Friday, March 3, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Anyone with a birthday today? Just in case, let's start off with an arrangement of "Happy Birthday" in the style of a Shostakovich string quartet:


This is what musicians do when they want to avoid doing actual work!

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Here is a fairly accurate version (apart from the change in instrumentation) of Vivaldi's Four Seasons (well, a movement from "Winter" at least) performed by electric guitar orchestra:


By "fairly accurate" I mean that they are avoiding bluesy note-bending and pretty much just playing the notes.

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Quote:

Beauty is objective.  
Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

--David Gelernter

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Another quote:
Who is history’s greatest composer? (I encourage my students to ask this sort of wildly unpopular question because it sharpens one’s critical understanding, and forces one to make choices.)  
The composer is Franz Schubert; he died at 31, and none of his three competitors had finished masterpieces to compare with his at 31. His three opus posthumous sonatas are among the deepest achievements in art. The slow movements of the last two might be the most beautiful in all of music—in competition only with Mozart’s Requiem and the last movement of Beethoven’s op 111 sonata. And what if Schubert’s competitors had each died at 31? Beethoven had finished his stupendous C minor piano concerto, op. 37, and several perfect piano sonatas; but his great work was yet to come.  
Bach had finished Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, one of his finest cantatas and his single biggest hit (it includes “Jesus Joy of man’s desiring”); but his greatest music all came later.  
Mozart is the toughest competitor, because he finished Figaro at 30—Figaro, greatest of his operas, greatest of all operas, the best answer in music (better even than Don Giovanni) to the hardest of all musical problems--how to come to an end. But listen carefully once more to the three sonatas and Schubert wins. (Which doesn’t change the underlying truth, that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, his op 110 and 111 sonatas, his string quartet in C# minor and the Gross Fuge are the greatest music of all.)
--David Gelernter

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Here is a well-written review by Anne Midgette at the Washington Post:
Though the program contained only music written in the past 104 years, it was anything but daunting, and the performers, smiling at each other and at the music, emphasized “playing” rather than “performing,” with all the artificial earnestness that the latter entails. It was a performance given by people who cared more about the music than about what you, or I, or anybody thinks of it — a performance at once intimate and uncompromising, a concert given by two working musicians, at work.
What is really good about this, and the whole review, is that at no point do you feel that chunks of some obligatory ideology have been wedged in. On the contrary, she is simply responding to what she heard and saw in the concert: a couple of fine musicians working through some interesting music. That's pretty much what every good concert is, after all.

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Here in Mexico, soccer (called "el fĂștbol") is much, much more popular than classical music. But in Germany it is just the opposite: Classical concerts are officially more popular than football matches in Germany
The Deutsche Orchester-Vereinigung DOV have released statistics showing a 10% increase in classical concerts last year, with 13,800 events held in Germany, of which 5,800 were symphonic.
The DOV’s Managing Director Gerald Mertens said classical concerts drew an attendance of 18.2 million, around 40% more than the football Bundesliga. Furthermore, the survey logged more concertgoers aged 20-29 than aged 50-59.
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For a while--I think it was way back in the 19th century--it seemed that everyone was writing about the origins of language. These days the topic is mostly ignored except for Tom Wolfe. The new interest is in the origins of music. Somehow I suspect that this search will prove to be equally fruitless. The Pacific Standard has the story:
“The evolution of music must be a complex, multi-step process, with different features developing for different reasons,” says Samuel Mehr, who co-authored the paper with psychologist Max Krasnow. “Our theory raises the possibility that infant-directed song is the starting point for all that.”
Mothers vocalize to their babies “across many, if not all, cultures,” the researches note in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. Its ubiquity suggests this activity plays a positive role in the parent-child relationship, presumably soothing infants by proving that someone is there and paying attention to them.
You know the problem I have with this? It's the procedure, really. Does anyone think that these "scientists" did what scientists are supposed to do: notice some phenomenon, data or evidence and then try and come up with the most plausible explanation or scenario? Isn't it the case here, as in so many other efforts, that the "scientists" look at what others have speculated and come up with a new speculation then go rummaging about looking for a shred of evidence or two?
In their admittedly speculative thesis, Mehr and Krasnow write that infants intuitively understand the importance of such attention, and are unhappy when a parent turns away to attend to other matters (including another child). They want the focus to be back on them, and often will cry until they once again have it.
My emphasis. The problem with speculative theses is that, unless there is some compelling evidence for them, they are nothing but castles in the air. And in an ideologically-charged environment, such as we see all around these days, you can be absolutely sure that the speculation is going to reinforce the Narrative in some way. Guys? This ain't science! Nowhere near.

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I really hope you will forgive me for linking to this hilariously delightful compendium of the twenty worst sentences of best-selling author Dan Brown. Honestly, I knew he was a bad writer, but I had forgotten how bad:
19. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 83: "The Knights Templar were warriors," Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space.
“Remind” is a transitive verb – you need to remind someone of something. You can’t just remind. And if the crutches echo, we know the space is reverberant.
11. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.
Do angry oxen throw their shoulders back and tuck their chins into their chest? What precisely is a fiery clarity and how does it forecast anything? Once again, it is not clear whether Brown knows what ‘forecast’ means.
You owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.

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Our free-flowing envoi for today is Hilary Hahn playing the Gigue to the 3rd Violin Partita as an encore after a concerto performance. Guitarists know this as the Lute Suite No. 4:

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gelernter's second quote is an embarrassment. So the "greatest composer" is determined by the age of the artist? Really? Such a silly thing to say. His way of arguing for the relative merit of the musicians: it's stupendous, beautiful, deep, hard, perfect, greatest, etc. "Which doesn't change the underlying truth that the Missa Solemnis, etc, are greatest music of all." Why? We're not told. This is the sort of unintellectual, vapid, shallow emoting that gives music criticism a bad name. Why is that guy even writing about music. He seems incapable of putting together a cogent argument.

Patrick said...

"chunks of some obligatory ideology have been wedged in" kettle said to the pot (without irony).

Bryan Townsend said...

Some fractious commentators today! Which actually is a good way to get a discussion going.

@Anonymous. Mr. Gelernter is a pretty smart guy, even if his field is not music. By putting up a quote, by the way, I'm not necessarily agreeing with it--I may just find it an interesting perspective. People tend to forget that Schubert, while not a child prodigy like Mozart (Schubert's first mature compositions date from his seventeenth year) accomplished a great deal at a fairly young age. Gelernter simply reminds us of this. But yes, the bald claim that those few late works by Beethoven are the greatest music of all made me a bit uncomfortable, though there was a time when I would have simply agreed...

@Patrick: I think that what you are saying is that my ideological biases are just as bad as those I complain about. So what are my biases? I certainly take a stance but I hope it is on the side of resisting the intrusions of ideology into aesthetics. You disagree?

Anonymous said...

I actually liked the boldness of the first quote. Great art is objectively great and universal (i.e. it transcends cultures). The Mass in Bm and the Chartres Cathedral are just as objectively great as E is objectively equal to mc^2. Equating artistic greatness with "what I like" is bunk. I really like all sorts of pop music, which I know, objectively, is not all that great.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, me too. I've long been arguing for the objectivity of aesthetic judgement. As you imply, there is objective aesthetic judgement but also subjective aesthetic judgement. They just need to be distinguished. There are things that I particularly like that I know are not all that great (such as some pop music) and things that I don't like that I recognize are aesthetically great, such as some jazz.