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Well, In My Opinion...
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
So, What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part I: or Lizzie & the Church are killing it
Topic: Music Commentary

  Well, to start with, nothing so far as the instrument itself is concerned.  The problems (and there are many) have to do with the people affiliated with the organ — at least since the second half of the Twentieth Century.  And what do I mean by that?  The organist asks indignantly.  Let's take a look and see what happened.

During most of its long and glorious history the organ was always considered the supreme instrument of Western music.  The fact that it is the oldest keyboard instrument, therefore the most complex mechanically, gave it a cache that no other instrument had, or has to this day. No other single instrument was capable of duplicating or exceeding the multi-voiced textures of a vocal ensemble than the organ: This capability in turn, helped pave the way to the development of the polyphonic complexities unique to Western music. It wasn't until the development of the 18th Century instrumental ensemble which became the foundation of our modern symphonic orchestra that the organ finally encountered any competition in this area.  Even then, as now, the orchestra does not have the frequency range nor, in the case of a comparably sized organ, the dynamic range.  Moreover, up through the first decade of the Twentieth Century the organ was an immensely popular instrument.  Most of the great composers before or since Bach have at least dabbled with the instrument.  Mendelssohn was a virtuoso and wrote extensively for it, Brahms wrote for the instrument early in his career and then found consolation in it at the very end of his life. Mozart loved the organ as did Liszt who wrote a number of substantial pieces for it.  Even Beethoven wrote a few, albeit inconsequential, pieces.  Although in the 19th Century the piano became the  more popular instrument primarily out of convenience, it was the to organ recitals that people flocked to hear transcriptions of their favourite orchestral works and the great works J. S. Bach.

So what happened?  Why is this magnificent instrument nowadays relegated to near pariah status in our present world?  A number of mitigating factors can immediately be considered: 1. The sound recording brought the world's orchestras  into people's homes making transcriptions and silent movie accompaniment obsolete. 2. Since the silent film era, the organ became the instrument of choice for mad scientists and evil beings in the movies.  Needless to say, this has done irreparable damage to the image of the organ, stereotypically associating it with either excessive church piety or horror movies. Neither gives a honest assessment of the majesty of the organ.  The latter has finally begun to fade as a pejorative; but, only through the indefatigable efforts of such great masters of the console as E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox, and the gradual passage of time has this image begun to disappear from the public memory.  

Nevertheless, it's the stodgy image of the "church organ" which continues to encroach on the realm of the king of instruments.  Stereotypes abound regarding this image. First, there is the phenomenon of Lizzie Leftfoot, more than likely a local piano teacher or elementary school teacher, who really isn't an organist at all, but does what she can on Sunday to play the hymns and accompany the choir. Ofttimes (and yes, it usually is a woman) she volunteers her services out of devotion to her church since there isn't a real (i.e., professional) organist around to do the job properly.  The result is this lingering impression that being a church musician really doesn't involve much effort.  She can read music, so, therefore, she can play the organ for church.  One of the side effects of this mentality is the delusion that being a church organist doesn't require much expertise.  A local garage band with a bunch of musical illiterates is treated more credulously. 

Second, and not unrelatedly, churches reflect our culture in that they think music should be free or nearly free and, for some reason, to be a musician, particularly a classically trained church musician, it is improper to expect monetary reimbursement. After all, isn't one using her gifts in service to the church viz. an higher calling?  For some reason the clergy with their ostensible higher calling, are lured to a church with not only a salary, but pensions and health insurance and in most cases either a housing allowance or outright housing.  Yet, the organist/choir director, by virtue of being merely a musician, barely receives a weekly part-time stipend, for which he or she is supposed to be grateful, the man-hours of daily practise and preparation and years of training notwithstanding.  Suddenly the church cries poor: "well we're a small parish and can't afford (read: want) to pay the organist very much. The result of this dismal attitude is that the standard of playing in most churches is at best sub-par: "you get what you pay for"(sic), as the saying goes.  Yet, with pathetic irony, churches are constantly lamenting over what seems to be an apparent shortage of organists.  Again, via the church, we have a reflection of our culture's bias against serious music; treating it as being frivolous or insignificant; or as played under the above circumstances — boring.  The end result:  the organ is that boring, turgid, bland instrument in church that old Mrs. Leftfoot plays every Sunday.  Such is the plight that few people, mostly in smaller churches, rarely get to experience the emotionally and spiritually energising thrill of dynamic, musically charged hymn playing.



Posted by ralph.fisher at 12:31 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 6 October 2009 5:18 PM EDT
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Thursday, 13 August 2009
The Case for Organists Memorising Their Recitals
Topic: Music Commentary

(Political correctness caveat:  I hate having to write "he or she" or "she/he." So, in an attempt to assuage any gender sensitivity I will alternate by paragraph my gender references to the generalised performer.  Grammatically and usage-wise I find it reprehensible; but, God forbid that I damage anyone's self-esteem.) 

 

I received a comment to a recent review I wrote of an organ recital in which, although this person agreed with most of my impressions, he thought I gave too much importance to the performer's need to memorise her programme.  As an organist I find it not a little disconcerting that this should even be an issue.  It seems to be a matter with which only organists have a problem.  Almost every soloist I've seen and listened to on any other instrument (including voice) performs before an audience without her head buried in a score.  So, why not the organist?

There are any number of reasons given, all of which are simply lame excuses. Here's one:  Since most organs are in churches most organ recitals (surprise, surprise) are in churches; this explains — though does not excuse — a lot.  Most organ consoles are either buried away in a corner of the chancel behind the choir or completely out of sight in the gallery above the narthex in the back of the sanctuary.  Being "hidden" gives the organist a sense of justification for not having to memorise repertoire — out of sight out of mind.  Who's going to know?  Well... for one, the audience.    

Let me explain:  Stephen Best in his article "On Passionate Music Making"  wrote about the somnolent experience of attending organ recitals nowadays; that the one major characteristic missing in organ recitals is passion — real sanguine, heartfelt passion. A major contributing factor to this problem is this bent for playing from music.  It has a stultifying affect on the performer's ability to empathically communicate her feelings for any of the pieces she is performing.  Empathy is a powerful force.  We all have it.  We all experience it. When we "feel someone's pain" we are empathising.  Empathy is disseminated via raw, instinctive sensation and that doesn't come from watching, or even listening blind, to someone who has her eyes glued to the ink on a page.  

I remember when playing, reciting, singing, or doing anything from memory was referred to as doing it "by heart."  By heart — that pretty much says it all; and it only comes from having learnt a piece of music so thoroughly that it has become a part of your very being.  That is when you truly know a piece.  And it is that which makes the difference when listening comparatively to Hillary Hahn play a Bach solo Partita or Sonata on the violin, or Imogene Cooper play a Bach Prelude & Fugue from the WTC on piano from memory, to listening to Ann Elise Smoot drone on in the Passacaglia & Fugue in c on the organ.  The other two have made that music their own.  It's part of them, as natural as each breath they take.  The last thing Hahn or Cooper need is the music in front of them.  It quite literally gets in the way.  

When the late great Virgil Fox played a recital it was from memory, all of it. Without the music in front of him he was free to interpret a piece fully with great confidence without dropping notes caused by cumbersome page turning, assisted or not, or worrying about losing his place if he happened to take his eyes away from the score. The result was the audience could fully experience the music because they weren't obstructed by a wall of paper, or the distractions caused by the hazards of page turning.  Notwithstanding, as great fun as it was to watch him play, an audience didn't have to see him.  They felt him, they felt him as someone totally immersed in the music, and that in turn immersed the audience in his music making — empathy.  

And that is my point about the audience knowing; they instinctively know.  Of course, if an audience can't see the organist because he is in the choir loft, they can't specifically tell that he is not playing from memory — by heart; but, they can certainly sense the lack of surety or confidence, and the lack of tension and continuity as a result from being dependent on the page. 

Here's another:  So often I hear the organist say, "Well, for all intents and purposes I really have it memorised," or "I really don't need the music.  I just have it there just to be sure."  This I find, is at best, just a little disingenuous. Using a crutch no matter how fluidly, is not the same as walking securely or confidently unaided.  If you know it by heart, you know it by heart, pure and simple.  If you have to have that score in front of you, you patently don't know it.  Oh, you may have the notes, and dynamics right, but it isn't existentially realised.  Moreover, if you still need the page, you do not fully comprehend the arch of the phrase, and ultimately, the arch of the whole piece:  at least well enough to communicate it to the audience.

And here's still another:  Organists are at a disadvantage in so much as they have the added burden of memorising the instrument; i.e., the unique qualities of the stops on each instrument (particularly solo stops) and the layout of the console.  It is here that we separate the grown-ups from the children.  For the organist, getting to know an unfamiliar instrument is not an easy task.  It's not like another keyboard, string or wind instrument in which the primary concern in dealing with a strange instrument is adapting to the touch or the general "feel" and tone of it.  For the organist it is those factors and much, much more.  The organist must also adapt to and memorise:   

1) a strange console.  For awhile there was a bit of standardisation with American console design as perfected by E. M. Skinner in the early 20th Century; but, much of that has gone the wayside.  Organ companies today are again including 19th Century French semicircle and 17th & 18th Century German tracker configurations in their design schemes.  For an organist getting a feel for the console (especially if she likes to make frequent stop changes manually) requires almost as much practise as the music itself — in many cases more.  the layout of the stops must be memorised so that she knows exactly where that Nazard 2�…”' is, because she may only have a split second to reach over and draw it, or flip it, or press it. (The great American organist Lynwood Farnam used to require that his students be able to pick up a pencil that had been placed at one end of a keyboard and place it at the other end whilst in the middle of a Bach fugue without dropping any notes.)  In addition to the stops themselves, there are the pistons and their corresponding toe studs which allow the organist to preset  any number of combinations so that major changes in tonal colour and dynamics can be affected instantly.  Again it's a matter of knowing virtually instinctively where that particular preset button is; because, in many cases she doesn't have time to think about or look to where it is, and hitting the wrong one could easily spell disaster; she simply has to "feel" it; and that requires complete memorisation of the console. 

2) the organ's tonal scheme.  This includes learning and adapting to the individual sound (voicing) of each stop alone and in their relationship to each other in combination.  Again each organ can be radically different from the next, even within the same builder.  On one organ an oboe stop will be very imitative of the orchestral instrument on another it can sound like a small trumpet stop; on one organ the pedal 16' Bourdon will be very soft with the fundamental pitch dominant, on another that same named stop will have very little fundamental and strong octave overtone which makes a much louder 8' foot sounding stop.  These aspects and a myriad of others are what the organist has to remember as he adapts to each instrument. Often an organist (if he has any integrity as a recitalist) will have to radically change the combination of stops used for a particular piece from one organ to another because the tonal designs can be so completely different.

For instance, how does one get a French Romantic sound on an organ of primarily German Baroque design, or the converse?  If an organist doesn't know that organ inside and out it will be reflected in a complete lack of colour and dynamism in his performance.

Granted that's a lot to remember above and beyond the printed page.  Notwithstanding, the fact that anyone or all of these items can make convincing excuses doesn't alter the reality that they are still excuses, not reasons, for not playing from memory.  It's all part of the challenge of being an organist.  When an organist has memorised the instrument and the music so that it is all second nature to him (I know, I know I promised to alternate, but I'm getting sick this overly PC crap) there's isn't solo recitalist, except for possibly a singer, who can electrify an audience as an organist who is in total command of his instrument.  Observe any of the videos on Youtube of Virgil Fox or Paul Jacobs and you'll see what I mean.  It's rare performers like them who prove that the organist can be the greatest of musicians and the organ the "King of Instruments."


Posted by ralph.fisher at 1:08 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 13 August 2009 1:27 AM EDT
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Sunday, 2 August 2009
Smoot Smites Verizon Organ (concert review)
Mood:  irritated
Topic: concert reviews

The Kimmel Centre, to their credit, has been very diligent about promoting the grand organ in Verizon Hall by having a series of solo recitals by ostensibly "name" concert organists.  Unfortunately, almost all (possibly excepting two) are musicians of whom virtually no one outside the organ world knows.  These are people who "concert" careers consist primarily of giving dedicatory recitals at churches and AGO conventions.  And this is for good reason: most so-called concert organists are a s dull as dishwater.

Thursday night (30/VII/09) proved to be such a case in point.  Suburban (she's from Devon) Philadelphia-raised organist Ann Elise Smoot gave her Kimmel Centre Presents debut at the organ in Verizon Hall with what looked to be an interesting programme of French & German Baroque, French Romantic, French & Swiss  20th Century music. In an attempt to display the Kimmel Centre organ's versatility Ms. Smoot began the programme with the first movement from Charles Marie Widor's (1844-1937) Symphony #5 ( the one that has as its last movement the famous "Toccata"), so as to show off the Romantic/Symphonic capabilities of the instrument, followed by André Raison's (1650-1719) "Offerte du 5éme ton" from his "Premier Livre d'orgue" demonstrating the organ's equal aplomb for French Baroque music.  Ms. Smoot, following the now de rigueur practise of speaking to the audience before playing, gave  some rather pedantic programme notes, which unfortunately, forebode of the playing to come.  The Widor was very correct and uninspired.  From the beginning, even though the dynamics were right there was no drive; the result of a very bland (I won't go into details) registration and lack of phrasing.  A major part of this stemmed from lack of steady flow through what is a Theme and Variations. Organists seem to have particular difficulty maintaining an even flow, continuity, with this musical form, and Ms. Smoot proved to be no exception. It would have helped if she had memorised her programme so that we wouldn't have had to endure her holding down a chord at the end of a variation whilst she turned the page. Moreover, one wonders how familiar she was with the instrument and how much time she actually spent with it.  Not once during the entire recital did she reach over and change a stop by hand.

The Raison, was a mildly amusing diversion which did show off that peculiarly French organ sound the "cornet."  Part of the unique timbre to this combination is the "tierce" which sounds traditionally two octaves and a third above the fundamental pitch.  Ravel uses it in Bolero and Saint-Saëns (himself an organist) uses it in the 5th ("Egyptian") Piano Concerto.   Although occasionally effective as a solo line, it is a singularly ugly sound in ensemble; a good enough reason not to programme this music in recital. Another reason being that most of this stuff is really nothing more than service music for the church.  

As if one Raison piece wasn't enough Ms. Smoot had to give us two.  This one would have served all the necessary requirements for her purposes of programming a French Baroque piece with the additional benefit of being mercifully short.  This little "Passacaglia" (according to E. Power Biggs in his Treasury of Early Organ Music) Ms. Smoot informed the audience, is considered by some to be the thematic source for the much larger scale "Passacaglia & Fugue in c" BWV 582 by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) which followed.   

It is usually through the performances of Bach that we find out how really dull and unimaginative most organists are.  And Ms. Smoot did not fail to keep those expectations stereotypically low.  The Passacaglia is a work of great breadth with 21 variations on what is supposed to be an extended version of the little Raison piece which preceded it.  Such a piece needs an artist who understands and has the imagination to see and realise the arch of it.  Ms. Smoot had no idea. None. Starting off with a full Baroque sound (minus the reeds) she virtually had no where to go. Instead of starting soft and then gradually getting loud, she started loud and then got louder and stayed loud throughout most of the Passacaglia with only a very brief respite somewhere in the middle. After an extended period of monotonous forte she finally concludes the Passacaglia fortissimo, which by that time had become totally ineffectual. The Fugue (which by the way, Ms. Smoot, is a double fugue) immediately follows. Now one would think, maybe, just maybe, we'd get some sort of respite; pull back to a point from which you can build. Not a chance.  Ms Smoot's idea of variety is, instead of giving us fortissimo she'll give us forte. Just like the beginning it was pretty much one registration all the way through until the last page (yes, she played from music for this too); in which she brought the piece to a conclusion with most of the organ.  By that time I had become so inured to this overall mono dynamic performance I was just glad it was over.  Another problem of reading a recital, if your page tuner is slow it's going to  screw you up, which occurred more than once in this piece.

All of that notwithstanding, the thing that drove me crazy is:  this organist (like 9999999999.99% of most organists) needs to learn 1) the legato line and 2) how to identify and articulate the phrase.  Ms Smoot is obviously of a certain school of Baroque articulation (which I need not go into here) that dictates that you must play every four notes the same way all the time, regardless of the shape or arch of the phrase.  Pedal articulation is merely a series of thumps with no regard to any melodic idea that might possibly occur.  Somewhere along the line Ms Smoot got the idea this way of playing works for everything.  It's an immensely annoying way of playing. 

The "Skandinavisch" from the 16th Sonata by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) was pleasurable diversion and a considerable relief from the previous cacophony. The contrasts between the major and minor sections were clear enough but, again lacked imagination.  On the organ strict adherence to a composer's registration can often be counterproductive to the realisation of the intent.  A little creativity can go a long way, Ms. Smoot.

I did thoroughly enjoy the Mendelssohn (1809-1847) "Allegro, Choral and Fugue" in D.  Here Ms. Smoot finally began to hit her stride; her weird Baroque articulation notwithstanding.

Finally we got to the 20th Century with a "Partita on 'Nun Freut Euch' by the contemporary Swiss organist and occasional composer Lionel Rogg (b. 1936).  It's a pleasant piece in which he applies a Neo-Hindemithian, Neo-Baroque language to this Lutheran choral. Of particularly astute craftsmanship were the Canon and Passacaglia.  The Toccata was a virtuoso tour de force which finally gave us the feel of a serious solo recital.  The last two works were by the prolific composer and brilliant organist Jean Langlais (1907-1991).  Here Ms. Smoot again excerpts from a larger work by playing the Meditation from Langlais's early "Suite Médiévale."  The movement is basically an improvisation on the chants "Ubi Caritas"and "Jesu Dulcis Memoria." If there ever was a need for legato playing it's French music.  Ms Smoot completely, almost cold bloodedly refused to give this delicate piece the phrasing needed to make it sing.  Granted M. Langlais didn't fill the page with slurs, but that does not preclude the performer from finding and intelligently articulating the phrases in the piece.  "Fete" was just that, a wild and crazy ride through the glories of the organ.  Ms. Smoot gave it a good shot, ending with the full organ. 

