Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Looking over my miscellanea today, I decided it needed something whimsical, so I am adding this at the top:



* * *

The perennial category of "how can we make classical concerts more appealing to people who might not like classical music?" is fulfilled this week by this piece in the Guardian: Beer, Bach, tweets and Taverner: mixing up the classical concert
Creating a bite-size concert format like this won’t get people immediately comfortable with listening to 70-minute stretches of Mahler or Bruckner symphonies. Classical Mixtape isn’t addressing that “problem”. But if you’re training for a marathon, you can’t go from nought to 26 miles in one go – you have to build up your stamina. Classical music’s extended timespans and architectures are one of its most wonderful attributes, but not to someone whose listening habits are solely the short haul of most other music genres. If something like Classical Mixtape gives them confidence and curiosity to take that musical discovery further, then it will have done the second part of its job. And the first part? Simply to give people an entertaining, memorable experience – one that invigorates, consoles or touches to the core. As a programmer or performer, you should never lose sight of that aspiration.
There is really nothing wrong with this approach. I'm all in favor of anything that helps people connect with good music (even though sometimes I complain about just how they go about it!). But it would be amusing to turn this around: the next time there is a pop music performance can we ask, why don't they do something to appeal to those people who really don't care that much for pop music? You know, pick better songs, have more comfortable seats, less distracting light shows and costumes, maybe more engaging lyrics, you know, a little less of all those annoying things that pop music does. What, you say that that would change the essence of the experience? Oh dear, how unfortunate!

* * *

Here is a fascinating, if a bit lengthy, article on music and architecture from FutureSymphony:
Their common wordless expressiveness is perhaps what most links music and architecture in my own experience. Why can I be reduced to tears on hearing Bach’s “O Mensch, bewein die Sünde Gross” or upon stepping into Michelangelo’s vestibule to the library of San Lorenzo? Paradoxically, the first is music in a major key (which we tend to associate with “happy” content in contrast to the “sad” minor keys), and the second is simply an arrangement of columns and niches around an oddly configured stairway, seemingly without explicit emotional associations. And yet, the response in both cases was immediate and profound. The emotional effects of music and architecture are simply ineffable, but it is also now clear that the modernist abandonment of traditional tonality and perspective rendered both arts capable of communicating only anxiety and disorientation. Only in a system in which consonance and dissonance can be distinguished, and in which consonance is the norm, can we find and express a fuller range of human emotion.
* * *

The app has already raised eyebrows in the classical community, after BBC Music magazine featured it in a review.
“I was surprised to see you endorse Octava, an app which sends texts to your phone during a performance with information about the music,” one concerned reader wrote in this month’s edition. “
What happened to the rather quaint idea of reading programme notes before a performance, then simply enjoying the music and not disturbing those around you?”
The editor replied: “We have to agree - programme notes are indeed far superior, and don’t shine brightly in the gloom.
“But we live in an ever-changing world, and music needs to try and attract new audiences.”
Even at the cost of alienating the current audiences and ruining the concert experience?  One or two illuminated smartphones in a darkened hall are extremely distracting--imagine if half the audience were using them!

* * *

Here is a review of Peter Williams' new book on Bach: 
Bach: A Musical Biography is Peter Williams’s third work about the life of Bach. It is his longest and his last: He died just months before its publication. Like the earlier two biographies, this one is organized around the composer’s obituary, written together by son Carl Philipp Emanuel and former student Johann Friedrich Agricola. Williams’s working plan throughout entails quoting excerpts from the obituary, then fleshing them out in considerable detail.
* * *

We seem to be having a Bach-centric miscellanea today, so let's end with a Bach envoi. This is "O Mensch, bewein die Sünde Gross" from the Matthew Passion. This is the Collegium Vocale Gent conducted by Philipp Herreweghe:


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Road to the Rite, Part 4: the Rite of Spring

I have some research to do on the Rite and I'm waiting for some materials to be delivered from Amazon, so it will be a few weeks before I can finish this project. I imagine there will be three or four posts altogether. This is just a little placeholder so you know I haven't forgotten.

I was just re-reading a Taruskin essay on the Rite ("Resisting The Rite" from Russian Music at Home and Abroad) and he coyly teases us by saying that there are only two pieces of music that stand out as being of transcending importance in both the academic canon and the popular repertory. The Rite is one and the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven is the other. He actually struggles trying to sort out just why this is the case, talking about how both pieces were "resisted" by the audience initially, but later accepted, how both pieces are "events" rather than just pieces of music, how both hook into non-musical narratives such as gesamtkunstwerk (complete artwork because it is a ballet with a set design as well as a piece of music) in the case of the Rite and the transcendent humanistic values of the Enlightenment, embodied in the instrumental and vocal forces of the Ninth. But I don't think he quite succeeds in his mission of "contextualizing" the Rite because he, like academic musicology generally, abhors any mention of "aesthetic quality" as being somehow out of bounds. Instead of saying that the Rite stands head and shoulders above other pieces because of its aesthetic quality, he reverts to claiming that it, rather than say the Firebird or Pierrot Lunaire, was the object of numerous conferences (on the 100th anniversary of its premiere in 1913), hosts of books, zillions of concert performances and so on because:
From all these stories and testimonies we can conclude that neither a piece belonging only to the canon, like Pierrot, nor a piece belonging only to the repertory, like Firebird, could have given rise to such an orgy of commemoration. You have to have the dual status that seems to be The Rite’s alone, among twentieth-century masterpieces.
[Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 12061-12064). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.]
But mere "dual status" seems a feeble reed to hang all this adulation on, does it not? I would want to add things like the nature of the genre itself: the only pieces that can attain a kind of universal status (among classical music lovers at least) are ones that have what we might call a high social profile, ones that are in the symphonic or ballet or operatic genre. These pieces are always performed before large groups of people and hence have the possibility of a wider impact than pieces with smaller audiences. Yes, with modern technology a single piano can be heard by any number of people, but the intimacy of the solo piano does not convey. Similarly, a Beethoven string quartet, obviously as profound as music gets, is not going to become a widespread social artifact the way a symphony can. So the two elements that seem crucial to me are the universality of the genre combined with the aesthetic quality of the individual piece. Another possible element might be the completeness of the range of aesthetic quality. I can exemplify this by mentioning another near-iconic piece of 20th century music that Taruskin might have considered (but didn't), the Symphony No. 3 of Henryk Górecki, which also possesses that dual status of being in the academic canon (for some academics, at least) and in the popular repertory. Taruskin might disqualify it by saying that it has attracted little academic attention, but I would instead point to the fact that it covers a far narrower range of musical textures, moods, devices and expression than either the Rite or the Ninth.

Let me close with one of the most entertaining quotes about the Rite, this is from Claude Debussy who described it as "primitive music with all modern conveniences."

And for our envoi, of course, the Rite of Spring in an attempted reproduction of the original choreography, costumes and sets with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet Company and Orchestra:


Monday, June 26, 2017

Creativity and Technology

Technology is a wonderful aid to musicians of all kinds. One of the most used examples is probably this one, which sits next to me when I practice:

On the left hand side is an electronic tuner that sounds whatever note you choose and will even compare that with a note from your instrument as it contains a microphone as well as a little speaker. On the right is a metronome that will sound a click at whatever tempo you choose. You can even tap a tempo into it and it will tell you what tempo it is, measured in beats per minute. You can also set the meter by choosing to have a different sound on every downbeat, every 2nd, 3rd, 4th beat, for example. A wonderful little piece of technology that efficiently replaces the old style wooden pyramid metronomes (that were never quite exact):


And the older tuning fork (that always was perfectly accurate):

I still have one of those kicking around. I could go on for hours about the fantastic things you can do with notation programs like Sibelius and Finale, that enable the composition, professional typesetting, and synthesized playback of virtually any kind of composition.

But all this is dwarfed by the technology available to pop musicians these days, as discussed in this article from Scientific American (thanks to commentator Will for sending it):
Apple's GarageBand program for Mac computers lets you create fully orchestrated “compositions” just by dragging tiles into a grid. Everything sounds great, whether or not you know anything about rhythm, pitch or harmony. At the time of GarageBand's introduction, its product manager told me that even if the program semiautomates the composition process, it still gives people a taste of the real thing. It could inspire a novice to learn music, maybe take up an instrument.
Agreed. But how can we gauge artists' talent without knowing how much of the work was theirs? Should it affect how much we pay for their output? And what about when commercial musicians use GarageBand to produce their tracks—as Oasis and many indie bands have done?
I don't think this is a problem for any trained musician: it is actually pretty easy to hear the difference between real musicians and synthesized drum tracks or autotuned voice tracks. If everyone is out there lip-syncing, then all a good performer has to do is go out and sing for real to win that competition. At least that would be my hope! But I do have a beef about one phrase: "even if the program semiautomates the composition process, it still gives people a taste of the real thing." Composition is not really a "process" in that sense, at least not the creative part. Real creation remains a mystery because none of us, least of all the creators themselves, know where it comes from. The "process" part is more the craft aspects of composition: getting the ideas down on paper in a legible form, working out voicing or some of the rote aspects of orchestration, for example. Virtually all of the real acts of composition are inherently creative and therefore, absolutely impervious to being automated or replaced by technology. This is a little less obvious in pop music, a lot of which seems to be industrialized commercialism.

Let me give a personal example. Decades ago Yamaha came out with their first "acoustic/electric" piano. This was an electronic keyboard enclosed in a wooden case so it looked a lot like a baby grand piano. The keys were weighted to give the sensation of the normal piano mechanism instead of that of an electronic keyboard. They promoted it by staging demonstrations in department stores. One of my students, an adult, came to a lesson one day having just heard the demonstration and breathlessly claimed: "you couldn't tell the difference from a real grand piano!" I gave him A Look and said, "how much do you want to bet? $50?" This was so long ago that $50 was actually a lot of money. He suddenly got very cautious. I told him that I had friends, some of them just down the hall (we were in a conservatory) that could tell the difference between a Steinway built in New York and one built in Hamburg--do you really think we can't tell the difference between a concert grand and an electronic piano, no matter how gussied up? He didn't take the bet!

Mind you, now electronic and synthesized instruments, in the pop world at least, don't make any effort to sound like their acoustic forebears. But I still think that if you have much musical sophistication at all you can tell genuine creativity and musicianship from computerized fakery without too much trouble. Essentially all that technology is there, not to aid creativity, but to distract us from the lack of creativity. Right?

There are pop musicians who make rather a thing out of doing covers of songs and showing how good musicianship can replace all the technology. I give you Overdriver, from Brazil:


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Classical, Smassical

The Los Angeles Times has another one of those think-pieces on the future of classical music. At risk of plowing already plowed fields, let's have a look.
Classical music may be the art of the sublime, liquid architecture and all the rest, but it has nonetheless always been a long-suffering kingdom of kvetching. Born to serve the church, Western music became in the Middle Ages an ideal medium of sacrilege, and the art form has continued over the centuries to bite the hands that have fed it, be they the aristocracy, ruling powers, philanthropists or the public. However high-minded, the history of classical music is riddled with worry and an obsessive desire for reinvention.
That's a pretty generic opening. Classical music is a rather particular art form, not really like any other, but most of that opening paragraph would apply to any art form. But this next quote hits the nail on the head;
Technology is ever the elephant in the room. The history of sharks out to cheat musicians is long and dishonorable. Today it’s Silicon Valley’s ability to redirect profits from the creators and producers to the likes of Apple, Amazon and Spotify. Equally troubling is the power of technology in the form of virtual reality, holograms and things we may not yet know about, to suck the life out of live music making.
Classical music has not made an easy transition from aristocratic patronage, to middle-class support to becoming a tiny niche in a world dominated by pop music. The visual arts have somehow found a way to become a high-end commodity, while the economics of classical music remain desperate. If we just glance at the material foundations of the art forms we get a clue why: a contemporary visual artist can make art out of pretty well anything from high-tech installations to oil on canvas to slapping a little paint on his own unwashed bedsheets. The costs can be high, as in the case of Damian Hirst's jewel-encrusted skull, or they can be low. And yes, you can be impoverished or not. But the production of visual art is not necessarily expensive while the production of high-quality classical music is always very expensive. Take the performance of The Golden Cockerel I just saw. It required the services of two different casts of vocal soloists capable of singing in Russian, plus chorus, orchestra and then the whole production staff: design, lighting, costumes, set, props and so on. Not cheap! There is an article on the subject at The Guardian, which, even though a bit old, gives some information. Most of the important numbers, such as artists' fees, are confidential, but:
One observer's educated guess is that the biggest stars, such as Pavarotti, Bartoli and Alagna, command between £12,000 and £15,000 per performance. But however expensive singers may be, they will not form the main cost of mounting an opera. Production costs - set, props and costumes - will always be the chief expense. "We have capped the expenditure on a new production at £300,000," says Padmore. "But you don't get a great deal in a house of this size for much less than £180,000 or £200,000." At ENO the average cost of a new production is £150,000.
I suspect all these numbers are higher now. But they haven't mentioned the biggest cost of all: the opera house itself. Opera requires a building custom designed and built for its very special needs and the cost of a new one is likely in the $300 million dollar range, though, again, these numbers are not readily available.

One significant cost is the orchestra in the pit. A typical fee per service is $150, multiply that by 80 musicians, multiply that by four rehearsals and you get a total of $48,000 before you have even had the opening night performance!

But getting back to the LA Times article, the occasion for it was a two-day conference on the topic of the evolution of classical music. One speaker had an interesting take:
For his part, Sam Bodkin asked what the world needs and rapidly answered his own question: “It needs more substance, beauty and intimacy, and classical music checks all those boxes.”
Frankly, that's the only kind of approach that interests me. All this other stuff, music streaming, holograms of Yuja Wang, virtual reality tours of the orchestra, all that has a faint whiff of BS about it, the elevation of shallowness and spectacle over real substance.

Let's have an envoi of substance. Here is the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg with Frank-Peter Zimmerman, violin and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Daniele Gatti, conductor:



Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

I frequently refer to the work of brilliant musicologist Richard Taruskin here and he has just been awarded the mammoth $450,000 Kyoto award in Japan. Of course, now he has to write a bunch of articles on Takemitsu! (No, I'm kidding.) But I would hardly call him "combative."

* * *

This sounds like terrible news: The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival.
“Helmuth Rilling wasn’t the only individual who retired in 2013, so too did many of his most loyal and passionate supporters,” Evans wrote. “And the donor, corporate, foundation, audience, and ticket revenue figures bear this out.”
During the transition from Rilling to Halls, OBF attendance dropped by over 50 percent : 2011 had 44,148; 2014 had approximately 20,000. There are no figures for recent years.
I'm pretty sure this is not Bach's fault; he is just as popular as he ever was.

* * *


AI and machine learning will make everyone a musician. Here's the first paragraph:
Music has always been at the cutting edge of technology so it’s no surprise that artificial intelligence and machine learning are pushing its boundaries.
There are a couple of nasty writing quirks that seem endemic these days. The first is to have a headline that is so absurd its only possible function is to be "clickbait" and the second is to start off by stating something as an unquestioned truth that is probably nonsense. This article starts off two strikes down. I was going to do some more fisking, but as the claims get feebler and feebler the further you read, it's not really worth the effort.

* * *

Also shrinking are sales of electric guitars and the Washington Post has a huge piece on that:
Over the past three years, Gibson’s annual revenue has fallen from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion, according to data gathered by Music Trades magazine. The company’s 2014 purchase of Philips’s audio division for $135 million led to debt — how much, the company won’t say — and a Moody’s downgrading last year. Fender, which had to abandon a public offering in 2012, has fallen from $675 million in revenue to $545 million. It has cut its debt in recent years, but it remains at $100 million.
And starting in 2010, the industry witnessed a milestone that would have been unthinkable during the hair-metal era: Acoustic models began to outsell electric.
* * *

 The extent to which things like "public policy" are now nearly exclusively tendrils of the progressive project to remake society continues to trouble me. Today's example is an article on a new cultural policy in the UK reported on at ArtsProfessional. For much of the article I wasn't sure exactly where they were going, but the conclusion made it clear:
What if cultural policy makers and cultural organisations began to think strategically about ensuring the cultural capability of all – not only opportunities to participate in great art, but the substantive freedom to make, transform and contest versions of culture?
Such an approach would provide a progressive path beyond the deficit model, in which cultural policy not only invests in great art and audience development but in the conditions which enable everyone to make versions of culture. This is cultural democracy. The possibility of cultural democracy has been of interest to people working in the tradition of community arts since at least the 1960s. Now is the time to bring this approach to the heart of cultural policy in the UK. 
The underlying principle or assumption here is one of "equity" which means replacing equality of opportunity, something that is fairly tricky to handle, with equality of outcome which is a bad idea. The real bonus and incentive these kinds of projects support is the army of cultural bureaucrats needed to develop them. "Ensuring the cultural capability of all" is not only something that government cultural policy should have nothing to do with, it is also contrary to human nature. A whole lot of people don't have a lot of interest in "culture" and don't want to be bothered with it.

* * *

 Jazz musician Maria Schneider makes an impassioned argument about the ills of the music business and how they can be addressed in a piece at JazzTimes:
Why am I speaking about the power of music? Because at this moment in history, our livelihoods and the entire culture of music—jazz and more—stand in jeopardy. And so does the power for good that music brings the world.
So, who exactly has put all of this in jeopardy? I see three culprits. First: big data, with their endless appetite for eyeballs and information. Second: our government, buckling under oppressive lobbying from Silicon Valley. Conflicts of interest are everywhere, as Google inserts their people into all three branches of our government.
Third is, sadly, some powerful people within our own industry. A good example is how the three majors [Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group] made Spotify the giant it now is. Together, they handed over 80 percent of the world’s recorded music in exchange for equity. At a recent intellectual-property [IP] conference, counsel for Spotify confirmed that that contract “made” Spotify. He additionally volunteered that, of the 1,200 employees at Spotify, 900 are data analytics scientists, making the streaming service more of a big data company than a music company. What a breach of trust, to trade our music for ads and data. It’s like when the Titanic started sinking, the executives at the majors elbowed their way to the lifeboats, right past the musicians, who just kept on playing. And those musicians are still playing, but are also slowly drowning. And not just those trapped in steerage by their contracts: We’re all drowning, the whole jazz family and beyond—all being sucked down the sinking ship’s vortex, because the majors gave the unsustainable model of streaming a monopoly over how music is distributed.
But you should read the whole thing.

* * *

 Terry Teachout has an article in Commentary on the hoary old problem of classical musicians' participation in the Nazi regime in Europe.
The story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
Like so many other commentaries the claim is that people who cling to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit are sadly mistaken. The evidence that classical musicians were at the very least compliant with the Nazi regime is all too clear:
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
But the same is true of the ordinary people of Germany and Austria who were equally supportive. This is a knotty problem and I would love to see someone write a book discussing it. My instinctive reaction is to say that the arts are a kind of medium or tool or channel that can be used or misused, just like so many other social phenomena. Music, or any other art, is not inherently ennobling. It is only so when used in the proper way. It does not immunize its practitioners against racism or fascism or socialism, in fact it has been used in the production of propaganda both for and against those and other ideologies. It can be a force for good--or evil. But I think that if we look at the history of music as a whole, we might find that it is usually and commonly a force and discipline for good. The story of European classical music under the Third Reich was a squalid chapter--but just a chapter.

* * *

Let's have a cheery envoi to balance that last item. This is Grete Pedersen conducting the  Oslo Camerata/Det Norske Blåseensemble & Solistkor Oslo in Haydn's Nelson Mass:


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Road to the Rite, Part 3: Petrushka

In my last post in this series I made a passing reference to "a lot of quite lovely and quite conventional ballet music, the sort where you see the dancers wafting around on stage." This "wafting around on stage" music I associate with 19th century ballet such as Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. Let's have a listen. This is an excellent complete performance from the Kirov (complete credits at the beginning) and if you want to focus on specifically what I mean, go to the 31 minute mark:


This is classic 19th century Russian ballet and therefore the establishing context for Stravinsky's pieces for the Ballets Russes. This is, in other words, what the audience had in mind when they attended a performance of a Russian ballet company. The music is in various tempos and uses various dance genres, but a lot of it is lyrical, meaning not too fast and with smooth, legato phrases. No stomping around! Classical ballet is all about defying gravity and lyrical beauty.

In parts of the Firebird, and more so in Petruska and the Rite, Stravinsky makes a fundamental stylistic change. Most of the commentary on this music is about the melodic and harmonic aspect, as we discussed last time, but the most important changes in the style are on the rhythmic level. Small parts of the Firebird, larger parts of Petrushka and a great deal of the Rite are very much "stompy" music, music with a heavy pulse. In the Firebird, this is largely restricted to the Infernal Dance, but in Petrushka we get more and earlier. Most of this ballet is at very fast tempi and quite a bit of it has a heavy pulse.

First, let's have a listen to Petrushka. This is a production from the Bolshoi that recreates the original sets, costumes and choreography from the original production:


Right from the beginning we hear the much greater role given to the percussion, the ubiquitous accents instead of flowing legato and the heavy pulses in the bass instruments. This, more than the famous "Petrushka chord," is what gives the ballet its unique character. Sure, the melodic and harmonic structures are important, and most particularly when we have two very different textures, rhythmic and harmonic, colliding, which creates a kind of musical irony or cubism, depending on how you want to analyze it. There are a lot of examples starting in the introduction, whose motoric music is interrupted by tweedling in the high winds in a different tempo. Another example is at the 20:10 mark where a kind of limping waltz is periodically interrupted by a meandering melody in the cor anglais in the "wrong" key. But the underlying musical vocabulary is rhythmic, accented and much weightier than previous ballet music. For an example of what I am talking about, go to the 25:10 mark in the above clip, the dance with the peasant and the bear, where we hear a characteristically heavy accompaniment in the low strings, with a raucous melody in the high clarinet. (And, good god, I think that's a real bear!)

As is often done, you can look at this ballet in terms of its Russian folktale flavour, the leading role given to a marionette, the use of Russian folk music and so on, but I like to look at the musical foundation that makes all this work, the frenetic, syncopated and heavily accented rhythms that drive the music forward, the piquant slow sections that give eerie pause and prepare the next fast section. What I find most striking about the musical texture here is how very different it is from previous ballets and even from the Firebird. Instead of romantic lyricism we have crisp, sardonic, rhythmically involved music that can express tragedy, exuberance, irony and an earthy expressiveness. This is what distinguishes these ballets by Stravinsky from the earlier ones by Tchaikovsky which were also based on Russian folktales. It's the medium not the message (if by "medium" we mean the musical elements and by "message" we mean the story elements, costuming, sets and so on).

All three of these ballets are heard more often with just the orchestral score in a concert presentation than they are with a full ballet production. The reason is that the music works just fine on its own. Taruskin even makes the point that it was the ballet production, not the music, that was the real cause of the riot at the premiere of the Rite of Spring. Audiences have always readily accepted the music, even from the earliest performances.

Let's end with a concert performance of the score of Petrushka. This is Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic, with the score:



Monday, June 19, 2017

Classical Smackdown

The Guardian has an account of an unusual sort of concert: Eine kleine slam poetry: Mozart comes to Shoreditch:
Classical Smackdown is roughly equivalent to a boozy poetry slam. While the venue is informal and the alcohol flows freely, no concessions are made to the repertoire. Hearing solo classical music away from any sort of ceremony, completely on its own terms, highlights the simplicity and accessibility of what one might tend to see as complex pieces: contrapuntal Bach partitas and Gypsy dances full of flying staccato technique.
So far it sounds totally cool...
“In an ideal concert, you can chat to the audience a bit before,” says Balanas. “But in the classical world, it’s usually the case that you go on, you bow, you play: you don’t get to interact. Performing here becomes daunting in a different way, because your onstage persona becomes much more of a focus.”
But now I see the problem. Like virtually every other attempt to "improve" the classical music concert, it does so by making it all about the personalities of the performers and the audience. More narcissism! "You don't get to interact" in a traditional classical concert? Just with the music, dude.

But I loved this picture of the MC:


How about some Mozart, just to remind us what we missed? This is the Fantasia in C minor, K. 475 played by Friedrich Gulda:


 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Road to the Rite, Part 2: Firebird Infernal Dance

The Firebird was Stravinsky's first big success as a composer and his first ballet for the Ballets Russe of Diaghilev. He was just twenty-eight when it was premiered so it was written in his twenty-seventh year. He was still searching to find his unique compositional "voice" but this piece set him on the right path. There is a lot in it that is owed to his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, including elements in the story of the ballet which echo in some respects Rimsky-Korsakov's 1907 (premiered 1909) opera The Golden Cockerel which also revolves around a mythical bird.

Mind you, Stravinsky was the first to deny any influence from his teacher whom he described as
“shockingly shallow in his artistic aims.” His knowledge of composition “was not all it should have been.” His “modernism” was “based on a few flimsy enharmonic devices.” Summing up, Stravinsky patronized his teacher wickedly: “I am grateful to Rimsky for many things, and I do not wish to blame him for what he did not know; nevertheless, the most important tools of my art I had to discover for myself.”
[Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 2475-2478). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.]
However, the immensely learned Richard Taruskin goes on, in this same essay "Catching up with Rimsky-Korsakov," contained in the above volume, to point out that when music theory finally, in the 1960s, caught up with Stravinky's musical language, it was discovered that one important element was the use of the octatonic scale, an example of a harmonic structure that was based on a tonal centre, but not tonally functional in the usual way. I have mentioned this scale before, but it is worth repeating:

The scale consists of alternating tones and semitones and there are two versions depending on which one you start with. The famous "Petrushka" chord which is an F# major chord sounded simultaneously with a C major chord is easily derived from the octatonic scale: take out one of those chords and the remaining notes contain the other chord. The theorist, Arthur Berger, who discovered this found other instances of its use in Les Noces and the Rite and quite a few other pieces.

Now here is the interesting thing: a couple of other composers have also mentioned this scale, Olivier Messiaen (in his book on his musical language) and, yes, Rimsky-Korsakov in his book on orchestration. In Russia one of the names for this scale is the korsakovskaya gamma, the "Korsakov scale!"

The reason the Petrushka chord comes out of the scale so easily is that each note in the scale has a tritone counterpart: the C to G flat, the D flat to G and so on. Let's have a look and see if this useful scale is also in the Firebird. Here is the first theme in the bassoons (bass clef):

Click to enlarge
And here is its continuation in trombone, also bass clef:


If you will allow me to use this continuation, I can map it nicely onto the octatonic:

Click to enlarge

The first line is the theme, shown in treble clef. The second line is the notes arranged as a scale and the third line is the octatonic starting on the same note. Everything matches up (except those pesky B naturals in the first part of the theme!).

The use of the octatonic scale, plus the orchestral virtuosity, are things that give an exotic Russian color to the ballet and they are both, as we see, derived from Rimsky-Korsakov. Here, by the way is an example of that exotic orchestration, from the introduction:

Click to enlarge
He has the strings doing a glissando while playing harmonics! On a string instrument, you get a "harmonic" (a high note created by forcing the string to vibrate in smaller sections than usual) by touching a finger to the string at a "node". The sound is eerie and high-pitched. This example comes from very early in the score. You can hear and see this technique around the 2 minute mark in this clip:


There is also a lot of quite lovely and quite conventional ballet music, the sort where you see the dancers wafting around on stage. Also in the Infernal Dance are some sections that sound like a manic Parisian music-hall:

Click to enlarge
You can hear this section from the 1'17 mark in this clip:



To my ear, Stravinsky has not yet integrated all his influences with the eerie orchestrations, octatonic elements, Parisian music-hall and Stravinsky's own brilliant rhythmic ideas, so the Infernal Dance in particular sounds a bit like a dog's breakfast--just too many elements that don't quite cohere. His next ballet, Petrushka, goes a long way to solving this problem and the integration is complete with the Rite of Spring.

Let's listen to the whole ballet in the excellent performance by Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000:


Friday, June 16, 2017

Rating the Beatles

I promise there will be a substantial post tomorrow, but in the meantime, here is one that just missed the Friday Miscellanea because I didn't see it in time: All 213 Beatles Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best. I only like these kinds of things if they aren't afraid to level some devastating criticism, or quips at least. Here are some excerpts that I enjoyed:
206. “Free As a Bird,” single (1995): This single enraged me, in 1995, when it was released to gin up interest in the first Anthology album. It was a Lennon song from long after he’d left the Beatles; he sounded so vulnerable, and the studio work that had gone into making this distant-sounding, crummily recorded demo sound presentable felt like too big a burden for the martyred star to bear.
204. “She’s Leaving Home,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): A bathetic lugubrious mess, the nadir of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The call-and-response chorus is labored; the whole thing reeks of having come from a squaresville OffBroadway musical about kids these days. The instrumentation is unusual; there are no actual Beatles playing on the track, but no one cares because the song is so bad.
That was particularly enjoyable because the Wall Street Journal, who can be tone-deaf, just published a laudatory essay on the song by Alan Alda.
194. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): The whimsy will continue until morale improves. Definitely in the top five of Most Irritating Songs Paul McCartney Ever Wrote. It took a long time for the band to get this right in the studio. No one liked it; but it was reportedly Lennon who finally sat down and banged the piano part out appropriately. This is a song that isn’t about anything in the first place; the last two verses are the same except for having Desmond and Molly’s names switched out, but McCartney’s vocal gets more and more excited. Newsflash: No one cares about Desmond and Molly Jones.
I would have put that one a LOT lower.
189. “I’ll Be Back,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): The least of the lesser songs on the second non-soundtrack side of the A Hard Day’s Night album, and an anticlimactic album closer.
I totally disagree with that one. The major/minor alteration and the vocal harmonies make this one of my favourite early Beatles' songs.
164. “Good Night,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Lennon’s attempt to write a lullaby for Ringo to sing as an envoi to “The White Album.” It’s lulling, and nothing wrong with that, but it’s also kinda boring.
I rather disagree with this too. In context, following Revolution #9, it is well beyond surreal.
117. “Don’t Let Me Down,” single (1969): Another of the so-so unadorned Lennon songs from the last days of the Beatles. Too many of his songs consist of the title words repeated over and over in the chorus. The case for it is that it’s a naked profession of his love for Ono and a new statement of vulnerability. The band played it on the famous rooftop concert in Let It Be, but it was left off the album. It turned up as the B sideB side of the “Get Back” single.
Maybe it's just me, but I have always loved this song. I captures a special kind of emotional desolation like no other song.

Well, I stopped there because as we work into the better songs, he doesn't have a lot to say.

Skipping to the top songs, numbers one and two are, as they should be A Day in the Life and Strawberry Fields.

Your milage may vary and if it does, tell me about it in the comments.

Friday Miscellanea

One of the very, very few contemporary classical compositions to become a hit record was Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3. The New York Times has an article on the 25th anniversary:
“The first royalty check he got was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he kept it in his wallet for a long enough time that we had to reissue it, because he wouldn’t cash it,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “It may just have been such a shock to all of a sudden go from someone who had struggled to find recognition, to someone who was at that moment as famous as any modern composer in the world.”
Even if it was notoriously trendy among Gen-Xers in the ’90s, Mr. Gorecki’s symphony holds up as an impressive artistic achievement. As in the large-scale sacred works of Mr. Pärt, the trance-like allure of slow-moving tonal harmonies has the undergirding of an elegant structure: The simple language of the first movement, a canon that expands outward from subterranean low strings, accrues a granitic weight that is sustained across the entire work. The first entrance of Ms. Upshaw in the Nonesuch recording, intoning a 15th-century Polish lament, maintains its original pathos.
* * *

Perfect pitch is a wonderful gift, but can it be learned? Apparently it can, with the aid of a fairly uncommon drug, valproic acid. The Wall Street Journal has the story:
Relatively few people in history—even musical virtuosos—have been known to possess perfect pitch, the ability to identify or reproduce any musical note without having another note with which to compare it. Mozart was said to be one of those people. Ella Fitzgerald was another. The trait is so rare, it is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people can tell an F-sharp from a B-flat in Western cultures, where the gift has been widely studied.
I'm not sure that it is that uncommon--I have known quite a few people with perfect pitch--but that may be just because I know a lot of musicians. None of these articles mention the accompanying problem of having perfect pitch, which is the fact that different kinds of music may use a different reference point. Historically, every town or ensemble probably had its own standard "A" which was likely different from our modern "A" at 440 cycles per second. The early music community uses an "A" that is lower than the modern one, at 415, which is the same as the modern G#. Also, different orchestras are known to use a somewhat different pitch for their "A" than the standard one. I knew one singer, a specialist in early music, who actually had two "perfect pitches", one for modern music at 440 and another for early music at 415. He could switch back and forth at need! Not having perfect pitch myself I sometimes wonder how those who do, hear. Does every note come with a little label: G5 and so on? Does this ever distract from the expressive content? What about complex textures as we might find in Ligeti or Xenakis? Does every note still come with a little label even if there are hundreds of different ones? It's funny that all these studies seem to only be interesting in seeing if ordinary people can acquire perfect pitch instead of really digging into the details of how it actually works...

* * *


David Mermelstein writes about this years Ojai festival at the Wall Street Journal and gives it a mixed review:
...by elevating jazz to a position of primacy while re-engaging several artists prominently featured at the festival last year and the year before, Ojai’s decision-makers created an atmosphere in which much of the programming seemed either out of place or regurgitated. Mr. Iyer was a welcome new face who brought ethnic diversity as well as ample talent to Ojai. But seeing a former music director, the percussionist Steven Schick (2015), on stage more frequently than his successor undercut the message. To be fair, Mr. Iyer’s music was abundantly represented, though not always well received, throughout the long weekend.
The sense of déjà vu was furthered by the return (for the third year in a row) of members of the versatile and virtuosic International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), serving as the house band in all but name. Claire Chase, an ICE flutist as well as a flamboyant soloist, was among them, but her presence became unwelcome following a self-indulgent recital on Friday afternoon. Ms. Chase is immensely talented technically, but her showboating stage manner (silver metallic shorts over black leggings, awkward dance-like effects) and overreliance on a limited number of performance gimmicks didn’t wear well. (Enough already with the amplified lip smacks!)
* * *

I am a great admirer of John Lennon as a musician and songwriter, but he said some remarkably silly things in his time, and this has to be the silliest:
"Before Elvis, there was nothing."  --John Lennon
* * *

My favorite among the younger pianists is Igor Levit who just completed a journey through all the Beethoven piano sonatas at Wigmore Hall in London. The Guardian gives a well-deserved laudatory review:
Igor Levit’s performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall have stretched from early last autumn to the start of the summer. Individually and cumulatively, they have provided one of the most compelling experiences of the current London concert season. This final recital, consisting of the last three sonatas, epitomised the several that I was able to attend – boldly conceived, sometimes questionable and even uncomfortable, but full of thought and technically outstanding.
Levit is not a Beethovenian purist. He does not play with head metaphorically bowed in reverence to the canon. His Beethoven loves to surprise, and this is surely a necessary instinct. He is at one with Beethoven’s boundary-testing radicalism, a feature that was especially evident in the sometimes reckless but gloriously exciting treatment of some of the early sonatas. In the last three, of course, the stylistic boundaries are tested to even further extremes, but Levit mostly kept his repertoire of shock tactics in check.
 Igor Levit's Beethoven is not comfortable and predictable: it is challenging and fresh, just as it should be.

* * *

I recently posted a rant about coughing in concerts and Slipped Disc has a post about a much milder instance of concert etiquette that prompted the whole panoply of different attitudes on the subject from commentators. It's worth a read.
One of the aspects of concert etiquette underscored in the comments that I think worth pointing out : most concertgoers have an expectation that the concert should be a silent and still moment (though their tolerance to this or that small disruption will vary). Any breach can then upset this balance and in the worst cases ruin the whole experience.
The important thing here is the expectation set : a tennis player can be flustered by a few people talking behind him, yet a football player will shoot penalties with an entire stadium roaring. They’re no different, but just have to concentrate in different environments, the parameters of which are defined beforehand and presumed to be accepted by all.
I happen to think the expectation of silence at a concert is a great thing and something to be preserved, especially in the noisy, shambolic world we live in.
* * *

A really suitable envoi would be some Beethoven from Igor Levit. Here is the slow movement from the "Tempest" sonata, op. 31, no. 2:


Monday, June 12, 2017

Genki Sudo and World Order

I admit that my tastes in popular music are eccentric. I tend to tune in and out of popular music--I missed most of the 70s through inattention but paid some attention during the 80s when I enjoyed The Police, Talking Heads and David Bowie. Then I tuned out again. Lady Gaga almost pulled me back in with "Bad Romance" which I still think is a great pop song. But she didn't follow up with anything I found interesting. But these days, we can discover not only the mainstream of pop music, but also some that comes from elsewhere. South Korean pop had a big hit a while back, but let's try and forget about "Gangnam Style"!

There is one Japanese group that are so unusual that I find them interesting. I have mentioned the leader, Genki Sudo, before, but it was a while back and I find they have a bunch of new videos out. The group is called World Order and this is basically electro pop with dance. But it is the dance that is so original. Genki Sudo was, in his earlier life, a mixed martial arts champion. After retiring from that he published books of essays on Buddhism. A few years ago he started writing songs and lyrics and choreographing the videos. Here is a sample:


Unlike most music videos there are no special effects: what you see is simply the group, filmed live in various locations. Here is another, more recent video:


The music is pretty standard stuff, but I believe the elements of the choreography are somewhat unique and come from his background in martial arts. For comparison, here are some highlights of his martial arts career including both clips from various matches as well as his uniquely choreographed entrances to the ring, in costume. Blogger won't embed so click on the link:



None of the usual elements of dance are present in the World Order videos, but there are a host of arm-movements that seem derived from martial arts. The other remarkable element is the strict discipline of the dancers either moving in total unison or in strict sequence. Here is another video with an interesting political subject. That phrase on the sheet of paper at the very end, "we are all one" is from Genki Sudo's Buddhist belief and he often held up a banner to that effect at the end of his matches.


So there you go, another group of artists showing that the world of music and dance has a multitude of houses.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Firebird, Petrushka and the Road to the Rite: Part 1

You could make the argument that, up until the 1950s or even 60s, the music of Stravinsky was the most influential on composers and the "language" of music generally. But not all of his music was equally influential. The piece with the greatest impact was certainly the Rite of Spring, which just had its hundredth anniversary, but the two important pieces leading up to the Rite, the Firebird and Petrushka, were also very important in shaping the sound of contemporary music. There were, of course, a multitude of competing visions such as that of Schoenberg, Bartók, Messiaen, Berg, Boulez, Stockhausen and others. There were also composers writing in a pre-Stravinskian mode such as Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But, as I say, I think the argument that it was Stravinsky who was at the centre is easily made.

One caveat is that I am not talking about exclusively academic circles or experimental ones, but about musical styles that found a place in concert halls and a mainstream audience.

Stravinsky's influence was really paramount until the minimalists began to have an impact in the 1970s and since then, it is they that have been driving the shaping of musical style. But I think that if we look closely at what Stravinsky was doing on the rhythmic level, we might find some interesting connections between him and the minimalists.

If the aesthetic power of Stravinsky's music were graphed like the chart of a tech stock, it might show a huge leap upwards from 1909 to 1913, then something of a decline thereafter with occasional spikes upward around 1930 (Symphony of Psalms), 1940 (Symphony in C) and 1945 (Symphony in Three Movements). I find much of his neo-classical period to be far weaker than the Russian music that preceded it. Pieces like Pulcinella are, to my ear, relatively trivial compared to the Rite. The career of Stravinsky fits so awkwardly with the modernist template of how careers are supposed to go that it was even problematic for Stravinsky himself who was constantly, with the help of ghostwriters, trying to obscure and rewrite his own history. Richard Taruskin has uncovered numerous examples.

But let's not get too caught up in side-issues as what I really want to focus on is the music. The thing that has got to stand out is that these three great works that shaped so much modern music are ballets. While the ballet genre was a lovely and popular one in the late 19th century, it was probably the furthest from being an advanced or avant-garde one and this was one reason why the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev had such an inordinate impact. Taruskin writes about how the tumult that accompanied the premiere of the Rite in Paris was actually prepared by a publicity campaign, but the Rite of Spring was preceded by two other ballets that were also far outside the usual bounds of the genre. Ballet music in the late 19th century was lyrical, refined and anything but primitive so when Diaghilev put together a stunning collaboration of design and choreography together with advanced and exotic Russian music, he invigorated the whole genre and in turn the course of 20th century music.

