Jacksonian Democracy

June 29, 2009

Michael-Jackson-p04 What we like to call, with disdain, the media circus surrounding the death of Michael Jackson was predictable. I’m finding, though, that the reactions of people I know are not so much so.

There has been an intermittently stimulating discussion of the list-serv of the American Musicological Society that appropriately asks the question of how fitting the toolbox of the scholarly musicologist is to the artistic legacy of Michael Jackson. Since modern musicology is conversant with the language of reception of art and the influences, upon it and by it, that are not altogether musical, the subject need not be an embarrassment to dispassionate research. But passionate research is what many will enter into when it comes to a figure whose effect on masses of humanity is not yet completely understood.

One blogger has taken up the task of aggregating serious writing on Michael Jackson — a worthy and particularly 21st-century-media thing to do. It will be interesting to watch how it develops. It can be expected to produce a mixture of scientific content wrapped in a commonplace wrapper and commonplace content disguised by scientific lingo (and I certainly know which I prefer).

neda-bbc The young woman, Neda, who died from gunshot wounds while unarmed and unaggressive on the street in Tehran, died in the arms of her music teacher.

I can’t be the only musician who is moved by this.


It is a perennial accusation made against worshipers that they make their gods in their own image. I’m on record below as being a big fan of Le Poisson Rouge, but in today’s New York Times we are told

So you can imagine how gratified the composer [Arnold Schoenberg] would have been to hear this fresh, keenly dramatic account of “Pierrot Lunaire” presented at an informal club for an eager and receptive audience.

Whoa there.

Schoenberg famously put on his ideal concerts for years in Vienna. These were notoriously ernst affairs. Would the man who didn’t even allow applause take to the easy-going Poisson Rouge atmosphere? I think not. Not the man who said, “If it is art, it is not popular. And if it is popular, it is not art.”

Another thing that the chief critic of the Times may be forgetting is that, if Schoenberg had had his way, said critic might not even have been allowed at the Poisson Rouge performance, since Schoenberg customarily posted a sign at the door saying, Kritikern ist der Eintritt verboten (“Critics are forbidden entry”).


Le Poisson Rouge has been cited here before for its presentations and means of presentation. I’ve now been there for five very different occasions, and last night brought the best of those. In a program also flagged here recently, Alarm Will Sound gave a Derek Bermel evening.

While the music was consistently fine and the performances were of the highest virtuosity, the main point I want to make is one of attitude. I remember, years ago in the New Yorker, the estimable Andrew Porter’s expression of astonishment and pleasure when a chamber musician showed by a smile that he was pleased with a happy turn of phrase that he had just executed. We are not surprised when a member of an early-music group does this, and rock musicians of course have such facial demonstrations as an indispensable part of their stock-in-trade. But conventional “classical” instrumental musicians who aspire to be taken seriously (say, the player in most of your major string quartets or — goodness knows — the white-tie-sporting symphonic musician who dreams of a career in the Berlin Philharmonic) knows that the poker-face is part of the uniform. He’d no more laugh at a humorous phrase in Haydn than he’d wear flip-flops with his tails.

Thus, when the tacit violist in the front row right away reflected in the movement of his body that he was artistically involved in someone else’s playing, it not only increased my own involvement with the performance but it felt a little transgressive, too. But only for a moment. These folks are offering challenging “classical” music as though it’s something to be enjoyed. The fact that they aren’t ashamed to show their own enjoyment in their countenances and body-language gives us permission to imitate their involvement and share in their resulting satisfaction.

May their tribe increase, I say.

Two hundred years ago today, Mozart’s Requiem was sung for Haydn (who had died on the last day of May) in Vienna’s Schottenkirche.


A memorable part of Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures at Harvard, in which he gave a masterly elucidation of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, came when he recomposed the first movement as Mozart would have done had he been merely a master of musical materials and not a genius. Everything was perfectly thought-out, symmetrical — but without that spark of life that genius lends.

Ever since that revelation, I have now and then been struck by the same principle being displayed by a great variety of the best composers (whether or not to Mozart’s degree is another question) . To take an example that revealed itself to me a few days ago: Puccini’s “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly. It would be difficult to come up with a composer more distant from Mozart in many ways. But in the aspect of creativity that Bernstein was dealing with, they are blood-brothers. Here is a take-home assignment: look at or listen to “Un bel dì” and rethink it as perfectly well-behaved, very regular, tune. My efforts produced a perfectly charming tune for a popular song — which simply revealed why people are so enchanted with the much less predictable tune that Puccini came up with.

To take one example that occurs right off the bat: the mediocre composer (maybe me) might have ended the first phrase, “Un bel dì, vedremo” with “-mo” held for three beats and followed it by a perfectly balanced consequent phrase. But the conflicted Butterfly gets to sing something far more interesting. Just as she utters her “-mo,” the orchestra continues the melody immediately, to be joined by the unhappy geisha two beats later. There are so many intricate things going on here that reward close examination. But for now, I just want to register my delight at this general way of thinking, which I was led to years go by Bernstein’s infectious and intelligent love for Mozart’s great edifice in G Minor.

The song is “Unstoppable” by Santigold.

small_Tsujii As noted here before (and by Anne Midgette elsewhere), the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Competition has taken a fresh approach to its presentation of contemporary works. In the event, many of the competitors have told interviewers that they chose a work from the four possibilities based on what they thought they could learn in time. And who can blame them? John Musto‘s difficult “Improvisation and Fugue” thus was played by only one of the semi-finalists, Nobuyuki Tsujii. But that twenty-year-old not only took a gold medal but won the large cash award for the best performance of a contemporary piece for his crystalline interpretation of the Musto work. That he learned it in a short time and played it with confidence is a great tribute to him, and his winning shows the good judgment of the jury. He had been a clear audience favorite throughout.

The young Japanese pianist did not choose the Musto as his only challenging work by any means. He played hours of major works (including, among many other things, the Hammerklavier Sonata, a Schumann quintet, and concertos by Chopin and Rachmaninoff). He has been blind from birth.

The new work, which was commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation for their own Fourth New York International Piano Competition held last summer, where it enjoyed some brilliant performances, can be heard in Nobuyuki Tsujii’s prize-winning version on Cliburn TV (at Semifinal Archive for May 31), and played by the winner of the Stecher and Horowtiz competition, Allen Yueh, here. You will want to compare the two quite distinct interpretations.

UPDATE: Nobu’s performance is now also on YouTube.

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