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Cue Sheet – April 2006


    Greg Sandow’s blog is devoted to serious and provocative thinking about the future of classical music. He’s a populist, though, and many of his ideas strike the traditionalists among us as fatal dumbing-down of the music we love. I don’t count myself among Greg’s detractors, but I do think he’s off base in a recent post:

    For a long time, I’ve thought that the classical music world needs to embrace other kinds of music. Why? At first the idea might not make sense to some people. We don’t ask reggae stars to acknowledge country music; we’d be surprised if Wynton Marsalis went on TV with Bjork. So why should classical musicians (and classical music institutions) reach out to any other musical style?
    Well, there are many reasons. … The classical music world is trying to figure out its relationship to the rest of the world. The rest of the world listens to pop (and jazz, and country, and hiphop, and dance music, and world music, and Latin music, and lots more). We live, as far as they’re all concerned, in a closed little box. We need to show them we’re human, too, and that we live in the same world they do. And that many of us listen to their music, which—because we live in the same world—is our music, too.
    Yes, some of us classical types do live in a closed little box. But don’t the people who listen exclusively to Top 40 radio, or the ever-narrowing niches of other terrestrial and satellite services, live in boxes of their own? The only difference is that their boxes are a lot more crowded than ours.
    Different kinds of music serve different purposes, and every kind of music serves an honorable role in society. (Well, I’m not so sure that the gangsta variety of rap is in any way honorable, but that’s the exception.) I’m not being arrogant when I say that Daniel Powter and the Red Hot Chile Peppers do not serve any of my particular purposes, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Mozart and Shostakovich in no way can serve the purposes of certain other people.
    All my friends are intelligent, but our musical tastes do not necessarily intersect. So what? They don’t think I’m a snob because I get more out of classical music than any other variety, and I don’t think they’re uncultured idiots because they prefer something else. We have achieved peaceful coexistence without pretending that we’re alike in our aesthetic needs and choices.
    Yes, over the years I have encouraged one or two of my most musically knowledgable and omnivorous friends to lend me CDs of good music that lies well beyond my usual interest. And yes, I consequently appreciate how much serious, well-crafted music there is in the non-classical sphere. Not much of it engages me, though, aside from the more rhythmically and harmonically intriguing varieties of “world music” and its spinoffs. Even if my friends did convert me into a fan of Radiohead or Björk or Lyle Lovett, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to turn my friends into Bohuslav Martinu groupies. Again, so what?
    If “they” ever come to appreciate some of “our” music, it won’t because we make a show of enjoying theirs. It’s like parents trying to “relate” to their teenagers by using teen slang and dressing in an age-inappropriate manner. The kids don’t relate; they’re just embarrassed.

Classical Music,


    With the blog broken yesterday, I couldn’t post this complaint when it was truly fresh, but it should have a fair shelf life, alas.
    Why did NPR chose to lead each of its hourly newscasts, all day long, with an item about Fox News pundit Tony Snow being named White House press secretary? Why should NPR have led even one newscast with such a thing? The person in that position neither sets nor influences public policy; he’s just a presidential mouthpiece, of variable reliability. The only people he interacts with are reporters, for crying out loud, not the general public.
    Oh, wait a minute—that’s why Snow led the newscasts. It’s all about journalism, and journalists mistakenly believe they have the most fascinating jobs in the world. Newspapers are always touting whatever podunk regional awards they get, as if such things mattered within the newsroom, let alone beyond it. And when a journalist gets kidnapped in the Middle East, even a fairly obscure freelancer, it remains “news” for weeks, while other kidnapping victims receive barely two mentions: maybe one when they’re abducted, and one when they’re recovered dead or alive.
    Even as a journalist myself, I’ve never understood how such a cynical bunch of people can develop such an inflated sense of self-importance. Face it: Nobody cares about journalists as much as journalists care about themselves. Not even the Pulitzer Prize for journalism impresses anybody outside the Fourth Estate.
    Maybe it would, if journalists would stop pimping their profession and instead report more actual news.



    Arizona Theatre Company is presenting Tuesdays with Morrie. It’s got a good director and two-man cast, but otherwise I’m not impressed:

    The house lights dim, and the curtain rises on Morrie Schwartz, a popular but aged sociology professor at Brandeis University. Morrie does a loose-limbed little dance for us, and we sense that we should enjoy it while we can, for this is a play, and we are aware that by the end of the play, Morrie will dance no more. In about 90 minutes, this vibrant character will succumb to Beautiful Death Syndrome.
    This is an extremely rare affliction limited almost exclusively to characters in plays and movies. Symptoms include suddenly heightened levels of forgiveness and sagacity, concurrent with a gradual physical decline that does not preclude projecting the voice to the balcony. Blessedly, cases of Beautiful Death Syndrome almost never involve disagreeable discharges from various orifices, soiled sheets, foul odors, sunken facial features, long bouts of unconsciousness, anger, bitterness, fear or crying, except among other characters and the audience. The victim of Beautiful Death Syndrome merely gets weaker and weaker, and expires with quiet dignity after uttering a few final profundities.
    Often, we last see the victim of Beautiful Death Syndrome posthumously, in an uplifting image that may involve dancing in a golden light far upstage. For now that he has passed away, he is going to a Better Place: the cast party.
    The review continues on to production specifics here.
    More to my liking is Conjunto at Borderlands Theater:
    We know about Mexican and Mexican-American farm workers, and we know about the scandalous internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. But we rarely see those stories intertwine, as they surely did 60 years ago.
    Intertwine they do in an Oliver Mayer play aptly titled Conjunto. The word means "united" or "conjoined," and that's precisely what happens to his characters, though none too easily, in a fine new production at Borderlands Theater.
    "Conjunto" is also a style of music popular among the working class of Texas and Northern Mexico; in our area, the accordion-driven music is better known as "norteño." This particular music has no place in Mayer's play--instead, we hear 1940s pop hits, singing cowboy Gene Autry and charro cantor Jorge Negrete--but it's relevant in that it's music of and for people who toil, especially those bent close to the earth.
    Such are the characters in Mayer's play.
    The rest awaits you here.



    Here’s what I’ve done since Friday afternoon:
    1. For myself: I started working in a new key (F major) and third position on the cello. If I keep at it, in a few months I’ll be able to play ineptly in all 24 keys, all over the fingerboard.
    2. For my bank account, and by extension my household: I edited two articles by Margaret Regan for the coming issue of the Tucson Weekly, finished a little proofreading job for a guy who’s writing a book on local train history, updated the Fanfare Web site in my capacity as the magazine’s webmaster, and reviewed two plays for the Weekly.
    3. For my friends: I gave the pre-performance talk Sunday afternoon for the season’s final Chamber Music Plus Southwest presentation, so my pal and cello teacher Harry Clark would have a few more minutes to change from his Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops into more appropriate concert attire, and his wife, pianist Sanda Schuldmann, could chat a few more minutes with actor John Rubinstein, who’s full of good stories about his father, Artur Rubinstein.
    4. For my community: I spent Saturday morning working with a group in my neighborhood that’s cleaning up and restoring a little section of Anklam Wash, where many of us walk our dogs and frolic in various ways. With a grant from PRO Neighborhoods, we’re building a series of trincheras, or little rock dams, along two major erosion channels. The trincheras will slow the flow of rain runoff entering the wash and allow silt to build up behind the rocks. This will repair the erosion damage, give the water a little more soil to soak into along the way, and provide growing space for native plants, which will themselves help control erosion. It’s a technique that’s been used in this region for centuries, though not by contemporary civil engineers.
    I don’t often accomplish something in every category in a single weekend, so I’m pretty satisfied with the way the past few days have turned out. Except that I didn’t have a chance to read for pleasure, do the ironing or go grocery shopping. Ah, well … a new week begins.



    About three months ago, Sony unveiled its newest supposedly revolutionary gadget, which it calls the Sony Reader. This is the latest variation on the e-book, a portable electronic device that can download, store and display thousands and thousands of text pages, until the battery dies. (Let’s hope Sony Reader batteries are easier to replace or recharge than the iPod’s.)
    Various iterations of the e-book have been around for years, but the technology has never caught on. Perhaps the Sony Reader has overcome the gadget’s many inadequacies, but I doubt that I’ll be investing one anytime soon. An essay I wrote in the late 1990s, at the height of extravagant claims for the inevitable primacy of electronic storage and display over the traditional book, is now a bit dated, but I still hold to these near-Luddite opinions:

          HOWEVER MUCH NOISE anti-intellectuals and bookburners make, they never have the last word.
In the year 415, a powerful Roman redneck named Cyrillus ordered a Christian rabble to lynch the pagan philosopher Hypatia. After nearly three more decades of failing to win anybody's Mr. Congeniality contest, Cyrillus himself succumbed in 444. A bishop of Alexandria eulogized the old bastard in remarkable terms: "At last this odious man is dead. His departure causes his survivors to rejoice, but is bound to distress the dead. They will not be long in becoming fed up with him and sending him back to us. Therefore, place a very heavy stone on his tomb so that we will not run the risk of seeing him again, even as a ghost."
That's my favorite anecdote from Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading (Viking, 1996). Manguel has little to say about the future of reading, but the very act of retrieving that anecdote tells us much about the resilience of the book against an onslaught of electronic innovations.
When I went searching for that lovely eulogy, I couldn't remember the names of the principals involved, so the volume's index was no use. I did, however, recall reading the passage at the top of a left-hand page a bit more than halfway through the book. With a few pageflips, I found the spot.
It would have been much more difficult to locate the story onscreen. Because I couldn't recall any useful keywords, the software's "find" mechanism would have been as useless as the book's index. And because each online chapter would be one long page of scrolling text, I'd have no visual memory of the anecdote's location.
For those of us who return to texts with only vague notions of what we seek, the book remains the most accomodating random-access storage device. Its strength lies in its physical limitation--the text's segmentation into pages , which fence off blocks of words into manageable little realms defined by "top" and "bottom," "left" and "right," "before" and "after," "crisp" and "stained" and "dogeared." It's like getting your bearings in the American Southwest: You may not know your precise coordinates, but you define your place in relation to the mountains ahead, the mesa to the left, and the sage-choked plain behind.
By comparison, an onscreen search is no more scenic than a Kansas country road. When your keyword pops up in obviously the wrong passage, there's no need to linger; clicking with annoyance on "find next" resumes the quest instantly and whips you to the next monotonous field of words without context.
With a book, even failure can be rewarding. You expect your visual search to be inefficient, so you conduct it with greater patience and an open mind. The eye, as it skims down a page, continually snags on the unexpected and the half-remembered. You may not find the passage you seek, but at least you are enriched by the distractions along the way.
Now, the computer is undeniably the vehicle of choice for rapid, no-frills delivery of a narrow range of information. Newspapers, magazines and reference volumes don't stand a chance against the Internet and CD-ROMs. The computer user, like the harem eunuch, knows that certain advantages fall to the swift and sterile.
When we're lucky, we can obtain just the right nugget of knowlege in less time than it would take to phone a reference librarian. But too often we are crushed beneath the wheels of the latest Web search engine. Our amateurish queries return a deluge of close-but-not-quite-right citations--an infoblitz so intimidating that we give up after the first 10 dead-end links.
Yet how much easier it seems to go blundering through some weighty tome off the shelf--the 3,400 pages of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps. Gibbon is finite, fringed by endpapers and enclosed by covers. The Internet has no comparable boundaries; we are more readily frightened by its mass of information, and more readily outraged by its omissions.
And we are more quickly defeated by its anti-linearity. If you try to go browsing through a document's hypertext links, you are led away from the information you want, and mired in irrelevancies and ephemera. A book, too, may lead you astray, but only within a narrow field--that bounded by its covers.
Curious, that accident is the delight of book-reading but the scourge of online life. It is again a matter of boundaries, of visible and tactile definition. We hold a book in our hands, and we feel that we control a small, riotous component of the universe. We squint at the computer screen, and feel that we teeter over a black vortex of equal parts knowledge and sludge.
Hardware developers are well aware of all this. Within a very few years, our portal to cyberspace won't be a box on the desk. It will be a battery- powered palmtop computer, with a relatively big glare-resistant screen and a CD-ROM drive and a port for cartridges providing high-speed wireless connection to the Internet. The thing may slip into a backpack, rest in an open hand, or, when necessary, prop up a short table leg. In other words, it will impersonate the book.
This evolution is mainly cosmetic. It won't eliminate the terrors and vexations of cyberspace. But it will enclose them in one of terraspace's most practical and therefore most enduring forms.
You can strike out at the book by destroying its creators, as Cyrillus did Hypatia, or by creating an alternative information storage and delivery system. But we will not readily forsake bound printed pages. During the past 500 years, they have become integral to our concepts of both research and relaxation. We may find diversion at the computer screen, but nothing is as rewarding as curling up on soft cushions with a comforting drink, a warm mammal, and a good book.



    I heartily approve of both productions I review in the latest Tucson Weekly. And yes, I very much like the performances in She Loves Me at the UA, even though the score is, regrettably, forgettable:

    She Loves Me was the last middling success (only 303 performances--not a spectacular run) of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick before they endeared themselves to audiences forever with Fiddler on the Roof. Now, Fiddler was an anomaly for Bock; that show was full of generously lyrical, instantly memorable songs, most of which drew explicitly from Jewish folk music. Nothing Bock wrote before or after that was nearly so compelling.
    And that includes She Loves Me, a beguiling show full of charming characters and abounding in pleasant music that does what it needs to do quite ably until the houselights come up, whereupon the melodies evaporate from your mind before you've gotten through the lobby. It's as if Bock had reached into a trunk labeled "showtunes," sprinkled them with a little paprika (the story is set in Budapest) and left it at that without putting his soul into the work.
    I even more heartily recommend the new offering at Live Theatre Workshop, even though it may start past your bedtime (curtain is at 10:30 p.m.). It’s a crisp, intense, short three-character play called Tape, and first among many good things about this production is one of the two male leads:
    Now it's official: Christopher Johnson is one of this city's finest young actors.
    Over the past few seasons, he's grown a little with each role he's taken on, and in the past year-and-a-half, he's done some remarkable, harrowing things on stage: taking on two conflicting characters in one, simultaneously, in Titus Andronicus, and playing a gay (but not camp) Jesus in Corpus Christi. Now he has his best role yet, not as flamboyant as those others, but far more real, and demanding a greater emotional range.
    Read the rest here.


About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.