Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Josquin des Prez

After Guillaume Dufay the next really important composer is Josquin des Prez, born near Hainaut in territory belonging to the Dukes of Burgundy and passed away in the same region in 1521 after a career that took him to Milan, Rome, France and Ferrara. He is one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance, a period particularly rich in music. He came at a time when the printing of music was just beginning and Josquin's music was a favorite of the early printers. Indeed, music by Josquin was so highly valued that they often printed music attributed to him but actually by another composer. Recent scholarship has been devoted to paring down the list of works to those only by Josquin.


Josquin was a master of complex musical forms but also wrote short, saucy pieces. Here is "Petite Camusette":


He composed many settings of the mass using a variety of techniques such as basing one voice on a pre-existing melody, the cantus firmus, or using variations of a melody in all voices, or creating melodic material by encoding a name or phrase in musical notes (the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae uses notes drawn from the musical syllables of the Duke's own name: Re – Ut – Re – Ut – Re – Fa – Mi – Re, in English names for the notes, D C D C D F E D), or by structuring the music in canonic form.


Canon is one of those musical ideas that most of us encounter early on in school when we are taught to sing the round (another name for canon) "Row, row, row your boat" or "Frère Jacques" perhaps. Both are very simple tunes that can be sung by overlapping with themselves. For example, "Row, row, row your boat" is sung at an interval of one measure, four beats. That is, the second voice or singer, comes in when the first voice starts the second measure. This is so easy to demonstrate, but hard to put in words! "Frère Jacques" is sung at an interval of two measures, eight beats:




The idea of using a melody to accompany itself is one of those ideas that fascinates musicians. It is the musical equivalent of one of those M. C. Escher drawings:




There are a lot of ways to write a canon other than having the second voice exactly copy the first. For example, in Josquin's mass Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales, he uses what are called "mensuration" canons extensively. In this type of canon, the voice that follows the leader does so in different rhythmic values. For example, the second section of the Agnus Dei from the mass is in three voices. The middle voice is the slowest. All voices start together and the lower voice is the same as the middle voice, but twice as fast, and the upper voice is the same as the middle, but three times as fast. Here, from Wikipedia, is the opening showing the relationship between the voices:


Click to enlarge


And here is a performance. The passage shown in notation above is heard at the very beginning:




Unearthly music... Here, for contrast is a frottola--a popular song form in Italy at this time--on the Latin text "In te domini speravi", which was supposedly written to remind a cardinal that he owned Josquin money:


Monday, January 30, 2012

The Experience of Music

I was just reading another essay by Peter Kivy, from the collection The Fine Art of Repetition: Essays in the Philosophy of Music. He was suggesting that teaching music appreciation to humanities majors in college and university is done wrong. It is taught like literature: read a novel, discuss the themes, place it in historical context, perhaps talk about the literary techniques used. You can do the same with Beethoven: listen to a symphony or piano sonata, discuss the musical themes, place in historical context, perhaps talk about sonata form. But the difference, as Kivy points out, is that literature has content that we can absorb, giving point to the exercise. Dickens, for example, might give us insights into the terrible lot of child laborers in the 19th century; Jane Austen into the intricacies of human relationships and so on. But with music, it is quite different. The main reason according to Kivy, is that a symphony by Beethoven does not have content in the way a novel does. You can point to nothing in the symphony that gives us specific insights into the human condition. I think this is probably true. I have posted before about how the meaning of music is non-specific here.

Kivy makes the very interesting point that music is a unique art form in three particular ways: going back as far as we like in human history, music has primarily been a kind of ritual. Second, it is a community art, not a private one and third, it is an active, participatory experience, not a passive one. He is saying that teaching the musical canon like we teach the literary canon will not really work. You will have the proper experience of Jane Austen by reading the novels accompanied by information about the historical context and the literary techniques. And at the end, you will have access to the content of the artwork. But, Kivy argues, taking the same approach to a Beethoven symphony won't have the same result, because it has no content in the way a novel does. Instead, he argues, the way to approach music is to recognize it is a ritual, it is communal and it is active, not passive. So to access music in a genuine way YOU HAVE TO PLAY OR SING IT! Now that is an interesting thought! It seems correct to me, because it reflects my experience with music.

My mother was a fiddler, a violinist who played Canadian traditional music. Growing up, I cannot recall a time when, if you reached behind the couch or under a chair you wouldn't come up with a musical instrument case: guitars, violins, mandolins, octophones, banjos--you name it. Even an upright piano. I didn't catch the bug myself until my mid-teens, but my whole life I have had the unspoken sense that music was something you did. This is why I have always felt that pre-recorded, canned music, the kind you hear in the store, the mall, so many places, is not really music in the important sense. Because music is something you do, not something you just hear, passively.


I think you might pick up some of the ritualistic and participatory nature of music from that video.

For most of my career I taught people how to play guitar, for part of my career I also taught classes in music theory and history (appreciation). I am pretty sure that if you don't learn how to play or sing to some extent, there are crucial aspects of music that will not really make sense to you. I suspect that it also helps if you learn to read music as well, but it is the playing that is important. My first experience of Machaut, for example, was playing lute in a three-part motet of his in an early music ensemble as an undergraduate--actually, that was pretty much my first experience with chamber music, unless you count playing in a rock band! I had listened to a lot of recordings of Mozart, but the most vivid experience was singing the Requiem in the university choir. Bach, of course, is music I have played, almost on a daily basis, for the last forty years. Listening to Bach and playing Bach are very different experiences and I think that if you have just heard Bach without ever having played (or tried to play) any of his music, you will only have a partial experience.


Music is something you DO. If you play or sing, even just a little, you will enter into the world of music in a way that listening to a thousand recordings or viewing a thousand music videos can never provide. If we go back to Beethoven's or Mozart's time, the audience for one of their concerts probably consisted of a majority of musical amateurs who could read music (to some extent), who played piano (a bit, at least) and for this reason, could participate in the concert in a way that the passive audiences of today do not.



Which brings up some interesting thoughts about teaching music online...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Guillaume Dufay

Portrait by Jan van Eyck, possibly of Dufay
Almost exactly a hundred years after Machaut, the leading composer was Guillaume Dufay. He was born around 1397 and died in 1474, the leading figure in the Burgundian School. He grew up in Cambrai and later was employed by the Malatesta family and two popes, where he sang in the papal choir. Nowadays nearly all composers are pianists (with the occasional guitarist...), but in this period they tended to be singers and their compositions are inherently vocal as a result. Dufay is the central figure in the transition from Medieval music to the Renaissance. As Wikipedia notes, "Dufay was one of the last composers to make use of medieval techniques such as isorhythm but one of the first to use the harmonies, phrasing and expressive melodies characteristic of the early Renaissance." Here is their article on Dufay.

Looking back in music history, one thing that comes to light is that, as we move from antiquity closer and closer to our time the musicians and their music become more individual. While Machaut's texts were in the traditions of courtly love, Dufay strikes a personal note and for the first time we seem to hear the voice of a single human being. In this song, for example, he laments leaving the things he loved in Lannoys:

Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys

Rondeau by Guillaume Dufay (1426)

 Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys,
Farewell to the fine wines of the Laonnais,
 Adieu dames, adieu borgois
farewell ladies, farewell townsmen,
 Adieu celle que tant amoye
farewell to her I loved so much,
 Adieu toute playssante joye,
farewell to all joy and pleasure,
 Adieu tous compaignons galois.
farewell all boon companions.

Here are the Ensemble Unicorn performing the song. In their arrangement, the song is heard first on the lute, played freely, then with several instruments and finally with the voice.


Dufay wrote this as a young man, probably in response to the fact that then, as now, young ambitious musicians often had to travel far from home to further their careers. A modern analogue might be "Strawberry Fields Forever" by John Lennon:


In 1436, Dufay wrote a spectacular isorhythmic motet, Nuper Rosarum Flores, the culmination of this method of composition, for the consecration of the cathedral in Florence with its Duomo by Brunelleschi. Here is the Wikipedia article on the piece. And here is a performance:


You could write a whole book on that piece! Quite a few articles have been written about whether or not the proportions of the piece relate to the proportions of the cathedral or to the biblical passage Kings 6:1–20, which gives the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon. No real modern analogues to this one. Maybe the Dona nobis pacem from Bach's B minor mass. Or perhaps the Third Symphony of Gorecki:


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Guillaume de Machaut

It has been pointed out by philosopher of music Peter Kivy that musical masterpieces seem to have a different status than artworks in other fields. Some knowledge of the plays of Shakespeare, the sculptures and paintings of Michelangelo, the novels of Tolstoy and the poetry of Dante and Homer is assumed for every well-educated person. On hearing Hamlet's soliloquy "to be or not to be" or seeing a reproduction of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and even perhaps hearing the words "In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost" many people would recognize the reference. But the same seems not to be true of music. Most people would probably not recognize the opening of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 or Bach's B minor Mass or Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. Without trying to identify exactly why this is the case, why music seems to be regarded as being more mysterious, on a different level, than other artworks (perhaps it is because music is written down in a notation that relatively few learn to read), I would like to try and offer introductions to some masterpieces of music. Twenty or thirty years ago people were saying that there were no more masterpieces. I don't think that is true, but what I am sure about is that there have been a great number of musical masterpieces, easily powerful enough to stand beside Hamlet or Michaelangelo's David or Tolstoy's War and Peace. Looking around on the web, if you search for "masterpieces of classical music" you end up with a list that includes Carmina Burana, the Four Seasons and Claire de lune. I don't really want to talk about the current "top ten" of classical music. I would rather go back and pick out one or two great composers from each period and talk a little about one or two of their best compositions. So let me start with perhaps the greatest Medieval composer, Guillaume de Machaut.


Guillaume de Machaut was born in Reims in northern France around 1300 AD and died in 1377. He was as admired as a poet as he was as a composer, something almost unique in music history. Perhaps you might compare him to Bob Dylan. Machaut was part of the late Medieval movement in music known as ars nova. His secular songs dealing with courtly love are highly regarded and he was the first composer to set the whole Catholic mass as a single composition. Machaut was one of the best-known composers of the isorhythmic motet in which a repeating rhythmic pattern, called the talea, is used independently of the melody, called the color. Using a repeated rhythmic pattern unifies the composition--something composers are always striving for. Here, for example, is the tenor part to the Kyrie of Machaut's mass:
Click to enlarge
As you can see there is a brief, four note rhythmic pattern that keeps repeating even though the pitches are always changing. This unusual to our ears way of unifying a piece was re-discovered in the 20th century by the Second Viennese School. Here is the secular motet Quant en moy which uses a more complex isorhythm:


We tend to think of history as being progressive: one of the tenets of modernism in music was progress. The new music was a technical advance over the old music with greater complexity and, supposedly, interest. But looking at this music by Machaut we can see that this model of history is naive. A motet by Machaut is very complex rhythmically, far more so than the Renaissance compositions which followed it, far more so than the Baroque and Classical ones as well. If you want to know a whole lot more about Machaut, here is an excellent, very recent essay on a piece by Machaut by Elizabeth Leach, a musicologist at Oxford. Here is her blog.

I love music like this for a number of reasons: the harmonic clarity, the openness of the texture, the feeling of almost being able to get a sense of the inner lives of people living seven hundred years ago. Enjoy!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ligeti: Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes

I see on Alex Ross' blog that Ligeti's piece for 100 metronomes is about to be performed in New York. This piece dates from 1962 and therefore predates the similar work by Steve Reich titled Pendulum Music. Wikipedia has articles on both pieces here and here. In both cases the idea is to start a physical process that generates sound and to wait for the process to complete. In the piece by Ligeti the process is to wind up 100 of the old-fashioned metronomes, set them to different tempi and let them go simultaneously. At first there is a collision of many different ticks, but as they run down, slowly, we end up listening to just one metronome which finally stops. In the Steve Reich piece, several microphones are suspended above speakers pointing up and the levels are set so that there will be feedback when the microphone is just above the speaker. Then the microphones are set swinging. The piece ends when they have all stopped swinging and there is a continuous feedback. Here is the Ligeti piece:


And here is the one by Steve Reich:


Depending on the microphones, the speakers, the microphone chords and the amplifier, you can get different results:


Ligeti composed his piece as a criticism of trends in contemporary music. He said:
What bothers me nowadays are above all ideologies (all ideologies, in that they are stubborn and intolerant towards others), and Poème Symphonique is directed above all against them.
Steve Reich's piece, however, was an experiment in rhythm and, along with a couple of pieces using tape loops, led him to some new rhythmic possibilities. Both pieces are, I would suggest, neither interesting aesthetically, nor any sort of human expression in music. Well, that was the point, of course! It is somewhat ridiculous to find oneself in the audience watching a performance of this sort. It is equally ridiculous, I suggest, to sit in the audience listening to a piece of electronic music. Why is this? I think it is because a musical performance requires one or more human beings expressing something to other human beings. In other words, despite the bad press artistic intention has garnered in recent decades, it is in fact necessary to art that human beings intend to express something to other human beings. You might reply, that in the two pieces discussed above, the composer definitely had intentions. Well, ok, but they were not really expressive intentions, were they? In other words, while these might be justifiably considered experiments, they do not seem to have what I would term aesthetic content. Neither does Cage's 4'33 which I talk about here. Neither do any of Cage's pieces where the notes were chosen with chance procedures. The common element in all these pieces is the removal of any possibility of human aesthetic expression.

I think this was a phase that was mercifully brief. What surprises me is that people keep scheduling 'performances' of this stuff. Like some jokes, they are amusing once, but not for a second time. Ironically, since these pieces are emphatically not about expressing something aesthetic, what they really do is express an ideology. I say "ironically" because of Ligeti's comment. They all want to 'free' music from the human element. If you don't want to hear human expression in sound, you can go down to the freeway and listen to traffic sounds, or listen to the wind in the trees, or the surf crashing on a beach. One electronic piece I have heard was called Hurricanes and that was what it sounded like. Ok, but IT'S NOT INTERESTING!! Sorry to shout, but without intentional human expression, art has no more significance than a sunset. So what was the significance of this phase? Was it a sort of throat-clearing as a preface to post-modernism? There are some clues in this interesting essay on the phenomenon of post-modernism. After tracing the history of post-modernism and discussing some exemplary works the author points out that the strength of post-modernism was to remove the idea of a central narrative with accompanying aesthetic values. Edward Docx describes what happened next:
because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognise the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. Capital, as has been said many times before, accommodates all needs. So, paradoxically, we arrive at a moment where literature itself has become threatened, first by the artistic credo of postmodernism (the death of the author) and second by the unintended result of that credo, the hegemony of the marketplace. What then becomes sought and desired are fictions that resonate with the widest possible public: that is, with as many discourses as possible. This public can then give or withhold approval measured in sales.
In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.
The author concludes by seeing a new phase beginning in which authentic aesthetic values are returning. Well, yes, that's my impression as well. No-one writes pieces for 100 metronomes any more. If there was a point to it, there is no longer. As the author indicates, "Gradually we hear more and more affirmation for those who can render expertly, the sculptor who can sculpt, the ceramist, the jeweller, even the novelist who can actually write." And, presumably, the composer who can actually compose music. For actual instruments. Played by actual performers. Requiring training and skill. And human expression...

UPDATE: Something I should have brought out is how seriously we are meant to take these pieces. I think the Ligeti is obviously a satire: Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes? Really? The title itself is a satire and the image of an audience sitting in a hall listening to 100 metronomes run down is itself hilarious. The piece by Steve Reich is simply an experiment--he doesn't seem to have a sense of humor. John Cage however, does. I suspect that most of his music is actually meant to be funny, 4'33 not least of all. I can just see Cage sitting in his apartment wondering to himself, just how much absurdness can I get away with? A piece for 18 radios tuned in and out randomly? A piece for water sounds including a duck call? How about a piece that is just silence!!! Heh. Never forget to entertain the possibility that the composer is just out to make fun of us.

Forgery and Parody

There is a booming business in the forgery of artworks such as paintings. If someone is skilled enough to create an imitation of the style of, say, Vermeer, and to do it in a sufficiently authentic manner on old canvas and managing to duplicate the appearance of very old oil paint and so on, then the resulting work might be passed off as an original Vermeer. Indeed, this has happened on occasion. Here is one account. Here is one of Van Meegeren's forgeries:

Now this sort of thing can only be done with so-called 'autographic' works, ones of which there can only be one original. According to the theory of Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art this cannot be done with so-called 'allographic' works such as music, dance and theater where the history of the production of the work is not essential to the value of the artwork. There can be hundreds of copies, both written and printed, of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and thousands of performances and they can all be authentic as long as they follow the specifications of the score. In this theory it is inherently impossible to forge a Beethoven symphony even though you might be able to forge a manuscript copy of one.

However, it is certainly possible to create a parody of a work by Beethoven. Imagine a musicologist, a composer and a manuscript forger getting together and writing a new composition so closely imitating the style of Beethoven that it could fool not only listeners but also professional musicians and other musicologists. Once written, the score would be handed over to a forger who would create, on old paper and with old inks, an exact facsimile of a typical Beethoven manuscript, scribbles and all. This could then be announced to the world and given a big premiere. This is highly unlikely for many reasons. First of all, there wouldn't be the millions of dollars of potential profit enough to attract people good enough to bring it off. Second, we have a pretty extensive knowledge of Beethoven's life and it would be difficult to find a niche big enough for a whole symphony to have been composed with no clues in the biographical material.

A work like this is called a 'parody' and many composers have done parodies of other composers' works throughout music history, often including some or all of the original work. For example, the concerto for guitar and orchestra by Joaquin Rodrigo titled Fantasia para un gentilhombre, written for Andres Segovia, uses themes from the 17th century Spanish composer and guitarist, Gaspar Sanz. Here is the original of one of the movements, the Canarios:


And here is Rodrigo's version for guitar and orchestra:


Of course, Rodrigo has added a great deal, but it is all based on the original themes. This practice goes back a very long way. In the 16th century the vihuelista Luis de Narváez did a parody of an original piece by Josquin des Prez called "Mille Regretz". Here is the original:




And here is the version by Narvaez which he called "Cancion del Emperador":




What Narvaez has done is take the whole structure of the music and transcribe it for vihuela (an instrument similar to the guitar and lute). To compensate for the short sustain of the plucked strings, he has added suitable ornaments dividing long notes into shorter ones.


Occasionally composers do something a bit nefarious when they take music from another composer and pass it off as their own. In 1783 Mozart took a symphony by Michael Haydn, revised the wind parts throughout and added a slow introduction to the first movement. He then performed it in a concert along with his Symphony No. 36, where it was undoubtedly accepted as his own work. That most of the symphony was actually by Michael Haydn wasn't discovered until 1907. Here is that first movement:




From about 1:24 on, it is Michael Haydn, not Mozart. Here is the original by Michael Haydn:




There are lots of instances of music being attributed to a famous composer that is actually by someone less well-known. This is an instance of a famous composer attributing music to himself by a lesser composer! 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Unpopular Music

A lot of people in the classical music world are working on the problem of, as Greg Sandow calls it, the "future of classical music", that is, how can we bring in new audiences to symphony, opera and chamber music concerts? The statistics are unclear, but it seems as if audiences are declining and attracting more young people is a project a lot of musical organizations see as critical.

The massive place that popular music now occupies in the public consciousness is one major factor in the increasing pressure on the classical music world. The change has come in the last fifty or sixty years. If we go back to the fifties, a huge classical artist like Van Cliburn, the winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, could sell more records than Elvis Presley. But with the coming on the scene of pop artists like the Beatles and the host that followed them, this changed and now classical sales are a tiny fraction of popular music sales. Popular music and the mass media have proved to be such a powerful partnership, as exemplified in the music video, that mere classical artists are forced to emulate them, just to be heard. I have posted a few times on this here and here.

So the question is, if popular music is what we mostly hear in the mass media, is classical music now "unpopular music"? In terms of sales? Sure. So administrators and promoters and artists are all working to make classical music more popular. There are a few problems, though. For one thing, popular music is popular because it is easy to listen to. Classical music is often not so easy to listen to. In fact, if you really want to enjoy all the glories of classical music, you need to investigate a bit, be curious, learn about it. Now mind you, classical music can have an immediate impact. Have a listen to this, for example:


For sheer musical power and glorious sound, this is pretty outstanding. I still get shivers every time I hear that theme in the French horns. Or listen just to the first couple of minutes of this:


Those horns again! But there is much more to classical music than just the orchestral showpieces. There are pieces of subtlety and sheer musical beauty such as this:


A piece like that is not going to overwhelm you on first listening like the first two did. No, you need to listen to it a few times. Each time you will notice something new and the beauty of it will grow on you. Some music makes very little impression the first time, but just sounds odd:


The first time you listen you might say "what the heck is going on there"? It may make little sense because of the big contrasts and may just sound confused. But then, after a few listenings, some things might suddenly capture your attention, and as time goes on it all starts making sense and a kind of sense that no other piece has. Other music is very challenging at first:


And may continue to be challenging, even after many hearings! Or you may start to pick up on the eerie floating harmony... One thing for sure, this music is very subtle and intricate: you must listen with your full attention and no distractions.

Classical music may be the "unpopular music" as compared to pop music. But it is not unpopular because it is bad music! It is unpopular because a lot of classical music does not give up its secrets and beauties immediately. You have to work at it a bit as a listener. Perhaps you might read a book on the composer, or at least look him or her up on Wikipedia. There is a wealth of information there. There are even individual articles on pieces. Here is the article on the 'Serioso' Quartet by Beethoven that is the fourth YouTube clip above. Here is another one on the Piano Sonata by Alban Berg that is my last example.

The neat thing about Wikipedia is that each article contains links to others. In the one on the Berg sonata there is mention of whole-tone scales which is linked to an article on them which explains what they are. If you follow those links you will start being knowledgeable about such things.

Most pop songs are just what you hear the first time, nothing much beneath the surface. But classical music is like an iceberg: what you hear the first time is just a fraction of what is going on. The more you dig, the more you will discover. Take my word for it, there are pieces of classical music that no-one has ever gotten completely to the bottom of:

 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lola Astanova

Norman Lebrecht, continuing his commentary on critics, posts on this concert review by Zachary Woolfe in the NYT. Some context: Lola Astanova is an accomplished pianist who manages to overshadow the music she plays with her stage presence which projects "extreme physical abandon" and, on this occasion, "$850,000 in jewels borrowed from Tiffany". Both quotes from the NYT review. This is a trend, of course. Many of the younger pianists on the scene, especially young women, are emphasizing their physicality. My go-to post on this phenomenon is here -- what I call "classical music with a pop sensibility" because pop music has been going in this direction for decades. Here is Lola Astanova in performance:




I think I see what Zachary Woolfe meant by the gestures. At the end she looked as if she was about to jump up and run a marathon, or star in an action film. I don't think Liszt, a spectacular performer himself, would have minded this. How about another composer? Rachmaninoff:




I also think I see what Woolfe means by a "faceless" quality: this is technically very accomplished, but it doesn't seem to have a lot of musical interest. Again, very physical--faceless, but not legless! Let's hear something else. Beethoven:




Somehow that manages to be technically sound but murky and clunky all at the same time. This is more like what it should sound like:




I looked to see if Lola Astanova had any Bach up on YouTube, but I was somewhat relieved not to find any. As fashion model pianists go, she is pretty good, but not terribly interesting musically. I revert to the question I raised in my early post about this: where are the really great musicians who don't project such a flamboyant, sexy image? Honestly, I would rather hear them. Isn't this more about hearing the music than imagining dating the performer?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

A very careful reader of this blog may have noticed that the work of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse is a secret pleasure of mine. One of the many things that attracts me to his work is the outstanding use he makes of music. He is a great fan of the musical genre and did one episode of Buffy (season six, episode seven) as a musical in which different numbers were an homage to the musical form. This episode, titled "Once More With Feeling", has consistently been one of the most popular. It is not only well-integrated with the story-arc, it is actually a crucial step in revealing all those things that the characters don't want to talk about, but seem compelled to sing about. The problem with it has always been that the actors are not trained singers and dancers. The brilliant plot device to account for this is that a demon has been summoned to town and everyone is forced to sing and dance by him. Great idea. The demon is played by guest star Hinton Battle, a seasoned professional who has won three Tony awards, all for roles in musicals. But despite this, the performances are rather awkward. A couple of cast members are pretty good singers, but others are not. The greatest weight falls on Sarah Michelle Gellar who is neither a singer nor a dancer, but had to learn for this one episode. The singing pretty much works, but her dancing is weak. It is a treat when Hinton Battle comes on as the demon Sweet and shows us how it's done:

Unfortunately, this is no longer the golden age of the musical and even professionals now don't have quite the pizzazz of their predecessors. If you go back and watch a musical from the golden age, such as Singing in the Rain with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, you will see a level of dancing that will take your breath away. Here is a still from that film:

And here is the number itself:


Yes, Cyd Charisse does have the best legs ever--and she was in the Ballets russe at age 13. Gene Kelly does one number entirely in a downpour and he and Donald O'Connor do a huge number in one shot that makes you wonder how they could possibly have remembered the long, long sequence of intricate moves that they perform in unison. After watching them, even Hinton Battle, good as he is, looks a bit like an amateur and the dancing of the regular cast members is just feeble.



But I come to praise Joss Whedon, not to bury him! So let me get on to my real topic: the extraordinary internet-released family home movie called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I call it a "family home movie" because it was the creation of Joss Whedon, two of his brothers, Jed and Zack, and Jed's wife, actress Maurissa Tancharoen. This was released--only on the internet--in July 2008 and made a big splash due to Joss's extensive fan base. The moment it hit the web, it was getting 1000 hits per second and crashing the server. It was a big hit, but act three puzzled and confused many viewers. I think that the whole thing is a work of genius and one of the few really original dramatic ideas I have seen in a long, long time.

Joss was no doubt aware of the weaknesses of "Once More With Feeling" even though in dramatic terms it worked well. So in this new attempt at a musical, he avoids the problems by avoiding dancing (because he is still hiring actors mainly for their acting) and by selecting some pretty good singers. He also keeps to a small cast of only three main characters.


The viewer is set up for light, feverish, very hip comedy both by Joss's reputation (third-generation Hollywood sit-com writer) and by the opening. Every time I hear him say "smells like cumin" I just laugh. The songs are tuneful and well-written. One of the great gifts that music gives to drama is the ability to have three different vocal lines sung simultaneously and yet still be understandable. Music organizes speech rhythmically. Joss has a nicely done trio in the second part of act 1: "A Man's Gotta Do". The trio starts around 5:20:


Act 2 turns darker as Dr. Horrible discovers that pursuing his avowed ambition, to join the Evil League of Evil, may involve compromising his concealed (and more genuine) ambition: to meet, talk to and possibly date his dream girl, Penny. Act 2 begins with a duet between them, "My Eyes", in which each expresses the opposite to the other. The act continues with Billy's dream crushed by Captain Hammer. The patter song "Brand New Day" (very like Gilbert and Sullivan) in which Dr. Horrible resolves to really be evil, instead of just posturing to be so, ends the act.


Act 3 is where things get very strange. So far, as many, many modern dramas do, this one has followed the basic structure of Athenian New Comedy. There is a young couple, who want to be together. They are blocked by an older man, a 'senex iratus', who tries to thwart the young couple. The ending sees him vanquished and the young lovers happily married (or, in modern times, a surrogate of such). This basic structure permeates many modern dramas, even those not considered 'comedies'. Even James Bond gets the girl at the end. But what Whedon is up to here is fooling us into thinking he is doing comedy, when actually he is doing anti-comedy, sometimes known as tragedy. In the first part, we see Dr. Horrible on the verge of triumph:


But it goes horribly wrong from there on.


There are so many things here that make me think of Greek tragedy. Wikipedia tells us "the word τραγῳδία (tragoidia), from which the word "tragedy" is derived, is a portmanteau of two Greek words: τράγος (tragos) or "goat" and ᾠδή (ode) meaning "song", from ἀείδειν (aeidein), "to sing". Here we have no goat, but Bad Horse with his terrifying death whinny. The thing about Joss Whedon is that his most comic is very, very near to his most tragic. He says the most serious things in the most jocular manner. In both this and "Once More With Feeling" a bright, cheerful beginning leads to a dark, sad ending. The tragedy is that the real ambition, to be with the girl, has been wiped out by pursuing the false ambition: be evil and rule the world. And Billy ends up unable to "feel ... a thing". In my books, this is a serious drama and one of the most original I've seen in a very long time. Plus, I like the songs.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Music and Meaning

Music can mean a lot to us. Certain pieces or songs remind us of a particular time in our lives, a particular emotional content. But the kind of meaning we find in music is not the kind we find in language. Musical meaning doesn't signify the way language does. Of course, some music has text and the text has linguistic meaning. A song can tell a story. But music without text can also have meaning. Without semantic content, though. You can't say in music "the ball is red"

But on the other hand, you can't say in words
Music notation is both a set of instructions "put tab A in slot B" and a description of a soundscape. The illustration above, converted into instructions, might be something like "play three eighth note Gs followed by an E flat; the length of each eighth note is 0.14 seconds; play the notes loud, etc..." The cumbersomeness of this is why prose does not make for useful music notation. With training, you can read a musical score and "hear" it in your head; that is, you can estimate the resulting sound. As proof of this, a typical test in ear-training is to hand someone musical notation as in the illustration and have them sing it.

Some instrumental music almost seems to have semantic content. I once performed an experiment with the cooperation of a class I was teaching. There were about 100 students, so a good-sized sample. The experiment was I played a movement from an orchestral work and asked everyone to write down a few sentences describing what was going on. I suppose it was like asking them to imagine the movie this was the soundtrack for. I did not tell them anything whatever about the piece and I doubt if any of them had heard it before. If you want to perform the experiment yourself, just listen to the following clip without looking at it.



The vast majority of the students, at least 90%, wrote some variant of the following: "there is a great conflict or battle between two opposing forces, one good, one evil and the battle ends with good triumphing". This is the third movement from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12, "The Year 1917" and it represents in some way the events of the Russian Revolution. The third movement is titled "Aurora" after the battleship that fired on the Winter Palace signalling the beginning of the conflict. Here is Wikipedia on the symphony.

Music can communicate very powerfully. What it can't do is communicate specifics: "meet me at 7" or "property is theft". What it can do is express how we feel in general, not specific terms. Now that raises some interesting possibilities. Can we use music as a kind of time machine to get a sense of how people felt in the 18th, or 16th or 14th century? Well, possibly. But we have to take into account that we can only hear from our perspective and the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic techniques of music have changed radically over time. The depiction of a battle in a piece from the 16th century is not going to sound much like the depiction of a battle in a piece from the 20th century.

One last thought. Beethoven titled his Symphony No. 3 the Eroica, and dedicated it to Napoleon. But, as the story goes, later on he scratched out that dedication and made it merely to "the memory of a great man". Here is the Wikipedia article with the story. Here is the title page with the scratched out original dedication:

Now here is what is interesting: when he changed his mind about Napoleon after he made himself emperor, Beethoven had to change the dedication but he didn't have to change a single note in the symphony! The expressiveness of music is non-specific, which is ofttimes a good thing. Because of this, Shostakovich was able to write symphonies that were both acceptable to the authorities under Stalin and expressive of the torment and oppression felt by the people. Here is the first movement of the Eroica:


And here is the slow movement of the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich:


All this makes one recall a letter Mendelssohn wrote in which he said:
A piece of music that I love expresses thoughts to me that are not too imprecise to be framed in words, but too precise.
This is saying the opposite to what I have been saying here! But oddly enough, I think there is truth in both. What Mendelssohn is saying, as is clear from the context of the passage, is that while most people find language precise and music imprecise, for him it is the opposite. He finds language very imprecise with the meaning often unclear and easily misunderstood. Music on the other hand, to Mendelssohn, is perfectly clear even though inexpressible in words. Just as, for me, I know exactly what the meaning (significance? import?) is of the short theme by Beethoven I quoted at the very beginning of this post. But I really have no idea what someone might mean by saying "the ball is red". Unless we are playing billiards. It might all be some murky metaphor...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reconsidering Schubert

Readers of this blog know that I am not shy about expressing opinions and evaluations. Indeed, I think that is my job as a blogger! I have had readers email me complaining that I have been too even-handed and saying they relied on my judgement. Very flattering! But I think that one's views must be earned. In other words, just throwing out scattered, subjective impressions with no reasoning behind them is not valuable. In fact, that is what I see an awful lot of 'critics' doing, especially those in popular culture. One of the ways that you earn your way to an evaluation is by listening objectively and by being prepared to change your opinion when necessary.

That being said, I confess that in recent years I have been unresponsive to a lot of chamber music by Schubert. Those interminable quartets and quintets just seemed to me to meander on aimlessly. An early course I took on romantic music disposed me a bit to this view because one of the points made in the course was that the weak genre in the Romantic Period was chamber music, which usually fell far short of their extraordinary achievements in orchestral music, piano music and opera. I still think this is true. But on stumbling on a post on Jessica Duchen's blog, I am re-thinking Schubert's chamber music a bit. This is a lovely movement:


But I remain unrepentantly unsympathetic to Schumann's chamber music. Well, actually, to most of his attempts to write longer movements. The absolute genius that he shows in the shorter forms, in the lieder and piano music, seems to desert him when he tries to write a quartet or symphony. I talk at length about Schumann in this post and this post.

But I'm going to listen a lot more to Schubert's chamber music from now on.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tortured Music

From the ever-useful website of Norman Lebrecht comes this interesting story. Here is a link directly to the website for the recording. If you click on the samples, there are brief extracts from each piece. The one for Stress Position consists of a low register pedal in irregularly accented quick notes. A "stress position" is a kind of interrogation technique involving putting someone in various positions for extended periods of time. Simply forcing someone to stand for a long period of time can be very painful. So, depending on the variety and length of time, stress positions have been determined to be a form of torture or at least "inhuman and degrading treatment". Despite this, they have been used by the British against the Irish Republican Army, by various police forces and by the US. Here is what the composer, Drew Baker, says about his composition:
Pianists spend lifetimes alone in small rooms with antique instruments. This intimate scenario is defined by an atmosphere of confinement as well as an overt physicality. The piano receives the weight of the body and disperses sound.

These simple and rather obvious facts regarding intimacy, physicality and space are essential to my piano works. Whether addressing extra-musical and political topics or simply existing as "absolute music," every piece on this recording attempts to lay bare the visceral intensity that directly results from the act of playing.
 He is making a connection here between the self-imposed stress positions that pianists live with (and all other musicians, for that matter) and, apparently, the interrogation technique, I suppose, because he doesn't say that explicitly. On his website there is this further comment on the piece:
Throughout the duration of Stress Position, the pianist must play an unrelenting series of repeated notes at opposite ends of the instrument. This causes the arms to remain extended for the duration of the work. In addition, each hand is stretched to further extremes as pitches are slowly added.
 It seems, therefore, that he is subjecting the pianist to the same sort of, well, torture, that the US armed forces use on terrorists. Interesting idea. Again, I am assuming that the purpose of this is twofold: as he says, to involve the pianist and the listener in the "visceral intensity" of playing, and, by having us experience an analogue to the stress position torture, to developing empathy for those subjected to this kind of interrogation. There are other similar piano pieces out there that might have a similar effect. The piano part to Terry Riley's In C, for example:


Which goes on for a very long time, indeed. Or Vexations by Erik Satie:


This is just a brief extract. The whole piece, repeated 840 times, goes on for hours and hours and hours...

My question is, would someone use the same sort of aesthetic technique to create empathy for the victims of 9/11? I.e. will we be seeing a piece soon where the performers and perhaps the audience will be engulfed in flaming jet fuel?

Looking back at my piece on aesthetic virtues and sins, I wonder how many sins this piece exemplifies? Number 1 probably, perhaps numbers 2 and 3 as well.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Song and Dance

One summer I was studying with a very famous teacher and played for him, in the master-class, my transcription of the First Cello Suite by J. S. Bach. He had a conservative side and since my transcription was in A major rather than in the usual D major, he refused to take it seriously. The next morning at breakfast he apologized for giving me a "song and dance" and asked me to play it again for him. The second time he gave me some good ideas.

This phrase, "song and dance" reminds me of something so fundamental about music that we usually forget it. All music is really based, on the most fundamental level, on either the activity of singing or dancing. In most pieces of instrumental music the two are fused together so closely it is sometimes hard to separate them. But it is an interesting thing to do, nonetheless. This is pure song:


So is this:


This is pure dance:


And so is this:


But much instrumental music fuses the two fundamental ideas, melody and rhythm, together: