Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008

from Joan Acocella's article "Romeo, Romeo" on Mark Morris's "Romeo and Juliet" based on a lost Prokofiev score:

Morris's habit of standing inside a dance as he creates it is different from what many other choreographers do. . . . Morris is famous for the viscera quality of his dances--the fact that they are fleshy, muscular, that you can feel them on your body--and this is surely due in part to his habit of choreographing from inside, or starting there.

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His most frequent correction was that he wanted the company to dance harder, with more attack. His other, constant complaint was about entropy--the fact that the dancers, two days after he taught them something, would start to slur it. Composers can comfort themselves that, if one performance is not to their liking, the next may be. The score survives. In dance, there is no score. The piece is what is performed.

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from Adam Gopnik's article "The Back of the World" on G. K. Chesterton:

His aphorisms alone are worth the price of admission . . . the deeper ones are genuine Catholic koans, pregnant and profound: "Blasphemy depends on belief, and is fading with it. if anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor." Or: "The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange." Or: "A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock."

*

[from Chesterton's novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill] "A city is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol--a message from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post card."

*

[from Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday] "Listen to me," cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. "Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stopping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front--"

***

from Alex Ross's article "Symphony of Millions" on the Chinese music boom:

Western music formally arrived in China in 1601, when the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci presented a clavichord to Wanli, the longest-ruling of the Ming emperors. . . . the Emperor's eunuchs experimented with the instrument for a little while and then set it aside. . . . Of succeeding emperors, Kangxi and Qianlong showed the most enthusiasm for Western music; the latter, who ruled China for the better part of the eighteenth century, at one point assembled a full-scale chamber orchestra, with the eunuchs dressed in European suits and wigs.

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[During Mao's rule] Nonetheless, composers made fitful attempts to modernize their art, especially during the Hundred Flowers period, when Mao permitted them to "apply appropriate foreign principles and use foreign musical instruments."

The onset of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966, effectively shut down the Central Conservatory. . . . Composers had to work within the often peculiar stylistic boundaries that Jiang Qing set up; on one occasion, she extolled Aaron Copland's film score for "The Red Pony," and another time she outlawed the tuba.

. . . When the Central Conservatory reopened, in 1978, eighteen thousand people applied for a hundred places. Present in that first class was a group of composers who define contemporary Chinese music today: Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Chen Qigang, and Guo Wenjing. . . . Almost all the students had been forced to perform manual labor or study folk music in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and they arrived at the school with a strong grasp of Chinese heritage.

*

. . . By combining Cage's chance processes and natural noises with plush Romantic melodies, Tan concocted a kind of crowd-pleasing avant-gardism. In March, at the Egg, he demonstrated that sensibility with a concert of "Organic Music," with the China Youth Orchestra; in "Paper Concerto" and "Water Concerto," the Japanese percussionist Haruka Fujii crinkled paper and swished water in amplified bowls and other receptacles. In a further feat of packaging, Tan relates this music to shamanistic rituals of Hunan province, where he grew up. With such deft gestures of fusion, Tan has satisfied a Western craving for authentic-seeming folklore-based music.

*

At the core of Guo [Wenjing]'s worj is an encyclopedic sympathy for Chinese traditional music. In the nineteen-eighties, he collected folk songs in the mountains around the upper Yangtze River. His hero was Bela Bartok, who immersed himself in Eastern European folk music . . . . Guo was also drawn to Dmitri Shostakovich, master of the Soviet symphony; Guo's mature works, with their martial rhythms, flashes of biting wit, and explosive climaxes, have much in common with Shoatakovich's, even if the musical material is drastically different.

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[Guo Wenjing:] "I am anti-fashion. I look down on the trend. I want to escape the whole question of sounding like the West or sounding like the East. Non-Europeans always have to have their cultural identity, their symbols. In Germany or France, they have real freedom. They absolutely have the freedom to write what they want."

*

The project of revitalizing Chinese tradition has fallen to younger artists like Wu Na, who, at the age of thirty, has mastered what some consider the supreme aristocrat of instruments: the guqin, or seven-stringed zither. It is more than three thousand years old, and has a repertory that reaches back to the first millennium. Philosophers and poets from Confucius to Li Bai prided themselves on learning it.

*

There is a vague likeness between the art of guqin and Western experimental music: the scores indicate tunings, fingerings, and articulations but fail to specify rhythms, resulting in markedly different interpretations by performers of competing schools.

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