Aesthetic Inclinations

19 February 2014 in Heather

In the spirit of Wallace Stevens, I have thirteen ways of looking at beautiful. 1. Complexity is most intriguing when it juxtaposes the simple. 2. I prefer solving mysteries to being lectured by the head detective. 3. I prefer a child’s intuitive wisdom to the academic’s schooled analysis. 4. I prefer the kaleidoscope to the periscope. 5. I prefer abstraction (in art, music, dance, or theatre) that jests and riddles and plays. 6. I leave emotion at the door: form, color, texture, and dynamic are each enough. 7. I often prefer the Components to the composite Greater Meaning. 8. I prefer a cross-pollination of genres to absolutes. 9. I prefer prose that is poetic. 10. I prefer a suggestion of
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Finally, Weirdness

7 January 2014 in Music

It was the weirdest concert I’ve been to since moving to Los Angeles eight months ago, and for that I was delighted. I had no idea what to expect; I’d never heard of Chris Newman, and it seemed odd that the Monday Evening Concerts (known for adventurous, contemporary programs) had paired him up with Beethoven. Good old-fashioned Beethoven. The first piece on the program proved to be the thread: the piano part of Newman’s Weird Words in a Language which we Understand takes (according to Newman’s own program note) “a diagonal single line through Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” The familiar eighth-note motive—fate rapping on a door—here abstracts and exhausts itself. As the pianist knocks around (first suggesting this key, then hinting
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Song for Friday Afternoon

8 September 2013 in Film, Music

Earlier this summer I saw The Bling Ring, and here it is September and I still can’t shake Sophia Coppola’s film from my mind. I spent much of the summer immersed in Benjamin Britten’s world, from his songs and operettas for children to professional works for the operatic stage (notably, The Turn of the Screw and Gloriana). Much of Britten’s work comments on youth and childhood, innocence and the loss of it. Britten tends to gaze on youth (childhood) with a honeyed, late-19th century eye; this yearning for childhood is free from cynicism and anxiety. In fact, his nostalgia often feels like an attempt to free himself from the political and social conflicts of the mid-20th century. In Songs for
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Das Rheingold

5 September 2013 in Music

If the dappled blue marble we call Earth wore headphones, there is only one piece of music I’d want them plugged into: the opening five minutes of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The orchestral unfolding of a simple E-flat major triad is music of all time and place. Wagner’s music depicts the Rhine River, but knowing this bit of literal information in no way hinders the imagination. The French horns outline the triadic skeleton in overlapping entries and I remember the wheat fields of my childhood, the smell of straw, the golden fleece rippling and settling over the rolling hills like a baby’s blanket. As the strings join in the unchanging harmony hundreds of measures later, I remember when I had
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Singing in Canon, part 1

2 August 2013 in Music

There are many stories to unravel in regards to Benjamin Britten’s prolific output for children’s voices, as well as his interest in the world of childhood and its perceived innocence. On the one hand, he is sometimes compared to Peter Pan, the fictional boy who never grew up, who wanted to surround and amuse himself with other children so that he would not be lonely. Yet Britten’s attraction for the young may have verged on the risqué. (His friend W.H. Auden wrote a letter advising Britten to snap out of it, for his art’s sake.) Gossip aside, the music provides everything: all the stories, all the one hands and other hands, and all the clues to truth. Nostalgia and desire,
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Cuckoo!

1 August 2013 in Music

What good is Roman Numeral analysis? I think about this sometimes and grow despondent. What good does it do me? My pencil has hovered over Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo!” all summer long, and I’ve reached no confident, numerically pleasing conclusion. “Cuckoo!” is a simple song, written for young people to sing in two parts. The “cuckoo” part doesn’t vary from start to finish: two pitches lob back and forth as if over an invisible tennis court net. Cuc – koo. Cuc – koo. Twenty-four times. Taken out of context, the pitches of the “cuckoo” motive fail to suggest a key. One might guess A-flat major as easily as f minor. The little bird  mocks me for not knowing for sure. Donald
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