Thursday, October 30, 2014

Heavy Halloween Classical

Over at the Guardian Tom Service has a special piece up suitable for Halloween: "10 of the best: metal meets classical". It is suitable for Halloween because these versions are musical monstrosities! Go have a look and then come back as I have a few comments.

The article begins with one of those journalistic slights of hand that we have learned to watch out for:
It is, of course, one of the most honourable cross-connections in contemporary musical culture, the virtuosity and emotional extremity that bind classical and metal together.
"Honourable"? Arrangements of classical pieces performed by heavy metal musicians certainly boldface the virtuosity and emotional extremity at the cost of undermining every other quality such as rhythmic subtlety, phrasing, dynamic shading and beauty of tone color. Heavy metal is, like most pop music, one dimensional. It is a narrow genre and the raucous tone color, "Cookie Monster" vocals and pounding percussion keep the emotional expression to that narrow palette. Classical music, like a round peg shoved into a square hole, does not come off unscathed. That being said, some pieces suffer less than others!

Schubert's lied Der Erlkönig is certainly an imaginative choice, but the singing makes it very uncomfortable to listen to. The eeriness of the original is completely effaced in this version.

Night on a Bare Mountain I couldn't really listen to, but The Hut of the Baba Yaga came off better than expected. The Mussorgsky original has a bit of heavy metal in its DNA.

Dr. Voissy doing the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata is pretty impressive. More than that, actually: his ability to get all that onto the guitar seems uncanny. No, wait, more than uncanny: impossible. That's when you realize, listening closely, that he has at least one other guitar, usually playing accompanying chords, pre-recorded. Aha!

The duel between the classical guitarist and the electric guitarist over the Paganini Caprice No. 24 was just as dreary as you might expect. Mind you, many purely classical performances like that of Eliot Fisk are equally unlistenable. Why? I think the obsessive quality of the theme, plus performances that bring out nothing but velocity is the answer. If you want to watch a pretty good duel between electric and classical, have a look at the film Crossroads, but they use music by Mozart, a far better composer than Paganini!

I guess if you want to hear Vivaldi with a really ugly tone then Children of Bodom is just the thing...

Pergamum deliver a suite of all the most cliched classical themes performed in the most cliched heavy metal fashion. It is a kind of unpleasant perfection, I suppose.

I thought I could listen to Heavenly carpet bomb Beethoven, but I really couldn't.

The Yngwie Malmsteen piece is rather a different category. This is an original composition, a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra that relies on heavy metal versions of Vivaldiesque themes. And yes, there are the usual harmonic sequences, with chorus. I suppose this deserves a more thorough treatment, but not today!

The last piece is Nagaroth's version of the Schubert lied, Der Leiermann. This is even more unsettling than Der Erlkönig. Believe me, it is not a good musical idea to sing Schubert in a choked-off Cookie Monster voice. It is not trivializing it exactly, like doing a polka version. It is performing an aesthetic defacement, rather. Like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa or throwing a bucket of paint on a Van Gogh. Please, just don't?

I have to end this dispiriting post by putting up the original of Schubert's Der Leiermann.  Here is Thomas Quasthoff accompanied by Daniel Barenboim:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Concerto Guide: Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins

As Vivaldi is probably the most prolific composer of concertos in music history, with 500 to his credit, I want to look at one more of his before moving on. This concerto, written for four violins and small orchestra, was also one admired by J. S. Bach, who did an arrangement of it for four harpsichords and orchestra. Here is the original by Vivaldi in a spirited performance by Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini, director:

Apart from the four soloists, the orchestra itself consists of only nine or ten members in this performance. Here is the first page of the score:

In the Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin quotes a very different looking score, with many more parts, most of which duplicate other parts. As he doesn't cite a source for his score, I'm not sure why it is laid out the way it is. The one I excerpt from above is found in the Bach Complete Edition, published in 1894. A couple of unhistorical details to note. This music, first published in Amsterdam in 1711, was not published in score as we see above. Instead, it was published as a set of partbooks, i.e. one folio for each instrument. It was hugely popular and Bach undoubtedly obtained a copy. Another unhistorical detail in the performance I posted above: performances in the early 18th century would likely NOT have had a conductor. If Vivaldi were performing the concerto with his students, it is likely that he himself would have conducted while playing the first violin part as well. The "modern" tradition of having a non-playing conductor stand in front, directing every beat, comes later. It was Beethoven, conducting his own symphonies and Berlioz a bit later, who began the tradition of the virtuoso conductor.

Here is the beginning of the arrangement by Bach:

As you can see, apart from changing the key from B minor to A minor and filling in some bass lines, Bach keeps fairly close to the original. Here is a performance of the Bach arrangement. I would have liked one with video, but all that I could find were amateur performances.

One of the interesting things about this concerto, apart from its effervescent energy, is the "four soloists" who are an ensemble in themselves. This kind of concerto, very popular in the early years, is called a concerto grosso. It was soon to be largely replaced by the truly solo concerto, with only one solo instrument. But occasional examples are found later on such as a couple of piano concertos by Mozart for more than one piano, the triple concerto of Beethoven for violin, cello and piano and the Brahms double concerto for violin and cello. Examples in the 20th century are even more rare--apart from the quite different idea of the "concerto for orchestra" the example that comes first to mind is the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, op. 35 by Shostakovich, but that was likely inspired by the Baroque concerto grosso.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Townsend: Symphony No. 3

I completed my Symphony No. 3 the other day so I have created a clip of it to post here. The piece is a little over twenty-one minutes long and is in four movements:
  1. Moderato - Prestissimo
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Allegro risoluto
  4. Grave - Moderato - Allegro deciso - Grave - Moderato
Here is the first page of the score, so you can see the instrumentation:

I think I like it the best of the three so far. But I was stumped as to what images to put in the clip. So I'm afraid they are a bit random! There are some photos from a recent trip to Mexico City and the Museo Soumaya there which had an exhibit of 20th century sculpture. There are a couple of photos of Mexico City around my hotel. A couple of photos of me earlier in my career and now, working in my studio. And there are some photos of nature taken here in Mexico. One photo from a trip to British Columbia. Basically, these are just photos of my environment. The last movement is all one photo I particularly liked, taken just a few days ago. It is a photo of a church and associated convent called Las Monjas.

I am no photographer, of course! The music is the important thing and these photos are just intended to be mildly amusing while you listen.

I hope you enjoy the piece. In order to be able to post it here, I had to compress it quite a lot, so the quality of sound is not the best. I apologize. This is a synthesized audio file from Finale and in its original format, sounds not bad.


UPDATE: As soon as I posted this I realized that I forgot to mention a couple of things: don't be put off by the percussion chaos at the beginning. It doesn't last long and is meant to set up the ethereal chord that follows. This symphony is for the largest orchestra I have written for so far: I added piccolo and tuba to the usual winds. There is also a hefty percussion section, though I think that on consultation with a percussionist I should be able to consolidate the parts into three players. I think there is both more lyricism in this than my previous symphonies and also, in the last movement, more of a "groove". Again, I hope you enjoy it!

UPPERDATE: A friend tells me she can't get this clip to play. Anyone else have the same problem?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Goodbye to Jack Bruce

I didn't fall in love with music until I was in my mid-teens. Before then, piano lessons at age eleven just didn't capture my attention. What I thought I wanted was to play the drums, but my mother found out that it cost a lot more to rent a set of drums than it did to rent an electric bass. So, electric bass it was! My mother, a fiddler herself, explained to me that they were both in the rhythm section. Whatever that meant! So, in that inauspicious fashion, began my short career as a bassist. Throughout the three or four years I played bass in a band, my model was the bassist, Jack Bruce, for the world's first supergroup power trio, Cream. Sadly, we learn today that Jack Bruce has passed away, age seventy-one.

Here he is in the days when Cream were together from 1966 to 68:

And here he is during their revival concerts in London in 2005:

He started out on cello, which may be why his approach to the electric bass was both so melodic and so virtuosic. In any case, it certainly shaped the way I approached the bass. One consequence for me was after a few years I switched, first to six-string guitar, both acoustic and electric, and then to classical guitar as I discovered classical music. I'm sure that Jack Bruce was a big influence all through those early years, not just as an instrumentalist and singer, but also as a composer. Here is "As You Said", one of the songs Jack wrote for Cream's double album Wheels of Fire:

Apart from having written the music and the lyrics (in collaboration with Pete Brown), Jack sings the song and is playing both the cello and acoustic guitar (I believe). That is one of the most unusual songs he wrote. A more popular one he wrote (again with lyric contribution from Pete Brown) is "White Room", famous for its introduction in 5/4:

He was also a hell of a harmonica player as we can hear in this cover of the Muddy Waters tune, "Rollin' and Tumblin'":

Now that's a groove! That clip was from their series of revival concerts in Royal Albert Hall in 2005. Perhaps the most poignant performance from those concerts was another Jack Bruce song "We're Going Wrong" about his own personal life. One of my favorite songs from that era, not least for the very creative drumming of Ginger Baker:

Jack said in an interview once that he and Ginger always thought they were playing jazz--they just didn't tell Eric!

So long, Jack. You were a famous musician from a time before everything became about the bottom line.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Schubert and Harmony

We have discussed harmony a lot here at the Music Salon, most recently in this post on Harmonic Deficiencies. The so-called "common practice" period of harmony, lasting from around 1600 to around 1900 is well behind us now and its felicities are really only heard at classical music concerts. Nowadays the more old-fashioned composers are still writing atonal music, which is music that defies all the rules of harmony. The more up-to-date composers are writing some kind of modal music or using drones or perhaps some kind of polytonality. The "common practice" of harmony is less-known than it should be. The truth is that common practice harmony is the most developed, subtle, sensitive, finely-calibrated harmony ever developed in music--little wonder that it reigned for three hundred years!

I was listening to several pieces by Stravinsky in the last couple of days and while his harmony is inventive, fresh and stimulating, it is, compared with the best examples of common practice harmony, crude and harsh to the ears.

This is all prompted by reading a post on Luke Dahn's blog. He is an excellent theorist and wrote a fascinating post about the possibility of using one piece of music as material for teaching everything there is to know about chromatic harmony. The piece he chose is the masterpiece by Schubert, the song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin. Luke has prepared a beautiful chart showing just what harmonic devices Schubert used in the songs. Here is the link. I can embed it here as well:

But it is much more legible if you follow the link. This is a beautifully graphic analytic overview--the kind of thing I might do if I were teaching a theory course! You can download the complete score here. And here is a complete performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore with the score. It even includes the poet's prologue:

So you can, through the wonders of the internet, give yourself a complete course in chromatic harmony taught by Luke Dahn, with the aid of Franz Schubert. How, exactly? Well, let me walk you through the first song. First, go download that score from IMSLP (what a wonderful resource!). Then print out the two pages of the first song, Das Wandern. Now, let's have a look at Luke's chart. As we can see, Das Wandern is in the key of B flat. That is shown in Luke's chart by the "Bb:" at the beginning. This is a very simple song and the only harmonic device he shows is the little purple "V" in measure 13. The purple indicates that this is a "tonicized key area". Tonicized? Whazzat?

What Luke is teaching is not the most basic level of harmony, i.e. all those chords that are a normal part of the key, but rather chromatic harmonic, that is, all those devices that use accidentals, chromatic alterations, to either strengthen chords that are in the key, as the augmented sixth chords do, or to intensify certain chords by "tonicizing" them, i.e. making them momentary tonics in their own right by using secondary or applied dominants. Let's look at the Schubert song to see how this works. The song is in B flat. In measure 13 (you have numbered your measures, right?), which is the first measure on the second page in the score I downloaded, we see this:

Looks ok--hey, wait a minute, what is that F# doing there in the bass? That's the chromatic part. In order to temporarily make a chord into a tonic that is not the tonic in the key, Bb, we have to use an accidental. In this case the F# is the leading tone in the key of G minor, which is the relative minor (meaning it shares the same key signature of two flats as Bb major) of Bb. This makes the last harmony of m. 13 into a dominant of G minor, what we would analyze as a "V6" of V (V6 because the F#, the third of the chord D, F# A, is in the bass). Now go and listen to the song and see if you can hear this momentary departure from the key of Bb--it adds harmonic richness to the third phrase, creating the climax of the song. Incidentally, this tonicization forms the first part of a sequence, which means that the same idea is repeated at a different pitch. The tonicization, using F#, of G (minor) is followed in m. 15 with the tonicization of the dominant ("V of V"), F. This is done with its leading tone, E natural.

In the second song, Wohin?, we get not only more tonicization, but also, in mm 38-40, use of the Italian augmented sixth chord, shown with a little Italian flag. You can read up on augmented sixth chords here.

That should get you started!! With all the resources available online these days, anyone who actually wants to learn about music, can do so---for a song!


Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking off this week's miscellanea is a tribute to the opera singer Anita Cerquetti, an extraordinary singer who retired at the age of thirty.

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Here is a Concerto Fantasy for two tympanists and orchestra by Philip Glass

I doubt if any other composer has gotten so much milage out of just two ideas: 3 + 3 + 2 and rising minor thirds!

* * *

I'm trying to decide if this is good news or bad news: "Not One Artist's Album Has Gone Platinum in 2014." If this is a case of the public recoiling from the purchase of second-rate music, then isn't that good news? Mind you, I would hope that good music would start selling more, but that's obviously me dreaming!

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Tom Service shows his value over at the Guardian with an excellent piece about Haydn's neglected operas. Some good clips from YouTube. One conductor that has really made a contribution is Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Here he is conductinL’anima del filofoso with Cecilia Bartoli:

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One thing we should always keep in mind is that the mass media and opinion-shapers in general think that the people that read their stuff are basically low-information idiots. Sure, there may be some truth to that, but the hypocrisy is that these opinion-makers think that they are being very clever when what they are usually doing is serving up warmed-over clichés. Two recent examples: Baldur Brönnimann tries to tells us what is wrong with the classical concert format and just shows himself as a dolt. For example, he says:

6. The artists should engage with the audience

Many of us do: we speak to the audience before, after or during the concerts. But this can’t be an option, it must be mandatory for every artist to at least be able to introduce a piece, greet the audience or to sign a program. On that note, I think it is a shame that the public is often prevented from going backstage after a concert. Everybody should be able to talk to the musicians and share their thoughts and opinions, if it’s backstage or in the bar. We don’t live in an ivory tower and we have an obligation to talk to the people who love music as much as we do.
Uh-huh... Well, in my experience over the last few years, just about every string quartet and pianist on the planet is already doing this and straining my patience to the limit! My favorite was the very fine string quartet who thought it would be a good idea to have their Russian violinist introduce everything at great length in an absolutely impenetrable Russian accent which was, towards the back of the hall, also inaudible. Please, in most cases, unless you have a very articulate member with something to say, JUST DON'T. The reason program notes were invented was to provide mundane information to the audience about the music so that the players didn't have to.

Equally annoying are the comments by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead about live classical concerts. Hey BBC, can I have equal time to tell you what I think of Radiohead concerts?

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I was expecting something classical, Franz Joseph Haydn or George Harrison,
says Tom Hanks in this piece in the New Yorker. I just like the equating of Haydn and Harrison as both being, in some way, "classical". Well, sure, works for me.

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John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which I have written about before a couple of times, is about to be put on at the Met and the Wall Street Journal decides to do a nice little puff piece about the composer. And gets their ass handed to them in the comments. Go have a read. The comments especially.

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People who think that classical music is stuffy and rigid are people who do not know the rich repertoire of classical music humor. Apart from the purely musical humor of someone like Haydn, there is the astounding variety of musical parody and satire. The Guardian has collected some of the best examples here. Here is a sample: Dudley Moore accompanies himself in two impressions of songs by Fauré and Schubert. In the former there is some particularly effective use of the eyebrows. Alas, YouTube refuses to embed, so just click on the link:

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Let's send "get well soon" wishes to Hilary Hahn who has still not recovered fully from a muscle strain issue. She had to cancel a performance of two Bach concertos this week in Cleveland. And that gives us this week's envoi. This is a recording of Hilary playing the Bach A major Violin Concerto, but the video is of a completely different piece (no quartet of French horns in the Bach!):

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Harmonic Deficiencies?

Back a couple of years I put up a lot of posts about harmony and the problem of harmony in modernist music. I just ran across a post by theorist Luke Dahn that has some similar observations. Go read the post "Vertically Challenged?" There are a lot of very intriguing observations there including this one:
 I remember when I was an upper class undergraduate composer who was beginning to look at graduate schools. I sent an email to University of Michigan composer William Bolcom asking if he had any advice for a young composer who was preparing for graduate studies in composition. His reply was curt: “Go study Beethoven.” Not the response I was expecting.
Arnold Schoenberg, in his book Fundamentals of Music Composition spends most of the time discussing examples taken from Beethoven! Mulling over that is a nice antidote to those absurd flights of fancy such as Alex Ross' recent essay/review on Beethoven that throws up all sorts of dust, but tells us virtually nothing about why Beethoven is such a good composer.

Luke mentions some thoughts of the compose Tristan Murail as well:
Murail, too, implies that composers who are harmonically deficient or indifferent would be well served to look at music of the past, especially considering how “harmony relates to form.”
The relationship between harmonic structure and phrase structure in Classical Era music is very striking and I have looked at that quite a lot, especially in my numerous posts on the Haydn symphonies.

Let's listen to some Haydn. Here is an early symphony, No. 34 in D minor, with a very long slow movement in D minor followed by three short movements in D major. It was written in 1765: