Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

I have never seen a production of Philip Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach and after watching this except I am almost certain I never want to:

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The LA Times has an article about Toru Takemitsu that has some interesting anecdotes:
Everyone who knew Takemitsu has stories. He was intentionally vague. He had a wicked sense of humor. He saw more than 200 films a year, and after a few drinks he could hilariously recite the plots of obscure B movies you’d never of.
Knussen had been a close friend. They were an odd couple — the tiny Takemitsu a fraction of the size of the Brit. Before the concert, I reached out to Knussen for a few anecdotes.
“The first time I met Toru was when I conducted ‘Rain Coming’ in 1982,” Knussen recalled. “He was very nervous, actually shaking. I asked him if anything was wrong, and he said, ‘Very nervous, first time I ever wrote piece without harp.’ ”  
In fact, the piece sounded terrible, even though he had carefully followed all the metronome markings. “I asked Takemitsu if he had any comments,” Knussen explained, “and he said, ‘Everything perfect.’ ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘he’s going to be one those: “Are you sure?” “Everything perfect.” ’ 
“Then I went back to the beginning and lifted my arms to give the downbeat, when he said, ‘Just one thing. All tempi twice too fast.’”

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I was just saying to someone that Bob Dylan is probably the only person in the world to whom you could give a Nobel Prize who might not even notice. And sure enough: Nobel panel gives up knockin’ on Dylan’s door.
The Swedish Academy says it has given up trying to reach Bob Dylan, days after it awarded him the Nobel prize in literature.
“Right now we are doing nothing. I have called and sent emails to his closest collaborator and received very friendly replies. For now, that is certainly enough,” the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, told state radio SR on Monday.
So far the American troubadour has responded with silence since he won the prize on Thursday.
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Here is an article on a new app for the iPad that is a "virtual controller": music synthesis made easy and intuitive. I don't think the headline writer understood the essay any more than I did: "When music can be made on a screen, we lose abstraction." Oh, for sure. Here is my favorite line, which I think is meant to be sardonic: "People with deep musical talent are not necessarily also good at increasing their output buffer sizing for RAM optimization." Well no, not most of them, anyway. Heh! Here is an interesting bit:
More nebulously, this pretty technology can be seen as part of a larger tendency in our lives towards the graphic representation of everything. Very little is abstract any more. Sounds and words and numbers are all spinning and glowing, colourful three-dimensional objects in our minds, because that’s what they look like on our screens. When we check the weather forecast on our phones we see an image of a stormy sky or a sun. That hits us before the actual temperature does.
When we use screenplay-writing software we become used to moving scenes around physically, as if stacking neat plastic boxes. Similarly our music – once represented only as cryptic black scratches on white paper – is now circles and squares and starbursts. Whether this has any long-term effect on our cognition will be for the scientists to study; I wonder if our ability to conceive the invisible will change, or even shrink.
I'm wondering if this kind of technology is similar to those innumerable ones developed over the years, essentially as teaching aides for those who are mostly lacking in musical ability.

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I'm sorry to miss this one: a production at the Royal Opera in London of Shostakovich's early satirical opera The Nose--in English! The Guardian has photos of the rehearsals:

Click to enlarge
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The Internet and networking software that uses the Internet like, oh, I dunno, Blogger?--are still causing fundamental changes in the way everything seems to work. The latest seems to be an interesting idea modeled after Uber, but for musicians. Wired has the story: Uber, But for Millenials Who Want Orchestras in Their Living Rooms. Sort of:
Professional musicians and those studying in conservatories can upload samples to a Groupmuse profile, which an internal team approves. Next, the Groupmuse team pairs performers with hosts who volunteer to host strangers and musicians in their home: a soloist for 10 people, a quartet for a house that can fit 50 listeners. Around 20 Groupmuse shows happen across the country every week, mostly in Boston, New York, Seattle and the Bay Area. Groupmuse suggests each attendee pays $10 for the show; musicians go home with an average of $160.
Sounds like a great idea. Most musicians have been frustrated with the difficulties of working with traditional impresarios and concert organizers, this seems like an interesting alternative.

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A suitable envoi for today would be Shostakovich's absurdist opera, The Nose. The libretto is an adaptation of a short story by Gogol. This is a performance from 1979 by the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre Chorus & Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kinds of Performance

I've been listening to Grigory Sokolov lately and it leads me to mull over different levels of performance. Frankly, he plays at a level that I don't think I have heard before--certainly not often! Way back in 2011 I did a post on levels of creativity so I think I will try to do the same with performance, just as an exercise. Here let me quote the relevant bit from that post:
Let me see if I can define levels of musical creativity:
  1. You write a simple piece in a well-established musical form or genre such as a minuet or a folk-song. Mozart could do this when he was seven.
  2. You write a piece in a more demanding genre such as a sonata movement or a two-part invention. (I say 'write', but this could be improvised as well-in Jazz, you wouldn't write it down, for example.) Second and third year music students typically do this sort of thing.
  3. You write a really appealing piece or song in a well-established genre. A rock group or individual artist in pop music might do something like this that becomes popular--a 'hit'. A classical example might be something like a Haydn minuet.
  4. You write something that really captures the genre, exhausts the genre or exceeds the genre. A good example of this would be one of the more famous songs by the Beatles: "Yesterday" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" for example. A classical example might be one of the Bach fugues like the C major from Bk 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a good Beethoven symphonic movement like the second movement of the Symphony no 7. Perhaps one of the Chopin mazurkas.
  5. You write something that absolutely transforms the genre or form. Examples: The Beatles, Revolver; Bach, the keyboard suites; Haydn, the symphonies; Mozart, the piano concertos, Beethoven, the early piano sonatas.
  6. You create an entirely new form or genre: Haydn, the string quartets and symphonies; Chopin, the nocturnes, the scherzos, the ballades; Stravinsky, the modern ballet; Steve Reich, process music; Scarlatti, the single-movement keyboard sonata.
  7. You create something that transcends not only the form or genre, but that is a master work transcending its era. Bach, the WTC, the Art of Fugue, Beethoven, Symphonies 3, 5 and 9; and several of the later piano sonatas; Shostakovich, Symphonies 5, 7 and 10.
I added some caveats that you can see if you go back and read the whole post, but that's the core of it. Now it seems as if there might be an equivalent for performance. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that there might be a better way to estimate performances than this kind of hierarchy of creativity. I think that there is one fundamental principle that applies over a wide spectrum of performances. That principle could be stated as "attention to detail."

There is a great deal that is automatic in musical performance. One of the reasons we spend so much time in the practice room is to make secure and infallible all the possible technical devices and musical situations. This is the reason behind constant practice of scales, slurs and arpeggios. You have to be able to execute them every time flawlessly. But the downside of this is the possibility of the performance becoming rote and mechanical.

So we can categorize a few ways in which a musical performance can be bad:

  • the player can simply lack the basic technical command of the instrument: this is what you hear in poorly-prepared student recitals
  • the player can have basic technical skills, but be lacking in music understanding so that the expression and argument of the music is lost
  • the player can be technically adroit, but tends to indulge in a display of dexterity rather than any depth of interpretation
Now let's think about possible performances from the point of view of attention to detail. There are various ways of understanding this. First of all, attention to detail is what informs your technical practice. A technically adroit performance means that you handle every note with clarity and definition: there is nothing blurry and the rhythms are not distorted. Harmonies are clear and chords well-balanced. This is attention to technical detail and it is an essential precursor to a good performance. But it doesn't stop there. The next step is attention to musical detail and that involves the following things:
  • understanding and making evident to the listener the structure of the piece from the smallest level (the shaping of individual motifs, the handling of phrases) up to the overall structure (the pacing of the movement, leading to musical climaxes and denouements)
  • understanding of historical performance practice so that you do not play 17th century ornaments in a 19th century piece or vice-versa
  • understanding of the fundamentals and elegances of the style: Classical Style, Romantic Style and so on
  • responding to the aesthetic challenges of the piece
  • playing the music as if it were being created on the spot, or as if it were eternally inevitable (oddly, this is often the same thing!)
After all this has been accomplished and, frankly, very few performers ever get this far, then you can really start paying attention to detail! By this I mean that every note, every chord, every rhythm is played with full attention and awareness so that it is an aesthetic truth. I think that it is this kind of transcendental performance that we hear in the playing of Grigory Sokolov. I would like to offer a performance of his as an example of what I have been trying to describe. This is an entire concert he played in Madrid in 1998:

Tilted Axes

Alan Kozinn, an outstanding writer and music critic, has a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘Tilted Axes‘ and ‘Rushing Past Willow’: Classical, Jazz or Rock? Here is a sample:
On a drizzly December night in 2011, the composer and guitarist Patrick Grant and about 20 of his colleagues gathered on East Fourth Street at Second Avenue in New York; strapped on electric guitars and plugged them into the small, battery-powered Danelectro amplifiers clipped to their belts; and marched through the streets for nearly 90 minutes, playing “Tilted Axes,” a piece Mr. Grant composed for the occasion, the first Make Music Winter, an annual celebration of the Winter Solstice.
At the time, “Tilted Axes” was essentially just a cheerful chord progression and a rising, four-note figure, played over and over for a continuously replenishing audience of passersby. Since then, Mr. Grant has expanded the work into a 17-movement score for massed guitars, Chapman Stick, bass and drums, and he has just released a recording, “Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars” (Peppergreen Media).
Kozinn goes on to ask the perennial question: is this classical music, jazz, or rock? He ends by concluding:
In a sense, both composers are reframing that old debate about the stylistic labels that listeners find helpful but that composers have long found irksome. It doesn’t matter whether this music is post-Minimalist, indie classical, or not classical at all, they seem to be saying. Style and even genre are increasingly meaningless now, so abandon the categorizing impulse and just listen.
Ok, so lets. The article contains no links to any musical clips, but we can certainly find a number of partial performances of Tilted Axes on YouTube. Here are a few:

Uh-huh. Well my categorizing, or at least, describing impulse just kicked in. First of all, this is basically rock music. It doesn't matter if you walk down the street with a portable amp or not, if it quacks like a duck, it's a duck. If you listen to around the 2 minute mark of the first clip, for example, there is every feature of blues-based rock music: the bent-note bluesy solos, the backbeat drumming and the whole feel of it. Other times it sounds a bit like In C by Terry Riley or uninspired minimalism, but the basic elements are rock based. The most salient feature of this kind of performance is that it has to be deeply annoying to many of the passers-by. There is a kind of arrogant assumption by these folks that everyone in a public space is really going to delight in a chaotic, under-rehearsed, warmed-over collection of rock clichés. The only thing missing is bad vocals.

When the Beatles decided to invade public space and do a concert from the roof of their London office building, the bobbies shut them down after forty minutes. I guess public nuisance laws have been repealed since then.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It's Canonic: 20th century, 2nd half

The first half of the 20th century was surprisingly easy, but the second half won't be and I expect a lot of disputatious comments whatever I choose. The reason is that the closer you get to the present day, the foggier the picture is. I think that a hundred years is needed to really see what stands out from the crowd with any certainty. By 2100 will it be generally acknowledged that Harry Partch is the great American composer of the second half of the 20th century, or will it be Steve Reich? Will Karlheinz Stockhausen be forgotten or widely loved? I don't think anyone knows for sure at this point, but I have some opinions. So here we go. Bear in mind this is just orchestral music after 1950.

Let's start with France as I find it helps to look at specific traditions in sorting out who's who. Olivier Messiaen is an obvious choice. He made the pre-1950 list with his Turangalîla-Symphonie, one of the most striking pieces of orchestral music of the era, but there are some good candidates from after 1950 as well. Messiaen lived until 1992 and was very productive. I think I would pick out two pieces, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) for wind, brass and percussion and Des Canyons aux étoiles for piano, horn, glockenspiel, xylorimba and small orchestra (1974). Another composer very active in the second half of the century was Henri Dutilleux, a lapidary composer who wrote a select few outstanding pieces. Among them, perhaps the most memorable are two concertos: one for cello, written for Mstislav Rostropovich titled Tout un monde lointain (1970) and one for violin, written for Isaac Stern, titled L'arbre des songes (1985).

German composition post-war was very different from before simply because of the desolation of war and the departure or loss of Jewish musicians. The sense was that everything had to begin anew, a blank slate as it were. Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen found themselves in the class of Messiaen at Darmstadt. In the 1950s and into the 60s, there grew up a "Darmstadt School" of composition that included, apart from Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Bruno Madera, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel and others. Characteristically, their music was avant-garde, experimental, and, at least in my opinion, hasn't aged well. I think that if we regard "canonic" works as ones that have a special aesthetic appeal to audiences, then hardly any of this music has become part of the canon. That phrase "hardly any" is rather weaselly! So let's have a look: are there any possible candidates? Two that come to mind are Gesange der Jünglinge by Stockhausen, an early electronic piece, and the Sinfonia by Berio. I think that my readers should weigh in on this. Do you think they have achieved canonicity?

Let me know in the comments.

More and more, as the century progressed, we see composers from outside central Europe, not just Russia and North America, but Poland, Greece, Great Britain and Japan. Shostakovich wrote some wonderful symphonies post-war of which I think that the Symphony No. 10 (1953, but possibly completed earlier) is perhaps the most-enjoyed (that is the basic measure of canonicity). There is one enormously popular symphony by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki, the Symphony No. 3 the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" of 1976 that even crossed over to the pop charts in Europe. British composers became more and more prominent after the war, particularly Benjamin Britten, though his strengths are perhaps greatest in opera and vocal music. Still, his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and the Sea Interludes, adapted from the opera Peter Grimes, would likely qualify. Unfortunately, due to my oversight, they should have been included in the first part as they were composed before 1950! Sorry, Britten fans.

After all the experimentation in the 50s and 60s, a new kind of approach arose in the 1970s with the so-called "minimal" composers whose music, though featuring a steady pulse and lots of repetition, was hardly minimal. The two names to note are Philip Glass and Steve Reich and I think that there are likely canonical works from both of them. But we have to bend the category a bit: they both tend to write music for unusual ensembles that are somewhere between what we usually think of as chamber music and orchestral music. An example, and I think a piece that is sure to be in the canon, is Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians:

Philip Glass, on the other hand, has written quite a bit for conventional orchestra and the Symphony No. 3 from 1995 is a good candidate for the canon:

Going even further afield, the first composer from Japan to have real recognition in the West was Toru Takemitsu and he might have a bid for canonicity with the piece November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra from 1967:

From here on, the number of composers multiplies enormously and the difficulty of sorting out the exceptional pieces becomes harder and harder. For one thing, there are so very many works--and even composers--that I simply have not heard. Here is where my astute and knowledgeable commentators will undoubtedly make a contribution. What have you heard that you think will make the cut?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Listening to Les Tendres Plaintes

I labeled this "reception history" even though it isn't quite that. Think of it as the first draft of a reception history. That term, by the way, refers to a way of doing musicology where you examine the history of how a piece or a style or a composer was received by audiences over time. It can be quite interesting. But it does raise the problem of understanding how people listen.

I've listened to a piece by Rameau, Les Tendres Plaintes, a few times recently for different reasons: it is on a recent CD of Grigory Sokolov, there are a couple of clips of it on YouTube and I was sharing them with a couple of friends and I just transcribed it for violin and guitar to see what that would sound like. So I noticed a couple of things about how I listen to it. By that I basically mean my moment to moment reactions which vary from occasion to occasion, of course.

Here is the clip I have watched the most:

Now I will try to do a kind of stream-of-consciousness account of my reactions:

...those trills! and then how silvery the ring of the melody...
...the trills in the melody and the accompaniment are offset, intentionally kept unaligned.
(there are actually several different kinds of ornaments I am calling "trills" here: Rameau has a table in the front of his book naming and describing them: the cadence is a trill from the note above and the pincé is to the note below. We tend to call them a trill and a mordent respectively. There is also a cadence apuyée, where the first note is held longer and the double cadence which is a cadence that ends with a turn.)
...he does just a hint of notes inégales in the bass line that connects the first two phrases...
...when he gets to the descending sequence that begins the 1re Reprise, it is so lovely that I just start swaying my head from side to side...
..that A major chord that ends the 1re Reprise is always a surprise... the piece is in D minor, but the 1re Reprise is in A minor...
...he handles the refrain so differently the second time: a crisper inégale in the bass with an added cadence...
...the 2de Reprise (in F major) is almost whimsical, but at the same time wistful...
...the last refrain is even more beautiful... the high A in the second phrase is I think the most delicate note I have ever heard from a piano--it is like a guitar harmonic or an orchestral bell hit with a feather...

Let me show you the score I have been looking at. These two pages are from Rameau's Pièces de clavecin avec une méthode by which he means that he has an explanatory preface about how to play them. The table of ornaments is from there:

And here is the score to Les Tendres Plaintes:

Click to enlarge
This is a very simple piece, of course. Just that theme in D minor which has two eight-measure phrases, the first ending on the dominant and the second on the tonic. Then another two phrases in A minor, then the theme again followed by the second reprise (or episode) in F major but this time both phrases end on the tonic, and finally the theme again. You just should bear in mind that Jean-Philippe Rameau literally wrote the book on harmony--it was his Traité de L'Harmonie of 1722 that formalized the theory of tonal harmony and the basic principles are still followed today.

Here is a portrait of Rameau done in 1760:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

It's Canonic: 20th Century, first half

I took a 20th century music history course as an undergraduate, which means that it was a long time ago. I remember the professor complaining that he had been teaching the course for years and years and every year it got harder, because the century was longer. Heh! That was in 1975. Well now the century is complete and those great revolutionary works of the early part have already had their centenaries: pieces like the Rite of Spring (1913) by Stravinsky and the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune of Debussy ... oops! That was written and premiered in 1894 so not even 20th century. But we, or at least I, think of Debussy as being an inherently 20th century composer even though he was only one, strictly speaking, for the last 18 years of his life (1862 - 1918). Just sticking to pieces composed in the 20th century by Debussy, we could pick instead La Mer, completed in 1905.

But if we do stick to the 20th century, then the later music of Mahler also qualifies. Part of the 20th century canon should include the symphonies from No. 5 on as well as Das Lied von der Erde.

All of these are orchestral pieces (sometimes with voices), so let's stick with works for orchestra and do chamber music, solo music (largely for piano) and opera in separate posts. Another piece by Stravinsky that fits is the Symphony of Psalms from 1930, one of those brilliant commissions by the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony. Another one was the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen, completed in 1948, also for the Boston Symphony.

Great German orchestral works might include the Violin Concerto by Arnold Schoenberg and the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg. A lot of their most important works are chamber or vocal music, so not included here.

The 20th century saw the growing importance of composers from outside the core nations of Italy, France and Germany, who had dominated music for so many centuries. Foremost among these are Bela Bartók whose Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) is one of the loveliest in the first half of the century. Another great piece from that decade is Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, written in 1937. While we are visiting Russia, we could include Prokofiev's Classical Symphony (1917) and Piano Concerto No. 2 (1923).

While we are talking about piano concertos, there were some great ones written in the 20th century such as the three by Bartók (all good, but let's pick the Piano Concerto No. 3 from 1945).

Also part of the 20th century canon would be some music by Charles Ives. I would pick the Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set No. 1) from 1914 rather than one of his symphonies.

You might have noticed that all these works are from the first half of the century. I will do the second half in another post. That will be the really difficult one because there is so much to sift through and the really important pieces have probably not all surfaced yet. It really takes about a hundred years for what is essential to become clear. Semi-clear, at least!

Ok that's a rough try at a list of the core canonic pieces of 20th century orchestral music up to 1950. Now, as is traditional on the internet, you can all weigh in in the comments and tell me about all the ones I missed. Of course, some of those were intentional.

Let me muse for a moment on how I approached this. It was largely intuitive: I did not pore through long lists of 20th century works and then hone it down. Instead I just thought about what orchestral pieces from the first half of the century really stick in your mind--which ones are really essential. I'm sure I missed some important ones, so here is your chance to remind me.

Just picking a couple from the list for our envoi today, here are first, Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This is from the Deutsche Grammophon box of Boulez conducting Bartók:

And next, Charles Ives' Three Places in New England. This is the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Nicholas Collon:

UPDATE: A frequent commentator helps me out by mentioning Sibelius. I'm pretty sure I was thinking of him but got distracted somehow. But yes, some of the finest orchestral works of the first half of the 20th century are the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. The Symphony No. 2 was written in 1902, so everything from then on qualifies and I would include all of them. I have never been as fond of the tone poems like Finlandia and Tapiola, but that might just be me. This reminds me of another omission: the tone poems of Richard Strauss of which we might want to include Also sprach Zarathustra.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a short documentary in French about the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili who seems to be living in Paris these days. Never mind if you don't speak French, the music (and the visuals) come across anyway:

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Speaking of visuals, here is something you don't see too often--or ever: a composer posing naked onstage while a string quartet premieres his latest work:

Only in Australia, you say? That's composer Andrew Batt-Rawden re-enacting his appearance at the concert. Let's let reporter Amanda Hooten tell the story:
I was in the audience for the Australian Art Quartet's Butt-naked Salon concert at Sydney's Yellow House. As the show began, the quartet came in and sat down. Nearby, multidisciplinary artist Clementine Robertson was lying motionless on a dais with vials of beetroot juice dripping all over her. Then, in the silence, Batt-Rawden entered wearing a fluffy bathrobe, à la Muhammad Ali. With him came Archibald Prize-winning artist Wendy Sharpe. Batt-Rawden walked to a low white box, took off his robe, climbed onto the box, and struck a pose. The quartet played, Robertson dripped, and Batt-Rawden stood starkers while Sharpe painted him onto the walls.
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And on the instrumental front, the Strad reports that a violin made from one of Winston Churchill's cigar boxes is to be auctioned off:
A 1950s violin crafted from one of Winston Churchill’s cigar boxes is to be offered for sale this October in London by Ingles & Hayday.
The 1956 fiddle ‘in a rustic style’ was made by self-taught English maker and former master saddler William Robinson, who spent his childhood converting empty boxes into violins, according to the auctioneers. The instrument was played by Yehudi Menuhin in a radio broadcast to America in April 1958, and is expected to fetch between £500 and £1,000. It is branded ‘Made in Havana – Cuba’, and on the back, ‘Selección Privada, Fabrica Tabacos Don Joaquin, Habana’.
Here's a case where the aroma of the instrument might be better than the sound.

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The problem of the intersection of identity politics and aesthetics is hardly a new one, and the classic response is age-old as well. But rarely has it been put better than by J. R. R. Tolkien in his letter replying to a German publisher in 1938 who, as part of the process of arranging to publish a German translation of The Hobbit, inquired as to the ethnic background of the author. Was he German? Did he have any Jewish blood?
25 July 1938
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Dear Sirs,
Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.
I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and
remain yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien
Yes indeedy, the inquiry as to an artist's ethnic (or other) identity is indeed impertinent and irrelevant.

* * *

The prize for The Least Gracious Comment on Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize goes to, and why am I not surprised, Norman Lebrecht:
They couldn’t find a writer so a musician was the next-best thing? Or was the committee just looking to big itself up with a blaze of celebrity? For lyrics written half a century ago and known the world over?
And if literary merit of lyrics had anything to do with it, shouldn’t Leonard Cohen take precedence?
Much as we love Bob Dylan, this gives no cause for cheer.
For further entertainment, the fifty comments are worth a look.

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The New York Times has a story on the fascinating and growing field of forensic musicology. I used to tell people that I was a forensic musicologist, but I meant it as a joke: "this man was obviously killed with a violin bow, re-haired by the Viennese bow-re-hairer Herr Helmut Schmidt-Wolfenbüttel."
Peter Oxendale, a onetime glam rocker (“We all have skeletons,” he says), is perhaps the world’s leading forensic musicologist, the person musicians call when they believe someone has ripped off their work. In a penthouse overlooking the English Channel, he analyzes songs, everything from pop hits to classical pieces, until he is sure there has been an infringement, or not.
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I'm not sure precisely why, but every time I read something that is intellectually opaque and hopelessly confused it is at NewMusicBox. The latest is about A Universal Music and I wish I knew what they were talking about:
Prior to this lesson, I was fervently driven by a personal mission to express the hybridity of my biology and experience as a half-Indian/half-Euro-American person within my music. The search for stylistic confluence manifested itself in numerous trips to study in India and four recordings of original music that explored Indian concepts, environments, and sounds within my jazz quartet.
I'm not trying to be difficult, honestly, this paragraph is not ripped bleeding from a context which would explain it. Go read the whole thing to be sure. Here is some more:
As I ruminated on my Banff experience, I began to understand that the idea of musical genre is an illusion that ignores the plurality of ideas, experiences, and sounds that exist within a community. When a sonic experience is reduced to a category, we establish boundaries that inhibit creativity with notions of stylistic correctness. This approach creates myriad problems that throw into question the objectivity that is inherently placed on genre.
What could it possibly mean to "express the hybridity of one's biology"? What is "stylistic confluence"? There are problems of agency and abstraction in this: "the idea of musical genre is an illusion that ignores the plurality of ideas..." How can an "idea" ignore anything? Does anyone, when listening to a minuet or allemande or symphony or polka, "reduce it to a category?" How would that work? How does "genre" have objectivity inherently placed on it? How do you train your mind to think in this bizarre way? You got me.

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A really appropriate envoi for today would be some transcendently cool tune by Bob Dylan, but I just put up a bunch yesterday, plus the really good Dylan tracks are mostly not available on YouTube. So in honor of J. R. R. Tolkien, here is Galadriel's song of Eldamar, sung by Signe Asmussen in the original Elvish: