Sunday, July 5, 2020

Loves and Loathes

You'd think there would be an obvious tag for this one, after all, a lot of what goes through one's mind (well, my mind) on a given day is noticing things that we like or don't like, or as my title has it, things we love as opposed to things we loathe. So here is a list of loathes:
  • All of those movies where actors dress up in ridiculous costumes and engage in even more ridiculous fights while surrounded by supremely ridiculous CGI (computer-generated imagery)
  • Those other supposedly more "realistic" movies where a cast of Hollywood stars demonstrate their smug entitlement while an utterly unbelievable scenario unfolds. Examples? All the Ocean movies: Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, Ocean's Thirteen
  • Most movies with these actors: Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, George Clooney, Johnny Depp
  • Any sitcom with a laugh track
  • Any remake of a classic movie
  • The Android operating system
  • Most music written by Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler
  • Most pop divas: Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Beyoncé. I'm kind of neutral about Lady Gaga and Rihanna
  • U2
And a corresponding list of loves:
  • Gamelan music from both Java and Bali
  • Any film by Peter Weir, Clint Eastwood or Akira Kurosawa
  • Most films by Luc Besson
  • Most movies with these actors: Heath Ledger, Paul Bettany, Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Alicia Vikander, Denzel Washington and Jean Reno
  • Nearly everything written by these composers: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich
  • Most songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen
  • The English Beat
  • Grigory Sokolov and Valery Gergiev
  • Northern Italian red wines: Barolo, Dolcetto d'Alba and Amarone della Valpolicella
  • Ice wine
I feel like I have left out a bunch of stuff from both categories...

Hard to pick a good envoi for this one, so I'm going with Weird Al Yankovic:

Saturday, July 4, 2020

A Poetic Pause

I have a poetry tag, though it is rarely used. Poetry has been part of my life for over fifty years, but only recently have I taken notice of the social place of poetry in this changing world. My impression was that it held hardly any interest to people, especially young people, now. But some commentators have been disagreeing with that, saying that poetry, whether in the form of song lyrics, hip hop, or "slam" poetry readings is actually alive and well.

Let me share a bit of my personal history with poetry. When I was in my teens, and sporadically up to my early 30s, I wrote rather precious poetry myself, some of which was even published. I was astonished, when I was nineteen, to have a poem I submitted to an American literary magazine accepted and published. I'm still astonished. I never followed up on that because poetry for me was largely a private affair and I didn't really look for publication. At university in my early 20s I discussed my poetry with my English professor and he was reasonably encouraging. However, I was actually enrolled in the music department so didn't do anything with that. I did attend a poetry reading by Basil Bunting, who was in residence that year, and we became acquaintances, talking about poetry and music. As I recall, he was a fan of Andrés Segovia.

My tastes in poetry are pretty wide: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and the poets I selected for my set of songs, Songs from the Poets. Those included Li Po, Aristophanes, Anna Akhmatova, Rainer Maria Rilke, Victor Hugo, Wallace Stevens, Robert Graves, Philip Larkin (setting that one caused the loss of a very old friendship!), Theodore Roethke (my encounter with him was due to the aforementioned English professor), and John Donne.

I also like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, but for me song lyrics are a slightly different category than poetry simple. But, of course, I set to music a whole bunch of examples of pure poetry, choosing ones that seemed to trigger some sort of musical response in me.

So do people read much literary poetry these days? Just old folks like myself?

For an envoi, here is one of my songs, Nuits de Juin by Victor Hugo and the only text not in English.

Here is the text of that short poem:

L’été, lorsque le jour a fui, de fleurs couverte
La plaine verse au loin un parfum enivrant ;
Les yeux fermés, l’oreille aux rumeurs entrouverte,
On ne dort qu’à demi d’un sommeil transparent.

Les astres sont plus purs, l’ombre paraît meilleure ;
Un vague demi-jour teint le dôme éternel ;
Et l’aube douce et pâle, en attendant son heure,
Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

This has been a weird time for musicians. I have been able to get in much more practicing than usual and almost am back to being reasonably in shape, technically. I am actually thinking about doing a solo recording with video. Keep your eye on this space! And I was talking to an old friend of mine who is principal flute in a Canadian orchestra and even though there are no concerts, everything is cancelled until next April, at least, he is practicing three hours a day.

* * *

Ah, to be in Madrid, now that July is here: The Teatro Real is staging an indoor Traviata with audience--well, 50% audience!

* * *

Here is a sad tale that might represent what a lot of orchestras in North America are going through: A CELLIST’S TALE: MY ORCHESTRA JUST CEASED TO EXIST.
So as of today the Nashville Symphony, my employers for the last 36 years, ceases to exist in the form many of you know and love. And it won’t be back, at least not in its former state, for a long time, if ever.
I'm pretty sure that classical music in Europe will recover and do so pretty soon. But in North America? Right now it is odds or evens whether it will recover at all...

* * *

I was searching for something, anything, that was not coronavirus related and came up with this: IT’S THE NAKED PIANIST… LOOK AWAY NOW.
Mixed-race, openly gay, Stockport classical pianist Emmanuel (Manny) Vass, 31, continues to push boundaries and divide traditionalists with the release his third album, The Naked Pianist.
From stripping down to Union Jack boxers on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent; being spotted by the pool chatting to fellow daters in his orange speedos on Channel 4’s First Dates Hotel, to featuring as a ClassicFM Young Classical Star, Manny continues to take risks shaking up the classical world.
Frankly, I'm neither shaken nor stirred.

* * *

The New York Times confirms what I was saying above: Cultural Life Is Back in Europe. In the U.K., They Talk of Collapse.
In France, Germany, Italy or Belgium, where the arts are heavily subsidized by the state, performing companies and museums can survive with reduced ticket sales. But in Britain, where government funding is much lower and organizations rely on commercial income, most are unprepared for a future in which they can only admit a fraction of their usual audience.
* * *

Got the virus? Why not dance it away with a Neapolitan tarantella from the 17th century:

Here is some dance music by Shostakovich:

And a little Indian classical dance:

Here is Rihanna's CGI-assisted dance from the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets:

Of course, Russians can do incredible things without CGI:

And that it for today. Have a happy and dancey weekend!

Thursday, July 2, 2020


Reading a book on extended violin techniques I was amused to read the following passage:
An extended five-string violin with frets (discussed in chapter 6), produces a “quantized” glissando, in which the slide is broken into discrete half steps (fig. 2.53). This is the kind of glissando produced by a guitar. 
FIGURE 2.53. Quantized glissando.

Strange, Patricia. The Contemporary Violin (The New Instrumentation Series) . Scarecrow Press. Kindle Edition.
Well, yeah, of course. With all those frets there is no possible way of doing a glissando on guitar without hearing all the semitones. Right? The only thing is, way back when I was a young guitarist I heard a Segovia recording where he did a glissando from a fairly high note on the second string to a fairly low note on the same string and it was perfectly smooth. No discrete steps. It was so expressive and impressive that I set out to learn how to do it. Turns out that if you have exactly the right amount of finger pressure, it works. Too much pressure and you hear the "steps," too little pressure and you lose the note. The next step was to figure out how to do it on the wound strings without the whisking effect like wearing corduroy pants. The trick there is to turn your finger so you are sliding on a part that is away from the callus. Then, with exactly the right amount of pressure, you can do a smooth glissando even on the bass strings. There are lots of examples in my piece Dark Dream starting from around the one minute mark:

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Two Shostakovich 7ths

Somebody stop me, I'm about to do something malicious: I'm going to compare two performances of this symphony and say why I prefer one.

Here is the first: Marin Alsop conducting the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra:

For this particular exercise you don't have to listen to the whole thing, the first five minutes will do.

Now the second performance: Valery Gergiev conducting the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre.

Both of these are terrific orchestras and the solos are really excellent. Listen to the piccolo player with the Frankfurt band from the 5:45 minute mark. You may find Gergiev's conducting style to be odd with all his twitchy, wiggly beats--plus he is literally conducting using a toothpick! Alsop is more conventional with clear, disciplined baton technique.

But for me it is no contest at all: Gergiev and the Mariinsky have by far the better performance. Is it that they have the advantage of being Russian playing Russian music? That might be part of it. But the Frankfurters are a terrific orchestra. In May 2017 I heard them playing the Rite of Spring by Russian Igor Stravinsky in Madrid and it was terrific, conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada. So you don't actually have to be Russian, though it may help.

Here is how I would characterize the differences: from the moment he steps on the podium, Gergiev is in some kind of elemental musical space. He and the orchestra rip into the opening with fervor and despair. I say despair, because this is a serious symphony and they play it with a very serious demeanor. Alsop, on the other hand is cheery and personable, shaking hands with both concert-master and assistant concert-master, smiling at the audience and bowing a few times. Her opening is fine: tidy, organized, with really, really, really even sixteenth notes. "Tidy rhythms, tidy rhythms," I can almost hear her exclaiming to the orchestra in rehearsal. But we are already in the wrong space. Shostakovich and this piece in particular, is not about tidy rhythms. It is about existential terror. As Nick Harnoncourt said in a quite different context, all notes are not created equal.

Mariinsky with Gergiev don't have time to make their sixteenth notes all perfectly even--they are playing Shostakovich for Christ's sake and those sixteenths are about suffering, not about tidiness. Go listen to Gergiev's opening again. That first beat feels ripped from the depths of hell and the following passages are still trailing fire and brimstone. Alsop? Nope, still tidy. Yes, the lyrical sections are nice, I mentioned that wonderful piccolo player (even notice how many great solos Shostakovich gives to the flute and piccolo?), but she has framed the whole aesthetic space so narrowly that the performance never plumbs the depths.

The difference between a good performance and a great performance is huge, actually. In the one the performers get inside the music somehow and it just seems to spill out of them in a glorious torrent. In the other, everything is very capably played, the rhythms and notes are all very correct and the performers never actually get inside. Maybe great performances are not something we hear every day, or every year even, but it is the hope of hearing one that makes us go to concerts.

The Transmission of Culture

A perennial topic here at the Music Salon is the current state of affairs in classical music (and culture generally). There have been some good recent suggestions about how to improve things--that is, if we ever get past this pandemic crisis. But it might be worth while to give a thought to just how we got to this present state of affairs.

I'm not sure if very much research has been done on this, but if you look at music history you get the sense that, as far as written music goes, popular music slowly emerged from the shadows over the period from 1500 to 1800, then took a steeper ascent in the 19th century before positively exploding in the 20th century. And since World War II the climb accelerated. A nice graph of popular music sales from 1800 to 2020 would be really useful right now--it would look something like the climate change "hockey stick" graph:

But while that graph remains controversial, I doubt that, if we had the numbers, the music one would be. According to Forbes the highest-earning musicians in 2019 were Taylor Swift at $185 million and Kanye West at $150 million. The Beatles are still making a lot of money today, but back in the 60s they probably only made a few million a year--amounts are hard to find. Before the Beatles popular musicians earned relatively little.

Popular music has mastered all sorts of techniques for monetizing success and in the process the music has come to resemble an industrial product. We even refer to the music realm as the "music business" or "music industry."

So what does this have to do with the transmission of culture? All cultural traditions and practices need to be transmitted to each new generation or they will be lost. Some cultures seem to be pretty good at this, others not. Reading about music in Java I was struck by how, since Indonesian independence, there have been extensive efforts made to preserve and even spread the unique culture of the Javanese gamelan orchestra. I am at a loss to cite counterexamples, though I'm sure there are many. Cases where the traditions have not been preserved and are lost to us, are, well, lost to us and we may not even be aware they ever existed.

Perhaps the cultural tradition that I am most keenly aware of that has, I suspect, been almost lost to us, is that of poetry. I expect some pushback on this. I certainly don't know the whole story, but it is my strong impression that if we go back a few generations there was a general awareness of poetry among nearly everyone and specific competences among a small percentage. Maybe 10% of the population could recite one or more poems from heart. Perhaps 5% even wrote some poetry. Over the last fifty years or two generations, I think this has all gone away. No-one encourages (or forces!) public school students to memorize poetry and they certainly don't read it or write it to any extent whatsoever.

One of the things that got me thinking about this was the Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society that I watched recently. The message in that film, which takes place in a private school in the 1950s, is that you can kill the passion for literature by approaching it in a too-analytical manner. That was one stage in the internment of poetry in a cold, cold grave. The more recent stage is that educators simply decide that most literature is too difficult or too reactionary or too racist to bother teaching so they will focus on just those works that perfectly fit their progressive narrative. Oh, and analysis, this time called "deconstruction" is back with a vengeance.

The situation in music seems rather different. The higher educational system seems to be functioning at high efficiency. Sure, you may complain that Juilliard keeps cranking out unfeeling virtuosos, but they are doing it very efficiently! The problem is that all the university music departments and conservatories in North America are cranking out more highly-trained musicians than the market can absorb. There are not enough audiences.

That problem, the lack of listeners who really enjoy classical music, is one that lies rather lower on the educational ladder: good listeners are ones that have been exposed early enough and often enough and with some understanding and context to classical music and therefore develop a taste for it. The fact that music programs have largely disappeared from the school system is likely one of the main reasons why the classical audience only comprises 2% or perhaps 3% of the music market.

This is a vicious cycle: music programs are deemed less and less important as fewer and fewer administrators are musically aware themselves.

It doesn't take much to lose a cultural tradition. What may seem like a rock-solid institution today like the Metropolitan Opera or the LA Philharmonic can disappear in a couple of generations if neglected. I think the pandemic is revealing to us the fragility of the performing arts. Will they recover? More importantly, will they flourish and be handed on to future generations?

Wim Winters is making an interesting effort with historical reconstructions of tempi in Beethoven and others. Here he is playing a bunch of Haydn sonatas on clavichord.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Today's Concert: Grieg from Frankfurt

The Frankfurt Radio Orchestra were doing a great job with high-quality concert videos before the coronavirus crisis and they have kept on during it. Today's streaming music concert is Grieg's Holberg Suite conducted by Ruth Reinhardt. Is it my imagination or are we seeing a lot more woman conductors than usual these days?