Sunday, June 24, 2018

Richter: Handel

I've been captivated by Grigory Sokolov's Rameau on piano for a while now, but I just discovered a recording of Sviatoslav Richter playing Handel on piano and it is also simply marvelous: delicate, crystalline and transparent:


Oh. Wow. And it is from a concert! I used to think Handel was, well, boring.

Women Composers

The Guardian has a cluster of articles on women composers that is worth a look: Women composers: why are so many voices still silent?
Classical music is still a man’s world. Female performers in the entertainment industry learn this early. As a soprano, my career has been defined by playing muses – roles such as Cleopatra (in Handel’s Giulio Cesare), Susanna (in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro) and Rosina (in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville) that were clearly adored by the male composers who created them. Performing them came naturally – after all this is what I had been trained to do. But where was my voice, where was the female perspective? The answer was simple, by and large there’s isn’t one. Almost every portrayal of a woman in the entire regularly performed opera repertoire is constructed through male eyes. The dominance of male composers is, today especially, staggering.
Last week’s Donne – Women in Music report expressed this in stark statistics. Across Europe, 97.6% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons was written by men, leaving a paltry 2.3% written by women.
But why? Is the patriarchy of the music business, the crushing influence of their husbands, or society at large to blame for such a skewed situation?
The writer is soprano Danielle de Niese and the question is a fair one. While I have always argued against quotas and the social engineering of women composers into places of prominence, I have never had anything against women composers. When I was an undergraduate there were always student women composers, though not as many as men. The same in graduate school where I was often in the company of fine young composers, quite a few of whom were women. Right now I am still posting on my most recent discovery, Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina and I recently put up a post on her slightly older contemporary Galina Ustvolskaya.

The very next paragraph in the Guardian piece is on British composer Elizabeth Maconchy, about whom I have written here. De Niese notes that
[Maconchy's] favourite form was the string quartet, of which she wrote 13. In 1942, a Royal Albert Hall concert featured her work alongside that of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, and in 1952 she won a competition to compose the Coronation Overture. The piece, Proud Thames, was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in London to critical acclaim. She was the first woman to chair the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, and she carried on composing until she was nearly 80. And yet her work is almost never heard today and she is little known. Why?
That's a very good question! In the cases of Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, she offers evidence that Robert and Gustav were oppressive figures. Women composers seem to have just lacked any kind of genuine social support and tended to be denied scholarships and other opportunities provided to male composers.
The mechanisms of the classical music industry have long been a patriarchy. Music is a living thing, and any composer lives via the oxygen of performance, on stage, over the airwaves and through publishing. Did all those concert promoters, opera directors, orchestra managers and radio controllers simply forget to provide platforms for women? Without a platform, music as a living art form dies.
This may well have been the case for much of music history, but I'm not sure it has been so over the last forty or fifty years. I really can't speak to bias in musical institutions in Great Britain which seems to have been widespread. But they also treated guitarists with equal disdain, at least according to Julian Bream, up into the 1950s at least. In my own experience in music schools and other institutions since the 1970s, there really didn't seem to be any bias and women composers got as much attention as men. Mind you, both men and women classical composers are pretty much ignored in the wider world. But it is astonishing to hear that only 2.3% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons was by women composers. Wait, I think I see the hidden factor. This statistic was for ALL classical and contemporary music. So it includes all the regular concert seasons with Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky and so on. If we just looked at contemporary music concerts I'm sure the numbers would be quite different. Why didn't they mention that statistic? Looking at the Bachtrack numbers, the closest I can find is this:
Top female contemporary composers
14. Sofia Gubaidulina 16. Kaija Saariaho 26. Sally Beamish
That is not quite as bad: out of the top 26 contemporary composers, three are women. Another article in The Guardian looks into this: Female composers largely ignored by concert line-ups. They have some numbers to back that up. If we are talking just contemporary music, then one would not expect a very significant difference. The article ends with comments from two orchestral managers:
The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, said the orchestra championed the work of women. “Of the 12 young composers on our programmes this season six are women, and while entry to them is based purely on merit, we have seen a 50/50 gender split emerge for the past two years, signalling that the best composers writing in Britain today are just as likely to be women as they are men, which is exactly as it should be.”
Timothy Walker, chief executive and artistic director of the LPO, said the orchestra did “not make artistic choices based on issues of gender, religion or ethnicity” but was “strongly committed to supporting female musicians and composers”.
That kind of policy sounds exactly right. You can't just force a quota on musical organizations, but the search for composers of merit should not exclude women or any other group.

Let's listen to some music by Elizabeth Maconchy, particularly known for her string quartets. This is the Signum Quartet playing Elizabeth Maconchy's 3rd Quartet at Cadogan Hall during the BBC Proms 2013.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Violinist Anthea Kreston is a member of the Artemis Quartet and pages from her journal have been appearing at Slipped Disc for a while now. The most recent is about recording the Quartet No. 7 of Shostakovich.
Our recording location this week was in a charming, repurposed dance hall on the outskirts of Berlin. The herringbone wood floor, high ceiling and tall windows made for warm and clear acoustics, and the old stage is now an enclosed recording booth. This Shostakovich 7th is one of the first pieces I learned with this Quartet and, in fact was one of my audition pieces. As all Shostakovich, it requires both extreme power-playing and extreme stillness – endless, almost inaudible notes which (on a recording especially) must have perfect sustain, impossibly controlled.
I have recorded enough times, and with enough different people to realize that there are two main camps, philosophies. One is – I must control this, and present a perfect picture. The second is – perfection is the job of the people in the booth – my job is to play like I have never played before in my life.
I was lucky, this week, to be surrounded by people who believe the second, and not the first. Recording in this way (any way, actually), is exhausting. It is a combination of running a marathon, stopping frequently for high-intensity-interval-training, performing spinal surgery, and arguing a case before the Supreme Court. My feet ached, my arms and back felt like I had just mowed the lawn at Versailles, and my brain felt like I had just finished a chess match with Nikolić–Arsović. And that was at the end of day 1.
She really captures the experience well!

* * *

 One of Norman Lebrecht's crusades has been against corruption in music competitions and to that end he has a piece in The Spectator: You vote for my pupil, I’ll vote for yours – the truth about music competitions.
A young Korean, 22 years old, won the Dublin International Piano Competition last month. Nothing unusual about that.
Koreans and Chinese, raised in a school of hard knocks and rounded off in western conservatories, are winning most prizes. A few — like the phenomenal Lauren Zhang who made child’s play of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto in the BBC Young Musician of the Year — are prodigious talents with bright futures ahead. Dublin’s winner Sae Yoon Chon is probably not one of them.
His Prokofiev, an effortful shadow of Zhang’s electrification, trundled along at pedestrian pace with one or two stumbles. I was therefore surprised to see that Chon won. I also noticed that he is a student of the jury chairman.
While the unsuspecting pupils remain none the wiser, this kind of outcome has become familiar at international music competitions, of which there are 300 every year. You can count on one hand those that are fair, honest and transparent. They include the BBC, the Chopin in Warsaw and, latterly, the Tchaikovsky in Moscow. You can imagine the jurors’ conversations elsewhere — you vote for my pupil, I’ll vote for yours. Like Fifa’s World Cup ballot, this business is largely controlled by a bunch of time servers, in this case professors at major conservatories.
That's the basic argument, read the whole thing for the details.

* * *

The American Scholar has a list of the twenty-five best American symphonies:
That distinctly European art form known as the symphony began to flourish on American soil in the latter part of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, the earliest American symphonists composed in a style heavily indebted to Brahms, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, among others. Only with the advent of a certain insurance executive–cum–maverick composer named Charles Ives did the American symphony begin to truly come into its own.
In last week’s column about Walter Piston, I happened to list a few of the most essential American symphonies. Immediately I began thinking of works that I’d neglected to mention. So this week, let’s expand the list. For the sake of a nice, neat number, I am identifying 25 great works—hardly a comprehensive tally, and somewhat arbitrary. Looking over the finalists, I began second-guessing at once: Why no Virgil Thomson or David Diamond? Why Bernstein’s First and not his Second? Why not Ives’s Third? I have not, moreover, included symphonic works that do not bear the title Symphony; therefore, I have left out Samuel Barber’s Essays and Joan Tower’s Concerto for Orchestra. What do you think I ought to have included?
Go read the rest. The list includes a lot of pieces I have never heard!

* * *

The Pacific Standard has an interesting article on instrument-builder Caleb Byerly:
Byerly began making instruments in 2007, when he was a 22-year-old Christian missionary in the remote jungles of the Philippines. He was working in the mountains with the indigenous Tigwahanon tribe, largely isolated from the outside world. Byerly immersed himself in their culture, and, as an avid musician, asked them about their music. "We noticed that he really loves to play any indigenous instruments," says Eddie Payaron, a Tigwahanon teacher whom Byerly met in the Philippines. Soon, Byerly learned that the musical elements of Tigwahanon heritage had been taken from them by outsiders much like him. The elders spoke of missionaries from the mid-1900s who had admonished the tribe that its traditional music, used to worship ancient gods, was profane. The Tigwahanon artisans who built the time-honored instruments gradually lost interest in their craft, and the kuglong and its kin were lost.
* * *

Here is a somewhat philosophical article about the classical music tradition and the Future Symphony Institute:
The Future Symphony Institute, which launched in 2014 after around a decade of preparation, seeks to research the viability of classical music today, and put forth ideas and approaches to secure its future. It is, as talking to Balio makes clear, about finding ways to increase the audience for classical music, and because of its U.S. focus, it recognizes and accepts it must play to the market forces that dictate much of what orchestras there can do. (As opposed to the kind of government arts funding more common in Europe.) 
To me at least, tradition has become something to be embraced with caution, lest it look like you’re getting too cuddly with all those almost exclusively white and male figures that dominate the classical canon, and continue to dominate its programming. There’s also a wider issue—not only in the classical music world—of those promoting tradition doing so while spitting vitriol at newer art forms and simultaneously pushing some fairly right-of-center politics. However, in an effort to air out the echo chamber of criticism against the term, I got in touch with Balio to see whether it might not play a key role in the future of classical music. To argue against it in any musical genre, especially in classical music, would be not only difficult, but completely at odds with how art works. The question at hand is how it can be incorporated within the future.
Here is a passage you might want to debate:
The core difficulty with reconciling traditional aesthetics and ideas with the contemporary world is that, try as we might, no art is immune to politics. This is not to say that all art is political, but that all art will have political implications quite out of the hands of the artist. Common accusations that social discourse and identity politics, or leftist academics, hijack art and instrumentalize it toward a political aim fail to see this distinction. It’s not necessarily the art itself that is politicized—enjoying Wagner does not mean your politics coincide with his—but the social consequences of that art; what its existence says about broader social structures, and how we interact with it.
* * *

I was studiously trying to avoid even a hint of politics in today's miscellanea, but that proved to be impossible as nearly every article published on music these days, concert and record reviews aside, seems to be about music from a political point of view! Or complaining about music being too political. Or not political enough! Let's end with an envoi of the String Quartet No. 7 by Shostakovich mentioned in the first item above. This is a 1982 concert video of the Borodin Quartet:


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl'a7shn!

This is not directly about music, though I suppose it is music-adjacent. The CBC reports that two prominent plazas in Vancouver, the one on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the one adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, are going to be renamed. The former will now be known as šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl'e7énḵ Square and the latter as šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl'a7shn. Say it with me! Well, ok, they have a little video clip showing how each is pronounced:


Best of luck with the voiceless velar fricatives! This is just another in a long line of examples of multicultural virtue-signalling, but a particularly striking example. These names are from the Indigenous languages of the region from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Indigenous groups are no longer referred to as "tribes" but as "nations." It always seems to come down to labels, names, designations. Perhaps we can next look forward to the theatre also being re-named. A while back they re-named the Queen Charlotte Islands "Haida Gwaii." Rather hilariously, Wikipedia says that the "nickname" for the islands is the Queen Charlottes. Perhaps the whole province of British Columbia needs to be re-named, referring as it does to the hated imperialist oppressors, the British, and that other hated oppressor Christopher Columbus.

I think that this kind of thing is just a symptom of the hollowing out of culture. First history and culture are either emptied of meaning or reinterpreted according to cultural Marxist theory. Then the fragments are re-labeled giving place to designated oppressed groups. I'm beyond being surprised at how long this can go on before everyone rises up en masse and says "hell, no!" But I hope it is soon. As a small act of personal rebellion I will not be using the designated names for the two public spaces. Instead I will just refer to them as "Plaza of the Hated Oppressor Number One" and "Plaza of the Hated Oppressor Number Two."

As suitable envoi, let's have some music of the Indigenous peoples of the region. This is "Victory Song" from the album Nootka: Indian Music of the Pacific North-West Coast, collected by Ida Halpern.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Reflections on Education

I think I posted this clip by Jordan Peterson a while back. It is really short, just four minutes, so have a look. Just ignore the little bit towards the beginning where they are trying to decide where his "rubric for essay writing" was posted. He gets right to the basic issue, which is, how to teach people to think:


I was reflecting on my fairly long (about thirty years) career teaching music and I realized that what I typically did was something quite similar to what he is talking about. Most of my time was spent giving individual instrumental instruction--guitar lessons in other words. I remember once being asked by a fairly bright student what it was I taught exactly. My answer "whatever you need." He found that a bit unsatisfying! But it was quite correct. Every time a student walked in the door I was presented with a variation on a single problem: what does this student need? For many it was simple technical instruction: how to hold the guitar, the best hand position, how the fingers should approach the strings, how to make a good tone, how to make different tones, and so on. Slurs, arpeggios and scales. But immediately following these issues were the musical ones: how to make a phrase, how to balance a chord, how to handle different tempos and how to do accelerandi and ritardandi. Then there is repertoire which brings with it questions of style and performance practice. Really, there are an almost infinite number of things to know and to know how to do. But each lesson was simply a response to what the student needed at the time. And yes, extremely labor intensive since the instrumental instruction model in music involves one professor and one student in a small room for one hour each week.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Peterson is talking about, I think. Sure, there are differences. For one thing, I rarely encountered a performance in the studio where there was nothing to say except, "A, good job." Every lesson was basically a taking apart of the performance and examination of the details with an eye to correcting faults and improving things. Apparently, while we still do this in music lessons, we, that is, universities (and before them public schools) have given up entirely on the idea of teaching people how to write. Peterson subtly implies that this might be a kind of conspiracy to rob people of the ability to think critically. He might be right. Or, on the other hand, maybe it is just incompetence and laziness.

I think that I have some writing skills. Where did I get them? Not from a classroom, at least, not that I recall. When I arrived at school for Grade One (there was no kindergarten where we lived) I already knew how to read. I don't recall how I learned, but I guess it was my parents. The basic idea of how to write I just picked up from reading. About the only thing I remember from all those years of English classes was in Grade Five or Six, I wrote a little thing in which I was using quotation marks to show dialogue and the teacher said something about how I was doing it wrong.

When I got to university there was an entrance exam where you had to sit in a big room and write an essay for an hour. Those who were bad were assigned to a remedial course. I passed and was put into an English literature class. They did assign a research essay, so I guess that was teaching us how to write. But I honestly don't recall the critiques I received.

I think I taught myself how to write by writing letters to the editor of the Globe and Mail when I lived in Canada and was under-employed for a year or so. You had to come in under 800 words, the subject had to be topical and you had to make an interesting point. I got so I could get about 40 to 50% accepted.

And, of course, writing this blog is another extended course in how to write.

Jordan Peterson's grim conclusion about universities is that, since they charge you a great deal of money and fail to actually teach you the most important things, like how to write, they are really instances of "indentured servitude" with students graduating $100,000 in debt. He doesn't use that phrase in this video, but it is in another one.

In the music department, I suppose we are more honest and do actually try to teach people how to play, performance majors at least. We just kind of gloss over that part where, when you go to the audition, there are two hundred other people auditioning for the same position.

After all that blather we really need an envoi. I just watched the new video, shot in the Louvre, by Beyoncé and Jay-Z called "Apeshit," but it is so astonishingly pretentious and narcissistic and so uninteresting musically that I think we should just ignore it. Instead let's have something by a really first rate musician. Mozart is the only composer I know of who wrote virtuoso concertos for himself to play on two different instruments, the piano and the violin. That guy was just way too talented. This is Ayako Uehara accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Fabio Luisi playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No 22 E flat major K 482:


Only 580 views on YouTube!

Iceland, AI, and Music

There is an interesting article in the Globe and Mail about an upcoming concert in their Luminato Festival: Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds brings a techy twist on the classic concert to Toronto’s Luminato Festival. I continue to be astonished at the number and variety of musicians that keep coming out of Iceland which is a country about the size of a small city: population around 350,000!
Icelandic composer and musician Olafur Arnalds is bringing a small ensemble to the Luminato Festival in Toronto on June 24 for a concert with a conceptual and technological twist. Arnalds, who is best known for TV and movie scores (notably for the British series Broadchurch), makes melodic, melancholic, simple and repetitive music that’s on the line between classical and pop. It owes a debt to both the rhythmic minimalism of the classical tradition (think Arvo Part) and ambient electronica. The twist on his recent stuff is that he is using a couple of player pianos (mechanically operated) that are controlled by a computer algorithm.
That could be either really interesting or really, really dull. There is probably no shortage of composers out there taking inspiration from both Arvo Pärt and ambient electronica. What is interesting in the article, by writer Russell Smith, is that about halfway through, having run out of things to say about the upcoming concert, he skews into a discussion of artificial intelligence and art:
One thing AI does while attempting to create art is analyze it – often large quantities of it – in the most inhuman of ways. This in itself is useful to scholars. The recent field of “digital humanities” uses computers to speedily “read” (i.e., scan) and prepare complicated concordances of large bodies of work. You can get computers to digest all of Shakespeare, for example, and tell you not only how often he uses adjectives but in conjunction with what nouns or what genders or what dramatic situations. You can do the same for whole genres. Such analysis can tell you what characters are most likely to say in what situations in Western novels or in young adult novels about illness. It’s a quick way of seeing trends and themes that emotional readings might not give.
This is the analysis that AI art-creating is based on, and often the resulting statistics are more interesting than the machine-art itself.
Not too surprising that artificial intelligence is better at analysis than creativity, is it?

There are some clips of Ólafur Arnalds' music on YouTube. This is titled "re:member"

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Tricky Mr. Haydn

I'm still working my way through the Haydn box (up to CD 122!) and, indeed, still in the baryton trios. I was just listening to No. 28 in D and heard a minuet I have to share. Haydn delighted in putting both players and listeners off-balance and sometimes he would even do it in the usually very staid context of a minuet. Here is the third movement of the Baryton Trio No. 28 in D:


Now doesn't that sound weird? Sounds like they just stop and add a beat every now and then. Haydn creates this illusion by fooling you as to where the downbeat is:

Click to enlarge

If you notice, the first note is tied over from the third beat to the first so that you think that it is a half note on the downbeat. But no. You aren't quite sure where the downbeat us until the eighth measure. And then it starts all over again.