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
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.
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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: