Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Opera Urns

The opera urns being filled in the basement of the Paris Opera, Dec. 24, 1907. Photo from the NY Times.

Format wars

In my lifetime I've seen the rise and fall of many formats of recorded music, from LPs and singles to cassettes to compact discs to DVD-Audio to digital streaming to the vinyl revival. Different formats have always existed simultaneously, and it hasn't always been clear which new format had a sufficient commercial or technological advantage to dominate the market: remember Laserdiscs from the early 1980s, MiniDiscs from the early 1990s, or Super Audio CDs from the early 2000s?

Such format wars have been fought since the advent of recorded sound. In the first decade of the 20th century the dominant audio format was the Edison wax cylinder. But a new technology was beginning to make inroads into the market: the shellac gramophone disc. Gramophone discs were becoming popular thanks in large part to a rising young Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, who was recorded in the new format by one of Edison's commercial rivals, the Gramophone Company. Caruso was the gramophone's killer app: the ten recordings issued from his first session in 1902 were international hits and fueled the sales of both playback machines and discs.

The 1907 urns. Photo from BnF, Le feuilleton des urnes de l’Opéra: 2, by Pascal Lafay / BnF

The opera urns

It was in the middle of the Gramophone Company's marketing struggle to establish their format over cylinders and competing disc systems that its president, Alfred Clark, had the idea for a brilliant publicity stunt: a gramophone time capsule. In 1907 he offered 24 discs to be placed in hermetically-sealed metal canisters, or "urns," to be stored in the basement of the Paris Opera and opened in 100 years.

The ostensible purposes were scientific (to demonstrate to future generations the current "state of sound-recording devices") and cultural (to preserve "the voices of the foremost singers of our age"). The more immediate purpose, of course, was to gain free publicity for the Gramophone Company and the imprimatur of the Paris Opera and the French government for the company's audio system and recording catalog. It worked so well that in 1912 Clark donated another 24 discs, plus a gramophone, spare needles, and instructions for playback.

Over the decades the four urns sat neglected in a basement storage room at the Opera. As time passed, of course, audio technology continued to change. Electrical recording using microphones replaced acoustic recording using horns in the mid-1920s; magnetic tape, which made it possible to edit audio performances, was invented in the 1930s and commercialized in the 1940s; vinyl long-playing 33⅓ rpm records were introduced in the late 1940s, and soon replaced 78s; stereo was developed in the late 1950s and quadraphonic sound in the early 1970s; and the compact disc debuted in the 1980s.

In 1989, during renovations at the Paris Opera, the basement storage room was entered and the urns were rediscovered. One of the urns had been broken into, and the gramophone had been taken; the remaining three were moved to the Bibliothèque Nationale.

After remaining sealed for a century, two of the urns were opened in 2007. It was discovered that the records had been separated by glass plates (many of which were now broken) and wrapped in asbestos cloth (!), rendering them unplayable without extensive (and hazardous) cleaning and restoration.

The cleaning of the recordings. Photo from BnF, Le feuilleton des urnes de l’Opéra: 3, by D. Cueco/BnF

However, each of the two urns (one from 1907 and one from 1912) contained a list of all the titles that had been included in those years, and so it was possible to find matches for all of the recordings in existing collections. In 2009, EMI Classics, a corporate descendant of the Gramophone Company, issued a three-CD set of the music contained in the urns (Les Urnes de l'Opéra, 50999 206267 2 3).

Emil Berliner with an early prototype of his invention, the gramophone acoustic recording system

The recordings

The first thing to say about these recordings is that it's amazing to be able to hear legendary singers such as Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Emma Calvé, Pol Plançon, and Feodor Chaliapin. However, ears accustomed to modern stereo sound must definitely make adjustments when encountering historic recordings.

In The Grand Tradition: Seventy years of singing on record, 1900-1970 (Scribner's, 1974), J. B. Steane quotes the soprano Emma Eames on what it was like during gramophone recording sessions:
To a sensitive person the conditions were unnerving. We had to sing carefully into the very center of a horn to the accompaniment of an orchestra that inevitably sounded out of tune, owing to the fact that metal horns were substituted for the wooden sounding-boxes of the violins. In the case of a brilliant and vibrant voice like mine, as one approached the climax, or high note, the climax was turned into an anti-climax for fear of a blast, so-called; one was gently drawn back from the horn, so that instead of a ringing high note one sounded as though one had suddenly retired into the next room. The process enervated me, as I felt that with even the most satisfactory results, my voice would be diminished and deformed, and the cross-vibrations eliminated completely. (p. 9)
The sound of a gramophone recording was also "diminished and deformed" in other ways. Arias were shortened because the discs could only hold about four minutes of music on a side. Orchestras were reduced in size, because the acoustic horn could not easily pick up sounds from more than about ten feet away. Brass and wind instruments were substituted for string instruments because acoustic recordings couldn't capture either high or low frequencies very well. This limitation also affected the sound of the singers' voices, as Steane describes:
The distortions of 'pre-electrical' recording (that is, the 'acoustic' process prevalent until electric recording was established in 1925) affect the singer's tone, intonation and artistic freedom. The frequency range was limited so that a voice would be shorn of the full richness of its harmonics....A voice remarkable for its purity of tone, as [Nellie] Melba's was, would be reduced to something pipelike when the harmonics were cut; a contralto whose voice was naturally rich would sound plummy as the edge was blunted; a bass would seem hollow or wooden when the qualities that made for a rich depth were removed. Tenors generally came off best; the characteristic tenor sound is bright-edged, and the voice is well in the middle of the gramophone's frequency range. (p. 7)

Enrico Caruso in 1910

That tenors' voices were reproduced relatively faithfully is a key reason why Caruso's recordings became such huge hits. It's still possible to hear what contemporary listeners found so thrilling about his records. Here is an example from Urn 3: Caruso singing "Celeste Aida" from Act I of Verdi's Aida, recorded in 1908:

This recording was restored by Bob Varney and made available by the invaluable Internet Archive.

Nellie Melba in 1902

But as Emma Eames suggests, the recording process could be less kind to sopranos. From Urn 2, here is Caruso's frequent partner Nellie Melba in "Caro nome" from Act I of Verdi's Rigoletto, recorded in 1907:

The digital transfer of this recording was done by Tim Ecker and the clip is made available by Internet Archive.

Steane says of Melba's recordings that "for all their faults and limitations they present a marvelous singer" (p. 40). Interpretive questions aside, Steane writes that "hers was the purest and firmest of voices, the most perfect scale, the most exact trill." But he also writes that "the occasional faults are mercilessly exposed when such a voice as hers is shorn of its natural harmonics by the old recording process." Certainly the passage from about 1:02 to 1:14 doesn't seem to display the "accurate intonation" that "all contemporary accounts one of her outstanding characteristics" (all quotes p. 37). My ears have not yet fully adapted to the sound of historic recordings, but I would agree that on this recording Melba's voice sounds "pipelike" and "hollow"; on this evidence, it's not apparent why Steane judges Melba to be this era's "best of all recorded singers" (p. 37).

The recording limitations can also, to my ears, flatten not only the voices but the sense of immediacy and drama. From Urn 3 here is "Addio, dolce svegliare alla mattina" (Goodbye, sweet awakening I knew each morning) from Act III (not Act IV as the CD booklet has it) of Puccini's La bohème, recorded in 1907. In this scene Mimi (Geraldine Farrar) and Rodolfo (Enrico Caruso) are bidding each other a farewell so tender that it leads to a reconciliation, while at the same time in the background (beginning at about 1:25) Marcello (Antonio Scotti) and Musetta (Gina Viafora) are having a nasty breakup. But because all of the singers had to crowd around the horn in order to be heard, there can be no background. For me, this lessens the poignancy (and humor) of the scene:

This recording was restored by Bob Varney and made available by the Internet Archive.

The selection

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Verdi (whose operas were frequently performed then and now) is the composer with the greatest representation: 11 recordings among the 48 discs. And as you might imagine, Francophone composers were also well represented. Charles Gounod leads this group with seven recordings, and overall there are 28 sides featuring French music.

It's not clear who made the selection of the recordings. Were the selections made by the Gramophone Company's Clark in order to gain approval for the project from the staff of the Paris Opera and French government officials? Or did he allow the Opera staff or the officials themselves to make the choices? There is no indication in anything I've read about the opera urns; perhaps at this distance from the original events it is unknowable.

Whatever the case, we can be grateful that the selector(s) included recordings of Reynaldo Hahn singing and accompanying himself on two songs. From Urn 4, here is Hahn singing Emmanuel Chabrier's "L'île heureuse" (The island of happiness), recorded in 1909:

Recordings like this one remove the barriers of time and technology that separate us from these performers, and let us experience their art with a surprising vividness and immediacy.

Many thanks to M. Lapin, who sent me the EMI set along with his own translation of its booklet essay by Elizabeth Giuliani, Directeur du département de la Musique of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, together with Alan Riding's New York Times article about the urns.

Information in this post is taken from those sources, the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and from J. B. Steane's The Grand Tradition.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Do men deserve women?: Amrita Rao in Love U...Mr. Kalakaar!

Amrita Rao in Love U...Mr. Kalakaar!

Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! (Love U...Mr. Artist!, 2011; written and directed by S. Manasvi) is the latest Amrita Rao film to ask the question: are men deserving of women?

In Ishq Vishk (Love and all that, 2003), Rajiv (Shahid Kapoor) must finally realize that his pursuit of popularity (and a popular girlfriend with whom he has little in common) is empty. To win back his childhood sweetheart Payal (Rao), whose true love he has spurned, he has to muster the courage to make a huge and public apology/confession to her. In Main Hoon Na (I'm here now, 2004), Laxman (Zayed Khan) isn't aware that his tomboyish college buddy Sanjana (Rao) is in love with him. Like Rajiv, Laxman must understand the shallowness of his pursuit of girlfriends for their looks, and recognize Sajana's devotion and inner beauty (though her outer makeover from jeans and t-shirts to salwar kameez doesn't hurt).

And in Vivah (Marriage, 2006), on the eve of her marriage to Prem (Shahid Kapoor), Poonam (Rao) is terribly burned while rescuing her sister from a raging house fire. Prem, hearing of the disaster, rushes to the hospital. In an inversion of the Ram-Sita story, the trial by fire becomes a test of Prem's worthiness of Poonam:
(Warning: if you follow this link rather than viewing the embedded video,
you may want to stop watching at 9:00 to avoid a mild spoiler)

Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! makes literal the test of the man's worthiness, with the twist that instead of proving himself to his partner, he must also prove himself to her father. Successful industrialist Deshraj Diwan (Ram Kapoor) values one quality above all others:

Discipline is the most important

But his daughter Ritu (Rao) falls for a man who is her father's opposite: the unbusinesslike artist Sahil (Tusshar Kapoor). On a couples trek she urges him to embrace the moment and open his heart to her in "Bhoore Bhoore Badal" (Gathering clouds):

The music is by Sandesh Sandilya, with lyrics by Manoj Muntashir; the playback singers are Shreya Ghoshal and Kunal Ganjawala.

This moment in the story, where Ritu and Sahil are tentatively reaching out to one another, each clearly attracted but unsure of the other's feelings, is one of the best parts of the film. Not coincidentally, it is told largely from Ritu's perspective, and draws on Rao's ability to make her character immediately sympathetic.

One thing I noticed in trying to take screencaps of the film is that it is hard to catch Rao holding a fixed expression. "Bhoore Bhoore Badal" is a perfect example: Rao doesn't pose for the camera; instead she fully inhabits her character, and at every moment her face is expressive of the mix of emotions Ritu is feeling. Rao's acting is very natural; she is animated without overemoting. This ability to portray small, fleeting emotions as well as large ones is one of the qualities that makes her so appealing as an actress.

The growing love between Sahil and Ritu does not make her father a happy man. He is worried that Sahil will be a failure:

An artist ends up selling himself but is unable to sell his art

He sets Sahil a trial: he will be given three months as managing director of Diwan Enterprises. If at the end of that time the company shows a greater than typical profit, Sahil can marry Ritu; if he fails, he will be banished from her life. (Never mind the unlikelihood that the "Businessman of the Decade" would endanger his 1000-employee firm in this way, or that either Sahil or Ritu would agree to this unfair arrangement.)

As if the trial weren't difficult enough, Mr. Diwan adds three other hurdles. He provides Sahil with a secretary, Charu (Snigdha Akolkar), who has been instructed to flaunt her ample charms:

Charu offering Sahil a pen

He also separates the lovers by sending Ritu away for a month to visit her grandfather (Prem Chopra). And he asks Ritu's old friend Aman (Prashant Ranyal), who clearly still carries a torch for her, to keep her company.

While these rather obvious machinations don't work, after just one month Sahil is failing his test. Unwilling to place the livelihoods of the employees at further risk, and despairing of his ability to rise to the challenge, he is ready to resign and sacrifice his love. Only Ritu's last-minute return saves Sahil, and the couple—at least temporarily.

Sahil is given the task of selecting three employees from an underperforming unit to be fired. Not only is this a nearly impossible choice for the sensitive Sahil, it is Diwale, and he can't bring himself to lay off workers in the middle of the holidays.

It is also Ritu's birthday. In "Tera Intezaar" (I've been waiting for you) Aman straps on his old guitar and confesses his feelings for Ritu. "I've been waiting for you all along," he sings. "I've been yearning for you...let me fill your life with happiness."

While on the surface "Tera Intezaar" is a somewhat generic Latin-flavored disco number, it is staged by director Manasvi as its own mini-drama. Ritu—concerned by Sahil's absence and troubled by Aman's overtures, which obviously have her father's approval—leaves the party and calls Sahil. Charu answers instead. At first she tries to convince Ritu that she and Sahil are "working late," but she soon confesses that they really are working late: Sahil is trying to negotiate a solution that will allow all of the workers to be retained but still meet the budget. On hearing this news Ritu returns beaming to the party and dances with Aman. When she sings about yearning for her lover's passionate embrace, Aman imagines that she is addressing him—but she is thinking only of Sahil:

The playback singers are Mohit Chauhan and Shivangi Kashyap. Even with its somewhat awkward choreography, this number shows off Rao's grace and precision as a dancer—already abundantly evident in Main Hoon Na's near-continuous-take "Chale Jaise Hawaien" and "Tumse Milke"—not to mention her ability to rock a vintage hairstyle.

As is probably apparent by now, Rao is by far the best reason to watch Love U...Mr. Kalakaar!. Her Ritu is smart, steadfast, and good-hearted. Sahil should clearly never be allowed to make a major financial decision—at least, not one affecting anyone else—but Ritu's openness, empathy and sound judgment provide Sahil with much-needed support. And it is her support and wise guidance that gives him the courage to stand up to her father and do his best to succeed, on his own terms. Perhaps in the end Sahil has to prove that he is deserving of Ritu's love not only to her father, but to himself.

But like its hero the movie faces three hurdles, and it stumbles at each one. The first is the implausibility of the premise (although despite this Rao still manages to make us care about the fate of these characters). The second is Sandilya's largely unmemorable music, "Bhoore Bhoore Badal" excepted. But the final (and for some viewers, no doubt fatal) issue is Tusshar Kapoor's stolidity as Sahil. It's hard to believe that this guy is a passionate artist, or passionate anything. Rao could generate chemistry with a brick wall, but it's too bad Sahil couldn't have been played by a more expressive actor such as her Ishq Vishk and Vivah co-star Shahid Kapoor. Sahil may ultimately show that he is worthy of Ritu, but on the evidence of Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! Tusshar Kapoor still has work to do to show that he deserves the role of leading man.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Kim Gordon: Girl in a Band

Sonic Youth always seemed to exude an aloof, supercilious cool, which is perhaps why some people can't stand them. In part because I too was put off by the band's air of self-importance, it took me a while to appreciate their music. What finally won me over in the late 1980s, though, was not only their glorious guitar squall, but bass player Kim Gordon's voice: half-talking, half off-key singing. Her delivery suggested a certain vulnerability behind the bravado, and an unwillingness to care that she didn't have a conventionally "good" voice. While Thurston Moore's drawling sneer could be annoying, Gordon's hoarse whisper, occasionally rising to a strangulated shout (on, for example, Sonic Youth's cover of the Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on 1983's Confusion is Sex), was compelling.

Here's a sample: "Starpower," from Sonic Youth's breakthrough album Evol (1985):

Sonic Youth was always half-great and half-... well, not. (Evol as an album title is a case in point.) This half-great, half-not problem crops up again and again in their music and self-presentation, and it's also an issue with Gordon's memoir. Girl in a Band (Dey Street, 2015) is really two books: the first is the story of how Sonic Youth came to be formed and and then managed to stay together for 30 years. The second is a breakup memoir about the end of Gordon's marriage to guitarist Moore and the resulting split-up of the band in 2011.

Clearly Gordon's impetus for writing the book was her divorce, but the most interesting part of the book (and of the story of the band) is not how it ends, but how it begins: Gordon's description of her troubled family dynamics, the confusions of growing up in LA in the 1960s and 70s, and coming to New York in 1980 to make art and music.

The title, by the way, is taken from an interview question Gordon was asked repeatedly during Sonic Youth's heyday: "What’s it like to be a girl in a band?" She was hardly a girl, of course: when she met Moore and formed the band she was 27. There had been women rock musicians before Gordon, and in the punk and postpunk era The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Au Pairs, and Kleenex/Liliput—and in New York, Mars, Ut, the Bush Tetras, and The Bloods, among others—featured women as songwriters, instrumentalists and singers. But in the 1980s as lower Manhattan was beginning to gentrify and as the punk and No Wave scenes were dissipating, Gordon assumed a particular prominence. This despite the effort it cost her to stand in front of an audience, especially at the start:
When I first began playing onstage, I was pretty self-conscious. I was just trying to hold my own with the bass guitar, hoping the strings wouldn't snap, that the audience would have a good experience. I wasn't conscious of being a woman, and over the years I can honestly say I almost never think of "girliness" unless I'm wearing high heels, and then I'm more likely to feel like a transvestite. When I'm at my most focused onstage, I feel a sense of space with edges around it, a glow of self-confident, joyful sexiness. It feels bodiless, too, all weightless grace with no effort required. (p. 125)
...the only really good performance is one where you make yourself vulnerable while pushing beyond your familiar comfort zone. I liken it to having an intense, hyper-real dream, where you step off a cliff but don't fall to your death. (p. 132)

Steve Shelley, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth

When it reaches the point of Gordon's discovery of Moore's betrayal of their marriage, though, Girl in a Band cannot avoid the banality of a midlife crisis narrative. Contrary to Tolstoy, unhappy families are often alike. This is not to question how hurtful this experience must have been for Gordon: "It was like a nightmare you don't ever wake up from...—just like in the movies, only this was painfully real" (p. 252).

Moore, a middle-aged husband and father, had begun having an affair with a younger woman. When Gordon discovered incriminating texts and confronted him about the other woman, "...he denied it, then admitted it, then promised things were all over between them. It was a pattern that would happen over and over again. I wanted to believe him" (p. 252).

Gordon's sense of betrayal and hurt are clearly still raw. But what's also clear is that once her trust in Moore was destroyed, the marriage was over, even if she didn't yet recognize it: "...I had told Thurston that as someone who had been betrayed by him, I felt I had every right to look at his laptop, especially if, as he kept saying, he had nothing to hide" (p. 254). Gordon doesn't seem to be aware of how counterproductive her vigilance is. When you are reduced to searching your partner's e-mails and texts for evidence of his or her infidelity, your relationship is done whether they are lying or not.

The book is also peppered with Gordon's dismayingly superficial musings about larger historical and cultural events. Here are some samples, chosen more or less at random:
  • "Female singers who push too much, and too hard, don't tend to last very long. They're jags, bolts, comets: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday" (p. 127).
Janis Joplin died at age 27 only three years after coming to prominence at the Monterey Pop Festival, so no argument there. But although Billie Holiday also died far too young—she was only 44—at the time of her death she had been performing professionally for 30 years, and had recorded hundreds of songs. Tragic as her death was, she was not exactly a bolt of lightning streaking across the sky.
  • "The crack of idealism between the performer and the audience signaled the end of the 1960s. Altamont, inner-city riots, Watts, Detroit, the Manson murders, the Isle of Wight Festival" (p. 260).
This is a very strange statement on many levels. Not least of which is the clear indication that neither Gordon nor her editors bothered to consult even Wikipedia. The Watts riots were in 1965, and the Detroit riots were in 1967—both too early to signal the end of The Sixties, particularly if you think that the decade began (in pop culture terms) with the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964.

But apart from the factual slippage, is Joni Mitchell crying during her Isle of Wight Festival set due to the audience's indifference or hostility equivalent to the deaths of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, the 34 people killed during the Watts riots, the 43 people killed in the Detroit riots, or the five people slaughtered by the Manson cult?
  • "The 1970s were the first era that learned how to exploit youth culture, and it was the birthplace of corporate rock" (p. 260).
Really? There was no corporate rock or exploitation of youth culture before the 1970s? In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Brill Building was essentially an assembly line for the creation of hit singles using interchangeable performers. I also seem to recall a group called the Monkees, formed in 1965 by two TV producers, and another group called the Archies created in 1968 for a comic-book cartoon series. (Both groups were immensely popular: both achieved #1 singles, and the Monkees had four #1 albums within a 12-month period in 1967 and 1968.)

Gordon's lazy and lazily-expressed ideas, together with occasional lapses into Artforum-speak ("the three of them [Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler] eschewed the conceptual mantle of seventies formalism and mixed high and low culture"), detract from what is most powerful in her book: the articulation of her experience as a girl—or rather, a woman, a writer, a musician, a mother, and a visual artist—in a band:
From the beginning, music for me was visceral. I loved playing music. When it was going well, it was an almost ecstatic experience. What could be better than sharing that feeling of transcendence with a man I was so close to in all other areas of my life, someone who was having the same experience? It was a feeling impossible to communicate with someone outside the two of us. I wanted deliverance, the loss of myself, the capacity to be inside that music. It was the same power and sensation you feel when a wave takes you up and pushes you someplace else. (p. 146)
At its unsettling best Sonic Youth's music can feel exactly like a slowly building wave of sound, both harshly dissonant and ethereal. "On the Strip," from 1992's Dirty:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Suggested reading: Green colonialism, the mysteries of taste, and music as conversation

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

1. Fossil fuel sacrifice zones and "green colonialism"

Edward Said
Edward Said

Naomi Klein writes in the LRB about how the insights of the late Palestinian critic Edward Said may offer a way to combat both environmental and cultural destruction:
People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles. And yet there is so much of Said's intellectual legacy that both illuminates and clarifies the underlying causes of the global ecological crisis, so much that points to ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don't ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty and systemic racism and first 'save the world'—but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected, and how the solutions could be too. In short, Said may have had no time for tree-huggers, but tree-huggers must urgently make time for Said—and for a great many other anti-imperialist, postcolonial thinkers—because without that knowledge, there is no way to understand how we ended up in this dangerous place, or to grasp the transformations required to get us out. [1]

2. What are the odds we are living in a computer simulation?

Early virtual reality

Vanishingly small, of course, but that doesn't stop Jonathan Rothman from asking the question in the New Yorker. While it might bring some comfort to those in the developed Western economies most responsible for the exploitation of people and nature to believe that our experience is only virtual, it says a great deal about our current valorization of tech culture that ideas this pointless are taken seriously.
The simulation argument begins by noticing several present-day trends in technology, such as the development of virtual reality and the mapping of the human brain...The argument ends by proposing that we are, in fact, digital beings living in a vast computer simulation created by our far-future descendants. Many people have imagined this scenario over the years, of course, usually while high. But recently, a number of philosophers, futurists, science-fiction writers, and technologists—people who share a near-religious faith in technological progress—have come to believe that the simulation argument is not just plausible, but inescapable. [2]
Of course, this "inescapable" argument conveniently absolves those who adopt it from any moral responsibility. It's akin to using the arguments of "effective altruism" to justify doing nothing to assist anyone currently alive. But besides the obvious self-interest of those who make it, this argument must be invalid for another reason: would any super-intelligent being create a world that included the Eurovision Song Contest, The Bachelor, and monster truck rallies?

3. The mysteries of taste

Thumbs-up Like icon

But someone out there must like popular entertainment, or it wouldn't be popular. Taste has always been fraught, functioning as both a marker of our personal uniqueness and a signal of our social status (or at least the status to which we aspire), as argued in Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1984).

In Bookforum (subscription required), Jacob Silverman reviews Tom Vanderbilt's You May Also Like (Knopf, 2016), which examines "algorithmic taste formation." The new technologies of purchasing and viewing make possible a fine-grained analysis of our habits and preferences, and those of millions of other consumers. The point is not only to predict and profit from our future preferences, but to shape them in the interests of those doing the predicting: [3]
The finer (and marketing-driven) critical distinctions that propel products to the top of a Pandora playlist or Netflix queue may raise questions about the ethics of design and the consequences of large tech and media companies' (and their automated systems) being able to dictate consumption, if not taste, on such a massive scale. Vanderbilt almost tackles this issue head-on when he observes that Netflix "is not in business to turn you into a cineaste. It wants to keep you signed up with Netflix. It is like a casino using clever math to keep you on the machines." [4]

4. Chamber music as conversation

Joseph Haydn playing a string quartet
Heliogravure by Franz Hanfstaengl (detail), 1907, after Julius Schmid, Haydn Quartet, c. 1905–6 (painting now lost).
Vienna City Museum
Taste is a highly complex phenomenon, however, and as anyone who has looked at their Netflix or Amazon recommendations quickly realizes, algorithms still have a hard time keeping up with us. As Zadie Smith describes in her New Yorker essay "Some Notes on Attunement," we occasionally have conversion experiences: we can find ourselves suddenly receptive to things that had previously inspired indifference or even outright aversion. This has been my experience with chamber music; after many years of avoiding it, I am finally beginning to appreciate its beauties (thank you, Joseph Haydn and Quatuor Mosaïques).

On her blog, Jessica Duchen interviews musician and writer Edward Klorman about his new book Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Klorman describes the interplay of the instruments in chamber music as a conversation:
Chamber music is fundamentally a music not just for friends but of friends. Its natural habitat is the drawing room, where it was played among friends in intimate settings, but even when it is played in large halls, the music reflects its sociable ethos through the way the musical parts interact with one another. We become friends just be playing or listening to it together. [5]
Here is one such conversation among friends: Mozart's Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in F major for string trio, performed by Rémy Baudet, violin, Staas Swierstra, viola, and Rainer Zipperling, cello:

Klorman has put together a website,, as both a standalone resource and as a supplement to the book. It's unfortunate that Cambridge University Press has priced this book at a level that will sharply restrict its audience (although a substantial discount is available by purchasing through Klorman's site); it deserves a wide readership.

Update 21 June 2016: Edward Said, of course, was a noted writer on music as well as a literary critic and social theorist. To bring this post full circle, in 2013 I wrote about Said's LRB essay "Thoughts on Late Style," Beethoven's late string quartets, and Yaron Zilberman's film A Late Quartet (2012); see "A Late Quartet."

  1. Naomi Klein: "Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World." London Review of Books, Vol. 38 No. 11, 2 June 2016
  2. Joshua Rothman, "What are the odds we are living in a computer simulation?" New Yorker, 9 June 2016
  3. And that we are incredibly suggestible has been demonstrated again and again. The latest evidence is from a UCSF study that showed that all it takes to influence physicians to prescribe expensive brand-name drugs instead of equally effective but cheaper generics is a free lunch costing the drug company between $12 and $18: see "Drug Company Lunches Have Big Payoffs," New York Times, 20 June 2016
  4. Jacob Silverman, "All-Consuming Interests: A critical look at the brave new world of algorithmic taste formation," Bookforum, June/July/August 2016
  5. Jessica Duchen, "Civilisation is...Mozart's chamber music," JDCMB | Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog, 18 June 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Berkeley Early Music Festival and Festival Fringe

Earlier this month the San Francisco Early Music Society sponsored the weeklong Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music, together with the BFX Fringe. It was wonderful to spend a week in which it was possible to attend a concert every day around lunchtime, as an afternoon break, or after work (often I could choose from multiple events happening simultaneously). That most of the concert venues were within a few blocks of one another and near the delicious food and drink of the Musical Offering Cafe made me feel that I'd been transported for a week to Paris. We'll have to wait until 2018 for the Festival's return to Berkeley; in 2017 it's the turn of the Boston Early Music Festival.

What follows are some notes from this year's Festival and Fringe.

The hardest-working woman in early music: Danielle Sampson

Danielle Sampson

Mezzo-soprano Danielle Sampson appeared by my count in four Fringe concerts, each with a different group and an entirely different, carefully-thought-out program, all performed ravishingly:
  • Sunday June 5: With the superb support of Liaison Baroque Ensemble and mezzo-soprano Melinda Becker, Sampson performed "The Nature of Love," a program featuring vocal and instrumental music by Barbara Strozzi, Antonio Vivaldi and Claudio Monteverdi—a wonderful start to the week of Festival and Fringe concerts.
  • Tuesday June 7: As Ruggiero, the enchanted knight, Sampson sang highlights from Handel's Alcina with members of Black Box Baroque and the Albany Consort from their recent production (alas, I missed the highlights concert).
  • Wednesday June 8: With Nash Baroque, Sampson performed "Music of Arcadia: Pastoral and Courtly Diversions of 18th-Century France," featuring vocal and instrumental music by Monteclair, François Couperin,  Boismortier, and others, none of which I had heard before.
  • Thursday June 9: As Jarring Sounds (with her accompanist Adam Cockerham on theorbo), Sampson sang a beautifully conceived program in which Henry Purcell's elegies for the composers Matthew Locke, John Playford and Thomas Farmer were followed by songs written by those composers. The concert closed with a gorgeous newly composed elegy for Purcell by Kyle Hovatter, "on a flat stone over his grave"—a piece commissioned by Jarring Sounds for this program (!)—and some of Purcell's songs.
The name of Jarring Sounds is taken from John Dowland's "In darkness let me dwell," though "seventeenth-century songs about death" are only a part of their wide-ranging repertory. (For this program they also performed some more lighthearted and amorous songs such as Locke's "The delights of the bottle" and Purcell's "When first Amintas sued for a kiss," with some nicely judged characterization by Sampson.) And the sounds that they produce are anything but "hellish jarring sounds"; Sampson has a beautifully clear, pure voice:

More performances are available on the websites linked above. I was impressed by her Ruggiero when I saw the Black Box Baroque production of Alcina in April, and now I'm a fan; I'll be following this artist and her musical collaborators with great interest.

Most charming new discovery: Haydn's English Love Songs as performed by Jennifer Paulino

Jennifer Paulino

This was a week of discovery: I had never heard Haydn's English songs before attending this concert (Wednesday June 8). But these charming pieces—settings of poems by Anne Hunter, who may have been Haydn's lover—were most winningly performed by Jennifer Paulino (accompanied on fortepiano by Elaine Thornburgh). To close the concert, Paulino gave a powerful and moving rendition of Haydn's 20-minute-long dramatic scene "Arianna a Naxos." Paulino has performed with some of our favorite early music groups, such as Magnificat, and it was a pleasure to hear her rich soprano in this repertory.

On Friday Paulino, together with mezzo-soprano Celeste Winant, David Morris on baroque cello, and Yuko Tanaka on harpsichord, performed a program of duets by Handel, Vivaldi, and Alessandro Scarlatti on the theme of love. Not only was this program of glorious music beautifully sung and played, it had the most fun program notes of the Festival.

From a few years ago, here is Paulino performing with the ensemble Les Grâces in rehearsal:

You can find additional audio clips on Paulino's website.

Peak experience, instrumental: Rachel Podger with Elizabeth Blumenstock, Hanneke van Proosdij and Voices of Music, co-directed by van Proosdij and David Tayler, Thursday, June 9

Rachel Podger and Elizabeth Blumenstock

Podger is an internationally-renowned violinist, while Blumenstock (violin) and van Proosdij (recorders, organ) are beloved figures in the Bay Area early music community. Together they performed a program of virtuosic pieces by Bach and Vivaldi. The concert included Bach's  Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (Andrew Levy duetted with van Proosdij on "echo flute") and his Concerto for two violins in D minor (Blumenstock was Podger's able partner). The concert also included some pieces by Vivaldi: a concerto from La Stravaganza as a showpiece for Podger and an electrifying concerto for sopranino recorder in C major, which van Proosdij played spectacularly.

But these performers also excelled at slower and more emotionally expressive pieces. Here's a small taste: the Sonata in G major from Bach's cantata Himmelskönig, sie wilkommen:

For more from Voices of Music, visit their YouTube channel.

Peak experience, choral: Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier, artistic director, with Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players and Concerto Palatino

Vox Luminis

Another discovery of this festival for me was Vox Luminis, a Belgian vocal ensemble, who performed the closing program on Sunday, June 12. Early that morning the latest mass shooting with a legally-obtained assault rifle had taken place in Orlando, and so the somber, mournful music by Thomas Morley and Henry Purcell for the funeral of Queen Mary on 5 March 1695 felt entirely fitting. When the first notes of "Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let me crying come unto thee" permeated the stillness of the First Congregational Church, it was transporting.

I could only wish that Vox Luminis had also performed Purcell's great elegy on the death of Queen Mary, "O dive custos." (That link takes you to a portion of the full music for the death of Queen Mary, from a Vox Luminis program last year; I definitely recommend listening to the entire concert when you have the chance.)

In the second half of the closing Festival concert Vox Luminis performed the incredibly difficult "Dixit Dominus" by Handel, which featured split-second antiphonal call-and-response between two seven-voice choirs. Their precision in that music was amazing, but I will remember even longer the moving funeral music.

It seemed like a good idea, but...

Among so many fantastic experiences, there were a couple of concerts that did not quite live up to my expectations. One lunchtime Fringe concert by a local instrumental group that shall remain nameless was either drastically underrehearsed or simply beyond their capabilities; whichever was the case, the performance—filled with flubbed notes and fudged runs—was a disappointment.

And the Festival's opening concert by the sackbut consort ¡Sacabuche! on Sunday June 5 was held in the new Berkeley Art Museum's lobby amphitheater. While the rich sonorities of the trombone-like sackbuts would sound great anywhere, the timbres of the high strings and of countertenor Steven Rickards were not flattered by the acoustic. And the amphitheater seating was incredibly uncomfortable: the plank seating offered no back support and the low-rise dimensions were so awkward there wasn't room either to stretch out your legs or cross them. Half an hour into the concert my body was aching and it was becoming increasingly difficult to focus on the music. To top it off, the location right at the entrance of the museum is noisy. The space is striking, but is not really suitable for extended listening. I hope I have a chance to hear this ensemble again under less distracting conditions.

I don't want to end my reflections on this wonderful festival on a negative note, though. So here is Danielle Sampson once again, performing Monteverdi's "Lamento della ninfa,"  with Jason McStoots and Charley Blandy (tenors), Douglas Williams (bass), Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette (theorbos), and Laura Jeppesen (gamba):