Monday, October 24, 2016

High (Remunerating) Culture

I'm all for economic decisions being made on the basic of economic facts, but I'm also all for aesthetic decisions being made on the basis of aesthetic facts. The Wall Street Journal has some tough love from Terry Teachout to the orchestral musicians currently in salary disputes with management in Fort Worth, Pittsburgh and one recently settled in Philadelphia. He reviews the history of orchestral pay in the US and concludes: a market economy, the price of labor is determined by the interaction of supply and demand. You get what someone else is willing to pay you—and nothing more.
“Demand” is the key word here. In 1967, classical music still occupied a central position in our high culture. Now it doesn’t. Most Americans don’t care about classical music and don’t go to orchestral concerts. I think they should, but it doesn’t matter what I think. They’ll do what they want to do—and one thing they don’t want to do is go out of their way to hike the salary of a violinist in Philadelphia who already makes over $2,400 a week, especially when the median weekly household income in the U.S. is $1,073 (which is roughly what the average London orchestra player earns per week).
The mention of the year 1967 refers back to some research Mr. Teachout did:
Prior to 1968, membership in the Cleveland Orchestra was a part-time job. When [Arnold Steinhardt] joined the orchestra, the regular season was just 30 weeks long, with lower pay for summer concerts. In 1952, the base salary was $3,240—$29,231 in today’s dollars. By 1967, it had only gone up to $11,700. (The current base salary is $120,000.) The U.S. median household income in 1967, by contrast, was $7,970. According to a 1952 survey, 60% of the players moonlighted in nonmusical jobs, and many of them did so until 1968, when Cleveland, in keeping with other top-tier American orchestras, finally lengthened its season to 52 weeks.
If you read the whole thing, Mr. Teachout is making two points: first of all that conductors and administrators are paid very high salaries while players make much less, but even so, players in orchestras like Philadelphia's make double the median household income. Therefore, they should shut up and play. Well, ok. As I said, economic truths are economic truths. But the problem I have is with the mention of "high culture".

We live in topsy-turvy times when all those who are supposed to be educating us about the value of culture and high culture in particular are instead off fighting social justice wars. One gets the distinct impression from this article that high culture in the form of classical music concerts has no importance whatsoever now. If you look only at remuneration, the central position in "high" culture these days is obviously occupied by Taylor Swift (earnings in the past year: $170 million), Beyoncé and Katy Perry. That's the little logical hiccup in the column: yes, in a market economy, you get what someone is willing to pay you, the classical violinist in Philadelphia, $2400 a week and Taylor Swift, $170 million a year. But I don't think you should connect market value with the concept of "high culture" which is an aesthetic concept, not an economic one. Hopefully, the Philadelphia Orchestra does still occupy a central position in high culture.

It seems as if in the USA these days, high culture, like music programs in schools, could be dropped entirely. Contrast this with another article at The Huffington Post: Kent Nagano Discusses Ten Years with Montreal Symphony:
When I first got to the city, many people on the administration staff said, ‘...oh dear, we have a grey-haired syndrome here...,’ meaning that our audience is getting older and older. But, we decided over the course of the season, that we would never change one thing - we felt that the one thing that transcends generation is the natural human tendancy to appreciate exceptional quality.
So rather than push the bar down, we pushed the bar very, very high, where we challenge the audiences with extremely adventurous programming. We promote not only very well-known marquee international soloists, but we support young and up-and-coming soloists that our audience takes under its own wing. They feel that the young soloists belong to them, and are a part of our tradition in Montreal. The same thing with young composers.
The result, after ten years, is that the audience today—and I think you probably felt that when you came to our concerts—is so much more homoginized. All from as young as 8, 6 years old up to people who have already retired from their profession and everything in between. Families come. In short the concert hall looks like Montreal. It looks like what you see when you walk in our parks, walk on our streets. That’s what our public looks like.
 What I take away from this is that if you lose focus on the reason why you are playing this music, that is, the aesthetic reason to give to the audience, the community, the highest quality music you can, then you end up squabbling over the "market value" of your work and when you do that, then Terry Teachout will tell you that most people don't go to orchestral concerts. Well, they never did. Just the ones who appreciated aesthetic quality.

This is the Stravinsky Capriccio for piano and orchestra with Yulianna Avdeeva, piano and Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

It's Canonic: Addendum

One of the very best things about this blog is the commentariat who always make valuable contributions. The comments on the canonic posts are an excellent example, so this will constitute an addendum of works that I should have mentioned in both my posts on 20th century orchestral music.

To the pieces listed as forming part of the canon of orchestral music in the first half of the century should be added a couple of pieces by Benjamin Britten that I forgot (and included in a later post), the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and the Sea Interludes, adapted from the opera Peter Grimes. I have been convinced that some pieces by Leonard Bernstein, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs should be included. And by George Gershwin, the Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto and An American in Paris.

As expected, there was a lot more discussion about the second half of the century as it is just a bit too close to us to have much perspective. Here are pieces and composers I just plain missed:
  • James Mcmillan (I don't have any pieces to suggest yet, but a number of comments have convinced me that I need to get to know his music)
  • Arvo Pärt --I don't know how I missed him! Here are some memorable and canonic works of his: Tabula Rasa, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and the string orchestra version of Fratres
  • Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and his later work Polish Requiem
  • John Adams: Shaker Loops
  • Einojuhani Rautavaara: Symphony No. 7
  • Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel
There were more suggestions and more composers, but these ones I was particularly convinced by. This is all guesswork, of course. A hundred years from now maybe everyone will be listening to Harry Partch and Conlon Nancarrow!

For our envoi, a few clips. First Gershwin's An American in Paris:

Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa:

John Adams, Shaker Loops:

and Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel:

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

I have never seen a production of Philip Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach and after watching this except I am almost certain I never want to:

* * *

The LA Times has an article about Toru Takemitsu that has some interesting anecdotes:
Everyone who knew Takemitsu has stories. He was intentionally vague. He had a wicked sense of humor. He saw more than 200 films a year, and after a few drinks he could hilariously recite the plots of obscure B movies you’d never of.
Knussen had been a close friend. They were an odd couple — the tiny Takemitsu a fraction of the size of the Brit. Before the concert, I reached out to Knussen for a few anecdotes.
“The first time I met Toru was when I conducted ‘Rain Coming’ in 1982,” Knussen recalled. “He was very nervous, actually shaking. I asked him if anything was wrong, and he said, ‘Very nervous, first time I ever wrote piece without harp.’ ”  
In fact, the piece sounded terrible, even though he had carefully followed all the metronome markings. “I asked Takemitsu if he had any comments,” Knussen explained, “and he said, ‘Everything perfect.’ ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘he’s going to be one those: “Are you sure?” “Everything perfect.” ’ 
“Then I went back to the beginning and lifted my arms to give the downbeat, when he said, ‘Just one thing. All tempi twice too fast.’”

* * *

I was just saying to someone that Bob Dylan is probably the only person in the world to whom you could give a Nobel Prize who might not even notice. And sure enough: Nobel panel gives up knockin’ on Dylan’s door.
The Swedish Academy says it has given up trying to reach Bob Dylan, days after it awarded him the Nobel prize in literature.
“Right now we are doing nothing. I have called and sent emails to his closest collaborator and received very friendly replies. For now, that is certainly enough,” the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, told state radio SR on Monday.
So far the American troubadour has responded with silence since he won the prize on Thursday.
* * *

Here is an article on a new app for the iPad that is a "virtual controller": music synthesis made easy and intuitive. I don't think the headline writer understood the essay any more than I did: "When music can be made on a screen, we lose abstraction." Oh, for sure. Here is my favorite line, which I think is meant to be sardonic: "People with deep musical talent are not necessarily also good at increasing their output buffer sizing for RAM optimization." Well no, not most of them, anyway. Heh! Here is an interesting bit:
More nebulously, this pretty technology can be seen as part of a larger tendency in our lives towards the graphic representation of everything. Very little is abstract any more. Sounds and words and numbers are all spinning and glowing, colourful three-dimensional objects in our minds, because that’s what they look like on our screens. When we check the weather forecast on our phones we see an image of a stormy sky or a sun. That hits us before the actual temperature does.
When we use screenplay-writing software we become used to moving scenes around physically, as if stacking neat plastic boxes. Similarly our music – once represented only as cryptic black scratches on white paper – is now circles and squares and starbursts. Whether this has any long-term effect on our cognition will be for the scientists to study; I wonder if our ability to conceive the invisible will change, or even shrink.
I'm wondering if this kind of technology is similar to those innumerable ones developed over the years, essentially as teaching aides for those who are mostly lacking in musical ability.

* * *

I'm sorry to miss this one: a production at the Royal Opera in London of Shostakovich's early satirical opera The Nose--in English! The Guardian has photos of the rehearsals:

Click to enlarge
* * *

The Internet and networking software that uses the Internet like, oh, I dunno, Blogger?--are still causing fundamental changes in the way everything seems to work. The latest seems to be an interesting idea modeled after Uber, but for musicians. Wired has the story: Uber, But for Millenials Who Want Orchestras in Their Living Rooms. Sort of:
Professional musicians and those studying in conservatories can upload samples to a Groupmuse profile, which an internal team approves. Next, the Groupmuse team pairs performers with hosts who volunteer to host strangers and musicians in their home: a soloist for 10 people, a quartet for a house that can fit 50 listeners. Around 20 Groupmuse shows happen across the country every week, mostly in Boston, New York, Seattle and the Bay Area. Groupmuse suggests each attendee pays $10 for the show; musicians go home with an average of $160.
Sounds like a great idea. Most musicians have been frustrated with the difficulties of working with traditional impresarios and concert organizers, this seems like an interesting alternative.

* * *

A suitable envoi for today would be Shostakovich's absurdist opera, The Nose. The libretto is an adaptation of a short story by Gogol. This is a performance from 1979 by the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre Chorus & Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kinds of Performance

I've been listening to Grigory Sokolov lately and it leads me to mull over different levels of performance. Frankly, he plays at a level that I don't think I have heard before--certainly not often! Way back in 2011 I did a post on levels of creativity so I think I will try to do the same with performance, just as an exercise. Here let me quote the relevant bit from that post:
Let me see if I can define levels of musical creativity:
  1. You write a simple piece in a well-established musical form or genre such as a minuet or a folk-song. Mozart could do this when he was seven.
  2. You write a piece in a more demanding genre such as a sonata movement or a two-part invention. (I say 'write', but this could be improvised as well-in Jazz, you wouldn't write it down, for example.) Second and third year music students typically do this sort of thing.
  3. You write a really appealing piece or song in a well-established genre. A rock group or individual artist in pop music might do something like this that becomes popular--a 'hit'. A classical example might be something like a Haydn minuet.
  4. You write something that really captures the genre, exhausts the genre or exceeds the genre. A good example of this would be one of the more famous songs by the Beatles: "Yesterday" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" for example. A classical example might be one of the Bach fugues like the C major from Bk 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a good Beethoven symphonic movement like the second movement of the Symphony no 7. Perhaps one of the Chopin mazurkas.
  5. You write something that absolutely transforms the genre or form. Examples: The Beatles, Revolver; Bach, the keyboard suites; Haydn, the symphonies; Mozart, the piano concertos, Beethoven, the early piano sonatas.
  6. You create an entirely new form or genre: Haydn, the string quartets and symphonies; Chopin, the nocturnes, the scherzos, the ballades; Stravinsky, the modern ballet; Steve Reich, process music; Scarlatti, the single-movement keyboard sonata.
  7. You create something that transcends not only the form or genre, but that is a master work transcending its era. Bach, the WTC, the Art of Fugue, Beethoven, Symphonies 3, 5 and 9; and several of the later piano sonatas; Shostakovich, Symphonies 5, 7 and 10.
I added some caveats that you can see if you go back and read the whole post, but that's the core of it. Now it seems as if there might be an equivalent for performance. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that there might be a better way to estimate performances than this kind of hierarchy of creativity. I think that there is one fundamental principle that applies over a wide spectrum of performances. That principle could be stated as "attention to detail."

There is a great deal that is automatic in musical performance. One of the reasons we spend so much time in the practice room is to make secure and infallible all the possible technical devices and musical situations. This is the reason behind constant practice of scales, slurs and arpeggios. You have to be able to execute them every time flawlessly. But the downside of this is the possibility of the performance becoming rote and mechanical.

So we can categorize a few ways in which a musical performance can be bad:

  • the player can simply lack the basic technical command of the instrument: this is what you hear in poorly-prepared student recitals
  • the player can have basic technical skills, but be lacking in music understanding so that the expression and argument of the music is lost
  • the player can be technically adroit, but tends to indulge in a display of dexterity rather than any depth of interpretation
Now let's think about possible performances from the point of view of attention to detail. There are various ways of understanding this. First of all, attention to detail is what informs your technical practice. A technically adroit performance means that you handle every note with clarity and definition: there is nothing blurry and the rhythms are not distorted. Harmonies are clear and chords well-balanced. This is attention to technical detail and it is an essential precursor to a good performance. But it doesn't stop there. The next step is attention to musical detail and that involves the following things:
  • understanding and making evident to the listener the structure of the piece from the smallest level (the shaping of individual motifs, the handling of phrases) up to the overall structure (the pacing of the movement, leading to musical climaxes and denouements)
  • understanding of historical performance practice so that you do not play 17th century ornaments in a 19th century piece or vice-versa
  • understanding of the fundamentals and elegances of the style: Classical Style, Romantic Style and so on
  • responding to the aesthetic challenges of the piece
  • playing the music as if it were being created on the spot, or as if it were eternally inevitable (oddly, this is often the same thing!)
After all this has been accomplished and, frankly, very few performers ever get this far, then you can really start paying attention to detail! By this I mean that every note, every chord, every rhythm is played with full attention and awareness so that it is an aesthetic truth. I think that it is this kind of transcendental performance that we hear in the playing of Grigory Sokolov. I would like to offer a performance of his as an example of what I have been trying to describe. This is an entire concert he played in Madrid in 1998:

Tilted Axes

Alan Kozinn, an outstanding writer and music critic, has a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘Tilted Axes‘ and ‘Rushing Past Willow’: Classical, Jazz or Rock? Here is a sample:
On a drizzly December night in 2011, the composer and guitarist Patrick Grant and about 20 of his colleagues gathered on East Fourth Street at Second Avenue in New York; strapped on electric guitars and plugged them into the small, battery-powered Danelectro amplifiers clipped to their belts; and marched through the streets for nearly 90 minutes, playing “Tilted Axes,” a piece Mr. Grant composed for the occasion, the first Make Music Winter, an annual celebration of the Winter Solstice.
At the time, “Tilted Axes” was essentially just a cheerful chord progression and a rising, four-note figure, played over and over for a continuously replenishing audience of passersby. Since then, Mr. Grant has expanded the work into a 17-movement score for massed guitars, Chapman Stick, bass and drums, and he has just released a recording, “Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars” (Peppergreen Media).
Kozinn goes on to ask the perennial question: is this classical music, jazz, or rock? He ends by concluding:
In a sense, both composers are reframing that old debate about the stylistic labels that listeners find helpful but that composers have long found irksome. It doesn’t matter whether this music is post-Minimalist, indie classical, or not classical at all, they seem to be saying. Style and even genre are increasingly meaningless now, so abandon the categorizing impulse and just listen.
Ok, so lets. The article contains no links to any musical clips, but we can certainly find a number of partial performances of Tilted Axes on YouTube. Here are a few:

Uh-huh. Well my categorizing, or at least, describing impulse just kicked in. First of all, this is basically rock music. It doesn't matter if you walk down the street with a portable amp or not, if it quacks like a duck, it's a duck. If you listen to around the 2 minute mark of the first clip, for example, there is every feature of blues-based rock music: the bent-note bluesy solos, the backbeat drumming and the whole feel of it. Other times it sounds a bit like In C by Terry Riley or uninspired minimalism, but the basic elements are rock based. The most salient feature of this kind of performance is that it has to be deeply annoying to many of the passers-by. There is a kind of arrogant assumption by these folks that everyone in a public space is really going to delight in a chaotic, under-rehearsed, warmed-over collection of rock clichés. The only thing missing is bad vocals.

When the Beatles decided to invade public space and do a concert from the roof of their London office building, the bobbies shut them down after forty minutes. I guess public nuisance laws have been repealed since then.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It's Canonic: 20th century, 2nd half

The first half of the 20th century was surprisingly easy, but the second half won't be and I expect a lot of disputatious comments whatever I choose. The reason is that the closer you get to the present day, the foggier the picture is. I think that a hundred years is needed to really see what stands out from the crowd with any certainty. By 2100 will it be generally acknowledged that Harry Partch is the great American composer of the second half of the 20th century, or will it be Steve Reich? Will Karlheinz Stockhausen be forgotten or widely loved? I don't think anyone knows for sure at this point, but I have some opinions. So here we go. Bear in mind this is just orchestral music after 1950.

Let's start with France as I find it helps to look at specific traditions in sorting out who's who. Olivier Messiaen is an obvious choice. He made the pre-1950 list with his Turangalîla-Symphonie, one of the most striking pieces of orchestral music of the era, but there are some good candidates from after 1950 as well. Messiaen lived until 1992 and was very productive. I think I would pick out two pieces, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) for wind, brass and percussion and Des Canyons aux étoiles for piano, horn, glockenspiel, xylorimba and small orchestra (1974). Another composer very active in the second half of the century was Henri Dutilleux, a lapidary composer who wrote a select few outstanding pieces. Among them, perhaps the most memorable are two concertos: one for cello, written for Mstislav Rostropovich titled Tout un monde lointain (1970) and one for violin, written for Isaac Stern, titled L'arbre des songes (1985).

German composition post-war was very different from before simply because of the desolation of war and the departure or loss of Jewish musicians. The sense was that everything had to begin anew, a blank slate as it were. Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen found themselves in the class of Messiaen at Darmstadt. In the 1950s and into the 60s, there grew up a "Darmstadt School" of composition that included, apart from Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Bruno Madera, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel and others. Characteristically, their music was avant-garde, experimental, and, at least in my opinion, hasn't aged well. I think that if we regard "canonic" works as ones that have a special aesthetic appeal to audiences, then hardly any of this music has become part of the canon. That phrase "hardly any" is rather weaselly! So let's have a look: are there any possible candidates? Two that come to mind are Gesange der Jünglinge by Stockhausen, an early electronic piece, and the Sinfonia by Berio. I think that my readers should weigh in on this. Do you think they have achieved canonicity?

Let me know in the comments.

More and more, as the century progressed, we see composers from outside central Europe, not just Russia and North America, but Poland, Greece, Great Britain and Japan. Shostakovich wrote some wonderful symphonies post-war of which I think that the Symphony No. 10 (1953, but possibly completed earlier) is perhaps the most-enjoyed (that is the basic measure of canonicity). There is one enormously popular symphony by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki, the Symphony No. 3 the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" of 1976 that even crossed over to the pop charts in Europe. British composers became more and more prominent after the war, particularly Benjamin Britten, though his strengths are perhaps greatest in opera and vocal music. Still, his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and the Sea Interludes, adapted from the opera Peter Grimes, would likely qualify. Unfortunately, due to my oversight, they should have been included in the first part as they were composed before 1950! Sorry, Britten fans.

After all the experimentation in the 50s and 60s, a new kind of approach arose in the 1970s with the so-called "minimal" composers whose music, though featuring a steady pulse and lots of repetition, was hardly minimal. The two names to note are Philip Glass and Steve Reich and I think that there are likely canonical works from both of them. But we have to bend the category a bit: they both tend to write music for unusual ensembles that are somewhere between what we usually think of as chamber music and orchestral music. An example, and I think a piece that is sure to be in the canon, is Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians:

Philip Glass, on the other hand, has written quite a bit for conventional orchestra and the Symphony No. 3 from 1995 is a good candidate for the canon:

Going even further afield, the first composer from Japan to have real recognition in the West was Toru Takemitsu and he might have a bid for canonicity with the piece November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra from 1967:

From here on, the number of composers multiplies enormously and the difficulty of sorting out the exceptional pieces becomes harder and harder. For one thing, there are so very many works--and even composers--that I simply have not heard. Here is where my astute and knowledgeable commentators will undoubtedly make a contribution. What have you heard that you think will make the cut?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Listening to Les Tendres Plaintes

I labeled this "reception history" even though it isn't quite that. Think of it as the first draft of a reception history. That term, by the way, refers to a way of doing musicology where you examine the history of how a piece or a style or a composer was received by audiences over time. It can be quite interesting. But it does raise the problem of understanding how people listen.

I've listened to a piece by Rameau, Les Tendres Plaintes, a few times recently for different reasons: it is on a recent CD of Grigory Sokolov, there are a couple of clips of it on YouTube and I was sharing them with a couple of friends and I just transcribed it for violin and guitar to see what that would sound like. So I noticed a couple of things about how I listen to it. By that I basically mean my moment to moment reactions which vary from occasion to occasion, of course.

Here is the clip I have watched the most:

Now I will try to do a kind of stream-of-consciousness account of my reactions:

...those trills! and then how silvery the ring of the melody...
...the trills in the melody and the accompaniment are offset, intentionally kept unaligned.
(there are actually several different kinds of ornaments I am calling "trills" here: Rameau has a table in the front of his book naming and describing them: the cadence is a trill from the note above and the pincé is to the note below. We tend to call them a trill and a mordent respectively. There is also a cadence apuyée, where the first note is held longer and the double cadence which is a cadence that ends with a turn.)
...he does just a hint of notes inégales in the bass line that connects the first two phrases...
...when he gets to the descending sequence that begins the 1re Reprise, it is so lovely that I just start swaying my head from side to side...
..that A major chord that ends the 1re Reprise is always a surprise... the piece is in D minor, but the 1re Reprise is in A minor...
...he handles the refrain so differently the second time: a crisper inégale in the bass with an added cadence...
...the 2de Reprise (in F major) is almost whimsical, but at the same time wistful...
...the last refrain is even more beautiful... the high A in the second phrase is I think the most delicate note I have ever heard from a piano--it is like a guitar harmonic or an orchestral bell hit with a feather...

Let me show you the score I have been looking at. These two pages are from Rameau's Pièces de clavecin avec une méthode by which he means that he has an explanatory preface about how to play them. The table of ornaments is from there:

And here is the score to Les Tendres Plaintes:

Click to enlarge
This is a very simple piece, of course. Just that theme in D minor which has two eight-measure phrases, the first ending on the dominant and the second on the tonic. Then another two phrases in A minor, then the theme again followed by the second reprise (or episode) in F major but this time both phrases end on the tonic, and finally the theme again. You just should bear in mind that Jean-Philippe Rameau literally wrote the book on harmony--it was his Traité de L'Harmonie of 1722 that formalized the theory of tonal harmony and the basic principles are still followed today.

Here is a portrait of Rameau done in 1760: