Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Damned Pieces of Donkeys!

Conductors, along with singers and instrumental soloists, are the stars of the musical firmament. Workaday musicians, stagehands, ushers, roadies and composers are just there. But while the eccentricities of singers are often mentioned, less so are those of conductors, who seem to have the press on their side. If you spend much time with orchestral musicians though, you will hear some stories. Thanks to Slipped Disc, we have a recording, with English translation, of excerpts from a Toscanini rehearsal that gives you some insights into what it was like to be in his orchestra.


Hey, there's more. In the next one he shares his feelings about the double bass section:


I suppose that we should flesh out the context a bit. Musicians, like creative people generally, are perhaps a tad more volatile than, say, accountants or funeral home directors. If you are engaged in playing music that is itself passionate, you might become a bit overwrought yourself. I can imagine a world in which every conductor was supervised by a Behavioral Response Team (and hey, if we look at academia, it's coming, it's coming!) and I suspect that we might not enjoy the results much.

There is undoubtedly abuse in the classical music world and worse than bullying and intimidation. Not, I suspect, in the same league as the revelations we have heard from Hollywood recently, though. I see two rather different kinds of phenomena: on the one hand the Harvey Weinsteins that through the abuse of power become monsters and predators, prevailing through intimidation and buying off those they can't intimidate. On the other hand, creative artists that are sometimes abusive and insensitive, but who likely suffer abuse and insensitivity themselves. Frankly, that is more my experience. What we should beware of is deeply entrenched power gradients that mean that the abuse only flows one way: from the powerful to the helpless. That seems to have been the case in Hollywood, at least with the Weinsteins and others of his ilk--and you can be sure there are!

But in the world of the orchestra, even though conductors are usually in a position of power, their power is certainly not absolute. I recall a concert I saw with Pepe Romero, playing a concerto for guitar and orchestra by Mauro Giuliani, where he put the conductor in his place in a most decisive way. I won't name the conductor, a time-beater of modest skills. This particular concerto begins with a long orchestral introduction before the entry of the soloist. The concert protocol when there is an instrumental soloist is that the soloist enters first, to applause, followed by the conductor who defers to him (or her) as the orchestra are the accompaniment to the soloist. All eyes are on the soloist with the conductor simply waiting in the background. Pepe took advantage of this. He strode out confidently, ignoring the conductor. Took his seat, checked his tuning with the oboist (who gives the note), kibitzed with the concertmaster, smiled at the audience, adjusted the placement of his footrest, wriggled a bit in his chair to get comfortable--all the while ignoring the conductor--and finally, leaning both forearms on the guitar, he briefly glanced at the conductor and gave him a curt nod as if to say, "now you can start the orchestra." It was a masterpiece of public humiliation.

I have experienced very little public humiliation myself. The only incident that comes to mind was when I was playing in a master class for Oscar Ghiglia, another of those volatile Italians! I played one of a group of preludes by the Argentinian composer Maximo Diego Pujol in class one day. These are not great pieces, but they have a certain charm. But it seems that Maestro Ghiglia has little respect for Argentinian music! When I finished the piece he responded by telling a very disgusting ethnic joke about Argentinians. Then he started ranting about something or other--frankly, I don't even remember what. I just sat there, unimpressed. After a while he ran down and gave me a look. "You aren't believing a thing I am saying, are you?" he said. "Nope," I replied. And that was that. He and I got along quite well after that. The thing is that, while Ghiglia is a famous maestro and a fine teacher, I am also a fine musician and for that reason, I really can't be intimidated in that way. In fact, if you go on an inappropriate rant in front of a room of young and talented musicians, which is the make-up of a masterclass, then you are the one who is going to look silly and your "victim" is not a victim.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that raw power gradients are greatly diminished if there are other objective criteria available. A good musician cannot be intimidated in a masterclass because they are a good musician and that is stronger than the power gradient implicit in the situation. Similarly, a conductor is only going to be listened to and given credence if he (or she) is making musical sense. Perhaps Toscanini got away with overwrought ranting because his musical ideas were valuable. In other words, power is only genuine if it is based on some objective reality. But we seem to be living in a society where Harvey Weinsteins can roam freely, which indicates to me that we are in need of some radical reforms. It is pretty easy to fire a conductor who is a problem, but the institutional structures of Hollywood are a different thing entirely. Hey, I know, we can just stop going to see their crappy movies! Oops, I think that is already happening.

Let's listen to some Toscanini. This is a restored 1936 recording of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 with the New York Philharmonic:


Monday, October 30, 2017

Musical Form

I have tried to write about this topic before, with varying levels of success, and if you want a sample, just search "musical form" in the gadget in the right hand column. The problem with musical form is that it is a term that covers too much ground. Form in music is very important for the direction, continuity and unity of the composition, but there are a near-infinity of ways of creating that, or failing to create it! Some of the most tightly unified pieces are very, very dull while some of the more loosely organized are very exciting. Some musical "form" comes in the rhythmic dimension, other in the melodic or harmonic. You can even attempt to create form with texture and timbre. Speaking of the rhythmic dimension, some form is created with meter and tempo.

I am inspired to revisit this topic because of some thoughts Beardsley expresses on artistic form in his book on aesthetics. As is typical of philosophers he manages to ask more questions than he answers! One of the first that comes up (on p. 165 in Aesthetics) is the problem that the very mention of the word "form" implies a distinction with "content" as they seem to go together. If we are talking about a bottle of water it is easy to see what is the form and what the content. It is also fairly easy if we are talking about, say, Shakespearean sonnets. The form is the sonnet ("The form consists of fourteen lines structured as three quatrains and a couplet.") and the content is the imagery and themes expressed in the poem. But when we talk about the musical version, the sonata, the distinction is far less obvious and the relationship between form and content a complex one.

Theorists of a certain persuasion state that the form of a sonata is tripartite: exposition, development and recapitulation. The exposition presents one or more themes, the development develops these themes through a variety of harmonic excursions and thematic fragmentation and the recapitulation returns to the original themes. The characteristic harmonic structure of sonata form for much of music history was that while the exposition presented different themes in different keys, the recapitulation restates the themes in keys other than the tonic, in the tonic. This gives the form the necessary element of finality. Well, that sounds all very nice. But as soon as you sit down to examine some actual sonatas, you are likely to discover that only the dullest of composers follows that format very strictly. Nearly every time Haydn sat down to write a sonata form movement he did it in a different way. Often he uses only one theme. Mozart, on the other hand, broke the "rules" in a different way: he tends to have a bunch of themes. Beethoven reinvented sonata form in almost every piece and Schubert recreated it again in a different way.

In music, form and content are so interrelated that the one creates the other. To pick two examples from Beethoven, the opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata is so unlike any other first movement in a piano sonata that it has almost nothing to do with sonata form:


The form of that movement is basically harmonic and the unity comes from the texture. Contrast that with the first movement of the Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven where the unity comes from the tight focus on that opening four-note motif:


In what sense are these two movements in the same form? I could present examples almost indefinitely!

I think the fundamental truth of form in music composition is that it is as much a unique creation with each piece as is the content--in the best music, the two are really inseparable. In a symphony by Sibelius, the meter, the tempo, the harmony and the themes go together in constantly transforming ways to create the structure and the direction of the musical movement. Like all good form, it is rather magical! Let's listen to the Symphony No. 6 by Sibelius (he described it as "the scent of the first snow" in a letter) that is a pretty good example. The performers are Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Several Cheers for Scarlatti

Over at the excellent music blog Slugging a Vampire we find a recent post celebrating the three hundred and thirty-second birthday of Domenico Scarlatti, much beloved by guitarists even though he didn't write a single note of guitar music. The reason is that Sr. Scarlatti was for the last few decades of his life in the employ of the Spanish royal court, where, as far as we know, he wrote all the music he is renowned for. These are a remarkable five hundred and fifty-five keyboard sonatas and there is a pretty clear influence of the guitar. Reading over the Wikipedia article on Scarlatti, I just learned that his house in Madrid where he passed away, was on Calle Leganitos where I rented an apartment last May! Apparently there is a plaque, but even though I walked the length of the street lots of times, I missed it.

Only one artist has actually recorded all of these sonatas, the very gifted harpsichordist Scott Ross, who passed away tragically young. This is him playing the Sonata K. 27 in B minor:


Here is guitarist John Williams playing my favorite sonata, K. 213 in D minor:


Composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer has recorded some of the most creative performances of Scarlatti sonatas. This is K. 206 in E major:


Going back to the keyboard, here is a very zippy performance of K. 141 in D minor by Martha Argerich:


And finally, returning to the harpsichord, this is Gustav Leonhardt with K. 227:


As Steven mentions in his blog post, Scarlatti, while greatly admired by both composers and performers, does not fit easily into the standard narrative. His musical imagination and style lies rather out of the mainstream, partaking of both Baroque and Classical elements without being firmly in either camp. As one writer noted in passing, Scarlatti was perfectly capable of inventing Classical style in a sonata or two, and then putting it aside to do something else! As W. Dean Sutcliffe mentions in his book (linked to by Steven), the critical landscape regarding Scarlatti is a vacant one. To put it bluntly, almost no work has been done in the critical appraisal and examination of Scarlatti's music.

But we can still enjoy it!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Musical Time

That recent award, number 43 on the list of the top 100 music education blogs, reminds me that I ought to do the occasional post on, you know, music education. After the series of Stravinsky posts and a scattering of posts on aesthetics (which I will continue) the blog has strayed into some political issues. My defense of that on this determinedly non-political blog, is that when politics makes inroads into our beloved realm, we need to occasionally push back.

But today I am going to talk about the rhythmic aspect of music. Music is a "time-art" meaning that not only does it, like theater, take place in time, but even more, everything about music is about vibrations:


These vibrations take place on multiple levels. Most obviously, music tends to organize itself around a recurring pulse:


But let me back up a bit and tell you what I used to tell my students: even though music is a time-art, when we talk about the "timing" of music, that only refers to the duration of a piece. When you look at a CD cover or the second column in your iTunes playlist you see the time or timing of each piece in minutes and seconds. Time and timing are not musical terms, though. In music we have three separate terms, none of which is time or timing. The first is "pulse."

Pulse is related, of course, to your pulse and for a lot of music history the typical pulse of most pieces was not far from the range of the human pulse. We like pulse in music as it is the simplest and most compelling way of organizing time. Steve Reich has written pieces that use pulse in a very primal way:



The "trick" in that piece is that the pulse that you hear, which in the absence of any context you hear as the downbeat, actually turns out to not be the downbeat, but an upbeat. When the downbeat finally arrives, if you have been listening closely, you almost fall off your chair in surprise. This is a "metric" effect and "meter" is our second musical term. You see, in music those pulses come in packages: there are stronger ones, downbeats, and weaker ones, upbeats. There is a correspondence with the raising and the putting down of the foot in dance. The two basic kinds of meter are duple and triple. In Drumming, the whole piece is based on a simple pattern in 3/2 6/4. Here is the composer's note from the score:

Click to enlarge
And here is the beginning of the score. As you can see, that first beat is not the downbeat:

Click to enlarge
Those numbers at the beginning tell you the meter. The 3/2 means "each measure (or package) has three beats and each beat is notated as a half note." The alternate meter of 6/4 means that "each measure has six beats and each beat is notated as a quarter note." Why the ambiguity? Steve Reich plays with meter in his music, constantly re-interpreting how the meter can be felt.

So now we know what pulse and meter are. The third word used by musicians is "rhythm" and it is used in a couple of senses. First, it can be used as a kind of generic term referring to all the elements of music that are time-related. "Ya gotta have rhythm!" But it is used in a specific sense as well. Rhythm is the pattern of notes of different durations that we hear as the surface of the music. The rhythm of Drumming as Reich shows it in his note is "three eighth notes, eighth note rest, eighth note, eighth note rest, three eighth notes, eighth note rest, eighth note, eighth note rest." So you see why we invented notation! The rhythm is always changing (yes, and repeating as well), but the pulse and the meter are the same.

But everything in music is a kind of vibration, not just the rhythmic aspect. Each musical note or pitch is a collection of vibrations at different frequencies. You have heard the term "A = 440?" This refers to a specific pitch, the note A, one example of which vibrates 440 times per second. This creates a particular pitch, one that musicians typically use to tune to. So each note in a melody is actually a specific vibration. Harmony? Well, harmony is just different pitches as they sound together so harmony is also a collection of vibrations. Everything in music is vibrations!

Let's listen to a particularly felicitous collection of vibrations by one of those dead white guys. This is the Symphony No. 39 by Joseph Haydn in a spirited performance by The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock:


UPDATE: I replaced my original Drumming clip with a different performance that makes my point better.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

This year would have been Leonard Bernstein's one hundredth birthday and the Wall Street Journal has a piece on his artistic legacy:
It would be fair to judge his “serious” side as a mixed success. Take, as an example, “Serenade,” the second most performed of his works in this celebratory season (after “Symphonic Dances From West Side Story”). The composer described it as having been based on Plato’s “Symposium.” This was a warning sign. He could have simply labeled this piece a violin concerto, because the connection between the literary model and the musical score is very tenuous. The reference to Plato, following a 20th-century artistic trend of basing works on ancient Greek themes (spearheaded by Igor Stravinsky ), was no doubt meant to convey a certain level of high-mindedness; audiences are likely attracted in part by that pretense.
* * *

 Norman Lebrecht recounts an old anecdote about Jascha Heifetz. Exactly one hundred years ago today, Oct. 27, 1917, the sixteen-year old violinist gave his debut at Carnegie Hall:
The hall was packed out on advance hype. Every musician in New York needed to hear this kid.
It was an unseasonally warm Saturday afternoon. Mischa Elman [violinist] turned to his neighbour, the pianist Leopold Godowsky, before the debutant came on stage.
‘Phew,’ said Elman, ‘it’s hot in here.’
‘Not for pianists,’ said Godowsky.
* * *

There is a review in The Guardian of a new recording of John Cage's Piano Concerto, composed according to chance procedures:
Performers of John Cage’s piano concerto could theoretically play nothing at all, if that’s what they wanted. The point is about choice. “John, you’re my man,” said a trombonist who played in the original performance. “I’ll play for you any time.” Trust is the making of indeterminate music and Apartment House’s new recording is all trust. Philip Thomas makes the piano part magnetic, like the centrifugal planet in an erratic constellation. Around him spin trumpet, violin, flute and others, everyone quick-witted and playful.
The piece is for prepared piano and chamber orchestra and there are several clips on YouTube. This is Giancarlo Simonacci, prepared piano with the Orchestra V. Galilei conducted by Nicola Paszkowski:


* * *

Cellist David Finckel was a long-time member of the Emerson Quartet. He and his pianist wife Wu Han are "two patricians in chamber music society" according to an article in San Francisco Classical Voice:
they’re master directors and guest curators, artistic directors of Chamber Music Today, the first major Korean festival; founders of the Finckel-Wu Han Chamber Music Studio at the Aspen Music Festival; and together have established more than a dozen residencies for CMS Lincoln Center, across the country and abroad: from the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg to Wigmore Hall in London to Shaker Village, Kentucky, where they play in a historic barn
The article speculates:
What makes them particularly interesting is the way they’ve become forerunners in the new world of artistic endeavor. It’s long been clear that it’s no longer enough to be a superb musician, no matter how driven. Everybody’s driven. The new trinity is performing, promoting, and entrepreneurship. You could argue that the last two are much more important than the first. The principles according to Wu Han and  Finckel are unchanging: you court patrons, trust the audience, deliver excellence, and remain flexible. And keep humor next to your breast at all times. To do all that effectively and consistently over a long period of time, you need to be a fanatic.
Not to overstate it, but the fact is that the Finckels, and others like them, may be the best shot to keep classical music in this country, in the broadest sense, relevant and vibrant.
 Well, maybe so, but I rather think that there are actually very few superb musicians.

* * *

One reason the Beatles stopped touring in 1966 was that more and more they wrestled with the simple logistics of getting to the stage without being trampled by their fans. A darker fear was that of being the target of an assassin, which became a reality for John Lennon in 1980. After a string of terrorist attacks, popular musicians today are dealing with similar fears. The Pacific Standard has the story:
Deadly attacks have turned concert venues in Paris, Manchester, and Las Vegas into grisly battlefields. America's latest mass shooting, which took place during a performance by country star Jason Aldean, took 59 lives, terrified concert-goers and re-opened the debate over gun control in Congress. In the process, these tragedies have shaken up a pivotal industry: the market for terrorism insurance.
Performers have always opted to insure their acts in case of cancellation. But now artists from Britney Spears to Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan are putting an extra 0.25 to 1 percent of their profits toward terrorism and political violence coverage, which pays an artist for shows canceled specifically in the event of a threat or attack.
* * *

 It ain't easy: a new report by the Musicians' Union in the UK finds that
Music teachers have never had lower pay or less job security, a new report by the Musicians’ Union (MU) has found.
It also stresses job dissatisfaction is on the rise due to a widespread lack of financial support, such as maternity pay and sick pay, and questions the extent to which a career in music teaching “is still viable”.
* * *

And finally, science takes another look at musicians and creativity:  Classical and Jazz musicians show different brain responses to unexpected events, study finds.
The researchers used EEG to compare the electrical brain activity of 12 Jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 Classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some of the chords followed a progression that was typical of Western music, while others had an unexpected progression.
Louie and her colleagues found that Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progression, which indicated they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.
“Creativity is about how our brains treat the unexpected,” Loui told PsyPost. “Everyone (regardless of how creative) knows when they encounter something unexpected. But people who are more creative are more perceptually sensitive and more cognitively engaged with unexpectedness. They also more readily accept this unexpectedness as being part of the vocabulary.
I find that when you are looking at these kinds of research, you should be aware of the unsupported assumptions. Here, for example, the statement "creativity is about how our brains treat the unexpected" is the one that rings a warning bell for me. Says who? Ok, the researchers. But based on what? Is that what creativity is? It seems to me that the causality is backwards. Creativity in the arts is the discovery and use of ideas that are either new or neglected in aesthetically successful ways. I'm not sure what they are measuring here, but it is likely not creativity. I'm pretty sure that there is no scientific way to measure creativity.

* * *

Our envoi for today is the Serenade, after Plato: Symposium for violin and orchestra by Leonard Bernstein. The performers are Vadim Gluzman violin with the  Spanish Radio and Television Orchestra conducted by Carlos Kalmar:


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Mystery of Sibelius' Symphony No. 8

Like Aristotle's lost book on comedy, the Eighth Symphony of Sibelius is one of the most disconcerting blanks in the history of aesthetics. By early 1927, having just completed Tapiola and with the Symphony No. 7 premiere just three years in the past, it seemed that Sibelius was in the prime of his compositional life. Alas, though he was to live another thirty years, apart from some very minor works and revisions, he was to allow no more important works to be premiered or published. I express it in that way as it seems clear that Sibelius had begun working on the symphony, the subject of a commission from Serge Koussevitzky and to be published by Hansen in Denmark, as early as 1928. In May 1931 he wrote from Berlin, where he traveled once a year, to his wife Aino regarding the symphony:
Am engrossed in my work--but anxiety about everything gets me down ... My plan is to stay on until the end of June ... The symphony is making great strides and I must get it finished while I am still in full spiritual vigour. It's strange, this work's conception.
Over the next few years Sibelius alternately promised and reneged on delivery of the work. In 1933 its imminent premiere was even advertised in the press as the crown of Koussevitzky's offering of all the symphonies in Boston. But it was not to be. Though it seems likely it was finished--Sibelius even refers to having finished it many times--he never allowed it to appear. In 1945 he consigned a great basket of manuscripts, which likely included the Symphony No. 8, to the fire and in later years refused to even speak about it.

His whole life Sibelius was plagued with self-doubt and anxiety regarding his work. The genesis of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies was a difficult struggle for him and at first he labeled the Seventh a "symphonic fantasy." It was the very importance of the symphonic medium that daunted him and finally, appeared to have silenced him. His admirers and colleagues like Koussevitzky, the American critic Olin Downes (a huge supporter of Sibelius' work) and many others could never grasp what the problem was, why Sibelius could not release a piece he had worked on for so long and one which was so eagerly awaited by the musical world.

Sibelius was an intensely private man and became more so in later life. He did not share his inner turmoil with the outside world and only partially with his immediate family. I have speculated in the past that perhaps Sibelius' silence stemmed partly from the currents in the musical world seemingly flowing away from his kind of writing. Stravinsky and Schoenberg were more and more the stars of the musical firmament. But after reading more of Sibelius life and work in Guy Rickards' monograph I suspect that was not the cause. Perhaps it was simply an overwhelming depression combined with the consequences of massive alcohol consumption--Sibelius was certainly an alcoholic, though he did manage to control his drinking for part of his career at least--that finally caused his creative energies to flag.

But what a tragedy! What we would not give to hear Sibelius' final "strange conception" after the astonishing delights of his previous symphonies! But alas...

Here is his one-movement Symphony No. 7 in a performance by the Swedish Radio Symphony conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:


 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Notes on Aesthetics

Ok, the title contains a pun. Apologies! I just want to collect here a few observations about musical aesthetics, some from Beardsley's book, some mine own. Previously we mentioned that the basic categories of analysis should be the part and the whole as this is probably the most fundamental distinction possible. Beardsley says (p. 98) that "the totality of all audible tones [is] a four-dimensional array that contains within itself all the elements of all music." The four dimensions are duration, intensity or dynamic, timbre and pitch. Within this array, there are intrinsic relations between the tones themselves. For example, of any two successive tones, they will either be the same or one will be higher.

Beardsley points to one essential quality of music that he calls "auditory movement" or the characteristic of sound-complexes to point toward other sounds to come. You could call this the directionality of the music. This is managed through the creation of expectations or anticipations. Though it is done in a thousand ways and quite difficult to describe in words, anyone who is an experienced listener will recognize this phenomenon. Sometimes this quality is described as an "inevitability" to the progress of the music. This might give the wrong impression, because, in fine musical compositions, there is no repetitive dullness as you can listen to them many times with enjoyment. The music seems to go where it has to go, but with spontaneity. Hard to describe, but just listen to some Bach for an example.

Not all composers or schools of composers would agree with the above. The Italian futurists of the first part of the 20th century were happy to include random noises in their compositions and John Cage avoids creating any kind of expectation or anticipation by choosing notes randomly. I'm not sure that those kinds of music need any aesthetic analysis, though, so perhaps we can just leave them to one side.

A lot of musical direction or drive comes from the structure of pitches called "melody." Melodies have a contour and direction or goal. In tonal music the goal is usually a cadence of some kind. "Melody" is a term that might include, at one end, the very brief motif that is the germ of the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven:


And at the other end, one of those endless melodies of bel canto:

Click to enlarge
Perhaps the most interesting theory course I took in graduate school was one based on the notion of "theme types." This theoretical model comes out of the study of the Classical style. In compositions of that period, roughly 1760 to 1830, there are a number of theme types that are constructed through the very close integration of melodic and harmonic principles. Typically melodies are built around chord tones and cadences. In the Classical period phrases, the basic sentences of music, were handled in some very typical ways. I have written about this in this post. Here is another post on harmony and phrase structure.

I guess that the point I am wandering towards here is that the aesthetic impact or quality of a piece of music is closely related to the way the piece is structured. And it is the details that are important. Sorry for the vagueness, but this is just a general observation.

As a palate cleanser, let's listen to one of the most Russian movements written by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is the third movement of the String Quartet No. 3 played, in very vigorous fashion, by the Emerson Quartet.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

I'm alerted to this post at On An Overgrown Path music blog where we find a different analysis of the woes of classical music:
the Guardian uses editorial algorithms to unashamedly slant its journalism towards the prejudices of its readership, and concert promoters use subjective algorithms to present concerts of familiar and non-challenging repertoire. The problem is that no one cares that this is happening. In fact everyone feels very contended in their own comfort zone with ever faster broadband, ever cheaper streamed content, ever more friends and followers, ever more selfie opportunities and - most importantly - ever fewer challenges to their prejudices. And the media - particularly the classical music media - is quite happy to play along; because keeping your readers in their comfort zone means keeping your readers.
Whereas I follow the slightly different policy of challenging my readers, which seems to attract a different kind of reader (even if perhaps fewer of them)!

* * *

The popular music world also has its crises and the latest one seems to be that the big pop divas Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry just aren't cranking out the hits like they used to. The Wall Street Journal has the story:
So far this year, 20 of the 25 most-streamed songs on Spotify, Apple Music and other on-demand audio services are by R&B/hip-hop acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Migos, Childish Gambino and Lil Uzi Vert, Nielsen’s data shows. Two are by male pop stars (Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars). Not one is by a female pop artist.
Historically, the core of the traditional pop-diva audience has been teen girls. Yet several experts say these same fans aren’t as interested in the staged artificial personas of many pop stars such as Lady Gaga. They are now interested in hip-hop where lyrics are often more direct and true to life. “It’s the era of authenticity,” says Peter Edge, chairman and chief executive of RCA Records, which represents Kesha, Ms. Cyrus and SZA. “What are you really going through? What do you really think? How much are you really speaking to what’s going on with you?”
I think that captures why I don't find pop music too interesting these days: they aren't very interested in musical things and I'm not very interested in what's going on in their personal lives. Oh dear, the tragedy of being a celebrity!

* * *

 Back to classical: Gramophone has the fifteen worst classical record covers of all time. A sample: first we have an album from Leif Segerstam, a very serious Finnish conductor and composer who has written over three hundred symphonies.


 Next, an album of very serious Bach solo music for violin by the sober Canadian violinist Lara St. John (like Yuja Wang, she recently had her clothing budget slashed):


You might be forgiven for thinking that this album was the dance music from the Star Trek episode with the Orion slave girl, but no, this is the highly respected opera singer Birgit Nilsson performing Salome by Richard Strauss with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti:



And here, for comparison, is the aforementioned Orion slave girl from Star Trek:



* * *

The New York Times has a piece on the cancelation, by the government of Venezuela, of a tour of Asia by Gustavo Dudamel. Of course it is not Gustavo Dudamel that is being canceled, it is rather the orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. President Nicolas Maduro mocked the maestro saying "Welcome to politics, Gustavo Dudamel!" The maestro replied:
Mr. Dudamel, in his statement Thursday, called on the players in the orchestra and the young people of Venezuela to “remain strong and proud.” He added, “our spirit will not be broken, our hope will not waver, our music will not be silenced.”
“I shall never stop defending freedom of expression and the values of a just society,” he wrote. “Dark days like these are difficult, but standing together, we can rise to the challenge of improving our society.”
As often with the New York Times, the carefully ignored elephant in the room is socialism. The real reason that the tour was canceled was more likely the fact that the Venezuelan government has finally run out of other people's money. They are not only broke, with billions of dollars in foreign debt payments due, they have been printing money at a pace that has resulted in an inflation rate of around 2,300%! People are starving, eating zoo animals and cats. Venezuela simply hasn't any money to pay the expenses of a touring orchestra. But the New York Times would rather point to Dudamel's criticism of Maduro as the reason for the cancelation.

* * *

While I'm at it, let's have a look at what Alex Ross is saying about the Met and the New York Philharmonic:
The Metropolitan Opera opened the season with its hundred-and-fifty-seventh performance of Bellini’s “Norma.” The New York Philharmonic began with its hundred-and-nineteenth rendition of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This is the safe course that many performing-arts groups are choosing in precarious times: the eternal return to the world that was. Both works are masterpieces that deserve to be heard repeatedly. Yet the implicit message is reactionary. As the nation contends with its racist and misogynist demons, New York’s leading musical institutions give us canonical pieces by white males, conducted by white males, directed by white males.
I was just going to quote the first bit, but the ideological buzz words just kept coming. Leaving aside the works themselves, let's pick out the underlying subtext. We are in "precarious times." Oh yes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average just topped 23,000, up 25% since the beginning of the year. Unemployment in the US is at a low 4.2% down from 5% a year ago. What is precarious about that? Oh, it is the nation's racist and misogynist demons that must be the problem. And what could these demons be, if we were to drop the metaphor? Right away he tells us: white males! Being a white male himself, Alex knows whereof he speaks. Well, ok, job one is obviously to fire him and hire a non-white, non-male music critic for the New Yorker. What's that? No immediate plans? Ok, just get back to me. It is also amusing to note that Alex describes the works in question as "masterpieces that deserve to be heard repeatedly." So what's the problem? Oh, right, it is not the actual pieces of music, it is their authorship! Too many white males... Well, ok, let's find some works of equal stature that were not written by white males. Uh, Aida? Nope, Verdi is another white male. I know, Don Giovanni! Oops, Mozart, another white male. Could it possibly be that, as of yet, there are no absolutely first rank operas not written by white males? Moving on to the symphony, I kind of suspect that we might have the same problem: Beethoven, white male, Haydn, white male, Bruckner, white male, Stravinsky, white male, Philip Glass, white male. Oh well... So I guess that what we have here is Alex Ross just signaling his virtue to us: he knows about this terrible racism and misogyny and he has to let us know he knows. Once that is over with the rest of the essay is a standard review of performances. You know how we know that this is just virtue-signaling and not an actual practical critique? Because he offers no suggestions for works by non-white, non-males that might have been programmed instead of Norma and Mahler Five.

* * *

Let's have a listen to part of Norma by Bellini, one of the finest examples of bel canto opera in the repertory. This is Anna Netrebko in a concert performance of "Casta Diva," one of the showpiece arias:


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Music is a TARDIS

A what? I wonder how many Whovians are in my audience? The TARDIS, as all watchers of Doctor Who know, is a vehicle and stands for:  Time And Relative Dimension ISpace. It looks like a police phone box from the 1960s:


It's both a spaceship and time machine and yes, it's a lot bigger on the inside ("Is it?").

I was putting together a concert program the other day and realized that I think of music as being a bit like the TARDIS: it takes you places in both space and time. Here, have a look at the program I came up with:

Music from the Golden Age of Spain

Diferencias sobre “Guárdame las vacas” ........…  Luys de Narváez
Canción del Emperador …………………..……   (1538)
Baxa de contrapunto ………………………….

Fantasía X ……………………………………..… Luys Milán
Fantasía del quarto tono ……………….……….   (1536)

Music from 18th century Saxony

Siciliano ……………………………………………… J. S. Bach
Andante ………………………………………………  (1685 - 1750)
Prelude  ………………………………………………

Music from 20th Century Spain

Tiento antiguo ………………………………… Joaquín Rodrigo
Nocturno ……………………………… Federico Moreno Torroba
En los trigales ………………………………… Joaquín Rodrigo

Music for Violin and Guitar

Octatonic Fantasy (2017) …………………… Bryan Townsend

Four Pieces (2013) …………………………… Bryan Townsend
1. Strange Romance
2. Cloudscape
3. Xitango
4. Surreal Reel

Except for the last group, they are all times and places you could go to with a TARDIS. But here is the cool part: with music you go to these places with mood, emotion and atmosphere, not jammed into an economy seat on an airplane.

Let me see, I have some of these as clips. Here is "Surreal Reel" from the last group:


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Music and Employment

Over at Slipped Disc we get a brief glimpse of one of the realities of the music business:
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra has just closed applications for the Nikolai Malko Competition.
To its consternation, the number of candidates was more than twice the previous record – 563 of them, aged 18 to 35.
A flautist friend of mine told me that every time he applied for a job with an orchestra there were two hundred other flautists auditioning. We can discount Slipped Disc's usual sensationalist headline: "How many desperate conductors out there? 563" but at the same time recognize that the competition for jobs in the classical music field is ferocious. And, believe me, it is even worse for those who are not seeking a position in some musical institution like an orchestra or a conservatory, but seeking work as a soloist. On the one hand there are established artists like Grigory Sokolov who can likely play any hall he wants in Europe and do that season after season. On the other hand less well-known artists who are perhaps not quite as gifted as Sokolov struggle for every booking. I once called a concert series booker in Toronto every week for months trying to get a concert there with no result. Another time I sent a publicity package to every conductor in Canada (about seventy) and followed it up with a phone call to each one. With the same results.

For every possible opening there are hundreds of musicians competing for it. This is offset by network effects, of course. If you are a graduate of the Curtis Institute, it is much, much easier to find a position because you are already networked with Curtis graduates who are employed by every orchestra in North America. A lot of positions go to people who know people. This is not as unfair as it sounds as graduating from a famous school is a kind of filter for quality in itself. But the hard truth is that there are a lot of people who would like a career in music or the other arts, but are never going to quite achieve it. Even those who do achieve it may wrestle with depression and stress their whole lives as we learn from another Slipped Disc post:
 
Help Musicians UK has set up a task force to address high levels of mental illness in the music professions.
A new study identifies four contributory factors:
– Money worries – A career in music is often precarious and unpredictable. Many musicians have several different jobs as part of a portfolio career, and as a result get little time to take a break. It can be hard for musicians to admit to insecurities because of needing to compete with others and wanting to appear on top of things.  Musicians can also find it hard to access affordable professional help for mental health issues.
– Poor working conditions – Music makers can be reflective and highly self-critical, and exist in a working and personal environment of constant critical feedback. As many musicians are self-employed, their work can result in feelings of isolation when it comes to dealing with mental health problems.
– Relationship challenges – Family, friends and partners play an important role in supporting musicians, but these relationships can come under huge pressure and strain.
– Sexual abuse/bullying/discrimination – Musicians’ working environment can be anti-social and unsympathetic, with some people experiencing sexual abuse, harassment, bullying and coercion.
Musicians wrestle with higher levels of depression than people in other fields. This seems to clash with another host of studies trotted out to support arguments for more music education because music helps us be smarter and lead more fulfilling lives. I guess only if you don't pursue it professionally. Both of these posts, by the way, have a host of intriguing comments.

Now set this beside the recent attempts to apply identity politics to the hiring of musicians. "Diversity" and "Inclusion" demands that orchestras hire based on gender and race so that the demographics of the orchestra reflect that of the society. Imagine if you were one of that host of musicians trying to win the position and found out that, due to your identity, your chances were much less? Talk about depression!

Music is one of the most unforgiving disciplines there is. In earlier times I suspect this was not as keen because you could be a regional musician and not have to face as much competition. But once recording technology was invented you were compared, not to the tenor in the next town, but to Caruso. Violinists were compared to Heifetz and pianists to Horowitz. As the mass media became ever more pervasive the careers of the famous and well-established tended more and more to crush the careers of the middle-rank artists. I noticed this myself when a local summer music festival, a modest affair offering four or five concerts in an area with a population of around 300,000 people, hired a guitarist from New York instead of myself! I was wondering, "are things so tough in New York that he has to come here and take jobs from me?" I guess so.

Every musician feels the need to be a unique voice, a special expressive resource that cannot be swapped for another. This rather explains the wording of a lot of puff-pieces about musicians who always come off sounding like emotional basket-cases. But the reality is that the emotional and physical demands are so great that few can survive them. I have watched the career of guitarist Miloš Karadaglić in recent years as he seemed to have the possibility of building a solid career. Quoting from the Wikipedia article:
2012 was a breakthrough year on the concert stage for Miloš, with sold-out debut performances and tours in the UK, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia. "Part of the reason Karadaglić has such a large following" commented The West Australian, "is his ability to straddle both hardcore classical and pop classical camps."
He even achieved the gold medal of recording achievement with a Deutsche Grammophon contract and released albums in 2012 and 2013. Alas, in October 2016 he announced that he was retiring from performance due to an injury to his hand. Lang Lang is also having to withdraw from performances due to a left hand injury and Hilary Hahn canceled a number of performances a couple of years ago for the same reason.

Well, I think I have belabored the point enough! Let's listen to some music. This is Miloš Karadaglić playing Asturias by Isaac Albéniz:


Monday, October 16, 2017

Naming Conventions

Haydn had it easy! He never had to worry about what to name a piece. Why? Because pieces were named according to their genre: Symphony no. 1 (or, in Haydn's case, Symphony no. 92!), Sonata for Piano op. 111, String Quartet in B flat, op. 130. It wasn't just Haydn that followed this scheme; it was the norm for instrumental music until at least the end of the 19th century. It started to break down with the advent of program music, i.e. music that had some kind of textural basis or inspiration. So we started to have pieces named "Symphonie fantastique" or orchestral music titled "Finlandia" or "Also Sprach Zarathustra." This reached some absurd lengths with Erik Satie who once named some piano pieces "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear," which was a satire on the whole convention of naming pieces after their genre or form.

But composers nowadays are really in trouble. True, they can still follow the standard naming conventions and we do still get numbered symphonies and quartets. But if you want to be fashionable and maybe win a prize, then you have to come up with some nifty and fashionable name for your orchestral masterpiece. Here are some examples:
  • Short Ride in a Fast Machine (John Adams)
  • The Light, for orchestra (Philip Glass, but most of his music has genre or form titles)
  • Turangalîla-Symphonie (Olivier Messiaen)
  • L'Arbre des songes ("The Tree of Dreams," Henri Dutilleux, the French have a gift for poetic titles)
  • Le Marteau sans maître ("The Hammer without Master," Pierre Boulez)
There is almost a whole category of pieces making reference to the ocean:
  • The Oceanides (Jean Sibelius)
  • La Mer (Claude Debussy)
  • Become Ocean (John Luther Adams, it won a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize)
Young composers seem to avoid numbered and genre titles entirely so they end up with a lot of odd names for instrumental pieces:

  • 2001–2002 Fits & Bursts
  • 2003 Out of the Loop
  • 2004 By All Means
  • 2004 So to Speak
  • 2006 It Remains to Be Seen
  • 2006 Wish You Were Here
  • 2007 From Here on Out
  • 2007 Seeing is Believing

All by Nico Muhly!

I'm wrestling with this problem myself right now. I'm writing a piece for violin and guitar and am likely to call it something like "Concert Piece for Violin and Guitar," but I just know someone is going to come up to me afterwards and say, "couldn't you think of a better title than that?" I dunno, the alternative might be "Glissandi in Contrary Motion" à la Philip Glass or "Octatonic Fantasy." And are those titles any better? Honestly, the idea that the title needs to reveal the Inner Truth of the music or its Hidden Meaning is such a passé notion, isn't it? The only real need for a name or title is so that you can keep track of which piece it is. Sonata op. 111 works perfectly well.

This is Grigory Sokolov playing the Sonata, op. 111 by Beethoven in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1988:


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Music Criticism, part 1

I've been leaning heavily on Mr. Beardsley when it comes to aesthetics and criticism, but if I am going to do some sample exercises then I need to define my own turf. Part of music criticism, I feel, is the historical aspect. You might think that this is just because, as Frank Zappa said, all the good music was already written by dead white guys in wigs, but in fact all music, even pop music, takes place in an historical context. My early education as an undergraduate included a course in the philosophy of history and I have continued to do a bit of reading in that area. My Renaissance Music History professor was a bit surprised to learn that I not only knew, but had read R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. At one time I also tried to read all of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History, though I didn't quite succeed.

I like the idea of what is sometimes called a "thick" description:
In the fields of anthropology, sociology, religious studies, human-centered design and organizational development, a thick description of a human behavior is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, such that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider.
This comports well with Collingwood's idea that a historian should try and "get inside" historical figures and events, that is, try to see things from their perspective.

Just as a little experiment I would like to pick a favorite piece of mine and do some aesthetic criticism. The piece is a transcription, by Luys de Narváez for vihuela, of a four part secular chanson by Josquin des Prez titled "Mille Regretz." The original is in the Phrygian mode on E:

Click to enlarge
Most scholars attribute this to Josquin, but there are some who disagree. The practice of transcribing vocal music for fretted string instruments like the lute or vihuela was common in the 16th century as those instruments were just finding their way and the intabulation of vocal counterpoint was an important technical advance. Narváez' setting was known as the "Canción del Emperador" because it became a favorite piece of Philip II, We learn from Wikipedia:
The exact date or even year of Narváez's birth is unknown. He was born in Granada and the earliest surviving references to him indicate that as early as 1526 he was a member of the household of Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, a well-known and very successful patron of the arts who was the Secretary of State and commentator for the kingdom of Castile under Charles V. Narváez lived in Valladolid with his patron until the latter's death in 1547. It was during this period that the composer published Los seys libros del delphín (Valladolid, 1538), a large collection of music.
By 1548 Narváez was employed as musician of the royal chapel, where he also taught music to choristers. His colleagues there included the famous keyboard composer Antonio de Cabezón. Narváez and Cabezón were both employed as musicians for Felipe, Regent of Spain (later Philip II of Spain), and accompanied him on his many journeys. The last reference to Narváez is from one such journey: during the winter of 1549 he resided in the Low Countries.
Narváez was very highly regarded during his lifetime, particularly for his vihuela playing; he was reported to be able to improvise four parts over another four at sight. His son Andrés also became an accomplished vihuelist.
One of the things that Narváez is known for is the very first published sets of instrumental variations that appeared in his book Los seys libros del delphín. But what I want to focus on briefly is the social context. Narváez was a member of the household of the Secretary of State of Charles V and later of the court of Philip II. Spain was, at the time, the first global empire. Transferred to the contemporary world this would be like being a close advisor to John Kerry when he was Secretary of State in the Obama administration and then being a close advisor to Donald Trump. In other words, Narváez was at the very center of world power for much of his career. This says something about his abilities, but also about how patronage has changed over the centuries. Then, outstanding artists were patronized by the highest members of the political aristocracy. Nowadays, the most powerful figures in the arts and media donate enormous amounts of money to elected politicians. Just think how different that is.

Now let's look at the piece by Narváez. He was a composer and performer on the vihuela, the fretted instrument, related to the guitar, that served the role that the lute did in the rest of Europe.

16th century Vihuela

16th century Lute

The two instruments were tuned identically: GCFADG (though some vihuelas were at a different pitch and there was no standard pitch in the 16th century so all this is relative). Guitarists can approximate the tuning of both instruments by tuning the third string to F# and then placing a capo on the third fret.

The first good modern edition of the piece was published in a brief anthology titled Hispanae Citharae Ars Viva ("The Living Art of the Spanish Guitar") transcribed and edited by Maestro Emilio Pujol in 1956. I purchased it in Spain in 1974 when I was studying with José Tomás. He had me do several pieces from the book as an exercise in the separation of voices. Here is the first page of the score:


If you compare the original with the transcription for vihuela you will be a bit perplexed as they don't look anything the same. The note values in the guitar transcription reflect those in the original tablature, but in the modern transcription of the vocal work are reduced by half: a breve (double whole note) becomes a whole and so on. Another change is that the four voices of the original become three voices on the vihuela. Also, if you compare the two versions you will see that one measure in the vocal piece becomes two in the vihuela. But that is far from all! Nearly everything is varied on the vihuela. Take the second measure in the vocal score: it becomes the third and fourth in the vihuela score. The bass line is the same (F to D in the voice becoming C to A in the vihuela) given the transposition from E Phrygian to B Prygian. But all the eighth notes are added ornaments. This is partly because the vihuela cannot sustain notes the way the voice can and also because these kinds of free ornaments were very popular in Spain at the time. Tomás de Santa María, a composer and theorist, published an extensive book on ornamentation in 1565 titled Arte de tañer fantasía. From then on the vihuela version is so different from the vocal one that it might better be described as a free fantasia on the Josquin original. This is not surprising as Narváez is a pretty significant composer: he was the first to publish a set of variations on a theme.

Now let's listen to the two pieces. First the Josquin original with the score:

Now the version for vihuela with the original tablature (the lowest string is at the top):


I think that covers the first two stages of criticism: description and interpretation? The third is evaluation. I think it is safe to say that this is one of the best vihuela pieces in the repertoire. It is based on a very famous piece by Josquin and the transcription is famous in its own right. It is popular with performers and audiences and was certainly a hit with Philip II. I think the reason is that it is a very expressive piece with the underlying melancholy of the Phrygian mode, successfully exploited in both versions, and with the delicate filigree of the vihuela ornamentation. As this is meant to be a very basic exercise in music criticism I won't go any further!

So there you go...

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Criticism and Biographies

Reading the Wall Street Journal this morning I learned an interesting tidbit: the originator of our fixation on the biographies of artists seems to have been Giorgio Vasari, author of the famous 16th century Lives of the Artists. The reviewer notes:
These and many other stories—of the exploits and adventures, eccentricities and foibles, of the most prominent and successful artists of the Renaissance—feature in Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists,” which gave us the Renaissance as we know it today. Art historians continue to learn much from Vasari’s “Lives,” a page turner that blends history, description, criticism and biography. The artists Vasari championed, such as Leonardo da Vinci, remain our cultural heroes. Those he neglected, Mantegna and Francesco di Giorgio among them, never recovered the reputation they once enjoyed.
Despite being first published in 1550, with a second edition following in 1568, Vasari and his book have over the past few decades received renewed academic attention as part of a broad scholarly turn toward the study of primary texts.
The problem here, as readers of my aesthetics series will know, is that the "primary text" is not the exploits and foibles of the private lives of the artists at all, but rather the artworks! As Wimsatt and Beardsley pointed out many years ago in their paper "The Intentional Fallacy" not only do the personal events in artists lives have an ambiguous relationship with the art, but even the intentions of the artist are irrelevant to the artwork and how we evaluate it!

But still, nearly every single book published on art and artists puts the life of the artist at the center. It used to be more the case that the format was "life and works" with the two separated to some extent. But the last two monographs I read, on Prokofiev and Sibelius, dispersed discussion of the works within the biography with the implication that the biography was the cause and the work was the effect. This is the great hidden assumption of most musical biographies. They reach their nadir with books like the one on Mozart by Maynard Solomon that relates the music to supposed deep psychological problems in Mozart's psyche. One of the real delights of Taruskin's book on Stravinsky is that you can read all (of volume one at least) without having the slightest inkling that he once had an affair with Coco Chanel!

If the writer of a biography of an artist is honest, then he will have to admit that all the events in the life he recounts not only do not explain or cause the art, they are largely irrelevant to the art. Sure it gives you that nice fuzzy feeling of knowing something to know that Bach had thirteen surviving children, but to know that is to know nothing about Bach's music. And you can know a great deal about the music without knowing a single thing about Bach's life. But still, we are fascinated by artist's lives. Oddly, some people are more fascinated with the lives than the art itself.

But trust me, if you want to know something about the artwork the only way is to examine the artwork. What the composer wore when he wrote it, or what brand of champagne he preferred or how much his publisher sent him in royalties will tell you nothing about the art itself. Speaking of champagne, let's listen to Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 6, which is often described as like a drink of cool, pure water (even though an awful lot of champagne was consumed during the compositional process). This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra:


Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Miscellanea



Here is a song contest where the participants are birds:
Such contests are widespread in Southeast Asia. My colleague, accordionist Mike Adcock, chanced upon one this year in a market in Cianjur, West Java. A dozen cages were suspended high up, while below men with clipboards assessed the singing. In central Jakarta contests can attract hundreds of entrants, passionate bird trainers arriving along with their white-rumped shamas, green bulbuls or hill blue flycatchers. On one level it’s a (largely male) social occasion, on another there’s a lot of prize money at stake. A ten minute video from Phuket in Thailand shows the competitors desperately encouraging their birds from the sidelines, bending the rules by gesturing, whistling or blowing kisses. A bird with potential may be worth as much as a Toyota Fortuner. In fact a belief that it’s unlucky to put a price on a bird means they are more likely to be bartered for goods such as cars. The judges, some of whom are women, are assessing melody, rhythm and volume. One contest in Phuket demands that birds sing eight specific pitches within a defined time period.
* * * 

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the darkness of Beethoven's Appassionata:
In 1804, following works born of the idealism of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment such as his “Eroica” Symphony, Beethoven created the greatest musical explosion for solo piano of its time: the Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, known as the “Appassionata.” It is a work of a very different temper.
Composed soon after Beethoven first faced the catastrophic prospect of incurable deafness, the work has fascinated and confounded performers and listeners ever since. Full of tragic power, the sonata is arguably Beethoven’s darkest and most aggressive work. It has been compared to Dante’s “Inferno” and Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
* * *

A few years ago Tom Service did a terrific year-long series of articles on 20th century composers, followed by another one on symphonies. We haven't heard a lot from him lately, but he has a piece on "earworms" in The Guardian:
 La, la, la, la, la, la-la laaaa ... Can’t get it out of your head? 90% of us get earworms – those fragments of tunes that get stuck on a loop in your brain and which are impossible to dislodge for hours, days – and in some pathological cases, months and years. The German word for them, “Ohrwürmer”, translates literally as “earworms”, which rather brilliantly conveys the idea of a piece of music as an insectoid invader burrowing its way through your ears until it infects your brain and echoes round and round, beyond your control. That’s why they’re also known as brain worms, or simply sticky music. Just to name a few that have haunted me over the last few weeks, I can’t get the theme tune to Black Beauty nor the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances nor the cues for Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure for the Nintendo DS out of my head, to say nothing of the jingle for British Airways – actually by French composer Léo Delibes. Nor the Hovis advert with the bicycle and the cobbled street and the tune from Dvorák’s New World Symphony: round and round they go like a wheel within a wheel. And now The Windmills of Your Mind is stuck in my cranium …
He offers some suggestions to rid your mind of an earworm, but I have a better one, I think. Just hum quietly to yourself the subject of a Bach fugue. My favorite for this purpose is the Fugue from the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor. It is tuneful enough to be easily remembered, but not a good earworm so after a while it simply fades away and voila, no more earworm!


* * *

Bill Murray and some friends just did a very unusual concert, sort of a classical/pop melange, but it was a hit with audiences at the Chicago Symphony Center and now goes to Carnegie Hall. The review was great, but, as usual at Slipped Disc, the comments were mixed:
Each time we thought we saw the most poignant moment of the evening, Murray and colleagues Jan Vogler, Mira Wang, and Vanessa Perez added another layer of intimacy and depth to the performance, astoundingly elevating and giving new life to some of the most cliched musical works. Perez shone new pearls in her pianissimo phrases of “I Dream Of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” and she and cellist Vogler somehow made “Moon River,” formerly concerto for elevator and disgruntled riders, into something newly profound.
Murray shot us right through the heart when he took violinist Wang’s hand and danced a soulful tango with her onstage to the accompaniment of tango master Astor Piazolla. In the middle of Wang’s virtuoso reading of Heifetz’s showy version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Murray shocked us all by singing the Gershwin lyrics better than anyone since Satchmo. Murray’s singing was the best gift of the evening, in a rousing version of “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God” that made soulful melancholy an art form.
* * *

 Here is a fascinating article about music in ancient China:
The difference between sound (sheng) and tone (yin) is the presence of patterning. The cawing of birds and the whistling of wind, or the sobbing at a funeral, may be considered sounds, but a dirge sung at the funeral belongs to tones. Music is both nature (based in feelings) and culture (with patterning). Even more important, music is closely associated with words—that is, song lyrics. It’s also associated with governance. An old legend about ancient kings articulates this unique belief in the political—not just aesthetic or philosophical—importance of music. According to the story, the kings would send their officers to the villages, collect the songs of the common folk, and bring them back to the court, believing the songs to be signs and symptoms that can tell the king about the mood of his people. If it is happy, the king can rejoice with them; if it is distressed and resentful, the king must either reform his government or face certain ruin.
Benjamin Britten set six poems from the Chinese collection mentioned in the article for voice and guitar.

* * *

Not a very extensive miscellanea today! Let's end with a performance of the Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor by Beethoven. This is Vladimir Horowitz in 1959:


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Top 100 Music Education Blogs

As a long time music educator myself, I was pleased to make the list of Top 100 Music Education Blogs as you can see at the top of the right-hand column. The blog is at #43 on the list, which includes a lot of blogs that you might be familiar with like Slipped Disc, Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, Anne Midgette's column at the Washington Post, Musicology Now and so on. This was a surprise to me, but not an unwelcome one. Several years ago the blog was put on the list of music reference blogs by Cambridge University, but I just discovered that by accident. One hopes that this award will lead to a bit more traffic!

Let's celebrate with a Haydn symphony. This is one of his more exuberant ones, the Symphony No. 48 in C major, "Maria Theresa." The Academy of Ancient Music is conducted by Christopher Hogwood.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Practical Exercise in Criticism

Way back in 2013, frustrated with the inadequate record reviews that seem to be the norm these days, I put up the kind of review I thought should be done: A Sample Record Review. That is just the first of four posts in which I compare three different recordings of the finale to the Op. 131, C# minor quartet by Beethoven. In 2015 I did another review in which I compared three different recordings on harpsichord of the Bach Goldberg Variations, none by Glenn Gould. Much as I think these were both valid exercises and generally superior to the reviews that typically appear in the mass media, I was largely going on instinct, meaning I didn't think much about my methodology. I think my instincts, honed by fifty years as a musician, are pretty good, but one of the things I have learned from Beardsley is that it is worth thinking about your methodology.

So to that end, I want to do what I am calling a "practical exercise in criticism" in which I will do some criticism and talk about what I am doing and why. Like most artists just the word "criticism" tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth. I think that is because most artists have suffered unfair and biased criticism in their lives and tend to prefer that they just be praised for what they do! But while that is probably better than nasty, unfair criticism, it is still far short of what good criticism can do. What is good criticism? I think that my recent posts on aesthetics give us a hint and especially the last one: Aesthetics: Categories and Criticism. I am going to continue those posts, based on Beardsley's book on aesthetics, but alongside them, I want to launch another series in which I will undertake some practical criticism. The idea is to resurrect the idea of good criticism which seems to have nearly died.

One example of just how poorly criticism is practiced these days is this one from NewMusicBox:
I spent this summer immersed in the music of Roomful of Teeth, a “vocal band” consisting of eight singers with a commitment to exploring the expressive potential of the human voice. I was doing research in order to better understand how and why composers were using what—at that point—I was describing as “polystylism.” I spent my time labeling non-Western classical elements in the group’s pieces, gathering information on the composers’ backgrounds and “non-classical” experience (like Wally Gunn’s time spent in a punk band), interviewing the composers about their opinions relating to this topic, and eventually observing the group’s rehearsals at MASS MoCA during their intensive annual summer residency. Some time into my research, I grew uncertain about the basis of my research question; as I continued to wonder what the varied stylistic elements in each composer’s pieces meant, I also began to question whether they really had to mean anything at all. What if the composers just wanted to write this way, without any interest in “polystylism” or what their use of different styles means? Maybe this music, and the music these composers are writing outside of Roomful of Teeth, has nothing to do with stylistic elements at all.
The writer Hannah Schiller, a young scholar, is "a senior in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. Her research interests center around the current musical moment; she is particularly drawn to post-genre concepts and music emerging from classically trained musicians that is difficult to categorize." I have linked to this essay before. I think that her approach illustrates the huge gaps in the curriculum left by the excising of traditional aesthetics, as well as their replacement with psychological concepts and a kind of inchoate post-modern cultural theory.

Notice how musical specifics are carefully avoided, but instead we are always looking at the performers' commitment, the composers' background and experience, the meaning of stylistic elements and so on. Later on this is made more explicit:
Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer. The individual is quite important to post-genre thinking. This framework focuses on viewing individual pieces separately from what other composers are creating as well as from preexisting expectations, allowing composers to write whatever it is they want to write.
The writer seems unaware of both the tools and limits of criticism so gets lost in a welter of psychological flotsam and jetsam. Beardsley showed in a very famous paper on "The Intentional Fallacy" the problem with that approach:
Beardsley is probably best known for his very first article in aesthetics. In “The Intentional Fallacy,” a paper co-written with William K. Wimsatt and published in 1946 (and widely re-printed, e.g., in Joseph Margolis, ed., Philosophy Looks at the Arts, 3rd edition, 1987), he argued against the neo-Romantic view that a work of art means what the artist says it means, or what he intends it to mean.
An artist's intentions are utterly irrelevant to the descriptive, interpretive, and evaluative properties of his work.
Which, if you think for a moment, makes perfect sense. Every time I sit down to write a piece, my intention is to write One of the Great Works of Western Music. Sadly, it never turns out to be the case. Only in an environment saturated with psychological explanations and bereft of aesthetics would we think otherwise.

Of course we view individual pieces separately and we avoid preexisting expectations and allow composers to write whatever they want. The assumption that the contrary is advocated by someone is just a Straw Man.

I hope this gives an idea of the kind of failed approach that seems to be common these days. What I want to do is outline an alternative by creating a criticism of a piece of music that follows what I consider to be a valid and reasonable approach. Now I have to figure out what would be a good piece to pick as an example! I think something contemporary would be the best. Any suggestions?