Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Remember the Alamo

I'm off to San Antonio for the next few days, to congregate with my fellow Americanists. I love SAM. As conferences go, it feels very...human. Sometimes the AMS feels like it is populated by robots. For better or for worse, the attendees at SAM are definitely human. Sometimes gloriously dorkily so, of course. I admit to being one of those who packs up his own copy of the Sacred Harp for the annual shape note singing.

I'll be giving a paper Saturday afternoon, on a panel with my estimable colleague Loren Kajikawa. The theme of panel is whiteness in pop music; Loren is talking about Eminem, and I'm talking about the glorious Rosemary Clooney. Guy Ramsey is chairing, should be good times.

I'll tell you one thing that will be missing at my paper though: my good suit. My only suit, actually. I picked it up at the dry cleaners this afternoon, and when I was packing this evening, I noticed that although it is a dark grey J. Press suit in a 42 long, it was not actually mine. It was a three-button, mine is a two-button. What are the odds of two dark grey J. Press 42 long suits being at my little neighborhood cleaners at the same time? Slim, but apparently large enough to occur. Sigh.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Old Walls, New Walls

On tour in Havana, 1998

So, musicologists, what do we think of the visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea? Alex Ross has the beginning of a roundup, but I suspect there must be other opinions out there. Hey, if you're interested in music and politics, it doesn't get much more clearcut than this! And lord knows, the subject could use some better writing: (NY Times: "They came bearing bows and basses rather than the arms and armor Americans carried the last time this large a contingent set foot in the North Korean capital. The brass will issue fanfares, not orders." Yikes.)

I'm of mixed feelings. On the one hand, I find myself curiously aligned with Condoleeza Rice, who reportedly said that she wasn't sure what good Dvorak could do for the peace process. The aim of this trip seems to be the old "classical music as universal truth" line, as if beautiful music can bring the world together. Interestingly, it seems to be conservative critics like Terry Teachout that have been putting the music in its political context, albeit in a Cold-War-4EVA sort of way.

Against that, Matthew Guerrieri has a lovely analysis of the situation that manages to combine actual musical analysis with a far more penetrating grasp of the political situation in Korea than anything else I have read.

Ironically, I myself have played American in Paris in front of a tyrant. Well, almost, the tyrant himself did not show up. In 1998, the Oakland Youth Orchestra, of which I was a member, played a concert in Havana, at the Gran Teatro. It was a joint concert with a Cuban youth orchestra, and took place in the all-too-brief thaw between our two countries in the latter days of the Clinton Administration. Supposedly, we were the first American orchestra to play in Cuba since the revolution.

I kept a journal, which is lucky because my memories have largely faded. One of the things that struck my eighteen-year-old self the most was the Cuban sheet music. Supposedly there were photocopiers, but because of the embargo no toner was available to work them. So alongside rosin, reeds, spare bows, and other gifts, we had been told to bring blank manuscript paper, since the practice was to hand copy out all of the individual orchestra parts. We also ended up leaving our portable music stands as well, as the stands in their rehearsal space were mostly homemade contraptions.

We were ensconced in one of the official tourist hotels in the old part of Havana, a beautiful and immaculate building. The week before we had played in Costa Rica, and then in a series of cities in Mexico. Havana compared very favorably, I have to say. Mexico City in particular had seemed nightmarish, a fortified futuristic megalopolis. (Matters had not been helped by our attempt to visit the Plaza de la Constitución literally just as Mexico was knocked out of the World Cup by Germany.) As an outsider on a tour bus, the city seemed like one giant impregnable institution after another--museums, concert halls, tourist hotels--all surrounded by barbed wire and extreme poverty.

Havana, on the other hand, wore its poverty much more gracefully. Everything needed a good coat of paint, but in all honesty, the equality seemed legimate. Everyone was poor, but unlike Mexico City there were no brutal examples of inequality--everyone was poor. There were rumors that Castro would attend our performance, which was receiving heavy publicity in the state-controlled press. No sign of him at the concert, however, which was too bad. A year later my sister's choir also toured Cuba, and Castro not only came to their concert, he came to dinner with them afterwards and insisted on going around to every little choir girl or boy, shaking their hands and asking them where they were from and what they were interested in.

Our repertoire was more eclectic than what's being played in North Korea right now. We did American in Paris, Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileras No. 5 with a local soprano, and... my memory fades a bit. Elsewhere on the tour we had played some Ginastera, and Brahms First Symphony, so maybe those. And then together with the Cuban youth orchestra we played some premiere by a Cuban composer (no recollection of who) that involved very tricky rhythms knocked out on the back of our instruments.

Afterwards, a number of us were able to go out on the town with some of our Cuban compatriots. I didn't speak Spanish, they no English, and it was a mesmerizing time for an eighteen-year-old. The next morning we bought cigars and souvenirs from the Museum of the Revolution--I still have a poster I bought there that shows an old photograph of Fidel in the mountains, plotting out strategy.

I don't mean to seem post-ideological here, in what are obviously touristic and nostalgic memories. But it is hard for me to appreciate some of the issues involved in the New York Philharmonic visiting North Korea. I was ten years old when Germany was unified, eleven when the Soviet Union fell. The metaphor of the "Iron Curtain" is completely foreign to me. When someone like Terry Teachout argues that crossing over such a curtain legitimizes the tyrant behind, I intuitively disagree, but I really have no basis for understanding his points. The 38th parallel and the Florida Straits are all we have left of the old boundaries of Cold War policy, and although they have tremendous meaning for people who live across them, their conceptual power is not what it once was. The fact that the NY Phil has brought not only musicians, but also "patrons" who paid $100,000 a couple (no singles, I guess) to accompany the tour shows how fantastical the entire event can be, as if these super-tourists are desperate for a glimpse of the Cold War past, having missed their chance to see Leonard Bernstein in Berlin, or ping-pong in China.

The Bush Administration has tried desperately to revive the notion of global war, but all that has resulted is tiny, infinitely permeable boundaries that define not national security but personal safety. The era of the Green Zone, if you will. The Mexico City of my memories is the harbinger here, with its literal walls and barbed wire, keeping nationalist and capitalist institutions safe from a putatively malignant populace. And how different is Los Angeles? If an alien were to stroll around the Hollywood Hills, he would assume that its fortresses were designed to repel nightly attacks from the villagers below. Whatever will bridge those walls, it's not going to be an orchestra.

Gift shop at the Museum of the Revolution

Monday, February 25, 2008

No, the Federalist

You know you're a musicologist when...

You see that HBO is showing a miniseries about John Adams, and you ask yourself "the postminimalist, or the totalist?"

Friday, February 15, 2008


Two memes in lieu of thought:

Via everyone:

1. What opera was at the Met on the evening of your birth?

This is too perfect, combining my love for Benjamin Britten and Eve Sedgwick: Billy Budd, with Richard Stilwell in the title role.

2. What Candy Heart Are You?

Your Candy Heart Says "First Kiss"

You're a true romantic who brings an innocent hope to each new relationship.

You see the good in every person you date, and you relish each step of falling in love.

Your ideal Valentine's Day date: a romantic dinner your sweetie cooks for you

Your flirting style: friendly and sweet

What turns you off: cynics who don't believe in romance

Why you're hot: you always keep the romance alive

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dissertation Roadshow

Not much blogging these days; I'm due to fly back to Los Angeles next week and present a chapter at my department's dissertation seminar. It's a nice system, one that's fairly unique to our program. Every two weeks, everyone who is out of coursework, and thus either working on a dissertation proposal or on a diss itself, meets to critique each other's work, supervised by a faculty member. We all complain about it, but I have to say that it has been really valuable for me. If nothing else, signing up to present your work means that you have a firm deadline, and in this nebulous writing process, there is nothing more delicious than a deadline.

The chapter I'm presenting is my one on pop singers during McCarthyism. It looks in particular at my three favorite girls: Patti Page, Doris Day, and Rosemary Clooney. Originally I was going to do Peggy Lee as well, but I think the narrative is better with just these three. There is a ton to say about this repertoire, but in my chapter I'm focusing in particular on race, and particularly on whiteness. The backdrop to this music is the moment of intense ethnic assimilation after World War II, in which Joe McCarthy was himself an important part. It's been one of my favorite chapters to write: great music, important issues. I'll blog more about it at some point, or you can come see me give the Rosemary Clooney chunk at SAM in a few weeks.

In the meantime, I have a quick change of gears for the next few days. In the traveling roadshow that is my life, I'm driving up to Connecticut to be a guest in a graduate seminar taught by my former advisor at Wesleyan. It's pretty awesome, actually, to go back to the hollowed grounds of my alma mater in the capacity of a teacher. The students--who are all in the ethnomusicology program there, which should make for interesting disciplinary discussion--are reading my chapter on John Cage, and comparing it to some older pieces of Cage scholarship. I'm really looking forward to it!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

No Comment

I just like this picture. That's all.

But I am going to miss Mittens Romney! Rumors that I spent some time posting anonymously on right-wing bulletin boards promoting his candidacy are completely unfounded. But man it would have been fun to run against him in the general election. The fact that he never gained any traction in the Republican primary, despite his enormous financial advantage and presidential background, is the one thing that lets me know that Republicans do have a glimmer of a soul within them.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Super Bowl/Tuesday/Candidate

My, that was quite a Superbowl yesterday, wasn't it? The "wife" and I saddled up to the television last night for the festivities we like to think of as the Oscars for straight people, armed with two large pizzas and a twelve-pack of Diet Coke. It's the first time in five years that Mary was able to watch the game in such comfort; in London the tradition is for expatriates to go down to a bar Leicester Square at some ungodly hour in the morning to watch the game. I have to admit I was rooting for the Patriots. I did live in New England for five years, after all, and plus Bill Belichick was a classmate of mine. You should have seen Billy B. doing a keg stand back in the day.

Speaking of the Oscars, cross your fingers for a resolution to the writer's strike this week! As a member in good standing of the United Auto Workers (Local 2865) I am duty-bound to support the Writer's Guild, east and west. But I need my glitz and glamour! I haven't seen enough of the movies, as usual, although my sense is that it is a slim crop this year. I haven't even seen No Country for Old Men yet, although I did see There Will be Blood, which was excellent. The soundtrack was spectacular and thoughtful. No surprise there, as P.T. Anderson is a musicologically-inclined man. The Penderecki-style theatrics were particularly apt, I thought, connecting the elemental force of oil with other elemental forces yet to come. There's an argument in this movie that violence and energy are one and the same, a thought I find both true and frightening.

But to end more positively, I hope those of you voting tomorrow go out and cast your votes for Barack Obama. I've been a fan since I saw him speak at a rally a year ago in Los Angeles. With Obama, as for so many presidential candidates, you have to make a calculated guess as to the gap between performance and policy. As a left-winger, I never trusted that John Edwards's own personal beliefs matched his lovely rhetoric. And with Hilary Clinton, we know from past experience that whatever promises she makes now are contingent upon maintaining the power of the centrist, DLC wing of the party. Part of my decision to support Obama was trusting that no matter what he might say to get elected, his own personal beliefs were most like mine. As Christopher Hayes argued in The Nation, he's one of us. I recognize the danger in relying upon that kind of mystification, in hoping that this category of "us" that Obama and I might share is all that I hope it is.

But as a scholar of performance, and political performances in particular, I also support Obama because of the quality of that performance. I mean that literally: Obama wears great clothes, picks great tunes, runs well-produced commercials. I like that he speaks in paragraphs, listens closely, and gives the appearance of some sort of interior life. Clinton has some of these abilities as well, but for my aesthetic taste, Obmama's performance is vastly superior. Aesthetics matter, and when good taste collides with a progressive past and sufficient hope for a progressive future, I'm sold.