Thursday, September 3, 2015

Greatest Titles of Pieces of Music

This is one of those posts that falls through the cracks in terms of being able to select an appropriate tag--so I have used my all-purpose one: aesthetics. But I'm just going to talk about titles! It used to be that composers didn't even have to choose a title for their music. For a very long time, most music was either vocal, in which case the first line of the text was automatically the title, or dance music, in which case you could just use the name of the genre: branle, allemande, volta, pavane and so on. This practice extended smoothly into the era when instrumental music became important. At first composers who wrote a lot of pieces in a particular genre didn't even bother with titles. Francesco da Milano wrote dozens and dozens of fantasias and Domenico Scarlatti hundreds of sonatas or "essercizi" without bothering to give any of them individual titles. But that brings to mind the scene where the Pope (Francesco's patron) or the Queen of Spain (Scarlatti's patron) asks the musician to "play me that one I so enjoyed from last winter..." and the poor fellow is stumped because even he can't remember which fantasia or sonata is the right one!

So, titles. An obvious solution was adopted during the 18th and 19th centuries: if you write a lot of sonatas or symphonies, just number the darned things. So this is why we have forty-some symphonies by Mozart, one hundred and six by Haydn, and nine by Beethoven and Bruckner. The same practice extends to piano sonatas, string quartets, trios and other genres. Operas and songs, of course, are named after their characters or texts. The big exception was the instrumental tone poem which acquired a name based on the non-musical inspiration. As these were all program music of one sort or another, the program provides the text, which is why we have such odd titles as "Thus Spake Zarathustra" or "Pohjola's Daughter" by Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius respectively.

And then came the 20th century when, to the more modernist composers, all these traditional naming practices were suddenly old hat, anathema, to be avoided. Some composers took refuge in the pseudo-objectivity of science and we find titles like "Zyklus" or "Continuum" by Stockhausen and Ligeti respectively. Others took over titling practices from visual artists and we find pieces like "Cross Sections and Color Fields" by Earle Brown.

But some composers took a more creative approach and began devising titles that were interesting in themselves. Debussy took the lead, as one of the most important founders of 20th century composition and we find among his titles such poetic ones as "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) or "Épigraphes antiques". His preludes for piano have a host of evocative titles such as "Des pas sur la neige" (Footsteps in the snow) or "La fille aux cheveux de lin" (The girl with the flaxen hair).

Perhaps the most adventurous titles of pieces of music come from another French composer, Olivier Messiaen. A great deal of his music is based on or inspired by Catholic liturgy such as his "Visions de l'Amen" and derive their titles accordingly. But others are creative and striking such as the "Cloches d'angoisse et larmes d'adieu" (Bells of anguish and tears of farewell) from his very early set of preludes for piano, written when he was twenty-one. I have always thought that his "Quatuor pour la fin du Temps" (Quartet for the end of time) was one of the greatest titles ever, written in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable, while prisoner in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. All of the eight movements also have evocative titles of which I will only mention one: "Abîme des oiseaux" (The abyss of the birds). The symphony Turangalîla takes its title from Sanskrit words so is only immediately evocative if you are up on your Sanskrit. But the movements have very evocative titles such as "Joie du sang des étoiles" (Joy of the blood of the stars). One of my favorite titles by Messiaen is derived from Catholic liturgy, but in Latin, not French. This is his piece for orchestra of winds and percussion titled "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum" ("And I await the resurrection of the dead") which, standing alone as the title of a piece, is formidable indeed.

Let's have a listen to that piece to end today. Here is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conductor: Myung-Whun Chung:


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Jazz at Yale

It is never too hard to predict what will set off New Yorker critic Alex Ross. So this rant about the Dean of Yale School of Music being insufficiently deferential towards jazz is not too surprising. But it is rather entertaining:
Reading yesterday's New York Times, I came across an article that appeared to date from around the year 1930 — the period in which dunderheaded authorities like Daniel Gregory Mason inveighed against the vulgarity of jitterbugging. In the Times piece, Robert Blocker, the dean of the Yale School of Music, explains why jazz is not a priority for his institution. He is quoted as saying: “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” This is real bad. Jazz is a monumental art form, its major figures among the most original thinkers in twentieth-century music. Its links to classical composition are myriad: classical players who are not exposed to jazz will deliver poor accounts of much music of the past hundred years, from Gershwin to John Adams. It's remarkable that the leader of a music school would resort to such inane formulations when speaking to a reporter. (News flash: jazz is Western, and it is also new.) Blocker's attitude is all the more astonishing in light of the fact that a decade ago the Yale School of Music received an unprecedented hundred-million-dollar gift, one that allowed the school to end tuition. You'd think that freedom from financial pressures would have encouraged the school to widen its intellectual horizons. Instead, perhaps not too surprisingly, sudden wealth seems to have brought about an entrenched, reactionary mindset. Gunther Schuller is roaring from his grave.
 By Alex' criteria I am the very model of a "dunderheaded authority" because, just as Daniel Gregory Mason (a well-known composer and critic in his day) thought that jitterbugging was vulgar, I'm fairly sure that I have said somewhere that twerking is vulgar. I'm also of the opinion that the Yale School of Music should see as their primary mission the transmission of the Western canon extending back in time and forwards to contemporary music. We have seen over the last few decades the destruction of English departments as the study of the great works of Western literature was replaced by their deconstruction. Fewer and fewer students enroll in English because reading Roland Barthes and Derrida is far less worthwhile than reading Shakespeare--who is anathema because he is dead, white and male. Of course, so are Barthes and Derrida, but that's ok because they are attacking Shakespeare. It is actually refreshing to hear a dean be so bold as to actually state his mission clearly! The job of Yale Music is not to cultivate the Miles Davises and Ornette Colemans of the future (for one thing, the era when jazz produced such giants is long gone), but to transmit the thousand year tradition of great Western art or concert music and train a new generation of performers and composers who have an idea of what it is.

Nothing against jazz, but it is not part of that tradition and not a good fit in academia. Great masters of jazz have never come from a university environment any more than punk bands, hip-hop artists or country music stars have. Why would they? A university music department is not needed to support and teach those genres. As the dean said, “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” Why is this controversial, or in the golden prose of Alex Ross, "real bad"? Perhaps you can make a case that jazz is a monumental art form, its major figures among the most original thinkers in twentieth-century music--I have my doubts, personally. But even if this were the case, this still does not imply that Yale should be teaching it. There are a number of schools that do specialize in jazz such as the Berklee College of Music.

Alex mentions Gunther Schuller who is not only rolling in his grave, but roaring from it! This provides us with an excellent example of why jazz and classical music (or concert music, or art music) are awkward bedfellows. Schuller, who just passed away a couple of months ago, was a formidable figure in both the jazz and classical worlds. In the 1960s and 70s he composed works that tried to synthesize the two traditions. In later years he reverted to being primarily a classical musician as Artistic Director for the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington. I think, at this distance in time, it is possible to look back at his attempt and see that it was ultimately unsuccessful. His "third stream" compositions have made it into neither the jazz canon nor the classical canon.

But you be the judge. Here is Schuller's Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk for 13 instruments, from 1960:


Monday, August 31, 2015

Sorry for the Hiatus

I was very busy on the weekend working with musicians who are going to be recording two of my pieces. The one is my set of twelve songs which we are going to be going into the studio with at the end of September, beginning of October. The other is an expanded version of my piece "Chase" for violin and piano. We are trying to see if it is feasible to record it before my violinist leaves on Sept. 15.

It seems as if the job of purging scores of errors, correcting text underlay (in the case of the songs), and preparing parts with all the necessary tempo indications, cues and so on JUST NEVER ENDS! Beethoven made a similar comment once that the published versions of his string quartets are full of schools of little errors like schools of fish! One wonders how many of them are still there today. Last week I noticed that one measure in my published Four Pieces for violin and guitar that is all in harmonics, was missing the indication that the notes are all harmonics!

In the piece for violin and piano, I was disconcerted to discover that one, I thought, clever passage a piacere turned out to be a real problem when I extracted the violin part. You see, how it works is you compose in score, that is to say, all the parts aligned vertically so you can see the relationships. This is what composers have done since, oh, the 17th century. But the next step is to pull out the individual parts because it is simply too cumbersome to play from score. There is a page turn every few seconds! In the case of my piece for violin and piano, it is six pages in score, but just two and a half pages for the violin part separately. But passages like my a piacere (which means, "as you please", i.e. to play it rhythmically freely) become impossible because the players have to see what one another is doing as they are tossing a motif back and forth. So what I have to do is insert "cues", miniature versions of the piano part, into the violin part so she can see what is going on in the other part. The pianist plays from the score, so she doesn't have a problem. Luckily, my music software has a feature that enables you to do this pretty easily. But obviously it is the kind of thing you would have to handle completely differently in an orchestral context!

My main failing as a composer, I find, is to leave out some things in the notation because I am too quick to assume that the performers will know what to do even if I don't make it explicit. This probably comes from my long career as a performer where a frequent problem was "over-determined" scores where the composer insists on notating every detail to the point where virtually every note has a dynamic, articulation, expression and so on. You can barely see the forest for the trees! I put up a post about this here.

You can expect a lot more posts on Messiaen, in fact one on his compositional technique is in the works right now. So let's have a little Messiaen to end today. Here is a piece he wrote in 1937 for six Ondes Martenot, an early kind of electronic musical instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. Messiaen also used it in his Turangalîla-Symphonie and other pieces:


Saturday, August 29, 2015

Musicians and Mistakes

My first experience with how classical musicians regard mistakes in performance was when I was singing in the choir for a performance of Handel's Judas Maccabaeus in undergraduate music school. As is usual, the choir was placed behind the orchestra and I was right behind the brass section. As I recall, there was a particularly nasty solo for the French horn in one aria and in rehearsal the player had cacked a couple of times. "Cack", by the way is a perfectly decent word which means "to incorrectly play a note by hitting a partial other than the one intended." In the concert the French horn player also missed one of the first notes. After the aria was over he reached in his pocket and took out a ten-dollar bill which he placed on the music stand of the trumpet player sitting next to him. Heh!

So that's one way musicians view performance errors: as a way to win some beer money. Via Slipped Disc, here are some remarks from Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra:
Musicians often have enormous reticence in communicating concerns about others’ performance levels to colleagues. Sometimes in a rehearsal (and hopefully only in a rehearsal!) someone will make a huge mistake or wrong entry – and there isn’t a twitch or eyebrow raised across the orchestra. Nothing. The sense is ‘they know they made the mistake – they don’t need me to point it out’. One of our senior musicians told me when he first worked at the back of a string section in one of the major London orchestras a horn player made a loud mistake and our musician turned round to look at the culprit. ‘What the hell are you looking at sonny?’ was the response. They never spoke again.
Certainly different from my experience! I had to learn how to play the mandolin from scratch in a few weeks once for a solo in Don Giovanni and in one of the performances I hit the wrong fret and skated into the right note from below. Afterwards one of the trombone players (who were sitting behind me) asked me if that was a blues arrangement. Ho, ho, ho. But no, players normally don't react to one another's mistakes during the concert. Why would they?

Most of the talk about mistakes focuses on the players, but conductors can also make mistakes. In fact, some of them are known for it. I heard from one orchestral musician that in the parts for the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 that they used there was written the injunction "Don't Look Up!" That is, in this particular passage, don't look at the conductor who is sure to be beating it wrong.

Some conductors are very poor accompanists for soloists in concertos and I remember one vivid example. Pepe Romero was playing the A major Concerto by Mauro Giuliani (which he virtually owns) with an unnamed orchestra and made the point of cutting the conductor dead. He and the conductor entered, as per normal protocol, with Pepe in the lead. He shook the hand of the concertmaster and settled himself in his chair. Adjusted his footstool. Winked at the oboist as he checked his tuning with her "A". Looked around the hall. Smiled at some cute girls in the first row. Settled himself in his chair again. Crossed his arms on the upper bout of the guitar (there is a long orchestral introduction). Then, finally, nodded to the conductor that he can start the piece. And he did all this without once looking at the conductor. A magnificent example of how to trim one down to size.

It can get ugly sometimes. A conductor once took a dislike to the principal trumpet player and assembled clips from concert tapes of every time he cacked and used them to get him fired. It didn't help that the trumpet player was the ex- of the principal French horn player and they were on such bad terms that the trumpet section refused to tune with the French horn section.

But on the whole, symphony orchestras are composed of a bunch of intelligent, hard-working people with a good sense of humor. So, usually, it is a pretty good place to make music. And if you win the occasional bet at the French horn player's expense, well, why not?

The French horn is a very difficult instrument and it is especially tricky to get the first few notes of a solo without cacking:


But some can do it. This is the great English horn player Dennis Brain with the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 1. The Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by Herbert von Karajan:


Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Are music researchers getting better? Certainly seems so as more and more they seem to come up with findings that are neither insulting to the intelligence nor insulting to music lovers. Take for example this recent study by two Irish researchers:
In the journal Psychology of Music, Groarke and Hogan report older and younger people tend to express different ideas when asked why they listen to music. While the responses of four groups of participants—two featuring people under 30, and two composed of those over 60—were predictably wide-ranging, the researchers found some distinct patterns.
For younger adults, social connection is a strong component of music listening; you bond with your peers over your choice in tunes. By one measure, this consideration placed second only to "mood improvement." (This finding aligns nicely with the theory that music originally developed as a source of social cohesion.)
But that aspect of listening was far less important to older adults, who largely looked at music as therapeutic—a source of meaning and personal growth. While some younger participants did refer to music's ability to provide them with a private "personal space," the bulk of the responses suggest older people are more interested in music as an intense, inner experience, while younger ones view it as a way of escaping bad moods and connecting with friends.
On the other hand, this study examined only 43 people in two age groups, so it is probably what we might call "suggestive" rather than "definitive".

* * *

Stanislavsky, call your office. There may be aspects of current academic culture that are reaching beyond parody. Take this one for example. A professor of film and cultural studies is going to research David Bowie for an monograph by using method acting. He will try to live like David Bowie for a year.
He has started wearing vintage clothing and adopting Bowie’s hairstyle and makeup. He has been taking singing lessons and trying to paint in an expressionist style. He has experimented with sleep deprivation and even spent a few days sampling Bowie’s dubious diet of raw red peppers and milk.
Well, sure. I'm thinking of trying it out myself. In an attempt to better understand the compositional practices of Anton Bruckner, I'm thinking of trying to live like him for a year. I've already got my eye on a 17-year-old Austrian peasant girl. Mind you, the make-up is going to be hell:


Not a pretty man...

* * *

We all love Ghostbusters, right? So here is what we have all been waiting for, a heavy-metal cover of the Ghostbusters theme:


* * *

Some airlines, in their never-ending effort to cause as much trouble as they possibly can for working musicians, lose instruments or severely damage them. But the gold medal goes to US Airways for their success in managing to lose not one or two violins, but EIGHT in a special shipping trunk, checked in at the airport in Barcelona. Go to Slipped Disc for the full story. (Update: apparently the violins turned up eventually, but the airline still can't explain what happened.)

* * *

Time for some good news, right? A physicist has devised a way of non-invasively "reading" the audio information on older recording media so that it can be preserved and heard in a pristine form. The story is at the Wall Street Journal.

* * *

Here is an interesting review of two operas presented in Edinburgh recently. The operas were The Rake's Progress by Stravinsky on a libretto by W. H. Auden and Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart on a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. The reviewer comes to the not terribly startling conclusion that:
While a first-rate performance of The Rake’s Progress can’t disguise the fact that it’s just an ingenious toy, a misconceived Figaro remains unsinkable
* * *

Is food the new music? This seems to be a developing meme these days:
Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation for so many, and I wonder if it’s because food and dining still offer true scarcity whereas music is so freely available everywhere that it’s become a poor signaling mechanism for status and taste. If you’ve eaten at Noma, you’ve had an experience a very tiny fraction of the world will be lucky enough to experience, whereas if you name any musical artist, I can likely find their music and be listening to it within a few mouse clicks. Legally, too, which removes even more of the caché that came with illicit downloading, the thrill of being a digital bootlegger.
Wouldn't it be great if we could see the return of aesthetics in the form of developed tastes in music and other art forms? At least that is the official position of the Music Salon because it would be so much more egalitarian: it costs nothing to have good taste.

* * *

Are we seeing the Rise of the Cultural Libertarians? Some people think it is about time:
The new authoritarians aren’t merely concerned with policing art and entertainment, but also everyday expression, especially in advertising. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free speech advocate Greg Lukianoff recently published an article for The Atlantic in which they describe a new movement to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offence.” By controlling the language of society, cultural authoritarians hope to control society itself.
Cultural libertarians disagree. Liberal columnist Nick Cohen points out that changing words and changing society are two different things. “The lie that you can change the world by changing language is back,” he writes. “I cannot tell you how many good people [are driven] out of left-wing politics … because they did not realise that words that were acceptable yesterday are unacceptable today.”
In order to control what they see as dangerous expression, authoritarians often resort to casual and spurious accusations of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. The goal is to manipulate the boundaries of acceptable speech by smearing their targets with socially unacceptable labels and to write off speakers they don’t like as bigots so they don’t have to engage with the speaker’s arguments.
Worth reading the whole thing as it presents a whole manifesto of cultural libertarianism. The Music Salon is probably culturally libertarian in its basic assumptions.

* * *

I don't know about you, but I've been longing to hear choral arrangements of the Sex Pistols for some time. And now, thanks to an Estonian festival, here it is. I know that you are longing to hear the original, so here it is, the Sex Pistols "Anarchy in the UK":


* * *

One definition of a poorly done review would be one that would be unrecognizable by the musicians. I think this one by Norman Lebrecht might qualify. The composer is Prokofiev and the writer speculates:
Taken on its own, the Second Violin Concerto reveals more of the composer’s state of mind than is readable in his letters and memoirs. He is going back home out of creative necessity and his mind is made up, but anxiety seeps through the work like mildew through a garden shed. This is the work of a man at life’s crossroads, a man who seems to know that whichever way he turns will be the wrong one.
And when I say "speculates" I really mean completely invents a whole psychological scenario with only the slightest biographical evidence and absolutely no support in the music itself. Why? Very simply because a piece of instrumental music, no matter how much you torture it, cannot reveal things like "anxiety seeps through the work like mildew through a garden shed". This is the work of a music critic who has run out of anything to say and starts making up metaphors inspired by looking out the window at his back yard. Norman must be at his life's crossroads, a man who seems to know that whichever way he turns will be the wrong one.

But that does give us our envoi for today. Here is the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63. The performers are Janine Jansen (Violin), Mark Elder (Conductor) and the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra:


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Unity and Complexity

Munroe C. Beardsley's book on Aesthetics is full of fascinating observations like this one:
It should be clear, now, that unity and complexity are distinct things and can vary independently within limits. Within limits because, first, the simplest things cannot but have a fairly high degree of unity, and, second, the most complex things will be difficult to unify, and perhaps cannot be as completely unified as less complex things. Unity and complexity are set over against each other: very broadly speaking, the former is increased by similarities of parts, the latter by differences.
His examples are particularly interesting. Leaving out the examples from visual arts, he goes on to say:
Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is much more complex than, say, Fauré's Requiem Mass, but it is probably not much less unified. On the other hand, Liszt's Les Préludes is much simpler than the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony in F major (No. 8), but it is also less unified.
If this seems contra-intuitive to you, consider that Beethoven is one of the greatest composers in terms of organic unity while Liszt's music tends to be much more atmospheric and loosely written.

Let's compare. Here is the first movement of the Beethoven:


And here is the Liszt:



Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cloudscape

I very rarely perform these days as I prefer to put my energies into composition, but I am going to a gathering of musicians tonight and a violinist friend and I are going to play a couple of pieces, just for fun. She picked out a piece I transcribed decades ago, originally for lute duet. It has a nice Elizabethan bluegrass feel. This is The Queen's Dump, by John Johnson which I transcribed from a photo reproduction of the Mynshall Lute Book, c. 1597 - 99:


I note that they have fudged the title, just a tad. In the original it is titled "The Queene's Dump (A Dump)" and at the end of the solo part it says "A Treble". That's the melodic part. Then appears the eight measures of chords that the other lute plays and it is titled "the grounde to the treble before". And that, apart from the name of the composer, John Johnson, is it. That stuff about the Queen's Revels is an invention of the modern performers. I guess the word "dump" just made them nervous. At this point in time it is difficult to know the origin of the name, but the piece is a set of variations on the old bergamesca ground bass originating in Italy.

The other piece we are going to play is one I wrote a few years ago. It is one of a set of four pieces for violin and guitar published by The Avondale Press in Vancouver. This one is titled "Cloudscape". I have posted it before, but there are many new readers that have not heard it. I have chosen some photos taken during the recording session to accompany the audio.

video