Category Archives: Things I find silly

My Taste is Super Sophistocated and Edgy . . . Isn’t it?

After a beer and a snack at a Capital Hill dive bar that was, of course, decorated with vintage political campaign paraphernalia, my friend Michael and I headed into the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium for a concert of 20th and 21st century chamber music conducted by Oliver Knussen and performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, because I see myself as an adventurous, open minded lover of an ever-evolving artform and I dig New Music. 

I look down my nose at the kind of snobby classical music curmudgeons who are prejudiced against modern or 20th century or contemporary or “weird” or avant garde or experimental music and just put it all into a box labeled “atonal,” and shove it into the basement, never to gaze upon it again. 

I crave new opera, like Nico Muhly’s Two Boys  or Paul’s Case by Gregory Spears; and new takes on the standard rep, like my beloved Willie Decker production of La Traviata. 

That’s of course, not to say that I love everything I see and hear.  I generally find most of what’s come out of the minimalist movement to be just plain boring. You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through an entire performance of Nixon in China or Einstein on the Beach.  And I’m pretty sure John Cage is just trolling everyone.  But I certainly wouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand without hearing it first. Of course I wouldn’t, and I appreciate these works, even if I don’t particularly want to listen to them. 

No really, please don’t make me listen to them.

There are just some tropes in modern music that I can’t get past.  I’ve always believed that “classical saxophone” is an oxymoron.  And what is with all the crazy-ass insturmention in contemporary chamber music?  You’re going to write a quintet for harp, oboe, violin, viola, and snare drum? Really?  And requiring pianists to get up, reach inside the piano and pluck the strings with their fingers?  (Don’t even get me started on “prepared piano.”)

I was discussing some of this with Michael, a composer of New Music himself, as we left the concert and walked back to the Metro on Tuesday night.  What was with the instrumentation on that Schoenberg Serenade?  I was giving major side-eye when a clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, mandolin and guitar took the stage.  Mandolin and guitar?  You could barely even hear them over the ruckus created by the other instruments. 

“Yes, but, get it?  It’s a serenade?”  He pointed out.

“Well, yeah, I get that, but. . .”

“And it did in certain moments sound sort of Italian . . .”

“In a distinctly Schoenbergian way,” I snarked.

As we walked, I mentioned that my favorite piece on the program was Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance, performed beautifully by Huw Watkins.  “But I guess that was the easiest to listen to piece on the program.”

“It really was,” he said.

And I complained that I was enjoying Tropi by Niccolo Castiglioni but it lost me when the pianist got up and started plucking the the strings.  “It’s just silly to me.”

 “I really like way it sounds.” my companion said.

“Well, maybe I’m just old-fashioned.  I guess I’m a snob.”

To that, he bluntly said, “Yes.”

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We are Living in a Material World and I am a Material Girl.

I once spent a summer at a yoga ashram in the French countryside trying to learn how to obtain a higher state of consciousness. (In spite of the absurdity of that statement, it is 100% true.)

To be clear, this was not Yoga ™

yoga (tm)

It was Yoga.

This is Swami Vishnu-Devananda.  He founded the organization that ran the ashram where I studied.

This is Swami Vishnu-Devananda. He founded the organization that ran the ashram where I studied.

While I was there, my fellow yogis and I spent our days doing yoga exercises, helping with chores around the ashram (they called it “karma yoga”  psh!), dining on bland vegetarian cuisine, participating in Hindu pujas, studying the Bhagavad Gita, and meditating.  There was a lot of talk about “detachment.”  That is, freeing oneself from the material world, possessions, stuff, etc.

Fo' realz.  This was me.

Fo’ realz. This was me.

I’m soooooo not into all that rubbish anymore.

In fact, for two or three weeks now, I’ve been waiting on a paycheck for the three Sundays I spent singing in a church whose teachings I found to be pretty offensive, and as one does while waiting for a windfall of money, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it.  I expect I’m not the only person who goes, I really want/need this thing, but I can’t have it.  But maybe when I get that money I’m waiting for, then I’ll buy it. But, then you find yourself saying that about so many things, that it would take five times the money you’re expecting to get to buy it all.

These are some of the things I want:

  1. A massage.  No really.
  2. A haircut.  Seriously, look at this mess. bad hair
  3. Some new clothes.  I hate all my clothes.  I hate my work clothes.  I hate my regular clothes.  I hate my fancy dress-up clothes.  I hate my underwear.  I hate my shoes. 
  4. A bicycle.  I’ve been thinking about this for, like, three years.
  5. A new iphone.  They make those things so that they will break as easily as possible.  The cracked screen on mine is not a good look.
  6. Books.  But then again, conversely . . .
  7. A flat screen TV.  Just a little one.  Just because I’m the last person on earth who has a big, clunky television.  It’s ugly and old and I want it gone.

 Here are some things that I actually need:

  1. Voice coaching.  For the uninitiated, this is a little different than my usual voice lessons.  Coaching focuses on music and language, rather than vocal technique.
  2. A renewed YAP Tracker subscription.  This is a service that provides audition listings for opera companies and Young Artist Programs.  It will be more important toward the end of the summer and the fall, but it’s good to be on top of it.
  3. To record some of my arias.  
  4. To pay down my student loan.  Ugh.
  5. To pay down my credit card.  Ugh. Ugh.

Here are some of the things I am most likely to spend money on now that I have it:

Wine.

Some Things Never Change

“He expects to find the woman singer at least passably good-looking, graceful in bearing, well gowned, and generally attractive.  The fat, ill-dressed, phlegmatic prima donna of the early sixties, who had a good voice and a pure trill, is no longer tolerated. (. . .) too many opera goers have learned to admire a new sort of prima donna, a person who has a robust voice and an exceedingly robustious style, who rushes energetically from one side of the stage to the other, who pants and puffs from the violence of her exertions, but who projects passionate temperament into the atmosphere much as a fire engine squirts water from a hose.  This sort of prima donna is typical in Germany, where she is worshiped with an adoration quite blind to the fact that she knows no more about the laws of singing than a bull-finch does the rules of mathematics.”

An opera fan who reads this passage might assume that it came from the vicious commentariat of Parterre Box or, perhaps the frustratingly narrow minded horde who frequent this Facebook page throwing shade at yet another “eurotrash” opera production. So you might be surprised to learn that it is from W.J. Henderson’s introduction to Ten Singing Lessons, by renowned pedagogue Mathilde Marchesi, published in 1901.

It seems that there always has been and always will be cause to lament the dying art of high-quality bel canto singing.  It keeps dying, and dying, and yet it still isn’t dead.

 

 

Il Divo Sings Cheesy Music and Makes a lot of Money for Simon Cowell

I think the thing that makes me angry about “pop-opera” or “crossover” singers is that, because they get so much more publicity than traditional opera singers (you know, the ones who sing in actual operas), people who haven’t been exposed to opera, who might love it if they were, never get around to hearing a real opera because they never seem to move beyond these more mainstream performers.

So, when @OperaNowPodcast tweeted a quote from a Daily Mail article about pseudo-opera supergroup Il Divo that made my blood boil, I eagerly clicked on the link to rage-read the whole thing.  As I did, I experienced an unusual range of reactions, some of which were unexpected.

The article weirdly begins by describing how the band members complain that fellow crossover singer Katherine Jenkins has it so much better than them. Because dresses…or something?

‘When Katherine opens her wardrobe she can take her pick from hundreds of different things. All these designers have different fabrics, cuts, styles. She has a gazillion options. What do we have? Black suits. Nice black suits, granted, but how many options can you have with a black suit. You can have a good piece of trim or a different lining, but ultimately it is a suit.’

But at least they don’t have to shave their legs.  Whatever.  Moving on…

They then argue about whether their music could be considered “cheesy.”

‘But they are among the most popular songs in the world,’ he objects. ‘The most passionate, emotional . . .’

Mercifully, Sebastien launches in with: ‘No, I agree with her. Some of the songs are cheesy, but what we have done is turn them into something different.’

Let me help  you guys settle this.

Yeah, that’s Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart sung in Spanish.  That’s basically the definition of cheesy.

The article goes on to discuss the genesis of the pop group, which was put together by Simon Cowell, the sneering, sarcastic American Idol judge who can’t seem to find a tee-shirt in his size.  He initially signed the four singers for one album, “I don’t think even Simon had any long-term plan. He couldn’t have expected us to still be around nearly ten years on.”

Then the author of the piece claims that the group has “created a crossover category of music, which is neither pure pop nor pure opera.”  Wait a second!  Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras were doing that shit back in the eighties.  Il Divo didn’t create this genre, they were late to the party.

Most of their fans are women, but their fans’ husbands like Il Divo too, because their music helps them get laid, and that’s all guys care about, amirite?

Women love them. They attract groupies all over the world, ‘But the men love us, too,’ smilesCarlos. ‘In Spain, the men say “Sing well, boys, because if you do I will get the benefit of it tonight”.’

But the part of the article that surprised me the most is this one:

They admit they waved goodbye to their dreams of becoming global operatic soloists once they signed with Cowell. David is returning to the opera stage next year for a performance of La Traviata in the U.S., but it is his first major opera role in ten years.

I had no idea any of these guys had legit opera cred!  Go figure.  Starting to judge them less…well…judging the one named David less…

They are used to people assuming they dumbed down in some way to sing pop, but insist today that it is actually harder than opera.

Ok, judging you again…

But this last part of the article is what really pissed me off:

I ask about their lifestyles. Do they have pools, mansions, fast cars?

‘No. I live in London and I drive a 12-year-old car worth £2,000,’ says Sebastien. David says he lives in an apartment in New York. Carlos has moved to Paraguay. Urs lives in London, but does not have a Cowell type of life. ‘You probably have the wrong perception of how much money we have made,’ he says. ‘Simon Cowell has made a lot of money . . .’

Simon Cowell has made a lot of money.  And with that, I find that I don’t blame you, Il Divo, as Tenor and Blogger Christopher Gillett says, “I blame them that sent you.”

 

 

 

Tune the Third!

Ever since I began to gain an understanding of basic music theory, I have found that the funniest musical joke you can make is to take a familiar melody in a major key, and play it in a minor key, or vice versa.  For the uninitiated, all that means is to change two (or sometimes just one, or sometimes  three, don’t worry about it) notes in the tune.*

I had a music teacher once who played Frosty the Snowman in a minor key, it was hysterical.

Now the Vimeo channel Major Scaled that is doing just that, by digitally altering minor-key pop songs into a major tonality, to hilarious effect.  Check out this rather jaunty little tune:

Major Scaled #2 : REM – “Recovering My Religion” from major scaled on Vimeo.

 

Songs that once had menacing gravitas now seem uplifting:

Major Scaled #1 : Metallica – “Nothing Else Majeur” from major scaled on Vimeo.

 

*Here’s a quick tutorial:  If you sat at a piano and played a C Major scale, you would play all the white keys from C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.  To change that to a minor scale, you would play C,D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B, C.  (Music theory nerds, yes I know there’s more to it than that, I’m trying not to confuse people.)  More detail can be found here.

In Which I Spit on your Random Act of Kindness

When my alarm went off this morning, as it usually does around 6:30, my first thought when I opened my eyes was, shit, I don’t have any milk for coffee.

For most coffee drinkers, a lack of available milk would be a minor annoyance, but not for me.  Milk is essential to the coffee-drinking experience.  And, since coffee is essential to the life-tolerating experience, I got showered and dressed as coherently as I could in my pre-caffeine state, got in the car, and made a beeline to the Starbucks drive-through where I ordered a venti pumpkin spice latte (because, since I’m here, why not?) and a breakfast sandwich.

And then something unusual happened.

When I pulled up to the window, $10 bill in hand, the green-aproned woman handed me my coffee and explained, “The person in front of you paid for your order, if you want to keep it going you can, but you don’t have to.”

I smiled.  “Wow, uh, yeah I will, but wait . . .”  Something occurred to me.  I’m all for “random acts of kindness,” but if the person in the car behind me ordered two gallons of coffee for his 8:00 AM meeting, plus a venti triple Americano for himself, and a grande hot chocolate for his carpool buddy, then that’s going to be a problem.  “What is the bill for the next guy?” I sheepishly asked.

“$7.50”

Phew.  “Yeah, ok, I’ll pay for his.”   I handed over the $10 bill.

“It’ll be just a minute on your sandwich.”

While I waited, I smiled and thought to myself that the world really is a wonderful, kind, sunny place after all . . . and then there was one of those record screech sound effects in my head.  Something wasn’t quite right about the way the barrista said, “If you want to keep it going you can.”

Keep it going?

When she came back with my sandwich, I asked, “So how long has this chain been going?  Did the guy in front of me start it?”

“Actually, it’s been going on for a little while now.”  She told me.

Interesting.

As I drove off, sipping on my way-too-sweet pumpkin spice latte, I thought, What just happened?  Was this a beautiful example of a random act of kindness being payed forward (two Oprah phrases that I kind of hate) or something else?

Really, the only person who did anything especially kind was the first guy who decided it would be nice to buy a cup of coffee for the chick in line behind him.  That chick, having been unexpectedly relieved of paying the five bucks or so that she had already planned on spending, and perhaps feeling a bit awkward about accepting a gift from a stranger, decided she might as well spend that five bucks anyway on the person in line behind her.  And it continues, each person in this charitable drive-through line spending $5-$10 or so in a big caffeine-fueled circle jerk.

And one more thing.  This is not just any Starbucks.  This is a Starbucks in Loudoun County, Virginia.  A place where, according to the 2010 census, the median household income is around $115,000 per year.  It’s likely that the people in that drive-through didn’t really need a free cup of coffee.

This is all sounding very cynical.  All I’m trying to say is that, sometimes a “random act of kindness” doesn’t really accomplish anything, other than superficially making you feel good.  If you’ve got an extra five bucks to spend on coffee for a stranger, why not spend it on a sandwich for the homeless man outside, instead of the person who was already going to spend five bucks of their own?  If you want to provide a kindness, maybe you should take an hour and pop down to the Red Cross blood bank and give them a pint?  If you’ve got extra money that can be put to good use, perhaps you could loan it out at Kiva?

What happened at the Starbucks this morning, was a fascinating study in altruism and social pressure, not proof that humans are really and truly Good.  That proof lies elsewhere.

A Study in Ultra Small-Scale Voter Demographics

This is my home town, Lincoln, Virginia:

Image

Well, “town” is a bit of an overstatement.  The great fount of knowledge that is Wikipedia describes it this way:

Lincoln is an historic unincorporated village in the Loudoun Valley of Loudoun County, Virginia, located approximately 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of Purcellville. It was established as the community of Goose Creek during the 1750s by Quaker settlers and renamed Lincoln after the president shortly after his election.

It was a great place to grow up.  Rolling farmland, roamed by grazing horses, cattle, and, on one farm, sheep, surrounds the denser village which is home to the historic Quaker meeting house, Lincoln Elementary School, and the Abernathy & Spencer garden nursery.

I was there last weekend visiting with my mom, and she and I took a walk on a route we’ve always walked and simply call “The Loop.”  We walk down Foundry Road until it intersects with Taylor Road, and follow it back to Sands Road.  On this particular walk on this particular day, I noticed something.

You see, it’s an election year, and as people do in election year, the residents of Lincoln have proudly declared their allegiance to one party or the other.  No, not with coffee cups, but with lawn signs.

Now, it’s a pretty well-established fact that, as a general rule, populations of rural areas tend to tilt conservative, supporting the Republican party, while urban populations favor the more liberal Democrats.  Lincoln, Virginia is most decidedly rural, but on our walk last weekend I noticed a pattern in the political lawn signs displayed by the residents of Lincoln village, and its surrounding environs.

You see, when we were on the farthest outskirts, I saw a lot of these:

Image

But when we got to the central village, it looked more like this:

Image

 

With surprising consistency, the houses inside the dense, yet tiny, Lincoln Village had Obama signs, while the houses on larger parcels of land in the surrounding area displayed signs for Marie Antoinette Mitt Romney.

Lincoln, Virginia: a tiny little microcosm of voter demographics.