Sunday, May 31, 2015

What's Being Played

The Baltimore Symphony had an interesting idea: to embed a journalist with the orchestra who would write, not just about what was going on in their orchestra, but in classical music generally. As a big part of the problem these days is with the audience's unfamiliarity with classical music, this seems like a great idea. Here is the link. One of the things the reporter, Ricky O'Bannon, did was to compile some statistics for Baltimore and a lot of other American orchestras about what was being played. Here is the summary. One thing that I found interesting is that there is more music by living (and women) composers played than you might think. Not a huge amount, but more than you might think. Here are the top pieces played, in order. Some surprising things on that list. Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition is the most popular piece after the Messiah? Holy cow! Lots of Beethoven, sure, but the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 beat out each and every Mozart piano concerto? I wonder if this kind of tabulating simply disfavors a composer who wrote twenty great piano concertos, any single one of which is performed less than, say, the Brahms? There is no Mozart at all on this list, but he comes as the second most-performed composer on the other list. He just wrote too many great pieces, obviously.

A composer like Mussorgsky, who wrote a few fine pieces, but only one that has become really popular and famous, has, not only statistically, but also in public perception, a prominence that is really out of proportion to his real musical significance. Looking at the lists, you can see that composers like Mozart, who certainly get the performances, are probably still underrated in the public mind compared to composers who did not write hundreds upon hundreds of masterpieces, but just one or two. And poor Haydn, who also wrote hundreds of masterpieces, is even more ignored!

The most-performed living composers is an interesting list. Extracting from the graphic, they are:

  1. John Adams
  2. Mason Bates
  3. Jennifer Higdon
  4. Christopher Rouse
  5. Esa-Pekka Salonen
  6. Thomas Adès
I wonder why they only chose the top 6? In any case, the second on the list, Mason Bates, I don't think I have even heard of before. He is young, in his early 30s, and currently composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony. Checking around, I see that I have heard him before--he contributed a short piece to Hilary Hahn's encore album.

Let's see what orchestral music of his we can find on YouTube. The only one I can find is the orchestral suite "The B-Sides", here performed by The Lawrence Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Octavio Mas-Arocas:


Saturday, May 30, 2015

Texture and Structure

I've been reading Munroe Beardsley's hefty book on Aesthetics and it contains a lot of interesting insights. One was about the difference between texture and structure in the visual arts. Texture is things like little recurring design elements like cross-hatching. It is "the relations among the small parts" of a piece. Structure, on the other hand refers to the larger parts of a piece and the relations between them. This is a slightly different way of approaching form than we usually take in music.

Typically we talk about form in music in structural terms. A piece is in ABA form if it has an opening section, a contrasting section and the return of the opening section. Musical form takes place in time. But we also talk about musical texture. Some examples are "melody and accompaniment", "Alberti bass", "canon", "fugue" and "a capella". There are a whole lot of textures that we don't seem to have a name for like the pulsating repetitive structures we find in the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass.

Theorists often refer to fugue as a texture rather than a form and yes, you can see their point. A fugue consists of a particular subject presented in different voices. Once this is done there is often a development section or "episode" followed by more presentations of the subject. These presentations can be varied by changing the order of the entry of the voices, by changing the time interval of entry (if a voice enters before the previous one is finished this is called a "stretto"), by inverting the subject and countersubject (invertible counterpoint), by inverting the subject, by augmenting or diminishing the subject (rhythmically) and so on. But these procedures are all available in whatever way or sequence the composer wishes. So "fugue" is not a structure or form that can be summarized in sections like ABA or ABACA or described harmonically as "sonata-allegro" form. It is instead many different potential structures.

I want to argue that there are lots of musical forms that don't submit easily to simple letter labeling and fugue is one of them. In other words, I want to argue that fugue, while an unusual family of forms or structures, is actually that and not a "texture". I want to say this because I think we can easily find good examples of musical texture that contrast well with the idea of form or structure.

Beardsley says that "It is possible to have a design with structure but not texture, or with texture but not structure." It is very easy to find examples in the visual arts as artists have pushed out to both extremes. How about in music? I think that while we don't find the extremes as often in music, there are enough examples to give us an idea of the difference between texture and structure. First of all, one extreme example might be John Cage's 4'33, which consists of three short movements adding up to that total duration. In each movement the performer is instructed to play nothing--each movement is nothing but rests. So what is this, structure or texture? I think this is a pure example of structure with no texture. The structure is the time durations but as there are no notes, there is no possibility of texture. A piece that leans pretty far the other way is any one of a number by Steve Reich. Let's pick the Octet as an example:


I think that most musicians would describe this as primarily a texture. Indeed, after about two minutes of this the flute enters with a melody which makes all the previous sound like an accompaniment. Steve Reich's music does have structure in the form of long-term processes, but you kind of have to gather them up in your mind to hear them. The surface of the music is pretty much exclusively texture.

One of the things that Beethoven did was filter out, more and more, the textural aspects of the Classical Style. What I mean by this is that the Classical Style had a lot of what you might call "filler" inherited from comic opera: things like repeated eighth notes in the cellos, Alberti bass accompaniments and a lot of other things designed to fill in necessary time intervals with activity. What Beethoven did was progressively to eliminate a lot of this and replace it with a small set of motifs--replace texture with something more structural. An excellent example of this is his Symphony No. 5 which eliminates a lot of conventional texture and replaces it with various manifestations of a simple motif and the associated rhythm. The effect is extraordinarily powerful:


On the other hand, here is an example in which structure of any kind has been eliminated and what remains is only texture:


I hope you listened to the whole thing? It's just so...

Bear in mind that there have been no aesthetic judgments as such in this post. I am just trying to discern two different elements in music: structure and texture. A simple minuet and trio could be an almost pure example of structure (especially if it is one of those canonic ones by Haydn) while a large piece by Steve Reich could be an almost pure example of texture. But a lot of the time avoiding structure while focusing on texture makes for a pretty poor composition.

The largest example of a piece that is almost pure structure that I know of is Bach's Art of Fugue which is largely based on a single theme and its permutations. Here is a great YouTube clip of the whole piece in the performance by the Emerson String Quartet, with the score:


Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Let's start with one of the most sensible things I have seen in the mass media lately: "Mindfulness is stopping the world from thinking." You bet! I live in a new-age zone and have met a number of people who are trying to clear their minds from thinking and you know what, you can tell! They aren't thinking much. But over at The Telegraph, Professor Theodore Zeldin of Oxford University takes the time to point out a few things:
“I think mindfulness and meditation are bad for people, I absolutely think that. People should be thinking.”
“Everyone is amazingly interesting,” he told the audience. “Life is about living, it’s about going out there and meeting people and hearing their thoughts and opinions.
He said people should stop believing they could be anything they wanted to be and instead start appreciating the value of those around them.
“One of the beliefs of this time is you’ve got to be yourself and develop your own potential, but only thinking of oneself is a feeble and cowardly activity.
“Our potential on our own is very limited. We go to these motivational speakers and they say you can be anything you want to be. You can’t. Your potential is very limited.”
Yep. Well, to be slightly more precise, your potential is what it is. It might be enormous, like mine! But the bottom line is that if you spend much time sitting around meditating and trying to clear your mind, you will never find out what your potential actually is. Now go out there and compose something!

* * *

I've never been much of a Rolling Stones fan, but I just read an essay (with some reminiscences by Mick Jagger) about the song "Moonlight Mile" from Sticky Fingers and it was pretty interesting. Amazing what you find in the Wall Street Journal. That's a pretty good song, y'know?


Thinking back, I realize that the only Stones album I ever bought when it came out was Beggar's Banquet. Pretty good, but not their best.

* * *

The Guardian has a very nice review up of a posthumous release of a recording of Schubert's "Great" C major symphony with Claudio Abbado conducting his Orchestra Mozart. You wouldn't have to twist my arm very far to get me to admit that this could be my very favorite symphony of all:


* * *

Bloomberg Business has a big article on Jay-Z's new business venture Tidal, a streaming music service. Apparently things are not doing so well. In fact, one gets the sensation that here is a case where the soulless commercialism of today's pop music has come back to bite it:
It’s too early to write off Tidal. But if the company does fail, it may be because Jay Z didn’t anticipate the skeptical response to his claim that he was working for some greater good of all musicians. He’s fundamentally a cynic. How could he not be treated that way, after dumbing down his music and attaching his name to everything from Budweiser to Microsoft? No wonder people have questioned his motives with Tidal. As Jay Z himself once put it, “I sell ice in the winter. I sell fire in hell. I am a hustler, baby. I sell water to a well.”

* * *

Here is a haunting story about the man who is perhaps the only musicologist in Afghanistan. Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, whose hearing was seriously damaged by a Taliban suicide bomber, continues his work in Afghanistan providing music education to children and young people without regard to means or gender:
Not only did he create a symphony orchestra, which soon played some of the world’s largest venues including the Kennedy Centre in Washington and the Royal Festival Hall in London, but he also deliberately reserved a number of slots in the orchestral institute for orphans, street children and, most controversially in Afghanistan, girls.
This is in defiance of the hard-line Taliban, of course, as women are forbidden to be educated in their ideology--and, of course, music in general is forbidden!

* * *

Speaking of soulless commercialism, here is an article in Salon about just how thoroughly product placement has invaded the music world.
Music fans sometimes cringe when one of their favorite songs turns up in a TV commercial, especially songs that seem to be about rebellion or fighting the Man. But there’s a whole different level of ickiness going on these days – since approximately the turn of the century. As a new Music.Mic story about research into music and branding puts it, “Brands and advertising are creeping in at all levels of the creative process: Your favorite songs and music videos are becoming advertisements.”
“Universal Music Group has begun rolling out a program to retroactively insert advertisements into older music videos, whose artists didn’t think to monetize every inch of their art.”
So what's wrong with this? For me, personally, it causes me to instantaneously lose interest in the whole aesthetic project. Do what you want as long as I don't have to listen to it or watch it.

* * *

Here is a story that is a nice, a very nice, antidote to the last one. Members of the Kansas City Symphony performed a program of chamber music for inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility--a prison. The results were excellent:
Several times during the concert, inmates burst into boisterous, spontaneous applause. And at concert’s end, the prisoners gave the players a standing ovation.
Justin Elnicki, in prison for rape, said he had only heard classical music as background music at Dillons grocery store.
His tastes run more toward Lynyrd Skynyrd and Journey, but as he sat and listened and occasionally closed his eyes, he felt … calm.
“I didn’t really understand it,” Elnicki said. “But I really enjoyed it.”
 I visited a Canadian prison once, not, I'm sorry to say, to perform, but to hear a performance by the inmates of a Shakespeare play! There is so much silly stuff written about the arts these days, but we should not forget that the fundamental function of art is to humanize.

* * *

I'm on about my third journey through all the Haydn symphonies (all 106 of them!) and ran across this absolutely haunting Andante that is the second movement of his Symphony No. 4 in D major:


The symphonies are just filled with extraordinary movements like this.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Music the World Doesn't Need

Music criticism, even when it has little else going for it, can be quite amusing. As an example we have this recent piece from Slipped Disc: "These are 200 pieces the world doesn't need!"
The International Chamber Choir Competition has just ended at Marktoberdorf. Choirs from all over the world shared in the prizes, many with new works written specially for the occasion.
Imagine their dismay when the jury president, Georg Grün, declared: ‘These are 200 pieces that the world doesn’t need.’
But the best part of the item, as is so often the case at Slipped Disc, is the comments. Here is a sample:
The music world is filled with opinionated intolerance of that sort. Between insufferable trash and the great composers there is a very wide range of legitimate music, but one always finds a pathological snob who knows, for example, that the peasant melodies that Haydn put into his symphonies and string quartets, or even Bach’s immortal quodlibet, must be “rubbish”.
I sometimes call myself a snob, though usually qualified as a radical, hard-core classical snob, not an actually pathological one. But I notice that there are those out there whom you might call pathological non-snobs and I wonder if this commentator is one of those. I suspect, with just a smidgeon of evidence, that he is one of those who is extremely rigid about his own musical values. Great Composers are those whose music is always Great and no criticism will be brooked about that. Then there are the other, non-Great, composers who write Insufferable Trash (that's probably me!) and in between there is that Range of Legitimate Music. This smacks to me of the error I might call the Fallacy of the Received Values. I was on a bus once with a friend and we got into some musicological discussion that ended up questioning the absolute value of some great composer or the other. When we got off the bus I was astonished to be accosted by a woman sitting by the door who had overheard our discussion and cursed me as some sort of, well, I forget the precise expression! But it was very negative.

I often find myself falling between two stools, intellectually speaking. On the one hand I am most certainly an apostate of High Modernism. I reject the fundamental assumptions and aesthetic values that lie behind their practices and works. I do not believe that the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage and their followers is the Music of the Future. I believe it is a mannered excursion down an alleyway that will be forgotten within fifty years. But at the same time, I also reject the rigid traditionalism exhibited (I suspect) by the above commentator (and probably by the lady on the bus). I do not believe that the Pantheon of Great Composers is set in stone, but rather that their fortunes rise and fall over time. There are great composers, of course, but who they are reveals itself differently to us over time. We saw the fortunes of the once-reviled Shostakovich rise enormously since his death in 1975, while the fortunes of the once highly-respected Hindemith have fallen. By "fortunes" I mean aesthetic judgment.

Even though we moderns pretend not to make aesthetic judgments--a claim made particularly aggressively by the more fashionable among us, like Alex Ross--we still do. Every time you go to your CD shelf or iPod and pick one piece instead of another you make an aesthetic judgment. The sum total of all these aesthetic judgments over a hundred years or so enables us to conclude that yes, J. S. Bach is a very great composer and Beethoven and Mozart are not far behind. Ironically, folks like Alex Ross make some of the most sweeping and egregious aesthetic judgments simply because they don't perceive them as such but operate as if they are simply basic principles.

I think that the act of making your own aesthetic judgments, not refusing to do so, is what makes you a good listener. You do not listen to Bach because someone said he was Great; you listen to Bach because it sounds good to you. If you hear a new piece of choral music and it sounds pretty bad to you, and you say so, then good for you. I do hope that you have some reasons that you can give, though.

So the only thing we can say about the new works written for the chamber choir competition that Herr Grün condemned, is that if he is right that was unfortunate and we are eager to hear what his reasons might have been. I mean, surely a couple of them, at least, might have been ok? I am tempted to submit one of my pieces for choir to the next competition, if I can figure out how...

"Marktoberdorf" by the way means "the upper village with the market". A "dorf" is a village and "ober" means upper.

Remarkably, through the magic of YouTube, I can actually find a performance of a choir, possibly of a newly-commissioned work, at this very same Marktoberdorf competition. This is the Louisville Cardinal Singers, mind you from several years ago, but still:


So exercise your powers of aesthetic judgment and weigh in on that piece, Cantus Gloriosus by Jozef Swider.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Mensuration and the Old Ways of Composing.

A few days ago I got a couple of very challenging comments on my blog. One was on the post "A Cathedral and a Motet" and asked the following:
Do you know of a book that explains how Dufay, Ockeghem, etc. wrote their more intricate compositions? Not just a simple explanation of isorhythm or a rudimentary explanation of 15th->16th century counterpoint, but: if I am Dufay and I am going to write the music above in your post, how exactly do I go about accomplishing that?
Now I spend most of my time trying to write, you know, 21st century music, not 15th century music, but this is such an interesting question that I wondered how it could be answered. First I went to my shelf to see what books might contain some answers. Composition is, for a very large part, notation. In other words, what we can write down and how we write it down IS the piece, or at least the definitive instructions for performing the piece. So I took down one of the oldest books in my library The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900 - 1600 by Willi Apel, originally published in 1942 and, I believe, still in print. It is the most thorough textbook on the old systems of notation. It contains facsimiles of a lot of older notation. Here, for example, is a three-part chanson in white mensural notation by Guillaume DuFay.

If you look very closely at the top, there is a little line of text above the staff that says "Guillermus du" and then a little bit of staff with the note "fa". This is often how he signed his name on a music score. But wait, this is not a music score in the modern sense. I will explain below.


There are two pieces on the page. At the top is Quel fronte signorille and the bottom is the chanson "Dona i ardenti". Transcribing this kind of notation into modern notation is the work of a graduate doctoral seminar in musicology. As you can see, reading the original manuscripts is not easy! For comparison, here is the beginning of that chanson in modern notation:

Click to enlarge
The transcription into a modern score does several things: it takes all the original pitches and puts them on modern clefs and also changes all those weird boxy hollow notes (hence, "white" mensural notation -- there is also black and even red) into modern rhythmic values. But one other very important thing happens. The original is three separate parts just stacked up. They are not aligned rhythmically at all. A big part of the problem of transcription is figuring out exactly how the parts align. At this point in music history the score, where the various parts are precisely aligned rhythmically and corralled within barlines, had not yet been invented.

This gives us an important clue about DuFay's compositional methods: he did not compose in score! Like most composers before the 17th century, DuFay was a singer. The others, like Francesco da Milano, were largely lutenists. As a singer, how he likely composed was each line separately. In other words, what he probably did was write down the tenor and then compose the cantus and then the countertenor. This is not how modern composers work, by the way.

In the text, the DuFay chanson is chosen as an example of [2, 2], meaning, in the orthography of the text, that the tempus and prolatio are both imperfect. Huh? Ah yes, nothing like a bit of Latin to brighten one's day. In answer to a question in the comments about mensuration, in modern notation there is, within the notation, only one kind of subdivision to any note: duple.* In other words, every whole note contains only two half notes, every half only two quarter notes and so on. But in white mensural notation they had two possibilities: duple and triple or imperfect and perfect. In this kind of notation the brevis and semibrevis (usually rendered in modern transcription as a whole note and a half note or a half note and a quarter note) are the ones where we see the division into three. The mensuration or subdivision of the brevis is called the tempus and the two possibilities are perfectum and imperfectum and this was indicated in the time signature. The mensuration or subdivision of the semibrevis is called prolatio and, again, there are the two possibilities of perfect and imperfect, i.e. triple or duple subdivision. There are, therefore, four possibilities as indicated in this handy chart from the text:


The old time signatures are interesting. For one thing, this is where our "C" time signature comes from, often called, by ill-educated music teachers, "common" time. As you can see it is the old white mensuration time signature for "tempus imperfectum cum prolatione imperfecta". The so called "cut" time, which is the same half-circle with a slash through it indicates in modern music that the half note takes the beat.

Now that doesn't tell you exactly how to write a mensuration canon à la Guillaume DuFay, but it will give you an idea of the notation at least. For practical exercises in modal counterpoint I can do no better than recommend another excellent text, this one by another McGill professor, Peter Schubert, titled Modal Counterpoint, Renaissance Style, which was published in 2008.

*In modern notation we can indicate any subdivision whatsoever, but we do it with a workaround, essentially going outside the notation itself. To indicate a triple subdivision we write a little 3 with a bracket. But we can also write a 5 or a 7 or anything. The most extreme I have seen is something like 13 in the time of 12. This is how we think of it: we stuff extra notes into a fixed beat. Works quite well.

Luckily we can find the DuFay chanson on YouTube. Here is Dona i ardenti with unknown performers:


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Concerto Guide:

I know I didn't put up a Concerto Guide post last week. Every time I sat down to start one that old New Yorker cartoon kept popping into my head and I lost the will to write. You know the one: there is this little kid standing on stage next to a piano. He is dressed in evening garb and addressing the audience saying: "and now, God help us all, Rach three."  I just couldn't get that out of my head, especially as it looked like the next concerto I was going to do was either Rachmaninoff Two or Three.

The problem is that I just don't think I can do a Music Salon post on a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Usually I am on the other side of the ideological divide between the Serialists and the Traditionalists. Usually I think that the Serialists and their fellow travelers were simply dogmatic in their insistence that the traditional forms were tired, exhausted clichés. But when I listen to Rachmaninoff I think, well, perhaps in this case they were right. Rachmaninoff's piano concertos are all that piano concertos should be: noble, virtuosic, then tender and lyrical. They are a bit like what Chopin might have written if he had written a mature concerto. So what's the problem?

As I see it, a composer can write a concerto that we hear as being noble, adventurous or tender and lyrical and it can be a great success. But if the composer's goal is to show us how noble and virtuoso or tender and lyrical he can be, in other words if that is his actual goal instead of making a piece of music, then the result will be, sorry to say, kitsch. Kitsch as in a painting by Thomas Kinkaid:


Or a movie by Steven Spielberg that does nothing but push our emotional buttons from beginning to end.

See, that's everything that we like, right there. A pretty little country church, just like the one we wished we had attended when we were young; tall trees, mountains in the distance, a babbling brook and over all the delicate hues of sentiment. With Rachmaninoff we have an extension of the romanticism of Tchaikovsky, but, to me at least, it is genuine passion turned to mere sentiment, a haunting melody become a nice pretty tune. It is very well done, the technique, both pianistic and compositional, but you can certainly see why composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky would think that this is exactly what had to be killed in order for music, their music that is, to move forward.

So that's why I can't do a Concerto Guide on Rachmaninoff. (For an interesting discussion of the ideological differences and compositional practices of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, see this paper by Richard Taruskin: Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff: A Comparative Study of Their Musical Ideologies.)

But you really have to hear this for yourself, so here is Yuja Wang with Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra in the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Sergei Rachmaninoff:


That was composed around 1900 so it brings this phase of the Concerto Guide to an end. Next up is the 20th century and a surprising revival of the energy and adventure of the solo concerto with remarkable works by Schoenberg, Bartók, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Berg, Glass, Salonen and just about everyone else.

See you next week.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Discovery of the Week

To balance out my unkind remarks about Bruckner (and Mahler), let me direct your attention to one of those many interesting composers whose work was completely overshadowed by the relentless march of Modernism. I am talking about Vagn Holmboe. Who? Yes, exactly. Holmboe was a Danish composer who wrote, among other things, thirteen symphonies. A while ago I ran across an appreciation of him by Richard Taruskin that was written, I think, on the occasion of Holmboe's death in 1996. [UPDATE: Actually it was written in 1994, just a couple of years before.] He was born in Jutland in 1909. He is Denmark's second symphonist after Carl Nielsen.

In any case, I finally got around to listening to some Holmboe and, not surprisingly, given the praise from Taruskin, I was quite impressed. Here is his Symphony No. 8, "Sinfonia boreale" conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes with the Århus Symphony Orchestra:


That is pretty good, isn't it? Rather more interesting than Bruckner, wouldn't you say? Perhaps, and I say this very tentatively, even more interesting than Mahler? But the music of people like Holmboe was anathema to the modernists. For one thing it is tonal and makes expressive gestures instead of perplexing the audience with musical structures that have no real expressive content. So it had to be banned, or at least sneered at with every opportunity. They, the modernist intelligentsia, did the same with Shostakovich, but his music seems to have won itself an ever-growing audience despite their best efforts. Maybe it is time to give Holmboe a chance. Here is his Symphony No. 5 with the same performers:


Malicious Review of the Week

Via Norman Lebrecht I ran across this rather amusing review. Or rather, allegorical satire of a review. Instead of an actual review of an actual concert with actual performers we have a Personal Experience of a Performance of a Bruckner Symphony directed by a Famous Conductor! Here is a sample:
“I was somewhat ambivalent about staying for the second half,” she recalls, “especially after Legendary Violinist gave a great reading of Obscure 20th-Century Piece That No One Else Wanted to Hear. But I had heard that the Famous Conductor is a Bruckner specialist, so I thought maybe he could make it listenable.”
But McBrahmsFan was wrong. “Basically I had forgotten how bad Bruckner is,” she explains, sipping a comforting cup of tea in her apartment. “Even in that historic hall with a great symphony orchestra, there was no saving the music from itself. I’d say Bruckner is a lot of ‘sound and fury signifying nothing,’ but that is too poetic a phrase for its sprawling expanse of Wagnerian brass clichés and proto-minimalistic repetitions of diatonic tetrachords. I almost died.”
And:
“At one point I caught myself thinking, ‘How did this man ever write four-part motets? He can’t even write basic soprano-bass counterpoint.’ The one time the bass did anything it was that tired descending line borrowed from Meistersinger, which created only a momentary interest of passing dissonance. And that trite scherzo – I spent the whole time wishing Mahler had written it.”
Heh. But as funny as this is, it is a mere Shadow on the wall of the cave of what might have been an even better, and even more merciless, scourging of Bruckner.

I was just listening to the Symphony No. 6 of Bruckner yesterday and yes, I was wondering to myself, as I was trying to stay awake, why isn't this better music? Why are the rhythms either sodden plodding or disquieting nasal marches? I hear this music and it just seems to imply gargantuan Imperial German militarism (which, historically, was just around the corner). But, pace the allegorical Sally McBrahmsFan, I was not wishing Mahler had written it, I was rather thankful that it was just Bruckner and not Mahler who seems to have most of Bruckner's failings with an added dose of fervid neuroticism.

I know that there are lots of Mahler fans among my readers--it is one of those rare aesthetic items about which we differ. Perhaps in time I will come around. Or they will...

Let's have a listen to the Bruckner Symphony No. 6. This is the BBC Philharmonic with Juanjo Mena conductor at the 2012 Proms:


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Time Signatures: Compound, Composite and Straight Up

I spent a lot of yesterday re-metering a section of a symphony. I thought I was being clever by writing in a simple 9/8 meter with a variety of subdivisions, but it was pointed out to me that this was actually concealing what was really going on. So I re-wrote the notation to bring the music into focus. But this got me thinking that I may not have talked much about time signatures. If you type "time signatures" into the search box to the right, it will turn up several posts, but they are mostly specific to particular pieces. What I want to do here is talk about time signatures generally.

Going back in history we notice that the hardest aspect of musical notation to get right is the notation of rhythm. Once the staff of lines and spaces was discovered (or invented, traditionally ascribed to Guido of Arezzo), it took another 500 years of experimentation before efficient solutions to the problem of rhythmic notation were discovered.

In music we have different specific words for time. The "timing" of a piece is its duration in minutes and seconds. But we also have the concepts of "beat" or "pulse", of "meter" and of "rhythm" itself. The pulse is the recurring, regular beat that underlies most music. Its speed is indicated in a score with a "metronome mark". The metronome was invented shortly after 1800 and Beethoven was one of the first composers to give specific indications in his scores. The sign for a quarter note followed by an equal sign and a number tells you that there are so many quarter notes per minute. This is usually seen in the top left of the score right after a tempo word. These tempo words are usually Italian (such as Allegro or Adagio), but are often German or French, or even English. They give a rough idea of tempo and mood whereas the metronome mark gives a precise indication.

Another crucial element of the notation of rhythm is meter. We feel the pulses of music in little packages of two, three, four or more beats. Each package is shown in the score with a barline to separate it from surrounding packages. The typical meter of most pop music is 4/4, meaning each measure or bar has four beats. In pop music usually the 2nd and 4th are stressed. This is what is called the "backbeat" because it is actually a variation from the norm. The regular stress in 4/4 is ONE two three four (to show that one is really stressed and three a bit less). Another common meter is 3/4 which is used in minuets and waltzes. Again, the first beat is stressed. Here, let me show you what this looks like. Here are some examples:


This was done in Finale, which can do just about anything. First off we have the tempo word, Adagio, which means "slowly", followed by a quarter note being equal to 60. So the pulse is one beat per second. The first measure is 4/4, with four quarter notes. Note that this is just for example. You can write pretty well any kind of rhythm you like within that basic meter by using a pattern of short and long notes. But it has to add up to four quarters or the equivalent. Next is a measure of 3/4 with just three beats.

Now we get a bit fancy. The next measure is a compound time signature, meaning that the beat-unit is not a simple note like a quarter note, but a dotted note. Each beat contains within it three smaller note values instead of two. This time signature is used a lot in dances such as the gigue. It has rather a lilting feel. 6/8 is called compound duple time because it consists of two beats, each of which is a dotted note. The next measure, 9/8, is compound triple time because it has three beats, each of which is a dotted note.

The next line shows what weird things you can do with composite time signatures. A composite time signature is one that has a variety of beat units, not just quarter notes or dotted quarter notes, but a mixture of, perhaps, quarter and eighth note beat units. The first measure in the second line, with the time signature 1/2 + 5/8 means that each measure consists of a half note followed by five eighth notes or a group of four eights followed by a group of five eighths. The last measure is a quarter beat followed by another quarter beat, then three eights, then a final quarter beat. So those are two examples of composite time signatures. A popular piece using a composite time signature is "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck which is in 5/4 divided into two groups of three quarter notes followed by two quarter notes.

But obviously, no-one would be crazy enough to actually use the two composite time signatures I showed as examples, right? Right? In fact, they are both found in the second movement of my second symphony. I originally had them all notated in 9/8, but I realized that this was concealing the real subdivisions. What you see there, plus a couple of others, is what is actually going on in the meter of the piece!

Let's have a little listen to "Take Five" just to show you how natural a composite time signature can feel.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Cathedral and a Motet

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent article about the construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, often called more simply the "Duomo", which is one of the most remarkable and beautiful pieces of architecture ever created.

Click to enlarge
The WSJ comments:
The cathedral’s 140-foot span was so wide that traditional methods of covering it were inapplicable. 
...Brunelleschi set out with his friend Donatello to Rome to study its ancient structures, especially the Pantheon, with its own huge dome. He found that the Pantheon’s designers had employed some clever techniques, counteracting the natural forces of push and pull (downward and outward) on its vault by making the walls thicker where the stress was greatest, at the base. Higher up, they used lightweight materials, including concrete, to create a double-layered dome that got thinner as it rose, allowing it to bend and curve. He collected these ideas, added some of his own, and returned to Florence. 
...once the project was under way, Brunelleschi’s inventiveness seemed unbounded. He created a floating platform on beams cantilevered from the dome’s base that rose nearly 197 feet above the ground. He designed a double-layered dome with hidden circular chains of stone, iron and wood for support. He instructed the workmen to lay bricks in a unique herringbone pattern, with larger bricks interrupting smaller ones at right angles, to create a more solid bond, and invented machines to facilitate the project, like a magna rota or “great wheel” to lift materials, and a new kind of tower crane called a castello to move them at great heights.
Most remarkably, and the reason I am posting about this today, is that the inventiveness of the architecture was matched by a musical composition commissioned to be performed at the 25 of March 1436 consecration of the cathedral, Pope Eugene IV officiating.

To understand something about how the piece of music, titled Nuper rosarum flores by Guillaume DuFay, is in its way as remarkable as the cathedral itself, I have to introduce a couple of musical terms. One is talea which refers to a rhythmic pattern; and the other is color, which refers to a melodic sequence. A talea is repeated a number of times and so is a color, but what is interesting is that they are normally not the same length. In a typical example, the talea might consist of four durations and the color of 28 pitches so before the melody has finished, the talea will have been heard seven times. A piece, such as a motet for voices and instruments, using this kind of structure is called an isorhythmic motet (isorhythmic means "same rhythm") because of the repeating rhythmic pattern.

But what DuFay did in Nuper rosarum flores was no mere isorhythmic motet. Oh no. The piece is actually a mensuration canon, meaning that when the talea repeats, each time it is in a different meter! The four different meters used are 6/2, 4/2, 4/4 and 6/4. This technique is used in the lower voices, the tenors I and II. The upper voices are a freely written duet that make use of certain thematic material over and over and are therefore described as isomelic, meaning "using the same melody". The quite good Wikipedia article on the piece has this illustration that may help:

Structural plan of the motet and its tenor. Top: Pre-existing Gregorian cantus firmus; middle: Tenor in original notation, with four mensuration signs defining the diminution scheme; bottom: Total structural scheme: Through fourfold repetition of the tenor at different speeds, the motet has a structure of 4x2 parts, with length proportions of 6:4:2:3.

Or it may not! This is an extraordinarily complex piece and a unique one. Analyzing it in enough detail to fully understand how it is put together is a very large project indeed. So instead, let's just listen to it:


The upper voices are sung and the lower ones played by brass instruments. The score is rather complex as well. At first you will hear just the two upper voices, though you will see a score with four staves. This is because the tenors have a lot of rests at the beginning. Later on little red boxes will identify which staves are actually sounding. Enjoy!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Ex-drummer for The Police Stewart Copland talks about what he is into nowadays with the Globe and Mail. Groovin' with classical musicians and composing film scores is what.

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A glimpse into a typical blogger therapy session:


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A rather confusing article in the Guardian by Tom Service sort-of praises Sistema Scotland (based on the Venezuelan music education system) for early successes. But it is larded with so many caveats I'm not sure what it is saying. Here's what I think: if you get a bunch of kids interested in music involved in rehearsing and playing orchestral music and if you give them some decent instruction, you can transform their lives--especially if they come from economically depressed and cultural vacuous environments. This is pretty much a no-brainer, isn't it?

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What is it about a piece of music that either engages us or causes us to lose interest? No, I'm not going to scribble down the answer to that right here! But I am going to put up a clip from YouTube. This is s piece for 14 musicians by Harrison Birtwhistle called Cortege. It is well-played and the video quality is excellent:


So why is it that it never sparked any interest in hearing it to the end and I paused the clip at the 3:19 mark? Comments welcome. But don't say, "because you sir, are an idiot!"

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I heard an interesting concert last night with a young orchestra. The program was devoted to film music with suites from The Lion King, James Bond, Spiderman, Gladiator, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and, of course, Star Wars. The hall, a big one seating about 2000 people, was absolutely full and 95% of the audience were under 40 years old. They were also very enthusiastic. So what is all this moaning about the ageing symphonic audience? Perhaps the audience would be different for a different program, but I recently saw a small orchestra concert of two guitar concertos, one new, and two pieces by Gustav Holst and Arvo Pärt and, while not packed, it was pretty full, 80%, and again, the audience was nearly all under 40. But both these concerts were here in Mexico, so perhaps that is the difference...

So I won't suffer alone, here is the Indiana Jones theme so that you also will have it in your head for the next week:


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Years ago on this blog I did a post called "One Hit Wonders" in which I talked about a few composers who are known mostly for a single, solitary piece. In that post I just talked about the earlier composers, but musing over Gustav Holst reminds me that there have been quite a few more recent ones. Gustav Holst is overwhelming known for one single piece, his suite for orchestra titled "The Planets", which really is a spectacular piece of music. Here is  James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the movement "Mars, the Bringer of War":


He never wrote another piece that achieved similar recognition. Another composer with a single hit is the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo who wrote one spectacular guitar concerto and a bunch of other music that is much less often heard. Here is the middle movement with its extraordinary theme. The performers are John Williams (guitar) and Paul Daniel (conductor) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Williams has to tune between movements because the first movement requires a scordatura:


And how about Modest Mussorgsky who is known almost exclusively for his amazing suite for piano (orchestrated by Ravel), "Pictures at an Exhibition". This is Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony:


Lastly, there is the Polish composer who wrote one exceptional symphony that was so popular it even made the British pop album charts. This is the Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Górecki, but I am not sure of the artists:


That is a pretty unlikely pop crossover hit, but it touches some very deep chords in a lot of listeners. Again, I pose my question from above: "What is it about a piece of music that either engages us or causes us to lose interest?" Why does this piece, despite its so modest beginnings way down in the subterranean register of the contrabasses, so transfix us while the Birtwhistle leaves us (or me at least) completely uninterested and uninvolved?

And that's it for this Friday's miscellanea.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Classical Controversies

The BBC, who seem to alternate between doing really wonderful things and really silly things, have an article up titled "Five classical music controversies." They rehearse some fairly well-known events in music history such as some anti-Semitic language in the text of Bach's St. John Passion and the public reactions to the premieres of pieces by Satie, Stravinsky, Cage and Reich. They also stumble rather badly in discussing the Symphony No. 3 by a composer they call "Ludvig van Beethoven". Beethoven's Swedish cousin, perhaps? The Symphony was never "formerly known as"  the Bonaparte symphony. There was a dedication, which was withdrawn, but they enlist the over-excitable Tom Service to try and gin up a controversy:
“Imagine if events hadn’t intervened, and Beethoven had stuck to his original plan, and his third symphony had been called the ‘Bonaparte’. Imagine the reams of interpretation and analysis that would have gone into aligning the piece with the Napoleonic project, its humanist ideals and its all-too-human historical realisation.”
I won't even bother critiquing what is wrong with that--just about everything! But what I would like to do is mention a few actual controversies that seem to be roiling the world of classical music lately.

First off, here is a controversy that I expect to take off any day now: well-off parents will be criticized for spending the time and money to get their children quality musical instruction. Like reading to their children at bedtime this will be smeared as elitist and an example of inequality that we should feel guilty about. My advice: ignore all that crap.

Second, the ongoing, relentless propaganda drive that classical music has built in structural misogyny because there are not enough woman conductors and not enough woman composers. People keep writing that this has to be discussed more, brought out into the open. Of course there are innumerable articles hectoring us about it, week after week. We just don't get it! And we don't get it because the arguments are always statistical, but the reality is that classical music is still based on aesthetic quality, not statistics. If there were a woman composer equal to Bach, we would be listening to her. There are some outstanding women conductors like Marin Alsop, who has no lack of work--this year, again, she will be conducting the last night of the Proms. There are also women composers who are doing fine work, like Jennifer Higdon, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. But forget the quotas!

Third, classical music, like the Republican Party, is always dying, but never quite dies. One's musical tastes often change as one gets older, just like one's political views. So I have hope that classical music will survive for a while yet. But we have to be careful that in a confused attempt to resuscitate it, we don't destroy it in the process. And yes, I am looking at all those advisors who go around lecturing young musicians on how to "brand" and market themselves. If we can just reconcile ourselves to the fact that classical music is a bit more complex than the average pop song and just a tad elitist as a result, then we can stop contorting ourselves into being pseudo-pop stars.

Fourth, classical music is often accused of being too dependent on historical repertoire. Oddly, I don't recall the Louvre being accused of being too historical because of their collection, which prominently includes ancient Greek sculptures and the Mona Lisa, dating from the early 16th century. Nor the Prado for its extensive collection of Hieronymous Bosch (late 15th, early 16th century) and Francisco de Goya (18th century). Nor do we chide the Royal Shakespeare Company for focusing on the works of their 16th century namesake. Classical music has the enormous benefit of wondrous repertoire from the Middle Ages right up to last week. This is a plus, not a minus. Sure, like all composers, I would like to see more recent music on the programs, but I certainly don't think we should sacrifice Bach for Pierre Boulez. No quotas!

And fifth, there is the huge, ongoing, and possibly worsening situation of music education and the public perception of music generally. It is unpleasant to read very popular writers on music who lack the most basic historical or theoretical knowledge of music while at the same time our universities churn out hosts of highly trained musicologists and theorists who can't find work. I hope that the disappearance of discussion of classical music from the mainstream media is just a symptom of their general obsolescence and it is simply a case that we are all moving to the Internet.

So there are some real controversies, or issues at least. Please feel free to weigh in with your own opinions.

Let's end with some music. How about that non-Bonaparte Symphony No. 3 of Ludwig van Beethoven. Here is Christian Thielemann conducting the Vienna Philharmonic:


(I was going to put up the excellent Daniel Barenboim performance from the 2012 Proms, but I simply can't stand the BBC announcer's introduction.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

New Posts Coming!

I promise to have something nice up for you tomorrow. I have been spending a lot of time on composition and score editing and proofing which has taken my attention away from blogging for a couple of days.

But in the meantime, here are a couple of items I noticed. The BBC has an educational project called Ten Pieces that will be trying to promote classical music in the schools. This is a good thing, of course, as you have to start somewhere! The only interesting musical experience I recall from my schooldays was when the teacher in Grade 9, I think, played us what I dimly recall must have been the Rite of Spring. That would have been, hmm harumph, around 1964?

Here is a funny post from Slipped Disc about song lyrics you misheard. The one I recall getting wrong was from a Christmas carol. I thought they were singing "and a part of a juniper tree" but it turned out that the line actually was "a partridge in a pear tree" which doesn't make much more sense! Then there were those long nights spent huddled over a hot 45 trying to figure out the lines to Stones songs. Jumping Jack Flash? Turns out the first line actually IS "I was born in a cross-fire hurricane."


I know you have been laying awake nights wondering what the top conductors in Russia are earning and Norman Lebrecht has the scoop here. Number one is Valery Gergiev, of course, at $6.9 million dollars.

That will have to do you as I need to save something for my Friday Miscellanea. Let's have a little Gergiev. Here he is conducting the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky:


Wow, what a great opening!

Monday, May 18, 2015

More About Love Songs

A few months ago I put up a post titled "Love Songs" that was about a particularly absurd piece of pseudo-musicology that attempted to rewrite music history so that it was more politically correct. I just ran across a much more interesting article by Terry Teachout reviewing a new book by Ted Gioia about love songs. The piece is called "Love Songs, RIP." Ted Gioia describes the love song in this way:
Over the centuries, the love song has repeatedly challenged authoritarian rule and patriarchal institutions. It has demanded not only freedom of artistic expression, but other freedoms in matters both intimate and public. Moreover, these songs usually came from the young and disenfranchised, arriving on the scene with a vigor and insistence that unsettled the old and entrenched.
Which might be true, though I would love to examine some specific examples. I'm not sure how much Schubert's Winterreise challenged authoritarian rule and patriarchal institutions, though I suppose the Stones' "Brown Sugar" might have. But Terry makes a very interesting point regarding the recent history of the love song:
Gioia rightly points out that the traditional romantic love song has lately ceased to be as central to American pop music as it still was well into the ’70s. For now, while the pop charts are laden with songs about love, that love is often rendered in an anti-romantic manner that is sharply at variance with how love was customarily portrayed during the golden age of American popular song. But Love Songs says little about the underlying reasons for this shift and fails altogether to consider the possibility that the changed tone of the “love” song might be directly reflective of the splintered culture from which it springs.
Terry ends his review with a reflection about the sociology of the love song that Ted Gioia does not reach:
 One cannot make art about that which one cannot imagine, and now that nearly 70 percent of all children born to high school–only graduates grow up in single-parent families, it is improbable that the children of those families would feel inspired to sing songs that take an idealistic view of love. In much of America, love and marriage are a dream, not a reality, and our popular music will surely reflect that fateful transformation for a long time to come.
Hmm, lots to wonder about there. My first thought is that all love songs are a vector into the ideal, using imagination to create a virtual world of romance. And yes, even the sad and depressing ones, about failed love. Why do we listen to those? Because they offer catharsis. The imagined pains help us to endure our real ones. Terry's take seems to be completely empty of any sense of what art actually does: create imagined worlds that are interestingly different from our real ones. Most of the people who listen to rap and hip-hop are not millionaires dripping with bling, surrounded by willing women wearing very tight clothing. But that's the whole point, isn't it? And most of the people listening to the idealized love songs of the 20s to the 50s were probably not in ideal romantic relationships either. Terry misses the contrafactual nature of art. Art is about things that we can only imagine.

Here are a couple of love songs that are a bit out of the ordinary. The first, from the mid-1960s:


The second, from just a few years ago:


At least, I think the second one is a love song. Maybe we need to check the definition!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Arts in Education

Slipped Disc has a little piece about training conductors in the US:
Ambitious young conductors come from all around the world to study conducting in the United States. For decades our schools have sported internationally renowned Maestros, who have passed along their experiences and wisdom, lab orchestras and a plethora of performance opportunities. But is this golden age of conducting pedagogy coming to an end? From my standpoint the future looks uncertain.
The piece itself is rather innocuous, asking questions without delving into them. That is left to the first commentator who makes some good points:
I don’t think that one can see this particular academic shortfall as an isolated incident. One must accept and acknowledge that the USA is no longer a desirable place for study in many disciplines, but particularly in the arts. How can a society that has relegated the role of the arts to mass market entertainment, where arts education programmes have been tremendously cut in primary and secondary schools, still remain a leader in higher level arts/music education? It simply wouldn’t make sense. The average US teenager, or adult for that matter, has hardly any understanding nor appreciation of the arts in general. It’s true that the same could be said for other countries nowadays, but it has reached particularly low levels in the US. So low, that in recent surveys US high school students were, in the vast majority, unable to name two famous composers, or two famous painters. The majority also weren’t able to identify the location of the European continent on a world map. This mass ignorance at a national level has to have an impact on higher education in the USA and explains why the country is becoming a backwater for arts/music education and it will sadly only get worse in the future as the country continues its decline.
Now that's an opinion! A clearly-worded strongly-expressed opinion like this is worth engaging, unlike the innocuous blather you often encounter. How true is this view, though? I always have trouble with the idea that it is "society" that does anything. In this case "society ... has relegated the role of the arts to mass market entertainment." Society has no existence apart from the individuals that comprise it, therefore, "society" has no agency. Education in the arts has been cut because of a number of forces and trends. One of these, I am sorry to say, we can lay at the door of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This was an initiative of the Bush administration, but it received widespread bipartisan support. As a result, teachers are forced to "teach to the test" and the arts generally are considered frills in the focus on writing and math skills.

Modern society is enormously complex and what often drives public policy is private interests. The teachers and administrators have interests wildly different than those of the students and theirs tend to prevail. The truth is that it is largely intelligent and talented individuals who are attracted to the arts. Sadly, the current systems of education are actually hostile to intelligent and talented students so they are repressed and discouraged rather than encouraged and educated.

The fine arts have always been the special preserve of either an actual aristocracy or one of self-selection. They have never had the mass appeal that popular entertainment has (well, except for opera and some Romantic music). The arts when taught and practiced properly usually are not ideal vehicles for political indoctrination so they are not favored by politicians in general. As for big business, there is little money in the arts (except for some absurdly priced paintings and sculptures--$170 million for a Picasso? Give me a break!) so big business doesn't have a lot of interest either.


The arts do have enormous value to the individual who is able to understand and appreciate them. But these individuals are a minority. The trend in modern societies is for the state and its organs to control more and more of the lives of individuals so parents, for example, have less influence on their child's education and the state has more and more. While the parent may have an interest in cultivating the artistic education of the child, the organs of the state really don't. Again, there are exceptions. For some odd reason, Finland seems to be turning out an astonishing number of fine musicians, especially considering its small population.

As the ancient Romans observed, it is always illuminating to ask cui bono? Who benefits? None of the powerful institutions in society really benefit from education in the arts, so none of them support it. It is really up to us as individuals.

Let's listen to some Finnish music. Here is the Symphony No. 8 by Einojuhani Rautavaara, composed in 1999. Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Mikko Franck:


Shostakovich and Stalin

I'm surprised to see a quite good article in the Guardian about Shostakovich and politics. The title is "Putting the Stalin in Shostakovich" which is fairly awkward, but the article itself is a fair discussion of the release of Paavo Järvi’s recording of two pro-Soviet cantatas from a performance in Estonia in 2011. There was lots of controversy because while it is common knowledge that Shostakovich wrote a great deal of music praising the Stalinist regime as he was required to do, in contemporary performances the texts are usually altered to suppress this. Järvi gives the reason for using the original texts:
“I have grouped these three of Shostakovich’s cantatas together on one disk which has never been done before – two of them are very pro-Soviet and one is very critical of the Soviet system. Through these pieces, Shostakovich’s music tells the terrifying story of that time and I think that story is only truly effective if it is honest and not modified according to the fashions and political waves of the time. People should confront this uncomfortable part of history.”
This is, of course, admirable. Removing the texts praising Stalinist Russia is to blot out history. Yes, this is uncomfortable history, especially for those who still have a liking for socialist economics, but trying to turn Shostakovich into a dissident, as has been attempted, or simply trying to suppress certain works is as stupid and historically inept as altering texts of Bach cantatas because they are Christian!

I think this is the first part of one of the cantatas, The Song of the Forests, and from some of the comments, I think it may be using the original text. But my Japanese is even worse than my Russian, so I'm not sure. I also don't know the conductor and performers, but the concert is pretty clearly in Japan:


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Orchestral Etiquette or "Why is the Concertmaster Late?"

In the Friday Miscellanea I put up a link to an article on some odd, but frequently asked, questions about concert etiquette. One of them was:
6) Why is the concertmaster late?
It does look dubious when the most visible seat is unoccupied when the concert is set to start. I’ve even overheard some audience members in big cities remarking about how funny it was everyone applauded for the late musician. The lateness of the concertmaster is just another way audiences know the concert is starting and gives an extra minute to silence cell phones while the orchestra tunes.
It seems obvious that the writer had no idea about the correct answer to this one! The symphony orchestra concert has a long history and during that time a number of traditions have grown up. One of these is the special role of the concertmaster.  The Wikipedia article I just linked to is a bit of a stub, correct as far as it goes. If we go back far enough, we find that orchestras in the 17th and 18th centuries did not usually have conductors. But they did have concertmasters. The concertmaster is the leader of the first violins and, historically, the leader of the orchestra. It was he that tuned and directed the other players. Vivaldi was a famous example. Sometimes, especially in the case of a keyboard concerto, the keyboard player, usually also the composer, would tune and direct the orchestra from the keyboard. This is still sometimes done as we can see in this clip of a Mozart piano concerto played and directed by Mitsuko Uchida with the Camerata Salzburg:


In time, as orchestral compositions became more complex rhythmically and as the size of the orchestra grew from twenty or so players to over a hundred, the need for a conductor became evident. Beethoven was one of the first to conduct his own symphonies in public. Perhaps the first professional conductor who toured conducting various orchestras was Hector Berlioz.

But even as the conductor took over the task of directing the performance of the orchestra, the concertmaster still retained certain responsibilities the main ones of which are tuning the orchestra and organizing the bowings for the strings. If you notice that all the first violins' bows are moving in unison during the performance, it is likely because the concertmaster has marked them in the parts. Tuning the orchestra is the only part of the job that the audience sees. The concertmaster usually enters after everyone else is seated and calls for the principal oboe to sound an "A". (Why the oboe? It is the instrument least likely to be affected by changes in temperature or humidity.) Then he (or she) calls for each section to tune. Once everyone is tuned the concertmaster sits down and the conductor enters. If there is a concerto soloist, the soloist enters followed by the conductor. This hierarchy reflects the structure of the music, by the way, and is not just some dusty, obsolete rite! In the actual performance the conductor follows the soloist as the orchestra follows the conductor (and the strings, in particular, follow the concertmaster).

So it all makes perfect sense, both musically and historically. Here is a caricature of Berlioz conducting:



UPDATE: In modern times, as in the Uchida performance, the orchestra was likely tuned by the concertmaster playing an "A" on the piano before the soloist enters.

Awkward Musician Photos

If I had seen this yesterday it would have made the Friday miscellanea for sure! As it is, I can't resist sharing with you these "21 Extremely Awkward Band and Musician Photos".  It speaks well for the inherent good taste of classical musicians that only one of the 21 is of our tribe. And it causes me to offer profound thanks that there are no extant photos of any the bands I played in as a teenager. It was so long ago that it never even occurred to us to have photos taken! Here is a sample from the link, and, believe me, it is far from being the most awkward:


Beneath the layer of international celebrity there are hosts of striving musicians who, from time to time, demonstrate why they are musicians rather than, say, graphic designers?

Friday, May 15, 2015

"a disproportionate emphasis on the music of prior eras"

The thing about core assumptions is that we don't question them because we are barely aware of them. They are the ground on which we walk and on which everything rests. But occasionally you stumble over one and become momentarily aware of it. That happened to me reading Alex Ross' recent piece in the New Yorker about the Berlin Philharmonic's search for a new music director. The piece is here. The core of Ross' argument is that the celebrity music director is a kind of messiah, performing the dramaturgy of recreating the great pieces of classical music before our eyes. He says:
Not the least of the challenges that classical music faces is the increasingly unworkable celebrity-maestro model—a twentieth-century mutation, stemming from a disproportionate emphasis on the music of prior eras. It is fundamentally irrational for musicians to play the same passel of pieces over and over. Conductors serve to generate the illusion of novelty: as Theodor W. Adorno wrote, in his “Introduction to the Sociology of Music,” the maestro “acts as if he were creating the work here and now.” That top-tier conductors are almost always men is less an indication of institutional misogyny—though that certainly exists—than an inevitable consequence of the play-acting ritual: because the canonical composers are entirely male, so are their stand-ins. The modern orchestra concert is not entirely unrelated to the spectacle of a Civil War reënactment.
If orchestra schedules were tilted toward living composers, there would be less of a need for podium prestidigitation. (I don’t deny that the magic can be real: Furtwängler’s recordings with Berlin are soul-shaking documents, and even as a prematurely jaded teen-ager I could feel the Bernstein spell.) No longer obligated to perform a mass séance night after night, conductors could adopt the role of organizer, instigator, mediator—a role that Alan Gilbert, in New York, has been playing expertly. Likewise, if opera houses were to embrace more contemporary work, there would be less pressure on directors to reinvent “Figaro” and “Tosca.” Classical music is singular among major art forms in its bondage to the past. Imagine the condition of Broadway if it were restricted to dead playwrights, or of the publishing business if it endlessly repackaged Dickens.
Let's just unpack some of those claims. First of all, is the celebrity-maestro model increasingly unworkable? I doubt that the many fans of Gustavo Dudamel or Simon Rattle or Daniel Barenboim would agree. These artists are celebrities because they are powerfully expressive musicians and that is a "model" that is in no danger of going away. But Ross says this because he has another ax to grind: "It is fundamentally irrational for musicians to play the same passel of pieces over and over." If the falsity of this were not shown simply by his quoting Theodor Adorno in support (someone whose ideology of music is famous for being wrong) then a few simple observations will make it clear. Why do orchestras play music by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and others from previous eras? Ross ends his essay by quoting the 20th century bohemian American composer Harry Partch:
It was Partch who said, “There is, thank God, a large segment of our population that never heard of J. S. Bach.” No one has yet founded an orchestra on that principle.
Ross thinks that this proves his point, but in reality it disproves it rather neatly! Ross, like most progressives, has entirely eliminated aesthetics and aesthetic judgement from his consciousness. He really thinks that the only reason orchestras are in "bondage to the past" is that they are irrational or conservative (two words that for Ross mean roughly the same thing). Ross sincerely believes that if someone founded an orchestra on ignorance of Bach--founded it perhaps to devote to the music of Harry Partch?--that this would be the solution to the "disproportional emphasis on the music of prior eras."

Let me inject a little common sense into this. Orchestras and their management and directors have a keen interest in having audiences at their concerts. Audiences tend to like good music if they have some familiarity with it. For this reason, audiences enjoy hearing music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Mahler and so on. It is good--well, great, actually--music and they have some familiarity with it. They like to hear some new music from time to time, especially if it is not too inaccessible, but they don't want a steady diet of it. And they certainly don't want to hear a lot of the aggressively avant-garde music that Ross and his guru Adorno would advocate. An orchestra founded on the principle of giving audiences a lot of Schoenberg and Partch would be a short-lived orchestra.
Classical music is singular among major art forms in its bondage to the past.
Yes, it is and, remarkably, this is its strength. But this is only partly true. Is not the world of theater rather strongly based on Shakespeare? Painting and sculpture also are deeply connected to their pasts as well, but it is less obvious because modern visual artists have seen impressive financial success, unlike modern composers. But it is still quite obvious to me that Damian Hirst is far from being in the same league as Rembrandt, which is why people still flock to museums to look at Rembrandts. Just as they flock to orchestral concerts to hear Mozart. Philip Glass has written some pretty good stuff, but he isn't in the same league as Mozart, aesthetically. And neither is Schoenberg. Or Boulez.

This is the Chamber Orchestra of Europe playing Mozart: Piano concerto no. 27 in B flat major, KV 595 with soloist Maria João Pires. The conductor is Trevor Pinnock:



UPDATE: Oh, that core assumption that we are barely aware of? Baldly stated it is that the ONLY aesthetic value progressives like Alex Ross recognize is novelty. New is good. Old is bad. But that collides rather spectacularly with the fact that most classical repertoire is a hundred or more years old (even the Rite of Spring, written in 1913). Just like most great paintings are a hundred or more years old and most great plays are a hundred or more years old. How do people manage to erase this from their consciousness?

Friday Miscellanea

We start off today with a piece of sad news: B. B. King, master of the blues guitar, passed away yesterday at 89 years of age. I saw him play in concert in Montreal perhaps 25 years ago and he gave a great show. The highlight was his introduction to his most famous song. He told a long story about a woman and how things started to go wrong until one day he just up and said "The Thrill Is Gone".


Way, way back around 1970, one of the last things I did as an electric guitarist was record a few of my own songs double-tracked with me on vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar and bass and a couple of friends on drums and organ. The only song we recorded that was by someone else was "The Thrill Is Gone." Sadly, that tape disappeared years ago. I've got a couple of B. B. King's CDs sitting on my shelf including one collaboration with another guitar hero, Eric Clapton:


Now that's some fine and manly blues.

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Some manuscripts by Pierre Boulez, including Structures, his first venture into "total serialism", are about to come up for auction at Sotheby's. An example:


Tom Service blathers on about it in the Guardian.

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There is room for something a bit silly in the miscellanea today--like this little piece titled "Why Is the Timpani Player Smelling His Drums."
It took me a while to understand what this audience member was asking. But looking back at the timpani, I saw exactly what she was asking. The timpanist was putting his ear close to the drum heads, tapping lightly and trying to retune the drum while the orchestra was playing. But looking at it through an audience perspective, it did look like he was smelling his drums. His face (especially his nose) was right next to the drum head.
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There is a big kerfuffle going on now about the Berlin Philharmonic's search for a new music director. Norman Lebrecht in particular has been turning his feigned astonishment up to eleven and even Alex Ross is fulminating about it. The Telegraph has a more moderate comment on what is going on. The Berlin Philharmonic is one of those rare ensembles that elects their music director and there is apparently some internal difference of opinion.

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Alex Ross' piece in particular raised some broader issues so I am going to curtail this post and start a new one to talk about those issues. I leave you with the Berlin Philharmonic under their superstar conductor Herbert von Karajan playing the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven: