The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘music’

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 »

All Hail the Refrigerator, and Other News

August 23, 2016 | by

View of Brent Birnbaum’s “Voyeur Voyager Forager Forester,” 2016, Denny Gallery, New York.

  • Writers generally hate to get on in years, because they’re soulless cowards who fear death. (I say this with authority, even at age thirty.) One good thing about getting older, though, is that you can sell your papers—you know, all that junk that records your “process.” Phillip Lopate was looking forward to cleaning house, but the process, he discovered, was more injurious than it seemed from afar: “For years I had been hearing of people selling their papers, and often these writers were, in my humble judgment, no better practitioners of the literary art than I—indeed, in some cases, inferior! How did they do it? … In due course I was approached by a bookseller who handled such transactions, which suddenly made it a concrete, attractive possibility. He contacted the New York Public Library, a logical place for my papers, given my lifelong involvement with the city of my birth, and two representatives from that estimable institution came to my house to examine the lot … In preparation for the librarians’ visit, I had laid out letters, manuscripts, and diaries on the kitchen table and in boxes all about the room. I tried to steer these two examiners, a man and woman, to what I thought might be juicy bits, but their blank emotionless faces (so like those of funders or oncologists, who don’t want to get your hopes up) gave away nothing, and after two hours of idly sifting through the records of a lifetime’s labor, they departed.” 

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Lou and His Dream-making Machine

August 22, 2016 | by

Pearlman, center, with the finalists from O-Town.

Lou Pearlman, the slippery impresario behind the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, O-Town, LFO, Aaron Carter, and about a half dozen other agreeably vacuous late nineties pop acts, has died in prison. Yes, the Lou Pearlman. The guy practically invented boy bands. I mean, he didn’t—he just ripped off New Kids on the Block—but he invented the most lucrative boy bands, and as he’d be the first to tell you, that’s the more major achievement. You couldn’t turn around in 1999 without seeing one of his acts: massively telegenic, deeply ordinary, somehow memorable. They had branded lip balms, bobbleheads, and throw pillows for sale. I know this because I spent a lot of time hating them. Read More »

Tap It Out

August 17, 2016 | by

The nonlogic of Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down.

Photo: Hayim Heron.

Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down. Photo: Hayim Heron.

Remember Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia in the movie Big, jumping around a supersize electronic keyboard on the showroom floor in FAO Schwarz? There’s a moment in Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down, just performed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance, that brings this to mind. Seven dancers line up on a keyboard comprising triggerboards all in a row. Triggerboards are, more or less, the uniting principle of ETM: Double Down. They’re musical tiles, perhaps a couple of feet square: both an instrument and a dance floor. Tapping on them with the foot produces notes, or other kinds of sounds, through a computer. During the course of the evening, the sounds and sequences produced by tap dancers on triggerboards are sometimes looped and played back, becoming canons or echoes, overlaying new, “live” sounds. Read More »

Oops, and Other News

August 17, 2016 | by

This is what happens when you touch the art.

  • Guess what, people? Your garden-variety, Norman Mailer­–style, chest-thumping, self-aggrandizing narcissist is obsolete. This is the twenty-first century, and we have newer, more sophisticated, and more popular models for self-love. Kristin Dombek writes, “The narcissist is, according to the Internet, empty. Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it ‘selfiness,’ this simulacrum of a superpowered self.”
  • Say you’re in this band—let’s call it, say Metallica—and you release four earth-shatteringly seminal thrash-metal albums in the late eighties. And then you start to suck. And you persist in sucking. For decades. This is not, by ordinary standards, a sound business strategy—but what if, as Drew Millard suggests, Metallica is playing a very long game, profiting from toying with its fans’ emotions? “I get the sense that Metallica fans wouldn’t view the band’s early material with such reverence if the band hadn’t started systematically alienating the people who got them to the top. When it comes to fandom at least, hate is a far stronger emotion than love, and it seems like the further Metallica has drifted from its roots, the more incredulous the world has become that this group of sell-outs and lame-os could have once made such perfect, untouchable music. This relationship works in reverse as well: if the first four Metallica albums hadn’t been so great, it wouldn’t be so fun to hate on every move the band has made since then.”
  • You’re not supposed to touch things in museums, which means it’s very fun to touch them. A rash of recent accidents—a kind of museum crime blotter, if you will—makes the allure of touching very apparent. There’s the guy “who wanted to take a photo of himself with a sculpture in the foreground and a painting in the background. The visitor could not frame the photo to his liking, so he wrapped his arms around the abstract sculpture, which was the size of a person, and turned it on its pedestal to get the best angle.” Or the boy who “smashed a giant Lego sculpture of Nick from Zootopia at an expo in Ningbo, China. The artist had spent days piecing it together, reports said.”
  • Governments have attempted to neuter the appeal of cigarettes by doing away with their branding, insisting on generic packages in place of subtle marketing. But this misplaces some of the allure of addiction, as Rob Horning writes: “It seems more plausible that addiction generates its own rationalizations, its own myths, its own ideology. We need to experience a physical grounding for our ideological beliefs, and we need to have ideological excuses for our physical addictions, so they tend to work in tandem, symbiotically … Brands can seem like a way to add a phony value to an otherwise undifferentiated commodity. But they also mark the entry point for consumers into some vicarious fantasy, some idea tangential to consumption. The potential value of a brand rests in the conflation of compulsion and the desire to believe. It must make you feel as though you are choosing and also have no choice.”
  • Today in fiction as prognostication: Did Daphne du Maurier’s 1972 novel, Rule Britannia, predict Brexit? “In Du Maurier’s imagined referendum the government has ‘backtracked’ on its original support for the Common Market and now opposes British membership. If this contrasts with the Conservative government’s support for the Remain campaign this year, the book still has clear parallels with political events, according to Professor Helen Taylor, of Exeter University. She cites one section of the novel, in which the prime minister bemoans the political and financial repercussions of the leave vote, saying it ‘brought great economic difficulties, as I feared would be the case and as I warned you at the time, and our political autonomy and military supremacy were also endangered.’ ”