Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Orchestration

Nathan Shirley, a pianist/composer and one of my commentors, left a comment on the music software post about learning instruments so as to be able to write for them. It's a good idea, I think, even though I'm not sure a lot of composers actually do it. I'm pretty sure that a lot of the composers that wrote for Segovia didn't have much practical knowledge of the guitar because they so often wrote things that were awkward or even unplayable. Ironically, a lot of pieces by Joaquin Rodrigo, composer of the most famous 20th century piece for guitar, the Concierto de Aranjuez, fall into this category.

What instruments have I actually studied? Most seriously, the classical guitar, of course. But before that I started on bass guitar, acoustic six-string and electric six-string. I also studied the flute for a year or so, though not formally. I studied voice for a year as well, with a good teacher. As I was saying in my answer to Nathan's comment, I have also taken piano lessons off and on for a year or so, but found it made my right hand feel very bad, so I had to stop. Oh, I've also fooled around a tiny bit with harmonica and spent a bit of time learning to play slide blues guitar, which involves not only the use of a slide, but also a completely different tuning. Wait, one more instrument: I learned to play the mandolin just for a performance of Don Giovanni. I have the suspicion that I could learn the basics of most instruments in fairly short order as I certainly understand the principles of learning music!

What has all this got to do with orchestration? As a guitarist, orchestration has always seemed to me to be one of those arcane fields of study, like the calculus or organic chemistry, that has little enough relevance to be worth the trouble. But my most recent musical revelation (epiphany?) as a composer is that I do not need to limit myself to composing just for guitar, solo and in ensemble. I'm either a composer, or I'm not and if I am, then I can compose for any instrument(s). So, on the occasion of a new orchestra forming here, I decided to write an overture for them and the experience was so exciting that I am going to write a lot more for non-guitar instruments. The guitar is extremely hard to write for and I was throwing away half of my musical ideas just because I couldn't figure out how to fit them on the guitar. Writing for orchestra was incredibly liberating!

But I did run into one problem: I chose string orchestra with tympani and a small group of winds--flute, oboe, trumpet and French horn. Can you see the problem? I didn't at first, but as I worked on the piece I realized that there was a constant balance problem between the flute especially and the brass instruments. So I finally replaced the trumpet and French horn with clarinet and bassoon. It gives me a proper bass line in the winds and solves the balance problem. Due to my background I am a lot less comfortable with brass instruments than I am with woodwinds.

So something I am going to do soon is write a brass quintet. The kinds of things you can do with that ensemble are the kinds of things I am really unfamiliar with as a player and composer (though not, of course, as a listener). It also occurs to me that NOT knowing the mechanics of an instrument may often mean that you might come up with entirely new and good kinds of music for that instruments. The example of Joaquin Rodrigo comes to mind. He knew very little about the mechanics of the guitar, but wrote spectacular, if difficult, music for it. On the other hand, Mauro Giuliani (1781 - 1829) was a consummate guitar virtuoso, but everything he wrote feels a bit like a technical exercise because of his familiarity with the mechanics of the instrument.

I have a lot to learn about orchestration, but it is not so much the arcana of the different instruments (what is the exact range of the ophicleide?) as it is the palette of timbres that they can produce in various combinations. And that I've been noticing and marvelling at for years. Shostakovich gets some remarkable orchestral effects.

Which brings me to my final point: I often read about composers writing a score on piano and then spending a lot of time--years in some cases--"orchestrating" the score. An example would be Gurre-Lieder by Arnold Schoenberg which was written, in voice and piano form, around 1900 but the orchestration of which was not finished until November 1911, by which time his style had undergone radical changes. I really can't see working that way. It is the instruments that come to mind first and foremost. If I am writing for chamber orchestra, then that is how it is written down from the very beginning. Is this simply because I am not a piano-player? Would it help me in any way to do sketches in abstraction, for keyboard and later 'clothe' these sketches in an orchestral garb? I don't know, I suppose I could try it to find out. But I tend to have musical ideas that are embodied in particular instrumental form from the beginning--for better or worse.

I should end this before it completely turns into an arcana that is irrelevant for most readers. Or is it too late already? Let's end with some music. This Symphony for Strings and Woodwinds, op 73a by Shostakovich is actually an arrangement by Rudoph Barshai from the String Quartet No. 3:


Here is the original:

Monday, April 29, 2013

Music Software

I don't think I have written much about this before, but I have been using music software for about twenty years now. It has made an enormous change in how I approach composition--mostly, but not all, to the good.

There are a couple of basic kinds of music software. One is used most in popular music and the other in classical. The sequencer is a kind of software that can record, edit and play back music. The data can be entered via a MIDI keyboard (standing for Music Instrument Digital Interface) or other MIDI instrument. You can use a sequencer to create things like drum tracks or other synthesized instruments and with a modern Digital Audio Workstation, you can create synthesized tracks and record tracks of conventional instruments alongside them. A DAW is what is often used nowadays to create whole soundtracks for television shows or motion pictures.

That is about all I can say about sequencers because I confess that I have never used one though now that I am working on an iMac, I may fool around with GarageBand, Apple's proprietary digital audio workstation to see how it works.

What I have used for the last twenty years is music software categorized as scorewriter software. Though there is more and more overlap between this kind of software and sequencers, they have a different emphasis. Scorewriter software uses conventional music notation which is only one option with a sequencer. Typically you can input notes into a scorewriter program either with a computer keyboard or mouse or with a MIDI keyboard.

There are two wonderful things about scorewriter, or as I prefer to call it, music notation software: first of all, after you have entered a score it is up to the standards of a professional engraved publication. Yes, it's true, way back in prehistoric times, that is, before the 1980s, musical scores were physically scratched on copper plates in order to be printed, though this was being quickly replaced by professional copyists who worked with ink on paper which was then photographically reproduced. Music software changed all that. My first book, a technical manual for guitarists, was full of musical scores and examples, all created by me in a program called Encore that is now largely fallen out of use. I would create a score then turn it into a graphic version and insert it into the book. I actually used three different programs: Encore for the music, Word for the text, and Pagemaker for the layout. I did all this on a Mac Plus with a 9 1/2 inch black and white screen, four megabytes of RAM and a 20 megabyte external hard drive (as the Mac Plus did not actually have an internal hard drive)! Scrolling was an amazingly slow process!! I am writing this post on an iMac with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 1 terabyte hard drive!

Oh, I also used some graphic software for little things like drawings of fingernails and a little graphic of a guitar, but I don't remember what program I used. Here is a page from that book:

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Pretty good for being created on a Mac Plus! I also did another book of Bach transcriptions, but that was on a newer Mac. Encore was a useful program, easy to use and it came with symbols for the strings of the guitar, which was handy. It also had an unfortunate propensity to crash whenever certain symbols, such as the arpeggio sign, were used. Oh, and by 'crash' I mean crash the whole computer, not just the program.

In 1997 I bought my first version of Finale, a very full-featured professional notation program. It had the amazing ability to play back whatever score you put into the computer. I have upgraded a couple of times since then as the program improved and became a little more user-friendly, that is to say, intuitive. Early versions of Finale had a very steep learning curve and doing the simplest things were often very complicated. I have just been writing a piece for orchestra on Finale. Here is the first page:

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What you are seeing is a very clean, professional score, with all the little markings needed for a performance. Once you understand the program it is very easy to input. What is really amazing is that Finale understands the notation as sound, not just as visual symbols. In other words, where it says trumpet or flute or cello, Finale will play back those lines with the synthesized sound of the correct instrument. It even does the loud and soft dynamics and things like staccato or accented notes. What it doesn't do is rubato, but you can't have everything. When Finale plays back this piece of orchestral music, it sounds quite good, considering.

Music software like this takes away the need to play compositions through on the keyboard, which is very good news for me as I always resisted learning the piano because it made my hands feel bad. The only downside with these programs is that you can't sketch in them. You have to write everything in precise notation. Sometimes you just want to sketch out some hazy ideas, only clarifying them later. Can't do that with music software. So for that, you have to go back to pencil on paper...

Let's end with an overture for orchestra. Here is The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) Overture by Felix Mendelssohn:



Sunday, April 28, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartet in F major, op 135

Apart from the replacement finale for the B flat quartet, op 130, the last substantial piece Beethoven wrote was the String Quartet in F major, op 135. As so often in Beethoven's output, he takes us by surprise. We might expect this to be a work of the utmost profundity (and perhaps it is), but what we don't expect it to be is a return to the classical style of Haydn and Mozart. We don't expect a work of lightness, clarity and good humour. But one of the great things about Beethoven is how often he surprises us.

The year 1826 was one of great emotional strain for Beethoven and anyone associated with him. It is safe to say that the only part of his life that he seemed able to organize and control was that of the compositions that came from his pen. Both the C# minor quartet, op 131, and the F major quartet, op 135, were written this year. At the same time, Beethoven's nephew Karl, whom he regarded as an adopted son, felt so oppressed by Beethoven's paranoid attempts to control his life that he attempted suicide and was recovering in hospital for the months, August and September, when most of the F major quartet was written.

So it is ironic and surprising that the F major quartet should seem so untouched by all this. It is truly Haydnesque and Mozartean in the character of the themes, the harmonic writing and the formal structure, even including a false recapitulation in the first movement, very typical of Haydn. In this quartet it can truly be said that Beethoven managed to upstage Haydn and Mozart at their own game.

Here is the first page of the first movement:

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The mood is alert, inquisitive, with little two bar phrases going to the dominant and then a nice lyric melody taking us to the tonic. Following this is a four measure cantus firmus-like phrase that takes us to the dominant of the dominant. We could almost call this "neo-classicism" a hundred years too soon! Let's listen to that first movement in this performance by the Pavel Haas Quartet:


The next two movements are in extreme contrast to one another: first, a very dynamic and quirky Vivace that delights in cross-rhythms. It begins with an odd sort of phrase that turns out to be triple counterpoint as the three voices appear inverted in various ways later on. The next section hammers away at E flat and tries its best to completely dislocate the meter!

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The trio is even more disconcerting as it leads to a big climax in A major with the three lower instrument banging out a turn figure while the violin howls a rustic dance a couple of octaves above:

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Here is the Pavel Haas Quartet again:


The third movement, in contrast, is utterly calm in Beethoven's hymn-like variation style. It begins with a section in D flat major:

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It is remarkable how very few composers are capable of writing great music of great simplicity and I think Beethoven heads the list. Here is that third movement played by the Kodály Quartet:


The fourth movement begins with one of Beethoven's notorious jokes. As Kerman relates,
A certain Ignaz Dembscher, who held quartet parties in his house, had not subscribed to the première of Op. 130 in March 1826. So Beethoven refused to lend him the parts until he paid up. When Dembscher heard this, he moaned "Wenn es seine muss!"; the remark caught Beethoven's fancy, and he tossed off a feeble canon with the words "Es muss seine! ja ja ja ja! Heraus mit dem Beutel!"
Not so terribly funny, but the little theme of the canon ended up beginning the last movement of the quartet. It starts with a rather operatic Grave:

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The "Muss es sein?" question of the Grave is answered with the "Es muss sein!" of the Allegro. The movement is perhaps a bit subtler than one might expect, but the prevailing mood is that of laughter, spontaneity and garlands of charm. Here is the Pavel Haas Quartet again with the last movement.


How appropriate to end with a little compression of the theme in pizzicato. Beethoven always seems to be showing us what real musical talent is, even when doing the simplest things. Some other composers, with their great expanses of 'profundity' seem merely to be showing us what talentlessness is!

The Magic of Music

We just lived through another terrorist attack, this time in Boston, and each time something like this happens it is a dagger in the heart of the social fabric. Every time you go out in public you start looking at your fellow human beings as potential mass-murderers. Every young man with a backpack could be carrying a pressure-cooker bomb. How horrible!

It is not entirely paranoid to look at your fellow human beings as potential enemies--I believe that one of the quotes of General James Mattis of the US Marine Corps was "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet." But it is not a good thing for the social fabric.

Here is the thing: your fellow human beings can have different kinds of hidden depths; they may look like everyone else but secretly be Chechen extremists who are alienated from the society they are living in. But, and this is the important thing, the hidden depths may be wonderfully magical ones as well and I am enough of an optimist to think that the number of sociopaths is relatively tiny compared to the number of people who have hidden talents and gifts.

Imagine if a group of utterly ordinary people walked into an art museum one day and with no preparation, just created out of nothingness a moment of sheer musical beauty. Here it is:


Friday, April 26, 2013

How Do People View Classical Music?

One of the oddest problems I have writing this blog is having a sense of how most people view classical music. An important goal of the blog, after all, is to make classical music more accessible. I fondly imagine all sorts of people of all ages but with some curiosity about music coming to this blog and finding out interesting things. But I am hampered somewhat by the fact that I have lived in the world of music for most of my life--perhaps all my life as even before I took up music myself in my mid-teens, I was influenced by my mother who was an old-time fiddler. Music is in my head a lot of the time and even when I am not having productive thoughts about music I often find myself humming some stupid sequence.

So in the interest of better communication with regular folks, who probably don't have music in their head all the time, I'm trying to get a sense of how ordinary people view classical music. This was sparked by a brief conversation I had yesterday with an acquaintance who owns a small taxi company that I use from time to time. He knows that I am a musician who composes music and he asked me, right out of the blue, "what kind of music do you like?" I wasn't sure exactly what he meant so he elaborated by saying, "Chopin, Bach, Beethoven?" So I said sure, I like those guys. What was interesting was that these were the names he came up with. He is not an educated or cultured person in any way. But somehow, these names were the ones that he knew.

I often think that classical music is, apart from a few cognoscenti, almost completely unknown, but that may not be the case. Even after the dominance of popular music for several decades, there is still a kind of widespread residual awareness of the existence of classical music and a few of the big names. For anyone with a bit of curiosity, the Internet makes it easy to learn more. Here is the Wikipedia article on classical music which is surprisingly sensible and informative. I wrote a criticism of a rather silly music blog on Forbes a while back, but they recently published a rather old-fashioned kind of article on classical music, "How to Build a Top-Quality Classical Music Library for $100." They describe classical music as a "still growing, more-important-than-you-think niche in 21st century entertainment." Their list is not what I would have chosen, but it is a pretty good one. I'm a bit surprised they only managed to squeeze Beethoven in at the very end, almost as an afterthought. But generally, I think they have picked stuff that the ordinary listener will enjoy. As they say, the idea is that this list is bait, designed to lure you back for more. Here is a Haydn movement conducted by Thomas Fey, one of the things recommended on their list:



Further on this quest to see how classical music is viewed, we can look at an extremely irreverent take on it by Cracked.com. Don't click on that link if you have a tendency to be offended by sophomoric humour. They conclude with the following observation:
Though a few people know who Yo Yo Ma and Pavarotti are, classical music is not popular at all anymore. There are a couple of "crossover" classical artists around such as Sara Brightman and Andrea Bocelli, though I should add that many serious classical musicians want those two people dead.
That sums it up pretty well, don't you think? Just kidding!

I have to confess that I am barely familiar with iTunes--oh, I use the program, but just to play discs I own and my own recordings. I have yet to purchase anything through iTunes. But this huge music retailer apparently makes life difficult for classical music listeners in the way it catalogues things. Here, read this. This is a case in which the differences between classical music and other music, in a world where classical music is a minority taste, make it more difficult to be a classical music listener.

Let me go back for a minute to that comment from Forbes: "[a] still growing, more-important-than-you-think niche in 21st century entertainment." The problem I have with that is that it is hard for me to reconcile what I know of classical music with its apparent role as a mere "entertainment niche". For me the profound role that music played in the 18th and 19th centuries still resonates. Music was the most elevated and profound of all the arts; it expressed the spiritual content of the transcendent Will of Schopenhauer. All that is gone, I suppose, incinerated somehow in Auschwitz-Birkenau. But I still hear that classical music can express the horror and desolation of war (Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7), the deepest of sorrows (Beethoven, Cavatina to String Quartet in B flat, op 130), the sweetest of nostalgic reveries (Fauré, Pavane), the joy of transcendence (Bach, B minor Mass, Dona nobis pacem), sheer physical pleasure (Stravinsky, Rite of Spring) and the utter calm of religious devotion (Josquin des Prez, Masses).

So why is everyone listening to Beyoncé?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartet in A minor, op 132

Following the order of opus numbers, the next of the late Beethoven quartets would be op 131 in C# minor, but I have already done an extensive post on that quartet here. So I will go on to the A minor quartet today. This was the second quartet written, just after op 127 in E flat, and it shares some features with that quartet. For example, both quartets have a great deal of weight in their slow movements and in the dance movements. Later quartets tended to both shrink and multiply both. But in other ways, the A minor quartet is as different from the E flat as Beethoven's 5th Symphony is from his 6th.

The A minor quartet is about intensity of expression and contrast. The opening theme takes the chromatic intensity of the minor mode and distills it to its essence:

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The 'bones' of the first movement, the two themes from which everything seems to be built, are that four-note cantus firmus G# A F E and the dotted-note theme we see beginning in the very last measure of the example above. Here is the first movement--with the score--played by the Orion Quartet so you can hear how it all plays out:

The second and fourth movements of this five-movement quartet act as a kind of buffer, sealing off the strange world of the middle movement. The second movement seems at first to be a conventional dance movement but in reality it is a cool and brilliant contrapuntal study of three basic elements. Here is the opening:
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Those three elements are found in mm 5 and 6: first, the violin 1 in measure 5, second the violin 1 in measure 6 and third, the rising theme of violin 2 in mm. 5 and 6. This little fragment of double counterpoint (meaning that the two levels can be inverted) is found in one form or another in the whole movement. I did a whole post on invertible counterpoint here. Let's listen. Here is the Orion Quartet again:


Just one little thing to notice about the many ways Beethoven handles these themes. That little eighth-note turn originally appears on the third and the first beats of the bar: he gets a great deal of effect out of echoing it on the second beat of the bar.

The heart of the A minor quartet is the middle movement, Molto Adagio, that Beethoven prefaces with this title: "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Beethoven had just recovered from a serious illness and this was his prayer of thanks. Now what about that Lydian mode? The ancient Greeks had a Lydian mode, but in the Middle Ages, the theorists took the names of the Greek modes and applied them to their modes instead. For them, and ever since, the Lydian mode is the white notes of the piano from F to F. This gives us a rather odd scale, like a major but with the 4th degree raised. Even among composers who like using the church modes, the Lydian was not one often chosen. But Beethoven uses it to create a strange kind of transcendent harmonic space like none other. Here is the opening of the movement:


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This strange, archaic hymn, using the Lydian mode in a way no-one ever had, alternates with a contrasting section that Beethoven labels Neue Kraft fühlend ("feeling new strength"). The overall form of the movement, some fifteen minutes long, with 'A' the hymn and 'B' the new strength is A B A B A. The two contrasting sections do not mix and barely are able to co-exist. The "new strength" section is an Andante in 3/8 with all the decorative trills and delights that are excluded from the utter simplicity of the Lydian hymn. Here is the Orion Quartet again:



The fourth movement is a mere bagatelle, a tiny march that serves to introduce the finale. Here is the theme:


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Alas, I can't turn to the Orion Quartet for this movement as whoever posted it to YouTube made an error and posted the third movement twice. So I will use a video of the Blair Quartet. It is a complete performance so in order to start with the fourth movement begin at the 40:30 mark. This march turns into a passionate recitative that leads into the finale proper that begins at the 42:50 mark. And the finale itself is very passionate, it bears traces of both the first and third movements. But how does it end? With a modulation to A major and an almost operatic effervescence. There are playful hints at that E to F from the first movement, but that is contradicted by a cheerful E to F#. Not quite the ending one was expecting! Now here is the Blair Quartet with the whole piece. Scroll to 40:30 for the fourth and fifth movements:



Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The State of Music Writing

I just ran across this article with the very promising title: "The State of Music Writing, Musicians Writing". Now admittedly, on reading it again, I started to have misgivings, but heck, just talking about the state of music writing is a positive development, right? Here's the opening:
Back in 2008, I was on a panel on IFC's website with some distinguished names in the field of online music writing: Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber, Bill Crandall (then at Spinner), and Maura Johnston (then with Idolator). We discussed how the rise of blogging would affect music writing. I was enthusiastic about it -- when media gets democratized, taken out of the hands of all-powerful conglomerates and given to the people, good things can happen. I wrote a book called “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” which is about when that started to happen in music in the '80s: Thanks to new technology and the DIY ethos of punk rock, all kinds of media became more readily available to ordinary people, and they started fanzines, record labels, recording studios, and bands. In other words, they Did It Themselves, and we got to hear a lot of great music that might not otherwise have been heard.
OK, so I don't know what IFC stands for, either part of the World Bank or a cable channel? Also, I haven't heard of any of these "distinguished names", nor the places they seem to be associated with. But reading further, I realize that this is a part of the pop music world I just have not intersected with. Fair enough. Later on he writes:
So I helped found the Talkhouse, a website that features smart, notable musicians from all genres and generations writing about currently released music. Writers don't write like critics -- instead, they show us how a musician hears music. It's organic, relatively free from marketing initiatives, because the writers choose what they want to write about. And, like most music fans today, musicians have broad, often surprising tastes: you don't have to like They Might Be Giants to be amused by Parquet Courts' bassist Sean Yeaton's delirious take on that band; plenty of people will be curious to hear what Laurie Anderson has to say about the latest Animal Collective album; what on earth does Andrew W.K. have to say about the new album from Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices? And Zac Pennington of the art-rock band Parenthetical Girls has an enthusiastic and trenchant take on... Taylor Swift?
All genres except the ones I'm interested in, apparently. OK, fine, musicians talking about musicians. Mind you, it seems to me to be the perfect example of that Frank Zappa quote:
Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read.
All of this conversation, judging by this article, is going to be superficial, fannish, inarticulate meanderings. The state of music writing is as bad as ever.

Here is what I think: in order to write effectively about music you need to know lots of things about music history, theory and aesthetics. You need to bring something to the table. Performing artists are specialists in performance. They have no particular expertise in writing or thinking about music.

 Let's hear some music. Here is the first movement of Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 1:


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Beethoven: Große Fuge (Great Fuge), op 133

Picking up from yesterday, the original last movement of the B flat quartet, op 130, was the Great Fugue. At the urging of his publisher, Beethoven wrote a more conventional finale so quartets nowadays have a choice. The Große Fuge was re-labeled op 133 and may be played as a separate movement. It is one of the most challenging pieces of music ever written and remains so to this day. Joseph Kerman devotes an entire chapter of his book on the quartets to this piece.

Why a fugue, let alone a 'great' fugue? Why would Beethoven go back to what was, at this point, an archaic form? Don't the rules of music history state that composers are always progressive? Always developing new techniques and never returning to old ones? Well, those are certainly the rules of 20th century modernism, but I doubt they apply generally. Beethoven, along with Haydn and Mozart, was fascinated with the fugue as he was fascinated by Bach. It is not so widely known that one of the ways Beethoven made a name for himself as a salon pianist in his early days in Vienna was by playing preludes and fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. He must have owned a manuscript copy because the music, at that point, had not even been published in a printed form. For a long time after Bach's death, his works circulated amongst the cognoscenti in manuscript form.

Beethoven's obsession with fugue only grew as he developed as a composer. One of his great achievements as a composer was to fuse the forms of the sonata and the fugue. He produced examples such as the finale of the Piano Sonata in A, op 101, which contains 100 measures of fugue as its development section. The Piano Sonata op 106, the "Hammerklavier" contains an earth-shaking fugal finale and the Piano Sonata in A flat, op 110, has a more lyric fugue in its finale. There are many more examples in the quartets, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony.

One of the attractions of fugue for Beethoven was as a solution to the problem of the finale. How to achieve a powerful and appropriate final movement was a problem that only grew keener as his ability to write convincing prior movements grew. The 'classic' solution was the rondo, a movement with a single theme and contrasting episodes. This already reminds one of fugue with its single theme and developing episodes. Beethoven may have thought that fugue would enable a different sort of finale that might avoid the harmonic clichés typical of the rondo. As Kerman says, "a fugue subject is at once more pliable and interesting than a rondo tune, easier to bring in frequently and easier to vary."

Beethoven also saw fugue as a challenge. I have remarked before that the two greatest composers of all are usually counted as Bach and Beethoven. Beethoven was very aware of Bach and, just as his "Diabelli" Variations are a response to Bach's Goldberg Variations, so too, the Great Fugue is Beethoven's response to Bach's The Art of Fugue. In his own way, Beethoven is trying to exhaust every possibility. In The Art of Fugue, Bach showed all the resources of contrapuntal combination and some of thematic transformation. In the Great Fugue, Beethoven will explore more than Bach the possibilities of thematic transformation. The idea was in the air--Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique was only five years in the future!

As Kerman notes, Beethoven opens the piece by hurling various transformations of the theme at the listener's head like a handful of rocks:

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One remarkable aspect of the notation is found in the third line, last two measures. The theme is given in simple off-beat quarter notes, but Beethoven writes them as eighth-notes tied! Why? Any string player is going to play these notes more intensely and hold them out more fully than if they were written simply as quarters. Let us go ahead and listen to the music:


This performance, by the Talich Quartet, is not my favourite, but it does have the score, which is pretty important. Anyway, after you listen to that, I suggest listening to a more full-blooded version such as this with the Alban Berg Quartet:


The Great Fugue is several fugues on several transformations of the theme in several different keys. It is a piece well worth your study. I could write several posts just on the rhythmic ingenuity of the writing, or, heck, a doctoral dissertation! But I think I will end here by encouraging you to listen to the fugue several times. It grows with each hearing...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartet in B flat, op 130

Yesterday I put up a post on the first of the late quartets by Beethoven. These are works that almost stand outside music history. By the time Beethoven began to write them in the last few years of his life, he had been deaf for more than two decades and was creating sound worlds that it would take quite some time for the rest of us to grow accustomed to. Beethoven's fame was extensive, but even that did not lead to very many performances of the late quartets. It was not until the 20th century that they began to achieve the respect that they deserve. One of the greatest admirers was Igor Stravinsky who said about the Große Fuge, the original last movement to the quartet op 130, that "[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

According to Wikipedia:
In 1822, Prince Nicholas Galitzin commissioned the first three quartets (numbers 12, 13 and 15) and in a letter dated 9 November 1822, offered to pay Beethoven "what you think proper" for the three works. Beethoven replied 25 January 1823 with his price of 50 Ducats for each opus.
The first thing I wonder, of course, is how much is 50 ducats in today's money? That's not so easy to answer, but we can do a rough calculation. An Austrian ducat is 0.123 ounces of gold, which is worth a little less than $200 at today's gold prices. So fifty of them would be a little under $10,000 USD. Of course I have no idea what that means in terms of purchasing power, but oddly enough, I suspect you could commission a string quartet today for the same amount--or perhaps a lot less! Tell you what, I'll write you one for $5000!

The String Quartet in B flat, op 130, was completed in November 1825. Here is the original sequence of movements:
  1. Adagio, ma non troppo — Allegro
  2. Presto
  3. Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso
  4. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
  5. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo
  6. Große Fuge (Grande Fugue Op.133): Ouverture. Allegro — Meno mosso e moderato — Allegretto — Fuga. [Allegro] — Meno mosso e moderato — Allegro molto e con brio — Allegro

Just looking at the sequence of movements is a bit daunting! Joseph Kerman in his magnificent book on the Beethoven quartets describes this one as "a mercurial, brilliant, paradoxical work, toying with the dissociation of its own sensibility and toying with the listener's limping powers of prediction. Force jostles with whimsy, prayer with effrontery, dangerous innocence with even more dangerous sophistication." Of course, this is exactly the kind of music I seek out! The problem I usually have with popular music is that it is entirely too predictable. What possible interest can there be in music that announces its every thought in the first thirty seconds?

As an example of the unpredictability of this piece, Kerman cites the first movement development section. He points out that you would likely not expect it to use material from the adagio introduction. But even if you did predict that, you would never guess that it would be the little two-note cadence figure from measure four.

Click to enlarge

Kerman cites a dozen other examples of subtle prefiguring of later material. Let's have a listen to the whole first movement. Listen especially to the performance just after the 9 minute mark when that cadence figure is developed:


There are a thousand incongruities and ironies in this first movement, not least the role of that adagio introduction which seems to return again and again to interrupt the allegro as soon as it gets going! The whole of the second movement is an irony in itself: following that weighty first movement we have a rustic peasant dance in B flat minor that seems to poke fun at the complexities of the first movement:


The B flat quartet, op 130 has two slow movements, the first of these, the Andante con moto, delights in freshness, grace and spirited play--it is everything the last movement wasn't! 


Following this is another of Beethoven's peasant dances, the "danza tedesca" or German dance. Beethoven gives this very simple dance a surreal quality with the exaggerated dynamics and rhythmic subtleties. Listen to how the awkward crescendi and diminuendi at the beginning tend to make one a bit seasick!


Now for the real slow movement, the Cavatina. The title is taken from opera, of course, where it refers to a simple melodious air. This Cavatina is rather darker than that. Coming after the whimsy and rusticity of the preceding movements it comes as a shock. We had forgotten that this much emotional depth was possible. And in the middle, an even greater depth is uncovered, ironically, through a repression of emotion. Against the pulsing triplets of the lower instruments, the first violin intones a stuttering, halting line as if feeling were simply too much to express... Here is how that section begins:


That marking in the violin part, beklemmt, is, I believe, unique. It means "oppressed" or "anguished". Now here is the Guarneri Quartet with the Cavatina movement:



To end this quartet, Beethoven originally wrote a great fugue, the Great Fugue! A fugue of such ferocity and violence that the publishers begged him to write a more conventional final movement--if he ever desired another performance, ever! And so he did. So now quartets have the option of using either final movement. And the Great Fugue is often played as a separate piece. In fact, I am going to stop right here and save the Great Fugue for another post.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat, op. 127

In my "Masterpieces of Music" series, while putting up several posts on Beethoven, I managed to miss quite a few important pieces. One of them is the first of the late string quartets, op. 127 in E flat. This is an extraordinary piece. I can recall being astonished by some of the clashing harmonies in the first movement even the first few times I listened to it over forty years ago. I wrote about that here.

The quartet is in four movements, but, at nearly forty minutes in length, it is twice as long as a quartet by Haydn or Mozart. The first movement, remarkably lyrical, is based on contrasts: between the maestoso introduction and the allegro main section (which is interrupted twice by the return of the introduction) and between the E flat tonic harmony and some prominent moves to a bright C major--something that the quartet keeps returning to in later movements. Here is how that first movement begins:

Click to enlarge

What a wonderful contrast between the ponderous opening and that lilting waltz theme! Here is a performance of the first movement:


It is with the second movement that Beethoven really begins to exceed the bounds of the classical quartet. This is an enormous set of variations that are humbling in their immense calm. One of the greatest examples of decorative variation ever composed and fifteen minutes in length! Here is how that second movement begins and you can see how he lays out extended layers to create the feeling of almost inhuman calm:

Click to enlarge

Here is a performance of the second movement:



The following scherzo is, in the words of Joseph Kerman, “one of Beethoven's most explosive pieces, bursting with energy and malice, crackling with dry intelligence.” Here is a performance with the score:


The finale is deceptively simple sounding, both magical and folk-like, but perfectly conceived and constructed. No matter how many times one might listen to the Beethoven late quartets, there is always something more to discover. Again, here is a performance with the score:

 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Whole Lotta Auto-Tune

The Globe and Mail has a piece up about Michael Bublé and Auto-Tune, the software that corrects sung notes to the nearest in-tune pitch. If you sing a C just a little flat, it will push the sound up to the C. It could save a lot of time in the recording studio by automatically fixing little flaws like that. However, about five minutes after it was invented some artists realised it could be used to make voices sound like they never did before, which is worth a lot of bucks in the pop music world. Cher was one of the first to use this effect in her 1998 hit "Believe":



Now the thing to notice here is that she uses it selectively. The first two lines we hear clearly:
No matter how hard I try/You keep pushing me aside
are sung without Auto-Tune as is evident from the perfectly normal vocal expression, sliding from one pitch to another on "how" and "try". The next two lines use Auto-Tune because we can hear the software forcing the voice to jump abruptly from one pitch to another instead of sliding as is more natural. These contrasts are what make the song work. Now let's listen to that song by Bublé:


Wow, does that ever remind me of Paul McCartney! Not so much the singing (I don't think they are in quite the same league), but the arrangement, the kind of melody, the whole feel of the song is rather  McCartneyesque. I don't really hear the singing as being "positively inhuman, devoid of DNA". If he is using Auto-Tune, which is quite possible, he is using it to correct wobbles, not for effect. But the thing is, if you want ANY vocal expression that involves bending the pitch at all, you have to back off the Auto-Tune for that section.

Incidentally, there are quite a few comments to the article that make some good points. But the truth of the matter is that, just like a lot of the technical innovations of the Beatles, it is all in how you use it. I'm afraid that I don't hear much of a creative use of Auto-Tune. The Beatles were constantly coming up with things like ADT (automatic double-tracking) to improve the musical effect. Yes, they liked to double track vocals as it gave them a lot more presence. This is very time-consuming so one of the tech guys figured out a way of doing it by just delaying the signal a bit. You know, I think Bublé could have used that to good effect here. Don't you find his voice a bit thin?

Let's hear Paul with a somewhat similar song:



Friday, April 19, 2013

The Art of Recording

I'm working up my first suite for guitar so I can record it later this month. The problem with most recording spaces is that they are designed for the use of popular and jazz musicians--not surprising as they comprise the majority of working musicians. But the technique of recording this kind of music is radically different from that of recording classical music. Most recording spaces are designed to be dead, with very little resonance. Instruments are recorded separately on different tracks and mixed together. They are often processed in various ways with limiters and compressors to get more 'punch'.

Classical music is recorded quite differently. The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), for example, since they record so much classical music, has specially designed studios. They are much larger, often large enough to contain an entire orchestra, and have a natural resonance. The ones I am familiar with have wooden parquet flooring, for example. Wood makes for a lovely natural resonance. Then, if recording a solo instrument like guitar, a pair of microphones are used, about ten feet back from the instrument and they pick up both the direct and reflected sound. Churches are often used--the Naxos series of guitar recordings are all done in a church in Toronto. Churches have a lot of resonating space and a long decay, which really favors the guitar.

Sometimes you see recital spaces that are designed for classical music with banners to increase or decrease the amount of reflected sound. For a guitar you want the maximum, but for a brass quintet, much less.

In any case, I've been keeping an eye out for a good recording space. I have an excellent engineer, but his studio is small and acoustically dead. Yesterday I tried out a private home with a huge living room. It has a high vaulted brick ceiling like a chapel. Just an amazing sound! Makes the modestly-voiced classical guitar sound huge. So we will be going in there in a couple of weeks to record my Suite No. 1. Should be fun.

Here is a picture of the kind of ceiling I'm talking about:


And here is a little clip of my playing:

video

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Discovering Musicians: Caroline Shaw

"Discovering Musicians" is an occasional series here at the Music Salon. Whenever I run across a musician that seems particularly interesting I put up a post. Usually it is someone that I have just run across myself, but sometimes it is someone that I think tends to be neglected. Today's musician is Caroline Shaw who just won a Pulitzer prize in music composition even though she scarcely thinks of herself as a composer. Here is the New York Times' story where you can hear the first movement of the winning piece Partita for Eight Voices. It is a fascinating piece that uses brief spoken phrases, medieval sounding harmonies and other elements that work together better than one would expect. Here is Caroline's website. At the moment there seems almost nothing on YouTube, so we have to rely just on the single movement we can hear on the New York Times site.

Apart from the sound of the music, with its slightly archaic feel, a number of other things interest me about this composer. First of all, her steady involvement with music performance--I think this is a real benefit in avoiding the excessive abstraction of some contemporary music. We really don't need any more Pierre Boulez, do we? Also, I like that she is doing an update on the Baroque suite: allemande, sarabande, courante and passacaglia. The amazing thing is that the whole suite has not yet been performed in public, though there is a recording. Another thing that interests me is that Ms Shaw is writing a song cycle for soprano and guitar. Reviving the Baroque suite and writing a song cycle for voice and guitar are two projects that I recently completed myself! Maybe I  should be living in New York, because the other music that I have heard recently that most reminds me of my own stuff was a piece by Judd Greenstein for violin and piano called "Be There". He is also based in New York. Here is the Minnesota Orchestra string quartet playing his "Four on the Floor":


I like what both these composers are doing because it seems very much rooted in what music has shown it can do over the last thousand years instead of trying to create an incomprehensible "private language" of pure abstraction. Both composers seem to be rooted also in the concrete performance of music, in the sounds themselves.

The only thing that bothers me is that, even though I make no effort to be up to date with what is happening in contemporary music, what I am doing and what these two young composers are doing is kind of in the same aesthetic ball park. Odd, huh?

Not to give anyone any ideas, but right now I am putting the finishing touches on an overture for chamber orchestra that sounds influenced in equal parts by Rossini, Shostakovich and flamenco hemiola patterns... 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Scientists Just Trying to Help

Readers of this blog know that one of the things likely to catch my interest is scientific research into how we hear and react to music. And by "catch my interest" I'm afraid that I mean that I am almost always annoyed and infuriated. Now why is that? Aren't scientists just trying to help? If so, they are doing an astonishingly pointless job of it. Let's take a recent example:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/study-there-seems-to-be-a-universal-brain-response-to-music/274882/

The meaninglessness of this study, crafted entirely to answer questions none of us was interested in asking, sets a new high. Let me show you what I mean. Here is what they call the 'problem':

PROBLEM: Divergent preferences aside, hearing music as music, and not just noise, is something we can (usually) agree on. What's going on in our brains that allows us to universally recognize it as something special?
I'm sorry, how is all this a 'problem'? First of all, what do they mean by "divergent preferences"? Just the fact that there is a wide range of different tastes in music? Mentioning this would seem to be irrelevant as the study only involves listening to one composer, hence the question of the divergence of tastes is avoided. Next, what do they mean by "hearing music as music"? What would it mean to NOT hear music as music? Honestly, I'm kind of stumped by this. The link is of no help in understanding the point as it just goes to an Atlantic article on electronic dance music. Is that the 'noise'? Since I really do not understand any part of this opening sentence, I doubt that it expresses anything we can agree on! The next sentence is even more perplexing: "What's going on in our brains that allows us to universally recognize it as something special?" Yes, of course, since these folks are neurophysiologists, then "what's going on in the brain" is their only real interest. I understand that. But the idea that something going on in the brain is somehow "allowing" us to recognize something about music is an odd turn of phrase to all of us who are not neurophysiologists. The word that most bothers me is "universally". That big, ten-dollar word presumably is what legitimizes this study and justifies the grant money. Hey, it's "universal" so really important!

OK, so they had everyone, chosen for their lack of "formal musical training", lie down and listen to William Boyce. By the way, isn't it odd that most of these studies focus on subjects with little familiarity with music in a professional way? In what way does this help the study? How would the study be harmed by using either professional musicians or a mix as subjects? Let's listen to a Boyce symphony to see what we are dealing with.


William Boyce is a composer of charming, harmless 18th century music in that transition from the Baroque to Classical styles. As such, it is highly dependent on precisely balanced and structured phrases and harmonies. The researcher's experiment consisted in having the subjects listen to music by Boyce in its original form and then,
To ensure that the brain activity they were mapping was in response to the music as a whole, and not just to one of its structural features, the researchers also had the subjects listen to altered versions of the symphonies: in one, all rhythm and timing was removed, and in the other, they were made atonal.
 I'm not quite sure what they thought they were "ensuring" here. What is the real significance of measuring the response to the music as a whole as opposed to a structural feature? For example, music itself often selects a particular structural feature and presents it alone. A Bach fugue is a good example: the subject appears initially by itself. Also, a sophisticated listener often listens to different sections differently at different times. You might decide to just focus on the bass line on one occasion. It's not likely something that you would mention to a researcher and you might not even be consciously aware of it yourself.

But what is obvious here is that they had people listen to ordinary pieces of music, then to wildly distorted versions. Then they noticed that the brain patterns were different. The key finding seems to be this, when listening to the original music researchers noted a "highly distinctive and distributed set of brain regions". Now what could that possibly mean? Even grammatically it seems to be a tortured use of the English language. This makes a bit more sense: "In the music from which some of the elements that make it musical were removed, on the other hand, brain activity was markedly different from subject to subject." I think that what this is telling us is that music, successful actual music, is organized in ways that human beings can perceive and respond to. Music that is wildly distorted doesn't lead to the same kind of clear and organized response. Frankly, I could pretty much have told you that if you had asked. It is really no news to a musician that if he or she plays a nicely put together piece of music in a convincing way, that an audience will be able to have a clear aesthetic response. This is, after all, exactly why we go to all that trouble of practicing for twenty years. Here is how the article ends:
higher-level cognitive functioning immediately takes over when we listen to music,  a process, the authors write, that "facilitates our collective social capacity for listening and attending to music." Regardless of how we may personally feel about what we're hearing, it would seem we're all hearing it in the same, "highly consistent" way.
So if they had used musicians in the test, the results would probably have been even more pronounced as they are the ones that develop this "higher-level cognitive functioning" when listening to music.

UPDATE: Reading this over I notice that I still didn't quite get to the point. What I see here is that if you completely DISorganize a piece of music, then the listener has a much less consistent and organized response. This is so obvious it is difficult to understand why you would test for it. This is why we organize music in the first place instead of just flopping around on stage!

UPPERDATE: Something else that occurred to me: it would have been very helpful to have the original examples they played for the subjects, both the original and distorted versions. For one thing, we would be able to hear precisely what they were talking about and for another, if we were able to hear the samples, I think the points I was trying to make above would be even more obvious!

In related news, here is the best news I've heard all week:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/apr/15/daft-punk-electronic-dance-music-crisis