Thursday, December 5, 2019

Musical Form

Schoenberg writes in 1929:
I have, above all, repeatedly pointed out the purpose of all forms: a layout which guarantees comprehensibility. I have then shown what are the conditions that go with comprehensibility; how it is a question of the kind of listener one is writing for (and, in so doing, defined the difference between light and serious music...); how there is always a manifest relationship between an idea's difficulty and the way it is presented, so that an idea which is hard to grasp demands a slower and broader presentation than does one which is easy to grasp; the role played here by tempo, so that when the notes move quickly, things must unfold more slowly. How, for example, when the harmonies are hard to grasp, the tension must be lower in other directions--and other things of the same kind. Obviously one cannot formulate this kind of consideration of material without psychology, since the material is destined to affect the psyche and only comes into consideration at all through this function.
--Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea: Selected Writings, p. 316.
I'm not sure anyone else has expressed these things with the same degree of clarity.

Bartók knew something about form. Here is his Piano Concerto No. 3 with Martha Argerich:

UPDATE: While we are on Bartók piano concertos, this is a pretty interesting performance of number 3. The soloist is Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, conductor. Notice how the conductor cues the hard-working pianist as well as the orchestra. Also, they have moved the percussion from being in the back to being in front, level with the solist. Good performance.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Kronos 25: Discs 9/10

Disc 9 is devoted to the music of Alfred Schnittke, a Russian/Jewish composer born in the Soviet Union. His father was posted to Vienna and so the young composer began his education exposed to the musical traditions of Viennese classicism which influenced his later work. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory where he taught from 1962 to 1972. He is sometimes regarded as an heir to Shostakovich because of the extremes of parody and despair in his music. Like Shostakovich he tends to quote stylistic elements if not literally from historical pieces. He was plagued by ill-health much of his life. Kronos play the Second and Fourth Quartets as well as their own transcription from the Concerto for Mixed Choir. This is some of the most challenging music in the whole collection and in many ways it reminds me of the very late works of Shostakovich in its bleak intensity.

You might think of Disc 10 as the "post-colonial" disc as it contains music by Australian Peter Sculthorpe, Vietnamese P. Q. Phan and South African Kevin Volans. I know some of this music as it was on a Kronos album I bought in the 80s with music by Sculthorpe and Volans. Both composers were very influenced by the indigenous music of their countries as was Phan. On one of the pieces by Sculthorpe, he adds two didgeridoos, instruments native to the Australian aborigines, to the quartet. But for the most part the influences are in the area of rhythmic ideas.

For our envoi, here is Kronos with a movement from the Volans piece White Man Sleeps.

What I really miss from this collection is their absolutely best ever string quartet encore, their transcription of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze"

Summary? This is a pretty good cross-section of the four hundred-some works commissioned by Kronos, certainly the most adventurous and prolific string quartet active today and the model for many other young string quartets. Is there any truly great music here? There is some very good music by the usual suspects: John Adams, Arvo Pärt, Morton Feldman and Steve Reich, and there is some interesting music by most of the other composers. What was valuable to me in listening to these ten discs is to get a sort of overview of what is going on with the string quartet these days. What I didn't hear too often was structurally interesting music. There sure were a lot of interesting surface textures, though. There was nothing coming up to the level of quartets by the Viennese masters (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, but also Schoenberg, Berg and Webern), or Bartók or Shostakovich.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Kronos 25: Discs 7/8

Disc 7 consists of two pieces that are pretty central to the contemporary string quartet repertoire. The first piece is Different Trains (1988) by Steve Reich that is a kind of musical documentary using vocal fragments and melodies derived from them. The conceit of the piece is a kind of connection between the trains Steve Reich rode from New York to Los Angeles when he was a child, traveling between one parent and another, and the trains that took the Jews of Europe to the death camps like Auschwitz. The piece is for live string quartet accompanied by three pre-recorded quartets and recorded voices and train sounds. Rather a miracle of coordination. The music was written for Kronos and yes, they pretty much own it.

The second piece, Black Angels (1970) by George Crumb, was what inspired David Harrington to form Kronos to play pieces like it and as many more new pieces for quartet as they could persuade composers to write. The piece is an icon of contemporary music and is written for amplified string quartet and exotic percussion. Some of the names of the movements are evocative: "Night of the Electric Insects" and "Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura." It seems a lot more durable than a lot of other pieces from that era and in the Kronos performance, is powerful and convincing.

What unites these two composers is that they are both East Coast guys as opposed to the composer on Disc 8, Terry Riley, most certainly a West Coast guy. I could never quite figure out if I was a West Coast Canadian guy (I grew up on Vancouver Island) or an East Coast Canadian guy (I spent over a decade living in Montreal) so I resolved the problem by moving to Mexico.

Terry Riley is something of a legend in 20th century American music. After inventing minimalism in 1964 with his piece In C, he disappeared for a couple of decades. It was Kronos that lured him into composing notated music again. Disc 8 contains two complete pieces and excerpts from a third. Riley's music is a fusion of Eastern and Western elements together with ones from Native Americans. You can certainly hear the results of his study of North Indian vocal music. The first piece Cadenza on the Night Plain (1984) incorporates cadenzas for all four instruments into the suite structure. G Song, with its scalar material has just a slight resemblance to Philip Glass.

UPDATE: I forgot to say anything about the last piece on the Riley disc: this consists of excerpts from a much longer piece Salome Dances for Peace (1985-86). There are a lot of ornamented drones and one section that sounds like where Lady Gaga got her lick from Bad Romance.

Here is G Song, the first piece written for Kronos by Terry Riley.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

And a little Bach

I'm always discovering new stuff on YouTube, despite their new algorithm which seems designed to force you to listen to a weird miscellanea of pop music no matter what! I recently discovered this excellent, spare performance of the Bach B minor Mass with Van Veldhoven and the Netherlands Bach Society:

They seem to have a choir of sixteen which includes the vocal soloists. All original instruments of course, which particularly changes the brass and tympani sounds. I grew up with the Karl Richter Munich version recorded around 1970, but this performance sounds just as full despite having many fewer performers. Very fine!

Klipsch and a little Sibelius

The other day when I was burning some CDs of my music for the talk I was giving, suddenly my computer speaker system just died. Nothing, nada. So I looked around on Amazon. There are a lot of possibilities, of course. My old speakers were these modestly priced ones from Creative Labs:

I thought they were ok, better than the iMac built-in ones. But as I am something of a power-user, I decided to upgrade to the Klipsch ProMedia 2.1, about twice the price:

Big heavy box, and when I unpacked it I discovered a speaker system that would not be out of place in a component stereo system. Big sub-woofer, nice satellite speakers and when I got it set up, big, BIG sound. I was just listening to Sibelius Symphony No. 5 and with the speaker volume on about 2 it was plenty loud enough. Excellent sound. Klipsch is a well known name in speakers and these sure do the job.

I used to like to listen to Salonen's recording of the Sibelius 5 with the Verbier Festival youth orchestra, but that seems to have disappeared from YouTube. So I am moving over to this Frankfurt Radio Symphony version conducted by Hugh Wolff which is excellent. Never heard of him before, but he seems a very good and precise conductor. He has a tendency to conduct the rests between the final chords in the last movement, but apart from that...

Kronos 25: Discs 5/6

Nice diverse repertoire on Disc 5:
  • Osvaldo Golijov: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (1994)
  • Sofia Gubaidulina: Quartet No. 4 (1993)
  • Franghiz Ali-Zadeh: Mugam Sayagi (1993)
Whatever happened to poor Osvaldo? A few years back he was in high demand, but then a couple of accusations of plagiarism surfaced and he was unable to deliver some new commissions on time and then he just disappeared. The piece on this disc is a lovely example of cultural globalism: intense, wailing klezmer music written by a Jewish composer born in Argentina, educated in Israel and the US and played by some folks from California.

Gubaidulina is currently one of my favorite composers for her spiritual yet exploratory music and because she has written quite a lot for guitar. In her Quartet No. 4 she uses a number of unique techniques including ricocheting a ball off the strings. There are also two prerecorded quartet parts. The piece is in one brief, twelve minute, movement. The ricochet effect makes the strings sound like an eerie quartet of skeletal mandolins.

Ali-Zadeh is an Azerbaijani composer educated in Western Europe and currently living in Germany like Gubaidulina she has explored the folk traditions of her country and incorporated them into her musical conceptions.

The three composers are connected to three different religious traditions: Judaism, Russian Orthodox and Islam.

Disc 6 has two quartets by Henryk Górecki. They are in reverse order on the disc:

  • Quasi una Fantasia, Quartet No. 2 (1990-91)
  • Already it is Dusk, Quartet No. 1 (1988)
Górecki is of course best known for his Symphony No. 3 which in 1993 stormed not only the classical charts but also the popular ones in Europe. Both of his quartets were written for Kronos. Sometimes his music is described as "spiritual minimalism" akin to that of Arvo Pärt. The Quartet No. 2 takes its time developing short enigmatic motifs. Górecki is not only strongly influenced by folk music, he is also a devout Catholic and elements of Polish liturgical chant can also be found in his music.

How odd, in a supposed post-religious world, that all of the composers on these two discs are influenced by their religious roots and traditions.

Here is the Quartet No. 1 by Górecki in the Kronos recording (isn't it odd that you can search for the Kronos recordings on YouTube, but you can't embed them?):

Friday, November 29, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

I almost forgot to put up my Friday Miscellanea! Just too much excitement this week, I guess. First up, here is a new video from Kanye on the song "Closed on Sundays":

I wonder what effect Kanye is having on the culture? This is a pretty interesting video from that point of view. Thoughts?

* * *

Shall I rub salt into the wound by linking to this tweet from the BBC: Clara Schumann is the greatest composer of all time!

* * *

After the musicologists, historians and theorists have all had their way with George Frideric Handel, is there anything left for the accountants? Yes, apparently.
George Frideric Handel was a master musician — an internationally renowned composer, virtuoso performer, and music director of London’s Royal Academy of Music, one of Europe’s most prestigious opera houses. For musicologists, studying his life and works typically means engaging with his compositional manuscripts at The British Library, as well as the documents, letters, and newspapers that describe his interaction with royalty, relationships to others, and contemporary reaction to his music. But when I began to explore Handel’s personal accounts at the Bank of England twenty years ago, I was often asked why. For me the answer was always ‘follow the money’. Handel’s financial records provide a unique window on his career, musical environments, income, and even his health.
Read on for a discussion that is just as dull as one would expect...

* * *

I don't know if I ever said so in so many words, but I basically ended my concert soloist career by going on strike. One day I just said "enough!" A new book by a pianist informs us about the vicissitudes of a concert artist:
Before reading the book, I would have said that I had a fairly good understanding of the work that goes into the career, but I was dreaming. Here are some of the more stressful examples: In London, Hough gets a call to play Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, which he knows, but hasn’t played for a couple of years, with the Chicago Symphony, ie in Chicago – the next day. Another cancellation has him playing Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which he has only played once before with a youth orchestra (badly, he says), at the gigantic Hollywood Bowl, where the “heads of the audience in the back rows were as small as the notes on the page of my miniature score”. Again, when he is in Amsterdam to play the Grieg Concerto, a cancellation offers him the opportunity to play it with another orchestra – on the same day. He rehearses at 11 am with the first orchestra, at 12 with the second, gives performance one at 2:15, has a dress rehearsal at 6:15, performance two at 6:30. Or simply the extraordinary task of playing both the Brahms concertos on the same programme. I would find that emotionally draining even as a listener. You might say that Hough had it in his power to turn down some of these opportunities, but that is not the life of a freelance artist, where the only good excuse for turning down a gig is that you are already booked for another one.
And this is the life of someone whose career is doing really well.

* * *

 If you will forgive the pun, here is a piece beating the drum of multiculturalism in music: CULTURAL APPROPRIATION IN CLASSICAL MUSIC?
A lucid example of the Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one would be to consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow. In the concert hall, the quality of the sound becomes the preeminent value, conceptually superseding the players and the audience. In a concert hall, the audience and orchestra are kept in separate spaces, and the flow of activity is directed from the orchestra to the audience, which remains seated, silent, and motionless. The performers all wear black to hide any individuality, and concerts are typically appraised on the “ugliness” or “beauty” of their collective sound.
* * *

Over at The New Yorker, Alex Ross has a laudatory piece on the record label ECM that has put out a host of great contemporary recordings: The Pristine Empire of ECM Records.
ECM is one of the greatest labels in the history of recording. Manfred Eicher, who founded ECM and remains its sole proprietor, has forged a syncretic vision in which jazz and classical traditions intelligently intermingle. ECM’s catalogue of some sixteen hundred albums contains abrasive sounds as well as soothing ones, clouds of dissonance alongside shimmering triads. All benefit from a crisply reverberant acoustic in which an instrument’s timbre is nearly as important as the music played on it. Simply put, Eicher’s releases tend to sound better than other people’s. Some of ECM’s best disks were made in league with the Norwegian recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who died earlier this month.
The occasion for this column is a new Beethoven cycle with some interesting twists by the Danish String Quartet.

Every now and then I forget that the level of culture in, well, our culture has been declining for the last few decades. And then along comes an article that reminds me: Three quarters of young Britons have never heard of Mozart while one in five think Bach is still alive, poll reveals. And this is in the UK, which is usually presumed to be more culturally educated than North America.
Three quarters of young people in Britain have never heard of Mozart, a survey reveals.
One in five think composer Johann Bach – who died in 1750 – is still alive, fewer than one in five had heard of violin star Nicola Benedetti and only a third knew that Sir Simon Rattle, who performed at the 2012 London Olympics, is a conductor. 
By contrast, 94 per cent knew Adele was a singer. Leading composer Debbie Wiseman said she was alarmed by the findings, which revealed a widespread ignorance of classical music.
* * *

In her last column for the Washington Post, Anne Midgette reveals what she really thinks of the National Symphony:
People often say that an orchestra is a metaphor for excellence. But it’s also a metaphor for life itself: not an isolated event but an activity to be engaged in, through dry spells and misfires and, sometimes, moments that overwhelm you with their sheer magnificence. Orchestra lovers are like fans of a baseball team, who accept that it sometimes does badly and exult when it does well, and like a sportswriter, I call out the bad moments while, in my heart, always rooting for the group to do its best. In that spirit, I can say that “Zarathustra” on Thursday had some shockingly lackluster spots, like the dry, piercing flute notes on which the piece ended, and some richly beautiful ones that made me appreciate the depths of a score usually remembered only for its first 60 seconds.
* * *

 We haven't had any Richard Strauss for a while, so let's listen to Thus Spake Zarathustra. This is Jonathan Nott conducing the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra at the Proms in 2009: