Saturday, August 19, 2017

Alex Ross Perplexed by Sokolov

As readers know, I am a big fan of the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, about whom I have written quite a few posts. I also had the opportunity to hear him in Bologna in May in concert, which was quite an experience. He plays the same program for a whole season, so it was the same pieces that Alex Ross heard him play in Salzburg on August 1st. I linked to his piece on the Salzburg Festival in yesterday's miscellanea, but just now got a chance to savor his comments:
A cultish, worshipful atmosphere can prevail in Salzburg, to sometimes irritating effect. A case in point was an evening of Mozart and Beethoven sonatas with the enigmatic Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who avoids travel to the United States but has an avid European following. He has an extraordinarily sensitive touch, and specializes in the surgical separation and articulation of voices: when he plays a crisp, marcato line with his left hand and a flowing legato with his right, the parts are so distinct that it sounds as though two different people were at the instrument. He is also deeply eccentric. His accounts of Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 545, and the Fantasia and Sonata in C Minor, rendered without pause, veered from porcelain prettiness to turbulent Romantic gesturing and back again, neither manner suitable to the music at hand. In Beethoven’s Opus 111, Sokolov’s interpretive meanderings matched the saturnine magnificence of the score: endless even-toned trills and ethereal figuration cast a spell. Still, a humorless self-indulgence prevailed. The crowd roared and stamped; I went away perplexed.
This is delightful, isn't it? Alex Ross really is a creature of his environment, Manhattan's Upper West Side, the world view of which was captured in this New Yorker cover, years ago:

 

Imagine if the artist had been looking East instead and how foreshortened Europe would have been. That's the sense I get from this phrase in the review:
Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who avoids travel to the United States but has an avid European following.
Norman Lebrecht expressed similar misgivings about a pianist who simply does not give concerts in the UK: after all, how good could he be? Well, good enough to pack halls in Europe. As a bit of a corrective, here is a quote from a review by Geoffrey Norris in The Telegraph:
An enigma in his lifetime, the Russian-born pianist Grigory Sokolov restricts his recitals to about 60 a year, refuses to make studio recordings and, for the past seven years or so, has declined to play in the UK. He used to but then withdrew from appearances here in 2008 when new requirements were introduced for Russian citizens seeking entry visas. It sparked a furore, but the stand-off continues.
To experience him in concert, therefore, you have to be on mainland Europe – no loss to Sokolov when he can draw capacity crowds to the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Berlin Philharmonie or the Vienna Konzerthaus.
 As Ross seems to have only the vaguest idea of with whom he is dealing, let me fill in the picture a bit. Grigory Sokolov is a very great artist and pianist in the Russian tradition. He won first prize in the Tchaikovsky competition in 1966 at age sixteen--the head of the jury was Emil Gilels. Here they are in a photo taken at the time with Mischa Dichter on the left:


Since then he has pursued a career in which his devotion to the art has completely overshadowed any desire for fame or commercial endorsement, which is why so many music lovers do not know him. In Europe, however, he gives a tour every year to packed halls. He refuses to do studio recordings as he sees his art as that of the live performance. After many years of being perplexed by this, one record company, Deutsche Grammophon, has given in and begun releasing CDs of his recitals. He is an astonishing performer. I have one recording, of the Bach Art of Fugue recorded live in St. Petersburg around 1980, that is absolutely transcendent.

So when I read that Ross thinks that Sokolov's performance:
veered from porcelain prettiness to turbulent Romantic gesturing and back again, neither manner suitable to the music at hand
I suspect he just doesn't get out enough and is unfamiliar with the idea of expressive interpretation. Indeed, he seems much more in tune with the young Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang, whom he reviewed like this:
The program, under the direction of the striking young Estonian conductor Anu Tali, consisted of Niels Gade's Hamlet Overture, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Sibelius' Fifth. I'll save the Sibelius for an upcoming New Yorker column and comment briefly on the Grieg. Yuja Wang was the soloist; I knew her from Leon Fleisher's Carnegie Hall workshops, which I wrote about last year. Then, I was gripped by her playing, though I felt she hadn't fully grasped Schubert's language. She has certainly mastered Grieg's. She gets a huge sound out of the piano, which isn't surprising from a well-traveled young prodigy. What's more impressive is that she plays in big paragraphs, shows a powerful grasp of structure, brings delicate fantasy to lyric passages.
To my mind, Yuja Wang rather resembles a music box with legs:



Grigory Sokolov, on the other hand has a different relationship with the notes:


Unfair, apples to oranges? Well, sure. Just making a point here. On Sokolov's Beethoven, Ross has this to say:
Sokolov’s interpretive meanderings matched the saturnine magnificence of the score: endless even-toned trills and ethereal figuration cast a spell. Still, a humorless self-indulgence prevailed. The crowd roared and stamped; I went away perplexed.
 A humorless self-indulgence? You know, I would be just a tiny bit sympathetic with Ross' view if he had a shred of evidence to back it up. Which he doesn't. So, a pox on your house, Alex. You really should get out more. I think that endless string of Julliard note-spinners has dulled your ear.

Here is another quote from Norris' review in The Telegraph:
As is so often the case with the greatest musicians, it is hard, and perhaps not always desirable or essential, to analyse what makes them great. It is simply a fact that, listening to Sokolov, you know unequivocally that you are in the presence of someone extraordinary, someone possessing special insights and a thoroughly individual way of articulating, clarifying and communing with music so that his interpretations seem to find its very heart.
Yep, that's pretty much it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a really interesting piece of jazz musicology that looks at a pair of 1967 concerts for clues as to why jazz has been sidelined in the decades since, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and One Night in New York City:
the basics of straight-ahead jazz were also being taught to incoming freshmen at an increasing number of American colleges. The influx of students mandated digestible rules. During the mid-seventies, a lead sheet of “In a Sentimental Mood” appeared in “The Real Book,” the most widely disseminated jazz manual ever made, a “fake book” of tunes and chord changes produced by students in the powerful jazz program at Berklee College of Music, in Boston.
If a student wanted to sound like Bill Evans on “In a Sentimental Mood,” he or she could quickly start getting close with the help of a chart in “The Real Book.” The sheet begins with four versions of D minor, “D-, D-(maj7), D-7, D-6.” These aren’t wrong, exactly, but they are far closer to Evans than Ellington, and suggest ways of articulating harmony in a blocky and unmusical fashion, one divorced from the idea and emotion of the original song.
Read the whole thing for a fascinating and informed look at how jazz is transmitted.

* * * 

I've been on a long crusade against what I call "scientism" because much of it appears to me to be wildly misinterpreted or simply wildly wrong attempts to prove the, at least, dubious. Call it science as cult. I started on this because just about every article I ran across on the scientific study of music was hilariously mistaken. This week the Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece supporting my view titled Studies Are Usually Bunk, Study Shows:
Pop psychologists have churned out mountains of books proving some intuitive point that turns out to be wrong. It’s “sciencey,” with a whiff of (false) authenticity.
Malcolm Gladwell is the master. In his 2008 book, “Outlier,” he argues that studies show no one is born better than anyone else. Instead success comes to those who put in 10,000 hours of practice. That does sound right, but maybe Steph Curry shoots hoops for 10,000 hours because he is better than everyone at basketball in the first place. Meanwhile I watch 10,000 hours of TV. Facing criticism, Mr. Gladwell somewhat recanted: “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.” News alert: Professional sports are cognitively demanding.
Gladwell's 10,000 hours claim was one that I attacked years ago--as any music teacher knows, there are lots of students for whom 10,000 hours of practice will get them not very far, while with some students a fraction of that time will see them far ahead. In fact, most of these studies are simply mistaken:
In August 2015, the Center for Open Science published a study in which 270 researchers spent four years trying to reproduce 100 leading psychology experiments. They successfully replicated only 39.
Things like "unconscious bias," that is the theory that underlies masses of social engineering are simply unlikely:
In his best seller “Blink,” Mr. Gladwell finds studies suggesting we are all unconsciously biased sexists, racists, genderists, ableists, and a litany of other “ists”—victimhood’s origin story. Newer research has deflated this theory, but the serious conclusions, and boring training seminars they inevitably lead to, remain.
What we have to always remember is to be skeptical, especially of those ideas that are very beneficial to those people that purport to administrate society for the better. Turns out it benefits them and almost no-one else. Now that's critical thinking!

* * *

There have been several articles lately bemoaning the invitation to conservative pundit Dennis Prager to conduct the Santa Monica Symphony in a benefit concert. According to them, anyone who disagrees with them is a bigot and should not be allowed to show his face in public. Here is an article making the contrary case that politicizing everything, especially classical music, is just a very bad idea: Was Haydn a Bigot? Are you?
My friend Dennis Prager, the radio talk-show-host, is conducting the Santa Monica Symphony in a Haydn symphony this Wednesday at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and, of course, his appearance has "drawn fire" and "raised controversy" in the fever swamps of the Left, which is freaking out at the prospect of having a "bigot" on the podium. Anyone who knows Dennis, or who even listens to his daily radio show on the Salem Radio Network, understands this is codswallop.  Prager is an observant Jew and a man who has spoken and written extensively on the moral issues of our day. His bona fides as a public intellectual are impeccable.
I can remember when most of life was entirely free of politics--and it wasn't that long ago! If I sat down to play chamber music with someone it wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years to even wonder what their views on socialized healthcare or immigration policy were. And I really can't see why the horn section of the Santa Monica Symphony should care either.

* * *

The BBC Proms concerts in London, one of the great summer music festivals, apparently have an Early Music problem, Time to ditch authenticity for early music Proms:
They say the first step towards recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So I’m staging an intervention and asking the BBC Proms to admit what they’ve known for some time: they have a big problem when it comes to early music. How to perform it, where to perform it, even who should perform it — these are all questions that, year after year, remain unsatisfactorily, inconsistently or superficially answered, and there’s little in this year’s programming to suggest that 2017 will be any different.
If the problem is that the repertoire and ensembles do not translate well to the large halls, what is the solution?
Some of the most exciting performances of baroque and early classical repertoire we’ve heard this season (Rattle’s Haydn with the LSO; Rebel’s Les élémens — an opener for Joshua Weilerstein and the BBCSO) have been not from period specialists but symphony orchestras. Not because the quality of playing was any better, but because the repertoire was embraced into a musical continuum, was explicitly related to the rest of musical history rather than ghettoised, set apart. If this means we lose authenticity then I think it’s a price worth paying for music that has the spirit (if not quite the sound) that the composer intended.
Yep, the problem of translating subtle, smaller ensemble performances into the larger spaces of today has never really been acknowledged.

* * *

This is the kind of article I like to see, all about the librarian for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Librarian helps keep Philadelphia Orchestra running smoothly:
“We’re not taking 40-year-old parts and putting in new bowings,” Grossman said. “Rather, there are three new ways this is done: Yannick marks his score and we transfer everything to the parts; or he marks only the principals’ parts (concertmaster, second violin, viola, cello, bass); or, because we understand his approach, he lets the principals work together to produce a bow master. They now have regular meetings to look at all the music. Yannick likes the orchestra to be prepared. He’d rather spend time in rehearsals getting into interpretive issues.”
* * *

All the rights to the royalties as well as to the name and image of Glenn Gould have been sold to a US agency. I'll bet he's glad he is dead and doesn't have to hear about this. I think that was black Canadian humor...

* * *

Since I'm planning on attending next summer I am delighted to hear about a rejuvenated Salzburg Festival. Alex Ross waxes ecstatic:
In recent years, this most sumptuous of classical-music gatherings has reverted to its default identity as a parade of musical celebrities with no clear artistic destination in sight. Last year, though, the progressive-minded Austrian pianist and impresario Markus Hinterhäuser took over as Salzburg’s artistic director, and he is stirring memories of the festival’s most vital period—that of the nineteen-nineties, when Gerard Mortier presided over a superb array of provocations, including an avant-garde series that Hinterhäuser co-curated.
* * *


As has been said before, for the post-modernists, all relationships are power relationships so any respect for the aesthetic quality and traditions of Western music has to be understood as a naked claim to superiority and therefore crushed. Sorry, but classical music is neither racist nor the Black Plague. These kinds of arguments are nauseating...

* * *

For our envoi today this is the Symphony No. 51 in B flat major by Joseph Haydn, the one chosen for the Santa Monica benefit concert. The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood:


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Record Review: Salonen conducts Stravinsky

I never do reviews of current record releases here. Not sure why; it just doesn't seem to fit the blog somehow. I do have a series of Retro Record Reviews where I review some old recordings, which is what I usually buy. But I just finished listening to a newly-purchased box of CDs and was shocked to discover that it is a new release, April 2017:


The recordings themselves were made over the last 20 years or so, but the integral release is new and available from Amazon for $25. Great value. And a great recording. The Rite is brisk and precise and well-handled. I'm really not a reviewer--I suspect I don't listen much for the kind of thing specialist classical reviewers do. But I have heard a lot of different versions of the Rite and  I think I prefer this one.

But there is a whole lot more in the box. With the exception of the Symphony of Psalms and the Symphony in C and a few other pieces, this box contains nearly all the Stravinsky you will ever need. There are seven discs:
  1. Petrushka, Orpheus
  2. Firebird, Jeu de cartes
  3. Sacre du printemps, Symphony in 3 Movements
  4. Pulcinella, Renard, Ragtime, Octet
  5. Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra
  6. Apollon musagète, Concerto in D, Cantata
  7. Oedipus rex
Orchestras include the Philharmonia, the LA Philharmonic and the Swedish Radio Symphony.

I find Salonen's conducting style unusual but compelling. Here he is conducting the LA Philharmonic in the Sacrificial Dance from part 2 of the Rite:



Damn. You can take your heavy metal and, well, you know!

Stravinsky: Influences and Development, part 1

The next element taken up by Taruskin in his monumental book on Stravinsky that I am loosely following here, is the influence of his peers and how that gave him a window on the wider world outside the circle of Rimsky-Korsakov. The key figure was Mikhail Gnesin (1883 - 1957) a fellow-student and later music educator who taught both Khrennikov and Khachaturyan among his composition students.

Gnesin was well-connected with the artistic circles outside of music, particularly the Symbolist group that included the radical poets of the day. He set a lot of poetry of the group, including that of Alexander Blok, and they encouraged him to experiment in order to find a musical style that matched their aesthetic striving. This group was also connected to the organizers of the Evenings of Contemporary Music that presented concerts in St. Petersburg from 1901 to 1912. One of the leaders was Alfred Nurok (1863 - 1919), a musical dilettante and iconoclast. Another figure was Walter Nouvel (1871 - 1949), a "Sunday composer" and recognized arbiter of taste in contemporary music.

Despite the radical ambitions of these figures, the first several years of the Evenings were characterized by moderation. Western composers such as Franck, d'Indy, Reger, Debussy and Ravel were interspersed with works by local composers such as Rachmaninoff, Cherepnin, Glazunov, and a very small amount of Scriabin. Nonetheless, to the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, this was definitely the "other camp."

Gnesin managed to have a foot in each camp: he did not find the nasty criticisms of Rimsky-Korsakov by Nouvel justified (but with a grain of truth), but at the same time his music had admirers in the circle of Rimsky intimates. As one of Rimsky-Korsakov's most "advanced" students, Gnesin sometimes wrote specifically to appeal to his taste by carefully eliminating academic transgressions and adding bits of contrapuntal effects. Stravinsky did the same as we can see not only in the Scherzo fantastique but also his Etudes for piano, op. 7.

Stravinsky, along with the Rimsky students he was closest to, Maximilian Steinberg and Gnesin, was featured in a concert of the Evenings of Contemporary Music on December 27, 1907 in performances of settings of Symbolist poetry. This was the first time that Stravinsky's music was performed before a paying audience.

Steinberg, of Polish Jewish descent, was a very talented student and his gifts were praised to the skies by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. He married Rimsky's daughter Nadya and succeeded Glazunov as professor of orchestration at the conservatory. Indeed, he was considerably more highly regarded than Stravinsky, whom he displaced as heir apparent of the New Russian School. Some of Stravinsky's later resentment of both Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov may be a result of their favoring Steinberg's talents above his. Before The Firebird, this was rather a general critical opinion. Taruskin uncovers a revealing quote by the reviewer Karatïgin appearing in the journal Apollon in the fall of 1910:
However highly we may value the musical wit of Stravinsky's latest works--the Scherzo fantastique and especially the orchestral fantasia Fireworks, a piece dedicated to Steinberg and absolutely dazzling in its immense richness of harmonic and coloristic invention--still and all one cannot deny that from the point of view of sheer musical content and profundity of musical ideas, Stravinsky's work is much inferior to Steinberg's. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 395]
The fact that his music was, compared to that of Steinberg's, regarded by quite a few of his contemporaries as being a bit lightweight might have been, according to Taruskin, a powerful motive for Stravinsky's modernist revolt.

For our envoi, let's listen to some music by Stravinsky's rival. This is the Symphony No. 2 dating from 1909 and the piece that was evaluated as being of greater quality than Stravinsky's. The performers are the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi:


That sounds rather Brahmsian to me.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 6

Stravinsky's journey away from the Belyayevets circle around Rimsky-Korsakov begins with the setting of a poem by one Sergey Gorodetsky, a much-acclaimed poet whose book Yar was published in 1907 (Stravinsky's setting is from the same year). The section in the book titled "Yarila" is devoted to paganistic and shamanistic poems and has been pointed to repeatedly as part of the cultural background to The Rite of Spring. This kind of cultural reference is referred to as "Scythian," about which more later.

The poem Stravinsky set, titled "Vesná," is about young love and the tolling of a cloister bell. The sound of bells and the setting of artificial folk songs goes back to Glinka and Musorgsky in Russian music. Stravinsky's performance of his new song at a gathering in October 1907 was not well-liked and Rimsky-Korsakov termed it "wildly unrestrained and harmonically nonsensical." There was a growing gap regarding the aesthetic role of folklore: for composers like Rimsky-Korsakov it was mere "content," something cited for color, but it was not something that flowed into and influenced "style," the fantastic/chromatic side. Here is a performance of the song with Marija Brajković, soprano and Radoslav Spasić, piano:



The poet Gorodetsky had made an intense study of ancient peasant rites and customs, which could still be witnessed in Russia up into the 1930s and in 1908 Stravinsky set another poem by him with the title Rosyanka (Khlïstovskaya) which is rather untranslatable: the first word means "dew" and the second refers to a quasi-Pentecostal sect dating to the 17th century and much persecuted by the Orthodox establishment. Stravinsky's setting does not reveal his later immersion in folklore, at this point it is rather retrospective in style, recalling perhaps what Musorgsky might have done.

There is a rather curious song from this time that reveals more of the future Stravinsky, his little Pastorale set to the text: "A-oo, A-oo." It's open and airy texture and particularly its ceaseless sixteenth-notes give it a genuinely Stravinskian sound. Here is the original version:


Taruskin speculates that another influence on this piece, with its evocation of a French musette, might have been early music as the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in that same year, 1907, was giving her first Russian tour--she gave two recitals in St. Petersburg in February and March. We can't be sure that Stravinsky attended either concert, but one piece performed, a "Styrische Tanz" by Lanner, would turn up later in the third tableau of Stravinsky's Petrushka.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Aesthetics, part 5

It is pretty clear that aesthetic objects are phenomenally objective: we don't have any difficulty in distinguishing between what is in the painting and our reaction to it. Nor do we confuse our feelings with those of Hamlet on the stage. Even in music, it is quite easy to distinguish between the music itself and how it makes us feel. But one of the things that leads to a relativistic view of aesthetics is the fact that a lot of criticism confuses the phenomenally objective and the phenomenally subjective. A great deal of arts criticism seems to go out of its way to confuse the two. A critic referring to a "feeling" of solidity in a Cézanne landscape might be referring to either the painting or his reaction to it. The word "effect" is also used ambiguously. Indeed, the whole class of what Beardsley calls "affective terms," ones that contain some reference to the effect of the work on the percipient, need to be considered carefully for they may contain little objective information about the work itself, but merely record a critic's response. If he is careful about recording what details in the work lead to his response, that can be useful, but sometimes, or often, it may be an eccentric response of little objective value. [Referring to Beardsley, op. cit. pp 38 to 42]

If I could give a musical example, sometimes I debate with commentators here about the aesthetic value of the symphonies of Mahler which I have mentioned were once favorites of mine but which I now find nearly unlistenable because they seem melodramatic and neurotic to me. I am describing a subjective impression which is not, of course, objective criticism. If I were to take the time and analyze just what it is in a Mahler symphony that sounds melodramatic and neurotic to me, then that would be a decent piece of criticism. I suspect I have not done so because it would be quite time-consuming and also because I have a vague inkling that it would involve some foundational work on what neurosis in music might consist in. In other words, it could get very involved indeed. My subjective impression is pretty clear to me though!

I have mentioned before the interesting issue of the ontological status of a piece of music and by this formidable phrase I mean the interesting fact that we might hear several different performances of a piece of music that we would all reckon as the same piece of music. Beardsley handles this by describing these different performances as different presentations of the same aesthetic object. A particular presentation of an aesthetic object is one experienced by a particular person on a particular occasion. Certain presentations may be more adequate than others. Generally we regard the aesthetic object itself as not being identical with any particular presentation. Some critics, however, are impressionistic in that they are constantly giving their impression of the presentation without much effort to distinguish it from the aesthetic object itself. It may be easy to write that the musical composition seemed formless, but that might have been your impression simply because you failed to perceive the form on first hearing.

Beardsley gives a set of six principles that he calls the Postulates of Criticism that lay out the way to conceive of the relationship between aesthetic objects and presentations of them in order to render objective criticism possible. Here they are:

  1. The aesthetic object is a perceptual object; that is, it can have presentations.
  2. Presentations of the same aesthetic object may occur at different times and to different people.
  3. Two presentations of the same aesthetic object may differ from each other.
  4. The characteristics of an aesthetic object may not be exhaustively revealed in any particular presentation of it.
  5. A presentation may be veridical. that is, the characteristics of the presentation may correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object.
  6. A presentation may be illusory; that is, some of the characteristics of the presentation may fail to correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object. [Beardsley, op. cit. p. 46]
This is not, of course, an argument for the acceptance of these postulates, but they are fairly widely assumed amongst critics, at least ones who think about what they do.

Beardsley mentions as an example different hearings of Bartók's Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. One day you hear it on the radio, another time you listen to a clip of it on YouTube on your laptop, one day you hear a live performance of it and perhaps one day you sit down and study the score. These are all different presentations of the same aesthetic object, but some are more adequate than others and they all have different tonal and interpretive characteristics. But I think it would be widely accepted that in experiencing these different presentations we are experiencing the same aesthetic object. This is a necessary first step in countering the view that all aesthetic experience is merely subjective.

Now let's listen to this very fine piece by Bartók, the Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. This is the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ferenc Fricsay: 




I remember doing a Bartók seminar with a rather crusty composer who got rather upset with me when I pointed out that the first movement is a fugue. Which it is, of course, but his ideological stance was that as Bartók is one of the most important figures in musical modernism in the 20th century, we always have to look at his music in terms of its modernistic elements and NOT in terms of its relationship with the past.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Book on Guitar Technique

I never google myself as it seems, well, narcissistic. But I just switched my default search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo (for reasons you might well guess!) and tried it out by searching my name. Apparently I have namesakes who are state senators, dermatologists and arrested for something or other. But if you narrow it down by searching for Bryan Townsend, guitar, you get me, basically. So I discovered that a technique book I wrote a number of years ago is still available through Amazon and it has a rather nice review:
The book is thorough, informative, and civilized. It is a somewhat toned-down and non-shrill alternative to Tennant's "Pumping Nylon" which appeals to the same market with its gimmicky title and locker room odor. One cannot dismiss Tennant's book, which successfully covers much of the same material, but it's not the only game in town, and I always found the concept of "pumping nylon" to be marginally offensive although obviously a successful sale tactic. I really prefer Townsend's book and recommend it.
So, if you need a book on guitar technique, I guess you need not hesitate!

Here is my recording of Recuerdos de la Alhambra that you can listen to while you shop:

video

What Replaces Aesthetics?

Here is an article from the Clyde Fitch Report that makes a suggestion:
When questions about the personal character and political orthodoxy of the artist dominate reviews and decisions about casting, staffing and representation drown out questions of beauty and form, there is  a problem. Not because the latter questions aren’t valid, but because if the sole purpose of art becomes the service of a predetermined, rigidly defined political end, there is a danger that there will be no more art. There will be only entertaining propaganda.
There are some interesting parallels with the demands of socialist realism in the Soviet Union--which makes sense because the ideological positions are not so different in structure.
Shakespeare is a dead white guy, but he’s a super talented one who changed English forever. He can’t be written out of the conversation. We must refuse to abide by criticism that is so political that it doesn’t bother to cross the road to aesthetics. At the most basic level, isn’t the main question, “Is it good?” not “Is it problematic?”
It’s easy to understand how we got here. We exist in an intellectual climate, particularly on the left, that seeks to identify power above truth and, consequently, beauty. Moreover, a political climate that is increasingly chaotic and hostile would make anyone prioritize politics over all. But this is so painfully shortsighted. If we don’t want to lose what we are fighting for to the pragmatics of the fight, we must again find a way to talk about beauty first and politics next. We are obligated to realize that the end of aesthetics is what would be really problematic.
The only problem here is that the writer, Katie Kelaidis, doesn't seem to realize that aesthetics was done away with a long time ago--all we have left are the fumes.


Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 5

Taruskin has a long section discussing how Stravinky's Scherzo fantastique was inspired by an essay written by Maurice Maeterlinck in 1901 titled La vie des abeilles (The Life of the Bee). All references to Maeterlinck were later suppressed, likely to avoid a threatened lawsuit from the writer (ironically, much later Maeterlinck himself was accused of a classic example of academic plagiarism from the Afrikaner poet and scientist Eugène Marais). But despite that, Taruskin was able to trace quite a number of connections between the essay and the scherzo. I'm going to press ahead, however, as it is simply too time-consuming to relate all of the myriad details covered in Taruskin's book, though Stravinsky's obsessive focus on the octatonic and whole-tone collections should be mentioned. We do want to get to the Rite sooner or later!

Stravinsky's next piece, another symphonic scherzo, is the Fireworks that occupied him through the fall of 1908 and into the following year. The piece is both briefer than the Scherzo, and much more complex. One important element is a clash between the octatonic collection and the tonic scale of the key, E major--this is typified by the clash between the octatonic C natural and the diatonic C sharp. Here is Taruskin's example:

op. cit. p. 339


The harmonies are rich progressions of whole-tone formations and French sixths connected by chromatic chords that have no common-practice equivalents. Here is another example from Taruskin of chord forms in Fireworks and their linking elements:

op. cit. p. 342
Fireworks shows a remarkable progression for the young composer. As Taruskin summarizes:
In Fireworks, Stravinsky exploited to the very hilt the devices of harmony, texture, and orchestration he had learned from his teacher, but in no real sense did he go beyond them. True, the piece no longer sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov: the harmonies are more unremittingly complex; they are more varied; above all, the harmonic rhythm is quicker ... Fireworks is not "modern," merely up-to-date and therefore dated. It represents at its very limit the kind of petty artistic progress Rimsky-Korsakov stood for. [op. cit. p. 344-5]
Let's stop here for today and listen to Fireworks. This is the Columbia Orchestra conducted by the composer:

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Disappearance of the Negative Review

Once again, the Wall Street Journal comes up with an interesting article on the arts. This time "What Happened to the Negative Music Review?"
If you rely on reviews to decide what books to buy, movies to watch or restaurants to visit, you may have noticed something strange when it comes to pop music: Negative reviews have become extremely rare.
Between 2012 and 2016, Metacritic, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews for music, films, television and video-games, gave just eight out of 7,287 albums a “red” score—a designation that means reviews were “generally unfavorable” or worse.
Movies, by comparison, garner many more negatives: So far this year, Metacritic has given 39 out of 380 movies a red score. For albums, not one out of 787 albums aggregated thus far this year has received a red score.
The writer, Neil Shah, makes an attempt to analyze what is going on:
A recent album by Radiohead was excessively praised by critics, notes freelance critic Joseph Schafer. “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which includes old songs that the band had performed but had not previously recorded, appeared on many year-end lists. “The band’s first album in five years was half a B-sides collection and half boring,” Mr. Schafer says, who didn’t review the album. “This record was lazy, why didn’t people call the band out?” Radiohead declined to comment.
“It can sometimes feel like there’s less of an appetite for [serious] criticism, or the culture has decided it’s unimportant,” says Amanda Petrusich, an assistant professor at New York University who teaches music writing and contributes to the New Yorker. “It makes [criticism] feel like just an extension of public relations.”
I've talked about this here on the Music Salon a lot. Trends in social and mass media tend to favor the stars:
Meanwhile, megastars like Drake, armed with huge social-media followings, can generate publicity themselves; there’s little upside to giving interviews or forwarding advance copies to critics. Some artists—Beyoncé and her sister Solange, for example—have taken to interviewing each other. 
Sure, in a context where music is really just entertainment, serious criticism is simply out of place. Negativity strikes the wrong note and doesn't help to increase sales! The lack of negative reviews is a reflection of the tectonic shift in music from the profound to the trivial. This is taking place not only in the pop world but also in the classical world. Here, have a look at this Deutsche Grammophon commercial (they call it a "trailer") for a new Yuja Wang album:


Now That's Entertainment!

I think that there are some underlying cultural trends that feed into this. For one thing, as I have been saying lately, the lack of aesthetics gives critics no tools or techniques to base their criticism on. In a context where everyone believes that taste is completely subjective and relative, just what does a music critic offer? After all, your judgment is just as good as his, right? My series of posts on aesthetics is an attempt to restore the place of aesthetics, but hey, a whole lot of other people are going to have to pitch in! The other trend that is eliminating critical judgment is commercialization. Music as a serious art form is being largely replaced by music as a shallow entertainment. To me, this is even more worrying than the disappearance of aesthetics (though I suspect these two things are linked). So if music is just another cultural "product" then talk about it either furthers the sale of the product or it doesn't.

One argument that is sometimes used is the argument from consumer protection. Just as a restaurant review can caution you from patronizing a particular restaurant due to quality or health issues, so, it is proposed, a capable music reviewer can steer you away from wasting your money on crap. This is the implied rationale in this excerpt from the WSJ article:
Music fans can try out new albums on streaming services such as YouTube or Spotify, so often music critics aren’t as necessary as consumer guides. In the age of Twitter , Amazon.com and review aggregators, individual reviews by elite critics may matter less.
But this fails to identify one important historical function of music critics: the introduction of new important artists to the public, as Robert Schumann did when he wrote about Chopin in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Another important function was to develop and shape public taste as critics like George Bernard Shaw illustrate:
Shaw's collected musical criticism, published in three volumes, runs to more than 2,700 pages.[248] It covers the British musical scene from 1876 to 1950, but the core of the collection dates from his six years as music critic of The Star and The World in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In his view music criticism should be interesting to everyone rather than just the musical élite, and he wrote for the non-specialist, avoiding technical jargon—"Mesopotamian words like 'the dominant of D major'".[n 27] He was fiercely partisan in his columns, promoting the music of Wagner and decrying that of Brahms and those British composers such as Stanford and Parry whom he saw as Brahmsian.[67][250] He campaigned against the prevailing fashion for performances of Handel oratorios with huge amateur choirs and inflated orchestration, calling for "a chorus of twenty capable artists".[251] He railed against opera productions unrealistically staged or sung in languages the audience did not speak.[252]
--from the Wikipedia article

Bernard Shaw was working in a different context where his goal was to open out the world of high musical art to a wider public, hence his avoidance of technical vocabulary. The task today is rather different, I think. It is more to perhaps reintroduce the distinctions between art and entertainment. I'm not sure I have the answer, though.

I think that the tell-tale clue in the next to last quote above are the words "elite critics." Anything "elite" is anathema because it is probably racist, sexist and post-colonial! Our little infatuation with social justice continues to exact a heavy price, I'm afraid.

I've always been rather fond of the skillful critical demolition. One of my favorite passages in Kingsley Amis' novel Lucky Jim was the one where he praises a fellow boarding house guest by remarking on his ability to silently look around at his surroundings with an air of utter dismissal and contempt. Yes, I'm afraid we have been underrating the power, not to mention the entertainment value, of ridicule and negative criticism. I used to do the occasional post devoted to what I called "catty micro-reviews", perhaps I should do some more. Here is a sample.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Erkki-Sven Tüür

I just ran across an interesting article on a composer new to me: Erkki-Sven Tüür. How the heck do you pronounce two successive umlauts, anyway?
Lately, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Tüür, the only composer of classical music I can think of who got his start in a progressive rock band. That was in the 1970s, when he was a teenager imbibing the likes of King Crimson, Frank Zappa, and Genesis. Within a decade, having come under the spell of Arvo Pärt, György Ligeti, and the American minimalists, Tüür was turning to symphonies, concertos, and works of chamber music, well on his way to assembling a visionary body of work as impressive as that of any composer alive today.
Hey, wait a minute, I got my start in a rock band. Not a progressive one, mind you. We were more of a barely competent garage blues band. But Tüür sounds like a really interesting composer. Unfortunately, the article describes his music with metaphor instead of musical details, so it doesn't give you much to hang on to:
Tüür seems beholden to no particular camp or ideology. His music is a kind of fusion, but with him, the various styles come together so seamlessly that this fusion loses all sense of artifice. It ceases to be a conscious act. When Tüür speaks about his music, he invokes vivid pictorial images: spirals, curves, chains. He also uses metaphors from the natural world. In explaining his Violin Concerto (1999), for example, he describes a system of musical development in which “the material will change completely but in a thoroughly organic way. Like trees grow: if we see a tiny plant we don’t yet know which form it will ultimately take, but on seeing it with its full panoply of leaves and twigs and branches we can only wonder at how logical every curve and movement and detail of it seems to be. That’s an ideal for me, in terms of treating a musical shape.”
Luckily the Violin Concerto is available on YouTube, so we can give it a listen:


Sounds pretty interesting. Why is it that such a small and not very populated part of the world, Finland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Lavia, are such musical superpowers while places like Canada tend to be musical lightweights? You got me. Here is his Symphony No. 6, "Strata" from 2007:


Well, we've got some listening to do, it seems!

Friday Miscellanea

I offer for your consideration the tragic tale of a professor who specialized in Beyoncé: The Decline and Fall of an Academic Nitwit:
It's easy to get fired from an American college these days. Just make some innocent remark that a member of a recognized victim group claims to find offensive and you'll be on your way to the unemployment office pronto.
On the other hand, it's really, really tough to lose your college teaching job by spouting off leftist slogans. Which makes Kevin Allred a very special guy. He is a white man who, for several years, taught a course in the Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University entitled “Politicizing Beyoncé.”
Judging by all accounts, it was a perfect example of a thoroughly ridiculous 21st-century humanities course, heavy on pop culture and political correctness and light on anything remotely resembling academic or practical value.
Read the rest for the tragic denouement.

* * *

Leonard Slatkin has put up a list of ten pieces he calls "Forgotten American Masterpieces." Or they could simply be examples of pieces that were never that good and are justly neglected. Remember the 90% rule? What do you think? Here is the first on the list, Donald Erb's The Seventh Trumpet:


I find most avant-garde music from around then, 1969, to be unlistenable, but there are lots of pieces worse than this. Certain gestures, the long trill, the triplet leaping over wide, wide, intervals, the gratuitous glissandi, the melodic pointillism--why were so many composers writing this? They became clichés almost immediately!

* * *

I'm not the only one who thinks that a lot of pop music is really an industrial product:
Drummer Greg Ellis wants listeners to begin thinking about sound like food—as something they physically ingest that has a quantifiable impact on their wellbeing. These days, he believes most people are consuming the musical equivalent of McDonalds: processed, mass produced, and limited in flavor.
A lot of this aural blandness has to do with technology. It begins with the producer who relies on a computer rather than live instrumentalists and ends with the devices we use to consume our music, which cut out the dynamics captured in the recording studio.
The “click” is a digital metronome that musicians listen to while recording to ensure their rhythm is exactly in time with the tempo. A simple and now nearly ubiquitous part of the recording process, it has had a profound effect on the music we listen to.
While the click was originally intended as a tool for precision and cohesion, Ellis says its perfect uniformity ushered in an expectation that the rest of musical parts should follow. Suddenly singers, instrumentalists, and drummers were expected to sound like machines. When vocalists were slightly off key, they could be auto-tuned. If a bass player wasn’t perfectly in-time with the drummer, their parts could be processed in a recording program that syncs them up. Of course, that’s if a live musician is used at all—many producers in pop, hip hop, and R&B now use samples or synthetic sounds generated by computers instead of using their human progenitors.
* * *

 Anne Midgette at the Washington Post puts up her list of The top 35 female composers in classical music. Here is a sample from the list:
Jennifer Higdon: One of today’s most-performed living composers, Higdon, 54, embodies a combination particularly appealing to American audiences: She’s at once a maverick and, in a certain way, a conservative. Self-taught until college, espousing no particular aesthetic school, she writes smart music that is not ashamed to be tonal, and beautiful. “Blue Cathedral,” one of the most-performed of all contemporary works, is a lush wash of tonalities throbbing through the orchestra. A teacher at the Curtis Institute, where she got her own graduate degree, she has formed relationships with some illustrious students, writing her vivid violin concerto, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, for Hilary Hahn, and her piano concerto, which the National Symphony Orchestra premiered in 2009, for Yuja Wang. In 2015 her first opera, “Cold Mountain,” had a success in its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera. “If my music is not communicating,” she said in 2012, “I feel it’s not doing its job.”
Jennifer Higdon left a comment here, on my post on Hilary Hahn's album of encores that included a piece by her.

* * *

 Composer grave aficionado Alex Ross has a photo of the resting place of Monteverdi on his blog:


* * *

Let's listen to a popular piece by Jennifer Higdon. This is Blue Cathedral with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Stéphane Denève:


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The New Professionals

The one new musical profession that I have never quite been able to wrap my head around is that of DJ. It is a niche that comes entirely out of the automation of music. The first stage was the ability to record sounds which has evolved from wax cylinders over a hundred years ago to digital flash drives now. The ability to manipulate these recorded sounds has evolved in even more complex ways. In the beginning the early vinyl 78s had just a few minutes per side and there was no option for editing. One take, cross your fingers and hope for the best! The longer-playing LPs (hence the name) made use of the 20 to 30 minute playing time per side and the development of magnetic recording tape around the Second World War enabled simple audio editing. Basically you cut the tape at an angle with a razor blade and tape it back together. It worked pretty well--one of my first recordings used this kind of editing. Then in the 80s digital audio tape and digital editing was available and this led to the kind of sophisticated processing of recorded sound we have today.

Once you have a take in the can what you can do with it is almost unlimited. The analogy is to word-processing. Once you have typed in (or even scanned in) some text, you can manipulate that text in a host of ways. You can change the formatting to bold or italic or ALL CAPS. You can format the paragraphs

like

this.

You can use different fonts or sizes. But the ways of processing sound are much more extensive. You can add various kinds of reverberation to mimic the echo of different kinds of concert halls, even ones that don't exist. You can alter the strength of different frequencies, called equalization, that change the timbre of the  sound. You can alter the tuning with software called Auto-Tune, you can re-align the beats to a fixed click-track, you can compress the amplitude, making all the sounds loud and a host of other kinds of effects. Particularly important has been the use of drum machines and sequencers that enable you to pre-program a percussion track. This, along with the use of synthesized sounds has led to the existence of an entirely new kind of musical profession, that of the DJ.

"DJ" stands for "disc jockey" or someone who originally spun discs, vinyl records, on turntables. The ability to manually manipulate them or "scratch" was an early kind of synthesized music. This was followed by the use of completely synthesized musical sounds by people like Walter/Wendy Carlos in the 1970s. Another variety of artificial sounds was created by "sampling" the sounds of actual instruments and then manipulating them with computers. The musical software I use for composing, for example, is able to "perform" the compositions, even ones for orchestra, using its library of sampled orchestral instrument sounds. I can even add dynamics, different accents and ritardandi.

The profession of DJ, making sophisticated use of the whole array of synthesized sounds and sequencers to control them, has become a hugely professional and profitable business. The Daily Mail has a piece on the new Forbes list of highest paid DJs which is topped by one Calvin Harris, who made $48.5 million dollars over the last year. This level of income is only topped by the big pop groups. This past year U2 earned $195 million and Bon Jovi $125 million, followed by Elton John at $100 million and Lady Gaga at $90 million.

Forbes doesn't seem to do a list of highest-paid classical musicians--too embarrassing?--so we have to turn to an old Guardian piece by Tom Service to do some comparisons:
Great article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, on the almost football-player- level of salaries that the conductors and administrators of the big American orchestras receive. OK, so we're not talking – quite – John Terry or Cristiano Ronaldo figures here, but $2.2m (£1.4m) isn't bad for Lorin Maazel's job at the helm of the New York Philharmonic in 2006-7 (the last year for which figures are publicly available), and neither is Deborah Borda's $1.2m for her duties as CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There is still a ridiculous iniquity in the way classical musicians are paid. Stellar conductors can earn a fortune, soloists can charge between $30,000-$70,000 in the States [that's per concert], while the average wage for an average player in the grandest bands in the US is just over $100,000.
Classical superstars like Herbert von Karajan or Luciano Pavarotti were rumored to earn up to $6 million a year, which is like a rounding error compared to popular music earnings.

Let's listen to a little of the musical production of Calvin Harris, topping this year's list of highest-paid DJs. I have to preface this by noting that a few years ago EDM DJs like deadmau5 were showing up for gigs and then basically hitting the space bar on their laptops, launching a pre-programmed musical set that just played itself out. But now there is a convergence between the DJs and the pop stars. This song, "Feels" enjoys a full-blown video production, uses pop singers and rappers (Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry and Big Sean) and actual musical instruments (Calvin Harris is seen in the background playing an electric bass). It feels a lot like a standard pop song, but there is no "band" as such as all the tracks are created separately and united with a click track. So the foundational aesthetic sensibility, if I can call it that, is based on EDM (electronic dance music). Let's call it electronic pop music. For some weird reason, Blogger won't embed, so just follow the link:

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Kind of Truth in Music

I heard someone say the other day that sometimes very alert artists can see a pattern before anyone else. If that is true, then perhaps an example in music would be what was happening in the work of some composers in the very early years of the 20th century. Europe was on the verge of one of the most tumultuous, apocalyptic wars in history, the First World War in which so many of the finest young men of all the nations involved died horrible deaths in the trenches or choking from mustard gas or, most often, torn apart by artillery shells or machine guns. I hesitate to use the word "recommend," but the book Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, who served as a line officer in the front lines, will give you a very good idea of what it was like.

The war began in July 1914. But in 1909, five years before, Arnold Schoenberg composed his Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 and, to my mind, they and other music from around this time, are like a premonition of the cataclysm to come.


How could Schoenberg sense the coming of a great disruption? Well, of course, I have no idea! But explain, if you would, how we got from the warm expressivity of Brahms' Clarinet Quintet of 1891:


to the tortured expressionism of Schoenberg's op 16 in just eighteen years? Or, even more surprising, how Schoenberg himself journeyed from the lush beauty of his Gurrelieder (begun between 1900 and 1903):


to the disturbing imagery and dissonance of his Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21, written in 1912, just two years before the war began? This video of No. 8, "Nacht" captures the eeriness quite well:


The monsters were indeed descending on Europe. But how did Schoenberg know?

Reflections on Musicology in Academia

A few commentators have puzzled over why musicology in academia seems so impervious to criticism. After my little critique of their blog a few weeks ago, one of the editors of Musicology Now put links up on their Facebook page and I estimate about half of the 3,500 members of the American Musicological Society actually visited this blog. One would expect a host of comments and pushback if not actual backlash! But no, not a single one, apart from the editor himself, left a comment. This is how you treat what you regard as illegitimate or irrelevant criticism: don't engage! This is also how you treat madmen. So, as far as the AMS is concerned, I am something between irrelevant and mad. Well, sure, I could be! But I suspect I have many times the traffic of Musicology Now, which might be a problem for them.

What is the problem with musicology these days? I suspect it is one inherent in the way the humanities are practiced in academia. After your few general introductory courses (Music Theory 100, History 101, etc.) the trail leads inevitably to more and more specialized material. As soon as possible you need to focus on one or two specific areas. In the recent past they might have been things like a single composer, Stravinsky, say, or Bartók. Or perhaps reception theory or Beethoven's sketches. But these areas got used up pretty quick. You can't offer a dissertation for your doctorate that is in an area that has already been cultivated. So then attention moved to women composers, sexuality in music and so on. More recently it is turning to things like race, class and gender in opera, Cuban dance culture, Wonder Woman and, god help us, music in Pepsi ads. You can't study things like Haydn quartets, Mozart symphonies or Beethoven piano sonatas because someone else has already done that. Professors of music in university are so specialized that they are poorly acquainted with the basic repertoire. Because of this, people like me, who spent eight years in music at university, have the sketchiest knowledge of the most important classical repertoire. But we know our Cécile Chaminade and all about cultural appropriation in Madame Butterfly. In order to get a more comprehensive music education, I have had to spend a decade or two studying Haydn string quartets, Mozart symphonies, Beethoven piano sonatas, Shostakovich quartets, Stravinsky, Steve Reich and on and on. The fruits of a lot of this study appear here at The Music Salon.

So the occupational hazard of musicologists is that they are fixated on the fashionable areas of study of the day, identity politics, post-colonialism, cultural appropriation, the things that you have to be expert in to get your dissertation approved and achieve tenure, or even just get a job. If someone like me comes along and says, hey, no-one really wants to hear Chaminade because she is a boring, second-rate composer, then I am immediately categorized as "part of the problem." But, of course, I am right as the great majority of concert goers would agree. If you catch them off-guard  a musicologist might agree that, yes, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and all those other dead, white, European males did write the better music, but I can't think about that right now because I have to prepare my piece on campuses as sites of hate crimes and racist imagery for Musicology Now.

It seems as if all too many of the newer musicologists are, instead of being serious scholars, enslaved to a really nasty ideology, and one that prevents them from seeing very clearly what their discipline really consists of and what its job should be. Instead of revealing to new generations of students the great tradition of Western music they are holding "Teaching Under Trump" seminars:
Introducing the “Teaching Under Trump” series, Louis Epstein identified a central question that inspired the series: “what (if any) musicological response was appropriate given the poisonous political discourse and pressing policy challenges of the post-election environment?” [emphasis mine] What if, instead, we asked ourselves what response was good? What if we, as musicologists, took doing good as our purpose? We might graffiti over those swastikas instead of walking past them. We might petition administrations to offer strong statements of support to our marginalized community members and to back those statements up with action—something Deaville did along with students in his seminar on music and disability. We might make strong statements of support in our own classrooms. We might offer assistance (tracking down legal help, providing connections to campus health resources, locating potential places of sanctuary) to students who seek it.
I feel very sorry for them, I really do. They are driven mad by will-o-the-wisps and believe their own "fake news."

Now let's listen to a musical antidote to scholarly madness. This is the String Quartet op. 20 no. 3 in G minor by Joseph Haydn, played by the Quatuor Mosaïques:


If you think that there is nothing more to be said about that music after Donald Francis Tovey and Charles Rosen, then I have news for you: you're wrong!

A Few Photos

I just got around to downloading some photos from my iPhone that were taken in the last couple of months. The first few were from my trip to Spain in May. Here is a lovely grilled sea bass in the local tapas bar:

Click to enlarge
Now that's how to serve seafood! Also in the photo, a glass of sangria and a little tapas plate of sausage. This lovely government building (I think it is the Ministry of Agriculture) is right across from the Atocha train station in Madrid:

Click to enlarge

Paella for one:


A little palm tree in flower in front of a huizache, a local thorny bush. This was taken a block from my house in Mexico. I bet you didn't know that palm trees had flowers?


The bell-tower of a local church:


If you get married in Mexico, there will be mariachi! This is a ten-piece band with four violins, two trumpets, two guitars, a bass guitar and a harp. And they all sing.


I suppose we need some mariachi music to end. This is the Mariachi Águilas with "Besame mucho":


Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 4

As before, this series of posts is based my notes from Richard Taruskin's 2,000 page study of Stravinsky. They began with this post, which is a good place to start if you are just coming to this topic.

Stravinsky liked to claim in his memoirs that he began to be influenced by modern French music as early as 1897, but this is likely an exaggeration. The New Grove claims that the Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks both show the influence of French music. Despite Stravinsky's own assertions, there is not a shred of evidence to support this view. The available documents show that Stravinsky's earliest exposure to the music of Debussy came on January 22, 1903 when the suite "Pour le piano" was played at an Evenings of Contemporary Music concert. He also had the opportunity to hear Estampes at a March 1904 concert. A month later, in Rimsky-Korsakov's class, Pelléas was discussed and condemned as an example of the decay of music in the West. Stravinsky likely heard the St. Petersburg premieres of both the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Dukas' L'apprenti sorcier in the 1904/5 season. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 309]

Despite Stravinsky's terming the Prélude premiere and that of two movements of the Nocturnes in December 1907 as "major events of my early years" this again seems to be an exaggeration: the sketches for the Scherzo fantastique, a piece he claimed to show the influence of Debussy, date from the previous summer. Taruskin points out an interesting irony: those composers who were found particularly interesting by composers of Stravinsky's generation were themselves heavily indebted to the Russian composers of Rimsky-Korsakov's generation! This is particularly true of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole with its Rimskian woodwind cadenzas and rushing octatonic scales. Taruskin offers an example from The Firebird. Stravinsky mentions how proud he was of some orchestration:
For me the most striking effect in The Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissando near the beginning in the introduction; which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine-wheel. I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to Rimsky's violinist and cellist sons.
This is one of the most striking orchestral gestures in The Firebird. However Stravinsky had "discovered" the effect in Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole where it appears in the viola and cellos six bars into the last movement. And where had Ravel found it? In Rimsky-Korsakov where it appears in the suite from the opera Christmas Eve in the section called "Demonic Carol." (For the musical examples proving this, see Taruskin, op. cit. pp. 212-14.) The Rimsky-Korsakov was performed in Paris in May 1907 in a concert conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov himself. Ravel was in the audience and finished his Rapsodie in February 1908. This is the kind of brilliant archival research that Taruskin excels at! Here is the passage from The Firebird, for the others, see the Taruskin volume:




So why didn't Stravinsky pick up this orchestral device directly from his teacher? A possible answer is that the opera was rather old repertoire dating from 1895 when Stravinsky was studying with him, but the Rapsodie was all the rage when Stravinsky received the Firebird commission.

Taruskin's view is that Stravinsky's early Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks fall well within the magic opera tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov and even stretching back to Glinka. The Scherzo is full of Rimskian harmonic symmetries and sequences and owes nothing, despite Stravinsky's later claims, to Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn. Stravinsky's own letters provide evidence of the inspiration of the work whose early title was "The Bees." This title was suppressed, likely so as to avoid confusion with Rimsky-Korsakov's extremely popular "Flight of the Bumblebee." The piece was completed in March 1908 and premiered the following year. Let's wrap up this post with a clip of Scherzo fantastique performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by Paavo Järvi:


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Guitaring the Goldbergs

I ran into some wild stuff on YouTube the other day. A couple of years ago I did one of my patented retro record reviews of three different recordings of the Goldberg Variations of J. S. Bach, none of them by Glenn Gould and none of them on piano. Follow the link for that post. But I just noticed some pretty unusual versions of the piece. Years and years ago a couple of friends and colleagues of mine did a pretty nice recording of the Goldbergs on two guitars (one of them an eight-string) and were kind enough to give me a copy. Sadly, that, along with all my other vinyl has disappeared in the mists of time. The last time I was talking to Pepe Romero a few years ago he mentioned that he and his brother Angel were going to record a two-guitar version. I can't find it on Amazon, so if they did do it, it must be no longer available.

The Goldberg Variations are one of the great virtuoso keyboard pieces so you would expect that it would take a guitar duo to perform them. And a pretty accomplished guitar duo at that. But we live in surprising times. Here is a performance of the Aria, the Canons and the Quodlibet from the Goldbergs on solo guitar by Marco Salcito:


Ok, pretty impressive. But that is surpassed by this recording by Jozsef Eotvos of ALL the variations:


Now as we don't have a video it is possible, I suppose, that portions were double-tracked, but it doesn't sound like it to me. Notice that he is playing an eight-string guitar which makes the bass lines a lot easier. Of course he takes the tempos considerably slower than we hear on piano or harpsichord. But as there are no tempo markings in the original, this doesn't seem an indictable offense!

I am reminded of a story I heard about Canadian/American jazz guitarist Lenny Breau who met one of his idols, Chet Atkins, backstage one day and mentioned to him that he, Lenny, had struggled a long time to master this one particular solo on one of Chet Atkins' records. Chet Atkins looked back in amazement and said, "hey, I double-tracked that solo!"

Aesthetics, part 4

I'm going to continue with these posts on aesthetics until I feel that a broad picture has emerged of the field. This is because, for what I believe are mistaken reasons, the practice of aesthetics has almost disappeared from the public sphere. The reasons for this are manifold and include a distaste for any kind of aesthetic judgment, difficulty in defining terms like "beautiful" when applied to aesthetic objects, a preference for psychological explanations over aesthetic ones and so on. Aesthetics does have its own unique set of problems, but so does every other field of human knowledge.

Let's outline some typical aesthetic issues and concepts:

  • one characteristic of aesthetic objects is that they might be described as "beautiful" but people often disagree as to whether a particular artwork is beautiful or not--the avant-garde has taken the approach that art is meant to be "challenging" not beautiful, but that does not solve the problem of the host of older artworks that are typically described as beautiful. How do we defend or criticize a description of an artwork as "beautiful"?
  • discussions of artworks can simply describe them, or go on to interpret them or, most controversially, evaluate them--what constitutes validity in each of these activities?
  • discussion of an artwork can focus directly on what we can see and hear in the artwork or can speculate as to the creator's intentions--we should be aware of the difference
  • in the performing arts the problem of correct performance arises--a great deal of reviews of concerts concerns this and one aesthetic challenge is to evaluate whether the commentaries are justified or even justifiable
  • aesthetic objects are perceptual objects with a physical basis, but the physical basis is NOT the aesthetic object. The physical basis for a particular note might be a string inside the piano vibrating at 440 times a second, but it is what the listener hears that is the aesthetic object. Incidentally, this is why the neurophysiologists are never talking about the music, but about brain states.
  • there are unique problems associated with perception, our phenomenal field includes things that are phenomenally objective and ones that are phenomenally subjective
  • we might be listening to a piece of music and describe it as "cheerful" or say that it makes us "feel cheerful." The first is a description of the piece while the second is a description of the subjective effect of the piece.
  • A piece of music is objective in a way similar to the way a rushing stream is objective: we can stand in it and feel its force as something outside ourselves the same way we can sit in a concert hall and feel the objective force of a piece of music
  • we can hear qualities in a piece of music such as desolate sadness which can be objective qualities (even though we can be mistaken about them)
  • the defining mark of phenomenological objectivity is our experience of things as independent of ourselves
I think that if you mull over this list of concepts and issues you can see the irrelevance of much discussion of artworks in the popular media and why I criticize it.

Let's have an aesthetic object for our envoi today. This is the Prelude #6 from Book I for piano by Debussy and the title is "Des pas sur la neige." The score includes the instruction "Comme un tendre et triste regret" ("Like a tender and sad regret"). The pianist is Krystian Zimerman:


UPDATE. I should mention that for most of this material I am relying on the excellent book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism by Monroe C. Beardsley.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

"Cheerless, senseless and overproduced"

Here is my favorite review of the week: Various artists: Re:works Piano review – tiring, tedious and boring:
The most callous kind of crossover saps the integrity of both forms being crossed. Decca – once a stamp of prestige, now part of the Universal label group cashing in on the trend for insipid “neo-classical” – releases the next in its Re:Works series with this grim chillout collection of electronic remixes. Cheerless, senseless and overproduced, it smothers the remaining life out of Pachelbel’s Canon, weirdly straitjackets Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and trashes the maverick surrealist stasis of Satie’s Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes. It’s not new, it is tiring, it is very boring.
After that you really need a taste of it. This is their version of a Gymnopédie by Erik Satie that manages to not only spit on the original but also on the little crossover licks that infest it. Is it possible for music to make you a better person? Perhaps not. But this seems evidence that some musical performances can make you stupider and shallower than you were before.