Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Greatest Musicians!

Let's take three slices out of music history.


Two hundred years ago the greatest musician, without too much doubt, was Ludwig van Beethoven:


One hundred years ago the greatest musician was very likely Igor Stravinsky:


And right now, at least according to some folks, it might be Pharrell Williams, writer of many 3 and 4 minute pop hits for other artists and himself and fashion leader:

Houston, we have a problem!

The Symphony Guide on Dvořák’s New World Symphony

It's Tuesday so we continue our look at the ongoing (and soon to end) series in the Guardian on the 50 greatest symphonies. Today Tom Service takes a look at Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, "From the New World". I just listened to all of his symphonies a week or so ago and posted about them here. As you can see, doing so resulted in me downgradinDvořák somewhat from my previous, long-standing, high estimation. His first four symphonies are blaring monstrosities that gave me a headache. His later ones are charming and melodic lightweights. But let's have a look at Tom's article. Here is the heart of it:
With its community of themes that appear throughout the symphony (in one brilliant place in the finale, Dvořák seamlessly combines tunes from the slow movement, the scherzo third movement, and the finale), Dvořák extends principles that he knew from Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. But as well as the traditional ways of hearing Dvořák’s 9th – either as an American evocation or a late-romantic triumph of thematic cycles and integration – there are others, too. The music plays with memory, both in the way that melodies from the first movement, say, return in every successive movement, but also with a larger idea of reminiscence, nostalgia, and something darker. That slow movement(which starts with those surreal, sublime brass chords, music that returns with visionary power, in a completely different, dramatic context near the end of the finale) isn’t as simple as an unforgettable tune and a series of contrasting rustic episodes. For me, that music sounds more and more like a lament, a keening.
This is one of the better essays in the series as Tom sets out to correct the misimpressions about the source and nature of the inspiration for the melodies in the piece and gives a fairly accurate summation of it. Of course, Dvořák was just one of the first generation of nationalist symphony composers in the late-19th century to break with the stylistic traditions of the German and Austrian mainstream. I sometimes wonder if some of the great appeal of Dvořák, especially here in the New World, is not simply the titles attached to pieces like the "New World" Symphony and the "American" String Quartet. Perhaps he should also have written a "Manhattan" Quintet?

But the "New World" is a lovely piece and it has the kinds of tunes you can go away humming. Let's have a listen. This is Karajan and the Vienna Phillies:

Monday, September 1, 2014

Crossover Mush

I said somewhere recently that I'm not a snob, I'm an elitist, but somedays I wonder. Today's Globe and Mail has an article on the latest trends in crossover, which apparently means taking seriously the attempts by pop musicians to leverage their fame into being considered composers of serious music. This is almost as funny as Alex Ross referring to Radiohead as "those English composers". But let me restrain my inner snob and have a look. Is there any there there?

Here is the Globe article. They assert:
What isn’t so radical any more is the notion of a rock or pop artist composing so-called serious music. Beethoven no longer rolls over in his grave. Rather, he’s propped up on one elbow listening to Radiohead. Musicians such as Parry, Owen Pallett, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the National’s Bryce Dessner – who produced Parry’s Music For Heart and Breath – are at ease in classical and pop genres.
Well, yes, it has been happening, or has been asserted to be happening. In my mind Beethoven is putting in ear plugs right about now. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. How does cranking out pop albums for a few years imply that you can actually compose real music? Even if Kronos are willing to record it? What we need is to listen to some of this stuff and decide for ourselves. But the problem seems to be that it is hard to find on YouTube. Owen Pallett, who has composed a violin concerto, is represented by stuff like this, which I presume is his pop mode:

Well, it's not Franz Schubert, is it? Here is part of a film score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead:

That sort of sounds like classical music because it uses strings, but honestly, is there anything there that you wouldn't come up with in about five minutes of noodling around? The Glove avers that:
Pallet, Parry and the others, they’re all young. The full musical spectrum they embrace is a generational matter, really. If you’ve grown up listening to the Beatles and Bartok or Debussy and Devo, the lines inevitably will blur.
I grew up listening to the Beatles, and Bartók and Debussy and, well, not Devo so much as Talking Heads, but how I became a mature musician was by realizing the differences between them, not mushing them altogether. Blurring the lines turns everything into mush. One of the composers mentioned, Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, is represented by a whole composition. Here is his Music for Heart and Breath.

I found it to be a dull, self-indulgent piece, going nowhere very slowly. I suspect that this is what this new generation of sort-of composers thinks classical music is. No rules, just mushily let your feelings flow. With strings!! Referring to his work with Arcade Fire, Parry muses:
In response to the band’s relentless touring and robust, carnivalesque concerts, Parry virtually retreated deep under the skin for his neo-classical work. “What I was craving was the opposite,” he explains. “I was looking for quietude and introverted music. I wanted to feel the smallness of myself.”
Well, ok. But couldn't you have indulged yourself with a little polka music instead?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Plagiarism, Copying and Forgery

I was in an art gallery the other day and saw a painting that looked to me a lot like Mark Rothko. I mentioned this to the artist and she said, yes, she had done an imitation of a Rothko painting as a prop for a play that was recently produced here. That prompted a little discussion about art forgery and famous forgers. I casually dropped the remark that you can't forge music, which garnered some quizzical expressions. I actually put up a post about this a couple of years ago, here. But it is such a fascinating phenomenon that I think it is worth revisiting.

What is a forgery and why can't a piece of music be forged? Here is a pretty good Wikipedia article about art forgery. The interesting thing might be that forging artworks could well be more lucrative than forging $100 bills. The reason is that a forged artwork could be worth millions of dollars, which is a lot of $100 bills. Also, there are a lot of very highly-trained professionals working full time to catch people that forge currency, but far fewer are working on uncovering forged works of art. Also, the $100 bills are designed to be hard to forge, but artworks are not. And the means of detecting a forgery vary greatly depending on the period and medium. How would you detect a Rauschenberg forgery? Or one of Mark Rothko?

Now, why can't you forge a piece of music? In my previous post I explained it like this:
[A forgery] can only be done with so-called 'autographic' works, ones of which there can only be one original. According to the theory of Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art this cannot be done with so-called 'allographic' works such as music, dance and theater where the history of the production of the work is not essential to the value of the artwork. There can be hundreds of copies, both written and printed, of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and thousands of performances and they can all be authentic as long as they follow the specifications of the score. In this theory it is inherently impossible to forge a Beethoven symphony even though you might be able to forge a manuscript copy of one.
The core of the problem is the ontological nature of music or any performing art. A Beethoven symphony exists in the original manuscript, but also in the printed editions and in accurate performances. Is a disco version of a Beethoven symphony still the symphony? Only partly, because some of the specifications have been altered significantly. You could get into a lot of philosophical conundrums about this if you get too abstract. You might start asking if a piece of music is still the same piece of music if it is transposed to a different key. The answer is yes because if we look at actual musical practice, singers, for example, often sing music transposed to suit their voice and listeners accept these changes easily. So, same piece. But if you took a Beethoven symphony and transposed it up seven octaves or down seven octaves, that would change its character so much that it would no longer be recognizable as the piece. Similarly, I can recall hearing a very, very bad guitarist practicing an etude by Villa-Lobos and playing it so badly it was at first unrecognizable, even to me, who knew the piece from memory!

This "recognizing" factor is important, I think. By recognizing a performance of a piece of music with which we are familiar, we acknowledge THAT it is a performance of that piece. An unrecognizable performance is one that is in some way, NOT that piece. As I said before, the history of the production is not important, but the character is. You can take a Beethoven symphony, accurately record it, subject it to some kind of cryptography and, as long as you are able to decode it later on, you can play it back and it will be, ontologically, that same symphony. This is exactly what happens every day as nowadays, all recordings are digital, which means that analog sound waves are transformed into zeros and ones with an analog to digital converter and then the process is reversed on playback.

Now here is where it gets interesting and I don't recall reading any discussion of this point: can you "recognize" a symphony as being by Beethoven if it is not actually by him, but a clever imitation? Before you answer, let me mention a symphony that for a very long time was thought to be by Mozart as he himself passed it off as his own work. In my previous post I discussed it:
Occasionally composers do something a bit nefarious when they take music from another composer and pass it off as their own. In 1783 Mozart took a symphony by Michael Haydn, revised the wind parts throughout and added a slow introduction to the first movement. He then performed it in a concert along with his Symphony No. 36, where it was undoubtedly accepted as his own work. That most of the symphony was actually by Michael Haydn wasn't discovered until 1907.
Michael Haydn was Joseph Haydn's less-talented brother. So, for over a hundred years people "recognized" this as a symphony by Mozart when it mostly wasn't. So why couldn't someone "forge" a Beethoven symphony and sell the original manuscript, suitably aged, for lots of money? I imagined how this might happen as follows:
However, it is certainly possible to create a parody of a work by Beethoven. Imagine a musicologist, a composer and a manuscript forger getting together and writing a new composition so closely imitating the style of Beethoven that it could fool not only listeners but also professional musicians and other musicologists. Once written, the score would be handed over to a forger who would create, on old paper and with old inks, an exact facsimile of a typical Beethoven manuscript, scribbles and all. This could then be announced to the world and given a big premiere. This is highly unlikely for many reasons. First of all, there wouldn't be the millions of dollars of potential profit enough to attract people good enough to bring it off. Second, we have a pretty extensive knowledge of Beethoven's life and it would be difficult to find a niche big enough for a whole symphony to have been composed with no clues in the biographical material.
 The more I think of it, the less likely it seems. Mozart's works are so numerous and of such a wide range of quality (he began composing when he was five years old!) and so varied in style (his father wrote to him that he could imitate any style) that it is quite possible to be mistaken about the authenticity of a piece by Mozart. He actually wrote only a bit more than half of his Requiem, which was finished by a student, but we accept the whole of it as "Mozart". But with Beethoven, the situation is a bit different.

For one thing, as I mention, we know Beethoven's biography so well, and have so much documentary evidence in the form of sketchbooks and conversation books that finding a way to squeeze a new symphony by Beethoven into the narrative would be extremely difficult. On another level entirely, each symphony by Beethoven, even ones like the Symphony No. 8, are so individual, so unique, that it is frankly beyond the bounds of the believable to imagine someone being able to come up with a new Beethoven symphony. Each one is like a milestone in music history. Mind you, so is Schubert's unfinished symphony, which languished unperformed for decades before it was discovered by Schumann. But this was an authentic symphony by Schubert, and one of earth-shaking importance. I believe very firmly that the only person who could really write a Beethoven symphony was Beethoven! Simply while it is certainly possible to copy the style, say, of the Eroica or the Pastoral, but it is not possible, I firmly believe, for someone to originate a piece in a new Beethoven style. Because this is what he did: he invented a new style, a new idiom for each symphony. And that is what you can't copy.

Beethoven wrote ONE Moonlight Sonata and ONE Hammerklavier Sonata and never imitated himself, which is why you can't write a new piano sonata in the style of Beethoven unless you can write one that is as different from both of those sonatas as they are from one another.

So this is why you can't forge a piece of music, though you can certainly plagiarize one...

Let's listen to those two piano sonatas, just to underline the point. First, the Moonlight Sonata, first movement:

And now the first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Miscellaneous Footnote

This is a footnote to Friday's post. Seems that a fellow named James Murphy took "data" (whatever that means) from the US Open tennis tournament and by means of a computer program turned it into "music". Here is the link. If, like me, you are allergic to videos like this one (all chopped up into meaningless little soundbites), then if you click on the link below, and keep clicking, you will eventually come to a really dreary piece of music that sounds like random little bleeps with a pounding drum track underneath. Apart from changing the speed of the drum track slightly, they seem to be mostly all the same. In other words, not much worse than a lot of pop music. Why is it that no-one (or almost no-one apart from me) is willing to step up and say that this is crap? No, it's not an "interesting" new way to make music. There is no musical content here at all. Music is an artform created by human beings in order to explore the possibilities of organizing sounds and silence for the purposes of aesthetic expression. There, I said it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking things off, a blog post about a gallery exhibition on color and music.

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And here is a feature article on Joni Mitchell's song from 1968, "Both Sides Now", which I recall learning and playing during my brief phase as a folk-singer (it lasted about a year). It's a nice song:

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And while we are talking about pop, here is what one big-name rock band is really like behind the scenes. And no, it isn't pretty...

Hmm, well the music is rather nasty and sneering, isn't it?

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Here is some news that might take some pop musicians down a peg: weekly album sales are at a new low and CD sales are down almost 20% from last year. Billboard has the story. But, of course, classical sales are a minute portion of that! Here is a song from the top album of the week:

I can't think of any reason why that soggy blend of rock ballad and lethargic reggae wouldn't just leap off the shelves, could you?

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Here's a little reminder: thou shalt not make jokes, even mild ones, about the reigning royalty of pop.

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Follow this link to hear the Israeli Defence Force's version of the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah". They translated everything but the title into Hebrew. Oh, wait, my editorial board tells me that the word "hallelujah" is actually already Hebrew.

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Still not done with music and economics it seems. Here is a chart of the global music industry from 1973 to 2013:

Go here for the original. The comments are interesting. The steep drop is attributed by many to the rise of digital piracy. Could be, I suppose. Technology for the last 100 years has been in some ways a boon to the industry, but in other ways a distinct disadvantage to the artform.

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We have to find some non-pop news and I ran across this article in the Guardian. For those of you lucky enough to be in Edinburgh this weekend, there will be two performances of Harry Partch's Delusion of the Fury. This must have been extremely difficult to stage as it first involves having to build all the musical instruments and then learn to play them. Harry didn't believe in all modern systems of intonation and went back to the Greeks for his tuning systems. I had the unusual pleasure of being able to play some of his instruments a number of years ago. The bass marimba was truly awesome! I was taking a seminar on American Experimental Music and we did a field trip to White Plains, NY where Partch's instruments were stored in an archive. Apparently for this project, they built them all from scratch. Go read the article and watch the clips, which are quite interesting. Here is the trailer for the project:

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Economics of Music

Here is a little story that I am sure will delight any economists out there. I was having breakfast with a friend of mine in a sidewalk cafe yesterday when a young man walked up right in front of us and turned on a boom box he was carrying which began playing an instrumental accompaniment. I sensed what was going to happen next and said to my friend, "if he starts to sing I am going to kill myself!" Just an idle threat of course. Then he commenced to sing, in a not-too-bad voice, a song about how he has had sex 1000 times, but with you is the first time he has made love. We both wished he hadn't shared that thought. In any case, as soon as he stopped I stepped over and gave him 50 pesos (about $4) on the condition that he leave. He nodded, unsuccessfully hit up a couple of other diners and left. My friend thought he would either get angry or stick around. But I said people like that are not actual artists, just working blokes. He made more than he expected. I have also paid the worst-sounding clarinetist I have ever heard to go away.

Sadly, these public musical assaults are usually unpunished by law. Though I did see a very funny New Yorker cartoon once that depicted a burly, unshaven, hulky guy standing on the street with a sandwich board that read: "Kill the street musician of your choice: $5".

As a matter of fact, many, many years ago I spent a summer working as a busker in Italy but we did not perambulate around to outdoor cafes tormenting the patrons. Instead we set up in front of a statue of Cosima de Medici in the middle of a plaza and let people come to us. On a good night there would be over 500 people listening at one time.

Tough to find the right clip, but here is a guy busking outside Notre Dame in Paris. I saw a small chamber orchestra busking in the Metro in Paris at the La Bastille stop once.