The Depressive Nightmare Siren Girl

By way of a disclaimer, I'm going to repeat a shocking confession that I mentioned once before in this space:  I've seen Mona Lisa Smile.  (It wasn't my fault, I swear!)  My reaction at the end was how remarkably brave the movie was to shine a light on sexism in the 1950's.  (I should skip the part about how Rachel Portman is so terrible a composer, but it's hard not to at least mention it in passing.)

If you'd like, at the end of this plan, you can be shocked about how sexist literary depictions of women from Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance works are.  While some are more nuanced than others, putting them all together in one discussion has an ugly cumulative effect.

Last time around, I showed how the Manic Pixy Dreamgirl actually has a deep literary heritage going all the way back to Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy.  At her essence, the MPDG rescues our hero from whatever metaphorical prison (be it an empty career or 20-something malaise) and teaches him to focus on what really matters in life.  As I pointed out, The Divine Comedy and Garden State are actually much more closely related than they may seem at first glance.

But the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl's redemptive aura is only half the picture.  She has a darker twin designed to take the hero's eye off the ball.  For the sake of simplicity, I'll give her a name, although it won't fit exactly in most of the examples I'm going to discuss today.  It will fit better when we look at the watered-down version, but it would be pretty tough to try to discuss her anonymously.

As an archetype, she goes all the way back to Eve in a sense; other examples from classical times include Calypso and Dido.  The example I'd like to focus on, though, is of a real figure from Medieval Germany.  (Ok, there might be some exaggeration, but the man in the legend really did exist.)

Tanhûser was a minnesinger (and possibly a knight) 13th century.  As the legend goes, he did all the normal knight minstrel activities -- singing minnegesang, fighting in jousts and tournaments, and all that fun stuff.  But he suddenly disappeared.  A years later, he reappeared.  He had been in Venusberg the whole time, serving and worshiping the goddess Venus.  The Christian knight was living a life of sin, distracted from his duty to his lord and Lord.  He went to Rome to beg the pope for forgiveness.  The pope replied that he'd be forgiven when his staff bloomed with flowers.  Days later, the pope's staff bloomed, but Tanhûser had already returned to Venusberg never to be seen again.

In this story, a good knight got tempted into darkness by a woman who existed pretty much for the sole purpose of trying to subvert his life's work.  Unlike the MPDG, who is by design supposed to teach the hero about what really matters in life, the Depressive Siren Nightmare Girl takes a man away from his mission and distract him from his life.Θ

Some other notable DSNG's from literary history include Merimee's Carmen and Nabakov's Lolita from the eponymous novels.  Lady Macbeth gets the best of her husband while Ophelia (though under coersion by her uncle) fails to get the best of Hamlet.  And, of course, how could I fail to mention the one that ruined my life:  her father for all intents and purposes dead, Criseyde's vulnerability warmed Troilus's heart.  When she has the opportunity to flee to the Greeks, she does in a second, standing Troilus up at their planned meeting ten days later, and going so far as to blame him.  She was the medieval image of a faithless conniving woman, at least until Robert Henryson did his best to rehabilitate her image in the Testament of Cresseid.

Interestingly enough, a legendary monster developed during the Middle Ages that turns gives the metaphor a terrifying literality.φ    The succubus prayed on men at night, stealing their energy for life.  While this spring out of some level of Medieval discomfort about sex, it was built on the idea that the weapon of choice of a female demon would be her sexuality.

Like her counterpart of light, the DSNG appears in movies as a watered down archetype serving mainly as a plot device rather than a real character.  That discussion is for another time.

ΘOne side note about terminology:  it doesn't necessarily fit to apply the 20th century psychological terms manic and depressive to earlier times, but I suggest that they still fit within the context of the day.  While Venus may not be depressed, her sinful life serves as an analogue; she could not be truly happy without accepting Christ, after all.  It's the same way that Lady Philosophy comes across as the opposite of manic, yet still represents that to an early Medieval neoplatonist ascetic.
φ She had a male counterpart, the incubus, who fed off of women's energy, occasionally leaving behind a present, but even that was widely used as a cover for unexplained pregnancies (or bad behavior by the woman in the society of the time).  The Medieval discomfort about sex is overstated to a large extent. Read something like The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales and then look at the news from the past two years, and then try to tell me with a straight face that we're the enlightened ones.


The Manic Pixie Dreamgirl

I'd like to visit the theme of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl in a couple of posts, because the more I think about her, the more she fascinates me. (That's right: I guess I'm announcing to the world that I have a crush on a disembodied abstract concept. At least she doesn't have a boyfriend.) She actually has been an important figure in my life: I've had big crushes on my fair share, even dated one or two, am friends with others, and created a whole line-up of them back in the day when I fancied myself a writer. As I dig deep, it's hard to escape the MPDG her two relatives (I'll introduce you a little later) in any aspect of my life.

The Onion piece in question provided a decent overview of how she's been presented in film in the past 70 years, but the army of critics don't go back any deeper, ignoring her long literary pedigree. Let's take a step back and review the essentials: the MPDG "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." She appears as if by magic, forever changing the way the the dour hero will look at the world. While her favorite tool today is whimsy, her forbears didn't always have that option in their arsenals, and thus took very different tacks.

The earliest MPDG that I am aware of happens to be one of the most important literary figures of the Middle Ages. She arrives at just the right time, as our hero's life is in shambles; he finds himself locked in prison as a political prisoner, unable to make peace with the world.
I who once wrote songs with Keen delight am now by sorrow driven to take up melancholy measures. Wounded Muses tell me what I must write, and elegiac verses bathe my face with real tears. Not even terror could drive from me these faithful companions of my long journey. Poetry, which was once the glory of my happy and flourishing youth, is still my comfort in this misery of my old age.
So begins Boethius's Consolatio Philosophiae, written in the early 6th century. His salvation comes in the form of Lady Philosophy, who uses Socratic dialogue to make him reconsider what matters in the world (early Medieval Christian asceticism) and what doesn't.

It may seem like a long road from The Consolation of Philosophy to "Elizabethtown," but the essential story is the same: a man is rescued from his (literal or metaphorical prison) by a woman who teaches him not to be so serious and reconsider what's really important in life, be it through silly dancing or neoplatonist asceticism. Having made that intellectual leap, we can trace the MPDG's subsequent incarnations as Beatrice in Dante's Paradiso, Shahrazad from Alf Layla Wa Layla, Reason in La Roman de la Rose, Lucy Manette (A Tale of Two Cities), Eppie from Silas Marner, and even Olivia in "Twelfth Night." Shaw put his own satiric stamp on it time after time, perhaps most memorably in Man and Superman, when Ann Whitefield rescues John Tanner from his life of socialistic bachelorhood.

Opera has no shortage: while Donna Elvira and Marie (Wozzeck) can't quite finish the job, Elsa (Der Fliegende Hollander), Marie (Der Frieschutz), Magdalena (Die Meistersinger), Brunhilde, and even Mimi with her consumptive little heart all offer some sort of redemption.

Even though the MPDG may seem like empty fun, there for the sole purpose of redeeming the male, as I've shown, she actually has a long heritage and is capable of quite a bit of depth. If she represents lightness and redemption, though, she does have a mischievous twin sister, lurking in darkness to bring destruction to men. Next time I'll introduce this figure (in one way or another). As this series continues, it will explore both the literary heritage of this darker figure and the way she appears in movies today; a look at their interactions in the work of Woody Allen; the influence these figures have had on my life; and their rare and devastating child.


Baby Schoenberg

Normally, I don't get too excited about babies, but this image from Jeremy Eichler's column in this morning's glob, warmed my heart:
Here at last was my opportunity to do my part for the forward march of science. It was too late to eliminate all tonal music from Jonah's aural diet but we could at least do some concentrated listening. I cued up the final movement of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet, a landmark in the composer's journey toward atonality. As the soprano sang the famous line, "I feel the air of another planet," I scrutinized my son's face for a glint of recognition, and, to my shock, he actually began clapping his hands. Never mind that he claps his hands freely these days at seemingly arbitrary moments. In my view, it was a scientific slam dunk.
The accompanying list of musical recommendations will actually allow you to listen to music with your kid without wanting to throw the hi-fi out the window.


Concerning the Price of Bread in China

Google searches for "Price of bread in China" are referring people to this blog more and more frequently, so I'm going to take a moment out for an off-topic post that will hopefully provide some insight into that question. First I'll explain why it's actually the wrong question to ask, and then I'll take two different cracks at answering it anyway for those of you who are still curious.

It is my experience that usually, when someone refers to the price of bread, it's an example of the rhetorical device synecdoche. Thus, to just look at one example, when Berio writes in his Sinfonia that the piece of music can't stop the wars or lower the price of bread, it is simply meant to stand in for food in general. The device works because bread is a staple food in Europe and plays a very prominent role in the diet. Even if meat is too expensive, you fall back on bread.

China has a very different dietary model, however. Baked goods do not play a large role in the diet, and bread is not regularly eaten by the average Chinese person. Instead, depending on the region, rice and noodles fill that role. If you're interested in using one item to stand for the entire Chinese diet, I suggest considering the cost of rice instead. To consider the price of bread in China is like looking at the price of corn in England -- not particularly relevant or helpful.

So, then, how much does food cost in China? It's a huge, economically diverse country, so there isn't a nice, simple answer. It's a lot more expensive in Shanghai than it is Gansu, for example, where you can get a good meal for 3 yuan. Just as a hamburger in New York will cost you a lot more than the same burger in Kansas, specific prices vary wildly throughout the country. That said, my understanding is that the uncharacteristically snowy winter has put a lot of pressure on food supplies throughout the entire country, so food is becoming more expensive everywhere.

And even though I just explained why the price of bread in China isn't relevant, I'll tell you about it anyway. For the reasons I just outlined, bread tends to be very expensive and low in quality. For whatever reason, the domestic bread producers like to put a lot of sugar in the bread. I have no idea what they leave out, but it tastes sweet and has a somewhat chalky texture. It could perhaps make a serviceable piece of toast provided you use enough jam. I preferred yoghurt, fruit, or eggs for breakfast.

There is one institution that ironically provides a decent loaf of bread for cheap. In my experience, the European-owned supermarkets that feature a variety of imported foods could bake a decent French- or Italian-style loaf, for about a third of the price of the terrible packaged bread.

Edit 4/16: PRI's The World on the topic of Chinese food prices


UE Shrugs off Lost Revenue, as E-mails are what Really Matters

I just saw this press release posted on the Universal Editions website regarding their actions against IMSLP. The following paragraph struck me as particularly odd:

The flood of complaints to UE, however, didn’t come. They received about 30 e-mails and one letter (Geist’s thousands apparently had better things to do). UE replied to each and every one and were happy that most – when having heard the other side of the story – were relieved that UE was certainly not acting improperly. In fact, in the end, quite a few messages of support were received.

Apparently, the fact that I no longer purchase UE scores does not move them. They are unconcerned by the lost revenue; it would only concern them if they'd received an e-mail. I thus encourage everybody to join me in not purchasing UE products, as they won't mind at all. Just don't send them an e-mail, or else they may feel the pinch.

For the record: I sent them an e-mail on December 24 of last year, and have not yet heard back. I guess UE doesn't actually respond to all their mail.


Alma Redemptoris Anti-Semite?

Upon this beere ay lith this innocent
Biforn the chief auter, whil the masse laste;
And after that, the abbot with his covent
Han sped hem for to burien hym ful faste;
And whan they hooly water on hym caste,
Yet spak this child, whan spreynd was hooly water,
And song
O Alma redemptoris mater!

The Prioress's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a beautiful story of faith. An innocent young boy sings a hymn to the redeeming virgin. Cruel villains overhear his singing, and plot to slit his throat. The villains are slain, and despite the slit throat, the innocent is able to continue singing the hymn at his own funeral. Chaucer doesn't leave any doubt of the moral:
"My throte is kut unto my nekke boon,"
Seyde this child, "and as by wey of kynde
I sholde have dyed, ye, longe tyme agon.
But Jesu Crist as ye in bookes fynde,
Wil that his glorie laste and be in mynde,
And for teh worship of his Mooder deere
Yet may I synge O Alma loude and cleere.

"This welle of mercy, Cristes mooder sweete,
I loved alwey, as after my konnynge;
And whan that I my lyf sholde forlette,
To me she cam, and bad me for to synge
This anthem verraily in my deyynge,
As ye han herd, and whan that I hadde songe,
Me thoughte she leyde a greyn upon my tonge.

"Wherefore I synge, and synge moot certeyn,
In honour of that blisful Mayden free
Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn;
And after that thus seyde she to me:
'My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,
Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake.
Be nat agast; I wol thee nat forsake.'"
It is a miracle. The child's faith is rewarded, and the villains' attempts at silencing him failed. Even if they can kill him, he has a reward in the afterlife coming from Mary herself.

The problem is that people get really confused about the what's going on in the story because the villains are Medieval caricatures of Jews. There weren't any in Chaucer's England, but anti-Semitic stories and myths still circulated. However, that they are Jewish is beside the point. In the 70's, stock villains were Russian. In 14th Century England, they were Jews. Trying to explore this tale from a modern perspective on anti-Semitism will get you nowhere, and will only distract from what is otherwise a nice specimen of Miracle narrative.

Apparently, composer Delvyn Case fell into that trap. He calls the Prioress's Tale "a tragic and anti-Semitic story," and goes on to say it is " a violent incident involving Christian persecution of Jews." To say he misses the point is a gross understatement. He writes:
I chose to base this opera project upon a tragic and anti-Semitic story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, "The Prioress’s Tale." My librettist and I, writer Christopher Hood, have transformed this potentially divisive tale into a parable whose primary message is that peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness are possible when each of us validates the our common humanity with others. Our opera is a musical and dramatic portrait of two characters – one Jewish, one Christian – who overcome their fear and hatred of each other by rediscovering their own capacity for forgiveness.
If he wanted to write an opera about reconciliation between religions, why awkwardly force Chaucer's miracle story into it? Mixing up modern sensibilities with medieval literature just undermines both.


Calling all Pretentious Elitists

I added Pretentious Classical Music Elitists to the links on the right. It's a good place for some contentious discussion about good music, and what makes music good. The catch is that you must be a member of Facebook in order to even see it. I'm not advocating that anybody join Facebook for the sole purpose of seeing that page, but if you are on there already, it is worth dropping by.

That said, I don't recommend joining unless you actually like music that others describe as pretentious and elitist. Rachel Portman or Eric Whitacre fans needn't bother. The fact that people with strongly populist tastes join the group raises an interesting question: why do people want to be labeled as pretentious and elitist? I don't seek those labels out, and have to defend myself against them. It's not that I'm pretentious or elitist; it's just that I have high standards and enjoy music that others may dismiss as difficult. Liking Babbit or early Glass isn't a put-on; I actually do enjoy listening to it. I don't enjoy listening to La Boheme. So for me to join that group isn't an admission of being snobby or pretentious as much as it is an acknowledgment that I wouldn't be able to shake the label if I tried.