Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Music and Negativity

Norman Lebrecht fulfills a useful role in the world of music: he runs an online site that roughly corresponds to the Drudge Report of music. It contains brief excerpts from and links to the events of the day from a sensationalistic perspective. It's usually about which conductor resigned in a huff from which orchestra or which major music competition is mired in corruption or which famous music school is polluted by teachers guilty of sexual assault. You know, it's all about music!

So it is with considerable amusement that I read Mr. Lebrecht's latest article, in Standpoint Magazine, as the topic is The Malice of Musicians. Yes, according to Mr. Lebrecht, above all other creatures on this Earth, it is musicians who are the nastiest, most negative of all. As he says:
No field of human activity is so envious of success, or so quick to find fault, as the pursuit of classical music.
No other field of human activity! Italian hit-men, politicians and used car salesmen are all jealous of the level of negativity that we lovers of classical music have achieved! And, with the most delicious of irony, it is Mr. Lebrecht's Slipped Disc site that seems to contain the greatest evidence of this with his never-ending crusades against music schools, the Vienna Philharmonic, symphony boards, and a host of other ginned-up controversies that keep the traffic up at his site.

While acknowledging that there is certainly a considerable amount of competitive spirit in the music world and our fair share of ill-informed criticism, my experience here on this blog and in a long career in music is the polar opposite of the claims Mr. Lebrecht makes.

In my career in music I encountered supportive and generous colleagues almost without exception. The only really off-the-mark negative criticism I received came from uneducated amateurs and even that was rare. The only really nasty person I encountered in my career was a record company executive and I subsequently filed suit against him. He settled out of court. The kind of thing Mr. Lebrecht complains about, sheer everyday nastiness, is far more common in the business world that I now work in. This experience is borne out in my experience with this three-year-old blog. Comments are open and unmoderated and I have, to date 2536 comments. Of these I found one to be beyond the pale--it was obscene and insulting--and I removed it. There were two or three that were shallow, ignorant and mildly insulting, but I left them up and just posted a rejoinder. The vast, vast majority have been thoughtful and courteous. Commentators sometimes refer to me as Mr. Townsend! I have found the experience to be very gratifying.

And it is not like I have gone out of my way to be inoffensive, though I do maintain a general level of courtesy. Sometimes I have put up pieces just to provoke some comments, like the post titled "What's Wrong With Jazz" or the one about how Nigel Kennedy is not a good Bach player. But even with these, though they have provoked comments, those comments have been well-founded and courteous. There have been some excellent and informative comment threads on this blog.

So, sadly, it seems that Mr. Lebrecht continues to pursue the methods that have worked for him in the past: generating traffic through superficial scandal and controversy. This article is a prime example. Truly it can be said that with friends like him, classical music needs no enemies!

Hmm, now what music would be appropriate? Ah, I have it! The Sabre Dance by Khatchaturian:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

You Don't Have to Be Crazy...

The notion that madness and creativity are somehow linked was one of the seminal ideas of the 19th century. Composers like Robert Schumann always seemed to be on the edge of mental disintegration and he was far from being unique. A recent article at the Chronicle of Higher Education argues for the opposite view:
Though you’d never know it from Andreasen’s lecture, or from the article she wrote recently for The Atlantic, the notion that there is an established connection between mental illness and creativity is far from undisputed. A new generation of researchers, who came of age in the era of positive psychology, frame creativity in terms of flow states and mindfulness; in other words, not as symptoms of disease but as evidence of human flourishing. Theirs is a nicer, more democratic view, one that sees creativity as a capacity to be nurtured and developed, something all of us possess, perhaps to varying degrees, rather than a rarefied ability tragically paired with affliction.
There certainly seems to be empirical evidence that a lot of writers are far more likely to be plagued with mental problems of some sort than non-writers:
Eighty percent of writers reported some mental illness compared with 30 percent of nonwriters. Andreasen also found that writers' families were "riddled with both creativity and mental illness," much more so than the families of the control subjects.
The idea that creative people tend to be a bit mad is a common meme:
The depressed writer is a stock character, like the ditzy cheerleader or the slick salesman. It’s something we believe almost without thinking about it, in part because that pathetic figure so frequently appears in books and movies, and because we can point to historical examples of artists plagued by mental illness. John Berryman leapt from a bridge. Virginia Woolf walked into a river. David Foster Wallace, a fairly new addition to this sad list, hung himself. We mull the meaning of their deaths, divine clues from the works they left behind.
We do the same with other artists. After Robin Williams's recent suicide came the predictable musings about whether his comedic brilliance was fueled by his apparent depression. Was his manic humor a tool to keep the darkness at bay?
But there is a whole new generation of researchers that take a different view:
You will have a hard time finding a creativity researcher willing to offer a full-throated defense of Andreasen’s 80-percent-of-writers-are-depressed-or-manic verdict. But that doesn’t mean they completely rule out the possibility of a more subtle connection. It depends on how you ask the question. When it comes to everyday artistic expression, what some call little "c" creativity, the consensus seems to be that playing banjo with your buddies or making decorative coffee mugs in your backyard kiln doesn’t mean you’re more likely to need professional help. But when it comes to genius-level creativity, the truly groundbreaking stuff, there is much more doubt.
One researcher puts it like this:
In a forthcoming paper, Simonton argues that everyday creative people are probably more mentally healthy than noncreative people, but among the highly creative, the so-called super geniuses, perhaps pushing the boundaries comes at a price.
My sense is quite the opposite, but I really only have knowledge of creative people in music. My impression is that there are different sorts of creative musicians. The ordinary working musicians, the ones who fill the ranks in orchestras and teach in conservatories are no more nor less sane than the norm. But there is a sizable group of more eccentric musicians who certainly think of themselves as highly creative who do seem to suffer from some forms of mental illness. They are attracted to music as a kind of refuge from the world and approach it as a kind of solipsistic indulgence. I suspect that many of the people in the writer's workshop might have been a bit alike. However, at the higher levels of creativity, in the case of well-established performing artists or composers, every one that I have encountered has shown a very high level of mental acuity and no signs of mental disorder.

What I think is lacking in this whole discussion is the historical perspective. The idea of a connection between madness and creativity was the invention of the Romantic Era and stemmed from their fascination with disorder and chaos. This fascination with and attraction to madness has been well described by Charles Rosen in his The Romantic Generation:
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, madness--for writers, painters, and musicians--was not simply a withdrawal from the distress of everyday life, a protest against intolerable social conditions or against a debilitating philosophy. It had gained a new ideological charge: madness was a source of creative energy.
Several of the finest German writers of the generation born around 1780 would be considered clinically insane by most standards: Friedrich Hölderlin passed the last decades of his life in an almost total schizophrenia, Heinrigh von Kleist ended his with a suicide pact, and Clemens Brentano was afflicted with a religious melancholia and depression as great as Cowper's.
Madness, for the Romantic artist, was more than the breakdown of rational thought; it was an alternative which promised not only different insights, but also a different logic. [op. cit. p. 647]
The point here is that this is a largely historical phenomenon. As the 20th century unfolded, it faded and I doubt I could point out a single composer of today whom you could call mad to any degree. As for writers, I am not familiar enough with that field. Perhaps writers are always mad!

A piece that would make a good close for this post is an example Rosen chose: the setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine by Robert Schumann. Here is "Ich Wandelte Unter Den Bäumen" that Rosen describes as "hallucinatory":

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Music ... utters the unutterable"

I have been reading a book by the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, Esthetics of Music, (in German,  Musikästhetik). A lot of it seems to suffer from philosophical navel-gazing, but this is often the feeling I get from things translated from the German! But I think I have come to one small realization. Philosophers who talk about the aesthetics of music often seem to get all twisted up in their own language.

For example, my title is a quote from a book by Theodor Vischer, Äesthetic oder Wissenschaft des Schönen, published in 1840 - 1857. The title translates as Aesthetics or the Science of Beauty. I think I can see the problem just from the title. Why would you think that beauty could be reduced to scientific understanding? Well, of course an awful lot of people seem to be trying to do just that with MRI machines and statistics these days, but at least they have some scientific tools they are using. Poor Theodor Vischer seems to be trying to unscrew the inscrutable just with philosophical reasoning. And what does he come up with? Statements like this, from which my title is taken: "Music is the richest art: it expresses inmost things, utters the unutterable; yet it is the poorest art, says nothing."

I submit that if your method results in you coming up with statements like that, then your method is absurd! Music is a rich art indeed, that is rather a truism. So why do we think so? Certainly not because it utters the unutterable because that is simply a linguistic tangle. Music only "utters" or speaks in a literal sense when there are sung words, lyrics. And it is the lyrics that utter, not the music. Instrumental music is about the unutterable because it doesn't utter. It "musics". That is, it sounds melodies, rhythms and harmonies. That's what it does instead of uttering anything. Yes, music does indeed express, sometimes at least, "inmost things" but that is because those melodies, rhythms and harmonies resonate with us in expressive ways. How does that work? About the only way I know how to describe it is to say that, as a composer, when I find a particular melody, harmony or rhythm that resonates with me, that I respond to, that I find expressive, then I put it into a piece of music in hopes that other people will also respond to it. That is what we all do, I think, and it seems to work. If you want specifics, you have to talk about particular places in particular pieces.

I think this is where the philosophers fall apart, because this is precisely what they seem reluctant to do: to refer to specific musical examples. As Dahlhaus says:
[Eduard Hanslick] argued that the searching for the motivations of the forms of musical works in emotions adhering to them, or hidden in them, was fruitless. For forms, according to Hanslick, are always precise, firmly bounded, and concrete, whereas emotions remain vague, indefinite and abstract if they lack concepts and objects, yet such vague emotions are the only ones accessible to music. And from hazy generality nothing distinctly individual can be derived. [Dahlhaus, op. cit. p. 50]
By "forms" he means, musical forms or structures. Musical structures are extremely precise as we can see from their notation:
 That is, if you know how to read it, a precise musical structure. But can't emotions also be pretty definite? We all know the feeling of annoyance we feel when the phone rings, we pick it up and say "hello" and immediately they hang up. Or the sinking feeling you get when you realize you don't have enough money to pay the bills for the month. And so on. All these and other emotions like love and hate, have objects. That is, they are inspired by and related to events, objects and persons in the real world. The expressive moods of music are not emotions at all, in this sense, because they have no objects. They are precise sound structures that generate expressive responses, but they just don't correspond to garden-variety emotions. And why should they?

So I am rather puzzled that philosophers seem to get themselves so tangled up over the aesthetics of music because all they really have to do is look at actual music and see how it is put together and how people react to it. This is the empirical data you need to start forming a theory of aesthetics. Some contemporary philosophers like Peter Kivy seem to be pretty good at doing this, but a lot of the historical texts on aesthetics go wildly astray in my opinion.

Let's listen to some music to end with. How about the piece that my example comes from? This is the Symphony No. 47 by Joseph Haydn:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Canada's Globe and Mail makes the argument for why classical music matters, but manages to summarize the problems quite succinctly:
The support structure for classical music is fast disappearing: Record stores, by and large, no longer exist; newspapers have reduced their coverage of the arts (among other things) in response to cataclysmic changes in that industry; schools abandoned music education a decade ago; the CBC basically stopped recording concerts as it changed formats; and, social media has made marketing all cultural products a new ball game.
...classical music provides something that is simply unavailable anywhere else in our society. It is a unique aesthetic product in that its very age and history can work in its favour, providing emotional and cultural experiences rare in our modern, disposable world.
* * *

Newsflash: apparently I'm not just a hidebound, out-of-touch mossback! Or not the only one, at least. Paul Morley, who used to be one of the leading rock critics, now says that pop music is pretty much over:
For me, pop music is now a form of skilfully engineered product design, the performers little but entertainment goods, and that is how they should be reviewed and categorised. The current pop singers are geniuses of self-promotion, but not, as such, musicians expressing glamorous ideas.
For Paul, it is classical music that is the music of the future:
when it comes to music and working out what music is for, when it comes to thinking about music as a metaphor for life itself, what tends to be described as classical music seems more relevant to the future.
And further:
Once you make it through the formalities of classical music, those intimidating barriers of entry, there is the underestimated raw power of its acoustic sound and an endless supply of glorious, revolutionary music, all easily accessed as if it is happening now. Now that all music is about the past, and about a curation of taste into playlists, now that fashions and musical progress have collapsed, discernment wiped out, classical music takes a new place in time, not old or defunct, but part of the current choice. It is as relevant as any music, now that music is one big gathering of sound perpetually streaming into the world. If you are interested in music that helps us adapt to new ideas, to fundamental change, which broadcasts different, special ways of thinking and warns us about those who loathe forms of thinking that are not the same as theirs, classical is for you.
Go read the whole article because Paul goes on to put up some suggested listening and introduces each piece with remarkable enthusiasm. He refers to the "transcendent, freakish otherness of Mozart" and talks about a Shostakovich symphony in this way: "In his earth-shattering 10th, fully immersed in life and chaos, making most of the history of prog rock sound pretty quaint, it sounds like he believes he is immortal."

I've often thought that the first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 in particular, makes Metallica sound rather like Paul Anka.

 * * *

I think this might be interesting. The Globe and Mail has another article about a new music research facility at McMaster University. It is hard to tell what exactly will be done as the article is a bit vague: heavy on the possibilities, but vague on the methods:
In essence, LIVElab is a conventional stage and seating area backed by a powerful combination of high-tech gadgetry for recording and cleverly manipulating the way entire groups of people experience music and other forms of performance or presentation. The sound system can be adjusted to simulate a range of acoustic environments from classrooms to cathedrals.
But it sounds more interesting than a lot of other research because a) it seems more based on empirical research and b) it doesn't seem to flow from some simplistic misunderstanding of how music works.

* * *

I was just reminded of a famous quote that I have to share with you. It is from Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.
I'll leave the application of this quote to the world of music as an exercise for the reader (meaning, I'm not sure myself!).

* * *

This is the 50th anniversary of the invention of the analogue synthesizer by Bob Moog. Yep, that's correct, the Moog Synthesizer. And here is a neat little article about it.

* * *

This is a charming essay about the viola player's view of the world. The viola is renowned for a number of things including being the butt of more jokes than any other instrument, being the preferred instrument of a number of composers including Haydn, Mozart and Allan Pettersson (meaning that they liked to play the viola part when reading quartets) and being the string instrument with the greatest capacity for melancholy. Here is a sample:
As a general rule, violists tend to be viewed within the orchestral world, as the — shall we say — slow children. This fallacious characterization stems from the fact that most of us started out in childhood as violinists, and at some point decided to switch to the lower, bulkier, more melancholy viola. Violinists take our decision to switch as a sign of weakness on our parts, when in reality, most of us switch at least partly because we're tired of hanging out with other violinists, who are, of course, the schoolyard bullies and prom queens of the orchestra.
 * * *

And of course the most appropriate piece of music to end with would be Harold in Italy, the non-viola-concerto that was non-commissioned by Paganini from Hector Berlioz. It actually turned out to be more like a symphony, a program symphony at that, with obbligato viola. Paganini was terribly disappointed at first because the viola part was not virtuoso enough. But after hearing a performance he was overwhelmed and sent Berlioz 20,000 francs.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Another World

Well, that title's no good--it's the name of a TV soap opera and a video game. Maybe I should title this post "The Real World". No, wait, that's another TV series on MTV and one I am delighted to say I have never watched. Isn't it a reality show? What I was trying to capture turns out to be nothing but a cliché. Or is it? Here's the idea.

As I have said before, music is like a separate world. Musicians are like people who live in another world and just visit the "real" world. This is why it is so hard to talk to drummers. Other people whom I am pretty sure live in another world are mathematicians. But what does this mean? Speaking for myself, it means that a lot of what gets most people excited or upset doesn't bother me too much. I'm not so anxious over troubles like accelerating hair loss, what my annual income might be or what I am going to have for dinner. I am concerned about things like noisy neighbors or people that are late for appointments because that seems to impinge on the inner musical world.

The musical world has continents and hemispheres and islands just like the "real" world. One of these continents is called "Mozart". There is a whole hemisphere that consists of Bach and his sons and another that is all the other Baroque composers. Beethoven is almost a planet to himself, or perhaps the equivalent to the Pacific Ocean. There are large islands like Domenico Scarlatti and small ones like Russian balalaika music. There are distant exotic isles like Rumanian gypsy music or the player piano music of Conlon Nancarrow. There are weird little suburbs like Captain Beefheart or polka music. But you get the idea.

Lots of people live in this world, though they may have a wildly different map than I do. Perhaps for some, Beethoven is a weird little suburb and Captain Beefheart a whole ocean. But I would question the skills of that mapmaker. Some find it easier to enter into this world than others. It is easy for me, just as it is to be captured by the atmosphere of a novel or movie. As a young man practicing the guitar endlessly, my poor mother would call out to me asking what vegetable I wanted for supper and would get only grunts or "sure" or "ok" for an answer. Sorry, I'm in that other world, could you please leave a message?

This other world might be more familiar than the "real" one. I know the twists and turns and swells and falls of the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven much better than I do the streets and avenues of most of the cities I have lived in. I am closer to the emotional landscape of a Mozart Piano Concerto or Shostakovich String Quartet than to most of the people I know. When I used to move from one apartment to another I would always unpack my guitar and stereo and recordings first, then the kitchen stuff, my clothes and so on. Sometimes there would be boxes I never did unpack.

My closest friends in this other world are those artists who make music the most vividly, people like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who conducts Beethoven like no-one else, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sings Schubert as he has never been sung, Grigory Sokolov, who plays anything on the piano with astonishing depth and Hilary Hahn who is a great violinist, in that tiny club of great violinists that includes Jascha Heifetz and very few others.

But I don't want to depict the musical world as being without problems: there are lots of those! For example, there are poor musicians who are technically incompetent, musically dense or just soulless careerists (but pretend otherwise, of course). There are dull, boring composers, or ones who just want to bully the audience. There are evil business managers and bad instrument builders and crappy publicists and board members possessed by demons. There are zombie bass-players and oboists who quack like ducks. But far worse than all of these, there are billionaire hip-hop celebrities and people who let their cellphones ring during the quiet bits of symphony concerts. I'm sure that there is a special place in Hell for them, way down where it is cold and icy.

So, the musical world is just like the real world only better. There is really nothing like this in the "real" world:

Musical Paleography

One of the most treasured books in my library is one that was given to me many years ago by an old friend. It was originally published in 1942 and is still in print. The book is The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900 - 1600 by Willi Apel and it covers the whole period of the development of musical notation from the first struggling efforts to figure out how to notate more than one voice (the "polyphonic" part) up until the final elements were discovered enabling the easy notation of rhythms, complete by around 1600.

Paleography refers to the study of all forms of ancient and historical writing, of which musical notation is, to my mind, one of the most interesting. Imagine the problem: here you are faced with the problem of keeping an accurate record of, say, the unaccompanied plainchant of the monks, and all of a sudden they start adding voices and creating complicated music. And all you have had to work with were some little wiggly lines and dots that probably originally were nothing more than accents and punctuation marks accompanying ordinary writing. After some early and very ambiguous examples from the 9th century, one of the earliest notations that is clear enough for us to transcribe into modern notation is an example from the Abbey of Saint Martial in Limoges. The manuscript shown below is a two-part piece of music, an organum, written in Aquitanian neumes. The staff lines are just scratched in the parchment and have been drawn in so they can be visible in the facsimile:

The text is "Viderunt omnes", a Christmas gradual. Here is what it looks like in modern notation:

As you can see, while we can be fairly clear about what the actual pitches are, the rhythms are anyone's guess because the original notation does not show any rhythmic values. Figuring out how to do that took the next few hundred years! One of the early attempts at a solution was the idea of rhythmic "modes"--basically small cells of various combinations of long and short note values. Here is a sample of what that kind of notation looked like. This is a piece that I studied in a paleography course and you can see some of my faint pencil notes on the scan showing what lines are what notes and where the rhythmic modes start. I have also numbered the iterations of the modes:

And here is how the beginning looks in transcription:

Just to show you how complex some of the notation systems were, here is a piece by Jacopinus Selesses that uses white (meaning hollow notes), black (meaning filled in notes) and red (meaning colored red) notation:

All these examples are from the Apel book, still the most thorough treatment even now, though there is certainly a lot of recent research on the problems.

So that is my very brief and sketchy introduction to musical paleography. The book by Apel is over 400 pages long and very detailed.

This might be a performance of the first example above, but I'm not sure. It sounds like the notes, but as the rhythms can be different for each performance, I'm not positive.

And here is another organum from the St. Martial manuscript:

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

It's a Weird, Weird World

I almost wish these kinds of articles didn't keep appearing, but they do. Reuters reports on Forbes' estimates of the highest-earning musicians over the last year. Dr. Dre, largely because of the sale of his Beats headphone company to Apple for three billion dollars, earned $620 million. The rest of the top five eked out modest earnings of between $32 million and $60 million. Some of this money actually came from selling music, but it appears that most of it was from business ventures in sports endorsements, alcoholic beverages, clothing, television and related ventures. I really don't know the details of how this works, but it seems to be all about becoming a celebrity and leveraging that into a brand name. Just what some consultants suggest classical musicians do. Lang Lang for one seems to be listening.

I suppose the Beatles started all this with their ultimately clumsy ventures into business with their Apple company. That started out as an attempt to support worthwhile artists and causes with some of the embarrassing amounts of money they were earning from record sales. What seems to be going on now is using your name recognition from putting out recordings and doing live concerts to start various kinds of highly lucrative merchandising. I suppose it was George Lucas and Star Wars that blazed that path. Could anything other than naked greed explain the Ewoks and Jar-Jar Binks?

I say it is a weird, weird world because this world seems so alien to the musical world I know. In fact, I can't even see the two kinds of musical worlds as even existing in the same quantum reality. Beethoven and bling don't seem to go together in any way. But this water flowed under the bridge long ago. If you aren't too embarrassed to purchase products labeled "Dr. Dre" then nothing I can say will matter!

This is the same cultural context as the Fast and Furious movie franchise which I also find incomprehensible. Oh sure, I understand what is going on: adrenaline, sex and crudely-written plots enacted by people whose main schtick is a calculated sneer. I just don't understand why anyone over the age of fourteen would actually be interested. But they have made six sequels and it is a huge franchise for Universal. I guess what I can't comprehend is how all these fourteen and under kids have so much money to spend that hip hop artists can be earning eight and nine figure incomes. How it should work is mature adults, with mature tastes, are the ones with all the money and instead of listening to Dr. Dre and watching Fast and Furious movies they should be buying CDs of Beethoven and attending symphony concerts. Isn't that how it works? But no. It's a weird, weird world...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tradition and Renewal

All our institutions are constantly in a process of decay: politicians becoming more corrupt, schools getting worse and worse, bridges corroding, highways degrading and on and on. But civilization is like a house; it has to be maintained. You need to repaint from time to time, do a thorough cleaning in the spring, replace that water heater, maybe replace the whole roof every twenty years. So alongside the processes of entropy go the processes of growth and renewal.

The state of classical music is often bemoaned as being worse all the time. As the Globe and Mail said the other day:
The support structure for classical music is fast disappearing: Record stores, by and large, no longer exist; newspapers have reduced their coverage of the arts (among other things) in response to cataclysmic changes in that industry; schools abandoned music education a decade ago; the CBC basically stopped recording concerts as it changed formats; and, social media has made marketing all cultural products a new ball game.
As well as this there is another, more fundamental decay going on: the ossification and corruption of traditions. This includes a whole host of performing traditions. In their first generation, new ideas of performance are refreshing and striking. But after a few generations of slightly less-creative artists doing much the same thing, these traditions become less and less alive and more and more moribund. I am thinking of things like a particular kind of rubato, or timbre, or way of handling a phrase or dynamic inflection.

Now here is the interesting part: when a genuinely new generation of creative artists come along, wanting to break with the past, the usual strategy is to announce just that: a new approach that breaks with the past. But what if that ideology, the ideology of modernism in the 20th century, had been flogged to death? But what if you still had a new approach? You might claim that what you are really doing is returning to the traditional, or historic, values. And this is the Early Music, Authentic Instruments, Historically Informed Performance movement. It takes a genuinely new approach to some traditional repertoire by going back to what was initially claimed to be historic precedent.

But now that mask can be conveniently set aside and artists can simply say that, inspired partly by an examination of historic documents and traditions, they are actually coming up with some new approaches to the repertoire. Because, like everything else, the old or "current" approaches are getting pretty threadbare.

This is all inspired by my finally listening to Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 1991 Beethoven cycle which is truly refreshing. Even though he is known as a founding member of the Early Music movement, these performances are, except for the natural trumpets, on modern instruments, but with a sensibility quite different from that of the 19th or earlier 20th century one. Here is a brief clip of him rehearsing the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven.

UPDATE: I think my favorite quote in that clip is when he says that we always find beauty on the edge of catastrophe.

When I am done listening to the whole set I will do a Retro Record Review of the discs, but in the meantime, have a listen:

Monday, September 22, 2014

Performing with Personality!

I just read a really well-written article in the Strad about performer personality and musical interpretation. Here, have a look. Here is why it might be that this article is so thoughtful and well-written: it dates from November 1983. Writing on music with this level of intelligence is pretty rare these days...

I think I can offer some comments on this because I can actually wear all three relevant hats: composer, musicologist and performer. As a performer I have often taken the approach of trying to be as much as possible a transparent window on the music at the service of the composer. But I have also taken the view that if an awkwardly-written passage in a concerto needs to be rewritten to be really effective, then I have no qualms about doing so.

Reading the article I felt at first a bit of incongruity because this view that performers must be strict observers of nothing but the composer's intentions has been overshadowed in the last couple of decades by marketing practices. Young violinists nowadays are likely to be projecting nothing but their own personalities! Well, it might be more accurate to say they are projecting their physical appearance...

But the idea that the integrity of the piece of music is the supreme value, while often overshadowed these days by marketing, does still have traction. The article points out:
In most critical observations today, the principal measuring stick by which performances are evaluated is: did or did not the artist fulfill the composer's intentions? Such items as beauty of sound, technical mastery, subtlety of phrasing, commitment or personalised statement are not necessarily discounted, but together they are considered second in importance in fulfilling the composer's intentions. And what, exactly, are these 'intentions'? Who has personally consulted with long-departed composers to verify them?
 The philosophical problem of the composer's intentions is rather a treacherous trap to beware of. The score itself is the only really accurate guide to what the composer wants. His job is to make sure that he makes his intentions clear in the score. But as we all know, it takes an intelligent and talented musician or musicians to bring a score to life. We have all heard soulless but accurate performances, but they are hardly to be recommended.

I think that what is missing from this whole discussion is the audience's point of view. No performance is truly a satisfactory one if it fails to reach and touch the audience. Isn't this what is really important? But the ideal probably requires finding the right balance between the composer's requirements and what is needed to make the expression have an impact on the audience. This is perhaps where the personality of the performer really counts: a colorless nonentity makes little impression on the audience. Mr. Roth writes:
Historically, string artists with strong musical personalities, practically without exception, have been the most successful. It is no different today. Such players as Perlman, Du Pré and Harrell, though reared in the modern atmosphere of more stringent musical discipline, are outstanding examples.
Updating a bit, we might mention a violinist like Hilary Hahn, who certainly does not lack musical personality, but at the same time is very faithful to the integrity of the music. I think at the highest level, this is always the case and the very different musicians Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Grigory Sokolov both come to mind.

At a lower level, artists can go astray in perhaps two different ways: they can be too mechanical, interpreting the letter but not the spirit of the music, or they can be too wayward and self-indulgent with the music. As a good Aristotelian, I recommend the middle path. Let's end by listening to Hilary Hahn play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto:

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chromatic and Diatonic Harmony

I've been asked to do something on late Romantic harmony and that seems like a good idea, but it makes me wish I had taken that seminar on 19th Century Theory and Analysis instead of the one on 20th Century Theory and Analysis!

But that will have to wait just a bit until I have some free time. For right now, I would like to make a couple of comments from an angle that I don't recall having seen mentioned anywhere.

In brief, the story goes that after the high noon of the Classical Style, the next phase of harmony consisted of extending the resources somewhat (though harmonic extremes were certainly known previously) by using more remote keys and modulations. The use of the submediant, the flat submediant and even the minor flat submediant became a hallmark of the Romantic mood. Root movement by thirds instead of fourths or fifths became common and alongside all this there was a general trend toward what we might call "harmonic saturation". Instead of the clarity of the Classical style, where the tonality was always quite clear, except for moments of dramatic effect, the Romantics sought to create harmonic ambiguity by larding on more and more chromaticism. But the notion of gravitation toward a tonic was still essential, particularly in the music of Wagner who, while he stretched delayed resolution to the maximum, still depended on tonality for all his effects. Delaying resolution creates no tension unless there is a real underlying harmonic structure.

But towards the end of the century the weight of the continued chromaticism started to weaken the whole system of tonal relations and with the work of Schoenberg and his students the idea of the "emancipation of the dissonance" took hold. The idea was finally to erase the idea of a tonal center and simply to allow the use of all the notes of the chromatic scale freely. They soon decided to organize a system around a 12-note series, but the idea of free dissonance remained.

After several decades of dissonance, that may have caused a precipitous drop in audiences for the new music, the idea of consonance returned and it is safe to say that most composers today write music that is much more consonant than was common between the 1920s and the 1970s.

The idea of using modal harmony instead of tonal harmony or dissonant harmony is the way that recent music is often described. But, except for isolated cases, I don't think that is really what is going on. I think that what a lot of people are doing is what you might call "diatonic harmony" instead of "chromatic harmony". Sure, it might look like a mode from time to time, but I don't think that many people are really thinking in terms of the traditional modes, what used to be called the "church" modes.

What I often find myself doing is simply writing diatonic music. It is not exactly tonal in the historic sense, but neither is it modal in the historic sense. Why don't we just call it diatonic as I don't use a lot of sharps or flats? I think that Philip Glass might be doing something similar.

In any case, let's listen to some Philip Glass for a sample:

Happy Birthday, Leonard

I usually miss people's birthdays--once I even missed my own! But I just happened to notice that today is the birthday of Leonard Cohen who turns 80 years old and to celebrate is releasing a new album.

I've posted quite a bit about him over the years; this post is a kind of summation. No more to say today except that I'm glad he is around.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

From the indispensable Norman Lebrecht comes these two posts on, yes, composers in cars, some of them fast:



* * *

Here is a post by Alex Ross about a recent volume of the writing of Ellen Willis who had some things to say about pop music and revolution in connection with Woodstock:
What cultural revolutionaries do not seem to grasp is that, far from being a grass-roots art form that has been taken over by businessmen, rock itself comes from the commercial exploitation of blues. It is bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power. Its rebelliousness does not imply specific political content; it can be — and has been — criminal, fascistic, and coolly individualistic as well as revolutionary. It can simply be a more pleasurable way of surviving within the system, which is what the pop sensibility has always been about. Certainly that was what Woodstock was about: ignore the bad, groove on the good, hang loose, and let things happen. The truth is that there can't be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution. In the meantime, we should insist that the capitalists who produce rock concerts offer reasonable service at reasonable prices."
There are certainly grass-roots art forms, such as old-time fiddling, bluegrass and lots of different kinds of folk music. But 99% of what we hear is commercial product delivered to us through some form of mass media. The question is, can music created within a commercial context still have artistic content? That is the question that doesn't seem to be asked. The statement "bourgeois at its core" strongly implies a Marxist reading, but I rarely find those satisfactory.

* * *

 Also found at Alex Ross' site is this clip of a piece by John Luther Adams for out-of-doors performance. I can't embed it here, so you should go there to listen. I didn't listen to all of it, but browsing through, he seems to be channeling what R. Murray Schafer was doing twenty or more years ago. And I don't mean that as a compliment. Drones, even when delivered in interesting spaces with different colors are ... boring.

* * *

I'm of two minds about this lengthy essay by Alex in The New Yorker. It is rather too sympathetic to the thinkers in the Frankfurt school of critical theory, but it is hard to argue with this observation:
If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized. The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and wielding the economic might of tycoons. They live full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy façade, wolfing down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from V.I.P. boxes. Meanwhile, traditional bourgeois genres are kicked to the margins, their demographics undesirable, their life styles uncool, their formal intricacies ill suited to the transmission networks of the digital age. Opera, dance, poetry, and the literary novel are still called “élitist,” despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.
* * *

Time to hear some music. Here is Spacedrum by Yuki Koshimoto performed on an odd musical instrument called a "handpan":

It is a bit like a really compact gamelan, isn't it?

* * *

In a report from the UK, it seems that 70% of musicians work without a written contract. That was certainly my experience in Canada as well where, with the exception of orchestral musicians, no-one ever had a contract. I deeply regretted this on occasion. Once an entire tour was threatened when one of the sponsors withdrew after a verbal agreement. The business side of music really does need to be treated as a business, but too much emphasis on this makes musicians uncomfortable!

* * *

The Guardian reports on this year's classical music awards from Gramophone magazine. Among them is:
British-based harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, for his anniversary tribute to CPE Bach. His recording of JS Bach’s second son’s Württemberg Sonatas “wonderfully convey the sense of the younger Bach flexing his muscles in the new musical language that he was involved in creating,” wrote Andrew Clements.
So let's end by listening to one of those sonatas. Here is the first one, in A minor, played by Bob van Asperen:

Thursday, September 18, 2014


I'm not getting as many posts up as I would like due to time constraints. I am planning to do a couple more on CPE Bach as he is such an interesting figure. Did you know that he wrote about five times as many concertos as he did symphonies? About twenty symphonies, but over one hundred concertos. Compare to Haydn who wrote over one hundred symphonies but just a handful of concertos. Not even Mozart wrote as many concertos as CPE Bach. I am going to discuss why that might be the case and delve into the concertos of CPE Bach which are usually more substantial and certainly much longer than his symphonies.

Here, to whet your appetite is a Concerto for Flute and Strings in D minor:

And if any readers have any suggestions for post topics, why don't you let me know in the comments?


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Symphony Guide Extended: C. P. E. Bach

Sadly Tom Service's year-long symphony guide at the Guardian has come to an end, which leaves me with the problem of what to talk about on Tuesdays! It was an excellent series, on the whole. Despite its faults (a journalistic tendency to try and manufacture controversy) it was probably the best educational series on classical music in the mass media. Wouldn't it be great if they followed it with the 50 Greatest Piano Sonatas or  String Quartets or Operas? I suppose we will just have to see. But in the meantime I would like to extend the series a bit with a few posts here augmenting Tom's choices.

Let me start with a symphony by a composer that we hardly consider: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 - 1788), the eldest son of J. S. Bach. This year is the 300th anniversary of C. P. E. Bach's birth and we are inundated with concerts and festivals dedicated to his music. Aren't we? Well, apparently not everywhere! There are festivities in the six cities where he lived and workedHamburg, Potsdam, Berlin, Frankfurt (Oder), Leipzig and Weimar.  Carl Philipp was one of the leading keyboard performers of his day and composed hundreds upon hundreds of keyboard sonatas and dozens upon dozens of keyboard concertos. His list of compositions also includes an astonishing amount of chamber music and twenty symphonies. He also wrote a couple of dozen passions, nearly all of which seem to be lost. Carl Philipp was highly regarded by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all of whom expressed their debt to his work. Charles Rosen points out that Carl Philipp showed a harmonic daring that exceeded that of even Haydn. His reputation plummeted during the 19th century with Robert Schumann in particular being unimpressed with his creativity.

Most of his music remains unrecorded, but there are three recent collections of recordings available at Amazon, one of which I have.

Carl Philipp's music takes some getting used to as it usually comprises a wide emotional palette with unpredictable changes and extremes. As an example, let's look at his Orchestral Symphony No. 1 in D major, composed in 1776. Following the Italian model, there are three movements, Allegro di molto, Largo and Presto. The slow movement is in the remote Neapolitan key of E flat major which Carl Philipp prepares by slamming on the brakes at the end of the allegro and just switching to E flat for a final phrase ending with a quiet full cadence in the new key.

The Allegro di molto begins with an unusual rhythmic gesture:

The two rhythmic layers interact in an odd sort of way. Here is that shock modulation at the end of the movement. As you can see, one moment we are outlining the IV6 chord in D major, that's G major with the B in the bass, and the next moment we are sitting on B flat, unison, fortissimo, the dominant of the new key, E flat major:

Now let's listen to the whole symphony. It is quite short, only eleven minutes in all:

Coincidentally, there is a symphony, also in D major, from the same year, 1776, by Joseph Haydn, and it might be interesting to compare them. Here is the Symphony No. 61 by Haydn:

It is in four movements as Haydn had long since added a minuet and trio to the Italian sinfonia. As you can tell from the number, Haydn had already written a lot of symphonies. His works in the genre date from the late 1750s and his first position with Count Morzin. There is quite a different rhythmic and harmonic sense in the Haydn. The rhythms are clearer and more directed and the harmonies more consistent. What is odd about the Carl Philipp is the strange juxtaposition of very extreme harmonic daring and rhythmic angularity with the occasional sequence that could have been written by Vivaldi. Carl Philipp is both very progressive harmonically in some ways, but in other ways, decades behind the times. He is writing ten minute symphonies in three movements when Haydn and Mozart were already writing symphonies twice as long in four movements. For comparison, here is one of Mozart's finest earlier symphonies, written in Salzburg in 1774. The Symphony No. 29 in A major by Mozart:

I think one of the fundamental things that we hear in both the Haydn and the Mozart is the consistent rhythmic drive that probably derives from Italian comic opera and is one of the important elements in the Classical Style. Something that Carl Philipp does not seem to have absorbed.

Still, he wrote some fascinating music. His concertos are also quite interesting. We hear more of his capricious approach in this Concerto in D minor:

C. P. E. Bach sounds to my ears like a rather odd synthesis of Antonio Vivaldi and Philip Glass!!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Townsend: Symphony No. 2, "Tres Imágenes"

I have been working on a second symphony for a while now. I was having a few problems with playback, but the folks at Finale solved them for me so now I can put up the synthesized version of the piece. This one has a title, "Tres Imágenes", in Spanish because I think it likely that the first performance will be here in Mexico.

The title of the symphony as a whole is, in English, "Three Images" and the individual movement titles are:

  1. White Bird, Blue Sky
  2. Walking in the Mountains
  3. Unbounded Vision in Blue and Grey
The titles in Spanish are in the video. The inspiration for this piece was three moments in my life when I was powerfully struck by an image of nature. The first one was here in Mexico when I looked up and saw a couple of white egrets flying overheard against a background of absolutely blue sky. It just struck me as a kind of perfection. The second experience was on Vancouver Island many years ago. I was hiking in the mountains in the north-central part of the island close to the highest mountain on the island, the Golden Hinde. I wasn't aware I was anywhere near the mountain as it was concealed by lower hills and ridges. Then, as I crested the brow of the hill and looked up, there it was. I felt suddenly projected into a much larger universe! The third experience is a synthesis of a number of separate ones. I used to live a couple of blocks from the ocean on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and it was my habit to take a walk down by the water every day or so. The view was of the seascape, the sky and mountains in the distance. The sea and sky together with the light created different colors and textures every time I saw them. The colors of blue and grey predominated.

So that was the inspiration for the symphony, three striking images of nature. All I am doing is trying to capture some of the feeling of these experiences, nothing more. No "program". As Beethoven said of his Pastoral Symphony it is "more the expression of feeling than painting".

I have chosen just a few photos for the video clip: an egret against a blue sky (but I could find no photo in which the sky was as profoundly blue as I saw it), a couple of photos of the Golden Hinde, and three photos of the sea and sky as I recall seeing them.

The instrumentation is flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tympani, large gong and strings.

I hope you enjoy the piece and I apologize for only having a synthesized version for you. It might give a sketchy idea of the music. The original video, done in iMovie, was just under 400 megabytes, which I have compressed down to 40 mg in order to post it here. 


I consider this piece finished and I'm starting work on a Symphony No. 3...

UPDATE: I don't know why the clip has a YouTube icon as this clip was never anywhere near YouTube. If you click on it, you will go to YouTube, but won't see the clip. Plus, when you come back you will have to start all over. So don't click on "YouTube". You can see it fullscreen, though. But I don't see any particular advantage as the sound will be the same and the photos a bit blurry.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What I've Learned: Ludwig van Beethoven

Classical composer, 55, Vienna

Some say that classical music is dead, but you know what? I don't think so. To me classical music is just music--the best you can do--and it will be around forever.

I guess everybody knows that I've got a hearing problem, but it hasn't slowed me down any. This year my good friend and patron, Prince Nicholas Galitzin, has asked me to write him some string quartets and I think that they will be the best thing I have ever done.

No, I never married, though I fell in love a couple of times. I came close with one young lady, a piano student of mine, but she ended up marrying a minor noble. Women, eh?

Do I take any drugs? Does coffee and Rhine wine count?

I first got famous for my piano-playing. I used to go round to the noble salons and floor everyone with my own music, with improvisations and with some preludes and fugues by old Bach. I've had the manuscript of those for years. It's not true that I used to amuse people by doing variations on "Happy Birthday", but I did do some variations on "God Save the King". I wrote some killer piano concertos too. Not as many as that brat Mozart, but mine are longer!

Because of my hearing loss I can't play the piano any more, and have to do everything in my head. But that was mostly what I was doing anyway, so I'm still going strong.

I love nature. I love taking walks in the countryside around Vienna and I even got a pretty good symphony out of it. I don't need a lot of fancy things: a decent apartment, some good food and wine, a good piano. You know that I was always pestering the piano builders to add more keys, right? My earlier sonatas don't go down as far in the bass as my later ones.

I don't have a favorite piece that I have written. Definitely not the Moonlight Sonata! God, after I wrote that I thought people would never listen to anything else! I guess I like most the piece I just finished, whatever it is. Actually, I just wrote a string quartet in E flat major that I think is pretty good and I've got ideas for a couple of others. One is going to be the Fugue to End All Fugues!

Am I happy? With my music more than my life, I guess. Like I say, I never married, though I wanted to. No kids. Bad relationship with my nephew and his horrible mother. Fought with everybody over something. Damned publishers always stealing my music! Never managed to get out of Vienna, even though I was invited. At least Papa Haydn got to go to England a couple of times.

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't have gone into some other profession than music, but I didn't have a lot of choice. After everything that Mozart did under his father's tutelage, every single musician father with children with any talent drove them into a musical career. I don't think most people should try to be musicians. The pay is poor, the hours long and the respect minimal. Don't do it unless you really feel that you live in the world of music.

Did I waste my life? I wrote some pretty good music, but if people all end up listening to Pharrell Williams instead of my string quartets, then I gotta ask myself, what was it all for?

You want to hear some music? How about that fugue I mentioned?

[This is a satire, inspired by the Esquire series, that I mentioned in my Friday Miscellanea.]

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Big news from Apple this week and they tarted up their presentation with a live performance by U2 in conjunction with the announcement that their new album "Songs of Innocence" would be given away for free on iTunes. [William Blake's lawyer will be calling in the morning.]

Now I'm a big fan of Apple products, but if they wanted to seem cooler they should have picked someone like Lorde to associate themselves with instead of, shudder, U2, who in my books were never cool.

* * *

I don't know if we are quite ready for a sequel to Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, which was itself a sequel to Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but this surely must be a sign:
Music teachers employed by Cornwall Council have been axed and forced to become self employed as the authority struggles to make deep financial cuts.
Members of Cornwall Council’s Cabinet have confirmed that music teachers would move from being directly employed by the Council to being self employed and registered with the Council as approved to provide music tuition.
The council says that the music tuition service, one of three strands of the wider Cornwall Music Service, does not generate enough income to meet its costs, resulting in the Council being forced to provide an annual subsidy of between £200,000 and £300,000.
And I'm sure that the math classes don't generate enough income to meet their costs either! So, obviously the school district was charging their students for the music lessons, which were probably subsidized (as I think they should be) and now, they just can't find the money. Now why do I suspect that those funds are not available because of a generous pension plan for the teachers?

* * *

Well, I'm sorry I missed this when it first came out. I enjoy satires, especially regarding jazz.
What can it mean for jazz as a living art when the most hotly debated genre event of 2014 was a satirical post on a humor blog? Only Charlie Haden's death earlier that month can rival theNew Yorker's awkward July 31 unveiling of writer Django Gold's "Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words," a 480-word goof later appended with a "work of satire" tag after bewildered readers fell for the gag. A gloss on Esquire's "What I've Learned" series, the piece offered reflections alongside a mournful portrait of the saxophone colossus, all of which deflated, mocked, and undercut the usual self-help mantras. "The saxophone sounds horrible," this ersatz Sonny groused, adding that "Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with." His conclusion: "I wasted my life."
Heh. I really should do something similar for Beethoven...

* * *

Here is an interesting article about the virtues of a college teaching job to a creative classical musician. He covers a lot of ground in the article, so I recommend reading the whole thing. This is an interesting little snippet:
One thing I’ve noticed after thirteen years of professional work with the best contemporary classical and jazz musicians in America is that without exception, the most creative players have a thorough grounding in the classics. A handful of them got it outside of school, but almost all of them procured it during their high school and university years. Indeed, I frequently hear “new music” by young composers who have eschewed the classic studies of counterpoint, orchestration, and harmony because it’s too “conformist” or some other such response. The results are dreadful and predictable: poorly orchestrated tunes that lack coherence. Even worse is the performer who has refused to grapple with the standard repertoire and has developed their “own thing.” Sloppy tuning, bad rhythm, and lousy tone are the primary results.
I think I would probably agree with this. The underlying principle would be that if you are ignoring the canon of the greatest musical artworks in favor of whatever fashionable tidbits you have heard recently, you are certainly short-changing yourself and limiting your musical development.

As for the other issue, of how best to support your musical activities, working at a low-level job is not a good alternative to teaching at a college or university, but one he doesn't mention is working at a higher-level job, which might be. Think of Charles Ives and the insurance business.

The author makes a lot of good points, but I would just like to add that one of the problems of teaching music is, at least in my experience, that you end up spending most of your life trapped in small rooms telling indifferently talented students the same thing over and over again. I think this tends to dull your own mind and creativity.

* * *

And finally a Brief History of Hold Music, that stuff they force you to listen to while waiting for someone to talk to you. Down here the hold music tends to be synthesized versions of either a Scott Joplin rag or that G major minuet from the Anna Magdalena Bach book. One thing I like about Charles Schwab is that they don't force you to listen to music, but instead you hear market news. Generally preferable. The article mentions Handel's Water Music as being popular hold music so let's have a listen: