Monday, January 25, 2016

Joseph Joachim Conference in Boston, June 2016

by Robert W. Eshbach

John Singer Sargent, portrait of Joachim.
Art Gallery of Ontario Toronto
Joseph Joachim is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most important musicians of the long 19th century. A Hungarian Jew, he rose to the pinnacle of the Prussian musical establishment and wielded enormous power as the founding director of Berlin’s Königlich Akademische Hoschschule für ausübende Tonkunst (Royal Academic College for Musical Performance). As a performer who stressed the importance of interpretation over virtuosity, his influence was profound and lasting. Yet, despite his prominence, scholarship has not kept up with Joachim. Until recently, the final German edition of Andreas Moser’s authorized biography, Joseph Joachim: Ein Lebensbild (1908), was still the standard reference on his life, and it remains the basis of all other biographies, including Beatrix Borchard’s recent Stimme und Geige: Amalie und Joseph Joachim. Biographie und Interpretationsgeschichte (2005). As a consequence, much about Joachim’s life and legacy remains to be explored.

In his own time, Joachim was portrayed and eulogized as he portrayed himself: as the embodiment of the “German spirit” in music — the last of a Classic school. Seen through the filter of 20th-century German musicology, Joachim the Hungarian, Joachim the Romantic, Joachim the Jew, or the English Victorian Sage, have been largely ignored. Further, as a result of his turn against Liszt, Wagner, and the “progressive” German school, Joachim the composer has received scant critical attention. Consequently, his position in the musical pantheon has become that of the distinguished, musically conservative violinist, the graybeard gatekeeper of 19th-century Germany’s musical establishment, and especially as the eminent “Friend of Brahms.” Today, few remember Jussuf Joachim, the youthful Joseph, who stood at the center of the greatest artistic disputes of his age — an age renowned for its partisan spirit. Few remember Joachim the Zukunftsmusiker, the member of the musical avant-garde who, at the dawn of Weimar’s second Golden Age, helped give birth to the tone poem and the Wagnerian music drama, and contributed some convincing works of his own in the new “psychological” style.

Recent scholarship has begun to probe the façade of Joachim’s carefully-crafted German image, to consider Joachim as a significant composer in his own right, and to pose new and fascinating questions about his multi-faceted artistry and far-flung influence. From June 16-18, 2016, prominent scholars and performers from around the world will gather at the Goethe Institut of Boston for three days of papers, performances, and festivities exploring the full range of Joachim’s life and legacy. The Joseph Joachim at 185 International Conference, organized by Robert Whitehouse Eshbach and Valerie Woodring Goertzen, and supported by the University of New Hampshire, the Goethe Institut of Boston, and the American Brahms Society, will present new research concerning Joachim’s compositions, his British career, his relationship to Liszt’s Weimar circle, his Jewish and Hungarian heritage, his performance practice and instruments, his interactions with women, and his influence as a teacher. On the evening of Friday, June 17, a concert of music by Joachim, Bach, and Brahms will feature violinist James Buswell, ‘cellist Carol Ou, and pianists Victor Rosenbaum and Mana Tokuno. The conference will conclude with a festive dinner at the College Club of Boston. The conference aims to build on the growing interest in Joachim since the centennial of his death in 2007, and to encourage a broader appreciation and understanding of his life and artistry.

Up-to-date information about the conference can be found online at:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

David Bowie's Final Descent

by Christopher Doll

The incomparable David Bowie died of liver cancer on January 10, 2016. His twenty-fifth and final studio album, (or Blackstar), was released two days prior on January 8, Bowie’s 69th birthday. Reading the deluge of posthumous tributes in the popular press—mostly inventories of the parade of personas Bowie created—I felt inspired to share my own brief tribute to one of my favorite musicians, a tribute focusing not on characters but on music, and in particular on the ten-minute title track (and lead single) of Bowie’s final album.

