Posts Tagged ‘The Bad Plus’

Alex Ross and Ethan Iverson make noise in San Francisco

Alpha blogger/critic/author/MacArthur grant recipient Alex Ross was in town Saturday to support his comprehensive examination of the twentieth century through music, The Rest Is Noise, and probably to prime the pump for his second book, Listen to This.   (Thanks to Amanda Ameer’s Life’s A Pitch blog for giving me the heads up.)

Ross’s book is a great read, and I’ll resist my impulse to throw in the usual adjectives here (“insightful”, “enlightening”, “thorough”) since they’ve all been used in myriad other reviews of the book from more qualified pens (laptops?).

For this live appearance, Mr. Ross would read a selection from the book about a composer, and pianist Ethan Iverson would then perform a brief selection from that composer, sort of like a companion CD that you’re actually forced to listen to while reading, instead of leaving it sealed the little plastic sleeve since you’re too lazy to walk over to your CD player and chances are you’re not reading the book in your house anyway.

So rather than a review, here’s a disconnected set of semi-coherent observations. (What do you expect, this is a blog).

  • The Herbst Theater was about two thirds full, which seems reasonable for a 10 am program on a Saturday (featuring all 20th century music, no less).  From their reactions it seemed like most of the audience hadn’t read the book and were hearing the anecdotes for the first time.
  • Sometimes the text was clearly designed to be on the page and was a little hard to track in spoken form. However, this was easily compensated for by the entertainment value of Ross reading quotes from Theodor Adorno and Louise Downes in their own voices, or at least plausible approximations. Well.  Approximations.
  • Limiting the musical illustrations to solo piano works greatly reduces the timbral palette of the composers in question.  For Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton (and to a lesser extent Bartok) this works out OK, but presents a distorted picture of composers like Ives, Webern, and Ligeti.
  • Schoenberg’s Op 11 sounded jazzier than I had ever realized. After familiarizing myself more with Ethan Iverson’s work with The Bad Plus that made a lot more sense.  (I’ll definitely be digging through their recordings for more examples of transformative cover songs.  It looks like the Punch Brothers aren’t the only ones with a penchant for reinterpreting Radiohead.)
  • Iverson’s Allegro Barbaro may have been the least barbaro allegro I have ever heard. I don’t know if this was a choice or if Iverson has the same aversion to being awake at 10 am as I do. Some of those repeated clusters sounded more like Debbusy than Bartok!
  • Ross spends more time with jazz than most “serious” music authors, making the argument that jazz follows a parallel track with classical music, “… Armstrong the originator, Ellington the classicist, Charlie Parker the revolutionary, and so on.”  One (perhaps superficial) observation that supports this view is that I find in both Parker’s melodies and twelve tone “melodies” a similar interchangeability.  The melodies of Orinthology, Anthropology, and Moose the Mooch all kinda blend into each other.  There is a similarity in character and idiom. I find that much (but certainly not all) twelve tone music has a similar indistinguishability (especially when limited to the tonal palette of the piano, see above.)
  • I’m surprised that Ross didn’t make a larger point that the Babbitt Semi-Simple Variations and the Shostakovich Prelude in E Minor were composed within FIVE YEARS of each other! Few people realize that Babbitt and Shostakovich were contemporaries and these pieces wouldn’t clue anyone in on that surprising fact.  Hearing one right after the other is a remarkable illustration of… umm… the impermeability of the iron curtain?  The vast stylistic upheavals afoot in the fifties? The stifling effect of authoritarianism?  I dunno.  I’ll happily leave that one to the guy with the MacArthur grant.
  • The Ligeti was so damn fun! Why? I think it may be cuz he got rhythm. I’m starting to think that people misunderstand the source of inaccessibility in twelve tone music. The challenge isn’t the atonality, it’s the lack of any perceivable rhythmic structures.  There’s no pulse.  No groove. But people always seem to focus on the harmonic method, the atonality.
  • As a finale, Iverson improvised two modern pieces based upon a series of individual pitches yelled out by the audience.  My favorite (unintentionally) funny response was “F minor” (a key, not a pitch, for the non-theoretically inclined).  My least favorite (unintentionally) UN-funny response was “E double flat” (an inherently annoying pitch, for the non-theoretically inclined).  Sometimes a little knowledge is a bad thing. I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little pleased by Ross’s relief when I yelled out a plaintive “C”!
  • Iverson’s improvised pieces were convincing and felt right at home with much of the music we had heard all morning.  Which… if ya think about it… is a little unsettling.

The morning was well worth it. My only regret was not bringing my copy to get signed. Oh…and not getting my picture taken with the author for this blog. Maybe I could have wrangled a shout out like the one he gave fellow Bay Area bloggers Sid Chen and Lisa Hirsch. I gotta work on that promotion thing.

OK.  I’ve got to run off to tonight’s rehearsal for Emmeline up at Cinnabar Opera Theater.  More on that later.  And I haven’t forgotten about the third movement of the string quartet. The program notes are mostly written, I just need to get the illustrations made up. And then… world domination!


Apr 2010