Thursday, August 26, 2010

Utopian Thinking

It's been a summer of utopian reading here in the 2'23" household. First, in the endless process of editing of some of my Cage work, I revisited Jill Dolan's Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope in Theater. This is a great book that I was originally introduced to by my old roommate in LA, and which I had found very useful and inspiring; she had this great line about utopia being "the desire to be part of the intense present" that sums up quite well my own personal reaction to 4'33".

Then later in the summer I happened across the original utopian thinker, good ol' Thomas More, who makes an indelible appearance in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which I finally got around to reading a year after it won the Booker Prize. More has traditionally gotten a pretty positive rap from history; certainly my impression of him growing up was as a saintly intellectual. I even read his Utopia at a fairly impressionable age, sometime in high school. I don't think I really understood any of it, but I liked the idea. But one of the many great things about Wolf Hall--and it is a great book if you haven't yet read it--is that it portrays him rather villainously, as a cruel and pretentious man bent on enforcing his own rigid orthodoxy as long as he was in power. "Not my period," as we historians say, so I have no idea of the historical truth of the situation, but there was something liberating about Mantel's re-telling of the famous story, and it was also a powerful reminder of the perilous forms sometimes assumed by utopian thinking.

And then finally I've spent the last few weeks devouring José Muñoz's Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. It's an astonishingly cool book, and I'm not the only one with whom it has struck a chord--if you meander over to the Social Text site, you'll find an array of reactions from smart people, all similarly enchanted. (Not to mention an interpretive drawing by the legendary Vaginal Davis!) As you'll see from their comments, Cruising Utopia is a powerful and inspiring writerly performance. It dredges deep into some heavy-duty cultural theory, especially the work of Ernest Bloch, but also Heidegger, Marcuse, and Adorno.

Adorno, you might ask? However could Muñoz find witty, liberatory potential in the work of Adorno? Well, that's part of the joy of reading this book. As with an earlier discussion of Heidegger, Muñoz doesn't feel constrained by earlier, dreary readings of these theorists, and takes an attitude that is both playful but also kind of liberating. My favorite moment so far is when he has a detailed discussion of Bloch's and Adorno's views on utopia that segues neatly into an analysis of some of John Giorno's sexually-explicit autobiographical writing, e.g. "Here is another instance of Giorno doing what Adorno calls the casting of a picture: 'I unbuckled the kid's belt and he pulled down his pants..." I won't go further because this is a family blog, but if you've spent much time with Adorno--and most musicologists have--the idea of Adorno arguing for the utopian potential of anonymous sex at the Prince Street toilets is rather gleeful. But then you realize it's not wrong either. I think it's an example of Muñoz's fundamentally optimistic and, well, utopian approach to theory that he asks us to imagine Theodor Adorno the orgy enabler. Isn't that more fun that going on about how blah blah Adorno hates popular culture blah blah blah?

Anyways, I'm still reading, but if you're looking for some bedside reading to get you through the beginning of the semester, I highly recommend it. As I make my way through I'm going to be posting about it occasionally, and if any of you have read it, I'd love to hear your reactions.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Describing Slowing Down

It's been fun to watch the blog world try to put a finger on why Justin Bieber's hit song "U Smile" sounds so great when you slow it down by 800%:

(You can hear the original here; the slowdown was achieved by a 20 year old Floridian feeding the track through a free program called "Paul's Extreme Sound Stretch.")

Daniel over at Renewable Music put a precise finger on the situation, comparing it to La Monte Young's attempts to get "inside" the sound. That's what I had been thinking as well. It also reminds me a bit of Steve Reich, especially Different Trains. At any rate, as he and some of his commenters point out, the slowed-down Bieber makes use of techniques--and a mode of listening-- that have been part of experimental and electronic music for ages, and it's nice to hear so many people get into it.

However, when you spend a lot of time with interesting new music, one of the challenges is trying to describe the bizarre sounds being achieved. With canonical classical music one always recourse to technical vocabulary if needed, and there is certainly a lot of new music criticism that just holds still with a technical description of how the sounds are achieved, e.g., "This is the sound of Justin Bieber slowed down 800%" My first class in college was a survey of experimental music taught by the illustrious Alvin Lucier, and he repeatedly drilled into us that we should just describe the sounds we heard without recourse to metaphors or fancy-schmancy romantic adjectives.

But at some point it's nice to move beyond that level of description. And it becomes particularly amusing, and interesting, when it's not your typical new music critics doing so, but random pop culture bloggers out there trying to wrap their ears around a new sound:

"the climactic score to some kind of historical epic...It sounds like the ocean, but, like, in heaven." [Gawker]

"a monstrous but peace-loving ocean's surf as some all-encompassing ethereal chant hums in the language of the whales. Into your brain." [SF Gate]

"something that might be tacked onto the end of a Sigur Ros album or be on one of Enya's more experimental forays into noise." [MTV]

"like standing on the edge of some majestic cliff in the wilds of Ireland feels." [mashable]

"like the ambient soundtrack to an edgy indie film set either in outer space or underwater and helmed by a director who's high on magic mushrooms." [cnet]

"giving him sort of celestial-choirboy quality, while the music becomes almost ludicrously majestic and beautiful." [npr]

As our students all learn on Day 1, describing music is hard!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bang on a Can in Philly

As a non-New Yorker, I officially disapprove of the provincial notion that you have to go up there for interesting new music. Who needs Bang on a Can, we have...uh, Relâche! They're great. And....Bowerbird! Always interesting. And...okay, well there's not a ton of other new music stuff going on here, but still.

But I have to admit, I'm thrilled to hear that Bang on a Can is for the first time doing one of their marathons here in Philly, as part of the Fringe Festival. It's going to be September 12 at World Cafe Live, and you will see me there! Maybe not for the whole ten hours, but for a good chunk of it.

The Schedule:

So Percussion performing Drumming Part 1, composed by Steve Reich
SIGNAL conducted by Brad Lubman performing Shelter, composed by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, with film by Bill Morrison and projections by Laurie Olinder
Asphalt Orchestra performing Carlton, composed by STEW & Heidi Rodewald, and The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive-Ass Slippers, composed by Charles Mingus
Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra - TBC, composed by Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra
Todd Reynolds performing Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites, composed by Annie Gosfield
Bang on a Can All-Stars performing Music from Shadowbang, composed by Evan Ziporyn, and Stroking Piece #1, composed by Thurston Moore
The Crossing performing Epic Text & Statements, composed by Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen and Villarosa Sarialdi, composed by Thomas Jennefelt
Asphalt Orchestra performing Electric Red, composed by Meshuggah and Hyper Ballad, composed by Bjork
Uri Caine with Ralph Alessi & Jim Black, TBC, composed by Uri Caine
Normal Love performing I Heard You Can See Baltimore from up there*, and Electrolytes in the Brine*, composed by Normal Love
So Percussion performing Threads, composed by Paul Lansky
The Crossing performing Gloria (Everywhere), composed by Kamran Ince
Sun Ra Arkestra, TBC, composed by Sun Ra
Bang on a Can All-Stars performing Workers Union, composed by Louis Andriessen
Asphalt Orchestra performing Two Ships, composed by David Byrne/Annie Clark; Zomby Woof, composed by Frank Zappa, and Champagne, composed by Goran Bregovic
Keepers of the Chaos, TBC, composed by Jamaaldeen Tacuma/G. Calvin Weston
Matmos, TBC, composed by Matmos
Matmos & So Percussion , performing selections from Treasure State, composed by Matmos & So Percussion
Bang on a Can All-Stars & Kyaw Kyaw Naing performing selections from Bang on a Can Meets Kyaw Kyaw Naing, composed by Kyaw Kyaw Naing

Friday, August 13, 2010

FTM in Arizona

Kendra at Les Belles Dames sans Merci writes:
I saw a CFP recently for the Feminist Theory and Music 11: Looking Backward and Forward conference. FTM is an annual conference bringing together scholars from many areas to share their research and ideas. I’d love to go. However, the 2011 meeting is being held at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. This is a major problem. Arizona’s recent racist and unconstitutional laws on immigration and the treatment of its citizens make it impossible for me to support any events held in the state, as well as any groups that sponsor those events... [snip]

FTM 11 , I urge you to reconsider holding your next conference in a city where a significant portion of attendees risk discrimination and, as the General says, second-class treatment. Feminist theory has long grappled with race, class, status, and justice. Would you really discount all of that work to hold a meeting in Arizona?

I agree. I've never participated in FTM nor was I planning to this year so it's not like my opinion really matters, but I nevertheless encourage you to go read the entirety of Kendra's post. I'm not actually very knee-jerk on this subject; I generally find attempts to get scholarly organizations engaged in politics to be naive at best, and often very misguided. (Michael Bérubé has blogged more eloquently about this than I, but I can't find the particular link at the moment.) When it comes to conferences, there is at least some economic teeth to the political bite. I wish, for instance, that the American Historical Association had not gone ahead with holding their annual meeting at a hotel owned by an anti-gay activist. But generally, I think boycotts of geographic areas are the wrong approach. The issues are sometimes chosen rather arbitrarily (it would be hard to find a city or state not guilty of a some sin!), and even when quite valid, I usually think engagement works better.

However--and it's a big "however"--the case in Arizona is different. This isn't about using the mighty weight of the FTM Local Arrangements Committee to show Arizona who's boss. Rather, it's the very concrete reality that some people who might wish to come to the conference will feel unsafe doing so because of their race/ethnicity or immigration status. That's a fundamental problem that for me trumps other (important) concerns. Perhaps the organizers can find some more elegant solution than simply moving the conference to a different location, but it's an issue that needs to be addressed somehow.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Harvey Fuqua

I can't believe I missed the news that Harvey Fuqua passed away last month. Fuqua is probably the most important figure in the development of R&B that you've never heard of. Not only as a singer and producer, although the fact that his career was bookend with "Sincerely" (1954) and "Sexual Healing" (1982) is pretty astounding on its own. But at every step in the glorious history of R&B, Fuqua served as a connecting thread between generations. For example, Fuqua began his career in the sweet vocal harmony style popularized by the Ink Spots (of whom one was his uncle). Later critics would start to call this music "doo-wop", but in the early 1950s it was still produced and consumed almost entirely within urban African American communities. Fuqua wasn't the only one who introduced that style into the (much larger and more commercially successful) world of rock n' roll, but his alliance with Alan Freed (whose nickname "Moondog" was the source of the name "Moonglows") was a major moment in that story.

And it goes on from there. Fuqua discovered Marvin Gaye, and then moved on to Detroit to join the Gordy family business, becoming one of the bridges between doo-wop and Motown. And so on and so on, touching everyone from Sylvester (the man produced "You Make Me Feel", for goodness sake!) and then famously Marvin Gaye's last album. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Another nice tribute here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Case Against Gay Marriage

A reminder of why I find Andrew Sullivan generally despicable, no matter how enthusiastically he voted for Obama last year. In the course of making his typically-conservative argument in favor of gay marriage:
If you have total gay freedom and no gay institutions that can channel love and desire into commitment and support, you end up in San Francisco in the 1970s. That way of life - however benignly expressed, however defensible as the pent-up unleashed liberation of a finally free people - helped kill 300,000 young human beings in this country in our lifetime.
Actually, Andrew, the absence of gay marriage in this country did not cause the AIDS crisis. Nor did "total gay freedom." It was caused by a virus, as you well know. And its effects were magnified thanks to the fine public health efforts of a Republican government you strongly supported. Well, that and Sullivan's own "consummate hypocrisy," as Richard Kim once put it. As Kim pointed out back then, Sullivan is despicable not so much for the obvious hypocrisy--read Kim's piece for the overview of Sullivan's own sex life--but because his politics are devoted to keeping power in the hands of the already-powerful. Just because he favors allowing the powerful to be gay doesn't alter the fundamental equation he promotes.

Civil marriage is nothing more than a series of benefits, mostly financial, that the government affords certain citizens. Should those benefits not be given to those who live in non-traditional family arrangements that still won't be covered by "gay marriage"? To those who simply choose to be single? To those who don't choose to be single, but are nevertheless? What exactly is the reasoning behind these policies? My ideal government would not expand the financial benefits of marriage to a slightly larger group of people, it would do away with them all together. If we want to provide financial assistance for child rearing, shouldn't that assistance be more directly linked to the having of children? I'm a pragmatist so I'm strongly in favor of legalizing gay marriage today, but I'm not going to pretend that it's going to solve many social ills, and in the hands of Andrew Sullivan I worry that it will actually create more.

Now, you might ask yourself, aren't you married yourself, Professor Gentry? Why yes, I am. I think there is a lot of good to be found in the ritualized union of individuals.* I think well enough of that concept to even consider it something of a sacrament, went so far as to have celebrated my own in a church. And that's exactly why I think the state has no place inregulating consensual relationships at all; render under Ceaser and all that.

And it's before my time, but I hear that San Francisco in the 1970s could be a pretty wonderful place.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Vegas Figaro

Speaking of smaller music institutions, my sister and a friend have founded a new opera company here in Philadelphia, Poor Richard's Opera. Their debut production will take place in September as part of the Philly Fringe Festival, and is called The Marriage of Figaro: The Las Vegas Version. Here's the official blurb:
Move over Count Almaviva, make way for Ol' Blue Eyes. Ever wonder how Mozart would do in 1960s Las Vegas? Even if you haven't, you need to find out! Opera goes groovy in the Philadelphia premiere of DC writers Elizabeth Pringle's and Bari Biern's original libretto and lyrics matched with Mozart's timeless music of love, betrayal and forgiveness.

Poor Richard's Opera, Philadelphia's newest opera company, announces its premier production, The Marriage of Figaro: The Las Vegas Version, as part of the 2010 Philadelphia Fringe Festival at the Moonstone Arts Center, 110A S. 13th Street, on Saturday September 11 and Sunday September 12 at 7:30 PM.

"Part opera, part zany spoof, [The Marriage of Figaro: The Las Vegas Version] moves in and out of Mozart's frame so comfortably, so smoothly and entirely without an attempt to simply recreate his wonderful opera." (The Washington Post)

The Count - Paul Corujo
The Countess - Katy Gentry
Figaro - Ben Williams
Susanna - Sydney de Lapeyrouse
Cherubino - Alyssa Marshall
Marcellina - Annie Gill
Bartolo/Antonio - Matthew Fisher
Basilio - Aaron Spencer
Pianist - Yoonhak Baek

Tickets - $20, available at the door or here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

One More Orchestra Post

I promise I'm really not one of those "future of the orchestra" people who gets stressed out by the future of performing arts organizations like the Philadelphia Orchestra. As I wrote before, I think we overestimate the role these behemoths play in the actual musical life of our communities. And as a historian, I'm most interested in how cultural change happens over time, and much less in how best to drag my heels kicking and screaming. You know Raymond Williams's old (1958 I believe!) formulation of how that change happens? He posits that at given time there are three forms of culture: residual, dominant, and emergent. You can probably figure out what those terms mean, and where an institution like the Philadelphia Orchestra fits in.

That said, I can't resist a few links. Not just commentary, however, but also commentary on the commentary.
  • Peter Dobrin in the Inquirer on the problems faced by the Orchestra. Lots of interesting information, but I especially direct your attention to the article comments. You should know that the Inquirer comment sections are usually swirling tornadoes of incivility; these comments are remarkably thoughtful.
  • The well-known liberal blogger Atrios is a subscriber to the Orchestra, and often provides a thoughtful, neutral vantage point. Again, the comments to his post are often intriguing.
  • Yelp Reviews of the Kimmel Center.

I find all of this anonymous internet discussion fascinating. There is a lot of resentment about perceived elitism in some quarters, although in the Inquirer comments it is interesting that it's sometimes resentment of the stuffiness of the Orchestra, and other times resentment that the local moneyed elites aren't contributing enough money. But along with the resentment there is a lot of positive commentary as well. I particularly found the Yelp reviews interesting. I don't mean this condescendingly, but it is refreshing to read the the responses of wide-eyed newcomers to classical music.