Monday, February 8, 2016

Marketing, Dance and the Video

My violinist friend just sent me a couple of videos that she said showed what classical musicians had to do to market themselves these days. Maybe so, but I have some misgivings. Here is the first one:

Great beginning using a string orchestra arrangement of the second movement of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8. Wonderful music: intense, driving, cogent and permeated with Shostakovich's musical motto: DSCH, the notes D, E flat (Es in German), C and B natural (H in German). The music is so powerful that even the agitated jump-cut, music video style hand-held camera work doesn't really distract. But then, hilariously, the director comes on and starts waxing rhapsodic about, wait for it, Benjamin Britten?!? Who never in his life wrote anything half as intense or exciting as the Shostakovich. Are we just not supposed to notice how dull the Britten is in comparison? He says how "dark, terrifying and sinister" Britten can be, but the music in the background is very dull indeed. The "dark, terrifying and sinister" we just heard, was composed by Shostakovich.

Music marketing like this may pull a few more concert-goers, but if they fall for this clumsy and misleading picture of the music, then they are likely to be casual attendees. The people who know enough about the music to be laughing out loud at this are likely to be discouraged from attending, don't you think? Dumb marketing, whatever the "production values" is just, well, dumb.

The other clip, also marketing The Scottish Ensemble, is even worse, though not as funny. This one is about a collaboration with a dance group to "interpret" Bach's Goldberg Variations. Oh, if only he were still alive so his lawyer could be suing them. The message here is that if you have fancy enough slo-mo camera work and groovy enough choreography and nice looking musicians and dancers you will be able to almost completely overshadow one of the greatest compositions in Western music. It wasn't easy, but they managed it!

All I can think of is a group of musicians out busking some Bach and a bunch of little kids come along and start kibitzing and cavorting in front of them. In his best W. C. Fields voice, the leader stands up and says: "go away kids, you bother me, and you're interfering with my gig!"

In case it needs to be said, the Bach is rather a complete piece of music, needing no cavorting to be appreciated. And, it is extremely difficult to try and play it while people are leaping about right in your face. I wish I had a subscription to The Scottish Ensemble's concert series so I could cancel it!

There, I've had my say, now explain to me how I am just a mossback, curmudgeonly reactionary in the comments.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Culture as a Public Good

I have lived away from Canada for quite a while now, but I still am surprised sometimes at where Canada is going. It is an odd experience being an expatriate. What prompts this is an article in today's Globe and Mail about Canadian culture as a public good. Here is an excerpt, just for flavor:
The policy tools that have protected and nurtured Canada’s cultural industries since the 1970s are unknown to transnational distributors of foreign content – that would be Google, YouTube and Netflix – while Canadian consumers are increasingly sidestepping the domestic distributors who, whether by inclination or by regulation, produce Canadian content.
Anything bother you about that? Canada is, of course, strongly influenced by being America's hat, as it were. A thinly-populated nation of a very similar ethnic and cultural background smack dab up against the most powerful nation in the world has to feel a bit defensive about its identity and culture. Canada is a cobbled-together entity, made up of those scraps of the British Empire left over after the American Revolution. A wonderful place, despite all that, but one that has always been rather unsure of who it was, exactly. Not American (shudder), not British (shudder twice), but without the rough-and-ready individuality of, say, Australia.

So, back in the 70s, it was decided that Canada's "cultural industries", meaning Canadian television, movie-makers and music producers mostly, had to be protected from US competition lest all we have to watch turns out to be re-runs of Law and Order. No! A stand must be taken, at taxpayer expense, to defend uh, great Canadian television shows like, uh, help me out here? Perhaps the Canadian movie industry which, apart from some Quebec movies seems to be largely American products shot in Vancouver like the X-Files and Battlestar Galactica? No? Great Canadian musicians like Bruce Cockburn, Alanis Morissette and Leonard Cohen? Well, frankly, I doubt they need money from the Canadian taxpayer any more than Celine Dion does.

So what I think we are actually talking about is subsidies to the cultural industries, not the artists, but the middlemen, happily standing in line for their handouts from the public trough. And this is supposed to be a public good? Could someone slap me please?

The article, by Kate Taylor, describes the nuts and bolts of what she calls a crisis:
Netflix is taking an estimated $445-million a year in subscription fees out of Canada; YouTube is taking an estimated $22.5-million in annual advertising revenue out of Canada; iTunes and Google Play are taking $50-million in annual music sales out of Canada. And half of the estimated $432-million in ad revenues that the newspaper and magazine industries are losing every year to digital platforms is also leaving Canada.
What this means, simply, is that individuals in Canada are purchasing those cultural artifacts that they choose to and that the Internet has made available to them. If they prefer to subscribe to HBO so they can watch Game of Thrones instead of a second rate cop show set in Vancouver (itself an imitation of a US model) then this poses a terrible problem for Canadian Culture, which must be controlled, manipulated and force-fed to the populace by the Powers That Be, meaning cultural czars in Toronto. What is being left out of this accounting is those dollars, big American dollars, that are being spent by Americans to purchase Canadian cultural products. Not much in the way of television or movies, mind you, but quite a substantial amount of Canadian music. Leonard Cohen fills big halls the world over so all that revenue should be counted as accruing to Canada. Celine Dion has sold 200 million records that need to be added in.

So, in reality, there is no crisis whatsoever, except in the pocketbooks of those cultural middlemen that have gotten used to living off the fat of the taxpayer while delivering nothing but bland, forgettable cultural "products" that Canadians have had forced on them. This is a particularly revealing excerpt from the article:
What’s to be done? There are practical steps that could be taken – you could ask Internet service providers to start contributing to the Canada Media Fund just as cable and satellite providers do – but since there is often public hostility to and misunderstanding of such measures, it might be a good idea to lay a bit of philosophical groundwork first. Why can’t we just leave Canadian producers to compete in an international marketplace? Why do we need Canadian content in the first place?
Ah yes, that public hostility that needs to be managed! Let's have a look at that "philosophical groundwork." There is not much there, but this comes the closest: a world where narratives and images are as powerful as money and guns, a successful society does not import every single cultural good that it consumes; that a creative society is one that creates things.
Let me be the devil's advocate for a minute here and say that narratives and images are NOT as powerful as money and guns. The Second World War was not won by the side with the coolest narrative and niftiest images--the Nazis obviously had the grooviest uniforms--but by the side with the most B24 bombers and aircraft carriers. Sure, a creative society is one that creates things, which is just the tautology that a creative society is creative. Sadly, Canada, apart from pop music, isn't very creative. To be quite honest, you have never heard of any Canadian television shows because they are feeble and boring imitations of American television shows, only existing because they are propped up with taxpayer subsidies. You have likely never seen a Canadian movie for the same reason (as opposed to an American movie shot in Canada). You have heard of quite a few Canadian pop musicians because they are creative and popular enough to sell around the world. They don't need any subsidies. And if Canadian television and movies were any good, neither would they.

The bottom line is that, basking in the prosperity of unearned public subsidies, the Canadian cultural industries have been cranking out crap for decades.

Any culture in Canada that is truly a public good will be sought out and purchased by the public because they see it as good. It is a simple enough concept. But that is an unacceptable answer to the Canadian Powers That Be because it offers, in the immortal words of blogger Glenn Reynolds, "insufficient opportunities for graft." Taxing citizens to give subsidies to people to produce television shows and movies that they do not want to watch is nothing more than graft.

Now I know you are asking yourself, "could Canadian television really be as bad as he says?" I offer in evidence an episode from a show deemed one of the Top 10 Canadian TV Shows: Mantracker:

After that we really need some Canadian music to clear the palate. Here is my favorite Canadian popular musician, Leonard Cohen:

It is pretty clear to me that the more you support and nurture the pseudo-creativity of "cultural industries" the more you ignore, if not actually discourage, real creativity. Case in point: Canada.

UPDATE: This has sparked a bit of discussion in the comments, so let me add a parting thought. What is deeply troubling to me about the Canadian approach to culture and the arts is that all of the agency is given to government. The "policy tools that have protected and nurtured Canada’s cultural industries since the 1970s" are all activities of government. Government has a very iffy history in this area, usually declining rather quickly into propaganda rather than culture. Analyzing how this works in Canada would be best discussed in another post (after a lot of research). One thing I am pretty sure of is that creativity in the arts and culture always, ALWAYS, comes from the individual mind. It is not something that can be protected and nurtured by government policy. Governments can offer patronage and some of this can be good. Support for orchestras and opera probably depends on this. But if we look at history we see that most patronage comes from a few influential individuals: French aristocrats, Russian noblemen, wealthy Viennese. Sometimes the Church or a municipality like Venice or Florence. But in those cases as well, I suspect that a few influential individuals were behind it.

If you want to support the arts, it is very simple: commission artists and composers and arrange for the works to be disseminated. How do you choose who to pick? Ah, that would depend on aesthetics!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Answers to the quiz

Last Friday I put up these questions:

  1. How many albums did the Sex Pistols release?
  2. What is the difference between serialism and dodecaphonic composition?
  3. Who, of these famous guitar players, is still alive? Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Francesco Corbetta.
  4. How many different pitches comprise an Italian augmented sixth chord?
  5. What does the title of Adele's latest album, 25, refer to?
  6. What pitch is the highest string of a Renaissance lute tuned to? A Baroque lute?
  7. How many tympani players are needed to perform Berlioz' Requiem?
  8. If you were dancing a branle, what country would you likely be in?
  9. In music theory, what is a pedal?
  10. Also in music, what does "Sturm und Drang" refer to?
Just like the last time, I didn't get many answers! Here are the correct ones:
  1. Although Wikipedia has details on a number of releases after the band broke up, there really was only one official, studio album released: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
  2. These two terms refer to basically the same thing: music composed using a pre-determined "row" of all twelve pitches.
  3. Just Eric Clapton.
  4. Three. In C major they are A flat, C and F#.
  5. Her age when she was writing the songs.
  6. Nominally, a G. On a Baroque lute, an F.
  7. Ten.
  8. France.
  9. A long, held note, over which the other voices move freely.
  10. A period in the 1770s when Joseph Haydn, in particular, wrote a number of very emotional symphonies, often in minor keys. It is often linked to the literary movement with the same name.
As an envoi to this post, here is one of Haydn's Sturm und Drang symphonies, the Symphony No. 44 in E minor, nicknamed the Trauer Symphony ("Mourning"):

Friday Miscellanea

Here you go, 100 amazing bass lines:

* * *

I'm sure we have all been in a situation where the guy next door has the tendency to play bad music too loud--it is pretty much the price we pay for the electronic recording and playback of music. But this guy has found the perfect solution. For some odd reason, blogger won't embed so you have to follow the link:

The clip is titled "Neighbor Payback Prank" but a better title would "Neighbor Payback Justice" don't you think? I had some neighbors who had three loud dogs that barked late at night. So one morning, around 6am I put my Harmon/Kardon stereo up to the window, cranked it up and played all of the Rite of Spring for them. No reaction!! So I see why their dogs didn't bother them: stone-deaf neighbors. Still, the act of revenge was enjoyable in itself.

* * *

The Guardian has an interesting note about the challenges Shostakovich faced in his career--a bit more severe than most composers have.
He wrote his First Symphony in 1926 at the age of 19; it was a worldwide success; three years later its dedicatee was arrested and shot. They executed the dedicatees of symphonies? Yes, and musicologists. And anyone who looked remotely suspicious to Stalin’s paranoid eye.
* * *

Somehow, I had hoped the 21st century would be more interesting than this: all known recordings of the Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie played together.

* * *

Here is something you probably won't want to see. A whole bunch of folks twerking to the Goldberg Variations? Wouldn't even Donald Trump condemn this for excessive vulgarity?

Bach's lawyer will be calling them in the morning...

* * *

So here is what is hot with string quartets these days. The JACK Quartet playing "Dancing With Somebody" by Joe Twist.

Who would have thought, back in the middle of the last century with Boulez and Stockhausen roaming the landscape, that the big influence in the new millennium would be, wait for it, tango... NTTAWWT.

* * *

And that brings us to our patented envoi for today's post. Bach without all the twerking. This is the Chorus and Orchestra of La Petite Bande, on period instruments. Barbara Schlick, soprano. René Jacobs, altus. Nico van der Meel, tenor. Max van Egmond, bass. Christoph Prégardien, tenor (Evangelist). Harry van der Camp, bass (Jesus). Conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pre-composition and the Blank Page

Just to get the caveats out of the way up front: what I am going to try and describe is not so much a fundamental difference as a difference of degree. I have been listening to a lot of non-Western music lately, partly because I love it (some of it) and partly because it is very interesting from a rhythmic point of view. Western music has a achieved a lot of its structural breadth and expressive depth by eliminating some kinds of resources, such as microtonality and large metric groups, and it is interesting to consider the possibility of reacquiring some of those resources.

Ok, enough shilly-shallying, I've been listening to quite a few Ravi Shankar recordings in the last week and have some observations. Ragas, which are melodically-inflected modes, and talas, which are metric groups, are more complex than the Western equivalents of scales and meters. A raga contains more than just a series of pitches; it also has certain implications as to how those pitches are grouped in phrases and how they are ornamented with microtonal glissandi. Talas, the rhythmic groupings, are larger than typical Western meters and may have ten, fourteen or sixteen beats to a cycle. This is where the musical focus lies. Harmony hardly exists at all as the tamboura, a four-stringed fretless lute, is constantly playing the root and fifth throughout the whole piece. Sometimes, fairly rarely, the sitar player may sit on and outline a different harmony, but this is dissonant to the tamboura and soon returns to the "tonic". There is, of course, considerable pitch variety, including microtones, but it is always in relationship to the bare fifths of the tamboura. When the tablas (drums) enter, they add another layer of interest both in contrast to and in dialogue with the sitar. Sometimes there are melodic motifs that are exploited for structural unity.

This is very enjoyable and charming music. Let's listen to some. This is Raga Jog, recorded in 1956. At the beginning you hear the sitar sweep across the sympathetic strings and the tamboura, cycling through the four strings of the tonality. Then the sitar enters with a melodic improvisation. Later on, the tablas enter. Ragas are often in three parts, the alap, the unmetered melodic introduction without the tablas, the jor, the rhythmic part once the tablas enter and the gat, a quicker section to end.

Setting aside all the traditional discussions and explanations, what I hear is a gifted group improvisation with both the sitar and the tablas that nonetheless is based on very familiar and often-used material. In this sense it is a bit like the blues--not in any overt musical manner, but just in that there is a shared melodic and rhythmic vocabulary that both players are very familiar with that enables their improvisation to be so expressive and coherent. It is a common occurrence with blues for someone to "sit in" on a session. This is because the tunes, the structures and the very typical motifs and "licks" of the soloists are a familiar, shared vocabulary. Several players can sit down and play tune after tune together because they know the genre.

My sense, after listening to quite a lot of non-Western music, is that something similar is going on there as well. It tends to be concealed by the use of traditional terminology and descriptions and by the difficulty of accommodating the music to Western notation, but that is what it sounds like to me.

Now for the blank page! What I mean by that is where a Western composer begins: instead of with a whole set of traditional practices, instruments, genres, motifs and rhythmic structures, he or she begins with a blank page. Now, of course, it is only blank in terms of possibility, not in terms of knowledge. Our composer knows a great deal, presumably, from the sound and style of early music going right back to the 12th century, to the contrapuntal structures of Bach, the motivic intensity of Beethoven, the lyricism of Schubert, the orchestration of Mahler and so on, right through all the modernist experiments of the 20th century. He or she also has a hundred or a thousand musical structures to draw on from the binary dances of the Baroque to the small ternary and sonata forms of the Classical Era, to the host of other genres and forms that have been used in Western music: bourrée, gigue, nocturne, symphony, tone poem, and on and on.

But it is still a blank page in the sense that the composer can choose ANY or NONE of the forms, styles, genres, techniques and methods available. They can be ignored completely or combined in any imaginable way. This is where the considerable difference between "classical", "concert" or "art" music comes when compared to all of the traditional musics. Not to disparage any of them, of course, because they are wonderful musical expressions and, to be honest, classical composers are always stealing from them!

But the simple fact that classical musicians do not, as a rule, just sit down and jam, points to the difference. This is usually misinterpreted as meaning that classical musicians are less creative or tied to some dead notes on paper or something. But the real reason is that composers start with that blank page and in order to know what they did with it, you have to see what they wrote. An Indian musician or a blues musician knows how the song is going to go in general terms--a classical musician really has no idea because the possibilities are so great.

It could be this:

(yes, they are playing from memory, but it was all written down)

Or this:

and the classical musicians don't know which until they open the score.

(Well, sure, I'm exaggerating a tad to make a point!)

These are two extremes of "classical" music and while one uses a few tuned drums and the other a very large orchestra, they are both based on the idea of starting with a blank page and inventing something, basically from scratch.

What we see or hear with traditional musics like Indian ragas, is a highly-developed vocabulary of structures and motifs that are learned by rote and then improvised on with great skill. Composers, as such, don't really exist. Much of this music I would describe as being "pre-composed". A lot of the basic texture and motifs is learned over a lengthy apprenticeship which is fundamentally different from what a student composer does. He or she certainly learns a lot about music. But then, as soon as you sit down in front of that blank page, you essentially throw all the details away so that you can invent something new.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Jazz Police

I just ran across an essay making the attempt to show why jazz is not more popular:
Eventually, that question started to haunt me: “Why isn’t this music more popular?” Being on the air every day, it didn’t take long to start to find out one of the major reasons. I was playing Herbie Hancock’s record Head Hunters (listen below) one morning when I got a call on the listener line. I picked up and the caller said flatly, “This. Is. Not. Jazz.” Huh? It’s Herbie Hancock, how could it not be jazz? This, as it turns out, was just the tip of the iceberg—so began my experience with a community that I (and others) call the Jazz Police.
The author, Matt Fleeger, asserts that jazz, rather than being a particular musical style, is rather an interpretation of music (his phrase). Therefore:
when you try to take something as creative as jazz and fit it into a box, it becomes unattractive to people. And, you do a disservice to all of the incredible artists who pushed this great artistic invention forward. Art shouldn’t have too many rules (or any rules at all). Unfortunately, over time a conservative contingent has dominated the jazz scene and branded it with a definition that is stuck in the 1950s. To their mind, jazz died in ’68 when Miles went electric (watch below). But to mine, that was just one of jazz’s many (continuing) amazing evolutions.
There is a similar danger confronting classical music as well, though configured somewhat differently. Whereas with jazz, some aficionados try to establish the legitimacy and authenticity of it as a serious musical form by associating it with a particular variety of jazz or a particular era, in classical music there are a couple of different camps: there are a whole bunch of professional consultants that are constantly advising classical musicians to present themselves more like pop musicians. They recommend chatting up the audience, light shows, multi-media, more hip programming and costuming and so on. Another camp, and I guess I am partly with them, insists that classical music be left alone and that audiences simply be given a bit more introduction or education. The classical repertoire speaks for itself and the more you mess with it the more you dilute it. Another camp, and I am partly in this one as well, insists on the creative freedom of the artists as does Matt Fleeger. He tries to fudge the problem by saying that jazz is whatever people play who say it is jazz:
I’ve stopped trying to find a clear-cut definition for jazz and embraced the notion that it probably is undefinable. For me, it’s all about the artist’s intent. If the artist intends the creation to be jazz, then it must be!
This just escapes the issue without answering it, of course. He wants to say that jazz is not a genre, but rather an interpretation, which is kind of interesting. But he should probably add that this interpretation leads to the creation of many genres. Then at least we can talk about it. If you just say that jazz is whatever musicians say it is, then it is hard to say anything about it.

Jazz certainly seems to have a variety of genres that we can recognize: Dixieland, Be-Bop, Latin jazz,  Big Band jazz, fusion and so on. Wikipedia has a list. That list is probably a bit too thorough, but I can certainly see how you could do a fair description of some of the larger categories. And that would not be prescriptive, just descriptive.

The danger that Matt is describing: the dictates of a jazz police, is feared so much by most people who write and talk about music that they prefer to avoid any kind of aesthetic judgment. This, to me, seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Here is that Herbie Hancock album he was mentioning:

Is that jazz?

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Rebellious Mood

A longtime commentator sent me an interesting link on David Garrett, the violin virtuoso who presents himself a bit like a rock star and does what is usually called "crossover" (he also does a lot of the regular kind of concertizing, which you don't pick up from that link). The article says:
Clinging to David Garrett is the label of a rebel. For his appearance is not that of the classical musician, his concerts are no longer the kind his early audiences would expect, and his approach to music mixes up entrenched concepts, making them seem redundant.
It is interesting to see that, in the course of his life, he has found himself repeatedly in positions that cast him as a rebel; even though, as he has stated, his natural inclination is to live in harmony with those around him.
I want to just pick up on the core idea here: that an artist--a genuine artist--has to be, in some sense a rebel. This is an idea of some vintage, but not an age-old one. In fact, this is an idea that really only dates from around 1830 with a few precursors.

We have an image of Beethoven as a rebel and nearly every musical rebel since has followed that model. It is a constructed model, however, even though there is some substance to it. The "Beethoven as rebel" is only one side of him. Pieces like his solitary opera Fidelio about the freeing of a political prisoner, his last symphony and his Symphony No. 3 are offered as evidence of his revolutionary, rebellious nature, with good reason. But that leaves out the vast majority of his work which was, as was most 18th century music, designed to amuse and entertain a music-loving aristocracy. Indeed, a number of these noblemen banded together to provide Beethoven with an annual stipend in his later years.

But by the 1830s and the music of Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt, Chopin and others, the model of the solitary, rebellious artist was firmly entrenched as it has been ever since. This is a kind of costume that all musicians and artists are forced to wear, no matter their real character. If you are not in some way a revolutionary rebel, then your work is not "serious" art--this is the very deeply embedded narrative.

And I have a problem with it!

The problem is basically that I think that this narrative is no longer very relevant and certainly should not determine what artists are forced to do. I guess I want to rebel against the rebellion! All through the 19th century it had some real relevance as music, and art generally, was moving away from an "aristocratic patron" model to a middle-class model. The old social structures were being modified or replaced and art provided a kind of aesthetic chronicle. Then the 20th century saw music veer into an extreme modernism--at first as a harbinger of the two World Wars and then post-WWII as a kind of benumbed post-traumatic reaction to the horrors of the wars. I think that this explains a great deal of the extremism we see between 1914 and 1970.

But in the 1960s some entirely new influences began to be felt, partly inspired by non-Western sources and partly by the exhaustion of the avant-garde. The ideas of transcendence and even joy began to return to art. In music the work of Steve Reich and Philip Glass broke away from the modernist progressive narrative and we hear a new emotional landscape. This is Steve Reich's Eight Lines from 1979:

Frankly, I have very little interest in writing dreary, fragmentary, agonized "progressive" music! What I want to write is music with transcendence and joy. When I listen to a symphony of Joseph Haydn and hear the astonishing brilliance and sheer jubilance of it I think, yes, that is the kind of thing we need now. Not more existentialist anxiety!