Saturday, April 19, 2014

Elitism and Quality

One of the problems that classical music has these days is that one of the underlying fundamentals of the discipline (and yes, it is partly a discipline) is that achieving high quality in classical music education always smacks of elitism. Talking to some people who have been trying to start a conservatory here, one of the characteristics of Mexican culture, egalitarianism, was holding them back. They wanted to just take everyone who was interested, but if you do that, the ones who lack potential or talent will just hold back the others and you will get nowhere. So they reconciled themselves to auditioning, screening, candidates based on their showing some musical potential.

It is pretty easy to do that. I can't recall if I recounted here my first audition in music. It was when I had applied to enter the School of Music at a West Coast Canadian university. I showed up there one day, but not realizing that I had been scheduled for an audition! I didn't even bring my guitar. So the conductor just dragged me into a room and started playing notes to me on the piano: "sing this back", "now this". He played them in widely different octaves and then may have played pairs of notes and asked me to sing the pair back. He may even have played some chords and asked me if they were major or minor. In any case, I passed with flying colors because I had already been a professional musician, albeit in the pop field, for four years. I played by ear, learned music by ear and had already written forty songs. So that little aptitude test was nothing. But I still started too late to become a virtuoso very easily.

The truth is that the standards in classical music are shockingly high. Perhaps they are high in pop music too, but when I listen to singers there, they rarely sound very accomplished and the videos are often just ludicrously pretentious posturing over a computerized drum track, so, doesn't seem so high quality to me, aesthetically. But to be an outstanding classical musician you have to either have astounding amounts of talent and a lot of luck meeting the right people young, or be born into a privileged part of society, or be born into a family of classical musicians. Because, apart from the willingness to accept a rigorous discipline for many years, you also have to have a huge amount of aptitude, plus money and connections. I didn't have any of these things (well, I do have some aptitude!) so my career was a constant struggle.

Hilary Hahn shows us just what is involved. There isn't any information about her family on Wikipedia, but as she started in a Suzuki violin program at age four at Peabody in Baltimore, one of the most famous music schools in the US, one can assume that her family had cultural capital at least. At ten years of age she was accepted into perhaps the most elite music school in the world, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Actually, according to some figures, it is the most selective higher educational institution in the US. It only accepts enough students to fill out an orchestra and opera company, though added to this are a few composers and keyboard players as well. Total enrollment between 150 and 170. I believe that all students are on full scholarship. I had a girlfriend, a bassoonist, who graduated from Curtis. Their graduates fill the first place chairs in most of the orchestras in the US.

At eleven years, Hilary made her major orchestral debut playing a concerto with the Baltimore Symphony. I'm not sure which one, but she had options, as during her years at Curtis she learned, apart from piles of etudes, twenty-eight concertos! My friend told me that her teacher made her learn a new Vivaldi bassoon concerto every week. Can you imagine how hard these students work? I am reminded of when I spent a summer studying in Salzburg. We had five hours of master class every day. Added to four or five hours of practice, a couple of hours of concert-going, sleeping and eating, that's a full day. One evening I went out to the practice studios to work on the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez for a couple of hours as the next morning I was playing it for Pepe Romero in the master class. On my way in to the studio, I heard a violinist working on a brief section, perhaps four to eight measures, from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto cadenza. At half-tempo. As I left, hours later, he or she was still working on the same passage. The grueling discipline required for the precise mastery of the repertoire is inconceivable unless you have actually done it.

At eighteen years of age, Hilary Hahn released her first album, the kind of thing that many violinists would wait many years to record: a whole album of Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin. A year or so later she released her first recording with orchestra, containing another Mount Everest of the repertoire, the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I was listening to it the other day and it is far better than merely spectacular: it is profoundly musical.

Hilary Hahn is probably, at age 34, the finest violinist in the world. Technically she can play anything and she has an astonishing musical depth. She had a real gift, but was born into an appropriate family and was able to attend the right school at the right time. Then she worked stupendously hard for many years. And the result is a truly great violinist.

It is fashionable to sneer at anything smacking of "elitism", but this is to sneer at quality. This doesn't stop people from doing it, for lots of self-serving reasons. But the truth is that very, very few people have the aptitude, energy, dedication and discipline to become outstanding musicians. You bet they are elite. But wash away the stain from that word, because it should not have any hint of injustice to it. Anyone who achieves high quality in music has most certainly earned it. No one gets there by accident or by spending their time in night-clubs or watching television.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Sorry I didn't put up a post yesterday--these things happen! So let's see what is shaking in the world of music today.

First up, from the Annals of the Weird, an airline actually seemed to care that they damaged a guitar!! I know, it is hard to believe, but Norman Lebrecht has the details.

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Ok, I'm not the only music blogger with a sense of humor. Here are the top ten music schools, according to one blogger.

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This year's Pulitzer Prize in music has been awarded to John Luther Adams for his piece Become Ocean. It's not on YouTube, but here is an older piece called Dark Waves for orchestra:

It sounds just a bit like Sibelius, getting mugged, on the beach, at dawn, by Steve Reich--which is actually kind of interesting... John Luther Adams is not a composer I know, but I will certainly seek out his music in the future.

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Here is an interview with the always-perplexing Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. I mean how can you be a fan of Janet Jackson and dislike the Beatles?

Yep, kind of perplexing...

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Here is some more weird news: young people are into buying cassette tapes purely as collectibles and then not playing them. Here is the story from the BBC. Apparently the group Haim are among those releasing music on physical media in reaction to the trend towards digital only purchases.

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Here is another article about experiments with repetition in music. On the one hand, I think it demonstrates yet again some of the reasons why the avant-garde in music did not ever achieve much popularity (not that that was the goal), but on the other hand, it might also be demonstrating the decline in culture that has been going on for decades now. Or maybe both!

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Here is a poll from CBS/Vanity Fair with all sorts of interesting little bits of information. Most people listen to music over the radio? The two ways I listen to music the most often, with a CD player and computer, are the least used by most people at 1% and 6% respectively while 49% listen most to the radio. The last time I listened to the radio, it was at least twenty years ago and only because they were broadcasting a concert of mine! Ok, now here is a weird statistic. Here is how people responded when asked which musical artist you would want your child to study:

The Beatles, not too surprising, Mozart, ok, but Michael Jackson? Ok, he is the king of pop, I guess. Jay-Z because you should learn how to get rich with music. But the one I can't figure out is Billie Holiday. Sure, great blues singer, but huh?

However, 42%, a plurality, declare that this decade has the worst music ever. The people cannot be wrong! They also declare that the sexiest instrument to play is the guitar, so, pretty accurate study. Heh.

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And for a light-hearted finale, here are some string players that have an unusual stage presence:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Canadian Music: Colonial or Post-Colonial?

Reading  a book of essays on Sibelius I ran into one on colonial and post-colonial, two terms that describe first the cultural domination of one people by another and second, the emancipation of such. Normally I take that sort of thing with a grain of salt, but it started resonating with my experiences in Canada. Canada was, until quite recently, a colony of Great Britain. By quite recently I mean that Canada as a nation didn't exist until 1867 and even though we had been an independent nation since 1931, officially (though with Queen Elizabeth as our sovereign), we didn't actually have our own constitution until 1982 as before then the constitution of Canada resided in England as an Act of the British Parliament. Canada has been remarkably restrained about achieving its independence.

So what are the corollaries or consequences of this from a cultural point of view? The popular musicians seem to have their own identity. We have distinctive Canadian musicians like Don Messer from the Maritimes:

Then there is the inimitable Stompin' Tom Connors:

From Francophone Québec we have Beau Dommage:

That word that you hear that you think is a bad word is actually the word "phoque", French for "seal" and the song is the complaint of a seal in Alaska.

Then from Jewish Montréal we have the truly great Leonard Cohen:

And from Winnipeg, those rockers, The Guess Who:

You want someone more recent? How about Shania Twain?

That is exactly like a gender-reversed version of Robert Palmer:

My god, I think they are even using some of the same prop guitars! And the costumes are remarkably similar except instead of mini-skirts the male models are wearing fishnet tops. Thank goodness... or ... wait ... I mean, thank goodness the men aren't wearing mini-skirts. I think...

And finally, and very reluctantly, Justin Bieber:

The odd thing is that, while the Canadian pop stars (and more folk-oriented ones as well) tended to have their own identity from the beginning (based on traditional music), the closer we move to the present, the more Canadian pop stars sound exactly like American ones. It is as if we moved from being a colony of Great Britain, through a brief window of post-colonialism, to being a cultural colony of the US.

So what about classical music? I'm afraid that is no less dismal. Right through the 19th century and well into the 20th century Canada was simply a minor offshoot of British musical culture. The further west you went, the more there was American and Asian influence as well. The first genuinely remarkable Canadian classical musician was probably Glenn Gould, who was very likely the most important piano interpreter of the music of J. S. Bach in the 20th century.

As for composers, the one that has tried the hardest to be a uniquely Canadian modernist is R. Murray Schafer:

Points for effort, I guess. But I just don't think he quite carves out a space for himself. As for contemporary Québec composers, one (English Canadian) composer of my acquaintance, who I will not name, characterizes their music as "Messiaen plays hockey". Shockingly unfair, I know, but it is just a more pithy way to say what I would have said: Québec composers are, mostly, paler copies of whatever is going on in Paris. One exception might be Claude Vivier:

Compared to the extraordinary music composed by Russian, Finnish, Danish and even Swedish and Norwegian composers in the 20th century, it is tempting to call Canada, as England used to be called, the "land without music".

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The "London" Bach

The Bach family was probably the greatest artistic dynasty of all time. From the sixteenth century right into the 19th century they played such a pervasive role in the musical life of Europe that some German communities used the word "Bach" as a generic term for any musician: "We need a new Bach to run the band concerts on Sundays." I previously wrote about musical dynasties and the Bach family in particular in this post.

Tom Service has done an excellent thing in this week's symphony guide by picking a symphony by one of J. S. Bach's sons, Johann Christian Bach, the "London" Bach, to talk about. At this point in music history the symphony is still close to its origins as an overture or entr'acte in an opera so it is a fairly short work in three movements: fast slow fast. Tom picks the excellent Symphony in G minor, op. 6, no. 6:

Nice stormy example of "Sturm und Drang" which, since it was composed in London and before the German literary movement from which the name derives, demonstrates again that the musical phenomenon probably doesn't have much to do with the literary one. As Tom mentions, J. C. Bach was a big influence on the very young Mozart when he (Mozart) visited London in the 1760s. This piece by J. C. Bach could stand up pretty well against a lot of lesser Mozart. It may have even been an influence on the early G minor Symphony, K. 183 by Mozart written a few years later:

But there is a whole lot more going on in the Mozart. There are more melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas in the first two minutes than in the whole symphony by J. C. Bach. What we hear in the Bach symphony is the rhythmic stiffness and predictable sequences of Baroque music, without the contrapuntal interest. Listen for example to the development section from about the 1'34 mark to about the 2'15 mark in the first movement of the G minor J. C. Bach symphony. One long sequence in which nothing much happens that isn't predictable.

Apart from his childhood tour of the capitols of Europe, Mozart as an adolescent spent quite a bit of time in Italy and perhaps some of the grace and effervescence of his music in all dimensions, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic, comes from Italian music. Certainly when we listen to the Mozart symphony we hear a harmonic and rhythmic flexibility that makes the phrases much more fluid than the ones in the J. C. Bach symphony.

I hope very much that Tom also gives us a symphony by the older Bach son, C. P. E. Bach, the "Berlin" Bach. He was a much more eccentric composer as we can hear in this symphony in B minor:

Tom Service's series is really about the best and most educational one on music in the mass media these days. Thanks to him for it. The only problem with it is that it tends to present every single piece as an stunning bit of innovative wonderfulness, which is both untrue and a bit dull. He is striving for the utmost diversity in the series, which is good, but one of the reasons for listening to, say, J. C. Bach and C. P. E. Bach, is to notice the ways in which the generation of Haydn and Mozart far exceeded them. A list of the fifty greatest symphonies is likely to be a lot less diverse than Tom's selections as it will probably consist 90% of symphonies by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart with a few by Schubert, Sibelius, Shostakovich and possibly Mahler, unless I am right about him, in which case, Brahms and maybe Bruckner. And for a token modernist exemplar, Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms.

Our urge for diversity often ends up conflicting with critical aesthetic judgement. You can't simultaneously ride the horse of diversity and the one of quality. You can't have your horse and eat it too--wait, I think that was a Metaphor Too Far.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Class, Race, Music and Dance

A couple of weird items for you this morning. First of all, the Guardian tries to write the usual article about how horrible it is that classical music excludes people of color. The title comes from a story in the Guardian titled "Class, race and classical music" and it makes all the usual claims. But, interestingly enough, the article quickly runs aground on the details. Here is the sub-head:
Western classical music – performers and audiences alike – is still an almost exclusively white concern. What can be done?
 I boggled at this because, in my experience, it just isn't true. Way back in the 1970s, that supposedly unenlightened era, at least half of the piano students in the music department at university were Chinese. At the same time, the Lieutenant-Governor of the province (in Canada) was east Indian. But what about black people you ask? Well, at that time there were only a handful of black people living in that city but one of them was the conductor of the orchestra. There were a few people of Hispanic descent and one of them, my girlfriend at the time, was a harp student at the conservatory. So, really, there simply was no discernible racism, individual or institutional that I was aware of.

When it comes to music, it is very hard to sing the blues about how black people are excluded from classical music when they dominate pop music so thoroughly and make infinitely more money as well. Here are the musical power couple of the day, Jay-Z and Beyoncé:

Somehow they just don't look that oppressed! Combined net worth as of March 2014, about $900 million.

The article makes a valiant attempt, running against the obvious facts:
In years/generations past institutional racism, of commission and omission, was undoubtedly at play. With no possibility of entry into mainstream – read Caucasian – ensembles, the vast majority of talented, serious musicians of colour went into jazz and later pop, where there was at least a possibility of expression and financial self-sufficiency. These days however, even in the most elite classical organisations, skin colour alone does not guarantee automatic exclusion. While there will remain the odd mostly private exception, among professional musicians, from top to bottom, it’s all about the music: can he or she play at the necessary, Himalayan level and in a manner commensurate with whatever ensemble’s characteristic style? But how to achieve that ascendency without the requisite tools and knowledge of the terrain?
Skin color doesn't actually exclude anyone these days (if it ever did)? So the article defaults to we have to have special programs to help people enter the world of classical music who otherwise wouldn't have. And then there is the obligatory slap at the elitists:
And then there are the gate-keepers, the holy idiots who police performances with trainspotter obsessiveness and the diktat that only those who worship in these often publicly funded temples with the same knowledge and style of commitment as themselves are welcome.
That's me! Holy idiot! The article ends with the hope that:
Like Shakespeare, this music belongs to all and can only benefit from a willingness to welcome and encourage fresh blood into its midst.
This is a remarkable level of incoherence. While on the one hand, Himalayan levels of achievement are needed in classical music, at the same time the "gate-keepers", presumably those who actually know something about the Himalayas of music, are the only bad guys in the article. Bizarre.

Also bizarre is this video of Canadian violinist Lara St. John, playing the Presto from the Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin by J. S. Bach, accompanying tap-dancer Stephanie Cadman. Locations, various places, malls and subway stations and trains in Toronto:

Both the violin-playing and dancing are pretty good. But I have the distinct feeling that a hundred years from now, people will look back on our time as one in which the oddest things were being done to sell classical music.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The String Quartet since 1900

The string quartet was the invention of Joseph Haydn in the early 1760s. He wrote some pieces for himself and some friends to play. Now this would not have been much of a muchness if he hadn't followed it up by writing a lot more string quartets. In the early 1770s he wrote a set that were hugely important in the development of musical structure and compositional techniques, the op. 20 quartets. He followed this set with a lot of others, writing a total of 68 in all. This genre, a four-movement work for two violins, viola and cello, has proven to be one of the most successful in all of music history, right up there alongside the symphony, piano sonata and concerto.

Composers that lent their efforts to Haydn's, making the string quartet perhaps the most prestigious musical medium, were Mozart and Beethoven, followed soon after by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. But it can be said, I think, that the preferred medium in the 19th century was really not chamber music, but rather the symphony and opera. So you can see a decline in both quantity and quality of the string quartet throughout the century.

Rather surprisingly, though, it saw a considerable revival in the 20th century and that was through the efforts of a number of composers. The first on the scene was actually Arnold Schoenberg whose first quartet was written in 1905:

Schoenberg's quartet dates from before his innovative ideas on serialism and didn't make much of a splash. You might think of it as more post-Brahmsian than as the first 20th century quartet.

That title is usually given to Bela Bartók whose first quartet dates from the beginning of 1909. Here is the first movement played by the Emerson Quartet:

That does have a new air to it and Bartók followed it with five others. One of the most characteristic is the String Quartet No. 3, written in 1927:

That is full of new and striking ideas. Another interesting quartet was written just the next year by Leoš Janáček:

One of the most well-known quartets of the century is by Schoenberg's student, Alban Berg. His Lyric Suite dates from slightly earlier, 1925/26. Oddly, there doesn't seem to be a complete version on YouTube, so here are the first three parts:

A bit later one of the most important bodies of string quartet repertoire was begun by Shostakovich with his String Quartet No. 1 dating from 1938:

After this modest beginning, he wrote a lot more important quartets, such as this one, dating from 1960:

A composer who also wrote a lot of interesting quartets was Mieczysław Weinberg. Here is an excerpt from his String Quartet No. 3

Composers have continued to write string quartets pretty regularly as it became a 20th century medium of choice. Some of note are George Crumb's Black Angels for electric string quartet from 1970:

Morton Feldman, String Quartet No. 2 from 1983:

You don't get the whole thing because it is six hours long! Both Steve Reich and Philip Glass have made important contributions. Here is Steve Reich's Different Trains:

And the first part of Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 5:

Like the violin concerto, the string quartet just seems to go on and on, inspiring each new generation of composers.

I want to end with one of the newest pieces for string quartet that I heard just a couple of months ago in a concert by the young Catalyst Quartet. The piece is called Strum and it was composed by Jessie Montgomery, one of the violinists in the ensemble. In the photo accompanying the clip, she is the young woman in the black dress on the right. This piece is just a year or so old and it has a pretty good groove:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In Love with Music

This post will be a little bit different than the usual ones. Yesterday I, quite atypically, played a little concert with a violinist. A few people are trying to start a conservatory here. They have some facilities in an historic building in which a number of rooms have been set up as music studios. There is also a luthier in residence with his workshop. There are a couple of people offering guitar lessons and one who does an ear-training class. But there is no formal structure and no funding. So, a real struggle! In any case, I was asked to give a lecture/recital so, with my violinist, we obliged. Here was the program:

I was a bit proud of the program because it managed to span almost six hundred years of music, and because of the great variety of styles. The first thousand years were represented by a mere one minute of music by Dufay, who is just on the cusp of the Renaissance anyway, but I thought it was pretty good balance on the whole. The two preludes by Shostakovich are from his set of preludes and fugues in all the keys and I transcribed them myself. The moody one in E minor was probably the piece that made the most impact of all the program. I pointed out that you could draw an arrow from the piece by Bach to the ones by Shostakovich because Bach was the main influence on that music. I also pointed out that you could draw another arrow from The Queen's Dumpe (originally for two lutes) and my piece Surreal Reel. Some Elizabethan music is the source for both the jigs and reels of Irish music (which my piece is based on) and the bluegrass music of Appalachia. The music students were a wonderful audience and their numbers seem to have doubled by the end of the concert.

Music students are great audiences because they are both embarked on the study of music and in love with music. This leads to my next thought: we tend to fall in love with pieces of music and with particular composers. Early loves for me were Dvorak and Debussy. Then I moved to the "B"s: Bach, Beethoven and Bartók. Now I am into the "S"s: Sibelius and Shostakovich.

But it is the love for composers that can lead to some odd reactions sometimes. As I said yesterday:
Yesterday I put up a post on what composers and pieces are performed the most by American orchestras. This was just for one year, the 2010/11 season, so it probably changes a bit from year to year. But I threw in a little explanatory remark about why Bach didn't appear on either list. It is a bit odd that the composer that usually appears at the top of any list of the greatest composers made no appearance on either of these two lists, isn't it? The answer is, as I said, "the reason that Bach does not appear on either list is that little of his music is really suitable for performance by a 19th century type orchestra." From the subsequent kerfuffle in the comments, I see that, as happens sometimes, what I think is a perfectly innocuous observation, rubs some folks the wrong way.
Why do people react so strongly to what I may see as an innocuous observation? I think the reason is that they are in love with the composer and if they read a remark seen as critical of the composer, it just rubs the wrong way. In this instance, I wasn't even criticizing Bach, just remarking that his music was really not suitable for performance by a full-size orchestra.

Of course, I must confess that I do go out of my way sometimes to say things that I know will be inflammatory. I have done this with a lot of pop music and even with some jazz. Even years later I get follow-up comments on that post! There is something about music that pulls us into a personal relationship with it. This is one of the great and magical strengths of music.

A lot of professional musicians get to a less personal relationship with music. They play with professional expertise rather than real joy. Musicologists may become enamored with the nuances of their profession and find their pleasure more in "problematizing" the music than loving it. There are lots of things that can draw us away from that direct love of music. Perhaps on this blog I sometimes make the same mistake. Perhaps I shouldn't be so bold about criticizing much-loved composers like Brahms and Mahler. On the other hand, I like to hope that if I do so, it is based somehow on a real love of music. I think people do sense this, because here at the Music Salon, all our disagreements seem to be friendly ones.

So here is to the love of music. Here is the Prelude and Fugue in E minor by Shostakovich, the prelude of which I transcribed for violin and guitar. Played by the composer. Brilliant use of the unusual interval of the diminished fourth: