Thursday, May 31, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Franz Schubert, Part 1

Continuing this series of posts after a hiatus. I've been tied up with doing a lot of program notes for a chamber music festival, which is why I haven't been putting up quite so many posts. But on to Schubert!

I've been doing a massive re-evaluation of Schubert the last couple of months and listening to more of his songs sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has just accelerated the process. I'm afraid that in the past I have not given Schubert his full due. His working life was a mere eighteen years but in that time he composed a thousand pieces of music--well, actually 998 opus numbers (or Deutsch numbers after the compiler) many of which include several pieces. During his lifetime Schubert was much-appreciated by the Viennese, but largely in the context of domestic music-making where his songs and piano pieces were often heard in a salon setting. The most familiar of his public music were his choral settings such as this one for male choir:

But for a good example of the kind of effect that Schubert achieved with his piano music have a listen to the Moment Musical #6.

If you listen closely, or even better, have a look at the score, you can hear/see that what Schubert is up to is using those harmonies that previously gave music its greatest dynamic impetus instead to move music to another plane. The effect is to linger, to pause, to live in the moment--the very opposite of the way Beethoven might have used these harmonies, to drive the music on, to depict a kind of heroic effort. The harmonies I mean are the flat submediant and the Neapolitan. Both of these harmonies are remote from the tonic and previously were used to prepare a strong movement to the dominant which then, of course, goes to the tonic. But Schubert is using them as places to rest, places of stability, but remote from the tonic. The analogy is to another world, the private world of meditation, of subjectivity. The key of the piece is A flat major so the flat submediant is F flat. This is where the second phrase starts, with no preparation. Suddenly introducing a remote harmony and staying on it is a major harmonic innovation of the Romantic period and it was Franz Schubert who first used these harmonic devices in this way.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Why You Should Not Transcribe Beethoven

Because it's wrong! Heh. Ok, why is it wrong? Beethoven himself did it, transcribing a piano sonata for string quartet. He only did that once but did it skillfully enough that the result is, if not earth-shaking, at least listenable. But it is very rarely played. Part of Beethoven's art, unlike that of, say, Bach, whose music is eminently transcribable, is to write most exactly and precisely for the particular instrument or instruments he chose. With great caution pianists sometimes use a lower octave than written in a piano sonata for a note or two because the piano builders were, partly at Beethoven's instigation, adding notes to the bass bit by bit at the time. They might argue, those bold pianists, that Beethoven himself, playing the piece six months later on his new piano with that extra bass note might have used it!

You see how it is? Do not tamper with Beethoven if you know what's good for you. I once proposed to a very fine violinist I was working with that we play an arrangement of the slow movement from the Tempest piano sonata made by Mauro Giuliani, a guitarist who was working in Vienna at the time Beethoven was alive. It would have actual historical cachet! The answer: "No." I have tried a few times to transcribe a movement or two. Haydn I can get to work, even a little Chopin. I almost got a slow movement from one of Beethoven's piano sonatas intended for amateurs to work for guitar duet. I even tried re-writing a movement or two for guitar as a composition exercise. But I would not inflict one of my Beethoven transcriptions on an innocent audience.

So, are you convinced yet that it is just wrong to transcribe Beethoven? Here, have a listen to this:

Ah, the sublime delicacy of it! Now here is the real thing:

Now I know the conductor has zombie eyes and they have Jesse Ventura playing drums and there are only three women in the orchestra so it must violate some diversity regulation, but this is Beethoven. That other thing on guitar is just...


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Valentina Lisitsa: "I don't do crossover"

Valentina Lisitsa, whom I have written about here, is about to make a major breakthrough in her career. She is reported to be the most-watched pianist on YouTube (how does one confirm these claims?) and has just signed to a major label, Decca. On June 19th she will play a solo recital at Royal Albert Hall in London. Here is Norman Lebrecht's post on these events. Norman has another post up in which he mentions an interview that Valentina did on Sky News in which "she delivered a short, sharp putdown to the pseudo-classical industry." He doesn't seem to have a link to that actual interview. The first comment to Norman's post says, "Belittling the genre and alienating fans of classical crossover music is an incredibly stupid thing to do." I'm a little hampered here, by the lack of a link but in Norman's post title he claims she said "I don't do crossover." Is that belittling?

Ah. Well.

I think it is time for one of my barn-storming, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead posts. I haven't put anyone down in just ages.

In my previous post on Valentina I said that what she presented was "alert, intelligent, purposeful musicianship." I think if you are that kind of musician, not doing crossover is pretty much inevitable. I put up a fairly lengthy post here talking about crossover. If you go read that post, I won't have to repeat myself.

Crossover seems to have no musical significance. It is a mere marketing tool, but your increased sales are paid for in aesthetic value. For a classical musician in order to get those people to buy your recordings or tickets who wouldn't normally, you have to pretend to be someone more popular. Crossover for a very popular artist like Sting is different as instead of piggy-backing his name onto John Dowland's he is instead using his fame to make Dowland more known. Crossover for a classical artist can be rather more aesthetically fatal. In my post on Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau I said, "a great artist like Fischer-Dieskau cannot sing trivial music." Why is that? If he, or if Valentina Lisitsa plays a 'crossover' piece it is either because they are pandering to the audience, in which case our respect for them as artists diminishes, or it is because they think it is a worthwhile piece of music, in which case our respect for them as artists also diminishes. It's a lose-lose proposition. Mind you, it is probably a case of losing a few listeners but perhaps gaining a lot more. Maybe not though: just because you decide to pander doesn't mean it will work. I once said to some friends that there are lots of classical musicians who would love to sell out, but nobody's buying!

Valentina Lisitsa is by all indications a fine musician. Part of being a fine musician is avoiding playing bad repertoire. 'Crossover' is bad repertoire. For her, I think, playing crossover would be an incredibly stupid thing to do because in the very first place the fans it would alienate, those who have viewed her 43 million times on YouTube doing good musical repertoire, are the fans that are the most important, because, unlike the crowd you might get by a momentary pandering, they will stick with her for decades.

N'est-ce pas?

What I look for in a musician is understanding of the music, ability to play it expressively, technical competence and conviction (believing the music is worth playing). Playing crossover seems to put much of this at risk.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Little Night Music

The first thing that comes to mind with the phrase "a little night music" is the delightful divertimento or serenade by Mozart with that name: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:

In the 18th century 'night music' was frothy, sociable and light--party music. But with the beginning of romanticism it became a time of inner contemplation, of expressive intimacy. The early forerunners were keyboard music by Bach's son C. P. E. Bach (1714 - 1788):

Notice the free, improvisatory nature of the music, a fantasia. By the early 19th century Václav Tomášek (1774 - 1850) was writing Eclogues that expressed the dreamy atmosphere of romanticism. Unfortunately YouTube seems to have none of his solo piano music so this is the closest example I could find. (It is very rare that I can't find the right musical example on YouTube...)

At about the same time, the first decades of the 19th century, John Field (1782 - 1837), the Irish pianist/composer, was writing the first nocturnes for piano, expressing nothing but the inner feeling of the player:

In this music time seems suspended. It is like those moments in opera when an aria is sung, expressing some particular emotion by a character. The narrative time stops temporarily. The transference of this effect to instrumental music is characteristic of romanticism. The idea or effect, is of inducing a kind of trance with music and in so doing taking possession of one's inwardness. This kind of music reached its culmination with the music of Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849):

There are a few examples of piano 'night music' in the 20th century, one of them by Béla Bartók (1881 - 1945):

This little survey of 'night music' is almost a history in miniature. In the 18th century the night was a time of sociability, of pleasure, of entertainment. In the 19th century it was a time to go inside oneself, to muse, to contemplate. But by the 20th century, the night had become a strange, threatening place with unidentified sounds of insects and birds and a harmony that, instead of suggesting dreamy contemplation, rather gives the impression of unease, of anxiety...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Robert Moog

As anyone who has gone to the Google home page today has noticed, today would have been the 78th birthday of Robert Moog, pioneer in electronic music and inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Here is an informative article from the Daily Mail. The very, very, very cool thing about this "Google doodle" is that it is a working synthesizer. If you want to play with the various settings, you can, and try the results by playing the keyboard. You can even use the tape recorder to record your efforts, though I haven't tried it.

This reminds me of a fascinating lecture I went to on recording software a number of years ago. A composer/technician was demonstrating what you could do on a Mac. Previously in order to do professional recording you needed a roomful of racks of arcane electronic devices. He told us that all this had basically been replaced with software. He showed us how you recorded on a Mac with one 'track' or channel. Then he showed us if you wanted two tracks, you just copied and pasted. Four tracks? The same. Sixteen tracks? The same. It was mind-blowing because what he was copying and pasting wasn't just the image of a track on a tape recorder, IT WAS ALSO THE FUNCTION ITSELF! Software had completely replaced hardware. The truth is that now you can download free software that will do everything that $100,000 worth of equipment used to be needed for!

Way back in 1969 or 70 one of the first classical albums I purchased (as opposed to borrowing from a friend's dad) was Switched-On Bach by Walter/Wendy Carlos in which a selection of Bach's music was performed on a Moog synthesizer. Here is a sample:

At the time, putting something like this together was a long, laborious process. It is interesting how well Bach's music survives and even thrives in this sort of treatment. I doubt it would work with Chopin because you would miss the subtleties of rubato. But some Bach, not all, works very well.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Social Function of Music

This is such a huge topic that it could only really be done justice to in a series of volumes. This is just a blog! But what the social function of music might be is such a very interesting question that it is worth poking at from time to time.

Historically, it was the troubadours who brought up the question with their contrast between difficult poetry for connoisseurs and clear poetry for immediate pleasure: trobar clus and trobar clar. Here is music by one of the leading troubadours, Bernart de Ventadorn:

Troubadour music had both high and low styles; the high style has, as we hear in the piece above, affinities with the chant of the church. The low style tended to have an affinity with the dance as in the balada or dance-song:

The performers are trying to re-create what a performance in the late 12th century might have sounded like, but you should bear in mind that the rhythms and instruments are all conjectural. All we actually have is the melodic contour and the text.

The first European writer on the social function of music was Johannes de Grocheio or "John the Grouchy" (if we translate literally from the French version of his name). He wrote a book around 1300 that classified music in Paris according to how it was used (or rather, how it ought to be used). For him, as for Plato before him, music was a means of organizing and controlling society. As long as music was largely supported by the aristocracy, this was certainly an important function. The glorious music of the French Baroque, for example, was certainly at least partly about gilding the Bourbon lily:

But with the fall of the ancien régime it was the newly prosperous and numerous middle class that bought concert tickets, pianos and sheet music thereby supporting the growth of the symphony orchestra, concert hall, instrument builders and publishers--not to mention performers and their agents! So music in the 19th century became the expression of the inner life and outer aspirations of the middle class. Romantic music and all its progressive followers exemplify this.

The question of the social function of music became particularly keen for some composers in the 20th century--Shostakovich in particular. After he was severely criticized for his opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 he withdrew from performance the newly written 4th Symphony and composed his 5th Symphony. This was certainly a work that had a social function--a rather desperate one as, if Shostakovich did not successfully demonstrate his adherence to the 'social realist' ideals of the regime, headed at the time by Joseph Stalin, then he might get that knock on the door at 3 am followed by a quick trip to Siberia. So the music had to have a surface ambiguous enough that it could be interpreted as an optimistic tribute to the Soviet system. But at the same time, he wanted to reach out to those people who were suffering under that system. The half hour ovation at the premiere and the restoration of Shostakovich's fortunes by the government testify that he succeeded. Here is the first movement which comes in two parts because of the length:

The 5th Symphony of Shostakovich and, indeed, all his symphonies, have a number of complex social functions that have yet to be explored in much depth.

So one is led inevitably to wonder, what is the social function of music now? Some of it certainly seems to be about selling product:

Popular music, the trobar clar of the troubadours, seems to have taken over. The trobar clus, music designed for connoisseurs and the learned, which seems to be predominant in earlier ages (if only because it was the only music written down), seems now to be vanishing away, found only in music departments at universities, the occasional festival and the ever-struggling symphony orchestra concert. But note that "pops" concerts are common and new and difficult music is programmed less and less except at specialized festivals. Pop music rules the airwaves and public spaces. I'm not sure what the frenetic, mechanical nature of it is designed to serve. Any ideas?

UPDATE: It occurs to me that both the Shostakovich symphony and the song by Rihanna operate on two levels. In the Shostakovich, one level is that of an acceptable 'social realist' symphony, one that ends with rejoicing and rejects Western 'formalism' (i.e. the kind of atonality that was being used in the decadent West). The other level is an expression of the bleak oppression of the system and the toll it was taking on the humanity of everyone. Similarly, we might see two levels in the song by Rihanna. On the one hand, it is a girl trying to come to terms with her unfaithfulness to her boyfriend--this is the surface level. On the other hand, it seems to be an advertisement for make-up, clothing, restaurants and the good life generally.

Monday, May 21, 2012

In Memoriam Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

I cannot write a personal memoir of this great - truly great - singer and musician who passed away just a few days ago, on May 18. I never met him personally and only saw him in concert on one occasion in Montreal where he gave a Brahms recital in the biggest hall in town. But he has been a presence in my whole life in music. From the earliest days of my discovery of classical music, at the very beginning of the 1970s, I became aware of him. At that time his complete recording of all - ALL - the Schubert lieder accompanied by Gerald Moore was in progress. That amounts to about six hundred songs. Fischer-Dieskau is probably the most-recorded singer of all time. Whole books are devoted to merely listing his recordings.

When I was a young classical musician I looked for models. As a guitarist my models, certainly in terms of virtuosity, which was a big concern of mine at the time, included Andres Segovia, John Williams and Julian Bream. But alongside them and the guitar repertoire I always listened to and greatly respected the wider repertoire. There were a handful of artists that commanded my attention due to their immense musical authority. What is musical authority? It is a bit like moral authority, I think. One of the finest examples I can recall was that concert I saw of Fischer-Dieskau. It was in Place des Arts in Montreal, in the big hall which seated, oh, at least 2,000. Big place for a lieder recital. It was packed to the ceiling. At 8 pm Fischer-Dieskau strode on stage, took his place in the center and began acknowledging the applause. His accompanist, whose name I forget, scurried after him and quickly took his seat at the piano, his fingers curled over the keys and his eyes on Fischer-Dieskau. I wondered at this seeming excessive anxiety. The applause was loud and long, but the moment it showed a sign of slacking, Fischer-Dieskau nodded at the pianist and launched into the first song. He was there to sing, not to bask in applause. This is the kind of authority he had: it came right from the music and that is why it is unmistakable. He, his ego, isn't there, it is instead the aesthetic authority of the music that commands both him and us as listeners.

This is why a great artist like Fischer-Dieskau cannot sing trivial music. That would render the whole exercise meaningless. I see a looming contradiction here for all young artists: they are being told more and more that they have to 'brand' themselves, work out the tricks of marketing, make a name, sell themselves and so on. But the horror of that is that it directly drains away the musical authority that comes from NOT doing those things, from allowing yourself to be the servant of the music instead of merely using the music to further your career ambitions. The music is where your real authority comes from, not from whatever little personal quirk you think you can spin into media attention.

When I was a young classical musician, still learning my trade, the artists who stood out, whose musical authority was evident were few: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gustav Leonhardt (who also just passed away and whom I wrote about here), Arthur Rubinstein, and the Guarneri Quartet. The only artist with this kind of stature or authority that I have added in recent years is the great Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov whom I wrote about here. I'm leaving out other artists such as Mstislav Rostropovich, the great Russian cellist, only because I wasn't as aware of them. Let us end with two pieces performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The first is the last song of Schubert's Die Winterreise:

The second is the first movement of Shostakovich's 14th Symphony on a text by Garcia Lorca.

A fascinating anecdote about Fischer-Dieskau comes from his very early career. During WWII he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and spent his time tending horses on the Russian front. Captured by the Allies in 1945 he was held as a prisoner of war until 1947--one of the last to be released because they toured him around to various camps to sing lieder to homesick German prisoners...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Lennon 'Trilogy'

John Lennon (1940 - 1980) is, I think, an important composer in the English song-writing tradition. I have no hesitation in placing him beside such great composers of English song as John Dowland, Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten. He is most famous, of course, for his work with The Beatles, but the sheer magnitude of the social and cultural currents that they were part of tends to obscure, a bit, his individual contribution.

In the early days he and Paul wrote head to head and many of the songs from that time are a true synthesis of two minds. An early example is "From Me To You", mostly written in a bus on the road between York and Shrewsbury, February 28, 1963.

Later on, though each would often contribute sections to the other's song, their writing diverged. Even though Lennon came from similar rock and roll roots to Paul (though in the latter's case there was more influence of pre-rock and roll music via his father), and reverted to them in the 70s after the break-up of the Beatles, there was a remarkable evolution in the 60s that culminated in three extraordinary songs that have no real equivalents before or since. These three songs begin with "Strawberry Fields Forever" released as a single in February 1967 and largely composed in November 1966. Here is a very early 'draft' recorded by Lennon at his home in Weybridge. As you can hear, early on there was just a suggestion of country in the guitar part.

Much of the evolution of the song took place in the studio where it was 'orchestrated' with a great variety of effects including a recording of a high-hat played back in reverse. The Wikipedia article gives a fair idea of the recording process, which took forty-five hours! Compare this with the recording of their first LP, Please Please Me which took a mere ten hours for all fourteen songs. An early indication of the power of this recording was the fact that it seems to have stopped other groups in their tracks with some saying "now what the **** are we going to do?" and caused Brian Wilson to simply shelve the new Beach Boys album. Here is the final version, the melding together of two very different takes. The splice occurs at the one minute mark. This is the original film made to accompany the song (the predecessor to today's music videos), but I'm not sure it adds anything, so feel free to ignore it.

What an extraordinary distance this is from the first drafts! Everyone makes a big contribution to the fleshing out of the song. Paul on the mellotron that begins the song, George on the Indian harp and great nine-note guitar solo at 2:58. Ringo's drumming is amazing all the way through.

The next song in what I am calling the Lennon 'Trilogy' came soon after and was used to end the LP Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of just a couple of examples of popular music discussed at some length in Taruskin's volume Music in the Late Twentieth Century from the Oxford history, the song is "A Day in the Life". He describes the techniques used here as well as in "Strawberry Fields" and the earlier "Tomorrow Never Knows" as
virtually the whole panoply of musique concrete devices pioneered in the studios of Paris, New York, and Cologne during the previous decade. ... In a sense, the Beatles were no longer writing songs. Like some of the avant-garde icons of the day, they were creating collages--finished artworks, artifacts on tape that could not be adequately reproduced in other media.
The difference between the work of the avant-garde and the Beatles is, significantly, on the semantic level. The Beatles were engaging in social criticism and, especially in the case of Lennon, explorations of his inner life with an immediacy and frankness that was rare in popular music, which tended to the stereotypical. Nothing here of that, just the individual expression of Lennon, aided in its orchestration by the other Beatles, George Martin and the technical wizards in the control room. Again, Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the song. The middle section, "Woke up, got out of bed" was written by Paul. Here is "A Day in the Life":

That enormous orchestral glissando was recorded by forty orchestral musicians hired just for the occasion. One of the earliest admirers of this music was the fine American art-song composer Ned Rorem who saw in it a resurgence of genuine musical creativity and a renewal of pleasure. The last song in what I am calling Lennon's trilogy was released on the LP Magical Mystery Tour which was the result of a not-very-successful film the Beatles made intended to be shown on BBC television around Christmas 1967. But as Paul has said in an interview, it is the only film anywhere that has a performance of "I Am the Walrus" on it, so there! Here is "I Am the Walrus" which combines all the previous techniques with lyrics that perhaps owe something to James Joyce:

You may want to listen to this song without watching the video as well. From many years of practice, every time the Beatles were in front of a camera they tended to cut capers and fool around. But the music is very much not frivolous the way the film is. In the deep structure of the song there is a blending of minor mode, the Dorian mode as well as the whole-tone scale. The ambiguity in the harmony matches that of the lyrics.

After this trilogy of extraordinary songs, prepared by "Tomorrow Never Knows", John returned to a more conventional kind of writing in the White Album and Abby Road.

Easiest and Hardest Jobs in Music

Just like in the rest of life, music has its very easy tasks and its very difficult ones. Here are two lists. I hasten to say that these are not to be taken very seriously! So if you are a rhythm guitarist in a reggae group, don't get upset.

Easy Jobs in Music

  • Rhythm guitar in a reggae group
  • Piano-tuner in a monastery
  • Bob Dylan's vocal coach
  • Eric Clapton's fashion consultant
  • Psychotherapist for the brass section

Difficult Jobs in Music

  • Conductor for a Charles Ives symphony
  • Stage manager for The Who
  • Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's accompanist
  • Lady Gaga's fashion consultant
  • Psychotherapist for the violin section
I suppose a lot of these are "in" jokes. For example, the rhythm guitarist in a reggae group does pretty much the same sort of thing in every song. Monasteries sing a capella so they don't need pianos. The brass section is known for its happy extroverts (except perhaps for the French horns). Charles Ives's symphonies are known for their extremely complex rhythmic textures. The Who used to destroy everything on stage as a bang-up finale and so on.

Here are some clips of conductors conducting Ives' symphonies and a little interview with Gary Call, who devised some techniques to help them.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Why a Piece of Music is Like a Person

Reading in Taruskin's account of the earliest significant collections of written polyphonic music, the four great books of organum from the 12th century composers of Notre Dame de Paris, I came across this passage:
One can only conclude that the identity of a "piece of music" was a far more fluid concept for the Notre Dame cantors than it is for us. An organum as actually performed was essentially a patchwork created more or less on the spot, or after a brief consultation, from the many available parts in the manuscripts we have...
He is talking about the fact that there are many different versions of the pieces in different manuscripts and also that each has a multitude of interchangeable sections. To a somewhat lesser extent, this is true of all music prior to the invention of recording technology and is still true of all live performances of music. [UPDATE: this overstates things. In the Notre Dame repertoire it is the actual text, the notes, that has multiple variants. In music since about 1750, the text is stable, but the variations are on the level of expression and interpretation--which I think is also very important.] Even with simple pieces, every time you sit down to play or sing them, there are real differences in the pacing, expression, dynamics, tone-color and so on. I regard this as one of the great strengths of music.

Compare to some other art forms: differences in lighting and environment aside, all paintings and sculptures are essentially the same over time. There are no 'performance' differences. But in the performing arts, such as theater and music, each performance is different. What strikes me is the analogue with persons. Every time you meet someone and have a conversation with them, there are differences. A different side of them appears--and a different side of you as well. Proust mused that we only really come to know ourselves as we are reflected in others. A piece of music only seems to come fully to 'life' in a performance before an audience.

How great are these differences? Take a famous piece like the Chaconne to the D minor violin partita by Bach. There a many different ways of playing this. Here are a few of them:

Each on a different instrument! All the same piece. But the 'same' in a way akin to the way a person is the same dressed for a formal occasion, or dressed to play soccer, or in an extrovert mood, or subdued and so on. Different facets of a piece are revealed in different performances by different people, even if on the same instruments, similar to the way different facets of a person emerge depending on the situation: at a party, in a job interview and so on. You can only stretch the analogy a little ways, of course. But it is easy to see why a piece of music is a bit like a person: because people are involved in at least three ways. First, the music is composed by a person and due to its unique fluidity and expressive qualities, some of the personhood of the composer is transmitted. Then it is performed by a different person who takes what is there and contributes yet another level of personhood with their own expression. Thirdly, there is an audience receiving this complex of expression and they receive it with their own personhood.

Music is a medium for the transmission of some aspects of being a person. It is the fluidity, the undefined aspects of music that lend it the malleability that is so important.

Now think about recording for a moment. I had to use recordings to give you examples, but I would have much preferred not to. If this blog post were a talk instead, to a live audience, I could have played the beginning of the chaconne in several different ways as an example. Myself on guitar, perhaps some friends on violin or piano. Then the point would be even stronger, because even when the same person plays the same piece on the same instrument, it is different on different days. Just as you yourself are different on different days, in a different mood, and this is amplified when you interact with another person, who is also in different moods on different days.

Recordings are fixed, transportable and saleable, which has made them so hugely important. But they eliminate the aspect of music that I have been talking about: the fluidity of music, the different-each-time-ness of music. A recording is music frozen. Interestingly enough, this aspect is least evident the first time you listen, but with each subsequent hearing of the same recording, the frozenness of it becomes more evident.

Even though I have avoided using the word, this post is really about the ontology of music...

UPDATE: I just remembered an excellent example of this. During Expo 86 in Vancouver, the great Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelić was a guest artist performing, if I recall correctly, a Tchaikovsky piano concerto with the Vancouver Symphony. There were two evening performances scheduled and a review appeared in the morning paper after the first of them. Vancouver being just a bit of a musical backwater, but somewhat belligerent about it, the critic was careful to find some negatives to mention in the review. I wasn't actually there, a friend of mine, another music critic, related to me the story. In any case, in the first night's performance the critic tweaked Pogorelić for being too something: too subdued or too boistrous, too subtle or too crude. I don't recall which! But let's say, too subdued. Obviously he read the paper the next morning so for that evening's performance he played the piece in exactly the opposite way! This is what we often forget: a great artist can play a piece of music in fifty different ways...

Friday, May 18, 2012

Favorite Recordings

Alex Ross has a post up about favorite recordings with a link to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's favorites (nearly all opera). This gets me thinking, of course, about my favorite recordings. I realize I don't actually have any! I certainly did in the past. There were records I nearly wore out from listening to them: John Williams' complete recording of Bach lute suites, some lute duets, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven symphonies and string quartets, Debussy's Nocturnes and on and on. Each month or year I would have a new favorite. But I don't any more. I listen to whatever music I am writing program notes for, which is always changing. Sometimes I sit down and listen carefully to a particular piece with the score, for study purposes. Other times I listen all the way through a particular set of pieces like the Beethoven piano sonatas or the Shostakovich string quartets, but I don't keep going back. The last three recordings I listened to were the Quatuor pour le fin du temps by Messiaen, Revolver by the Beatles and Gustav Leonhardt's recording of the Goldberg Variations by Bach. But I wouldn't put them down on a favorite list.

I think the reason is that much of my musical thought these days goes into composition, so there is often some kind of musical idea bubbling around in my head. I don't want to interfere with that, so I tend to avoid hearing music.

The spirit of the age is to be connected with everything and everyone all the time, hence, Facebook.  But if you want to do something, particularly something creative, I think you have to focus. This means avoiding any distractions! I mentioned a while back Elliot Carter's retreat to a cabin in the Sonoran desert for a year to write a string quartet. One of the most important years in my life in music was spent in Alicante, Spain where I did nothing but study and practice guitar for six hours a day. At the end of that year, I had become a real guitarist. The secret is focus and avoiding distraction. Now, of course, this alternates or is complemented by, other periods in which you are open to absorbing all kinds of musical experiences: concert going, score study and, yes, listening to recordings, perhaps repeatedly.

Thinking back, while I don't really have favorite recordings, there are a small group of concerts that I attended that were so memorable I would list them as favorite concert experiences:

  • Nigel Rogers performing 17th century vocal music with harpsichord and astonishing ornaments
  • Andres Segovia giving a stunning--and long!--concert in 1977 at age 84 with several encores.
  • A piece by Serge Garant for piano and six percussionists who, at one point were playing 24 gongs so loud that the piano, played fortissimo, was completely inaudible! But, due to the character of the gong, it didn't seem loud, but rather like a blanket of sound.
  • A concert by the Endellion Quartet a couple of years ago with Shostakovich's 8th Quartet between a lovely Haydn quartet and one of the op 59 Beethoven quartets and it was the Shostakovich that completely won the audience over.
  • A concert of Brahms with piano accompaniment by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who just passed away--a great loss...).
  • Arthur Rubenstein in recital. I remember most clearly the astonishing colors he obtained in the Busoni transcription of the Bach chaconne.
  • A recital for baroque lute by Jakob Lindberg in which he played his transcription of "Across the Universe" as an encore.
Let's end with some Fischer-Dieskau, one of the greatest singers of all time.

UPDATE: I was at the Salzburg music festival quite a few years ago when Karlheinz Stockhausen brought his whole extended family/ensemble who gave a week of performances - all from memory - of his chamber music. I was chatting with him after one of these concerts, saying that it was a treat to hear his music performed instead of just in a recording and he replied that a recording is like a postcard compared to actually visiting a place. That seems to capture it quite well...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The End of Time

Probably the most surreal moment in all music history was the premiere of Olivier Messiaen's  Quatuor pour la fin du temps which took place on January 15, 1941 in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner of war camp near Görlitz, Germany. Contrary to the Wikipedia article on this piece, the town of Görlitz still exists, though it now ajoins the Polish town of Zgorzelec. I have been to Görlitz, though not to the long-disappeared camp. The premiere was held outdoors, in the rain, attended by an audience of about 400 prisoners and guards.

The jobs of theorist and composer have mostly been divided up--few figures in music history are important in both areas. But Messiaen (1908 - 1992) is one of the exceptions. Messiaen wrote a great deal about his technique, especially in Technique de mon langage musical of 1944. Oddly enough, but fitting with the aesthetic of the time, it deals solely with rhythmic, harmonic and melodic technique, excluding any reference to meaning. I say "oddly" because Messiaen was a very spiritual man and the quartet is a prime example. Messiaen wrote that the work was inspired by a text from the Book of Revelation:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire ... and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth .... And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever ... that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ....
The titles of the movements bear this out. One particularly lovely movement is the fifth: "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus". Here is the informative Wikipedia article on the quartet. And here is a complete performance with the score:

The work has a very complex structure, mostly hidden away and only revealed through meticulous analysis. Some techniques, such as isorhythmic patterns, come from the Middle Ages, but others are inspired by Indian classical music and birdsong. There are palindromes, modes of limited transposition (Messiaen's own terminology) and possibly other techniques yet to be discovered! These techniques are not meant to be uncovered by the listener, but are a kind of mystical underpinning to the music.

Our professor in 20th Century Theory and Analysis was waxing lyrical about the piece one day when I had possibly my most brilliant inspiration in graduate school. As he paused, I interjected, "yeah, but, captive audience!"

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Tritone

The tritone is one of those fascinating problems that music theory has dealt with from the very beginning. It is an interval, the distance between two notes, and it has been a problem because it pops up in any scale or mode. The problem is that it has a very harsh sound--is dissonant. The tritone is just three whole tones, hence the name. Like this:

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The problem comes up when you try to do a primitive kind of polyphony with two voices in parallel motion.

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Several solutions emerged. One is to lower the B natural to a B flat, which is why in the earliest written music the only accidental is a flat on B. This was also the earliest key signature. Another is to avoid parallels and from that came the rule about parallel fifths. Instead, have the voices move in oblique or contrary motion. Another solution which came later was to only move in parallel thirds or sixths, but that had to wait until these intervals, dubbed 'imperfect', became acceptable as consonant. At first the only intervals called consonant were the 'perfect' ones: the unison, fourth, fifth and octave.

Much, much later the tritone became prized as a special kind of intense dissonance and is an essential part of the most important progression that defines tonality: the V7 - I cadence.

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It is the very intensity of the dissonance built into the V7 chord with the tritone from F to B, that makes the cadence powerful because this tension resolves into the consonant tonic harmony.

The intensity of the tritone interval can be used in a melody. Leonard Bernstein used it in the song "Maria" from West Side Story. You can hear it in this excerpt right at the 35 - 36 second mark. The tritone is between "Ma" and "ri".

Sometimes the tritone is used just for shock value as in this song by George Harrison, "I Want to Tell You". Listen for the piano part between the 26 and 32 second mark and similar places. Yes, it's that same pesky F to B natural.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Universe of Music

To me, the world of music is a vast universe of sound with nebulas, galaxies, solar systems, planets and comets. The Balinese monkey chant is a small musical world of its own, geographically close to but musically far from, the world of the Javanese gamelan. The blues of Robert Johnson and its flow, as a river, into the music of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, is another world. The galaxy that is the string quartet, devised by Joseph Haydn, throws out spiral arms in Beethoven, Brahms, Janacek, Bartok and Shostakovich.

No need to continue the metaphor: the universe of music is too vast to comprehend. Occasionally someone tries to hint at this vastness. One such was Charles Ives in the sketches for his Universe Symphony. Here is a brilliant account of the piece. It is hard to think of anything to compare it to. Perhaps Mysterium, an unfinished project of Scriabin that dates from roughly the same period, the second decade of the 20th century. Another comparison might be to Dante's Divine Comedy, a work of art that spans the whole universe of human understanding.

I'm fairly comfortable with most composers and a lot of pop music. I have a fair idea of what is going on in the music and the aesthetic value of it. But there are composers that I have not even yet attempted to come to terms with and Charles Ives is one of these. Scriabin, too, possibly. I just don't know what I think about Ives' music. But I am certainly going to have a very serious look at it. In the meantime, here is the first section of his Universe Symphony realized by Michael Stern and performed by the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken under his direction.

A couple of days ago another version of the piece was performed in New York by the Nashville Symphony. Here is news clip with the music director discussing how it was put together.

Five conductors? Makes sense. But poor Stockhausen! Outclassed by Ives decades before he wrote his Gruppen for three orchestras and three conductors!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Answers to "The Musical Contest"

Towards the end of last month I put up, just for fun, a little musical contest. But no-one wanted to submit answers! Which was the main reason I put it up. The other day I tried it out on a retired opera producer and he found it very difficult. So I guess it was fun for me, but not fun for you. You shoulda just said: fuggedaboudit!!

Anyway, here are the answers:
  1. Smetana, in 1874 at fifty years of age.
  2. Drums, bass, guitar, organ.
  3. Either none, one, two or three, depending on how you look at it. We have no complete concerto for cello by Mozart. There are two tiny fragments that might indicate lost concertos, or ones he did not complete. There is a concerto in D major for cello transcribed in the 1940s from a couple of oboe concertos by Mozart.
  4. Bass.
  5. Osvaldo Golijov.
  6. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan (who also can't really play the harmonica).
  7. The viola.
  8. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Mama Cass.
  9. Richard Wagner (and why is this not really surprising?).
  10. Shostakovich on a bet in either 1927 or 8.
  11. Spike, in the musical episode "Once More With Feeling" from season six.
  12. Mozart.

Artificial Double-Tracking

Thursday I put up a post that talked a bit about the Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows" from Revolver. This is the post. I also talked about the song briefly in this post which was about the variety of songs on the album Revolver. It's not called that because it is about handguns. Long-playing records used to sit on a turntable and revolve, hence, an LP is a 'revolver'.

In the second post I linked to above, I talk a little about what makes Beatles' records distinctive. They really don't sound like anyone else. The reasons are many. There is a quote from somewhere that says that genius is nothing but infinite attention to detail. There is certainly some truth to that. The Beatles were a creative group that encompassed not only John, Paul, George and Ringo, but also included George Martin, who contributed a lot to the beginnings and endings of songs, arranged string and other instrumental parts and even played keyboards on some tracks. There were some technical and engineering people that contributed as well. The title of this post, "artificial double-tracking" refers to a technique discovered by Ken Townshend. The Beatles had discovered that if you double-tracked the lead vocal, it had much more presence. So they developed the practice of recording every lead vocal twice. This was very time-consuming so they were delighted when a way of doing this automatically was discovered. It is called "artificial double tracking" or ADT and involves duplicating a track slightly out of phase so it sounds as if two singers (actually the same singer twice) are involved.

But this is just one of many techniques they developed. Others included recording the voice at a slightly slower tape speed and playing it back at the normal speed for an intensified effect. They did the opposite with the instruments: recording them at a slightly faster tape speed and slowing down on playback for a 'fatter' sound. They recorded guitar solos and played them back backwards, they stuffed sweaters in the bass drum for a muffled effect. You name it. The purpose of all this was to find the uniquely 'right' sound for every song. For an example, let's trace the evolution of a single song, "She Said She Said" from Revolver. This is a tune by Lennon that comes from a conversation with Peter Fonda around a pool in LA. Most remarkably, we actually have Lennon's early drafts of this song that he recorded at home with just him singing and a guitar. Have a listen to how the song, especially the melody, evolves in these brief clips:

It starts out as little more than the phrase "he said" (later changed to "she said") and an up-tempo rock and roll accompaniment. But with each attempt, the melody evolves (at the beginning there was almost no melody) and the chords get less generic. Also notice the very ordinary sound of Lennon's voice. It sounds a lot like anyone fooling around at home with a tape recorder. Luckily, we even have the guitar tracks of the final version isolated. Here they are so you can hear how the guitar part evolved:

Now listen to the finished song:

The first words, "she said" are sung by Lennon alone, but with double-tracking. This is answered with harmony vocals "I know what it's like to be dead" in thirds. One nice touch is that this harmony line is immediately echoed in the guitars. Other things that were added are a contrasting section ('bridge') in 3/4 time on the words "no, no, no, you're wrong" and continuing to "everything was right". Oh, and the whole arrangement, of course.

The transformation from the simple, not very interesting, song John was messing around with at home and the finished version is simply astounding. And it all took place, according to session records, in one nine-hour session on June 21, 1966, the day before the master tape for Revolver was due to be compiled. That alone leaves me rather amazed... Anyone can walk into the studio with some lyrics on a napkin, a vague idea of a melody and some chords. But how many can end up with a song like this nine hours later?

UPDATE: I didn't mention Ringo's drumming but here, as in every song, there is no generic back beat. Just listen to the amazing variety of what he is doing and how it changes to suit what is going on in the song. Now compare it to the rather stereotyped drum patterns of most current pop songs.

"Mickey-Mousing" and Madrigalism

For the ancient Greeks, mimesis or imitation, was fundamental to art, which was always believed to imitate nature in some way. Music is the art form which seems most remote from nature as musical notes do not directly denote something. But they can certainly connote a lot. "Mickey Mousing" is one extreme example. In this technique, used widely in cartoon animations which explains the origin of the term, the physical actions of the characters are directly imitated in the music. Here is an example:

A different kind of example would be a Royal Navy warship coming on screen, accompanied by strains of "Rule Britannia".

That connection does not depend on direct imitation, of course, but rather on conventional association and knowledge of the words to the song. In the 16th century the composers of madrigals developed a number of techniques to highlight and amplify the text in the musical setting. One of the most famous madrigals exemplifying these techniques (and a hugely popular piece at the time) is Jacques Arcadelt's Il bianco e dolce cigno ("The white and gentle swan").

To our ears, the effect is rather mild, accustomed as we are to far more extreme harmonies, but Arcadelt sets the word "piangendo" ("weeping"), heard at the 14 to 15 second mark, to an E flat harmony, outside the 'key' of F major. A more striking example is the lute song by John Dowland, "Come again, sweet love doth now invite."

Each verse ends with a repeated refrain in which both the lute (guitar in this performance) and voice ascend, alternating with one another. The voice leaps by fourths while the lute moves up by step. The words give away the meaning: "To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die---with thee again, in sweetest sympathy." In the Renaissance, a bawdy time, both Italian and English were redolent with slang and metaphor. "To die" represented sexual release and the repeated refrain represents it rather well in music. This example, therefore, combines two kinds of representation or madrigalism: the conventional association of 'death' with sexual release in the text and the imitation of this in the music.

By way of contrast, Wagner's Prelude to Tristan is an extended attempt to represent ever-increasing sexual tension without release:

It does this by complex chromaticism and avoidance of cadence. I've talked about the importance of the cadence before. In music with functional harmony, the cadence serves the function of releasing the tension accumulated during the previous phrase or section of the piece. It does this by stating the dominant, the source of musical tension, followed by the tonic, the place of rest and completion. In the 18th century there was usually some sort of cadence every 16 measures or so. Wagner uses this harmonic convention to create a musical structure in which the cadence is always implied, but always avoided. The ways to do this are by extending the dominant and instead of resolving it into the tonic, moving instead to a tonic substitute. This is known as a 'deceptive' cadence and it has a long provenance. Wagner's claim to fame is his extension of these techniques to huge lengths of time and their use to made the drama manifest.

Well, we have come a long way from Popeye!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the news item that originally gave me the idea for this post. In the Globe and Mail there is a story about a new Canadian opera by Abigail Richardson, commissioned for young audiences on a short story by Roch Carrier, "The Hockey Sweater". The first paragraph provides us with yet another example of mimesis in music:
To perform her most recent piece of music, Ontario composer Abigail Richardson will rely on the strings, the brass and the organ, as well as a pile of ceramic tiles. The tiles, just the regular kitchen-bathroom variety, make a sharp noise when scraped against each other, rather like a skate blade cutting across ice, and that is exactly the sound Richardson needs.
Imitation of the exact sound of an activity in the real world--a musical 'sound effect'.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Wages of Professionalism

I was reading about the minnesinger Neidhardt von Reuenthal (died about 1250) and noticed that he was not only a composer of songs, but also a nobleman and crusader. That gets me thinking. When did ordinary people, that is, non-professionals, stop making music? I think that it must have started sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. A technological event and an historical trend would be my choices for the causes. The technology is recording, of course. As soon as we were able to make relatively accurate recordings, then the outstandingly gifted professional musicians would increase their dominance. As soon as anyone can buy a recording of Caruso, or Heifetz or Horowitz, then the local artists decline in importance and influence. Before, they could only dominate the concert hall they were playing in that night. The other trend was toward complexity and virtuosity. An amateur pianist can negotiate a sonata by Haydn without too much difficulty. Even lots of music by Beethoven. But with Liszt and Paganini, the whole point of their music is to transcend what an amateur can do.

So, inexorably, the role of the amateur musician declined and diminished more and more to the point where now, the making of music is left largely up to full time professionals and the rest of us just play the iPod. Someone like Condileeza Rice, who is reasonably accomplished on the piano, stands out because nowadays it is so unusual. I think recording technology has been even more crucial than the higher technical requirements. Before everyone had access to recordings, people sang and danced as a regular component of life. They worked and sang work songs, they drank and sang drinking songs, they loved and sang love songs, they marched to battle and sang battle songs.

Here is what we do now:

Not bad, actually. But if they weren't in a war zone, they probably wouldn't go to the trouble. The consequence now is that the vast majority of people imbibe music passively, having little in the way of experience in being makers of music themselves.