Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 7

Continuing our journey of discovery through the music of Gubaidulina. The Composers Union has a creative retreat in the town of Sortavala in Karelia where she had spent a few weeks in the summer of 1970. In the fall of 1971 she returned there and found the peaceful solitude immensely stimulating. She proceeded to write her first string quartet to test some musical possibilities. She later wrote about the piece in these words:
The idea of disintegration, dissociation, lies at the heart of the First Quartet. I have to say that there is a certain amount of pessimism in it, a metaphor for the impossibility of togetherness, of understanding one's neighbor, a metaphor for the utter deafness of humanity (life itself in those years was so dark, so sad and hopeless...) The work grows out of a single pitch, from a common point. But various aspects of the musical material--the rhythmic and melodic successions, the types of articulation, and the dynamics--gradually begin to contradict one another. [quoted in Kurtz, p. 97]
There is a performance on YouTube by the Molinari Quartet, so let's have a listen. No score, alas!


In early 1972 Boris Berman commissioned Gubaidulina to compose a piece for harpsichord and percussion. She ended up selecting three instruments from the collection of Mark Pekarsky, the chang, a dulcimer-like instrument from Central Asia, byan chung (Chinese bells), and Chinese cymbals. To these she added antique cymbals. The piece was premiered in April 1972 and received a very enthusiastic response from the audience. Sadly, this piece does not seem to be available on YouTube. I have posted this before, but never mind, let's have a listen to In the Beginning Was Rhythm, written in 1984:


Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Whetting your appetite with a picture from a travel article on Budapest. This is a local confection, Esterházy torte, with layers of almond meringue and buttercream frosting. Named, of course, after the noble family that employed Joseph Haydn.

Click to enlarge
* * *

Here is an interview with Paul McCartney on his life as a bassist. Here is a sample:
It seems to be around Rubber Soul that you start to hear the basslines a bit more.
That’s right, yeah.
And that coincided with the arrival of the Rickenbacker.
Yeah, it did. Also, it coincided with us being allowed in the control room. It was very much us-and-them in the beginning, where you just entered by the tradesman’s entrance, set your stuff up, did your session, and left by the tradesman’s entrance. We were hardly ever asked to come up to the control room. Maybe at the end of a session. [Adopts posh voice again.] "Would you like to come up and hear it, boys?" [Switches to young awed voice.] "Oh could we? Thank you, mister."
It was really like that?
Oh yes, very much so. Tradesman’s entrance. You never entered through the studio until years later. And engineers had to wear shirts and ties. No trousers [laughs]. And all the maintenance men had white coats, very BBC.
* * *

This is an interesting contrast with our posts on Sofia Gubaidulina: Steeped in Guns N’ Roses and Philip Glass, Missy Mazzoli is a leading composer of her generation
Mazzoli’s story is something of an American dream — from the time that she, as a high schooler, was teaching tap dance to children and one of the fathers put up a sign in the studio advertising piano, drum and composition lessons. “Oh my God — you can study composition?” she thought, and was soon taken under this teacher’s wing (he was a percussionist with the Philly Pops).
Now a teacher, and a leading woman in a field that still has too few of them, she has set out to provide role models for teenage would-be composers. The Luna Composition Lab, a partnership with New York’s Kaufman Center, provides mentorship, regular lessons and field trips to concerts for a small group of female-identifying composers between 13 and 19, drawn from every corner of the country. Now in its second season, the program is “a very simple pattern,” she says, “but I think it’s very effective.” As a female composer, she says, one is aware “I’m entering a world that is inhospitable to me.” Strong role models can make a huge difference for the next generation of black sheep.
* * *

The fall from grace, or perhaps it might be better described as a complete erasure from history, of conductor Charles Dutoit, has created a bit of a problem for the CBC as regards recordings of perhaps Canada's finest orchestra the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal:
“We are aware of the serious allegations against Charles Dutoit and the OSM third-party investigation that is currently pending,” writes Emma Bédard, from the corporation’s public-affairs department, in response to an email. “And we have carefully considered our actions in light of this.
“As you know, the recordings of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra make up an important part of our Canadian classical repertoire on CBC Radio Two.
“While the allegations made towards Charles Dutoit are serious, we truly believe that removing these recordings entirely from our broadcasts would unjustly diminish the efforts of the many talented musicians who are featured in them. At this point, we are no longer crediting Mr. Dutoit as conductor.”
If there were a video, I suppose we might enjoy the sight of an orchestra playing along while the conductor was blurred out, like one of those anonymous witnesses.

* * *

At a time when an inordinate number of prominent figures in the fields of politics, academia, entertainment and the arts seem to be falling like dominoes, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that much of our creative/intellectual elite are hopelessly incompetent, morally bankrupt, cowards or worse. Someone who contrasts with all that by being genuinely learned instead of ideologically blinkered is University of Toronto professor Jordan B. Peterson, like myself, hailing originally from Northern Alberta (and also, like myself, an alumni of McGill University). His public profile and influence is growing fast and is started to be noticed even outside Canada. Here is a typical article on the phenomenon from the Chronicle of Higher Education: What’s So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson? While not presenting him in a negative light, the writer does not quite grasp what is going on. There is a pretty good biography of Peterson and a reasonable sketch of his current popularity. It is very hard to excerpt the long article, but the intellectual shallowness of the writer comes out in passages like this:
To understand Peterson’s worldview, you have to see the connection between his opposition to gender-neutral pronouns and his obsession with the Soviet Union. He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism. The imposition of Marxism led to the state-sponsored slaughter of millions. For Peterson, then, the mandated use of gender-neutral pronouns isn’t just a case of political correctness run amok. It’s much more serious than that. When he refers to the "murderous ideology" of postmodernism, he means it literally.
Peterson is not only a very learned man and also a very wise man, he also has a rare courage. The simple truth is that he is head and shoulders above virtually everyone he has been interviewed by or debated with, with the exception of fellow professors Jonathan Haidt and Camille Paglia. He is Canada's Socrates, speaking truths that most do not want to hear. His courage and wisdom have won him a tremendous following among young men in particular who find in him the moral compass that is lacking in contemporary society. It is likely that he is one of the wisest thinkers in Canada, which also makes him the most dangerous.

* * * 

The Globe and Mail has a lengthy piece introducing Verdi's opera Rigoletto ahead of upcoming performances in Toronto. They actually go into a bit more musical detail than usual in the mainstream press:
In Act I, you'll hear Caro nome ("Dear name"), one of the opera's many famous numbers. It's sung by Gilda, Rigoletto's overprotected daughter, who has just fallen for a man whose name she thinks is Gualtier Maldè (it's not). Gilda begins from the place of a young woman, properly flustered and blushing after being swept off her feet by this man; by the end of her aria, she's in full mating-cry mode. It's as though Verdi has written a musical version of a woman's sexual awakening.
A great soprano will seem to pant with anticipation in the first few minutes of Caro nome; Verdi writes stuttering, broken lines for Gilda as she describes her "Gualtier Maldè," punctuated by sexy upward portamenti (Italian for "carrying," when the singer slides between two pitches). Listen for the ease the soprano brings to the gentle jabs up to high Bs, and the stretchy, jazzy riff she sings up to a high C-sharp about halfway through the aria. The real test comes at the end, as Gilda sings her cadenza (an unaccompanied chance for singers to show off their best tricks); often the hardest part for the soprano is to stay in tune, so that when the orchestra joins her on her last note, it sounds magical, not twangy.
* * *

Let's have a listen to Mazzoli's chamber opera Breaking the Waves:



Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 6

Reading Michael Kurtz' book on Gubaidulina (translated from the German original) the truth that they take music very seriously in the Soviet Union and Russia is underlined again and again. The person that headed the Composers Union was an important figure whose role was to essentially control who got performances and commissions according to political ideology. After the crushing of the "Prague Spring" in August 1968 by Soviet troops, the Party loyalist Serafim Tulikov was chosen to head the Moscow Composers Union. The response of the non-conformist composers like Gubaidulina was to form a tight network of mutual support with both performers and listeners. Despite this there was a continuing problem of getting permission to organize concerts.

Pyotr Meshchaninov was an important organizer of chamber concerts using members of the State Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately nine out of ten applications were turned down. Programs featuring composers like Gubaidulina and Denisov were typically rejected with the Party representative simply crossing out their names!

Very occasionally Gubaidulina received a performance abroad. In 1971 the Royan festival in France featured Eastern European composers and two works by Gubaidulina were performed, the Piano Sonata and the premiere of Concordanza, a new work for chamber ensemble. I suspect that this piece may be been revised at some later point as one writer, Doris Redepenning, refers to four instrumentalists, but the performances on YouTube have ten players. Here is the Esbjerg Ensemble:


One thing that stands out are the enormous contrasts: between simple unisons and massive dissonances, between soft, slow harmonics and rapid cascades of percussion, between fierce rhythms and lyrical melodic passages, between clearly defined pitches and glissandi. But at the same time, one has the sense that everything is there for a purpose. What I enjoy about this performance is how they handle it as chamber music, without a conductor. You can see the musicians providing one another with cues, which leads to a more unified performance.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Need for Criticism

A hat tip to Slipped Disc for sending me to this article about the need for criticism: The Reviewer’s Fallacy: When critics aren’t critical enough.
The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse. It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre—superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies—give it a B or B-plus.
Which can be summed up as "mediocre works reviewed by mediocre critics lead to a universe of mediocrity!"

What is the situation in classical music? One thing that skews both criticism and audience reaction is the impact of popular music. Economically, classical music is dwarfed by the huge amount of money devoted to popular music. In the world of classical music itself, contemporary music is dwarfed by the (relatively) large amount of money devoted to the standard repertoire. I see the trend toward streaming as yet another kind of pressure on classical music and contemporary music in particular. In the past, and still the case in Europe, classical music was so deeply rooted in the culture that it retains a high visibility. concert halls and opera houses dominate the cultural landscape in major urban centers and there is a strong, healthy festival culture that attracts very large numbers of listeners.

The Glastonbury Festival in the UK, five days devoted to popular music, attracts a total audience of 135,000 (figures from the last two years available) while the nearly 100 year old Salzburg Festival in Austria attracted 261,000 last year. Mind you, this is over a six-week span.

Along with the deeply-rooted presence of both standard repertoire and contemporary repertoire in the leading European music institutions, goes a level of criticism that also participates in the traditional aesthetic values--I am speaking here largely of Europe. It is only in the occasional pocket in North America that one encounters much genuine music criticism. When I lived in Montreal, for example, it was only found in the French newspapers and among them only in the most intellectual, Le Devoir. (Real intellectualism seems to be almost restricted to the French press where we also find it in Le Monde and Le Monde diplomatique.) You might also expect it in, for example, the New York Times, the New Yorker and perhaps the Globe and Mail. But, in my view, this is not the case. I have mentioned on a number of occasions my reservations with the writing of Alex Ross at the New Yorker and, absent the occasional column in the past from Richard Taruskin, I don't find a lot of criticism at the New York Times. What is missing? Largely the critical spirit and the tools necessary to express it. Instead we find a slavish genuflection to the received wisdom of the progressive left.

It would take a great deal of courage, backed up with considerable knowledge and expertise, to go against any progressive shibboleth, of course. And I have only seen this exhibited with much finesse in the popular press by Richard Taruskin, who has both in abundance. And even he is very careful to only opine in areas where he has overwhelming expertise.

For a good read, go to the comments on the Slipped Disc post.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Note on Bachtrack

Looking over the Bachtrack statistics for 2017 from the link I posted on Friday, I notice something interesting. If you go to the complete infographic and scroll down to the "Busiest Instrumentalists" section towards the bottom you will see a section on pianists. At the top is Dénes Várjon with 64 concerts followed by a tie between Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang with 57 concerts each. Conspicuous by his absence is one of the most active pianists, Grigory Sokolov. A quick trip to his website shows an impressive list of concert dates for this season, 74 by my count, which should have put him at number one on the list. Now why did he not appear? Another quite active pianist is Khatia Buniatishvili, also not listed and on her website I count 42 upcoming concerts this year. Yes, perhaps she would have been number 11 on the list, just under Kirill Gerstein. But the absence of Sokolov is simply inexplicable. So, obviously the Bachtrack numbers cannot be trusted...


Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 5

According to a German documentary on her, Gubaidulina's last name is pronounced with the accent on the "du." I don't know if this is the case in Russian as well. We are up to 1965, Gubaidulina is living in an apartment on Leninskii Prospekt in Moscow and working as a free-lance composer. As she refuses to do commissions for the Communist Party, sometimes things are very difficult financially and she largely survives on film score commissions. Her Piano Sonata was completed in 1965 and she also married Nikolai Bokov, a poet and philosopher. Let's have a listen to the sonata, the last of her works to be written, nominally, in a traditional form.


You will certainly hear some jazz influence and extended playing techniques. The second theme in the first movement, for example, has passages where the strings are played directly, not using the keyboard.

Through her husband Gubaidulina had contact with a circle of political dissidents. This was during the reactionary Brezhnev era when underground "samizdat" publications strove to communicate a sense of what was going on in the world outside the constrained world of official truth.

After the Piano Sonata she struck out on a more independent path, as she said in a 1992 interview:
Until then, I had wanted to write for the theater, to compose ballets, symphonies... But then I understood: no, absolutely not. I need to write miniatures, miniatures in a whisper. I picked instruments that have almost no sound. The harp, a quiet, gentle instrument; the string bass is purposely muted; the percussion instruments are also treated the same way, so that the score calls for very few sounds. It was from this moment that I realized that I would pay no attention at all to anybody else. I would do what I liked... That doesn't mean, of course, that afterward I only expressed myself in a whisper.
The piece she is referring to is her Five Etudes for Harp, Double Bass, and Percussion, also from 1965:


It is as if the music is for ritual dances of previously undiscovered peoples living in unexplored regions--and aesthetically, that is pretty much what it is. I hear a bit of jazz, but I also hear passages that remind me of Canarios by Gaspar Sanz, the 17th century Spanish composer for guitar. For Gubaidulina this journey was an inner one, seeking greater depth. Instead of inventing more and more novelties, she saw her role as a filter, rather than a generator.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Star Is Born

This story is too interesting to wait until the next Friday Miscellanea. The Wall Street Journal has a behind the scenes look at what happens when one of the stars of an opera production bows out sick and someone has to fill in on very short notice:
Singer Sabina Puértolas was buying groceries in Madrid when her agent called with a question. Would she like to perform one of opera’s most prestigious roles on a world-famous stage?
Yes, she said, of course, when?
Tomorrow, the agent replied, with Ms. Puértolas as Gilda in a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Royal Opera House in London, one of the company’s biggest, most popular titles.
Heh! Well, this is what every talented middle-rank soloist hopes for, the moment when you get to show you are ready to step up. This is how Leonard Bernstein achieved his early success. In 1943, a mere 25 years old, he stood in on very short notice for an ailing Bruno Walter and conducted the New York Philharmonic with no rehearsal. In 1949 Serge Koussevitzky was scheduled to conduct the premiere of the very difficult Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen but again, Bernstein stepped in when Koussevitzky fell ill.
Theatrical agent Alex Fernandez was in a hotel room in Córdoba, Spain, when the Royal Opera called at about 5 p.m. He immediately called Ms. Puértolas, who was shopping with her 12-year old son.
“Are you sick?” Mr. Fernandez asked. She answered: “No, why?”
The agent said: “Are you sure you’re fine?” She replied: “Yes, but why?”
Mr. Fernandez got to the point. “OK, you’re flying to London tomorrow morning to sing Gilda at the Royal Opera House,” the agent recalls telling his client. She was so shocked that she shoved her shopping cart away.
She got on an 8:30 am flight to London and by 11 am was being rushed into a rehearsal room to familiarize her with the set and how she should move on stage. Then there was hair, makeup and costume! Bear in mind that an opera singer has to give a perhaps three hour performance from memory! How did she do?
Near the end of the first act, Ms. Puértolas stepped up to deliver the opera’s most challenging aria, “Caro nome,” punctuated with an array of high notes. When she finished, the crowd erupted. “It was absolutely wonderful,” Ms. Rebourg says. Near the end of the three-hour opera, the curtains fell. Ms. Puértolas got a standing ovation, leaving her in tears.
That's a lovely story, is it not? The performance was just a few days ago. Here is clip of Sabina Puértolas singing the role from a 2010 production:

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Multicultural Puzzle

I just ran across something that I find a bit puzzling. There was an article in a Canadian newspaper the other day, the Times/Colonist of Victoria, BC, where I used to live, about a collection of Indigenous music being nominated for a UNESCO program. That is excellent news, of course. The person who collected this was the Austrian-Canadian musicologist Ida Halpern who specialized in the music of the Indigenous peoples of the coast of British Columbia. Here is an excerpt from the article:
Her life was steeped in classical music, but Ida Halpern was passionate about the songs of British Columbia's Indigenous people, music she set out to prove was equal to that of Bach and Mozart.
See, that is the part that puzzles me. I'm very fond of the classic music of north India and the music of the Balinese and Javanese gamelan and have heard interesting music from Ghana and Zimbabwe, the traditional music of Japan and other places. Some of it is quite sophisticated, but in terms of structure and aesthetic power, these musics have limits that I suspect come from the lack of really good systems of notation. In the absence of that, what tends to happen is that a small core of traditions is preserved instead of the radical advances of individual composers--call it an inherent difference between "folk" music and "art" music. That is just a private theory and, yes, it would take a great deal of research to flesh it out. Call it an informed intuition.

The music of the Indigenous peoples of Canada that I have heard is particularly limited in its techniques and devices. There is not much rhythmic interest and even less harmonic interest. The vocal lines tend to focus on just a very few intervals, seconds and thirds mostly, and the impression one gets is of a single chanting tone, with a small amount of variation. In the absence of notation, of any kind of formal training for musicians and of the largely ritual function of the music, this is not surprising. If you want to sample a few fragments, you can go to Amazon and listen to the clips from this album:


Now why would someone with a PhD in musicology from the University of Vienna think that this was equal to the music of Bach and Mozart? Even for a second? And how would she go about proving it? That's what puzzles me.

I can only find one significant article on her work, by Kenneth Chen, and I can't find any original articles or books authored by her. Chen comments that most of her written scholarship was in the form of liner notes to the albums of field recordings. This passage from his paper reveals a bit of her approach:
Halpern did, however, do more than instantiate Kulturkreis concepts even in her early scholarship. Notably, in comparing West Coast First Nations and Euro-Western art musics, she reasoned that:
"The [former] may be considered melogenic [my emphasis]. Sometimes it is logogenic (world-bound, logos-word) as when the chief sings his potlatch song and recites some parts. Sometimes it can be pathogenic (pathos-full of emotion) as in a medicine man's song. Often, however, it passes these two primitive stages, blending already into the melogenic style which is the style of our western culture."
This argument downplays the "primitive" (logo- and pathogenic) features of First Nations musics in favor of the more "progressive" (melogenic) style found also in Euro-Western art music—a disconcerting move logically insofar as Halpern's inference (underlined) does not flow from what her evidence actually supports. From a phatic point of view, though, her rationale betrays her eagerness to present First Nations music-making as developmentally "like" Euro- Western art music-making: advanced rather than backward.
It is worth reading all of Mr. Chen's paper as it outlines some of the reasons why Halpern's pioneering work has received such little attention over the years. Perhaps one of the reasons why she worked so hard to record and preserve this music and also why she wanted to give a high aesthetic valuation to the music was a kind of collective guilt over the very harsh way that Indigenous culture was treated in the 19th and well into the 20sh centuries:
Halpern began and conducted much of her fieldwork during a period when it was actually illegal for First Nations cultures to be celebrated, much less preserved. From 1880 until 1951, the Indian Act forbade First Nations Peoples to partake of their own cultural activities, and Section 140(1) of its 1927 version specifically decreed that: "Every Indian or other person who engages in, assists in celebrating or encourages either directly or indirectly another to celebrate any Indian festival, dance or other ceremony ... is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months and not less than two months." Halpern herself acknowledged: "all of us could have been jailed and fined because of strict Canadian laws proscribing native culture at that time."
Institutionally, the Department of Indian Affairs, the Board of Education as well as the Church enforced a policy of cultural assimilation professedly with the honourable intention of "saving the Indians" by "civilizing" them—à la Western standards of civilization.
I am quoting from the Chen article. It is astonishing how severe these policies were and how we have swung to virtually the opposite policies today! If you will recall my series of posts on Stravinsky and the road to the Rite of Spring, it seems that the Soviet Union, where similar projects to record and preserve the folk music of Russia were being undertaken around this time as portable recording equipment became available, was far more "enlightened" than the colonial administrators in British North America and the subsequent Canadian government.

My conclusion is that, while Halpern certainly wanted to attribute aesthetic value to the music of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, she likely never said anything like that she regarded it as "equal to that of Bach or Mozart." For that we can likely blame an ideologically-blindered journalist.

I have ordered the album pictured above in CD form so that I can study Halpern's liner notes, so I may have more to add later on.

Here is one Nootka song available on YouTube:

Friday Miscellanea

In my tireless search for silly items to amuse you on Friday I sometimes turn up a real gem. Here are the twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic playing an arrangement of the theme to the Pink Panther.

* * *

I'm not sure of the source of this quote, but it is too much fun to pass up:
Every socialistic type of government… produces bad art, produces social inertia, produces really unhappy people, and it's more repressive than any other kind of government. --Frank Zappa
I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. After all, the amount of really impressive music coming out of Russia when it was the Soviet Union argues against the first point: "produces bad art." Social inertia? One thing that socialism seems to do is reduce the vast majority to an equal state of poverty and despair while enriching the elite few. In order to do this a great deal of repression is normally required!

* * *

I have previously expressed the view that the supposed decline and aging of classical audiences is largely a North American phenomenon and much less the case in Europe. I offer as an instance the stellar success of the new Hamburg concert hall in Germany. Slipped Disc has the story:
Annual results are in for the first year of the Elbphilharmonie and they make pretty good reading.
A planned half-million deficit has turned into a surplus of 374,000 euros. Some 4.5 million people have visited the site. Tickets are in high demand.
One stat: for some concerts, the demand is more than 20 times higher than the number of seats available.
* * *

Here are some important statistics: Bachtrack has released the figures for classical music in 2017. The most-performed composer was neither Bach nor Beethoven, but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Sorry, Beethoven, but the top spot for the composer with the most performances in 2017 has returned to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, while Hallelujah choruses will be sung around the world to celebrate that Handel's Messiah reclaimed its position as the top performed work. The Bachtrack database listed a similar number of events to the previous year, around 32,000.
The top six composers in order were Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky. And let me give a shout out to composer number seven, Joseph Haydn! Shostakovich is number 16 on the list, two ahead of number 18, Vivaldi. There are lots more interesting statistics, so go have a look.

* * * 

Answering the important question "do composers picnic?" is this photo of Debussy and his daughter Chouchou in 1915:


That photo comes from an article in The Spectator this week about upcoming musical events in 2018.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Debussy Festival, taking place over two busy weekends (16–18 and 23–25) in March, is the first really sizeable statement from the orchestra’s new music director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. The most obvious bases are covered — La merImages and virtually all the chamber music — but there’s no sense of an exercise in completism. Instead, with music ranging from Wagner and Szymanowski to Boulez, Takemitsu and Tristan Murail, the festival attempts to map Debussy’s place in musical history. It’s all informed by Grazinyte-Tyla’s instinct for drawing musical connections, and she follows up on 23 June with a concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.
* * * 

Norman Lebrecht has an item about the shrinking world of music criticism that is worth a look. He links to a couple of previous pieces and notes how things have just gotten worse. I am more and more noticing a decline in simple literacy. Even in prominent publications like the Wall Street Journal or the Toronto Globe and Mail, I see more and more little things that signal a weakening grasp on how language works and the meaning of words. When someone uses a phrase like "woe betide" it is often in a context that shows an unfamiliarity with its use. Another example that drives me crazy is the constant misuse of the phrase to "beg the question." No, it does not mean that the situation demands that we question it. It comes from philosophical rhetoric and if someone begs the question, it means that their argument assumes the conclusion, a common logical error. If people cannot get these basic things right, then the higher level skills of aesthetic criticism are even more out of reach.

* * *

We have talked about what a classical music superpower Finland is these days, but today the Globe and Mail has a big piece on what a pop music superpower Sweden is. From the days of ABBA until now, when an amazing amount of pop songs are either written or produced by Swedes, or both, Sweden wields an influence well out of proportion to its population.
Sweden has infiltrated global pop for decades. ABBA ruled the seventies; Robyn and the Cardigans tore a strip off the nineties; Tove Lo and Zara Larsson carry the country on charts today. Countless North American hits, too, are written by Swedes you've never heard of. The root causes of the disproportionate dominance of this country of 10 million, however, are less evident. One clue can be found in a single, vastly influential studio that began ushering in a new school of songwriting in the 1990s, sending teen-pop artists including the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Britney Spears flocking to Stockholm. Further clues can be found in Swedish culture itself, and the deep appreciation of music that's instilled in Swedes from an early age. "They're gods of pop music," says Carly Rae Jepsen, who regularly travels to Swedish studios, most recently for her forthcoming record.
* * *

Normally I am somewhat of a fan of Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post, but her latest article on classical crossover has me squirming... This is where she starts to go wrong:
"Classical music is very particular about its categories."
It's that agency thing again that obscures what is really going on. No, "classical music" does no such thing as "classical music" is a mere intellectual abstraction. Rather, the people who create, perform and listen to classical music are the ones who are particular. And the reason they are is because it is extremely annoying to be offered something purporting to be classical music only to discover that the reality is some maudlin concoction with no real substance. It's like purchasing what you thought was a fine confection from your local patisserie only to discover when you cut into it that it was a Hostess Twinkie.

* * *

We really haven't said much about Debussy recently, or listened to much either. So let's rectify that with this performance of La Mer.  This is Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra:


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Guitar Apps!

Time for something satirical, I think! This might be behind the paywall, but if you google the title, it will probably come up: These Guitar Apps Will Teach You to Shred Like Slash. Here is an excerpt:
Mastering the guitar is a classic fantasy. But if you’re wary of hiring a teacher who’ll only show you the simplest chords while reminiscing about the time he opened for Sugar Ray, consider going digital. This might be the best time in history to learn (or relearn) the instrument from home. Whether you’re a rookie or a rusty old hand, new online tools and apps could fast track you to guitar demigod status, provided you put in the practice.
Yes, it certainly was my fantasy way back in the 1960s.
Dave Isaacs, a 20-year music veteran who instructs students in Nashville and across the internet via Skype, said much has changed since he first picked up a guitar as a cash-starved teen. “To learn a song, I used to have to go to a music store, open a book and sneakily write the chords down on my palm,” he said. Now you can scour sites like ultimate-guitar.com for chords of more than a million songs—even indie obscurities like Ween’s “Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down”—and find countless tutorials on YouTube, all free.
But there’s a catch. Most of that information is created by amateurs, for amateurs, so your melodic rendition of that Bon Iver anthem might not ring true with the real version. “Since anyone can post anything, there are a lot of inaccuracies,” Mr. Isaacs said, warning that beginners can get lost in an online maze of data and quickly lose interest.
The article goes on to describe several online courses and apps offered by Fender and Berklee.

Now for the critique! I know I have mentioned before Crichton's Rule. I can't find the quote online, but the famous author said something like this: "If you read articles in the mass media on a topic where you have professional expertise, you will notice that about 80% of the information is wrong. Now extend that to all the other fields!" I find this to be quite true. Any time I read an article about music in the popular press, I do indeed see that it is about 80% wrong. And so it is with this piece.

The truth is, and this comes from forty years of teaching music, that the learning process is really in the hands (and ears and mind) of the student. Course materials and high quality personal instruction can certainly help, may indeed even play a crucial role, but learning happens within the student and only their energy, curiosity, initiative and capacity for concentration and work will advance them. Yes, a good instructor, or well-crafted materials can certainly save the student some time and help them to find the right path. But only the student can walk that path.

A typical experience teaching is the feeling that, like Sisyphus, you are pushing a stone up a hill, only to have it tumble down as soon as you stop. No-one in the professional music teaching business wants to say this, but it is still true. There are a few gifted students that hardly need any help at all, a few massively untalented students that nothing will help and a bunch in the middle that, with a lot of work and a bit of help, will make some progress.

Dave Isaacs lets the cat out of the bag a bit when he describes going to the music store and copying down some chords out of a book. He was showing some initiative there. But I'm sure that, a bit later in his progress, he was figuring out those chords just by listening to the recording.

I guess there are three stages or levels here. First of all you go find the information you need, chord progressions out of a book maybe (and by the way, the Ultimate Book of Chord Progressions has been in print, and available for a modest price, since the 18th century (though it seems they have put it into two volumes recently):


Or perhaps it is a music teacher in your area. In any case, you find what you need because you are motivated by some fantasy or vision. Second, you absorb the material and develop the skills necessary to play. It is the third stage that is the interesting one: you forget all that and hew your own path and this is what the really fine musicians and composers do.

They don't have an app for that...


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 4

Gubaidulina began to be recognized in music circles in the Soviet Union from the early 60s. She joined the Moscow branch of the Composer's Union, at the time a crucial step in advancement as they not only organized concerts, composer's retreats and symposia, but also controlled Soviet cultural policy in music. The Composer's Union offered a "Meet the Composer" evening in December 1962 the first part of which was devoted to the music of Sofia Gubaidulina. Along with the Chaconne we talked about in the last post, one of the works featured was her Piano Quintet (composed in 1957-58). Let's have a listen to the first movement. The performers are Kathryn Woodard, piano and Brooklyn Rider (Colin Jacobsen, violin; Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello). Recorded live at the Rudder Theatre, College Station, TX, February 26, 2009.


That does not depart too far from the Shostakovich model, though the musical language is certainly different.

A year later, in early 1963, Gubaidulina's candidacy came to an end along with her state financial support. She was not attracted to many of the avenues pursued by her colleagues which included teaching or working as an editor for a state music publisher. The idea of film composition seemed more promising and her teacher Nikolai Peiko helped to open some doors for her. She also won a prize of several hundred rubles at the 1963 All-Union Competition for Young Composers that helped sustain her. The award-winning piece was an Allegro rustico for flute and piano:



Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Meter, Polymeter and Hypermeter

Meter (or "metre" if you are British, Canadian or other subjects of the Queen) is one of those fascinating musical topics that are not quite as easy to understand as might seem. The Wikipedia article on music meter is a particularly excellent one with some cool visual/audio aids. They talk about the origins of musical meter in poetry which is undoubtedly true, but not much on the minds of musicians.

From teaching music for a few decades I came up with some simple ways of describing it and, of course, we always had lots of examples before us in the lessons. Simply put, we have different ways of talking about time in music. There is duration, which is the length of time it takes to play a piece of music. Then there is beat, the recurring pulse that is typical of a lot of, though not all, music. Then there is rhythm, which is the pattern of long and short notes that comprise the surface of the music. Finally, there is meter, which is the way the beats are grouped. This is particularly evident in dance music where the waltz, for example, is grouped in threes while the polka is grouped in twos. The grouping is signaled by a stress on the first beat of the group, the downbeat, which is prepared with an upbeat. This obviously relates to the movement of the dancer's feet or weight. In music notation these groups are shown as measures divided off by barlines. At the beginning of the piece or movement the meter is also indicated with a time signature:


Here I have shown three different meters in succession, ending with the first again. These are all simple meters though the 5/4 one could call asymmetrical because it typically divides up into two beats plus three beats. We also find meters of seven beats, often divided 2+2+3 or 2+3+2. An example is the Precipitato from the Piano Sonata No. 7 by Prokofiev where he shows the subdivision at the beginning:

Click to enlarge
All these meters have a duple subdivision of the beat, but it is also possible to have a triple subdivision which results in what we call compound meters. In these the beat is not a regular note, but a dotted note, which adds half the value to the note. Here are some examples.

As you can see, as well as the time signature, the groupings are indicated with the beams. All the groups of three eighth notes are beamed together.

Polymeter comes in a couple of different forms and there are some excellent examples at the Wikipedia article. Poly- just means "many" though typically in music we would have just two different meters at once. For example, you could have three beats against four beats where the beats match up, but the downbeats would only coincide every twelve beats. Wikipedia has examples of this and other possibilities such as 5/4 and 4/4 together. Those examples are with two meters having the same note values. I have mentioned before that an interesting example of polymeter is found in Flamenco music in the Bulerías where 3/8 is superimposed on 3/4 and then 6/8. When I created the example below I couldn't figure out how to show that in the music software so I put it all in 12/8! Let me see if I can explain. The top is easy: it just consists of 3/8 all the way. But the bottom is actually a measure of 6/8, a measure of 3/4, a measure of 6/8 and another measure of 3/4. What makes it confusing is that in Flamenco music they don't start the measure with the downbeat, instead it comes at the end!


Now on to hypermeter which Wikipedia, following the theorists that discuss it, describes as the idea of beats being grouped to form measures but on a larger level. Here, measures are grouped to form hypermeasures. For example, in a quick 3/4 we might hear each measure as a single beat with four of them going together to form a hypermeasure. We run into this in Beethoven scherzos, for example. I just googled "hypermeter in Beethoven" looking for an example for you and the fourth hit that came up was a post I did a while back on the Symphony No. 9. Just go there for the example which shows a movement ending with four measures of rests to complete the hypermeter! Sorry, I didn't say where I got that example from and now I can't remember. Pretty sure it was a Beethoven movement, though.

That would be a good way to end this post: the Scherzo from the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven. This is Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra:


Monday, January 8, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 3

Sofia Gubaidulina in 1955, student at the Moscow Conservatory
Just a very brief post today. Due to the intervention of Shostakovich, chairman of the examination committee, and the support of her composition teacher Nikolai Peiko, Gubaidulina received the highest possible mark on her final exam at the Moscow Conservatory and was granted a three-year postgraduate degree candidacy with financial support. She also had a baby with her husband Mark Liando, whom she had met in 1953. They divorced in 1964, still friends, but on different paths.

The earliest piece which Gubaidulina includes on her list of compositions is the Chaconne for piano, written in 1962. I think it is worth listening to and luckily, we have a clip with the score:


Without doing any analysis (perhaps I will delve into it at a later date) the obvious stylistic affinities are to Bach and Shostakovich (who loved to use passacaglia form in some movements). In places there is a powerful rhythmic energy. Harmonically the dissonance of the opening chords is not continued throughout, but alternates with a more crystalline transparency. I think what gives the music interest and strength is the fact that the textures are in such flux. There is a lot of variety in the piece. Gubaidulina is a very intuitive composer who avoids an excessively cerebral approach and I think this piece demonstrates that.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

New Strings!

My rare posts on the mechanics of guitar-playing, which include strings, always seem to attract attention, so here is another one. I just put on a new set of strings and these were also a new brand of strings that I have never tried before, Aquila, made in Italy.



They purport to use an entirely new method and material so I was eager to see what they were like. Here is how they describe their new design, on the back of the package:



So, eco-friendly! My first impression was not good, because while I was putting the second string on, the first one snapped right at the bridge. This does happen perhaps 5% of the time because of the radical design of the bridge on my guitar:


As you can see, instead of the usual bridge, which is one piece of bone or plastic, each string goes over an individual tool steel peg. They are held only with a knot in the end and, in the case of the trebles, I melt a little ball on the end. On rare occasions, something happens there and the first string snaps. I just re-do the knot and try again. I have never had it happen twice with the same string and it has never happened after the initial putting on of the string or with any of the other strings, just the first. No breakage in concert, which is why I have never really worried about it! But if anyone out there knows why it happens, I am certainly curious.

Once I got them on, I started to like them right away. They seem a bit denser than other strings and they certainly have a lovely, warm sound and perhaps a bit more sustain. Anyway, I will do another post after a couple of weeks when I have gotten used to them. If you want to try them out, here is the link to the Amazon page.

Oh, these strings are obviously intended for professional players because, instead of each string coming in its own labeled envelope, or with a little label sticker on the string, these come in two bunches so you have to figure out which string is which! Through thick and thin, I'm sure you will figure it out.

The Banal and Mediocre

A couple of friends were raving about an upcoming music event on the weekend and I, having a dubious feeling about it, offhandedly said, "I tend to avoid about 90% of the music out there." They thought I was kidding until I confirmed, "no, really, I do avoid about 90% of the music--if I can!"

From my point of view, most music is banal and mediocre. Or worse. Don't worry I am going to provide examples! I just ran across one. The great classical guitarist John Williams formally retired a few years ago, he is seventy-six this year, but has taken the opportunity to release some recordings on his own label. There seem to be three to date. The first one I think was this one, titled From a Bird.

Let me get the caveats out of the way. John Williams was a huge influence on my development as a guitarist and musician. He was the greatest technical master of the instrument during my formative years in the 1970s and also an important figure in developing the core repertoire. He was the first to do a really authoritative integral recording of all the Bach lute music on guitar, the first to record all the important guitar concertos, the first to do a whole disc of the music of Agustín Barrios and so on. His thoughts on the education of guitarists are ones that I agree with entirely:
Williams has expressed his frustration and concern with guitar education and teaching, if it is too one-sided, e.g. focusing only on solo playing, instead of giving guitar students a better education including ensemble playing, sight-reading and a focus on phrasing and tone production and variation. Williams notes that "students [are] preoccupied with fingerings and not notes, much less sounds"; some are able "to play [...] difficult solo works from memory", but "have a very poor sense of ensemble [playing] or timing". He notes that students play works from the solo repertoire that are often too difficult, so that the teachers often put more "emphasis [...] on getting through the notes rather than playing the real substance of each note". To encourage phrasing, tone production and all-around musicianship, Williams arranges for students to play together in ensembles, choosing works from the existing classical music repertoire, such as the "easier Haydn String Quartets". [from the Wikipedia article]
But over the years I also became aware that there were some areas in which I was not entirely in agreement with his approach. While I am less a fan of the way Julian Bream approaches the instrument, in many ways he was the more dynamic interpreter and he certainly had an unerring sense of which composers to approach to write for the instrument. Williams, on the other hand, tended to collaborate with non-classical musicians with varied results and, to my knowledge, rarely commissioned music from composers of much significance. I think we might deduce from this that Williams does not have a lot of sensitivity to contemporary composition.

His recent private recordings have included a number of his own compositions so when I first noticed a clip of one of them on YouTube the other day, I was very interested to see what he was doing. This was not least because I find myself in a similar boat these days: a classical guitarist, retired from performing, who has a serious interest in composition. The CD From a Bird is temporarily out of stock at Amazon, nor are there any clips there you can listen to, but there is a clip of one of the pieces on YouTube played by Stephen Kenyon. Let's have a listen:


Williams also has a website where you can download this and other pieces:


Please let me know what you think in the comments. Here is another piece from the album, the title cut "From a Bird" this time played by the composer (Blogger won't embed):


What to say about these pieces? I suppose the positive side and the reason that people are enjoying them is that they are pleasing and relaxing. But to my ear they are painfully banal. The melodies are repetitive in a fairly uninteresting way and wander about aimlessly. Harmonically everything is either predictable or awkward. The rhythmic structures are also oddly awkward with the stresses never quite falling where they should. This is just a superficial appraisal, of course. I haven't done a real analysis. I do notice things like where he writes a 4/2 inversion he doesn't resolve it to a first inversion chord as  would traditionally be done. The result is both random and flabby, harmonically, because he ignores the function of the harmony. Actually, that is a pretty good description of the musical language: random and flabby, but pretty in an innocuous way.

I won't go any further because neither Williams nor his fans need my comments! These clips came around just when I was looking for some examples of banal and mediocre music. The playing is neither banal nor mediocre, of course!

There is something interesting to learn from this, though. One's instinct as a performer is to write music that is pleasing and that will charm your audience. This tends to lead to banal and mediocre compositions, however. The problem is that a composer, a real composer, has to come to grips with something rather more than just the passing fancy of the audience. He (or she) has to live through, aesthetically, the times, has to experience and confront the disturbing aesthetic context of the last hundred years, has to go beyond pretty sounds to the bedrock beneath. This is, in fact, what composers have had to do for centuries.

Yes, a lot of the music we hear from the past seems perfectly innocuous, but I doubt it was perceived so at the time. Take almost anything by Bach, for example. While his music is lovely and charming, it  also has real firmness and substance and sometimes is very challenging. The same is true of Mozart and Haydn though they have the gift of concealing the steel fist within a velvet glove.

On one of the Williams albums he plays a Bach Andante and I think it is this one. Make the comparison for yourself:


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Art Should Be Free!

This is one of those plausible, though idiotic, slogans people shout, or sometimes pompously aver in the mass media. Case in point: this article at the New York Times that assembles a covey of critics to assert that great art should be free of access to everyone.
HOLLAND COTTER Loopy as it may sound, on principle I believe major public museums should have universal free admission. You should be able to walk in off the street and see the art just as you can enter a public library and read the books on the shelf. If this country had a government that cared about its citizens rather than one that catered to its economic ruling class, we might be able to live some version of this ideal.
There was a lot of agreement with this in the article. I feel impelled to point out that the New York Times does not give away its hard-copy edition for free, nor do the writers and editors of this article, nor do the critics quoted. As a matter of fact, even if you can enter the museum for free, this hardly guarantees your access to the art itself. Sure, you can stand in front of the paintings and look at them--perhaps, as many do, take your selfie with them. But your encounter with the art qua art is determined by your aesthetic capacity and taste, not just physical access. Similarly, your access to literature, even if someone hands you a book, is determined by your ability to read and the breadth and depth of your experience of literature.

Oh, and that brainless shot about "If this country had a government that cared about its citizens rather than one that catered to its economic ruling class, we might be able to live some version of this ideal," is a perfect caricature of why people keep falling for some version of socialism. The true task of government is not to be some fantasy mother, taking care of each and every citizen. Peoples, like those in the Soviet Union and communist China, that suffer the sort of government that pretends to that, soon find out that they are nothing more than helpless sharers of infinite misery as stage two always leads to someone like Stalin or Mao.

The truth is that art, like freedom, is never free. The acquisition of the aesthetic experience of art requires considerable effort and time: ars longa vita brevis as the old saying goes. The creators of art have to work very hard and so do the appreciators. This is why all those notions about people being "consumers" of art are so much crap. You don't need any knowledge or taste to consume art, only to appreciate and understand it. But if you "possess" art with neither knowledge nor taste, then all you have is a knickknack. Art has to be earned, not purchased.

Here is a great piece of art that takes a bit of work. The Diabelli Variations by Beethoven played by Grigory Sokolov:


Friday, January 5, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Can we start with something silly? You bet. This is a photo of Japanese Emperor Hirohito inspecting units of "war tubas" just prior to WWII. No, this is not in preparation for an integral performance of the Mahler symphonies. These odd-looking instruments were for the detection of incoming aircraft as they didn't, quite, have radar yet.


* * *

Igor Levit, one of my favorite pianists, is the winner of the Gilmore Artist award, a cool $300,000. Well-deserved, I'm sure.

* * *

Absurdly, I'm still getting my pop music updates from the Wall Street Journal who have an article on whom they call "the musician who is helping reshape R&B":
SZA (pronounced Sizza) has emerged as a prominent voice among a new generation of female R&B artists that also includes Kehlani, H.E.R. and Kelela. These musicians are fueling the genre’s resurgence, critics say, by appealing to a broader audience with a modern sound that draws on other styles of music while retaining strong R&B roots.
“The fact that she expanded R&B, created a new sound and found success in doing that says a lot, in a mix of everyone trying to follow a certain sound that’s already popular,” says Cam O’Bi, a Grammy-winning producer who worked on SZA’s single “Doves in the Wind.” “She’s trying to get outside of what R&B sounds like typically and go into other genres of music.”
Here is one of her songs, "Love Galore" (which Blogger doesn't want to embed):


Well, I liked what sounded like bass guitar harmonics at the beginning, but once the song gets going it sounds to me pretty much like everything else... The ending appears to be a seriously disturbing example of anti-male hate fantasy though.

* * *

For the last month, with the exception of a post on a Christmas album by Sia, everything at Musicology Now has been about music and sound in the David Lynch reboot of Twin Peaks. I just thought you should know. Plus I'm really stuck for interesting items this week!

* * *

I was thinking about submitting a paper proposal to an upcoming conference in London--following a suggestion by a commentator. As it turned out I decided not to as the cost in terms of time and energy of a trip to London in January did not seem worth it for a 20-minute presentation. Still, I have been curious as to what would transpire. The papers and abstracts are now online so we can have a look and a lot of them look quite interesting. Here is an excerpt from one abstract:
There was a time, not so long ago, when we would strongly encourage undergraduates not to use the first-person pronoun in academic writing. While that was always at best imperfect advice, it was grounded in an idealistic notion that academic scholarship is not, or at least not principally, a matter of personal opinion or conviction but seeks to claim for itself a general validity though the application of the tools of disinterested reason. In 2015, however, the Times Higher Education Supplement published an article entitled “Self-reflective Study: The Rise of ‘Mesearch” (Emma Rees 2015) in which it was argued that it is now “narcissistic to leave out your own experience and to act all-knowing, as though you can stand apart, and that you are not subject to the same forces as those   you   write   about."
I argue that, far from opening up the frontiers of music research to areas formally forbidden, the auto-ethnographic turn in musicology risks not only promoting a view of what musical research is that tends towards solipsism, but perhaps also something much worse, the sotto voce elimination of scholarship’s wider critical potential. Our capacity to posit any notion of generalised musical value risks   dissolving   into   a   sea   of   local   subjectivities.
Amen.

* * *

A frequent topic in the mainstream media has to do with the shortage of women composers (along with conductors). A lot of theories have been proposed for why we don't have more, or at least some, great women composers. Usually these theories propose some version of oppression as the cause. And there certainly seem to be a number of fine women composers now as opposed to historically. But I just ran across something that suggests another possibility. One of the figures in music history that might have become recognized as an important composer was Clara Schumann (née Wieck) who was married to Robert Schumann. If you read the Wikipedia article one fact leaps out at you: during her marriage to Robert which lasted sixteen years, ending with his premature death, she had eight children! Even with the aid of a housekeeper that is an extremely demanding responsibility. Robert Schumann summed the problem up quite clearly:
Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.
A composer needs acres of time to devote to composition. Uninterrupted time! Which, in a household with eight children and a demanding and unstable husband, is not going to happen. The fact that Clara had a very successful career as a concert pianist is remarkable enough.

* * *

My quest to find trivial, shallow, but amusing items for the Friday miscellanea has turned up this:


It's obvious what he was up to: listening to a Wagner opera!

* * *

I think today's miscellanea calls for a performance by Igor Levit to wind things up. This is the Piano Concerto No. 11 in D major by Joseph Haydn with the Bremen Chamber Orchestra, sans conductor:


Maybe I should stop ignoring Haydn's concertos...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 2

I know that not everyone is as fascinated with Gubaidulina's music as I am, so I promise that we will have lots of other kinds of posts. But I think, as we trace the career and compositions of Ms. Gubaidulina, there will be interesting material for almost everyone.

Right now I am reading the biography I mentioned in the last post. It is not a perfect translation from the German original--occasionally there is a puzzling phrase--but it is pretty good. Gubaidulina was deeply involved with music from very early on, so the biography does not wander far afield. Here is a photo of the composer, aged six years, already at work:


Sofia was the youngest of three sisters and at age five she and her older sister Ida both began piano lessons. Her parents, despite being very poor, managed to purchase a baby grand piano for them. At the time they lived in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan and a city of some 250,000 people. Sofia's schoolteacher mother Fedosia Fyodorovna Elkhova was ethnic Russian and Orthodox. Her father, Asgad Masgudovich Gubaidullin, a geodetic engineer, was Tatar and Muslim, though non-practicing. His father, Masgud, was an imam. The practice of any religion was severely suppressed in the Soviet Union. Incidentally the Tatars are descended from the Mongol peoples of Genghis Khan that, as the Golden Horde, spread all the way from Mongolia west to the Volga river and beyond.

Born in 1931, Sofia came along at a difficult time in the Soviet Union. It was partway through the first of Stalin's Five Year Plans which involved forced collectivization of agriculture and the persecution of the better-off peasants, the kulaks. Beginning in 1932, all religion was to be eliminated from Russian culture. Sofia had a deeply religious temperament from an early age which she realized the first time she saw an icon of Christ in the corner of a farmhouse where they stayed one summer. Her parents were horrified so from then on she kept her inner beliefs private.

Stalin's purges reached a climax in 1937. If you will recall, Shostakovich was first denounced in 1936 for his opera Lady MacBeth and only barely escaped punishment. Many of his friends were shot or sent into prison camps. Sofia's family managed to avoid any of those fates, but in 1941 came the onslaught of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and Kazan filled with refugees. Food was very scarce and many people starved. Sofia herself suffered from severe malnutrition and malaria.

This information is from Kurtz' biography of the composer.

Let's end with a composition by Gubaidulina. This is a song from the very early cycle Phacelia for soprano and orchestra written in 1956 when the composer was in her mid-20s. Blogger won't embed, so just follow the link: