Monday, September 30, 2013

Apologies for the Hiatus

Saturday night we had a huge electrical storm and after one enormous bolt of lightning and accompanying thunder, the power went out. When it came back on an hour or so later, my modem had bit the dust. I wasn't able to get a new one until this morning. As soon as I re-group I will have a new post up. In the meantime, let's listen to a Haydn symphony that I will soon be looking at. This is the Symphony No. 82, nicknamed "The Bear":

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Guardian's Symphony Guide

The Guardian's Tom Service has embarked on another of his marathon projects: this time to cover fifty symphonies. Last year Tom did fifty weekly posts on contemporary composers and I thought it was pretty successful at sparking interest in a lot of composers that most people may not have heard of.

Now Tom is in the third week of the new project: first was an introduction, then Beethoven's Fifth and now Shostakovich's Fifteen Symphony. How is he doing so far?

The intoductory essay does little more than bow in the politically correct directions:

  • It's always about US! "Over the year, I hope what will come over is the sense that the development of a supposedly abstract musical structure isn't simply about compositional invention or experimentation, but about how we hear ourselves and our place in the world"
  • It's all sociology! "It's about who paid the composer and the musicians, about what the symphony was heard to represent, and about what role composers were supposed to fulfil in society."
  • It's about the reception history! "Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example, isn't a fixed work so much as a palimpsest of musical histories that only gets richer and richer each time it's played, heard, and thought about."
  • It's more than just a musical structure! "A symphony isn't just a structure, a musical formula, or a set of containers - three or four movements of contrasting speeds and characters - that composers merely had to fill in to qualify as "symphonic" writers. The symphony is really a way of thinking about what music actually is, what it's really for."
There is some truth in all this, of course, but I find it comic that nearly everyone writing about music in the mass media feels they have to quickly and frequently protest that music is more than just the structure or the notes. It is really just another occasion for us to practice critical theory and cultural analysis and turn it all into sociology somehow. Narcissistic sociology!

My idea is that before we rush off into the wastelands of socio-political analysis, why don't we just have a listen and maybe even look at those notes? I would hope that a "symphony guide" would do a bit of that, wouldn't you? It looks quite promising at first as Mr. Service actually commits the horrendous sin (for the mass media) of actually putting a bit of the score right there at the beginning of the article on Beethoven's Fifth. Right out there in public where just anyone can see it! Good for him. And then he even goes on to talk about the notes a bit. He walks us through the symphony quite well and ends by sending us to five different performances of the work.

But I am less happy with the next article, on the Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony. For one thing, this is a very complex work to be taking up so early on in the project. If he is planning on looking at any other of Shostakovich's symphonies, No. 5 for example, then perhaps he should have started with that. But never mind. How does he go at the Fifteenth? It seems that while Tom loves the music, he doesn't quite know how to deal with it. He starts with a reference to the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour: "Roll up, roll up for a circus of musical meaning, a surreal carnival where nothing is quite as it seems, where strange musical machines and even a glittering musical toyshop become an existential journey into the beyond."

That's a nice colorful opening, but it suggests that we are going to veer far away from the actual music and spend our time wandering on the shores of metaphor. And so it is. Here is Tom's speculation about the odd textures of the coda:
Why does the whole thing end with a coda that on the surface could be a memory of childish things, but is far more likely a musical transliteration of the hum and clatter of hospital machines, the faceless whirring and bleeping that are the grim accompaniments of disease, decline, and death in medical institutions - sounds that Shostakovich was already familiar with at this stage in his life?
Could be? Could be a lot of things in the shifty, careless world of unsupported metaphor. Why don't you tell us a little about what it actually IS? This is straight out of the 'barking dog' school of Shostakovich musical criticism. You don't have the foggiest clue about what is going on, or don't want to talk about it for fear of using technical terms or, shudder, actual musical examples, so you just wax lyrical, seizing on whatever metaphor you can trim to fit. Odd percussion? Could be the sound of hospital machines, after all, Shostakovich was plagued by ill health.

Really Mr. Service (and Mr. Hurwitz and all their ilk), when you feed us these metaphors all we know for sure is what is going on in your mind when you listen and write. What we would really like to know is what is going on in THE MUSIC!

I will be checking in with this series from time to time as it is a highly laudable project. I just hope that Mr. Service doesn't forget that one important task for a series like this is to inform us about the music.

Now let's have a listen to the Fifteenth Symphony of Shostakovich:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Haydn and the Classical Symphony: Part 1

Following a suggestion by a commentor, I am going to embark on a series of posts on the Haydn symphonies. Digging around on Amazon, I see that, apart from an old BBC guide, there doesn't seem to be a recent guide to Haydn symphonies--apart from one by David Hurwitz that I haven't seen. However, if it is similar to his book on Shostakovich, I can't recommend it.

Joseph Haydn is probably the most important composer who is seriously underrated. Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the New York Times, had a project a few years ago to pick the top ten greatest composers and came up with this list:

Here are the names: Left, 1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). From top left, 2. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), 3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 — 91). 4. Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828). From middle left, 5. Claude Achille Debussy (1862 — 1918), 6. Igor Stravinsky (1882 — 1971), 7. Johannes Brahms (1833 — 97). From bottom left, 8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 — 1901), 9. Richard Wagner (1813 — 83), 10. Bela Bartok (1881 — 1945).

I think that you could make a strong argument that Joseph Haydn is more important than at least five or six of those "top ten". Why? Except for Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, I don't think any of the others have influenced other composers and music history as profoundly as Haydn. It was Haydn who created the most successful compositional style in music history: classical style, which Beethoven and Mozart simply exploited. Parts of this remarkable achievement include the invention of several musical forms that are, to this day, central parts of classical music. These include the various manifestations of the sonata form which include the piano sonata, the piano trio, the string quartet and the symphony. I doubt any other composer can claim to have done so much.

A good way to start with Haydn is to read the pretty good Wikipedia article, some of which I will summarize. Haydn, who rose to become the most famous musician in Europe, close friend of Mozart and teacher to Beethoven, came from humble origins. His parents, though not trained, were music-lovers and early on recognized their son's gifts. His first career was as a choir-boy. When his voice was no longer suitable he lost that employment and was forced to work as a street-musician, freelance musician and music teacher. He received dribs and drabs of music training, but mostly taught himself from Fux's book on counterpoint and the music of C. P. E. Bach, son of J. S. Bach.

Let's listen to some music by C. P. E. Bach. Here is a Symphony for Strings in B minor:

C. P. E. Bach is an important figure, probably the most important composer in the transition from Baroque to Classical style. His music is harmonically powerful, if a bit eccentric. Mind you, sometimes, when he has a sequence going, he sounds a lot like Vivaldi. In any case, if you were a young composer in the 1750s, C. P. E. Bach was probably the best model to study.

In the late 1750s Haydn got his first court position with Count Morzin and wrote his first symphonies for his ensemble. Here is his Symphony No. 1 in D major from around 1759:

Remarkable how much sheer musical invention and delight there is, even in this early symphony!

Next time I will start looking at a Haydn symphony in more detail to see just how it is put together.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Sadness of Music

I read it so long ago that I have no idea of the source, but there is this anecdote about Schubert that is rather interesting. Once, at one of those famous 'Schubertiad' salons that used to be popular in Vienna, Schubert was approached by a listener who asked, "why is your music so often sad?" Schubert replied, "madame, all music is sad!"

This brings me to an article I just read in the New York Times about a new scientific study of music called "Why We Like Sad Music." It actually makes a stab at answering the question, which puts it a bit above most of these fumble-fingered 'scientific' studies. Here is how the study is introduced:
 SADNESS is an emotion we usually try to avoid. So why do we choose to listen to sad music?
Musicologists and philosophers have wondered about this. Sad music can induce intense emotions, yet the type of sadness evoked by music also seems pleasing in its own way. Why? Aristotle famously suggested the idea of catharsis: that by overwhelming us with an undesirable emotion, music (or drama) somehow purges us of it.
But what if, despite their apparent similarity, sadness in the realm of artistic appreciation is not the same thing as sadness in everyday life?
Yes, as a matter of fact, there has been discussion of this in the literature. The philosopher Peter Kivy long ago proposed that, since the emotions we purport to hear in music do not have objects as real life emotions do, they are not 'garden-variety' emotions at all, but something else. I would very simply say that what we hear in music are uniquely musical moods and since we cannot translate them directly into language, we end up making up a lot of metaphors and so go astray. While oversimplified, that pretty much resolves the issue in my view. But let's see what our researchers came up with. Here is the abstract summary of their study:
In general, sad music is thought to cause us to experience sadness, which is considered an unpleasant emotion. As a result, the question arises as to why we listen to sad music if it evokes sadness. One possible answer to this question is that we may actually feel positive emotions when we listen to sad music. This suggestion may appear to be counterintuitive; however, in this study, by dividing musical emotion into perceived emotion and felt emotion, we investigated this potential emotional response to music. We hypothesized that felt and perceived emotion may not actually coincide in this respect: sad music would be perceived as sad, but the experience of listening to sad music would evoke positive emotions. A total of 44 participants listened to musical excerpts and provided data on perceived and felt emotions by rating 62 descriptive words or phrases related to emotions on a scale that ranged from 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much). The results revealed that the sad music was perceived to be more tragic, whereas the actual experiences of the participants listening to the sad music induced them to feel more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic emotions than they actually perceived with respect to the same music. Thus, the participants experienced ambivalent emotions when they listened to the sad music. After considering the possible reasons that listeners were induced to experience emotional ambivalence by the sad music, we concluded that the formulation of a new model would be essential for examining the emotions induced by music and that this new model must entertain the possibility that what we experience when listening to music is vicarious emotion.
In order to solve the problem they postulate a distinction between felt emotion and perceived emotion. I'm not that crazy about this distinction for a couple of reasons: one is that for reasons I mention above, I don't think music depicts emotions at all, but uniquely musical moods. The other reason is that the distinction appears unfounded and arbitrary. What could it possibly mean to 'perceive' music as sad, but experience it as 'positive'? This seems incoherent. If you are going to base your whole study on a distinction this iffy, then I suggest you first need to make a pretty good argument for the distinction being meaningful.

Here are my thoughts on 'sad' music. First of all, all the excerpts they chose for the study are from the Romantic era. This makes sense as certain features of Romantic music tend to be described in language as 'sad', hence the Schubert anecdote as Schubert was one of the earliest composers of Romanticism in music. Romantic music, by means of characteristic handling of melody, harmony and rhythm, works to send the listener inside themselves, into a kind of Romantic trance. This is often, for lack of a better word, described as 'sadness'. We do find examples from other eras of intense musical expression that could be, in language, described as sad. A famous example could be the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem, which has a particularly intense and haunting effect:

Sad? Well, you certainly might seize on that word to attempt to describe the effect of that music, but it is not a garden-variety sadness because it has no object. You are not sad about anything. Your dog hasn't died and your wife/husband hasn't left you. Indeed, this music could equally or better be described as exhilarating or moving or sublime or haunting! What I felt at my mother's funeral was sadness. What I feel listening to Mozart is fundamentally different--a uniquely musical mood, not an emotion at all.

If we wanted to go at this a bit differently we might say that there are three categories of emotion-like feelings:

  1. Actual garden-variety emotions which are defined as feelings that have a particular object. We are sad about something; we love or hate someone or something, we are joyful because we got the raise/promotion and so on.
  2. Chronic feelings such as states of depression that are not related to real world situations or events but are possibly due to a brain chemistry imbalance.
  3. Musical moods that are the effect of listening to music. These include moods similar to melancholy or joy or anger because different kinds of music evoke different moods and energy levels, but they are only analogous to real emotions. What they really are are crafted musical moods.
What I feel when I get that big check and what I feel when I listen to Bach's Magnificat are really fundamentally different things though we might well use the word "joy" to describe both. I think that the whole perceived problem here is just one of language. We don't have words to accurately describe what we hear when we listen to music so we fall back on metaphor and analogy. Music can create effects that we perceive as analogous to joy or sadness, but are actually quite different from them.

So that's my theory. Now let's hear some of that Bach Magnificat:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Townsend: Four Pieces, No. 4, Surreal Reel

My mother was what we call in Canada an "old time fiddler" and part of that is playing jigs and reels. So I heard a lot of them growing up. This piece, which is a recomposition of an old Irish reel, is a tribute to my mother, Alma Townsend, a fine natural musician. Or it's revenge for having to listen to way too many reels... This is the last of my pieces for violin and guitar.

I'm just learning the new iMovie so forgive me for playing around with the titles and photo effects. I hope they give you something to look at without distracting too much from the music!


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Shostakovich: Trio in E minor, last movement

To finish off the Trio in E minor, we need to have a look at the last movement. There is quite a lot written about what sort of extra-musical significance this piece, and especially the last movement, might have, but I am going to completely avoid that sort of thing and just have a look at the music. If you want to read more, there is quite an interesting article by Patrick McCreless, "The cycle of structure and the cycle of meaning: the Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 67" in Shostakovich Studies, edited by David Fanning (Cambridge: 1995).

The last movement echoes classical form in that it is like a rondo and like a dance, both qualities suitable for a classical finale. Here is how it begins:

Click to enlarge

Even though the key signature is E major, the F naturals give the melody an Eastern European folk inflection. There are moments when the melody sounds a bit like one that Bartók might have collected. The quality of the melodies is usually connected with Jewish folk music, which Shostakovich was interested in at the time and also connects with the dedicatee, the Jewish Ivan Sollertinsky. The bare, almost rudimentary opening slowly gains weight and complexity:

Here the piano is playing a new theme, an expansion of the first theme, in Lydian mode on C, while the strings accompany with C minor harmony for a very exotic effect. Later a new, contrasting theme in 5/8 is introduced in the cello:

Another contrasting section with piano arpeggios is presented in E minor:

This leads to a restatement of the main themes from the movement:

Finally, on the last page of the piece, the texture liquidates (a term from Schoenberg, meaning that the texture is thinned down to almost nothing) and, under harmonics that recall the first movement opening, the piano states the chord progression of the passacaglia. Then, after one last statement of the initial theme, the movement ends with simple E major chords.

Honestly, you don't have to beef up the piece with extra-musical references: there is plenty of musical beef here already. Now, let's listen to a performance of the movement. The Argerich, Kremer, Maisky version of the last movement is broken up into two parts, so let's listen to some other Russians. Here are  Dmitri Vinnik (piano), Sviatoslav Moroz (violin), and Natalia Gutman (cello), with all of the last movement of the Piano Trio, Op. 67, by Shostakovich:

Townsend: Four Pieces, No. 3, Xitango

This is the third of my Four Pieces for Violin and Guitar and the last to be written. Claudia, my violinist, kept pestering me to play some Astor Piazzolla with her but I didn't have any music handy so I just wrote this. It's not quite a tango, but it is tangoish, tangoesque.

Claudia even had to invent a new percussion effect on the violin. I open with a kind of golpe where you slap the strings against the frets, an effect used in Latin American music. Later on, when the violin layers the same passage over the guitar, I wrote that it should be col legno or with the wood of the bow, a common effect, but in this case without pitch. That didn't really work so Claudia just started doing the same thing that I was: slapping the strings against the fingerboard. It is not quite as effective as the violin doesn't have frets to hit against, but it does match with the guitar better.



UPDATE: I forgot to say where the title comes from. Living in Mexico one often runs into words from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. In fact, we even have a few of them in English: tomato, chocolate and coyote are all words from Nahuatl. So when I was writing the tango, I thought I would create a new word for the title. The Nahuatl prefix "xi-" (pronounced "she") creates a command or imperative form of the verb. So, "Xitango" is saying "dance tango!" It is also a trilingual pun: "she tangos".

Monday, September 23, 2013

Townsend: Four Pieces, No. 2, Cloudscape

The second of my four pieces for violin and guitar is titled "Cloudscape" and it is quite atmospheric, perhaps even impressionistic. There is a little Asian influence as well. I wrote this a few years ago, originally for viola and guitar. If I recall correctly, the idea was to write something that an audience might find immediately pleasing...


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Music Lessons Are Pointless?

I just ran across an article in the New Republic arguing that it is pointless to send your children to music lessons. You just know I'm going to be all over that one! But first, read the article:

His clinching argument against music lessons comes in this paragraph:
As for the enduring value of music lessons, I propose an even simpler test. Go on Facebook and ask your friends to chime in if, when they were children, they took five years or more of a classical instrument. Then ask all the respondents when they last played their instrument. I tried a version of this at a dinner party recently. There were about ten adults present; I was the only one who had not played an instrument for many years as a child. All of them confessed that they never played their instrument. Whatever it was—violin, piano, saxophone—they had abandoned it. The instrument sat lonely in a closet somewhere, or in the attic of their childhood home. Or their parents off-loaded it in a tag sale years ago.
There is a kind of immediate plausibility about this argument: taking music lessons takes up an awful lot of time and money when you are a kid and the "utility" of this may indeed be questionable. The thing is that you don't know that. I'm not a parent, but I imagine that part of being one is trying to help your child discover their abilities and talents. Perhaps they will show a real aptitude for something, but perhaps they won't. In which case, you need to try out a few things. Do you need five years of music lessons? Probably not, unless you really enjoy them. But I think that you might owe your child the opportunity to take a year of lessons, just to see if it takes. Some ballet might be good too. Some sports. Some instruction in drawing and painting. If you don't try, you won't know. Is this a useful endeavor? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but you don't know until you try. I can pretty well agree with this part of the article:
Now it is clearly the case that if nobody studied ballet or violin, we would have no professional orchestras or ballet companies. That would be a great loss. But for such art forms to persist, it is only necessary that the most eager and gifted students persist in their studies. I’m all for lots of children trying classical music or dance, but we no more need millions of fourth-year violin students than we need millions of fourth-year origami students.
Music lessons are the best way of finding those eager and gifted students.

But I have another, more subtle, counter argument. I recently was involved in a business deal with someone I knew only slightly. I had to question a particular exchange rate that was part of the deal and when I did so, the individual reacted so strongly that I had the sense that he could bear absolutely no disagreement or even different opinion. A classic narcissist if not an actual sociopath. Some psychologists think that one in every twenty-seven people is a sociopath. Here is one non-technical definition:
Probably the most widely recognized personality disorder. A sociopath is often well liked because of their charm and high charisma, but they do not usually care about other people. They think mainly of themselves and often blame others for the things that they do. They have a complete disregard for rules and lie constantly.
What is the connection with music lessons? As I said, it is subtle. As someone who taught private lessons for many years, I recognize that one of the real problems is self-confidence. Some people do not succeed simply because they don't believe they can. So building self-confidence is important. But the problem of being simply too self-centered, over-confident and unable to recognize one's own weaknesses is not actually a problem! Why is that? Well, I like to think that we have Bach to thank. I had a student who had a somewhat dissociated personality. Not a sociopath, but not one that easily related to others. He was playing a pretty substantial piece by Bach. In the lesson, after he played it through, instead of commenting, I just asked him to play it again. Then again and again. Each time it was different because he started listening to himself more and more. Playing Bach is like holding a mirror up to yourself: it is very demanding music and it almost forces you to come to terms with it. It takes you outside yourself. I suspect very, very few sociopaths take many music lessons. It is just too damaging to their egos.

If you have a mild tendency towards being a narcissist or sociopath, I suspect music lessons might be an antidote. This is just my crazy theory, but since I have started spending a lot more time in the business world, I notice more and more people I would characterize as narcissistic or sociopathic. In the music world, the only people like that I noticed were record company executives.


Now some Bach:

UPDATE: I notice that Paul Berman has also written a rebuttal to the article by Mark Oppenheimer.

Townsend: Four Pieces for Violin and Guitar

I have a special set of posts all ready to celebrate my 1000th blog posting. In the last few months I have written four pieces for violin and guitar. One is a version for violin and guitar of a piece I wrote in 2011 for viola and guitar, the other three are new. Each one is a kind of reimagining of a particular genre and of traditional harmony. One thing I discover is that while Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven could end every piece with a perfect authentic cadence, if we do it now, it sounds hokey. So I have to invent a new kind of closure to every piece.

Here is the title page for the four pieces:

The first piece, "Strange Romance" is called that because, while my intention was to write a romance, it came out so differently from a traditional romance that I had to call it "strange". There is a bit of Asian influence, but mostly it is just a piece that came to me all at once--from where I don't really know...

We had a photographer, Chris Doolin, at the session so each recording will be accompanied by a photo essay. It seems that all music today needs to have a video. But I really suggest listening to the piece without looking at the video as well. Images can be distracting. Anyway, this is what the recording session looked like. My engineer was Ken Basman, who has great ears and did a super job. We had the loan of a unique recording space, a private home with a very large living room with a large boveda (vaulted brick ceiling). The sound is a lot like that of a chapel, which is ideal for classical music.

We recorded this a couple of weeks ago, all four tracks in one session with minimal takes. One piece was done in one take. A week later Ken and I had an editing session in which we put it together and tinkered with the sound a bit.

So here is that first piece, "Strange Romance" for violin and guitar played by myself and violinist Claudia Shiuh:


My 1000th Post!

Yes, it's true. Not counting those drafts I did not complete and did not post, this is the 1000th post I have put up on The Music Salon. At about 500 words per post (just a rough guess) that amounts to 500,000 words. If the average novel is about 100,000 words, then I have written the equivalent of five novels since June of 2011 when I started the blog.

My statistics have climbed steadily from a minuscule 300 page views the first month to around 12,500 in the last month. That is tiny compared to the big bloggers like Instapundit or the Daily Kos which both get hundreds of thousands of visits every day. But they talk about things of general interest while I remain focussed on music. Apart from occasionally writing something that I hope someone, somewhere will find provocative, I really don't make any effort to win readers except by trying to talk about music in the best way I know how.

One interesting thing about the blog is the number of readers I have that are from non-English speaking countries: six out of the top ten. The USA is first, probably due to heavy internet use, but here are the top ten:

United States


United Kingdom








Some of those may surprise you. Why Russia? Probably a couple of reasons: one is that Russia is hugely important for classical music. If I just mention Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Richter and Sokolov, that should give an indication. Second, I write a lot about Shostakovich. Why the UK? Also a big music center. London has probably the most active concert scene in the world. Germany? Also a musical super-power. Mexico? Probably because I live here. Canada, probably because I write about Canada from time to time as I am Canadian. France, Australia, Sweden and the Philippines are also important music centers, especially for the guitar, and I am a classical guitarist.

One thing that helps the wide geographic popularity of the blog is that music does tend to transcend language. Another is that there is a translation gadget on the right hand side that can translate the whole blog into hundreds of languages!

So thank you to all my readers and welcome to many more readers. It is immensely gratifying to me that so many people from so many different places have a deep and abiding love of music.

Here is my performance of Asturias by Albéniz with photos of that part of Spain.


UPDATE: I forgot to mention that if you have any comments on the blog in general, don't hesitate. Or if you want to let me know what kind of posts you enjoy reading, please do so. More on pop music? Less on pop music? More or less on Beethoven/Shostakovich/Bach? More on composition? Just leave me a comment.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

An Interview with Leonard Cohen

Some celebrities are terrible interview subjects--Marlon Brando comes to mind. But others are both gracious and interesting. Leonard Cohen tends to be in this group. I recall an interview I saw with him on Canadian television many, many years ago in which the interviewer, posing one of those awkward questions that they do, asked Cohen to comment on his reputation for being a pessimist. His reply, and one of my favorite quotes, was, "a pessimist is someone who thinks it is going to rain--I'm soaked to the skin."

I just ran across a fairly recent interview with him in his home in Montréal:

There are not many people that we can listen to and come away with the sense that they are truly wise. I think Leonard Cohen is one of those. You have to love an interview subject who, in answer to one awkward question, just sings a verse of "Je ne regrette rien."

There is a wonderful moment right at the end when the interview is over but the cameras are still rolling. The interviewer confesses that he was asking so much about death because it terrifies him. Cohen just answers as he did before, but what is interesting is that it was probably Cohen's wise presence that led the interviewer to come out and be so candid. Artists of the kind that Leonard Cohen is are rare people and we really do have need of them.

Beatles' Vocal Tracks

One measure of just how important the Beatles were is the amount of material that is available. We have the big Anthology and associated CDs of early and alternate versions of a lot of songs. We have books on their equipment and even one that recounts what they did every single day they were together as a group. But today I ran across something particularly interesting: a clip of just the vocal tracks of the side two medley from Abbey Road.

UPDATE: The original link seems to have gone astray so I can't embed, but this link should take you to the clip:

They really had it all, didn't they? Two of the finest songwriters ever in the English language, Paul and John, a very original guitar player (George) and probably the most creative drummer in rock and roll (Ringo). On top of all that, they could really sing.


What is musicianship and where do you learn it? According to many universities it consists in the skills developed in ear training courses. Musicianship is the ability to hear music and take it down in dictation. It is the ability to sing written melodies at sight. It is the ability to read an orchestral score and play a version of it on piano at sight. That sort of thing.

Those are certainly things that are important to a musician and they are easily taught and tested, but is that what we first thing of when we talk about "musicianship"? What are we referring to when we call someone "musical"?

I think that the core meaning of the words "musical" and "musicianship" is actually something much more subtle and difficult to both teach and test, which is why it is not explicitly listed in the curriculum. Musicianship, beyond the basic abilities I mention above, is the ability to play expressively, to evoke musical expression. This is, after all, the real goal of all musical performance--to reach the audience somehow, to affect them, to move them. Music is wonderful at expressing, well, musical moods. I hesitate to say "emotion" because I don't think music really communicates garden-variety emotions.

But it most certainly does express something.  Schoenberg says in his book Fundamentals of Musical Composition that "The concept that music expresses something is generally accepted. However, chess does not tell stories. Mathematics does not evoke emotions. Similarly, from the viewpoint of pure aesthetics, music does not express the extra-musical." [p. 93] But it does express the musical!

My mother always used to say that classical music evoked for her images of waterfalls and forests. I think that she was just trying to translate musical expression into verbal language. I regard music and language as two expressive mediums that each have their characteristic strengths and weaknesses. Music can't say "meet you at 3pm for a coffee" and language can't say:

What I think we are really thinking of when we speak of musicianship and musicality is that subtle ability to make a musical phrase come alive. True, you need a fund of technical ability and all those other musical skills, but all that is merely a prerequisite to playing musically. Notice that abbreviation in the musical example above: espress. That stands for "espressivo", asking the player to play with expression. It is really impossible to put in words what that means, but it involves connecting the notes in a vocal manner, shaping the line with dynamics (perhaps a bit louder in the middle), maybe even pushing ahead a bit and tapering off towards the end. Treating this phrase as a kind of living thing.

Where is this learned? The answer is mostly in private lessons. If you have a teacher that really knows his or her stuff, then they will be talking about this all the time: shape that phrase, listen to where it is going, look how the music is building to a climax, what is the mood or atmosphere here? And so on. When you have all the music before you, then you can use language to point out things here and there. But a lot of the instruction might be things that would look odd written down. You can teach about rhythm by singing it: da da da DUM, illustrating all sorts of things with your voice, or with gestures. It can be interesting to look at videos of a masterclass.

Just for fun, here is a brief excerpt from a masterclass conducted by guitarist John Williams in Australia. When he gets hold of the guitar and starts demonstrating some alternative ways of transcribing some chords (the piece, Torre Bermeja by Albéniz, is originally for piano) this is a beautiful example of what I was just talking about. There are a few muttered phrases: "like this" or "maybe in first inversion", but mostly it is musical illustrations, i.e. without any words. This can be very confusing if you are not a guitarist (or pianist, or whatever) or not intimately familiar with the piece! But this is how one teaches musicality: with a host of musical not verbal, examples.

Now let's end with John Williams playing all of Torre Bermeja. What a wonderful, effortless technique he has!

Shostakovich: Trio in E minor, third movement

One of the things that Shostakovich is famous for is his use of the passacaglia form. As Wikipedia tells us this originated in 17th century Spain (on the guitar as a matter of fact) as a simple chord progression used to accompany, as the name tells us, a procession down the street. It soon became a favorite of Baroque composers in the form of a set of variations over a repeated bass line or chord progression.

There are a number of famous passacaglias by Shostakovich, who tended to use it to create powerful laments. This one is an expressive duet for the violin and cello over a set of chords in the piano that repeat six times. Here is that progression:

This progression outlines two tetrachords (groups of four notes). The first is in the tonic key of B flat minor and has the notes B flat, F, G natural and A natural. The A natural would normally lead us back to the tonic B flat, but Shostakovich follows it with a second tetrachord F#, G natural, A natural, B natural which suggests a modal E minor, the key of the first movement and the work as a whole.

Incidentally, the B natural that the progression ends on is in a Neapolitan relationship with the tonic: a semitone higher (which we would easily see if it were spelled C flat). Where else have we seen a Neapolitan relationship? Oh yes, in the second movement scherzo where the contrasting middle section was in G major, a Neapolitan relation to the tonic F# major. A very famous use of this kind of relationship is in the transition from the first to the second movement of Beethoven's late C# minor quartet. The first movement is in C# minor and the second in D major, the Neapolitan.

Here is the melody as it first appears in the violin. It is quite a long one, 45 seconds long, so requires three lines:

Some features: it begins with an upbeat fifth to tonic leap, just as the scherzo did. From there it mostly moves by step and features a mournful turn figure that comes three times. The movement unfolds with variations on this melody in both violin and cello and ends with a B natural pedal and outlining the chord of E minor.

Let's listen to that performance by Argerich, Kremer and Maisky:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Where Did I Learn All This Stuff?

I don't know for sure, of course, but it occurs to me that some readers might be asking themselves "where did he learn all this stuff?" My knowledge of music is hardly comprehensive (I know almost nothing about middle-period Britney Spears' harmonic practice, for example) and it is not nearly as profound as it could be. But over the course of some forty-six years as a professional musician, I have picked up quite a lot. Where and how?

As far as formal study goes, that only began when I was twenty and entered the University of Victoria as an undergraduate, first in music education and then in the School of Music. But before that I had spent some years playing bass and electric guitar in a rock band and a year or so playing acoustic guitar and singing as a 'folk' musician à la Bob Dylan. I had then taken up the classical guitar and taught myself to read music so I could learn to play Bach on guitar. In undergraduate history and theory courses at the University of Victoria and later at McGill University, I did pick up the basics of harmony and theory--but not counterpoint as I managed to miss that year when I transferred schools. In between, I spent a year in Spain in total dedication to mastering the technique of the classical guitar. The final stage of my formal training came decades later when I returned to McGill as a doctoral candidate in musicology where I completed all the seminars for a doctorate, though not the dissertation. It was then that I did the first and only counterpoint course I have ever taken: the advanced seminar in fugue, the most advanced counterpoint course offered. I also did seminars in things like "non-classical theme types", comedy in opera, Shostakovich symphonies, DuFay, paleography and so on.

But, oddly, all this formal training left me with huge gaps in my knowledge of the basic repertoire. In eight years at university I don't recall once studying a Beethoven piano sonata or string quartet. I do recall doing the Fifth Symphony, very briefly, in first year history survey, but the most exposure I had to that piece was when I taught it to a very large class of non-music majors. The only time I was exposed to species counterpoint was again when I taught it in a basic theory class.

Where did I learn about those things I now consider core? I taught myself. I would guesstimate that only about 15% or 20% of my musical knowledge actually came from classes. My knowledge of repertoire comes largely from my own listening and study. No-one took me through all the Beethoven quartets. You would think, as they are pretty much the most profound music ever written, that every music school worth its salt would be offering a comprehensive course on them quite often. But no, I don't think that is the case. I don't have the time to search through all the course offerings of every school, but this is more typical of the kind of seminar we are offered instead of the Beethoven quartets:
The Socio-Cultural Study of Music
This seminar series is designed to introduce students to the socio-cultural study of music, with a focus on the work of Professor Georgina Born. The seminars introduce a series of innovative approaches to how we can understand and study contemporary musics, although the ideas are relevant also to historical musicology: the seminars are therefore broadly methodological. The nearest discipline to the space the seminars will occupy is ethnomusicology. However Born’s work is not ethnomusicological as that is broadly understood: it uses the method of ethnography, but it does not focus primarily on non-western musics but on contemporary musics of the developed world, so that a better disciplinary designation for this course is a combined anthropology/sociology of music. Moreover, while the majority of Born’s work has been on music, she has researched and written about a range of areas of cultural production and creative cultural practices including television, digital technologies and new media, and art-science: the seminars therefore also place research on music in this wider context.
Students are required to read and be prepared to discuss set texts by Born and key related texts, including such figures as Bourdieu, Foucault, Ihde, Feld, Goehr, Bohlman and DeLanda, as well as the work of several McGill professors with whom Born’s work is in dialogue: Prof. David Brackett, Prof. Jonathan Sterne and Prof. Will Straw. Each week Prof. Born will introduce or speak to the key questions and readings at issue; two students will also present summaries and discussions of readings as agreed beforehand. The allocation of student presentations will happen in the first weeks of the seminar and all students are required to present. Final mark for the course will be based on the in-class presentations and a final paper of 10-15 pages. Further details will be given at the start of term.
Oh yes, very, uh, stylish. This looks more promising:
Multiple Perspectives on the Analysis of Instrumental Works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert: Case StudiesMusical compositions are literally “com-posed” by a multitude of parameters, such as form, rhythm, melody, dynamics, voice-leading, topoi, schemata, harmony, etc.  In order to grasp the complexity of musical works, the analyst is compelled to understand both the individual characteristics in their own right and their mutual and multifaceted interrelatedness. This seminar begins, by way of an elaborated example, with a multiple-perspective analysis of Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata (op. 32/ nr. 1) (motivic, form-functional, hypermetrical, hermeneutic, etc.). The aim of the seminar is to discuss and evaluate the different approaches and to apply multiple analytical approaches to other key works from the classical and early-romantic repertoire. Special attention will be given to the question of how far these different parameters contribute to the creation of musical form. Requirements of this course include (a) weekly assignments (readings and/or analysis preparation) (b) a one-hour class presentation in which a group of related compositions is presented (“a mini corpus-based study”), and (c) a paper in which this presentation is written out and further elaborated.
But at the end of the day, I suspect you will have a lot of familiarity with the complexities of this abstract approach and not know the Beethoven quartets very well at all. This is a more typical kind of course:
Music and Politics: Analytical Case Studies from the Eighteenth through Twenty-First Centuries
How does music convey political meaning? How does a political message manifest itself in the compositional procedures themselves? What are the mechanisms by which a work is politicized beyond composer intent? Can music be apolitical? This seminar will address these questions in selected works from the eighteenth century to the present through score analysis, study of the sketches and writings of composers, as well as by examining the aesthetic contexts and reception histories of the works. Scores to be analyzed include excerpts from The Beggar’s OperaUn ballo in maschera (Act III), Die Meistersinger (Acts II and III), The Threepenny Opera, Eisler’s Gegen den Krieg, Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero, Boulez’s Structure Ia, Maderna’s Composizione in tre tempi, Nono’s Intolleranza, Adam’s On the Transmigration of Souls, as well as from works chosen by the seminar participants. Course requirements include weekly assigned readings and listening, two in-class presentations, a midterm essay, and a final paper.
The thing to realize is that if you are NOT working at this level of complex abstraction they will not give you the doctorate and you won't get the job. Sometimes there are interesting insights that can come out of this kind of course. But the focus is really on the elaborate methodology and not on a comprehensive sense of the important repertoire. A typical professor would far rather interrogate the concept of "important repertoire" than actually know it.

So when do you get to know the repertoire? Theoretically that happens in all those undergraduate courses labelled "chamber music literature" etc. But there is never enough time. You skim, you browse and you skip over the surface. I recall studying ONE Haydn quartet in my undergraduate years.

What a university education gives you is basically an introduction to music. From then on, you are on your own. I never had the least exposure to the Shostakovich string quartets at university--never heard one note. What I did several years ago was buy the Emerson box of them and listen to one quartet every morning until I got them in my ears. Then I started looking at the scores. After several years, I am still getting to know them!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Shostakovich: Trio in E minor: 2nd movement

Continuing the series of posts on Shostakovich's Trio, op, 67, we take up the second movement. This is a short movement, a scherzo in Beethovenesque style. The key is mostly F# major with a section in the Neapolitan, G major. Rhythmically it is not as inventive as Beethoven often was in his trios, but Shostakovich makes up for that with the acerbic harmonies and wayward melodic inflections.

Let's start with an excellent performance by Argerich, Kremer and Maisky:

This is a fairly short movement, just over three minutes. Just because scherzos are quick doesn't mean they have to be brief--there are lots of examples by Beethoven that are twice as long as this. Where this music departs significantly from the Beethoven model is that while 18th and 19th century scherzos had a great deal of repetition, this one does not. Themes are repeated, of course, but they are being continually transformed. Here is that opening theme in the violin:

Very classical in its adherence to outlining triads. The opening leap of a fourth followed by a fifth is probably a bit inelegant for Haydn or even Beethoven, but the rest is rather traditional in character. The piano accompanies this with harmonies that quickly wander from traditional norms, however. The opening tonic is followed by a Neapolitan, then a G# major harmony! Rhythmically the typical kinds of patterns one would find in a 3/4 scherzo all seem just a bit "off" as witnessed by this maniacal little passage for the cello. The frenetic character is only heightened by its being in a very high register:

Instead of a contrasting trio in perhaps the dominant as would be found in a Beethoven scherzo, we have a waltz-like section in G major, the key of the Neapolitan. Here is how it starts:

And the continuation with a theme in the cello:

Click to enlarge
A couple of things to notice about the style: the accompaniment is quite conventional, but the the cello manages to wander into G minor briefly, which gives an uneasy feeling to the passage. Shostakovich had a particular gift for both using traditional forms and harmonies, but at the same time subverting them in subtle and unsubtle ways.

After this contrasting section, the piece returns to the key and themes of the beginning, but in varied form. For example, the repeat of the opening begins with the same music, but this time the theme is in the piano, accompanied by the strings:

Click to enlarge

(It is an exact repeat, I just left off the upbeat melody note because it was in the previous line.)

Another thing to notice about the movement is how terribly Russian it is in its wild, heavy, and slightly drunken mood. This is achieved by a hundred little details: the sometimes clumsy phrases (intentionally so, of course) that just seem to land slightly off-balance, the odd spacings, the strange twists of the melody and the woozy glissandi.

Let's listen to the movement again. Here is a slightly brisker performance by the Mosa Trio from the Netherlands: