Sept 13

Busy day!  Met my friend Susan for Brunch at the Rug, just across the road from Chaoyang Park south gate.  I asked if they did Bloody Marys, but the waiter said they discontinued them after numerous complaints.  Apparently people cannot deal with fresh tomatoes in their brunch cocktails.  Then headed over to Matt and Kaci’s place for our first rehearsal.  We harmonize pretty well!  “More Than Words,” “Angel from Montgomery,” and “Nowhere Man” all sound solid.  “Timshel” by Mumford and Sons needs some work.  I went to the Silk Market to pick up my shirts and ran into Claire; she invited me to tag along for steak dinner in celebration of Gar’s birthday.  The restaurant sign reads “Probably the Best Steak in Beijing” and they’re probably right.  We then went for drinks and I pulled out the guitar for some Clancy Brothers songs.

Sponge Bob Square Pants Cappuccino.

Sponge Bob Square Pants Cappuccino.

Brunch with Susan Kwang at the Rug East - yummy omelet with Bolognese sauce.

Brunch with Susan Kwang at the Rug East – yummy omelet with Bolognese sauce.

Welcome to my Beijing

AUGUST 21 – When my Aeroflot flight neared Beijing, I looked out the window to see mountains unlike any I’d seen before, not terribly large, but completely covered by plant life, almost vertical in many places, misty clouds nestled between them. A Chinese teacher by the name of Tiger picked me up at the airport and took me back to my apartment in Haidian district. It’s a pretty comfy 2-bedroom, lightly furnished, on the first floor of a massive housing complex. I had just been traveling through the Balkans and so was ready for any sort of craziness, but Beijing takes some getting used to. Crossing the Yuquan Rd. felt like sprinting across a football field for dear life. The good thing about the traffic here is that while a car can come from any direction at any time, they don’t drive terribly fast, so you have time to run for safety. My first night here I headed out for dinner on my own with no idea where to go, and not another westerner in sight. I picked a place on Beitaiping Rd. and the waitress was simultaneously amused and flustered at the language barrier. I knew how to order a beer, and to explain that I don’t speak Mandarin, but when you say that, they just keep on speaking Mandarin to you. The manager came over with a translator app, and that helped a bit. When I pointed at various dishes, asking if they were any good, they took it to mean I was ordering it all, and I got a rather large dinner. No problem, they wrapped the rest and it was good leftovers for a few days.

AUGUST 22 – I left my flat and ran into some other expat teachers on the way to take care of our residency visas, new bank accounts, and SIM cards. We made fast friends. Li Ang is our Chinese liaison, and has done a great job shepherding us through the bureaucratic weirdness. Matt, an English teacher, has been living here for a few months with his wife over in Chaoyang, and they took us to a place in their neighborhood for dinner and drinks. Eric, Alejandra and I checked out their place afterwards. Matt makes a very drinkable gin and tonic. They have a one-eyed dog.

798 Art District with Hank, Doug, and John.

798 Art District with Hank, Doug, and John.

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Lunch after the silk market.  View from the dining room.

Lunch after the silk market. View from the dining room.

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Yale in New York Champions the Legacy of Hindemith

Despite this concert having been anticipated in The Wall Street Journal and these pages), it was not particularly well attended, with the lion’s share of seats empty. Indeed, Paul Hindemith remains unknown even among some who consider themselves classical music fans. A reappraisal of his work and influence is thus always welcome, and this well-curated program shed new light on the composer, his pedagogy, his protégés, and even his personality. Yale School of Music brought faculty, students, and alumni to Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall to forge a direct musical link to this master of theory, melody, form, and fugue.

In Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24, No. 2, the composer captured the frenetic pace of industrial growth that characterized the inter-war years. No one would call this musical language atonal, but it contains humor alongside a tongue-in-cheek dark, dissociative pensiveness and sense of disturbance not usually found in the romantic tradition. At the same time, there is something very primal and peasant-like in the bouncy tough rhythms.

Hindemith

Paul Hindemith

In the opening movement, Lustig, phrases of urgent square rhythms are separated by recit.-like laments of the oboe (Timothy Gocklin) and flute (Jacob Mende-Fridkis). Hindemith does much with just 5 instruments, able to combine three distinct musical ideas, like larger orchestral layers stripped down to the bare essentials. The Walzer movement is clearly not for dancing feet! Rather, this is a waltz of dancing light and quantum energy. In Ruhig the horn player (Philip Browne) was able to produce very high timbres more characteristic of trumpet. The flexible timing of the players did not at all compromise their neat ensemble sound. In the final Sehr Lebhaft the players delight in making all sorts of strange harmonic intervals take flight.

Trills, anyone? Alvin Etler’s Suite for flute, oboe, and clarinet turns the venerable ornamentation into a musical motive in its own right. The melodies of each instrument often inhabit the same small range, brushing up against one another, sometimes sensually, but often discourteously. They say that a dog and its owner gradually, over time, begin to resemble one another, and that strange effect is discernable in the Pavane, as the players approach each other’s timbre so that we are hearing a conversation between siblings. The piece’s Finale employs great dynamic range, and then a trick ending.

Performers stood for Mel Powell’s Woodwind Quintet (1985), and the oboe (Hsuan-Fong Chen) and flute (Christina Hughes) were like birds of paradise both in their playing and in their charming red dresses. The musical action here is compressed into short bursts that either die out into a lucid silence, or sustain one note; either way, there is a conscious effort to arrest time. We hear five travelers, each speaking a different language, trying to strike up a conversation and being very expressive to make themselves understood. Upon hearing Powell’s first essay into twelve-tone composition, Hindemith is alleged to have said, “So, you’ve gone over to the other side.”

The composer Yehudi Wyner (84!) played piano in his Concordance for piano and strings (2013). This quartet opens with an explosive major seventh stretched out over several octaves. Like the previous piece, the subtle juxtaposition of different timbres is treated in an experimental way. The slow decay of piano notes against sustained pianissimo violin bowing resembles parallel lines eventually converging in the deep curve of space.

After the intermission, jazz musician and scholar Willie Ruff shared a remembrance of Hindemith and a testimony to his influence. When Ruff heard that Charlie Parker’s unrealized dream was to sit at the feet of Hindemith and study music, Ruff decided to do the same. He auditioned at Yale, and to his surprise, was accepted. He recounted how Hindemith would have his students play and sing through the music of all eras from the middle ages to the present, including the opening chord of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, “the most fun you can have with your pants on.”
Ruff shared his undiminished awe at how Carl Sagan contacted Hindemith to help translate his fascination with the astronomer Johannes Kepler into a “Sound of the Earth” for the golden record now aboard the Voyager spacecraft about to exit our solar system.

The opening movement of Hindemith’s Sonata for four horns demonstrates the composer’s love of fugue. A rising fifth, the most fundamental partial on any brass instrument, calls our attention to its subsequent spinning out into a beautiful tapestry. The Variationen are difficult to follow explicitly, but easier to feel, to intuit.
Bill Purvis (Yale faculty) and the students with which he played this piece seemed quite at ease with the material, even devotional in their measured approach to this exploration of musical space. The final modest chord was a quiet genuflection to the timelessness of consonant harmony.

Lukas Foss’s Three American Pieces for violin and piano initially seem more influenced by Satie than by Hindemith. In the last movement, Composer’s Holiday, very simple ideas are developed into lively acrobatics. As in the first movement, the interval of a third hops up and down the range of the violin against varied harmonic contexts, never getting dull.

The concert ended with Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24, audaciously scored for string quintet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, piano and harmonium (for which a synth was employed. I would’ve preferred to hear the optional accordion; during the sound-check, the amplifier screamed and terrified the audience). During the Quartett: Sehr Langsam und mit Ausdruck, conductor Bill Purvis simply dropped his head and his hands and allowed the clarinet (Eric Anderson) and flute (Isabel Lepanto Gleicher) to conduct their slow, somber dialogue, punctuated by the sounding of a celestial F# on a tone chime. The final movement begins with a primordial rumble swelling and eventually attacked by machine gun shots from the snare drum. Virtuosic piano runs by Henry Kramer, trumpet lines full of pomp by Jean Laurenz, and a final ambulance wail helped the ensemble lay down the composer’s road map for a 20th century of messy but exciting democracy.

What, then, was the influence of Hindemith on his Yale students? Clearly, they seem to have resisted the pull of minimalism and post-minimalism. Their music does not seek to induce a trance-like state, but rather places gripping demands on the musical intellect of the listener. The essential considerations of his Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) from the 1920s (structure, accessibility, and independent lines, according to program annotator Dana Astmann) seem to have survived throughout the century in the work of his students. They made do quite well without his characteristically strict rhythmic organization, but indulged in the harmonic possibilities unleashed by his bold theoretical ideas. Much as theoretical physicists seek a unified theory of everything, the Hindemith school honors the formal considerations and rhythmic impulses of the tonal era while expanding the range of harmonic and melodic possibilities to encompass effects that approach the disorienting sounds of serialism, the clash of modernity with the tradition, even the beauty of birdsong.

With Strings Attached – San Francisco Choral Artists (Magen Solomon, Artistic Director); The Alexander String Quartet

This album is the creative fruit of a unique Bay Area collaboration between San Francisco Choral Artists (Magen Solomon, Artistic Director) and The Alexander String Quartet. My own recent experience with a like-sized chamber choir (24 voices) and string quartet acquainted me with the expressive possibilities of this intimate ensemble. Especially in the resonance of a church (in this album’s case, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, CA), the strings are not overwhelmed by the choir, but rather find their own space to complement the sometimes dense vocal texture.

The first sound we hear on this album is the wizened voice of Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti reciting from his “Challenges to Young Poets”:

Birds-song is not made by machine.
Give your poem wings to fly to the treetops.

Inspired by a sculpture of the same name in front of the poet’s City Lights Bookstore, composer Veronika Krausas’ language of the birds sets passages from five of Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco Poems. Three (1, 3, 5) are jouncy bird-themed exercises in which the strings saw away quick successions of detached notes to create a frenetic energy on which the choir feeds, turning these simple haiku-like phrases into insistent declamations with plenty of dramatic irony. These pieces are separated by two more relaxed, atmospheric musical statements recalling the spare, severe language of Ligeti. No. 4 describes the light and fog of San Francisco, and Krausas sets the vision of night giving way to dawn to a gently shifting blanket of minor chords, sometimes superimposed to create interesting clusters, but ultimately expressing the inscrutability of timeless processes.

SFCA perform a cappella on Hollow Stone, Stephen Leek’s setting of text from Australian poet Randolph Stow’s “Sleep.” The composer has aptly translated a blighted, burned landscape into harrowing vocal textures. Sustained harmonic clusters evoke a flat, desolate expanse, and for much of the piece we get no sense of metrical organization, just stasis, but we also are given a glimpse at the dignity of people whose lives depend on an unforgiving landscape:

my lands mirror the moon in desolation.
But the moon has come. And the tribes
like smoke, seep campward.
Sleep: who are silence;
Make me a hollow stone

Brahms’ Four Quartets, Op. 92, originally for vocal quartet and piano, are here performed with the piano part transcribed for string quartet by Zakarias Grafilo, first violin of the Alexander String Quartet. SFCA’s rich vocal blend is as effective with these Romantic settings as with the freer modern works. “O Schöne Nacht” is a warm paean to the mystical elements of night: “the enchanted moon,” “little stars in a devoted circle of friends,” even the nightingale is given a characteristic leaping sing-song melody (translation from German by Magen Solomon). “Spätherbst” (Late Autumn), on the other hand, is a haunting observation of the winding down of life in a fog-blanketed landscape. The soprano voice pierces the staid limits of the first few lines to effect a true lament.

Alexander-String-Quartet

Alexander String Quartet

Beethoven composed the Elegiac Song, Op. 118, to commemorate the wife of his landlord Johann Baptist von Pasqualati on the anniversary of her passing. The halting delivery of these tender words by an anonymous poet recalls some of Mozart’s heartbreaking arias, while also looking forward to Beethoven’s later style in which musical ideas are allowed to develop freely, without the constraint of standard Classical forms and phrasing. “Gently, as you lived, / so has your life concluded,” is set to a heartfelt harmonic progression and cadences that console where words alone must fail.

For Winter Light, composer Michael Gandolfi set two poems by the Imagist poet Amy Lowell that crystallize the individual’s tortured experience with, respectively, nature and passion. “Falling Snow” begins with the strings playing a hurried falling figure in a minor, sounding like the beginning of a string quartet, so complete is the idea. When the voices gently declaim, “The snow whispers around me / And my wooden clogs / Leave holes behind me in the snow,” we realize what the strings have been alluding to musically. “Opal” opens with excited violins in A major over an energetic pizzicato cello, and the voices soon deliver the paradox of Lowell’s relationship with actress Ada Dwyer Russell: “You are ice and fire, / The touch of you burns my hands like snow.” Once again, we hear the choir handling very dense harmonies with a startling clarity, providing dramatic heft while the strings convey the lightness and forward rush of fleeting thoughts.

As a student of Nadia Boulanger, Paul Chihara was exposed to the great early modern French composers, and although many of his recent compositions bear the names of pieces by Debussy, his Clair de Lune is inspired principally by the Verlaine poem:

We’re dancing in the dark so sadly,
Dreaming visions of love in the moonlight.
We are passionate dancers dancing
Singing intimate songs of love.

Various chord inversions hand suspended without resolution, like a weightless ballerina en pointe. Much of the piece features the pulse of a gentle waltz, with the choir eliding words to create a smooth tapestry adorning this dreamscape where sadness and ecstasy can coexist without confusion.

Anchored by fresh interpretations of Brahms and Beethoven, the imaginative new works commissioned for the Alexander String Quartet and SFCA cohere uncannily, as the composers no doubt took advantage of the ensembles’ polished ability to stretch time and evoke an endless range of emotional and picturesque subjects.

Zorn@60 – The Improvisatory Embrace of New York and Japan

I had only really known John Zorn as the founder of East Village not-for-profit performance space The Stone, and as the producer of funk-metal band Mr. Bungle’s eponymous album.  I came to the Japan Society on Friday October 4th for an evening of improvisatory collaboration between Zorn (alto sax) and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Academy and Grammy award-winning composer and musician (prepared piano).  The venue was fitting, as Zorn once maintained a home in Tokyo for a decade, absorbing Japanese culture, and the evening commemorated his kanreki, or 60th birthday, a special milestone of longevity and renewal in Japanese tradition, and a temporal launching pad for future creative endeavors.

Image            Sakamoto-san caressed the piano wire with a variety of implements and surfaces, creating a buzz and hum made somewhat more penetrating by amplification.  Zorn joined with very Mannerist sound-sculptures; imagine time-lapse video of bamboo growing, burning, battered by wind and quietly surviving.  At one point the musical conspiracy encountered David Lynch on the lost highway, buried him up to his head in the blue sand and whispered sweet nothings into his sick, greasy hair.

Image             Zorn, in loose-fitting camouflage pants, kept his left foot up on a folding chair, to be able to pivot his sax and mute it against his thigh, the spirit maintaining a gripping voice through repeated bouts of strangulation.  The meditation was light-heartedly interrupted as he emptied about a half-pint of spit from his sax, the audience chuckled and he looked up suggestively at us, eliminating the distance between cerebral detachment and humor.  He soon resumed with a squeaking, reed-sucking kiss-marathon (with us?  with the piano?).

Sakamoto, having spent much time standing hunched over the fallboard, tinkering like a pathologist with the exposed vocal chords of a chanteuse, sat down and constructed an atom whose nucleus was the sadly insistent B-flat of Gaspard’s Le Gibet, and whose tentative electrons approached and scurried away nearby on the keys.  Zorn joined in, sending one pure tone out to the cosmos.  Distant piano, back still hunched, head now hung over the keyboard, resonance stifled, space shrunk to what’s inside my skull.  Ornette Coleman Hawkins stopped by for a drink and I failed to look up from the feet of the woman sitting next to me.  The saxophone was pestering a lover already long-exhausted.  I though I heard another quotation from the sax, this one the frenetic episode from late in Rhapsody in Blue.

Sympathetic vibrations of piano wire, and Zorn’s virtuosic yet unstudied runs on the sax, helped me recall the work of other artists who have left indelible impressions – John Carpenter, Kahlil Gibran, the horror and the love.  It is very interesting, and strangely at once disorienting and comforting, that sitting stationary in a theater one can give one the impression of traveling vast distances.  Zorn and Sakamoto seemed to rush eastward through the currents of the Pacific, encountering no resistance, hounding radioactive molecules from Fukushima and trying patiently to exorcise the spirit of dark technology before it made landfall in the Americas.

What stories do the tefillin tell?  A mystery.  Also a mystery – no one ever sings happy birthday in tune.

Ugetsu; Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi. 1953. 94mins.

Post-war Japanese cinema is noted generally for its prolific output and creative vision, and specifically for the way in which it obliquely but unmistakably dealt with the recent military cataclysm.  Mizoguchi’s stylistic gem predates Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai by a year and also recasts modern Japan’s difficult identity crisis in the setting of the war-torn 16th century.

The story centers around the families of two men bent on lifting themselves out of poverty and obscurity, one essentially a war profiteer and the other one on a foolish quest to become a samurai.  The film opens with Genjuro, a potter, convinced that only money can bring happiness, and so the risks associated with carrying on his trade in a conflict zone are invisible to him.  Tobei, a poor neighbor, assists him for a cut of the profits, but his real goal is to gain a fortune as a man of war.  Both men fail to heed the warnings of their sensible wives, which seem like prudent advice for anyone with a gambling problem.  The female element, unable to reign in male ambition, disappears briefly and returns in the form of Machiko Kyō (of Rashomon fame), portraying an otherworldly temptress who tests the limits of Genjuro’s depravity.

The scene in which both couples take a boat laden with pottery across a misty lake is reminiscent of the river Styx of Greek mythology.  The entire film pivots on this penumbral boundary between the real and the imagined.  In the former, pragmatism, caution, and devotion to home life are the basis for happiness, while the latter can, at best, offer fleeting thrills devoid of substance.  These lessons may seem a bit trite to contemporary viewers, but Mizoguchi’s slow pacing of scenes in the dream-world of ghosts and visions creates a psychic distance that jolts us when we must inevitably return to reality.

On the Transmigration of Jazz and Modernity: John Adams at the Lincoln Center Festival

[first published on i care if you listen] John Adams conducted the Orchestra of The Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music in three works that showcased the expressiveness and energy of this precocious Anglo-American ensemble. I just love the upbeat communal vibe of these types of off-season concerts. The musicians were visibly reveling in the program, and savored the opportunity to follow the baton of one of the few composers who successfully embrace modern culture as source material for large-scale program music. Although the concert was billed as a ‘preview’ for next Monday’s concert in London, the event pointed to nothing but it’s own dedicated participants, imbuing the present moment with an astonishing grasp of some very dense orchestral textures.

Otto Respighi holds the reputation, along with composers like Rachmaninov, of being a throw-back, eschewing modernism and latching onto Romanticism long past its sell-by date. His Feste Romane (1929-1931) is said in the program notes to harken back to the symphonic poems of Liszt and Strauss, but to me it evoked nothing so much as passages from Scriabin’s Poem of Fire, in its hypnotic repetition of dense, charged chords; the use of piano and violin solo; and folk-like percussive motifs. The piece begins with a brief, ominous tutti explosion followed directly by an offstage fanfare of trumpets. The composer explained this opening section, Circenses (circuses) thus: “A threatening sky hangs over Circus Maximus, but it is the people’s holiday: Ave Nero! The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts float on the air…” This is program music, but not too gooey. A 1932 treatise against modernism, which the composer authored with nine colleagues, may induce us to think of his music as anachronistic, but the architecture of the piece seems very free and unplanned, and thus, in a way, modern. The brass section from the orchestra handled a wide range of timbres quite admirably.

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (1928) needs no such stylistic defense; the piece is unabashedly modern, evoking the urban space, femininity, and technological complexity of the jazz age, and, of course, embracing the jazz idiom, with its abundant “blue” notes (flatted 3rds over major harmony). It was impressive to hear a young orchestra achieve such effulgence and burnished sound, and do justice to the Gershwin-esque lilts and sighs. Wizened, mystical harp passages in the opening movement prepare us for big, bluesy tutti, although it’s important to point out that the piece lacks the improvisatory soul of true jazz.

In the second movement, pianist Imogen Cooper’s introduction was a bit pedestrian, but was followed by an expansive orchestral response with a very moving flute solo. This slow waltz never became tiresome, establishing a very poignant and aurally generous ebb and flow, sending up a truly elegant oboe solo, and dying out with a placid piano trill. For the third movement, Adams demanded a more rigorous scherzando energy than the orchestra was able to deliver with clarity, but the transitions and stand-alone statements were convincing. Cooper’s manic keyboard work recalled the absurd assembly line frenzy of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

John Adams

I first saw John Adams conduct his own work during a dress rehearsal for Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera. I was impressed by how he intertwined the minimalist idiom with more lush passages reminiscent of Wagner, but I remember thinking that the music was somewhat straight-jacketed by a dedication to the characters, which were oftentimes stiff and guarded (it was Nixon and Mao, after all). Nevertheless, I was impressed with his mastery of zeitgeist. City Noir suffers from no such limitations. Its stylistic scope is alarming and awesome. Inspired by Kevin Starr’s “Dream” books, this piece is the last of three orchestral works that explore the California experience. Moreover, it gives us pause to consider that 80 years after Ravel, composers are still grappling with the process of integrating jazz into symphonic music.

Post-war, film noir Los Angeles has never been so scary and all-consuming. Orson Welles gave us A Touch of Evil, and Adams gives us fifty-seven evil anvils dropped from skyscrapers of varying heights. In the first section, The City and its Double, a hip, cool jazz drum kit foments a background that becomes foreground as improvisatory ideas are spun out and then scurry away before a blaring tutti. Here is Adams as conductor cum bandleader, egging on, rather than conducting, instrumental groups as they take their turn spitting out bad-ass statements of sophisticated savagery. Paranoia and imminent danger are expressed in a forward, frenzied tumult of the ugliest, most outer-spacey harmonies you ever heard. Orchestral tone colors, arrested strings bleeding magically into buzzing brass, evoke the potential of freeway disaster, as well as a starry sky ready to receive the souls of those who perish at the edge of the L.A. night.

The next section, The Song is for You, features a melodic alto sax solo flirting with traditional jazz language. The trombone takes over in an exclamatory passage approaching the knife-edge between anger and insanity, which the composer compares to the instrument’s appearance in the works of Duke Ellington. The concluding section, Boulevard Night, delivers a trumpet solo that the composer likens to the soundtrack of Polanski’e Chinatown, with its elegiac statement, helping to make sense of this danger-scape of glamorous illusions. Ejaculatory bursts of staccato strings bring us back to the narrative of life in the fast lane. This is a hostile atmosphere, but human beauty asserts itself in a saxophone theme, and a cerebral improvisatory marimba passage; and then back to a full complement of the bizarre and the grotesque. We thought California was about humans imposing their stylish will on nature, but goddamn – throbbing jungle night! This is the musical equivalent of the most abrasive Jackson Pollack vomit-canvas.
I thought at one point, “too cluttered… [ahem…] too many notes, my dear [Adams].” But then I reflected, a composer so brimming with ideas, connected by an overarching IDEA, owes us nothing in the way of spare texture. Indeed, zeitgeist isn’t about pensiveness and personal space; it’s about exposed nerves, an unwhetted appetite for spectacle, scandal, transgressive sex. This must be the music that Ralph Steadman hears as he sketches the humanoid creatures of his nightmares. It is not a can of diet coke. It is a bottle of Patron, swilled in three gulps by a convincing transvestite and smashed against the headlight of a police cruiser.

I have newfound respect for John Adams. He has convinced me of the need to marry an inner voice with the outer world of modern culture, no matter how fractured it may be. Hold a mirror up to us, and we will supply our own fun-house effects. That is the role of the contemporary composer.