Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wes Herd dies auch sei...

It's Wagner night, here in the Wagnerite Republic of West Thirdflooria. The Japanophile Republic of East Thirdflooria is away at an anime con, and who cares about the neighbors, they have a subwoofer and they know how to use it until two o'clock in the morning playing video games that sound like they involve the smell of napalm in the morning.

I hate The Ride of the Valkyries, can I just say?  It's the hugest cliche in opera and the only thing everybody knows of this one, to the obliteration of all else -- all the really cool, inexplicable-to- mass-cultured-outsiders things -- causing the entirety of the Ring Cycle, and possibly the Wagner canon as a whole, to disappear under its weight. This annoys me no end.  So while Brünnhilde and her sisters are doing their thing, collecting and trading war-dead like so many Magic: The Gathering cards, I'm reading the obituary for Hazel Dickens in the NYT.  If you don't know her, she sang the graveside hymn in Matewan, the John Sayles film about the West Virginia coal field wars.  That kind of singing was the tradition she grew up in, but she went on to become, as her old record label dubbed her, one of the Pioneering Women of Bluegrass.  I read in her obituary that Alison Krauss, as a member of that younger generation of women Hazel influenced as performer, songwriter and trailblazer, was chosen to preside at her induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Honor (they like that better than Fame, because they're realists).  

Anne Sofie von Otter is an Alison Krauss fan. I read that somewhere in an interview, back in the days of her Elvis Costello project.

But actually I hit upon Hazel's obituary while looking for the words to The Famous Flower of Serving Men, which is one of those traditional ballads about women cross-dressing to exact revenge, or get out of dodge, or just to have something of a life.  And this because there was recently a really fine article in The Guardian about Martin Carthy on the eve of his 70th birthday, who put that skewed and excellent tune to those words.  

"I remember...playing to fourth-form kids...and it didn't work at all; then we played to the sixth form and they were agog, hanging on to the narrative... Carthy recalls "another time, in Manchester, these kids came up and said: 'You're Martin Carthy, aren't you?' I said yeah and they said: 'You must sing Famous Flower of Serving Men...And there they were, sitting right in front of me on the floor, listening. It amazed some of the older people there, but the song galvanised them, and they certainly galvanised me."

Opera is not the only medium to be cursed with an aging audience.  Like all what might be termed cultural special-interests, it faces down enormous market forces arrayed against it -- or rather, completely indifferent to its presence.  But the internet has proven to be a marvelous leveler in many ways, and among these is the dissolution of cultural pigeon-holes designed by the marketing departments of once-powerful major labels for maximum cash extraction.  So kids can show up at Martin's shows with special requests and attention spans intact. Or kids can show up at the Met HDcasts, and I can point them to the Shrek line, and they can politely but enthusiastically show me the error of my assumptions (as happened once and I hope will happen again).

Opera is also not the only medium that relies on words and music to tell a story -- but perhaps the ballad tradition long ago solved the problem of later today by not being bound by either the music or the words, but only by the gist of the narrative. There was a lady in the north / west / east..., but it depends on whom you ask.

What has this to do with Wagner, you might be wondering, if you're still reading this. That's yet a longer story, though perhaps it's also a review in itself of last night's fun. In any case, the Republic is going to see it in the house, so will save its review for then. (But hey, Met sound people, the sound last night was flatter than usual.)


  1. I can live without Wagner's Operas. More than anything else they are too long. No one can concentrate on music more than 4 hours. Not even professional musicians.
    In our society one should like Wagner, otherwise one is regarded as ignoranz. I don't like the attitude of the "Wagnerianer". They take themselves as great music experts. I just laugh.

  2. lol That's fair. I used to be able to concentrate for more than four hours, but these days it's pretty mühsam. (Is that the right word?) And I can see Wagner being a more high-stakes thing where you are -- it is such a serious business, that Bayreuth scene. Whereas here, though the Ringheads I know are pretty knowledgeable, I think they're really just in it for the Adorno jokes.

  3. I will rely on the Republic to teach me about the many strands of (American) folk.

  4. Lotus-eater, yes. I think I much prefer talking, reading and writing about Wagner, than actually listening to his music for long stretches of time. But I try to stay curious.

  5. @stray
    "mühsam" is right.

    @I prefer reading about Wagner as well. We call him "the old, good Richard" (sarcastically). On the one hand he was a great musician, on the other hand, how can I say, he was a man who couldn't manage his life properly, sitting on the debt mountain all the time. However, in my opinion he was a good man for his wives. As his first wife ran away with an another man, but came back, Wagner just forgave her without blaming(you know that he was burning with jealousy and ready to kill the rival). In his place I just left and never saw her again.
    Even after divorce he took care of her until she died. That's why, no matter what they say, I give "the old, good Richard" a good point

  6. Wow, I didn't know he had even one chalk mark in the Not a Rat Bastard column. Maybe I should do more reading. :-)

    But what can I say, when I was a kid I needed a fortress, and found I could build one out of Grandad's record collection. And back then, four or five hours of uninterrupted listening was not only desirable, it was also possible. [sigh]

  7. There're full of ups and downs in Wagner's life. Much more interresting than fictional storys.

    There was time that I spent hours on playing the piano. At that time I found that after about 3 hours I got out of concentration. In the situation one only play without listening what he plays. Then my piano teacher adviced me, "you should reduce the time. If you don't listen every note, it brings nothing." He, a great Lied-accompanist, never play more than 3 hours.

    It's scientifically proved that we can concentrate on listening to music maximal 4 hours. That's why the orchestra musician's working time is less than 4 hours here.

    Of course we can listen to musik all day long. But it's not with great concentration. And everybody listen different. Some with well- trained ears listen every note, some don't.

    It sounds odd, but I go to the opera to relax. It is not possible in the piano concerts, because every note get into automatically in my ears, without my will and it maks me tired.
    I don't find Wagner relaxing. Too many instruments(for Wagner a full orchestra with more than 130 musicians is needed), the notes are often jumping, ups and downs and here and there obstacles hiding. I can never concentrate on this system 5 hours long. That's what I meant.
    P.S.: In spite of all I appreciate Wagner. He was the one that broke up with old system of opera and modernized it. One of the greatest composer in the opera history.

  8. This show has many funny moments - I caught it on YT before it was taken down: Stephen Fry's Wagner and Me.

  9. I know. "I touched a Wagner, skin on skin" is almost creepy. Katharina Wagner kind of brushes him off in that attempt at conversation, but he talked too much at her so I don't blame her.

  10. Yeah, I was surprised they didn't do a better job setting that up. It was like she couldn't quite decide if he was the BBC or a stalker, and finally settled on stalker.