Month: October, 2007

The Rest is Noise

Monday, October 29th, 2007 | All Things, Books, Music

I always feel a little nostalgic being back on campus, and this night, seated at a desk inside 501 Schermerhorn, I could not help but be reminded of lectures past. Tonight, though, I was here to sit in on an interview with Alex Ross, the classical music critic of the The New Yorker, whose long-anticipated history of music in the twentieth-century was released on October 16. The talk was led by Casper Mao, founding member of The Blue Notebooks, a student-run group presenting interviews with leading writers, artists, and intellectuals at Columbia University.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century addresses the basic question of why when works of Picasso and Pollock are mass-printed on posters, and lines from T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost are known to teenagers across the county, is twentieth-century classical music still considered elite, obscure and inaccessible? Yet despite these seemingly widespread attitudes, classical music seems to have experienced a resurgence in recent years. The United States now has 125 opera companies — more than opera-loving Germany or Italy — whereas fifty years ago there were only a handful. Roughly as many Americans attend live opera performances as attend NFL football games. The reports of the death of classical music, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated.

Columbia University

Ross is an engaging writer, and The Rest Is Noise (first chapter here) is his attempt at a whirlwind tour of the last century’s composers and major musical developments. Among the organizing principles is to place music in a wider cultural and political context: not just the (in)famous incidents like the scandals over Arnold Schoenberg‘s atonal works or the riots reacting to the visceral rhythms of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” but also for example, Dmitri Shostakovich’s consultations with Joseph Stalin, the inflection of Aaron Copland‘s music by the fashionable communism of New Deal America, and Richard Strauss’s work under the spell of Hitlerian aesthetics. Steve Reich and Philip Glass’s minimalist compositions were inspired by the freestyle independence of jazz and early rock and roll, which in turn later influenced acts like David Bowie, The Velvet Underground and Aphex Twin.

Alex Ross

Ross is one of my favorite music critics, and in person as in his writing, he is wittily informative without being judgmental or pedantic. (Above, cuing the severe, brooding bass and cello opening of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 to challenge musicology’s general dismissal of the composer as a traditionalist among his “modern” contemporaries.) Ross’s ambitious undertaking has received generally excellent reviews. How can you not like a guy who displays such an unabashed affinity for Björk (she even blurbed his book; Ross met the Icelandic singer-songwriter in 2004), and has championed the likes of Radiohead and 1990s indie rock band Pavement? Plus how many people can effectively work in a “Beavis and Butt-Head” reference when writing about rock chord progression and Jonny Greenwood’s slashing guitar?

Radiohead have stopped playing “Creep,” more or less, but it still hits home when it comes on the radio. When Beavis of “Beavis and Butt-head” heard the noisy part, he said, “Rock!” But why, he wondered, didn’t the song rock from beginning to end? “If they didn’t have, like, a part of the song that sucked, then, it’s like, the other part wouldn’t be as cool,” Butt-head explained.

I could not have said it better myself.

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Where there’s smoke…

Sunday, October 28th, 2007 | All Things, Friends

On the way out to Sunnyside Gardens this evening, I noticed these new LED displays on the 7 train. The purple circle and diamond symbols were never very effective in distinguishing between train routes; certainly these new signs are a vast (and long overdue) improvement over the old system of popping your head into a subway car ­– careful to avoid the guillotine action of the closing doors — and yelling “Express or Local?” only to be met with stony stares or indecipherable grumbles. “Lxprzl”?

7 signage

Out on RM’s patio, SYB and I were tasked with starting a fire for the barbecue. Even armed with a box full of matches, the autumn winds posed quite a challenge. It’s situations like these when I think that Girl Scouts training would have been far more useful than piano and violin lessons. We finally managed to get things going after several false starts; the orange flames (and copious wine) provided wonderful warmth against the chilly falling darkness.

Our gracious host brought out a tray of chicken burgers from The Butcher Block, a popular local Irish delicatessen which in 2004 reopened in a new location after its original long-held spot across the street was virtually destroyed the year before in a major fire along Queens Boulevard. I’ll admit that I’m generally not a huge fan of chicken burgers — beef being my usual patty preference — but these were quite good: more like chicken sausage patties. We rounded out the eats with grilled steak and (not grilled) couscous, and over our new friend TD‘s Astoria cherry pie, the talk turned to matters like the rivalries among NYC specialized high schools. Riveting for the non-NYC natives, I’m sure, but when it came out that there were two Science alums in the house, what could we do? As we watched the Sunnyside kindling-fed fires slowly die down to embers in the cold moonlight, I wished I had thought to bring supplies for s’mores — pretty much the only situation in which I prefer Hershey’s milk chocolate bars. Next time.

I had no idea how insidiously the soot had permeated my pores and clothing until on the way home when I was caught in one of those dreaded “sick passenger” delays at Times Square. As more commuters piled into the already crowded subway car, the woman behind me, whose nose was probably no more than three inches from my hair, asked her friend in an alarmed tone, “Do you smell smoke?” I cringed inwardly as I heard the two of them sniffing the air behind my head frantically for the next few seconds, until one muttered a revelatory “Oh.” I sensed, rather than saw, her gesture toward smokey me in disgust.

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Hear ye, hear ye

Saturday, October 27th, 2007 | All Things, Events, Friends

Last night’s nasty weather continued and worsened into this morning, making my trip out to Long Island a very messy one indeed. If rain on your wedding day is supposed to be lucky — or is that… ironic? — NI will be blessed with enough fortune for a lifetime.

The Coral House on Milburn Lake was just a five minute drive from the Baldwin station off the LIRR — actually a walkable distance if it weren’t thunderstorming and I were not wearing a cocktail dress and heels. My taxi driver, upon being given the destination, told me that he had been married at the very same venue, three decades earlier. He said it was the best day of his life.  Awww!

The wet weather did cause some last-minute scrambling: the ceremony, which had been slated for outdoors, was moved inside to a room with views of the duck-filled lake instead. As we waited for the ceremony to begin — I learned later that the limo with the bridal party had gotten lost en route to the venue — a playlist of love songs was piped in through the speakers… a rotation of hits that seemed to have remained unchanged since the early 1990s, including Extreme’s “More Than Words,” Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting,” and Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.”

Shy flower girls:

Shy flower girls

Though the weather outside was frightful, it turned out to be a lovely afternoon, if not exactly what I expected. At one point during the vows, NI’s voice began to quaver, setting off a chain reaction of sentimental tearing, beginning with the groom. That gets me every time. Just as I felt my own eyes start to well, a cell phone went off loudly in my row, breaking the mood. D’oh! For a nanosecond, I panicked at the thought that I was to blame — I’m positively OCD about silencing the ringer during such moments — but soon it became apparent that the source was the purse of the woman seated directly to my right. One of those obnoxious, jangly tunes, too… not that the ringtone makes much of a difference in the middle of a marriage ceremony. Several indignant heads swiveled in our direction. Only honor kept me from pointing out the true culprit. (Her crimson cheeks and mad fumbling told the true story anyway — all of which was caught on video.)

Wedding favor

Wedding cake

Much food, and even more dancing followed. Is “The Cha-Cha Slide” the “Macarena” of the 00’s?

By late afternoon, the skies had cleared for brilliant sunshine, and buoyed by champagne bubbles, I was encouraged to venture the walk back to the railroad station to catch the train back to NYC, heels or no.

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