Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Group Therapy at NewMusicBox

I have the composer site NewMusicBox saved in my music links, but I find it a bit depressing going there. It always feels like a post-traumatic group therapy session because most articles, like this one, are laments about the difficult situation musicians are in these days. The article is illustrated with this revealing graphic:

For the first half of your career, when you can still be called "young", everyone is always suggesting that you play for free for "exposure". The problem with this is that this will work out well for a small minority of musicians, those who are playing just the repertoire people want to hear in the just the way they want to hear it. But for another small minority, perhaps the most creative ones, the exposure will not help much because it will merely reveal that most people don't want to hear their music. And, of course, it won't help the majority because they are mediocre musicians.

Here is another article on the site that talks about a British survey of composer's commissions:
• 66% of the 466 composers who responded stated they do not find commissions to be a significant proportion of their income. Given that the respondents had an average of 2.65 commissions in 2013 with an average fee per commission of £1,392 it’s easy to see why.
• 74% of composers received the same amount or more commissions in 2013 than in 2012 but only 15% earned more income. We also discovered that those who had been undertaking commissions for more than five years were likely to win more commissions but get paid less per commission.
• There are significant variances in income: the best paid 1% of composers received over 25% of all commission income captured by our survey. Once we excluded them from our sample, average annual commission income fell from £3,689 to £2,717.
Based on this, I think it is safe to say that music composition in Great Britain, except for a very small group, is an amateur activity. If you are making less than $5000 a year from your work, you are not a professional, or only a very part-time one.

I was having lunch with couple of Canadians the other day, one a composer, and someone accused me of being a snob. I quickly said that I wasn't. What I am is an elitist, there is a difference! I think that great music is fairly rare and what I strive to do personally is to get as close to writing great music as I can. Whether it is possible or not is perhaps a judgement that only posterity can make, so I don't trouble myself about it. I just try and write music as well as I can and leave it at that. To this end, I see myself as a non-commercial musician. That is, I have next to no interest in making money from music. I have an occupation that does not take up an excessive amount of time, and that provides me with sufficient income. Therefore, I can devote a significant part of my energies to the creation of music and I can do so without worrying about any non-musical concerns like commissions or sales. I am concerned about performances, but I have a strategy for that, too.

So, unlike many of the contributors at NewMusicBox, I am not depressed about music. I used to be, about career matters at least, but that is why I retired as a professional musician. If people like my music, then I am thrilled. But I am not writing particularly for short term approval. I am writing music of a certain kind because I can and perhaps one day this music will find an audience. I don't really know any other way of going about it. Frankly, I just can't see myself attempting to craft a composition to appeal to a competition jury or commissioning organization or the mass media. It seems to me that that leads you down the wrong path. One day you wake up and find yourself a mere hack. And as those numbers above show, you are a mere hack with a pathetically small income!! Years ago I mentioned in conversation to someone that there were lots of classical musicians ready to "sell out", but that nobody was buying!!

As kind of a metaphor for that, when I was packing up to leave Montreal quite a few years ago, I found myself with several musical instruments that I couldn't take with me and several computers as well. The musical instruments included a Roland keyboard and several violins. The computers were all second-hand Macs and PCs. After placing an ad in the paper, I sold all the computers in a week. There were no buyers whatsoever for the musical instruments so I finally donated them to the university music department.

My personal solution is to make money by offering people a service that they seem to have great need of, while pursuing my musical activities free of the need for income. This seems for me to be a happier solution than the depressing one of trying to survive in this current musical scene dominated by sheer commercialism.

Hmm, what will we listen to today. Ah, how about the Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Brahms:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Symphony Guide does Tchaikovsky

It's Tuesday so time to check out what Tom Service has for us today over at the Guardian's weekly symphony guide. I'm going to miss this series when it is done in the very near future.

Today's installment is on the Symphony No. 6 by Tchaikovsky, nicknamed the "Pathetique" and his last and most-perfect symphony. I just listened to this a few days ago and it is an impressive work. As is usual with him, Tom begins by exploding some of the typical characterizations of the piece and in this case, it is called for and well done. No, this is not a "suicide note" from the composer and it is probably the finest music Tchaikovsky wrote. Mind you, Tom then blots his copybook by dragging back in some programmatic comments that Tchaikovsky originally wrote about a previous symphony that he was sketching. So, six of one taken away only to add on half a dozen later on. Tom is quite right in describing the symphony in this way, however:
That slow, lamenting finale turns the entire symphonic paradigm on its head, and changes at a stroke the possibility of what a symphony could be: instead of ending in grand public joy, the Sixth Symphony closes with private, intimate, personal pain.
Yes, it is with this movement that Tchaikovsky creates (or perhaps recreates if we take Beethoven and Schubert into account) the notion of the symphony as existential struggle rather than public celebration. It certainly started as a communal act of celebration: nearly every symphony by Haydn and Mozart fulfills that purpose. But with Beethoven darker elements begin to appear and with this symphony by Tchaikovsky they take over the form. I have written about this here. Tom ends his essay with this comment, which I think is quite true:
He knew this piece marked a new high-watermark in his confidence as a composer, and that he had re-invented the symphony on his own terms, and for so many composers who came after him. Mahler, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and many others could not have composed the symphonies they did without the example of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. It’s just a terrible fluke of fate that this was his last symphony, and not the beginning of what could have been his most exciting creative period as a composer.
Now let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 6 by Tchaikovsky. Here is Mravinsky and the Leningrad Symphony:

This is the second symphony by Tchaikovsky to appear in the series. Tom previously wrote about the First Symphony.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Update on the Symphony Project

I don't have much for you today. I was out late last night, slept in this morning and didn't have anything prepared beforehand. But, as I have been doing a lot of listening lately, perhaps I can catch you up on the Project.

What project is this? When I set out to do some writing for orchestra and decided to take up the form and genre of the symphony, I realized that while I knew some symphonies pretty well, such as ones by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, there were a lot of others that I simply did not know very well, such as those by Brahms, Bruckner and Schumann. So I set out to listen, at least once, to all the significant symphonies. I think I put up the list before, but it includes all those by the ones I just mentioned plus Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Schubert and others. In the process I added Allan Pettersson, whom I had never heard of before. I think I will get around to Carl Nielsen as well.

But I just finished, over the weekend, listening to the symphonies, all nine of them, bAntonín Dvořák and started on the ones by Brahms. Incidentally, I got an excellent Decca box of the symphonies, concertos, Hungarian Dances, Serenades and Variations on a Theme of Haydn all conducted by Haitink with the Concertgebouw. I have loved the Haydn Variations since I had a recording of them on two pianos played by the Kontarsky brothers. While I have often been critical of Brahms' chamber music in the past, I think that I am going to come away from this project with a high opinion of his orchestral music.

Dvořák is an entirely different kettle of fish, though. He was one of the very first composers, along with Debussy, that I really fell in love with when I was discovering classical music way back when. The New World Symphony just bowled me over. But now, listening to him today, I hear him a bit differently. The first four symphonies are quite bad, I think. The constant tympani rolls, barking brass and over-reliance on dotted rhythms to create a kind of artificial excitement gave me a headache. It is interesting to hear the not-good symphonies from the 19th century because they give us a kind of read on audience taste. They were delighted with loud, blaring sounds in the concert hall because all this was rather a new experience for the middle-class audience that was coming to classical music for the first time. Previous to the 19th century, classical music was, except in church, mostly listened to just by the aristocracy.

After the first four symphonies, things get a bit better as Dvořák learns how to create charming textures with the woodwinds and finds a lyrical mode. But I can't say that there are any really great symphonies until we get to the last one, the New World Symphony. This is a fine piece, with some really memorable melodies. But my overall impression of Dvořák is that, even after he mastered writing for the orchestra, he was still rather a lightweight. There are simply no profound movements here, just a lot of charming music with a likable surface.

Let's listen to an example. Here is the Symphony No. 8 by Dvořák:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Computer Taught Me to Play Guitar!

Did you hear the one about the guitarist who learned how to play from a book? Sadly his career was ruined by a misprint! Well now there is a computer program, a development of the Guitar Hero game, that offers a course in how to play the guitar. Unfortunately I have never played Guitar Hero, so most of the description is lost on me. The closest I have gotten to anything like this is the scene in Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johansson is wandering around in a Tokyo video arcade and sees this guy playing what I assume is Guitar Hero. Here is a video clip about the method:

I have to admit that I dipped in and out--I have a short attention span for this sort of thing--but I did notice some things that seem appropriate. There is a feature, riff repeater, that allows you to isolate a particular short, difficult passage for practice. Well, of course, this is how you learn stuff, by breaking it down into small, easily-digested parts. So maybe this might actually facilitate learning guitar. It might even be an improvement over your local rock guitar teacher who is likely an inarticulate dweeb.

The impact of the possibilities offered by computer software and the internet on teaching is probably just in the very early stages. There are a whole bunch of mediocre guitar teachers, piano teachers, instructors in business and sales and, a particularly ripe target, college professors, who have hanging over their heads, whether they realize it or not, the sword of Damocles. The MOOCs (massive open online courses) just starting to be offered by universities, are going to have a huge impact on the institutions of higher learning who have been going down the road of less for more for a long time. Tuitions are skyrocketing as undergraduates find themselves more and more stuffed into huge lecture classes of 300 or more students with a once-a-week session in a smaller group with a grad student. Replacing this with an online course would likely be an improvement!

A couple of little anecdotes from my experience. In the early 70s I was an undergraduate in a Western Canadian university where I was lucky to get an excellent introduction to a university education. Apart from music I had classes in linguistics, English, German and philosophy. Each of these classes, at the first-year level, had no more than twenty students. The philosophy class in particular was taught by a recent PhD and he did it by assigning readings and then debating them with us. In other words, we actually did philosophy in the class in much the same way that Socrates would have in the 4th century BC. Years later I became an instructor myself in that same university and was shocked to discover that that same first year philosophy class now had 300 students! There won't be any debating in that class! Another example. In another university where I was teaching a music appreciation class to non-music majors, with an enrollment of around 100 students, I was waiting outside with a group of students for the previous course to end when I fell into conversation with one of my students. As we walked in a few minutes later she confided in me that she was in 2nd year psych and just now was the first time she had actually spoken to a professor. Now I was just a sessional lecturer, but I got the point. Universities have, in many respects, turned from being transmitters of the great traditions of Western culture into sausage-factories, turning out certified know-nothings in great quantity. It wouldn't be quite so insulting if it were not that the cost of this has become prohibitive--in the US at least. Canadian universities are still pretty cheap, though with a lot of the same problems.

All this makes universities a big fat target for internet instruction.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Debate Over Art and Politics

There are two recent hefty contributions to the ongoing debate over art and politics. I want to link to them here because I think they are both worth reading and because I want to add a comment myself. The first article is by Jed Perl and appears in The New Republic. The title is "Liberals Are Killing Art". Here is a brief section that will give you a taste of Perl's article:
It is also, so I believe, a grave mistake to imagine that because art has so often been placed in the service of governments or religions that it is somehow essentially a medium through which political or social or religious beliefs are to be conveyed. By this logic, art has no independent life, and is never much more than a reflection of some particular set of values. But this argument can easily be turned on its head. The very fact that art has so often been embraced by those in positions of power suggests an awareness that art has some unique, autonomous valuesome capacity or capability that trumps temporal concerns and lends to time-bound ideas, ideologies, and ideals an enviably timeless aspect.
I might add a bit to this by saying that coverage of the arts in the mass media is often one of the biggest offenders against the real value of art because, these days at least, it is focussed on the most superficial forms of art and in the most superficial way: record sales, video views, salacious costumes and dance, the celebrity cult of the artists and so on.

The riposte to this is found in a New Yorker column by Alex Ross titled "As If Music Could Do No Harm" which is a quote from Socrates. Plato, who put those words in Socrates' mouth, is particularly known for desiring to control the role of music in society. Ross' column makes some good arguments contra Perl as regards the fact that music does often have a political dimension that is hard to ignore:
The illusion I have in mind is the belief that one can engage in blatantly political activity and then, in the face of protest, insist that politics has nothing to do with art. The rote repetition of a tidy cliché about artistic autonomy rings hollow when it is used as a protective shield. Such rhetoric poisons the art-for-art’s-sake mentality that Perl ardently defends. The problem is acute in classical music because of a longstanding devotion to the concept of “absolute music”—the idea that Bach, Beethoven, and the rest inhabit a spiritually pure sphere, far above the vulgarities of politics.
Point taken, but notice how the effect of this paragraph is to paint as naive those who might want to look at music apart from "the vulgarities of politics".

UPDATE: Looking back over this post, I feel that there is point here that needs to be underlined: Politics is often vulgar and Bach, Beethoven and the rest do usually inhabit a spiritually pure sphere far above it. The really odd thing here is that we read the statement by Alex Ross and just accept his positioning it so as to seem questionable, if not out right wrong.

I think both essays are worth reading and make some good points, but I think the very medium of a debate in print denatures all discussion of music. In the case of a lecture or master class on music, one can lard the presentation with frequent appropriate musical examples. But in an essay, or any discussion where the music, in the form of the sounds themselves or the notation of those sounds, is absent, the discussion inevitably shortchanges music as an independent phenomenon for the very, very simple reason that the discussion is a purely verbal one! Surely this is obvious? Politics is easy to discuss in an essay; music, not so much.

As soon as I put up a piece of music in the form of a clip from YouTube, the quality of music as something that certainly can have an existence quite separate from politics is obvious. Note the word "can". Because, as we can demonstrate with a different piece of music, it can also have a very strong political character. Let me put up an example of music simply as music:

Now I'm quite sure that an excellent way to get a doctorate these days would be to unpack the political subtext to this or any Haydn quartet. But that speaks more to the prejudices of the present day than to the music. This music was written for the enjoyment of the players above all and it succeeds because of its musical characteristics. You can write a political subtext if you wish, but I think you are on thin ice and add nothing to one's understanding of the piece. On the other hand, here is a piece that is all about the politics:

That is the French national anthem, written by Rouget de Lisle during the French Revolution and originally titled the "Marching Song of the Army of the Rhine". This arrangement is by none other than Hector Berlioz.

Then there are the myriad of pieces whose political character is subtle, various or ironic, such as a lot of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich:

This symphony is dedicated to the city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Shostakovich's home town and during WWII subjected to possibly the most horrific siege in modern times. Over 900 days of siege, over one and a half million soldiers and civilians died in Leningrad. Shostakovich was there in the initial stages before being evacuated and the first movement was composed entirely in the besieged city. I'm sure this is a patriotic work, one that recalls the suffering of the people, but is it "political" in the sense that either writer of the above essays means? What is Shostakovich's attitude towards the Soviet authorities? Does it matter?

My feeling is that much of the talk about the relationship between music and politics tends to collapse as soon as you look at specific pieces of music. Which itself speaks to the fundamental autonomy of music.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Music and Mathematics

I'm reminded of something a classical scholar said to a musicologist many years ago: "do not look into Greek music theory; that way lies madness!" Somehow I have stumbled into some strange mathematical realms while innocently poking around in some Wikipedia articles trying to understand a little bit about the Poincaré conjecture that Grigori Perelman solved. That led me to an article about hearing the shape of a drum:

This little illustration is explained thusly:
Mathematically ideal drums with membranes of these two different shapes (but otherwise identical) would sound the same, because the eigenfrequencies are all equal, so the timbral spectra would contain the same overtones. This example was constructed by Gordon, Webb and Wolpert. Notice that both polygons have the same area and perimeter.
And then I wandered over to an article about the vibrations of a circular membrane (a drum in other words) and saw this very weird thing:

That, by the way, is one way that a circular drumhead can vibrate. Maybe if you hit it really hard in just the right spot? That's known as Mode u_{23} (5d) with \lambda_{23}=11.6198.

And that led me to things that vibrating strings do. Here are the first five overtones shown as standing waves on a string:

And then my head started to hurt and I had to lay down...

Two Russians Named Grigory

This is a bit peripheral to our primary interest here at the Music Salon, but so very interesting I wanted to put it up anyway. There is a very interesting fellow, a Russian mathematician, who may be the smartest person in the world. His name is Grigory Perelman.

Grigory Perelman

I recommend reading the whole Wikipedia article as it is fascinating. Some highlights:
In 1994, Perelman proved the Soul conjecture. In 2003, he proved Thurston's geometrization conjecture. This consequently solved in the affirmative the Poincaré conjecture, posed in 1904, which before its solution was viewed as one of the most important and difficult open problems in topology.
In August 2006, Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal[1] for "his contributions to geometry and his revolutionary insights into the analytical and geometric structure of the Ricci flow." Perelman declined to accept the award or to appear at the congress, stating: "I'm not interested in money or fame; I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo."[2] On 22 December 2006, the scientific journal Science recognized Perelman's proof of the Poincaré conjecture as the scientific "Breakthrough of the Year", the first such recognition in the area of mathematics.[3]
On 18 March 2010, it was announced that he had met the criteria to receive the first Clay Millennium Prize[4] for resolution of the Poincaré conjecture. On 1 July 2010, he turned down the prize of one million dollars.[5][6] He additionally turned down the prestigious prize of the European Mathematical Society.[7]
Apparently he is working on another one of the problems that the Millennium Prize people have designated as deserving of an award. If he solves that one, that will be another embarassing moment for them if he turns it down as well.

I like this guy! He seems to have the crazy idea that higher mathematics really has nothing to do with either money or fame.

So who is the other Grigory? That would be Grigory Sokolov who is possibly the finest pianist alive, but who refuses to do commercial recordings (all the CDs available are from live concerts) and, when the US and the UK put in onerous new visa requirements for touring musicians, simply canceled his concerts in those countries. He seems to share Perelman's stance. The fine arts, like classical music, really have nothing to do with how many records you sell or how many concerts you give.

Here is Grigory Sokolov, showing us how it's done:

What is it with these Russians?