Saturday, March 24, 2018

Kinds of Bad

As I write this, I am sitting in my office while the dulcet tones of a Pan pipe drift in from the restaurant next door. This is, sadly, a normal state of affairs. Sometimes it is an inexpert flautist noodling away. What's wrong with this? Well, it is a particular kind of aesthetic badness that we probably need a name for. Actually, we probably need several names for different categories of aesthetic badness.

The Stale Maudlin: Genres, styles and instruments that have been so over-done for so long in such maudlin and clichéd ways that they are almost unbearable to listen to if you have any aesthetic nous. Locus classicus, the Pan pipe:

I think it is the seedy vibrato that is the icing on the cake. Similar examples would include "Memory" from Andrew Lloyd Weber's Cats:

The Empty Épater: This is when the composer, in defiance of any aesthetic whatsoever, simply sets out to annoy the listener with various kinds of random unpleasantness. This was John Cage's specialty, but others who indulged included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel and Sylvano Busotti. One nice example:

The Long Goodbye: This was the name of a slow-acting poison on The Game of Thrones, but I think it also describes quite well those pieces of music that wear out their welcome. Oddly enough, it is not through a paucity of material--Haydn showed us hundreds of times how marvelous music can be made from the most limited material--but through the dreary repetition of material, the choosing of tiresome material and just by going on much too long. I know that this will incur the wrath of a certain Canadian commentator, but my thoughts go immediately to the Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler where never has so much been made of the perfect fourth for so long:

An alternative choice might be the Symphony No. 1 by Bruckner.

The "More Cowbell" Syndrome or the "More Trombones" Effect: This is when the composer, for want of any creative spark, just decides that more is better: more percussion, more brass, bigger orchestra and, in the final stages of the disease, multiple choirs. The locus classicus, again, has to be Mahler, the Symphony No. 8, but we might give honorable mention to the English composer Havergal Brian, who contracted a bad case of Mahleritis. So here you go, Mahler 8 and the Gothic Symphony by Mr. Brian:

Also, for the visual effect, part of a Proms performance of the Brian symphony:

Those seem to be the main categories of aesthetic awfulness, but perhaps my commentators could either add some more categories or more examples?

Friday, March 23, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Blac Rabbit is a pretty good Beatles cover band who busk in the New York subway:

Ok, they don't quite sing in tune and they could sure use Ringo on the skins, but, not bad!

* * *

A friend suggested I take a break from furious practicing and do this quiz for relaxation. You have to identify pieces of music just from the score:

There are some really tricky ones. One of them only has the bit of the score before the notes! But it is clear what it has to be. I missed out some obvious ones like Holst and Vaughan Williams.

* * *

Here is an article about Bernstein's Mass, which is getting more outings these days due to the centennial of his birth, but is it even a piece of music? Or just a groovy experience?
Whether the Mass can be heard as pure music — listening as you might do with, say, a Haydn symphony — is something listeners get to decide for themselves with the just-released Deutsche Grammophon recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra and a battery of forces led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Is the piece better off as a live, shared social experience? Probably.
The recording, drawn from Verizon Hall concerts between April 30 and May 3, 2015, has tremendous energy. But, of course, it can’t deliver exactly what the Mass’ subtitle promises: “a theatre piece for singers, players and dancers.”
Rather, conceived by Bernstein and Godspell composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, the Mass comes across in recording as an erratic aural trek through music theater, sacred music, rock, classical, jazz, carnival music, and parade music, with a little Copland and more Blitzstein, and on and on.
Maybe the technical term for it all is simply this: groovy.
* * *

For those visiting New York, the Metropolitan Museum has re-opened the musical instrument gallery:

The new gallery will feature over 5,550 instruments from six continents – including violins and cellos by Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Amati. Mind you, the Royal Palace in Madrid has an entire matched quartet of instruments by Stradivarius.

* * *

Jessica Duchen has a whirlwind account of what happens when someone calls you the morning of an orchestral concert and asks if you can sub for a conductor whose flight was cancelled due to a snowstorm. Oh, and it's the London Symphony calling. Furious logistics ensue!

* * *

A rose is a rose is a rose, but the director of the Royal Philharmonic thinks that the "stigma" of classical music can be avoided by calling it something else:
There is a certain “stigma” attached to classical music which is off-putting for youngsters who see it as old fashioned, according to James Williams.
He said that orchestras must “recognise the need to change with the times” and “think more broadly” if they want to widen their appeal.
“Classical music has a certain stigma attached to it in certain people’s minds,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “There is a perception that classical music is for older people.”
He said that research commissioned by the RPO shows that they need to diversify their range of concerts in order to appeal to new audiences.
Ok, I have some suggestions: "white-tie music," "music of the cis-hetero-patriarchy," "music old white people like," "pre-hip-hop," "music from before the decline of Western Civ." You get the idea! Oh, and, just a suggestion, but if the director of your symphony orchestra thinks that classical music has a "stigma" then perhaps you need a new director?

* * *

The dean of New Zealand’s Auckland University has told members of the music department that jobs will have to go because they are being ‘subsidised by architecture’ we learn over at Slipped Disc. As usual, the comments are particularly interesting. One wonders if, once all those students have got good-paying jobs in architecture, science, business and so on, what they will do at the end of a hard day's work? Look at spreadsheets and architectural plans for fun? Or might they just possibly feel the need for some art and music? Hey, it could happen!

* * *

In honor of this being the centennial of his death, I am going to feature a bit more music by Claude Debussy than usual. This is the Victoria Symphony conducted by Tania Miller. I didn't choose this version because the conductor is a woman, even though she is doing a good job. I used to do a lot of concerts with the principal flute, Richard Volet, before he got the orchestral job. Also, this is one of the very few clips online that shows the orchestra in good quality. These are the Three Nocturnes:

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sviatoslav Richter

Why is it that so many of the really great pianists are Russian: Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Grigory Sokolov? I've just been exploring Richter recently as I don't know his work very well. He certainly is in the front rank of pianists. I've been reading an interesting book put together by the French film-maker Bruno Monsaingeon (who did the excellent film of a Sokolov recital in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris). Monsaingeon was in the process of preparing a documentary on Richter when he passed away. Richter was very leery of being filmed so it was a long, difficult process. But along the way, Richter gave Monsaingeon a number of notebooks of comments on concerts and recordings that he listened to. I will pass on some of the comments as I work my way through the book. But I wanted to quote a passage from a short memoir also included in the book:
I've never practiced scales. Never. Nor any other exercises. Never, not at all. Czerny neither. The first piece I played was Chopin's first nocturne, followed by his Study in E minor, op. 25 no. 5. Then I tried sight-reading Beethoven's sonatas, especially the one in D minor.
He also sight-read a lot of operas. Carl Czerny, by the way, was a pianist, student of Beethoven, who produced great quantities of studies and exercises for the development of piano technique. So what are we to make of this avoidance of technical exercises? The usual reason given for this kind of practice is to make all the basic formulas, scales, arpeggios and so on, absolutely automatic by practicing them in a context where there are no musical elements to distract one. The idea is to develop touch and control by simplifying the context. But does everyone need to follow this path? Apparently not, if Richter is a reliable witness. Could he be lying? Yes, possibly. But it is more likely that he was just one of those extremely rare individuals who had enormous physical and mental gifts so that he could focus on anything he played and use it to establish and refine his technique. Before I began serious studies with a maestro, I did much the same thing: almost the first piece I tried to learn was the Chaconne by Bach and I used to spend hour after hour sight-reading through great piles of music. Was I developing my technique? Or was I just developing bad habits? I really am not sure. My sense is that when I did begin studying with José Tomás in Spain that I had no particular bad habits to overcome. So perhaps my obsessive concern with developing a perfect technique was a bit misplaced? I am honestly not sure. This is a pretty good reason to read a book like this. Assuming that Richter is being honest and candid, it can cause you to question a lot of basic assumptions. However, one should not assume that one has talent on the scale of someone like Richter!

Here is another quote, this time regarding Prokofiev. Richter gave the premieres of the Piano Sonatas nos 7 and 9 by Prokofiev (the former of which he learned in four days):
Sergey Prokofiev was an extremely interesting person, but ... dangerous. He was capable of hurling you against a wall. One day a pupil was playing him his Third Concerto, accompanied by his teacher at a second piano, when the composer suddenly got up and grabbed the teacher by the neck, shouting: "Idiot! You don't even know how to play, get out of the room!" To a teacher!
Well, yes, there are a surprising number of established teachers who really are not very good musicians.

Speaking of Gilels, there is an anecdote about him. During his first tour in the United States he was greeted with rave reviews from the critics. His response: "wait until you hear Richter!" Here he is with the Sonata No. 7:

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

81-year-old pianist makes debut

Anne Midgette has a piece in the Washington Post about an upcoming debut at the Kennedy Center:
The Kennedy Center will see a long-overdue debut Friday when the composer Philip Glass, 81, will perform there for the first time, playing his piano etudes with four other pianists as part of the Direct Current festival. On March 16, the festival will present another Glass work: the score to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film “Koyaanisqatsi,” with the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Washington Chorus.
Not this Friday, sorry, the article is a few days old. You have to really admire Philip Glass for his stamina, productivity and agelessness. No child prodigy, he! Indeed, he had to support himself working at various jobs including driving a cab and doing plumbing and furniture moving well into his forties. Since then he has managed to live off commissions and performances. As he said recently, if you live long enough, you can actually make a living at this! I recommend his memoir, Words Without Music, a pretty good read, even if one longs for an unauthorized biography.

It seems that most of the composers who really managed a prolific production of music throughout their lives were ones who discovered a niche and then explored it over and over again, always discovering new glints of creativity. A couple of examples would be Dominico Scarlatti with his 555 keyboard sonatas and Joseph Haydn with his 106 symphonies. Philip Glass has a harmonic and rhythmic spectrum that, while certainly limited, has served him very well for decade after decade.

Here are the first ten of his Piano Etudes:

Monday, March 19, 2018


I just finished reading a very disturbing article in the Boston Globe about the way James Levine allegedly conducted himself with his proteges over several decades. Disturbing because it is the kind of thing that can happen with someone who is very charismatic, very talented and somewhat empty, morally. Perhaps he was borderline sociopathic.
As Albin Ifsich, a young violin student, stood in the doorway, the conductor wanted to know one thing: If he could save just one person, who would it be — the conductor or the violinist’s own mother?
“If you pick your mother,” Ifsich recalled the conductor telling him, “you will walk out this door and never see me again. If you pick me, you will close the door, step into this house, and be with me forever.”
It was the fall of 1968, and for Ifsich, a 20-year-old student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the answer was clear: He must choose James Levine, the magnetic conductor who’d developed a provocative cult-like following among a small group of students at the institute and who, 50 years later, would be accused of sexual assault while leading the school’s University Circle Orchestra.
That's the opening and you don't have to read any further to recognize that here you are dealing with the kind of malignant egoism that knows no bounds. I doubt that I ever met anyone quite this unsavory in my career--the closest was a conductor at the first music school I attended who tended a bit this way as well, though he was a heterosexual. The one time I sensed this kind of manipulation from him, when he was asking me to take part in a new contemporary piece and thought he could motivate me by demeaning the last performance I gave, my reaction was likely not what he expected: I handed him back the part and told him to get someone else.

I seem to have a kind of radar for this kind of personality. I can sense it from afar and steer clear. In my mind there is nothing to be gained by becoming part of a personality cult. Indeed, this really repudiates all your responsibilities as an artist. And what a lot of horseshit Levine was peddling:
interviews with nearly two dozen former students and musicians from Levine’s Cleveland days, including six from the maestro’s inner circle, indicate the conductor’s alleged sexual behavior was part of a sweeping system to control this core group. As Levine yoked his musical gifts and position to a bid for power, he dictated what they read, how they dressed, what they ate, when they slept — even whom they loved.
 Oh, please! The first requirement of an artist, in my view, is not to be controlled by some ambitious ass.
Lestock, who in the summer of 1972 traveled with Levine’s entourage to the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, said the conductor’s efforts to “un-inhibit” his players occasionally became physically abusive.
He recounted an episode when Levine, who was staying at a nearby hotel, started to berate Lestock for his lack of emotional range, saying he was unhappy with his musical progress.
“He asked me to take my clothes off and he started pinching me,” said Lestock, who added that Levine zeroed in on the sensitive inner-thigh flesh near his groin. “The emotional and physical pain got so great — I didn’t know why he was hurting me.”
Lestock said that although he began to weep, Levine was relentless and would not stop pinching him.
Yes, musicians, when they are this cut off from ordinary life, can fall into such repugnant and ridiculous beliefs and behaviors. But it is still astonishing to read that this was justified by some aesthetic nonsense. The truth is that there are always little corners in the music world where people like this can attain to a position of power and wreak their will on the vulnerable. Levine just seems to have been the most prominent of this tribe.

I don't know Levine's work as a conductor--for some reason I have never made any attempt to seek out his recordings. For this reason, I am not devastated at these revelations. If similar things were revealed about musicians that I have great respect for, such as Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolas Harnoncourt, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Dmitri Shostakovich, Grigory Sokolov or Mstislav Rostropovich, I would likely feel quite differently.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 12

Not premiered until 1976, Gubaidulina's cantata for baritone and chamber orchestra, written in 1968, on texts from the Rubiyat is a single-movement work in seven sections. The use of the voice is quite original, utilizing pitched sounds, breathing sounds, spoken words, glissandi, whispering, falsetto and so on.

The premiere in the Hall of the Composers Union was very successful and was followed by a banquet for all the participants (for which the composer borrowed the funds from somewhere!).

Soon after, in April 1977, Gubaidulina completed a piece for flute quartet for the ensemble founded in the 60s by Pierre-Yves Artaud in Paris. Artaud was a specialist in 20th century repertoire and attended composition classes by Messiaen and Jolivet. The piece was premiered in February 1979 in the church of St. Denis on the outskirts of Paris. Gubaidulina was more and more unsuccessful in getting premieres of her new works inside the Soviet Union so risked premiering works in other countries. As a protection from political retaliation, her name was not listed on the program! This piece was one of a group of works written for instruments in the same family that included the Trio for Three Trumpets and the Duo Sonata for two bassoons.

In October 1977 the members of Astraea, the composer's improvisatory trio that included Gubaidulina, travelled to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where they collected a number of folk instruments including the tar, Gubaidulina's favorite. Persian in origin, the tar has a figure-eight shaped body of mulberry wood and nine to eleven metal strings.

Gubaidulina has made a point of studying the folk music of a number of cultures: Armenian, Georgian, Yakutian, African, Balinese, Indian, Tibetan and so on.

A work from a bit later, 1982, and one that is, after her violin concerto Offertorium, one of the most-performed of her music is her Seven Words (of Jesus Christ on the Cross). The piece has solo parts for cello and bayan, the Russian accordion.

Just to reiterate, what I am doing in this series of posts is just going through the biography by Michael Kurtz and listening to the works in roughly chronological order. At the end I am going to do some closer examination of a few representative pieces with a bit of analysis.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Real Recompense

I was standing in the doorway to my office the other day when a guitarist, passing by, stopped to greet me. It took me a minute to remember his name, Antonio. He teaches guitar at the local music school and a few years ago he came to see me for two or three lessons because he was having trouble with his right hand. Due to using the muscles in an odd way, he had developed severe tension in his hand to the point that it was nearly immobile. I worked with him on rebuilding his right hand technique and he seemed to be improving. I hadn't seen him in years so I asked him how his hand was. He thanked me effusively and said I had saved his guitar-playing! We talked a bit about what he was playing these days (Villa-Lobos etudes and preludes). He said again, "gracias, maestro!" and took his leave. "Maestro" in the context he used it, means "master."

A few years ago I helped out two other professional guitarists with similar problems and they too ended up rebuilding their technique and credit me with saving their ability to play. It is often the very enthusiasm and dedication to the instrument that gets musicians in trouble because they practice even though their body is trying to tell them something is wrong. I remember a video of Isaac Stern one time saying that every hour you practice incorrectly takes a couple of hours of practicing correctly to fix. Sad, but true.

I'm not sure exactly how I figured out guitar technique, but starting on the electric bass guitar might have had some influence. I was fifteen or sixteen when I finally got interested in music. I wanted to play the drums but my mother, after visiting the local music shop, came home and said "we can't afford to rent drums for you, they cost $10 a month!" Let me hasten to say that this was 1965 and my mother got paid about $250 a month. Our mortgage was $80 a month. Long time ago! You could rent a bass guitar for only $4 a month so that's what I started on. As my mother said "the bass guitar is also in the rhythm section!" She was a fiddler, by the way. So, apart from some abortive piano lessons when I was eleven, the bass guitar was my first instrument. Four very big heavy strings that you play with your right hand index and middle fingers. Pretty demanding for your left hand as well--you need lots of muscle.

Soon after I took up the six-string guitar as well and a few years later switched to classical guitar. I have a photo of myself taken in 1973 just before I went to Spain to study with Maestro José Tomás, so this is me before high quality instruction:

I'm playing a cheap student guitar, but the interesting thing is my hand position. For both hands it is quite good, no over-extension or obvious tension. There are a host of things that go into being a good player, but one of them is some basic physical aptitude, what my mother called "touch." She was a naturally good fiddle player and she used to say that so-and-so had a good "touch" on the instrument. That's a quality of string players and, I guess, keyboard players as well. I suspect it is something you really can't teach. Another element that is important is your sense of timbre. How aware are you of the exact kind of tone color you are producing? I have had students that were good in every other aspect, but they just could not seem to make a good sound. Another element is your sensitivity to the phrase. This is a purely musical element, of course. How you feel and direct the flow of a phrase comes directly from how you feel the music. On a higher level it is how you handle the structural flow of the piece.

With great musicians all the elements are present and reinforce one another. With pretty good musicians they have a lot of them and have to work on whatever ones they are weak on. So being able to analyze your own strengths and weaknesses is a crucial skill because you really can't count on anyone else, even a master teacher, to do it for you. And that's about all I have to say on the matter!

Here, by way of envoi, is Carora - vals venezolano by Antonio Lauro in my recording: