There are no words for me to explain just how influential Amadeus and Peter Shaffer continue to be for me. There's a point in the film version when Salieri says, in the middle of a prayer, "Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote." They will for Shaffer.
The Stupid Cancer Show had me on for a second time last night, and it was a roiling good time. The entire show's funny and informative, and my segment at about 24:30 takes us through an op-ed I wrote for the Los Angeles Times called The Pressure to Say You're OK. We also discuss asking the hard questions as cancer survivors--which include money questions and billing practices for a chance at financial transparency--as well as how recently the hospital associated with my alma mater (Johns Hopkins) decided I owed them thousands of dollars without me ever having seen a doctor there! Crazy but true, and the hunt for money to pay for this imaginary medical work only took three months to quash. Listen to the show right here.--Adam Baer
Each of the six Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin feels like a day of the week to me. Of course, there's nothing for Day 7; Bach was religious. I've thought a lot about this idea, and I've realized that the reason I feel this way has to with each musical work's key--for example, d minor is dark, serious and somber; C major pure; E major ebullient. But it also has to do with each piece's specific mood, the musical ideas, the harmonies, the statements. That they appeared in the Bach violin work manuscript in this order matters, too, although why start the first sonata on a specific day? Did the Bach pieces help shape the way I feel about days of the week or vice versa? I'll never know because I've been playing them since I was very young. Here, below, I've associated each work with each day of the week, as played by Gidon Kremer.--Adam Baer
Monday -- Sonata No.1 in G minor
Tuesday -- Partita No. 1 in B minor
Wednesday -- Sonata No. 2 in A minor
Thursday -- Partita No. 2 in D minor (including the famous Chaconne )
Friday -- Sonata No. 3 in C Major
Saturday -- Partita No. 3 in E major
Posted on December 18, 2015 at 08:54 AM | Permalink
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So it's Leonard Bernstein's birthday. Maybe you know him as the composer of West Side Story. Maybe you know him as a former NY Philharmonic conductor. But as many of you also know Bernstein was a great composer outside of the theater, and his concert music is very moving . One of my favorite violin concertos is a piece he wrote called the Serenade, After Plato's Symposium. It's a piece about love, and each part or movement is focused on a great speaker in the Plato work (for example, there's a Socrates section). It's a really cool and engaging way to put philosophy to music, or rather, to show how music can be inspired by a specific collection of ideas and talks. It's also rich with emotion and sometimes a lot of good fun. Here's a great recording of one of the more expressive portions with Bernstein conducting. I hope you have a chance to listen to it soon, and then if you like it, to seek out the whole work.--Adam Baer
I wrote a piece for today's Sunday LA Times about violinist Itzhak Perlman. It's an honest appreciation, but it also talks about trends in violin-playing, and notes how not only is the Household-name Violinist Ideal sadly no longer a reality in 2015, but that we should appreciate Perlman specifically for all that he has done and continues to do as a musician, violin ambassador, teacher, and inspiration. There is some criticism of a new collection of previously released CDs -- but the critique is light and mostly aimed at a dollar-conscious record label -- not so much Perlman, whose playing on those discs is strong and of a piece with violin performance style in America at the time. (For a recommendation from my piece, try this recording of Perlman playing a movement from Leonard Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's Symposium.)
Now, I've had some conversations with my colleagues about the piece, and it has led us to discuss what needs to be said in appreciation essays about figures like Perlman. My feeling is that to characterize Perlman's playing as "schmaltzy" in the way that it reads in the subheadline in the print version is somewhat mean-spirited and unnecessary. I write in the article that some "on-trend" listeners may feel that it's schmaltzy (even Perlman would admit that he doesn't approach music coldly), but I don't use the word in an aggressive way, and I didn't write the subheadline, or the headline, for that matter.
It's always hip to be vicious and unyielding, and it gets eyeballs -- but I went through that phase as a very young critic already, and I didn't like what it brought out in me, what my work may have done to others, or the kinds of people it introduced me to on a regular basis (especially here in Los Angeles, where one late critic spent time trying to take down his colleagues). I write honestly, and I always choose the truth. Good critical thinking will always win, and that's important to me. I write about trends and performance styles specifically for this reason. Context.
Sadly the subheadline in the print version of this essay--and I recognize that some people only saw the print version, that's why I'm writing this post--was written by someone else and communicates an unkind spirit, especially in the way it uses the word "schmaltzy." I'm the child of Jewish musicians, and I like me some occasional schmaltz (both culinary and sonic) even if I also like a more contemporary style of playing as well as various genres, including the most un-schmaltzy matter. I also wrote in the piece that I am a fan of Jascha Heifetz's recordings, which have their own Semitic quality.
What's more, as I say in the essay, Perlman has contributed fine interpretations and recordings to our music world. Tastes change as generations turn over. But I still feel a great warmth when I listen to Itzhak Perlman's playing, and I'm very thankful for him. He will always be someone to admire. And by the way, he's still a brilliant technician.
I hope that he knows that, and more important, that the readers of my piece know that. Remember: writers for big newspapers rarely if ever write the headlines for their pieces, or the sub-headlines (or get to see either of them before the piece is printed).
Itzhak Perlman means a lot to me: That's why I went out on a limb and wrote this piece. That's The message from the writer. Hope it comes across in the text. And if I sound a little schmaltzy, that's Ok with me.
One of the most important musical experiences of my life was participating in a young orchestra at Tanglewood that would learn and then perform Gustav Mahler's First Symphony, also known as the "Titan." It has one of the most life-affirming evocations of "good morning" baked into its first movement (just allow it to bloom), and it has been a sort of personal anthem for me. Today is Mahler's birthday, and the best thing that I can do to share this experience with you is to recommend listening to this recording below. (And if you can't handle something so long, try the first movement, and then make your decision.) I owe a lot to this piece -- and to this composer. I hope that you may come to feel the same way, too.
A few days ago, an op-ed columnist in the New York Times wrote that he didn't think his kid should transfer into a music school. Today, Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, responded in the Times. It's a strong, smart statement that takes the piece's headline literally, emphasizing "training" musicians "attuned to their communities" who should be "effective communicators, educators, entrepreneurs, audience development experts and citizen-artists." But there's more to be said on that issue.
I'm a former Peabody student, and I say that if you have the talent and determination, you should go to music school. It's one of the best things that I ever did with my life. It filled my soul and trained my brain to accomplish many other things, including serious writing projects. I'm a big believer in the humanities, and as a musician from a family of musicians, I wanted the immersion in music that they had enjoyed beyond the pre-college music conservatory. But I simultaneously attended Johns Hopkins' separate Arts & Sciences undergraduate program, and I graduated in 2000, a bad time to go to music school. Back then, the older classically oriented ones like mine (Peabody is the country's first conservatory), weren't designed yet to teach students what they really needed to know as the Internet was growing. They were experimenting. But schools that emphasized popular genres like the Berklee College of Music were leaps and bounds ahead, especially with respect to getting students fluent with digital and business.
The issue now isn't really whether or not you should go to music school. It's how strong is the school you want to attend? How well will it train you to be a musician-plus today? Sure, you can go to music school, study an instrument, composing, history, and theory--and you can learn the practical stuff on your own. But you really ought to ensure that you have your sights set on the realities of our time and that the music school you choose really does teach all of its students (maybe even as a "core") the following: business (especially entrepreneurship but also management, marketing, arts administration, contract negotiation, and financial skills); technology (app development, coding, UX, digital production for all genres [hip-hop, pop, songwriting, etc.], recording, video, engineering, music and sound editing for media/entertainment); music education; writing; arts advocacy; film/media composing; and IP/copyright law, as well as perhaps public health (!).
I have long appreciated Columbia University's "core curriculum." Music schools have always had a version of their own, consisting of theory, ear-training, lessons, etc. But now they need new ones full of required courses and skills assessments--it's not just about supplementing music classes with languages and the humanities or intros to the good things that Bronstein mentions (Peabody is lucky to have him). Courses in these subjects need to be authoritative and leave students with strong skills. They need to be practical and effective. I'm asking for a lot, but that's what the world asks of you as a musician, or as any kind of creative professional. So, schools: Please partner with media companies, music publishers, tech startups, small businesses, independent artists, more community schools. Add incentives. Stress the requirements beyond music skills. Stress that these are music skills.
I studied the violin at Peabody while attending Hopkins, but I live in Hollywood now, consult on music and work as a writer, journalist, and editorial content strategist. My first job out of college was at NPR; they hired me to be a cultural producer with a specialty in digital, but getting that gig was a bit of blind luck (although I knew how to code), based mostly on the fact that I'd published music criticism in the Washington Post. I would have benefitted so much from even a few of the aforementioned extra classes. Recording was available at my school, but it was a highly specialized degree program track. So, too, music education. These things were not stressed as necessary for everyone. But they were, and they are critically necessary now. A student at a great music school shouldn't have to learn Logic in an Apple Store.
What's great, though, is that Peabody is now poised to do this as an entity owned by Johns Hopkins University, and Bronstein says he's devoted to the cause. But it should be reiterated that I graduated from college 15 years ago, and Peabody was not moving on these things nearly quickly enough, even though it had been owned by Hopkins for a while. I have great hope for future music students, but also some words of advice: Double-degree program with a university. Or, even better, something new and singular that blends two types of schools like Hopkins and Peabody more seamlessly. That's what I tried to do with my program, and eventually I only took one degree (my Arts & Sciences B.A.). The Music School as a template for higher education needs to evolve more quickly and comprehensively for the sake of all musicians as well as those who will move into other fields while using their music skills. The great music that we love will be thankful.-- Adam Baer
Cheers, Best, Peace. Lately, a lot of people are claiming that we end our emails wrong. I get it. As a journalist and writer/editor I've emailed with usage hounds for years, seen all the permutations. To date, "Warm best" remains the creepiest/funniest email closing that I've ever received (though it came from a kind teacher with stellar writing chops, so when I'd see it, I'd just laugh, call it Affectedly Endearing).
My take on today's valedictions may be a little contrarian. Despite the well-meaning advice offered in this piece that advocates for the death of email closings, I still use "Sincerely" sparingly, and more often, "All best" (rarely just "Best," which often seems cold). "Sincerely" isn't--or, rather, doesn't have to be--"fake." It's not when I use it, and come to think of it, anything that "warms" up "best" today in our icy Bot-times seems considerate.
That said, I'm also fine with never signing off, especially in short social or business communiques; sometimes that's the code two people follow. But it's nice to treat others the way you'd like to be treated. So if a colleague or friend goes to the trouble of signing off with a closing, I'll sign off with something. There's still a large population of people who'd consider it rude not to sign off, and I'd hate to hurt their feelings because I choose to live on Twitter.
Maybe I'm getting warmer as I approach my personal best (best = old, right?). Maybe I see where my professor was coming from. All I know is that I also happen to like it when someone who has sent a significant "letter" signs off with something sincere--whether it's "Sincerely," "Seeya," "Stop, Collaborate, and Listen," "Cease and Decist," or "Slades," a slangy combo of "see you" and "later" that my brilliant wife invented.
Hasn't this has gone on long enough?
Saw something online that blew my mind about how to deal with riptides, so I wrote this quick thing for Men's Journal. I'd read it and watch the video if you ever plan on going into the ocean.
1. Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place
2. V.S. Naipaul: The Enigma of Arrival
3. Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones
4. Toni Morrison: Beloved
5. Gabriel García Márquez: Love in the Time of Cholera
6. Vijay Seshadri: The Long Meadow
7. Isaac Babel: The Collected Stories
8. Lucy Grealy: Autobiography of a Face
9. Leonard Michaels: I Would Have Saved Them if I Could
10. Zadie Smith: NW
Posted on May 12, 2015 at 01:02 PM | Permalink
When I first heard that the New York Times was running a series of Opinionator essays about psychology and psychotherapy called "Couch," I was pretty sure I'd have something to submit. I've not only a seen a few professionals in this field over the years, but the woman I married eventually became a stellar clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in Los Angeles. I like to kid that she's never had the good fortune to be my doctor, but that's of course true: I was never her patient, and she wasn't in this line of work when we met. She first started as a scientist, a researcher. At any rate, I decided that I'd write a piece about the key psychologists in my life, especially because two of them had massively differing approaches, and in fact, one passed away while seeing me with the same disease as me -- and never told me she was sick (such are boundaries). If you've made it this far, here's the link to the story that ran in the New York Times Couch series. Have a read and tell me if you still don't approve of strict boundaries like those which the selfless cancer therapists live by. I hope this honors them in some way. -- Adam Baer
p.s. Some people upon reading this piece don't get the sense that I had tried to honor these people in my life while still being truthful about my experiences with them. The very act that I have told these stories is an act of honoring them, and one can't change a couple of intriguing non-fiction stories into pure praise when one is composing this sort of journalism piece. I also did leave out a lot of info about my experience and both characters (as well as my wife). I don't want to have to say this -- I hope that some people get it -- but the piece itself is in a way a commentary on what we should share and what we shouldn't. And that every case is different, so hard and fast rules may exist but must like music be interpreted with good taste (for example, I could have shared my wife's name and advertised for her, but I didn't; nor did I want to intrude on the life of someone else's family). Thanks to all who read and corresponded with me about this essay. It wasn't easy to write but I felt that it could do some good to share it, and I hope it brings attention to the clinical psychologists (Ph.D.s) who work with cancer patients and their families while continuing to contribute to important research. If you want to donate to a cause look up the good people in your area who do this, and help them.
The congenial Christopher Noxon knows what it means to be a Plus One (something about weed, the color orange, and a talented woman called Jenji). Anyway, we talked about this subject and Chris' new novel Plus One for The Believer. You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Plus-One-Christopher-Nox…/…/1938849426 But you can read our interview by clicking here.
Celebrate Aaron Copland's birthday w/this lesser-known piece of music, dedicated to a lieutenant who had died in the South Pacific. I played, among other things, this piece in my first jury at Peabody Conservatory of Music, and the looks I received from the uber-traditional violin teachers (my judges) made me shake. It was an untraditional choice -- a "cop-out," one of them said. But the more annoyed she looked, the better I played. For a Tanglewood kid there was no greater honor than playing Copland, especially in a room that was full of people craving Paganini.
*If you want to learn more about Copland have a look at an old-school microsite that I created, edited, and produced for NPR in 2000 when we celebrated the Copland Centennial. -- Adam Baer
A lot of you know I've had cancer(s). That it's been tough, that I've been given the chance to write about it. And that I am lucky to have great health insurance. However, what many readers may not know, even if you've read my work, is that buried in a piece for Harper's Magazine that I published I talk about having a malignant tumor in the base of my skull (not my brain) called Chordoma. The piece makes it clear that I continue to live with it. But to make it more clear, this is one of the rarest diseases in America, and very few people, save for the generous experts who have to date saved my life with surgery and radiation and management, know what to do with chordomas, including a lot of doctors and researchers.
Of course, we're living at a time when a researcher might figure out an ever-better treatment. But a tiny portion of the population may not realize that this silent, fatal disease and its treatments force us to perpetually fight terrible side-effects (among them, the very serious condition of social isolation), and that if this is just one of the cancers you have/have had, life is never "OK," even if you do your best to make everyone around you feel like it is, lest you seem stranger, weirder, more of a reminder of everyone's mortality, a guilt-inducer. Rarer.
At any rate, the guy linked to in a few sentences is pretty much the only one of our generation, without an MD or PhD, working really hard to lead research and other programs that may help people with this specific rare disease. He and his foundation deserve serious support. His name is Josh Sommer, and his non-profit is called Chordoma Foundation. I'm ashamed that I haven't been more vocal about him and his work over the years, and that most times I don't want to read about this one of my diagnoses. But on a day like today, when I have questions about a certain drug that I need for one late effect of a previous cancer treatment, something that might make my chordoma worse, a question that cannot be answered, I feel lucky that Josh is doing what he does. This call for support is long overdue.
I hope that you read about Josh, and back his group. I learned that I have (a) chordoma because of an incidental MRI taken because of headaches. That means that many other people can have it, and that it can be less rare than we think, because who gets head MRIs for no good reason, and who looks into the heads of the deceased? I'd hate to learn of one more person suffering from this deadly problem, but it's highly possible, and that -- not any sympathy for my situation -- is why I posted this. People with chordoma are often told they may only live seven or ten years.
Some of us who've had the advanced treatments and surgeries are optimistic about living a lot longer, but we could be wrong. Josh, and the people he's working with, are not living in the vagaries; they are living and working for change in the now, and they don't feel their job is done with just one magazine article that appears to be a book review. I hope that I can help them more, and that you may decide to allocate some of your disposable income and time to help them, too. -- Adam Baer
"The cliffdwellers cling precariously to the brush-covered slopes of the Hollywood hills, sharing the common perils of fire and flood. In the late fall, when the humidity drops and a warm wind whips through the canyons, the hills may suddenly explode with flame. In the rainy season, when the naked cliffs crack and slide, the mortgaged wickiups come tumbling down. But the true cliffdweller always returns to his wildlife refuge. He trades in his charred Porsche, patches his pool, rebuilds his house-with-a-view and again settles down to enjoy the comforts of his mountain lair." ...
"Laurel is Southern California’s semi-tropical version of Manhattan’s East Village. Mediterranean villas dating back to the first hoarse days of talking pictures are hemmed in by dilapidated shacks owned by absentee landlords. The canyon’s natural fire hazards have been intensified of late by shaggy young nomads who turn on in the blackened ruins of burned-out mansions where Theda Bara may once have dined. The daily life of the community swirls around a small shopping center, “The Square,” which boasts the old-fashioned Canyon Country Store and a pleasant cafe, the Galleria."--1970 article from Holiday magazine on what it's like to live in the Hollywood Hills.
A number of years ago, well before this subject was written about elsewhere, I learned about, met, and began interviewing, the Silverlake-area guitar luthier and music-shop owner Reuben Cox who uses found materials to make equisite instruments that harken back to a period of American guitarmaking that has slipped away. Reuben, a photographer with credits from The New Yorker and New York Times, had opened a place called Old Style Guitars on the eastern/southern edge of the neighborhood -- before it had become hip. Still, bands like The National would drop by and play secret shows in his driveway. And quickly, the place became a node, a scene, for some of the best elite rock musicians in the country: You could see Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire there, Chan Marshall, Devandra B., Bobby Womack, Beck, Sufjan Stevens, Alexi Murdoch, Andrew Bird, tons of studio players, even Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. It was something like a micro Laurel Canyon for our time, inside a little box with lots of wires and wood. But it's hard to place significant articles about such esoteric subjects in the focused, news-oriented consumer magazines. So, I waited, and then an option to do something creative came up with one of my favorite magazines, The Believer. Now, I have turned the piece, which at last ran in The Believer's 2014 Music Issue, into a multimedia digital thing, with videos of The National playing at the store, a fetishistic guitar slideshow, and even a video of Arcade Fire using one of Reuben's guitars in Helsinki. Check it out at this URL, where I hope that it will live for a long time. http://logger.believermag.com/post/100588053844/interview-with-a-luthier-i-e-someone-who-makes
My thanks for reading, watching, waiting, and listening.
"What are you talking to me for?" asked Mel Brooks. "You need to talk to more Jews. Younger JEWS. Call Paul Mazursky."
Brooks was speaking to me for a Rolling Stone magazine piece about funny studio-executive notes. I'd heard of Mazursky's name, knew some of his movies, but had not connected that identity to the guy who had acted in recent episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the character "Larry David" would eventually kill via stress.
Mazursky had directed various important films about romantic relationships, had shared my New York background. I didn't know if the magazine would use his quotes, but I'd thought they'd appreciate me trying to get some good stories from someone who had been around some amazing sets.
I went to Mazurksy's Beverly Drive office, told him that Mel Brooks had sent me.
"What does he want?" Mazursky asked. "Oh, right. You're the kid."
"I'm the kid," I said. I was in my late twenties.
Next, Mazursky asked me about my background. He wanted to know everything. He'd said that he'd read something about me, something about cancer that his assistant had showed him. He told me very funny stories about the author Isaac Singer. Oh, and did I have cancer?
I said that it was hard to answer that question: Does anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer ever stop having it?
"My daughter," he said. "My daughter--"
Silence. Then tears.
Mazursky broke down in front of me. He bawled. His daughter also had a tumor, he'd said. She'd just been flown to a top hospital near us. He didn't know what to do. He was looking into "the guy who worked on Ted Kennedy at Duke."
Did I have suggestions, connections? What could they do?
The phone rang. Mazursky answered, gestured at me to stay.
"Yes, OK, that's the guy," he said on the phone. Then to me: It's Jeff Berg, you know him?"
Mazursky was speaking with one of Hollywood's most powerful talent agents who had been helping him make contact with a specific surgeon. He kept me in the office while he spoke with him. Then we talked some more.
I gave him the best contacts that I had, including one top neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai who had graced the cover of Time magazine.
He asked me to stay. "Let's talk," he said. "I'm sorry--"
"Don't worry," I said.
Then I sat in Paul Mazursky's office for an hour while he asked me more about my various medical problems related to surviving multiple cancers, the people I knew, the doctors, the therapies. He was suffering.
Eventually, he got a call from the hospital doctor that the agent had recommended. He answered the phone but asked the guy to hold before thanking me, saying that I should come see him again.
"I have so much to tell you about my career," he said.
I have this entire experience taped on one of my many old Olympus voice recorders that doesn't work with my Mac.
I shook Paul's hand, thanked him, reassured him that his daughter would be OK (as if I could know).
Then I went home and watched three Mazursky movies in the next couple of days.
I would not write about this experience until now, the day that I learned of Mazursky's death. His daughter had, in fact, died sometime after our meeting. But I am thankful that I got a chance to spend time with Paul, perhaps lend a hand in the moment, an ear, whatever.
I should have called him back to check on him and his family, but I kept putting it off. He had help, I told myself.
I don't put things like that off now.
"If we'd elected Flava Flav that would have shown America is no longer racist."--unused comment e-mailed to me by Larry Wilmore for a 2008 GQ assignment about comedy in Obama's time.
Check out plans for Wilmore's forthcoming The Minority Report.
Posted on May 03, 2014 at 09:28 AM | Permalink
Posted on April 04, 2014 at 11:40 AM | Permalink
There are many untold stories to share about the monumentally important pianist Rudolph Serkin, who would have celebrated a birthday today. But one that very few people know is that he gave one of my formative violin teachers, the late Mitchell Stern*, the down payment to buy a rare Guadagnini violin. Their relationship had been fostered at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, where Stern had been a student who'd won many awards, including the Leventritt Competition. *(I once told a story on NPR about how Stern had helped me through illness while being ill himself.)
At any rate, here's a video of the great, generous Rudolph Serkin playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. --Adam Baer
Posted on March 28, 2014 at 08:35 AM | Permalink
César Franck, and his sonata for violin, got me into every music festival and school that I ever attended. But I had an edge: a generous father-pianist who didn't just accompany but rather collaborated with me in performance. Still, I have to thank the composer who brought my father and I closer together during my teenage years, and the piece that I will always listen to as That One By the Composer Who Wrote My Life. Happy Birthday, Franck. -- Adam Baer
Posted on December 10, 2013 at 06:35 AM | Permalink
So many silly faux-facts in this LA Weekly listicle about Autumn in LA, so let it be said, this naturalized Angeleno born in New York longs not for "the seasons" or Autumn in New York" but rather for the winds Raymond Chandler mythologized in the following quote the Weekly is so smart to remember: "There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen..."
Posted on October 05, 2013 at 11:53 AM | Permalink
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Posted on August 08, 2013 at 01:14 PM | Permalink
Today the teller in Citibank asked me what I do for a living. I'm a writer, I said. That's awesome, she said. It can be, I said, but it's not as fun as some people think. Then, I left to go take a ping-pong lesson.
Posted on August 07, 2013 at 04:13 PM | Permalink
I appreciate how LinkedIn asks you to "congratulate" a connection on his/her birthday. One's best accomplishment is, to be sure, Not Having Died Yet.
For more comments about managing to stay alive, check out my new advice column at The Awl: "Ask Somehow Still-Alive Guy."
Thanks, and live strongly skeptical about people who tell you to Live Strong,
Posted on August 04, 2013 at 01:09 PM | Permalink
Tomorrow is Serge Koussevitsky's birthday, but I want to celebrate him today, get a jump on the festivities --I can link to his recorded performances tomorrow.
Who was he? Pictured above, next to the taller (!) composer Aaron Copland, he was the commandingly sensitive Russian-born conductor who, along with Copland and others, taught the young Leonard Bernstein, and who created much of what the Boston Symphony's Summer home in the Berkshires, known as Tanglewood, became.
Tanglewood is where my family was forged, and so there's more than simple lineage there for me as a music lover.
I wrote about this subject for NPR last year when Tanglewood turned 75, but as my family would visit the festival at least once each summer, so shall I celebrate it annually.
Here's the short, somewhat-evergreen piece that I wrote about Tanglewood and how its lineage intertwines with that of my family for NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/07/05/156288431/tanglewood-my-familys-transcendental-homeland
I have Koussevitsky to thank for many things, including that piece, and I'm not the only one. (See this link for a letter from Bernstein to Koussevitsky that I quote in the NPR piece.)
To think of what life was like for the young Bernstein, learning from the master Koussevitsky, and from Copland, some 70 years ago: All that I can say is that it's not just one film but a series of them from many perspectives that could never tell the stories well enough.
Koussevitsky, who led some of the most important live concerts of his day (some preserved on record), commissioned among other works Ravel's Piano Concerto, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and through his foundation had a hand in the creation of Copland's Third Symphony (including the famed Fanfare for the Comman Man), as well as Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Britten's Peter Grimes, to say nothing of other staples of modern concert music.
A lot of people think of Bernstein and Copland when they think about Tanglewood, but the main music shed, where big concerts are held, is named after Koussevitsky, and sometimes I think that the whole 20th century in concert music could be named after him. Or at least include his name prominently, along with others.
Koussevitsky was driven by gratitude for music, for composers, and for those who loved making and listening to music. I'm grateful simply that he existed; in a practical sense, I might not have seen the light of day without him.
Posted on July 25, 2013 at 09:23 AM | Permalink
Extract from press release of the day: "Poo~Pourri has been delighting people with the clever names of their pre-use toilet bowl spray scents for some time: Heavy Doody, Royal Flush, Potty Mouth, Trap-a-Clap and more, have been a great source of laughter, but in reality these blended essential oils are very effective at keeping the bad smells out of the air and in the toilet where they belong."
Posted on July 24, 2013 at 12:20 PM | Permalink
Very happy to have been a featured guest on this amazing radio show. You can hear my segment at about 48.5 minutes in. Here's the MP3 link: http://blogtalk.vo.llnwd.net/o23/show/5/112/show_5112483.mp3
Posted on July 22, 2013 at 07:07 PM | Permalink
I was recently in New York, spending time with family, when I learned of my baby nephew's seemingly natural affinity for Lee Morgan. His father, my brother, would keep it on in the car as we drove around the city, and then in his home. I'd missed listening to it while watching New York, or any east coast city, roll by. The playing, clarity, stands alone. Morgan sadly didn't make it past 33, and he would have been only 75 today. But he's still very much alive for many of us, including the newly born.
Posted on July 10, 2013 at 07:23 AM | Permalink
"The morning of the day I got sick I'd been thinking... it's good to be in something from the ground floor..."
I first learned about The Sopranos at NPR's old headquarters. I was new to my job, to any office job, and people in the building were talking about the show, apparently passing around VHS tapes. I asked to be put into the queue. Two people were ahead of me. When at last I received the tapes I found myself fall ill, spend four weeks at home with a high fever. This was the first time that James Gandolfini came into my life. Every day, I had something to do while I rested, healed, that I loved. Books sat unopened, I shared the show (show? superfilm?) with my visiting father. Eventually, I got better, returned the tapes, asked for more, signed back up for HBO. Now, when I look at The Sopranos scripts -- and a better version of this comment came originally from an astute friend, Will Berson, in conversations we would have about the show -- I see that despite the show's great writing (a show about millenial America, about watching, about the now, about entropy), it was the acting that made it, especially in its early seasons when it was lighter. That acting was lead by Gandolfini, in practicality and in purity of spirit, and today, I return to watching Sopranos episodes, often just for the enveloping performances, for Gandolfini's life-affirming,selfless devotion to his art. The watching will go on.--Adam Baer, www.adambaer.com
Posted on June 19, 2013 at 06:31 PM | Permalink
Can you learn to love music you just don't jive with? I tried to find out by trying to find out, and I wrote up my experiment in an essay for this Sunday's Los Angeles Times. (Note: In no way does this piece attempt to satirize experiential critical journalism. Not at all...)
The piece also discusses the fact that dissonance is not just an objective term but a subjective, personal issue (i.e. I find some Offenbach awfully dissonant). The essay's headline was actually "Dissonance" when I last signed off on the piece, and I would have loved to discuss this issue more--you can say that piece is coming soon.
At any rate, here's a resource page for those interested in trying out the "potentially horrific" playlist that I used for my terribly scientific experiment.
1. Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire"
2. Conlon Nancarrow Study for Player Piano No. 7
3. Stravinsky's Agon
4. Berio Sequenza III
5. Berio Sequenza X
Other pieces you may want to try that you may love (or want to try to learn to love):
Henry Cowell's The Banshee
**I should also note that I first read reports about the Australian study on the websites of NPR Music and The Atlantic (first report here). I noted these reports in my original final draft, and I would have liked it if those sources were kept in the text, but they were edited out. The online version of the piece also has pretty much the same headline as the NPR blog's piece; before it went to print, when I last saw it, my piece's headline was "Dissonance." In print now it's "A Resonance in Dissonance," which is great and shows us why editors often make pieces much more enticing.
*Lastly: I wish I could have written more about the music specifically. (I'd even included a bit in the original draft before cutting about some tonal music that I can't stand, and how I consider that personally dissonant.) Relatedly, this morning, I received a constructively critical note from one of the aforementioned composer's family members that initially implied that I'm closeminded and/or undereducated, and that I would like a lot more of the man's work if, and I'm paraphrasing, "I had ever listened to it." (And this was one of the nicest notes I've received.)
But here's the thing: A) I've listened to about 97% of it in my lifetime, and I did say that I love certain pieces, as well as that this composer is important. And B) If anything, people should know that articles like this cannot run longer than a certain length, usually, and that I wasn't allowed by space constraints to get into any one musical piece or composer with much depth. I also included references to other great works by this composer that might get people interested in him. I hope that they listen to them, just as I love to listen to much Dissonant music.
The most important motive behind an essay like this -- which is, to be sure, light fare, with a few chuckles about music, research studies, itself, and its author, for that matter -- is to get people to try and listen to more music that they think they may not like. I appreciate reader notes like these, though; I know that it's hard to understand how things work behind the scenes for writers.
What I hope a piece like this does is show that someone with a background in serious concert music can like a lot of other genres of music, that young people also care for concert music (and for advocating for it), and that one should open his or her ears, give everything a fair shot, and then, after much listening, feel free and unfrightened to be human and open and vocal about what he or she likes.
I'm always proud to stand up for Billy Joel. He feels like a relative, a guy from our anti-genre musician family who just chose to live more than us, sometimes in some crazy, silly ways. Sure, I fit the profile: I'm from NY/Long Island, I like the Yankees, I'm Jewish by genetic design, I grew up with a piano in the house.
But more important, I believe Joel's honest, eloquent songwriting will survive the naysayers because of what's under the hood. I can't change dated instrumentation, production, and interpretation (or, for that matter, the comical "Downeaster Alexa"; as "The Stranger" says, "everyone goes south, every now and then"). But strip the songs down, and a good 80% of the time, It's there. Substance.
(I'm sorry if it seems elitist, and I know that it takes all kinds and that taste is subjective, but I believe that if you can't hear why Joel's songs are for the most part excellent you need to learn more about, or at least rethink, the craft of songwriting. Call him annoying, call him cheesy. It won't change the material.)
Of course, Billy Joel never would have happened without The Beatles, Dylan, and Ray Charles, among others; he's an interpreter, and a sponge. But that's what a performing and composing musician is, and he'll be remembered on more days than his birthday (today, May 9) for outstanding contributions to the American songbook and concert life. (And now there's news that he may tour again.)
Here (above) is an interesting find on the still-free YouTube: outtakes posted from "Songs in the Attic." This will appeal to you, especially if you know and appreciate the Nassau Coliseum live show that made the final version of this album. "Nowadays, You Can't Be Too Sentimental." Or sincere.
+ Hear Billy Joel make fun of himself and talk to Alec Baldwin on WNYC
+ Check out Billy Joel's Columbia Records Photo Archive
Recently, I published a VQR piece on the future of sheet music, including a bit on new apps and notation literacy. In related news bloggers are pointing out a new music notation system called Hummingbird (depicted above). I looked it over, tried it out. It borrows its method of displaying rhythm from piano rolls, showing us the amount of time a note should be held, like GarageBand and other music software. What's more, it points up for sharps and down for flats, which a demanding violin teacher might do with a pencil. Aside from that, it's deceptively complicated and requires learning different symbols. How much easier it would be for someone who has never learned music, or lacks a teacher, is questionable.
New systems (and apps) are best when they solve problems, but learning to read Western music notation isn't a problem that requires a solution. It's not easy. But like learning to read English, it's eminently doable, and fraught with fewer variables and exceptions. Reading Western notation—and there have of course been many precursors to what we use now, as well as many alternatives, including Braille and an integer-based system—has also proven to be good for your brain, and we don't need to simplify it. The current sharp and flat note symbols work fine; you just have to remember them.
Hummingbird appears to be a nicely designed dumbing-down, and not an especially noteworthy one in an age of design-fetish and how-to videos. Shortcuts—like guitar tablature—should really be shortcuts. This new system basically just makes reading music different, and it doesn't seem to allow for new ways to notate sounds that we cannot yet notate. I'm in favor of new music technologies and notation systems, but Hummingbird should first show me why Western music notation is a problem, and why Hummingbird is a necessary alternative. For now, especially given our abundance of online music-education resources, it's not.
For more information about alternative music notation systems that may solve what some perceive to be standard notation problems, check out The Music Notation Project.
In 2004, when I first wrote about digital sheet music, for the New York Times, pre-iPad, new gadgets were just being sold to display it for traveling musicians like David Bowie's bandmate Mike Garson and violinist Izthak Perlman, both of whom kindly spoke to me for the story. But sheet music has always been a weirdly tense topic, full of salespeople and schemers: Back then, Harry Connick, Jr. (who, of all technologists, has a patent on a digital sheet music reader), had chosen not to comment on the topic but the way my editor had re-arranged my reporting on his lack of interest angered his representative, enough to insinuate legal threats (so, basically sheet music made friendly Harry Connick want to sue me). Then there was the CEO of one of the companies who claimed repeatedly that he had nothing to do with another, which we only found out after digging through his lies to us after the fact. The story -- its subtext, anyway -- turned into a piece about two companies suing each other. Not our intention.
Sheet music should not inspire fights and deception. Or should it?
In my new Spring 2013 VQR piece, "Sound + Vision," I argue that sheet music is literature (a method of storytelling), and I try to explain how it functioned that way for my family as well as discuss its future and some advocates' fears that fewer people seem able to and interested in reading it now more than ever. Is that true? It's hard to know, and I hope that my guess is wrong. What I do know is that a lot of people are creating innovative sheet music solutions for the digital space, and that despite music-budget cuts, plummeting keyboard instrument sales, and music store deaths, a lot of kids and adults want to play music. It's no surprise that the world is always changing, but notated music is in fact coming along for the ride. And thank Life that it is. I want more children to grow up being read to from the piano, or some kind of instrument, and being able to read that way themselves.
Quick comments: There's not always enough room to explain every issue raised in this sort of piece. 1. I'm very much in favor of people learning and buying instruments. 2. I'll likely have an interview with an amazing guitar luthier out this summer, which supports craft instrument-making. 3. This is more about the solo-guitar-driven band models changing and expanding, and there are certainly great guitarists just hitting the scene now, some obviously returning to and revising this model. 4. I love a great rock band, too.--Adam Baer
Posted on March 26, 2013 at 11:22 AM | Permalink
In the course of researching my recent VQR essay about architect John Lautner, I interviewed the Lautner scholar and architect Frank Escher, who Benedikt Taschen chose to restore the "Chemosphere" house displayed on the cover of the VQR winter 2013 edition. Escher, who wrote a book about Lautner and was present to chronicle the rebirth of love for the architect's work in the late 1990's*, gave me a great interview, and some of that conversation, of course, could not make it into the piece.
One of the more interesting bits that had to hit the cutting room floor concerned Lautner's apparent love for the act of photography. Sure, Julius Shulman and many other professional photographers shot gorgeous pictures of Lautner's work. But according to Escher, Lautner was a "great photographer himself." The architect apparently took thousands of photos over the course of his lifetime, which may not be unusual for an architect now but was not always the norm.
"He used the camera the way other architects use a sketchbook," said Escher. "He constantly documented what was around him. There are thousands of studies of clouds, caves, rock formations, waves -- sometimes quite abstract. And if you look at those subjects and realize what he was looking at through a camera you start to read where his architectural forms come from."
"There's a very clear interest in the sort of natural biomorphic form in Lautner's work, and it comes from his really intense connection to nature," Escher continued. "This starts when Lautner is very young -- the way he's brought up, what he enjoys. Throughout his life, he traveled a great deal."
Escher told me about how one of Lautner's trips may surprise people who associate him with Southern California, heat. "Lautner once took a trip to Alaska and photographed glaciers, producing gorgeous images," Escher said. "These almost formal studies of ice formations, how glaciers melt, or how ice melts on water, or clouds, or those desert landscapes -- these are where he developed his formal interests."-- Adam Baer
*And who generously shared his contacts in the Lautner world.
Very proud to have my John Lautner houses-in-film essay in the winter 2013 edition of VQR. If you'd like to read the text and see the great photos, most by Elizabeth Daniels, in full size, here's the PDF. You can also read the text more easily here. And be sure to catch other great pieces in the issue -- which, really, is a great print book to buy and hold -- by Mickey Rapkin, David Kipen, and many others. Here's how to subscribe.
‘Paul’s Boutique’ remade [music link].
Description: "3 years in the making, 3 DJs working with over 150 tracks to recreate one of the seminal sampling albums of all time, at last Cheeba, Moneyshot and I can reveal ‘Caught In The Middle Of A 3-Way Mix’. Our tribute to the classic Beastie Boys album ‘Paul’s Boutique’ remixed and re-imagined from all the original samples plus a cappellas, period interviews and the Beasties’ own audio commentary from the reissued release. Add to this a custom illustration from Paul’s Boutique super-fan and all-round great guy Jim Mahfood, taking time out from recent art duties on Tank Girl, and you have an alternate version of the album. The mix was over half way finished when we heard the tragic news of Adam Yauch‘s passing this May so this is also our nod to his memory, RIP MCA."
Posted on September 07, 2012 at 08:30 AM | Permalink
Cancer brought me to David Rakoff. Like him, I survived Hodgkin’s Disease as a young adult. Directly following my graduation from college it occurred to me that I should curate and edit an essay collection about young people whose ascents—not into careers so much as full adult lives—had been quashed or at least delayed, sometimes chronically, by infirmity. He quickly agreed to write a piece for my book, and he kindly referred me to the late Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), a cancer survivor herself, who agreed to contribute to the anthology, too. I would pair hugely successful talents like these writers with my own work and that of other young writers who had yet to break through.
I never got around to completing the project. Soon after its conception I fell ill again, had to work, had to make excuses not to devote time to something that could not finance my hospital holidays. It was a shame, not least because it kept me from getting closer to some of the great people who would have contributed to the project. Soon, we lost Lucy Grealy. But David kept on writing, living.
Before I knew it, I’d moved to Los Angeles, lost touch with some of these more senior literary influences, found myself picking up piecemeal work just to get by. This happens when you’re riding the bumps of chronic illness and the effects of the sub-lethal treatments you have weathered: frightening, sometimes random occurrences, perhaps secondary cancers, that can keep anyone unfocused, on edge. Waiting. But I kept reading and listening to David.
Recently, to my delight, I learned from a magazine that I could not publish a specific essay they liked because the publication had already commissioned one from David that touched on similar subject matter. “You’ve been Rakoff’ed,” it was said. I felt proud. I was glad not to have published something so that the world could have more David. I’d get them next time, find another outlet. In my last very brief note from David he apologized for a “long delay” in responding to me. He’d only taken a few days. Months go now before I might write or hear from a very close friend. David lived in Realtime.
This is not a formal memorial essay or an obit. I didn’t know David well enough to write the former; the latter I leave to the death-writing pros. I just want the world to know how much this man meant to me and to my work. I sometimes lose track of my projects, find myself derailed for one reason or another—an MRI, fight with the insurance company, a need to pay my rent, self-imposed punishment and exile for not being Half-full enough. But I was about to revive this anthology project soon (enough already with believing that if I finish it I may end my own story) and ask for David’s contribution again.
His life, the idea of it—albeit in a disconnected, remote way, perhaps how some of us feel that we know those who send us e-mails—helped keep mine moving forward. That void will not be filled by another more senior, more accomplished, more everything writer. What's bizarrely sad about the loss of David Rakoff is that his first piece about illness concerned his guilt for having only a lower-stage case of Hodgkin's. He wrote about feeling like a "cancer tourist." As a colleague remarked this morning: "wonderfully self-effacing."
David will be deeply missed, on the page, the radio, the stage, and very occasionally, in the inbox. He gave me hope, direction, without knowing it, and despite our now-searchified, GPS'd world, that is often a very hard thing to locate.--Adam Baer
Posted on August 10, 2012 at 08:32 AM | Permalink
Today I have an essay on NPR Music about Tanglewood as My Family's Transcendental Homeland. It's also about Tanglewood as a homeland for story, and why storytelling keeps alive the things that we love. It's positioned on NPR's classical side but while I would never want to encourage anyone not to check out that site, I want to make it clear that I call artfully composed music written for the concert hall "concert music." I hope that this piece will appeal to people who listen to a variety of musical genres -- like me. The mentions of EDM, Tears for Fears, and Jane's Addiction are not just inclusions for color but signifiers that hopefully help render a full picture of our musical world. The piece may also appeal to you if you've ever failed to fit in somewhere and had a crush on radiant European musician who allowed you to kiss her. All good things.-- Adam Baer, @glassshallot
Posted on July 05, 2012 at 09:33 AM | Permalink
A few years ago, Rolling Stone kindly published a piece of mine about the funniest "studio notes" actors, writers, directors, and comedians have received from Hollywood producers and network execs. It was intended to be an oral history about receiving chortle-worthy criticism, a way to use these "notes" to tell some of comedy's best secret stories, and I hope we accomplished that goal, to some degree. (Note: the headline was not my first choice, but I am a team player, and I had a lot of fun working on the piece and eventual pride seeing it in RS.)
It was a dream assignment: I interviewed a score of hilarious celebs, producers and directors--from Mel Brooks and Garry Shandling to younger talents like David Wain ("Wet Hot American Summer"), Paul Scheer ("The League"), and Nick Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "The Five Year Engagement").
Everyone cracked me up, and the piece generated serious interest from one of the world's biggest book publishers. So I took some of the quotes from my many funny interviews that Rolling Stone had not picked for inclusion (page-space is limited at magazines), and my agent and I went out with a book proposal about how this could be a hilarious narrative project, especially given my access to so many people in the entertainment industry. Eventually, and ironically, the senior publishing exec didn't think the book would make money (I still disagree), and the project, which could now be a brilliant multimedia thing with video, great for iPads, was tabled.*
Alas, one of the many funny things Rolling Stone could not include--sadly rendering my collection of interview subjects 100% male--was my unforgettable, if short, interview with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who stars tonight in HBO's new series "Veep." I share this gem with you now. Word, for word, and I have this on tape, this is what one of the funniest actresses in comedy told me, on the record. Addendum: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a lovely, generous woman, with guts of steel, and I don't doubt she will continue to be a hit with audiences everywhere -- and to reiterate, I would not have posted this if she had not given me the quote on the record.
FUNNIEST STUDIO NOTE: JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS
"I have only one story that comes to mind, and I leave out names because that's a better idea.
But when I was very young and had just started on “SNL”--I believe I was 20--I did a sketch in which I played John DeLorean's wife...
In that sketch, my hair was blown out straight -- because her hair is straight.
So, we did the show, and the following day, I was called into one of our producers' offices (as a side note, I should say that I have naturally curly hair), and he said to me, “Julia, I got a call from a bunch of NBC executives after last night’s show, and they said that after seeing your hair straight, they all wanna fuck you.”
This was apparently his way of trying to entice me into straightening my hair for the rest of season.
Needless to say: I was young and naïve, but I was so shocked that anyone would say anything like that, I just burst out laughing in a hysterical way. I didn't know what else to do.
Years later, when "Seinfeld" was becoming somewhat of a hit, I ran into the same producer at NBC again.
And he said to me, “Hey, Julia, I see they're letting you do your hair the way you want now."
That's apparently all he took away from my “Seinfeld” contribution.
The irony of it was that not only did I make my hair curly on "Seinfeld," which may have been a huge mistake now that I think about it, but I enhanced the curl and made it HUGE!
I wonder if that hair wasn't some kind of reaction.
I was saying: 'Not only is this hair going to be curly, it's going to be crazy curly. Take that, motherfucker!!'"
*Tabled in this case means I stopped pursuing it. I'm open to pursuing it again, though, especially with a new class of today's funniest people.
Today I have a piece in The Atlantic in which I persuade the Academy Awards to create a "Best Soundtrack" category that would honor the artistic work of insightful music supervisors, who should be given the same awards as art directors and other creative film staffers. There wasn't much room to get into a large discussion of the best soundtracks ever created much less those of this year. But as I wrote, the "art is in the curating of the mix," and in that spirit, I offer you up the one-song but internally eclectic soundtrack to my life. OK, seriously: that song and this one.
UPDATE: A reader commented on the piece with an intelligent response. The comment and my reply are below.
Today I posted "content" in an attempt to use Facebook Timeline in a humorous, narrative way; I was kidding a little, but I thought it could be fun to really use the software to create a comedic, serialized micro-narrative made of short status updates. The post was commented on by a couple of friends, and then removed by someone other than me. I then discussed this in another status update with those same friends. That was then promptly removed by someone other than me. I then reposted the content twice, and now I do not see any of this on my page. If Facebook would like people to care about its IPO -- and that's a foregone conclusion, they do, because billions of dollars are concerned, but let's talk about regular people -- they should not delete writers' attempts to use their tools to create and engage with an audience, in jest or more serious ways. The aforementioned content (copied below) is far from genius and merely average, but I posted it here, which is less "buggy" a virtual "place" and likely watched by fewer programmers who police and react to user content. Perhaps this was all just FB software problems...but if so, who can trust FB with content you do not backup elsewhere. I mean, what if this stuff was actually good?
Here is the attempt at humor I posted, related to the ABC Show Revenge. Do you find it inappropriate?
"When I was 10, a high-school senior in my Monte Cristo-like neighborhood was hired to hang out with and shoot hoops with me before my parents returned home from work. One day, the kind young man suggested I find someone to buy me a tape of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” So, I did, and the next time he appeared, he “borrowed” it, never to return or answer our many calls again. Now, as a rational adult, I plan to use Facebook Timeline, narratively, to track down this man for a final confrontation. Would any of you care to follow this meaningful adventure? I shall call it “My Facebook ‘Revenge’ / Season One: Born to Run.”
I shall move slowly, follow clues, keep my emotions at bay, and friend anyone close to this man and his especially heinous crime, crossing each one off my list one by one. It will be sweet to one day recover this low quality recording, if it still exists, uncompressed and possibly warped. But the ultimate prize will be hearing this man sing under duress the lyrics: “The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive / Everybody's out on the run tonight but there's no place left to hide.”
AFTERNOON UPDATE: Facebook was briefly down this morning, and I wouldn't want to think they'd target one person, so it's quite possible that's what happened. Still, the "dangerous" keywords used in my posts could have triggered a moderator or bot to remove them at different times (people observed their staggered removal individually), and the critique and untraditional use of Timeline the day after FB's IPO announcement is definitely something they might try to quash.
The important issue remains: Can we trust FB to hold our original life-content as Timeline promises? I'd use a few backups, and make sure you already own the rights to anything you publish anywhere.