April 13, 2011 § 7 Comments
By Rebecca Liao
Uninhibited exercise of free speech is a useless fantasy. Two Sundays ago on Meet the Press, Senator Lindsey Graham gave the following unfortunately-worded condemnation of Terry Jones’ burning of the Koran in Florida: “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” The “fighting words doctrine” in US constitutional law recognizes that words that can only inflict injury or immediately incite violence are not protected under the First Amendment. Those are just some of the officially-sanctioned restrictions on free speech. Then there’s the social filtering that Carolina Herrera put best in her Proust Questionnaire for Vanity Fair: when asked when she lies, she answered, the ellipses emphasizing the obviousness of the response, “Whenever I have to…it’s called manners.” Social activists worth their salt would never worry about being rude, but that is not to say they do not have a keen instinct for expedient self-censorship.
For an iconic voice of the protest generation, Bob Dylan doesn’t talk very much. In concerts, he only speaks to introduce the band members. His interviews are really only quotable if questions are included, just to give a sense of how frustrating and hilarious his stubbornly non-sequitur answers can be. More importantly, Dylan never says what the listening public wants or expects him, of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin” fame, to say. The seeming disconnect between the person and the personality is pronounced to the point that many still have a hard time believing it exists, which leads to misguided outbursts as newsworthy as the episodes that inspire them. In reaction to Dylan’s performing in China according to a setlist pre-approved by the Ministry of Culture and failing to voice support for detained artist Ai Weiwei, Human Rights Watch had a go at the singer, as did the New York Post and John Whitehead at HuffPo. In the end, though, it was Maureen Dowd who really did Beijing Bob proud with a scathing op-ed in the New York Times:
The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding[…]
Dylan said nothing about [Ai] Weiwei’s detention, didn’t offer a reprise of ‘Hurricane,’ his song about ‘the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.’ He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.
Dowd does eventually acknowledge Dylan’s reluctance to be a protest figure, but rather than accept that as an explanation, let alone an excuse, for his refusal to be overtly topical, she suggests that he was a cynical sell-out from the very beginning, leveraging the fertile socio-political culture of the 60s to become famous, only to cut and run once he had succeeded. It’s a fair, but nauseatingly demanding, point that, as Alex Ross, classical music critic for the New Yorker, said over the weekend, smacks of “the worst sort of armchair moralism”. Given the body of work sung in place of the anthems Dowd so wanted to hear, among them “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Desolation Row,” it’s also a lazy and unprofessional point that was probably conceived and written before Dowd had done any fact-checking (i.e. looked up the list of songs performed). So what she and her fellow critics hated wasn’t exactly what Dylan actually did in China so much as the very idea that he would go there and not be Yankee gangbusters.
This is the exact kind of narrow, inflexible, commercial-friendly generalization Dylan ran away from when he was first anointed a visionary and brave folk singer. Direct criticism is not the only way to effectively make a point. Dylan’s songs largely shy away from proper references; they instead work by playing off the atmosphere in which they are performed. They will always be associated with the events and spirit of a certain era, but someone with no knowledge of their history will find that the lyrics, inflections and chord relations are actually quite well suited to counterculture tendencies in any socio-political landscape.
If anything, Dylan’s decades-long slide into the uncooperative eccentric has further enforced the subversive nature of his work. It began innocuously with altered melodies and transposed lyrics. It graduated to a game of cat and mouse with the press generally and, as Paul Williams put it, “cause-chasing liberals who concern themselves with the issues and have no real empathy for people” in particular. If people insisted often enough that a song had a certain significance despite Dylan’s denial, he would give in and make up a clearly bogus backstory. At some point, the artist became unrecognizable, his delivery in concerts as unpredictable in quality and substance as only the most die-hard Dylan and music-legend fans would tolerate. Whether these are the tricks of a calculating fameball, a tired performer, or just an artist that has refocused his perspective is not clear. What is evident, though, is that Dylan is not comfortable being in anyone’s corner, neither that of William Zantzinger nor Hattie Carroll’s champions. It leads to a funny outcome in which the message of the music maintains its clear bent but remains almost universally claimable because it refuses all allegiances.
More importantly, it’s the sort of “protest” that goes over well in China. The Ministry of Culture allegedly did screened Dylan’s setlist, but lyrics like the following from “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” slipped past:
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
And stop being influenced by fools
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
Sons becoming husbands to their mothers
And old men turning young daughters into whores
As did this gem from “Desolation Row”:
Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row
Chances are the Chinese officials didn’t see a “Free Tibet” riff on the program and let it go. It’s also plausible that the Chinese government categorically likes Dylan’s music: CCTV played “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the background for their feature on him. One man’s protest song is another man’s…protest song, equally applicable against Communist regimes and Imperialist barbarians.
Contrast that with Ai Weiwei, who makes both his political activities and the identity of those on the receiving end clear. On the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, for which he helped conceive the Birds Nest Stadium, Ai wrote a column for The Guardian entitled “Why I’ll stay away from the opening ceremony of the Olympics”. It included the following statements:
Almost 60 years after the founding of the People’s Republic, we still live under autocratic rule without universal suffrage. We do not have anopen media even though freedom of expression is more valuable than life itself […]
We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people.
Ai has reiterated these sentiments in his blog, twitter feed, and interviews with foreign press on a regular basis. He isn’t simply a pundit, though: after the devastating earthquakes in Sichuan province, Ai created an installation for the Haus der Kunst in Munich comprised of 9000 children’s backpacks spelling out, “She lived happily for seven years in this world,” words from a mother who lost her child. Assembling a group of volunteers through the Internet, Ai compiled a list of 5,335 names of children who had been crushed in the rubble. All went to 20 schools whose buildings had collapsed during the quake. Though the government shut down the investigation, it launched one of its own into shoddy classroom construction.
Like Dylan, Ai is an increasingly subversive artist, but their styles could not be more different. In an interview with the Financial Times a year ago, Ai confessed, “You play like a gambler. You may be on a winning streak. You may think: ‘This is a winning table’. And you may fantasize that you can win for ever.” One man has sung his ballads for 60 years; the other has been silenced, hopefully not indefinitely. It would be indefensible to downplay what Ai has sacrificed for his political bravery, but it would be just as irresponsible to encourage him to continue as he has and permanently join the leagues of “crazy, anti-China dissidents” the Chinese public by and large ostracizes. Protest works against a very organized and controlled enemy; it should be just as inclined in order to maximize effectiveness.
Ai’s work is already a powerful tool: regarding his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai explains, “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there.” Whether by dropping a Ming vase, giving the middle finger to the world’s most recognizable monuments, or decapitating zodiac signs, an irreverence that makes people laugh along with it without causing discomfort is the most untraceable text message.
When Ai Weiwei is released, and he will be released because the Chinese hate more than anything to lose face, he should, as Dylan has, do his job. At the end of the day, we all just work here.
April 9, 2011 § 4 Comments
By Rebecca Liao
For someone with over a million Twitter followers, Zoë Keating is very much alone. She is a one-woman string quartet, using her computer to loop and layer recordings of her playing to create the illusion of multiple instruments. She does not belong to a record label, nor does she have a coterie of handlers. Her album “Into the Trees” debuted at #7 on the Billboard classical chart and shot to #1 on iTunes Classical. Catching a breather at home in Portland, Oregon after completing the first leg of her Out of the Trees tour, which included collaborations with Radiolab, and a visit to Google, Zoë took some time to chat over the phone.
You’re almost done with the first leg of your tour, what has the experience been like, and how has it been different from tours in the past?
I love touring. I love going to new places and meeting new people, trying all the foods of the region. All of that is to say that the feeling of waking up in a different place everyday is both discombobulating and wonderful. And what’s different this time is, obviously, having my family with me. Traveling with a baby means that any time you might normally have off on a tour, you don’t have off anymore because you also have to be a parent. It kind of makes for no down time, but you just take every minute as it goes. I couldn’t do it without my husband coming with me. He does all the baby wrangling during the shows.
Oh, yeah. I imagine you have to wake up several times during the night.
Definitely. One other thing that’s different is that, in my mind, I thought of touring as this thing I do on my own. And now it’s a group operation. I think the three of us (baby, husband, and me) are the smallest operation. I think we’d actually like to take more people with us because then it would easier. Yeah, it’s been good to learn that I need help.
When you meet with your fans before and after shows, what is the most common thing they say to you, other than, of course, “I loved every minute of it”?
(Laughs) It depends on what kind of audience. If they’re musical, they have technical questions. The other thing I hear is, “Oh, you know, I listen to your music all the time while I’m writing, or while I’m painting,” or “I listen to your music while I’m doing this or another thing, and it really helps.” I also hear a lot of people say, they gave up an instrument when they were younger. Then they heard me and picked it up again. Those are my favorite kinds of comments.
Do you have an audience member in mind when you write music?
No, not at all. It’s very personal. I don’t really imagine the listeners. (Laughs) Although, after the concert, I do like to go out and talk to everybody. This is a very important part of the show for me. It’s like closure. But when I’m actually creating the music, it’s a very personal experience where I’m making my own world, and it’s not about who listens to it; it’s more about some kind of abstract thing I’m trying to create.
Describe your composition process to me. Do you start off with this musical idea in your head, and you know where you want to go with it? Or is it more, this is sort of what I want to express, and let me try out these different phrases?
Often the pieces start out with a feeling. There’s some kind of, I don’t want to use the word emotion, cause that seems sort of flat, really. There’s some sort of feeling that I’m trying to capture in music. I’ll want the music to feel like that. As far as the content of that feeling, it comes from improvisation or mistakes in a previous performance, or I kind of build it up from little bits and let it develop organically. Sometimes, the feeling might change along the way, and I might go somewhere else. Other times, I stick to this feeling that I have in the beginning, and I try to make all of the parts match that emotion. I don’t really know the word to use. That’s why it’s music. (Laughs) It’s sort of a direction, like a motion and an emotional feeling. I’m trying to make a musical version of those two things together.
Yes, I know what you’re talking about since I have a bit of a dance background.
Yeah, if you’re a dancer, you would definitely get that.
I read one of your previous interviews, and you said there was a piece of music in your CD that started with a happy accident during a performance. Do you often remember a lot of those instances? For me, it’s harder to remember something that happens in music the same way I remember a quote from a book, say. But for you, is it natural to keep everything in your head?
I do tend to remember musical phrases, sometimes better than I remember words. It’s kind of like a “finger memory”. My fingers remember what they did. Sometimes, it’s frustrating to hear what I think is “the melody to end all melodies”. I’ll hear it in my head while I’m walking, and I’ll want to do it in the studio, but by the time I get around to it, I’ve forgotten it. Whereas, if I play it on the cello, I’ll probably always remember it.
Walk us through one of your performances. I know that it’s part what you’ve already composed, and it’s part improvisation. How do you navigate the two when you’re on stage?
I have to sort of not think about it. It’s funny: I have my eyes closed because it helps me to concentrate. I’m really concentrating, but I’m not thinking directly, “Now I will do this, and now I will do this.” It’s concentrating on this overarching abstract thing. It’s a funny state of mind that I find sort of hard to describe. I make these strictures in advance. The piece is pretty composed, and I just sort of practice it enough so that I know what to do, and then I don’t have to think about that part.
There’s also a lot of math. I have to make all the numbers of loops add up. On stage, I don’t really think about that either. I just sort of practice it enough so that it becomes second nature. I’m not being very helpful in my description.
No, that totally makes sense.
It’s a lot of work beforehand, just like it would be for a classical piece, really. You have to learn the piece of music in an incremental way. You learn it phrase by phrase, and then you learn the whole thing. I do it the same way I would do classical music, except that I also have a bit of programming in there that’s telling the computer what to do and when to do it: for example, record me for 4 bars, stop recording me for 4 bars, record the next track for two bars, fade down track 1. It’s very similar to the stuff you would have in a musical score. So when I get up on stage, I just have to do the right thing at the right time. I could take over with my feet, if I wanted to, but once I have a piece a certain way, I tend to stick to it that way, and change little bits here and there.
So you play the cello, and the computer just sort of goes, and you only use your feet when you want to change something up?
Yes and no. The computer knows when to record me, so if I didn’t do anything, nothing would happen. There would be no audio. The parts of the song are broken into these things I call modules. When one section of a piece is finished, it will trigger the next section. So if I wanted one section to go longer, I could stop it from triggering that next section. Or, I could have it go to a different section. It’s a little bit like, “Choose your own adventure.” Sometimes, I might start out a piece using this method and then stop it and take over entirely with my feet.
The MIDI commands are what tells the computer what to do. When I send the MIDI command, the computer knows to start recording or stop recording or mute or unmute something or to chop up a phrase. But if I were to send a MIDI command with my foot for every single thing I do, I would do so much tap dancing because there are so many things going on all at once. Once I got this method of doing automated MIDI control, it freed me up to do things that were much more musically complex and not quite so linear. When you hear someone doing looping, it often sounds kind of linear because you get a phrase going and it has to go for the whole song. Automated MIDI allows me to have more different sections and be a little more flexible in how I want to make the piece.
Creating something beautiful and personally meaningful is your main objective, but I was wondering if you have an idea for how you’d like to move music along in general?
My philosophy is that music does move along. I find it frustrating that it’s segmented into these different genres. Classical music is something that is from the past; it will play forever a certain way. Obviously, music evolves. One thing that I would like to do is help break down the barriers between different genres. It doesn’t have to be that your identity means that you only listen to one specific kind of music. I often notice that one particular social group will listen to one particular kind of music. If their friends find out that they listen to another kind of music, they might be ostracized, especially with young people. I listen to all different kinds of music.
Just segueing a bit here, I’m curious, how has motherhood changed you as a musician, if it has at all?
Well, that’s an ongoing question. It’s always changing, just like your kids are always changing. Right now, it’s changed my relationship to time because time is broken up into smaller chunks. I’ve yet to do any major composing since I became a mother. I released my album right when my son was born, so I’ve focused on promoting that and touring on it. The next stage is for me to figure out how to compose. I spend long hours doing that, and that’s something you can’t do if you’re nursing. So I’ll have to keep answering that question in the future.
Do you think in future albums, you’ll compose something for your baby?
Most likely. He’s a huge inspiration. I’m inspired by whatever’s going on in my life, and he’s obviously the biggest thing going on right now.
If we could go way back and talk about why you chose to go into technology right out of college.
I went into technology because it was the only choice at that time. I had student loans to pay off, the dot-com boom was happening, and it was a great way for someone with a liberal arts degree to get a job. I always cared a lot about not doing anything evil. I didn’t like the idea of working for a company that created a lot of stuff, be cause I’m sort of anti-stuff. Working in a dot-com, it wasn’t even really clear what you were making!
You really don’t know what you’re going to do right out of college. I once thought I might go into advertising, and I thought I might be good at it, but I knew that I’d have to work on products I didn’t believe in, like cars or Coca-Cola, a lot of things I just can’t support, so technology was a great industry to be working in. And it was an intellectual challenge that I really enjoyed.
I know you get asked this question a lot, but we can never ask you too many times because you’ve done this so successfully. How does a musician harness social media to build a successful career?
Just like everything else, it’s incremental. Looking back on it, it seems like, “Oh, you were so clever in doing something,” but really I just threw myself out there to see what would work. The main part of it is always being honest. I just use all those tools to be myself and never be out of character. There are tools that we use like anything else, and you have to keep your integrity, and not just use them as marketing. I think if you only think of them as marketing, you won’t succeed. Unless you’re really clever, maybe you can, I don’t know.
Do you mean by that that you have to have a personal connection with your fans so that when they ask you a question, you’re not going to give a PR response?
Exactly. Basically what it means is that it’s just me, and whatever I use, I’m always going to be myself. My motivation is to be myself, and not promote myself, you know what I mean? It ends up being very simple, but I just feel that a lot of people are either trying too hard or being fake.
You were named a Young Global Leader. What does that role entail and what would you like to do with it?
I don’t know yet. It sort of came out of the blue while I was on tour, and I was really surprised by it. I have to think about that for a few months. Right now, it’s a little hard for me to act on because I’m a new mother. I did say to them, “Next year, I’d like to think about this more.” It sounds like an amazing opportunity, and I don’t want to take it for granted. It did just sort of come out of the blue.
That must have been an amazing phone call to get.
Yeah, it was actually.
April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
By Rebecca Liao
For a performer, a rough day at the office is one in which the audience is reminded that the office actually exists. It is show biz fail to admit to mistakes and allow people to see the effort. Such seemed to be the fate of the San Francisco Symphony as it kicked off its concert of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 on Saturday night at Davies Symphony Hall.
According to critics who attended the weekday performances, Yundi
Li did not have a smooth landing in San Francisco. Watching him walk the plank to the piano bench with Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt in tow, I could see that bitter cocktail of fresh, tepid reviews, an almost incurable discomfort with showmanship, and lingering self-consciousness from a career whose days of being the youngest winner ever of the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition are long over (Deutsche Grammophon dropped him two years ago) course through his system. He bowed stiffly. He slowly outstretched his hand and focused on its counterpart for the customary handshake with the concertmaster, awkwardly revealing that, while a duty for all soloists, it is really just that for him. His coattails needed to be adjusted several times when he first settled on the bench. His pants didn’t fit well. His hair was possibly the biggest offense of all, a far cry from the straightened-and-flipped locks of his press pictures. Without the hair and makeup team, it was a loosely crimped weave, no hints of luster or gel.
Warhorse and piano virtuoso are usually a foolproof combination. However, aside from the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 that made his name, Yundi does not speak in warhorses. Tchaikovsky’s thunderous opening chords lacked a consistency in dynamics that most pianists of his renown can rely on as an assuring warm-up. A loud, straightforward announcement such as this cannot be found in the Chopin nocturnes and Lizst sonatas that dominate Yundi’s recording repertoire. To his credit, he wrangled the notes in time to avoid distracting from the strings’ exposition of the opening theme. The effort was not without casualty: the arpeggiated notes lost the timing and deftness required to make them into a coherent forward movement. Worse, Yundi and the SFS seemed to have momentarily lost each other. Doubts of Yundi’s abilities outside the recital context were gaining traction, and the first movement had just begun.
When it came time to repeat the opening theme, the SFS and soloist had had enough. Both used the swell of Tchaikovsky’s narrative to reset, but that is not to say they then proceeded through the traditional route. The SFS can be workmanlike, bordering on robotic, with Tchaikovsky’s concertos, and Saturday night was no exception; Yundi’s calling card is a sensitive and subtle elegance most clearly heard when no other sounds threaten to overwhelm the piano. Together, they would never cruise in the stratosphere; just as well, it’s crowded up there.
Instead, they went for something much rarer: an arch reading of a heroic work, more Chekhov than Mother Russia. During the second movement, Yundi moved completely economically. He betrayed no sign of the slow swaying of the upper body and shaking of the head that has practically become a part of the technique. His fingers moved deliberately, but unhurriedly; it was a very contemplative and studied delivery that acknowledged, without milking, the plentiful nuances in the slower amble of notes. The flute and cello solos introduced the orchestra’s response: each musician took their time with the pauses and eased into the notes that followed through an inflection point, giving the effect of a skillfully rendered soliloquy.
For those who expected fireworks from Tchaikovsky, the third movement did not disappoint. Turns out someone who has mastered Lizst can play with great speed, accuracy, and conviction. Yundi became a completely different pianist at the signal of the timpani, springing from his bench with his forehead cocked forward in intense concentration and cheeks jiggling from the sprint of his hands. To confirm that the second movement was no coping mechanism, the orchestra executed the climax with the same subtle phrasing.
Any Sibelius symphony played by the San Francisco Symphony with Blomstedt at the helm threatens to be the definitive version. But with its inversion of the classical structure, rhythmic irregularity, explosiveness and tenderness, and history as Finland’s reluctant “Symphony of Independence,” Sibelius’ second symphony is a minefield for interpreters. Herbert von Karajan all but raced through it to avoid the expressive challenges, and Leonard Bernstein’s trademark molasses pace undermined the unity of what is, on the surface, a work already precariously put together. Unlocking the internal logic of the symphony, which Sibelius preferred to emphasize over the socio-political overtones, involves a thorough and inventive understanding of its tempos, namely how they can be manipulated. There were no hints of the more rigid, almost staccato, playing from the Tchaikovsky. Rather, key motifs in each movement were parsed so that the last notes of a phrase were allowed to gradually peter out before moving on. Combined with confident execution throughout from all solos and the full orchestra, the SFS was by turns majestic and lyrical without ever losing its train of thought. Occasional wobbles from the brass and woodwinds aside, this was a performance so beautifully controlled that it grabbed the aura of inevitability from the first three notes and never relinquished it.
March 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
By Rebecca Liao
As soon as the first model at the Cour Carrée du Louvre stepped out of her elevator in a sheer skirt, bellboy cap, and fetish boots, the fashion world was paralyzed between feverishly sharing their impressions with everyone else watching the show and catching every moment of the spectacle unfolding. Handcuffs, tightly corseted jackets, curvaceous jodhpurs, lace-up boots, bottomless outfits, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Fucking Moss smoking a post-coital cigarette. Despite the early start, everyone in the room had been sufficiently awakened from their stupor and cheered out of their minds for Le American Marc Jacobs, racing onto the runway and backstage while writing preliminary notes for all manner of fawning, naughty praise in their handhelds for a very successful fall Louis Vuitton collection. Until Jacobs paralyzed them again with this post-show gem: “At Vuitton, it always starts with the bags, I kept thinking about this inexplicable passion and obsession women have for bags, and how the bag became a fetishized object.” Somewhere, Bernard Arnault ruefully thought, “What did I do that my children would turn against me?”
Fortunately, Jacobs ended with this line, “I wanted to celebrate the love and desire that’s part of that fetish,” adding an assuaging glamour to his mockery of the Vuitton customer and decades-long marketing campaign. The fashion season is long, with several collections and product launches between the two pillar collections of fall and spring: the chase for trends is not amenable to narrative arcs. But it is impossible to ignore the connection between Fall 2010 and Fall 2011 for Louis Vuitton. Fall 2010 was a celebration of femininity, opening with Laetitia Casta and closing with Elle MacPherson, deliberately casting curvier models, sporting low-cut corseted dresses showing off the décolletage, bouffant ponytails, and tall pumps with oversized bows and retro block heels, some covered with Swarovski crystals, all parading by a romantic Parisian fountain with the soundtrack to “And God Created Woman,” the film that launched Brigitte Bardot’s career in the states, in the background. Jacobs signed with the Speedy, a bag that normally retails for around $700, redone in luxe fabrics and precious metals to up the price tag to five figures.
Spend long enough with this love and desire, though, and any amount of self-awareness will trigger the realization that it is just unnatural for an unnecessary object to have such power. Even more disconcerting is the subsequent thought that even if the human desire to not be controlled and manipulated resists such power, the bag is just so damn beautiful. If either side won with any consistency, fashion would become an incredibly boring Amtrak of consumerism, ambling along without variation. There are consequences to living this way.
Jacobs replaced the Speedy with the Lockit as the heart of the fall collection in 2011. Accessorized with fur and gilded handcuffs, the subversion comes mostly from “The Night Porter” staging. Point taken, but not every fetishized object is so lucky as to become even more glamorous in a sadomasochistic relationship.
For example, the piano has seen hard times in 2011, continuing to pay for the most unerasable of sins: its existence. Worse, it gleefully affirms that existence at every turn. Like Julio Cortázar’s axolotl, its identity is so unwaveringly strong that it will engulf that of the people who come into contact with it, while remaining itself generally unaffected. To change how a piano is perceived initially feels like a giant victory, but a tainted one when one realizes that that can only mean it was inexplicably considered an enemy. Still, the victories that have come were as abrupt as they are lasting. There is John Cage’s prepared piano–a grand piano with bolts, screws, short strips of felt-covered plastic and other objects placed in between the strings to create a much larger array of percussive sound.
The sounds emitted are tailored to a modern sensibility: not that the piano needs updating, but to claim a part of it as unique for a place and time is a win-win for all parties. That’s especially true for Raphael Montanez Ortiz’s destroyed pianos.
Ortiz has done more than 80 of these performances.
These performances are not junkyard affairs; they are accompanied by ritualistic singing and dancing. The violence is meant to be a spiritual catharsis. I guess that’s one way to solve one’s problems.
Importantly, Ortiz recognizes that smashing sans technique does not make it out of a neighborhood performance space, and so the performers begin by very carefully taking apart the piano, using the ax to almost gently nudge the parts this way and that. It isn’t until the piano has already been largely deconstructed that the honest smashing begins, as though Ortiz is trying to be as respectful and merciful as possible by coaxing the piano to open up to its own destruction. It is this handy feature of calculated demolition that has a lineage in these works of art:
First shown at the Hans der Kunst in Munich in 2008, “Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on ‘Ode to Joy’ for a Prepared Piano,” by the artist team Allora & Calzadilla, debuted in New York at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea in January 2009. Early December last year, it hit the big leagues with a roughly month-long stint at the Museum of Modern Art. In the second floor atrium, at the top of every hour, one of five pianists would, in a mildly erotic move, climb inside the hole, configure his or her fingers on the keys from the reverse position, and play the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.
In addition to the occasional missed notes and key changes, which frankly could not be helped by even the most virtuosic players in this position, only frustrating thumps sound when notes in the middle two octaves, the excised portion of the Bechstein baby grand, are depressed. Trouble is, these two octaves contain the most recognizable parts of the movement. A few minutes into the performance, the players would begin to move the piano while playing, some in a more elaborate choreography than others, but the physicality is evident all the same. By the time the movement is finished, the player and piano would have traveled throughout the entire atrium.
“Stop, Repair, Prepare” ticks off all the sensors of artistic reception–it is visceral, emotional, entertaining, technically disciplined, and intellectual, all on many levels at once. But we are still curious: what is it supposed to mean–that is, what did Allora & Calzadilla intend for it to mean? PR for the team emphasizes its socio-political import, namely its ignominious history as one of Hitler’s favorite pieces (it was actually performed on Hitler’s birthday in 1942 at the Haus der Kunst: a Bechtstein was in attendance then as well), the national anthem of Rhodesia, an apartheid state, and one of the few pieces of Western music played during the Cultural Revolution in China. Oddly enough, this emphasis on the work’s latent powerlessness recalls another, less successful, dressing down: Susan McClary famously wrote in the January 1987 issue of the “Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter” that, “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” The metaphor may have been unfortunate, but its general sentiment that Beethoven’s Ninth hides an exploitable and exploitative spot beneath its majestic celebration of the human spirit finds itself validated.
Where does the piano fit into all of this? In the big picture, it may have been an innocent bystander. The Ode to Joy is rarely performed on the piano, and certainly never in those concerts that become a part of the symphony’s heritage and identity. But would a hindered orchestra à la Haydn have been a more effective medium? Probably not–an orchestra is a body of musicians; a piano and its player make one musical instrument. By choosing a piano, Allora & Calzadilla left little doubt about what was being subverted. There is nothing glamorous about a mangled melody. The piano is brought down with the ship only in its role as an enabler. Whereas a show of impotence emasculates the music, it is instead used by the piano to attack from a defensive position. The visible burden of being pushed around, the hole with its key missing octaves, the difficulty of matching the right minute finger movements while hunched over and viewing the keyboard upside down set the stage for bravura performances.
Which is exactly what each of the five players aimed for and achieved at the MoMA. A picture of “Stop, Repair, Prepare” is absurd, a viewing of it is thought provoking and moving, and a five minute reflection outside the door combines all the above into a Cagean moment. We will never look at a piano in the same way again.
That was the happy story.
Then there was that episode in which a boy from South Florida wanted to get into a great college. At a New Year’s Eve party, he set on fire an old grand piano that his father, J. Mark Harrington, production designer for USA Network’s “Burn Notice,” had rescued from a shoot. Turns out this sort of activity provokes quite a reaction. So Nick Harrington, along with his father and brother, moved the piano by boat to a sandbar in Biscayne Bay and lit it on fire again. Pictures were taken this time.
Given that Nick was facing felony charges and a $5000 dollar fine for dumping the piano around the time the media caught wind of his identity, it’s understandable that he did not give any money quotes about what his work meant. He did, however, throw out buzz words like “artsy” and “surreal”. The poor piano really just had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its problem is that the more readily people understand an object’s gravitas, the more readily they can discern its potential for absurdity. Few things are more serious than a beautiful, high-brow object with heritage and the love and devotion that have made it so, other than, of course, a belief in its unassailability so strong that the only deconstruction deemed worthwhile is that done in extremis following a relatively trouble-free decision process.
Bernard Arnault need not fear, however. The bags will still do well. Their pristine nature may be sullied, but they become even more esteemed because they were game. They allowed a moral victory—both sides of the viewing glass get the last laugh, and that is mutuality at its best.
February 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
By Rebecca Liao
The Yes We Can House is one of San Francisco’s last true urban legends—it has no website, its own or one created on its behalf (unless my Googling skills need polishing). Like all urban legends, it emits an ensnaring combination of bad/good luck. Good luck in that parking was easy to find and there was an auspicious sign outside that always indicates good people and times will freely flow.
Bad luck in that these once adorable dolls and children’s toys hung from trees and were stuffed into spaces in the doors. The wooden ones are in great shape, the lacquered paint still shiny and holding the promise of lack of use or absence of excessive handling. The fabric ones aren’t faring so well, discolored and bent into unnatural shapes—it recalled La Isla de las Muñecas in Mexico, another legend based on dolls as the greeting party. Maybe a tradition exists of hanging anthropomorphisms outside a building to scare away evil spirits, I’m not sure. But because one striking similarity existed, another must as well. I guess it is good luck, then, that the similarity ended up proving itself true.
I am ashamed to say that I did not arrive early enough to hear Cariwyl Hebert, founder and head of Salon97, give her introductory speech about the theme for the concert and the pieces that would be played. As the concert progressed, though, I was able to discern: Jewish Kabbalah, one of Schubert’s more famous works about death, and a couple of more obscure works associated with Schubert’s famous death. Put it all together, and you have a Chagall painting. Chagall paintings often have doll-like figures in them. Alright, let me try again.
Osvaldo Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind is a deeply spiritual, mystical piece that envisions the string quartet as Isaac the Blind’s teaching that the universe is comprised of the Hebrew alphabet letters. “Isaac’s lifelong devotion to his art is as striking as that of string quartets and Klezmer musicians. In their search for something that arises from tangible elements but transcends them, they are all reaching a state of communion,” says Golijov in his notes to the work. Whether through this all-embracing, high-minded spirituality that is unfairly the territory of the 60s or the dolls, Schubert’s Quartet in G major failed to tempt a passive lean and free-fall into the abyss of unstable major-minor chord modulations and became a sublime contemplation whose contours formed through successive contractions and forward surges. Death and the Maiden lost its ability to affect mood, and its ostensible unhappiness seemed a mere concept to be contemplated over beautiful music. The epic Quintet in C major brought things full circle by first returning to the innovative techniques of the quartet, which Ligeti and many other 20th century composers cite as an influence, with an expansive sound world Mahler would eventually adopt as his signature. We ended with a Hungarian rondo, the cello more subtle than the clarinet.
If classical music is the new underground scene, it is in no small part due to the efforts of the violist in the communist green Mao hat, and his group of highly skilled and earnest chamber musicians. Classical Revolution is the virtual mothership of the SF classical music counterculture, and Charith Premawardhana, founder and artistic director, is its Don. These fabulous motherfuckers are the McSweeney’s of SF classical music. They execute on a vision that those in the establishment with lower risk appetites (which is generally coded language for stilted tastes) put in the reject pile. This happens:
And this happens:
And we’d worry if it didn’t.
Craig Monson, the musicologist who specializes in 17th century music, recently published a book entitled Nuns Behaving Badly. Thom Browne’s debut womenswear show featured nuns being undressed to reveal his clothes underneath. The nun is making a comeback. Not that she ever waned as an object of fascination—everyone in my freshman year dorm made it a point to check out one particular person’s calendar of nuns having fun. What’s interesting about these and many other similar examples is what actually resonates. The most obvious appeal in a nun’s rebellion is its promise of sex, yet Monson’s sexless book got a fun and approving blurb in the New Yorker and Browne’s show served as Simon Doonan’s opening bitchslap in his review of New York Fashion Week. Fun and eyebrow-knitting are dangerously close. Not even the austerity of the New York Public Library and Gregorian chant could bolster the credibility of nuns sporting huge eyelashes and porn heels while being undressed by priests in knee shorts and socks. Desperation is fulfilling the obvious desire, because the obvious desire is the easiest and least knowing, and therefore neither chic nor flattering.
This is not the place to enumerate how classical music can try too hard. Suffice to say Cariwyl does not. She introduces the works with a downtown gait and lilt of tone that suggests she wants you to hear what she’s saying but doesn’t particularly care if you don’t, so of course you listen. No gimmicks, not even the relish or smirk with which Schubert’s syphilis is usually mentioned. Besides, that market has already been cornered in SF: Doonan gave a shout-out to the legendary 80s gay performance group known as The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and this happened on my way back home:
February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
By Rebecca Liao
As their name would suggest, there is something very old school about the Old First Concerts. Set in the Old First Church in San Francisco, they boast an intimate, august, old-world setting with no bad seats and acoustics fond of hinting at the place’s celestial connections. A favorite venue for classical chamber music and recitals, the church has also hosted jazz, avant-garde, blues, folk, and multicultural performances. The San Francisco Guitar Quartet (David Dueñas, Jon Mendle, Patrick O’ Connell, and Mark Simmons)’s concert on November 20 will feature music that fits squarely within these types, but its musical contribution as a whole cannot be so easily encapsulated.
In the course of discovering how to create different layers of color and timbre, chamber groups comprised of a single class of instruments become a natural vehicle for exploring the timbral qualities of those instruments. The practice is centuries-old, but in the context of a chamber performance given in a post-tonal serialism age, it becomes particularly significant as a case study for how timbre can be isolated as a musical element and assigned functions just like pitch. Though there is likely no deliberate attempt to create a modern sound, one results nevertheless because the instruments produce musical entities that are at the forefront of modern consciousness. But the SFGQ promises to do more than coax new sounds out of conventional instruments. New member Mr. Mendle’s instrument is an 11-string archguitar that is a combination of 19th century guitar, modern guitar, and Renaissance and Baroque lutes. The archguitar was built right here in San Francisco by Alan Perlman.
Certainly Atanas Ourkouzounov, who composed Objets Futiles, one of the pieces on the program, has an affinity for playing with timbre to create more contemporary and abstract music. However, like his fellow Eastern European Béla Bartók, Ourkouzounov infuses his music with folk characteristics, a romance that many of the serialists and Second Viennese School devotees were quick to turn their back upon. Fortunately, it is impossible to compose away the inherent warmth and storytelling ability of the guitar, and even more so to resist the humanity of a culture that gave the world lo real maravilloso. For this, we have two traditional Latin songs to look forward to: La Partida-Vals Venezolano and La Venenosa-Huayno Peruano, both arranged by Mr. Dueñas; and Cuarteto 5/Chorinho by Chilean composer Javier Farías. The quartet will also play At the Sound of Light by John Anthony Lennon, who is particularly noted for his classical guitar compositions and is a Mill Valley native.
Ultimately, attributing contemporary or traditional leanings to a guitar quartet seems artificial because both are often on display simultaneously. The guitar is such a willfully expressive instrument that in defying classification, it becomes precisely its ideal. Perhaps the dichotomy ought to die on a cue from the venue, and accept that some things are simply eternal.
A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.
February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
By Rebecca Liao
Every night when I closed the bar,
I would get in my car,
And I was driving at the time a 1976 off-brown Gremlin.
But I would get in my car every night and put in the music of Bruce Springsteen,
And everything changed.
And I never again felt like a loser.
When you listen to Bruce’s music, you aren’t a loser.
You are a character in an epic poem
–Jon Stewart, former bartender
Anselm Kiefer’s Seven Heavenly Palaces gave birth to Ludivico Einaudi’s latest album Nightbook the way that Stewart claims Bob Dylan and James Brown gave birth to his favorite musician. In 2006, Einaudi performed amongst Kiefer’s mythically imposing towers and subsequently wrote music matching the awareness and transcendence that sitting at the comparatively tiny grand piano inspired. The result may be heard upon any visit to the iTunes store or Amazon.com. Neither can compare to the Palace of Fine Arts, where Einaudi will appear on March 15 as part of The Nightbook Tour. An exploration of the transition between light and dark, a solo piano provides the narration while the background combination of strings, percussion, and electronically-generated sound creates a world that gives that narration plausibility and definition.
Boasting a top-10 spot on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart, Nightbook (and the rest of Einaudi’s music, for that matter), has earned the concerned side-long glance from classical music purists—all the more so because the album hit #1 on the iTunes classical chart. The stubborn ability of the music to place one in a calmer mood puts it dangerously close to New Age, but rest assured. This music will not be playing in spas, yoga class, or any other place where it is better to leave your imagination behind.
From the first note, a narrative begins to build in one’s head. Before long, however, one realizes that this story has no plot or movement. It is merely an enterprise in escape, replete with vague but cunningly potent notions of ideal thought and feeling. The mastery of this effect largely explains Einaudi’s success with soundtracks. He understands how to create music ready-made for a story to be superimposed onto it. Among his credits are the soundtrack for Fuori del mondo, an Italian film nominated for an Oscar in 2002, Luce dei miei occhi, for which he won Best Soundtrack at the 2002 Italian music awards, and the British TV series Doctor Zhivago.
Nightbook does not profess to be a soundtrack; it just quietly makes the listener a character in a tone poem about themselves. It is this ability that allows him to draw in those outside of classical music to become one of the most popular contemporary classical music composers. It is also why those who already love classical music may not be open to his sound—it is a lite incarnation that almost insults their imagination. How much fun is it, though, to escape and always meet the same story? (Oh, and yes, that Jon Stewart.)
A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.