Archive for the 'opera' Category

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Carmen: Cigarette Girl, from the Future

I was introduced to the band Beauty Pill by Roman Mars on his podcast 99% Invisible. They have this song called “Cigarette Girl from the Future.” For the longest time, when listening, I imagined a movie from the 1940s with a nightclub scene. The Cigarette Girl walks in and out of the scene, she's never the hero of the story, but she's the subject of this song. When the cigarette girl appears, she's both fascinating and dangerous–much like a cigarette.

And then I was in the car listening to the opera channel on SiriusXM and they were playing Bizet's Carmen. Carmen is a cigarette girl from the future. She works in a cigarette factory and she knows that the daily grind of making cigarettes isn't her future. Strange connections.

Check out the cigarette girl, from the future

she's just as bored as you are

the cigarette girl from the future

is even more bored than you are

 

 

Graeber and DiDonato: Imagine Technology for Nothing

David Graeber’s recent interview on Salon.com puts a spotlight on an uncomfortable fact about the economics of our working world. The more you care about something, the less you will be paid for it. Art is for art’s sake, and therefore monetary compensation is subsidized by the worker’s own care. The more you care, the lower the monetary reward required to get you to take on certain kinds of work. If you are truly passionate about something, you should expect no financial reward at all. This is especially true if you care about directly helping and educating other people. We’ve set up the incentives so that it’s almost impossible to care for another person without extreme sacrifice.

In her recent commencement speech for the 2014 graduating class of Juilliard, the great American diva Joyce DiDonato delivered a similar message. “You aren’t going to make ‘it'” and that’s because there is no “it”. The lives of these students of art, drama, dance and music will be dedicated to service within their respective arts. There’s no point in thinking about the financial rewards beyond what it takes to keep body and soul together. It’s as though DiDonato is talking to a room filled with religious martyrs about begin their journeys. Given the state of our culture, DiDonato is dispensing very practical advice.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the wealthy technology giants are learning the meaning of noblesse oblige. In an era of vast income inequality, these technologists have to learn how to care about the neediest among us. Of course, they learned long ago that there’s no percentage in “caring”. The people who “cared” ended up burned out and barely scraping by. It’s only by extreme focus on technologies that will “help all of humanity” (but no person in particular), that they’ve amassed these large fortunes. Only a loser would focus their energies directly on helping the people around them. To avoid the label of vampire squids of the West coast, the technology and venture capital giants must become less focused, must use their excess capacity on something completely outside of their corporate mission statement — helping the people sleeping on their doorstep.

In some alternate universe I imagine DiDonato giving this talk to a class of computer science students. Telling these young technologists to focus on, not monetary rewards or groundbreaking technological achievement, but on the ability to meaningfully touch the lives of people in need. No doubt they will face hardship and days when they’ll ask themselves if it’s really worthwhile. Only their passion for making a difference in people’s lives will carry them through.

For DiDonato it’s crucial to focus on the moments of joy along the way. That’s how a passion for the work can be sustained. For some reason that brought to mind a video of opera singers Rene Barbera and Wayne Tigges backstage in a dressing room singing “More than Words” by Extreme. In the mirror you can see Joyce DiDonato lip syncing and dancing to their impromptu performance. Sometimes those moments of joy aren’t under the lights of the main stage in front of a full house. Other times, they are.

 

Where to Stand: Some Notes on Liner Notes

bob-dylan-desire

We seem to have lost the liner notes. On some labels and for some artists the liner note provided a context or key to the music contained within. Reading song lyrics while listening to an album for the first time was an important ritual. Before the counter-culture was totally absorbed into mass culture, the photographs on the album were a window into a new form of life. An album required decoding and the casing provided some of the clues.

felix-sleeve-2

For those too young to remember, the liner note was an essay, photographs, lyrics, credits, etc., usually printed on the inner sleeve of a vinyl record album. The sleeve that held the vinyl platter was called a record liner, sometimes referred to as a dust jacket. When commercially recorded music became digital bits there was no need for a dust jacket and thus no where to print the liner notes. The material relationship of the liner note to the physical media that holds the encoded music can’t be replaced with hyperlinks.

jeremy-denk-bach-golbergs-cd

The record album created the perfect canvas for the liner note. Its size was more like an art book, plenty of room for the interplay of text and image. The compact disc shrunk everything down to an unreadable size. Text is still printed on compact disc packages, but only as a matter of form. It’s like those credits that roll by at hyper speed at the end of a television show. You know they say something, but they’re not really meant to be read.

Allen Ginsberg writing about Bob Dylan’s album “Desire” is my strongest memory from the heyday of liner notes. Listening to the music through Ginsberg’s lens connected it to a long line of poetry and song. Long afternoons lying next to the stereo, reading and discussing the notes, listening to the tunes, parsing the lyrics until they were burned into memory.

tim-morton-bw

Recently I’ve had a similar experience with poetry and podcasts. While footnotes to the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton don’t always give me the same charge — listening to close readings of the poetry is like getting a great set of liner notes. Here are a few that I’ve listened to more than once:

• On Wordsworth
On Wordsworth
Professor Timothy Morton
Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English Literature
Rice University

• On Milton and Wordsworth
On Milton and Wordsworth
Professor William Flesch
Brandeis University

If liner notes were to make some kind of comeback, I think they might look more like what Anil Prasad does with his web site Innerviews. His interviews with musicians are completely different than anything you’ll find in the commercial music press. His writing opens up both the players and the music. When I first discovered it I realized that I’d missed years of great interviews. I spent days going from Bill Bruford to Allan Holdsworth to Zoe Keating to Laurie Anderson, and then to Marc Ribot and Joan Jeanrenaud. I have to be very careful about visiting Innerviews. I start reading and when I look up, several hours have passed and I wonder if I can squeeze in just one more interview.

Joyce-DiDonato-Drama-Queens

Another possibility for liner notes is the video note. Here, soprano Joyce DiDonato talks about singing an aria from Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.” This is a warm up for a concert, but it would be a welcome addition to a recording.

The video liner note that kicked off this whole train of thought was the DVD that accompanies Jeremy Denk’s new recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Denk is both a writer and a musician, and is particularly adept at taking you inside the music and the experience of playing it. Listening to Denk talk about what he’s playing is much like listening to Timothy Morton read and interpret Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc.” You go back to the work with new eyes and the aesthetic object unfolding in front of you bristles with new possibilities.

The liner note was physically linked to the media it described. You’d think in an age where the hyperlink has become so dominant that liner notes would proliferate. But like a restaurant with hundreds of online reviews, you have trouble knowing where to turn. You need a review of the reviewers to even get started. Here the economy of abundance is a detriment, it’s the limitations that force the liner note to be something special.

A last liner note, this one also by Jeremy Denk. I’d always had trouble hearing Gyorgy Ligeti’s piano etudes. Somehow my ears weren’t quite ready. A work of art asks you to attune to it in a certain way. To see perspective in a classical painting, you need to stand in a certain spot with respect to the canvas. Listening to music is much the same. Sometimes it’s the liner note that tells you where to stand.

Olympians: Caliban and Blake

The New York Times called it ‘weird’ and ‘unabashedly British.’ Some other descriptors included ‘wild jumble, celebratory, eccentric, off-the-wall, noisy, busy, witty, dizzying, slightly insane, and zany.’ In the end, the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic games, created by director Danny Boyle, was boiled down to a tribute to the anarchic spirit of the British. After all, the winner of the motto contest for the Olympics was “No Motto Please, We’re British.” The spectacle was packed with much more than can be quickly unpacked in a short essay, but there were a couple of moments that really caught me eye.

The thing that caused a conservative member of Parliament to call the ceremony too “lefty and multicultural” was that it wasn’t an unequivocal, unqualified positive portrait of Great Britain. It’s interesting to contrast its project with the production four years ago in China. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony spectacular offered a vision of how we all really got here—to this spot–where these games will be played with competitors from all over the planet. By definition the Olympics are multicultural and to some extent ‘lefty.’ But to hold that mirror up to the world is still a dangerous proposition. Best to be thought of as ‘zany’ rather than serious.

I’m reminded of something I recently heard in Paris. Some citizens there were discussing the question as to whether France should be multicultural or not. One need only walk around the streets of Paris to know that the question is moot. Rather than start from a position of purity, Boyle starts with the words of Caliban, a moon calf, a freckled monster, recited by the actor Kenneth Branagh:

CALIBAN
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

The Tempest 3.2.148-156
William Shakespeare

Caliban’s dreams far outstrip his reality and so he cries to ‘dream again.’ In essence he seems to be dreaming of pastoral Great Britain, something well beyond his grasp.

While the floor of the stadium is portraying pastoral Great Britain we hear the anthem “Jerusalem” with music by Sir Hubert Parry, written in 1916. The words are by the visionary poet William Blake. Presaged in the poem are the dark Satanic Mills that transform the green and pleasant land to an industrial machine.

Jerusalem
(The Preface to ‘Milton, a poem)
William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land

John Lienhard describes what Blake meant by the phrase ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight:’

Blake, the sensible observer of the human lot, outlines our responsibility. We can’t shrink from the mental fight of building a world fit for habitation. When he asks for his bow, arrows, spear, and chariot of fire, he’s reaching for tools with which to build that world. He’s arming for mental fight. He realized that, from now on, nature would shine through the fire and mills only if we had the wits to make it do so.

It’s difficult to imagine the courage, the mental fight that Boyle had to muster to show the world this stage picture of England during the industrial age:

The information age follows the industrial age in Boyle’s telling of the story. And here all our modern stories are woven together into the multicultural fabric that we inhabit. Of particular note in the transition section is the tribute to the National Health Service.

And finally the entrance of the athletes by country in alphabetical order. The exceptions are Greece which traditionally enters first, and the host country, Great Britain which enters last. The randomness of the sequence of the letters of the alphabet presents us with strange and beautiful juxtapositions of countries and cultures. While the Olympics are contests of physical skill, they also represent a shining example of ceaseless mental fight.

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