Composer John Adams Conducts his Coming-Coup-Collage for the Seattle Symphony
By S.E. Barcus
“Don’t know what it is, Adams’ interest in private eyes, but there are two pieces on the program tonight that reference them. These films about a gritty anti-hero, trying to solve a crime, but also doing anything it takes to solve that crime. You hear that sense of threat in the piece; a very unsettling sort of mood….”
–Dr. Anne Searcy in the pre-concert lecture.
Ah! Going back to live performances, an acceptable risk for myself (with everyone vaccinated and masked, anyway!). One sits and relaxes, listening once more to the crazed chaotic cacophonic tone cluster of the artists practicing and tuning simultaneously, playing that universal “opening piece” of any symphony (or of Sgt. Pepper’s, thank you George Martin…). Then out comes concertmaster Noah Geller, an excellent violinist (and a very tall fellow, with an aura of some kind of jovial, good-looking Hogarth, bringing an aura of friendliness to the Seattle Symphony, such as when he fist-bumped the pianist, Jeremy Denk, tonight in the Devil piece…).
Then quiet. Then out comes John Adams himself, guest conductor of his own works tonight, with his stark white hair, thin stature, reminiscent of the Jeff-Bezos-like villain in the recent movie, Don’t Look Up (although with a normal voice). Much deserved applause was given for this American icon.
He came here, during this plague, with looming precarious national elections, to Seattle. What would he choose to conduct; what would tie tonight’s program together? Surely, he knew he was coming on January 6, the first anniversary of the fascist insurrection that attempted to overthrow our democratic government, a trial run by the American brown shirts/red caps? Why did he choose — besides the ubiquitous crowd-pleasing opener of Fast Machine, and the new-ish devilish piano concerto he’s still promoting — why did he choose to highlight City Noir, of ALL the countless wonderful pieces he has composed over his long, eclectic, and amazing career? I believe the two quotes, at the top and bottom of this article, answer that question. And with a name like “John Adams,” after all, it is no wonder he seems to be a (true) patriot.
And also no wonder that he was born and raised in New England. His parents were musicians, and his father knew Charles Ives, after all (or so his earlier piece claims!). He was forced to study and adhere to 12-tone serialism like everyone else in his generation, but after graduation, he blew his mind out in a book — John Cage’s, Silence, to be exact, and moved to California to join forces with the minimalists.
Adams is often not afraid to give evocative titles that embrace programme music, never hiding what his own feelings and intentions are, as so many Derrida-dada-dada postmodernists often did/do, concealing their own works’ intentions with curtains of “it means whatever you want it to mean” bullshit (if their works “meant” anything to them, at all!). Adams is a purposeful and transparent Artist, which I admire.
In California, he helped bring us the style of “post-minimalism”, sharing the postmodernist idea of pastiche, pouring into the rhythmic, driving blender of his own “minimalism” whatever was appropriate, whether older Romanticism forms or jazz music. And also, all with that postmodernist “kitsch” sensibility, seen perhaps more often in the Art and Theater realms. John Adams shares that playful sensibility that California has often so wonderfully given our world, from Henry Cowell to John Cage to Frank Zappa … to John Adams.
Great way to start any concert. A spicy musical appetizer, gets the juices flowing. A “thrilling … white knuckle ride”, as Adams has described it.
The piece starts with a fast pulse from the simplest instrument in the orchestra, the woodblock, which never stops until the end. Not sure who you were, oh dearest woodblocker in the back (either Michael Werner or Matthew Decker, I presume, from the program’s listing of percussion players), but I wish you could’ve been up front and center, like a soloist, beating away on it for us like a Will Ferrell, belly hanging out, dancing and beating away on that little block with joyous sexy confidence! … Guess what?! I got a fever … and the only prescription … is more woodblock!
Then come whirling strings, pulsating horns like the horns from Whoville – “fanfare” indeed! The flutes and piccolos have a very hard screeching section right there in the beginning (likely trying to convey the slipping and sliding on the road?). As Dr. Searcy told us in the pre-talk, give those musicians in particular a break, that’s a pretty difficult-almost-impossible section! Beethoven himself couldn’t have been meaner to a group of instrumentalists, demanding such notes!
The music abruptly “changes gears” throughout. Fast Machine is a fun drive, a Ferrari through Beverly Hills, sharp high-speed turns, at times slowing down to take in a view, beautiful interludes of natural California landscapes or ocean fronts. (Disneyland Los Angeles should have a special event where they let you ride the Americana Cars ride with this piece playing. That would be awesome. Maybe a fieldtrip one day for the LA Phil?)
Per Dr. Searcy’s opening lecture, this piece was one of the first pieces ever to use the minimalist technique of incessant repetition to represent machines — a match made in heaven, and something that was done many times since. And it is quite breathless! (Ah! “Breathless” – like the film!? Perhaps that’s how we can fit this into our “noir” theme for the night!) It is perfectly the programme music of a fast car weaving in and out of high-speed traffic, always nearly skidding out of control…. Fun, yes, but also definitely music that was written by someone who was surely thinking, “I seriously might die tonight.”
The quote, taken from Martin Luther, bemoans that bad guys seem to have all the fun. And the answer to the question, based on the composition, is “yes”.
I loved the energy of the pianist, Jeremy Denk, as he skipped out in the beginning, as excited as a little kid. Throughout the piece he’s bobbing and jiving while he plays, occasionally looking out to the audience with some Liberace-like subtle smile, periodically tapping his tablet to turn the page, like a jazz drummer smacking a cymbal. Really wonderful performance. Dreamy where needed, ferocious when called for. (I guess he trained at Oberlin and Juilliard and has a memoir coming out about studying the piano, “Every Good Boy Does Fine”. I’m looking forward to that!)
I also loved this concerto. And how the symphony only gradually, progressively takes over the piano solo of the beginning. John Adams’ other two concertos are somewhat more traditional going back-and-forth between the piano and orchestra, but not this piece. The piano never really stops. I don’t know if Adams gave the writer of Seattle Symphony‘s program notes, Christopher DeLaurenti, this quote, or if DeLaurenti wrote it himself, but it encapsulates this piano concerto quite adroitly:
“Inverting the old adage ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’, the pianist plays continuously, with only a few measures of rest throughout the piece”.
In the first movement — in typical kitschy pastichey John Adamsy postmodern fashion — he also references TV music. The main musical motif driving the piece, from the beginning and throughout, is a variation on the theme from Peter Gunn, by Henry Mancini. Here’s that noir theme for the night coming in again, if we choose to see it.
The quieter second movement is creepily meandering, but at times sweeter, perhaps more melancholic. Spooky, like walking through a dark cave, or an abandoned dusty (haunted?) house. Perhaps this sojourn was Jesus in the desert with the devil?
Dr. Searcy noted that the 3rd movement’s dance-like rhythm harkens back to the many bouncy rhythmic pieces of the 19th century that referred to the devil, most famously to the 5th movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath…. Also, harrowing bells abound in the 3rd movement – inverted church bells — another trope of the 19th century for demons. And filled with tritones, “the devil’s interval”. Everything creates the scene – from the cello and bass players periodically slapping their strings like the whip of a devil, to the dark farting-burbling-laughing of the trombone (a seeming necessity for any comical devilish piece).
Also, the third movement has just an awesome electric bass guitar riff. Absolutely funky. Again, not sure of the guy’s name in the back who was playing (come on, program, give us the names!), but he was bobbing and jiving back-and-forth just like Denk. At times, they were in sync with each other, very groovy, digging it. Like the woodblocker, I wish he was front and center. (I hate the rigidity of the, I dunno, “Rimsky-rules for orchestration”. All these soloists are always hidden in the back where we can’t see them!)
By the end, for myself, similar to Adams’ two other piano concertos, I felt like the piano really seemed more like a percussion instrument. Mostly blocked chords or broken up blocks as arpeggios. Not sure what to make of that, but it’s somewhat distinctive for Adams’ piano concertos at this point.
This is considered a symphonic piece, but really it’s a saxophone/trumpet/vibraphone triple concerto. Should probably throw in the jazz drums, too. Timothy McAllister, at least, gets props for his saxophone work in the program. Presumably it was David Gordon on trumpet, but again, the program doesn’t say specifically. And the vibraphone? Or the amazingly groovy jazz drummer? Michael Werner or Matthew Decker, we presume, as (again) the program doesn’t specify. (Isn’t that a shame?)
As Adams says, the music of City Noir recreates the feeling of the noir films, but also of the 1950’s — and there we get the imbuement of jazz entering into the symphony. Gershwin did it perhaps most famously. But Adams’ jazz is of the more recent era – the jazz of the 1950s, of Charlie Parker on sax and Miles Davis on trumpet. McAllister comes right out of the gate with that fast-paced bebop virtuosity. Just wonderful.
This is cinema-inspired programme music, with not very many repeats, just a constant wandering between movie styles and feelings and, again, “tropes”. You will get the déjà vu feeling you are in a movie theater, at times, watching many different films, thinking you are recalling snippets of many different composers’ scores. Halfway through the first movement, there is a definite resemblance to John William’s “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter, for me, at any rate. But then, off in another new direction, perhaps filled with shadows and smoke and dark alleys, or to a Hitchcock film, but then quick cuts to a sultry, sexy femme fatale, shimmering like the glass art of Chihuly that hangs in the Seattle Symphony’s lobby. And even at times, a mysteriousness and creepiness enter, almost Ligeti-like-atmospheres, textural style. But then back to the jazz, with the groovy drum beats and snares, and saxophonist McAllister standing back up to play and jerk around abruptly, off-rhythmically — soulful but frenetic sounds, like we’re in a night club, somehow.
The third movement, Boulevard Night, starts out slower, with a sexy Miles Davis/Chet Baker sounding trumpet. There’s a stillness, a Nighthawks at the Diner feel. Then the sax galloping in again, eventually evolving into what makes for a nice bookend for the night as the music speeds up on these streets, and turns into the feeling of a fast machine, an intense car chase scene. With sudden hitting of the brakes. Silence. Drums like gun shots. Then peeling away again, a sax wailing somewhere up high on a fire escape. The sudden changes of this intentionally dramatic music is very intense. I wish I could have had popcorn to eat! Finally, near the end, something menacing, horns repetitively start out quietly but get loud fast, like cars whizzing by. … Similar to Fast Machine – I think we’re probably in for a crash.
“… With City Noir … I wanted to write a work of symphonic scope that had the feel and dark tonality that we saw in the noir films in that post-war era – late 1940’s, ‘50s, even into the ‘60s. There was a lot of happy PR around the country that we had won the war and America was great, but I think noir really told a different story about American society – one that I think unfortunately has come home to roost in recent years….”
—John Adams, January 6, 2022, words before conducting “City Noir”
Copyright 1-6-22, S.E. Barcus
By S.E. Barcus
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”.
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:
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!
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:
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!
Copyright S.E. Barcus
By S.E. Barcus
That first patient we got in our country? We did everything right. We were so proud. Yet with hindsight, we along with everyone else squandered the next month that we could have spent preparing. If only we had better leadership. (Trump: “The 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”)
Country after country, state after state, we somehow thought it wasn’t going to come to us. We were different. The Chinese government’s early “crazy” actions of shutting down whole regions should have made it clear that we should take this very seriously.
The Italians pleaded with us to get ready. And then we even started to plead with our fellow Americans back East. Almost always on deaf ears, time and again. Amazing thing, human nature … sometimes in such a bad way. (I wouldn’t be surprised if there are STILL cruise ships sailing out there, those tax-evading petri-dish bastards, who have probably already pocketed away illegal bail out money from us….)
Everyone initially was scared when our surge/first wave started rolling in. Seniors were most susceptible, as the Grim-fucking-Reaper went into nursing homes like a fox into a hen house. But this was an unknown disease; there were plenty of stories of younger people getting this and dying for completely unknown reasons. Doctors around the world were desperately pumping out info. Case series that would’ve been turned away by the lowliest pharmaceutical company’s shit-rag were suddenly being published by the highest Impact-Score establishments: NEJM, The Lancet, etc…. Everyone was racing to give or get whatever pieces of data they could possibly share with their colleagues around the world. There was no time here to sip coffee and carefully plan out a 3-year multi-center, randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, well-powered and unbiased trial that went through the IRBs and the countless circle-jerk meetings between the universities and the NIH etc etc etc – there was just no time for all that bullshit.
It got freaky fast. The parking lots emptied at the hospitals. The testing tents popped up in the empty spaces like lunar stations or jumping castles. Field hospitals were getting built. There were no visitors or families milling about anymore. Everyone in the hospitals stayed away from the cafeteria and the elevators and each other, and rightly tried to steer clear of the patients suspected to have (the “PUI”s) or known to have (the positively tested) the virus. (Oh, and by the way, a “known to have” was not a very common reality, since that would imply a positive test, and most hospitals’ testing ability was initially a shit-show.) And, of course, PPE was often scarce. So, masks were being used in ways that they were not intended — keep re-using this one-time-use mask, just put in a brown paper bag and it’ll be fine! And you were frowned upon if you wanted to protect yourself in the standard way. Why were you special, after all? Get in there and risk your life and your family’s lives and the rest of your non-Covid-19 patients’ lives that you’ll see later today. Hey – it doesn’t aerosolize – we’re sure of it! Now get in there with just that standard surgical mask that you’ve worn all day….
And yet they came. … Somehow or other they came, just the same!
The 7 PM clapping started, signs thanking the healthcare workers sprouted up in yards and in windows by the hospitals. Church members — who couldn’t attend their Sunday services – instead circled the hospitals (6-feet apart!) with thank-you signs. Children, stuck at home, flooded the hospitals with crafty thank-you cards. But I also know a truth.
I know the real front-line heroes. Of the doctors, it is a minority of them. Firstly — they were the ones in the hospitals, not generally the outpatient docs. And of hospital docs, it was mainly the ER docs, the ICU docs, the Anesthesiologists, and the Internists admitting all the non-ICU Covid-19 patients. These docs are amazing. All the rest of the hospital docs, then, might see one or two Covid-19 patients on a consult or something.
So except for the above docs, and some others below, the REAL heroes of this pandemic are the hospital’s nurses. They are the ones that had to be in those rooms most of the goddamn day, turning the patient, helping them eat, giving meds, drawing blood, adjusting the blood pressure cuff or the BiPAP or vent, or firming up the restraints so the delirious patients wouldn’t try to self-extubate-themselves-and-die for the 10th freaking time that shift. Change the bedpans, bring in the trays from the cafeteria….
Even fight with the sanitation staff here and there, who were asking if the nurses might clean the Covid-19 rooms after the patients died, since you know, they were in there already…. And always working in suffocating PPE…. On and on, all day, every day, and often without PPE the way it was designed to be used.
And alongside these truly courageous folks — who deserve every dime of a “Healthcare GI Bill” that has been proposed — and who we’ve all heard understandably and rightfully either talk back or quit again and again during this crisis, alongside them are the other truly “essential” staff who have to go into these rooms on a regular basis. People like the respiratory techs managing the vents and respiratory treatments. X-ray techs coming in for the bedside chest X-rays. Also — all the EMS first-responders in the community. (I never understood the EMS guys in the streets who take part in clapping at 7 PM. Y’all are clapping for yourselves, buddies! You’re heroes more than most!) All those who initially receive the patients in the ER, working fatigued in their used PPE, swimming within some invisible cloud of goodness-only-knows-how-enormous a potential viral load. These and other jobs are not as glorious as capital-P-Physician, and surely not as well paid, but if you want to find your heroes (“find the helpers”, and all…), if you want to find the truly courageous people to thank – and thank with your dollars in the form of a “Healthcare GI Bill” or hazard pay or something similar – then thank your local hospital’s nurses. In honor of the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale (Godmother of Souls) this May 12, thank your freaking nurses with all you got.
And if you want to help still more, advocate personally, via mail, with neighbors, whatever, that they STILL don’t have the adequate testing or the PPE that they should have, and we will likely have a big wave this winter teamed-up with the flu.
Mr. President, we don’t need pork; we need PPE. We don’t need chicken breasts; we need Covid tests.
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!
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….
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.”
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
A World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs is a Series between two North Coast teams that have each suffered for such a long time. Whoever wins, it will make many of us sports fans – who tend to root for underdogs – happy. (Those of you who “like a winner” will surely be happy when the payroll-bloated Yankees/Cowboys/Lakers of the world undoubtedly dominate again in the near-future….)
The Cubs, of course, have not won a World Series since 1908, and thus are considered perhaps all of sports’ most cursed team. Their living fans have never tasted victory, are filled with a fatalistic futility, and yet brandish an amazing loyalty and spirit that can only be matched by … well, the city of Cleveland, Ohio, itself. For Cleveland’s part – it, as a city (if not a single team, necessarily) was perhaps sports’ most cursed city. What other major city in America with at least three professional sports teams could say they had not won any championships in any sport in over 50 years (since the 1964 Cleveland Browns)?
Well — until this past June, of course.
This past year’s Cleveland Cavaliers shocked everyone by being the first champion ever to come back after being down three-games-to-one in an NBA Finals — with a game 7 victory away, no less. Against the team with the most wins in NBA history — a team that was looking to repeat as champions, and that claimed the League’s MVP. And they did it with a fairytale, home-grown Return-of-the-King. The Cavs of the Rust-Belt-Cleve beat the pretty boy shooters from their pretty Golden State Bay Area.
It was as good as sports poetry could get, and yet to this day, I sincerely don’t think this has completely sunk in for Clevelanders. There is still a fatalistic, somber feeling to the city — which is why I love it so! (Perhaps it ultimately stems from the knowledge that despite any sports win, there will still be 3-5 months of crippling snow every year?) Cleveland comedian Mike Polk, Jr., makes this point HERE better than I could ever do, with his video that was featured in Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story”. (Yes, Clevelanders – watch it for the 5,000,000th time – you know you love it!)
The cocky-bastard-types can live in the New York Cities of the world, where they can … “make it there” … or whatever. I’ll take the modest, polite, self-deprecating people of Cleveland over that, any day. People like Drew Carey or Phil Donahue. Halle Berry, Steve Harvey, Paul Newman, or Toni Morrison. You wouldn’t have Superman without Cleveland creators Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, nor would you have the term “rock and roll” without DJ Alan Freed…. And a proud contribution to American history, as well, that ranges from John Rockefeller to Bob Hope to Jesse Owens.
Yet I predict – as with Golden State — we will see most of America rooting for the Cubs, for a variety of reasons. Chicago simply has a larger population, with a larger television market, so the subconscious (financially-motivated) bias of the media and Major League Baseball will be to root for the Cubs. And they’ll be considered the “real” underdog. Sure, the Cubs shouldn’t be called underdogs — they had the best regular season record in baseball this year with 103 wins, nearly 10 games more than their nearest rival (Golden State, anyone?), and thus they should be the favorites by pure baseball statistical prognostication. But their team is considered “more cursed” (hey – the Indians just won the Series in 1948, after all…), and their city will be given more sympathy since the Cavs victory was just 4 months ago.
However, I will be rooting for the Indians, and I hope you, dear reader (unless you are from Chicago, of course), might join me. If one looks at the history of the city of Cleveland during the last 50+ years, one can only conclude that it would be poetic justice for the Indians to win, and do it by having the rest of the nation feel the angst and misery of what it truly means to feel “Cleveland”. The bitterness. The false hopes. I want you to have the opportunity to experience this lovely taste, if but once in your $20-chocolate-shop urban playground from which you perhaps hail. The DCs, Seattles, and Austins. … The San Frans, Portlands, and Bostons. You know who you are.
Oh, “poor Chicago,” you say? Um … before this year, the city of Cleveland hadn’t won anything since the 1964 Browns. During that time, what misery had befallen the Windy City? The 1986 Bears: NFL champions. The 2005 Whitesox: MLB champions. The 2010, 2013, and 2015 Blackhawks: NHL champions. … Oh, and then there was this little NBA Bulls team you might have heard something about…. So, yeah, don’t feel sorry for Chicago, ok? They’ll be fine.
Oh! But it wasn’t just that Cleveland’s teams lost year after year – it was HOW they lost. By now, many of you know about Cleveland sports mythology – its storied tales of pain and suffering, from The Drive, to The Fumble, to The Decision, to The Shot…. Suffice it say, if Cleveland sticks a “The” in front of something, please read it as only Eeyore might….
And it’s not just sports. Cleveland has been the butt of the country’s jokes for over 50 years, as well, as if some grand collusion occurred amongst the rest of the entire country. “Let’s destroy that town!” If we were as paranoid as Trump, we might imagine it was all rigged, behind some closed doors, where the captains of industry and the politicians must have decided sometime in the 1960’s…. The “mistake on the lake” is not quite as flattering as “windy”, no? Cleveland was the city with the river that caught fire — even though every Clevelander will point out that this comes from TIME magazine’s photos focusing on the Cuyahoga River around the period of “The Silent Spring” — while there were plenty of other big cities with plenty of rivers catching fire similarly in that disgustingly polluted American era. But Cleveland was branded, and took the brunt of the jokes – which helped to pass the Clean Water Act, by the way. You’re welcome, America.
It all piled up. The mayor’s hair caught on fire. The once proud city, once sixth largest in the country, brought down and mocked. Johnny Carson started it, and every late-night comedian has followed suit ever since. About a decade ago, “I believe in Cleveland” was a major marketing campaign by the city, and it crumbled into “Yeah, I be leavin’ Cleveland” by Clevelanders themselves the very day it was introduced.
Yet despite these often-embarrassing losses, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory again and again — despite the national ridicule, all the piling on from all directions — despite it all, their fans are always faithful and proud, and their citizens always kind and pragmatic.
And so, while losing to the Cubs won’t feel nearly as bad as, say, losing to the 1997 Fire-Sale Marlins (ugh), it would be somewhat ironic and enjoyable to watch the rest of the country cry out in misery, as the butt of your jokes for so long wraps its cheeks around to bite you all on the ass. To watch as this rust belt town comes back historically, first to beat a beautiful city of the Bay Area, and just months later beats what will inevitably be America’s favorite in the Series. Two wins in the same year after nothing for so, so long. To have others resentful and bitter with US. You would begin to see now how it has tasted? Mm-hmm. Tastes a little Cleveland, doesn’t it?
Check in with S.E. Barcus on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, or email them at email@example.com.
Sunday Comics v.2
Sunday Comics v.1
All cartoons Copyright 4-3-2016.