Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Cultural Appropriation

The latest bit of neo-Gramscian post-modern lunacy is the idea of "cultural appropriation" which says that white people are not allowed to use memes from non-white cultures. So I guess it is ok if I start writing mazurkas, Poles being White Europeans, but totally wrong to be stealing ideas from mbira music from Zimbabwe. Steve Reich has to give back any ideas he got from Ghana master drummers or Balinese gamelan music. Sounds silly, doesn't it? But this is an actual thing in some places. This is the Wikipedia article. They simply define it as:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.
But of course it only applies to white people. Read the whole thing. They have some examples of appropriation that are from white to white, but the important issues all revolve around white appropriation of non-white cultural elements. Thou shalt not wear a Halloween costume of an Indian or Geisha or whatever. It is a form of colonialism.

It is a fundamentally silly idea, but when applied to music, even more silly. Yes, there are an awful lot of very interesting influences coming from world music and popular music, but the whole foundation of music, the harmony, the counterpoint, the very notation to write it down, comes almost entirely from France and Italy between eight hundred and a thousand years ago. Are we going to say, "no more triads, we want our harmony back!"

Of course an even more biting criticism has already been unleashed: if you think that cultural appropriation is wrong, then please stop using vaccines, antibiotics, the Internet, smartphones, computers, jets, the internal combustion engine and, heck, electricity. These are all the creation, invention and discovery of Western European and North American white people.

Our envoi almost has to be something by Léonin the composer, in the late 12th century, of the first written down polyphony:

Strings 'n Things

I read somewhere that Grigory Sokolov is very knowledgeable about piano technology. That puzzled me a bit: not that he is knowledgeable, but that it was worth mentioning. Then I realized that it might not be the norm among pianists, many of whom might rely on piano technicians to keep their instruments in proper working order. But apparently Sokolov is really involved with the pianos he plays on. This makes sense. As a guitarist I am very involved with the innards of my instrument and how it works acoustically and, most of all it seems, with the strings. I just changed my strings and it got me thinking about strings in general.

But before I get to that, let me just say that I would love to do an interview with Mr. Sokolov and ask him all about pianos: what does he look for, does he modify anything in the pianos he plays, how much time does he like with a piano before a concert and all those other gritty little details that never come up in interviews.

Strings are a big deal for guitar players because they wear out quickly--anywhere from between two weeks and a month if you practice a lot. In the throes of my performing career I went through from 20 to 25 sets a year. And the reason is this:

Click to enlarge

Yes, it's those darn frets. After sixty or seventy hours of playing the trebles (made of nylon) begin to get dented over each fret and the basses, especially the thinnest one, the 4th string, actually wear through the wire wrapping to the core (also nylon) on the second fret. The clarity of pitch begins to degrade and, for the basses, they start to sound dead. So if you basses are going thump thump and you are having trouble tuning: CHANGE YOUR STRINGS!

I have used just about every brand of strings there are over the years: Aranjuez (remember them?), Augustine (endorsed by Segovia), Savarez (the most elegant, made in France) and Pro Arte. These last are very reliable, well-priced strings and available locally, so I've been using them a lot:

Nothing wrong with them and I've been using them for several years. But when I was doing some recording last year I started wondering if there weren't some better options these days. Savarez has come out with a lot of new technology, but I have already tried them with mixed results. Savarez are wonderful strings, but no matter what they do, the basses always seem to go prematurely dead.

Pro Arte has some new and interesting strings out and I tried these out:

I'm not sure what the "composite core" refers to, presumably the core of the wound basses. These strings come with an extra third string. This one, the thickest treble, tends to be a bit pudgy sounding and this extra string, a kind of coffee-and-cream color, is supposed to help by being brighter and balancing better with the basses. It is described as a "monofilament composite." It does have a bit of a different feel and is a bit brighter. It felt to me a bit like a gut string (which I tried years ago). Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks, it started sounding quite crappy (just like a gut string!). So I took it off and put on the other 3rd. Bottom line: nice strings, the basses stood up really well, but I have my doubts about that extra 3rd. They have another type out called "Dynacore" and the back of the box refers to a "Blended Polymer Core", but I haven't tried them yet:

Instead, today I went back to some strings I was introduced to a few years ago and found very impressive: Hannabach, made in Germany:

Very nice strings! Clear, open sound. Funny thing though, when I ordered them through Amazon, they ended up coming from a distributor in Japan! We're so globalized now.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on strings today. Now to get back to the guitar and see how those Hannabach are sounding.

Here is a piece I recorded years ago, and I'm pretty sure I had a set of Pro Arte EJ46s on. This is the last movement of El Decameron negro by Leo Brouwer, Balada de la Doncella Enamorada:


And It's Over to You

I'll admit it, I can't think of a single thing to blog about this morning. I'm not ready to finish off my series of posts on Richard Wagner, a prospective post on amplifying classical music didn't seem quite interesting enough, I've probably written too much about up-and-coming pianists and their fashion choices and I don't have any musical analyses cued up and ready to go. Then I ran across this on YouTube:

I'll admit that one reason I looked at it was because it was a concert from Pollack Hall in the School of Music at McGill University in Montreal--I played a lot of concerts in that hall! This is a piece for four percussionists playing four drum kits by Julia Wolfe and it probably came up because I listened to parts of a couple of pieces by her the other day. She has just been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship which comes with a hefty grant and last year she won a Pulitzer Prize in music. So, a big new name. But I have to say that I didn't hear anything that kept me listening. This is Anthracite Fields, for which she won the Pulitzer:

Sorry, you have to follow the link because Blogger refuses to find the clip. It is very odd, because when I type Julia Wolfe Anthracite Fields into the search engine in Blogger, all it will turn up is various documentaries and trailers about the piece. But there it is, right there on YouTube. If it weren't for the fact that search engine results are being very obviously manipulated these days, I would think nothing of it. In any case, as I find documentaries tiresome and, in this case, pretty much a classic case of special pleading (you will like this piece because the composer is a nice person and has lots to say and the performers are enthusiastic and we went to a lot of trouble in the presentation and it uncovers some interesting American history). I am only interested in a documentary if I already find the music interesting. I really don't want to hear any special pleading. In this case, for example, the piece itself sounds remarkably dreary and musically uninteresting. Repetition yes, but without any of the magical energy that Steve Reich instills in his pieces. Anthracite Fields is pretty much unlistenable in my book.

But what do you think of the first piece, the one for four drum sets? Frankly, I'm completely perplexed. I found it hard to listen to straight through, so I skipped and browsed to see if anything interesting was going to happen. I mean, there must be some really good reason to write for four drum sets, right? Plus, Pollack Hall! Me, I really didn't find anything. It is as if you took the fundamental elements of Basic Rudiments for drummers and deconstructed them. Take each element, focus on it for a while, then move on to the next. That's it, really.

Am I right, am I wrong? I throw myself on the mercy of the court. What do my league of readers and commentators think?

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Aesthetics of Taste

I recently put up a post about crossover in which I said:
In order to believe that crossover really brings people into classical music you have to presume a theory of aesthetic taste that says that the same people who like unchallenging, formulaic and maudlin music will equally like demanding and emotionally profound music. You know anyone like that? Me neither.
I got one comment that disagreed:
I know plenty of people like that, and it would be easy for you to see the same, too. For years I have used Last.fm to keep a record of the music I listen to. Among classical fans whose listening is documented there, it’s extremely common to see a Bruckner symphony or a Beethoven concerto followed by, say, a Kylie Minogue, Mylene Farmer, or Lady Gaga track. Perhaps these listeners consider both of the same ultimate worth, perhaps the lighter bit of music is just a palate cleanser after the heavy stuff. Rarely do I see people who listen exclusively to “demanding and emotionally profound music”.
I responded with a "thanks" because I really do welcome disagreement as it usually leads to two things: either I change my mind about something based on additional evidence, or I deepen my understanding of something based on further discussion. I would like to take a page from my old philosophy professor and re-word the comment. I think that the theory implied here is that in the case of people who listen to both popular music and classical music, they do so either because they consider them both of equal aesthetic value or that they consider the lighter music as a kind of palate cleanser--the sorbet in between the heavier courses at the musical banquet.

Now, as a matter of fact, I do happen to listen to popular music (defined as everything that is neither classical nor world music), though I don't do so on a regular basis. I tend to listen to two kinds of popular music: either music that came out when I was in my late teens and early twenties or music I discovered later on. But in these two categories, I have narrowed it down to music that seems to have stood the test of time. I listen to the Beatles, but not Herman's Hermits, Bob Dylan, but not Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads, but not Madonna. So I would probably offer the argument that, even in pop music, it is possible to distinguish the lighter from the more profound. But at the end of the day I am going to say that while Bob Dylan is truly profound in his own way, the profundity comes more from the lyrics than the music. J. S. Bach is in no danger of being overshadowed by the harmonic richness of Bob Dylan. So I suppose that I might lean towards the idea the lighter music can act as a palate cleanser between heavier items. But I never listen that way! Do artists compose programs that way? Not to my knowledge, but I suppose it's possible. The question is, are there significant numbers of people who listen that way? Yes, that is very possible, but I might like to argue that they are passive, not active, listeners. As a passive listener, you go with the flow. But an active listener is more demanding and, at least as I see it, wants to delve more deeply, not take a musical break.

Am I all wet here? How do you listen?

Let's have some music to accompany your deliberations. This is Grigory Sokolov playing the Allegretto from Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata at a concert in Cyprus in 2006:

Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Kind of Crazy!

I spent a good part of yesterday listening to a pianist I just discovered and reading some reviews going back a couple of years. The pianist is Igor Levit, born in Russia to Jewish parents (his mother headed the piano department at the conservatory) he grew up in Germany from an early age.

A while back I was trying to get a sense of the level of artistry of a couple of new pianists coming on the scene named Yuja Wang and Khatia Buniatishvili. They were both seeing a lot of publicity and interviews, but a lot of it focussed on their personal stories and image. Yuja Wang in particular got a lot of initial publicity for wearing very short skirts. So I went to YouTube to see what I could hear and got a lot of concertos and flashy repertoire. Yes, you can get a sense of the technique from that, but not much sense of the real artistry. Especially with the piano, which is a machine for producing a lot of notes quickly, you have to look for repertoire with more substance. So I searched around for some clips of Bach and Beethoven. Nothing. Nada. Hm, that's interesting. Of course, this year Yuja Wang has been touring with the Hammerklavier Sonata so that's something we can listen to. I compared hers and Grigory Sokolov's performances in this recent post.

But when it comes to Igor Levit, who is the same age as Yuja Wang, by the way, twenty-nine, there really is no difficulty trying to find him playing substantial repertoire: he plays nothing else! His debut album on Sony was two discs of the late Beethoven piano sonatas and already reviewers were saying "what can he do for an encore?" The answer was his second Sony album, also two discs, this time of all the Bach Partitas. His most recent, which just won the Gramophone Album of the Year for 2016, is three discs of the Bach Goldberg Variations, the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and the Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated variations. Good lord! Now what will he do next?

I spent yesterday listening through this last album a couple of times. Honestly, I have not heard a musician with this level of intense and profound artistry since Grigory Sokolov. Levit is very different of course: he is a young man and often it is the sheer energy that impresses. These are not polite performances. The Diabelli Variations especially are played with such edgy intensity that they sound almost atonal in places. The Rzewski is manic to an extreme and in the next moment deliberate and restrained. The Bach is both lovely and haunting and even at times like riding in a Ferrari at full acceleration. There is no need to worry about the same old same old repertoire--Levit finds a great deal in these works to convey with new expression. Actually, that is precisely why these pieces (well, not the Rzewski yet) are so highly respected: they are bottomless wells of artistic truth.

In listening to Igor Levit you are listening to the pianist who really is the best of the younger generation (at least of the ones I have heard). And looking back at that fulsome tribute to Yuja Wang in the New Yorker just last week, you realize that they are talking about their local artist (she lives in Manhattan) who has made good and looks good while doing it. But Mr. Levit is in another ball park entirely. Here he is playing the Aria from the Goldbergs:

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Is "Crossover" a Gateway Drug?

Regular readers know how I feel about "crossover." What's that, the guy in back asks? Crossover is really a marketing niche where a classical musician might cross over some invisible line and play repertoire that you wouldn't expect: like the Spiderman Theme. Or it might equally be a popular vocalist taking a stab at some light classical repertoire. But that doesn't seem to happen much. There are also some musical groups that seem to live in the crossover zone like 2Cellos and ThePianoGuys. But for the most part it is simply a transparent attempt to jack up sales by pulling in some buyers that don't usually buy classical recordings. Here is our latest example:

Now don't get me wrong. Everyone should play the music they like and buy the music they like. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Usually I would make an aesthetic critique, but I want to take a different perspective on it. It is often claimed that one of the benefits of crossover is that it leads more people to become classical music lovers. This is one of the arguments used to convince classical musicians to play crossover and for symphony orchestra to add pops programs to their season. This is what I will call the "gateway drug" theory. Crossover is a gateway drug that leads to people listening to actual classical music. The "gateway drug theory" has been around for a while:
Gateway drug theory (alternatively, stepping-stone theory, escalation hypothesis, or progression hypothesis) is a comprehensive catchphrase for the medical theory that the use of a psychoactive drug can be coupled to an increased probability of the use of further drugs.
One day you are listening to Lang Lang and Lindsey Stirling hack their way through the Spiderman Theme:

and the next day you find yourself mysteriously attracted to performances of the Cavatina from the Beethoven Quartet op. 130:


I don't think that the gateway drug theory has much going for it either. I'm pretty sure that if you go and look at everyone's shelves next to Lang Lang crossover you won't find serious Beethoven. You will probably find Nora Jones (as we see on Amazon: "Frequently bought together").

In order to believe that crossover really brings people into classical music you have to presume a theory of aesthetic taste that says that the same people who like unchallenging, formulaic and maudlin music will equally like demanding and emotionally profound music. You know anyone like that? Me neither.

Of course just about everything we read in the mass media tells us different. Every single interview with a classical musician in the Guardian prompts them to tell us what they listen to when they are relaxing--and it is always some unlikely pop music. Sure, sometimes I'm in the mood for a little Led Zeppelin. About a minute and a half. Every ten or fifteen years.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Apparently in the future, cows will be accorded the privacy that few humans possess today. Witness this photo from Google street view:

It is unknown why only the cow on the right has its face blurred out. Perhaps it is underage? Or an unindicted co-conspirator?

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Winston Churchill won WWII on four hours sleep a night, Cuban cigars, and the consumption of significant amounts of alcohol. This latter was on the advice of his doctor:

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Here is an item from Slipped Disc about the National Medal of Arts awards, to be presented by President Obama in an upcoming ceremony. Philip Glass gets one, but Steve Reich does not. As is very often the case, the comments are very amusing!

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Somehow I missed this review by Norman Lebrecht of a new book on Venezuela's music education program "El Sistema":
From the results I have seen in the U.S. and Europe, the system has yielded a playing elite. Performing with Mr. Dudamel as the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the young musicians display precision and enthusiasm along with a sense of mutual responsibility and an appetite for reckless fun. To watch them in the pit at La Scala last summer, playing the consumptive tragedy of “La Bohème” as if from real life, was to witness music’s redemptive potential.
Mr. Dudamel, a vibrant man who commands widespread respect and affection, is the world’s most sought-after conductor. Other Sistema alumni include the Ulster Orchestra conductor Rafael Payare, the Tucson Symphony music director José Luis Gomez and the Berlin Philharmonic double-bass player Edicson Ruiz. All learned their music from scratch under Mr. Abreu’s beady eye. “You have to treat children like artists,” says Mr. Dudamel. “If you don’t, the action of art doesn’t work.”
The puzzle is the relationship between this successful program and the reality of the failing state that Venezuela has become. The review mentions this without really coming to grips with it.

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 The Gramophone's 2016 Recording of the Year has been won by Igor Levit for a CD of the Bach Goldberg Variations, the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" by Frederic Rzewski. One out of those three seems out of place! But I may have just never given the Rzewski a chance for political reasons! It is a lot more interesting piece than the trite-sounding theme reveals. Here is the first part of a performance by the composer:

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The cultural war goes on apace... You didn't know we were in a cultural war? That's probably because it has been overshadowed by the religious war, nuclear proliferation and the War on Women! But, for sure, there is a cultural war going on and an interesting recent skirmish comes from Staatsballett Berlin, a ballet company with a strong classical tradition. The New York Times has the story:
More than 5,000 signatures have been posted on a petition started by the dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin to protest the appointment of the contemporary dance choreographer Sasha Waltz as one of the company’s next artistic directors. The announcement that Ms. Waltz and Johannes Öhman, now the director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, would succeed the current director, Nacho Duato, in 2019, was announced last week by Michael Müller, the mayor of Berlin.
The petition, posted in German, English, Italian and Japanese, states that hiring Ms. Waltz “has to be compared to an appointment of a tennis trainer as a football coach or an art museum director as an orchestral director.” It adds: “We respect the work of Sacha Waltz but find her completely unsuitable to lead our company. Sasha Waltz is a choreographer of dance theater. This form of stage dance needs other artistic qualities than those which a classically educated ballet dancer has developed and is dedicated to.”
I think that what this illustrates is pushback from artists who are firmly based in classical traditions wanting them respected and not tossed into a contemporary meatgrinder. On another level, it shows the potential problems with government support of the arts: at some point the appointments start becoming politically influenced.

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Here is an interesting article on move soundtracks: Why You Can't Remember What Modern Movies Sound Like.
...the problem has to do with temp tracks. Temp tracks are used by directors in early edits of a movie, as a replacement for the official soundtrack before it's made. However, a lot of temp tracks end up sounding a lot like the finished version.
Reusing old soundtracks is not new, but when all the new blockbusters borrow music from each other, it can end up repetitive and boring. Combine that with studios that refuse to take risks with the film score, and you end up with a soundtrack that's easily forgettable.
There is a fairly long video clip that analyzes Marvel soundtracks and illustrates quite well their formulaic lack of creativity. Dan Golding (who sounds Australian to me) has an interesting response titled A Theory of Film Music:

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I'm afraid that over the years I have become more and more disenchanted with the cultural, academic and social elites. They seem to have become more and more condescending as they become less and less competent and knowledgeable. This article by Nassim Nicolas Taleb explains why: The Intellectual Yet Idiot:
Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They can't tell science from scientism — in fact in their eyes scientism looks more scientific than real science.
The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

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Here is an article about coming to love Mahler: Music That's Everything:
I never cared much for the music of Gustav Mahler. I tried to like it, but without success. The problem, for me, wasn’t that Mahler was modern or unapproachable or “difficult.” Somehow, and despite a natural predisposition against modernism of all kinds, I had learned to appreciate the music of Schoenberg and particularly Shostakovich. Mahler’s symphonies, though, which in one sense are much more approachable and “tonal” than that of modernist composers (he’s commonly categorized as “late Romantic” rather than modern) struck me as deliberately incoherent. Twenty years ago I bought recordings of all nine, listened to them dutifully, but with only the partial exception of the First Symphony, the “Titan,” couldn’t make anything of them. I’ve seen various ones performed on different occasions, but rarely with profit. His famous remark to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, endlessly recited in discussions of Mahler’s music—“The symphony is the world! The symphony must embrace everything!”—sounded to me like highfalutin hooey.
 Mind you, the reverse is also possible. Back when I was an undergraduate I loved Mahler. His lengthy melodramatic wallowing sounded Really Profound. But now I can't stand him. He just sounds neurotic and over-medicated.

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Here is article number 1,257 in a never-ending series about how classical music is All Different Now as the Younger Generation of Artists are Changing Everything. It's from The Independent.
“What happens in the space where genres, sounds and ideas collide?” asked the Barbican when it invited the German pianist and composer Nils Frahm to put together a weekend of music in July.
Here’s what happened: Frahm’s show sold out in minutes. The event was heralded by BBC radio DJ Gilles Peterson, who invited Frahm to join him on his Saturday show. The Guardian printed a huge profile. Even Resident Advisor, the online electronic music community, went along to review, acknowledging Frahm’s crossover appeal among DJs and club devotees. 
One thing didn’t happen. “Not one reviewer from the classical press came,” said Harriet Moss, creative director of a new contemporary classical record label called Cognitive Shift. “Partly because they don’t know where to put it.”
Actually, I think they knew exactly where to put it! Based on the maudlin bit of repetitive sludge that accompanies the article, sounding just like the love-child of Pachelbel and John Luther Adams, I think that one's best option was to avoid the concert! Just a safety tip, one way to identify things to be avoided is to look for the tell-tale meaningless mixed metaphor: "What happens in the space where genres, sounds and ideas collide?" Nothing good, my friends, nothing good!

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And that brings us to our envoi for today. We haven't put up a Sibelius symphony for a while and he is the perfect antidote to Mahler. Instead of confused, lengthy wallowing, we have crisp Northern symphonic goodness. This is the Symphony No. 6 in D minor, about as long as a single Mahler movement. Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, conductor. I think Sibelius said the opening was like the smell of new-fallen snow: