Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Today's Listening

Cover of Levit, Beethoven, Late Sonatas

 One of the things I have admired about Igor Levit is how he launched his recording career: with four double CD sets. The five late piano sonatas by Beethoven, followed by the six partitas of Bach, followed by a collection of three variations: the Goldbergs of Bach, the Diabelli of Beethoven and the big set by Rzewski (actually, that's three CDs) and then the Preludes and Fugues in all the keys by Shostakovich. Whew, after that, a lot of pianists would just retire. This is what you record at the end of your career, not the beginning.

Anyway, here is the Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major by Beethoven in a live performance by Igor Levit from Wigmore Hall:

Would it be inappropriate to note that Beethoven re-invented the design of the piano sonata with every one he composed? This one is in three movements:

  1. Vivace ma non troppo (compressed first movement in under four minutes--he establishes the tonic, states the first theme and modulates to the dominant, all in the first seven seconds or so)
  2. Prestissimo (one of Beethoven's brilliant scherzos)
  3. Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung (Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo) --six transcendent variations which take up two thirds of the length of the sonata

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Musical "Structure"

"It is not possible to step into the same river twice" --Heraclitus

Why? Because πάντα ρει, "panta rei," "everything flows." We might not think everything flows, but we certainly think that some things flow, rivers, for example. Oh, and music. Yes, music definitely flows which makes the idea of musical structure a very peculiar one. Music is like a river in that it flows through time, always changing (and even if it is not changing, your perception of it is changing). If you can't step into the same river twice (different time, different water) then you perhaps cannot hear the same piece twice. You certainly can't play it exactly the same twice, not can you listen to it the same twice. As an example, Six Pianos by Steve Reich:

Sure, that's an articulated flow, but the flow of the river can be articulated as well, with wavelets. It's still a flow. And how do you structure a flow? In time, with beats, or a pulse. Is that a structure? Maybe not. In the case of the river, the water is given a structure, shaped by gravity and the river bed. But in itself, it has no structure, it just flows. Like music. Sure, we talk a lot about musical structure: measures, meter, phrase, dance rhythms, harmonic structure, harmonic rhythm. But this is only talking about how the flow is articulated. Does it have a structure? I'm assuming you have been listening to the Steve Reich piece. Have you heard the structure yet? What was it?

When people try to show the structure of a piece of music, they sometimes resort to schematics like ABA or very elaborate sketches like this:

Click to enlarge

With a great deal of listening and study you can, somehow, "visualize," perhaps, this structure. But really any schema you can put on paper is just a wildly distant metaphor. You have to go listen to the piece. Then you are hearing the "structure" which is really just the articulated flow. Music structure is not spatial, it is temporal.

Music has no structure!

It just has time.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Friday Miscellanea

New edition of Tárrega

Yuri Temirkanov:

As head of two of Russia’s leading musical institutions, the Kirov (later, Mariinsky) Opera and Ballet Theatre (1976-88) and the Leningrad (later, St Petersburg) Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he was principal conductor for more than three decades from 1988, Yuri Temirkanov, who has died aged 84, was at the forefront of music in the Soviet Union for nearly half a century.

I saw Temirkanov conduct the St Petersburg Philharmonic in a concert in Valencia a few years ago. In that post I said:

I mentioned that the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic only takes on a new musical director on rare occasions. From 1938 to 1988 they were directed by Yevgeny Mravinsky, famous for his sober and restrained conducting style. Regarding the orchestra, David Fanning remarked:

The Leningrad Philharmonic play like a wild stallion, only just held in check by the willpower of its master. Every smallest movement is placed with fierce pride; at any moment it may break into such a frenzied gallop that you hardly know whether to feel exhilarated or terrified.

So, rather than furiously provoking them into playing as so many modern conductors do (*cough* Dudamel *cough*), Mravinsky had to hold them back. Their current conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, who took over from Mravinsky in 1988 and is still at the helm, has a bit of the same style. No baton, conducts with sober movements, occasionally looks as if he is about to dig a trench, and then a moment later is beckoning gently for more lyricism.

So, Mravinsky was music director for fifty years but Temirkanov only lasted for thirty-five years. One thing you can say, no conductor ever retires from the St Petersburg Philharmonic. in the last eighty-five years they have only had two conductors!

* * *

The dire state of music education: Don’t stop the music

Music degrees are expensive to provide. They often require performance spaces, practice rooms, studios, equipment and technicians, instruments, and extra staff for instrumental and vocal teaching and ensemble direction. Of course, science degrees also require costly labs, facilities and technicians, but there is a wider range of government grants available for STEM subjects. Music is considerably more resource-intensive than non-performing arts and humanities subjects, many of which require little more than individual lecturers and spaces for lectures and seminars. Cutting a music programme can represent a significant saving for universities facing financial difficulties. 

At the same time, the sector itself cannot be wholly absolved of responsibility. In the name of “decolonisation”, the study of classical music is regularly impugned, associated with imperial domination, white supremacy, elitist hegemony and more; a glance at a range of leading conferences or journals makes clear how well-established such perspectives are.

It is impossible to summarize that article, so read the whole thing.

* * *

We seem to have a remarkable number of neglected black female composers. Her Music Fell Into Obscurity. Now It’s Back at the Philharmonic.

For Perry, a Black composer who died in 1979 at age 55, the 1950s and ’60s were replete with success, the summit of a career that fell into obscurity despite musicians’ admiration of her work. The mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who will make her Philharmonic debut on Wednesday performing in the “Stabat Mater” solo part, said of the piece: “I love the vocal writing. It’s intense, it’s very introspective, it’s very intimate and also very extreme.” Dima Slobodeniouk, who will conduct the program, described it as “logically and beautifully written.”

* * *

My last trip to Europe was so challenging that I decided to hold off on long flights for a while. I'm going to spend a few days in Mexico City in a couple of weeks. And then I ran across this article: The world’s best cities for culture. Number one is Mexico City.

Mexico’s charismatic, cosmopolitan capital nabbed the top spot, with locals scoring their city exceptionally high for both the quality and affordability of its culture scene. And while architecture, theatres and street parades like Dia de Muertos all got the nod in our survey, it was the city’s mighty museum scene that got the biggest shout-out. CDMX’s museums showcase everything from Aztec artifacts and folk art to surrealist paintings, and many of them are housed in showstopping buildings – just check out the grand, neo-baroque Palacio de Bellas Artes or the twisty, shiny and ultra-modern Museo Soumaya. Best of all? Many are either permanently free or offer free entry on Sundays for those with Mexican residency.

Yes, all that is true, but I have yet to find much in the way of classical music concerts--or maybe I just don't know where to look. 

* * *

Sparse content this week so let's curate some envois. First up the very fine Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang with Ian Bostridge in a fine performance of the Songs from the Chinese by Benjamin Britten. You can watch the whole thing, which includes an interview with Xuefei Yang, but the Britten starts at the 38:48 mark:

Here is the Stabat Mater by Julia Perry, written in 1951.

Francisco Tárrega seems to be enjoying renewed popularity these days. There is a lovely new complete edition by Les Productions d'Oz and lots of performances. When I was a student I played the shorter pieces and got into the habit of thinking of him as a composer of little bon-bons. And Recuerdos de la Alhambra was too difficult! But of course he wrote lots of great concert pieces among which Capricho Arabe is one of the best. Here is a recording by Segovia:

We have to end with Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic. I can't find the Glinka overture they began with in Valencia, which was truly terrifying, but here is the Symphony No. 4 of Tchaikovsky:

Friday, November 17, 2023

Some Images

I'm just going to share a few images for the heck of it. First up, a lovely watercolor of a frog by a long time reader to whom I am grateful. I just got it framed.

I was out looking at some vineyards and took this photo of the sky:

Standing on a terrace in front of some 17th century churches:

A colleague walking in a Day of the Dead procession:

A sculpture at the entrance of a new hotel:

Finally, a light-hearted piece I wrote a number of years ago.

Friday Miscellanea

A really interesting interview with literary agent Andrew Wylie in the New York Times: When Ruthless Cultural Elitism Is Exactly the Job.

Over the years, the Wylie Agency’s clients have included Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Martin Amis and John Updike. (All of whose estates, along with those of other luminaries like Borges and Calvino, are now represented by the agency.) Wylie’s roster of contemporary authors includes Sally Rooney, Salman Rushdie and Karl Ove Knausgaard among its blue-chip multitude. (Several New York Times journalists are also represented by Wylie.) Such voracious acquisition of clients at one point led to Wylie’s being called the Jackal, presumably for his ruthless pursuit of other agents’ authors. That fearsome reputation, along with actual paradigm-shifting changes in his approach to agenting (namely his focus on exploiting the value of authors’ backlists and his determination that publishers pay fat advances for work of high literary quality — even if it might not sell in the short term), have also been factors in making Wylie, who is 76 and a famously forthright speaker, a legendary figure in the publishing world. “I thought, Well, I wonder if you can build a business based exclusively on what you want to read,” he says, understatedly. “That led me to understand, I think correctly, that best sellers were overvalued and works that endured forever were undervalued.”

Read the whole thing. I just want to comment that all too often lately I get the impression that there are very few willing to speak out and say that yes, classical music has a limited audience, but it is a profoundly engaged one and an enduring one and the last thing on earth you want to do is drive them away by adopting the fashion and mannerisms of pop music. Great classical composers and musicians represent and express a quality that popular music and jazz just don't. I expect to get some disagreement on this, but hey, lovers of hip-hop say it is the greatest music ever, and they don't waver, so I suspect I can withstand the pushback.

* * *

A headline with a grain of truth: For Joan Armatrading, Classical Music Is Just Another Genre

Last year, Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder and artistic director of the Chineke! Orchestra, received an email out of the blue from the singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading. She, the message said, had finished composing her first classical composition.

They exchanged a few more emails about the piece, Symphony No. 1, and Nwanoku called to verify that she was talking with the real Armatrading, known for hits like “Love and Affection,” “Down to Zero,” and “Drop the Pilot.” She wanted to hear the music, with the idea of having Chineke! premiere it — which the ensemble will do on Nov. 24 in London. 

Armatrading has experimented with playing all of the instruments on her albums; first mooted then eventually scrapped on “Walk Under Ladders” (1981), she returned to that impulse with “Lovers Speak” (2003). Then, a trilogy of albums — “Into the Blues” (2007), “This Charming Life” (2010) and “Starlight” (2012) — were designed as deep dives into specific styles: blues, rock and jazz. To her, classical is “just one of the other genres,” she said with a laugh. “And because I like all music, I try and write all music.”

A lover of classical music since childhood, Armatrading had long expected to take up the art form. “One day, I was in the studio, and I thought: It’s today,” she said. There was never any doubt that her first piece wasn’t going to be a symphony.

We can't review the piece, of course, as it hasn't been premiered yet, but we can wonder what symphonic influences might turn up...

* * *

Drifting slightly away from our main focus: Understanding Consciousness Goes Beyond Exploring Brain Chemistry

Over the summer, the neuroscientist Christof Koch conceded defeat on his 25-year bet with the philosopher David Chalmers, a lost wager that the science of consciousness would be all wrapped up by now. In September, over 100 consciousness researchers signed a public letter condemning one of the most popular theories of consciousness—the integrated information theory—as pseudoscience. This in turn prompted strong responses from other researchers in the field. Despite decades of research, there’s little sign of consensus on consciousness, with several rival theories still in contention.

This was a pretty easy bet to win. Philosophers have been explaining for a long time why consciousness is not a feasible object for scientific study, but because it involves a philosophical understanding of the nature of science, scientists just don't get it. How do we observe consciousness? By looking inward. Consciousness is not an object or an event or a process in the external world, therefore, it cannot be studied by science. Consciousness is a point of view and while scientists can have a point of view, Science cannot as the whole purpose of Science is to be objective, i.e. not to have a point of view. Scruton outlines the argument in Modern Philosophy:

Suppose I possess a complete description of the physical world, according to the true scientific theory of all that is contained in it. In this description are identified not only the animals, but also the people which the world contains. One of these people is called Roger Scruton, and has all the attributes that I have. Still, there is a fact that is not mentioned in the description, namely, the fact that this person is me. Similarly, there is the fact that this pain is my pain, this joy my joy. My ability to situate myself in my world is of a piece with my first-person view of things; and what is revealed to me in that first-person view does not feature in the scientific inventory of the really real.

Scruton, Roger. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (p. 225). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

* * *

Creativity and artistry are popular projects that hardly anyone can disagree with: Activating Artistry

Engaging in the arts benefits just about anyone, and opens a range of possibilities, from better educational outcomes for underserved youth to a deeper experience of a symphony. An excerpt from Eric Booth’s Making Change: Teaching Artists and their Role in Making a Better World shows how—and why—teaching artists strive to help activate people’s innate artistry, with positive impacts for individuals and communities. 

There is an entire profession dedicated to activating people’s artistry. These professionals know how to awaken artistry. They know how to develop it. They know how to guide it toward positive results, results that matter. In this book, we call them teaching artists.

This is both laudable and necessary, but it might also be pointed out that "artistry" in the sense of pursuing the arts in and for themselves, is in truth, rather problematic. Most people are neither artistic nor creative and even if you are, monetizing creativity is shockingly difficult. But as a device or strategy to promote cultural assimilation, this kind of program is likely hugely beneficial.

* * *

Another week of fairly slim pickings, but here are some excellent envois for your listening pleasure. First up, the Symphony No. 7 by Vagn Holmboe, recommended by Richard Taruskin as the last of the traditional Scandinavian symphonists:

A theorbo and baroque guitar duo playing Gaspar Sanz:

I'm sure we have had this before, but not lately and not by these guys as it was just posted. Shunske Sato is soloist in the Netherlands Bach Society recording of the Bach Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042:

And while we are all strung out, here is Sara Kim, viola and Andrés Atala-Quezada, piano with the Sonata for Viola and Piano by Shostakovich:

Friday, November 10, 2023

Why I Prefer CDs

As I look across the room, this is what I see:

This is part of one shelf of my CDs. I don't actually feel I "have" a recording of a piece of music unless I have the CD. Like previous physical manifestations, the wax cylinder, 78s, vinyl LPs and, shudder, cassette tapes, it represents the durability of recorded sound. A year or ten years from now they will still be there. Streaming music, which is fast replacing the CD, has enormous advantages, of course. With it you have access to nearly everything. But at the same time, it also has something of the ephemeral nature of musical performance: here now, gone tomorrow. Your preferred streaming service might go out of business or be bought up by another company, might change its policies, might raise its rates, or might for whatever reason cancel your favorite recordings. YouTube is an incredible resource, but I don't feel at all secure that whatever is there today will be there tomorrow, let alone ten years from now.

This observation is part of a more general thought: the private space that we each have is being diminished and hemmed in by an ever-more pervasive public or collective space. This is, of course, a consequence of the growth of the internet and social media. What seemed at first to be an unalloyed good might have its drawbacks.

A few years ago I decided that I wanted to "de-digitize" parts of my life. I was spending too much time online reading ephemera. So I started reading actual books, not Kindle books, every morning. Even more recently, with non-fiction, I have taken up the practice of making pencil notes in every book I read. What am I reading instead of blogs and mass media? The Odyssey, Crime and Punishment, Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy, the King James Bible (so far, just Genesis), Tehillim (the Hebrew Psalms, but in translation), 20th Century French Poetry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and so on.

Other ways of de-digitizing: I took up sketching, though that didn't last too long, and journaling, which has, also I now compose with pencil on paper instead of with music software. I have also returned to writing poetry after having let it drop for a few decades.

One result has been to spark the realization that being immersed in the social and mass media space tends to enervate one, leaving you tired and cynical. It also seems that there are some more critical trends, such as that towards what has been called "networked tribalism."
Networked tribalism has rapidly emerged to wage moral warfare in opposition to Israel. We have seen it drive rapid shifts in consequential public perception in the recent past, at both domestic and international levels, in situations ranging from anti-racism (Black Lives Matter) to anti-Russia/Putin/fascism (Ukraine). Tribal moral warfare bypasses traditional media by directly delivering information and moral framing to people using social networks. It has proved highly effective at persuading—and coercing—traditional media companies into alignment with its preferred moral frames.

Networked tribalism is a new phenomenon, derived from changes (including changes to our neural wiring that we struggle to understand) in how we process information and connect with others online.

If this is replacing traditional epistemology, then we have a rocky road ahead of us...


Friday Miscellanea

"Each language is a tradition, each word a shared symbol; the changes that an innovator may make are trifling--we should remember the dazzling but often unreadable work of a Mallarmé or a Joyce."

--Jorge Luis Borges, p. 346 in this book:

The last CD I purchased by Kronos was a box set celebrating their 25th anniversary, now look where we are: At 50, the Kronos Quartet Is Still Playing for the Future

When Kronos formed, contemporary music was widely viewed as mathematically rigid and atonal: unlistenable audience poison. Buoyed by dramatic stage lighting, trendy clothes and passionate, eclectic performances and recordings, the quartet showed that a new approach to the new could fill halls and draw young crowds.

Kronos proved that composers working in different idioms than standard-issue modernism — like Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov — could become core string quartet material, as could world traditions and collaborators on nonwestern instruments. A quartet could adapt the music of far-afield artists like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Astor Piazzolla and Sigur Rós, and could define the hard-edge soundtracks of films like “Requiem for a Dream.”

Who else could possibly have chosen "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix as their go-to encore?

* * *

If you young folks are not yet totally bored with The Beatles: ‘Now and Then, I Miss You’: The Love Story at the Heart of the Last Beatles Song

Beatles songs still speak to us so directly because they are vehicles for the transmission of feelings too powerful for normal speech. Mr. Lennon and Mr. McCartney were intense young men who grew up in an era before men were encouraged to speak about their feelings, either in therapy or to one another. They gained their emotional education from music, especially the music of Black artists like Smokey Robinson, Arthur Alexander and the Shirelles. Almost everything they felt — and they felt a lot — was poured into music, including their feelings about each other.

* * *

From the philosophical files: Whither philosophy?

Expertise counts for much in today’s intellectual climate, and it makes sense that those educated and trained in specific fields would be given greater consideration than a dabbler. But it is those philosophers who wrote on a wide range of areas that left a profound mark on philosophy. Aristotle dedicated himself to a plethora of fields, including science, economics, political theory, art, dance, biology, zoology, botany, metaphysics, rhetoric and psychology. Today, any researcher who draws on different, ‘antagonistic’ fields would be accused of deviating from their specialisation. Consequently, monumental books that defied tradition – from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886) – are few and far between. This is not to say, however, that there are no influential philosophers. Saul Kripke and Derek Parfit, both not long deceased, are perhaps the most significant philosophers in recent years, but their influence is primarily confined to academia. Martha Nussbaum on the other hand, is one of the most important and prolific philosophers working today. Her contributions to ethics, law and emotion have been both highly regarded and far-reaching, and she is often lauded for her style and rigour, illustrating that not all philosophers are focused on narrow fields of specialisation.

But ‘the blight of specialisation’, as David Bloor calls it, remains stubbornly engrained in the practice of philosophy, and ‘represents an artificial barrier to the free traffic of ideas.’

Incidentally, if you want an excellent survey of 20th century philosophy, have a look at Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. It's inexpensive, thorough and not written for overspecialized scholars. Not to say it is entirely easy to read!

* * *

As always, Slipped Disc provides some interesting information: WHAT THE TOP FINNISH CONDUCTORS EARN

Here are the top 10 conductors:

1) Santtu-Matias Rouvali: 490,000 €
2) Sakari Oramo: 325,000 €
3) Leif Segerstam: 324,000 €
4) Hannu Lintu: 268,000 €
5) Dalia Stasevska: 252,000 €
6) John Storgårds: 240,000 €
7) Klaus Mäkelä: 236,000 €
8) Jorma Panula: 206,000 €
9) Olli Mustonen: 204,000 €
10) Ville Matvejeff: 163,000 €

* * *

When Aaron Copland and the U.S. State Department Made Musical Diplomacy

Despite a plethora of research on Copland, no scholar had ever explored his cultural diplomacy in Latin America. In Aaron Copland in Latin America, Hess documents Copland’s four State Department Latin American trips, which took place between 1943 and 1963. He conducted concerts (often programming his own music), gave talks and interviews, and sometimes traveled to rural areas with messages of cultural connectivity. Copland’s Latin American travels drew widespread attention in the media. He was a tireless promoter of the State Department programs, giving talks and writing about them for mainstream publications. Copland’s tours were so significant that they are mentioned prominently in the State Department’s recent announcement of the new music diplomacy initiative, along with tours by Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and others starting in the 1950s.

* * *

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, barred from boarding flight with cello, calls for better airline protocol

In September, the British cellist was blocked from boarding a BA flight, despite arriving early and booking two seats – one for himself, one for his instrument, a prized 1700 Matteo Gofriller cello.

Kanneh-Mason had to book a new flight home from Bucharest, where he had been performing alongside the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, to London Heathrow, that he said cost “three times as much”.

“It’s frustrating to arrive to the airport, having done everything right in the lead-up with the booking and everything and yet, still things can go wrong at any sort of stage,” he added.

I don't travel with my guitar very often these days, so when I had to fly to Toronto a few years ago to do a recording I almost drove my travel agent mad fussing about taking my guitar on board. She downloaded the requirements from the AeroMexico website and yes, a guitar case just complies. As it turned out, there were no problems placing my guitar in the overhead compartment. But cellists have a real challenge!

* * *

1,000 Streams or Bust

Breaking news from Spotify: starting in 2024 (less than two months from now), they will no longer pay any royalty on tracks that fall below a minimum 1,000 streams a year. These tracks will still earn royalties, in theory – but those royalties will not be paid to their rights holders. Instead, they will go into a pot to be divided among accounts that garner more plays.

This is akin to a regressive tax – reducing payments to those who already receive less, in order to boost payments for those who already receive more, increasing the divide between haves and have-nots. It is, on the face of it, the ugliest of ugly capitalist cash grabs.

Actually, this is not a symptom of free market capitalism, but rather of technological monopoly power. 

* * *

Lots of material for our envois today. Let's start with the venerable Kronos Quartet. Here is "Testimony" by Charlton Singleton:

This is possibly the most successful collaboration between John Lennon and Paul McCartney:


* * *

Here is that top-earning Finnish conductor Santtu Mattias Rouvali conducting the Symphony No. 6 of Tchaikovsky (he was also one of the performers in the Steve Reich piece in the previous post):

Here is Aaron Copland playing one of his most radical pieces, the Piano Variations of 1930:

Finally, Sheku Kanneh-Mason with a Tiny Desk concert: