Monday, November 23, 2015


I confess: I am a francophile. No, this is not one of the lesser-known perversions, but rather an inclination towards French language and culture. I have lived in Québec for over a decade and spent time in France as well. At one point I was fairly fluent in French and I know how to curse in Quebécois! But my real qualifications are that I have long had an affinity for French culture which includes everything from the rationalism of René Descartes to the music of Guillaume DuFay to the gastronomy of Brillat-Savarin to the later music of Louis and François Couperin to the theatre of Molière to the novels and poetry of Victor Hugo to the still later music of Hector Berlioz to the still later poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. And wait, I haven't even mentioned the remarkably long tradition of French art and architecture. Skipping right over the Merovingian, Carolingian and Romanesque periods we might mention artists like Nicolas Poussin and Antoine Watteau and later ones like Claude Monet and--wait, was I about to forget about the sculpture of Rodin?

But enough of that! Suffice it to recognise that, apart from Italy and Germany in music, France really has an artistic and cultural tradition second to none in Europe, which also means second to none in Western Civilisation generally. I have had this underlined for me in recent months by my examination of some 20th century French composers who may well be, alongside a couple of Russians (Stravinsky and Shostakovich) the most interesting composers working during that time. I say this despite the fact that they have been, in scholarship over the last few decades, greatly overshadowed by the Genesis or Deuteronomy of Modernism, taught in countless undergraduate 20th century music history courses. "And in the beginning there was Schoenberg and he separated the light from the darkness and created serialism and saw that it was good and taught it to Berg and Webern. And they begat Boulez and Stockhausen and also of their tribe was John Cage. Other acolytes came from distant lands and were called Stravinsky and Bartók."

There is no denying the importance of these composers, of course. But for the ideology of modernism to be really successful, other composers who did not follow the rules of modernism, which included the necessity of techniques that erased and denied all prior musical traditions, had to be demeaned and exiled to the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. So people like Shostakovich in particular had to be decried as "hacks" and people like Olivier Messiaen, who really went off the rails with his Turangalîla Symphony, had to be ostracised whenever possible.

My discovery, or rather re-discovery of Messiaen as I hardly knew his music before, is being followed by my discovery of another fine 20th century French composer who has been unfairly thrust aside into an undeserved obscurity: Henri Dutilleux.

This reminds me that the traditions of French music extend from the very first polyphonic composers whose names we actually know, Léonin and Pérotin in the 12th century, right up to now. The great French composers who have worked in the last 100 years include not only the ones I just mentioned, but Claude Debussy (who really kicked off the 20th century), Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. And I haven't even mentioned popular music stars: Alizée! That's almost a thousand years of music of elegance, profundity, charm, grace and intensity. No other nation can claim as much.

This is Maurice Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte, played by the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, conductor at the London Proms, 2014:

Sunday, November 22, 2015


I had a theory professor once who told me that he put together a whole semester of lectures based on looking at what was going on in music in a particular year. The year he picked was 1951 because that was the year he was born. Well, me too. So 1951 it is.

One of the things that happened that year was the death of Arnold Schoenberg, which is why I have always wondered, if there is anything to this metempsychosis thing, if I might be the reincarnation of Mr. Schoenberg. Maybe not.

But there was a lot more happening that year, including the piece I just put up on another post, the Symphony No. 1 of Henri Dutilleux, a quite lovely piece. I'm just starting to explore the music of Dutilleux, so there will be more posts on him.

1951 was the year that Karlheinz Stockhausen started composing in his characteristic style (pieces prior to this date were more student efforts). Kreuzspiel dates from 1951.

Another piece, begun in 1951 but completed in 1952, was Structures I for two pianos by Pierre Boulez:

It was in 1951 that John Cage started writing music using chance procedures. The Music of Changes for piano, dates from that year:

1951 comes in the middle of one of the darkest phases of the life and career of Dmitri Shostakovich. Between the second denunciation of his work, in 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953, he was unable to premiere his most important works such as the Violin Concerto No. 1. In 1950, however, he was on the jury of the First International Bach Competition in Leipzig (celebrating the 200th anniversary of Bach's death) and hearing so very many preludes and fugues inspired him to write a complete set in all the keys. He finished the last one, in D minor, in February 1951:

Alas, there does not seem to be a piece from Messiaen dating from 1951. His Quatre études de rhythme come just before and the first of his pieces inspired by birdsong, just after. Here is Le merle noir from 1952:

The last work of Stravinsky's neo-classical period, The Rake's Progress, was composed in 1951:

The premiere recording of Duke Ellington's Harlem (commissioned by Toscanini!) was released in 1951:

Elliot Carter's String Quartet No. 1, the fruits of a long stay isolated in the Arizona desert, was completed in 1951:

I could go on, but I think that this certainly gives you a sense of the year (other than pop music where Perry Como, Mario Lanza and Tony Bennett--who is still recording!--reigned). Some of the information I got from this useful site: 1951 in music.

Is Composing Just a Job?

I just read this in the book thread on another blog:
I've never liked the view that sets up art with a capital 'A' and the artiste is some elevated being whose devotion to pursuing his Art places him far above the rest of us schlubs. From what we know of him, Shakespeare was just some guy trying to make a buck writing plays and managing a theater company. He was not an artiste crafting words into Art. He was writing plays to earn coin for himself and his acting company, and the more coin, the better. I really am a proponent of Larry Correia's view, also held by Isaac Asimov, that writing is an everyday job that you do, well, every day, 8 (or more) hours a day, week in, week out. The only way you get good at something is practice, practice, practice, and writing is no different than anything else.
This kind of scenario would seem to fit a number of 18th century composers such as Joseph Haydn or Mozart or any of the Bachs who wrote what was required on a daily basis. Need a symphony for the weekend, when you have some guests over? Sure, Prince Nikolaus, no problem (as Haydn may have responded to his patron). But things seem rather different for composers today who are not writing film scores. The situation today seems to have evolved into two radically different kinds of scenarios. In the one, Steven Spielberg calls you up and says he needs a score for his latest flick and you have three months to write and record it. For delivering the finished score, synched to the movie, you get paid, what? According to this link, anything from $20,000 to $800,000 (if you are John Williams and it is the latest Harry Potter movie).

But for most classical composers, it is quite different. Here is an article on the state of commissioning new works today. It doesn't have much in the way of specific numbers,  but one gets the impression that most commissions for new works are for $20,000 or less! Perhaps more if you are a very established name like John Luther Adams or Philip Glass. But even then, since Glass had to work a day job well into his forties, you have the sense that a $20,000 commission a couple of times a year might be considered by most composers to be the Big Time. Yahoo! Easy Street!

Not only that, but for this measly amount what a composer today is expected to produce is not a routine work for a standard ensemble within familiar forms or genres. Oh, no. What you are expected to produce is something Entirely New, Revolutionary, Pushing the Envelope and Revealing New Aspects of the Language of Music. Just for an example, read Alex Ross in The New Yorker on the latest piece by Thomas Adès, Totentanz.
Adès’s latest creations are anything but circumspect: they are wilder, stranger, and bolder than the intricate, insolent scores with which he first made his name, in the nineteen-nineties. The opening bars of “Totentanz” give us winds shrieking in their upper registers, hectoring brass, whistles and whipcracks from the percussion section, and a splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance. It is a sound at once grand and gaudy, majestic and mordant.
Now, to be honest, I don't know what Adès was paid for this work, surely much more than $20,000. But every composer is expected to produce music of this heightened intensity--on a shoestring budget!

I'm pretty sure this is why most parents tell their kids not to go into music, but become software entrepreneurs, venture capitalists or lobbyists in Washington. That's where the money is.

Just to add insult to injury, I read a year or so ago that the average annual income for a composer (i.e. a member of a professional composer's organization) in Britain was something like £3,689. Here is the link.

The ideal, perhaps, might be a situation like Haydn's where you had to write new music on a weekly basis, but while that allowed you some room for innovation, there wasn't the appallingly heavy weight that is on a composer's shoulders today. Re-invent music? Today? Well, ok, but can I do it incrementally over my whole career and not from scratch with every piece?

There is a kind of ideology, hanging over from modernism, that pushes composers to do something at least somewhat outrageous with every piece--almost like the obsession in pop music a couple of years ago that every artist had to come up with a new dance-move. Twerking! Gangnam Style! Naked on a Wrecking Ball! For contemporary composers lately it seems to be how many new and exotic percussion instruments can you cram into your orchestral score?

The reason why composers are pretty much forced to be Artistes these days is interwoven with the complex history of music during the 19th and 20th centuries. Occasionally we run into one that does not seem to have forgotten the virtues of beauty and restraint.

This is the Symphony No. 1 (1951) by Henri Dutilleux (1916 - 2013):

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Mystery of Adele

A friend was saying to me yesterday how impressed she was that I keep up with pop music. It's nothing much, really. I keep an eye on pop music the way that motorists keep an eye on a traffic accident as they slowly pass by in the other lane. There is a kind of horrible fascination about it.

Apart from the astonishing disaster that is Miley Cyrus' latest choice for concert garb, the big news lately seems to be the release of Adele's new album "25". What is it with these number titles? I can understand "1", but "25"? It's not her age, she is 27. Her previous albums were titled "19" and "21" so there must be an age reference. Yes, indeed:
According to the singer, the album's title is a reflection of her when she was 25 and the frame of mind she was in during that age.
Ok, but I'm not going to start titling my albums that way. Too embarrassing! I put up the clip of the first single from the album, "Hello" a while back. Frankly, it was so boring I only listened to half of it. Another go?

Yes, in the interests of objective assessment, I made it all the way through. Now obviously, this is not aimed at my demographic. According to this Wall Street Journal article, her most devoted fans are mothers between 25 and 44:
They are mostly women and they’re more likely to work in health care than any other field. They shop at Victoria’s Secret, read parenting magazines and like taking risks. Perhaps most remarkably, they still buy albums.
Ok, I get all that except the "taking risks" part--how do they know that? But she is selling to them and selling huge (from the Wikipedia article):
On November 18, Billboard reported that Columbia Records shipped 3.6 million physical copies of 25 in the United States, the largest number since NSYNC's No Strings Attached, which shipped 4.2 million units in 2000. During its first day of release 25 sold 323,000 copies in the UK, becoming the fastest selling album of the century and second fastest of all time, behind Oasis's Be Here Now, which sold 424,000 copies on its first day in 1997.
She is way ahead of most classical musicians--and me for sure!--in that she has a devoted group of fans and she knows who they are.

The music is pretty ordinary to my ear--a nice emotional ballad, but that is what her fans are looking for, so good. I find that the video is too much like a cellphone commercial to my taste, but again, that seems to suit her demographic. There are a few odd things: the lip synch when she is doing a quick vocal ornament seems shoddy and poorly matched and there is a fairly high frequency that keeps popping out and giving her voice an unpleasant edge. It's around 1864.66 hz if you are interested--a high B flat.

More interesting than the music is the visual presentation of the artist herself. One of the things that I noticed about Adele in her previous outing was that she was not built like a professional dancer, something that seems almost a requirement for divas these days. She was, rather, a bit bulky. I actually thought this was a nice contrast blunting the trend to choosing singers based on their ability to dance. At last a female pop singer that is not about to start twerking on the chorus. But the new and improved Adele is almost unrecognizable. She has cheekbones!

Here is the evolution:

I'm really not trying to pick on Adele! As a friend pointed out to me, she is doing this because she can. Who knows, maybe I should do the same. I keep saying I need to lose 10 kilos. But what we are seeing here is a highly professional, very thorough, re-imaging of a rather ordinary looking chubby girl into a sleek goddess. Still with the same voice, though.

Surely part of the appeal is the whole package here. The message is "you too can be a sleek goddess with a bit of work". The song is saying something like, "I am the kind of person who feels personal relationships deeply and am willing to admit that I have made mistakes." It's all, while melodramatic and contrived, very positive and speaks directly to her fans, many of whom might stand to lose a little weight (like myself!) and could really use those cheekbones.

I guess the only problem I have with this is that I just don't see how it fits with any of the notions I have about what music is and what it should do. This is basically pop psychology set to a nice tune and soothing piano chords and a little backbeat.

There is just no way I can see doing anything like that. Which is probably an excellent reason why my leaving the pop world for the classical world was a very good choice.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

I'm 87% sure that this is a joke: "Composer Raises $140,000 to Compose Music Specifically for Cats."
It has been announced that American composer David Teie has raised more than US $140,000, via a crowd-sourced KickStarter campaign, to create the world’s first full-length album specifically for felines.
The 60 year old composer and long time cellist with Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, has to date released two compositions for cats – with a study by the Applied Animal Behavior Science publication suggesting 77% of felines reported a favourable reaction to the works.

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I guess after that we have to hear the Cat Fugue (K. 30) by Scarlatti, so called because the beginning sounds like a cat walking on the keys.

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This starts off with a bit of the Moonlight Sonata and then turns into, yep, what could be the Greatest Bass Solo Ever:

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Time to hear jazz guitarist Pat Metheny's thoughts on classical music: "10 Questions for Jazz Legend, Pat Metheny."
2. I read an interview from several years ago where you were asked if you listened to Wagner…to which you replied there was too much modulation going on…you wished he would stay in one place. But you did say you were into the “Russian guys…Stravinsky, Prokofiev, etc…. And the French…Debussy, Ravel and Satie. What classical composers, if any, interest you these days?
I must have meant the Wagner comment as a kind of a joke - actually the more modulations the better for me! While I feel an ongoing attraction to trying to understand all the composers that you listed and many others (Berg, Webern, etc.), I don’t feel like I have ever really had the time to devote to sitting down with scores and spending the months I believe it takes to truly digest that music with the kind of seriousness that I have been compelled to invest in other forms. I keep thinking someday I will. I would love that.
But, I do need to add - as much as I love the musicians on your list there, hands down the most important composer in this general realm for me was J.S. Bach. His music has a place in my life that rivals that of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in that in addition to loving it as a fan, any time spent under the hood with it also has an instant pragmatic effect on the specifics of what I aspire  to achieve in music myself.
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Here is a very interesting article on tonal languages: languages that use pitch to alter the meaning of words: "The Linguistic Mystery of Tonal Languages."
Mandarin Chinese, with its four tones, is a typical example. Take the word ma. If you say it the way an English-speaker would say it, just reading it sitting by itself on a page, then it means “scold.” Say ma as if you were looking for your mother—ma?—and it means “rough.” If you were just whining at her—“ma-a-a?!?”—with your voice swooping down a bit and then back up even higher, that would mean, believe it or not, “horse.” And if you say ma on a high pitch, as if you were singing the first syllable of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as ma instead of “oh” for some reason, that would actually mean mother. That’s the way almost every syllable works in Chinese.
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Dude, here is some totally wild news: you don't have to spend a lot of money on weed to boost your creativity! I know, I know, I'm amazed too. Here's the piece: "I Used to Spend $1,000 a Week on Pot Because I Thought Smoking Made My Music Better. I Was Wrong." Luckily we have some of Mr. Bixler-Zavala's music on YouTube:

Sounds a bit like they spent way too much money on weed and way too little on music lessons, doesn't it?

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Alan Kozinn in the Wall Street Journal has a review of a new recording of Frank Zappa's "rock opera" (if that is what it is) 200 Motels which I happened to see him and the Mothers of Invention (with guests Eddie and Flo from the Turtles) perform in Vancouver in, I think it was 1970 or 71. The new recording is conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:
The latest addition to the Zappa classical discography, “200 Motels (The Suites),” due out on Friday from Zappa Records/UME, offers a reconfigured and generally clarifying version of Zappa’s sprawling 1971 rock opera, captured in a 2013 live performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Mr. Salonen leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a handful of rock musicians and vocalists, including the composer’s daughter Diva Zappa.
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I offer this link, pointedly, without comment: "Viral French Iman video: 'Music is a creature of the Devil' " Don't miss the comments, some of which are quite interesting.

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For today's musical envoi a magnificent "Fortuna Desperata" à 6 by Alexander Agricola (1445 or 46 - 1506):

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Music and the World

No-one is more aware than myself of the way in which music manages to be a universe all of its own, a refuge from the world. Perhaps more than any other art form, music is something we can lose ourselves into, taken on a journey to a different and strange universe. Opera offers some of the most intense experiences of this nature, but it is also true of instrumental music. Listening to a symphony by Beethoven, Mahler or Sibelius is an aesthetic journey--and some even feel it is a spiritual one.

But as soon as you start to reflect on music, its creation, history and reception, you notice that music is after all, part of the world, even if a very special corner of it. The idea of music as inspiring a kind of trance in which one journeys into an inner world is actually a concept or practice that was particularly a feature of the Romantic era. This was not how music was typically thought of in the 18th century and earlier. Composers like Stravinsky would also likely have not thought of music in this way.

A lot of musicology in recent years has been devoted to looking at things like the influences on music and the way it influences the world. The role of music in the French Revolution and its aftermath is a topic I was looking into at one time. The very complex relationship between the music of Shostakovich and the Soviet regime is a topic that has received massive attention. The way that the operas of John Adams reference recent political events has been the focus of critical attention as well.

So it seems very safe to point out that different kinds of music have different kinds of relationships with the world or, if you insist, "society". Bach's Art of Fugue has a fascinating relationship with its contrapuntal predecessors, but it is a towering masterpiece of pure music with little or no political aspects or ramifications. So if someone were to put out a paper (expected any day now) tying it to some current crusade such as income inequality or gender I would resist that with some asperity.

But other music seems to be very closely linked with institutions or events in the world. A great deal of music was written to be used in the Catholic and other churches for devotional purposes. This includes a host of masses by generation after generation of composers and hundreds of cantatas by Bach. Some music was written specifically to be social commentary such as Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" or "Wozzeck" by Alban Berg. Let me hasten to say that in both these instances and many others exactly what the content of that social commentary is may be hotly disputed!

Where music comes from and how it affects us are complex questions that some scientists are trying to answer with the use of scanners to see what the brain is doing when we make or listen to music. I'm pretty sure that they are not going to come up with any answers very quickly.

Music itself seems almost to occupy a different quantum reality than the mundane world. But musicians live in the real world and performances take place in the real world and so they are affected by events of the real world, for better or worse.

I can't believe that anything I have just said could be considered controversial in any way. These seem to me to be obvious facts and a few reasonable deductions.

That is all I want to say about this at the moment, so let's end with a musical envoi. This is a song by Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn titled "If I had a rocket launcher". Not the kind of thing one readily expects from a mild-mannered Canadian folk-singer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Manuel de Falla: Siete Canciones populares Españolas

The singer I have been working with is proposing that we perform at least some of the songs from de Falla's lovely cycle Siete Canciones populares Españolas. Last night I attended a concert with soprano and guitar, part of a guitar festival in a neighboring city here, and the Siete Canciones ended the program. Afterwards I was chatting with the director of the conservatory and the festival and commented that I just didn't think these songs work on guitar. She looked surprised and asked why. It seems pretty obvious to me. Whereas de Falla was imitating the atmosphere and rhythms of the guitar, especially flamenco guitar, the textures and chords he wrote cannot be easily accommodated on guitar. The great Catalan guitarist and scholar Emilio Pujol made a transcription for guitar long ago and there is a more recent one that I have not yet seen.

I'm not sure which transcription the guitarist was playing last night, but, despite a lot of fiddling between songs, putting on or taking off a capo, changing its location, making large changes in tuning, it was still a wan and feeble echo of the piano original. His lackluster approach to Spanish music didn't help either! Let's have a look and see what is on YouTube. Here is a live performance with Elizabeth Sterling, mezzo-soprano and Anthony Rizzotto, guitar.

She is quite good with the Spanish and is a much better singer than the one I heard last night. Mr. Rizzotto also has a much better feel for the Spanish style than the guitarist last night, but sadly is even less accurate. The very beginning of the introduction of the first song is cut off, but of what we do hear, about 15% of the notes are either missed entirely or poorly played. This is exactly what you would expect given how fiendishly difficult trying to play these songs on guitar is. I don't have either of the guitar transcriptions handy at the moment, but here is that introduction to the first song, "El Paño Moruno" in the piano original:

Yes, this actually sounds a lot like guitar music, but the basic technical differences between the piano and the guitar is what tells. The guitar would be excellent at delivering the lower voice, even augmenting it with chords if they fit under the fingers, but that second, upper voice, easily played on the piano, is what is hard on the guitar. Believe me, this is far from being one of the harder passages, but it illustrates the problem. The guitarist has to play all the notes you see with just one hand, instead of the pianists two. Imagine if you put this score in front of your pianist and said, "ok, now play all of it with just your left hand." It might be possible, but certainly not all of it and certainly not without severe strain. Which is what it is like trying to play it on guitar. Here is an even more difficult example from the second song, the "Seguidilla Murciana". Again, it sounds like guitar music, largely because of the rhythms, but these particular chords are simply impossible on guitar at a quick tempo:

Click to enlarge
Again, ask your pianist or try yourself to play it with the left hand alone--really fast! What transcribers have done is to thin out the chords to just the essential notes. Take all the D notes out of the beginning of each three note group, for example. It is still really, really hard, but not quite as impossible. But this really distorts what de Falla is doing and dilutes the "punch" of these chords. Unfortunately, at this tempo, you have to take a lot more out! Here, have a listen to that second song in the clip. It starts at around the 1:30 mark:

But what if a really professional duo were to play the songs? Say, the great Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza accompanied by Narciso Yepes, in his day probably having the greatest technique on the guitar.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention one other advantage that Yepes has, apart from his nearly unmatched technique. He plays, not a six-string guitar, which is the norm, but a 10-string guitar, which enables him to play more notes on the bass end.

Ok, yes, much, much, much better. But the chords still have to be thinned out and still don't have the kind of punch they do on piano. So let's listen to these songs performed with voice and piano. The artists are Victoria de los Ángeles (soprano) and Alicia de Larrocha (piano):

Undeniably richer, I think you would agree? Yes, it would be very desirable to have those distinctive timbres of the guitar, but so far at least, transcribing it for guitar results in the loss of a lot of harmonic richness and, unless the guitarist is an absolute master, it is going to sound clumsy and feeble.

Here is an interesting approach. This version for cello and guitar is more convincing for two reasons. First of all, as we see in the introduction to the first song, the cello can help out with those awkward to reach notes, giving us a fuller texture. Then, in the second song, the guitarist changes the texture to accommodate a more flamenco approach with rasgueado chords rather than that awkward chordal texture of the piano. I'm thinking that this is the kind of approach to take. Essentially re-compose the music for guitar. The artists are Julia Willeitner, Cello and Danilo Cabaluz, Guitar:

So now I have to decide if I want to take on the job of recomposing all of these songs for guitar...