greatest legacy today, unfortunately, seems to be the widespread image of the composer as professor.

Schoenberg's isolation on the West Coast is poignantly highlighted by a quote from his daughter about the regular Sunday afternoon salons he held in his home.
"After a while my father realized that these people were coming here to meet each other and not to talk with him.... Daddy would be sitting ... maybe completely alone, not talking to anyone, and so he decided one time that we weren't going to do this anymore. . . . For a long time on Sunday afternoons at two o'clock . . . we would get in the car and drive around the block . . . while these people came and found no one at home and went away." (p.129)
Schoenberg lived just long enough to see his teachings misinterpreted by composers back in Europe. He was hailed as the creator of a new movement called serialism, a musical reaction to the horrors of war based on very un-Schoenbergian mathematical theories. Crawford writes:
As Schoenberg found European interest in his compositions growing in the postwar period, he wrote, "There is nothing I long for more intensely . . . than that people should know my tunes and whistle them." What happened was the opposite. Leonard Stein commented "Schoenberg was not responsible for the twelve-tone concept taking over. People like [Rene] Leibowitz. . . would come in the late forties and explain his music to him!" (p.131)
All these and other aspects are detailed superbly in Dorothy Crawfords' chapter. To me they seem to describe a man condemned to both great and petty torments, incapable of overcoming either geographical or cultural isolation, unable to oppose the historical forces well beyond his control and unwilling to compromise his own devotion to principle. He found himself in a musical hell where the weather was very very nice. Wouldn't this story make a great novel? Maybe it already has.

These days significant serious music still is not native to Southern California. Talented local musicians go away to make classical careers while Southern California's musical institutions import their heroes from other places. Composers still flock here although not because of political exile. They hope for big industrial paychecks. Most of them probably have an unperformed opera, symphony or string quarter on an old external USB drive somewhere.

Remaining here, even in the age of Internet and discount airfare, means accepting a certain form of isolation. Southern California seems to be a unique place filled with talent and money - but creatively we live somewhere in the absolute elsewhere.

Reading the story of Schoenberg's later life resonated with my own feelings. In life, of course, one picks the best available choice and then lives happily ever after. Still, it is only natural to occasionally lament the lesser luminosity of the local grass. And it is revealing to discover that even the most influential musicians might have gazed across a similar fence.

The cover picture above shows (L to R) Otto Klemperer (very tall), Prinz Hubertus von Loewenstein, Arnold Schoenberg (very short) and Ernst Toch (holding a small dog).

Other more or less related Mixed Meters posts:

Exile Tags: . . . . . . . . .