Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Sweets of the Many Outweigh the Bleats of the Few - or the One.

Wow, I just spent may too much time trying to improve a link for yesterday's post. There are seemingly dozens of YouTube videos that depict Red Sox fans singing Sweet Caroline, but they all suffer from the same affliction - someone standing too close to the camera stands out too much, and those someones always sound horrendous. If you haven't experienced it (on a good night - sometimes the fans are off), you'll just have to trust me. So I'm just leaving the link I used yesterday, but the larger point is that this experience can't be captured from one little cameraphone microphone - it would be like trying to record one of those monster piano concerts where 10+ pianos are played at once. Score one for live performance. Even more remarkable is how a consensus emerges in spite of so much tone-deaf singing, but you really can't get experience that on YouTube either. Score one for the miraculous filtering abilities of the mind.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sweet Caroling Time

Since the classical blogosphere is preoccupied with nothing so much as the endangered status of classical music, and since I try to teach a history of Western art music to non-music majors, I find myself thinking a lot about engagement - what it is, when it is, why it is that music pulls (or fails to pull) a listener into its orbit. There's nothing I want more from teaching such a class than to have students be drawn in, pulled apart, tugged at, etc by what they hear. This also has me naturally thinking more about other engaging subjects, especially as I've been more preoccupied with box scores than Bach's scores at this time of year.

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to be at Game 2 of the World Series which, remarkably, is now over after the Sox finished the sweep last night. (Yeah!) The whole experience of being at the game was spectactular, largely because of the sense of occasion; but aside from the excellent game, a couple of things stood out. First, walking through a huge Fenway souvenir store before the game, it's astounding to see how many people who've already paid unimaginable amounts for tickets are deliriously looking for ways to part with more cash in order to get the latest team merchandise. I saw a kid who didn't seem too enthusiastic about the options have his father (already holding lots of other stuff) suggest that he pick up one of the $50 replica jerseys hanging nearby. The kid wasn't even asking for it - the father wanted to spend that money! I'm not saying classical music should expect exactly this kind of engagement from its fans, but it's extraordinary to see what happens when people feel like they're part of the the experience and not just passive viewers.

Speaking of not being passive viewers... It was a terrific game, and I remember a lot about the gameplay fondly, but the other thing that's stuck with me the most is the crowd's singing of Sweet Caroline. This is now a cherished Fenway tradition - to sing along with Neil in the middle of the 8th inning. (If Wikipedia can be trusted, this song is also a singalong favorite at other sporting events, including English soccer matches, but I think Boston's taken it to a new level.) It's not a great song, but it turns out to be perfect for this sort of situation.
The song begins in a lazy, low-key way and then features the simplest of melodic ascents ("Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching meee, touching youuuuuu") that leads up to the big chorus. What's spellbinding is the way the song sneaks up on the crowd, especially if the crowd has been cheering wildly, and the infection spreads through the "hands, touching hands part" until probably more than half of the 36,000 fans are belting out "Sweet Car-o-line, Ah, Ah, Ah, Good times never seemed so good, SO GOOD, SO GOOD, SO GOOD." My ten years as a church music director reminded me again and again that we're not really a singing culture, so even when the music is SO BAD, it's fantastic to hear this many people singing together.
I don't get to that many games, but I remember at least once when the PA system shut off the music halfway through because the game was resuming, but the fans managed to keep singing several more lines a cappella. That was really amazing. So this time, caught up in the euphoria of a fantastic game (Papelbon had just picked Matt Holliday off first in a huge play), I even sang along. And let me emphasize again, I'm no fan of Neil Diamond. I mean, he did this! (John Rutter fans may be equally scandalized by this.) But, this is just another indicator of how music is not just the music - it's also what the performers/listeners bring to it and what the Red Sox fans do with Sweet Caroline is pretty sweet.
Two other quick tangential notes from the mouth of my 8-yr-old daughter. Last weekend she had a friend over for a playdate. I was talking about baseball, and the following conversation ensused:
DAUGTHER (to friend): Who's your favorite Red Sox player?
FRIEND: I like Johnny Damon. He's not on the team anymore, though. [Actually, he's been a hated Yankee for two years now, but girls still dig the long hair he sported when he was one of ours.]
DAUGHTER: (sympathetic tone) Yeah, I used to like Johnny Damon too; (voice brightens) but then I found Mike Lowell.
Somehow she managed to sound just like someone on a commerical for detergent. "I used to think spotless whites weren't possible. But then I found All-temperature Cheer."
Then, a couple of nights later, we were playing the ever-popular "Guess Who I'm Thinking About" at the dinner table. As it happens, the person I'd chosen was Mike Lowell. Daughter of MMmusing had already made several guesses to determine gender, grown-upness, famousness, etc. Then, she said, "Is he a composer?" I said, "No," to which she responded, "Oh, that's right. You said he's living. All the composers are dead."
And indeed they are, but meanwhile Mike Lowell came through again and again and was named MVP of the World Series, so my daughter knows how to pick'em. AND, true story, I looked for a Mike Lowell jersey for her at the game and I would definitely have dropped the $50 if I'd found one in her size. (On the other other hand, I was slightly relieved not to find one. They'll probably be a lot cheaper in the off-season, especially since Lowell might not even be back next year.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hearing it for the first time.

Today I gave a music appreciation midterm and had one of those experiences of hearing something new in something very familiar to me. There are probably few musical works which have crossed my path more often than Dido's Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. I'm honestly not sure I've ever taken a set of comprehensive/entrance exams in which a score for this piece didn't show up for analysis; it's as if every set of examiners is saying, "Look, if you don't know anything else about analysis, at least you should be able to talk about the ground bass in Dido's Lament." It's in just about every music history/music appreciation text I can think of. Oh, and I've played it for about 3,678 mezzos.

The aria is preceded by a recitative which is on the same track on the CD-set that accompanies our textbook. When preparing the mp3 exam excerpts last night, I faded the music in right at the beginning of the aria where the ground bass is first heard, before Dido begins singing, "When I am laid in earth..." I hadn't noticed that in this recording, the final word of the recitative, "guest," lingers over the beginning of the ground bass. So, as I administered the exam, I was surprised to hear this "....est" barely audible. The funny thing is that by drawing my attention to it, I noticed for the first time ever that "guest" rhymes with the "breast" that concludes the opening phrase of the aria. So, there's a triple rhyme going back to the beginning of the recit:

RECIT: Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me;
On thy bosom let me rest.
More I would, but death invades me:
Death is now a welcome guest.
ARIA: When I am laid in earth,
May my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

I'm sure this isn't news to most people, but I hate to admit I'd never noticed it, nor had I noticed the rhyme of "create" and "fate." (At least I was aware of the rhymes in the recit.) It reminds me of movies that I first encountered as kid, such that certain more grown-up elements didn't dawn on me until decades later because, well, basically once the mind thinks it knows something, it sometimes tends to be less observant. Of course, Purcell's setting doesn't really draw attention to these rhymes. This reminds me of my experience translating all the rhyming French of Gounod's Le médecin malgé lui into rhyming English for The Doctor in Spite of Himself; I was sometimes annoyed that my hard-won rhymes were obscured by Gounod. I wonder how his librettists felt.

Anyway, as I blogged before, I always enjoy hearing these little snippets in exams and seeing which ones engage me, even though fragmented. Today, all three Bach excerpts (mvts 1 and 5 of Cantata No. 80 and mvt. 1 of Brandenburg 5) did the trick - like being suddenly hooked up to an electrical current. Interestingly, Bach was the subject of my recent musing on the effectiveness of fragments. Can't beat J.S. Bach - or J.D. Drew, for that matter.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sleepless Times

Here's the problem with the ongoing success of the Red Sox. We're now looking at somewhere between 15 and 25 hours of baseball over a period of 7-9 days. That's a lot of extra time to extract from one's schedule; logistically it's not that hard since about half of those hours are at times I'd otherwise be sleeping. Unless it turns out that sleep deprivation is a bad thing. (I'll let you know.) Anyway, you gotta hand it to sports, that so many people are willing to turn their lives upside down to see what happens.

Good Times

It's becoming ever clearer to me that I'll need to give up sports for Lent again this year - at least if this blog is to have any chance of surviving. Still, what a weekend! I actually got to go to Game 6 on Saturday night, which was basically just a big party with the Red Sox taking an early lead and eliminating any suspense. (By the way, the friend with whom I attended can confirm that I predicted a big night for J.D. Drew. I also called Dustin Pedroia's bases-clearing double in last night's Game 7. My powers are undiminished.) The only real drama that night was whether I'd get back to my car safely since I'd ended up parking about a 25-minute walk from Fenway in a not particularly safe part of town. (I was alone since my friend had taken the T to the game.) It's not so much the money as the principle: I couldn't bear to spend $50 to park, and I always enjoy a good hunt for a free space. Usually, I can get within a 10-15 minute walk, but this time I should have just forked over the fifty.

Thankfully, I survived to get to watch the Patriots treat the Dolphins like a chew toy Sunday afternoon, then to accompany an enjoyable, but draining early evening recital, and finally to sit back and watch Boston finish off the Indians. (All this bad treatment of dolphins and indians seems politically incorrect somehow.) Performing Britten's Holy Sonnets of John Donne for the first time was quite an experience. As I remarked to several people afterwards, this is an example of music that's hard to experience outside of an actual performance. Although I have a good recording, I find these songs too intense for the recording medium. I think they really need to be experienced live (with an audience) which means I found myself discovering a lot about them as I was playing. That's not always a great thing, but it is exciting and somehow comforting to remember that there are aspects of live performance that remain irreplaceable.

In the midst of all this, The Office had one of its best episodes ever last week, after a slightly disappointing first 2-3 episodes. Episode 4 confirmed that this is a pantheon TV show, deserving of its spot in the little TV Rushmore I created over there in the right margin. I think I could easily highlight more than 50 distinctly great moments in that one hour, but the brilliance was summed up in Pam's attempt to describe her ambivalence about the Angela/Dwight/Andy triangle. She realizes both that they're all bad for each other because each is insufferable - and yet she has enough unexpected sympathy for each of them that she has to admit she cares that none of them get hurt. (I need to rewatch to get the quote right, but it pretty much summed up what makes this show work.)
[Update: OK, here's what Pam said: "Now that I think about it, Angela and Andy might actually make a good couple. But I couldn't do that to Dwight...or Angela.......or Andy."]

Meanwhile, in one bit of bad weekend news, I just discovered that the amazing IMSLP sheet music archive has been taken down - probably for good. I hope that something arises to take its place. I don't know enough about what happened, but I suspect it grew too fast and there weren't enough controls for keeping copyrighted material off the site. Now, the poor guy who ran it is overwhelmed by threatened legal action and has found it necessary to abandon ship. Still, I think that kind of free access to old music is the future.

Much more to say about all of these things, but time's up...

[UPDATE2: Here's a terrific summation of the IMSLP situation.]

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sorry, blog

Well, it hasn't been a good time for blogging. The good news is that my TV screen is still intact, even after three evenings of imagining myself throwing various objects in that direction as the Red Sox seem to be fizzing out. Maybe it will all end tomorrow night and I'll return to a saner, more contemplative state of mind, suitable for blogging. I have lots of interesting "baseball and meaning" observations to make, but they'll have to wait as I'm more tied up with practicing than sometimes is the case. Britten's John Donne Sonnets are hard and on the performing agenda for the weekend. Off I go.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Armageddon Averted

So, maybe I was silly to think that my viewing habits would affect the outcome of the Yankees-Indians series. I had feared that by abandoning the Indians on Sunday night (after helping them build a 2-0 lead), I had set in motion a chain of events that would result in another Red Sox-Yankees postseason nightmare. Well, the Yankees went down for good last night, and the world is a more orderly place. Now I've returned to the more rational understanding that my powers are only strong enough to change games in which Boston is actually participating. Just to be clear, it's not that I don't think Boston could have beaten New York, or even found them less beatable than Cleveland. It's just that a series against the Indians feels like exactly what it is: a series of games in which one team will win and the other lose. That's fine. Sox-Yankees never feels like that, even during relatively unimportant regular season games. Every game is excruciating. So, hooray for regular baseball.

The Sox-Yankees thing is a good example of something so good it becomes too good. Sports are much more fun when you care what happens - but it turns out too much caring can be not so much fun. I'm sure it says something bad about me that I almost care more about the Yankees not winning than I care about the Red Sox winning, but that's just one of many bad things that can be said about me. I can live with that.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Manufactured Meanings

A point of clarification with respect to that last post.

When I talked about manufactured meanings, what I meant was that there's no reason it should matter that "Michael Monroe," "Mind/Meaning," "MultiMedia" (and "Manufactured Meaning"!) all can be acronyMMed as MM, and yet I can't help feel that these coincidental initials help to reinforce and even unify my musing mission. If I were named James Monroe, maybe everything would be different; because we find meaning in such coincidences, they become meaningful. The allure of anagrams is an even better example of this. It shouldn't really mean anything that the letters of Clint Eastwood can be scrambled into "Old West Action," but it sure is interesting. Of course, the entire idea of poetry (and, really, just about any kind of literature) is dependent on such instances of verbal resonance that help to shape messages. I think I'm wading into that whole medium is the message murkiness, so I'll muse no more for now. This was supposed to be a point of clarification post!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

a little stitious...

It's all going too well right now - the Patriots just rolled through their fifth straight victim and the Red Sox just swept the Angels to advance in the playoffs. Now the Yankees are trailing early in their game and could be eliminated before the night is over, meaning I wouldn't have to endure another instance of the Apocalypse this Fall. (Dealing with the stress of postseason baseball is bad enough, but the Sox-Yankees rundowns are just too intense for anyone's good at this point.)

Of course, it's dangerous to bring any of this up because I risk jinxing everything. As Michael Scott memorably said in the slightly disappointing season premiere of The Office, "I'm not superstitious; just a little stitious." As it happens, the last couple of times I mentioned here that the Red Sox were killing me, things turned around, so maybe it's OK for me to blog about them. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that basking in victory (as opposed to wallowing in misery) will have the opposite effect and David Ortiz will be bitten by a squirrel and develop rabies tomorrow - all because of my hubris.

On the other other hand, I just helped the Indians score their first two runs against the Yankees. I'm not really even watching the game closely, but I flipped by it to see some anonymous Indians player hit a dribbler to Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. "Throw it away, Derek," I yelled - and he did! That runner came around to score the first run of the game. Next inning, I flipped by again and saw former Sox star Trot Nixon step to the plate for Cleveland. "Go yard, Trot!" I implored, and he hit a rope over the right field wall on that very pitch. My wife witnessed both of these events - the only commands I uttered with respect to this game. I was responsible for those two runs scoring. Part of me now feels obligated to watch the rest of the game and continue directing traffic, but I'm going to have to hope the Indians can hang on to the two-run lead I've provided. After all, I'm only a little stitious.

As a general mind and meaning side note, I might mention that the tendency for sports fans to see their game-viewing actions as meaningful is just so human. We're conditioned to look for meaning where we can find it - especially when something seems out of our control like a baseball game being played far away. Any apparent cause-and-effect bit of evidence is so tempting for our mental meaning-making machines. Sometimes when I'm watching the progress of a Red Sox game online while doing other work, if something good happens, I'll feel like I can't turn on the radio or TV to continue following the game because good things were happening when I was just getting the pitch-by-pitch online info. It's an awesome responsibility to have this kind of power, so it's a good thing I'm not superstitious.

Speaking of connections and mind and meaning issues, I don't think I've ever blogged about the felicitous connections embedded in my blog title. Yes, not only does MMmusing alliteratively stand for "Michael Monroe musing"; it also can stand for "mind/meaning musing," and, as I've now created something like 75 multimedia examples for this blog, it can also stand for "multimedia musing," not to mention that it can sound like someone elongating the m in "musing". Perhaps it can even suggest the word "amusing." As someone with a congenital weakness for wordplay, I find all of this very satisfying, even though I know the significance of these connections is manufactured. There's no logical reason why we should find it significant that words with semantic connections to each other also share initials or rhymes or whatever, but just as the sports-viewing mind looks for connections in coincidence, so do verbal minds find joy in these lyrical links. It reminds me of composers who write tunes that "spell" words; the pitches that "spell" Bach don't really say Bach in any acoustic way - but we love finding meaning in hearing a tune as Bach's tune.

So much of the perception of art has to do with finding satisfaction in some kind of connection. It's also delightful to discover how many various meanings can be extruded from something - like a blog title or a Diabelli theme - that was first created with a specific and limited meaning in mind. This speaks again to the joy of constraints; anything accomplished against the odds is interesting.

And speaking of constraints, I'll end near where I began by voicing my fear that The Office may be off to a slightly disappointing start due to lack of constraints. This fantastically subtle show has become such a hit that they're now beginning a season with four hour-long episodes and an obviously bigger budget that has enabled not one, but two car crashes in the first two episodes. Hey, it's still a very funny show, and it's always relied on a certain amount of broad humor, but I wouldn't be surprised if the needs to fill more time and be more "eventful" have thrown off an important creative balance. Time will tell, but now that the Yankees have closed to within 3-2, I feel as if I must submit this post in hopes that a Cleveland win is preserved. (On some level, I really think that.)

UPDATE: Seconds after hitting "submit," I clicked over to see that the hated Yankees now lead 5-3. It's all my fault!

UPDATE 2: Now it's 8-3, Yankees. I feel as if I owe the entire city of Cleveland an apology - wasn't it enough that my Patriots destroyed their Browns today? Couldn't I have left well enough alone? This could all end very badly. Maybe this is a good time to recall that I began my blogging career partly to occupy me while I'd given up sports for Lent. I'm also now remembering how I felt a quiet sense of relief when the Red Sox didn't make the playoffs last year. I slept normal hours, I cared about normal things. Sigh...

UPDATE 3: Yankees live to fight another day. I hope you appreciate the curious logic of my experience here: I wrote that I caused the Indians to score two runs. Then, because that's such a ridiculous thing to have claimed, I was punished by having the Yankees come back and win. You see, I'm still in control, even when I'm punished for believing that I am in control. The important thing is not whether I've helped or harmed the Red Sox cause; it's that I feel like I'm the one in control. If it's not about me, why would I care?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Constraints & the Amateur

When I e-penned on Saturday morning about the joys of fragmented musical experiences, I hadn't noticed Terry Teachout's Wall Street Journal article about the problem of reviewing amateur productions. The question there concerns how a critic must adjust his/her standards in dealing with such productions; this is just another side of the point that interests me - namely, that we can receive tremendous satisfaction from a performance even when professional standards are nowhere to be found. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but most important, I think, is that we intuitively take into account the human element and adjust according to what we know about the humans involved. This is more or less the same thing I've said all along about the Joyce Hatto story; people listened to "her recordings' with different ears than they might to other recordings because of the perfectly natural tendency to hear her in the context of her dramatic biography. A lot of people seem to think there's something inherently wrong with that. I think it's just normal.

In the case of appreciating amateur performances, this also intersects with another favorite topic of mine - the important role played by constraints in the creative process. Not only does an understanding of the constraints faced by a non-professional performance make us more forgiving, it actually changes the way we think about what we're seeing/hearing. And it should, because we're human, they're human, etc. One of my favorite movies is one that I made (!) a few years ago. It's a 45-minute version of The Wizard of Oz starring my daughter and about 10 of her cousins. We shot it over three days, and although some creative prep work went into fashioning costumes and scouting out locations, there was almost no rehearsing. We basically shot it line by line; we'd feed the kids (mostly ages 4-12) lines and then roll film.

Although I was screenwriter, director, and cameraman, there's little question that my most important role was editor. I've never counted, but I'd guess the final product is the result of something like 300-400 takes stitched together in a process that was both laborious and wonderfully challenging creatively. Talk about constraints. Now, I can't say for sure how unbiased eyes would view this film (not sure if I'll ever post it online, mainly because the innocent deserve protection), but biased eyes love it and have watched it over and over. I find the final product quite satisfying, and it's significantly because I'm astonished at what we were able to achieve within such tight constraints. No, it's not a Hollywood quality movie, but no one would ever watch it with those sorts of expectations.

In fact, I think viewers understand that those constraints (only three days, no boom mics, chainsaws roaring in the distance, tired kids, etc.) are part of the language of the movie. This is one of the crucial things about how constraints work in art. I recently encountered two fun examples of this, first in stumbling upon a PBS mini-feature on the photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen. He's made a career out of a sort of trick photography that creates amazing images using nothing more than a Polaroid and skillfully set-up shots (warning, use of clothes is not one of his tricks). The images are often extraordinary, but it's quite important to Minkkinen that no digital or even darkroom manipulation enter into the equation. And we as viewers look at the results differently knowing the constraints he set for himself.

On a lighter side, Fred Himebaugh recently wrote about the constraints written into the rules of writing barbershop harmony. I really like what he says here:
"We roll our eyes at the rules because personal expression is a Myth that dominates our modern understanding of art. Then we reconsider, reminding ourselves that constraints often stimulate creativity: think Rachmaninoff's Vespers. The truth is that art struggles in environments that are too permissive, but also, in environments that are too restrictive. There's a region of magical twilight where just enough resistance leads to just the right kind of struggle that results in a satisfying work of art. That finding that region is difficult is only one more way that Art Is Hard."

That stimulating of creativity is what I find most interesting about constraints, but I think awareness of constraints also has much more to do with our perception of artworks/performances than is often assumed. The rigorous academic study of an art can make us think that unless all the ideal factors we've come to care about are taken care of, an artistic experience will not satisfy. [UPDATE (the next day): I think I accidentally deleted a transition sentence here, something along the lines of "However, we naturally forgive imperfections in a performance when we know there are constraints that explain them." The transition to the ideas of these last two paragraphs still needs work. Hopefully, I'll flesh that out soon.]

Here's one way of thinking about that; is it possible for Beethoven's genius to shine through in a hackneyed, uninformed playing of the first movement of the Moonlight sonata? (To the student who recently performed that, I don't mean you! That was sensitive, beautifully shaded playing.) This has to do with what I think of as the 90/10 problem. Most of us understand that achieving that final 10% of rightness takes something like 90% of the effort. (i.e. getting the Moonlight notes right is just the start; the artistry lies beyond that.) As a result, we also start to assume that the success of a performance is determined by that last 10%.

I'm not sure that it is; I've enjoyed far too many non-professional performances, and at a really deep and meaningful level. Of course, that has to do with adjusted expectations. I just put on a professional recording of a Mozart piano concerto and was completely distracted by some surprisingly out-of-tune wind playing that would probably have bothered me much less hearing a local orchestra live. I have nothing but the fondest of memories of a high school production of Carousel that I helped out with as a grad student, even though the performance standards would have been inconceivable on Broadway. But my point is not just that I can enjoy both; it's that the message/meaning of the artwork can be just as powerful in these different contexts. At least, I think I think that, but I'm going to end here for now. Soon I'll post about this, which has had me thinking about some of the same issues.