Viet Cuong, Moth

For at least a few more days you can stream Moth, by classical composer Viet Cuong, performed, at the Midwest Band Clinic, by the Brooklyn Wind Symphony conducted by Jeff Ball, on Performance Today.  It is also available, probably more permanently, at his website and on his Soundcloud page.  I like the piece a lot.  The performance is excellent, really remarkable for an all-volunteer ensemble.  The style is fairly modern for PT, which is to say it is, roughly, in the idiom of tonal Western classical music from the 1920s and 1930s, with perhaps a smidgin of minimalism.  At first listen I thought it made clear use of the language of Stravinksy, especially Petrouchka and Le Sacre du Printemps, as well as of something resembling the post-Stravinsky and neoclassical phase of the 1930s, say, Milhaud, Poulenc, Constant Lambert, but without descending into pastiche.  On my second listen, with better sound, I was a bit taken aback by what I perceive as strong influence from Le Sacre, both in form and in content.   I am less startled by that after further listens.  Form-wise, it intersperses sections with ostinato, theme repetition (certainly key ingredients of Sacre), and other tension building devices (like modulation, especially stepwise upward modulation, which I don't think are found much in Sacre), with more pensive interludes, often tinged with a minor feel.  Just that kind of alternation is a main structural principal of Sacre.  As my references to neoclassicism and modulation above might suggest, there's somewhat more standard tonal content in Cuong's piece, thought it also has very strong Stravinsky-like "modal" or scalar elements, and occasional vaguely Iberian-sounding moments.  (As an aside, just thinking about harmony in Le Sacre makes me wonder if there is any standard dominant-to-tonic resolution at all in the piece---I think not, or not much.)

Cuong knows how to recombine and play with motives, scales, harmonic tropes and other elements to create interest, unify the piece and move things along in a satisfying way.  He shows this from the outset, with a clever motive consisting of a rising and descending scalar figure, played against a similar but inverted figure (or perhaps they are both fragments of the same extended figure that they evolve into, running up and down on flute, changing direction at different pitches), then relaxing into some Iberian-ish sounds.  At 1:30 we get melodic material very reminiscent of Le Sacre, and around 2:10, I think, the first hint of a four-note figure, which one might notate 3 4 2 1 in minor, also very reminiscent of Sacre (indeed it is very close---and would be identical if the last two notes were interchanged---to the initial four notes of a motive, 3 4 1 2 3 1 in minor with the last two notes twice as long as the preceding four, found in Sacre) that will become increasingly important.  Much of this material is developed and cleverly  combined through what sound to me like various key changes.  Around 3:30 things get more urgent, drums, with ostinato and repetition, especially of the four-note theme, and rising modulation.  (I wonder if there is some influence of John Adams' Harmonielehre here; I am reminded of it, but haven't listened to the Adams piece recently enough to tell.  Or maybe I should just can the speculation about influence.)  Around 4:10, quickly peak tension gives way to a mellow contrapuntal woodwind interlude, and there follows a long stretch with some alternation of faster and more complex passages, building a bit more each time, with pullbacks to this sort of mellowness.  Around 6:30 things seem to get more organized for a final buildup.  The ending, with an upward brass gliss emerging out of the ensemble to a momentarily held note, and then a sudden drop to tympani-punctuated chord, reminds me a little bit of Le Sacre too.

The program for this piece seems to be the gyrating flight of a moth before, and eventual immolation in, a flame, which is also in obvious parallel with Le Sacre's program, of a virgin obliged to dance herself to death in a pagan rite.  So I suspect the structural and idiomatic parallels to Le Sacre are no accident, although the overall tone is much lighter, and at 8'38 in this performance, the piece is of course much shorter.  I interpret these parallels, especially as dextrously integrated with harmonic movement at times quite uncharacteristic of Le Sacre, as a bit of a cheeky and light-hearted tour-de-force of compositional virtuosity.  The thematic material does have interest, but might be a little more on the generic side than ideal in places.  That is not really a problem in this piece.   I enjoyed some of the other pieces on his site but did find some of them a bit lacking in gripping melody.  Sound and Smoke I and II sound tailor-made for something like a fantasy movie soundtrack, and are extremely well done.  Part I sounds just as you might think from the subtitle "feudal castle lights", while Part II I found more distinctive.  I have a feeling that with some even stronger melodic material, perhaps some passages with some longer more sustained lines, Cuong could be really dangerous.  Hopefully Cuong will come up with more gripping melodic material in whatever way is necessary, whether from moments of personal inspiration or by ripping it off with exquisite taste à la Stravinsky if necessary.  (I exaggerate, Stravinsky fans... peace, I am one of you.)  Some of Cuong's other pieces show ability in more contemporary idioms.  He is only 24, a graduate student in composition at Princeton.  He is clearly getting a lot of recognition, as the list of awards, commissions, and performances on his webpage shows.  So he probably has a good career assured.  I hope he has his sights fixed on greatness; I'll be very interested to see what comes next.

Bonus:  On that December 12 PT stream, available for a few more days, the Brahms serenade (end of the 2nd hour) performed by the Sinfonia da Camera, if played on a good stereo, is magic.  (On first hearing through a cheap radio I was unimpressed.  Maybe it is all about the bass, although I think an undistorted treble helps too.)

Free concert in NYC: The Bad Plus play the Rite of Spring

For readers, if any, in New York City today, definitely check out jazz trio The Bad Plus playing their arrangement, "On Sacred Ground", of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  It's free and outdoors at Lincoln Center at 8:30 PM.  The Brandt Brandauer Frick ensemble, with which I am not familar, opens at 7:30.

If you're wondering to expect, at WBGO's The Checkout you can stream a recording of the whole thing, as well as their radio show on the piece.  TBP pianist Ethan Iverson discusses piano arrangements, transcriptions, and reworkings of the Rite here.

More on upcoming doings by TBP and some of its members here.

I am in New Mexico, so unfortunately won't be able to attend.  I will be going to Rossini's Maometto II at the Santa Fe Opera. Report to follow.


Into Africa

It's always romantic and exciting to travel to a continent I've never been to before.  Even in the waiting area at the airport in Atlanta, whence Delta runs a direct flight to Johannesburg, there's a sense of already being partway there: overheard conversations in what must be Afrikaans; in some native African language; in English in an accent that's somehow clearly southern-hemisphere, but not Australian.  People of all the variety of races or ethnicities that  make up South Africa's population.  Blond boys and girls with ruddy-cheeked parents, who have clearly been on Caribbean beach vacations.   Black men who dress, and carry themselves, with a subtly different style from Americans; black African women whose style seems partly derived from traditional dress. Then, ten or so hours and several movies into a thirteen-and-half hour overnight transatlantic marathon flight, to raise the shade on the aircraft window to find oneself crossing the surf-line of the coast of Namibia far below, a few cottony bits of low cloud or fog clinging to the coastline as the sun beats down on them, demarcating the vivid blue of the Atlantic from the coppery sands of the Namibian desert, which displays under the clear blue sky of morning patterns of what look like darker sands and braided washes draining away, it seems, from the treacherousn and almost completely uninhabited Skeleton Coast. Desert summits that are like dark, stepped ziggurats.  Unclear whether the steps are due to sedimentary layering, or basaltic flows.  They remind in some ways of the dark volcanic summits west of Albuquerque, and in the Puerco river basin northwest of it, but the forms are distinct.  Further ranges in duns and reddish browns, flat expanses of sand.  Then an amazing circular formation that must be many miles in diameter, looking like a palisade of slab-like mountains, tilted in toward the center, surrounding a flat central plain.  Is it some kind of collapsed salt formation, like Utah's Upheaval Dome?

The landscape gets less dramatic, reddish dirt sparsely and then less sparsely covered with a green scrub, and a few widely spaced roads show up, first dirt, then even a paved road and a few scattered houses and ranches as we pass northwest of Windhoek, probably just out of sight in a valley beyond a reservoir.  Greener, hillier, but still scrubby as we pass over the border with Botswana, across Botswana just south of the Kalahari, finally sighting the Notwane river far below and then the capital Gaborone, mainly industrial and transport buildings and yards on our side of the airplane, also the large lake created by Gaborone dam.   Not far beyond the river, we cross the border into South Africa.

Descending into Johannesburg, the great township of Soweto just out of sight to the south, or hidden by the scattered clouds, we see mainly nondescript suburbs, a huge football stadium, then as we descend further what could pass for modest suburbs of say, Phoenix, golf courses and parks, fairly comfortable and new-looking neighborhoods, open fields, looking fairly moist and green, traffic on expressways then a wedge of bright African colors, especially blue, that I realize with a jolt is a small collection of painted corrugated iron shacks, here and then gone as the enormous jet touches down, finally, at Oliver Tambo International Airport.

Thrift store LP finds: Albinoni oboe from de Vries, Mozart from Radu Lupu

I've been down a rabbit hole of differential geometry and representation theory, as well as doing some work on a review article with a collaborator lately, so apologies for the posting hiatus.

A quick note on weekend listening: I picked up an EMI/Angel LP (SZ-37802) of Albinoni oboe concertos Nos. 2, 5, 8, and 11 for a buck at a thrift shop. Han de Vries, soloist, with Alma Musica Amsterdam, produced in 1981. Bob van Asperen, harpsichord, is billed just after de Vries, so perhaps this is a harpsichordist-led ensemble.  Very pleasing listening---I got a good copy with very little surface noise and distortion. The sound is reminiscent of 1970s and early 80s Phillips LPs (like the Marriner/ Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Musical Offering)---a slight, but not excessive thinness, but more liquidity and sweetness, good detail and separation of instruments---a reasonable soundstage if not a huge sense of room acoustics.  The music is excellent, not the world's deepest and most intense stuff, but melodic, at times dancing, and very assured writing.  Nothing really breaking out of baroque conventions (although I'm not hugely up on baroque musical history, and Albinoni, along with Vivaldi, Telemann, and Handel, may well have been establishing said conventions here), but very poised and graceful writing, with a lot of low-key melodic interest to lift it well above generic baroque.  Superb playing from oboeist and orchestra both, to my ear.

One of my favorite pianists, Radu Lupu, playing Mozart concertos Nos. 21 in C and 12 with the English Chamber Orchestra and Uri Segal (London LP CS 6894, from 1974) is also sounding great, a slightly noisier copy but no problems with the music.  Another excellent recording job---really good piano tone, a slightly more midrangy balance than the above, to judge by the strings, well-captured bass.   But in general, in the same ballpark of slightly-on-the-lush-side, detailed but sweet sound that some of the major classical labels seem to have locked onto in the late 70s and early 80s, especially with chamber to moderate-sized orchestral ensembles.  Easy to hear what's going in each part of the orchestra, and to separate the soloist from the orchestra.  Is it a natural soundstage, or is the piano closely miked?  Who knows... who cares.  I love Radu Lupu's playing on this.  Relaxed, lyrical, but not exaggeratedly so.  Fantastic touch as always, and sensitivity to nuances in the music.  His work in the brilliant arpeggiated passages is, perhaps surprisingly, as nuanced and singing as the more cantabile passages, and fantastically accurate and rhythmically perfectly placed, while remaining unstrained and natural.  The orchestra is superb and superbly conducted---able to provide drama when needed without excessive Sturm und Drang.  And that's just the first movement of No. 21 so far... now here comes Lupu on the melody of the sublime second movement, Andante... not surprisingly, magic.  Not as heart-on-the-sleeve as some renditions of this classic slow movement can be... but none the less moving for that.  Just beautiful.  (This is some of the deepest and most intense stuff around.)  I've long loved Lupu's Schubert... marveled at his Debussy at a concert in Santa Fe a few years back... and now I'm a big fan of his Mozart.  One of the truly great pianists.

My email

My email address is no longer at Perimeter Institute, since I'm no longer there. My institutional affiliation is with the University of New Mexico, where I'm Adjunct Professor of physics and astronomy. However, the best way to contact me is at the following email address, given in a roundabout way to discourage spam: first part is the first letter of my first name followed by the letter "n" followed by my last name (see top of this blog for my name), and then "@aol". Dot com, of, course. Nothing need be capitalized.

Christina Romer reviews the empirical evidence: fiscal stimulus works

Next time someone tells you that we know fiscal stimulus doesn't work because we tried it and we still have 9% unemployment, hand them a copy of this talk by Christina Romer.  It reviews the evidence that fiscal policy works, and in particular that the ARRA fiscal stimulus helped prevent even higher unemployment than actually occurred.


Grey border removed in WordPress Twenty Eleven


You may have noticed I've upgraded to the current version of WordPress and changed the theme (WordPress' term for the code that governs the layout and appearance of content at a WordPress blog site) to WordPress Twenty Eleven.  The default version of this comes with an annoying grey border around the post.  I've removed it, thanks to the information supplied by "alchymyth" here.

Link to Wikileaks (works for the moment)

Various wimpy organizations, in the US at least, seem to be dumping web hosting and DNS service for wikileaks. Hosting was apparently moved to Switzerland but doesn't work either (no DNS resolution for it either, I guess).

Here's a URL for Wikileaks that works at the moment:

I don't have a carefully considered opinion but my gut reaction is that Wikileaks is doing journalism, and its publication of classified material that it obtains is probably protected.  Some of those in government or the military who supply it with classified material seem likely to be guilty of some crime along the lines of mishandling classified information, but probably not espionage though I haven't read the relevant laws.

Some links of relevance:

The Guardian appears to have the most detail on the sex crime allegations against Assange.

A piece in the Atlantic from a pro-Wikileaks point of view.