Friday, March 28, 2014

Richard Brody Sounds Off About Music in Movies

Earlier this week, Richard Brody, film critic for the New Yorker, posted a piece about how Lars von Trier had literally RUINED Franck and Handel for him. I'm exaggerating, but less than you think.  Brody also made some bold claims about the role of music in film.  I guess he has that right, as a film critic, but I don't think that the situation is as rigid at this article might lead one to believe.  For example:

For better or worse, there’s an entire realm of music that becomes indissociable from the movies in which it’s used. The touchstone for the phenomenon is when it’s impossible to hear the music in any context without the movie scene in which it’s featured coming to mind.

Better.  Do you need some proof?

There is so much good here, where to begin?  The piece is Schumann's Piano Quartet, op. 44, second movement.  It is a riff on the Beethovenian funeral march, as seen in Beethoven's Third Symphony, which you can tell from the key and the form and the march-like elements at the end of this film clip (around 1:56).  The funeral march is important because our character, Alexander, will attend two family funerals in this film, so it is foreshadowing some of the most important plot events.   

But there's more!  This is not the beginning of the movement.  The movement is in rondo form, which is what happens when you keep returning to the opening section throughout.  The part that we hear at the end of the clip (around 1:56) has been heard before, but Bergman cut it out so that we begin with the lush yet melancholic string part that opens the B section.  I think that this is ingenious.  While the scene opens with flowing water, we quickly shift to Alexander playing with his theater characters in a miniaturized stage (the stage is also an important part of the movie).  As he walks around his home, we see a richly-decorated room with intricate and beautiful furnishings (1:48!).

Yet we know all of this is ephemeral, and the music gives that away from the start.  This section of the movement never settles in terms of harmony or rhythm.  The melody is very clear and could be harmonized in a simple way, but instead, Schumann opts for a relatively sophisticated harmonization that does not come to a clear conclusion (this is typical of Schumann's style, but particularly poignant here).  Furthermore, the piano and strings are working against each other in terms of rhythm: the piano part is in a hemiola with the inner strings, which is subtle enough that the ear does not notice right away, but distinct enough that it is hard for the listener to rest.  As the movie progresses, this beautiful home also becomes ephemeral, as Fanny and Alexander move to a new place and a sad, difficult life.  This is musical nostalgia, in a way, because it is too delicate to settle. 

Scorsese did the exact same thing in Goodfellas when he drew on the piano exit from 'Layla,' another piece that features the same harmonic qualities (never quite comes together), while integrating a melodic line that has too much motion to establish stability.  This melody is also rife with suspensions that lend a feeling of incompleteness; while they do resolve, they don't resolve where they should, which creates an effect of longing.  In terms of harmony, there should be a clear V_I motion to cadence, but there isn't because of that Bb chord that doesn't belong.  That's how you make musical nostalgia, in a nutshell.  What is clear from this moment in the film is that things will never be the same; the life that the Goodfellas have led is drawing to a close and cannot be recaptured.  Indeed, this scene marks the definitive break between Jimmy as a potentially respectable character (he has murdered everyone around him instead of giving them their due) and Tommy (SPOILER ALERT: he doesn't get made).  The silence in the score immediately prior to the piano exit adds to the effectiveness because your ear is drawn to the music right away:

Back to Bergman: at the end of the clip, we realize that Alexander is alone, wandering through the house and calling out the names of his sister, nanny, and others.  No one responds to him--it is in this section that the funeral music also begins.  Alexander will later learn that he is never fully alone, that the ghosts of his past (funereal music) are always with him and that he cannot escape them.  But now, as a child, he can have a moment that I think we understand to be an uncertainty.  He walks around the house and the music loses its lushness.  I am not sure if on first viewing this seems like a form of loneliness--it has been too long since I viewed this with fresh eyes, and I can only see connections with what is to come--but it is clear that, at least for now, he is alone, and the music is sparse as well.

Why do I remember these scenes so keenly?  Because they are good.  They are perfect associations with these moments, both in terms of its musical content and foreshadowing.  After reading Brody's piece, I tried to think of a bad association between film and music, and I was unable to do so off the top of my head.  I suspect that part of what Brody is reacting to here is his proximity to Nymphomaniac, and that with time, his inability to dissociate will subside.  This, to me, is what differentiates good and bad in terms of musical usage.  The good sticks with you.  The bad fades, maybe with time, but it will fade.

I take great umbrage with the following statement in the Brody article:

That’s the argument in favor of the score composed for a movie: it comes with no associations and derives its identity from the film in which it’s used. For that matter, it exists in order to emphasize the moods and emotions of the specific movie—which is why, for most good movies, the score is superfluous (and watching a scored movie silent is a crucial test of its merit).
 Disagree.  Okay, I don't disagree with an argument for original film music, that's fine.  I would argue that pre-existing music used well can do an equally good (if not better) job, as in the cases I outlined above.  However, I disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that 'it comes with no associations.'  I'm bringing out the big guns here and you better go get your DVD of Star Wars, Episode IV, 'A New Hope' because I am not playing (and I couldn't find clips online).  Two examples should suffice.

First, when the droids crash onto Tatooine there is a scene where they have some dialog, then they take off in different directions.  After the fade (10:29), you hear a vaguely Stravinskian accompaniment in the score, by which I mean something that sounds like it is the opening of part 2 of The Rite of Spring:

This works in Star Wars because it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do in Rite of Spring.  We are disoriented in terms of harmony, melody, and meter.  We don't know what is happening, where we are going, or why.  The music mimics the experience of the droids and what we know right away is that they are on a strange planet, heading off into directions unknown--we even see the backbone of a giant skeleton (10:50), which might remind listeners of Fantasia and the dinosaur scene that also uses Rite of Spring, arguably for the same sonic qualities.  I am not knocking John Williams for being Stravinsky-esque here.  On the contrary, I think that a big part of his success as a film composer is his ability to capture moments sonically by selecting the best composers to parody (in the non-comic sense) at the right moments.  This is the ideal place to borrow a few techniques from Stravinsky because the overall effect is the same.

