Thursday, October 31, 2013

Nightmares that actually happen

A while ago I put up a little post about guitarists' nightmares--well, mine anyway! One was dreaming that I went to play a concerto with orchestra and at the first rehearsal we discovered that the parts rental company had sent the orchestral parts to the wrong Rodrigo concerto! Well, I just ran across a clip where this very thing happened. It looks more like an open rehearsal than a concert, unless conductors now customarily wear sweaters draped over their shoulders for concert dress. But here is pianist Maria Joao Pires astonished to hear the orchestra beginning the Mozart Piano Concerto in D minor when she was expecting to play a different concerto! The conductor, Ricardo Chailly, cajoles her into trying to remember how the piano part goes even as he conducts the orchestral introduction. Amazingly, she can do it. Here is the clip:


Now there is a lot we aren't told about here. How could a mistake like this possibly happen? Did the conductor do it on purpose? Conductors can sometimes be amazingly cavalier with their soloists. Preparing to play a concerto is one of the most demanding tasks there is for a performer and, unless they had just been playing this piece a couple of days before, so that Chailly knew for sure she was ready to play it, this is the kind of thing that could get a conductor blacklisted amongst soloists! Every solo performer works very hard to make sure they are never caught in public playing without adequate preparation so it would be very tempting for the pianist to just get up and walk offstage, muttering to the conductor, "let me know when you find the parts to the right concerto". It might make you look bad, at least until the facts come out, but they sure aren't going to be able to go on without you!

Wild things happen in concerto performances. Arthur Rubinstein tells the story in his autobiography about the first time he played with the Berlin Philharmonic. As I recall he was quite young, perhaps twelve years old. In any case, he was playing a huge and demanding piano concerto by Brahms. It went quite well, but when he went back onstage to play an encore, as soon as he sat down, the piece he intended to play just evaporated from his mind--a complete memory lapse! So he improvised something. Well, that was Rubinstein. Pepe Romero had a bad memory lapse in a concerto. He was premiering a concerto written for him by an American composer and it went quite well. In the second half (only Pepe would be playing two different concertos in the same concert) they played the A major Guitar Concerto by Giuliani, which Pepe has played a thousand times. Everything was fine until the last movement, a rondo. Pepe had a memory lapse near the beginning and just couldn't pick it up. So the conductor stopped the orchestra and began again. Same thing. This happened three or four times and finally the conductor launched the orchestra at a blistering tempo under the theory that if Pepe was too busy to think about it, he probably wouldn't have the lapse. And so it was. But there is another story about Jascha Heifetz that he had a memory lapse in a concerto so devastating that he walked offstage and never returned.

That's all the concerto incidents I can recall at the moment, so let's end with some Heifetz. Here he is playing the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto:


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Classical Animals

I used to know a musicologist who, once a year, would wear a tie with the image of a trout on it to class. Can anyone guess why? The answer is that this was the day he covered Schubert's "Trout" Quintet in his history class. Apparently you can buy them:



The "Trout" Quintet is so called because the fourth movement is a set of variations on his song "The Trout" ("Die Forelle"). Wait, that gives us another animal piece. Here's the song sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. Very 'trouty' piano part:


I put up a post the other day about a symphony nicknamed "The Bear". We have quite a few pieces of classical music named after animals. The "Bear" Symphony is by Haydn. The very next symphony in his oeuvre, the Symphony No. 83 is nicknamed "The Hen". The reason for this is apparently the resemblance of a theme in the first movement to the clucking of a hen. I'm not quite sure it counts, but Haydn's very first string quartet is nicknamed "The Hunt", as is one of his symphonies. The hunt is for game animals, of course.

You get a whole bunch of animals with Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals. This is a very amusing suite that depicts quite a few animals. Not a nickname, but there is an aria from a secular cantata, the "Hunting Cantata", by Bach known by its English title: "Sheep May Safely Graze". Oh, and there is the duet for two cats from a Rossini opera. It was actually written by Robert Lucas de Pearsall. We have to hear this:


Ok, settle down. Also in a comic vein was a possibly the strangest commission ever received by a composer. Stravinsky, renowned ballet composer, was asked to write a piece for the circus entitled "Circus Polka". What's the animal connection? It was choreographed to be performed by fifty elephants. In tutus. Tragically, there seems to be no YouTube clip of that performance available, so here is an orchestral performance:


The 1924 opera by Leoš Janáček called "The Cunning Little Vixen" is about a forester and a female fox. Alan Hovaness wrote a piece for orchestra and recorded whale sounds called "And God Created Great Whales". Johann Strauss III wrote an operetta called "Die Fledermaus" ("The Bat"). The fifth movement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is titled "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks". We really should hear that one:


Poor Mussorgsky! The most famous picture of him is this portrait painted shortly before he died of acute alcoholism. He was in the hospital at the time and probably just fell out of bed...

This concludes our tour for today. Let's end with the Carnival of the Animals:


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Reviewing Bach

I'm having problems with my main computer this morning, so I can't do the post I was planning to. In the meantime, let's have a look at a review of two new Bach albums in the Wall Street Journal. Terry Teachout is a justly renowned drama critic for the Journal who also has a blog. Terry often writes about more than just drama, in fact he has just published a book about Duke Ellington. Today he has a column in the Wall Street Journal reviewing, sort of, two new Bach albums. Read the whole thing.

Unfortunately, Mr. Teachout, while an excellent drama critic and writer, is not trained as a musician. His "review" of Jeremy Denk's new recording of the Goldberg Variations comes down to this:
For my part, I find Mr. Denk's interpretation of the "Goldbergs" to be enthrallingly involving. He is one of our finest musical minds, and anything that such folk have to say about the classics is by definition worth hearing. Yet if you asked me to explain to a nonmusician why that is so…well, I'd be up against it. As obvious as the differences are to me between Mr. Denk's "Goldbergs" and Mr. Perahia's "Goldbergs," they don't lend themselves to simple verbal description, nor will they be self-evident to a listener who doesn't already know the piece well.
Uh-huh. Does anyone else notice that there is no, nada, nichts, zero content there? There is the subtle subtext implying that if we were all musicians instead of nonmusicians, then perhaps he could say something, but other than that... Isn't it odd that while one would imagine that the job of writing about classical music albums in the newspaper would have to involve explaining what is going on to nonmusicians, that is exactly what he refuses to do!

The other album is Chris Thile playing music by Bach originally for unaccompanied violin. Here are Terry's comments on it:
His delicate yet propulsive interpretation of the G-Minor Sonata would be more than worth hearing on violin, and the pointed sound of the mandolin endows it with a thrillingly new palette of instrumental colors.
If I had to guess what the future of recorded classical music will sound like, I'd bet on Mr. Thile's Bach...
That first sentence seems entirely incoherent. Pretty much everything played on the mandolin sounds delicate and propulsive. And does he really mean to say that this is more worth hearing than on the violin, the instrument it was written for? Or what is it that he is trying to say? Vague journalistic bumf, and that's it. All the rest is pretty much background and journalistic filler.

So what is the problem here? I have to break a lot of taboos to even talk about it, but here goes. The problem with mainstream criticism today is that it is becoming the domain of amateurs. Nothing against them, but their opinions are half-digested, shallow and lightweight. Every professional musician I have spoken with shares these opinions: Haydn is hugely underrated, Debussy is much more interesting than Ravel, Beethoven was a poor composer for the voice and Chris Thile's Bach is pretty awful. These opinions are fairly predictable because there is a wealth of objective evidence in their favor. Amateurs' opinions are also fairly predictable because they tend to be received opinions reflecting current fashion. Here is what amateurs think: Haydn is a dull predecessor to Mozart and Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy are both colorful impressionists, Beethoven was a great composer so of course he wrote well for the voice and Chris Thile's Bach, because he is a cool guy and plays mandolin, is just really cool!

Another part of the problem is that part of the decline of classical music over the last few decades has involved drastically reducing coverage in the mainstream media. Most of the media have long since cut their classical music critics. If any criticism is needed, they just send out the culture guy, or the drama guy. The Wall Street Journal does still have classical music critics, as does the New York Times. One wonders why one of them is not writing a review of these Bach albums? The answer might be that negative criticism is very much discouraged. Just like in college courses these days, everyone gets an 'A'.

Another interesting aspect of this kind of journalism is that, since any kind of writing about music that includes technical terms or musical examples is absolutely anathema, almost anyone can pass themselves off as a classical music critic. If they never use any technical terms then we can't tell if they are misusing them.

So let's listen. The only YouTube clips I can find of Jeremy Denk playing the Bach Goldbergs are buried in a bunch of commentary, so let's listen to a different piece. Here he is with the Corrente and Sarabande from the Partita No. 3:


And here is Glenn Gould with just the Corrente:


They are really very different, aren't they? Denk's performance is quick, smooth, flowing and legato with gentle dynamic swells. Gould's is slower, crisp, articulate and more on one dynamic level.

How about Chris Thile? Here is the Tempo de Borea from the B minor Partita:


And let's hear it on violin as well. This is Kristof Barati and the performance includes the Double as well:


The problem with the mandolin version is the thin, breathy sound and the near-loss of the other voices. It is a 'fun' performance, meaning that Chris Thile seems to be having fun. But it is rhythmically stiff and clunky. If you listen to the two versions side by side a few times I'm sure you will hear all this for yourself and other things as well, such as how each artist feels the harmony.

The real problem here is that while Jeremy Denk and Chris Thile's Bach albums are worth knowing and certainly are the big recent events in Bach recordings in the US, there are undoubtedly other, more interesting, artists and recordings. But the people who might discover these for us, professional musicians, not amateurs, are not being allowed to write for the mainstream any more. So it is the trendy and fashionable that sells more and more while the more aesthetically interesting is more and more obscure.

For example, there is a new recording of the Goldberg Variations on clavichord by Michael Tsalka:


Not to everyone's taste, certainly. But worth hearing and a thought-out individual conception. It is the job of a real music critic to alert us to music that we might not otherwise have heard instead of just promoting the already thoroughly promoted.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Audible and Inaudible

Composer Nathan Shirley left a comment on my last post about the two main compositional strategies practiced these days saying:
Good point about the lack of functional structure these two styles suffer from.
I'm working on a string quartet these days so I am thinking a lot about structure. Most of what I write could be called "character pieces" which means that they are small forms. When you try to compose a larger form, the problem of structure becomes critical. Or so I think.

But for much of the last century, like taxes, the problem of structure has been avoided or evaded! There have been several strategies to avoid the problem, some obvious, others not so obvious. Moment form is one of the most obvious. I talked about this method here. In moment form you write a number of self-contained sections that can be played in any order. One of the most famous examples is Stockhausen's Klavierstücke XI. There are 19 fragments, chosen to be played in a random order and the performance is over when any fragment has been played three times. Every performance is therefore different. Here is one performance:


Does this piece have a structure? Yes, of course it does. Here, taken from the Wikipedia article I linked above, is a description of the structure:
Though composed with a complex serial plan, the pitches have nothing to do with twelve-tone technique but instead are derived from the proportions of the previously composed rhythms (Truelove 1984, 103–25; Truelove 1998, 190).
The durations are founded on a set of matrices all of which have six rows, but with numbers of columns varying from two to seven. These matrices "amount to sets of two-dimensional 'scales'" (Truelove 1998, 190). The first row of each of these rhythm matrices consists of a sequence of simple arithmetic duration values: two columns of eighth note + quarter note , three columns of eighth note + quarter note + dotted quarter note. , four columns of eighth note + quarter note + dotted quarter note. + half note , etc., up to seven columns; each successive row after the first consists of increasingly finer, irregular subdivisions of that value (Truelove 1998, 192–97). These "two-dimensional scales" are then permuted systematically (Truelove 1998, 190, 202–204), and the six resulting, increasingly larger matrices were combined together to form the columns of a new, complex Final Rhythm Matrix of six columns and six rows (Truelove 1998, 190, 198–201). Stockhausen then selected nineteen out of the thirty-six available rhythmic structures to compose out into the fragments of Klavierstück XI (Pereira 1999, 121; Truelove 1998, 206; Truelove 1984, 97)...
 So that should be easy to hear! Right! It is one of the principles of high modernism that serious music must have a high degree of complexity. But this kind of structure, while certainly complex, is not audible to an ordinary listener. Or probably to any listener. The analyses of this piece have been made by professional theorists specializing in contemporary music and with unlimited time to study the score. And even then, sometimes, they made mistakes in their analyses. This is why I say the structure is not audible to the listener. From the ordinary listener's point of view, this is probably no different from someone playing random notes and rhythms on the piano. In fact, the director Peter Weir did a wonderful satire on this in the film Green Card with Gerard Depardieu at the piano. The 'piece' starts at the 1:53 mark in this clip:


Structure for someone like Haydn, is something for the listener to hear. Sometimes it is absolutely obvious as when the main theme returns in a first movement recapitulation, or the rondo theme returns in the last movement. Variation form is also very easily heard. But Haydn also engaged in some more subtle structures like a minuet in palindrome form or a false reprise. The false reprise is like a false entry in a Bach fugue: it sounds like it will be an entry, but evaporates and a different voice comes in with the subject. Haydn could even be more subtle with structure. In the first movement of his String Quartet op. 64, no. 4 in G major, he begins the recapitulation with the main theme in major, just as in the exposition, but almost immediately slips into the minor so you are sure this is a false reprise. But it stays in minor and brings back material from the second theme, which was in minor in the exposition. So this was a real reprise presented as a false reprise! You don't get much subtler than that. Here is that first movement:


But what we have in composers like Stockhausen is a high degree of inaudible complexity which is, from a listener's point of view, of no structural function because you can't hear it. Not as structure, at least.

John Cage, a really fascinating figure, gave up all pretense of structure and used coin-tossing methods to create pieces by chance. This can be interesting music to listen to, but I doubt anyone would claim that it has any kind of structure at all, even inaudible.

For me, the challenge as a composer is to discover ways of structuring music, an art in time. There are lots of models from Gregorian chant up to the 19th century. There are even 20th century models like Debussy, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Steve Reich, all of whom were interested in creating audible musical structures. Here is the first movement of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements with Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony:


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fleeing from the Center

I'm not sure my title is the best metaphor for what I am noticing, but it seems as if a lot of composition today falls into one of two different strategies. One strategy is to maximize events so that the ear is confronted with an ever-changing palette of sounds. In this strategy, repetition is forbidden. This is what you might call high modernism. The other strategy is to minimize events so that the ear hears constant repetition. This is the opposite strategy to the first. This music is often called "minimalist" though most of the practitioners dislike that term. Here are examples of both strategies. First, high modernism. This is an example from a recent Donaueschingen music festival:


And here is a recent example of the repetitive strategy from the group Dawn of Midi:


The advantage of both strategies is that you can completely avoid sounding like music of the past. But each strategy has unique disadvantages. The high modernist strategy is very difficult to listen to and seems to have fundamental structural problems. I want to save my thoughts on that for another post, but suffice it to say that the idea of avoiding any kind of narrative flow or formal structure by avoiding repetition seems a dysfunctional strategy for a time-art. The minimalist strategy avoids any traditional formal structure by freezing time. Again, a problematic strategy for a time-art. Plus, boring!

But it certainly isn't easy trying to write music that does have formal structure in a listenable way. Still, a few have managed:


"bold ideas about symphonic formats and community outreach"

Here at The Music Salon I like to look at things from a different perspective. If everyone is talking about Miley Cyrus, I might talk about Tom Waits instead:


If everyone is chatting about the John Cage centennial, I might ignore it or put up a critique instead. One perennial theme that more than one blog is devoted to, is how classical ensembles can reach out to find new audiences. If not enough young people are attending Haydn string quartet concerts, then let's schedule a tour in some pubs.

I'm a little skeptical, frankly. I wonder if instead of invading pubs we might not be better off figuring a way to stop people from answering their cellphones in the middle of concerts:


What I'm building up to is an article I just ran across about the fate of the Brooklyn Philharmonic who seem to have boldly formatted and outreached themselves into oblivion:
Since August, visitors to the Philharmonic’s website have been greeted with a “closed for maintenance” message. Music director Alan Pierson’s contract expired in June and hasn’t been renewed. The administrative staff has left. An orchestra source, who declined to speak on record, says the group is experiencing severe financial difficulties due to a drop in fundraising.
"Philanthropy is the biggest challenge facing the reorganization of the Brooklyn Philharmonic today, in 2013,” said Joseph Melillo, the executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where, a decade ago, the Philharmonic had a full subscription season. The orchestra left in 2005, and by 2011, it had become a touring outfit, playing in neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant and Brighton Beach. But funding dried up.
"Today you have a symphonic orchestra that at one time was doing symphonic orchestra concerts," Melillo added. "That’s no longer how they define themselves."
If a symphony orchestra can no longer appeal to its real base, which is probably older, more affluent listeners, then where do they go for funding?
By 2009, the orchestra had cancelled its season for lack of money. There was also management turmoil: the orchestra’s executive director, a self-styled entrepreneur named Richard Dare, came aboard with bold ideas about symphonic formats and community outreach.
We are always hearing how "bold ideas about symphonic formats and community outreach" is the solution to classical music's supposed problems. Maybe, maybe not. In this case, it seems to have hastened the decline of what was once a much-loved orchestra.

If you go to YouTube and search for clips of the Brooklyn Philharmonic this is mostly what you find:


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Haydn: Symphony No. 82 in C major, "The Bear"

In 1785 (not 1786 as asserted in Wikipedia), just four years before the French Revolution, a group named "Le Concert de la Loge Olympique" commissioned six symphonies from Haydn. This was the first important international commission for him and it was to be followed by others. The group, a private society of Masonic musicians, had an orchestra of sixty-five member musicians--forming an orchestra much larger than Haydn had written for previously. The society was quite new, having been formed in 1782, and their first concerts were only given in 1785. This symphony was premiered in Paris in 1786. A French website of the Université de Lyons dryly notes that the society "ceased all activity" in 1789.

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges, conductor of Le Concert de la Loge Olympique

The Symphony No. 82 was actually the last written of the six Paris Symphonies. The key of C major was usually associated with brilliant and festive music and so it is here. The opening, the kind of motif that the French called a premier coup, reminds us of the "Mannheim rocket" of previous years:


This is immediately followed by a contrasting motif:

and the whole opening theme is concluded with a brilliant fanfare taking twelve measures and ending on a half cadence. I'm not going to do a detailed analysis, but I want to point out some of Haydn's techniques. For example, in this transition passage from the exposition, we can see the opening motif underpinning the texture in the cellos:

Click to enlarge
But we can also see the syncopation in the violins which is there to destabilize the feel of the music, which is what you want in a transition. Also notice in the violas a "pasting over" motif that fills in the silences in the original theme. All these are techniques developed by Haydn that were used later on to great effect by Mozart and Beethoven.

Unlike a lot of Haydn movements, this one actually has a real contrasting second theme:


I'm tempted to hear a bit of a family resemblance with the second part of the first theme, but maybe that's just me. The first movement is full of wonderful harmonic effects that the French appreciated and called Haydn's grand effets d’harmonie. One is the unexpected beginning of the development, not with some dominant or pre-dominant harmony, but rather with the dominant of F, the subdominant. It also begins right in the middle of the first theme and continues with the fanfare:


The second movement, in the subdominant of F, is one of Haydn's specialties: double variations on two themes, one in major and one in minor. This is not really a slow movement as it has the character of a very genteel polka. But everything is extremely well-composed. I suppose the danger of a set of variations is the problem of ennui, which is why a set of variations often includes one in the minor. By alternating variations on two themes, major and minor, Haydn avoids the problem entirely.

The minuet and trio is mostly as you would expect, with one difference. Suddenly, in the second half of the trio, Haydn surprises us by turning what should have been a simple binary dance form into, briefly, a sonata form movement:

The movement is in C major, but this ambiguous passage moves through C minor to a half-cadence on G. Pause. Then the music continues in E flat, the relative major of C minor! A bit of development in E flat ensues before we are wrenched back to C major at the end.

The last movement is the one that gives the symphony its nickname. How this occurred is a bit unclear, but it seems that in 1829 a piano arrangement was printed that was titled "Danse de l'ours", "Dance of the Bear", presumably because it reminded someone of the music that was used to accompany dancing bears, played on a bagpipe. Why this association? The last movement, a frenetic vivace dance, features a drone with an accented grace note beginning, an evocation of the bagpipe:


But, you know, I doubt that bears danced that quickly! Dancing bears have a long history in Europe and it seems they were often associated with bagpipes. Here, from a 1448 manuscript, is an image of a bear dancing while playing the bagpipes, presumably collapsing the bear and an accompanying musician into one image:


Now let's listen to the symphony.


What I think we hear in this music is a new confidence and a new ability to appeal to popular taste. Some of the eccentricities of the earlier years have been pared away and there is a brilliance and security to the invention. By this time Haydn is beginning to be recognized as the most admired symphonist in Europe. Everything in this symphony is done with consummate skill. The symphony has come of age and while it is certainly the case that Mozart and Beethoven in the next few decades would write more intense, more striking, symphonies, everything that they did is really based on what Haydn had created. They upped the ante, but Haydn invented the game.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Art and the Extreme

I just ran across a thought-provoking article about an Australian painter who won a fabulous prize for a portrait. He couldn't actually pick up the award as he is in jail for armed robbery!
THE nation's richest art prize has been awarded to a former Art Gallery of NSW security guard who is serving a six-year prison sentence for a drug-induced armed robbery.
Nigel Milsom took out the $150,000 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize for his dark portrait of his grandfather's friend, Uncle Paddy.
He couldn't collect the cheque funded by Moran Arts Foundation due to the strict terms of his detention in NSW's Cessnock Correctional Centre, so it was accepted on his behalf by his gallery representative Kerry Crowley and girlfriend Aimee Crouch.
Milsom completed the painting earlier this year while on bail awaiting sentencing for the crime committed in the weeks after he won the 2012 Sulman Prize from the Art Gallery of NSW.
This reminds me of some thoughts I had about Joseph Haydn recently. Though the case of Nigel Milsom seems extreme, there are quite a few other examples of artists who lived on the edge or outside of society. Art, since probably the French Revolution, has been the province of the individual, often tortured, genius. What is fascinating about Haydn is that, as much of his career came before the French Revolution, his kind of genius falls outside our usual narrative frame. Except for an unfortunate marriage, Haydn did not live a tortured life. Despite this, he was one of the most radical, creative and inventive composers in all music history.

What does this tell us about aesthetics and the history of art? Plainly we can separate the creation of brilliant artworks from any kind of political context. You can be a progressive artist while writing music for the nobility as Haydn did. As a matter of fact, the nobility were also the primary audience for Mozart and Beethoven as well.

Here is the first movement of a Piano Trio in C major by Joseph Haydn played by the Melbourne Piano Trio:


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cadential Formulas

A long time ago I put up a post on cadences. But there is more to be said about them. In fact, I believe that William Caplin, who wrote an excellent book on Classical Form, has also written one just on the cadence. You might say that the concepts of tonality, tonal function and goal-directed harmony all depend on the cadence.

Cadential formulas, those characteristic gestures that define cadences, come in melodic and rhythmic patterns as well as harmonic ones. Indeed, the origins of the cadence lie in the monophonic music of the early Middle Ages. The basic melodic cadence is from the supertonic down to the tonic: D to C, for example. With the addition of upper voices, these kinds of cadences were used:

In the Baroque era there is the adoption of the authentic cadence with the root movement of V to I and the half cadence which ends on V:

But we also see in both the Renaissance and Baroque eras a tendency to use hemiola at cadences to reinforce the sense of closure. A hemiola, which I talk about in this post, is a metric alteration where two measures of 3/4 become one measure of 3/2, thereby slowing down the beat. Here is an example from a flute sonata by Handel:

Click to enlarge
The continuo shows us the rhythmic pattern half note, quarter note. Then, in mm. 4 and 5, this changes to half, quarter, quarter, half so that these two measures become felt as a larger measure of 3/2, setting up the half cadence in m. 6.

In a future post I am going to look at some ways 20th century composers dealt with the problem of cadences when tonality was being dismantled.

Here is the Handel Flute Sonata that I quoted from above:


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Music and Health

I just ran across an article that summarizes a lot of research that seems to show that playing a musical instrument is good for your health. Here is the link. There are a lot of different examples and studies. Here is a typical one:
"Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging," said lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy. "Since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older."
With some of these studies I have a concern that they are merely showing correlation, not causation, but that is a common problem with all research into health. It might be the case that people who are musicians retain more cognitive ability as they age because they have a certain kind of mind that also led them to play music. Understanding causation can be tricky.

But it is absolutely the case that it is very unlikely that playing music will leave you worse off. For one thing, exercising your mind with musical challenges keeps you from doing something else that might be harmful. Like watching television! I am pretty sure that music does have positive benefits.

When I was in first year university, at which time I had been a musician for four or five years, I was in a beginning German class. Each week we spent an hour in the language lab, listening to tapes of people speaking German and trying to duplicate the sounds of the language. Our very first visit there the teacher was listening in to each of us one after another. When she got to me, she listened for a couple of phrases ("guten Morgen, wie geht es ihnen?") and immediately said, "oh, you're the music student." Each year she had a couple of music students in the class and could tell who they were because they could pick up the accent quite quickly. It is all about knowing how to listen. So that's one example from my experience.

Another one came about because after a considerable career as a performer I decided to return to university and do a doctorate in musicology. What came out of that was a renewed intellectual capacity to work with and understand music. A career in performance means that you spend a great deal of time every day just maintaining your technique. You have to do scales, slurs and arpeggios every day as well as work on the particular technical problems of individual pieces. You spend more time maintaining old repertoire and memorizing new repertoire. All this can amount to four or five hours every day. It is hard work and a lot of it is intellectually dull. What I discovered when I started the doctorate program was that my intellectual capacities had stagnated somewhat. But after taking several demanding seminars, a whole other side of my mind became newly engaged.

One of the things about music that might make it so healthy is that it is a complex activity, comprising physical, emotional, intellectual and aesthetic aspects. You have to look after your instrument which might include things like replacing strings, making reeds, re-hairing bows and a host of other details. If you are a guitarist you also have to look after your fingernails which are the rough equivalent of the reeds of a clarinet. You have to learn many kinds of listening skills. You have to sensitize yourself to many shades of expression and mood. You have to develop memory skills. There are also a lot of analytical skills that you may need to develop. You may get interested in the history of music which would lead to studying that history which brings into play a whole other range of mental skills. As I have often said, music is a whole universe.

Here is a student from the Brescia Guitar Summer School in Italy doing a pretty fair performance of one of the more challenging pieces that every guitar student runs into, Manuel Ponce's Thème varié et Finale:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Drum Lesson

I think that Batman is showing Mr. Spock how the intro to "Wipeout" goes:


Here it is:


Valentina Lisitsa: New Career Paths

The Washington Post has a nice story up about Valentina Lisitsa, the Ukrainian-born pianist resident in North Carolina. Here is her story in a nutshell:
The three-minute video of Rachmaninoff’s Etude Op. 39 No. 6, or “Little Red Riding Hood,” went viral, despite the piece’s relative obscurity. Following its success, Lisitsa posted videos of herself playing Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Her first-past-the-post strategy of flooding YouTube with videos of the repertoire paid off, yielding more than 60 million views and 100,000 YouTube subscribers. Fame ultimately translated into album deals — “Valentina Lisitsa Plays Liszt” is her newest — and a global touring schedule that was scheduled to bring her to the Library of Congress last Thursday, a visit that was canceled because of the government shutdown.
I have posted about Valentina Lisitsa before, here and here. What I notice about her is not so much her marketing strategy, successful though it may be, nor her appearance, despite a remarkably bizarre comment on one of my posts, but her very compelling musicianship. She talks about the hosts of conservatory pianists that come out every year. But what I hear in her playing is how very convincing a musician she is. I am afraid that all too many of those young virtuosi are mere note-spinners with great publicity shots. Valentina Lisitsa is another kind of musician entirely. Here she is playing a waltz by Chopin. Listen to how beautifully every phrase is shaped and to the fluidity of the rhythm:


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Music and Success

The New York Times has an amazingly positive article about some unexpected benefits to studying music: a disproportionate number of highly-successful people either studied music in their youth or are today closet amateur musicians.
Look carefully and you’ll find musicians at the top of almost any industry. Woody Allen performs weekly with a jazz band. The television broadcaster Paula Zahn (cello) and the NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd (French horn) attended college on music scholarships; NBC’s Andrea Mitchell trained to become a professional violinist. Both Microsoft’s Mr. Allen and the venture capitalist Roger McNamee have rock bands. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, played saxophone in high school. Steven Spielberg is a clarinetist and son of a pianist. The former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn has played cello at Carnegie Hall.
Oddly enough, despite the article collecting quotes from many of these people about just why music is so helpful, I don't get a sense that they managed to articulate it very well. Here is the conclusion of the story:
Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.
I'm not sure I can do any better! Music is somehow resistant to description in words. I'm pretty good at words, and pretty good at music, but they are really very different universes. I think the universe of music can be a kind of workshop that teaches you discipline, organization, creativity and humility. I like to say that the very best way to step outside yourself and learn humility is to practice Bach every day! But there is a lot more to it and it is probably in the details.

I remember an interesting thing a professor said in a graduate seminar in musicology. We were doing Guillaume DuFay and a practice of the time was the granting of sinecures from which he benefitted. A sinecure was an official post that paid a salary but did not actually require doing any work. It was a way of giving patronage. While living in Italy, for example, DuFay was paid for a sinecure in Burgundy where he didn't even have to be present. Knowing about this sort of thing might seem irrelevant to the music, but as the professor pointed out, "as musicologists, we are interested in the details." Ah yes, those details! They are what present all the difficulty.

This might give us a clue about music. If you set out to learn a piece by Bach, for example, you are presented with innumerable challenges both technical and musical--and they are all in the details. You have to find a way of playing, not just some of the notes, or most of the notes, but indeed, all of the notes. And you have to play them with precision, control and grace. Not only that, you have to play them musically, that is, the phrases have to be phrased, the articulations have to be articulated and so on. Finally, you have to make a good and appropriate sound and put the piece together as a whole. Oh, yes, and if you are going to perform in public, then you have to make all this look easy!

You know, part of why music helps people achieve success in life might just be that if you have worked with this kind of challenge, just about everything else in life is going to seem easier.

Here is some Bach to show you what I mean. This is Mischa Maisky with the prelude to the Cello Suite No. 3:

Will the 1960s and 1970s Never End?

As a young guitarist what I was really interested in was mastering the conventional repertoire. But as time went on I developed a strong interest in contemporary music. The music of Leo Brouwer in particular I found compelling.

But there were a lot of aspects of contemporary music that did not interest me. The composers' collective at my music school put on avant-garde 'happenings' from time to time that, while they seemed fun, did not actually interest me as music. I recall one concert that featured a singer doing cabaret-type songs with piano accompaniment while another 'artist' fried pork chops and yet another climbed a ladder. The event ended with an hommage to the clavicinistes who wrote a number of pieces about chickens. Eggs were rolled and thrown, and whole raw chickens, plus I think there was some Col. Saunders. Then finally a live rooster made his way onstage where he regarded us with considerable indignation.

There were also innumerable pieces using what they called "extended techniques" meaning ones that brought out from the instruments sounds that would normally not be used: breathy, scratchy, percussive-type sounds. These were often presented in a context of rhythmic amorphousness: no discernible pulse, just waves and eruptions of sounds. Not only was there no actual tonality, often there were not even any discrete pitches, again, just waves of frequencies blurred together.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons I did not contemplate studying composition was the thought that, if this was what you were supposed to be doing, then I simply wasn't interested.

Well, that was the very early 1970s. This sort of musical 'happening' started in New York in the 1960s I believe. It just took a while to disseminate to where I lived. But all that is over with now, right? Apparently not, as I just ran into a piece that really reminds me of what was going on back then. Could we call this a musical flashback? Here is a new piece by Marcos Balter called Strohbass:


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Haydn: Symphony No. 79 in F major

Much of Haydn's time in the 1770s was taken up with writing operas, mainly comic. Though Haydn, unlike Mozart, was never an outstanding opera composer, the discipline of somehow finding music equivalents to dramatic events certainly contributed to the advancement of his style. One of the most important aspects that was affected was rhythm. Haydn more and more achieved balanced and articulated rhythmic structures in which instrumental music became capable of narrative drama. This is a huge accomplishment for the art of music. Haydn's music is more and more effective as it is more unified: everything, instrumental color, rhythm and harmony, is working together.

Let's see how this works in the Symphony No. 79, written in 1784. It opens with a crisp eight measure period:

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Notice how the accompaniment is always generating forward energy when there are held notes in the melody. Except at major points of articulation, this music is always pushing forward. A second theme begins with a motif that will play a major role in the movement:


Notice how the rhythm is what gives this motif its character and how much energy is contained in the rhythm (the articulation of staccato and legato also contributes). In the development Haydn gives this motif a contrapuntal treatment:


This is completely unlike the counterpoint a Baroque composer would have used. Again, it is about rhythm and specifically blocks of rhythm alternating. In the Baroque they would have overlapped, for continuity rather than contrast. Later on in the development Haydn fragments just the little sixteenth-note motif from the first theme:

Again, notice how this is very much a rhythmic device.

The second movement begins as an Adagio, but this theme also has a lot of rhythmic activity:

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This section, which has variations on this theme, is followed by un poco allegro on a different theme:

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The Wikipedia author(s) of the article on this symphony can't see any connection, but these two themes have a very close family resemblance, especially in the fourth measure.

The minuet and trio continue with the rhythmic clarity and balanced phrases:


This continues with the last movement, a vivace in rondo form. Notice how the theme is rhythmically energetic, but clear and focused:

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Also notice how well the accompaniment is crafted to impel the theme forward: the violas and cellos emphasize the downbeat while the second violin  provides the effervescence. Notice too how each four measure group is rounded off by a cadence formula and eighth notes in the violas and cellos. It looks simple, but everything is very carefully integrated to create one effect. Haydn is much less angular and asymmetrical than he used to be. I believe that every theme in this symphony is an eight measure phrase.

Now let's listen to a performance. Here is Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music:


Friday, October 18, 2013

Haydn in the Pub

Now and then I check in with the online music magazine Sinfini to see what's happening in the UK. Right now they are running an article about a series of concerts held in pubs of the music of Haydn played by members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. There seems to be a global initiative to take classical music everywhere you wouldn't expect it: pubs, night clubs, subway stations, public plazas, mall food courts and so on. Paul Morley writes:
Can Haydn fit in here – fancy, cerebral, delicately attractive chamber music without words glowing with specific period presence, lacking the basic sense of beat, crude catchiness and volume that music usually requires to survive in such an abrasive setting?
Apart from the mischaracterization of the music of Haydn as "lacking the basic sense of beat"(!!), yes, one might think that the music of Queen would seem more appropriate. The article says that Haydn works really well, due to the charming presentation of the musicians. The problem I have with the article is that the writer, while disparaging "strained, ugly attempts to make classical music cool, accessible, hip, fashionable" engages in a somewhat embarrassing one himself. He says of this kind of presentation:
It is not frozen inside a concert hall and played as if to breathe in response is an outrage, and to have any sort of audible emotional reaction a social embarrassment.
What is embarrassing about this is that the implication is that all conventional string quartet concerts, such as the ones at Wigmore Hall, for example, are "frozen". Again, I get the feeling that some of the people who seem to be supporters of classical music are actually our worst enemies! Mr. Morley is as much as saying that all concerts of string quartets by Haydn would be better in the pub.

Another problem I have with articles like these is that they are mere propaganda. This is not a news article that tries to report what happened when these musicians took Haydn on a tour of pubs. Were that the case we might have heard that halfway through op. 33 no. 2, a group of yahoos stumbled in and shouted out, "wat the fook kinda music is dis?" Actually, at no point in the article does Mr. Morley even mention what pieces by Haydn were played.

I would have appreciated an objective account of exactly how well the tour actually went. Instead we have a puff piece saying how wonderful the whole idea was and how wonderfully the musicians brought it off. No indication of how it was actually received, how many people turned up and so on.

Obviously we need to hear a Haydn string quartet now. Here is Op. 33, No. 1 in B minor: