Sunday, December 17, 2017

Most Popular Posts of the Year: March and April

The most popular post in March was one on musical anhedonia, which is simply the inability to derive pleasure from music:

It prompted quite a few interesting comments. The second most popular post was on, believe it or not, neo-Stoicism:

Actually, it was more about the ubiquity of pop culture and the idea of detaching oneself from it. As a musical metaphor I put in a Bruckner symphony. Here is another one, the Symphony No. 8 with the Munich Philharmonic conducted by Celibidache:

The most popular post in April with a considerable number of views and comments, was on some radical ideas about music education.

I think my high point in the post came with my reductio ad absurdum of the author's claim that learning to read music notation is over-rated:
If things keep going in the direction they have, then in a few years I fully expect someone to be opining in the Guardian that the idea of requiring students to read at all is unnecessary. English is, after all, a cryptic, tricky language and learning how to read it largely unneeded now that we have audible books. If you are creative, just dictate your novel into your iPad or iPhone. Really, what is the point of requiring anyone to read written languages?
The second most popular post was a very brief one just drawing out attention to the very young soprano Patricia Janečková:

Heck, let's listen to another of her performances. This is the aria "Ombra mai fu" by Handel:

Productivity and Creativity

I continue to be amazed at how brilliant Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor who has what seems to be about a million YouTube videos, is in just about every realm you can think of. Here is a video about creativity and Price's Law:
According to Price's law, half of all scientific contributions are made by the square root of the total number of scientific contributors: thus, if there are 100 scientists within a given discipline, just 10 of them will account for 50 percent of all publications. The Price's law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity.

The interesting thing that he points out is that this applies, for example, to companies. If there are ten people in your company, three of them will do half the work. But if there are 100 people in your company, 10 of them will do half the work and if there are 10,000, then only 100 of them will do half the work. Uh-oh! Here is the video:

At the 3:28 mark he talks about composers:
Five composers produce the music that occupies 50% of the classical repertoire: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mozart. Those five. So here's something cool: take all the music those people wrote. 5% of the music all those people wrote occupies 50% of the music that's played.
Now, as one of those people who spends as much energy rationalizing why I'm not writing something as I do actually writing something, I'm really depressed. So I guess I will sit down and actually write something! Best cure for depression.

Here is a piece I recently ran across and found the score for: the Serenade for guitar by Sofia Gubaidulina, a very early piece written in 1960 (her only piece for solo guitar).

And a performance by Patrik Kleemola:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Most Popular Posts of the Year: January and February

Unlike a lot of blogs, I usually try to put up posts that have more relevance than just for the day so let's have a look back at 2017 and pick out the posts that seemed to resonate with my readers.

Starting with January, the most popular post was on the Piano Sonata no. 2 by Prokofiev:

I didn't see that coming! And the second most popular post was on the Piano Sonata no. 1:

I guess I am going to continue to do series of posts on specific repertoire. If you have some suggestions, just leave them in the comments.

Let's have a listen to that sonata. This performance is by Sviatoslav Richter:

The most popular post in February was one about Lady Gaga's vocal coach, and I presume that was simply because of her fame as a pop star:

The second most popular post came the day before with one on the sub-culture of orchestral musicians:

I ended that last post with a clip of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the last movement of the Symphony No. 88 by Haydn. That particular performance is so amusing that we should watch it again. Once he starts them off Lennie just stands there making facial expressions as if to demonstrate that this orchestra hardly needs a conductor to play Haydn!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The long nightmare is over: finally the Moody Blues are inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!
Although the Moodys became eligible in 1989 under the hall's requirement that 25 years elapse after an act’s first recording, the group perhaps best known for its 1967 ambitious and heavily orchestrated concept album “Days of Future Passed,” and the single it yielded, “Nights in White Satin,” appeared on the nominees list for the first time this year.
Here is the only song I actually remember from those hazy days in the late 60s-early 70s:

* * *

Jumping on the bandwagon, The Guardian has a piece on the Cult of the Maestro:
The cult of the maestro has thrived precisely because of the uniquely difficult demands of the music: great power and privilege is sycophantically bestowed on those perceived to be geniuses, and behaviour that would be unacceptable in other contexts may be excused or swept under the carpet; different moral standards can be applied to them by virtue of their artistic brilliance.
Well sure, this is an old story, but "moral standards" are only standard if they apply to everyone! There have been abusive power-players in the classical music business, just as there have been in every single other business. Sometimes these abuses have been covered up by cloaking them in some sort of romantic haze labeled "artistic brilliance" but anyone with much sense can tell artistic brilliance from sociopathic abuse. Just because James Levine has now fallen from grace does not mean that every conductor has to be viewed with suspicion--nor should we ignore all the other kinds of abuse that exist other than sexual ones! A while back I posted a couple of clips of Arturo Toscanini abusing his orchestral players to an astonishing extent. What surprises me is why no-one stood up and told him where to stuff it. You only put up with crap like that if you are short of self-respect and power and privilege should never be "sycophantically bestowed" on anyone.

* * *

NPR has a story on the war on rosewood:
New regulations on the international movement of rosewood have hit hard in parts of the music industry, which has long relied on rosewood as a "tonewood" used in many kinds of instruments, including guitars, cellos and clarinets.
The reason for the crackdown, and for Katz's anxiety? China. Specifically, Chinese consumers' growing demand for rosewood or "hongmu" furniture. 
Among the requirements: musical instruments containing any amount of rosewood were subject to a complex, time-consuming permit system covering businesses and individuals.
Requirements differed by country, and trade and travel became risky.
I became reluctant to travel with my guitar years ago because of a bit of antique ivory on the nut, now my reluctance is augmented because of the ebony fingerboard and the rosewood back and sides.

* * *

ArtReview has an informative article on cultural appropriation:
So, what is cultural appropriation and why has it become such a contentious issue? Susan Scafidi, professor of law at Fordham University, defines it as ‘taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission’. This can include the ‘unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.’
But what is it for knowledge or expression or a cuisine to ‘belong’ to a culture? And who gives permission for someone from another culture to use such knowledge or forms?
In Canada these days it is frowned upon for any non-Indigenous artist to make use of any symbols or designs from Indigenous art without their approval, which they are not keen to give.
What really lies behind the debate about cultural appropriation is not ownership but gatekeeping – the making of rules or an etiquette to determine how a particular cultural form may be used and by whom. What critics of cultural appropriation want to establish is that certain people have the right to determine who can use such knowledge or forms, because at the heart of criticism of cultural appropriation is the relationship between gatekeeping and identity.
So it is really an extension of the tactics associated with identity politics.
To subsume aesthetic considerations to those of identity is to render art meaningless.
Not meaningless, no, but certainly it turns art into just another tool of political propaganda.

* * *

When I was a kid, before I became a musician, I was fascinated with airplanes and flying--I guess a lot of kids are. Anyway, I still find flying fascinating and some of the fun comes from the stories pilots tell. The best one ever I posted here a long time ago as a text, but I just ran across a little clip of it on YouTube. This is Maj. Brian Shul, pilot of an SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest airplane ever, describing one perfect afternoon:

* * *

The Walrus has an essay titled The Case Against Reading Everything that is worth a look.
The call to “read widely” is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices. Leave that to the editors of Canada’s few newspaper book sections, which often resemble arm’s-length marketing departments for publishers. Leave that to the dubious figure of the “arts journalist.”
Instead, shutter your ear against mediocrity. To fall in love with language, don’t fan out. Fall down a rabbit hole.
I was having lunch with a friend yesterday and the subject of composers came up and out of the blue I just blurted out, "Well, Bach is the master of us all, but I also love other music from the 18th century. The French were just glorious: Rameau, Couperin. And then after them came Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. I also love Stravinsky and Shostakovich. But most other music you should avoid..."

* * *

 Over at NewMusicBox, Aaron Gervais has a long piece about why efforts at audience-building by classical music institutions often fail:
musical taste is about community building—an inclusive activity. But whenever you build a community, you also implicitly decide who isn’t welcome. Those boundaries are actually the thing that defines the community. We see this clearly in variations in average tastes along racial or ethnic lines, but it’s just as important elsewhere: comparing grey-haired orchestra donors to bluegrass festival attendees, or teenagers to their parents, for example.
For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point. Early punk musicians weren’t trying to welcome pop music fans—they actively ridiculed them. Similarly, nobody involved in the ‘90s rave scene would have suggested toning down the bold fashion choices, drug culture, and extreme event durations in order to make the genre more accessible.
I think I vaguely sensed this in some of my posts on the subject. Efforts to attract new audiences by diluting the classical music experience or by making it more like pop music always seemed pointless to me. Aaron's article is quite long, but it looks at matters from a fresh perspective and includes a lot of interesting research.

* * *

As a footnote to the James Levine story, Slipped Disc has an anonymous story, but one that rings true. The teller was working at the Metropolitan Opera:
From the moment he declined the sexual proposition, our contact became invisible in the building. No-one wanted to work with him. If he asked why, he would be told he ‘was not good enough’. A clique around the music director was there to enforce his wishes.
In music in particular and the arts in general, competence can be hard to prove if you are not given the opportunity. The Met was an impossible place to work if you did not play the music director’s way.
 This phenomenon is, I'm sorry to say, not restricted to sexual harassment. I know of more than one musical institution that became a locus of mediocrity, frustration and depression because the wrong people attained positions of power and through petty favoritism turned the place into a travesty of what it could have been. This is not uncommon as those people who are most adept at careerism and opportunism tend to rise to the top and collect about them others like themselves. Artistic creativity and aesthetic quality then take a backseat to the new purposes of the institution: preserving the power and privilege of the administrators and shielding them from accountability.

* * *

After those depressing thoughts we need some uplifting and cheerful music. This is the Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, K 488 by Mozart. Malcolm Bilson - fortepiano, John Eliot Gardiner - conductor, and English Baroque Soloists, on period instruments.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Music Born From Suffering

Can We Really Take Pleasure From Music Born From Suffering? is the title of a article reporting on a recent conference held in Toronto. As is often the case, the essay doesn't quite answer the question:
Music enriches life so immeasurably that we are inclined to think of it as a purely positive phenomenon.  But it is more complicated than that.  Music is a product of a particular time and place and the context in which it is created can be dark, violent, exploitative, and even demonic.  To think seriously about music it is necessary to reckon with the problematic role it can play in culture.
That's the kind of introduction that thoroughly misses the point. Yes, music can enrich life, but it does so if and when it is the expression or reaction to actual life. If the context is dark and troubling, then that is what the music will reflect--ironically, sometimes by being just the opposite. The phrase about reckoning with "the problematic role it can play in culture" is just genuflecting to critical theory where everything has a problematic role!
The theme of adding a back story of tragedy to a piece of music and its effect on the music’s reception was returned to many times.  Musicologist Michael Beckerman described his experiments with accomplished musicians, in which he provided them with an anonymous score without telling them anything about it, and then tracking how their performance changed once he told them that the composer had been in a concentration camp, or that the composer had died.  While the performers claimed that the narrative deeply influenced their subsequent interpretation of the work, the recordings made by Beckerman proved otherwise.  “Sometimes,” he told us, “the musicians played exactly the same way but made different faces.”
This well-meaning exercise is the kind of thing that tends to place any particular piece of music on a Procrustean bed of the historical context. Yes, it always tweaks our interest to learn that, for example, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps of Olivier Messiaen was composed and premiered in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, but that is an old story and largely incidental to the aesthetic content of the piece. What is really problematic here are the hidden assumptions of the musicologists telling us the story behind the composition. It is their interpretation that, perhaps, needs to be examined. A performer really should not walk out on stage trying to make the performance a vehicle for whatever biographical context might have surrounded the occasion of the composition.

The scholars at the conference delve into a lot of ethical questions such as:
“Music that came out of suffering becomes valorized,” said Beckerman, “ so that we tend to overlook some of the disturbing facts, such as that the composer was granted privileges that allowed him to survive, including being exempt from labour.”  A starker way of putting it is that some music may have come to us at the cost of the death of a fellow prisoner who didn’t happen to compose.  When we know this, can we comfortably continue to listen to such works?
Perhaps all music comes out of some kind of suffering, or some kind of joy or some kind of arduous work. So what? The relationship of the context to the finished aesthetic object is complex and not necessarily causal. Also, I think that there is a legal principle that states that no contract signed under duress is legally valid. Can we not extend that principle to say that we really should not be picking over works written in a context of extreme duress for some sort of hidden privilege?

I can't help but think that this project is just another way of shifting the focus away from the aesthetic qualities of music to ones that can be interpreted in the light of social justice.

Let's listen to the quartet by Messiaen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Spot the Problem

More and more lately I realize that I need a new tag: "streaming music." Apart from YouTube I don't use any streaming service myself as I prefer to have the CD for any music I am really interested in. I suppose that I reject streaming for the same reason I stopped listening to radio and watching television decades ago: I want to make all my own choices as I hate having stuff "broadcast" at me. Here is an article that delves into some of the problems with a service like Spotify:
The music world continues to be exceedingly vulnerable, and there are looming questions that desperately need to be addressed. Most important: How can artists distribute and sell their work in a digital economy beholden to ruthlessly commercial and centralized interests?
Enter Spotify, a platform that is definitely not the answer. In fact, it only exacerbates such conundrums. Yet for now it has manipulated the vast majority of music industry “players” into regarding it as a saving grace. As the world’s largest streaming music company, its network of paying subscribers has risen sharply in recent years, from five million paid subscribers in 2012 to more than sixty million in 2017. Indeed, the platform has now convinced a critical mass that paying $9.99 per month for access to thirty million songs is a solid, even virtuous idea. Every song in the world for less than your shitty airport meal. What could go wrong? 
To understand the danger Spotify poses to the music industry—and to music itself—you first have to dig beneath the “user experience” and examine its algorithmic schemes. Spotify’s front page “Browse” screen presents a classic illusion of choice, a stream of genre and mood playlists, charts, new releases, and now podcasts and video. It all appears limitless, a function of the platform’s infinite supply, but in reality it is tightly controlled by Spotify’s staff and dictated by the interests of major labels, brands, and other cash-rich businesses who have gamed the system. 
Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect.
Those excerpts should give you an idea, though you should read the whole thing. I am hampered in discussing this because, as I said, I have never used Spotify or any other streaming service. There is just nothing about it that appeals to me. The closest I get to being the object of some commercial algorithm is as an Amazon customer and I find the choices they make for me to be mildly annoying. They are constantly sending me links to things I have already purchased or to authors I purchased and decided I didn't like or to things that are exactly like things I already have. I'm sure it's not just me!

So I guess all I can say about Spotify and its dangers is akin to the famous critique of democracy by Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” If what most people want from music is a soporific (euphemistically known as "chilling out") selection crafted for them by an algorithm, then ok, sure, whatever. But herein perhaps lies the reason that there is less and less creativity and originality in music these days.


Let's have something non-soporific, yet up-lifting. This is the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin:

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Emerging Musical Genres

I tagged this as "musical humor" because I am 73% positive that this is meant to be humorous or satirical or something. The Guardian article is headlined: What's the hot emerging musical genre of 2017? Welcome to serialism. They link to a BBC piece on Spotify that has various lists of statistics from the past year like:

Top five artists worldwide

  1. Ed Sheeran
  2. Drake
  3. The Weeknd
  4. Kendrick Lamar
  5. The Chainsmokers
But they also have the very promising list of:

Biggest emerging genres
  1. Melodic power metal
  2. Chaotic black metal
  3. Chillhop
  4. Trap Latino
  5. Future funk
  6. Jumpstyle
  7. Serialism
  8. Cinematic dubstep
  9. Vintage swoon
  10. Gamecore
Now I'm sure you can pick out the odd-man-out in that list? Which of these is not like the others? I'm guessing serialism is the one. It is also the only one that I actually know anything about. "Chillhop," "Trap Latino" and the others are a complete mystery, though I have to confess a curiosity about "Vintage swoon." Would that be, like, Puccini? In any case, the folks over at the Guardian do a little question and answer schtick on serialism:

Name: Serialism.

Age: Has its origins in the early 20th century.

Appearance: The next big thing.

I know about this – all melted watches, people with apples in their faces and whatnot. That’s surrealism. This is serialism, a form of modern musical composition that began with Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique.

And what’s that when it’s at home? Essentially, it’s a system that uses repeated patterns to ensure that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are given equal importance, thus avoiding the constraints of keys and traditional harmonies.

I’m no expert, but it sounds like a hard listen. It may be difficult for the uninitiated, but serialism of one kind or another was the dominant classical music form of the first half of the 20th century.

I’m still confused. Can you give me an example? Of course. Are you familiar with, say, Le Temps Restitué by Jean Barraqué?

I’m not sure. Can you hum a few bars? I’ll try: hmmmnyiunnnnnhhhmmmmioooohnnnymyhmmmmmmmmm…

Are you OK? You sound like a dog that has been hit by a car. It’s difficult to reproduce.

Let's have a listen to Mr. Barraqué's piece:

It is really amazing how similar all those pieces from the post-war serialist phase sound. I suppose a real expert could distinguish Boulez from Stockhausen, Pousseur, Barraqué and others, but the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic style, from this perspective, forces them all into a very similar musical space. Of course I may have just revealed myself to be a complete dolt! But what I am listening to is not so much the technical devices, as the aesthetic result. Sameness.

If you dig around on Wikipedia you can find a lot of lists of musical genres, all of them very ill-defined, with a lot of hilarious names. At least we know what serialism is, even if we doubt that it is a "hot emerging genre."

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Classical Music Has a Regional Problem

In all the discussions about classical music's "problem" what is missing is the specifics. The problem is usually stated as being one of a decline in popularity due to younger audiences abandoning the "genre" for the dubious pleasures of popular music. This is usually how the problem is framed in the mass media in North America and, occasionally, in Great Britain. The thing is that this does not seem to be the case in Europe where classical music seems as popular as ever and audiences as diverse as ever.

If we step back and look at some history, classical music is deeply rooted on the European continent, but a fairly recent transplant in the New World. The UK is the odd man out. Music there was pursued with great energy and creativity during the Middle Ages and, right up to the death of Purcell in the late 17th century, was quite influential on European music. Then it seems to have died out, as a native pursuit, until the very late 19th century when Edward Elgar began the flourishing of classical music in 20th century Britain.

Similarly, classical, that is to say, notated concert music, has been pursued avidly in pockets of the New World, especially the US, Brazil and Argentina, during the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and others are probably as important as any working today.

But it still remains the case that concert music has only very shallow roots everywhere in the world apart from Western Europe. What is happening in recent decades is that the thin veneer of Western European culture that has existed in a lot of the world is wearing away everywhere but in Western Europe. As an example, let's look at what inspired this post: the music page from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation There are a host of items on the page, color-coded as to genre. Classical music items are aquamarine. On this whole page there are three classical items out of dozens and dozens of other genres.

The traditional expectation would be that a national broadcast network like the CBC or PBS in the US or ABC in Australia would have an educational or cultural mandate that would certainly include the promotion of classical or concert music. In recent decades this has been completely overturned and now these entities go out of their way not only to not promote classical music, but to bury it amid a wealth of non-classical music--to virtually no protest. On the European continent things are quite different as classical music is a core element of European national broadcast networks. It is also promoted by the BBC in the UK, again following a path a bit closer to the continent.

I suppose the big question mark today is what is happening in China where literally millions of young people are studying concert instruments like the piano and violin as well as the voice. How deeply will classical music root itself in China and will it be pushed to one side by popular forms as it seems to have been in South Korea?

Let's hear a clip of a performance by the very popular Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. Here she is playing the Piano Concerto No. by Chopin in Tokyo with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Handel's Messiah

There is a new book out on Handel's Messiah (reviewed in the Wall Street Journal), just in time for a flood of performances associated with the season. Perhaps the two most popular pieces performed this time of year are Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet and Handel's oratorio. So what is an oratorio, anyway?

Its origins are in the 17th century and it became a vehicle for the expression of both the Reformation in the works of the great German composer Heinrich Schütz, student of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the Counter-Reformation in the works of Giacomo Carissimi, a priest, organist and choirmaster in Rome. An oratorio is basically an unstaged dramatic narrative on a sacred text, a sacred dialogue.

Schütz called his oratorios "historien" and one of the best-known is his joyous, Italianate outpouring of Christmas cheer titled Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes Jesu Christi (Historia of the joyful und blessed birth of Jesus Christ, son of God and Mary). This is often shortened in English to Christmas Story. It was first performed in 1660. Let's have a listen.

Carissimi's most famous biblical narrative, Jephte, was composed around 1649 and tells the tragic story of the sacrifice of Jephte's daughter. A chorus from this work was "borrowed" by Handel for a chorus in his oratorio Samson. Let's listen to the Carissimi:

Handel's great genius was to reinvent the oratorio in English as a solution to his problems with the decline in popularity of his operas in Italian. Interestingly Handel's oratorios in English became vehicles for the expression of civic heroism and national triumph. The English in the 18th century identified with the Old Testament Israelites and regarded the oratorios as gratifying allegories of themselves (see Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 2, p. 315). Handel began the composition of the Messiah in 1741 and it was first performed in Dublin in 1742. The great innovation that Handel made was to re-conceive the genre as being essentially choral. Indeed, the most famous section is the "Hallelujah" chorus, which is possibly the most famous piece of choral music ever written. Let's have a listen:

Now that is stirring! The book by Keates makes the point that performances throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries were characterized by enormous choirs and orchestras, quite distant from the original performances. But in recent decades, a return has been made to the modest forces and crisper tempos of the 18th century. Here, as an example, is the Messiah performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (soloists listed at YouTube):

Friday, December 8, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The big news in the world of classical music this week seems to be exclusively the accusations of sexual abuse directed at conductor James Levine, for decades the music director of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. The New York Times offers a sober account:
The Metropolitan Opera suspended James Levine, its revered conductor and former music director, on Sunday after three men came forward with accusations that Mr. Levine sexually abused them decades ago, when the men were teenagers.
Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, announced that the company was suspending its four-decade relationship with Mr. Levine, 74, and canceling his upcoming conducting engagements after learning from The New York Times on Sunday about the accounts of the three men, who described a series of similar sexual encounters beginning in the late 1960s. The Met has also asked an outside law firm to investigate Mr. Levine’s behavior.
“While we await the results of the investigation, based on these news reports the Met has made the decision to act now,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview, adding that the Met’s board supported his actions. “This is a tragedy for anyone whose life has been affected.”
Levine was such an institution at the Met that some writers have suggested that the impact will be decisive:
For decades, the Met was essentially the Levine Company. Its identity was intertwined with his. His taste in composers, his relationships with singers, his hires, orchestra, conducting style, and even, for a while, his eye for productions all shaped what happened onstage in seven performances a week. Divas remained loyal to the Met because they felt safe onstage so long as he was in the pit. Audiences burst into applause as soon as his corona of springy curls bobbed into the spotlight. Critics — and I include myself — lauded his leadership as well as his musicality. His cheery, seemingly eternal presence thrilled the board and helped keep the spigot of donations open.
I’m not sure the Met can survive Levine’s disgrace.
Let's hope that is not the case.

* * *

 At a time when so many pillars of the intellectual elite seem to be falling like so many palm trees in a hurricane, perhaps we should take a moment to honor those very few that speak truth instead of lies and hypocrisy. Among those has to be Canadian university professor and psychologist Jordan Peterson. Here is an excerpt from a talk in which he goes full bore against one of the most insidious political stratagems of our day: the industry of the oppressed.

* * *

We are in the middle of the holiday season and some of us, myself included, will be doing some cooking. So let me share with you a recent discovery, Chef John from who is not only a very fine cook, a master of the pan sauce, but also an engaging YouTube personality with a host of expert videos like this one:

Excellent recipe that I have tested myself. Two things: my cooking time turned out to be longer than his, so be sure to use your food thermometer and second, go easy on the lemon juice. I think he puts in too much. Terrific recipe, though!

* * *

Alex Ross has a review of the new John Adams opera over at the New Yorker:
Like all of Adams’s stage works to date, “Girls of the Golden West” was directed by Peter Sellars, who also assembled the libretto. Both Adams and Sellars are California residents, but neither is inclined to romanticize the state. In forty years of collaboration, they have addressed all manner of provocative topics—Richard Nixon’s visit to China, the Achille Lauro terrorist incident, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the Trinity atomic-bomb test—yet they have never launched such a frontal assault on our national mythology. The California gold rush was the proving ground of Manifest Destiny, transmuting rugged individualism into wealth and glory. Here it becomes a grotesque bacchanal of white-male supremacy, capped by a Fourth of July party that degenerates into a racist riot. Clappe’s closing aria is therefore no rhapsody: the majesty of nature sits in silent judgment.
That is certainly a familiar trope, indeed, the subhead of the article reads: "John Adams’s new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” is an assault on American mythology." Honestly, for how many decades have artists been doing their best to assault all the "mythologies" that often turn out to be nothing more than the history of Western civilization? Is this one any different? I suppose we will have to wait and see. But I for one am just a tad tired of the dismantling, problematizing, nuancing and, at the end of the day, destruction of everything connected with American exceptionalism. As a Canadian I always want to say, "hey, we up in Canada have constructed a pretty terrific society as well, prosperous and well-regulated with a fairly honest government and legal system. Not to mention a few other places like Australia and New Zealand." But at the same time, any honest estimate of history will conclude that whatever the United States has been doing over the last couple of hundred years has been spectacularly successful and perhaps it is a better attitude to examine what has been going right than to be constantly tearing it down. But that has been the engine of artistic creativity for a long time and we have yet to truly transition into something else. For now we are still trapped in this kind of artistic vision (quoting from Ross' review):
What resonates most in Donald Trump’s America is the way that empty, stupid boasting devolves into paranoid rage.

* * *

 Here is an hour-long documentary on one of the last century's finest musicians, harpsichordist and organist Gustav Leonhardt (1928 - 2012). It is in Dutch, but with English subtitles:

* * *

Leading contenders in the most awkward way of performing Bach competition are Les objets volants, a French ensemble:

* * *

For our envoi today a new clip on YouTube. This is the Emerson String Quartet in a performance of the Quartet no. 16, K. 428 by Mozart in Tokyo in 1991. How young and slim they look!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

SF: An Addendum

Ok, it's not like there has been any demand from my readership, but I'm going to give you one more post on science fiction tv series anyway. Hey, it's free!

I got around to watching Stargate: Atlantis and yes, it's a good series. In place of Richard Dean Anderson's Everyman there is Joe Flanigan who is pretty good (though not as good as Anderson). The character who ends up dominating the show is Canadian David Hewlett who actually plays a Canadian character with Canadian flag patch and everything. He even says "zed pee em" instead of "zee pee em" which undoubtedly confuses anyone south of the border. This is the only instance of a Canadian character starring in a US series that I can think of. Hewlett's character is a kind of updated version of Michael Shanks' role from SG-1, a nerdy genius who is always getting athwart the other characters. But Hewlett's character is even nerdier and self-deprecatingly arrogant--now that's a uniquely Canadian character! Rachel Luttrell is an appealing character as is the Scot Paul McGillion. Indeed, this is the most international cast I can recall. In later seasons Jewel Staite, who was part of the cast on Firefly, comes on to replace the role of McGillion. Stargate: Atlantis, like SG-1, is shot in Vancouver, so we have the usual alien planets that always look a bit like the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, I quite enjoyed the series (I am in season 4 right now) which displays many of the same virtues as the original in that it is an action adventure with lots of humor. It makes few concessions to political correctness, which is nice. One of the most entertaining episodes involves an encounter between the muscle of the new series, Jason Momoa, with the muscle of the old series, Christopher Judge. At first they just glare at one another, but after a fair amount of sparring and testing one another, end up clearing the whole of the Stargate Command complex of Wraith invaders just by themselves.

The other series, which I discovered courtesy of a commentator is Warehouse 13, shot in Toronto (which is why there are so many snowy backgrounds and visits to supposed Mid-Western towns like Cheyenne, Wyoming). This show stars Saul Rubinek who has appeared in guest roles in a zillion other tv series including Star Trek: TNG and Stargate SG-1. I have not been a big fan as I often feel he is chewing the scenery a bit too much and by that I mean his performances seem mannered to me. But in Warehouse 13 he seems to have hit it just right and he is great in the part of the eccentric manager/leader of the team. Warehouse 13 seems devoted to presenting to us the most spectacularly beautiful Canadian actresses possible and by that I mean Genelle Williams:

--who seems to have little enough to do to justify her starring role. Then there is Allison Scagliotti who does grow into her role, but is even more stunningly beautiful:

Allison is actually American, not Canadian, but the lead female role is played by Joanne Kelly, who is from Newfoundland:

Warehouse 13 is a pretty good show, with a charming retro tech aesthetic, but seems to flag a bit after the first couple of seasons. I'm in season three right now. The villains are pretty good and the stories are fairly inventive. The whole series is like a take off on the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where some nameless government employee nails the ark into a packing crate and trundles it off into the depths of an enormous government warehouse. Voila, Warehouse 13, which explores what else might be in that fascinating place.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, final scene

Monday, December 4, 2017

All Strung Out

As a string instrument player, strings are an abiding interest with me. You are always looking for better strings or to assure the continued supply of strings you like. I have probably tried out thirty or more different kinds of strings in my career. One fine maker of classical guitar strings is Hannabach. Here is a little documentary (in German):

But I usually use strings from D'Addario Pro-Arte. They have various types and I have found the new carbon strings to be very good. Here is a little review of them:

That is the latest string technology, but a lot of string players prefer a much older technology: strings made from gut:

If you play a lot, several hours a day, guitar strings will only last a couple of weeks and that is due largely to being mashed on the frets. Pretty soon the wire will wear through on the 4th string and the clarity of pitch will start to decay on the trebles because they are no longer of uniform thickness. After a few years you get expert at changing strings! Here is a pretty good video on the subject.

Yes, I also melt the end of the treble strings to form a little ball so they won't slip, but I do it because the way my bridge is designed it is really necessary:

Unlike the usual bridge, the strings are held only with the knot in the end. He uses a string-winder, which is ok. I don't, because I don't wind as much on as he does--when I put the new string on I pull all the extra through. I never saw the reason to wind all the extra on so I don't use a lot of slack as he does. If you overlap it in the pegbox it won't slip.

D'Addario Pro-Arte are fine modern strings, but sometimes, especially when playing a lot of early music, I like the sound and feel of the older Savarez red card strings with their textured trebles. These almost feel like gut and give quite a different effect. Anyway, here is what my guitar sounds like with Pro-Arte strings. I think this was the older type, not the carbon ones. This is Las Abejas (The Bees) by Agustín Barrios, a nice virtuoso showpiece:

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Moral Quality of Music

In Jerrold Levinson's collection of papers on music, Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music, he talks about the moral quality of music. I need to quote a substantial passage to get the idea across:
The fundamental criterion of musical moral quality, perhaps too crudely framed, is whether the mind or spirit displayed in the music is such as to elicit admiration and to induce emulation, or instead such as to elicit distaste and to induce avoidance. If the former, the music has positive moral quality; if the latter, the music has negative moral quality; if neither, then the music is simply morally neutral. 
But why, one may ask, does such a property of music deserve the label of moral quality, and not simply aesthetic quality? Before answering let me relabel the property in question as ethical, rather than moral, quality, appealing to a broad sense of “ethical” that is familiar to us from Aristotle and the Stoics, comprising all aspects of character relevant to living a good life, and not only those corresponding to the moral virtues narrowly understood. With that relabeling in place, I see no way to avoid replying, to the question of why the display of an admirable mind or spirit makes for ethical quality in music, that it is simply because some minds or spirits are ethically superior to others, in the sense that they are such as to conduce to living a good life or to living as one should. Music can thus have ethical value in the sense of presenting exemplars of admirable states of mind that are conducive to, perhaps even partly constitutive of, living well, even if no demonstrable effect on character is forthcoming. And ethical value of this sort, one may add, in general makes music that possesses it artistically more valuable as well, artistic value being a broader notion than aesthetic value, plausibly covering rewards afforded by a work that are not directly manifested in experience of it. 
So music might, in principle, have ethical quality without that resulting in moral force of either the behavioral or the character-building sort. But in fact it is difficult to believe that repeated exposure to music that is ethically superior, in the sense I have indicated, should have as a rule no effect on character at all. And that is because of the plausibility of a contagion-cum-modeling picture of what is likely to result from such exposure. Just as spending time with certain sorts of friends invariably impacts on character, if perhaps in a transitory manner— this is what parents have in mind in classifying their children’s pals as on the whole either “good influences” or “bad influences”— so does keeping company with certain music rather than other music. It seems manifestly better, for one’s psychological and spiritual well-being, to spend time with music of sincerity, subtlety, honesty, depth, and the like, than with music of pretension, shallowness, or vulgarity.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 2547-2567). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
 This is a different view than that expressed by Peter Kivy, who believes that, while instrumental music can have a temporary uplifting effect, it has no real long-lasting moral influence. It also departs from what we might call the received wisdom of our day that holds that music, classical music at least, has no moral influence; indeed it may have a negative influence as witnessed by the behaviour of the Nazis who were perfectly capable of genocide against Jews, homosexuals and gypsies during the day and contentedly listening to Schubert and Wagner in the evening. It is perhaps because of this black stain that moral monsters like Hannibal Lector are seen in the movies listening to music by Bach.

The problem with Levinson's argument is, while it seems perfectly plausible, the way he presents it seems to lack evidence. He cites the quality of mind or spirit that shows itself in the music, such as the optimism of the first movement of Dvořák's "American" Quartet and the good humor that saturates the music of Haydn. He makes the odd argument that musical works are like persons and may have a similar moral influence:
Though they are not sentient, musical works are somewhat like persons. They possess a character, exhibit something like behavior, unfold or develop over time, and display emotional and attitudinal qualities which we can access through being induced to imagine, as we listen to them, personae that embody those qualities. In short, musical works are person-like in psychological ways. If so, then it hardly seems implausible that music regularly frequented will have moral effects on one, just as will being in the company of, and spending time with, real persons. This may transpire through the mere contagion or rubbing off of mental dispositions; or through a conscious desire to model oneself, in thought and action, on impressive individuals in one’s environment;
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 2585-2591). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
 While I am very sympathetic to this view as it correlates with my own impressions, I am surprised to find it standing in for an argument in a book by a professional philosopher. Because, again, it is a mere claim without any real evidence. This essay goes on to discuss in detail some jazz standards which, because of the text, do not really equate with instrumental music.

If the contrary argument is that very bad people can listen to classical music and continue to do very bad things, therefore classical music is either morally neutral or negative, then how should it be countered?

Let us imagine some scenarios: a concentration camp guard goes home each night and listens with great pleasure to Bach. The music not only presents intense expression, but it also models the virtues of industriousness and creativity. The guard then goes on to exhibit the virtues of industriousness and creativity in his duties as a concentration camp guard. Whatever empathy the music may suggest, it does not alter his lack of empathy towards the prisoners in any way.

There seems something missing in this account. How could you listen to the deeply religious and deeply human music of Bach and not be made more human and empathetic as a result? I think that what we are encountering here is one of the subtle differences between morality and aesthetics. These two things share a number of similarities as was noted by philosopher David Hume, but they are also quite different.

There are a number of different moral theories available: utilitarian ones stress the greater good of the greater number, which is sometimes used to justify killing one person to save hundreds. It is perhaps some variety of utilitarianism that might have justified the killing of Jews in Nazi Germany. Deontological ethics are based on the idea that morality is governed by rules that enable us to judge the morality of an action. Levinson in his essay seems to be following an older ethical theory that dates back to Aristotle and the Greeks, the idea of virtue ethics which is based on the idea of virtues of mind and character.

Perhaps the best way of analyzing the problem of the moral quality of music is to recognize the complexity of both human nature and historical context. It is the commonest thing in the world for humans to not only deceive themselves as to their good and the means used to achieve it, but to devise elaborate intellectual strategies to deceive themselves! Utilitarian ethics, for example, are very susceptible to being used for this purpose. Essentially you can justify any action, no matter how horrendous, by stating a Higher Good or Purpose. Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in order to hasten industrial collectivization or to suppress Ukrainian independence, take your pick. In either case it was an instance of the Higher Good prevailing over the mere survival of individuals.

The same applies to the Nazi genocide: it was simply a case of the Higher Good of the Aryan peoples prevailing over unimportant minorities. We can see similar political activities today in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, North Korea and other places. Whether a few individuals starve is a lesser issue compared to the Higher Good of whatever ideology the rulers hold to.

So we can look at the case of the concentration camp guard and his love of Bach in a different way: it is perfectly plausible that the moral quality of Bach's music make no change in the moral behaviour of the guard because he is governed by a more powerful ideology that tells him what he is doing is both good and required. For him Bach is nothing more than a pleasant interlude.

Music lacks the moral rigor of an ideology. I have seen some video clips by Jordan Peterson recently that characterize ideologies as crude, simplifying templates applied to the world in order to give simple answers to all questions and this seems to me to be a good way to conceptualize it. There are many videos from him on this subject, some of them quite lengthy, but I think this one sums it up nicely in just over a minute:

Music is one of those things that can, if you allow it, help you develop your individuality, but it does not have the crude power of a political ideology, nor, without your engagement as a thinking individual, can it overcome the urgings of a crude ideology. But then, the best music never pretended to do so.

UPDATE: I just saw this news story which we might also reflect on: Legendary opera conductor molested teen for years: police report.
Legendary Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine molested an Illinois teenager from the time he was 15 years old, sexual abuse that lasted for years and led the alleged victim to the brink of suicide, according to a police report obtained by The Post.
The alleged abuse began while Levine was guest conductor at the Ravinia Music Festival outside Chicago, a post the wild-haired maestro held for two decades.
This brings up the related issue of how classical musicians, exposed to music of high moral quality every day for their entire lives, can fall so heavily to moral depravity. Again, it is likely a case of something more powerful overwhelming the positive example or influence of music, in this case, sexual desire.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Things to Listen to...

For Saturday morning a different kind of miscellanea. Just a few things to listen to. First up, a piece by Swedish composer Magnus Granberg who was featured at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (I've been to Huddersfield, but it was to deliver a couple of papers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not attend concerts):

I don't know if it is music or "sonic art," but I like the sounds.

Next up the first cut from the famous Miles Davis album Kind of Blue from 1959. This is a filmed version. The theme is an appoggiatura from E7 to D7 (with an added 4th):

Since it's morning, we really need some Bach. This is Grigory Sokolov in a 1982 performance of the Goldberg Variations:

Two of the most significant women composers of the last century are both Russian (Soviet) and both had some association with Shostakovich. I did a post on Galina Ustvolskaya who was his student a while ago. Now let's listen to some music by Sofia Gubaidulina. This is In Tempus Praesens, a concerto for violin and orchestra. The soloist is Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Valery Gergiev:

Friday, December 1, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Pop-star Katy Perry and wizard investor Warren Buffet met recently to discuss--proper integration of the bass drum into the backbeat in up-tempo pop numbers? No, apparently the topic was cryptocurrencies.

* * *

If NPR is an indicator, the battle for the ears of the general public has long since been lost. The model for public broadcasting networks like NPR or CBC Radio in Canada or the BBC in the UK used to be that they were a conduit for the less commercial higher culture--classical music in other words. But now, for a generation or two, it seems as if classical music is hardly even a niche anymore, but just a vague historical echo. Witness this item from the Wall Street Journal about NPR Music:
Well before NPR Music was founded, popular music was part of the arts-and-culture coverage of the parent network and its affiliates, though many were committed to classical music or jazz. As a producer for “All Things Considered,” which featured album reviews and artist profiles, producer Bob Boilen heard from folks who wanted more: In the pre-Internet, pre-Shazam days, they clamored for the names of songs excerpted between news items. (Disclosure: Several years ago, I did a few reviews for “ATC” that Mr. Boilen produced.) He proposed a podcast to introduce new music to listeners; “All Songs Considered” launched in 2000. Its popularity, as well as NPR’s forays into presenting live concerts online, led to NPR Music, which launched in November 2007.
For its “Tiny Desk” series, NPR Music challenges its guests to do something different in a stripped-down setting. When I visited NPR in mid-October, Billy Corgan, best known for his work with the Smashing Pumpkins, was playing for the first time with a string quartet. In June, Chance the Rapper not only performed a Stevie Wonder song but read a poem he had written for the occasion. Recent “Tiny Desk” guests included jazz’s Nate Smith + Kinfolk, R&B’s Benjamin Booker and folk’s Ani DiFranco, who was accompanied by Ivan Neville and Jenny Scheinman. The Roots brought along seven horn players and singer Bilal. Randy Newman came alone.
The ultimate in diversity these days seems to mean: everything but classical.

* * * 

Let's look at two attempts to write a sleep-inducing lullaby: one by composer Eddie McGuire and the other by Jukedeck, an artificial intelligence taught how to compose by CEO Ed Newton-Rex. You can hear both pieces over at the Mirror.

* * *

Now is the time of year when Forbes announces its list of the highest-paid women in music 2017. At the top is Beyoncé raking in a cool $105 million. Adele is a distant second with $69 million and Taylor Swift is in third place with $44 million. I guess that this must be the golden age of music as I don't think any musicians in history have earned even a tiny fraction of the sums that popular musicians can earn in the 21st century.

* * *

On the other end of the music world, the Eugene Weekly continues to chronicle the slow decline of the Oregon Bach Festival:
When Linda Ackerman was fired by the Oregon Bach Festival in 2016, her story didn’t end up in The New York Times. 
Her departure from the festival wasn’t the subject of outraged posts on classical music blogs like Slipped Disc. 
But the tale of Ackerman’s firing — pushed through that summer by OBF Executive Director Janelle McCoy — may shed light on the still-unexplained firing this past summer of OBF’s Artistic Director Matthew Halls, a case that has drawn international news coverage and nearly unrelenting criticism of the 47-year-old festival and of the University of Oregon, which operates it.
In both cases, it appears that McCoy was behind the firings. Ackerman, a contract artist liaison, was closely allied with Halls, whom she considers a friend. And, like Halls, she insists she still doesn’t understand why her contract was terminated.
One gets the feeling that this is one of those situations where exactly the wrong person is given a position of power and influence and abuses it. Sadly, this can destroy a fine musical institution.

* * *

In music we have had a number of critiques based on the concept of "cultural appropriation" lately, but so far the issues of "colonization" and "de-colonization" have not had much play. I'm sure it's just a matter of time, though. So as a little amuse-bouche I offer this article from the Globe and Mail on decolonizing Canada--symbolically at least! The article is really hard to excerpt, but this will give you an idea:
And then there is Shia's noodle shop, a place where the hipsters are chowing down on noodles savoured for their exoticism but now long removed from the original dish that was appropriated; it's a place where the colonizers no longer recognize the thing they took in the first place.
"And where does that leave the colonizer?" Wente asks. "It seemed to be addressing Canada in the moment." Indeed, in the figure of Egan Emmett, the diner whose commitment to cosmopolitanism has somehow morphed into a daily bowl of noodles he no longer really wants, Shia seems to capture the settlers' dilemma, trapped in a society they can't see the way to change.
The solution? Well, political reform in Canada will only be driven by a change of Canadian attitudes, Wente figures: "For me, storytelling, our making movies like this, is important because it's going to take a cultural shift."
The critique of colonialism originates with Frantz Fanon a "Marxist humanist." Isn't it odd how, without so much as a genuine public debate, we seem to have moved from a basically Western European culture of classical liberalism into a disingenuous cultural Marxism? Canada, widely recognized as being one of the finest places in the world to live with a reasonably strong economy, a fair and open society, a highly respected political and legal system and everything else that attracts immigration from the world over, continues to berate itself and apologize--for what? Being a better place to live? No, with the ideological shibboleths of the extreme left. About the only thing that is unfortunate about Canada is the climate!

* * *

I'm pretty sure that early on at The Music Salon I did a post on the music of plants. But here is another one.
During a small lecture at a private residence in Delray Beach earlier this month, I watched a houseplant play music, unabashedly and beautifully. Potted and still, it was hooked up to a MIDI machine via electrodes, its bio-emissions creating twinkling melodies. Attached to the same machine, an orchid and rosemary plant played nothing, but this one was active and virtuosic, as though  it enjoyed playing. 
The MIDI machine is part of a project called Music of the Plants, developed in the 1970s by researchers at Damanhur, a spiritual eco-community in Piedmont, Italy. Damanhur’s primary tenet is that the natural environment is conscious, and meant to exist in cohabitation with humans; in 2005, the community received recognition from the United Nation’s Global Forum on Human Settlements as a model for a sustainable society. While plant music has been created before —Mileece, a sonic artist, makes plant symphonies using similar technology — the Music of the Plants is essentially Damanhurian. It’s as much about art as it is about plant sentience and intelligence, which is its own field of study.
The clips at the link offer abundant evidence that, like aeolian harps, MIDI programmed in the right way can take any input and turn it into the dullest new-agey music.

* * *

Let's have a cheery envoi today to celebrate surviving another week, unbloodied, unbowed and unbent. This is the Magnificat by Bach with the Concentus Musicus Vienna and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Bent Sørensen

This year's winner of the big prize in composition, the Grawemeyer Award, is Danish composer Bent Sørensen. One of his best-known pieces is his violin concerto titled Sterbende Gärten:

He is visiting professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The piece for which he was awarded the prize is L'Isola della Citta a triple concerto. Here are the first two movements:

That is music that, on first hearing, sounds as if it could stand a great deal more hearings! Tonal with a lot of microtonal inflections might be one way of describing it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Timey Wimey Stuff

My title comes from an episode of Doctor Who, who says:
People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to affect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey...stuff
I was recently reminded by a commentator of the dispute between Peter Kivy and Jerrold Levinson as to the architectonic versus the concatenationist nature of music and our appreciation of it. I've been reading a collection of essays by Levinson titled Musical Concerns: Essays in the Philosophy of Music which contains his reply to Kivy's critique. I find that the extremely abstract nature of the arguments leaves me rather puzzled. This quote makes things a bit clearer:
A few square inches of the sleeve of a duke in a portrait by Titian, for instance, may attract our gaze and cause us to marvel at the painter’s skill, but it is the way the achievement of those few square inches fits with the rest of the canvas that is the primary focus of appreciation. The main theme of the opening movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, however, is no mere detail, and retains an extraordinary value even when the rest of the movement is put to the side, because its value is not, in anywhere the same degree as with static works of visual art, tied to its architectonic relationship to the rest of the composition.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 954-959). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Ok, yes, a painting is in one way a kind of map of reality that we look at in a synoptic way. But a piece of music is like a journey through the landscape itself--a journey that takes place in time. You might want to claim that the musical score is the "map" of the composition, but musical scores themselves cannot be viewed synoptically, but only in bits:

Beginning of Symphony in B minor "Unfinished" by Franz Schubert
You can recall earlier parts of the journey and anticipate later stages, but your experience is overwhelmingly of that part of the trek that you are in at the moment. In this sense, I quite agree with Levinson's claim:
Why do we listen to music, how do we listen to music, and what is the main source of our satisfaction in listening to music? The answer to these three closely related questions, I believe, is to be found in the phenomenon of following music, that is to say, of attending closely to, and getting involved in, its specific movement, flow, or progression, moment by moment. That is to say, it is not so much a matter of thinking articulately about the music as it passes, or contemplating it in its architectural aspect, as it is a matter of reacting to and interacting with the musical stream, perceptually and somatically, on a non-analytical, pre-reflective level.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 736-741). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Music is a bit like Heraclitus' stream that we can never step into twice. But at the same time it is not like a stream, but is instead the creation, according to a plan, by a human composer. Music is not simply running downhill; it is moving and gesturing expressively toward a goal.

My problem with so much writing about the philosophy of music is that it moves the discussion up to an abstract level where the individuality of compositions and composers tends to vanish into a grey goo of homogeneity.

Bach's music is extremely architectonic while Debussy's is extremely moment-to-moment. Bach is Kivian while Debussy is Levinsonian! Music can be intensely unified, as in some compositions by Beethoven, or very episodic, as in other compositions by Beethoven. There is an odd sense in which every single philosophic assertion about the nature of music is true: for some particular pieces! And false for a whole lot of other pieces.

You know, I think this is why I did not transfer from the music department to the philosophy department back when I was contemplating that change in major as an undergraduate. In some unconscious way I sensed the concrete variety and complexity of music and that was what attracted me.

Our envoi is the Symphony in B minor, "Unfinished" by Schubert in a performance by the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch:

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Uncommon Sense

So often on the Internet one starts to read something that appears promising only to realize partway through that it is the same old, same old with a clickbaitey title. How rare it is to read something that gets better and better and ends with something actually worth reading. I offer for your consideration this surprisingly interesting article from The Spectator: Class prejudice is keeping talented children out of classical music. It begins well enough:
Musicians have always had an uncertain social status in England, the traditional reactions varying from amused condescension to mild repulsion. The former was the old class-based judgment on men who had chosen to take up a profession which at best was associated with society women and at worst seemed menial; the latter directed towards brass players from rough backgrounds whose lips juggled pint pots with mouthpieces and not much else. The most respectable practitioners were probably organists, often referred to as ‘funny little men’, but taken seriously. As evidence of the class-based comment, this was Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son towards the end of the 18th century: ‘If you love music, hear it; go to operas, concerts and pay fiddlers to play to you; but I insist upon your neither piping nor fiddling yourself. It puts a gentleman in a very frivolous, contemptible light…Few things would mortify me more, than to see you bearing a part in a concert, with a fiddle under your chin, or a pipe in your mouth.’
But the real gem is the last paragraph which describes classical musicians rather better than the usual stereotypes and clichés:
Professional musicians remain a difficult body of people to classify. They are not posh; they are not detectably from really poor backgrounds; they have known how to work drillingly hard at one thing, sometimes against the advice of their families; they do not expect to earn a fortune but fight tooth and nail for what they do think they are worth. They tend to be plain and undemonstrative, difficult to gauge though easy to get on with, which may explain why they have proved easy targets for people to pin their petty theories on to. What I keep coming back to is the number of talented children, rich and poor, who have been denied the opportunity to develop as musicians, because their talent one way or another has not been taken seriously.
To someone who has spent most of his life in their company, that seems a fair description.

Let's listen to some of these plain and undemonstrative, but deeply capable people. This is Julia Fischer playing the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Bohuslav Martinů with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by David Zinman:

The State of Music

I want to ask my readers their thoughts on a recent Guardian editorial on Taylor Swift. Unfortunately the editorial does not take up musical questions or even publicity or promotion, but focuses on, well, not Taylor Swift's politics, but instead her lack of politics! Let's have a look at the essay titled "The Guardian view on Taylor Swift: an envoy for Trump’s values?"
In the year since Donald Trump was elected, the entertainment world has been largely united in its disdain for his presidency. But a notable voice has been missing from the chorus: that of Taylor Swift, the world’s biggest pop star. Her silence is striking, highlighting the parallels between the singer and the president: their adept use of social media to foster a diehard support base; their solipsism; their laser focus on the bottom line; their support among the “alt-right”.
The idea that the "entertainment world" is united in their politics is disturbing enough, but the implication that simply being non-political as a public figure in the arts is not only blameworthy, but an indication that one is somehow aligned with the great boogeyman of our time, Donald Trump, is astonishing. How long ago was it that everyone in the arts and entertainment was advised to be non-political, simply out of professional ethics? Even here at the Music Salon we take the position that we prefer to limit any political discussions to ones in defence of the aesthetic independence of the arts from politics. But now the official editorial position of a major leftish medium is that every figure in entertainment must signal their political opposition to Trump or be judged an ally?

What this reminds me of more than anything is the absolutist demands of authoritarianism as exemplified in the famous quote from Mussolini: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” Later in the editorial;
In a well-publicised Twitter exchange with rapper Nicki Minaj, she treated the discussion of structural racism as not only incomprehensible, but a way to disempower white people such as herself – though her lawyers have taken action over articles that associate her with the far right, and have taken issue with claims that she has not sufficiently denounced white supremacy.
Well, frankly the idea of "structural racism" along with that of "unconscious bias" and a bunch of other post-modern shibboleths is incomprehensible--intentionally so!

I'm not a Taylor Swift fan (but hey, at least she isn't Nicki Minaj!), but I would certainly defend her right to say that "structural racism" is nonsense and to sue people that slander her. Accusations that someone has not sufficiently denounced white supremacy are nothing more than warmed over Maoism.

So let's listen to some Taylor Swift.

That seems reasonably mentally healthy for a conventional pop song. Let me know what you think in the comments.