Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Now We're a 'Community'

There have been a raft of news stories lately in Europe and North America about governments cutting funding to arts organizations. The thing that strikes me is how the discussion is framed in the media. This story is typical:

Notice the use of the word 'community'. The media only seem to have three or four notes on their harmonica so they have to shoehorn stories about the arts into one of them. If it is a case of government funding then the story will be the lessening of support for a minority community, much like lessening of support for a visible minority or women. Those kinds of efforts are with the end of assuring some sort of social equality. But what could supporting the arts 'community' possibly be in aid of? Ah, this is the unasked question. The media have found their easily-communicated narrative so end of story. But arts 'workers' (and there is another interesting term, equivalent to, I suppose, sex 'workers') are not an oppressed minority, are they? They are individuals who have chosen a risky profession, economically, for personal reasons, aren't they? The potential rewards are great, are they not? Ah, perhaps that is the issue: the rewards in the non-commercial fields of art are minuscule. As a non-commercial composer you might get the occasional commission from the Canada Council, an orchestra, a festival or a private sponsor, but these, even for a 'successful' composer, will probably not add up to a living wage. Your only hope is a position teaching theory and composition at a university.

How far has classical music fallen from its position at the head of the arts in the 19th century, when it was the embodiment of our deepest nature, the Will of Schopenhauer! Now we are just another socially-disadvantaged community...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Kitsch, Cliché and Professionalism

A week or so ago I put up a post about professionals and amateurs that elicited a number of comments. Today I would like to go at it from a different angle. I'll start with a bit of autobiography. The early stages of my career were in pop music. It was only after three or four years that I discovered classical music and became a convert. During that transition I was occasionally hired for some interesting 'gigs'. One was to play guitar for a New Year's dance in a trio. The problem was that I couldn't take this music, especially when played in this kind of context, seriously any more. So they fired me! I think it was the only time I was fired from a music job. They were right to do so, of course. I wasn't able to be 'professional' in that context. Now what does this tell us?

Kinds of professionalism

Let's look at what professionalism really is. It is a cultivated ability to deliver what is needed in defined contexts. A professional musician in an orchestra can quickly learn to play orchestral parts with clear rhythms, good sound, nicely phrased and responsive to the conductor and do so flawlessly on every occasion. A professional studio musician, the kind that records soundtracks, can read anything at sight and play it flawlessly. A professional teacher of music can teach others to do these things. But look what we are leaving out: real expression. Because involvement with what you are doing, on the personal level, would just get in the way.

Something similar is true of composition. A professional composer these days, is someone who writes soundtracks for movies or television. There are certain procedures that, when followed, will enable you to deliver the goods predictably, week after week. Some professionals seem to do it better than others, but what the job is, is clear.

Some Examples

Let's take a soundtrack, for example.

That does the job nicely of setting up a mood that is both eerie and yet somehow, familiar. Orchestral color from Tchaikovsky:

Done as a Viennese waltz, but with more rigid phrasing. The secret of this kind of professionalism is to have minimal creativity. This example is at the top of the heap, of course. Minimal creativity has made John Williams famous. Way down at the bottom is what we call 'elevator' music: soulless arrangements of vaguely familiar tunes.

This is where the words kitsch and cliché come to mind. This kind of music is absolutely mechanical, with a rigid beat, no phrasing allowed! The arrangements are watered down collections of clichés and the result is kitsch. Doing anything creative in this context would be unprofessional and probably get you fired.

What is cliché in music?

Every genre has its own clichés. The determining factor is the use of a device, harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic, that has been used many times before in just the same way. In the 'elevator' music example the clichés include the Latin rhythm track, the harmonic progression, the syncopated accompaniment and finally the melody. Also a cliché is the length of the phrases: everything appears exactly when you expect. This is professional delivery of the perfectly predictable. John Williams is operating on a much higher level, but what he is delivering is just slightly disguised clichés: the color of the celeste, the rhythm and phrasing of a Viennese waltz and a melody that is foursquare but with just a touch of chromatic inflection.


Is the opposite of the above. Instead of the precise professional reproduction of the predictable and expected--the cliché--you search for the new, the different, the unusual, that which develops its own context and doesn't just give the listener what they expect. Of course, in doing this, you need a highly developed sense of taste, because doing the different and unexpected often means you will come up with something not very pleasing... But sometimes that's ok, too. Some composers have made entire careers out of the creation of unpleasant music. But original. And not a cliché...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Act of Listening

I just put up a post rather critical of some festival organizers who seem to have no awareness of what is involved in listening to music. My sense is that few people these days actually know how to listen. I suspect this is in self-defence because we are the victims of countless sound-assaults every day in the modern world: boom-box cars, motorcycles, radios, televisions, outdoor sound systems and ones in malls and other places that play music. And on and on! We don't listen because we, mostly, don't want to hear!

But suppose you do want to listen to a piece you chose yourself out of actual interest, not something inflicted on you. Here is how to proceed: find an adequate recording of the music. Let me interrupt myself to say that this should actually be your second option. The best is to attend a performance of it. Wait, perhaps even better is to play through it yourself. But leaving that aside, you have arranged to hear the piece in some way. By the way, hearing the piece, i.e. listening to the piece, means without interference or interruption. Just the piece, nothing else. But, depending on the piece, some preparation might be in order. If the piece in question is the latest Katy Perry video, then perhaps not much. You are going to laugh, but I often look up even pop stars on Wikipedia--they have articles, often quite informative, on everyone. But let's say it is a piece of classical music. Perhaps a piece by Bach. Let's say you want to listen to the Magnificat by Bach. Well, first thing I would suggest is to read the Wikipedia article on Bach which is here. As befits the importance of his music, the article is pretty thorough and well worth your time. Next, as the Magnificat is a pretty well-known piece, it has its own article, which is here. Short one, but it includes the text. Now what I would do at this point is get the score because if I want to really listen to something, I hate to do it unless I have the score. At concerts in London, publishers set up tables outside so you can buy the score to works being performed. At least they used to... Here is where you can find the score to the Magnificat at the International Music Score Library. Scores, actually, as there are a lot available--the first one on the list is a reproduction of Bach's original manuscript! Why don't you do this even if you don't read music? See if you can follow along. You will definitely pick up something. Next, you want to find a performance. These days, you can find almost anything on YouTube, usually in multiple versions. Here is the Bach Magnificat:

God that's ....... magnificent!

