Sunday, December 31, 2017

Most Popular Posts of the Year: November and December

The most popular post in November, by quite a margin, was one where I stumbled across some performances of Haydn piano sonatas by Grigory Sokolov that were truly luminescent:

The second most popular post was one from The Spectator and it had to do with the social position of musicians:

The most popular post this month was one on strings:

And the second most popular, on two different ways of looking at Russia:

I'm reading two different books on Russia right now: the biography of Sofia Gubaidulina and A Concise History of Russia (Cambridge) by Paul Bushkovich. Russia has a very tumultuous history! Take Gubaidulina's life as an example: she was born in 1931 which meant that as a small child she lived through Stalin's purges and disruptions that led to the starvation of millions of people. She herself suffered serious malnutrition. Then, as a conservatory student in the 1940s she experienced the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 followed by the complete takeover and control of music composition by the Zhdanov Doctrine that condemned the music of all the best composers including Shostakovich and Prokofiev. I guess Nietzsche was correct: what doesn't quite kill you makes you stronger.

One of the pieces that was banned from performance by the Zhdanov Doctrine was Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 8. This is Emil Gilels in a 1974 recording:

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 1

I've been collecting resources for a series of posts on Sofia Gubaidulina. The most useful so far is the biography by Michael Kurtz, translated from the German by Christoph K. Lohmann and published by Indiana University Press.

 I'm just in a couple of chapters but it seems a very well-researched effort, current up to around 2005. I have also run across an interesting analytical article by Valeria Tsenova that examines Gubaidulina's use of mathematical proportions in structuring her music. So, armed with both these and whatever else I can discover, as well as my own examination of the music, we should be able to get a sense of this composer.

A few days ago I played the early Serenade for some friends and they really did not "get" what was going on in the music at all! So most listeners will likely need to be introduced to Gubaidulina's music in a fairly thorough way.

The great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich wrote a foreword to the biography. Here is an unusual piece that she wrote for him, the Canticle of the Sun for cello, chamber choir and percussion based on a text by Francis of Assisi:

Let's end with a quotation from Gubaidulina that appears at the very beginning of the Kurtz biography:

It is not my desire to express an idea, but to give
expression to the spiritual form of an emotion
steeped in life itself.

It does not matter to me whether or not I am modern.
What is important is the inner truth of my music.

I have no doubt that women think and feel differently
than men, but it is not very important whether I am a
woman or a man. What matters is that I am myself and develop
my own ideas strictly toward the truth.

--Sofia Gubaidulina

Friday, December 29, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

From The Federalist are two interesting essays on jazz and how to get into it. Some excerpts:
I love music, pretty much every type imaginable—just not jazz. Especially not the kind of jazz that jazz types like. You know, the free-form bebop stuff that always sounds like four guys who get paid by the note playing solos to different songs at the same time. Gibberish.
But I have always harbored the thought I might not be treating the music fairly. So I kept trying jazz and it kept making my brain hurt. I would think, Why can’t they have at least something vaguely resembling a song, or a melody, or a clue somewhere in the cacophony?
Enter David Reaboi, whom I work with, and is a jazz guy. 
For us early twenty-first-century listeners, jazz takes work for two main reasons: (1) we’re primarily used to listening for the familiar, rather than for new, very different musical variations; and, maybe most importantly, (2) because we grew up on post-Beatles pop music, hip hop, or classic rock, we just don’t have the repertoire in our ears and aural memories that allows us to really understand what’s happening on a typical jazz recording.
For a pretty interesting introduction to jazz, follow the link and read the essays. The second one is chock-full of illustrative clips.

* * * 

The Wall Street Journal has a review of a new book on the art of conducting. The review, by another conductor, is both detailed and extensive:
In his self-effacing autobiography, the Russian composer and pedagogue Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov confessed that conducting “baffled” him. If Stravinsky’s teacher had a hard time making sense of what someone standing in front of an orchestra waving a baton was doing (or was supposed to be doing), how can we expect audiences to appreciate and comprehend the art of conducting? Suspicion whether there is actually anything difficult or substantial to conducting is commonplace among instrumentalists who play in orchestras or with them as soloists. To the eminent chamber musician and critic Hans Keller, conducting was just a “phony” musical profession.
* * *

We knew this was just a matter of time, right? Area musicians call on BSO to diversify programming:
A group of more than 60 area musicians is urging the Boston Symphony Orchestra to expand its programming beyond a white male canon to feature more works by female composers and people of color.
In an open letter, the group pointed out that though the symphony touts its diverse programming, the 2017-18 season “showcases neither diversity nor innovation.” Of the 73 pieces scheduled to be performed at Symphony Hall, only one is by a woman, the group noted.

“The remaining 72 pieces are all written by white men,” wrote the signatories, including performers in local ensembles and academics from Boston-area institutions including Harvard University and Berklee College of Music. The BSO “should demonstrate a commitment to equity by showcasing musical talent that is too often marginalized.”
I dunno, wasn't the traditional idea to demonstrate a commitment to aesthetic quality? I predict the next demand is to program a whole season or more of ONLY women composers, just to catch up. I guess I'm ok if a lot of the music is by Sofia Gubaidulina. Oh, darn, there I am with that aesthetic quality thingy again.

* * *

Here is another story in a similar vein: Lido Pimienta, a Canadian musician (originally from Columbia), winner of the Polaris Prize and the Globe and Mail's artist of the year got involved in controversy at a concert in Halifax in October. Pimienta asks men at her concerts to move to the back, women to move forward and brown women to stand in front. OK. However, in this case a white woman photographer refused to move and caused an "incident." The festival venue later apologized to Pimienta for "overt racism." Well, there was certainly racism involved, wasn't there? Not to mention sexism. As a US judge said decades ago, the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is simply to stop discriminating on the basis of race. So my question to you is, if you were asked to move to the back (or to the front) at a concert based on some personal characteristic, race, sex, height, fashion sense, whatever, would you do it? Or would you protest as apparently some of the audience did in Halifax?

* * *

Woo-hoo! Now here is a story about music economics that is going to make you wish you were in the business: On the Heels of Lady Gaga, the Economics of Las Vegas Residencies Reach New Highs.
The race to lock down Las Vegas’ highest-paying residency is heating up with Lady Gaga announcing a two-year engagement at the MGM Park Theater. According to two well-placed sources, Gaga is guaranteed just over a million dollars per show, and is committed to 74 appearances. Should all go well with ticket sales, she could extend that run, inching closer to the $100 million mark, a new — and record — threshold for the city and for even the biggest of current pop artists. Gaga stands to earn even more on merchandise sales — typically a 50/50 split with the venue — and VIP offerings.
* * *

Andrew Clements over at The Guardian does a round-up of the year's ten best discs that is well worth reading for its reflections on trends and repertoire.
Winter & Winter is another label with a reputation for championing a quirky roster of contemporary composers, one of whom is Hans Abrahamsen. Its collection of Abrahamsen’s four string quartets, magisterially played by the Arditti Quartet, follows on from the releases of his elusive ensemble piece Schnee and the entrancingly beautiful song cycle Let Me Tell You. NMC continues its steadfast support for British composers, most notably this year with a bewitching disc of Simon Holt’s concertos – including the percussion piece A Table of Noises, and Witness to a Snow Miracle, for violin and orchestra – while a newer, British-based label, Another Timbre, offers a rather different perspective on the music being written today. My personal discovery of 2017 was the insistently haunting music of the US-born, Canadian-based Linda Catlin Smith, both in concert at the Huddersfield festival and on Drifter, Another Timbre’s disc of her chamber music, which includes two string quartets and a piano quintet.
* * *

Arthur Kaptainis at the Montreal Gazette has a piece on Charles Dutoit and why he seems to have gotten away with so much for so long: 
there was a fully documented account of the conductor’s interview style at the Lanaudière Festival in the summer of 1995 by Natasha Gauthier. The former freelance columnist for the Gazette, who went on to write music and dance criticism for the Ottawa Citizen, was preparing a feature about Dutoit and the OSM for L’Actualité, and planning to accompany the orchestra on part of a U.S. tour.
Arriving backstage at what is now called the Amphithéâtre Fernand-Lindsay for an interview, Gauthier was surprised to find the maestro dressed in a white bathrobe. Soon Dutoit was posing the questions, including “Are you married?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Then the “pawing” started, Gauthier said, even though her tape recorder was on. “He doesn’t care,” she recalled from Ottawa on Thursday after the AP story broke. “He’s used to getting his own way.”
 * * *

For our envoi today, here is a piece for string orchestra by Linda Catlin Smith: Orient Point with the Vancouver New Music String Orchestra:

Monday, December 25, 2017

How's Your Christmas?

It's Christmas morning and I've already made my obligatory phone calls and emails and I'm just browsing around. Soon it will be time to start on the preparations for Christmas dinner. I'm having a few friends over, musicians and other folks who are away from their families. You want to see the menu?

Christmas Dinner Menu
Dec. 25, 2017

Prosciutto con melone
Roast Turkey
with stuffing and gravy
Bourbon glazed carrots
Mascarpone mashed potatoes
Special Broccoli


The broccoli and dessert are being brought by guests so I'm not sure what they will be. But if dessert does not appear, I have some Häagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream that I would serve with fried plantain chips from the last plantains on my banana tree:

First thing on the agenda is to practice some Bach, though. Right now I am working on three of my favorite pieces by Bach, all, as it happens, from the repertoire for solo violin. Here they are. The first is the Siciliana from the first violin sonata, here played by Edson Lopes:

I like the tempo, I like the sound, but I'm not crazy about the key or the arrangement. I think he is playing Segovia's transcription which has a few added bass notes and a spurious sharp. Next is the Andante from the second violin sonata and I'm going to go with Sr. Lopes again. I checked out some others, but they either have what I consider to be completely the wrong tempo, or they are playing funny notes!

Ok, it's a bit stiff, but quite nice, really. Lastly, the Prelude to the Suite for Lute in E major, known as the 4th Lute Suite. This suite, while difficult, is really the most idiomatic, for guitarists,  of all Bach's lute music. I really can't find a version on guitar I like as I think all of the big names, Barrueco, Bream, Williams, all play it too fast. So I am going to go with a version on lute by Hopkinson Smith:

Have a lovely holiday and don't forget to practice a little Bach. It is good for the soul, and it builds character!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Let's All Be Grateful

As the year winds to a close and we celebrate one holiday or another, this is a good time to reflect on the things we enjoy and treasure. Gratitude is one of the very best emotions or practices as it insulates us from a host of not very good ones like resentment, anger and depression. Yes, I know that sometimes I claim that we are all going to hell in a handcart, but let's put all that aside for a while and contemplate how good we really have it. Most of us, unless you live in Venezuela, have bountiful food and drink to enjoy, which in most of human history was not the case. Most of us are likely in good health, which was certainly not the case for the vast majority of history. Most of us have a warm and comfortable home, again, likely not the case for most of the past. And on and on.

I saw some charts a while ago showing just how much human history has changed since the Industrial Revolution. Science, technology, government and economics have improved so radically and spread over much of the world so that a chart of almost any parameter: per capita income, education and so on, looks like a long depressing tail to the left, and on the right, a stupendous, nearly vertical climb. In the last hundred years, much of humanity has climbed out of misery and poverty to enjoy prosperity. Sure, there is a long way to go, but we have come a long way.

In the normal course of things, it behooves few politicians or public intellectuals to even mention this because they tend to gain influence and votes by claiming that we are on the edge of disaster, not enjoying an upwelling of good things. Even artists and composers tend to delve into some kind of aesthetic darkness, if only for the sake of contrast. But the truth is, if you were some sort of disembodied soul, drifting in limbo, and you could choose any time or place to be born, then now, the early 21st century, should be your preference--by far! Modern medicine, dental care, the accessibility of virtually any kind of material possession delivered to your door, every book imaginable available on a hand-held device at a reasonable cost, access to any piece of music there is, for free. Twenty or thirty years ago, if you had told me that it would be possible in the future to communicate with video to nearly anyone in the world, I would have believed it. But I would not have believed that it would have been free! But through Skype, it is.

Just look at how things have changed in the last couple of decades. My first computer was a second-hand Mac Plus:

That's a 9 1/2 inch black and white screen. It didn't have an internal hard drive, so I had an external one with 20 megabytes of storage. There were 2.5 megabytes of RAM! I actually wrote my first book on that computer running early versions of Pagemaker, Word and music software. If I scrolled, it took about 30 seconds to redraw the screen! But this was a huge advance because it meant I could create the musical examples, text and layout all myself. Then I just sent the completed file to the publisher and they slapped on a cover. That was this book:

Now I have an iMac with a 27 inch screen, color of course, and 8 gigabytes of RAM with a one terabyte hard drive. Wireless mouse and keyboard. Compared to what was available twenty years ago, it is a dream. The really astonishing thing is that I spent only slightly more for my current computer than I did for that old Mac Plus! I have a little device from Tascam for digitally recording music that has much more quality and editing capacity than the Beatles had when they were recording at Abbey Road. And it cost me about $140 US.

Then there is this blog where I can post items that anyone in the entire world, with Internet access, can read instantly and respond with a comment. That level of communication was never available anywhere or anytime before.

So I am deeply grateful, for all of these good things, and especially for my many readers and commentators who add so much to this blog and who are truly an exceptional bunch of people.

Thank You!

and have a very Merry Christmas and a bountiful New Year.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Two Russias?

The view of Russia in the mainstream media these days is rather negative. I have seen it described as "Zaire with permafrost" or as a country with an economy the size of Italy, but with a lot of nuclear weapons ruled by a dictator whose political opponents tend to meet with terrible accidents. Of course a lot of this is a hangover from the days of the Cold War, but there is no denying that Russia does not have a great public image in the West.

But I see rather a different Russia. From the point of view of art and culture, Russia is profoundly impressive. If we just list a few Russian writers this becomes very clear almost immediately: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Pushkin, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gogol, Pasternak--one could go on and on. A list of just the important Russian composers would include Glinka, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Kabalevsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Schnittke, Ustvolskaya, Gubaidulina... Then there are the great Russian pianists: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lazar Berman, Yefim Bronfman, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, Evgeny Kissin, Sviatoslav Richter, Grigory Sokolov--and those are just the really big names. Great Russian string players: David Oistrakh, Gregor Piatigorsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern (both born in what was then part of Russia) and so on.

There are extraordinary Russians in other fields as well, but much less known to me. One example that comes to mind is Grigori Perelman, the great Russian mathematician who has been awarded and refused, in succession, the Fields medal (equivalent to a Nobel Prize), the Millennium Prize (accompanied by a million dollar award) and the prize of the European Mathematical Society. That doesn't happen very often.

How do we explain this? I'm pretty sure I can't! But one thing seems clear: Russians, as individuals are an extremely impressive people, very creative and very serious. But they have always been plagued by really horrible governments and administration. Perhaps these two things are just not very compatible. We might compare with Canada, a well-governed land with a mild and complacent populace that is not particularly known for great artistic creativity.

I want to end with two clips. The first is of a little traffic dispute on a road in Russia:

Oh, I recommend turning down the sound a bit as someone added a rap track. So that's one side of Russia. And here is another side. For a long time, Rostropovich hoped that Shostakovich would write a cello concerto, but Shostakovich's wife always advised never to mention it to him! Finally, one day, Rostropovich received a phone call to come over and was given the score of a new cello concerto. Four days later he came back with his accompanist to play it for Shostakovich. He was offered a music stand and, in what he said was the proudest moment of his life, Rostropovich replied, "no thanks, I have it from memory!" The whole concerto. In four days. This is just the beginning:

UPDATE: A commentator left me a terrific example of Canadian "road rage" and it is so appropriate, I'm going to embed it below.

Most Popular Posts of the Year: September and October

The most popular post in September was a rather philosophical one on aesthetic objects:

This was part of a series of posts, that I never completed, devoted to a discussion of aesthetics from a philosophical point of view. The source for the discussion was the excellent book by Monroe C. Beardsley. I think that the only way to counter the post-modern project is by revisiting the basic concepts of aesthetic value. Otherwise all we have is identity politics and statistics--poor tools for aesthetic appreciation!

The second most popular post was one of my series of posts on Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring, for which I relied heavily on Richard Taruskin's magnificent book on Stravinsky.

The most popular post in October, by a huge margin, was this one about Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov:

I had just gotten a new CD with accompanying DVD documentary on Sokolov and was sharing. The problem of listening to Sokolov is that it tends to spoil you for all the other pianists. The post got so much traffic because a commentator linked it to a Facebook group devoted to Sokolov.

The second most popular post appeared just the day before and was talking about two well-known public intellectuals, Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia. There was a new clip up of them in conversation. The post attracted quite a few comments:

The comments covered a lot of interesting territory and are more worth reading than the post itself. Let me take this opportunity to thank my commentators without whom this blog would be far duller!

Hmm, the correct envoi for this post would seem to be either something by Stravinsky or something by Sokolov. I know, why don't we have both! This is a 1992 performance of the three movements from Petrouchka by Stravinsky arranged for piano:

Concerto for Bayan, Percussion and Orchestra

There is an old joke that says that a gentleman is someone who could play the accordion, but chooses not to. Also said of the saxophone. But it is hard to think of anyone, other than Sofia Gubaidulina, who could write a very serious piece for accordion and orchestra. The piece is called Fachwerk (which refers to the old German architectural style where the wooden frame is visible) and it is written for the bayan, the very popular Russian folk instrument, a chromatic button accordion. One of Gubaidulina's core interests is Russian folk music and its instruments.

Houses in fachwerk style are very common in eastern Germany:

I saw a lot of them when I used to visit with my ex-wife's family in Saxony. I have been reading that Gubaidulina tends to create a formal framework for her pieces using numerical proportions such as are found in the Fibonacci sequence so the title might refer to some sort of framework like that underlying the piece.

Here is the piece, written in 2009:

This piece is rather more tranquil than most of her other music.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Your Daily Gubaidulina

As part of my Gubaidulina project I am trying to listen to a new piece every day, just to get the music into my ears. Today I am listening to her concerto for violin and orchestra titled In Tempus Praesens ("In the Present Time"). It is a relatively recent piece, written between 2006 and 2007 on a commission from Anne Sophie Mutter. She has recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon with Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Here is the performance on YouTube:

I haven't had a look at the score and may have to do without as it is priced at $80 US. Based on listening alone this is a formidable piece, powerful and expressive. There are a number of reviews of performances available online and Gramophone magazine has a review of the recording:
In a single movement running for about 32 minutes, it shows the composer’s concern to make a direct and immediate impact, avoiding complicated materials but using very expansive forms. It’s possible to sense the kind of allusions to Mahlerian archetypes that are no less prominent in Shostakovich or Schnittke. Yet Gubaidulina has her own very personal musical identity, and the concerto’s strategies for playing off heights against depths, lament against affirmation, are very powerfully realised. The risks of rambling, improvisatory musing are triumphantly avoided, and the work’s final stages appear to bring starkly opposed images of extinction and rebirth into a strongly ambivalent conclusion that both affirms and questions resolution.
Is it just me or is that a really good example of the reviewer dancing around the mulberry bush and hoping we don't notice that he hasn't the slightest clue what is going on in the music? I suppose we can't blame him because even the foremost musicologist specializing in Russian music, Richard Taruskin, has written virtually nothing on Gubaidulina. I have searched in his survey, the Oxford History of Western Music as well as his most recent (2016) collection of essays on Russian music and there are only the briefest of mentions of Gubaidulina. Still, if one is reviewing the recording of a significant new piece of music by an important composer, one must give the impression of great knowledge. Alas, in this case, not very successfully!

Is there anything in the passage I quoted that gives us any insight into Gubaidulina's music? Don't all composers try to make a direct and immediate impact? By "avoiding complicated materials" does he just mean that she uses a lot of repeated notes? Why not just say so? Well yes, a single-movement work over thirty minutes long could be said to be in an expansive form. But what sort of form? Is Gubaidulina as Mahlerian as Schnittke or Shostakovich? Not to my ear, certainly. What is Gubaidulina's personal musical identity? Care to reveal any details? Oh, she uses contrasts! Heights, depths, etc... But my very favorite of all these empty clichés is the last:
the work’s final stages appear to bring starkly opposed images of extinction and rebirth into a strongly ambivalent conclusion that both affirms and questions resolution
"Strongly ambivalent"! Don't you love it? "Brutally lyrical" is how I would describe it! Both affirming and questioning is a nice touch too.

My sense is that, at this point, there is general ignorance as to the nature of Gubaidulina's music though there is a general consensus that it sounds good and is significant. Taruskin either hasn't taken the time or perhaps just doesn't like her music and most others just don't have a clue. I have that analytical essay to examine, which will be next on the agenda. Judy Lochhead's essay will take us deep within the depths of post-modernism as it based on concepts deriving from Gilles Deleuze among others. So that will be both interesting and challenging.

Friday Miscellanea

There is a new paper out about the "glass ceiling" for women artists.
Overall, we find two glass ceilings for women pursuing an artistic career. While the first one is located at the starting point of a female artist's career, the second one can be found at the transition into the superstar league of the market and remains yet impermeable. Our study has wide-reaching implications for industries characterized by a superstar effect and a strong concentration of men relative to women.
I won't argue with it, but from my own experience there is something like a glass ceiling for all musicians and composers. Most of us run into it and it is only the very, very fortunate, gifted and ambitious few that manage to break through and reap the fame and prosperity that lies beyond. For classical guitarists, only a handful at any given time are actually earning a decent living, out of the tens of thousands who are aspiring. And I do mean a handful: no more than four or five in the entire world.

* * *

And here is why classical musicians should stop listening to those marketing idiots who keep telling us to become more "accessible" by aping pop musicians. No. Just no. Please Rachel, you look and sound ridiculous.

* * *

These days, at the click of a mouse, we can listen to pretty any music we want to. But in past eras, it wasn't so easy. J. S. Bach, for example, really wanted to hear the music of Dietrich Buxtehude who lived in Lübeck. At the time Bach was living in Arnstadt, 280 miles to the south. So, in late October of 1705 the young Bach set out to meet Buxtehude. Walking. The whole 280 miles. Oh, and back of course! The story is told, in the extremely confusing fashion of modern journalism, in this article in The Spectator:
I am quite sure that the walk and the encounter in Lübeck with Buxtehude made him who he became. As the Prophet Muhammad grew up on camel caravans, as the early British elite with their sewn-plank boat expeditions in the late Neolithic took their chief’s son along as crew, to grow him — so travel made him, I believe. You can judge for yourself, when we get to Lübeck on the 45-minute Christmas Eve programme, how close we might have come to Johann Sebastian Bach.
Oh, and yes, there is a radio program as well if you happen to be in the UK.

* * *

Another conductor is being accused of sexual misconduct, this time it's Charles Dutoit.
Three opera singers and a classical musician say that world-renowned conductor Charles Dutoit sexually assaulted them — physically restraining them, forcing his body against theirs, sometimes thrusting his tongue into their mouths, and in one case, sticking one of their hands down his pants.
In separate interviews with The Associated Press, the accusers provided detailed accounts of incidents they say occurred between 1985 and 2010 in a moving car, the two-time Grammy winner's hotel suite, his dressing room, an elevator and the darkness of backstage.
* * * 

The Guardian has an end-of-year list of the ten most memorable productions of 2017. Number one is John Eliot Gardiner's presentation of all three surviving Monteverdi operas.
Musically it was an enthralling experience. While his own Monteverdi Choir supplied the chorus, Gardiner had assembled a carefully chosen troupe of young soloists, most of whom took roles in all three operas, so that, for instance, the wonderfully dark-toned bass Gianluca Buratto was the Charon and Pluto in Orfeo, Neptune in Ulisse and Seneca in Poppea, while Hana Blažíková was both a seductive Poppea and a sparky Euridice in Orfeo. The result was a company of singers who had immersed themselves so thoroughly in Monteverdi’s dramatic world that the texts were projected to make every phrase intelligible.
* * *

This story is guaranteed to make you angry, whatever position you occupy on the spectrum: WERE YOU AT LAST NIGHT’S CONCERT WHERE CHILDREN WERE BOOED? Yes, of course it is a Slipped Disc clickbait headline, but the incident is both interesting and provoking. In summary, a production of the Messiah was preceded by a new "composition" that featured children in a piece that seems to have had a heavy-handed political message. Read all the comments to get the full picture.

* * *

Also at Slipped Disc is a post on a criticism answered by some interesting statistics. But what really makes it worth looking at is an incisive comment by one of Slipped Disc's most ardent commentators on how the classification of classical music as a business rather than an art form puts a stake in its heart:
To talk about ‘the music business’ is in itself a sign of serious decline: the classical music performance culture is NOT a business – the term suggests that it is about money making – but it is about art. That many people in the music world treat the art form as a commodity, indeed as a business to make money, is one of the most serious destructive trends possible since it not only tends to turn music into a commercial commodity, but stimulates performers, promotors, managers to put the ‘content of the product’ on the bottom of the priority list. The irony is, that in no REAL business the content of the product is neglected, since it is the core of the trade. Classical music is not here to make money, but it is an absolute good in itself, which COSTS money, which is an investment into a common good. That performers, concert hall staff, orchestral staff, etc. etc. need to be paid is the bottom line of keeping the art form on the rails; but turning priorities upside down and use the art form merely as a type of business, is destroying it. Norman has shown this destructive process extensively in his books, and SD is one of the protests against this trend.
Even in the heartland of classical music, nowadays government officials are uninhibited in their intention to treat the art form as a commodity:
Wild capitalism, deregulation, a political elite who sides not with the electorat but with business and big industry, all driven by market ideology which destroys the fabric of society, will want to destroy the islands of free and independent thought and civilization, of which culture including classical music is one of the most important.
* * *

 Amazon has an orchestra? How could the long-suffering employees ever find the time to practice?
Amazon (AMZN) — Yahoo Finance’s Company of the Year — helps employees channel their inner artist. In the last several years, Amazon has expanded its efforts so employees with artistic streaks have more creative outlets to let loose, including the Amazon Symphony and the a cappella group Vocally Self-Critical — a riff off of Amazon’s now retired 10th principle of the same name.
“About this time last year, one of our oboists looked through our employee directory and looked through people’s interests, particularly in classical musical instruments, and he just sent out this massive email, asking ‘Hey, who wants to start an orchestra?’” recalls Beau Curran, a technical account manager on Amazon’s digital music operations team and an oboist in the Amazon Symphony. “The first day of rehearsal, we were really wondering whether we’d just end up with a saxophonist and a keyboardist, and that would be our orchestra.”
Go read the article!

* * *

Of all the myriad ways that musicians are treated badly in modern society, this has got to be the worst! At the Music Salon we have chronicled the generally poor economic situation of musicians, the ways they are mistreated and humiliated by airlines (who also smash their instruments from time to time), the assaults on innocent musical instrument builders like Gibson over arcane import laws and so on. But I don't think I have ever heard of mistreatment this stunningly bad: State Steals Life-Savings from Innocent Musician.
Phil Parhamovich is a musician from Madison, Wisconsin. Over the years, he saved up $91,800, only to have it seized by Wyoming Highway Patrol during a routine traffic stop near Cheyenne.
Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take and keep cash, cars and other property without ever charging someone with a crime.
Phil was never accused of, or charged with, a crime. Yet, he found himself in the fight of his life to recover the money that belonged to him.
Luckily, Phil reached out to the Institute for Justice (IJ), and together we got back Phil’s life savings. But the fight is far from over; Phil’s story only highlights the urgent need to end civil forfeiture. 
Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to take and keep cash, cars and other property without ever charging someone with a crime. Before that fateful March day, Phil had never heard of civil forfeiture. He was just a musician driving through Wyoming to a show in Salt Lake City. Phil had big plans for his life savings, which he brought with him for safekeeping.
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 Today we really need an uplifting envoi! Here is a Moscow Ballet production of The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky:

Thursday, December 21, 2017

There's No Difference Between Writing and Thinking

You may have noticed that I pay a lot of attention to videos from Jordan Peterson, the psychology professor from the University of Toronto that has Canada all a-twitter. I'm not the only one! I just ran across a very interesting little video about how to learn critical thinking:

Around the 1:30 mark he says "there is no difference between [writing] and thinking." He says that to highlight the importance of teaching people to write. If you are cynical, as I am, you might think that universities do not spend much time teaching people to write simply because they do NOT want them to learn how to think critically. But never mind!

I had a couple of lucky things that helped me learn how to write. Apart from a lifetime of doing a lot of reading--I don't actually recall when and how I learned how to read, all I know is that when I first went to school in Grade One, I already knew how to read--one thing that helped a lot was my first year English course at university. We had to sit an exam that basically just tested whether we could write a simple essay or not. I passed so I was assigned to a literature course rather than a remedial course. The professor was head of graduate studies so a very competent person and we also were taught by his assistant, a grad student in English. There were fifteen people in the class!! I'm sure that never happens these days--first year English? Anyway, we were taught how to write a research essay and studied poetry both reading and writing it. Good course.

The other thing that helped my writing was getting into the habit of sending letters to the Globe and Mail when I lived in Canada. I would send about one a week and got perhaps one in four published! It is not that easy. You have to pick a topic of general interest and you have to very succinctly express an opinion that will also be of interest. I got so I could tell when I hit the nail on the head. Nowadays I read a lot of stuff on the Internet and I see that one of the main problems is that people do not know how to be concise and succinct. One of the best possible writing exercise is to try and express your point of view in as few words as possible.

But I have one observation about the Peterson quote (which also does duty as my headline). You can think in words, yes, of course, but you can also think in music. Music is a form, a very odd form to be sure, but a form nonetheless, of thought.

A philosophical friend of mine gave me a present many years ago of an Oxford Dictionary in which he had inscribed the comment "For when riffs threaten to replace ideas." He meant musical riffs. But of course, musical riffs or motifs or whatever, cannot replace ideas. But they are another form of thought.

When I am playing or listening to music, I am following a train of thought that is entirely (unless there are lyrics) non-verbal. There is a narrative, a logic, an expression there that is simply on another plane from verbal thought.

Let's have an example. This is the String Quartet No. 8 by Dmitri Shostakovich played by the Borodin Quartet:

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Approaching Sofia Gubaidulina

Composer Sofia Gubaidulina
As I am going to do a number of posts on this composer, I thought I would mention a bit about how I approach the project. I ran across the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence in a clip of Jordan Peterson and they are useful ones. My training in fluid intelligence likely begins with the first philosophy course I took as an undergraduate. I also have several decades of crystallized intelligence beginning even before then and consisting of a lot of experience as a practical musician as well as a great deal of formal study which includes eight years at university plus a lot of reading and study since which included a doctoral level seminar on research methods (sounds impressive, but not as useful as you would think).

So the first thing I do when encountering something that I find very difficult to understand or contextualize is look for some suitable tools. In the case of a new (to me) composer like Gubaidulina, I want to know more about her context and training. Let me offer one caveat, though. I am not falling into the trap of thinking that biography explains or causes creative production as a lot of popular writers do. The context I want to know about is largely the musical one. I don't much care if the composer was mean to her brother or had a brother who was mean to her. But I am interested in what music surrounded her growing up and where and with whom she studied. There are not a wealth of biographical studies on Gubaidulina, but I have one on order. I won't have it for a couple of weeks, though. In the meantime, I discovered an analytical study with a chapter on Gubaidulina available on Kindle, so I am starting there. I have already read the Wikipedia article, of course, which is not terribly helpful with regards to the music, though it has a lot of information on Gubaidulina's spiritual development.

Includes a chapter on Gubaidulina
Quoting from the introduction to the essay by Judy Lochhead:
Gubaidulina began studying piano and composition at the Kazán Conservatory, graduating in 1954. Any suspect tendencies in her music seem to have gone unnoticed until she applied for graduate studies at the Moscow Conservatory, whose composition professors deemed her music an unacceptable departure from the required style. She enrolled nevertheless, but would not have been granted her degree without the intervention of Dmitri Shostakovich, chair of the State Examination Committee, who defended her music and encouraged her to “continue on [her] own, incorrect way.”
Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000 (p. 101). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
In 1975 Gubaidulina formed an improvisation ensemble with the composers Viatcheslav Artyomov and Victor Suslin that experimented musically with Eastern European folk instruments along with those of their own invention, such as the “friction rods,” made of rubber balls attached to metal rods, featured in her String Quartet No. 4.
Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000 (pp. 101-102). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Regarding her goals:
For Gubaidulina, “there is no more serious reason for composing music than spiritual renewal,” an ideal more important to her than musical innovation for its own sake: “The public strives for active spiritual work … Listening to a musical composition … helps people restore themselves, even though critics might give a negative evaluation because ‘there was nothing new in this music.’”
Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000 (p. 102). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
A note about the spiritual aspect: Gubaidulina's parents were of different faiths: her mother Russian Orthodox and her father a Muslim Tatar. It is also interesting that she eschews innovation for its own sake, with puts her at odds with the Western avant-garde. Due to the originality of her approach, she was already at odds with the Soviet musical establishment (though not Shostakovich!).

The analysis by Lochhead is of the String Quartet No. 2 and I am going to go over that analysis in a future post. She quotes from Gubaidulina's program note for the piece in her analysis, so let's look at that:
"This was the first time in my life I set myself the task of realizing a certain musical problem of great importance to me personally, not in a large scale form but in a small scale one. In the course of many years my attention has been persistently drawn to an idea I call “Musical Symbolism.” This means that what appears as a symbol (i.e. a knitting together of things of different significance) is not some sound or other, nor yet a conglomeration of sounds, but the separate constituent elements of a musical instrument or the properties of those elements. Specifically in this particular context, the discourse springs from the difference between the means of extracting the normal sound from stringed instruments and the means by which harmonics can be made to sound. It is possible to consider the passage across this difference as a purely mundane acoustical phenomenon and to make no particular issue out of it. But it is just as possible to experience this phenomenon as a vital and essential transition from one state to another. And this is a highly specific aesthetic experience, the experience of a symbol. It is just such an experience which distinguishes between everyday time and true essential time, which distinguishes between existence and essence. And this modulation, this transition between the two, happens not through “depiction” nor through “expression” but through transformation or transfiguration by means of an instrumental symbol. For this transition actually happens on the very instrument. In its acoustic self."
Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft. Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music, 1960-2000 (pp. 104-105). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
And now, let's listen to the piece. Luckily this clip has the score. The performers are the Danish String Quartet:

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Sofia Gubaidulina

I'm going to start a new series of posts devoted to a single composer, the, as Wikipedia describes her, "Tatar-Russian" composer Sofia Gubaidulina (1931 -). What fascinates me about her music is what often draws me into a new piece or new composer: there is something about the music that keeps my attention, keeps me listening and, I have no idea how this music was composed. Yes, I love and am fascinated by the music of, say, Joseph Haydn, but at this point in time we have a fairly good idea of how the music came to be, even if imperfect and incomplete. In the case of Igor Stravinsky, that I just spent dozens of posts discussing, we are starting to have an idea of how his music came to be. But with Gubaidulina we (or at least me!) are stumped. Sure, there are familiar elements, but how and why they come together in the way they do is a mystery to me. Take for example the early and very simple Serenade for guitar. Here is the complete score:

At the beginning it appears to be in a very familiar musical language: G minor. But that measure of 4/4 seems to have no purpose. Later on there is a measure of 5/4 that again seems out of nowhere. But we are just getting started because those melodic themes just seem to evaporate and a C minor chord appears out of nowhere. Then there is a new melodic passage that stresses an F flat and D flat. With no preparation or functional reason, we suddenly veer into a long, repeated passage on the dyad F#/A. This leads to more thirds that outline E minor and B minor. The repeated-note motif recurs on A, then on the dyad F/A, then the stack of thirds comes again, this time on B flat. Repeated low E. Then a new harmony, 4ths with a high B flat. I could go on, but while there are certain ideas that return again and again, like the repeated notes, speeding up and slowing down, and certain ideas, like the fourths with a minor third on top, are moved around in parallel, the compositional logic here is very unlike anything I have ever seen before. I'm sure there is a logic because the piece works. It carries the listener along and seems to have its own mysterious logic. It is just that there don't seem to be any analytical tools that help us out. Please correct me if I am mistaken!

Here is a performance of the piece by Patrik Kleemola:

There does not seem to be a logic to the harmony as we understand it in tonal or modal music. Sure, you could argue that the piece is on G, minor at the beginning and major at the end; it ends with a G major chord. But what happens in between is hard to explain. Chords come and go without any justification in terms of tonality OR voice-leading. The melodies are not tonal, nor modal, nor octatonic, nor whole-tone. The rhythms are particularly obscure.

Now if this were a bad piece of music, we could just say, sure, it's bad because it is so disjointed. But my ear and instincts tell me it is a good piece of music! So I am just stumped. Which is what fascinates me.

Now let's look at another piece, from 1970, that is a hundred times more perplexing than this simple one. This is the Concerto for Two Orchestras which is for symphony orchestra and jazz band! You can just imagine how much the Soviet authorities loved this! It ends with a nice B minor chord, but wow, the rest of it? Have a listen:

I recommend going to YouTube and using full screen so you can read the score.

Most Popular Posts of the Year: July and August

By a huge margin the most visited post in July was my comment on the Musicology Now blog, the official blog of the American Musicological Society. The editor of the blog, Robert W. Fink, left a comment and linked to the post which seems to have led to at least half the membership of the AMS visiting. Oddly enough, none of them, apart from Robert, left a single comment.

Musicology Now provides a possibly misleading index to what musicologists are up to these days. I say misleading because, based on the content, it seems that the only music they are interested in these days are the soundtracks to television shows and video games. I don't quite believe that to be the case!

The second most popular post was one I did on aesthetics which leads me to think that I should follow up on my series of posts on aesthetics, which, I confess, seems to have petered out!

That is quite a significant post, actually, because it argues that it is only a proper understanding of aesthetics and aesthetic value that can save us from all the post-modern equity arguments that condemn white, male European composers for being white, male and European. Without aesthetics, everything boils down to simple statistics and it is only dumb acquiescence in accepting mere statistics that leads to all the articles saying we must have 50% women conductors and composers.

A perfect example of what I am talking about turned up in August with a Tweet from young musicology professor Ethan Hein attacking classical music for being Eurocentric or white supremacist or something. Kudos to Ethan for contributing to the comment thread where he toned down the rhetoric a bit.

By the way, the comments to that post are extensive and one of the best debates we have ever had here. Heck, one of the best debates anywhere!

The second most popular post in August was one about how classical music does not appeal to the narcissism of our time--which is a plus in my book.

Here is how I put it in the post:
There are a couple of ways to listen to music: as a journey that takes you out of yourself to places you haven't been, or two, as a moody soundtrack to the wonderfulness that is your life. Guess which genre is which? It seems as if a lot of people listen to music in the latter sense, that is, they don't really listen to it. For some of us, listening to a great piece of music is one of those peak experiences that enriches your life and expands your awareness. But for a lot of us, music is a kind of acoustic carpet or wallpaper, nice enough, but just providing an unobtrusive context for your life. It's like the role of the painting in the museum: background to your selfie!
Let's end with another performance that, hopefully, takes you on a journey outside yourself. This is the Alban Berg Quartet playing the String Quartet, op. 131 in C# minor by Beethoven:

Monday, December 18, 2017

Most Popular Posts of the Year: May and June

In May I was on holiday in Spain for a month so that dominated my posts. The most popular post in May was my review of all the concerts I saw in the month:

Lots of wonderful music in mostly wonderful performances. The second most popular post was about my visit to Bologna to see a recital by superb pianist Grigory Sokolov:

I was back home in June and this was the month I started my long, long series of posts on Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring. But none of those posts came at the top in popularity. The number one post that month was, oddly enough, a rather technical one on meter in music titled Metric Textures:

I suppose this is what is usually called "polymeter" but I like my term better. The second most popular post was "Classical, Smassical" which was about some of the economics of the business:

Bottom line is the economics for classical music are horrible. Not only is it very, very expensive to mount high-quality productions of classical music, but:
The history of sharks out to cheat musicians is long and dishonorable. Today it’s Silicon Valley’s ability to redirect profits from the creators and producers to the likes of Apple, Amazon and Spotify. Equally troubling is the power of technology in the form of virtual reality, holograms and things we may not yet know about, to suck the life out of live music making.
That's from a story in the LA Times quoted in the post.

About now we need a transcendental envoi to remind us why classical music is worth all the trouble. This is tenor Nigel Rogers who figured out how to do those tricky 17th century vocal ornaments after the tradition had completely disappeared for hundreds of years. He is singing the big piece from L'Orfeo by Monteverdi, "Possente Spirto."

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Most Popular Posts of the Year: March and April

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

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

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

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

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

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

Productivity and Creativity

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

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

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

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

And a performance by Patrik Kleemola:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Most Popular Posts of the Year: January and February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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