Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Sergei!


Today is Sergei Prokofiev's 123rd birthday. I usually miss these things, but I just happened to notice. Let's listen to some of his music. Here is the third movement of his Piano Concerto No. 3 played by Yuja Wang:


Never Check Your Instrument!

A picture is worth a thousand words and a video, perhaps more. Here is how airline passengers' luggage might be handled. This video is of Air Canada baggage handlers, but I'm sure they are not unique. This is why your shampoo ends up all over your shirts. Imagine how a guitar would fare. Or a cello...


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beyond Parody...

I warn you, if you don't want future hearings of the last movement of the Dvorak "New World" Symphony to be accompanied by flashbacks of horrific images, DO NOT watch the following clip.


Can we officially declare that the "let's popularize the classics by reducing them to the same moronic level as popular music" movement is now beyond parody?

Aaron Copland and the Symphony

Apart from quoting a couple of things he said, I haven't written about Aaron Copland before on this blog. This week's edition of Tom Service's symphony guide at the Guardian is devoted to his Symphony No. 3, written immediately after the end of the Second World War. Tom keeps surprising me with his choices and makes me realize just how many hundreds of symphonies there are out there that I have never heard a note of!

This is a fine and listenable symphony, very much in Copland's "populist" style. The last movement is based on his Fanfare for the Common Man which I am familiar with, of course. I recommend reading Tom's article introducing the symphony and listening to the whole piece. He has links to other performances, but I will embed here Leonard Bernstein's recording of the last movement with the New York Philharmonic:



There is more to be said, of course. For one thing, there was a fierce competition with William Schumann and Roy Harris among others to write the "Great American Symphony". And, following Beethoven's example in his Symphony No. 3, it needed to be an heroic one. It is acknowledged that Copland won that competition! The symphony was written between the D-Day landings in Europe in the summer of 1944 and the summer of 1946, just after America had won the war in the Pacific with Japan by dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. This triumph also brought anxiety as the whole world now had to live with the possibility of nuclear destruction as the Soviet Union soon had its own bomb. Also, the Cold War between the West and East began soon after the end of the war. Churchill's speech announcing that an "Iron Curtain" had fallen across Eastern Europe was made in March 1946.

As a consequence of the Cold War a hunt began in the US to root out supposed communist sympathizers. One of these was the German composer Hanns Eisler who had fled the Nazis in 1933 and lived in Hollywood. He was deported in 1948 for being a communist. Copland came close to being guilty by association as he was mentioned in an interview by Eisler as being a person with "progressive ideas" which made him suspect. Copland was also photographed at a conference in New York in 1949 with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich who was traveling as a cultural ambassador for the Soviet Union. This conference was a holdover from the wartime alliance, but the publication of the photo in Life magazine under the headline "Dupes and Fellow Travelers Dress Up Communist Fronts" did Copland's career no good! Ironically, Shostakovich was also in disgrace after the 1948 denouncing for "formalism".

Shostakovich (center) and Copland (right) in New York in 1949

After all this, Copland was not going to risk any more "populism" which could all too easily be termed sympathy for communism. Indeed, a performance of A Lincoln Portrait that was scheduled to be given at the inauguration of President Eisenhower in 1953 was canceled because of Copland's "questionable affiliations." Around this time, pressured by ultimately being called to testify at the infamous hearings of the McCarthy subcommittee, Copland made a major change in his musical style, turning away from the tonality of his populist works to the austerity of twelve-tone composition. Here is the first movement of his Piano Quartet, composed in 1950:


Withdrawing from the populism of tonality to the Ivory Tower of "pure art" (symbolized by serialism) was a way for Copland and other American composers to avoid being drawn into the political battles of the post-war period.

It is just one of the political and aesthetic complexities of the Cold War that the CIA funded the European avant-garde after the war as an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Western aesthetic procedures over the socialist realism of the Soviet Union. Much as the scientific expertise of Albert Einstein and the Manhattan Project (which gave rise to the atomic bomb) demonstrated the superiority of Western science over that of the communists.

Copland wrote his Symphony No. 3 in a sincere attempt to capture the heroic feeling around the end of the war. At around the same time Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 9: originally intended to be a heroic celebration of the end of the war as well, it turned out quite differently. Shostakovich, while certainly capable of disingenuous celebrations in the mode of socialist realism such as we see in his Symphonies Nos. 11 and 12, at this moment in time, he just couldn't do it and instead wrote a more classical symphony full of wit and irony. This is the lightest and most cheerful symphony he ever wrote. He just couldn't bring himself to write something puffed up and pompous on this occasion. Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the piece:


Monday, April 21, 2014

TED on Music, plus some photos

Attributes of Music, painting by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Technology and music always seem to have a tricky relationship. On the one hand, technology is crucial to all music. Some examples: the wound metal and nylon strings on the guitar, the clever and complex mechanism of the piano, the intricate mechanisms that enable wind instruments to be conveniently played in tune, and more recently, the development of high-quality recordings of musical performances.

But at the same time, technology, in its burgeoning energy, always seems just on the verge of running rough-shod over the music itself. I've just run across an interesting example in a TED talk. I'm rather a newcomer to the whole Ted-talk phenomenon. TED, which stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design" is a conference project owned by a non-profit foundation. The main conference is held each year in Vancouver, BC, Canada. A whole host of talented and famous (not always the same thing) people have given talks, which are limited to 18 minutes. I wonder how much the organizers work with the presenters to create the most impactful talk. In any case, the talks, at least the very few I have seen, are pithy, entertaining and present cool things in a humorous way. So, very attractive. While you have to pay the large sum of $7500 to attend the talks in person, they are available on YouTube for free. Here is one where a vocalist demonstrates how computerized sound recording technology can be used to augment his already impressive gifts:


Quite entertaining. Amazingly accurate imitations of all sorts of sounds, natural and musical, with just the voice and amplification. And he can, with the aid of the technology (sampling and looping) quickly create tracks that mimic familiar musical genres. And that's about it. What's wrong with this, from my quirky point of view, is that it is about everything but creativity!! Mimicking the sound of a cat or dog or housefly or Pink Floyd, is all still just mimicking. To me this, while seeming to be very cool and slick and techno, is aesthetically no different than a Frank Gorshin impression:


Or, perhaps, rather less creative than a good impressionist. If Frank Gorshin is before your time, Jim Carrey has shown how to do a good impression:


Which shows the creative aspect of impressions: they are satirical caricatures of the originals and, hence, creative.

So the problem with the technology of Beardyman's polyphony, is that it is rather too accurate. He manages to make his voice sound just like sounds in the real world and, with the aid of the digital sampler, to put together textures that sound just like jazz or Pink Floyd. Which is clever and talented, of course. But what it is certainly not is interesting or creative.

I wonder how many TED talks are just like this? I suspect that this is high-class entertainment for the privileged class that makes them feel really good about themselves because they appreciate all this cleverness. Which is actually dreary and dull as soon as you dig into it.

Oh yes, and technology always seems to present a danger to creativity because it distracts from actually doing something. Creativity always, with no exceptions I can think of, comes from somewhere in the human mind, not from a gadget.

Or is it just me?

And as a little bonus, here are some photos of composers out having fun.

Schoenberg playing tennis:


Schoenberg swimming:


And Stravinsky sun-bathing:


UPDATE: I just ran across a brilliant critique of the whole TED idea, ironically in the form of a TED talk!


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Just Some Listening

I have yet to discuss the ending of Sibelius' last symphony and I probably won't get to it today. We are having a little music salon tonight and I am going to play a Scarlatti sonata that I haven't quite learned yet! Also my violinist and I are going to play some pieces, but as we just did a concert last week, that shouldn't be a problem. It is mostly for other musicians, mostly guitarists, to get a chance to play.

Here is the Scarlatti sonata I am playing tonight, K. 544. I transcribed it for guitar years and years ago, but never got around to learning it. Here is Leo Brouwer's version:


And here it is on harpsichord:


Very unusual piece. My version lies between these two. The tempo indication is "Cantabile". It is simply amazing how Scarlatti re-invents the form with virtually every one of his five hundred and fifty-five sonatas!

Now, to whet your appetite for the Symphony No. 7 of Sibelius, when I finally get back to it, here is a performance conducted by Mark Elder:


Oh, another reason I am not doing a big blog post today is that I just started writing a symphony yesterday and when inspiration strikes, you have to go with it... I'm almost scared to listen to Sibelius for a few days until my ideas have gelled.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Elitism and Quality

One of the problems that classical music has these days is that one of the underlying fundamentals of the discipline (and yes, it is partly a discipline) is that achieving high quality in classical music education always smacks of elitism. Talking to some people who have been trying to start a conservatory here, one of the characteristics of Mexican culture, egalitarianism, was holding them back. They wanted to just take everyone who was interested, but if you do that, the ones who lack potential or talent will just hold back the others and you will get nowhere. So they reconciled themselves to auditioning, screening, candidates based on their showing some musical potential.

It is pretty easy to do that. I can't recall if I recounted here my first audition in music. It was when I had applied to enter the School of Music at a West Coast Canadian university. I showed up there one day, but not realizing that I had been scheduled for an audition! I didn't even bring my guitar. So the conductor just dragged me into a room and started playing notes to me on the piano: "sing this back", "now this". He played them in widely different octaves and then may have played pairs of notes and asked me to sing the pair back. He may even have played some chords and asked me if they were major or minor. In any case, I passed with flying colors because I had already been a professional musician, albeit in the pop field, for four years. I played by ear, learned music by ear and had already written forty songs. So that little aptitude test was nothing. But I still started too late to become a virtuoso very easily.

The truth is that the standards in classical music are shockingly high. Perhaps they are high in pop music too, but when I listen to singers there, they rarely sound very accomplished and the videos are often just ludicrously pretentious posturing over a computerized drum track, so, doesn't seem so high quality to me, aesthetically. But to be an outstanding classical musician you have to either have astounding amounts of talent and a lot of luck meeting the right people young, or be born into a privileged part of society, or be born into a family of classical musicians. Because, apart from the willingness to accept a rigorous discipline for many years, you also have to have a huge amount of aptitude, plus money and connections. I didn't have any of these things (well, I do have some aptitude!) so my career was a constant struggle.

Hilary Hahn shows us just what is involved. There isn't any information about her family on Wikipedia, but as she started in a Suzuki violin program at age four at Peabody in Baltimore, one of the most famous music schools in the US, one can assume that her family had cultural capital at least. At ten years of age she was accepted into perhaps the most elite music school in the world, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Actually, according to some figures, it is the most selective higher educational institution in the US. It only accepts enough students to fill out an orchestra and opera company, though added to this are a few composers and keyboard players as well. Total enrollment between 150 and 170. I believe that all students are on full scholarship. I had a girlfriend, a bassoonist, who graduated from Curtis. Their graduates fill the first place chairs in most of the orchestras in the US.


At eleven years, Hilary made her major orchestral debut playing a concerto with the Baltimore Symphony. I'm not sure which one, but she had options, as during her years at Curtis she learned, apart from piles of etudes, twenty-eight concertos! My friend told me that her teacher made her learn a new Vivaldi bassoon concerto every week. Can you imagine how hard these students work? I am reminded of when I spent a summer studying in Salzburg. We had five hours of master class every day. Added to four or five hours of practice, a couple of hours of concert-going, sleeping and eating, that's a full day. One evening I went out to the practice studios to work on the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez for a couple of hours as the next morning I was playing it for Pepe Romero in the master class. On my way in to the studio, I heard a violinist working on a brief section, perhaps four to eight measures, from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto cadenza. At half-tempo. As I left, hours later, he or she was still working on the same passage. The grueling discipline required for the precise mastery of the repertoire is inconceivable unless you have actually done it.

At eighteen years of age, Hilary Hahn released her first album, the kind of thing that many violinists would wait many years to record: a whole album of Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin. A year or so later she released her first recording with orchestra, containing another Mount Everest of the repertoire, the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I was listening to it the other day and it is far better than merely spectacular: it is profoundly musical.

Hilary Hahn is probably, at age 34, the finest violinist in the world. Technically she can play anything and she has an astonishing musical depth. She had a real gift, but was born into an appropriate family and was able to attend the right school at the right time. Then she worked stupendously hard for many years. And the result is a truly great violinist.

It is fashionable to sneer at anything smacking of "elitism", but this is to sneer at quality. This doesn't stop people from doing it, for lots of self-serving reasons. But the truth is that very, very few people have the aptitude, energy, dedication and discipline to become outstanding musicians. You bet they are elite. But wash away the stain from that word, because it should not have any hint of injustice to it. Anyone who achieves high quality in music has most certainly earned it. No one gets there by accident or by spending their time in night-clubs or watching television.