Dance music has a long history, going back to the very beginnings of instrumental music. We often forget that as far as written music goes, the voice dominated for hundreds of years. When it came to polyphony and larger forms, the voice ruled. Instrumental music for a long time consisted of short dance pieces with the occasional transcription of vocal music or the accompaniment to vocal music. Often, while instruments were used, they were not even indicated in the score. But underlying all instrumental music, even when it took on the sophistication of the vocal forms, is the energy of the dance.

Let's just remind ourselves of the sound of early dance music. This is a volta, very popular in the Renaissance. I like this version, transcribed for guitar, because it has more punch than a lot of other performances.


What distinguishes this kind of sound from most vocal music is the rhythmic drive and the sparkle of the quick melodic runs. You can dance to it! By the time we get to Bach, the dance forms have gotten a bit more complex, but the basic idea of a strong rhythmic drive is still present in some pieces, like the gigue:


Mozart was very fond of dancing himself and wrote a great deal of dance music such as this one:


More refined than primitive, I think! Beethoven's best "dance" movements are likely his scherzos, a quick movement in 3/4 that came out of the older minuet:


You can't quite imagine yourself dancing to that. As the century wore on, even dance-like music tended to get more and more ponderous except for the elegant Viennese waltz and the somewhat cruder polka:


Before the ballets by Stravinsky the Ballets Russes had a big success with the Polovtsian Dances from an opera by Alexandre Borodin:


That's my very idiosyncratic mini-survey of dance music before Stravinsky. Now, to highlight the impact he made with the Firebird, the first of his pieces for Diaghilev, let's listen to the climax, the Infernal Dance of All Kastchei's Subjects:


Next time we will take a closer look at the Firebird!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Opening on a very light note:



Well, only the sharp keys.

* * *

Traveling with your instrument continues to be hazardous. United Airlines piles up more unfortunate publicity with a recent incident where a supervisor tried to physically wrestle away a 17th century violin from a passenger while boarding. Be sure to read the statement from her lawyer which has the juiciest bits. One tip to United employees: don't threaten to call for security if you are the one likely to be arrested!

* * *

I think we may have rehearsed some of these reasons here on the Music Salon, but it is nice to see it in Forbes: Ten Reasons to Let Your Kid Major in Music:
5. Music instruction is all about patience and listening. Over and over, music students are told "Listen to your tone. Listen to this phrasing. Is that what you're going for?" They know how to tune in. They know how to make course corrections. If the kid doesn't land a plum job working for a symphony orchestra straight of of school — and they won't — they know how to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking.
* * *

How does one show one is a member of the elite? According to Aeon it is less through conspicuous consumption but more and more through inconspicuous consumption:
While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. 
Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.
This is, sort of, a good trend I suppose. Though I would feel just a tiny bit better if there were some mention that so-called "cultural capital" includes the great artworks and not just articles in the New Yorker, the Economist and, one presumes, other shallow jetties on the cultural shore.

* * *

 The Globe and Mail has an article that makes an interesting point about the artistic response to the terror-bombing in Manchester: art can actually support (!!!) contemporary Western societies, it does not always have to be subversive:
This is not to say that the art we saw in poems and music was not a serious response to a global geopolitical crisis; it was. It was different from the calls for “resistance” art we have been seeing in other Western countries because, this time, the existential threat being responded to was not part of out own culture; it was from outside. One could talk of a difference between “protest art” (aimed at Western-generated political problems) and “solidarity art” (designed to lift morale in the face of terrorism). And although the solidarity art is not a complaint directed at any particular state or policy, it nevertheless serves a uniting and inspiring function.
That was unexpected!

* * *

 The best article this week about the nuts and bolts of the practice of music comes from Business Insider. Wait, what? No, it's true.
He learned to practice by changing the rhythm of the piece. He learned to play one note at a time with a tuner. He learned to play each measure with a different metronome timing, and then he played the piece so slowly it took 20 minutes instead of just four.
During these insane lessons where Amy and my son spent one hour on five notes, the more we worked on the art of practicing the more I saw that practice is a method to do anything ambitious and difficult. He learned to create a system and process instead of just focusing on the goal itself.
There's a lot more interesting stuff there. The truth is that learning how to work on improving to some level of perfection a musical performance is one of the most challenging tasks any of us face. It demands attention to a wide range of problems from psychological (performance anxiety, boredom) to aesthetic (what is the expressive weight of the phrase) to physical (developing the fine muscles in the hands) to mechanical (controlling the response of the instrument) to ones we hardly have names for: how would you describe the challenge of perfectly controlling a crescendo from very soft to very loud?

* * *

And that's about it. Cultural events seem to have been pushed offstage this week by the politics of terror and the terror of politics! So let's end with an inspirational envoi. The second of Stravinsky's great ballets leading up to the Rite of Spring is Petruska. This is the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons:


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Next Year, In Salzburg?

One thing I tend to do, just after a trip, is think about the next place I would like to go. After last year's brief trip to Madrid, I decided that what I wanted to do was return for longer, which I did this year. After this year's trip I am starting to realize that the main motivation and enjoyment of this year's excursion was not Madrid or Spain so much as the opportunity to hear some great concerts. Plus, I'm a bit tired of jamón Iberico!

Quite a while ago, when I was working very hard on my career as a performer, I spent a month at the Mozarteum's Summer Academy in Salzburg, Austria. This may be the most prestigious music school in the world and I had a wonderful experience. The guitar maestro was Pepe Romero and I spent most of the time studying the Concierto de Aranjuez, on which he is an authority. At the same time as the Summer Academy, is the Salzburg Festival, one of the most distinguished music festivals in the world. When I was there, decades ago, the Alban Berg Quartet were performing the whole cycle of the Beethoven string quartets (I attended both a concert and a rehearsal), Alfred Brendel was playing the whole cycle of the Schubert piano sonatas, Karlheinz Stockhausen was there with his ensemble from Cologne giving seven concerts of his chamber music (and I met him after a concert and had a very interesting conversation), Witold Lutosławski was there conducting the premiere of his violin concerto, Jessye Norman gave a solo recital and on and on. There were at least five orchestras in attendance. Salzburg is a city devoted to music with one (1) cinema, but at least a dozen concert halls! At the end of the course, I gave a short recital in the Wiener Saal, the smaller of the Mozarteum's two concert halls:

Click to enlarge

Now that's a beautiful concert hall!

What I would really like to do next summer is spend a couple of weeks attending concerts at the Salzburg Festival. There are some five or ten every day! I don't think next year's schedule is out yet, you have to apply for tickets in January, but here is a little glimpse of what will be on this year. The festival runs from July 21 to August 30.

In opera:

  • Mozart, Clemenza de Tito
  • Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
  • Verdi, Aida
  • Berg, Wozzeck
  • Handel, Ariodante
  • Monteverdi, Orfeo, Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and L'Incoronazione di Poppea
  • and a bunch of others
Orchestra Concerts:
  • Vienna Philharmonic giving ten concerts under five different conductors
  • Berlin Philharmonic, two concerts with Simon Rattle
  • Pittsburg Symphony
  • Mahler Youth Orchestra
  • West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Barenboim
  • Vienna Radio Symphony with Meister
  • Bavarian Radio with Nagano
Theme concerts:
  • Nine concerts with focus on Shostakovich
  • Eight concerts with focus on Grisey
  • Six lieder recitals
Solo recitals:
  • Three by András Schiff
  • One by Grigory Sokolov
  • One by Evgeny Kissin
  • Two by Igor Levit (one entirely of Shostakovich)
  • One by Mitsuko Uchida
  • One by Maurizio Pollini
  • One by Ilya Gringolts
  • and duo recitals by Argerich/Barenboim and Mutter/Orkis
There is also a host of chamber music and an entire festival of drama.

Hard to resist...

For our envoi, let's listen to Mitsuko Uchida playing a little Mozart.  Here she is with the Camerata Salzburg and the Concerto in C major, K. 415:


Monday, June 5, 2017

2011 - 2017

Today is the sixth bloggiversary of the Music Salon. Yes, it was June 5, 2011,  a Sunday, when I got up and said to myself "today is the day I start my blog." A few minutes later my first post was up:
People have urged me for years to publish my thoughts about music. Well, ok, two people and I think they were just tired of getting the rants via email! But what the heck, I've enjoyed reading blogs for years and I certainly have thoughts about music. Let me give you some background: I've been a professional musician all my life, most of it as a classical guitarist. I studied with some great maestros of the guitar: Jose Tomas, Oscar Ghiglia and Pepe Romero. I also have composed my whole life, though not so much as a professional composer as just to get something out of my system. I also spent several years studying musicology which was enormously fascinating. Nowadays I do the occasional public performance but spend more time composing and writing program notes for concert series.

But enough about boring old me. What about music? We live in interesting times: the recording industry seems to be in deep trouble, classical music seems to be in a long decline, pop music seems rather vacuous and I'm starting to have doubts about this whole recording thing. You know, whenever you go into a public place these days you are assaulted by some horrific recorded music. Old news, I know, but we are still living with the consequences.

What kind of blog will this be? The Instapundity kind with links and very brief comments? An Alex Ross type blog with longer entries and lots of photos? An Ann Althouse type blog with linked items and thought-provoking comments (and furious wars in the comment section)? I guess things will just have to evolve naturally. I tend to write 500 to 1000 word essays from time to time, but I suspect there will be lots of linkage as well. The focus will be on music, but I will wander into other things as well. Events will dictate coverage.

So hello and welcome. I will put up the first essay post in a couple of minutes...
That first month was pretty busy; I put up 47 posts! Lots of Bach, pop music, musing about composition--lots of themes I have continued to pursue. Hardly any comments as at that stage I had almost no readers other than a couple of friends. Things have picked up! At last count there were over 6000 comments and over a million page views. You might go back and look at some of those old posts just for fun. The only problem is that almost all of the YouTube clips have disappeared so you will have to guess what I originally had. It would be easy with this post, about three different versions of the Bob Dylan song "All Along the Watchtower."

I might not put much else up today as I am busy with some other things and doing research for some posts on Stravinsky. Last night I was listening to his first big success, the Firebird ballet. Have a listen! This is Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. This is the full ballet, not one of the suites extracted from it.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Metric Textures

You may be astonished to hear this, but the term I have chosen for the title of this post is of my creation/invention. At least, if we can believe Google. The only similar uses they turn up have to do with image textures, not musical ones. So let me define my term!

Metric textures are a category of musical devices and practices having to do with rhythm, specifically meter, in music. Let's just review some basic terms. In music we talk about time in various ways. The timing of a piece of music refers to its duration in minutes and seconds: "what is the timing of the first track on the disc?"

Pulse refers to the repeating beat underlying the music, akin to the pulse created by our heartbeat.

Meter refers to how the pulses are grouped. This is indicated in a musical score by the time signature which in simple meters usually consists of two numbers: the upper one tells us how many pulses make up the metric group and the lower one what rhythmic value counts as a pulse. A typical example is the ubiquitous 4/4 time signature indicating four beats or pulses in each metric group with each beat a quarter note. There is another kind of time signature used for compound meters where there are two levels of grouping. In these meters the sub-group is usually three notes instead of the usual two, making the larger group a dotted note. Examples of these are 6/8 and 12/4. In musical scores the metric groups are normally divided off with barlines.

Rhythm refers to the pattern of short and long notes that we hear as the surface of the music. For example, each pulse or beat can be divided up into shorter notes that create subdivisions. The varying of these subdivisions is the rhythm of the piece.

There are certain music techniques that use layers of different meters to create interesting rhythmic effects. One of these is called hemiola and was a favorite way for Baroque composers to clinch an important structural cadence. It depends on re-grouping the meter. A typical example would be to turn the recurring dotted quarter pulse of a piece in 6/8 temporarily into 3/4 by rewriting the rhythm to group the patterns into quarter notes instead of dotted quarters. This changes the basic pulse. In flamenco a similar technique is used to create a polyrhythm or polymeter where we hear the two groupings simultaneously instead of sequentially. This is used in the flamenco palo known as bulerías. It is a bit tricky to show in notation, but it can look like this:


Or follow the link to the Wikipedia article.  On one level, a measure of 6/8 is followed by a measure of 3/4, but on the other level a quick 3/8 continues throughout. Here is how bulerías sounds like in performance. What you hear are various slices of the metric texture, which is always present in the background, but not in the foreground.


This idea, of combining two different metric groupings, is an example of a metric texture. It is found in flamenco music, in African drumming and is the technique used in a lot of music by Steve Reich. Layering different meters creates a kind of sustained tension that enables him to write quite long pieces that seem to hover, almost without change, for long stretches. It is the built-in tension of the metric texture that makes the music exciting to listen to in the absence of the usual harmonic and melodic devices that music has traditionally used.

The first kind of metric texture used by Steve Reich came about through experimenting with tape loops. If you run the same tape loop at slightly different speeds, you get some interesting results as we can hear in the early tape pieces like Come Out from 1966:


As this technique, called "phasing" by Steve Reich, involves infinitesimal changes, it resembles a kind of metric calculus! Reich soon discovered that it could be adapted to use in compositions for live performance and Piano Phase is a simple example:


This is performed by two pianists both playing this pattern at the beginning together. Then one pianist slightly speeds up until he is one sixteenth-note ahead, at which point the two pianos synchronize their sixteenths. Then this process is repeated. What happens is a metric texture is created through minute tempo changes. Here is what that sounds like:

In another post I will look at some other examples of metric textures in Steve Reich.