Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Greatest Symphonist

I've always had a tremendous attraction to the symphony: with the exception of opera, probably the greatest musical form (genre, vehicle). A large multi-movement work for the greatest instrument of all, the symphony orchestra, it has attracted the talents of nearly every composer since the early days of the genre in the 1760s. Sure, the more extreme modernists eschewed all the traditional forms. Can you imagine a symphony by John Cage? For twelve radios tuned randomly, no doubt. However, since the 1970s even the more progressive composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Philip Glass have been writing symphonies. So I suspect that it still reigns as the greatest instrumental form.

This brings up the question, who is (or was) the greatest symphonist of this quarter-millennium of symphonies? The palm would usually be awarded to either Beethoven, by the classicists, or Mahler, by the romantics. But there are other possibilities. An argument could be made for the fifteen symphonies of Shostakovich, of which some are very, very fine. But what about Mozart? Some of his are absolutely superb. And there is Sibelius, with seven excellent symphonies. The more unbuttoned among us might even vote for someone like Allan Pettersson. You could even make an attempt to put forth Schubert, who wrote eight, but the last two of which are stunning.

But let me sow some seeds of doubt. There is one composer who, towards the end of his life, wrote a set of twelve symphonies, more, you should note, than Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, Brahms, Dvorak or Sibelius managed in their whole lives, that are as fine as any written by anyone. And this was after having written ninety-four previous symphonies! Now you know who I am talking about: Joseph Haydn. I don't think I have ever listened to any of his symphonies without a feeling of delight. I am just getting to the end of listening to all one hundred and six of them for the second time and I am even more impressed. True, those by Bruckner and Mahler are a lot longer, but so what? There is a lot of padding there, if you ask me! But Haydn? I don't think he was capable of writing anything that was padded, watered down, or just musically weak or questionable. He wrote symphonies the way we might walk to the store or make tea. It was what he had done his whole life and, in my books, he does it as least as well as anyone else.

I give you Haydn, the greatest symphonist. As evidence, here is one of the London symphonies. No. 97 in C major, with no nickname, no special tricks. Just another superb symphony by the master:


An Aesthetic Conundrum: Design and Music

I just read one of the New Yorker's mega-reads, this one devoted to Sir Jonathan Ive, the head of design at Apple and one of the most powerful and influential people in the world. As the fellow who designed the MacBook Pro, iMac, MacBook Air, Mac mini, iPod, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini, Apple Watch and iOS 7, he has been instrumental in Apple's growth to the point where it is now by far the largest company in history (by market cap), making up 10% of the NASDAQ, and personally responsible for the sale of one and a half billion units of technology. Like Steve Jobs, he is famously fastidious in his taste. Quoting the New Yorker:
a hundred thousand Apple employees rely on his decision-making—his taste—and that a sudden announcement of his retirement would ambush Apple shareholders.
Speaking as one of those Apple shareholders, Jony, please don't retire!

A huge part of his talent and responsibility is in fact, the possession of a highly-developed taste. Quoting from the New Yorker article:
Ive manages newness. He helps balance the need to make technological innovations feel approachable, so that they reach a mass market—Choo Choo—with the requirement that they not be ugly and infantile. Apple has made missteps, but the company’s great design secret may be avoiding insult. Antonelli, of MOMA, described Apple’s design thoughtfulness as “a sign of respect,” and added, “Elegance in objects is everybody’s right, and it shouldn’t cost more than ugliness.”
These are tasks that are heavily freighted with aesthetics, are they not? Not ugly and infantile implies beautiful and, hmm, useful? Practical? Efficient? Certainly the word "elegance" strongly involves aesthetics. Everything I prefer about the iMac over the host of PC designs has to do with aesthetics understood in a wide sense. There is never anything insulting to the eyes, for example. (One clue as to who is winning the design wars is that you see Dell copying Apple all the time, but never the reverse.)

Now, finally we come to the conundrum: when did good taste and music, like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor become utterly estranged? And how can we get them back together? I say this because the people that create things of such superlative industrial design that I have no hesitation at calling them beautiful (such as the iMac and the iPhone), seem to have no exceptional taste in music. The design studio plays a mix that includes Counting Crows, Hootie and the Blowfish, Yaz and the Rapture (according to the New Yorker article).

What about Ive's musical tastes? Again, from the New Yorker:
Ive told me that, since childhood, he has been “consumed with work.” It’s unrewarding to question him about the movies, books, and night clubs of his youth, although at some point he acquired an abiding taste for dance music, and he has since become friends with John Digweed, the British d.j., and the members of Massive Attack. (He is also a friend of Yo-Yo Ma.)
What should we gather from this? I suppose the overwhelming fact is that his musical tastes are accidental and uncultivated. He "acquired an abiding taste for dance music". I'm not quite sure what this means: ska or EDM? In either case, something that was just in the environment, not sought out. Being friends with someone like Yo-Yo Ma probably doesn't mean that he is a Bach fan, it probably just means that they move in similar social circles.

"Work" includes a life-long devotion to knowing and understanding everything about industrial design. And, for the last few years, software design as well, as Ive has been given responsibilities for not only the box, but what comes in the box: the user interface.

What happened to music? Why is it that the powerful and influential people in the world listen to elemental pop music (called in the article "douchepop") played through superbly designed sound systems while they design superb phones and computers? Why is it that industrial design is so highly cultivated while music is not? We listen to what we are used to and what we are used to is pop music. Sorry, if I am offending anyone by calling Counting Crows and Hootie and the Blowfish "pop", but from my perspective, if it ain't Bach or Shostakovich and it's got a back-beat, it's pop:


Is this all just sociological? Somehow classical music got tarred with the wrong associations: chamber music and the aristocracy, Hitler and Wagner, stuffy clothes and no clapping between movements? And then came the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen and everything had to be either psychedelic or authentic and Prokofiev was neither?

I suspect we might need a small army of musicologists and sociologists to sort out the history of this.

I am left with the disturbing image of a room full of the best designers in the world, crafting through sheer brilliance, imagination and very hard work, absolutely superb products like this:



While listening to this?


I think I could hoe corn or polish silver while listening to that, but certainly do nothing more complex. As I quoted in the Miscellanea yesterday:
you can't write with music playing, and anyone who says he can is either writing badly, or not listening to the music, or lying. You need to hear what you're writing, and for that you need silence.
Is design something that requires no thought? Is it more like hoeing corn than writing? I doubt that.

But the conundrum remains: why is it that the standard of today is to have extremely sophisticated and cultivated tastes in things like design, but to have unsophisticated and uncultivated tastes in music?

Or do you disagree? Do you think that enjoying pop music is actually as cultivated and sophisticated as listening to Gothic organum or Mozart trios?

Please comment!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Some things about one's fellow man it is just better not to know: such as what music they like to make love to. According to Spotify this is the most popular selection:


That is so terminally boring it not only doesn't get me in the mood, it makes me question my will to live!! If you want an intro to your loving, this is more like it:


No need to thank me, just go and be happy.

* * *

Gidon Kremer is not one to mince words when he sees something not right in the music business. Via Slipped Disc we learn that he has decided to cancel a concert tour rather than put up with the shallow, sterile marketing ideas of the concert promoters:
I was particularly disturbed by the promoters’ focus on one “big name” only and the reluctance to consider others who would have treated the music with equal respect and professionalism. Not one of the substitutes I proposed was accepted. The Chopin competition winner and mature artist Yulianna Avdeeva was fortunately available on the required dates and would have been happy to play the two Chopin concertos originally planned, meaning that the programme, which also included works by Weinberg, Gorecki and Penderecki, would not have to be changed. She was wholeheartedly recommended not just by myself, but also by pianists of world-class calibre such as Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman and Daniil Trifonov himself. In fact, Daniil Trifonov was the one who approached me personally about finding a replacement. All these efforts sadly fell foul of marketing strategies.
 I think that the only good solution to this problem of celebrity-driven, shallow marketing in the classical music world is to cultivate more sophisticated appreciation of music in the general audiences. To do this there need to be capable music critics and educators working at communicating on a regular basis. Unfortunately the trend has been entirely the other way with music programs being curtailed in the schools and music critics being let go from mass media publications. Perhaps the blogosphere could take up some of the slack. Wouldn't it be great if a few music bloggers really tried to restore some level of critical commentary? Oh, wait, that's what I'm trying to do here at the Music Salon!

* * *

Amazon sent me an email titled "Hot New Releases in Classical". Of course we have to understand the word "classical" in that context not to refer to the dominant form of music in Western Civilization for the last thousand years, but to the small genre niche currently referred to as "classical". How else to explain that the first item on the list is this album:


What's my beef? Hey, they're playing cellos, aren't they? Yeah, but here is the track list:

CD Track listing
1. The Trooper Overture (Rossini 'William Tell Overture'/Iron Maiden 'The Trooper')
2. I Will Wait (Mumford & Sons)
3. Thunderstruck - Intro (Vivaldi Cello Sonata No. 4 in E minor)
4. Thunderstruck (AC/DC)
5. Hysteria (Muse)
6. Shape of My Heart (Sting)
7. Mombasa (Hans Zimmer from 'Inception')
8. Time (Hans Zimmer from 'Inception')
9. Wake Me Up (Avicii)
10. They Don't Care About Us (Michael Jackson)
11. Live and Let Die - feat. Lang Lang (Paul McCartney and Wings)
12. Street Spirit - Fade Out (Radiohead)
13. Celloverse (Original composition by Sulic & Hauser)

It's kind of like living in a future nightmare where instead of a "boot stamping on a human face - forever" (George Orwell), real classical music by people like Bach and Haydn has been replaced by pseudo-pop stylings like this.


* * *

I wonder how many people buying pop recordings realize how little the musicians actually get paid? Record company accounting is just as bad as Hollywood accounting as we find out in this illuminating article. Here is a little chart that shows just part of what is wrong with the business:



I wish someone would do a similar analysis for classical musicians.


* * *

There's a name for it! From the New York Times comes this article about misophonia which is an extreme sensitivity to certain sounds. I guess that musicians have a kind of trained misophonia. We spend years learning to listen very closely, which means of course, that it becomes harder to ignore sounds. Thanks to Ann Althouse for that link and for this one to a quote by Philip Pullman on why you can't write while music is playing:
For that reason you can't write with music playing, and anyone who says he can is either writing badly, or not listening to the music, or lying. You need to hear what you're writing, and for that you need silence.
* * *

The most interesting takeaway from the Grammy Awards show: Lady Gaga can sing!! And she can even do an excellent rendition of tunes from The Sound of Music:


Fixed the link! (I've always, secretly, liked her. Please don't tell anyone!) Tattoos are a bit distracting, though.


* * *

Here are some music students from the Louisville, Kentucky area. Doing a tuned percussion arrangement of "Kashmir" by some English band.



There was a time when students of this age would be playing Bach and Vivaldi... But we can't complain, right? Sure we can! Honestly, you don't need to spend class time on getting funky. Kids can do that on their own time.


* * *

Here is a rather sad turn of events: legendary pianist Ivo Pogorelich returns to the stage in London, but gives a very poor concert according to this review. The review links to an earlier article about the disruptions in his life caused by the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars and unrest. Worth reading. He seems to have disappeared from the concert stage for some time now as this was his first appearance at this venue since 1999. I have very fond recollections of his career. On one occasion he came to Vancouver for a pair of concerts with the symphony at which he played, if I recall correctly, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. A music critic friend of mine attended both and had a funny story to tell about his colleague at the Vancouver newspaper. Apparently the fellow wrote a review after the first concert at which he complained about such and such. Perhaps it was too much liberty taken, or perhaps it was too little? I don't recall. But obviously Pogorelich read the review, because the next night, he did precisely the opposite! Pogorelich was at a level of mastery at which he could play a big concerto in many different ways, all superb. The hapless reviewer really didn't realise this. If Pogorelich is really playing so poorly these days, that is sad indeed. But I'm afraid that reviewers and writers have been getting him wrong for many years now, so...


