Welcome to the December issue of Music Media Monthly, in which we draw your attention to a wealth of recent releases including new biographies of Mozart and Beethoven, two nautically-themed opera videos, and sound recordings that cover everything from Tudor choral music to experimental techno. And there’s also a review of a musical crowd-sourcing website maintained by Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Enjoy!
Mozart: A Life by Paul Johnson. 2013. 164 pages. ISBN: 978-067002637-1 Viking
Beethoven: The Man Revealed by John Suchet. 2013. 400 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8021-2206-3 Atlantic Monthly Press
Historian Paul Johnson, noted for such thick tomes as Modern Times, has published brief lives of such diverse figures as Darwin, Socrates and Churchill, so why not Mozart? This slim volume provides just about all the important facts a lay reader might want, and spices the story with Johnson’s opinions as well. Yes, it was a tragedy that this musical genius died before he was 36. But, Johnson says, let’s keep things in perspective: “He started earlier than anyone else and was still composing on his deathbed: those thirty years were crammed with creation.”
Similarly, this book is crammed with information. Johnson itemizes Mozart’s output in every category – 17 Masses, six string quartets, seven major operas and so on. He misstates some of the quantities of Mozart’s completed works, but the list does illustrate his voluminous production. (Johnson is so fond of lists that later in the book he catalogs every piece of clothing the composer owned at the time of his death.) Overall, he contends that the composer wrote “over 5 million bars of music,” without a single “serious lapse in taste.”
In discussing Mozart’s wife Constanze, Johnson takes issue with what he believes are unfair characterizations of her as a bad household manager. “The evidence is slight,” insists Johnson. Constanze was “a competent custodian of Mozart’s estate, memory and reputation, and criticism of her is mostly ill-informed slander.” He notes that in the authoritative Grove’s Dictionary she is castigated for “slovenliness and improvidence that reputedly wrecked” Mozart’s business affairs. “Outrageous,” fumes Johnson, and proceeds to argue on her behalf.
For those who know Mozart’s life mainly through the play and movie Amadeus, only one element is missing from this biography: his alleged poisoning by Salieri. Wisely, Johnson does not even mention the fictionalized allegations.
Throughout, the author writes with wit and style, displaying remarkable erudition about the instruments, soloists, and general court life of Mozart’s era. Among his views of his favorite works is this gem about the piano concerto no. 23 (K.488): “If I were a rich man with a private orchestra, I would demand it once a week, on Sunday evening before dinner.”
One quibble: the book is padded with a 16-page appendix on Mozart in London by Daniel Johnson, Paul Johnson’s son. I’m puzzled as to why it is included.
John Suchet is a highly respected British classical radio host who previously wrote a three-volume fictionalized Beethoven biography and co-authored a Beethoven guide for listeners. He is not quite as succinct as Johnson, but he writes engagingly. He was inspired, he says, by people who love the man’s music but can’t read a note of it.
The book unapologetically concentrates on Beethoven’s life, rather than his works. A popularizer of the first rank, Suchet acknowledges that scholars won’t find anything new here. Still, he sketches a vivid portrait of the great man in all his eccentricities, his rages, his fame and his glory.
When he is about to suggest a disputed event, he telegraphs the fact: “Although I can offer no proof of this, I believe it was [the arrival of his friend Stephan von Breuning] in Vienna that unlocked Beethoven’s denial of his deafness…. I imagine the two old friends sitting up late into the night” talking, when the composer finally “pours his heart out” over his loss of hearing.
He places the man in the context of the turbulent Napoleonic age, describing how admiring Beethoven was of Napoleon, only to be disillusioned when Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor of France: “He stormed over to the table on which the fair copy of the ‘Eroica’ score lay, snatched up the title page, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor.”
With great economy Suchet delves into the mystery of the intended recipient of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” love letter. He is not persuaded by noted scholar Maynard Solomon’s theory that she was Antonie Brentano; he gives equal weight to the other leading candidate, Josephine Brunsvik. The battle Beethoven waged for custody of his nephew Karl is scripted like a family saga ripped straight from the headlines of a Viennese newspaper.
Suchet is at his best describing how Beethoven was able to compartmentalize difficulties, such as the custody fight with his sister-in-law over Karl or his frequent disregard for other people’s feelings. He let nothing interfere with his composing. ”Perhaps the most we can say is that the mind of a true genius is often found to be wanting in other areas,” says Suchet.
The biography does not stint on discussion of Beethoven’s deafness. Time and again, the author refers to it without letting it overwhelm the narrative. Like previous biographers, he is amazed at the compositions produced when the disability was severe. Discussing the illness-plagued composer’s plan to start “a major new work,” the ninth symphony, Suchet writes: “’major’ is an understatement. ‘Monumental’ is better. ‘Gigantic’ is not an overstatement.”
Even Suchet’s rare commentaries on specific compositions are deft. For instance, here is one passage about the fifth movement of the Op. 130 string quartet: “When you believe Beethoven cannot increase the intensity any more, he writes pianissimo quavers for three strings, and then the first violin…weeps. I do not know any other way to describe it.”
In his postscript, Suchet makes a few recommendations on the hundreds of recordings to buy or download, with the caveat that the choices are legion. “It depends on how you like your Beethoven. Authentic or modern instruments? Chamber ensemble or full symphony orchestra? Rigid adherence or flexible approach?”
For any Beethoven lover who knows little of his life, Beethoven: The Man Revealed is a fine introduction.
– Grace Lichtenstein
Well, put me on a boat and call me Ishmael. There is so, so much that could go wrong when one tries to repurpose a composition of the magnitude and familiarity of Moby-Dick. But this production of the fifth opera by American composer Jake Heggie (his third with librettist Gene Scheer) expertly combines savvy writing, expressive singing, and innovative staging to the degree that it just might find itself in the standard repertory. Moby-Dick ran for eight performances in its Bay Area premiere, and this production was recorded for and broadcast as part of the PBS Great Performances series just last month. Moby-Dick was commissioned by the Dallas Opera and premiered there in 2010 as part of the inaugural season for the new Winspear Opera House, but because both conductor Patrick Summers and Heggie have ties with the San Francisco Opera, this production is a bit of a homecoming for them.
Scheer studied for months—reading and re-reading the novel and researching whaling—prior to his kickoff meeting with Heggie. The opera strays little from the 800-page novel, certainly in terms of premise and intent, but the whole story happens on the ocean so some critical elements from the book are naturally modified. For instance, Scheer had to fabricate a meeting on the Pequod between the two key characters Ishmael and Queequeg, and the cabin boy Pip becomes a pants role (a genius move, as Telise Tevigne’s rich color is a welcome reprieve from the timbres of an otherwise all-male cast). The character Ishmael is simply referred to as “Greenhorn” in this production—at least, until the very end, when as the lone survivor of Moby Dick’s wrath he responds to a booming, bodyless voice to “call [him] Ishmael,” which are the very first words of the novel.
Though Greenhorn has a special place in the story as the lone survivor, his singer Stephen Costello is upstaged by the charismatic Morgan Smith (Starbuck), whose soliloquy of longing for his wife and child at the end of Act One is the most memorable scene of the opera. (Although, Greenhorn’s later aria “A Human Madness”—a haunting duet with just the oboe—is goosebumps-prompting.) And while I don’t think Jay Hunter Morris’s voice is particularly easy or pleasant to listen to, he’s extremely convincing as Ahab. He spits every word with mad vengeance and drills into the viewer with ice blue eyes that glitter only as can the eyes of one who is completely bonkers.
The stage is an impressive and complicated system of ropes and pulleys, with a functional curved backdrop that the singers ascend using large handles and then quickly slide down to make swift stage exits or transitions. When the performers aren’t perched on or climbing up and down towering masts, they are interacting with impressive multimedia projections of fishing boats, rolling waters, ominous clouds, and constellations that are used sparingly throughout the opera but really come to life in the prelude and postlude.
Musically Moby-Dick is pleasant but also provocative. Much of the orchestral writing is expansive, sweeping, and dreamlike, and the vocal parts are generally lyrical and reasonable. Special features on the disc include separate interviews with the composer, librettist, and headliners, as well as a time-lapsed video demonstration of a day on the stage. For a production that provides both rich musical and visual experiences, the Blu-ray version is a must-have. Highly recommended.
Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Directed by Richard Jones; conducted by Robin Ticciati. Available in DVD (OA 1103D) or Blu-ray (OA BD7119D) disc format. Opus Arte, 2012. 154 minutes. $29.99/$39.99.
This La Scala production is reportedly the first Peter Grimes released on Blu-ray disc, and it’s definitely worth spending the extra dollars to fully enjoy the vivid world of Tony Award-winning designer Stewart Laing. Traditionally in Peter Grimes the water plays as big a physical role as narrative. But besides some stuffed gulls perched on 1980s buildings and benches and impressive waves of sound from the judgmental chorus, controversial director Richard Jones gives us very little of the sea in this production. Perhaps this decision allows us to concentrate more on the people issues, of which there are many. Thumbs down on the cinematography; an overhead camera catches a lot of upstage transitions by the chorus but it distracts more than it adds value, and while the wide angle shots show off the fabulously simple set they linger too long — a decision which, compounded over the duration of the opera, seemed to build a physical and emotional distance from the characters. Musically, the all-British cast is fabulous and the orchestral interludes are almost as captivating as the stages pieces. Conductor Robin Ticciati—a pup at twenty-nine and in his debut at La Scala—is addictive in his expression and energy. As Ellen, Susan Gritton’s lines are bombastic and nurturing at the same time, and John Graham-Hall gives a very convincing and probably exhausting performance as a twitchy, moody Grimes. This is really a very gripping, well-sung performance and a unique presentation of Peter Grimes. Recommended.
– Anne Shelley
I have to confess that normally, I shy away from jazz combos that have no chord instruments. If you don’t come to the party with a piano or a guitar, you’re usually going to have a hard time holding my attention. This isn’t a principled stance on my part–it has nothing to do with any dogmatic belief about how jazz “should” be played–it’s just that I personally really miss that explicit harmonic substructure and the richer midrange textures that chordal instruments provide. But saxophonist Jeremy Udden is a member of this trumpet-sax-bass-drums ensemble, and he really turned my head around a few years ago with his solo album Plainville; as a result I am now willing to listen to anything he does. And man, am I glad I gave this disc a shot. Yes, the tonalities are kind of dry, and yes, the arrangements can get a bit discursive. But these guys are doing something fundamentally right, and it has to do with more than just taste and more than just good communication. It has to do with their ability to take raw materials from bebop (“Get Out”), cool (“B. Remembered”), 1960s impressionism (“Father and Sons”), and other sources besides and turn them into musical conversations that are actually of interest to people other than themselves–a rare gift and a precious one. There’s lots of space here, but it’s not empty space; it’s inflected space, and it serves a purpose. Give it a listen.
Choirs of Angels: Music from the Eton Choirbook, Vol. 2
Christ Church Cathedral Choir Oxford / Stephen Darlington
The Eton Choirbook, a collection of polyphonic works written around the turn of the 15th century, is one of the most important surviving documents of English music from the early Tudor period. The second volume in the Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s series of recordings drawing from this collection includes five works from English composers both well known (William Cornyshe) and relatively unheralded: Richard Davy, Walter Lambe, John Browne, and Robert Wylkynson are today primarily known only because some of their work was preserved in the Eton Choirbook. Each of these pieces is a setting of a prayer text directed to Mary; Lambe’s “O Maria plena gracia” incorporates Biblical passages as well, but for the most part the texts are more traditional than canonical. The singing, as always with this group of men’s and boys’ voices, is exceptional; everything is performed with the choir’s signature blend of sturdy, ecclesiastical rigor and simple elegance, and the acoustics of the Merton College chapel are perfect. Highly recommended.
Nothing about this album suggests the fact that neo-roots reggae artist Richie Campbell hails from Portugal: not his accent (which sounds pretty genuinely Jamaican), not his lyrics (which betray none of the embarrassing malapropisms that so often arise whenever a songwriter works in a language not his own), and not his musical style (which is pure, straight-ahead modern reggae). Even the guest artists, who include chart-topping singjays Anthony B and Turbulence, suggest a degree of genuine island cred that most European reggae artists can’t claim. Of course, genuineness and authenticity are much less important than hooks and grooves, and Campbell has those in spades as well: he works primarily in a lovers-rock mode, eschewing apocalyptic imprecation and “fyah bun” rhetoric in favor of songs with titles like “Angel by My Side,” “Get with You,” and “More Than Air.” But there is rootwise consciousness here as well, manifested on songs like “It Takes a Revolution” (a fine rewrite of Dennis Brown’s “Revolution” on which Campbell co-deejays with Anthony B) and the sufferer’s anthem “Piece of Bread.” The rhythms are provided by a variety of producers and are solidly serviceable if not terribly distinctive. Recommended.
Hyperdub (dist. Redeye)
Sam Walton (sadly, not the Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame, nor a member of TV Walton family) is a Manchester-based producer whose style of dubby, bassy grime-y techno seems to come from another planet–one related to Earth but only distantly. Vocal samples are plentiful, but mostly abstract: the soully singer deconstructed on “Need to Feel” has his vocal part reduced to a rhythmic device used to hook together the rubbery bassline and a shimmering array of house-derived effects. Chirpy subliminal chipmunks and breathy female voices wend their way through a whack-a-mole landscape of stuttering dubstep beats on “Can’t U See,” and “Frisbee” takes vintage 808 effects and piles of glitches, burbles, and atomized voices and stitches them altogether into a subtle but compelling lacework of groove. With this kind of experimental beat doctoring, the line between willful obscurantism and brilliant innovation can start getting pretty thin, but Walton manages to stay on the right side of it pretty consistently. Highly recommended to all adventurous beatheads.
– Rick Anderson
What’s the Score, a project launched by Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 2012, invites members of the public to help identify and describe musical scores from the Bodleian’s extensive collection of 19th-century sheet music. Several libraries and museums have launched these kinds of projects in recent years (the New York Public Library’s Map Warper, and the Holocaust Museum’s Remember Me project are two great examples). These initiatives “crowdsource” archival work, inviting the public to get involved in making historical material more widely available. (For more examples of these kinds of participatory projects, check out Kate Theimer’s list on Archives Next.)
Through What’s the Score, the Bodleian hopes to generate descriptions of thousands of pieces of uncatalogued sheet music from its collection. The site includes over 4500 pieces of sheet music, including all cover pages and artwork, that have been scanned and posted online. This collection consists largely of piano music and parlor songs from approximately 1860 to 1880. This was music published for domestic use, at a historical moment when having a piano in the home was a sign of prestige; and when, as musicologists such as Ruth Solie have noted, being able to play the piano was a sign of accomplishment for middle- and upper-class young women. The sheet music of What’s the Score thus documents musical and cultural history, and gives insight into what a Victorian-era home might have sounded like. Furthermore, each piece of sheet music is a slice of material history: the cover art, the design and typesetting, and the information about publishers and performers that the published music includes, all convey stories about the relationship between the music industry, art, and politics during the Victorian era.
What’s the Score is a collaboration between the Bodleian and Zooniverse, a “citizen science” platform that enables scholars to develop projects fueled by public participation and contribution. The majority of Zooniverse’s initiatives are scientific: their inaugural project, Galaxy Zoo, for instance, invited participants to help classify galaxies in Hubble telescope photographs by shape. Since launching Galaxy Zoo in 2007, Zooniverse has collaborated with scholars and universities on projects that invite the public to participate in a range of research endeavors, and What’s the Score is its first music-related project. Each score described through the project will be made available through the website for Bodleian’s score collection (at time of writing, the site housing completed scores and descriptions is down due to a technical malfunction).
The job of a What’s the Score participant is to identify and provide basic descriptions of elements of the musical scores. To participate, volunteers must first register for an account with Zooniverse, and log in. To begin the work of description, you select the “start describing” link at the top of the interface, which brings you to the front page of a piece of sheet music. The scores are made available in random order, and participants don’t get to choose which score they’ll work with. According to the What’s the Score staff, this measure ensures that each piece of sheet music will get equal consideration, as participants won’t be able to sift through the collection looking for one that seems more interesting to them.
In the description interface, participants see one page of the score at a time, and can select elements of the score that they wish to describe by using the mouse to draw a box around them. Once an element is selected, an input box pops up, in which participants can select a category for the element they are describing (for instance: “Title,” “cover art,” “creator,” or “key signature,”) and then transcribe or briefly describe the element in question. As you work, a pop-up box keeps track of the descriptions that you’ve made. Once you’ve finished describing all of the elements of a page of music, you can save your work by selecting “finished with this page,” which then makes the page available to you in the “My Descriptions” menu, where you can revisit, revise, and edit the work that you’ve done.
The descriptions that What’s the Score allows are very prescribed: in most categories users are restricted to particular options in a drop-down menu, and only have limited opportunity to enter text. By putting these limits on the kinds of description that participants can do, What’s the Score neatly avoids the potential problem of users abusing the platform and entering inappropriate text or inaccurate description. It also ensures that the information that participants contribute will be useful to researchers, and will generate easily searchable data. To be sure, the platform isn’t foolproof, and there is still plenty of opportunity for participants to enter inaccurate information. However, the prescriptive description tools work as a first line of defense against those kinds of problems.
In addition to the main project website, What’s the Score also maintains a Twitter account and a blog, both of which provide regular updates on the project’s progress. The blog is a great resource for background information on some of the music featured in the project, and includes entries on songs and composers, as well as on performers, like singer Adelina Patti, who would have performed some of this music during the 19th century.
Recently, the Bodleian began efforts to make recordings of music from What’s the Score available. The Recordings page, accessible through the What’s the Score blog, includes free .mp3s of performances of a few of the songs from the collection, as well as .pdfs of the scores. Also included are a few .mp3 examples of other parlor songs that are representative of the period. These are all downloadable free of charge.
I’m very interested in the potential in a participatory archival project like What’s the Score. While this kind of crowdsourced work can never replace skilled cataloging and processing by professional archivists, a project like this can help make otherwise unavailable material accessible to researchers and musicians. Furthermore, as Library of Congress Fellow Emily Reynolds writes in a 2012 blog post, participatory projects like What’s the Score are valuable more as tools for involving people in the work of libraries and thus fostering public investment in historical and archival work, than they are as cataloging efforts. I also see enormous pedagogical value in these projects. What’s the Score is a great teaching tool: in addition to providing an impressive array of sheet music that provides insight on musical practices of 19th-century England, it can help students learn to identify elements of a musical score, and can help music history students improve their research skills by learning how things are described in an archive.
I highly recommend helping out the Bodleian by taking some time to play with What’s the Score!
– Alexandra Apolloni
As the weather gets nippy and the afternoons start to darken earlier, we at Music Media Monthly know that you need books and websites and CDs and videos to hunker down with in the warmth and comfort of your homes. So, here we are again–this time with recommendations that include a website filled with free music from Ontario; video recordings of a new opera by Philip Glass and an old one by Carl Maria von Weber; a new biography of Duke Ellington; and recordings ranging from Estonian folk hymns to modern lo-fi ambient electro-pop. Enjoy!
While I’ve lived in Southern California for nearly seven years, I’m a Canadian transplant at heart, and I’m always looking for sights and sounds that remind me of home. That’s one of the reasons I was excited to discover the Ontario Independent Music Archive, a website launched in January, 2013 that’s dedicated to collecting and making available music recorded and performed by independent artists from my home province of Ontario. My admiration for the Ontario Independent Music Archive (hereafter referred to as OIMA) extends beyond expat nostalgia, though: the website is an excellent example of how organizations can create digital platforms that both help artists to promote their work and provide an important public service by documenting local music histories and fostering community.
The work to fund and launch OIMA began in 2011 through the efforts of musician Jonathan Martel, who conceived of the project while studying history and pop culture at university, and Mario Circelli, former manager of radio station CHRW-FM in London, Ontario. The resulting site is a free archive of sound recordings by musicians from Ontario who aren’t affiliated with major record labels – so, music that would otherwise not necessarily see wide distribution. While the majority of the music currently on the site was recorded relatively recently, OIMA aims to document the longer history of the Ontario music scene, and is actively seeking contributions of older recordings. While part of OIMA’s mandate is to encourage music fans from Ontario to “listen local,” the site also provides a window onto local Ontario scenes for outsiders (and expat listeners like myself) and can bring music that would otherwise stay local to a much wider, global audience of listeners.
The OIMA website is beautifully and simply designed, and very easy to navigate. To find music, you can do basic keyword searches, or you can browse the collection by genre or geographical location. You can play music directly in the browsing interface by selecting the play button next to a given track; or, by selecting the artist name, song title, or album title, you can navigate to a page with information about the artist, the track, or the album. When you select the play button, a pop-up flash player opens up and streams the track. Artists also have the option to make their music available for download in mp3 format.
Listeners and musicians alike can register for an OIMA account, which gives users access to a personal profile page, where they can put together and share playlists and document favorite songs. To add songs to a playlist, you just need to select the add button next to a song title. Users can also add blog posts to their profile. Musician profile pages, meanwhile, have all of these features, and also include discography information and a listing of any tracks they may have in OIMA. All of the options that OIMA provides to users are reminiscent of the kinds of social networking tools found on sites like MySpace, ReverbNation, and Bandcamp, sites that many independent musicians use to promote their work; and, indeed, OIMA encourages artists to use the site as a promotional tool. Where OIMA differs from the MySpaces of the world, though, is in its community orientation. The site is advertisement-free, run by a not-for-profit group, and aims to provide access and preserve the history of this music, while upholding artists’ rights, and is unhindered by corporate interests. OIMA allows artists to have full control over what recordings they make available, requires artists to have recording rights to the music they upload, and enables artists to make their music widely available while protecting their rights through Creative Commons licenses.
OIMA’s collection reflects the diversity of music-making practices in Ontario. Ontario is Canada’s most populous province and second-largest geographically, but media coverage of popular music in Ontario often makes it seem as though Toronto, the province’s largest city, is the primary center of music-making activity. OIMA paints a different picture: because you can browse the collection by region and municipality, the collection demonstrates that there are vital, active music scenes happening all over the province, not just in major urban centers. So while OIMA provides recordings by Toronto-based groups like Polaris Prize-nominated indie-rock act Hooded Fang, you’ll also find music by Northern Ontario-based electronic dance music artist Classic Roots, French-Canadian jazz vocalist Janie Renee, and the retro, sci-fi themed rock stylings of Waterloo, Ontario-based group The Band from Planet X.
While OIMA’s collection is diverse, however, some genres are more well-represented than others: there is lots of rock, for instance, but very little soul and rhythm and blues. That said, OIMA is a very new resource, with a collection that is still growing, and I expect that this issue will resolve itself as more artists contribute their work. One area where OIMA’s collection is particularly strong, however, is its selection of music by Aboriginal artists. Their Aboriginal Music Archive coordinators, Andrew Kern, Will LaFrance, and Emma Wolno have specifically sought out Aboriginal artists to contribute to OIMA, and while this collection is still in its early stages of growth, it’s possible that in the future, it could become a major source for music from Ontario’s First Nations communities. Already, OIMA showcases a varied selection of music by some outstanding Aboriginal musicians, ranging from groups like the Pine Family Singers, a vocal group who bring together influences from Christian hymn singing with musical practices traditional to First Nations communities in Northern Ontario; to prog-rockers weaselhead, who recently released a concept album about the experiences of Native Canadians in residential schools.
In addition to its audio collection, the OIMA website also hosts a blog, where volunteers and staff highlight selections from the collection, and occasionally post copies of newsletters, fanzines, and other historical documents related to Ontario’s music scene. Also of interest is the website for the Music Association of Canada, the nonprofit group founded by Martel that runs OIMA.
Don’t let OIMA’s local, geographically-bound focus stop you from exploring the site if you’re not from Ontario – there’s a wealth of fantastic music available there. Plus, the way OIMA combines a platform for artists to promote their work with a historically-minded archive provides a great model that other communities interested in preserving their musical heritage might emulate.
– Alexandra Apolloni