Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Alarm Will Sound presents Modernists

Alarm Will Sound is perhaps one of the few music ensembles that has an actual mission statement:
Alarm Will Sound is a 20-member ensemble dedicated to the creation, performance, and recording of today's music. It is an advocate for innovative work by established and emerging composers, especially works that incorporate theatrical and multimedia elements by choreographers, visual artists, designers, and directors. It fosters the education and professional development of young musicians through residencies, master classes, readings and workshops. With the goal of cultivating a diverse and sophisticated audience, the ensemble brings intelligence and a sense of adventure to the rich variety of musical expression in the contemporary world.
I first encountered the group through their impressive recording of two important pieces by Steve Reich: Tehillim and The Desert Music. Alarm Will Sound came out of a group of friends at the Eastman School of Music in the late 1990s who noticed that music by so-called "minimalist" composers was never performed. Since their first concert in 2001, they have demonstrated a refreshing capacity to take new approaches. The recording I want to have a look at today is their most recent, just released in March. Here is the terrifying cover:


The raison d'être of this and the title is explained thusly:
Terror is often the first response to unfamiliarity, and some of the boldest forays into the unfamiliar have launched under the banner of Modernism. Listening to new sounds can be akin to watching a horror movie—with ears covered rather than eyes—but given time, what was once disturbing can become intriguing.
Alarm Will Sound ventures into the outer reaches of propriety on Modernists. The album is bookended by tributes to two masterworks of modern recorded sound that have been arranged for the ensemble: “Revolution 9” by The Beatles (arranged by Matt Marks) and “Poème électronique” by Edgard Varèse (arranged by Evan Hause). Each piece is strange and otherworldly in its own way, with a provocative history of upsetting as many, if not more, listeners than they have won over.
The 23-piece band led by Alan Pierson, AWS Artistic Director, also performs work written for the ensemble by Wolfgang Rihm, Charles Wuorinen, AWS pianist John Orfe, and Augusta Read Thomas (whose “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” features vocal performances by Kirsten Sollek and Caleb Burhans).
As the Denver Post has noted, “Alarm Will Sound has grabbed the future of classical music and made it now—merging styles, erasing boundaries, championing experimentation and obviously having fun along the way.” This joyful and adventurous spirit fuels the beating heart of the Modernists album.
 Now I have to admit that I ordered this CD for two reasons: first, because I wanted to hear Alarm Will Sound doing something other than Steve Reich and second, because I couldn't resist hearing Revolution 9 (not, as is often thought, Revolution No. 9) played by a real ensemble. Now that takes chutzpah! The idea of transcribing what is largely a piece of musique concrète into standard notation so that it could, notionally, be played by musicians in a concert is not entirely novel. I believe that Stockhausen did a graphic transcription of one or more of his electronic pieces in the 1950s, probably for copyright reasons. Revolution 9 has even been roughly transcribed into standard notation before, in the big white Hal Leonard book of the Complete Scores to all Beatles' songs. Those transcriptions, which are mostly quite good, were by Tetsuya Fujita, Yuji Hagino, Hajime Kubo and Goro Sato. Incidentally, here are the first two pages of that transcription:


They make no attempt to sort out some of the more confused and inaudible layers of voices.

So how does this new recording compare with the original? At the beginning, apart from leaving out a few seconds of muttering voices it is delightfully similar to the Beatles' version (which is the next-to-last track on the White Album). But as we move through the piece, the differences start to add up. Perhaps the most difficult to reproduce are the exact accents and intonations of the voices on the original tape fragments. The "number nine" ritornello is pretty good, but a lot of the other voices sound very different from the original. Other differences are the "feel" of the acoustic. The original tape loops all had different resonances due to where and how they were originally recorded and in combination all that tends to cancel out. This recording does have its own particular ambiance, which I suppose is part of the charm. Another difference is that cutting in and out of tape loops is a very distinct, but unmeasured, effect. It is really very hard to reproduce this feeling with actual musicians who have to "get in" and "get out" with some sort of preparation. Another problem is that there are some sounds, such as the choir, some percussion, and sounds of what seem to be firearms, that are not reproduced very closely.

But that is probably enough nit-picking! You might chalk all these differences up to a different "interpretation" of the composition. The overall effect is to "aestheticize" the original. By that I mean that the harsh juxtapositions and electronic effects are smoothed out as they are transferred to live musicians' voices and instruments. This process, by the way, reminds me strongly of what Steve Reich was doing in the middle and late 1960s. He had a number of pieces that exploited mechanical processes such as accumulating tape loops and swinging microphones (in Pendulum Music) and discovered some interesting rhythmic effects. But he decided that, unless they could be performed by real musicians they were not very interesting. So he worked with a number of musicians and worked out how to do that and the results were a lot of his pieces written in the 1970s.

The album contains pieces written for the ensemble by Wuorinen, Rihm, Thomas and Orfe as well, but the opening and closing ones are both transcriptions from electronic media: Revolution 9 is, as I said, musique concrète, while the last piece, Poème électronique by Varèse, was composed for the Phillips Pavillion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. The piece was intended to be heard just in that particular space and it was heard along with a film of black and white photographs by Le Corbusier. While just Varèse's electronic piece can be heard by itself, on YouTube, for example, a transcription for chamber orchestra that leaves out the images and the intricate sound scheme would seem to be a bit problematic. Here is how Wikipedia describes how it was originally heard:
Varèse designed a very complex spatialization scheme which was synchronized to the film. Prefiguring the acousmonium style of sound projection, hundreds of speakers were controlled by sound projectionists with a series of rotary telephone dials. Each dial could turn on five speakers at a time out of a bank of 12. Many estimates of the pavilion's sound system go as high as 450 speakers, but based on the limitations of the switching system and the number of projectionists used, an estimate of 350 seems more reasonable. The speakers were fixed to the interior walls of the pavilion, which were then coated in asbestos. The resulting appearance was of a series of bumps. The asbestos hardened the walls, creating a cavernous acoustic space.
The spatialization scheme exploited the unique physical layout of the pavilion. The speakers stretched up to the apex of Le Corbusier's points, and Varèse made great use of the possibilities, sending the sound up and down the walls.
 Both the Varèse transcription and the Beatles transcription are tours-de-force, of course. Most of us would probably have said, nope, can't be done. But it can, of course. Hey, if you can play Brian Fernyhough, then you can play anything!

So what is the aesthetic point of this present project? It is just a trick? Or does it have an aesthetic message? Is the message that we can humanize what originally was rather inhuman? What was the message of the originals of these pieces and do the new versions have a different message? If the message, say, of the Varèse was to celebrate technical virtuosity beyond the pale for conventional musicians, is the present recording a triumph because it says, yes, we can do it just as well as the machines? That would be a nice message. Does the humanization of the Beatles' piece say that that chaos has ended and we can move past it? What do you think?

We have to end, of course, with the Revolution 9 live performance available on YouTube:


While I admire this full-blooded presentation of unfamiliar music, I suspect that there is a lot more going on than can be captured in the simple typology of "familiar" vs "unfamiliar".

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Blogging Musicology

I sometimes find myself complaining that the program notes you usually find in concert programs are rather inadequate when it comes to the actual music. One example I think I mentioned somewhere had all sorts of biographical details even to the extent of mentioning how much the fellow who commissioned the work weighed: I believe it was 300 lbs! Fascinating, I'm sure, but the discussion of the piece being played was limited to a couple of adjectives. I usually solve the problem for myself by simply not reading the program notes, but I guess some audience members enjoy them.

But when it comes to blogging, where there is no real limit on the length of the discussion, you might expect to find a bit more detail about the music itself---especially on a blog that is labeled to be about musicology! There you should not be surprised to find all sorts of information about the music, even extending to, shudder, actual musical scores! So I was greatly surprised, browsing around on the blog dial "m" for musicology, to find that not only are there no musical examples, but there is virtually no discussion of music either.

Let's have a look at some of the recent posts:

"Othering and smOthering" is about "othering" the medieval mind. What's that you ask? Here is a concise definition from another blog:
Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other. The Greeks’ use of the word ‘barbarian’ to describe non-Greeks is a typical example of othering and an instance of nationalism avant la lèttre. The ease with which the adjective ‘other’ generated the verb ‘to other’ in the last twenty years or so is indicative of the usefulness, power and currency of a term that now occupies an important position in feminist, postcolonial, civil rights and sexual minority discourses.
 This is a methodology derived from cultural Marxism, of course, which is identity politics par excellence. The question to ask is are you really trying to assert that there is no such thing as people other than ourselves? Oh, you are? Well, begone! There, that problem solved. The post on the musicology blog begins with this:
In the comments of my last post, Elizabeth Upton warns me against Othering the Medieval mind. It’s a point well-taken. If we accept the idea that certain ways of thinking about the past constitute a sort of epistemic violence — or at least an epistemic boorishness, drowning out the voices of other peoples with our own self-satisfied monologue — then Othering is what happens when we ignore those things we might have in common with another subjectivity. In saying “they’re not like us,” we deny other subjectivities their full share in the humanity we presume for ourselves.
Ah, the delightful concept of "epistemic violence" which has the dual effect of both benumbing the intellect and shaming the interlocutor! Epistemology is simply the philosophical examination of how we come to know things, the foundation of our knowledge. There really is no logical justification for yoking it with "violence" now is there? Except as a disreputable attempt at manipulation. Recognizing, from the sources of information that we have about the middle ages, that there were some rather profound differences between how we think and act and how they thought and acted is nothing more than the recognition of simple fact. Contorting ourselves to somehow avoid the baseless accusation of "epistemic violence" is ludicrous. If you are looking at sources of knowledge about the middle ages, then how are you "drowning out the voices of other peoples"? This is nothing but a bad and inappropriate metaphor. Saying that there is a "self-satisfied monologue" is simple libel. Adding to this the claim that this is denying other "subjectivities" is just another libel. This is crap piled high on other crap. It's crap all the way down. However did we get to the point that we bought into any of this nonsense?

Ok, that was probably just an anomaly. Let's look at some other posts. The next one, Better Off Not Knowing? starts with a political smear and then wanders into Mick Jagger, ending with some misquotes of composers talking about borrowings:
In an interview I once read, Warren Zevon admitted: “Sometimes you’re better off not knowing where things are from.”  And, of course, there’s the cliché that a student borrows, but only a genius can steal.  (Stravinsky?)  And again, we have Brahms railing against people who seek to identify the sources of tunes, peering into the composer’s closet as it were (I’ve never found that to be entirely what it seems to be on the surface).  What about stealing something that isn’t there?
So let's just pass that one by as it is too confused to critique! The next post is titled The weird and the naïve and a lot of it is just weird. He does make a musical point later on:
Think of it this way. When you’re young, you have a transformative musical experience — you hear a great work of music, like a Bach passion, and you are swept away by its power. You think, this is a work of genius; its power and greatness is intrinsic to what it is; it has the same power and greatness now as it did when it was composed, and it will be as great and powerful in a year, or 100 years, or 10000 years; it is as great here in the United States as it was in Leipzig and it would be just as great on Alpha Centauri; the genius that went into it makes it essentially different from other pieces of music. Then you go to college and are taught genius is not in the music, but something certain people at certain times have attributed to the music, for various reasons that seemed important at the time; in other words, you come to see that genius is historically and culturally contingent, whereas formerly you thought it was unchanging and universal. In short, what we took for a work of genius is merely a “work of genius.” I have written at length about the difference those scare quotes make, and here I would simply suggest that the difference between the un-scare-quoted work of genius and the “work of genius” is the difference between an idea of music as having an essential meaning and the nominalist idea that such qualities as genius, power, and greatness are simply conventional words or concepts we attach to things.
 This seems quite plausible, doesn't it? I mean obviously nothing is truly transcendental: even if every person on earth recognizes that Bach wrote works of genius, we can be pretty sure those aliens from Alpha Centauri won't think so! How do we know that? I've never heard an answer to that, it is just one of those thing we are tricked into assuming. So you go to college and all that plausible stuff about context and attribution soaks in and the final result is that you somehow start thinking that Bach and all those other dead, white guys are just not as great as you thought. There is something sneakily illegitimate about them. We have "scare-quoted" them into something much less. Nothing essential about them at all--genius is just a label and probably an illegitimate one at that. So what those clever musicologists at college do, instead of passing on to new generations the great cultural traditions of the West, is subtly diminish those traditions. The process of education is turned from a detailed absorption of what has come before (Bach, Homer) into a nuanced shaming of us for even thinking there was anything special about these guys at all. Good job, hey?

We can skip the next post as it is about the writer's wedding anniversary. The next one after that is titled Hey, Hey! and it is about the new album by the Monkees. Nothing wrong with that, I mentioned it here a while back. But it is not really about the music. The one after that is about animated gifs. I think I can stop here.

This blog, which purports to be about musicology, is devoted to the "new" musicology, which seems to be fast becoming the "only" musicology. There is never any discussion of the music in any detail. What is discussed are peripheral things or music from the point of view of cultural Marxism whose real function and purpose is to delegitimize all the cultural products and traditions of Western Civilization as a preparatory step before the Socialist Utopia. I'll pass thanks.

Let's listen to one of those historically and culturally contingent "works of genius" that are really just, well, what? Interesting how what the music actually is, or might be, is never part of the discussion. This is the St. John Passion by J. S. Bach with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir:



Monday, August 22, 2016

"Reading" Music

I have scare-quoted the present participle in order to distinguish what I want to talk about from the ordinary thing musicians do when they look at a musical score. The kind of "reading" I want to do is not in order to play or analyze a piece of music, but rather to get a sense of the import of the piece in a social or historical context. Of course, a great deal of writing on music purports to do exactly this, but I want to do it from a fresh perspective, uninfluenced, if possible, by the sociology of music as it has been practiced for the last hundred years or so.

My method is going to be simple and direct--this is how I hope to avoid the usual wrong turnings that come from an excessively involuted method and from hidden assumptions and intentions. In other words, there will be no identity or class politics! I intend to pick a few pieces and notice how they project and reflect their social and historical context.

I think one of the things that we can read off from listening to a piece of music is the level of social or cultural confidence it exhibits: the ebullience factor, if you like! The history of modern Europe really began in the Middle Ages as learning and prosperity slowly began to emerge from the centuries of chaos that followed the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire. (Please forgive my bald simplifications--I am just trying to give a very simple overview.) Some of the triumphs of this period include the three Medieval renaissances that scholars have noted. In the last of these, the earliest universities were founded in Bologna and Paris. Towards the end of the 12th century, the first steps toward a sophisticated polyphonic music were taken by Léonin and Pérotin at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This is the first flowering of what would be the astonishing development of music in Western Europe. Here is an example, Sederunt Principes by Perotin, to my knowledge the very first example of a music composition in four independent voices:


What is really remarkable about this is that it came out of centuries of plainchant, unison single-line music not fundamentally different from any of the music of the ancient world. Now, true, there may have been lots of improvised multi-voice counterpoint going on in all sorts of cultures, but until an Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo figured out how to write down music in a clear and effective way, it would have disappeared as easily as it appeared. In other words, what happened between 1000 and 1200 is that in Western Europe composers learned how to take advantage of notation and voilá, the history of Western music really took off.

Just listening to this music, we can hear things like religious devotion, a delighting in the rich sound of the multiple voices and a feeling of space and stability from the long-held tenor notes. This correlates well with the contemporary architecture:

Notre Dame Cathedral
Let's jump ahead a few hundred years. By the 16th century the ability of composers to handle harmony through the detailed control of dissonance and consonance was highly advanced. Here is an example by Tomás Luis de Victoria:


This music also embodies religious devotion in sound and an appropriate architectural comparison would be to the Escorial in Spain. Both exhibit an almost mystical sobriety and restraint along with technical mastery:


This sobriety and restraint is perhaps a reflection of the brutal religious wars that tormented Europe between 1524 and 1648.

Once these wars ended and Europe managed to arrive at a religious tolerance, and once the threat of Islam was also defeated with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the existential threats to European culture were over--at least for a while. This is reflected in a greatly increased ebullience and in the growth of instrumental music which added to the timbres of vocal music. A splendid example is the Magnificat by Bach, born in 1685, just two years after the Battle of Vienna:


This wonderful extroverted brilliance continued to develop in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and one thing we notice is that the devotional character starts to vanish from the music. More and more it reflects the secular values of the Enlightenment. Yes, these composers and many others wrote religious music in the form of masses for orchestra with choir and vocal soloists, but the music itself is really indistinguishable from purely secular forms like the opera and symphony. Here is the Symphony No. 104 by Haydn that was very popular and played at some of the first public concerts in London:


The idea of music written for public performance instead of private ones just for the nobility really took off with the enormous growth of orchestral and opera performances in the 19th century. Large halls were built and large orchestras formed to play in them. And, of course, composers wrote larger and larger pieces of orchestral music for them. Here is the Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner for an example:


It is fairly easy to notice that, alongside the magnificence of this huge orchestra with its wide range of instrumental colors that we luxuriate in over the more than an hour performance, there is also the development of an introspective aspect. The music is no longer simply brilliant and charming, it is also ponderous and foreboding. This is the Romantic aspect of the 19th century. There is the sense that something social or historic is coming to be (also reflected in the philosophies of Hegel and Schopenhauer). Again, please forgive my excessive simplification.

As we move into the 20th century the confidence of European society and culture is shattered by brutal wars, not over religious differences, but political ones. Totalitarianism and total war comes close to destroying Europe entirely. The music reflects this very clearly as in place of the confidence and brilliance of earlier times we have tortured and agonized music. This is Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg, a thirty minute monodrama for soprano and orchestra. Note that this prefigures the dislocations of World War 1 as it was composed in 1909, five years before the war began!


After the First World War, composers tried to recapture the confidence of pre-war Europe, but they did it mainly with technical innovations and the Second World War caused yet another dislocation answered by even more complex technical innovations. I think that Le Marteau sans Maître of Pierre Boulez exemplifies this quite well:


Yes, this is sophisticated and highly complex music, but we are just listening to it in a simple, direct way. To an ordinary listener I think that the general impression is one of chaos and confusion with no clear themes or rhythms.

I don't want to take this any further in this post. To summarize, the clear certainties of the earlier days of European civilization enabled the development of clear and confident musical forms. But sometime in the 19th century these certainties began to erode. The history of how and why that happened is not going to be discussed here, but the effects on music are quite evident, I think. As the 20th century exploded in violence, the foundations of culture and music were shattered and the result was a music that reflected all of this. And we can hear it, very easily. It is right there on the surface.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Parker Quartet at the Festival

A couple of weeks ago I put up a post on the Violin Sonata No. 1 by Charles Ives because the chamber music festival here was featuring a concert of all four of the violin sonatas by Ives by Jeremy Denk and Stefan Jackiw. Alas, Mr. Denk had to cancel which was rather disappointing as he was, in my opinion, the main draw of the festival. On short notice, the festival managed to book the Parker Quartet for the two evenings Jeremy Denk would have played. I missed the first one, but went with a friend to the one last night. There were only two pieces on the program: in the first half the Bartók Quartet No. 1 and in the second half, the Schubert Quartet No. 15 in G major.

I don't think I have ever heard the quartet before, but they are very fine players, highly skilled technically, with superb ensemble and a high degree of expressive intensity. There is a good-quality clip of them playing the third and last movement of the Bartók on YouTube:


There does not seem to be a clip of the Parker Quartet playing the Schubert on YouTube, but here is a fine performance by the Emerson Quartet:


Even at this fairly early stage of their career, the Parker Quartet seem to have established themselves at the highest ranks in the string quartet world. They are superbly accomplished and don't seem to fall prey to the latest fashions, meaning that they don't bore us with long talky introductions and they don't pander to us by playing tangos for encores. They even play Shostakovich, one of my favorite quartet composers. Here is a performance of the Quartet No. 9 at the Library of Congress three years ago. Notice that they have changed the seating since this concert. The viola is now on the far right.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Sittin' in the train station

I humorously tagged this "busking" but this is winner of the the Queen Elisabeth competition, Boris Giltburg, passing the time waiting for a train in Delft:


I kind of like when people just sit down and play with no purpose other than to pass the time and amuse themselves (and us).

He's playing Prokofiev Sonata No. 7, I think?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a rant about modern art:


* * *

And here is a really interesting review of Grigory Sokolov's recital at Salzburg by Jay Nordlinger:
On Tuesday night, Grigory Sokolov played a recital in the Great Festival Hall here at the Salzburg Festival. The Russian pianist is a fixture at this festival. He plays an annual recital. And he is a hero of the festival.
This year, there were seats on either side of the stage—extra seats. I had never seen this in the Great Festival Hall, for anybody.
He is a remarkable pianist, Sokolov. At times, he can play amateurishly, incomprehensibly. You can’t understand how he got a career. And then you do understand—because he is now playing sublimely.
When he’s on, no one is better. And almost no one equals him.
At first when I read this I went "huh?" because, while I have not had the pleasure of attending a Sokolov recital, I have the DVD of a recital in the Theatre des Champs Elysees and quite a few recordings--all live. No sign anywhere of a wilful amateurness. Quite the contrary. But Nordlinger goes on to specify exactly why he is saying this and perhaps it is true. I really need to hear a Sokolov recital! Here is how Nordlinger describes the encores:
The audience gave Sokolov due applause, and they knew, probably, that they were in for a second recital: a slew of encores. Sokolov made them wait for a long time for the first. But then he started a Moment musical (Schubert). And then another. And then another one . . .
Ladies and gentlemen, it was sublime. Unerring. Perfect. The music was aristocratic, stately, soulful. I had no sense of Sokolov at all. I barely had a sense of Schubert. This was just music, from some beyond-earth place.
Yes, I know what he is talking about. Now and then, fairly rarely, one has the feeling that music is coming from a whole other universe...

* * *

On the other hand, some kinds of "music", using the term very loosely, are very much in our universe. The Globe and Mail has a remarkably dreary article about a piece by John Luther Adams that manages to combine the worst features of musique concrète and John Cage's 4'33. Wow, you would hardly think that possible!
It was with some trepidation that I set out last week to try Soundwalk 9:09, a piece the Metropolitan Museum of Art commissioned from John Luther Adams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. Composed of sounds recorded in the area, the work is intended for people to listen to on their smartphones as they make the eight-block walk between the museum’s mother ship, on Fifth Avenue, and its new outpost, the Met Breuer, in the old Whitney building on Madison Avenue.
So it is not just music for pedestrians, it is truly pedestrian music.

* * *

Somehow I find it reassuring that there are still audiophiles around who are this obsessed: A Gift for Music Lovers Who Have It All: A Personal Utility Pole. The article is in the Wall Street Journal and you can probably Google around the paywall. Worth reading. Turns out that some Japanese audiophiles have discovered that their neighbors appliances can seriously degrade the "purity" of their electricity, causing a less than ideal listening experience--well, if you have a sound system worth close to a hundred thousand dollars, at least.
Takeo Morita wanted absolutely the best fidelity possible from his audio system, so he bought a utility pole.
The 82-year-old lawyer already had a $60,000 American-made amplifier, 1960s German loudspeakers that once belonged to a theater, Japanese audio cables threaded with gold and silver, and other pricey equipment.
Normal electricity just wouldn’t do anymore. To tap into what Mr. Morita calls “pure” power, he paid $10,000 to plant a 40-foot-tall concrete pole in his front yard. On it perches his own personal transformer—that thing shaped like a cylindrical metal garbage can—which feeds power more directly from the grid.
In Mexico this isn't so unusual. By the way, it's not the utility pole that is important, it is having your own dedicated electrical transformer to convert the voltage from the transmission line for use in a domestic household. I know of a number of people with high-end homes that have their own transformer. An in-house voltage regulator might do the job for a lot less.


Mr. Yoshihara had a pole and transformer installed five years ago, along with a new circuit-breaker panel and wiring. Makeover cost: $40,000.
A performance of a Mozart violin sonata by violinist Arthur Grumiaux and pianist Clara Haskil after installing the pole and accessories brought tears to his eyes, he says. “It sounded so fresh and vivid, like they were playing in front of my eyes.”
“It’s completely beyond my understanding,” says his wife, Reiko, 57. “But if I take it away from him, he will lose the motivation to live.”

* * *

The really neat thing about choirs is that they can give a performance at the drop of a hat, just about anywhere. Even on an airplane: University choir gives impromptu performance on plane. Follow the link for the video.

* * *

Here we have proof that Olympic athletes do have multi-faceted talents:


* * *

We haven't had an article about computer composition for a while. Here is one from the Toronto Star:  Algorithm and blues: Putting a Google-written song to the test.
In recent months, the team behind Google’s Magenta project — which blends music, art, and artificial intelligence — issued one of the first results of its experiments with algorithms-as-artists: a 90-second piano melody punched up by some added percussion.
Uh-huh. Well it turns out, as we can see in the brief video accompanying the article, that if you give this little theme to some actual musicians they can, after playing around with it a bit, turn it into a really dull and forgettable fragment of a song. Or try at least. Three out of four decided it just wasn't worth the trouble. Now that is a pretty good critical commentary on computer composition.

* * *

 I ran across this photo on Alex Ross' blog: Schoenberg watering his garden:



* * *

Let's have some Schoenberg for our envoi today. This is the introduction to Gurrelieder, the enormous cantata on poems by Jens Peter Jacobsen. It was begun in 1900 but not finished until 1911, after Schoenberg had already begun to compose in an atonal style. This piece reflects the earlier influence of Wagner and Mahler. The performers are the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta:



Thursday, August 18, 2016

Music + Biography

Music and biography, specifically the connection between them, has come up a few times here at the Music Salon. An article in the Wall Street Journal lures me back to the topic: In Concert, Adele Talks Nearly as Much as She Sings.
During every concert on her current 88-date tour, Adele delivers a version of the same disclaimer to her audience. “I better warn you. I do talk a lot,” she said last Saturday night in Los Angeles. “I have 10 songs and the rest is chat.”
In fact, Adele performed 16 songs that night, but she was true to her word. The powerhouse singer devoted about an hour to music (68 minutes), and spent almost as much time (41 minutes) on banter.
This is a common element in a lot of popular music. Country and folk artists have long spun us yarns and the occasional jocular remark. One of the best performances of this kind I have seen was at a B. B. King concert in Montreal about twenty-five years ago. He started talking about a relationship he had with a woman and how it had gone wrong. This went on for several minutes until he said his final words to her, ending the relationship: "the thrill is gone!" The band immediately launched into his big hit of the same name. I should have seen it coming, but it was adroitly done and until he actually said those words I didn't know what song he was introducing:


I can't find a performance on YouTube with a spoken introduction like the one I heard--I assume that they typically just cut them off. This leads to the point I want to make: everything you do onstage, including bantering with the audience, is part of the performance which means that it is as available to be critiqued as the tuning and the drummer's sense of tempo.

Here is another excerpt from the WSJ article:
More than her sales figures, Adele’s loquaciousness speaks to the unique nature of her stardom. While tear-jerking songs like “Someone Like You” and “Hello” hit listeners on an emotional level, her candid chat helps them relate to her as a person. Some fans upload video clips that focus exclusively on between-song banter. In Minnesota, she cackled with laughter about a Burger King dish called Mac N’ Cheetos (“How can I not eat that?”). In London, she described the uncomfortable state of the thong under her gown. She described how she has cut back on her drinking, recalling a night in Barcelona when she painted a hotel bathroom red after drinking “12 jugs of sangria.” Recurring themes include her plus-size figure, the highs and lows of raising her 3-year-old son, and the self-doubt she felt while writing new music (“The songs were sh—”) after a long hiatus.
Go read the whole thing. They link to a number of clips of her chatting between songs and inviting fans onstage: sometimes to sing!

 Adele's talk during her concerts is rather different from, say, the B. B. King song intro: it is random details from her biography. The idea seems to be to enhance an intimate connection:
For Kristin Johnston, who spent $375 on the resale market for her ticket to one of three sold-out concerts in Chicago last month, Adele’s banter made the performance seem “intimate”—despite the fact that Ms. Johnston was seated with her sister near the roof of the 23,000-seat United Center arena.
“I enjoyed hearing about her life and the stories behind the songs,”
 This poses a bit of a conundrum for me as my basic position is that the biography of the musician has nothing substantial to do with the music itself. I was particularly critical of the whole idea in this post: Mozart's Family Life. I made my point more strongly in this post: Psycho-music-history. But it seems as if every Adele concert is a repudiation of my theory. Or is it?

I suppose there are a couple of approaches available. I could question the psychological theory underlying the claims, as I did with the book on Mozart by Maynard Solomon, but Adele isn't presenting any kind of psychological theory, she is just telling us about her thong. Perhaps her approach works because it contradicts the prevailing tendency in pop music, which is to idealize and glorify the artists, presenting them as divas far above the quotidian world:

Beyoncé as Marie Antoinette

In a context where most artists are remote goddesses, presenting yourself to the audience as Everywoman, sharing the concerns and foibles of her audiences, is actually excellent marketing! Adele tends to play both sides of the street, though, as she is also a remote diva, extremely concerned with her appearance and earning enormous amounts of money. According to Forbes, so far in 2016 she has earned over $80 million dollars. And she has radically changed her appearance from the dowdy figure of her early years to the demigoddess of today:



Whatever she is doing is working as her concerts are all sold out. We could try and look at some songs to see if they do have some relation to her life in anything other than a trivial sense. But I'm not sure that it would be worth the effort. Beyoncé, in her latest effort, seems to be making the whole thing about her private life--which is no longer private, of course. But I have to admit to a certain amount of cynicism as to whether, again, it is sincere or just marketing. Presenting yourself as a victim these days seems to be the standard practice for both political pressure groups and performing artists.

In an odd sort of way this phenomenon seems to be the reverse of the age-old tradition of the story-teller and songsmith surrounded by listeners at the campfire. In that tradition, the artist spins tales of glory and fantasy:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

--opening lines of The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles

But today, the artist, alone on stage (save for a few spear-carriers called "the band"), lit by thousands of watts of glory, attended by an audience of tens of thousands, instead of spinning tales of gods and goddesses (she is herself a secular goddess) tells us about her thong and how she likes mac 'n cheese.

The 21st century is turning out differently than how I had imagined...