Robert Winter

robert winter head shot

By Ray Sawhill

Robert Winter is not out for a lazy country drive. He’s changing lanes as often as staying in them. He outguns one driver, noses in front of another, rams to a stop, then blasts off again. All the while, this hyperanimated, goateed figure – he has Frank Zappa looks, minus the built-in satire – is babbling excitedly, free-associating, cracking jokes, telling indiscreet stories.

This is a distinguished music professor? A former head of the University of California at Los Angeles music department? A classical music scholar?

Well, certainly not your traditional example. Winter is part of a new generation of scholars who are reinventing music studies. Adoring the tradition of Western music while despising the hierarchical thinking that makes a monument of it, he’s a fire-breathing reformer with scathing opinions about what he calls the “music-appreciation racket.” His head’s as full of Middle Eastern music and Tupac Shakur as it is of Schubert. When he teaches a survey class, “The Art of Listening,” he brings local performers — from rappers to string quartets — into the classroom with him. It’s one of the university’s most popular courses; students not only fill the 565 seats in the hall but also jam the aisles.

At the same time, he’s among the first masters of multimedia. His CD-ROM programs – on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and, most recently, Antonín Dvorák’s From the New World symphony – are knockouts good enough to justify the purchase of a CD-ROM setup. These are some of the most satisfying discs Winter’s publisher, The Voyager Company, has produced.

Recently, Winter decided to make a run at digital mogulhood. He reduced his duties at UCLA and informed Voyager’s Bob Stein that he was splitting to form his own company with Jay Heifetz, the marketing/distribution executive and son of the legendary violinist Jascha. The new company will be called Calliope Media — “We swore we wouldn’t be part of a company with the words ‘digital,’ ‘technology,’ or ‘interactive’ in its name” — after both the Greek muse of epic poetry and the steam-driven, wheezy musical instrument. Their vision for Calliope? “We want to be the premier arts and humanities company in the digital world,” says Winter. “No less. I’ve too often heard Voyager spoken of as appealing to a niche market. We hope to persuade people that the arts and humanities aren’t desserts but main courses.”

Winter and Heifetz anticipate that their first titles will become available in late 1995. Among them: one by Winter on ragtime, and another by Richard Lanham, author of The Electronic Word, on the roots and evolution of multimedia and interactivity, tentatively titled From the Greeks to the Geeks.

beethoven screen bigger

What makes Winter’s CD-ROMs stand out is the way his mind and the technology synchronize. Winter isn’t out to dazzle or show off the technology. (Elegantly designed in black and white, the programs score notably low on the whiz-bang scale; they aren’t out just to make you exclaim, “Cool!”) He uses the technology to convey a new vision of music.

He does so with a teacher’s knowledge of what you need to know and when you need to know it, and a performer’s knack for dramatizing his points. (When’s the last time you met a scholar who cites as influences the Marx Brothers, Truffaut, and Spielberg?) You don’t set his CD-ROMs aside when you’ve exhausted the gimmicks; you keep coming back to them. There always seems to be more intellectual matter — more substance — to uncover.

Winter wants you to see music from a variety of angles – political, social, and historical as well as purely musical. For him, classical music isn’t a matter for lofty connoisseurship; it’s a springboard for exploration and for making connections. “I want to start a discussion,” is what he says when asked what drives him – then later: “I want to transform people.”

Command central for Winter’s campaign is his production studio — the 400-square-foot garage of the small Santa Monica house he shares with his wife, Julia Winter, their daughter, Kelly, and Cairn terrier, Teddy. The studio is crammed with books, CDs, monitors, three different music keyboards, Mac equipment, and a CD-ROM mastering machine. “Of course they’re scared,” he says gleefully of print publishing houses and movie studios. “In multimedia, there’s nothing Paramount or Random House can do with their millions that I can’t do with my US$50,000 worth of equipment.” When people call to ask about how to get started in multimedia, he advises: “Guerrilla teams and no overhead.”

This afternoon, he’s putting finishing touches on the Dvorák piece and thinking about future projects. After the ragtime disc, he wants to do a general musical reference, a disc on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and beyond that, The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll that will begin with Robert Johnson and work up to 1954. He envisions 16 songs, dozens of other examples, interviews, printed primary sources, video clips. “The thing I can do that people who write about rock generally can’t is talk about the music. When you hear Chuck Berry do ‘Maybellene,’ there is a certain kind of rhythmic impulse in the way in which the subdominant functions and the melodic apex is reached. That may sound very technical, but it’s not. It’s rooted in performance.”

Winter is exhilarated by digital technology. In the new medium, he finds, he doesn’t have to fight the tedious old cultural-literacy battles. They’re irrelevant, and the results are implicit in the technology, so he’s free to go on and realize his own ideas. Winter calls the computer “the ultimate postmodern machine – intrinsically playful and unstable.” Even so, he’s less of a Utopian than many of the digital futurists and propagandists: “The good guys may not win. I saw what the so-called ‘promise of FM’ turned into – and look at FM radio today. All I’m saying is that in the digital world, talent and brains may have a slightly better chance of rising to the top.”

The son of Florida Republicans — “but really, really lovely people” — Winter grew up with no particular interest in music, and gave no evidence of special musical talents beyond a good ear. He lettered in three sports in high school and briefly considered a career as a professional baseball player before going to Brown University to study science.

“My father was an engineer, and it never occurred to me that boys did anything other than follow in their fathers’ footsteps.” He struggled joylessly his first year, earning Cs. Then, at a mixer one night, a classmate played part of a Mozart concerto. Within the week he switched majors to music; a year later, he says, he was playing a concerto himself in front of the school orchestra. Eventually he earned a master’s of Fine Arts in piano and a doctorate in the history and theory of music.

His next epiphany occurred more recently, in front of a computer screen. Bob Stein of Voyager had met Winter years before in one of Winter’s courses and told him he was a natural multimedia personality. “I had no idea what he meant,” recalls Winter. In 1989, Stein showed up at Winter’s house with a CD-ROM drive, hooked it up to a Macintosh, and demonstrated how the rig could provide onscreen buttons that could take him in less than a second to the exact micro-instant on a CD where he wanted to be.

“I knew then and there that this was my medium,” Winter recalls. Within a couple of months, he and Stein had roughed out a sketch of his Beethoven’s Ninth disc for Voyager and designed the interface. At the high-powered TED conference in 1990, Winter gave a demo of the program before an audience that included Microsoft’s Bill Gates. The crowd reacted ecstatically. “We’ve finally seen what CD-ROM was made for,” said Gates, who has since licensed the Winter programs to produce PC versions.

The Dvorák program is Winter’s richest yet. He takes you into the music’s structure, including a measure-by-measure analysis of the complete score. And he leads you out into the larger world of the era, using the music to “provide a window on cultural history.” Like his other programs, the Dvorák disc is part engaging (if rudimentary) videogame, part major work of scholarship. You click around among historical chapters, a breakdown of the piece’s structure, a glossary that’s really a collection of short essays about music, dozens of demonstrations and examples, and more than 800 pages of original documents – press accounts, reviews, letters. Sitting at your computer, your head buzzing with information, ideas, and music, you feel you’re in a room with records, books, scores, and an exciting teacher — all right there with you — and every bit of it is available to you at the click of a mouse.

The complex Dvorák is an ideal subject for Winter’s multiple-perspectives treatment. Dvorák was a larger-than-life, beer-guzzling fount of creativity who shocked proper New York during his 1890s visit by asserting that America’s greatest musical resources were its African and Native American traditions. It says something about this moment in cultural history that the most valuable work available on a figure as protean as Dvorák should be not a book but rather a computer program.

The press has received Winter’s discs enthusiastically. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote, “It takes us directly up to Beethoven’s worktable, and lays bare the whole creative process.” The New York Times says, “A master teacher is the guide … an ideal musical companion.” MacUser included all three of Winter’s discs then available on its 1993 list of the top 50 CD-ROMs.

Winter calculates that he and the team at Voyager, including then-editor-in-chief Jane Wheeler and programmer Steve Riggins, along with independent designer/programmer Peter Bogdanoff, put 2,500 hours into creating the Dvorák disc. They included an impressive amount of scholarly sleuthing. One standard academic source that Winter consulted stated that a famous Dvorák protégé, Harry T. Burleigh – the black musician who brought gospel into the concert hall – had never been recorded. This claim intrigued Winter, who knew that Burleigh hadn’t died until 1948. Following up on some rumors, he finally located a recording in the possession of a music collector in Connecticut. “How did you ever find me?” the man asked. Winter included the complete recording on the disc.

If Winter’s an immaculately pedigreed academic, he’s also a renegade intellectual in the tradition of Norman O. Brown, Glenn Gould, Paul Goodman, and Pauline Kael – original yet accessible thinkers with a taste for intellectual roughhousing. The only other comparable figure working today may be Camille Paglia, but unlike Paglia, with her kamikaze dives for traditional media celebrity, Winter uses the alternative life of the Internet, bulletin boards on CompuServe, and computer conventions. He addresses crowds at computer shows and carries on monster e-mail correspondences. He’s probably the first major intellectual to have given up traditional print publishing for digital; his CD-ROMs aren’t hobbies, they’re his major works.

dvorak contents

Winter’s live presentations consist of nothing but a guy, his piano, and his mind, but your brain cells light up as bright as they do at any rock concert. He was once coaxed into giving a night school course by UCLA’s extension program. The first week he had 20 students; within a couple of years, the course was attracting hundreds. Eventually these talks were taped and broadcast nationally by American Public Radio. Winter doesn’t bring an outline or note card with him; his preparation consists of a look at the syllabus to see what needs covering. Then he wings it.

In his classroom at UCLA, he’s a flamboyant, ebullient figure in a burgundy silk shirt – “To the hard rock world I’m probably a meek little professorial type; to the musicology world, I’m Mick Jagger,” he says. He paces as he talks, lunging to the piano to illustrate points, or to the Macintosh to play portions of his CD-ROMs. (When he heads to campus he carries bulging canvas sacks containing, among other things, a portable CD-ROM drive and a PowerBook.) He’s charismatic but accessible, making connections not just intellectual but personal. Trying to convey the political content of Beethoven’s Napoleon-besotted Eroica symphony in a class, he realizes he has to make an even more basic point: music can be political. He asks one student whether she thinks Nirvana has any political import. She nods shyly but hopefully. Score! During breaks, the kids mill about, looking dizzied but happy.

A hookup to some invisible energy grid seems to pump an extra megawatt or two into Winter. “He’s always addressing an audience,” laughs one LA music scene old-timer. Winter explains, “I’m a borderline manic-depressive.” But he seems to live almost entirely on the up side of the hyphen and to have no trouble focusing the energy. He roars through breakneck 18- and 19-hour days, pausing occasionally for brief naps that “take all the garbage out.”

His wife, Julia, recalls a party when a stranger asked her if she had “any stuff.” It took her a second to realize he was asking her for drugs. “You know,” the guy urged, “whatever it is your husband’s on.”

Copyright © 1993-2004 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 1994-2003 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.

“Multimedia Beethoven,” by Robert Winter

Beethoven

By Ray Sawhill

Playing with CD-ROMs, it’s hard not to succumb — for a while — to the Whoopee! Factor. You’re dizzied by techno-euphoria. But most of the programs come to feel thin so fast that they’re most useful as lessons in the perils of digital.

A label has been developed for CD-ROMs that try to do everything: Shovelware. Designers, technicians and marketers of CD-ROMs often don’t know how to stop; since anything’s possible, everything must be included. The ironic result is that, if all you’ve played with are dud CD-ROMs, you wind up convinced that the medium doesn’t yet have the oomph it needs. Although a present-day CD-ROM can store a staggering amount of information — about 250,000 double-spaced, typed pages — that doesn’t seem so infinite when you compare it to infinity, which is what shovelware programs essentially ask you to do. My hunch is that even when the programs and machines are 10 times more powerful than they are now, they’ll still leave you hungry for horsepower. Shovelware programs, like drugs, will always fall short of delivering the Cosmic All that they promise.

In digital, everything simply does connect with everything else — that’s given. In other words, what’s often taken as the ultimate message of the arts has now become technology’s starting point. That explains part of the Whoopee! Factor. You feel freed, if only for a moment, to entertain such notions as: With machines like these, who needs to think? Who needs to imagine?

Giving in to temptation, designers and marketers have created vast numbers of CD-ROMs that are, at least from a user’s point of view, essentially thought-free and imagination-free. They’re games, or reference works with some multimedia gimmicks woven in — animations and timelines and links between highlighted words and subjects. Once the Whoopee! Factor exhausts itself, you crash down to earth, right down to such basic gripings as: After all, it’s not as easy to read from a cathode-ray screen as from a well-printed book. And if all you want is to look something up, it’s much faster to pull a book off the shelf than to turn on your computer and load a CD-ROM. Given the effort it takes, you need to spend some time (an hour, maybe) clicking around inside a reference program to make the effort feel worthwhile. You quit that hour having encountered no personality, and no point of view. You’ve just found out a bunch of things.

In the past what distinguished a medium was the limits it imposed on you. What digital imposes on you is boundlessness. (Digital has already begun to blur the boundaries between the publishing, movie, television and software businesses.) The designer or artist isn’t sweating to shape something into an A-B-B-A form, or to wrest life from inert matter; he’s confronted with the fact that his medium allows him — encourages him — to do most anything.

Of the CD-ROMs I’ve played with the ones that have any elegance in their design have invariably come from among the more modest packages, such as “Microsoft Musical Instruments,” designed by the Dorling Kindersley team. What these designers have discovered is that digital tends to explode from every point in three dimensions. (And from those new points to explode yet further …) The team has been smart enough not to succumb to the promise of everything-included, and to be ruthless about focus, exclusion and simplicity.

I’ve only been able to sample programs that can be run on an IBM-compatible computer. But the standout by far has been “Multimedia Beethoven,” a look at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony put together by the UCLA music scholar Robert Winter and a team of people associated with Voyager, a small media company. (Winter and Voyager have put together four CD-ROMs for the Macintosh; I’d bet all are worth a look. “Multimedia Beethoven” is the first to appear for the IBM; the rest will follow later this year.)

It’s the only CD-ROM I’ve found that’s a vehicle for a point of view. You don’t feel you’re drowning in information soup. You sense a mind and an imagination at work using the (multi)medium to make you see, hear, and understand things. It was common in the Eighties to deplore the way movies were turning into video games; “Multimedia Beethoven” suggests a video game with the depth and intelligence of a good movie.

Winter makes the symphony take form as a geodesic dome-like, floating mental object; it seems available to you all at once, to examine at your own speed. “Multimedia Beethoven” has the form of nested modules that enable you to step back for an overview or to move in close for measure-by-measure commentary; it also supplies historical context (in casual essays) and dissects the elements of classical music.

It really does seem like magic to have any part of this program, and any part of the symphony itself, only a few mouse-clicks away from any other; the mouse starts to feel like a magic wand. It’s like having slides, essays (Winter is a gracefully colloquial writer), musical examples and every bit of the entire symphony all in one room — with all of it instantly available. (If you have ears that balk a little at Western art music, using this program is an ideal way to coax them along.) This is the rare example of the computer behaving like the ideal slave you imagine it should be. Like “Microsoft Musical Instruments,” “Multimedia Beethoven” has a design that can leave you convinced that the best computer interfaces ought to be included on any list of the great creations of the Eighties and Nineties. The program is so head-clearing that it makes you imagine a future moment when — despite all the shovelware — a shelf of CD-ROMs will have been created that will more than equal the best possible college education.

But even Winter occasionally succumbs to another Digital Peril — that of spoon-feeding the user. Winter gets beyond the usual browsing-and-grazing method, but when he presents a screen of text saying how if he’s sparked you into seeing things your own way, he will have done his job, he’s like a teacher anxious not to offend his touchy, spoiled charges.

Life among digital artifacts, like life under multiculturalism, can starve you of argument, disagreement, forceful assertion — everything that provides sting and contrast. (You can sometimes suspect that the drive towards digital stems in part from a fear of being offended, turned on or upset.) The never-ending encouragement and playfulness that digital promotes can make you reflect that, if digital has provided an escape from authoritarian family horrors, it has done so only to place us in day care. And much like shopping malls, digital encourages the fantasy that in window-shopping you’re expressing yourself.

“Beethoven” centers on a hyper-dramatic, hyperlinear piece of the highest 19th-century heroic art. You keep rocketing off from it into all sorts of connections, and returning to it from new directions. But it’s the music that provides the program’s center of gravity; for the moment, what digital, the medium of the coming information age, seems to do best is let us examine artifacts of the period we’re leaving, what has now come to be known (semi-nostalgically and semi-contemptuously) as the industrial age. Winter may genuinely believe that all he’s doing is making his knowledge and perceptions available — scattering a few more drops into the sea. But part of what makes his work arresting is his commitment to his way of seeing, and his eagerness to drive home his points. You can’t keep your focus in a wilderness, even a user-friendly digital wilderness, without some force and determination.

  • The history of HyperCard. HyperCard was an early Apple application for building nonlinear multimedia presentations. It foreshadowed the Web, and was the program “Multimedia Beethoven” was built on.
  • Even before Wikipedia, CD-ROMs killed the paper encyclopedia.
  • I wrote a profile of Robert Winter for Wired magazine.
  • I haven’t explored Robert Winter’s latest project but it looks brilliant.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Biopics about Composers

moviemusic01_copying beethoven

Movie Music

By Ray Sawhill

Of all the many different film genres, the composer biopic is one of the scroungiest. The tones of these films range all over the map, from the show-bizzy extroversion of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (George M. Cohan) to the hambone fruitiness of “Two Loves Had I …Puccini” to the many-layered high intellectualism of “Harvest of Sorrow” (Rachmaninoff and exile).

Despite this, one of the most remarkable aspects of the genre is how specific the expectations that we bring to these films are. Will the composer’s first professional triumph happen before or after he finds true love? And when will his long-suffering Significant Other finally lace into the composer for caring more about his music than he does about, y’know, people?

But perhaps the first question that tends to arise when we slip one of these films into the DVD player is the matter of factual accuracy. Simple moviegoing experience suggests that being “respectful of the facts” can sometimes translate into soporific viewing, while “completely untrustworthy” might very well go hand in hand with “devilishly entertaining.”

moviemusic02_night and day
From “Night and Day”

This is a truism well illustrated by Hollywood’s two biopics about Cole Porter. 1946’s “Night and Day” is a glossy lie that features Cary Grant at his heartiest and most hetero-seeming, while the 2004 “De-Lovely” is admirably true to the gay realities of Porter’s life. Yet “Night and Day” is a confident and enjoyable Technicolor fantasy, while “De-Lovely” is a droopy misfire.

It also needs to be said that there’s more than one way to deliver solid facts. George MacDonald Fraser makes an important point in “The Hollywood History of the World”: however untrustworthy the narratives they tell often are, history-based films nearly always supply visuals that are informative and well researched. If our modern minds are well stocked with images of what the Strauss family’s Vienna looked like and how people dressed when attending an opening at La Scala, it’s because moviemakers have created these pictures for us. Visuals are facts, too.

As with the movies of any genre, a big part of the fun of watching composer biopics is taking note of how the filmmakers are playing the genre’s game. If a romantic comedy needs to give its “meet cute” plot-point some charm, and if a gangster movie needs to make something tense out of the moment when the ambitious anti-hero declares his independence from his mentor, composer biopics need to address their own set of requirements. Here are some of them:

What is the container for the film’s incidents going to be?

Most lives don’t have dramatic arcs built into them, after all, and this is perhaps especially the case with the lives of creative types who spend a lot of time alone. To engage us and deliver some rounded-off satisfaction, feature-length biopics will almost always do some intensifying and heightening. It has to be said that, in this area, filmmakers in the field of composer biopics could show a little more invention than they often do. From “Mahler” to “The Double Life of Franz Schubert,” biopics of classical composers too often begin and end with the composer ill or dying and reviewing the events of his life.

To what extent should the filmmakers connect the composer’s creations with the events of his life?

It would be silly to pretend that unfortunate life-episodes always result in sad music, or that upbeat times always find expression in happy compositions. Yet if no connection can be made at all between a composer’s life-events and his music, what’s the point of the picture? Perhaps this conundrum helps explain why we haven’t yet seen a notable biopic about that unstoppable workhorse Haydn. Cheerful or gloomy, he seldom failed to crank out his expected allotment of music. Where’s the drama in that?

moviemusic03_amadeus
From “Amadeus”

How to people the supporting cast?

Mothers, lovers, rivals and managers turn up with regularity, fathers and children rather less often. An admirer or rival can be useful as a point of entry for the audience. “Amadeus” — nothing if not an effective piece of audience engineering — provides the classic example of this, with Salieri (in real life an excellent and successful composer) used as a striving nothing for us fellow nothings to identify with as we gaze upon the bewildering wonder that is Mozart. “I am the patron saint of mediocrity!” Salieri cries, in case we’re so mediocre that we’ve failed to grasp the role he’s been assigned in the drama.

moviemusic04_immortal beloved
From “Immortal Beloved”

How to portray the creative process?

This question cuts to the heart of the genre. We don’t generally explore biographies of creative people simply because we’re curious about their lives; we’re often hoping to cozy up to Creativity itself. Films about Beethoven are especially frank about this motivation: getting to know Beethoven is portrayed as getting closer to God. Bernard Rose lays the divinity stuff on very thick in his Kubrick-influenced (and sexily enjoyable) 1994 “Immortal Beloved.” Lightning flashes, revulsions and raptures, funny shivers felt by female fans … God in all his incomprehensibility is manifesting Himself through the music of this cloddish, inspired peasant.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the genre is the way these films so often make a point of distinguishing between music in the abstract and popular tune-making — and do so not as a practical matter but as a big deal. Music in the abstract is inevitably understood to involve suffering, and to represent a Statement About Life. As a striking recent Norwegian biopic asks straight out in its title: “Edvard Grieg: What Price Immortality?” Audience-pleasing, by contrast, is regularly presented as mere entertainment, and as shoddy and transient. In a 1972 British miniseries about the Strauss family, even the busy, prolific and rich Johann Jr. finds time to mope about his lack of gravitas and dignity. “I sometimes wonder what I might have made of my talents had the music not come so easily,” he confides morosely to a visiting Brahms, who receives this confession with a skeptical, indeed disbelieving, look.

moviemusic05_a song to remember
From “A Song to Remember”

Just as marked in the genre is the near-omnipresence of the Romantic point of view. You almost never get away from it — and, like the art-versus-entertainment theme, it can get to be a bit much. Romantic myths are of course highly picturesque and dramatic; they also have their practical uses. In his book “Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography” (2005), John C. Tibbetts confesses that what cemented his interest in classical music as a boy was a moment in the colorful Chopin biopic “A Song to Remember.” The tubercular Chopin hunches over the piano and gives a cough. “A spot of blood spatters onto the keyboard” — and with that image, another music fan was born. It’s just that one can tire of the whole Genius/Divinity/Immortali­ty value-set. More power, then, to directors Straub and Huillet for their resolutely dispassionate and avant-garde “Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach,” with Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian, piously devoting himself to the daily grind of his musical duties. But we could also use a few mainstream films that spotlight Classical, Baroque or folk points of view.

Rather surprisingly, the genre has a couple of specialists. The form’s grand old man is British director Ken Russell. He has a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance that sometimes obscures some major virtues: no matter how controversial they often are, all of his composer biopics are informed by a genuine understanding of music, as well as by a sympathetic (if often bitchy) appreciation of the souls of artists.

My favorite of Russell’s films is an uncharacteristically small and sober early example — a seventy-three-minute-long TV drama about Frederick Delius called “Song of Summer” (available as disc 3 of the Ken Russell at the BBC DVD package). Russell wrote the script in collaboration with Eric Fenby, who as a young man had worked as Delius’s amanuensis, and it’s an honest, indeed sometimes painful, portrayal of both a difficult character — Delius was far from the most lovable of men — and the heartbreaks and rewards of a creative life. A very moving, if bittersweet, classic, the film also addresses very directly one of the most basic of questions that making a biopic raises: do you try to cover the entirety of your subject’s life or try to nail his or her character by focusing on one well-defined episode? By dealing only with Fenby’s time with Delius, “Song of Summer” demonstrates how much can be extracted from the more modest approach.

moviemusic06_the music lovers
From “The Music Lovers”

Of Russell’s big-budget, sweeping and sensationalistic extravaganzas, the most successful is “The Music Lovers,” a 1970 feature about Tchaikovsky. It’s a gossipy and catty bash that’s full of the bursting-out-of-the-closet spirits of the ’70s. Where earlier film treatments of the Tchaikovsky story had sidestepped the question of the composer’s sexuality and instability, Russell and his star, Richard Chamberlain, dive right in. They give us a Tchaikovsky who’s a queeny hysteric, a morally reprehensible narcissist and a sponge. Right from the film’s first scene — an all-male romp in the snow — this Piotr is a lusty but fragile, hyper-gifted but overeager, anxiety-ridden train wreck waiting to happen.

Much of the film concerns his mad attempt to construct a heterosexual life for himself. These passages are harsh, ungenerous and probably unfair, but they’re also intense, funny and very entertaining. Antonina Miliukova, the woman who married Tchaikovsky, is portrayed as a money-hungry liar and climber with less than no interest in music. Their disastrous honeymoon is one of movie history’s more memorable nightmare sequences. When Antonina (Glenda Jackson) bares first her breasts and then her pubic hair to Piotr in an attempt to stir his lust, the poor man’s horror merges with the rocking of the train compartment the newlyweds are sharing into a gaudy image of erotic nausea. Russell delivers an unexpectedly vivid character in Antonina’s mother, wickedly conceived of as a Dickensian cockney so amoral that she cheerfully pimps out her own daughter. And the client roster the women service! “I’m quite famous, you know,” Antonina murmurs as one man nuzzles her neck. “Nearly as famous as you are, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.” Not long after, Mom ushers in a horny Alexander Borodin.

moviemusic07_lizstomania
From “Lisztomania”

Russell went even farther with his campier instincts in his ultra-flamboyant, notorious 1975 “Lisztomania,” which proposes Liszt as a bare-chested glitter-rock icon. I didn’t enjoy it as much as “The Music Lovers,” but it’s certainly worth searching out. Full of nudity, disco-ready renditions of Liszt’s music and S&M fantasy sequences, the film comes — for better and worse — as close to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as any composer-biopic ever has. It’s also true to the general outlines of Liszt’s life, as well as amazingly shrewd about the nature of tabloid stardom.

moviemusic08_england my england

The genre’s other specialist is another Englishman, the less well-known Tony Palmer. Palmer has his own kind of cinematic daring, and he has made as many pictures about composers as Ken Russell has. But he’s a far more intellectual figure; a typical Palmer film is a mélange of staged material, research scraps and New York Review of Books-style musings. Though his work is so reflective that it often puts me right to sleep, it still deserves to be sampled. My suggestion is to start with either “Testimony,” his engrossing and complex treatment of Shostakovich’s battles with Stalin, or “England, My England,” his movie about Henry Purcell. I liked the latter film somewhat better. It makes the Restoration era visually unforgettable; it portrays the composer as a robust and politically capable man of his era; and it takes the trouble to clearly lay out the options (court, church, theater) that a professional composer had at that time and in that place. Purcell’s lovely, proud music — supervised here by John Eliot Gardiner — is an ear-clearing pleasure.

moviemusic09_impromptu
From “Impromptu”

Of the genre’s other major pleasures, let me urge you not to overlook:

  • James Lapine and Sarah Kernochan’s 1991 “Impromptu,” a lighthearted, poignant caprice about the French novelist George Sand’s infatuation with Chopin. Judy Davis is at her comically overdramatic best as the scandal-courting Sand.
  • “Elgar’sTenth Muse,” a beautifully sad two-hander about an infatuation between the elderly composer and a young violinist. James Fox and Selma Alispahic portray the conflicts between reserve and yearning, age and youth touchingly and trenchantly.
  • Renato Castellani’s eleven-hour (or eight-hour, depending on the version you get hold of) long Italian production “The Life of Verdi.” Beautifully mounted and shot, as solid and responsible as any birth-to-death biography, it features a many-sided and fully felt portrayal of Verdi by English actor Ronald Pickup, and vocal performances by Callas, Nilsson and Pavarotti. One lesson to be learned from this beauty: if you’re going to take the all-inclusive approach to telling a composer’s life, it’s perhaps best to do it at the length of a miniseries.
  • Abel Gance’s 1937 “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven.” Yet another variant on the Immortal Beloved theme, this stirring absurdity is enjoyable for its unbridled myth-making. Gance — famous for his barn-burning silent film “Napoleon” — delivers a virtuoso directorial performance. The film is full of poetic closeups and brilliant editing flurries; the legendary French actor Harry Baur gives a towering performance; and the passages conveying the composer’s growing deafness are as heartbreaking as can be.
moviemusic11_un grand amour de beethoven
From “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven”

But why talk so much about quality? Let’s admit flat-out that it’s impossible to sustain an interest in any movie genre if you haven’t learned how to relish its stinkers too. God knows that the composer-biopic genre has delivered no shortage of these. Two casting goofs to be marveled at:

  • The arch and languorous Dirk Bogarde was a peculiar choice to play that outgoing whirlwind Liszt in 1960’s “Song Without End.” Bogarde spends the film looking as if he’d rather be making elegantly weary, poisonous remarks about some Countess’s fashion choices than delivering himself body and soul to his hordes of sweaty and salivating lady-fans.
  • What was Agnieszka Holland thinking when she chose Ed Harris to star in her film “Copying Beethoven”? God knows you can’t criticize Harris for failing to give the role his all — but he is what he is, and this is surely the only Beethoven in movie history who comes across like a beer-swigging, iron-pumping ol’ Austin cowboy-hippie.

A special award for all-around badness beyond the call of duty has to be reserved for “Song of Norway,” a 1970 tribute to the life of Grieg made in the dirndls-and-clog-dancing style of “The Sound of Music.” This isn’t just the worst composer-biopic of all time, it’s one of the most terrifyingly wholesome movies ever made. With Grieg’s not-very-catchy songs presented as though he intended them to be sunny Broadway showstoppers, and featuring innumerable montages of buttercups, seagulls and waterfalls, “Song of Norway” may qualify both as essential Bad Movie viewing and as an all-time camp classic. May it be issued on DVD soon.

All of these movies deliver their share of pleasures, whether of the intended or unintended sort, and I look forward to many further entries in the field. There’s so much material yet to be explored, after all. William Byrd? Why not? Let’s hope someone takes on Leiber and Stoller. And is anyone else as eager as I am for “The Anton Webern Story”?

©2009 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.

The Rise and Fall of An American President: Nixon in the Arts and the Media

Nixon01

By Ray Sawhill

The biggest surprise when “Nixon in China” opened in 1987 wasn’t the music: the opera’s composer, John Adams, had been moving away from minimalist purism for some years. It wasn’t the production’s staging, either. By 1987, on-the-cusp culture buffs had already learned to enjoy the mix-and-match irreverence of director Peter Sellars. It wasn’t even the way the opera proposed viewing near-current events as legitimate material for grand opera. “Nixon in China” — now acknowledged as having kicked off a brief trend for “CNN operas” based on topics torn from the news — asserted its authority quickly. It seemed not just funny but natural to be watching a story set in the very recent past, featuring characters with names like Henry Kissinger, Chou En-lai and Madame Mao. After all, what are the creatures who inhabit our media world if not figures of modern myth?

No, what was most startling for the culture-class was the opera’s rounded, even sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon. Act I may have begun with a pop-art-style recreation of the famous descent from the Presidential jet in Peking. But things soon moved in more unfamiliar directions. In Act II, Pat Nixon rushes onstage during a performance of a Madame Mao opera to protest the cruelty of some of its characters; Dick follows her and sweetly comforts her. And in Act III, we’re given a Nixon indulging in wistful reflection. Recalling a day during World War II that he thought he wouldn’t survive, he sings, “I felt so weak / With disappointment and relief / Everything seemed larger than life.” Here was something unfamiliar — a Richard Nixon capable of tenderness and dreams.

nixon in china stage

We in the audience went into the theater eager to witness an art-gamble: could BAM-style post-modernism deliver an experience that would command our attention on a scale commensurate with grand opera? What we left with was a bonus — a shift in our perceptions of one of the country’s most controversial figures. If Peter Sellars, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman could let themselves conceive of Richard Nixon as something other than a cartoon ogre, maybe the rest of us could, too.

By 1987, more than a decade had passed since Watergate, Vietnam and the resignation, yet feelings were still raw. One of the main reasons was Nixon himself, who, in his disgrace, hadn’t exactly hidden under a rock. Legendary as a fighter who would never give up, he’d set about rehabilitating himself soon after leaving office. He wrote and wrote, issuing several books, including a nearly 1,200-page-long memoir. The first of his four interviews with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977 was watched by 45 million viewers. He traveled overseas and connected with world leaders. He offered himself up to the media and to other politicians as a wise old foreign-policy expert. He was the public figure we’d never be done with — like it or not.

But Nixon had been a flash point for the country since the U.S. emerged from World War II. The startling aggressiveness of his campaigning had won him early attention, and his conduct during the investigation of the Alger Hiss case had made him a Congressional leader during his first term as a Congressman. His successes highlighted the emergence of the West Coast, and especially California, as a national power-center, confidently asserting itself in the face of the old Northeast.

Nixon never failed to stress his humble origins as the son of a grocer. A huge class of never-before-seen voters — inhabitants of the new suburbs, lower-middle-class and middle-class car owners striving to do even better for themselves — responded. They identified with Nixon’s embattled, Horatio-Alger-versus-the-elites self-image and cheered him on. Within only a few years of setting out on a political career, Richard Nixon became one of the nation’s youngest-ever Vice Presidents.

nixon_ike01

Has anyone ever had such an up-and-down career? After the early triumphs, Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to JFK by a whisker, then fell to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California governor. The entire country seemed willing to write him off; ABC entitled a news program about him “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”

Yet by 1965 — with race riots breaking out in many cities and Vietnam emerging as a quagmire — the liberal consensus that had seemed so all-powerful in ’64 was crumbling. Soon, the country was tearing itself apart. Faced with the craziness, most people wanted nothing more than a return to stability. And the unlikely character who rode that wave into the White House in 1968 was back-from-the-dead Richard Nixon — the first Californian ever to occupy the office. In 1972, less than a decade after he’d been declared politically done-with, Nixon was reelected to a second term, winning everywhere but in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He may have been “Tricky Dick” to the left, but in one poll 75 percent of the electorate said they found him “more sincere and believable” than George McGovern.

nixon departs white house

Then, a mere twenty-one months after this triumph, Nixon himself was gone. In ’72, he’d taken more than 60 percent of the popular vote; by August 1974, 65 percent of the public wanted him impeached. For the right it was a hard-to-digest disgrace. The Library that opened in Yorba Linda in 1990 in honor of his presidency was denied public sponsorship and had to be financed by private subscription.

The bond Nixon had with the white middle class caused the left immense frustration in an era when good liberals defined themselves by their devotion to civil rights. For lefties, raging against Nixon became something like a competitive sport. In 1971, Philip Roth’s political satire “Our Gang” featured a main character named “Trick E. Dixon,” who destroys Copenhagen and has an operation to remove the sweat glands from his upper lip. Gore Vidal, in his 1972 play “An Evening with Richard Nixon,” used Nixon’s own words to portray the president as a man with “no conscious mind.” In 1977, Robert Coover one-upped everyone with “The Public Burning,” in which Nixon has an affair with Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg and is raped by Uncle Sam. “To the cosmopolitan liberals,” writes the historian Rick Perlstein, “hating Richard Nixon … was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.”

For the right, Nixon had always been an ambiguous, even disruptive, figure. Nixon’s politeness, his determination, his endless repetitions of how he’d come from good but humble beginnings — even his physical awkwardness — spoke eloquently to his fans. But Nixon also unnerved many established factions on the right. The Northeast Republican patricians looked down on him as a sweaty, hustling, West Coast prole. His enthusiasm for ambitious government programs and a dynamic foreign policy put him at odds with the heartland small-government/isolationist types known as Taft Republicans.

Culturally, Nixon’s presence was felt in such right-wing works as the popular movie “The Green Berets,” in Bob Hope’s tours, in the hippie-taunting of “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp, and in the square pop music of the time — from the Carpenters to many defiantly patriotic country songs. His law-and-order presence helped shape one of the key, and most popular, movie forms of the era, the mad-at-the-damn-liberals, vigilante-movie genre epitomized by “Dirty Harry.”

nixon secret honor
Philip Baker Hall as Nixon in “Secret Honor”

Robert Altman’s 1984 film about Nixon, “Secret Honor” — from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, and featuring a great performance by Philip Baker Hall — represented something new. In the film, Nixon is alone in his office, in exile, downing Scotch after Scotch as he dictates what he has told himself will be his last will and testament. Produced for a pittance and using only one set, it’s one of Altman’s best movies — experimental, graceful and shrewd. What was fresh in its presentation of Nixon was that it wasn’t just harsh and funny. It also delivered a fully embodied portrayal of the man; watching the film was like watching a David Levine cartoon take on three-dimensional life. Altman may have been a liberal and a media-biz person, but he’d grown up in the heartland, and he knew his subject’s type: “‘I will be a winner because I was a loser’ — this was Nixon’s credo,” Altman explained. He even admitted that he felt more sympathy for Nixon than he did for Reagan.

But moviegoers, right and left, weren’t ready yet for such a treatment. Though the film was a hit at festivals and appeared in many end-of-the-year best-of lists, it never won a large audience. Altman reported that the only people who gave him a hard time for the film were lefties who thought he’d accorded Nixon too much humanity.

Several years later, though, “Nixon in China” could successfully propose an attitude of reconsideration. We were now ready for it. Perhaps the Nixon years had encompassed more than just Vietnam and Watergate. (Watergate is never even foreshadowed in Adams’s opera.) Opening up diplomatic relations with China was an immense achievement, after all, as well as a real showstopper: here was Nixon, the legendary Red-baiter, making peace with Communists. Librettist Alice Goodman shrewdly captures Nixon observing his achievement: “Though we spoke quietly / The eyes and ears of history / Caught every gesture,” he sings. Nixon had a mental habit of watching himself take his place in history.

Did “Nixon in China” trigger off this new attitude, or was the opera merely one manifestation of its era? And why were so many — on both the right and the left — so unwilling to let go of the man? The legacies of Eisenhower and LBJ were sorted out soon after they left office. The assassination left John F. Kennedy frozen in amber as the glamorous swaggerer cut off in his prime. Nixon, though, has proved to be a loose tooth unlike any other. Perhaps it’s because — despite all his victories, and all the years he spent in office — there remained something unrealized about him. Americans love battlers and strivers, people who won’t quit. So someone like Nixon — a man of potential and drive, a paranoid who wrecked his chances yet never gave up the fight — transfixes us. A failure on an epic scale, he’s the kind of outsized “He had so much going for him” case that irks and fascinates Americans. How can such a figure ever be nailed down?

Whatever the case, the success of “Nixon in China” seemed to free others to venture out of over-familiar partisan ruts. New thoughts were being entertained. Perhaps Nixon had been an effective President, and not in entirely awful ways. The Environmental Protection Agency … the SALT agreements … the “triangular diplomacy” that his visit to Peking was part of … was it a terrible record? In 1988, historian Francis Russell, while allowing that there is indeed “a repellent quality to Richard Nixon,” argued that Nixon was our most underrated President. Liberal columnist Tom Wicker — during Nixon’s Presidency a staunch critic — pointedly entitled his 1991 book about Nixon “One of Us” and admitted candidly to one interviewer that it was “more favorable to Richard Nixon than some people would wish for it to be.”

