Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Couple More Haiku

I'm working on the Friday Miscellanea, collecting little tidbits from here and there, but I have a busy week, so I won't have anything much else for you. A few more haiku have turned up, though, (meaning I wrote a few more), so here are a couple:

Too much weather

From the valley to the peak:

Rain, then hail, then snow.

* * *

Fir trees on the ridge

(We are resting by the stream)

Burst into flame!

* * *

Both of these call for a comment. They both recall my experiences out of high school when I worked in forestry for a couple of years. This was in British Columbia where logging is a large industry. The first haiku recalls a day in early spring when young trees are planted. We were working on a mountainside, going up and down the slope, and at the bottom it was raining (it is usually raining on the coast of BC), in the middle of the slope it turned to hail, and a light snow at the top. So all day long we passed through these three. The second haiku is from a brief experience as a fire-fighter. This was also in the mountains and as we refreshed ourselves with water from a little stream in a ravine, a whole range of fir trees on the ridge above us suddenly burst into flame, from the base to the top. It was very dramatic and quite unexpected. What happens in the summer in BC is that if a fire gets started, it can work its way along the forest floor, slowly consuming the year's-long buildup of bark and pine-needles until it reaches more trees. A fir tree in a dry summer month is like a torch waiting to be lit.

Many years after he wrote it, Sibelius said that the opening of his Symphony No. 6 always reminded him of the scent of new snow. This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra:

Monday, October 26, 2020

Russian Modes

How odd that I didn't have a label for "modes" until just now! I recall standing about ten feet away from Richard Taruskin many years ago at the annual American Musicological Society conference (it was in Baltimore that year) when he asked the Russian musicologist who was giving a talk on Tchaikovsky where one of the modes he had just mentioned could be found in the music. The Russian gave a moment's thought and said, "it is in volume two of the collected works, the choral piece such-and-such." Musicologists know all the details! In any case, I forget now exactly what mode that was, but it is certainly the case that Russians use a lot of weird modes not found elsewhere. Let's have a look at them, shall we?

I have mentioned the octatonic scale often enough here. It is a symmetrical scale that comes in two forms, a "minor" one and a "phrygian" one. Those are not the official names, I'm not sure they have official names. But one starts with a tone-semitone repeated, the "minor" form, while the other is reversed, starting with a semitone-tone repeated, hence "phrygian." I just call them that for my own convenience. Here they are:

I think the first time they were actually used in a musical composition was by Franz Liszt, but the scale really found a home with Russian composers, especially Rimsky-Korsakov and his students. In Russia it is known as the "Korsakov scale." Stravinsky used it a lot and so did Shostakovich. Russian musicologists have pointed out that Shostakovich used other modes as well and Russian musical history is particularly rich in weird modes. From the book Shostakovich Studies, p. 91, here are some other Russian modes:

Click to enlarge

If the only Tchaikovsky you know is the Piano Concerto No. 1 played by Yuja Wang in an incredibly short skirt, then this piece by Tchaikovsky may surprise you: the Hymn of the Cherubim:

Kanye West and Taste

I ran across a fascinating post over at Ann Althouse about Kanye West and taste. The title is too long for a link, but here is the important quote:

"It was something that God put in my heart back in 2015. A few days before the MTV awards it hit me in the shower. When I first thought of it, I just started laughing to myself and all this joy came over my body, through my soul. I felt that energy and spirit. Two days later, I accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the MTV Awards. Instead of performing my array of hit songs, I gave just my perspective on awards shows.... It even took heart to say it in that context and people were just like: Oh! Their minds were blown.... I had different friends -- some people in the music industry, some tech elites -- and they took it as a joke.... I'm completely confident that I will figure out how to get America out of debt, that I have the ability, once I see everything. I never make the wrong decision when I'm given all the information. That's my skill set. Anything I go into — producing, rap, homes, clothing, anything — once I'm given the right information, I apply my taste. And I have the best taste on the planet. Could you imagine Quincy Jones as a president? Walt Disney? Steve Jobs? For America to be as warming and inviting as Disney World. There used to be this dream. People still have this dream of coming to America.... I know that me as president would be the best thing that would ever happen for America's foreign policy. I've traveled more than any president already, and I bring people together. I put rivals on songs together to create masterpieces.... I'm definitely 100% winning in 2024...."

And here is the video:

Now, of course, his 2020 campaign went nowhere, but what interests me is the assertion of the validity of the judgement of taste. In my numerous posts on aesthetics, I have often talked about taste:

And there are lots of others. I think what Kanye is saying is that he has an intuitive grasp of what is good and what is not good and the exercise of this is what we call "taste" --or used to! The whole notion of taste was formidably disparaged by modernist artists as you can read in the first of my posts linked to above. Picasso hated the idea of "taste." The notion of taste is tied up with that other heterodox notion of "quality." We have no problem with the idea of poor quality or high quality when it comes to fruit and vegetables, technology, automobiles or fabric. But we have been taught to shy away from any kind of hierarchy of quality when it comes to the arts. TASTE IS SUBJECTIVE we cry! I think what this comes from is the way things like beauty and ugliness are received. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder because that is where it is received. But this does not mean that beauty is subjective, just that its reception is.

What do I mean by that? Well, it is obvious that there are vast differences in quality between different artworks. The sketch I did the other day has value only to myself, but the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci are of immense value. And not just "in the eye of the beholder." They can be auctioned for vast sums of money because they have objective aesthetic value even though different people may perceive them differently. You might perceive a painting differently on different days and at different times of your life, but that does not change the painting itself. The subjectivity is only in yourself.

But somehow, out of this, the general consensus is that aesthetics is relative. That everyone's judgement is equally valid. Obviously not. Some people have high levels of intuitive judgement of taste and others do not. Kanye creates very popular music and designs very popular running shoes. In certain areas, he has a great capacity for aesthetic judgement.

I'm not sure it would be safe to trust him with the economy, though...

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Sunday Musings

I know I have just not been posting as often as I used to, but I have a variety of exciting excuses I'm sure you would like to hear! In the early years of the blog I would often post more than once a day. I had more of an educational urge then and I suppose I equated my blog audience to a group of potential students. This comes from teaching music in one way or another for two or three decades.

This reminds me of the one time I think I ever impressed my father! The only problem I ever had with my parents was that they, due to their educational and cultural limitations, could never appreciate to any extent my musical activities. Even if I played a high-profile concert, they had to struggle to see why it was worthy in any way. But once, my father was impressed. When I was quite early in my career, still an undergraduate music student, I got a job teaching an adult education guitar class once a week. It was out in a remote suburb so the first time I taught the class, my father drove me out there and hung around during the class. It was a big challenge: a huge number of aspiring guitarists showed up with their horrible old, untuned guitars. Of the hour-long class, I swear it took me the first half hour just to get all those guitars sort-of in tune. The school board expected maybe twenty to show up, but we had sixty students that first night--they split them up afterwards. So, sixty guitar-players, what do you do? I taught them the simplified chords to a simple Bob Dylan song, I don't remember which. So, by the end of the hour, I had them all singing and playing. Together. My father was amazed and couldn't imagine how I had managed to do that.

But I am not in an educational mode so much any more. Sorry! To be honest, while I was pretty good at it, I never really enjoyed teaching that much. Few of the students are talented to a significant extent, so you spend most of your career trapped in a small room with people who aren't very good! I remember the great violinist Paul Kling telling me a story once. He was a child prodigy, broadcast playing concertos on Vienna radio when he was nine years old. After a wonderful career touring with the Brahms concerto under Karajan and concert-master in Vienna, Louisville (Kentucky) and Tokyo, he was chair of the music department in Victoria, BC, Canada. Once an American violin student auditioned to enter the program and rather aggressively asked why she should study at this obscure Canadian school instead of a big American one (Paul had previously headed the string program at the Indiana University music school). Paul's answer: "Well, I have been fooling everyone for fifty years or so, I guess I can fool you too!"

I'm not sure I am running out of things to say, though that is always a possibility. This is the 3,175th post, after all! But what is true is that more of my energies are directed to composing than blogging. I also notice that since I have taken up journaling, one of my three new hobbies of sketching, fountain pens and journaling, I notice that these activities also take time away from the blog. Finally, it is hard to find new topics other than the ones that have been so thoroughly discussed: the current dire state of classical music (made direr by the plague), the incursions of political thought into the aesthetic realm, the state of popular culture, and the theory and practice of music itself.

Mind you, I have a number of projects left unfinished. I left everyone hanging after analyzing the first half of the first movement of the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich and I have not finished my series of posts on Sofia Gubaidulina and Luigo Nono among others. So there are things to do there.

If anyone has any suggestions for future posts, please share!

It seems as if the big guitar festival this year was in Koblenz and they just posted a number of videos of concerts from the festival. The one that really caught my attention was a terrific performance by Marcin Dylla who played as his second to last piece, that wonderful serenade by Sofia Gubaidulina. He starts with the Lute Suite No. 1 by Bach:

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Haiku of the Week

This blog has not exactly featured poetry previously. In fact, almost the only references have likely been to my song cycle Songs From the Poets when I have put up the occasional clip. I do have some history as a published poet, starting when I was seventeen. But it is something I have not done for a long, long time. Recently, reading over an old journal, I discovered a poem I wrote around 1990 and it was actually pretty decent. Since then I have started writing haiku. This is a pretty good collection if you want to read some traditional haiku:

For those unfamiliar with the form, a haiku is a traditional Japanese poem of only three lines. Typically there are five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five again in the third line. Most classical haiku date from the 17th to 19th centuries. Japanese and English have rather different semantic densities so the haiku often have a different number of syllables in translation.

There are two elements that are often found in haiku, though these should not be thought of as strict rules. The first is the season word. Most haiku reveal the season, often with a single word. Example:

first snowfall…

scarcely enough to cover

the dogshit

--Issa (1763-1827)

Kern, Adam L.. The Penguin Book of Haiku (Penguin Classics) (p. 109). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. 

Another typical element is the "cutting" word which divides the haiku into two parts. Think of it as a twist in the meaning or a surprising comparison. The last line of the haiku quoted above, for example, creates an entirely new context for the first two lines. Another frequent element in haiku is a natural setting with mention of blossoms, or frogs, or weather, or mountains.

Here are two of my recent haiku:

Autumn sounds: birds on roof

They know where they are going

Not sure that we do.


One way the iPad

Cannot rival a book:

Swatting flies!


I hope you enjoy these microscopic poems!

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Scylla of Commercialism

The thing about capitalism and the arts is that when you commercialize music you turn it into a commodity. This was something I always wrestled with as a classical performer and likely an important reason why I ultimately left the business. Today we have a particularly noisome example of the problem. Let's let the Globe and Mail tell the story: A new Glenn Gould remix album hips, hops and isn’t altogether welcome.

A new Canadian album in Glenn Gould’s name is occasioning a furor among fans of the revered pianist. It’s called Uninvited Guests, an adventurous compilation of nine tracks using Gould samples in pop, electronic and hip-hop settings. The composition Gettin' That, for example, takes a loop from Gould’s recording of Bach’s English Suite No. 4 and sets it to a sick beat and well-spit rhymes.

Here is that track (Blogger won't embed):

At least when they did disco versions of Mozart, Mozart's melodies were still prominent. Here little fragments of Gould recordings are used as accompaniments. Legally permitted as we find out from this part of the article:

Until 2017, Posen was the sole executor of the Gould estate. The rights to the pianist’s name, likeness and publishing royalties now belong to Primary Wave Music, the New York-based publishing company and management firm that is home to the likes of Bob Marley, Whitney Houston, Burt Bacharach, Prince and Alice Cooper.

So, a publishing company and management firm bought the rights to Glenn Gould, the public figure and commercial music resource whose music they can now use in whatever way they like. I presume this does not apply to previously released albums, but hey, who knows, I haven't read the legal documents governing that sort of thing. UPDATE: I missed a paragraph relating that Sony was on board with this project, so everything is fair game it seems.

But speaking as someone who has a passing interest in aesthetic issues, I think it is safe to say that this is an aesthetic nightmare. Not only does it turn me off everyone associated with this project who are, I am sure, destined for the fourth circle of hell, Greed, but I am less and less likely to listen to Glenn Gould himself, who seems more and more to be a caricature of himself. Honestly, I would rather listen to Bach played by Friedrich Gulda, Grigory Sokolov and Scott Ross, whose aesthetic standards seem to be intact even, in the case of Gulda and Ross, after their deaths.

Faced with the Scylla of commercialism and the Charybdis of obscurity, I know which I would choose.

Here is Gulda with some Bach from the Well-Tempered Clavier:

Friday Miscellanea

 Here is a very different kind of discussion: JAZZ, HOPE, AND PERVERSE MODERNISM.

In Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, Martha Bayles argues that too much contemporary pop music gets its inspiration from perverse modernism, which “makes obscenity and serious artistic value synonymous.” Rock and pop, argues Bayles, have been warped by decadent European ideas. Bayles observes that there are three kinds of modernism: introverted, or art for art's sake, which includes atonality and experimentation; extroverted, which revitalizes tradition and reaches out to its audience, the way artists like Duke Ellington did; and finally, perverse, whose goal is simply to goad, shock, and blaspheme.

* * *

It looks like the Guardian has launched another one of its mega-projects. In this one they are offering introductions to different composers. Last week it was Haydn: where to start with his music.

Humorous, earnest, prolific and always deeply humane, the Austrian composer is credited with inventing the symphony and the string quartet. Even if that’s not strictly true, his creativity shaped western classical music.

Unfortunately you have to register to read the article.

* * *

I don't want the Friday Miscellanea to be an unrelieved wail of doom, as it easily could be, so here is a ray of hope: 'If we don’t play, we’ll disappear.’ Charlotte Symphony resumes rehearsals carefully 

After sitting dark for months, music and light has filled Knight Theater once again. Twenty-two musicians from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra recently gathered there for their first indoor rehearsals together since March.

Despite challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the symphony is charging ahead with a revamped fall season, including virtual concerts, and carefully adhering to COVID-19 health guidelines to bring live music back to Charlotte.

* * *

What is performing opera like in Europe these days: Lisette Oropesa: ‘I’m glad I wasn’t thrust into superstardom’

“The first thing is that we have to take a Covid test every couple of days,” Oropesa says. “That’s not much of a big deal. We come in and get a nasal swab or a throat swab and that’s it. No one is allowed inside the building if they are not staff and if they have not tested negative. I can’t bring a guest. I can’t bring my manager. I can’t bring my husband. If they’re not specifically approved. Because, within the building, we all wear masks and do our best to maintain social distancing.”

Those rules fall away once the rehearsal starts. “Then we take our masks off and don’t practise social distancing, because we’re doing a proper production, as in holding hands, standing and singing next to each other. For that reason we have to be very, very vigilant that everybody who is on stage with us is tested. But any other time we’re in the building we wear our masks and try to avoid contact.

“The other thing that we have to do is maintain a ledger of every person that we’ve been in contact with every day. If you spend more than 15 minutes with someone, you have to write their name down, just so that if there is a positive test, we have contacts who can be traced.”

It's a strange new reality we are wrestling with these days!

* * *

From Canada: Choir classes with no singing

Music teachers in Canada are being forced to improvise. Choir classes, for example, either must meet outdoors to rehearse or they simply hum and chant their way through class. Host Marco Werman speaks with Toronto-based Anita Elash about how music teachers are managing to keep music programs alive during the pandemic.

* * *

Canadian music critic Arthur Kaptainis muses on the practicalities of musical performance:

Like most government actions, the shutdown of performance spaces was outwardly egalitarian. It might be patently obvious that a karaoke bar in Quebec City is a more likely vector of transmission than a spacious and well-ventilated concert hall seating a fraction of its normal capacity, but it is difficult to base public policy on such distinctions.

Impossible? I am not so sure. A system that permits exemptions linked to modern air circulation and adequate spacing would make it possible to open responsibly operated concert halls and museums while keeping the truly dangerous gatherings at bay.

It is interesting that Legault summoned a rationale for his prohibition of live performance. “…In a theatre, even if you’re only 250 people, even if you’re wearing a mask until you sit down, there is still a risk after an hour or two,” he was quoted as saying, as if sitting quietly in a concert hall can be compared meaningfully with the kind of activity that prevails in a bar.

* * *

 We haven't had any Haydn for a while, so today's envoi is Bernard Haitink conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in his Symphony No. 104: