Snobs and Slobs

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Here’s a (lightly edited) exchange that took place right after I sent in my “Steve Jobs: the Opera” copy to our Esteemed Editor:

Leebs: Wasn’t Nixon in China weird enough?

LS: Musically Nixon in China was indeed weird. Although it opened new territory, it was still Adams in his Trying To Sound Totally Like Phil Glass period. Nixon does have some boring stretches. Best thing is Alice Goodman’s script, which manages to turn Tricky Dick, Pat, Chou En Lai, Mao, and Madame Mao into flesh-and-blood, interesting humans. The only clownish sub-human is Henry Kissinger. On the other hand, the Steve Jobs libretto represents every character as a cardboard figure, although the music is often good enough to overcome that. After all, Henry Fonda and John Wayne usually worked from scripts that treated their cowboys as two-dimensional cutouts, but somehow—in conspiracy with John Ford—they managed to make classic Westerns.

So I’m not sure whether to praise Steve Jobs because it’s slick, checks all the boxes, moves things right along, etc. etc., or to criticize it for exactly the same reasons. Apparently the thing in American opera now is: (1) for the love of God, keep it under two hours and without an intermission, otherwise people will drift out to the bar at halftime and never come back; (2) make all the music sound like John Williams, all the characters act like people Tom Hanks or Juliette Binoche might play, and all the visuals look like Star Wars or Avatar. But—even though it’s 2018—let the singers make noises like Eileen Farrell or Mario Lanza. Why?? Incidentally, I am thinking about adding one really whiz-bang audio clip so that readers will have a better idea of the show.

Leebs: I still think it’s weird.

And that brings us to today’s topic. I could have labeled it “Elitists vs. Populists.” I could even have defined those terms (here and here), which doesn’t help. Don’t they both imply something reactionary, rigid and shallow? You can defend such behaviors variously, e.g., as an attempt to demonstrate superior values or else to show your down-to-earth, communitarian sentiments, but! A fully developed, grownup aesthetic should be flexible enough to encompass Tchaikovsky and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Yes, some populists are blockheads, but then there was Carl Sandburg.

I realize now that my review of Steve Jobs was partly a Snob Job: I offered faint praise but carped about the predictable nature of the characters and the lack of truly innovative, challenging music. (That’s avant-garde-elitist talk for no no no, not weird enough by half!) But my response to Editor Leebens went in the other direction: I wanted to show that I’m a Man of the People. A more probative approach would have emphasized that much of the weirdness and flatness of Nixon in China stemmed from the fact that Adams and his collaborators were experimenting. In 1985–87, he was attempting to help create a new musico-dramatic language. (In Slob terms: he wanted to do Glass, but way better.) When you are starting from scratch, some of what you try is going to fall flat. That’s the price innovators pay. (Think of Leonardo and The Last Supper and the sub-par technology of the new paints he was using.) The important thing for any innovator is to spot not what failed but what worked, and to keep doing it again and again and again. That’s how Adams arrived at The Death of Klinghoffer, El Niño, Doctor Atomic, and more wonderful stuff he hasn’t yet written.

Let’s face it: sometimes we’re all Snobs. Sooner or later we’re all Slobs too. It’s part of being an American and living in a marketplace culture: everything becomes merchandise. As an experiment today, I’m going to offer brief reviews of new, interesting recordings (merchandise!). I’ll provide the facts, the Slob angle, and the Snob angle. We’ll see whether those terms matter.

Percy Grainger, Complete Music for Wind Band. Naxos 8.573679/80/81. This nice new set of recordings is a near-perfect example of elitism and populism, lion and lamb, lying down together, making something lovely and distinctive from their union. Grainger (1882–1961) was an Aussie, a multitalented, globe-hopping eccentric, a man possessed: he had boatloads of energy, he made many friends and not a few enemies, and he liked folk music and wind bands. Here conductor Bjarte Engeset and the Royal Norwegian Navy Band give us everything he wrote or eventually rescored for wind ensemble. Things like this jaunty, slightly off-kilter march, “The Gum-suckers,” honoring residents of the state of Victoria and their fondness for the refreshing blades of the Eucalyptus tree:

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Instrumentation includes piano, staff bells, Grainger’s own Deagan marimbaphone, and more. Volume 2 of the collection also features two versions of Irish Tune from County Derry and this Colonial Song, based on the composer’s own melodies:

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What I Liked: The music is richly scored, taking full advantage of wind instruments’ wide pitch range and color spectrum. Melodies are simple and heartfelt, performances topnotch. Everything’s delivered with satisfying precision without sounding at all “military.” Quite well recorded too, although it may not tempt you to throw away your Fennell or Dallas Wind Symphony recordings. What I Liked Less: One thing you learn from a “compleatist” edition is that some music ages less well, whether it’s an experiment or a cultural statement whose time has come and gone (e.g. The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart). Nevertheless, this set’s Snob/Slob score is nearly faultless.

Eric Moe: Uncanny Affable Machines. Various artists, New Focus FCR212. This and the following album are from artists and a label unfamiliar to me. They’re first-rate, however, and well worth hearing—depending on your personal Snob/Slob tendencies, of course. What I Liked: As a composer Moe isn’t afraid of blending pop, world, and experimental sounds.

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That’s Cross Chop, named after a surfing term. It begins with a classic quotation, but what matters is what comes next. A tasty opening slice of Slob is followed by enough skilled follow-through to warm any elitist heart; Mr. Moe keeps you listening!

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That’s from The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum, featuring a pipa player and samples from Huddie Ledbetter and percussionist Michael Lipsey. The result is as raw, dramatic, and extreme as—well, as classic pipa repertoire like “The Ambush From All Sides.”


Let’s hear one more sample, a wonderful essay in microtones entitled (after Keats) And No Birds Sing. The piano is re-tuned with 19 notes to each octave. Snob note: I’ve been hearing a lot of microtonal music lately, but this piece is handled especially well.

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We didn’t even get to the title track, or to Let Me Tell U About R Specials, a charming sound construction. What I Liked: everything. What I Liked Less: I wish artists wouldn’t waste liner note space with lists of all the awards they’ve won or the places/people/orchestras they’ve worked with. We don’t care. Your music will tell us whether you’ve got the right stuff. Snob/Slob score: Between “Wipeout” and Leadbelly, Moe scores with pop-culture cred galore; conversely, I hope any FOMO-oriented snobs feel validated by the quantity and variety of experimental music on display. And: had you ever heard of Eric Moe? Me neither.

Here I must mention another New Focus Recording, Wang Lu: Urban Inventory (FCR 197). As with Moe’s disc, this multi-artist collection is presented in a Digipak with stunning visual design. The participation of Ensemble Intercontemporain, ICE, and Alarm Will Sound, among others, provides a clue to Ms. Wang’s recognized talent, but then so does her music, a fascinating blend of East Asian social consciousness and Western ultra-modernism. Here is a clip from “Gifts of Gab”:

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Finally: Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstücke I–XI. Sabine Liebner, piano. Wergo WER 7341 2. What?? Stockhausen (1928–2007) is at that awkward age: dead, but not dead enough. How do we handle the young lions of yesteryear? Especially when they made utterly tasteless, insensitive remarks after 9/11? You could do worse than check out these piano works, written between 1952 and 1961. For much of that period, the composer was obsessed by what his annotator Wolfgang Rathert calls “a mechanistic number fetish.” For Stockhausen “the abstract nature of numbers became the very definition of beauty.” In six single-spaced pages, Rathert explains just how every parameter of the music was determined via religiously applied numerical theories. I’ll take his word for it. Here are the first two-thirds of Klavierstücke IV, No. 2:

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What I Liked: It’s hardcore, like string theory or a Diane Arbus photographIt doesn’t care whether you understand it or like it. Stockhausen holds firmly to his convictions, resulting in sounds both inscrutable and implacable. The piano is well recorded, its timbres often the most arresting feature of this music; Sabine Liebner’s “interpretation” seems flawless. What I Liked Less: Come on. “Liked” and “liked less” are meaningless here. Snob/Slob Score: Well, it’s not Dvořák. Does that win points with snobs these days? Depends on your brand of elitism. Would Johnny Rotten get it? Probably not: this music can be brutal, but it’s painstakingly planned, thoroughly controlled, so its Slob rating might be basement-level. You may argue that the Sex Pistols engaged in a perverse elitism all their own, which rendered their Slob status equally problematic. Looks like we’re trapped between dueling definitions, a sure sign it’s time to abandon both.

I’ll be back in two weeks with great music—including some wonderful Dvořák—and absolutely no pseudo-issues attached. I promise!

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