Monday, February 14, 2011

Classical for Dudes, part Zwei

(Here is the second part of my latest outrage. I got hate mail from a conductor in Munich. Mein Gott!)

On the other hand, some of this "classical" music is totally exhausting. For example, I checked out Schostakowitsch at the Wiener Konzerthaus. The Orchester des Mariinski Theaters St. Petersberg, conducted by Valery Gergiev, was playing his Seventh and Twelfth Symphonies. I thought, ’Jesus, there sure are a lot of sounds to be heard at a concert hall.’ It was amazing to be in this big-ass hall—all gold-trim and funky chandeliers—and to be able to hear every little squeak the musicians made. You could hear a tiny drum roll, or a little ripple of strings on somebody’s fiddle--you could even hear if some guy across the room rustled his program. Because everyone was totally silent and listening super carefully to the music! It’s amazing that in the time it took me to write one sentence, the orchestra could go from way-quiet to full-on wailing. It was also amazing how much better people smelled there than they do at a Machine Head concert.

After they started playing “the Leningrad”--which is called that because Schostakowitsch wrote it when there was a war or something going on-- watching the orchestra was like watching a really weird fungus grow. They sort of evolved and shifted, then they boiled and bubbled. The symphony started out sounding like a nice day in Lenin-town, but then it got really agitated, totally ballistic! When a melody from the Allegretto came back at the end of the Moderato, it was all lame and fucked up. Maybe it had a Fatal Accidentato.

Anyway, after awhile, I felt kinda pummeled. I had really enjoyed this concert, but I couldn’t handle anymore crescendos. I thought, ‘That guy with the cymbals needs to stop!’

Finally he did, so I went home. But I had to listen to Iron Butterfly for awhile just so I could fall asleep.

I went back to the Konzerthaus to hear the singer Georg Nigl and pianist GĂ©rard Wyss rock some songs by Mahler, Berg and Pascal Dusapin, who is a guy who is still alive. It was awesome. Nigl can go from honey-sweet to raging bull in about four seconds, and when he bellows, his face gets really red, way redder than Henry Rollins. Wyss was also pretty smoking—it seemed like entire carnival and calvary charges were coming out of his piano. Whenever the two of them paused, the whole audience would exhale.

Sometimes classical music is like a one night stand, because you might not remember any of it in the morning. I thought, ‘No way am I going to be able to whistle any of these songs after the show.’ But I guess that’s okay. Pop music plants hooks in you, but classical is more like art. I’ve gotten used to music that’s like a sledgehammer, but some music is more like a ghost. It bothers you for a while, then it comes back later to bug you some more. And that’s pretty cool.

I’ve noticed that men at the opera houses here like to walk around with their hands clasped behind their backs, like extremely serious monks. It must be contagious, because now I’m thinking I’ve been over-thinking this whole Classical versus Pop deal. Opera and ballet and twelve tone music isn’t more important to Europeans than to Americans. Stravinsky isn’t less important in the twenty-first century than he was in the twentieth. You don’t have to choose between Bela Bartok and Cradle of Filth. That would be like making a movie called King Kong Versus Godzilla. And who would do that?

At the very beginning of his book, which by the way is called The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross relates this scene where George Gershwin came here to Vienna to visit that old sourpuss Alban Berg. Gershwin started to play Berg some of his jams, but then he got all nervous because he was afraid Bergie wouldn’t think his songs were heavy enough. So Berg looks at him and says, “Mr. Gershwin, music is music.” In other words, it’s all good, G.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Classical for Dudes

(Yours truly just published his second article in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung [South German Newspaper]. here is the first part, second part soon to come....)

Some people say that Americans have no classical music tradition. This is not true. We all listen to classical music—classic Beatles, classic Springsteen, classic Clapton. We cherish the meisterworks of the Eagles. “Highway to Hell” is one of our most sacred texts. We love Dance too: the Moonwalk, the Hippy Hippy Shake, the Rock Lobster.
But when Europeans talk about classical music and dance, they mean something else, as I discovered when I arrived in Austria few years ago. They mean strange old sounds. Without electricity. Violins, tutus and mezzo sopranos. Fantastic contraptions, like the Triangle, which I find particularly unnerving. I have always preferred the dulcet tones of a nicely distorted wah-wah pedal.
Nevertheless, I’ve tried to have an open mind about operas and such. My wife took me to the Bregenzer Festspiele—it was a lot like Professional Wrestling. I took in a minor Verdi at the Staatsoper in Wien: at the end of the show, everyone gets stabbed. Just like a Scorsese film. On a lark, I paid for a ticket to the Ballet. I liked it! I liked watching them stand on their pointy little feet. A few days later, one of the ballerinas was fired when naked photos of her appeared in the local papers, but I thought, ‘Wow, now she’s a real star.’
It occurred to me that my American pals who love LaRoux and 50 Cent and Cradle of Filth might be missing out on something over here in Vienna. After a friend asked me to explain the plot of the Tschaikowsky-Pushkin collaboration Onegin, and I broke it down for her (Bookish Hottie meet Gloomy Gus--Gus does a diva act—blood is shed—Hottie says, ‘Later for this’), my friend said, “You ought to write ‘Classical for Dudes.’ “ So that is the title of the article which you are reading.

According to Alex Ross’ book, The Rest is Noise, which is a book that I have actually read, classical music blew up in the twentieth century. It got super noisy and weird. Then jazz and blues and the Beatles and hip hop happened, and people kind of forgot about der Mahler. Alex Ross says that symphonies and operas still matter though, because music is a “continuum.” This may be why I’ve always thought Eric Satie sounded like Brian Eno unplugged, and Krzysztof Penderecki like Sonic Youth with cellos.
But in Austria, on my journey of E-Musik discovery, I have found that there is one key difference between Bela Bartok and Deicide. You can’t do the dishes to Bartok—you really have to listen to every little ‘Kerrang!’ A few years ago, I saw a French orchestra performing in Bregenz. They did a little Beethoven, and I took a nap, but then they knocked out Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and it pinned me to the wall. The violin players leaned forward like downhill skiers. I didn’t even know why I liked it so much. Later, I found out that Stravinsky himself said, ‘My music is best understood by children and animals.” That explains it.

A standing room ticket at the Wiener Staatsoper only costs three or four Euro, so it’s a pretty good entertainment value. And operas are often more interesting than Kate Hudson movies, even though she does have a nice rack. After I found out that it caused a big flap about a hundred years ago, I went to see a Staatsoper performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome. The program said it was conducted by Peter Schneider, and that Catherine Naglestad played Salome. Wow. I thought my family was twisted. The music always sounded like it was sliding downhill. Naglestad killed it—I felt pretty sorry for her, even though she told the King to chop off that other guy’s head. And when she did her dance, it made me think of that scene in Metropolis where the evil robot hottie dances for all those rich perverts. Seeing operas really puts a lot of things in perspective.