Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More on Guitar Wars

This story just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Now the Wall Street Journal has a piece on the raids on Gibson that includes mention of another atrocity against an innocent importer of some vintage pianos. Yes, of course the keys were made of ivory back then, but since it was legal at the time, the importer was guilty of nothing. So he got off with a mere misdemeanor and $17,500 fine. What!?!

This was the third comment on the story:

This is absolute nonsense, written by the WSJ in an attempt to undermine our environmental precautions. Any 'classic' instruments that were manufactured before such restrictions went into place, can be readily verified and authenticated through serial numbers (or methods of manufacture, age of finish or hardware.) Not one musician that I know, who is currently an owner of a vintage guitar, has ANY worries about being busted over any of their instruments. This is nothing more than a scare tactic to confuse the issue.
Ah yes, any 'classic' instruments. Like an 18th century harpsichord. What? No serial number? Or a Guarnerius violin from the 17th century. Or my handmade guitar dating from 1983 which originally had an ivory nut. OK, it does have a number: 24. It was the 24th guitar by the maker. He passed away, so no records of manufacture available. I didn't use to worry about being busted, but since these stories I certainly do! I love the US, but travel that involves passage through the US I avoid whenever possible. The law enforcement in the US is out of control, and if you become a "person of interest," you haven't a hope in hell. They will load you with so many supposed infractions that you may well be grateful to get off with a mere misdemeanor and a $17,500 fine. What madness!

UPDATE: I apologize for getting emotional in this post, but the mere possibility of the forces of the state confiscating one's musical instrument is such an unpleasant thought that I over-reacted.

Clarity and Obscurity

To a composer, the Bach two-part inventions are models of, well, invention. Here is an example:

Now that's how to write two independent voices with imitation. There is also a lot of invertible counterpoint. That's when you write passages where you can flip the two voices so the upper becomes the lower. It isn't quite as easy as it sounds. These were written for teaching purposes by Bach and are still used today. Even people who could care less about Bach-style counterpoint make use of the basic idea.

I think you can hear the way the vocal melody rises and then falls in waves, while the independent bass line descends. Paul came up with a lot of great bass lines. The reason I mention this is that I've noticed a trend towards obscurity. It may have begun with the third movement of this piece, which starts at around 7:04:

This is the third of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, op 16 entitled "Farben" (colors). It uses a newly-devised technique called "klangfarbenmelodie" or "sound-color-melody". The basic idea is to replace clear melodic counterpoint with changing instrumental colors. This and the other pieces in op 16 are very interesting in their own way. But. In the hands of more ordinary composers it becomes mush. There was a reason Bach taught his students counterpoint. And that Beethoven studied Bach's counterpoint. And that Chopin never went anywhere without a copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Finally we end up with something like this:

That really sounds like it is about to do something, or mean something, but it never does. This is called 'ambient' music and it originates with Brian Eno. It may have a function, but... Here is something similar by the Icelandic "post-rock" group Sigur Ros:

The problem I have with this is that there is no clarity: everything becomes a wash of sound with occasional fragments floating out. You can't really hear what's going on and you probably aren't supposed to. You are just supposed to float in the ocean of sound, lapping back and forth. Personally, I hate it! Obscurity is not a virtue in my book. Unless! Unless it is for a reason. I guess that makes it an 'instrumental' virtue. Something that may be of use to some other end. In itself obscurity is just ... bad. Here is something that uses ambiguity for good effect:

Now that music is going somewhere!

More Extreme Music

Here is a very famous and very beautiful prelude by Chopin:

What's so extreme about that? The piece starts rather conventionally in D flat major with an 8 measure phrase  answered with an 11 measure phrase, then the first phrase is repeated. So far, except for the expanded middle, this is pretty ordinary. But Chopin noticed that in the accompaniment there was this repeated A flat note that was present in every measure except for six measures in the middle where it becomes a repeated F. That seemed the most interesting thing going on, this obsessive repetition of, almost, a single note. So he continued the piece, moving to the key of C sharp minor. C sharp is the same note as D flat, of course, just spelled differently. This section of the piece is twice as long as the first part and now G sharp, the same note as A flat, is repeated over and over and over in every bar. Finally, the opening 8 measure phrase in D flat returns, with its repeated A flat note. This is the kind of against-the-grain kind of thing that Beethoven might have done: start by writing a rather ordinary piece, then realize that the really interesting thing is a detail of the accompaniment, so keep focusing on that until the possibilities are exhausted. Rather extreme... This device, of repeating or holding a single note while the rest of the music revolves around it is call a "pedal" or "pedal point" because it was typically used on the organ where it is very easy for the foot to hold down a single note in the bass while the hands do something else.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Allan Bloom and the Critique of Pop Music

Allan Bloom's remarkable book The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, was greeted with great acclaim and great hostility. Unique among current critiques of society was the lengthy chapter on music which, as some pointed out, owed something to the left-wing Frankfurt School critique of Theodor Adorno. This is odd, because hostile reviews attacked Bloom's book as being reactionary. To manage to offend people on both sides in the culture wars is a rare achievement!

Bloom says "This is the age of music and the states of soul that accompany it." Perhaps it is better to say that this is the age of the consumption of mass market industrial music product, enabled by the proliferation of electronic music reproduction devices. The days when most middle class homes had a piano and someone who could play it, the days, that is, before the electronic reproduction of music, are long gone. Now we are overwhelmingly mere consumers, passive imbibers, of music. I need to be careful here not to end up re-writing Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"! Benjamin talks about the 'aura' of an original, as opposed to reproduced, object. I'm not sure I entirely understand everything he means by that, but I do place in quite a different category live as opposed to recorded music. When you go to a concert and see a musician perform it is quite a different thing than hearing a recording. Pop performances have become more like recordings than live performances because of the use of electronic amplification, lip-synching, pre-sequenced tracks, video backgrounds and so on. The 'live' component of a live performance grows less and less.

But back to Bloom. He also says that "Classical music is dead among the young" and "Classical music is a special taste like Greek language or pre-Columbian archeology, not a common culture of reciprocal communication and psychological shorthand." I wonder about both of these. Is classical music dead among the young or is it that only a small percentage are attracted to it? And wasn't classical music always a special taste, like Greek language? Were those who really loved and appreciated classical music ever more than three percent of the population? He also says,
Civilization or, to say the same thing, education is the taming or domestication of the soul's raw passions--not suppressing or excising them, which would deprive the soul of its energy--but forming and informing them as art. The goal of harmonizing the enthusiastic part of the soul with what develops later, the rational part, is perhaps impossible to attain. But without it, man can never be whole.
This is pure Plato and fascinating because it is so different from the way we usually look at things. Following along with this view, popular or rock music has the deficiency of being fundamentally barbaric in Bloom's view, because, while it arouses the passions, it does not tame them or harmonize them. Screaming guitars and thunderous backbeats do tend to shut down the reasoning mind! Classical music, on the other hand, while possessing the sensual beauty of music, also has the structure, the organization, to appeal to the mind as well.

I think that popular music has changed since Bloom was writing. He refers to the sensual appeal of Mick Jagger, but those days are gone. Now we have a host of sexy divas shaking booty but the music itself is not nearly as Dionysian as it was. Now it is like a synthesized industrial product designed to accompany visuals of beautiful women who lip-synch and model clothing and jewelry while dancing. The range of moods that rock music was capable of a few decades ago, from the moody depression of "The End" by The Doors:
To the sardonic incisiveness of George Harrison's critique of tax policy:
...are long gone. Pop music used to span quite a lot, but that seems to have diminished. Coldplay sounds a lot like Radiohead and they both sound rather impoverished. Real complexity and richness is restricted to the videos only--we don't hear it in the music any more.

I think it is really about choice. I was raised in a house where my mother was a traditional musician. At some point, I became captivated by music. Not the kind my mother played, but the music on the radio: pop music. It was the mid-60s so some of it was pretty interesting (and most of it quite bad!). But when I heard classical music for the first time, I made a choice to explore it. I have been doing so ever since. To sit your entire life passively letting pop music--any music--just wash over you, is to be worse than a musical barbarian. It is to be numb.

Everything I do in this blog is with the end of furthering the act of listening. Making it active, not passive. Making it critical and aware. If we listen better and demand more, we will get more. Music has great powers of transcendence and ecstasy and healing. I think we need them more than ever!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Extreme Music

One of the finest music critics is Charles Rosen who is both an expert pianist and the writer of several extraordinary books on music. One of them, The Romantic Generation, has helped me to understand 19th century music (not one of my first loves). One of the pieces he discusses is the finale to Chopin's B flat minor piano sonata. In this clip, it is preceded by the previous movement, the well-known funeral march. The finale itself, a mad gallop in octaves, begins at the 9:40 mark:
What an extraodinary piece! It is like a Bach gigue for solo violin, sped up and run through a kaleidoscope of romantic harmony. That is very possibly how Chopin conceived it. Robert Schumann and quite a few others hated the piece.

Problems of Music Criticism

An anonymous reader left some excellent comments on my post "Negative Criticism". As they led to an interesting discussion, let me quote them here:
I don't "get" U2 at all. I've never heard any catchy melody, any interesting arrangement, any ear-catching rhythm from those guys. Nothing. Just droning, achingly dull banality. In fact the laws of statistics suggest that out of so many tunes at least a couple of them should be interesting. But not even that. My sense is that no one in U2 actually knows the first thing about music. This is not some sort of elitist criticism that will dismiss all of rock as uneducated music. Far from it. Though lacking any formal training, Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix were extremely subtle, creative, sophisticated musicians. My problem with U2 is that I don't see that they ever got past the 3-chord stage of an 8th-grader who gets a guitar for Xmas. And yet their enormous popularity tells me I must be missing something. Or are people so conditioned by bad music any mediocre band stands a chance to make it if they play their cards right?
I replied:
I couldn't be more in agreement. I first started thinking about U2 after reading a book by Roger Scruton. Here is the post: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/07/music-and-philosopy.html

It must be time to look at how U2 got to be so popular... I feel a post coming on!
Then anonymous said:
Scruton is a good philosopher (despite his ueber-conservative disposition). He once dissed REM's "Losing My Religion" for all sorts of musical reasons, mostly sound and valid. And yet his argument left something to be desired. The reason is this.

I could argue why the St Matthew Passion's opening is the greatest piece of music ever written, and whether right or wrong, I think I could make a persuasive case for it. Just as Scruton can make a persuasive case that REM's music is bad. But there is one problem. I happen to believe that "Kommt, ihr Töchter" is indeed the greatest piece of music I've ever had the good luck to hear, but that's not because of the technical argument I could mount in support of that belief. After all, I could easily imagine a piece of music that is just as technically impressive and yet left me cold. The technical case for "Kommt, ihr Töchter" can only add plausibility to the claim that its greatness is unsurpassed but it cannot establish it. For its greatness is not reducible to any set of merits that can be put in words. The only argument that, in the end, clinches it for me is my subjective judgment that no other piece of music has ever moved me so deeply and lastingly
and so enriched my musical sensibilities.

So now let's go back to REM. I find "Losing My Religion" quite catchy and for me, anyway, as a piece of pop music, it works. And yet Scruton's arguments about its inferiority might well be correct. But how much do they matter? My problem with U2 is that it's never moved me the slightest bit. I try to rationalize it by saying they don't know squat about music. But highly trained pop musicians (say, Joe Satriani) don't really move me either. I feel my approach to music is extremely primitive and physical. At the end of the day, the reason I worship Bach is because he, more than anyone, can bring tears to my eyes. I wish there was a way to argue about the "qualia" of music that didn't inevitably fall back to its objective "manufacturing" nature. So that Scruton's complaint that REM doesn't invert triads wouldn't sound so trite.
And I answered:
Where was Scruton's discussion of "Losing My Religion"?

You put your finger on a crucial problem in aesthetic judgment: a large part of our response to music is deeply subjective. This is beyond the limit of music theory. Theorists have long since given up on aesthetic judgment, of course. They would rather not get involved in that messiness! But theory severed from aesthetic judgment tends to be sterile analysis. Similarly, subjective responses to music tend to be excessively shaped by whatever you were exposed to when you were young. I often puzzle over whether some of my high regard for the Beatles is simply because they were a big part of what I listened to when I was in my later teens.

But let me make some distinctions here: music poses problems for a philosophical discussion because the creation and reception of it is located in a non-verbal part of the self (brain, mind). You don't (verbally) think your way through a performance either playing or listening. But that does not imply that it is entirely subjective. Let me give an example. When we watch/hear a string quartet perform, they are engaged in a very subtle non-verbal communication (conversation). The first violin plays a theme and the second takes it up. The viola threads in a counter-melody and the cello supports it all with long bass notes. Then they all slow down together to meditate on it. All this is quite real and also quite non-verbal. We can talk about it, but only rather indirectly. As I write, I am imagining exact sounds, but I'm not sure what you, the reader are imagining.

So, none of this is subjective, though it is beyond the reach of words. I think that good aesthetic judgments about music can also aspire to the objective, though they will be difficult. I try to do it through direct comparisons. Instead of trying to describe the indescribable, I just put up a clip from YouTube and let you decide.

Going back to the subjective: I think one can overcome the biases that come from what you listened to when you were young. For example, in my first couple of years of listening I probably spent as much time listening to Eric Burdon and the Animals and the Rolling Stones as the Beatles. It was over a long period of time that I began to distinguish the extraordinary music of the Beatles from the other music of the same time. In the same way, we have, over a long time, come to see the music of Bach as being of quite a different order than that of, say, Telemann or Johann Friedrich Fasch.

In order to engage in really telling music criticism, you have to do more than just complain about how triads are inverted. But you can make that complaint. Applied to rock music it is a bit odd, though. Rock harmony doesn't have a lot to do with inversions because on rhythm guitar, you play whatever inversion lies easily on the fingerboard. I think good criticism should have at its disposal the whole repertoire of theoretical learning, but only use what is appropriate to the context. For example, to accuse early Steve Reich of boring repetition is somewhat to misunderstand what he is up to. But to accuse Fasch of boring repetition is to hit the nail on the head!

I find a blog to be a superb locale for music criticism because I can talk about something, then embed a clip as an example. I can put up an excerpt from a musical score to clinch the point. The discussion can wander from the verbal to the musical performance to the written score and thus make up for the limitations of language.

Thank you, anonymous, for an excellent comment!!!
Here are the pieces we were talking about. "Losing My Religion" by REM:
And the opening chorus from the Matthew Passion:

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Guitar Wars

These stories about the raids on Gibson guitar factories are just weird. Confiscating ebony fingerboards because they didn't have the correct amount of finishing done by Indian workers under Indian law? Sure sounds to me as if the US Federal authorities are way out of control. Here is an interview with the CEO of Gibson.

My guitar, a very special instrument built in the early 80s by a Vancouver builder, has an ebony fingerboard, ebony bridge, Indian rosewood back and sides, Honduran mahogany neck and high-altitude British Columbian spruce top. The nut, the small bar that holds the strings at the upper end of the neck as they pass to the tuning pegs, was originally ivory, chosen for its special resonant qualities. If it hadn't been cut from a piece of antique ivory, I'm sure it would be quite illegal.

I'm not entirely sure where I stand on the ivory question. I certainly don't want elephants killed off for their ivory. But at the same time I wonder if we don't sometimes preserve species because they have value for us. Before the invention of the motor-car, how many horses were there in New York? How many are there now?

I'm confused by the ban on Brazilian rosewood. According to the Wikipedia article, [Brazilian rosewood]
is found only in Brazil, from the eastern forests of Bahia to Rio de Janeiro. It is threatened by habitat loss, since most of its habitat has been converted to farmland. Due to its endangered status, it was CITES-listed on Nov. 6 1992 in Appendix I (the most protected), and illegal to trade.
It grows in a specific area but is threatened because most of this habitat has been converted to farmland? And the solution is to ban trade in the wood, making it of no economic value? How is this supposed to preserve the habitat? Wouldn't that be an excellent reason to go ahead and convert the rest of the habitat to farmland, growing something that would be of economic value? I just don't get the logic there. Wouldn't it make more sense to have a world market in Brazilian rosewood, a natural product both beautiful and prized for its resonant qualities in musical instruments? Wouldn't that make it very desirable to create plantations devoted to growing rosewood so you could sell it into that international market? Wouldn't that result in a lot more rosewood? Surely a valuable product like rosewood would be a higher value use of the land than as mere farmland? Sometimes the way government operates, especially international bodies, makes no sense to me.

Thanks, Glenn, for the Instalaunch. Mostly on this blog I try to do some kind of music criticism, but I am at heart a libertarian and that comes out sometimes!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Common Time

As we all learned from our music teachers, that funny 'C' symbol after the clef means "common time". Sssuuuurrre it does! Actually, the symbol 'C' is not the letter 'c' at all, but a half circle. In the 14th century the predecessors of our time signatures were invented. In the beginning there was only triple or perfect time, indicated by a circle, the perfect geometric shape. "Imperfect" or duple time, was indicated with a half circle. This indicated the number of beats, either three or two, in the measure. But they also had the ability to indicate whether these beats themselves divided into three or two subdivisions. This was indicated with a dot. A circle with a dot indicated three beats and each beat had three parts. In our metric notation we would show this as 9/8.  A half circle with a dot indicated two beats and each beat had three parts. We would show this as 6/8. But a simple half-circle with no dot indicated two beats, each of which divides into two parts. They called this tempus imperfectum cum prolatione imperfecta. "Common time" takes a lot less time to say, though. Here is an example from an old manuscript. You can see the time signature as a little 'c' on the second space from the top, right at the beginning after the clef--a C-clef on the bottom line:
From the Chansonnier Laborde

Negative Criticism

I just read this account in the New York Times about negative criticism in the theater world. We are often told that negativity is a bad thing and I'm sure sometimes it is. But it is also a good thing when it energizes a debate about things that really matter. I had a dispiriting few minutes the other day when I ran across a slideshow of the biggest-earning celebrities. As I recall, the musicians on the list were U2, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Paul McCartney. Now that's a sad collection. It makes one long for the days when Paganini and Liszt were the most notorious and famous musicians!

The thing is that an awful lot of music is simply awful. Perhaps it serves a purpose: in Mexico, a lot of awful music seems to be the necessary accompaniment to the frequent festivals and the ongoing ferment of life. I was looking at a house the other day and, passing through the room of a teenager, I saw she had devoted the entirety of two large walls to pictures of Justin Bieber. Nothing wrong with that. But there is also a--well, almost a duty--to point out musical strengths and weaknesses. The simple truth is that most celebrities are a pretty nasty lot: they have the dead eyes that comes from placing everything in the service of the accumulation of more money. In our world, with a little cleverness, fame = money, therefore anything we do that makes us a little more famous, makes us a little wealthier. Lady Gaga wears bizarre outfits and recycles Madonna not because these are interesting things to do, but because that is a money-making niche. It is shocking sometimes how little the greedy have to do to become  wealthy. Just look at U2, a pedestrian rock band with absolutely minimal talent.

This is more than just a question of taste, I believe. I'm sure there are musical groups that share the aesthetic of U2, but actually have creative abilities. If someone could point that out, wouldn't that do us all a service? I think I help out by saying try this composer instead of that composer. Over the decades and centuries, it is this inevitable winnowing out that blows away the shallow and tiresome and leaves the great monuments of art.

Plus, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from puncturing the pretensions of the fake artists that are rolling in dough. One final thought: even before you start really listening to the music, it is a pretty good indicator that there is something wrong with the music when it mostly seems to be about posing and mugging for the camera. These days this posing and mugging seems, along with product placement, to have become absolutely generic:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Case of Sibelius

Continuing on from my previous post, let's have a closer look at Sibelius' 4th Symphony. A lengthy analysis would be tiresome and, uh, lengthy, not to mention unbloggy! But we can look at just the opening of the 4th Symphony. Alex Ross, in his excellent book The Rest Is Noise writes as follows:
Sibelius finished his first two symphonies in 1899 and 1902 respectively. On the surface, these were typical orchestral dramas of the heroic soul, although Sibelius' habit of breaking down themes into murmuring textures sounded strange to many listeners... In [ ] the Fourth, Sibelius presented his listeners with music as forbidding as anything from the European continent at the time ... The first few bars of the symphony extrapolate a new dimension in musical time. The opening notes, scored darkly for cellos, basses and bassoons, are C, D, F-sharp and E--a harmonically ambiguous whole-tone collection.
"A new dimension in musical time"... wait, doesn't that sound familiar? Haven't some other composers been doing that more recently? Here are those opening bars in my reduction:
(click to enlarge) 
Hmm, what do we have here? A pedal that decelerates, moving between the dominant and the raised sixth degrees; rhythmically displaced outlining of the tonic and then dominant minor chords; strong modal feel. You know, these techniques of modified modal harmonies combined with repetitive rhythmic structures sound a lot like what the minimalist composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams evolved into after a while. They got tired of the excessively simple harmonies of the early pieces and started writing music that isn't so terribly different from this. Here is the Sibelius 4th Symphony again:
And here is some music by Philip Glass:
I think the main difference between the two is that the Sibelius is more interesting. Here is the opening of Shaker Loops by John Adams:
What do you think? Did composers steer a wide berth around this kind of harmonic writing only to return to it in the 1970s? Was Sibelius doing interesting things rhythmically that would be echoed in music several decades later?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Classical Music Criticism

Alex Ross has a post about the disappearance of one of the last classical music critics from the Toronto Star. The Globe and Mail and La Presse still have classical music critics, but that's a small number for a big country. In fact, the situation is possibly even worse than it seems. Music criticism as it is practiced in newspapers and magazines these days seems to consist largely of news about orchestra budget problems, news about programming, news about artists--mainly celebrity artists--and reviews of performances. This is all useful and necessary information. But it is not what I would really call "music criticism" which I naively think should involve criticism of music. Yes, of course there is some of this. I just read an article discussing the fortunes of the music of Jean Sibelius as they rose, fell and possibly are going to rise again over the last 100 years. But even in that article there was mostly peripheral discussion of biographical and other details and virtually no discussion of the actual music. In this blog I focus on the music.

Speaking of Sibelius, on whom I will do a more extended post soon, I recall a day in my 20th century theory undergraduate class. We had spent several classes doing a fairly thorough analysis of the string quartet op 28 by Webern:
After this a rather talented violinist in the class asked "why can't we spend some time studying the Sibelius violin concerto?" The answer: "it's derivative." The professor, a composer (at that time all the theory courses were taught by composers, not theorists) had been a student of Milton Babbitt at Princeton. While not a serial composer himself any longer, he certainly shared the aesthetic. So is that evaluation, 'derivative' both true and, as lawyers say, dispositive?

Sibelius is primarily a composer of symphonies and other music for orchestra, including that violin concerto. He was hugely popular in the first half of the century, but stopped composing in the mid-1920s, just about the time the atonalists such as Webern were coming into their own. He was certainly influenced by composers such as Wagner and Tchaikovsky, but he has very much his own style. Webern is influenced by the contrapuntal techniques of 15th and 16th century composers, but we don't call his music 'derivative'. There are virtually no composers whose music is so experimental that we can say they derive little or nothing from previous music. Even composers like Steve Reich have influences. So I think that the accusation 'derivative' is an empty one, even if true. Now is it dispositive? In other words, is Sibelius' music so obviously a copy of things that have been done before that it is not worth our time? Here is the first movement of his 4th Symphony:

What do you think? I'll just leave you with that and soon I will delve into Sibelius a bit more.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Music and Emotion

Philosophers talk about emotions as having objects. If you are angry, you are angry about something or at someone. If you are sad, you are sad about something, the same with happy. They contrast object-directed emotions with moods, which don't have an object. Moods are things like cheerful or gloomy feelings that do not relate to anything in particular. This is a simplification, of course. Here is an article with more detail--see especially section 3 on emotions and intentional objects.

What does this have to do with music? We sometimes talk about music as being sad or happy. There is an anecdote about Schubert that applies. He had played at a salon in Vienna and afterwards someone came up and asked him why his music was always sad. He replied that all music is sad. Perhaps true of Romantic music, but certainly not of Classical or Baroque music. I want to propose that music is neither happy nor sad, nor does it really depict other ordinary emotions. The reason is those objects: music has no object. If there is a piece of music that is slow, languorous, gloomy, we may well talk about it as being 'sad', but it is sadness without an object, therefore a mood, not an emotion. Wagner called the first movement of Beethoven's string quartet in C# minor, op 131, the saddest thing in all music. Here it is:

If it is truly sad, then why do we enjoy listening to this and similar music? I think the answer is that it is only 'sad' by metaphor. This, and all music without any text, is really only 'about' musical beauty. We enjoy beauty in music. Sometimes that beauty comes in slow, languorous forms and sometimes it comes in bright, sparkling forms. Here is the very next movement of the quartet:

Similarly, there is no such thing as 'angry' music: music doesn't make us angry and composers are not angry when they write it. This is why I am always a little leery of attaching much importance to biographical details as a guide to what a piece of music 'means'. Music, again, music without text or lyrics, doesn't mean anything in the usual sense. Perhaps I should say "most music" because there are some interesting exceptions. Sometimes composers have been known to code meaning into a piece through the use of either notes that refer to someone or something, or to construct music with some numerological significance. This is interesting, of course, but it is essentially an extra-musical ploy or reference.

One famous example is Shostakovich's coding of his own initials into several pieces. When speaking the names of the notes in German, E flat is 'es' and B natural is 'h'. Therefore DSCH stands for Dmitri Shostakovich and corresponds to the notes D, E flat, C and B natural. Here is the opening of his Eighth String Quartet, which is permeated with this figure:

Bach did the same at the end of the Art of Fugue with a new subject using the notes BACH. Another example from Bach is the first fugue, in C major, from the Well-Tempered Clavier that uses a subject of exactly 14 notes. B = 2, A = 1, C = 3 and H = 8 for a total of 14. One musicologist claims that the Mass in B minor, also by Bach, uses numerology as well. There are, apparently 2345 measures in the whole piece and the only repeated music, the Dona nobis pacem, is based on a theme that begins with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th scale degrees. Well, maybe... In any case, these coded references are essentially non-musical and while they may be significant, it is something apart from the fundamental musical structure.

But music can have a dramatic effect on us, making us tap our foot, move our head, breath more heavily, even tingle with goose-bumps. How does it do this? I don't think we really know, though in a neurological lab at McGill University, they are looking at the brain to see if they can find out. I think I prefer to think of it as a mystery: how mere vibrations in the air, impinging on our ears, can have such a profound effect.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Beatles and Led Zeppelin

UPDATE: I noticed that this post was getting a lot of views for some reason and also that some of the YouTube links were no longer working, so I just replaced those with different clips.

I was reading something that was talking about the greatest bands of all time and mentioned three: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. Leaving the latter to one side for a moment, I wonder what it would be like to compare The Beatles and Led Zeppelin? Here's the first Led Zep song that comes up on YouTube:

If you resurrected Robert Johnson, carefully drained off about 37% of his creativity and gave him a lot of big amps, I guess that's what it would sound like. If you have read many of the posts on this blog you probably have an idea how much will-power I had to use not to stop the clip about a minute into the long synthesizer noodling with Robert Plant moaning orgasmically section. OK. Let's try The Beatles. Here is the first song that comes up that was written by the Beatles:

Let's dig around a bit and choose some other examples. First, Led Zeppelin:

Here is something vaguely similar from The Beatles:

Something else from Led Zeppelin:

They made a lot more effort with that one. New palette of sounds with the keyboard, wider harmonic range with the ascending chromatic figure--a lot more going on. I'm not sure the disparate elements ever really knit together, but points for effort. Now another from The Beatles:

Hard to find anything equivalent, but that's as close as we can get. Hmmm. Well? What can we conclude? In Kashmir Led Zeppelin are incorporating exotic elements into their basic blues vocabulary and it works pretty well. But I Am the Walrus is one of those incomparable songs like nothing else. I guess the only thing we can conclude is that these two bands are not terribly comparable. I know who I would rather listen to, though.

Basic Music Library

I remember reading some literary criticism by Ezra Pound a long time ago in which he says something like there are only a very few books you need to read: but you need to know them very well. The list included Homer, the Bible, Dante and Shakespeare. It is something like that in music. There are some pieces by some composers that you should really know and the rest is all peripheral. We often hear about how the modern world is full of an incredible, diverse variety of everything. Yes, there is some truth to that. But in music it is more like, there is a small amount of music that is really central and everything else is influenced by it. Knowing Bach really well is a lot better than a vague acquaintance with a host of Baroque composers like Telemann, Buxtehude, Froberger, Vivaldi, Rameau and so on. So here is my very provisional list of music you should know well:

  • Bach: Mass in B minor, Brandenberg Concertos, Well-Tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations, suites for solo cello and violin
  • Beethoven: symphonies, concertos, string quartets and piano sonatas (yes, all of them)
  • Mozart: symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets and operas
  • Shostakovich: symphonies, string quartets, preludes and fugues for piano
  • Haydn: symphonies, string quartets
  • Chopin: piano music
  • Selected music by Josquin des Prez, Guillaume DuFay, Guillaume de Machaut, Palestrina and John Dowland
  • Some Gregorian chant and music by Leonin and Perotin
  • Songs by Schubert and Schumann
  • Symphonies by Berlioz, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Bruckner
  • Selected works by Berg, Bartok, Stravinsky and Debussy
  • The Beatles
That is, an idiosyncratic and incomplete list! But the omissions are important. You don't need, for example, to know anything about Beethoven's chamber music for winds (I made that mistake myself), or Haydn's operas, or Schumann's symphonies or Berlioz' music for guitar or French music between Berlioz and Debussy or those hundreds of lesser-known Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers that we are always "rediscovering". Everything they did Bach, Beethoven and Mahler did better. If you know Shakespeare, you really don't need to know all those lesser Elizabethan playwrights, do you? Well, maybe Christopher Marlowe...

Harry Potter and John Williams

I've enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. It really is one of the great fantasy epics. Yes, it is presented as a children's series, but honestly, it is hard to think of 800 and 900 page novels as traditional children's books. There is a sophisticated satire running throughout. In any case, I just spent a couple of evenings watching the film versions of the first two books and, while much is enjoyable, in many ways the films ruin the books. A lot of the blame falls to the music, provided by film composer John Williams (as opposed to the completely different person, English/Australian classical guitarist John Williams).

It was while watching the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that I realized that it was that horrible music that was really ruining the story. Sure, the computer-generated imagery and special effects were a contributor, as they always seem to be, but it was the music that was the main problem. The acting is, on the whole, excellent, with people like Alan Rickman giving a master's seminar on how to deliver a line. But that music... The ubiquitous, annoying main theme, the swirling violins, the tweedling winds, all combine to make the film just as phony and overdone as every other film he has written music for: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Close Encounters... It is like a Walt Disney version of A Midsummer Night's Dream with every ambiguity and grittiness in the original turned into a kind of cartoon of itself.

Really good directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Peter Weir use music to stunning effect in their films. I doubt if anyone can hear The Blue Danube waltz without visualizing a spaceship docking and the ending of Master and Commander was inspired with the violin and cello knocking out a rustic dance while the camera rises high in the air to reveal the escaping frigate in the distance. But what do we get in Harry Potter at the end? The usual pompous, over-orchestrated bombastic phoniness of every other Hollywood blockbuster. Oh, please!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

One Hit Wonders

This is a common phenomenon in both classical and popular music, worth some looking into. The composer of the earliest printed music for guitar--the four-course Renaissance guitar--was a fellow named Alonso Mudarra who died on April Fool's Day, 1580. His main instrument was the vihuela, an instrument similar to the guitar, but with six courses or pairs of strings. Much of his music is typical of the day: songs and fantasias. But he wrote one piece "imitating the harp in the manner of Ludovico" that is a real stunner. It is a free kind of toccata in a style that didn't become common until much later, in the Baroque. There are also some remarkable cross-relations combined with rhythmic syncopations towards the end. Nothing else by Mudarra is half as interesting. Here is a rather ferocious performance, on vihuela, by Julian Bream:
Henry Purcell was an English composer who lived from 1659 to 1695 and actually wrote quite a lot of good music, much of it for voices. He wrote sacred music as well as quite a lot of very bawdy catches. Pete Townshend of The Who cites Purcell as an influence on his writing. Purcell is known most of all for one chamber opera, Dido and Aeneas and particularly for one section from that opera, "Dido's Lament". The aria is preceded by a short recitative. The aria itself uses a chromatic descending bass line, repeated eleven times--a passacaglia. The idea of a varied melodic line over a repeated bass pattern was used frequently in the Baroque, by Bach especially. It also was a device used many times by Shostakovich in the 20th century. Here is the recitative and aria "Dido's Lament":
Purcell isn't quite a "one-hit wonder" as his other music is also performed, but two other Baroque composers pretty much are. Who could forget the famous Adagio by Tomaso Albinoni, noted Venetian composer of over fifty operas? Well, actually, that famous piece was not written by Albinoni, but by a 20th century musicologist and Albinoni biographer, Remo Giazotto in the 1950s. It may however, have been based on a fragmentary manuscript by Albinoni. Whoever really composed it, it is certainly a hit, finding its way into countless film and television soundtracks:
Then there is the case of Johann Pachelbel who lived from 1653 to 1706. He taught Johann Sebastian Bach's older brother, Johann Christof Bach, who in turn taught the young Sebastian. Pachelbel wrote an enormous amount of music, most of it connected with his duties as court organist and chamber musician. His Canon and Gigue in D major was first published only in 1919 and didn't become a 'hit' until the 1970s. Now it is ubiquitous at weddings. The piece is a canon at the unison for three violins over a repeated bass line:
This repeating harmonic pattern, suggested by the bass line:
...has been used many, many times in both classical and popular contexts. Handel, Haydn, Mozart and others have used it and it is even found in places like the piano solo George Martin composed for the song "In My Life" on Rubber Soul. The solo, only fifteen seconds long, starts at the 1:30 mark:
In fact, the harmonic progression has become so over-used in pop music that one comedian created a rant on the piece:
Heh, heh, heh! Since nothing can beat that great rant, I'll save more one-hit wonders for another post.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Music and Slow Time

I thought that my title was a quotation, but I can't seem to find it. In any case, it's appropriate. I'm going to talk about tempo--how fast music is played. One thing I noticed in my comparison of several different performances of a Bach gigue on violin was that many--most-- heck, all--of the performances seemed fast to me. Why was that? I think that a good tempo is one that allows the listener to absorb the musical texture: harmony, melody and rhythm. Bach's textures are often so rich that the listener can barely absorb them at the tempos we hear today.

How fast did Bach play and conduct his own music? We have no real evidence. Scholars have been arguing over this for a long time but unless someone invents a time machine, we are not likely to know. There are some general guidelines, but they give no specifics we can use for a particular piece. The metronome was invented by a fellow named Johann Maelzel in 1815 and was immediately latched onto by Beethoven and others to indicate exactly what tempo was desired. At the beginning of the score the exact number of beats per minute was indicated: ♪ = 60 for example. But the bloom was soon off the rose. Beethoven is reported to have said that the metronome marking is only good for the first four bars, after that you are on your own. Brahms said "I am of the opinion that metronome marks go for nothing. As far as I know, all composers have, as I, retracted their metronome marks in later years."

For Bach, who died in 1750, we have no metronome markings, of course. In the world of performance the temptation for virtuosos is always to just push the tempo a bit faster. It might just win the competition. But I doubt this does Bach or the audience any favors. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Here is a quote from composer Jan Swafford writing in Slate a few years ago:
We're seeing the Vivaldi-ization of Bach: gloom banished, minimal variety, implacably crisp, bouncy. And the slim 'n' speedy virus has infected good conductors. When the well-reviewed 1989 John Eliot Gardiner recording of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" appeared, as a Gardiner fan I ran to get it. This time the great chorus of lamentation that begins the "Passion" was indeed an occasion of mourning: I'd blown 20 bucks. Gardiner takes the chorus of lamentation at near-gigue tempo. Jesus is crucified, his performance cries. Let's dance!
 I'm tempted to start a "slow music" movement analogous to the "slow food" movement. Get your tasty, all-natural, slow-simmered Bach right here!

Of all the different Bach performances I compared, the one that really stood out was by a Hungarian violinist named Kristóf Baráti. Click on the link to go to a Wikipedia article on him. Here he is playing the Siciliano from the G minor solo violin sonata:
Nothing too fast about that tempo! Good grief, why would anyone want to rush through music like this? Here's one:

But the real sins are committed with the fast movements. Here is the Presto from the same sonata played by Barati:
Pretty fast, but he has such control that it succeeds. Here is Grumiaux playing the same movement. The Presto starts at 2:25:
The problem I have with both of these is that there are some subtle rhythmic shifts going on that tend to just whistle by without the listener grasping them. I would really like to hear them. Here is Rachel Podger, the presto starts at 3:04:
That is a very credible performance, but even with some nice gestures, it still seems fast to me. This is a very complex piece and I doubt anyone in the audience is going to doze off if we just slow it down a bit. Do you? Let me end by going back to Kristof Barati. His performance of the Chaconne from the D minor Partita is just the kind of tempo I'm talking about. Unfortunately, Blogger refuses to find the clip so I can't embed it. But here are the links:
Barati, Chaconne, Part 1
Barati, Chaconne, Part 2

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Harmony Revisited, Part 1

More and more, when I'm thinking about what is right or wrong with a piece of music, it is harmony that seems to be in question. The unrelenting dreariness of a lot of the music written between 1920 and 1960 is really a problem of harmony. The "emancipation of the dissonance" meant that the 'harmony' was always the same. Instead of the age-old principle of dissonance--resolution we just had dissonance--dissonance. How could that possibly work?
I choose this Bach chorale, not for its emotional content, but simply as an example of real harmony. The many chorales of Bach were collected soon after his death and published for the use of musicians, mostly composers. There have been several editions, but in one form or another, the collection has been in print since 1765. I would suspect that nearly every composer has a copy. Bach was a crucial figure in the move towards the system of tuning we use today: equal temperament. In order to make full use of the possibility of modulation, every key had to be usable. In the older tuning systems the key of C major was perfectly in tune, but a key like A flat major would be horribly out of tune. Equal temperament solves the problem. The period from Haydn to Beethoven made full use of this freedom of modulation. Here is another example of harmonic mastery:
The basic principle of harmony was the tension between dominant and tonic. Here Beethoven manages to be clearly in the key of A major while avoiding landing on it as much as possible. This gives the harmony a floating feeling as opposed to the solidity of Bach's harmony. The tonic/dominant tension was extended with secondary or applied dominants and the extremely useful devices of mixture (using harmonies borrowed from the minor in major keys and vice versa), the diminished seventh chord (which, due to its symmetry can go in any direction), the augmented sixth chords (which sound like a dominant, but actually prepare a different dominant) and the Neapolitan, which is a clever way of modulating to an unexpected key. The opening of "The Tempest" sonata by Beethoven shows his kind of harmonic thinking:
The harmonic 'system'--if we can call it that--of the Classical Period offered an incredible array of harmonic possibilities both flexible and powerful. The music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is inconceivable in the absence of the harmonic system they used to such miraculous effect. Alas, after the death of Beethoven in 1827, it began to collapse as composers began to dilute the basic relationships to the point where the tensions gradually disappeared in a morass of chromaticism. Composers like Chopin, also a remarkable harmonist, began using remote harmonies just for their color without the preparation that Beethoven would have found necessary:
Throughout the 19th century, harmony becomes more and more of a problem and some started to think that it needed to be completely replaced by a different system. The main candidate was Schoenberg's 12-tone method that uses all the possible notes in a specific order, subjected to contrapuntal treatment. So the whole axis of consonance/dissonance disappears. Here is an example:
Though there is much to be said for this music--especially in terms of its suitability to the times--it has not been accepted by audiences except in small doses. One critic said that Schoenberg could empty any concert hall. I think the problem comes back to harmony. This music is all dissonance.

In another post I will take up what followed the atonal phase and the attempts by the minimalist and process composers to reinvent harmony.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Nigel Kennedy and Bach

I just read this article on Nigel Kennedy talking about Bach interpretation. You have to realize, when reading things that performers, conductors, composers or business people in music say in the press, that it is mostly special pleading designed to build audiences. In other words, the truth is not the real end of the exercise. But a little criticism is fun to read. Kennedy is accusing other performers of either being soulless technicians or fussy academics. I have no doubt that there are lots of examples of both as well as every other sin: facile virtuosity, maudlin sentimentality, Bach as a circus stunt and so on. Hey, you can do anything to Bach you want! He's dead, he can't sue. So let's listen to a little Bach on solo violin and see what we hear. Here is Nigel Kennedy playing the gigue from the D minor Partita:

(at least I think it's Nigel Kennedy, with YouTube you can never be sure...) Well that's ok, I guess. It's not lacking in passion. But the constant fooling with the tempo, the pushing and pulling of the dynamics and the slightly frenetic tempo tend to make you feel you are watching someone juggle violins rather than play Bach. Here is Itzak Perlman playing the same piece. Blogger refuses to embed the clip, so please follow this link. That has less of the pushing the tempo around, but that tempo is so fast there probably isn't room anyway. Whenever he lands on a longer note, there is a wobbly vibrato. This feels one-dimensional somehow. Here is Hilary Hahn playing the gigue on a German tv show. The performance starts around 54 seconds.
Ah, now that is rather nice. The first performance that has some elegance to it. The tempo is better and it actually has the feel of a dance. Dynamics are integrated into the musical ideas. Good performance, clean and musical. Here is a performance by a non-celebrity violinist:
Sure, there were some flaws: a glissando that probably should be omitted, a little memory lapse, some technical wobbles: but I find this perfectly listenable. He brought out some different aspects of the phrasing and it sounded to me like a sincere performance of the piece. Here is a performance by the late Austrian violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan:
Quite nice, but a couple of things bother me. Like some others he tends to anticipate the beat and there is too much vibrato on the longer notes. Here is a very different version. Hopkinson Smith plays it on baroque lute with added bass notes. This is following Bach's own example, who made a lute version of the E major partita for lute with added bass notes:
Now that's a slow tempo! But you get used to it. Here is Jascha Heifetz playing in 1935. The gigue begins around 3:16:
Tempo is a bit brisk, but it has an airy grace to it and the feel of a dance. At this point I had a version by David Russell on guitar, but that was taken down from YouTube, so I've removed it. What I would really like to put up is Pepe Romero's beautiful version, but it doesn't seem to be available. Here is the Hungarian violinist Kristof Barati:
Wow! That is very, very nice. He is the same age as Hilary Hahn, 32. But this performance is even more poised. I think that when Bach is really played well there is something almost celestial about it. This is the first version that captures that. Now, finally, let's hear Menuhin, about whom Nigel Kennedy raves. Unfortunately I can't find him playing this gigue on YouTube. But here is the gigue to the E major partita, which is quite similar:
Well, the phrase ham-fisted comes to mind. The tempo doesn't feel steady and much of it is slightly out of tune. The articulations are a bit odd and he starts telegraphing the end about two measures too soon. Where did we get the idea that Menuhin was a great Bach interpreter?

My conclusion, and yours too, I hope, after this exercise is that Nigel Kennedy is a blowhard whose Bach, honestly, is about the worst short of that of his teacher, Yehudi Menuhin. If you really want great solo Bach on the violin, your best bets are Kristof Barati and Hilary Hahn. I was actually surprised by this even though I am pretty cynical about musical celebrities. I just didn't expect the results to be so blatant.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


After some forty years as a musician, I am finally pretty sure about what counts as good music! When I think of some of the pieces I subjected poor, innocent audiences to over the years, I weep.

Don't get me wrong, Henze has written some great pieces, but this arrangement, by Leo Brouwer from El Cimmaron isn't one of them. Then there is this piece:

It is not bad, but compared to the equivalent piano music it is dull, dull, dull. Now here is a fine piece for guitar:

Sorry for the sound quality of these clips...