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Boulez in the Philharmonic

a blurry cellphone picture of the berlin philharmonic

The weekend before last I visited Berlin, mainly to see Pierre Boulez lead the Berlin Philharmonic and the Ensemble Intercontemporain in concert. Boulez is 85 years old, and, to put it bluntly, I wanted to see him live before it was too late.

First on the program was ...explosante-fixe..., a composition Boulez initially sketched in the 1970s as part of a memorial for Igor Stravinsky. As is his wont, Boulez returned to the score again and again in the coming decades, making it less improvised and upgrading the electronic processing as technology improved. Essentially, it's a concerto for three flutes and a chamber orchestra. The work now lasts about 35 minutes, with three played sections interspersed with electronic interludes.

...explosante-fixe... isn't one of my favorite Boulez pieces. To me, Boulez is the inheritor of the French tradition of masterful orchestration and shimmering soundscapes, married to a rigorously modernist compositional approach. When these two seemingly disparate strands unite, as in pieces like Notations for Orchestra or Messagesquisses, the result is a undulating ribbon of eerily lovely sounds which develop with an intuitive 'inevitability' that is very difficult to create in atonal music. ...explosante-fixe..., on the other hand, never shows the kind of  structural transparency that can keep the attention transfixed for over thirty minutes. The musical figures, generally short staccato bursts of notes from the principal flutist (Emmanuel Pahud), are taken up by the other two flutes and the orchestra, volleyed back and forth, refracted and fragmented, and incorporated into longer figures. However, it all takes places so quickly that it's impossible to discern the compositional processes at work.

The electronic interludes were a highlight. Twice, the stage lights went down and the players stopped. From speakers located throughout the concert hall, an electronically-processed 'variation' on what had just been played echoed through the hall. Individual instruments would be filtered out, processed through various filters, sliced into miniscule sections, or electronically transfigured into ghostly chanting or a sound like the soughing of wind in pine trees. These electronic recombinations and re-imaginations of  the performed score were quiet and contemplative, functioning almost as "slow movements", and  were staggeringly beautiful.

Boulez then led the entire Philharmonic in a concertante performance of Stravinsky's early opera The Nightingale. Boulez has a special fondness for this odd work, and his commitment showed. Barbara Hannigan, as the Nightingale, was phenomenal. Most of the Nightingale's arias begin and end with long sections of intricate vocalise. Hannigan (who sang barefoot!) balanced the clarity of articulation demanded by Boulez with enormous charm, and won an ovation from the audience, which was otherwise slightly nonplussed by the warhorse-free program.

I'll post a few more pictures and tales from Berlin as time permits during this week...


Eerie Coincidence?

Yesterday I read the epic scene of Kirillov's suicide in Demons while meanwhile, across the pond, a modern-day Kirillov leapt into action:

The man who shot himself on the steps of Memorial Church Saturday morning had published online a 1,905-page document entitled “Suicide Note,” according to his mother.

The death of Mitchell L. Heisman, a 35-year-old Somerville resident, on campus was met with shock, and University officials described the incident as “tragic.”

...Born in New York City in 1975, Heisman attended elementary school in Monroe Township, N.J., and graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Albany.

While living in a Craigie Street apartment, Heisman wrote “Suicide Note,” a sprawling series of arguments that touch upon historical, religious, and nihilist themes, his mother said.

The note, which includes a section entitled The Seditious Genius of the Spiritual Penis of Jesus, can be read here. Also a Bibliography, because, as the Suicide Note asserts, "What suicide note would be complete without a bibliography?"

I suggest we download it and read it. After all, we can be sure it's what Mitchell would have wanted.


Saarbruecken is for Drunken Punks

One of GJ's roving correspondents writes from Saarbrücken:

Just back from a few days in Saarbrücken, which is a very strange mix of very posh and very run-down. Saw a shop with a handbag on sale for €1,000 near the main square...which was full of beggars (and, yes, sturdy beggars, as they used to be known in England..., though rather few of them in those days had orange hair). The Innenstadt is the sort of place where you're very likely to encounter any number of people wandering around drunk at 9:30am.

It's at moments like that that my inner CSU voter begins to stir.

Fortunately, after elevating its stiffly-coiffed blond head and muttering some indecipherable phrases about Armenhäuser, it then sinks back into the giant Maßkrug where it lives.


Michael O'Hare on Real Class

Michael O'Hare on the decline of noblesse oblige among the rich in America:

[P]eople with really good manners have no problem learning to accept a business card with two hands in Asia or arriving at 10 for an “8 PM”  dinner in Mexico; people who think etiquette is a stick to beat their lessers with, on the other hand, don’t travel well.   A classy dresser contributes to a social occasion by showing respect for, and improving, the whole visual experience of the other guests without trying to draw a spotlight. A classy dresser is not an egotistical showoff, neither in a track suit at a formal dinner nor in a swimsuit on a red carpet.

When you have real class, you can accept compliments gracefully, neither deflecting nor expecting them.  When you have real class, you can set good things in motion and step out of the way so your group carries it forward and doesn’t depend on you more than necessary.  Real class is not whining and demanding rights but looking for duties and seeing them as a piece of good fortune.  It involves a fair amount of turning the other cheek, and is much more easily displayed going to bat for the people who aren’t as rich or smart or lucky as you than by standing on your rights and privileges. Henry Lee Higginson subsidized the Boston Symphony for years (and didn’t ask to have its building named Higginson Hall): that’s class.  Speaking of the symphony, another indicator of class (not dispositive, Goering scarfed up paintings all over Europe) is engagement with demanding, complicated, art.  Lots of people are on museum or opera boards who have no clue, but they at least know a sane society respects artistic sophistication and they try to manifest it…sometimes even try to actually get it.

Real class is what the economic aristocracy of our country has almost entirely lost. The American rich are wallowing in a moral slough, grasping for more and more money they have no clue what to do with, and venting their frustration that climbing over each other to new heights of wretched excess brings no satisfaction by lashing out at every social institution, and at a government whose largesse is never enough for them. Andrew Carnegie may have had his miners shot at Homestead, but he came to regret it and he also said it was sinful to die rich. He walked the talk; there are Carnegie libraries, a university, concert halls, and more all across America, still creating value.  (All the Vanderbilts, not so much.)  But Larry Ellison has his name on nothing and for all his billions, has absolutely no class and no idea that he lacks it, and a whole class of cowboy millionaires and billionaires have the fatal idea that he is a target to emulate. No, money isn’t a way of keeping score; great schools and passing laws that make us all better off and building a subway system for New York and a high-speed rail line in California is a way of keeping score. Anyone who thinks he’s self-made, and single-handedly created all the value he’s come to possess, has no class, no more class than a Gulf sheik who thinks the accident of living on top of an oil pool makes him admirable and distinguished.  Keeping track of (and taking care of) all the people without whose labor and pioneering you couldn’t have done anything, that’s how to keep score.

I agree with O'Hare on this, and I would argue that Germany's privileged have done a pretty good job preserving the kind of class O'Hare's talking about. One reason may be that inherited wealth plays a larger role in making people rich in Germany than it does in the U.S. The certain knowledge that your good fortune was an accident of birth can foster the kind of modesty and public-spiritedness that O'Hare identifies as an important indicator of class (not that it always does, of course). The notion that you're "self-made" however, often brings a sense of entitlement.

Further, a software billionaire's not likely to have the attachment to high culture that O'Hare also points to as an element of noblesse oblige: the notion that the rich have a special duty to foster challenging, unpopular, complex creative expression that the broader market won't support. One example: Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen founded the Experience Music Project to showcase the history of rock music. Recent exhibitions have been dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, disco music, Bruce Springsteen, and Disney. Not that I have anything against pop culture, but why is a billionaire subsidizing exhibitions about pop-culture phenomena/people/organizations that are accessible to everyone and have already been rewarded with billions in profits by the mainstream consumer market? What's next: an exhibition devoted to a mediocre science-fiction TV series? Why, yes! And after you take it in, don't forget to stop by the Revolution Cafe, for a $6.95 stick-it-to-the-man muffin.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Symphony is beset by financial problems (as are many other regional orchestras) and its music director has to spend tons of time fund-raising. You may not see anything wrong with this picture, but I do (feel free to call me an elitist, I wear the title with pride). My idea of what to do with large amounts of money is to subsidize orchestras, collect art, or to build beautiful, quirky museums like this one (g) or this one. Giving every member of the public who's interested the chance to experience works of human creativity that are well off the beaten path: That's class.


That Lampshade Story

While we're on the subject, Ed Philp pointed me to a New York Magazine article about a lampshade made from human skin found in the wake of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Previously, I and others had been skeptical about the tales of Nazis making lampshades from human skin. The one found in New Orleans in 2005, though, is apparently actually made from human skin.

Apart from some rather flimsy circumstantial evidence, there's no proof that it was actually made by Nazis from the skin of concentration camp victims. For me, therefore, the jury's still out on the lampshade question. Not least because I've been to New Orleans many times, and can say that if there is any city in the United States in which I can imagine someone making a lampshade from human skin, that city is New Orleans.


"You Will Actually Have to Study the Legal System"

The Onion reports on yet another educational innovation from the States that should urgently be copied in Germany:

Law Schools Now Require Applicants To Honestly State Whether They Want To Go To Law School

September 15, 2010 | ISSUE 46•37

NEW YORK—A growing number of law schools have begun requiring applicants to specify in writing whether they do, in fact, have some desire to attend law school, or are just using it as a predictable last resort. "We want to separate those who actually see themselves becoming attorneys from those who just want to put off joining the adult world for another three years," Fordham Law School director Bruce Green said Thursday, showing reporters an application that asks students to check boxes marked "Really?" and "Seriously? You're really that into this?" "We want prospective students to know that they will actually have to study the U.S. legal system. As in, the whole thing." Word of the new requirement has already reportedly caused a 450 percent spike nationwide in applications to graphic design schools.