Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Different people look at music from different perspectives--this is a truism. But the details are interesting. Performers look at it from the point of view of "how do I play this?" and "how do I get the musical ideas across?" They are concerned with stuff like balancing voices so the melody isn't obscured, getting figuration even, finding just the right tempo and so on. This is as true of the soloist in a piano concerto as it is of the last-desk violist. The conductor has to figure out the piece as well, just on a slightly more abstract level. But he too is concerned with balance and tempo and with accompanying the soloist. The listener might not know the piece at all so is just taking it in, or she might know the piece very well and be comparing it with other performances, again with things like balance, tempo and precision being important factors.

But musicologists look at pieces differently. They see it perhaps from a historical perspective. As I mentioned with the Beethoven, they notice that he is stressing third relations in the 4th piano concerto. G major phrase answered with B major (a third above). Second movement in E minor, a third below. Last movement, which has to be in G major according to Classical style, starts in C major, which is a third below E minor. Musicologists and theorists know this is interesting because the Classical period stressed, not third relations, but fifth relations: G to D, not G to B. Fifth relations are clearer and stronger.  But Beethoven was more and more experimenting with the basic principles of Classical style. Incidentally, Charles Rosen has written a couple of books that are extremely intelligent discussions of just what Classical style was all about. I distinguished musicologists and theorists but officially all study of music except performance and composition is called 'musicology'. However in practice theorists tend to be the folks that analyze pieces in great detail, while musicologists look at them in an historical or social context. There is a lot of overlap, of course.

Composers look at things still differently. It is not just the case that they are always looking for something they can steal (after filing off the serial numbers), but there is some truth in that. Other composers are looking at the kinds of challenges the composer took on and how he solved them. As Bernstein once is reported to have said: "Bach, that pregnant syllable that causes performers to weep, composers to fall to their knees and that bores everyone else to tears." Bach, and Beethoven too, are the ones that composers (up until the rise of modernism) would be most amazed by because of the incredible focus and dynamicism of their music. Write an entire volume of fugues on a single theme (with variations)? You're kidding! And exhaust every contrapuntal possibility? Or write an entire symphony largely based on a four-note motif consisting of only two different notes? This is the kind of thing that most composers know is simply beyond them. Which is often why they end up throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the piece with predictable results.

Modernism made a serious break in this historical relationship. Beethoven in his Diabelli variations could look across the wide gulf in time to Bach's Goldberg variations and know that they were the main players in the big league. Even as late as Brahms this same sense of historical connection was there. But with the serialists, the futurists and even the neo-classicists (who mimicked the outward appearance only) there is little sense of this great tradition.

But let's listen to a couple of those pieces, that stick out of the stream of music history like great peaks or crags. Both pieces are in several clips on YouTube and I have only put up the first parts so you will have to search out the following ones. First Bach, the Goldberg Variations recorded by Glenn Gould in 1982:

Then Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op 58

Following up on my post on violin concertos yesterday, I thought I would have a look at this extraordinary concerto. You would think, since I am a guitarist, that my favorite concerto would be the Aranjuez by Rodrigo. Yes, a very fine concerto that I talk about in this post. As I said yesterday, there are a lot of violin concertos I love. But the one concerto that has always stood above all others for me is the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto. In this piece he seems to me to capture all the grace and fluidity of Mozart, the nobility of Brahms and in addition goes places musically that no-one else seems to have gone.

The third movement is an excellent rondo--true, it shows itself as a Beethoven movement by starting in the wrong key and then correcting itself. But nothing extraordinary. The first movement is extremely fine, presenting a kind of amalgam of the best of Mozart and Brahms. But the opening is something unique to Beethoven, I think. The piano begins, solo, with a phrase of great simplicity answered and extended by the orchestra:

Click to enlarge

Quiet, purely harmonic opening in the piano going from I to V. But the answer in the strings is on III which is also the V of E minor. This movement by a third is something that was taken up with great enthusiasm by the Romantic composers. But it is the second movement that is extraordinary. That simple phrase opening the first movement returns, in spirit, if not literally. But first, the strings have a strong statement answered in the piano by this phrase of great beauty:

Click to enlarge

One of the extraordinary things about Beethoven is what great simplicity he is capable of. Some of his slow movements are like the simplest of hymns. But there is usually some element that raises them above the ordinary. In this case it is the dialogue of contrast between the biting, forte, staccato strings--all in unison--and the melting harmonies of the solo piano. The Romantics, of course, likened this to Orpheus taming the Furies, but the metaphor is feebler than the musical reality. This is like two utterly opposed forces: the force of barbaric unison and staccato opposed by the angels of harmony. Harmony is destined to triumph, of course, but through beauty, not strength. The score of this movement occupies a mere three pages compared to the thirty-seven pages of the first movement, but the depths of expression are far greater. I can think of no other middle concerto movement that resembles this one.

Now, let's listen to the concerto. Here iKrystian Zimerman, piano with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Violin Concertos

The piece that really converted me to classical music from being a pop musician was not something by Bach or Beethoven but the Tchaikovsky violin concerto:

To someone whose most exalted ideal of instrumental virtuosity and expression was Eric Clapton, this was quite a revelation! I soon moved on to Debussy, Dvorak and Bach, but continued to be attracted by the expressivity of the violin accompanied by orchestra:

Of course both Bach and Beethoven wrote concertos for the violin. Here is the Bach E-major:

And the Beethoven, which begins, most unusually, with four beats on the tympani:

The violin concerto has endured through four different eras of music history so far, which is an extraordinary thing in itself. Vivaldi wrote innumerable ones in the Baroque:

Mozart added some in the Classical Era:

Brahms and many others in the Romantic Era:

But it was equally popular in the 20th century with a great one by Sibelius:

And another great one by Berg:

Now, in the 21st century, the violin concerto is still going strong with a new one by Esa-Pekka Salonen from 2009 for which he just won an important award:

The amazing longevity of this particular instrumental--well, form isn't quite the right word, nor style--genre?--is that it has proved so adaptable. The structure of the Baroque concerto is quite different from the Classical and so on. In the 20th and 21st centuries entirely new ways of putting together a violin concerto had to be found. But found they were, because the basic idea of a single violinist opposed and in concert with an orchestra is a compelling one that composers never seem to tire of exploring...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Relativism hasn't won--not completely

One of the things hampering criticism generally and music criticism in particular, is the assumption of relativism. The Latin maxim "de gustibus non est disputandum" meaning "there is no arguing about taste" is often used as a stopper to end any disagreements about taste. I dislike this kind of injunction on argument because, as one with some background in philosophy, I regard argument--the philosophical kind--as being the best way to uncover truths and untruths. The idea that all tastes are equivalent is an odd one. The perfect philosophical counter to the statement "everything is relative" is the rejoinder "is that an absolute truth?"

The idea of taste itself may seem a bit out of step with our times, but lots of valuable things are so that doesn't bother me in the least. Tastes do certainly vary from one person to another and, even more interesting, from one period in a person's life to another. I've just been reading in The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics (published in 2004 so reasonably up to date) and discovered a useful essay by Ted Cohen on "The Philosophy of Taste: Thoughts on the Idea". I won't recapitulate his discussion, but take it as a springboard for my own.

Just looking at a single person's history of taste, it is perfectly normal for it to change over time. Musically, for example, it is entirely usual for one's taste to change over time, especially if one is undertaking a course of study in music. With exposure to more and more different styles in music, different historical periods and with training in theory and audible recognition (ear-training), one's taste develops. It becomes possible to distinguish different kinds of music just as one might distinguish different varietals of grapes from going to organized wine-tastings. With the ability to distinguish French Baroque music from Italian or the lute fantasias of John Dowland from those of Francesco da Milano might also come the slightly different ability to distinguish greater from lesser quality--to be able to hear the difference between the counterpoint of Bach from that of, say, Telemann.

If one's taste can develop with exposure, training and study, then the only way to make sense of this is to assume something like a 'standard of taste'. One can only understand one's own improved taste over time in terms of being able to better distinguish the elements of a musical composition and comprehend better its structure and expression. To those for whom relativism is an 'absolute truth' this may well be anathema, but relativism exacts an enormous price: not only does it make it impossible to discuss disagreements over taste, it even makes it impossible to understand one's own improvement in taste over time.

I am always looking to improve my own musical taste because I believe there is a direct link between that and my compositional choices. It is of enormous benefit if I can look at something I just wrote and say, "hmm, well, that's not quite good enough..." If I can do that with my own music, then why can't I do that with the music of others? Assuming one has the necessary competence, of course.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Kings Place in London presented a concert this week purporting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 'minimalism' and The Guardian has an article on it that manages to summarize a lot of the errors and misunderstandings about this musical style. First of all, 'minimalism' is not a term liked very much by many of the composers called minimalists--Steve Reich in particular, who prefers the term 'process music'. Let's lay out some historical perspective, which is missing from the article. We can see three major phases in music during the 20th century. First was the inheritance of the 19th century: large, harmonically complex works with rich colors such as the symphonies by Mahler, Nielsen, Sibelius and others. The early music of Schoenberg is in this category. But it was Schoenberg that also, along with his students Berg and Webern, broke with that tradition and founded a new one: Viennese serialism that replaced harmonic structures with atonal ones. Accompanying this was a changed approach to rhythm that was equally important but less discussed. Throughout the 19th century rhythms had become more ponderous and thick. The new atonal composers fragmented rhythm and suppressed a sense of regular pulse. Have a listen to this:

This kind of approach was predominant in the first half of the century and the jagged approach to rhythm increased:

Most listeners were not won over by this kind of music which left the door open for an entirely new approach which began in the 1960s. An early work is Terry Riley's In C, written in 1964:

What makes this such a revolutionary break are two elements: the fixed rhythmic pulse and the return to tonality, hence the title, In C. A few years later Philip Glass began to write similar music:

Coming from a slightly different angle was Steve Reich. With a background in both philosophy and percussion, his early pieces used tape loops:

What is going on here is that a short tape loop is duplicated and the different loops slowly drift away from one another--go out of phase. From this Reich developed the idea of 'phasing', doing the same thing in live performance:

This may seem a bit arid, but it is actually the first genuinely new rhythmic idea to appear in music in a very long time. The inspiration was probably equally due to the mechanism of tape loops and Reich's study of drumming in Ghana. He developed the idea in the large piece Drumming. Here is an excerpt:

The phasing was slowly phased out, but Reich added tonal harmony to the basic idea of pulse:

Melody even started coming back: listen to the lovely bebop-like flute tune starting around 2:14.

Despite what the article in the Guardian says, this really isn't about minimalism at all. What happened in the 1960s and 70s was similar to what happened around 1600: a well-established musical style started to become perceived as too structured, too remote from the kind of expression composers were looking for. So they tossed it out and went back to the fundamental elements of music. In their case they tossed out the complexities of late 16th century counterpoint such as this:

They replaced austere counterpoint with harmonic and expressive immediacy, as in this music:

The collection was even called "le nuove musiche". What is happening in both transitions is inspired by what I call the racinative impulse, the need from time to time to renew music by returning to the most basic fundamentals. I talk about that in this post.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dilemmas of Arts Funding

In what is known as the "cultural industry" there is always a great deal of heated discussion over audiences, funding and future directions. Here is a post by Norman Lebrecht about an EU funding increase. Greg Sandow has made discussions of the future of classical music a central theme of his blog. I really wish I could get more engaged with this sort of thing, but, probably for the same reason that I always found managing my own career impossibly difficult, I just can't. I know it is necessary and important, but it always feels backwards to me.

If you craft your creative activities in order to appeal to journalists, critics and arts bureaucrats, then I think they will suffer. And the more you get involved in trying to figure out what these folks want, then I think the more you will be distracted from good creative choices. But maybe I'm just confused! Set me straight if you can.

One of the most interesting articles I have read on arts funding was in a Canadian newspaper so long ago I probably couldn't find it online. The gist of it was that arts funding in Canada has a problem. The federal government, in order to stay at arm's length from arts funding, has set up the Canada Council whose mission is described as follows:
The Canada Council was created by an Act of Parliament in 1957 (Canada Council for the Arts Act) to foster and promote the study, enjoyment and production of works in the arts, and operate at “arm’s length” or independently of government. 
Since then, the Canada Council has evolved into a dynamic organization that is Canada’s leading supporter of the arts. We are proud to have contributed to the lively cultural life and abundance of exceptional art that we now enjoy in Canada.
The article focused on writers, but a similar dynamic could be at work in music as well. The problem was that there had grown up an assortment of writers who frequently received funding. The method for determining that funding was through a jury of other writers chosen by the council. No writer on a jury could risk being too critical of an application by another writer in the club for fear that next year that writer might be on his jury. If you were in the 'club' you usually got your applications approved. If not, not. In order to get in the club in the first place, you need to be doing something that other writers in the club would recognize. I see some problems there, the main one being that over time writing in Canada becomes hopelessly stodgy and unadventurous--you never want to risk your next grant not being approved. Of course, in many places arts funding is determined directly by a government-appointed bureaucrat so the problem is much worse.

There is a more subtle issue also at work in the current debates over arts funding. Instead of direct political interference or an old boy's club calling the shots, we have a kind of anxiety over the fact that classical music just doesn't seem to appeal to as many people as we would like. It especially seems to have a problem with younger listeners who receive little exposure to it. Instead of hearing it occasionally on the radio or television, perhaps taking a few piano lessons, they are surrounded their whole lives with a constant stream of popular music. Confronted by classical music they initially find it boring. No surprise there.

So what's the solution? Somehow make classical music more like popular music so those raised exclusively on the latter will feel more comfortable? That does seem a likely approach which I talk about in this post. Early on in this blog I responded to a promotional article in this post in which I questioned the whole idea that classical music should apologize for not being more like popular music.

Let's acknowledge one thing: classical music and popular music are different things. The idiosyncratic way I define classical music as "that music that has shown exceptional quality over an extended period of time" means that I classify not only music by Guillaume DuFay (15th century), Rameau, Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, and the Beatles as classical, on the other hand I also am reluctant to call music by bad composers classical even if they wrote string quartets.

But I have created a problem for myself: 'classical' music for the most part is still dependent on certain institutions and traditions such as the symphony orchestra, the conservatory and the opera house. Without them, it would be very difficult to experience classical music because, despite my definition above, most classical music does come in the form of symphonies and string quartets and piano sonatas even though it extends to early music and I think slowly incorporates new music. Symphonies, conservatories and opera houses have never been commercially viable so, in the absence of wealthy nobility, we are forced to seek funding by government.

 But we should always keep in mind the dangers of so doing: the dangers of political influence which can mean excessive funding of 'progressive' causes as well as the opposite; the dangers of failing to do good creative work because it seems too risky; the dangers of diluting the art so as to appeal to people who have had little or no exposure to it and other dangers I haven't even thought of.

If at the end of the day we have some kind of 'classical' music that barely resembles the real thing, then we haven't gained much, have we?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Elegance in Music

Over at Greg Sandow's blog this morning and he has a post up poo-pooing the idea that Baroque music was refined and elegant. Greg says,
...we see much of the problem that classical music has these days — it’s out of touch with reality. So many people want it to be refined and elegant, more so than the world we live in. But to do that, they pretend that it was refined and elegant in the past, when clearly it wasn’t. Which means they’ve falsified classical music’s history, and made it lose touch with its own reality.
How can we, given all this, believe that the musical performances were elegant, or refined? They must have been as full-bodied — as lusty — as everything going on around them.
Which means that Jacobs is right to turn the music loose. When we pretend that things were refined and elegant, we falsify the music we’re playing, and lose a chance to connect with the lusty world around us. 
 Greg gives lots of solid examples of the turbulent and lusty way operas were performed in the Baroque--all quite true. But then he takes a giant leap by saying that music "in the past" was not refined and elegant, i.e. all music. But we want classical music to be refined and elegant now which puts us out of touch with reality, both the reality of now and of the past. But hang, on, isn't this a bridge too far? Does no one ever non-falsely compose, perform or listen to music because it is elegant? Now I realize that the word 'refined' is very nearly obscene these days, having as it does the aroma of elitist condescension, but I hadn't realized that 'elegant' was suffering the same fate.

As a composer, I hope to have a wide palette stretching from rough and energetic to intimate and elegant and with, hopefully, a hundred shades in between. According to Greg, it seems that I'm only allowed to write and perform music that is "full-bodied" and "lusty". Well, sure. I'm just starting to write a last movement for a suite and I'm hoping to make it very full-bodied and lusty. What I'm objecting to is the odd idea that this is the only game in town. If I write something, oh no, not refined, perish the thought, but something elegant, does that mean I have falsified classical music? Or myself?

I think that some few people at least, look to music, at least at times, for an intimacy, an expression of beauty and elegance that is sadly missing from much of the world. Let us not condemn them for it. After all, as Mozart's life and music both demonstrate, you can be lusty at times and elegant at other times...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

George Harrison Reconsidered

There is a lot about George Harrison in the news these days as a documentary by Martin Scorsese hits the air commemorating the tenth anniversary of George's death. Here is an article on George in the Weekly Standard. I haven't seen the documentary, but I found the article flawed and missing the point. It is perfectly all right to point out warts and all--I have done it in this blog a few times--but if all you talk about is non-musical aspects of a musician's life, it is safe to say you have missed the point. Sure, George may have been a bit of a split personality, as the writer says, "a religious seeker on the one side and a decadent, heedless rock star on the other", but the whole reason we are interested in George is that he was a religious seeker on the one side and a decadent, heedless rock star on the other who was in one of the most important musical groups in history and who made a significant contribution both as a guitarist and song-writer. If it weren't for that, we wouldn't be paying a lot of attention. Andrew Ferguson, the writer of the Weekly Standard article, does at least mention George's music in one brief paragraph:
One of George Harrison’s most appealing traits was self-awareness. He would have seen (and said) how absurd such talk was. “I was never a real guitarist,” he once told his friend Klaus Voormann. And he wasn’t; he couldn’t launch the fireworks like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, and the disciplined technique of AndrĂ©s Segovia or Julian Bream never interested him. About his songwriting, he told an interviewer: “There’s no comparison between me and someone who sits and writes music. What I do is really simple.” Right again. He compared himself to a pastry chef, able to combine musical ingredients nicked from others to make a pleasing presentation of songcraft. He made many marvelous records, but as a source of fresh musical ideas, he said, “I’m not really that good.”
You could say the same for pretty much anyone who ever wrote a rock song, which is an extremely forgiving art form, but you can’t imagine anyone else who ever wrote a rock song admitting it.
Like most journalists, even ones who write about music, Ferguson's musical understanding is, uh, limited. I have no idea what George meant if he said "I was never a real guitarist", but he most certainly was. He got into the Beatles in the first place because he could play stuff John and Paul couldn't. It took him a long time to develop as a songwriter; being in the same group as Lennon and McCartney caused his songwriting to be seen as insignificant in comparison. But he wrote better and better songs as time went on including "Taxman", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Something"--to name three outstanding ones. As a guitarist he is also an outstanding musician. Comparisons with Eric Clapton or Julian Bream are simply inane. Most rock guitarists from Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page come from the blues traditions of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. George comes from another tradition, the rock and roll one of Carl Perkins:

As for Segovia and Bream, why would anyone want to compare a rock guitarist with a classical one? But have a listen to this clip from A Hard Day's Night where George does some nice solos on a classical guitar by Jose Ramirez--the builder of some of Segovia's guitars:

If you have a look at the movie, you can see George playing on the Ramirez. Now you might say, oh, big deal, he plays on a classical guitar, so what? But let's dig into it a little bit, shall we? This is Paul's song, but a lot of the unique sound of it comes from George. That opening lick is by George and it is a motif that starts and ends the song. In the second verse George contributes a nice classical-sounding arpeggio. Around 1'30 we have the guitar solo. You might say, yeah right, he just plays the melody. But here's the thing: the song is in C# minor, but it jumps, most radically, to D minor for the guitar solo and stays in D minor until the final chord: D major. The relationship of D minor to C# minor is called the Neapolitan or flat II and it is both extreme and very popular with composers since the 18th century. Who came up with it? Either Paul or George. But it gives the song a unique twist.

