Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Canadian Music Critic

It must be a Montreal thing, but in my very informal survey of current music criticism I had a look at some pieces by Arthur Kaptainis, the occasional music critic for the Montreal Gazette and found some excellent writing--which of course means that his opinions and mine concur (I was long a resident of Montreal). Here is the link to a piece in two parts. The first is about the recent Valentina Lisitsa controversy and the second is about John Luther Adams' award-winning piece Become Ocean, which Mr. Kaptainis doesn't like very much:
It is my sad duty to report that this monumental exercise in nothingness for full orchestra goes on for 42 minutes in this fashion. You might upbraid me for my uncoolness and explain earnestly that for nothing to happen on a vast scale is the aesthetic point of this score and others like it. My response is that the point, if this is indeed the point, is pointless. I could make the same point in less time with fewer forces, or more time with more.
The acclaim that has greeted this silly exercise (as performed by the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot, not that this really matters) is a sad comment on the state of both American music and American music criticism.
Not that we are expected to approach the piece solely as music. Adams (a former environmental officer from Alaska who is not to be confused with his compatriot John Adams of The Death of Klinghoffer fame) has supplied a pretentious “environmental” program having to do with rising sea levels, which both adds spurious relevance to his music while buttressing it against the assaults of the linear-minded fuddy-duddies who expect music of any style or genre to do something. Hey, man, glaciers don’t melt fast.  Nor is it particularly edifying to watch them melt.
Heh! I wish I had said that. I hope that he has given Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer equally stiff treatment as he has an environmental schtick as well. I guess we really need to put up a performance of Become Ocean, don't we? But we can't because it isn't on YouTube. We can however listen to the rather similar exercise, Dark Waves:

Music Critics and Criticism

Yesterday in the Friday Miscellanea I included this bit on writing about music:
I've been reading Monroe Beardsley's Aesthetics recently with great interest. One point he makes is that there are two basic categories of comments one can make about an artwork. He labels them "external" and "internal" according to whether they are about things external to or internal to the piece. For example, mentioning that Beethoven died in a thunderstorm, or sued his sister in law for custody of his nephew, or complained about Haydn's way of teaching counterpoint is to discuss externals as none of these things are internal to the artworks themselves. Mentioning that Beethoven liked the music of Handel, or worked on themes for months or years in his sketchbooks, or struggled with coming up with definitive metronome markings are, however, internal to the music itself (or could be argued so). All external comments are irrelevant, even if they shed light on the composer's intentions because the composer's intentions are also irrelevant. Now, ask yourself, how much of the liner notes, program notes and reviews you have read recently are actually relevant? 50%? Or maybe more like 5%?
The unfortunate truth is that a great deal, probably most, of what we read written about music is misleading and misdirecting. It does not help us understand the music, but rather leads us to misunderstand the music. In this category we would most definitely include all those biographical details beloved of program note writers who want to "humanize" the composer.

This, and some other posts and comments this week about some less-than-stellar music criticism leads me to want to evaluate some of the most active music critics writing in English. Let's start with the chief music critic for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini. Here is an excerpt from a recent review of a recording:
Fans of Tchaikovsky’s beloved First Piano Concerto will notice something different at the start of this exciting new recording, featuring the formidable pianist Kirill Gerstein. When the soaring main theme breaks out in the orchestra, the accompanying piano chords are rolled, not played in solid blocks of steely sound; and the rising three-chord pattern spans just four octaves, not five. Mr. Gerstein and the conductor James Gaffigan use the 1879 version of the piece, the one Tchaikovsky settled on after making some alternations to the score after the work’s 1875 premiere. But the concerto is known today from an 1894 version, published after Tchaikovsky’s death, which includes tweaks and cuts the composer had never sanctioned, as Mr. Gerstein explains in his information liner notes. The changes, though not extensive, tend to tame and make more conventional some of Tchaikovsky bolder flights.
I haven't heard this recording, but that doesn't matter, because I just want to look at what Tommasini wrote to see if it qualifies as music criticism. The answer is yes. He discusses only those things inherent to the aesthetic object in question, namely the new Tchaikovsky recording, and he does so in clear, unambiguous language that is neither too technical, nor too avoiding of appropriate technical terms. I don't know if his comments are correct and exact, but they are appropriate. Let's look at another example. Here is a review of a concert of music by Purcell:
The concert began with excerpts from “The Fairy Queen,” adapted from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The players of Les Violons du Roy, based in Quebec City, brought Baroque-style focused sound and appealing swing to an orchestral Air and Rondeau, which led into a scene for a drunken poet. The bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus was delightful as the poet, slurping his delivery, sometimes bellowing his lines. A chorus of spirits mocked him for his “dogrel rhymes” and prodded two fairies to “pinch him for his crimes” in music that walked a blissful line between gentle joking and intense needling.
Again, the focus is on the music and the performance. Nowhere else in the review does he wander into irrelevancies. Let's look at one more example. Here is a paragraph from a recent review of a concert by the New York Philharmonic:
I could devote a whole report to the wrenching, blazing and vehement account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor that Mr. Gilbert conducted after intermission. The composer completed this hourlong symphony months after the death of Stalin. How explicitly it was intended as bitter commentary on Stalinist repression is a topic of debate. Whatever one’s take, Mr. Gilbert led a commanding performance, especially the spacious gravity he summoned during the expansive opening movement and the intensity bordering on sheer terror of the short Allegro.
Again, nothing out of place here. Tommasini mentions the controversy over the "meaning" of some of the symphonies of Shostakovich, but doesn't force an opinion on us, commenting rather on how the music was delivered.

Now let's take a look at another very prominent critic, Alex Ross who is the chief music critic for the New Yorker. I've kicked Mr. Ross around quite a bit recently, largely because of a piece he wrote titled "Listen to the Future". Here is one bit I haven't previously quoted:
Can tradition-minded classical listeners ever be made to grasp the crippling contradictions inherent in their hostility toward contemporary music?
I think this encapsulates rather well the central problem of Mr. Ross' criticism: he really does want to tell us what to think and he really does think that we must be made to think certain things. In the case of this quote, we must be "made to grasp" that we are just wrong, wrong, wrong to dismiss some contemporary music, because our hostility is based on "crippling contradictions". That kind of totalitarian pomposity is exactly why I intensely dislike Alex Ross' criticism. Let us seek further representative examples, however. Here is description of a recent piece by Thomas Adès:
Adès’s latest creations are anything but circumspect: they are wilder, stranger, and bolder than the intricate, insolent scores with which he first made his name, in the nineteen-nineties. The opening bars of “Totentanz” give us winds shrieking in their upper registers, hectoring brass, whistles and whipcracks from the percussion section, and a splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance. It is a sound at once grand and gaudy, majestic and mordant.
 This is reasonably apt writing, though I am a bit uncomfortable with the "intricate, insolent" characterization which is thinly-disguised propaganda for two of the essential elements in high modernism: that it be maximally complex and that it "épater les bourgeoisie" (insult the middle-class). The "splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance" seems oddly uninformative. Mr. Ross always seems to have agendas other than the music itself, though he is quite skilled at making us think otherwise. Here is an excerpt from a piece about singer-composers:
Significantly, this is the first classical genre to be dominated by women. The musicologist Susan McClary notes that “women have rarely been permitted agency in art, but, instead, have been restricted to enacting—upon and through their bodies—the theatrical, musical, cinematic, and dance scenarios concocted by male artists.” When women employ their own voices as vessels for musical thought, they are amending history: the expressivity of the female voice speaks, at last, for female ideas, rather than for male ideas about female ideas. And, whatever the gender of the composer, there is an uncanny charge in seeing someone sing a score that he or she has constructed. The sensual immediacy of the voice merges with abstractions of the mind, until, as in the Wallace Stevens poem, the composer becomes the “single artificer of the world in which she sang.”
The feminist dogma quoted from Susan McClary is pretty blatant, of course. The questions that spring immediately to mind are "how can you define 'agency' so that it omits the agency of female performers?" Also, it is an illegitimate smear to refer to artworks by men as being "concocted". The mere fact of women singing does not, of course, "amend history". However would you manage to define "female" ideas as opposed to "male" ideas? There are only ideas--and idiocies, of which this is an example. Mr. Ross' biases come to the fore in many ways. Here is another example:
“Kinder! macht Neues!” Richard Wagner once scowled—“Children! Make something new!” He was berating fellow composers for reworking old pieces instead of delivering fresh creations. One can only imagine how Wagner would have been exasperated by the contemporary classical world, with its sclerotic fear of the new.
I'm sure that he in no way sees his view of the classical music world as being anything like a bias. For him it is simply true that disagreement with modernism, of which Wagner was one of the founders, is simply an error. For Ross, "the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream." The only march is the march into the future. Tradition, indeed, aesthetics itself, is really just a sclerosis of the culture. This is the pure propaganda of high modernism and Mr. Ross wants us to accept it as a given.

It's not, of course. This is Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, which came about as a result of his long meditation on history and tradition:

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

And I know just how she feels: "Woman Stabs Roommate for Refusing to Stop Listening to The Eagles." Hey, we've all been there.
It's unclear which of the band's songs drove Bader over the edge, but police have narrowed down the possible suspects to "Witchy Woman," "Take It Easy," "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "Take It to the Limit," "One of These Nights," "Tequila Sunrise," and "Hotel California" on repeat.
Oh, for sure:

* * *

Alan Gilbert, just stepping down as music director of the New York Philharmonic, recently gave a lecture on the future of the orchestra. You know what I think: the only problem with orchestras and classical music generally is that we need better audiences! But of course you cannot say that sort of thing in public. What must instead be said is some version of the Received Wisdom: classical music must change and fit into the Brave New World of the 21st Century, by performing in Unconventional Spaces and attracting New, Younger Audiences. Blah, blah, blah. Let's see how Gilbert finesses that:
What orchestras can be for their audiences is changing, and that actually presents a wonderful opportunity for us to grow. The new generation of emerging orchestra musicians and conductors can approach things with an optimism that is unburdened by any sense of historical limitation. Music has an eternal power to move us, and increasingly, schools and professional music groups are embracing the new role that musicians can fill in touching people’s lives both in and out of the concert hall.
What is asked and expected of musicians is constantly evolving. Outstanding musicians in today’s orchestras are only doing their jobs fully when they understand and invest in their expanded portfolio that is demanded by the wider definition of what an orchestra is. I want to see orchestra musicians held up as heroes in their communities – both for their brilliance as musicians, but also for how they use that talent to touch the lives of those around them through music. People must get used to seeing musicians as the crucial agents of change in communities, as teachers, leaders and role-models.
Oh dear... One wonders, what with all this touching of people's lives outside the concert hall and being heroes in the community, when will musicians ever have time to actually give a concert, not to mention practice and rehearse? But he says a lot of things in the lecture and it is worth having a look.

 * * *

I rarely run across music criticism that is as, well, "full-blooded" as that on offer here at the Music Salon, but occasionally... One such example is a rather unbuttoned take on the contemporary music scene by Simon Heffer from last November titled, "A Raspberry for Emetic Music".
I wonder whether it is a coincidence that when when composers relied on private patronage they wrote music that was, and remains, wonderful, but now all sorts of orchestras and public bodies channel money to them from the pockets of taxpayers, they write music that is, and will remain, crap? I think not. If it hardly matters to a composer whether people come to hear his work, or buy downloads of it in the event it is recorded, because the state-funded cheque turns up whatever, he can indulge himself to the point of exhaustion in writing what Kathleen Ferrier once memorably termed "three farts and a raspberry, orchestrated". These nonentities pose as being of the people, yet write music that only the smallest handful, and those having been in receipt of one of the most elitist educations imaginable, can even pretend to understand. And even many of them would never go as far as saying they "like" it, because much of it is profoundly unlikeable.
I think I have said something very like this at times. But if you are going to criticise something so severely, then you ought to at least name names.

* * *

 From time to time, one wonders what 20th century music is the most popular. One indicator is this list of the top eight parts rentals from Boosey and Hawkes. These are all works still under copyright (the Mussorgsky because it is the Ravel arrangement), but none of them dates from after 1960:
1. Bernstein: Symphonic Dances From "West Side Story"
2. Bernstein: Overture to "Candide"
3. Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
4. Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
5. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2
6. Britten: Four Sea Interludes
7. Copland: Appalachian Spring Suite
8. Copland: Clarinet Concerto
Looking at that list, it is almost certain that it is just within the US. How would European rentals look, one wonders?

 * * *

I've been reading Monroe Beardsley's Aesthetics recently with great interest. One point he makes is that there are two basic categories of comments one can make about an artwork. He labels them "external" and "internal" according to whether they are about things external to or internal to the piece. For example, mentioning that Beethoven died in a thunderstorm, or sued his sister in law for custody of his nephew, or complained about Haydn's way of teaching counterpoint is to discuss externals as none of these things are internal to the artworks themselves. Mentioning that Beethoven liked the music of Handel, or worked on themes for months or years in his sketchbooks, or struggled with coming up with definitive metronome markings are, however, internal to the music itself (or could be argued so). All external comments are irrelevant, even if they shed light on the composer's intentions because the composer's intentions are also irrelevant. Now, ask yourself, how much of the liner notes, program notes and reviews you have read recently are actually relevant? 50%? Or maybe more like 5%?

* * *

Not a terribly lengthy miscellanea today. I assemble the various bits over the course of the week, and for part of the week, I didn't have Internet access. Let's end with the popular Appalachian Spring Suite by Copland.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Apologies for the Hiatus

Sorry for missing yesterday and today. The internet at my house has been down, so no hope of posting anything. The upside is that I have been able to do more reading than usual instead of frittering away my time on the Web! I am well into Beardsley's book on Aesthetics and a lot of interesting ideas for posts are occurring to me. So look for some good stuff soon. Now I have to go pester my ISP about restoring service.

Let me just leave you with what I have been listening to lately. Here is the opening Kyrie to Bach's Mass in B minor:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Problem with Talking About Music

There is this old story that Eskimos have fifty words for "snow". There is even a Wikipedia article on it. In point of fact, this may not be literally true, but it is true that the languages of people who live in northerly regions where they have to deal a lot with snow, do have lots of ways of describing it. Snow can be slushy, powdery, granular, feathery and so on. If you have to live and work in it, these distinctions are important.

Similarly, those people who live and work around music, often called "musicians", have a lot of vocabulary specially developed to talk about it. These "technical terms" have, in concordance with the trend in our times toward complete know-nothingness, been banned from all public discussion of music. Music notation is also banned, but we have talked about that before. But just take a moment and think about it: any discussion of music in the public sphere, radio, television, newspapers, non-specialist magazines and so on, is forbidden to use exactly that vocabulary that would be most useful.

But if you want to talk about music, then you need words to describe it. So what happens is that people talking about music, like reviewers and critics, resort to incomprehensible "purple" prose in an attempt to describe music without using any of those banned terms.

The kinds of terms that are banned are those that describe the various parts and functions of music. Ones that may be used are generally understood ones like "harmony", "melody" and "rhythm" (terms originally from ancient Greek, so in use for two thousand years at least). Ones that are banned are more specific ones like "triad", "counterpoint", "cadence", "sequence" and so on. If you aren't allowed to use any of these kinds of terms, but are still trying to talk about music in some detail, what do you do? Well, apparently, what you do is flop around throwing out wild bits of prose that frankly, are indecipherable and communicate nothing other than how cool the writer thinks he is and, through osmosis, how clever the reader must be to be participating.

Yesterday I was making fun of a piece of recent music writing by the very well known Alex Ross in the very highly-regarded magazine the New Yorker. Let's return to it for some more examples of the problem:
  • the music on offer ranged from euphonious effusions in a post-minimalist vein to dissonant fulminations of the avant-garde
  • a controlled pandemonium that includes a wild, lashing part for electric guitar and a spatially distinct brass ensemble 
  •  episodes of dissonant density abutting lush, Sibelius-inflected textures
I am leaving out my example from yesterday in which Alex Ross becomes so confused he tries to redefine melody as harmony. But these three examples should give us a sense of the problem. I have left out all those parts of the article that are ordinary prose, talking about non-musical things like venues and which conductor is going to do what and general discussion of new versus old music. These quotes and the one from yesterday comprise the totality of what Ross says regarding specific aspects of specific pieces. In other words, this is all of the article that directly talks about music.

Now, if you ask me (or anyone) what "counterpoint" or "Neapolitan in first inversion" is I can tell you. Or you can look it up. These are technical terms that have clear definitions. This being the case, we can use them to communicate about music. In fact, they have been developed over several hundred years for precisely this purpose. Now, tell me what "euphonious effusions" are? No idea? What about "dissonant fulminations"? Also no idea? How about "controlled pandemonium" which is simply a contradiction? What would a "wild, lashing part for electric guitar" sound like? I have a vague idea, but there could be a lot of things that might mean. "Spatially distinct brass ensemble" I understand, but it says nothing about what they are playing, just that they are set apart, physically. "Dissonant density" is fairly clear, I suppose. But referring to "Sibelius-inflected" textures would only mean something if you knew Sibelius.

So, I think you see the problem? In a concerted effort to avoid implying to the reader that they need to inform themselves regarding technical terms in music, Alex Ross turns talk about music into incomprehensible nattering, ultimately nearly meaningless.

Let's end with some of the music that he might have been talking about. This is Totentanz by Thomas Adès. The music starts at the 4:15 mark if you want to skip the discussion:

Concerto Guide: Saint-Saëns, Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 33

I don't think I have included a cello concerto in this series to date. As we will see, the concerto for cello became quite popular towards the end of the 19th century with Dvořák's from 1895 being a huge success. That indefatigable concerto composer Antonio Vivaldi actually wrote 27 concertos for cello (and for virtually every other solo instrument short of the harmonica and ophicleide) but they have not become as well known as his violin concertos and I didn't pick any for inclusion in this series. There is no cello concerto by Mozart and while there are a couple by Haydn, he is not particularly known as a concerto composer. Beethoven wrote the unusual Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano, but I think that the first concerto for cello alone to achieve much renown in the 19th century is the one I am going to look at today, the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 33 by Camille Saint-Saëns composed in 1872.

The long-lived Saint-Saëns (1835 - 1921) is in the second generation of French Romantic composers after Hector Berlioz. As a young man he was influenced by the first generation of Romantics, Schumann and Liszt, and the later Wagner. But, like most French musicians of the time, he adhered to a more conservative classicism in his own career. He was a church organist and, for a few years, professor of music, during which he taught both Ravel and Fauré.

Saint-Saëns' cello concerto shows the influence of both Robert Schumann's piano concerto and the cyclic technique of Franz Liszt. Here is the opening:

As you can see, instead of an opening orchestral statement of the theme or themes (typical of 18th century concertos), after an opening forte chord in the orchestra, the cello begins with a virtuoso flourish, which turns out to be the first theme. The model for this is the Schumann Piano Concerto which influenced most 19th century concerto composers.

One innovation is that the concerto, while in the three traditional sections, fast-slow-fast, fuses these into one (20 minute) movement with no pauses. The last section, after recapitulating material from the first movement or section, ends with a new theme for the cello. The second movement or section is a minuet in the unusual key of B flat (with excursions into G minor), the Neapolitan!

Incidentally, Mozart occasionally inserted a minuet into the last movement of a piano concerto. You could consider this Saint-Saëns concerto as single movement with an interpolated minuet. In any case, it is somewhat innovative, though with classical precedent and, above all, very charming.

Let's have a listen. Here is a live performance by the great Mstislav Rostropovich. The London Philharmonic is conduced by Carlo Maria Giulini:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Our Finest Music Critic

I simply cannot wait until Friday to share this gem with you: Alex Ross has a recent piece in the New Yorker titled "Listen to the Future" in which he makes this comment on a new piece by John Adams:
In his latest phase, Adams leans on unison lines that go crawling through various sections of the orchestra, defining harmony horizontally rather than vertically. 
Let's just savor that for a moment, shall we?


We actually have a different word for "unison lines that go crawling through various sections of the orchestra". That word is "melody". Melody is defined rather well as "linear succession of musical tones." Wikipedia contrasts this with harmony as follows:
Harmony is often said to refer to the "vertical" aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic line, or the "horizontal" aspect.
Often said, because it is true. Harmony is the musical texture considered vertically, while melody is the horizontal line of the music. In his ongoing effort to explain music without actually talking about it in any satisfactory manner, Alex Ross finally trips over himself.

And this lackwit is the most prominent music critic in North America, if not the world.

For an envoi, here is John Adams' Violin Concerto from 1993-94:

Of course, what Ross should have said is that Adams tries to avoid harmony a lot of the time in favor of unison lines and simple counterpoint. But that would have seemed rather too ordinary. Ross prefers to say things like:
The form is restless, unpredictable, yet ultimately confident in its progress. Adams attached a feminist program, highlighting the misogyny of the Scheherazade legend; the protagonist holds her own against dogmatic thrashings of the orchestra, and steals away in a mood of melancholy rapture.
Whatever the hell that means... I mean, I sort of understand what "thrashings" in the orchestra might be, but how to make them "dogmatic" is, I believe, entirely beyond the powers of music.