Saturday, May 18, 2019

String Quartet

I have been asked to write a string quartet for the Pro Nova Ensemble for next season and I've been thinking a lot about the genre. I have been very fond of this combination ever since I bought a box of the Beethoven late quartets by the Guarneri Quartet in the early 70s. I once spent an entire summer listening to the Haydn quartets. Back then you could buy Vox Boxes of the different opus numbers on vinyl. At some point I picked up the Juilliard Quartet playing Bartók. Not that many years ago I discovered the Shostakovich quartets and have listened to the complete box of CDs by the Emerson Quartet many times.

Now I find I want to take a close look at two recent contributions to the genre: those by Philip Glass and Elliot Carter. I have never gotten into Carter (I find his pieces for guitar particularly uncongenial) but I feel I have to investigate his quartets. Right now I am listening to the first and I am finding it surprisingly interesting, especially in the contrapuntal aspects. For some odd reason, I find composers I don't particularly enjoy personally to be inspiring and thought-provoking. I am not a big fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen, but I find his ideas really interesting. The same for John Cage. But while one movement of the quartet I am planning is going to be in moment form, an idea from Stockhausen, there is not likely to be any Cageian influence!

Here is the String Quartet No. 1 by Carter:

That was written the year I was born.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

I was looking at Slipped Disc for some wacky item to kick of this week's miscellanea, but instead stumbled across this: On Agents Who Demand Payment Up Front.
Whenever an artist tells me that an agency wants to sign him or her but expects to be paid for their services, I have given the best advice available in these circumstances: don’t go near them.
An agent who demands money up-front from artist is an agent who has failed to make money by legitimate means.
The link to a VAN magazine article takes you to a lengthy article about one agent's practices that might be worth reading. It seems the case that there are managers out there that do not hesitate to take advantage of the naïveté of young artists. One comment on the Slipped Disc piece is sobering:
Where the art form is considered a ‘highly competative business’ it has been killed-off and the music treated as a mere commodity to make money and a career. This is, mainly, the position of classical music within a capitalist, free market society, as it developed in the 19th century. In the ‘ancien régime’, however limited by restrictions by courts, nobility and church, musicians had decent, paid jobs and more security.
One reason I finally decided to be a "non-commercial" musician was due to bad experiences with record companies and artist management.

* * *

What do you do if your piano soloist falls sick at the last minute and you have to come up with half a program at the drop of a hat? The CBC has the story: Karina Canellakis conducts unrehearsed Tchaikovsky after OSM soloist Daniil Trifonov suddenly falls ill.
In one of the most anticipated concerts of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal's season, she was making her OSM debut on May 15 with a program comprising orchestral excerpts from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as well as Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra in the first half, and after intermission, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Russian piano phenom Daniil Trifonov as soloist.
But things did not go exactly as planned. OSM double bassist Scott Feltham posted the following account on Facebook after the concert:
"Daniil Trifonov, tonight's scheduled piano soloist, became suddenly ill just before the beginning of the concert and had to be taken to the hospital.... Instead, Madeleine Careau, our CEO, announced Trifonov's illness and the resulting change in program. We performed Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. Cold. No rehearsing. In front of 2,000 ish people. Bravo to all my colleagues. Bravo especially to maestra Karina Canellakis, conducting us for the first time. Time for a beer."
The more cynical among us might say, "oh yeah, they probably played the Tchaikovsky just last week..." But no, the OSM hadn't played Tchaikovsky 4 for twelve years, though the conductor had done it fairly recently. On the other hand, it is likely that some newer members of the orchestra had never played it! Every time you go to a big budget movie and hear an orchestral soundtrack you are hearing an orchestra play something for the first time! Those scores get played once and once only--for the recording of the soundtrack.