I'm glad she played an encore, albeit unjustified.  Notwithstanding, she played a gentle little thing from the second set of "Six Pieces for the Organ' by Frank Bridge (1879-1941), highly influential teacher and close friend of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).  Finally we got a chance to hear some of the lush orchestral stops, especially flute stops, that this organ has.  Ms. Smoot gave a very sensitive and compelling performance of this lovely miniature for the organ. Undoubtedly the best played piece of the recital.

The Bridge notwithstanding, this recital was, unfortunately, very typical of organ recitals today.  First, organists think they can get away with  not memorising their programmes.  Since most of their recitals are given in churches where the audience can't see the organist, they think they can slip by and nobody will notice.  Unfortunately, these organists don't understand why it is so important to memorise your programme. Because when a performer is suddenly thrust before an audience on a legitimate concert stage like Verizon Hall and he or she still insists on playing from the printed page, it's hard to get a sense of confidence from a performer when, no matter how note accurate she is, she looks like she's sightreading the recital.  How many audiences would put up with going to a play and seeing the actors on stage with scripts in their hands reading their lines? More on this later.



Posted by ralph.fisher at 1:22 AM EDT
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Friday, 31 July 2009

Y'know I've come to realise in my old age, that it's really all just a crap shoot: not in a fatalistic, predestined, Calvinistic sense.  Rather, it's just simply a matter of the decisions one makes.  What you decide to do with you life, the people with whom you associate, the people to whom you commit yourself, and how committed you are willing to be to the decisions you make.  The fatalistic part of it all derives from the consequences resulting from the decisions we make.  Because, let's face it, we really have no idea what effect of our decisions are going to have; at best we can hope that we've made the "right" decision: "Well, if I took this job I can show that I can do this, and that will make me look good to the bosses," "If I take this gig I'll get other jobs because of the connections," "If I just stick it out things will work out he/she and I will finally have what we want," "Well, this is only temporary and I'll find a better (job, opportunity, lover, et al)."  Then again, let's face it, we're really just all bozos on this bus.  You try to make the right decisions; and for a small number of lucky ones the decision making process works out; but, for a large number, probably a majority, of folks it doesn't.  

This is the crap shoot part of it.  We base our decisions on the resources at our disposal at that time.  However, we are at the mercy of people or circumstances; so that, no matter what we choose to do we often have no control over the situation.  As vital as it is to success for us to develop and hone our skills, that doesn't prepare us for the multitude of exigencies with which we are, and will be, confronted: some just by pure circumstance, others the unforeseen denouement of our decisions no matter how hard we try to control things.  Our fate at any particular point in our lives is frequently subject to the whims of others, at which point we are dealing with something that is as unpredictable as the lottery.  In my case, I had one opportunity to realise a dream; however, all the knowledge, experience and talent I may have  had for the industry, coupled with a fiscally acute business sense didn't prepare me for dealing with a scurrilous, unscrupulous business associate — in this case a landlord.  My decision to sacrifice my desire to be the next Virgil Fox or Leonard Bernstein, no matter how good or justified the reasons, at the altar of business, and its subsequent failure is a decision with which I must live, no matter how depressing and probably irreversible it may be.  Of course, that does not preclude anything good from happening either.  One never knows, maybe the next crap shoot, instead of snake eyes, will come up a seven or an eleven. 

Posted by ralph.fisher at 5:18 PM EDT
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Saturday, 27 June 2009
From "The Demon of Progress in the Arts"
Topic: General Impressions

This is an excerpt is an extensive quote of the last three paragraphs from the Postscript from Wyndham Lewis' book "The Demon of Progress in the Arts."  I find it amazingly prescient.  Except for a few dated media references this could have been written yesterday.  The scary part about it is that how much worse it's all become SINCE he wrote this tract:  

"We seem to be running down, everywhere in life, to a final end to all good things.  Compared to fifty years ago, when the supreme and ultimate rot began, our food –– our milk, our cheese, our bread, our concocted foods, everything, in short, is inferior, and there is every reason to suppose that it will get more so, decade by decade (italics mine - RF).  The cloth our clothes are made of has declined in quality, no only in beauty but in durability, to such an extent that no tailor would have the face to deny it.  The furniture at present manufactured, the materials with which our houses are built, the bricks, the mortar, the wood, the fittings, are notoriously inferior to what they were a short century ago.  Paper is not what it was, in our newspapers, our books, our writing materials and so on; steel products, such as scissors, pins, etc., become less and less reliable; the gut used in surgical stitching is no longer graded; but it is not necessary to enumerate this decline in detail.  Everything that is sold in the shops is necessarily inferior to what it was so short a time ago as twelve months.  Why?  For the very good reason that the word business may be defined as buying cheap and selling dear.  Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted that 'The business man is a crook.'  He is, by definition, dishonest.  The board meetings and conferences in every business establishment concern themselves always with some essentially dishonest device for putting money in their pockets; in the case of the manufacturers, the subject discussed is how, in manufacturing their speciality, they may cheat the public –– to make the public pay the same price (or more) far an article composed of less valuable ingredients.  This must involve a progressive deterioration of everything we buy, from the gas in our meters to socks on our feet.

"Meanwhile, the great suspense is a factor of daily, unrelenting ruin.  The enormous cost entailed by the fabulous armaments imposed on [us]... is alone sufficient to bleed us white, to maintain a dangerous fever in all our blood; and, since the arms we are now manufacturing are potentially so destructive that when at length they are used they may entirely alter our lives, they are responsible for the great suspense.

"Well.  Unless human beings are going to experience the same deterioration in the very tissues of which their bodies are composed, unless their skins are to lose their resilience, their warmth, and all the other qualities which make them so high class a covering for man to have; unless nature is to begin to take less trouble over our nails, our hair (that may disappear altogether), our wonderful shining eyes, which may become dull and myopic, so that spectacles must be provided for all from the cradle onwards –– unless all this is come about there will have to be some great revolution.  That is why talking about the alarming outlook for the fine arts appears so trivial a matter when one has finished writing about it.  It is infected with the triviality of everything else."


Posted by ralph.fisher at 11:43 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Whatever Happened to the Well Dressed Man of Woman? Part III
Topic: Society
Good taste, bad taste. If there's one thing of which a person does not like to be accused it's of having bad or poor taste. Unfortunately, since the 70's good taste is a concept whose paucity becomes more and more evident every day. Poor taste in art, music, fashion, writing have become the norm, coin of the realm. I mean, have you read or heard what passes for poetry nowadays? Case in point: Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural piece of prosaic blather. It's a testament to the general malaise of standards (which set the criteria for good & bad taste) that someone can conceive such tripe and be considered worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Robert Frost she ain't. Maya Angelou she ain't. 

Why the 70's? Because it was in the latter half of that decade that industry decided to capitalise on the hipness of being "radical;" when long hair, tie-dyed shirts, peace symbols and other nonconformist forms of apparel went from being political to profitable. So, we ended up with corporate execs and lawyers wearing polyester leisure suits with bell bottom pants and lapels out to the shoulder and either tie-dyed or flower print shirts to show that they were "with it." If a tie was worn it was as wide as a bib. And let us not forget the granny dress and the ultra-short miniskirt in which 99.99999% of women then, as well (Oh Lord) as today, should never be seen. 
Yes, it was in the 70's that began the long precipitous decent of taste in style. But that was just the beginning; the stage was set for the next great decline: Punk followed by Grunge, from which society never recovered. All anyone has to do is walk around any city, or college/university metropolitan area, or any public high school and see the remnants of the waste laid by the pop culture of the 80's. 
Then when you thought things couldn't get any worse, along comes rap and hip-hop with its foul language and glorification of the criminal life. As soon a the "music" became commercially viable so did the corresponding "fashion" of low rise wearing baggy jeans and oversized clothing. Oh, lets not forget the jock/frat mentality of the middle class with their backwards baseball caps and faux hip-hop clothes and scraggy beards.

My generation has no one to blame but itself. We raised a generation (along with the ensuing generation) of kids who were told that they were all just great, that everyone was special and each every one was entitled to whatever he or she wanted and that instilling some form of discipline would damage their self esteem. So, our society is blessed with two or more generations of people who can't be told anything, even how to dress. Fresh out of school (either graduation or dropping out) they expect to be paid whatever they want, come to work whenever they want and work as much or as little as they want because that's how they've been conditioned to think. Our colleges and universities have become little more than glorified trade schools whose only purpose is to make sure that what is taught are those things which are going to get junior or sis into a good MBA programme. That is all that matters. It has become the primary focus of both private and public education. The well rounded liberal arts and humanities education has long been discarded in favour of pure avarice. So how is one supposed to know how to dress appropriately when the whole of society is bent on the expedient?

Good taste, like any skill, is learnt. Good taste is a by-product of the understanding of those things which are reflective of a society taught that there is more to life than the temporal high of instant gratification. 

When one has learned to appreciate –– to relish –– the complexity of T. S. Eliot, Dante, Guillame de Machaut, J. S.Bach, Jan van Eyck, Frederick E. Church, Gerhard Richter, etc. then one can learn to appreciate the subtleties of the deceptive simplicity of a tailored suit by Joseph Abboud or a simple belt cinched shift by Kenneth Cole.

There's good taste and bad taste.Good taste simply reflects a discerning mind as manifested through a well exercised intellect and a highly developed sense of cultural history. Things which with our current education and child rearing practises are woefully in short supply in today's society.
 

Posted by ralph.fisher at 7:53 PM EDT
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Whatever Happened to the Well Dressed Man of Woman? Part IV
Topic: Society
A couple generations ago dressing down used to have negative connotations. It meant dressing below standard, below what was even considered appropriate for casual or sportswear. It was so onerous that the last thing you wanted to experience from a parent or your boss was a "dressing down." Nowadays, dressing down pretty much means avoiding at all costs anything resembling good taste, especially anything tailored, such as a suit (men's or women's), or a blazer and slacks, a dress, or a skirt with a co-ordinating blouse. Dressing down is a by-product of the 70's/80's commercialisation of the 60's free-speech, anti-war, "it's-not-what's-on-the-outside-but-what's-on-the-inside-that-counts" movements. This, of course, brings us to the idea of "casual Fridays;" which is little more than an excuse for not wanting to look like Gregory Peck in "the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit." A look I don't necessarily see as pejorative. 

The movie "Good Night, and Good Luck," made a strong impression on me. For those of you who haven't seen it, it takes place at the CBS studios in New York during the early 50's. What impressed me (beyond David Straithairn's uncanny realistic portrayal of Edward R. Murrow) was the setting. More precisely, how people dressed in that setting in that time: the men in their dress shirts and ties, and women in A-line dresses or skirts and blouses with mostly collar and stand or peter pan necklines. Now granted, this was an office environment in the news division of a major network; and yes, there was a sameness, an overtly conformist look (emphasised by the black and white cinematography); nevertheless, the setting was not atypical of the standard office environment of the time. The point is, they looked professional – people serious about their work and dressed accordingly. 

Ideally, I suppose, the world would be better if people weren't judged by what they wear, or how they maintain their hair, or how they smell and other aspects of personal hygiene – hmmm. Anyway, such are not the ways of most highly developed cultures. And since our society thrives on the visceral, what we wear is one of the primary determining factors in the way we present ourselves; it tells others a lot about how we wish (or, more accurately, how others think we wish) to be perceived. That includes all manner of dress, whatever the circumstances. Whether we like it or not, what we wear makes a very powerful initial – visceral – impression. 

Dressing down is just that; dressing down. It's a symbol of lowered standards; standards society has come to accept as the norm. It reflects the cavalier attitude that recent generations have fostered toward the imprecise, the unclear, the inexact. We no longer focus our attention on one or two tasks and endeavour diligently to assure their veracity. No, today we multi-task, which is a euphemism for companies to overwork and under pay employees so as to achieve what can only be at best the bare minimum. As long as we get the job done. Whether it's done well is really not the principal concern today. Businesses supposedly can't afford the time and cost of some one concentrating single mindedly on only one or two projects and doing them well. We proclaim the need for and supposedly value excellence; but, we really don't have time for it. We can't afford it. Yet, for some reason we have lots of time and money to redo the job again and again until it's right; that is, until it's "good enough." I use general terms because this issue of multi-tasking is endemic throughout our society. It does not matter whether the work involves manufacturing or supplying a service; multi-tasking, cutting corners, is pervasive. And it's reflected in how we dress. Treating your appearance seriously is no different than treating your work seriously. 

Oh, I can hear it now, "I don't need to get all dressed up to do my job well." Theoretically that's very true. But, dollars to donuts, reality dictates the opposite. Unfortunately, as Kevin stated, the sin of it all is that when you don't know an higher standard you don't know you're lacking it. If the standard of dress is slovenly, well, I guess that's "the style" and we're supposedly no worse off for the lack of knowing any better. 

Unfortunately, there is no surprise to any of this. After all we are a society driven by what is commercially expedient; and the key to commercial expediency is the lowest common denominator – what has become referred to as "Pop Culture," in which charlatans like Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, John Cage, Terry Riley, John Galliano and John Gaultier , and any street thug who spews violence laden profanities to a back beat are lauded as geniuses. Who needs to learn how to draw? Who needs theory and counterpoint? Who needs talent? Evidently nobody these days.

Posted by ralph.fisher at 7:53 PM EDT
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Whatever Happened to the Well Dressed Man of Woman? (cont'd)
Topic: Society
Don't get me wrong. I still believe in what were ultimately the progressive social and political ideals of my generation at that time. And some of them have partially come to fruition –– today's inauguration being an example. Moreover, I fully realise that the long hair, the grungy clothes, head bands, beads and other "accessories" were all part of that statement. Nevertheless, as with most large scale, unstructured good intentions, the "It's not what you see on the outside that counts; it's what's inside" philosophy of so-called open mindedness was easily corrupted into what has basically become a lame excuse for bad taste.

Of course the prostitutes –– er, designers –– of the fashion industry found it so much more expedient to follow, and hopefully capitalise on this "free spirited" so-called style of the times, they merely contributed to the overall decline in standards and personal discipline with which our society has now become so insidiously plagued. So called icons of fashion such as Giorgio Armani have been enablers of this trend. All you have to do is walk into an A/X store and see the gratuitously overpriced rags that pass as fashionable sportswear. It's become so prevalent and easy that just about any street thug who manages to make him or her self a successful hip-hop album, or reality show contest winner, or drug and alcohol induced former airheaded model, or any other talentless pop icon can become a "designer;" thus further perpetuating the fraud that looking like either a homeless person or a gang member is considered fashionable or "cool." This takes us further into the subject of what defines good and bad taste...(to be continued)
 

Posted by ralph.fisher at 7:46 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 3 August 2009 2:44 PM EDT
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Whatever Happened to the Well Dressed Man of Woman?
Topic: Society
I've been in the men's apparel industry now for a little over 3 years. I stumbled onto it pretty much by accident. Up to that point music and the music industry had always been the focus of my life. Even after the demise of my sheet music store "Heritage Music House" in Philadelphia, I ended up working full time at Tower Records Classical Annex on South Street. Meanwhile, I kept my fingers in the church music pie as Music Director at various Philly churches. After I quit Tower I decided to take on a part time gig at Lord & Taylor in Centre City Phila. since my primary work was at the now defunct St. Peter's Episcopal Church of Germantown. 

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to work in something different and fashion had become a source of interest to me recently. Of course, I can never involve myself halfway in anything; so, I began researching vendor sources, as in," Who makes this stuff for all these designers?" Most designers, of course, don't produce much of their stuff themselves; they license out production to any number of vendors who own the factories. I became more and more intrigued with the idea of not only knowing how the clothes are made (men's suits, even the cheap ones, are amazingly complicated constructs. What is between the outer shell and the lining is a maze of layers and sub or partial layers I need not go into at this moment.
Moreover, I discovered I have a natural talent for putting together a man's outfit, especially a tailored one. I suddenly discovered I had this flair for taking a suit or blazer & trousers and combining them with a shirt or two and three to four ties and making them all interchangeable so that a man can, with just a few items have a fully functional tailored wardrobe. I don't generally like to brag (which, I guess is one of the reasons I can't get a decent job), but I'm really good at this.

At first it was very interesting, exciting even. But, coming down to earth it is, after all, retail. And that's been my biggest problem. I'm a retailer. That's fine if you have your own business, such as when I had Heritage Music; but, working for others makes it very dreary and wearisome. Coupled with the duties of being a church musician and, well, weekends are non-existent. 
Moreover, retailing has a stigma to it that almost precludes you from finding work in another field. I don't understand why, but it does.

But, I digress. Since my active involvement in the fashion industry I've become more aware than ever of the dismal state of dress in our society. I'm a firm believer than fashion, not unlike the arts (or should I say the other arts), reflects directly on the state of a civilisation, either enlightened or barbaric. Unfortunately, the current trend has been toward the latter. The whole idea of looking like you just dressed yourself out of some dumpster is considered cool is a hideous product phenomenon originating uniquely from the late 20th Century, namely the late 60's

Unfortunately, it's one remnant from that era that actually stuck. All the struggle for political, social and economic justice; all the striving to achieve an higher, more enlightened consciousness have at best seen token achievement (racial & sexual justice) or at worst regression (economic justice). No, dressing like a slob just like all its attendant undisciplined and just basically rude behaviour, not to mention bad taste, seems to be the enduring legacy of the radicalism of the late 60's...(to be continued)

Posted by ralph.fisher at 7:43 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 3 August 2009 2:44 PM EDT
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