Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 6

Stravinsky's journey away from the Belyayevets circle around Rimsky-Korsakov begins with the setting of a poem by one Sergey Gorodetsky, a much-acclaimed poet whose book Yar was published in 1907 (Stravinsky's setting is from the same year). The section in the book titled "Yarila" is devoted to paganistic and shamanistic poems and has been pointed to repeatedly as part of the cultural background to The Rite of Spring. This kind of cultural reference is referred to as "Scythian," about which more later.

The poem Stravinsky set, titled "Vesná," is about young love and the tolling of a cloister bell. The sound of bells and the setting of artificial folk songs goes back to Glinka and Musorgsky in Russian music. Stravinsky's performance of his new song at a gathering in October 1907 was not well-liked and Rimsky-Korsakov termed it "wildly unrestrained and harmonically nonsensical." There was a growing gap regarding the aesthetic role of folklore: for composers like Rimsky-Korsakov it was mere "content," something cited for color, but it was not something that flowed into and influenced "style," the fantastic/chromatic side. Here is a performance of the song with Marija Brajković, soprano and Radoslav Spasić, piano:



The poet Gorodetsky had made an intense study of ancient peasant rites and customs, which could still be witnessed in Russia up into the 1930s and in 1908 Stravinsky set another poem by him with the title Rosyanka (Khlïstovskaya) which is rather untranslatable: the first word means "dew" and the second refers to a quasi-Pentecostal sect dating to the 17th century and much persecuted by the Orthodox establishment. Stravinsky's setting does not reveal his later immersion in folklore, at this point it is rather retrospective in style, recalling perhaps what Musorgsky might have done.

There is a rather curious song from this time that reveals more of the future Stravinsky, his little Pastorale set to the text: "A-oo, A-oo." It's open and airy texture and particularly its ceaseless sixteenth-notes give it a genuinely Stravinskian sound. Here is the original version:


Taruskin speculates that another influence on this piece, with its evocation of a French musette, might have been early music as the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska in that same year, 1907, was giving her first Russian tour--she gave two recitals in St. Petersburg in February and March. We can't be sure that Stravinsky attended either concert, but one piece performed, a "Styrische Tanz" by Lanner, would turn up later in the third tableau of Stravinsky's Petrushka.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Aesthetics, part 5

It is pretty clear that aesthetic objects are phenomenally objective: we don't have any difficulty in distinguishing between what is in the painting and our reaction to it. Nor do we confuse our feelings with those of Hamlet on the stage. Even in music, it is quite easy to distinguish between the music itself and how it makes us feel. But one of the things that leads to a relativistic view of aesthetics is the fact that a lot of criticism confuses the phenomenally objective and the phenomenally subjective. A great deal of arts criticism seems to go out of its way to confuse the two. A critic referring to a "feeling" of solidity in a Cézanne landscape might be referring to either the painting or his reaction to it. The word "effect" is also used ambiguously. Indeed, the whole class of what Beardsley calls "affective terms," ones that contain some reference to the effect of the work on the percipient, need to be considered carefully for they may contain little objective information about the work itself, but merely record a critic's response. If he is careful about recording what details in the work lead to his response, that can be useful, but sometimes, or often, it may be an eccentric response of little objective value. [Referring to Beardsley, op. cit. pp 38 to 42]

If I could give a musical example, sometimes I debate with commentators here about the aesthetic value of the symphonies of Mahler which I have mentioned were once favorites of mine but which I now find nearly unlistenable because they seem melodramatic and neurotic to me. I am describing a subjective impression which is not, of course, objective criticism. If I were to take the time and analyze just what it is in a Mahler symphony that sounds melodramatic and neurotic to me, then that would be a decent piece of criticism. I suspect I have not done so because it would be quite time-consuming and also because I have a vague inkling that it would involve some foundational work on what neurosis in music might consist in. In other words, it could get very involved indeed. My subjective impression is pretty clear to me though!

I have mentioned before the interesting issue of the ontological status of a piece of music and by this formidable phrase I mean the interesting fact that we might hear several different performances of a piece of music that we would all reckon as the same piece of music. Beardsley handles this by describing these different performances as different presentations of the same aesthetic object. A particular presentation of an aesthetic object is one experienced by a particular person on a particular occasion. Certain presentations may be more adequate than others. Generally we regard the aesthetic object itself as not being identical with any particular presentation. Some critics, however, are impressionistic in that they are constantly giving their impression of the presentation without much effort to distinguish it from the aesthetic object itself. It may be easy to write that the musical composition seemed formless, but that might have been your impression simply because you failed to perceive the form on first hearing.

Beardsley gives a set of six principles that he calls the Postulates of Criticism that lay out the way to conceive of the relationship between aesthetic objects and presentations of them in order to render objective criticism possible. Here they are:

  1. The aesthetic object is a perceptual object; that is, it can have presentations.
  2. Presentations of the same aesthetic object may occur at different times and to different people.
  3. Two presentations of the same aesthetic object may differ from each other.
  4. The characteristics of an aesthetic object may not be exhaustively revealed in any particular presentation of it.
  5. A presentation may be veridical. that is, the characteristics of the presentation may correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object.
  6. A presentation may be illusory; that is, some of the characteristics of the presentation may fail to correspond to the characteristics of the aesthetic object. [Beardsley, op. cit. p. 46]
This is not, of course, an argument for the acceptance of these postulates, but they are fairly widely assumed amongst critics, at least ones who think about what they do.

Beardsley mentions as an example different hearings of Bartók's Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. One day you hear it on the radio, another time you listen to a clip of it on YouTube on your laptop, one day you hear a live performance of it and perhaps one day you sit down and study the score. These are all different presentations of the same aesthetic object, but some are more adequate than others and they all have different tonal and interpretive characteristics. But I think it would be widely accepted that in experiencing these different presentations we are experiencing the same aesthetic object. This is a necessary first step in countering the view that all aesthetic experience is merely subjective.

Now let's listen to this very fine piece by Bartók, the Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta. This is the RIAS Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ferenc Fricsay: 




I remember doing a Bartók seminar with a rather crusty composer who got rather upset with me when I pointed out that the first movement is a fugue. Which it is, of course, but his ideological stance was that as Bartók is one of the most important figures in musical modernism in the 20th century, we always have to look at his music in terms of its modernistic elements and NOT in terms of its relationship with the past.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Book on Guitar Technique

I never google myself as it seems, well, narcissistic. But I just switched my default search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo (for reasons you might well guess!) and tried it out by searching my name. Apparently I have namesakes who are state senators, dermatologists and arrested for something or other. But if you narrow it down by searching for Bryan Townsend, guitar, you get me, basically. So I discovered that a technique book I wrote a number of years ago is still available through Amazon and it has a rather nice review:
The book is thorough, informative, and civilized. It is a somewhat toned-down and non-shrill alternative to Tennant's "Pumping Nylon" which appeals to the same market with its gimmicky title and locker room odor. One cannot dismiss Tennant's book, which successfully covers much of the same material, but it's not the only game in town, and I always found the concept of "pumping nylon" to be marginally offensive although obviously a successful sale tactic. I really prefer Townsend's book and recommend it.
So, if you need a book on guitar technique, I guess you need not hesitate!

Here is my recording of Recuerdos de la Alhambra that you can listen to while you shop:

video

What Replaces Aesthetics?

Here is an article from the Clyde Fitch Report that makes a suggestion:
When questions about the personal character and political orthodoxy of the artist dominate reviews and decisions about casting, staffing and representation drown out questions of beauty and form, there is  a problem. Not because the latter questions aren’t valid, but because if the sole purpose of art becomes the service of a predetermined, rigidly defined political end, there is a danger that there will be no more art. There will be only entertaining propaganda.
There are some interesting parallels with the demands of socialist realism in the Soviet Union--which makes sense because the ideological positions are not so different in structure.
Shakespeare is a dead white guy, but he’s a super talented one who changed English forever. He can’t be written out of the conversation. We must refuse to abide by criticism that is so political that it doesn’t bother to cross the road to aesthetics. At the most basic level, isn’t the main question, “Is it good?” not “Is it problematic?”
It’s easy to understand how we got here. We exist in an intellectual climate, particularly on the left, that seeks to identify power above truth and, consequently, beauty. Moreover, a political climate that is increasingly chaotic and hostile would make anyone prioritize politics over all. But this is so painfully shortsighted. If we don’t want to lose what we are fighting for to the pragmatics of the fight, we must again find a way to talk about beauty first and politics next. We are obligated to realize that the end of aesthetics is what would be really problematic.
The only problem here is that the writer, Katie Kelaidis, doesn't seem to realize that aesthetics was done away with a long time ago--all we have left are the fumes.


Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 5

Taruskin has a long section discussing how Stravinky's Scherzo fantastique was inspired by an essay written by Maurice Maeterlinck in 1901 titled La vie des abeilles (The Life of the Bee). All references to Maeterlinck were later suppressed, likely to avoid a threatened lawsuit from the writer (ironically, much later Maeterlinck himself was accused of a classic example of academic plagiarism from the Afrikaner poet and scientist Eugène Marais). But despite that, Taruskin was able to trace quite a number of connections between the essay and the scherzo. I'm going to press ahead, however, as it is simply too time-consuming to relate all of the myriad details covered in Taruskin's book, though Stravinsky's obsessive focus on the octatonic and whole-tone collections should be mentioned. We do want to get to the Rite sooner or later!

Stravinsky's next piece, another symphonic scherzo, is the Fireworks that occupied him through the fall of 1908 and into the following year. The piece is both briefer than the Scherzo, and much more complex. One important element is a clash between the octatonic collection and the tonic scale of the key, E major--this is typified by the clash between the octatonic C natural and the diatonic C sharp. Here is Taruskin's example:

op. cit. p. 339


The harmonies are rich progressions of whole-tone formations and French sixths connected by chromatic chords that have no common-practice equivalents. Here is another example from Taruskin of chord forms in Fireworks and their linking elements:

op. cit. p. 342
Fireworks shows a remarkable progression for the young composer. As Taruskin summarizes:
In Fireworks, Stravinsky exploited to the very hilt the devices of harmony, texture, and orchestration he had learned from his teacher, but in no real sense did he go beyond them. True, the piece no longer sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov: the harmonies are more unremittingly complex; they are more varied; above all, the harmonic rhythm is quicker ... Fireworks is not "modern," merely up-to-date and therefore dated. It represents at its very limit the kind of petty artistic progress Rimsky-Korsakov stood for. [op. cit. p. 344-5]
Let's stop here for today and listen to Fireworks. This is the Columbia Orchestra conducted by the composer:

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Disappearance of the Negative Review

Once again, the Wall Street Journal comes up with an interesting article on the arts. This time "What Happened to the Negative Music Review?"
If you rely on reviews to decide what books to buy, movies to watch or restaurants to visit, you may have noticed something strange when it comes to pop music: Negative reviews have become extremely rare.
Between 2012 and 2016, Metacritic, a website that aggregates critics’ reviews for music, films, television and video-games, gave just eight out of 7,287 albums a “red” score—a designation that means reviews were “generally unfavorable” or worse.
Movies, by comparison, garner many more negatives: So far this year, Metacritic has given 39 out of 380 movies a red score. For albums, not one out of 787 albums aggregated thus far this year has received a red score.
The writer, Neil Shah, makes an attempt to analyze what is going on:
A recent album by Radiohead was excessively praised by critics, notes freelance critic Joseph Schafer. “A Moon Shaped Pool,” which includes old songs that the band had performed but had not previously recorded, appeared on many year-end lists. “The band’s first album in five years was half a B-sides collection and half boring,” Mr. Schafer says, who didn’t review the album. “This record was lazy, why didn’t people call the band out?” Radiohead declined to comment.
“It can sometimes feel like there’s less of an appetite for [serious] criticism, or the culture has decided it’s unimportant,” says Amanda Petrusich, an assistant professor at New York University who teaches music writing and contributes to the New Yorker. “It makes [criticism] feel like just an extension of public relations.”
I've talked about this here on the Music Salon a lot. Trends in social and mass media tend to favor the stars:
Meanwhile, megastars like Drake, armed with huge social-media followings, can generate publicity themselves; there’s little upside to giving interviews or forwarding advance copies to critics. Some artists—Beyoncé and her sister Solange, for example—have taken to interviewing each other. 
Sure, in a context where music is really just entertainment, serious criticism is simply out of place. Negativity strikes the wrong note and doesn't help to increase sales! The lack of negative reviews is a reflection of the tectonic shift in music from the profound to the trivial. This is taking place not only in the pop world but also in the classical world. Here, have a look at this Deutsche Grammophon commercial (they call it a "trailer") for a new Yuja Wang album:


Now That's Entertainment!

I think that there are some underlying cultural trends that feed into this. For one thing, as I have been saying lately, the lack of aesthetics gives critics no tools or techniques to base their criticism on. In a context where everyone believes that taste is completely subjective and relative, just what does a music critic offer? After all, your judgment is just as good as his, right? My series of posts on aesthetics is an attempt to restore the place of aesthetics, but hey, a whole lot of other people are going to have to pitch in! The other trend that is eliminating critical judgment is commercialization. Music as a serious art form is being largely replaced by music as a shallow entertainment. To me, this is even more worrying than the disappearance of aesthetics (though I suspect these two things are linked). So if music is just another cultural "product" then talk about it either furthers the sale of the product or it doesn't.

One argument that is sometimes used is the argument from consumer protection. Just as a restaurant review can caution you from patronizing a particular restaurant due to quality or health issues, so, it is proposed, a capable music reviewer can steer you away from wasting your money on crap. This is the implied rationale in this excerpt from the WSJ article:
Music fans can try out new albums on streaming services such as YouTube or Spotify, so often music critics aren’t as necessary as consumer guides. In the age of Twitter , Amazon.com and review aggregators, individual reviews by elite critics may matter less.
But this fails to identify one important historical function of music critics: the introduction of new important artists to the public, as Robert Schumann did when he wrote about Chopin in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Another important function was to develop and shape public taste as critics like George Bernard Shaw illustrate:
Shaw's collected musical criticism, published in three volumes, runs to more than 2,700 pages.[248] It covers the British musical scene from 1876 to 1950, but the core of the collection dates from his six years as music critic of The Star and The World in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In his view music criticism should be interesting to everyone rather than just the musical élite, and he wrote for the non-specialist, avoiding technical jargon—"Mesopotamian words like 'the dominant of D major'".[n 27] He was fiercely partisan in his columns, promoting the music of Wagner and decrying that of Brahms and those British composers such as Stanford and Parry whom he saw as Brahmsian.[67][250] He campaigned against the prevailing fashion for performances of Handel oratorios with huge amateur choirs and inflated orchestration, calling for "a chorus of twenty capable artists".[251] He railed against opera productions unrealistically staged or sung in languages the audience did not speak.[252]
--from the Wikipedia article

Bernard Shaw was working in a different context where his goal was to open out the world of high musical art to a wider public, hence his avoidance of technical vocabulary. The task today is rather different, I think. It is more to perhaps reintroduce the distinctions between art and entertainment. I'm not sure I have the answer, though.

I think that the tell-tale clue in the next to last quote above are the words "elite critics." Anything "elite" is anathema because it is probably racist, sexist and post-colonial! Our little infatuation with social justice continues to exact a heavy price, I'm afraid.

I've always been rather fond of the skillful critical demolition. One of my favorite passages in Kingsley Amis' novel Lucky Jim was the one where he praises a fellow boarding house guest by remarking on his ability to silently look around at his surroundings with an air of utter dismissal and contempt. Yes, I'm afraid we have been underrating the power, not to mention the entertainment value, of ridicule and negative criticism. I used to do the occasional post devoted to what I called "catty micro-reviews", perhaps I should do some more. Here is a sample.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Erkki-Sven Tüür

I just ran across an interesting article on a composer new to me: Erkki-Sven Tüür. How the heck do you pronounce two successive umlauts, anyway?
Lately, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Tüür, the only composer of classical music I can think of who got his start in a progressive rock band. That was in the 1970s, when he was a teenager imbibing the likes of King Crimson, Frank Zappa, and Genesis. Within a decade, having come under the spell of Arvo Pärt, György Ligeti, and the American minimalists, Tüür was turning to symphonies, concertos, and works of chamber music, well on his way to assembling a visionary body of work as impressive as that of any composer alive today.
Hey, wait a minute, I got my start in a rock band. Not a progressive one, mind you. We were more of a barely competent garage blues band. But Tüür sounds like a really interesting composer. Unfortunately, the article describes his music with metaphor instead of musical details, so it doesn't give you much to hang on to:
Tüür seems beholden to no particular camp or ideology. His music is a kind of fusion, but with him, the various styles come together so seamlessly that this fusion loses all sense of artifice. It ceases to be a conscious act. When Tüür speaks about his music, he invokes vivid pictorial images: spirals, curves, chains. He also uses metaphors from the natural world. In explaining his Violin Concerto (1999), for example, he describes a system of musical development in which “the material will change completely but in a thoroughly organic way. Like trees grow: if we see a tiny plant we don’t yet know which form it will ultimately take, but on seeing it with its full panoply of leaves and twigs and branches we can only wonder at how logical every curve and movement and detail of it seems to be. That’s an ideal for me, in terms of treating a musical shape.”
Luckily the Violin Concerto is available on YouTube, so we can give it a listen:


Sounds pretty interesting. Why is it that such a small and not very populated part of the world, Finland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Lavia, are such musical superpowers while places like Canada tend to be musical lightweights? You got me. Here is his Symphony No. 6, "Strata" from 2007:


Well, we've got some listening to do, it seems!