Now, you might be able to glean the general gist of this scene without the soundtrack--which Brody suggests is the acid test for good film-making--but I would still argue that it aids the overall understanding of the film a great deal.  Silent, this scene is not as effective, because you do not have the same sense of displacement and isolation.  My next example, though, is unquestionably ameliorated (IMHO) because there is music.  It is the moment when Luke meets old Ben Kenobi (29:40).  If you haven't watched it in a while, go grab your DVDs and check it out (what?  You don't have a copy of Star Wars on DVD?  Then go buy them and join us again!).  What we hear is the same theme that we heard earlier (25:46), as Luke gazed off into the far-away sky and dreamed of exciting adventures:

Look at me, fostering delusions of grandeur!

When we first hear this musical line, it is in a solo French horn to start, then the strings swell in and take it over.  We have the feeling that Luke can be the hero and leave this dusty, desert planet.  But when we hear this theme with Ben Kenobi, the effect is changed.  The harp part leading into the line gives the sense that something (or someone) important has been unveiled, but there is a sinister harmony underneath the melody that does not change when it should.  Instead, it makes the line unstable, taking away its easy dreams of heroism.  If Luke is going to have adventures, perhaps they will be less simple than he thought at first.  Perhaps there is more complexity in the world around him than he saw as a farm boy.  And of course, all of this is true.

Would this work without the soundtrack?  Maybe, but I would suggest that the film would lose a vital part of its nuance.  And isn't this part of what makes the film good in the first place?  To isolate (or exclude) one element from the whole seems to detract from the overall experience instead of enriching it and a musical soundtrack, as seen in these cases, can be very enriching indeed.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Kim Kardashian and Anti-Muses

My consideration of the Vogue cover got me thinking about KK as a type of modern anti-muse, and more generally about the idea of the muse in the first place.  Muses have been around for a long time, as you undoubtedly know, dating all the way back to the Greeks.  They were supposedly the inspirational force that helped artists create their products.  The Greeks had nine of them, each of which represented different disciplines:

It's funny how 'Thalia, Muse of Comedy' and 'Salome, Beheader of John the Baptist' could be easily confused in this depiction
The concept of the muse has been around for a very long time, likely because anyone who is creative knows how hard creativity can be.  What causes that spark of inspiration (or lack thereof)?  That being said, the role and personification of the muse has changed drastically.  In fact, I recently argued (on a different blog) that Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's Misery is effectively a muse, only a nightmare version of one, because sometimes you need some tough love to complete your creative work.  By which I mean, sometimes you need to be hobbled and in fear of your life to write a novel.

 However, there can also be those who hinder creativity.  For the sake of this post, I am calling them anti-muses (which is oversimplifying the situation), and they too have a long history.  In the modern context, anti-muses are women (but not always), which is a reflection of how genius has been construed over the past couple of centuries in Western culture (a brief history of genius, from Antiquity to present, is summarized in this review of Darrin M. McMahon's book about this topic).  Around the eighteenth century, a genius was viewed as a man who possessed great talent, but who had to struggle with it to share this talent with the world in its truest artistic form.  Women could not share in genius because they had other roles, the most important of which was motherhood.  They could create life, whereas men could create art.  Gendering genius was inherent in the concept from its origins in Antiquity, but became particularly powerful during the nineteenth century, when (European) women would willingly give up their creative endeavors because they felt their contributions were less meaningful than those of men.  My background is music, so I can think of numerous female composers whose outlook adhered to this philosophy.  Clara Schumann, for instance, was hailed as a great interpreter of genius in her piano performances, but her compositions were deemed less worthy of attention--and the genres that she chose were most often the types of pieces that would be performed in the home (such as Lieder and piano works) rather than grandiose, public performances of symphonies or operas.  Fanny Mendelssohn gave up composition once she was married because she felt it was no longer an appropriate activity for her with her domestic and familial obligations.  Perhaps the most maligned figure is Alma Mahler, whose penchant for creative men led to this delightfully misogynistic summary of her life, portraying her as combination slut, magically temptress, and harridan:

If you're interested, Alma Mahler's compositions are very interesting.  She gave up composing while married to Gustav Mahler because he felt that her work impinged on his genius.

By now, you're probably thinking of one of the best-known recent anti-muses, Yoko Ono, whose relationship with John Lennon was the subject of much ridicule during his life.  Ono's fame as an avant-guard performer and artist has been re-evaluated since then, as has that of Alma, Fanny, and Clara, which I feel is a great step forward in putting the genius/muse model aside and acknowledging that creativity can stem from either direction, without a need for gender--this trope remains stunningly persistent.  There is even a (sort of) nice song about Yoko (even though it mocks her artistic creativity, and implies that John 'gave up musical genius' for her):

In fact, there are select cases where both couples can be admired for their creative ability on almost equal footing.  Let me present the couple (and work) that I think most fully represents the ideal of the creative pair today:

(If you're curious, Beyoncé did contribute to writing this song, so she is not simply a performer here).

There is a peculiar dynamic between KK/Kanye and Jay-Z/Beyoncé, at least in the court of public opinion.  I have no idea what kind of dynamic they share behind closed doors.  Jay-Z and Kanye have a professional relationship in that they have collaborated on albums (Kanye produced The Blueprint's 'Izzo (H.O.V.A.)'....okay, maybe he is a genius).  One of Kanye's most infamous moments occurred because of Beyoncé, when he interrupted Taylor Swift on stage at the 2009 MTV Video Awards to definitively state that Bey deserved the best video of the year (or possibly of all time).  More recent news stories have speculated that Jay-Z does not want to be best man at Kimye's wedding if it will be later featured on a reality show and that Beyoncé may go so far as to boycott the event all together.  Are they friends?  Enemies?  Frenemies?  Is KK Kanye's Beyoncé?  Is this an Illuminati plot?  No lack of speculation.

I suspect that part of this public perception of a peculiar dynamic involves creative inequality.  As I mentioned in my previous post about the Vogue cover, many (most?  all?) of us find KK to be a bewildering celebrity.  She has seemingly attracted an enormous amount of attention for accomplishing almost nothing.  How is this possible?  No one has cracked this code yet--I mean, there have been proto-KKs, such as Paris Hilton, but they seem to have faded more quickly.  If anything, KK may be even less talented than Paris.  I submit to you their singles:

Shut up, I kind of like 'Stars are Blind.'  2006-2007 was a tough time for pop music:

  • Brit Brit was out of the zone
  • Rihanna was okay but not 'Please Don't Stop the Music' good
  • Lady Gaga was just a sparkle in Stefani Germanotta's eye
  • Beyoncé was all Dreamgirls, which is fine, but not 'Crazy in Love'

This song is terrible.  It has no redeeming qualities.  In fact, it may have one quality that makes it even worse: it was 'released' as part of an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.  There, you feel really icky now, don't you, and you want to go get your ears cleaned out with soap.

Perhaps KK peaked at the right time, with the advent of media like Twitter and reality shows becoming the predominant genre of television.  But if she is famous due to luck (and money), then what is even more bewildering is the fact that she is engaged to Kanye West.  Certainly, we should all be skeptical about his claims about his own genius, but he has had a lasting and profound effect on popular music.  It is hard not to ask questions, Arrested Development style, about what KK is doing with him.

All of this skepticism came to a head when Kanye released his video to 'Bound 2,' a video that, once you have seen it, you can never unsee (and I am not embedding to this post for that very reason).  I likely do not need to detail what happens, since it was all the talk for a week or two there, even inspiring parody videos and an episode of 'South Park.'  In a sense, Kanye wins again, because he has created a work that is now inextricably linked to the song, just as Michael Jackson did with 'Thriller,' Britney Spears did with 'Baby, One More Time,' and Nirvana did with 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.'  This is part of the role of the video, of course: to provide a lasting visual association with the song.  But the criticism (positive and negative) leveled against Kanye for 'Bound 2' ranged drastically, from uncanny valley, to covert critique of American society, to Kanye's Gigli moment.  Honestly, I am still not sure what to make of it, but I'm still not sure what to make of Yeezus as a whole, so maybe that is not surprising.  If you are the type of person who feels that Kanye is being led astray by KK, then you are probably in the appalled camp, since it seems that a talented man is under the spell of a talentless hack and creating a sensationalistic video with little artistic merit.  In other words, an anti-muse.  You might even blame all of Yeezus--undoubtedly Kanye's most divisive album to date in terms of public approval--on KK.  This falls into the 'it's all her fault that the genius has lost his touch' trope of the anti-muse, much like those New England Patriot fans who blame Gisele for the lack of recent Superbowls.  The gendered genius returns, bereft of the muse he needs to succeed.

 I would like to suggest that KK may have been Kanye's muse for longer than was immediately apparent.  One of the (bizarre) facts that has been revealed in the course of their relationship is that Kanye has waited for years to have the opportunity to date KK, but she was always with football players or basketball players or busy recording the single worst song ever to emerge from a recording studio and I am including 'Popozao' in that assessment.  This unrequited desire may have surfaced a bit earlier in Kanye's career, because if this video is not meant to depict KK through its blatant inclusion of a KK look-alike, then I will watch 'Bound 2' again by choice:

As with my post about the Vogue cover, I am left with more questions than I began with:

1) What on earth would it say about Kanye and KK's relationship if this is meant to be some kind of Kanye fantasy?  Because I HAVE A LOT OF QUESTIONS.  Beautiful, dark and twisted, indeed.

2) These lyrics seem remarkably acute in describing KK, particularly her love of all things material.  But they seem remarkably inaccurate in describing contemporary Kanye (trips to Florida?  He hangs out in Paris now).  This leads to another great puzzle in the Kanye canon: has Kanye changed?  Is Kanye allowed to change?  (Yes)  Has he lost it because of these changes?  Were these changes effected by his anti-muse?   Or is his anti-muse symptomatic of these changes?  Can change be good?

The general public opinion seems to be not in this case, as evinced by the countless YouTube comments asking 'What happened to you?' on Kanye's more popular tracks (like this one.  I had to add 'Homecoming' because it has been stuck in my head for the past week or so).  There is a larger question here about artistic development--one that I hope to address in a future post--and I would always caution against mapping biography too closely onto artistic products.  But this is my question time, and these are my questions.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

World's Most Talked About Couple

I feel slightly remiss that we here at Schenkerian Gang Signs are just now getting around to discussing the Kimye Vogue cover.  Obviously, a blog that seeks to contemplate all things Kanye needs to address the plethora of commentary surrounding this publication, as well as consider what the hashtag 'World's Most Talked About Couple' hath wrought.  Let's start with the history: Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, and KK are rumored to have not gotten along very well, so much so that AW totes did not invite KK to the Met Opera Gala, which is literally the worst thing ever if you are a celebrity fashion type (and you don't understand the meaning of the term 'literally').  And KK has long viewed herself as a celebrity fashion type, so that was undoubtedly somewhat insulting to her.  However, she did get to attend last year as Kanye's date, even though the outfit was pilloried by everyone in every media outlet on earth, and possibly even on other planets that have not yet been discovered.

Then the next thing we knew, KK was on the cover of Vogue, like she totally belonged there, with Kanye playing runner up and barely being seen at all.  This is Kanye West we are talking about here, people.  The guy who is not known for playing second fiddle to anyone, ever.  In fact, if Kanye were in a string quartet, it would be a string one-tet, because everyone else could just go home since Kanye would be all you'd want to hear.

I'm not going to lie, I think she looks really pretty here:

I also think that if she didn't look really good on the cover, then Vogue needs to do some hiring/firing ASAP, because come on, people.  This is Vogue.
Fun fact: there are now rumors that Kanye is a vampire (Pro tip, CNN: 'Is Kanye West a vampire' is not 'News of Note').

Then there was the inevitable backlash.  I say 'inevitable' because I feel that almost anything KK does creates backlash.  KK could go pet puppies on the head and I can guarantee that the most 'liked' comments on Yahoo would be something about how she needs to go away and never be in the media again and how she probably exploited those puppies and now plans to do something heinous to them and her name should really be 'Kartrashian.'  In part, this backlash is fair because I think we're all confounded by her still.  It's hard to get your brain around a person whose fame rests on a sex tape, reality show, and being known for some seriously objectionable fashion choices--I mean, I make some seriously objectionable fashion choices, but I don't have her money or stylists or anything like that, so I feel justified in the occasional boo-boo.  However, because her family seems to have something in the ballpark of a gazillion dollars, she can do pretty much whatever she pleases without this backlash affecting her in any significant way.  Heck, she can even have willingly worn this (and walk around with this) and still make the cover of Vogue.

What I find interesting about the Kimye Vogue cover backlash, though, is the hefty weight being given to it.  No one seems to have a quick comment (except on Twitter, which I will cover below).  The gals over at 'Go Fug Yourself' had a seriously lengthy consideration of the Kimye cover, which can be summarized as a criticism of Anna Wintour, and the sense that she has completely sold out.  Cara Kelly, writing for the Washington Post Style Blog, suggests that the problem is KK's achievements, which are sparse.  Historically, the cover of Vogue is not limited to fashion models, but those who are included are either: A) actresses who are kind of like models or B) Women of Distinction and Respect (like Oprah and Hillary Clinton).  So maybe AW has sold out or maybe a Vogue cover is no longer an actual achievement.  What seems clear from these comments is a sense that some kind of sea change has arrived to Vogue, perhaps one that signals its decline--or at least Wintour's decline--and that this could be the End of All Things Fashion as We Know Them.  And perhaps there is some truth to this.  It is hard to view this cover as more than some kind of pandering to someone, whether that is the younger audience that eagerly consumes all things Kardashiana or for some reason, Kanye (Why is Anna Wintour pandering to Kanye though?  Why would she need to?  Can we really live in a world where the editor of Vogue needs to pander to Kanye West?  Because we can't.  We just can't).

There has also been backlash in the form of parodies and witty Tweets about the cover.  Indeed, why is there a hashtag on the cover in the first place?  Likely this is some kind of testament to Kimye, who are new moguls in this new world of social media.  But you can also read this as an attempt to get to the 'kids today' with their 'Twitter' and their 'hashtags' and their '140-character conversations.'  So is this a calculated move by Vogue to attract a younger audience?  Anna Wintour's attempt to win Kanye to her side?  The revelation that Kanye is of the undead?  The only thing that I know for sure is that Nori West peed on Kanye during the photoshoot.

Some Twitter highlights:

There is some history with regard to that last one.

Let me conclude with some words of wisdom from KK herself:

He’s kind of like the strength of our relationship.  When I am stressed out he just wants to alleviate that stress, so even if it’s something that he’s not really into, he’ll figure it out just to help me not be stressed out.

Shakespeare, she is not.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

OUR FIRST CONTEST! Come up with a slogan for the Benz Parsifal by April 15!

We here at SGS could not be more thrilled to announce our very first contest.  With a prize!  A real prize!  But we're not telling what it is until the contest is over.

The contest is pretty simple: we are asking you to come up with a great advertising slogan for the Benz Parsifal. 

Photo courtesy of the Hungerford Virtual Museum (

Here's the historical background:

From 1902-1904, Benz (which would later join with Mercedes) produced a new car named the Parsifal (the man in the dapper fur coat, above right, was one of the designers, Marius Barbarou).  The Parsifal came as either a two-seater or a four-seater and was considered a luxury model in its day:

If you are the kind of person who likes car specs, they are available.  If you are the kind of person who prefers pictures, there were collector cards for them:

Now, if you are familiar with Wagner's Parsifal, you may be wondering why on earth Benz chose Parsifal of all characters as the namesake for this model (if you're not, here you go).  After all, wouldn't one of the Ring characters be better?  Why not the Siegfried?  Or how about the Lohengrin--as fast and silent as a swan?  And this is where you come in, dear readers.  We are asking you to come up with a slogan for the Parsifal.  You can post in the comments below or feel free to email us.  You can even post to our Facebook page (and be sure to 'like' our Facebook page!).  We will share some of the highlights as we go along.  The deadline for the contest is April 15.  That's right: your taxes and witty Parsifal slogans, together at last.

The winner will get a prize!  But we're not saying what it is yet.  We are happy to ship the prize anywhere in the world.

So tell your friends, neighbors, acquaintances, that crazy guy who is always playing Wagner.  We look forward to your responses!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Everything Wagnerian that we could find on Etsy

The entire purpose of this post is to point out all things Wagnerian that are available for sale on Etsy. Are you all ready for this?

While first perusing Etsy one might not initially find some good Wagnerian gems. In fact, you're probably gonna see a whole lot of dutch ovens (this one costs $595.00!):

But eventually you'll find some delightful items. A guy in California is currently selling posters of the Ring Family Tree for a pretty cheap price ($20.00). I might buy one. No joke.

We also found this fantastic art nouveau illustrated book on Valhalla. It's all yours for $87.00.

How about a Richard Wagner pendant for that special lady friend in your life? Etsy's got one ($12.00)!

This page-turning read on Wagner is bound to thrill the Wagnerian-obsessed (vintage book, 1920s. $8.00):

Here's a vintage Hungarian Wagner postage stamp ($12.00) that I bet you didn't know you needed:

Send a loved one a Wagnerian note-card for $5.50:

A 1910s score of Rheingold, complete with pretty pictures:

This one's actually pretty wild. Here's a lithograph of Renoir's "Portrait of Wagner" ($150.00):

Did you know that John Updike wrote an illustrated children's book on Wagner's Ring Cycle? It's all yours for $60.00!

It has so many pretty pictures in it!

This one creeps me out: an antique postcard of Richard Wagner. His face is made out of women:

An antique button depicting a scene from Lohenrin ($20.00):

A reproduction of a Metropolitan Opera poster featuring Freia ($20.00):

Here's a bust of Richard Wagner that's also a candle!

This might honestly be my favorite item on this list. It's a necklace that doubles as a wax seal ($95.00). Because of course.

Here's a vintage 1905 postcard from a Wagner festival that might be a good score ($5.00):

And last but certainly not least, feel free to strut around at the gym or at your ultimate frisbee match (I'm assuming) in your Richard Wagner t-shirt ($12.00):

Aren't you glad we scoured Etsy's website to bring you these finds?

Black masculinity and the violin

This is going to sound odd, but I think that the 2013 calendar year was the year for African American male violinists:
The film, 12 Years A Slave, took on the narrative of Solomon Northup, a talented violinist forced into slavery. Musicologist Guthrie Ramsey has already written a great piece on this topic in Gawker, entitled "There Was Music in 12 Years A Slave? Yes. It Sounds Like Get Lucky." In it, he tackled how music functioned, how music *worked* to help maintain social order and perpetuate categories of racial difference. For example, Northup is at one point "ordered to be human Muzak" at a slave boutique where people are being sold. In another instance, slaves are singing a song about running away as their master preaches to them a Christian sermon. (For more information, please read Guthrie Ramsey's piece in Gawker here:

I must confess that I still haven't seen the film yet because I'm a scaredy cat (if you know me, this confession will come as completely and utterly unsurprising) but I'm curious to know how many Americans (regardless of ethnic background) were taken aback to see an African American man playing the violin. "Huh," I imagine they said, "that's unusual. I've never seen something like this before." Being a black male violinist must have been such an irregularity/oddity throughout American history, right?

Hold on a second there. It would be wrong of me to make the claim that there were thousands of Solomon Northups just fiddling throughout America since the very beginning, all working on a Mozart violin sonata and complaining about that one passage in the Tchaik concerto. But what I do find interesting is how little people know about African American classical musicians, and, more importantly, how frequently their histories tend to be forgotten or expunged from the record.

A few other African American violinists to think about:
Joseph Douglass, the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass's son. He got his big break playing at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and ended up on the faculty at Howard University.

Clarence Cameron White is another example of a working violinist in the 19th century. A product of Oberlin's Conservatory of Music, he lived in London for a time studying the violin. He came back to the States to teach at Virginia State College and Hampton Institute.
Will Marion Cook, also a product of Oberlin's Conservatory of Music, studied violin at Berlin's Hochschule für Musik in the 1880s. Following his arrival back in the States, he studied with composer Antonin Dvorak for a year and then formed a chamber orchestra that toured throughout the United States.
The last name I'm going to mention (and there are others) is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who is perhaps the most celebrated black composer in music history. He's not African American, which people forget, but he tends to be smushed into the greater category of "black people making classical music." So fine. Whatever. He was a violin student at the Royal College of Music. Really, I just wanted to post this image that I found of him:
For some reason, my googling of black male violinists a while back led me down a particular rabbit hole that I'm not entirely sure how to get out of just yet. In the process of putting this blog post together, I came across this group:
Their name is Black Violin, and they're a hip hop duo from Florida who play the violin and viola. Here's one of their music videos:

And I don't know if the world can handle it yet, but here's *another* hip hop duo named Nuttin But Stringz who also try to blend hip hop and classical music:
Nuttin But Stringz (lord help me for writing that name more than once) was originally a group that tried out for some reality show and made it to the finals:

What are we to make of these two musical ensembles? I'm both surprised and not surprised by them, I guess. I *think* that they think they're being subversive by combining hip hop and classical violin together. I *think* they think they're being radical by being black male violinists in 2014. And I *think* they think they're trying to raise awareness and encourage money to be funneled into music education programs in African American communities...?

I think they mostly prove to me how histories are forgotten. How the Solomon Northups are made to become oddities. So that when these ensembles come around, we're supposed to think they're doing something new, when really, they're not.

What I do find intriguing about these musicians, however, is how they're performing a certain kind of black masculinity. With Nuttin But Stringz (again! gah!) especially, their exaggerated gestures and stomps seem to be their attempt to align themselves with hip hop, which, as plenty of scholars have excellently pointed out already, has been constructed to be black and male (more so than black and female, white and male, and white and female). Oh, and this black masculinity is, of course, hetero. It's super hetero. Lord help us if we start picking that piece of this performance puzzle apart (said snarkily).

Again, I think that we're supposed to see this as subversive. And perhaps it is. Perhaps there's something radical about having these performers own so grandly and confidently their black male identities while performing a musical instrument that many assume doesn't "belong" to them.

Mostly, though, I'm ambivalent.  Do these groups demonstrate musical fusion/hybridity or are their performative acts further perpetuations of difference? Each ensemble seems to suggest that it's pointing American audiences towards the future, where "classical" and "pop/hip hop" will blend together into a commercial success. Perhaps this will happen. Perhaps it's already happening. I just don't want us to forget our Solomon Northups again.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Oh Canada: Regional Pride through Commercials

Last week's episode of This American Life had a great segment where Ira Glass was talking about the types of ad campaigns on which cities sometimes embark to cultivate good will with their citizens, and the fact that, for the most part, these are met with blatant skepticism.  Ira grew up in Baltimore, where he remembers one particular campaign about Baltimore being the 'Charm City' that was rebuffed by Baltimorians as preposterous, particularly in the 1970s after the inner city had been devastated by a combination of white flight and riots (now I wonder if the Hairspray song is a parody).  His wife remembered that Detroit tried something similar, which was equally unimpressive (I would argue, however, that the Chrysler Superbowl ad for Detroit was a remarkable image of the city, and is certainly worth a look if you don't remember it).  Then Ira interviewed Ken Lima-Cuehlo of Calgary, Canada, who not only remembered his city's song, but remembered all of the words and even remembered singing it with friends as a communal Calgary moment:

Calgary, Lima-Cuehlo explains, was a city experiencing an identity crisis.  The other major city in the province of Alberta, Edmonton, had won the glory of the nation--or perhaps even the world--because they had the Edmonton Oilers, the most successful hockey team of the 1980s and the team that had the legendary Wayne Gretzky.  In this time of crisis, 'Hello, Calgary' was a solace that their city was important, special, and unique.

You can imagine Lima-Cuehlo's disappointment when he learned that the song had been originally written for Milwaukee and adapted for numerous other cities afterward (including Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Rochester):

[Ed. note: ballet and steel mills?  Clearly the inspiration for Flashdance]

The question that I had in listening to this interview was why had the Calgary song been so thoroughly embraced by its citizens--Lima-Cuehlo does not remember thinking that it was cheesy or contrived--while the others were a lesser footnote of history.  Undoubtedly, in part, this has to do with the image of the city in the first place.  I can imagine that there would be skepticism toward a song singing Baltimore's praises in the 1970s, for example, when the city itself was undergoing such challenging issues.  Calgary did not experience these same problems, of course.  But what also struck me was that the eagerness with which Calgarians embraced this anthem was likely tied to the larger identity crisis that English Canadians were encountering in the 1980s, when there was little to claim as our own.  I touched on this in my earlier post on Canadian identity, when I was remembering that most folk songs I learned as a kid were either French Canadian or from Newfoundland--two cultures that significantly differed from my own.  Something like 'Hello, Calgary' on the other hand could easily be transformed into a point of pride for the part of a nation that was seeking its identity.

Calgary was not the only place to have such commercials.  Ontario ran them too:

Why yes, that was a lion at 0:05.  Why no, I have no idea why.

Incidentally, Ontario license plates switched to say 'Yours to discover' in 1982, around the time this campaign started.

Both 'Hello, Calgary' and the Ontario ads are big on showing off landscape, much like the currency at the time.  Although there are people in both, they seem much more engaged with outdoor activities than anything else.  Also, did anyone else notice a real dearth of women?  I found that odd, particularly when compared to 'Hello, Pittsburgh.'

Montreal also had a series of ads in the 1990s to  And they ran in Montreal.  I am still missing the basic concept here:

Montreal, the ad proclaims, you are the future.  And indeed, much in this commercial is very future-tastic, such as the prominent scientists doing something with science and someone graduating with such joy that she kicks her heels up in the air.  Montreal!  City that is going places!

I could have sworn that there was a far more sedate, less future-oriented English version, but I am unable to locate it on YouTube. Conspiracy?  Maybe.  But I'm pretty sure that it existed.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why do we still like epics?

We live in an age where brevity is the soul of...well, it's basically our soul.  It's an age where there is a truncated manner of expressing that something is too long, and therefore that we didn't read it (TL:DR).  An age where an entire form of communication has been constructed around images/clips/animated GIFs to express our sentiments and feelings (Tumblr).  An age where a medium for exchanging information limits our responses to 140 characters or less (Twitter).

And yet, somehow we love sprawling, time-consuming, wordy epics.  For those who feel that they are TL, these epics are available in multiple media forms, such as the movie franchises of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter [Ed. note: it would probably take less time to read The Hobbit than to watch all three movies].  However, I don't want to discount the fact that people are reading books, long books that one might assume are TL, but that, in fact, people do read (which, confusingly, is also DR).  In fact, we are almost inundated with epics in our culture, possibly to an unprecedented degree: in addition to the ones listed above, there is also Stephen King's Dark Tower, George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, and even epic-lite in those Twilight books (which also spawned Fifty Shades of Grey.  This is probably not epic, unless you are referring to epically bad writing). 

Why do we love epics so much?  Maybe the better question is, when have we not loved epics?  One of the oldest recorded works of literature is The Epic of Gilgamesh, of course.  Countless other examples have survived through the ages.  Even for those unfamiliar with the originals, the classical epic continues to exist in the cultural imagination in forms such as Troy.  But there is a significant difference here.  I suspect that your average person on the street would not be as familiar with the Iliad even when it did star Brad Pitt or the Chanson de Roland [Ed. note: this one kind of goes on, sometimes, in places, while fair Roland climbs a hill for what feels like forever, so maybe it is good that we are not so familiar with that one any more], but that this same person would be familiar with the modern versions listed above.  So perhaps the question is better framed as, why do we love these epics? 

You may be wondering why I haven't mentioned the most sprawlingest, time-consumingy epic of our age, which has to be Star Wars, especially when you consider the wealth of literature, film, commentary, and other cultural references that it has spurred [Ed. note: there is even a 70s variety show holiday special, which you would think would be hysterically funny because it has to be so bad, but then somehow transcends to an entirely new level of bad that you never even thought possible, even in your wildest dreams.  If that's not 70s enough for you, then how about the disco medley of themes from the original movie as featured on Dutch television?].  Indeed, this post was motivated by the fact that I have consumed an alarming quantity of Clone Wars episodes now that they have become available on Netflix Instant.  For the sake of my dignity, I will refrain from telling you where I am in terms of the whole series [Ed. note: Chewbacca has shown up].  Part of Star Wars' appeal, of course, is that it dabbles in many of the same kinds of themes that are so common in epics throughout the ages.  There is the hero on his quest, in the form of Luke (and, as we learn in the earlier movies, his father).  There is the conflict between father and son.  There are hints that a larger power binds us together, but can also be harnessed to pull us apart; in the Iliad, these were the gods, whereas in Star Wars, it's The Force.  There is the fear of death and questions about the afterlife, which is found all the way back with Gilgamesh.  There are a series of wandering characters that have either lost their actual homes (the Jedi in the later movies, Leia after the destruction of Alderaan) or their perceived ones (Anakin, which is one of the routes to his downfall).  Undoubtedly, these timeless conflicts are part of why Star Wars remains so appealing--in fact, there is a Jungian analysis of an episode of Clone Wars that seeks to uncover some of the age-old themes contained within this particular series.

However, I don't think that these themes are the only reasons that epics are so hip right now.  Instead, I think that it is the possibility unveiled in the epic world, and the ability to translate that 'world' into a form of reality--or at least a form of online reality--in a way that never existed before.  To fully get this idea, imagine if Wagner's Ring cycle came out now.  People would make a Wagnerpedia to trace characters and backgrounds.  There would be Wagner blogs, Wagner websites, and general Wagneriana as everyone tried to find even more hidden connections between each of the music dramas--this does exist, in a way, but it has been sanctioned instead as scholarly work and musicology instead of fandom.  I totally see a graphic novel.  In fact, I totally want to see a graphic novel and someone should get on this.  Fans did exist, in a way, even back when these works debuted.  They created 'listening guides' so that audiences could follow along with the themes (German musicology scholar Christian Thorau has discussed the importance of the leitmotiv as a concept in his book Semantisierte Sinnlichkeit, if you are interested in finding out more on this topic).  But an entire Wagner world was out of most people's reach, unless you happened to be King Ludwig of Bavaria, who re-created the grotto from Wagner's Tannhäuser at his Linderhof Palace:

Probably not the best use of taxpayer money

I would like to submit that part of the fascination with epics now is that we have an unparalleled way of visualizing the worlds that are contained within them.  These worlds can emerge in obvious ways, as in film adaptations, but there are even more ways in which these worlds are being brought to life:

1) New Zealand has actual Lord of the Rings tours so that you can immerse yourself in the landscape seen in the film--or, if you prefer, the vision of the landscape found in the books as imagined by Peter Jackson:

Actual epic-looking figure in foreground will likely not be part of your tour
2) There is Harry Potter Land (better known as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter).  It exists at Universal Studios in Orlando, FL.  Not only can you 'see' Harry Potter, you can also 'live' parts of the books by consuming such delicacies as butterbeer or candy treats from Honeydukes:

I selected this photo because I feel like no one would mistake these park-goers for Hogwarts students

3) To the best of my knowledge, there is no Star Wars Land, or if there is, it is wholly housed in some guy's basement (don't worry, Disney is already on this).  And there have been virtual Star Wars worlds, in the form of the MMORPG The Old Republic.  This expanded world also exists in digital form through the Wookieepedia, a website that (as you may have guessed) replicates Wikipedia, only for the universe of Star Wars.  It is a remarkably comprehensive chronicling of every possible character, planet, or other feature to do with the Star Wars universe.  In fact, it is so comprehensive, that if you need basic information about some character, you may sometimes find yourself reading the article introduction, obtaining the basic facts that you wanted, then realizing that there remains an entire article whose information is not even necessary.  Take, for instance, the Nightsisters, which has a four-paragraph introduction providing an outline of their history and purpose, then has eight more subsections in case you want to know more (it's okay to say TL:DR here.  Don't feel bad.  If you have no idea who the Nightsisters are, or why they are important to the plot of Star Wars, as I mentioned above, Clone Wars is on Instant Netflix).

[Ed. note: I have read the entire Nightsisters article]

It's worth taking a moment to consider the history of the encyclopedia, which originated in the Enlightenment as a means of discovering, classifying and documenting the world as interest in science overtook belief in religion.  We take encyclopedias for granted now, since we have such easy access to an unprecedented amount of information; even (the much reviled by those of us who teach) Wikipedia provides a wealth of knowledge about arcane topics that may not be found in any other resource.  Where else can you turn quickly when you forget the names of the Thundercats, for example?  Just as Wikipedia documents a more complete picture of our world than its print forebears like Encyclopedia Britannica--which does not have information about the Thundercats--a project like Wookieepedia gives the impression that it is documenting a world that is fully developed, coherent, cohesive, and operates as a unit.  Without modern technology, such documentation would be virtually impossible.  It is this epic world-building, I would argue, that keeps epic storytelling relevant in our post-modern world.

To finish up, enjoy the modified Clone Wars version of the Star Wars theme, which has been changed so that it is more militaristic and less heroically bombastic--this is, of course, a universe at war:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Aspirational 70s New York: An Introduction

I am planning to devote a series of posts to what I call 'Aspirational 70s New York,' a consideration of how New York was portrayed in television and movies during this decade (spoiler alert: mostly in movies).  To me, there is something unique about the importance of upward mobility in these films, something that does not happen in contemporary films set in other locales, or even in New York films of the preceding and following decade.  Of course, New York is the city that never sleeps, where you can be king of the hill and/or top of the heap--but that song, too, dates from Scorcese's 1977 film New York, New York, so it proves my point.  Among the movies that I plan to discuss are Shaft (1971), The Godfather (1972), Annie Hall (1977) [possibly also the 1979 film Manhattan], and Saturday Night Fever (1977).  No, that last one was not a typo.  Counter-examples that I also plan to discuss include On the Town (1949), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Wall Street (1987), Moonstruck (1987), Do the Right Thing (1989) and Goodfellas (1990).  That's a lot of movies, but let's set some high aspirations.  Depending on how things go, I may also have something to say about films set in L.A. and/or Boston.

As a quick introduction though, allow me to present the opening credits of two shows from Norman Lear's arsenal of successful sitcoms that demonstrate the opposite ends of the aspirational New York spectrum.  One, starting in 1971, serves almost as a counter-example of what New York is supposed to be because its characters often seem out of their time and place.  You've probably already guessed it:

This is an interesting portrayal of New York.  There is a brief view of Manhattan, with its buildings, but we are quickly swept to the bland, generic housing of Queens, with identical house after house--an indication of a lower-class neighborhood in contrast to the glitz of midtown.  Of course, we also learn a great deal about our characters right away from the lyrics.  They reminisce for the 'good old days,' a time when life seemed simpler and more enjoyable.  But it's worth noting the irony of what they are discussing: the Great Depression, as indicated by the reference to Herbert Hoover.  Even the reference to the LaSalle is potentially tongue-in-cheek.  The LaSalle debuted in the 1920s to much fanfare as a slightly cheaper (but still classy) Cadillac, but because of the Great Depression, sales dropped significantly and the model was discontinued in 1941 (I will wholly admit to drawing on Wikipedia for this information).  Why is this a counter-example to aspirational goals?  Because if the 1930s were the times that Archie and Edith are remembering as best, then they are recalling a time when their class status would have more likely decreased exponentially, particularly since Archie is a blue-collar worker--I somehow doubt that their families owned a LaSalle, which was a signifier for car nostalgia in later years.  That they now feel as though they are suffering from some kind of identity crisis is particularly acute with the references to, 'And you knew who you were then/Girls were girls and men were men.'  What has happened now?  As the show amply demonstrates, Archie's understanding of his place and role in society is rapidly changing and being constantly challenged.  He is often shown to be an anachronism, much like his theme song indicates.

You have probably already guessed my next example from the Norman Lear sitcom canon that demonstrates the diametric opposite:

This is a great theme song, by the way.  Possibly one of the all-time best.

Anyway, let's contrast this one to All in the Family.  Take its portrayal of New York, for instance.  Instead of panning through and moving away from it, images of famous sites in Manhattan permeate this version, scattered throughout as the theme song is heard.  One of my favorite moments is around 0:13, where you see Louise wipe a tear away.  Why?  Because they have moved on up, to the East Side, of course--it's amazing how geographically specific this song is.  Also, the ability to move is extremely significant (and will come up in other discussions of aspirational New York).  In fact, one crucial recurring topic in representations of New York characters is precisely their mobility: some characters travel with ease through the city, which often demonstrates that they can 'move up' beyond their original class, whereas others are stuck in place, unable to escape the conflicts that hold their lives back.  Imagine, for a moment, if the Jets or Sharks could simply move to another neighborhood in West Side Story (more geographical specificity); then maybe there would be a 'place for us' instead of the tragic end.  Of course they can't, because then it wouldn't be called 'West Side Story,' but that can be a discussion for another day.*

The Jeffersons have moved on up in the sense of their economic class, which leads to a deluxe apartment not only in the sky, but across the bridge from Queens--indeed, during the credits, there is a moment shot from their point of view as they approach Manhattan (0:21), with its distinct skyline and landmarks--unlike AitF, which started in Manhattan, then quickly veered away.  The Jeffersons can even enjoy the nature and greenery of Central Park (0:33), in comparison to the Bunkers' neighborhood, which has few trees.  That this journey is exciting for the characters can be seen from George Jefferson, who is enthusiastically showing his wife the sites as they drive.  His swaggerwalk at the end is also probably one of the best in sitcom history.

There is also an inferred comparison here, since George and Archie were at one point neighbors--The Jeffersons was, of course, a spin-off from AitF.  George's move to Queens was already a 'move on up' from his origins in Harlem (and extending back, a significant move up from his parents, who were sharecroppers); the fact that the Jeffersons moved next door to the Bunkers was an important plot element in AitF since Archie and George frequently clashed while their wives commiserated about their hard-headed husbands.  However, this conflict was rooted in a greater one that affected Archie Bunker.  As the AitF episode 'The Insurance is Canceled' (season 2, episode 10) demonstrated, Archie's neighborhood was considered by insurers to be increasingly dangerous because of more crime due to 'shifting demographics'--code, in this case, for more black people moving in (Lear is, of course, criticizing this practice).  That the Jeffersons are able to get away from this 'bad' neighborhood is a testament to their aspirations, while Archie, stuck in the past, is left behind.

There can be no question of the 'blackness' represented in the music for The Jeffersons, particularly the repeated use of the flattened scale degrees, call and response between the singer and choir--creating a gospel effect--and the frequent syncopation, particularly in the bass part.  This song serves as a short-hand both for their upward mobility, but one that remains rooted in their race.  They have not achieved success in spite of their race, they are fiercely proud of it and remain so.  This pride in heritage is another crucial feature of 70s aspirational films: no apologies are made for belonging to a minority group, instead it is accepted and embraced, frequently serving as a source of strength.

*Fun fact: originally, it was supposed to be East Side Story and pit Catholics versus Jews during an Easter/Passover grudge match.  Part of me thinks this would have been a huge flop, but a larger part of me wants to see it anyway.