Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Road to the Rite, Part 3: Petrushka

In my last post in this series I made a passing reference to "a lot of quite lovely and quite conventional ballet music, the sort where you see the dancers wafting around on stage." This "wafting around on stage" music I associate with 19th century ballet such as Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. Let's have a listen. This is an excellent complete performance from the Kirov (complete credits at the beginning) and if you want to focus on specifically what I mean, go to the 31 minute mark:

This is classic 19th century Russian ballet and therefore the establishing context for Stravinsky's pieces for the Ballets Russes. This is, in other words, what the audience had in mind when they attended a performance of a Russian ballet company. The music is in various tempos and uses various dance genres, but a lot of it is lyrical, meaning not too fast and with smooth, legato phrases. No stomping around! Classical ballet is all about defying gravity and lyrical beauty.

In parts of the Firebird, and more so in Petruska and the Rite, Stravinsky makes a fundamental stylistic change. Most of the commentary on this music is about the melodic and harmonic aspect, as we discussed last time, but the most important changes in the style are on the rhythmic level. Small parts of the Firebird, larger parts of Petrushka and a great deal of the Rite are very much "stompy" music, music with a heavy pulse. In the Firebird, this is largely restricted to the Infernal Dance, but in Petrushka we get more and earlier. Most of this ballet is at very fast tempi and quite a bit of it has a heavy pulse.

First, let's have a listen to Petrushka. This is a production from the Bolshoi that recreates the original sets, costumes and choreography from the original production:

Right from the beginning we hear the much greater role given to the percussion, the ubiquitous accents instead of flowing legato and the heavy pulses in the bass instruments. This, more than the famous "Petrushka chord," is what gives the ballet its unique character. Sure, the melodic and harmonic structures are important, and most particularly when we have two very different textures, rhythmic and harmonic, colliding, which creates a kind of musical irony or cubism, depending on how you want to analyze it. There are a lot of examples starting in the introduction, whose motoric music is interrupted by tweedling in the high winds in a different tempo. Another example is at the 20:10 mark where a kind of limping waltz is periodically interrupted by a meandering melody in the cor anglais in the "wrong" key. But the underlying musical vocabulary is rhythmic, accented and much weightier than previous ballet music. For an example of what I am talking about, go to the 25:10 mark in the above clip, the dance with the peasant and the bear, where we hear a characteristically heavy accompaniment in the low strings, with a raucous melody in the high clarinet. (And, good god, I think that's a real bear!)

As is often done, you can look at this ballet in terms of its Russian folktale flavour, the leading role given to a marionette, the use of Russian folk music and so on, but I like to look at the musical foundation that makes all this work, the frenetic, syncopated and heavily accented rhythms that drive the music forward, the piquant slow sections that give eerie pause and prepare the next fast section. What I find most striking about the musical texture here is how very different it is from previous ballets and even from the Firebird. Instead of romantic lyricism we have crisp, sardonic, rhythmically involved music that can express tragedy, exuberance, irony and an earthy expressiveness. This is what distinguishes these ballets by Stravinsky from the earlier ones by Tchaikovsky which were also based on Russian folktales. It's the medium not the message (if by "medium" we mean the musical elements and by "message" we mean the story elements, costuming, sets and so on).

All three of these ballets are heard more often with just the orchestral score in a concert presentation than they are with a full ballet production. The reason is that the music works just fine on its own. Taruskin even makes the point that it was the ballet production, not the music, that was the real cause of the riot at the premiere of the Rite of Spring. Audiences have always readily accepted the music, even from the earliest performances.

Let's end with a concert performance of the score of Petrushka. This is Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic, with the score:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Classical Smackdown

The Guardian has an account of an unusual sort of concert: Eine kleine slam poetry: Mozart comes to Shoreditch:
Classical Smackdown is roughly equivalent to a boozy poetry slam. While the venue is informal and the alcohol flows freely, no concessions are made to the repertoire. Hearing solo classical music away from any sort of ceremony, completely on its own terms, highlights the simplicity and accessibility of what one might tend to see as complex pieces: contrapuntal Bach partitas and Gypsy dances full of flying staccato technique.
So far it sounds totally cool...
“In an ideal concert, you can chat to the audience a bit before,” says Balanas. “But in the classical world, it’s usually the case that you go on, you bow, you play: you don’t get to interact. Performing here becomes daunting in a different way, because your onstage persona becomes much more of a focus.”
But now I see the problem. Like virtually every other attempt to "improve" the classical music concert, it does so by making it all about the personalities of the performers and the audience. More narcissism! "You don't get to interact" in a traditional classical concert? Just with the music, dude.

But I loved this picture of the MC:

How about some Mozart, just to remind us what we missed? This is the Fantasia in C minor, K. 475 played by Friedrich Gulda:


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Road to the Rite, Part 2: Firebird Infernal Dance

The Firebird was Stravinsky's first big success as a composer and his first ballet for the Ballets Russe of Diaghilev. He was just twenty-eight when it was premiered so it was written in his twenty-seventh year. He was still searching to find his unique compositional "voice" but this piece set him on the right path. There is a lot in it that is owed to his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, including elements in the story of the ballet which echo in some respects Rimsky-Korsakov's 1907 (premiered 1909) opera The Golden Cockerel which also revolves around a mythical bird.

Mind you, Stravinsky was the first to deny any influence from his teacher whom he described as
“shockingly shallow in his artistic aims.” His knowledge of composition “was not all it should have been.” His “modernism” was “based on a few flimsy enharmonic devices.” Summing up, Stravinsky patronized his teacher wickedly: “I am grateful to Rimsky for many things, and I do not wish to blame him for what he did not know; nevertheless, the most important tools of my art I had to discover for myself.”
[Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 2475-2478). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.]
However, the immensely learned Richard Taruskin goes on, in this same essay "Catching up with Rimsky-Korsakov," contained in the above volume, to point out that when music theory finally, in the 1960s, caught up with Stravinky's musical language, it was discovered that one important element was the use of the octatonic scale, an example of a harmonic structure that was based on a tonal centre, but not tonally functional in the usual way. I have mentioned this scale before, but it is worth repeating:

The scale consists of alternating tones and semitones and there are two versions depending on which one you start with. The famous "Petrushka" chord which is an F# major chord sounded simultaneously with a C major chord is easily derived from the octatonic scale: take out one of those chords and the remaining notes contain the other chord. The theorist, Arthur Berger, who discovered this found other instances of its use in Les Noces and the Rite and quite a few other pieces.

Now here is the interesting thing: a couple of other composers have also mentioned this scale, Olivier Messiaen (in his book on his musical language) and, yes, Rimsky-Korsakov in his book on orchestration. In Russia one of the names for this scale is the korsakovskaya gamma, the "Korsakov scale!"

The reason the Petrushka chord comes out of the scale so easily is that each note in the scale has a tritone counterpart: the C to G flat, the D flat to G and so on. Let's have a look and see if this useful scale is also in the Firebird. Here is the first theme in the bassoons (bass clef):

Click to enlarge
And here is its continuation in trombone, also bass clef:

If you will allow me to use this continuation, I can map it nicely onto the octatonic:

Click to enlarge

The first line is the theme, shown in treble clef. The second line is the notes arranged as a scale and the third line is the octatonic starting on the same note. Everything matches up (except those pesky B naturals in the first part of the theme!).

The use of the octatonic scale, plus the orchestral virtuosity, are things that give an exotic Russian color to the ballet and they are both, as we see, derived from Rimsky-Korsakov. Here, by the way is an example of that exotic orchestration, from the introduction:

Click to enlarge
He has the strings doing a glissando while playing harmonics! On a string instrument, you get a "harmonic" (a high note created by forcing the string to vibrate in smaller sections than usual) by touching a finger to the string at a "node". The sound is eerie and high-pitched. This example comes from very early in the score. You can hear and see this technique around the 2 minute mark in this clip:

There is also a lot of quite lovely and quite conventional ballet music, the sort where you see the dancers wafting around on stage. Also in the Infernal Dance are some sections that sound like a manic Parisian music-hall:

Click to enlarge
You can hear this section from the 1'17 mark in this clip:

To my ear, Stravinsky has not yet integrated all his influences with the eerie orchestrations, octatonic elements, Parisian music-hall and Stravinsky's own brilliant rhythmic ideas, so the Infernal Dance in particular sounds a bit like a dog's breakfast--just too many elements that don't quite cohere. His next ballet, Petrushka, goes a long way to solving this problem and the integration is complete with the Rite of Spring.

Let's listen to the whole ballet in the excellent performance by Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000:

Friday, June 16, 2017

Rating the Beatles

I promise there will be a substantial post tomorrow, but in the meantime, here is one that just missed the Friday Miscellanea because I didn't see it in time: All 213 Beatles Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best. I only like these kinds of things if they aren't afraid to level some devastating criticism, or quips at least. Here are some excerpts that I enjoyed:
206. “Free As a Bird,” single (1995): This single enraged me, in 1995, when it was released to gin up interest in the first Anthology album. It was a Lennon song from long after he’d left the Beatles; he sounded so vulnerable, and the studio work that had gone into making this distant-sounding, crummily recorded demo sound presentable felt like too big a burden for the martyred star to bear.
204. “She’s Leaving Home,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): A bathetic lugubrious mess, the nadir of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The call-and-response chorus is labored; the whole thing reeks of having come from a squaresville OffBroadway musical about kids these days. The instrumentation is unusual; there are no actual Beatles playing on the track, but no one cares because the song is so bad.
That was particularly enjoyable because the Wall Street Journal, who can be tone-deaf, just published a laudatory essay on the song by Alan Alda.
194. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): The whimsy will continue until morale improves. Definitely in the top five of Most Irritating Songs Paul McCartney Ever Wrote. It took a long time for the band to get this right in the studio. No one liked it; but it was reportedly Lennon who finally sat down and banged the piano part out appropriately. This is a song that isn’t about anything in the first place; the last two verses are the same except for having Desmond and Molly’s names switched out, but McCartney’s vocal gets more and more excited. Newsflash: No one cares about Desmond and Molly Jones.
I would have put that one a LOT lower.
189. “I’ll Be Back,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): The least of the lesser songs on the second non-soundtrack side of the A Hard Day’s Night album, and an anticlimactic album closer.
I totally disagree with that one. The major/minor alteration and the vocal harmonies make this one of my favourite early Beatles' songs.
164. “Good Night,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Lennon’s attempt to write a lullaby for Ringo to sing as an envoi to “The White Album.” It’s lulling, and nothing wrong with that, but it’s also kinda boring.
I rather disagree with this too. In context, following Revolution #9, it is well beyond surreal.
117. “Don’t Let Me Down,” single (1969): Another of the so-so unadorned Lennon songs from the last days of the Beatles. Too many of his songs consist of the title words repeated over and over in the chorus. The case for it is that it’s a naked profession of his love for Ono and a new statement of vulnerability. The band played it on the famous rooftop concert in Let It Be, but it was left off the album. It turned up as the B sideB side of the “Get Back” single.
Maybe it's just me, but I have always loved this song. I captures a special kind of emotional desolation like no other song.

Well, I stopped there because as we work into the better songs, he doesn't have a lot to say.

Skipping to the top songs, numbers one and two are, as they should be A Day in the Life and Strawberry Fields.

Your milage may vary and if it does, tell me about it in the comments.

Friday Miscellanea

One of the very, very few contemporary classical compositions to become a hit record was Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3. The New York Times has an article on the 25th anniversary:
“The first royalty check he got was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he kept it in his wallet for a long enough time that we had to reissue it, because he wouldn’t cash it,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “It may just have been such a shock to all of a sudden go from someone who had struggled to find recognition, to someone who was at that moment as famous as any modern composer in the world.”
Even if it was notoriously trendy among Gen-Xers in the ’90s, Mr. Gorecki’s symphony holds up as an impressive artistic achievement. As in the large-scale sacred works of Mr. Pärt, the trance-like allure of slow-moving tonal harmonies has the undergirding of an elegant structure: The simple language of the first movement, a canon that expands outward from subterranean low strings, accrues a granitic weight that is sustained across the entire work. The first entrance of Ms. Upshaw in the Nonesuch recording, intoning a 15th-century Polish lament, maintains its original pathos.
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Perfect pitch is a wonderful gift, but can it be learned? Apparently it can, with the aid of a fairly uncommon drug, valproic acid. The Wall Street Journal has the story:
Relatively few people in history—even musical virtuosos—have been known to possess perfect pitch, the ability to identify or reproduce any musical note without having another note with which to compare it. Mozart was said to be one of those people. Ella Fitzgerald was another. The trait is so rare, it is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people can tell an F-sharp from a B-flat in Western cultures, where the gift has been widely studied.
I'm not sure that it is that uncommon--I have known quite a few people with perfect pitch--but that may be just because I know a lot of musicians. None of these articles mention the accompanying problem of having perfect pitch, which is the fact that different kinds of music may use a different reference point. Historically, every town or ensemble probably had its own standard "A" which was likely different from our modern "A" at 440 cycles per second. The early music community uses an "A" that is lower than the modern one, at 415, which is the same as the modern G#. Also, different orchestras are known to use a somewhat different pitch for their "A" than the standard one. I knew one singer, a specialist in early music, who actually had two "perfect pitches", one for modern music at 440 and another for early music at 415. He could switch back and forth at need! Not having perfect pitch myself I sometimes wonder how those who do, hear. Does every note come with a little label: G5 and so on? Does this ever distract from the expressive content? What about complex textures as we might find in Ligeti or Xenakis? Does every note still come with a little label even if there are hundreds of different ones? It's funny that all these studies seem to only be interesting in seeing if ordinary people can acquire perfect pitch instead of really digging into the details of how it actually works...

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David Mermelstein writes about this years Ojai festival at the Wall Street Journal and gives it a mixed review:
...by elevating jazz to a position of primacy while re-engaging several artists prominently featured at the festival last year and the year before, Ojai’s decision-makers created an atmosphere in which much of the programming seemed either out of place or regurgitated. Mr. Iyer was a welcome new face who brought ethnic diversity as well as ample talent to Ojai. But seeing a former music director, the percussionist Steven Schick (2015), on stage more frequently than his successor undercut the message. To be fair, Mr. Iyer’s music was abundantly represented, though not always well received, throughout the long weekend.
The sense of déjà vu was furthered by the return (for the third year in a row) of members of the versatile and virtuosic International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), serving as the house band in all but name. Claire Chase, an ICE flutist as well as a flamboyant soloist, was among them, but her presence became unwelcome following a self-indulgent recital on Friday afternoon. Ms. Chase is immensely talented technically, but her showboating stage manner (silver metallic shorts over black leggings, awkward dance-like effects) and overreliance on a limited number of performance gimmicks didn’t wear well. (Enough already with the amplified lip smacks!)
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I am a great admirer of John Lennon as a musician and songwriter, but he said some remarkably silly things in his time, and this has to be the silliest:
"Before Elvis, there was nothing."  --John Lennon
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My favorite among the younger pianists is Igor Levit who just completed a journey through all the Beethoven piano sonatas at Wigmore Hall in London. The Guardian gives a well-deserved laudatory review:
Igor Levit’s performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall have stretched from early last autumn to the start of the summer. Individually and cumulatively, they have provided one of the most compelling experiences of the current London concert season. This final recital, consisting of the last three sonatas, epitomised the several that I was able to attend – boldly conceived, sometimes questionable and even uncomfortable, but full of thought and technically outstanding.
Levit is not a Beethovenian purist. He does not play with head metaphorically bowed in reverence to the canon. His Beethoven loves to surprise, and this is surely a necessary instinct. He is at one with Beethoven’s boundary-testing radicalism, a feature that was especially evident in the sometimes reckless but gloriously exciting treatment of some of the early sonatas. In the last three, of course, the stylistic boundaries are tested to even further extremes, but Levit mostly kept his repertoire of shock tactics in check.
 Igor Levit's Beethoven is not comfortable and predictable: it is challenging and fresh, just as it should be.

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I recently posted a rant about coughing in concerts and Slipped Disc has a post about a much milder instance of concert etiquette that prompted the whole panoply of different attitudes on the subject from commentators. It's worth a read.
One of the aspects of concert etiquette underscored in the comments that I think worth pointing out : most concertgoers have an expectation that the concert should be a silent and still moment (though their tolerance to this or that small disruption will vary). Any breach can then upset this balance and in the worst cases ruin the whole experience.
The important thing here is the expectation set : a tennis player can be flustered by a few people talking behind him, yet a football player will shoot penalties with an entire stadium roaring. They’re no different, but just have to concentrate in different environments, the parameters of which are defined beforehand and presumed to be accepted by all.
I happen to think the expectation of silence at a concert is a great thing and something to be preserved, especially in the noisy, shambolic world we live in.
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A really suitable envoi would be some Beethoven from Igor Levit. Here is the slow movement from the "Tempest" sonata, op. 31, no. 2:

Monday, June 12, 2017

Genki Sudo and World Order

I admit that my tastes in popular music are eccentric. I tend to tune in and out of popular music--I missed most of the 70s through inattention but paid some attention during the 80s when I enjoyed The Police, Talking Heads and David Bowie. Then I tuned out again. Lady Gaga almost pulled me back in with "Bad Romance" which I still think is a great pop song. But she didn't follow up with anything I found interesting. But these days, we can discover not only the mainstream of pop music, but also some that comes from elsewhere. South Korean pop had a big hit a while back, but let's try and forget about "Gangnam Style"!

There is one Japanese group that are so unusual that I find them interesting. I have mentioned the leader, Genki Sudo, before, but it was a while back and I find they have a bunch of new videos out. The group is called World Order and this is basically electro pop with dance. But it is the dance that is so original. Genki Sudo was, in his earlier life, a mixed martial arts champion. After retiring from that he published books of essays on Buddhism. A few years ago he started writing songs and lyrics and choreographing the videos. Here is a sample:

Unlike most music videos there are no special effects: what you see is simply the group, filmed live in various locations. Here is another, more recent video:

The music is pretty standard stuff, but I believe the elements of the choreography are somewhat unique and come from his background in martial arts. For comparison, here are some highlights of his martial arts career including both clips from various matches as well as his uniquely choreographed entrances to the ring, in costume. Blogger won't embed so click on the link:

None of the usual elements of dance are present in the World Order videos, but there are a host of arm-movements that seem derived from martial arts. The other remarkable element is the strict discipline of the dancers either moving in total unison or in strict sequence. Here is another video with an interesting political subject. That phrase on the sheet of paper at the very end, "we are all one" is from Genki Sudo's Buddhist belief and he often held up a banner to that effect at the end of his matches.

So there you go, another group of artists showing that the world of music and dance has a multitude of houses.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Firebird, Petrushka and the Road to the Rite: Part 1

You could make the argument that, up until the 1950s or even 60s, the music of Stravinsky was the most influential on composers and the "language" of music generally. But not all of his music was equally influential. The piece with the greatest impact was certainly the Rite of Spring, which just had its hundredth anniversary, but the two important pieces leading up to the Rite, the Firebird and Petrushka, were also very important in shaping the sound of contemporary music. There were, of course, a multitude of competing visions such as that of Schoenberg, Bartók, Messiaen, Berg, Boulez, Stockhausen and others. There were also composers writing in a pre-Stravinskian mode such as Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But, as I say, I think the argument that it was Stravinsky who was at the centre is easily made.

One caveat is that I am not talking about exclusively academic circles or experimental ones, but about musical styles that found a place in concert halls and a mainstream audience.

Stravinsky's influence was really paramount until the minimalists began to have an impact in the 1970s and since then, it is they that have been driving the shaping of musical style. But I think that if we look closely at what Stravinsky was doing on the rhythmic level, we might find some interesting connections between him and the minimalists.

If the aesthetic power of Stravinsky's music were graphed like the chart of a tech stock, it might show a huge leap upwards from 1909 to 1913, then something of a decline thereafter with occasional spikes upward around 1930 (Symphony of Psalms), 1940 (Symphony in C) and 1945 (Symphony in Three Movements). I find much of his neo-classical period to be far weaker than the Russian music that preceded it. Pieces like Pulcinella are, to my ear, relatively trivial compared to the Rite. The career of Stravinsky fits so awkwardly with the modernist template of how careers are supposed to go that it was even problematic for Stravinsky himself who was constantly, with the help of ghostwriters, trying to obscure and rewrite his own history. Richard Taruskin has uncovered numerous examples.

But let's not get too caught up in side-issues as what I really want to focus on is the music. The thing that has got to stand out is that these three great works that shaped so much modern music are ballets. While the ballet genre was a lovely and popular one in the late 19th century, it was probably the furthest from being an advanced or avant-garde one and this was one reason why the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev had such an inordinate impact. Taruskin writes about how the tumult that accompanied the premiere of the Rite in Paris was actually prepared by a publicity campaign, but the Rite of Spring was preceded by two other ballets that were also far outside the usual bounds of the genre. Ballet music in the late 19th century was lyrical, refined and anything but primitive so when Diaghilev put together a stunning collaboration of design and choreography together with advanced and exotic Russian music, he invigorated the whole genre and in turn the course of 20th century music.

Dance music has a long history, going back to the very beginnings of instrumental music. We often forget that as far as written music goes, the voice dominated for hundreds of years. When it came to polyphony and larger forms, the voice ruled. Instrumental music for a long time consisted of short dance pieces with the occasional transcription of vocal music or the accompaniment to vocal music. Often, while instruments were used, they were not even indicated in the score. But underlying all instrumental music, even when it took on the sophistication of the vocal forms, is the energy of the dance.

Let's just remind ourselves of the sound of early dance music. This is a volta, very popular in the Renaissance. I like this version, transcribed for guitar, because it has more punch than a lot of other performances.

What distinguishes this kind of sound from most vocal music is the rhythmic drive and the sparkle of the quick melodic runs. You can dance to it! By the time we get to Bach, the dance forms have gotten a bit more complex, but the basic idea of a strong rhythmic drive is still present in some pieces, like the gigue:

Mozart was very fond of dancing himself and wrote a great deal of dance music such as this one:

More refined than primitive, I think! Beethoven's best "dance" movements are likely his scherzos, a quick movement in 3/4 that came out of the older minuet:

You can't quite imagine yourself dancing to that. As the century wore on, even dance-like music tended to get more and more ponderous except for the elegant Viennese waltz and the somewhat cruder polka:

Before the ballets by Stravinsky the Ballets Russes had a big success with the Polovtsian Dances from an opera by Alexandre Borodin:

That's my very idiosyncratic mini-survey of dance music before Stravinsky. Now, to highlight the impact he made with the Firebird, the first of his pieces for Diaghilev, let's listen to the climax, the Infernal Dance of All Kastchei's Subjects:

Next time we will take a closer look at the Firebird!