Saturday, April 21, 2018


I saw this just too late to include in my Friday Miscellanea, but it is worth mentioning. The Wall Street Journal has a piece on Edgard Varèse's Amériques, a piece for large orchestra that will be performed this month by the LA Philharmonic. I mainly mention this because it is an informed article about a piece of music that, whether you enjoy it or not, is certainly serious in its intent. Things like that are surpassingly rare in the mainstream media these days!
Early critics assumed that the siren, which became something of a signature device for Varèse, reflected his desire to depict the hustle and bustle of New York, like Gershwin’s use of French car horns in his 1928 “An American in Paris” to create a sonic image of the City of Lights. For Varèse, however, it was simply a way of utilizing microtones—pitches that would lie in the cracks between the piano’s keys. “Amériques” was not place-specific, but rather a reflection of the sense of exploration and discovery he found in the “vastness” of the New World. “I might as well have called ‘Amériques’ ‘The Himalayas,’” he quipped to his student, composer Chou Wen-chung.
He was driven by the idea of newness—unsurprising given his early associations with such artistic leading lights as Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Jean Cocteau, and cutting-edge musicians like Claude Debussy (to whom he introduced the music of Arnold Schoenberg ), Richard Strauss, and especially Ferruccio Busoni, who wrote the influential “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music.” (“The role of the creative artist is to make new laws,” stated Busoni, “not to follow those already made.”)
The author, Stuart Isacoff, also mentions the influence of the Rite of Spring, particularly evident in the opening (and recurring) flute solo that echoes the beginning of the work by Stravinsky.

I have never been much of a fan of Varèse, but I have to admit that Amériques has a lot of interesting stuff in it. This is the Ensemble intercontemporain conducted by Matthias Pintscher:

Friday, April 20, 2018

Apologia for Civilization

Things used to be simple--well, not recently, but if you go back a ways, say, to Greece in the 5th century BC. As we see in the somewhat overheated motion picture 300, the fragile roots of democracy and reason in Athens and Sparta were threatened by the immense army of Xerxes I. Rather surprisingly, the forces of Oriental despotism were defeated by the Greeks, thus ensuring the survival and growth of Western Civilization.

Now, however, the forces fighting to destroy Western Civilization are not only outside, but inside. Activists who claim to merely want the contributions of oppressed minorities to be honored are pretty clearly fighting to have the actual foundations of civilization erased. The Wall Street Journal today editorializes on a recent example:
For more than 70 years the 1,500-student private liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, has required every freshman to take a yearlong course covering the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman canon (Humanities 110). Through these texts, students explore “issues of continuing relevance pertaining to ideals of truth, beauty, virtue, justice, happiness and freedom, as well as challenges posed by social inequality, war, power and prejudice,” according to the course description. These themes transcend race, gender and culture.
But activists calling themselves Reedies Against Racism denounced the course as “oppressive” and “Caucasoid,” claiming too many of the writers were white men. You know, like that lame Aristotle dude. Last spring they demanded that their peers participate in sit-ins, and last fall the bullying grew worse.
Author Michael Walsh has a new book coming out that points out how the diminishing role of the arts in education has weakened the cultural defense of Western Civilization:
In Monday’s speech ... I located a signal change in the Western education system that, at the time, looked like an advance: the American reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Suddenly, America felt it was losing its technological edge over the Soviets so American schoolchildren became acquainted en masse with the wonders and joys of the slide rule and the hard sciences. The effect was immediate: we quickly regained and maintained our advantage over our antagonists, but it came with a price: the downgrading of the importance of the arts as a civilizing and ennobling force in American public (and private) life.
So while the emphasis on tech eventually resulted in the creation of the personal computer and the iPhone, it also reduced the literary and plastic arts from essential elements of nationhood to “entertainments” for the wealthy; triggered the coarsening of society and, worst of all, cut both America and, shortly thereafter, the Western European nations from the wellsprings of their shared patrimony. This may not entirely have been by design, but it was seized upon by the nascent philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which by this time had been transplanted from pre-Nazi Germany to Columbia University in Manhattan and quickly spread throughout the American system of higher education.  
The result? To take just one example, the New York City public school system went from offering a model education in music and the arts to needing police officers in the schools—a reflection of the overall changes in demography, to be sure, but also of the decivilizing effect the loss of a democratized high culture entails. More Mozart, fewer metal detectors…
I was very critical of Walsh's last book in this post. One hopes that the new one will be better written. Two things that are absolutely essential for honest scholarship are first, to find the best expression of the arguments of your opponents and confront those. Not, as is common these days, to fake up weak straw men to attack. Second, do not hesitate to criticize those who make poor arguments even if they are on your side.

That being said, I think that the point Walsh is making in the above quote is a very good one. A big problem, and one that I am constantly trying to address in this blog, is that we have lost touch with a great deal of our cultural patrimony in the form of the arts and philosophy. These fields cannot, cannot, be replaced by science, though that is what is constantly being attempted.

Let's have a little Mozart for our envoi. This is the String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K. 465 by Mozart, nicknamed the "Dissonance" because of the strange harmonies of the introduction. The performance is by the Hagen Quartet at the Mozarteum in Salzburg:

Friday Miscellanea

I like to save the weirder items for the Friday Miscellanea, so here we go, the Courante from the Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach on a glass cello:


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The Guardian reveals to us the lineup for the 2018 Proms: Bernstein, Bach and NY disco-punk: 2018 Proms lineup revealed.
There will be plenty of Beethoven, Bernstein and Bach at the 2018 BBC Proms, but also a good helping of pagan-gospel, disco-punk, DIY indie and feminist rap. The festival is set to be more with it and edgy than ever before with a late-night prom celebrating the music of modern New York.
In theory I like the idea of "with it and edgy" but so often how it manifests itself is more like "brutally ideological and aesthetically questionable." I won't be making a pilgrimage to Salzburg this summer as I will likely be going to Toronto to oversee the recording of a couple of my recent pieces. Next year I do plan on spending a couple of weeks there. But, I will certainly look over the offerings at the BBC Proms as well. Just in case...

* * *

Norman Lebrecht has an item up recalling a post from a few years ago on pieces you never want to hear again! I missed it first time around. The comments are absolutely hilarious. Let me give you three lists. First, from pianist Katya Apekisheva:
1. Vivaldi. Four seasons
2. Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals
4. About 85% of music by Liszt
5. Berlioz
6. Ending of Tchaikovsky piano trio ( around 8 last pages)
7. Neapolitan song ‘O Sole Mio’
8. Beethoven Fur Elise
9. Virtuoso violin music, such as Sarasate and Weniawsky
10. Brindisi from Traviata
Next, Norman's list:
1 National music
2 Tchaikovsky (except last 3 syms and violin concerto)
3 Anything with Moon in the title – any language – lune, mondo &c.
4 Mahler’s Adagietto except when played within the fifth symphony
5 Vivaldi’s you-know-what
6 Messiaen
7 Bernstein’s Mass
8 Anything by Puccini after Bohème
9 Elgar’s oratorios
10 Barber’s Adagio
Finally, my list:

  1. Andrew Lloyd Webber
  2. most Liszt
  3. most Mahler
  4. Bernstein's Mass
  5. Hip-Hop
  6. EDM
  7. Pachelbel Canon
  8. Spanish Romance
  9. Sevilla by Albéniz
  10. Choro No. 1 by Villa-Lobos
As a guitarist, I reserve the last three places for the pieces for classical guitar that I don't ever need to hear again.

* * *

There are ways of fighting back: FABIO LUISI DENOUNCES ‘COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE’ ECHO AWARD. What's this about, you ask?
The Zurich Opera music director has joined the rush of musicians who are giving back their ECHO awards after the 2018 prize was given to a pair of rappers making Holocaust jokes. ‘They have mocked the suffering of millions of people,’ he says.
Follow the link for his letter (in German). Now, has it occurred to any of the recent recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for Music to return their awards? Different situation, I guess.

* * *

The New Yorker weighs in on the deep significance of awarding the Pulitzer to Kendrick Lamar:
Lamar’s historic win figures in the grander, affected consecration of blackness within élite spaces—exemplified, I think, by the “thousand flowers of expectation” blooming in Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama. It was Obama, with his caucuses of rappers in the White House, who accelerated the conclusion that hip-hop had earned a prestige as a great American art. In its long and perplexing lurch toward acclaim, did hip-hop sacrifice its edge? Lamar is a fascinating and brilliant non-answer. He is a complicated artist because he sits at the nexus of forces that seem misaligned: he is an alert political gadfly who will happily curate a soundtrack for the commercial juggernaut “Black Panther”; he is a literary virtuoso who understands the charisma needed to make songs you can play in a club. He is hip-hop, which means that he skirts categorization. The Pulitzers got it right.
If you have a lot of spare time, perhaps you could unpack that paragraph! My favorite bit is the gratuitous French accent in the word "élite" that has not been necessary in English for, oh, a hundred years or so.

* * *

Here is a lovely piece on the history of the concert hall:
Throughout the Romantic era, several interrelated cultural shifts coincided to make a concert culture that more closely resembles what is expected in concert halls today. Romanticism, particularly in Germany, emphasized the inward experiences of the individual. Music became more closely associated with personal expression, statements from composers to be received by listeners. Also, as William Weber has written, people started making greater distinctions between “high” and “low” art, with the presumption that a person’s taste in music corresponded to their social stature and moral bearing. Furthermore, it became an expectation that people needed to educate themselves about art to fully understand and appreciate it. Music was no longer just the background of social events; it could itself be the focus of attention.
These ideas emerged throughout the first half of the 19th century, contributing to a new, meditative form of listening, notes Meredith C. Ward. This aesthetic experience of music required more from its audience—more education, more concentration, more thought. As music became an inward experience rather than the background of a social function, performance spaces reflected the change: audience seats faced the stage rather than each other. Symphonies came to be perceived as unified works with motives that tied the movements together, rather than separable movements that may not even be performed in succession. Influential conductors like Felix Mendelssohn discouraged applause between movements of works to help audiences sense these connections.
* * *

 One of the past winners of the Pulitzer in Music was Jennifer Higdon (who has also commented on this blog) and now she has a new award: Philly Grammy-winner Jennifer Higdon now wins $100,000 Nemmers Prize, too.
The Nemmers Prize comes with a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and will bring Higdon to Northwestern to lead coaching sessions with ensembles and to conduct lessons and seminars with composition students in two residencies over the next two years. The award was established in 2003 and has previously gone to composers such as John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, John Luther Adams, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Steve Reich.
I think that what this illustrates is that it is prizes like this and the Grawemeyer Awards and other similar ones that are the significant ones, at least for classical, concert or "art" music composers. After all, nowadays they are giving Pulitzers to hip-hop artists. Heh!

* * *

For our envoi today let's listen to a piece by Jennifer Higdon. This is her Percussion Concerto in a 2016 performance by the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Samuel Tam. Michael Murphy, solo percussionist:

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What They're Telling Us Now

My title is a take-off on a headline that I saw long enough ago that I can't recall where. I do associate it with New York however. Google tells me that "The Way We Live Now" is both the title of a novel by Anthony Trollope from 1875 and a New Yorker piece by Susan Sontag from 1986, so I guess that will have to do. I associate the phrase with various items in perhaps The New Yorker or the New York Times chronicling the current cultural landscape. More and more I see these kinds of things as shaping the cultural landscape as in telling us how we should be living or appreciating. This is what is important now, they are always telling us.

I'm reading, finally, Michael Lewis' book The Big Short about how wildly things went wrong in the sub-prime mortgage market about ten years ago to the point that some very big players like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns simply went bankrupt and other very big names lost tens of billions of dollars. Why? Essentially because, as the Zen koan goes, they mistook the map for the territory, their models for reality. The whole of the established players on Wall Street, from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche Bank were simply delusional.

I have had a contrarian temperament for most of my life, part of which I attribute to my father and part to my own intellectual tendencies. I really do not put much faith in authority: by their fruits ye shall judge them. And their fruits are a rather mixed bag, are they not? A great deal of the way things are organized is simply to make life easier for those who are in positions of power. Yes, there can be accountability, but often it is simply one power nexus taking temporary advantage of another. This is how I understand the conviction of Martha Stewart, the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the current battle between Donald Trump and his own Department of Justice. Power in society is rarely monolithic.

All this is to lead up to a couple of items this week that seem to me to illustrate another kind of widespread delusion, this time an aesthetic one. The first item is the awarding of a Pulitzer prize in music to Kendrick Lamar. You can read about it here:
Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize win is the latest sign of the growing recognition of hip-hop—this time from one of America’s highest-profile cultural institutions.
The rapper, who won for his album “DAMN.,” is the first winner who isn’t a classical or jazz artist since the first Pulitzer for music was issued in 1943. Aside from previous award winners Wynton Marsalis, Henry Threadgill and Ornette Coleman, it has largely been a prize for classical composers.
Hip-hop fans cheered Mr. Lamar’s win and what it says about the artistic importance of the rap genre.
Or, more accurately perhaps, the shifting of culture away from things of artistic importance to ones of commercial importance? Let's have a listen to something from the aforementioned album. Just listen to the first cut, "Blood":

"Blood" is a little two-minute vignette that starts with some Manhattan Transfer-like harmony over a really inoffensive smooth background. This is followed by a recitation of astonishing banality. This is followed by a brief segment of what sounds like captured dialogue about police brutality. And that's it. Now there could be a lot more interesting stuff later on, but this first bit pretty much used up my boredom quotient. The next track is "DNA." Yes, the major creative advance here seems to be the random use of the period. The musical accompaniment to "DNA." is so dull that it nicely sets off the extremely annoying sneering, trite vocal recitation. For me this is way beyond just unlistenable.

Ok, on to the other item, Beyoncé's triumphant headlining at the Coachella music festival. According to everyone this was just cosmic in its wonderfulness:
INDIO, Calif. — Let’s just cut to the chase: There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night. The New York Times.
Tonight, Beyoncé plays political as fiercely as she plays feminist. During Sorry she hones in on the line “suck on my balls” with furious wrath. She flits between going hard and expressing sweet graciousness towards the audience during her addresses. The artistry of the transitions between songs, and the travel across her 20-year catalogue – combined with the sheer awe of scores of people on stage moving and playing in perfect unison – proves that Beyoncé is in a league of her own. She is the greatest of a generation, both a leader of a huge group and a solo star of unconquerable talent. The Guardian.
Beyoncé captures popular music’s zeitgeist: She is a pop-R&B entertainer fluent in hip-hop and a social-media-savvy businesswoman. Her 2016 tour was that year’s highest-grossing in North America, according to Pollstar. Combined with music sales, streaming and publishing, she was 2016’s biggest moneymaker, Billboard says.
Her Coachella performance will be the first time a black woman has headlined the nearly 20-year-old festival. The Wall Street Journal.
Beyoncé became the first black woman to headline Coachella in a breathtaking set that featured her best material from a staggering back catalogue... and set a near-impossible standard for every headliner that will follow her.
Appearing at the festival in Indio, California, Beyoncé  performed one incredible dance routine after another – those rumoured 10-hour day rehearsals ahead of the show certainly paid off, as she didn’t put a foot wrong. The Independent.
And these are the more restrained tributes! Ok, let's have a look. Here is a clip of the opening:

UPDATE: My original choice got taken down, but this seems to be the same material.

That's not quite the most annoying seven minutes I have ever experienced, but it's close. It combines the refined subtlety of a college football marching band with an interminable fashion show catwalk with the kind of semi-religious mass celebration that was popular in the early days of the French Revolution. What it does not seem to be, to any significant extent, is a musical experience.

Now I have always been a pompous, pretentious little git, but I have refined it a bit over the years and when I look at the two biggest musical events this week, I think that we really must be in the grip of a delusion as massive as that which preceded the mortgage credit meltdown ten years ago.

Do we really want to claim that either of these "musical" events had anything to do with serious music? In any way? Now I can very much sympathize with Duke Ellington who was denied any recognition by the Pulitzer Prize board in 1965.
In 1965, the jury unanimously decided that no major work was worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. In lieu they recommended a special citation be given to Duke Ellington in recognition of the body of his work, but the Pulitzer Board refused and therefore no award was given that year.[3] Ellington responded: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." (He was then sixty-seven years old.)[4] Despite this joke, Nat Hentoff reported that when he spoke to Ellington about the subject, he was "angrier than I'd ever seen him before," and Ellington said, "I'm hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based music—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind."[5] --from the Wikipedia article on the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The Pulitzer Prize is an American award, of course and there is a very good argument to be made for including jazz musicians even if that was not how it was originally conceived. My personal view is that these kinds of awards should be reserved for pieces, forms and genres that are NOT widely popular to both promote the kind of aesthetic activity that is not commercially successful and to acquaint audiences with that sort of music. Under these terms, jazz would qualify while hip-hop would not. Perhaps the solution is to carve out three prizes in music: one for "European-based music" though that is a bad characterization, one for jazz and one for popular music.

Last year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature amid quite a lot of criticism. I thought that it was a perfectly justifiable award because Bob Dylan has certainly written a lot of very interesting, creative, and serious lyrics in his career. If there is a justification for giving the Pulitzer Prize to Kendrick Lamar, I certainly haven't heard it. Maybe next year they will give it to Beyoncé...

Monday, April 16, 2018

Opera in Toronto

I hear more and more about really interesting and creative opera production in Toronto, who are blessed with not one, but two excellent opera companies: the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier, who specialize in early music. The latter are currently offering Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria by Monteverdi, which is sold out. For the end of April and extending into May, the Canadian Opera Company is putting on a revival of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables which is a collection of shorter works by Stravinsky between 1911 and 1919, the second half consisting of his short opera The Nightingale. The Globe and Mail reports and it sounds absolutely fascinating:
The evening is full of novelty. The players of the orchestra are moved up onstage, and the orchestra pit is filled to the brim with water. Carl Fillion’s set extends over the pit, bringing a sense of excited claustrophobia to the first few rows of seats. We’re regaled with stories of rabbits, cats and foxes, all narrated by singers downstage while six acrobat/puppeteers play with light and bodies in brilliant puppet choreography by Martin Genest.
The first half, in which we hear every story except the titular fable of the Nightingale, is charged with the responsibility of introducing us to this production’s world. Our eyes and ears learn the delineation between narration and action, and our fascination is split between watching the puppets and the puppeteers themselves, their technique fully visible and a performance of its own
For the premiere a similar reversal involved putting the singers in the pit while their roles were sung and danced onstage. But filling the pit with water sounds like a brilliant idea. Here is a photo from the production showing the effect:

I would have liked to have heard more about the short items in the first half, but apart from mentioning that one of them is The Fox, there is no information. Presumably they are referring to Renard, the one act opera-ballet composed in 1916. These early, brief opera/ballets by Stravinsky were all very innovative in both musical and dramatic terms and it is wonderful to see them in production because they have been rather neglected over the years. The origin of Renard was a commission from Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who asked Stravinsky to write a piece that could be played in her salon. You get a taste of the wonderfully weird kind of theater this is from this performance by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (sorry, the subtitles are in Italian):

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Pleasure of Music

There is a new field of scientific endeavor called "neuroaesthetics" that studies the neural processes that underly our appreciation and production of artworks and the New York Times has an article on a dispute within the field: Why Scientists Are Battling Over Pleasure.
A battle over pleasure has broken out. On Twitter and in the pages of scientific journals, psychologists, neurologists and neuroscientists are forging alliances over the question of whether pleasure we get from art is somehow different from the pleasure we get from candy, sex or drugs.
The debate was ignited by an opinion piece titled “Pleasure Junkies All Around!” published last year in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In it, Julia F. Christensen, a neuroscientist at the The Warburg Institute at the University of London who studies people’s responses to dance choreography, argued that many of us have been turned into “mindless pleasure junkies, handing over our free will for the next dopamine shoot” provided by social media, pornography and sugar.
She offered up an unconventional solution: art, which she says engages us in ways these other pleasures do not and can “help overwrite the detrimental effects of dysfunctional urges and craving.”
The paper struck a nerve with some of her fellow art and pleasure researchers, who published a rebuttal last month in the same journal. The idea that the way that art engages the brain is somehow special has been around for far too long and it is time to kill it off once and for all, they insist.
I appreciate the efforts scientists put into trying to answer questions like this, but I often feel they are hamstrung by the very limitations of the scientific method. Prof. Christensen seems to have a more encompassing view:
Dr. Christensen, who studied dance before she became a neuroscientist, said she is not disputing that a single reward system processes all pleasures. But that does not eliminate the possibility that the arts also activate additional neural systems “related to memory processes, sense of self and reasoning that add something more to this pleasure.”
This “high-level pleasure” requires more scientific investigation. But given that we spend our lives chasing pleasures, she argues, why not try to better understand one of the few that “do not induce states of craving without fulfillment,” or cause health problems and instead make “you think and experience things differently.”
Well, sure. The first thing that occurs to me is why this myopic focus on pleasure, which seems to be limited to physical pleasure: sex, sugar and dopamine response? In the case of music, the range of responses would surely include, yes, physical pleasure in the way we respond to rhythm, mental pleasure in the delights of harmony and counterpoint, emotional responses to music of great depth of sadness, psychological responses to music that confuses or perplexes us and on and on. There are so many ways we respond to music that I can't even think of words for most of them!

Dr. Nadal, one researcher, says:
“humans appear to use only one pleasure system to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is.” He calls this discovery “one of the most important insights to emerge from the last 15 years of neuroscience,” and believes it shows that while enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may feel different, in our brains they are processed the same way.
The phrases "to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is" and "in our brains they are processed the same way" are to me, somewhat opaque. I don't know exactly what he means by these phrases, that appear to be perfectly simple, but likely are not.

Just speaking for my own aesthetic assessments, I find a lot of music unpleasant because it is excessively sweet or melodic with smooth, luxurious harmonies. Enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may be "processed in our brains" in the same way, whatever that means, but they are not similar experiences. For one thing, eating Cheez-Its may begin as a hunger response, but it can easily become an addictive cycle. Looking at a sculpture is neither of those things, but is instead an exploration of a configuration of space. The "pleasure" involved is perhaps akin to the pleasure of discovering a new landscape. A great deal of the most intense and profound musical experiences are only very loosely pleasurable at all. The music may involve extreme dissonances or the extreme contrast between dissonance and consonance and it may achieve its aesthetic goal by means of pleasure and pain. Music can be both soothing and brutally punishing, sometimes in the same piece.

Perhaps most telling of all is the misuse of the word "assess." Assessment, whether of an aesthetic object or a corporate balance sheet, is not an activity of the "pleasure system" at all. It is an intellectual activity using logic and reason even though the objects assessed may be experiences.

Here are three different pieces of music. Please explain to me how they are processed through the same pleasure system.

Monks singing Gregorian chant:

The English Beat performing "Mirror in the Bathroom":

Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima:

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Humor of Jordan Peterson

I have mentioned him here before, perhaps too much! But I find his YouTube videos quite interesting. And occasionally really funny. One example: "You bloody well know the apocalypse is close when 350,000 people around the world watch a Canadian Senate hearing!" Well, of course, it was because Dr. Peterson was testifying. That comes just after the 30 minute mark in this clip:

Then there was the very intense talk he gave in which he spoke about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, referring to his massive book on the work camps under Stalin, The Gulag Archipelago. He mentions that it is out of print (actually it seems to be back in print, probably because of Peterson, who refers to it often) and a few minutes later, after describing it as a 2,000 page book screaming in outrage at the treatment of political prisoners, he interrupts himself to say, "No bloody wonder it's out of print!" This comes around the 26:30 mark in this clip, but you should start watching at the 25:40 mark:

One of his funniest moments was when he was describing the typical sexual fantasies of men vs women. You have to the watch the whole clip because it is all funny, but the best part is when he lists the five male characters that Google engineers discovered were the most important in female pornography. Just after the 4 minute mark in this clip:

Friday Miscellanea

First up is one of those comparisons of an old violin with a new copy. This is a brand new instrument up against a 1724 Stradivarius.

I guessed wrong, by the way. I wish she had played exactly the same passage on each instrument as that would have made comparison easier.

* * *

The Globe and Mail has a very odd article on Canadian composer Claude Vivier, who died, tragically young, in 1983.
There have been numerous tributes to Vivier over the past year, with Canadian outlets Soundstreams, Against the Grain Theatre and Esprit Orchestra (the latter being longtime supporters) presenting work. But if the old Canadian trope holds true about foreign recognition being a litmus test for success, then Vivier passes, with flying colors. One notable tribute unfolded in Berlin in late February. Presented by contemporary classical group ensemble unitedberlin (who have previously explored Vivier’s work), the concert saw Russian conductor and artistic adviser Vladimir Jurowski exercising his music talents and theatrical instincts with equal zeal, particularly during Hiérophanie (1970-71), in which he played a stern priest/judge, directing members of the ensemble through shouts, shuffles and prostrations, in a performance faithful to Vivier’s animated instructions.
Vivier is probably the most significant 20th century Canadian composer. I say odd because the second part is an interview with conductor Vladimir Jurowski that seems to be missing any indication it is an interview--probably an editing error.

* * * 

This is rather an interesting essay on the overthrow of the Great Books curricula in universities. It delves into the psychology behind the ideology.
...during the Canon Wars of the late-80s a banner was unfurled atop the façade of Butler Library at Columbia showing the names “SAPPHO MARIE de FRANCE CRISTINE de PIZAN SOR JUANA INEZ de la CRUZ BRONTE DICKINSON” above the carved names Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato etc., the organizers weren’t celebrating a female tradition to go along with the male tradition. If that were the case, then students would know more today about the cultural past than they did before. The feminists would have ensured a curriculum that taught students male greats and female greats both. But, no, the real aim was to tear down the male lineage, to displace it and then to forget it. Students today know less about ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages than they did during the ancient regime of the pre-60s. Multiculturalism didn’t enrich the streams of thought and creation. It only blocked the dominant one. And that was the point.
* * *

I'm sorry to follow that item with another one with a political slant, but this most definitely falls in the category of "defending against politics." Courtesy of Slipped Disc, I discovered this post by Philip Sharp on identity politics in music:
Much of our public discourse is focused on identity politics. Our news cycle is replete with tales of gender pay-gaps, unmet inclusivity quotas and the great struggle for the elusive goal that is equality, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that we now find these issues played out in the classical music industry. The dark heart of all this is to be found in the (sadly) niche area of contemporary classical music. Of the numerous competitions and schemes on offer for composers in Britain, a disturbing number contain politically-driven caveats as part of their application process as a means of realising the great idée fixe of our time, ‘diversity’. The most startling example to have emerged recently is from a joint venture by the Centre for New Music at Sheffield and Sheffield University, offering young composers the opportunity to have their music workshopped and recorded by the Ligeti Quartet*.  Nothing to see here, Officer. That is until you scroll further down the page and discover the competition’s curious ‘two ticks’ policy.
“A ‘two ticks’ policy will be in place for female composers, composers who identify as BME, transgender or non-binary, or having a disability, to automatically go through to the second stage of the selection process.”
I had to look up "BME" which stand for "black or minority ethnic." Sharp continues:
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this. For a start, the policy is staggeringly patronising to the composers who belong to these groups. What should be an incidental fact about someone’s person now takes precedent over their craft. Composers who happen to belong to one of these select groups are given a pat on the back and a snide helping-hand by virtue signallers of the worst kind. They are not valued for their artistic endeavours, the time and effort they have put into their work. Instead, they are trotted out by the diversity apparatchiks as means of showcasing how wonderfully compassionate, forward-thinking and fluffy they are. Composers should be incensed that their music is forced to take a back-seat to their race, gender etc.
Go read the whole essay.

* * *

Someone has figured out how ancient Greek music sounded! Again. Yes, generation after generation of scholars each seem to uncover the secrets of how the music sounded that was used in the recitation of epics and lyric poetry, not to mention plays and festivals. Oddly they each seem to come up with something that resembles the music of the current Middle East:
The songs that d’Angour has pieced back together do not sound at all like modern, or even medieval, Western European music. Instead, they seem reminiscent of eastern melodies, especially traditional Arabic music. Although there is a relatively limited tonal range and frequent repetition, they make use of strong, often impatient, rhythms and striking dissonances.
The only problem is that "traditional Arabic music" is about a thousand years distant from the ancient Greeks so I tend to think, "good job, fellows, now keep at it." As far as I'm concerned if you manage to get something sounding like Arabic music out of the extremely sketchy Greek notation, you are just projecting something into the music. As for the "striking dissonances" no ancient notation was capable of notating harmony or multiple voices, so that again has to be something contributed by the scholar. Most conclusively, there are no reliable ancient notations for rhythm at all, let alone impatient ones! So no, not for a minute do I think that we have the faintest idea what ancient Greek music sounded like. We do have some nice images, though:

* * *

The next item comes from Musicology Now and I wholeheartedly recommend it! I know, that's an odd thing for me to say, but this brief post on Japanese composer Jo Kondo is really interesting. I attended a talk Kondo gave at McGill in the late 70s and I have always found his music both enigmatic and attractive. I used to have the score to a piece he wrote for two guitars (tuned in quarter tones) and cow bells, but sadly it is now lost and I never did get around to performing it. The piece discussed in the Musicology Now post, Paregmenon, is not on YouTube, sadly, but here is another piece by Jo Kondo, In Summer, from 2004.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Under the Umbrella

As a little teaser for an item in tomorrow's miscellanea here is a very unusual piece for a very unusual ensemble of five percussionists playing, wait for it, cowbells. Under the Umbrella by Jo Kondo:

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Masses of Joseph Haydn

You might recall that I am working my way through the Haydn Edition--not an absolutely complete edition of all his works on CD, but close enough:

I'm up to CD 45 of 160 which puts me well into his masses and other religious music. As you may recall, Haydn is known primarily for his symphonies and his string quartets, though some of his piano sonatas and piano trios are pretty well known as well. But he also wrote two very successful oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons and one other less well-known, Il Ritorno di Tobia. He was in charge of the opera house at Esterházy and composed fourteen operas as well. In his last years his main responsibility to the Esterházy family was to compose one mass a year. Added to his earlier masses this gives us a total of fourteen. Busy man!

Naxos has been particularly diligent at doing box sets devoted to particular genres. They have ones devoted to all the Haydn oratorios, masses, concertos, piano sonatas, symphonies, string quartets and piano trios. I bought the integral (almost) set illustrated above because I particularly wanted to hear those pieces that are usually neglected like the baryton trios and the operas. Haydn's operas are particularly neglected these days.

But to get back to the masses, I am surprised at how much I have been enjoying them. They are just full of remarkably beautiful music for orchestra, occasionally organ, vocal soloists and choir. I am recalling how much I like choral music. Somewhere Charles Rosen makes the point that late-18th century religious music is perhaps not as "religious" as it might be. It is rather too cheerful and luxuriant perhaps. Compare to Bach's oratorios, cantatas and mass, which are far darker and more numinous. But Haydn's (and Mozart's) masses should not be neglected on musical bases as they contain a great deal of really wonderful music. We should not perhaps underrate their sincerity as well. One gets the distinct impression that at least some of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy were sincerely Christian people.

Haydn masses are mostly large, well-developed works showing not only his famous gift for structure, but also a resplendent use of orchestral color and ravishing melodic sense. Take for example the Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae in C major, Hob. XXII:5 (labeled the Missa Sanctae Caeciliae in the Brilliant Classics box). This is over an hour and ten minutes in length--the Gloria alone is over thirty minutes!--a substantial work indeed.

Here is just the Et resurrexit from the mass with Haydn's original manuscript:

UPDATE: Sorry, not the manuscript, but an early edition.

That's pretty terrific. Four years into the wars following the French Revolution, in 1796, Haydn wrote  one of his most popular masses. Titled the Missa in tempore belli in Haydn's manuscript it is nicknamed in German the Paukenmesse due to the dramatic use of tympani. This one is a bit shorter, at forty minutes or so, but that still makes it nearly twice as long as most Haydn symphonies. Haydn's masses typically follow the fivefold division of the ordinary of the Catholic mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Sometimes, as in this mass, the Benedictus is a separate movement between the last two. You can find the whole of the Latin text here (beginning at the bottom of page 2):

There is quite a good film of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Missa in tempore belli in 1985. The film itself begins around the 4:30 mark in this clip and is introduced with an interview with Bernstein. The performance itself starts at around the 10 minute mark, but listen to Bernstein's comments before. Something interesting, the audience does not applaud when the conductor and soloist enter.

So that's a sample out of the fourteen masses Haydn wrote (he also wrote a great deal of other large-scale religious music such as the Stabat Mater, Hob. XX:bis, which is also well over an hour long). Well worth exploring I would say!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 13

In 1978 Gubaidulina wrote the first in a series of pieces with a religious inspiration. This piece, Introitus for piano and chamber orchestra, begins with a flute cadenza. When the soloist enters, nearly three minutes later, it is with slow chords and repeated notes. This confounds one's expectations of a piano concerto, of course. The music uses four different realms of pitch: quarter-tones, chromatic, diatonic and pentatonic. These correspond to a range of experience from the most sensual (quarter-tones) to the most spiritual (pentatonic). Alexander Bakhchiev, the piano soloist in the premiere, commented:
Introitus is not a common piece of piano music. It requires exceptionally airy, immaterial playing, which she showed me because it came quite naturally to her. But I had to learn it and get used to it, and at the first performance I succeeded only partially. An Introit is the beginning, the introductory item, of the Mass, but the Mass, of course, does not take place in the work itself; and it is difficult to move toward something that does not actually occur but must be prepared for spiritually. This preparation has to take shape in the course of about twenty minutes, and the audience expects something, but nothing tangible happens. I've played this concerto on several occasions and in each instance, no matter whether the audience was made up of professional musicians or the general public, the long trill at the end would be followed by a long silence. The audience was as under a spell ... and then they burst out in applause. [quoted in Kurtz, op. cit., p. 137]
Let's listen to a performance. This is Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro, piano and Mikhail Agrest, conductor with the Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra. The concert was in 2011:

Here is another performance, from 2009, with Drosostalitsa Moraiti, pianist with Goldsmiths Sinfonia under the conductor Alexander Ivashkin.

It would be safe to say that this is the exact opposite of a Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov piano concerto! I am often fascinated with the ways composers find to end pieces in the absence of the traditional grammar of the cadence. The long trill here is very effective.

Both of these videos together have little more than 1,500 views!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Unfortunate Occurrences

Was this the result of practicing the Precipitato to the Piano Sonata No. 7 by Prokofiev without warming up properly?

And we may never know what happened to this 300-year-old viola da gamba in the hold of an Alitalia flight:

This is what happens when you don't purchase a seat in the cabin for your cello:

I'm not sure what happened here: a group improvisation just got completely out of hand? The aftermath of a rehearsal of The Who, circa 1970? A really extreme case of bad karma?

Another instrument destroyed by an airline, but I knew a lutenist who had the pegbox of his lute snapped off by an elevator door closing. Never, ever carry your lute around in a soft case!

Why yes, I was stuck for a good theme for a post this morning, why do you ask?

Let's end with some soothing lute music. This is the fantasia Semper Dowland Semper Dolens ("Always Dowland, Always Sad") by John Dowland, played by Julian Bream.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Radical M. Debussy

Let's have another look at Tom Service's comments on Debussy that we quoted yesterday:
The centenary is being well marked by BBC Radio 3, launched with a typically provocative edition of The Listening Service from Tom Service, hailing Debussy for his “visceral violence” as a “creator of nightmares” who was “more radical than Stravinsky”, while over recent days Donald Macleod has explored him in Composer of the Week (all available as podcasts and on iPlayer).
What is interesting here is the journalistic need to insist that in order for us to fully appreciate Debussy he has to be reconfigured as a "creator of nightmares" using "visceral violence." Tom is using a certain paradigm of progressive composition as a base assumption: progressive music must be avant-garde, it must be radical, violent and nightmarish. Now this certainly describes a number of 20th century composers such as Edgar Varèse, some of Stravinsky, perhaps even some Messiaen and certainly some Schoenberg and Berg. But Debussy? Good grief!

I think the best way to characterize Debussy is that he was astonishingly innovative in a lot of areas such as extensive use of pedals in all voices, parallel harmonies that are more chordal melodies, use of the whole-tone scale, bitonality, echoes of archaic musical techniques such as parallel fifths and plagal cadences, unprepared modulations and so on. But this is all cloaked in an extreme sensitivity to timbre and texture so that what strikes most listeners, even in the early reception of Debussy's music, is the great beauty of the music. You really have to deny your own ears to claim it is nightmarish or violent!

Here is one comment on the premiere of La Mer:
The piece was initially not well received. Pierre Lalo, critic of Le Temps, wrote: "I see no sea, I hear no sea, I feel no sea." The reason for negative reception was partly because of inadequate rehearsal and partly because of Parisian outrage over Debussy's having recently left his first wife for the singer Emma Bardac. But it soon became one of Debussy's most admired and frequently performed orchestral works, and became more so in the ensuing century.
Indeed, what separates Debussy from a lot of early 20th century composers is that he was welcomed by audiences almost from the beginning. Even though his diaphanous colors and textures took some getting used to, audiences responded with enjoyment.

So why does Tom Service struggle to make Debussy into some kind of fire-breathing radical? Because that is the only model for a great composer in the 20th century that he has. When we eliminated aesthetic judgement and therefore aesthetic quality from our critical vocabulary, we also eliminated anything other than sociology from our evaluations. If a composer outrages nice bourgeois audiences, then he must be good.

Let's listen to a fairly early piece by Debussy. This is his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune which dates from 1894 so it isn't even 20th century yet. The performers are L'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by Charles Dutoit:

Friday, April 6, 2018

Unlikely Holdings

I was astonished to read this article on Jimi Hendrix's record collection and discover that he owned, not one, but two copies of Handel's Messiah. Does that explain the bridge in "Spanish Castle Magic"?
Handel – ‘Great Choruses from Handel’s Messiah’
Hendrix owned two copies of Handel’s ‘Messiah’, both of which show signs of wear and tear. This rendition by the English Chamber Orchestra promised period sounds which would have been uncanny listening so near to where it was composed.
Hendrix and Handel both lived in Brook Street in London. Also in Jimi's collection was an LP of Bach on pedal harpsichord and Ravi Shankar.

Friday Miscellanea

This may be a very brief offering today as I have just been swamped with non-music-related tasks this week!

Slate has a go at re-evaluating the oeuvre of Andrew Lloyd Weber:
For years, the Lloyd Webber canon has been a bit of a cultural punching bag. It’s not hard to see why: His two most popular musicals are, respectively, a nearly plotless anthology sung by performers in spandex and fur and a faux opera about a disfigured stalker in pop culture’s most iconic mask (sincerest apologies to Ghostface and Jim Carrey). Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and their ilk are the epitome of ’80s bombast: rock-tinged scores with daunting vocal ranges, mostly uncomplicated storytelling, and production values through the roof, all of which have allowed him to become a byword for over-the-top mediocrity that people can snub to feel cultured.
Or because they are cultured?

* * *

Tom Service, who did a couple of excellent series at The Guardian a few years back (one on the symphony and the other on 20th century composers), is back with a program on Debussy on BBC Radio 3. The clickbait come-on in the headline is that Debussy is "more radical than Stravinsky." Well, ok, maybe.
The centenary is being well marked by BBC Radio 3, launched with a typically provocative edition of The Listening Service from Tom Service, hailing Debussy for his “visceral violence” as a “creator of nightmares” who was “more radical than Stravinsky”, while over recent days Donald Macleod has explored him in Composer of the Week (all available as podcasts and on iPlayer).
* * *

There is an interesting apologia over at NewMusicBox on the issue of "equity" programming. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but the editorial note sums up the issues nicely:
[Ed. Note: When the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) announced its 2018-19 season last month, music critic Alex Ross immediately noticed that the repertoire for the orchestra’s concerts at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall was written exclusively by living female composers except for one lone piece by the late Morton Feldman. Since then, Ross’s tweet about it was retweeted 40 times. Granted it is only two concerts, but it was a welcome piece of news, especially after several major American orchestras had announced 2018-19 seasons that did not include a single work by a female composer. Thankfully, the season announcements by the Seattle Symphony and the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics that soon followed proved to be more equitable. Still, all these announcements drove home the message that the orchestra world has a long way to go to achieve real diversity, not just in terms of having a better gender balance, but also in terms of racial, generational, geographic, and stylistic equity. Composer Derek Bermel, who is currently ACO’s artistic director, has long been an articulate advocate for more pluralistic musical aesthetics and the ACO has a 40+ year track record for advocating for offering performance opportunities to an extremely broad range of composers. Given his stance and his position, we thought that Bermel would have some interesting insights into how orchestras could make their programming more diverse.—FJO]
 I think the key phrase there is "the orchestra world has a long way to go to achieve real diversity, not just in terms of having a better gender balance, but also in terms of racial, generational, geographic, and stylistic equity." Have they really thought this through, or are they just responding to fashionable progressive trends? What could they mean by "stylistic equity"? Equal parts serial, tonal, modal, minimal and post-modern styles in every concert? The word "equitable" desperately needs to be unpacked, and when you do, I think that the awkward inappropriateness of it would become evident.

* * *

I have to say that I rather admire the audience at this concert of a 1973 Carnegie Hall performance that included Four Organs by Steve Reich:
Four Organs begins with a pattern of eighth notes played by the maracas—a steady, unyielding rattling that’s sustained for the duration of the piece. When the organs come in, they too play repeated figures of eighth notes, and although Reich manipulates both the lengths of the notes (augmenting them steadily) and the notes themselves (which, taken together, make up a dominant eleventh chord), the piece can sound repetitive at first, monotonous, bewildering. That night, it didn’t take long for some rather prominent coughing to break out, before the crowd let loose with less subtle forms of protest: boos and catcalls, the agitation growing over the course of the piece’s 15-plus minutes. At one point, an older woman approached the stage, took off a shoe, and banged it on the stage, imploring the ensemble—which included Reich and Tilson Thomas—to stop. Someone else sprinted down an aisle, yelling, “All right! I confess!” Other aggrieved patrons simply left.
The best kind of audience reaction for a living composer is enthusiastic enjoyment, of course. But I suspect a lot of composers would say that the second best is this kind of audience rebellion--because you can be sure of one thing, that they were reacting to what you wrote. The worst response is when they just sit there and politely clap with no real enthusiasm one way or another. That probably means you failed to really do something with the piece.

* * *

Young artists have to beware of unscrupulous people pretending to "help" them with their careers. Case in point, an unsavory London management agency:
In an apparent fraud, management firm Band Management Universal (BMU) charged up to £4,000 for services and continued to sign clients despite having numerous complaints about not meeting promises.
Head of the Musicians' Union Horace Trubridge called it the worst scam he had seen in the past 20 years.
BMU could not be reached for comment.
The company, registered in Farringdon, London, has shut its website and email accounts and cancelled its phones.
Singer Sarah Kaloczi said she paid £2,000 to BMU for a contract that was supposed to include music production, marketing, gigs and tours, as well as help to secure a recording contract.
The company failed to deliver these services or refund her money and she now faces being evicted from her flat.
"They took everything I had put my heart and soul into and just shattered it into pieces," she said.
My feeling is that if the management are not willing to invest their own resources in your career, then you should look elsewhere.

* * *

And that brings us to our envoi for today which will be Four Organs by Steve Reich. And for those who simply can't stand the piece (and they are not few!), some music by that radical, Claude Debussy. These are the Six épigraphes antiques for piano four hands.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Virtuoso A Capella Weirdness

This is way out on the extreme end of singing, but have a listen. I found the comments to be somewhat more entertaining than the performance itself. Does show that not all Canadians are boring, though...

And for something else in a similar vein or chord, here is Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate performed by Michael Schmid:

Yes, I know, sounds a bit tame in comparison.

The Bach Test

One of the movies in the running for Best Picture this year at the Academy Awards was Darkest Hour, a tribute to Winston Churchill, whose leadership of the United Kingdom during World War II has long been hailed as an example of true political leadership. Recently however, there are those who disagree. In the Washington Post we find an article titled: In Winston Churchill, Hollywood Rewards a Mass Murderer. Hmm, quite a difference! There is something of an ideological background to these attacks as we can see in this article, Reminder: The Left Hates Our Civilization where you will find links both to the articles attacking and to some counterarguments. The writer refers to a "Churchill Test," described by historian Sir Geoffrey Elton as:
“There are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill: whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.”
I think we could have something similar in music that we could call "The Bach Test." You can tell quite a lot about music scholars by their attitude towards Bach. In his case, of course, there are no unpleasant details to reveal as he conducted no mass-bombing campaigns, though he did recruit his children as copyists. Even according to the New York Times, Bach stands at the head of the Western Classical Music Tradition, so how musicologists regard him might reveal something. As a proxy for surveying them directly, let's have a look at the postings over at Musicology Now for an indicator. There should be a caveat, though, as these posts are quite different from articles published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. Here is a link to the contents of the current issue. Nothing on Bach, but serious articles on several subjects nonetheless. What do we find over at Musicology Now? Here is a list of the subjects of the most recent posts in reverse chronological order:

  • urban busking
  • Estonian composer Helena Tulve
  • student gun protests (voice and silence)
  • Cui Jian and Chinese rock music
  • Japanese composer Akemi Naito
  • Philippine vaudeville and "oriental syncopation"
  • recording industry 1905 - 1926
  • interpretive labor in experimental music
  • mechanical instruments
  • musical labor
  • Parisian music journalism
  • Justin Timberlake at the Superbowl
  • music in Star Wars
And, believe it or not, this is a considerable improvement as for a long time it seemed that all they could find to write about was movie and videogame soundtracks. What we have lately is a couple of articles on composers from eastern Europe and Japan, both women, by the way. Then we have a number of posts that I would term sociological on things like busking, protests, musical labor and the recording industry. That leaves a couple of posts on pop music both current and historical. Not a horrible mix, but one wonders if the bias against white male composers will continue indefinitely. No, nothing on Bach.

So, despite the fact that Bach is possibly the greatest composer in the Western European tradition, he is resolutely ignored by current musicology. Mind you, if they could find some dirt on him, that would lead to a spate of articles on that. There is one legitimate reason to ignore Bach and people like him and one illegitimate reason. The legitimate one is that it is thought that everything worth saying about Bach has been said. Well, perhaps. I can certainly see a graduate student having a very difficult time pitching a thesis on Bach to his advisor! But two recent biographies on Bach, one by John Eliot Gardiner and the other by Christoff Wolff, both show that there is more to be said even about Bach. Taruskin's discussion of his music in the Oxford History also had quite a bit to chew on.

The illegitimate reason to ignore Bach is that he simply contradicts your narrative that there are no "great men" in history or in music and that behind the public image of every great man lies a sordid tale of oppression and murder. That's a pretty hard sell with Bach, but the strategy has proved fruitful with a long list of historical figures including, yes, Winston Churchill. At the end of the day, though, it is rooted in nothing more than nihilism and resentment.

Let's listen to some Bach. This is the Art of Fugue in two performances. The first by Grigory Sokolov in Leningrad in the late 70s early 80s:

The other is by the Emerson String Quartet:

Honestly, did you have something better to do this morning?

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Law of Unintended Consequences

I was visiting my dynamic half-sister last week, who is ninety-five years old and still drives her own car. She has indicated interest in my musical activities on several occasions so I have brought some CDs for her in previous visits. One of them contained some of my orchestral music (in software synthesized performances, let me hasten to say) and I was surprised to hear it wafting in from the other room one morning this week. I had forgotten she had that one. I went out to see what was up and found that she likes to listen to it while she is ironing. Sigh.

Well, to be fair, it is not terribly good music, just barely listenable. I was going through a lot of experimentation when I wrote it and I suppose I would describe it as being influenced by Steve Reich, Debussy and Prokofiev in equal parts without being very interesting or memorable. Here, as an example is my Tres Imágenes:

I have to say that, if I had known that its final function was to be mildly diverting background music to the mundane task of ironing, I would probably have written something rather different! These days I don't see my task of composing music as excluding music with this kind of function. Though I am a bit puzzled as to what to write, exactly. People like Haydn and Mozart wrote a great deal of music for dancing, processions, diversion and so on. The music was still elegant and aesthetically pleasing.

But these days we do seem to have a different task before us. If I could write charming, inoffensive music in the style of earlier times, I might well do so. But I find that I can't. At some point I write something so offensively trite to my ear that I have to erase it and that leads to deleting the whole thing as it is all of a piece. Then I go back to trying to find something that is not trite and clichéd. When I do, as I hope I did in my recent piece for violin and guitar titled "Dark Dream," it will not be the kind of thing that my sister would put on as background music to the task of ironing. She would not like it at all, I'm afraid.

I think I can relate one aspect of my character when it comes to aesthetics to something that happened in Grade 10. This is when adolescents are at their most intolerant and annoying. I had newly moved from the Interior to Vancouver Island so I was the new guy and painfully lacking in social abilities. I ended up being a kind of appendage on the edge of the nerd and geek squad in my school. Let me just outline the basic social groups there as they may be a bit different from your experience. In descending order of coolness from high to low there were the jocks of course, tall, physically adroit and popular. Then there were the hard rockers, the tough guys. This was just before the hippy sixties hit in my area so they wore black leather, had blakies on their boots or shoes (these were little metal plates that made metallic clicking sounds when you walked--it seems to be a local term) and practiced kicking one another. Below these were the dorks, nerds and geeks: the pseudo-intellectuals who dressed funny and were probably headed for a career in accounting. Anyone left over was simply an unclassifiable remainder. I was a probationary member of the geek squad until one day the others decided, purely as a psychological experiment, to ostracize me. One morning I went to school and all my supposed friends were no longer speaking to me. That pushed me into the unclassifiable remainder  group.

The interesting thing is that the very next year the 60s washed through our school (even though chronologically it was actually 1967) and some of us started growing our hair long and smoking marijuana. I also was in a band by then so the whole social order was turned upside down. Or so we thought. We passed our time at school assemblies and award ceremonies sitting in the very back and booing everyone who received any sort of prize.  We were now at the top of the coolness pyramid, even if only in our own minds.

I think that this whole series of events caused me to be sufficiently alienated that I really don't care too much what music I am supposed to be writing or who for. Yes, you can accuse me of being narcissistic or whatever, but I don't think that is the case. I ran across a clip of Jordan Peterson a while ago that provided me an interesting perspective on the role of artists. It is the job of craftsmen to provide those things that people need in their daily lives. Musically, that would be a lot of pop music and things like pleasant music to provide diversion while you are ironing. But it is the job of an artist to take things a few steps further, to leave the campfire of social acceptance and wander out in the wilds a bit and to come back with some idea, or bit of something that you can add to the art form to make it just a bit different (and therefore less immediately acceptable). You have to be creative in a true sense, in other words. This is why, as Jordan Peterson also points out, creative people usually find it almost impossible to monetize their creativity. The corollary to that is that if something is really successful it is most likely not that creative.

Of course there are some puzzling exceptions that would include people like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Both successful and both also pretty creative, though they certainly don't rack up the enormous sales of the true pop stars. Let's hear a little Tom Waits in case you are not familiar with his oeuvre. This is "Step Right Up" from the album Small Change (though in Canada it was on an album with a somewhat different track list titled Pasties and a G-String):

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Guitar Center in Debt

The LA Daily News reports that The Guitar Center is one billion dollars in debt! How is that even possible?
Guitar Center, the nation’s leading musical-instrument retailer, is in trouble. Changing musical tastes are partly to blame.
Ratings agency S&P Global downgraded Westlake Village-based Guitar Center Holdings Inc. for the second time last week as the troubled instrument retailer seeks to refinance and restructure more than $1 billion of debt.
“Most of what’s really selling today is rap and hip hop,” said George Gruhn, owner of the Gruhn Guitars shop in Nashville. “That’s outpacing other forms of music and they don’t use a lot of recognizable musical instruments.”
Or recognizable musical materials, for that matter, like melody and harmony.
The instrument is also facing an identity crisis. Guitar heroes – who have inspired many a player and fueled strong instrument sales – are few and far between these days, according to Gruhn.
Instead of people like Eric Clapton who could really play we have people, and I won't name them, who can really mug for the camera. Ok, yes and some of them can sing--but mostly they are singers chosen for their looks and ability to dance. When did pop music turn into a weird form of ballet?
The bigger problem, according to Concotelli, is that most aspiring players don’t want to put in the time to become proficient on the instrument.
“If they do want to learn they’ll just go to YouTube, but they’re not getting the proper instruction,” he said. “With kids these days, it’s all about instant gratification. No one wants to take six months or a year to learn. They don’t want to do the work.”
Uh, six months to a year? You think that's how long it takes? As I recall Clapton spent several years woodshedding, learning from old blues records. My estimate of how long it takes to become a really capable classical guitarist is five to ten years. That's IF you have a basic ability on the instrument.

Here's a couple of pretty fair guitarists, George Harrison and Eric Clapton and a few other folks playing George's song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" which seems a nice eulogy for The Guitar Center.

The Moon over Chesapeake Bay

Yes, this has been a very feeble week for blogging, but hey, I'm on vacation. I will be back to my usual efforts next week with posts on Sofia Gubaidulina, composition, maybe something on the basics of music and perhaps even something funny. You never know. In the meantime, a couple of photos. There is a lovely old hotel here in Virginia Beach that was just restored to its former glory. In the 1920s it was quite a sight and is so again. This is the Cavalier Hotel where we had lunch the other day. Excellent wine list, by the way, with some fine California pinot noirs by the glass.

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The entrance:

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This morning I got up to the sight of a full moon in the pre-dawn sky, low on the horizon. The moon always looks so huge when it is low in the sky, even though it is no larger in reality. This is an optical illusion coming just from its proximity to the horizon. Whereas it appears a bit like this:

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In reality, this is what the camera sees:

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I am always astounded at the difference! The full moon seems to loom so large, but only seems. As artists we often want to create illusions like this, but we are always humbled by nature.

Let's listen to some excellent scene-painting by Claude Debussy who died in 1918, making this the hundredth anniversary. This is his work for orchestra, La Mer with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Orchestre de Paris: