Saturday, December 16, 2017

Most Popular Posts of the Year: January and February

Unlike a lot of blogs, I usually try to put up posts that have more relevance than just for the day so let's have a look back at 2017 and pick out the posts that seemed to resonate with my readers.

Starting with January, the most popular post was on the Piano Sonata no. 2 by Prokofiev:

I didn't see that coming! And the second most popular post was on the Piano Sonata no. 1:

I guess I am going to continue to do series of posts on specific repertoire. If you have some suggestions, just leave them in the comments.

Let's have a listen to that sonata. This performance is by Sviatoslav Richter:

The most popular post in February was one about Lady Gaga's vocal coach, and I presume that was simply because of her fame as a pop star:

The second most popular post came the day before with one on the sub-culture of orchestral musicians:

I ended that last post with a clip of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the last movement of the Symphony No. 88 by Haydn. That particular performance is so amusing that we should watch it again. Once he starts them off Lennie just stands there making facial expressions as if to demonstrate that this orchestra hardly needs a conductor to play Haydn!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The long nightmare is over: finally the Moody Blues are inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!
Although the Moodys became eligible in 1989 under the hall's requirement that 25 years elapse after an act’s first recording, the group perhaps best known for its 1967 ambitious and heavily orchestrated concept album “Days of Future Passed,” and the single it yielded, “Nights in White Satin,” appeared on the nominees list for the first time this year.
Here is the only song I actually remember from those hazy days in the late 60s-early 70s:

* * *

Jumping on the bandwagon, The Guardian has a piece on the Cult of the Maestro:
The cult of the maestro has thrived precisely because of the uniquely difficult demands of the music: great power and privilege is sycophantically bestowed on those perceived to be geniuses, and behaviour that would be unacceptable in other contexts may be excused or swept under the carpet; different moral standards can be applied to them by virtue of their artistic brilliance.
Well sure, this is an old story, but "moral standards" are only standard if they apply to everyone! There have been abusive power-players in the classical music business, just as there have been in every single other business. Sometimes these abuses have been covered up by cloaking them in some sort of romantic haze labeled "artistic brilliance" but anyone with much sense can tell artistic brilliance from sociopathic abuse. Just because James Levine has now fallen from grace does not mean that every conductor has to be viewed with suspicion--nor should we ignore all the other kinds of abuse that exist other than sexual ones! A while back I posted a couple of clips of Arturo Toscanini abusing his orchestral players to an astonishing extent. What surprises me is why no-one stood up and told him where to stuff it. You only put up with crap like that if you are short of self-respect and power and privilege should never be "sycophantically bestowed" on anyone.

* * *

NPR has a story on the war on rosewood:
New regulations on the international movement of rosewood have hit hard in parts of the music industry, which has long relied on rosewood as a "tonewood" used in many kinds of instruments, including guitars, cellos and clarinets.
The reason for the crackdown, and for Katz's anxiety? China. Specifically, Chinese consumers' growing demand for rosewood or "hongmu" furniture. 
Among the requirements: musical instruments containing any amount of rosewood were subject to a complex, time-consuming permit system covering businesses and individuals.
Requirements differed by country, and trade and travel became risky.
I became reluctant to travel with my guitar years ago because of a bit of antique ivory on the nut, now my reluctance is augmented because of the ebony fingerboard and the rosewood back and sides.

* * *

ArtReview has an informative article on cultural appropriation:
So, what is cultural appropriation and why has it become such a contentious issue? Susan Scafidi, professor of law at Fordham University, defines it as ‘taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission’. This can include the ‘unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.’
But what is it for knowledge or expression or a cuisine to ‘belong’ to a culture? And who gives permission for someone from another culture to use such knowledge or forms?
In Canada these days it is frowned upon for any non-Indigenous artist to make use of any symbols or designs from Indigenous art without their approval, which they are not keen to give.
What really lies behind the debate about cultural appropriation is not ownership but gatekeeping – the making of rules or an etiquette to determine how a particular cultural form may be used and by whom. What critics of cultural appropriation want to establish is that certain people have the right to determine who can use such knowledge or forms, because at the heart of criticism of cultural appropriation is the relationship between gatekeeping and identity.
So it is really an extension of the tactics associated with identity politics.
To subsume aesthetic considerations to those of identity is to render art meaningless.
Not meaningless, no, but certainly it turns art into just another tool of political propaganda.

* * *

When I was a kid, before I became a musician, I was fascinated with airplanes and flying--I guess a lot of kids are. Anyway, I still find flying fascinating and some of the fun comes from the stories pilots tell. The best one ever I posted here a long time ago as a text, but I just ran across a little clip of it on YouTube. This is Maj. Brian Shul, pilot of an SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest airplane ever, describing one perfect afternoon:

* * *

The Walrus has an essay titled The Case Against Reading Everything that is worth a look.
The call to “read widely” is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices. Leave that to the editors of Canada’s few newspaper book sections, which often resemble arm’s-length marketing departments for publishers. Leave that to the dubious figure of the “arts journalist.”
Instead, shutter your ear against mediocrity. To fall in love with language, don’t fan out. Fall down a rabbit hole.
I was having lunch with a friend yesterday and the subject of composers came up and out of the blue I just blurted out, "Well, Bach is the master of us all, but I also love other music from the 18th century. The French were just glorious: Rameau, Couperin. And then after them came Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. I also love Stravinsky and Shostakovich. But most other music you should avoid..."

* * *

 Over at NewMusicBox, Aaron Gervais has a long piece about why efforts at audience-building by classical music institutions often fail:
musical taste is about community building—an inclusive activity. But whenever you build a community, you also implicitly decide who isn’t welcome. Those boundaries are actually the thing that defines the community. We see this clearly in variations in average tastes along racial or ethnic lines, but it’s just as important elsewhere: comparing grey-haired orchestra donors to bluegrass festival attendees, or teenagers to their parents, for example.
For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point. Early punk musicians weren’t trying to welcome pop music fans—they actively ridiculed them. Similarly, nobody involved in the ‘90s rave scene would have suggested toning down the bold fashion choices, drug culture, and extreme event durations in order to make the genre more accessible.
I think I vaguely sensed this in some of my posts on the subject. Efforts to attract new audiences by diluting the classical music experience or by making it more like pop music always seemed pointless to me. Aaron's article is quite long, but it looks at matters from a fresh perspective and includes a lot of interesting research.

* * *

As a footnote to the James Levine story, Slipped Disc has an anonymous story, but one that rings true. The teller was working at the Metropolitan Opera:
From the moment he declined the sexual proposition, our contact became invisible in the building. No-one wanted to work with him. If he asked why, he would be told he ‘was not good enough’. A clique around the music director was there to enforce his wishes.
In music in particular and the arts in general, competence can be hard to prove if you are not given the opportunity. The Met was an impossible place to work if you did not play the music director’s way.
 This phenomenon is, I'm sorry to say, not restricted to sexual harassment. I know of more than one musical institution that became a locus of mediocrity, frustration and depression because the wrong people attained positions of power and through petty favoritism turned the place into a travesty of what it could have been. This is not uncommon as those people who are most adept at careerism and opportunism tend to rise to the top and collect about them others like themselves. Artistic creativity and aesthetic quality then take a backseat to the new purposes of the institution: preserving the power and privilege of the administrators and shielding them from accountability.

* * *

After those depressing thoughts we need some uplifting and cheerful music. This is the Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, K 488 by Mozart. Malcolm Bilson - fortepiano, John Eliot Gardiner - conductor, and English Baroque Soloists, on period instruments.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Music Born From Suffering

Can We Really Take Pleasure From Music Born From Suffering? is the title of a article reporting on a recent conference held in Toronto. As is often the case, the essay doesn't quite answer the question:
Music enriches life so immeasurably that we are inclined to think of it as a purely positive phenomenon.  But it is more complicated than that.  Music is a product of a particular time and place and the context in which it is created can be dark, violent, exploitative, and even demonic.  To think seriously about music it is necessary to reckon with the problematic role it can play in culture.
That's the kind of introduction that thoroughly misses the point. Yes, music can enrich life, but it does so if and when it is the expression or reaction to actual life. If the context is dark and troubling, then that is what the music will reflect--ironically, sometimes by being just the opposite. The phrase about reckoning with "the problematic role it can play in culture" is just genuflecting to critical theory where everything has a problematic role!
The theme of adding a back story of tragedy to a piece of music and its effect on the music’s reception was returned to many times.  Musicologist Michael Beckerman described his experiments with accomplished musicians, in which he provided them with an anonymous score without telling them anything about it, and then tracking how their performance changed once he told them that the composer had been in a concentration camp, or that the composer had died.  While the performers claimed that the narrative deeply influenced their subsequent interpretation of the work, the recordings made by Beckerman proved otherwise.  “Sometimes,” he told us, “the musicians played exactly the same way but made different faces.”
This well-meaning exercise is the kind of thing that tends to place any particular piece of music on a Procrustean bed of the historical context. Yes, it always tweaks our interest to learn that, for example, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps of Olivier Messiaen was composed and premiered in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, but that is an old story and largely incidental to the aesthetic content of the piece. What is really problematic here are the hidden assumptions of the musicologists telling us the story behind the composition. It is their interpretation that, perhaps, needs to be examined. A performer really should not walk out on stage trying to make the performance a vehicle for whatever biographical context might have surrounded the occasion of the composition.

The scholars at the conference delve into a lot of ethical questions such as:
“Music that came out of suffering becomes valorized,” said Beckerman, “ so that we tend to overlook some of the disturbing facts, such as that the composer was granted privileges that allowed him to survive, including being exempt from labour.”  A starker way of putting it is that some music may have come to us at the cost of the death of a fellow prisoner who didn’t happen to compose.  When we know this, can we comfortably continue to listen to such works?
Perhaps all music comes out of some kind of suffering, or some kind of joy or some kind of arduous work. So what? The relationship of the context to the finished aesthetic object is complex and not necessarily causal. Also, I think that there is a legal principle that states that no contract signed under duress is legally valid. Can we not extend that principle to say that we really should not be picking over works written in a context of extreme duress for some sort of hidden privilege?

I can't help but think that this project is just another way of shifting the focus away from the aesthetic qualities of music to ones that can be interpreted in the light of social justice.

Let's listen to the quartet by Messiaen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Spot the Problem

More and more lately I realize that I need a new tag: "streaming music." Apart from YouTube I don't use any streaming service myself as I prefer to have the CD for any music I am really interested in. I suppose that I reject streaming for the same reason I stopped listening to radio and watching television decades ago: I want to make all my own choices as I hate having stuff "broadcast" at me. Here is an article that delves into some of the problems with a service like Spotify:
The music world continues to be exceedingly vulnerable, and there are looming questions that desperately need to be addressed. Most important: How can artists distribute and sell their work in a digital economy beholden to ruthlessly commercial and centralized interests?
Enter Spotify, a platform that is definitely not the answer. In fact, it only exacerbates such conundrums. Yet for now it has manipulated the vast majority of music industry “players” into regarding it as a saving grace. As the world’s largest streaming music company, its network of paying subscribers has risen sharply in recent years, from five million paid subscribers in 2012 to more than sixty million in 2017. Indeed, the platform has now convinced a critical mass that paying $9.99 per month for access to thirty million songs is a solid, even virtuous idea. Every song in the world for less than your shitty airport meal. What could go wrong? 
To understand the danger Spotify poses to the music industry—and to music itself—you first have to dig beneath the “user experience” and examine its algorithmic schemes. Spotify’s front page “Browse” screen presents a classic illusion of choice, a stream of genre and mood playlists, charts, new releases, and now podcasts and video. It all appears limitless, a function of the platform’s infinite supply, but in reality it is tightly controlled by Spotify’s staff and dictated by the interests of major labels, brands, and other cash-rich businesses who have gamed the system. 
Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect.
Those excerpts should give you an idea, though you should read the whole thing. I am hampered in discussing this because, as I said, I have never used Spotify or any other streaming service. There is just nothing about it that appeals to me. The closest I get to being the object of some commercial algorithm is as an Amazon customer and I find the choices they make for me to be mildly annoying. They are constantly sending me links to things I have already purchased or to authors I purchased and decided I didn't like or to things that are exactly like things I already have. I'm sure it's not just me!

So I guess all I can say about Spotify and its dangers is akin to the famous critique of democracy by Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” If what most people want from music is a soporific (euphemistically known as "chilling out") selection crafted for them by an algorithm, then ok, sure, whatever. But herein perhaps lies the reason that there is less and less creativity and originality in music these days.


Let's have something non-soporific, yet up-lifting. This is the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin:

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Emerging Musical Genres

I tagged this as "musical humor" because I am 73% positive that this is meant to be humorous or satirical or something. The Guardian article is headlined: What's the hot emerging musical genre of 2017? Welcome to serialism. They link to a BBC piece on Spotify that has various lists of statistics from the past year like:

Top five artists worldwide

  1. Ed Sheeran
  2. Drake
  3. The Weeknd
  4. Kendrick Lamar
  5. The Chainsmokers
But they also have the very promising list of:

Biggest emerging genres
  1. Melodic power metal
  2. Chaotic black metal
  3. Chillhop
  4. Trap Latino
  5. Future funk
  6. Jumpstyle
  7. Serialism
  8. Cinematic dubstep
  9. Vintage swoon
  10. Gamecore
Now I'm sure you can pick out the odd-man-out in that list? Which of these is not like the others? I'm guessing serialism is the one. It is also the only one that I actually know anything about. "Chillhop," "Trap Latino" and the others are a complete mystery, though I have to confess a curiosity about "Vintage swoon." Would that be, like, Puccini? In any case, the folks over at the Guardian do a little question and answer schtick on serialism:

Name: Serialism.

Age: Has its origins in the early 20th century.

Appearance: The next big thing.

I know about this – all melted watches, people with apples in their faces and whatnot. That’s surrealism. This is serialism, a form of modern musical composition that began with Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique.

And what’s that when it’s at home? Essentially, it’s a system that uses repeated patterns to ensure that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are given equal importance, thus avoiding the constraints of keys and traditional harmonies.

I’m no expert, but it sounds like a hard listen. It may be difficult for the uninitiated, but serialism of one kind or another was the dominant classical music form of the first half of the 20th century.

I’m still confused. Can you give me an example? Of course. Are you familiar with, say, Le Temps Restitué by Jean Barraqué?

I’m not sure. Can you hum a few bars? I’ll try: hmmmnyiunnnnnhhhmmmmioooohnnnymyhmmmmmmmmm…

Are you OK? You sound like a dog that has been hit by a car. It’s difficult to reproduce.

Let's have a listen to Mr. Barraqué's piece:

It is really amazing how similar all those pieces from the post-war serialist phase sound. I suppose a real expert could distinguish Boulez from Stockhausen, Pousseur, Barraqué and others, but the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic style, from this perspective, forces them all into a very similar musical space. Of course I may have just revealed myself to be a complete dolt! But what I am listening to is not so much the technical devices, as the aesthetic result. Sameness.

If you dig around on Wikipedia you can find a lot of lists of musical genres, all of them very ill-defined, with a lot of hilarious names. At least we know what serialism is, even if we doubt that it is a "hot emerging genre."

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Classical Music Has a Regional Problem

In all the discussions about classical music's "problem" what is missing is the specifics. The problem is usually stated as being one of a decline in popularity due to younger audiences abandoning the "genre" for the dubious pleasures of popular music. This is usually how the problem is framed in the mass media in North America and, occasionally, in Great Britain. The thing is that this does not seem to be the case in Europe where classical music seems as popular as ever and audiences as diverse as ever.

If we step back and look at some history, classical music is deeply rooted on the European continent, but a fairly recent transplant in the New World. The UK is the odd man out. Music there was pursued with great energy and creativity during the Middle Ages and, right up to the death of Purcell in the late 17th century, was quite influential on European music. Then it seems to have died out, as a native pursuit, until the very late 19th century when Edward Elgar began the flourishing of classical music in 20th century Britain.

Similarly, classical, that is to say, notated concert music, has been pursued avidly in pockets of the New World, especially the US, Brazil and Argentina, during the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and others are probably as important as any working today.

But it still remains the case that concert music has only very shallow roots everywhere in the world apart from Western Europe. What is happening in recent decades is that the thin veneer of Western European culture that has existed in a lot of the world is wearing away everywhere but in Western Europe. As an example, let's look at what inspired this post: the music page from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation There are a host of items on the page, color-coded as to genre. Classical music items are aquamarine. On this whole page there are three classical items out of dozens and dozens of other genres.

The traditional expectation would be that a national broadcast network like the CBC or PBS in the US or ABC in Australia would have an educational or cultural mandate that would certainly include the promotion of classical or concert music. In recent decades this has been completely overturned and now these entities go out of their way not only to not promote classical music, but to bury it amid a wealth of non-classical music--to virtually no protest. On the European continent things are quite different as classical music is a core element of European national broadcast networks. It is also promoted by the BBC in the UK, again following a path a bit closer to the continent.

I suppose the big question mark today is what is happening in China where literally millions of young people are studying concert instruments like the piano and violin as well as the voice. How deeply will classical music root itself in China and will it be pushed to one side by popular forms as it seems to have been in South Korea?

Let's hear a clip of a performance by the very popular Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. Here she is playing the Piano Concerto No. by Chopin in Tokyo with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Handel's Messiah

There is a new book out on Handel's Messiah (reviewed in the Wall Street Journal), just in time for a flood of performances associated with the season. Perhaps the two most popular pieces performed this time of year are Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet and Handel's oratorio. So what is an oratorio, anyway?

Its origins are in the 17th century and it became a vehicle for the expression of both the Reformation in the works of the great German composer Heinrich Schütz, student of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the Counter-Reformation in the works of Giacomo Carissimi, a priest, organist and choirmaster in Rome. An oratorio is basically an unstaged dramatic narrative on a sacred text, a sacred dialogue.

Schütz called his oratorios "historien" and one of the best-known is his joyous, Italianate outpouring of Christmas cheer titled Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes Jesu Christi (Historia of the joyful und blessed birth of Jesus Christ, son of God and Mary). This is often shortened in English to Christmas Story. It was first performed in 1660. Let's have a listen.

Carissimi's most famous biblical narrative, Jephte, was composed around 1649 and tells the tragic story of the sacrifice of Jephte's daughter. A chorus from this work was "borrowed" by Handel for a chorus in his oratorio Samson. Let's listen to the Carissimi:

Handel's great genius was to reinvent the oratorio in English as a solution to his problems with the decline in popularity of his operas in Italian. Interestingly Handel's oratorios in English became vehicles for the expression of civic heroism and national triumph. The English in the 18th century identified with the Old Testament Israelites and regarded the oratorios as gratifying allegories of themselves (see Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 2, p. 315). Handel began the composition of the Messiah in 1741 and it was first performed in Dublin in 1742. The great innovation that Handel made was to re-conceive the genre as being essentially choral. Indeed, the most famous section is the "Hallelujah" chorus, which is possibly the most famous piece of choral music ever written. Let's have a listen:

Now that is stirring! The book by Keates makes the point that performances throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries were characterized by enormous choirs and orchestras, quite distant from the original performances. But in recent decades, a return has been made to the modest forces and crisper tempos of the 18th century. Here, as an example, is the Messiah performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (soloists listed at YouTube):