ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you —where would you hide, Roper, the law all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down–and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

A Man For All Seasons–Act One, Robert Bolt

I’m suprised that, as far as I can tell, noone’s mentioned (or at least that tons of people aren’t shouting it out all the time):

So today, we’re ready to fix things so that people can be declared by some person in the government as a danger to the state (or the people, if you like), and then, without any kind of benefit of due process, be put away indefinitely without any recourse to any kind of higher authority–without any chance to prove that they’ve been accused either mistakenly or unjustly, just on the word of whatever person in the government has decided that they’re a danger. (“Just trust me/us.”) Just dissappeared—-

Now it’s “enemy combatants,” “picked up on the battlefield” (the definition of the term “battlefield,” presumably, including an airport lounge in Newark on your way home to Canada).

What about when it’s gay right activists or anti-war activists or—name your favorite danger to the state…

The idea that such a thought could ever be taken seriously in the Congress of the United State of American is grotesque almost beyond imagining… let alone that it could become law….

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I’ve been back in Boston for a little over a week, so this is sort of old news by now.

On the Monday, the 28th of August (Bank Holiday), the Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall included the first performance of two pieces by Colin Matthews. Commissioned by the BBC, these were added to two already existing ones. They were played by Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips. Although they had very evocative titles which imply lots of character (Luminoso, Oscuro, Scorrevole, Calmo), they in fact seemed rather bland and neutral. It’s a little hard to be completely sure that that perception is quite accurate, though, since, those two performers were joined by the other member of the Leopold String Trio (whose violist is Power) and Benjamin Nabarro for a performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet, which also seemed rather bland, neutral, and lacking in character. So who knows….

Later that afternoon (it’s being a holiday and all) there was a special matinee Prom in the Albert Hall, persented by the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Charles Hazlewood. It was a sort of pops concert, which was supposed to feature pieces influenced by jazz, but what the Ibert Divertissement had to do with that was a mystery, even though it was explained by Hazlewood, who did lots of talking through the concert. The rest of the program included Weill Songs, Rhapsody in Blue (in what was apparently Grofe’s second of three goes at orchestrating it–this one was the, as it were, Mama Bear one, not a small as the original one for a jazz band with a solo violin and a banjo–my favorite, nor as large as the deluxe humongous symphony orchestra version one often hears at orchestra concerts, but a mid-sized version for ‘theatre orchestra’–the pianist was Kevin Cole), and Bernstein’s Fancy Free (which is a really pretty spiffy piece–maybe even with bits of orginality–, although a little long all by itself without dancing). It also included the first performance of a Proms commission, Crushing Twister by Dai Fujikara. Crushing Twister was inspired by a class for DJs that Fujikara listened to once at a school where he teaches, and is meant to make use of their scatching technique. The piece has a rather complicated set up, with a small ensemble, which plays the source material for piece, accompanied and mediated by two larger orchestras. Fujikara writes that he intended to treat the ensemble as a big turntable. Although he evoked the idea of the DJs’ techniques, the music Fujikara wrote is not in anything like the hip-hop style that one might expect. It is basically your more or less standard new music; Fujikara says that there are two contrasting materials, one lyric the other very fast and rhythmic, but it was hard for this listener to perceive or remember the difference. Every piece, though, should have the benefit of the committment of the performers, and/or of the enthusiasm and advocacy of Hazlewood’s verbal introduction.

Hans Werner Henze’s 80th birthday was celebrated, or commemorated, anyway, by the first UK performance of excerpts from his opera, L’Upupa oder de Triumph der Shonesliebe (The Hoopoe or the Triumph of Filial Love), arraged as a five movement suite and called Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba, for some rather obscure reason. The work was played by the Orchestre National de Fance, conducted by Kurt Masure. Henza is an extremely accomplished composer, with all sorts of chops. I am just about always impressed by the skill with which he deploys the means of his pieces; but I am sometime also struck by the lack of profile of it. (I was once sitting at a concert of music by a famous composer, celebrating his 60th (I think) birthday; the person who I was sitting with turned around in the middle of one of the pieces and said, “You know, this has all the appearances of first class music.” My feelings exactly in this case.) I think the performance really was first class. The Henze was followed by a performance of Shostkoich’s Leningrad Symphony. I’m not sure I’d ever heard it live before; it’s a really long piece, but also pretty engaging and entertaining. The first two movements, in fact, have real substance.

The Pittsburgh Symphony and Leonard Slatkin played on August 30. They played the Ives Second Symphony (the real New World Symphony, I think)(surprisingly, it was the first Proms performance). The piece is really wonderful (I suppose it is univerally admired–if it isn’t it certainly should be), and the performance was beautiful and moving. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that an American orchestra and an American conductor would have just about complete understanding of one of the most American of pieces, and would provide an eloquent and compelling performance of it, but I hadn’t expected it to be thrilling. It was.

The last concert I heard on this summer’s Proms was a late night Prom by the BBC Singers and the Nash Ensemble with soprano Amy Festong and violist Paul Silverthorne.
The concert started with Songs of Despair and Sorrow by Kurtag. Sometimes Kurtag’s music seems to be just right and convinces with its intense and dramatic brevity. At other times it seems to me to be annoyingly self-conscious and precious. This was one of those times. Oh, it is also was long (21 minutes). (This was not the case, for me, anyway, earlier on when a Proms Chamber Music concert I heard had on it Kurtag’s Hommage to RSch.) After four pieces for double chorus by Schumann, they played Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman. So the last music of the season for me was the Feldman, which was also thrilling, particularly at the end, when the music in octaves has a sort of halo around it.

All told, over the time I was in London I heard about 15 concerts–I lost count. Some things were really striking and memorable; some of the newer pieces, which was what I was there for, were not so much so. But it’s…I think the word may be awesome, that an organization like this would have the committment that the Proms has to new music. You certainly wouldn’t have got that much on the BSO concerts at Tanglewood–and maybe not at all of the concerts that were done at Tanglewood. It’s worth considering that the Albert Hall is enormous (what, 3,000-4,000?) and none of these concerts were exactly underpopulated. That music didn’t exactly seem to be box office poison by any means.

Anyway, now back to what I guess might be called real life….

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It is dreadful
to shed blood.
It is hard
to learn to kill.
It is wretched seeing people die,
before their time has come.
But we must learn to kill!
But we must see people die
before their time has come!
But we must shed blood,
so that no more, no more blood shall be shed.

Bertold Brecht, translated by Mari Prockauskas

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During the first four weeks at Greenwood there wasn’t much time to do much else, as things begin to end, a few things.

My time has largely been occupied with Loeffler Quartet, second movement, Tschaikovsky First Quartet, first movement, Lee Hyla Anhinga, Dvorak E major Quartet (#8?), first movement, Beethoven Op. 127, first movement (hard, hard, hard, hard), Nico Muhly You Could Have Asked Me, Schubert A minor Quartet, first movement, Ravel Quartet, second movement, and Haydn
Quartet, Op. 71, No. 3, first movement. It’s all kept me pretty busy. I think all of it ended up going quite well. The Loeffler, Muhly, and Hyla are being done again on Saturday as part of the final concerts. The very final concert on Sunday afternoon, conducted by Julian Kuerti, along with the Beethoven 6th Symphony, the Overture to Cosi Fan Tutte, and Mozartiana by Tschaikovsky (not in that order), will include the first performance of Shades of Green by Julia Carey, which was commissioned by Greenwood.

A while ago, I can’t remember which week, the whole camp went to a concert by the Yellow Barn Festival in Amherst. The concert included two piecews by Fred Lerhdahl, a duo for violin and piano and an oboe quartet. I liked the oboe quartet and the first movement of the duo quite a bit, the second movement, less so. The performances were terrific, at least as far as I could tell.

Last week I went to hear the triple bill of operas at Tanglewood, which included the first American performance of What Next? by Carter. I had mixed feelings about it all. Most annoying was the fact that they didn’t seem to have taken all that much care about making the words clear, so everything had a certain shroud of mystery about it. The Carter, which was, after all, written to an English text, gave me the least problem from that standpoint, the Stravinsky the most. There were a bunch of cross references between the works in the staging, which I found annoying, since clearly the only reason those three pieces ended up being done together was that they were all short–so the cross references were gratuitous and kind of silly. The Hindemith, to somebody who’s not at all a fan, just seemed stupid. The Stravinsky is sort of strange and problematic. The Carter had lots of beautiful music (especially, I thought, the piano music (accompanying Rose?), some bassoon music associated with Larry or Harry, and especially the percussion music at the beginning which returned at least once). I think I would have liked it better, though, if it hadn’t been supposed to be an opera. I couldn’t tell that, at least in this case, staging it did anything at all to enhance the experience. I found myself wondering if a completely realistic staging might have been more effective. Never having seen the movie it references, I can’t quite imagine how they relate, nor can I estimate how much more I might have got out of it if I had seen the movie. All in all I didn’t find it to be a completely satisfying evening.

I have been listening to the new New World disc of music by Eve Beglarian, which I enjoy alot–all of it. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is lively and engaging, moving through a number of different musics to end with Es est genug, on which, I have a vague notion, all the music is based on; certainly the section immediately before the chorale is. Creating the World is also kaleidescopically free associational, covering a lot of styles and references, including quotations from the Vivaldi Gloria and the Missa Solemnis, ending with a sort of cosmic Jerry Lee Lewis stomp, all of it accompanying a wonderfully flamboyant (if not hammy) recitation by Roger Rees. I’m not sure if Linda Norton intended her poem Landscaping for Privacy to be some sort of equivalent to the Curious Sofa by Gorey (or Presciocilla by Stein), but the way Beglarian reads it on this disc, it certainly seems to be. I haven’t fully got into FlamingO beyond noticing what I finally realized was a quote from Music for the Theatre by Copland. Skillful, charming, interesting are all words that have come to be used in some sort of evasive or condscending or perjorative way, but in fact all this music is, in the truest and purest sense of those words sillfull, charming, interesting, and intelligent. To borrow a phrase from Milton Babbitt, it’s cultivated music. Amid all that hillarity, Robin Redbreast, a setting of a poem by Stanley Kunitz, sung with almost unimagible simplicity, purity, and honesty by Corey Dargle, is (once again in the true sense of the word) haunting as well as being heartbreaking. This is the kind of disc that you’d give as a present to someone who was really smart and who you really liked. (I know there’s already a review posted–which I haven’t read–but I wanted to put in my bit anyway).

On of the nicest parts of the summer has been making the face to face acquaintance of Tom Myron, who lives in Northampton and who’s come out for the concerts. Hithertofore he was “merely” a Sequenza21 penpal. It’s been a plasure getting to know him, as well as his wife and his amazingly precocious daughter. (and some of his music).

On Monday, Greenwood over, I’m going to London, where I’ll hear a bunch of Proms concerts. Unfortunately I’ll miss the first performance of a new piece by Julian Anderson which is on Sunday night, but there are a number of other things…

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A Late Fourth

Firecrackers sounding like shots of handguns rattle
The afternoon of early July at a late time
For celebrations and it is an inglorious
Fourth we have come to, like the birthday of a very
Sick man: no simple affirmations will do today.
In the dying wind the nation’s stars and stripes slacken;
I guess this must be the flag of its disposition
Not to save itself. Only now, much later, all flags
Down for the night, we watch some bunting–no more a flag
Than the flag is our old glory–as it fitfully
Gleams in the streetlamp’s conditional light, like a truth
Which the sad, difficult telling of half con-ceals, half-
Discloses, through our few tears ungleaming in the dark.

An Old Song

What she and I had between us once, America
And its hope had; and just as I grieve alternately
For what I know myself to have lost of what had been,
And for all that loss I was suffering all that while
I was doing, I thought, so well, so goes the nation,
Grieving for her hope, either lost, or from the very
Start, a lost cause. All our states and I are one in this.
O my America, my long-lost land lady of
The hardening ground, the house neither ancient nor in
Good repair, the brackish stream, the half-abandoned mill,
The red plastic bucket that hung in the place we kept
By the beach where, I remember, August evenings
Rang with hilarity until we trembled with cold.

—John Hollander

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Tomorrow I head off to Cummington in Western Mass., where I teach at Greenwood. Greenwood is an amazing and wonderful place. (Actually Cummington is pretty interesting. William Cullen Bryant, early American poet, author of Thanantopsis and To a Waterfowl, lived there. Richard Wilbur lives there now. Copland wrote music for a film called The Cummington Story, which was about resettling German refugees into the community there during the Second World War. The music survives in a late little piano piece called In Evening Air.) This year will be Greenwood’s 74th. It has a number of famous alums, including Joel Krosnick, Gilbert Kalish, Peter Westergaard, Lucy Shelton, Michael Webster, Anton Kuerti, Pamela Frank, Alan Gilbert, and two members of the Ciara Quartet, which are going to be in residence there this summer for the first time. Greenwood was started by a remarkable woman named Bunny Little, who was basically a good amateur violinist and educator, and who ran the place for 50 years. It was organized around 30’s progressive educational ideas, and is pretty much run as Bunny organized it, except the kids play a lot better than they did seventy years ago. In fact the level is pretty amazing. The kids are dedicated and excited in a very sincere and ingenuous way about music. It feels as though it works as the world ought to be. Being there is nothing short of inspirational. I’ve been teaching there for about a dozen years. It’s really what keeps me going through the rest of the year.

Last year I coached performances of the Schoenberg 4th quartet first movement, the slow movement of the Tippett 3rd quartet, the Shostakovitch Octet (which gets done every year, but it was the first time I’d coached it), a piece of mine, and the first movement of the Copland Quartet, along with some Mozart and Mendelssohn and I can’t remember what else. The Schoenberg, I have to say, was a really extraordinary performance. For a bunch of years now I’ve written a piece each summer for the chorus (all the kids sing in the chorus). So far I’ve done six Wallace Stevens settings, three Gertrude Steins, and some Shakespeare. I’m just about to finish a setting of a Wilbur poem called Green. Last year the camp commissioned a piece from Luna Woolf the the orchestra played at the end of camp; this year they’ve commissioned Julia Carey, a former student of mine who’s currently in the Harvard/NEC program and studying with Lee Hyla.

The concerts start a week from Saturday–they start at 7:30 and go on for ever–until about 11:00. They’re always amazing. Among other things just about no audience listens as intently as they do at Greenwood. If anybody’s in the neighborhood any Saturday night between then and August 6, drop by. Cummington’s about a half hour out of Northampton on Rt. 9.

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Sick Puppy is the sort of acronyn that Steve Drury gets from his Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice at the New England Conservatory Summer School. I got back from a trip to southern regions in time to catch the last half of this year’s installment, which featured Michael Finnissy. Wednesday night’s concert included Unknown Ground, a piece for baritone with violin, ‘cello, and piano. The work was written in 1990 for a concert which intended to be a part of the Brighton Festival of that year as a fundraiser for a center for AIDS treatment in Russia. As it turned out, due to Section 28, the Thatcher government law that forbade the use of government funds for the promotion of homosexuality, it had to be presented as a fringe event which was not officially part of the festival. The texts for the cycle are excerpts from interviews with English AIDS sufferers, both prosaic and full of psycho-babble, alternating with seriously literary poems by gay Russian poets. I’m always impressed by Finnissy’s success at setting the texts–I would find the flatness of the interview excerpts a probably defeating difficulty. The use of the instruments is modeled on that of the Shostakovitch Blok songs; every song having a different instrumentation. The music reflects various concerns of Finnissy’s. Two examples: the first song, for baritone and ‘cello, in an imaginary folk style, evocting the pribroch of scottish piping; the last two songs are reminiscent of the style of the String Trio. The performance was strong, but maybe not as completely dramatic as one might have wished. The concert also included a performance by faculty member Jeffrey Gilliam of a piece by Isang Yun and the first piano sonata of Gorecki, neither of which of much particularly interest, at least for me.

I was not able to be at the Thursday concert which I would very much like to have heard. It included a the premier of a Finnissy piece for clarinet and piano (played by Finnissy and Michael Norsworthy) and a performance of In C by Drury’s Callithumpian Consort, along with performances of the Boulez Sonatine and pieces for soprano and ‘cello by Finnissy and Birtwistle. Friday’s concert included a rivetting performance of Finnissy’s Hinomi, for percussionist, by Scott Deal, as well as Finnissy’s Strauss Waltzes for piano played by Shannon Wettstein, and concluded with a performance of Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. I’ve never quite got this piece, and I still didn’t then.

The program ended on Saturday with a marathon concert performed by fellows and faculty of the program. It started at 5:30 and when I left a little before 11:00 there seemed to be about two hours more to go. There were lots of Finnissy pieces, including another–it seemed to me more poetic, certainly different, but no less masterly–performance of Hinomi by Matthew Jenkins, Ulpirra for solo bass flute, played by Christine, two of the Verdi Transciptions, played fabulously by Steve Olsen, Tango #4, played by Corbin Calloway, WAM played by Finnissy and Norsworth with William Fedkenheuer, and Post Christian Survival Kit, an open form sort of theater piece whose sense pretty much completely alluded me. I also heard performances of Stomp by Pamela Marshall, Composed Improvisation for Snare Drum by Cage, and Songbirdsongs by John Luther Adams, which I enjoyed, and a chunk of Makrokosmos III by Crumb which I would have just as soon missed, although it was played about as well as one could imagine.

I like Finnissy’s music a lot, and I’m always happy to hear any of it that I can. It doesn’t seem either as well known or as often performed in this country as it should be.

For anybody who’s curious about it and inclined to look out for it, I’d recommend the String Trio (there’s a recording on Et Cetera which also includes Cantaena and Contradanze and which is very hard to find, Multiple Forms of Constraint for string quartet, which is on a Metier disc of string quartet piece by Finnissy, played by the Kreutzer Quartet, This Church, also on Metier, and Red Earth for orchestra (including two didjeridus) on NMC. There are also recordings of piano music by Nicolas Hodges (including two chunks of the five hour long History of Photography in Sound) on Metronome, by Ian Pace, and by Finnissy himself, both on Metier.
I also particularly like Banimbir, Plain Harmony, and Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets (another section of the History of Photography in Sound), but I don’t think there are commercial recordings of them available.

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There was previous discussion of the WHRB (the Harvard radio station) orgies which are underway at the moment, but some specific ones, not mentioned then, might be pointed out:

Friday, May 26 5:00-10:00pm The Harold Shapero Orgy. Including the recording by David Kopp and me of the Four Hand Sonata–Shapero doesn’t especially like it–too cautious (he’s probably right). He would have preferred to have the old Columbia recording from the 50’sby him and Leo Smit reissued. It would have been nice if this orgy had included that, along with, for instance, the old Juilliard recording of the String Quartet, or the Bernstein recording of the Symphony, but you can’t have everything.

Sunday, May 28 4:00-7:00pm The Rudoph Kolisch and Kolisch Quartet Orgy. The Guide doesn’t give full details or exactly what’s included.

Monday, May 29 1:00-10:30pm The Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail Orgy

Wednesday, May 30 5:00am-midnight The Britten/Pears Orgy

In a dicussion about composers listed on the back of a Boosey and Hawkes score owned by David Salvage, I conjectured that Howard Ferguson’s music, which I’d never heard any of, was a little like Gerald Finzi’s. The Gerald Finzi and Howard Ferguson Orgy on June 1 from 8:00am til 10:00pm seems to indicate that I was probably right, but will give ample opportunity to find out.

Also there’s The Joaquin Rodrigo Orgy on May 25 from 4:00 to 10:00 pm.

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A story from last week in my, as of today, soon-to-be nonexistent, theory class at Newton North High Schoolf: The class has about a dozen kids in it, mostly guitar players in rock bands. It’s a more or less straight ahead classical harmony course. Periodically, to liven things up and keep them a little uncertain of what might be going on, I play them some kind of music: so far this year Bulgarian Folk Music (field recordings from the Nonesuch Explorer Series), Bulagarian pop music from the 1930s (Yazoo Records), some 30s Irish-American bands–especially a tune called Leaving Tipperary(also Yazoo), and stuff from the Magic Flute. Last Thursday I played them the Babbitt Occasional Variations (on Tzadik TZ7088). They immediately perked up and wanted to know what it was and when it had been done. One of the kids, who kept on saying, “I can’t believe he did this in 1968,” said it reminded him of Prefuse73. When the case circulated, somebody wanted to hear the Composition for Guitar to see if a guitar piece sounded like that. The word that several of them used a number of times was cool.

The class meets on Thursday and Tuesday, so I hadn’t seen them since then until today. The first thing two or three of them asked was whether or not they could hear it again.

Conventional wisdom is that Babbitt’s music is, in additional to being terrible, user unfriendly, incomprehensible, and pretentiously academic. The product of somebody who had know interest in an audience or what an audience might like and was only doing whatever it was for other “composers.” I never have bought it, and I still don’t. A class a year or two ago also reacted positively to Occasional Variations. One of them said it sounded like music for a video game. That seemed to me apt, although I told them that surely it was more like a pinball machine (I later reviewed it and described it as sounding like music for a giant cosmic pinball machine, which seems to me to be an apt description of a certain amount of Milton’s music).

Maybe somebody will think that they were just trying to kiss up to the teacher (although I just stuck it on without any kind of introduction–so they weren’t cued as to what they “should” think), that anything beats doing figured basses, which is what we were doing then, that this is just a weird bunch of kids, or any one of a number of other things that try to deny that anybody any time anywhere could possibly like a piece by Babbitt. I prefer to think of it a proof that, like any good music, it communicates–even tickles.

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I recently heard Ingrid Monson at Harvard do a talk on the interaction of jazz and recording. It caused me to think again about Ellington’s Reminiscing In Tempo. For anybody who doesn’t know, most jazz recordings until post World War II are about 3 -3 1/2 minutes long, since that was the limit of 78rpm recordings. Reminiscing In Tempo is unusual in that it was released as a single piece that went over four sides. The fact that the recording I own, which is a Classics CD, maintains a break between the four sides, rather than putting them together as might have been done for, say, a movement of a Beethoven Symphony originally recorded and released on 78s struck me. Gunther Schuller’s analysis in his Swing Era book treats it as a continuous piece, taking no account of the side breaks. I wonder if the side breaks weren’t, as it were, composed into the piece and are, somehow, integral parts of it, functioning a little like the breaks in the Carter First Quartet. I tried to ask Gunther about it once, without a lot of success. I asked him how Ellington performed it; according to Gunther, since it was controversial and got him a lot of criticism, Ellington was rather discouraged about it and didn’t ever actually perform it much–bacisally he didn’t know, I guess. Gunther did say though, that when he performed it he had to add a little music because going directly from one side to the next doesn’t actually work.

Is considering the piece with the breaks as some sort of Stravinskyish or Carterish continuity a sort of anacronistic hearing which distorts the piece or does it have some validity (or both)?

Any thoughts?

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