November 20, 2002
November 19, 2002
Dvorák's complicated legacy

The Sunday New York Times had an interesting article on Dvorák's contribution to American music and those who helped create it.

We discover that a journalist gave the great Czech composer an article that may have led to one of his great masterpieces:

Titled "Negro Music" and written by one Johann Tonsor of Louisville, Ky., it had just been published in an exciting new journal called Music and was nothing less than a manifesto. "When our American musical Messiah sees fit to be born," it read, "he will then find ready to his hand a mass of lyrical and dramatic themes with which to construct a distinctively American music."

Dvorák sat down and read the article, with its six musical examples. We know this because the copy made its way to the Dvorák Museum in Prague with the words "I love you Daddy" written upside down in the margin, letting us imagine that as Dvorák was engrossed in the piece, his young son tried to get his attention. Within days Dvorák was making the sketches that formed the basis of both the "New World" Symphony and his American style in general.

How charming! And what a surprise to find at the end of the article that "Johann Tonsor, meanwhile, was most likely a pseudonym for a white ethnographer from Louisville, Mildred Hill, who wrote, among other things, 'Happy Birthday.'"

Another thing that caught my eye was that the author noted Dvorák's comment "(while tapping his head) that women did not have what it took 'up here' to compose." Terribly controversial, I'm sure, but how many great female composers can anyone name? Hildegard of Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Clara Schumann are mostly it. Even in this century, when women have had much more opportunity, they are still nowhere near the equals of men in composition. I don't really buy the opportunity argument, though. Novel-writing is one field in which women have excelled from the beginning and, it might be argued, have usually held the upper hand. Jane Austen, for example, is the mother of the modern novel. Some might argue that composing requires more education. There have certainly been great male composers who did not have much opportunity, and pursued music against their family's wishes. In any case, this might account for their being a much smaller number of great women composers, but does not explain why there are next to none.

The article's author, Michael Beckerman, has a book coming out soon, New Worlds of Dvorák: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life. It is "an examination of Dvorák's state of mind" during his American sojourn, and claims he suffered greatly from an anxiety disorder. I will probably take a look at it for its "wealth of new information about the origins of the composer's 'New World' Symphony," one of my favorite works of music.

November 13, 2002

Thanks to Radley Balko of The Agitator, who has been nice enough to link to me and mention my Fountains of Wayne review.

I've enjoyed reading Radley's blog for a while now. I wonder why we haven't yet met—we certainly run in the same circles. Radley often writes about music in a way that makes you want to listen. And, of course, he writes about politics. But I really felt for him today reading a post about his trials with Arlington County employees. Dreadful—not merely bad—customer service is one of my pet peeves. Remember the old days when clerks would apologize for their mistakes, correct them quickly, and throw in some penny candy for your trouble? Neither do I. Still, the trend sometimes makes it a lot less enjoyable to be out and feeds itself by contributing to the loss of civility in public life. Why can't we all be nice to each other when we're out? And why must employees act like those they're paid to serve are an annoying interruption to their day?

November 08, 2002
A.C. on W.R.

A.C. Douglas has begun a series of articles on "Understanding Wagner's Ring: A Guide For The Willing But Perplexed." Do check it out—you can find the first installment here.

And don't be scared off. Wagner may seem like a lot of work, but it will be amply rewarded. And don't think you need a great deal of study to delve in. As A.C. notes, "Wagner created his music-dramas to speak directly to the emotional center of those attending a performance, none of whom he counted on to be trained musicians or musicologists."

My favorite Wagner, and I think a great place to start, is Tristan und Isolde. The prelude draws me in from the very first (surprising) bars. The heart of the story is captured in the first few minutes. This is an opera like no other. (And yes, I know it's called a music-drama.)

Power Pop Goodness

On Tuesday night, I trudged in the rain down to the 9:30 Club to hear the sunny sounds of the Fountains of Wayne.

The Fountains of Wayne are usually described as “power pop”—bright melodies, with a slightly dark guitar edge. The band is a foursome, but the songs are written and produced by lead singer and guitarist Chris Collingwood and bassist Adam Schlesinger, who met while attending Williams College. Adam wrote that catchy theme to the Tom Hanks music movie That Thing You Do! (which earned him an Oscar nomination) and is also a member of Ivy. The name Fountains of Wayne comes from a real store in Wayne, New Jersey (where a friend of mine teaches college, by the way).

They have a geeky innocence that cannot help but charm. (Even National Review loves them!) Their lyrics and melodies (ah, melody!) hark back to a simpler time, when teenagers worried more about who they would take to the prom than about abortion and school shootings. Not to say they don’t know what’s going on with the kiddies these days, though. They sing about the troubles of New Jersey kids, in a funny, yet honest and not mocking, way. To music as beautiful as the stories.

Their self-titled debut was released in 1996. Their second album, Utopia Parkway, came out three years later. It’s been another three years, and their third album should be out soon. (The band promises previews on their web site shortly.) Critics seem to prefer their second album. It is excellent, but I have a special fondness for their less polished first.

“Red Dragon Tattoo” is one of my favorites from Utopia Parkway. It’s about a boy who’s getting tattooed so he looks “more like that guy from KorN”—to win the heart of a girl, of course.

I brought a .38 Special CD collection
Some Bactine to prevent infection
And in case I get queasy
A photo of Easy

They sing about a girl named “Denise,” who drives a lavender Lexus and listens to Puff Daddy, to as sweet a chorus as any 60s girl group ever crooned. They desperately urge the girl of their dreams to “Leave the Biker.” And I can tell you, from repeated listenings at just the right time, that “The Senator’s Daughter” perfectly captures that floating, almost otherworldly, feeling of falling in love.

My favorite song is probably “Sink to the Bottom,” which speaks to me with its feeling of an almost blissful resignation:

Cars on the highway
Planes in the air
Everyone else is
going somewhere
But I’m going nowhere
Getting there soon
I might as well just
sink down with you

Back to the show. Their live act has a bit more power than their performances on record; the guitar sound is slightly more raw. But this only serves to highlight their heavenly harmonies, which are still impressive live, particularly given that this was their first show of the tour. They easily switch between exuberant, guitar-driven songs and tender ballads. They can also make fun of themselves, as they did after doing a set of those (un-ironic, incidentally) ballads. After “Troubled Times,” Chris put away his acoustic and returned to his electric guitar. “No more sissy rock!” he promised.

They played a number of tunes from their upcoming release. Buy it when it comes out—it seems very, very promising. It’s their usual sound, with perhaps a bit more ’60s influence. I’m particularly looking forward to hearing “Bright Future in Sales” again. (And why did the crowd cheer when they announced the new song "Hackensack"? Is there a great love for New Jersey in DC?)

I admit to being slightly disappointed by one detail—they only played about an hour. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by huge names playing two-hour-long sets. Still, it was a tight show with many great songs old and new.

One of the things I like best about going to live shows is checking out the other fans. The FoW certainly have their share of geeky-looking admirers, slightly adorable young men in slim wool sweaters and glasses with black plastic frames. And of course there was the Biggest Fan, more immersed in the music than anyone, singing along to every single song, eyes closed, fist pumping. I was a bit surprised to notice that about 80% of the audience was male. But thinking about it now, it might make sense. Perhaps these are the sort of thoughtful love songs intelligent men crave. (Women, after all, have their singer-songwriters, for good or ill.)

I do hope they’ll tour again soon, perhaps after the new album is released. I will certainly be there, and not only in the hope that this time, they’ll have more t-shirts in sizes other than XL. Their fans don’t look to be that big…

November 05, 2002

"Kevin Michael Grace: Mordant sophisticate or troubled loner? You be the judge!" That is from the first entry of The Ambler, a new weblog by my good friend, Kevin Michael Grace.

Kevin is an interesting guy. He is perhaps Canada's only paleoconservative. And he is the only person I know who will send me an e-mail on Chesterton and modernist heresies and one on the Victoria's Secret television special the same day. Kevin is knowledgeable about politics, but I expect The Ambler to be very different from the typical political blog. I wouldn't spend as much space recommending it if I wasn't looking forward to more cultural commentary in the... (I hate the word "blogosphere" too, but what else to use?)

He's an editor at a newsmagazine. Why start a blog with free content when you're already paid to write 100,000 words a year? His blog, he says, will be more personal. I used to be much more down on the personal in weblogs. I still think that many go too far in giving us the sordid details of day-to-day life. But in reading more blogs, I've found I enjoy learning more about the people writing them. It's one of the reasons blogs can be so much more fun than reading the newspaper—there is personality, and lots of it.

A slightly scary All Hallows' Eve

Being a blogger has its benefits. You can meet people and get invited to parties. Eve Tushnet co-hosted a fun Halloween party last week.

Dave Tepper and Megan McArdle were two other bloggers in attendence. Leslie was one of the party-goers without a blog, but she is Ted Barlow's fiancée, and was responsible for his phone appearance, in which he was passed around the room.

When I entered, the spunky Megan immediately said, "Hello, I am the bane of your fiancé's existence." This rather surprised me—as far I knew, I had no fiancé—and put a number of strange thoughts in my head. Don't I have enough to worry about, with my upcoming birthday this week? (Gifts to, if you insist.) Turns out she thought I was Leslie, who had done the right thing and asked to be buzzed in, rather than sneak in when another tenant left.

I had a great time. Imagine my luck at hearing both Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh discussed! Megan casually remarked to Eve, "Well, that's how most of Waugh's novels end..." and I felt, like I too rarely do, part of a community. I did, however, miss most of the discussion and, having had a couple of sickly-looking green drinks, rudely got off the phone, saying, "Listen, I gotta go, they're talking about Evelyn Waugh."

It was exactly the sort of laid-back event I had hoped to find. No pressure to dress up. Eve reports that she came as a member of the Black Bloc. And as Dave relates, he was an Ugly American. My nod to the evening was black leather jacket, black pants, and a black t-shirt with a pumpkin on it. Celebratory, but subdued.

I've always been a little suspicious of adults who get excited at the thought of Halloween and spend weeks planning an elaborate costume. The idea of dressing up has felt silly to me since the age of about twelve. I suppose I am all for quietly clever statements, though, of Eve's variety.

Adults in costumes can be scary, too. I saw a man on the metro in quite a sophisticated Captain Hook outfit. He later reappeared, in a dream, in an opera conducted by my dead father.