Sunday, October 4, 2015

Schubert: Trio No. 2 in E flat major, D. 929

At some point I am going to do a series of posts on Schubert who I am exploring in some depth right now. On the New York Times list of the Ten Greatest Composers, he comes fourth, right after Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. He was the shortest lived of any of those, dying at only thirty-one, but still managing to write an enormous body of wonderful music. I'm just going to pick out one tiny example today, the Andante from his second and last piano trio. This was one of the last pieces he composed and certainly one of the last he had an opportunity to hear. It was given in a private performance in November 1827 with Ignaz Schuppanzigh on violin, the first violin in the quartet that premiered most of Beethoven's quartets.

One of Schubert's great gifts as a composer was the ability to write beautiful, haunting melodies. Of all the great composers he was the most gifted song writer (he wrote some six hundred!). I suspect that the melody of the Andante will seem familiar as it has been used in a host of movie soundtracks including Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick. Here is that melody:

Click to enlarge

One characteristic structural device that Schubert uses, though he was certainly not the only one, is the restatement of the theme, originally in minor, in major. The drifting between major and minor is a typical feature of Schubert's harmony. Here is a performance of the Andante:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

On Recording

I am in the middle of a recording project this week and had some interesting experiences connected with it. As I think I have indicated in a lot of places, though not in so many words, I am a musical empiricist. No matter what ideology you have based your music on, or express in it, if I don't think it works as music, I am going to say so. Same with writing about music. I was critical of Suzanne Cusick's essay the other day because it was NOT empirically based on music or individual circumstances, but was instead a vaporous expression of her ideology. So, in the recording studio the other night, I had to deal with my own ideology!

Yes, we all have a little ideology running through our veins, even if we try to avoid it. Some people pretty much live their lives with ideology, but that's their problem. In principle, I am opposed to ideology. So what is the difference between principle and ideology? Some cynical folks might say that it is just a matter of perspective: I have principles, but the other idiots just have ideology. Not true. Here is an example of a principle: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That is a nice empirical principle expressed in a folk adage. And a very useful and true one. Here is an example of an ideology: the environment is fragile and constantly being threatened by human action, the most salient example being anthropogenic climate change (global warming). The difference between the two is that the folk adage tells you to refer directly to empirical facts, while the global warming one simply assumes its conclusion.

Here is a list of characteristics of ideology taken from the Wikipedia article:
David W. Minar describes six different ways in which the word "ideology" has been used:
  1. As a collection of certain ideas with certain kinds of content, usually normative;
  2. As the form or internal logical structure that ideas have within a set;
  3. By the role in which ideas play in human-social interaction;
  4. By the role that ideas play in the structure of an organization;
  5. As meaning, whose purpose is persuasion; and
  6. As the locus of social interaction.
The purpose of an ideology is to control public opinion as is revealed in numbers 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6. It helps the persuasiveness if there is an internal logic of course. But there is something huge that is missing: empirical truth. Ideology does not have to be (and almost never is) true, it just has to be useful. It is always helpful, in evaluating an ideology to ask, first of all, if it is true, and second, who benefits from it. Examining the structure of the climate change ideology would be a very useful exercise.

But this is getting away from the real topic: music recording. The project is to record my twelve songs, written for voice and guitar. To this end we have brought down a very fine singer from Canada and booked time in a local studio. The owner/engineer of the studio is also a Canadian. I have worked with him a few times before and he is very good at what he does and has excellent equipment. Also very good ears!

The first day we ran into some real problems: the voice, in the upper register, was so powerful that it was coming through the guitar mikes as strongly as the guitar was! Let me back up a bit here and describe the setup. We were both in the recording space, a room about 20 feet by 10 feet with sound baffles. The singer, a soprano, was on a $4000 Neumann microphone and the guitar was being recorded with a pair of smaller mikes (I didn't notice what they were exactly) set at 90º to one another. This is pretty standard for guitar. But the blend was not good and the resulting sound was problematic. We tried separating the voice and guitar as much as possible and adding some sound isolating baffles, but there was only slight improvement and the sightlines were poor.

This is where my ideology kicked in. Nearly all my recording in Canada was done in CBC studios in Montreal and Vancouver. They achieved excellent results by putting everyone in the same recording space and positioning microphones appropriately. Also, if you look at photos of classical musicians recording, it is also done the same way: everyone in the same room with a small number of microphones acting as a kind of imaginary ideal listener:

The engineer wanted to go more the way that popular recordings are made: each instrument on a separate channel, which meant that we had to be in different rooms, with headphones and seeing one another through a window. I thought this was a terrible idea for ensemble and sound: classical musicians don't record this way. So I put my foot down and insisted that we try again, but using a different microphone placement. The results were ... terrible! The voice sounded like an amateur recording in someone's living room and the guitar sounded like it was in a barrel.

At this point the engineer begged us to at least try his approach. He did a couple of things. The guitar (played by me, by the way) was going to stay on the stereo 90º mikes, but for the voice, now in a separate room, he swapped out the $4000 Neumann for a small mike worth about $600! The reason being that the Neumann was just over-sensitive to the voice in a high register and he had had excellent results before with the smaller mike for voice. And so it was. When we tried a take with the new setup, we instantly adjusted to the separation and the voice and guitar, recorded separately, each sounded just as they should. An enormous added benefit was that if either the voice or the guitar made a small flub, that passage could be re-recorded separately. It's called "punching in" and saves an enormous amount of time and wear and tear on the musicians.

So I instantly tossed out my obsolescent ideology about how classical musicians are "supposed" to record. Turns out that the best way, at least in our situation, was to go with what the pop guys do: each track separately. Here is a video of a voice and guitar recording in the conventional way for classical musicians:

Wow, looks like two Neumanns plus two, maybe AKG? mikes on the guitar and a couple more Neumanns (with "pop" screens) on the voice. In a nice resonant studio. And maybe they did do it just this way. But, you know, I kind of wonder. The voice and guitar are too perfectly balanced. Anytime that the tenor sings a fairly high passage he is going to be about twice as loud as the guitar. So how do you balance that as his voice is going to be feeding strongly into the guitar mikes as well? I also know another recording by this same (very fine) guitarist, Xuefei Yang, the Concierto de Aranjuez with orchestra, and a notable feature of that recording is how overbalanced the guitar is versus the orchestra meaning that they used some kind of recording wizardry to change the natural balance. So it might have been the case with this recording that they did the tracks separated and then shot the video later, lip-syncing with the pre-recorded tracks. Or not, I'm not certain! Here is something we can compare. This is a video of Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang performing the same song at the 2013 Gramophone awards live, i.e. without any recording wizardry. Notice how the guitar is often covered by the voice, rendering what it is doing nearly inaudible?

So the bottom line is: what are the results? If you are not getting the right sound, then don't be afraid to try any solution, even if it is outside your ideological envelope. And listen to your engineer!

The mark of an ideology, as opposed to a principle, is that it does not conform to the facts in the real world, but rather to an idealized goal. Best to pay attention to the facts.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

I wish I could think of a way of doing a similar representation of contemporary music:

* * *

* * *

One of the Hot New Things in music is supposedly the group with the misspelled name Chvrches:

Like most pop music it consists of All The Usual Clichés and Formulas. Apparently pop musicians are no longer capable of imagining music that does not have a rigid backbeat, dreary melodies and the Procrustean bed of strict four-bar phrases.

* * *

I'm going to take what might seem a surprising position on this issue: "A Facelift for Shakespeare." So much vocabulary has shifted since Shakespeare wrote, four hundred years ago, that about 10% of his language is simply incomprehensible to us. The solution is to replace that 10% with words we will understand. Now, of course, there can be serious objections. A lot of Shakespeare depends on very subtle wordplay. For example, nearly everything that the Nurse says in Romeo and Juliet is an obscene pun. But we miss virtually all of it! So an effort to make more of Shakespeare immediately comprehensible to us makes sense to me. As long as we can still get the original to refer to, of course.

Here is an example from the article:
Besides, this Duncan 
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been 
So clear in his great office, that his virtues 
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against 
The deep damnation of his taking-off.
This sounds like the English we speak, but what does it mean to “bear one’s faculties”? Or to be “clear” in one’s office? And why would there be damnation in Duncan’s “taking off”? Taking off where? To lunch?
Here is that same brief passage as rendered by a teacher named Conrad Spoke, who produced what he calls a “revolutionary 10% translation” in the interest of “allowing every student to make contact with the original text”:
Besides, this Duncan 
Hath borne authority so meek, hath been 
So pure in his great office, that his virtues 
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against 
The deep damnation of his knocking-off.

* * *

Brian Eno is asking us to rethink culture: "Arts seen as a luxury in the UK, says Brian Eno." Eno is responding to comments made by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan:
She said that as little as a decade ago, young people were being told that maths and sciences were the subjects you did if you wanted to go into a specific career, such as medicine, pharmacy or engineering.
''If you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn't know what you wanted to do, then the arts and humanities were what you chose, because they were useful, you were told, for all kinds of jobs.
''Of course we know now that that couldn't be further from the truth. That the subjects that keep young people's options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths," she said.
There are some half-truths in this, of course, but it is often the case that a narrow focus on just these kinds of "practical" subjects can lead to being over-specialized. You could find yourself working in an entirely different field from what you trained for and lacking general critical skills. Brian Eno's thoughts, as reported, at least, seem remarkably shallow however:
In his lecture, Eno said arts and culture are worth pursuing for reasons that are not just economic, arguing that they should play a central role in people's lives in a world of rapid change.
Eno said: "I think we need to rethink how we talk about culture, rethink what we think it does for us, and what it actually is. We have a complete confusion about that. It's very interesting."
Oh, right, that's just the kind of thing that will get people rethinking....not! Here is the problem: yes, the arts and culture are crucial to any civilized society because they are central to the very idea of civilization. They perform a host of functions such as maintaining civilizational confidence, cultivating creativity, offering models and mirrors of society, defining humanity and inhumanity, playing out moral dilemmas and many, many other things, none of which are part of STEM subjects. The arts are qualitative studies while the STEM subjects are quantitative. But the arts and culture are being systematically undermined and diminished by critical and cultural theory that attacks the author, the masterwork, the very idea of aesthetic quality itself, and replaces it all with crude identity politics. There is not a lot of art and culture left in the subjects with those labels in the universities. But if they went back to their real job, the transmission of the great artistic traditions of Western Civilization, then, yes, that study would be extremely valuable.

* * *

And to cheer us all up, here is the Wiener Cello Ensemble with Ravel's Bolero. Too bad they could only afford one cello!

* * *

I can't find anything in this piece in The American Interest to disagree with--and isn't that reason enough for you to follow the link? Walter Russell Mead writes that:
We want to make the case for “classic opera” and convince readers that learning to appreciate opera is a vital part of a liberal education and an invaluable part of the good life. We also want to do what we can to encourage new work that holds promise, and see if our criticism in some small way can’t do what criticism really ought to be about: assisting and supporting the artists who seek to enrich human civilization with sublime new work that illuminates the human heart, rattles the cage of the human condition, and glimpses eternal truths and lasting values in the passions and struggles of both the great and the small in the lives of their times.
* * *

I also pretty much agree with this piece about enjoying art free of political and ideological biases:
to fully appreciate art one must be able to set aside their political and ideological notions. When you think of art not as an expression of culture or an examination of human nature but as a means to an ideological end, you risk creating a cultural experience in which you have closed yourself off to a broad swathe of the human experience.
 On the other hand, you needn't neglect having aesthetic principles--it's art after all.

* * *

There is a review in the Guardian of a complete recording of the Sibelius symphonies by Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic. It's a mixed review:
The Fifth, in particular, seems perfunctory and glib here, by turns too ponderous, too lightweight and superficial. The way in which the first movement transforms itself into a scherzo – one of the great moments in the history of the symphony – is alarmingly glossed over, and the finale never hits the majestic stride it should. There’s something unresolved about this account of the Sixth as well, the opening string paragraphs self-consciously moulded, but Rattle’s account of the Seventh (thankfully not elided with the Sixth as it was in the concert hall) is much more convincing, rugged, uncompromising and all of a piece musically.
I've never quite seen what the fuss about Rattle was all about, myself.

* * *

Something we have all been wondering about, I'm sure, is who were the "12 Beautiful Women Who Had a Huge Influence on the Stones’ Music." One was Marsha Hunt who was supposedly the inspiration for the song "Brown Sugar":

* * *

I suppose that gives us our envoi for the day, "Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones:

Oh heck, let's have a double. Here is the Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius because you can't have enough Sibelius. This is Lenny conducting the Vienna Phillies in the non-perfunctory version:

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Don't Play That Music, Bro!"

The reference is to this incident where a student pleaded "Don't tase me, bro!" just before being tased while being held down by six university police. After an interminable stream of articles about classical music's unfair treatment of women, the Guardian has found a new drum to beat: music as torture. The subject is ideal because it is only Western authorities that seem to use music for this purpose--Islamic states tend to ban music and instead of using it for torture, they just stone or behead their prisoners. Personally I would rather hear music, even if loud, rather than be beheaded. Well, unless it was Nikki Minaj, of course. But that's just me.

[Just a note: have you ever noticed how every single cause chosen by the social justice warriors has two components: it contributes to the decline of Western civilization AND it is either irrelevant, as this one is, to our Islamic opponents, or, as in the case of the treatment of women, the situation in their societies is hypocritically ignored.]

But let's get to the article. The title is "Music as a torture weapon: exploring the dark side." The article is a short and rather uninformative one, seemingly content, once it has convicted the West of Doing Something Bad, to stop there. But it has some illuminating links. This one goes to an essay by musicologist Suzanne G. Cusick of New York University:
First, it is not at all clear that the music aimed at prisoners in detention camps has functioned as music. Rather, it has more often functioned as sheer sound with which to assault a prisoner’s sense of hearing; to ‘mask’ or disrupt a prisoner’s capacity to sustain an independent thought; to disrupt a prisoner’s sense of temporality (both in terms of how much time had passed and in terms of the predictability of temporal units); to undermine a prisoner’s ability to sustain somatic practices of prayer (both through behaviour at the hours of prayer and through abstinence from musical experiences considered sinful); and to bombard the prisoner’s body (skin, nerves and bones) with acoustical energy.
Yet, whether the sounds used in detentions camps functioned as music or not, among the most horrifying aspects of these practices is the degradation of the thing we call ‘music’. We in the so-called West have long since come to mean by the word ‘music’ an acoustical medium that expresses the human creativity, intelligence and emotional depth that, we think, almost lifts our animal selves to equality with the gods. When we contemplate how ‘music’ has been used in the detention camps of contemporary wars, we find this meaning stripped away. We are forced, instead, to contemplate ‘music’ as an acoustical medium for evil. The thing we have revered for an ineffability to which we attribute moral and ethical value is revealed as morally and ethically neutral – as just another tool in human beings’ blood-stained hands. This feels like the stripping away of a soul from a body, and therefore like some kind of violent, violating death. It is, therefore, as horrifying for us as it is for its obviously intended victims (though not as painful), tearing away parts of the collective subjectivity – the culture – we have for so long taken for granted, and subsumed under the heading of ‘Western values’.
Here are the tell-tale elements. First of all it assumes a moral equivalency: these prisoners are just innocent bystanders so any unusual treatment of them is cruel. It might "undermine a prisoner’s ability to sustain somatic practices of prayer" not to mention bombard them with acoustical energy. But it is the next paragraph that is particularly ingenious in its simultaneous elevating and discounting our notions of music as art. First of all, she sets up "music" as "an acoustical medium that expresses the human creativity, intelligence and emotional depth" and something "to which we attribute moral and ethical value". Ironically, it is the standard practice of the new musicologists, of which Cusick is one, to discount all of this. In a different context, I suspect she would be the first to deny that music has moral content. But here it is useful for her to construct a straw man for her argument. Because of this temporary and provisional elevation of music into a medium for Western values, she can exhibit horror that it would be used to soften up prisoners prior to interrogation.

By the way, she avoids any mention of exactly what music we are talking about, probably because identifying any particular artist might make a reader think, hmm, well, I subjected myself to pretty much exactly that when I went to the dance club last night: pop music played extremely loud. The closest she gets to telling us what the subject of her essay is, is this quote from a prisoner:
[…] after a while you don’t hear the lyrics, all you hear is heavy, heavy banging, that’s all you hear. Um, you can’t concentrate on the drums, or what the person’s saying, all you hear is just loud shouting, loud banging, like metal clashing against metal. That’s all it sounds like. It doesn’t sound like music at all.[2] (italics added)
This resembles very closely Kingsley Amis' description of pop music he heard at a college dance in his novel Lucky Jim. Indeed, as soon as you mention a particular song, the whole argument collapses into a bad joke, which is probably why Cusick quickly wanders far off topic into areas I lost interest in almost immediately. Here is a sample:
If the reparative is a reconstruction of shattered objects so that they can bring us pleasure, and if the reparative’s affect is love – then a reparative musicology (a post-Obama musicology?) would restore love for music; would reconstruct musical experiences so that we could love them (which is more than to appreciate them, more than to understand their functions, more than to feel their performative power or their saturation, with social, political, economic forces.) This was, I think, the work toward which several alternative musicologies (especially queer ones) aspired in the last decade.
The first mention I can find of the use of music to soften up the enemy was in the US invasion of Panama in 1990 where
Noriega remained at large for several days, but realizing he had few options in the face of a massive manhunt and a $1 million reward for his capture, he obtained refuge in the Vatican diplomatic mission in Panama City. The U.S. military's psychological pressure on him and diplomatic pressure on the Vatican mission, however, was relentless, as was the playing of loud rock-and-roll music day and night in a densely populated area.[30] The report of the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff maintains that the music was used principally to prevent parabolic microphones from being used to eavesdrop on negotiations, and not as a psychological weapon based around Noriega's supposed loathing of rock music.
Aha, rock music! This is really the Unmentioned Element, isn't it? US soldiers, who mostly like rock music, sometimes use it to annoy their enemies/prisoners, who loathe it. They aren't playing Schubert lieder at loud volume! No, it is likely Guns n' Roses or maybe Lady Gaga (except of course, for the use of Wagner in Apocalypse Now). But mentioning that would have us ask, "so how is this different to the torture I am subjected to every time I go to a mall or certain restaurants, not to mention dance clubs?"

That the whole point of these sorts of campaigns is to deny tactics to the West while ignoring anything done by our opponents is revealed by this passage in the Guardian article:
As Grant and Cusick’s work confirms, music is value-neutral. It is what we make of it, and how we use it. Of course it can be used to heal, to comfort, to console, to offer existential transcendence and emotional escape, yet it can also be weaponised. One consequence of their work ought to be that the use of music in conflict situations should be recognised - and banned - when it is used in contexts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. It’s disturbing reading, but this research – in all of these links – reveals a bleak phenomenon of musical history that needs to be faced up to, accounted for, and stopped.
"Value-neutral?" But wait, I thought Cusick was praising music for its moral and ethical values? Oh, right, but that was just to cobble together her straw-man argument, she didn't actually mean it. The West must never do anything that might be considered cruel by academics: like playing Guns n' Roses at loud volume. But wouldn't this also rule out nasty things like dropping bombs and shooting bullets at people as well? On the other hand, kidnapping children to be used as sex slaves and beheading every Christian they can find seems to be ok when the other guys do it. Those practices never seem to become the subject of a big crusade in the Guardian...

Time for a musical envoi I think. At the risk of being accused of using music for torture, here is a little Guns n' Roses:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fifteen Albums in Fifteen Minutes

Just ran across this older post from Terry Teachout who shares with us one of those internet list games: "choose fifteen albums you’ve heard that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes." Follow the link to see his choices that start with

 Louis Armstrong, Satchmo at Symphony Hall

Here is my list, right off the top of my head:

  1. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
  2. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde
  3. J. S. Bach, Mass in B minor, Karl Richter
  4. John Williams, Spanish Guitar Music
  5. Glenn Gould, Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier
  6. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
  7. Beethoven, Late Quartets, Guarneri Quartet
  8. Leo Brouwer, Scarlatti Sonatas
  9. Béla Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  10. Monteverdi, L'Orfeo, Harnoncourt
  11. Beethoven, Piano Concertos, Friedrich Gulda, Vienna Philharmonic
  12. Julian Bream, 70s, music by Bennett, Rawsthorne, Walton & Berkeley
  13. Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C major, "The Great"
  14. Shostakovich, String Quartets, Emerson Quartet
  15. Haydn, Complete Symphonies, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Davies
Why don't you have a go? I'm sure it would be interesting.

Here is a sample, for inspiration. Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Friedrich Gulda, piano with Horst Stein, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, April 1971:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Beethoven's Cheeriest Piano Sonata

We have this biased image of Beethoven as a kind of musical wild man, furiously writing tortured but profound music:

Or even this, a very common image:

And then we tend to focus, at least in our talk and writing about Beethoven, on the most demanding, not to say depressive pieces like the Symphony No. 9 or the Great Fugue.

But the truth is that Beethoven, like Haydn and Mozart before him, wrote a great deal of amazingly cheerful music. And I'm going to prove it by introducing you to his Piano Sonata Op. 31, No. 3 in E flat major. It has four movements, all very lighthearted and cheerful. There isn't even a true slow movement. That function is given to a minuet, moderato e grazioso. Here are the beginnings (in the biz we like to call them "incipits") of each movement:

A fast, but somehow coy and graceful first movement:

Click to enlarge
A scherzo (which literally means "joke" in Italian):

The very elegant minuet:

And finally, the finale, a presto con fuoco, somewhere between a shindig and a hootenanny:

All together about 20 minutes of sheer, effervescent pleasure and fun. Now let's have a listen. My favorite Beethoven piano sonatas are by Friedrich Gulda. Here they are complete. To listen to just this one, go to YouTube where they are listed with links, or scroll ahead to the 5:12:54 mark:

Now why would we want to privilege Beethoven's more tortured efforts over sheerly beautiful and joyous ones like this? Are we just neurotic?

Virginal Music

I just like this painting:

Emanuel de Witte, "Interior with a Woman Playing a Virginal" (c. 1660)

Sure, they may have had poor dental care and no antibiotics, but they had lovely interiors and time to sit around playing the virginal. The name does not come from the supposed sexual status of the performer, by the way, but from part of the key mechanism. The keys push up jacks, or virga in Latin, that hold the plectra that pluck the strings--like little guitar picks, one for each string. Here is another painting of someone playing the virginal:

Woman at a muselar, by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1672
And what music might they have been playing? That's always what I ask myself when I see paintings like these. It could well have been something by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck:

Somehow I find it reassuring that someone, somewhere, is sitting at a virginal playing a little Sweelinck.