David Lang is Also my Homegirl + A Diatribe
from Thursday, April10th of the year2008.
I adore David Lang. I am so, so, glad that he won the Pulitzer! Listen to his piece here (also good job to Carnegie for streaming it, very important!) David Lang is a composer whose music is so awesome I hesitate to even stream any of it here, because I feel like it’s all too long to really excerpt properly, and too megabyte intensive for me to upload at this basement Starbucks.
So instead, everybody go buy some David Lang off of iTunes!
Anybody who doesn’t wish to listen to my diatribe should navigate away from this page at this time.
We need to briefly discuss that this abortion of an article also won a Pulitzer. First of all, everybody I know emailed it to me when it first came out. Second of all, the comments attendant to this article on the Washington Post were unreal; I don’t know where they are now. Anyway, the basic premise is that Joshua Bell, who is, like, young and talented and handsome, went into a subway station in our nation’s capital and played a little recital during the morning rush. Nobody paid any attention because they were too busy on their iPods or whatever. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation. However, this article! It drove me to madness! I hope that everybody reads this thing and proves me wrong, that it’s not through-and-through offensive.
I’m re-reading it now and my heart is racing. The writing is as appalling as The Da Winci Code but somehow striving for more. Check it:
Mark Leithauser has held in his hands more great works of art than any king or Pope or Medici ever did.
Hot Grammar, right? Or:
“I had a time crunch,” recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. “I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement.”
Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.
Whyyyyyyyyyy is that two sentences? What is this weird halting style? This method of writing? This jerking? It continueth:
There’s nothing wrong with Myint’s hearing. He had buds in his ear. He was listening to his iPod.
Oh. Was he? Listening? To his iPod? What? What is the question. What does that mean? Jerky Jerky.
For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences.
“I didn’t think nothing of it,” Tillman says, “just a guy trying to make a couple of bucks.” Tillman would have given him one or two, he said, but he spent all his cash on lotto.
When he is told that he stiffed one of the best musicians in the world, he laughs.
“Is he ever going to play around here again?”
“Yeah, but you’re going to have to pay a lot to hear him.”
Tillman didn’t win the lottery, either.
What are we supposed to make of this little parable? Also whose voice is, “you’re going to have to pay a lot to hear him?” What drives me crazy about this whole experiment is that it is designed to fail and then give some random guy the opportunity to quietly pontificate (quoting KANT!) up in the Post. The tone is “elevated,” the same way people change their discourse when they say grace before a meal. The writer feels free to talk about how “we” as Americans rush around, his prime example being that we rush around during rush hour. There is something additionally nasty, I think, about subjecting the Chaconne, which is so divine, to this treatment. It’s chamber music, not public art. I have many times stopped in Times Square for the nine seconds it takes to quickly appreciate the Lichtenstein murals, or the Jones/Ginzel eye mosaics in the old World Trade Center stop: all examples of good public art making “us” do what “we” should: take a minute. Not fourteen minutes, are you crazy?
April 10th, 2008 at 8:36 am
Sadly, it is through-and-through offensive, it reads likean article in The Sun. There’s the “oh look, some people actually have to work!” part, and there’s the “woe! technology has killed the violin-star!”, but the most offensive was the name-dropping of philosophers that the guy probably never read.
Or to put it differently: “It is an article. An article, in a newspaper. The newspaper is called the Washington Post. It is a newspaper. There is an article. It is an article about violin. Violin is a music instrument.”
April 10th, 2008 at 9:30 am
Yes, the “elevated” style of writing is laughable. I doubt the writer is a fan of serious music and so had to resort to a strained, reverential tone (“falshe shtick,” as my Yiddish-speaking parents would have said) to prove the importance of Joshua Bell’s work. The author could have waxed poetic more convincingly, I think, had he been writing about an art form he really knows and cares about.
On the other hand, two people in the article who “got” Bell’s performance were musicians themselves–a guitarist and a former violin student. They’ve got chops, and they recognize chops in others. Theirs is the kind of appreciation born of practice, not an uninformed, self-conscious relationship to “art.”
April 10th, 2008 at 10:23 am
Pulitzers in journalism are given by other journalists. Not surprising, given the general standards.
At least the music Pulitzer is given by other composers. Same with poetry and fiction and non-fiction.
Playwriting, however, is awarded solely on the basis of drama critics weighing in. Duh.
April 10th, 2008 at 11:06 am
The tone of the thing is like a special segment on the 6:30 local news in a Midwestern town of 500,000 or fewer people.
April 10th, 2008 at 12:38 pm
This ferkakte article set a personal record, by a factor of at least ten, for “most times received in Inbox”. It was a perfect storm of forwarding: non-musical friends and family saw “classical music” combined with a Pulp writing style that signified Importance and sent it, seeking opinions on what it all meant, while musical friends sent it with can-you-believe-this, End-of-Days sorts of sentiments.
My favorite passage is actually the one about Genius.
April 10th, 2008 at 4:08 pm
I think your suggestion is interesting, to think of forms that music can assume as public art, what would parallel Liechtenstein’s and the others’ in sound?
April 10th, 2008 at 4:34 pm
The “experiment” was offensive for the reasons you say, but the article was merely smug – a quality that one might find on, say, blogs, from time to time. And when I read about single, straight Joshua Bell, I immediately thought of stately, plump Buck Mulligan, and I was back with my own home girls.
April 10th, 2008 at 7:36 pm
AND–his Schubert stuff is ALL WRONG.
He writers: “Schubert seldom showed religious feeling in his compositions, yet “Ave Maria” is a breathtaking work of adoration of the Virgin Mary. What was with the sudden piety? Schubert dryly answered: ‘I think this is due to the fact that I never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is usually the right and true devotion.’
First of all, Schubert “dryly answering” is smug indeed. More importantly, he did not set the tune we know today as Ave Maria to the Catholic prayer to the Virgin. He set it to a “song” in Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, which was all the rage at the time. Schubert’s piece is called Ellen’s dritter gesang, the first word of which is Ave Maria. Some anonymous person squished in the Latin prayer to the haunting tune after Schubert died.
April 10th, 2008 at 10:20 pm
Judd (and Nico),
Perhaps it didn’t deserve the Pulitzer. However, when family and friends email us an article that they found interesting, seeing it as a chance to engage us about what we do… NO PUUUUUNNCH!!!! Say “thank you.”
April 10th, 2008 at 10:35 pm
FINALLY, someone else who thinks the writing style of Da Vinci Code appalling.
April 10th, 2008 at 11:15 pm
Chris, don’t worry – I am quite capable of being civil, despite what you may have heard (or seen) to the contrary! I treat Nico’s comments pages as a “safe space”.
The issue, though, is that this isn’t just a bad article; it’s destructive, in that (among other things) it maintains the “classical music is dying” trope in a particularly dishonest way. So people who “find it interesting” are people who are, in some sense, buying into that narrative, and looking for our response, as people who are within the field (as if playing Bach chaconnes in the D.C. Metro is “what I do”). Is it better to say “thank you”, or to say “thank you – and, by the way, this is a total misrepresentation of everything it addresses”?
I think they ought to hear that, just as I would want to know from my scientist friends when a study was being incorrectly discussed, or from my I.R. wonky friends when a given policy issue was being warped by the media. No?
April 11th, 2008 at 4:00 am
Oh Lord. What a horror of an article. And so LONG, too. I was tempted to give up a third of the way in, but persevered, for some sick and twisted reason I regret now. But huzzah for David Lang, at least – that bit’s good news, at least!
April 11th, 2008 at 6:36 am
Diatribe against Davinci-code-like assessment of a misbegotten experiment=Fabulous
Hey, why don’t we put Sylvie Guillem on a platform for a while and watch her perform Bejartâ€™s phenomenal â€œSissiâ€ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh5yuaf9-WQ
Someone would surely call psych services and try to haul away the world’s most accomplished dancer, but, hey–great entertainment for the morning commute, don’tcha think?
April 11th, 2008 at 1:36 pm
Lots of interesting issues raised here. Is it Joshua Bell playing the Chaconne at the Metro that is offensive, or the fact that it was a put-up job to prove what pigs we mortals be? So many serious performers are choosing alternative venues, creating varied contexts within which to hear Bach (or Muhly or Greenstein) that it is worth thinking about what is different about this venue. Is it more objectionable that commuters may hear only a portion of the Chaconne than that they hear the whole thing over clinking glasses and murmured talk?
Luiz asks what is the musical equivalent of public art. Muzak is one answer, and the Mozart Divertimento I am forced to listen to while on hold is another.
April 11th, 2008 at 4:44 pm
Good for you. This one made me choke when I first saw it. And then again when I, too, was submerged in forwarding e-mails.
What is wrong with this article?? Well, it’s asking a ‘fish out of water’ to be successful.
