Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Not that we need one, but here is another reason not to go see Quentin Tarantino's movie "The Hateful Eight." They completely destroyed a 145-year-old Martin guitar from the Martin Guitar Museum. Here's the story. Kurt Russell was the destroyer, but it was apparently because someone neglected to tell him that he had to swap the real guitar for a prop one before smashing it against a wall.
Museum director Dick Boak told Reverb magazine they wanted to fix the guitar and asked for the pieces, but it was “destroyed.” He added, “As a result of the incident, the company will no longer loan guitars to movies under any circumstances.”
Never let someone who played a character named Snake Plissken play your vintage Martin!

* * *

I haven't the foggiest idea of how football works, but since I am writing this on Superbowl Sunday (is that an official religious holiday?), I happened to read a very funny piece on the game: "A non-fan's guide to Superbowl 50." Shouldn't that be "Superbowl L?" Anyway, it is worth reading because of this beautifully cogent example of music criticism:
Coldplay—the favourite band of people who like self-help lyrics set to music you’d hear on a mutual-fund commercial.
* * *

I think this is why people who work technique in more creative ways do better: "Scientists have found a way to help you learn new skills twice as fast."
"What we found is if you practise a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practising the exact same thing multiple times in a row," said lead researcher Pablo Celnik, from Johns Hopkins University.
Which is pretty much what good teachers tell us. If you read on in the article you might find that this is not as directly applicable to music as it might seem. The new skill involved squeezing a device to move a cursor on a computer screen. This doesn't involve skills like, for example, precisely positioning a violin bow to get a desired sound or any other skill involving shaping a sound. Still, worth reading.

* * *

"Where Classical Music Meets Social Justice" is a headline bound to provoke a few questions, isn't it?
Sphinx has had a historic impact on classical music. Two decades ago, the number of African Americans and Latinos in American orchestras was a little less than 2%. Today, that number has risen to more than 4%, and many winning auditions were past Sphinx laureates.
The competition has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships and prize money since 1998, sent alums to all the top music schools in the country and helped increase the number of black and Latino string players soloing with orchestras annually from nearly none to more than 25. This year, 20 semifinalists will be competing for more than $100,000 in prizes, scholarships and performing opportunities with major orchestras.
It is hard to disagree with the whole idea of encouraging people to participate and excel in classical music, but there is a tiny flaw in all this--should everything be divided up according to racial percentages? Does this apply to basketball players and long distance runners who tend to be overwhelmingly black? In the case of music, I suspect that ability is an individual trait, not a collective one.

* * *

At Plymouth University in England, scientists are finding ways to allow musicians with brain damage to communicate. It sounds like an amazing advance made possible through brain/computer music interfacing software and the collaboration of professional musicians. Here is the story: "Brain damaged violinist makes music for first time in 27 years with mind-reading technology." From the article it seems that Rosemary, and other brain-damaged former musicians, are able to make compositional choices and communicate them to players in real time:

* * *

Michael Barimo, whistler, doing "Der Hölle Rache" from the Magic Flute, otherwise known as the Queen of the Night's aria, even though she has another one, earlier on:

* * *

I hate to show musicians having embarrassing experiences onstage, but what the heck, plus, they seem to be laughing about it too:

As a friend wrote, this is why God invented binders.

* * *
If you are worrying about cultural appropriation, Josh Gelernter explains why you shouldn't. We don't have to refrain from sushi, yoga and toe rings until the rest of the world refrains from air travel (airplane invented in the US), polio vaccine (discovered in the US), music notation and things like harmony (developed in Europe), and most of the rest of modern civilization. Personally I am willing to negotiate with the Greeks for the return of democracy because, frankly, it's not working out as I hoped.

* * *

Here is an article about the use of music in political campaigns that is interesting: "How Donald Trump Broke the GOP's Music Curse." And there is some history and background:
In the past few years, Republican campaigns have turned into a kind of low-level war between musicians and the candidates trying to use their material. Tom Petty objected to Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann coming on stage to his “American Girl,” as well as to George W. Bush’s use of his “Don’t Back Down”; John Mellencamp, Van Halen, Dave Grohl and Jackson Browne all complained about John McCain’s use of some of their songs; Heart put out a blistering statement about Sarah Palin’s use of the song “Barracuda”: “Sarah Palin’s views and values in no way represent us as American women,” they wrote. Boston’s Tom Scholz asked Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to stop using “More Than a Feeling.” One anonymous Internet wag summed up the situation by quipping that GOP politicians “can only use country music or dead people’s music.”
* * *

For our envoi today here is the original version of "Der Hölle Rache" with soprano Diana Damrau. This is probably the most terrifying aria ever written for soprano.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Rule of the Kinetic

From Merriam-Webster:

Full Definition of kinetic

  1. 1:  of or relating to the motion of material bodies and the forces and energy associated therewith
  2. 2a :  activelivelyb :  dynamicenergizing <a kinetic performer>
  3. 3:  of or relating to kinetic art

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal had an article fulsomely praising--well, who do you think? It's the Wall Street Journal after all, the repository of everything conservative and reactionary, right? Actually, it was praising Kanye West: "The Case for Kanye." It is hard to summarize with a quote, though the subhead calls him "the most important mainstream rapper of the millennium." You really should go read the whole thing which makes the five assertions that:

  1. He brought emotional honesty to rap.
  2. He’s a rarity in today’s music business: An old-fashioned “album artist” who’s huge on social media.
  3. His winning streak over the last 15 years—six straight hit albums—is one for the record books.
  4. His influence extends to art and fashion.
  5. He’s one of the few pop stars willing and able to be anti-commercial.
The editors at the WSJ probably thought that this was just the kind of "edgy" piece that would show how cool they are. Judging from the comments, the readers disagreed:
Rap is rhythmic ebonics that has destroyed the minds, morals, and the real music industry.
It, like an addictive narcotic, has generated tons of money at the perilous cost of a lost generation. It's content is all fluff with no substance as each rap star is burned in effigy with the winds of a new generation. This clown "Kreepy Pest" will get bald, fat, and continue to be ugly as he soon will be humbled with the pangs old age! His once beloved minions will be more concerned with hemorrhoid relief as our ears are burning from relief of his nonsensical overrated gibberish doled out to the mindless masses!
Heh! This is to set the scene for another of my theories about where music and the culture is going these days. If you go and look at the videos (sorry, but there is no way around it) and listen to the music, you will notice one recurring strategy (apart from the foul-mouthed excrescences): the relentless kineticism. The visuals, the words, the music, are a constant stream of kinetic assertions: music as blitzkrieg. The repeated hammering blows of the jump-cuts, the drum machine, the beating over and over of the nasty aggression of the words most certainly have an effect. A very powerful effect that has generated a very cash-positive return!

But I can't listen to it. Even small doses of it leave me wanting to flee or shut it off. It is not relentless positive energy like we find in Steve Reich or Philip Glass, no it is brutal egoism fused to a mechanical beat. This kind of soulless kineticism seems to be the common element in much popular music. And now that we see it praised in the Wall Street Journal we see that its conquest of popular music is complete. It is the establishment. Which means, I think, that the kind of music I like, the opposite of soulless kineticism, is now the counter-culture. If the Wall Street Journal wanted to be "edgy" then they should do something in praise of Joseph Haydn. Now there is something edgy for you.

Pop music these days is in an endgame of decadence, as bad in its own way as the absurd excessiveness of late-18th century French opera.

Merriam-Webster: Simple Definition of decadence
: behavior that shows low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc.
The interesting thing is that you can have kinetic music that is not soul-destroying.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Making Classical Music Cool?

Anne Midgette, music critic for the Washington Post, has an interesting piece about the participation of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles in the Super Bowl halftime show. She is a good writer on music, not afraid to criticize where it is due and she has even left a comment here on the Music Salon. Read the whole thing. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Dudamel moves in a world in which meeting Chris Martin of Coldplay, and striking up a friendship with him, is not remarkable; and this meeting gave rise to the idea of getting YOLA involved in this year’s halftime show at the Super Bowl. If YOLA and Dudamel were attempting to make classical music cool for young people, this invitation clinched it. Three days ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic released a video of the young musicians practicing for and talking about the halftime show, and every single kid had such a huge, infectious smile on his or her face that the venture was already a winner before the show even started.
Classical music’s vaunted elitism is tissue-paper thin: The field is always almost pitiably hungry for validation from the pop world, while appearing to disdain it. But if the field is really eager to win over young audiences, this is the way to do it. As one girl put it in the L.A. Philharmonic video, other kids were now going to think taking part in YOLA was really cool.
The youth orchestra is a wonderful project and Dudamel deserves praise for his support and for getting them involved in such a high-profile performance. I'm sure the kids had a ball. Here is the promotional video:

Now I, out of morbid curiosity, actually watched the Super Bowl halftime show and I barely noticed the participation of these young musicians. I noticed they were there, but I didn't notice them as playing classical music as such. Here, have a listen/look for yourself (I can't embed, so just follow the link):

I'm not a football fan and so the whole thing to me seemed like a parody of something or other. Did you see the kids? There they are, right at the beginning. Chris Martin of Coldplay runs right past them in the first 30 seconds. There is a line of them, head-bopping and playing brightly colored string instruments, leading to the stage. Mind you, you can't really hear what they are playing (just chordal accompaniment anyway), but you can't hear the words Chris Martin (or anyone else) is singing either.

Yes, there they are, two wings on either side of the stage, then they get to move in to provide a visual backdrop to the performance by Chris Martin.

OK, now let's talk about this. Here is Anne Midgette's take on it:
Given the street cred, it probably hardly mattered that the musical component of that involvement was minimal. The young players danced out on stage with Chris Martin at the start of the show, brandishing violins and a few cellos ornately decorated with flags and flowers in the ’70s spirit of the enterprise. By the final set they had abandoned their instruments altogether and were simply singing and clapping along with everyone else — with Dudamel standing behind and between Beyoncé and Martin, looking like just one of the crowd and yet managing to be right at the center of the action. For those who had hoped for a great blow for classical music in the form of Beethoven or Shostakovich, it may not have seemed like much; but for anyone eager to see classical music take its place on the same playing field as other art forms in our society, it was a signal, and delightful, satisfaction.
Is she right? Speaking as one of those vaunted elitists, no, I don't think so. I think that if I had been part of this group, after getting over the initial thrill I would have been asking what we were playing and how it would be staged and so on. If I had known that this was the final result I would have said thanks but no thanks. Yes, really. I turned down lots of gigs like this in my time. My two basic criteria were a) to get paid and b) to be actually playing classical music.

Here is why this is bad street cred, not good street cred: a group of young classical musicians were invited to be mere stage props at a big sports event at which they played not one note of classical music, but just comped background to a rather dull pop group. That's not street cred, that's an insult to classical music.

Let's look at what Anne Midgette said. She accuses classical music of "vaunted elitism" which means vain boasting. Is this just a stock phrase required by political correctness at the Washington Post? Because if she believes it, it is a strange attitude for someone whose job description is to write about classical music. Does she not consider herself part of the classical music world? Is she pitiably hungry for validation from the pop music world? That is sad!

The whole piece, while seeming to be a positive tribute to a wonderful triumph by some young musicians, is, at a second glance, a kind of subtle smear of classical music. This whole sentence is representative:
For those who had hoped for a great blow for classical music in the form of Beethoven or Shostakovich, it may not have seemed like much; but for anyone eager to see classical music take its place on the same playing field as other art forms in our society, it was a signal, and delightful, satisfaction.
Ah yes, if we could just get away from those dead white men Beethoven and Shostakovich and take our place on the playing field next to Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé, then finally we pathetic classical musicians could find validation. Setting aside for the moment whether the Super Bowl halftime show has anything whatsoever to do with art in any form, let me say this to those who have this kind of attitude about classical music:

Bite me.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Forgotten Canadian Composers

But aren't they all, justifiably, forgotten, you say? Ah, that is what they would like you to believe! And just who is "they"? The Dark Forces of Modernism, of course!

Inspired by a comment left on another post, I want to talk about some Canadian composers that we tend to neglect--even more than usual, I mean! Canadian composers, like Canadian limbo dancers, are unknown in the world at large. There are some interesting reasons for this and they do not boil down to "they aren't very good".

The first and foremost reason Canadian composers are unknown, even to Canadians, is that all the ones who were around before the shift to modernism--around mid-century in Canada--have been erased from history. Believe it or not, in my eight years of music study in Canadian universities not one Canadian composer, dead or alive, was ever mentioned in any class. Sure, they existed, some of them taught classes in theory and, of course, composition. But they weren't studied. European and American composers made up the whole curriculum.

The earliest composers to practice their art in Canada in a serious way were educated elsewhere. One was Healy Willan, born and educated in England, he moved to Canada in 1913 and was perhaps the leading church musician in Canada. But he also wrote a great deal of other music. Here is his Symphony No. 1 in D minor, composed in 1936:

Another is Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté, born in Moscow, educated in Paris and moved to Canada in 1953. Here is her Symphony No. 2, "Manitoba" composed in 1970:

The generation of Canadian composers that were born in Canada begins with figures like Murray Adaskin, born in 1906. One inspiration for him was Stravinsky. He studied in Canada and, like many other Canadian composers of the 20th century, in the US. Here is his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra from 1965 in a Carnegie Hall performance:

Nowadays there are hosts of Canadian composers, the most well-known of whom is probably R. Murray Schafer. Here is his "Theseus" for harp and string quartet from 1983:

The question you might want to ask is what about this music is Canadian? Is it just like any other international modernist music? Are there any uniquely Canadian elements?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Marketing, Dance and the Video

My violinist friend just sent me a couple of videos that she said showed what classical musicians had to do to market themselves these days. Maybe so, but I have some misgivings. Here is the first one:

Great beginning using a string orchestra arrangement of the second movement of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8. Wonderful music: intense, driving, cogent and permeated with Shostakovich's musical motto: DSCH, the notes D, E flat (Es in German), C and B natural (H in German). The music is so powerful that even the agitated jump-cut, music video style hand-held camera work doesn't really distract. But then, hilariously, the director comes on and starts waxing rhapsodic about, wait for it, Benjamin Britten?!? Who never in his life wrote anything half as intense or exciting as the Shostakovich. Are we just not supposed to notice how dull the Britten is in comparison? He says how "dark, terrifying and sinister" Britten can be, but the music in the background is very dull indeed. The "dark, terrifying and sinister" we just heard, was composed by Shostakovich.

Music marketing like this may pull a few more concert-goers, but if they fall for this clumsy and misleading picture of the music, then they are likely to be casual attendees. The people who know enough about the music to be laughing out loud at this are likely to be discouraged from attending, don't you think? Dumb marketing, whatever the "production values" is just, well, dumb.

The other clip, also marketing The Scottish Ensemble, is even worse, though not as funny. This one is about a collaboration with a dance group to "interpret" Bach's Goldberg Variations. Oh, if only he were still alive so his lawyer could be suing them. The message here is that if you have fancy enough slo-mo camera work and groovy enough choreography and nice looking musicians and dancers you will be able to almost completely overshadow one of the greatest compositions in Western music. It wasn't easy, but they managed it!

All I can think of is a group of musicians out busking some Bach and a bunch of little kids come along and start kibitzing and cavorting in front of them. In his best W. C. Fields voice, the leader stands up and says: "go away kids, you bother me, and you're interfering with my gig!"

In case it needs to be said, the Bach is rather a complete piece of music, needing no cavorting to be appreciated. And, it is extremely difficult to try and play it while people are leaping about right in your face. I wish I had a subscription to The Scottish Ensemble's concert series so I could cancel it!

There, I've had my say, now explain to me how I am just a mossback, curmudgeonly reactionary in the comments.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Culture as a Public Good

I have lived away from Canada for quite a while now, but I still am surprised sometimes at where Canada is going. It is an odd experience being an expatriate. What prompts this is an article in today's Globe and Mail about Canadian culture as a public good. Here is an excerpt, just for flavor:
The policy tools that have protected and nurtured Canada’s cultural industries since the 1970s are unknown to transnational distributors of foreign content – that would be Google, YouTube and Netflix – while Canadian consumers are increasingly sidestepping the domestic distributors who, whether by inclination or by regulation, produce Canadian content.
Anything bother you about that? Canada is, of course, strongly influenced by being America's hat, as it were. A thinly-populated nation of a very similar ethnic and cultural background smack dab up against the most powerful nation in the world has to feel a bit defensive about its identity and culture. Canada is a cobbled-together entity, made up of those scraps of the British Empire left over after the American Revolution. A wonderful place, despite all that, but one that has always been rather unsure of who it was, exactly. Not American (shudder), not British (shudder twice), but without the rough-and-ready individuality of, say, Australia.

So, back in the 70s, it was decided that Canada's "cultural industries", meaning Canadian television, movie-makers and music producers mostly, had to be protected from US competition lest all we have to watch turns out to be re-runs of Law and Order. No! A stand must be taken, at taxpayer expense, to defend uh, great Canadian television shows like, uh, help me out here? Perhaps the Canadian movie industry which, apart from some Quebec movies seems to be largely American products shot in Vancouver like the X-Files and Battlestar Galactica? No? Great Canadian musicians like Bruce Cockburn, Alanis Morissette and Leonard Cohen? Well, frankly, I doubt they need money from the Canadian taxpayer any more than Celine Dion does.

So what I think we are actually talking about is subsidies to the cultural industries, not the artists, but the middlemen, happily standing in line for their handouts from the public trough. And this is supposed to be a public good? Could someone slap me please?

The article, by Kate Taylor, describes the nuts and bolts of what she calls a crisis:
Netflix is taking an estimated $445-million a year in subscription fees out of Canada; YouTube is taking an estimated $22.5-million in annual advertising revenue out of Canada; iTunes and Google Play are taking $50-million in annual music sales out of Canada. And half of the estimated $432-million in ad revenues that the newspaper and magazine industries are losing every year to digital platforms is also leaving Canada.
What this means, simply, is that individuals in Canada are purchasing those cultural artifacts that they choose to and that the Internet has made available to them. If they prefer to subscribe to HBO so they can watch Game of Thrones instead of a second rate cop show set in Vancouver (itself an imitation of a US model) then this poses a terrible problem for Canadian Culture, which must be controlled, manipulated and force-fed to the populace by the Powers That Be, meaning cultural czars in Toronto. What is being left out of this accounting is those dollars, big American dollars, that are being spent by Americans to purchase Canadian cultural products. Not much in the way of television or movies, mind you, but quite a substantial amount of Canadian music. Leonard Cohen fills big halls the world over so all that revenue should be counted as accruing to Canada. Celine Dion has sold 200 million records that need to be added in.

So, in reality, there is no crisis whatsoever, except in the pocketbooks of those cultural middlemen that have gotten used to living off the fat of the taxpayer while delivering nothing but bland, forgettable cultural "products" that Canadians have had forced on them. This is a particularly revealing excerpt from the article:
What’s to be done? There are practical steps that could be taken – you could ask Internet service providers to start contributing to the Canada Media Fund just as cable and satellite providers do – but since there is often public hostility to and misunderstanding of such measures, it might be a good idea to lay a bit of philosophical groundwork first. Why can’t we just leave Canadian producers to compete in an international marketplace? Why do we need Canadian content in the first place?
Ah yes, that public hostility that needs to be managed! Let's have a look at that "philosophical groundwork." There is not much there, but this comes the closest: a world where narratives and images are as powerful as money and guns, a successful society does not import every single cultural good that it consumes; that a creative society is one that creates things.
Let me be the devil's advocate for a minute here and say that narratives and images are NOT as powerful as money and guns. The Second World War was not won by the side with the coolest narrative and niftiest images--the Nazis obviously had the grooviest uniforms--but by the side with the most B24 bombers and aircraft carriers. Sure, a creative society is one that creates things, which is just the tautology that a creative society is creative. Sadly, Canada, apart from pop music, isn't very creative. To be quite honest, you have never heard of any Canadian television shows because they are feeble and boring imitations of American television shows, only existing because they are propped up with taxpayer subsidies. You have likely never seen a Canadian movie for the same reason (as opposed to an American movie shot in Canada). You have heard of quite a few Canadian pop musicians because they are creative and popular enough to sell around the world. They don't need any subsidies. And if Canadian television and movies were any good, neither would they.

The bottom line is that, basking in the prosperity of unearned public subsidies, the Canadian cultural industries have been cranking out crap for decades.

Any culture in Canada that is truly a public good will be sought out and purchased by the public because they see it as good. It is a simple enough concept. But that is an unacceptable answer to the Canadian Powers That Be because it offers, in the immortal words of blogger Glenn Reynolds, "insufficient opportunities for graft." Taxing citizens to give subsidies to people to produce television shows and movies that they do not want to watch is nothing more than graft.

Now I know you are asking yourself, "could Canadian television really be as bad as he says?" I offer in evidence an episode from a show deemed one of the Top 10 Canadian TV Shows: Mantracker:

After that we really need some Canadian music to clear the palate. Here is my favorite Canadian popular musician, Leonard Cohen:

It is pretty clear to me that the more you support and nurture the pseudo-creativity of "cultural industries" the more you ignore, if not actually discourage, real creativity. Case in point: Canada.

UPDATE: This has sparked a bit of discussion in the comments, so let me add a parting thought. What is deeply troubling to me about the Canadian approach to culture and the arts is that all of the agency is given to government. The "policy tools that have protected and nurtured Canada’s cultural industries since the 1970s" are all activities of government. Government has a very iffy history in this area, usually declining rather quickly into propaganda rather than culture. Analyzing how this works in Canada would be best discussed in another post (after a lot of research). One thing I am pretty sure of is that creativity in the arts and culture always, ALWAYS, comes from the individual mind. It is not something that can be protected and nurtured by government policy. Governments can offer patronage and some of this can be good. Support for orchestras and opera probably depends on this. But if we look at history we see that most patronage comes from a few influential individuals: French aristocrats, Russian noblemen, wealthy Viennese. Sometimes the Church or a municipality like Venice or Florence. But in those cases as well, I suspect that a few influential individuals were behind it.

If you want to support the arts, it is very simple: commission artists and composers and arrange for the works to be disseminated. How do you choose who to pick? Ah, that would depend on aesthetics!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Answers to the quiz

Last Friday I put up these questions:

  1. How many albums did the Sex Pistols release?
  2. What is the difference between serialism and dodecaphonic composition?
  3. Who, of these famous guitar players, is still alive? Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Francesco Corbetta.
  4. How many different pitches comprise an Italian augmented sixth chord?
  5. What does the title of Adele's latest album, 25, refer to?
  6. What pitch is the highest string of a Renaissance lute tuned to? A Baroque lute?
  7. How many tympani players are needed to perform Berlioz' Requiem?
  8. If you were dancing a branle, what country would you likely be in?
  9. In music theory, what is a pedal?
  10. Also in music, what does "Sturm und Drang" refer to?
Just like the last time, I didn't get many answers! Here are the correct ones:
  1. Although Wikipedia has details on a number of releases after the band broke up, there really was only one official, studio album released: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
  2. These two terms refer to basically the same thing: music composed using a pre-determined "row" of all twelve pitches.
  3. Just Eric Clapton.
  4. Three. In C major they are A flat, C and F#.
  5. Her age when she was writing the songs.
  6. Nominally, a G. On a Baroque lute, an F.
  7. Ten.
  8. France.
  9. A long, held note, over which the other voices move freely.
  10. A period in the 1770s when Joseph Haydn, in particular, wrote a number of very emotional symphonies, often in minor keys. It is often linked to the literary movement with the same name.
As an envoi to this post, here is one of Haydn's Sturm und Drang symphonies, the Symphony No. 44 in E minor, nicknamed the Trauer Symphony ("Mourning"):