Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What They're Telling Us Now

My title is a take-off on a headline that I saw long enough ago that I can't recall where. I do associate it with New York however. Google tells me that "The Way We Live Now" is both the title of a novel by Anthony Trollope from 1875 and a New Yorker piece by Susan Sontag from 1986, so I guess that will have to do. I associate the phrase with various items in perhaps The New Yorker or the New York Times chronicling the current cultural landscape. More and more I see these kinds of things as shaping the cultural landscape as in telling us how we should be living or appreciating. This is what is important now, they are always telling us.

I'm reading, finally, Michael Lewis' book The Big Short about how wildly things went wrong in the sub-prime mortgage market about ten years ago to the point that some very big players like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns simply went bankrupt and other very big names lost tens of billions of dollars. Why? Essentially because, as the Zen koan goes, they mistook the map for the territory, their models for reality. The whole of the established players on Wall Street, from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche Bank were simply delusional.

I have had a contrarian temperament for most of my life, part of which I attribute to my father and part to my own intellectual tendencies. I really do not put much faith in authority: by their fruits ye shall judge them. And their fruits are a rather mixed bag, are they not? A great deal of the way things are organized is simply to make life easier for those who are in positions of power. Yes, there can be accountability, but often it is simply one power nexus taking temporary advantage of another. This is how I understand the conviction of Martha Stewart, the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the current battle between Donald Trump and his own Department of Justice. Power in society is rarely monolithic.

All this is to lead up to a couple of items this week that seem to me to illustrate another kind of widespread delusion, this time an aesthetic one. The first item is the awarding of a Pulitzer prize in music to Kendrick Lamar. You can read about it here:
Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize win is the latest sign of the growing recognition of hip-hop—this time from one of America’s highest-profile cultural institutions.
The rapper, who won for his album “DAMN.,” is the first winner who isn’t a classical or jazz artist since the first Pulitzer for music was issued in 1943. Aside from previous award winners Wynton Marsalis, Henry Threadgill and Ornette Coleman, it has largely been a prize for classical composers.
Hip-hop fans cheered Mr. Lamar’s win and what it says about the artistic importance of the rap genre.
Or, more accurately perhaps, the shifting of culture away from things of artistic importance to ones of commercial importance? Let's have a listen to something from the aforementioned album. Just listen to the first cut, "Blood":

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDUL2mtQpDk&list=PL0Wbig4PvIvNvnSK4g7yTk9-p-11T7Z-B

"Blood" is a little two-minute vignette that starts with some Manhattan Transfer-like harmony over a really inoffensive smooth background. This is followed by a recitation of astonishing banality. This is followed by a brief segment of what sounds like captured dialogue about police brutality. And that's it. Now there could be a lot more interesting stuff later on, but this first bit pretty much used up my boredom quotient. The next track is "DNA." Yes, the major creative advance here seems to be the random use of the period. The musical accompaniment to "DNA." is so dull that it nicely sets off the extremely annoying sneering, trite vocal recitation. For me this is way beyond just unlistenable.

Ok, on to the other item, Beyoncé's triumphant headlining at the Coachella music festival. According to everyone this was just cosmic in its wonderfulness:
INDIO, Calif. — Let’s just cut to the chase: There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night. The New York Times.
Tonight, Beyoncé plays political as fiercely as she plays feminist. During Sorry she hones in on the line “suck on my balls” with furious wrath. She flits between going hard and expressing sweet graciousness towards the audience during her addresses. The artistry of the transitions between songs, and the travel across her 20-year catalogue – combined with the sheer awe of scores of people on stage moving and playing in perfect unison – proves that Beyoncé is in a league of her own. She is the greatest of a generation, both a leader of a huge group and a solo star of unconquerable talent. The Guardian.
Beyoncé captures popular music’s zeitgeist: She is a pop-R&B entertainer fluent in hip-hop and a social-media-savvy businesswoman. Her 2016 tour was that year’s highest-grossing in North America, according to Pollstar. Combined with music sales, streaming and publishing, she was 2016’s biggest moneymaker, Billboard says.
Her Coachella performance will be the first time a black woman has headlined the nearly 20-year-old festival. The Wall Street Journal.
Beyoncé became the first black woman to headline Coachella in a breathtaking set that featured her best material from a staggering back catalogue... and set a near-impossible standard for every headliner that will follow her.
Appearing at the festival in Indio, California, Beyoncé  performed one incredible dance routine after another – those rumoured 10-hour day rehearsals ahead of the show certainly paid off, as she didn’t put a foot wrong. The Independent.
And these are the more restrained tributes! Ok, let's have a look. Here is a clip of the opening:


UPDATE: My original choice got taken down, but this seems to be the same material.

That's not quite the most annoying seven minutes I have ever experienced, but it's close. It combines the refined subtlety of a college football marching band with an interminable fashion show catwalk with the kind of semi-religious mass celebration that was popular in the early days of the French Revolution. What it does not seem to be, to any significant extent, is a musical experience.

Now I have always been a pompous, pretentious little git, but I have refined it a bit over the years and when I look at the two biggest musical events this week, I think that we really must be in the grip of a delusion as massive as that which preceded the mortgage credit meltdown ten years ago.

Do we really want to claim that either of these "musical" events had anything to do with serious music? In any way? Now I can very much sympathize with Duke Ellington who was denied any recognition by the Pulitzer Prize board in 1965.
In 1965, the jury unanimously decided that no major work was worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. In lieu they recommended a special citation be given to Duke Ellington in recognition of the body of his work, but the Pulitzer Board refused and therefore no award was given that year.[3] Ellington responded: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." (He was then sixty-seven years old.)[4] Despite this joke, Nat Hentoff reported that when he spoke to Ellington about the subject, he was "angrier than I'd ever seen him before," and Ellington said, "I'm hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based music—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind."[5] --from the Wikipedia article on the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The Pulitzer Prize is an American award, of course and there is a very good argument to be made for including jazz musicians even if that was not how it was originally conceived. My personal view is that these kinds of awards should be reserved for pieces, forms and genres that are NOT widely popular to both promote the kind of aesthetic activity that is not commercially successful and to acquaint audiences with that sort of music. Under these terms, jazz would qualify while hip-hop would not. Perhaps the solution is to carve out three prizes in music: one for "European-based music" though that is a bad characterization, one for jazz and one for popular music.

Last year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature amid quite a lot of criticism. I thought that it was a perfectly justifiable award because Bob Dylan has certainly written a lot of very interesting, creative, and serious lyrics in his career. If there is a justification for giving the Pulitzer Prize to Kendrick Lamar, I certainly haven't heard it. Maybe next year they will give it to Beyoncé...

Monday, April 16, 2018

Opera in Toronto

I hear more and more about really interesting and creative opera production in Toronto, who are blessed with not one, but two excellent opera companies: the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier, who specialize in early music. The latter are currently offering Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria by Monteverdi, which is sold out. For the end of April and extending into May, the Canadian Opera Company is putting on a revival of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables which is a collection of shorter works by Stravinsky between 1911 and 1919, the second half consisting of his short opera The Nightingale. The Globe and Mail reports and it sounds absolutely fascinating:
The evening is full of novelty. The players of the orchestra are moved up onstage, and the orchestra pit is filled to the brim with water. Carl Fillion’s set extends over the pit, bringing a sense of excited claustrophobia to the first few rows of seats. We’re regaled with stories of rabbits, cats and foxes, all narrated by singers downstage while six acrobat/puppeteers play with light and bodies in brilliant puppet choreography by Martin Genest.
The first half, in which we hear every story except the titular fable of the Nightingale, is charged with the responsibility of introducing us to this production’s world. Our eyes and ears learn the delineation between narration and action, and our fascination is split between watching the puppets and the puppeteers themselves, their technique fully visible and a performance of its own
For the premiere a similar reversal involved putting the singers in the pit while their roles were sung and danced onstage. But filling the pit with water sounds like a brilliant idea. Here is a photo from the production showing the effect:


I would have liked to have heard more about the short items in the first half, but apart from mentioning that one of them is The Fox, there is no information. Presumably they are referring to Renard, the one act opera-ballet composed in 1916. These early, brief opera/ballets by Stravinsky were all very innovative in both musical and dramatic terms and it is wonderful to see them in production because they have been rather neglected over the years. The origin of Renard was a commission from Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who asked Stravinsky to write a piece that could be played in her salon. You get a taste of the wonderfully weird kind of theater this is from this performance by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (sorry, the subtitles are in Italian):


Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Pleasure of Music

There is a new field of scientific endeavor called "neuroaesthetics" that studies the neural processes that underly our appreciation and production of artworks and the New York Times has an article on a dispute within the field: Why Scientists Are Battling Over Pleasure.
A battle over pleasure has broken out. On Twitter and in the pages of scientific journals, psychologists, neurologists and neuroscientists are forging alliances over the question of whether pleasure we get from art is somehow different from the pleasure we get from candy, sex or drugs.
The debate was ignited by an opinion piece titled “Pleasure Junkies All Around!” published last year in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In it, Julia F. Christensen, a neuroscientist at the The Warburg Institute at the University of London who studies people’s responses to dance choreography, argued that many of us have been turned into “mindless pleasure junkies, handing over our free will for the next dopamine shoot” provided by social media, pornography and sugar.
She offered up an unconventional solution: art, which she says engages us in ways these other pleasures do not and can “help overwrite the detrimental effects of dysfunctional urges and craving.”
The paper struck a nerve with some of her fellow art and pleasure researchers, who published a rebuttal last month in the same journal. The idea that the way that art engages the brain is somehow special has been around for far too long and it is time to kill it off once and for all, they insist.
I appreciate the efforts scientists put into trying to answer questions like this, but I often feel they are hamstrung by the very limitations of the scientific method. Prof. Christensen seems to have a more encompassing view:
Dr. Christensen, who studied dance before she became a neuroscientist, said she is not disputing that a single reward system processes all pleasures. But that does not eliminate the possibility that the arts also activate additional neural systems “related to memory processes, sense of self and reasoning that add something more to this pleasure.”
This “high-level pleasure” requires more scientific investigation. But given that we spend our lives chasing pleasures, she argues, why not try to better understand one of the few that “do not induce states of craving without fulfillment,” or cause health problems and instead make “you think and experience things differently.”
Well, sure. The first thing that occurs to me is why this myopic focus on pleasure, which seems to be limited to physical pleasure: sex, sugar and dopamine response? In the case of music, the range of responses would surely include, yes, physical pleasure in the way we respond to rhythm, mental pleasure in the delights of harmony and counterpoint, emotional responses to music of great depth of sadness, psychological responses to music that confuses or perplexes us and on and on. There are so many ways we respond to music that I can't even think of words for most of them!

Dr. Nadal, one researcher, says:
“humans appear to use only one pleasure system to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is.” He calls this discovery “one of the most important insights to emerge from the last 15 years of neuroscience,” and believes it shows that while enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may feel different, in our brains they are processed the same way.
The phrases "to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is" and "in our brains they are processed the same way" are to me, somewhat opaque. I don't know exactly what he means by these phrases, that appear to be perfectly simple, but likely are not.

Just speaking for my own aesthetic assessments, I find a lot of music unpleasant because it is excessively sweet or melodic with smooth, luxurious harmonies. Enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may be "processed in our brains" in the same way, whatever that means, but they are not similar experiences. For one thing, eating Cheez-Its may begin as a hunger response, but it can easily become an addictive cycle. Looking at a sculpture is neither of those things, but is instead an exploration of a configuration of space. The "pleasure" involved is perhaps akin to the pleasure of discovering a new landscape. A great deal of the most intense and profound musical experiences are only very loosely pleasurable at all. The music may involve extreme dissonances or the extreme contrast between dissonance and consonance and it may achieve its aesthetic goal by means of pleasure and pain. Music can be both soothing and brutally punishing, sometimes in the same piece.

Perhaps most telling of all is the misuse of the word "assess." Assessment, whether of an aesthetic object or a corporate balance sheet, is not an activity of the "pleasure system" at all. It is an intellectual activity using logic and reason even though the objects assessed may be experiences.

Here are three different pieces of music. Please explain to me how they are processed through the same pleasure system.


Monks singing Gregorian chant:


The English Beat performing "Mirror in the Bathroom":


Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima:


Friday, April 13, 2018

The Humor of Jordan Peterson

I have mentioned him here before, perhaps too much! But I find his YouTube videos quite interesting. And occasionally really funny. One example: "You bloody well know the apocalypse is close when 350,000 people around the world watch a Canadian Senate hearing!" Well, of course, it was because Dr. Peterson was testifying. That comes just after the 30 minute mark in this clip:


Then there was the very intense talk he gave in which he spoke about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, referring to his massive book on the work camps under Stalin, The Gulag Archipelago. He mentions that it is out of print (actually it seems to be back in print, probably because of Peterson, who refers to it often) and a few minutes later, after describing it as a 2,000 page book screaming in outrage at the treatment of political prisoners, he interrupts himself to say, "No bloody wonder it's out of print!" This comes around the 26:30 mark in this clip, but you should start watching at the 25:40 mark:


One of his funniest moments was when he was describing the typical sexual fantasies of men vs women. You have to the watch the whole clip because it is all funny, but the best part is when he lists the five male characters that Google engineers discovered were the most important in female pornography. Just after the 4 minute mark in this clip:


Friday Miscellanea

First up is one of those comparisons of an old violin with a new copy. This is a brand new instrument up against a 1724 Stradivarius.


I guessed wrong, by the way. I wish she had played exactly the same passage on each instrument as that would have made comparison easier.

* * *

The Globe and Mail has a very odd article on Canadian composer Claude Vivier, who died, tragically young, in 1983.
There have been numerous tributes to Vivier over the past year, with Canadian outlets Soundstreams, Against the Grain Theatre and Esprit Orchestra (the latter being longtime supporters) presenting work. But if the old Canadian trope holds true about foreign recognition being a litmus test for success, then Vivier passes, with flying colors. One notable tribute unfolded in Berlin in late February. Presented by contemporary classical group ensemble unitedberlin (who have previously explored Vivier’s work), the concert saw Russian conductor and artistic adviser Vladimir Jurowski exercising his music talents and theatrical instincts with equal zeal, particularly during Hiérophanie (1970-71), in which he played a stern priest/judge, directing members of the ensemble through shouts, shuffles and prostrations, in a performance faithful to Vivier’s animated instructions.
Vivier is probably the most significant 20th century Canadian composer. I say odd because the second part is an interview with conductor Vladimir Jurowski that seems to be missing any indication it is an interview--probably an editing error.

* * * 

This is rather an interesting essay on the overthrow of the Great Books curricula in universities. It delves into the psychology behind the ideology.
...during the Canon Wars of the late-80s a banner was unfurled atop the façade of Butler Library at Columbia showing the names “SAPPHO MARIE de FRANCE CRISTINE de PIZAN SOR JUANA INEZ de la CRUZ BRONTE DICKINSON” above the carved names Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato etc., the organizers weren’t celebrating a female tradition to go along with the male tradition. If that were the case, then students would know more today about the cultural past than they did before. The feminists would have ensured a curriculum that taught students male greats and female greats both. But, no, the real aim was to tear down the male lineage, to displace it and then to forget it. Students today know less about ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages than they did during the ancient regime of the pre-60s. Multiculturalism didn’t enrich the streams of thought and creation. It only blocked the dominant one. And that was the point.
* * *

I'm sorry to follow that item with another one with a political slant, but this most definitely falls in the category of "defending against politics." Courtesy of Slipped Disc, I discovered this post by Philip Sharp on identity politics in music:
Much of our public discourse is focused on identity politics. Our news cycle is replete with tales of gender pay-gaps, unmet inclusivity quotas and the great struggle for the elusive goal that is equality, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that we now find these issues played out in the classical music industry. The dark heart of all this is to be found in the (sadly) niche area of contemporary classical music. Of the numerous competitions and schemes on offer for composers in Britain, a disturbing number contain politically-driven caveats as part of their application process as a means of realising the great idée fixe of our time, ‘diversity’. The most startling example to have emerged recently is from a joint venture by the Centre for New Music at Sheffield and Sheffield University, offering young composers the opportunity to have their music workshopped and recorded by the Ligeti Quartet*.  Nothing to see here, Officer. That is until you scroll further down the page and discover the competition’s curious ‘two ticks’ policy.
“A ‘two ticks’ policy will be in place for female composers, composers who identify as BME, transgender or non-binary, or having a disability, to automatically go through to the second stage of the selection process.”
I had to look up "BME" which stand for "black or minority ethnic." Sharp continues:
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this. For a start, the policy is staggeringly patronising to the composers who belong to these groups. What should be an incidental fact about someone’s person now takes precedent over their craft. Composers who happen to belong to one of these select groups are given a pat on the back and a snide helping-hand by virtue signallers of the worst kind. They are not valued for their artistic endeavours, the time and effort they have put into their work. Instead, they are trotted out by the diversity apparatchiks as means of showcasing how wonderfully compassionate, forward-thinking and fluffy they are. Composers should be incensed that their music is forced to take a back-seat to their race, gender etc.
Go read the whole essay.

* * *

Someone has figured out how ancient Greek music sounded! Again. Yes, generation after generation of scholars each seem to uncover the secrets of how the music sounded that was used in the recitation of epics and lyric poetry, not to mention plays and festivals. Oddly they each seem to come up with something that resembles the music of the current Middle East:
The songs that d’Angour has pieced back together do not sound at all like modern, or even medieval, Western European music. Instead, they seem reminiscent of eastern melodies, especially traditional Arabic music. Although there is a relatively limited tonal range and frequent repetition, they make use of strong, often impatient, rhythms and striking dissonances.
The only problem is that "traditional Arabic music" is about a thousand years distant from the ancient Greeks so I tend to think, "good job, fellows, now keep at it." As far as I'm concerned if you manage to get something sounding like Arabic music out of the extremely sketchy Greek notation, you are just projecting something into the music. As for the "striking dissonances" no ancient notation was capable of notating harmony or multiple voices, so that again has to be something contributed by the scholar. Most conclusively, there are no reliable ancient notations for rhythm at all, let alone impatient ones! So no, not for a minute do I think that we have the faintest idea what ancient Greek music sounded like. We do have some nice images, though:


* * *

The next item comes from Musicology Now and I wholeheartedly recommend it! I know, that's an odd thing for me to say, but this brief post on Japanese composer Jo Kondo is really interesting. I attended a talk Kondo gave at McGill in the late 70s and I have always found his music both enigmatic and attractive. I used to have the score to a piece he wrote for two guitars (tuned in quarter tones) and cow bells, but sadly it is now lost and I never did get around to performing it. The piece discussed in the Musicology Now post, Paregmenon, is not on YouTube, sadly, but here is another piece by Jo Kondo, In Summer, from 2004.



Thursday, April 12, 2018

Under the Umbrella

As a little teaser for an item in tomorrow's miscellanea here is a very unusual piece for a very unusual ensemble of five percussionists playing, wait for it, cowbells. Under the Umbrella by Jo Kondo:


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Masses of Joseph Haydn

You might recall that I am working my way through the Haydn Edition--not an absolutely complete edition of all his works on CD, but close enough:


I'm up to CD 45 of 160 which puts me well into his masses and other religious music. As you may recall, Haydn is known primarily for his symphonies and his string quartets, though some of his piano sonatas and piano trios are pretty well known as well. But he also wrote two very successful oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons and one other less well-known, Il Ritorno di Tobia. He was in charge of the opera house at Esterházy and composed fourteen operas as well. In his last years his main responsibility to the Esterházy family was to compose one mass a year. Added to his earlier masses this gives us a total of fourteen. Busy man!

Naxos has been particularly diligent at doing box sets devoted to particular genres. They have ones devoted to all the Haydn oratorios, masses, concertos, piano sonatas, symphonies, string quartets and piano trios. I bought the integral (almost) set illustrated above because I particularly wanted to hear those pieces that are usually neglected like the baryton trios and the operas. Haydn's operas are particularly neglected these days.

But to get back to the masses, I am surprised at how much I have been enjoying them. They are just full of remarkably beautiful music for orchestra, occasionally organ, vocal soloists and choir. I am recalling how much I like choral music. Somewhere Charles Rosen makes the point that late-18th century religious music is perhaps not as "religious" as it might be. It is rather too cheerful and luxuriant perhaps. Compare to Bach's oratorios, cantatas and mass, which are far darker and more numinous. But Haydn's (and Mozart's) masses should not be neglected on musical bases as they contain a great deal of really wonderful music. We should not perhaps underrate their sincerity as well. One gets the distinct impression that at least some of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy were sincerely Christian people.

Haydn masses are mostly large, well-developed works showing not only his famous gift for structure, but also a resplendent use of orchestral color and ravishing melodic sense. Take for example the Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae in C major, Hob. XXII:5 (labeled the Missa Sanctae Caeciliae in the Brilliant Classics box). This is over an hour and ten minutes in length--the Gloria alone is over thirty minutes!--a substantial work indeed.


Here is just the Et resurrexit from the mass with Haydn's original manuscript:


UPDATE: Sorry, not the manuscript, but an early edition.

That's pretty terrific. Four years into the wars following the French Revolution, in 1796, Haydn wrote  one of his most popular masses. Titled the Missa in tempore belli in Haydn's manuscript it is nicknamed in German the Paukenmesse due to the dramatic use of tympani. This one is a bit shorter, at forty minutes or so, but that still makes it nearly twice as long as most Haydn symphonies. Haydn's masses typically follow the fivefold division of the ordinary of the Catholic mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Sometimes, as in this mass, the Benedictus is a separate movement between the last two. You can find the whole of the Latin text here (beginning at the bottom of page 2): http://www.latinliturgy.com/OrdinaryFormMassText.pdf

There is quite a good film of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Missa in tempore belli in 1985. The film itself begins around the 4:30 mark in this clip and is introduced with an interview with Bernstein. The performance itself starts at around the 10 minute mark, but listen to Bernstein's comments before. Something interesting, the audience does not applaud when the conductor and soloist enter.


So that's a sample out of the fourteen masses Haydn wrote (he also wrote a great deal of other large-scale religious music such as the Stabat Mater, Hob. XX:bis, which is also well over an hour long). Well worth exploring I would say!