Saturday, September 24, 2016

Is "Crossover" a Gateway Drug?

Regular readers know how I feel about "crossover." What's that, the guy in back asks? Crossover is really a marketing niche where a classical musician might cross over some invisible line and play repertoire that you wouldn't expect: like the Spiderman Theme. Or it might equally be a popular vocalist taking a stab at some light classical repertoire. But that doesn't seem to happen much. There are also some musical groups that seem to live in the crossover zone like 2Cellos and ThePianoGuys. But for the most part it is simply a transparent attempt to jack up sales by pulling in some buyers that don't usually buy classical recordings. Here is our latest example:

Now don't get me wrong. Everyone should play the music they like and buy the music they like. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Usually I would make an aesthetic critique, but I want to take a different perspective on it. It is often claimed that one of the benefits of crossover is that it leads more people to become classical music lovers. This is one of the arguments used to convince classical musicians to play crossover and for symphony orchestra to add pops programs to their season. This is what I will call the "gateway drug" theory. Crossover is a gateway drug that leads to people listening to actual classical music. The "gateway drug theory" has been around for a while:
Gateway drug theory (alternatively, stepping-stone theory, escalation hypothesis, or progression hypothesis) is a comprehensive catchphrase for the medical theory that the use of a psychoactive drug can be coupled to an increased probability of the use of further drugs.
One day you are listening to Lang Lang and Lindsey Stirling hack their way through the Spiderman Theme:

and the next day you find yourself mysteriously attracted to performances of the Cavatina from the Beethoven Quartet op. 130:


I don't think that the gateway drug theory has much going for it either. I'm pretty sure that if you go and look at everyone's shelves next to Lang Lang crossover you won't find serious Beethoven. You will probably find Nora Jones (as we see on Amazon: "Frequently bought together").

In order to believe that crossover really brings people into classical music you have to presume a theory of aesthetic taste that says that the same people who like unchallenging, formulaic and maudlin music will equally like demanding and emotionally profound music. You know anyone like that? Me neither.

Of course just about everything we read in the mass media tells us different. Every single interview with a classical musician in the Guardian prompts them to tell us what they listen to when they are relaxing--and it is always some unlikely pop music. Sure, sometimes I'm in the mood for a little Led Zeppelin. About a minute and a half. Every ten or fifteen years.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Apparently in the future, cows will be accorded the privacy that few humans possess today. Witness this photo from Google street view:

It is unknown why only the cow on the right has its face blurred out. Perhaps it is underage? Or an unindicted co-conspirator?

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Winston Churchill won WWII on four hours sleep a night, Cuban cigars, and the consumption of significant amounts of alcohol. This latter was on the advice of his doctor:

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Here is an item from Slipped Disc about the National Medal of Arts awards, to be presented by President Obama in an upcoming ceremony. Philip Glass gets one, but Steve Reich does not. As is very often the case, the comments are very amusing!

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Somehow I missed this review by Norman Lebrecht of a new book on Venezuela's music education program "El Sistema":
From the results I have seen in the U.S. and Europe, the system has yielded a playing elite. Performing with Mr. Dudamel as the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the young musicians display precision and enthusiasm along with a sense of mutual responsibility and an appetite for reckless fun. To watch them in the pit at La Scala last summer, playing the consumptive tragedy of “La Bohème” as if from real life, was to witness music’s redemptive potential.
Mr. Dudamel, a vibrant man who commands widespread respect and affection, is the world’s most sought-after conductor. Other Sistema alumni include the Ulster Orchestra conductor Rafael Payare, the Tucson Symphony music director José Luis Gomez and the Berlin Philharmonic double-bass player Edicson Ruiz. All learned their music from scratch under Mr. Abreu’s beady eye. “You have to treat children like artists,” says Mr. Dudamel. “If you don’t, the action of art doesn’t work.”
The puzzle is the relationship between this successful program and the reality of the failing state that Venezuela has become. The review mentions this without really coming to grips with it.

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 The Gramophone's 2016 Recording of the Year has been won by Igor Levit for a CD of the Bach Goldberg Variations, the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" by Frederic Rzewski. One out of those three seems out of place! But I may have just never given the Rzewski a chance for political reasons! It is a lot more interesting piece than the trite-sounding theme reveals. Here is the first part of a performance by the composer:

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The cultural war goes on apace... You didn't know we were in a cultural war? That's probably because it has been overshadowed by the religious war, nuclear proliferation and the War on Women! But, for sure, there is a cultural war going on and an interesting recent skirmish comes from Staatsballett Berlin, a ballet company with a strong classical tradition. The New York Times has the story:
More than 5,000 signatures have been posted on a petition started by the dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin to protest the appointment of the contemporary dance choreographer Sasha Waltz as one of the company’s next artistic directors. The announcement that Ms. Waltz and Johannes Öhman, now the director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, would succeed the current director, Nacho Duato, in 2019, was announced last week by Michael Müller, the mayor of Berlin.
The petition, posted in German, English, Italian and Japanese, states that hiring Ms. Waltz “has to be compared to an appointment of a tennis trainer as a football coach or an art museum director as an orchestral director.” It adds: “We respect the work of Sacha Waltz but find her completely unsuitable to lead our company. Sasha Waltz is a choreographer of dance theater. This form of stage dance needs other artistic qualities than those which a classically educated ballet dancer has developed and is dedicated to.”
I think that what this illustrates is pushback from artists who are firmly based in classical traditions wanting them respected and not tossed into a contemporary meatgrinder. On another level, it shows the potential problems with government support of the arts: at some point the appointments start becoming politically influenced.

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Here is an interesting article on move soundtracks: Why You Can't Remember What Modern Movies Sound Like.
...the problem has to do with temp tracks. Temp tracks are used by directors in early edits of a movie, as a replacement for the official soundtrack before it's made. However, a lot of temp tracks end up sounding a lot like the finished version.
Reusing old soundtracks is not new, but when all the new blockbusters borrow music from each other, it can end up repetitive and boring. Combine that with studios that refuse to take risks with the film score, and you end up with a soundtrack that's easily forgettable.
There is a fairly long video clip that analyzes Marvel soundtracks and illustrates quite well their formulaic lack of creativity. Dan Golding (who sounds Australian to me) has an interesting response titled A Theory of Film Music:

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I'm afraid that over the years I have become more and more disenchanted with the cultural, academic and social elites. They seem to have become more and more condescending as they become less and less competent and knowledgeable. This article by Nassim Nicolas Taleb explains why: The Intellectual Yet Idiot:
Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They can't tell science from scientism — in fact in their eyes scientism looks more scientific than real science.
The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

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Here is an article about coming to love Mahler: Music That's Everything:
I never cared much for the music of Gustav Mahler. I tried to like it, but without success. The problem, for me, wasn’t that Mahler was modern or unapproachable or “difficult.” Somehow, and despite a natural predisposition against modernism of all kinds, I had learned to appreciate the music of Schoenberg and particularly Shostakovich. Mahler’s symphonies, though, which in one sense are much more approachable and “tonal” than that of modernist composers (he’s commonly categorized as “late Romantic” rather than modern) struck me as deliberately incoherent. Twenty years ago I bought recordings of all nine, listened to them dutifully, but with only the partial exception of the First Symphony, the “Titan,” couldn’t make anything of them. I’ve seen various ones performed on different occasions, but rarely with profit. His famous remark to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, endlessly recited in discussions of Mahler’s music—“The symphony is the world! The symphony must embrace everything!”—sounded to me like highfalutin hooey.
 Mind you, the reverse is also possible. Back when I was an undergraduate I loved Mahler. His lengthy melodramatic wallowing sounded Really Profound. But now I can't stand him. He just sounds neurotic and over-medicated.

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Here is article number 1,257 in a never-ending series about how classical music is All Different Now as the Younger Generation of Artists are Changing Everything. It's from The Independent.
“What happens in the space where genres, sounds and ideas collide?” asked the Barbican when it invited the German pianist and composer Nils Frahm to put together a weekend of music in July.
Here’s what happened: Frahm’s show sold out in minutes. The event was heralded by BBC radio DJ Gilles Peterson, who invited Frahm to join him on his Saturday show. The Guardian printed a huge profile. Even Resident Advisor, the online electronic music community, went along to review, acknowledging Frahm’s crossover appeal among DJs and club devotees. 
One thing didn’t happen. “Not one reviewer from the classical press came,” said Harriet Moss, creative director of a new contemporary classical record label called Cognitive Shift. “Partly because they don’t know where to put it.”
Actually, I think they knew exactly where to put it! Based on the maudlin bit of repetitive sludge that accompanies the article, sounding just like the love-child of Pachelbel and John Luther Adams, I think that one's best option was to avoid the concert! Just a safety tip, one way to identify things to be avoided is to look for the tell-tale meaningless mixed metaphor: "What happens in the space where genres, sounds and ideas collide?" Nothing good, my friends, nothing good!

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And that brings us to our envoi for today. We haven't put up a Sibelius symphony for a while and he is the perfect antidote to Mahler. Instead of confused, lengthy wallowing, we have crisp Northern symphonic goodness. This is the Symphony No. 6 in D minor, about as long as a single Mahler movement. Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, conductor. I think Sibelius said the opening was like the smell of new-fallen snow:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Light Blogging

Sorry for the light blogging, but the last few days have been very busy. Still getting organized after my move. But there will be a nice Friday Miscellanea tomorrow and more good stuff on the weekend. In the meantime, here is a pianist I am just discovering: Igor Levit, playing Beethoven op. 109:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Classical Music is a Round Peg

Everywhere you look, people in the classical music business are trying to find ways to make it appealing to 21st century people. Branding! Entrepreneurial training! More bums in seats! Popular programming! Take the music to the people (parking garages, pubs)! Re-branding! Social media! Naked opera! Diversity! Equality!

Whew! About all this is missing is climate change and LBGTQ.

All of these efforts, some successful, many not, have the result of distorting classical music into something it is not: a normal part of life in the 21st century. Face it, most people, even those who love music, see classical music as not being a comfortable fit with their lives. Concerts take too long and you have to be quiet and not be checking your phone. The performers dress in these old-fashioned costumes. The music doesn't seem relevant to The Way We Live Now. And what the heck is a "sonata" anyway?

Whenever we try to make classical music fit into today's scene, it is like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. You can try, but unless you do a lot of whittling, it ain't gonna work. So that's what is recommended: whittle off the bits that don't fit: out-dated concert garb, long programs, audience silence, special concert halls and most of all, that classical repertoire. If you whittle off enough, you get pretty close to the pop experience:

But you know what is truly great about classical music? It is not pop music and it doesn't fit very well into our contemporary monoculture. Classical music is like a fig in a bowl of fennel, a goat in amongst the sheep. It is valuable precisely because of what it is not: just another musical niche in with the hip hop and the alt-country and the indie folk. It is a voice from another world and, as such, it give us perspective on our world. It is like a whole series of time capsules from different times and peoples who thought and felt differently than we do. Now that's diversity! Our problem is that mass media, social media and all the rest of that technology that connects us, turns us into a giant echo chamber all reacting to the same things and thinking the same thoughts.

Classical music, like classical literature and art, is great because it is not another hue of popular culture. Just that is appealing and refreshing. But in addition to that, it also happens to be a wonderfully powerful aesthetic experience.

The clip I posted above, of ThePianoGuys doing a mashup of Mozart and Adele, should be contrasted with the original piece by Mozart, to see just how much was whittled away:

ThePianoGuys clip is lugubrious, sentimental and slightly vulgar. The Mozart original is, well, terrifying. Not the thing to put on something like an album of "The Most Relaxing Classical Music."

Monday, September 19, 2016

Pasta with Italian Sausage

I started to do the occasional post on food when I was vacationing in Madrid back in May. The food was just so wonderful that I had to tell you about it! Then, last month, I did a post on roasting a chicken with a new recipe I had discovered. So now I want to do another food post. This one is a recipe I have been making for a long, long time. It was originally inspired by a recipe from a book by Umberto Menghi, the Vancouver chef who had several Italian restaurants at one point. I really learned to cook Italian from his books. I am at the point where I almost never go to Italian restaurants because what I can do at home is better. So here is one of my most successful recipes. This is quite a simple recipe, but I have modified it considerably from the original.

Pasta with Italian Sausage


One Italian sausage per person
One good-sized Roma tomato per person
Basil (I used dried, but use fresh, chopped up, if you have it)
Extra virgin olive oil
About a quarter pound of pasta per person, I like capelli, spaghettini, linguine or tagliatelle
Sambal Oelek


Put a large pot of water, with salt, on to boil for the pasta.
In a skillet or frypan, on medium-low, heat about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil per person.
Using the point of a knife, slit the casing of the Italian sausage and peel it off. Slice the sausage into rounds about a half-inch thick. Place these in the frying pan. After they have browned, turn them over. Sprinkle with the basil.
Slice the tomatoes in two lengthwise and remove the eye. Then slice each half into thin wedges. When the sausages have browned, add these to the pan. Salt to taste.
Finally, when the tomatoes are cooked (three or four minutes) add about a tablespoon of sambal oelek per person to the pan and mix together.
When the pasta is done, drain and add to the pan. Toss everything together and put on serving plates.
Grate real Parmesan cheese (from Italy!) over each serving.

Pick a robust wine to stand up to the pronounced flavors of the dish. Maybe a good California or Australian Shiraz.

In the original he used ground chiles, but I don't like them much as you are always picking out little dried bits from your teeth. The sambal oelek works much better.

No photo because it wasn't until I had eaten half the plate that I decided to do a post. Here's a picture of the jar of sambal oelek:

Personally, I think that one of the biggest secrets to Italian cooking, and one that no Italian restaurant in my area seems aware of, is the need to use real Parmesan cheese for grating. It comes in those big 50 lb rounds and it's not cheap. But it is so, so worth it. That rubbery, tasteless stuff that comes in a box or can, pre-grated, is awful. And so is the cheese from Uruguay that is also labeled "Parmesan". Parmesan cheese comes from Parma. In Italy. And it has a unique and irreplaceable flavor.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Oldest Melody: 1400 BC?

The oldest written music we supposedly have is of a melody transcribed from a Hurrian tablet in cuneiform. Here is a link with more information:
The hymn was discovered on a clay tablet in Ugarit, now part of modern-day Syria, and is dedicated the Hurrians’ goddess of the orchards Nikkal.
The clay tablet text, which was discovered alongside around 30 other tablet fragments, specifies 9 lyre strings and the intervals between those strings – kind of like an ancient guitar tab.
But this is the only hymn that could be reconstructed – although the name of the composer is now lost.
Here is a translation of the associated text:
‘Once I have endeared the deity, she will love me in her heart,
the offer I bring may wholly cover my sin,
bringing sesame oil may work on my behalf in awe may I'
And here is a performance on lyre:

Because I have studied old notations (Paleography, a doctoral seminar in musicology) I know how rudimentary musical notation was before the invention of the staff and rhythmic values around 1000 AD. So I tend to listen to these "reconstructions" with a jaundiced ear. A remarkable number of the more ambitious ones end up sounding a lot like Carl Orff because he wrote music that he wanted to suggest ancient music. In other words, we are not hearing or reconstructing anything with any authenticity, we are mostly just projecting.

This rendition is a little bit different. Frankly it sounds (and looks) exactly like what someone might have improvised at Burning Man! Modal improvisation given a few rudimentary notes may have remained pretty much the same throughout human history. Thank god we invented something better!

Here is another realization of, I think, the same melody. This one is more ambitious and manages to sound like an introduction to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin:

Bear in mind that everything you hear, apart from the single notes, everything else, the rhythms, the drones, the arpeggios, is the complete invention of the performer (s).

Mind you, it does make you want to rub sesame oil all over yourself, doesn't it?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Music Marketing Photos

Every time I see one of those absurdly hyped up photos of the latest classical virtuoso I want to write silly captions. So here goes.

Yuja Wang:

Oh god, oh god, oh god--I am so glad I got this "very special" piano bench!

Lang Lang:

No, I'm not here to give you the prostate exam, why do you ask?

Vanessa Mae:

Uh, Vanessa? Please tell me that is not what you are going to wear onstage!

Khatia Buniatishvili:

And that's why I didn't get the "tramp-stamp" tattoo. You know, the one on the lower back?

Simon Rattle and Lang Lang:

Lang Lang, if you rush those sixteenths one more time I'm going to pistol whip you with this baton!
Milos Karadaglic:

Well, yes, I did spend the summer working as a lumberjack. How did you guess?


What's wrong with wearing flower diadems? We think they look very nice!

The Piano Guys:

Look, can we change the key on this one? Because if I hit that low F, this piano is going right over the edge!
And that's that for that! Please, this was all in good fun and I didn't want to offend anyone.