Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Are music researchers getting better? Certainly seems so as more and more they seem to come up with findings that are neither insulting to the intelligence nor insulting to music lovers. Take for example this recent study by two Irish researchers:
In the journal Psychology of Music, Groarke and Hogan report older and younger people tend to express different ideas when asked why they listen to music. While the responses of four groups of participants—two featuring people under 30, and two composed of those over 60—were predictably wide-ranging, the researchers found some distinct patterns.
For younger adults, social connection is a strong component of music listening; you bond with your peers over your choice in tunes. By one measure, this consideration placed second only to "mood improvement." (This finding aligns nicely with the theory that music originally developed as a source of social cohesion.)
But that aspect of listening was far less important to older adults, who largely looked at music as therapeutic—a source of meaning and personal growth. While some younger participants did refer to music's ability to provide them with a private "personal space," the bulk of the responses suggest older people are more interested in music as an intense, inner experience, while younger ones view it as a way of escaping bad moods and connecting with friends.
On the other hand, this study examined only 43 people in two age groups, so it is probably what we might call "suggestive" rather than "definitive".

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Stanislavsky, call your office. There may be aspects of current academic culture that are reaching beyond parody. Take this one for example. A professor of film and cultural studies is going to research David Bowie for an monograph by using method acting. He will try to live like David Bowie for a year.
He has started wearing vintage clothing and adopting Bowie’s hairstyle and makeup. He has been taking singing lessons and trying to paint in an expressionist style. He has experimented with sleep deprivation and even spent a few days sampling Bowie’s dubious diet of raw red peppers and milk.
Well, sure. I'm thinking of trying it out myself. In an attempt to better understand the compositional practices of Anton Bruckner, I'm thinking of trying to live like him for a year. I've already got my eye on a 17-year-old Austrian peasant girl. Mind you, the make-up is going to be hell:

Not a pretty man...

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We all love Ghostbusters, right? So here is what we have all been waiting for, a heavy-metal cover of the Ghostbusters theme:

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Some airlines, in their never-ending effort to cause as much trouble as they possibly can for working musicians, lose instruments or severely damage them. But the gold medal goes to US Airways for their success in managing to lose not one or two violins, but EIGHT in a special shipping trunk, checked in at the airport in Barcelona. Go to Slipped Disc for the full story. (Update: apparently the violins turned up eventually, but the airline still can't explain what happened.)

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Time for some good news, right? A physicist has devised a way of non-invasively "reading" the audio information on older recording media so that it can be preserved and heard in a pristine form. The story is at the Wall Street Journal.

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Here is an interesting review of two operas presented in Edinburgh recently. The operas were The Rake's Progress by Stravinsky on a libretto by W. H. Auden and Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart on a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. The reviewer comes to the not terribly startling conclusion that:
While a first-rate performance of The Rake’s Progress can’t disguise the fact that it’s just an ingenious toy, a misconceived Figaro remains unsinkable
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Is food the new music? This seems to be a developing meme these days:
Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation for so many, and I wonder if it’s because food and dining still offer true scarcity whereas music is so freely available everywhere that it’s become a poor signaling mechanism for status and taste. If you’ve eaten at Noma, you’ve had an experience a very tiny fraction of the world will be lucky enough to experience, whereas if you name any musical artist, I can likely find their music and be listening to it within a few mouse clicks. Legally, too, which removes even more of the caché that came with illicit downloading, the thrill of being a digital bootlegger.
Wouldn't it be great if we could see the return of aesthetics in the form of developed tastes in music and other art forms? At least that is the official position of the Music Salon because it would be so much more egalitarian: it costs nothing to have good taste.

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Are we seeing the Rise of the Cultural Libertarians? Some people think it is about time:
The new authoritarians aren’t merely concerned with policing art and entertainment, but also everyday expression, especially in advertising. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and free speech advocate Greg Lukianoff recently published an article for The Atlantic in which they describe a new movement to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offence.” By controlling the language of society, cultural authoritarians hope to control society itself.
Cultural libertarians disagree. Liberal columnist Nick Cohen points out that changing words and changing society are two different things. “The lie that you can change the world by changing language is back,” he writes. “I cannot tell you how many good people [are driven] out of left-wing politics … because they did not realise that words that were acceptable yesterday are unacceptable today.”
In order to control what they see as dangerous expression, authoritarians often resort to casual and spurious accusations of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. The goal is to manipulate the boundaries of acceptable speech by smearing their targets with socially unacceptable labels and to write off speakers they don’t like as bigots so they don’t have to engage with the speaker’s arguments.
Worth reading the whole thing as it presents a whole manifesto of cultural libertarianism. The Music Salon is probably culturally libertarian in its basic assumptions.

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I don't know about you, but I've been longing to hear choral arrangements of the Sex Pistols for some time. And now, thanks to an Estonian festival, here it is. I know that you are longing to hear the original, so here it is, the Sex Pistols "Anarchy in the UK":

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One definition of a poorly done review would be one that would be unrecognizable by the musicians. I think this one by Norman Lebrecht might qualify. The composer is Prokofiev and the writer speculates:
Taken on its own, the Second Violin Concerto reveals more of the composer’s state of mind than is readable in his letters and memoirs. He is going back home out of creative necessity and his mind is made up, but anxiety seeps through the work like mildew through a garden shed. This is the work of a man at life’s crossroads, a man who seems to know that whichever way he turns will be the wrong one.
And when I say "speculates" I really mean completely invents a whole psychological scenario with only the slightest biographical evidence and absolutely no support in the music itself. Why? Very simply because a piece of instrumental music, no matter how much you torture it, cannot reveal things like "anxiety seeps through the work like mildew through a garden shed". This is the work of a music critic who has run out of anything to say and starts making up metaphors inspired by looking out the window at his back yard. Norman must be at his life's crossroads, a man who seems to know that whichever way he turns will be the wrong one.

But that does give us our envoi for today. Here is the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 63. The performers are Janine Jansen (Violin), Mark Elder (Conductor) and the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Unity and Complexity

Munroe C. Beardsley's book on Aesthetics is full of fascinating observations like this one:
It should be clear, now, that unity and complexity are distinct things and can vary independently within limits. Within limits because, first, the simplest things cannot but have a fairly high degree of unity, and, second, the most complex things will be difficult to unify, and perhaps cannot be as completely unified as less complex things. Unity and complexity are set over against each other: very broadly speaking, the former is increased by similarities of parts, the latter by differences.
His examples are particularly interesting. Leaving out the examples from visual arts, he goes on to say:
Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is much more complex than, say, Fauré's Requiem Mass, but it is probably not much less unified. On the other hand, Liszt's Les Préludes is much simpler than the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony in F major (No. 8), but it is also less unified.
If this seems contra-intuitive to you, consider that Beethoven is one of the greatest composers in terms of organic unity while Liszt's music tends to be much more atmospheric and loosely written.

Let's compare. Here is the first movement of the Beethoven:

And here is the Liszt:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


I very rarely perform these days as I prefer to put my energies into composition, but I am going to a gathering of musicians tonight and a violinist friend and I are going to play a couple of pieces, just for fun. She picked out a piece I transcribed decades ago, originally for lute duet. It has a nice Elizabethan bluegrass feel. This is The Queen's Dump, by John Johnson which I transcribed from a photo reproduction of the Mynshall Lute Book, c. 1597 - 99:

I note that they have fudged the title, just a tad. In the original it is titled "The Queene's Dump (A Dump)" and at the end of the solo part it says "A Treble". That's the melodic part. Then appears the eight measures of chords that the other lute plays and it is titled "the grounde to the treble before". And that, apart from the name of the composer, John Johnson, is it. That stuff about the Queen's Revels is an invention of the modern performers. I guess the word "dump" just made them nervous. At this point in time it is difficult to know the origin of the name, but the piece is a set of variations on the old bergamesca ground bass originating in Italy.

The other piece we are going to play is one I wrote a few years ago. It is one of a set of four pieces for violin and guitar published by The Avondale Press in Vancouver. This one is titled "Cloudscape". I have posted it before, but there are many new readers that have not heard it. I have chosen some photos taken during the recording session to accompany the audio.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Some Reflections on Messiaen, Part 2

I know that my titling is going to be idiosyncratic for this series on the composer Olivier Messiaen, but try and bear with me. Also, for the first time, we will have some guest posts from someone I will introduce later.

Today will be a bit of a miscellanea of thoughts about Messiaen that I hope will help to introduce him to you. One book that is proving useful is The Messiaen Companion, issued just a couple of years after he passed away, so the first to be able to give a perspective on Messiaen's whole life and career.

Much of the music of the 20th century is challenging in various ways. All too often it seems to smack of sterile experimentation, or descend into the expression of agony and despair (not too surprising, considering 20th century history), or simply bully the listener. It is very rare indeed to listen to 20th century music with the kind of unalloyed pleasure that we find in the music of Haydn or Mozart. Every time I put on a piece by Haydn I catch myself breaking into a smile! I was surprised to find myself doing the same listening to Messiaen. Peter Hill, in the book I linked above, referred to Messiaen as an optimist and so he seems to be. Despite his bold approach to composition, he possessed many very traditional virtues, which included his firm Catholic faith and his innate curiosity. The shelves of his study contained volumes of Shakespeare (translated by his father Pierre), works of theology, books on birds, and musical scores.

It might seem anomalous that someone whose life was essentially simple, with the lucidity of a medieval craftsman, would also be a hugely influential teacher in the post-World War II musical avant-garde--impervious to dogma in a particularly dogmatic era! At a time when abstraction in music reigned supreme, he believed in music's power to describe and symbolize as a moment's glance at almost any of his scores reveals.

I empathize with Messiaen's fascination with and love of birdsong: in my early youth we moved to a homestead in the Canadian north and I spent many hours wandering in the woods trying to imitate the calls of the birds. It was a kind of ear-training. For Messiaen it was much more, of course, as he regarded birdsong as a kind of music and incorporated symbolic birdsong in a host of compositions, most of all the very large collection of piano pieces I included in my post on Sunday, the Catalogue d'oiseaux.

He also found stained glass inspiring which might offer a clue as to his striking and bold orchestrations which dazzle the listener.

Messiaen was a brilliant analyst, able to sort out the, at the time, esoteric compositions of Stravinsky, Berg and Schoenberg and explain them to a new generation of young composers that included Pierre Boulez. This was a kind of bound or turning point for Messiaen for the sessions of ideological disputation he ultimately found unsatisfying and he turned away from musical abstraction and spent a decade in which he became intensely engaged with birdsong in his composition. The first of these was a piece written as a test piece for flutists at the Conservatoire titled Le merle noir ("The Blackbird") composed in 1952. This gives us a good envoi for today. Here are Kenneth Smith, flute and Matthew Schellhorn, piano:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Music of Olivier Messiaen, Part 1

I am ashamed to admit that, until recently, I had only the vaguest knowledge of the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992). I have known about him for a long time as one of the first things I did when discovering classical music was read all the books I could find and the first library I went to, a tiny municipal one, had a couple of histories of music in the 20th century. Messiaen, of course, figured prominently. But for some reason, I never heard much of his music apart from a couple of the piano pieces and the Quartet for the End of Time, which has to be one of the greatest titles ever for a piece of music. But I am not alone, of course, performances of Messiaen are not thick on the ground here in North America. I was talking yesterday to a violinist friend of mine about perhaps Messiaen's greatest work, the Turangalîla-Symphonie and, though she has played in symphony orchestras for nearly fifty years, she has not only never been part of a performance, she has never even heard the piece!

So, as part of my own self-education project in Olivier Messiaen, I am going to do a few posts on him and his music as it is my feeling that Messiaen, along with Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, is emerging as one of the great composers of the 20th century. Let's start with a photo. This is Messiaen reviewing a score alongside his erstwhile piano student, later second wife and long time interpreter, Yvonne Loriod:

My own encounter with Messiaen starts in the easternmost town of Germany, Görlitz, right on the border with Poland. By sheer accident one day while visiting with my ex-wife's family, who live near Dresden, I failed to get off the train when I should have and ended up in Görlitz, at that time a dreary industrial town--considerably prettier now. During the Second World War, just to the south of Görlitz (and not mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the town) was the site of Stalag VIII-A, a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp whose most famous prisoner was Olivier Messiaen, captured, along with many other Frenchmen, during the Battle of France in 1940. While there Messiaen composed his Quartet for the End of Time. It was written for the odd combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano simply because these were the only instruments (and players) available. The piece was actually premiered in the camp on January 15, 1941. Outdoors, in the rain, to an audience of 400 prisoners and guards.

Messiaen, as we learn from the magisterial work by Richard Taruskin, the Oxford History of Western Music, was a remarkably unusual figure. He is almost the only composer in recent centuries to have been a full-time church musician. For more than forty years he was the regular Sunday organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, one of the largest churches in Paris. Probably the last important composer previously to be a working church musician was J. S. Bach. Messiaen was also a brilliant theorist and teacher. Unlike many composers he wrote in great detail about exactly how he composed his music (as opposed to, for example, Stravinsky who tended to lie about how he worked and Shostakovich who never discussed it at all). Every artist chooses his predecessors and the ones that influenced Messiaen were first of all the Russians, particularly the maximalizing and spiritual influence of Scriabin. This also revealed itself in the use of the octatonic scale, a typical Russian mode. I will be devoting a separate post to the theoretical structure of Messiaen's music.

Two other important influences in terms not of aspiration but of technique were Indian music, specifically the rhythmic modes, and Medieval music. Messiaen seems to have re-invented the isorhythmic motet without realizing it. Taruskin calls Messiaen, not a mystic, despite the deep religious nature of his music, but a scholastic because, like Thomas Aquinas, Messiaen strove to demonstrate revealed truths in rational discourse. While achieving great ambiguity through complexity, Messiaen's music is precisely and intricately constructed as I think we will see later on.

One final influence or perhaps inspiration, was birdsong. The Wikipedia article refers to Messiaen as a "French composer, organist and ornithologist" and, like his teacher Dukas, he was fascinated with the song of birds who are often portrayed in European myths and legends as prophetic creatures. Many pieces by Messiaen contain stylized birdsong and he wrote one, the gargantuan Catalogue d'oiseaux, two and a half hours of music for solo piano in seven books, entirely devoted to birdsong.

That gives you a bit of an introduction to Messiaen, not only a very important composer, but also one of the most significant teachers of composition in the 20th century. Let's end with the Catalogue d'oiseaux performed by Yvonne Loriod, probably the piece they are perusing in the above photo.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Why Mozart is Considered a Child Prodigy

I've been listening, off and on, to the complete Mozart lately (170 CDs!) and keep running across interesting stuff. I finally got to the operas and was amazed to discover that, not only did Mozart write 22 operas, but he started when he was a mere lad of eleven years. Unlike eleven-year old slackers who might only write one opera, he actually wrote two. His first, in German, titled "Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots" is sometimes termed an oratorio, but as there are stage directions, it is best classified as a "sacred play with music." This was premiered in March of 1767. His second opera of the year, composed to a Latin text, was Apollo et Hyacinthus, in three acts, premiered in May of 1767. Then, of course, he went on to write two more operas when he was twelve. The first is a one act comic singspiel (meaning with spoken dialogue) in German, titled Bastien und Bastienne. There was an unconfirmed premiere in October of 1768. He followed this up with La finta semplice, an opera buffa to an Italian libretto. This is a full, three act opera in 558 pages of score. This was premiered in May 1769.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned, Mozart was born in January, 1756.

Now if you are thinking that these were some sort of stunt with the music actually being written by his father, an established composer and violinist, not at all. Even years before this, Mozart was already correcting his father, rather than the other way around. Yes, by age eleven probably and certainly by age twelve, Mozart was a fully accomplished opera composer who had already written operas in three different languages. These are not "student" works of dubious accomplishment, but quite acceptable operas. Certainly they are not at the level Mozart would achieve later in life, no Don Giovanni or Magic Flute, but perfectly decent operas.

The opening theme of the overture to Bastien und Bastienne is very similar to the opening theme of the Eroica Symphony by Beethoven:

And here is La finta semplice, the whole opera, but with the recitatives omittedBarbara Hendricks (Rosina), soprano; Siegfried Lorenz (Don Cassandro), bass; Douglas Johnson (Don Polidoro), tenor; Ann Murray (Giacinta), soprano; Eva Lind (Ninetta), soprano; Hans Peter Blochwitz (Fracasso), tenor; Andreas Schmidt (Simone), bass; Kammerorchester "CPE Bach", conducted by Peter Schreier.

The list of composers who were accomplished enough to write full-length operas at age eleven or twelve is a very short one indeed. There is only one name on that list:


Sober Second Thoughts

A recurring theme recently, and especially in yesterday's miscellanea, is the dumbing down of culture, or, as I like to call it, "slouching towards idiocracy". But I don't think things are quite as bad as they are pictured. For one thing, my experience here at the Music Salon has been quite different. This blog has received around 3700 comments and the vast majority of them have been courteous, intelligent and informed. I have only had to remove 1 (one) for being insulting and obscene (to both myself and Richard Taruskin, of all people!). This is over a four year period. Based on this I would say that the culture doesn't seem to be declining. But if you look at the culture as it is portrayed in the mass media, you would get a completely different impression.

So perhaps we need to look at things from a slightly different angle. Democracy and egalitarianism have metastasized in recent years to the point where it is not only believed that everyone's opinion is as good as everyone else's, but to the astonishing claim that the only people with the right to an opinion, or to express an opinion publicly, are from Official Victim Groups. Let's treat that view with the respect it deserves and walk right on by.

I have been leery of democracy for a long time, since 399 BC to be precise, when a jury of 501 fine and upstanding Athenian citizens condemned Socrates to death for asking annoying questions though the actual charges were impiety and corrupting the youth. Aristotle left town saying he wanted to forestall Athens from committing a second crime against philosophy.

In a normal, healthy, civilized society those members who are ill-informed are discouraged from offering their half-baked thoughts in public fora. In our society they are constantly yammering on Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere and email. Not only that, but pollsters even call them up and ask them their thoughts on political questions and candidates. Then these ill-conceived and misinformed opinions are actually published!! Hard to believe, I know, but that's what it's come to.

So when someone like Mario Vargas Llosa publishes a book moaning about the horrible state of the culture, perhaps the correct response is to say, Mario, I hear ya, but these people were always idiots. They aren't any more so now than they ever were. But now, through the wonders of the Internet, we allow their opinions to spread like crab grass and infect all of public life. If they had had the Internet in 1750 and encouraged all the peasants to blog, tweet and twiddle, things might have looked just as bad.

There are lots of brilliant, creative people hard at work every day and some of them comment regularly on this blog. Let's not mistake a frothy tsunami of silliness for reality.

Speaking of creative people hard at work, here's a little tune from this year's Proms concerts. Gustav Holst, The Planets, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki: