Book Review: Looking at Numbers by Johson and Jedrzejewski

Many of you know that I’m a fan of Tom Johnson’s music. I’ve reviewed his CDs (Questions and The Chord Catalogue) and Narayana’s Cows is a work that I end up showing all of my composition students at some point (just ask them). I have a copy of Self-Similar Melodies and I worked through the first few chapters of it (and that book typically gets loaned out to students, too). I can only hang with the first few chapters of Self-Similar Melodies because my math isn’t all that strong and my own music isn’t as inspired by process as Johnson’s. Still, I constantly admire Johnson’s ability to make rather direct numerical/musical ideas into compelling pieces and to explain those processes in prose form. When asked if I’d look at Johnson’s new book Looking at Numbers I jumped at the chance. I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d understand it (again, my math is not so advanced) but I was game to try it out.

The text of each article is terse and pointed, as one would expect from Johnson’s music. The star of the book is not so much the text but the charts/graphs/maps which Johnson uses to elucidate various mathematical patterns, hence the title Looking at Numbers. Right away, on pages 2 and 3, there are four charts which show radically different ways of walking through the permutations of the set [1,2,3,4]. Where Self-Similar would give me a paragraph describing how these permutations could be mapped, Looking at Numbers truly shows variety.

I can’t speak directly to the appropriateness of the number theories described in the book but Johnson’s description of his applications of said relationships is always compelling. I never really “got” the relationships in Twelve, for example, and now I feel like I have a much better handle on them. And, maybe because my math skills are lacking, I feel like I can use these maps for inspiration more readily than anything I read in Self-Similar Melodies. Reading through the various articles in Looking at Numbers (with copious notes, references, and places to learn more) I came away with not only a deeper understanding of specific pieces but also a more accessible practical model of how I could use these techniques and make them my own. Published by Birkhäuser, this book is equal parts number theory and musical inspiration. Not too many people can pull that off but Tom Johnson can, of course.

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My Year of Opera: Year End Review

That was the year that was. My little project to watch one opera a week was a grand success, in my humble opinion, even though I didn’t always watch one opera per week (and played catch-up). And then there was June in which I got bored with the project and just listened to every Robert Ashley opera. I didn’t blog as thoroughly on some operas as I did on others but, as a whole, I got everything I wanted to get out of this year.

Tis the season for Year End Lists and what self-respecting blogger would I be without putting one together? Oh, wait, I forgot. Bloggers don’t have self-respect. Oh well, too late now. Please note, I didn’t over-think any of these choices.

BEST S&M SCENE
While Parsifal is a close runner-up (hah!), Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre clearly wins this category.

PERFORMER CLEARLY HAVING MORE FUN THAN EVERYONE ELSE
Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare

BEST STORYTELLING
By this I mean best drama or story, separated from the music. Silent Night, Dialogue of the Carmelites, Peter Grimes, Trouble in Tahiti, and Moby Dick all stand out in this respect. But there can be only one, so it is Dialogue of the Carmelites.

BEST ADAPTATION OF A REALLY DENSE BOOK I’VE NEVER READ
Moby Dick. All the story, some of the existential underpinnings, none of the boredom.

MOST INSPIRING “I CAN DO THAT” REALIZATION
Baroque opera’s chunky plot-delivery system and the small amount of text required for extended arias certainly makes librettists breath a sigh of relief, but I’m going to go with Trouble in Tahiti. No, I don’t think I can make something as good as Bernstein did there but I certainly feel capable of writing something of that scope and scale.

BIGGEST SURPRISE ENJOYMENT
French opera.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
200 Motels.

THE “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING” AWARD
The last act of Rigoletto, the blow job scene in Powder Her Face, most of La Grand Macabre, Joey Fatone in The Fantasticks, Peter Grimes, these are all things that were surreal and riveting. The best, though, has to be the final scene of Dialogue of the Carmelites.

BEST “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO THINK ABOUT WHAT I JUST SAW” OPERA
Peter Grimes. What a great opera, what a conflicted tale.

OPERAS I DIDN’T WATCH THIS YEAR BUT REALLY WANTED TO
Saint Francis of Assisi, The Minotaur, The Saint of Bleecker Street, The Crucible, Satyagraha, Lady McBeth of Mtsenk, Dialogue of the Carmelites in French, Turn of the Screw

MISCELLANEOUS REVELATIONS
The main soprano role seems to have the second female aria.
Big tenor arias seem to happen at the start of Act 3.
I like bel canto.
Wagner’s operas are mostly people just standing there telling you about exciting things that happened somewhere else.
Subtitles are a must, no matter the sung language.
The French hate nuns.
If an opera is named after you, your life sucks.
Comedic operas are much more rare than I thought.
Ensemble singing is something I need to figure out and make sure my librettist can work in.
Movie stagings of opera only work when they really take advantage of what movies can do.
Composers are going to be more conservative when writing for voice, especially when making something as financially and logistically complex as opera.
Opera is totally worth it.

BEST OPERA
You guessed it: Dialogue of the Carmelites.

ONLY EARWORM
For all the music I heard, all the arias sung and choruses chorused, there is only ONE TUNE that randomly gets stuck in my head. My mother will be proud.

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My Year of Opera: Le Grand Macabre

Ending the year with a bang. Holy crap, what an experience! I have heard Ligeti’s opera a few times (both the German and English translations) but never thought I’d see it. When San Francisco put it on a few years back, I strongly considered flying out to see it but, as a doctoral student, couldn’t justify the cost. I never thought there would be a video of the work since, even though Ligeti is a big name, the opera probably wasn’t going to sell well enough for a company to produce it.

Hooray for YouTube! Ryan Oldham, composer and trumpeter for the Ensemble of Irreproducable Outcomes, posted this link a few months back. I managed to watch the first act on the spot but never got around to seeing the second until a few days ago. Sung in English with Catalan subtitles, this video does everything to clarify/confuse everything that I’d heard in the recordings. Le Grand Macabre actually captured all the visual elements I saw in my mind.

In some ways, it was like watching Ades’ Powder Her Face which makes a LOT more sense in the video than it does on audio only. But, Ligeti being a better composer than Ades (warning: opinion stated as fact) so I actually got a lot of enjoyment and narrative from just listening. Watching, seeing, experiencing (as much as YouTube could allow) only deepened my understanding of it.

Turns out there are a ton of operas on YouTube. All violating various copyright laws, I’m sure, but there you go. In this instance, I didn’t feel at all guilty. And I’d do it again. Probably will.

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My Year of Opera: Muppet Christmas Carol

Sounds like a desperate post, doesn’t it? But, in the context of everything else, why not? I talked about Frozen, Once More With Feeling, and Dr. Horrible. While there are many holiday specials with all sorts of horrible musical numbers, The Muppet’s Christmas Carol has some really good tunes, is rather funny, and is one of the few holiday-themed bits of entertainment that I encourage. It is awfully cute, even though Michael Caine can’t sing (and thankfully sings very little).

As a bonus, the Muppets are critical to my daughter’s development because they have a lot of meta-humor. That is important to me. My favorite Muppet movie remains The Great Muppet Caper largely because of the copious meta-humor. The first musical number of that movie “Hey, a Movie!” is a classic example not to mention all the cameos. The only fault of that movie is that Prunella Scales doesn’t play John Cleese’s wife. See? Now the movie is perfect.

My wife and I agree that the Ghost of Christmas Present is the best ghost of the movie (and has the best song). My personal favorite scene is watching Animal play the triangle during the Fozziwig Christmas Party.

If you have been playing along with this blog all year, you know that there is only 1 week left. I’m saving the best for last. An opera that I can’t believe I’m actually getting a chance to see. I’ll report back later this week and then do a 2013 Best Of list!

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My Year of Opera: Les indes galantes

Let’s see, the clock is running out on this little project. I like French opera. I like Baroque music. Haven’t watched any French Baroque opera all year? Les indes galantes to the rescue!

This was a recent production by Les Arts Florissants and was absolutely stunning. Bright colors, beautiful voices, imaginative and opulent staging, lots of dancing, everything anyone could ever want from French Baroque opera. Or opera in general, really. The story is blocky and segmented but that was the style of the time. It works. Rameau works. A delightful way to spend…what, 3 hours? Okay, it was a little long but I managed. I watched it spread out over a few days and that worked well.

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My Year of Opera: Silent Night

I don’t know how many PBS affiliates showed Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer-winning opera Silent Night last Friday but since the composer grew up in Alma, about 20 minutes south of where I live, one of our local PBS stations aired a performance of the opera from the Minnesota Opera. The opera is almost exactly 2 hours so they had to be pretty lean with the video production: there were no opening credits or anything just Boom! downbeat and away they went.

The story of a night of Christmas peace during WWI was very compelling. I don’t remember the librettist’s name (and I’m neglecting looking it up at the moment, my apologies) but the characterization and dramatic pacing were exceptional. After the three sides were established (Scottish, French, and German) the moment where the German opera singing soldier steps out of the trench and approaches the Scottish soldier out in the open was genuinely affecting. I felt the tension from all sides of the story and was caught up in what a huge risk that simple action was. Impressive stuff.

Musically, I didn’t take too much away from it. The whole work was well structured, well crafted, and well performed. The musical language was understandably conservative, not only is it easier on the voice but I can understand the financial hardships an opera company could run into if they approach a new opera that traditional opera audiences wouldn’t want to pay to hear. A week removed from the event and I’m hard pressed to remember any stand-out musical moments. It isn’t that I didn’t like the music, I was just more taken with the story.

I’m finding this happens a lot: either I’m into the music and don’t care about the story or vice versa. The number of operas I’ve seen this year that really entranced me on both sides is fairly small. Do you smell a “year end review list” in the future? I know I do…

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My Year of Opera: Parsifal

One of the main reasons I undertook this “year of opera” project was to expose myself to a ton of rep and develop a sense of what my tastes are as a budding opera composer. I had seen several operas live, many on video, but I wanted to give this year to a more concentrated exposure to the genre. It isn’t that I was totally void on opera experience before this year it is just that, as an instrumentalist and composer, it turned out my exposure to opera was rather skewed.

Wagner doesn’t really work for me. I get why it works for some but it doesn’t work for me. Much the same way that baseball works for some but not for me. I can watch it and, in the abstract, understand why people like that sort of thing much the same way that a carnivore could look at my vegetarian eating habits in the abstract. Yes, they see my family and I not eating meat and, when they come to visit they can mildly tolerate not having meat for, maybe, a meal or two. That is Wagner for me.

I think Wagner, and the stereotypes he creates, are why most people avoid opera. The Wagner I’ve seen (Dutchman, Tannhauser, most of the Ring, Parsifal) is basically: someone is standing in place telling you a story. A long story. There are no good “hooks,” as the kids say, in the arias. If there IS action in the actual opera, 90% of the time someone onstage is telling you about what it is. The opening of Act I of Parsifal has a great description of the witch lady flying in to that first scene. The music is frenetic and intense and the description being said by the dude singing is rather exciting. Parsifal talks about all the opponents he had to slay in order to reach the flower maidens but we never get to, you know, SEE any of the action.

Musically, I have a dead spot for late Romanticism. Again, I understand why people like it but it ain’t for me. I think Parsifal would work well if I played it in the background or if I went and saw it in person. Having it on DVD (this was the DG release with Sigfried Jerusalem) but it in this middle zone where I could be easily distracted by the life around me. Maybe total submersion is the key to this. I was hoping to see the Met HD broadcast of Parsifal but couldn’t make it work. After all, I went to Les Troyens at the start of this year expecting to dislike it (but going to see it anyway because – why not?) and was rather surprised at how much I liked it. Maybe in a different setting, I’d like Parsifal too.

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My Year of Opera: U-Carmen eKhayelitsha

Netflix suggested this film and I’m glad it did. Netflix is good for many thing but opera isn’t really one of them. Back in the early days, the DVD-era Netflix had some opera but now the streaming offerings are quite hit and miss. This telling of Carmen, set in South Africa and translated entirely into Xhosa, was pretty cool.

I think the setting worked extremely well and provided the most believable opera on film experience I’ve seen this year. The people looked like normal people, not opera singers. The singing blended in quite well to the drama and story and the translation (based on the subtitles, anyway) made the text relevant in a contemporary sense while still preserving the essence of the original. I’m sure a little more research would yield if the actors did their own singing but I didn’t dig that deep. Everyone’s voice fit, though, so if they didn’t do their own singing they found amazing vocal matches. I don’t think it is a vocal performance that will blow anyone away but the drama, setting, and acting were top notch.

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My Year of Opera: Frozen

I went to see Frozen over the weekend with my daughter, my sister, and her two kids. There is a ton of music in the first 2/3rds of the movie (more than I expected) so I figured “Why not?” If I included the musical episode of Buffy, I can certainly talk about this.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the movie. Tangled, it isn’t. When the second or third musical number launches into “can’t wait to fall in love with someone” in its second verse, I was pretty pissed off, actually. Here is the story of 2 typical Disney princesses and they are doing typical princess things (having their parent’s die, looking forward to falling in love with a prince, all while being too thin). I think Frozen is trying too hard to do what Disney perceived Tangled as doing. We get twice the princesses, twice the romantic interests, and only about half the plot.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a poorly constructed movie. I just had no connection with any of it. The problems that arose never really felt like problems. The non-relationship between the sisters never struck me as being something that needed to be resolved. The threat of everyone suddenly being cast into winter never had any weight to it, either, because they are in some Norway/Finland/Sweden place which would be…you know…kind of used to that. Set the story in Hawaii, though, and you’ve got something.

Musically, most of it bounced right off me. The snow queen’s solo was the stand-out number with the snowman’s song about what he’d do in summer as a runner-up. There came a distinct point where the songs stopped and more action set-pieces took over. There were plenty of opportunities for the music to heighten the drama (different conflicts in different places, could have yielded some good ensemble singing) but they opted not to do it. Oh well. Daria was a fan, though, so the soundtrack is on the iPod.

Here is a tip, though, if anyone at Disney/Pixar has thoughts for making their next movie with a female protagonist: write the story as if you had a typical male lead. Then change the gender. That’s it. Imagine how cool Up would have been if you changed just one of the genders of the main duo. Tangled worked because, while romance and princess stuff is in the movie, the story is, at its heart, an adventure tale. With more clever music.

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My Year of Opera: Anna Bolena

Not much to say about this one: Donizetti, Sutherland, what’s not to enjoy? I was particularly taken with Roquefort’s performance (Gidon Saks). Not much to the story, of course, pretty much what you’d expect. I can see why this doesn’t get done as much as Donizetti’s more famous works. No one aria or scene really stood out to me.

My favorite part of the experience was relaying the plot to Daria who watched most of this with me. She wasn’t into the whole British History aspect of the story, so I used the best analogy I could: Batman.

Imagine that Anna is Batman and the King is Catwoman. But then Catwoman is hooking up with Alfred (or Robin, take your pic). The first scene of the opera is basically a party at Wayne Manor where everyone at the part knows that Catwoman is seeing Alfred (including Batman who doesn’t want to let on that he knows). Then in the next scene, you get to see Alfred and Catwoman together and Catwoman is conflicted about the whole thing. Meanwhile, in the Batcave…

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