* * *

The opening night of Opera Australia’s Rigoletto in Melbourne on Saturday saw drama both on stage and off, with audience members witnessing the latest protest by composer George Dreyfus. Rising from his centre front row seat just as the conductor was about to take their place in the pit, the nonagenarian used a megaphone to express his frustration about how the company had commissioned, but never performed, his 1970 opera The Gilt-Edged Kid.
Members of the audience became increasingly irritated at the interruption, with Dreyfus’ actions delaying the performance for 15 minutes. The front row was eventually evacuated in order to allow venue staff to remove Dreyfus from the theatre. He was then met by police who escorted him out of the building, where he was taken to hospital for medical attention. Charges have not been pressed against Dreyfus.
The composer has staged protests in previous years as well. Hey, my sympathies are with him. Or he has lost his mind? Whichever. Opera does seem to bring out the dramatic side of things, doesn't it?

* * *

This story is sort of entertaining: Academe's Extinction Event; Failure, Whiskey, and Professional Collapse at the MLA. As a sign of the academic background of the writer, it is almost impossible to summarize the long article. But this might give you an idea:
The number of jobs in English advertised on the annual MLA job list has declined by 55 percent since 2008; adjuncts now account for all but a quarter of college instructors generally. Whole departments are being extirpated by administrators with utilitarian visions; from 2013 to 2016, colleges cut 651 foreign-language programs. Meanwhile the number of English majors at most universities continues to swoon.
None of this shows any sign of relenting. It has, in fact, all the trappings of an extinction event that will alter English — and the rest of the humanities — irrevocably, though no one knows what it will leave in its wake. What’s certain is that the momentum impelling it is far past halting; behind that momentum lies the avarice of universities, but also the determination of politicians and pundits to discredit humanistic thinking, which plainly threatens them. They have brought on a tipping point: The stories they have told about these disciplines — of their pointlessness, of the hollowness of anything lacking entrepreneurial value — have won out over the stories the humanists themselves have told, or not told.
There are similarities in musicology, which is why I didn't pursue that career.

* * *

I am so busy this week that I haven't anything further for you. Let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky as we haven't put up anything by him for a long time. This is Carlos Miguel Prieto conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony:

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Buying a Guitar

I try to post on a variety of topics and from a variety of perspectives here, but sometimes one area or another gets neglected. I haven't put up much for budding guitarists lately, so let's talk about buying a guitar.

If you are a beginning guitar student you should buy a student guitar, of course! With online retailers this is easier than it used to be. Look at this student guitar from Amazon, for example:

Without trying it out, I can't give it much of a review, but this is the kind of instrument you want if you are a young beginner. Seven or eight is a good age to start and you will certainly need a smaller size instrument. This one is a 3/4 size which will suit a lot of beginners. But younger ones might need a 1/2 size guitar. You need an instrument small enough so that your fingers can, with a bit of reaching, span the first four frets.

I haven't played any student guitars for a long time, but one of the most reliable brands has been Yamaha. Here is that same bundle from that company. Notice that the price is higher.

These bundles include odd things like picks and a strap, which a classical guitarist won't need, but a folk guitarist will. The Yamaha bundle does not include a case. You can get by with a "gig bag" which is a soft canvas case, but that offers little protection for the instrument. As soon as you move up in quality you will need a sturdy hard case.

If you are an adult beginner you will want a full size guitar and a little higher quality. Here is a Yamaha model with a cedar top in the low 200s:

The same is also available with a spruce top:

Yamaha makes guitars at various levels. This is one in the mid-400s with a spruce top:

Once you get past that level, you will want to start visiting music stores to see what they have. There are a few very simple things to look for.
  • the "action" is the relationship of the strings to the fretboard. This is critically important. If the strings are too high, it will take too much effort to press them down to the fret. If the action is too low, the strings will buzz on the frets as they vibrate. The action can be adjusted, but if it is really far from correct, it is a sign the music store doesn't know or doesn't care too much about their product!
  • the neck needs to be straight, not warped. Hold the guitar up to your eye and sight along the length of the neck to see if it is straight.
  • the instrument should not be too heavy. One quick way to sort out instruments is to simply go along the row and lift each one. Try out the lightest one!
  • Tap on the body to see if it is resonant and responsive
  • Finally, sit down and play it!
Just a few thoughts to get you started. Send me questions in the comments.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Composer Narrative

As a composer myself, I am intrigued by how composers are portrayed in the mass media. Of course, they aren't given much space these days, but occasionally we get a glimpse. Such was the case this week as Toronto's Globe and Mail published an extensive piece on Andrew Balfour, an up and coming choral composer. Canada has a pretty strong choral tradition, especially in Ontario where the Mendelssohn Choir is well over a century old and a major musical institution.

Journalism has been described as the "first draft of history" and as such it is interesting to have a look at how the story of a composer is told in 21st century Canada (though the narrative is one that certainly is not limited to Canada). Here is the link to the story. If you are blocked for some reason, try searching for the headline: Choral maestro Andrew Balfour pursues his Indigenous identity through music.

Read the whole piece and then let's look for the salient themes. The first paragraph gives us the generic picture of a classical music composer: early signs of talent, exposure to ensemble playing and devotion to classical rather than popular music. This is just to set up the ways that Mr. Balfour departs from the generic picture. He is of Cree descent and as part of a government policy referred to as the "Sixties Scoop" was removed from his indigenous family and raised in a middle-class family of Scottish descent.
The Sixties Scoop refers to a practice that occurred in Canada of taking, or "scooping up", Indigenous children from their families and communities for placement in foster homes or adoption. Despite the reference to one decade, the Sixties Scoop began in the late 1950s and persisted into the 1980s. It is estimated that a total of 20,000 aboriginal children were taken from their families and fostered or adopted out to primarily white middle-class families as part of the Sixties Scoop.
This controversial policy, along with the residential school system, abandoned in the 80s, was designed to "educate Aboriginal children in Euro-Canadian and Christian values so they could become part of mainstream society." Perhaps one should note that living conditions on indigenous reserve communities are often very poor and certainly offer little or no opportunities for education or advancement, which goes some way to explaining why these kinds of policies were instituted.

Balfour says:
As a child of the Sixties Scoop, he considered himself lucky. He’d been adopted when he was six months old by a family with Scottish roots that he describes as loving and supportive. His parents shared their passion for music with him – his father, the minister at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Winnipeg, encouraged his choral singing, and played trombone. His mother was a violist.
But as Balfour grew older, he’d struggled, and become conflicted and confused about his identity. Attention-deficit disorder made focusing on schoolwork difficult. He dropped out of Brandon University after a year, plagued by growing pangs of isolation. His parents had relocated to British Columbia, and the move intensified feelings of abandonment that gnawed at him when he thought about his Cree background and his separation from his birth mother.
So his musical gifts likely were fostered and developed as a result of his adoption. But he increasingly felt deracinated from his core identity. As a result he went through a difficult period of drug and alcohol abuse, part of which was spent in jail. As a result of exploring his identity as an indigenous person he experienced a vision:
It felt like a near-death experience, he says, in which he was visited by people he’d known throughout his life, who spoke to him. None of it made sense at the time, and he still struggles to articulate what transpired exactly, but he’s certain about this: “It was another power, another spirit … something telling me that life was going to be okay. And from then on, that’s how I felt. And I knew that I wanted to pursue my identity through music.”
The article recounts the kind of compositions and performances that were a result of this pursuit. Occasionally we read pro forma digs at classical music and its sinning, racist past:
Balfour’s versatility has made it easier for him to breach the staunchly white bastions of the classical-music scene, which has been slower to embrace Indigenous artists than literature, film and even pop music have. 
For now, at least, there’s no getting around the fact that when Balfour writes a choral work, the sea of faces that ultimately performs it will likely be white. And so, too, will the audience that listens to it.
Well, yes, Canada does still have an inconveniently large number of white people. But doesn't anyone notice how astonishingly racist comments like these are?

The issues surrounding identity bring with them consequences regarding agency:
Arts organizations that want to perform music with Indigenous themes and content need to be true collaborators, Balfour says. “They need to reach out, talk to elders, do a lot of listening; not just take a work and perform it however they want to.”
This makes the claim that if you write music that stems from your identity as an indigenous person, this gives you all the agency. The institutions and performers who realize the work have to follow your requirements. What makes me uneasy about this is that it implies a lot more than just singing the right notes with the right phrasing. Somehow the performance has to carry with it the ideology of identity.
At a recent gathering in Banff, Alta., of the tiny community of classically trained Indigenous musicians in Canada, Balfour and nine other artists signed a manifesto in support of “musical sovereignty” that called for arts organizations to involve Indigenous artists in every step of the creative process.
Musical sovereignty is an interesting concept, not least because it has more political and ideological aspects than merely aesthetic ones.

I think what we see here are a number of conflicting currents. One of them is simply the excellence of a musical talent able to realize his gifts and have them recognized by the Canadian arts community. Another is the relating of his work to his rediscovered indigenous identity. Still another is the musical context of Canada at large, which has its roots in European music. We see all these currents in his piece Qaumaniq for choir, cello, percussion, narrator and vocal soloists.

There are elements derived from traditional indigenous music, from European tonal traditions and from the contemporary avant garde. The effect is sometimes uncomfortably diverse.

One can see the appeal of this kind of journey for an artist like Andrew Balfour for whom it offers a kind of ready-made authenticity. But it is a bit disconcerting to realize that, for that sea of white faces that the Canadian performing and listening community consists in, the focus on and validation of his identity implies a deprecation of their identity. True, there is a certain moral satisfaction coming from displaying one's appreciation of Indigenous art, but the price is a tendency to reduce one's own authentic identity. The embedding of identity within aesthetics has a number of unfortunate consequences, not the least of which is that it tends to divide a society into identity groups in conflict with one another.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Signs of life over at Musicology Now where Alex Ludwig has a new post up analyzing the music of Game of Thrones. I have to confess I did something similar in a couple of papers I delivered at a conference at the University of Huddersfield a number of years ago. My papers revolved around Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another contemporary narrative.
Wagner’s extensive use of leitmotifs, in which musical phrases represent people, places, and even emotions, is appropriated here in Game of Thrones so that people, places, and great houses all have their own musical material. Using Wagner’s Ring as a model, I examine the dramatic deployment of both diegetic and non-diegetic musical cues in a Game of Thrones episode titled, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” (S8E2). 
In many ways, this episode is unusual: most of the main characters are gathered in one place, awaiting the army of the dead; and it functions like a giant anticipation, or upbeat, for the upcoming battle. The episode avoids action in favor of quiet contemplation, and reunites many pairs of characters (and swords) that have been long separated. 
Ramin Djawadi’s musical score, which combines both diegetic and non-diegetic cues, enhances these quiet moments with additional layers of information. In the first scene of the episode, Jaime Lannister—known as the Kingslayer—arrives in Winterfell, despite having fought against the forces assembled there nearly his entire life. He does so at great personal risk, which only subsides once Lady Brienne vouches for him. After this point, Djawadi includes a musical reference to Jaime’s past, a direct callback to the first statement of Jaime’s “Kingslayer” theme, heard in the episode titled, “Kissed By Fire” (S3E5).
* * *

Just running slightly behind The Music Salon, Alex Ross has a piece up at The New Yorker about the new recording of two symphonies by Mieczysław Weinberg.
Weinberg, a Polish-Jewish composer who spent most of his life in the Soviet Union, has recently stepped out of the historical mists, encroaching on the mainstream repertory. He lived from 1919 to 1996 and long dwelled in the shadow of his older contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich. As more of his huge output emerges, though, his originality becomes clear. The Quatuor Danel has recorded Weinberg’s seventeen string quartets and is now playing them widely, honoring a body of work that rivals Shostakovich’s cycle in heft. A new Deutsche Grammophon recording of Symphonies No. 2 and No. 21, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony, is an even greater revelation. The “Kaddish” is a gaunt requiem for a succession of twentieth-century tragedies, of which Weinberg experienced more than his share.
* * *

Also at The New Yorker is another piece by Ross on conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler:
The moral quandary inherent in the Furtwängler box set is addressed forthrightly in the liner notes, which take the form of a hundred-and-eighty-four-page hardback book. The lead essay, by the musicologist Richard Taruskin, is one of the finest things ever written about Furtwängler, who has inspired a shelf’s worth of books, along with a Broadway play and a film (both titled “Taking Sides”). Taruskin, a ferocious critic of the fairy tales we tell ourselves about the autonomy of art, would be the last to argue that we should ignore the context to which Furtwängler belonged. Instead, Taruskin confronts the reader with a quotation from a 1943 Philharmonic program book, one that pits the noble art of Beethoven against the atrocities supposedly being committed by Germany’s enemies: “It is our world that sounds forth when the bows are set in motion, the world of a spirit that no enemy air raid can destroy, nor any bomb.”
Such a statement forces us to consider the possibility that the nimbus of greatness around Furtwängler arises not in spite of the historical situation but because of it. The conductor and his musicians were working “as if there were no tomorrow,” Taruskin writes, in discussing the last item in the set—the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony, recorded amid the inferno of January, 1945. “The music builds unbearable tension, abjures all ‘Brahmsian’ restraint or relaxation, and its raging subjectivity hits dumbfounding extravagances of tempo at both ends of the scale. . . . The bloodiest of all wars brought the foremost classical musician in the country with the most distinguished tradition of classical music to the pinnacle of his career, setting a standard neither he nor any other symphonic conductor was ever moved to duplicate.”
It certainly seems the case that some of the most intense musical statements in the 20th century came out of extreme circumstances. One immediately thinks of the Symphony No. 7 of Shostakovich, the first movement of which was written in Leningrad, besieged by the Nazis.

* * *

I love those articles about the lesser-known corners of the music world, that street in Paris where all the best bow re-hairers have their shops, the secrets of the Cremona violins, and today, an article in NY1 magazine about the role of the opera prompter. Sadly, the piece is so incoherently written that it is hard to determine what the job is, exactly:
“The prompter has to be a highly trained musician. She can hear if they made a wrong entrance she'll do something like that and ask him to hold up a second wait a minute wait a minute you have two more measures before you come in okay now. That's why the singers love the prompter because they put them back on track,” MET Opera Archives Director Peter Clark said.
The job is like that of the prompter in any live theatre: if the performer misses an entrance or forgets a line, the idea is to give them a hint in time to rescue the performance! Just exactly how this is done in various situations I would love to hear, but we don't learn much from this article!

* * *

The New York Times has a piece on rebel hipster viol player Liam Byrne:
This week, Mr. Byrne releases his debut album with the cult label Bedroom Community. Titled “Concrete,” it stirs together an eclectic compound of ingredients. A graceful showpiece by the high-Baroque French viol master Marin Marais is bookended by two works by Mr. Muhly. Ambient works by the contemporary Icelandic composer-producer Valgeir Sigurdsson sit cheek by jowl with five-part Renaissance counterpoint in which, through the magic of multitracking, Mr. Byrne plays every single line.
“I like finding connections,” Mr. Byrne said in an interview, describing how his three most formative musical influences were the American composer Steve Reich, the English composer Orlando Gibbons and the girl group TLC. He grinned. “New York minimalism, Renaissance polyphony and early ’90s R&B. That’s the only music you ever need.”
You know, I think I know exactly what he means!

* * *

The Guardian continues its neverending crusade to ensure that every niche and realm in the world of music is exactly gender equal, or, preferably, biased in favor of women: Girls to the front: why gender is still a headline issue at festivals.
“We need to change the ‘pale, male and stale’ paradigm,” explains Marta Pallarès, Primavera’s head of press. “We wanted to show that the likes of Tame Impala, Guided By Voices or Stereolab can happily live together with trap divas and reggaeton queens.” It’s this commitment that means the Primavera lineup isn’t just one of the most right-on bills of the summer, but also one of the best. The middle-aged blokes are still there (hello Jarvis, Primal Scream and Interpol!), but there’s a thrilling diversity in sound as well as gender thanks to the three-day event’s fresh approach. Like a whistlestop tour through your most genre-hopping friend’s Spotify account, they’ve got London MC Flohio up alongside pop royalty Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen, DJ Peggy Gou, Solange, Neneh Cherry, Lizzo, Tirzah and basically every woman who’s released music in the past year that made you go “Oooh, not bad”.
Pallarès is open about how this move did not actually require much work aside from a passion to shake up the industry. “It can be done now and it should be done now, but you need to want it. We hope that our move can spark change,” she says. So is anyone else following their lead?
Moral preening at the Guardian, it never gets old.

* * *

And now, time for our traditional envoi to herald the weekend and may yours be fulfilling and bountiful. Here are a couple of clips by hipster viol-player Liam Byrne. First, a sarabande by Marin Marais with theorbo player Jonas Nordberg:

And here is something more contemporary: Lines Curved Rivers Mirrored by Edmund Finnis:

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Composition News

I probably spend more time with composition than I do preparing posts for this blog these days, but I usually don't have much to say about it. This week is different! The Pro Nova Ensemble, a string quartet  based in Vancouver, have asked me to write a string quartet for them, which I am delighted to do. I wrote a string quartet a few years ago as a kind of experiment and it was not very successful, so I am looking forward to taking up the problem again. What do I mean "problem"? For a composer, every piece presents its own set of questions, issues and problems to be solved, resolved, or at least handled in some way.

For this piece as the ensemble is based in Vancouver, my old stomping grounds, I have loads of inspiration based on my growing up in that area--Vancouver Island to be specific. Vancouver Island, like the area just north of Vancouver, is very mountainous:

When I was young I worked in close proximity to these mountains. They are surrounded by deep forests and nearby is the ocean, all of which I have always found inspiring. So since this music is intended for people, both players and listeners, that live in this environment, I look forward to letting the inspiration flow.

Of course the real problems are all musical ones. What kind of material is suitable? What kind of form would be best? How "advanced" do I dare to be with the idiom? Etc, etc. I already have an idea of how to structure one of the movements: I am going to use a variation on a kind of "moment" form that I have used before, with some twists. Do you find it odd that the first thing that comes to me is the structure? I remember reading an interview with David Byrne of the Talking Heads where he said he usually started with the texture of the song, the interaction of drums and rhythm guitar. Everything else came later.

I would like to put up a clip of Night Rain, an interesting piece in moment form by Anthony Genge that I have performed many times, but I don't have it on this computer. Here is a post that contains it, however. Just scroll down.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Great Pop Songs

Even though I have been a classical musician for, oh, a long, long time, I did start out as a popular musician and I have a continued interest in and enjoyment of popular music. Wandering around the web, I ran across the top ten songs from Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Here are the top ten from that list:
1Bob DylanLike a Rolling Stone1965
2The Rolling Stones"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"1965
3John Lennon"Imagine"1971
4Marvin Gaye"What's Going On"1971
5Aretha Franklin"Respect"1967
6The Beach Boys"Good Vibrations"1966
7Chuck Berry"Johnny B. Goode"1958
8The Beatles"Hey Jude"1968
9Nirvana"Smells Like Teen Spirit"1991
10Ray Charles"What'd I Say"1959
Does anyone else think that the list is a bit weird? Other than me? Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone," sure, that could be #1, certainly in the top ten. And maybe "Satisfaction." But isn't "Gimme Shelter" or "Sympathy for the Devil" a much better choice from the Stones? As for "Imagine" c'mon! That isn't even in the top ten songs by John Lennon! "A Day in the Life," "Come Together," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "All You Need Is Love," and even "Nobody Told Me" are all better songs than "Imagine" though that one might be more popular. "Hey Jude" you could make an argument for, but I would vote for a different McCartney song like "Yesterday" or "Got to Get You Into My Life." The Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" is a good choice as is "Johnny B. Goode" and "Respect." But I would really like to see B. B. King's "The Thrill is Gone" in there. Instead of Nirvana, who aren't aging well in my book, why not "Enter Sandman" by Metallica? I wouldn't mind seeing something by the Talking Heads or David Bowie or The Police in there as well. Heck, if I got a vote, I might opt for "We're Going Wrong" from the reunion concerts that Cream gave in 2005. Now that was something special:

Now, sure, this is about 50% just to provoke some reactions. Let's hear what you have to say!