Sunday, May 20, 2018

Diminished Blogging

I feel I need to apologize to my readers for the scarce amount of blogging I have managed lately. I'm not sure it is going to greatly improve in the near future. The problem is that my current career in business has been going so well that it is taking up most of my focus. There is little time or energy left to delve into musical matters. I manage to pick up the guitar from time to time and sporadically work on a new composition, but this is in the bits of time that come free.

I am still working my way through the Haydn Edition, just coming to the end of the string quartets. Next up are the piano trios, of which I only know a few. I have been watching a few videos of Valery Gergiev conducting lately, like this one, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade with the Vienna Phillies:

Much of the time, as here, he conducts with no baton and a lot of finger wiggling. But I have seen him conducting with what seems to be a cocktail skewer as in this performance of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 with the National Youth Orchestra of the US:

And here he seems to be conducting with what almost looks like a toothpick:

Maybe he just likes to travel light? I can't find any mention in the Wikipedia article on Valery Gergiev that mentions his propensity for really tiny batons. Do any of my readers have any information?

Friday, May 18, 2018

Civilization Strikes Back!

I knew this was a thing, but I didn't know it was so big of a thing: We Were Lied to by "A Clockwork Orange"
… Experts trace the practice’s origins back to a drowsy 7-Eleven in British Columbia in 1985, where some clever Canadian manager played Mozart outside the store to repel parking-lot loiterers. Mozart-in-the-Parking-Lot was so successful at discouraging teenage reprobates that 7-Eleven implemented the program at over 150 stores, becoming the first company to battle vandalism with the viola. Then the idea spread to West Palm Beach, Florida, where in 2001 the police confronted a drug-ridden street corner by installing a loudspeaker booming Beethoven and Mozart. “The officers were amazed when at 10 o’clock at night there was not a soul on the corner,” remarked Detective Dena Kimberlin. Soon other police departments “started calling.” From that point, the tactic — now codified as an official maneuver in the Polite Policeman’s Handbook — exploded in popularity for both private companies and public institutions. Over the last decade, symphonic security has swept across the globe as a standard procedure from Australia to Alaska.
Today, deterrence through classical music is de rigueur for American transit systems. …
Baroque music seems to make the most potent repellant. “[D]espite a few assertive, late-Romantic exceptions like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff,” notes critic Scott Timberg, “the music used to scatter hoodlums is pre-Romantic, by Baroque or Classical-era composers such as Vivaldi or Mozart.”
 So, oddly, it turns out that thugs and ne're-do-wells don't actually like classical music? Let's listen to a little Mozart to celebrate. This is Hilary Hahn with the Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel:

Friday Miscellanea

Terry Teachout has a column in the Wall Street Journal on the defenestration of James Levine: Portrait of the Artist as an Unperson. (If you run into the paywall, you can probably access the article by Goggling the headline.)
Meanwhile, Met Opera Radio, the Metropolitan Opera’s Sirius XM satellite radio channel, has admitted that it is no longer broadcasting live recordings conducted by James Levine, who performed at the Met from 1971 until last December, when he was suspended and subsequently fired after an investigation in which the Met claimed to have found “credible evidence” that he “engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct toward vulnerable artists…over whom [he] had authority.” 
Few of us like to admit it, but most human beings are impossibly complicated, none more so than artists. You can simultaneously be a great comedian and a sexual predator, a great musician and a pedophile. To argue otherwise is to falsify history, and to falsify history is to dynamite the foundations of reality.
Well, yes. I suppose the urge to rewrite history comes from the imposition of a moral ideology. Do we expose and punish those who offend? Do we conceal and ignore as previous eras did? Do we assert that people can simply have private lives? Do we encourage accusers? I guess the devil is in the details and some offenses are worse than others. Bill Cosby will go to jail, but perhaps James Levine will not. But pity all those artists who performed under Levine's baton who are now also banished from the airwaves.

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Wagner mariachi style? Why the heck not? ARTNEWS has the story: ‘It’s Not Wagner Anymore’: In New Work, Gonzalo Lebrija Updates Composer’s Classics with All-Women Mariachi Band. Read the article for the whole picture, but I think this is an early version of the idea:

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If you weren't anxious before, this might get you there: Compose yourself: The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety.
[Calixto Bieito] explores mental illness in his latest production, a music-theatre collage called The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety. “It’s a kind of poem, a kind of concert,” he says, just off the plane from his home in Basel, when we meet at Birmingham Rep. “I hope it gives people a lot of hope.” 
With a nod to the box office, however, he’s gone for a title that sums up a show in which the Heath Quartet will play angsty Ligeti, while four actors draw on texts ranging from WH Auden’s The Age of Anxiety to Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society. “The show is not just about anxiety disorder,” he says. “It is also about existential thinking and music, which is a very important part of my whole life.”
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Over at The New Yorker, Alex Ross delivers a review of two younger generation harpsichordists: The Rebel Harpsichordists.
A new generation of harpsichordists is coming to the fore, one that has given an almost hipsterish profile to an instrument that is popularly stereotyped as archaic and twee. The Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has started beefs with early-music eminences and adopted such provocative repertory as Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase.” The young French keyboardist Jean Rondeau plays jazz on the side. These performers have room to mature, but their recent concerts and recordings—both with an emphasis on the Goldbergs—suggest that the venerable harpsichord, which Landowska called “the roi-soleil of instruments,” will have a long future.
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Israeli composer recently wrote a piece for solo violin titled Half Tiger, Half Poet. Here is a performance by 18-year-old Armenian violinist Diana Adamyan.

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How about some solo violin music by Bach for our envoi today? This is Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti playing the prelude to the E major partita:

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Progress in the Arts

Whether there can be progress in the arts is often doubted, but even more often assumed. Later Beethoven is always assumed to be better than early Beethoven, 80s pop music to be better than 70s, Impressionism to be better than Neoclassicism and Classical Era music to be better than Baroque Era music. Whoa, wait a minute, who said that?

You see, you could argue the opposite pretty easily: the early Baroque music was crude compared to the refined counterpoint of the late 16th century. Early Classical music was crude compared to the heights of the High Baroque (just compare the music of J. S. Bach to that of his sons). Cubist painting crude compared to the best examples of French Impressionism and so on. It's complicated.

Yet there is some kind of progress in the arts because history does not, in fact, repeat itself, despite the frequent claim to the contrary. But progress in the arts is by fits and starts and the measurement of it is haphazard. There are a near-infinite number of variables influencing artistic creation: the aesthetic needs and tastes of the society, the aesthetic goals of the artist, the economics of the arts, the nature of the materials available, the recent history of the art form and on and on. Underlying it all is the way creativity in the arts works.

Of the Big Five psychological traits, the one that is most responsible for creativity is Openness. The artist must be open, of course, to new ideas. A useful metaphor might be that ideas or themes are like neutrinos, invisibly sleeting through all of us all the time, but only a few of us are aware of them and even fewer are able to make use of them in artistic creation. Musicians and artists often speak of themes just "coming to them" or of stumbling across them randomly.

The corollary to this is that, as a Zen master said, the cup must be empty before you can fill it. He was referring to learning about Zen, but it applies in many situations. The act of creation is often preceded by the act of clearing away. Before Haydn and others could invent the crisp clarity and balance of the Classical Style they had to clear away all the thick textures and complex harmonies of the High Baroque, replacing them with opera buffa inspired jostling rhythms. Before Steve Reich could create his monolithic rhythmic structures he had to clear away virtually everything of 20th century modernism: no more dissonance, intricate pitch structures, fragmentary rhythms  and so on. They were all replaced by little more than pulse at first.

This even applies to pop music. The punk artists of the mid-70s sneeringly threw away all the pretensions and complexities of "art rock" in favor of the simplest and crudest textures they could find. Similarly, performers of rap and hip-hop got rid of harmony and melody in favor of the rhetoric of speech, sampling and drum tracks.

This is not the only way the arts progress, by excision and the upsetting of priorities (rhythm over harmony, speech over singing, pulse over melody, etc.); sometimes a new era in the arts consists of addition and a change in perspective. The Romantic Era in music added harmonic and melodic complexity to the Classical Style without changing the fundamental bases. The best example of that is the music of Franz Schubert, undeniably Romantic in its sensibility, but based very firmly on the Classical structures.

That's probably enough musing for today, let's have a musical example. Well, two actually. First, a Haydn piano sonata, which is a good example of the pure Classical style, second a Schubert piano sonata which, despite the great differences (not least in length), is still based largely on the Classical foundation.

Haydn: Piano Sonata nº 59 in E flat:

Schubert: Piano Sonata No 18 in G major, D 894

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Haydn, op. 76, no. 2, in D minor, "Quinten"

One of the things I really liked about the Kanye West song I posted on yesterday was the extreme simplicity of the basic material, the isolated high notes on the piano on the offbeat that tie the whole together. The figure in music history that largely originated and perfected this strategy was Joseph Haydn. Whereas Mozart's sonata movements are typically characterized by a wealth of themes, Haydn's often consist of just one. Sonata form is supposed to involve the contrast between two tonal areas and two themes, but Haydn violated that principle more often than he observed it. One of the most famous examples is the first movement of his String Quartet, op. 76, no. 2 in D minor which has the nickname "Die Quinten" or "The Fifths." The reason for that is the theme that utterly dominates the first movement. This theme is nothing more than two falling fifths:

There is hardly a measure that does not include this theme in some form or another. Hidden away in the 2nd violin:

Falling fifths in a rising sequence:

Compressing some of the intervals:

Wandering into remote keys:

Some simple variants:

And all these examples are just from the exposition! The development starts with the opening in inversion. This was the beginning:

And this is how the development starts, the whole thing turned upside down:

And, of course, the accompaniment is in a new key. Here the theme is in augmentation (quarter notes instead of half notes) and in close canon:

Shortly after it is back in half notes, but in triple canon with one voice a quarter note delayed and two others a half note delayed:

Are you tired yet? Haydn isn't. We have a false recapitulation in the wrong key:

Then, after the real recapitulation, some statements of the theme with accompanying figuration in close imitation:

The final statement of the theme, leading into the cadence, turns the second interval into a diminished 7th!

What an amazing tour de force this movement is. Let's have a listen. This is the Cleveland Quartet and we have the score so you can look for that theme.

The second movement is one of Haydn's charming sets of variations in D major. Then, just when you are least expecting it, he delivers yet another tour de force in the minuet. This is sometimes called the "Witches' Minuet" because the whole thing is a canon between the violins, in parallel octaves, and the viola and cello, in parallel octaves, at the distance of one measure:

Click to enlarge
Not just for a phrase or two, nope, for the whole minuet. Oh yeah, he did something similar before, in the minuet of his Symphony no. 44.

The final movement is just one of Haydn's superb, rollicking finales; it begins in D minor and ends in D major. Here is the Alban Berg Quartet playing the whole piece:

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Now here is an important and timely warning:

Yes, those pesky buglers can really be annoying!

Just so you don't all think I have lost my mind, with that post on Kanye West, the next post I am preparing will be an extensive look at the Haydn quartet op. 76, no. 2 in D minor.

Aesthetic Refugee

It used to be that the term "refugee" was limited to those persons fleeing an actual war-zone. Then it was extended to those escaping religious persecution. Other kinds of persecution, such as for being homosexual, were added. Now we seem to be including economic refugees. I want to make the claim of being an aesthetic refugee. Yes, it's true, I am fleeing the horrid cacophony of bad music, which pursues me wherever I go in public. For years I have railed against bad music and have even found entire genres, like "grindcore," to be completely devoid of any aesthetic value. I have said a lot of bad things about rap and hip-hop as well and found the accompanying videos to be an aesthetic horror. But the corollary of the claim that 90% of everything is crap, is that 10% might be good. Well, it has finally happened, I have come across a piece of hip-hop that is really interesting aesthetically! Believe me, no-one is more surprised than me. But I think that part of that whole aesthetic evaluation thing I keep talking about, is that you do need to be objective.

So here we go, I present to you a piece by Kanye West. In the past I have not had anything good to say about his music and that was based on just a few, haphazard listenings so I hasten to apologize. The other day I stumbled across something that made me completely re-evaluate his work. The piece, from his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is titled "Runaway" and I want to present three different versions of it. First of all, the one with the cleaned up lyrics:

In some ways I like the mix the best in this version. Next the "explicit" version so you can hear what he is actually singing:

The odd thing about that version is that the ambient sounds of footsteps are muted, but you can hear the words blurred out in the other version. The best version is the segment found in the full length film, thirty-four minutes long, that has an extended ending with more solos of the dancers.

There are a lot of things I find both remarkable and aesthetically compelling about this work (I mean the song "Runaway," not the whole film, which has lots of CGI). It is refreshingly minimal in that it uses no special effects, no computer generated imagery and no jump-cuts. All the shots are long and have much more weight because of it. The setting is as natural as could be: an empty warehouse with a plain cement floor, just the kind of place this sort of thing would be rehearsed in. All the emphasis is on the music and the dance. Honestly, how many hip-hop videos do you know that feature twenty or so Russian ballerinas? And nothing else except Kanye? The music itself I find particularly compelling. The stark piano at the beginning unites the whole piece. The long end with what sounds like sampled cellos reminds me very strongly of a Baroque passacaglia in its remorseful inevitability. As for the lyrics themselves, I find them particularly striking, not the least for the sarcasm of "Let's have a toast for the douchebags, let's have a toast for the assholes..." and so on. Yes, let's for there are lots of them around.

Remarkable guy, Kanye West. I'm afraid I was completely mislead by his celebrity status and the random hearing of one or two songs that did not impress me. But "Runaway" is a whole other ball game. This is a very impressive piece and I hope you come to enjoy it as well.

But I still hate EDM!