Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cold Plagiarism, or Your Grammie's Calling

The parrot was looking around for an opening to reclaim his spot in the cultural jungle, when what does he espy from his new lamppost in Bay Ridge but a New Yorker blog regarding the alleged filching of a certain guitar intro to the usual top contender for Greatest Rock and Roll Song of All Time. That would be... think carefully... Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator"? Warm... Blue Oyster Cult's "Stairway to the Stars"? Warmer... Traffic, "Heaven is in Your Mind"? It seems to be on the tip of your tongue. Give up? Okay, think of Led Zeppelin's 10 best songs and you will probably, towards the bottom of the list, recall a tune called "Stairway to Heaven".

Now, think of Zep's 10 most plagiarized songs, and you will probably, towards the bottom of the list... (you can finish that one).

So I read this piece by Alex Ross and I can't help feeling that he misses the whole point. What he wants to do is give us a $2 music lesson on why the guitar intro of STH is not actually plagiarized from Spirit's "Taurus", and a list of other songs and classical sources that use the same chromatically descending bass line. Whereas my take on this and every other musical plagiarism case is basically, if it sounds like one is a substitute for the other with a few musically insignificant changes, and there is a history that demonstrates the later composer had access to the earlier composition, then it is plagiarized, and if either of those are not true, then it's not. The second condition is certainly met, in the STH case; the first is certainly not. You would not notice more than the vaguest similarity between the two intros if someone had not filed a suit hoping to win something slightly better than the lottery.

This is clearly a case of bandwagon litigation: Zep's generous borrowings are legendary by now, and they have in some cases been forced to give credit where credit is definitely due. The only thing due to Spirit or Michael Skidmore is a historical glance over the shoulder for being among the numerous users of a common bit of counterpoint. Compare Page's "Black Mountain Side" with Bert Jansch's considerably earlier performance of "Black Waterside" and you can hear what sounds like note for note copying of the arrangement for extended passages. (I heard Jansch play it in Brooklyn a few years before he died and it was cleaner than he was on this YouTube video, which brought out the similarity even more.) Page said somewhere that the tune was "going around the clubs" at the time. Regardless, he copied Jansch's arrangement without giving credit. Jansch never sued, though. Skidmore's attempt to spirit away part of the fortune Page & Plant made on Stairway is just crass golddigging.

Now, I could stop there, but I won't, and here's why. As I was thinking about contributing a few words to this glittering debate I went through my earlier posts to see if I had written anything on plagiarism in rock before - mainly to make sure I didn't grossly contradict myself (though parrots tend to be forgiven for such things). But all I found was this unpublished draft, which I found so funny at points that I figured let me just go ahead and publish it.Timely it's not - seems to have been written in 2009 or not long after - but then again, in light of the present plagiarism shindig, it almost is. Ross also mentions the similar spat between the Marvin Gaye family and Robin Thicke-Pharrell Williams' over "Blurred Lines". I don't get much out of that comparison either. Not like Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy", which a YouTube poster called out as sharing a melody with 4 Non Blondes' "What's Going On?" No lawsuit there yet, as far as I know. There seems to be a pattern here.

Well, if you like this sort of f stuff, read on. Here, more or less unexpurgated except for a few comments [in brackets] is what I wrote on this general subject a few years ago.

[Begin earlier draft] 
Let me start with a trivia question: In what year did Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Metallica, Robert Plant, B.B. King, George Strait, Randy Brecker, The Eagles, Bela Fleck, Al Green, Mickey Hart, They Might Be Giants, Peter Gabriel, John Williams, BeauSoleil, Burning Spear, George Carlin, Bernard Haitink and Peter Bogdanovitch all win Grammy awards? 1979 you say? A little too early for Metallica. 1989? Come on, be brave. Try 2009. Um, deep catalogue, anyone? Or, as the judicious Ben Sisario put it for the Times, "the awards followed a familiar Grammy pattern, in which soft, reverent material beats out more aggressive and youthful music". [Metallica?] Read: the music your Grandma listens to beats the music you listen to. Isn't that why they call them the "Grammies"? [I guess this formula would not apply so well to Kendrick Lamar!]

So what could be more soft and reverent than Chris Martin and his band of Christmas carollers? Or is that snow angels? Well, as it turns out, the sandman is softer than the snowman. So Raising Sand, the odd, willowy, unclassifiable collection of soporific songs by the former Zep frontman and the country music's femme fiddle Alison Krauss got a whole lotta love from the Recording Academy, at the expense of Coldplay's Viva la Vida, which had to settle for Best Rock Album (which it certainly isn't), Song of the Year (which it probably is) and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group (which is so impossible to define that it could have gone to any n-some under the sun, where n > 1). At least Coldplay, though they've been around for a decade, is only on their 4th album, and at least it is probably their best, though you may infer that I don't think that says very much. Radiohead, who allegedly played their first gig in 1986, and recorded their one solid album (The Bends) in 1995 [yes, I know Kid A has its fans - I'm not one of them], walked off with the Alternative award, their third nomination and second award in that category. If there are any Academy members listening, please note for future reference that this category is supposed to identify tasteful alternative music, not music that is an alternative to taste. Perhaps selling out Madison Square Garden is now a quid pro quo for acceptable "alternative" offerings. OK, The Mars Volta got some yellow metallic object for Hard Rock Performance, as did the Kings of Leon (a safer bet) for Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. At least it wasn't the Killers, whose trite little pop number about humans and "dancer" has "we wants a Grammy" written all over it (you're welcome for the missing "s").

Okay, Grammie is stuck in a ditch, and where does that leave Coldplay? Helping to dig her out? But they have some digging of their own to do. With shovel number one they will have to try to convince the judge that they did not swipe the tune from "Viva la Vida" from Joe Satriani's wordless guitar piece "If I Could Fly". Shovel number two may be just a playground scoop, enough to bury the claim by the Brooklyn band Creaky Boards that Coldplay's hit tune borrowed some ideas from their song "The Songs I Didn't Write"(!). Shovel number three is a mere teaspoon, all they'll need to deal with my suggestion that their song "Clocks" bears more than a passing resemblance to Dylan's well-known "You Ain't Going Nowhere" (on his Greatest Hits Vol.2, at least one Dylan tribute album, The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and also on The Basement Tapes, though that version is more chanted than sung). Of course there is the obvious nod in U2's direction with some of Coldplay's recent rhythm tracks, and the fact that they frequently sound like a poor man's Moody Blues. Influence, you know...

What is very striking here is that while the RIAA is out filing suits against 12-year-olds for copyright violation, their friends in the Recording Academy are perfectly happy to hand out awards for material whose originality has been challenged - very publicly in the case of the Satriani tune.

Is there a smoking gun here? Is there anything to worry about here? You can state the case for a negative answer very simply. If every case of obvious similarity in popular music resulted in a plagiarism charge and maybe a copyright infringement lawsuit, there wouldn't be many artists left standing. Not every ripoff is as famous as George Harrison's rather blatant adaptation of "She's So Fine" for the Indian mysticism market, or Zep's numerous assaults on the blues and folk repertory, or Dylan's liberal use of standards from below the Mason Dixon line, or Johnny Cash's hommage to Dylan's "Don't Think Twice..." in "Understand Your Man"... There was, for example, 10CC's pretty shameless copying of Jacques Brel's "Sons of..." in "The Film of My Love", an obscure tune at the end of The Original Soundtrack. There's a ton of this stuff going on. And you can extend that to literature, going all the way back to St. Augustine, apparently, or Anthony Trollope if you prefer. This is a way of writing off plagiarism as a moral issue in general, and in pop music in particular. You just look at the volume of it, and say it's common practice, and that's that. Kind of the way, when I was teaching, some students from old Soviet-bloc countries used to tell me about plagiarizing their papers: it's normal, everybody does it, why do you have a problem with it?

The other way of looking at it is this: there's a hell of a lot of room left for creativity in popular music, even if it sometimes doesn't seem that way due to the endlessly repetitive nature of major label releases and the volume of imitations ("Is that the All American Rejects on the radio or is that some new release from Green Day?" "Did he say this song is by the Stone Temple Pilots? Gee, it sounds just like Pearl Jam!" etc.) There is really no good reason even for copying riffs and tunes in a way that doesn't meet the cutoff for copyright infringement; it may not be illegal, but it's unethical and embarrassing. No author has to copy existing texts to say something, and allusion is of questionable value to the masses who don't get it, so why not stick with originality all the way through?

Well, there you have the two poles, what to do, what to do? To me, the first and most important step is simple, honest and more or less painless: credit your sources. "So I was listening to this Satriani album right after I dropped in on a gig by the Creaky Boards and suddenly I started putting together in my head what I heard and it came out as this song. Thanks to Joe and Creaky." Second, if there is any doubt whatsoever about how close you are to what came before, pay the mechanical rights. It costs very little to pay the rights to a couple of songs on an album; it's good for the artist you (may have) borrowed from, and it keeps you honest. Third, make sure you are really adding value to the material you started with, otherwise just call it a cover, or get your own music.

The first two of these are simple. It's the third that creates all the ruckus. When an artist thinks he has added enough value to some existing material, the tendency is to call it his own, reduce the appropriated source to "influence", and forget the niceties. But when is that the case? It can be a very tough judgment to make. For example, I don't think Billy Bragg adds much to Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" in his song "Ideology"; it's a ripoff, to my ears, same tune with lyrics that repeat the idea if not the exact content of Dylan's song. So, should Bragg have credited Dylan? Probably, but... then there is the possibility (actually just presented as fact in the Wikipedia entry on "Chimes of Freedom") that Dylan got the basis of the song from Dave Van Ronk... who got it from his Mom... who got it from who knows where... To my knowledge, Dylan has never sued anyone for copyright infringement.

[End original post]

And to that I only have to add: how many artists have ripped off Led Zeppelin and not given them credit? That list goes on and on. My point, finally, is that these petty, vague, ultimately very subjective claims of copyright infringement are morally and aesthetically contemptible. I once knew a photographer who sued an artist who had taken one of his photographs, painted the scene, and sold that painting. That is pretty obnoxious, but even photographs of other photographs have been upheld as original works of art. You've got to do better than that to demonstrate mere copying. I am not convinced that most cases of alleged musical plagiarism amount to much.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Friends With (Creative) Benefits: Ira, David, Me, Rock and the Writing of Our Time

It is a rare but happy thing to have a childhood friend with whom you not only remain in touch but still share enough personal connections to keep those early bonds from getting stale. I am fortunate to have two such people in my life - perhaps more, but two who have inspired me to write some thoughts down. Although these two friends of mine have never met, to my knowledge, I share with both of them a special relationship through two paths: rock music, and the written word.

One of them, Ira Robbins, I have know since we attended the same Brooklyn elementary school; we listened to the Beatles together in the auditorium when their first U.S. singles were released, and Ira played some of Bob Dylan's earliest songs for me in his living room. I met David Komoroff when my family moved to Manhattan; he was just slightly older than me, enough to be a major influence in my still developing appreciation for rock music. He introduced me to Jefferson Airplane, some early Stones albums, and Tommy, among many other glories of 1960's rock and roll. While at Stuyvesant High School he led me to my first rock concert - at Carnegie Hall, to see a group called Seatrain, in 1970. About a year later he insisted that we attend a concert at the Filmore East before it closed, where the highlight was a fairly new band called Mott the Hoople.

Ira went on to found the Trouser Press, through which he played a leading role in bringing awareness of the punk and New Wave movements to U.S. rock fans. I wasn't in touch with Ira then - in fact, I discovered his involvement in the early 1980's as I was standing in an Upper West Side bookstore thumbing through a thick Trouser Press record guide, and noticed the name of the editor. This was of some interest to me, since I was at that time playing in a rock band that performed at CBGB's during what was more or less the heydey of the punk era. Ira had also been in a band, and also lived at some point on the Upper West Side, but it was still many years before we would reconnect. Meanwhile, I had also been a journalist, intermittently, even writing the occasional music or film review for small political rags. Later on I spoke at conferences on the philosophical analysis of rock music (and still do this sordid kind of thing). We were leading sort of parallel lives that more or less began with trading baseball cards on a Brooklyn street corner, playing punchball and listening to "She Loves You" on a transistor radio.

When we got back in touch many years later we found that we both once again lived in Brooklyn, that we were both still deeply interested in rock music, and both also making efforts at writing fiction. That has been more than enough to keep us from blowing apart like leaves in the wind again.

David chose a quieter life, having moved many years ago to a small town in upstate New York. We rarely see each other, but from snail mail to email to Facebook we have never been out of touch for too long. David is also the main reason I make a living today as a computer professional: after I became more or less convinced that my rock band would not be the next Beatles, and indeed was not obviously on a path to making me financially self-sustaining as a musician, I looked around for an actual profession. (I was pulling in a small income as a bicycle messenger, which never really struck me as a career for some reason.) David had gone into computer programming, and after a visit to his office and some heart to heart talks I decided to pursue it too. He retired long ago; I'm still at it, for better or worse.

I don't really know David's tastes in music these days, but Ira's are on public view in the online version of the Trouser Press, as well as in his numerous other published writings, and for me in "personal communications", as human contact is euphemistically referred to in footnotes to philosophical papers. What attracted my attention recently - and partly prompted me to write this post - is his recent piece for Salon.Com. Taking a long look at his own history as a rock fan and a record reviewer, the history of Trouser Press and its decline as a print magazine, and the state of music criticism, he defends the position that "record reviews are now brief, upbeat and simple: download these songs, they’re good." By contrast, he brings back some of the more hypercritical views he voiced over the years about bands that rated high on the trendiness scale, and refuses to apologize for most of them. Right on, I say: these days there is always someone (indeed, an entire chorus of someones) ready to tout the aesthetic virtues of anything that does not stink to high heaven of incompetence or banality. Critical opinion in the era of online communication has a snowball effect, to the point where truly independent judgment is difficult at best. A critic who dissed the latest Frank Ocean or Passion Pit album might not lose his job, but he would lose respect because one critic after another lauded it in the kind of capsule reviews you find on Pitchfork and many other sites.

The same applies across the mass arts. Case in point: I just saw Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's latest effort at the socially conscious art film. "103 Academy Awards Minimum!", "One of the Year's .213 Best!", "Daniel Day-Lewis Is the Greatest Actor Since Richard Burton!" shout the critics (or some closely related pap). My reaction: a dubious portrait of a President who always speaks in a grandfatherly voice while presiding over the bloodiest war in history; Spielberg's usual faux-dramatic dialogue with the kind of packaged emotions that worked okay for the story of a stranded alien trying to phone home, but not so great for a beleaguered President trying to make history; modern slang mixed with 19th c. cliches; irrelevant subplots (what happened to the older son anyway?), an otiose epilogue (it was a year after the Senate adopted the 13th Amendment that Lincoln was murdered) etc. etc. Screw critical conformance. Most popular art today is intellectually insulting commercial crap, and even a lot of what isn't is just not artistically successful, however well-intentioned it might be.

Thus, when I see Ira reminding us how little moved he is by the Foo Fighters, a group whose recent album Wasting Light was a kind of cause celebre among critics, or by Sting's solo efforts, and a number of other iconoclastic positions he has taken, I am happy that someone has the guts to say these things so that I don't feel completely alone in the world. Indeed, I only regret seeing him partially back off some of his earlier apostasies: Patti smith's Horses is still unlistenable, IMHO; Television's Marquee Moon has one good song; the Ramones, who Ira, the apostle of punk rock, confesses he initially viewed as "a travesty", were exactly that - they just turned out to be a rather lovable, productive and influential travesty. (For updated 50's-style rock and roll I'll take the B-52's over the Ramones any day.) Okay, I'm a bitch - even punk is not sacred. I'm not sure Ira thinks it is either; he has too much integrity to give anything a pass because it's punk. I also have to admit that I never saw any of those groups live. Maybe I'd be kinder if I had.

One of Ira's main points is that many critics today seem to have barely brushed up on a band's Wikipedia entry before they mouth off about its virtues. (My way of putting it, not his.) It was one of the trademarks of Trouser Press in its day to do obsessive amounts of research about a band before writing it up (or down), and that was before Google was even a sci-fi fantasy, when it was widely accepted that a research library was a valuable asset for civilization. I like this line of thought, but I want to add a caveat: it is certainly possible for a critic to be so intimately familiar with his subject as to leave his audience without a clue what he's talking about. This is why I stopped paying attention to reviews in the Village Voice about 30 years ago - smug verbal masturbation with elusive references to obscure, fly-by-night bands that only 12 people in the world would conceivably recognize. Trouser Press reviews show considerable knowledge about the bands that are reviewed, but the references are generally within the realm of known or available rock history.

It is a little too much to ask that two friends, apart for long intervals over much of a lifetime, rediscover each other with exactly the same musical tastes after five decades of rock music, each with its own character. "Regrets, I have a few" says Ira - no doubt a nod to the famous Sid Vicious hit "My Way" (think I'm kidding?). Well, he might have one or two more regrets if I had my way. For instance, this bit of invective about The Fixx, one of my favorite bands of the 80's, where in 3 short paragraphs Ira describes them as  a "pretentious synth-heavy atmospheric English dance band" ("dance band"?) whose songs are "irritating", "trivial", "wretched", "mundane", "unpleasant" and lacking in imagination. What I miss here is some criteria that might make these judgments more than mere epithets. To take one that has perhaps the greatest appearance of plausibility, a "pretentious" band is one that pretends they have ideas worthy of your attention when they really don't (Rush and Radiohead spring to mind) whereas to me, reading and repeating the lyrics of The Fixx is well worth the effort. (Phantoms, as I have written elsewhere, is a brilliant musical exploration of the concepts of place and personal identity.) Maybe Ira is in touch with another dimension of listening that I'm not - he has, after all, a vastly wider and more intimate knowledge of rock music than I do. All I know is that I can no more think of The Fixx as a "dance band" than, say, the Psychedelic Furs, or Pink Floyd for that matter, and though I will admit that I find a very small number of their songs "irritating", most of their material is deeply satisfying and creative.

Or take this sweeping assessment of Grand Funk and their significance: "the band that killed rock 'n' roll", as Ira sees it. I have to admit, I can't stand 90% of their output. On the other hand, Ira reminds us that "lots of terrible albums have been made by wonderful people", and it's equally true that some of the greatest albums have been made by bands that were generally terrible - they found their groove, so to speak, and lost it quickly. Grand Funk's Closer to Home is high on that list for me, a spark of genius, sandwiched between a lot of really forgettable junk. (Okay, this is weird but... it was a former girlfriend of David's who first made me appreciate this album. Lack of critical distance? Perhaps.) Here I admit to being the odd man out, while Ira elaborates the standard critical opinion (as in this sympatico profile): even on that album, the band was incompetent, unoriginal and tasteless. For me, 6 out of 8 songs on the album are keepers, the other two being innocuous pseudo-soul ballads. And I could not name a song that any of those six clearly imitate. For me, the critical attitude means not only seeing the soft belly beneath the shell of popularity, but occasionally allowing that there's a lonely pearl in it.

The idea that Grand Funk were significant or influential enough to singlehandedly put an end to the Sixties is also farther than I can go. In those days there were a slew of culprits over a few short years - the James Gang, Black Sabbath, Savoy Brown, Deep Purple, and if you weren't feeling particularly generous, Iron Butterfly and Mountain to boot - soon to be followed by Bad Company and such lesser lights as Montrose, Golden Earing and Foghat - who jointly conspired to usher out acid rock and promote a sound that around 1975 began to emerge as heavy metal. There were other culprits as well, regarding the death of Sixties rock - think of Chicago taking over the jazz-rock mantle from bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears and The Soft Machine; the devolution of Fleetwood Mac from the Peter Green blues-rock band to the Buckingham/Nicks pop band; and the conversion of Motown from a vital, relevant sound to a dry disco formula. Similarly, at the end of the Seventies there was a short list - okay, a rather long list - of bands that collectively killed what was good and innovative in progressive rock and turned it into a radio-happy pop sound - think Journey, Toto, Rush, Styx, Kansas, Steve Miller, and Gary Wright, for starters. I think it takes an army to put an end to an era of musical expression, and Grand Funk were at most a highly visible unit.

Aside from that, I really wonder about the characterization of Grand Funk's musicianship as "garage-bred ineptitude" and the way Ira ties it to their working-class origin. For he does draw attention to the striking similarity of this characterization to a fair description of the origins of punk rock. What distinguishes them, he says, is Grand Funk's lack of originality. But if they were not original, I don't understand how they could have played such an outstanding role in overthrowing an era of music. A gang of imitators can't overthrow what came before them, even by doing it badly. Ira also chides them for a late-to-the-game effort at anti-war heroics. Not quite so - Closer to Home, released in the second year of their existence, already has the standard odes to revolution, freedom, love and togetherness that one would have expected in those days. Mark Farner eventually descended into a flag-waving boor, but so what - no one writes off Neil Young's or Arlo Guthrie's early work just because they tilted right later on.

Sometimes Ira's views make me wonder about the very nature of music criticism. For when he says that he doesn't think Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is even a good album, and that he thinks Abbey Road is an even worse one, I want to scream, "But this is the standard by which other albums are judged!" Then I think of Wittgenstein, a philosopher I have studied fairly closely, who says that the one thing of which we cannot say that it either is, or is not, a meter long is the standard 1-meter bar in Paris, which defines the length of a meter. And this is obviously not true of Sgt. Pepper: for although it is probably the single most universally admired piece of recorded rock music, it is certainly not logically impossible to agree or disagree with that judgment. So I guess I should thank Ira for reminding me once again that consensus is not truth and emotional attachment is the opposite of critical objectivity. Be that as it may, to get me to believe that Sgt. Pepper is not at least one of the greatest albums of all time you would probably have to hire Christopher Nolan and the entire Inception team to screw around with my brain.

The inevitable musical differences aside, when Ira rattles off a phrase like "...the schoolyard syllogisms of the 2012 election", which he does with rather frightening consistency in both musical and political contexts, I start wishing that he would publish a Little Red Book of his best lines that I can carry around with me and read when I need to remind myself what contemporary writing should look like.


Speaking of which, Ira's 2009 novel Kick It Till It Breaks is a damn good read and another reason to keep an ear out for him. David has also been a literary type as long as I've known him, and had more of a flair for writing than I did early on. A few days ago, Ira and David had a psychic confluence that I suppose I alone would have noticed: they both posted comments in response to a piece in the NY Times Magazine about the writer George Saunders. "The writer for our time", according to the writer for the Times, Joel Lovell. WTF? Ira and Dave wanted know. How did I end up with a writer for my damn time whom I've never even heard of? Personally I had almost the same reaction - actually, the very same, until a bit of free association led me in another direction.

Almost a year ago I decided that as an aspiring writer I needed to subscribe to The New Yorker, knowing full well that I wouldn't have time to read even half the issues. So I did, and I haven't had time to read even a quarter of the issues. Generally I skim the concert listings, look quickly at the cartoons, check out the poetry (ugh... Ashberry again... talk about inscrutable), see if there are any absolutely essential journalistic pieces (hopefully not, since they tend to be even longer than my blog posts), and finally, lay into the short story. This way I have managed to get through maybe ten or twelve stories. Very few of them made much of an impression as I was reading them, and even fewer stayed with me for more than a day after I'd finished. In fact, exactly one did - a very bizarre tale about a young boy and an old man who do something like exchange tragic courses of life on a winter's day. (I mean literally exchange them, not talk about them.) I wasn't sure if I liked it, and certainly could not imagine what sort of mind could have come up with it. I noted the name of the author briefly, and forgot it soon afterward.

On reading a few paragraphs of the Lovell piece I said to myself, "I'll bet that story about the boy and the old man at the lake was by this Saunders dude." Yes it was. I will not jump on the Times bandwagon about this - the bandwagon that has only recently gotten through inflating Updike after his death into a literary titan, then beating the drums over David Mitchell's latest effort, then rolling the Franzen juggernaut down a hill, and the like. But I will say this: if there is a "writer for our time" it will have to be a writer whose ideas are as complex, tormented, tragic and exuberant as our time, all at once. No other short stories since those of Paul Bowles have struck me as having this kind of depth. I feel that Saunders has some deep grasp of the tragic sense of life, and the particularly ridiculous twist that a system driven by technology and finance capital can give to that situation, as well as an idea (which I dare to claim runs through some of my own attempts at fiction) that love and humor are our only hope for maintaining a semblance of sanity.

I will almost certainly be picking up Saunders' latest story collection, Tenth of December. I will almost certainly be picking up a copy of his friend David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest too. I will almost certainly be reading all this stuff as soon as I get through Ulysses. Don't hold your breath waiting for my review. For those who want to know Saunders a little better though, The Paris Review web site has just published the autobiographical Preface to a new edition of his earlier short story collection; it is quite an inspiring read for an aspiring writer. And one of the Times blogs has an interview with Lovell that sheds a little more light on Saunders.

Well, that's enough blogging for now. Back to Ulysses, Led Zeppelin and other things that keep me from the madhouse. Back to rocking the boat, writing on rock, writing in my rocker and rocking with my typewriter. And to hoping I'll always have good buddies who will prod me with their poignant posts when I get lazy, and challenge my tastes when they start to ossify. Scratch that; my tastes in music and literature already resemble a petrified forest. Which means someone can kick them as hard as they want and do no damage. We can still be great friends.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

While My Guitar Factory Gently Weeps: The Government and Gibson

Great news, folks: there's a convenient new way to get a complete list of conservative media in the U.S.! Just Google "Government raids Gibson guitar factory". Yes, they are all there, from The Wall Street Journal and Fox News to Human Events and the American Family News Network (AFN), lining up with all the music blogs to show their outrage at the Obama administration's attempt to enforce the Lacey Act, which (in effect) regulates the importation of endangered rainforest wood species. Those cruel, senseless feds jacking up innocent people at a guitar factory. For shame!

Could they be upset because, according to the Christian news service OneNewsNow, Henry Juskiewicz, the CEO of Gibson, "has a long history of supporting Republican candidates"? Which of course demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the government targeted Gibson to intimidate Juskiewicz from making his game-changing contributions to the Republican cause, whereas the liberal Democrat Chris Martin was spared the raids as a sort of musical salute to his politics.

Or are they genuinely concerned about the overextension of federal authority in sending armed marshalls to the workplace? Funny, then, that their heartstrings didn't get equally bent when the government stepped up raids of factories suspected of employing illegal immigrants.  I wonder what's up with them? Isn't a raid a raid? Isn't the evil Obama administration the evil Obama administration? Aren't overzealous federal marshalls Public Enemy #1 ever since Waco? Yet somehow, the rightwing noise about the Gibson raid is as deafening as 20 Les Pauls at maximum volume on 100 Marshall stacks... while they managed to maintain a calm disinterest in the illegal immigrant raids (note that that last phrase can be parsed two ways).

The author's Gibson Custom acoustic
Actually the gaggle of googled Christian rightists just want to get a litle mileage out of the fact that the "victim" in this case is Gibson, the known and loved maker of Les Pauls and Hummingbirds, not to mention a couple of LG's and ES 335's I've owned (and loved). Anyone still on the fence about Obama - that is, anyone who has not yet decided that he is ruining the country through his liberal policies (as opposed to the folks who think he is ruining the chances of turning the country around through his concessions to the radical right) - must surely be persuaded by his callous and uncalled for raid that he should be dumped. "Vote your musical tastes!" is what the message seems to be. (If I were to have followed that advice a few years ago, for example, I never would have voted for Bill Clinton - not a Fleetwood Mac fan, as I have no doubt confessed elsewhere in blog posts past.)

Gibson was accused of violating the Lacey Act, which bars the importation of products that are not in compliance with the export laws of a foreign country. This led to a raid in 2009 in connection with Gibson's obtaining ebony from Madagascar. It's not that the wood has been shown to violate laws of harvesting in Madagascar, but that Gibson could not properly verify the source as legal. Though Juskiewicz feigns a certain amount of bewilderment about the government's case, it is laid out pretty clearly in a Justice Department document that is available online:

A second civil forfeiture action... remains ongoing. The action involves wood materials seized from the premises of Gibson Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee. According to the affidavit of a USFWS Special Agent in support of that forfeiture, on September 28, 2009 Customs and Border Protection reported the import of a shipment of Madagascar ebony wood at the Port ofNewark, New Jersey. Immigration and Customs Enforcement notified the USFWS Special Agent of the importation that consisted of 5,200 pieces of ebony, sawn sizes, and 2,133 pieces of sawn Madagascar black ebony, sawn sizes, with a total value of approximately $76,437.59. The shipment was exported by Nagel GMBH and Company KG (Nagel) of Hamburg, Germany to its U.S.-based affiliate, Hunter Trading Company (Hunter) of Westport, Connecticut for its customer, Gibson Guitars of Nashville. CBP notified Hunter that the required Lacey Act declaration had not been submitted upon importation and an employee of Hunter subsequently submitted a declaration for 1,664 cubic meters of ebony, sawn sizes, and 700 cubic meters of Madagascar black ebony, declaring the country of harvest for both as Madagascar.

Since at least April of 2000, the Republic of Madagascar has had various laws that restrict the harvest and export of ebony wood. In 2006 a Madagascar Interministerial Order was entered that required all existing, legally harvested stocks of ebony wood to be declared to the relevant office of the Madagascar Ministry of Environment, Water and Forests. Any ebony not declared under that order is subject to seizure by Malagasy authorities. According to the search warrant affidavit in the public record, investigators have been unable to discover any authorizations for exports of unfinished, semi-worked, or sawn ebony to Nagel from Madagascar since at least September 2006. The Special Agent also examined 2008 inventory records of existing stocks of Madagascar ebony maintained by the Madagascar Ministry 102 UNITED.of Environment, Water and Forests and was unable to find any stock of Madagascar ebony wood recorded for Nagel's supplier.

The Defendant Property in this forfeiture proceeding is identified as ebony that originated in Madagascar. The USFWS Special Agent averred in an affidavit in the public record that he believed the Defendant Property was exported from Madagascar and imported into the United States in violation of 16 U.S.C. § 3372(a), prohibiting the import of a plant product taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of an underlying foreign law and imported without the filing of a Lacey Act declaration and was therefore subject to forfeiture under the Lacey Act. It was also alleged that the Defendant Property is subject to forfeiture for being involved in a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 545, that is, the fraudulent or knowing importation into the United States of any merchandise contrary to law or the receipt, concealment, purchase, or sale of such merchandise after importation, knowing the same to have been imported or brought into the United States contrary to law. Gibson Guitars has filed a claim in this forfeiture proceeding and moved to dismiss the forfeiture complaint. Briefing in the case continues.
That is not so difficult to understand. There was a large shipment of undocumented ebony imported from a country where the law requires documentation for export. The subsequent declaration by a Hunter employee is suspect because records in the country of origin make no mention of the shipment. It is not to Gibson's advantage that the current government of Madagascar is not recognized as legitimate by most world bodies. That is one reason that other companies backed away from Madagascar imports before Gibson did. With an illegitimate government ruling in the shadow of the military it is more difficult to determine the legitimacy of exported natural resources. For the right "fee", corrupt officials might permit the removal of natural resources without the proper documentation. One motivation for the Lacey Act was to prevent companies from skirting the law in just such circumstances. It says, in effect, that though you might be able to get around the foreign law overseas, you'd better be able to document compliance with it when you get home. There seems to be a legitimate question as to whether the wood shipment was okay by Madagassy standards, and therefore sufficient cause to seize and hold it.

Gibson claims on their web site that the Justice Department has still not pressed charges in the case, though they continue to hold the materials obtained in the raid. But if you grant that in spite of Madagascar politics the wood should have been documented, then it is hard to see what they are doing wrong. They are entitled to seize the shipment until and unless Gibson can document the provenance of the whole shipment, not just some fraction of it. Though rainforest lovers will no doubt observe that you can't grow any ebony trees from 7300 sawn pieces, so merely seizing them does not do much to solve the problem.

The reason for the recent raid seems to be in doubt, as Gibson claims that the wood seized was from India. In a video posted on their web site Juskiewicz says that there are "similar laws in India". From his discussion and some posts on Gibson's blog, their story appears to be that the JD thinks Gibson may have violated Indian laws concerning the export of unfinished wood products, not that Gibson purchased illegally harvested endangered species in India. The products in question are fingerboards made of Indian rosewood. The fingerboards are "blanks" which have been carved and partially finished by Indian workers. They are then given a final finish, fitted with frets and set on a guitar neck by workers in the U.S. According to Gibson, the Indian government considers the export of these semi-finished "blanks" to be in compliance with their export laws, and the U.S. is interpreting Indian law in a way that is not supported by India.

Though the two charges - illegally harvesting endangered wood species and illegally obtaining wood products that are not completely finished - are not clearly distinguished in either Gibson's press release, their published statements in the media, or Juskiewicz's press conference video, it seems likely that at best, the government has a case here that jumps headlong into gray areas of the Lacey Act, and possibly that the recent raid was conducted in frustration over their inability to come up with hard evidence that Gibson violated the law in the Madagascar case. The fact that Gibson works closely with the Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace, and that their wood is certified by an independent industry oversight group (the Forest Stewardship Council) adds to doubts that there is wrongdoing worth prosecuting on Gibson's part.

But that is a long way from the outright abuse of federal power that Juskiewicz alleges: “We feel totally abused. We believe the arrogance of federal power is impacting me, personally, our company, personally, and employees here in Tennessee. And it’s just plain wrong.” But if the government does nothing in a case like this it renders the Lacey Act largely ineffectual as a tool to protect endangered species and prevent illegal logging. No one who cares about the environment should want that.

Into the genuine confusion of this case (or cases) steps the radical rightwing media, suggesting that Gibson's status as the maker of the guitars that produced some of the world's best-loved music automatically means that the U.S. is wrong, overbearing, and possibly singling out a Republican CEO for his political views. Playing to the crowd, the WSJ and others make sure to invoke the alleged plight of the itinerant busker with a piece of mahogony in his 1958 Martin and no documentation of the guitar's age. Give those Obama marshalls an inch and they'll take your ax" they seem to be saying. Check this out:
Lady Antebellum guitarist Jason ‘Slim’ Gambill says: “I think its terrifying for musicians to know that they could be going through an airport and get stopped by a customs agent somewhere overseas and have someone say ‘I’m taking this because it might have potentially something illegal that was, you know, harvested, 60, 80 year ago and I’m taking it because now it’s a protected wood. It doesn’t make sense.” (Cited on Gibson's blog.)

Yo, calm down Jason. You have a wild imagination, dude, if you think that all these customs officials are standing there with a copy of the Lacey Act just waiting for someone to walk through the gate with a guitar. That is so far from a customs agent stopping a shipment of more than 7300 pieces of wood it's not even funny. I wouldn't give the redstate types who are trying to get mileage out of this the satisfaction of thinking they've got guitarists the world over worrying about getting their vintage instruments appropriated at the airport. (Anyway, what's up with the "customs agent somewhere overseas" thing? Since when is France or Egypt enforcing the Lacey Act?)

               Hands off the Brazilian rosewood fingerboard on my 1970 Gibson ES-335!
(Though I don't really believe they're coming to get me. And besides,
I'm just guessing it's rosewood. What else would it be?)

Now we've got to deal with the mom-and-pop thing, since the rightwing media are doing their best to play this up into a classic David-and-Goliath story. Gibson Guitar Corporation is a highly profitable conglomerate which does not only make fine wooden instruments to play on back porches in the Ozarks. Gibson has acquired top music and electronics brands such as Epiphone, Dobro, Baldwin, Chickering, Wurlitzer and Oberheim. They make consumer electronics lines, fashion lines, video games, jukeboxes and run a variety of other enterprises including even ice cream parlors. In an interview with BusinessTN in August 2007 Juskiewicz stated an intention to take the company public and even to advance into the Fortune 500. Don't imagine that's going too well given the state of the economy since then, but the point is that this is not just yer innocent little craft shop cobbling away to make fine instruments. In the same BusinessTN interview Juskiewicz claims revenues of close to $500 million. Poor little abused guitar maker.

Speaking of abused, I doubt that CEO Juskiewicz is a regular reader of, the employer ratings site. Check out the comments on Gibson. The company gets an embarrassing 1.8 (out of 5.0) rating. The preponderance of reviews, from what I can see, give them the lowest available rating (1.0). A good number of complaints mention "the CEO" (that would be Juskiewicz) specifically, and some suggest that he regularly reminds employees how easily they can lose their jobs. This casts a different light on the words of employees cited in interviews and in videos about the raids posted on Gibson's web site: "Randy Ferrell, a final assembly worker at Gibson, says that the raids make him very concerned about lay-offs and that the company may be forced to close its doors because 'If they take our wood away and we can’t work our ownership has no choice.'" What exactly is the value of testimonials by employees with an axe of the nonmusical type hanging over their heads?

So, ye buzzards of the right, buzz off. Or should I say, pluck off. Gibson is not exactly your local candy store, Juskiewicz is not the down-home small business owner driven to poverty by the federal bureaucracy, and the feds, though very likely heavy-handed and lacking solid proof of an intention to break the law, are not chasing down paper tigers in the Malagassy jungles, but attempting to enforce an act with important consequences for biodiversity and other ecological benefits.

Wherefore all this rumination on guitars and rainforests? Well, it raises the interesting question of whether a company that is part of the supply chain for the production of art should be held to a different ethical standard than other companies. My opinion is that it should not, but the standard itself should include caveats about the nature of the enterprise. Were ebony, mahogony and rosewood merely in short supply, there would be a reasonable argument that guitar and piano manufacturers should have access to them at the expense of, say, the makers of tourist trinkets or bookcases for luxury apartments. That is part of what it is to have standards, to make judgments about what is and isn't an appropriate way to use a valuable resource.

But that does not mean we should simply look the other way when art-related manufacturers utilize rare resources. This is what the rightwing media are counting on, that our sympathy for the great music made on Gibson instruments will automatically cause us to shift the blame onto Obama, first of all, and zealous environmentalists, second. But we should not dance to the beat of their drum. By and large, guitar makers have managed to get by and make great guitars in spite of the restrictions on rainforest woods. Let's hope Gibson works out this issue with the feds, but let's not go jumping on the big bad federal bureaucracy just because some Fortune 500 wannabe cries foul.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Tommasini Ten

What? Two classical music posts in a row? Since when did the Parrot get such an urbane bug in his tropical ear? Well - when a leading NY Times music critic like Anthony Tommasini indulges himself and his readers in an exercise like "name the ten greatest composers who ever lived" the Skeptical Parrot cannot resist the challenge.

First, I imagine a scenario like the following: The Times editor sits everybody down in a big conference room and says: "Okay, now, you all know that newspaper readership is declining, and our future (and yours) depends largely on the success of the web site. So everybody's got to do his or her part to build our web presence. I need all writers to have at least one proposal for how you can contribute to this on my desk by tomorrow morning." Not having a heck of a lot of time to brainstorm, the music critics come of with various "best of"-type ideas. And though the notion of a "ten best" classical composers is as nutty as a Gesualdo slumber party, it seems likely to get enough people anxious that their personal favorites will be passed over that lots of people will appear to be interested. And when Tommasini duly reports the "more than 1500 informed, challenging, passionate and inspiring comments from readers of The New York Times" the only rational response from said editor would be "way to go, Tony!"

But while Tommasini and his readers may have had their fun, the entire exercise lacked one thing from the start: criteria. Rather than offer X, Y and Z as the criteria of greatness, and then engage in a fact-finding study as to who best fulfills them, the crtieria got hauled out here in half-baked form, hidden under the tones and rants of subjective impressions and assessments of individual accomplishments. Only by such constant tipping of the scales one way or another did Tomassini end up with a list in which, for example, Bartok is included but not Handel, Haydn, Grieg, Mahler, Tchaikovsky or Schoenberg; Verdi is in, but Vivaldi, Schumann, Dvorak, Chopin, Berlioz, Liszt and Elgar don't make the cut. Tomassini does not so much as apologize, in his final essay, for the fact that he couldn't squeeze Mendelssohn into his list; after all, he is only the composer of the world's most popular violin concerto, two of the most popular symphonies, some of the greatest works of chamber music, the Elijah oratorio, the Hebrides Overture and Midsummer Night's Dream Overture (including what is perhaps the world's most frequently performed piece of classical music, the Wedding March) and the Songs Without Words for piano; and, since Tommasini likes to refer to extra-musical facts about his choices, he is also largely responsible for our current appreciation of Tommasini's #1 composer, J.S. Bach. Not enough, apparently, to place him above the illustrious Bartok, whose influence on anyone or anything is debatable and whose quality is as uneven as that of many other 20th c. options.

What sort of nonsense is denoted by "top ten classical music composers in history"? I can't even begin to imagine. There is a sort of grudging consensus among classically trained musicians that from the Baroque on, J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart and L. van Beethoven are the three greatest composers. Beyond that, there is a slightly less firm consensus that Handel, Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms make the cut. You get Chopin, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Mahler in the late romantic contingent. And in the "be fair to the 20th" category it goes without saying that Debussy (whose most importat works were writtne after 1900), Stravinsky and Schoenberg had the biggest impact (though "greatness" at this point already depends more on "admirable" than "lovable"). So there are your "top sixteen classical music composers in history" and I did virtually no work to arrive at it. You want to cut, then you cut the late romantics and Schoenberg because they are more controversial than the others (or in Chopin's case, more limited in range of composition). Now you've got eleven, a nice prime number. And if anyone wants to challenge this, I'm just going to say: "Look, I have my personal favorites too. For example, Purcell, Teleman, Bruckner and Elgar definitely make my pantheon. But I am not talking about personal favorites, I'm talking about consensus. And that, I can virtually guarantee after almost half a century of appreciation, study, training and performance of classical music, is what I just said it is. So there you go."

Someone will no doubt be inclined to respond like this: "Yeah, but even if you're right, the consensus is wrong, because so-and-so is really greater than so-and-so". In that case I'm going to ask for your criteria for greatness; and you may find that once you state it, and apply it consistently, people who you don't want to be on your list will be, and others who you want will be excluded. And that is no doubt what would have happened with Tomassini's list if he hadn't been backing up his choices with an ever-changing arsenal of justifications for the people he included. Each choice is secured on somewhat different grounds. By such methods, anyone with a reasonable knowledge of classical music can produce and back up a list of his own and write off Tomassini's arguments. What is the value of that exercise?

The fact that Tommasini came up with so many of the consensus guys I just mentioned shows perhaps that they are the ones who get on the list by any reasonable standard. But Tomassini goes even further than identifying the 10 "greatest" composers; he actually goes so far as to rank them in order! Here's his list: (1) Bach (2) Beethoven (3) Mozart (4) Schubert (5) Debussy (6) Stravinsky (7) Brahms (8) Verdi (9) Wagner (10) Bartok. The reasons for these rankings probably belong in a joke book: Wagner, for example, was an anti-semite and therefore ranks behind Verdi as a composer! Sqwuakkk! Beethoven beats Mozart because Tomassini thinks he is more daring, or something like that. Brahms slides down, apparently, because he tried to walk the line between conservatism and the progressive pull of the Romantic. (One might just as well say this is why he should slide up, but why argue with such wily logic?) It's all very silly, but hey, it sure pulls readers into that web site. They all want to have their say. And so do I. Oh sorry, I didn't play by the rules and posted this on my own site. Well, you're free to use the permalink at the top.

So here are a few of my non-"Comments".

First, Bela Bartok is not even on my list of top ten post-Romantic pre-War 20th century composers. Of course the caveats are necessary to exclude not only Mahler, Elgar, Rachmaninoff and Sibelius but also Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage and other great figures of the second half of the 20th century from consideration for this very exclusive list. This seems fair since the late Romantics would win hands down and the post-War period is still being evaluated. The list would then go as follows (in no particular order): Schoenberg, Ives, Stravinsky, Webern, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Copland, Barber, Vaughan Williams. Is Bartok next? Maybe; for Bluebeard's Castle, Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta, the 2nd Violin Concerto, and some of the quartets (though the middle ones get him negative points). The problem is that few of those pieces really send me as much as the best ones by the other guys. But he tried harder, I have to admit that. Another BB, Tommasini's favorite Benjamin Britten, never impressed me much. Good thing I'm not a Big Berg fan or BB1 would slide below AB, who's definitely in front of BB2. According to BP (the Brooklyn Parrot).

Next, by what logic, exactly, is all the classical music prior to Bach somehow dismissed from this exercise? Or does "history" begin in the late 17th century? Guillaume de Machaut, Josquin des Prez and Palestrina were each, in their day, considered among the greatest composers of all time; and history, I think more or less backs up this judgment. Shame on Tomassini for ageism. Byrd, Dufay, DiLassus, Gabrieli and a few others may also deserve consideration.

If consistency is a criterion of greatness, as I think it should be, there are only, to my knowledge, two composers whose mature work contains no second-rate pieces: Bach and Brahms. Beethoven's execrable Wellington's Victory and one or two other late pieces bar him from this list. Mozart's juvenilia can be discounted by virtue of the "mature" clause; but his ridiculous parlor music output of divertimenti and serenades, with one or two well-known exceptions, take him off the table. I will admit that I can't actually name a Schubert piece I dislike, but of his many quartets and piano sonatas, I think they do not all rise to the level of the greatest classical music. Chopin is probably beyond criticism, but as I said, the fact that his output is all but limited to solo piano music and a couple of concerti means he should not be compared with composers who tried and consistently succeeded at a variety of musical forms. Handel is a serious possibility; though with over 200 vocal works, of which I am terribly familiar with exactly one, it is hard to pretend that I really know much about Handel's consistency. (It is interesting to note that though he does not make Tommasini's list, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are all on record as considering him their master. Go figure.)  And that's about it for composers who even might be perfectly consistent at a very high level.

I now return to my own "favorites" list. First, let me say this: Telemann wrote more works than any other composer; he wrote over 2000 cantatas alone, which amounts to a cantata a week, every week, for 40 years, in addition to at least 1000 other pieces. Neither I nor, I think, any other living person has heard even a majority of Telemann's music. I have, however, heard quite a bit of it, and I think it is fair to say I have not only never heard a bad work, but never heard a work that is less than fully satisfying, original, and stocked with passages of great beauty. I think it is at least possible that by some criteria, such as quantity of high-quality output, Telemann deserves to be called one of the greatest composers of all time. Next, though his output is much more limited in quantity, I find Henry Purcell's music to be of such unearthly beauty that I could listen to nothing else for weeks. He has a permanent piece of real estate in my Composers' Heaven. Staying with the English for a minute (who grossly overvalue their dry, unadventurous types like Britten and Frank Bridge and undervalue more interesting figures like William Walton and Michael Tippett) I find Edward Elgar's music to be the equal of any composer from the 19th century on. Of his many underrated pieces, the String Quartet and Violin Concerto stand out to me. Again, I have never heard a less than completely satisfying piece by Elgar. He's in my Top Whatever list, by almost any criteria. 

Moving right along, while I recognize that Anton Bruckner had his less than stellar moments - the 2nd and 6th symphonies primarily - I find several of his symphonies so deeply moving that upon the 100th hearing they still reduce me to tears. These would include the First, Third, Fourth, Seventh and Ninth at least; while the Fifth and Eighth are almost at that level, and even the Sixth, surely an imperfect work, contains many passages of beauty. My admiration for him is so high that even his "student" symphony, "#0" so-called, I find as satisfying as many composers' mature works. He is among my top 5 symphonists, for sure. Next, anyone who underrates Ives is a fool; the Concord Sonata alone is enough to label him a musical genius, and when you add his greatest orchestral works, his string quartets and violin sonatas, and some of his best songs and piano works, Ives has a secure a place in the Top Whatever as anyone. 

I am also going to put in another plug here for Paul Hindemith. Ever since my high school orchestra took up his small, hauntingly gorgeous piece called Trauermusik I have loved almost everything I've heard by Hindemith. His Symphonic Metamorphoses is the greatest orchestral theme and variations I known; his Violin Concerto is extremely underplayed and should be hauled out regularly; his more well-known works like the several Kammermusik pieces and the Mathis der Maler symphony are also brilliant. (I will admit that his setting of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd is a bit challenging, but I think it will eventually reward repeated listenings.) That said, other than Stravinsky, Prokofiev is surely the greatest tonal modernist of the 20th century; how there can even be a doubt about it is beyond me. I love much of Shostakovich's work, but he is surely not very consistent and tends to get in a rut. Prokofiev towers over Bartok, IMHO; I would say that even his film scores are superior to almost anything Bartok ever wrote, to say nothing of his magnificent symphonies, ballets, concerti, violin sonatas, piano works, etc. Head and shoulders over Bartok, and most other 20th century tonal composers.

The French don't get much respect in classical music; between Dufay and Debussy they are practically ignored. But I think Ravel is almost as great as Debussy. His influence on modern music is, in my opinion, vast and little appreciated (except by film composers!) and his output of great works is considerable. I happen to be a Faure fan; he is perhaps too subtle to get a lot of accolades, but pieces like the Requiem and Piano Quartet are some of my favorites. And I wonder at the fact that Saint Saens does not get much attention; though he was very uneven, and could be borderline kitschy, his output as a whole includes a remarkable amount of memorable music.  Lastly, Sibelius seems not to be getting his due in the discussion. I don't have to go through the list of his enormously popular and beautiful works, but I would say at least that the 2nd Symphony is one of the most profound pieces of instrumental music ever written.

Okay, I'm done. What does all this prove? There is no such thing as the "10 greatest classical composers in history". There are two or three dozen composers who have made classical music what it is, and without whom it would be a musical genre of very modest interest. There is really no whittling it down to "10 greatest"; the best classical composers are great for many different reasons, and which reasons trump other reasons will always be a very subjective affair. My top-16-by-consensus is about as good as you can get; and the fact that the favorites I just listed are not among them only further demonstrates that when you change your criteria to accommodate the people you like, the list is limited only by the broad class of composers who have written several great classical works. So let that be the epitaph for top-10 lists in classical music. At least until I need to attract more people to this web site.

[Note: Updated 14 January 2013 - corrected a misstated lead sentence in Par.10, plus some minor typos and stylistic issues.]

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Trouble With Tosca

If one's answer to the question "What's in a name?" is anything other than "nothing", one is probably best served by not having the name Bondy in New York Cty right now. This year one such unfortunate has managed to get himself fired from a top City job; that would be "Joel" Bondy, who is at least unofficially accumulating much of the blame for what has become known as the CityTime scandal. But my concern right now is with another Bondy, the almost equally maligned Luc, who last year offered us a new Met production of Tosca, the Puccini opera that has managed to stay in the forefront of the repertoire in spite of its rather dubious dramatic premise.

Bondy's production, which I saw Monday night, replaced Franco Zefirelli's longstanding one last year. Though I never saw the Zefirrelli production (they didn't have $20 Varis rush tickets then) it is not hard to imagine what it was like if you have ever seen his films (which I have). Zefirrelli's staging and set design are descendents of the Hollywood blockbuster style of the '50's, Cecil B. DeMille in particular. Fancy costumes and oversizes sets fill all the available space, with enough extras to employ a small town in full. Luc Bondy is the opposite: stark, indeed dark, spare staging, with unadorned sets that loom like huge geological outcrops. 

Bondy's Tosca was roundly criticized when it appeared last year, with calls for bringing back the Zefirrelli show at all cost. The Met resisted. I wonder why! Read Donald Henahan's review of their 1985 opening of the Zefirrelli production and you'll see. In case your Times access is restricted, let me give you an idea. It begins, "Poor Franco Zefirrelli," and gets a little worse from there. Of the famous procession in the Te Deum sequence Henahan writes: "Given a modicum of talent onstage and in the pit, it is difficult to keep this scene from making a tremendous theatrical effect. Mr. Zeffirelli, however, succeeded in failing simply by crowding his procession of panoplied worshipers downstage close behind Cornell MacNeil" (Scarpia). What further galled some people was Zefirrelli's use of an elevator stage in the third act, literally lifting the courtyard into the air to reveal Cavaradossi in a dungeon, awaiting execution.

No elevator in the Bondy production. Everything's cut back to the bare walls. Ed Pilkington wrote in the Guardian that Scarpia's office looks like "a waiting room in an institution". Then there is the odd bit of antithesis to this restraint: three sluts who hang out with Scarpia in his office fawning over him in various sexual positions - a man who declares only a few moments later that he could care less for this sort of affection, who only gets excited when he has a woman caught in his iron grip, after which he tosses her aside. And there's the tremedous Cavaradossi painting, not much smaller than Chagall's Met murals, which Pilkington inaptly compares to "a Mills and Boon cover portrait"; it is rather vaguely reminiscent of some Italian Renaissance painting, though certainly not a good painting - a bit of washed out Rembrandt or toned down Rubens perhaps, and certainly nothing that would have been painted in Italy during the time of the Napoleonic wars.

But all that in itself would not make or break a production. Why, then, does this one seem so, let's say, not very satisfying? I have a theory. It goes like this: take a problematic drama and dress it up and no one stops to think about what a problematic drama it is; take the same one and cut the frills back to recession levels, and there is no avoiding the painful fact that the play is just not very good. The problem, in short, is not so much Bondy as what happens to Puccini, or perhaps Sardou, when Tosca is allowed to stand on its own as a drama.

What happens, to my sensisbilities, is that the action is seen as so simplisitic - formulaic, if you will - that it fairly insults the intelligence. The crux of it is that an evil police chief is going to try to get Tosca to sleep with him by torturing her lover until she relents in order to save him. Torture does not really work on the stage. It can work fine in movies, from Open City to Casino Royale; it falls flat on stage just because it is so over the top. Male sexual predation also does not work dramatically when the situation has no subtlety; there is no room there to plumb any deep human insights, as we are all a little too familiar with this sort of character flaw. Sexual conquest guaranteed by torture is about as naked as it gets, and even the leather that Bondy injects into the scene (how 1800... not) cannot make it more interesting.

But what if the sexual exploits are a vehicle for some higher-order meaning? After all, there are quite a few themes that surround and contextualize the underlying sexual tension (such as it is): there is the Napoleonic invasion, and the fate of the Republican Angelotti, who depends on the favor of Napoleon for his office as Consul. There is Tosca's jealousy. And there are numerous references to the relationship between art, politics, religion and morality. Does this save the play? Not really. Perhaps Scarpia's dictatorial pretensions are being equated with sexual domination; I doubt, though, that that was a new or interesting metaphor 100 years ago, and certainly isn't today. Another problem is that when the action turns this way and that based on the fate of the Napoleonic invasion it has the quality of an ad hoc device: someone runs in and declares that his forces are losing, or winning, and bingo, deus ex machina, the dramatist has what he wants to alter the fates of the characters.

The role of Tosca's jealousy, other than to give rise to a duet or two, is to cause her to run to Cavaradossi's love nest in the woods, unwittingly leading Scarpia's men to where they think Angelotti is hiding and to the arrest of Cavaradossi himself. I guess you can say that her jelousy leads to her undoing and that of her lover. The problem is that that idea, though it has some merit as irony, is so completely overshadowed by the sexual power play in Act Two that it really does not get exploited much for dramatic or philosophical value. Here you have not only an ignoble man dominating two great artists, but an inferior theme dominating a much better one. And as for that art and morality idea, I am at a loss to see that it gets a very insightful treatment here. Art does not seem to have much power in this depiction, and perhaps that is the point, though it is an odd point for a drama. After all, it's what everyone thought all along (though I suppose Plato would be an exception - he thought it had the power to distort our understanding of reality). The painter is murdered, the singer is betrayed and commits suicide... aside from a pile-up worthy of Shakespeare, what does this ultimately say about the human spirit or the role of art in uplifting it? It's not as if the tragic flaws here are so well exploited that we can get any further message out of it.

Lastly, there's an art-love-religion conjuncture here, but again, I can't see that much coming out of it. Tosca is a deeply religious woman, and her love for Cavaradossi is first enacted in a cathedral, where she at first refuses his advances due to the presence of a depiction of the Madonna. But Cavaradossi's painting is apparently also compared with the Madonna, so Tosca's jealousy, inspired by the painting, has a double edge to it as more than slightly immoral. Perhaps this is why she has it within her to commit murder -  in self-defense, or is it revenge? A little of both, perhaps. As for Cavaradossi, the torture he is subjected to in Scarpia's hands is described as having a spiked ring tightened around his head. Uh, right, let me see, does that remind me of anything? The artist as Messiah, tortured and murdered by the... Roman guards? Okay, I get it. But in what way, exactly, is art supposed to save the world here? That part I don't get. There may be something about faith and freedom going on, though the equation of Napoleon with liberty and justice might not resonate very much today. I guess one could explore this more. I am convinced, though, that whatever philsophical content there is here is too deeply hidden beneath the sordid action to have much theatrical power.

Quite a bit could be added about Puccini's role in making the opera difficult to bring off dramatically. I mean, for example, the not exactly faint vocal part assigned to Cavaradossi as be emerges from the torture chamber - is that supposed to be believable? No, it's supposed to be opera... All the same, there are some dubious choices here. Admittedly, there is a certain genius to the device of having an offstage "cantata" (sung by Tosca and choir) competing with the vocal lead in Scarpia's office; I'd love to examine the score to see if they are even in the same key. (A foreshadowing of Stravinsky and Ives?) But no one has ever denied that Tosca is a great work of music.

So am I saying "buy the CD, don't go to the opera"? Not quite, though I could see an argument for it. Why then go into this lengthy dramatic analysis of a 110-year-old opera? Because in my opinion that's what underlies the Zefirrelli-Bondy debate. The former tried to mitigate the play's dramatic failures; the latter perhaps thought that was dishonest and it is best to let it speak for itself. I'm all for honesty, but it can only be brought off if the quality of the acting is as high as that of the singing. In the case of this production, at least, that was not really so. Sondra Radvanovsky gave an admirable performance of the music. She had sufficient range and power to bring off the part, and was particularly impressive in the magnificent Vissi d'arte, the aria in which she compares her dedication to art with her present horrible situation, after which the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause. If she had one or two minor difficulties with some of the vocal leaps demanded by Puccini it did not, overall, detract from the beauty of her singing, which included some perfectly executed pianissimo tones up in the coloratura range. Unfortunately, her dramatic skills are all but nonexistent. I was seated in the orchestra, not close, but close enough to appreciate the difference between a rote performance and real acting. Falk Struckmann's Scarpia was quite a bit better dramatically; as the imperious police chief he was sufficiently domineering but capable of pulling off the good-cop-bad-cop thing that is implied by this character's machinations. His singing, and that of Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi, whose dramatic options are really quite limited in this opera, was strong and fully up to the part.

In light of all this, I guess the question to ask is whether there was anything really wrong with the Zefirrelli production. Should it be brought back? Actually, Zefirrelli produced the opera not only for the Met, but for La Scala and Covent Garden, and given the differences in the stages and the state of technology at the time, I'm not sure all these productions were the same or even very similar. One thing I can say without hesitation: there is nothing wrong with this Zefirrelli production - though bringing it back would be something like a scene from The Uninvited. I doubt there is a true opera fan who would not have given his left ear to have been there. Until somebody brings back these dramatic skills, I'm afraid that Bondy's production will continue to highlight the awkwardly simplistic drama at the heart of Tosca.

Ultimately, people go to opera for the music, not the play, and I suspect that in the long run they will continue to go to Tosca regardless of what the production is. Nevertheless, this production should be taken as a warning. There are quite a lot of operas based on weak underlying dramas. If the drama is not the point anyway, I say let the production take over when it has to. The music will be heard, and may be more satisfying, because a bad play is in the end more distracting than a good spectacle.