Thursday, January 31, 2008

Synthpathetic Vibrations

I'm not a pop/rock guy - more and more, I wish I had a more natural interaction with these worlds, if only to understand them better, but I feel that I'll never apprehend them any more fluently than a grown-up trying to learn a new language - this is mainly because I have never been a regular listener to the radio, MTV, or whatever. I rather consciously decided to take an interest in the Beatles a few year's back, but I got to know their catalog in a culturally disconnected way. Instead of learning their songs slowly in the context of other artists on the radio or whatever, I just bought a bunch of CDs and plowed through them.

I don't know if that makes much sense, but the point is that I'm never sure how to approach new non-classical music that crosses my path; the expressive devices that others take for granted tend to be foreign to me. It's not so much the loud, electric, rhythm-driven accompaniments as it is various styles of singing that just strike me as unattractive and/or artificial. For example, the husky Springsteen sound always sounds to me like an affectation - the very opposite of the kind of genuine artist he's supposed to be. I'm not saying others are wrong to hear his voice as authentically expressive, but it doesn't ring true to me. And, yes, I readily acknowledge that this is odd coming from someone who, for the most part, likes operatic singing, which is pretty darned unnatural in many ways. Talk about affected.

Anyway, what has me thinking about all this is a differently inauthentic kind of singing I just ran across. Greg Sandow has been singing the praises of the Wordless Music series that pairs classical artists and composers with cutting edge non-classical artists - indie rock types, etc. (The "etc." is my way of saying I don't really know how to describe these "others.") I noticed that several of the concerts featured something called Beirut. One link later and I was listening to this world-music-y indie band that's fronted by an early twentysomething singer who sounds like - this is what it's taken me three paragraphs to get to - who sounds like a synthesized voice. I should know because I'm kind of an armchair connoisseur of the digivoice. Listen to a quick sampling of Beirut. Now listen to one of my Virtual Singers do "Hey Jude." Wow.

Now maybe it's just that I haven't spent enough time imbibing the indie vibe to connect with the expression this guy's selling. My point isn't to be mean or to make fun - it's to marvel at how much he sounds like a synthesized voice. This had me wondering - is that just coincidental, or has this Zach Condon guy been influenced by the sounds of virtual voices? Is he imitating the imitating? Synthesized instrumental sounds are already a secure part of the non-classical expressive vocabulary. In fact, having just posted about the wonderfully funny Barcelona, an aural flashback this morning reminded me that this low-budget flick has a depressingly bad synthesized soundtrack that's especially heavy on the synth strings. I've mentioned before that another mostly perfect movie, The Princess Bride, is also afflicted with a cheap, synthetic orchestra on its soundtrack.

Tastes change. Although I don't think I'll ever get used to string substitutes, it's safe to say these "fake" sonorities don't just function as stand-ins. The synth string sound has developed its own identity, and probably some people even prefer it in some situations. It had never occurred to me that the same would happen with the digivoice sound, but it's a big world out there. The Beirut guy is much more successful than I'll ever be, so there must be people out there who groove to that sound. Maybe they'll find this moving as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Picked-up Pieces

So, I basically took a month off from blogging. This taught me two things. 1) I missed blogging; 2) I really enjoyed not blogging. Ah, the paradox. Curiously, most of the time off was also vacation time when, in theory, I should have had more time to blog, but it didn't really work out that way. Here's a quick review of my month away:

Took first long family car trip in many a year. With five in the family, we decided to drive to the South for Christmas rather than fly for the first time in a long time. This decision inspired us to upgrade to the dreaded, mid-life crisis inducing minivan, but the trip was quite comfy. When I was growing up, my large family made many long car/van trips, but we could never have imagined having access to DVD (what?) movies and hundreds of albums at the ready via an iPod. When we were looking at the van we bought, I casually asked if it had an mp3 jack. I tried to play it cool when the salesman said it didn't; then, naturally, he discovered that it did have one on the test drive. I'm not proud of it, but on some primitive id-level, I may have made the decision to buy the van at that point. It's kind of like I bought a $2X,000 stereo - and I'm fine with that.

It's amazing how much listening to music helped to pass the time. Among the works which made the mid-Atlantic region pass quickly by: piano quintets of Schumann, Brahms, and Dvorak, the Schubert cello quintet, Appalachian Spring, the Ravel Piano Concerto, and The Soldier's Tale (in the indispensable, and criminally unavailable-on-CD, but converted to digital-via-LP recording by Gielgud, Courtenay, Moody and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players). One important thing I've learned about minivans (at least our Odyssey), is that they're not that mini; this meant one or both daughters could be watching a DVD in the backseat while I listened to the iPod and there wasn't really much conflict. There was an odd moment when I realized I was basking in the perfectness of the Schubert quintet, while audibly aware of the horrible Carly Simon singing that was going on in Piglet's Big Adventure - but you know what, the human brain can deal with that. In its way, this experience confirmed what I realize more and more; that music is much more sturdy, even in the face of poor performances and/or listening conditions, than we sometimes admit, so focused are most of us on demanding the highest standards.

Other observations from my time away from blogging. I continue to find that my quirky sidebar lists of favorite movies and TV shows hold up. We watched Barcelona a few weeks ago, and it confirmed its place in my Top 14. Honestly, I can never really remember what makes it so great once it's not fresh on the mind, but I loved every minute of it. Yes, Whit Stillman owes a lot to Woody Allen, but I'd put Barcelona above all but the practically perfect Purple Rose of Cairo. Some choice quotes:

  • "Positive thinking is fine in theory. But whenever I try it on a systematic basis... I end up really depressed."
  • "Is this some strange Glenn Miller-based religious ceremony?" "No, Presbyterian."
  • "You are far weirder than someone merely into S&M. At least they have a tradition. We have some idea what S&M is about. There's movies and books about it. But so far as I know, there is nothing to explain the way you are. "
  • "Fred: And one of the things that keeps popping up is this about "subtext." Plays, novels, songs - they all have a "subtext," which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what's above the subtext? Ted: The text. Fred: OK, that's right, but they never talk about that. "
  • "There was a limbo stick."

I could name more, but it would basically be the same as pointing you to the screenplay. It may be the funniest movie ever.

Also, I've been putting to test my assertion that The Dick Van Dyke Show belonged in my TV pantheon along with Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and The Office. I picked up Season 1 on DVD - the first few episodes were a little disappointing, but then it started to hit its stride. Yeah, some of the vaudeville stuff's a little cheesy and Rose Marie can be annoying, but it's a very smart show, hundreds of times better than that I Love Lucy thing, and then there's Laura Petrie. Enough said.

Oh yeah, and we had our very successful Opera Scenes program, prep for which consumed the end of my vacation. One thing I realized today as I was preparing to introduce myself as the accompanist to a musical theater class that I play for mostly because - well, because, as I realized, I love playing the piano. I don't really love practicing piano, which has had its disadvantages, and I don't always love obsessing over the details of piano playing, which can be a challenge when teaching - but I definitely love sitting at the piano and playing what's in front of me, especially in collaborative settings. It's not that I love musical theater rep, but even with songs I can't admire, the music-making aspect is very satisfying. It's odd, because I'm not the most naturally sociable person, but accompanying choirs, shows, voice lessons, violin lessons, cello lessons, coaching singers - that's my natural habitat.

Opera isn't my first love, but there's also something so rewarding and different about performing for audiences that react audibly. It's true that even in a recital one can feel, to some extent, the involvement of an audience, but theatrical performances are something different. We played to two packed houses which infused lots of energy and one sleepy-ish matinee audience that provided . . . less energy. Amazing how different the experience of playing the notes is based on the audience feedback. When the seemingly foolproof machinations of Cenerentola's opening scene don't get laughs, one starts wondering: am I playing too fast? too slow? too loud? too sloppily? has Rossini lost it? Truth is, it was just a kind of quiet crowd and another truth is that an audience made up entirely of me's would be pretty quiet, so who am I to complain?

Oh yeah, and the boy learned to crawl, a good 2+ months earlier than his sisters had. And the Patriots are one game away from . . . no, I'm not gonna jinx it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

An Old Viola Joke

There are many potential topics to come from this past weekend's opera scenes, but I was particularly delighted by one little discovery, something I'd always overlooked. Our longest and most ambitious undertaking was the 30-minute opening scene of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. I could go on and on about this opera, and intend to at some point, but I'll start with this small detail which others must have noticed and mentioned, but which has not shown up in my exhaustive scholarly Google search.

I've heard several times that many of the characters' names in this comedy about small-town life were taken from real-life characters known to Britten and Eric Crozier, the librettist. Well, at the very top of the show, Florence Pike, assistant to the imposing Lady Billows, is running about trying to keep up with a bizarre array of orders from her ladyship. Florence's first words are, "Doctor Jessup's midwife . . . mustn't touch legitimates; Advert in chemist's window, indecent - tear it up!; Call at Primrose Cottage . . must stop William making such . . . rude noises or else!; Buy a breakfast cup." It only dawned on me last week that the rude William must be a reference to William Primrose, a Scottish violist who is probably the most famous performer on that instrument. He would have been at the peak of his career when Herring was written and, great artist that he was, it can't be a coincidence that he's accused of making rude noises - he was a violist!

I don't know how far back viola jokes go, but I think we can safely say this one from 1947 fits the bill.

[More Albert Herring discoveries in this post from the past.]

[CORRECTION: for no good reason, the first line of the opera always wants to be "Doctor Jessup's housewife" in my head, even though it's supposed to be his "midwife." So, naturally I typed it up wrong the first time, but it's now been corrected.]

Friday, January 25, 2008

Like sands through the hourglass . . .




If you happen to be near Boston's North Shore this weekend, you can come watch me bang my way through eight great scenes. Not only do I love pretending to be an orchestra, but I have to admit I also love the whole Mickey Rooneyesque "let's put on a show" dynamic. It's great fun to see things take shape, and my A.D.D. brain enjoys jumping from one opera to the next. We're doing scenes from L'Egisto, La Cenerentola, L'elisir d'amore, Rigoletto, Cendrillon, Carmen, Albert Herring, and Candide. Good times.

Regular blogging resumes next week . . .

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Oh yeah, I have a blog . . .

So I guess the new year has dawned . . . but school doesn't start back for me for more than a week, and I've been finding the blogging hiatus refreshing. Now, I have a big opera scenes program happening in less than two weeks and things are pretty busy, so January will probably remain light here at MMmusing. However, I promise to pick up the pace again before too long ... and to take down the Christmas decorations!