Programs and Program Notes

For the last few years I have been dragooned into writing program notes for a couple of different concert series. Apart from having sometimes to throw them together in too little time, I quite enjoy doing this. As a result, I become somewhat familiar with music that I might not have. But also as a result, I have become a bit sensitized to the value a good program and notes can add to the concert experience.

For example, I just attended two concerts in a Baroque music festival and they could have benefited immensely from a bit of attention to the program. The first concert was for solo harpsichord in a small, historic chapel. So far, so excellent. But then things started to go downhill. The artistic director of the festival gave what seemed to be an interminable introduction, that grew even longer when he introduced another gentleman who gave another dreary, droning introduction full of odd claims and misapprehensions. Finally the soloist appeared and began to play. Lovely sound! But I realized that while I was quite sure I knew the music, I didn't actually know for sure what it was. After a while, she paused and allowed us to clap. Someone must have said something because she asked if we had the program and rolled her eyes when we said no. The president of the festival rushed around and programs were finally handed out, at which point we learned that we had just heard three pieces by Rameau. This was followed by three other composers. The program listed the name of each composer and the name of each movement and even the dates of the composers' lives. So, a bit of a wobble,  but not bad.

Then I attended another concert in the same series and, well, the wobble turned into a real failure. The concert was a fairly grand one of music, according to the newspaper, by Bach and Vivaldi for choir and orchestra. As we entered we were handed two things: the little booklet for the whole festival and a separate sheet of paper with the names of the musicians, singers and conductor. Here is a scan of the program for the concert. This was the entire program, no other information was cleverly tucked away somewhere else.

This is just about exactly the original size. Now imagine the context: a dimly lit room (at least in the audience), at the front the director droning away as before, but this time through a public address system so inadequate that I wasn't even sure which language he was droning away in, and me squinting, trying to make out the title of the first Bach cantata. One of the announcements was that the director listed in the program was not available so the concert would be conducted by (inaudible), presumably the fellow who was listed on that stray piece of paper we were handed. The droned introduction, by the way, was replete with appeals for support, for patronage and contained some commercials for the festival. All very important stuff, of course, but it would have made a better impact had it been, um, audible. There was no mention of the music we were about to hear. Then the concert started. A bit shaky at the beginning, but it soon settled down and sounded very good. But I was squirming a bit because the music didn't sound quite like what I expected it to. Schutz is not a composer I am very familiar with. The next piece didn't sound quite like I expected either. Then the director got up and informed us that the first piece, by Schutz, had been dropped from the program so we had actually started with the first cantata by Bach, followed by the piece by Biber and now were about to hear the second Bach cantata. Well, jolly good! As I've been just reading the Oxford History on these folks a couple of weeks ago, I really should have been able to figure that out on my own! But what about everyone else?

We are hearing unfamiliar music, sung in an unfamiliar language (few German speakers here and no Latin speakers!), designed for use in religious services that we are also unfamiliar with (no Lutherans here, either). This is the kind of situation where program notes, or at least an informed (but brief) introduction to the music is absolutely crucial. I would also argue for the compete text plus translation. I know that many artists hate the idea of the audience having the text because of the rustling paper issue, but in a case like this, I think you have to risk it. Notice how terribly minimal that program is! Apart from being wrong, listing a work not played, it fails to list the movements of the two Bach cantatas and the Vivaldi. It should have looked like this for the first Bach cantata:

  1. Sinfonia
  2. [chorus] Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich
  3. [soprano aria] Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt
  4. [chorus] Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit
  5. [alto/tenor/bass trio] Zedern müssen von den Winden
  6. [chorus] Meine Augen sehen stets zu dem Herrn
  7. [chorus (ciaccona)] Meine Tage in dem Leide

The text goes like this: Chorus: "For you, Lord, is my longing" (better would be, "My longing, Lord, is for you"). Soprano aria: "But I am, and remain, content". Chorus: "Lead me in your truth and teach me". Aria (terzetto): "Cedars must before the wind, often feel much hardship". And so on. I was able to find this out in, oh, approximately 3 minutes research on the Web. This would not have been difficult. But it is very important because Bach took great care in the texts he set. The meanings were very important to him and should be to us. Instead, the organizers of the concert preferred to allow hundreds of people to sit in confusion and ignorance in the concert hall while some pretty good performances were unfolding. This is not the easiest music to absorb with absolutely no idea of what they are singing about or of the context in general. Good grief, and we wonder sometimes why it is hard for people to appreciate classical music.

We have to know our music and be able to introduce it to people who may not know it. Sometimes I think musical knowledge and understanding is pretty thin, even among people who are supposedly professional classical musicians. Now let's hear that cantata:

Bach is a great madrigalist (word-painter) in his cantatas. Two striking examples in this one are the chromatic sighs on the words "zuschanden werden" (to be put to shame) in the opening chorus and the accompaniment in the terzetto that seems to capture cedars tossing in the wind. That passage comes just after the 9 minute mark in the clip. Wonderful stuff in the Bach cantatas. Which anyone can appreciate. If they have just a tiny bit of information about this kind of music. And if they have THE TEXT!!!

It is hard not to come away from a concert like this without feeling that someone here has shown, if not actual contempt for the music, than certainly a rather thorough disinterest in the music. It's not the musicians, who did a fine job.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I put up a piece the other day by Anthony Genge called "New Hockets" and a friend of mine commented that it  
"made me remember one very hot summer day when I had to walk barefoot over black pavement scattered with sharp bits of gravel."
Now the thing is that my friend is very knowledgeable about all things medieval and hocket, called 'hoquetus' in Latin, is a very medieval technique. Here are some great examples:

These hockets are from the Bamberg Codex, a manuscript containing 13th century French polyphony, including these seven pieces. So what is hocket exactly? It is a technique used in both vocal and instrumental music where a single line may be divided up between two or more voices or instruments. Early examples occur in the organum of Perotinus of Notre Dame in Paris who flourished around 1200. The seven examples heard in the clip above are from the second half of the 13th century and show the delightful effects you get when you speed up the process.

Here is how to hocket: take a single line, as in the first two measures of the example, and divide it between two voices, as in the second two measures.

Click to enlarge

Here is how the beginning of the third hocket in the clip above starts. It's a lot more fun when you are in triple time. This piece starts around the 2:18 mark in the clip.

Click to enlarge

And that is what is interesting about these hockets: they reveal to us musicians of a remote time, having a lot of fun. Now let's have a listen again to what a modern composer did with this idea:

Monday, March 19, 2012

More Basic Materials of Music

Lots of people seem to have read my previous post, even though no-one left a comment, so I'm going to do a followup. I'm not going to give an online course in reading music, music theory or playing guitar. There are lots of those available already. What I can do is point you to the ones that seem the most useful. I just looked at some of what's out there and most of them are not very good. They are either clumsily written, excessively trippy or dull. But if you want a good, thorough approach you might have to put up with a bit of dull! Here is a pretty good place to start:

Teoria is a more serious site that has various tutorials. Here is the one on reading music:

They also have sound examples, which is a big help. Though their metronome doesn't seem to have a very good rhythmic sense! Or maybe it is just my internet connection.

Here is an online course that includes both reading and music theory:

Here is a blog on music theory:

I'm not making guarantees about these sites as I just took a brief tour of them, but all of these look pretty good.

I'm wondering if perhaps we might be on the verge of a new era in teaching music. Services like Skype might allow students to learn from teachers that are geographically remote. But in the meantime, I have to recommend that you find a real, live teacher. There are free online courses, but most of them put me to sleep!

That is way too 'talky'. I think it is best to just start playing, put the fingers on the guitar, adjust the position. After a bit, show how notes look like written down, etc, etc. But don't load the student down with a bunch of philosophy and precepts that can have no real traction for them yet.

Here are a couple of pretty good teachers in action:

Despite the guitar's Spanish heritage, English is the international language of guitar masterclasses--even in Spain!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Basic Materials of Music

I was once instructor and coordinator of a college course with that name, intended for non-music majors (music majors were expected to already know all this stuff). It occurs to me that I talk a lot about music 'literacy', but I don't offer much help! Based on comments, it seems as if a lot of readers of this blog are already highly-trained musicians. But perhaps some readers, the ones who don't comment, might benefit from some basic information. Please let me know in the comments!

Let's start with reading. I think that reading music is a very simple skill, at least at the beginning. I start my students off with it in the first lesson. Oddly, no-one taught me to read music. My mother never learned and I played by ear for the first two or three years as a pop musician. When I realized that if you wanted to work with orchestral instruments, you needed to write down what you wanted them to play, I just taught myself.

Here is how it works: musical notes are written down with hollow and filled dots on a grid. Each dot stands for a single note. That is really all there is to it! Historically it took a long time to work it all out, especially how to show rhythms, but the system works very well. The grid is called a 'staff' and it has five lines:

That funny looking thing at the beginning, called the "treble clef", is a very stylized letter 'G' and where it curls around the second line from the bottom it shows that that line is the note we call 'G'. Right after it is a thing that looks like the letter 'C'. That is a "time signature" that tells you about the rhythmic structure of the music. It isn't a letter 'C', but a half-circle and a sign that dates back to the Middle Ages. It actually means "tempus imperfectus" and means, nowadays, that each little box, called a "measure" will have four beats. That hollow thingy sitting in the second space from the bottom is the note 'A'. Music, unlike the alphabet, only has seven notes: ABCDEFG. So if you go up from A, you go to B and C, but if you go down from A, you go to G and F. So that's why the note in the space above the line that we know is G is A instead of H or something.

I teach guitar, not piano or violin, so now I will show you how the staff relates to notes on the guitar. Here are the open strings of the guitar as they appear on the staff:

Click to enlarge

As you can see, the notes on the guitar go far outside the staff! The reason is that what I am showing you here is a kind of notation originally developed for singers--vocal notation. So a five line staff is big enough to accommodate the range of most voices. The piano has a very large range, so they get to use two staves: the treble one that I've shown here, and another lower one that uses a bass clef instead of a treble clef. Guitarists manage to get by with just the one. OK, so if you sit down with your guitar and play from the bass strings (the thicker ones) to the treble strings, you will play the notes I showed above. All those notes on the frets that the left hand plays I'm just leaving out for now!

We have some notes, now we just need some rhythms. Here is what rhythms look like, written down:

Click to enlarge

This is all played on the FIRST string of the guitar, that is, the thinnest, highest-sounding one. Count aloud a few sequences of ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR. Make sure that you count evenly. What you are doing is just measuring time in packages of four. Four what? Four beats. Tap your foot if it helps. Ok, now you are ready to read the rhythms above. The first bar (up to the first barline) is easy. Count 1234 and every time you say a number, play the first string open. The next bar has one longer note. It takes up two beats: 1 2. As you say "1", play the note and let it keep ringing as you say "2". That's it. Then just play two more notes for beats 3 and 4. The next bar has two longer notes so you play on 1, let it ring as you say "2", then play on 3 and let it ring as you say "4". The last bar is easiest of all: play the note as you say "1" and just let it ring as you say "2" "3" and "4". If you have got each bar figured out, then go back and do the whole line. Congratulations, you can read both notes and rhythms. Everything else is just refinements!

Now am I oversimplifying? Well, I think I am simplifying just the right amount. Compared to reading words in a book, reading music is really pretty simple. Now of course, you spend your whole life learning the refinements and subtleties, just as you do with language. Why just the other day I learned a new verb: to impend, which I had known only as a gerund.

After all that, time for a treat. Notice that they are playing while reading the notes:

UPDATE: a friend sent me some good suggestions via email, so I have gone back and clarified some things.

The Composer's Dilemma

I'm working my way through Richard Taruskin's mammoth Oxford History of Western Music right now (and will be for a while!). One recurring theme that is particularly fascinating is the reception history of music. Jeremy Denk was railing against this in a post on his blog. He is making the point that we should listen to music with fresh ears and of course, this is part of his role as a performer. But Taruskin is an historian and pieces of music sometimes have a reception history that is pretty important. For example, the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka achieved a great deal of success, especially with his opera A Life for the Tsar. Why was this? Why did he achieve such a powerful reception that he is now known as the father of Russian music? As Taruskin outlines the history, it was because he had not only sought out the kind of training in Italy and Germany that would give him the compositional tools to write an up-to-date opera, he was also "ideologically Russian". He chose a story-line that illustrated the fundamental principles of the Russian nation as it was then conceived: orthodoxy, autocracy and nationhood [see the Oxford History, vol. 3, p. 240-41]. In doing so he received the full support of all the powers in Russian society. Tsar Nikolai himself suggested the title of the opera! In the growth of nationalism in the 19th century, opera played a significant role in several countries.

So what is the dilemma? Just write what the important people want to hear and if you know your trade, all will be well. Composers like Rossini and Meyerbeer achieved great material success by so doing--not to mention a considerable musical success as well! But there is always another role for music: that of being outside the main stream, of being a commentary, perhaps, on the mainstream. When Glinka was young he availed himself of all the musical education he could and then supplemented it by traveling to Italy and Germany for further study with the great masters. Then he returned to Russia, became aware of what was needed in ideological terms and delivered the goods. When I was young, I availed myself of all the musical education I could (though I was focused on playing the guitar, not composition) and supplemented it by traveling to Spain and Austria for further study with the great masters. What I was never really aware of was the ideological context. I was, I suppose, a musical romantic of a particular kind. I grew up with folk music (from my mother) and popular music (from the rest of my environment). I became musically aware in the mid to late 1960s so the artists that loomed really large were people like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Cream. Then I discovered classical music and that commanded my devotion for a long time. But the ideological residue of my early years was that music was something that was outside the social mainstream. It was the voice of an individual artist (or small group). It was not about expressing the ideology of the society--it anything it was a critique of that ideology. Plus, temperamentally, I was drawn to a kind of individualistic aestheticism.

Here's the dilemma: assuming you have learned the craft of composition, you have a choice. Either write from an idiosyncratic, individual view or write for one of several different social groups. These might include those people and organizations that provide commission funding, or you could try and capture some of the general public audience but to do that you will need to work within pop music genres or perhaps do soundtracks for movies or television. Some composers have developed their own specific base of fans and supporters over a length of time, acting like entrepreneurs.

But we are still confronted with the dilemma: in order to do any of the above things you have to discern what it is these groups of supporters want to hear. And then decide if you can really give them what they want.

What I am doing in my own compositions these days is trying to create a repertoire of some substance for guitarists to play. I suppose I deal with the dilemma by ignoring it! As a composer friend of mine said to me once: "I just write down the notes that sound good..." His name is Anthony Genge and here is a piece of his based on the medieval 'hocket' in a recent performance:

UPDATE: I neglected to put up some Glinka. Here is Anna Netrebko singing the Cavatina and Rondo from Act I of A Life for the Tsar:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Fingernails of a Guitarist

There is a post up on NPR's Deceptive Cadence in which Jason Vieaux talks about the correct use of a ping-pong ball. Yes, it's true, the best replacement for a missing thumbnail is a crescent-shaped piece cut from a ping-pong ball. Though I think he is incorrect when he says you glue it under the actual nail. It is much better glued, with Krazy Glue, on top of the nail. Oh yes, this is the only solution to the loss of a nail. It also works on the other fingers too. The sound is not quite the same, but you can get used to it.

Few non-guitarists know how crucial the fingernails are to the sound. They perform a function roughly similar to that of a clarinet or oboe reed (oboists, by the way, spend about half their waking hours making reeds). This is where the sound originates! So the shaping and care of the right hand fingernails is of the utmost importance. As I discovered as a young guitarist, the speed of your nail growth also can limit how much you can play. If you play more than six hours a day, your nails wear away faster than they can grow. When I was learning the Concierto de Aranjuez, which puts a lot of wear on your thumb and index nails, I had to find a solution. Turns out the best is to wrap a bit of scotch tape around the playing edge of the nail. It doesn't sound very good, but it prevents wear. Just remember to take it off when you play the concert!

Typical guitarist nightmares include breaking your thumbnail opening the stage door on your way to the concert and, one that has happened to me, opening your case just as you are being announced to the audience and finding your fourth string has snapped! You should always have an old, pre-stretched set handy. Luckily that didn't happen when I was playing a concerto, but at a private gathering of cast and crew at the Shaw Festival in Canada. I quickly replaced the string and went on to play, discreetly correcting the tuning from time to time.

Strings are the other big problem for guitarists. I hear that big-time rock guitarists have guitar technicians that replace strings and tune them up as needed. But I have always done that myself. If you are playing on a heavy schedule a set of strings will only last a couple of weeks so you can go through twenty-five sets in a year. The problem is the frets, which cut through the winding on the bass strings. Bowed string instruments don't have this problem!

I'm sure this is all terribly boring to non-guitarists, but all instruments have their secret lore. I once was trapped in a car driving from Vancouver to Seattle to play a concert and had to listen to two flute players discuss C# trill keys for hours and hours! Here is the first movement of a lovely Sonatina for flute and guitar by Castelnuovo-Tedesco that we played in that concert.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Professionals and Amateurs

I'm of two minds about professional performances versus amateur ones. Each has their characteristic strengths and weaknesses. A professional can be relied upon to be consistent and thorough with an minimum of missed notes and misjudgments. An amateur can be relied upon to be engaged and expressive in a personal way. But a professional can sometimes be dull, going through the motions without any real sense of personal engagement and sometimes play repertoire that has been chosen simply for career or marketing reasons. An amateur can deliver a weak performance technically and be clumsy musically or interpretively inappropriate.

What I like most of all is an interesting performance, one that surprises or enlightens. Many professional ones I don't find very interesting. I have spent many years listening to students perform and perhaps this is why I enjoy hearing someone making a more or less successful attempt to play a piece of music despite some obvious limitations. Let's see if we can find some examples. Here is a very professional, very career-oriented, young guitarist named Milos Karadaglic playing the Spanish Romance on television. The performance starts at around 3:40 if you want to skip the interview.

Here is another performance. You might say, no way this is an amateur, and indeed, he is a professional guitar teacher and performer. However, he is not a touring virtuoso, so I hope he will forgive me! This is a lovely performance and shows a real delicacy especially with regard to the dynamics. Nice use of harmonics for the transitions.

Here is another kind of performance, one that shows the problems that can befall an amateur player.

There's something very odd about that rhythm, isn't there? It has a real Cuban sound! What he is doing is leaving out the last note of the triplet on the third beat of the measure so we get a 123 123 12 pattern. Then he adds a little gratuitous vamping. There are a couple of wrong notes in the melody as well.

I think we might see the same kinds of differences with pianists as well. Here is an excellent performance of the first prelude, in C major, from the Well-Tempered Clavier by J. S. Bach. The player is Friedrich Gulda:

Here is an amateur, playing the piece through at home. I think there is a wrong note around 1:54. But I enjoyed listening to this because there was a slight sense of surprise at each new harmony. The problem with a very seasoned professional like Gulda is that he knows the piece so well, there are no surprises.

One of the great Bach players is Glenn Gould. Here he is with the same piece:

There is a sense of exploration and savoring about that performance. How about this one?

That is more the kind of professional performance that I often find dull. It is perhaps too smooth and perfect with no sense of exploring a kaleidoscope of harmonies. Now here is a very interesting amateur performance:

Interestingly 'crunchy' in places and with some unpredictable ritards. The problem with professional performers is that they can be so consistent that their musical gestures become predictable and therefore dull. Amateurs can often surprise you. But of course, they can be often inaccurate and make the wrong musical choices.

So, as I say, I am of two minds about professional versus amateur performers...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Daring to be Critical

Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post (and married to Greg Sandow) has an article up about music criticism that is worth reading. She is reacting to the uncritical kind of reception classical music often receives from people who have no real expertise in the area. Read the whole thing. Here is one paragraph:
Time and again, artists and thinkers who are sophisticated observers of their own fields step back and goggle when they see classical artists at work. I often cite a Shakespeare concert presided over by Adrian Noble, the acclaimed stage director who was just about to make his Metropolitan Opera debut with Verdi’s setting of “Macbeth;” a few weeks before the show, the Met co-presented a performance that juxtaposed readings of Shakespearean monologues with singing of Shakespeare-based opera arias. Noble spoke between the pieces: he had acute insights about the spoken monologues, but after the opera selections he was reduced to the equivalent of, “Wasn’t that great.” 
These are undoubtedly accurate observations. Midgette seems reluctant to state the underlying assumptions, though. Isn't the fundamental one that if you want to speak intelligently about an art form, you need two kinds of expertise: first in critical thinking generally and second, about the materials and methods used in the particular art form? One of the brakes on good criticism in music is probably the fact that the consumers of criticism are no longer well-educated in music. Time was when most books written on music for the general public were stuffed full of examples from the score that you could play over on the piano. An example: The Wagner Operas by Ernest Newman, first published in 1949 and still in print. But books aimed at the general public are now cleansed of any trace of music notation--even ones that purport to be in-depth discussions of specific repertoire. An example: Shostakovich: Symphonies and Concertos, An Owner's Manual by David Hurwitz, published in 2006. The result is that all discussion, even about detailed events in individual movements as in the Hurwitz book, is reduced to description through metaphor:
Brittle trills on woodwinds and xylophone, topped by suspended cymbal crashes, launch the initial strident march, blasted out by the brass against a stubborn repeated-note accompaniment. The music is deliberately crude and rises quickly to a huge climax with assistance from the bass drum and tam-tam, with high horns and whiplike chords on brass and woodwinds. A contrasting, more lyrical idea follows in the strings, interspersed by bits of march: repeated-note figures, soft snare-drum riffs, and fragments of brass fanfares...
I put up enough of the description to give a real sense of it. Now, what piece by Shostakovich is he talking about? Any idea? Trills in woodwinds, marches, repeated notes and so on are fairly frequently occurring elements in a Shostakovich score. Now how about this:

Click to enlarge

With only a bare minimum of musical literacy you can probably identify this theme by poking it out, with one finger, on the piano. I don't even have the score to copy from so I created this musical example just by listening to a bit of the recording to be sure what note it started on. This is the passacaglia theme from the first movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony. Hurwitz is talking about the first movement of Shostakovich's 4th Symphony on page 63 of his book. I suspect only many, many hours of research and listening would enable you to identify the piece from that description.

The perception is that music notation is very difficult--and there are certainly lots of very difficult to read scores around. But basic literacy in music is really not hard. My students are reading music from the first lesson. Compare to studying French. The best French course I ever had was taught in the same way: everyone was speaking nothing but French from the first class. When we consider the costs of helping a population become literate, it is always useful to consider the considerably greater costs of them remaining illiterate! But literacy in music is not only undervalued, it now seems to be regarded as an extremely esoteric skill like dowsing or reading Ancient Greek. There are reasons for this, of course. One is that a great deal of music has always been non-literate, improvised. Some of this is very fine music indeed. Another is that we seem, since the 60s, to be moving into a post-literate musical culture. When Paul McCartney can become the richest musician in history without learning to read a note, what good is musical literacy? Not much to him!

But when we talk about music, as either musicians, or music lovers or music critics, musical literacy is hugely useful. Go back to my two examples above. In over 80 words, Hurwitz can only give a description so vague that even someone intimately familiar with the symphonies of Shostakovich would be hard-pressed to know which one he was talking about. Each of these words in turn, is composed of several different symbols. On the other hand, the musical notation, clearly and simply, precisely identifies one and only one theme by Shostakovich--and it doesn't need hundreds and hundreds of symbols. There are only ten noteheads on the staff, two beams and four dots. Music notation is astonishingly accurate and efficient. Spoken and written language was never designed to be able to describe music and only does so with extreme vagueness.

Most of what is written on this blog is my own brand of music criticism. Much of it is only possible because I can embed YouTube clips to everything I talk about. But when it would aid understanding I do not hesitate to insert musical examples. Why don't all music critics do the same? If we push back against musical illiteracy we will either get fired or perhaps start to turn the tide...

Here is the first movement of the Shostakovich 7th Symphony. The theme notated above doesn't start until the 5:41 mark.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Two Songs by Renée Fleming

When I say "two songs" I mean one song, by Leonard Cohen, and a cavatina from the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. Each piece is, in its own way, iconic. The cavatina is the height of 19th century bel canto singing. This phrase was used in 1858 by the long-retired Rossini. He talked about the rigorous technical requirements alongside those of taste and style. He also thought that this kind of singing was lost forever saying, "today there is no such school, there are neither models nor interpreters, for which reason not a single voice of the new generation is capable of rendering in bel canto the aria 'Casta diva' [quoted in Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, vol III, p. 40]. Norma was written in 1831 and already, a mere twenty-seven years later, Rossini is lamenting the loss of the ability to sing this music? As promised, let's hear Fleming in a performance of 'Casta diva':

Could Rossini have been correct, that the ability to sing this kind of music had already been lost, even in his time? Or is this perhaps the kind of 'golden age' nostalgia that often seems to permeate the world of opera? Rossini is a very high-quality witness, of course...

Now let's look at another song, 'Hallelujah' from Fleming's recent album project Dark Hope which contains songs from a number of "indie-rock" songwriters and Leonard Cohen. Much as I'm tempted to do a comparison of 'Soul Meets Body' by Death Cab for Cutie (the video reminds me of Brahms' remark when vacationing in Thun about having to be careful where he walked so as not to step on the melodies that seemed to be everywhere), I can't find a version of her performance. Here is the original of the Death Cab for Cutie song:

But let's get back to Leonard Cohen. Here is Fleming performing 'Hallelujah' on BBC1:

Alas, that isn't complete as it runs to over seven minutes on the album. It does give us a bit of an idea though. Now here is Cohen's original:

That was released in 1984, twenty six years before Fleming's version. Should I play the part of Rossini and say that no-one now is capable of singing in the true style of Leonard Cohen? Now that's a silly thought! But there is something interesting here. Regarding the Bellini, Taruskin comments "When this great wave, this surge of melodic and harmonic electricity has at last subsided, one feels that one has been transported and deposited in a different place. One's own consciousness has been altered. That is Romanticism."

Cohen's songs are emphatically not that kind of romanticism, even though just to be a poet is absurdly romantic in this very unpoetic era. Cohen is often accused of being a pessimist. Once, when interviewed on Canadian television he responded to that query by saying "a pessimist is someone who thinks it is going to rain; I'm soaked to the skin." Some of his lyrics to 'Hallelujah' are dark indeed:

Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah 

There is a kind of hard-won hope there perhaps, but it is earned by means of a cold realism. Cohen's singing has the kind of grittiness that conveys this.

I think that we need different things from music at different times. This can change decade by decade. The most successful artists are those who, like Rossini and Bellini, sense what listeners really want to hear and give it to them in spades. Perhaps the contemporary equivalent to them is someone like Lady Gaga, despite the musical differences. But alongside the main stream of music there are always tributaries that offer us glimpses of other aspects: not what everyone wants to hear, but only some want to hear. Leonard Cohen is this kind of composer: he gives us dark truths, perhaps. Fleming's 2010 version of the song lightens and softens it so that the truth is less dark. Perhaps this is more what we need now than what we needed in 1984. On the other hand, unlike in 1858, we still have Leonard Cohen. I did a post on his new album here. He is as dark as ever as shown by the new song 'The Darkness'.

UPDATE: I posted this without getting to the point. Fleming singing Bellini is absolutely fantastic. Cohen singing Cohen really works, expressively. Fleming singing Cohen works, but is less convincing than Cohen singing Cohen. But what we should really be grateful for is that no-one has talked Cohen into singing Bellini. Maybe with a lot of autotune...

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Steady Diet of Jarrett and Cage

Just ran across an interesting post on Alex Ross' blog. Entitled "Proper Parenting" he writes:

From Mike Rubin's New York Times profile of the electronic musician Nicolas Jaar: "The elder Mr. Jaar and his wife also fed their son a steady diet of Keith Jarrett and John Cage, who is a likely influence on [Jaar's] sound-collage experiments. 'My husband and I, we were always interested in the avant-garde,' said Evelyne Meynard, Mr. Jaar’s mother, a former dancer who trained with Merce Cunningham’s company in the early ‘80s. 'I always encouraged Nicky to understand that not only melody and harmony were interesting, but that atonal music and sounds and all that were also interesting.'"
Hmm, well I grew up on a steady diet of jigs, reels and other fiddle tunes, but I would have appreciated a bit more diversity. Perhaps Mr. Jaar might have benefited from some as well. You know, perhaps a little Stravinsky, some Debussy, maybe a little Shostakovich. Mind you, if he listened to a lot of Keith Jarrett he might have heard the Shostakovich preludes and fugues. But perhaps Mr. Ross' title is ironic? Probably not...

Let's have a listen:

Ok, maybe it was ironic...

C Minor to C Major

The inflection from minor to major with the same tonic is an old topos in music. Before tonal harmony was fully established the so-called tierce de Picardie (probably a mistaken etymology from tierce piqart meaning 'sharp' third) was often found, ending a piece in minor mode with a major harmony. But in the late 18th century the contrast between minor and major was used in some spectacular ways. Mozart cast his 'Dissonant' quartet introduction in a strange mixture of modes that only is clarified when the movement proper begins, at the 1:05 mark:

Here is the opening of Haydn's The Creation where chaos is depicted with empty octaves and then minor mode:

When God says "let there be light", C major bursts forth gloriously--just after the 2 minute mark in the next clip:

Taking this idea to a more intense level Beethoven writes his 5th Symphony in C minor, but casts the finale, as if a triumph against great odds, in C major. The whole symphony is organized in this way, but the last two movements show the transition from C minor to C major which occurs at 8:36 in this clip. Alas, the last movement is cut short, so I will put up another clip just of the finale.

That was the first time trombones were used in a symphonic, as opposed to operatic, context. All these examples have made the same move, from minor to major, in the same key: C. But there is one final example where the idea is distilled down to an essential form:

After that, the idea was pretty much exhausted. At least in its C minor to C major form in an orchestral context. It had been used so powerfully and so definitively that composers no longer wanted to touch it. But in a different kind of context and in a much less dramatic way, the idea of fluctuating between major and minor continued to be used to express the fluctuating fortunes of a romantic relationship. But now in A minor and major, not C:

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pop Music Numbers

I ran across this weird little item on Visboo. Titled "Sad Facts About Popular Music" it consists of a list of artists who have sold more recordings than supposed much better artists. No news to we of the classical persuasion, of course. But some items looked a bit odd, so I decided to check one out. No. 3 on the list states that Ke$ha's "TiK ToK" single sold more copies than any Beatles' --and the rest is obscured, but let's imagine the last word is "single". Is that actually true? According to Wikipedia (where there are articles on absolutely everything) "As of January 2012, "Tik Tok" had sold over 6,149,000 downloads in the country alone, making one of only six songs to sell more than six million copies in the US." All right, now let's see how that stacks up against the Beatles. The question does not have a clear answer because there is no independent body that collects worldwide sales. But looking around the web, I come up with these estimates in a few different places. The Beatles' biggest selling single seems to have been, not "Hey Jude" (with 8 million sales), but "I Want To Hold Your Hand" with 12 million sales (or almost double Ke$ha's). But that is dwarfed by the number of sales of the Sgt Pepper's album with 32 million sales. So, the moral of the story is either don't believe everything you see on the Web, or maybe don't believe anything you see on the Web. Heh.

Wow, she makes Lady Gaga sound like, uh Franz Schubert. It's a long, long way from "I want to hold your hand" to "Boys tryin' to touch my junk, junk".

Of course, "I want to hold your hand" is probably a metaphor, but "Boys tryin' to touch my junk" is not. Or is it? Perhaps the former means "I want to make love to you" while the latter means "please God, won't someone rescue me from the drunken mess that is my life?" Heh.

"Now I have to buy The White Album again!"

There is a scene in the film Men in Black where Tommy Lee Jones' character, confronted by a new kind of digital disc comments "now I have to buy The White Album again!" I like this for a couple of reasons: one is the assumption that this album is a kind of perennial musical icon; the other is that a new technology might create a new perspective on something. Suppose you get a new sound system or, as happened to me once, I realized that to hear properly what was going on in the bass range with Shostakovich symphonies I had to invest in some better speakers. I muttered to myself "now I have to listen to all the symphonies again..." Or suppose you suddenly have a new insight into a character in a drama: now you have to go through the whole drama again looking at things from this new perspective. This might involve reading Hamlet again or watching all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because you suddenly realized something about the moral development of the character of Spike. Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures!

I'm reading the new Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin for the first time and I'm experiencing all sorts of interesting things. One is I am becoming more familiar with some repertoire that I have in the past neglected: opera in particular. Another is that Taruskin manages to "de-familiarize" some repertoire in interesting ways, Bach in particular. Yet another is that he also brings a lot of recent scholarship to bear on some old disputes and theories: the role of women composers, for example, or the relationship between aesthetic theory, ideology and music.

In relationship to this last, it is amusing to read the blurbs on the back cover as they betray something about our current aesthetic ideology. For example, one blurb calls the book "a highly personal (and often delightfully prickly) take on musical history from an original and eccentric mind..." I'm over 1400 pages into the book (which comes in five volumes) and I have yet to detect anything really prickly or eccentric. True, he dissects quite a number of myths and outworn ideologies connected with music, but that just means he is doing his job--not grounds for calling him 'prickly' or 'eccentric'. This speaks either to a kind of institutional dullness having taken over musicology these days where, by comparison, Taruskin's book appears unusual, or to an unconscious ideology that art and talk about art must be challenging or eccentric in some way.

I chose a song from The White Album as envoi to this post, of course. My Friday post was on the "tyranny of the backbeat" and this is a great example of how creative The Beatles were when it came to rhythm and meter. The guys who transcribed all the songs notated this one in 4/4, 2/4, 5/4, 9/8, 12/8 and 10/8. That passage "Mother Superior jump the gun" is a bar of 9/8 followed by a bar of 10/8, both bars repeated. And some people say Ringo isn't a great drummer!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Luxury and Austerity

The violinist Joshua Bell was just robbed a couple of days ago as a thief impersonated him and was able to get access to his room, getting away with a laptop, cash and a $38,000 watch. Here's the story. My sympathies go out to him. But that expensive watch gave me a bit of pause. Coincidentally, I had to wait around in an office yesterday for an hour and picked up a travel magazine. I haven't looked at a glossy magazine in, well, years. It felt like entering some sort of alien world where everything is topsy turvy. Everything is surface: luxurious rooms, furniture, villas in exotic destinations. 'Design' is paramount. And what is 'design'? Luxurious and perhaps ingenious surfaces. Here is a sample of luxury travel. This is the shower of one of those villas:

Putting these two things together, I suddenly recalled an album I owned years ago of Gustav Leonhardt playing Buxtehude on pedal harpsichord. The cover was a, to me, wonderful photo of Leonhardt playing in what I presumed was his studio. Everything was white and, except for shelves and shelves of books and scores--and the harpsichord, of course--the room was completely empty. The perfect music studio. The 'surface', that is, the presence of material objects, was absolutely minimal. But the air was filled with music. Here is the closest similar photo I could find:

Now I'm going to speculate here; I think that our lives tend to fill up with things: $30,000 a week villas in Mustique, $38,000 watches and all sorts of lesser clutter. All this crowds out those less material joys like music. There are different kinds of austerity and luxury. That photo above, for example, looks pretty austere until you imagine (or actually hear) the music that is filling the air.

But we can extend this further: aesthetic austerity can produce great works of musical art. Haydn was famous for making very little musical material go a very long way. Here is the opening movement of a string quartet that uses very little more than the interval of a falling fifth for material:

Another famous example is his 'London' Symphony:

Ironically, the more disparate ideas you toss into a composition the more likely it is to turn into an indigestible smorgasbord. Perhaps that's true of life as well?

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Tyranny of the Backbeat

People used to talk about the tyranny of the barline which came from the very useful invention of the barline to organize ensemble music. When the barline, or rather the beat associated with the downbeat, or first beat of the bar, became all-controlling, then it started to be called the "tyranny of the barline". A related complaint was directed against the indiscriminate use of the metronome leading to a rigid sense of the beat. One writer wrote:
A good performance is so full of these minute retardations and accelerations that hardly two measures will occupy exactly the same time. It is notorious that to play with the metronome is to play mechanically - the reason being, of course, that we are then playing by the measure, or rather by the beat, instead of by the phrase. A keen musical instinct revolts at playing even a single measure with the metronome: mathematical exactitude gives us a dead body in place of the living musical organism with its ebb and flow of rhythmical energy. It may therefore be suggested, in conclusion, that the use of the metronome, even to determine the average rate of speed, is dangerous.
— Daniel Gregory MasonThe Tyranny of the Bar-Line
Alas, it seems that skirmish, at least in some areas, is long lost... If you combine a little metronomic beat with the tyranny of the barline and add in a characteristic accentuation that comes from rock n' roll, then you get a structure that underlies an amazing amount of the music we hear every day. I call it the "tyranny of the backbeat". What's a backbeat? Nearly all popular music these days, certainly all that derives from rock, is in 4/4 meter, meaning that beats come in 4 beat packages. Normally the first beat is stressed, which helps to define the package. In rock, the 2nd and 4th beats are stressed instead. This is a kind of syncopation in that it places the accents in an unexpected place. But it is so ubiquitous now, that it is like a rigid Procrustean bed that all music is forced to lie on. Well, a lot of music at least! Here is the locus classicus:

Just let me hear some of that rock'n'roll music

Any old way you choose it
It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it
Any old time you use it

There are exceptions, but they are amazingly few. Here is a rock song where the stresses are reversed. The effect is to restore the feeling of syncopation! Neophyte drummers are so programmed to stress 2 and 4 that they sometimes have difficulty with this song:

UPDATE: Due to link-rot that clip had vanished. If this one goes to, the clip in question is "Sunshine of Your Love by Cream which, due to the inventive drumming of Ginger Baker, does NOT have a backbeat, but instead, heavy stresses on 1 and 3.

Do you hear it? It sounds like the beat is oddly shifted--not because it is, 1 and 3 are stressed--but because the backbeat has become so ubiquitous that it is ingrained into us, at least with this type of music. Let's choose some random examples from YouTube to see how prevalent it is.

I almost thought my brilliant theory was going to be undercut by the first clip, but no, around the 53 second mark it settles into a backbeat.

Yep, more backbeat. Oh, by the way, I am finding these by going to YouTube and typing in a single letter to see what comes up. I started with 'L'. Here's another:

Now that's a particularly aggressive example. The backbeat is bad enough, but when it is delivered by a drum machine, I like it even less. Another:

Yep, but at least this time it's a real drummer. I've done 'l', 'm', 'n', and 'o'. How about 'p'?

That's the first one with a slight divergence from the backbeat. While two is heavily stressed, they mess around with 4 a bit.

But I think you get my point. And my impression is that with the generic stuff you often hear out in public, in malls and restaurants, it is even worse. AAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I have this vision of generations of impressionable young minds and ears growing up permanently infected with the backbeat, unable to feel and appreciate the subtle expression and rubato that we have enjoyed for centuries if not millennia.