* * *

Let's end the collection today with Ivo Pogorelich playing the Second English Suite by J. S. Bach. Rather well.


That gigue is just fiendishly difficult!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

John Luther Adams on Music and Politics

Pulitzer-prizewinning composer John Luther Adams has written a substantial essay for Slate, here. You should go read the whole thing. I suspect that my politics differs from Mr. Adams', but I very much appreciate his views on the relationship between politics and music:
As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself. If my work doesn’t function powerfully as music, then all the poetic program notes and extra-musical justifications in the world mean nothing. When I’m true to the music, when I let the music be whatever it wants to be, then everything else—including any social or political meaning—will follow.
From the titles of my works—songbirdsongsIn the White Silenceor Become Oceanit’s clear that I draw inspiration from the world around me. But when I enter my studio, I do so with the hope of leaving the world behind, at least for a while. Yet it’s impossible to sustain that state of grace for long. Inevitably, thoughts intrude: Sometimes I think about people, places, and experiences in my life. Sometimes I think about the larger state of the world, and the uncertain future of humanity. Even so, I’m not interested in sending messages or telling stories with music. And although I used to paint musical landscapes, that no longer interests me either. The truth is, I’m no longer interested in making music about anything.
These are very well-said and well thought-out sentiments about the nature of music and art. A rather cruder version of this view would be to say that a serious musician does not write musical propaganda. Or, when forced to by circumstances (as perhaps Shostakovich was under Stalin) he still tries to make it work as a piece of music, or make it ironic in some way. Music can be about something, but it doesn't need to be and the best music tends not to be.

Here is another fairly profound thought from the essay:
It’s only through the presence, awareness, and creative engagement of the listener that the music is complete.
This resonates with the Rilkian view that artists are witnesses to nature and the world and, in turn, listeners are witnesses to the beauty of art. A piece of music never played, never performed is like a poem unread or nature unseen and unfelt.

I read the essay to the end wondering if Mr. Adams' convictions about anthropogenic climate change might be stated clearly, but they only appear in one brief paragraph:
A plastic bottle among the rocks reminds me that there are vast islands of garbage drifting far out at sea. A strong gust of wind reminds me of the increasingly capricious weather, and of the storms that lash this and other shores with growing ferocity. The burning sunlight reminds me of melting tundra and expanding deserts, of diminishing polar ice and rising seas all over the earth.
As far as I can determine, all of these are half-truths (yes, seven billion people do throw a lot of plastic away, but no, polar ice is not diminishing and tundra does not actually "melt" and the weather is not increasingly capricious), held as true in a kind of religious manner by a large number of people. I am always reminded of that wonderful quote from Edward Gibbon:
“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.”
But while our opinions on these matters may differ, I am deeply reassured by Mr. Adams' understanding of priorities and his true role. Art must indeed be itself and when it is, it will last far longer than music written as some passing piece of propaganda for whatever political purpose.

Let's listen to some music by Mr. Adams. Here is Dark Waves (2007) for orchestra and electronics:


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Concerto Guide: Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54

At the risk of possibly disappointing some readers I am going to skip over concertos by Paganini and Chopin that would come next chronologically (the first Paganini concerto would come before Berlioz, having been composed in Italy around 1818) as they are largely vehicles for virtuoso display while the other concertos we are covering, while also vehicles for virtuosity, are more than that. Perhaps this is my own personal bias, but I find mere virtuosity, that is to say fast scales and arpeggios racing around on the instrument, when protracted, to be some of the most boring music imaginable. Virtuosity is an essential element of a concerto, but for a satisfying aesthetic experience, there must be other elements of equal interest--at least! The eternal model for the concerto might just be the Mozart piano concertos that are always beguiling, surprising and structurally powerful as well has having enough virtuosity to keep them sparkling.

In 1845, Robert Schumann completed his one-and-only piano concerto, though there are two other works by him for piano and orchestra. The concerto medium was rarely the focus of Schumann's energies--compared to his enormous output of lieder, solo piano music and even chamber music, his concertos for solo instrument and orchestra are few, amounting to the A minor Piano Concerto, the Cello Concerto (also in A minor) and the very late Violin Concerto that took until 1937 to be premiered, due to its being buried by the dedicatee Joseph Joaquim.

The Piano Concerto is not only a fine piece, well-established in the repertoire, it has also influenced a number of other composers of concertos for piano. There are probably a couple of reasons for this: first, this is really the first important Romantic era piano concerto. The ones by Franz Liszt, while there are sketches going back decades, were not completed until 1849 and later. Second, Schumann uses a number of devices that were enormously influential, such as the striking opening with the hammered-out forte E in the orchestra answered by the big dotted-rhythm chords that descend over most of the piano's range. Here is what that looks like:



A lot of the energy of this piano phrase comes from its tonicizing in succession F major in first inversion, then root position, then D minor, then A minor, then F major in first inversion again and so on. This is brought to a halt by a very powerful V7-i cadence in A minor.

This kind of opening was later used by both Grieg and Rachmaninoff. Even the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky has an opening that echoes a bit the same idea: that the individual, represented by the piano, is no longer an equal partner with the orchestra, but may even dominate it. In the Schumann, Grieg and Rachmaninoff concerti, after a sonorous downbeat by the orchestra, the piano immediately leaps in and commandeers the movement. Even in the Tchaikovsky, while giving the theme to the orchestra, the piano accompanies them with such huge, resounding chords that it sounds easily as powerful as the orchestra itself. And in short order, the piano takes the dominant role.

So Schumann was not only first out of the gate with a Romantic piano concerto, he also hit upon some characteristic strategies that other composers would make use of. Apart from the commanding opening given to the piano, the other important innovation used by Schumann is the thematic transformation of the opening theme, given first to the oboe:


Then to the piano:


This whole statement is actually a 16-measure period with the oboe ending with a half-cadence and the piano with a perfect authentic cadence. This theme appears in different guises. In the piano in C:


A very abbreviated version in the Clarinet (in A):


And so on. The idea of using transformations of a single theme to unite a movement or a whole piece while not unprecedented (think of the Bach Art of Fugue) was rather an innovation used in this way and in this genre. It would be taken up by a host of later 19th century composers, very much including Franz Liszt.

Now let's listen to a performance. The attractive soloist, Khatia Buniatishvili, in her very striking dress, wasn't the only reason I chose this version. It is a particularly crisp clip both for visual and audio. Here she is with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi:


Monday, February 23, 2015

Mozart texted...

A religious friend of mine told me the other day that God asked her to tell me to read Ecclesiastes. Well, ok, probably not a bad idea. So I started to read Ecclesiastes. Then I told her that Plato emailed me to tell her to read the Euthyphro. I just hope it doesn't cause her too much cognitive dissonance.

In the same vein, Mozart texted me this morning to ask me to tell you to listen to some Haydn today!

Here is the "Surprise" Symphony, one of twelve symphonies Haydn wrote towards the end of his life for performance in London. It is wonderful when a great musician like Haydn is fully rewarded and appreciated for his life's work. Because so often the opposite has happened. The "Surprise" Symphony, No. 94 in G major, is so called because of the second movement, where a very innocuous theme ends with a jolting fortissimo chord.



This chord comes back a few times, rather unpredictably, and the movement keeps getting more and more forceful (and interesting). Haydn doesn't just play one joke on the audience; the whole movement keeps going in unexpected directions. It is Haydn's great virtue as a composer that the way in which he is creative and original is unpredictable. He turns things on their head in ways you can never anticipate. I will venture out on a limb here and say that most artists, even ones we highly respect, once they discover their "style", tend to be creative in predictable ways. If there is a watch in a Dali painting, it is likely to be melting; if there is a face in a Picasso sketch, the eyes are both going to be on the same side of the nose. Et cetera. But you are never sure what Haydn is going to do with phrasing, dynamics or harmony. But you know it will be unpredictable. Of course, he sets you up. Any other composer using a theme this trite sounding is not likely to be pulling the rug out from under you when you least expect it.

Now let's listen. Here is the second movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major:


And something else we should listen to is Turn, Turn, Turn, by Pete Seeger, using text from Ecclesiastes:


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Björk!

There are certain ironclad rules you have to follow if you want to be accepted by the PTB (the Powers That Be). The main one is that you have to not only accept, but enthusiastically endorse and support, the prevailing assumptions about the nature of reality that the PTB advocate. A couple of these that we are very familiar with from the world of politics are that the Greatest Sin of all is Racism. Another is that All Cultures are Equally Valid and the sub-directive coming from that is that All Music is Equally Good. A reliable foot-soldier in the ranks will always take every opportunity to push this Commandment.

What the heck am I talking about? Alex Ross, though usually an interesting writer who occasionally has something interesting to say, is one of these foot-soldiers in the ranks loyal to the cultural PTB and so he is always, not only careful, but eager to promote the Cultural Commandments. But since he is a sophisticated and subtle writer, he does so in clever ways. For example, he has just written an essay on Björk excerpted in the Guardian titled "How Björk broke the sound barrier". He remarks:
A few years ago, for a feature on a music blog, I asked Björk to make a selection of her favourite records. Her list included Mahler’s 10th Symphony; Alban Berg’sLulu; Steve Reich’s Tehillim; a collection of Thai pop, entitled Siamese Soul, Volume 2; Alim Qasimov’s Azerbaijan: The Art of the Mugham; Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; Kate Bush’s The Dreaming; Nico’s Desertshore; Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; Aphex Twin’s Drukqs; the Ranges’ Panasonic EP; Black Dog Productions’ Bytes and James Blake’s debut album, James Blake.
What’s striking about the list is not just the breadth of Björk’s taste – this is no surprise, given her obsessive curiosity about every corner of the musical world – but also the animated map of genres that materialises in the background. It is as though, in a reversal of tectonic drift, isolated land masses of taste were re-forming as a supercontinent. A grandiose howl of late Romantic agony; a juggernaut of 12-tone modernism; a cool minimalist dance through Hebrew psalms; off-kilter pop from south Asia; a virtuoso survey of Azerbaijani mugham; three defiantly idiosyncratic albums by female singer-songwriters; three pathbreaking electronic records; a raging tour-de-force of political hip-hop; a collection of dubstep ballads: Björk’s list circumnavigates the globe and, at the same time, it overruns the boundaries separating art from pop, mainstream from underground, primeval past from hi-tech present.
Let's take a few moments to unpack the assumptions underlying these two paragraphs and what they reveal about the Commandments of the PTB. This idea of "tell us your favorite records" is, of course, a very old tactic not terribly dissimilar from TeenBeat magazine asking George Harrison what his favorite color is. It creates a wholly illusory connection to the artist because it mimics what might have been a conversational exchange. Sometimes, in the case of the list Alex Ross provides, supposedly uttered by Björk, it also has an indoctrinating function: it is meant to teach us what sorts of music to value and why. It is in service to this propagandizing that Ross's prose gets so very purple in the second paragraph.

Now let's look at the details. If I had been in conversation and Björk had come up with this list I would have had some follow-up questions. Such as:

  • You have a wide variety of genres and artists there. Are there some you listen to more than others?
  • Do you spend more time listening to Mahler or more time listening to Public Enemy?
  • Do you find all this music equally appropriate? What sort of mood do you need to be in for Azerbaijani music? Is it a different mood for Mahler? Or Thai?
  • Is this typically the range of things you listen to? Or some weeks do you spend listening just to one kind of music? If so, what?
  • Do you like to take some time, days or weeks, to NOT listen to music?
  • Why do you enjoy such a wide range of styles? And do you enjoy them equally?
  • Do you like some because they are soothing and others because they are challenging? And which is which?
I would do this because I would like to penetrate the mindless listing of different things and try to discern some kind of critical attitude or judgment. We all have minds and the fundamental activity of minds is to evaluate and make judgements.

But look at Alex Ross' second paragraph, his commentary on the list. Instead of trying to make some sense of it, he just keeps underlining what he wants us to take away--what the PTB commands us to believe: that all of this music is equally important and valid because All Cultures are Equally Valid. This imperative overcomes any aesthetic judgment or personal taste. Thou Shalt Not Question This Commandment! How Ross sells us this ridiculous idea is by carefully selecting descriptions of the different musics that make them appear to be equally exciting, even if in different ways--and this very Diversity is another Fundamental Good.

Here are some of the descriptive phrases: "grandiose howl", "off-kilter", "virtuoso", "defiantly idiosyncratic", "raging tour-de-force" and so on. Of course these kinds of descriptive phrases are all of a certain metal: they celebrate the illusory freedoms of the 60s cultural revolution where we are all enjoined to "let it all hang out". The grandiose howling, defiantly idiosyncratic raging tours-de-force musics are actually not all that diverse after all. The virtues they stress are all 60s virtues that, no matter how tired they get, will still suggest youthful rebellion. Björk circumnavigates the globe so she can reinforce her, and Alex' and our basic assumptions about art and the world.

When you cite a list, with no specifying principles, that puts Mahler side by side with ethnic folk music and particularly offensive political rants, then you are saying that there are no aesthetic standards that "All Music is Equally Good". But you are also saying that only some styles and genres are valid. Only some are "authentic". Mahler is ok, as kind of a token art music composer, but he must be put on the same level as Public Enemy and Kate Bush. The one kind of artist or genre that cannot appear on the list are the kinds that I would pick. It is "cool" to do this kind of list that defies aesthetic standards. Doing what I often do, pick out the best of a genre or style, put different performances side by side and evaluate them, this is uncool. And, Thou Shalt Be Cool. But, alas, this whole cultural project of the PTB is to deny civilization in favor of doctrinaire commandments that are, as soon as you state them clearly, obviously wrong. Which is precisely why they must never be stated clearly. Which is why you must dress them up with a lot of purple prose.

As soon as you see someone saying things like this:
the animated map of genres that materialises in the background
 It is as though, in a reversal of tectonic drift, isolated land masses of taste were re-forming as a supercontinent.
 Björk’s list circumnavigates the globe and, at the same time, it overruns the boundaries separating art from pop, mainstream from underground, primeval past from hi-tech present.
Your Spider-sense should immediately activate. All this stuff about overrunning boundaries and reversing tectonic drift is to short-circuit your ability to think and evaluate. Honestly.

I'm not sure, at the end of the day, if the music even matters much. Not next to the Commandments...

I won't go on as I have already made my point, but it is interesting to examine statements like this one:
The partition of music into distinct genres, each with its own history, philosophy and body of technique, is a relatively recent development. Before a global marketplace emerged, with the advent of recording technology in the late 19th century, there was little talk of the classical, the popular and subdivisions thereof
Which is a beautifully nuanced lie. Music has, the whole span of Western Civilization, been created and listened to in different genres and sub-genres: Plainchant, Gregorian Chant, antiphons, graduals--these go back a thousand years and more. Yes, "classical" music has been turned, by modern marketing machines, into just another "genre", but the way Ross describes it in the quote above, is historically illiterate. I won't bother to dissect any more of this tediously long article.

Let's end with some music that would never find itself on a Björk list: an acknowledged masterpiece of classical music:


UPDATE: Browsing through the comments on the Guardian site for the original essay, this is the third comment:
this is very clever marketing, pushing the art/music crossover, in an age where brand identity is more important than ever, an album launch coinciding, roughly, with an exhibition at MOMA, a hagiographic book excerpt (Alex Ross being commissioned) serving as a press release - one of many doing the rounds right now to push the new release.
People forget that, despite her name checking of so called "serious music" composers, her enthusiasm for "experimentation," and the music press's efforts to align her with some kind of popular "avant garde," she is, at the end of the the day, a pop singer, it's pop, quirky idiosyncratic pop, but relative to other things going on (largely unnoticed by the mainstream) - it's just more of the same.
Yep. And it's the back-beat that gives it away.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What's in the Pipeline

I'm sorry, but there won't be much of a post this morning. I'm just too tied up with other business. But I thought I might share with you what I have planned for the near future at the Music Salon.

  • Before that, you might have a look at the comments on yesterday's Friday Miscellanea post as there were some interesting thoughts.
  • I have been exploring Prokofiev a lot lately. I never paid much attention to him, not sure why, but some comments by Nathan Shirley quite a while back piqued my interest and I am finally getting around to him. I knew the piano concertos a tiny bit from years back, but, apart from the Classical Symphony, his symphonies were terra incognita. But I have been listening to them this week and wow! Great stuff. So, I will be talking about them soon.
  • There will some posts on Schoenberg coming up as well.
  • I have a post on the ten best 19th century symphonies in preparation. This is surprisingly tough to do!
  • I'm also going to do a post on the neo-romantic composer Lowell Liebermann.
  • If you have any suggestions for post topics, don't hesitate to put them in the comments. Always looking for ideas.
  • That's about all I have planned at the moment.
Let's end with one of those Prokofiev symphonies. Here is the not-so-well-known Symphony No. 2, fascinatingly constructed with two movements, the second a set of theme and variations. Conducted by Neeme Järvi with the Royal Scottish Orchestra:


Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Apparently in the UK they regard sex education as so important that classes in arts and culture are being removed to make room for it. I dunno, can't kids learn about sex in the traditional way, by necking at drive-in theaters like I did? Oh, right, no more drive-in theaters.

* * *

Did you know that one annual tradition at MIT is to throw a piano off the roof of one of the dorms? Why a piano? That's an easy one: if you throw an oboe or a viola off the roof it doesn't make much sound when it hits and nobody cries.



* * *

Let's see what Sinfini Music is cutting through this week. Ah, the Moonlight Sonata. I always wonder if we would listen to it as much and with such devotion if it had picked up a rather different nickname? Something like the Limburger Sonata or the Bratwurst Sonata? Jessica Duchen is a very knowledgeable writer on music; I wonder if they had her take those pills that make you stupider in order to write this piece for Sinfini Music? Too catty a remark? Let's have a look at what she says:

Why the name?

That title, naturally, is probably not Beethoven’s.
Certainly not Beethoven's, whose own title is Sonata quasi una fantasia.
Some associate the introspective, funereal quality of this music with Beethoven’s state of mind as he faced the onset of this cruel malady (his encroaching deafness). There seems, though, little limit to the theories on this sonata that abound; there may yet be further surprises in store.
Some associate every piece of music Beethoven (or anyone else for that matter) wrote with some biographical event or other. A particular horrific example is Maynard Solomon's book on Mozart that reduces every piece to a kind of psychological excrescence. Please, can't it just be music? And who says anything about the Moonlight Sonata is funereal?
The nature of the music, so strongly defined, speaks its message to every age.
And what "message" is that? What is so strongly defined about it? This kind of vague hand-waving is the stock-in-trade of mediocre politicians. By the end Jessical Duchen puts up some clips of different performances (but of course you have to sign up for Spotify to listen) and a podcast analysis of the work. But Sinfini, while probably good at luring you into purchasing recordings, continues to be hapless at informing you about music.

* * *

Also at Sinfini is another execrable article on how biased, prejudiced, blinkered and oppressive classical music is for not employing precisely the correct numbers of "women and people from black and minority ethnic (BME) and working class backgrounds." I guess the acronym for that whole thing would be WBMEWC! Oh yes, I'm sure that the BBCSO (British Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra) would be immeasurably improved if only they could get the working class background contingent up to, what? 40%? As usual, the truth that what we are talking about are mandated quotas, is concealed by the happythought word Diversity. Where is George Orwell when we need him?

* * *

This article from the Guardian is rather interesting. It makes the point that perhaps the reason that there are not more working class background people succeeding in the arts is that opportunities for them to learn their craft have been severely hampered by government cutbacks in education in cultural fields:
The arts sits in the eye of a perfect storm of failing social provision, substandard education systems and a heartless welfare state. In the past 20 years, government policy has decimated arts provision in the national curriculum. The introduction of tuition fees means higher education has come to represent a life sentence of debt, while cuts to welfare provision have removed any viable safety net for those without family money to fall back on. Meanwhile, the role of art and artists in our society is consistently undervalued by those in power. Last time I checked, actors, designers and directors weren’t the ones making those decisions in parliament.
Well, yes, if you keep telling people to go into computer programming because that is where the future is and keep raising tuition so no-one can graduate without a huge debt, then that would rather tend to discourage people from careers in the arts.

* * *

 Here is a truly provocative article by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal about the positive aspects of post-modernism in music. I say provocative because, while I want to disagree with many statements and quibble with others, he makes some very good points:
Whatever you think of the radical relativism of postmodern cultural theory—and I detest it—the fact is that the coming of postmodernism has proved to be both liberating and stimulating to musicians of all kinds. It made it possible for minimalist classical composers like Mr. Glass and neo-romantic moderns like Lowell Liebermann to get a hearing in the concert hall and find their own loyal audiences.
Here is a track from the album that provoked this discussion, Really Love from Black Messiah by D'Angelo and The Vanguard:


One beef I have is despite all the talk about how post-modernism absorbs classical music into the mix, what I always hear, as in this track, is a little string noodling followed by hints of flamenco that inevitably drift into the usual funky back-beat pop texture. All this is just window-dressing on top of the usual pop stuff. In other words the structures of classical music have absolutely no effect on the style. Instead it is just used for a touch of 'local color'. Thanks, but no thanks... This sounds to me mostly like a jazzier version of Prince. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

* * *

Let's clear the palate with some actual classical music. Here is what I have been listening to lately. A really original piece of musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev, the Symphony No. 5 in B flat major with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2013 Proms. If you want to skip the introduction the performance begins at the 4:35 mark:


Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Nico Muhly and I have in common

I was reading this interview with Nico Muhly the other day and loved this remark:
How do you listen to music?
In general, I listen at home on my big speakers. When in transit, iPhone with headphones. On the road, via satellite radio tuned almost entirely to 90’s on 9. Radio 3 until once they played Hindemith saxophone music and I had to take a month off.
You betcha. I was in a chamber music society board meeting a while back when the subject under discussion was the various levels of patron membership. We survive entirely on the generosity of private patrons: no government funding. There are various levels from Mendelssohn ($100 to $499) to Beethoven (minimum $5000 donation). The complaint was that the Mendelssohn level folks were getting too many perks for their paltry donations and we had to discourage people from staying at that level--get them to upgrade. So in the meditative pause that ensued I said, "well, why don't we just re-name the Mendelssohn patrons Hindemith patrons?" After another pause a few board members started to chuckle, tentatively. Yes, it's a joke! Poor Paul Hindemith. He was once regarded as one of the key figures in musical modernism in the first half of the century right alongside Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. But over the decades it has become evident that Paul Hindemith wasn't a terribly good composer. About the only piece of his that survives into concert programs these days is the suite from his opera Mathis der Maler:


Which frankly sounds a lot like tidier and more polite Wagner (with better voice-leading). There might come a time, when the last traces of avant-gardism have been washed out of the musical ecosphere, when we might re-evaluate Hindemith and find he wasn't so bad after all. But that time is not yet. Plus, as Nico mentioned, there is all that damned saxophone music:


And I have to confess sometimes I wake up screaming in the middle of the night after having a nightmare that my latest composition when first heard in performance, came out sounding a lot like Hindemith or Metallica!

Like many composers Nico Muhly likes putting on the interviewer:
Imagine you’re a festival director here in London with unlimited resources. What would you programme - or commission - for your opening event? 
Obviously Tom Adès arrangements of Beyoncé’s entire catalogue - including Destiny’s Child-era best-of. Then you get a huge orchestra together, fly Bey over, and get a graphic designer to make a big deal about accents aigu and gravewith perhaps a commissioned sculpture and boudoir photographs. I’m shocked nobody has done this already. Can you imagine his version of “Nasty put some clothes on[gong] I told you [bell + muted trumpet] don’t walk out the house without your clothes on [piccolo filigree]”?
At least I think he is putting on the interviewer. Or perhaps it really is de riguer for all young artists today to at least pay lip-service to anything that contributes to the downfall of Western Civilization. Sadly, Blogger doesn't want to embed the original video so you will have to make to with this live performance:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Five Best Recordings of the Concierto de Aranjuez

I guess this could fit into my "retro record reviews" series, but I won't label it as such even though most of the recordings I am going to talk about date back a few decades. The well-established names in classical guitar like Julian Bream and John Williams have each recorded this piece three times that I know of. I think that the versions I have put up below are the most recent ones, so the most likely to be available. Perhaps the most memorable version I have heard on record was the one recorded by John Williams in the 1970s where he began the middle movement cadenza somewhere far out on the plains of La Mancha and let it slowly grow. By that I mean, he started it very, very quietly and did a spectacular crescendo. But I suppose that version is no longer available. In any case, the five recordings I am going to talk about are all quite well known and should all be available.

The only one that is new to me is the one by Xuefei Yang, recorded in 2010. I don't know her at all, but it is an impressive performance. The other recordings I have known for a long time and, in fact, I have also met all the other performers and I have studied the Aranjuez with Pepe Romero in a master class in Salzburg, Austria. I also studied it with Oscar Ghiglia though I don't think he recorded it. I have heard a number of guitarists perform the piece in concert, though not as often as you would think. The truth is that this is a brutally difficult piece from a technical point of view and for a very long time, few guitarists could even attempt it. I think I was one of the first to perform it in Canada which I did with a number of different orchestras.

Pepe Romero has the advantage of having played this piece for many decades and having worked with Rodrigo personally and having a strong background in flamenco technique, which is why he sounds so good in the rasgueado passages. For a long time John Williams was my favorite version because he has a real gift for Spanish music and is a very fine musician as well. You might ask where Segovia is, but he never recorded, nor even performed, this piece, though he did record another concerto by Rodrigo. Narciso Yepes was always a bit underrated in my view. For a long time he was the only guitarist on the scene who had absolutely no Segovia influence. He was particularly good with Sor and Scarlatti, but he recorded just about everything. He and Julian Bream were both known for premiering a lot of new concertos for guitar.

There are innumerable recordings of this concerto by everyone from Carlos Bonell to Manuel Barrueco to Sharon Isbin, but I haven't heard them and don't feel an urgent need to. Sorry, 'bout that!

All five of these recordings are very fine and I have ranked them the way I did for reasons that might seem minor to some. I am listening as a guitarist who also plays the piece so I hear what they are doing from a fairly intimate perspective. One of the most difficult passages to bring off for someone who has not played much flamenco is the very opening of the first movement. Frankly, Pepe does this so much better than anyone else, that is one of the reasons I ranked him first. With all the other performances you hear tiny hesitations or the strumming is just not quite crisp enough. As flamenco guitarists are counseled by the dancers they accompany, the three most important things for a flamenco guitarist are rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm.

Another thing that tends to distinguish the different performances is how well the soloist works with the orchestra. There should be a real interaction. Just listen to how the bassoon doubles the guitar towards the very beginning. Some players, and Julian Bream is among them, are so involved with what they are doing that they don't seem to really be listening to the other guys.

All the recordings are pretty good in terms of clarity of sound, but the Xuefei Yang recording has an interesting failing. In an attempt to make every single detail of the guitar part perfectly audible (including those E harmonics in the first movement that you never hear), the engineers have miked the guitar pretty closely and backed off the orchestra to the point where it sounds very unrealistic. Just listen to the passage in the last movement where the guitar has a passage in thirds echoed by two trumpets. They sound very feeble and distant compared to the guitar, but, believe me, in real life that won't happen!

I think Pepe has the strongest version because of the powerful Spanish flavor he brings to it. I have heard him play this in concert and he is just as technically comfortable there as he is in this recording.

1. Pepe Romero, Academy of St. Martin's, Neville Marriner (recorded 1992)



2. Xuefei Yang, Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona, Eiji Oue (recorded 2010). This is a fine performance, though as I mentioned, it is balanced so that the orchestra sounds rather anemic. But Wuefei plays that ferociously difficult descending passage in slurred triplet sixteenths in the first movement with the best control of anyone. Her scales are top-notch and there are a lot of difficult scales in this piece.



3. John Williams, Philharmonia Orchestra, Louis Frémaux (recorded 1983). This would have been my favorite for a long, long time and there are some interpretive things that Williams does superlatively well. He has excellent interaction with the orchestra and really understands Spanish music. But the opening rasgueado is just a bit wobbly...



4. Narciso Yepes, Orquesta Sinfónica R. T. V. Española, Odón Alonso (recorded 1969). It is far from perfect, either musically or technically, but a lot of it is pretty darn good. This is the oldest recording as is evident in the hollow orchestral sound.



5. Julian Bream, The Chamber Orquestra of Europe, John Eliot Gardiner (recorded 1982). Julian Bream was one of the great guitarists of the century, but his strengths, in my opinion, never lay in the Spanish repertoire. True, he recorded a huge amount of it, but it never sounded quite Spanish to me, partly because of the brittleness of his rhythmic treatment and a certain glassiness to the sound. Bream pretty much owns contemporary British music for guitar, but he is less good in this repertoire. And his tense, jittery interpretation seems to have infected the orchestra as well. They don't keep a steady tempo and tend to sound rather bright and flashy instead of warm and expressive.


Partly to encourage you to purchase these recordings, I haven't put up YouTube clips of them. They mostly aren't available on YouTube anyway. The live clips of performances by Pepe Romero and others are not of very good sound quality. Probably the best YouTube performance is one by John Williams as part of the Proms in 2005. A very fine performance with good sound and picture:


A note on the music: when I was studying this with Pepe Romero he told me a bit about the origin of the piece. It was a fraught time, right at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Rodrigo and his wife were living in Paris at the time and they had just lost a baby because of a miscarriage. Emotionally distraught, Rodrigo wrote the famous middle movement as a kind of tombeau to the child that would never be. At the end of the movement, the ascending guitar line goes up as high as you can go on guitar to symbolize the ascent of the infant into heaven. Then the last movement begins with an angular, two-voice counterpoint which symbolizes the two parents for whom life will go on despite everything. And the first movement? Pepe says he suspects that Rodrigo wrote that just to give guitarists a headache!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Concerto Guide: Berlioz, Harold en Italie, op. 16

This is not quite a viola concerto, but it is close enough that Paganini, who requested that Berlioz write a piece for him for his newly-acquired Stradivarius viola and orchestra, after initially rejecting the work, later congratulated Berlioz upon hearing a performance. He also sent him 20,000 francs. So since this is the only piece by Berlioz that might qualify as a concerto and it fills a gap in the chronology, let's have a look.

Berlioz completed Harold en Italie in 1834, four years after his revolutionary Symphonie fantastique which turned the genre into a vehicle for a personal narrative of unrequited love. Harold en Italie was inspired by the long narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron. The poem, describing the travels of a world-weary young man, like Berlioz' narrative for the Symphonie fantastique, contains autobiographical elements. Berlioz subtitles his piece "Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Obbligato". Quoting from Wikipedia the four movements are:
The first movement ("Harold aux montagnes") refers to the scenes that Harold, the melancholic character, encounters in mountains. In the second movement ("Marche des pèlerins"), Harold accompanies a group of pilgrims.
The third movement ("Sérénade") involves a love scene; someone plays a serenade for his mistress. In the fourth movement, ("Orgie de brigands"), spiritually tired and depressed, Harold seeks comfort among wild and dangerous company, perhaps in a tavern. Jacques Barzun reminds us that "The brigand of Berlioz’s time is the avenger of social injustice, the rebel against the City, who resorts to nature for healing the wounds of social man.
In each movement there are elements of what are often called "local color" when used in an opera--musical elements that give a characteristic flavor to the music. In the first movement Berlioz recalls his own youth growing up in the Rhône-Alps region in south-eastern France. In the second movement Berlioz creates a unique kind of musical positioning by having the pilgrims appear to march past the ear of the listener. Making of the listener a musical "subject" had never been done before in this way.

While each movement serves a narrative and dramatic purpose, the work is also based on the fundamental structure of the symphony with a quick first movement with a slow introduction, a march instead of a slow movement, a walz-like third movement and a furious finale. Uniting all the movements is a recurring theme in the viola that becomes more complete as the music progresses.

Berlioz, born in 1803, is a harbinger of the first generation of Romantic composers, all born in and around 1810. This generation includes Frédéric Chopin (b. 1810), Robert Schumann (b. 1810) and Franz Liszt (b. 1811). These three shaped the character of Romanticism in music and all three were pianists. But it was actually Berlioz, with his Symphonie Fantastique and Harold en Italie that got the ball rolling. Despite all the Romantic trappings of setting and mood ("orgy of brigands" indeed!) it is, as Charles Rosen points out, really the normality of Berlioz' work wherein lies his greatness. Ironically, he sets the Witches' sabbath in the last movement of the Symphonie fantastique to a perfectly correct academic fugue! And this irony was meant, of course.

Now let's listen to the whole of Harold en Italie one of the most colorful examples of a sinfonia concertante that attempts to unite the genres of symphony and concerto:


Monday, February 16, 2015

Ten Favorite Pieces of Music

There are two reasons bloggers love lists: they tend to generate traffic because the Internet loves lists and second, they are easier than actually writing something! So after tossing off a few list posts, this will be the last one for a good while. Well, except for one on the ten best 19th century symphonies that I am still working on!

My ten favorite pieces of music are those pieces that I just like to listen to; that reliably provide a certain thrill, a certain glimpse of something we have no words for. Not pieces that I should like or that are 'important' or historically significant. Just ones I like. You might like some of them too. As is my practice, to avoid the problem of ranking, I will put them up in chronological order.

1. Viderunt Omnes, organum by Léonin, c. 2nd half of the 12th century AD.



2. Nuper rosarum flores, motet by Guillaume DuFay, 1436, composed for the consecration of the Duomo in Florence.



3. Dona nobis pacem, from the B minor Mass, J. S. Bach, 1749. Not performed until 1859, over a hundred years later.


4. Andante from Divertimento, K. 138 for strings by W. A. Mozart, composed in Salzburg shortly after returning from his second Italian journey in 1772. He was sixteen years old. Though Mozart composed many wonderful slow movements, I don't think any of them are more touching than this one.


5. Presto (finale) from the Symphony No. 92, "Oxford" by Joseph Haydn, composed in 1789 for the Count d'Ogny. Haydn at his most exuberant.


6. Cavatina from the String Quartet in B flat major, op. 130 by Ludwig van Beethoven, composed in 1825. One of the most deeply emotional pieces of music ever written.


7. des pas sur la neige... from the Préludes for piano, Bk 1 by Claude Debussy completed in 1913.


8. The Rite of Spring, by Igor Stravinsky, also completed in 1913.


9. String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, op. 110 by Dmitri Shostakovich. A work of great personal significance, this was written in a mere three days in 1960.


10. Strawberry Fields Forever, written by John Lennon and released as a single by the Beatles in 1967. Also a piece with great personal significance.


Bonus piece: I feel the need to put one more piece in here and frankly, it is between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As a long time resident of Montreal, I choose Cohen. Here is his song Dance Me to the End of Love: