Posted on June 08, 2016 at 07:41 AM | Permalink
Tags: amadeus, beneficient dervish, magic flute, mozart, peter shaffer
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 May 14, 2016 at 09:23 AM | Permalink
Tags: adam baer, bach, gidon kremer, j.s. bach, partita, partitas, solo violin works, sonata, sonatas, violin
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
Posted on August 25, 2015 at 02:22 PM | Permalink
Tags: American composers, classical music, composers, gidon kremer, Leonard Bernstein, modern music, serenade after plato's sympoisum, violin, violin concertos, violin music
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.
Posted on July 12, 2015 at 05:08 PM | Permalink
Tags: gidon kremer, itzhak perlman, Leonard Bernstein, pinchas zukerman, plato, violin, violinist
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.
Posted on July 07, 2015 at 01:02 PM | Permalink
Tags: good morning, gustav mahler, guten tag, leonard bernstein, tanglewood, titan, vienna philharmonic
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
Posted on June 16, 2015 at 07:51 AM | Permalink
Tags: johns hopkins, music business, music school, new york times, op-ed, peabody
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
Posted on November 14, 2014 at 08:30 AM | Permalink
Tags: Aaron Copland, Aaron Copland Centennial, American composers, Billy the Kid, Classical Music, Copland Violin Sonata, Hoe-down, Modern Music, NPR, NPR Music, Rodeo, Violin, Violin Repertoire, Violinists
"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.
Posted on November 01, 2014 at 03:40 PM | Permalink
Tags: architecture, hollywood hills, laurel canyon, laurel canyon music scene, los angeles, real estate
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.
Posted on October 22, 2014 at 07:43 AM | Permalink
Tags: alexi murdoch, arcade fire, beck, cat power, electric guitars, fred armisen, guitarmaking, guitars, hammond organ, instruments, kutheir, moog, old style guitar shop, reuben cox, sufjan stevens, the national
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
Posted on August 08, 2013 at 01:14 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
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
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.
Posted on May 25, 2013 at 10:20 PM | Permalink
Tags: atlantic, dissonance, music, npr, playlist
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.
Posted on April 16, 2013 at 10:51 AM | Permalink
Tags: apps, flats, languages, music, notation, notes, reading, sharps, sheet music, systems
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.
Posted on April 10, 2013 at 07:39 AM | Permalink
Tags: adam baer, beck, beethoven, chromatik, jammit, karen baer, motely crue, music, music business, music technology, patelson's, paul baer, seth baer, sheet music, song reader, stephen foster
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
‘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
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
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.
Alex Ross has done yet another amazing thing (simply writing the first chapter of "The Rest Is Noise" humbled Shallots everywhere), and no one was more deserving of a MacArthur this year (although, I guess that friendly geomorphologist is a stone-cold rockstar). At any rate, Ross has now expanded the online audio guide to his book, now in paperback, which is sort of like creating a multimedia museum as a simple compendium. You know it's unusually meaningful when it can teach people (via sound) how to better understand The White Album as well as The Rite of Spring. Now, if only we could Google sounds. I know someone's gotta be working on that, but hurry up!
Posted on October 15, 2008 at 08:25 AM | Permalink
The news is slowly creeping out of Nebraska Methodist Hospital. But apparently three ordinarily healthy septuagenarian Omaha librarians are still in critical care after suffering simultaneous cardiac arrests this morning when they were struck by news so grammatically and linguistically abominable that they could not maintain homeostasis. Margaret Dubrovic, 71, head librarian at Omaha's central library system, was reportedly enjoying a routine morning when her latest copy of The New Yorker magazine arrived in the mail. Allegedly, Dubrovic looked forward with great verve to the arrival of her private subscription copy and had been rumored to read half of the entire periodical well before the end of morning on delivery days with friends and co-librarians Betsy O'Neill, 74, and Edith Cooper, 76, both of whom also suffered cardiac arrests. But this morning the group happened upon what junior librarian Thomas DeBouef, 23, could only call "literary blasphemy of the highest proportions." The insidious word "whatevs," a slang term for "whatever" used by the so-called Britney Generation and the blog whatevs.org, apparently found its way into music critic Sasha Frere-Jones's recent review of the latest Coldplay album. And while the estimable writer had likely used the term in the most tongue-in-cheek manner, it even appeared as a one-word sentence--capitalized, of course. "He didn't have to go that far," said DeBouef, whose grandfather Eli, 89, also works in the library as a volunteer and suffered minor whiplash from today's events. "There's no doubt in my mind that the act of literally seeing such a word, if you can call it that, printed in the magazine these ladies have held so dear to their literary hearts for so many years caused their simultaneous tragedies. It's a damn shame." Of course, one Generation X reporter cannot help but wonder, in the words of character Carrie Bradshaw from the HBO show "Sex and the City," what septuagenarian librarians were hoping for from a review of a Coldplay album in the first place. "They weren't as shocked as many of their friends were that The New Yorker had taken to reviewing popular music so substantively over the last few years," added Debouef. "They rather liked Coldplay, and as the article said, they often played the album 'Parachutes' during their afternoon tea sessions as a means to relax from the stress of their jobs." For now, however, the implicit danger posed by a simple unsubstantiated slang term such as "whatevs" is all an entire community can cling to for some explanation as to why their best librarians are on leave from the city's hottest reading room. More news as it breaks. In the meantime, get better, girls.
Posted on August 01, 2008 at 08:51 PM | Permalink
I have just interviewed three of America's top tennis players -- though, not the celebs you may be thinking of -- and have to share the following with the world: these people are super-boring! So much so, I find the above tennis racquet-manufacturing image much more interesting. It's odd: Growing up, I always thought tennis was a social, thinking person's game. But now the young stars are not unlike the young conservatory bred violin prodigies putting us to sleep at concert halls. So much technical game, so little personality. More on this story as I get deeper into it. But how sad has tennis become since Andre Agassi left the courts? I continue to mourn life on the court.
Posted on April 07, 2008 at 11:31 AM | Permalink
I admire Daniel Day Lewis as much as any dedicated film fan--the idea of seeing a film with him even scares me a little in the good way. But I was never big on P.T. Anderson-- even though I liked Magnolia and Boogie Nights some, I never felt the director made important narrative decisions that felt earned. His work seemed to crave hipness--to steal it--instead of achieving it with truly innovative and genuine narrative work.
Oddly, I thought this concern would dissolve upon seeing the massively hyped "There Will Be Blood." I thought the film would be, as it has been publicized, an epic interpretation of Upton Sinclair--replete with fantastic acting; an admirable score in the old sense; and big ideas about oil, humanity, industrialism, America, Manifest Destiny, evil. But most important, a script worth drooling over. I believed in DDL that much.
But I was wrong, and despite all the universal praise for the film--yes, the main performance is admirable--I have to wonder why so very few people have come out to say this movie is even smaller--and malignantly so--in some ways than Anderson's "small" indies. There is so much obsession over detail, so much amazing cinematography and early buildup. But it doesn't come together when the film jumps down into a hole and narrows in on a petty if entertaining climax that could have been performed on a cheap stage--never mind the expanded issues this climax could have symbolized (that the director probably thinks it does symbolize) with better developmental screenwriting.
I'll try not to spoil the journey for you should you care to take it on the half hour as many theaters have scheduled it. But not only does Anderson choose to focus on what should just be one small conflict in a potentially epic story--and then choose to skip through time and tell us about it as opposed to showing a lot of foundational material needed to care this much about said conflict as the movie's most obvious struggle. The rapscallion--oh, P.T., you're sly--mischievously doesn't follow through on the promise of the film about big ideas, and he sadly doesn't completely flesh out his "oil man." His history or his relationships--say, with his son. Such that when they fall on hard times, it's nearly impossible to care. That is, if you can detach yourself from DDL's performance--and it's hard, but try.
Sure, it's fun to see bowling pins used in new American ways (I'm not a spoiler). But the whole show shouldn't have been so comedic or surprisingly focused on such a lame tangent when it seemed like so much could have happened. There was a lot of laughter in the theater--and it wasn't the dark, twisted laughter for which the filmmaker may hope. But don't worry if you liked it: I'm sure the Academy's already sealed this film's destiny.
After all, it's an acting triumph for DDL. But is it really? Didn't we know he could do this stuff? Did we need to see it again? Some of it was very enjoyable but it seemed like wasted effort. Pair the genius actor up with someone who thinks bigger--and better. To make a movie this long that gives us this little is really a feat--but not one we should endorse.
Even more offensive to Shallot central is the musical side of the equation. The filmmakers hired a potentially strong composer--Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood--to write what sounded like an intriguing score made of pitch-bending dissonances and anxiety provoking rhythms.
But the movie tries too hard, shallowly, in this department too. Instead of letting Greenwood follow through on what could have been a start-to-finish symphonic score--something you'd want to listen to on its own, say--Anderson shares with us the novel third movement of Brahms's Violin Concerto to interrupt it and accompany one of the film's most triumphant and tragic plot points. Then, when matters turn mysterious, the music supervisor throws in a cello ensemble version of Arvo Pärt's Fratres. Too easy and disrespectful. To the film, the older music, and new film composer.
I love both of these pieces--and there's definitely something in the barren setting of the film and the character's wayward morality apropos of Pärt if not this one movement of Brahms. But both of these musical insertions undermine Greenwood's work. The film feels musically disjunct because of them, especially when the credits role to the victorious Brahms conclusion.The real Independent thing to do here--you're P.T. Anderson, right?--would have been to let Greenwood score the film in its entirety, not use pre-recorded hits known to conjure narrative power in the middle of the story.
This type of music-supervisory decision isn't always the supervisor's fault. And I'm usually a fan of using great music in a movie--but not so cheaply. It could just be--and seemingly is--the director's too-self-conscious "I'm not as good as I sell myself to be so I better throw in everything but the kitchen sink" mentality. It's hard to find this problem under the thick veil of all that tarry oil and DDL glory acting. But it's there. Believe me.
In fact, such a musical strategy--to say nothing of flaunting DDL and all the detail and epic cinematographic talent the movie employs--renders this truth shockingly obvious when you realize how petty the film's main narrative turns out to be.
And I'm not alone. So many people--including friends I disagree with very often--left my showing at the Arclight disappointed. This movie could have been so much more than it was. But by producers giving free reign to an "indie" filmmaker who shouldn't have been given so much freedom to begin with--then again: hell, I'd give money to anything involving DDL, too--that's what you get.
Frankly, I prefer it when Steve Martin gets small.
Posted on January 06, 2008 at 07:13 AM | Permalink
I had a funny discussion the other day with another New Yorker living in LA. He said he felt like an "expat" here: a "big fish living in a small pond," in his telling--at least when it comes to meeting people who think beyond headlines. I didn't exactly agree or make the statement, but it wasn't the first time I heard it. Luckily, I've met tons of brilliant people in my new fair city. But I've sought a lot of them out. You don't always converse with new ones in line at El Pollo Loco. But my tales of serendipitous philosophical chicken-joint communion will have to wait.
Funnily, another friend just pointed out that Variety, Hollywood's glory trade mag (Ari Gold once called it the "school paper" on Entourage), linked to my Sweeney Todd piece earlier in December. The blog's quote? "Adam Baer claims that 'Tim Burton "re-invents the movie musical" with 'Sweeney Todd.' Really?'"
I had to laugh when I saw that. Did the blogger even realize that the actual subhead of the article--written by someone other than me--made it very clear that "re-inventing the movie musical" is what the filmmakers claim, and that I simply reported what they had to say? Probably not, because short-order blogs and especially movie-trade blogs meant for D-people aren't exactly the most accurate places to get your news.
Read the story that I wrote carefully. There's hardly any criticism in the piece, save for a very careful statement that reads: " [Sweeney's] as entertaining, artistic and efficient as anyone could make a 'Sweeney Todd' film that might appeal to a broad swath of moviegoers." While I believe the movie is entertaining and a great shot at creating a Hollywood movie version of Sweeney, save for a lot of the singing, I don't go beyond that point. I'm not hired to be a critic here. And I'm actually pleased with that fact. So argue away with each other. I'm not jumping into the fray as a film or music critic on this one.
And that's the way it was supposed to be. I was paid to tell other peoples' stories in this case. Additionally, I write that: "The key, therefore, was not to produce a performance film like Ingmar Bergman's "The Magic Flute" but to create an original movie genre: a consciously present-day spoke-sung music-film with younger actors, no traditional singers and a cinema-grotesquerie style, full of viscous slashes of blood." But this isn't my opinion. It's implied that the "key" belongs to the filmmakers. This is the opinion of those interviewed--see forthcoming Steven Sondheim quote. It's factual reportage.
In Sondheim's words: "You can't just adapt stage musicals for the screen. You have to re-create them."
If I had been hired to critique the film, I might have printed all kinds of comments that discuss this recreation of genre and what Sweeney means to music and film. But I wasn't. And I'm not going to do it here and undermine my story. I stand by it. And if its sub-headline should read that the filmmakers' claim they've created a new genre--and if I should go on to give you those opinions--well, that doesn't mean I'm making the critical statement.
Frankly, after a childhood of conservatory composition, mainstream movie-loving, and a decade of criticism, I don't think Sweeney re-invents the movie musical; I think it adds new elements to it as filmic entertainment. As I wrote: " Sweeney's new Burtonesque world is a visceral, inflated experience only film can provide."
But please, Variety blog, read between the lines before misquoting
reporters on critical statements they, personally, haven't made. This
sort of reaction to a story about Sweeney Todd is exactly what worried
me when I learned such a meaningful and complex piece of music-theater
was going to be fed to the multiplex crowd--and those who
blog for those who feed them. Perhaps I should have asked the producers if they were worried about how the insider movie press would handle the movie and the primary press it might inspire--as opposed to how audiences across America would handle it. Happily, I left a midwestern theater the other day after seeing the movie in its completed version to find goth teenagers singing "Nothing's Gonna Harm You..." Sondheim doesn't need anyone's help connecting to any brand of audience.
Posted on January 02, 2008 at 07:37 AM | Permalink
Posted on December 18, 2007 at 02:36 AM | Permalink
On Tuesday, I’m told, the Los Angeles Times will publish my story on Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd.” I’ve reported it for months, after noticing in the summer that perhaps the only musical I like would be turned into a film. The story was initially assigned as a thorough narrative about the idea of the music-film that would include deep reporting on how the music-driven stage show became a cinematic production in many respects--good, bad, or ugly. In the course of the reporting, I had some intriguing discussions—basically with everyone involved in the film, including some self-congratulatory remarks but also some really unusual quotes. Most memorable? A lunch with producer Dick Zanuck at Warner’s and a few funny comments from Tim Burton, to say nothing of a conversation about the business of such filmmaking with Dreamworks’s Walter F. Parkes. But over the course of the last few months, the Times also published a separate story about Burton that included information my original story would have covered (nothing personal: this is how newspapers often work when they cover entertainment so thoroughly from so many angles). So my piece, for tomorrow or later this week, has had to be rejiggered. It will now focus more on the musical qualities of the film, but still include chats with Depp, Burton, and others. Still, there are lots of cutting-floor scraps. To precede the piece, then, I thought I’d share some extra quotes with you, and take you behind the scenes of the story.
1. From my Sondheim conversation:
“Of course, you can fill them, but it's not dynamic, and that's what Tim [Burton] and[screenwriter/producer John Logan] were so cognizant of. You can't just expect the audience to watch anything. I'm a movie fan, and if something isn't happening in a movie, get on with it... The director is hard put just to keep the camera interested [when a song occurs in a traditional movie musical].”
It had been nibbled at by two producers in
I started work in 1977, it was first done in ‘79, and that's it. I should say I was going to write the whole thing, including libretto, but by the time i got up to page seven of 35 in the printed version, I was already close to an hour, and I thought: Uh, oh, this is going to be longer than the Ring cycle. So I called Hugh Wheeler. He was british and knew the legend and had also written mysteries - under name of Patrick Quentin. Then, when his collaborator died, he wrote solo mystery novels under Q. Patrick, and they were popular in the 1930s and 40s when Ellery Queen was popular. I thought he would be perfect: he was a suspense writer and we had a good time writing it.
He saw to it that it wasn’t five hours long. He essentially took what Bond had done but re-plotted successions of incidents, introduced the young person's story a little. He changed the periodicity of it. He stuck very closely to what Bond did. And I did too. Bond wrote this as a potboiler for his traveling theater company. He not only introduced classic stuff in it but made the distinction in language between upper and lower class. The upper class spoke in a kind of blank verse, not written out in pentameter. Lower classes were much more vernacular. There was a whole sociological caste from the play. But the point was that he gave us free reign. It was easy to write.
I was big fan of Bernard Hermann. A big fan of Hangover Square. And the score got me. So this is an homage to Hermann and that kind of Victorian melodrama music that you hear if if you listen to Hangover Square. I wanted to write a musical that would keep an audience in suspense without letting them laugh at it, which is not easy to do. What you realize when you step outside the theater, though, is that the horrors are so much more than inside. You have to keep background music going: it keeps the audience’s suspension of belief. Once they step one foot back, it's close to way over the top. Sweeney is over the top but in a way that an audience gets involved as opposed to giggling at it.
On different productions of his many works, and this one work in particular:
An opera approach in an opera house is a different show than when [Sweeney’s performed] on Broadway. I've always felt when people say: what defines opera, what makes it different from theater. It's where the performance is done. When Menotti was done on Broadway, it was a Broadway show. It's audiences’ expectations and what an audience brings into an opera house as well as how performers perform. With opera singers, the concentration is on vocal production. In Broadway or theater, the concentrations is on story-telling and acting. And the best operas like Carmen combine both. That’s what Puccini was, too.
On Sweeney being a genre bender:
On Sweeney being called “musically complicated”:
”Well, Ravel would have thought it was pretty stodgy. That's not a Broadway audience, though. A Broadway audience hears a dissonance and…[he was implying they react strongly to this stuff.] A person at Yale even once came up and said was this the first atonal music ever written! [Insert shock on the part of Sondheim.] My father was shocked by West Side Story be cause he was brought up on Victor Herbert.
On how a broad American audience will react to it:
“What are they going to make of it? I have no idea. They’re going to wait for the power chords!
“John Logan [the screenwriter] tried very scrupulously to keep the shape of the score while recognizing it had to be kept down… Anybody can do MTV-style cutting to any song in world. That's happened in movies like La Boheme. The point of this is a really good story, and you got to keep it going. This isn’t Bergman’s Magic Flute [ prompted by question the journalist had offered] whose pleasure is lingering over the singing and audience. An opera audience. I'm a movie fan. If somewthing isn't happening, get on with it. When you go into a musical in the theater, you have an unwritten contract: people are going to face front, imagine a fourth wall, and what goes on for three and a half minutes holds your attention because you have a little lingering that opera audiences have love for.
On whether or not
Sondheim ever thought the work would have a life in
It never occurred to me. You can't just adapt stage musicals for screen, you have to recreate them. Where songs are respites in the middle of comedy, it’s OK. But when you attempt with musical theater to tell story through song, it becomes a whole other matter.
On letting go of the rights to the show:
Dreamworks took an option on the piece and it was developed. It's like writing
a novel. It started during the recording session of Bernadette Peters’ revival
of Gypsy. I went out with Sam Mendes for coffee, and he asked if I thought
about it as a movie, and I said no. And he said, wel, I have. He had a deal
with Dreamworks. He got together with [screenwriter John] Logan, and then Sam
decided not to direct it, but it was taken to Tim Burton. Tim came to me 20 years
ago and asked to do it, and I said no, and he went on to other projects. When Sam
brought it up again, I was startled. And
when this came back to Tim, he wanted to do it. It was a piece he liked. I
wasn’t worried about how it would be treated because it was Sam who suggested it
in the first place, and then I loved what
On how Oscar Hammerstein would react to the film:
2. From my conversation with Tim Burton:
“This is not my background at all, you
know. I certainly was never a big theatergoer. I just happened to be in
“What works on a stage, doesn’t work on film all the time. With film, you have the luxury of seeing character's faces and being up close and kind of getting the more interior nature--the inner piece, in a way. And, it changes things. My goal was always to be true to it, because I loved the original.
The first script I ran by [Sondheim] had less music in it, so we ended up going back and putting more back into it just because the show was more music-driven and less kind of traditional dialogue and structure.
On the potential difficulties in editing the film:
Well, you know, the writer John, now I don't know this for sure, but he'd done it where there was more music, less music, different music, you know. He'd been through a lot of different versions and when I got in the ballpark, I went back to more music, like I said. But there were certain things that surprised me that we ended up not doing or changing just because of the somewhat organic nature of it--and it being a film. There a lot of different weird elements. Sondheim's music isn’t the easiest thing to do. Except for a couple of effects, we had no real professional singers--you know, they weren't really classically trained. But that created an interesting dynamic and it was actually quite exciting to me that way. We did it fairly quickly, as we went along.
The interesting thing is that it's great having music on the set because it really informs you and the actors.
Any stage influences?
No. Probably the first one that I
The music is quite beautiful. That's what I love about the piece; it's very lyrical. And then you have that juxtaposed against the imagery. That's what I love about it.
Was Sondheim thinking movies when he wrote this?
Absolutely. The first time I met him he said that and it just made complete sense. And in fact what was amazing was when we first recorded the orchestra without hearing the lyrics, we really hear it. So that was fun in this case to do. Some of the pieces, we didn't keep the lyrics but we kept his score. So it's really kind of great to hear the score because you usually hear it mainly with the lyrics. To find that balance was interesting. And also we recorded it with full orchestra and then we isolated some instruments, and when you pare it down, it really is like an amazing film music score.
On this recording of the music—is it thick or thin?
No, it's thick. But there are, like I said, times when we didn't end up using the lyrics so that you could hear the music.
Is it too sophisticated for mainstream movies?
Well, it was a strange thing. It's an R rated musical, and while some musicals have met with a certain amount of success, you never know. It's something that, you know, doesn’t necessarily come to mind. I think the term “musical” still scares studios a bit. Throw in some blood and an R rating, and you know…
Is this an homage to horror movies?
Yeah, that's one of the things Johnny and I have always talked about over the years. You know, horror movie actors that we loved. This was an opportunity to try to do characters like that. And again the music really fit. There used to be a pianist in these music, or somebody on the side, and the actors just move differently. And what was exciting about this is that you see everybody acting in a different way and moving in a different way because of the music. I thought beforehand that it was going to be really restricting, but it turned out to be the opposite.
On delegating the filmmaking:
“Dante Ferreti [the production designer], I've never really, really worked with before but he's done Fellini movies. You just try to find people that you feel in sync with. We kind of had... not quite a luxurious schedule like you sometimes do on a movie. It was a bit tighter. But it was fun in a way to do that because it did feel like we were making an old horror movie. Just get in there and shoot it as quickly as possible. It kind of woke up the whole horror movie thing. I like to work where you don't have to be overly literal, and everybody gets the whole vibe of it. We never see just one thing as an inspiration, it's always a few. So it never feels like it's this precious box. If it gets to a point where you have to say: do it exactly like that. Or you have to show them a picture and say, make it look exactly like that, you know you're working with the wrong people.
“I was actually interested, a long, long time ago, maybe more than 10 years ago. I was sort of involved with it loosely. I was just with Warner Brothers at that time. I was interested in it for different producers, and I just got sidetracked with other things. I didn't even really know Johnny at that point very much, and I always felt everything happens for a reason, and he just felt more accurate with the character. And that was another issue. You know, on stage, everybody was a little bit older, and that was fine. But for the film it just felt right to make them slightly younger. To make a kid feel like a kid, you know? Not that you’re going to harm your son by a real kid. But it was great: it just gives them an extra layer of strangeness and emotion that it isn't sung by a 30-year-old. There’s something about a kid going in that makes it more strangely real.
On Sondheim and the play:
“I didn't really know Sondheim at
all. I had seen enough productions to see that he seemed to be open to
different interpretations. One was a bit more stylized, one was not. You
know, it's been around for a while, and someone told me that it's one of the
most performed school plays: kids love performing it. There's a large
arena of different types of productions. I talked to so many people here at
On the cast being mostly British:
It just seemed right. Obviously, Johnny's not British. But [the piece] lived there, and it just made more sense.
How was Sondheim involved?
“He had cast approval over the two leads
and we ran by everybody else with him. And he was great because he was
extremely knowledgeable about films. He was a fairly cool guy; he came to
the first couple days of the orchestra recording. He spoke to
“Well, it's not real. That's the thing, to me. It's more like it was on the stage where it was a bit over the top. It goes less for reality and more for emotional effect. It sort of undermines the emotional; it flourishes; it serves as exclamation points. Because it is a melodrama and old horror movie it sort of fit right into that.
“He's such a repressed, such a brooding character. Really, the whole movie is about him getting back at people. So, you know, since he's such an internal character, it really felt like it needed those releases. [The blood, again.]
Were drawings made beforehand?
“Eh, not too much. A little bit. I mean one of the things that struck me was as I was going back through old sketchbooks, I found a little sketch of Ms. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and I thought, Jesus, it looks like Johnny and Helena, you see. And I did it before I knew her. And I mean all my sketches kind of look the same. But it did strike me. I did a couple of drawings like that of the characters, and I did a couple of little sketches, little barber shop sketches. Dante [Ferretti] is such an amazing draftsman. I would do a couple of little doodles if I had the thought.
The Desaturated look.
We thought a lot about the color in terms of how much color to put on the set and the costumes. It's nice to kind of do and not to so much rely on so much post-production. It almost feels a bit too easy, so we tried to think about it as much as we could up front. The environment was the environment we wanted it to be.
Did Depp’s portrayal surprise?
You know when I asked him if he would be into it, I didn't know if he could sing or not. But I knew well enough that he wouldn't have said yes if he didn't think he could do it. That was good enough for me And I felt very confident that he would do it. Which made it really nice when I first heard him. I thought he could do it, but he also exceeded what I thought, and I just got really excited. It's always nice when people do that: go beyond what you think they're going to do. And it's quite an exposing thing, you know. I'm not a singer. It was quite difficult to not rehearse people, singing. That was a new feeling for me, seeing that.
“I hope it doesn't disappoint. It's hard to know how purists will respond to it. I know, for me, I love the show. So it was always my goal to keep it true to it but make it a movie at the same time. I think the spirit of it is right. And I don't always feel that way. It's just kind of weird experiment to do. We always felt a bit funny, kind of like almost laughing, making this R rated musical. There was this kind of exciting feeling on the set.
“When you see different kind of productions of this done, there all over the shop in a way, aren't they?”
Posted on December 17, 2007 at 07:34 AM | Permalink
I think it was John Stewart (did you know his real last name: Leibowitz?) speaking to a supermodel years ago on MTV when I first heard the joke. The model discussed her ethnic background: she had "a little Native American in her," some Indian, some Scottish, some Brazilian. Stewart then asked her if she had a little Jew in her. The model said no. Stewart countered: Would you like to?
It was a funny moment, and it was a joke that Stewart could make, being Jewish, or at least of Jewish heritage. I, too, am Jewish in that it's my cultural makeup. I'm agnostic but still identify as a Jew because it's a culture even if it's not one specific race. (Plus, I'm wholly Ashkenazi, and we have our own genetic diseases, which I consider a rule for determining whether or not you belong to a race or ethnicity. If you're at risk for something that can kill you because of inbreeding that led to you having one cultural makeup, well, welcome to the "having a race" club. Or something.)
But I digress. Recently, while writing a story about direct e-mail publicity and marketing, I took notice of an e-mail I frequently receive from a PR firm representing Nextbook.org, a great magazine concerning Jewish culture. I respect this publication but don't know how they found my address. Perhaps it's because I'm a writer or blogger, and they just have a good PR team that looks for coverage under many stones (including blogs where the writer might post schmaltz recipes). That's probably the case. But I also have Jewish friends who receive notices from synagogues when they move to new cities. How do congregations know when new Jews move to town? Odd.
As for Jew-on-Jew humor, I'm usually in favor of it, especially from purveyors who share a somewhat common sense of gravitas: Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, even Sacha Baron Cohen (who definitely isn't anti-Semitic by acting as an anti-Semite and showing scenes of people in America offering glimpses of their fucked-up social views). I have never felt that these jokes about Jewish life are anti-Semitic, though some of the more conservative Jews definitely get cranky about them. In fact, I make fun of what being Jewish in 2007 can be like, too--for instance, needing to eat salted cured meat on a regular basis because my body chemistry requires it to produce a specific kind of irony-fuel. Or the fact that I'm glad I didn't marry another Ashkenazi, so my children might actually have good musculature. You get my point.
One team of writers and directors who cross the line in my opinion, however, have a new biopic-spoof movie coming out soon about a Johnny Cash-like character. I'm not allowed to discuss the film before its release, so say the PR people. But I have to say something without mentioning it, and I'm sure you'll put the pieces together.
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 09:13 AM | Permalink
After spending some recent time with some very lovely Canadians, I recently took on an assignment from Toronto-based Sir magazine (available with your Globe and Mail). It was to discuss in brief Bob Dylan's impact on style and attitude in celebration of the forthcoming November biopic, "I'm Not There." I like writing for the back pages of magazines. While this is by far not anyone's last word on Dylan, it's mine, at least for November.
Positively Dylan, Sir, November 2007.
Why Glass Shallot?
Because if the times didn't change, we'd go rotten.
Posted on October 01, 2007 at 12:43 PM | Permalink
So, haven't you heard, Lara St. John's new Bach recording is making waves on iTunes. Lucky for the Shallot that she decided to chat with us last week via Gmail IM (thank Google for the ability to archive chats). Anyway, Lara needs very little introduction (although here's some). It would be good if you knew that she plays Bach like a rockstar and historically important soloist at once. And that she's fiercely independent. And thoughtful. And it would probably be good if you knew that you will like this music even if you've never listened to anything so-called "classical." With that, the most recent (and extremely bloggy) Shallot Q&A with Lara St. John.
Me: So have you ever spoken to someone over the Internet as he's playing your recording on the same machine he's using to chat with you?
Lara: Nope - this is a first.
me: Sort of a bizarre conflation of technologies, no? But you're, what, number 3 on the iTunes classical charts now? It shouldn't seem too foreign...
Lara: Well, it was # 2 till about yesterday - now it's sort of yo-yoing (no pun intended - since he's there too)
me: So Yo-Yo Ma and Luciano Pavarotti are your competition? Kind of nice company to be in, I would think.
Lara: Well, I think no one is going to knock Mr. Luciano out of # 1, likely for a bit. But I can't say I mind at all - an honour, in fact. Not so sure about the Most Relaxing Classical Music one, though...
me: Who calls himself the "most relaxing" classical musician?
Lara: I don't know, it's some sort of compilation...Somehow I didn't check it out.
me: Ah. Well, speaking purely from my own experience, classical music always stressed me out. Got me thinking, worrying about my own technique as a violinist, etc. One definitely doesn't play to relax, but some of these Bach movements really induce another state of consciousness. As a player. Would you agree?
Lara: I sort of go into a weird trance-like state, which I suppose could be termed a different state of consciousness. Normally with these pieces, unlike just about everything else, if someone asks me after, how I felt about a performance, I only have an aura idea - nothing specific...
me: You mean a feeling you can't articulate but still know very intimately as yours only?
Lara: Well, more like a good feeling. Because if I can be specific about what I wanted to do differently after a Bach performance, then I wasn't in the right state. As opposed to, say, a Tchaikovsky, where I can always remember where the orchestra was late, or if I messed something up, etc. It probably has to do with the aloneness of it - evidently, in playing anything else, one has to be aware of one's surroundings.
Posted on September 26, 2007 at 06:22 PM | Permalink
It's not like this is the first time this has happened. Let's just get that out of the way. But I am about to make an argument--one that some people may be tired of--that certain musical hits--especially works important to the course of music history--should be sacred. That is, you shouldn't be able to easily buy the rights to certain songs and then use them as the theme to your middling HBO dramedy, for instance, even if the composer of the song is OK with it and wants the money. The public should get to weigh in. Or at least take the producers of said show to task for such behavior if it's a blatantly atrocious move.
Here's my jumping off point: Now that the current season is about to end, I think it's high time to rake over the coals executive producer Tom Hanks and his use of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" as the theme song to the show "Big Love."
"God Only Knows" doesn't just mean a lot to music history--it's arguably the Beach Boys's most inventive but popular composition, save from a few other "Pet Sounds" tracks. And it just so happens to mean a lot to me and my fiance. (There; we said it. We're cheeseballs who also love harmonic analysis. Got it?) Anyway, "God Only Knows" is a song that we have (privately) made ours for personal reasons. (Though, God isn't part of those reasons; let me say that, too.) This may all sound lame, but that's the power of pop music, and that's why songwriters create tunes like this. The goal is to create something universally personal.
But by attaching a song like this to a manipulative soap opera like "Big Love"--to the entirety of the multi-season series, whose titles begin with a bizarrely stupid scene showing a polygamist and his sister wives skating on thin ice--the producers of the show have attached fictional scenes and pictures and characters and themes to this song. When we hear "God Only Knows" now, it's hard for watchers of the show to separate it from "Big Love." It's just too famous and so-called "absolute" a song for it to be victimized by such semantic manipulation. And yet no one pipes up.
Look: We (fans) don't own the song any more than "Big Love" does--in fact, we own it less because "Big Love" likely paid Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys a princely sum to use the music. I know that. But we also don't broadcast to the world images of our lives--or worse, our lame narratives--with "God Only Knows" in the background. We don't rape the song of its absolute brilliance--of its ability to mean something different to different people--and render it a semiotic aid for one particular narrative that needs a lot of help.
If "God Only Knows" means something to us, the meaning is private. But "Big Love" has made it a public statement--an anthem that some people may now attach to religious fanatacism, polygamy, silly dramedys, Bill Paxton, Chloe Sevigny, Utah, ice-skating, etc. (I've just begun to associate it with mediocre TV, and that's a lot worse than all of the above.)
Frankly, I don't mind "Big Love." I think it's a middling show--watchable but not terrible.
But I also think that the producers should be publicly reprimanded for using a popular and meaningful and important song like this to draw in an audience. "The Sopranos" didn't need to abuse music this way--David Chase used an obscure song as his series theme; his show stood on its own two feet. So, too, David Milch for John from Cincinnati; though his show was terribly confusing and at times unwatchable, the Joe Strummer-song "Johnny Appleseed" was the best part and never had the ability to help it along.
Not only are there lots of songs to be used for TV that might never win popularity without a creative music supervisor's suggestion; there are great composers around to write original music for such shows.
The egregious kicker? "Big Love" even has the gall to keep innovator David Byrne on as the show's fulltime composer but the producers don't use his music for its theme. It's not just cheap but sad. The decision trivializes a song that means everything to many music lovers and pop historians. That's how nervous the producers were about finding an audience and making money. All I can wonder is: What's next? An edgy, button-pushing dramedy about yoga teachers in LA who use their Los Feliz studio as a front for a terrorist cell introduced every week by John Lennon's "Instant Karma?"
Why Glass Shallot?
Because we've now opened the music supervision division of the company, and can actually suggest songs that aren't on everyone's favorite mixtape.
Posted on August 22, 2007 at 08:25 AM | Permalink
Justin Davidson, over at Noise, has a fantastic report about Hamburg's forthcoming music hall. Writing about structures built to deliver sound is absolutely his bag, so have a look. My only thought is to try not to stay staunch on his statement that: "Isn't there something inherently decadent about taking the means of production and transforming into the means of consumption for the bourgeoisie?" Call me me, but I kind of love that decadence as long as it works. And let's be hopeful: Not all music lovers will be members of the bourgeoisie, someday.
Posted on March 29, 2007 at 07:55 PM | Permalink
Just over four years ago, I had the pleasure to see Christopher O'Riley perform his first Radiohead transcriptions at Columbia's Miller Theater; then, I got a masterclass in recording sessions during his Harlem studio block with genius engineer Da-Hong Seetoo. This Friday, I'm heading to UCLA for O'Riley's new Nick Drake interpretations. Previously Chris had also released an amazing album of Elliot Smith--he gravitates to basically every beautifully dark singer-songwriter that means something to a certain sect of today's eclectic popular music lovers. Below is my first take on O'Riley's performance, taken from my time as a NY Sun music critic, but you shouldn't need my encouragement to hear what he's up to in Westwood this Friday. (Click here for an MP3 of O'Riley's transcription of Drake's "Parasite"; and listen to his introduction to "Bryter Layter.")
Posted on February 15, 2007 at 10:15 PM | Permalink
I come from a family of pianists, so I'm a little biased, I admit, but who, other than some tacky serial killer, might actually think that this new Fazioli "M. Liminal" from designer Philippe Gendre is actually something that he'd want in his house, much less something that he'd want to play? [via Gizmodo, with whom, this time, I have to disagree. Watch the video for yourself.]
Posted on February 09, 2007 at 05:52 AM | Permalink
Wow, it's sad that Robert Christgau received the fate he did at the Village Voice (via Alex Ross). But look what's happening at Rolling Stone since that crazy day: This is the most in-depth review of the Shins I've ever seen (hell, it even mentions indie-prog's obsession with imitating basic Bach and Debussy!). And it's dead-on. So what if the trippy rain droplets and multi-tracked guitar pitch bends of "Red Rabbits" from the band's new "Wincing the Night Away" render me hopelessly winsome in a way the epic B-Minor Mass never could. Oh, inverted taste...
Posted on January 24, 2007 at 01:29 PM | Permalink
In "Children of Men," the one recent futuristic flick I actually thought quite highly of, John Tavener's high-pitched vocal wails blend with Messianesque jazz riffs from Radiohead's Amnesiac. But it's the unusual cover of Ruby Tuesday that regularly streams throughout the film that caught my ears. Who did it? The answer is Franco Battiato, an Italian Renaissance man (musician, composer, filmmaker, painter) born in 1945. I love how a musician unknown to Americans--one who refuses to compose in one genre, or even pursue just one avenue of the arts, praising Stockhausen and composing prog rock at once--is the mystery singer of the beautifully chosen Stones's anthem. Hearing Mick's words--"She would never say where she came from, yesterday don't matter if it's gone, etc."--sounded all the more appropos of Alfonso Cuaron's rootless and frighteningly believable tale in which the world goes infertile, ethnic cleansing reigns as political borders dissolve, and out of the blue, one young woman becomes pregnant. So much for staying away from the apocalyptic cinema, huh? Do we have a convert over in Shallotville? At the very least, I've got a fever, and the prescription is more Battiato.
Posted on January 18, 2007 at 08:44 AM | Permalink
The violinist pictured above is Jascha Heifetz, perhaps the most memorable of the Golden Age soloists and a so-called "classical" virtuoso who was actually a household name in many American communities (yes, there was a time when a violinist was just as famous as a scantily clad starlet on the cover of an entertainment rag). Coincidentally, I have a story in tomorrow's LA Times about a unique community of Heifetz students and friends seeking to preserve his influence with: masterclasses, concerts, and prizes for a Heifetz successor--a fascinating story to me, since I've known and studied with cultish Heifetz descendants for years (none interviewed for this story, or members of this society). At any rate, a text version of the story follows after the jump, but you can read it online here. Yet do yourself a favor, classical music fan or not, and first read this personal assessment of the man's recordings by the generous and profound music critic Tim Page. Tim writes: "Few performing artists have exercised such meticulous control over their creative lives, in such a tumultuous era." Read about the people who devote their lives to keeping Heifetz's legend afloat, however, and you'll see that Heifetz didn't just have meticulous control over his creative life, but over the hearts and minds of the people he knew. Scary.
Posted on February 11, 2006 at 07:37 AM | Permalink
Ken Levine got in on the TV theme song meme, and I must add my two cents, given that I come from the younger generation and that I'm not, I hope, a moron. My one addition is that I'm going to include TV theme music, which sometimes isn't a song but just absolute instrumental sound. (Keep in mind, this isn't exclusively TV score music, so the sounds from "Lost" won't be on this list.)
Alas, my 10 picks for TV music openers:
1. Magnum, P.I.
2. The Sopranos
3. Curb Your Enthusiasm (not available online, but this bad ringtone is funny)
4. Diff'rent Strokes
5. Knight Rider
7. Love Boat
10. The Jeffersons
Posted on January 26, 2006 at 10:30 AM | Permalink
Not that long ago, satellite radio seemed like a solution in search of a problem: why get it for free when you can pay? But, with names like Stern, Snoop, and Dylan now available only via satellite -- not to mention the slow death of quality broadcast radio, thanks to behemoths like Clear Channel—$13 a month is pretty damn reasonable. If you're interested in trying to make a decision about which network is right for you -- or if you're curious about how set up your new satellite radio life -- I've got a casual guide up at the GQ/Details site, Men.style.com. Check out the FAQ (sadly, it contains references to bodily functions I didn't write), and then take a look at the radios you may want to invest in. My one tip is to forget the entire enterprise if you're interested in finding quality classical music that rivals what terrestrial has to offer. Both networks are sadly behind the curve (unless, of course, you can't get NPR where you live) mostly because they're invested in trying to make money and gain more subscribers from different pools of people. Sad but true.
Posted on January 23, 2006 at 06:15 PM | Permalink
In 1961, when Dmitri Shostakovich decided to put together five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and write his 13th symphony around them, he was pretty intent on music's power to fight human, political battles. The piece he wrote, "Babi Yar," begins by telling the story of how Nazis slaughtered 33,000 Soviet Jews and left them in a ravine -- a massacre the Soviet government ignored, hence solidifying their obvious anti-Semitism (and please don't think for a second that this piece is simply a historical record of one government condoning inhuman acts; something tells me this piece isn't on W.'s iPod playlist).
At any rate, I recently heard this work performed by the LA Phil, James Conlon, and the important new baritone Nmon Ford. I won't spoil you whatever virtues reading my LA Times review of the show can offer (see a text version after the jump). But I will introduce this short review -- a piece that didn't offer me the room to discuss the following issue -- by saying that even if violinist Hillary Hahn had launched the concert with Sibelius and nothing interesting to follow her, it would have been a bland night.
Hahn recieves amazing reviews from critics around the globe, and if you close your eyes when she plays, you will hear CD-quality musicmaking. But compared to Greek violin innovator Leonidas Kavakos and the Sibelius performance he offered at Disney last year, Hahn simply plays too traditionally, too polished, and seems way too uninterested in her role. Saturday night, she bopped her head a bit to the sounds of the full-orchestra passages, but she seemed rather like a young Stepford Wife trying to chair-dance at a fundraiser.
I don't like to be mean, and Hahn does make beautiful, if predictable, sounds (and lots of money for classical music). But I wonder if her performance Saturday night just wasn't something she wanted to do -- or if she's just not quite as connected to her heart in a life-and-death way as other violinists who put more on the line. Or willing to share it. The question, I guess, is: Would the LA Phil have been able to fill Disney hall with only Babi Yar on the program? Unlikely. The LAT review after the jump...
Posted on January 23, 2006 at 08:28 AM | Permalink
Meeting film composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, who won the Oscar for "Finding Neverland" and is building Poland's equivalent of Sundance, it became evident to me just how much personality has to do with success in a creative endeavor. You can be the most inventive, pioneering artist, but if you don't like to breathe, look at the world, play, improvise, jump into situations and see how you can fit into them, you're definitely missing something. Jan's interview was also unique for me, because there was no hurry. I've conducted interviews with other people in which both parties enjoy the conversation and it doesn't feel rushed. But this conversation was perhaps one of the most natural and limitless. If, in fact, I hadn't had to run home and write the piece, we might have spoken longer. Jan's directors echo this sentiment. They told me they like to work with him because he's always happy to open another door and see where it takes him. Read the LA Times profile from this Sunday's Calendar section--it's copied as text after the jump if the LAT link doesn't work--and see how a talented film composer can weather Hollywood politicking and actually stay true to the vision that brought him here.
Posted on January 14, 2006 at 08:21 AM | Permalink
Every year I make a big habit of listening as much as I can to WKCR's BachFest; Alex Ross was kind enough to remind people about it earlier in the week, but I'll help out as well, since the broadcast has already begun (click here for the RealAudio stream). BachFest is an all-day traversal of every Bach work recorded. WKCR is Columbia University's maverick radio station: a home for jazz fanatatics and new-music lovers alike (KCR jazz luminary Phil Schaap deserves credit for teaching me about Bird), it's one of the last reminders that before our decentralized, Internet-linked world, Columbia was once the absolute epicenter of New York intellectualism (and I use that word in the most positive way). No matter where I have lived--Upper Manhattan, Baltimore, Colorado, California--I have always listened to this channel's Internet stream as a way to stay connected to mindful sounds. Do the world a favor and hear some of it yourself. And then pledge some money. At a time when so-called "non-profit" public radio makes more money from underwriting than you or I will ever hope to see, it's important to support radio stations that actually need, and deserve, your help. (Of course, Columbia's doing fine itself, but I've always known KCR to actually need the money it asks for. It doesn't pull in the same big bucks as all that valuable Columbia-owned real estate, that's for sure. ) And, in the end, I believe it's important to worship a few things on an annual basis. I may not be theological or liturgical, but reminding yourself who you are by delving deeply into the music you have always loved (Bach, John Lennon, etc.) is a tradition I like to adhere to. Bach is God.
Posted on December 22, 2005 at 06:30 PM | Permalink
Unto Us a Hit is Born: Why Handel's Messiah is a Holiday Soundtrack for the Ages. Slate Magazine, December 18, 2001.
Posted on December 22, 2005 at 10:26 AM | Permalink