Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Short Takes

I've tagged this "miscellanea" because I don't know where else it might fit. I keep having these little one-liners running through my head and, since I don't have a comedy writing gig to soak them up, I decided to stick them in a post. Trigger warning: there might be the occasional one related to politics or economics. Like the first one:

  • If you hate the idea of having your economic choices influenced by Big Corporations, then you should move to Venezuela or Cuba where you can have them dictated to you by malignant dictators and enforced by the army.
  • No amount of hip costuming, stimulating staging, social media promotion or chatting to the audience can compensate for poor choice of repertoire, faulty technique and musical insensitivity. Isn't this perfectly obvious?
  • The founding of Canada as a union of French and English-speaking colonies of Great Britain right next door to the USA led to the fond hope that it would result in a happy blend of British government, American know-how and French culture. Sadly, the result often seems to be an unfortunate mix of French government, British know-how and American culture.
  • If you go to the bank to get a mortgage so that you can buy a house, do you know where that money comes from? Do you think it is money that was deposited in the bank? Oh no, not at all. The bank simply creates it out of thin air. It's called fractional reserve banking. Doesn't that make you just a tad nervous?
  • When I was an undergraduate at university I took an excellent introductory philosophy course. The professor, a young recent PhD, was brilliant and engaging. One day we were discussing the perception of time and he stated that while humans perceive time as a line going from past to future, that dolphins perceive time as an expanding spiral:

Many, many years later it occurred to me that we don't know how dolphins perceive time. Nobody does. How could you? I'm not even sure how I perceive time. In Book 11 of St. Augustine's Confessions, he ruminates on the nature of time, asking, "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not." The amazing thing is that, even in a class that was devoted to critical thinking, we simply accepted, uncritically, a quite surprising claim by the professor, without a shred of evidence.
  •  I was at a concert the other night that turned out to be all 19th century music and I found myself thinking: "19th century music is a rich flow of sonorities that goes on and on and is fundamentally pointless." Your milage may vary, of course...
  • One company in Connecticut uses an interesting set of questions to qualify potential employees. One question is "When was the last time you cried and why?" Ok, the last two times were, first, the last time I listened to Grigory Sokolov play "Les tendres plaintes" by Rameau: 
and the other time was the last time I watched the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season five, where she dies. What do you think, would I get hired?
  • This didn't wander into my brain all on its own, but was inspired by a blog emanating from a secure, undisclosed location, so I won't reveal the source. But one very well-known social scientist, when asked who was the most accomplished person who ever lived, answered "Aristotle" who invented logical thought with six treatises in the 4th century BC. The measure of how important this was is that no-one was able to come up with any improvements or additions to them until the late 19th century, twelve hundred years later! All of our 21st century information technology is based on fundamental logical principles whose codification we owe to Aristotle. Oh, and he also invented metaphysics, ethics, meteorology, psychology, poetics, botany and a few other things. Not all by himself, he was strongly influenced by a couple of predecessors who included Socrates and Plato.

Dude, It's Dance Music!

One entertaining theme here at the Music Salon is the wacky high jinks that ensue when well-meaning people try to make classical music "accessible" to people who mostly don't seem interested. Dude, with millions of clips of classical music available for free on YouTube 24 hours a day, how much more accessible could it be?

Anyway, Anne Midgette has a piece at the Washington Post that illustrates the hazards: Conductor plays ‘Rite of Spring’ at a club — and then berates the audience for acting like they’re at a club
“We have started a revolution in classical music,” the conductor James Blachly told the crowd. Behind him was a 70-piece orchestra. In front of him was a dance club. The venue was Dock 5, a nightclub at Union Market in the District, and the event was billed by Septime Webre’s Halcyon Stage as a “Stravinsky Rave: Rite of Spring Dance Party.”
All around the world, orchestras are eager to break out of their conventional trappings to reach new audiences. The Tonhalle orchestra in Zurich has a long-standing series called tonhalleLATE, with concerts starting at 10 p.m. followed by a dance party with DJs. Two years ago, the NSO played at Echostage, the District’s largest club. So why not offer a Stravinsky rave, let people dance, break out of the traditional classical music mold, and abolish the outmoded idea that people are supposed to listen to certain kinds of music in certain ways?
The only problem: Blachly’s “revolution” didn’t really allow for that kind of freedom.
That is, having gone to all the trouble of putting an orchestra (largely made up of New York-based music students and freelancers) in a club, and assembling a trendy-looking audience (largely, it seemed, people with some connection or other to the various presenting organizations), he didn’t actually want a rave atmosphere. 
The conductor kept berating the audience for talking, took them to task for their cellphones (“we’re here to dance, not to take pictures”) and, at one point, actually stopped the music to try to force people to be quiet. Some in the audience tried to help, with cries of “It’s classical music!” and “Show some respect!” — which seems the opposite message to the one sent by playing Stravinsky in a club in the first place.
Heh! Well, of course! Turns out, now who could have guessed it, that a dance club is a very poor venue for one of the most demanding scores of the 20th century. If you want people to listen closely to complex music then you really need a specially designed space with good acoustics and good sightlines. Something like, I dunno, a concert hall?

Sometimes I just get the feeling that we are regressing culturally.

Let's have a listen to Stravinsky while we are on the topic. The Rite of Spring played by the Netherlands' Radio Filharmonisch Orkest conducted by Jaap van Zweden:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Ann Althouse and I seem to be on the same page today. She quotes this fascinating passage from a Victor Davis Hanson piece in the National Review:
More and more Americans today are becoming Stoic dropouts. They are not illiberal, and certainly not reactionaries, racists, xenophobes, or homophobes. They’re simply exhausted by our frenzied culture.... Monastics are tuning out the media.... When everything is politicized, everything is monotonous; nothing is interesting... For millions of Americans, their music, their movies, their sports, and their media are not current fare. Instead, they have mentally moved to mountaintops or inaccessible valleys, where they can live in the past or dream of the future, but certainly not dwell in the here and now...."
Hey, that's where I went, incrementally, starting, oh, about forty years ago.

Let's listen to a musical metaphor for moving to an inaccessible valley. This is Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 conducted by Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

UPDATE: I was in a big hurry this morning and never got to the end of that Hanson piece (he does go on). But sure enough, the best was at the end:
Today at 6 a.m. in the dark, I stopped at a gas station in the California coastal foothills. The car next to me had, I thought, way-too-loud booming rap music of the “kill the ho,” “bust up the pig” generic type. Why listen to all that before sunrise? I decided, in protest to the early-morning noise, to leave my own music louder than his as I filled the tank. The first song happened to be a short old folk rendition of Carl Sandburg’s lyrical “The Colorado Trail,” a sad homage to a 16-year-old girl who died on the way westward: "Laura was a laughin’ girl, joyful in the day. Laura was my darling girl. Now she’s gone away. Sixteen years she graced the Earth, and all of life was good. Now my life lies buried ’neath a cross of wood." I then switched tracks to Joan Baez’s folk version of the 18th-century “Plaisir d’amour.” As it ended with Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment? Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie, the young driver, his neck and wrists spotted with tattoos, got into his car (he had earlier turned down his stereo around “Now she’s gone away”) and drove up alongside me. What next? He grinned, “Hey, I liked your songs, okay?”

Now You Tell Me!

Turns out I'm an opsimath and I know that courtesy of Ann Althouse:
"A person who begins to learn or study late in life" — OED. 
1808   Gentleman’s Mag. June 480/2   From the dissipation and idleness of his earlier years, Mr. Fox in Greek and Roman Literature was necessarily an Opsimath....
1968   T. M. Disch Camp Concentration (1969) i. 58   ‘Opsi?’ I asked Mordecai. ‘Short for opsimath—one who begins to learn late in life. We're all opsimaths here.’
1992   W. F. Buckley WindFall xvii. 268   They took me thirty years to learn, opsimath that I am in so many matters....
This is a word I learned only because it came up in a NYT acrostic — "Late learner, like Grandma Moses." I searched the entire archive of the NYT and found not a single appearance of this word. Surely, it's a bit useful.
Because I was born into a very humble Canadian prairie family, I really had no opportunity to be a child prodigy, so I have to be more productive on the other end of life. What, you think Mozart would have started composing at age five if he had not had Leopold Mozart, a well-known violinist as father? And if he had not had the opportunity to tour the great capitols of Europe and perform before the nobility and royalty? And if his father had not taken him to Italy to study when he was a teenager? Believe me, if Mozart had been born into my family, he would not be a household name today. Or so I suspect.

My mother was also a violinist, or as she preferred, "fiddler", but where I grew up I was far indeed from any potential opportunities for study or exposure. If we had not moved close to a university in my mid-teens I would likely still be living in northern British Columbia either playing in a country band or working in a bank. Yep.

But instead I'm an opsimath, meaning not so much that I begin to learn late in life, but that the process of learning, at which I started relatively late, is one that I take up with renewed interest at my advanced age. Actually, the urge to learn and study and put it into practice has come in successive waves in my life.

  • In my late teens I became very interested in ukiyo-e, the 17th and 18th century Japanese art form
  • Also around this time I discovered classical music and began doing a lot of reading and listening--this impelled me to go to university
  • Alongside my musical studies at university I began to do some serious reading: Dante, Divina Commedia; Copleston, History of Philosophy, Shakespeare, Toynbee, Study of History; Spengler, Decline of the West, etc.
  • After quite a few years as a classical guitar soloist, which was more practical than intellectual, I returned to university as a graduate doctoral student in musicology where I did a lot of seminars on DuFay, Shostakovich, opera and comedy, theme types, fugue, experimental music, 20th century theory and analysis and so on
  • In recent years I have studied statistics, technical analysis of stocks, and the Canadian Securities Course
  • Most recently I have gone back to music history and done serious surveys of orchestral music (which involved listening to all the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Pettersson and others), piano music, chamber music and now, opera
The practical purpose of the last is because I am more and more interested in composition.

So there you go. I suspect the very first step is getting rid of your television.


Let's end with an excerpt from Falstaff by Verdi, which he completed when he was nearly eighty years old. This is just the finale with a nice fugue:

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Lute Player

Not sure if I will do any posting today or not, but as a token effort I offer this painting of a lutenist tuning by Theodoor Rombouts:

Click to enlarge
The painting is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and they comment as follows:
Lute players were often ridiculed for the inordinate amount of time they devoted to tuning their instruments. The intense look of this street musician seems to underscore the difficulty of the task and suggest that perhaps more than musical harmony is at stake. Showing a musical instrument being tuned was a veiled reference to striving for harmony in love. Stringed instruments could also symbolize temperance, especially when shown in the company of a tankard and a pipe, as here.
Yes, in one 17th century manual the author writes that a sixty year old lutenist has spent thirty of them tuning. But remember, a lot of lutes, especially after 1600, had an inordinate number of strings: twenty-five or more! Oh, and why would string instruments symbolize temperance?

Let's hear some lute music from the 17th century. This is "Narcisse" by Denis Gaultier played by Richard LabschĂŒtz:

Great Guitar Duos

When I was a concert artist, great guitar duos were few. Presti-Lagoya were a very fine one, but after Ida Presti passed away, a duo that was only a duo and not just two virtuosos getting together, was rare. The most famous duo was Julian Bream and John Williams, but while great players, they were not a great duo because they really didn't spend much time rehearsing together.

But times have changed and now there are a whole bunch of amazing guitar duos with spectacular technique, good repertoire and outstanding ensemble. And all they do is play as a duo, so they play a lot from memory, which traditionally chamber ensembles don't do. I just ran across a whole bunch on YouTube, so have a listen. First the Duo Françaix playing a piece that Bream and Williams made popular in the guitar duo arrangement, Oriental, Danza Española by Granados:

Here is the Henderson Kolk Duo with the Prélude to Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel:

And here is Le tic-toc-choc by Couperin in the arrangement by SoloDuo:

Are you going wow yet? How about a guitar quartet that plays Mahler from memory?

One more duo, the Kupinski Guitar Duo with the Ritual Fire Dance by de Falla:

What is remarkable here is that there are a lot of duos and they are all technically accomplished and fine musicians. Guitar duos used to be the realm of amateurs. No more.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

One Million Page Views!

It had to happen sooner or later, and, well, ok, possibly later than with most blogs. But it happened. My page views count just topped one million!

Let's have a fanfare or a Fish cheer or something: