Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Slip it to me, Bert

As I noted in a recent post, Paul McCartney is still on the revisionist warpath. First he asserted his cred as a sonic pioneer (apparently choosing to ignore John Lennon's sardonic definition of avant-garde as "French for bullshit," which Lennon also ignored when it came time to make his own musique concrète mudpies). Now he claims to have been the first of the Fabs to take a stand against the Vietnam war, egged on by a visit with Bertrand Russell. In an interview with Prospect magazine (excerpted here in the Telegraph) he recalls the galvanizing effect of his conversation with the 92-year-old philosopher and peace advocate: "He was fabulous. He told me about the Vietnam war--most of us didn't know about it, it wasn't yet in the papers--and also that it was a very bad war. I remember going back to the studio either that evening or the next day and telling the guys, particularly John, about this meeting and saying what a bad war this was."

What is poignant here is Macca's need, more than forty years after the fact, to demonstrate he was no mere camp follower. Surely he must understand that he's got nothing to prove? Perhaps not. As a friend said to me the other day: "I've got plenty of grievances from last week, but I've got millions of grievances from back when I was in my twenties." The first cut--or, let's say, the first thousand cuts--may well be the deepest after all. In any case, McCartney's close encounter with the kingpin of analytic philosophy is not really news. He discussed it in Many Years From Now (1996), in very similar terms but with an extra dash of detail:
Bertrand Russell lived in Chelsea in one of those little terrace houses, I think it was Flood Street. He had the archetypal American assistant who seemed always to be at everyone's door that you wanted to meet.

I sat round waiting, then went in and had a great little talk with him. Nothing earth-shattering. He just clued me in to the fact that Vietnam was a very bad war, it was an imperialist war and American vested interests were really all it was all about. It was a bad war and we should be against it. That was all I needed. It was pretty good from the mouth of the great philosopher: "Slip it to me, Bert."

I reported back to John, "I met this Bertrand Russell guy, John," and I did all the big rap about the Vietnam war and stuff, and John really came in on it all. And then he did How I Won the War.
It can't be an easy task to settle psychic accounts with your dear friend, ferocious rival, and eternal (in every sense of the word) big brother. We can forgive the petulance in deference to the real pain behind it. On the other hand, Macca should stop strafing the Dalai Lama for eating an occasional hamburger. The guy needs his protein.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Turangalîla or bust

"You never know what is enough," declared Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "unless you know what is more than enough." Whether Olivier Messiaen was familiar with Blake is anybody's guess, but this over-the-top aesthetic would have suited him to perfection. Certainly it applies to his Turangalîla Symphony, which I heard at Carnegie Hall on Sunday night, in a sizzling performance by the Yale Philharmonia and pianist Wei-Yi Yang. The piece, like many of Messiaen's compositions, is a genre-busting whopper: nearly 80 minutes of music, with a rainbow palette and wild-and-crazy rhythmic displacements that make Stravinsky sound positively sedate. There's also the ondes Martenot, a Jazz Age electronic keyboard whose swooping glissandi evoke both the typewriter-and-klaxon instrumentation of the Futurists and "Good Vibrations." Oh, and let's not forget the formidable percussion battery, which you can learn about in this excellent video. The composer even specified the configuration of percussionists, in a diagram that resembles some sort of tricky French polymer:

The result, divided into ten sections, is a hymn to God. That is no surprise: Messiaen may have been the most devout of the great modernists, who played organ every Sunday at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris. Alex Ross quotes a great bit from Aaron Copland about the organist's less-than-conventional offerings: "Visited Messiaen in the organ loft at Trinité. Heard him improvise at noon. Everything from the 'devil' in the bass, to Radio City Music Hall harmonies in the treble. Why the Church allows it during service is a mystery." Diabolical tritones, sugary sixths--they all fit the bill, since Messiaen's Catholicism was as unorthodox as his harmonic theories. He was a musical pantheist, who saw the Creator's fingerprints everywhere but also imagined a world enveloped in sound. "The tonic triad, the dominant, the ninth chord are not theories," he wrote, "but phenomena that manifest themselves spontaneously around us and that we cannot deny." (Tell that to Pierre Boulez!)

Anyway, the performance was raucous, sprawling, jubilant, insistently physical--which is to say, also a hymn to earthly love. (The title is pidgin Sanskrit, a kitchen-sink formulation that the composer translated as "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death.") Messiaen lashes together his unruly creation with a handful of melodic motifs. The most memorable, perhaps, is the sawtooth figure above, which he called the "statue theme." Scored initially for trombones and tuba, it's one menacing fanfare. Yet it keeps resurfacing throughout the symphony, often shouldering its way into more gentle passages with huge sunburst unisons. The piece proceeds from climax to climax, sometimes a little mercilessly. You want to catch your breath before the next jouissance. Yet there are also delicate, floating interludes--Messiaen's version of the pastoral, or possibly afterglow, depending on your metaphor--the most notable of which is the sixth movement, "Jardin du sommeil d'amour." The shimmering string washes and tiptoeing commentary from the piano suggest Ives, particularly the diaphanous textures of The Unanswered Question. But the mood, compounded of sweetness and metaphysical awe, is Messiaen's alone.

Monday, December 08, 2008


Words and music: Klein, Deep Listening

Over at Obit, an online magazine devoted to the dearly departed, Julia Klein laments the impending extinction of traditional journalism. This will be news to nobody who, well, reads the news--a demographic that keeps narrowing with each passing month. But Klein (a friend of mine) takes a more personal approach. She tosses a few brickbats at management, but mainly she's mourning the loss of a subculture, a way of life. And the death rattle, in her view, was clearly audible more than a decade ago:
One day in the mid-1990s, I remember sitting in the office of then-Philadelphia Inquirer editor Maxwell E.P. King, preparing to discuss my future at the paper. Another editor popped in to exult over a lucrative split in the stock of corporate parent Knight Ridder. When he was gone, I turned to Max, the grandson of legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins. "It's a dying profession," I said, with my customary tact. Max looked appalled.

Our leaders, even the most gifted of them, failed us; they refused to see what lay ahead. At best, they were practicing denial. The Internet? Not a threat, they said, but an opportunity; giving away our content online would serve to reinforce our brand, to woo new print readers. Did they truly believe that? Another former editor told me recently that he remembers saying the words and knowing they were lies.

At the end of 2000, after 17 years on staff, I took a buyout from the newspaper. It was a painful decision, but by then the trends were clear, and many of us were bailing out. Max, tired of endless cost-cutting demands, was long gone, to a foundation job in Pittsburgh, and so, too, was the editor who’d been toting up his stock profits that day.

At the Inquirer, two more buyouts would follow in quick succession. Soon, it seemed, Philadelphia was populated by ghost journalists, some retired or in new professions. We would meet unexpectedly on street corners and ask, tentatively, "Where are you now?" We might also have said, "Who are you?"
You can read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, I was prepared for a similarly funereal atmosphere at a panel I attended this weekend, "Deep Listening: Why Audio Quality Matters." The event was sponsored by the Philoctetes Center, which is an arm of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and as I entered the somber NYPI building on East 82nd Street, I immediately felt some anxiety about locating the right room. Would I wander into some starchy discussion about Little Hans? But no, the room I eventually entered had a record player sitting on a low table in front of the participants. That archaic machine (I speak as the proud owner of a Rega P-1 with the groovy glass platter upgrade) sealed the deal.

The panelists were an impressive bunch. Greg Calbi, Steve Berkowitz, Kevin Killen, and Craig Street have collectively produced, engineered, mixed, or mastered thousands of records, including more desert island discs than you can shake a palm frond at. Michael Fremer is the kingpin of today's back-to-vinyl movement, as well as a senior contributing editor at Stereophile. And Evan Cornog (who is incidentally the publisher of CJR) was there to represent that chimerical figure, the Listener--more specifically, the audio freak who spends every last dime to ascend the Everest of high fidelity. (For him, Cornog noted, the event was more or less "an intervention.")

And what did they have to say? Calbi, who functioned as the moderator, praised the sensuous and transcendent powers of music, then let the hammer fall on "the alienating and off-putting effects of this age of bad sound." The culprit, of course, was the compressed audio formats favored by the latest generation of listeners. Trading portability for sonic opulence, many may never have heard an LP or even a SACD, with its surfeit of living, breathing, three-dimensional sound. Fremer struck a more optimistic note. He saw vinyl making a comeback among teenagers and college students--a phenomenon I would doubt, if it hadn't been widely noted elsewhere. Whether the shiny, flexible, pop-and-tick-prone platters of my youth will ever become a mass medium again is still an open question. After all, high fidelity was a minority taste even during the golden age of the long player. And Stereophile (to which, mea culpa, I subscribe) often resembles audio porn--a province of wealthy nutters, who think nothing of dropping $32,900 on the ASR Emitter II Exclusive Amplifier, with its sexy, heatsink-capped main chassis.

I should be clear: the thirst for high fidelity is in my blood. When he was a penniless medical student, my father sold his stomach acids to buy his first stereo. A tube up the nose, down the esophagus--all for some extra midrange! I grew up surrounded by high-end components, including a looming pair of KLH Model Nines (now nestling in the vault of some Japanese collector). So I've been spoiled. I listen to compressed files on my iPod and wistfully nod my head, knowing that the air is vibrating between each instrument, that the saliva is rattling around in Ben Webster's mouthpiece and that the famous splice on "Strawberry Fields" is coming up--but that these nuances are seriously muffled by the magic of MP3. Will the expanding storage capacity of portable audio players eventually allow us to carry these nuances around in our pocket? I hope so. Mahler sounds awfully depleted coming through those headphones; it's as if you diverted the Nile through a garden hose.

Later in the conversation, the panelists dwelled on particular benchmark recordings. Killen admitted that the vinyl version of Roxy Music's Avalon was what had first hooked him on music. Berkowitz, who has worked on Miles Davis reissues for the last twenty years, played the opening minute or so of "'Round Midnight"--a very relevant example, since I've always thought that digital remastering was particularly cruel to the sound of Davis's Harmon-muted horn. Deprived of its analog intricacies, that hushed, intimate, breathy sound turns screechy and metallic. (It's like listening to somebody play "Summertime" on a pencil sharpener.) Fremer stumped for Sufjan Stevens, who he called "the Aaron Copland of our era," while Street discussed the no-muss-no-fuss recording techniques he used for Chris Whitley's Dirt Floor: a single stereo ribbon mic hung from the ceiling of a garage with baling wire.

Now Killen was recalling the session for Elvis Costello's "God Give Me Strength." He noted that the song had been conceived for a crappy movie whose title he couldn't remember. At once the image of Illeana Douglas singing the piece (actually she was lip-synching to a version by Kristen Vigard) popped into my head: it was the only memorable moment of the film, which was otherwise redeemed by John Turturro's amusing turn as a faux Phil Spector. "Wasn't that You Light Up My Life?" I called out, instantly realizing I had the title wrong. Folks, it was Grace of My Heart. Cringing with embarrassment, I certainly wasn't going to add that I had some problems with Elvis Costello's own version: the man is a genius, but his latter-day vocal style, with its adenoidal croon and wide, mawkish vibrato, doesn't always work for me. So I kept my mouth shut. Luckily or unluckily my goofy interjection will soon be available on streaming audio and video here. In this case low resolution will do quite nicely, thanks.

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