Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Case of Vivaldi

Following on the last post, another well-known music joke concerns Vivaldi and goes like this: Vivaldi didn't really write five hundred concertos, he wrote the same concerto five hundred times! Bada-bing!

Antonio Vivaldi really is one of the most important Baroque composers. His career was fascinating. For thirty years his principal employment was as music instructor in the Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, an orphanage supported by the state. Vivaldi taught violin and wrote music for both sacred and secular occasions. The boys had to leave the orphanage at 15, but the girls could stay and received a fine musical education. Under Vivaldi's instruction and performing his music the instrumental and choral ensembles became famous throughout Europe.


Yes, Vivaldi really did write more than 500 concertos for his students: 230 for violin, others being for bassoon, cello, oboe, flute, viola d'amore, recorder, lute, or mandolin. About 40 are for two instruments and strings, and about 30 are for three or more instruments and strings. I have played on a few occasions the Concerto in D major for mandolin, known most of all in its version for guitar.

Vivaldi was much-appreciated by Bach who copied and transcribed several of his concertos. Vivaldi brought to the table a rhythmic vivacity and harmonic clarity that Bach absorbed and added to the blend of French dance genres and ornamentation and German counterpoint in his summation of Baroque style. Without Vivaldi's influence, Bach's music might have much less impact than it does. Two pieces by Bach that show this particularly strongly are the Italian Concerto for harpsichord and the prelude to the Partita no. 3 in E major for violin. Here is the first movement of the Italian Concerto on harpsichord with a little introduction:

(I like the modesty that leads Elaine to tell us all about who built her harpsichord and all about Bach, but neglects to mention her last name!)

Here is the first movement of a violin concerto by Vivaldi from a particularly influential collection the L'estro Armonico of 1711.

There certainly are a lot of familiar sequences there. An harmonic sequence is one of the most useful and frequently used devices of the Baroque and Classical periods. The basic idea is to take a brief harmonic pattern and repeat it two or three more times at a different level. It provides both unity and impetus. Here is another first movement from L'estro Armonico.


Here is another concerto:


And finally:

Well, it is obviously not true that he wrote the same concerto five hundred times. But the grain of truth in the joke is that he used much the same harmonic, rhythmic and melodic devices in all his concertos. Now let's hear one of Bach's violin concertos:

There is a lot more depth and interest to the harmony. Things are not nearly so predictable. The thing is that Bach does Vivaldi better than Vivaldi did.

It Used to Be a Joke

I'm going to do something terrible: explain why a joke is funny which will mean we can't laugh at it any more. Here's the joke: Rachmaninoff was on tour, giving solo recitals and one night his manager noticed that while playing he was constantly looking out to the hall, swiveling his eyes from row to row. After the concert the manager asked why he was doing that. Rachmaninoff replied, "I was counting the house, I think the impresario is cheating us"! Not terribly funny, but the reason why it is a joke is interesting. The humor depends on there being a dissonance between musical performance and box office receipts. This joke probably used to be funnier than it is now, because for us, the dissonance is becoming muted. In earlier times, a music performance had an almost sacred dimension to it. In some way, music was a transcendental experience that lifted us out of the mundane world. It was inconceivable that the audience, let alone the artist, be thinking of ticket prices while deep within the experience of music. But now, with music videos stuffed with virtual advertisements for luxury cars, high fashion and expensive jewelry, the transcendental dimension of music is pretty much crushed.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

The One-Minute Test

Way back when I was an undergraduate student I used to go to the listening library when I had a spare hour, collect a stack of LPs (I said it was way back when) and give them a listen. I would put on a disc and, if it didn't grab me in the first minute, I would go on to the next. I know this is the musical equivalent of speed-dating, but I figure if a composer doesn't do something in the first minute that is beautiful, interesting, charming or in some way capture your interest, well... This is how I discovered Steve Reich. I had a bunch of contemporary music discs including Stockhausen, Ligeti, Nono and after a few of those very complex compositions I put on Drumming by Steve Reich. It begins with an unadorned single drumbeat. Wow. Sometimes simplicity is utterly radical. I ended up listening to a whole side. Let's try this experiment with some stuff randomly chosen from YouTube. Since the last few posts have featured pop music, I'll stick to classical. Let's start with the 20th century. I'll use the list of composers from this Wikipedia article.

Here's a sonatina for clarinet and piano by Malcom Arnold:

There's nothing wrong with that, it's boisterous and, uh, boisterous. By the one-minute mark we are just about to hear the second theme, it sounds like. It didn't really make me want to hear more, though.

Part of the introduction to Tintagel by Arnold Bax:

I listened to the whole excerpt. It sounds a bit like Sibelius and water, but that's ok. The melody, when it finally arrived, was a bit of an anticlimax--folky and sentimental.

Harrison Birtwistle, Movement for String Quartet

Nervous, fragmentary and annoying. Barely made it to one minute. Reminds me of not-very-good Bartok.

Let's jump to an American: Lou Harrison, String Trio:

It's not bad, but I did stop at the one-minute mark. This is the kind of meandering atonality that I have heard plenty of and don't need any more of. Reminds me of uninspired Alban Berg.

Carl Ruggles: Sun-Treader

I used to have this recording. No, I didn't listen past the one-minute mark. Why does so much 20th century orchestral music sound like the soundtrack to a horror film? Was it because the 20th century was so horrific? This was written in 1931, so there was certainly a lot to be horrified about. But I'm just not going to enjoy listening to the rest...

Elie Siegmeister: Three Studies for Piano

This is not bad. It doesn't try to bully the listener. But after a minute, I was getting the sense that there was quite a lot of jazz influence and I didn't get the sense that we were going anywhere, so...

Włodzimierz Kotoński - Antyfony 1989 (for tape)

 
I was glad to see this was for tape. Some of it sounds like choir, which would be cruel. No, not interested. I have sat through "performances" of electronic music played through high-quality sound systems in concert halls and I am aggressively uninterested!

Galina Ustvolskaya - Symphony No. 3

I had hopes for this one because she was a student of Shostakovich. It is probably going somewhere, but the unrelenting dissonance makes it a road I don't think I want to travel.

After all that, let's hear something by her teacher:

Why is it that most composers seem incapable of a) simplicity and b) beauty? I first heard this trio many years ago in a summer chamber music festival in Vancouver. I think it was the first piece by Shostakovich that I heard in concert. I was riveted from the first note. And still am. How does he do that?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Come Together

This is one of my favorite John Lennon songs. Here is a version of it I just discovered:

Now I know what you are going to say: "hey, they are just doing to The Beatles what Kronos already did to Jimi Hendix--and in much the same way!" Well, yeah. But that doesn't mean it isn't interesting/fun/a treat. They have some nice twists on the harmony and a lot of great colors. Here's my sense of it: one thing we learn from the rash of unusual transcriptions for string quartet is that there is some real creativity going on in the string quartet world these days. While the big orchestras seem like aging Titanics, unable to avoid the icebergs of bankruptcy, the nimble chamber music groups stay afloat and make some fine music in the process.

Another thing is that the string quartet medium, one beloved by composers for the last 200 years, is an astonishingly malleable and expressive one. It is amazing how many colors are available. But at the same time, the fundamental unity of the ensemble--all bowed strings (but with the plucking option)--makes for a satisfying effect. There is always something awkward and raucous about wind chamber music. My apologies to wind players, just my humble opinion. See what I mean:


One small critical observation: the underlying problem of all these transcriptions is twofold: the originals are songs. With words. That change with every verse. All the string quartet can do is keep repeating the basic idea with whatever variations they can come up with--hence the nifty harmonies. Second, especially with The Beatles, the composition is partly the way it was constructed in the studio. This quartet makes a valiant attempt to capture some of the feeling of the drumming in the song. But they just can't. Here's the original, in case you haven't heard it in a while:


You can't tell me that the words, the way Lennon sings them, and the production generally, isn't pretty crucial. But just because this is the definitive version doesn't mean we can't cheer on some creative takes on it by, among others, string quartets. OK, now have a look/listen at this:

Wow, that's pretty amazing. Ok, some of the string-bending doesn't quite happen and the ending isn't quite right, but what a great job of capturing the percussion part! Ebene Quartet? Better check this out! I've been trying to make an arrangement for voice and classical guitar of "And I Love Her" (because George plays the solos on a Ramirez classical guitar on the recording) and this will undoubtedly inspire me.

And I really want to write a string quartet...

Quality and Not

It's puzzling how some artists manage to become well-known, famous, even ubiquitous, that are not very talented or creative. I suppose industrialization is part of the explanation. In a music scene where more and more, music is produced like corn flakes in a factory, actual, you know, creativity is optional if not actually a problem. "Don't bother me, I'm trying to program the drum machine"!

I watched all of 1:25 of this and here's a list of the cliches:
  • synthesized string orchestra intro
  • advertising for BMW, jewelry (Swartowski?), clothes
  • elegant club
  • standard rap followed by
  • standard diva for contrast with synth-processed voice
  • sexy clothes with pelvic thrust and booty shake
Isn't EVERYONE tired of this by now? Apparently not. Not one element, musical or visual, that is going to be memorable for its originality.

Hey, that sounds like an actual drummer! This is a lot less industrialized. Unfortunately, the song isn't that great and desperately needs an actual tune.

Extremely industrialized, but without the expensive gloss of the J-Lo song. Excessive use of the auto-tuner on the voice, really bad drum machine, no tune--ah heck, you know, all the usual problems with industrialized music.

This one might almost be interesting. Not as many cliches. But not quite interesting enough to actually, you know, sort out.

This has been catty micro-reviews part three. Working my way through YouTube randomly by typing in a letter of the alphabet and looking at the first music video that comes up. For some odd reason that was 'm'. Now let's see if we can find some quality.

It was either this or Tupac. You can do interesting stuff in this genre. Musical genres, except for grindcore, are not inherently impoverished--it's just that few actually do interesting things with them. Creativity is rare, mindless repetition is common.

Music Blogs

Why are most music blogs so dull? I've just been browsing around a few and not finding much interesting. "I just went to such-and-such concert", "next week so-and-so is playing", "here's a photo of so-and-sos gravesite", "the Bayreuth Festival this year is going to be such-and-such". Yawn...

This seems to miss the essence of blogging, somehow. Shouldn't blogging be about issues, problems, questions, that sort of thing? When I started reading blogs a decade ago, there was a lot of fire. A lot of people had things to say and a burning need to say them. There seemed to be things at stake, things that mattered. Part of the reality and urgency was that, finally, people not part of the long-established social structures had their say. As a journalist complained "some guy out there is writing about this stuff sitting around in his pajamas." Yep, and the scary thing was that he was often making more sense than the journalist. The whole mass media community tends to have a lot of irons in the fire that mean that their interests are rather different from their readers. People tired of the usual BS tend to read blogs instead of the online newspaper or magazine.

So why are classical music blogs so dull? True, not all of them are. I often enjoy Jessica Duchen's blog and Norman Lebrecht is often interesting but most aren't. Often the problem is the writing: awkward, uncommunicative, verbose or meandering prose. Lots of musicians just can't write. But there seem two other reasons for the lame blogging: one is to be so well-connected in the music world that you can't risk annoying anyone. Another is that you don't have much in the way of developed principles or values with which to orient yourself, meaning you don't have much to say that delves below the surface.

You know who I wish would blog: Richard Taruskin. Blessed with one of the most formidable and informed minds in music, he writes very weighty volumes on, among other things, Stravinsky and the history of Western Music. Occasionally he does a bit of 'journalism'--in scare quotes because his idea of journalism is just as weighty as his other work. Here is a sample: a review of three books on classical music's dilemma in The New Republic called "The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music Against Its Devotees". Twenty-four pages long... and well worth your time. To give you a taste of his prose, here is a quote. Remember, this is a book review:
As with rising gorge I consumed these books, the question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.
 Wow, I wish I had written that. Even more, I hope that what I am doing here, in my small way, tries to live up to the beloved repertoire without falling into that list of vices.

I'm especially worried about the last one: "imperial haberdashery" because I'm not quite sure what that might be. I hope it doesn't mean that I can't blog in my pajamas...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Music and Philosophy

In the header to this blog I mention classical music, popular culture and philosophy, but I haven't given you any philosophy yet, right? Well, not so. Due to a youthful exposure to philosophy (at one point I seriously considered switching my major) a bit of it permeates all my thinking.

I recently read a book, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation by Roger Scruton. While I find some of his ideas a bit puzzling, he really hits the nail on the head sometimes. He points out some interesting consequences of the criticism of Theodor Adorno, the critical theorist and composition student of Alban Berg. Adorno was vehemently dismissive of all popular music. In this blanket condemnation he opened the door for a later generation of musicologists to the inverse proposition that popular music must be accepted in its entirety. As Scruton says,
A blanket criticism is no criticism at all. Hence, when pop dawned on the world of musicology it was as a field of study in which the critic was denied a voice. It is precisely in this way that Adorno has been useful to the postmodern musicologist. By presenting judgment as a form of total condemnation, Adorno consigned judgement to the dustheap. He presented the musicological world with a dichotomy that facilitated the very view that he abhorred. Either total condemnation, or 'anything goes'. It is only by making discriminations within the realm of popular music that we can encourage young people to recognize the difference between genuine musical sentiment and kitsch, between beauty and ugliness, between the life-affirming and the life-denying, the inspired and the routine--in short between The Beatles and U2.
 Heh. I love the last, throw-away, smear of U2 and I wish he had gone on to some specifics. In this blog, I very much believe in valid criticism as you may have noticed. In fact, it's all about criticism and I try my best to show that it is ultimately a positive force. We are inundated with music of all kinds, from all cultures and all times. Only some of it is really worth our time. How do we sort it out?


Ironically, Lennon was sued by Chuck Berry for plagiarism because one line of the lyrics references a Chuck Berry lyric. I pretty much chose these two songs at random, though after picking the U2 song, I did try and find a Beatles tune that was not in a wildly different style. Listen to them and see if you think that Scruton had a point. Is the U2 song cliched and lifeless compared to the Lennon song?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Grigory Sokolov

Grigory Sokolov is a truly great musician who happens to play the piano. He is the finest pianist I know of and he is alive and well and playing concerts. Now I haven't heard every pianist and of the ones I have heard, I certainly have only heard a small part of what they have done. I have heard Arthur Rubenstein, Alicia de Larrocha and a few other spectacular pianists in concert and many, many more on disc. I have, at various times, been particularly fond of Evo Pogorelich, Glenn Gould, Friedrich Gulda and Maurizio Pollini. I have never quite fallen under the Horowitz mystique, but I have certainly heard some of his recordings. So I have some acquaintance with piano-playing.

But a couple of years ago a Polish-American conductor grabbed me by the arm and said "you HAVE to listen to Grigory Sokolov." Finally I did order some CDs and yes, he was right. I had never heard such musical and precise playing and so sensible to tone color--except perhaps that of Arthur Rubenstein. Here's the thing though, Sokolov hates recording. He does no work in the recording studio. He just plays concerts. Which are often recorded or filmed. There is a spectacular film of a recital he did in the Theatre des Champs Elysees a few years ago. Here is one of the encores from that concert:


This precision and delicacy came after playing a particularly robust and demanding Prokofiev sonata. Here is a magical Chopin waltz from a different recital:


What I really want you to hear is his Beethoven, but Blogger refuses to find the right clip. Here is the URL on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvR-jUt3wd0&feature=related

What is so impressive about Sokolov is his absolute control of the dynamics from the softest to the loudest. My discovery of his playing made a huge difference in my own. He is just so utterly musical. Words are failing me, aren't they? Just go and listen to that Sonata op 28. Here is the second movement:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yBcdTKkyCg&feature=fvwrel

I love that theme and its staccato accompaniment. Enjoy!

Developed and Undeveloped Taste

Thanks to Alex Ross' blog, I read a fascinating article the other day on Anton Bruckner. Bruckner is the other composer of enormous late-19th century symphonies along with Gustav Mahler. Here is the Wikipedia article on Bruckner.

I have had little contact with Bruckner's music--I used to own a CD of one of the symphonies, perhaps the 7th. But I haven't studied his music or read about him to any extent. So the article in Stereophile was fascinating. It discusses the whole history of attempts to complete the last movement of Bruckner's last symphony and surveys the recordings of those completions. Again, fascinating stuff. I realize that there is a whole world out there of Bruckner lovers and scholars. Bruckner: he's not just for wacky Austrians!

I still don't know if I am going to like Bruckner. But I am sure I should investigate further. My taste regarding Bruckner needs to be developed. Here is the beginning of the 7th Symphony:

Bruckner's symphonies are so long that virtually every movement has to be split up into two or even three YouTube clips. So you should really listen to the music on CD. I remember a science fiction story I read a long time ago where the pilot puts on a Bruckner symphony as he launches out from Earth orbit. Traveling at a great speed, by the time he reaches the orbit of Saturn, Bruckner has only gotten to his second thematic group.

The point here is that there is such a thing as musical taste, of course, but there are different grades or levels. My taste regarding, say, J. S. Bach is well-developed. I have listened to and played the music of Bach for four decades. I have read a lot of books on Bach from Spitta's three volume study to the recent one by Christoph Wolff. I have analyzed many pieces by Bach and read studies of performance practice. So when I talk about Bach, I do know what I am talking about. But you shouldn't listen to my opinions about Bruckner because my taste regarding him is undeveloped. I haven't done the research.

Not all music needs to be looked into. There are some kinds, like grindcore for example, that seem to me not worth investigating, or too painful to investigate. Some kinds of music reveal themselves right away, as either possessing quality or not. With Bruckner, I am curious. I did have a Mahler phase, about thirty years ago and I listened to a lot of his music and did some reading. I don't think I studied any scores closely. At some point I started to find him cloying, like listening to someone plagued by neuroses. Now I tend to find Mahler unlistenable--his musical gestures seem like poses, not credible. I wonder how that happened? And if it is a reasonable reaction? As I've been writing this I have been listening to that Bruckner 7th. While lengthy, it sounds quite interesting. And not neurotic. Let's have a little listen to Mahler:

No, while that is really pretty at the beginning, I still find it neurotic and stopped the clip around 3:40 when the horns started bellowing. Isn't that odd? Is my taste regarding Mahler just askew?

It's a Business?

The reason my career never took off in a big way was that I never really got it through my head that I was in a business. You know, selling CDs and concert tickets! My whole focus was on playing the music. Did I get that phrase right? What is the best repertoire? How do you play Baroque trills? All that kind of stuff. But in reality, I suppose, the job is selling tickets.

But, you know, I don't really envy the ones who do just think of it as a business, because I wonder if they really experience the joy of music? Maybe they do, if so, they have it made. Could I have looked at it as a business and lived with that? You certainly should ask yourself these kinds of questions if you want a career in music. It was always too much like a vocation--maybe even a religion--in my mind.

Here's someone that was pretty successful:

There doesn't seem to be much going on in that piece. But here is another version that works better:

That's the same piece, but with nice locations and images and with a subtle percussion track. Much more attractive. But it's the same, musically.

I wouldn't want to be doing this, though. Here's why: this might sell, but I just don't like it. It seems like a mishmash of guitar music cliches (have to do a post on that). I've heard these rhythms many times, these harmonies many times and these little tricks many times. And in this context they just seem to have no musical purpose. So tell me, am I just a curmudgeon? Or is it sour grapes? God, I hope not!

Now here is something really commercial:

I just know that if I go to hell, that will be the soundtrack... You want to know why? Again, a string of cliches and empty effects. Music this devoid of any real expression is painful to listen to.

You can tell this one was certainly intended to be commercially successful. But it just doesn't quite...

...manage it.

 This is more my cup of tea:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Different Flavors of Classical Music

I said in a previous post that the term 'classical' music is a back-formation, meaning that until popular music became an economically huge force, there was just music with different flavors for different purposes. For listening, you went to the symphony or a chamber or lieder recital, for dancing you had Viennese walzes--just to choose a couple of examples. But once recording technology and television came along, popular music grew to dwarf what we now call 'classical' music. My view is that any music that has long-lasting value, of whatever genre or style, will sooner or later become 'classical' in the sense of "the best that has been done". As you may have noticed, I place the oeuvre of the Beatles in that category.

That aside, people new to classical music notice that it comes in different flavors. The repertoire of symphony orchestras roughly spans the period from when the symphony was invented, mostly by Joseph Haydn around 1770, to the present day, though in the current environment most composers do not choose the symphony as the main focus of their work. But we can divide this repertoire into phases. The Classical phase includes Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven--and possibly Schubert. But between 1820 and 1830 a new spirit came to be: that of Romanticism. This is a bit confusing because we use the word 'classical' in two senses. In one sense it is all that music that is not popular. But in the narrower sense it means music of a particular historical period: from 1770 to the death of Beethoven in 1827. The Romantic phase of 'classical' music starts from then and goes to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Composers like Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, Bruckner, Mahler, Liszt and Wagner are all Romantic composers.

Another interesting thing happened in the 19th century: there began to be more interest in the music of the past than ever before. This really started in 1829 when Mendelssohn organized a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in Berlin one hundred years after it was first performed in Leipzig. Even though composers like Beethoven had studied the works of Bach, he was not well-known among the general listening public. This changed radically during the 19th and 20th centuries. Bach is from the period known as the Baroque, or what we might call pre-Classical classical music. It was not just Bach that was re-discovered. He brought along with him a host of other Baroque composers like Rameau, a couple of Couperins, Froberger, Corelli and, that bane of background music, the Vivaldi Four Seasons. After that, it was easy to develop an interest in pre-Baroque music and today we have lutenists and madrigal groups that go around playing Renaissance music. There are also ensembles that go further back to the Middle Ages. The wonderful thing is that we have discovered outstanding pieces of music going right back to the beginnings of Western music around the year 1000.

I won't talk about the discovery of non-Western music here, but that has been a trend for the last fifty years or so. But I should mention what came after the Romantic period. In the early 20th century there was a great paroxysm in Western Civilization. One symptom was World War I, followed by the sequel, World War II. Some have called this a "suicide attempt by Western Civilization". There were similar events in music as well. The organization of music in terms of the modes or scales was overthrown with the development of atonal music and the incorporation of percussion, noises and chance procedures. The names to note are Schoenberg, Berg and Webern on the one hand and Cage, Stockhausen and Varese on the other. The first group followed the traditions of using ordinary instruments but in an atonal context; the latter group incorporated new instruments, electronics, noise and chance procedures. It is still an open question whether much of this music will become 'classical' in my sense of the word. I'm sure that some will, but much won't.

So there you have a quick march through several different flavors of classical music. Now for some listening. Here is a piece from the early 20th century that I am fairly sure will become a 'classic' if it isn't already. The Lyric Suite for string quartet by Alban Berg, completed in 1926:

Monday, July 25, 2011

The International Music Authority

Wouldn't it be interesting to have one? A bit like the International Atomic Energy Authority or the World Health Organization. Some UN-sponsored body that was looking out for us. You know, protecting us from bad music the way some politicians are trying to protect us from excess salt or too much pizza. I know what you are thinking, "silly blogger, doesn't he know that things like the dangers of salt intake are scientific fact, but music is all just frothy subjective opinion?" I hate to rock the boat, but it turns out that all that scientific 'proof' about salt should be, uh, taken with a grain of salt. Here is the august Scientific American weighing in:
This week a meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure. In May European researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the less sodium that study subjects excreted in their urine—an excellent measure of prior consumption—the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease. These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous.
 Hmmm, I'm confused. You mean that this scientific stuff isn't always as solid as we thought? Well, maybe music isn't as frothy as you would think either. Let me share an anecdote. A few years ago I was sitting on the jury listening to the final performance exams of some students from the Quebec Conservatoire. Excellent institution, by the way. I was marking (out of 100) in company with another guitarist whom I had never met previously. We had both had a fair bit of experience with this sort of thing, though. The first student came out and played several pieces and when she was finished we looked at one another and said, almost in unison, "88!" And we agreed pretty closely on most of the other students as well.

You have to realize that a whole lot of what you think you know about music is hooey. Much of it is disseminated to promote particular artists or industries or sell newspapers or magazines. Little of it is accurate. A romantic view of everything is often useful in promoting new artists. They are all special little snowflakes who struggled against adversity/showed a special gift and have an almost mystical connection with the instrument/composer/audience. Ever read anything like that?

In reality, as I think we saw in the interpretation post, good playing by one artist is much like good playing by other artists. I know good playing when I hear it. And I know less good playing. I have been paid actual money on numerous occasions to judge playing at various levels. I'm not a bad judgmental person, it is just something that enough training and experience enables you to do.

Now, sure, I'm kidding about the International Music Authority. I'm sure we will never have one, issuing certificates of music safety and so on. Or rescuing helpless audiences from a tsunami of ill-judged aesthetic choices. I'd love to see it, though. An official walks onstage in the middle of an aria and stops the soprano: "I'm sorry, your phrasing has been determined to be unsafe for audiences at this level of exposure. The performance will have to end." Heh.

No, we will never have an IMA, nor do we need one. But that makes me wonder. Why do we have authorities trying to monitor salt intake? Why, Mayor Bloomberg, why? Funny thing, it turns out that there can be considerable political advantage to making us all run scared so the big strong Authority can rescue us. With music, we know it is ridiculous. Now if only we could figure out it is ridiculous with salt too...

Interpretation

I ended my post on expertise with this quote from Wittgenstein:
It is so characteristic, that just when the mechanics of reproduction are so vastly improved, there are fewer and fewer people who know how the music should be played.
Wittgenstein was a huge figure in 20th century philosophy who also knew a bit about music. His older brother Paul was a famous concert pianist who lost his right arm in WWI. After the war he simply re-commenced his career, but now as a left-handed pianist! Amazing story. Both Prokofiev and Ravel wrote concertos for the left hand for him.

But back to interpretation: "how the music should be played". This is a funny word for what musical performers do. Interpreters do things like work for the UN and translate Thai into German. Music, while it may have arguably language-like aspects, is not a language. Musical scores are not like a written foreign language that needs to be translated into musical sound (which is also not a language). But we don't seem to have another word for what performers do. What do they do?

Here are some different performances of the well-known prelude to the First Cello Suite of Bach (it was used in the movie Master and Commander):

 Mischa Maisky:
Yo-Yo Ma:
Mstislav Rostropovich:
Pablo Casals:
Anner Bylsma:
Irina Kulikova (on guitar):
Jacques Bono (electric bass):
Because I am a kind and gentle soul I will spare you the version on baritone saxophone.

Don't you love YouTube? Listening to those different versions, especially if you do it several times, will probably give you more of a sense of the concept of musical interpretation than anything I am likely to say. But I'll say it anyway!

Here is a relevant quote: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." What Leo Tolstoy says of families is partly true of musical interpretation. You probably noticed that there was a kind of generalized agreement on a lot of the way the piece should be played. Apart from small differences in tempo, Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich are not that far apart. Casals was recorded probably back in the 1930s, so the feel for the piece was a little different. Bylsma is playing on an original instrument, meaning one from the same time period as the composition and he is also using gut strings, so he makes a different sound. And on guitar there is a huge difference because the strings are plucked, not bowed.

But somehow the word "interpretation" just doesn't cut it for me. It pushes you in entirely the wrong direction. Music notation is not interpreted. It is read just the way poetry is read. The 'words' are quite clear. An interpreter from Thai to German has a lot of options in choosing the right word. A musical performer does not. The composer wrote a G, you play a G--you don't "interpret" it as a B flat. Tempo is obviously a place where there is some ambiguity. But notice that all the versions are about two and a half minutes, give or take twenty seconds or so. The same player might vary that much from one day to another.

I think that what players do is akin to someone reading poetry. If one person just picks up a poem and reads it aloud, that is one thing. If another person, who has thought about and researched the meaning of the poem for years picks it up and reads it aloud, that is quite a different thing. That is what musical 'interpretation' really is. Understanding as it shapes the performance.

So interpretation is the wrong word. But I just can't think what the right one would be. Any ideas?

UPDATE: I was delighted to read in the Guardian in the review of the 5th week of the Proms that Bernard Haitink is entirely of my way of thinking about interpretation:
...in his interval chat with the presenter and conductor Charles Hazelwood, Haitink answered a question about how his interpretation of Brahms had developed over the years with a wonderfully wrong-footing answer: "this word 'interpretation' should be forbidden … We have these wonderful scores and what we have to do is make sense of them. Why can't we just make music?"
 Nothing "wrong-footing", whatever that means, about that answer. That's just how it is. Music doesn't need 'interpretation' it just needs to be played.

Music and Literacy

I once posted a review of a book on Shostakovich's orchestral music on Amazon. The book was one of those that avoid any musical notation. The 'general reader' nowadays is assumed to be unable to read music and that is probably true. If we go back fifty years say, to Ernest Newman's hefty book The Wagner Operas, we find it stuffed with musical examples. Now the book on Shostakovich is quite useful. It tries to describe what is going on in the music and when talking about the 5th Symphony, which is on the accompanying CD, relates the comments to specific places on the disc: "at 3:28, the flute comes in with a new theme" for example (a hypothetical quote). But I found the lack of musical examples frustrating. Any mention of technical terms, even ones like 'eighth note' or 'quarter note' or 'dotted note' was avoided. The author does however talk about sonata form and passacaglia and forte. A kind of half-way solution. Nearly all books on music these days tend to follow this rule: no notation!

As a result of this, the author is forced to use metaphors all the time. The music "gallops", "whistles" and "barks". Themes "panic" or are "jerky" or "gawky". But we never are quite able to see any of this. You can probably sort it all out by close listening: "ah yes, that must be the gawky theme he is talking about." So the book can be quite useful and the author's heart is in the right place. I'm afraid I gave it rather a critical review on Amazon to which the author irately replied. I called all this "baby talk". Quite a few other readers concurred with me though.

A consistent theme in these posts will be the appreciation of learning. I like it when authors try to teach us stuff. I like to learn stuff. If you feel moved to make a comment pointing out something I have missed (as someone did the other day on the "Loudness Wars" post) I will be quite grateful. I don't like the attitude "you don't actually have to know anything." The more you know the better. If you are a music lover and listen to a lot of classical music, even knowing a little bit about music notation will be a great boon. It's not that hard.

The development of music notation was one of the greatest achievements of the human mind--a far more difficult one than the development of the alphabet. It occurred once in human history, in Southern France and Northern Italy around the year 1000. The Benedictine monk Guido of Arezzo was an important figure--at least the only one whose name we know! Prior to this music was written in neumes, that merely gave a suggestion of melodic shape. The brilliant innovation was to draw a horizontal line that defined exact pitch. This was soon refined into four lines and then five. Modern notation uses five lines. This enabled composers to write down exactly what notes they wanted. It then took about five hundred years to solve the problem of rhythm and this was done by using different kinds of note heads, by drawing vertical lines to mark off each measure and by inventing the tie, that joined two note heads together. Voila, modern notation. It is so highly evolved that the soundtrack to a movie can be recorded in a single two and a half hour session by studio musicians. They simply read it at sight! Most of the music you hear in movies, if it was played by living musicians, was played once only.

It is really not that hard to learn the basics of this wonderful system and it will open many doors for you in understanding music. Here is a whole (short) prelude by Chopin, first the notation, then a performance:


Notice I said THE notation and A performance. The notation IS the piece. The performance is just a version.

I have been teaching guitarists to read music for many years. You can start doing it about five minutes into the first lesson. In some ways it is a lot easier than learning the alphabet. The musical alphabet only has seven letters for one thing. Sure, rhythm takes a bit of work. But worth it. There is nothing quite like literacy.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Form and the Formless

I just had a discussion about form with a couple of fellow musicians and I realized how important a concept it is. What is musical form? Let's see what Wikipedia says:

The term musical form is often loosely used to refer to particular musical genres or styles (Scholes 1977), which may be determined by factors such as harmonic language, typical rhythms, types of musical instrument used as well as historical and geographical origins. In the vocabulary of art-music, however, it has a more extended meaning, referring to the type of "architectural" structure on which the music is built. Scholes (1977) explained musical form as a series of strategies designed to find a successful mean between the opposite extremes of unrelieved repetition and unrelieved alteration.
 Hmm, not so easy to describe. "Architectural" and "strategies" are both pretty loose metaphors.  The idea of finding the right balance between repetition and alteration is a good insight, though. I would say rather the balance between continuity and contrast articulated with melody, harmony and rhythm. But I suppose "articulated" is yet another metaphor! Sometimes it is very hard to talk about music.

Let's clear away a little underbrush. No, form is not the same as genre or style. These words have specific meanings. A genre is a type of piece and may be defined loosely or closely as needed. A minuet is a genre, a dance in 3/4 time, for example. Baroque music, however, is a style involving a great many factors. But form is something different. For example, one feature of the minuet genre is the form AABB. That is, the typical minuet has two parts, each repeated. If the piece is in major, then the first part usually goes to the dominant. This binary dance form is common to a lot of different pieces other than just minuets. The allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue also follow the same general formal plan. Preludes however do not: they have a more amorphous form that varies greatly from prelude to prelude.

The twelve bar blues is a form in which a certain arrangement of tonic, subdominant and dominant chords may be repeated for as long as needed. Sometimes this kind of form is called strophic. In popular songs, this is elaborated by having different music for the verse and chorus. Sometimes another section occurs that contrasts with the verse, usually called the bridge or 'middle eight'. These, like Baroque dances, are sectional forms. You can also have forms that develop continuously without strict sections--often found in Romantic period music. There are a multitude of possibilities based on a number of basic principles.

Now let me rant for a bit. There are forms that are really rather formless. If you take a 12-bar blues progression, or a flamenco progression or any simple harmonic progression and repeat it, varying it each time with different improvisations and you keep doing this until you run out of ideas, then you have had what used to be called a 'jam session' and more power to you. But this lacks a certain element of musical form that I think is important: direction and conclusion. The fact that this kind of music-making does lack this makes it perfect in certain contexts. It is music you can dip in and out of, so it is suitable as background music, not to be listened to closely. It is music that offers free rein to the performers so they have a good time and it doesn't need to be 'composed'. But it is inherently unsatisfactory as 'art-music' because it does not have direction and conclusion. It does not have a planned course that takes you on a musical or aesthetic journey. You don't really go anywhere. And so, it is kind of formless. The next time you hear some music listen for the form or the formlessness. One pretty good clue to whether the music is formed or formless is whether or not notes could be added or taken away with no real effect: if so, it is formless. It is the precise choice of the exact notes and no other ones that can create the sense of direction and conclusion. Two examples:


OK, which one is formy and which one is formless? I've tried to make it difficult for you by choosing these particular pieces. The answer is, the first one is basically formless. Instead of composed form, Keith Jarrett is doing a fantastic job of making the performance make up for the absence of form. My apologies for not finding the whole performance, the clip seems to end in the middle. So my remarks, obviously, apply only to what I hear in this clip. The Beethoven, however, is an excellent example of form with a clear direction and conclusion. I'm not saying, by the way, that one is necessarily superior to the other; I just want to point out the difference.

Popular and Unpopular Culture

I was browsing around the interwebs and found a fascinating piece on post-minimalism and this brief clip of the composer John Adams talking about popular culture:

There is a scathing rebuttal to this, also on YouTube, but I'll do my own. Now I don't have anything against John Adams' music, nor am I a big fan--I'm pretty much neutral. So I'm just responding to what he is saying here.
  • "Popular music and popular culture in general has enormous prestige" This is just silly. Popular culture, by definition, has popularity which means revenues. Popular music has lots of money. Classical music does not. But classical music does have prestige--much resented by people who don't much like it, but do like popular and jazz musics.
  • "If Barack Obama ... had said [he] liked Beethoven, the poll numbers would have dropped through the floor" There is this tradition in American politics of portraying yourself as a 'man of the people' so this might be a kind of half-truth. But mostly irrelevant, I think. If we turn it around, we see that an awful lot of people detest, for example, Sarah Palin partly because she does not make a pretense of appreciating high culture. You can't actually have it both ways, can you?
  • "We have this suspicion about culture, that there's something vaguely subversive and morally lax about art." That suspicion may indeed be floating around, but if so, it is largely because every 'progressive' out there is saying that serious art must be subversive! That's the whole point of putting a crucifix in a glass of urine, is it not? So this suspicion would seem to be well-earned, but only if we are talking about 'progressive' art.
  • "So that's why we really glorify pop culture." Say again? This follows directly on the previous quote as if there were some logical connection. We glorify pop culture (we don't, we just spend a lot of money on it because it's popular) because high art is subversive? Um, isn't pop culture actually more subversive? Had a look at a Lady Gaga video lately?
  • "We were a country founded by religious zealots and venture capitalists." The history is just wrong and he is going to try and prove something that is not going to follow.
  • "that lingering anti-intellectualism" Let me just sort out the hidden assumptions here: religious zealots and venture capitalists are anti-intellectual. Really? Tell that to the guys writing those intricate computer models that run Wall Street these days. But the most remarkable buried assumption here is that classical music is intellectual. Is it? Well sure, a piece by Beethoven is longer than a piece by Katy Perry but a listener doesn't need to understand the structure to enjoy it any more than he or she needs to understand how digital sound editing and synthesized drum tracks work to enjoy the Katy Perry. Maybe Beethoven just needs better videos?
Then he meanders on complaining about how people want to be initiated but don't have access to all that wonderful classical music. Well [expletive deleted], has he never looked at YouTube? Everything is out there. You can listen to anything you want any time you want. If people don't want to listen to classical music there is obviously some other reason and it has nothing to do with the ones he mentioned:
  1. pop music has all the prestige
  2. classical music is perceived to be subversive
  3. we glorify pop culture
  4. we're anti-intellectual
Wrong, wrong, wrong, irrelevant. Does he really believe any of this tripe? Or is he just going through the motions of saying the things a composer is expected to say? Bowing in the right direction?

Here's what I think. Before the downfall of the aristocracy, their taste and money supported the art they liked. We got a lot of good art out of that: all that great Renaissance painting and music, for example. The glorious French Baroque. Even most of the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Towards the end of Haydn's life, he started to make money from public concerts and Beethoven was making money from sales of his music, but they still were for the most part, supported by upper-class patrons. Through the 19th century this slowly changed so that now government takes over the function of the aristocracy and supports various institutions that commission composers. For a look at the kinds of commissions a successful composer receives, have a look at this page on John Adams. How government chooses depends sometimes on political considerations, but often it is based on the opinions of cultural leaders in the media and academia. That is really who John Adams is talking to in the clip. The possibility of composers making a living from sales of their music is remote these days because of the rise of popular music. I've written about this before, but the enormous sums of money that can be made in popular music don't go back too many decades. Classical records pre-Elvis actually could out-sell popular ones. But not now.

But all this talk about popular and unpopular culture misses the point. I keep coming back to the sage words of Duke Ellington who said there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. There are a few good pieces of music in a vast landscape of dull, boring, annoying crap. But it has little to do with the labels. There are good and bad classical pieces, good and bad popular music, good and bad bluegrass, good and bad jazz and on and on. Isn't that obvious?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Credentialed vs Educated

The blogfather Glenn Reynolds--Instapundit--has been blogging about the Higher Education Bubble. He suggests that higher education has an inflated value at this time and is often not worth the huge associated costs. Here are some posts. He makes the distinction between credentialed vs educated. That's an interesting idea. In my academic career it didn't seem to be an issue. I was in the performance end of things where how good you were depended simply on how well you played. But I did notice, more and more, that in a lot of academia, even in music, it was credentials that did make a difference. Some schools were really focused on education, others more on credentialization. As a matter of fact, I studied in the best places you could go as a classical guitarist: the Instituto Musical "Oscar Espla" in Alicante, Spain and the Hochschule fur Musik "Mozarteum" in Salzburg, Austria. But I didn't even bother to pick up the certificates at the end of the courses. They were of virtually no significance. The only thing that mattered was what you got out of it. I was shocked once to meet a guitarist from Tennessee who had a masters degree in performance on guitar but had never even played an etude by Villa-Lobos. I also noticed that one university at which I taught was never, ever going to award an assistant professorship to a guitarist. Wrong instrument. But an oboist was a different story. The 'credential' in that case was: orchestral instrument vs vaguely bohemian and academically suspect instrument. In the composition end of things, credentialism is pretty important. Most composers with academic posts have to be in line with the current fashions. For a long time it was atonal serialism. I'm not sure what it is right now.

Of course, now I see better how the game is played. It is really all about career. Career in the sense of professional employment, benefits, institutional support and tenure. Guaranteeing yourself a secure job. That used to have no appeal to me--but I'm starting to see the pluses! It just doesn't have anything to do with music.

Musical Expertise

This sort of comes out of the last post. Let me recount some examples. I once attended a chamber festival on Hornby Island off the west coast of Canada. A string quartet was giving a concert and played one of the quartets by Janacek. I knew the first violinist because we both taught at the same conservatory. Afterwards I went up to congratulate him and we talked about the piece. Suddenly he paused and asked me "do you know the piece"? I had just heard him play it and I had a recording at home that I had listened to quite a few times, so it could be seen as an odd question. But what he meant was "have you studied the score of the piece"? Which I had not, so I answered "no". I didn't have the requisite knowledge of that piece. Another time I was at a musicology conference in Baltimore where a Russian musicologist whose name I forget, alas, was giving a lecture on modes in Tchaikovsky. I happened to be standing near a truly great musicologist, Richard Taruskin, who is a specialist in Russian music. He asked the lecturer "can you give us an example of such and such a mode"? The Russian paused in thought a moment and replied, "yes, there is a choral piece in the collected works of Tchaikovsky, volume six, page, hmmm, I think, eighty-two". Stopped us all in our tracks. Now that's expertise. Another time I was in the photocopy room in the music library at McGill, copying a motet by Machaut (1300 - 1377), when one of the professors came up to use the adjoining machine. He glanced over and said, "ah, Machaut". There was nothing on the page, such as lyrics or other text, to identify it. I asked him how he did that and he said he had spent many hours studying Machaut as a graduate student and, believe it or not, recognized the musical typeface. Another time I walked into the photocopy room whistling a theme from the first movement of Shostakovich 5th Symphony and a different professor walking by immediately said, "Shostakovich 5".

This reminds me of a game. I was at the Banff Centre once, taking in a master-class given by Oscar Ghiglia. There were perhaps twenty guitarists in the class. Several of us were hanging out in a dorm room one evening and there was one guitar there. Of course, everyone wanted to play the guitar. The game was: whoever had the guitar had to play the first four bars of whatever piece someone named. If they could, they kept the guitar for a few minutes. If they couldn't, they had to give the guitar to whoever had named the piece. "Ponce, Prelude 7". "Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Sonata, minuet". And so on. One guy was almost impossible to stump. He knew virtually the whole repertoire. I think he is guitar professor at Cornell these days.

I was able to demonstrate an interesting kind of expertise once. A friend of mine, the fine Beethoven scholar Bill Kinderman, who had just published a study of Beethoven with Oxford University Press, had given me a copy. Somewhere, if I recall correctly, he quotes, without attribution, the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein saying something like philosophy is like a ladder you use to climb up onto the roof. Once you are there, you no longer need the ladder. I had actually read some Wittgenstein so the next time I saw Bill I mentioned that I recognized the quote. He looked at me with some surprise and ever after did not regard me as just another performing musician.

Knowing stuff is cool. Another quote from him concerns music (Ludwig Wittgenstein's older brother Paul was a famous concert pianist):
It is so characteristic, that just when the mechanics of reproduction are so vastly improved, there are fewer and fewer people who know how the music should be played.

Discipline and Joy

When I switched from electric guitar and bass and acoustic steel string guitar to classical guitar around age 19 it was as profound a change as a Buddhist suddenly deciding to become Jewish or an Amish becoming a hip-hop artist. I described it in terms of a change in instruments--a small one, really from steel string guitar to nylon string--but it was really a profound aesthetic and philosophical one. I decided, over a period of a few months, to learn to be a classical guitarist and to stop being a guitarist who played popular music. I say 'popular' music--what I mean is "all that music that is not classical". I stopped buying popular records--I didn't even buy Abbey Road when it came out. Instead I started buying records of Dvorak, Debussy, Bach, Beethoven, Faure, Tchaikovsky and more Bach. I taught myself to read music by learning how to write it. I took classical guitar lessons. Before then I didn't really study music. Oh, I had a couple of lessons right when I started on bass guitar, but they didn't amount to much. How I learned to play was by listening and by forming a band. We learned together. Sort of. But as soon as I discovered classical music I realized this was a whole new ball game. No violinist learned how to play the Tchaikovsky concerto without studying. Big time. So after I had gone to two or three teachers and found out that they themselves hadn't actually studied the instrument seriously, I finally went to Spain early in 1974. At that time in Canada, believe it or not, there was hardly a single guitar teacher in Canada that was truly qualified.

I spend nearly a year in Spain, in the medium-sized town of Alicante, where there lived a fellow named Jose Tomas that you have probably never heard of. The greatest classical guitarist in the world at that time was Andres Segovia and there was a small circle of--could we call them disciples?--around him. Alirio Diaz from Venezuela, Oscar Ghiglia from Italy, John Williams from the UK, Michael Lorimer from the US and Jose Tomas from Spain. These guitarists were the second generation, at least counting from Segovia. The least well-known of them was probably Jose Tomas. But he was selected to be Segovia's assistant at the big annual master class in Santiago de Compostella. Jose Tomas lived in Alicante, surrounded by his own group of students from the US, Japan and Europe. It was this group I joined. I spent about six hours a day practicing guitar, doing technique, learning new repertoire. The rest of the time I went to lunch with some fellow students and read Russian novels. That's it. When I went to Spain I was a hack classical guitarist. When I got back, about a year later, I was a real classical guitarist. A few months after getting back I decided to continue my formal music education and auditioned to enter the performance program at McGill University in Montreal--then, and now, the finest music school in Canada. I played the best audition they had ever seen (which included the Theme and Variations by Lennox Berkeley).

What is the point of telling you all this? Just fond reminiscences? No! As my mother often reminded me, I don't have a lick of common sense. But there are some things I just know intuitively. One of them is the importance--and joy--of discipline. What I did in that year in Spain, during which I really learned how to play, was discipline. Every morning I would get up, have churros y chocolate across the street, then come back to my room and practice. I would start with simple exercises: slurs, arpeggios, scales, playing them in different ways at different speeds, until they were absolutely automatic. Then I would take up the new piece I was working on. Section by section I would memorize it. Then I would play over some older repertoire. This would take three hours. Then I would go for lunch. In the late afternoon, I would do it all again. And I did this day after day, week after week, month after month. A set of strings would be worn out in less than two weeks.

A very fine flute-player (who became principle flute in an orchestra) I used to perform with once said that everyone who really learned how to play did the core work in about a year of absolute total effort. Everything else is just refinement and trimming the edges. Don't know if that is true for everyone. But my point here is that mastery demands discipline. It can come in different ways. The way I did it is certainly not unusual. For the Beatles, it was probably the couple of years they spent playing clubs in Hamburg.

What drives people to this level of discipline? It might come naturally to some, but to others it is something they adopt because they have to. I think for me it was the vision that I talked about in this post. I don't remember the moment of epiphany--and that probably means it wasn't a moment. It was probably a phase of gradually clearing vision, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. It might have taken months. All I know is that at the time the Beatles White Album came out, in November 1968, that was all I was interested in, musically. But by the time Abbey Road came out, in October 1969 (in Canada), I was barely interested in it at all and didn't even buy a copy. Sometime between fall of 68 and fall of 69 I became a classical musician. It took me several more years to learn how to play like one, but the allegiance was clear and unquestioned. I didn't even think about any of this. It was just as obvious as falling into the ocean meant you got wet.

The vision was one of joy. The ineffable joy of music. And the road to that joy was through discipline. You could write a book: The Joy of Scales. But it wouldn't be a best-seller.