Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking off this week's miscellanea is a tribute to the opera singer Anita Cerquetti, an extraordinary singer who retired at the age of thirty.

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Here is a Concerto Fantasy for two tympanists and orchestra by Philip Glass

I doubt if any other composer has gotten so much milage out of just two ideas: 3 + 3 + 2 and rising minor thirds!

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I'm trying to decide if this is good news or bad news: "Not One Artist's Album Has Gone Platinum in 2014." If this is a case of the public recoiling from the purchase of second-rate music, then isn't that good news? Mind you, I would hope that good music would start selling more, but that's obviously me dreaming!

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Tom Service shows his value over at the Guardian with an excellent piece about Haydn's neglected operas. Some good clips from YouTube. One conductor that has really made a contribution is Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Here he is conductinL’anima del filofoso with Cecilia Bartoli:

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One thing we should always keep in mind is that the mass media and opinion-shapers in general think that the people that read their stuff are basically low-information idiots. Sure, there may be some truth to that, but the hypocrisy is that these opinion-makers think that they are being very clever when what they are usually doing is serving up warmed-over clichés. Two recent examples: Baldur Brönnimann tries to tells us what is wrong with the classical concert format and just shows himself as a dolt. For example, he says:

6. The artists should engage with the audience

Many of us do: we speak to the audience before, after or during the concerts. But this can’t be an option, it must be mandatory for every artist to at least be able to introduce a piece, greet the audience or to sign a program. On that note, I think it is a shame that the public is often prevented from going backstage after a concert. Everybody should be able to talk to the musicians and share their thoughts and opinions, if it’s backstage or in the bar. We don’t live in an ivory tower and we have an obligation to talk to the people who love music as much as we do.
Uh-huh... Well, in my experience over the last few years, just about every string quartet and pianist on the planet is already doing this and straining my patience to the limit! My favorite was the very fine string quartet who thought it would be a good idea to have their Russian violinist introduce everything at great length in an absolutely impenetrable Russian accent which was, towards the back of the hall, also inaudible. Please, in most cases, unless you have a very articulate member with something to say, JUST DON'T. The reason program notes were invented was to provide mundane information to the audience about the music so that the players didn't have to.

Equally annoying are the comments by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead about live classical concerts. Hey BBC, can I have equal time to tell you what I think of Radiohead concerts?

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I was expecting something classical, Franz Joseph Haydn or George Harrison,
says Tom Hanks in this piece in the New Yorker. I just like the equating of Haydn and Harrison as both being, in some way, "classical". Well, sure, works for me.

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John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which I have written about before a couple of times, is about to be put on at the Met and the Wall Street Journal decides to do a nice little puff piece about the composer. And gets their ass handed to them in the comments. Go have a read. The comments especially.

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People who think that classical music is stuffy and rigid are people who do not know the rich repertoire of classical music humor. Apart from the purely musical humor of someone like Haydn, there is the astounding variety of musical parody and satire. The Guardian has collected some of the best examples here. Here is a sample: Dudley Moore accompanies himself in two impressions of songs by Fauré and Schubert. In the former there is some particularly effective use of the eyebrows. Alas, YouTube refuses to embed, so just click on the link:

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Let's send "get well soon" wishes to Hilary Hahn who has still not recovered fully from a muscle strain issue. She had to cancel a performance of two Bach concertos this week in Cleveland. And that gives us this week's envoi. This is a recording of Hilary playing the Bach A major Violin Concerto, but the video is of a completely different piece (no quartet of French horns in the Bach!):

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Harmonic Deficiencies?

Back a couple of years I put up a lot of posts about harmony and the problem of harmony in modernist music. I just ran across a post by theorist Luke Dahn that has some similar observations. Go read the post "Vertically Challenged?" There are a lot of very intriguing observations there including this one:
 I remember when I was an upper class undergraduate composer who was beginning to look at graduate schools. I sent an email to University of Michigan composer William Bolcom asking if he had any advice for a young composer who was preparing for graduate studies in composition. His reply was curt: “Go study Beethoven.” Not the response I was expecting.
Arnold Schoenberg, in his book Fundamentals of Music Composition spends most of the time discussing examples taken from Beethoven! Mulling over that is a nice antidote to those absurd flights of fancy such as Alex Ross' recent essay/review on Beethoven that throws up all sorts of dust, but tells us virtually nothing about why Beethoven is such a good composer.

Luke mentions some thoughts of the compose Tristan Murail as well:
Murail, too, implies that composers who are harmonically deficient or indifferent would be well served to look at music of the past, especially considering how “harmony relates to form.”
The relationship between harmonic structure and phrase structure in Classical Era music is very striking and I have looked at that quite a lot, especially in my numerous posts on the Haydn symphonies.

Let's listen to some Haydn. Here is an early symphony, No. 34 in D minor, with a very long slow movement in D minor followed by three short movements in D major. It was written in 1765:

Aleatory Quiz

Theory professors have blogs too and Luke Dahn has an interesting one. The current post is an "aleatory quiz" that tests whether you can distinguish between extremely complexly organized contemporary works for piano by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and music written using chance operations by John Cage. Go read the post and listen to the pieces. Luke acknowledges the

"ironic fact that aleatory of the kind represented by Cage’s Music of Changes often produced results that are strikingly similar to works of composers in the modernist avant-garde, composers that came to loathe Cage’s aleatory."
I think he might have taken this thought just a bit further. All these pieces by the three composers, were composed at around the same time: between 1948 and 1952. They all have the distinct flavor of the extreme modernism of the immediate post-war years. It is interesting that all the pieces sound so very alike, but from a historian's point of view, this is not so surprising. Why the composers who write highly organized music loathe the composers who use chance methods is that they believe that it is their methods that guarantee the significance of their music and its place in posterity. The music of Cage, sounding so very similar, disproves this entirely, does it not? It is too bad that our modernist-leaning commentator Bridge seems to have departed, as I'm sure he would have something interesting to say.

It seems to me clear that there are macro and micro epochs in music history: little moments of extremity and larger moments of shared style. The Classical Era from around 1770 to around 1830 (give or take a decade) is an important one that originated a great deal of the music we enjoy greatly. The "sturm un drang" was a micro moment of extreme expression within that period. Similarly, the Modernist Era from immediately after WWI (say, around 1920) to around 1970, was one of a shared style of atonality and rhythmic complexity. Within this era was the micro moment of extreme complexity that we can hear in these piano pieces: wide intervals, jagged rhythms and harmonic dissonance. Here are some links so you can read up on this music:

What is really, really interesting is that what you have just read, about the details of the structure of these pieces--or, in the case of the Cage, the details of how chance operations using the I Ching were used to make compositional choices--all seems to end up with the same results. Here is how Wikipedia describes Cage's methods:
The structure of the piece is defined through the technique of nested proportions, just like in most of Cage's pieces from the 1940s. The proportion remains the same for the entire work: 3, 5, 6¾, 6¾, 5, 3⅛. So there are 29⅝ sections, each divided into phrases according to the overall proportion: 29⅝ by 29⅝. This is then divided into four large parts of one, two, one and two sections respectively. The tempo is varied throughout the piece, using the I Ching and a tempo chart. The rhythmic proportion is expressed, then, not through changing time signatures as in earlier works, but through tempo changes.
All this has to do with what we might call the "aesthetics of production", that is to say, the aesthetic principles that the composers used. But when we listen to the music, we have a different point of view that might be described as the "aesthetics of reception". How do we listen? What do we hear? How does it affect us? And the fascinating thing is that from a reception point of view, all this music is very similar. If you were just a tiny bit cynical you might suspect that the elaborate scenarios and structures discussed by the composers were merely a kind of bizarre marketing or promotion scheme. Cage, for example, has so much of his music predefined through his "nested proportions" that whatever the I Ching says, the music is going to sound the same. No C major chords here! But the fact that he publicized his use of chance methods, distinguished him from his contemporaries, the composers with whom he competed for public attention. Smart marketing!

Let's listen to the Music of Changes of John Cage:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Composers in Photos

Have you ever notice that composers look just a bit odd in photos? As if they are not quite part of this universe, but just visiting? Here are some examples:

Debussy certainly looks as if he just teleported in from another place, doesn't he?

This is George Crumb, and doesn't he look as if he is just about to dematerialize back into that piano?

And Stravinsky looks like he is just taking a coffee break from dwelling somewhere else.

Harry Partch looks as if he never left that other dimension.

Bruckner? Well it doesn't look like he visits Earth very often!

And Stockhausen can hardly wait to get back to his part of the sky.

Being here in our reality makes Schoenberg rather troubled.

Even Nico Muhly looks a bit glazed.

Prokofiev just whiles away a few idle minutes before he takes that wormhole back to his dimension.

And Puccini is wondering why he dropped by at all!

Shostakovich finds being here on Earth very anxiety-producing.

Even when he is with his friends Prokofiev and Khachaturian.

Even I look at bit puzzled to be here in this quantum reality.

But if we go back a bit, we find composers were a bit more at home in the late 19th century, as we can see in this photo of Mahler. With the exception of Bruckner, of course...

So why is this? Why do most composers look out of place in photos? I think it is because their home environment is sound, not sight. It's a bit like audio recordings of painters, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Concerto Guide: Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

This is the second part of what is going to be a fairly long series of posts about the concerto. It is partly in emulation of the Guardian's symphony guide which we followed as it unfolded over the last year. I started with a post on the origins of the instrumental concerto last week and today's post will be on the first major concerto composer, Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741). He may also be the most prolific concerto composer of all time as he composed over 500 concertos--that is, we have five hundred of his concertos, some 230 for violin, and it is certain that an unknown number have been lost. It was the discovery of the manuscripts for a few hundred of Vivaldi's concertos immediately after the end of WWII that was the spur for the revival of interest in Baroque music.

Vivaldi had an unusual career. He was music teacher at an important institution in Venice, an orphanage for girls, thOspedale della Pietà. The girls were given vocational training in the form of instruction in music and achieved such a high level of virtuosity that they became one of the major tourist attractions in Venice. Vivaldi not only provided musical instruction in the violin, but also coached and conducted orchestras and choruses as well as playing the solo violin parts in many concertos. Oddly enough, the second most important solo instrument after the violin was the bassoon for which he wrote thirty-seven concertos. A good friend of mine studied bassoon at the Curtis Institute and her professor had her learn a new bassoon concerto by Vivaldi every week! Here is the Concerto for Bassoon in C major, RV 477, first movement:

In Corelli we saw how the fundamental structures of tonality were developed: the idea of structuring harmonic movement using the circle of fifths (follow the link for the Wikipedia discussion) and the use of melodic sequences leading to a cadence. It was Vivaldi who exploited and perfected these methods in creating the basic model of the Baroque concerto. There are three movements in all: fast, slow, fast (which may have come from the sonata da chiesa, slow-fast-slow-fast by simply dropping the first movement). The first movement is structured by alternating ritornelli and episodes. A ritornello is a theme with a number of distinct sections, that leads to a concluding cadence. As the movement proceeds this ritornello returns in parts on different scale degrees. The first and last iterations are complete and on the tonic. In between the solo instrument provides variations and developments of motifs from the theme. All musical forms are essentially ways of handling the two basic devices of repetition and contrast and the Baroque concerto form is a particularly successful way of doing so.

Here is the twelve measure ritornello to the bassoon concerto. Each of the four motifs is marked with a letter: A, B, C, D:

Sorry for the askew scans! That's what happens when you jam a big volume into the scanner. The line to follow is the not the bassoon line, which in the ritornello is just accompanying. The line to watch is the first violin, who has the theme. The four elements of this theme are A, a rising turn figure, B, an arpeggiated chromatic descent, C a descending scale in octaves and D, a cadential figure. As always, it is surprising to many how very simple the building blocks of a successful composition are.

In between statements, whole or part, of this theme, are the solo episodes of the bassoon who, in the words of J. J. Quantz, "dismembers and intermingles" the motifs of the theme. Now go back and listen to the movement again. As you can hear, the bassoon builds its solos from variations on the motifs. Also, listen to how the first ritornello abbreviates the theme.

The Baroque concerto is an extremely successful form as indicated by the fact that one set of concertos by Vivaldi, the Four Seasons, is one of the most popular pieces of classical music today. There are some other interesting aspects of the form. There is the soloist, who never repeats anything, and the orchestra, who always repeat. This has been mapped onto social structure with the soloist, of course, representing the individual and the orchestra, the group. The interactions of the two are coordinated, but also competitive.

The second movement owes its structure to aria form from opera seria where the soloist spins out expressive melodies over a minimal accompaniment. Then the third movement returns to the ritornello form.

I mentioned that the Four Seasons, a set of four concertos representing Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, are hugely popular with audiences. Vivaldi appends a poem to the beginning of each movement describing what is about to be heard. Since these concertos are not actually better music than other sets by Vivaldi, I suspect that this little "cheat-sheet" and program music aspect is part of the appeal. Most listeners benefit from some kind of simple doorway into a piece of music, a story they can relate to. Here is a performance of the four concertos for solo violin and orchestra:

But my favorite set of Vivaldi concertos is one even more influential in music history, L'estro armonico (Harmonic Inspiration) a set of twelve concertos for one, two, three and four violins that were an inspiration to J. S. Bach who recomposed six of them for keyboard instruments, in the process inventing the keyboard concerto. Here are all twelve concertos on original instruments:

It must be admitted that Vivaldi, in exploring all the possibilities of the concerto, was prodigiously creative and those people who say he wrote the same concerto five hundred times are just, well, wrong! I myself have not been the biggest Vivaldi fan, but just the process of preparing this post has converted me. What Bach probably derived from Vivaldi was a rhythmic crispness and harmonic clarity that he combined with the elegance of French Baroque music and the contrapuntal density of German music to create the most profound synthesis in music history.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Heritage of Music

I ran across an article in Inside Higher Ed about a recent conference on the future of the liberal arts. It attracted a lot of comments from different perspectives. Here is the kernel of it:
SANTA FE – Part celebration, part intervention, a conference on the future of the liberal arts at St. John’s College last week offered high praise and harsh advice for an embattled tradition. Speakers on Friday said that while the future of the democracy depends on a broadly educated public, advocates need to return to a less politicized, more siloed vision of the liberal arts for them to survive.
By "siloed" (never ran into that as a verb before) I assume is meant "isolated in an ivory tower". Just as the standard journalistic narrative has become entirely about breaking down these academic enclaves and "accessibility" (as least as far as music is concerned), some people are starting to see that this is the problem. It is not stated nearly clearly enough in the article, but I think it boils down to this. For a couple of reasons having to do with the advance of critical theory and with the demands of doctoral specialization, higher education in the liberal arts has become unattractive.

As a doctoral student you have to somehow find a new take on a topic or a new special niche to write your dissertation on. As the basic assumptions these days come from critical theory, you need to shape your topic to something that will fit with that world view. Anything where you can do a gender, race, class analysis is welcomed. Anything else is problematic. Therefore, you do your dissertation on something like "Queering the Harmony: Secondary Dominants in Tchaikovsky". Ok, I just made that up. In any case, finding something where you can boldly knock some dead white male off his pedestal is a surefire formula for success.

Then you get a job in a university and have to start teaching. So you just continue along your path and put together seminars where you continue to boldly knock dead white males off their pedestals. This is sort-of ok for graduate seminars, but the same approach is less appropriate if you need to teach a class to engineering students in music appreciation. Of course, you aren't allowed to call it "music appreciation", but that's really what it is.

What you should be doing, not only in the class for engineering students, but also for your music students, is introducing your students to the heritage of Western Music. I am talking about someone teaching in a school in Western Europe or North America, elsewhere other curricula might be appropriate. So you should be introducing your students, at an appropriate level of complexity, to a whole bunch of dead, white males like Bach, Beethoven and all those other guys. And you should do so with an attitude of respect, not a kind of sneering pleasure in uncovering their feet of clay, if they have any. You have one job: transmission of the stream of culture of Western Civilization.

Unfortunately, no-one ever says this, but perhaps conferences like this one are starting to.

I think that the core of the problem is getting over the idea of aesthetic relativity. If the music of Bach and Beethoven is not objectively better than the music of Justin Bieber and Beyonce, then why bother with it, except as grist for your mill, showing the mechanisms of oppression and power relationships?

Now let's listen to some Tchaikovsky!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Applaud, friends

Towards the end of his life one of Beethoven's favorite sayings was "Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est" ("Applaud, friends, the comedy is over") a paraphrase of the last words of Augustus Caesar. A fitting response to the work of perhaps the greatest composer (along with Bach, of course) is simple applause. But, alas, we all, including your blogger, always seem to want to do more: to explain, to characterize, to memorialize and, even more likely, to exploit and misrepresent. All of these strategies are present in Alex Ross' recent large essay reviewing Beethoven's place in history as viewed through a great stack of recent and not-so-recent books about him. The catalyst for this project is the recent weighty book by composer Jan Swafford, which sounds like a pretty good book. Praising with faint damns, Ross says:
Swafford, in his introduction, declares his fondness for Thayer’s Victorian storytelling and belittles modern musicological revisionism. He writes, “Now and then in the course of an artist’s biographical history, it comes time to strip away the decades of accumulated theories and postures and look at the subject as clearly and plainly as possible.” He also distances himself from the psychological approach of Maynard Solomon, who, in his 1977 biography, attempted to place Beethoven on a Freudian couch. Though Swafford does not look away from the composer’s less attractive traits—his brusqueness, his crudeness, his alcoholism, his paranoia—the portrait is ultimately admiring.
As readers of the blog know, I recoiled in horror from the psycho-babble of Maynard Solomon's awful book on Mozart, so anyone who decides to avoid that nonsense gets a thumbs-up from me.

Ross begins with a lengthy introduction that tells us how we ought to think about Beethoven and his influence. This heavy-handed attitude is underscored by little editorial clues like the sub-heading asking the journalistic question:

Beethoven transformed music—but has veneration of him stifled his successors?

Not to mention the caption to the ugly little graphic:

Which says:
Recent scholarship shows that Beethoven was perpetually buffeted by political forces.
Like crap it does!! You have to be on guard. As I was saying the other day, virtually everything you read in the mass media is crafted not so much as to tell you things as to tell you how to think about things. A couple of hilarious satires coming from the right of American politics purport to demonstrate this tendency in the New York Times. For example, if the world were to end tomorrow, this is how the NYT would headline it: "World to End Tomorrow: Women and Minorities Hardest Hit" not to mention the ever-popular "Republicans: Threat or Menace?" Don't worry, I'm not getting political, those are just examples and I'm sure there are lots from the opposite point of view. I just find those ones particularly entertaining.

Back to Alex Ross' framing of how we should regard Beethoven. Bear in mind as you read the following quotes that Alex wants us to look at things as he does: there are no absolute aesthetic values so if we think some music is really good there have to be subtle, underlying reasons for doing so, possibly political. Also, classical music is basically uptight, so we always have to either apologize for that or point it out. And so on. In other words, what makes Alex Ross such a successful writer is that he always confirms the prejudices of those folks who live on the Upper West Side. Here let me bold some key words and phrases:

After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty. 
Beethoven shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music. In the course of the nineteenth century, dead composers began to crowd out the living on concert programs, and a canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center. As the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph
More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible.
“We ourselves appear to become mythologized in the process of identifying with this music,” the scholar Scott Burnham has written. Yet the idolatry has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory. As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “BEETHOVEN” emblazoned on the proscenium arch. “Don’t bother,” it seemed to say.
Wow, it is even Beethoven's fault that Alex didn't become a composer! And no, music history was not "designed" to prolong Beethoven's glory.

From then on the essay unfolds as a fairly typical omnibus review. So now that I have shown how Alex' essay tries to tell you how to think, let me have a turn at bat.

I'm not going to run out and buy any of these books, not even the new one by Swafford (whose writing I have enjoyed in the past). Why not? I don't need them and you probably don't either. Writing about music is always less valuable than the music itself. A journalist always has to find an angle which, in the case of music particularly, always turns out to be a misrepresentation. Sometimes this misrepresentation is close to being a felony, as in the horrid book by Solomon on Mozart. Other times it is just a misdemeanor in that it, while not actually lying to us, distracts us from the music itself. A few books, like those by Charles Rosen and Joseph Kramer, actually stay focused on the music and are worth your time. In most cases, though, you would be far, far better off just listening to the music.

Let me be blunt(er): you are not going to garner any clever insights into the music of Beethoven by reading the essay by Alex Ross or any of the books he reviews. You are going to spend a lot of time being misled and, worst of all, reading about rather than listening to, Beethoven.

Beethoven was a truly great composer. The reason he is so famous is not because of politics, or celebrity or psychology or any of that crap. It is because he wrote very, very good music. Some of it great music. You have to accept the concept of objective aesthetic value to wrap your head around that. But Alex Ross and all the rest would rather be put in stocks and pelted with turnips than admit there is such a thing as objective aesthetic value. So they write a lot of breezy prose. This is why it is sometimes pointed out that a lot of so-called supporters of classical music are actually its worst enemies.

Now let me shut up, so I can put up something for you to listen to. This is the Piano Sonata op. 101 in A major played by Mauricio Pollini:

UPDATE: I just thought of a good way of summing it up: in the 19th century Beethoven was admired for being a great composer. In the 21st century we resent him for the same reason!