Sunday, September 21, 2014

Happy Birthday, Leonard

I usually miss people's birthdays--once I even missed my own! But I just happened to notice that today is the birthday of Leonard Cohen who turns 80 years old and to celebrate is releasing a new album.

I've posted quite a bit about him over the years; this post is a kind of summation. No more to say today except that I'm glad he is around.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

From the indispensable Norman Lebrecht comes these two posts on, yes, composers in cars, some of them fast:

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Here is a post by Alex Ross about a recent volume of the writing of Ellen Willis who had some things to say about pop music and revolution in connection with Woodstock:
What cultural revolutionaries do not seem to grasp is that, far from being a grass-roots art form that has been taken over by businessmen, rock itself comes from the commercial exploitation of blues. It is bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power. Its rebelliousness does not imply specific political content; it can be — and has been — criminal, fascistic, and coolly individualistic as well as revolutionary. It can simply be a more pleasurable way of surviving within the system, which is what the pop sensibility has always been about. Certainly that was what Woodstock was about: ignore the bad, groove on the good, hang loose, and let things happen. The truth is that there can't be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution. In the meantime, we should insist that the capitalists who produce rock concerts offer reasonable service at reasonable prices."
There are certainly grass-roots art forms, such as old-time fiddling, bluegrass and lots of different kinds of folk music. But 99% of what we hear is commercial product delivered to us through some form of mass media. The question is, can music created within a commercial context still have artistic content? That is the question that doesn't seem to be asked. The statement "bourgeois at its core" strongly implies a Marxist reading, but I rarely find those satisfactory.

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 Also found at Alex Ross' site is this clip of a piece by John Luther Adams for out-of-doors performance. I can't embed it here, so you should go there to listen. I didn't listen to all of it, but browsing through, he seems to be channeling what R. Murray Schafer was doing twenty or more years ago. And I don't mean that as a compliment. Drones, even when delivered in interesting spaces with different colors are ... boring.

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I'm of two minds about this lengthy essay by Alex in The New Yorker. It is rather too sympathetic to the thinkers in the Frankfurt school of critical theory, but it is hard to argue with this observation:
If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized. The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and wielding the economic might of tycoons. They live full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy façade, wolfing down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from V.I.P. boxes. Meanwhile, traditional bourgeois genres are kicked to the margins, their demographics undesirable, their life styles uncool, their formal intricacies ill suited to the transmission networks of the digital age. Opera, dance, poetry, and the literary novel are still called “élitist,” despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.
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Time to hear some music. Here is Spacedrum by Yuki Koshimoto performed on an odd musical instrument called a "handpan":

It is a bit like a really compact gamelan, isn't it?

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In a report from the UK, it seems that 70% of musicians work without a written contract. That was certainly my experience in Canada as well where, with the exception of orchestral musicians, no-one ever had a contract. I deeply regretted this on occasion. Once an entire tour was threatened when one of the sponsors withdrew after a verbal agreement. The business side of music really does need to be treated as a business, but too much emphasis on this makes musicians uncomfortable!

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The Guardian reports on this year's classical music awards from Gramophone magazine. Among them is:
British-based harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, for his anniversary tribute to CPE Bach. His recording of JS Bach’s second son’s Württemberg Sonatas “wonderfully convey the sense of the younger Bach flexing his muscles in the new musical language that he was involved in creating,” wrote Andrew Clements.
So let's end by listening to one of those sonatas. Here is the first one, in A minor, played by Bob van Asperen:

Thursday, September 18, 2014


I'm not getting as many posts up as I would like due to time constraints. I am planning to do a couple more on CPE Bach as he is such an interesting figure. Did you know that he wrote about five times as many concertos as he did symphonies? About twenty symphonies, but over one hundred concertos. Compare to Haydn who wrote over one hundred symphonies but just a handful of concertos. Not even Mozart wrote as many concertos as CPE Bach. I am going to discuss why that might be the case and delve into the concertos of CPE Bach which are usually more substantial and certainly much longer than his symphonies.

Here, to whet your appetite is a Concerto for Flute and Strings in D minor:

And if any readers have any suggestions for post topics, why don't you let me know in the comments?


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Symphony Guide Extended: C. P. E. Bach

Sadly Tom Service's year-long symphony guide at the Guardian has come to an end, which leaves me with the problem of what to talk about on Tuesdays! It was an excellent series, on the whole. Despite its faults (a journalistic tendency to try and manufacture controversy) it was probably the best educational series on classical music in the mass media. Wouldn't it be great if they followed it with the 50 Greatest Piano Sonatas or  String Quartets or Operas? I suppose we will just have to see. But in the meantime I would like to extend the series a bit with a few posts here augmenting Tom's choices.

Let me start with a symphony by a composer that we hardly consider: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 - 1788), the eldest son of J. S. Bach. This year is the 300th anniversary of C. P. E. Bach's birth and we are inundated with concerts and festivals dedicated to his music. Aren't we? Well, apparently not everywhere! There are festivities in the six cities where he lived and workedHamburg, Potsdam, Berlin, Frankfurt (Oder), Leipzig and Weimar.  Carl Philipp was one of the leading keyboard performers of his day and composed hundreds upon hundreds of keyboard sonatas and dozens upon dozens of keyboard concertos. His list of compositions also includes an astonishing amount of chamber music and twenty symphonies. He also wrote a couple of dozen passions, nearly all of which seem to be lost. Carl Philipp was highly regarded by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all of whom expressed their debt to his work. Charles Rosen points out that Carl Philipp showed a harmonic daring that exceeded that of even Haydn. His reputation plummeted during the 19th century with Robert Schumann in particular being unimpressed with his creativity.

Most of his music remains unrecorded, but there are three recent collections of recordings available at Amazon, one of which I have.

Carl Philipp's music takes some getting used to as it usually comprises a wide emotional palette with unpredictable changes and extremes. As an example, let's look at his Orchestral Symphony No. 1 in D major, composed in 1776. Following the Italian model, there are three movements, Allegro di molto, Largo and Presto. The slow movement is in the remote Neapolitan key of E flat major which Carl Philipp prepares by slamming on the brakes at the end of the allegro and just switching to E flat for a final phrase ending with a quiet full cadence in the new key.

The Allegro di molto begins with an unusual rhythmic gesture:

The two rhythmic layers interact in an odd sort of way. Here is that shock modulation at the end of the movement. As you can see, one moment we are outlining the IV6 chord in D major, that's G major with the B in the bass, and the next moment we are sitting on B flat, unison, fortissimo, the dominant of the new key, E flat major:

Now let's listen to the whole symphony. It is quite short, only eleven minutes in all:

Coincidentally, there is a symphony, also in D major, from the same year, 1776, by Joseph Haydn, and it might be interesting to compare them. Here is the Symphony No. 61 by Haydn:

It is in four movements as Haydn had long since added a minuet and trio to the Italian sinfonia. As you can tell from the number, Haydn had already written a lot of symphonies. His works in the genre date from the late 1750s and his first position with Count Morzin. There is quite a different rhythmic and harmonic sense in the Haydn. The rhythms are clearer and more directed and the harmonies more consistent. What is odd about the Carl Philipp is the strange juxtaposition of very extreme harmonic daring and rhythmic angularity with the occasional sequence that could have been written by Vivaldi. Carl Philipp is both very progressive harmonically in some ways, but in other ways, decades behind the times. He is writing ten minute symphonies in three movements when Haydn and Mozart were already writing symphonies twice as long in four movements. For comparison, here is one of Mozart's finest earlier symphonies, written in Salzburg in 1774. The Symphony No. 29 in A major by Mozart:

I think one of the fundamental things that we hear in both the Haydn and the Mozart is the consistent rhythmic drive that probably derives from Italian comic opera and is one of the important elements in the Classical Style. Something that Carl Philipp does not seem to have absorbed.

Still, he wrote some fascinating music. His concertos are also quite interesting. We hear more of his capricious approach in this Concerto in D minor:

C. P. E. Bach sounds to my ears like a rather odd synthesis of Antonio Vivaldi and Philip Glass!!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Townsend: Symphony No. 2, "Tres Imágenes"

I have been working on a second symphony for a while now. I was having a few problems with playback, but the folks at Finale solved them for me so now I can put up the synthesized version of the piece. This one has a title, "Tres Imágenes", in Spanish because I think it likely that the first performance will be here in Mexico.

The title of the symphony as a whole is, in English, "Three Images" and the individual movement titles are:

  1. White Bird, Blue Sky
  2. Walking in the Mountains
  3. Unbounded Vision in Blue and Grey
The titles in Spanish are in the video. The inspiration for this piece was three moments in my life when I was powerfully struck by an image of nature. The first one was here in Mexico when I looked up and saw a couple of white egrets flying overheard against a background of absolutely blue sky. It just struck me as a kind of perfection. The second experience was on Vancouver Island many years ago. I was hiking in the mountains in the north-central part of the island close to the highest mountain on the island, the Golden Hinde. I wasn't aware I was anywhere near the mountain as it was concealed by lower hills and ridges. Then, as I crested the brow of the hill and looked up, there it was. I felt suddenly projected into a much larger universe! The third experience is a synthesis of a number of separate ones. I used to live a couple of blocks from the ocean on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and it was my habit to take a walk down by the water every day or so. The view was of the seascape, the sky and mountains in the distance. The sea and sky together with the light created different colors and textures every time I saw them. The colors of blue and grey predominated.

So that was the inspiration for the symphony, three striking images of nature. All I am doing is trying to capture some of the feeling of these experiences, nothing more. No "program". As Beethoven said of his Pastoral Symphony it is "more the expression of feeling than painting".

I have chosen just a few photos for the video clip: an egret against a blue sky (but I could find no photo in which the sky was as profoundly blue as I saw it), a couple of photos of the Golden Hinde, and three photos of the sea and sky as I recall seeing them.

The instrumentation is flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tympani, large gong and strings.

I hope you enjoy the piece and I apologize for only having a synthesized version for you. It might give a sketchy idea of the music. The original video, done in iMovie, was just under 400 megabytes, which I have compressed down to 40 mg in order to post it here. 


I consider this piece finished and I'm starting work on a Symphony No. 3...

UPDATE: I don't know why the clip has a YouTube icon as this clip was never anywhere near YouTube. If you click on it, you will go to YouTube, but won't see the clip. Plus, when you come back you will have to start all over. So don't click on "YouTube". You can see it fullscreen, though. But I don't see any particular advantage as the sound will be the same and the photos a bit blurry.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What I've Learned: Ludwig van Beethoven

Classical composer, 55, Vienna

Some say that classical music is dead, but you know what? I don't think so. To me classical music is just music--the best you can do--and it will be around forever.

I guess everybody knows that I've got a hearing problem, but it hasn't slowed me down any. This year my good friend and patron, Prince Nicholas Galitzin, has asked me to write him some string quartets and I think that they will be the best thing I have ever done.

No, I never married, though I fell in love a couple of times. I came close with one young lady, a piano student of mine, but she ended up marrying a minor noble. Women, eh?

Do I take any drugs? Does coffee and Rhine wine count?

I first got famous for my piano-playing. I used to go round to the noble salons and floor everyone with my own music, with improvisations and with some preludes and fugues by old Bach. I've had the manuscript of those for years. It's not true that I used to amuse people by doing variations on "Happy Birthday", but I did do some variations on "God Save the King". I wrote some killer piano concertos too. Not as many as that brat Mozart, but mine are longer!

Because of my hearing loss I can't play the piano any more, and have to do everything in my head. But that was mostly what I was doing anyway, so I'm still going strong.

I love nature. I love taking walks in the countryside around Vienna and I even got a pretty good symphony out of it. I don't need a lot of fancy things: a decent apartment, some good food and wine, a good piano. You know that I was always pestering the piano builders to add more keys, right? My earlier sonatas don't go down as far in the bass as my later ones.

I don't have a favorite piece that I have written. Definitely not the Moonlight Sonata! God, after I wrote that I thought people would never listen to anything else! I guess I like most the piece I just finished, whatever it is. Actually, I just wrote a string quartet in E flat major that I think is pretty good and I've got ideas for a couple of others. One is going to be the Fugue to End All Fugues!

Am I happy? With my music more than my life, I guess. Like I say, I never married, though I wanted to. No kids. Bad relationship with my nephew and his horrible mother. Fought with everybody over something. Damned publishers always stealing my music! Never managed to get out of Vienna, even though I was invited. At least Papa Haydn got to go to England a couple of times.

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't have gone into some other profession than music, but I didn't have a lot of choice. After everything that Mozart did under his father's tutelage, every single musician father with children with any talent drove them into a musical career. I don't think most people should try to be musicians. The pay is poor, the hours long and the respect minimal. Don't do it unless you really feel that you live in the world of music.

Did I waste my life? I wrote some pretty good music, but if people all end up listening to Pharrell Williams instead of my string quartets, then I gotta ask myself, what was it all for?

You want to hear some music? How about that fugue I mentioned?

[This is a satire, inspired by the Esquire series, that I mentioned in my Friday Miscellanea.]

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Big news from Apple this week and they tarted up their presentation with a live performance by U2 in conjunction with the announcement that their new album "Songs of Innocence" would be given away for free on iTunes. [William Blake's lawyer will be calling in the morning.]

Now I'm a big fan of Apple products, but if they wanted to seem cooler they should have picked someone like Lorde to associate themselves with instead of, shudder, U2, who in my books were never cool.

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I don't know if we are quite ready for a sequel to Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, which was itself a sequel to Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but this surely must be a sign:
Music teachers employed by Cornwall Council have been axed and forced to become self employed as the authority struggles to make deep financial cuts.
Members of Cornwall Council’s Cabinet have confirmed that music teachers would move from being directly employed by the Council to being self employed and registered with the Council as approved to provide music tuition.
The council says that the music tuition service, one of three strands of the wider Cornwall Music Service, does not generate enough income to meet its costs, resulting in the Council being forced to provide an annual subsidy of between £200,000 and £300,000.
And I'm sure that the math classes don't generate enough income to meet their costs either! So, obviously the school district was charging their students for the music lessons, which were probably subsidized (as I think they should be) and now, they just can't find the money. Now why do I suspect that those funds are not available because of a generous pension plan for the teachers?

* * *

Well, I'm sorry I missed this when it first came out. I enjoy satires, especially regarding jazz.
What can it mean for jazz as a living art when the most hotly debated genre event of 2014 was a satirical post on a humor blog? Only Charlie Haden's death earlier that month can rival theNew Yorker's awkward July 31 unveiling of writer Django Gold's "Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words," a 480-word goof later appended with a "work of satire" tag after bewildered readers fell for the gag. A gloss on Esquire's "What I've Learned" series, the piece offered reflections alongside a mournful portrait of the saxophone colossus, all of which deflated, mocked, and undercut the usual self-help mantras. "The saxophone sounds horrible," this ersatz Sonny groused, adding that "Jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with." His conclusion: "I wasted my life."
Heh. I really should do something similar for Beethoven...

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Here is an interesting article about the virtues of a college teaching job to a creative classical musician. He covers a lot of ground in the article, so I recommend reading the whole thing. This is an interesting little snippet:
One thing I’ve noticed after thirteen years of professional work with the best contemporary classical and jazz musicians in America is that without exception, the most creative players have a thorough grounding in the classics. A handful of them got it outside of school, but almost all of them procured it during their high school and university years. Indeed, I frequently hear “new music” by young composers who have eschewed the classic studies of counterpoint, orchestration, and harmony because it’s too “conformist” or some other such response. The results are dreadful and predictable: poorly orchestrated tunes that lack coherence. Even worse is the performer who has refused to grapple with the standard repertoire and has developed their “own thing.” Sloppy tuning, bad rhythm, and lousy tone are the primary results.
I think I would probably agree with this. The underlying principle would be that if you are ignoring the canon of the greatest musical artworks in favor of whatever fashionable tidbits you have heard recently, you are certainly short-changing yourself and limiting your musical development.

As for the other issue, of how best to support your musical activities, working at a low-level job is not a good alternative to teaching at a college or university, but one he doesn't mention is working at a higher-level job, which might be. Think of Charles Ives and the insurance business.

The author makes a lot of good points, but I would just like to add that one of the problems of teaching music is, at least in my experience, that you end up spending most of your life trapped in small rooms telling indifferently talented students the same thing over and over again. I think this tends to dull your own mind and creativity.

* * *

And finally a Brief History of Hold Music, that stuff they force you to listen to while waiting for someone to talk to you. Down here the hold music tends to be synthesized versions of either a Scott Joplin rag or that G major minuet from the Anna Magdalena Bach book. One thing I like about Charles Schwab is that they don't force you to listen to music, but instead you hear market news. Generally preferable. The article mentions Handel's Water Music as being popular hold music so let's have a listen: