Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

I'm alerted to this post at On An Overgrown Path music blog where we find a different analysis of the woes of classical music:
the Guardian uses editorial algorithms to unashamedly slant its journalism towards the prejudices of its readership, and concert promoters use subjective algorithms to present concerts of familiar and non-challenging repertoire. The problem is that no one cares that this is happening. In fact everyone feels very contended in their own comfort zone with ever faster broadband, ever cheaper streamed content, ever more friends and followers, ever more selfie opportunities and - most importantly - ever fewer challenges to their prejudices. And the media - particularly the classical music media - is quite happy to play along; because keeping your readers in their comfort zone means keeping your readers.
Whereas I follow the slightly different policy of challenging my readers, which seems to attract a different kind of reader (even if perhaps fewer of them)!

* * *

The popular music world also has its crises and the latest one seems to be that the big pop divas Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry just aren't cranking out the hits like they used to. The Wall Street Journal has the story:
So far this year, 20 of the 25 most-streamed songs on Spotify, Apple Music and other on-demand audio services are by R&B/hip-hop acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Migos, Childish Gambino and Lil Uzi Vert, Nielsen’s data shows. Two are by male pop stars (Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars). Not one is by a female pop artist.
Historically, the core of the traditional pop-diva audience has been teen girls. Yet several experts say these same fans aren’t as interested in the staged artificial personas of many pop stars such as Lady Gaga. They are now interested in hip-hop where lyrics are often more direct and true to life. “It’s the era of authenticity,” says Peter Edge, chairman and chief executive of RCA Records, which represents Kesha, Ms. Cyrus and SZA. “What are you really going through? What do you really think? How much are you really speaking to what’s going on with you?”
I think that captures why I don't find pop music too interesting these days: they aren't very interested in musical things and I'm not very interested in what's going on in their personal lives. Oh dear, the tragedy of being a celebrity!

* * *

 Back to classical: Gramophone has the fifteen worst classical record covers of all time. A sample: first we have an album from Leif Segerstam, a very serious Finnish conductor and composer who has written over three hundred symphonies.


 Next, an album of very serious Bach solo music for violin by the sober Canadian violinist Lara St. John (like Yuja Wang, she recently had her clothing budget slashed):


You might be forgiven for thinking that this album was the dance music from the Star Trek episode with the Orion slave girl, but no, this is the highly respected opera singer Birgit Nilsson performing Salome by Richard Strauss with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti:



And here, for comparison, is the aforementioned Orion slave girl from Star Trek:



* * *

The New York Times has a piece on the cancelation, by the government of Venezuela, of a tour of Asia by Gustavo Dudamel. Of course it is not Gustavo Dudamel that is being canceled, it is rather the orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. President Nicolas Maduro mocked the maestro saying "Welcome to politics, Gustavo Dudamel!" The maestro replied:
Mr. Dudamel, in his statement Thursday, called on the players in the orchestra and the young people of Venezuela to “remain strong and proud.” He added, “our spirit will not be broken, our hope will not waver, our music will not be silenced.”
“I shall never stop defending freedom of expression and the values of a just society,” he wrote. “Dark days like these are difficult, but standing together, we can rise to the challenge of improving our society.”
As often with the New York Times, the carefully ignored elephant in the room is socialism. The real reason that the tour was canceled was more likely the fact that the Venezuelan government has finally run out of other people's money. They are not only broke, with billions of dollars in foreign debt payments due, they have been printing money at a pace that has resulted in an inflation rate of around 2,300%! People are starving, eating zoo animals and cats. Venezuela simply hasn't any money to pay the expenses of a touring orchestra. But the New York Times would rather point to Dudamel's criticism of Maduro as the reason for the cancelation.

* * *

While I'm at it, let's have a look at what Alex Ross is saying about the Met and the New York Philharmonic:
The Metropolitan Opera opened the season with its hundred-and-fifty-seventh performance of Bellini’s “Norma.” The New York Philharmonic began with its hundred-and-nineteenth rendition of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This is the safe course that many performing-arts groups are choosing in precarious times: the eternal return to the world that was. Both works are masterpieces that deserve to be heard repeatedly. Yet the implicit message is reactionary. As the nation contends with its racist and misogynist demons, New York’s leading musical institutions give us canonical pieces by white males, conducted by white males, directed by white males.
I was just going to quote the first bit, but the ideological buzz words just kept coming. Leaving aside the works themselves, let's pick out the underlying subtext. We are in "precarious times." Oh yes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average just topped 23,000, up 25% since the beginning of the year. Unemployment in the US is at a low 4.2% down from 5% a year ago. What is precarious about that? Oh, it is the nation's racist and misogynist demons that must be the problem. And what could these demons be, if we were to drop the metaphor? Right away he tells us: white males! Being a white male himself, Alex knows whereof he speaks. Well, ok, job one is obviously to fire him and hire a non-white, non-male music critic for the New Yorker. What's that? No immediate plans? Ok, just get back to me. It is also amusing to note that Alex describes the works in question as "masterpieces that deserve to be heard repeatedly." So what's the problem? Oh, right, it is not the actual pieces of music, it is their authorship! Too many white males... Well, ok, let's find some works of equal stature that were not written by white males. Uh, Aida? Nope, Verdi is another white male. I know, Don Giovanni! Oops, Mozart, another white male. Could it possibly be that, as of yet, there are no absolutely first rank operas not written by white males? Moving on to the symphony, I kind of suspect that we might have the same problem: Beethoven, white male, Haydn, white male, Bruckner, white male, Stravinsky, white male, Philip Glass, white male. Oh well... So I guess that what we have here is Alex Ross just signaling his virtue to us: he knows about this terrible racism and misogyny and he has to let us know he knows. Once that is over with the rest of the essay is a standard review of performances. You know how we know that this is just virtue-signaling and not an actual practical critique? Because he offers no suggestions for works by non-white, non-males that might have been programmed instead of Norma and Mahler Five.

* * *

Let's have a listen to part of Norma by Bellini, one of the finest examples of bel canto opera in the repertory. This is Anna Netrebko in a concert performance of "Casta Diva," one of the showpiece arias:


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Music is a TARDIS

A what? I wonder how many Whovians are in my audience? The TARDIS, as all watchers of Doctor Who know, is a vehicle and stands for:  Time And Relative Dimension ISpace. It looks like a police phone box from the 1960s:


It's both a spaceship and time machine and yes, it's a lot bigger on the inside ("Is it?").

I was putting together a concert program the other day and realized that I think of music as being a bit like the TARDIS: it takes you places in both space and time. Here, have a look at the program I came up with:

Music from the Golden Age of Spain

Diferencias sobre “Guárdame las vacas” ........…  Luys de Narváez
Canción del Emperador …………………..……   (1538)
Baxa de contrapunto ………………………….

Fantasía X ……………………………………..… Luys Milán
Fantasía del quarto tono ……………….……….   (1536)

Music from 18th century Saxony

Siciliano ……………………………………………… J. S. Bach
Andante ………………………………………………  (1685 - 1750)
Prelude  ………………………………………………

Music from 20th Century Spain

Tiento antiguo ………………………………… Joaquín Rodrigo
Nocturno ……………………………… Federico Moreno Torroba
En los trigales ………………………………… Joaquín Rodrigo

Music for Violin and Guitar

Octatonic Fantasy (2017) …………………… Bryan Townsend

Four Pieces (2013) …………………………… Bryan Townsend
1. Strange Romance
2. Cloudscape
3. Xitango
4. Surreal Reel

Except for the last group, they are all times and places you could go to with a TARDIS. But here is the cool part: with music you go to these places with mood, emotion and atmosphere, not jammed into an economy seat on an airplane.

Let me see, I have some of these as clips. Here is "Surreal Reel" from the last group:

video

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Music and Employment

Over at Slipped Disc we get a brief glimpse of one of the realities of the music business:
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra has just closed applications for the Nikolai Malko Competition.
To its consternation, the number of candidates was more than twice the previous record – 563 of them, aged 18 to 35.
A flautist friend of mine told me that every time he applied for a job with an orchestra there were two hundred other flautists auditioning. We can discount Slipped Disc's usual sensationalist headline: "How many desperate conductors out there? 563" but at the same time recognize that the competition for jobs in the classical music field is ferocious. And, believe me, it is even worse for those who are not seeking a position in some musical institution like an orchestra or a conservatory, but seeking work as a soloist. On the one hand there are established artists like Grigory Sokolov who can likely play any hall he wants in Europe and do that season after season. On the other hand less well-known artists who are perhaps not quite as gifted as Sokolov struggle for every booking. I once called a concert series booker in Toronto every week for months trying to get a concert there with no result. Another time I sent a publicity package to every conductor in Canada (about seventy) and followed it up with a phone call to each one. With the same results.

For every possible opening there are hundreds of musicians competing for it. This is offset by network effects, of course. If you are a graduate of the Curtis Institute, it is much, much easier to find a position because you are already networked with Curtis graduates who are employed by every orchestra in North America. A lot of positions go to people who know people. This is not as unfair as it sounds as graduating from a famous school is a kind of filter for quality in itself. But the hard truth is that there are a lot of people who would like a career in music or the other arts, but are never going to quite achieve it. Even those who do achieve it may wrestle with depression and stress their whole lives as we learn from another Slipped Disc post:
 
Help Musicians UK has set up a task force to address high levels of mental illness in the music professions.
A new study identifies four contributory factors:
– Money worries – A career in music is often precarious and unpredictable. Many musicians have several different jobs as part of a portfolio career, and as a result get little time to take a break. It can be hard for musicians to admit to insecurities because of needing to compete with others and wanting to appear on top of things.  Musicians can also find it hard to access affordable professional help for mental health issues.
– Poor working conditions – Music makers can be reflective and highly self-critical, and exist in a working and personal environment of constant critical feedback. As many musicians are self-employed, their work can result in feelings of isolation when it comes to dealing with mental health problems.
– Relationship challenges – Family, friends and partners play an important role in supporting musicians, but these relationships can come under huge pressure and strain.
– Sexual abuse/bullying/discrimination – Musicians’ working environment can be anti-social and unsympathetic, with some people experiencing sexual abuse, harassment, bullying and coercion.
Musicians wrestle with higher levels of depression than people in other fields. This seems to clash with another host of studies trotted out to support arguments for more music education because music helps us be smarter and lead more fulfilling lives. I guess only if you don't pursue it professionally. Both of these posts, by the way, have a host of intriguing comments.

Now set this beside the recent attempts to apply identity politics to the hiring of musicians. "Diversity" and "Inclusion" demands that orchestras hire based on gender and race so that the demographics of the orchestra reflect that of the society. Imagine if you were one of that host of musicians trying to win the position and found out that, due to your identity, your chances were much less? Talk about depression!

Music is one of the most unforgiving disciplines there is. In earlier times I suspect this was not as keen because you could be a regional musician and not have to face as much competition. But once recording technology was invented you were compared, not to the tenor in the next town, but to Caruso. Violinists were compared to Heifetz and pianists to Horowitz. As the mass media became ever more pervasive the careers of the famous and well-established tended more and more to crush the careers of the middle-rank artists. I noticed this myself when a local summer music festival, a modest affair offering four or five concerts in an area with a population of around 300,000 people, hired a guitarist from New York instead of myself! I was wondering, "are things so tough in New York that he has to come here and take jobs from me?" I guess so.

Every musician feels the need to be a unique voice, a special expressive resource that cannot be swapped for another. This rather explains the wording of a lot of puff-pieces about musicians who always come off sounding like emotional basket-cases. But the reality is that the emotional and physical demands are so great that few can survive them. I have watched the career of guitarist Miloš Karadaglić in recent years as he seemed to have the possibility of building a solid career. Quoting from the Wikipedia article:
2012 was a breakthrough year on the concert stage for Miloš, with sold-out debut performances and tours in the UK, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia. "Part of the reason Karadaglić has such a large following" commented The West Australian, "is his ability to straddle both hardcore classical and pop classical camps."
He even achieved the gold medal of recording achievement with a Deutsche Grammophon contract and released albums in 2012 and 2013. Alas, in October 2016 he announced that he was retiring from performance due to an injury to his hand. Lang Lang is also having to withdraw from performances due to a left hand injury and Hilary Hahn canceled a number of performances a couple of years ago for the same reason.

Well, I think I have belabored the point enough! Let's listen to some music. This is Miloš Karadaglić playing Asturias by Isaac Albéniz:


Monday, October 16, 2017

Naming Conventions

Haydn had it easy! He never had to worry about what to name a piece. Why? Because pieces were named according to their genre: Symphony no. 1 (or, in Haydn's case, Symphony no. 92!), Sonata for Piano op. 111, String Quartet in B flat, op. 130. It wasn't just Haydn that followed this scheme; it was the norm for instrumental music until at least the end of the 19th century. It started to break down with the advent of program music, i.e. music that had some kind of textural basis or inspiration. So we started to have pieces named "Symphonie fantastique" or orchestral music titled "Finlandia" or "Also Sprach Zarathustra." This reached some absurd lengths with Erik Satie who once named some piano pieces "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear," which was a satire on the whole convention of naming pieces after their genre or form.

But composers nowadays are really in trouble. True, they can still follow the standard naming conventions and we do still get numbered symphonies and quartets. But if you want to be fashionable and maybe win a prize, then you have to come up with some nifty and fashionable name for your orchestral masterpiece. Here are some examples:
  • Short Ride in a Fast Machine (John Adams)
  • The Light, for orchestra (Philip Glass, but most of his music has genre or form titles)
  • Turangalîla-Symphonie (Olivier Messiaen)
  • L'Arbre des songes ("The Tree of Dreams," Henri Dutilleux, the French have a gift for poetic titles)
  • Le Marteau sans maître ("The Hammer without Master," Pierre Boulez)
There is almost a whole category of pieces making reference to the ocean:
  • The Oceanides (Jean Sibelius)
  • La Mer (Claude Debussy)
  • Become Ocean (John Luther Adams, it won a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize)
Young composers seem to avoid numbered and genre titles entirely so they end up with a lot of odd names for instrumental pieces:

  • 2001–2002 Fits & Bursts
  • 2003 Out of the Loop
  • 2004 By All Means
  • 2004 So to Speak
  • 2006 It Remains to Be Seen
  • 2006 Wish You Were Here
  • 2007 From Here on Out
  • 2007 Seeing is Believing

All by Nico Muhly!

I'm wrestling with this problem myself right now. I'm writing a piece for violin and guitar and am likely to call it something like "Concert Piece for Violin and Guitar," but I just know someone is going to come up to me afterwards and say, "couldn't you think of a better title than that?" I dunno, the alternative might be "Glissandi in Contrary Motion" à la Philip Glass or "Octatonic Fantasy." And are those titles any better? Honestly, the idea that the title needs to reveal the Inner Truth of the music or its Hidden Meaning is such a passé notion, isn't it? The only real need for a name or title is so that you can keep track of which piece it is. Sonata op. 111 works perfectly well.

This is Grigory Sokolov playing the Sonata, op. 111 by Beethoven in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1988:


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Music Criticism, part 1

I've been leaning heavily on Mr. Beardsley when it comes to aesthetics and criticism, but if I am going to do some sample exercises then I need to define my own turf. Part of music criticism, I feel, is the historical aspect. You might think that this is just because, as Frank Zappa said, all the good music was already written by dead white guys in wigs, but in fact all music, even pop music, takes place in an historical context. My early education as an undergraduate included a course in the philosophy of history and I have continued to do a bit of reading in that area. My Renaissance Music History professor was a bit surprised to learn that I not only knew, but had read R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. At one time I also tried to read all of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History, though I didn't quite succeed.

I like the idea of what is sometimes called a "thick" description:
In the fields of anthropology, sociology, religious studies, human-centered design and organizational development, a thick description of a human behavior is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, such that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider.
This comports well with Collingwood's idea that a historian should try and "get inside" historical figures and events, that is, try to see things from their perspective.

Just as a little experiment I would like to pick a favorite piece of mine and do some aesthetic criticism. The piece is a transcription, by Luys de Narváez for vihuela, of a four part secular chanson by Josquin des Prez titled "Mille Regretz." The original is in the Phrygian mode on E:

Click to enlarge
Most scholars attribute this to Josquin, but there are some who disagree. The practice of transcribing vocal music for fretted string instruments like the lute or vihuela was common in the 16th century as those instruments were just finding their way and the intabulation of vocal counterpoint was an important technical advance. Narváez' setting was known as the "Canción del Emperador" because it became a favorite piece of Philip II, We learn from Wikipedia:
The exact date or even year of Narváez's birth is unknown. He was born in Granada and the earliest surviving references to him indicate that as early as 1526 he was a member of the household of Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, a well-known and very successful patron of the arts who was the Secretary of State and commentator for the kingdom of Castile under Charles V. Narváez lived in Valladolid with his patron until the latter's death in 1547. It was during this period that the composer published Los seys libros del delphín (Valladolid, 1538), a large collection of music.
By 1548 Narváez was employed as musician of the royal chapel, where he also taught music to choristers. His colleagues there included the famous keyboard composer Antonio de Cabezón. Narváez and Cabezón were both employed as musicians for Felipe, Regent of Spain (later Philip II of Spain), and accompanied him on his many journeys. The last reference to Narváez is from one such journey: during the winter of 1549 he resided in the Low Countries.
Narváez was very highly regarded during his lifetime, particularly for his vihuela playing; he was reported to be able to improvise four parts over another four at sight. His son Andrés also became an accomplished vihuelist.
One of the things that Narváez is known for is the very first published sets of instrumental variations that appeared in his book Los seys libros del delphín. But what I want to focus on briefly is the social context. Narváez was a member of the household of the Secretary of State of Charles V and later of the court of Philip II. Spain was, at the time, the first global empire. Transferred to the contemporary world this would be like being a close advisor to John Kerry when he was Secretary of State in the Obama administration and then being a close advisor to Donald Trump. In other words, Narváez was at the very center of world power for much of his career. This says something about his abilities, but also about how patronage has changed over the centuries. Then, outstanding artists were patronized by the highest members of the political aristocracy. Nowadays, the most powerful figures in the arts and media donate enormous amounts of money to elected politicians. Just think how different that is.

Now let's look at the piece by Narváez. He was a composer and performer on the vihuela, the fretted instrument, related to the guitar, that served the role that the lute did in the rest of Europe.

16th century Vihuela

16th century Lute

The two instruments were tuned identically: GCFADG (though some vihuelas were at a different pitch and there was no standard pitch in the 16th century so all this is relative). Guitarists can approximate the tuning of both instruments by tuning the third string to F# and then placing a capo on the third fret.

The first good modern edition of the piece was published in a brief anthology titled Hispanae Citharae Ars Viva ("The Living Art of the Spanish Guitar") transcribed and edited by Maestro Emilio Pujol in 1956. I purchased it in Spain in 1974 when I was studying with José Tomás. He had me do several pieces from the book as an exercise in the separation of voices. Here is the first page of the score:


If you compare the original with the transcription for vihuela you will be a bit perplexed as they don't look anything the same. The note values in the guitar transcription reflect those in the original tablature, but in the modern transcription of the vocal work are reduced by half: a breve (double whole note) becomes a whole and so on. Another change is that the four voices of the original become three voices on the vihuela. Also, if you compare the two versions you will see that one measure in the vocal piece becomes two in the vihuela. But that is far from all! Nearly everything is varied on the vihuela. Take the second measure in the vocal score: it becomes the third and fourth in the vihuela score. The bass line is the same (F to D in the voice becoming C to A in the vihuela) given the transposition from E Phrygian to B Prygian. But all the eighth notes are added ornaments. This is partly because the vihuela cannot sustain notes the way the voice can and also because these kinds of free ornaments were very popular in Spain at the time. Tomás de Santa María, a composer and theorist, published an extensive book on ornamentation in 1565 titled Arte de tañer fantasía. From then on the vihuela version is so different from the vocal one that it might better be described as a free fantasia on the Josquin original. This is not surprising as Narváez is a pretty significant composer: he was the first to publish a set of variations on a theme.

Now let's listen to the two pieces. First the Josquin original with the score:

Now the version for vihuela with the original tablature (the lowest string is at the top):


I think that covers the first two stages of criticism: description and interpretation? The third is evaluation. I think it is safe to say that this is one of the best vihuela pieces in the repertoire. It is based on a very famous piece by Josquin and the transcription is famous in its own right. It is popular with performers and audiences and was certainly a hit with Philip II. I think the reason is that it is a very expressive piece with the underlying melancholy of the Phrygian mode, successfully exploited in both versions, and with the delicate filigree of the vihuela ornamentation. As this is meant to be a very basic exercise in music criticism I won't go any further!

So there you go...

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Criticism and Biographies

Reading the Wall Street Journal this morning I learned an interesting tidbit: the originator of our fixation on the biographies of artists seems to have been Giorgio Vasari, author of the famous 16th century Lives of the Artists. The reviewer notes:
These and many other stories—of the exploits and adventures, eccentricities and foibles, of the most prominent and successful artists of the Renaissance—feature in Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists,” which gave us the Renaissance as we know it today. Art historians continue to learn much from Vasari’s “Lives,” a page turner that blends history, description, criticism and biography. The artists Vasari championed, such as Leonardo da Vinci, remain our cultural heroes. Those he neglected, Mantegna and Francesco di Giorgio among them, never recovered the reputation they once enjoyed.
Despite being first published in 1550, with a second edition following in 1568, Vasari and his book have over the past few decades received renewed academic attention as part of a broad scholarly turn toward the study of primary texts.
The problem here, as readers of my aesthetics series will know, is that the "primary text" is not the exploits and foibles of the private lives of the artists at all, but rather the artworks! As Wimsatt and Beardsley pointed out many years ago in their paper "The Intentional Fallacy" not only do the personal events in artists lives have an ambiguous relationship with the art, but even the intentions of the artist are irrelevant to the artwork and how we evaluate it!

But still, nearly every single book published on art and artists puts the life of the artist at the center. It used to be more the case that the format was "life and works" with the two separated to some extent. But the last two monographs I read, on Prokofiev and Sibelius, dispersed discussion of the works within the biography with the implication that the biography was the cause and the work was the effect. This is the great hidden assumption of most musical biographies. They reach their nadir with books like the one on Mozart by Maynard Solomon that relates the music to supposed deep psychological problems in Mozart's psyche. One of the real delights of Taruskin's book on Stravinsky is that you can read all (of volume one at least) without having the slightest inkling that he once had an affair with Coco Chanel!

If the writer of a biography of an artist is honest, then he will have to admit that all the events in the life he recounts not only do not explain or cause the art, they are largely irrelevant to the art. Sure it gives you that nice fuzzy feeling of knowing something to know that Bach had thirteen surviving children, but to know that is to know nothing about Bach's music. And you can know a great deal about the music without knowing a single thing about Bach's life. But still, we are fascinated by artist's lives. Oddly, some people are more fascinated with the lives than the art itself.

But trust me, if you want to know something about the artwork the only way is to examine the artwork. What the composer wore when he wrote it, or what brand of champagne he preferred or how much his publisher sent him in royalties will tell you nothing about the art itself. Speaking of champagne, let's listen to Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 6, which is often described as like a drink of cool, pure water (even though an awful lot of champagne was consumed during the compositional process). This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra:


Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Miscellanea



Here is a song contest where the participants are birds:
Such contests are widespread in Southeast Asia. My colleague, accordionist Mike Adcock, chanced upon one this year in a market in Cianjur, West Java. A dozen cages were suspended high up, while below men with clipboards assessed the singing. In central Jakarta contests can attract hundreds of entrants, passionate bird trainers arriving along with their white-rumped shamas, green bulbuls or hill blue flycatchers. On one level it’s a (largely male) social occasion, on another there’s a lot of prize money at stake. A ten minute video from Phuket in Thailand shows the competitors desperately encouraging their birds from the sidelines, bending the rules by gesturing, whistling or blowing kisses. A bird with potential may be worth as much as a Toyota Fortuner. In fact a belief that it’s unlucky to put a price on a bird means they are more likely to be bartered for goods such as cars. The judges, some of whom are women, are assessing melody, rhythm and volume. One contest in Phuket demands that birds sing eight specific pitches within a defined time period.
* * * 

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the darkness of Beethoven's Appassionata:
In 1804, following works born of the idealism of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment such as his “Eroica” Symphony, Beethoven created the greatest musical explosion for solo piano of its time: the Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, known as the “Appassionata.” It is a work of a very different temper.
Composed soon after Beethoven first faced the catastrophic prospect of incurable deafness, the work has fascinated and confounded performers and listeners ever since. Full of tragic power, the sonata is arguably Beethoven’s darkest and most aggressive work. It has been compared to Dante’s “Inferno” and Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
* * *

A few years ago Tom Service did a terrific year-long series of articles on 20th century composers, followed by another one on symphonies. We haven't heard a lot from him lately, but he has a piece on "earworms" in The Guardian:
 La, la, la, la, la, la-la laaaa ... Can’t get it out of your head? 90% of us get earworms – those fragments of tunes that get stuck on a loop in your brain and which are impossible to dislodge for hours, days – and in some pathological cases, months and years. The German word for them, “Ohrwürmer”, translates literally as “earworms”, which rather brilliantly conveys the idea of a piece of music as an insectoid invader burrowing its way through your ears until it infects your brain and echoes round and round, beyond your control. That’s why they’re also known as brain worms, or simply sticky music. Just to name a few that have haunted me over the last few weeks, I can’t get the theme tune to Black Beauty nor the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances nor the cues for Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure for the Nintendo DS out of my head, to say nothing of the jingle for British Airways – actually by French composer Léo Delibes. Nor the Hovis advert with the bicycle and the cobbled street and the tune from Dvorák’s New World Symphony: round and round they go like a wheel within a wheel. And now The Windmills of Your Mind is stuck in my cranium …
He offers some suggestions to rid your mind of an earworm, but I have a better one, I think. Just hum quietly to yourself the subject of a Bach fugue. My favorite for this purpose is the Fugue from the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor. It is tuneful enough to be easily remembered, but not a good earworm so after a while it simply fades away and voila, no more earworm!


* * *

Bill Murray and some friends just did a very unusual concert, sort of a classical/pop melange, but it was a hit with audiences at the Chicago Symphony Center and now goes to Carnegie Hall. The review was great, but, as usual at Slipped Disc, the comments were mixed:
Each time we thought we saw the most poignant moment of the evening, Murray and colleagues Jan Vogler, Mira Wang, and Vanessa Perez added another layer of intimacy and depth to the performance, astoundingly elevating and giving new life to some of the most cliched musical works. Perez shone new pearls in her pianissimo phrases of “I Dream Of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” and she and cellist Vogler somehow made “Moon River,” formerly concerto for elevator and disgruntled riders, into something newly profound.
Murray shot us right through the heart when he took violinist Wang’s hand and danced a soulful tango with her onstage to the accompaniment of tango master Astor Piazolla. In the middle of Wang’s virtuoso reading of Heifetz’s showy version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Murray shocked us all by singing the Gershwin lyrics better than anyone since Satchmo. Murray’s singing was the best gift of the evening, in a rousing version of “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God” that made soulful melancholy an art form.
* * *

 Here is a fascinating article about music in ancient China:
The difference between sound (sheng) and tone (yin) is the presence of patterning. The cawing of birds and the whistling of wind, or the sobbing at a funeral, may be considered sounds, but a dirge sung at the funeral belongs to tones. Music is both nature (based in feelings) and culture (with patterning). Even more important, music is closely associated with words—that is, song lyrics. It’s also associated with governance. An old legend about ancient kings articulates this unique belief in the political—not just aesthetic or philosophical—importance of music. According to the story, the kings would send their officers to the villages, collect the songs of the common folk, and bring them back to the court, believing the songs to be signs and symptoms that can tell the king about the mood of his people. If it is happy, the king can rejoice with them; if it is distressed and resentful, the king must either reform his government or face certain ruin.
Benjamin Britten set six poems from the Chinese collection mentioned in the article for voice and guitar.

* * *

Not a very extensive miscellanea today! Let's end with a performance of the Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor by Beethoven. This is Vladimir Horowitz in 1959:


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Top 100 Music Education Blogs

As a long time music educator myself, I was pleased to make the list of Top 100 Music Education Blogs as you can see at the top of the right-hand column. The blog is at #43 on the list, which includes a lot of blogs that you might be familiar with like Slipped Disc, Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, Anne Midgette's column at the Washington Post, Musicology Now and so on. This was a surprise to me, but not an unwelcome one. Several years ago the blog was put on the list of music reference blogs by Cambridge University, but I just discovered that by accident. One hopes that this award will lead to a bit more traffic!

Let's celebrate with a Haydn symphony. This is one of his more exuberant ones, the Symphony No. 48 in C major, "Maria Theresa." The Academy of Ancient Music is conducted by Christopher Hogwood.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Practical Exercise in Criticism

Way back in 2013, frustrated with the inadequate record reviews that seem to be the norm these days, I put up the kind of review I thought should be done: A Sample Record Review. That is just the first of four posts in which I compare three different recordings of the finale to the Op. 131, C# minor quartet by Beethoven. In 2015 I did another review in which I compared three different recordings on harpsichord of the Bach Goldberg Variations, none by Glenn Gould. Much as I think these were both valid exercises and generally superior to the reviews that typically appear in the mass media, I was largely going on instinct, meaning I didn't think much about my methodology. I think my instincts, honed by fifty years as a musician, are pretty good, but one of the things I have learned from Beardsley is that it is worth thinking about your methodology.

So to that end, I want to do what I am calling a "practical exercise in criticism" in which I will do some criticism and talk about what I am doing and why. Like most artists just the word "criticism" tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth. I think that is because most artists have suffered unfair and biased criticism in their lives and tend to prefer that they just be praised for what they do! But while that is probably better than nasty, unfair criticism, it is still far short of what good criticism can do. What is good criticism? I think that my recent posts on aesthetics give us a hint and especially the last one: Aesthetics: Categories and Criticism. I am going to continue those posts, based on Beardsley's book on aesthetics, but alongside them, I want to launch another series in which I will undertake some practical criticism. The idea is to resurrect the idea of good criticism which seems to have nearly died.

One example of just how poorly criticism is practiced these days is this one from NewMusicBox:
I spent this summer immersed in the music of Roomful of Teeth, a “vocal band” consisting of eight singers with a commitment to exploring the expressive potential of the human voice. I was doing research in order to better understand how and why composers were using what—at that point—I was describing as “polystylism.” I spent my time labeling non-Western classical elements in the group’s pieces, gathering information on the composers’ backgrounds and “non-classical” experience (like Wally Gunn’s time spent in a punk band), interviewing the composers about their opinions relating to this topic, and eventually observing the group’s rehearsals at MASS MoCA during their intensive annual summer residency. Some time into my research, I grew uncertain about the basis of my research question; as I continued to wonder what the varied stylistic elements in each composer’s pieces meant, I also began to question whether they really had to mean anything at all. What if the composers just wanted to write this way, without any interest in “polystylism” or what their use of different styles means? Maybe this music, and the music these composers are writing outside of Roomful of Teeth, has nothing to do with stylistic elements at all.
The writer Hannah Schiller, a young scholar, is "a senior in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. Her research interests center around the current musical moment; she is particularly drawn to post-genre concepts and music emerging from classically trained musicians that is difficult to categorize." I have linked to this essay before. I think that her approach illustrates the huge gaps in the curriculum left by the excising of traditional aesthetics, as well as their replacement with psychological concepts and a kind of inchoate post-modern cultural theory.

Notice how musical specifics are carefully avoided, but instead we are always looking at the performers' commitment, the composers' background and experience, the meaning of stylistic elements and so on. Later on this is made more explicit:
Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer. The individual is quite important to post-genre thinking. This framework focuses on viewing individual pieces separately from what other composers are creating as well as from preexisting expectations, allowing composers to write whatever it is they want to write.
The writer seems unaware of both the tools and limits of criticism so gets lost in a welter of psychological flotsam and jetsam. Beardsley showed in a very famous paper on "The Intentional Fallacy" the problem with that approach:
Beardsley is probably best known for his very first article in aesthetics. In “The Intentional Fallacy,” a paper co-written with William K. Wimsatt and published in 1946 (and widely re-printed, e.g., in Joseph Margolis, ed., Philosophy Looks at the Arts, 3rd edition, 1987), he argued against the neo-Romantic view that a work of art means what the artist says it means, or what he intends it to mean.
An artist's intentions are utterly irrelevant to the descriptive, interpretive, and evaluative properties of his work.
Which, if you think for a moment, makes perfect sense. Every time I sit down to write a piece, my intention is to write One of the Great Works of Western Music. Sadly, it never turns out to be the case. Only in an environment saturated with psychological explanations and bereft of aesthetics would we think otherwise.

Of course we view individual pieces separately and we avoid preexisting expectations and allow composers to write whatever they want. The assumption that the contrary is advocated by someone is just a Straw Man.

I hope this gives an idea of the kind of failed approach that seems to be common these days. What I want to do is outline an alternative by creating a criticism of a piece of music that follows what I consider to be a valid and reasonable approach. Now I have to figure out what would be a good piece to pick as an example! I think something contemporary would be the best. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Aesthetics: Categories and Criticism

Continuing my series of posts on the excellent book Aesthetics by Monroe C. Beardsley:

Once you decide that you are going to talk about aesthetic objects and you have very roughly defined what they are, there are three stages of talking about them. In order of difficulty they are:

  1. Descriptions
  2. Interpretations
  3. Evaluations

p. 65

Is critical analysis of aesthetic objects possible or even desirable? Doesn’t it tend to ruin our pleasure? But to analyze an aesthetic object is to get acquainted with its finer details and subtler qualities, to discover what is there to be enjoyed—to be responded to emotionally. The alternative to analysis is a half-cocked, crude emotional reaction to the gross, obvious features of the object. To analyze in the critical sense is only to see or hear better; it does not harm the object. An analysis uses certain categories or basic distinctions. So the question becomes, what are the proper categories of critical analysis? pp. 75-7

Two basic categories often used are the means, or execution, and the aim, or end. The problem here is the ambiguity built into these terms. Is everything the artist did up until the completion the means and the finished work then the end? Or is the end the effect on the listener/viewer? So this distinction really does not mark anything within the work itself. Typical questions like “how well do the artist’s chosen means achieve his end?” are unfortunate ones because they assume that we can know the ends and means in the artist’s mind when in fact we cannot.

Another not useful distinction is between “what” and “how.” What did the artist do and how did he do it? This is similar to the means/end distinction and with the same drawbacks. This distinction is not one between two different things, but merely between a less-precise and a more-precise description of the same thing. What did the composer do? He led the phrase to a cadence. How did he do it? With a ii6, V of V, V7, I progression. The second is just a more precise description of what was done.

Terms like “treatment” and “technique” are just synonyms for “how.” “Medium” is another term with varying and easily confused senses as is the term “genre.”

Setting these aside as not very useful, what would be a good set of categories for aesthetic analysis?

A very basic kind of distinction, and one that refers just to the aesthetic object itself and not to its relations with the artist or the audience is the part/whole distinction. As long as there are differences within the object we can discern parts from wholes and talk about the relation between them. Some musical examples: the individual notes form parts of a motif that can be joined with other motifs to form a phrase. Several phrases go together to form a section and two or more sections go together to form a theme or even a whole simple piece or movement. You can confirm this easily for yourself by examining how a simple minuet by Bach is put together. pp. 78-82

Beardsley makes a further distinction between local qualities and regional qualities. If I could translate his examples into musical ones, I might say that the timbre or pitch of a particular note is a local quality, but the fact that there are twelve notes in the phrase is a regional one as it applies not to any particular note, but to the phrase as a whole. A staccato vs a legato note is a local quality, but a crescendo is a regional one. p. 83

It might be noted that regional qualities depend on perceptual conditions. You can describe a crescendo in terms of the exact decibel level of each note, but the listener perceives it as a whole gesture.

For our envoi let's have the String Quartet op 20 no 1 in E flat by Joseph Haydn played by the Mosaïques Quartet:


Monday, October 9, 2017

The Danger of Sokolov


I feel I should, as a public service, warn you about the dangers of extended listening to Grigory Sokolov. On Friday I got the new Deutsche Grammophon release of two archival concerto recordings, one from 1995 (Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Proms) and the other 2005 (Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23, K 488 at the Salzburg Festival). I believe that he has, for more than a decade, stopped doing concerto performances. Like Bob Dylan bootlegs, these performances have been floating around on the internet for a while. There are both quite stunning. Mind you, I much prefer his solo performances, but never mind. Also in the package is an hour-long documentary on Sokolov. He refuses to either sit for photo sessions or interviews so the documentary spends most of its time interviewing friends and colleagues. There is some footage from his spectacular win of the Tchaikovsky competition in 1966 when he was sixteen years old. Part of the footage is him tossing off an extremely virtuoso piece by Liszt as if it were nothing. All in all, we do get a sense of Sokolov, known as "Grisha" to everyone that knows him personally, who seems to have been a consummate artist pretty much since he was six years old. What is it with these Russians!

Now we come to the dangers: if you listen to much Sokolov I am afraid that you will find other pianists to be unfulfilling. Last night I attended the first concert in our Pro Musica series with a fine pianist who played Scriabin, Schumann and Liszt. It seemed noisy, unsubtle, muddy and the pieces seemed to have a confused and muddled structure--all of them! Now this might be true, to some extent. My feeling about Schumann is that while his songs are superb, his longer instrumental works tend to not work very well, structurally. Scriabin I have never taken to. And Liszt, while interesting, is often structurally muddled as well. But I have the feeling that I would have enjoyed the concert a lot more were Sokolov playing! Mind you, I think he would have chosen a different program. Another problem was that all three composers seemed to sound rather the same, stylistically.

But the most likely explanation is that I am badly spoiled by listening to Sokolov! Once you get used to the astounding control he has over dynamics and the amazing clarity with which he delivers every texture, other pianists tend to sound ragged and noisy in comparison.

This is a clip of one of the pieces from last night, The Piano Sonata No. 2 by Scriabin played by a different pianist, let me stress.


There doesn't seem to be a clip of Sokolov playing the 2nd Scriabin sonata, but here he is with the 3rd:


I'm not sure if these clips make my point at all, but I don't have time this morning to seek out better ones!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Peterson and Paglia


This rather lengthy video on YouTube has been making the rounds this week. It is a long conversation, over an hour, between Professors Jordan B. Peterson of the University of Toronto and Camille Paglia of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. There is a lot in this and as Internet video commentaries go, it is head and shoulders above. One quote from Peterson:
It seems to me that a tremendous amount of the mode of power that drives the post-modernist--let's call it, it's not a revolution, --transformation, seems to be driven by resentment of virtually anything that has any, what would you say? any merit of competence or aesthetic quality.
And that has been a recurring theme here, not so much the resentment, but the noticing that the denial of aesthetic quality seems to underlie so much cultural commentary. And once you spike that, you are pretty much talking about fashion or sales, aren't you? He goes on, a moment later to say:
There's the destruction ... of the aesthetic quality of the literary or artistic work, it's reduction to nothing but some kind of power game, and then, surrounding that, the reduction of everything to something that approximates a power game, which I can't help but identify with jealousy and resentment.
That's rather pathetic isn't it, if the whole post-modern attack on the values of Western Civilization, including most especially aesthetic values, is motivated at its base by the petty resentments of mediocre scholars who simply lack the creative ability to sustain and develop these aesthetic values? I have never quite taken that step of speculating on the reasons for the disparagement of aesthetics. Who knows, perhaps he is correct?

I'm not sure if this is the ideal envoi for this post, but let's listen to Richard Strauss' Death and Transfiguration. This is the Dude, conducting the Vienna Phillies at Salzburg in 2014:


UPDATE: I didn't make it all the way through the Peterson/Paglia conversation myself, but even the first ten or fifteen minutes are quite interesting.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Sibelius and Busoni

It is worth remembering that the repertory or canon (Taruskin distinguishes these two terms: "repertory" is the body of music that forms the regular programs of concerts while "canon" is those works that are considered to be important by musicians, musicologists and theorists; Pierrot Lunaire is part of the canon, but not the repertory, the Rite of Spring is in both groups while the Pachelbel Canon is, ironically in the repertory but not the canon) of works is a relatively small body of music selected from a much larger one. I just ran into an interesting instance of this.

Busoni, on the left, and Sibelius in London, 1921
Ferruccio Busoni and Jean Sibelius were great friends and great party animals and when they were in the same city they had to be assigned a minder just to make sure that they showed up on time for their concerts. In February 1921 they were both in England for concerts of their music. Sibelius, of course, is a core composer for both the repertory and the canon. Busoni was far more important during his lifetime (1866 - 1924) as a composer, pianist, teacher and writer than he seems to be today. Apart from his Bach transcriptions (most famously that of the Chaconne, originally for solo violin, arranged for piano by Busoni), his music does not appear in the repertory, though some pieces, the  Fantasia contrappuntistica for example, are perhaps part of the canon.

But in 1921 while English audiences received the Symphony No. 5 of Sibelius with great favor, they were much less appreciative of his Symphony No. 4, still considered rather difficult. They preferred the Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra by Busoni! But this work, as so many others by Busoni, seems to have disappeared from concert programs and has only a tiny stub of an article in Wikipedia. Here is a performance with the score (performer not indicated). It has 2400 views on YouTube:


Of course the majority of pieces by Sibelius are also neglected in concert programs, but a few of the symphonic poems and the occasional piece like the Valse triste are staples of the repertoire today and most of the symphonies are well anchored in the canon. The pieces by Sibelius that seem most neglected today are those shorter chamber works such as the Five Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 81:


Of course, he knew at the time that these were lesser works and he wrote them largely for the publishing income.

I guess the general point here is that audiences, critics, musicians and even fellow composers are unlikely to be able to identify what pieces are going to become staples of the repertory fifty or a hundred years hence. In the year 2117 are we going to be listening to a lot of concerts of Steve Reich or Philip Glass? Or perhaps Elliot Carter? Will we have just celebrated in grand fashion the two-hundredth anniversary of the Rite of Spring? Or will it have been nearly forgotten? No-one knows. Heck we may have re-discovered Busoni and be celebrating him in festivals all over.

Here is the aforementioned Fantasia contrappuntistica played by John Ogden (fewer than 1,200 views on YouTube):


Friday, October 6, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The Wall Street Journal surprises us with a fairly interesting article on an upcoming performance of Pierre Boulez' piece Répons and goes into some detail:
No Boulez work demonstrates this philosophical friction more than “Répons” (“Response”), a 1981 composition (later revised) for six pitched-percussion soloists, an ensemble of strings and winds, and live electronics, lasting 45 minutes. As the title suggests, the piece is based on the idea of call and response, though the organizing principles are intricate; and their set formulations are complicated further as the sounds are digitally manipulated in real time. Some of the perceived “responses” occur between the acoustic tones and their electronic reflections.
* * *

One is tempted to say to this economist writing about modern art, "hey, you stop opinionating about art and I'll stop opinionating about economics!" But is there anything interesting in the article The Psychology of Overrated Art?
For as long as I can remember, the "My child could do that" critique of modern painting and sculpture has resonated with me. Broadly defined, I hasten to add, modernity creates great new visual art all the time; just look at graphic novels over the last forty years. But to my eyes, high-status painting and sculpture - the kind displayed in the "modern" section of museums - almost always looks like junk. When my little boy loudly declared, "That's not art!" at the modern section of the National Art Gallery, I thought of the Emperor's New Clothes and proudly smiled.
He then goes on to list some typical psychological biases. But we know that the psychological approach is not very useful, don't we?

* * *

The Guardian has a story about a young protege assisting Lang Lang in a Carnegie Hall gala concert:
Pianist Lang Lang, nursing an injured arm, found an innovative solution to avoid missing Carnegie Hall’s annual gala on Wednesday – a young protege literally lent a hand.
The Chinese-born pianist, one of the world’s most recognizable classical musicians, was opening the prestigious New York concert hall’s season by playing George Gershwin’s classic Rhapsody in Blue.
But Lang Lang is recovering from an inflammation in his left arm that forced him to cancel several months of concerts. The solution: Maxim Lando, a 14-year-old US pianist, who studied in a music scholarship backed by Lang Lang, was asked to join him and play the left hand.
I don't think people realize the extreme physical demands that life as a touring virtuoso places on you. Having to learn and keep in your fingers a large repertoire of demanding music while touring the world is certainly not easy. Probably more musicians than we are aware of are struggling with injury.

* * *

 The Future Symphony Institute reminds us of some problems with Historically Informed Performance:
Do we really want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth as it was heard at its premiere? Do we want to listen to 50 unevenly trained musicians, give or take, playing for four hours on weak instruments that are hard to play, in an unheated concert hall conducted by a deaf man on one rehearsal?
Let’s take a look at the issue from another angle: performance practice. These days there are a group of wand’ring minstrels (usually conductors) who travel throughout the world cloaked in a banner on which they’ve emblazoned the words “Historically Informed.” They give performances purported to be authentic reenactments of music from the 18th and early 19th centuries. We’re supposed to pay reverent homage to these musicians for their painstaking research and to feel the didactic thrill of their cause.
The whole piece is worth reading for its refreshing take on some thorny issues.

* * *

 Via Alex Ross' blog I learn about this piece which sounds rather interesting: Plainsound Glissando Modulation:


The performers are Andrew McIntosh and Scott Worthington and the beginning at least reminds me of music for viola da gamba.

* * *

Clemency Burton-Hill has prepared a daily classical music playlist and the project came out of a request from a local cafe for some suitable classical music:
Clemency Burton-Hill was recently asked by the manager of her local café to make him a playlist. They had been chatting, and he’d discovered she was a classical music broadcaster.
“He said to me, ‘Oh my God, I really dig classical music but I don’t know where to start.’” Burton-Hill recalls as we sit at a corner table in the same café in Kensal Rise, west London. “He’d noticed when he stuck on classical music in the cafe, his customers said they were more productive and it chilled them out.”
Wouldn't it be nice if a few more places had some discreet classical music instead of the generic stuff they often play?

* * *

For our envoi today let's hear a performance of the Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven that is undoubtedly far superior to the one given at the premiere performance in 1808. This is Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the Proms in 2012:


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Me and Jazz

It occurred to me the other day that I am not entirely ignorant when it comes to jazz. In fact, in my earlier years I had considerable exposure to jazz. In my teen years, when I became interested in music, I grew up in a small town (3,500 people) on Vancouver Island. My first interest was popular music in the form of rock music--it was the 60s! In the local newsstand the only purely musical magazine I found was Downbeat, devoted to jazz. I think I subscribed for a year or two. So I read a great deal about jazz in that journal. The local library, which was tiny, had a few books on music so I probably read a bit more about jazz there. I also bought some jazz albums which included Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain and Bitches' Brew. I might have bought more, but there wasn't much available in the local record store. No Amazon back then! I didn't have a lot of practical experience playing jazz until a few years later when I was asked to fill in as rhythm guitarist in a big band. I didn't get any chance to rehearse with them, was just handed a big part book. The first few gigs were extremely traumatic for a guitarist who had mostly, up till then, played blues, rock and a little classical. How the heck do you finger an E flat 13th flat fifth flat ninth chord? In a really fast tempo! I was a rather bad jazz rhythm guitarist! But it was an interesting experience. One night myself, the bass player and the drummer, with a little help from the trombone section, managed to save the bacon of the whole band when we found ourselves playing a street dance for drunken teenagers who did NOT want to hear Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington! So we played a couple of tunes by Chicago and fled!


So I was exposed to quite a lot of jazz in my early years. The thing is, it didn't take. I developed no long-term interest in either listening to it or playing it. The first thing anyone does if you say you don't like jazz is to assume you are just ignorant, as if it were inscribed in heaven somewhere that everyone has to like jazz. There are people who don't like chamber music, people who don't like country, people who don't like polka and people who don't like jazz.

Are there any interesting reasons why, in my case? Perhaps not. I just don't like the feel of it. It may be "cool," but I don't find "cool" appealing. I don't like the way they approach the individual note, if that makes any sense. Oddly, I like blues a lot, which is not "cool." Blues has a kind of earthy intensity to it that jazz does not. I can't give too many detailed reasons without doing the research, which I won't do because, as I say, jazz doesn't interest me. I get the feeling that jazz guys aren't very interested in classical either, which is ok with me.

So, we're good?

Here are a couple of tunes. The first from Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. The title is rather ungrammatical, isn't it? If it is the brew of bitches, shouldn't it have the possessive: Bitches' Brew? The cover is kind of neat:


This is "Pharaoh's Dance," the first track from the album, which does have its possessive:


So what grabbed me instead of jazz? It was the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky, played for me on vinyl by a friend one day. After that I had to hear every single classical piece I could find! This is David Oistrakh, violin  with the Staatskapelle Berlin, Gennadi Roshdestwenski, conductor, recorded in 1963:


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Good and Original

One of my favorite quotable authors is Samuel Johnson and I usually have one of his quotes ready just in case. The other day I quoted this in a reply to a comment: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." Mind you, the source of that has been questioned so perhaps I should just say it is attributed to Mr. Johnson. Reflecting on the quote I had some thoughts on recent music history.

We have talked a bit about the dilemma of the composer: for the last hundred years and more he (or she) has had to somehow produce works that are "instant classics." They have to not only appeal to the general public and performing musicians, they also have to not be derivative of other popular works and they have to be "edgy" or challenging enough to appeal to granting and commissioning bodies. That's a pretty tough list to fulfill. Remember Haydn's oft-quoted remark that because he was so isolated in Esterházy, he was forced to be original. That is the kind of originality that comes from following the logic of the material in the most promising direction and NOT paying any attention to other voices.

Going back to Johnson's remark: the concatenation of "good" and "original" has become a problematic one for several reasons. One is that in the general disparagement of aesthetics no-one really knows what "good" is any more. In the absence of any objective criteria, it is simply the subjective reaction of every individual, hence epistemologically unknowable. The idea of "original" also has a few problems. We have seen from our long series of posts on Stravinsky that while he is justly honored as a great and original composer, so much of what he did built on and made use of ideas and techniques that were in the air at the time. He just made better use of them. A sketchy list would include Roerich's research into pagan ritual, the structural use of octatonic scales and harmonies derived from them, investigation of Russian folk music, especially its kind of heterophonic counterpoint and so on. Even Stravinsky's brilliant rhythmic devices have some relationship to those found in folk music. This is not to detract in any way from Stravinsky's achievement, instead to point out that originality is very often (always?) built on the selective use of various kinds of traditions. Incidentally we see this in Haydn as well who recycled fugal technique, folk music, Hungarian recruitment songs, Italian buffo opera and other things into the synthesis of the Classical Style.

When it came time for the early modernist composers to make their mark on music history, they added one more nearly impossible demand: that music now have no relationship to the past, but be inscribed on a blank slate. This revolutionary demand is revolutionary because, ironically, of its source in history: it was an inherent characteristic of the French Revolution, who even started the calendar over again from zero, and the Russian Revolution, who spoke of the New Soviet Man, who was an entirely new creation, free of the traditions and values of the past. Insofar as the modernists took this plank as one of their own, they were aligning themselves with the radical forces of revolution. As we have seen in France, Russia, China, Cambodia and Cuba, this usually results in severe damage to artistic traditions. In France they actually burned the harpsichords. Russia is a bit of a puzzle, though, as their musical traditions largely survived the Revolution, though one can only imagine the career of Shostakovich if he had not lived in constant fear of being dragged off and either executed or sent to a Siberian work camp as happened to several of his associates. One thing we know for sure, his career as an opera composer was definitively halted by Stalin!

What I am drawing out of this glance at recent music history is that the hidden assumptions of musical creation were derived from political ideologies that make them problematic. As much as a piece of music complies with these ideologies it becomes ideological itself and hence, to my mind, far less interesting aesthetically. Ideologies we see reflected in music include the environmental fantasies of John Luther Adams, recent winner of the Pulitzer prize in music, and the tradition-erasing ideologies we see in the music of John Cage, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I am not ignoring the interesting discoveries that the latter three are responsible for, just pointing out that they accompanied that with the complete disavowal of the influence of any tradition whatsoever on their music. This is also what makes their music not only difficult for most listeners to access, but it makes the music somewhat sterile as well, from an aesthetic point of view. This was not an issue for these composers, however, as the first tradition they disavowed was in fact, aesthetics. Being original does not, as Stravinsky's career illustrates, necessitate the erasure of tradition. Indeed, if you do that it is nearly impossible to create something that can be recognized as "good"!

Music is not a language, but it is language-like in that communication is based on a shared set of cultural symbols and arbitrary signs. It was precisely those shared items, traditions, that modernism excised. What they wanted was to create an entirely new set of cultural symbols and arbitrary signs. Whether or not they were successful is still a very open question. Let me know what you think in the comments.

For our envoi today, the piece Répons by Pierre Boulez that does make use of one cultural tradition, in music the use of different antiphonal groups of instruments responding to one another.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Are They Sincere?

Being just a tad cynical, I look at some of the things people in classical music say these days and ask myself, could they possibly mean what they are saying? Or are they just very heavily indoctrinated? It is hard to tell sometimes. One does get the feeling that a lot of people in arts and entertainment adopt a set of conventional pieties just to signal to their fans that they are "good people." This kind of behaviour has been given a name: virtue signaling:
Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group. The term was first used on the blog LessWrong in February 2009, and then incorporated in 2010 within the framework of signalling theory to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious. Since 2015, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative characterization by commentators to criticize what they regard as the platitudinous, empty, or superficial support of certain political views, and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing outward appearance over substantive action.
Sometimes virtue signaling is done in an attempt to atone for imagined sins, as it seemed Ted Gordon was doing over on the Musicology Now blog when he wrote:
"As scholars, we must think seriously and carefully about what we mean when we talk about "classical music"--and how to remain vigilant against the promotion of "Western Art Music" in the name of "Western supremacy" built on hatred, fear, and bigotry."
Oh yes, classical music, the very fountainhead of evil!

But in other contexts, it seems that the act of virtue signaling is used as an aggressive marketing tool. This piece, over at HuffPost, is not a parody: Orchestra Moderne NYC Is Ready To Tackle Social and Political Issues; First Stop—The Immigrant Experience. One almost expects to see a photo of the double-bass section out defending "undocumented" immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement SWAT teams! Here is how the article puts it:
When Amy Andersson returned to New York after several years conducting concerts across Europe and North America, she founded Orchestra Moderne NYC with a very clear mission: to create an orchestra that is fully integrated into the life of New York City and fosters a collective understanding of political and social trends.
“Thinking about the many orchestras I’d conducted, I realized there was a glaring lack of diversity among the players,” says Andersson. “They’re not reflecting fully the communities they perform for. There’s a disconnect there. Now is the time and New York is the perfect place to create a new orchestra that reflects diversity and performs music that’s culturally and socially relevant.”
This is the usual checklist: diversity (check), collective (check), reflecting the community (check), socially relevant (check). Here is how the conductor sees it:
"This is a perfect opportunity for classical music to shake the dust off its programming and become an active, viable part of the community. By taking a stance on social justice and doing a program on immigration, I hope we’ll encourage other orchestras to be movers and shakers.”
I think I see what is going on. This is a new orchestra in town. Obviously they aren't going to be in the same league as the New York Philharmonic, or most of the other dozen orchestras based in New York City. So whaddayagonnado? Distinguish yourself in some way. The other guys are mostly promoting their programming, conductors and soloists, so the Orchestra Moderne needs a schtick. Virtue signaling seems the way to go. It's a contemporary, stylish way to promote yourself. "Fight the power!" I guess this works as the New York concert-going audience are pretty well indoctrinated themselves!

I think this can only really work if you are seriously hypocritical, though. A good orchestra has to be anything but diverse, socially relevant and reflecting the diversity of its community. The community does not consist of highly-talented and disciplined musicians; it does not consist of people that spend all their time practicing music and rehearsing. An orchestra is a body of select musicians trained to play together under the direction of a conductor. That doesn't sound like any community I am aware of! Oh, they mean a diversity in the orchestra that reflects the racial makeup of the city. Is that true? And does the orchestra have the same percentage of undocumented immigrants that the city does? We are not told. Instead, we are treated to the usual buzz-words and clichés.

My favorite part of articles like theses is the underlying subtext of moral superiority: shake the dust off your programming you establishment classical music institutions! Get with it! We aren't as accomplished as you guys, but boy, are we ever in tune with the "collective understanding of political and social trends."

They don't mention too much in the article about the actual music, but one featured composer is Steven Lebetkin: "Lebetkin’s musical goals are to reach a broader set of audiences through using traditional compositional techniques in western music and the joyous interplay of classical music and modern day cultural media, and to bring to non-musician audiences what makes music beautiful and timeless. He is a classically-trained composer with a gift of melody for commercial music, songs, and orchestral works."

His Violin Concerto will be premiered in the concert on Saturday. Here is the first movement of his Piano Concerto:


I was going to eschew comment, but this reminds me of a quote from Samuel Johnson when presented with a manuscript by an aspiring writer. His evaluation: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."