Friday, October 19, 2018

Friday Miscellanea



we are living in.

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Here is another 9/8, divided 12 12 12 123 so you get a sort-of hemiola in every bar:


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Most of the time I am leery of those muckraking revelations that uncover the seamy side of artists, but I suppose there are times when it is appropriate. Norman Lebrecht has come into possession of a letter from Artur Schnabel, the Austrian (and Jewish) pianist, that rather clouds the image of the great German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler:
This letter, from an impeccable source with no axe to grind, is a massive iconoclasm. It shatters the long-held image of Wilhelm Furtwängler as a man who did his best for music in terrible times, and replaces it with a man in denial of his central role in the Nazi cultural myth, a willing executioner of music for the greater glory of the regime.
He had a good time in the Reich, he admits. Any pity he feels is not for Hitler’s victims but, first, for himself, and second for Germans now living under Allied occupation. Furtwängler, seen through Schnabel’s eyes, is a shoddy hypocrite who, like Germans as a whole, is unwilling to admit a scintilla of guilt for his complicity with Hitler. He is not a saviour of great art. He’s just a very slippery character.
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 At Slipped Disc we hear about a something very unfair happening at YouTube:
Like many musicians, I have a YouTube channel. I upload videos, mostly of my own playing. I would never upload something played by someone else and try to pass it for mine. Unfortunately, those kinds of people do exist, we know, but I never have, and never will.
We know that YouTube, like Facebook, has a very dumb software that “recognizes” the music played, to see if one is infringing on copyrights. We know this software is dumb because, while it recognizes the piece, it does not distinguish performances. That’s why, often, a Facebook live broadcast gets stopped, or a claim is put on a YouTube video by mistake. Usually, one appeals, and the claim is removed.
However, for three of my own videos (Mozart Sonata K332, Beethoven Emperor, and Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto) Sony Music Entertainment claims I am using other people’s performances. In other words, they claim I used commercial recordings. That is absolutely false, of course. 
Three copyright strikes means your account is terminated. It is all completely unfair, and it is crooked, too. SME is monetizing my video, saying that they own the rights to it, when they do NOT.
This is outrageous, of course, and there are lots of other examples of very unfair treatment of individuals by the tech giants. I suspect there will be legislation in the offing treating them as public utilities which is what they have become.

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I wonder if Alex Ross has been reading my blog, where I occasionally put up a post titled "The Case of ......" in which I attempt to evaluate the aesthetic value of this or that composer. His latest at The New Yorker he links to with the title "The Meyerbeer Case" though the actual article, likely titled by an editor, is The Dark Prophetic Vision of Giacomo Meyerbeer (which rather reminds me of Kanye West's album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).
The vanishing of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s once inescapable grand opera “Les Huguenots” is a mystery of musical history—almost a crime in need of solving. A panoramic tragedy of religious violence, “Huguenots” had its première at the Opéra de Paris, in 1836, and received well over a thousand performances there in the century that followed. Berlioz, Verdi, and Liszt hailed the opera as a masterpiece. Heinrich Heine, not given to fulsome praise, compared it to a “Gothic cathedral, whose slender columns and colossal dome seem to have been raised by the bold hand of a giant.” By the middle of the twentieth century, though, “Huguenots” had all but disappeared. The same fate befell the remainder of Meyerbeer’s output and dozens of other works in the grand-opera genre. Most of them are destined to remain historical curiosities, but “Huguenots” requires no special pleading. It is a juggernaut of musical-dramatic invention, and its climactic scenes, depicting the massacre of thousands of Huguenot Protestants by Catholic forces on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, can still inspire terror. A new production of “Huguenots” at the Opéra—the first in eighty-two years—has affirmed the work’s elemental power.
I often complain about Ross' quirks and biases, but this is the kind of thing he does really well and you should read the whole thing.

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Here is something quite unusual: a composer talking about how he works. Nico Muhly in the London Review of Books.
I avoid reading accounts of other composers’ ways of working. I’ve only ever been disappointed by stories of their abusive and antagonistic relationships with the people they’re close to, or, in the case of historical figures, wild speculation about their mental states or marital problems or excessive drinking. When I talk to my colleagues, I am of course happy to hear about their sex dramas and squabbles with the landlord, but what I really want is shop talk: what kinds of pencil are you using? How are you finding this particular piece of software? Do you watch the news while you work? I find these details telling.
For me, every project has three clearly defined phases: the scheming and planning; the writing of actual notes; the editing. The planning process almost entirely excludes, by design, notes and rhythms. When I was a twenty-year-old student at Juilliard, I constantly had hundreds of tiny, brilliant ideas, each lasting about five seconds, and instead of learning to use them, I’d just throw them at the wall in some order and the result would be a sparkling and disorganised mess, a free-form string of disjointed but attractive thoughts. My teacher set out to fix this problem, and taught me a method of planning I still use to this day. With every piece, no matter its forces or length, the first thing I do is to map out its itinerary, from the simplest, bird’s-eye view to more detailed questions: what are the textures and lines that form the piece’s musical economy? Does it develop linearly, or vertically? Are there moments of dense saturation – the whole orchestra playing at once – and are those offset by moments of zoomed-in simplicity: a single flute, or a single viola pitted against the timpani, yards and yards away?
This is one of those accounts that seems to be telling you a great deal while actually revealing little, isn't it?

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What better envoi than Marais' Tombeau pour Mr. de Lully?


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Brief Musings

There are several reasons that blogging has been so light recently and they include other demands on my time and the possibility that I may be running out of things to talk about. This blog has never been focussed on current events and newsworthy items so that is not something I can fall back on. Instead I have wanted to offer posts on less topical things like education and philosophy. Those posts take a lot more preparation, though, so again, the fact that I have less time cuts down on possible posting. I have two series of posts that are currently on hold that I intend to take up as soon as I have the time. These are the posts on Sofia Gubaidulina and Leo Brouwer. Both of those series require quite a bit of research.

Another reason that is keeping me from posting is that I am working on what I hope is a fairly significant piece and there is an upcoming deadline. I am scheduled to supervise the recording of the piece and another one written a few years ago in Toronto in early December with highly professional players and engineers. While I am working on the piece I am strongly inclined not to talk about it! I think this is pretty common with creative work. You never want to talk about what you are doing while you are doing it. I'm not sure why this is, but creation seems to involve turning your attention in a certain direction or opening your perceptions in a certain way and talking about it tends to interfere in some way. In any case, after the project is completed, I am sure I will have lots to say.

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I have been reading a book recommended by a commentator, The Hall of Uselessness, a collection of essays by Simon Leys, the nom de plume of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian-Australian essayist and critic with a particular interest in China.


Not available on Kindle, unfortunately, you will have to order a print copy. But the book is well-worth reading, I think. I realized something about my own aesthetic makeup from the essay "Poetry and Painting: Aspects of Chinese Classical Aesthetics." When I was quite young, just out of high school and before I went to university, I made two aesthetic discoveries. The first was musical in the person of J. S. Bach (and other classical composers, but Bach was the main one) and the second was of Asian art in the form of ukiyo-e, Japanese woodcuts. From there I discovered the arts of Japan and China more generally which over the years included Chinese poetry and painting, haiku, Zen Buddhism, Japanese, Chinese and Javanese music and so on. Here is a passage from the essay that resonates:
Probably the best way to examine this theme of "communion with the universe" in Chinese art is still to study the central role played by the concept of qi in the aesthetic theories.
Qi is sometimes translated as "spirit," which could be misleading unless one remains aware that the Chinese have a materialistic notion of spirit and a spiritualistic notion of matter. Far from being antithetical, the two elements indissolubly permeate each other. A good example of this conception can be found, for instance, in the well-known "Hymn of the Righteous Qi," written in the thirteenth century by Wen Tianxiang... Whereas a Western mind would wish to distinguish between different realms, for the Chinese classical mentality, one single concept of qi can simultaneously cover physiological realities and abstract principles, material elements and spiritual forces...
The literal meaning of qi is "breath" or "energy"... In a broader and deeper sense, it describes the vital impulse, the inner dynamism of cosmic creation. For an artist, the most important task is to collect this energy within the macrocosmos that surrounds him, and to inject it into the microcosmos of his own work.
Without realizing it, this is exactly what I have always tried to do in my compositions, directly or indirectly. Whereas in Western aesthetics, art is essentially an illusion that seeks to imitate Nature, in China:
 ...for a Chinese painter, the measure of success was not determined by his ability to fake reality but by his capacity to summon reality... The relation between the painted landscape and the natural landscape is not based on imitation or representation; painting is not a symbol of the world, but proof of its actual presence.
Occasionally Western artists have had the same preception:
Picasso put it more concisely, but no less explicitly: "The question is not to imitate nature, but to work like it."
How does this work, practically?
A painter should aim to turn his painting into a sort of energy field where forms constitute as many poles between which tensions are created; these tensions--invisible, yet active--ensure the unity and vital dynamism of the composition.
Negative space is an important component:
Earlier, we pointed out that in Chinese philosophy the Absolute only manifests itself "in hollow": only its absence can be circumscribed... Not only can the message reach its destination without having to be fully spelled out, but it is precisely because it is not fully spelled out that it can reach its destination. In this sense, the "blanks" in painting, the silences in poetry and music are active elements that bring a work to life.
The poet Tao Yuanming (372 - 427) used to carry everywhere with him a zither without strings, on which he played mute music: "I only seek the meaning that lies at the heart of the zither. Why strain myself to produce sounds on the strings?"
The case of John Cage's 4'33 will come immediately to mind. Cage was deeply influenced by Chinese and Japanese aesthetic concepts. I recommend reading all of Leys' essay. My quotes are from pages 342 through 349.

I spent my formative years largely on Vancouver Island where I first encountered the art and aesthetics of China and Japan. Apart from ukiyo-e, another important influence in those years was A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-Tsit Chan. I lost the book years ago but recently replaced it. I was delighted that it was still in print.


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Like John Cage, I grew up on the Pacific coast of North America, where the influence of Asia is the strongest. An old friend of mine, composer Anthony Genge, is also from the Pacific coast, Vancouver, and is also very influenced by that aesthetic. His two composition teachers were Morton Feldman and Toru Takemitsu. Feldman is probably the most "eastern" aesthetically, after Cage, of that whole group of composers who worked in New York. The influence of Chinese and Japanese aesthetics is so deep that I am usually quite unaware of it, but a couple of years ago a violinist that I play with quite regularly pointed out that my music has an Asian feel. She is Chinese-American and lives in California. Someone else might not have noticed.

So there you have it, a long post about why I haven't been doing long posts recently. The perfect envoi to this is a piece by Anthony Genge that has been a significant influence on my music. The piece is Night Rain, for flute and guitar. The performers are myself, guitar, and Richard Volet, alto flute.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

Two Thomases

This post has nothing directly about music, but my mandate, "classical music, popular culture, philosophy and anything else that catches my fancy..." is pretty broad. I'm titling it "Two Thomases" because both names came up in a dinner party last night. There was an old British tv comedy called "The Two Ronnies."

The first Thomas is Thomas Sowell who recently retired after a long career as an economist, writer and educator. The photo accompanying the Wikipedia article is very, very old, so:


He has a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago, which means he is loosely in the "Chicago School of Economics" as opposed to being a Keynesian or, you know, a socialist. He is eighty-eight years old and just recently retired, though he is still a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has written a host of books of which perhaps the most generally useful is his Basic Economics, which is as clear-headed and sensible discussion as one could hope to find. In the new edition of the work, there are some new chapters one of which talks about why there are such great economic inequalities in the world:
Any study of international economic activities inevitably encounters the fact of vast differences among nations in their incomes and wealth. In the early nineteenth century, for example, there were four Balkan countries where the average income per capita was only one-fourth that in the industrialized countries of Western Europe.{ 847} Two centuries later, there were still economic differences of a similar magnitude between the countries of Western Europe and various countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Albania, Moldova, Ukraine and Kosovo were each less than one-fourth of the per capita GDP of Holland, Switzerland, or Denmark— and less than one-fifth of the per capita GDP of Norway.{ 848} Similar disparities are common in Asia, where the per capita GDP of China is less than one-fourth that of Japan,{ 849} while that of India is barely more than ten percent of the per capita GDP of Japan. The per capita GDP of sub-Saharan Africa is less than ten percent of the per capita GDP of the nations of the Euro zone.{ 850} Many find such disparities both puzzling and troubling, especially when contemplating the fate of people born in such dire poverty that their chances of a fulfilling life seem very remote. Among the many explanations that have been offered for this painful situation, there are some that are more emotionally satisfying or politically popular than others. But a more fundamental question might be: Was there ever any realistic chance that the nations of the world would have had similar prospects of economic development? Innumerable factors go into economic development. For all the possible combinations and permutations of these factors to work out in such a way as to produce even approximately equal results for all countries around the world would be a staggering coincidence. We can, however, examine some of these factors, in order to get some insight into some of the causes of these differences. 
Sowell, Thomas. Basic Economics (pp. 527-528). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
The book has no graphs and no highly technical discussion, just a good introduction to economics from a common sense viewpoint. Sowell has written a lot of other books on cultural and social issues as well so you might have a look around.