If anything, “Blackstar” is about binaries. Indeed, it is really two songs in one: the first opens and closes the track, lasting about seven minutes in total, while the second fills the three-minute middle. The first song comprises a nightmarish mix of electronic and acoustic instruments, a highly processed chant-like Phrygian melody set against Andalusian harmonies resembling those of Flamenco guitar music (BM, CM, DM, Em, Am, with a tonal center of B), and very few (but repeating) words of a vaguely religious, ritualistic nature: “In the villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle…On the day of execution, only women kneel and smile,” and the refrain “In (at) the center of it all, your eyes.” When we first hear this material, it takes the form of skittish electronica, but the reprise at the end establishes a rhythmic opposition to its earlier incarnation: staged with a different tempo and groove, the final section is relaxed rock, as if conveying consignment to a gloomy fate.

The closing rock rhythm is actually a carryover from the track’s middle section—the “second song”—which presents the cryptic titular refrain “I’m a Blackstar.” This middle section divides into its own competing, alternating segments: a relatively happy, almost corny, upbeat pop segment (“Something happened on the day he died…”), and an edgier, more dissonant, jazzy segment (“I can’t answer why…”). This light/dark binary occupies not merely the middle but the heart of the track—thematically, vocally, visually. In Johan Renck’s music video, Bowie begins the pop segment in a reverent stance, his hands clasped as if in prayer and his head cast upward toward his creator, who seems responsible for the sublime light penetrating the dark interior of the triangular frame. The vocal melody leaps into Bowie’s highest non-falsetto register here, barely squeaking out a high F# on “spirit” (4:46) and later the slightly lower E# on “day” (6:19). Yet this saccharine performance quickly turns nasty in the jazzy segment, where Bowie’s face contorts to express sarcasm and fury, his hands thrusted downward to his gut and outward to the targeted viewer. Bowie now sings an incessant, slightly flat B, introduced as a bitter dissonance jabbing at the root C and seventh B-flat of a C7 chord; Bowie’s blue B fits more comfortably with the next chord, C#7 (as its seventh).

The jazzy segment’s oscillation between C7 and C#7 serves as a microcosm for a much larger C-versus-C# binary. The natural C, acting as scale degree flat-2 against tonal center B, is a defining dark feature of the Phrygian chant-melody of the opening and closing sections (i.e., most of the track), while its rival, the lighter C#, appears first in the middle section’s pop segment as scale degree 5 of a new tonal center, F#. Vocally, C# is the pop melody’s first main note, approached by none other than its C(B#) adversary: “[C(B#)] Some- [C#] -thing [C#] hap- [C#] -pened [C#] on [C#] the [D-D#] day [C#] he [C#] died.” Instrumentally, C# is the constant goal in the pop bass line, in the form of a chromatic lamento descent: F#-E#-E-D#-D-C#. This familiar Baroque figure—which I call the chromatic “droop”[1]—might possibly be thought to form yet another binary, its morose associations pitted against the upbeatness of its immediate setting. But I myself don’t hear it that way. Drooping lines do occasionally signify laments in popular music: the one in Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film),” for instance, mourns the dead protagonists in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Yet droops in popular music are quite connotatively flexible, and appear just as often in lighter fare. Indeed, I hear “Blackstar” shifting at this moment toward a lighter pop style largely because of the droop, and because of a particular connection my ear makes here to Frankie Valli’s 1967 pop hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” (written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio); both Valli’s and Bowie’s tracks stack an instrumental droop underneath a vocal melody that emphasizes scale degrees 5 and M6: compare Bowie’s “[flat-5(#4)] Some- [5] -thing [5] hap- [5] -pened [5] on [5] the [#5-M6] day [5] he [5] died” to Valli’s “[5] You’re [5] just [5] too [M6] good [5] to [M3] be [5-M6] true, [5] can’t [5] take [5] my [M6] eyes [5] off [M3] of [5-M6] you.” Bowie’s refrain in the outer sections of “Blackstar”—“In (at) the center of it all, your eyes”—offers another connection to Valli’s “Eyes” song. (And even though Valli’s “eyes” are his own, whereas Bowie’s are someone else’s, the musical connection to Valli does occur “In (at) the center of it all,” which is to say the middle of “Blackstar.”) Also apropos here is the potential connection to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” (1994), the verses of which use a nearly identical instrumental descent to support a similar stellar conundrum, and which start melodically with a reference to “eyes” hovering on scale degrees 5 and M6: “[M3] In [5] my [M6] eyes, [M3] in- [5] dis- [M6] -posed…[2]

Did Bowie consciously build these binaries and bridges to other songs? Probably not. Did he build them intentionally? Maybe. At any rate, there’s nothing stopping us listeners from searching for meanings in the music; indeed, with all its deliberate mystery, “Blackstar” would seem to incite such searching.[3] But whatever meanings were intended, or whatever meanings we as listeners happen to find, the most important thing to remember is that the music is meaningful.[4] David Bowie wasn’t just a series of wardrobe and persona changes; he was a world-class musician. Rather than focusing on his fashion, we should be celebrating the underlying cause of his celebrity—his meaningful music. If it weren’t for that, the rest really wouldn’t matter that much.

Christopher Doll is Chancellor’s Scholar and Associate Professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He completed his PhD with Distinction at Columbia University in 2007, and has since then taught in the Music Department of the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He has published widely and given many talks across the United States and Europe; his 2014 lecture at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum can be viewed here.

[1] The droop is one of many harmonic schemas with silly, and hopefully memorable, names identified in my forthcoming book Hearing Harmony: Towards a Tonal Theory for the Rock Era (University of Michigan Press).
[2] Soundgarden’s instrumental descent is only nearly identical because their second chord (on “indisposed”) presents m3 instead of the leading tone.
[3] We should feel no shame, then, in making even more connections to earlier tracks. Bowie himself uses an instrumental chromatic droop in the choruses of his 1999 “Something in the Air,” the eponymous refrain of which might heard be as echoed in the prominent “Blackstar” lyric “Something happened on the day he died.” In the first half of “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” (originally the B-side of his 1969 single “Space Oddity”), Bowie’s acoustic guitar droops below the lyric “and the hangman plays the mandolin before he goes to sleep”—an image in sync with the “Blackstar” line “On the day of execution…
[4] In the postscript to his recent New Yorker article, Ben Greenman concludes that the Blackstar album “struggles to articulate the human struggle to articulate.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Robert Craft Remembered

by Mark De Voto

Craft with Stravinsky, 1964. Image credit: New York Times
I’d like to put in a word or two of remembrance of Robert Craft, who died on November 10 at the age of 92.   We weren’t close friends, but we had cordial and always stimulating professional intersections for over fifty years.  All his life he was a busy musician and writer, endlessly curious and searching, and constantly involved in music and every kind of intellectual life, even when, as he drolly put it in later years, he could feel his craft ebbing.  His catalytic friendship with Stravinsky is known to everyone, and was of immeasurable value to music because of what Stravinsky gained and learned and then created; but it went far beyond that.  While still in his twenties Bob had a personal association with Schoenberg, and during the 1960s conducted a series of recordings that brought major works of Schoenberg to public attention for the first time, including Die glückliche Hand and the Orchestral Songs op. 22.   Before that, he had made his four-disc LP set of Webern’s complete works one of the all-time best-selling classical recordings; all of the orchestral music in that set was recorded in just two hours of left-over recording time donated by Stravinsky.   In 1959, with Hollywood studio musicians, Bob recorded Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse for five woodwinds paired with Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, with the Stockhausen work requiring upwards of 500 hours of ensemble rehearsal – unthinkable today.  

Bob also conducted the American premiere of Lulu at Santa Fe in 1963, and of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder in New York in 1959, the latter on the same concert when Stravinsky conducted the premiere of Threni in New York.  The next day there was a recording session for Threni, with a half hour of paid time remaining after the wrap; Bob and Bethany Beardslee seized the moment to record the Altenberg Lieder with the Columbia Symphony in the first commercial recording ever of that great work, which appeared in 1960.  The Altenberg Lieder were still unpublished in score in 1963, and when I chose them as the subject of my doctoral essay, I wrote to Bob for assistance.   Soon I received the first of a generous series of postcards full of helpful suggestions, ideas, and questions.  We continued to write back and forth, occasionally exchanging scores, and came up with a plan to privately publish my two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Zvyezdoliki; that failed to work out because of issues with the copyright, which Stravinsky didn’t control.  

In 1966 I hung around the Portland (OR) Symphony when Bob rehearsed Schoenberg’s Five Pieces op. 16 and Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.   At that time, he and I were somewhat look-alikes, and I was several times asked if I were his brother – though he was an inch or two taller.    I had a particularly good chance to watch his conducting and his rehearsal technique, both of which I thought were amazingly effective, especially for one who never had a regular position with his own orchestra.  Bob’s recording projects for Naxos are still appearing, including a very impressive Gurrelieder, and a complete Firebird with scary offstage trumpets and tubas.  

His dozen or so books give ample testimony to what a fine writer and wide-ranging thinker he was.  The six volumes of Stravinsky-Craft conversations and commentary have been often criticized because of Bob’s admitted reshaping of Stravinsky’s words and ideas, most often with Stravinsky’s approval, express or implied.  I’m sure that Bob was willing to rewrite Stravinsky for the sake of convenience, and for clarity; I am just as sure that Bob never tried to rewrite history.  Nor did he ever gloss over Stravinsky’s less than admirable past behavior, including the often chaotic relationships with his children.  Bob’s last book, Stravinsky: Discoveries and Memories, includes a number of fine retrospectives and some startling conclusions, as well as some unresolved problems, such as the dubious idea that Stravinsky and Ravel were lovers.  (Bob quotes Stravinsky as joking, “You will have to ask Ravel.”)

I last saw Bob about eight years ago when he spoke at Harvard about Stravinsky’s numerous revisions of details in The Rite of Spring.  The lecture was wonderfully disorganized, because he kept dodging back and forth between references to the score that he wanted to include and others that he would rather have left out.  The discontinuities didn’t matter much, because almost everyone in the audience knew the score anyway.  We stayed in touch by E-mail after that, especially after his move to Florida, which coincided with his increasing health problems.   I will remember Bob as most of us will remember him, as a comprehensive performing musician and writer who propagated so much in twentieth-century music; but I’ll also remember how he was willing to help younger musicians, myself included.   In my professional life I’ve written more than a dozen letters to orchestral conductors asking serious questions; Robert Craft was the only one who ever replied.

Musicologist and composer Mark DeVoto is an expert in early 20th-century music. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton University (Ph.D., 1967), he is professor emeritus of music at Tufts University. He wrote the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston, and in 1997 edited the Altenberg Lieder, op. 4, for the new edition Alban Berg's complete works. In 2004 he published Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on his Music, and in 2011 Schubert's Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony, both with Pendragon Press. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Choreographies of Listening: Some Thoughts from Doing Jazz History while Having a Body

By Christopher J. Wells

Like many jazz scholars, I spend a lot of time engaging in critical historiography, contemplating the effects of the sedimental layers of ideology that have accumulated over time, and how those striations affect our view of the past. But there’s one moment in my life that sticks out where I felt the gravity of jazz historical narratives. When I say gravity, I mean precisely that: it pulled me off my feet and planted my ass in a chair.

At the 2013 AMS meeting in Pittsburgh, a live band performed Ted Buehrer’s painstaking transcriptions of Mary Lou Williams’s arrangements and compositions. My friend Anna and I lindy hopped our way through Williams’s best charts from the 1920s and 30s “Walkin’ and Swingin’”, “Messa Stomp,” and “Mary’s Idea.”[1] About halfway through, the band took up “Scorpio” from Williams’s Zodiac Suite, and I felt that groovy bassline throughout my legs and hips as delightful pockets of rhythmic dissonance invited me (and I presume also Anna, though I haven’t asked her) to keep dancing…but we didn’t. The music still felt “danceable,” but we’d crossed from 1938 to 1944, and I felt a shift inside myself as I questioned whether letting my hips respond to that bassline would still be appropriate as the band crossed the “bebop moment”—that early ’40s boundary separating jazz-as-pop from jazz-as-art. I’ve often thought about my embodied experience at this concert as I’ve been researching my current book project: a study of jazz music’s shifting relationship with popular dance throughout its history. It’s helped me formulate my central research questions and, most importantly, the idea of “choreographies of listening.” 

Not long after this experience, I found advertisements from the late 1930s in the Atlanta Daily World—Atlanta’s main black newspaper—promoting dance parties that also featured a separate “concert hour” when no dancing was allowed. The first such concert, featuring Cab Calloway’s band, made clear that from 9-10pm there would be “NO DANCING, in order that you may hear Cab at ease” with assurances that “at ten o’clock sharp, he will get ‘hotcha’ and ‘jam it’ until 1:30 in the morning.”

These hybridized concert events, which explicitly prescribe how audiences should position their bodies for listening, led me to analyze listening practices through the lens of choreography. My use of the term choreography follows dance scholar Susan Foster, who employs it to consider the structuring of possibilities for how bodies can move and behave within a given space. Whether planned intentionally or formed organically through social processes, choreography, she argues, is in its broadest sense a “hypothetical setting forth of what the body is and what it can be based on the decisions made in rehearsal and in performance about its identity” and “the product of choices, inherited, invented, or selected, about what kinds of bodies and subjects are being constructed and what kinds of arguments about these bodies and subjects are being put forth.”[2]

Indeed, context- and genre-specific movement scores are pretty easy to see once we treat listeners as people with bodies:

—At a symphony performance, you take your seat and remain relatively still and silent. You DO clap at the beginning and at the end of a piece, but you DON’T clap between movements. There are some choices: if other people are rising for a standing ovation, do you rise too? 

—At a jazz club, you can and should feel the rhythm, but you should probably only reflect this by nodding your head and/or tapping one foot (also you should clap after solos…you don’t have to…but yeah, you kind of have to.) 

While this notion might seem cynical or restrictive, I’ve grown increasingly confident that examining choreographies of listening actually offers listeners more agency. Treating listening as an active, performative practice resists the notion that musical sounds themselves inevitably demand they be listened to in particular ways, a concept that Ingrid Monson explores beautifully in her work on “perceptual agency.”[3] Lest we replace one determinism with another, within choreographies there’s always a range of available motion, and one can quietly subvert or disregard choreography altogether in the moment of performance. Indeed, later in that Mary Lou Williams concert, I chose to let her later works move me as I got up and danced, listening to them the way I listen best. 

Now, I’m far from the first person whose hips and feet have crossed the “bebop moment” chasm. Through my research, I’ve found that many younger African Americans danced socially to bebop and other “post-danceable” jazz styles throughout the 1940s and 1950s and some still do so today. Through archival and oral history research as well as applied practice, I’ve explored popular dances like the bop lindy and the applejack that people danced to the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and others in bebop’s pantheon in clubs, ballrooms, house parties, and on the street (apparently, someone forgot to tell these folks that bop wasn’t “danceable.”)

Circling back to 1930s Atlanta, I’m intrigued by how these temporally partitioned concert/dance events model a heterogeneity of listening practices, offering that no one mode of listening need dominate others. In fact, I hope the concept of choreographies of listening offers us both a valuable musicological analytic and a paradigm for listening diversely—a valuable practice for any scholar or student of music. I find I do my best work when I remain aware that none of my modes of listening are “normal.” Each is informed by a choreography imbricated in historically, culturally, and institutionally specific discourses of value and aesthetics and each helps me hear music differently. We all operate within multiple choreographies of listening and we enact appropriate—or at least acceptable—listening practices when we go to the symphony, rock out at a concert, tap our foot in a jazz club, take a music theory exam, or conduct an ensemble. Each mode of listening, guided by its choreography, offers us a different type of focus. While there are many social, political, intellectual, and experiential reasons—pleasure and genuine fulfillment certainly among them—to stay within a given listening context’s movement score, sometimes, self-consciously cross-pollinating them can reveal exciting new things about the musics with which we engage. By studying listening practices and their choreographies in other times and places, we also reveal the fascinating particularities of how we listen and why.

Christopher J. Wells is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute School of Music and Managing Editor of the Journal of Jazz Studies. He received his PhD in 2014 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where his dissertation on drummer/bandleader Chick Webb and swing music in Harlem during the Great Depression received the Glen Haydon Award for an Outstanding Dissertation in Musicology and the Edgar A. Toppin Award for Outstanding Research in African American Music. A social jazz dancer for over a decade, Dr. Wells is currently writing a book about the history of jazz music’s ever-shifting relationship with popular dance and has a chapter forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity.

[1] Anna Reguero DeFelice of SUNY Stony Brook, a fantastic dancer who I met in New York City’s swing dancing scene long before either of us became a musicologist.
[2] Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (New York: Routledge, 2010), 4.
[3] Ingrid Monson, “Hearing, Seeing, and Perceptual Agency,” Critical Inquiry 34/2 (January 2008): S36-S58.