The Trouble with Trebles

By S.E. Barcus

10-25-2020

I was on the Facebook Composers Group recently, and got into an interesting discussion about staves and clefs and whether or not they could/should be improved upon. 

Hossein Bar proposed we have one clef, the treble clef, for both hands at the piano, for easier learning, and gave this as an example.

I was amazed at the hundred or so comments so vehemently against the idea!  Most talked about how easy it was to learn two clefs, so why bother.  Many just loved the symmetry of the grand staff, with middle C between both staves.  One smart-aleck, Dan Titchener, posted a quite funny YouTube video:

“English would be easier if all vowel sounds were consistent (https://youtu.be/A8zWWp0akUU) but I wouldn’t speak like that, because no one would understand you and it sounds hilarious….”

Now I figured, judging by such a passionate attack on the idea, Hossein was probably on to something.  (I especially loved the violist’s complaint that we should all learn each other’s clefs — said the musician who makes everyone else learn their weirdo alto/viola/C clef!)  Making things more standard, simplifying things – that all seemed like a fair, good, interesting idea. The pound did become the kilogram, and the yard, the meter, after all (in some places…).

Unfortunately, it is, to Dan Titchener’s point, likely impossible to change a language that is so enculturated already, and that is found useful enough by most.  Although — Titchener’s analogy was off – Hossein was not saying the old music keep the dots in the same place and change the pitch.  He proposed standardizing how it is written.  (And as an aside — I’d love it if English standardized the way it was written….  I mean — “through”, “threw”, “thru”… good grief. Poor English-as-second-language adults, who have to learn these vestigial anachronisms!)  In other words, because speaking and singing are the primal first forms of expressing our ideas and feelings (well, ok, gestures probably came before or coincided with these…); and because the written word and musical notes followed much farther along, are much newer, and are not nearly as natural and thus much more prone to error (there are always problems trying to represent what is naturally spoken or sung into some tangible visual thing); then we need to keep the SOUNDS of language and music as they are.  As they are naturally, innately produced by us.  And we should never propose — nor stay so irrationally adhered to — a conformity to any flawed system that is not successfully captururing/representing those sounds.  Which could look like some 1984 New Speak nightmare, forcing our natural expressions into grotesque shapes. The proposed innovation of Hossein, then, does not suggest we mangle the spoken word — or the sounds of music — to fit some Procrustean alphabet or clef, respectively. I think it attempts, instead, to try to create a whole new bed that perhaps fits more and more people sensibly and comfortably into it, people of any/all sizes and abilities, etc….  (All that said, though — the video was frrrreaking HILARIOUS. Really genius….)

Because it is so enculturated, I think Hossein will have to form a cult, a following, and then get lucky and have a great composer write in his proposed manner, and maybe then in a 100 years it will challenge the status quo of the bass and treble clefs.  I still say we should keep challenging our assumptions, however, and appreciate Hossein’s proposal for this reason alone!  I’m sure Romans thought their number-writing system was SOOOOOO much better than that Hindu-Arabic numerical stuff!

The passionate (and at times nasty) criticisms were mainly based on: 1) the futility of overcoming the current system, probably true, see above.  2) The difficulty adapting hundreds of years of music into a new system — although come on, with digital technology we can re-write old music into a new system quickly, just as we can read ancient hieroglyphs today, and have changed Galileo’s original Renaissance units to metric units etc.   Alexandre Kharlamov had the point that, “Technically, Bach used soprano, alto, tenor and bass clefs everywhere, and 3-4 staves for well-tempered clavier. We already reduced it to two-clefs two-staves system for keyboard works and choir reduction. So, it’d be unfair to say that there’s not been any improvement going on lately.”  Which seems a great point.  So perhaps evolution shall continue….

Criticism #3 — people think the current way is already “easy”.  But this is a biased opinion based on what they already know.  Yes, of course, we can all learn two clefs at age 5.  Yes, “All Cows…”, and “Every Good Boy…”, seem to work well enough, and most (pianists, anyway) have now “learned” to play fairly well by sight-reading using this understanding….

But what would be interesting is to get some cognitive scientist, a Jean Piaget child epistemologist type, and have 2 groups of kids –(heck, do it with new-learner adults, too, since we learn language differently when we are young and old) — and have them learn in the two different manners, and see which group learns quicker….  Power it well, lots of people, to avoid bias and for the lazy folks here and there in both groups etc….  If Hossein’s method is objectively shown to bring the joy of learning and playing music to more and more people??? I’m all for it… I’d be willing to re-learn how to read music in a new way, if it brings more people to music.  Written music shouldn’t be some Latin language we keep to our priestly selves, this should be for everyone….

Criticism #4 centered around defense of the current system as “more elegant”, and a system that has already naturally evolved to simplify things.  Yes, the symmetry of the Grand Old Lady Staff (gosh — such a moniker!) looks nice rounded around middle C.  Charles Burns told me:  “The thing about a bass and treble clef working together as a grand staff, is that they “meet up in the middle”. It forms one consistent logic from top to bottom, with a single C ledger line in the middle. When a composer needs to, they use different clefs in either the top or the bottom. But I’ve yet to see a compelling case for changing the default. Honestly, once you get used to it, it’s a pretty easy system to deal with. But hey, if you’re a composer and want to write with a treble and a tenor clef. Go right ahead. I’d imagine you’d get a lot of complaints from your pianists though….  And arguing that the note names should be the same for both staves is just as much an aesthetic argument and the logic of having a grand staff centered around middle C symmetrically though, isn’t it?  I mean, C4 just isn’t the same thing as C2. Octave equivalence is an aesthetic choice. And not one that all composers follow….”

Arguments that I just loved!  (In case you haven’t noticed – the “Composers” group on Facebook is pretty intellectual!  I love it!  You can spend a few hours there debating interesting and thoughtful people, and come out with an article for your blog at the end!  “Leverage” all your social media time, people!)

To Charles, I said, yes, it was indeed partly an aesthetic argument — but also an epistemological one.   Shouldn’t we be curious as to whether or not we might be able to make music truly easier to learn, and easier to play, with some new method?  If we could prove that — with the cognitive science experiment, above — what would each of us do with this knowledge, with this evidence?  Honestly?  Probably nothing, at least in our lifetimes, given America still does not use the metric system….

But who cares!  I’m gonna play the game, too, anyway!! Here is my own modification of Hossein’s single clef idea, so as to keep the “satisfying middle C”, and all just by adding a sixth line (AH! A SIXTH LINE?!  IT’S CHANGING EVEN MORE!  MY BRAIN CAN’T HANDLE IT!!!!)  I call it, “The New Trebles”.

New Trebles Clefs

You’ll note that each one encompasses 2 octaves, so there would only be 4 staves needed total (the lowest one would have notes that do not exist on the piano at the lower range — but are useful if you are dealing with electronic music that has no limits etc). Signify each clef with numbers 1 to 4, and you have the whole piano keyboard.  So, a C major scale would look like this:

C major scale on the New Trebles Clefs, through middle C

ORRRRRR……….

How’s about a clef that NEVER NEEDS ACCIDENTALS??!?  (WHAT?!?!?)  A “whole tone clef” aka “augmented clef” aka “12-tone clef” or something?!?!? Every line and space is a half-tone? It, too, can have a “satisfying middle C”.  And each staff would be EXACTLY one octave!

12-Tone Clefs

Now this is aesthetically satisfying. (I see why Schoenberg became entranced by this stuff like some numerologist or something!)  I used “12” for “12-tone clef”.  You’d have 7 octaves so 7 staves.  So, a C major scale, with middle C in the middle of the example, would look like this:

C major scale on the 12-Tone Clefs, through middle C

Now unfortunately, I just wrote out the beginning of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major K. 545, and … it looks ridiculous.  Notes are stretched out way too far apart, and you’d need 4 staves to play the piano.   This method is becoming something more akin to a piano version of guitar tablature….

But maybe the New Trebles will work out?  I’ll scratch out the Mozart and see how it looks and get back to you….

So … that’s it.  Wasn’t that fun?!  How about you share any new staves or clefs you dream up!  I promise I’ll go all OCD on ya and give you feedback!

See ya.

Copyright S.E. Barcus

Check in with S.E. Barcus on Facebook and YouTube, or email them at barcusse@gmail.com.

The Trouble with Trebles

Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.

Ms. Wang, preparing to take her classic whip-bow.

LA Philharmonic brings back the piano prima donna.

By S.E. Barcus

Perhaps you do not know who “Yuja Wang” is…?  Well, judging by her commanding performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall February 18, 2020, in Los Angeles, along with her confident demeanor and skyrocketing fame over the past decade … I really do not believe that she gives a shit.

As we minions gathered within the sultry wooded panels of Frank Gehry’s beautiful hall, awaiting our Beijing-born diva, I glanced at the program.  Ah, a sensible, linear progression of piano history tonight, from Baroque to mid-19th century, then to a mélange of 20th century pieces to fill the 2nd half of the night.  Nice and reasonable.  Except for that one little issue that Ms. Wang gonna do what Ms. Wang gonna do.

She entered, adorned with one of her usual eye-catching dresses, some goldish sequinned thing, and after one of her “I-acknowledge-that-you-exist”-quick, whipping bows, she sat down, alone on the stark stage, just her and the beautiful Steinway — and we were off!  She started orderly enough, with the 1st piece on the program, a delicate delicate DELICATE little Baldassare Galuppi piece, the Andante from his Sonata No. 5.  With hindsight, it seems tenderness would bookend this night.  If you’re foolish enough to think that Ms. Wang is just all flash and virtuosity, she demonstrated that she can also equal anyone in terms of gentleness, such as with this quiet, precise little piece.

But then, oh dear, the program immediately goes out the window.  As the crashing waves of the second piece — Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic “A Ship on the Ocean” (“Une barque sur l’océan”) — came flooding in, we realized … uh … this ain’t no Bach.  We hath leap-frogged over the Intermission and 19th century entirely!  Wang’s gone rogue!  Wang’s gone rogue!

Now Beethoven might have sneered at this “programmatic” sort of piece by Ravel, but this one is just fabulous.  If you didn’t know the title, you would likely name it the exact same thing, as tumultuous seas interplay with gentle calm waters.  A genius display in terms of showing off what one piano and one performer can produce.  Following was Alban Berg’s “sort-of B minor” atonal Sonata Op. 1 (the only piano piece to which he gave an opus number), where she and Berg manifested as much emotion and technical skill as anything the tonal world ever gave us, just as rocking at times as the Ravel, and just as tender at others as the Galuppi.

Ah! We then returned to Baroque, and J.S. Bach’s C minor Toccata and Fugue.  Simple and clear, like the Galuppi, with a fun and accessible fugue that had none of the monstrous complexities found in later Bach (or Beethoven!).  If only Ms. Wang knew how to play that big opulent organ staring at us in the back part of this concert hall!

But then (a whiplash-inducing back-and-forth!), we were yanked back to the 20th century again – to Scriabin and his Sonata No. 4, with his own back-and-forth between soft and crazed.  Amazingly – (is it just me?)  — somehow this Russian piece at times presages by decades a nascent Gershwin in tonality and style.  She ended the piece pronto / tout de suite / bing-bang-boom.  Did she just completely ignore those last few rests at the end!?   Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.  And neither did we.  That ending produced spontaneous — practically reflexive — rousing applause to end the first half of the night, as a great performer knows how to do.

If the second half of the night had kept with the program of early 20th century music, I had hoped that – given her M.O. – she might come out adorned in some extraordinarily bizarre costume reminiscent of the Bauhaus Ballet, which was concurrently on exhibit at the Disney Hall, the display designed by Frank Gehry.  But no, her costume change (and with the consciously performative Ms. Wang, that’s what these have become – “costume changes”), was into some crisp white skimpy 80’s dress.  “Stripper-wear,” one previous article has called her attire, shaming classical artists the way they tried to shame the Madonnas of pop culture decades ago.  Perhaps she provokes like this to create a David-Bowie-like aura, a product, a “performer-package”?  Perhaps she does it to sell tickets?  Perhaps she is like some cultural “nouveau riche” — a person raised in a repressive Communist China who woke up a global citizen, with fame and fortune? … Who knows?  But I believe that if Ms. Wang didn’t want to wear sexy clothes, she wouldn’t.  Or, to put it another way, I don’t think she gives a shit.  Because, meanwhile, her audaciousness and coolness are only matched by her being one of the greatest pianists in the world right now, likely the top of her generation.  I mean, my God – look at this ridiculously hipster cool promo?!  Just look at it, and be dismayed!

Ms. Wang don’t care if the building is burning.

In the second half of the night, Ms. Wang started with a few Chopin Mazurkas sandwiched between a few Brahms Intermezzos (or perhaps that’s the other way around?), luxuriously transporting us back to a French salon.   No strangeness of the modern age, no strict Baroque rules.  Just lounging with a couple of mid-19th century masters for a bit.  Perhaps, like me, you saw from the program that we would hear — and be able to compare/contrast — the composers similarly-styled short pieces back-to-back in the same keys.  There would be two A minor pieces, one from each composer.  And then two C# Minor.  And two F major.  (And a C major/E relative minor thrown in for good measure….)   But like the rest of the night, the program turned out to be misleading.  The A minor Brahms Intermezzo was not played at all, as she started right in with the trill and passionate melancholy of the A minor Mazurka instead, followed by the very Chopinesque Brahms Intermezzo in E Minor.  Followed by — just to throw you off again — the C-sharp Mazurka and C-sharp Intermezzo, just as programmed!

She asked that we not applaud between the pieces, but instead take them all in as a whole (like listening to Ms. Wang’s own personal ordering of a book of … I dunno …  Wang/Brahms/Chopin Preludes, or something…?).  For myself, though, it was very hard to not applaud that C-sharp minor Intermezzo, which seemed the most moving piece of this group, at least for me, filled as it was with such an operatic-like pathos.  The last Chopin piece was a pleasant dance, with its nice “surprise” bouncy ending.  Was it the F major as planned?  Of course not.  It was a piece not in the program at all — Op 33 No 4 in B minor.  Completely off script!  I love it!  It was as if Ms. Wang was saying, “if you, the peons in the audience, want to appreciate my work and art, you have to earn it.  You, too, have to work for it.”  (Yes, I had to look up what the piece was – come on, I don’t know all these Mazurkas by heart!)  I think Ms. Wang must have learned a lesson or two after playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.  “What is difficult is also good and beautiful.”  For composer, performer, and audience.

I’m not sure it was intentional, but Ms. Wang-as-musical-curator prepared us nicely for the 20th century piece to come….  To have a B minor piece slide into the F major Brahms finale for the section (the gallant and promenading Romance) was creating an augmented 4th tonality.  A tritone.  A “Devil in music,” if you will.  And something loved by Scriabin, and so a perfect tonal-modulation to ready us for her penultimate piece of the night.

She took a quick break, then came back, and – no terse polite bow this time – she practically stormed out – sat down – and immediately attacked the low rumbling fortissimo trill to start Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, even as a few people were still mid-clap!  She was acting, of course – doing performance art, essentially.  She was the arrogant and egomaniacal Scriabin himself, like a method-actor getting into character.  And it worked.  She played the piece perfectly as far as I could tell, angrily pounding out the difficult Rachmaninoff-like chords, careening into the ending with arms outstretched on both sides of the keyboard like a goddam fireworks spectacle!  The audience, needless to say, went absolutely freaking nuts.

BUT!  She was not done.  Finally – at the very end – the most under-appreciated impressionist of them all, the brilliant Catalan composer, Federico Mompou, and his Secreto!  Lullabies are odd.  We know they should be happy and loving, yet they are always grounded by a melancholy.  Ms. Wang’s performance of the Mompou piece had this quality.  Somewhere between that and a sort-of mysticism, and a range in dynamics from p to pp to ppp and hell, I’m sure there was probably even a pppp in there somewhere.  Like the myth that Inuits have 100 words for snow, it’s like she has 100 levels of pianissimo.  After a night that ranged across styles and across centuries, variegated in skill and emotional levels, to end the program with such a brief and precious little jewel?  Very nice.

Not that she was “really” done.  This was Yuja Wang, who has been known to play more encores than you’d hear at a Bruce Springsteen concert.  (She only gave us two, however – I feel somehow we were not worthy…?)  The first encore was the crazed and phenomenal show-piece, Prokofiev’s Toccata, which is like some Bela Bartok “Diary of a Fly” jacked up on ‘roids.  The piece ended with the biggest bang of the night, bringing down the house.

But then, with the absolute true finale, she returned to the melancholy sweetness of the Galuppi or Mompou, leaving us with her often-played-encore, Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, as rendered by Liszt.  All this softness this evening?  I quite liked it, even though she was sending us off with a cruel joke – “you have to leave now, back to the incessant monotony of your spinning wheels.”

In sum — if you haven’t heard of Yuja Wang, or haven’t heard her play, you are missing out.  If she continues this near-perfect ascent as a pianist, she will gobble up more and more stardom until by the time she has achieved Pavarotti status, you will have missed your chance at being in with the cool kids because you knew her beforehand.  So, come on – be a cool kid!  Get to know Yuja!  She da bomb, yo!

Not that she gives a shit what you think….

Copyright 2-20-2020

Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.

Star Wars Is Dead To Me

What a waste of good talent….

Star Wars Is Dead To Me

By S.E. Barcus

(*SPOILERS!*  Not that you should care — if reading this makes you skip the movie, so much the better.)

“The new Star Wars isn’t just a re-boot this time!”

— Oh yeah?  Luke was exactly like Yoda on Dagobah. He disses Rey at first, then agrees to train her. And Rey leaves, to save someone, before she is ready. And falls into a trap. And Yoda’s ghost appears to Luke, to chill him out, like Obi-wan did with Yoda.  ALL re-do.

— Kylo Ren wants to rule the galaxy with Rey, “like father and son” (or husband and wife?). Rey feels something good in Kylo and tries to turn him, but he’s just a dog, and brings her to his master.  But then during the fight between Rey and the Emperor, Kylo comes around, and saves her, by killing the Emperor.

— The Porgs?  They are both the new Ewoks AND Jar Jar, cuddly AND annoying.

— Crait’s salt planet purposefully looks like Hoth — and the giant armored door, like the Rebel’s Hoth door.  To set up a visual-exact-replica of Empire’s AT-AT battle. (And to give Gareth Edwards a cameo….)

—The shitty George Lucasy dialogue with forced-exposition and platitudes feels like the original trilogy’s writing – as if this was the first ever screenplay written by some NYU undergrad.  Characters like Poe have several whole, complete, un-natural sentences that they scream in the midst of a heated battle, when they should be concentrating on their fighting, in order to tell everyone – mainly the audience – the importance of how high the stakes are raised with this particular battle, or that this is our last chance to drop these particular bombs in that battle, and so on.  Painfully bad.  (When Rose tells Finn we are “not fighting what we hate; (but) saving what we love”, I outwardly groaned.)

— Kylo kills the younglings. … The younglings!!

— All of the above assumes Rey and Kylo are not going to actually end up being revealed as twins. (The big surprising line in the next movie? “No Rey — I — am your brother!”)

— Finn fell to his death — but didn’t!  There was luckily some elevator that saves him out of nowhere.  (There were multitudes of deus ex machinas in this movie; again, a sign of poor writing.)  But then Captain Phasma falls the same way, and DOES die.  So badass “Chromedome” dies an undignified pointless death … just like Boba Fett.

— Oh — Luke and Kylo have a big end-of-the-movie light saber duel, where Kylo might as well have said, “when I left you, I was but the learner.  Now — I — am the master.”

“Oh, but come on, there’s so much that’s NEW!”

— Ok, ok. That light saber duel does end differently — it ends with Luke ripping off the whole Yoda disappearing act?!  What the hell?!  (Don’t ever feel “balance” and “peace” and “oneness” in this universe — cuz when you get to Nirvana, your suffering doesn’t just go away — YOU go away.)  First Han, now Luke.  The only person to leave these reboots with their life is Carrie Fisher’s Leia.  What a pickle.  Two bad options.  They’ll now have to kill off Leia for practical reasons in some dumb car crash or landspeeder crash or some other dumb shit between the films, with a cheap melodramatic Vader-esque funeral pyre to start the next movie.  Or Carrie Fisher is coming back CGI to tell Rey she’s her daughter or some crap, which will be unconscionable.  They could have solved this problem.  Carrie Fisher died a full year ago.  Now they’re boxed in.  Ugh.

— Yes, there’s Luke chugging the blue milk from the tit of a walrus-cow.  Enjoy.  That’s new.  (Or is it?  Isn’t Luke’s milk on Tatooine blue?)

— General Ackbar dies a new, undignified and pointless death.  With no melodramatic fanfare or anything.  He’s just a Zoidberg in the background running back and forth comically across a blown up bridge.  The end.

— Leia turns into Superman or Star Lord.  That was a new thing. … Cheesy, but new.

— Wait – about a quarter of the movie is new!  And it — the whole casino world, Canto Bright – also gives Finn a storyline!  But think about it. It goes NOWEHERE.  It is LITERALLY pointless.  It adds nothing to the overall plot of this movie whatsoever.  Was the whole thing a false lead?  Was it all to set up del Toro as the new Brad-Pitt-Tom-Waits-looking mercenary, the new Han or Jaba?  Was it to force in an Asian character, so that the Benetton-millennials’ P.C. Star Wars can be complete?  (Hey – I’m all about increased diversity in casting and roles, and like that they have a main Asian character – but, alas, my cynicism overtakes me.  Everything this franchise does now smells of, “how do we increase the marketability and profit of the franchise??”)  So … tell me, what was the POINT of this whole sub-plot?!?!  Nothing.  A few cuts to Finn and Rose mopping a floor for 30 minutes of film would have moved the plot forward literally just as much.  You would’ve asked, “what did Finn do again? … Oh yeah … he … mopped the floor or something.”  Oh — and if I have to “get” the point by seeing the next movie…?  That would be like Disney giving me the finger, then telling me, “hey, if you want to know why I gave you that finger, you’ll have to come back tomorrow and give me more money.”

Bottom line:
The new Start Wars, “The Last Jedi”, was really such a shitty mish mash of all the old tropes. The fact that this major of a movie — with all of the incredible writers available in Hollywood, including the writers of this film — couldn’t get a decent script together SMELLS like studio heads forcing in marketing crap.  It’s like they threw $200 million dollars into a big bag and are dragging it around the world, and people are running over to it to throw money at it.  Then they’ll come home, add up their billions, and do it to us all over again.

It’s like the SNL franchise, trying so hard to not offend anyone, and so dumbed down to some USA-Today-4th-grader pop cultural reading level so as to get to a bigger audience, that it is now cornered in to no-risk, uninteresting story solutions.  Thank goodness Alex Garland’s new movie Annihilation comes out soon (speaking of a good ex machina), which will hopefully remove the bitterness from this science fiction backwash.

Ugh. I’m so done with this shit.

Oh.  WAIT!  Ok.  There was ONE really cool thing in the new Star Wars.  The lightspeed kamikaze scene of Laura Dern was super cool — … because it used the silent-space-sound-effect style of the Battlestar GALACTICA TV SERIES!  AAAGGHHHHH!!!!

Copyright December 2017

Star Wars Is Dead To Me

Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” is a French-styled “Total Work of Art”

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Pelléas and Mélisande

The “hero’s welcome” for composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at the opening night performance of the L.A. Philharmonic’s production of Debussy’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” hit with a refreshing coolness of modesty; with an apropos absence of fanfare perfectly suited to the production at hand. Salonen so casually enters while other philharmonic members are still trickling in that one thinks, “huh, I guess that’s not him”.

But then suddenly the lights dim, and we’re off — the invented Narrator speaks abruptly, and when finished, Salonen pops up from between violins and starts conducting without a beat. No grand entrance. No applause or cult worship. Just the music. Just a plea to have us all experience this music together without an “us” and a “them”; without an “orchestra” and a “audience”.

And what music! The sounds of Debussy’s only opera are mostly soothing or melancholy, dominated as they are by strings, winds, and at times French horns (with the rest of the forlorn brass and percussion sections sitting in the dugout except for an occasional spooky cave, and such). No songs/arias, no A-B-A, no verse-chorus-verse, just a flowing river of sound that intermittently and seamlessly includes singers as if they were but more instruments with which to play. Except for the end of Acts 3 and 4, (when sweat finally forms on Salonen’s brow), perhaps it is because of the sweet strings’ dominance through most of the opera that the orchestra’s layout is shifted a bit, with all of the violins downstage, including to the left where the cellos typically are heard.

Like Debussy’s own conflict between pilgrimaging to Bayreuth and wanting out from under Wagner’s shadow, critics over the years have proclaimed the opera’s various interpretations as either too “Wagner-like” versus a resounding “French response to Wagner”. Of these, the L.A. Philharmonic’s production is surely the latter. The music is so full of rich, sublime French Impressionism, uniquely Debussy, undeniably from the same musical mind responsible for “Afternoon of a Fawn” and “Claire de Lune”, with perhaps some motifs here and there more akin to Grieg or Sibelius then to Wagner.

The singing employs the opera’s signature talk/sing style, just a stream of incessant-but-melodious recitatives. Every syllable of speech has its own note, with no braggadocio vowel allowed to upstage another with some bravura “ah-ah-ah” arpeggio.  Here, the music serves and becomes one with the text. (It is arguably, in musicology terms, more respectful and truer to a dramatic text than all other styles of opera.)

All of the singing is masterful and spot-on. Tenor Stéphane Degout sings the child-like innocence of Pelléas wonderfully, while the crisp baritone of Laurent Naouri perfectly matches the sternness of Golaud. Both are quite moving with their strong, mellifluous voices. Singing King Arkel, Sir Willard White perhaps has the most sonorous voice. His bass booms such that the vibrations move your chest as if you are next to a rock concert’s speakers.  Our soprano Mélisande comes to us via Camilla Tilling, and while admittedly hitting all of her notes with a lovely timbre, she is at times too pianissimo to be heard over the orchestra.  Perhaps an ethereal intention?

Although not a “full” opera production, it is surely just as satisfying. With its shuffled staging — a chorus back here, a bell ringing backstage there, or a group of homeless actors lying atop a perch up there — it is impossible to tell where the musicians end and the singer/actors begin. Or indeed where we the audience begin and end, as the singers sit “off-stage”, Brecht-like, within a tier of the audience, visible to all, alongside symbolically-blindfolded mannequins (whose arms are as outstretched and hopeful for light as the yearning Mélisande’s). With how well all of this works, one can’t imagine how some bloated operatic sets would have added a single thing. Which is a big thumbs up for Director David Edwards and Lighting Designer Colon Grenfell. This is not a “semi-staging” at all. The exquisite design fits the unmistakable delicacy of Debussy. Thus, we are surely still experiencing Gesamtkunstwerk (Wagner’s “Total Work of Art”), but in a fine, discreet — dare I say, French — manner, with a minimalism that in actuality perfectly captures the original intentions of the Minimalists in a way playwright/librettist Maurice Maeterlinck might have never gotten away with in his own day!

The minimalism actually heightens the conveyance of the emotions of fear or desire, or of the dramatic actions such as the boy, Yniold, up on Golaud’s shoulders, by using the simplest of gestures. Wounded? Lose the jacket and hold your side. In love? Open your arms and twirl. For “sets”? Each Act has one large representative prop placed on a pedestal down stage left; a sword here, a wig of flowing long hair there. And – that – is – all – we – need. If only contemporary opera would stop constructing decadent Doll Houses and employ this style more often, we might bring in a new audience with the reduced ticket prices….

Scenes end with characters slowly walking upstage, as if spirits, almost butoh-style. But the music almost never stops, instead melding into interlude music between the scenes, but then sliding, without even a sixteenth rest, right back into more singing. This is all very much like enjoying a D.C. go-go band (“and you don’t stop”), you just keep going and going. These interludes are themselves whole separate Debussy pieces that can be enjoyed in their own right. It is amazing to think that these were an afterthought, composed because the Parisian Opéra-Comique of the day, at the opera’s premiere in 1902, couldn’t change the sets as quickly as Debussy and Maeterlinck demanded.

The libretto is nearly straight prose from the play, with some edits. Maeterlinck initially allowed these edits, until a feud over who would sing Mélisande caused him to become as jealous and violent as Golaud himself, due to Debussy’s Pelleas-like falling in love with and taking control over the (Mélisande-like) production. Yes, that historical irony is also the story of the opera, in a nutshell. While the emotions of jealousy and love, of yearning and hopelessness, might be human and eternal, the worldview itself is somewhat foreign with its ancient, sexist representation of women. Thankfully, that is the only element of the production that makes us feel like we are in a “performative museum” rather than experiencing a living art form.

The opera is performed in a concert hall, with the philharmonic itself at center stage. If you’re going just to dress up, or for some spectacle to compete with Der Ring, you don’t understand why this opera survives — Debussy’s music itself (“Total Art”, aside). However, it is admittedly intellectually challenging music to experience. Without an aria’s repeated choruses, and with the music’s emotional, rhythmic, and dynamic ideas literally changing as rapidly as a human conversation, the style demands that you either just jump in and flow along in your inner tube, or be forever perplexed as you wait for some snappy leitmotif to whistle. (About a fifth of Friday’s audience shamefully gave up and left these rarely played sounds at intermission. Alas.)

But these demands are rewarded. Such perfect sounds to match the actions and emotions. The cold somber cave with its low, creepy notes. The sweetness of the strings as Pelléas asks Mélisande to “Give me your hand.” Then quickly again to a stern Golaud with a sharp, tight musical phrase. An amazing achievement in opera, to do this continuously for nearly three hours, like a musical cousin to one of James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness works.

Oh thank goodness this conductor chose this work in 1995 and recreates it for us again! (And –oh! — if only Debussy had lived to complete one of his Edgar Allen Poe operas!) While Salonen begins with a forced modesty that fits the overall inclusive postmodern style of the production, he ends with a well-deserved standing ovation.  Sorry, it is hard not to hero-worship this guy, with his groovy black tunic, his handsomely Finnish James-Bond-villain features, and his palpable desire to get us excited about the music he so obviously loves.

Copyright 2-21-2016

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The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”

Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar!”

The Coen Brothers’ new movie, Hail, Caesar!, shows you the man behind the curtain at a Hollywood studio. 

Set during the 1950’s, the story involves Josh Brolin’s “Everyman”, Eddie Mannix, which is also a fortuitous alliteration. 

The first shot of the film shows Eddie deep in remorse, alone in a Confessional.  He has failed to quit smoking and has lied to his beloved wife about it — he smoked 3 cigarettes that day!  This is at once funny, as we hear the subtext of the Priest’s heavy sigh (“this fellow really needs to give himself a break”) – and yet, Brolin’s earnest crying is heart-wrenching.  One cannot help but love this Eddie, despite his, at times, stern hand (shown in the very next scene).  He is an honest, good man.  Which, by the way, is NOT a comment about the real, historical, Eddie Mannix.

Eddie is a studio head’s right-hand man, a “fixer”, and his task is to oil the gears of Capitol Studios (not so-subtly named).  Which is hard.  This devout Catholic, Eddie, sees that the workers within the studio contain the entire gamut of human “sin” – greed, homosexuality, pregnancy out of wedlock … communism….  And his main job is to make sure the studio itself, like a film, keeps up its illusion of glamour and purity.  He is The Director and Writer of the studio itself, for the gossip columnists and the public.   He is protective, wheeling and dealing to protect the employees, and never judging (“let him who is without sin…”), except when they are disloyal to the one True Cause – making movies.  In one scene, in his own modest “Father Knows Best” kitchen, he asks his wife for advice at choosing between his current job and an offer of an easier, higher-paying job.  His wife literally says, “you know best” – a TV-sitcom clue that Eddie is the metaphorical father to all of these misfits of Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, a competing capitalist industry of the 1950’s tempts Eddie to work for them.  And what do they produce, exactly? The Lockheed recruiter gleams and brags, “the H-bomb”. (“Armageddon,” notes our religious protagonist instantly.)   What about the ideological competition of the world — the Communists?  These are portrayed as coffee-house liberals living in luxury, talking about philosophy and economics, but not actually working at all.  (A bit of a cruel joke by the Coen Brothers…).  It seems the Coen Brothers see artists as trying to do something good, despite living in an irrational world.  Making art, is “the right thing” in Hail, Caesar!, similar in theme to the Italian’s current response to terrorism – giving youth money to spend on Art and Culture. 

Hollywood should not be completely flattered, however.   Could there possibly have been a message in the fact that actors seem so easily malleable, duped by the latest fad?  Or that the writers all seem to be bitter and smug?  Yet, this goes along with the Christian theme of “sin”.  No one is perfect (ok, except for maybe the real-life Lone Ranger, Hobie Doyle, played with boyish-charm perfection by Alden Ehrenreich).  These are fallible people.  But in scene after scene, all we see are people who are working, and working hard.  The work is palpable.  From the extras on the Roman set, hanging and literally suffering on the cross, waiting patiently all day for their lunch break, to the guys hauling plastic trees on and off the set, to the exasperated directors, to the lawyers, to the editors holed up smoking in their dark caves — this place is WORKING.  And with every pan over the mega-studio’s seemingly infinite number of warehouses/soundstages, one realizes that this is a factory as immense as anything the Lockheeds of the world can flaunt.  Hollywood, too, is a major industry, the Entertainment Industrial Complex shown in all its glory. 

Cinematically, Hail, Caesar! is just so much beautiful eye-candy, typical of the Coen Brothers.  Many scenes are homages to various genres — from spy thrillers with enemy submarines to film noir with a shady detective and femme fatale.  There are whole scenes dedicated to movies-within-the-movie, likely the most expensive and arduous scenes to produce, such as the over-the-top western, kaleidoscopic water dance, and the musical number (where the quite-talented Channing Tatum gets one of the bigger laughs of the film).  The Coen Brothers put their money — the film’s budget — where their mouth was — the theme that movies are freaking expensive and a lot of hard work, just for your pleasure, buddy! 

And what to make of the main movie-within-the-movie, Hail, Caesar!, a movie about Faith, which involves a cocky Roman, played by superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who meets Jesus and immediately feels compelled to kneel humbly before Him.  Filming the climactic scene, Baird actually moves everyone on the set; they pause briefly in a spiritual moment.  But — he forgets the last line (ironically the word “faith”), curses “Goddamit!”, and dispels the illusion instantly, and people continue their secular work without a beat.  Just as we do when the lights come up.

There is a scene with Eddie, sitting in a screening room watching a rough edit of the opening for Hail, Caesar!, and right after the opening title appears, we cut back to Eddie, watching the rough cut.   Eddie is the star.  Eddie is Caesar.  Eddie is not the studio head (who is the appropriately named fat-cat, Mr. Skank).  He’s just a guy who works his ass off and isn’t worth a whole lot of money himself.  He represents the real heroes of the movie industry.  And by the end of the film, we have just shared in a very sweet love letter, thanking all of the people who work so hard to make us movies — or any Art, really — in this chaotic, horrible world. 

Yes, Hail Caesar.

 

Copyright 2-6-16

The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”