By the time of his death, in 1994, Richard Nixon was occupying center stage in real life once again. The praise and nostalgia got so thick that Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, observing the occasion as a commentator for ABC, marveled, “To everyone’s amazement, except his, he’s our beloved elder statesman.”

Nixon hopkins
Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon”

The following year, a more modern kind of monumental recognition came Nixon’s way — an Oliver Stone movie. With his knack for exploiting hot-button topics and his eagerness to write his own version of recent history — the director had already put his touch on Vietnam, JFK and Wall Street — Stone now settled on Nixon. This time, though, he chose to forgo his usual fevered-madman treatment. It’s a dignified movie, made with full Greek-tragedy solemnity. Perhaps this was because Stone (like many boomers) saw some of his own father in Nixon and found that moving. In any case, the director dedicated the film to the memory of his father.

The film is a long, ponderous watch, as well as monotonously overemphatic in the Stone way. “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness,” E. Howard Hunt tells John Dean about Nixon, in case you hadn’t noticed the way that Stone has Nixon literally inhabiting a Rembrandt/Godfather-esque darkness. And how convincing a Nixon did Anthony Hopkins make? Quivering with unease and anxiety, pulling his facial muscles around to convey the idea that Nixon was both puppet master and his own puppet, Hopkins didn’t even try to capture Nixon’s confidence, his drive or his victory-lust. (Watching old tapes of Nixon, I was struck by how much he loved campaigning and how happy he was when connecting with a crowd.)

The film nonetheless delivers an intelligent and plausible — and very un-cartoonish — Nixon. Here’s a man who isn’t just obsessed with greatness in others; he came very close to greatness himself. Where Altman and Hall gave us a small-town go-getter who was out of his depth as President — someone who had always been so eager to succeed that he never developed a central core of his own — Stone and Hopkins’s Nixon is a driven, skillful grownup, brilliant in many ways and unquestionably a master politician, but crippled by inhibitions, as well as prone to projections and paranoia.

In the years since, treatments of Nixon have become even more variegated. A young woman named Monica Crowley, who had worked for Nixon during his final years in Saddle River, New Jersey, brought out a memoir in 1996 of her time with Nixon that included long passages in his voice. Her Nixon comes across as brilliant, thoughtful, vulnerable — and unexpectedly kind on a personal level. Unable to let Nixon (or his rage at him) go, Philip Roth launched another anti-Nixon attack in his 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.” Zack Snyder’s 2009 film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” uses Nixon as an icon of looming fascism.

But the more resonant works in recent years about Nixon have tended to be many-faceted ones. Margaret Macmillan’s 2007 “Nixon and Mao” shifts around between points of view and leaves you in no doubt about what an impressive bit of diplomatic engineering the real-life subject of “Nixon in China” was. In “Watergate in American Memory” (1992), sociologist Michael Schudson makes the case that even Watergate is no easily-encapsulated phenomenon. For some it was a scandal, for others a constitutional crisis, while for a third set it was simply politics as usual. Cultural historian Daniel Frick’s “Reinventing Richard Nixon” is a cool survey of the Nixon stories, images and iconography that have flowed past us through the decades, from campaign posters to plays to New Yorker cartoons to the gift shop at the Nixon Library.

Perhaps the most magisterial reconsideration of the era is historian Rick Perlstein’s 2008 “Nixonland.” In it, Perlstein proposes Nixon as the crucial politician of the 1965–’74 era — the figure who most embodies and sums up those turbulent times. For Perlstein, it’s important to understand Nixon as a “brilliant and tormented” man who struggled “to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s.”

For oldies, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that one of the country’s most august authorities on the era was barely a child himself when Nixon was actually in office. But youth can confer virtues; although a left-liberal himself, Perlstein has a perspective that those of us who were around at the time can’t achieve. He doesn’t, for example, flinch from suggesting that the left’s fury kept them from understanding Nixon and his fans. “There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left,” he told one interviewer.

Nixon langella
Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon”

The most recent major pop-culture portrayal of Nixon is Ron Howard’s 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon,” adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play about the 1977 Frost–Nixon interviews. The movie — genuinely thoughtful if, perhaps, surprisingly square — generates a lot of suspense, as well as a lot of sympathy for both its protagonists. We spend the movie watching the two contrasting characters joust — the overeager Frost trying to pull off a media coup and establish his personal bona fides as a journalist of substance, the cagey Nixon eager both for the money and to present his own version of events. But the main effect of the movie is to humanize Nixon, who by the end feels almost like an old, if slightly sketchy, friend. Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon goes much deeper than a mere impersonation of the man; it earned Langella an Oscar nomination. What better proof could there be that Nixon — no matter whether you take him as villain or hero, victim or creep — has now been accepted as one of our most enduring national characters? In the year before “Frost/Nixon” was released, the Nixon Library was incorporated into the National Archives and Records Administration, there to take its place next to all of our other Presidential libraries.

nixon funeral
At Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda

At Nixon’s funeral, Bob Dole proclaimed post-World War II America “the age of Nixon.” That’s a judgment that’s very hard to argue with where popular culture goes. What other president has left such a sizable legacy of iconic moments and images? Can we summon up more than half a dozen images of JFK, as popular as he remains? Does Ike, despite being a two-term President of fairly recent vintage, qualify as a pop-culture figure at all? For sheer quantity of memorable images and moments — from the triumph in China to the V-for-Victory gesture, from “I am not a crook” and “the silent majority” to the Checkers speech, from the farewell wave before the helicopter to the way we still append the suffix “-gate” to any and all scandals — Nixon is unmatchable.

If there’s no longer any doubt about “Nixon in China”‘s artistic stature, the opera’s revival at the Met raises an interesting question — namely: What will the audience make of Nixon now? My hunch is that the Nixon era has been sufficiently sifted through for the moment, and that the discussion will now move on to Nixon the man. Though the facts of his life are well known, he has always been an enigma, a labyrinth beckoning friends and enemies alike to lose themselves in his mind’s twists and paradoxes. Twenty-three years after “Nixon in China” opened, and nearly seventeen years after the man’s death, we aren’t yet done with Nixon — and he isn’t yet done with us.

©2011 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.

“Dvorak in Love” by Josef Skvorecky

skvorecky

By Ray Sawhill

From 1892 to 1895, the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak lived in New York. Lured here by the sponsor of the new National Conservatory of Music to help Americans develop a distinctive style of music, he worked, drank oceans of beer, and was wowed by the surreal scale of the country. What he discovered about our musical life came as a surprise: we already had a magnificent tradition. “In the Negro melodies of America I find all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. “There is nothing in the whole range of composition which cannot be supplied from this source.”

Josef Skvorecky tells the story of this visit in his bighearted and wide-ranging novel “Dvorak in Love” (translated by Paul Wilson; Knopf), using it as an opportunity to explore American musical history and to suggest the mystery of Dvorak’s creative fire. He takes us from the 1840s, when a composer in search of the American essence entitled one of his orchestral works “Pocahontas, fantasia romanza,” to the mid-20th century, when jazz was finally performed at Carnegie Hall. And, though he never brings us inside Dvorak’s mind, he sketches a vivid, mobile portrait of an earthy man of the senses with a peasant’s simple religious faith, who also happens to be a genius. The “love” of the title is Dvorak’s private drama: his adoration of his wife’s older sister, an actress who died early and for whom Dvorak composed his most cherished melody. Skvorecky tenderly and humorously places this unrequited passion at the center of his novel; the effect is to draw a connection between ephemerality and love.

That’s what happens in “Dvorak in Love,” narratively and structurally. But this is a far from conventional novel. You don’t experience it primarily in terms of drama, character development, or finely tuned sentences. You experience it musically, as an unruly jazz suite on themes suggested by Dvorak’s visit: high art and folk art, the Old World and the New, music and words, exile. The chapters, told from a variety of points of view, many of which shift internally, are riffs — long, seemingly improvised passages that charge off in all directions. “To me, literature is blowing a horn,” Skvorecky has said. It’s clear that, for him, beauty, youth, emotion and music are close to synonymous, and that his writing is an effort to keep them alive, to prolong the music. His books, including the novels “Miss Silver’s Past” and “The Engineer of Human Souls,” are soulful, comic laments about what vanishes between youth and age, one language and another. In his best work — in passages here and in his earlier volume, “The Bass Saxophone” — his humor and lyricism work together in ways that make entire paragraphs seem to rise right off the page, borne away by nostalgia, bewilderment and love.

“Dvorak in Love” is sometimes halting and it has its tedious stretches. But the network of themes Skvorecky has devised is loose enough to let his riffs take off and sturdy enough to hold them together. His prose is robust — it has a smoky, gypsy flavor — yet the book has an airy theatricality. Skvorecky shines the poetic light of a “lunatic moon” on this factually based past, and he tells wild, true stories about early visionary naifs like Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who once led an orchestra of 2,000 and a chorus of 20,000, and who kept his huge ensemble in some rough kind of synch by firing off cannons.

Some of the solos in “Dvorak in Love” have the nakedness and lift of great spirituals. In one chapter, set in the 1940s, the woman patron of the arts who brought Dvorak to America is musing about Duke Ellington and the sound of saxophones, and she wonders how the long-dead Dvorak would have responded to swing. This old lady settles into sleep, and when she “awakens,” whom should she see but Dvorak himself. There he was, “sitting next to her bed in a waistcoat, with his sleeves rolled up, and he was playing the saxophone.”

  • Buy a copy of “Dvorak in Love.”
  • An interview with Josef Skvorecky.
  • Robert Winter’s CD-ROM about Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony is a wonderful work in its own right. I can’t find anyplace that currently sells the disc, but you might be able to find a copy on eBay. Highly recommended.

© 1987 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Blues Up and Down” by Tom Piazza, and “Blue: The Murder of Jazz” by Eric Nisenson

piazza

By Ray Sawhill

A collection of a writer’s short nonfiction — what in the 18th century was called a miscellany — can be a ragtag thing. It can also be a showcase for the writer’s mind, freed from the effort to make statements for the ages and unbothered with self-consciousness. Even a so-so collection will feature a variety of subjects and attacks, and is likely to have a little of the rowdiness and informality that some readers treasure in 18th century essays.

Which is by way of giving a hand to St. Martin’s Press for bringing out Tom Piazza’s peppery, bristling “Blues Up and Down.” In more freewheeling times, it wasn’t unusual for a major publishing house to release such a collection; in these concept-is-all days, the unkempt miscellany is a rarity, and the streamlined, one-idea theme book is the rage. Piazza’s new book is an inspired grab-bag of features, reviews and profiles that for the most part makes sense of the advent of neotraditionalism in jazz.

What does it mean that young musicians are mastering old arrangements? Does “classic” have to mean “lifeless?” Piazza is exploring territory opened up by Albert Murray in “Stomping the Blues,” and he often takes as his antagonist jazz writers who maintain that jazz is freedom, man, it’s self-expression, the unconscious and the revolutionary. To Piazza, that kind of thinking isn’t just sentimental, it’s one of the reasons why jazz ran into one dead end after another in the ’60s and ’70s.

He tosses off ear-and-brain openers at an exciting rate. On one page comes a throwaway descriptive dazzler — a reference to “the slowly exfoliating logic” of a Thelonious Monk performance. On another is an inspired summing-up passage: “The evolution that was needed at the point when [Wynton] Marsalis came along was not the imagining of a new solo style, but was rather a reimagining both of the nature of ensemble playing and of jazz’s place in the culture as a whole — a reimagining of context.” This is useful in explaining why the ensemble playing of the neotraditionalists is often more convincing than their solo work. Taking on where-are-the-brilliant-new-innovators objections, he makes the often forgotten but essential point that when such legends as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were at their peak, “The language itself was healthy and widely practiced.” (Critics writing for the ages aren’t likely to make such bold and entertainingly provocative assertions.) If you’re one of those people who find Wynton Marsalis cold and reactionary, Piazza’s profile of him may change your mind.

Trying to make a virtue of a mistake — signing up two books that concern the same subject but argue opposing points of view — St. Martin’s is releasing on the same day as Piazza’s book Eric Nisenson’s “Blue: The Murder of Jazz.” Nisenson agrees with Piazza that, with free jazz and fusion, jazz ran itself into a cul-de-sac. For Nisenson, though, it’s the neotraditionalist response that spells the death of jazz; this is a theme book, and that’s Nisenson’s theme. A good attack on Marsalis could conceivably be made, but Nisenson’s argument runs out of gas a quarter of the way in, and he offers only a few pages on the performers he does enjoy. His language — that of a well-meaning, beleaguered social-studies teacher — doesn’t exactly stir the reader’s blood: “Armstrong, needless to say, was a man deeply affected by the society in which he lived and his own hopes and dreams for that society.”

Nisenson is one of the “jazz is freedom” guys, and he doesn’t want to see jazz defined, let alone redefined; Piazza is convincing when he writes that, for such writers, jazz isn’t “something objective to be loved and studied … but an occasion for total immersion in purely subjective affect.” Weighed down by his theme and his one drippy idea, Nisenson seems punch-drunk from the opening bell. Piazza — loose, quick and focused as he dances from one subject and idea to the next — wins round after round. I’d like to think that Piazza’s victory also represents a triumph for the miscellany over the theme book.

© 1997 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.