The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘music’

Flowers for Hitler

October 19, 2016 | by

Valais, Switzerland, as depicted in the University of the New World’s Winter 1971–72 General Bulletin.

In 1973, I took a brief sabbatical from college to study in Switzerland at the University of the New World. I still have the small red course catalog somewhere. It was a school started by visionary hustler Al de Grazia, who had been a professor at Brown and … well, you should see what they offered: a faculty that included Allen Ginsberg, John Fahey, Ornette Coleman, Robert Motherwell, Immanuel Velikovsky, John Cage, Ram Dass, twenty-four-hour music rooms/art studios/libraries. There were stalls set up on the quad promoting it.

The university was situated in a tiny canton just outside Sion. The university was actually situated somewhere deep in the recesses of Professor DeGrazia’s mind. There was no university. It was, to be charitable, a work in progress. There were no libraries or music studios or art studios. There were no classrooms. There were no dormitories. There were no teachers. There were only a handful of students—mostly from Antioch—and we were all housed in rooms in a nearby ski lodge. From this distance I can’t tell whether it was a scam or a pipe dream. I had to humbly ask to be readmitted to Brown, and Dean Hazeltine was sympathetic but let me dangle in the wind for a few weeks just … well, just to give me time to reflect. 

It turned out to be an interesting time. Read More »

Let No One Sleep

October 18, 2016 | by

“Nessun dorma,” Donald Trump, and the best and worst of fans.

Scene from Turandot.

The hero of Turandot lurks behind the opera’s icy princess.

Ever since Jacopo Peri wrote Euridice (1600, the earliest extant European opera) to celebrate the marriage of Henri IV of France and Maria de’ Medici, opera has been ripe for political interpretation, partisanship, and misappropriation by its makers and its fans. Unfortunately, one of opera’s most fervent, prominent boosters used Richard Wagner’s music for anti-Semitic propaganda in Germany in the thirties and forties. Opera fans who aren’t Nazis—especially, perhaps, Jewish musicians—sometimes feel a little embattled about our fan community alliances and image; defensively, we latch onto more congenial fellows like hard-core Wagnerite W. E. B. Du Bois, who attended performances of Lohengrin and the Ring at Bayreuth. Or the ten-year-old fan who listened to Marian Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert on the radio, later wrote about it for a high school speech contest (“there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity”), and married a classical singer, Coretta Scott (who said of the New England Conservatory of Music, “This is where I knew I was supposed to be”). Or Juilliard-trained pianist Nina Simone, whose opera fandom would leave an indelible mark on Porgy and Bess and The Threepenny Opera.

Then Donald Trump joined our fan club. Last November, the fact that his rally sound track featured the late Luciano Pavarotti singing the aria “Nessun dorma” (“Let no one sleep,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot) was just a weird frisson troubling opera Twitter. By July, when the Pavarotti family argued that Pavarotti’s “values of brotherhood and solidarity” were “entirely incompatible” with Trump’s worldview, none of us could ignore the aria’s message anymore: “Vincerò!” I will win! Read More »

Writers, It’s Time to Learn the Guitar, and Other News

October 13, 2016 | by

Throw everything else away. These are your tools now.

  • Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, prompting a massive spike in acoustic guitar and harmonica sales at Sam Ash Music stores around the world as writers rush to recast themselves as musicians, tearing their elbow patches off and discarding their tweed sport coats, smashing their typewriters and casting whole drawers of freshly sharpened Ticonderoga pencils into the street, as it finally dawns on them that they’re working in an outmoded medium facing dwindling interest from the culture at large, with not even the promise of prestige or elite status to sustain them. Don DeLillo is seeking a twelve-album contract with Columbia Records. Haruki Murakami is tripling the line breaks in all his novels and reissuing them as “Collected Lyrics.” Philip Roth sits cross-legged in silk pajamas, trying to play a major scale on the harmonica for about five minutes—he gives up, masturbates. Milan Kundera promises to go electric at next year’s Newport Folk Festival. 

Read More »

Leave Alexa Alone

October 6, 2016 | by

Listening to Steely Dan’s Gaucho.


The cover of Steely Dan’s 1975 LP Katy Lied shows an out-of-focus praying mantis floating amid bulbous plants. I used to stare at it as a kid, listening to the record in my dad’s leather reading chair and wondering who this “Steely” was. He sounded sort of like Bob Dylan, if Bob had just been defrosted out of a block of carbonite. (I was intensely devoted to The Empire Strikes Back, so carbonite was almost always on my mind.) Other Steely Dan records like Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam, and Aja opened onto a strange and ominous world: double helixes in the sky, Haitian divorcées, the rise and fall of an LSD chef named Charlemagne, someone who drinks Scotch and then “dies behind the wheel.” The photo on the inside gatefold of the Greatest Hits showed two nasty-looking guys standing in what appeared to be a hotel dining room. Read More »

Black Pearls Before Swine

September 22, 2016 | by

Florence Foster Jenkins is remembered as a failed opera singer. What can we learn by listening to her today?

Florence Foster Jenkins.

When Florence Foster Jenkins made her self-financed public debut as a singer—in October 1944, when she was seventy-six—she sang “Clavelitos,” crying “Olé!” and flinging carnations at the audience in Carnegie Hall. For her encore, she had the carnations collected—and then pelted the crowd again. “Olé!” they roared back. Her friends cheered, hoping to drown out the screams of hilarity and derision.

Born in 1868 to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Jenkins had been a talented child pianist. She eloped with, then separated from, a man from whom she contracted syphilis, transforming herself into a working woman who supported herself with piano lessons; an heiress; and a socialite, arts patron, and founder of the musical Verdi Club. By 1944, she may or may not have known that her invitation-only recitals and vanity recordings of operatic arias had attracted a cult following. “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing,” Jenkins famously (maybe apocryphally) said.

But soon after reading the New York Post’s damning assessment of her Carnegie Hall debut (“she can sing anything but notes”), Jenkins suffered a heart attack and, within weeks, died. Today, her notoriety endures in five plays and three films, including a new Meryl Streep movie, and in a tradition of private entertainments reminiscent of Jenkins’s own soirees: at midcentury critic and photographer Carl van Vechten’s parties, “Often the evenings were spent innocently, writhing on the floor in laughter at Florence Foster Jenkins.” Streep first heard her at a theater students’ gathering. Even I heard first Jenkins’s “Queen of the Night” over digestifs at a New York dinner party. Read More »

A New Machine

September 19, 2016 | by

Don Buchla with one of his instruments.

Don Buchla invented some of the first electronic instruments—not synthesizers, he insisted, but electronic instruments. To him, the word synthesizer implied some attempt at emulation, as if these new machines could do nothing more than imitate preexisting sounds. Buchla believed that his inventions offered an aural palette every bit as distinct as a trumpet’s or a clarinet’s. It was only marketing that made listeners hear something derivative in them.

An instrument has to exist long before performance techniques can be developed and a repertoire arises,” he told Keyboard Magazine in the eighties, explaining why there are so few new sounds in the world:

Because of this, the market for the instrument doesn’t exist for many years after the R&D that goes into developing a truly new instrument. With short-term profits a primary motive, the big corporations are simply not interested … When you open up those other possibilities, you'll alienate the people who are coming from a rock-band orientation and want instant gratification. They don’t want to have to figure out some other relationship between their actions and the instrument’s response. Read More »