Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

We begin with the kind of formulaic article that isn't wearing quite as well as it used to: "If Male Musicians Were Described The Same Way As Female Musicians." Sure, it's funny. But the official subtext of an article like this is to show How Terribly Unfair We Are To Women. But the real reason this stuff is funny is a bit different. Take this quote for example:
In a white top that reveals just the smallest tease of greying chest hair, light blue denims and a tattered apron around his waist, Bruce Springsteen (65) invites us into his home.
Tattered apron? Okaaay. The thing is that female musicians present themselves differently than male musicians do. Here's an example: Jennifer Lopez (46):


If you can imagine Bruce Springsteen wearing anything like that, then you have a better imagination than I have!


Describing what Springsteen is wearing is comic because you are describing a basically utilitarian outfit as if it were fashionable. That's where the humour is.

* * *

Alex Ross alerts us to an interesting bit in an interview with Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki:
"No guilt when it comes to music. There are days when Led Zeppelin is the only right thing to listen to."
Mind you, if you use the Mayan calendar, as I do, then that day only comes around once every five thousand years.

* * *

Luxury hotels welcome us with even more annoying music! But they think they are being alluring: "How Luxury Hotels Lure You With Music" in the Wall Street Journal is about how hotels are tweaking their canned music:
When the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver wanted to attract younger travelers and add some pizazz to the nearly 40-year-old hotel, it ditched the jazz music in the lobby and the mellow lounge tunes in the restaurant. In their place? Upbeat and indie pop tracks, like “Groove Jumping” by the British DJ Jimpster, arranged by a music-curating company.
The new music “keeps us interesting,” says hotel manager Joerg Rodig. “For some people, Four Seasons the brand can be intimidating. We’re trying to take that intimidating away and just be welcoming.”
Ok, let's hear that Jimpster track:


Somehow that does not make me feel that I am being welcomed to a luxury hotel. It makes me feel edgy and ill at ease. That's hipster music! Do most people actually find that welcoming? I have to tell you that my prime criteria in selecting a restaurant to dine in is that they have NO music playing. The only exception would be ethnic music in an ethnic restaurant, which is ok.

* * *

The latest in copyright news is that "Happy Birthday" probably is no longer under copyright. So feel free to sing out the next time you are at a birthday party.
In other words, there's pretty damning conclusive evidence that "Happy Birthday" is in the public domain and the Clayton Summy company knew it. Even worse, this shows that Warner/Chappel has long had in its possession evidence that the song was at least published in 1927 contrary to the company's own claims in court and elsewhere that the song was first published in 1935. We'll even leave aside the odd "blurring" of the songbook, which could just be a weird visual artifact. This latest finding at least calls into question how honest Warner/Chappel has been for decades in arguing that everyone needs to pay the company to license "Happy Birthday" even as the song was almost certainly in the public domain.
* * *

Robinson Meyer, in The Atlantic, offers an extensive critique of how poorly classical music is handled in the new streaming model. Nico Muhly offers examples from his collection:
“To give you a really specific situation, there are two settings of the Te Deum text by Benjamin Britten. And it would seem to me that if you type in ‘Britten’ and ‘Te Deum,’ you would see some of them,” the composer Nico Muhly told me. “But it says, ‘no results found.’”
I want to submit to the record here that Muhly’s hard drive contains seven different files that could be reasonably called the Britten Te Deum. In fact, it contains more than 2,000 files, or 11.9 gigabytes, of music by Benjamin Britten. It also contains 97 different settings of the Te Deum text.
“What’s extraordinary about it is that I tagged everything really, really well. It’s in Artist, Album Artist, all these things are organized,” he said.
But when “Britten Te Deum” is searched—and he sent me a screenshot of this—nothing comes up. “It’s not like, let me show you too many results. It just does not compute.”
Read the whole thing. I have a pretty simple system that works quite well. Here let me show you:


 Now, of course, it is a tiny collection because I lost most of my CDs and all my LPs due to an Evil Moving Company. But my system works great. I have a shelf and on the shelf I have my CDs filed by composer. Early music collections appear at the very beginning and collections by specific performers appear at the end. Now it would be great if I had tens of thousands of MP3s. I guess. But not if I couldn't find anything. With my system I can find everything. Instantly.

* * *

Here is a moderately technical summary of how the music business is in very bad shape these days. The bottom line:
Sales of recorded music have declined by 70 percent since 1999, even while adjusting for inflation
* * *

 Norman Lebrecht at Slipped Disc alerts us to an upcoming musicology conference that seems to reach new highs in irrelevant triviality: "Music on the Move: Sounds and New Mobilities".
Breathing to sing, echoing screams in a cave, plucking guitar strings, applauding and clapping, surfing the web to download, dancing to music, performing foreign scores, translating an opera, chanting in protests or in religious processions. Sound is movement and music is on the move. Since the end of the 20th century, the notion of ‘mobility’ seems to be ubiquitous in social sciences as a prominent cross-disciplinary agenda. Many scholars even refer to a new mobilities paradigm or a mobility turn (Sheller and Urry 2006; Adey et al. 2013; Faist 2013) stressing the importance of movement when studying historical or contemporary societies and individuals (Cresswell and Merriman 2011; Dureau and Hily 2009). If the entire world might seem to be on the move, it has become crucial to understand ‘how the fact of movement becomes mobility’, i.e. how ‘movement is made meaningful’ (Cresswell 2006, 21).
And that was the introductory paragraph! Why is academia these days so often giving thinking a bad name?

* * *

The New Yorker has an interesting article on stage fright titled "I Can't Go On". Sample quote:
In a number of ways, stagefright doesn’t make sense. Laurence Olivier, when he was in his late fifties, was visited by a spell that lasted, intermittently, for five years, causing him great anguish. At the time, he was the most celebrated stage actor in England. How could he be frightened of failing? Ditto Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Baryshnikov was the most famous ballet dancer in the world, and he probably still is, though he ceased classical dancing some twenty-five years ago. Since then, he has built a successful career in modern dance and theatre. But he experiences terrible stagefright, and says that it has only got worse over the years.
Oh yes, this is very common, even among seasoned performers. A friend of mine grew more and more anxious about memory lapses every time he performed so he eventually stopped playing from memory entirely. And then there is the story of the famous cellist who fell downstairs one day, breaking his arm, and his first thought was "thank God, I don't have to play cello any more." (In the article a slightly different story is told about Casals.) Many very famous performers have struggled with stage fright. Segovia said once that every afternoon before a concert he sought to find a rationalization for why he had to cancel. Jascha Heifetz suffered a total memory lapse in a concerto performance that was so devastating that he walked offstage and never returned. In all these cases, the artist is very unforgiving of themselves which creates a kind of psychological dilemma: you need for the performance to be perfect, but you know it can't be and because of that, your anxiety just increases, which means that the performance will definitely not be perfect!

* * *

 Here is a clip about a cello built out of styrofoam. I wouldn't base a judgement just on hearing a video clip, but it sounds surprisingly good. I guess styrofoam is an acoustic medium like wood. I do know that some guitar builders have started using things like balsa wood bridges and carbon filament in the interior strutting of guitars, to good effect.

* * *

Courtesy of one of my commentators is this rather fascinating American Sign Language interpretation of an Eminem song:


* * *

And to end, here is an equally fascinating article about imaginary musical instruments titled "Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments".

That gives us our envoi for today: the ondes martenot, a real musical instrument that just sounds imaginary:


The most famous piece using this instrument is Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie:


So I guess I have to do a post all about that rather remarkable piece of music!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Holy Hokum, Batman!

It is hard for me to read any of this without wanting to disagree. Violently. "Sound yoga - ancient wisdom or New Age nonsense?" For me, to ask the question is to give the answer. Yoga may have many interesting virtues and there may even be a couple in New Age whatever. But this essay, just like a thousand before it, manages to diminish and dilute classical music even as it pretends to offer helpful counsel. As I have observed before, some of our "friends" are really our worse enemies. Here is the opening paragraph:
Classical music cannot stand still; so that means it must find new audiences. Western classical music has evolved into a highly dualist art form with clearly demarcated boundaries around its core offering of the orchestral and operatic repertoire. There is little debate that this repertoire must - and will - remain central to the art form. But it can be argued that to open up new markets the current watertight boundaries around that core offering must become porous. An example of a blurring of these boundaries would be an entry into the mind, body and spirit market; a market which a post here in 2011 pointed out was then worth around $11 billion annually in the US, compared with $200 million for classical album sales.
That is just stuffed with half-truths--which are much more dangerous than outright falsehoods. One of the first things that I look for in this kind of talk is the Passive Collective. Writers like this attribute many dubious things to these fictional entities. Here it is "Classical Music" which cannot "stand still" but must "find new audiences". Classical music in the sense proposed here, does not exist. Classical musicians of many different kinds exist and do have agency, but "Classical Music" in the sense of a canon of works, does not have agency, but is merely a cultural tradition and the choice of many people to play and listen to. So what you really have to say is that classical musicians have to find new audiences which is both more truthful and less interesting because we are already perfectly aware of this. Every orchestra is trying to add to its subscriber base every year and every young artist is trying to find or create his own audience.

The next bit about the "highly dualistic art form" is confused jargon. You can follow the link, but it is to an essay that merely states a bunch of contrived dichotomies. This is another favorite ploy: the false dilemma. You either have to be acclaimed or insignificant, classical or non-classical. It is nothing more than a debating trick. The "clearly demarcated boundaries" around the core repertoire disappeared decades ago, but writers like this keep tilting at those same tired windmills. The call for opening up new markets is a tired argument indeed as that is precisely what many musicians and ensembles have been doing--some of them to excess. A nice new shiny argument would be to say could we please stop all this ridiculous pandering and let the core repertoire be nice and corey?

And all this stuff about the "mind, body and spirit" market just makes me very, very tired. What those folks want to listen to is dreary soporific sludge. And they're welcome to it. Just don't ask us to provide it. Even if it is an $11 billion dollar market. We do have standards.

Sorry, I just didn't have the desire to read any further in detail. In the last paragraph he says, because of our dualistic, binary conditioning "inevitably, this post will be condemned as New Age nonsense by many." You bet!!

Now, let's have some non-soporific classical music that shows, I think, pretty successfully, why we don't want to be part of the "sound yoga" market. This is the HERZLIYA CHAMBER ORCHESTRA conducted by HARVEY BORDOWITZ in the second movement, Allegro di molto, of the Symphony No. 49 by Joseph Haydn:


Nothing today, but jam tomorrow!

I have a lot of work to do connected with an upcoming recording project, so you won't get a post from me today. But tomorrow's miscellanea will be chock full of good stuff. It starts with a photo of Jennifer Lopez in a particularly alluring dress and ends with a performance of Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. Only at the Music Salon! To whet your appetite, here is Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Concerto Guide: Anton Webern, Concerto for Nine Instruments, op. 24

I was just going to mention this piece and go right on to the Berg Violin Concerto, but I changed my mind so here is a short post on the Concerto for Nine Instruments, op. 24 by Webern, composed in 1934. The piece is tightly-constructed using a twelve-tone row, each three-note segment of which is a version of the others:

The first trichord being the prime form, the next three are, respectively, the retrograde inversion (backwards and upside down), the retrograde (backwards) and the inversion (upside down). Here is the first movement with the score:


Apart from that, I just don't have much to say about it. One interesting thing about this kind of writing is how quickly the possibilities were exhausted and even after the principles of serialism were extended to other parameters like rhythm, dynamics and articulations, how quickly that was exhausted as well. The repertoire of serialism is not really large.

The relationship between this piece and previous concertos is tenuous. It is obviously not a solo concerto in the Baroque, Classical or Romantic modes. It is more like a Baroque concerto grosso for a group of solo instruments, but without the orchestral accompaniment. This is like a crystalline distillation of music. I suppose, if you like this sort of thing, it is a masterpiece. But to start sensing that, you would have to listen to it many times. It does have its unique appeal, but despite the fond hopes of his admirers, I doubt that we will ever hear Webern's music whistled in the street.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Four Songs You Need to Hear?

Here's a piece from the Globe and Mail that intrigued me: "Four songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels's playlist of the week." I never quite give up on pop, nor should I. For every over-promoted talentless diva (*cough*Rihanna*cough*) there are several barely-known pretty good musicians. One I discovered a while back is an Australian song-writer who plays the banjo, Packwood by name. So let's have a listen to Sean's playlist. Go read the article, I'll wait for you...

Dum, de dum, de dum. Back already? Did you listen to all the songs? At least part of all the songs? OK, then let's talk. The first one "Stare Down the Barrel of Today" by The Highest Order, written and sung by Simone Schmidt is what I would call gloomy, meandering Canadian whiny Country, which is probably exactly what a lot of folks are looking for. You can tell it's Canadian because it doesn't have a nasty edge and the lyrics are kinda literary.

The next one, "Feel You" by Julia Holter is described as diaphanous chamber pop by Sean Michaels, but I would call it the musical equivalent of one of those blogs where somebody talks a lot about what their dog did today--with harpsichord stylings. Shockingly, Julia is not Canadian. She lives in Los Angeles and studied composition at CalArts. Doesn't seem to have helped a lot. I guess the "diaphanous" part comes from the weak, breathy, unsupported voice.

Next up is "You Satellite" by Wilco. Roger! This is also remarkably dreary in its aimless wandering between two fuzzy chords with washes of confused burblings. You know how contrived those old guitar solos sound nowadays? Well after the lengthy redundant strumming that ends this song I was really longing for a guitar solo.

Finally we have Wizkid feat. Drake & Skepta in a tune called "Ojuelegba". This actually has something to it. The musicians sound like they are involved in what they are doing and the production is fresher and cleaner. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this one is Sean Michaels's commentary:
Toronto should be ashamed of the 50,000 people who signed a petition opposing Kanye West’s appearance at the Pan Am Games’ closing ceremony. Yes, it would have been wiser to choose a Canadian. Yes, West is a jerk. But I can’t imagine an equivalent protest for a performance by equally non-Canadian jerks like Bono or Mick Jagger. White people in particular need to examine the biases that can make black musicians – especially young, outspoken African-American musicians – seem unqualified for certain roles.
What can you call that except a paroxysm of White Guilt? Honestly, if I were into signing petitions I would would be just as likely to sign one opposing Bono as Kanye West. Jerks and crappy musicians, both! But writing stuff like this is even more embarrassing than finding yourself in a Kanye West concert. Now there's a racist for ya. Can we have a petition pleading for Kanye West not to appear anywhere?

So there's your pop criticism of the week. No, don't thank me, it was a pleasure. Hey, just for fun, let's end with some good pop music. My favorite Japanese group is World Order, led by retired martial arts champion Genki Sudo. Here is the title tune from their new album Have a Nice Day:


Well, heck, let's listen to another one. This is "Informal Empire" which is a tribute to London and Great Britain (and to the cover of a certain Beatles' album):


Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Case of Elizabeth Maconchy

From time to time on this blog there have been discussions about women composers, usually in the context of demands for some sort of quota system to guarantee that a certain percentage (50%?) of premieres be guaranteed for women composers. Well, ok, I haven't seen it stated quite that baldly, but calls for overturning a supposed bias against women orchestral musicians and, in particular, conductors, seem pretty common. I usually push back against this sort of thing by saying that esteem and employment in the classical music world has been and should be based simply on artistic merit.

In order to justify that position, we really have to be prepared to honor merit when it is deserved. To that end, I want to introduce you to a woman composer of outstanding merit who has been shamefully neglected. One wonders why.

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907 - 1994)


Elizabeth Maconchy has a remarkably brief entry in Wikipedia, the entirety of which consists of this:
Dame Elizabeth Violet Maconchy Le Fanu DBE (19 March 1907 – 11 November 1994) was an English composer of Irish heritage.
Maconchy was born in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and grew up in the English and Irish countryside. She enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London at the age of sixteen studying under Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In 1932, Maconchy developed tuberculosis and moved from London to Kent.
In 1930, Maconchy married William LeFanu with whom she later had two daughters. Her first daughter, Elizabeth Anna LeFanu, was born in 1939, and her second daughter, Nicola LeFanu, was born in 1947.
That's it! This is followed by a list of compositions, fairly lengthy. Luckily some hard-working music bloggers are on the job and two in particular have written lengthy posts on Maconchy:
‘The Impassioned Pursuit Of An Idea': Elizabeth Maconchy And The String Quartet
and
How important is a composer’s music?
(Full credit to Alex Ross, by the way, for putting me on the track of Maconchy and those two bloggers.) Before we go any further, let's listen to some of her music. From the list of works we see that her output falls into three groups: thirteen string quartets written between 1932 and 1984, orchestral music written between 1926 and 1985 and concertante works written between 1926 and 1984. This is a very healthy output. Most commentary focuses on her string quartets, of which there is a complete recording from 1989. Amazon has some copies available, used. Here is the Quartet No. 11, dating from 1976, played by the Mistry Quartet:


While this music is sometimes described as neo-Bartók, it sounds as much like Alban Berg (or Shostakovich for that matter) to me as the rhythms do not really suggest Bartók to my ear. But that quibble aside, this is very fine string quartet music: impassioned, but concentrated, lyric but astringent. Well worth our time. But inexplicably we hear over and over and over again at string quartet concerts (I am going to a couple next weekend) a repertoire that consists only of the Usual Suspects (Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn) leavened with the Fashionable Composer of the Day (Thomas Adès, Esa-Pekka Salonen). And that's it. Now I think that this is mostly ok as this repertoire is the core of the canon. But why we keep hearing the same Brahms and Shostakovich over and over again and never hear Maconchy (or Weinberg as this is not really a gender issue) is the real mystery.

Let's hear some more. This is the String Quartet No. 3, dating from 1938 in a performance by the Signum Quartet during the 2013 Proms:


Here is how the second blogger linked above discusses Maconchy's remarkable exclusion from concert programs:
Elizabeth Maconchy was born ten years after Korngold, in the wrong place. Her birthplace, Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, is one of the few towns in the world that doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia entry. She had the wrong teachers. Ralph Vaughan Williams, who remained a close friend but not a musical influence, is forever branded an English pastoralist, while her teacher in Prague, Karel Jirak, remains as neglected as his pupil. She had the wrong life changing event. TB claimed her sister and father, and she contracted and recovered from the illness herself. This experience contributed to the development of her individual musical voice, and her single minded and painstaking focus. 
She also lived in the wrong place. Essex is a creative no-go area between the musical honey-pots of London and Aldeburgh. She didn’t network with musical movers and shakers, although she was the first woman to sit on the influential BBC music panel, and was also the first woman President of the Society for the Promotion for New Music. She was married to a historian for more than sixty years, and bore two daughters, one of whom, Nicola LeFanu, is a notable composer in her own right. And she wrote for the wrong genre. The string quartet stubbornly refuses to fit into the sound-byte culture of radio stations such as BBC Radio 3, where a single movement is rapidly becoming the largest acceptable single unit of musical currency.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong teacher, wrong genre? There are some implications of that: could it possibly be the case that the composers from those decades that we do listen to are simply more well known because they luckily were born at the right time in the right place, studied with with right teacher and wrote for the right genre? I think this could be put more clearly like this: a significant number of the composers that we adulate receive this praise and attribution of historical significance for reasons other than aesthetic ones. They were plausible ideologues like Boulez or Cage, wrote exactly the kind of tradition-breaking music that one expected, like Stockhausen, avoided the traditional genres, like all of those figures, and cultivated a distinctive public persona through adroit marketing (even if of a kind specific to classical composers).

Composers like Maconchy, who were really focussed just on working toward aesthetic goals are so easily neglected because they do not call attention to themselves, their eccentricities or personalities. Maconchy is not the kind of person who would write an essay titled "Britten is dead" à la Boulez or claim to write her music using the I Ching à la John Cage. No, she just wrote the finest string quartets she could. For 50 years. And now is forgotten.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Bob Dylan's song "Like a Rolling Stone" turned 50 years old this week and the Globe and Mail has a remarkably dull, rambling discussion of it. But hey, we can at least listen to the tune. Unfortunately you can't find the original on YouTube, but there is this version from a live performance:


You should really get out there and buy the CD. It also has Desolation Row on it, so, a bargain. The album, "Highway 61 Revisited" is only $6.99 on Amazon.

* * *

And for something completely different, here is a wonderful essay by Hilary Hahn (who is a surprisingly good writer) about the two most important teachers in her life. A sample:
The great value of what these days is called classical music is its span and reach. Over four centuries of influential composers, writing, details, concepts, and teaching have melded together into this winding, inventive, enlightening, divergent, derivative, and rebellious art form.
The only thing I would add is that the span of classical music is at least a 1000 years old, dating back to the first two important composers in Europe: Léonin and Perotin of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Mind you, they didn't write anything for violin!

* * *

Your go-to place for celebrity gossip is the Daily Mail, who have this article about the shallow narcissism of popular DJs complaining about everything from their limos to their deluxe hotel accommodation to line-ups for food. Remember a DJ is someone who, according to Wikipedia:
mixes recorded music for an audience
Or, as it seems a lot of the time, someone who plays pre-recorded drum tracks for an audience while waving his arms in the air:


These are the people who get paid big bucks while classical musicians scratch out a meager living. Not all the horrors of the future were predicted by George Orwell!

* * *

For more of a high-brow discussion, we find this article on the vocabulary of popular musicians. Astonishingly Eminem comes in first place followed by Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Kanye West and Bob Dylan. The Beatles are way down in 76th place. I'm wondering if they were counting all the different ways of spelling bitch and m**********r? Now if they were counting harmonic and melodic vocabulary, then the results would have been different, don't you think?

* * *

I've always thought that Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet was at the very limits of absurdity and this recent performance seems to bear that out. Courtesy of Slipped Disc.

* * *

Yet another chapter in the never-ending story of the assault by government agencies on musicians who travel.

* * *

I can't think of any way of linking a good piece of music to today's miscellanea, so here goes anyway. As our envoi today, the Symphony No. 5 by Jean Sibelius. Thomas Søndergård conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at last years Proms:


I just love the crispness and transparency of Sibelius' orchestration.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Memory

Let me set you at ease: this post will not be about the Andrew Lloyd Webber song from Cats. That would be simply too cruel. No, instead I am going to talk about music and memory and we will start with an article in The Guardian: "How to memorise a symphony." Go have a read.

Like the author, I too have little bits of tunes playing in my head. Also, like the author, a non-musical reference can spark a musical memory. You know, someone cancels a date and an hour later you find yourself humming "Don't Let Me Down" by John Lennon:


The article continues:
For neurobiologists, the fact that music sticks in our heads suggests an evolutionary origin. Darwin felt that both music and language evolved as part of an emotion-signalling system, initially based on imitating – and modifying – environmental and animal sounds. Studies show that the same brain regions process all these kinds of sounds, lending credence to the idea of a common evolutionary origin. My lab’s own studies show that music activates regions of the brain that are older than those that process language, suggesting music preceded language, as Darwin believed.
This is the kind of rote blather that always irritates me. Why does that fact that music can "stick in our heads" have anything to do with evolution? Or "evolutionary origin"? What could that possibly mean? These are really meaningless phrases that get tossed around without anyone really inquiring what is meant by them. And frankly, I'm not so terribly interested in what Darwin felt about music. If he had some evidence, that might be interesting. To my mind, all that is suggested is that the raw materials for music began in our environment: birdsong and so on. And would someone, please, explain what the phrase "common evolutionary origin" means. I have read it a thousand times and still have no idea. It always seems to be used in the cause of a crude reductionism. The Eroica Symphony by Beethoven is equivalent to the mating dance of the partridge is what I think they are secretly thinking.

Thankfully, after the pseudo-scientific boilerplate we get on to actual stuff about music.
I’m often asked if musicians have better memories than everyone else. The answer is yes – and no. Yes, they tend to have better auditory memories. Music unfolds over time, so a musician’s memory for auditory sequences has to be very good. But their memory for other time-bound things, such as birthdays or appointments, is not necessarily better than anyone else’s.
Oh, you bet. The case of the famous conductor comes to mind who was conducting from memory a lengthy orchestral score, but when it came time to say a few words to the audience he forgot the name of the piece! Different kinds of memory.

A lot of the article is just basic facts about how musical memory works:
All musical instruments, including the voice, require some movement on the part of the musician, and the brain has evolved very sophisticated mechanisms for learning motor-action sequences, the basis of tool use. When learning a piece of music, musicians learn and store in their memory a series of movements, and these are bound to their aural memory.
Some long-debated questions come up:
The distinction between playing from memory (“good”) and not playing from memory (“bad”) is not as black and white as it might appear. All playing is scaffolded on some type of memory: motor memory for scales and chords learned as a student, auditory memory of the piece and other pieces it reminds us of. The real question is whether the musician refers to written music or not. In a few contexts, such as studio work or a player sitting in as a substitute in a Broadway pit orchestra, reading is necessary because there is not enough time to memorise the parts.
So, on the whole, a pretty good introduction to musical memory.

Now for some comments. First of all, the one thing the article does NOT do is what the title promises: it does not tell you how to memorize a symphony! Ever notice how the headlines are just about always lies? Isn't that weird? Apart from telling us that conductors have perhaps the most prodigious memories, there is no mention of how they go about learning a score. Obviously it doesn't have much to do with "muscle memory". The article mentions that, but is vague about other kinds of musical memory. There are actually three, or perhaps four.

Muscle memory, which is not really in the muscles as the article says, is very important. It is by learning certain patterns and making them entirely automatic that a musician can perform virtuoso music. But these patterns are of two kinds: there are the physical movements required to produce the passage, the "muscle memory", but there is also the sound pattern that results. As the article says:
When learning a piece of music, musicians learn and store in their memory a series of movements, and these are bound to their aural memory.
So there is also the memory of the sound pattern. A performance is a fusion of these two things. But obviously it is different for a conductor. True, his arm movements do produce a sound pattern, but only via the medium of the orchestra, not directly. So I think that for conductors, and all musicians, really, there is another kind of memory. I will call this "structural memory" as it is memory of how the piece is put together. Conductors and other musicians have an understanding of the landscape of the piece, how one thing leads to another. On a basic level it is simply knowing where the repeats are. But on another level it is knowing about the modulations and relationships between themes.

What I am not sure of is how much this sort of thing is held in your conscious memory and how much it is, like most of our musical memorization, really submerged below the verbal level. I don't think I would be noting to myself internally "oh yes, now we have the development section." I would know it, be aware of it, in fact, be creating (or re-creating) it, but I don't think I would be saying that to myself. Our thoughts when we are playing are non-verbal thoughts. I had a philosopher claim to me that thought is always verbal, that non-verbal thought is impossible. But he was wrong. Having verbal thoughts when you are performing would just be a distraction.

Oh, there is one other kind of memory possible: this is visual memory of the score. Not sure how much this is the case, but I know some musicians who can visualize a score in their head and play from it.

One final thought: a very wise violinist one said to me that if you have any worries about having a memory lapse, then you should simply play from the score. I don't think I have heard any better advice.

The article mentions that the Aurora Orchestra are known for playing from memory. Here is a clip of them with an excerpt from the Symphony No. 40 of Mozart:


Yes, quite impressive, but it is really a stunt, isn't it? Ask yourself, is an orchestral performance better if played from memory? Not to my mind. One wonders whether Mozart would have thought it just a bit silly.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Dissonance and Sequence

I just don't have time to do my usual Concerto Guide this morning, so let me offer something else instead. Let me quote from Charles Rosen:
The two principal sources of musical energy are dissonance and sequence. On a large scale dissonance is by far the more powerful. To keep a piece going the early eighteenth century relied chiefly on sequence--a harmonic movement with the propulsive force of rhythmic repetition. The extension of dissonance to the level of the large structure, however, is largely the invention of sonata style and it is the dramatic tension of the prolongation of this dissonance with its balancing resolution that is the quality common to all the various sonata forms. [Sonata Forms, p. 244]
Which sparks the question: so how the heck do you drive a piece forward in the absence of either of those elements? To clarify: it is dissonance and the resolution of dissonance that is a source of musical energy. As for sequence, this is the technique of setting up an harmonic pattern that repeats at different levels. Here is the Wikipedia article for reference. This technique is extremely common in Baroque music and if you want an example, just about any piece by Vivaldi will provide one. There is a nice sequence starting at the 12 second mark that is repeated at the 18 second mark. Another one starts around the 25 second mark.



Now the thing is that with the advent of 12-tone or serial music, the whole idea of dissonance and resolution was declared to be obsolete. The slogan was the emancipation of the dissonance as if dissonances were just some oppressed minority! Now we could still have sequence, though its harmonic foundation was eliminated so all that remained was melodic sequence in the form of repetition of the 12-note series in different forms. Since the level of dissonance remained constant and the "melodies" were characterless series of pitches, music largely lost any feeling of direction or energy--except that provided by texture and rhythm. Steve Reich showed how rhythm alone could almost compensate for the loss of the use of dissonance and sequence.

But the problem remains, how can musical energy be generated in the absence of dissonance and sequence? It is a bit like, how can you replace all the gas and coal-fired power generation with solar and wind power? And the answer is, you can't: not cheaply and not conveniently. But the "narrative" in both cases says, "of course we can."

This explains, of course, why so much contemporary music seems to lack any kind of direction. It is remarkable how subtle textures, orchestrations and rhythmic structures have enabled the creation of music that seems lacking in the dissonance/consonance aspect and the sequence aspect, but still is very successful. I am thinking of music by Stravinsky, Schoenberg and others. But it remains the case that, in the absence of any kind of narrative underpinning (as in the Rite of Spring) or other non-musical framework, longer pieces are extremely difficult to construct given these limitations. We are still searching for alternatives to dissonance and sequence. That is not surprising: the principles and techniques of dissonance and sequence took hundreds of years to develop and it was only a hundred years ago that they were tossed aside. It may be a while yet before we have discovered new ones.

No, writing a fifteen minute long piece for orchestra that consists of drones, flurries of rhythmic activity, changes of orchestral colour and crescendos does not actually have much in the way of real musical energy, though this kind of thing has won a few Pulitzer prizes lately.

And in the meantime, hey, we can always listen to hip-hop. Yeah, that's it!


Monday, July 20, 2015

Classical Careers and Economic Pressures

I just read a fascinating little item over at Slipped Disc: "Big Banker Shows Pluck for Classical Guitar." Norman writes:
Marcelo Kayath is head of Latin American Securities at Credit Suisse in Sao Paolo. That’s big in banking, we’re told.
UPDATE: He’s been promoted to managing director of Credit Suisse in Brazil.
Before he climbed behind a desk, Marcelo was Brazil’s bright hope on the classical guitar. He was pretty good, we hear.
To stay in touch with his past, and to promote the instrument’s future, Marcelo has now launched an online launchpad for new guitar talent – such as Naumburg winner Jorge Caballero – and international guitar events.
The thing is that I know Marcelo Kayath--I mean we aren't beer-drinking buddies or something, but I remember him very well from the Toronto guitar festival and competition way back in, I think it was 1978. For a few years the Toronto Guitar Society held some very successful festivals and competitions. I think the years were 1975 (when the winners of the competition were Sharon Isbin, first and Manuel Barrueco, second), 1978 when the winner was Marcelo Kayath, and, I think 1984. I don't remember who the winner was then, but I was possibly distracted because I was giving a solo recital as part of the festival.

In any case, in 1978 I followed the competition very closely. Marcelo Kayath wasn't my favorite of the finalists. I think that would probably have been David Tannenbaum whose repertoire I liked better. But Marcelo was a very fine player indeed: big, beautiful romantic sound and a near-impeccable technique. For the final round he did an outstanding and lyrical performance of the Concerto by Castelnuovo-Tedesco with orchestral accompaniment. He won the competition and soon after released a pretty darn good Cd. But, according to the Slipped Disc item, he gave up his career as an international classical guitar virtuoso for a career in banking--which he seems to be doing splendidly at.

I have a lot of familiarity with this sort of thing as I have experienced some of it myself. Notice something first of all: both of the finalists in the 1975 competition went on to big careers. I don't recall who else was a finalist, but I have the vague recollection that they had pretty good careers as well. But the finalists in the 1978 competition have not fared nearly as well. Marcelo Kayath has become a banker and David Tannenbaum had a very modest career. And I don't even remember who the finalists were in subsequent competitions. The winners of a similarly high-profile competition, the Guitar Foundation of America one, held annually, are also having careers of remarkable obscurity. Just to cite one example, the winner of the 1994 GFA competition, which I attended (I was giving a lecture on the Brouwer guitar concertos as part of the festival) was Margarita Escarpa, a Spanish guitarist who gave one of the most delightful and liquid performances of Bach I have ever heard. But she seems to be virtually unknown career-wise. She released an obscure recording of Fernando Sor on Naxos (that's one of the competition prizes) and teaches at an obscure Spanish conservatory.

I think something started trending in the late 1970s that has just gotten worse ever since. The earliest recitals I gave, in the mid-70s, were very well-attended, paid not bad and were not hard to organize. But as time went on, the attendance dropped, it got harder to find recital engagements and the pay didn't get any better. A very high-profile concert where I was the soloist with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra in a concert honoring Brazil with the Brazilian Consul in attendance in the biggest and best concert hall in Vancouver and that was recorded and broadcast nationwide paid, wait for it, $1300 CAN. I played the Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto and some of his solo music.

The solo recital has become an endangered species as two important trends collide: on the one hand, mass market pop music dominates the music business so much that classical musicians can barely earn a living, especially in the mass media which includes radio, television and the new streaming services. And on the other, people are much less inclined to attend live concerts when they can sit at home and listen to recordings.

For these reasons, even highly talented artists such as Marcelo Kayath or Margarita Escarpa or (blush) myself have two unattractive options: on the one hand, like Margarita, you can keep slogging away with the occasional concert and a whole lot of low-paying teaching. I did this for 30 years. Teaching music, much of the time, consists in being trapped in a small room for hours on end with people who have little or no musical talent, telling them over and over again that there are TWO beats in a half note. The alternative is that you give up your music career entirely and become a banker or some other profession that rewards intelligence and creativity instead of punishing it as the music business often seems to do.

The most talented student I had who was a high-school student when I taught him, never for a moment considered a career in classical music even though he had the ability. Instead he chose to study law.

Like Marcelo Kayath, the option I have chosen is to have a remunerative non-musical career, but one that allows me enough time to devote to composition, something I never had before.

But there are still a few super-stars like Hilary Hahn that undoubtedly could do something far more economically rewarding, but choose to do music and can earn, if not really large amounts of money like a mid-rank hip-hop artist, then at least a pretty decent living. I just hope that continues.

This is Hilary Hahn playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paao Järvi:


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Transitional Figures

Perhaps the two greatest figures in music history are J. S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Bach flourished during the first half of the 18th century, dying in 1750, and Beethoven flourished during the very end of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th, dying in 1827. Bach's career was a summation of all the glories of the Baroque with his mastery of harmony, motivic development and counterpoint where Beethoven summed up the Classical style with a rather different concept of harmony and development. His later symphonies, piano sonatas and string quartets were written as pure developments of the fundamental principles of Classical style and against the more superficial decorative chromatic style that was popular in the early decades of the 19th century. In so doing he laid down a powerful challenge to all composers for the next hundred years and more. Similarly, Bach's influence continued long after his death. The quality of their work and its lasting influence are two reasons why they are both considered to be in the first rank of composers.

But what about those more shadowy figures, the ones that provide the transition between these two mountain peaks? Who are they and can we trace the movement from one era to another? In this case, the change from the Baroque to the Classical era, we can indeed. Music history, like all history, is enormously complicated, but the fundamentals are clear. In this case, we need to go back to J. S. Bach and in particular his sons. Uniquely in music history, Bach had three sons, all trained by himself, that were three of the most important composers in the next generation. I wrote about the Bach family in this post titled "Bach Family Values."

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach went to Berlin and Hamburg for his career, both in northern Germany. The northern style was more emotionally intense (termed the empfinsamer Stil) than the southern style that we will get to in a minute. Here is a painting of him accompanying Frederick the Great at his palace San Souci in Potsdam outside Berlin. Notice that C. P. E. Bach is sitting with his back to the audience, which answers a recent question:

Click to enlarge
They were likely playing a flute sonata by C. P. E. Bach. Here is one for violin, flute and continuo that I chose because we can see how modern performers have changed the positioning of the instruments onstage:


The younger J. C. Bach followed a different path journeying to Italy and then settling in London. His style, influenced by the sunny lyricism of Italy, was lighter and more melodic than that of C. P. E. Bach and is usually called the galant style. Both sons adopted a more harmonic, less contrapuntal texture than their father. They are both transitional figures between the High Baroque and the Classical eras. How did that work? Leaving out a lot of detail and minor figures, C. P. E. Bach was a large influence on Joseph Haydn. As I said the other day, C. P. E. Bach came up with about half of the fundamentals of Classical style and Haydn took it the rest of the way. J. C. Bach, on the other hand, was a big influence on Mozart who met him in London as a boy. Mind you, a boy on a major European tour! The first few piano concertos by Mozart are actually his arrangements of keyboard sonatas by J. C. Bach. Here is one of them:


We can see traces of the influence of the northern style in Haydn's sometimes striking harmonic leaps and his focus on just a few motifs. In Mozart, the southern style shows itself in the melodic luxuriance and sheer charm of the music.

There are lots of transitional figures in music history and I always find them fascinating--probably because we are in one of those transitional phases right now, stumbling to find our way from the strictures and extremes of Dada Modernism to whatever comes next. For quite a while now we have been rediscovering the pulse and consonance, but apart from that, the engine of the next musical style is not yet clear.

Another couple of interesting transitional figures are Monteverdi, bridging the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque, and DuFay, the one between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Beethoven, one of the most complex figures in music history, as I was hinting at above, is not a transitional figure. Virtually everything that you read about him in program notes and liner notes on CDs, not to mention the Wikipedia article, says that he was:
A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music
Not true! He showed signs in his earlier music of being just that, but instead changed course and honed and focused his style on being the culmination of Classical style and not a harbinger of Romantic style. The Romantics tended to dilute the focus of Classical harmony in favor of adding chromaticism and remote harmonic regions. Not Beethoven. As Rosen writes:
The works of Beethoven's last period, indeed, often represent a contraction or even a distillation of classical procedure rather than an expansion ... For these reasons it may be justly claimed, as Tovey did, that Beethoven's innovations are largely a conflation of Haydn's and Mozart's different methods, and that he is best comprehended within their tradition; to Haydn's dynamic sense of continuous motivic development he added Mozart's feeling for long-range movement and the massive treatment of subsidiary key areas ... In this respect above all Beethoven stood almost alone in his time: as the underlying material in the works of all his contemporaries grew more complex and more chromatic, the basic motifs of Beethoven's music became simpler and more diatonic, very often the fundamental elements of the tonal language itself.

I think that the reason that we have so widespread a wrong conception of Beethoven is that the Modernist ideologues have distorted music history to support their concepts. Beethoven was a great composer, therefore he was innovative, radical and looking to the future. And in some ways he was, but not in the way they required for their ideology!

The true transitional figures from the Classical to the Romantic eras were figures like Carl Maria von Weber, Hummel, Clementi, Dussek and, possibly, Schubert. So much of what he did was Classical and he died so young that we don't know what path he might have chosen. He may well have distilled out the Classical style as Beethoven did, or developed a more Romantic concept of harmony as we see in his frequent use of the flat submediant.

To end this rather long post, here is a very late Beethoven string quartet that has everything to do with the Classical style and nothing to do with Romantic style. The String Quartet in F major, op. 135. The performers are the Alban Berg Quartet:


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Too Many Notes?

There is a famous scene in Amadeus, the movie based on the life of Mozart, where the Emperor congratulates the composer backstage after the successful premiere of an opera. Excellent work, he avers, but there were just too many notes:


While the movie is a good effort, well, decidedly that, the characterization of Mozart is rather off at times, such as here where Tom Hulce begins by doing his Sally Fields impression: "you like me, you really like me!" And ends by directly contradicting the emperor, something a tad unlikely.

Ironically, while the real Mozart, as opposed to Haydn, luxuriated in a wealth of themes in his music, you really couldn't accuse him of writing too many notes. That honor should be reserved for people like Jan Ladislav Dussek, who was famous for never writing one note where he could write a dozen. He was an influence on the later composer/pianist Franz Liszt who also excelled at excess.

Let's have some examples. First of all some piano music by Mozart. This is the Piano Sonata No 16 C major, K 545, played by Daniel Barenboim:


Now for some Dussek. This is the first movement of the Sonata op. 75 in E flat major, but we are not told who the performer is:



At first you might think it sounds a lot like the Mozart and they do share the same musical vocabulary. But as the music progresses I think you might notice the redundant octaves, the fortes and the repetition just for the sake of repetition. Dussek tends to just overdo everything. But for the real specialist in too many notes we have to turn to Liszt. Here is his Transcendental Etude No. 4:


Apologies to all the pianists out there, but the piano seems to specialize in wretched excess, probably because it is a very cleverly designed mechanism for producing the greatest number of notes with the least effort. Though there are quite a few examples for the guitar as well! Of course, the great composers did not fall into the trap of writing "too many notes" but just the right number. This is the Haydn Piano Sonata nº 59 in E flat, Hob. XVI:49 played by Alfred Brendel:


Friday, July 17, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

You would think that this might be interesting, but it really isn't: a compilation of different versions of the first two opening chords of the Symphony No. 3 by Beethoven by different orchestras and conductors from 1924 to 2011:


What we are mostly hearing are small differences in tuning (and later on, with the Early Music folks, the difference between A = 415 and A = 440) and variations in hall ambiance. Courtesy of Slipped Disc.

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This next item calls for a trigger-warning: Norman Lebrecht over at Slipped Disc shamelessly posts this guaranteed clickbait: "The Bad Sex Guide to Opera." Featured are the worst sex scenes in contemporary opera productions. This blog would never sink that low just to attract more traffic. Almost that low, perhaps, but not quite that low.

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I'm not sure, but I think this is depressing:
Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.
That's from this article "The Battle Is For The Customer Interface." I'm not sure what the implications for music are, but they don't seem good. Interface companies, as they deal with people in great numbers, are always erasing subtle variations in favor of a pipeline of essentially bland content. At least that's my sense of how it works with music. Uber, though I haven't used it, sounds like a terrific idea, but I am less a fan of Facebook and the streaming music services. In the battle for the music-lover's dollar, it seems that the musicians and composers are getting less and less. What do my readers think?

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This, from the New Yorker, is my favorite cartoon:

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The Wall Street Journal has a consumer's guide to wireless sound systems. This quote should give you an idea: "You tap on your phone or tablet and you’re grooving to any song in any room in seconds." Not me, dude, not me! I think I got my Harmon Kardon system just in time, because soon they are going to stop manufacturing systems that play CDs entirely. That's going to be another problem for those few companies that are still putting out CDs...

* * *

It is the 21st century: Clapping Music by Steve Reich is now available as an app for the iPhone.


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And, in other 21st century news, "Hip-hop is the most listened to genre in the world, according to Spotify analysis of 20 billion tracks." The record for the most number of streams in a day was 9.6 million achieved by Kendrick Lamar with his new album "To Pimp a Butterfly". I looked at a couple of tracks from it and there is nothing there that I would want to post on this blog. For several reasons.

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Here, from the Guardian, is Philip Clark's excursion into the weirder corners of the music world with several people of whom I have not heard before (and a couple I have). No promises, but you might find something interesting there. The odd thing for me is how often these supposedly extreme examples of music experimentation sound just like a 60s jam session aided with psychedelic pharmaceuticals:


Cool picture of Edgar Varèse, though:

Click to enlarge

* * *

Another piece of new music from Alex Ross: The Difference Engine by Dario Palermo (b. 1970) sounds just like, well, a hundred other pieces of its ilk. How to describe it? Agony in outer space? There always seems to be these random floaty sounds interspersed with unpleasant little moments. Sure, its all about the inhumanity of man to man. But, frankly, shouldn't it be a little more, well, interesting? Musically?

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Neil Young is contemplating taking all his music off the streaming services because of the quality of the audio. Oddly enough, in his case, I find myself not too concerned. It seems that all we hear about lately is how one artist or another is either putting their music on such and such a service or taking it off: Prince, Taylor Swift. All this perpetual jockeying for position makes me even more reluctant to sign up for a streaming music service: the audio quality is lower and music that you supposedly "own" can disappear at any time depending on the whim of the artists or company. So you don't actually "own" anything. So what are you paying for? The "right" to have access to millions of songs you probably couldn't care less about?

* * *

Our envoi (follow the link for the definition of envoi) for today is a genuine piece of experimental music: the Symphony No. 1 in D major (W. 183) by C. P. E. Bach composed in 1775/76 in Hamburg. In this and other pieces, C. P. E. Bach (son of J. S. Bach) developed entirely new ways of structuring music using periodic phrases and motifs that could be modified according to their role in the structure: exposition, development or recapitulation. The development of techniques like these took music halfway from Baroque style to Classical style. Haydn took it the rest of the way. This is Ton Koopman conducting the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana:


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wittgenstein and Richard Strauss

Nothing much for you today except for this little anecdote about the musical tastes of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Wittgenstein's reactions to the program are indicative of his musical tastes. Bach, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert and Brahms's compositions are usually received with enthusiasm, while those of Strauss usually avoided. On October the 4th, 1912, for example, Wittgenstein and Pinsent attend a concert “with Brahm's Requiem "splendidly performed--those climaxes in it are simply indescribable--W said he had never enjoyed it more--and he has heard it pretty often…..The second half of the concert began with two selections from Strauss' 'Salome': W refused to go in for them, and stayed outside till the Beethoven….The Beethoven following was the 7th symphony--gorgeous."
From here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Experience of Beauty

In Monroe C. Beardsley's Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism he describes aesthetic objects as "perceptual objects". He proposes, as he calls it, "a form of phenomenalism", i.e. that
critical statements about artworks might be translatable into statements about their presentations, i.e., their appearances to particular persons at particular times [op. cit. p. xxiv]
In a counter to this, Bruce Morton in a paper titled "Beardsley's Conception of the Aesthetic Object" apparently showed that this cannot actually be carried out. But I think that we might productively revisit a somewhat different version of this question. I say this because of a debate that began in the comment section yesterday.

[Note: There is a useful discussion of the question of phenomenal objectivity in the Beardsley volume starting on p. 34. It seems clear that we can logically distinguish between those aspects of the aesthetic object that cause us to experience beauty and the experience itself.]

This debate took place in the comments to the last of three posts I put up examining in some detail an interesting essay by the great Scots philosopher David Hume titled: "Of the Standard of Taste". I encourage you to go read those three posts, even though they do go on:


http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2012/09/aesthetics-some-hints-from-david-hume.html


http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2012/09/aesthetics-hume-part-2.html



http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2012/09/aesthetics-hume-part-3.html

One of the things that Hume says is this:
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.
I elaborated on this in a later comment:
I think that it is the case that certain kinds of things in the world can cause us to perceive beauty. That is, beauty is something that is perceived, given certain sorts of stimulus. It is the reception of the stimulus rather than the origin or ground of the stimulus that is the moment of beauty. The sunset is beautiful IF there is a human being sitting in the right spot to see it with his eyes open and awake. Otherwise it is just a bunch of light and reflections, maybe some clouds. A piece of music can be beautiful if it is performed well and there are people there to hear it. The moment of performance and hearing is the moment of beauty. The printed notes on the page are not "beauty". This is how I think it works.
To which my interlocutor replied:
I think I would argue, without having the sources and authorities immediately at my fingertips, that the sunset is beautiful in itself and perceptible ('beautiful-in-itself-and-perceptible')-- although we can intellectually distinguish the beautiful thing/event from its perceptibility-- to any who look toward it willing to see, to perceive. That sunset that is happening now is beautiful whether one or one thousand pairs of eyes are following it, or none. Put in another way, this the problem of the tree falling in the woods: I think the ancients (although not all the ancients), and people up until perhaps what some call the early modern age would say, yes, of course the tree falling makes a sound. Modern people say, no, if there is nobody to hear, there's no sound.
The beautiful, I would go on to say, contrary to what looks to be your position, shares, by its nature, in the transcendental attributes of being in a way that is perceptible to the senses and intellect. 'It is the reception of the stimulus rather than the ground that is the moment of beauty'-- I think the 'reception of the stimulus' is, oh I don't know how to describe this, an epiphenomenon that is consequent (not so much in time but as an intellectual concept) to the beautiful object/event.
And I answered:
 I think that this discussion is one of the truly important ones. Certainly I have only thought about it in a fairly superficial way. But, just to take up one thread, I think that the "sound of the tree falling in the forest" as opposed to my sunset example, is a very indicative one. Yes, I would argue that the tree falling in the forest certainly makes a sound even if there is no-one there to hear it. We could find a tree about to fall and set up a recorder nearby to record the sound when it falls. Or, if it were a large tree, we might go back later and take note of the physical damage, effect on nearby trees and bushes and estimate the sound it made much as scientists have estimated the magnitude of earthquakes long after the fact from physical evidence. BUT, and here is where the rubber meets the road, I would argue that Beauty, while certainly objectively existent, is not of the same order of being as, say, the sound of a tree falling. Beauty is something that can only be experienced by a human being, much like the Good and the True. We can't make a recording of Beauty any more than we can of the Good or the True. Now, let me hasten to say, it seems as if we can. We can record a fine musical performance and, upon listening to it later, experience the beauty of it. But I still want to say that the Beauty is in the experience, not in all those little zeros and ones on the CD. What the recording does is freeze the efficient causes of Beauty so that they can be imbibed at a later date.
Hume accounts for the variation in judgement of things like beauty by the natural variation in individual persons in the operation of things like prejudice, distraction, greater or lesser "delicacy of taste" which we would probably describe as acuity of perception and observation and so on. But he grounds the possibility of objective aesthetic judgement in the aesthetic object itself and in the general uniformity of the organs of perception. I am giving a very bald summary; I strongly suggest reading all of Hume's essay, and, if you have time, my commentary.

Let me add just one caveat: discussions of aesthetics like this usually have the underlying, unstated assumption that we are talking about fine art contemplated in ideal surroundings: standing in front of a late Goya at the Prado or listening to the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein Golden Hall in Vienna. But a great deal, a great deal, of music is quite different from this and that should be taken into account. Music is often context-oriented: if you are 18 and out on a Friday night, you want to be hearing hip-hop or EDM in a club with a lot of flashing lights. Disinterested aesthetic contemplation ain't in it! Similarly, jazz is ideally experienced in a club setting, though without the flashing lights and with suitable beverages. A lot of music has more of a social function than an aesthetic function. Mind you, I have a lot of fun sometimes doing an aesthetic valuation of a piece of music obviously not intended for such. But, as I say, that is just for fun.

Speaking of the Vienna Phillies, let's listen to them for our envoi today. Here is a piece by a composer I don't think I have ever mentioned here: Richard Strauss. His Alpine Symphony is conducted by Bernard Haitink:

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Concerto Guide: Shostakovich, Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, op. 35

This piece, usually just called his Piano Concerto No. 1, was written in 1933, just two years after the Stravinsky Violin Concerto we discussed last week. Shostakovich was quite young, twenty-seven, and he wrote this for his own use as a performer (he was an accomplished pianist). It bubbles with youthful exuberance. The Wikipedia article I linked above cites a book on Shostakovich as pianist in saying that the concerto is "an experimentation with a neo-baroque combination of instruments." I don't have the book handy, so I haven't read the argument for that, but as there is nothing exclusively Baroque about the combination of piano, trumpet and strings, I suspect that it might be because this superficially reminds one of a concerto grosso with more than one solo instrument. But the way the music unfolds is very un-Baroque. It is full of quotations and the piano completely dominates with the trumpet offering witty asides from time to time. The piece, while certainly possessing a neo-Classical flavor, is quite unique.

Unfortunately, I cannot come up with the score for this piece (though I did find that of his second piano concerto, dedicated to his son Maxim) so you won't get any music examples.

At this time in Shostakovich's career he was writing a great deal of music for film, theater and ballet and was becoming quite well-known as a result. Shortly after completing his opera Lady Macbeth and a set of preludes for piano, he began work on this concerto, his first foray into a large symphonic form since his Symphony No. 1 of several years earlier. Early comments from Shostakovich's ex-composition teacher Maximilian Steinberg referred to the piece's brash hodge-podge of styles which included quotes from Beethoven, Haydn and Mahler as well as stylistic references to music-hall and jazz styles. In the last movement, where the trumpet comes to occupy a role nearly as important as the piano, we hear fanfares that always seem to be on the verge of quoting the William Tell Overture of Rossini--a theme that recurs in his Symphony No. 15.

I think that while the Piano Concerto No. 1 is certainly not the kind of ideological "statement" that might have come from another composer of the time, it has shown itself to be a successful piece over the years, popular with both performers and audiences. It reveals a side of Shostakovich that those familiar with his symphonies and string quartets may not know: the young pianist who, to support his family, played piano in cinemas to accompany silent films (later, he was commissioned to compose scores for silent films). Shostakovich's ballets, film and theater music are very little known, but in this concerto, we get a taste of what they are like.

Again, sorry for the lack of musical examples, but I think you will enjoy this music even in their absence. Here is Khatia Buniatishvili, piano; Rainer Küblböck, trumpet with the Vienna Symphony conducted by Philippe Jordan:


Monday, July 13, 2015

Are you hearing things?

I mean, things that aren't actually there, auditory hallucinations. Apparently, according to this story in Globe and Mail, this isn't necessarily a sign of mental illness: "How hearing voices, long assumed a sign of mental illness, can be a part of the human experience." Well, sure, but mental illness is also part of the "human experience" too. The headline should have read, "Just because you are hearing voices, it doesn't mean you are nuts!" But that would be too, uh, un-Canadian.
As researchers are discovering, auditory hallucinations are neither rare, nor necessarily a sign of serious mental illness. A large study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in May, involving 31,000 respondents from 18 countries, found as much as five per cent of the general population experiences auditory or visual hallucinations at some point in their lives. Scientists, health professionals and people who experience them are beginning to view them as a meaningful part of the human experience and not just as a problem that needs to be treated or eliminated.
The article seems to conclude that these phenomena are just particularly vivid memories or something--they aren't terribly clear--instead of a symptom of schizophrenia.

The interesting thing about this is its potential implications regarding composers and creativity. Composers who talk about this sort of thing, and most don't, say things like "it just came to me" or, as Bob Dylan described it:
“I’m not that serious a songwriter,” he says, a smile on his lips. “Songs don’t just come to me. They’ll usually brew for a while, and you’ll learn that it’s important to keep the pieces until they are completely formed and glued together…I’m not thinking about what I want to say, I’m just thinking ‘Is this OK for the meter?’ “But there’s an undeniable element of mystery too. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.”
Don't take that first part too seriously, but the bit about the ghost is interesting. I have had the experience many times of having a motif or whole passage just come to me, often in the shower. I keep humming it to myself until I can get to the computer! But, in the case I am thinking of, the working out of the whole composition just started with that. The ending was particularly difficult and to date I have re-written it six times!

But what interests me here about that story is that, while they talk a lot about hearing phantom voices, there is also the phenomenon of hearing phantom melodies or instruments. Composers, as I said, don't like to talk about this, but I wonder if sometimes an auditory phantom might have been the seed from which a piece of music grew?

But a seed is just a seed: all that growing and developing needed to turn it into a full-fledged piece of music is what the craft and art of composition is all about.

One of the most famous examples is the story behind the song "Yesterday" by Paul McCartney. He woke up one morning and the whole tune was just there, in his head. So he went to the piano and worked out the chords for it. For a long time he thought that it was a tune he had heard somewhere, but everyone he played if for denied knowing the tune. It just sat there for quite a while with the title "Scrambled Eggs" because he didn't have any lyrics for it. But finally he came up with the lyrics and voilá: "Yesterday". Part of the genius was definitely finding the right bittersweet lyrics to go with the melody. Oh, and there are something like 2500 cover versions of this song, which makes it one of the most popular ever written: