Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Baffling Mr. Shapero

In an article published in the New York Times in 1948, the year that Harold Shapero's major work for orchestra, the Symphony for Classical Orchestra, was premiered by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony, Aaron Copland, after some effusive praise for Shapero's talents, said that there is "something baffling about what he has produced so far." I'm with Copland on this, but I think that with a bit more distance, it is not so baffling after all.

But before we get to that, let's back up a bit. In January of last year I put up a post about Harold Shapero. I had read an article in the Wall Street Journal about him that was so effusive that I felt impelled to order a CD of his music, the Andre Previn/LA Philharmonic recording of his symphony. After getting it and having a listen I put up the post. I was not so enthused. In fact I said that he was not a good composer. This post continues to attract comments, most recently this week, disagreeing with me. This is all to the good, of course. Aesthetic disagreement is exactly why the Music Salon exists.

After reading a couple more comments asking me to give Mr. Shapero another chance, I did finally get around to that and listened again to the CD:

When I did my previous post I was considerably hampered by the fact that there was no performance of this on YouTube (now that's obscurity!). Luckily, now there is, so I can refer directly to the music. Here is the Previn/LA Philharmonic recording:

After a two minute adagio introduction, which offers a little gently descending harmonic sequence, but not much else, the allegro begins with a strangely disjointed theme based on a descending diminished arpeggio, plus quick repeated notes in the winds, plus a galumphing motif in the basses. All this still sounds like an introduction, though as we still don't have a real theme. Then, at around 2:25 we do seem to finally have a theme, but it consists of a bunch of disparate motifs: a short melodic bit in the second violins (or violas?) answered by scampering in the first violins and flutes, followed by a different scampering motif with repeated notes in the lower strings, underlined by some thumps in the tympani. Then we start to hear these ideas again, this time with different orchestration and clever little strettos. This is followed by a different repeated-note motif with variations on that diminished figure and so on and on.

This is all very nice and you can see why Copland praised Shapero's technical command. But really, this is exactly the kind of trap that a young, gifted composer in his later 20s would fall into. He has too many ideas!! He might like to think he is modeling himself after Beethoven or Haydn, but go listen to any symphony by those gentlemen and you will immediately see my point. Haydn wrote many, many movements based on just one theme! And Beethoven usually made do with two or three. If I had access to the score (not available via IMSLP) then I could make this point even more clearly. My little description above just takes us up to the three minute mark of a twelve minute movement and already there are so many clever little themes and orchestrations and rhythms that it makes your head swim. This music lacks two crucial things: focus and point. Honestly, it seems as if the only reason he wrote it was to impress people with how accomplished he was at sticking in lots of thematic ideas and their derivations and accompaniments and rhythmic figures and so on.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this symphony is that it is the young composer's first major work for orchestra, written when he was twenty-seven, and he never wrote another! This is what really astonishes me. Sure, composers in mid-century were not prolific like Haydn or Mozart, but most of Shapero's peers wrote more than one symphony. Prokofiev wrote seven, Shostakovich fifteen, even Stravinsky wrote two or three. Did Shapero think he had written the best symphony he could and that was it? Did he not see room for improvement?

Harold Shapero had a remarkable beginning to his career: he seems to have either studied with or known nearly every important figure: Nicolas Slonimsky, Ernst Krenek, Walter Piston, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger (for a full biography read the Wikipedia article I linked to above). He also seems to have won every prize and scholarship there was: the Rome Prize, Joseph H. Bearns prize, Koussevitsky Foundation award, George Gershwin Memorial, Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship (twice), and in 1951 was hired by Brandeis University where he taught for thirty-seven years. If credentials guarantee anything then he was the greatest American composer ever.

But what happened was that he just stopped composing once he started teaching. No more symphonies, just the occasional brief chamber work or set of songs.

Now let's do some comparisons. Here is the first movement of a symphony by Stravinsky:

At roughly the same time that Shapero was writing his symphony Prokofiev revised his Symphony No. 4:

And wrote his Symphony No. 6:

Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 9 around the same time as well, itself a kind of homage to Haydn:

I hope you will listen to these and to the Shapero symphony again and come to your own conclusions. But I think I have come to mine. Mr. Shapero really did not compose out of any real need or compulsion and this is why he did not follow his early symphony with more mature examples.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

We begin with a mug shot:

Igor Stravinsky

There is a small repertoire of scandalous stories about Stravinsky. One is about how he and Picasso were nearly arrested for public urination in Spain one evening. And there are lots about his relationship with Coco Chanel. But I just ran across another one about when he was nearly arrested in Boston for conducting his arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner at a concert. Unusual arrangements of the national anthem were illegal in Boston at that time, the 1940s. Sadly, the photo above does not document the incident with the national anthem, but might be simply a photo taken for a visa. You can read the whole interesting story here: Did the Star-Spangled Banner land Stravinsky in jail?

* * *

The great Spanish director Carlos Saura is known for his series of films about Spanish music and culture that include El Amor Brujo on music of Manuel de Falla. This is part of a trilogy of films based on flamenco music and culture that began with Blood Wedding, on a play by Garcia Lorca, and continued with his film of Carmen, using the music of Bizet, but done as a flamenco ballet. I mention this because I just discovered a recent film by him, Flamenco Flamenco from 2010, that consists of a number of separate vignettes illustrating the wide range of flamenco dance, song and music. There is everything from large ensemble pieces, to structured ballet, to individual performances (which include a kind of flamenco mime by a solitary dancer) and on and on. Endlessly fascinating if you enjoy flamenco. I have always loved Saura's brilliant framing technique where he opens and closes each film by traversing that magical path from the real world to the world of theater and art. The film is available for free on YouTube:

* * *

The Wall Street Journal reviews some performances of unusual musical theater works, part of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York:
Like many entertainments of the Louis XIV era, Molière’s great comedy “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (1670) is a hybrid, encompassing music and dance as well as spoken theater, but modern producers rarely stage it that way. C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s hilarious production, presented in French by the Lincoln Center Festival last week, brilliantly incorporated the original music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and the musicians, singers and dancers enriched director Denis Podalydès’s fast-paced staging.
There are times when I really wish I lived in New York.

* * *

Prepare to be offended! Actually, I thought that was rather the point of a lot of progressive opera productions these days. We must have reached a boundary however as the Edinburgh festival is offering refunds before the performance:
The Edinburgh international festival has been criticised for offering refunds for a new production of Così fan tutte before the opera has opened.
Christophe Honoré’s version of the Mozart opera opened the Aix-en-Provence festival in France last month and will play at the Festival theatre in the Scottish capital in late August.
The festival told ticket buyers in its description that it was a “provocative and sexually explicit take on Mozart’s opera” that “contains adult themes and nudity”.
Mind  you, Così fan tutte is always challenging.

* * *

The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara passed away on Wednesday this week. He was the most-performed Finnish composer after Sibelius, the composer of eight fine symphonies in a variety of styles.

* * *

I'm not saying that an abundance of silence is one factor in Finland's status as a musical superpower, but it might just have helped. Have a look at this article: This is Your Brain on Silence.
...modern society often seems intolerably loud and busy. “Silence is a resource,” it said. It could be marketed just like clean water or wild mushrooms. “In the future, people will be prepared to pay for the experience of silence.”
People already do. In a loud world, silence sells. Noise-canceling headphones retail for hundreds of dollars; the cost of some weeklong silent meditation courses can run into the thousands. Finland saw that it was possible to quite literally make something out of nothing.
In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board released a series of photographs of lone figures in the wilderness, with the caption “Silence, Please.” An international “country branding” consultant, Simon Anholt, proposed the playful tagline “No talking, but action.” And a Finnish watch company, Rönkkö, launched its own new slogan: “Handmade in Finnish silence.”
* * *

As part of a series, the Guardian offers a musical tour of Venice
there are actually two Venices. There is “the opulent Venice celebrated in the music of Monteverdi, Gabrieli and Vivaldi. And then there is the decaying Venice we know from novels and films, for example Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Visconti’s film and inevitably the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th symphony; Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, also made into a film directed by Paul Schrader; Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, etc.”
There are two Venices because the city is the decaying relic of a once-great empire. When Monteverdi was composing, even though that empire was already in decline, the grandeur, the independence and the city’s position as a centre of trade remained. After the conquest by Napoleon in 1797 and absorption into the new Italian state in 1866, it became a museum, the most beautiful and captivating in the world.
* * *

Our envoi for today must honor Einojuhani Rautavaara. This is his Symphony No. 7, "Angel of Light". Leif Segerstam conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in four parts:

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Arbiter musicae

Gaius Petronius, supposedly the author of the Satyricon, one of the first novels, was titled elegantiae arbiter, "judge of elegance" in Nero's court. According to Tacitus he was regarded as the absolute authority on matters of taste. We apparently have the modern equivalent, lurking in obscure offices in Silicon Valley, the people who decide what we will listen to--at least if we subscribe to a music streaming service. Buzzfeed has the story: Inside the Playlist Factory.
When he’s choosing your music for you, Carl Chery, 37, is in Culver City, California, sitting at his desk in an office with no signage, trying to decide whether Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” (jumpman, jumpman, jumpman) has jumped the shark. Or sometimes he’s at home in his one-bedroom apartment on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, walking around in his living room with new Gucci Mane blasting from a Beats Pill. Or at the gym going for a morning run on the treadmill, thinking about your gym and your treadmill, listening through headphones for changes in tempo and tone: Will this song push you through the pain? Is that one too long on the buildup?
So how does this work?
Try any of the major music streaming services today and you’ll find variations on a common theme: thousands of ready-made playlists (“Rich Girl Pop,” “Inspired by Jeff Buckley,” “Songs to Sing in the Shower”) for every conceivable genre, activity, or mood. In the two years since the Beats acquisition, three of the largest services, including Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play Music (and smaller ones like Tidal and Rhapsody, too), have increasingly relied on these playlists to accomplish two important goals at once: 1) helping users inundated by a catalog of more than 30 million songs more easily find the ones they actually want, and 2) creating difference in a market where everyone has more or less the same goods.
Ok, well, none of those precisely fit what I want to listen to... What I need is something like "Music to accompany a furtive meditation on humility" or "Something with a lot of hemiola" or "Dyspeptic music while reading the news about the latest jihadist attack in Europe" or "Something with just a touch of transcendence plus some rhythmic verve." Surely in 30 million songs this should be easy? No? Is it because most of those 30 million songs display a dreary backbeaten sameness? Oh, right.

The thing is, I know fairly well how to find good music, and avoiding streaming services is probably a good place to start. Hey, I think I qualify as a "veteran music nerd" (how these professionals are described), but I am probably the last person to be hired to help choose playlists. This is what I might come up with for my last category: "Something with just a touch of transcendence plus some rhythmic verve:"

  • Mozart, Symphony No. 41, last movement
  • Bach, Dona nobis pacem from the Mass in B minor
  • Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians
  • Prokofiev, Symphony No. 5
  • Giovanni Gabrieli - Canzon XVI for 12 Parts
Hey, let's have a listen to that last one for our envoi:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Art of Listening: Special Challenges

So far I have been talking about short, medium and long pieces that are fairly easy to listen to, meaning that the basic "language" and structure is not too hard to hear. Some composers, like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, try to make everything they are doing very evident. But other composers, especially in the 20th century, went out of their way to make the musical structure and processes very obscure. Today let's take a look at a couple of pieces that pose some special challenges to the listener.

One quite short piece that is a notorious challenge to most listeners is John Cage's 4'33. The name it goes by is simply the total duration of the piece. It doesn't actually have a title. It is in three sections, each with a specified duration and they add up to 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Each section or movement consists of a rest and the word "tacet" meaning, don't make any sounds. So it is a piece consisting simply of silence for four and a half minutes. Cage has said that the "music" is whatever sounds happen to occur during this timespan: crickets, a cough, passing jet overhead, stomach rumblings, whatever. The piece is a kind of Zen meta-composition. Very easy to listen to, but philosophically or aesthetically challenging.

Another way for a piece to challenge the listener is to present themes, rhythms and harmonies that are complex in themselves and not easily identifiable. Many movements of the very large piece for piano, Catalogue d'oiseaux by Olivier Messiaen are difficult in this sense. His thematic material consists largely of transcriptions of birdsong interspersed with musical soundscapes of the scenery and environment. Each piece is set in a particular time and place. Here, for example, is "Le chocard des Alpes", the first of the thirteen pieces that make up the work. The first section depicts the mountain landscape of chasms and precipices, from about the 50 second mark we start to hear the call of the alpine chough. The silences represent the enormous spaces and distances of the mountain landscape.

It takes quite a bit of listening before this music becomes familiar and enjoyable--not because of anything unpleasant in the vocabulary, but simply because of its complexity. There are no simple themes and harmonies.

Another kind of challenge can present even with short pieces. Arnold Schoenberg, before he developed his serial method of composition, went through a period when he was exploring the possibilities of the dissolution of tonality. He wrote a set of six tiny pieces for piano, labeled op. 19. These are so short that all six take only five minutes to play. But they are so enigmatic, that, again, it takes a lot of listening to start to understand them. Each is like a tiny complex jewel from another planet. They do have a structure, but it is rather enigmatic. Perhaps the second one is easiest to access as a lot of it is repeated thirds that are expanded outwards. There are analyses of these pieces that essentially turn them into mathematical set theory. It is probably better to just listen to them! They offer a unique set of introspective moods:

Finally, there are pieces that are not only enigmatic, but also long and emotionally draining. The symphonies of Allan Pettersson are certainly an example. Perhaps the most accessible of his fifteen symphonies is Symphony No. 8 composed in 1968/9. It is the only one of his symphonies that is divided into sections, all the others are in one long movement. One structural feature that the listener can hang onto is the recurring motif of a rising minor second. At the beginning it is in eighth notes in the accompaniment. Later on, it appears more prominently in half notes. You can see both forms in this example, which is from the notes to the CPO recording:

Click to enlarge

Here is the recording by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergiu Comissiona, 1980.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

When was Moderism?

Digging around for a topic for a post, I ran across a substantial article on modernism in literature. It turned out to be not suitable, but it did get me thinking. Quite a while ago I recall reading an interesting essay titled "When was Modernism" and I am stealing the title for my post. I don't recall much about the essay and I can't locate it online (though there is a collection of essays with that title). I think it had something to do with the paradox implied by the term "modernism." You see, it is not descriptive in the way labels like "symbolism" or "serialism" or "romantic" are. They at least have specific referents, even though disputed. But all the term "modernism" refers to is something recent, current, up-to-date. And as the works of art created under this banner fade into the past--in music as much as a hundred years ago--the term seems more and more deceptive and the even more absurd label of "post-modernism" has had to be invented. A related term is "futurism" which refers to an art movement in Italy between 1909 and 1918.

Terms like "modernism", "post-modernism" and "futurism" are terms that are as much political as they are aesthetic. They are attempts to claim exclusive ownership of artistic validity. "We are modern, all you guys are just stuck in the past." Instead of making claim to a particular kind of approach, they simply condemn all other approaches. They are examples of emotive persuasion rather than arguments.

Now the situation is rather complex, because the ideology is usually separable from the art objects themselves, especially in music that tends to be ideologically ambiguous. The term "ideology" by the way, originated with the French Revolution as a coherent set of ideas and beliefs, not necessarily with a factual basis. The problem with the term "modernism" is that it is not only used as a weapon, but it is also rather non-specific in terms of what it refers to musically. Sometimes you get the feeling that it just means "what I like" or "what I dislike". It does clearly refer to innovation, but the ideological component is more than that: it not only praises a certain kind of innovation (serialism, for example) but it condemns other kinds of innovation and most particularly the desire not to follow the prescribed innovation. This pushes the term and practice from simply advocacy ("we all want to write serial music now because it is better") to political rigidity ("all composers must write serial music now because it is the only valid form of aesthetic expression"). This is to weaponize aesthetics, something that also originated with the French Revolution.

I said that the ideology was separable from the art objects. I am thinking of pieces like the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky for which he made no particular ideological claims. He simply locked himself away in a tiny room in Switzerland and came up with a new way of composing music--based, of course, on the colorful ballet music he had been composing, but developing and expanding the style into something truly innovative musically.

Much of the time the ideological component is stuck on afterwards by critics or others and bears little relation to the actual music. Take for example the term "minimalism" that has been applied to the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich among others. It supposedly refers to music "that employs limited or minimal musical materials." But frankly, all pieces of music employ limited or minimal musical materials. By that I mean that it is a fundamental aesthetic principle in music that each composition have a specific focus on a very limited set of themes, rhythms, harmonies and so on. Compositions that do not follow this principle are diffuse, unfocussed and usually simply bad pieces of music. This is the first mistake that many student composers make.

What do I mean by "specific focus"? Whenever Bach wrote a prelude, he used an extremely limited set of materials:

So did Beethoven:

Both of these pieces use basically one rhythm and one arpeggio shape and simply vary it with harmony. This is quite minimal. This gives the music a focus that adds to its intensity.

On the other hand, the so-called "minimal" music of people like Steve Reich focuses in a somewhat different way, but is really no more "minimal" than a lot of other music:

The difference between this and, say, Bruckner, is what he chooses to focus on, what he chooses to repeat and what he chooses to vary. The first movement of Bruckner's Symphony No. 6 also focusses on a particular rhythmic pattern--a simpler one than Reich chooses--but develops it differently and instead of having a consistent pulse, has contrasting passages:

So what does the label "minimalism" really tell you? Not very much, it turns out. A better term, at least for Reich's music would be the one he prefers, "process music", or something more descriptive like "pulse music".

Just don't call it "modernism"!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Poor John Williams, renowned film composer, sitting at home one day, working on his next film score and what does he hear but two brass players outside playing his Star Wars theme. Bowing to the inevitable, he goes out and says hi. Frankly, we could use some innocent fun this week:

* * *

This is a very troubling story: Man Loses 14 Years of Work When Google Deletes His Blog
Artist Dennis Cooper made a horrifying discovery June 27: His 14-year-old blog—the sole home of his experimental writing, research, photographs, and more—was gone, Art Forum reports. According to Fusion, Cooper's blog was hosted by Google-owned Blogger, and those headed to are greeted with the message, "Sorry, the blog at has been removed. This address is not available for new blogs." It's not all he lost: Google also deactivated his Gmail account, which held his contacts and gig offers, the Guardian reports. The only explanation Google gave Cooper, who considers his blog a "serious work of mine," was a stock message that he was in "violation of the terms of service agreement."
Seems like there needs to be an ombudsman or some other way of adjudicating this kind of thing so they can't just throw something down the memory hole willy-nilly.

* * * 

I sometimes wonder if people ever go back and read what they have written. Case in point, this book, originally published in 2001, titled: The Essential Canon of Classical Music. This is an obvious takeoff on Harold Bloom's book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. As a matter of fact, the idea of the "canon", which Bloom defends, is a controversial one. I have questioned its application to music myself in this post. Whoever wrote the blurb for the music canon book has a vague idea that there is some controversy, so tries to cover all the bases with this:
In The Essential Canon of Classical Music, David Dubal comes to the aid of the struggling listener and provides a cultural-literacy handbook for classical music. Dubal identifies the 240 composers whose works are most important to an understanding of classical music and offers a comprehensive, chronological guide to their lives and works. He has searched beyond the traditional canon to introduce readers to little-known works by some of the most revered names in classical music-Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert-as well as to the major works of lesser-known composers. In a spirited and opinionated voice, Dubal seeks to rid us of the notion of "masterpieces" and instead to foster a new generation of master listeners. The result is an uncommon collection of the wonders classical music has to offer.
What's the problem? Well, the whole notion of a "canon", whether in literature or in music, is entirely based on the idea that there are "masterpieces". That's what a "canon" is, basically, a list of masterpieces. So if Mr. Dubal is seeking to rid us of the notion of "masterpieces" then he is attacking the idea of a canon. Slight logical problem there! This captures rather well the intense dilemma that faces people teaching in the humanities. Cultural theory, ultimately derived from Marxism, demands that objective notions of truth and good and bad and aesthetic quality must all be dethroned. Everything reduces to power and oppression.

* * *

The Guardian reviews a new recording of early works by Philip Glass. I actually had an LP of these pieces that I bought sometime in the 70s--long since lost, of course.
It was Music in 12 Parts, composed between 1971 and 1974, that really put Philip Glass on the map. That huge, four-hour score is now recognised as one of the landmarks in the history of minimalism, alongside such scores as Terry Riley’s In C and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. But Music in 12 Parts didn’t come out of the blue, and this collection of five early pieces by Glass, composed between 1968 and 1970, presents some of the creative background and the precursors of that defining work.
There is a funny story about Music in 12 Parts in Philip Glass' memoir. He recounts that he had composed a piece, perhaps 20 minutes long, that he called Music in 12 Parts because that was how it was constructed. He played it for a friend and at the end she asked, "where are the other eleven parts?"

* * * 

Slipped Disc has a piece on a recent example of bad behaviour in a concert:
A family of four (parents and two children) were so noisy during both the Philharmonic Concerto which opened the concert and the Fantasy on a Theme of John Field (for piano and orchestra) that I insisted on a complete repeat of the performance of the latter after the concert had finished – for which a very large percentage of the audience very kindly stayed. I would have done everything in my power to prevent the Radio Three broadcast on [the following] Tuesday had we not done this repeat performance; the disruption was greater than any I have ever experienced, even though to all intents and purposes the actual playing went very well. The repeat will of course have run up a very large overtime bill for the orchestra – whose members could not have been more cooperative, and who played both performances brilliantly.
I have never heard of a whole piece being repeated because of noise from the audience. The 21st century is turning out differently from what I expected! Classical music concerts are extremely civilized events where, up until recently, audiences tended to observe the basic courtesies without being asked. This seems more and more to be slipping away.

* * * 

A gold star to anyone who can watch this video past the one minute mark:

This is the new norm: an extremely visually busy presentation of a script that recites the simplest of rudimentary facts. Has the average intelligence of the Internet now descended to roughly the grade four level?

* * *

Because of their new demand to register to read any articles, I am boycotting the New York Times (and the Globe and Mail who seem to have adopted the same policy), but I ran across this quote at Arts Journal that is just too good to pass up:
“For centuries, opera has been a tool of power, a spectacle developed and organized by influential Western nations and the elites within them. It is long past time for the art form to be more open about this heritage, and to make reparations for it. Using opera to understand the connections between cultures and to experiment with what can bridge them is no longer merely an aesthetic possibility; it’s a moral necessity.”
That is just so, uh, delightful. The "opera-as-a-tool-of-power" meme is, of course, straight cultural Marxism which is now, at the New York Times, the official philosophical stance. Adjust your browsers accordingly.

* * *

 The manuscript of Bach's Prelude, Fugue and Allegro for lute or keyboard has just been auctioned off for the remarkable sum of $3.3 million. It is a lovely piece, often played by guitarists, and one I had to learn for a competition many years ago. This gives us our envoi for today. Here it is played by Edel Muñoz at the Boston Guitar Fest in 2011. He was the winner of the competition:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Does greatness always involve being revolutionary?

This post comes out of the one yesterday. One of my frequent commentators read through some of the comments on the Guardian article and came up with that great quote from one of them:
Does greatness always involve being revolutionary?
That is a really interesting question that gets more and more interesting the more you look at music history. The idea that greatness in music is somehow associated with being "revolutionary" really began with Beethoven and one piece in particular, his Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" that was originally inspired by Napoleon. Once Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, he lost lustre in Beethoven's eyes and he scratched out the original dedication:

Another very interesting element is that the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven not only paid hommage (originally) to a politically revolutionary figure, it is also, or is usually described as, a revolutionary work in terms of its musical structure. Wikipedia gives the standard view:
The work is a milestone work of classical-style composition; it is twice as long as the symphonies of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – the first movement is almost as long as a typical Classical symphony (with repetition of the exposition). Thematically, it covers more emotional ground than Beethoven's earlier symphonies, and thus marks the beginning of the Romantic period in classical music.
The second movement especially displays a great emotional range, from the misery of the funeral march theme, to the relative solace of happier, major-key episodes. The finale displays a similar emotional range, and is given a thematic importance then unheard of. In earlier symphonies, the finale was a quick and breezy conclusion; here, the finale is a lengthy set of variations and fugue on a theme from Beethoven's music for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (1801).
I suppose I could attempt to revise this conventional wisdom, (for example, the Beethoven Symphony No. 3 is about 54 minutes long in most performances, while Mozart's Symphony No. 41 is around 44 minutes long--not very much shorter) but that would be the subject of another post. For now, I just want to point out the fusion of two different ideas of "revolutionary": one is political, relating to the progressive ideals of the French Revolution while the other is musical, relating to the length, emotional intensity, and structural innovations of the piece. Note that I am not necessarily accepting this as given, but pointing to how the work has been received.

So, for 19th century composers (the Eroica was composed in 1804) Beethoven was their perfect model of the great composer. Every 19th century composer, to some degree, modeled themselves after him. Therefore, the idea that a great composer was revolutionary--in both senses of the word--became an integral part of the model. A composer, any artist really, should, if they follow the standard model, be not only technically progressive, but politically so as well.

But how universal is this model, really? Not so terribly, in fact. Prior to Beethoven it is hard to find a single example of a composer who is great because of being both technically and politically progressive. You could argue that the most technically progressive composers prior to Beethoven prominently included C. P. E. Bach, Joseph Haydn, Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi. But none of these had the slightest politically progressive profile that I know of. They all worked for establishment figures and institutions and were to no discernible extent, dissidents.

There have even been composers since Beethoven, though not in large numbers, who could easily be characterized as not progressive or even conservative. Among these one of the most prominent would be Johannes Brahms who, ironically, wanted to return music to the kinds of aesthetic procedures followed by Beethoven instead of the more radical methods of Liszt and Wagner.

In the period of high modernism, from around 1900 to sometime in the 1960s, technical progressivism almost seemed to overshadow political progressivism, though there are certainly composers who continued to fuse the two ideas such as Cornelius Cardew, Luigi Nono, and Frederic Rzewski.

More recently it seems likely that most composers, with an eye to not alienating any potential audience members, tend to mildly support all the widely accepted "causes" of the day such as climate change, anti-racism and so on. But the idea that a "great" composer has to be both politically and technically revolutionary seems to be fading. The most prominent American composers these days, who would likely include Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams and John Luther Adams, seem to be particularly strongly progressive neither politically or technically. All have returned to some form of tonality, for example.

So there you have it. The answer to the question is "no", but for a while it was pretty common. As our envoi the likely choice is the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven. This is Lenny conducting the Vienna Phillies:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Where have the great composers gone?"

The Guardian has a piece up with the title "Where have the great composers gone?" by Philip Clark. The occasion for the essay was his attendance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I know Huddersfield as I attended a conference there several years ago at which I delivered two papers on the oeuvre of Joss Whedon! So what does Mr. Clark have to say:
At the end of last year, I paid my first visit in a decade to the Huddersfield contemporary music festival and, alongside some excellent music, heard an underlying rumble of chatter that posed the question: whatever happened to the great composer? Time was when a visit to Huddersfield meant rubbing shoulders with the greats. I queued once behind Luciano Berio at an ATM; saw Elliott Carter dining in an Indian restaurant (and sightings of Karlheinz Stockhausen in various Huddersfield Indian restaurants are legion); and the history of the festival is haunted by the ghosts of John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, Henryk Górecki, Alfred Schnittke, Hans Werner Henze and Michael Tippett, who all made the trip to this unassuming West Yorkshire town. But who had even heard of last year’s headliner, the Swiss composer Jürg Frey?
Hmm, well yes, Switzerland is not known for its great composers. But while those cited are certainly well known, I'm not sure any of them, other than Messiaen, actually qualifies as a great composer. In the course of the essay Mr. Clark rather moves the goalposts from great international names to British composers and laments that no-one these days matches up to the great names Britten, Tippett and Birtwhistle:
[T]he truth is, it’s over. The confident forward march in British music that handed us a lineage of great composers – Britten, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle – has shattered. Given that all the obvious “isms” have been exhausted, composers now face an existential crisis over where music might head next; and, anyway, our culture has decided to privilege ephemeral celebrity over anyone who cares enough about the future to utter anything difficult or challenging. And clued-up composers realise that.
How does a march "shatter"? You got me. But mixed metaphors aside, this is an oddly lackluster complaint that boils down to "Thomas Adès just isn't as meaty as those older modernists." Well, no, we do seem to be on to a new chapter. I kind of suspect that Mr. Clark is a modernist ideologue who is mistaking a change in idiom for a lowering in quality.

The world does seem rather diminished these days. When I was at university it was not uncommon for friends not involved in music in any way to know and appreciate the music of people as diverse as B. B. King, Bob Dylan, J. S. Bach, Ravi Shankar and even Charles Ives. I doubt this is any longer the case. But I don't actually think that the most outstanding composers working today are lesser figures than the icons of modernism. Is Philip Glass a poorer composer than John Cage? Is Thomas Adès lesser than Benjamin Britten? Is Steve Reich on a lower level than Karlheinz Stockhausen? Not in my book. What has changed is the degree to which artists out of the pop mainstream have any exposure at all. The classical music world is entrenching itself to ride out the storm. But there are still some seriously fine composers and performers.

You just know who I am going to pick as an example, don't you? This is Steve Reich's Mallet Quartet, dating from 2009 in a performance by Sō Percussion from memory:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Classical Guitar Cultural History

What we mostly see and hear in the media are current events. Sometimes we get a bit of perspective, but that is often shaded by political bias in one direction or the other. Very occasionally we get a bit of cultural history straight from the horse's mouth. I would like to try and do some of that today.

I am a classical guitarist and composer, so that means that I have traveled through a very particular kind of culture over the last forty or so years. I started out in the pop field, but back then, in the later 1960s, that meant the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Brown and a bunch of lighter pop groups. But those names were the big ones. They were the ones that kept putting out hit records and albums while most of the other groups were more ephemeral.

After a few years of involvement with that kind of music, I discovered classical music. I have talked about how that came about before. What I want to do now is delve into the culture a bit. One huge and glaring difference between the music scene then and now is, very simply, money. According to a CNBC article the Beatles made $25 million in earnings in 1964, which translates to almost $188 million today. They were the first pop group to achieve this kind of fame and consequent earnings. Of course, they were subject to the absolutely insane taxes of the era, putting them in, believe it or not, a 98% tax bracket. The complicated history of who actually owns their catalogue got started because of what they did to try and avoid such a punitive level of tax.

Nowadays, despite the plummeting sales of CDs, pop artists can earn a lot of money. The current highest earner is Taylor Swift who brought in $170 million last year. There are whole lot of other pop stars with large revenues.

But back in the 60s, it was largely the Beatles and they were really considered an outlier as they are today. Not one of their albums has ever gone out of production. The fab four aside, however, the music scene in the 60s was one in which the money did not loom large as it does today. The culture was not oriented around money but around causes (Vietnam war, drugs, etc.) and some rather shaky ideals such as universal love and peace. Personal experience through music, psychedelic drugs and Eastern religion was valued highly. Politics as such was devalued as being inauthentic.

So when I discovered classical music it was in this kind of context. The earnings aspect was unimportant, besides, back then classical artists did not earn hugely less than pop stars, unlike today. It was rather my personal experience of the culture that drew me. Sure, the music came first, but there were a host of associated details that I also found attractive and authenticity-building. Here are some examples:

  • the scratchy hiss of listening to old classical LPs on a mono cabinet player
  • the impressive logo of Deutsche Grammophon, unlike anything in the pop world
  • the aura of solitary discipline that hung over so many classical musicians
  • the very smell of a cedar-top Spanish-made classical guitar
  • the intellectual appeal of music theory and history
  • the sheer depth of the classical music traditions, stretching back a thousand years
Notice that some of this is very similar to the appeal of Eastern religion and art. The traditions of Japanese culture such as ukiyo-e (woodcut prints) and Zen are also rich in tradition and discipline.

What I chose to reject was anything relating to the drug culture. It seemed to me to be destructive of creativity and discipline in favor of shallow immediacy.

Spending a year in Spain studying under a guitar master tended to underline a lot of these cultural values. This became really evident when I came back to Canada. I was shocked at seemingly minor details of life in Canada. For example, when I few back, one of my flights was delayed so I missed a connection and was put up in an airport motel (which I don't think they even bother doing any more). The room was, to my eye, absurdly over-furnished.  There was a thick, shag carpet instead of the bare tile floors I had become used to, there must have been ten towels in the bathroom as opposed to the one I was used to, there were six or seven lamps, two beds, several bad prints on the wall, a television set and on and on. You see, I had become used to the austere, minimal furnishings of pensions and apartments in Spain. This experience was a kind of indicator of the fact that my aesthetic journey had taken me out of the mainstream of Canadian culture, where I remain to this day!

I don't think I ever thought of classical music as a religion, but I tended to regard religion as having a similar appeal: aesthetic, mystical. A good musical genre and a good religion share, for me, some characteristics: nothing ricky-ticky or kitschy, age-old traditions, meditative disciplines and so on. These qualities apply to both classical music and some religions. I guess this is a rather bizarre way of looking at things for most people!

I'm not sure I got across what I wanted to in this post. The nice thing about blogging is that it can often be very informal and experimental. The costs of experiment are low. So I hope you got something out of this.

Our envoi today is the String Quintet in C major D. 956 by Schubert from a Deutsche Grammophon 8 LP box set of Schubert chamber music, released in 1965. The artist are the

Norbert Brainin, first violin
Siegmund Niessel, second violin
Peter Schidlof, viola
Martin Lovett, cello

WILLIAM PLEETH, second cello

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Art of Listening: Long Pieces, part 3

I have managed to put up two posts on how to listen to longer pieces that mostly talked about pieces that weren't very long! So now it is time to take on one that is. There are such a huge number of possible examples that I give up on trying to pick the ideal one. I'm going to look at what is certainly a long piece, Franz Schubert's last sonata for piano, the one in B flat major, D. 960.

That mysterious number, by the way, comes from a catalogue of all Schubert's works compiled by Otto Deutsch and first published in 1951. It was very needed because Schubert wrote just shy of a thousand pieces of music and some way of uniquely identifying them was urgently needed. One of my petty beefs with the local chamber music society is that when they promote a concert they tend to do so by announcing that the artists will play "Haydn's Quartet in C major" as if it was the only one he wrote. Haydn wrote at least a dozen quartets in C major and my urge to attend the concert varies widely depending on which one they are playing! But enough of that, as we can see from the Deutsch number, assigned according to the chronological order of composition, this sonata is a late one, written in the last few months of his short life. Wikipedia has a good article on the last three Schubert piano sonatas.

The Piano Sonata in B flat, D. 960, is in the usual four movements. The multi-movement format is one that is common in classical music and almost unheard of in more popular genres. We also find it in a the music of a number of non-Western cultures such as the Andalusian suites played by ensembles from Morocco to Egypt. We find the idea of suites combining separate pieces in different tempos in the music of Thailand and other places in Asia. The piano sonata, which is a form developed in the later 18th century, normally has four contrasting movements played with a short pause between. The first movement is usually in sonata form, which is often called "sonata-allegro" form or "first movement" form because most first movements are allegro (meaning quick and lively).

The rest of a typical piano sonata (which shares this basic structure with the other big genres such as the symphony and the string quartet) usually consists of a slow movement, a minuet or scherzo, and a quick last movement. Today I just want to talk about the first movement which, in this particular sonata, runs over twenty minutes in length. How can you construct a piece of music that long? This is the question that the composer is confronted with. Remember that the basic issue of music composition is the balance between repetition and contrast. Some kinds of music avoid or sidestep this issue in various ways, but most of the core repertoire deals with it directly.

Schubert's first movement is longer than most because he has developed a structure that is a bit more complex than most, even Beethoven. The challenge to the listener is that the structure is built largely through key relationships--harmony. Let me talk about that a bit. Harmony is perhaps the most mysterious of the three fundamental qualities of music: melody, rhythm, harmony. It might be interesting to note that all three of these words come from ancient Greek (melos, rhythmos, harmoniai)! The Greeks of the 5th and 4th centuries BC developed a complex system of music theory based on the acoustic discoveries of Pythagoras. Much, much later, the Middle Ages in Europe developed quite a different system, but kept using the same terms.

Harmony and melody are both about pitch, while rhythm is about pulse. Melody is the rising and falling tune that is perhaps the most salient aspect of a piece of music. Harmony is more in the background. In one sense, harmony is the chords that accompany a melody, but in the larger sense, it is the overall relationship between these chords over the whole movement. To understand this, you have to have an idea what a "key" is. When we say a piece is in the key of C, we mean that the melody and harmony are chosen from the notes available in C: CDEFGAB. There are a lot of pieces that don't go much beyond that. The most important chords are those on C, F and G, the "tonic" or home key note, the note a fourth above and the one a fifth above. Hundreds of songs use just these chords. For variety a songwriter might toss in a bit using A minor. Songs have interesting lyrics about stuff like love and are usually just a couple of minutes long. But when you are working with a timespan ten times as long, this is going to get boring! Of course, the whole minimal music thing started with a long piece just using these notes by Terry Riley called, obviously, "In C."

Suppose you are a guitar player and you have a friend who is a singer and she wants to do a song with you but C is just not the right key for her voice? This brings us to the fascinating concept of transposition. You don't want her to wander off to a different guitar player, so you transpose the chords into a different key. Guitarists have a neat way of doing this using a capo which is a little bar that fits across the fingerboard, shortening the lengths of the strings and therefore moving the pitch (the frequency vibration) higher. Here is what it looks like:

As you can see, if you play exactly the same chords with the capo on the second fret, they will be higher in pitch: a major second higher. If you are playing a C chord, it will now be a D chord. Keeping everything the same, the notes now available will be DEF#GABC#. Those little signs indicate that the F and the C are sharped, or one semi-tone higher. This preserves the relationship between the notes when we start in a different place--in this case, two frets higher.

The Piano Sonata, D. 960, is in the key of B flat, which is two frets below C on the guitar. I am just referencing the guitar because we can see these relationships on the fingerboard. Alas, the capo just goes up, not down, so the poor guitar player, if he wants to do the song in B flat, has to transpose the chords. C is now B flat, which means that F is now E flat (two frets below) and G is now F (two frets below). If you have the basic idea, I will leave the guitar now and go back to the piano. Transposition is easier on the piano, though less visual than on the guitar.

There are quite a few different keys available as you can make any note the home of a key, not just the basic notes (the white ones on the piano), but all the ones in between (the black notes on the piano). You can play in the key of G flat just as you can in the key of C. This is just what Schubert hints at in the opening of the piano sonata:

Click to enlarge
The key is B flat, as I said, and at the beginning of the staff we see that the B line and the E space have flat signs on them indicating that these notes are always flat. This is the key signature of B flat. Then we have a nice tune in the home key. At the end of the first phrase, just where you would expect a cadence confirming the key, we have an extremely jarring trill from F flat to G flat--which is not part of the key! This disorienting moment of extreme contrast signals to the listener that something much larger and more complex than a little tune in B flat is coming. This is a structural event, a harbinger of what lies ahead. So already you know that you should be waiting to hear this trill again. Listening to longer pieces involves recalling what you have previously heard and recognizing it when it returns.

I recently watched a movie that used this very piece in a fascinating way. The movie is Ex Machina, a well-done film about artificial intelligence. Very near the beginning of the film a young man pays a visit to his billionaire tech boss at his retreat in Norway. A computer gives him access to the house and as he comes into the living room, we hear the opening of this sonata playing on the sound system. That ominous trill is a brilliant way of foreshadowing what will happen later in the film, just as it foreshadows what will happen in the sonata.

I have to introduce one more concept: those black keys we see between the white ones on the piano keyboard:

These notes, as you can see, have two names. You can call the black key between A and B either A# or B flat according to your needs. That note can be spelled in two different ways. It goes even further. The B note can be spelled C flat, the E note, F flat and so on. We even have double sharps and double flats, but I can see you folks in the back dozing off, so I will spare you.

Yes, those quirky notes are also used. Looking back at the excerpt from the sonata, if you count down those ledger lines below the bass clef (just look up any of these terms on Wikipedia as necessary) you will see that the first teeny-tiny note is an E flat, followed by an F flat and a G flat. What makes this so jarring is that the most important structural note in B flat, after the home note itself, is F, the dominant. F flat is the note just below F and G flat the one just above, so the trill is really jarring.

How Schubert uses this is first of all to foreshadow the middle part of this opening theme which goes to the key of G flat:

But it goes even further. The middle part of the first theme itself foreshadows the second theme which is in the key of F# minor:

If you look back at that image of the keyboard, you will notice that the other name for G flat is F#! Oh, and yes, you can have a major key or a minor key on every note.

Now I have the feeling that circuit breakers are about to blow, so I will stop here. You need to listen to the movement now, several times if possible. Each time you listen, try and keep track of that low trill in the bass. It can be a guide for you through the movement. The pianist is Alfred Brendel:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Decent Interval

A "decent interval" was that awkward period of time between when someone said something outrageously inappropriate and the conversation could resume. The concept has nearly completely disappeared from contemporary society. But it makes a nice pun, because two recent articles about a study of consonance by researchers at MIT and Brandeis, manage to discuss the concept of dissonant and consonant intervals while completely avoiding the use of the word. This gives anyone with musical training reading the articles the sense that these folks don't know much about music.

Thanks to a frequent commentator for tipping me off to these articles, both discussing the same study:

The second link is to a public release by MIT, so let's look at that one first.
CAMBRIDGE, MA -- In Western styles of music, from classical to pop, some combinations of notes are generally considered more pleasant than others. To most of our ears, a chord of C and G, for example, sounds much more agreeable than the grating combination of C and F# (which has historically been known as the "devil in music").
For decades, neuroscientists have pondered whether this preference is somehow hardwired into our brains. A new study from MIT and Brandeis University suggests that the answer is no.
I think this description of the context of the study reveals how distorted the basic assumptions are. We don't even notice them because they are so endemic to intellectual pursuits in our culture. First of all, it  is odd to talk about Western "styles" of music, not because they don't exist, of course they do, but the word "style" is fundamentally deceptive because what is being considered in the study is not a musical style like the backbeat in pop music or the dancelike character of rondo finales, but the bedrock of Western music theory, which goes back to the ancient Greeks who were the first to notice the simple relationships of the octave and fifth (the relation between the frequencies of the pitches are, respectively, 2:1 and 3:2, which is an acoustical fact, not a cultural preference). So right off the bat, the fundamental assumptions of the study are loony.

Next, I have to question the use of the word "chord". In music, a chord is typically a group of three or more notes sounding simultaneously. A group of two notes, which they are talking about here, is always referred to as an "interval" not a chord. Two notes can form an interval horizontally or vertically. Intervals are the basic building blocks of music, not a "style".
In a study of more than 100 people belonging to a remote Amazonian tribe with little or no exposure to Western music, the researchers found that dissonant chords such as the combination of C and F# were rated just as likeable as "consonant" chords, which feature simple integer ratios between the acoustical frequencies of the two notes.
OK, so they played different intervals to the people in the tribe, who had never been exposed to Western music and found that they had no particular preference for consonant intervals over dissonant ones. Let's fill this in a bit. Presumably they have also had no exposure to Indian music or Japanese music or Balinese music or African music or, and this is the important bit: any developed music whatsoever! The first question I want to ask is, "what sort of music are they used to?" Log drums? Blowing across grass leaves? Are they used to hearing any pure intervals whatsoever? If not, then it is extremely doubtful that they can even have a preference.

The so-called "preference" for certain intervals is not so much an "oh, that sounds nice" as it is a characteristic of highly developed musical "languages" to use certain intervals as structural and other ones as decorative or expressive.
The Tsimane's own music features both singing and instrumental performance, but usually by only one person at a time.
It would be very helpful to have some information about the kind of music the Tsimane sing and play, because it would be fundamental in shaping their preferences. For example, it is not so easy to construct musical instruments that can produce pure intervals, especially if you live in a jungle with no precision tools. If they are used to the typically complex interval clusters produced by primitive instruments, then all pure intervals, whether consonant or dissonant, are going to sound odd to them.

It is not so easy to dig up a clip of traditional music from the Amazon, but there seems to be a bit of a cottage industry in "shamanic" music from that area used as an aid in meditation. Most hilariously ironic is that the very first interval sang on this recording is ... wait for it ... a perfect fourth (the inversion of a perfect fifth--C up to G is a perfect fifth, G up to C is a perfect fourth):

For greater amusement value, let's have a look at how the Huffington Post commentator spins this study:
Your obscure record collection is great and all but, I’m sorry to inform you, your preciously unique musical tastes are all an illusion. More precisely, they’re inextricably shaped by broader cultural norms and codes which are virtually impossible to avoid.  
In other words, your taste in music is dictated more by history, and not your unique melodic preferences.
This news comes courtesy of researchers at MIT and Brandeis University, who at long last determined that even the most basic of musical preferences are heavily informed by a long-standing tradition of Western music that has permeated your brain, debunking the myth that our minds are hardwired to enjoy so-called consonant chords.
When did it become the norm for every article referencing aesthetic tastes to be an extended sneer? Let's sneer right back, shall we? As we have just observed, the MIT/Brandeis study really tells us almost nothing whatsoever, so all this fervent ranting is just the prejudices of the writer spewing forth. You only like what you like because you are culturally conditioned to. This is a basic plank of the cultural Marxism platform, of course and once they have you fundamentally believing it, they have you right where they want you. This goes back to the work of Pierre Bourdieu who, according to Wikipedia:
was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society, and especially the diverse and subtle ways in which power is transferred and social order maintained within and across generations. In conscious opposition to the idealist tradition of much of Western philosophy, his work often emphasized the corporeal nature of social life and stressed the role of practice and embodiment in social dynamics.
He wrote a lot about the sociology of aesthetics:
Pierre Bourdieu developed theories of social stratification based on aesthetic taste in his 1979 work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (in French, La Distinction) published by Harvard University Press. Bourdieu claims that how one chooses to present one's social space to the world — one's aesthetic dispositions — depicts one's status and distances oneself from lower groups. Specifically, Bourdieu hypothesizes that children internalize these dispositions at an early age and that such dispositions guide the young towards their appropriate social positions, towards the behaviors that are suitable for them, and foster an aversion towards other behaviours.
Is this how your musical taste has been shaped? Certainly not mine! According to how music is integrated with power in our society I simply have to be a big Beyoncé fan, right? She performs at the White House and everything!

Let's have one last quote from Huffington Post:
The study uproots the belief that there is something intrinsic or natural about the Western value systems that govern music. In fact, it’s just a very, very widespread opinion, not to mention another example of Westerners thinking they know best. 
“There’s often a tendency to assume that structures that are important in Western music are just important, period,” McDermott explained to The Boston Globe. “Our results provide a pretty strong cautionary note of one example where that is pretty clearly not the case.”
Oh, those horrific Western value systems! Thank god we can uproot them at last! And, presumably, revert to the primitivistic ways of organizing sound typical of musical traditions that have not noticed the basic acoustic facts that Western musicians have, and passed on to Arabic, Indian and many other traditions. Here is some music from a tradition almost untouched by those ancient Greek discoveries about acoustics. This is some traditional music from Thailand but you might notice that the lead player is still often playing the melody in octaves:

Friday, July 15, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

I'm not saying where I got this, but I was just dying to caption it:

"What the f...?"

* * *

Speaking of modern art, well, not so modern really, the Wall Street Journal has an article on what might have been wrong, psychiatrically or medically, with Vincent Van Gogh: Doctors Examine Vincent Van Gogh.
What exactly was Vincent van Gogh’s problem? This summer, in a Dutch exhibition and a related symposium, art historians and physicians will debate a question that has long puzzled the medical and art worlds.
“On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness” opens July 15 at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and runs until Sept. 25. The 60 artworks and objects on view will include a payment receipt for an asylum stay by the artist and a February 1889 petition from citizens of Arles, the southern French town where van Gogh had a series of breakdowns, requesting that their mayor have the artist institutionalized.
Artists seem to have more than their fair share of eccentricities and oddities which sometimes are so extreme that they shade into diagnosable insanity or a medical condition. Just sheer speculation, but it might be the case that with someone with genuine creative gifts, having some sort of extreme disposition might just drive you to try out ideas and techniques that you would not have otherwise.

* * *

Scientific American has an interesting article on how singers shape their voice production to be heard over an orchestra. Key bit:
Although singers can generate very loud sounds, how can they compete with a large and enthusiastic symphony orchestra?
One strategy is to maximize their sound output at frequencies above 2,000 Hz. This is because an orchestra is typically loudest around 500 Hz, with the sound level dropping off quickly at higher frequencies. Furthermore, the ear is most sensitive around 3,000 to 4,000 Hz. To this end, singers often modify the resonances of their tract to produce a characteristic "vocal ring" that considerably boosts the sound output in this frequency range. This is of more value to lower pitched voices than to sopranos.
This is an example of how scientific research can be very helpful to musicians. What distinguishes this from the pseudo-science I often complain about is that this is all about the acoustics, which is very researchable. Attempts to study musical taste are just bad aesthetics masquerading as science.

* * *

We have to record the passing away of Alirio Diaz recently. Slipped Disc has the item. Just a small correction: Alirio Diaz wasn't the only guitarist that Segovia approved of. There was actually a small group that also included Oscar Ghiglia from Italy, José Tomás from Spain, John Williams from England and Christopher Parkening from the US. I had the opportunity to meet Alirio Diaz once and hear him in concert. He was indeed a very fine musician and a very civilized person. Be sure to listen to the excellent performance of the Invocation and Dance by Rodrigo at the link.

* * *

Slate takes us on a visit to the Steinway piano factory in Queens. Lots of interesting photos.

* * *

I dunno, I just thought this was so cool I had to share. This is a photo of Margaret Hamilton, director of software engineering for the Apollo 11 project, standing next to a stack of paper containing the flight software for the project. This had to be written from scratch in assembler language as nothing like it had ever been done before.

Of course, nowadays any smartwatch has many times the computing power...

* * *

I think that one of the real strengths of classical music is that it, mostly, adroitly side-steps most political causes and issues. But there are still those who think that every time some conflict arises we have to follow the lead of pop musicians and signal that we are virtuous. Here is an article in the New York Times by William Robin talking about a classical music concert to benefit the Black Lives Matter movement: "For Black Lives Matter, Classical Music Steps In." I always enjoy the characteristic NYT Inversion Grammar. Here is a sample passage:
While classical music institutions have lately addressed issues of diversity — the theme of the League of American Orchestras’ annual conference last month was “The Richness of Difference” — they still tend to avoid confronting contemporary racial tensions.
When demonstrators interrupted a 2014 St. Louis Symphony concert to sing “Requiem for Mike Brown,” or when, in 2015, Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, spoke of the necessity of the protests that shook her city after the death of Freddie Gray, they were rare and controversial moments in a largely apolitical industry. Classical music tends to frame questions of race in terms of professional and audience demographics, distant from the discussions of police brutality that concern Black Lives Matter.
* * *

For our envoi today, let's have a completely non-political piece of music. This is Grigory Sokolov playing the Piano Sonata No 9 in E major, Op 14 by Beethoven in Paris in 2002:

UPDATED: To remove an unfortunate coincidence... and I want to offer my apologies for an item about a French composer, the wording of which had a very unpleasant effect when combined with the horrific terrorist attack in France on Thursday. I'm afraid that I posted the Friday miscellanea, which had been prepared days before, without reviewing it. Deepest condolences to the people of France, who have suffered yet another barbaric atrocity.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Freak accident!

Yesterday I suffered a freak accident that will hamper blogging for a while. I was walking down the hill into town and was just passing over one of those drains where an open series of steel slats covers it when a friend was driving by and offered me a ride. I went around to the passenger door and didn't notice the that drain cover angled steeply so I was still walking on it. My right foot slipped right between two slats and I started to fall. There was some danger of breaking my ankle. At the same time I was reaching to open the door. My right hand middle finger got trapped in the door handle as I began to fall. It popped out, but not before giving the last joint a serious mashing. So now it is badly swollen and I can't move it without a lot of pain. The fingers are just full of nerve endings! I don't think there is any permanent damage, but there is a lot of trauma and I can barely use my right hand.

Guitar playing will be postponed for a while, but this may just give me more time for composing!!

Here is a guitar piece that really gives the right hand a workout. This is my recording of the Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tárrega:


Monday, July 11, 2016

American Composers ... Pianissimo?

Alan Fletcher, composer and president and CEO of the Aspen music festival and school, has a piece in the Guardian about the featuring of American symphonic composers at this year's Aspen Festival. The title is "Why are the reputations of US composers so pianissimo?" Now, of course, this is largely a puff piece aimed at promoting the festival. But it might be fun to try and answer the question posed by the title. Isn't it interesting that articles whose title poses a provocative title like this one, never, never, never actually answer the question because they just assume it is rhetorical?

You should go read the whole thing, but let's just browse through it a bit. The opening lays out the situation pretty well:
What does it say about a nation when it doesn’t do justice to its own composers? Americans are famous for their patriotism, but do we really walk the walk in terms of loving our own culture? You can hear Prokofiev in concert halls across the country, but just try programming Piston. (Walter Piston, 1894-1976, the brilliant American symphonist – see?)
At this summer’s Aspen music festival, we are presenting a group of mid-20th-century modernist American symphonies. There will be major symphonic works by Piston, George Antheil, Erich Korngold, Peter Mennin, Roger Sessions, Charles Ives, Roy Harris and William Schuman. I’m especially happy that audiences will hear Mennin’s brilliant and gutsy Fifth Symphony, and Sessions’s Violin Concerto. Planning our marketing, phrases such as “all but forgotten”, “unjustly neglected”, “unaccountably unknown” kept coming up. As a composer myself, who knew many of the composers whose work will be performed, I struggled against these descriptions. I have not forgotten these composers and their magnificent music. And yet.
Some quick research shows that Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Elliott Carter (who together wrote more than 100 concert symphonic works) had, in the past five years, a total of just 20 performances by US orchestras.
The rest of the article seems to be a concerted effort to avoid the question by haring down as many side-roads as possible. So let's see if we can think of some answers to the question.

Isn't the first sentence an interesting and revealing statement: "What does it say about a nation when it doesn’t do justice to its own composers?" Let's just unpack that a bit. First of all, the fundamental assumption is that America is being unjust to its symphonic composers, these ones at least, by ignoring them. Instead of considering the question of the title, he just jumps right past it to a foregone conclusion. But is America being unfair to its symphonic composers by ignoring them? What is the alternative? Is it possible that most concert audiences just don't particularly enjoy what they have written? Or could we be more specific and look at which symphonic works are more-performed and which are less-performed?

Obviously the focus of the festival is on the composers who were highly regarded, at least in some circles, in the time from the 1920s through the 1970s. Composers of the first major wave of modernism. The focus is not on the more successful composers of more recent times like John Adams and Philip Glass. It is kind of interesting that no attempt is made to argue that, yes, we need to perform Walter Piston and the others more because their music is well worth listening to.

Why don't we do our own little mini-festival and listen to a few symphonic pieces by the composers mentioned and see what we have been missing? I am not well-acquainted with this repertoire, so I just picked the first symphonic work (excluding concertos) that came up for each composer. First up is the Symphony No. 5 by Walter Piston. In the last two and a half years it has had 1,800 views on YouTube:

Next, George Antheil, this is his Symphony No. 1. In three and a third years it has had around 13,000 views:

This is Erich Korngold's Symphony in F-sharp major, Op.40 (1953). In three years it has seen 36,000 views:

Here is the Symphony No. 7 by Peter Mennin. In nearly four years it has seen 1,400 views on YouTube:

Finally, Roger Sessions. This is his Symphony No. 1. In the last five years it has seen 6,000 views on YouTube.

Erich Korngold aside, it is safe to say that listeners are not eagerly pursuing the opportunity to listen to this music. Why is that? Could it be that one reason is that nearly every piece starts with a slow, hazy, ambiguous section that is highly unlikely to grab an audience? Sure, they get to some more active stuff later on, but the feeling for the listener at the beginning is "yes, we have to sit here, twiddling our thumbs, while the composer decides on which, or if, he is going to have a tonality. Or a theme. Or a bloody rhythmic motif." When some rhythmic activity does begin, it seems inflexible--sterile neo-classic counterpoint with maybe just a touch of jazz as in the Sessions. Sure, there is a lot of individuality, but so much of this music has the same dreary existential angst to it. I'm just not sure there is much enjoyment in listening to the composer work it out.

These guys really should have listened to some Haydn. He knew how to grab the listener's attention right off the bat:

Or Philip Glass, for that matter: