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Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise

Alex Ross Will Robin’s Industry

I’ve known Will Robin since his sophomore year in college, when he asked me to sign a copy of The Rest Is Noise at an event in Chicago. That summer he asked if he could do any work for me as an assistant; he ended up helping me hugely with Listen to This, my second book, and with the early stages of Wagnerism. In the ensuing decade, as I continued to grind away on the same book, Will went to graduate school, became an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, married, fathered an adorable baby boy, and completed his own first book. He’s become a valued colleague and a close friend; I now feel I learn more from him than he does from me. All this by way of saying that I feel personal joy at the arrival of Industry: Bang on a Can and New Music in the Marketplace, which Oxford University Press publishes today. At its heart, Industry is the story of the emergence and evolution Bang on Can ensemble, but it goes much wider, examining the struggles within new music to find a footing as the mentality of the Reagan era dismantled arts funding. There were gains and losses in the course of that evolution, and despite his close contact with the Bang on a Can leaders Will doesn’t shy away from delineating compromises with the “gig economy” and other aspects of neoliberal economics. What I find most admirable in the book is the balance it strikes between historical narration and critical analysis: such balance is hard to achieve. Will will have a book launch “at” the 92nd Street Y tonight; he’ll be conversation with my longtime colleague Allan Kozinn, who covered the rise of Bang for the New York Times. The following day, he chats with Anne Midgette. Heartiest congrulations!

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Alex Ross Wild Up’s Darkness Sounding festival

Before dawn in Griffith Park.
Wind Songs. The New Yorker, February 22, 2021.

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Alex Ross Wild Up’s Darkness Sounding festival

Before dawn in Griffith Park.
Wind Songs. The New Yorker, February 22, 2021.

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Alex Ross Du Bois’s Ode to Joy

From Black Reconstruction in America, 1935.

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Alex Ross For Peter G. Davis

Peter G. Davis, the longtime classical critic of New York magazine, has died at the age of eighty-four. He was one of the best and wisest writers ever to practice this odd profession. His knowledge of opera was comprehensive — his 1997 book The American Opera Singer is an essential and absorbing work — but he wrote authoritatively about every aspect of the field. Given his focus on opera, many of his readers wouldn’t have been aware that he studied composition in his youth; that training showed whenever he wrote about new music. He had a marvelous wry sense of humor that gave a playful edge to his often very tart comments about the foibles of musical life. I treasured him as a colleague, even though we never really interacted beyond the aisles of the concert hall and opera house. Particularly when I was a younger critic, I learned vastly from him, and felt a mixture of pride and panic when my installation at The New Yorker led me to be seated behind him at many events. I remember fondly those moments at the Met when, about twenty minutes into a performance that was veering toward disaster, he would incline his head ever so slightly in my direction, with an unmistakable signal of “Oh God, here we go.” I feel much the same as when Andrew Porter died: an immense storehouse of experience and perception is suddenly gone.

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Alex Ross Saint Alban Berg Valentine’s Day Massacre

“Life and dream of life — suddenly it’s all over.”
                — Altenberg Lieder
Previously: An Alban Berg Valentine, Another Alban Berg Valentine, Yet Another Alban Berg Valentine, Return of Alban Berg Valentine, Nothing says forever like an Alban Berg Valentine, Alban Berg Valentine (10th anniversary edition), Alban Berg Valentine (2017 edition), Will you be my Alban Berg Valentine?, Eternity, by Alban Berg Valentine, My Bloody Alban Berg Valentine.

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Alex Ross A Marcel Dupré moment

Lew Williams 1 · Marcel Dupré, Final Improvisation 5 – 30 – 71
The great organist-composer’s final improvisation, on May 30, 1971, at St. Sulpice, in Paris. He died later that day, at his home in Meudon. He was eighty-five. 

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Alex Ross Nightafternight playlist

New and recent recordings of interest.
— Salieri, Armida; Lenneke Ruiten, Florie Valiquette, Teresa Iervolino, Ashley Riches, Christophe Rousset conducting Les Talens Lyriques and Choeur de chambre de Namur (Aparte)
— Josquin, The Golden Renaissance: Missa Pange lingua and other works; Stile Antico (Decca)
— Saunders, Solo works; Klangforum Wien (Kairos)
— George Lewis, The Recombinant Trilogy; Claire Chase, Levy Lorenzo, Seth Parker Woods, Dana Jessen, Eli Stine (New Focus)
— Beethoven, Symphony No. 9; Manfred Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony, with Christina Landshamer, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Werner Güra, Shenyang, and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (Reference)
— Catherine Lamb, Muto Infinitas; Rebecca Lane, Jon Heilbron (another timbre)
— Stanchinsky, Sonata in E-flat minor and other works; Peter Jablonski (Ondine)
— And the sun darkened: Music for Passiontide; New York Polyphony (BIS)
— Dreams of a New Day: songs of Henry Burleigh, Margaret Bonds, Shawn Okpebholo, Robert Owens; Will Liverman, Paul Sánchez (Cedille)

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Alex Ross Tarkovsky footnotes

Screen Shot 2020-12-07 at 10.30.59 AM

Screen Shot 2020-12-07 at 10.30.59 AM

Pendulum

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The Icon-Maker. The New Yorker, Feb. 15 and 22, 2021.

This is a piece I first started writing in 1993, on the occasion of the American publication of Andrei Tarkovsky’s diaries, and then set aside. The year 2020 felt like the right time to resume. I first saw the director’s films at the Harvard Film Archive in the late 1980s, when the indomitable Vlada Petric was in charge of the programming. I revisited them mainly by way of the Criterion Collection, which has crisp and richly supplemented editions of Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker. The Ivan issue throws in Tarkovsky’s elegant VGIK graduation film, The Steamroller and the Violin. (Two earlier student films, The Killers and There Will Be No Leave Today, circulate on YouTube, although only the true obsessive will glean much from them.) A new restoration of Mirror is now streaming from Film at Lincoln Center. Kino Lorber has reissued Nostalghia and Sacrifice. If you have a subscription to Criterion Channel, you can not only see Ivan, Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker but also explore the work of Tarkovsky’s Soviet-era colleagues: some highlights are Mikhail Kalatozov’s pathbreaking The Cranes Are Flying; Larissa Shepitko’s spellbinding WWII film The Ascent; Sergei Parajanov’s wildly imaginative The Color of Pomegranates; and Elem Klimov’s Come and See, a war film of shocking and crushing power.

The Tarkovsky literature is considerable. The essential book is Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie’s The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue (Indiana UP, 1994). It is valuable both for its keen, clear-eyed analysis and for its fastidious summaries of the films, which shed much light on their more oblique passages. Another excellent starting point is Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Vintage, 2012), which bores deep into the riddles of Stalker. Tarkovsky’s two published books, Sculpting in Time and Time after Time: The Diaries, are mesmerizing on every page, even if certain of the director’s grandiose musings on time and fate grow stale on re-reading. Both are translated by Kitty-Hunter-Blair. (Incidentally, this blog’s inaugural entry, posted back in 2004, came from the diaries: “I have four razors and a dictaphone.”) In 2004, Thames & Hudson published Instant Light, a collection of Tarkovsky’s Polaroids, which are, inevitably, more mysterious and stupendous than anyone else’s Polaroids. John Gianvito has edited a compendium of Tarkovsky interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2006).

I also consulted Mark Le Fanu’s The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (BFI, 1987); Marina Tarkovskaya’s About Andrei Tarkovsky (Progress Publishers, 1990); Peter Green’s Andrei Tarkovsky: The Winding Quest (Macmillan, 1993); Natasha Synessios’s Mirror (Tauris, 2001); Robert Bird’s Andrei Rublev (BFI, 2004); Gunnlaugur A. Jónsson and Thorkell Á. Óttarsson’s essay collection Through the Mirror Reflections on the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky (Cambridge Scholar Press, 2006); Nathan Dunne’s lavishly illustrated anthology Tarkovsky (Black Dog, 2008); Robert Bird’s Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (Reaktion, 2008); Nariman Skakov’s The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky: Labyrinths of Space and Time (Tauris, 2012); Phoebe Pua’s Compositions of Crisis: Sound and Silence in the Films of Bergman and Tarkovsky (Ph.D. diss., Australian National University, 2013); Tobias Pontara’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sounding Cinema: Music and Meaning from “Solaris” to “The Sacrifice” (Routledge, 2019); and, just out from Edinburgh University Press, Sergey Toymentsev’s anthology ReFocus: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky.

Other useful sources were Gilles Deleuze’s commentaries in Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Caleta (University of Minnesota Press, 1989); P. Adams Sitney’s The Cinema of Poetry (Oxford, 2014); Steven Dillon’s The Solaris Effect: Art and Artifice in Contemporary American Film (University of Texas Press, 2006); Peter Green’s “Apocalypse and Sacrifice,” Sight and Sound 56:2 (1987), pp. 111–18; Roger Hilman’s “Tarkovsky’s Odes to . . . Joy?,” Slavic and East European Performance 17:3 (1997), pp. 30–36; Boris Natanovich Strugatsky and Erik Simon’s “Working for Tarkovsky,” Science Fiction Studies 31:3 (2004), pp. 418–20; Robert Bryan’s “Lighting Boris Godunov with Andrei Tarkovsky,” Opera Quarterly 26:1 (2010), pp. 122–28; and John A. Riley’s “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker,” Journal of Film and Video 69:1 (2017), pp. 18–26. An especially fascinating document is Stan Brakhage’s “Brakhage Meets Tarkovsky,” Chicago Review 47/48 (2001–2002), pp. 42–46, which describes Tarkovsky’s almost comically rude response to the great experimental filmmaker. One of the most haunting pieces ever written about the director is Robert Bird’s “The Omens: Tarkovsky, Sacrifice, Cancer,” which Apparatus published last year. I knew Robert over e-mail and was planning to reach out to him as I set to work on this article. I was saddened to discover that he had died in September, at the age of fifty.

I frequently visited the Nostalghia website, whose trove of Tarkovskiana includes passages from the diaries that are not available in the standard English edition. I also browsed a cache of YouTube videos uploaded by Charles M. Here you can see various interviews with the director, behind-the-scenes footage, documentaries in several languages, a glimpse of Tarkovsky’s funeral, his occasional acting appearances, and interviews with his associates. Among the oddities on offer is a snippet of film showing Tarkovsky touring Monument Valley in 1983. This was his only American visit, the result of an invitation from the Telluride Film Festival. That appearance went poorly, with Tarkovsky’s haughty strictures against Hollywood alienating American filmmakers and inspiring a protest from none other than Richard Widmark. In 2008, Jim Emerson wrote an amusing account of the brouhaha for Roger Ebert’s blog.

Tarkovsky has a potent appeal among musicians and composers. When I interviewed Alfred Schnittke in 1994, I couldn’t resist asking about his great contemporary. Schnittke said: “Unfortunately I never worked with him. I would be happy if that were true, if that had actually happened. It had been a dream of ours, but it never actually happened.” Toru Takemitsu, Luigi Nono, Gyorgy Kurtág, Wolfgang Rihm, and Beat Furrer all wrote works in Tarkovsky’s memory; Claudio Abbado presented four of those pieces at a Wien Modern concert in 1991 and recorded them for DG. Paul Griffiths reviewed the disc insightfully for the New York Times. It was Abbado who enticed Tarkovsky into the opera house, for a production of Boris Godunov at Covent Garden in 1983. The staging was later re-created at the Mariinsky and released on video, though its impact was diminished in the process. The most potent image is a pendulum that swings at the back of the stage in several scenes; when I saw it, I thought of the swinging censer in Andrei Rublev (see the third freeze frame above). At the time of his death, Tarkovsky was preparing to return to opera, again at Covent Garden. The piece? Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.

Much thanks to Anya Kordunsky, Daniel Zalewski, David Remnick, Nico Chapin, Vida Johnson, and Mikhail Ratgauz.

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