Friday, December 6, 2019

What Happened to YouTube?

I use YouTube clips quite a lot here at The Music Salon. And I used to browse around on it a lot more than I do now. A few weeks ago it seemed they made a big change in the algorithm. They used to divide suggestions up into different categories or streams and there was an option to delete streams and categories. I started deleting a lot of the ones I wasn't interested in like athletics, pop music, pet videos and so on. Then, recently, all that changed. Now there are four rows of suggestions at the top that correspond to what I tend to be interested in. Then below that are gazillions of videos most of which I have no interest in. Also, they took away the delete option. I have also noticed that there is more and more a predominance of videos that have nothing going for them except their click-baity titles. The actual content is less than moronic and most of them have the same extremely irritating narrator.  YouTube seems to be on its way to being unwatchable except for your own searches.

Some examples:

I swear, I have never searched for anything or viewed anything that would lead the algorithm to think I would be interested in any of those!

YouTube used to have lots of quirky and intriguing videos by people that often had something interesting to say. But now it is turning into a version of People Magazine and the most idiotic top ten lists you can imagine. Does this follow some kind of network mass distribution rule? Every mass media ultimately becomes horrible?

Mind you, they still have stuff like this, that just popped up today:

Friday Miscellanea

The world's top two earning musicians this year are Taylor Swift, number one at $185 million and Kanye West, number two at $150 million. This has to be the golden age of music, right?

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Every now and then you can catch one of those retro tv shows out in an anachronism they are not likely to be themselves aware of. I've been watching Mindhunter lately, which is quite an interesting show. It is set in the late 1970s and as far as I can tell, there are no anachronisms in the cars, sets, fashions, etc. However in one early episode a character uses the phrase "to beg the question" in a way that shows that the show was written in the last couple of years. I am old enough to remember when people used to know the meaning of phrases like "to beg the question" and "to coin a phrase." But in the last ten or twenty years, this has all gone away and you almost never hear them used correctly. "To beg the question" refers to the logical fallacy that occurs when the premiss of the argument assumes the conclusion. But in recent years it has come to mean "to pose the question" which seems more common sense, even though wrong. Similarly, the phrase "to coin a phrase" meant to invent a new expression, but recently it has come to mean "to repeat a stereotypical sentiment." Ceteris paribus, I prefer the original meanings.

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Norman Lebrecht has a lovely tribute to conductor Mariss Jansons who just passed away this week.
If you were fortunate enough to know Mariss Jansons, you soon became aware that he was one of the kindest men alive and that he had no interest whatsoever in the business of music.
I spent a morning with him once in a deprived area of Pittsburgh, where he devoted as much respect and attention to a classroom of welfare kids as he did to the Vienna Philharmonic in their finest suits. Respect was his watchword. He treated every person as his equal.
I had a ticket to see him conduct at the Salzburg Festival last summer, but sadly, that was a concert he had to cancel and so I saw Yannick Nezét-Séguin instead.

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I found this interesting clip through Slipped Disc--a comparison of three great pianos: Steinway, Fazioli, Bösendorfer.

I have had this long-standing liking for Bösendorfer, based on a recording from long ago and I don't even remember which one! I am totally objective because I don't even play piano. Based on the first round, the Steinway sounds absolutely lovely in all registers, the Fazioli is really dry in the treble and the Bösendorfer is quite nice in the bass, but not as nice as the Steinway in the treble. Your thoughts?

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I used to think the Grawemeyer Award was the best, or at least, the least-bad, composer award because of its multiple stages. It depended on more than the votes of a few cronies. Alas, I'm not sure if this is still the case: LEI LIANG WINS 2020 GRAWEMEYER AWARD FOR CLIMATE CHANGE-INSPIRED PIECE.
Chinese-American composer Lei Liang has won the 2020 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for an orchestral work that evokes the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity it offers for redemption. Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissioned the winning piece, A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams, which premiered in 2018 in Boston’s Jordan Hall with Gil Rose conducting. 
“The world we live in today is dangerous,” explained Liang. “Our very existence is threatened by global warming, which is causing violent disruptions to the living things on our planet and being made worse by human irresponsibility. When creating the work, I wanted to convey the importance of preserving our landscapes, both physically and spiritually, to sustain a place where we and our children can belong.”
AGH! Sorry, that expostulation was solely for the well-massaged clichéed sentiments, not for the music itself, which I hope is a lot more creative. And no, our existence is not in the slightest threatened by global warming, which only exists in speculative computer models. Annual deaths in the US from falling down the stairs: 1,300. Annual deaths from global warming: 0. Ban stairs! Or, alternatively, my next piece is going to be a meditation on the danger of going down stairs.

I eagerly await your outraged comments!

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Professional violinist Joanna Maurer recently played on the film scores of both the comic book-inspired drama Joker and the holiday comedy Noelle. She did the same work, for equally prominent companies.
But the New York-based musician says she'll earn 75 per cent less for Noelle simply because it was released on Disney Plus, the new video-streaming service that launched on Nov. 14 and has already garnered more than 10 million subscribers.
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Working-class libraries and archives, the writings of autodidacts and the annals of adult education reveal a dynamic tradition of working-class access to the ancient Greeks and Romans, not only through language study but through translations and visual culture. Classical materials have been present in the identity construction and psychological experience of substantial groups of working-class Britons. Dissenting academies, Nonconformist Sunday schools and Methodist preacher-training initiatives all encouraged those who attended them to read widely in ancient history, ideas and rhetorical handbooks. Classical topics were included on the curricula of Mutual Improvement Societies, adult schools, Mechanics’ Institutes, university extension schemes, the Workers’ Educational Association, trade unions and the early Labour Colleges. These initiatives did much to counter the sluggish legislative response to workers’ demands for education: it was not until the Elementary Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 that even rudimentary instruction in literacy and numeracy, let alone access to classical culture, became universally and freely available to children under 13.
The whole article is worth reading for its detailed discussion. I came from a very lower middle class background. Both my parents never rose above Grade 8 in formal education. But I was always attracted to libraries and serious writing both fiction and non-fiction and never felt anything else other than encouragement my whole life in educational institutions. So you can imagine with what horror I regard the current attempts to ban authors because they are dead while males, to "de-colonize" literature, to ban every manifestation of Western Civilization that does not meet "woke" standards.

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For our envoi today, let's listen to some of the Lei Liang piece. It is in many separate clips on YouTube. Here are the first three (and of course, Blogger won't embed):

I don't know about you, but I listened to several of these mini-sections and it reminded me a lot of Messiaen with extra Asian influence, but with more threat and less joy.

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.

UPDATE: Sorry, I meant to write that the clip by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet is the Concerto No. 1 by Bartòk, not no. 3. Apologies!

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...