Adorno for pop critics

“Adorno had none of the faith that later pop culture theorists have had in the ability of consumers to subvert culture industry brainwashing and find liberating, creative use for Justin Timberlake or episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. That we mistake playing with the culture industry’s toys for a kind of real freedom shows only how impotent and short-sighted we’ve become. As far as Adorno is concerned, popular music is never about active engagement but always about relaxation, of lulling to sleep the individual’s critical awareness, of wallowing in passivity. (Is dancing a passive response to rhythmic music? Yes, in Adorno’s mind. It’s mimicking the martial movement of troops massed and marching past the dictator’s parade stand.)

Critics try to invent standards that will insulate themselves from the consequences of music commercialization, from the reality of exchange value, which levels off all other forms of value and slowly but surely introjects itself into the populace so that top-sales lists are popularly held to be synonymous with best lists. “If one seeks to find out who ‘likes’ a commercial piece, one cannot avoid the suspicion that liking and disliking are inappropriate to the situation, even if the person questioned clothes his reactions in those words.”  I can pretend to subjective opinions based on criteria of my own devising, but my own ability to hear has already been too compromised to make these criteria anything but postures of resistance to the market, or collaboration with it—I can either condemn sell-outs (or laud bands for “authenticity”) or hype bands and build their PR image; that is what is left to the music reviewer. Adorno has this cutting comment for my delusion: As a pop-music critic, I am like “The couple out driving who spends their time identifying every passing car and being happy if they recognize the trademarks speeding by, the girl whose satisfaction consists solely in the fact that she and her boyfriend ‘look good,’ the jazz enthusiast who legitimizes himself by having knowledge about what is in any case inescapable.” As for the masses? “Where they react at all, it no longer makes any difference whether it is to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or a bikini.”

— Rob Horning, PopMatters, “Adorno for pop critics”

Polyrhythms.

The jumpsuited trio sat in a triangle of percussion setups facing one another. One piece combined the eerie coo of amplified bowed cymbals with undulating synthesizer chords, shot through with the glimmering tones of Moody running his fingers along glass rods. The next utilized delay effects to extend stick taps on drums into the sound of ball bearings clattering through a whimsical Rube Goldberg machine, before falling into a tight, infectious groove. “I hope you’re ready for some dancing,” Garapic told the crowd in reference to Innov Gnawa, the group that was to play the second half of the concert. I was ready to dance already.

For the Boston Globe, March 24, 2017.

 

Hypnagogia.

Hypnagogic hallucinations are vivid, bizarre sensory experiences that can arise on the edge of sleep. They can immerse us into into weird worlds, stretching a few moments of real time into what may feel like hours. They may seem surreal, even magical — testaments to the ineffable power of the subconscious.

These phenomena came to mind listening to Matthias Pintscher’s new cello concerto, “un despertar” (“an awakening”), which received its world premiere Thursday night via the Boston Symphony Orchestra, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and guest conductor François-Xavier Roth. Though not a direct adaptation of the Octavio Paz poem from which it takes its title, the concerto encompasses the untethered, hazy feeling of the text. Weilerstein, a profoundly physical player with a dark and intoxicating timbre, was the perfect guide through the piece’s nebulous and unpredictable sonic landscape. Music seems to move through her viscerally.

For the Boston Globe. March 24, 2017.

Enclosed.

When Amelia LeClair was studying for her B.A. in composition at University of Massachusetts Boston in the 1970s, she faced a staggering dearth of female role models in her field. “Maybe Ruth Crawford Seeger was mentioned,” she said over a cup of mint tea at Harvard Square’s Cafe Algiers. “Not listened to. Mentioned.” LeClair says she was alienated by her male classmates’ practice of sitting around with a teacher to tell obscene jokes at lunchtime, and discouraged by the boys-club atmosphere of composition. “Some people said to me, ‘Women can’t compose.’ And I believed that! Because I didn’t see any evidence to the contrary.”

For the Boston Globe, March 16, 2017.

Stravinskian Strawman.

“Former Boston Ballet principal dancer Yury Yanowsky, last seen with BLO as the condemned man in Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony” last season, slicked down his hair and donned a baggy beige suit and spectacles to represent Stravinsky himself. The character provided some moments of physical comedy, such as when tenor Ben Bliss as Tom stood in a kiddie pool in a thunderstorm and Yanowsky hurried to hold an umbrella over the hero’s head. However, the scene in which Tom loses all his fortune and possessions (“Ruin! Disaster! Shame!”) was transformed into a tour of Stravinsky’s supposed internal torment. The chorus, wearing short white wigs and beaked Venetian plague-doctor masks, held up tabloid newspaper front pages with headlines such as “Sell Out!” and “Stravinsky: Finished?” — needlessly diverting attention from the main arc of the drama. Most telling, the Stravinsky character was nowhere to be found during the most affecting scenes.”

For the Boston Globe. March 14, 2017.

Assumption.

“The evening’s final moments belonged to Martinson alone. The stage lights were tinted blue for the lonely Passacaglia, its descending four-note phrase providing both a foundation for harmonies and a launching pad for virtuosic runs. Time stretched out with each repeat. It seemed an eternity since we had embarked on this journey together, yet I sensed that if it continued, we all would have followed her anywhere.”

For the Boston Globe. March 13, 2017.

Jacob’s ladder.

“It seemed a new universe was being born onstage, a cosmic egg crisscrossed with intervallic paths. Set against passages of chromatic haze, consonances and triads resounded with extra luminosity.

I momentarily looked around for what I thought was a collective sigh from the crowd only to find that the cellos had slid downward en masse, and later I mistook a trombone’s high keen for a yawn or a cry. The music created the illusion of human voices, the purest representation of breath, and time seemed to expand and contract with the spectrum of sounds.”

For the Boston Globe. February 24, 2017.