Friday, November 20, 2009

An Evening with Philip Glass - in Your Own Home!

Chris Foley at the Collaborative Piano blog links to a video that claims to show people how to play like Philip Glass.

He also asks a question: " the ease with which one can imitate Glass' piano style a symptom of cliché-ridden gimmickry or a genuinely populist style that can be a springboard for young pianist/composers to explore in the hope of eventually finding their own voice?"

Although his commenters seem to react harshly to the video, finding it offensive or silly and nowhere near Glass' own work, Chris' question betrayed my own feelings as I watched the video - his noodlings do sound like Philip Glass!!

And the guy goes to some lengths to distance what he's doing from the authentic Philip Glass - it's an improvisation, and he makes it clear that he's not trying to poke fun at Glass. Rather, he's pointing out the obvious, namely that Glass' style lends itself pretty readily to improvisation.

One has to ask - why is this a bad thing? Isn't one of the things that the "classical" music world (with the exception of organists) has lost over the years is a high regard for improvisation?

My own feelings about Glass' music are mixed, but not because his techniques are somehow deficient, but because his stuff doesn't speak to me the way other composers have. I would prefer to listen to Webern or Beethoven, or his former colleague Steve Reich if we're to draw a closer cultural comparison.

So to more closely answer Chris' question, I would say no, Glass' music isn't symptomatic of a problem, and yes, it's probably a nice way for people to be able to emulate a serious composer. Indeed, after spending years wedded to the score, I'm learning to improvise.

If you were expecting something more insightful than that, my apologies.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Adorno on Highbrow/Lowbrow

A passage from a 1959 essay by Adorno on Schreker that problematizes the commonly held view that Adorno hated jazz, or hated for the reasons people think he did, namely, that he was a stuffy old German. From page 136 of my copy of Quasi una Fantasia (I've broken up the paragraph for ease of online reading):

The analogy with the 'mixed drink' which is sometimes applied rather blusteringly to jazz, fits Schreker's elixir exactly. They shimmer: the individual detail lights up for an instant and then subsides into the mass where it can no longer be distinguished, and barely even felt - the dripping of the harp, solo violins in a high register, a clarinet doubled by a celeste or horns dispossessed of their own weightiness. The association with jazz may give us a clue to the otherwise scarcely comprehensible fact that a famous composer should have been able to disappear in so short a time, not just from public consciousness, but that he should be buried by oblivion as if beneath a heavy stone.

The fermentations of the Schreker sound have been entirely absorbed by light music, whether because its matadors learned a thing or two from Schreker, or because his manner of simply sampling sounds is one which was itself moving in the direction of popular music and the latter spontaneously produced effects of the kind which had very different intentions in him.

But in the meantime the sharp dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow music has been erected by the administrators of musical culture into a fetish which neither side may question. In consequence the guardians of highbrow music are shy of sounds that have found a home in lowbrow music and might discredit the lucrative sanctity of the highbrow variety, while the fanatical supporters of lowbrow music wax indignant at the mere suggestion that their music could have claims as art.

Yet Schreker cherished lofty ambitions for his confections. The intoxication they induce conjures up the vision of some lukewarm, chaotic effusion, like something from the age of courtesans. It is music without firm definition of any sort. It resists as if it were reification itself. It is art which resents its own purely musical materials, as if they were amusical, alien to art as such. It is this unruliness and nothing else that links Schreker with the avant-garde of modernism.

Does this sound like an Adorno who hated jazz? Is it just me or is he attempting to make a kind of aesthetic connection between Schreker's music and jazz?

That being said, his comment about the highbrow/lowbrow distinction as being one that has been "erected by the administrators of music culture" seems right in line with what I've been getting in recently, as well as why Joshua Glenn has made Adorno a "hilo hero" over at his site. The other great thing about this Schreker essay, as well as many of the others in Quasi una Fantasia, is that they are generally positive, which goes against the grain of Adorno as curmudgeon.

(My own pet theory for the darkness of his and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Englightenment - Benjamin was dead and the war raged on. What more does one need?)

The easiest way to put it is that Adorno didn't like industry. Unless one just admits that most jazz is industrial (his second essay in Quasi una Fantasia analyses "commodity music", and it's mostly what one would call "classical" music.

I am beginning to wonder if much of the criticism of Adorno's stance really just comes down to different post-war reactions to the war. Wouldn't be the first time...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Symphonic Completism

Like books, I think most of us have more music than we have time to listen to. So I'm going to leverage the benefits of the blogosphere and ask it the following:

If I were to listen to a complete series of symphonies, whose should I listen to? I've listened to Beethoven's and Brahms' many times, as well as Mahler's and Shostakovich's, but any suggestions as to whom might be worth taking a stab at their entire symphonic oeuvre? Thanks!


That being said, I'm wondering if it might be possible to organize the musical equivalent of a book event, where we pick a composer and/or some works, find some scholars/musicians who might be willing to contribute, and let it unfold over a number of blogs?

If any of these questions prompts you to answer, please do so in the comments!

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Rise of the Ampelmännchen: Thoughts on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was a teenager when I was born, and I was a teenager when it fell. When the thing was up, it sat there, carving Berlin into two, immutable, eternal. And then it was gone.

The Berlin Wall, known to most Germans simply as “die Mauer” opened 20 years ago today, allowing East Germans to cross freely into West Berlin for the first time in 27 years without being shot. It is difficult to successfully articulate today how strange and exhilarating it was to watch this event unfold - watching all the programming that reflects on it 20 years later, many of the people who were there are still baffled by why it happened.

But perhaps more shocking still, is the fact that, 20 years on, East Germany simply disappeared. The Wall fell and took an entire nation with it. And East Germany did not just disappear politically – its very existence has disappeared from the minds of most people in the English-speaking world. To many, a unified Germany signifies an expanded West Germany, and not the coming together of two nations with very different paths, ideologically and existentially opposed to each other, and yet now one.

There are many reasons for this mass forgetting, but part of it has to do with, surprisingly, commodities.

The recent film Das Leben der Anderen rekindled popular interest in the former East Germany. Highly acclaimed, it was praised for its authenticity as an accurate representation of the Ministry of State Security, or the Stasi. However, in the film, the moment the Wall falls is more reflective of the current view of the former East Germany than the euphoric days and months following November 9, 1989.

Das Leben der Anderen captures the fall simply and brilliantly – when the principal character discovers the Wall has come down, he, who had been consigned to steaming open East German mail after helping a well-known playwright subvert the state, gets up from his chair and walks out the door.

This silently taking leave of his work implies to the viewer that the principal character knows more than he possibly could have at the time. It signals that the entire promise of East Germany is no more. The socialist mission, the way of life, is gone, forever. This moment identifies less with the jubilation of 1989 and more with German unification, the absorption of communist East Germany into capitalist West Germany, and the nearly 20 years of high unemployment in the former East Germany.

That East Germany is no more is further evinced by Ostalgie, the nostalgia for East Germany – what is nostalgia but a longing for something irretrievable? And yet, even the symbol of the Ostalgie movement, Ampelmännchen, the old East German crossing signal figure, is ultimately more representative of the new reality of a unified Germany than an expression of the concrete past of the East.

Signalling his own transformation from a symbolic point of difference between East and West into a commodity that unites them, Ampelmännchen is now available on a wide variety of consumer products. There is even an Ampelmann Restaurant in Berlin.

The figure still occupies a role in traffic control, yet this has been superseded by his role as a design icon who can hold a pencil or adorn a mug. As the website devoted to his products notes:

“Now they (Ampelmännchen) can be found again, mainly in the new federal states on secondary roads and municipal streets. Only the west or euro traffic light man is allowed to glow on main roads, in accordance with the Traffic Signals Directive. In the meantime there are selected crossings in a few West German towns where pedestrians are directed by the East ampel men. But this should be viewed as no more than an act of solidarity, because despite the advantages, a general change over in the other direction has never entered the discussion."

In other words, Ampelmännchen is an anachronism, no longer the standard; the figure is no longer a functional representative of the country that birthed him. His meaning has changed, and with him the meaning of what it is to be East German. Through the power of capitalism, Ampelmännchen, with his restaurant and fashion shows, has never been less East German.

And yet, perhaps this was all to be expected. If one watches 1950's DDR films like Meine Frau Macht Musik, or peruses Taschen's DDR design, it quickly becomes apparent that part of what killed East Germany, beyond its truly lousy government, was that it attempted to offer West Germany to its citizens while rejecting the economic system that West Germany was founded upon.

The fall of the Berlin Wall took East Germany away. But tearing down a wall does not build a country, nor does celebrating the Ampelmännchen. Throughout all the celebrations, there are deep fissures which have yet to be filled, in part because the discourse in which people operate in Germany can contain only one side.

The long and painful process of cultural and spiritual reintegration between the Germanys continues, 20 years on, and will likely still be going on when my own son becomes a teenager.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Composition Studies

A.C Douglas has responded to my posts about classical music over on his blog. I will address his concerns in the near future, but please go and read his post and let me know what you think of it.


On a recent visit, my father gave me a digital SLR camera. He is a photographer, (his pictures have long graced the top of this site) and so I grew up around nice camera equipment. However, like many, I have long used a point and shoot digital for regular use. My point and shoot died (while I was in Newfoundland!) and so my father graciously gave me one of his cameras to use.

The funny thing about using an SLR again is it showed me just how much I have forgotten about taking pictures. I grew up taking photos on a Nikon F1, where the metering was automatic, but that was about it. Getting an SLR, even a fully automatic one, has been a real eyeopener for me, and how much different forms of technology can radically transform our skills, and not always for the better.

In that light, I decided to go out today, an unseasonably warm day here in Toronto, and take some photographs. Here they are. I should note that they are untouched and uncropped, the only change being that I had to rotate some of them!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wiping my Brows

Looking at yesterday's post, with fresh eyes, I realise now that there are aspects of it that are pretty unclear. Rambling is an occupational hazard in blogging and I see that I'm pretty guilty of it.

I should also point out that this analysis works a lot better in North America than it does in Europe, and given much of what I'm getting at is North American, I'm not even going to begin transposing it to a European context.

I feel I'm carrying the "brow" heuristic too far, but it seems to be working and it's kind of fun, so (again, my apologies to Joshua Glenn, any errors in my analysis that refer to "brows" are mine and neither his, nor Russell Lynes', nor Hazlitt's...

So, what was I trying to get at yesterday? Some theses (feel free to disagree).

1) The idea of "classical music", as popularly conceived by both classical music lovers and those uninterested in classical music, is premised today on the idea that classical music is a form of highbrow culture. This is false. It is, with some exceptions, a predominantly middlebrow preoccupation, as much as indie rock, techno or jazz are today.

2) For all kinds of reasons, such as the development of recording technologies and the ensuing commodification of musical tastes, a bifurcation emerged which posited classical music as "highbrow" and popular music as "lowbrow", and while these on some levels reflected social and economic stata, they were also tied heavily into the marketing of music in the early 20th Century (for see Caruso).

3) At some point during this time, a cognitive dissonance emerged in people who enjoyed classical music. On the one hand, they enjoyed classical music, which, from a broad cultural perspective, was seen as elitist and highbrow for marketing reasons (I believe this in part to be because classical music was, generally more expensive to produce and lent itself less readily to the recording technologies of the time - a jazz standard could be made to fit on a single side of an LP- a Beethoven sonata, was not so forgiving), and so classical music lovers identified themselves as "highbrow".

However, given the middlebrow weight of interest in classical music, the middlebrow desire to impose their values on the highbrow and lowbrow populations led to the emergence of the desire to proselytise classical music to the lowbrow, chastising them for their lack of self-improvement. At the same time, the "highbrow" were chastised for not listening to popular music, a situation which sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it?

4) This has led us to where we are today, which is that we have a false dichotomy between high and middle in the bulk of North American classical music culture, where people identify themselves as highbrow but, for the most part, behave like middlebrows.

OK, I think that's clearer than yesterday. I suppose the question remains as to whether or not this is a good or a bad thing. I instinctively want to say it's a bad thing, but I'm not fully there yet, because I do enjoy the idea of exposing people to Beethoven and Bach even though they may not think they'll like it. Why?

Because that's how it happened with me. But then maybe I was destined to be a highbrow...I kid.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On the Extinction of the Lowbrow in Musical Taste

The Transcontinental was intended to be primarily an arts and culture blog, but truth be told, dear readers, I have always been too lazy too keep up with the latest goings-on in the music/arts blogosphere.

Although this has likely cursed me to never make any of those top 50 classical music blog lists, it does offer me one advantage - the benefit of hindsight. I can read stuff, stew about it, forget it, remember again, forget again, and then, when I feel like it, trot it out to fill up some time during a slow afternoon.

So it is with the whole recent classical blogosophere dust-up about What got me thinking about this again was this post by Daniel Stephen Johnston, which linked to this post by Matthew Guerrieri.

Now back in July, when this came up initially, I had read the pieces by prominent critics and bloggers about, which denounced's "mandate" and explaining why is so problematic and perhaps threatens classical music itself. For reasons that will become clearer later, this rhetorical strategy is a clear representation of the classical blogosphere middlebrow consensus.

This is the same "consensus" that CBC used to market their changes over at CBC Radio 2, which was to stereotype classical music lovers as a small cabal of ignorant fools who have been denying others the opportunity to listen to Leonard Cohen at 8 in the morning. Moreover, in denying others, they have denied themselves of the wonderful richness that is music outside of the Pachelbel-to-Elliott Carter classical stranglehold.

When you think about this, the reaction to is rather curious - the very people whose professional lives are devoted to writing about classical music are those who are also first to denounce musoc's mandate. To them I ask - why are you so scared of Is it that it plays to some kind to horrible stereotype of the classical music snob, the straw men and women used all these years by the music industry as a trope to help define popular music as mass entertainment?

I admit there is some truth to this fear. I am often frustrated by the fact that, often, when I have a conversation with someone about music, and it invariably comes up that I listen/play to classical music, the immediate reaction is to look at me suspiciously and get somewhat defensive. Maybe this is really just a Canadian thing, but I suspect that this happens quite a lot to other classical music musicians/lovers, and as such, we have all taken on a kind of defense mechanism to reduce the inherent social conflict that comes with being someone who enjoys the music of Brahms.

But you scratch this surface just a little and you start to see that the issue for classical music critics and bloggers isn't merely one of taste, but also one of class. Someone who enjoys caviar simply must also enjoy a ham and cheese on white bread. Someone who enjoys Schubert Lieder simply must also enjoy Def Leppard, not because these things are any good (on either side of the equation) but because it's very impolite to portray mass culture as something less than high culture.

And what is even more remarkable about all of this is that there is now a website that it actually devoted to the analysis of this very strong pull towards the middle: Joshua Glenn's hilobrow. This website, which is part of the reason I have returned to blogging, helps to provide the kind of critique the classical music blogosphere needs right now, perhaps more than ever.

To be clear - I am not saying high culture is better than mass culture. What I am saying is that people on the high culture side of things feel a very great tendency to say out loud, and often, that they think mass culture is just as good as high culture. Indeed, Greg Sandow has pretty much sewn up a corner of the blogosphere by constantly proclaiming that the problem with classical music isn't just that it's the aesthetic equivalent of popular music, but that classical music must learn from popular music in order to survive.

I have wanted to critique Sandow's entire approach without the sneering condescension that most attacks on him constitute, in part because I believe his work is more representative of a theme as much as the sneering attacks how. Moreover, Sandow makes certain aesthetic assumptions in his work where he equates aesthetic value with economic value, but what has been lacking is a way of unpacking some of that in a way that avoids a purely economic reduction.

Hilobrow has given me the vocabulary to begin that critique (thank you again, Joshua Glenn!). So taking a page from Glenn's site, I would argue that Greg Sandow is the biggest representative of middlebrow attitudes in the classical blogosphere. Indeed, his telos is to assert the middlebrow consensus. And if the classical blogosphere is any kind of indication, he is winning.

What makes musoc.ord so unsettling to everyone is that musoc doesn't give a crap about popular music or mass taste. This desire to drag the highbrow people down into the middlebrow is, as Glenn makes manifest on his site, a defining characteristic of middlebrow culture.

There are two interesting observations from this. Firstly, this pull is a one-way street: I can't recall the last time I saw a classical music critic or blogger denounce a popular musician for saying that they thought classical music sucked. Secondly, given where these kinds of criticisms of classical music are coming from, is it safe to say that classical music itself, culturally speaking, is far more middlebrow than it ever was, or than Sandow and allied critics argue it to be?

Indeed, if Alex Ross' central thesis in The Rest is Noise is that classical music has somehow lost its central place in the cultural life of the West, isn't that in part because the economic and social elites no longer consider most classical music to be a highbrow activity, and not because the highbrow musicians lost the public, a public they likely never really had to begin with?

This kind of analysis, and I know I am using Joshua Glenn's terminology rather roughly here, seems, at least to me, to make a lot of sense. So let's take a look at some examples.

Take John Lennon. I think he wrote some great songs, but I think he was completely off base and ignorant about classical music. In fact, his disliking of classical music seems the obverse of the straw-man classical music snob. However, culturally speaking, Lennon gets a free pass from everyone because Lennon is on the right side of that one-way street.

What's even more interesting about this is that the classical music middlebrow consensus is constantly wanting to reassure the (putative) lowbrow music listener that they too have taste, even though the vast majority of people don't listen to classical music. What they are really doing is making it clear that the middlebrows are still the arbiters of taste, even though most people's complete indifference to classical music, and the classical music community's intense, nearly overwhelming desire to proselytize, to convert, the lowbrows over to the fold suggests the complete opposite. (Perhaps it is the middlebrow's guilt towards not listening to enough classical music that also contributes to this kind of attack - but maybe that's psychologizing a bit too much!)

It seems that, culturally speaking, the goalposts with respect to music have shifted completely, and that who has been lost in all this is the lowbrow. (I think Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion is perhaps the clearest argument for this fact).

With the lowbrow effectively extinct as a cultural force in this triad of brows, what we have here is a hegemonic middlebrow community enforcing norms, on the few remaining holdouts (and let's be honest, there are very few) of all that's left, namely highbrow music. is fighting a rear-guard action to bring classical music back into the cultural highbrow, which is likely a hopeless task. In part this is because its status there has long been open to question (think of many of Beethoven's piano sonatas, who did he write them for?). At the same time, the classical music writers and bloggers who loathe are trying to keep the classical music-as-elitist-strawman alive because it keeps them in business, it is an enemy that allows them to continue to fight.

At best, my hope is that is something like The Chap, utopian and more related to the tenets of Surrealism than anything else. What it certainly isn't is a threat to classical music or its role in the cultural life of the world.

This also explains why figures like Boulez and Adorno figure so largely as villains in Ross' book, because they are both committed to finding a way to preserve highbrow music after the war. What I am beginning to suspect is that the flaw I felt in Ross' book, as much as I enjoyed it, was that the highbrow/middlebrow disctinction he sets up so well in the book is a false dichotomy, because classical music to nearly everyone means "Bach and Beethoven" and not "Boulez and Stockhausen", and that this is what classical music meant to people long before Schoenberg came along. (Nikil Saval actually argues this much better than I do around Ross' book at the n+1 site)

So where do we go from here? I am not sure, except that I am feeling more confident than ever that the answer to that question is nowhere.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


I live in a neighbourhood of churches. In either direction, in order for me to catch a streetcar, I have to pass by at least one church.

Every day, at least three out of seven times a week, there is a funeral at one of the churches. So many mornings, I walk past a hearse, sometimes laden, sometimes empty. I pass by people in black, local people, who must have black clothes just for this occasion, because they wear the same thing. I see flowers, and people crying, holding each others hands.

This morning there was no funeral, so as I made my way to my local convenience store, the church sat there empty. When I got to the store, it was closed, which is odd. However, there was a sign on the door, which told patrons that the man who ran the store had died and that the store would be closed until further notice.

I had seen him only a few days ago, tending to his store. He has a nice man, a bit taciturn as I find many people in my neighbourhood, but helpful and generous. In healthy communities I think one can say that local businesspeople have the air of a local figure, someone of some importance to our lives even if we never think about them outside of their business.

But I think of him now, and my last encounter. I had gone in there to buy dog food, and they were out of food, so I left without buying anything. Context is everything - the triviality of buying dog food becomes that last encounter with someone, the last smile, the last good bye.

Soon, there will be another morning funeral, and I will know the body that lies in the casket, in the hearse that parks half on the sidewalk,and half on Grace Street.