Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cutting Costs at the Met

A friend just sent me this article from The Strad: "Metropolitan Opera must cut orchestra and chorus wages to avoid bankruptcy, says manager." Here is the gist of it:
Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb has warned the New York company could face bankruptcy in two or three years if it does not cut the cost of orchestra and chorus wages. Speaking on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme, he suggested cutting 16 per cent of the Met’s $200m labour costs by changing work rules; orchestra and chorus members are currently paid for at least four performances per week when they often perform less.
He adds:
‘Putting on productions is expensive,’ he said. ‘What we have to do is make it less expensive – not by going back to the stone ages of opera theatre and having productions that no one will want to see, but by cutting down on the labour costs. The box office has not increased, it’s been flat which represents a shrinking playing field for opera – it’s not a secret in the US that the frequency of opera going is going down. We are getting a newer audience, a younger audience, but there aren’t enough new audience members to replace the old audience members who are dying off.’
I'm not sure how the typical reader might respond to this. I suspect that Norman Lebrecht over at Slipped Disc, based on past comments, would tend to blame it on Peter Gelb's being incompetent. Ordinary readers might think that the musicians are being greedy or why bother paying so much for a genre that no-one goes to anyway.

The truth is that opera, despite its enormous popularity with many listeners, is a form threatened by cultural trends. In some ways opera is the genre of classical music most likely to appeal to today's audiences because it is the only genre that incorporates the visual element as an inherent part of the art form. New and creative stagings of opera, while certainly attracting a certain amount of criticism, are often stunningly effective as I witnessed with the Teatro Real's production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron last month in Madrid. But the flip side of that is that opera, especially elaborate modern productions, is extremely expensive. That production must have involved rebuilding much of the stage to incorporate a modest swimming pool. And then removing it for the next production, of course.

What the ordinary listener may not realize is that opera is an enormously complex undertaking involving the highly involved skills not only of the composer, the conductor, the leader of the chorus, the orchestral musicians, singers of the chorus and the stars, the soloists, but also the skills of a host of other workers behind the scenes. These include electricians, carpenters, plumbers, painters and all those who build and maintain the sets. Oh, and the designers of the production as well. Hearing that the annual labour costs for the Met are $200 million a year, you almost want to say, "is that all?" After all, $200 million dollars is the cost of one or two upmarket apartments in Manhattan.

Opera houses in Europe are very highly subsidized and always have been. Opera, from its birth in Italy in the late 16th century, was a highly sophisticated entertainment for the nobility. In the 19th century it became popular with the middle class as well, but it has never at any time been feasible economically. Unless you charge a thousand dollars a seat or perhaps more, no opera is going to break even. Opera in Europe has often been connected with national pride, one opera even started a revolution. So while there are certainly economic pressures there, the governments still seem willing to fund operas to a high level of quality. If the European Union succeeds in quashing the nation states still further, one wonders if this will finally abate.

But the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the jewel of American opera houses, has mostly thrived on private patronage. Are Peter Gelb's comments meant to imply that the fabulously wealthy opera-lovers of New York are less willing to donate or that they are dying out? It would seem so. But New York is continually attracting new hosts of wealthy people. Is it that they are less fond of opera? Seems so.

So it comes back, as always, to taste. If the population has little taste for classical music, they won't attend performances and won't support the art form. Educational outreach is important. In the past young people encountered classical music at home. Their parents played instruments or sang. They listened to recordings or the radio. They experienced live performances and listened to, studied or performed classical music in school. A lot of this has faded away leaving a core audience of enthusiasts. But until the culture changes course a bit, I suspect that times will be tough for classical music.

Here is an aria from Act I of Bizet's "Carmen." Elina Garanca (Carmen). Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Production: Richard Eyre (2009). From the 2010 Live in HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Canons, Rules and Repertoire

A lot of the criticism of classical music turns on the characterization of its core repertoire as a "canon" in the sense that Harold Bloom uses the word in his fine book The Western Canon.

Wikipedia has an article on the Western Canon that has a good summary of the idea:
The Western canon is the body of books, music and art that scholars generally accept as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. It includes works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, music, art and sculpture generally perceived as being of major artistic merit and representing the high culture of Europe. Philosopher John Searle suggests that the Western canon can be roughly defined as "a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein in philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature".
The canon of books, including Western literature and Western philosophy, has perhaps been most stable, although expanding to include more women and minorities, while the canons of music and the visual arts have greatly expanded to cover the Middle Ages and other periods, once largely overlooked. Some examples of newer media such as cinema have attained a precarious position in the canon.
There has been an ongoing debate over the nature and status of the canon since at least the 1960s, much of which is rooted in critical theory, feminism, critical race theory, and Marxism. In particular postmodern studies has argued that the body of scholarship is biased, because the main focus traditionally of the academic studies of history and Western culture, has only been on works produced by European men.
But I come more and more to think that it is a poor word to use with regard to music, however accurate it may be in literature. This is prompted by getting back to, after a long hiatus, the excellent book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism by Monroe C. Beardsley. In his chapter on Critical Evaluation he uses two useful terms: "Specific Canons" and "General Canons". These are specific and general principles about defects and merits in art. The word "canon" has two meanings, one used in music since the Middle Ages and one used in Biblical scholarship. The musical one is "a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged." The other one is "a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine."

An example of the use of the word "canon" in music is the contrapuntal technique known as "canon". "Row, row, row your boat" is an example and the canon or rule there is that the second voice enters after the first phrase of the first voice, on the same pitch. In music there are all sorts of different canons. In the Goldberg Variations, every third variation is a canon. The first one is at the interval of a second, the second at the interval of a third and so on. The "rule" or structural principle changes with each canon.

But it should be clear already that the post-modern critique of the Classical canon in music, like so many other of their critiques, is based on an intellectual sleight of hand: music has never really had a "canon" in the sense of a "list of sacred works". Mind you, this is not for lack of trying for all sorts of purposes: to create an unchanging curriculum for music students, as an aid to marketing artists and performances, in order to simplify the repertoire for teaching purposes or in order to sell books and educational materials to the general public, for ideological reasons, and so on. But all this has always been in considerable tension with the reality which is that there is no canon and never was.

I can't speak for literature in which Shakespeare seems to rule absolutely as Harold Bloom thinks, but in music this kind of synoptic focus is hardly possible. First of all, our repertoire is huge and we have a great number of great composers. There are at least two or three candidates for the position of "Shakespeare" in music: J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Arguments over which one of these is greater have been going on for centuries.

Richard Taruskin, in his Oxford History of Western Music, talked about the difference between the repertory and the canon and how they began to diverge, for ideological reasons, in the 19th century (see pp 665 passim in vol. 3, op. cit.). I'll leave you to investigate his discussion which is quite illuminating as regards why this divergence became so marked in the 20th century. Basically, a "narrative history" concentrates on change, i.e. innovation, so it tends to neglect music written for the "repertoire", that is, simply to be listened to, not to fulfill some historical purpose. One interesting problem with this kind of "narrative history" is that it not only focuses on innovation, but it only focuses on certain kinds of innovation. Schoenberg, because of his twelve-tone theory, was a hugely important figure because his kind of innovations seems almost to have been made specifically to advance the narrative whereas the music of Steve Reich, even though it is perhaps even more innovative, is barely acknowledged because his innovations were mostly in the area of rhythm and meter, aspects of music that were not considered to be of historical importance.

Getting back to Beardsley, restricting the use of the word "canon" to just its meaning as a kind of counterpoint and to specific and general principles about defects and merits in works of art removes the problem of there being an inherent bias in its current use referring to a list of works that are "sacred" or "genuine". That was never a very accurate use in any case.

The repertory is always in flux, composers are growing or declining in popularity, new composers are coming along and fighting for performances, the market and performing conditions are constantly changing as well as are the kinds of ensembles finding work and what they choose to play. For all these reasons, while there is some stability to the repertoire--after all, great pieces of music and the appreciation of them does not change radically from one generation to the next, not usually--it is not a list of Works That Are Sacred, but just the repertoire that is chosen most frequently. Why? Well, not because it was written by Dead White Guys, but simply because it is good.

Therefore, all those pinched post-modern critiques about how the "canon" must be radically changed to include exactly the correct demographic numbers of women composers or simply done away with entirely, are really rather irrelevant, aren't they?

Let's listen to a nice piece from the repertory. Here is a lovely Sonata in D major for violin and continuo by Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. The performers are Riccardo Masahide Minasi, violin and Salvatore Carchiolo, harpsichord:

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Violence and Music

Alex Ross has a new article up for the July 4 issue of the New Yorker, which has this stunningly absurd cover:

Which reminds me of this one from 1976:

Except that the second one was meant to be a joke. I think. Ironically, John Cleese, the most famous of the Monty Python silly walkers, was very much in favor of Brexit.

But on to the Alex Ross piece. The New Yorker, never hesitant to tell us when we don't quite live up to their standards, seems to have changed the headline from "The Sound of Hate" (which still appears as the title on the browser tab) to the more neutral "When Music is Violence."

Alex Ross is a fine writer and a good critic with just one fateful flaw: he is a faithful foot soldier in the Gramscian March Through the Institutions, meaning that he always has to take the official Party position on issues. Of course, if he were a dissident he would not have the job he has. One aspect of the ideology is that civilization in all its manifestations always contains terrible flaws that oppress the innocent and this, rather than the benefits, must always be the focus. Let's see how that plays out in this article:
When music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature. To quote the standard platitudes, it has charms to soothe a savage breast; it is the food of love; it brings us together and sets us free. We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill. Footnoted treatises on the dark side of music are unlikely to sell as well as the cheery pop-science books that tout music’s ability to make us smarter, happier, and more productive. Yet they probably bring us closer to the true function of music in the evolution of human civilization.
Yep, there it is in a nutshell. He adroitly opposes "standard platitudes" against the Marxist critique. I believe this is the Straw Man argument so beloved of so many public commentators? Well, yes, it does make one's job rather easier. But the worst is yet to come. It turns out that, for Alex' purposes, music can be equated with the sounds of war itself:
Daughtry underscores something crucial about the nature of sound and, by extension, of music: we listen not only with our ears but also with our body. We flinch against loud sounds before the conscious brain begins to try to understand them. It is therefore a mistake to place “music” and “violence” in separate categories; as Daugh­try writes, sound itself can be a form of violence. Detonating shells set off supersonic blast waves that slow down and become sound waves; such waves have been linked to traumatic brain injury, once known as shell shock. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are often triggered by sonic signals; New York residents experienced this after September 11th, when a popped tire would make everyone jump.
But Alex Ross is certainly no hack and alongside The Narrative, he does cover some basic truths as well:
Humans react with particular revulsion to musical signals that are not of their choice or to their liking. Many neuroscientific theories about how music acts on the brain—such as Steven Pinker’s notion that music is “auditory cheesecake,” a biologically useless pleasure—ignore how personal tastes affect our processing of musical information. A genre that enrages one person may have a placebo effect on another. A 2006 study by the psychologist Laura Mitchell, testing how music-therapy sessions can alleviate pain, found that a suffering person was better served by his or her “preferred music” than by a piece that was assumed to have innately calming qualities. In other words, music therapy for a heavy-metal fan should involve heavy metal, not Enya.
Having to stick to a strict ideological position means that Alex Ross can only select as examples of musical torture acts by the USA and its allies:
Jane Mayer, a staff writer at this maga­zine, and other journalists have shown that the idea of punishing someone with music also emerged from Cold War-era research into the concept of “no-touch torture”—leaving no marks on victims’ bodies. Researchers of the period demonstrated that sensory deprivation and manipulation, including extended bouts of noise, could bring about the disintegration of a subject’s personality. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, programs that trained American soldiers and intelligence operatives to withstand torture had a musical component; at one point, the playlist reportedly included the industrial band Throbbing Gristle and the avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Galás. The concept spread to military and police units in other countries, where it was applied not to trainees but to prisoners. In Israel, Palestinian detainees were tied to kindergarten chairs, cuffed, hooded, and immersed in modernist classical music. In Pinochet’s Chile, interrogators employed, among other selections, the soundtrack to “A Clockwork Orange,” whose notorious aversion-therapy sequence, scored to Beethoven, may have encouraged similar real-life experiments.
The fact that the true masters of torture during the Cold War were the Vietnamese, the Russians and the North Koreans is passed over entirely. The masters of the disintegration of a subject's personality were the Communists, who invented "brain-washing".

I am not in any way advocating the use of music to torture, by the way. It seems both absurd and ineffective. I wonder though if its use weren't a clumsy attempt to forestall criticism? After all, strapping someone to a steel grid and torturing them with electricity (an ever-popular scene in Rambo movies) seems rather in a different class of cruelty than forcing them to listen to Christina Aguilera.

Here is a criticism that certainly seems well-founded:
Pop music in the American tradition is now held to be the all-encompassing, world-redeeming force. Many consumers prefer to see only the positive side of pop: they cherish it as a culturally and spiritually liberating influence, somehow free of the rapacity of capitalism even as it overwhelms the marketplace.
Alex Ross concludes that:
What to do with these dire ruminations? Renouncing music is not an option—not even Quignard can bring himself to do that. Rather, we can renounce the fiction of music’s innocence. To discard that illusion is not to diminish music’s importance; rather, it lets us register the uncanny power of the medium. To admit that music can become an instrument of evil is to take it seriously as a form of hu­man expression.
 There is a very clever technique being used here that I call the "argument from hidden agency". Can you see what it is? He talks about the "fiction of music's innocence" which seems very wise and progressive. But the basic moral error is that music in itself has no moral agency. Music can no more be innocent or guilty than can a sunset or a chair or electricity. Only persons with the capacity for moral judgement have moral agency. A person can be innocent or guilty, not music. The use of the Rosamunde march in Nazi concentration camps does not condemn the march as guilty, but only the persons who used it for a vile purpose. Marxist cultural theory makes a specialty of hiding the real moral agents and this paragraph is an excellent example. Of course music can be used for evil purposes, but the agency does not belong to the music, but to the persons who use it. Just as another person can use the same music for a good and useful purpose.

Marxist cultural theory, in its need to smear all the accumulated fruits of civilization so that it can blame the establishment for oppressing the people, has to avoid the real moral question. Instead, moral clarity is replaced with confusion, which is why the writing is so often tortured.

Let's listen to some music. How guilty is this music, the Symphony no. 29 in A major of Mozart performed by The English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bestselling Classical

Amazon sent me an email linking to Bestselling Classical Music so I went to see what was on the top:

The cover doesn't list the contents, but I bet we can guess: Pachelbel's Canon, Mozart's Eine Kleine, Debussy's Claire de Lune, Albinoni's Adagio, Bach's Air on a G string and so on. Classical music has its own Top Forty and they don't change that much from year to year. If you want to see the whole list, which has no real surprises, here is the link. Hardly any composer has more than one piece on the list: just Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Let's give credit where credit is due: for most people it really is relaxing to listen to this music, in which they perceive the gentle beauty that is conspicuously lacking from a lot of pop music.

Speaking of Mozart, he is number two on the list:

Less easy to guess because a whole album of Mozart's greatest hits is going to go far beyond the usual suspects and once you do that, with Mozart at least, there are a host of possibilities. The list is on the back:

Click to enlarge
Lots of concerto movements, plus a movement from the "Paris" Symphony and a Fantasia for piano. Nothing really hackneyed here. They avoid the Eine Kleine and the "Elvira Madigan" concerto movement. You could put out dozens of albums of "Mozart for Meditation", all different. You know, the only objection I have to collections like this is that they are like eating a meal consisting of nothing but a whole bunch of different desserts, or salads, or vegetables. What Mozart always strove to do was offer a balanced diet: each multi-movement work had a vigorous quick movement, a touching slow movement and a rollicking dancing last movement with often a graceful minuet as well. Virtually every movement here is an andante, adagio or larghetto.

Here is the third best-selling:

Oh god, is Windham Hill still around? I thought they had disappeared long ago like the Passenger Pigeon or the Packard sedan. But no, alas. This is really miscategorized because there is nothing classical whatsoever about it. There is a lot of Jim Brickman, with a little Ludovico Einaudi at the end:

Shall I mercifully refuse to comment? Yes, I shall.

The next one is another "classics for relaxation" collection followed by the ubiquitous Vivaldi Four Seasons, but the next one is a surprise:

Wow, not only Shostakovich, but three serious symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon with an entirely respectable conductor and orchestra. The only gesture towards marketing I can discern is the album title: "Under Stalin's Shadow". And it is sixth on the list. Pretty good.

I'm still wondering why the Windham Hill is there. Is it simply because it doesn't have enough backbeat to fit comfortably in the pop section? Plus, tinkling piano?

I guess if I wanted to put out an album that "sells" I would pick the most soothing tracks and label it "Relaxing Classical Guitar". The question is, why would I not do that? Here is a piece that would definitely find its way into that collection:


UPDATE: Hey, I've figured out the secret. The most important thing is that the dominant color on the cover has to be blue!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

In Memoriam Ken Basman

This is a post I really don't want to write. I think I have mentioned before that all my recent recordings, the Four Pieces for violin and guitar, the Suite No. 1 for guitar and the Songs from the Poets, have all been recorded by Ken Basman.

Ken, who originally hails from Toronto, has been a major figure in the music scene in San Miguel. You see his name everywhere there is jazz being played and I have always been very impressed with his guitar playing. He was also an excellent recording engineer and taught me a lot about recording, once I learned to trust his opinion! He had really acute ears and a vast technical knowledge, not to mention one of the best collections of microphones I have ever seen. The last project we did was at the end of September and beginning of October last year. With Hannah Pagenkopf, an excellent singer from Calgary, we recorded all twelve of my Songs from the Poets. This has yet to be released for various reasons, but I would like to post one of the songs here. This is "Music" on a poem by Anna Akhmatova recorded by Ken Basman:


The very sad news I have to impart is that Ken died this past week of complications ensuing from a massive heart attack he suffered a few weeks ago. We will miss him greatly. He was a consummate professional and always a pleasure to work with. He was always patient with his artists and always helpful in achieving your aesthetic ends.

Here he is in a characteristic pose:

That's Ken slaving over a hot iMac recording my Suite No. 1 for guitar. And here he is with one of his temperamental artists:

Friday, June 24, 2016

Urban Planning for Classical Musicians

There are few places in the world where one does get the sense that significant efforts have been made to accommodate classical musicians: Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London, parts of New York. But in most places, one has the feeling that little or no attempt has been made to create a wholesome environment for those of us who are music lovers and musicians. I mean, Mexico City? Have you been to Mexico City? Apart from the Palacio de Bellas Artes, it is a pretty harsh environment. In fact, a lot of places show distressing signs of being not very congenial environments for classical music and its lovers. Here are some of the major issues:

  • barking dogs
  • braying burros
  • macaws!
  • loud motorcycles
  • boom-box cars
  • fireworks
  • marching bands
  • brass bands
  • barking dogs
  • drum circles
  • Muzak
  • loud inappropriate music in restaurants chosen by the twenty-something staff but immensely irritating to the fifty-something diners
  • traffic
  • busses
  • barking dogs
  • EDM
  • sirens
and so on.

And, conversely, there is a shocking lack of these kinds of essential features that are so important to classical music and its lovers:
  • recording studios, an extremely important feature that should be available in all residences, schools, colleges, universities, office buildings and everywhere else people are apt to find themselves. You never know when you might need to record something.
  • sound-proofing in all the above locations so that you can do whatever it is you are doing, practicing Bach probably, without having to contend with the disruptive sound of someone next door chewing loudly or something
  • of course, there should be concert and recital spaces in various sizes available anywhere there are people. One small recital space for every area with 500 population, one medium concert hall for every area with 1000 population and one opera house for every area with 10,000 population should be sufficient.
  • instrument maintenance and repair people available on a 24 hour basis everywhere--for obvious reasons! Also, for guitarists, personnel specially trained in the emergency repair of broken nails.
  • special flights on specially-designed aircraft to all important destinations with accommodations specifically for musicians travelling with violins, cellos, guitars, tubas, double basses or any other musical instruments up to and including large gongs, timpani and gamelans. White-gloved baggage assistants will be available to help stow safely large and awkward instruments.
  • of course, there will need to be appropriate refreshments available anywhere musicians are working, such as concert halls, recording studios and street corners in the case of busking musicians. These should include a mixed selection of Norwegian smoked salmon, Dom Pérignon, brioche, Perrier, M&Ms with the brown ones taken out, etc.
Honestly, wouldn't all of society be so much better off, and with lower blood pressure according to recent research, if happy, contented classical musicians were encouraged to be happy and productive all over the place? I know I would feel better.

And now for an appropriate envoi, look what cool things could be happening all over the place:

I mean, talk about transforming society?

Friday Miscellanea

The Wall Street Journal has a review by Norman Lebrecht of a recent book on female composers by Anna Beer. Lebrecht, who runs the site Slipped Disc, typically manages to appear aggressive and angry at someone about something, though sometimes it is hard to tell whom or what:
When the Metropolitan Opera announced that is would be performing “L’amour de loin” by Finland’s Kaija Saariaho in its coming season, headlines blared that this work was the first by a woman composer to be performed at the Met in more than a century. The last, forgettably, was “ Der Wald” by Ethel Smyth in 1903.
I’m not sure which detail was the more regrettable—the inexcusable hiatus or the bad journalism that zoned in on a composer’s gender. A woman may, in 2016, direct the Large Hadron Collider or serve as chief operating officer at Facebook without undue comment, but if she composes an opera it’s front-page news in New York. A further sign, perhaps, that opera is out of tune with our times.
So if it is bad journalism to zone in on a composer's gender what is it to devote a whole book to it? But if it is an inexcusable hiatus to not have a premier of an opera by a woman composer for over a century, then surely it is not bad journalism to zone in on gender? It's all very confusing. Here is his take on the problem of women composers:
Lutyens, the first Englishwoman to adopt Schoenberg’s serialism, encapsulated their struggle in a memorable comparison. “If Britten wrote a bad score,” she told an interviewer, “they’d say, ‘he’s had a bad day.’ If I had written one, it was because I was a woman.” That inequality has not gone away. When Judith Weir, now Master (sic) of the Queen’s Musick, staged a dreadful opera, “Miss Fortune,” at Covent Garden in 2012, critics turned to sexual derogation. “We’re stuck in a situation where the barriers to women becoming composers have been removed,” wrote one right-wing polemicist, “but they’re still honoured for being women.”
Lebrecht is an odd sort of booster as he does not hesitate to describe an opera by a woman as being dreadful, but he does stick to the narrative pretty well by labeling another critic as a "right-wing polemicist" and therefore, wrong, of course.

The Music Salon discussed this book back in April.

* * *

A very interesting interview with a very capable music administrator: David Stull, the president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Yes, there is a greater need now than ever for classical music in the culture. I found Mr. Stull's grasp of what is truly important and what is less important one of the best things in the interview. At the back of my mind I am wondering why is it that someone of this clarity of thought and eloquence in expressing it is not involved in high-level politics. He seems an order of magnitude wiser and smarter and better-informed than just about every presidential candidate. And he was speaking without a teleprompter!

* * *

This counts as one of the most nightmarish concert experiences ever. There you are, ripping through the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto when the conductor knocks the violin out of your hands and it crashes to the floor, cracking the soundboard.

I just have the feeling that violinist Rómulo Assis is going to be standing a good distance away from the conductor the next time he plays a concerto...

* * *

From the Annuls of the Obvious Department this earth-shaking news: Mozart is better for your blood-pressure than ABBA: "Mamma Mia! listening to Mozart lowers blood pressure…but ABBA has no impact."
“It has been known for centuries that music has an effect on human beings. In antiquity, music was used to improve performance in athletes during the Olympic Games,” said Lead author Hans-Joachim Trappe, of Ruhr University, Germany.
“In our study, listening to classical music resulted in lowered blood pressure and heart rate. These drops in blood pressure were clearly expressed for the music of Mozart and Strauss.
“The music of ABBA did not show any or only very small effects on blood pressure and heart rate. This may be due to emotional factors, but on the other hand the use of spoken words may have a negative role.”
* * *

Canadian Cultural News: "Rebranding of Alberta’s Banff Centre to include new look, strategic plan." There is always something dispiriting about Canadian cultural news. Perhaps it is because it is always about everything but actual culture. The Banff Centre, which I attended with great pleasure a few decades ago, has been a nexus of creative activity for quite some time. Violinist Tom Rolston had an important role in developing the music program which has provided advanced instruction for performers and a stimulating environment for composers. With all this creativity and talent, one would expect the centre to have generated some interesting cultural artifacts and perhaps it has. But in this story, as in discussion of culture generally in Canada, we discover nothing about the culture itself, but just the policies, programs, funding and marketing. It is as if the culture, the reason for all this activity, is almost non-existent:
Alberta’s Banff Centre has a new name. Effective Thursday, it is Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
The name change is part of a rebranding endeavour that includes a new look (a monochrome colour spectrum inspired by snow and accented by red; the capital “A” in Banff resembling a mountain peak) and strategic plan. Among other things, the plan will see a heightened emphasis on public access, indigenous programs and training for cultural leaders.
Cultural activity in Canada, instead of being driven by the creative choices of artists, seems to be always driven by the bureaucratic needs of government. Which perhaps explains why Canada has so little cultural influence outside its borders.

* * *

On that copyright case with Led Zeppelin and Spirit, the jury found Led Zeppelin not guilty of stealing the lick from the Spirit song.

* * *

Promoting an upcoming concert by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Guardian devotes an article so surveying different kinds of minimalism in music. Here is a sample:
Less can be more. Arguments do not get more convincing by using more words or by shouting, and a woman does not get more beautiful by hanging lots of jewellery around her. Art forms that make their statements with a minimum of means carry a strong attraction, especially in music. And minimalism is far from a 20th-century invention.
This is what I call the principle of aesthetic parsimony: don't overdo just because you can.

* * *

Taking a cue from that concert for our envoi today, here is the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Galina Ustvolskaya:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Art of Listening: Overview of Music History

One thing that helps get perspective on music is to have an overall sense of its history. For a really thorough, detailed account you can't do better than Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music which runs about 4000 pages. But I think that we can do an overview in a little less space!

Western Music, at least that part of it that we know much about, has a history about a thousand years long. The practice of music is age-old, of course, but up until people figured out how to write it down, all that is lost. We have no idea what the music of the Ancient Greeks, used to accompany their tragedies and comedies, sounded like, nor any of the other multitudinous kinds of music practiced before about the year 1000 AD. It was around then that a brilliant music teacher and monk named Guido of Arezzo discovered the one thing that made Western classical or concert music possible: how to write it down accurately. Before then, all we really had were a few ambiguous scribbles. But Guido came up with the idea of a simple horizontal line. Using that to orient the squiggles around, the exact pitch of the notes could be determined. One line wasn't enough, though, so in time a set of five lines came into use and with that, the possibility of music composition and performance moved to an entirely new level, one that made the large and complex structures of Western music possible.

(There are lots of non-Western musics that use large and complex structures, but they do so in ways that are fundamentally different and rely not on precise notations, but on rote memorization of traditional formulas. I talk about this in various other posts and don't want to digress into that here.)

Once the way of writing down pitches was discovered, the next step was to be able to write down the rhythms exactly. This proved to be very difficult and it took up until around 1500 AD to fully work out. Between 1000 AD and 1500 AD we do have written down pieces of music that are, more or less, clearly notated, though the earlier ones need some interpretation as regards the rhythm.

This whole period comprises one large phase in music history with a number of interesting characteristics. For one thing, all the composers tended to be singers. They thought in terms of long melodic lines and composed in the same way. Today, most composers are pianists and they compose in score, thinking of the whole piece at once. Back then, it seems that composers would compose whole lines and then go back and add other ones. Two of the earliest composers we know of, at least by name, are Léonin and Pérotin who both worked at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris around 1200 AD. Between them they pretty much invented the idea of counterpoint, or combining two or more melodic lines. Here is a piece in two parts by Léonin. This kind of simple, early counterpoint is called organum and consists in adding a decorative line in shorter notes to another voice in long ones.

For a few hundred years music for the voice was the most important of all and instrumental music was far less significant. Here is a piece for voices by the very famous composer Josquin des Prez, who flourished around 1500 AD. Notice that the voices now play an equal role and that they imitate one another:

In the next big phase in music history, we start to find more and more instrumental music. One thing it was particularly good at was providing music for dancing, but it also started by imitating the texture of vocal music. Here are two lute pieces, the first a dance:

This is a fantasia by Francesco da Milano that successfully copies the imitative counterpoint of the voice:

This second phase, where we find instrumental music finding its place and even dominating some genres, takes us up to around 1750. I haven't been using the traditional names, but the first phase is usually called Medieval and Renaissance music and the second, Baroque music. These terms can be a bit deceptive though. The thing to note is that the development of instrumental music came to the fore in this second phase and we find uniquely instrumental forms like the concerto developing. Composers now were often keyboard players or perhaps violinists like the great composer of concertos, Antonio Vivaldi. This is the Concerto in D major, RV 208:

This kind of rhythmic, accented music with lots of quick scales would be quite unsuitable for the voice, but perfect for the violin. Some of the greatest pieces of this phase combine voices and instruments to really spectacular effect. J. S. Bach was pretty much the master here. This is the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, one of his greatest works:

The next phase is rather brief in comparison, stretching from around 1760 to around 1820, but pretty important nonetheless. I haven't mentioned opera, which deserves its own overview, but Italian opera buffa, with its clear and charming melodies and its bustling and energetic accompaniments was a major inspiration for the new instrumental (and vocal) style we call the "Classical Style" (after a book by Charles Rosen). This is the kind of music that is what most people think of when they think of Classical music. The trio of composers central to the style are Haydn, who largely invented it, Mozart, who wrote some of the most beautiful examples and Beethoven who moved it to an entirely new level. Let's have three samples. First, a symphony by Haydn, the Symphony No. 44 in E minor:

I think you can hear a new flexibility and fluidity in both the harmony and the rhythms that expressively support the clean-cut melodies. Mozart added his own unique charm to the style and brought the keyboard concerto to its first flourishing. Here is the Concerto No. 18 in B flat major:

While Beethoven wrote some great concertos and even greater symphonies, his sonatas for piano are even more numerous and just as remarkable. This is the Sonata in E major, op. 109:

As I said, that takes us up into the 1820s so this post has an overview of the first 800 years of music history. I will save the next 200 years for the next post!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Art of Listening: Classical Music

I got some nice encouragement for this project from a music teacher who wrote: "Whatever you call it, it will be required reading for my music history students!"

I will start with a general look at what we usually call "classical music" but is sometimes called "concert music" or "art music" or, in a slightly insulting phrase, "serious music". Hey, "Hellhound on My Trail" by Robert Johnson is about as serious as you can get, and it is the blues!

The basic fact about classical music (I will continue to call it that, simply because it is a familiar name) is that it is music written down by a composer and, usually, intended to be performed in concert. It is designed, first and foremost, to be listened to rather than danced to or to be in the background at banquets or parties. Mind you, there are cassations and divertimenti that were intended to be mostly in the background, but they are the exception.

Given this context, it is reasonable to expect that classical music will provide us with the most intense, fulfilling and moving listening experience. Of course, this is often not the case. Classical composers are likely to write a few (or many) duds that are boring, pretentious messes. But that counts as a failure! A successful classical piece is well worth listening to, usually many, many times.

Classical pieces can be of any length from a minute (or less) to three or more hours. Here is a very brief piece by one of our stars, the Saxon organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) that is no more than two minutes long (though it is paired with a following fugue), but is an absolute masterpiece of harmony:

The pianist is the Canadian Glenn Gould, particularly known for his crisp playing of Bach.

Classical music has a long history, mostly developing in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to now. Its origins are in the plainchant dating from the 6th century, which is unaccompanied singing of liturgical texts. Here is an Improperia, a kind of chant used at Easter and possibly originating in the 9th century:

From these simple origins, the tradition developed and developed, constantly discovering new resources in harmony, the combining of single notes into chords with several notes. The Bach prelude is a good example. Bach is also famous for his mastery of the technique of combining melodies, called counterpoint. Here is an example, the Fugue in B flat minor from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach:

That is an extremely complicated and busy piece, isn't it? It would help to notice that, at least in the first part, each one of those four "voices" that come in (two in each hand) is exactly (or nearly) the same melody. This tune is called the "subject" of the fugue. You may have to listen a few times to pick out each entrance. It's worth it, though, as it rather expands your consciousness when you realize that you are listening to four different "voices" simultaneously--without going mad!

I don't want to overload any particular post, so this will do for today.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Educational Outreach

I have always tried to have a strong educational component in this blog and this has been for two reasons. It suits my abilities and inclinations as I spent a couple of decades teaching music at conservatory and university. Also, there is a pressing need for it as a lot of school programs have disappeared and classical music's place in the public sphere has also diminished. Classical music, unlike a lot of popular genres, really benefits from some understanding of the history and techniques.

So, since I am often critical of the efforts made in this area, I want to launch a new series of posts devoted to getting ordinary listeners a bit better acquainted with classical music. My inspiration for this came to me last night.

I was browsing around on Amazon and, since at some point I purchased one of those little sharpening tools for the kitchen, up popped an ad for a Japanese sharpening stone. Curious, I had a look at it. You may not know this, I certainly didn't, but the Japanese mastered the art of making knives way back in the 16th century and to this day they make the sharpest knives available. They also have developed a method of sharpening them that seems to be outstanding. They use gritty, porous stone that they first soak in water. I didn't know how this was supposed to work so I made use of the resources of the Internet to research it. After half an hour, reading a few articles on the subject and watching two videos, I now know how it works and I ordered a set of sharpening stones from Amazon. Clever how they do that...

I think we forget how much we learn from the Internet these days!

So, obviously, a very good thing to do would be to do some posts on music, akin to those little articles on sharpening knives the Japanese way. Little introductions to pass on some information and demystify some aspects of classical music. Now, since I have such an erudite readership, why don't you folks weigh in on the best way to do this. First of all, what would be a good title? "What to Listen for in Music" was the title of a successful book half a century ago by Aaron Copland, but probably less good now. "How to Listen to Music"? "How to Listen to Bach"? Or just "Listening to Music"? How about "The Art of Listening to Music"? or just "The Art of Listening"? That might be best. It was also the name of a course I taught at McGill.

In any case, I await your thoughts on the matter! Here is something to listen to for inspiration. This is the Divertimento in F, K 138 by Mozart played by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble:

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Let a Hunded Flowers Bloom

Usually I avoid quoting Chairman Mao, but he did have a gift for a telling phrase. The "Hundred Flowers Campaign" may have been a mere trick to lure out critics of the regime so they could be conveniently sent to labor camps, but that aside, the idea of letting different ideas blossom freely is a good one. We should try it sometime!

There are a thousand ways of creating musical magic. Unfortunately there are at least a million ways of doing the opposite, of creating musical sludge, dreariness, leaden tedium, boring dullness, awkward quirkiness and just simple nastiness. I suppose the meaning of the phrase "ars longa, vita brevis" is that creation is long and arduous, but our time here on earth is brief. The alternate explanation is that while artists may die, their creations are eternal--but that seems a mere happythought to me. What I didn't know until I looked at the Wikipedia article is that the saying comes from the Greeks, Hippocrates, in fact:


Ὁ βίος βραχύς,
ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρή,
ὁ δὲ καιρὸς ὀξύς,
ἡ δὲ πεῖρα σφαλερή,
ἡ δὲ κρίσις χαλεπή.

In Roman letters

Ho bios brakhys,
hê de tekhnê makrê,
ho de kairos oxys,
hê de peira sphalerê,
hê de krisis khalepê.


Vita brevis,
ars longa,
occasio praeceps,
experimentum periculosum,
iudicium difficile.


Life is short,
and art long,
opportunity fleeting,
experimentations perilous,
and judgement difficult.

As Wikipedia points out, "techne" in Greek refers to any kind of technique or craft. So the more obvious interpretation is the correct one.

It is sometimes said, though I forget by whom originally, that genius is nothing but the ability to take infinite pains over every detail. Perhaps this is the explanation for the creation of masterworks. But I know that sometimes when I have done that I have ended up by squeezing every bit of life out of what was originally a decent idea. So perhaps we have to qualify by saying that aesthetic creation often involves not only some original idea, but a great deal of painstaking work in developing and polishing that idea so that it achieves its best presentation.

Sometimes I think that a remarkable amount of the repertoire of high modernism in music, the creations of Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, et al, illustrates the lengths to which they were prepared to go to avoid the whole aesthetic problem of creation. If you have some sort of mathematical system, as  Stockhausen seems to have used sometimes, or really mysterious variation on serialism, as Boulez seems to have been using, or random tosses of coins, as Cage made use of, then you are really substituting an abstract intellectual process for one informed by aesthetic results.

"Techne" for those of us on a different path means what kinds of acoustic effects are we seeking, what do we want the audience to hear and what means do we have available? Unfortunately, the reality is that there are no tried and true ways of creating musical magic as every composer seems to have found different ways of doing so (and different ways in every piece, to boot). Experimentations may indeed be perilous, but there ain't no other way, I suspect. This is one reason why Steve Reich's music seems to ring true for me: it bears every sign of being the result of considerable experimentation on the instruments. He has worked everything out and gotten the results he was looking for in sound. Whether you like it or not, is up to you, of course, but you can't say it wasn't an honest effort aesthetically.

But back to how we create musical magic. I suppose it really comes down to trying different things and listening to the result. It is partly in the imagination and partly in the hands (or voice, or breath). Music has effects on different levels: intellectual, emotional and physical. We might even try and locate these levels in the structure: a lot of the emotion (by which I don't mean ordinary emotions like love and hate, but more musical moods) is transmitted with the melody (and some harmony). A lot of the intellectual level is found in the harmony, but also in the counterpoint. And it is usually the rhythm and meter that reaches us on the physical level. Steve Reich, for example, achieves some of his most interesting effects by changing the meter, but not the rhythm, of a melody or by relocating where the downbeat is.

It is often through restraint that powerful effects are created. Beethoven's incredibly tight focus on three tiny aspects of the theme of the Diabelli Variations over all thirty-three sections is the source of much of the power of that music. But other powerful effects are achieved through simply piling on more and more and more, as in the first movement of the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich where an eleven minute crescendo starts with a very quiet tattoo on a snare drum and ends with the whole orchestra making as much noise as they can. And no, you have to hear in in concert because these dynamic extremes are beyond the capacity of most recording processes, not to mention your home stereo.

It turns out that musical magic is largely about creativity, which, it seems, involves being creative. Heh!

Let's listen to the Diabelli Variations by Beethoven. I discussed this piece in some detail in this post. The pianist is Grigory Sokolov:

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Alex Ross has a lovely, celebratory essay about the history and current incarnation of Marlboro Music "an outwardly low-key summer gathering that functions variously as a chamber-music festival, a sort of finishing school for gifted young performers, and a clandestine summit for the musical intelligentsia."

* * *

City Journal has a brief essay explaining how the students at Yale in their demand to rid the curriculum of white, male authors have really not gone far enough:
The trouble with the demand is not its petulance but its timidity. If the canonical English bards, novelists, and playwrights are to be minimized—or banished entirely—why stop there? If the protestors want to “decolonize the course, and focus the curriculum” to “deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism and ethnicity,” why not decolonize the entire university catalogue?
Manifestly, this purification of Western culture would have to include music. Out goes J.S. Bach, who was not only Caucasian but German, deeply religious, and straight (two wives, 20 children). The Teutonic Franz Josef Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johannes Brahms would join him on the proscribed list, along with the Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and such Italians as Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, and, it goes without saying, Antonio Vivaldi, the redheaded priest.

* * *

Another infuriating tale of musicians mistreated by airlines: "Musician ‘kicked off’ United Airlines flight for attempting to stow her violin safely." This is the main reason why I would never fly with my guitar, the other being the danger of customs agents deciding that my ebony fingerboard was "illegal". As a musician, you come to have quite a negative impression of air travel. After a number of years of touring I came to deeply detest the staff that treat musicians so badly.
Lee was flying first class from Washington Dulles Airport to Detroit Metropolitan Airport on 12 June with her violin, which met FAA regulations, according to the musician. However, when she was unable to fit her instrument in the overhead locker, she asked a flight attendant for assistance:
‘She said she didn’t have time to help me,’ writes Lee. ‘I saw that the under-the-seat space for the first row of economy was plentiful, although there were some small backpacks of customers sitting there. It looked like my violin case would fit. I very politely asked the customers sitting there if they’d be willing to move their bags – I would buy them drinks (and move their bags) – and since my violin is a very rare (antique) precious instrument that cannot be checked, if I could possibly put it there. They complied. While I was doing that (and my violin case fit perfectly there, see picture), the aforementioned flight attendant came to me and said, “You are being a disturbance, I don’t want you on my flight anymore” and kicked me off the flight.’
* * *

And if you thought that was just some random event, here is another one, with an equally autocratic person, this time the pilot: "American Airlines pilot denies Rachel Barton Pine access to cabin with her violin."
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine was denied boarding an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Albuquerque with her instrument yesterday evening, according to her PR company. The captain refused to allow the musician to take the 1742 Guarneri ‘del Gesú’ ‘Soldat’ violin – on lifetime loan to Pine and pictured below – into the cabin because ‘its dimensions were not correct for a carry-on’.
Pine was travelling to perform with the New Mexico Philharmonic and to take part in the orchestra’s outreach programme. The violinist flies over 100,000 miles a year with American Airlines and has flown on the same type of plane on numerous occasions, placing the violin case in the overhead compartment.
* * *

The "Stairway to Heaven" copyright case has finally come to trial and the New York Times has the story.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, testifying in a closely watched copyright trial on Wednesday, said that until recently he had never heard the song he has been accused of plagiarizing in the band’s 1971 hit “Stairway to Heaven.”
A couple of years ago, Mr. Page said, his son-in-law told him that people online were comparing “Stairway” to “Taurus,” a 1968 song by the lesser-known group Spirit. But when Mr. Page finally heard the other song, it sounded “totally alien” to him.
“I know that I had never heard it before,” he said.
The case was previously discussed in a post back in April.

* * *

I don't want to tramp on anyone's toes, but is it really the case that the only male composer that could possibly be performed at this year's Ojai festival was the long-deceased Claude Vivier? Or are the organizers simply following the suggestion a while back that publishers should publish nothing but women writers for a year? Or was it for a decade? Millennium? The Wall Street Journal has a report on the festival. Doesn't this comment sound oddly perfunctory and out-of-tune:
Vivier, who was murdered in 1983, a few weeks before his 35th birthday, was the only nonliving composer on the roster this year, an unprecedented occurrence at this festival. More significant was his status as the only male composer featured. To the festival’s credit, this laudable initiative in favor of women wasn’t flaunted, allowing the music to speak for itself.
"Laudable initiatives" at least when they follow lock-step the demands of cultural Marxism, are anything but laudable in my book. Perhaps if they had followed a different selection process the festival might have been more successful?

* * *

And that provides us with our envoi. This is Zipangu for string orchestra by Claude Vivier played by I Musici de Montréal:

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Steve Reich's Vocal Style

If I were writing this for an academic journal I would title it "Some Notes on Steve Reich's Vocal Style" because that it is all it will be. The simpler title I am using, in an academic context, would imply some sort of exhaustive thoroughness, which you won't find here! As I have not kept up with music theory in the last couple of decades, for all I know there have been a host of articles on the interesting way that Steve Reich uses the voice. But I just searched with Google Scholar and I don't see much of anything. The two main kinds of writing on Steve Reich are his own essays on "Music as a Gradual Process" and a few articles of the "new" musicology variety, talking about his music from a cultural or semiotic perspective rather than how it is actually put together.

The other day a commentator mentioned how unique Steve Reich's writing is for voice and since I have noticed this myself, I thought it deserved a post.

Here is the basic truth: Steve Reich began as a percussionist and his music in many ways takes percussion as the fundamental element. In contrast, in the history of Western music, percussion has usually been quite peripheral. The voice has been central and it was only in the 18th century that instruments came to have as central a place as the voice in musical structure. Even then, most writing for instruments reflected, closely or remotely, vocal writing. Things like melodic lines that mostly feature movement by step rather than large leaps are typical of instrumental writing influenced by vocal writing. Wide leaps are easy for instruments, but difficult for voices.

But with Steve Reich we have exactly the opposite situation. For the first time in music history, writing for the voice is actually a kind of spinoff for writing for percussion. Here is his own comment on vocal style in the preface to the score to Drumming:

Click to enlarge

The idea, clearly stated, was to "sound like the marimbas". The idea came from Steve Reich's experience, while playing percussion, of the tendency to bring out some of the percussion sounds by humming or singing them. In Drumming, the voices don't enter until the second section, in company with the marimbas. Here is the context:

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As you can see, the alto is just doubling or underlining the Marimba 1, Player 3 line. Here is Part 2 in performance. Note that the tempo is very quick; half note = 132 - 144:

But the idea of voices simply doubling a percussion instrument was just the beginning. Here is his note in the preface to Music for 18 Musicians about the voice parts:

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Again, the goal is for the singers to imitate the sounds of the instruments, but now those include strings as well:

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Let's listen to the beginning of Music for 18 Musicians. The tempo is a brisk quarter note equal to 204 - 210 and each measure is repeated anything from six to forty-eight times. I have chosen this performance because the video makes it easy to see when the singers enter:

But eventually Steve Reich began setting texts, which posed a different problem. How does this kind of vocal style work when you have actual words to sing? The intermediary step was Different Trains where Reich took tape recordings of people speaking and turned them directly into melodic motifs. But when he got to Tehillim, he was prepared to simply write directly for voice. Here is his comment in the preface to the score of Tehillim:

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Here is how the beginning of the score looks (showing only the parts sounding):

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And here is how that sounds:

The rhythms come from the rhythm of the spoken words. The obvious things to note are the simple modal quality of the melody and the way the percussion supports the voice throughout. Though this may look like simple music, I know from my own experience that music with a high degree of irregularity, even if written in simple eighth and quarter notes, can be very difficult! It is the easiest thing in the world to add an eighth rest or leave one out! So don't let the simplicity of the score fool you.

By the way, I am able to present these brief excerpts to you because Boosey and Hawkes has an excellent online site where you can view scores very easily:

These are just a few brief notes on the development of vocal style in the music of Steve Reich. One fact to note is that he owes pretty much nothing to any other composer, current or past. His writing for voice has been created pretty much from scratch, which is why it doesn't sound like anyone else. I think, once you get used to it, it is very refreshing and enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Composition and Procrastination

Another thing Steve Reich touched on in that interview I talked about the other day was the immense difficulty of starting a piece. He said something like "getting the piece started, that's the hard part". And so it is, followed by getting the piece finished! I am reminded of the immortal comment by the journalist Gene Fowler who said, “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Yep.

I just managed to start a new piece, something I have been trying to do for over a month now. But this reminds me a bit of that other quote, from Mark Twain, I believe, to the effect that "Quitting smoking is easy, I've done it dozens of times." This piece is one that I started writing about thirty years ago. As is the case for quite a few of my pieces, the inspiration was an eerie landscape on Vancouver Island. One winter's day I was struck by the long lines of light falling across the wooded Sooke Hills to the west of Victoria. I made a fragmentary start to a piece, but it never got anywhere. Then, about six or seven years ago, I recalled it and made a fresh start. This got a lot further, about ten pages, but finally ran out of gas. Then yesterday I made my third attempt. This time I have a structural plan in mind that I think will help me finally get this one finished!

But what I want to share today is characteristic or typical ways composers (and other creative people) find to put off working or starting to work. These ways often show a remarkable amount of creativity that would be far better spent just working on the piece! Still, human nature...

So here are some of the things that can delay actually starting a new piece:

  • I still have to rewrite that passage in the last piece before I can start a new one
  • I just can't think of what sort of instrumental ensemble I need
  • The phone rang
  • Just let me finish reading the Internet and I will get right to it
  • I'm hungry
  • I can't find my favorite pen/pencil/notebook
  • Need to post on my blog
  • I can't start anything new until I update my software/operating system
  • Email!
  • I'm thirsty
  • The phone rang
  • I have to practice guitar
  • My coffee's cold
  • Existential angst
  • Text message
  • I'm not sure how the middle bit should go
  • The phone rang
And so on. UPDATE: Just think, if Joseph Haydn had been in the kind of interrupt-driven environment we have today with telephones, text messages, emails and so on, he might have written twenty or twenty five symphonies instead of the one hundred and six he actually wrote.

I would write a more substantial blog post this morning but, y'know, I really need to get on with that new piece...

As an envoi, let's listen to a piece recommended by a commentator, the Suite No. 5 by Antoine Forqueray played by the Kuijken brothers & Gustav Leonhardt. There are seven clips:

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Pulse

For some reason I rarely watch interviews with composers, especially composers I think are important. I think the main reason is the interviewers: they almost always pose the wrong questions because they understand so little about what composers do and how they do it. But last night I came across an interview with Steve Reich and watched most of it. One interesting thing came out that I was completely unaware of: the repeated eighth note pulse in Terry Riley's seminal minimal piece "In C" (written in 1964) was contributed by Steve Reich, who was playing on the original recording. It was his creative contribution, which I had never heard said before. The witness here being Steve Reich himself.

Here is the first part of the original recording:

Yep, that surely sounds like Steve Reich. As he says in the interview, without that pulse it is a very different piece.

Another thing I learned from the Reich interview was the importance of the influence of John Coltrane, especially this piece, which is nearly seventeen minutes on an E chord:

In the interview he talks about the increasing tension that comes from the fact that the longer the music sits on the same chord, the more the tension of the expectation that the harmony will change. Of course, I suspect this is a whole lot less true these days as everyone from John Luther Adams to Nico Muhly is doing drones, drones, drones.

But it seems clear that the guy we need to credit with the return of the pulse to music is Steve Reich. Unless perhaps Philip Glass was doing the pulse back in 1964? It seems not, as from 1964 to 1966 he was in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger, who had a fairly traditional approach to composition.

This sort of thing, claims as to who was the first to return the pulse (and harmony) to music or who was the first to do cubism in painting (Pablo Picasso with his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 apparently, just edging out Georges Braque's Houses at L'Estaque of 1908) seems odd to me, but obviously of great importance to the artists involved. My feeling is more "who was it who really developed the idea?" It was certainly Steve Reich as Terry Riley seems to have done nothing else of any significance since "In C".

It is interesting to contemplate how Steve Reich was able to take the simplest of musical ideas, repeated eighth-note octave Cs, and use that as a foundation to reinvent music. But that seems to have been what happened. The path leads directly from there to this:

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Perfect Pieces of Music

I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal, "The Unimprovable Awards: Celebrating 6 Perfect Things" that does just what it says. What sorts of things are they celebrating? Rolex's waterproof watch case, the Aritsugu kitchen blade, Zalto hand-blown wine glasses, that sort of thing. This reminds me that we have some unimprovable pieces of music as well, pieces that so perfectly embody a particular aesthetic vision or a particular genre that no-one has ever surpassed them.

Let's have some examples. With Bach there are a host of possibilities. Consider the fugue: the competition is fierce, but it is all Bach competing with himself. This might be the perfect prelude and fugue, the C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier Bk 1:

But you could pick any number of other preludes and fugues, also by Bach. Then there are his concertos, cantatas, suites, sonatas and on and on. The truth is that most pieces by Bach are the most perfect examples of their form and genre. That's why he's number one!

So let us look at some other composers. There are several symphonies that each in their own way is an unimprovable masterpiece. Haydn offers us a lot of examples. How about the "Oxford" Symphony, so-called because it was played when he was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford? Back in the 18th century this really was a very great honor, not like nowadays when they hand them out like grocery coupons.

Or the "Jupiter" Symphony by Mozart:

And if anyone could follow those two masters, it would be Beethoven whose Symphony No. 5 is another unimprovable masterpiece:

There are so many possibilities, out of the last thousand years of Western music, but let me just pick a few. The motet, Nuper rosarum flores, of Guillaume Dufay is its own kind of unique perfection, synthesizing the older isorhythmic style with the new style of Renaissance counterpoint. It was commissioned for the dedication of the Florence cathedral:

As for the concerto form, we have unimprovable examples in the Baroque Era from Vivaldi, such as this, the Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor RV522:

Then we have perfection in the Classical Era from Mozart such as this Piano Concerto no 24 in C minor, K 491:

And in the Romantic Era with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto:

And the 20th century with the Sibelius Violin Concerto:

There, that should give you something to listen to over the weekend.