Sunday, March 29, 2020

There is No Hope for Art?

I'm reading Richard Taruskin's newest collection of essays, just published a few days ago. One of the largest pieces in the book is the one titled "Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? On aesthetic autonomy" from which this passage is taken:
To single out as “music worthy of human beings” a music that is inaccessible to all but an infinitesimal, self-congratulating, and possibly mendacious fraction of actual humans seems to me no different from claiming that only the tiny fraction that possess the right bloodlines, or the right class affiliation, or the right racial or religious heritage, are fully human. If this is the use to which the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy is to be put, then the baby has drowned and it might as well be thrown out with the bathwater. 
For if the grim history of the twentieth century has not discredited the idea of redemptive high culture and undermined the authority of its adherents, then there is no hope at all for art.
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
He is quoting Theodor Adorno and this passage comes in the last section of the very long essay. The music referred to is that of Arnold Schoenberg. Despite the fact that he has built up to this with a meticulous discussion of many examples from many perspectives it feels as if, finally, he has thrown out at least part of the baby! The question is, is art truly autonomous, floating like a fragrant cloud over the messy reality that it offers an alternative to? Or is it possible for a fine art like contemporary classical music to be an active and non-hypocritical agent in the world? In an earlier section that I have to quote at some length Taruskin notes that:
The ideal of aesthetic autonomy at its pinnacle of purity, by fostering a now-discredited and hopelessly academicized avant-garde, has contributed heavily to the social and cultural marginalization of music as a serious fine art. A tragicomic example of that marginalization comes by way of the Pulitzer Prize, one of the most prestigious awards an artist or scholar can earn in America. (And it is also a stunning example of the independence of cultural capital from monetary, because the Pulitzer purse is negligible.) The annual prize recipients in fiction, history, biography, and drama, even (sometimes) poetry, are almost always figures of interest to the public at large. Those awards are publicly debated; sides are taken; approval and disapproval are vehemently aired. The prize in music, until very recently, traditionally went to somebody the general music public had never heard of (often enough to somebody I’d never heard of), and nobody ever cared who won it, except jealous fellow-professionals. 
And then even the professionals began to despise it. When the composer John Adams won it in 2003 for his 9/11 memorial On the Transmigration of Souls, he expressed what one critic called “ambivalence bordering on contempt.” To another he wrote, as if paraphrasing my own judgment, that “among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism,” for “anyone perusing the list of past winners cannot help noticing that many if not most of the country’s greatest musical minds are conspicuously missing, . . . passed over year after year, often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes.” With the award of the prize in 2018 to the rapper Kendrick Lamar, about whom a large public certainly does care, the Pulitzer judges have come around to recognizing the meaninglessness of their habitual public recognition of artists without a public. The decision was widely viewed as an attempt to make amends. Can the prize now ever go again to composers of contemporary “classical” music? Or has their marginalization been effectively pronounced hopeless?
Taruskin, Richard. Cursed Questions . University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
I have just the suspicion of a feeling here that Taruskin is perhaps just a tad too competent in his job of ripping away the veil. As a composer of contemporary classical music who has won no prizes and sought no vainglory (nor money for that matter) I think it would be kind and perhaps even moral of Taruskin to point out, oh, just occasionally, that perhaps people in general might look to classical music, even in its contemporary manifestation, as something that might contain expressions and experiences coded in musical terms, that could be widely enjoyed. Of course, he would riposte, this is not his job as historian. True, that. Still...

As an envoi I offer the Six Little Pieces, op 19 of Schoenberg played by Michel Béroff:

Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

The Verbier Festival in Switzerland is canceled:
The festival has just announced ‘with infinite regret and sorrow’ that its 27th edition, planned for July 17 to August 2, has been called off.
This makes me nervous for the Salzburg Festival. However, the latest word is that all is ready for the festival to proceed with a final decision being taken on May 30.

* * * 

From the Guardian, here is a review of the disc by Barbara Hannigan I posted about the other day: La Passione review – Grisey's masterpiece endures.
On Barbara Hannigan’s recording with the Ludwig Orchestra, she pairs Quatre Chants with a Haydn symphony, No 49 in F minor, which gives its nickname, La Passione, to the entire disc. Hannigan’s performance of the Grisey (which she conducts as well as sings) is cooler, perhaps less immediate than the other version available on disc, with Catherine Dubosc and Klangforum Wien, but it evokes the work’s haunting, unclassifiably expressive world more vividly than ever.
* * * 

The Wall Street Journal Magazine has a feature article on Kanye West this week: The Creation and the Myth of Kanye West. He is actually the only current pop artist that I am a fan of. This might be behind the paywall, but here are some quotes.
West, who mentioned in passing that he was preparing to record a new album in Mexico this spring, has 21 Grammys, including four for best rap album. He has been called an “American Mozart” by Atlantic writer David Samuels.
But West aims to be a great designer of all kinds of things. For more than a decade he has pursued plans to have the phenomenal impact in fashion that he’s had in music. West admires Steve Jobs. And McDonald’s. And the Gap, where he worked as a teen, when it was cool in the 1990s. “I believe that Yeezy is the McDonald’s and the Apple of apparel,” West says. “In order to make the Apple of apparel the next Gap, it has to be a new invention. To invent something that’s so good that you don’t even get credit for it because it’s the norm.” 
Possibly the most lucrative business decision West ever made was to retain ownership of the Yeezy brand. Today he produces sneakers and slides in a partnership with Adidas. The Yeezy merch, the apparel and nonathletic footwear—the products that he has been working so diligently to develop this past year—are West’s alone. During an appearance on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” segment last October, West told the talk show host, “Yeezy [is] worth $3 billion.” An Adidas representative declined to confirm West’s estimate, citing a confidentiality agreement. West, who says it bothers him that people don’t think of him as a successful businessman, repeated the estimate to me in February when he explained how he could afford to support so many endeavors. “The fact that Yeezy does $1.5 billion in revenue per year and the valuation is $2.9 billion means that money does not have to enter into the equation.” I later reviewed documents that reflected those numbers.
* * *

The Ojai Music Festival has also been canceled.
“As we were monitoring the COVID-19 crisis over these last several weeks, we considered the unpredictability of travel as well as the safety and comfort of our artists and patrons,” Eberhardt said in the announcement. “It has also become clear that the institution cannot shoulder the projected financial burden due to the forecasted drop in festival revenue and increase in festival expenses.”
* * *

This is a very bad time for all musicians and performing artists. Some very prominent artists, including Anne Sophie Mutter and Plácido Domingo, have contracted the virus. At least one prominent artist's management agency in England has gone out of business, nearly every symphony and opera has canceled the remainder of its season with some paying their artists and others not (coughTheMetcough). Music festivals are canceling right and left. Dark times indeed. But I think that perhaps things are not as bad as they seem and that we will recover, perhaps sooner than we think.

* * *

Let's have some optimistic envois today. Here is Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks, for chamber orchestra, from his neo-classical period:

Here is the estimable Hopkinson Smith playing all the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin by Bach on the Baroque lute:

His justification, not that he needs one, is that Bach did a version of at least one of these pieces, the Partita No. 3, for Baroque lute. Here is Khatia Buniatishvili playing the Rondo from the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Beethoven. There is just something exhilarating about this performance.

Hilary Hahn playing the Presto from the First Violin Sonata:

Let's end with something diverting. How about the Divertimento K. 563 for violin, viola and cello by Mozart, perhaps the most substantial divertimento ever written?

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Analysis is Paralysis!

The phrase is a quote from a French horn player I used to know. From a performer's view this is certainly true! But is it true generally? I have the impression that more and more analysis is being used as a tool to teach music composition. Graduate composition students often have to do an analysis of pieces they have written. This is reminiscent of what Schoenberg was doing in the transition from tonal to pan-tonal music. He would write a piece and then sit down and try and analyze what he had done. The process of creation was instinctive, but his idea was that he had to understand what structures or ideas underlay the music composition.

A lot of composers, I suspect, just write intuitively with perhaps the development of "filters" to trim down the possibilities to ones that are most useful. Other composers follow worked-out systems of composition (the serialists). Others create systems and move on to new systems with each piece (Stockhausen). Others modify traditional styles by distorting or stripping them down to essentials (Prokofiev? Feldman? Stravinsky?). Others are what theorists like to call "refractory to analysis" meaning probably that they just have no idea what is going on.

Music theory and music analysis are somewhat different animals. Music theory is the search for general principles of music construction while analysis is more focused on the specifics of individual pieces. They overlap to a considerable extent, of course.

I have been reading this book, which though a bit dated (1987), is proving to be very informative. The author was a professor at Southhampton University in England.

His writing style is clear and informative and he gives a good overview of various different approaches. Analysts seem to prefer shorter pieces as the process of analysis can be very exhausting and time-consuming. The first prelude in Bk I of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a particular favorite:

It is amazing how much analysis you can do of a two minute piece. Another popular one is the brief (two and a half minutes) song from Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, "Das Wandern."

On first listening, both these pieces might sound very simple, trite even, but one thing analysis can do is refresh your listening so you are hearing with new ears.

In our everyday lives we are constantly hearing music in public spaces that is run-of-the-mill, routine music, music that sounds a lot like a lot of other music. This dulls our aesthetic sense so we become less capable of hearing into a piece, hearing past the surface.

So now that we are all locked down for a while, we can sit down and do some serious listening!


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Tuesday Miscellanea

I was driving to the university many years ago with the radio on (CBC) and suddenly this song came on:

No need to announce who that was. Apart from the great trio of songs he wrote with the Beatles (Strawberry Fields, A Day in the Life and I Am the Walrus) I think my two favourite Lennon songs are this one and Don't Let Me Down. As for the video, well, what other music video do you know that has cameo appearances by Fred Astaire, George Harrison, Dick Cavett and Andy Warhol?

Great song and, I think, very appropriate for this week.

My least favourite Lennon song? Imagine.

* * *

Let's have a bunch of clips today. This is French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau playing the Bach Chaconne from the Second Violin Partita:

* * *

We need some Dylan. I bought this album way back in 69 or 70 and at the time I was taken aback by the utter simplicity of it. Which now I appreciate.

And that has to be THE most unprepossessing album cover photo ever.

* * *

Another piece for harpsichord. This is Continuum by Ligeti, composed in 1968, so just a year after John Wesley Harding.

* * *

This one is from a bit later, 1982: Laurie Anderson with "O Superman."

* * *

This is Gustav Leonhardt playing a piece by the French harpsichordist François Couperin named after another French harpsichordist: "La Superbe ou La Forqueray."

* * *

We need a finale, I guess and I can think of no finer symphonic finale than the Molto Allegro to the Symphony No. 41 by Mozart. Here with the Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie conducted by Mark Laycock.

As the old Australian saying goes "we're not here to f**k spiders!"

Monday, March 23, 2020

Ana Vidovic DVD

I think this is the third post I have put up on classical guitarist Ana Vidovic. The first one was on her Naxos CD which she made just after winning a major competition. That was twenty years ago! So, no longer a child prodigy or even a young artist. The second post, this one, was a brief look at two guitarists that were getting quite well known, her and Roland Dyens. I described him as "the world's best restaurant guitarist" which is a rather left-handed compliment. I gave Ana a good review, but with a slight caveat: "Ana Vidovic is a very fine player with loads of technique. Sometimes she misreads an accidental--I've noticed a couple in Moreno Torroba--but she is a young player and has room to grow as an artist. Well worth listening to now and in the future."

I'm afraid I am going to have to retract that last comment. She does not seem to have developed as an artist. Let's have a look at this clip from YouTube:

I just want to talk about the first piece, the three movements of the Suite Castellana by Moreno Torroba. This is a lovely piece that is not well-known in its full form, with all three movements. The reason for that is likely that Segovia only recorded the first two. Ana Vidovic's tendency to misread accidentals in Torroba (partly because there are some misprints in the published scores) returns here with a vengeance--there are a bunch of them in the Fandanguillo. If you either play this piece, as I do, or know the Segovia recording, you will be wincing several times. Another problem is the phrasing: she seems to just have the wrong instincts about where and how to use rubato. Another problem is the tuning once we get past the 40' mark the guitar sounds out of tune. More misread notes leading up to the worst musical phrase: the last pizzicato section taking us to the final chord is rhythmically weird and confused. The pizzicato isn't even very good and it is inconsistently applied.

She redeems herself with the Arada, the second movement, but it is nothing really special. The Danza is where things go horribly wrong. Honestly, if you want to know how this movement should sound you have to listen to Pepe Romero, he is the only one who "gets it." Vidovic plays the opening phase much too fast and leaves out a beat in the third iteration. Then she slams on the brakes for the middle section. The repeated note phrase that begins the movement and leads us back into the opening theme she delivers with absolutely no shape.

Two mysteries here: first, what is going wrong with Ana Vidovic? It now appears that she was never terribly gifted as a musician, but had considerable technical skills. She still has them, but is growing careless, especially about musical matters. I even hear a few sloppy places here and there. The other mystery is in the comments to this clip on YouTube:
No micro-mistakes wow... this is high-level virtuoso playing! Ana is truly a one in a million guitar player with outstanding memory, dexterity and musicality
Ana Vidovic has such a clarity and mastery of technique, my only regret is that I did not discover this great artist sooner.
This amazing artist brings a whole new level of sensitivity and a superb technique to these pieces. Beautiful to listen to and so calm and relaxing to watch.
Such beautiful playing - true artistry - letting the musicality of the peice ring out rather than playing too fast. Brilliant.
And hundreds more! What to think of that? Of course, I could simply be wrong about her. But I'm not. If you like I can consult the score and tell you exactly what notes she misreads and what beats she drops and what places she obviously phrases poorly. These things are not subjective. Mind you, you do have to know the piece and have played it for years. But I have long had this naive belief that real musicianship is always sensed by even non-professional listeners. And that they can also discern poor musicianship even though they may not be able to put what the problem is into words. I guess I was wrong about that...

Ok readers, time for you to weigh in.


Music and Philosophy

There are a number of odd connections between music and philosophy including increasing interest in the field of the philosophy of music. But I keep running across incidental connections like Ludwig Wittgenstein's dislike of Mahler. Reading about the analytical method of Heinrich Schenker, I get the strong feeling that his basic stance toward music is Hegelian (or perhaps Schopenhauerian). Before all of your eyes glaze over, let's figure out what that means.

Schenker developed a kind of musical analysis that delved below the surface to reveal the "deep structure" as it were of how music worked. He showed how, in many 18th and 19th century compositions there is a linear unfolding that is responsible for the structural coherence of the music. If you have noticed that there is a kind of inevitability to the way a piece by Bach or Beethoven unfolds in time, then you are hearing it in a kind of Schenkerian way. His claim is that this is the right way to hear music and music that does not correspond to this kind of analysis or hearing is not good music. Schenker was very much a musical elitist. His methods are often characterized as being about the psychology of how we listen. But I think you could also see them as being akin to German idealism in philosophy, the idea that there is some kind of overarching metaphysical drive underlying reality and therefore, perhaps, music. I'm making no claims of influence either way, of course, just noticing that there is certain harmony of outlook.

What happened in music history is that the creative discoveries in harmony by the French and Italians in the 17th and early 18th centuries were developed by the Germans and Austrians in the later 18th and 19th centuries (to brutally oversimplify things!). They also absorbed the contrapuntal discoveries of the centuries before. The result was the brilliant, charming and expressive language of the "common practice" period that stretches from Bach to Brahms and includes the majority of what we call the classical "canon." This kind of "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" is how Hegel characterizes history as a whole.

Towards the end of the 19th century this synthesis started to come apart as people like Wagner and Schoenberg on the inside and Bartók, Prokofiev and Stravinsky on the outside took music in entirely different directions. What philosophical approach might correspond to theirs in music? Well, I haven't decided yet, so please weigh in if you have thoughts...

Perhaps a double envoi might be suitable. On the one hand one of those inevitable sounding syntheses of Bach. This is the E major Fugue from Bk II of the Well-Tempered Clavier played by Glenn Gould:

And this is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde by Wagner, Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper Bayerisches Staatsorchester:

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Barbara Hannigan: Soprano/Conductor

A new CD, La Passione - Works by Grisey, Nono & Haydn, is about to be released by Barbara Hannigan who both sings and conducts. The first piece, by Luigi Nono, is Djamila Boupacha, a heart-rending cry for solo soprano, paying tribute to a freedom fighter tortured by French paratroopers during the Algerian war; Picasso also portrayed her in charcoal. This is followed by the Symphony No. 49, La Passione, by Joseph Haydn and the disc continues with Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil by Gérard Grisey which she both sings and conducts. Hannigan is particularly known for her performances of contemporary opera.

And she is Canadian! Here is a wonderful clip of the Nono followed by the Haydn--the transition is lovely.

There is no reason you can't appreciate both Nono and Haydn.