Monday, May 30, 2011

LA Opera's Ring Festival LA - one year later

I stumbled across an events list for the San Francisco Opera's Ring Festival and I was reminded that just one year ago Los Angeles was in the throes of a similar event.

Apparently San Francisco, much more savvy about the place of opera in our culture, has avoided some of LA's sillier Festival features:
I wonder if San Francisco Opera has opened a beer garden outside War Memorial Opera House like the one last year outside the Music Center?  Endless operas can make a guy thirsty.

Westminster Gold album Die Walkure by Wagner - naked woman with VW hubcaps

As better and better topics kept presenting themselves, I devoted nearly every Mixed Meters post for about three months to various aspects of Ring Festival LA and Wagner's legacy.  (See the end of this post for a complete list.)  Readership dropped as a result.  Apparently opera fans are not interested in contrarian views about their sacred music.  And non-opera fans are not interested in anything about opera. 

But, as it says prominently on Mixed Meters, this is a blog about me, David Ocker.  Even I wondered why I spent so much time obsessing about an event that was terribly easy to ignore.  And, if nothing else has changed in Los Angeles because of the LA Opera Ring, at least I gained some insight into my own emotional responses.  Unless you're my personal friend there's no reason you should care.  Even then, it doesn't much matter.

My motivations for all that effort can be sorted into three categories: my musical background, my Jewish background and my Los Angeles background. 

My Musical Background

My musical education - formal and otherwise - was always focused on the future of music, music as a forward looking thing.  I have always been intrigued by novelty, by the desire to know what happens next.  Even in high school I was constantly looking for new and wild things to listen to.   Eventually new music became my career - even if it wasn't my own music.  While I agree that there is much classical music that is beautiful, I recoil at the notion that it is somehow intrinsically superior music.

Unsurprisingly, there's an awful lot of music which I don't like.  I have strong opinions about music.  In particular I dislike a host of 19th century music and an awful lot of opera.  As such, Wagner is the quintessential music I would like to avoid.   In the context of my musical background, Wagner, probably the most unavoidable historical composer ever, is the prototypical example of everything I hate about music - endlessly long, crude-oil thick, college-lecture boring, evangelically sermonistic, narcotizingly stupefyingly heavy and musically irrelevant to the future.

My Jewish Background

I'm not a religious Jew but I am Jewish both socially and culturally - my parents got that much through to me.   When I was a kid the Holocaust was not particularly a big deal in our family.  Still, the incredible importance of the subject was somehow hammered home to me.  It was something that we were supposed to remember, "never forget".  "Who could forget?" I wondered.  I concluded that forgetting during my lifetime was not possible.

While my parents strongly encouraged my musical interests, they pointedly didn't listen to Wagner.  They told me that Jews didn't "do" Wagner.  The one time in my life when I saw my parents protest anything politically was at a symphony performance.  I was about 10 or 11.  They got up, along with other Jewish people, and left the concert to avoid hearing a Wagner overture.  Besides this one event I never once saw them attend a protest meeting, write a letter to the editor or get upset about politics.

Holocaust survivors in Israel didn't want to listen to Wagner.  They had good reasons.  Whatever those reasons were, they are the same reasons my parents taught me about Wagner's music.  In my opinion a County-endorsed public Wagner festival starkly represents the very act of forgetting the things which should not be forgotten.

My Los Angeles Background

While I still regard graduate school advice that I should move to New York as misguided, it would have been useful for me to experience an actual, intense creative new music scene someplace while I was still young.   But I had the notion that such a community could be created right here in Los Angeles.  After all, this town is big and has musical talent and media and patrons and foundations up the wazoo and it has had periods of intense creative activity in other fields - for example modern art or pop music.  I spent a lot of my youthful energy trying to make new music in Los Angeles happen.

Over the decades I've concluded that I was wrong: a Los Angeles new music scene patterned after my own dreams just isn't possible.   Sorry, it won't happen in LA.  (Please, prove me wrong before I die.)  The serious new music that Los Angeles wants to focus its attention on is almost always created elsewhere.  "Elsewhere" in this context mostly means Europe.  This pattern began even before Stravinsky and Schoenberg and continues to this day.  Sometimes audiences are happy with East coast music.  "Elsewhere", "Europe" "East Coast" all begin with E.  What does that mean?  

The Los Angeles of 2010 Ring Festival did not turn out like the one I imagined in 1976 when I took up residence in Los Angeles.   In November 2008 I was surprised by just how badly things had turned out in this regard when I read Plácido Domingo's announcement that

"Ring Festival LA will be a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles."

Can you imagine my disappointment?  Not only was a forward-looking music scene not going to happen here, but Domingo, an icon of music from Elsewhere, was announcing that we would henceforth define Los Angeles musical life around four boring operas based on medieval German mythology composed by a self-promoting anti-Semite who died more than 125 years ago.  What has that got to do with the future of any thing?  I can't think of anything less representative of Los Angeles.

Here's Plácido's quote in context:

More than a century ago, composer Richard Wagner conceived his epic four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen as a festival event that completely engaged the city of Bayreuth, Germany. In 2010, LA Opera will join forces with more than 50 cultural and educational institutions in Los Angeles to stage Ring Festival LA.  “Ring Festival LA will be a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles,” said Plácido Domingo, LA Opera’s Eli and Edythe Broad General Director. “The presence of so many of LA’s cultural, educational and civic leaders clearly demonstrates that the city’s creative forces can be brought together through a cultural festival — in this case, a festival based on LA Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Can Plácido really have thought that a festival centered on the Ring could define the cultural history of Los Angeles?  Not even all of Los Angeles - could he have possibly thought that the Ring would define the history just of music in Los Angeles?  Even just serious music?  Apparently so.  I am still infuriated by the thought.

Aside from my distaste for Wagner's music and Hitler's complicity in Wagner's legacy, the idea that music in Los Angeles - where I've lived well over half my life and don't expect ever to leave - could be defined by Wagner and his music is simply despicable.  Domingo was talking long term - he used the word 'history' after all - not just for the few weeks of the festival itself. 

Reading that quote was maddening, exasperating.  I wondered how could they could have the gall to even think thoughts like that.  While it's true that opera is relatively unimportant in Los Angeles, let me remind everyone that he was also suggesting that RFLA would be the biggest thing since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival - which was a massively big deal.  Fortunately that part of his plan turned out to be purely hot air.

I assume that Plácido is paid an awful lot of money to guide Los Angeles Opera.  Local opera fans seem to adore him.  He draws extra paying customers when he sings.  Moreover, the patrons of the opera must trust his judgement because they take his advice.  Indeed, part of his job is to help define what serious music in Los Angeles will become over time.  And the vision he brought us was "Bayreuth on the Pacific!"  It's simply shameful.

Compare his vision of Los Angeles - supported by millions upon zillions of dollars - with the vision I thought I might have a chance of creating back in the Los Angeles of the 70s and 80s.  Do you think that confronting the disparity of those images might still make me upset?  Don't bother to answer, I'll just tell you ... yes, it did.  A lot.  

And, frankly, there was nothing I could do about it except bitch.  So what did I do?  I bitched.

As a final wrap-up of the subject, here's a list of the articles (plus teaser quotes) in which I bitched about Ring Festival LA:

  1. November 21, 2008 Ring Festival L.A. - Wrong Festival L.A. "this festival, as it was announced, will be far from representative of the arts community as a whole. In fact it is elitist in the extreme." 
  2. July 16, 2009 Mike Antonovich and Ring Festival L.A.  "requesting that the “Ring Festival LA” shift the focus from honoring composer Richard Wagner, to featuring other composers as headliners, to provide balance, historical perspective and a true sampling of operatic and musical talent."
  3. July 21, 2009 Wagner with an Asterisk "This suggestion will in no way impede efforts by our local oligarchy to get Los Angeles recognized as a great European city by producing their very own Ring."
  4. February 17, 2010 A Windfall of Musicians "The combination of some of Europe's greatest musicians with two local music enthusiasts, Peter Yates and Lawrence Morton, turned L.A. into the bloodiest cutting-edge music scene anywhere for many years."
  5. March 24, 2010 Wolfgang Wagner (1919-2010) "'Once we have rid the world of the Bolshevik-Jewish conspirators, then you, Wieland, will run the theater of the West and you, Wolfgang, the theater of the East."
  6. April 5, 2010 Ring Festival L.A. Begins  "If you really speak about the festival's significance to the culture of Los Angeles, I'm afraid Plácido's statement has The Big Lie feeling about it"
  7. April 20, 2010 Ring Festival L.A. Meets Hitler's Birthday  "Has no one at Ring Festival LA noticed that this is one small step in the exculpation of Adolph Hitler?  Maybe they don't care about this aspect as long as the event involves Wagner in some way.  Maybe there's been drinking at RFLA as well.  Maybe they're ROFL."
  8. May 29, 2010 Listen to Wagner's Entire Ring Cycle In One Second  "the work of one California composer who, almost 50 years ago, dealt conceptually with the problem of Wagner's Ring."
  9. June 9, 2010 Composers of the Nazi Era "And if some music is good, I suppose it follows that some other music is bad, degenerate.  This attitude is the beginning of a slippery slope.  At the bottom of that slope you will find the story of how the Nazis used and abused music. "
  10. June 16, 2010 Kenton Wagner "If there is a Hell (which I personally doubt) Richard Wagner is there being forced to hear this album over and over for all eternity."
  11. June 17, 2010 Wagner Inspires Pop Music "Apparently, someone, somewhere thinks every popular musician in the whole world during the last 150 years somehow owes their musical style to Richard Wagner.  What a sad world it would be if that were true."
  12. June 20, 2010 Wagner Invades Poland "The comparison of Wagner's Ring to an opiate is apt."
  13. June 26, 2010 Suppose Wagner Had Been Jewish "as Ring Festival LA "leader" Barry Sanders said "We're not putting lipstick on a pig in this thing.""
  14. July 9, 2010 Suppose Wagner Had Been a Nazi "Wagner fans do not want to talk about that elephant.  The elephant is Adolf Hitler."
  15. July 18, 2010 Hitlerdammerung "Hitler actually got to perform his part from a Wagnerian plot and recreate a bit of German mythology at the same time, spilling real blood and burning real cities."
  16. August 15, 2010 A Modest Proposal For Replacing Placido Domingo at LA Opera "With the Ring in its rear view mirror Los Angeles Opera could decide to now set itself the goal of really creating a defining moment in Los Angeles culture.  The first thing it would need to do is thank Plácido for his services and send him packing. "
  17. April 8, 2011 Eli Broad: Masterpieces, Money and Monuments "Many Los Angeles arts institutions have gratefully endured the sting of Eli Broad's money."
  18. June 7, 2012 LA Opera's Ring Festival LA - two years later  "By remembering Hitler when we perform Wagner, we give ourselves the best chance for preventing recurrences of such despicable and immoral behavior."

A good deal of this post was reworked from private email correspondence with my friend John Steinmetz, who prompted me to explore the reasons for my emotional reaction to Ring Festival L.A. Thanks, John.

Still Angry One Year Later Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Testimony - Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich

I knew about the controversy when I started Testimony, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich - as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov.  This book, with an extra long title, was published in 1979, four years after the composer's death.

(Here's some music, Shostakovich's last string quartet, to listen to while you read.)

It wasn't until I finished reading that I did more research.  Turns out that the controversy is a big one - but only for people in the dull-as-dust world of musicology.  To them, deciding whether this book really is the memoirs of an important 20th century composer (or not) has become a humongous article of faith.  For the rest of us, it should be no big deal.

My personal impression is that I was indeed reading the voice of a real composer.  It reminded me of bitch sessions I myself have had with composers - although none nearly as famous as this one.  After a drink or two, while sitting with trusted friends, out come stories about colorful but incompetent performers, dottering inscrutable professors, wonderful still unfinished pieces, unflattering unfair reviews and encounters with a sexy harpist or horny fellow composer or two -- successes, failures, life.

Unlike this book, however, most composers reminisce in small bits.

Testimony represents 276 pages of Shostakovich's first-person narrative.  It is very much stream of consciousness.  Improbably, Volkov claims to have created it from notes taken by hand during one-on-one conversations during Shostakovich's last years.  He says the composer refused to allow tape recordings and insisted that it not be published until after his death.  Volkov maintained that the manuscript had been approved by Shostakovich himself but provided no direct proof of that.

Yes, Volkov's story is a mite suspicious.  Given the circumstances, he must have done an awful lot of "editing".  But I'm okay with that.  Shostakovich had good reason to be suspicious that people were looking over his shoulder.  Telling the truth could have gotten him into trouble.

Testimony revealed Shostakovich as secretly opposed to certain political currents in the Soviet Union - most notably Stalinism.  This upset Westerners who insisted that Shostakovich was a devoted Communist composer.  This also upset Soviets who also insisted that Shostakovich was a devoted Communist composer.  No one could agree on what sort of devoted Communist composer Shostakovich actually was.  Did he really mean what he says in this book?  Had he been hiding his true feelings all along?  Are there secret messages composed into his music?

It's hard for us freedom-of-expression types to understand the times through which Shostakovich lived, when uppity creative artists could be taken away in the middle of the night and never be heard from again.  Afterwards people were too afraid to ask what might have become of them or even mention their names.  Shostakovich had good reason to fear this might happen to him.  One of the reasons he gives for dictating his memoirs is to preserve some memory of people who did disappear.

Here are the first few paragraphs of Testimony:
These are not memoirs about myself. These are memoirs about other people. Others will write about us. And naturally they'll lie through their teeth - but that's their business.

One must speak the truth about the past or not at all. It's very hard to reminisce and it's worth doing only in the name of truth.

Looking back, I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses. And I do not wish to build new Potemkin villages on these ruins.

Let's try to tell only the truth. It's difficult. I was an eyewitness to many events and they were important events. I knew many outstanding people. I'll try to tell what I know about them. I'll try not to color or falsify anything. This will be the testimony of an eyewitness.

Of course, we do have the saying "He lies like an eyewitness."
Here is a video showing Shostakovich in 1975 about the time of his interviews with Volkov.  He talks at the beginning and again at 6'40".  He was in poor health and seems nervous.

It's not unreasonable to assume that Dmitri Shostakovich harbored a certain ill will about some of the difficult conditions under which he lived.  In order to survive, Shostakovich adapted his music to the political conditions and demands of his time, writing pieces celebrating the Russian revolution or adapting to "just criticism".  He may have survived, while others did not, thanks to his name recognition outside the Soviet Union plus the fact that Stalin liked his film scores.  If he harbored secret personal opinions, he also knew better than to speak them in public.

Of course the Soviet Union was not the only 20th century society in which artists knew which things they were supposed to say in public.  I've written about the experiences of composers during the Nazi regime.   Even in the United States, during certain periods, composers have been expected to toe the political-speak line.  You can read Aaron Copland's 1953 testimony before Senator Joe McCarthy's Senate investigating committee.  Copland denied being a Commie, of course, but his Lincoln Portrait was still removed from a concert celebrating the inauguration of President Eisenhower.

So, if Shostakovich knew how to keep his mouth shut and only ventured to tell his stories when he knew death was near, who among us can blame him.  Some of his stories are pretty good - especially when he tells how Soviet musicians tied themselves in knots to please their musically unsophisticated dictator. 

But, in the end, you can only feel sympathy for Dimitri Shostakovich.  Here are some quotes from the last few pages:
No, I can't go on describing my unhappy life, and I'm sure that no one can doubt now that it is unhappy.  There were no particularly happy moments in my life, no great joys.  It was gray and dull and it makes me sad to think about it.  It saddens me to admit it, but it's the truth, the unhappy truth. ...
No, every new day of my life brings me no joy.  I thought I would find distraction reminiscing about my friends and acquaintances.  Many of them were famous and talented people, who told me interesting things, instructive stories.  I thought that telling about my outstanding contemporaries would also be interesting and instructive.  Some of these people played an important role in my life and I felt it was my duty to tell what I still remembered about them.
But even this undertaking has turned out to be a sad one.
I have thought that my life was replete with sorrow and that it would be hard to find a more miserable man.  But when I started going over the life stories of my friends and acquaintances, I was horrified.  Not one of them had an easy or a happy life.  Some came to a terrible end, some died in terrible suffering, and the lives of many of them could easily be called more miserable than mine.
And that made me even sadder.  I was remembering my friends and all I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses.  I'm not exaggerating, I mean mountains.  And the picture filled me with a horrible depression.  I'm sad, I'm grieving all the time.  I tried to drop this unhappy undertaking several times and stop remembering things from my past, since I saw nothing good in it.  I didn't want to remember at all.
And so, in this book, I read that at the end of his life one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century could find nothing whatsoever to smile about.  Should I believe this?  I think so.  The reason is simple: because Shostakovich makes the same point elsewhere - in his music.   Here again is the link to his last string quartet, number 15, written the year before he died.

The website Shostakoviana includes an even-handed introduction to the Testimony controversy entitled A Manual for Beginners.  There's a lot more beyond that.  You're welcome to it. As controversies go, it's far less interesting than wondering who really shot Bobby Kennedy.

The Time Magazine cover is from July 1942.  You can read the article about Shostakovich in that issue.  This was that unique time when the Soviet Union and the United States were friends.

The photo of Shostakovich playing the piano while an obviously retouched Stalin looks over his shoulder comes from Testimony.

Other tangentially related Mixed Meters articles:
Aspics of Shostakovich - Dmitri Shostakovich, Johnny Green and things floating in jello
Schoenberg in Hell - Schoenberg's demeaning final years
Stravinsky, On the Cover - another Time magazine cover of a composer
Ten Most Influential Classical Composers - actually eleven, according to me
Suppose Wagner Had Been a Nazi

Testimony Tags: . . . . . .

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Squirrel in Mike and Lynn's Aviary

Last weekend Leslie and I traveled to the East Bay so Leslie could participate in BAYMAC. That stands for Bay Area Marine Aquarium Conference, a gathering of reefers - people whose hobby is salt-water aquarium keeping.  In spite of what I might have thought at first, "reefers" refers to the ocean reefs where the many fascinating plants and animals originate.

Curious little marine beasties often hitch rides hidden inside corals and other things as they travel from those far-away reefs to their new homes in suburban aquaria.  Eventually these animals grow larger and mystify the eager reefer.  Experts must be called upon to identify the unknown critters.   Leslie is such an expert.

And so it was last Saturday, in the cafeteria of Chabot College in Hayward California, that Leslie spent many hours seated below a sign reading (I kid you not) Spineless Marine Life Visual Identification Booth.  Hundreds of people shuffled to and fro, looking at high-tech lights, glass tanks, small corals from which mighty reefs might grow, sea-water mix, jars of live copepods and who knows what all else.  You can see pictures here.  Some of these people brought Leslie crap from the bottom of their tanks and asked her "What is that little thing crawling around inside there?".  Leslie is someone who knows the answer to that question.  She knows because she's an expert.  According to Leslie the word of the day was detritivore.

I made the trip with her so we could spend some time with our friends Mike Boom and Lynn Morton.  Mike obligingly loaned Leslie the microscope, video camera and monitor for her presentation.  I've known Mike since before he gave up playing the oboe to devote his life to being a mushroom-hunting, underwater-video-making computer technical writer.  Lynn met Mike when she was a ballerina. Here's a picture of the two of them together.  It clearly shows their relative distances above sea-level.

You can watch Mike's videos at Laughing Eel Underwater Video.  Unlike some people (e.g. me) who carry all their video equipment around in one pocket, Mike travels the globe with hundreds of pounds of dive gear, video cameras and computers.  The results he gets are pretty spectacular.  Here's another picture of Mike taken while hunting for edible mushrooms near their home.

Lynn has turned the backyard of their house into a veritable outdoor aviary where dozens of wild bird feeders, many positioned right in front of windows, produced a constant flurry of colorful activity.  This fascinating "bird television" impressed both Leslie and me a lot.  The birds give Mike and Lynn's cat ample opportunities to stalk and the bird feeders give the local squirrels ample reason to hang about, waiting for a dropped seed or kernel.  I made a short video of one patient squirrel.  It proves that I do not carry a tripod in my pocket.  Last night I composed some music to go with it.  You can guess what comes next.

The Squirrel In Mike and Lynn's Aviary  © 2011 David Ocker 138 seconds

Detritivore Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Bernie Madoff's Golden Parachute

Bernie Madoff's Golden Parachute is a piece of my music.  You don't have to read about it.  Just click here to listen to Bernie Madoff's Golden Parachute right now.

Bernie Madoff might be the biggest crook in the history of the world. He created a ponzi scheme masquerading as a Wall Street brokerage house which stole as much as $20 Billion and might have been going on nearly 40 years. He was arrested in 2008 when the recent "George Bush" recession made it impossible for him to keep robbing Peter to pay Paul. Madoff realized that the jig was up and confessed to his sons.  They turned him in.  Six prior investigations by the SEC had failed to notice that anything was wrong.

A Golden Parachute is severance pay for corporate executives.  When a CEO is fired they often receive such a payout.  This is irrespective of how well they did their job.   Here's a list of the largest-ever golden parachutes.  It includes Angelo Mozilo (who was accused of insider trading during the recent mortgage bubble; he got $44 million), Michael Ovitz ($130 million for working just a few months) and Michael Eisner (who collected a $1 Billion bonus for making Disney strong enough to control U.S. copyright legislation.)

I don't know whether Bernie Madoff had a formal golden parachute agreement with his company.  If he did it wasn't worth the paper it was written on because after his conviction he had to forfeit all his  wealth.  Since he knew full well that what he was doing was illegal it's doubtful that he expected to retire with the same level of comfort and splendor in which he lived.

Still, Bernie Madoff lived the good life while he could.  I've seen estimates that his fortune was around $800 million.  He lived in a New York penthouse.  He created a philanthropic family foundation and gave money away to charities.  After his conviction he was sent to prison in North Carolina.  He'll be eligible for parole in 2139 (when he's 201 years old).

America likes its criminals.  We often celebrate their stories with works of art - mostly movies and television shows these days.  Jesse James, Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde - the list of hero/crooks is a long one.  Makers of such entertainment must cover their ass morally by making sure the bad guys die at the end (or at least go to prison).  Of course to be popular these stories must have a great deal of action including chases, gunplay, daring heists and sanitized love-making.

In comparison, Bernie Madoff's story is a yawn.  In this age, when the "greed is good" philosophy is no longer even slightly controversial, the tale of how one boring guy in a suit sat in an office and quietly stole a pile money beyond the dreams of even the most avaricious thief, might actually sell lots of movie tickets.  Bernie Madoff Gets Rich could be just as popular as the movie about Facebook.

The plot of the Bernie Madoff story will seem familiar to opera fans.  It's Faust by Charles Gounod.  Bernie plays the part of Faust himself (although his victims might think of him more as the Devil).  In the beginning Bernie/Faust, of his own free will, makes a deal with Mephistopheles and is rewarded with riches and other perqs.  But the deal is good only for a limited time only.  After that, the devil claims the hero's soul and sends him to Hell. 

Being sent to Hell is Faust's own golden parachute.  And Bernie's too.  These days many of us don't believe in a actual physical post-death fire and brimstone eternal torment.  Being sent to prison in North Carolina for the rest of our natural lives, however, is a pretty darn good substitute. 

I wonder how many Americans would make the same deal with the Devil that Bernie made: trading a few years in prison for decades of wealth, influence and notoriety.

Listen to Bernie Madoff's Golden Parachute © 2011 David Ocker - 149 seconds

Here's a WSJ article about what Bernie's life is like in prison.  He is Inmate No. 61727-054 at Butner Federal Prison

There are many variations of the Faust legend - not just operas. Read more about them here.

Madoff Tags: . . . . . .