Saturday, October 1, 2016

Judgement and Bias

One of the things about today's world that continues to puzzle me is the bias against judgement. I mean the tendency we see to denigrate all forms of genuine criticism in favor of a kind of bland approval of everything. We saw it just yesterday in Alex Ross' paean in praise of experimental music and we see it everywhere in the reluctance to offer actual criticism. If we don't like something we just toss it down the memory hole. I think I ran across where this comes from. It is a mild form of the more extreme notion that bias and bigotry are everywhere. The assumption is that everyone is a racist and sexist and we have to be condemning this with our every waking breath. Now this does not come from any actual data or statistics or analysis, it is the base assumption and cannot be either questioned or disagreed with. Why is this? As one writer said, it is not
based on any form of reasoned observation, but on pure political calculation under the self-aggrandizing and self-deluding mask of moral narcissism.
Ah, now it makes sense. Two characteristics of life in the 21st century are that cultural Marxism has seeped in everywhere and it is combined with a particularly rancid form of moral narcissism.  We believe things to be true because they reinforce our sense of moral superiority. The cultural Marxism comes from making all moral judgements on the basis of membership in a group. Your group identity is all that matters, not your actual moral acts.

So if you move into the area of aesthetic judgement, some of the same faulty and distorted principles are at work. You cannot criticise any individual composer because that indicates bias. After all, they might be a member of an officially designated oppressed group. This is why criticism of, for example, women composers is extremely inadvisable. On the other hand, membership in an officially designated oppressor group is a final judgement in itself. Music, for example, that encodes racism, colonialism or sexism is automatically bad music which is why there is always a bit of a cloud hanging over classical music. Misogynistic rappers get off scot-free though because they are members of an officially designated oppressed group which trumps everything else.

What you cannot do any more is objectively evaluate aesthetic objects without considering the identity of the creators. That would be wrong because we are all sexist and racist and infected with implicit colonialism.

Bryan, by the way, is my slave name and henceforth I wish to be called "Cthulu" and my designated personal pronoun is "Your Eminence". Thank you.

For our envoi today we have Igor Levit playing the first two movements from the Beethoven Piano Sonata op 109:

Friday, September 30, 2016

Composers of Quiet

Honestly, I wouldn't enjoy tweaking Alex Ross nearly so much if he weren't so damnably earnest about his rigorously progressive ideology. But there it is. So let's start off this post on his latest New Yorker article, "The Composers of Quiet" with a little hommage.

Was that enough space? Perhaps we need more...

These composers, you see, begin, metaphysically, with John Cage's 4'33. Which is about silence. Oh, heck, let's have some more.

Are you having fun yet? Just let me know. I could go on like this all day.


So the basic fact about silence is that it is the absence of something. Music, in this case. If you live in a musically-rich environment, say, the apartment of Alex Ross, simply stuffed to the ceiling with free review copies of every CD released in the last decade, then some silence, or at least music with a lot of silence in it, might be the perfect palate-cleanser before your next excursion out to a Big Apple concert. So the Composers of Quiet, or as he and they delightfully refer to themselves, the Wandelweiser, are like a musical sorbet, light and refreshing if a bit low-cal. Let's let Alex tell us about it:
...the magic of the ending, in which the percussionist stands over a set of cymbals placed on the floor and pours grains of rice and millet on them. Stuart began with fistfuls of grains, creating a sound like a rainstorm or a chorus of crickets; later, following instructions in the score, he reduced the stream to a trickle, eliciting intermittent plinks. (Pisaro cherishes these rice noises, and also features them in a pair of pieces entitled “ricefall”; the International Contemporary Ensemble will perform the second at the Abrons Arts Center, on Grand Street, on September 16th.) Bush, meanwhile, played lone tones separated by huge intervals, ending on the lowest A on the piano. I imagined a bell ringing in a ruined cathedral and raindrops falling into a pool. This is the Wandelweiser illusion: from almost nothing, vast forms arise.
Or as I like to think of it: from almost nothing, even less arises.

There are quite a few pieces by Jürg Frey, one of the Wandelweiser, on YouTube. Let's have a listen. This is "Fragile Balance":

Friday Miscellanea

I guess we could file this in the category of "things you don't need to see or hear:" Lang Lang and Lindsey Stirling play the Spiderman theme.

Mind you, it does combine a pointless arrangement of a lackluster movie theme with a pseudo-film-noir video in a crossover illustrating the descent of Lang Lang's career into irrelevance, so there's that. (Was that too catty?)

* * *

DownBeat magazine (which was the first music magazine I read on a regular basis, in the late 60s) has a piece on the Monterey Jazz Festival. There is a photo of Clint Eastwood introducing Quincy Jones:

* * *

Norman Lebrecht is often good for a chuckle. Take for instance his feigned shock at finding out that much of the repertoire played by US orchestras consists of music by just four dead, white males:
A survey by New York singers’ agent Doug Schwalbe reveals that the leading North American orchestras are still desperately dependent on a tiny handful of dead white males.
Doug looks at performances by seven orchestras – NY Phil, LA Phil, Boston, San Fran, Toronto, Philadelphia and Dallas – since 2011.
He reports that Beethoven and Mozart accounted for over 15% of  the 9,676 pieces performed.
That proportion rises to 24% when he adds Tchaikovsky and Brahms.
And you wonder why people have stopped going.
Actually, people are still going to concerts and they particularly like Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. That's why their music is put in the program. There, that wasn't so hard to understand, was it?

* * *

Here is the very first example of computer-generated music from the University of Manchester in 1951, courtesy of Slipped Disc:

What puzzles me is how you get a computer to play that badly out of tune?

* * *

No week would be complete without a performance of the theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain:

* * *

Yes, I know that I tend to lean to the sardonic, but here is a nice, sweet essay about a mother and daughter sharing the sweet magic of the Beatles. And what's wrong with that?
On a road trip together this summer, I played her some Beatle beauties: Norwegian Wood, A Day in the Life, Across the Universe. For me it was like those defining days of teaching her to ride a bike or swim. As we plunged through the monstrous Toronto rush hour, she played Yesterday 17 times in a row. There was a perfect connection between us. Yesterday is her first true experience of the melancholy arts.
 * * *

I see a theme developing here. This is a mandolin orchestra from Vishnyeva in what is now Belarus. That young fellow sitting in the middle of the front row is Shimon Peres who didn't continue in his career as a mandolinist but instead became Prime Minister and President of some Middle-Eastern country.

* * *

I didn't know that Donizetti's opera L'elisir d'amore had a shower scene, but it does in this new production by the Valencia opera:

And, wait, is that Kim Kardashian?

* * *

Here is quite a good article on a new book about Venezuela's El Sistema music education program by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post:
“Playing for Their Lives” is so besotted with El Sistema that it verges on cult literature. This is not to deny the achievements of the many people devoting time and energy to helping kids in programs around the world. But the authors, though they traveled to many of these programs, barely even try to give their efforts an objective framework. The outside sourcing is slender and seems not to have extended to corroborative interviews to back up what the subjects say. Over and over again, the book reports on people’s aspirations and the programs’ potential to do good, as if these results had already been realized. “El Sistema is a significant and genuine worldwide movement,” they write. “By the time you read that sentence, it will be true.” And their adulation of the El Sistema founder Abreu approaches hagiography. “Like Mahatma Gandhi, like Martin Luther King, Jr.,” they write, “he has shown the world new ways to think about social transformation.”
* * *

For our envoi today, what better piece than that excellent song by Paul McCartney, "Got to Get You Into My Life" which is the last cut on Revolver. Apparently I can't post the original, so get out your Revolver CD and turn it up! The best I can find on YouTube is this live performance:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

50 Years of Guitar-Playing

At some point in recent weeks was the 50th anniversary of when I took up the guitar. I'm not sure exactly when because it was so long ago I can't remember! But I have been playing guitar, in one form or another, for fifty years. My current guitar, built in Vancouver by Robert Holroyd, I have been playing for thirty-three years. My first guitar was a rented electric bass, but I soon added a six-string acoustic steel-string guitar and my very own electric bass. Added to that was a Yamaha amplifier, then a Shure microphone and stand and on and on. After a few years, I discovered classical music and switched to classical guitar. My first classical was a student Yamaha guitar:

The next year, 1974, I went to Spain to study and bought my first serious guitar, a Jose Ramirez 1ª Concierto. I don't have a good photo of me with that one, but here is what the shop looks like today:

After a few years I felt that the Ramirez was not entirely suitable for contemporary and early music so I bought a hand-made Japanese guitar by Masaru Kohno, built around '75 or '76:

I think that is what I am holding in this photo:

One day a friend of mine called me up and told me that a builder in Vancouver had just finished a guitar and I could try it out in the couple of days before the buyer picked it up. So I did. After fifteen minutes I said "Bob, I have to have your next guitar!" I actually got a bank loan to buy it. This was in 1983 and I'm still playing that same guitar!

It has a very unusual bridge, made from ebony, but without a loop in the strings:

Instead of the usual bridge of plastic or ivory, each string goes over its own tool steel post. The guitar has an immediacy of response, a clarity, a precision of tuning and a comfortable neck such as I have not encountered in any other guitar. Mind you, if I were still giving concerts, I would be on a plane to Australia right now, looking to buy a guitar by Greg Smallman.

But what I actually want to do in this post is talk about some of the things, large and small, I have learned from playing the guitar:

  • Change your strings when they wear out!
  • Practice slowly--very slowly
  • Practice what you want the result to be and never practice mistakes
  • Once you have decided you want to be a guitar player, buy the best guitar you can find
  • Everything, the sound, the precision, the expression, everything comes from the mind first of all and the fingers only discover how to do it later on
  • It all seems to come down to passion and discipline. These two things seem to be opposed, but really they are not. You only have the will and the patience to do the disciplined practice if you have the passion. And you can only express the passion if you have the will and patience to do the disciplined practice. I suspect this is true of every path in life.
  • First you get the chops, then you get the money, then you get the chicks? Wasn't that the line in Scarface?
  • Playing music is probably an end in itself: in other words it is not about the sales, the concert fees, the adulation or even the many wonderful friends you make. It is about playing well, the creation of beauty, even if ephemeral. The Good, the True, the Beautiful, these are the transcendentals. Everything else is, or should be, instrumental to these ends.
So let me end with a tiny fragment of beauty that I caused to happen. This is a little piece by Isaias Savio called Serões that I recorded quite a few years ago:


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Cultural Appropriation

The latest bit of neo-Gramscian post-modern lunacy is the idea of "cultural appropriation" which says that white people are not allowed to use memes from non-white cultures. So I guess it is ok if I start writing mazurkas, Poles being White Europeans, but totally wrong to be stealing ideas from mbira music from Zimbabwe. Steve Reich has to give back any ideas he got from Ghana master drummers or Balinese gamelan music. Sounds silly, doesn't it? But this is an actual thing in some places. This is the Wikipedia article. They simply define it as:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.
But of course it only applies to white people. Read the whole thing. They have some examples of appropriation that are from white to white, but the important issues all revolve around white appropriation of non-white cultural elements. Thou shalt not wear a Halloween costume of an Indian or Geisha or whatever. It is a form of colonialism.

It is a fundamentally silly idea, but when applied to music, even more silly. Yes, there are an awful lot of very interesting influences coming from world music and popular music, but the whole foundation of music, the harmony, the counterpoint, the very notation to write it down, comes almost entirely from France and Italy between eight hundred and a thousand years ago. Are we going to say, "no more triads, we want our harmony back!"

Of course an even more biting criticism has already been unleashed: if you think that cultural appropriation is wrong, then please stop using vaccines, antibiotics, the Internet, smartphones, computers, jets, the internal combustion engine and, heck, electricity. These are all the creation, invention and discovery of Western European and North American white people.

Our envoi almost has to be something by Léonin the composer, in the late 12th century, of the first written down polyphony:

Strings 'n Things

I read somewhere that Grigory Sokolov is very knowledgeable about piano technology. That puzzled me a bit: not that he is knowledgeable, but that it was worth mentioning. Then I realized that it might not be the norm among pianists, many of whom might rely on piano technicians to keep their instruments in proper working order. But apparently Sokolov is really involved with the pianos he plays on. This makes sense. As a guitarist I am very involved with the innards of my instrument and how it works acoustically and, most of all it seems, with the strings. I just changed my strings and it got me thinking about strings in general.

But before I get to that, let me just say that I would love to do an interview with Mr. Sokolov and ask him all about pianos: what does he look for, does he modify anything in the pianos he plays, how much time does he like with a piano before a concert and all those other gritty little details that never come up in interviews.

Strings are a big deal for guitar players because they wear out quickly--anywhere from between two weeks and a month if you practice a lot. In the throes of my performing career I went through from 20 to 25 sets a year. And the reason is this:

Click to enlarge

Yes, it's those darn frets. After sixty or seventy hours of playing the trebles (made of nylon) begin to get dented over each fret and the basses, especially the thinnest one, the 4th string, actually wear through the wire wrapping to the core (also nylon) on the second fret. The clarity of pitch begins to degrade and, for the basses, they start to sound dead. So if you basses are going thump thump and you are having trouble tuning: CHANGE YOUR STRINGS!

I have used just about every brand of strings there are over the years: Aranjuez (remember them?), Augustine (endorsed by Segovia), Savarez (the most elegant, made in France) and Pro Arte. These last are very reliable, well-priced strings and available locally, so I've been using them a lot:

Nothing wrong with them and I've been using them for several years. But when I was doing some recording last year I started wondering if there weren't some better options these days. Savarez has come out with a lot of new technology, but I have already tried them with mixed results. Savarez are wonderful strings, but no matter what they do, the basses always seem to go prematurely dead.

Pro Arte has some new and interesting strings out and I tried these out:

I'm not sure what the "composite core" refers to, presumably the core of the wound basses. These strings come with an extra third string. This one, the thickest treble, tends to be a bit pudgy sounding and this extra string, a kind of coffee-and-cream color, is supposed to help by being brighter and balancing better with the basses. It is described as a "monofilament composite." It does have a bit of a different feel and is a bit brighter. It felt to me a bit like a gut string (which I tried years ago). Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks, it started sounding quite crappy (just like a gut string!). So I took it off and put on the other 3rd. Bottom line: nice strings, the basses stood up really well, but I have my doubts about that extra 3rd. They have another type out called "Dynacore" and the back of the box refers to a "Blended Polymer Core", but I haven't tried them yet:

Instead, today I went back to some strings I was introduced to a few years ago and found very impressive: Hannabach, made in Germany:

Very nice strings! Clear, open sound. Funny thing though, when I ordered them through Amazon, they ended up coming from a distributor in Japan! We're so globalized now.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on strings today. Now to get back to the guitar and see how those Hannabach are sounding.

Here is a piece I recorded years ago, and I'm pretty sure I had a set of Pro Arte EJ46s on. This is the last movement of El Decameron negro by Leo Brouwer, Balada de la Doncella Enamorada:


And It's Over to You

I'll admit it, I can't think of a single thing to blog about this morning. I'm not ready to finish off my series of posts on Richard Wagner, a prospective post on amplifying classical music didn't seem quite interesting enough, I've probably written too much about up-and-coming pianists and their fashion choices and I don't have any musical analyses cued up and ready to go. Then I ran across this on YouTube:

I'll admit that one reason I looked at it was because it was a concert from Pollack Hall in the School of Music at McGill University in Montreal--I played a lot of concerts in that hall! This is a piece for four percussionists playing four drum kits by Julia Wolfe and it probably came up because I listened to parts of a couple of pieces by her the other day. She has just been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship which comes with a hefty grant and last year she won a Pulitzer Prize in music. So, a big new name. But I have to say that I didn't hear anything that kept me listening. This is Anthracite Fields, for which she won the Pulitzer:

Sorry, you have to follow the link because Blogger refuses to find the clip. It is very odd, because when I type Julia Wolfe Anthracite Fields into the search engine in Blogger, all it will turn up is various documentaries and trailers about the piece. But there it is, right there on YouTube. If it weren't for the fact that search engine results are being very obviously manipulated these days, I would think nothing of it. In any case, as I find documentaries tiresome and, in this case, pretty much a classic case of special pleading (you will like this piece because the composer is a nice person and has lots to say and the performers are enthusiastic and we went to a lot of trouble in the presentation and it uncovers some interesting American history). I am only interested in a documentary if I already find the music interesting. I really don't want to hear any special pleading. In this case, for example, the piece itself sounds remarkably dreary and musically uninteresting. Repetition yes, but without any of the magical energy that Steve Reich instills in his pieces. Anthracite Fields is pretty much unlistenable in my book.

But what do you think of the first piece, the one for four drum sets? Frankly, I'm completely perplexed. I found it hard to listen to straight through, so I skipped and browsed to see if anything interesting was going to happen. I mean, there must be some really good reason to write for four drum sets, right? Plus, Pollack Hall! Me, I really didn't find anything. It is as if you took the fundamental elements of Basic Rudiments for drummers and deconstructed them. Take each element, focus on it for a while, then move on to the next. That's it, really.

Am I right, am I wrong? I throw myself on the mercy of the court. What do my league of readers and commentators think?