There are plenty of fine ‘street entertainers’ who could have coached him on how to ‘sell’ his music if that had truly been the point.
A juggler ‘just’ juggling in the subway would have a similar reaction. But an experienced ‘busker’ wouldn’t just juggle (or whatever). He’d ‘sell’ his act to the crowd. He’d ‘engage’ them.
It’s a matter of context and appropriate skills.
In his milieu, Joshua Bell is a master. But who ever said that he (or, indeed, classical music) has to be ‘all things to all people at all times’. That’s just silly.
However, as an aside, I’m ALL over the vision of Joshua starting his act by juggling with chainsaws followed by a bit of fire-eating. If he THEN hit us up with the Chaconne, I’d be there for the whole 20 minute act AND pony up $20 with nary a qualm.
April 11th, 2008 at 9:19 pm
Michael, what I had in mind was more specific, music composed to be played in a public space for casual listening, the same way Nico Muhly mentions having a second-long glimpse of the works of art, say solid art, like Liechtenstein’s. Of course muzak is there, occupying the place of something that actually could be there instead. I remember more than a decade ago, during one of the Sao Paulo Biennial editions, they played Eno’s music for airports at the airport lounge, during an entire day, and people listened by chance, like seeing a sculpture from a bus in movement. Nothing that new, but…
April 12th, 2008 at 9:05 am
Luiz, I suppose Mozart’s divertimenti were often intended for casual listening, but your phrase reminds me of my own inability to listen casually. In fact, the phrase strikes me as an oxymoron – the idea of listening seems to have attentiveness built in. Like many others, I used to have “background music” playing while I was engaged in other tasks, but I can no longer manage that; when music is playing, either I am listening or I am blocking it out.
April 12th, 2008 at 12:34 pm
True, we have levels of attention involved, but with art is the same, a painting in the museum (similar to attending a concert, no irony here, sit and listen/watch/see, a more comtemplative situation), reprinted in a book (cd, ipod etc a moveable situation for the object) or casually spotted as the mural by Roy Liechenstein mentioned (we are the moving thing in the case).
And dance that has no counterpart in art, or maybe is like wearing art, because dance wears music, use art to move. Design is the dance of art? Ha! We are producing a theory!
I think that even when not listening (I do the same, writing and listening my brain seems to block hearing) we are touched by the sounds, and do listen. That’s why many dreadful jingles return to my mind instead of a Bach prelude that I would (sometimes) prefer. Well, Muppet show music is always playing somewhere between my mind and my neck…The senses are bosy, they work despite our intentions.
April 12th, 2008 at 6:25 pm
Reading Michael’s comment on what it means to listen, I remembered a great documentary with interviews with Cage but also with musicians, pedagogues, theorists, etc, on that very topic. It’s called Listen, and is quite an amzing (experimental) documentary generally.
April 13th, 2008 at 10:30 pm
I love you, Nico Muhly.
I hope you have had the pleasure of reading “Language Log” – definitely the hottest linguistics blog out there – on the prose stylings of Dan Brown. Seminal post and links to later ones at –
April 14th, 2008 at 5:49 pm
The article’s Major Thesis is weird and the writing style overheated, but are you maybe reacting to the thesis instead of the article? I loved the reporting, meaning the interviews with people who stayed to listen and people who left, and the videos. The troweled on cultural decline narrative, no thanks. But the postal supervisor who stopped to listen, the shoe shiner, Tindley who worked at Au Bon Pain, Mortensen who delayed his day to listen: I’m glad someone gave me a bit of their voices.
I’d have been surprised if MORE people stopped to listen. Bell’s haul seems higher than I’d expect. There was no failure of classical music or art or this modern world. The experiment was rigged to fail, although the riggers may not have realized that themselves. But I smiled all the way through those videos. Good for Weingarten for having such a fun idea and making it happen — and then, with the help of, say, Mark Leithauser, even treating it somewhat thoughtfully.
April 14th, 2008 at 6:20 pm
I was surprised to read the end of your blog entry, as I shared most of your previous reactions to the Post article. I would be eager to read your responses to two issues, both of which have already come up to some degree in the comments:
a) Why can’t the Chaconne be presented in a heavily frequented public space? Shouldn’t the artistic aims and functions of a work be allowed to change over centuries? In valuing the Chaconne more than most passers-by, are we doing so to justify our own work? A subway performance gives the listener far greater choice than in a concert hall: you can stand and listen for hours, minutes, or seconds; you can pay what you want; you can talk, eat, and drink during it; you can ignore it.
[Nico responds: The Chaconne can do anything it wants to! My only point is that the experiment is ridiculous because it’s like saying, who is going to notice this incredibly beautiful but compared-to-rush-hour-noise not very loud piece of music?]
b) Why should a Lichtenstein mural deserve less attention than a 14-minute piece of solo string music? That mural spans 90 years of New York subway history. Surely you can’t take it all in in 60 seconds? Perhaps visual art’s potential to unfold in time is greater than you presume. I think a great irony of the mural, and of metro music, is that most will not stop to watch or listen; but those who do, who really want to, and who value an understanding of at least a sizeable portion of the work, can get just what they want.
[Oh, see, here I disagree; my relationship with that Lichtenstein is not about stopping but it’s about getting a little snippet of it every morning. Times Square is a transfer station; who even knows how many people rush through there every morning. I think that after about two years of running through every morning between 9:00 and 9:15 I spent a good deal of time with it! If you think about religious art, too, like an altar painting, there are only specific times when you have access to it…this doesn’t bother me.]
Muzak is a large can of worms, but possibly its greatest distinction from much other music is, with its hints of the familiar and smooth, subconscious strands of popular tunes, its evasion of our time perception altogether.
April 14th, 2008 at 7:20 pm
‘However, as an aside, Iâ€™m ALL over the vision of Joshua starting his act by juggling with chainsaws followed by a bit of fire-eating. If he THEN hit us up with the Chaconne, Iâ€™d be there for the whole 20 minute act AND pony up $20 with nary a qualm.’
You know, we can continue to permit jests and jokes guised by post-modern ‘tolerance’, or you can admit that this is not a ‘fish-out-of-water’ context, hopefully thereby admitting some degree of shame if you at all respect the tradition of classical music – more than, say, matters of editorial style. You need either ears to hear music, or resolve enough to appreciate it on the page. If you need someone to frame great performance for you – that meaning intentional music intended to be heard (perhaps, by Muhly’s principles, ‘chamber music’? You know, music where it’s polite to listen) – you’re in a state of aesthetic disrepair. That’s all there is to this. If this isn’t an argument concerned with the erosion of culture, then it’s an argument concerning ‘elements of style’ or of Pulitzer Prizes. In that case, I think the Post journalist has liscense to write even awkwardly about perverted ‘priorities’.
How comfortable you are with this – whether as the result of philosophically eroding the notion of a ‘universal’, whether you can’t muster energy enough to genuinely appreciate that which you’re bent on ignoring – shouldn’t detract from the point: if you all want to maintain that this is a poorly written article, fine. Agreed. But if you want to maintain that you’re in whatever way above the subject matter, than your role as musicians – yes, even ‘contemporary’ musicians – is suspect. Your collective ‘cleverness’ is truly offensive in that regard.
April 15th, 2008 at 1:00 am
The other implication in the article, which is a bit more subtle, is that classical music has somehow suffered from technology. Somehow, it is implied, all these people are listening to Kanye West instead of Josh Bell.
Ridiculous! I for one discovered your music on iTunes, and I’m sure at least some — if not a lot — of people on the D.C. subway are listening to Bell (who admittedly plays spectacularly live, something I experienced at a rehearsal for a concert he gave in Charleston.)
What’s that? Technology can enable new musical experiences? Crazy thought.
Love your music and can’t wait for the new CD,
April 15th, 2008 at 1:57 am
Yes, a clearly silly experiment. It’s not unlike putting on a CD of some extraordinary music while your significant other is rushing out the door to work and saying, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you hear how wonderful this is?”
But it’s always an easy task for a journalist to demonstrate that we are all philistines and then be ruefully bemused about it. Those who assume they would have stopped dead in their tracks feel superior; those who feel closer to the philistines can think, “Gosh, we’re all just so busy and have our iPods and stuff! I guess I’m just like everybody else!”
If this article won a Pulitzer prize it’s no doubt precisely because it was widely read and shared. That’s market success for journalists, and market success = quality. Right?
April 15th, 2008 at 7:00 am
These comments are so incredibly pretentious. You (plural) should be embarrassed.
Nico responds: come on, now. Who this is. Don’t sasstalk on my space. You (singular) know perfectly well that the plural form is y’all.
April 15th, 2008 at 8:34 am
Thanks, Nico, for responding so quickly to my post. I like the process you describe of piecing together the reception of a work bit by bit over time. It’s temporally linear yet highly fragmented. Most subway musicians, especially those in New York, tend to claim their territory and play the same tunes quite often. So, if Bell was a regular metro violinist–which many apparently thought, if they processed his presence at all–one could presumably piece together the Chaconne over a long period of time, just like the Lichtenstein mural. The article did say the acoustics in the D.C. station were pretty good, but either way, I’m guessing artists/historians/critics could compare poor acoustics in music with bad lighting, maintenance/cleaning, or proximity to the viewer.
April 15th, 2008 at 4:06 pm
I really enjoyed reading this article, thanks for posting it. It shed some light on a phenomenon that one might not ordinarily think about. Surely, the writers style was unique, and the way the information was presented was a bit strange. But more than anything, I feel the author missed the opportunity to say some really great things about music, such as why it might not even matter that the people weren’t paying attention. I am of the thought that the act of performing good music will indefinitely be absorbed by the audience in some way or another, consciously or unconsciously, with or without their attention being directed at it. And I also can’t help but wonder, might there be some other music out there besides those classical masterpieces performed by Bell and his violin (undisputedly world class) that might have drawn more of an audience? I’m thinking, Nico, maybe your music should be performed in another subway station to test this 🙂
April 16th, 2008 at 9:53 am
I support your criticism of the musicology behind this article, but please keep in mind: Gene Weingarten is a comedy writer.
When I lived in DC I read his column on the ludicrous wonders of modern life every week. He’s the kind of person who writes to the Nigerian Bank Official you get those emails from and engages him is mock-serious negotiations.
While I don’t think this was one of Mr Weingarten’s best articles, I’m sure for his regular readers, it was received with a certain wink and nod that the writer is not a cultural aficionado and is looking at the work of a street musician the way most people do: from a position of ignorance.
If I can attempt to vindicate Mr. Weingarten in the slightest, I point you to this article he wrote in 2004, where he examined humans’ fear of death by actually visiting specific train and bus lines in Madrid and Jerusalem…places where the probability of death is actually greater than “normal.” And he still manages to do it with a certain wonky charm…I always get the idea he’s talking to his readers while playing with the change in his pocket…
Fear Itself; Learning to live in the age of terrorism
The Washington Post – Washington, D.C.
Author: Gene Weingarten
Date: Aug 22, 2004
“The meaning of life is that it ends.”
— Franz Kafka
YOU ARE NOT AFRAID OF TERRORISM, REALLY. You have weighed the facts and have concluded, rationally, that even if terrorists strike again in this country, the chances are negligible that you or anyone you know will be killed or injured. You feel no special tension when you place your seat tray in the upright position. You are old enough to have lived through other supposedly apocalyptic times, or you’ve surely heard about them — most famously, the silly spectacle of 1950s-era schoolkids giggling under their desks in anticipation of The Big One.
The recent warnings about terrorism during the election campaign have ratcheted up your concerns a little, but so what? You are going on with your life not as an act of defiance so much as a celebration of rationality. You will be fine.
So here’s a question: Would you ride a bus in Jerusalem? Right now? Here’s your 5 1/2 shekels, go take a bus to market, buy some figs. Pick a bad day, after the Israelis have assassinated some terrorist leaders and everyone is waiting for the second sandal to drop. There are lots of buses in Jerusalem — the odds are still long in your favor. Do you take that dare?
Email me or post back and and I will send you the whole article.
April 25th, 2008 at 7:49 am
Who cares? It’s a dumb human interest article and it ain’t nothin’ new about the Pulitzer. Wynton getting it for ‘Blood on the Fields’? It was basically like they handed it to him out of guilt. And Lang? C’mon seriously.. The guy’s a pompous ass and really thinks his music has substance.. so if it’s established that shitty material can win a Pulitzer, who cares who wins it? Stop whining.
May 10th, 2008 at 1:15 am
I just listened to “The Little Match Girl Passion” and was stunned by its beauty. It’s far better than Lachenmann’s treatment of the same story, both in purely musical terms and in its treatment of suffering (though really I ought not to be speaking as though the two can be separated).
May 11th, 2009 at 4:43 pm
‘Nico responds: come on, now. Who this is. Donâ€™t sasstalk on my space. You (singular) know perfectly well that the plural form is yâ€™all.’
Sure you want the sasStalking; otherwise you couldn’t whip out your puns and make all us wee ungrammatical folk who support abortion, like the WP piece, and absolutely adore The Code out to be trogs.