Saturday, July 4, 2015

Cultural Hegemony

I hesitate to even mention this concept, peripheral to the main interests of this blog, but yesterday I casually tossed off the comment that Boulez' comment on the necessity of dodecaphonic (12-tone) music was "deeply Marxist in its concept of history". This was perhaps too casual! Let me try and fill in some blanks.

One of the recurring topics on this blog and a fundamental plank in its raison d'être is the notion of aesthetics, that is, the objective examination of art objects from the point of view of their aesthetic construction and appeal. This would seem an entirely unobjectionable thing to do, apart from the fact that there have been powerful political currents opposing this kind of approach for over a century and a half now. I casually referred to these currents as "Marxism" and perhaps that needs explanation.

First of all, it needs to be stated that I am opposed to Marxism in its several manifestations. For the reasons why, perhaps the best reference work is The Black Book of Communism by Jean-Louis Panné (Author), Andrzej Paczkowski (Author), Karel Bartosek (Author), Jean-Louis Margolin (Author), Nicolas Werth (Author), Stéphane Courtois (Author), Mark Kramer (Editor, Translator), Jonathan Murphy (Translator). Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, it is a compilation of the death toll of communism. Not easy reading, but a definitive refutation that communism, in whatever form, results in anything other than misery, suffering and death. The ledger for the 20th century comes to nearly 100 million dead as a direct consequence of communist policies.

Communism has a number of different theorists apart from Karl Marx himself and in the cultural realm the name to note is Antonio Gramsci whose theorizing on cultural hegemony can be found in this Wikipedia article. Here is the first paragraph:
In Marxist philosophy, the term cultural hegemony describes the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of that society—the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores—so that their ruling-class worldview becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural, inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.
In a society like the Soviet Union, Communist China or Cuba, ironically, it is precisely the case that the views of the ruling class are imposed as the cultural norm. And if you disagree you will be sent to a concentration camp or executed. They really mean it.

I suggest reading the whole article on cultural hegemony, keeping in mind that it is rife with Marxist assumptions that need not be accepted at face value. One thing that is important is that Gramsci was arguing for a "war of position" whereby the cultural values of the bourgeoisie are replaced by those of the working class. This idea was further developed by a German student leader:
In 1967, the German student movement leader Rudi Dutschke reformulated Antonio Gramsci's philosophy of cultural hegemony with the phrase Der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen (The Long March through the Institutions), denoting the war of position, an allusion to the Long March (1934–35) of the Communist Chinese People's Liberation Army, by means of which, the working class would produce their own organic intellectuals and culture (dominant ideology) to replace those imposed by the bourgeoisie.
The characteristic elements of this Long March are the understanding of society as being made up by different classes and identity groups. In contemporary discourse the original groups of bourgeoisie and working class have been largely replaced by gender, race and class.
In a society, cultural hegemony is neither monolithic, intellectual praxis, nor a unified system of values, but a complex of stratified social structures, wherein each social and economic class has a social purpose and an internal class-logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is particular and different from the behaviours of the members of other social classes, whilst co-existing with them as constituents of the society.
The basic problem with this is that the causality is backwards. A social class or identity group does not "allow" its ostensible members to do or be anything. Rather, the only elements that actually exist are people, not classes or groups. As someone once said, there is no such thing as "society" which is just an intellectual abstraction. Society or class or gender or race is not an agent and therefore does not make or allow you to do anything. There is no such thing as an "internal class-logic" that makes us behave in a particular way. But the claim that this is the case has been of immense political value because a politician can stand up and say that you, the voter, are oppressed because of big business, or the rich, or imperialism or colonialism or gender bias or whatever and get your vote by promising to do something about it. Politically it is a winner. But at the end of the day it always ends up in the same place: everyone is poor except the party apparatchiks and if you notice this, there is that knock on the door at 3 in the morning.

Shostakovich feared this so much that for years he kept a packed suitcase by the door.

Now, of course, advanced western societies are far from getting to this point, but the direction is pretty clear. The Long March is well-advanced in many of the institutions of higher learning and the arts.

So I say that Boulez' idea of history is Marxist because of the kind of intellectual he is. As Gramsci wrote:
The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the Man of Letters, the philosopher, and the artist. Therefore, journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the "true" intellectuals. In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labor, even at the most primitive and unqualified level, must form the basis of the new type of intellectual. . . .
The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist of eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor [and] organizer, as "permanent persuader", not just simple orator.
For Boulez, the traditional means of artistic expression must be condemned and replaced by new kinds based on, yes, technical education. The mode of being of the new intellectual (artist) can no longer consist of eloquence (traditional expressivity in music), but in active participation as constructor and organizer. There is no music more complexly organized than that of Boulez!

Aesthetics, as an evaluative method unique to the arts and hence outside the realm and power of politics, must be brought to heel. This was done by simply dismissing it entirely and replacing it with sociology, economics and cultural theory.

It seems to be always the case that Marxism demands that history be wiped out entirely and replaced by the entirely new: new art, new society and new people. Utopia is always promised, so who cares what the human cost is! But there are only humans.

I promise not to do this again as it is too far outside our core interests here at the Music Salon, but without digging into this sort of thing, it is hard to understand why aesthetics is so assiduously avoided in just those places where it is needed: the study of humanities in universities, arts coverage in the mass media and even music blogs.

I suspect that the real problem with the arts and the reason that they must be either marginalized or brought to heel is that they are an individualizing force. One's individuality is realized and enhanced by the practice of art. So if you look at everything in terms of identity groups, that's a problem.

Obviously we have to close out with some music by Pierre Boulez. Here is Le Marteau sans Maître dating from 1955:


UPDATE: As an example of how the whole Gramscian cultural hegemony thing works, the Wall Street Journal has a piece today by Terry Teachout titled "What Color is Othello?" that neatly captures the problem. In the past Lawrence Olivier gave a spectacular performance in the role of Shakespeare's Othello in black makeup. But, as Terry says:
Today we take it for granted that Othello, one of the only two major Shakespearean characters who is specifically described by the playwright as black, should be played by a black actor. It’s considered inappropriate, even racist, for a white actor to put on blackface, as Olivier did 50 years ago, to play Othello.
The reason is because of the Long March. Everyone now, even great actors, has to be evaluated according to their membership in an identity group, not their individuality. As we see in the comment section, this runs head-on up against the view in the arts that the individual is what is important, not some abstraction like an identity group. The theatre world is caving in to the Long March, but the classical music world is next as we see from the recurring calls for more female conductors.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Two Faces of Non-Modernism

It was long the ideological practice of the modernist avant-garde to smear their aesthetic opponents as mere reactionary dolts. As Boulez so memorably averred:
"[A]ny musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch."
This is deeply Marxist in its concept of history, of course, but somehow that has not prevented it from becoming, for a while at least, a benchmark of aesthetic truth: if you weren't part of the solution (dodecaphony, or whatever other method was the flavor of the week) then you were part of the problem. Composers who were shunned as a result included people like Sibelius, who, after the late 1920s never finished another piece, even though he lived until 1957, and Shostakovich, who was abhorred for writing music in traditional forms and keys. Here are a couple of samples of comments on Sibelius by ideologues of modernism:
"If Sibelius is good, then the musical criteria that have been applied from Bach to Schoenberg (…) are invalid."
Theodor Adorno 1938

"Sibelius, the worst composer in the world"
René Leibowitz 1955
And there was a time when we actually believed nonsense like this!

But let's make some distinctions: just as there are wonderful, serious, compelling works that are modernist such as the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, there are also non-modernist works written in the 20th century that are trivial regurgitations of the clichés of the past, just as people like Boulez have claimed. But they were not written by Sibelius or Shostakovich. They were, perhaps, written by people like Jean Françaix. Have a listen to his Concertino for piano and orchestra of 1932:


Yes, I know I just posted it, but listening to it prompted this post. It is hard to believe something so trivial and trite was written after the horrors that France experienced in WWI and during the Great Depression. It is the classical equivalent of the song "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" which dates from almost exactly the same time (1931):


Schoenberg, on the other hand, deeply tapped the surreal pessimism that Europe was feeling during the first half of the century, when it seemed that European civilization was destroying itself. These are the two Piano Pieces, op 33a and b, also dating from 1931:


Schoenberg was in tune with the "needs of the epoch", but aesthetics, I believe, is more than just holding up a mirror to society or history. It involves the creation of something that, in some way, transcends society and history. We don't admire our artists simply because they are weird kinds of sociologists or historians, but because they create things that we admire for aesthetic reasons. This is what was left out of modernism, intentionally, of course.

But that leads to ground already covered. What I wanted to do with this post was just insist on some aesthetic distinctions. There are many pieces of modernist music. Some are great and wonderful and others are trivial and mediocre and this has little to do with the musical vocabulary. There are many pieces of non-modernist music. Some are great and wonderful and others are trivial and mediocre and this has little to do with the musical vocabulary. Just as with poets: even though they may all be using the same dictionary, some are great and some are not. But somehow, the modernists managed to sell us the bill of goods that merely because they were writing dodecaphonic music or aleatoric music, using a new dictionary as it were, that the music was important or "valid" just because of that. And any music written using traditional methods was invalid. That's a load of crap.

Here is the Symphony No. 7 by Jean Sibelius, dating from 1924. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:


Friday Miscellanea

The often-useful Tom Service over at the Guardian has an article up that is such a good idea I wish I had had it: pieces that their own composers disliked. Worth reading just for Beethoven's comment to the critics of his Battle Symphony:


* * *

This link, to Drew McManus's site Adaptistration, has everything you need to know about what conductors get paid--in the US at least. Here are the top 10 by orchestra, you have to track down the music directors' names for yourself:
  1. National Symphony: $2,728,671 (41.02 percent increase)
  2. Chicago Symphony: $2,504,336 (15.65 percent increase)
  3. San Francisco Symphony: $2,364,775 (16.64 percent increase)
  4. New York Philharmonic: $1,717,814 (28 percent increase)
  5. Dallas Symphony: $1,505,052 (82.57 percent increase, but previous season compensation was only for partial season)
  6. Los Angeles Philharmonic: $1,447,049 (1.54 percent increase)
  7. Saint Louis Symphony: $1,012,158 (5.51 percent increase)
  8. Minnesota Orchestra: $944,098 (20.24 percent decrease)
  9. Baltimore Symphony: $930,914 (5.45 percent increase)
  10. Cleveland Orchestra: $907,829 (23.15 percent decrease)
* * * 

Via Slipped Disc we discover this fascinating web page: recordings from the British label Hyperion that no-one has purchased in the "longest period of time". How long? They don't say. Two weeks? Two years? Two decades? Probably somewhere in between. None of these recordings, unsurprisingly, cries out to me, but this one looks sort of interesting:


* * *

I like to thump on the online classical music magazine Sinfini from time to time just because of their annoying blend of pomposity and pseudo-hipster marketing. But sometimes they have a readable article such as this one on the Schubert "Trout" Quintet. We don't get to hear this piece very often because of its non-standard instrumentation: violin, viola, cello, double-bass and piano.

* * *

Annals of Extreme Music Criticism: From the Mail Online comes this story about drum destruction in Libya.

ISIS in Libya have released pictures of armed fighters burning musical instruments as the extremist group continues its propaganda assault in the north African country.
Pictures of the heavily armed masked militants watching while a pile of drums burnt in the Libyan desert were released earlier today - purportedly by the 'media wing' of the local group.
It is understood the brightly coloured instruments had been confiscated by the religious police, and were destroyed near the port city of Derna, in eastern Libya.
* * *
Here is an extremely fulsome article about Melodyne editing software. It is rather like an upgraded Auto-Tune with a lot more processing possibilities. If you want the short version, this software enables musical amateurs with rudimentary technical skills to sound sort-of like generic professionals. How do I mean? Well, the idea is to use software to compensate for the lack of either sufficient discipline to learn musical technique or sufficient talent. We probably can all think of some so-called professional artists who fall into this category. Well, with this software you can conceal these deficiencies but the best result is minimally acceptable generic music. Why? Oddly enough, if you lack both the discipline and talent to master basic musical technique, then you also likely lack the creativity to come up with something new and interesting. Funny how that works...

* * *

The Wall Street Journal has a review of a new Decca collection of the complete works of Alexander Scriabin on 18 CDs. Tempting as it is, I doubt if I will be ordering it soon. Despite my love for Russian music, Scriabin just seems, well, a bit too insane...


* * *

Now here is something interesting: a timeline of all the British contributions to the Venice Biennalle from 1895 to 2015. You can actually watch modern art self-destruct! Progressively! From John Everett Millais, The Ornithologist of 1895:



to Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO of 2015:


* * *

Is it time for Prince? Well, sure, it's always time for Prince. Showbiz reports that he has taken his whole catalog off all the streaming music services including Spotify and Apple. If you follow the link you will find a new song he has released on Soundcloud called Hard Rock Lover. Pretty good, with a mellow accompaniment and screaming guitar. I used to own Prince on vinyl including 1999 (which, despite the title, was released in 1982). I think I had Purple Rain on cassette and Around the World in a Day I might have bought on CD. I liked it better when you did actually own your own recordings instead of merely having the right, maybe, to listen to them sometimes. Plus there is that whole quality thing. If it ain't CD quality, I ain't interested...

* * *

Our musical envoi for today is the Concertino for piano and orchestra by Jean Françaix, composed in 1932:


Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Indispensable Book

There is one book that has been on every composer's shelf (and desk) longer than any other. This one:


I just scanned the cover of my copy. I haven't owned it for my whole career, but I have certainly been aware of it and worked with selections from it in other texts for a very long time. Some version of this book has been in print since 1764, which probably makes it the longest-lasting music publication ever. It is currently available from Amazon for $8.54. F. W. Marpurg began collecting the chorales and the job was carried on by J. S. Bach's son C. P. E. Bach. A major revision was made for the third edition in 1831 when the upper clef was changed from the soprano C-clef to the more familiar G-clef. There were a number of further editions and revisions. The currently-available edition, pictured above and available through Amazon, was edited by Albert Riemenschneider and published in 1941.

The stimulus to mention this book was a couple of comments left on an old post of mine talking about Bach chorales. Go and read the post and the comments. Not long ago composer Farcry C. Zuke left a link to his fascinating discussion of the same chorale I talked about. Please go and read Farcry's analysis. He says "The harmonic oddities of Bach often involve stepwise motion." I have put this in a slightly different way, saying to a friend of mine once that you can get away with almost anything harmonically if you lead into it by step. Farcry goes through the whole chorale pointing out a number of interesting aspects, concluding that the chorale "is actually a melody in E Phrygian and Bach has harmonized it in A minor." Yes, and ended many of the phrases, including the final one, with a half-cadence!

Just for fun, and, I guess, to show how hard it is to set out to harmonize a chorale like this, I took the melody to Aus tiefer Not and did my own harmonization. Sure, it's clumsy and not in the same league as Bach. But I didn't spend too much time on it. I like a couple of the ideas and stumbled across at least one interesting cadence. I was just trying to see how much I could get away with, sticking to stepwise voice-leading. Let this be a lesson to all of us! And hey, when you, inevitably, diss my harmonization, be kind.

video

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Meaning of the Text

This week's current events lead one to muse a bit on the question of text and meaning. In a reply to a comment on this post I wrote the following:
Beardsley is famous for being the co-author of the enormously influential paper, "The Intentional Fallacy". He points out that we must make a crucial distinction between the author's intent and the aesthetic object. When the author says he is going to write a poem about trees and we look at the poem and indeed, it is about trees, there is no real problem. But if the artist says he is making a sculpture that will symbolize inhumanity and oppression and we go and look and all we see is a granite sphere two feet in diameter, then we have a problem and the proper solution to the problem is to discount the artist's intention and whatever he or anyone else says about it. All we really have to work with is the aesthetic object itself.
However, the issue is not quite so easily resolved. Here is another take on intentionalism with regards to legal reasoning from this blog:
...the very notion that a text can speak apart from the signification of that text by some agency — some human with some intent that he attaches to a set of arbitrary marks or sounds — is an absurdity: A text is no more alive and capable of speech than a lump of coal, and documents are no more alive than the paper or pixels they’re written on.
Is the only difference here between the ontological status of something as an aesthetic object, hence something apart from and different than a "moral agent", and something else that is a record of a speech act of a moral agent?

What is the difference between a musical score and things a composer says or writes? That there is a real and considerable difference I think is clear. Mind you, a musical score may contain speech acts, but it is not itself a speech act, but rather an aesthetic object or the instructions for creating an aesthetic object. (The ontological status of a piece of music is always a bit ambiguous...) Also, the speech acts contained in a musical score have a special status themselves. A composer may write a melodic line and append the word "dolorously" to it, indicating to the performer the kind of expression that he desires. The notation is exact in terms of pitch and duration (quarter note B flat at tempo quarter note equal to 60 beats per minute), but just how do you play the melody "dolorously" as opposed to "cheerfully"? Well, that's what we pay performers the big bucks for! The answer is context-dependent. In other words, show me the melody and I can suggest a way of playing it that might be "dolorous". The composer might not have written that instruction, but just the melody itself and a performer might decide on his own to play it in a dolorous fashion. Here is the interesting bit: the composer might intend and the performer play in such a way as to express dolor with the melody without either of them actually thinking of the word "dolorous"! I say this because neither composers nor performers "translate" music into speech or text as a typical activity. We just do music.

Music is not, therefore a "speech act" though a musical score may contain items that look a lot like speech acts: the tempo word Allegro for example or the instruction pizzicato. But these are not garden-variety speech acts, rather they are more like the instructions that come with your Ikea furniture: connect panel A with panel B using connectors C and screws D.

When a composer talks about a piece he has composed, perhaps giving it a program as Berlioz did his Symphonie fantastique, what status should we assign to his remarks? Take these comments by Berlioz on the first movement of his symphony:
The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions [le vague des passions], sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.
This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.
How should they be taken? Are they part of the aesthetic object? Separate from? A mere autobiographical revelation of how he thought he was inspired to write the music? Later composers like Mahler who had similar inspirations went to some lengths to bury them so that audiences could simply take the music as it was. Program note writers, of course, then proceed to dig out the supposed "programs" for the works.

For my money, I think that everything that Berlioz said about his symphony other than what is contained in the score is not part of the aesthetic object but instead relates events surrounding the creation of the aesthetic object, what the composer thinks about it, suggestions for interpretation of the aesthetic object and so on. In other words, externalities, not internalities.

I wanted to put a facsimile of the original edition of the symphony here, showing the page before page one of the score, where composers put the instrumentation and any special instructions, but that does not seem to be available on IMSLP so here is the first page of the score:


Notice there is nothing there about "sickness of spirit" or "passions" or "beloved image" or any of the other things mentioned in Berlioz' note. Nor do we hear any of those texts during the performance. So these are all externalities that are not part of the musical aesthetic object.

Let's have a listen. This is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France together with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel:


UPDATE: Ok, yes, the word "passions" appears as part of the title of the first movement: which raises the very interesting question of the ontological status vis-à-vis the aesthetic object itself of the title appended to the aesthetic object. Is it part or not? Is the designation "Symphonie fantastique" part of the Symphonie fantastique? Is "Symphony No. 98 in B flat major" part of the aesthetic object that we hear as the Symphony No. 98 in B flat major. I don't actually think so any more than the word "Cinnamon" on the spice jar is the spice itself.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Concerto Guide: Bartók, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1926)

Béla Bartók is one of the most important composers of the first half of the 20th century and, along with Liszt, one of the two most important Hungarian composers. What does "important" mean, in this context? The prevailing ideology (or "practice" if you want a neutral term) during the first half of the 20th century was modernism, which largely meant innovation in the basic materials and structures of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. Bartók is important because he wrote music that was innovative, but also that was influential on other composers and, most importantly, that resonated with audiences strongly enough that it became widely performed. All this adds up to "important".

Now for some details. Bartók was innovative and original in a number of ways. He developed new notational practices such as extending a beam over a barline to indicate a rhythmic grouping. Here the beams for the piano part extend over the barline between the 3/4 and 2/4 measures to show how the phrase should be grouped:

Example from the Piano Concerto No. 1, first movement

Another innovation was, in a context of frequent changes of meter, to write the time signatures very large and centered on each group of instruments. That looks like this:

Click to enlarge
Previously the time signature would only appear on each individual stave; showing them like this makes them much more visible for the conductor (this is only done in the score, obviously).

Bartók also used a lot of very unconventional key signatures in his Mikrokosmos for piano, but we don't see that in this piece, where there are no key signatures. The first movement begins with  low Bs in tympani and piano and ends with a big chord of E, B and F#, so not in C major!

The Wikipedia article on this piece, while giving some historical information, is not too revealing about the music itself. Without doing a lot of research to see if there is any kind of consensus on this, the first movement appears to me to be in sonata-allegro form. It is hard for anyone writing a piano concerto to completely ignore the Mozart concertos.

The piece begins, unusually enough, with the piano and tympani on a B pedal accompanying the orchestra that presents fragments of a theme. The piano then presents it more fully:


Notice the repeated note motif, the shifting time signature and the scale passages with chromatic interpolations. Later there is an important anapest motif in the winds. In this example, in dialogue with the piano, note the beams crossing over the barlines:

Click to enlarge
(An anapest, taken from prosody terminology, is a rhythmic figure with two short notes followed by a longer one.)

To end sections, Bartók uses this vamping figure instead of a conventional cadence:


This new theme appears, related to the anapest motif:


Then, in a different tempo, we have this theme, presented in the piano:


These themes are then given a development and here is a fairly typical page:

As you can see, this concerto is pretty challenging for everyone: the pianist, the orchestra and the conductor.

After this, I hear something resembling a recapitulation and then the first movement ends with an abbreviated version of that cadence figure, using the same notes.

Bartók's method seems to be to use the broad structural outlines of classical forms, but to fill them with entirely different material: much more dissonant and metrically complex. His music has an intense expressivity that is very compelling, which probably accounts for a lot of his enduring popularity.

Now let's listen to the whole piece. This is the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski:


Monday, June 29, 2015

Pilgrimage to Ojai

Joss Whedon, until he started directing super-hero epics at least, had this unique knack for turning your expectations upside down. I particularly remember one episode from Angel, an underrated series, where Angel is sent to visit a swami in Ojai, which is where you would expect to find a swami, for some therapy. Imagine his surprise when the swami opens the door and he turns out to be a burly, aggressively blue-collar, no-nonsense kind of guy with the demeanor of a retired traffic cop. He loves to put Angel through the wringer, asking him why he, a vampire, in a particularly sunny climate, drives a convertible of all things. When Angel gives a particularly implausible answer, the swami says, "pal, that car IS your problem!"

All this is a lot funnier if you know much about Ojai, a kind of rustic retreat for gurus, self-discovery and celebrities in recovery.

Every spring since 1947 a contemporary music festival has been held in Ojai, sixty-five miles northwest of Los Angeles. This year Alex Ross, of the New Yorker, attended and provided a fascinating write-up of the events. Here is a taste:
At the heart of the 2015 festival, which unfolded from June 10th to June 14th, was a solo program by [music director and percussionist Steven Schick], and its centerpiece was “Zyklus”—a magisterially ambiguous creation that combines precisely notated sections with more open-ended passages that leave considerable choice to the performer. Schick’s interpretation, which he has been honing for forty years, is a sinuous audiovisual ballet in which hard-hitting, rat-a-tat drum solos intermingle with subtle, whispery sounds, as of a tapped gong or a brushed gourd. Although Schick meticulously plans each performance, he gives the impression of engaging in intuitive action, as if no score existed and the music were all muscle memory. The distinction between idea and gesture was similarly blurry in his accounts of Xenakis’s percussion pieces “Rebonds” and “Psappha,” and it disappeared altogether in Vinko Globokar’s “?Corporel,” which calls for a semi-naked percussionist to make sounds with his or her amplified body, slapping hands against skin.
This is not the only contemporary music festival in California, Cabrillo also comes to mind, but it sounds like it might be the most interesting. There was lots to listen to:
In all, there were eighteen concerts (I saw thirteen), featuring forty-seven composers, most of them living.
Go read the whole article for the whole picture. Well, as much as possible, given Alex Ross' usual policies. What do I mean? Alex is an excellent writer and a strong advocate for contemporary music. But like all activists he is more of a booster than a critic. The contemporary world hates criticism of course as it is way too judgmental. Unless it is criticism of a Certified Oppressive Group™ of course. You know, Christians, White Males, Traditional Classical Music. So the problem with everything Alex writes is that he only writes about music that he likes to advocate, and everything he likes to advocate is automatically wonderful. So, out of those eighteen concerts, of which he saw thirteen, featuring forty-seven composers, the closest he comes to not saying every single piece by every single composer was just wonderful, was this brief passage:
Works are sometimes criticized for being too accessible; such was a not uncommon reaction to a piece performed at this year’s festival, Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops,” in which the cellist Maya Beiser spun out soothingly euphonious lines.
"Works are sometimes criticized" but not by Alex. Still notice the subtle hint that "soothingly euphonious lines" are bad--for being too accessible.

Out of forty-seven composers, I would expect that ten or fifteen would be writing interesting, compelling music, about twenty or twenty-five writing ok or pretty good music and the remaining five to ten writing bad, boring, agonizing, painful music. In Alex Ross' world, this latter group simple doesn't exist. Which is why I never really trust anything Alex says.

But, the festival still sounds like a great series of concerts, which probably vary considerably in quality and style, depending on who is the musical director (it changes every year), something else Alex doesn't talk about. So I am very, very strongly tempted to attend next year's festival. Get my ears blown back. Hopefully there won't be too much "semi-naked percussion".

Stockhausen, Zyklus, unknown percussionist:


UPDATE: One of my favorite things about Alex Ross' writing is his adroit use of what we might call the Dispensable Double Adjective/Adverb. It is this skill that has perhaps brought him so much of the acclaim he currently enjoys. There is a particularly savory example in the first quote above where he describes Stockhausen's Zyklus as "a magisterially ambiguous creation". You see, just saying it is "ambiguous" would be ordinary--heck, anyone could write that. It is more of a stretch to say it is "magisterial" because, for one thing, what does that even mean in this context? But combining them as he does: "magisterially ambiguous" is the creative brilliance that got him where he is today. Plus, half-a-point for using the word "creation" instead of composition. It is the kind of prose decoration beloved of those who also are hooked on Martha Stewart.

Some other examples from the article linked to above, so you see what I mean:

  • speaking, spluttering chorus
  • soothingly euphonious lines
  • coolly spastic “Dialogue de l’Ombre Double,”
  • sinuous audiovisual ballet
  • subtle, whispery sounds
  • free, impassioned rendition
  • helter-skelter, electronically enhanced cadenzas
  • jagged lightning streaks
  • vast, hushed creation
  • tonally refined and rhythmically vigorous accounts
  • staggeringly flexible vocal soloist
  • subdued, eerie fabric
  • darksome bitonal chords
  • incrementally shifting clouds
  • the blendings of harmonics were grand and dire
Sometimes the two elements of the device support one another, other times they contradict one another and on rare occasions, such as the last example, he reverses the order. But a lot of the time the pseudo-poetic effect comes from the fact that the two terms are simply irrelevant or incompatible with one another. And, of course, that they communicate next to nothing about the music itself!

But if you want a good-paying gig with a major media institution in the cultural field, using this kind of formula, combined with never criticizing anyone or anything, will likely spell success for you.