Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Music of Picasso

Mary and I finally made it to the current big show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris." At $20 a ticket for non-members it wasn't cheap, but I rather enjoyed it. Most of the works are from the museum's own permanent collection, but Philadelphia is remarkably strong in this area. In addition to Picasso's Three Musicians, pictured above, it owns Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, Fernand Léger's The City, and more. The organizing theme was the development of modern art in Paris from early cubism up until World War II. It resulted in a show that was less Picasso-heavy than you might expect, and organized rather pedagogically according to the major trends in Paris (analytic cubism to synthetic cubism to salon cubism to post-war retrenchment to surrealism, and so on.) Having just lectured last week in my American Music survey about the importance of the Stieglitz circle in bringing Leo Ornstein to broader attention in the United States (in which I drew heavily upon Michael Broyles and Denise von Glahn's JSAM article), I particularly enjoyed the "Americans in Paris" gallery that showcased that group, including a number of fun Carl Van Vechten photographs. Taylor Green over at Modern Art Notes has a review of the show, if you're interested.

As a musicologist, however, I would be remiss if I did not point out a major problem with the exhibit: a striking amount of musical misinformation. One example is a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra that is linked to the exhibit, titled "Cubism and Classics," and performed in the museum's auditorium. A great idea to link the city's two major high art organizations, especially when the musical repertoire for this period is so rich. But what, you might ask, is the program for this upcoming concert? Well, I can't find out; the brochure only lists "works by Stravinsky, Britten, and Prokofiev." The Orchestra is playing The Rite of Spring that same weekend in their regular program, and that would be an appropriate work to connect with the Parisian avant-garde, of course. And although I don't know what the Prokofiev is, one could certainly make an argument for his inclusion, even if it makes the concert a little Russian-heavy. But....Benjamin Britten? Not only was Britten only born in 1917, I can't think of a twentieth-century composer stylistically less in tune with the pre-WWII avant-garde in Paris. And think of the amazing array of great music from this period that could have been chosen instead, from Ravel to Satie to Milhaud to...well, the list is endless. Heck, Four Saints in Three Acts was written in the late 1920s by Americans in Paris, and premiered in a similar art museum venue in 1934; that could have been fun.

I have no doubt that programming these concerts involves a great number of factors beyond stylistic choice, so I should cut everyone some slack. Let me therefore retain my main venom for whoever it was that chose the music to accompany the audio guide for the show. What was that?! Now, I'm not a big fan of audio guides to begin with; I find they distract me from looking at the art, and encourage a weird sort of multimedia approach to viewing paintings that I'm not sure is appropriate. However, given that the galleries were extremely crowded I had no choice but to listen to some of selections rather than elbow my way through to the wall texts. The information, excerpted from lectures by some local art historians, seemed fine. But the music that introduced each lecture...well, although it is part of my profession to be able to describe music, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words. Let's just that it seemed to involve lots of synth strings and heavily reverberant modal piano music. I typically don't like the adjective "New Agey" because it doesn't really tell you much (there's lots of different kinds of New Age music) but if I say "New Agey" you will get a bit of a sense of what it was like.

And talk about a missed opportunity! I realize that these musical selections probably need to be chosen so that they don't distract too much from the lectures, but you know, one of the most important composers in Paris in this period, a certain Mr. Satie, spent a chunk of his career writing music expressly for the purpose of being non-distracting. Or what about some James Reese Europe? Or Ravel? or...again, the list is endless. I should say that I did not listen to every single audio selection, so maybe some actual modernist music did pop up. But no matter what, there was no excuse for synthesized strings on the audio tour.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thinking GaGa

A quick tour of the academic analyses of the Lady GaGa/ Beyoncé video for "Telephone" that are cropping up around the internet:

Any others? I think this might qualify as an analysis of sorts:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

SAM Report, Part 2

God bless the Ottawa airport for having free wifi, is the first thing I want to say. It makes this bleary, dreary, out-of-bed-at-6am Sunday somewhat more bearable.

First of all, congratulations to fellow former UCLAers Jonathan Greenberg and Chuck Garrett for winning, respectively, the dissertation and book prizes. What was that phrase about "narcissism, waste, and entitlement"? Chuck's work is of course well-known, but having read a number of Jonathan's chapters back in the day, I hope this brings his work to broader attention. If you work on mid-century popular music, or want to imagine the possibilities of analyzing the material quality of sound in any genre, his dissertation is a must-read.

A real highlight of this conference for me was the Friday afternoon "soundwalk" with R. Murray Schafer. Murray was this year's recepient of SAM's Honorary Membership, which included a large concert Friday night that I was unable to attend. But almost more special, in some ways, was the chance for a smallish group of us to walk around the streets of Ottawa, with Murray leading us through a series of listening exercises. It gave me lots of food for thought, especially his argument that we ought to teach that kind of aural ear training along with ear training of the more traditional sort. Watch out, my students, there might be a blindfolded tour of Colonial Williamsburg in your future.

A number of other good papers since last we spoke. I saw Emily Abrams Ansari talk about Ulysees Kay's government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union in 1958, and Elizabeth Craft take apart the marketing campaign that enable In the Heights to appeal to normative Broadway audiences while simultaneously broadening and diversifying that audience. Then on to a panel looking at the origins of the American Rome Prize, with Judith Tick doing a particularly fascinating job of looking at the establishment of that prize, and the American Academy in Rome more generally, within the context of classicism. I left the panel briefly to go see Jeff Wright, a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, talk about Samuel Barber's obscure 1942 Funeral March. I particularly liked his paper not only unearthed and explained an obscure work, but also tried to think creatively about why it was received the way it was (poorly.) The march is essentially the official Air Force hymn "Into the Wild Blue Yonder" presented slowly, and in the minor mode. Jeff profitably compared it to the famous funeral march from Mahler's 1st, and more contemporarily to Stravinsky's arrangement of the "Star Spangled Banner."

Being that I am now on a plane to Philadelphia, I'm unfortunately missing the Sunday papers, which are especially rich this year: Sarah Gerk on Alice Cooper, Kevin Bartig on Koussevitzky, William Cheng's apparently-amazing work on video games, and Paul Cox talking about Cage and Cunningham's Credo in US. I did have dinner with Paul last night, and his research on Cage's early works seems very exciting; I hope I'll see it soon.

And that was SAM! Jim Deaville did an excellent job as local arrangments chair, and several beavertails and one late-night encounter with poutine later, I have to say Ottawa was a surprisingly pleasant town. Expensive, but pleasant.

Friday, March 19, 2010

SAM Report, Part 1

Since both Drew and Rebecca have chimed in with thoughts about SAM, and I have a spare hour before going on a "soundwalk" with R. Murray Schafer, I thought I would chime in myself. (ding!)

As always, some great papers. So far I have particularly enjoyed seeing Jennifer Myers discussing the Federal Theater Project's depression-era Swing Mikado, Todd Decker's paper on how music was described in the scripts for Fred Austaire movies, Dan Blim on Balanchine's jazz ballets choreographed for the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes, and Glenda Goodman's fascinating look at concerts held in Philadelphia in the 1790s as a benefit for French refugees both from the Revolution and from Haiti.

I also greatly enjoyed my own panel session this morning. It was an unusually coherent panel, with a lot of intersections between the various topics. I particularly enjoyed Leanne Wood's look at the marketing campaign for the 1962 film version of The Music Man. Her paper reminded me I never reviewed here the production of that show I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, so make me do that! Keith Hatschek and Jennifer DeLapp-Birkett's papers on, respectively, Dave Brubeck's tours to Cold War-era Poland and HUAC, FBI, and State Department investigations of Aaron Copland, were both masterly in their exercise of archival research; I have a lot to learn from them.

Now, the big thing that took up my Thursday afternoon was attending the first of the new seminar sessions. As both Rebecca and Drew note, this is a new format that has those involved to distribute the papers electronically well in advance, with the idea being that the audience would have read the papers, and the two hour time slot can then be devoted to discussing their work in detail. This format can, I promise, work well; other scholarly societies regularly use it.

The seminar I attended did not, to be blunt, work very well. The papers, including those by both Rebecca and Drew, were great, and the audience was clearly enthusiastic. And yet conversation clumped around some fairly mundane details brought up by only one of the papers, with no engagement with broader intellectual issues that might have tied the essays together. The individual parts were by far much greater than their sum. That sounds harsh, and obviously the main issue is that the format is new and untested. Since I have no vested interest in this particular seminar (I didn't apply, so there's no hard feelings or anything) I thought I would bite the bullet and offer some suggestions for next year. Not that anybody asked, but I think it the new format is a great idea and hope the society will keep tinkering with it.
  • It's crucial that everyone attending have read the papers. This means finding the papers online needs to be easier (I knew about them and know how to use the web, but still had trouble figuring out how to get them.) And I think frankly that it means being a bit of a hard-ass, and telling those who drop by without having read the papers that they can observe, but not participate. If that means much smaller attendance, so be it. Maybe you should have to register separately to attend the seminar.
  • Those participating need to view it as, well, a seminar. I don't mean the authors, but all of us who showed up to talk. We were all in graduate school once; we know that successful seminars require having done the readings, but also taking steps to enable dialogue. That means listening as much as talking, it means taking arguments in good faith, and it means paying attention to the ebb and flow of conversation so that multiple voices can have their turn. Obviously this is hard to maintain in a graduate seminar, let alone with a bunch of senior scholars. But it should be the ideal we aim for. Some of that is up to the moderator, but he or she can only do so much.
  • Different physical space could be useful. This seminar was held in one of the larger meeting rooms, and the moderator was right to try to get everyone to sit in a circle. But why not hold it in a conference room around a table?

My completely-unsolicited two cents. As I say, I think it is great to be experimenting with this format; it says good things about the Society that it is willing to try new ideas. ahemAMSahem.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

SAM Blogger Meet-Up No-Host Shindig

Looking for something to do in Ottawa this Friday night? Join Drew of amusicology and myself for a fun-filled no-host blogger meet-up. We're going to be at the Armada Lounge starting around 9pm; feel free to stop on by when you get out of the Student Forum Dinner or the Murray Schaefer concert or whatever else you might be doing in Ottawa that night.

Friday, March 12, 2010

News Items of the Day

Apologies for the broken links and missing images; this migration away from FTP publishing has been messier than I thought it would be. I should note, however, that it is mostly my own fault and has to do with certain technical mistakes I made in setting up my blog originally. The Blogger migration tool is actually quite well-implemented. And I don't fault them for no longer supporting FTP hosting, as to do means supporting thousands of different FTP servers out there, each with their own messy protocols. As you can tell, since you're here, the blog is now live at Unfortunately the old site is not operative at the moment, but hopefully by the end of the weekend it will be back and redirecting visitors over here. If you use a newsfeed, see the post below for the new address. What do we think of this new layout? I was getting bored with the old template. We'll see if I change my mind.

More substantive posts coming soon! The premiere of the HBO WWII miniseries The Pacific has spurred me into writing some long posts about the politics of remembering WWII, which come out of one of the new chapters I'm writing for The Book. Look for those soon.

In shorter news:
  • The ongoing struggle for the soul of public higher education in this country has taken some interesting twists in the past few weeks, especially with regards to LGBT students and faculty members. For some very interesting discourse and activism around that issue at UC Davis, check out this new group and blog Queers for Public Education. Here at William & Mary, the Virginia Attorney General's recent letter to public universities informing us that we are not allowed to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation is still sending shockwaves through the campus. We're on spring break right now, but when classes resume next week there is a rally planned for Thursday, March 18th at 2:00 pm. I'm unfortunately going to be in Canada at that moment (see below!) but I wish it the best. This is exactly the sort of situation where large public activist events can do a lot of good.

  • Speaking of Canada, should you happen to find yourself in lovely Ottawa, Ontario, next Friday the 19th, I hope you'll avail yourself of the opportunity to hear me speak! I'm on a panel discussing "Cold War Anxieties" as part of the annual meeting of the Society for American Music. It should be a great panel; I'm especially delighted to be sharing the stage with Jennifer DeLapp Birkett, whose work on Aaron Copland's experience with McCarthyism is very foundational for my own work. I will be doing a bit on Bernstein myself. Not the hippest stuff I do, but that has its pleasures.

A “Great American Symphony” During McCarthyism
Philip Gentry

Leonard Bernstein had a famously ambivalent relationship with the American symphonic tradition. “The symphony,” he said in 1958, “has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or something.” And a few years earlier came the famous question, “What Ever Happened to the Great American Symphony?” But even earlier in his career, as Bernstein was beginning to make a name for himself as a conductor and composer, the specter of the symphony loomed particularly large. Bernstein’s response, at once rebellious and obsequious, was the 1949 symphony The Age of Anxiety.

The infrequently performed and generally disfavored Age of Anxiety is an exploration of post-war apathy and exhaustion at the dawn of McCarthyism. The profoundly anti-heroic subject matter is matched by some of Bernstein’s most modernist music. Even in the work’s finale, written expressly in the “Koussevitzky manner,” I show how Bernstein purposefully injected a sense of alienation in what was superficially a triumphant closing. “My original idea,” he later remarked, “was to produce a mockery of faith, a phony faith.”

Read in the context of the American symphonic tradition, Bernstein’s alienation was both musical and political, as he watched friends and mentors like Aaron Copland entangled in partisan politics, and institutions of classical music robbed of their timeliness and popular appeal in the face of the challenge of mass culture. I argue that The Age of Anxiety was Bernstein’s response to these times, and also his farewell to the modernist tradition that had previously nurtured him.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010


A word on logistics: this weekend the address of this blog will be changing. Blogger is no longer allowing you to use FTP publishing, which has been my method of choice these past few years. I actually like the Blogger interface (I know everyone loves WordPress, but, eh...) but regardless of which platform I use, there's no getting around the fact that in the switch I have to move from the directory /blog/ to using subdomain nomenclature.

So if you wouldn't mind kindly updating your links to this humble blog, I would be much obliged. A pointer will remain here, but nobody likes a redirect. The new address will be:

Although again, I won't be switching over until this weekend. Just giving my devoted readers advance warning.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Virtual Oscar Pool

Oscar time! I meant to post this earlier and encourage a blogger Oscar prediction pool with a fabulous prize. But, a little late for that. Maybe next year.

These are predictions for what films will win awards, not what I think should. I haven't even seen half these movies.This year is particularly hard to predict, given the expansion of the Best Picture category and the use of the preferential voting system--history will be less of a guide. Remember, ballots were due last Tuesday and many were mailed in much earlier, so events of the past few days (such as the lawsuit against Hurt Locker) won't have an effect.

Best Picture
I'm sticking with Hurt Locker. James Cameron is widely disliked in the Academy, Hurt Locker is topical, would be the first for a woman director, and was riding the zeitgeist during the voting period. The one unpredictable element is the smear campaign, which had a random assortment of veterans complaining of inaccuracies in the film, and the leaking of an email in which a Hurt Locker producer had urged his friends to not vote for Avatar (it's technically illegal to disparage other films, even just in a private email.) While these accusations could be damaging, my feeling is that they were so patently the result of maneuvering on the part of rivals that I suspect voters won't be swayed. Also, not that it matters, but it was a pretty good movie too.

Best Director
This is solidly for Kathryn Bigelow.

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges is by all accounts a lock. I finally saw Crazy Hearts last night, and it is indeed exactly the sort of performance the Academy loves.

Best Supporting Actor
Very tricky one; I would say pretty much a toss-up. Look for this category to go as a consolation prize to films like Invictus, Lovely Bones and Inglorious Basterds that aren't going to win much else. If pressed, I suppose I'll guess Christoph Waltz.

Best Actress
Also wide-open. Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are the types that win Oscars just for sneezing, but I have a hunch that won't happen this year. My money is on Carey Mulligan. If Sandra wins, I will shoot myself.

Best Supporting Actress
The Up in the Air vote will presumably split. Nine was panned, and between Maggie Gyllenhall and Mo'Nique, I think I would bet on the former.

Best Animated Feature Film
One of the best rosters for this category ever. Up was a good movie, but not one of the best, and I think there is definite Pixar fatigue out there. It might win if Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox split the vote. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Coraline's loyal base might see it though. Again, though, what a great year for animation.

Best Screenplay
Perhaps The Hurt Locker, but I think this might be Inglorious Basterds main prize for the night.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Similarly, I think this will be allotted as the consolation prize to Up in the Air, although Oscar votes do like a literary name, and Nick Hornby wrote An Education. Still, I bet on Reitman and Turner.

Best Song
When will Disney learn that offering up more than one song means you split the vote? Apparently not this year. I presume this is a lock for the theme from Crazy Heart.

The rest I leave up to you--tune in next week to discuss the results!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Grim Times at the Public University

It's been a rough few weeks (well, decades) for public education. First, the University of California spirals further into flames, spilling over from the constant battles over funding into paroxysms of student-on-student violence. Them another flurry of articles about the ongoing determination of some administrators to trade SUNY Binghamton's well-known academic success for a paltry, feeble attempt at pushing one (not all, just one) of their athletic teams to success. Now, this news from down here in Virginia. From the Post:
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has urged the state's public colleges and universities to rescind policies that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, arguing in a letter sent to each school that their boards of visitors had no legal authority to adopt such statements.

In his most aggressive initiative on conservative social issues since taking office in January, Cuccinelli (R) wrote in the letter sent Thursday that only the General Assembly can extend legal protections to gay state employees, students and others -- a move the legislature has repeatedly declined to take as recently as this week.

I strongly believe in public education, and find abhorrent the trend towards the privatization of public institutions, a particularly popular approach in this state. But at moments like this, it's hard not to wish for more independence from the state legislature. Back in California, privatization meant limiting marginalized students from access to higher education. Ironically, here in Virginia, the opposite might be true.