Tag Archives: britten

return of the mack

hi internet. you’ve probably forgotten about me. in that case, let me re-introduce myself: hi, my name’s imani and i’m a recovering academic.

a lot has happened since i wrote here last. the two subjects of my penultimate post are both dead (and very recently so) and my status, for the time being, has changed. i’m leaving Columbia and applying to new PhD programs in the hopes that i’ll land somewhere in the fall. i’ll be spending the next six months or so in the real world (something i’m actually looking forward to), saving up money for my next grand adventure whatever that may be. i’ve given a few papers, attended a few conferences, taught a handful of classes and learned more than i had ever bargained for — a lot about myself, especially.

so what brings me back here? well…while attending the behemoth that was Alphabet Soup, er, i mean AMS/SMT/SEM 2012 in New Orleans a month and a half ago, i met up with Ryan Bañagale (of Amusicology fame and all around awesome musicologist) and we talked about social media among other things. i talked about my blog to which he actually said that he missed it. (you know i thought no one ever read this…a vain naïveté, i know but who cares?) sometime later, i realized that my tiny little voice was an important one for a whole host of reasons. while my journey is uniquely my own, a lot of people can identify with it (or at least parts of it) and it’s always been important to me to document my struggle.

(don’t worry Ryan, i still want to write for Amusicology!)

so here i am! granted, i won’t have that much to talk about in the upcoming months … actually, strike that. there’s the application process, the admissions and failures, and the life of a (hopefully) temporary independent scholar. plus, as we all know (though i think sometimes we need reminding) being out of school does not make me — or anyone else — less of a musicologist.

i’d like to think now that i’d have the time to devote myself to a different type of writing but we shall see. plus, i have *other* things to do. that means: go check out my Tumblr devoted to the Britten Centenary (and my place within it) A Birthday Hansel; it’s great fun and is a little less about me and my thoughts which is always nice.

so go, tell your friends and i’ll do my best to hold up my end of the bargain this time.

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with him, it’s all or nothing

i know i’ve been noticeably absent…immediately after i graduated i was taken up with the task of preparing for my first academic conference as a speaker. two weeks ago, i gave a paper at the Britten in Context conference at Liverpool Hope University. this has become, already in such a short time, a momentous event in my life. as RG said to me, it’s great to have these experiences that remind us of the reasons that we do what we do.

maybe i’ll talk about the conference later, maybe not. right now, this is a good place to be.

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how i gave up and learned to love powerpoint

(and keynote)

i find it strange that someone like myself who has been so involved with the visual arts for so many years, especially as a medium of conveying scholarly information, would be so against powerpoint. but here i am, trying to understand how to make this thing fit in my career.

and believe me, i will have to.

the last few colloquia we’ve had have hinged on powerpoint and even when the presentation was about archival research at the Bach-Archiv with Dr. Michael Maul, i still thought, “all these presentations make me think of is sixth freaking grade.” i mean let’s face it, in its infancy, MS Powerpoint was filled with star wipes, flying bullets and clipart. and i was young and impressionable, determined to make up my mind about my aesthetic beliefs right then and there. the result? no powerpoint. and to this day i’ve hated it in in presentations, at conferences, basically at every turn.

who decided that the only way to disseminate mass information to a crowd was through a slide show? i mean, i acknowledge its efficacy but can’t we have something a little more interesting? pantomime? interpretive dance? anything?! i’m in the process of working on my paper for a conference i’ll be speaking at in june and i dread the fact that i must use powerpoint (Mac’s Keynote, respectively) to play things and show things — the nature of my paper is very visual. and you better believe that it will be the most ingenious presentation ever given.

or maybe it’ll have a star wipe. sigh.

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it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

just cause everybody’s doing it: a (brief) compilation of my entries for this year’s #operaplot!

1. the mate was pretty venus’ son/the queen was strong & sure/Italie the gods cry the queen’ll die/in this 5 hour tour a 5 hour tour

2. why does the devil always get the good music? this isn’t “the damnation of Lucifer”!

3. heres a story of a lovely lady/who was watching 2 very scary kids/both of them had ghosts who wanna keep them/every1 gets screwed

4. let’s make a deal! door #1=bloody jewels door #2=bloody weapons door#3 = dead wives. wait, shouldn’t one be a car or something?

5. i ❤ a girl but she's w/a thug i'll trick him into getting arrested. wait he's back & took my girl to NYC? oh lawd i'm on my way!

6. baritone lets crazy lady (man? lady?) ride boat for free. puts up w/her moans & reunites lady w/lost (dead) son?! domo arigato!

7. sid & nancy aren't punks but they sure start a riot! albert, mom always said not to drink the kool-(lemon)-aid!

8. stutter much?/throw a punch!/send that Claggart out to lunch/starry Vere/must adhere/beauty Billy must die, i fear

9. from the Piazza San Marco to Lido there's enough malaria and cute Polish boys to go around! book your tickets now, one way only.

10. restless Etruscan rides all night to have way w/chaste Roman. Roman has a "hangover" only suicide can cure. is this it all?

11. Elizabethan queen/though we're sharing the same dream/while our hearts still beat as one/no courtly love (or dances) on the run

can you guess?

1. Berlioz – Les Troyens
2. Berlioz – La Damnation de Faust
3. Britten – Turn of the Screw
4. Bartok – Bluebeard's Castle
5. Gershwin – Porgy and Bess
6. Britten – Curlew River
7. Britten – Albert Herring
8. Britten – Billy Budd
9. Britten – Death in Venice
10. Britten – The Rape of Lucretia
11. Britten – Gloriana

(i tried to do all of the Britten operas, save Grimes. i think it turned out pretty well!)

for more information on #operaplot, what it does & why it’s so awesome, check out its home at The Omniscient Mussel. (if you know where that comes from, you get an internet cookie!)

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like it or not

“what is art today? […] the decent impotence of those who scorn to cloak the general sickness under colour of a dignified mummery.”

all art and patrons of art, throughout history, have faced an ongoing challenge: why do we like what we like? more importantly, whose opinion really matters? does my “like” trump your “like”? and, of course, do we like things because they are good?

what is good?

as someone who does a fair amount of study & reading on the philosophies and aesthetics of music, i come across this fairly often. i got hit with the reality, very bluntly, of what happens when you start asking these questions at a later age. there is no turning back once you realize that your concept of music, what it is and what it does, can be challenged. it can shake your entire foundation. this was tested last week in one of my classes. we devoted a whole class to postmodern aesthetics of music (with a little dash of Adorno) and i found myself in the position of preaching to the deaf. i could cite Pluto, Adorno, Derrida, and Lyotard till the cows came home but they were not having it. words like “good”, “undefinable”, and “beautiful” keep appearing and i kept cringing.

and what saddens me the most about all of this is that it’s not the fault of my peers. they’ve been indoctrinated and they don’t even know it. many of us come out of our musical academic experience thinking the only composers who have ever mattered are Bach, Mozart, (maybe) Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler. god help you if you don’t like those composers because you are obviously not a real classical musician. how have we let it get to this point? this is canon formation in overdrive. are you really gonna like Beethoven because someone told you to and pointed out in all of his works what a genius he was? why wouldn’t you?

i had this experience with Bach. Bach was in my life from a very early age for, you see, he and i have the same birthday. not only that, but i was born 299 years to the day after the Master himself. (yes, if you can do math, i have just dated myself. whatever…) growing up, my favorite classical radio station would play nothing but Bach all day on my birthday and it drove me crazy! this led to a most likely irrational hatred of Bach and his music. but how could anyone hate Bach? did i not understand his genius? well, after years of rejecting common thought, i decided to really check Bach out on my own. and, amazingly, i had a moment. i liked Bach. from that moment on Bach and i have had an increasingly personal relationship. Bach became important to me because i found something relevant, relatable. Does common academic study tend to bolster those feelings? possibly, which, of course, i hate. but i never let myself take any composer at face value — if someone is going to tell me that someone is “great”, i need to know why.

as we all know, schools are intent on teaching the Austro-German Classical/Romantic legacy. it’s just easier. but in doing so, we produce a generation of musicians who are content with not taking risks, whether in programming or education, and it has real effects. in the Northeast, where i was educated, the “orchestra” was the only relevant and important music-making body. the wind band genre, which i grew up with was “less than”, “undesirable”, and not real art music. says who? says those who were educated within this system.

this reeks of bad things to come and i feel it’s my duty to curb it as much as possible. i will admit, i get a little overzealous (i know many people who are German Romanticists and it’s just my general feeling to loathe them, which is not fair — there’s just so damn many of them!) but i believe what i’ve subscribed myself to. don’t like Mozart? fine. but if you’re going to rebel against the institutionalized canon, be educated about it. and stay away from “good”, “better”, “best”. that trap is lethal — unless you’re Plato.

i saw this again on a much smaller scale (and i mean MUCH smaller) with the release of Christina Aguilera’s new video, “Not Myself Tonight” — there’s a lot of vitriol out there about what’s “good” and what”s not and i found myself asking the above questions in regards to this…and feeling badly that the same sort of institutionalized aesthetics happens on every level, from pop music to art music and everywhere else. i think part of the reason why it can be more inflammatory in music as opposed to other arts is because of the very deep connections we make with artists and their work. i’ll be the first person to admit it — to me, Bach’s Goldberg Variations feels like a warm breeze blowing through my hair and sounds like the silence of unconquered lands. and if you come up to me and tell me that Bach is shit, i’ll punch you in the mouth. but then i have to take a step back and analyze all of those feelings.

i’m not saying that we can’t like music just because and place value judgements because, let’s face it, that’s impossible. but if you haven’t before, take a look at why you like the things you do and think the way you do about certain musics. is it because of your own personal decisions or because you haven’t heard otherwise?

side notes: 1) i’ve decided to get my Britten tattoo & a new Bach tattoo to complement it on my right arm. i’m totally swagga jacking the lovely Ms. Lindsey Falbo, but let’s face it, Bach was a fucking baller who designed his own family crest. you can find the Britten here: http://drp.ly/V9Ifu (which i designed myself) and the Bach here: http://drp.ly/V9K1 (however the Bach will not be filled in but only outlines that i will design)
2) i’m sorry Christina, and i mean no disrespect but go away, again, figure out the artist you want to be, and then come back. when you do that, i will be happy. don’t pander to the lowest denominator with this video/song…you don’t need to be Madonna or Gaga, trust me.

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Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953)

english contralto Kathleen Ferrier was born today in 1912…she has found a special place in my heart as she was Britten’s Lucretia, my Lucretia. her story is as beautiful as her voice & if you don’t believe me, just listen.

here she is singing Erbame dich from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion:

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magical thinking

at what point do we give in and let the thesis terrorists win? at what point do i say what’s important and what’s not? and more importantly, was that supposed to come before the nervous breakdown?

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she sighed, she cried, she damn near died.

for those of you who don’t know, Benjamin Britten is kind of my thing. i really discovered Britten when i was, of all things, writing a paper on Ligeti. i was writing an analytical paper on Ligeti’s Horn Trio and i took out a random assortment of horn chamber music from the library. That included, among the Ligeti, the Brahms Horn Trio and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. i figured, why not listen to the piece? two things happened as a result: i fell in love with Ian Bostridge and Benjamin Britten. so i got recordings of everything i could get my hands on, starting with anything Bostridge sang of Britten’s. as i did this, i started to read about Britten’s life and i was totally transfixed. something about his work, his life resonated with me. i was totally hooked. i bought my first biography from the Juilliard bookstore for $5 and read it in a day.

the deal was sealed.

so here i am, 3 1/2 years later, writing my master’s thesis on the role of gender in Britten’s chamber operas, specifically The Turn of the Screw and The Rape of Lucretia. i’ve been to Aldeburgh and to my Mecca — the Red House. i’m in touch with the librarian at the Britten-Pears Foundation and, well, the honeymoon is still going strong.

so happy birthday Edward Benjamin Britten. your mother called you “the fourth B” but to my friends and i, you’re just benny b.

a few things to leave you with on this day:

the sign for the new Young Britten exhibition at the Red House (August 2009)

me at Britten's grave (which is right beside Peter Pears)

and of course…

Peter Pears singing “O Waly, Waly” with Britten accompanying (if you like this, check out the Decca DVD of their perfomances of the Folksongs and Schubert’s Winterreise)

*to see more pictures from my trip to the Suffolk coast check out my flickr and facebook albums

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from the archives: “i choose to mourn the artist.”

here is an entry from my personal blog the little lion written earlier this fall, entitled, “i choose to mourn the artist”, a sort of conglomeration of feelings regarding the passing of michael jackson and musings on problems of art versus artist. it belongs here, though i wrote it before this blog existed and it’s a good way to finish the “Music in Crisis” section i’ve been dealing with in MH4. hope you guys like wagner.


it would be completely unnecessary for me to rehash the last seven-day news cycle for you, so i won’t. i will say, however, that all of the talk, on TV, in the streets and online has caused me to take a hard look at michael jackson and not just that but our artist culture. the title of this blog came from an incredibly inspiring comment found on, of all places, livejournal’s favorite gossip community, Oh No They Didn’t!. to summarize, the comment stated that we have to make a choice whether to mourn the person or mourn the artist in their passing. but why are we forced to make this choice? well, because doing one is not as simple as doing another. to mourn michael jackson the person means mourning all of the baggage that comes with him: the prescription drugs, the weird behavior, the loss of childhood, the possible molestation, etc. and let’s just say that makes most people uncomfortable, let alone reverent. mourning the artist is much easier: recognizing the genius of someone who was able to create music that has stood the test of (pop) time and influenced, touched and inspired so many people across the world for so many years. now for many, the existence of the “person” just gets too much in the way of the “artist” and we come back to square one. what to do? ah, if only there were other instances like this…

Gesamtkunstwerk
wagner is not a subject easily broached in musical academia. the study of wagner is fraught with problems: do we read wagner’s prose? how do we address works such as Die Meistersinger and Parsifal? do we acknowledge the effect of wagner post-wagner and, if so, do we speak of it musically, extra-musically or both? but no matter how you slice it, it’s always staring you in the face (unless you’re a wagnerite and choose to ignore it, which i do not recommend). this dilemma stared at me earlier this spring when one of my colloquia centered around Die Meistersinger and the ideal man. when discussing the opera, the question arose: do we say that the work is filled with musical subtleties, poignant and witty or is it all about “the jews”? for many in the class, it was hard to reconcile themselves especially after watching scenes from the opera and having the “jew” problem be pointed out. you would laugh at one part, which was admittedly funny, staged well, witty and humorous and then someone would say “but he’s caricaturizing and denegrating jews!” and then you feel bad. but on the side you say, “well that was still kind of funny and brilliantly sung”. wagner’s feelings towards jews (along with frenchmen, britons, christians and those trying to destroy art) is well known. the part its plays in his musical creations is more problematic. the point of all of this is, how can we respect and admire someone with such racial hatred and vitriol and someone so easily co-opted by the like of the third reich? for some there is no respect and admiration. from its founding and inception, the nation of israel has made it illegal to perform wagner’s music within its borders. there is no separating the “person” from the “artist”. but for others, myself included, it’s not that easy. and though it might not be as pertinent to some and may seem blasphemous to others, like wagner, the tale of the two michael jacksons are os strong, each, on their own, that it seems impossible to ignore one for the other.

anyone in musical scholarship who tells you that they have a definitive point of view on wagner is lying to you. my dealings with jewish musicians, scholars and performers who tell me about the utter disdain they have for wagner don’t seem to have completely closed the book on him, meaning, they are still willing to discuss him. and again, it’s never about the music. they have every right to their opinion as does anyone else. for me, i’m always conflicted about wagner and i’m actually happy about that because i am constantly rethinking my feelings about music in general.

Mein liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir…
thinking about all of this also made me think of someone in whom i have invested a lot of time researching, benjamin britten. in my dealings with many, it seems that britten’s relationship with young boys may have overshadowed the genius of his music. a dear friend of mine had the privilege to work with britten as a young boy, singing as a male alto in premieres/performances of works such as the War Requiem and Noye’s Fludde. in talking with me, he explained how pained he was that, when recounting his stories to others, the first thing they ask is “did britten have an inappropriate relationship with you/did he ever touch you” or make some kind of snarky comment. he loved his time working with britten and his ilk and he calls it one of the greatest musical experiences of his life but feels like he can’t share how much these events have shaped him because of this. whenever this discussion arises, he becomes very defensive. for those who aren’t aware of this part of the composer’s history, britten struggled for quite some time with his need to be surrounded by teenage boys. to him, they were an inspiration and “boy as inspiration/muse/representation of another life” appears in many of britten’s operas: Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw and, most notably, Death in Venice. these muses represent the part of britten’s life that britten was reticent to leave behind. ahead of him were the adult representations of life that britten had trouble acknowledging: an adult relationship with partner peter pears, dealing professionally with those who stood by him and cared about his well-being, etc. auden, who collaborated with britten on some of his most well known works, wrote in a letter to britten that he needed to forgo these relationships with boys. it was shortly after britten received this letter that britten did what he did to so many before: he dissolved his ties with the poet (it should also be known that auden also encouraged britten to reconcile himself with his homosexuality, another adult aspect of britten’s life with which the composer had great difficulty).

the role that these relationships play in the creation of britten’s music is undeniable. and it is worth asking the question whether or not some of these works would have even existed with out them. again, the separation between the man and the artist is difficult. while there is no proof and no real allegations that britten ever did anything illicit with any of these boys, the rumors still remain and cast a cloud over his musical achievements. is it on the scale of the molestation charges placed before michael jackson? most likely not but the comparison remains. in my scholarship of britten, this question will always arise no matter how much i choose to focus on the music and i am faced with the decision of whether or not to deal with it. while i feel this adds a fascinating layer of depth to him, for many, its more of a hinderance.

Epilogue
now is the accusation of molesting boys as bad as a glaring hatred for others? for some, yes. for some this behavior is irreconcilable. for some, no matter how genius the music, no matter how large the impact, there is just no getting around this. the personal acts of one’s life can sometimes, and often, get in the way of one’s contributions to society. yet for some reason, artists never seem to be forgiven. for great political figures who have committed indiscretion after indiscretion in their personal lives, history forgives. however, the good that art does, the way it changes and shapes our lives, the profound impact it has seems to not be enough to forgive any artist, no matter how great. is that because the lives of our great geniuses are filled with so much turmoil and discrepancy? people tend to forget that these all-too-human failings motivate genius. are their actions excusable? most likely not. does revering that genius mean that we have ignore, forgo and block out those actions? not by any means. if anything, it is the human element that gives insight to the creative one. i don’t know whether or not “man” and “artist” can ever be separated or if they should. michael jackson’s loss of childhood and indescribable young life motivated him to write the music that is not only biographical for him but has proven to be biographical for so many, so many without childhoods, for those who have felt lost and alone and for those who have just experienced any type of hardship in their lives. wagner’s view on total art pushed him to create works unlike anything that had been seen up to that point and just like the end of Götterdammerung, the fiery demise of the musical gods of the pan-austrian empire in the destruction that was the end of WWII, paved the way (unbeknownst to wagner) for a new musical rebirth. the struggle between childhood and adulthood, what one wants and what one realizes, our dreams and our base nature manifested itself in the darkness of britten’s most autobiographical operas and allowed for a new direction in opera, one that is being, slowly but surely, rediscovered. i am saddened that these human elements have taken over and claimed the lives of those who lived and experienced them. i, for one, ask that we not forget the music, for it is important. but what i really ask, of all of those who encounter this dilemma, is to let the music and the life speak for themselves, and after considering both of these things, that you make your decision or at least try to. don’t ever let it be as simple as choosing between the “man” and the “artist” because, in reality, those two things are never really separate. they are a part of each other and need each other to survive.

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