Saturday, November 30, 2019

links for the weekend--Alan Jacobs on Pauline Kael on Citizen Kane; Metaxas and Graham demonize anti-Trump stances (?); and some treatises on musical stuff

Alan Jacobs has a moderately long piece on Pauline Kael's contentious and in some ways slippery take on Citizen Kane.
If you look at the black-and-white comics of the masterful Will Eisner, the similarities of Eisner’s visual language to that of Citizen Kane are obvious. (Chabon’s characters create a comic called The Escapist, which was later made into an actual comic. Issue number 6 of The Escapist [2004] includes the final appearance of Eisner’s character the Spirit, who had his first appearance in 1940, as Mankiewicz and Welles were working on the screenplay for Kane.)

Kael tries to get at a point very like this one by referring to Kane as a “Gothic comedy”: the “witty, potent dialogue” that comes from the newsroom comedies of Broadway and the early talkies is merged with the “theatrical lighting and queasy angles” that look Gothic, European, maybe even, yes, Expressionist. (But Gregg Toland, the genius cinematographer who did so much to shape the movie’s cinematic style, was not a European refugee but rather a native of east-central Illinois.) She takes the point too far, of course: Kane is greatly indebted to those earlier comedies but it would be a perverse viewer indeed who walked out of the theater after seeing Charles Foster Kane’s demise thinking “What a charming comedy.”

Joe Kavalier has a vision of comics as a powerfully hybridized endeavor: text and image, European and American, “popular” and “serious.” Similarly, Kael sees Kane as energized by the multiplicity of the forces that pass into and through it, as constituted by its tensions. What she realized was that there are more such tensions than a superficial viewing might reveal. It is easy enough to say that Kane, as a movie that portrays the downfall of a titan of print media, represents or somehow enacts the transfer of cultural power from print to film. And to say that would not be wrong. But what Kael uniquely understands is that that transfer is also a kind of homage—and more than an homage: a continuation of a flamboyant and entertaining social project by other means, in a new form.

And the tensions which generate the magnificent energies of Citizen Kane—text and image, New York and Hollywood, “serious” and “popular,” elite and arriviste, the solitary and the collaborative—continue unabated in today’s media, with the massive added complications of Silicon Valley and the world of the web; complications that turn every binary into a triangulation. And a powerful instrument for comprehending these forces may be found, oddly enough, in a movie that was released in 1941. Kael’s lies and thefts and distortions and exaggerations have served not to reinforce this vital point about Kane’s relationship with earlier media — which was, after all, the chief thing she wanted to say — but rather to obscure it. This is a shame, because if you strip away all the nonsense you find in “Raising Kane” a key that unlocks much of the mystery of the power of this endlessly compelling film, which may still be, even now, the greatest yet made.

Peter Wehner at The Atlantic broaches the polemical point of whether or not those who oppose Trump and his policies can be, as lately discussed by Metaxas and Franklin Graham, as in some sense demonic.

Wehner doesn't go so far as to say Graham or Metaxas are bad or unscrupulous people.  Metaxas was recently willing to endorse Mark and Grace Driscoll's spiritual-warfare self-help manual after reports came to light in the press regarding ResultSource (World magazine) and the plagiarism controversy kicked off by Janet Mefferd).  Metaxas seems to have joined the mutual endorsers book club crew.  Graham, there's still investigative journalism that's been going on about Graham but I can't find it in myself to take either of these guys seriously.

Here in the Puget Sound area there were folks from a more United Methodist wing that were willing to consider the idea that Bush 2 was an antichrist.  Literally or figuratively demonizing groups we're opposed to or we regard as opposed to us is how people behave, apparently.  That during the Clinton years there were those who regarded the net effect of his policies as beneficial enough that his personal conduct didn't matter, the other shoe seems to have dropped and those who have supported Trump seem to be supportive of his policies whether or not at a personal level he has demonstrated sterling character.  There is apparently room for a kind of GOP variation of "It's the economy, stupid."

If your Spanish is ... decent ... Luciano Tavares has a treatise on the solo guitar sonatas of Manuel Ponce you might want to read.  My Spanish is remedial at best but I'm familiar enough with the Ponce guitar sonatas this is going to be, I hope, on my 2020 reading projects list.
Las Sonatas para guitarra de Manuel Ponce

Dr. Luiz Mantovani has an English language dissertation on Ferdinand Rebay that I'm reading

Ferdinand Rebay and the reinvention of guitar chamber music.
The Abstract:

Ferdinand Rebay (1880-1953) was a pioneer among the non-guitarist composers who started to write for the guitar in the 1920s. However, in spite of having composed close to 400 guitar works, he is today undeservedly obscure. This thesis examines his more than 30 sonatas or sonata-structured works for guitar, most of which is made of chamber music for combinations that range from duos to a septet. In Part 1, I situate Rebay’s chamber sonatas within the guitar repertoire, understanding it as a reaction to the lighter repertoire of the guitar clubs, the turn-of-the-century's main guitar niche in German-speaking territories. After investigating the guitaristic context, I look at Rebay’s career and interactions with the Viennese guitar circles, highlighting the work of his main champion and niece-guitarist, Gerta Hammerschmid. Later, I analyse his compositional style and demonstrate that, by associating the guitar with the Austro-German Romantic sonata prestige, Rebay may have intended to elevate the instrument’s status in the eyes of the mainstream Viennese audiences. His exploration of the guitar in chamber music is equally paradigmatic, as he frees the instrument from its typical accompaniment roles and explores a fully-balanced texture in his sonata writing. In Part 2, I approach a selected group of seven chamber sonatas from a performer’s point of view. Faced with the lack of a continuous performance tradition of Rebay’s guitar music, I propose to incorporate an extended stylistic and technical mindset largely supported by historical investigation, which helps understand Rebay’s meticulous notation and realize it convincingly. Finally, I trace Rebay’s collaborative steps through the layers of information available in his manuscript sources, also proposing a “posthumous collaboration” to deal with score-based issues and make problematic passages—or in some cases, full works—playable and idiomatic. By initially situating Rebay’s guitar music and later addressing some of its most important performance aspects, I hope to provide secure historical and interpretative grounds for the modern guitarist interested in his music.

You can go follow over here to find out more and get the dissertation.

I've gotten about a hundred pages into it and it's fun.  Mantovani has cleared up a misunderstanding or early liner notes mistake to the effect that Rebay died poor and destitute away from family.  Rebay also wrote a lot more music for guitar than I had previously imagined, hundreds of pieces.  Mantovani situates the development and evolution of Rebay's writing for guitar in a context of Rebay's work in choral music and training as a pianist but also in terms of hausmusik traditions in Austrian music that go as far back as Biedermeier customs in the early 19th century. Pardon the probably bad German, never studied that language so I'm probably botching some words on the weekend.

A short links for the weekend but I get to make a links for the weekend post short once in a while. Enjoying the holiday weekend by doing some reading and ... also watching season 1 of Unikitty.  Wenatchee The Hatchet does watch animation regularly.  Brie was not going to be be voicing Princess Unikitty for the series and it's no surprise at all Tara Strong was brought in to give voice to Unikitty.  Strong being Strong, she gives a voice that I would say is like Bubbles from the Powerpuff Girls if Bubbles had power-bombed four liters of Mountain Dew, a relentlessly manic performance for a character who can be seen even by her friends as oppressively upbeat and positive, which basically works.  It could also come across as immensely aggravating but voice cast and scriptwriters lean hard into this and lampshade it in moments where Unikitty in one episode has made it so her friends act like her and in a moment of doubt says, "Gosh am I really like this all the time?"

Can only watch it in small, small doses but I have to admit, basically it makes me laugh and it's what I would expect Miller and Lord to do with one of the characters who would transition from film to TV sensibly.

assorted playlists of cycles of preludes and fugues where composers experimented with adding jazz elements

In his book Composing the Part Line: Music and Politics in Early Cold War Poland and Easter Germany David G. Tompkins mentioned something I hadn't heard or seen in writings about socialist realism in American writings.  He pointed out that the lifespan of officially socialist realist music wasn't especially long.  The prescriptive ideology began to fall out of favor in Poland and East Germany as early as the mid-1950s.  By the mid-1950s Polish intellectuals were urging that the nation's musicians and music programs be open to jazz. see page 44. Tompkins.  If socialist realism was not exactly repudiated there were attempts to finesse and expand its definition to be more inclusive.

The Tompkins book isn't exactly breezy or light reading but it's fascinating as a reference for musicians and Western readers whose understanding of how socialist realism worked (and didn't work) as an aesthetic/political philosophy played out differently in Poland and eastern Germany than it did in the Soviet Union proper.  It's so dry, personally, I'm still in the earlier chapters to be honest, but reading about how within just a couple of years of the death of Stalin there were Polish intellectuals and artists who began to call for openness to jazz might be a good thumbnail sketch reminder to Western readers that jazz was well-known in the mid-twentieth century in the Soviet bloc, if not necessarily officially approved.

Although Rodion Shchedrin experimented with adding jazz vocabulary into some of his piano concerti he didn't exactly add jazz harmonies or riffs into his preludes and fugues or polyphonic notebook to the extent that I could confidently include him in this little weekend playlist.

These are all cycles of preludes and fugues I eventually want to blog about some day but the thing about music is that if you can't hear the music there's only so much you can meaningfully say about the music that a reader could understand.  I'm planning on returning to blogging about the Koshkin preludes and fugues next month after I simmer in the sonic goodness of the forthcoming Asya Selyutina recording of the first half of the cycle due out on Naxos next month.  These are part of big list of to-get-to writing for Wenatchee The Hatchet.  If you haven't heard these cycles there are playlists via Youtube and all of these cycles are available in recorded form if you like one of them enough to listen.

Now the first is recorded, complete, by the composer himself and Kapustin is pretty formidable in keyboard technique.  This is, so far, my favorite of the cycles of preludes and fugues that aim to develop a synthesis of jazz vocabulary with fugal technique.  Kapustin has never identified himself as a jazz composer and also rejects the categories "fusion" and "third stream".  He's what we might have to call a "classical" composer who stays strictly in the "classical" lane but makes use of jazz vocabulary from Tatum and Petersen as the spark of inspiration for his approach to fugue.

Nikolai Kapustin
24 preludes and fugues, Op. 82

It has only been this year, it seems, that Alie Anne Yorgason has written a dissertation specifically on Op. 82 which I haven't had the opportunity to read.  Op. 82 dates back to 1997 so it's been around for 22 years by now but has not gotten much attention in the West.  It should.  I think it is probably the most successful cyclical work in "classical" music to draw inspiration from the vocabulary of jazz while staying in what people would call the "classical" wheelhouse.

That said, there have been other cycles.

Fugal Dreams, by Richard Bellak, is a cycle I listened to in the last year and it's not nearly as much my cup of tea but writing fugues at all calls for enough technique in instrumental and compositional terms it's at least worth giving a listen.  If Kapustin's style could be described as firmly and unabashedly indebted to a Tatum/Petersen or maybe even a Bud Powell sound Bellak's cycle might come across as more Brubeck/Evans and, this would be less complimentary for some jazz fans, more on the cool side than the swing or bebop eras.

I'm a bit more fond of Michelle Gorrell's set, which has not been recorded in total in a commercial way yet but that you can hear over yonder.

Michelle Gorrell
Well Tempered Licks and Grooves, Books 1 & 2

Boosey & Hawkes is still preparing the second half for publication in score form.  I've got the first half.  This is more explicitly ... I'm going to have to call it neo-Baroque.  The influence of jazz and ragtime and blues is front and center but Gorrell handles form and line in a more neo-Baroque way.  She's drawing inspiration from jazz and ragtime but isn't trying to create preludes and fugues that attempt to catch the "spirit" of them in the way American fans of jazz or blues might describe it.  There's a lot I like about this cycle and so far I would say that if Kapustin is the most effective at synthesizing jazz vocabulary with fugal technique in the "East" then Gorrell has written the cycle I've heard that does a good job of such a fusion in the "West".

Probably the most ambitious effort in the U.S., also dating from the late 1990s, seems to be Henry Martin's 24 preludes and fugues.  This is a formidably large cycle for solo piano and I'm a bit split on how I feel about it.  On the one hand, there are a lot of entries in the cycle that are spectacular but Martin draws on Debussy and a variety of non-jazz composers to such a degree that jazz-only fans would likely not recognize any jazz influence.  Martin might be thought of as making music that sounds too far away from any kind of jazz mainstream to be recognized as such.  That's not really what I feel on the fence about the Martin cycle, even though I like a lot about it and want to write about it some more.

I think it's more that, put simply, it's harder for me to remember specific preludes and specific fugues.  The sheer technique of contrapuntal writing is there in Martin but I'm not always sure he's got hooks.  By contrast, Kapustin's fugues might not be nearly as polished and he might cheat a bit in terms of contrapuntal textures here and there but he played enough jazz and studied it enough that even  if the fugues as fugues can get diffuse or sprawl they start off with solid, memorable hooks most of the time.

You, dear reader, might reach drastically different conclusions and that's partly why I want to share playlists so that you can hear the works for yourself, if you're so inclined.

Karen M Rice has done a dissertation on this cycle, University of North Carolina in Greensboro, 2009.

Henry Martin, 24 preludes and fugues,
first half,

Henry Martin Prelude & Fugue Nr 13 in G-Flat Major - A Slow Drag

second half

Rod Dreher gets around to reading stuff at the World Socialist Web Site and discovers that left and liberal are not exactly the same, by way of WSWS critiques of the NYT 1619 project

One of the things I've noticed as I've read political commentary and economic coverage of issues in the last ten to fifteen years is, to put things in a brief, axiomatic way, liberals, progressives and leftists are not the same.  To translate that for conservative readers, it's dubious, historically inaccurate and intellectually specious to regard everyone to the "left" of you as Marxist.  Not all forms of socialist thought necessarily derived or derive from Marxism, for instance.  The United States didn't exactly have problems backing socialist groups in Europe provided those groups were not explicitly or implicitly Marxist about it.   The mirror of such an axiom would be that for those who regard themselves as liberal, it would not be historically accurate or intellectually consistent to say that anyone to the "right" of a liberal position, whether neoliberalism or progressive or left, is "fascist".  Authoritarian tendencies and temptations have emerged across the entire spectrum of human ideas and it would be hard to make a compelling longform case that amounts to a no true Scotsman that if one embraces the correct doctrinal/dogmatic/ideological stance the faintest possibility of tyranny is gone.

In a technocratic age such as ours we should not even go so far as to act as if the forms oppression can take will be directly and explicitly political.  The age of the dictator is perhaps the age of mass media before the age of social media, in which technocratic forms of control can be masked.

So, with that out of the way, or on the proverbial table, Rod Dreher has come across leftist, socialist writers who object to the simplistic racialized counter-mythology of racism as a prescribed corrective to an older Founding Fathers account of the American experiment.

I restricted myself to expressing concerns that the NYT 1619 project piece by Wesley Morris seemed to define African diaspora music more in terms of African American popular music that postdates the development of mechanical recording and the commercial music industry.  The trouble with presenting a story, and it's a story more than an explicit argument, that black music (of the American variety) represents freedom is that it doesn't.  My friend from Nagasaki considered blues too formulaic to relate to it but did appreciate jazz.  What's more, Morris' essay functionally skipped over, as if they never existed, contributions by Joseph Bologne or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and other Afro-European composers whose work are getting some renewed consideration.  If the NYT 1619 project were moving beyond a simplified counter-mythology that presented racism as the lodestar or touchstone of all things American setting up a contrast between classical music as "white" and American popular music as "black" in which the entire range of concert music practices that includes contributions from William Levi Dawson, William Grant Still, Florence Price, and by way of canonization the ragtimes of Scott Joplin might have been avoided.

To put this more sharply, if one sets out goals of racial purity narratives or successful integration and miscegnation in social terms it's not exactly clear the NYT 1619 started off on the best footing.  Conservative reactions tended to denounce the 1619 project in ways that set them up to be dismissed as racists.  Dreher has figured out that if criticism of the historical misrepresentations of projects like the NYT 1619 project get made from the left it is more difficult for those criticisms to be dismissed as racism, although that dismissal can be made anyway.

Dale Cockrell's books on the evolution of minstrelsy as street level or working class theater as distinct from middle class and highbrow theater have a couple of sharp polemical points that I would have to guess have been discussed and debated since Everybody's Doin' It came out earlier this year.  It's more pointed in Demons of Disorder from the 1990s, but Cockrell has made a case that at the lowest rungs of society, in dance halls and dives and visiting brothels that racial segregation was not as valued as it was in middle and upper class rungs of society.  Laws against racial amalgamation were on the books in many places and there were cases in which whites and blacks marrying each other ended up being cases where judges passed down sentences and, to keep my summary of Cockrell's work brief, working class men and women kept crossing the color lines the laws said weren't supposed to be crossed.  Cockrell flipped the script, arguing that the racism was being imposed by the institutional taste-makers and figures who controlled media and legal systems from above rather than reflecting groundswells of uneducated racial animus.  To translate Cockrell's point still further, he's made a claim that the racists are the ones selling upscale respectable art and history and not the people down in the wage slave or plantation dumps who might only be recorded in local newspapers if they got arrested for something.

It's the kind of thing I have been thinking about remembering Wesley Morris writing about sometimes wistfully wishing there was something about black music so pure and raw that no one could steal it.  I'm ultimately not sympathetic to that kind of view just as I'm not at all sympathetic to any variation of view that says there's something so profound and deep about Beethoven's piano sonatas that there's nothing in that that could be realized by starting with gestures you could hear in blues guitar or ragtime or any number of gestures from popular styles, whatever the skin color of the practitioners, that have permeated American popular musical life. 

I might take a step further and propose that white liberals have a lot riding on the power of a myth that claims that black music has some ineffable blackness to it that defies working by "the rules" of Western notational conventions.  That sounds cool to people who are defending a conception of black music that somehow "can't" fit into the conventions of concert music as it developed in Western music but that's not going to convince me that George Walker's five piano sonatas somehow don't fit into the classical tradition.  Walker went much of his life being asked if he played jazz.  His piano sonatas don't sound like jazz.  By contrast, the composer Nikolai Kapustin made a point of drawing inspiration from jazz giants like Tatum and Peterson alongside Scriabin and Russian composers to arrive at a synthesis of the musical style and vocabulary of jazz with the formal developmental processes of concert music.  Kapustin has denied decade after decade he plays jazz but he's not ashamed to say he's drawn inspiration from jazz.

I've been hammering this point for a few years now, but attempts to develop a practical fusion of what scholars are calling African diaspora music with what are called Western European concert music forms and traditions has been going on in earnest in the East and West since the dawn of the Cold War.  It was not just Jimi Hendrix who aspired to develop a Bach, Handel, Muddy Waters flamenco type sound, even if Hendrix distilled the hope and dream of such a sound most succinctly in the last century.

The trouble is, as I see it, is that there are purity police writers on both sides of the "high" and "low" divides and on the "classical" and "pop" divides who have an interest in playing these categories off of each other.  People who are into pop songs have an interest in presenting sonata forms as something incommensurate with the expression or "soul" they find in songs and people into sonata forms as they were perceived in theoretical and formal terms in the last two centuries within the western European concert music traditions were defined in ways that defined them by front-loading formal aspects and passing over the ways in which processes of development could be shown to be guided by the nature of the materials used.  To invoke Adorno, Americans misrepresented Haydn as having standardized sonata forms when he crystallized a way of working with musical gestures.  Adorno's great mistake was thinking that Haydn's way of working with musical gestures couldn't be used on jazz standards and his mistake has been one largely taken up and parroted by artistic and cultural conservatives who retained is polemics against popular song as art and merely subtracted the Marxist aspect from those polemics.

So, anyway, looks like Dreher has managed to read some stuff at and worked out that there are differences between liberal, left and progressive perspectives ... maybe ... for a bit.  We'll see if he remembers this in a couple of weeks, though.  Journalists can be so in the news cycle moment of things.  There's an axiom among soldiers that when a crisis hits you revert to training, which is why training to handle crises sensibly and responsibly is important.  Not that I've ever been a soldier but I have had enough friends and family who have served in my lifetime I've heard some of the things that are shared in military life.  One of those axioms is that you shouldn't worry about the bullet with your name on it as much as the one labeled "to whom it may concern".  Well, that digression is to say that a journalist like Dreher and other journalists may "default to training" when it comes to attending to news cycle and news peg level events.  Sometimes you need to back away from the news cycle/news peg level of events to gain enough time and distance to think about higher levels of social or organizational or cultural change.  I don't get a sense, to be plain, Dreher is necessarily the kind of writer who does that, which is why he may be more interesting for hot takes that keep up with news peg/news cycle events than for analyses of what those moments may mean.

So ...

Leftists Attack The ‘1619 Project’

and he was a bit more roundabout mentioning the interviews he read than I intend to be.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

well ... in renewed Fearless Girl statue news ... another suit

for folks who didn't read this ...

This suit stuff has popped up and down in coverage this year.

MELBOURNE, Australia — She stands four feet high, with her hands placed on her hips, her chin up and a defiant look in her eye. Known as the “Fearless Girl,” the bronze statue in Lower Manhattan was intended to “drive a conversation” on the importance of elevating women in corporate roles — a feminist message amplified by replicas that have popped up in cities around the world.

But the financial services firm that purchased the original, State Street Global Advisors, is calling them unauthorized copies and waging an aggressive legal campaign against them. Critics say the fight proves that the company’s embrace of the Fearless Girl was always less about promoting female empowerment than it was about promoting itself.


How many thought otherwise?  Maybe that's a bit too cynical but it struck me as PR corporate art from the get go.