Thoughts on “Mozart in the Jungle”

* Mozart in the Jungle is charming if sadly devoid of the sexposition that HBO and Showtime have become famous for. Most writers take a too-holy-for-nudes attitude. Bullshit. The show also provides many, many opportunities for double entendres and obvious metaphors.

Related perhaps to the above, charm is hard to define but easy to feel.

*mozart-in-the-jungle-poster Why aren’t there any classical venues that let listeners stand up and drink beer and buy t-shirts with clever slogans on them? Or do such venues exist and I’m unaware of them? I’m interested in listening—see this, from 2008, for example—but the symphonic experience I find stultifying.

* The show admittedly chose many clichéd pieces. Hardcore classical music people—all nine of you—may dislike it for that reason, or may dislike it for the same reason cops dislike cop shows and doctors dislike hospital shows.

* The unions are reasonably vilified. So are police over-responses. Though this hasn’t arisen much yet in the show, “You can’t protect yourself from the market” could be one Cowenian economic takeaway.

* Arts and artists are inevitably more glamorous in TV shows and in movies than in real life.

* Here is the New York Times on Mozart. I haven’t seen many intelligent pieces on it. Like Entourage before it, Mozart may be too light and charming to attract essayists. Why write an essay when the first asterisk in this post encapsulates the show?

(Legitimately) free music: The Orange Mountain Music Philip Glass Sampler Vol.I

Amazon is currently giving away The Orange Mountain Music Philip Glass Sampler Vol.I, which caught my attention because I’ve liked Glass since really hearing him for the first time last year during a University of Arizona dance showcase when some of the students used “Metamorphosis.”

I’m listening to the “sampler” now, which has more variation in style than a complete album for obvious reasons. While some transitions between songs verge on jarring, but the album still seems worth downloading.

(Hat tip Crooked Timber.)

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream — Steven Watts

The standard for general nonfiction books these days is Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which reaches astonishing depth in its use of music to explore history and culture as much as vice-versa. A book need not be as sophisticated as that one to still be worth reading, but less ambitious ones still ought to at least strive toward that standard. Steven Watts’ Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream doesn’t, or at least doesn’t obviously. It starts with a promising enough subject—a cultural symbol for much of the last 50 years—and an equally promising premise—that he will illuminate society based on one symbol. Alas, neither occurs, and we’re left with a book that does neither particularly well.

The reasons why a decent book that could be good isn’t aren’t always obvious, even if symptoms of its problems are. I keep coming back to James Fallows’ comment:

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you’ll find in books.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Ross normally writes for the New Yorker, as his book is impeccably edited. Before discussing the content of Mr. Playboy, its noxious style and innumerable mistakes have to be noted because they so distract from the reading of it. In Charlie Wilson’s War, such problems were relatively minor but noticeable. In Mr. Playboy, they’re glaring and enormous. We learn that: “[…] Hefner also emerged as a serious shaper of, and commentator on, modern American values.” He was also a “serious, influential figure in modern culture,” who “played a key role in changing American values, ideas, and attitudes” (all on 3). Hefner and Playboy shaped rather than just reflecting “American values” (4). He also helped transform “sexual values” (4). He personified “the mass-culture overhaul of modern society” and “he was a child of popular culture” (both on 5). The magazine became a “cultural litmus test [… for ….] modern American culture” (6). Playboy became a “cultural trendsetter” (6, again). Hefner positioned himself “as a dissenter in modern America” but “expressed many of the deepest impulses of mainstream American culture [… appearing on] the cultural skyline […]” (7). And he “presented a compelling vision of the good life in modern America” (7). I don’t know how often “modern” is used and in how many different ways and contexts, but the author or editor should do a “find” using a word processor and figure it out.

Enough of the introduction. The first chapter tells us Hefner’s boyhood fantasies “mirrored larger patterns in America’s emerging culture of self-fulfillment […]” (12). “The popular culture milieu of Depression-era America” helped shape Hefner (18). The Hefner family was susceptible to “modernizing influences” and “American popular culture” (19). “In certain ways they had embraced modernity.” Hefner’s mother “displayed a modern side” (both 21). Her modernity is mentioned again on page 26, where we also learn “American popular culture molded Hugh Hefner’s boyhood character,” and it’s mentioned one more time on 32. On 27, we learn more about “Popular culture.” After college, “Hefner’s emotional and ideological maturation received an added boost from American popular culture” (56). “Playboy’s appeal was rooted more deeply in the broad social and cultural milieu of postwar America” (72). You don’t say? I had no idea popular culture affected Hefner or Playboy.

On page 35, Hefner was dating a girl but “met someone else.” Two lines down, he “met a young woman who had been a classmate.” On page 40, “He became roommates with Bob Preuss, established a fresh circle of friends, and threw himself into a new round of experiences.” Why not just describe the circle and experiences? Further, we find out that “Bob Preuss, a roommate at the Granada House, was struck by [Hefner’s] candor in talking about sex” (46). Really? I had no idea this Bob guy existed.

On the consumer end, he advocated “consumer efflorescence” and “consumer products” and gave a model for the “stylish consumer” (all on 4). The early 1900s saw “the explosive growth of a consumer economy” (this phrase combining a cliche and repetition on 19). Alfred Kinsey’s findings shocked a society “committed to consumer conformity” (45). We learn about “an economy of abundance” and “material abundance” (the latter twice) on 73). On 74 we find the Cold War “molded these elements of abundance […]”, and that Life magazine ran photos showing “consumer amenities.” And on 75, we hear more of “people intoxicated with abundance.” Playboy encouraged “young men into a fuller enjoyment of American abundance in all of its material and emotional dimensions” (80). On page 83, we learn of “a climate of […] widespread abundance.” On page 104, we learn that postwar American has “consumer abundance.” Chapter seven is titled “An Abundant Life.” Mr. Playboy has an abundance of abundance.

On page 86, Playboy begins through “working in the small Superior Street town house in an atmosphere marked by common purpose and camaraderie […],” and we find out below that “A sense of closeness marked the office atmosphere.” At the top of the next page, “An early staffer observed, ‘There was a closeness there […]'” followed by, “Amid this warm atmosphere [….]”. Did anyone edit this book in a modestly serious fashion? If that weren’t enough, cliches occur too frequently, as when Hefner and Playboy “had taken the country by storm” (3). His first wife “scarred him for life” (48). “Everything seemed possible” (61). Something “captures [Hefner’s] imagination” (62). “It helped drive the final nails into the coffin of traditional Victorian morality […]” (121).

Watts chronically makes the kind of mistakes I mark in freshmen papers. He says, “[Consumer society] was intimately connected to a larger ethos of pleasure, leisure and entertainment” (129). How is it connected? He says “important elements of fantasy went into the presentation of these “real” young women.” That sentence isn’t needed because he goes into those element later in the paragraph. He says of one Playboy staffer who feels superior to the organization, “The reasons were complex” (92). Don’t say the reasons are complex—show why they are complex.

There’s more, but I don’t have the heart or, more importantly, the interest to observe every problem that could’ve come out of a student essay. Most of my examples came from the first half of the book because I didn’t read the second as carefully. Mr Playboy also shows why magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic are so good, aside from their editing: either might’ve taken the 70,000 or so words in this book, compressed them a 6,000 word article, and lost little if any meaning while giving the virtues of compression. If Watts had hired me, many of these problems could’ve been avoided. The above barrage is free, however, and if anyone (like his publicist, for example) knows how to forward said advice to Watts before the paperback edition, I’d highly encourage you to do so. It might alleviate some of the book’s problems. There is an inherent danger in studying a person wittier and deeper than you are in that quotes and jokes from one’s subject will upstage the writer. On page 106, surrounded by banal commentary, Watts quotes Hefner saying:

There’s nothing dirty in sex unless we make it dirty. A picture of a beautiful woman is something that a fellow of any age ought to be able to enjoy […] It is the sick mind that finds something loathsome and obscene in sex.

It’s the kind of elegant stylistic and intellectual formulation Watts seldom gets to. Perhaps the most self-referential part of Mr. Playboy and its author comes amid a discussion of Hefner’s enormous and apparently misguided effort to write a piece called “the Playboy philosophy” every month. Watts says, “While [Hefner’s] unadorned prose could be crisp and illuminated with flashes of insight and passion, more often it was turgid and repetitive.” This sentences applies to Mr. Playboy, and Watts shows no sense of the irony in his committing of the same sins he projects on Hefner.

Still, occasional passages, if not redemptive, do convey signifance. Watts likes the amusingly sophomoric through phrases about how “a new commitment to pleasure penetrated [tee-hee] into the most intimate, personal realm of human life…” Bits have surprising pathos, like a quote from one of Hefner’s former girlfriends described on page 205. He also reveals an original thought about Playboy and its creator on page 53 when he says:

Hefner also struggled to shape his views of the world into some kind of cohesive form. In typical adolescent fashion, this bright young man had soaked up a mishmash of ideas and theories during his high school and college years, ranging from Hollywood movies to Freud, popular cartoons to Darwin, Protestant theology to Tarzan.

Such random influences can’t be so unusual given American pop culture, and this section helps show some of the internal contradictions of Playboy’s later philosophy, or faux-philosophy. Such moments are too rare in Mr. Playboy, and I don’t think they’re the fault of the subject—they’re the fault of the writer. Maybe if Watts better connected the facets of Hefner’s life to anything besides themselves, the book would have been improved. As it was, the ten or so girlfriends listed through the latter half of the book only demonstrate that Hefner famously likes to date young. If there’s a better known facet of his life, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps one day a better biographer will come along and show us what’s really new.

Alex Ross in Seattle

Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise (see my initial comments), visited Seattle to “curate” Icebreaker IV: The American Future, a Seattle concert and festival of young composers. Before the main show, he spoke about The Rest is Noise and how it’s targeted especially at those who have interest in but know little about classical music, as well as how the lives of composers were interwoven with history, society, and culture. As I wrote before, he is “telling the story of music in the most tumultuous century along with its politics and art. Or does it cover politics and art through music? You can’t entirely tell, which must be intentional in a book lively and quick as a gliding melody.” Right: and it goes from the last years of what Ross calls the “marble bust” society through today, covering transformation in art and life.

Perhaps the most important thing Ross stressed was plurality: in approaches in art and music as well as how there isn’t a single path toward progress. Different composers worked in different modes, and what appeared stodgy to many critics—like Sibelus, who with Shostakovich is toward the book’s intellectual heart—became seen as more innovative, while revolutionary music like Stravinsky’s eventually became part of the dominant mainstream. The matter just behind plurality in importance how Ross sees classical music is a great 1,000 year old tradition that is still alive and evolving. Modern composers, performers, and others should realize this emphasize the emotional dimension of music and not just its intellectual dimension.

At first Ross seemed nervous, wringing his hands and shifting his weight, but as he spoke passion and confidence emerged, growing as he talked about the excitement in the classical music world. Ross said his “whole task as a writer has been to draw attention to composers,” and I would extend to the classical and other kinds of music in general. This is a particularly important task because he says classical music is underserved at the media level (sound familiar?), which no longer tracks composers. True enough, as I didn’t recognize most of the names after 1960, and the same problems plague writers. But Ross isn’t “doomy” as many are, due in part because of the aforementioned excitement.

And it’s hard not to get excited at The Rest is Noise, which he says is divided in three sections. The first is devoted to the changes in the early part of the twentieth century, with new sounds, a diversity of approaches, the rising power of pop music, and modernism all arising. The second part most explicitly discusses politics, with World War II and Communism affecting composers the world over, who struggled to survive like many others. This is where he most “use[d] music to write [… an] alternate history.” Finally, the third section, which seemed the weakest and least cohesive to me, he says is “wild” and all over the place. “You can’t write history about events that are still unfolding,” explaining why that section appealed less to me. To be sure, the third section was weak only relative to the strength of the other two, as it still surpassed most writing in general.

Then came the concert, with seven pieces by seven composers; the pieces ranged from ones for a pure quartet to others that incorporated electronic music to those that demanded a larger group to one that was described as being built around bits from Michael Jackson songs (and I enjoyed the pastiche.) Afterwards the composers spoke. They didn’t resemble the stereotype that first leaps to my mind when I think of “composer,” which bears a striking resemblance to the guys in stipple portrait on dollars. Rather, they were more akin to the hipsters I’m used to seeing at bars, reflecting the way their music ranged across modes. They answered questions akin to the one I hate most at readings. My favorite answer was glib when he said that, “I take walks till I’m ready to start,” then he hits his head against his computer, then takes more walks as he composes. Other people asked “questions” designed to show the erudition of the questioner instead of elicit information. Overall, though, it was a good session, even if I couldn’t tell to what extent the composers were trying to describe their artistic process and to what extent they blew smoke.

I keep drawing parallels between literature and music because throughout the evening these parallels were so apparent, and the language used to describe phenomena in both mediums so similar. Much of what I wrote above concerning change, styles, and influence could apply equally well to books and literature, and probably to other artistic and even scientific forms as well. The Rest is Noise is extraordinarily deep and yet malleable. This also makes it hard to define: it is about classical music but also music in general, as well as history and art. Only infrequently does one find a book that does so much while being so much fun to read. The book, like Ross’s talk, shows so much contagious enthusiasm that I can’t help catching it.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Finding a book that lives up to expectations and ecstatic reviews is too rare, as many books don’t. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is an exception, telling the story of music in the most tumultuous century along with its politics and art. Or does it cover politics and art through music? You can’t entirely tell, which must be intentional in a book lively and quick as a gliding melody.

Many of his Ross’s descriptions about musical culture could as much be about literature as music; in Weimar Republic of Germany, he writes: “every violent act or image seems to foreshadow the catastrophe to come. But it is too easy to write the story of German culture from 1918 to 1933 as the prelude to the next chapter.” Elsewhere, the same point is made about modernism, about audience acceptance, about difficulty, and about politics. One point in particular can be said about literature, and it’s a paraphrase of Theodor Adorno: “[…] modernism can bring forth its own kind of kitsch—a melodrama of difficulty that easily degenerates into a sort of superannuated adolescent angst.” That’s especially true if you can stretch modernistic tendencies of the ones Adorno describes out to today, as A Reader’s Manifesto attacks exactly this idea.

The critical acclaim I mentioned is real: see, for example, Steven Johnson and Maud Newton’s excerpt. I think The Rest is Noise inspires praise because it is learned but not pedantic, historical but not dull, even-handed in its descriptions of musical stylistic and political warfare, and, above all devoted to music itself, rather than to numbing ideology. In an early section, Ross writes about Richard Strauss’ Guntram, the hero who, at the end of the opera, leaves his order, his beloved, and “the Christian God.” Strauss’ mentor was alarmed, but Ross describes why Strauss wrote the opera as he did: “Guntram’s order […] had unwisely sought to launch an ethical crusade through art, to unify religion and art. This was Wagner’s mission, too, but for Strauss it was a utopian scheme that contained ‘the seeds of death in itself.'” The theme of extremes goes on toward the middle of the book, when composers accused each other of fascist tendencies in each others’ music, and by the end Ross shows examples of modern critics who berate pop or classical music for pop’s supposed emptiness or classical’s supposed beauty. But if Ross has a main thesis it is that music is music, regardless of labels or dogma.

Throughout The Rest is Noise, Ross almost shudders at the divisiveness in all its manifestations, from the beginning when he writes that “Fin-de-siecle Vienna offers the depressing spectacle of artists and audiences washing their hands of each other, giving up on the dream of common ground,” to the masterful first sentence of the epilogue, “Extremes become their opposites in time.” Instead Ross unifies common themes and idea while still being able to judge, making a strong case that in music, as with all art, ceaseless miscegenation strengthens rather than weakening the end product.


EDIT: Alex Ross visited Seattle, which I wrote about here.

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