Archive for the ‘Classical Music’ Category

My work commute typically includes bus, train, and walking legs to arrive at my destination. If wakefulness and an available seat allow, I often read on the bus and train. (This is getting to be exceptional compared to other commuters, who are more typically lost in their phones listening to music, watching video, checking FB, or playing games. Some are undoubtedly reading, like me, but electronic media, which I find distasteful, alter the experience fundamentally from ink on paper.) Today, I was so absorbed in my reading that by the time I looked up, I missed my bus stop, and half an hour later, I nearly missed my train stop, too. The experience of tunnel vision in deep concentration is not at all unfamiliar to me, but it is fleeting and unpredictable. More typical is a relaxed yet alert concentration that for me takes almost no effort anymore.

So what sent me ’round the bend? The book I’m currently reading, Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage, takes a diversion into the work of poet Robert Frost. Carr uses Frost to illustrate his point about immersion in bodily work with manageable difficulty lending the world a more robust character than the detached, frictionless world experienced with too much technological mediation and ease. Carr does a terrific job contextualizing Frost’s lyric observations in a way quite unlike the contextual analysis one might undertake in a high school or college classroom, which too often makes the objects of study lifeless and irrelevant. Carr’s discussion put me unexpectedly into an aesthetic mode of contemplation, as distinguished from analytic or kinesthetic modes. There are probably others.

I don’t often go into aesthetic mode. It requires the right sort of stimulation. The Carr/Frost combination put me there, and so I tunneled into the book and forgot my commute. That momentary disorientation is often pleasurable, but for me, it can also be distressing. My infrequent visits to art museums are often accompanied by a vague unease at the sometimes nauseating emotionalism of the works on display. It’s an honest response, though I expect most folks can’t quite understand why something beautiful would provoke something resembling a negative response. In contrast, my experience in the concert hall is usually frustration, as musicians have become ever more corporate and professional in their performance over time to the detriment and exclusion of latent emotional content. I suppose that as Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us (about which I care not at all), the typical viewer gets an emotional/aesthetic charge out of that overhyped event, especially if the game is hotly contested rather than a blowout. I seek and find my moments in less crass expressions of the human spirit.

rant on/

This is the time of year when media pundits pause to look back and consider the previous year, typically compiling unasked-for “best of” lists to recap what everyone may have experienced — at least if one is absorbed by entertainment media. My interest in such nonsense is passive at best, dismissive at worst. Further, more and more lists are weighed and compiled by self-appointed and guileless fanboys and -girls, some of whom are surprisingly knowledgeable (sign of a misspent youth?) and insightful yet almost uniformly lack a sufficiently longitudinal view necessary to form circumspect and expert opinions. The analogy would be to seek wisdom from a 20- or 30-something in advance of its acquisition. Sure, people can be “wise beyond their years,” which usually means free of the normal illusions of youth without yet having become a jaded, cynical curmudgeon — post-ironic hipster is still available — but a real, valuable, historical perspective takes more than just 2-3 decades to form.

For instance, whenever I bring up media theory to a youngster (from my point of reckoning), usually someone who has scarcely known the world without 24/7/365 access to all things electronic, he or she simply cannot conceive what it means to be without that tether/pacifier/security blanket smothering them. It doesn’t feel like smothering because no other information environment has ever been experienced (excepting perhaps in early childhood, but even that’s not guaranteed). Even a brief hiatus from the information blitzkrieg, a two-week vacation, say, doesn’t suffice. Rather, only someone olde enough to remember when it simply wasn’t there — at least in the personal, isolating, handheld sense — can know what it was like. I certainly remember when thought was free to wander, invent, and synthesize without pressure to incorporate a continuous stream of incoming electronic stimuli, most of which amounts to ephemera and marketing. I also remember when people weren’t constantly walled in by their screens and feeds, when life experience was more social, shared, and real rather than private, personal, and virtual. And so that’s why when I’m away from the radio, TV, computer, etc. (because I purposely and pointedly carry none of it with me), I’m less a mark than the typical media-saturated fool face-planted in a phone or tablet for the lures, lies, cons, and swindles that have become commonplace in late-stage capitalism.

Looking back in another sense, I can’t help but to feel a little exasperated by the splendid reviews of the life in music led by Pierre Boulez, who died this past week. Never heard of him? Well, that just goes to show how far classical music has fallen from favor that even a titan such as he makes utterly no impression on the general public, only specialists in a field that garners almost no attention anymore. Yet I defy anyone not to know who Kim Kardashian is. Here’s the bigger problem: despite being about as favorably disposed toward classical music as it is possible to be, I have to admit that no one I know (including quite a few musicians) would be able to hum or whistle or sing a recognizable tune by Boulez. He simply doesn’t pass the whistle test. But John Williams (of Star Wars fame) certainly does. Nor indeed would anyone put on a recording of one of Boulez’s works to listen to. Not even his work as a conductor is all that compelling, either live or on disc (I’ve experienced plenty of both). As one looks back on the life of Pierre Boulez, as one is wont to do upon his passing, how can it be that such prodigious talent as he possessed could be of so little relevance?

Consider these two examples flip sides of the same coin. One enjoys widespread subscription but is base (opinions differ); the other is obscure but (arguably) refined. Put differently, one is pedestrian, the other admirable. Or over a lifetime, one is placebo (or worse), the other fulfilling. Looking back upon my own efforts and experiences in life, I would much rather be overlooked or forgotten than be petty and (in)famous. Yet mass media conspires to make us all into nodes on a network with goals decidedly other than human respectability or fulfillment. So let me repeat the challenge question of this blog: are you climbing or descending?

rant off/

The video below came to my attention recently, which shows a respectable celebrity, violinist/conductor Itzhak Perlman, being dicked around in an interview he probably undertook in good faith. My commentary follows.

Publicized pranks and gotchas are by no means rare. Some are good-natured and quite funny, but one convention of the prank is to unmask it pretty quickly. In the aftermath, the target typically either laughs if off, leaves without comment, or less often, storms out in disgust. Andy Kaufman as “Tony Clifton” was probably among the first to sustain a prank well past the point of discomfort, never unmasking himself. Others have since gotten in on the antics, though results are probably not any worse dickishness (dickery?) than Kaufman’s.

Fake interviews by comedians posing as news people are familiar to viewers of The Daily Show and its spinoff The Colbert Report (its run now completed). Zack Galifianakis does the same schtick in Between Two Ferns. It always surprises me when targets fall into the trap, exposing themselves as clueless ideologues willing to be hoisted with their own petards. However, Colbert in particular balanced his arch Republican stage persona with an unmistakable respect for his interview subject, which was at times inspired. Correspondents from The Daily Show are frequently pretty funny, but they almost never convey any respect for the subjects of the interview. Nick Canellakis (shown above) apparently has a whole series of interviews with classical musicians where he feigns idiocy and insult. Whereas some interview subjects are media savvy enough to get the joke and play along, I find this attempt at humor tasteless and unbearable.

Further afield, New Media Rockstars features a burgeoning list of media hosts who typically operate cheaply over the Web via YouTube, supported by an array of social media. At least one, Screen Junkies (the only one I watch), has recently blown into an entire suite of shows. I won’t accuse them all of being talentless hacks or dicking people around for pointless yuks, but I often pause to wonder what makes the shows worth producing beyond the hosts’ embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of comics, cartoons, TV shows, movies, etc. They’re fanboys (and girls) who have leveraged their misspent youth and eternal adolescence to gush and gripe about their passions. Admittedly, this may not be so different from sports fanatics (especially human statisticians), opera geeks, and nerds of others stripes.

Throwaway media may have unintentionally smuggled in tasteless shenanigans such as those by Nick Canellakis. Various comedians (unnamed) have similarly offered humorless discomfort as entertainment. Reality TV shows explored this area a while back, which I called trainwreck television. Cheaply produced video served over the Web has unleashed a barrage of dreck in all these categories. Some shows may eventually find their footing and become worthwhile. In the meantime, I anticipate seeing plenty more self-anointed media hosts dicking around celebrities and audiences alike.

Updates to my blogroll are infrequent. I only add blogs that present interesting ideas (with which I don’t always agree) and/or admirable writing. Deletions are typically the result of a change of focus at the linked blog, or regrettably, the result of a blogger becoming abusive or self-absorbed. This time, it’s latter. So alas, another one bites the dust. Dropping off my blogroll — no loss since almost no one reads my blog — is On an Overgrown Path (no link), which is about classical music.

My indignation isn’t about disagreements (we’ve had a few); it’s about inviting discussion in bad faith. I’m very interested in contributing to discussion and don’t mind moderated comments to contend with trolls. However, my comments drive at ideas, not authors, and I’m scarcely a troll. Here’s the disingenuously titled blog post, “Let’s Start a Conversation about Concert Hall Sound,” where the blogger declined to publish my comment, handily blocking conversation. So for maybe the second time in the nearly 10-year history of this blog, I am reproducing the entirety of another’s blog post (minus the profusion of links, since that blogger tends to create link mazes, defying readers to actually explore) followed by my unpublished comment, and then I’ll expound and perhaps rant a bit. Apologies for the uncharacteristic length. (more…)

When any given technology reaches maturity, one might think that it’s time perhaps to stop innovating. A familiar, reliable example is the codex, also known as the book, now many centuries old and an obvious improvement over clay tablets and paper scrolls. Its low cost and sheer utility have yet to be surpassed. Yet damn it all if we don’t have inferior alternatives being shoved down our throats all the time, accompanied ad naseum by the marketers’ eternal siren song: “new and improved.” Never mind that novelty or improvement wasn’t even slightly needed. A more modern example might be Microsoft Word 5.1, dating from 1992, which dinosaurs like me remember fondly for its elegance and ease of use. More than 20 years later, Microsoft Office (including MS Word) is widely considered to be bloatware, which is to say, it’s gone backwards from its early maturity.

So imagine my consternation when yet another entirely mature technology, one near and dear to the hearts of music lovers (those with taste, anyway), received another obligatory attempt at an update. Behold the preposterous, ridiculous, 3D-printed, 2-string, piezoelectric violin designed by Monad Studio:

Someone teach the poor model, chosen for her midriff no doubt, how to hold the bow! The view from the opposite side offers no improvement:


Kyung Wha Chung has been in the back of my mind for decades. Her recording of the Berg (and Bartók) Violin Concerto(s) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti has long been on my list of favorite recordings, all the more so for making a difficult work intelligible to the listener. Her other recordings have mostly escaped my attention, and I’ve never heard her perform live. Three interesting developments have brought her again to my attention: Decca’s new release of a box set of her recordings, her return to the London stage that first brought her fame, and her regrettable response to an audience coughing fit from that stage. Coverage of the last two news items has been provided by Norman Lebrecht at his website Slipped Disc. I’ve linked to Lebrecht twice in the past, but he’s not on my blogroll because he writes deplorable clickbait headlines. I appreciate his work aggregating classical music news, which is mostly about personnel (hiring and firing), but his obvious pandering irks me. The incident of the coughing spasm filtering through the audience, however, attracted my attention independent of the individuals involved. Commentary at Slipped Disc runs the gamut from “she was right to respond” to “an artist should never acknowledge the public in such a manner.” The conflict is irresolvable, of course, but let me opine anyway.

Only a few venues/activities exist where cultured people go to enjoy themselves in the exercise of good manners and taste. The concert hall (classical music, including chamber music and solo recitals but not popular musics) is one such oasis. Charges of snobbery and elitism are commonplace when criticisms of the fine arts come into play, but the mere fact that absolutely anyone can buy a ticket and attend puts the lie to that. Better to focus such coarse thinking on places like golf, country, and suppers clubs that openly exclude nonmembers, typically on the basis of nonpayment of onerous membership fees. Other bases for exclusion I will leave alone. (The supposition that sophistication accompanies wealth is absurd, as anyone having acquaintance with such places can attest.) I note, too, that democratization of everything has brought more access to fine arts to everyone — but at a cost, namely, the manners and self-control needed for the audience space to function effectively has eroded in the last few decades.

Is has been said that all arts aspire to the condition of music, with its unity of subject matter and form that fosters direct connection to the emotions. As such, the concert artist (and ensembles) in the best case scenario casts an emotional spell over audiences. In response, audiences cannot sit in stony silence but should be emotionally open and engaged. Distractions, whether visual or aural, unavoidably dispel the tone established in performance, no matter if they happen to occur during the brief interval between movements rather than during performance. A noisy, extended interval where the audience coughed, fidgeted, and otherwise rearranged itself reportedly occurred after the first movement of a Mozart sonata performed by Kyung Wha Chung, and she was irritated enough to respond indelicately by upbraiding the parent of a child, the child unfortunately being among the last to be heard coughing. As a result, there was a palpable tension in the room that didn’t wear off, not unlike when an audience turns on a performer.

Audience disruption at concerts is not at all unusual; in some estimations, lack of decorum has only increased over the years. My first memory of a concert being temporarily derailed by the audience was in the middle 1980s. So now the arguments are flying back and forth, such as that the audience pays to see/hear what’s offered onstage and the artist has no business complaining. Another goes that the artist should be operating on a lofty aesthetic plane that would disallow notice-taking of audience behavior. (Miles Davis is renowned and sometimes reviled for having often turned his back to the audience in performance.) Both quite miss the point that it is precisely an emotional circuit among composer (or by proxy, the composer’s work), performer, and audience that makes the endeavor worthwhile. Excellence in composition and performance are requirements, and so too is the thoughtful contribution of the audience to close the circuit. Suggestions that boorish behavior by audiences is irrelevant fail to account for the sensitivity needed among all parties to make the endeavor effective.

It happens that I gave a solo recital a few months ago, my first in more than a decade. I am by no means an artist anywhere near the accomplishment of Kyung Wha Chung (few are, frankly), but I rely on audience response the same as any performer. My first surprise was the number of no-shows among my friends and peers who had confirmed their attendance. Then, after the completion of the first four-movement sonata, the audience sat silently, not making a peep. It fell to me to respond, to invite applause, to overcome the anxiety in the room regarding the proper way to act. (Clapping between movements is not customary, and clumsy audiences who clap in the wrong places have sometimes been shushed, so I surmised there was fear about when applause was supposed to happen.) Further, due to the awkwardness of the performance space (only one place the piano would fit), three latecomers (35+ min. into the performance) paraded right past me, between movements, to get seated. I was affected by these surprises but tried to take them in stride. Still, it’s fair to say my concentration was more than a little rattled. So I have some sympathy for any performer whose audience behaves unpredictably.

At the extremes, there are artists whose performance style is deep concentration or a nearly hypnotic state where even small disruptions take them out of the moment, whereas others can continue unimpeded through an air raid. No one-size-fits-all solution exists, of course, and in hindsight, it’s always possible to imagine better ways to respond to setbacks. However, I cannot join in the side of the debate that condemns Kyung Wha Chung, however regrettable her response was.

While I’m on the subject of music, here is an interesting passage by Nietzsche, quoted in The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. I’m rereading the final two chapters in preparation for a series of blog posts.

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics in McGilchrist]

This passage comes from Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (German: Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister), published in 1878. Hindsight makes this passage especially prophetic. McGilchrist discusses how universal elements of music (e.g., melody, harmony, and tonality) have been systematically undercut and reduced to either their essences or to nonexistence. Consonance and dissonance no longer function as aesthetic anchors. This is especially true in art music, but it’s also visible in popular musics that have captured the hearts and minds of the masses; and nowhere is it more evident than in rap music, which strips away everything but the rhythm and relies on text for explicit meaning.

What all this means is found in the italics above: the symbolic replaces that which exists. We are in the process of replacing actuality (or reality) with our mental images of it, which I call living in our heads. Some readers might recognize the issue more readily from discussions of the map and territory. As just one simple example, I happened to catch part of an episode of The Voice, described by Wikipedia as “an American reality television singing competition.” (I saw picture and captioning only, no sound.) Significantly, use of the word reality is understood by audiences as a TV genre, certainly not as, well, reality. I noticed that contestants (competitors? singers?) had their ears plugged with playback devices, which is what I had criticized in my previous post. Not only was there no natural, unmediated sound reaching their ears, the experience of singing with one’s ears plugged is also altered fundamentally. Singing is no longer what it is.

Update: I can’t resist adding this further example.

Something caught my eye this week as I was surfing around, this time from a mostly abandoned classical music criticism blog I used to read (with some frustration). I reproduce in full a post called “Top Ten Music School Rankings” because it’s content-lite (perhaps not original to the blog):

10. The school where you did your undergrad.
9. The school where you got your Master’s, and to which you are indebted for the gigs it helped you get to pay off the student loans for the school where you did your undergrad.
8. The place where you wrote your DMA dissertation on your teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s pedagogical methods (or lack thereof).
7. Juellerd. Julleard? Julliard. Jewelyard? Whatever.
6. Harvard.
5. The place you wanted to go for undergrad, but you fracked one single note in one single excerpt and then you panicked and broke down and called the trumpet professor “Dad” and then Dave got in even though he couldn’t play Petrushka in time and he’s always been kind of a dick about it and now he’s subbing like every weekend in the fucking BSO.
4. Royal Something of Great British Academy I think? I hear they never let Americans in. Or maybe that’s the other one?
3. The school that everybody knows isn’t as good as the school where you did your undergrad, but is “up-and coming.” Featuring a lauded entrepreneurship initiative that trains barista skills at one of the three coffee shops housed in its new state-of-the-art building, named for an alumnus of the university’s business school currently facing indictment for fraud.
2. University of Phoenix.
1. The school that has paid to have this list promoted on Facebook.

It’s funny (I guess) in ways that register mostly on music school grads, whose experiences and concerns over musical minutiae diverge from the mass of college graduates who majored in business, English, or any number of professional studies (premed, prelaw, journalism) that lead more consistently to employment in those professions. (Music school, BTW, is an unacknowledged type of trade school.) But the jokes are also somewhat ghoulish in ways that are becoming increasingly familiar to everyone seeking employment after completion of the formal phase of education. Mentions of Univ. of Phoenix and Facebook ought to be struck from this particular list except that they’re too emblematic of the systemic fraud that now passes for higher education. So it was curious to read, after the hooting and self-recognition in the comments section, a veritable cry in the wilderness:

I graduated from Oberlin, Michigan and Wisconsin and am currently a custodian in an apartment complex. I even won the concerto competition at 2 of the 3 schools and am in debt up to my eyeballs. I wish music schools would emphasize alternatives in the field of music, offer apprenticeships and internships and even require students to double major or double on a secondary “gig” instrument, so they could do well in the field.

Despite robust demand for education in performance fields (e.g., music, dance, acting) and other fine arts, there have never been waiting jobs anywhere close to the number of (presumably skilled) graduates churned out by schools. Obviously, one can invert the supply-demand nomenclature to oversupply of skilled performance labor vs. minimal market demand for those skills. Offering such degrees by every second- and third-tier school is undoubtedly a money-making enterprise but is nonetheless tantamount to intellectual dishonesty of a type distinct from what I blogged about here. Faculty and administrators are certainly hip to the fact that they’re often selling a bill of goods. After all, they’re paid for that expertise. This is why some parents (and some professors, too) do everything in their power to discourage students from pursuing performance studies, but to little avail as enrollments and selectivity continue to rise even if skill levels and accomplishment don’t.

As the “debt up to my eyeballs” comment above exemplifies, the cost of higher education has mounted far faster than inflation, and crushing student debt (unlikely to ever be repaid) now accompanies attendance at most top-tier schools except perhaps to trust-fund students. And even those top-tier schools find it difficult to deliver graduates into waiting jobs. It’s not that no one gets employed, mind you; it’s just that majoring in performance studies of one sort or another is akin to (essentially) majoring in football or basketball with dreams of joining the NFL or NBA after school. The numbers don’t bode well for graduates without extraordinary talent and/or connections, and unlike sports franchises, the arts don’t operate as pure meritocracies. Scoring ability if far more measurable than artistic expression, making it worthwhile to tolerate the misbehavior of thugs and cretins with speed, power, and attitude. I’m still waiting for the meme to establish itself that perhaps the considerable risk of tens of thousands of dollars in debt to attend music school is not worth the reward. This would clearly be a case of “do as I say, not as I do,” as careful readers of this blog must surmise by now that I, too, went to music school, though some while back before tuition hikes put it out of reach for me.

Anodyne Arts

Posted: June 2, 2013 in Artistry, Classical Music, Music, Taste
Tags: ,

Critics have complained for centuries that the arts are exhausted, much like the cultures surrounding them. One of the principal complainers was German philosopher and historian Oswald Spengler, whose 1918-1922 history in two volumes, The Decline of the West, was once widely read and discussed. Its abject pessimism is still controversial. More specific to music, Virgil Thomson was another well-known critic whose 1939 book/screed The State of Music takes unflinching account of art music (as opposed to popular music and jazz, which were still then developing) while suggesting a proper role for the artist/musician in society. Why do I cite works of two early 20th-century critics? Because the declinist argument is old, and to those uncritically subscribed to the myth of progress, more than a little difficult to justify considering what’s transpired in the interim. Material progress across the past century is pretty much beyond argument, and plenty of new artistic genres have emerged and fallen away in that time; but I believe Spengler and Thomson, among others, are really discussing the social, cultural, and spiritual realms, which might be best understood as embodied in artistic expression. The nostalic frame may be at work no less than when Hesiod described the Five Ages of Man in the 8th century BCE, perhaps the first citation of a fantastic Golden Age that must yield eventually to degradation. Still, to a congenital pessimist and recondite fatalist like me, Cassandra’s wail reaches sympathetic ears. I want to offer my take on what I call the anodyne arts, which won’t be nearly as writerly (witty, searing, and quotable) as Thomson or as erudite as Spengler, the latter of whom was prone to dropping math equations, proper names, and untranslated Latin and Greek into his arguments with the tacit expectation that his audience, educated readers, would not be unprepared. I will adopt that perspective to a degree, trusting that my minuscule readership may already be aware of my own themes and some portion of the subject I mean to critique: classical music performance.


There are lots of ways to describe a largely unnoticed continuum between winning dirty and losing clean. In many human endeavors, the righteous and virtuous are exhorted to remain above the fray, to exhibit nobility and purity in pursuit of ambitions, and to forego wallowing in the dirty, low end of the behavioral spectrum where one’s image (or self-image) may be tarnished. Even momentary lapses, such as calling someone a bad name in a fit of pique, are damning. Folks have lost their livelihoods over less (not just talk radio jocks). Meanwhile, those without guile or compunction (including talk radio jocks) operate under far more liberal restrictions — or none at all. At the extreme low end are criminals and psychopaths, though they often masquerade as good citizens and captains of industry while their dirt remains hidden from view. The difference between winning and losing positions on the continuum need not be very wide, but it should be easily observable that fortune — if not respectability — favors the wicked amongst us.

Take, for instance, one of the poster boys for badness: Genghis Khan. His name is synonymous with raping, pillaging, plundering, and marauding, yet his influence on history and genetic legacy are legion. One has to assume, however, that human motivations exceed mere biological urges, meaning that spreading one’s seed widely and using force/violence to achieve one’s aims (typically gathering material wealth but not always) at the cost of infamy can be tempered with the rational mind and a civilized moral center. In actuality, that’s a sizable assumption not borne out too well in human experience.

Sullying oneself in the process of achievement is commonplace with the political attack ad. Almost everyone agrees they would rather see another way of doing things, just like the utterly corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet the obvious effectiveness and utility of attacking one’s adversary and/or currying favor and influence through campaign donations have forestalled reform entirely. Someone made the astute assessment that to swim with the sharks or share in the lion’s spoils, one must first become the monster shark or lion, both of which are top predators. Pure, above-the-fray competitors barely even register. Similarly, reality TV encourages all varieties of fame whores to exploit themselves and lose respectability but gain notoriety and exposure. The underlying bargain is clear: sell your soul for reward, often a handsome one, unless you fail to go heavy and hard enough to make the necessary impression and are subsequently discarded or ignored in favor of some other contestant willing to do their utmost. How else can vapid, talentless idiots (names withheld, but several leap to mind) parade their lunatic antics so successfully before audiences?

What puzzles me most of all, however, is how the notion of cleanliness being close to godliness has lodged itself within several unlikely institutions and ironically ruined them in the name of purity. For me, the most egregious example is the arts. To be great, which may not be the same as being successful, artists must balance a variety of internal impulses and external influences to create something expressive and meaningful. Swing too far toward a merely salacious sensibility and the audience is offended at being goosed and thus driven away. Swing the opposite direction by sanitizing the work too completely and the audience is still driven away, though out of indifference rather than offense.

My personal frustration with soulless, expressionless art goes to the professional ranks of classical musicians in Chicago. In concert after concert, ensemble after ensemble, soloist after soloist, I continue to hear performance (recreating a work through performance being tantamount to creating it in many respects) that is respectable, accomplished, sometimes even expertly executed, yet unaccountably remote and without affect. It’s a little like meat selections at the grocery: drained of blood, guts ground finely into paste (or pink slime), and all wrapped in cellophane to render the final presentation prior to purchase completely cut off from the living source, which is obviously the body and flesh of the animal. After all, never get any on ya!

More specifically, I gave up my subscription to the Lyric Opera, haven’t heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra live in years, and been completely underwhelmed by the Grant Park Symphony, Ars Viva Orchestra, and Lake Forest Symphony. They all play with the energy and enthusiasm of a morgue. But it wasn’t always so. The CSO in particular has a rich history of recordings that often exhibit crunchy, idiosyncratic approaches to the music. But every performance I’ve been to over the past decade has failed to launch. Nothing is ever wrong, really, but it’s all just so sanitary, despite still being ferociously loud at times (big deal! who cares?). When on occasion I’ve heard CSO members step out as soloists with other ensembles, the approach has always been scrupulously safe: secure all the notes but take no risks. But music isn’t about note counting, which the expert practitioners seem to have lost sight of. In a puzzling inversion of the games played by politicians, to get the job, musicians must become performing machines. But to do the job effectively, they gotta get a little bit on them, which is to say, be willing to get dirty. Instead, they focus on clean and tidy but lose in the process, making the whole experience exasperatingly inert.