Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Concerto Guide: Alban Berg, Violin Concerto

There are just a few concert works for orchestra that have an element of dramatic choreography. The most famous is Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 45 that I have posted about here. Among many unusual musical elements in the score is the added stage direction at the end that instructs each musician, as his part ends (the last section, one by one, eliminates all the players and ends with just two violins) to blow out the candle on his music stand and steal offstage. Read my post for the details. The only other piece that I can think of that does something similar is the Violin Concerto by Berg. But this aspect is largely unknown.

Let me start at the beginning. According to Wikipedia, Berg was commissioned to write this concerto by Louis Krasner but he didn't start on it for some months because he was writing the opera Lulu. When the daughter of Alma and Walter Gropius, Manon Gropius, tragically died at age 18 of polio, he set aside the opera and began to write the Violin Concerto as a homage to her. It was completed in August 1935 and was Berg's last completed composition. He died four months later of blood poisoning.

The Violin Concerto is a very rich and complex piece that has attracted criticism for that very reason. The complexities come both from the inspiration for the piece, which led Berg to attempt to
translate the young girl’s characteristics into musical characters (Berg, from a letter to Willi Reich)
There are also several elements that are problematic for a serial composer. Here is the row of the piece:

Normally, one of the functions of a row is to avoid tonal references, but this one strongly suggests them. As Wikipedia notes:
the first three notes of the row make up a G minor triad; notes three to five are a D major triad; notes five to seven are an A minor triad; notes seven to nine are an E major triad; and the last four notes (B, C♯, E♭, F) and the first (G) together make up part of a whole tone scale.
While the piece is certainly not tonal in a very definite way, tonality seems to hover over it and there are several sections that do have the feeling of a tonal center, especially the end that has the strong feeling of a cadence in B flat:


Two other elements that appear are the interweaving of a Carinthian folk tune into the second part of the last movement:

Finally, also in the second part of the last movement, Berg quotes and does variations on the Bach chorale "Es ist genug" from Cantata 60:


The interesting thing to note here is that the first four notes of the chorale melody are a whole-tone scale, which overlaps with the last four notes of Berg's row.

So, from the point of view of serial theory, there are all sorts of problems with this piece! But for the same reasons, it is a favorite with audiences.

The music is enormously complex and in this post all I can do is give a brief introduction. But I want to go back to that dramatic element I mentioned before. Towards the end of the piece there is a climactic passage in which the solo violin begins a plaint (Klagegesang) in which it is joined by another violin, then the rest, then the violas and so on until all the strings are united in this melody before separating into their individual parts. Here is how the beginning of that section looks in the score:

Click to enlarge

This section has been described (in the liner notes to the Pinchas Zukerman recording conducted by Pierre Boulez) as follows:
Employing quasi- dramatic elements, Berg in the score instructs the soloist to take over the leadership of the violins and violas “audibly and visibly.” These are to join him gradually, only to break away from him again “in just a demonstrative a manner.”
I wrote a paper on this in graduate school that, alas, I no longer have. But my recollection was that a better interpretation of Berg's instructions are that the solo violinist enjoins the other strings to join in with him by gesturing for them to stand up as they play the plaint (with the exception of the cellos, of course. Here is the instruction from the score blown up:

Click to enlarge
Unfortunately, I can't make out exactly what the German says, so I am relying on my memory of the research I did for the paper. In the clip I am going to put up of a performance of the work, the soloist steps back, aligning himself with the section violins, which is, I think, the opposite of what Berg is asking for: they are to join him "audibly and visibly". That is, they join in with what he is playing and they stand up with him. This is never done, at least not that I have seen when I have seen this piece performed live. Here is a performance from the 2012 Proms with Frank-Peter Zimmerman, violin and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Daniele Gatti, conductor:


The section that I have been talking about, with the instruction from Berg about the strings joining together in the plaint, comes at the 20:24 mark in the clip. As you can see, the soloist steps back and the concertmaster joins him in the melody followed by the other strings.

There are yet more complexities suggested by this section that I also explored in my (lost) paper. Adolf Hitler had come to power in 1933 and the Anschluss or annexation of Austria was looming (it took place in March 1938). Berg's teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, a Jew, had already emigrated to the US and had just won a teaching position in California. In correspondence with him Berg referred to people of like mind joining together to resist the Nazi takeover. Perhaps at that moment in time, that seemed like a possibility. In any case, I'm afraid I can't substantiate any of this as I no longer have my research materials. So feel free to ignore the suggestion!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Idola theatri

In 1620 Sir Francis Bacon published his Novum Organum, one of the earliest descriptions of what would become scientific method. Bacon saw many kinds of errors that needed to be corrected in the way we look at the world and in his book he cites four, one of which I chose for my title: the Idola theatri or idols of the theatre. These are not innate in the mind, but the kinds of errors that are constructed by thinkers. Wikipedia quotes Bacon thus:
"Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration." He named them Idols of the Theater "because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion."
In other words, idola theatri are the kind of errors and misunderstandings that are sometimes called "received" or "conventional" wisdom; those kinds of things that we generally believe to be true but that are simply false. Some examples? The link between cholesterol or saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Ever since the 1950s this was thought to be uncontroversial. But now:
In 2014, a systematic review and meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine, of 72 published studies totalling 530,525 participants, looked at observational studies of dietary intake of fatty acids, observational studies of measured fatty acid levels in the blood, and intervention studies of polyunsaturated fat supplementation. The authors of the review concluded that, ″Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.″ (from this Wikipedia article)
There are a whole lot of other areas in which the conventional wisdom is obviously incorrect, but many of these are so controversial that I don't even want to mention them! Suffice it to say that it is taboo to even discuss some of the most egregious examples. Bacon's reference to stage plays is very apt because a lot of these form integral parts of an overarching narrative that is intended by the powers that be to govern our thinking on all sorts of questions.

This narrative also governs thinking about the arts and a tiny part of it is also intended to govern our thinking about music. I am stimulated to write about this because I just ran across a near-perfect example of the narrative in action. Here is an article in The Guardian titled: "Access all arias: how a 16th century choral work is reaching new audiences." But the most blatant propagandizing comes in the sub-head:
Classical music will only survive if it persuades younger audiences to give great music a chance. In Bristol and across Britain, programmers are reaching out to new listeners in exciting and imaginative ways
The thing about expressions of conventional wisdom as The Narrative is that they must not seem controversial in any way. This is, of course, how errors continue and propagate: they don't seem like errors. And how could anyone (except a reprobate like myself) have any disagreement with that sub-head? Well, let's look at the first paragraph of the article:
Unless the classical music world finds ways to attract new audiences, it risks losing not just the baby and bathwater, but the whole bathtub. As I wrote last year, musicians and audiences are hungry for change. Here in Bristol at the Old Vic’s summer Proms week – now in our third year – our mission is to feed them with as much of it as we can dream up. Our concerts have included such innovations as big-screen live relays, digital imagery, lasers, robotics, and Google Glasses, all designed to bring audiences as close to the heart of the listening experience as they can conceivably get. We’re not the only ones heeding the call: the Hallé has just created a brilliant pay-what-you-like scheme for an informal concert later this year, and around the country there are concerts in pubs, in nightclubs, opera in the open air, and orchestras in car parks. But before traditionalists begin spluttering, I want to stress that this isn’t gimmickry. It’s about concentrating on the music, presenting it simply and directly, and breaking down the very real barriers that keep people from experiencing it.
Notice that this opening is very similar to the one I was critiquing in my Thursday post: "Holy Hokum, Batman!" Same error of attributing agency to a Passive Collective. "Classical music" is not an entity and has no agency. Classical musicians, in order to attract audiences, are always seeking ways to do so. But this, of course, is not dramatic enough for The Narrative. "Musicians and audiences are hungry for change"? This is a key part of The Narrative because the particular narrative that we are dealing with here is the Progressive Narrative where we are all marching into the Brave New Future guaranteed us by our masters. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to Better, but Newer is not always better, though pointing that out is excluded from The Narrative.

Classical music is a particularly tough nut for the Progressive Warriors to crack because the very nature of classical music, its links to tradition and aesthetic quality, its core repertoire coming from a small group of Dead White Males and its lack of the usual visual distractions all tend to insulate it from the typical entertainments of our day: pop music, electronic dance music, hip-hop and so on. So the first thing you will do, in order to, as I say, crush this tough nut, is to bring in
such innovations as big-screen live relays, digital imagery, lasers, robotics, and Google Glasses
But of course these things instead of "bring[ing] audiences as close to the heart of the listening experience as they can conceivably get" only distract from the music itself. Classical music is an auditory experience and all those things are visual! Believe me when I say that the more visual gimmickry you insert into the experience the less aware of the music you will be. I'm not sure audiences are really noticing, but they are more and more being distracted from the music itself by peripheral things.

These aren't just visual gimmickry, but extend to the program notes. You would think that the basic function of program notes was to tell you something about the music, to aid your reception of the music. But this seems to be less and less the case. I recently attended a concert in which I learned from the program notes where Beethoven was born, the weight of an early patron, the Elector of Bonn, Maximilian Franz (480 lbs), his nickname (the patron's), Beethoven's meeting with Mozart, how long it took Beethoven to write his first set of string quartets, when they were published, and which Mozart quartet inspired op 18, no. 3. It was K. 575. Of the quartet itself, about to be played in the concert there was exactly one word of description: the finale is described as "effervescent."

You think this was just an anomaly? Go ahead, dig out some programs of concerts you have attended recently and tell me how much of the notes actually talk about the music and how much talk about everything BUT the music.

So much of what is going on recently in classical music seems so outright opposed to a suitable listening experience that I wonder if the intention is in fact to crush classical music. After all, if that was indeed your intention, to destroy the classical music listening experience, wouldn't you do just these things? Replace a quiet, distraction-free environment (the traditional concert hall) with one filled with big-screen digital imagery, lasers, robotics and Google Glasses, put on concerts in uncongenial places like pubs, nightclubs and car parks, replace informative program notes with trivial citations of irrelevant biographical details, and constantly dilute and distort the core repertoire by adding in as much non-core as you can: pieces by rock guitarists, pieces with added choreography, collaborations with pop musicians, quotas of people that are not Dead White Males and so on.

It all reminds me of something I read a while ago to the effect that you can best understand the behavior of a bureaucratic institution by assuming that it is secretly controlled by a cabal of its enemies. Now doesn't that make things a lot clearer?

How can classical music thrive? It is pretty simple. Make available, even to children whose parents lack the funds, good music instruction. In Canada, for example, the Province of Quebec has an extensive network of conservatories all over the province that do this. Of course, there is constant political pressure to shut them down. But the system works very well despite that. Let musicians work out their own ways of reaching audiences. Some subsidized performance spaces--real concert halls with proper backstage facilities, good acoustics and suitable lighting--would help a lot. I hesitate to suggest anything else because I think a lot of government programs to aid the arts tend to go astray. The basic principle is let creative people be creative and let audiences support them. How to best do that is sometimes a puzzle, but the solutions will usually be specific to the context and locale so there probably aren't too many general rules.

Ironically, if you read the rest of the essay I quoted you will se that they are doing lots of great things:
this year we’ve programmed an evening with no less than nine 40-part choral motets, seven of which are world premieres. One of them is nearly 450 years old and also shot to the top of the charts after it was featured in the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium – composed in the 1570s - will be performed with eight other new works written for the same mind and ear-boggling choral forces.
That sounds like it will be a great concert. So don't mistake my thinking here: I am not at all attacking the great things these musicians are doing. More power to them. I am just noticing that they feel they have to genuflect to The Narrative and I am critiquing that Narrative. 40-part choral motets? Yahoo, bring 'em on!

So let's end with a clip of that piece by Thomas Tallis, the motet in 40 parts, Spem in Alium. This is The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers, with the Laurenscantorij and guest singers, directed by Wiecher Mandemaker:


(Wait, are we sure there are 40 separate parts? I think I only heard 38.)

(Just kidding.)

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Thinking Like an Artist

I'm just reading a fascinating article in Forbes about how really useful a good liberal arts degree can be: in the world of high tech! Surprising I know, but have a look. The article is titled "That 'Useless' Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket". What really caught my attention was the founder of a particularly interesting high-tech company, Slack Technologies, who got started as a graduate of the University of Victoria in philosophy. I came very close to switching from music to philosophy in that very same university--they had some excellent philosophy professors. Here is a sample of the article:
Stewart Butterfield [is] Slack’s 42-year-old cofounder and CEO, whose estimated double-digit stake in the company could be worth $300 million or more. He’s the proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.
“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”
I realize over and over, writing this blog, how much I owe to my three philosophy professors at the University of Victoria who seem, these many years later, to have had a real influence on how I think. Here is more from the article:
Slack’s core business benefits from the philosopher’s touch. Hard-core engineers have been trying to build knowledge-management software for at least 15 years. Most of their approaches are so cumbersome that corporate users can’t wait to quit. Slack makes everything simple. It bridges everything from Dropbox to Twitter, helping users organize documents, photos and data files into streamlined channels for easy browsing. Considering that Butterfield spent his early 20s trying to make sense of Wittgenstein’s writings, sorting out corporate knowledge might seem simple.
Oh, you bet. Anyone who has made a serious attempt to understand Wittgenstein is going to find most other intellectual challenges rather easier in comparison. Based on what you read in the mass media it is easy to get the idea that an artist and anyone else coming out of the humanities is a haphazard, irrational thinker at best. So much of the humanities these days are dominated by second-rate French post-modernist influenced Marxism that it is easy to forget that other approaches exist. Philosophy and classical studies are probably the most free of that influence and, when taught well, they can impart a really rigorous kind of critical thinking--the kind that hardly exists these days. You can also find some of this still floating around in some corners of the literary and musical worlds as well. This kind of creative, yet disciplined, thought I suspect is not found in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. They have their own discipline, but it is of a different kind.

I think the great strength of a traditional education in the humanities is twofold: first of all there is the exposure to the great works of art in the western tradition. From Homer to Dante to Shakespeare to Joyce in literature and from Pérotin to DuFay to Bach to Stravinsky in music, there is really no substitute for an understanding of great works of art and their place in history. Indeed, one often suspects that it is the near-total ignorance of history that underlies so much of the absurdity we see in 21st century politics and social trends. The study of science and technology does not foster a sense of history.

Second, the humanities and the arts in particular have unique disciplines that do not have counterparts in other fields. I mentioned a sense of history, but there has been a lot of research showing that the study of music at an early age can help shape mental discipline later in life. Not surprising as training in music demands very special kinds of alertness and focus that unite various bodily senses and thought patterns.

Going back to philosophy, I believe that I have derived an ability to dig into what is being said in an essay or argument because of what I have learned from philosophy. It is no exaggeration to state that the majority of what we read and are told in the mass media and elsewhere is based on fuzzy concepts and false logic. There is a class in society that is very adept at shaping public understanding and unfortunately, they have been getting away with intellectual travesties for quite some time, largely because most members of the public have a poor foundation in the humanities.

The critique I posted on Thursday where I talked about the Passive Collective and false dilemmas is an example of things that I was only aware of because of philosophy. It is astonishing how often writers rely on attributing agency to imaginary entities and then use this to scaffold a weak argument. If everyone read a few dialogues by Plato, this tactic wouldn't go very far!

But enough, my point is made, I think, and time to find a piece of music that can top this off. Wait, I know, the Symphony No. 22 in E flat major by Joseph Haydn, nicknamed The Philosopher. This is the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra conducted by Adam Fischer:


Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

We begin with the kind of formulaic article that isn't wearing quite as well as it used to: "If Male Musicians Were Described The Same Way As Female Musicians." Sure, it's funny. But the official subtext of an article like this is to show How Terribly Unfair We Are To Women. But the real reason this stuff is funny is a bit different. Take this quote for example:
In a white top that reveals just the smallest tease of greying chest hair, light blue denims and a tattered apron around his waist, Bruce Springsteen (65) invites us into his home.
Tattered apron? Okaaay. The thing is that female musicians present themselves differently than male musicians do. Here's an example: Jennifer Lopez (46):


If you can imagine Bruce Springsteen wearing anything like that, then you have a better imagination than I have!


Describing what Springsteen is wearing is comic because you are describing a basically utilitarian outfit as if it were fashionable. That's where the humour is.

* * *

Alex Ross alerts us to an interesting bit in an interview with Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki:
"No guilt when it comes to music. There are days when Led Zeppelin is the only right thing to listen to."
Mind you, if you use the Mayan calendar, as I do, then that day only comes around once every five thousand years.

* * *

Luxury hotels welcome us with even more annoying music! But they think they are being alluring: "How Luxury Hotels Lure You With Music" in the Wall Street Journal is about how hotels are tweaking their canned music:
When the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver wanted to attract younger travelers and add some pizazz to the nearly 40-year-old hotel, it ditched the jazz music in the lobby and the mellow lounge tunes in the restaurant. In their place? Upbeat and indie pop tracks, like “Groove Jumping” by the British DJ Jimpster, arranged by a music-curating company.
The new music “keeps us interesting,” says hotel manager Joerg Rodig. “For some people, Four Seasons the brand can be intimidating. We’re trying to take that intimidating away and just be welcoming.”
Ok, let's hear that Jimpster track:


Somehow that does not make me feel that I am being welcomed to a luxury hotel. It makes me feel edgy and ill at ease. That's hipster music! Do most people actually find that welcoming? I have to tell you that my prime criteria in selecting a restaurant to dine in is that they have NO music playing. The only exception would be ethnic music in an ethnic restaurant, which is ok.

* * *

The latest in copyright news is that "Happy Birthday" probably is no longer under copyright. So feel free to sing out the next time you are at a birthday party.
In other words, there's pretty damning conclusive evidence that "Happy Birthday" is in the public domain and the Clayton Summy company knew it. Even worse, this shows that Warner/Chappel has long had in its possession evidence that the song was at least published in 1927 contrary to the company's own claims in court and elsewhere that the song was first published in 1935. We'll even leave aside the odd "blurring" of the songbook, which could just be a weird visual artifact. This latest finding at least calls into question how honest Warner/Chappel has been for decades in arguing that everyone needs to pay the company to license "Happy Birthday" even as the song was almost certainly in the public domain.
* * *

Robinson Meyer, in The Atlantic, offers an extensive critique of how poorly classical music is handled in the new streaming model. Nico Muhly offers examples from his collection:
“To give you a really specific situation, there are two settings of the Te Deum text by Benjamin Britten. And it would seem to me that if you type in ‘Britten’ and ‘Te Deum,’ you would see some of them,” the composer Nico Muhly told me. “But it says, ‘no results found.’”
I want to submit to the record here that Muhly’s hard drive contains seven different files that could be reasonably called the Britten Te Deum. In fact, it contains more than 2,000 files, or 11.9 gigabytes, of music by Benjamin Britten. It also contains 97 different settings of the Te Deum text.
“What’s extraordinary about it is that I tagged everything really, really well. It’s in Artist, Album Artist, all these things are organized,” he said.
But when “Britten Te Deum” is searched—and he sent me a screenshot of this—nothing comes up. “It’s not like, let me show you too many results. It just does not compute.”
Read the whole thing. I have a pretty simple system that works quite well. Here let me show you:


 Now, of course, it is a tiny collection because I lost most of my CDs and all my LPs due to an Evil Moving Company. But my system works great. I have a shelf and on the shelf I have my CDs filed by composer. Early music collections appear at the very beginning and collections by specific performers appear at the end. Now it would be great if I had tens of thousands of MP3s. I guess. But not if I couldn't find anything. With my system I can find everything. Instantly.

* * *

Here is a moderately technical summary of how the music business is in very bad shape these days. The bottom line:
Sales of recorded music have declined by 70 percent since 1999, even while adjusting for inflation
* * *

 Norman Lebrecht at Slipped Disc alerts us to an upcoming musicology conference that seems to reach new highs in irrelevant triviality: "Music on the Move: Sounds and New Mobilities".
Breathing to sing, echoing screams in a cave, plucking guitar strings, applauding and clapping, surfing the web to download, dancing to music, performing foreign scores, translating an opera, chanting in protests or in religious processions. Sound is movement and music is on the move. Since the end of the 20th century, the notion of ‘mobility’ seems to be ubiquitous in social sciences as a prominent cross-disciplinary agenda. Many scholars even refer to a new mobilities paradigm or a mobility turn (Sheller and Urry 2006; Adey et al. 2013; Faist 2013) stressing the importance of movement when studying historical or contemporary societies and individuals (Cresswell and Merriman 2011; Dureau and Hily 2009). If the entire world might seem to be on the move, it has become crucial to understand ‘how the fact of movement becomes mobility’, i.e. how ‘movement is made meaningful’ (Cresswell 2006, 21).
And that was the introductory paragraph! Why is academia these days so often giving thinking a bad name?

* * *

The New Yorker has an interesting article on stage fright titled "I Can't Go On". Sample quote:
In a number of ways, stagefright doesn’t make sense. Laurence Olivier, when he was in his late fifties, was visited by a spell that lasted, intermittently, for five years, causing him great anguish. At the time, he was the most celebrated stage actor in England. How could he be frightened of failing? Ditto Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Baryshnikov was the most famous ballet dancer in the world, and he probably still is, though he ceased classical dancing some twenty-five years ago. Since then, he has built a successful career in modern dance and theatre. But he experiences terrible stagefright, and says that it has only got worse over the years.
Oh yes, this is very common, even among seasoned performers. A friend of mine grew more and more anxious about memory lapses every time he performed so he eventually stopped playing from memory entirely. And then there is the story of the famous cellist who fell downstairs one day, breaking his arm, and his first thought was "thank God, I don't have to play cello any more." (In the article a slightly different story is told about Casals.) Many very famous performers have struggled with stage fright. Segovia said once that every afternoon before a concert he sought to find a rationalization for why he had to cancel. Jascha Heifetz suffered a total memory lapse in a concerto performance that was so devastating that he walked offstage and never returned. In all these cases, the artist is very unforgiving of themselves which creates a kind of psychological dilemma: you need for the performance to be perfect, but you know it can't be and because of that, your anxiety just increases, which means that the performance will definitely not be perfect!

* * *

 Here is a clip about a cello built out of styrofoam. I wouldn't base a judgement just on hearing a video clip, but it sounds surprisingly good. I guess styrofoam is an acoustic medium like wood. I do know that some guitar builders have started using things like balsa wood bridges and carbon filament in the interior strutting of guitars, to good effect.

* * *

Courtesy of one of my commentators is this rather fascinating American Sign Language interpretation of an Eminem song:


* * *

And to end, here is an equally fascinating article about imaginary musical instruments titled "Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments".

That gives us our envoi for today: the ondes martenot, a real musical instrument that just sounds imaginary:


The most famous piece using this instrument is Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie:


So I guess I have to do a post all about that rather remarkable piece of music!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Holy Hokum, Batman!

It is hard for me to read any of this without wanting to disagree. Violently. "Sound yoga - ancient wisdom or New Age nonsense?" For me, to ask the question is to give the answer. Yoga may have many interesting virtues and there may even be a couple in New Age whatever. But this essay, just like a thousand before it, manages to diminish and dilute classical music even as it pretends to offer helpful counsel. As I have observed before, some of our "friends" are really our worse enemies. Here is the opening paragraph:
Classical music cannot stand still; so that means it must find new audiences. Western classical music has evolved into a highly dualist art form with clearly demarcated boundaries around its core offering of the orchestral and operatic repertoire. There is little debate that this repertoire must - and will - remain central to the art form. But it can be argued that to open up new markets the current watertight boundaries around that core offering must become porous. An example of a blurring of these boundaries would be an entry into the mind, body and spirit market; a market which a post here in 2011 pointed out was then worth around $11 billion annually in the US, compared with $200 million for classical album sales.
That is just stuffed with half-truths--which are much more dangerous than outright falsehoods. One of the first things that I look for in this kind of talk is the Passive Collective. Writers like this attribute many dubious things to these fictional entities. Here it is "Classical Music" which cannot "stand still" but must "find new audiences". Classical music in the sense proposed here, does not exist. Classical musicians of many different kinds exist and do have agency, but "Classical Music" in the sense of a canon of works, does not have agency, but is merely a cultural tradition and the choice of many people to play and listen to. So what you really have to say is that classical musicians have to find new audiences which is both more truthful and less interesting because we are already perfectly aware of this. Every orchestra is trying to add to its subscriber base every year and every young artist is trying to find or create his own audience.

The next bit about the "highly dualistic art form" is confused jargon. You can follow the link, but it is to an essay that merely states a bunch of contrived dichotomies. This is another favorite ploy: the false dilemma. You either have to be acclaimed or insignificant, classical or non-classical. It is nothing more than a debating trick. The "clearly demarcated boundaries" around the core repertoire disappeared decades ago, but writers like this keep tilting at those same tired windmills. The call for opening up new markets is a tired argument indeed as that is precisely what many musicians and ensembles have been doing--some of them to excess. A nice new shiny argument would be to say could we please stop all this ridiculous pandering and let the core repertoire be nice and corey?

And all this stuff about the "mind, body and spirit" market just makes me very, very tired. What those folks want to listen to is dreary soporific sludge. And they're welcome to it. Just don't ask us to provide it. Even if it is an $11 billion dollar market. We do have standards.

Sorry, I just didn't have the desire to read any further in detail. In the last paragraph he says, because of our dualistic, binary conditioning "inevitably, this post will be condemned as New Age nonsense by many." You bet!!

Now, let's have some non-soporific classical music that shows, I think, pretty successfully, why we don't want to be part of the "sound yoga" market. This is the HERZLIYA CHAMBER ORCHESTRA conducted by HARVEY BORDOWITZ in the second movement, Allegro di molto, of the Symphony No. 49 by Joseph Haydn:


Nothing today, but jam tomorrow!

I have a lot of work to do connected with an upcoming recording project, so you won't get a post from me today. But tomorrow's miscellanea will be chock full of good stuff. It starts with a photo of Jennifer Lopez in a particularly alluring dress and ends with a performance of Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. Only at the Music Salon! To whet your appetite, here is Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Concerto Guide: Anton Webern, Concerto for Nine Instruments, op. 24

I was just going to mention this piece and go right on to the Berg Violin Concerto, but I changed my mind so here is a short post on the Concerto for Nine Instruments, op. 24 by Webern, composed in 1934. The piece is tightly-constructed using a twelve-tone row, each three-note segment of which is a version of the others:

The first trichord being the prime form, the next three are, respectively, the retrograde inversion (backwards and upside down), the retrograde (backwards) and the inversion (upside down). Here is the first movement with the score:


Apart from that, I just don't have much to say about it. One interesting thing about this kind of writing is how quickly the possibilities were exhausted and even after the principles of serialism were extended to other parameters like rhythm, dynamics and articulations, how quickly that was exhausted as well. The repertoire of serialism is not really large.

The relationship between this piece and previous concertos is tenuous. It is obviously not a solo concerto in the Baroque, Classical or Romantic modes. It is more like a Baroque concerto grosso for a group of solo instruments, but without the orchestral accompaniment. This is like a crystalline distillation of music. I suppose, if you like this sort of thing, it is a masterpiece. But to start sensing that, you would have to listen to it many times. It does have its unique appeal, but despite the fond hopes of his admirers, I doubt that we will ever hear Webern's music whistled in the street.