Zachary Woolfe can review me anytime

Here are a few gems from what Mr. Woolfe has to say about soprano Maria Guleghina in the Met’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco:

…the fire of wackiness still burns at the Met, lonely but bright, in the person of Maria Guleghina

It is somehow reassuring to see that Abigaille’s [Ms. Guleghina’s character] garishly iridescent off-the-shoulder dresses have stayed in fashion in the production’s ancient Babylon, and that at least one singer remains who relishes a long, luscious scene with an incriminating document, inhaling the paper deeply before folding it, ever so slowly, and securing it in her bosom.

Ms. Guleghina plays by old-school diva rules: find a way to caress any statue onstage and always keep your arms outstretched at climaxes. It is worth getting to the Met if only to see her gather an enemy army’s swords, march stoutly to stage right and casually toss them into the wings like so much bathwater.

And then this:

Her singing was rather beside the point.

Of course.  As singing usually is when you go to the opera.  I don’t expect “smooth, elegant phrasing, and clean ornamentation and pitch” from the singers in the operas I attend.  What a crude, unsophisticated approach to the artform that would be! 

And, let me tell you, I relish nothing more than I relish the costumes and the physical gestures made by the performers when I listen to my CD recordings of opera.


Here I’ve naively been worrying (when I give my own recitals) about performance issues like accuracy, structurally/harmonically informed expressivity, etc.  Apparently, all I really need to do is wear the right clothes and make the right physical gestures.


7 Responses to “Zachary Woolfe can review me anytime”

  1. 1 Another Matt
    October 4, 2011 at 1:02 am

    Hello to the author: did we have a conversation about Schenker and the perception of time on another website?

    • 3 Another Matt
      October 6, 2011 at 2:00 pm

      Good! This ended up being a longer reply than I thought; sorry about that.

      You had asked me a question about Louis and Thuille — we had been talking about how tonality was predicated on the overtone series, and you suggested the idea that the diatonic is exhausted by the tonic, dominant, and subdominant triads, i.e. triads related by fifths (and I assume the concepts of octave equivalence, triad, and fifth as “harmonic step” to also be implied by the overtone series). I’ll agree there’s something to it, but only so long as we also agree that it’s not at all the only thing in tonality – tonality emerges from the convergence of many constraints, only a subset of which are acoustic.

      For instance, the stacking-of-triads process you described gives you 7 pitch-classes per diatonic scale. Yet another way of looking at the diatonic collection is as a stack of fifths; these three ways of looking at it (stack of fifths, three adjoined triads, or scale) are absolutely crucial to any kind of hierarchization of the space and of individual events, and it happens optimally when the collection size is a prime number. The fact that it’s a prime number is what allows you to “take a pitch, skip one, take one, skip one, take one” from any pitch to get a different triad from the scale. The Louis-Thuille setup, which is very similar to the German dualist approach of Hauptmann and Riemann, is an ordering of the diatonic in different sizes of thirds (and you can order it in fifths and in seconds as I suggested above). You couldn’t do this with a 6-pitch scale because there are only two triads, unless you allow adjacent pitches to be harmonic. Schenker’s Stufen depends upon there being a certain number of pitches such that it can be ordered in at least three consistent ways like this (a 9-note scale has this property as well).

      So imagine for a moment that you took the first seven partials as your harmonic basis. Then you’d have a “dominant seventh” as your primary harmony, but if you applied the Louis-Thuille setup on it, you’d find that you end up with 10 pitches to make the scale, and 10 pitches can’t create three separate cycles, so there’s no way to find a scale, an interlocking ordering of triads, AND an ordering from a generating interval. This is one reason why there has never been as rich a system invented for seventh chords as for triads – it’s not acoustics so much as that it’s hard to find a tonal space that has voice-leadings and hierarchizations that work.

      There are many other ways you could go — you could set up a “double Louis-Thuille” system where you put two triads above and below the tonic, resulting in an 11-pitch scale that you could situate in a 19-tone universe (the scale itself would not go straight up, though — you’d have stretches that went like E-F#-F-G). Anyway, lots more “tonal” voice-leading situations can work, but either they will be different harmonically (possibly with no correlation to the overtone series), or microtonal, or have a non-octave interval of equivalence, or some combination of them.

      My point is that tonality is this really nice convergence of acoustics and structure, and if you try to disentangle them to extend it in another direction, you’re likely to lose one or the other things. This isn’t a bad thing at all (else we wouldn’t have Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, Schoenberg, Berg, etc.). It just produces different structures and sounds.

      Sorry for the long reply – it deserved something more than what I could give in the other place.

      • October 7, 2011 at 1:58 am

        Oh, you can go ahead and call that “other place” WEIT (although I appreciate the consideration. And length is not a problem. So few of my performer colleagues are into this kind of thing (which I really can’t understand – this is what music is!). I rarely have conversations like this.

        I’ll have to admit upfront that, for me, we’re beginning to enter armchair territory. I’ve read a fair bit of tonal theory, and feel I can make some reasonable extrapolations therefrom, but I haven’t read so much from recent authors. Perhaps you can direct me to some literature that deals with the other, complementary derivations of tonality that you suggest.

        I’ll certainly grant that tonality is an emergent phenomenon, and that a complete explanation will have to take more into account than what is provided for by Louis and Thuille’s idea. But the reductionist in me sees the overtone series as tonality’s ultimate progenitor.

        I can see the points you’re making about the richer possibilities inherent in collections containing a prime number of pitches. I wonder, though, if this fact should really be classified as being a source of tonality.

        It seems to me that once you derive a triad, most of the work toward establishing tonality is done. Schenker’s idea was that a piece of tonal music is an elaboration of one triad. The triad, I think we can say with a good deal of certainty, is derived from the overtone series – the fundamental, the second partial, and the fourth partial. I think the overtones series stops being useful in this way, however, at the fourth or fifth partial. We can hear those first few partials when a pitch is sounded. This is an important principle in organbuilding. Pipes belonging to a stop called “quintadena” are constructed so as to accentuate the second partial. The importance of the fifth is, it seems, borne out by ethnomusicology.

        But I think our ability to perceive individual partials rapidly tapers after the fourth partial, and so, the more distant overtones bear less on our perception of a pitch (that is not to say they don’t contribute to a timbre – they just don’t have enough “perceptual currency” to establish relationships the way the first few partials do). I make this point because I don’t think the seventh chord is derived from the overtone series. The fifth, it seems to me, really is (as Schenker called it) a boundary interval. Any chord containing intervals exceding that of the fifth can be explained as either an inversion or as having members that are contrapuntally derived. Additionally, the sixth partial doesn’t actually map onto what we would consider the interval of a seventh. And further yet, the triad is not achieved by piling up thirds (take one, skip one, etc). We therefore can’t apply that fallacious process and say we’ve acheived a “seventh chord,” or “ninth chord.” This probably has more to do with why there isn’t as rich a system for seventh chords as there is for triads. Triads are it! People are trying to force the idea of discrete chords including intervals beyond the fifth, and then trying to apply what we do with triads to those chords.

        I could probably say a few more things, but they’re about to kick me out of my office to lock up now. Please feel free to reply!

  2. October 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    I think this the last part was supposed to be a negative comment about her singing and maybe a sarcastic review?

    • October 10, 2011 at 8:44 pm

      Well, it’s certainly true that many “hipster-ish” critics think sarcasm can substitute for carfully considered argument. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Take this quote:

      What the Met lacks is the larger-than-life hysterical edge — the fun, kooky charm; the possibility of the unexpected — that drew many fans to the art form in the first place

      Woolfe is being sincere. Or at least he thinks is. Very many people are under the impression that simply asserting something seemingly counter-intuitive means you’re being profound, or that you have insights most other, regular schmoes, don’t.

      Hence: “Her singing was rather beside the point.”

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