from Friday, February5th of the year2010.
A few days ago, I posted about how difficult it was for me to get a phone up and running in England. I got some sympathetic comments and then one sort of mean thing about being middle-class. That sort of angered me, because I realized: what do you do if you’re a non-English-speaking, non-Middle Class immigrant to London? If I can’t, with my fancy Ivy League education (and whatever Juilliard is “” Shochu League?) get a pay-as-u-go phone working, what is it like if you’re Chinese? The end result of the phone saga is pretty great, though. The basic outline is this: I bought, legitimately and from the Apple Store Online, an iPhone linked to an Orange Pay-As-You-Go SIM. It worked. I gave everybody the number. And then suddenly, it no longer worked. There was no message or warning; it simply ceased working. I called them from my American phone. I argued with them. I faxed them my financial details. The Fraud Team had taken over my case. The Fraud Team is not “Customer-Facing.” The Fraud Team leaves work at 4:30 and doesn’t work weekends. I spent a weekend “” and $425.44, I later found out “” using my American phone to conduct my affairs. I went into an Orange Store. They were embarrassed and horrified and polite and apologetic and all, themselves, immigrants who had gone through similar hoops upon arrival from Pakistan and Bulgaria. An hour later, they made contact with the Fraud Team. The Fraud Team was not helpful; the Fraud Team communicates with the store employees using a little text-only computer terminal very similar to a Minitel. The Fraud Team took off at 4:30, presumably to light kittens aflame or worship Baphomet. The next day I went to another Orange store, and an Australian man told me: your best bet is either to only top up using cash or to have an English person pay for your phone bills; that way the credit card is linked to a UK address. You know how he knew this? Because that’s how he pays his own bill. Motherfuckers. The only way to make my legitimate phone work is to commit fraud? So now I have exactly the worst, most bizarre and illegal kind of phone, whose bill is paid by my friend J””. Doesn’t that sound like some Al-Qaeda pre-paid terror organization shit to you? I’m trying to figure out a way to make Orange, be they Customer-Facing or Not, to realize the error of their ways. If you make the bureaucratic process so opaque that Middle-Class people can’t even navigate it, chances are, your system is certainly not going to work for, let’s say, a Nigerian student who turns up and has his phone cut off and has no recourse to his other phone to call your customer servants.
All of this is not to say that I’m having a bad time! On my walk back from the first of two Orange Stores, I had to pass through the small network of streets in the City, near where the Fire of London started. This area is amazing because every streetcorner offers a quick glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which looks like a giant meringue on a plinth. When the light hits just right, which, in winter is several crepuscular hours, a walk through that area is unrelentingly beautiful. With a cup of coffee & with the promise of dinner with friends, I felt like the luckiest man alive. Every time I eat at St John “” a pie with Alex, an ox tongue with Sigga Sunna, a snail with Jamie “” I am filled with an overpowering life-umami.
The new piece I wrote for Mark Padmore and Pekka Kuusisto and the Britten Sinfonia has been happening on tour; I went to two of the first leg of performances (in Eindhoven and Amsterdam) and am heading to Cambridge tonight to hear another. It’s a complete decadence to hear a work so many times in one’s life, to say nothing of in a single month. I’m also excited because the performance in Amsterdam contained one of the most professional trainwrecks I’ve ever witnessed. Something happened “” somebody came in early, somebody mis-cued, somebody wasn’t paying attention in the back “” and it came dangerously close to falling apart. I like it though: the adrenaline focuses everything that happens immediately afterwards and you end up with a shimmering, taut remainder of the piece. The same thing happened when I went to see Signal play Steve Reich’s Double Seggistett at LPR a few months ago: for one split second “” maybe half a bar? “” there was a brief clenching of the ostinato, and the whole thing almost broke. Brad Lubman pinched something and relaxed something else, and then everybody was right there for the rest of the piece.
I’m interested in that tautness. In chamber music, you get this almost all the time. Watch a string quartet and you see every player constantly focused, negotiating, bartering, manic. In larger ensembles, this is not always the case. In the better ones, though, you start to see it creeping in on stage: I saw James Levine conduct the BSO in a Midsummer Overture at a tempo of quarter note equals, like, seventeen thousand, and there was a lot of focus on that stage. Last night, I went to see the New York Philharmonic on their tour in London, and their first encore, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, was like that: completely focused from the first stands of the violins to the back of the horns.
Sadly, I cannot say the same for some of the other pieces and players. That’s always what I do when I see big orchestras: I look at the back of the second violins, at the back of the violas, to see how engaged people are. It’s fascinating. Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra is a giant cauldron of textures, a sort of Szechuan hot-pot affair with little bits of things bubbling to the top covered in other things slicked with a third thing. The performance was great “” don’t get me wrong “” but Kind and Venerable Sir in the back of the violas: I’m watching u. And y’all phoned it in. That tremolo may not be the most important thing in the texture at that time, but you have to play it like it is “” otherwise, what are we all doing with our lives?
All that said, it was great to see the Philharmonic outside of Fisher Hall, where I never go. The playing was great. The programming for the tour was, let’s say, a solid B. First night: That new Lindberg thing, followed by Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto which was fucking awesome. Bronfman ate that thing for dinner. Then Sibelius 2, which is always a plecz. Second night: A Haydn Symphony (bad idea), Adams’s The Wound-Dresser (more on this in a sec), Schubert Unfinished (fabulous) and Berg Three Pieces (fabulous). Then Egmont as an encore, then a Bernstein nibblet with the funniest English horn queef I have ever heard in my life. Now you look at these two days of tour programming and you think: okay, fine. It’s all fine. But in the back of my head something is screaming: more new music, more American music, more music by New Yorkers. Get that Haydn off of the stage and do a new American piece for chamber orchestra (Note: nothing’s wrong with Haydn. It’s just dopey to play on a tour and, like, yes, the trio from the minuet is hot shit and shows off the horns’ high notes, but it’s still just dopey). Do the Reich Duet for Two Violins! Commission something! Don’t do Egmont; do Short Ride in a Fast Machine. You already have one of the synthesizers for the Wound-Dresser! And all the percussion from the Berg! I know that I’m always going to back-seat program for the Phil, but I’ve said it before and I will continue saying it until I die: I want my hometown orchestra to be my home team. I want to see the season and scream, “I love my life and I love living in New York.” I don’t want to open up the LA season brochure and start looking into rental properties in Rancho Cucamonga just so I can hear Tehillim.
Anyway, whatever. They sounded great. I’m just saying. And they’re doing something of mine in a few months (for chamber-orchestra, off-venue, watch this space for more information) and I thought Alan Gilbert did a gorgeous job. There was one sort of sad moment in the Adams where Thomas Hampson (who sort of looks like Mitt RomnÃ½, has anybody else noticed this?) sings: “Poor boy, I never knew u, yet I Ã¾ink I could not refuse this moment to d-i-i-ie 4 u” at which point the strings do this unspeakably gorgeous long, descending, Elgar melody, which burrows into the ground into the horns, and then gets picked up by a trumpet solo, Glory-style. It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking moment and Gilbert was doing full 360Â° DaWinci arcs with his arms and the violins were playing it sort of like, Mezzo-Forte Poco Espressivo Ma Non Troppo. Of course I was looking at the back of the firsts and screaming with my eyes: bitches! It’s about War! It’s about the SIDA! it’s pertinent, it’s gorgeous, it’s a huge American melody. Make me some fucking gravy out of this line, like how you’re gonna out of the Schubert in twenty minutes’ time![audio:WoundDresserExcerpt.mp3]
(As I write this, I am now on my way back from Cambridge, on a train that smells like tuna in the worst possible way).