Saturday, October 11, 2003

ClarkWatch: NAP Time

Despite the angry e-mail I get from Clark supporters, I believe we have much in common. They see Clark as a big fish in a little pond, whereas I see him as a big fish in a little barrel. By the way, why is "New American Patriotism" the best Democratic buzzword since Jimmy Carter's "Moral Equivalent of War"? Read on for some startling answers ...

The official Wesley Clark 2004 website is up and running, sort of. An essay from the Generalissimo details his "100-year vision" for America, which sounds kind of scary and Stalinist. In practice, it's banal stuff: You can practically hear the college admissions officer ask him, "If you could change anything in the world, what would you change and why?" Still, Clark's rambling answer beggars all description. Just read it at the source. Or try to.

The site features a "presidential blog" (all the rage this year, at least among the Dems). Sometimes Clark even posts. Here are a few paragraphs where he praises all the plebes and yokels he's been stepping on for the past three weeks. I don't think he wrote it by himself, because it's almost coherent.

And check out this charming missive from 10-year-old "Tim," prominently displayed on the site. (10/13 Update: As you can see, all references to Tim's letter have been removed. See it here instead.) The laconic description of Bush as "evil" would do al-Jazeera proud. But what concerns me is that a ten-year-old American kid of presumably average intelligence can barely construct a simple sentence, let alone write it. By my calculations, little Timmy should be in fourth grade, more or less. Where does he go to school? More important, can his parents get him out of there so he can learn some grammar and penmanship?

The site has some blather about Clark's "New American Patriotism," also known as NAP. According to the website, the first speech about the "NAP" will occur on October 14, at which point I should have a few new quotes for the "Wit and Wisdom" file. The website promises that other speeches will follow at near-weekly intervals over the next two months -- because, you know, our favorite general wouldn't want to give us the idea that he had thought through his campaign platform before he started running for President.

Of course, there is still no page devoted to "Issues" as such (unless you're counting the General's 100-Year Plan). But the site has a spiffy little photo gallery, where you can click on small photos of the General and see big photos of the General. Clark even has a list of organizations from all over the country that support his presidential campaign; and gentle reader, I am informed that these remarkable items are known as "Links." My, what web designers can't do nowadays.

Will the cutting-edge innovation never end? Until next time, I think I, too, will take a NAP.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

More Wit and Wisdom from Wesley Clark

You may not have heard much lately from our favorite retired general. Fortunately, My Stupid Dog remains vigilant. Here's more proof that sequels are never as much fun as the original.

A man with more experience than he had three weeks ago: I've got the experience; I've got the ability to work the issues. [Capitol Hill Democrats] will have to judge for themselves whether I can connect to people and rally them to elect me president.

A man who can beam us up: I still believe in E-equals-mc-squared, but I can't believe that in all of human history, we'll never ever be able to go beyond the speed of light to reach where we want to go. It's my only faith-based initiative.

A man who loves his Democratic Party: To start, it's a party that stands for internationalism, it's a party that stands for ordinary men and women, it's a party that stands for fair play and equity and justice and common sense and reasonable dialogue.

A man who stands by his friends: I'm not going to attack a fellow Democrat.

A man who knows his place: Before I say another word, I want to make one thing clear. I'm pro-choice. I'm pro-affirmative action, I'm pro-environment, pro-education, pro-health care and pro-labor. And if that ain't a Democrat, then I must be at the wrong meeting.

A man who knows there's no place like home: I realized there was only one place for me, and I just want to tell you it's great to be home.

A man who knows that home is where you hang your hat: I was either going to be a very lonely Republican or I was going to be a very happy Democrat, and I am a Democrat and I'm proud to be one. I'm a new Democrat and you know what? I'm going to bring a lot of other new Democrats into this party.

A man who can get his story straight: I think it's really embarrassing that a group of candidates up here are working on changing the leadership in this country and can't get their own story straight.

A man who doesn't understand what "Attorney General" means: [John Ashcroft]'s not much of an attorney and I know for sure he's not a general.

A man who would have been a Republican if ... oh, never mind: That said, [the George W. Bush administration] was a new administration, I knew a lot of people in this administration. I've been terribly, terribly disappointed by this administration.

A compassionate something-or-other: If that doesn't break your heart, you don't have a heart.

If I were Clark's campaign manager, I'd quit too.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Why aren't we listening to more classical music?

Michael at has obligingly linked to an essay by critic Kevin Michael Grace on the sorry state of the classical music industry. Grace observes that, after the apparent financial success of teenage sopranos, pop-tart instrumentalists, cruddy concert tenors (Russell Watson, Andrea Bocelli et al.), umpteen "Hooked on Classics" ripoffs, and pop star Michael Bolton's album of famous arias, it seems as though the major classical labels are no longer interested in promoting high-caliber performances. They prefer "crossover" albums with pop-star appeal, which will satisfy a few uninformed consumers in the short term, but leave most music buffs jaded and angry. The result: Despite enormous marketing budgets and a great deal of "buzz," no one seems much interested in the big labels' product. According to Evening Standard critic Norman Lebrecht, classical music companies are in their worst financial shape since the Great Depression. No wonder. They screwed over their base.

Naxos, of course, is the major exception. Their line of budget classical recordings offers adventurous selections, with performances ranging from decent to superb. I'm currently listening to Erno von Dohnanyi's Sextet for clarinet, horn and piano quartet -- and of course, it's from Naxos. Alas, this recording is closer to "decent" than "superb," but if I want to hear this piece (and believe me, I do), and I don't want to order something from Europe (always a tricky and time-consuming business), the Naxos recording is my only real choice.

It seems that other classical companies are learning -- slowly -- from Naxos. Deutsche Gramophone has managed to dig through its archives, remastering and re-releasing some truly great, historic recordings. They're excellent for music buffs and audiophiles, but at ten to twelve dollars each these CDs are more "mid-price" than "budget." EMI and London/Warner have gone one step further, re-issuing digital recordings from the mid-'80s as true budget lines. They're no great shakes, and the liner notes are lousy, but at least they're a start. Even Virgin Records has made a stab at a budget-classical line, but to my knowledge no one has ever removed their CDs from the plastic packaging without breaking the little buggers. Granted, none of these companies match Naxos's output in terms of quality or quantity, but I don't think they want to.

Of course, if the market for classical music is depressed, the market for contemporary classical is doubly so. Here I think we fans might actually be cutting our own throats, by going over the top with jargony, left-wing analysis.

Take, for example, Giya Kancheli. I've boldfaced the name because I want you to remember it. His music can be depressing stuff, no doubt, but in its East-meets-West flavor it resembles no one so much as our old friend Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak incorporated Czech folk melodies and motifs into a late-Romantic Viennese style, for some of the 19th century's most gregarious, crowd-pleasing compositions. Kancheli takes a similar tack, combining melodies and snippets inspired by his native Georgia (the country, not the state) with the avant-garde sensibility of current Western European music. The result is surprisingly accessible, deeply emotional, and basically tonal. An audience of grown-ups should understand it, even enjoy it.

So far, so good. Now, how do the liner notes on my CD describe it? Well, musicologist Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich goes into great detail about musical modernism and "Western constructs of history." (Remember that these are liner notes, which means that Jungheinrich is trying to address a general audience.) But when he finally gets to the music itself, his analysis boils down to "East meets West," though you have to boil for a mighty long time:

Kancheli's tonal language has taken inspiration from [the avant-garde] although it maintains an unmistakable distance from Western intonations and concepts.

In short, we're looking at Gyorgy Ligeti (Stanley Kubrick's favorite composer) with a heart, or Alan Hovhaness with a brain. But tell me, gentle reader, if you were reading the above passage in your concert notes, buried in an extended, vaguely accusatory discourse on historicity, modernism and Eurocentrism, would you be terribly eager to hear the music? Bleggh.

To see how this sort of thing ought to be done, check out the Kronos Quartet. For the past three decades, they've promoted contemporary classical music and developed a very loyal fan base. Perhaps that's because the quartet combines excellent musicianship with generally good taste, adding just a little show-biz flash to keep audiences intrigued. Naturally, they promoted Kancheli's music during the mid-1990s, performing his Night Prayers on a best-selling album. Other chamber groups followed their lead, so that a relatively broad spectrum of listeners have had the opportunity to hear this particular work.

In a way, it's too bad the Kronos Quartet can't run a classical music label. I get the sense they'd be terrific at it.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Is classical music dead?

Short answer: It depends on where you go.

On the European continent, classical music is very much alive, largely because it's a matter of national pride. You may not be able to buy recordings wherever or whenever you please. (In continental Europe, even budget CDs are expensive, and never very easy to find -- the result, I suspect, of extensive luxury taxes.) But on any day of the week you can hear live performances of Janacek and Smetana in Prague, Saint-Saens and Poulenc in Paris, Schumann and Wagner in Munich, Schubert and Haydn in Austria, Verdi in Italy, Beethoven and Mozart everywhere.

The only places you don't hear classical composers as part of the everyday cultural fabric are Britain and America. I'm not especially well-informed about Britain, but from what I can tell, British classical music owes its continued cultural relevance to royal patronage and the state-sponsored Anglican church. Most British composers have written works specifically for ecclesiastical or liturgical use, and the Church still sees them performed on a fairly regular basis. Likewise, the majesterial pomp of British royalty has brought a few British composers -- Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten, William Walton -- to the attention of an international audience. British classical music may not be dead, but it's clearly on life support.

American composers, having neither royalty nor official church to fall back on, currently find themselves without reliable venues or a built-in audience for their work. They weren't always so neglected in their home country; after all, the golden age of radio was also the golden age of American classical music. But nowadays the United States seems deeply ashamed of its orchestral tradition. To hear the remarkable music of Charles Ives, William Schuman, Morton Gould, Roy Harris, or even Leonard Bernstein performed live, you have to go to Europe. (The Viennese especially love Bernstein, though I can't fathom why they do and we don't.)

Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite is the exception that proves the rule: Other than it and Fanfare for the Common Man, what of his music do American orchestras perform? Even George Gershwin is a rarity. Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris may show up on "Pops" concerts from time to time, but neither critics nor audiences seem to take him seriously. Contrast with Munich, where even street buskers play Brahms and Liszt.

The budget label Naxos has released several recordings of American classical music, ranging from adequate to excellent. If you want to hear contemporary performances of Walter Piston, Ned Rorem, David Diamond, or Howard Hanson, you'll have to buy from Naxos, because in many cases there are simply no other options.

I can understand why Europeans would disparage American culture, but I've never understood why Americans do it. Perhaps it's that we consider nationalism inauthentic, a surrender of individual identity to the larger community. (Yet my own nationalist tendencies set me apart from friends and neighbors.) Or perhaps it's that American classical music is associated with intellectualism, while American nationalism has a strong anti-intellectual streak. In Europe, "cultural patriotism" is a basic component of national identity; here, it's a contradiction in terms.

I could write a book on this problem and still not figure out a satisfactory solution. All I can say is that among Western societies, the United States is the only one where classical music, along with most forms of culture, has attained near-complete irrelevance. The one exception, of course, is the cinema -- which might indicate that the situation isn't as bleak as I've just portrayed it.

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