The other Thomas is an utterly different kind of person. Thomas Merton I became acquainted with a few decades ago, partly through the influence of a religious friend of mine.


I got the idea for writing this post because I was surprised to find that no-one at my dinner party had ever heard of Thomas Merton--and they were all, to some extent, religious people. If you read the Wikipedia article, as you should, you will find that Merton was one of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century. In 1948 he published a memoir of his path to the faith, The Seven Storey Mountain. I found it a fascinating read, though it that was long ago and I should probably re-read it. Merton spent most of his life as a Trappist monk whose vocation was, basically, to write books. Ones that I read and found interesting include The Wisdom of the Desert in which he delves into the Christian desert fathers of the 4th century and finds some interesting parallels with Zen masters!

I hope you take a bit of time and look into either or both of this writers as they are likely both worth the effort.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Wikipedia seems to have articles on every subject imaginable: List of entertainers who died during a performance. Of particular interest to us are Louis Vierne, a French organist and composer, who died while performing his 1750th organ recital on June 2, 1937, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris; concert pianist Simon Barere who died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Carnegie Hall while playing Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor. Lots of others, but skipping a few we might mention opera singer Richard Versalle who died on stage at the Metropolitan Opera during the company's première performance of The Makropulos Case when he suffered a heart attack while standing on a sliding ladder attached to a file cabinet. He was stricken after singing the line, "Too bad you can live only so long." Ok, that was a bit macabre!

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Here is a luthier who is building violins according to the fine old traditions of the Cremona masters of the 17th and 18th centuries, and yes, he lives in Cremona.
As Lucas talks on excitedly, I learn that different violin makers have very different opinions on the amount of arching the should give to a particular violin body. Factories have violin bodies coming off the machines at a tremendous rate, each one with exactly the same degree of arching, but if that is the only measurement they take, Lucas asserts that only one in a thousand violins they make will sound good because every piece of wood is of different density. As a trained chemical engineer as well as a luthier, Lucas measures their density before calculating the correct degree of arching for each body. He  explains that arching has always been very important – from the time of Amati whose violins were crafted to create a beautiful round, warm sound that didn't project hugely (with archings up to 20mm at their higher point). Nowadays some makers opt for a relatively low level of arching (up to 14 mm on the back) to gain some power on their violins, but this loses some richness.
The whole article is fascinating, so go read the whole thing.

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Here is a well-written account of music in Mexico from the perspective of an orchestral player:
We played a variety of war-horses and obscure music, all of it good – a breadth that I would never span again in my career. Bruckner Masses and symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites, Beethoven rarities like Ruins of Athens, anything by Turina or Albeniz, and works by Debussy that I never heard again. Early forgotten symphonies of Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland’s less than greatest hits. Anything by Strauss, either Richard or uncle Johann. Soloists would get edged out by muscular programing, such as an evening of Sibelius’s 2nd and Shostakovich’s 5th followed by Wagner’s Rienzi Overture as an encore. We even recorded all of Verdi’s and Rossini’s overtures, offering me an education in just how many of those gems there are. Our audiences ate it all up. And Mexico has its own classical music canon revolving around Revueltas and Chavez, the beauty of which should not be lost on artistic planners.
We reached the greatest number of people with our outdoor concerts – many thousands in one fell swoop. I remember vividly playing in a town zócalo and seeing the Indian women with babies wrapped about them quietly contemplating Beethoven’s 7th. During another concert in a distant village one Sunday after Mass, a mysterious, mustachioed man rode into the dusty church on his horse to figure out what was going on with Tchaikovsky’s 4th. The locals were drawn to classical music for what it most simply is: a spectacle of magnificence.
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The Art Newspaper has an article on the problem of value in art: The all-powerful market is sounding the death knell for connoisseurship.
For centuries, the dominant narrative of art history was written to affirm the supremacy of European artistic achievements, produced almost exclusively by white men. After the Second World War the centre of the art world moved to the US, specifically, to New York. The narrative, accordingly, was adapted to position New York as heir to a Modernist legacy that had originated in Paris.
Cultural hegemony followed global political hegemony.
Even as the Modernist narrative was being written, however, some art historians recognised that it was inaccurate, too focused on France, at the expense of countries such as Austria, Germany, Russia and Italy, which had been sidelined by 20th-century events.
Many artists were left out entirely: women, socioeconomic outliers, outside the Western orbit and anyone non-white. Art historians are today making valiant efforts to correct these mistakes, a goal most effectively achieved through monographs or in-depth studies into the previously overlooked.
While this correction is laudable, it unfortunately often seems to go hand-in-hand with a suspension of critical judgment.
In the past few decades, academia has largely abandoned traditional connoisseurship because it was too often tied to “great man” narratives.
Over the same period professional art criticism has been eclipsed by a journalistic preoccupation with glamour, scandal and money.
While the art world was never entirely free from market forces, these are now essentially the sole determinant of value. People need narratives to make sense of culture and collectors require a mechanism to assess quality.
By default, today’s dominant narratives are being written by dealers and auctioneers.
That is a nicely concise statement of a problem we have discussed here at length. My response, as usual, is that this is what happens when you eliminate aesthetics and aesthetic judgement. A few quibbles: the so-called "dominant narrative" of art history was not so much written to affirm the superiority of white men as it was to acknowledge the source and nature of aesthetic quality. Turning it into a zero-sum game turning on race and gender was the contribution of the cultural Marxists of our time. If we plug in some specifics, I think this becomes clear. Does a history of Baroque music, for example, spend a lot of time on Bach, Vivaldi and Rameau because they were white men? Or because they wrote the most powerful and expressive music of the time? So as soon as that assumption is revealed for the falsehood that it is, the rest rather falls apart.

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A former prominent neurological researcher at Yale and New York universities will not face prison for stealing research funds, but a judge said he must play piano for indigent elderly people in Connecticut to make amends.
The unusual sentence for Alexander Neumeister was handed out Wednesday by the US district judge Analisa Torres.
Neumeister must play the piano an hour at least twice weekly for the next few months at group facilities in Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury, the Manhattan judge said. Torres said she saw in pre-sentencing materials that Neumeister was a trained pianist.
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Slipped Disc has a nifty new design and an item on mis-treatment of a cello at Manchester airport:
 Was treated absolutely horrifically yesterday at Manchester airport. After being asked to open my cello case, a man in a foul mood working at security came along without warning and thumped my cello brutally on the body of the instrument for absolutely no reason, other than that he thought there was liquid inside the cello??? It wasn’t just a gentle knock (which is also unacceptable) but a proper thump. This man was an obnoxious pig who I had noticed before my turn, treating an elderly elderly couple really nastily, shouting at them aggressively to open their bags up for inspection. After he did this to the cello I was instantly enraged and screamed at him for about 5 minutes (This is not normal behaviour from me so shows how terrible the situation was!!!!!!!) . Everyone around us was staring in our direction. He never once apologised. His manager finally came along and apologised on his behalf.
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And finally, from The Guardian, a review of two new releases, a new double album from one of my favorites, Igor Levit and a new album from another of my favorites, Hilary Hahn, completing her recording of the Bach music for solo violin:
Levit’s choices touch upon the spiritual, but the music is always mixed with the secular: the solemn ritual of the Good Friday Music from Wagner’s Parsifal, reimagined for piano by Liszt and rendered transcendental by Levit’s calm, spacious playing; Bach’s church melodies wrangled by the composer Busoni into a sorrowful Fantasia, a memorial to his father.
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Let's have a double envoi today. First, from the new album, here is Igor Levit playing an excerpt from "Peace Piece" by Bill Evans.


And here is Hilary Hahn with the Presto from the First Violin Sonata--all of it!



Friday, October 5, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

This has been known for decades, but since Paul McCartney revealed in a 60 Minutes interview that he doesn't read or write music, the media are treating it as a big revelation. I've always been a bit puzzled by this because, frankly, it isn't that hard. I taught myself to read and write music when I wanted to include orchestral instrument parts in some songs I was writing back when I was eighteen years old. Oddly enough, one of my inspirations was, yep, songs by the Beatles. Their producer, George Martin, a trained musician, was able to provide them with notation skills when necessary. But I have often wondered what the block was. Psychological? Cultural?

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The New York Times, oddly enough, has a piece containing a critique of the trend in the arts to become a "battleground of social justice."
The real-world and social-media combat we’ve been in for the past two years over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and bemoan (or endorse!) how it’s being run — have now shown up in our beefs over culture, not so much over the actual works themselves but over the laws governing that culture and the discussion around it, which artists can make what art, who can speak. We’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.
We have language that helps do the sorting. A person who insults, harasses or much, much worse is “problematic,” and certain “problematic” people, and their work, gets “canceled.” Recent cancellations include Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Roseanne Barr, Kanye West, Ian Buruma’s stewardship of The New York Review of Books, Matt Lauer, Woody Allen, Netflix’s flagrant high school satire “Insatiable” (but only figuratively since it has been renewed for a second season), the YouTube star Logan Paul, the Nation’s poetry section. People you love but who’ve misstepped are “problematic faves” — Scarlett Johansson, Dave Chappelle, Cardi B, Justin Timberlake, M.I.A. — and you don’t outright cancel so much as temporarily block them until they get their acts together. The people who know who’s who, what’s what and when’s when are “woke.” They tend not to be black, because black people are born woke; the trick for them is to stay that way.
The nomenclature is supposed to make the moral sorting expedient. The “hot or not” lists of yore have, more direly, become “O.K./Not O.K.” Individuals are not necessarily permitted a say in the cancellation — or, for that matter, in the coronation — of artists or their work. A temperature is taken and you’re advised to dress accordingly. What’s bad for some people is deemed bad for everybody, and some compliance is in order, lest you wind up problematic, too.
That leads to something farcical like the Grammys’ rumored prophylactic shunning of the popular white musician Ed Sheeran from the three biggest award categories, lest he triumph over Kendrick Lamar or Childish Gambino and cause a firestorm of upset.
I think that this is the inevitable result if you prohibit aesthetic evaluation. Without that the only way to judge art is by whether it entertains you or not, or whether it fulfills some social purpose. Art that merely entertains tends to be, well, entertainment, so that leaves social justice.

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 While we are in New York we can drop in on Alex Ross' piece on the opening of the season at the Met and the New York Philharmonic:
What made this “Aida” indelible, however, was Anita Rachvelishvili’s magisterially hell-raising performance as Amneris. The young Georgian mezzo-soprano, noted for her Carmen, has a huge, piercing voice, and she isn’t afraid to sacrifice purity of technique for the sake of intensity of expression. Not all the sounds she made were beautiful, but all had dramatic point. A sign of her charisma is that during the final tableau, as Aida and Radamès are expiring in the tomb, Amneris continues to transfix the attention: even when she isn’t singing, she dominates the stage. The Met should let her do whatever she wants: artists of this calibre are the reason opera exists.
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Ross was reasonably positive about the New York Phillies and their new conductor, but David Gelernter had a different opinion:
For years, the maniacal self-absorption of Music Director Alan Gilbert allowed the New York Philharmonic to deteriorate into a sloppy shambles and become the worst of the world’s best orchestras. This season, there is a new music director, Dutch conductor and violinist Jaap van Zweden. Van Zweden gave his opening subscription series this weekend, and the transformation was obvious: Under his baton, the orchestra is no longer sloppy. Now it is merely unmusical.
I like it when reviewers just go ahead and tell us what they think! You should go back and read Ross' comment on the premiere of the piece by Ashley Fure then compare to Gelernter's take:
The concert opened with the debut of Filament, a new work by contemporary composer Ashley Fure that sounded like a parody of late 60s experimental music. The orchestra was supplemented by three soloists in casual hipster attire on spotlit pedestals: a trumpet, a bass, and — out in the aisle — a bassoon. These were in turn supplemented by fifteen “moving voices,” singers who prowled around the audience with black plastic megaphones that resembled witches’ hats. The piece lasted 14 minutes:  roughly ten minutes of demonic possession followed by four minutes of a traffic accident in the Holland Tunnel.
Sounds, uh, exciting? He continues:
The composer’s stated goals included “to democratize proximity” and “to activate a theater for the social.” I feel compelled to note that, once the singers had finished hissing into their megaphones like a suite of deflating tires and van Zweden had turned slowly and balletically to stare at the audience as the lights were gradually dimmed to black, we were not left feeling that our proximities had been particularly democratized.
Now that's my kind of review. Not to say that I would share his opinion, I just like that he had an opinion.

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A short miscellanea today, so let's have a double-barreled envoi. For something a bit different here is Yuja Wang playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms with the Munich Philharmonic conducted by Velery Gergiev. There are two encores. Also on the program Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Glinka.


And another composer I don't talk about a lot, Mendelssohn. This is his Symphony No. 4 "Italian" with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra (who have an excellent series of videos online) conducted by Paavo Järvi.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Music of Leo Brouwer, part 2

One of the reasons I wanted to do some posts on Brouwer was that I have been re-learning the Elogio de la Danza, a really impressive piece, and, while in Montreal, I picked up a nice collection of his solo pieces from Max Eschig:


It is good value because for less than what just the Estudios sell for in individual volumes you get all twenty of them, plus the solo music published by Eschig (Aires and Temas populares cubanos, Piezas sin titulo 1-3, Danza del Altiplano, Preludio, Fuga plus Parabola and Tarantos and his cadenzas). Today I want to talk about the four books of studies.

Brouwer has composed twenty studies for guitar, titled Estudios Sencillos, in four books, five studies in each. I have found them invaluable for teaching and used them for decades in my private teaching. They are not only extremely good for teaching technique, what makes them particularly useful is that they are very good for teaching musical values as well. Estudio I for example is not only good for RH thumb independence, it is also an excellent study in learning to phrase and control dynamics. The second study, a chorale, is very good for LH finger independence and balancing chords. No. 3 is a good prep for tremolo and, again, dynamics. No. 4 uses changing time signatures and, again is good for phrasing. No. 5 is good for arpeggios and syncopated rhythms. No. 6 is an excellent arpeggio study. No. 7 is a study in slurs and in counting rests. No. 8 introduces counterpoint so the student has to learn how to phrase and balance two melodies simultaneously. No. 9 is a challenging study for slurs, LH finger independence and syncopations. No. 10 is a study in syncopation, LH finger independence and slurs. These ten studies were published in 1972. They are invaluable in teaching because they can be played by students early on. Until I discovered these and some other pieces by Bryan Lester, I despaired of finding good material for beginners other than those dreary studies by Aguado, Sor and Giuliani. Nothing against them, of course, but musically they are, except for a few by Sor, rather uninspiring.

In 1983, Eschig published ten new studies in two books. The first few are roughly at the same technical level as the first ten, perhaps a bit more challenging. As we move on, however, they become more difficult. The first five are essentially just developments of the ideas in books I and II: arpeggios with fixed fingers, legato treatment of chords, slurs (but now double slurs with fixed fingers) LH finger independence and so on. Estudio XVI introduces some new problems. Sub-titled, "para los ornamentos" this study is in Baroque style and has a lot of very intricate melodic and harmonic ornaments written out. The technical challenge involves both arpeggios and slurs that have to be executed with rhythmic precision and clarity:

Click to enlarge
Nos. XVII and XVIII are also for ornaments involving tricky grace notes and slurs. No. XIX is for chords with slurs while two fingers are fixed and slurs with bar chords. No. XX is a variation on that with repeated arpeggios. It shows the influence of the "minimalism" of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

I am going to talk about Parabola and Tarantos next time. Written in the mid-70s, they come at the end of what we might call Brouwer's avant-garde phase. Sometime around 1980 I think he underwent an aesthetic crisis or transition and I think that we see some of this in the second group of ten studies. He develops a keen interest in both Baroque music--he recorded a whole album of Scarlatti sonatas and later published the transcriptions--and in the return to pulse and tonality of the American minimalists. I attended a guitar festival in Toronto in the early 80s that Leo was also at and he along with Stephen Dodgson and Gilbert Biberian gave a discussion session on composition that I was at. I asked the three of them the question why they had all returned to composing tonal music (the question was mostly directed at Leo because of his recently published El Decameron Negro)? I will get into that more next time!

Now let's listen to the Brouwer studies. The guitarist is Ricardo Cobo:

There is an even newer set of studies by Brouwer published by Chester Music that I have not looked at.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Music of Leo Brouwer, part 1

Leo Brouwer (1939 - )
The Cuban composer Leo Brouwer is one of the most significant composers for the classical guitar. He became widely known, among guitarists at least, in the early 1970s and I picked up the scores to several of his pieces not too long after they were published. He started composing in his teens and studied with Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe in the US and later with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany. While in Europe he became familiar with the music of Hans Werner Henze, Luigi Nono and Iannis Xenakis. He also studied the performance practice of early music with harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. Some of this is in the Wikipedia article, other information is from my personal knowledge.

Brouwer is a complex figure. On the one hand he is anything but an aesthetic ideologue. His music draws from the structures and ideas of modernism and the avant-garde, but also from Cuban and African folk music. He has created purely electronic music and at the same time done very lush settings of traditional lullabies. He has written film music, such as the soundtrack to the movie Like Water for Chocolate, and also beautiful and instructive technical studies for guitar. He has made a career as a solo performer (one outstanding example is his brilliant recording of Scarlatti sonatas in his own transcriptions) sadly cut short by an injury to his right hand index finger, and as a composer. He has written several concertos for guitar and orchestra that have had numerous and continuing performances. For a while he was the music director of the symphony orchestra of Córdoba, Spain. A recent edition of his music describes him as
Composer, guitarist, conductor, researcher, teacher and cultural promoter, Leo Brouwer is a central personality in Cuban musical life ... His guitar output is an example of cultural mixing, fusing elements borrowed from Cuban traditional and nationalist music, from Afro-Cubanism and from the music of the European avant-garde in an individual style in which the sensual and the structural, the archaic and the scholarly, achieve a fascinating balance.
On the other hand, he is a member of the Communist Party of Cuba, one of their subsidized artists, and for many years was head of their institute for film music in which role he composed music for what were essentially propaganda films.

I have met Leo Brouwer on several occasions. The first was a master class and concert in Montreal at McGill University in the late 1970s that I helped to arrange. I think I played his Elogio de la Danza for him on that occasion. A few years later I met him again in Toronto where he gave another master class and I think I might have played Memorias por El Cimmarón for him then. Then I met him again in Quebec City in the 90s at a guitar festival when he was kind enough to compliment me on my recording of his El Decameron Negro. I gave a talk on his Concerto No. 3, Elegiaco on that occasion.

I think we can discern three stages in his compositional output and they can be represented, somewhat accurately, by his three main publishers. His early music, from the late 1950s to 1980, was published partly by Schott and partly by Max Eschig. The earliest of these pieces include arrangements of popular Cuban airs and pieces related to dance rhythms such as the Danza Caracteristica of 1957. Let's have a listen. The guitarist is John Williams.


Another lovely piece from this period is his setting of Canción de cuna by Emilio Genet. The guitarist is Leo Brouwer and the clip is given the title Drume negrita, the name of the original tune (the music is published under the title Canción de cuna however). There are lots of ornaments in this performance that you won't find in the published music!


The influence of European modernism, Bartók in particular, starts to be heard in his Tres Apuntes (Three Sketches) from 1959. All of his music is now published by Schott. The guitarist is Cristina Azuma:


But the real breakthrough came with Elogio de la Danza in two brief movements of 1964. Here is the cover of the score I purchased in Spain in 1974 (it was published in 1972):


Getting a bit beat up by this point. But I treasure it because it contains a couple of pencil marks Leo made on the score when I played it for him, emphasizing that a rasgueado needs to be more accented. I recorded this piece for the CBC in 1975, but I don't have a copy any more so let's listen to this performance by Pepe Romero. He doesn't get the dynamics quite right, but everything else is great.


I'm just re-learning Elogio after not playing it for decades and I am so impressed by how brilliantly it transfers the harmonic and rhythmic idiom of Stravinsky to the guitar and adds all the rich timbral resources the guitar is capable of. Brouwer has remarked the the piece is a tribute to the "ballets russes" of Stravinsky.

In 1968 he wrote another modernist masterpiece, Canticum, also in two movements. This sounds less like Bartók or Stravinsky and more like Stockhausen or Ligeti. Some innovations are the more extensive use of timbre as a structural device and the scordatura of the 6th string to E flat for the second movement. The guitarist is Artyom Dervoed:


And finally, for this post at least, the piece that to me is the best of Brouwer's avant-garde pieces, La Espiral Eterna of 1971. Here he uses a number of guitaristic devices, such as arpeggios with pull-offs, hammer-ons, sliding on the string winding and Bartók pizzicati along with some aleatory elements to create a masterpiece of 20th century music. The effect in places is that of tape loops. Luckily we have Leo's own recording:


I am going to continue with a couple more posts on Leo Brouwer.