Monday, October 18, 2010

Queer Sects and Royal Vets

Just finished the short paper I'm giving as part of the Cold War Study Group panel this AMS. As I've been apt to do recently, I look at the discourse of "anxiety" in the 1950s, in this case in a performance by the great Doris Day. You'll have to come to the paper to get the rest, but here's the famous moment from Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much where Doris saves the day by singing "Que Sera, Sera."

Little known fact #1: "Que Sera Sera" won the Oscar for Best Song in 1956. The shocking thing is that this is the only Academy Award ever won by a Hitchcock movie. He was awarded an Honorary Oscar at the end of his career, but this was the only real one.

Little known fact #2: the scene in Camden Town where Jimmy Stewart is walking down the street towards the taxidermist, and he hears omninous footsteps clattering behind him?

The row house at the end of the street behind him is where Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud lived together in 1873. That's what the trivia guides say, but re-watching the movie I recognized it instantly because also in the background you can see the edge of the Royal Veterinary College, where my wife went to school for five years--it's the more institutional-looking building behind a wall to the right of the row houses. I've retraced Jimmy Stewart's steps down that street a million times, as it is how you get to the Camden High Street.

Unclassifiable Piece of Information: There was a scene eventually cut from the movie, in which a British woman is telling Jimmy and Doris where to find somebody named Vassilly. One of the themes of the movie (Hitchcock's first after becoming an American citizen, incidentally) is the American's inability to recognize non-American accents, and so we get this bit of hilarity:
The landlady is not sentimental about Vassily. She always thought he would come to a sticky end. "Queer sex," she says darkly. "That was the trouble with him." Bob and Jill are baffled by this. But further questioning reveals that Vassily belonged to one of those queer religious sects.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Too Many Rings?

(I write this with that caveat that I haven't thought about it very much or very deeply.)

Is there such a thing as too many productions of the Ring? Look, I'm actually kind of a big Wagner fan. I'll be going to NYC to see at least one of the LePage productions, and watching the rest at my local cineplex. I own multiple video and audio recordings. I talk a little bit about the 1952 Furtwängler recording of Tristan in my book project. Heck, I took a graduate seminar just on the Ring! And so when I saw that Houston was planning to do a Ring cycle, my instinct was to begin musing about my whereabouts in 2014 and whether a trip through Texas could be involved.

But you know...these productions are expensive. Like, really expensive. The Melbourne end of things for the HGO version is estimated at $15 million, which seems low. The NY Met version has had estimates from $17 to $40 million, and I have to believe that if it involved refabricating the stage to support the enormous circus stage machinery, the money's got to come in on the high end of that. The money is all supposedly coming from a $30 million donation from the Ziff family, but think about how much great opera could be produced with $30 million! It reminds me a little of those people who donate $100 million to the arts Yale or Princeton—that's philanthropy to glory yourself, not to actually help the arts.

It's not that I don't think there should be new productions of the Ring; every generation should have its own Ring to argue about. And I'm okay with Wagner costing more to produce than your average opera. And new Ring productions should come from new and interesting places and not just NYC and Seattle.

But within about five years we've had what, the Met, San Francisco, LA, Houston...I dunno, it seems like a lot of the American operatic stage and the money behind it is going to be occupied with Wagner for the foreseeable future. And as much as I like him, there's a lot else out there I'd also like to see!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Living in the Wilderness

Over these past few weeks I've resisted blogging about the renewed attention given to suicides by queer kids. It's a question of not wanting to use this very-public blog to talk about a very personal subject, but also because it is just a hard subject to talk about. I have mixed feelings about Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, similar to those of Tavia's thoughtful post on the subject. And I do not in the least share the "string them up!" mentality some in the community have taken towards the so-called "bullies" at Rutgers, both because the facts are certainly not clear in that case and also because in my experience, retribution rarely makes you feel better. I have a similar discomfort with hate crimes legislation, along the lines of that voiced by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. I could go on, but luckily Richard Kim (as usual!) knows exactly what to say, and I hope you'll read his piece in The Nation.

The personal experience here is that I have spent a lot of time working with queer kids on these issues, starting in the mid-1990s when I was one myself and continuing on through college. Our approach then was to lead workshops in high schools, with the goal not of training the homophobia out of straight students, but in hopes of letting the queer and proto-queer amongst them see the existence of role models out there in the world. Not so different from "It Get's Better," come to think of it, although the personal contact and attempt to find speakers rooted in the same community made it a little different. I hope we did good, although there were certainly tragedies along the way. I'm glad that there is renewed attention to the issue, but I also know that these few recent suicides are a drop in the bucket.

So what's a musicologist to do? I don't know. But I did find some comfort in class today. I was doing a brief unit on the English Reformation, and therefore on William Byrd. I'm not a specialist in this area, and so I tend to crib from the scholarship of others for teaching. In this case my source was Joseph Kerman's essay on Bryd and English Catholicism in Write All These Down. Byrd, as you know, was a recusant Catholic who straddled the line between great public success as a composer of Anglican church music and his own underground and highly-persecuted beliefs. One of Kerman's musical examples was the Ne Irascaris Domine from 1589:

The text, especially the second half, speaks to the feeling of being alone in a wilderness, in obvious metaphor for the situation in England for a Catholic like Byrd.
Be not angry, O Lord,
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.

Your holy city has become a wilderness.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.

One of the most affecting moments is the setting of "Zion has become a wilderness," which begins at about 6:10 in this YouTube video of the Hilliard Ensemble's performance. The polyphony stops in favor of a slow, homorhythmic passage that sets the words in what Kerman calls "unforgettably bleak and hollow" harmonies and textures. This is important in Kerman's argument because it is an early example of Byrd's expressive style that put him ahead of his English contemporaries. But listening to it with my class, I couldn't help but think of those who for various reasons find themselves alone in a desolate wilderness. Just last week, a high school classmate of mine killed herself. I hadn't been in touch with her since high school except as friends on Facebook, and it is continually heart-rending to see the wall posts in my newsfeed as people belatedly tell Jennie they love her and miss her.

Listening to a piece of music like Ne irascaris domine should theoretically be depressing. But the semi-mystical nature of performance makes it different, as we all know. This is performance as what Richard Schechner famously called "twice-behaved behavior," or in his more evocative words, "Performance means: never for the first time." Or, more simply, performance is knowing that at some point somebody else once felt the same way. That is comforting indeed.

But also: most of us who read this blog are educators, and I hope we'll remember Richard Kim's advice to love queer kids, even if it occasionally costs us something.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Music Criticism at the Movies

Stanley Fish has a fun online column up about literary criticism in movies. As he points out, there are lots of movies based on literary sources, or about literary figures, or even a few about literary critics, but few examples of literary criticism actually being performed by the movie. (His column focuses on the new movie Howl which does just that.)

So that gets me thinking: are there examples of movies that perform musicology, or at least music criticism? Let me brainstorm:
  • Amadeus. I'd say this goes beyond just depiction of a musical figure, most obviously in the dictation of the Requiem at the end that shows how a piece of classical music is constructed. Also, however, the many plot points based around issues such comic versus serious opera, the language of the libretto, nationalism, etc.
  • High Fidelity. Tons of pop music criticism being spoken in that movie, and so integrally to the plot that I think it qualifies!
  • What's Up, Doc? I have never actually seen this Barbra Streisand movie, but Kay Shelemay reviewed it a few years back and it seems like it might fit.
  • Fantasia. Not always the sort of musicology we approve of, but certainly lots going on!

Any other good examples of cinematic musicology or music criticism?