Friday, September 30, 2011

200th Post

I just noticed this is the 200th post and I thought it was time I thanked my readers (who are also listeners thanks to the magic of YouTube and the Internet) and especially that small, select band of commentors who seem to be the most knowledgeable and polite on the web.

I just started this blog in June 2011, four months ago, and starting from zero, my readership has grown until now I estimate that I am being read in thirty or forty countries. Music may not be a universal language, but it is one that inspires universal interest. My readership is select, that is to say, small, but it seems to be growing and growing. I have had one Instalaunch (so far) which is what happens when the Blogfather, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit links to you: my readership multiplied by 100 times instantly.

If you read all of this blog, you might get a bit of a sense of what is going on now in music, a little music history and theory, lots of talk about composers like Bach and Beethoven, critiques of other composers, praise of the Beatles and critiques of most other pop music, discussion of issues of performance and composition and a little of my own career in music.

Interesting and entertaining, all of it! And speaking of interesting and entertaining:

Julian Bream, improvising with the sarod player Ali Akbar Khan in 1963. This was at least two years before George Harrison discovered Indian music!

History of a Composition

I've been a composer nearly all my life, but for most of that time composition has had a distinctly secondary role. Often I composed simply because I needed repertoire for a certain combination of instruments. I have a good friend who is a fine violist and there is absolutely no good repertoire for viola and guitar so I have written a couple of pieces. I used to coach guitar ensembles and discovered that even after months or years of rehearsal, it is extremely difficult to get multiple guitars to play exactly together. Just listen to a recording of Julian Bream and John Williams. I wrote one piece that was an etude in ensemble, but that succeeded more in demonstrating the problem than in solving it. Finally I decided to write a piece for guitar ensemble that would pose no ensemble problems: the guitars would simply not be required to play together! Here is the piece:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Let me explain how this works: there is a conductor who cues the beginning and the progress through the piece. The score is a flow-chart. You start at the top and follow the lines, therefore everyone plays the top box, but then you have a choice of one of the two boxes below. That top box is a rather odd effect where, by crossing the 6th and 5th strings over one another and holding with the left hand and then by playing rasgueado (a kind of flamenco strumming) you get a nicely noisy, chaotic sound. I premiered this with an ensemble of ten guitars and having all ten start with that is a nice shock to the audience. With the next level down, all the guitars are either playing Bartok 'snap' pizzicatos or harmonics. As we move through the piece, pitched notes gradually predominate until at the ending we hear only melody. The way I conduct it, I keep going back to that opening chaotic gesture which I bring back in by cuing one or more guitars to return to that box, threatening to overwhelm whatever is going on. I end the piece by having a few guitars move to the final box, #10, while most stay with the chords on #9. Then I mix in more and more of box #1 until the melody is lost in the chaos. Then I chop off everyone except the guitars playing the melody and let it just float around and trail off...

It is actually pretty effective in concert and, since no-one has to worry about ensemble, they can, theoretically, be more creative.

The music obviously has flamenco influences as we can see from the chords of #6 and #7. I have never analyzed the piece, it was written purely from instinct.

The original title was "Forms" which is quite appropriate as the piece can have many different forms and will be different every time you play it. It is really a kind of toolbox for building a piece from scratch with the contents laid out, but with the flow determined completely by the conductor and players. I changed the title when it was published together with two other pieces for guitar ensemble because I had this great title and the piece it was supposed to be the title of never got past the sketch stage. It was originally going to be a 'string quartet' for mandolin, guitar, harpsichord and double bass.

I have a recording of this piece and if I get a chance to convert it to a digital file I will update this post with it.

But in the meantime, comments?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Economics of Music Composition

This is a dissertation-sized topic that I would just like to sketch out briefly. How do composers support themselves? There are several different models. Up until around 1800 the only two ways of getting paid to compose music were to be supported by either the church or by the nobility. Guillaume Dufay (1397 - 1474) for example, was in the employ of the church from his early years and also was maistre de chapelle in Savoy. He was also employed by the Este family in Ferrara. Towards the end of his life he was canon of the Cathedral in Cambrai and also composed music for the court of Burgundy. His music was highly valued by the powers, both sacred and secular, of his time. From the Renaissance on, the nobility tended to become the most important patrons of composers and the church less so. The exception is J. S. Bach, who wrote most of his music for the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, though he also had been employed by various courts. Haydn was composer to the Esterhazy family who were rich enough to have their own orchestra and opera house. Late in his life he retired from their service and became one of the first free-lance composers, travelling to London where he was acclaimed and made a fair amount of money from the public performance of his music. Beethoven lived on a mixture of income: piano lessons to the nobility, selling his music to various publishers, commissions from noble patrons and a stipend put together by several admirers, also noble. From then on, with the growth of the consumption of music by the middle-class, composers were less and less dependent on particular patrons and more on a larger group. Chopin, for example, played salon concerts in Paris and made a generous income from teaching piano privately. Rossini made a fortune from composing operas and retired at 37.

Claude Debussy, one of the most successful composers at the beginning of the 20th century, stitched together an income from public performances as both pianist and conductor, from publication of his music, and from writing music criticism. As the 20th century wore on, however, and as composers more and more drifted into a musical language that was more and more difficult for audiences to absorb, they came to depend on teaching, taking posts as professors of composition, and on commissions from institutions ultimately funded by governments. In Canada, for example, most composers are either employed by universities or conservatories to teach theory and composition, or survive on Canada Council grants and commissions. There is a network of Canadian Music Centres nationwide that contain libraries of scores by Canadian composers that may be loaned to performers.

From the 1970s, a few composers began to appeal to wider audiences, Philip Glass and Steve Reich in particular, and stayed out of academe by creating their own performing ensembles, winning commissions and making enough recordings to flourish as composers.

Now, in the 21st century, these models will continue, but we are likely to see new ones. The young American composer Nico Muhly, for example, has worked in collaboration with both Björk and Philip Glass. He manages to combine collaborations with popular musicians with commissions from classical ensembles.

One final note: for those of you who have wondered about the revisions of some of Stravinsky's early works decades later, perhaps the main reason for this was that, under the Soviet law of the time, the copyrights on these works were going to expire and this was a way of extending the copyright. Petrushka, written in 1911, was revised in 1947, largely for this reason.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Talent, Culture and Character

My anonymous commentor left a brilliant observation on my post On Musical Talent. Here is the basic argument:
Innate musical talent is undeniably a prerequisite for greatness. It's a requirement but one of many. Let's say that in any group of 10,000 people in the world, there is one person with the innate ability of Bach. (The plethora of painting geniuses in Renaissance Florence shows that this number is unlikely to be much bigger.) The likelihood of Bach is less than one in 1 billion (to restrict ourselves to 1000 years of Western music and assuming that Bach is the greatest and that the total population over 1000 years of Western history is over one billion, which must be the case), not one in 10,000. So assuming all these variables are independent (a big if, I know), we need to explain the remaining 1/100,000 likelihood. I think the rest is culture and character. 
If talent is evenly distributed by genetics (not sure it is, but just for the sake of argument), then why doesn't every city have the artistic flourishing of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC? Names to note: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripedes. Or of 15th century Florence? Names: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Brunelleschi (who designed the Duomo). Or 16th century London? Names: John Dowland, William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Drake, Christopher Marlowe, William Byrd and Thomas Morley. And of course, 18th century Germany and Austria. This flourishing was less concentrated with Bach in Leipzig and Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in Vienna.

There are brief periods of intense flourishing surrounded by dull stretches of mediocrity. Some factors are undoubtedly historic. Wars, revolutions and social unrest undoubtedly drain resources and redirect talent away from the arts and humanities. But the role of culture and character also seems to be important. Some cultures seem to produce more art than others. Some kinds of character seem to produce more arts than others. The role of patronage also seems crucial. The society must be prosperous enough to support artists and must value the arts highly enough to support them. In Athens the whole population went to see the plays just as in Leipzig, the whole congregation heard Bach's cantatas. My commentator's assertion that a faculty of hard work and an intense curiosity both played a role is also correct.

I also think that artists compete with one another and learn from one another, which is why we get communities of artists that because of mutual influence produce more interesting work than they would have if they worked in isolation.

Well, this could go on and on, but I'll close here with this:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On Musical Talent

The post on the Bach family and a commentor got me thinking. Musical talent seems like such an obvious thing. Every time we read the biography of a musician we are likely to run across some indication that they have a special, i.e. inborn, talent. Is this so? This blogger doesn't think so. I have been a music teacher for many years and have had many different kinds of students. Some indeed seem to have a real facility, while others had to struggle for every advance. Some people have perfect pitch, others do not. Some have agile fingers, others do not. But here is an academic article questioning the whole idea of musical talent and suggesting that the idea is counter-productive to disciplined study: "practice, practice, practice".

Let me muse a bit. My mother was a fiddler who played entirely by ear. When I was a child there was a musical instrument case under and behind every piece of furniture in the house. She had fiddles, guitars, banjos, mandolins and even an upright piano. On occasion other musicians would drop by for a session. I took all this for granted, really. My interest didn't really get piqued until a pianist who could read music came by and I watched him sight-reading. Now that was interesting! How in heck do those dots get converted into sound? The music my mother and her friends played, jigs and reels, never really caught my interest. What did was birdsong. We lived in the wilds of northern Canada and I used to love to wander in the woods and listen to birds. My version of ear-training was trying to imitate their calls.

When I was eleven, my mother signed me up for piano lessons, but I never quite got interested and kept forgetting to go to the lesson. I think it was the repertoire that turned me off... When I was fifteen for some reason I started to listen to records. At first pop music and popular classics as that was all we had. Then I got the urge to play guitar. I started playing bass guitar in a band. I also wrote a lot of songs. Bob Dylan was a big influence. One day I got the urge to write songs with orchestral accompaniment, don't remember why. I realized that those guys needed everything written down, so I taught myself musical notation. I don't think I know of anyone else who has done that, offhand. When I showed the score to a music teacher all he said was, "normally, the accidentals go before the notes!" Heh.

When I got a real exposure to classical music, in my late teens, I set out to become a classical guitarist. But I always composed on the side. Often years would pass between compositions. But looking  back now, some of them were not too bad. I just didn't think that was my real vocation. Now I do.

What do I think about musical talent? Well, some people do seem to have a real facility. But I think that what really matters is interest and discipline. You have to be really interested in what you are doing. This leads to wanting to do it well, which leads to discovering how to work: discipline. The biggest enemy you have is probably yourself: lack of self-confidence and emotional turmoil can really blind you to what you are doing wrong.

So I guess that while musical talent obviously does exist, the implications of it probably don't matter as much as you think. In the absence of interest and discipline it is worthless and with a lot of interest and discipline, you can pretty much make up for it. Occasionally through a confluence of talent, early exposure, being born into a musical family and being born at a time when all the historical forces seemed to be in harmony, you get a Mozart. But if Mozart had been born into a different family at a different time, his talents would probably have counted for much less.

Put it this way, if you play interesting music in an interesting way, I'll listen to you!

Sunday, September 25, 2011


The American music critic Alex Ross begins a post on Radiohead with the following, amazingly pompous, statement:
The English composers Radiohead are having a brief residency in New York. 
C'mon Alex, they're a band, a rock band, that loosely remind me of Pink Floyd, and a rather dull one at that. I couldn't even listen to "Lotus Flower" all the way through. I have tried on several occasions to get into OK Computer as I keep hearing what a superlative album it is. But about the only cut that I enjoyed was "Fitter Happier".

Now it is entirely possible that I am as dull-witted as those early critics of the Beatles I was just trashing; after all, they sold 4.5 million copies of OK Computer. But I just find it dull, pretentious and annoying. Long-lasting unpleasant washes of electronic swirling is all I hear. Oh, and whiny politics, I hear that too...

Here's some Pink Floyd for comparison:

Both groups seem to specialize in making very little in the way of musical ideas seem like

...very little...

What do you think?

Bach Family Values

In Will and Ariel Durant's massive history there is a fascinating passage on Bach in volume viii, The Age of Louis XIV:
The Bach family was now entering upon the musical scene in bewildering profusion. We know of some four hundred Bachs between 1550 and 1850: all musicians, sixty of them holding important posts in the musical world of their time. They formed a kind of family guild, meeting periodically at their headquarters in Eisenach, Arnstadt or Erfurt. They constitute unquestionably the most extensive and remarkable dynasty in cultural history, impressive not merely by their number, but by devotion to their art, by a typically Germanic steadiness of purpose, and by their productivity and influence.
Jackson Five, eat your hearts out! The idea of a musical dynasty seems to have disappeared almost entirely since, with the possible exception of the Romero family of guitarists, now well into their third generation. A smaller musical family existed in France at the same time as the Bachs with the Couperins of whom the most famous are Louis and François, known as "le grand". But it is hard to imagine how thoroughly Bach's family penetrated the musical life of the day. In Erfurt, even when no Bachs remained, musicians were still referred to as "bachs". When he came to look for employment, J. S. Bach had uncles and great-uncles everywhere to consult. Three of Bach's sons were leading composers in the next generation: Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian, and Wilhelm Friedemann, known respectively as the 'Berlin' Bach, the 'London' Bach and the 'Dresden' Bach from their places of employment. C. P. E. Bach was the most renowned as court musician to Frederick the Great of Prussia and for his treatise on keyboard playing which laid out the basic principles of fingering followed to this day. J. C. Bach was organist in Milan before settling in London where he became music master to Queen Charlotte. W. F. Bach, the eldest, was renowned for his organ improvisation--he had a difficult personality and died in poverty.

Here is the first movement of a cello concerto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach:

And here is the first movement of a harpsichord concerto by Johann Christian Bach:

And finally a sinfonia by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach:

How about something by the father, J. S. Bach? Here is the Double Concerto in D minor for two violins:

Not Everyone Loves the Beatles

Heh. Just read a hilarious little piece in the Wall Street Journal of quotes from various people on the Beatles. Some were from early on, the first wave of Beatlemania in 1964, but some others are from just a few years ago. Here is a sample:
"Musically, they are a near disaster; guitars slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah!") are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments."
—Newsweek reviewer, Feb. 24, 1964
And here is a comment on the article:
This article is a fine demonstration of why you should never listen to critics. The only trustworthy judge of music is your own ears.
 A number of years ago the music critic Nicolas Slonimsky published a fascinating book titled The Lexicon of Musical Invective that was a collection of nasty things said about composers. Sample: "The music of a demented eunuch," writes one 19th-century critic of Wagner. No-one is immune: you would scarcely believe the incredible things people said about Beethoven during his lifetime.

However, neither the current article, nor the earlier book prove quite what the commentor thinks they do: that critics should never be listened to. Of course, as I complain sometimes, most music criticism today is really nothing of the kind. Instead it is just puff pieces to promote the latest fresh young thing, whether performer or composer. Or it is just the cranky ramblings of a curmudgeon--though I suspect that fewer and fewer of them even exist. By all means, feel free to ignore music critics. Unless they have something worth hearing. Some of them do. I have mentioned before the people that I think are real music critics and oddly enough, none of them have that actual job description. You should pay a great deal of attention to anything written about music by Richard Taruskin, Joseph Kerman or Charles Rosen. Taruskin is a musicologist who occasionally writes for the mainstream press, Kerman is a professor emeritus of musicology and writer and Rosen is a pianist and writer on music. I rather doubt whether they would have written anything so intemperate or ignorant as the things written about the Beatles in the article. Why not? I think that one mark of a good critic, or any good professional, is that you recognize the limits of your knowledge and understanding. I don't opine on Japanese calligraphy or break-dancing (or is it "dub-step" now?) because I know nothing about them. I do wander into pop music pretty frequently, but I think the fact that I grew up with the Beatles, played bass guitar, electric six-string and sang in a band when I was young and the fact that I have studied or listened closely to pop music for forty years does qualify me.

But most stuff written under the rubric "music criticism" is, as the commentor says, not worth reading. Other stuff is essential reading. Similarly with your ears: they may be trained ears or ignorant ears, in which case they may or may not be a good guide. Let's go back to that first quote. The Newsweek reviewer mentions a number of elements: "merciless beat" and "secondary rhythms" (that the beat "does away with"). Since he mentions "yeah, yeah, yeah", let's have a listen to "She Loves You" and see what he is talking about:

Hmm. Nothing 'merciless' about that beat and the song is stuffed full of "secondary rhythms". The leading theorist on the music of the Beatles, Walter Everett, regards this song as "the foremost example of the Beatles' ardent early works." He notes:
The surface of "She Loves You" is tension-filled. This is partly due to a strong rhythmic drive created by such devices as the strongly-accented beat-dividing syncopations in the strumming throughout and in the syncopated snare flams that follow the "yeah-yeah-yeah" motto within the chorus, the stop-time fourth beat rests near the end of the chorus, the unexpected repetitions of the final phrase of the last chorus ... and the suspension of the tempo at the song's structural, dramatically embellished V7. [score references omitted]
Oh yes, nothing but 'merciless beat' and no secondary rhythms whatsoever! I won't bother with the critic's sneer that the song has no melody or harmony, just to mention that Everett regards the song so highly that he spends six pages on it, much of it devoted to melody and harmony, in his two-volume monograph on the Beatles. The Newsweek critic simply knows nothing, including how to listen.

The only trustworthy guide to music is a trustworthy guide to music! Heh. That might be your own ears, if they happen to be highly trained and knowledgeable ones. Or they might be someone else's ears, likewise. Some music critics are excellent guides.

Let me close with one other quote from the article:
"The Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are godawful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music."
—William F. Buckley, author and commentator, 1964
This one rather saddens me because Buckley was such a stimulating and brilliant commentor on so many things. You have to love a guy who ran for mayor of New York with the campaign slogan "Don't immanentize the eschaton!" But here he is all wet, committing the fatal flaw of so many brilliant people of venturing opinions in areas in which they have no professional expertise.

Giselle and Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon seems to me to be one of the most creative people in television. Responsible for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly--the best science fiction ever--he has also shown a real talent for music not only in writing a respectable episode of Buffy in musical form ("Once More With Feeling"), but also in the handling of music generally. The bands that appear in various episodes of Buffy are often interesting in their own right and sometimes the music gets involved in the story. The episode "Conversations with Dead People" opens with a performance at the Bronze that turns into the soundtrack. But one of the most interesting uses of music is in the Angel episode "Waiting in the Wings" from season three. The episode is a homage to the ballet by Adolphe Adam and others. When Angel announces that, instead of buying tickets to a popular band that Gunn was looking forward to hearing, he has instead bought ones to the ballet Giselle, Gunn is horrified. What I find interesting is that over the course of the episode Gunn comes to love the ballet and starts a relationship with Fred. This is a pretty interesting transformation.

Here is the transcript for the scene where Gunn learns the horrible truth:

    Gunn, entering the lobby: "Morning friends and neighbors. Ooh, are those the tickets? You got 'em?"
    Angel: "Well, I got to the ticket place and..."
    Gunn: "I'm paying you back. This one's on me."
    Fred: "Morning."
    Gunn: "Mahta Hari is the tightest band in LA. You guys are gonna be trippin' out."
    Angel: "The only thing is..."
    Gunn puts a hand on Angel's shoulder: "Look, I said I'm good for it, man. Don't have to worry about dippin' in the Connor college fund. (Takes the tickets from Angel) The time I saw the Mahta Hari at the Troubadour they where the (reads tickets) "Blinnikov World Ballet Tour. What's going on?"
    Angel: "I was trying to tell you. I got to the ticket place and boom! Tonight only!"
    Gunn: "But - you got ballet on my Mahta Hari tickets."
    Angel: "This is the Blinnikov World Ballet Corps."
    Cordy: "He's been saying that like it has meaning."
    Angel: "This is one of the premier companies in the world. And they're doing Giselle! It's their signature piece."
    Gunn: "This is all like some horrible dream."
    Wes: "I think I've heard of them. Very ahead of their time."
    Angel: "Oh, yeah. Yeah. I saw their production of Giselle in eighteen-ninety. I cried like a baby. And I was evil!"
    Fred: "I-I think it sounds exciting!"
    Wes: "Yes."
    Gunn: "No. No! This is not Mahta Hari. This is tutus, and guys with their big-ass packages jumping up and down. This is just... (To Angel) I will never trust you again. The trust is gone."
    Cordy: "Oh, get over it. Do we get dressed up?"
    Angel: "Of course."
    Cordy: "I'm in."
    Angel: "Guys, seeing real ballet live it's... (sighs) it's like another world. Gunn, these guys are tight, and you're gonna be trippin' out."
    Gunn: "Don't be usin' my own phrases when we lost the trust."
    Cordy: "Come on, guys. Working day, cases to solve."
    Gunn: "Okay. But I'm not still paying, right. Because this is... (Looks at the tickets) this is... It's like a nightmare."
The nightmare is having to listen to ballet when you expecting something else--perhaps something like Coolio, whose song "Gangster Paradise" was used in an episode centering on Gunn's back-story. Here it is:

Here, for comparison, is Giselle:

What you should do now is find the Angel episode and watch it all the way through. For copyright reasons it is not available from YouTube. I'll wait....

Back? Ok, I just want to look at how Gunn is won over and how his character is transformed by the music in this episode. The character of Charles Gunn is introduced in episode 20 of season one of Angel and adds diversity to the cast. He is a black man from a South-Central war zone of Los Angeles. Though a fighter for the good, he is deeply cynical about white people and the institutions of society. As the series unfolds, Gunn realizes that his truest loyalties are with Angel Investigations. In the current episode, "Waiting in the Wings", Gunn's movement from street thug to the powerful figure he becomes in season five is hastened and calibrated by two things: his social movement and the beginning of his relationship with Fred. The social movement comes in two stages. At the beginning of the show he is the street-smart rap-loving character, condemned to see the nightmare of ballet. But a kind of magic is cast, first of all, with costume. Everyone has to dress up, meaning that we see Charles Gunn in a tuxedo and, as Fred says, "my god, you're so pretty!" To which Gunn replies, smiling, "you know, there's not a lot of people could say that to me and live." This is a dual indicator of Gunn's social mobility: on the one hand, he is now in highly formal dress, and on the other, he references how he would have answered a remark like Fred's--but will no longer. This is the necessary transition to the next stage which is that, at the ballet, he loves it from the first notes. In season five, Gunn acquires, as a kind of bonus to his encyclopedic legal knowledge, the ability to sing Gilbert and Sullivan. This is another of Joss Whedon's jokes that contains a grain of truth.

Certain kinds of music are transformative: the development of an appreciation for, for example, ballet, can open out your character and give you access to different levels in society. A very old-fashioned view, of course, but not necessarily wrong.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dance Me to the End of Love

Sometimes I just get the urge to put something up without much commentary. Such as this:

I lived in Montreal for over a decade and somehow part of the essence of that city seems to inhere in Leonard Cohen's poetry and music.

Music and International Politics, Part 2

I see the controversy that I discussed previously here in this post is still going on. Let me underline what I was saying there and elaborate a bit. I am repelled by the intrusions of politics into music--especially guerrilla war tactics such as disrupting concerts and trying to get musicians banned from playing. One of the commentors on Norman Lebrecht's blog had this to say:

"music making is by its very nature a political act" and "any claim that music is apolitical should be contested, since such a claim is itself ideological through and through, a typical ploy by those in positions of power to repress those who are not."
I haven't read such blatant Marxism for years! Yes, it is certainly possible to use music for political ends, though this may result in an unfortunate distortion of the original intention of the songwriter as we see in the controversy over the Bruce Springsteen song "Born in the USA" during the 1984 US presidential campaign. But most instrumental music, despite claims to the contrary, simply does not have the capacity to instill particular political views. Thank god! Music making is only "by its very nature a political act" if you fail to understand the nature of both politics and music! Or only if you see every single human act as being political, in which case I really don't want to talk to you. Ah yes, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as well as Shostakovich's preludes and fugues are typical ploys to repress, or perhaps escape repression?

We have an international ban on the use of chemical weapons in war: can't we also have a ban on the intrusion of politics into music? Can't we make all musical concerts a politics-free zone? I have no interest in the political views of performing musicians or composers and I heartily wish they would shut up about them. Let them have complete freedom to express their political views as often and as loudly as they wish, but please don't mix that up with music!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pop Noises

Hey, don't blame me, that's how they titled this article on sound-samples in pop music. This lengthy collection of examples demonstrates a number of interesting things about pop music: many of them unfortunate. One is the inability to categorize: instruments, electronic effects and playing techniques are all mashed together indiscriminately. On the other hand, sometimes the list offers some insights into the history of pop music. #26 Sequenced Bass, for example, identifies the origin of the annoying rigidity of pop music--what I usually, and ignorantly, call "drum machines". #25 Sax Solo, however just notices that some pop music has a solo for saxophone.  #36 Sample Stutters unfortunately reminds me of some of Steve Reich's use of recorded voices--even in his recent work WTC 9/11. Alas! Nonetheless, the article is fascinating reading and listening because of the insights into pop music. Possibly into the decline of pop music if you look at things as I do!

What comes across is that the commercial pressures--or laziness!--felt by musicians often drives them to look for a unique and different sound. So we get over-emphasized Auto-Tune, or Leslie, or wah-wah, or staccato, or hand-clap or vocoder--anything! If it takes off, for a while lots of people do it, until everyone is truly sick of it. Then on to the next thing. I wonder if it was the continual technological experimentation of the Beatles that got all this going? I'm hoping not. I think the difference is that the Beatles were trying to realize a musical vision and experimenting with different ways of getting that across. The big orchestral glissando in "A Day in the Life" for example, which this article includes under # 11 Freakouts, has a definite musical purpose (for one thing, far from being a 'freakout', it is a precisely-measured 24-bar section). But most of the things listed in the article have no real musical function, but only add a particular color to an arrangement. No wonder they come and go.

I would love to see someone assemble a similar list of dumb effects in music videos.

Here is the example used for sequenced bass:

And if you didn't feel a bit queasy already, here is a curiosity I ran across: Donna Summer performing this same song in Belgium in 2005 and eviscerating a little Beethoven in the process.

CORRECTION: Don't know what came over me! It's not Beethoven that is being eviscerated in the Donna Summer concert; it is rather the Schubert "Unfinished" Symphony, in B minor. Silly me...

Mysteries of Composition

I just wanted to share some of the wonderment I often experience when I think about composing. I am reminded of a quote from an old Hollywood screenwriter to the effect that "writing is easy: you just stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood spring out on your forehead"!

It is probably best not to think too much about this--in fact I shouldn't even be writing this post, I should be finishing my set of bagatelles for solo guitar! But sometimes how mysterious composition is just hits me afresh. Think of it: every time you write a new piece you want to create something new. But at the same time, you know you can't. It is not the case that everything has been done. Theorists and critics have been claiming that for almost five hundred years and they are always wrong. Every decent composer comes up with something new. And every time we are astonished at how it is related to what has come before. True, a lot of experimental music in the last century appeared to be entirely novel, but if you look closely, you will probably notice that the entirely novel bits are not terribly musical. So composers are hung up in this dilemma. But the answer is not to think about it, instead to turn off that discursive, analytical part of your mind and just let it free-wheel.

Often it is the simplicity that astonishes us. How did so-and-so come up with that amazingly simple idea? My favorite example of this is Mozart:

Tonic--dominant--tonic. It would be very difficult indeed to write an opening phrase simpler than that one. But he spins a great piece out of it. Most composers, in sheer frustration, end up writing something that is needlessly complex to hide the fact that they haven't come up with something simpler! Paradoxical, I know, but compare it to writing. Most bad writing is bad because it is too long, too complex and too confused. Right? It takes more effort to boil down your thoughts into a simpler, clearer form. It is the same with composition. Let's imagine a very difficult exercise in composition: write a movement for string quartet. The melody has to be nothing but falling fifths in half notes and the other three strings just accompany with repeated chords in eighth notes. Yeah, right! However, one composer did just that:

...and it happens to be one of the best quartets he ever wrote! I'll leave you to ponder the mystery of how he managed that while I go off and work on my bagatelles...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


There was just an article in The Australian (hey, I read them all!) about crossover artists. I like talking about this sort of article, not to be a snob, but for two reasons: first, to get an insight as to how many people listen to music and second, to sort out what the actual aesthetic issues are.

The problem with most journalism is that it is confused. So often reading a story I feel as if I am fighting with the writer to try and squeeze out the basic facts of what happened no matter how jumbled the presentation. As for real intellectual clarity, that's not on the table. This article is actually less confused than most and even contains a couple of nuggets of actual criticism such as this one:
Exquisite melodies are reduced to a syrupy concentrate with no character except for being rhythmic and loud.
Yes, that describes a lot of crossover quite well! In the article the writer's basic point is that excluding semi-classical or crossover recordings from classical charts is mere snobbism. Perhaps that is true, but I recall looking at a supposed classical top ten chart not long ago and only finding one item that could clearly be called classical. Surely that is not a desirable situation? But from my point of view this is all slightly beside the point. I think to make sense of the musical universe it is necessary to dig deeper into what we mean by classical and pop. The writer of the article linked above, Matthew Westwood, comments that:
Music charts - pop or classical - are only a ranking of sales figures; they've never been a measure of musical excellence.
Which is very true. What actually matters is musical excellence. The sad truth is that much crossover is an attempt to fudge the excellence bit with costumes, lighting, glitz and shallow music. I talk a bit about how this is tending to creep into purely classical concerts in this post:

Matthew ends the story with this comment:
And let's end the sneering about crossover music: Bach, Beethoven and Verdi have nothing to fear from Il Divo and the rest.
Quite right! For one thing, all three composers are quite dead and collecting no more royalty checks. But the never-ending battle is not between Il Divo and Verdi, but between quality and the lack of it; between good music and bad music. Here is "Regresa a mi" performed by Il Divo:

The original is by Toni Braxton:

I'm a little confused... I really don't hear any major, genre-busting differences here. The vocal style and production is different and Il Divo use strings, but the basic things that characterize the song--the chord progression and the color of the guitar part, both hinting at flamenco--are the same in both arrangements. What's crossover about this? What does crossover even mean? Matthew Westwood says:
...crossover is where famous artists, through a combination of vanity and their record companies' indulgence, are allowed to take their private hobbies into public: Michael Bolton singing opera arias on My Secret Passion, for example, or Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras doing West Side Story. And what about Sting's enthusiasm for John Dowland and Renaissance lute music?
 Is Toni Braxton's music a "private hobby" of Il Divo? Nope, it is just a good song they could do well. And last time I looked West Side Story, while having qualities of a Broadway musical, is a piece by a real classical composer. Sting's enthusiasm for John Dowland is perfectly understandable and when you do a recording entirely devoted to him accompanied by nothing but Renaissance lute, I hardly think that qualifies as 'crossover'. The only thing atypical in that recording is that Sting's vocal production is very different from that of a classical singer. But then, I strongly suspect that the singers who sang Dowland in the 16th and 17th centuries had a very different kind of vocal production from that of a modern classical singer, trained mostly to sing 19th century opera. Here is Sting singing Dowland:

After all these musings I feel very much like a character in one of the early Platonic dialogues after Socrates has tied him in knots. Now I have no idea what 'crossover' actually means, unless it refers to a female artist wearing a miniskirt like Bond or Yuja Wang, or unless it refers to using one kind of vocal production in another kind of musical genre. But in that case, a countertenor doing Elvis Presley tunes would qualify.

No, at the end of the day the only thing really worth concerning yourself with as a listener is musical excellence. Quality.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Who

The Who are one of the very few bands from the 60s that stand up well. Pete Townshend is an amazingly creative songwriter who was responsible for outstanding and influential tunes like this one:

Kinda makes most bands in performance seem rather dull, huh? But he could also write distinctive and unusual ballads like this one:

And is famous for having written a rock opera, later made into a film. Here is the overture to Tommy:

It's not Mozart (or even Rossini), but it's not bad! How many other rock songwriters could have done it? Not to mention, some very fine guitar-playing towards the end. But I think my favorite song by The Who and the one that got me back interested in them when I heard it on an episode of House, MD is this one:

Named "Baba O'Riley" after the respective spiritual and musical influences.

Bach Again

A cantata is a vocal work originating in the 17th century and though many composers wrote cantatas, the most well-known are by J. S. Bach. For many years Bach composed a cantata every week. They were performed as part of the Lutheran service every Sunday in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. They therefore comprise the bulk of his work as a composer. There is even a website devoted to them.

They range from the boisterous:

--which is an Italian concerto movement for trumpet and soprano...

To the formidable and imposing:

--which is a French overture with slow introduction and quicker contrapuntal section...

To the sorrowful and lamenting:

--which is a passacaglia with (harmonically) delicious Corelli seconds clashing mournfully...

To the effervescent and quirky:

--which is a lengthy choral fugue interrupted by a bass solo...

To the indescribable:

--which is one of the most beautiful oboe solos ever written...

Pop Music as Liberalizing

Alex Ross writes an interesting post today about music and power. He poses the question:
In general, pop music is still seen as an irrepressibly liberating, liberalizing force. Is it so?
That was certainly the received wisdom of the pop music of the 50s and 60s. And it continued to be the received wisdom for long after. But surely, if it were ever the case, it is no longer? Here is what is near the top of YouTube at the moment:

Just off the top of my head, isn't this a compendium of things we might be better off liberated from? The synth, the drum machine, the make-up, the costumes, the need to spend half your life in the gym, the need to be constantly wagging the booty, the relentless surface of it all! Back in the 50s and 60s, the argument could be made that rock n roll was a nearly physical manifestation of sexuality:

But is this the same thing as being a liberating force? It might be if you still believe in the "sexual revolution" and the "Playboy philosophy". Honestly, whichever side you might be on, isn't this just an attempt to evaluate music by non-musical criteria? Now that, I'm not in favor of. Good song, bad song, sure, but as soon as you try and say liberalizing or not liberalizing, I think you drift away from the music and into politics. Music can be and is used for political purposes, but that should not be how we evaluate it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Björk Guðmundsdóttir

Wherever one turns, it seems, one runs into Björk. Alex Ross was talking about her new project and the Wall Street Journal, of all people, posted her song "Crystalline" in their article about music played at the New York Fashion Week. Plainly Björk is the fashionably hip music. So I really want to see if I can see what is going on there, out of sheer curiosity. Here is "Crystalline":

And here are the lyrics:

Underneath our feet
Crystals grow like plants
Listen how they grow
I'm blinded by the lights
Listen how they grow
In the core of the Earth
Listen how they glow

Internal nebula
Rocks growing slow but
I conquer claustrophobia
And demand the lights

We mimic the openness
Of the ones we love
Daft till our generosity
Equalizes the flow
With our hearts
We kiss our quartz
To reach love

Internal nebula
Rocks growing slow but
I conquer claustrophobia
And demand the lights

Octagon, polygon
Pipes up an organ
Sonic branches
Murmuring drone
Crystalizing galaxies
Spread out like my fingers

Internal nebula
Rocks growing slow but
I conquer claustrophobia
And demand the lights

It's the sparkle you become
When you conquer anxiety
Sparkle you become
Conquer anxiety
Sparkle you become
When you conquer anxiety
It's the sparkle you become
When you conquer anxiety

In the first line it sounds as if she actually says "feets" not feet, but ok. The lines "We mimic the openness of the ones we love" and "It's the sparkle you become when you conquer anxiety" are rather effective. But what about the music? The accompaniment sounds rather like a synthesized gamelan, perhaps it is the new instrument she invented called a "gameleste" combining features from the gamelan with a celeste. Towards the end it sounds as if a drummer and a drum machine get into a battle to the death. The vocal melody  certainly has its own character, rather like an over-declaimed, repetitive children's song. Full points for originality--this really doesn't sound like anything else. But the, to me, dull and repetitive nature of it doesn't make me want to explore any further. What do my readers think about Björk? 

Composers and Musicologists

Lots of great fodder over at Norman Lebrecht's blog today. Here is one thought-provoking post. I love the title: "Teachers who think they know better than the composer". It is one of those phrases that presells the argument with a not-so-subtle ad hominem. Mere teachers vesus great composers? Well, let's not pre-judge it, shall we?

The New England Conservatory is going to put on a performance of the first Mahler symphony including a movement that Mahler later dropped. So, as several commentors have pointed out, that should be of historical interest. However, as other commentors have pointed out, this has already been done, both performances and recordings. So, not quite so historically interesting. Plus, as Norman Lebrecht points out, they are falsely promoting this as an "American Premiere". So it is really all about the marketing.

Seems to me as if there are plenty of errors to go around here! First of all, the fact that a composer does something is no guarantee of aesthetic quality. Just among the works of Beethoven we have Wellington's Victory, Fur Elise and the variations on God Save the Queen. And musicologists, to choose a more appropriate term, are not guaranteed to make poor choices. Let a hundred flowers bloom, I say. And we are all free to come to our own conclusions about Mahler's choices and anyone else's. The one principle that should be observed is that if important alterations have been made, the audience/listener be informed.

So let me issue my own confession. I have made modifications to a significant percentage of the music I have performed in my lifetime. Often it is just a case of making technical modifications to fix an awkward or unplayable passage written by a composer who was unsure of how to write for guitar. There are certain concertos, for example, that are modified by virtually every performer. But on occasion I have not hesitated to fix an example of compositional failure. There is a particularly clumsy modulation in a piece by Faure that I changed. And I'm not even counting countless examples of obvious and not so obvious misprints.

Let me offer one example where a little musicology would be a real benefit to performers. In the violin concerto by Alban Berg there is a passage, several bars long, where the engraver mistook the clef or something and placed the notes a fourth away from where they should have been. Given the complexity of Berg's harmonic language, it escaped notice and violinists have been playing these wrong notes for decades. Even Anne-Sofie Mutter does this. But a little research would reveal that a musicologist discovered this misprint quite some time ago. Another example: there are some wrong notes in the Villa-Lobos etudes for guitar that 'teacher' Abel Carlevaro discovered from studying the original manuscript. Quite useful to know, wouldn't you think?

But in the absence of clear evidence such as that, what guides me? Briefly, understanding the music. If you really do have a depth of musical knowledge, that will shape your taste. It should help you to make choices that can improve the performance. I have no idea if the New England Conservatory has made a good choice here, but I don't think we can say beforehand if they have or have not.

Let a hundred flowers bloom. Then pick the good ones.

Music and International Politics

I post this with extreme trepidation as it sometimes seems as if the under the surface politics in music already threatens it to such an extent that discussing it overtly could only make matters worse! As you know if you read this blog, I am very focused on the music itself to the exclusion of everything else. But Norman Lebrecht recently posted this story about the suspension of four symphony players for writing a letter. The struggle between Israel and the Palestinians seems to be taking place in London as well, as there were two recent incidents where concerts by Israeli musicians were disrupted by protests. As Norman Lebrecht points out in an earlier post:
A small group of musicians has sent a letter to the Independent newspaper calling on the BBC to cancel this week’s Prom by the Israel Philharmonic. 
By "small group" it seems there were twenty-some signatories. The fallout from this, as recounted in the link above, is that four of the musicians signing the letter are members of the London Philharmonic and have been suspended for up to nine months by the board. The London Philharmonic is a player-owned organization and the board is a mixed group of players, executives and supporters. It seems as if the crux of the offence was in including their orchestral affiliation in the signature to the letter, making it appear that the orchestra itself supported the contents of the letter.

I really think we need a Geneva Convention to outlaw tactics like this from the world of music. Music has its own set of ethics and conventions that include everything from how to handle the resolution of a suspended fourth to proper attire for concerts (yes, I'm thinking of you, Yuja Wang). It would seem to me that the ethics of the musical universe should forbid trying to prevent the performance of fellow musicians for non-musical political reasons.

On the other hand, you might be able to make an argument for the banning of certain performances for good musical reasons...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I see that Alex Ross is putting up a link to a performance of this piece on a Dutch talk show. For some reason Blogger doesn't want to find it, so here is the link. Here is a version I can embed:

This is surely the definitive version, by the pianist who premiered the piece. I have written about this piece before, but it just keeps popping up. Like so much else from Cage it has an aura of mystic profundity at the heart of which is really just emptiness. Is it the profound emptiness of Tao? Or just vacuity? I once got into a three-day argument over the ontological status of the piece with a very learned philosopher. We finally declared an armistice by agreeing that this was not a piece of music as such, but a piece of 'meta-music', a piece, that is about music without actually being music. Perhaps the strongest argument for the piece is that it is absolutely original. Well, except that Erwin Schulhoff composed a piece exactly the same in 1919. Here is the third movement from Fünf Pittoresken:

Which consists entirely of rests. Cage's piece is a 'development' of this as he expands the concept to three movements. What do you think? A viable piece of music? Merely a dead end? An interesting concept?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mozart's Requiem

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 I posted a performance of the first part of the Requiem by Mozart. This was his last composition and was incomplete at his death. There is much controversy over the piece because it had to be completed by Mozart's student  Franz Xaver Süssmayr. For a discussion of all this, read the article in Wikipedia.

Here are the first few bars of the Lacrimosa in Mozart's autograph:

Click to enlarge

A comment to my post mentioned the ascending scale in the Lacrimosa. This is a classic example of a terrific use of both an ascending and descending chromatic scale together. Here it is from a harmony text with first, a condensed version to show the harmony and then as it appears in the Lacrimosa:

Click to enlarge

For those of you who are harmony geeks like myself, I'll just sort out what he is doing here. First, going through the condensed version. The key is D minor and the first chord is the tonic, D minor. Then a chord that is a dominant 7th in last inversion of the subdominant. Then the subdominant--in major. The next chord is the very fancy German augmented 6th chord which leads to the dominant with a 6/4 suspension.

Now let me explain what I just said! There are three important chords in every key. I say "three important" even though there are actually seven possible chords in every key and each one may be presented in different ways. You can also add extra notes like 7ths to each chord. But the other chords are related to the three important ones. Basically it boils down to the chord of rest and resolution, the tonic, the chord of tension, the dominant and chords that precede or prepare the dominant, often to add even more tension. The basic progression in the reduction above is tonic, subdominant, dominant.

Believe it or not, this is the same chord progression as the one in "Twist and Shout": tonic, subdominant, dominant, or D, G, A. The difference is that here we are in D minor instead of D major. Another difference is that the subdominant and dominant, the G and A chords, are each preceded by a chord that sets them up. The subdominant is preceded by its dominant--a neat trick that composers have been using for a long time, and the dominant is preceded by that fancy augmented 6th chord. The augmented 6th is fancy because it moves to the dominant with extreme tension. It has a leading tone up to the 5th of the dominant and a leading tone down to the root of the dominant. What is very neat about it is that its origins are really very old--it goes back to the Phrygian cadence of modal harmony. To boil it down a bit, these extra chords that are added to the simple tonic, subdominant, dominant progression come about through voice-leading. The old principles that the monks discovered when they were inventing counterpoint a thousand years ago, are still being used.

Now let's hear this music. First, "Twist and Shout":

Three chords all the way through... Then Mozart:

The passage I have been talking about is from the 25 second to the 50 second mark.

Amazing how pieces of music as utterly different as these two turn out to have similar roots!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Two Young Guitarists

Before you all go out and buy a copy of the well-promoted debut recording of Milos Karadaglic, I want to recommend two other guitarists who are well worth hearing. The first is Ana Vidovic, winner of the 1998 Tarrega competition, who has both CDs and DVDs available. Here is a selection. She is an excellent player and her debut recording on Naxos displays a fine selection of repertoire. As a player, she most resembles, perhaps, Manuel Barrueco, with her incisive clarity of touch. Everything, especially Bach, seems just a bit too fast. The complexity of Bach's harmonies, to my mind, needs a bit more room to breath. There are also terrific performances of the Sonata romantica by Ponce and the Five Bagatelles of Walton. She is an outstanding and musical player with just loads of technique. Here she is playing the last movement of Barrios' La Catedral. She actually sounds much better than on this scratchy, trebly recording:

The other player I want to recommend is the Quebec guitarist Jérôme Ducharme, winner of the 2005 Guitar Foundation of America competition. Here is his debut recording. Naxos really seems to be dominating the market these days. No Bach on this recording, but a fantastic version of the Tres piezas españolas of Joaquin Rodrigo. There is a lovely recording of perhaps the best piece of Canadian guitar music as well: the Suite, op 41 of Jacques Hétu. The sonata by Ginastera is also on the CD,  but I just can't seem to come to love it! The real discovery, though, is the Fantaisie-Sonata, op A22 by Juan Manén, a piece I have read through many times and thought was quite remarkable, but have never heard anyone play before. Here he is, playing the Fandango from the Rodrigo. He too, sounds better than this. These YouTube clips always seem to have a harsh sound...