A MUSICAL CONTRARIAN
by Barry Drogin
"A Musical Contrarian" consists of over sixty HTML files linked to this page and to each other in various ways. If you read nothing else, please consider browsing:
These form a kind of "book within a book" that in no way encompasses the breadth of "A Musical Contrarian" (which ranges from considerations of electronic music and film music to essays on political and theological content in music), but crystallizes my current thinking on the music scene, and in particular the music-theater scene, today.
He'd spent much of the interim that afternoon calling New York galleries. "I must tell you I've made a major discovery," he'd told one receptionist after another, "an extraordinary Abstract Expressionist of the generation of Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning, and I would like to make an appointment to come in and show you some slides." In a few cases, he managed to get past the flak-catchers, but it didn't help. "Harold who?" was a common response. One prominent dealer, Ivan Karp, went as far as to assert, "He couldn't be very major if I've never heard of him." --- Lawrence Weschler, "Shapinsky's Karma" from A Wanderer in the Perfect City
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This is a hypertext book rendered in HTML, which means an Internet browser is required to read it. Constructs like tables of contents with page numbers are irrelevant in such a format. Instead, I have constructed this textual guide with embedded hypertext links, which can be used to read through the various writings contained within. By paying attention to the color change your browser uses to indicate visited links, a reader can keep track of what has been read or not, even if a non-linear sequence is chosen.
If you're the kind of person who enjoys reading boring introductory notes to books, then check out these introductory thoughts to the first edition of this book, published in 1999. In 2005, I added a separate essay, clarifying that this HTML book is not a blog or wiki.
Otherwise, we start with how I started in my musical writings, so-called "reviews" of music concerts, musical theater, and opera. Actually, one of the first reviews I ever wrote was a pan of a piano recital given by Anthony Tommassini, then a professor at Emerson College, who became a music critic for "The Boston Globe" and biographer of Virgil Thomson, and is currently an important music critic at "The New York Times." Curiously, this former pianist often specializes in reviewing vocalists in recital and in opera. But I digress. I offer here my amazement at first encountering William Finn's "March of the Falsettos," a feeling that would return 26 years later (!) upon encountering the song, "Change," in the Finn jukebox musical, "Make Me A Song". A similar sense of awed discovery is written about Randolph Coleman's "The Crowns of Nineveh." The last shared the concert with pieces by Arthur Paxton, Eubie Blake, and Diamanda Galas, who I strongly disliked. I leave it in to show that not everything I wrote was a rave, but in retrospect the review may say more about me than about Ms. Galas.
In my enthusiastic piece about "Make Me A Song," I wrote I would add the song, "Class," to my list of favorite songs. So, months later, I created this Favorite Song Mix-Tape - well, in this day and age, a CD/Playlist, but you get the idea. Not too long after, I also created a list of my top ten favorite foreign films. Although it may not be directly related to music, it shouldn't be surprising tnat nearly half of those movies have beautiful memorable film scores.
I eventually gave up reviewing on principle, which I expressed in a choral work entitled, "An Exhortation." I had already started to move into more general criticism, as in this essay of sorts on Lukas Foss, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and their "Meet the Moderns" concerts. After a pause of several years, I gingerly stepped back into musical analysis when the moderator of the c-opera listserv, a devoted technophile, pleaded for "feedback/reviews" of Tod Machover's "Brain Opera," which I had seen. This explains the extended set of caveats preceding the piece proper, including the catch phrase, "I believe in the validity of all aesthetic experience," which sums up my philosophy of the sociology of art. I went on to provide the listserv with impressions of other pieces, including Thomas Ades' "Powder Her Face," Elizabeth Swados' "Missionaries" and "The Trojan Women," and Harry Partch's "Oedipus." You'll also find some comments about Beth Anderson's music, Steve Reich's "Hindenburg" and "Music for 18 Musicians," and "Six Blind Men and the Moon" by Paul Gallagher. A decade or so later I wrote about "Weatherproofing," a performance by Clara Zinky and Taiga Ultan when they were still college/conservatory students, and about a revival of Leonard Bernstein's Mass.
I'm not sure what the purpose is of reading a description, impression or criticism of a piece the reader doesn't know. It's much more interesting to share insights with readers who may think they already understand a particular piece. This was the impetus behind my essay on John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles." and John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer." Similarly, my extended think piece on the New York Philharmonic's "Horizon '83" Festival (and the shorter follow-up on "Horizon '84") is best read by someone who attended it, I suppose. Certainly my practically contentless reaction to the 2004 "Shifting Ears: A Symposium on the Present State and Future of Classical Music Criticism" will only make sense to those who were there.
This is the best transition I can make to the more formal analyses of Lenny and the Jewish Question and its counterpart, Wagner's Music and the Holocaust. To those classics I am thrilled to finally add my 1980 Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex: The Handelian Ring, a multi-chapter analysis with GIF and MIDI score examples. And, just because that's the kind of guy I am, I've written an essay on why I wouldn't mind if Seth Gordon gets a MacArthur before I do.
The questions of content in music are addressed in a general way in my correspondence with George Jochnowitz on the question, "Is Music Political?" Since I argue that music is not "abstract," some thoughts on accountability are pertinent. This matures later into an ethical consideration of the very large and small, titled The Majority as Mob and the Individual as Narcissist.
Certainly, no one would claim that the business of music is apolitical. There's this cynical take on ageism, this comical take on the standard repertoire, concerns about funding and education, and a series of manifestos provoked by Y2K: Sealing the Coffin of 21st Century Music, The Death of Western Art, Comfort and Curiosity: A Consideration of the Audience's Primal Needs, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Man. I've also recovered and included an old public domain statistical analysis of US government funding, NEA 1st Quarter 2001: The Drogin Report. I can't say whether this extended critique of competition fees led to the American Music Center's anti-fee guidelines; it would probably hold up in court, since I sent it to them a few months before their policy was established. Perhaps I got the idea first from a mention in an AMC publication, and felt a need to formalize my agreement. Similarly, my consideration of self-publishing is a working-out of positions already promoted by AMC contributors. When AMC created "NewMusicBox," an on-line magazine, I found myself, as part of a discussion of music and politics, in a direct dialogue with the Editor, Frank Oteri, on the subject of nationalism vs. internationalism.
Continuing on this philosophical/historical bent, I've included some pieces on technology and art. There's the use of recorded background music in film (Zombie-ism?), the origins of the word "synthesizer," and an extended consideration of the early history of electronic music. The rhythmical notation problem is further explicated in this fractional meter primer I wrote for a layman professor. Recently, I was inspired to write about how twenty-first century technologies are leading to cultural evolution in Talkin' 'Bout My Interactive Generation, economic evolution in Rampant Copyright Violations, marketing evolution in Herd Enough?, and career evolution in Amateur or Professional? and, finally, Being and Nothingness.
Of course, as a prominent participant in the c-opera listserv, this collection would not be complete without an opera section. Start with my own allegiance to "The New York School of Opera," and my fantasy for "The New York Singer's Theater" to present its repertoire. Then continue to my explication of the 1998 opera scene, Let Op Be Op. Continue on to my acknowledgement of the academic genre, Gatecrashing the NOA. Don't miss an article I contributed to the 1999 NewOp/NonOp8 reader, Recognizing a Third Stream in Performance, which starts with a two paragraph summing up of the American opera/music-theater scene. Those two paragraphs were expanded in 2001 into a major article for the April issue of the American Music Center's NewMusicBox, The Form Without a Name: American Music Theater (click here if the site is down or crashes your browser). Continue on to the mock vow of chastity, From NewOp to Non-Op: A Draft Dogma for the new Music-Theater, which was turned into the hit song of NewOp/NonOp9, "NewOp Doo Wop", available on-line in score form as a PDF file. And finish with the all-inclusive Towards Understanding the Opera/Music Theater Spectrum And Developing a Grand Unified Theory of NewOp.
Since NewOp/NonOp9, the "NewOp Doo Wop" has become the theme song of the NewOp/NonOp meetings, and was even translated into Spanish for NewOp/NonOp13 in Barcelona. That year, two short essays were distributed to all participants, People Who Liked This Opera Also Liked..., about the new age of niche marketing, and "Live" is a Subset of "Event", about how multi-media and the Internet have eclipsed the idea of a pure aesthetic devoted exclusively to live performance.
What have people been talking about in the world of contemporary opera? Well, first, there's the question of whether to call it "opera." Then there's the question of whether it is dead, how, possibly, to save it, and the relevance of the tradition.
To end where I began, with criticism, I question the usefulness of first operas, consider the problems of obtaining good librettos and using supertitles in comic opera, and try to claim that writing for voice is a skill that must be acquired slowly. And just to show how ornery I can be, I include this analysis of the c-opera listserv itself.
I was on the Editorial Advisory Board of New Music Connoisseur, a publication that primarily reviews concerts, with smaller reviews of CD releases. I added a third category: scores, which they published under the title, The Scoreboard. I wrote three such reviews, one of The Marc Blitzstein Song Book, one of American Encores, edited by Paul Sperry, and one of two chamber pieces by Zhou Long. I also wrote three book reviews, Mark N. Grant's The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, Kyle Gann's Music Downtown : Writings from the Village Voice, and Phillip Ramey's Irving Fine/An American Composer in His Time. My final contribution was a letter to the editor in response to Mark N. Grant's review of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton.
I've also been busy advocating new forms of music-theatre, including Michael Szpakowski's Flash Operas, Will Power's Hip-Hop Theater, the solo electronicized vocal works of Amy X Neuburg and Pamela Z, and the revival of Martha Schlamme and Alvin Epstein's "A Kurt Weill Cabaret" as "Songs Degenerate & Otherwise," with Beth Anne Cole. Two works that use the Japanese tradition, Ningyo-buri, "Red Beads" and "Spirit," are considered, too.
Although I continue to add writings to "A Musical Contrarian," I've also been witholding some material for a new non-Internet book, Play. Here's a sneak peak, Follow the Money: An Update to Virgil Thomson's "The State of Music".
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