Thursday, May 5, 2016

A little biography

This is not a musical item, but my excuse for posting it is that people seem to enjoy the biographical stuff as much (ok, maybe more) than the strictly music theory stuff. I did a post on dovetailed themes a while back that has yet to attract a single comment!

I see in the Globe and Mail today that the entire city of Fort McMurray, Alberta is being evacuated because it is burning to the ground because of an out-of-control wildfire.

If that isn't sufficiently apocalyptic for you, there's this:

And the aftermath:

So what has this to do with me? When I was quite young we lived just south of Fort McMurray in a place called Anzac. Back then there was a railway station, where my father worked, that mainly served to offload freight for the nearby Department of Defence radar base, there was a Hudson Bay trading post that accepted furs from trappers in exchange for flour and sugar, and there was a small population of Cree Indians. Total non-Indian population was maybe six people, including us. Today Anzac has grown to become a "hamlet" and even has a Wikipedia entry. Current population around 700 people. This is where a lot of the people from Fort McMurray are being evacuated to.

I experienced wildfires firsthand when I lived in British Columbia, though there they call them "forest fires". A dry evergreen forest is a huge bonfire just waiting to be lit. I worked, very briefly, as a firefighter when I was just out of high school. It can be a terrifying and dangerous job. We were getting some water from a little creek when just up the mountainside a hundred feet or so a whole grove of fir trees burst into flame, from trunk to crown in seconds. On a neighbouring mountain a whole crew of firefighters were trapped on the top while the fire crept up the mountain. They had to be rescued by helicopter. A girlfriend's father flew water bombers during the summer and, since coastal British Columbia is all mountains, one day, blinded by smoke, he just flew into a mountain.

Oddly enough, I lived in another Canadian city that came close to being evacuated. In 1998 in Montreal we had an enormous ice storm that lasted for a week and looked like this:

And when you have ice rain falling and freezing for a week, those big power transmission towers end up with a few hundred tons of ice on them, with predictable results:

The city of Montreal is on an island in the St. Lawrence river. The population of around three million is served by five big power substations. After the ice storm four of these were down, meaning that the power for the whole city had to come through one substation. At a meeting with the premier of the province and the mayor of the city, the city engineer informed them that the situation was there was no power for any of the big buildings downtown, so nobody with an office job was going to work for the foreseeable future. Plus, he said, there was enough power to either supply the Metro (subway) or provide water pressure in the city. Without water pressure you can't fight fires, of course. So that was it. They seriously considered evacuating the city, but decided that would be even worse. My wife and I decided to evacuate ourselves and just after we got to the bus station, the Metro shut down. All the skyscrapers in downtown were already dark. Eerie, if not quite as apocalyptic as a wildfire. It took eight days to restore power in our neighbourhood.

All this reminds me of a poem by Robert Frost:

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Pop Connections

The Guardian has a feature article up titled "What pop music owes to the classical masters" that looks rather interesting. Let's have a look. Here is a bit on the origins of the pop song:
Most pop songs are based on a dozen or so of the most familiar chord sequences that were "discovered" in the late 18th century. In the present age, someone such as Adele is an original singer because of her voice, her attitude and her style. But the chords and sequences she and most pop writers are using have been around for a very long time. Perhaps the originator of the three-minute pop song was John Dowland, way back in Shakespeare's time, but I think the modern pop song was created by Schubert.
I'm not sure that "discovered" should be in scare quotes. The latent tensions and functionality of harmony were incrementally uncovered over quite a period of time: from Dufay to Haydn, basically, but while the discovery was spread out and collective, it was still a discovery. The writer should have avoided the word "sequence" in that context because it has a specific musical meaning: a sequence is a melodic or harmonic structure that is repeated at a different pitch. What the writer should have referred to are chord "progressions".

About Schubert's legacy they write:
Some of these simple rules of songwriting just continue to be the simple rules of songwriting, and there's nothing much about Adele or Simon & Garfunkel or Leonard Cohen's songs that would have seemed alien to the Viennese composer in terms of the chords, or the shape, the way the verse leads into the chorus, or the piano accompaniment. In fact, the thing that would strike Schubert as most odd about an Adele song is the fact that a woman wrote it rather than being its object.
Of course there are no "rules" as such--there are even places where great composers like Haydn have written parallel fifths, which is probably the most strict rule of all. But what there are, are practices and tools. My sense is that the feeling of the classical progressions is enormously weakened by the pervasive use of modes instead of keys and by the rhythmic context of pop music. Notice how they sneak in a bit of feminist ideology in the last sentence?
Beethoven changed the point of what music was. He and his music became indivisible: it was a reflection of his inner turmoil. His work sits at the time of a broader cultural movement where artists and poets were doing the same, but what became a musical commonplace was begun by him.
This is just what I was saying in my post yesterday. They are viewing the incursion of biography into music as a plus, where I was characterizing it as bombast and melodrama. But in the next section they do acknowledge the problem:
But the cult of the isolated, divine or demonic genius – of which Beethoven was the first outstanding musical example – was developed to a whole new level by Berlioz. We have this French composer to thank for the image of the deranged, hair-challenged, isolated composer, one that persists to this day. He himself was a borderline psychopath at the forefront of the mid-19th century's obsession with doomed love, death and destiny, and wrote music on an epic scale, music that would embrace all of life. He was obsessed with Beethoven – as we still are today, possibly to too great an extent. We've constructed this great building of Beethoven-the-man on top of his music, but if you strip that away and ask what's going on in this music, it's not always the same thing.
The problem with being an isolated, demonic genius in the modern world is that it is hard to get government grants. So what you have to do is widely publicize your demonic genius--which is not only less isolated, but also a lot less convincing: hello reality show and Lady Gaga.

Here is the denouement:
 Today, there are people who are antagonistic to popular culture of all kinds, who rant about how there's nothing good on TV, that young people's tastes, habits and fashions are all repellent to them. But it was ever thus. For a "serious" composer such as Gershwin to put jazz into a piece of classical music was deeply threatening and played to a fear that, somehow, it would pollute "serious" music. But you can't make styles stay apart. They will come together no matter what.
Yes, I'm sure there are, but this is a classic straw man: paint the opposing view in the crudest, most simplistic terms so it is easily dismissed. Here at the Music Salon we actually try to distinguish between good and bad on television, trends in tastes, pop music and so on. That's why we have minds, after all. It is not "deeply threatening" for a composer to incorporate some jazz elements into a piece of music. But it may be successful or not so successful. Isn't it remarkable how so much of what we read in the mainstream press keeps beating the same drum over and over? In this case that classical music people are elitist and fearful of pollution and that all music is just sort of a big slough of similarities. Articles like this are about 50% actual information and 50% propagandizing. Thankfully, the Music Salon is here to point it out.  Heh!

Now let's have an envoi. Actually, let's have two: a song by Adele and a song by Schubert just to see how terribly similar they are. First the Adele. This is her big hit "Hello". The song does finally get going after well over a minute of docublather.

Now Schubert. This is "Nacht und Träume" sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. The first thing you notice is that the harmonies use suspensions and resolutions instead of just the block chords in the Adele. There are other differences as well...

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

My Fifth Favorite Symphony Composer

Who is it? You can guess right now, or you can wait a bit.

My fifth favorite symphony composer is certainly not Haydn. More and more, for me he is number one. Not only could he write a great symphony, he could do it over and over and over again, each time different. In fact, he did it one hundred and six times. Really, really well. Here is a sample, the "Drumroll" Symphony from the twelve he wrote to perform in London:

And he is not Mozart, either. Mozart couldn't manage as many great symphonies as Haydn, partly because he just didn't have the time. And some of those really early ones are not so great. But still, he did manage to write fifty symphonies and some of them are terrific, like the "Linz" that he wrote in four days. Mozart is number two.

Not Sibelius either. I got hooked on Sibelius early on with the Symphony No. 2 and though he wrote several other great ones, I still think that the first movement of the second is just wondrous and the last movement equally so. Sibelius is number three. Lenny and the Vienna Phillies:

Now it gets difficult so I've been listening to the last two side by side and I'm surprised to discover that my fifth favorite composer is also not Schubert, who comes in as number four. He only wrote eight symphonies (the Great C Major is not number nine because he never wrote a number seven), but the last two are just sublime and the earlier ones are pretty good too. Here is the "Unfinished" which only has two movements.

Which means, of course that my fifth favorite symphony composer is, wait for it, Beethoven! (Well, ok, I almost said Shostakovich,,,) Yes, I'm surprised as well. A few years ago I would have said that either Beethoven or Shostakovich were my favorite symphony composers, but I've changed my mind.

Mind you, when it comes to piano sonatas and string quartets, LvB is still number one.

I think...

What do you think?

UPDATE: I posted this too soon, forgetting to put up a Beethoven symphony and say why he is number five. Here is his Symphony No. 3 with Lenny and Vienna Phillies again:

The problem with Beethoven and this symphony in particular is that this is the moment when a lot of the things I dislike about the 19th century in music began: foremost are the bombast and the melodrama. I think that this is the piece in which they appear, pretty much for the first time, in symphonic music.

The Story of My Apostasy

Apostasy is the
formal disaffiliation from, or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person. It can also be defined within the broader context of embracing an opinion contrary to one's previous beliefs. One who commits apostasy (or who apostatizes) is known as an apostate.
Wikipedia also comments that
Apostasy is generally not a self-definition: very few former believers call themselves apostates because of the negative connotation of the term.
But I'm pretty comfortable with it! I have mentioned in a number of places on this blog that I became something of an apostate with regards to the ideology of modernism--and from the comments it seems I am far from being alone. I call this "apostasy" because in the modern world where many societies are no longer fundamentally religious, a number of belief systems have grown up which resemble in many ways religions. Among these are environmentalism, communism and my own, aestheticism, where you have the conviction that there is something transcendent about art.

I did not come to music early in life, taking to it like a fish to water. It was an incremental process. My mother was an old-time fiddler but that music never grabbed my interest. I started to get interested in the mid-60s as a teen when I heard songs by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan (though I had a particular liking for Eric Burden and the Animals!). Also at this time, and through George Harrison, I got to know the music of Ravi Shankar. I took up the guitar, joined a band and started writing songs. I probably wrote forty songs by the time I was twenty. All lost, I'm afraid!

Then came my first apostasy: a friend played a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and I was completely overwhelmed. This was the music I had been looking for. So I started buying classical records. When I discovered Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Debussy my conversion was complete. When I discovered that there were a lot of transcriptions of Bach for classical guitar I had discovered my vocation. I have talked quite a bit about my career as a classical guitarist so all I will say here is that for twenty years or so I was a solo classical guitar virtuoso with a pretty decent career which included many, many performances as recitalist, chamber musician and soloist with orchestra. I recorded many programs for nationwide broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and issued a commercial recording with Fanfare Records in Toronto. Here is a recording from around that time:


All was good, right? Well, not quite as there were three different problems: first, my career stalled out. My recording didn't sell and my record company refused to pay the picayune royalties there were and even refused to provide an accounting. I later sued them and they settled out of court. I had gotten a few better paying engagements to play concertos with orchestra and the CBC recorded two of them for nationwide broadcast: the Villa-Lobos Concerto and the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. Here is my recording of his Zapateado:


Frustrated at hitting a stone wall with my career I decided it was simply a question of pushing a bit harder. Trying to get a recital engagement in Toronto I called one impresario every week for a couple of months. Trying to get more concerto engagements I sent a promotional package to every conductor in Canada, some seventy orchestras. Then I followed up by phoning every one of them personally. That was some phone bill. The result? Nothing. After hanging up the phone on the last call I recall walking into the living room and saying to my fiancé, "that's it, I'm done". What I meant was that I was done with the whole thing, the whole guitar virtuoso career. That was my second apostasy.

At the time I didn't know if it was just that I was an inadequate guitarist or what, but it didn't matter. Whatever the reason, I was done. So, what next? You can imagine how psychologically dislocating it is to have your fundamental identity as an artist and a person just dissolve. It was, of course, my own choice and my own fault. I was unable to accept a declining mediocre, routine career. Music for me was a sacred calling. Most guitarists in this same position, and believe me, there are lots, simply took the dull teaching job and stuck it out until retirement. But that, to me, was like death. So I fussed around a bit. I wrote a couple of books on guitar technique and playing Bach (which also didn't sell very well, but at least the publisher sent me royalties!). And then I decided to become a musicologist so I enrolled in graduate school in the doctoral program. I completed all the seminars and then decided that this kind of academic career really wasn't what I wanted. That was my third apostasy.

So I really did drop out. I moved to Mexico and got into business: finance and real estate, which still pays the bills for me. But after five years of carefully avoiding any musical activities, I was drawn back and started playing the guitar again. After a couple of years of that I finally came to realize what I should have been doing all along was composition.

I composed music from my earliest days as a musician. I remember trying to write a song after playing bass guitar for only six months. Then, after converting to a classical musician, I started writing compositions in that style. I taught myself to read music when I realized I wanted to write songs with orchestral accompaniment! I wrote a few songs with guitar accompaniment, some chamber music for flute and guitar and multiple guitars. Here is a piece for guitar orchestra from the late 70s that I wrote:


I think the best piece from back then that I wrote was inspired by Ligeti and Steve Reich titled "Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord". It was very enthusiastically applauded at the premiere. Sadly, both the score and recording of that piece are lost.

In any case, when I got seriously into composition, about ten years ago now, I started with a couple of pieces that were probably equally influenced by Steve Reich and Debussy (if you can believe that). I realized that I had to go through a real evolution if I were ever to write anything of any value, so I started educating myself.

That may sound rather hilarious from a guy who spent a total of twenty years at university, eight as a student up to the doctoral level and the rest as a lecturer, but oddly enough, university only provides you with a partial education. For example, in all those years as a student, we did not once take a serious look at a Beethoven piano sonata.

My education consisted in listening to, with the scores when available, all the Beethoven piano sonatas, all the Haydn string quartets, all the Beethoven string quartets, all the Shostakovich string quartets and so on. When I realized that I wanted to write for orchestra I started listening to that repertoire: all the Haydn symphonies, all the CPE Bach symphonies, all the Mozart symphonies, all the Beethoven symphonies, all the Schubert symphonies, plus those by Dvorak, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Shostakovich again and Allan Petterssohn. It takes a long time and a lot of listening to get familiar with the basic repertoire.

And then you have to sit down and start writing. The first few pieces, no matter how old you are, are probably juvenalia. Here is one attempt at writing a symphony from a couple of years ago:


This is not a real performance by orchestra, of course, all the instruments are synthesized and a real performance would sound much better. But it might give you a vague idea. The video is the first page of the score and then just some photos of Mexico City and other places in Mexico (and a couple in Canada) that I had kicking around.

So that is kind of a tour of my career from a certain point of view. Now I am at the point where I think the piece for orchestra I am working on now is good enough to put out. And I have some other plans for recordings. I hope to release a bunch of recordings, some old, some new. Here is a brief list:

  • Favorite music for guitar, mostly Spanish and Latin American virtuoso music
  • Bach and tangos from Argentina, for guitar
  • Modern music by Townsend and Leo Brouwer, for guitar
  • Songs from the Poets, twelve songs for voice and guitar
  • My compositions: chamber and solo music
  • Music for multiple guitars, transcribed and original
  • My compositions for orchestra

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Unplayable Mr. Johnston

There's always someone who didn't get the memo, isn't there? You know, the guy who shows up at the meeting half an hour late because he missed the email moving the time up. Or the gal who still has Windows XP on her desktop because, hey, it still works. Or, the composer who, despite the fact that hyper-complex modernism with microtones peaked around, oh, I dunno, sometime between 1945 with Alois Hába's microtones and 1975 with Brian Fernyhough's New Complexity, still is trying to push that envelope.

That composer is Ben Johnston and there is a piece on him in the New York Times on the occasion of someone, the Kepler Quartet, actually, finally recording his hitherto unplayable String Quartet No. 7, composed in 1984. Here is an excerpt from the article:
According to experts, the most difficult string quartet ever written is Ben Johnston’s Quartet No. 7. It was composed in 1984 but went unperformed for decades. Musicians who knew the score, with the ingenious palindromic structure of one movement and variations teeming with over a thousand microscopically distinct pitches, considered it well-nigh unplayable.
If you follow the link, you will find a brief excerpt from the quartet that you can listen to. And here is his String Quartet No. 6, composed in 1980:

There are two problems with this music. It is not that he didn't get the memo saying, hey, enough with this hypercomplexity, let's rediscover pulse, that composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass began investigating in the early 1970s. The problem is not so much with the superficial sound or organization of the music, no, it is with the underlying ideology. Ben Johnston writes the kind of music he does because he is following the ideology of high modernism where the aesthetics of perception are overruled by the aesthetics of construction. This is what Richard Taruskin calls the Poietic Fallacy. Or, as Ben Johnston is quoted in the article:
In a Skype interview from his home, Mr. Johnston was reluctant to talk about his music in other than mathematical terms, even as he conceded that the system of multiplication and division that is at the base of his tuning system “doesn’t sound terribly exciting.” Still, he continued, “it opens the doors to new sounds. Because I think of mathematics as a means to an end. It’s not a means that a lot of people admire, because it seems too schoolish, so classroomish.”
Really, how, or even whether, you are able to hear the complexities of rhythm and pitch are pretty much irrelevant. As the title of an article by Milton Babbitt has it: "Who Cares If You Listen?" Admittedly, this is refreshingly contrary to the aesthetic of pop music, which seems oriented around a rather different kind of mathematics: sales, sales, sales!!!

The music of Ben Johnston and Milton Babbitt and others is not written to be expressive, moving, or touching in any way. Despite this, the New York Times tries to finesse this little issue by calling it
music of disarming charm, strange beauty and sometimes dreamlike familiarity. 
Well, yeah, you can get these strange impressions from this music, or John Cage, or from the energy emanations of distant stars--or, for that matter, from just watching the clothes-dryer go round and round. Aesthetically, it's a nullity.

When Reich and Glass and others came along, they did two things: they rejected the complexity ideology and the techniques it used AND they adopted a different ideology where the only thing that matters is what you can actually hear, no hidden complexity, and a new technique as well that uses both pulse and harmony.

Writing something unplayable, by the way, is laughably easy. I'm sure every composition student does it. The correct goal is not to write something difficult or complex, it is to write something WORTH LISTENING TO! I really can't stress that enough...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Footnote to Mostly Late Efflorescences

After I posted that piece the other day I started thinking about Bach and how I had managed to leave him out. He isn't quite like the other examples in that he seems to have generated flurries of flourishing several times in his life, while the other composers that I listed just seem to have had one. Bach's bread and butter, as it were, was chamber and church music earlier in his career and mostly church music later in his career. His production of church music in the form of music for organ to be played in church, cantatas with religious texts, his monumental settings of the Passion and finally his B minor Mass extended over most of his life, so don't really fit my conception of a "Mostly Late Efflorescence". Still, perhaps the Mass in B minor does fit the model as it was entirely outside his usual work, being a Catholic mass while Bach was employed as a composer of music for the Lutheran churches in Leipzig. It also comes from near the end of his life. There are a couple of other examples from him that might fit as well. His Well-Tempered Clavier is in two books, the first dating from 1722 and the second twenty years later. These monumental collections of preludes and fugues fit the idea quite well in that they exceed any conceivable practical need he had, but are rather a contribution to posterity. Another possible candidate would be his remarkable collection of concertos for various instruments that pretty much exhausts the whole Baroque concerto genre. The Brandenburg Concertos date from 1721 or earlier and again, burst the bounds of their time and genre, becoming music for the ages. Finally, perhaps the most obvious example of a monumental achievement written solely, it seems, for posterity would be Bach's Art of Fugue, a set of fugues on a single subject and variations of it, along with some remarkable canons. So, it seems that the major problem with applying the idea of Mostly Late Efflorescences to Bach is that he had too many and they were spread out over all of his mature years. Darn! I guess that's why he is Bach.

Another, very different example, might be the Czech composer Leoš Janáček whose entire career as a composer was one big Late Efflorescence. Until he met his muse, the much younger (and married) Kamila Stösslová to whom he wrote some seven hundred passionate letters, he was a largely unknown regional composer of dull organ and choral music and folksong arrangements. Nearly all of the works for which he is acclaimed, such as his two string quartets, the Sinfonietta, the Glagolithic Mass and his five late operas, were all written in the last decade of his life, after he had met Kamila.

Janáček's String Quartet No. 2 was given its nickname "Intimate Letters" by the composer himself in a reference to his long correspondence with Kamila. This performance is by the Emerson Quartet and the photo is of Kamila (and her son) in 1917, the year they met.

Tales of the Unexpected

A commentator put me on to this very interesting article by the retiring director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. That's Birmingham in England, not Alabama. Here is an excerpt:
What do you do when a composer announces that the work you’ve just commissioned for 15 musicians will need 1,000 performers; or asks for the premiere to be in a boarded-up shop; or wants you to time precisely how long it takes to get from the top floor of your concert hall to the bottom?
Smile, breathe deeply, and cheer. Today’s composers like to tread new territory, and in hearing things afresh, they sometimes need to rewrite the rulebook. This urge to explore is what makes contemporary music so exhilarating and so unexpected. And it’s why I love it.
Well yes, me too, believe it or not. I love the idea of absolutely fresh ideas realized in an enthusiastic way and with a budget to pay for it! Three cheers for the city of Birmingham, who, I presume, funds these fascinating premiers. Go read the whole thing and listen to the two clips. Here is one, a three minute abbreviated version of "Crowd Out" by David Lang:

So what do I think of these pieces, aesthetically? Well, obviously I can only comment on the ones I have heard. What I think is going on here is a great deal of creativity being applied around the periphery of music. There is a lot, an awful lot, of what you might call music theater or performance art here. Which is fine, of course. But much of it, while eerie or complexly confused, is not interesting or genuinely moving--at least to me. Crowd Out is obviously a lot of fun, but that is partly because it turns the audience into performers, or vice versa. This checks an important box: egalitarianism. "Requiem to let" is rather more interesting, though not so interesting musically. It is about capturing the sadness of empty retail spaces, though the presence of an audience does rather remove the "empty" aspect. Still, an interesting idea. But what I hear, musically is a solo voice doing something that sounds rather like Hebrew cantillation, alternating with solo bass clarinet over a very dreary and repetitive pre-recorded vocal track. Neither seems to actually go anywhere so we are left trapped in the empty retail space, symbolized by the closed circle of the music. That is what I am hearing, at least.

The problem for any composer is to create something that is musically substantial and entertaining for an audience. But I think that those challenges are being fudged a bit here. On the one hand, government funding takes away the urgency of appealing to an audience and on the other hand, it is probably easier to come up with the idea of "1000 people shouting in the street" or creating a space that suggested oceanic depths than a fresh musical idea. I don't want to diminish the creative brilliance of theatrical ideas, but I do want to say that they are peripheral to musical ideas. I have to confess an ongoing disappointment when I read about some striking new idea, something really new and amazing, only to find out it is just people clapping and shouting at one another in a mall.

But this is just me, of course. I have very focused tastes and really like to hear music with a bit of meat on its bones, as it were.

Here is a piece that I think is creatively brilliant, with some fresh ideas, but that finds no need of any added theater or staging.

This is WTC 9/11 by Steve Reich and you really need to see the text as it is hard to make out what is being said in that recording.