Ferguson's sneer at rock songs and their composers is really just ignorance. Sure, there are hundreds if not thousands of boring, repetitive rock songs based on the most rudimentary of chord progressions, but it is very hard to find a Beatles song that is not a truly unique composition. Lennon, McCartney, yes and Harrison, wrote some of the finest songs in the English language and are legitimate heirs to the long tradition from John Dowland, to Henry Purcell, to Benjamin Britten.

Back to George's guitar playing. One of the things that stands out about his solos is that they, almost unique in the rock world, are not prolix. Take my favorite Harrison guitar solo:

Where is it? Exactly at 2'58. It consists of nine notes. After a long pause, there is a little trill. That's it. But I think it is exactly the right solo in exactly the right spot. Most virtuoso rock guitarists cannot resist playing a lot of notes. That's ok, but pretty much every blues-based extended rock guitar solo sounds exactly the same. Each of George's solos was created specifically for the song and sounds different from other solos in other songs. Lots of them were on electric six string, but he did a lot with twelve string too:

And of course, he is well known for being the first rock musician to take up the Indian sitar:

But he didn't stop being a rock and roll guitarist:

There is a great solo at 1'15 that is only about ten seconds long and sounds like no other rock guitarist. Yes, and it is also George's song. The only rock song that is about tax policy that I can recall...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Concerts:Good, Bad and Disrupted

Lots of items about odd things happening at concerts lately. Norman Lebrecht has this story about a disrupted Bruckner concert. And here is a letter from the fellow who disrupted the concert--the comment thread is particularly worth reading. Alex Ross has an account of a very loud argument between audience members at a Bach concert here. Two things seem to come out of all this: first, that it is all too easy for an eccentric member of the audience to disrupt a concert. Speaking as a performer, it is easy to have one's concentration broken by some kind of disruption. Some players seem invulnerable to this, but others are not and simple respect for the artist demands, I believe, that we give him or her or them a full hearing. If at the end you are profoundly dismayed by the performance, then by all means boo your heart out. Second, many have asserted that audiences now are far too uncritical of performances and I think I agree. It seems as if the simple act of getting on stage and getting through a performance is enough--at least if you are attractive and winningly dressed.

Alex Ross mentions
the troubling new phenomenon of concert rage: classical-music fanatics who can no longer abide the coughing, muttering, shuffling, and fidgeting of their neighbors. Lincoln Center has become a war zone of withering glances and hissed asides. Unfortunately, the indignation of the annoyed has itself become annoying. 
 There are two sides to this. Quite some time ago I read a book about the growth of classical music performance in the US. In the 19th century, as concerts became more frequent, audiences at first were quite unruly, coming and going as they pleased, chatting, calling out comments on the performance and so on. There was a concerted effort to shut them up that was quite successful and current concert etiquette demands that audiences sit very quietly during a performance. I wonder, though, if audiences are not now less engaged than they were before? It is one of the complaints against classical music that it is stiff and boring and it may be the concert ambiance that encourages that view. I can recall concerts I have played where members of the audience were vocally expressing their enjoyment and support: "yeah!", "woo-hoo" and so on. I believe that was in a performance of the Zapateado by Joaquin Rodrigo taken much too fast!

On the other hand, boos during the performance might well have been quite discouraging!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Invertible Counterpoint

This is a subject so esoteric that Blogger doesn't even recognize "invertible" as a word, but underlines it in red. Trust me, it is a word and correctly spelled. I want to put up a post on counterpoint as a sequel to the one yesterday about multiculturalism. When the narrator describes the music of the Aka pygmies as "extremely complex contrapuntal polyphony" what he is really doing is attacking the worth of what Bach did, by, at the very least, implying that what Bach did was contrapuntal polyphony, sure, but since it was all rigid and didn't allow for spontaneous expression, it's not quite as good as what the Aka do, flowing as it does from their communal wonderfulness.

Now if someone can argue, explain and describe just what is going on with the Aka, then great. Go to it in the comments. From listening and doing some web research, I conclude that what the Aka are doing is an interesting kind of polyrhythmic structure similar to ones found in other places in Africa and in the gamelan music of Java and Bali. What it is not, emphatically, is counterpoint, which is a word describing pitch structures. The Aka sit on the same pitches because they are unfolding a rhythmic structure, not a tonal one. Go have a listen here, sans narrator, and you will see what I mean.

What happened in Western music history in the last thousand years is something of quite another order. True, many of the rhythmic complexities of non-Western music were ironed out, but the reason was so that the possibilities of counterpoint and harmony could be developed. One of the most interesting of these is invertible counterpoint. Here is a great article on the subject. Here is the piece they chose as example, the F minor Invention:

People often ask what is it about Bach's music that makes it so powerful, so fresh even after many listenings. Bach was a master of what is sometimes called "variety in unity". If you go look at the article on invertible counterpoint you will see that the first four measures of the invention are repeated, exactly, as measures five through eight. But they don't sound the same. The reason is that Bach has written them so that the lower voice can be placed above the upper one: this is invertible counterpoint.

Much of the history of Western music can be seen as the quest by composers of ways of structuring music so as to produce both unity and variety. This can be done in a multitude of ways as each composer strives to find a new way with each piece. One of the earliest discoveries was imitation. One voice can be imitated by another on a different pitch level:

Listen to how the eight notes of the theme of the C major invention keep returning and returning in both voices. Of course, imitation doesn't have to be quite so literal. In this canon from the Art of Fugue, the lower voice imitates exactly the upper one, but a fifth lower, in notes twice as long and upside down. Then, in the second half, the voices invert so that the whole piece is also invertible counterpoint!

These are just a couple of the basic ways composers have discovered to knit together pieces of music.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Oddities of Multiculturalism

Roaming around the web, I ran across this page which has "Thirteen Notable Traditions" from UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage". Passing by the awkward phrasing of that, there are some really odd things about this list. First and most prominent is that most of these traditions are very tangible indeed. Nothing more tangible than an ox or gingerbread or oil wrestling. Does UNESCO know the meaning of the word 'intangible'? Second, there is a kind of willful blindness to any kind of historical or evaluative sense. I'm sure this is intentional because underlying these kinds of initiatives are either a commercial purpose (increasing tourism to World Heritage sites, for example) or an ideological one. The ideological one is that of multiculturalism. As Wikipedia says, "A common aspect of many [multicultural] policies is that they avoid presenting any specific ethnic, religious, or cultural community values as central." In practice the motivation is often political. The Liberal Party in Canada, for example, attracted most new immigrants to Canada to voting Liberal by means of multicultural policies. There is a heavy price to be paid, however, in that multiculturalism tends to wipe out the historical foundations of a society as they become inconvenient. Politicians in Europe who have in the past been advocates of multiculturalism are starting to tack the other way as the problems become evident.

But forgive me this digression from music as it is essential background to my next point. If you go to the list I link above and click on the one about the duduk you come to this:

Very interesting. You may recognize this as the instrument that has become hugely popular in soundtracks in recent years because of the unusual sound. It was used in a great deal of the Battlestar Galactica series. If you go directly to the YouTube page, you see a lot of related videos, such as this one, also from UNESCO:

The narrator says, "The Aka Pygmies living in the south-west region of the Central African Republic have developed a distinctive vocal musical tradition, which involves a complex type of contrapuntal polyphony based on four voices, mastered by all members of the Aka community." If you listen on, you will hear this described as an "extremely complex type of contrapuntal polyphonic singing" which "unlike polyphonic systems that are written down using notation" this tradition "allows for spontaneous expression and improvisation." So, much better than those silly written systems then!

The only problem I see is that this is a kind of ignorant fraud. The Aka pygmies don't seem to be doing anything I would recognize as polyphony, let alone complex polyphony, let alone complex contrapuntal polyphony. These terms have certain specific meanings in the tradition of Western music, where they were invented, along with the notational system that allows them to be written down. In the Western tradition, what the Aka pygmies are doing would probably be described as primitive heterophony, meaning the different singers tend to go their own way pretty much whenever the mood strikes them. Complex contrapuntal polyphony is actually something like this (and if you read this blog much, you know exactly what I am going to pick):

This is a double fugue with invertible counterpoint at the interval of a tenth. I'm afraid it doesn't allow for improvisation, but I don't think that is a deficiency!

If the Aka music is complex contrapuntal polyphony, I don't think there are words to describe what Bach is doing.

Friday, November 18, 2011


I'm always talking about harmony, but never melody, which is probably what is foremost in most people's minds when they think about or recall music. Melody is a particularly difficult thing to talk about though, because it seems hard to generalize about it. What makes great melodies great? They are memorable and expressive. OK, what makes melodies memorable and expressive? Uh. Hmm.

Take "Yesterday" for example. Possibly the most famous tune of all time and Paul just fell out of bed with it running in his head one morning.

We can talk about it all we want: how it begins with an expressive 2-1 appoggiatura, how the phrase length is irregular, how the harmony falls from I to a minor, not diminished, VII for a Lydian modal effect, how the final cadence is plagal, how the relative minor is tonicized in the second bar and so on. But trust me, a hundred other composers could do the same things (and have) and come up with tunes that are banal, inexpressive and unmemorable. This is where theory fails.

I once got into an argument with a theory professor who was trying to claim some sort of scientific validity for theory. If we study and analyze enough sonatas, then we can come up with a general or typical structure for sonatas and test that model by using it to create new sonatas. If they sound like the old ones, we have a good theory of sonata form. Sounds good in theory... But the truth is that all the really good sonatas are each unique and that is perhaps the crucial element in a great sonata: that it is unique. Take this one for example:

There is no other piano sonata that sounds like that even though Beethoven used a variation on a very old harmonic progression and probably stole the texture from a Mozart opera.

Just so you don't feel completely cheated with this post, where so far I have simply said I have no idea, let me say two things about melody. From the beginnings of notated music in the West, melodies tended to move by step with leaps being far less common. As tonal harmony developed in the 17th and 18th centuries this started to change and by the Classical Period, melodies were typically constructed using the notes of a chord or triad, that is to say, instead of moving by step, they moved by thirds. For example:

 As opposed to the stepwise movement of this:

Now here's an interesting thing: the melody of "Yesterday" moves almost exclusively by step, one scale note to the next. Hmm...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Inevitability of Leonard Cohen

As a long-time Montrealer myself--11 years total--I've always felt a connection to Leonard Cohen. I've known his music since I was a teenager. In first year university our English professor, probably in an attempt to seem 'relevant', included the lyrics to "Suzanne" in our poetry segment. I think I even used to sing and play that one in my 'folk-singer' phase, along with Bob Dylan, but I can barely remember. He is also the source of one of my favorite quotes. On a Canadian television show, when the interviewer said that Cohen had a reputation for being a pessimist, he replied, "a pessimist is someone who thinks it is going to rain; I'm soaked to the skin." I sometimes say that all the really interesting Canadians come from Montreal: Cohen, Oscar Peterson and William Shatner.

Somehow, in this post, I got talking about Cohen and someone commented:
What makes his Hallelujah so great? (It is great.) I don't consider the original lyrics a big deal - though they rank among his more aenigmatic poems. Is it the melody? Some other musical characteristic that I don't know how to hear? Really. Asking. 
 Here is "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen:

And here is the Wikipedia article. A great many artists, including Bob Dylan, have performed the song. In the classical world it is perfectly normal for performers to play music by anyone they like because the functions of composer/performer have been largely separated in the last couple of centuries. In the pop world, prior to the Beatles, this was also the case. But since then, popular musicians have tended to write all their own material. The two exceptions are 'covers' of songs for commercial reasons, i.e. sales--"Yesterday" by Paul McCartney is probably the outstanding example with over 2500 cover versions--or simply out of admiration for the song. I think that most of the covers of "Hallelujah" are for the latter reason. So, as my interlocutor asks, what is so great about "Hallelujah"?

I think it is the feeling of inevitability that the song projects. I was arguing about Bach and Beethoven with a violinist a while back and he said that he preferred Bach because of the feeling of inevitability that his music has. Everything happens just as it should. My friend had played the violin for 90 years, so I suspect there is something to that. But there is inevitability and predictability and they seem almost the same. Take this, for example:

That does have the feeling of inevitability about it, but for most musicians it is just a tad too inevitable, i.e. predictable. Same goes for a lot of Vivaldi. But Bach, on the other hand:

Ah, there's that inevitability. But at the same time, we are never quite sure where he is going next, we just know it is going to be the right place.

I'm afraid that I can't answer the question of my commentor. As Cohen himself said, "if I knew where the good songs came from I would go there more often." It has to do with the perfect co-ordination of melody, harmony and rhythm so that they form a whole that is both inevitable and fresh. You can play a piece by Bach a hundred times and it will still seem fresh. This song probably cannot survive that much exposure, but yes, it is a good song. Leonard Cohen has written a lot of good songs.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Me and the Russians

Forgive the narcissistic title! It is meant to be a bit comic. I was just reading this article in the Moscow News. I have been fascinated with Russian culture for quite a while. Two of my favorite 20th century composers are Russian: Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Here is the opening of the article:
Masterpieces get a makeover at The Ekaterina Cultural Foundation’s retrospective of the New Academy of Fine Arts, an underground art movement that flowered in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. In an unprecedented exhibition, the gallery is displaying 200 works by 14 of the group’s artists, who eschewed modern art for a new breed of classicism.
In the early days of the Revolution, artists in Russia were quick to take up the principles of the European avant-garde. Shostakovich wrote an absurdist opera, The Nose, and his 2nd Symphony is a web of intricate multi-layered harmony and includes a factory whistle blast. But as the Revolution progressed, he was forced to comply with the strictures of Socialist Realism and had to take up the forms and genres of the 19th century. This he did in his own unique way, seeming to follow the rules while utterly altering those forms in a new way. "A Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism" was the description in an article appearing in a Moscow newspaper a few days before the premiere of his 5th Symphony and attributed to Shostakovich.

The present article, on the Russian 'neo-classicist' artists goes on to say:
Leningrad art guru Timur Novikov founded the group in 1989, when perestroika was at its counter-cultural peak. Novikov, who died in 2002, was an avantgarde artist and theorist whose experiments included the rock group “New Composers,” for which he devised original musical instruments. Fearing modern art’s encroachment on artistic traditions, Novikov called for a return to ancient Greco-Roman ideals of beauty and harmony. But rather than simply reproducing classical motifs, Novikov, along with artists including Georgy Guryanov and Denis Yegelsky, adapted them to the 20th century with new media and irreverent interpretations.
This seems to resonate rather well with what Shostakovich was doing. The "ancient Greco-Roman" doesn't apply because we simply don't have the musical models, but "ideals of beauty and harmony" seems to.

I said "me and the Russians" because I have been trying to revive old ideals of beauty and harmony in my own compositions. It you get really outside the modernism of the 20th century and take a hard look at it, it is difficult not to conclude that the ideal of beauty was the furthest thing from their minds. There are exceptions, of course, and there are beautiful moments in many pieces, but it just didn't seem to be a real goal.

Shostakovich, though...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dance, Music and Rhythm

I usually try to post about something I know something about, but this one is a bit of a mystery to me. On several occasions I have taught adult beginners who have had considerable background in dance--one was a professional dancer. Now one might expect that they would have a special sensitivity to or head start on rhythm. But it turned out not to be the case. In most cases, the students with dance background turned out to have more problems with rhythm than the average student. Their background in dance turned out to be of no advantage and possibly a disadvantage.

Now why is this? It seems counter-intuitive, after all, rhythm is rhythm whether you are following it with your legs or with your fingers, right? But it seems not. If anyone has any thoughts on this, I would be interested to hear them. I would speculate that the way dancers feel and execute rhythms in their bodies is quite different from the way musicians do. I can't quite put my finger on it... Is it that they are moving weight in space while we are placing moments in time? I really have no idea. But it is an interesting mystery.

And musicians seem to be notoriously bad dancers!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Music for Six Guitars

I was reading Alex Ross today and he mentioned that Ben Frost's Music for Six Guitars was going to be played in New York. Now I'm a big fan of music for multiple guitars, having written often for that kind of ensemble, so I had a look on YouTube. Here's one version:

Here's another version with a look at the performers:

I was going to just say "whaddayathink"? But I can't resist: this sounds like Steve Reich got mugged in an alley by Iron Butterfly with just a touch of gamelan.


The Song that Got Away

The first time I saw/heard Katy Perry was the song "California Gurls". It's like bubble-gum pop from the 60s done in super-technicolor, widescreen CGI but about 100 times as sexy.

There seem to be a million music videos out there with a sexy female singer either posturing as the ideal sex object or showing her strong independence or alternating between them. Musically, there is not a lot to choose among them. Sure, there are different flavors, but they all are subsumed into the generic pop product. Another kind of music video is the sullen guy either flaunting his bling or showing his defiance. As always, some stand out because they rise above the standard and ordinary. Lady Gaga and Eminem are good examples. But the professional pop song these days seems to have settled down into a limited number of possibilities. The commercialization of popular music has followed a similar trend to, say, the commercialization of apple-growing. A few varieties have been chosen for their taste, appearance and ease of transport and marketability and hundreds of other varieties left by the wayside. Apart from the musical monocultures we seem to have fallen into, it is the narrowed emotional range that bothers me about pop. Don't get me wrong, I love pop music, but I'm also critical of it. Same with classical: some I love, some bores me to tears. But frankly, what I like and what I don't like is not terribly interesting, is it? What is more important is what are the reasons. So let's talk about Katy Perry.

The way the Beatles worked was to do an album once or twice a year but put out independent singles in between. The singles were normally not part of the albums so as time went on they were collected together and issued as a couple of additional albums. It was the Beatles that were responsible for the movement from singles to albums, especially albums conceived as a whole. In recent years, with the waves of recent changes  in technology, the album is fading fast as we seem to be returning to a marketplace where the single is important. I think it may have been Michael Jackson with his album Thriller that began this shift. In any case, Katy Perry's album Teenage Dream has been out since August 2010, but they have been pulling singles out of it and releasing them in sequence. "California Gurls" was the first single from Teenage Dream. Subsequent ones like the song "Teenage Dream" didn't catch my attention--I'm way out of the market demographic!--and don't seem terribly interesting musically anyway. But the latest single, the sixth, "The One That Got Away", caught my attention. I was talking about emotional range earlier and this song actually steps out of the narrow range of most pop music. Here is Katy Perry performing it live:

I have to say that I enjoy seeing pop artists who can step away from the studio gimmickry and choreography and jump cut videos and just stand up and sing the song, accompanying themselves on guitar. Now, is this a great song? I would say a bit better than average, but this is not a melody that has much character or individuality. Also, the chord progression is perhaps too bland for the emotional weight of the song. But what is happening in the music is just an accompaniment to the story told in the lyrics and the lyrics explore nostalgia, regret, remorse and without a twist into a happy ending. In the music video, the song ends with an excerpt from Johnny Cash's version of "You Are My Sunshine", cut off abruptly. Ann Althouse posted on this song here, asking the question "what lesson will young girls take from this video"? Here's the video:

Maybe it is all about the choice between love or money: go read the lengthy comment thread at Ann Althouse for lots of opinions on that. But what interests me is that here we have a musical artist that is stepping outside of the narrow range that pop music often seems to dig itself into and expressing something tragic in life. This is a bit like McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby", reflecting on the grittier parts of life.

Where Paul is talking about poverty and loneliness, Katy is talking about the terrible dichotomy between, ah, being fabulously wealthy or being in a great relationship with a hot, sexy artist. Ok, I won't get any more snarky! I want to say, great, good, let's have more of it. Because pop music, along with all other music, has the capacity to express many, many things. It doesn't have to be a small set of musical monocultures...