Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"You Complete Me"

After "show me the money" and "you had me at hello" that is probably the most well-known quote from the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire. It gives me a title for a post about one of the concepts behind Romantic music. Way back in 1794 Friedrich Schiller wrote about the need for the audience (or reader, or viewer) to complete the work of art. He said, "the real and express content that the poet puts in his work remains always finite; the possible content that he allows us to contribute is an infinite quality." This is a fascinating idea, but like many Romantic ideas, it can be easily misunderstood and abused. Earlier composers, while they did expect the player to bring the music alive, did not really expect the listener to 'complete' it in any substantial way (with some exceptions that I will get to later) --just to enjoy it. But the Romantics, and especially ones in the first generation like Robert Schumann, were fascinated by the incompleteness of the work and how it might be completed by the listener. The idea was to leave important things unsaid (or unplayed) just as in a novel, the reader must imagine to himself many details about the setting and the characters, especially the visual aspect.

In close listening to the counterpoint of, say, Bach, we imagine voices continuing even after they have died away because of the logic of the voice-leading--in that sense the listener 'completes' the music. Sometimes you can only 'hear' the full texture by looking at the score! But the Romantics went further. In one part of his Humoresque, op 20, Schumann writes a separate melody on a third stave that is meant to be unplayed!
The top stave is the right hand, the bottom stave is the left hand and the middle is, unheard, inaudible, to be imagined. He writes in the score, "inner voice", in the sense of 'interior'. Here is a bit of the score:

Click to enlarge

The written out top voice is a kind of echo of the 'interior' voice, which is not played. Here is a performance by Horowitz. The "Hastig" section starts right at 5:55:

Now I know what you are going to say: "But I don't hear that inner voice!" Well, yes. Thinking about this can get a bit tricky. Here we have an unplayed melody that is presumably thought or imagined by the pianist while he is playing that perhaps influences the way he plays and thereby the way we hear it. But we are really free to hear music any way we want to. Call this an experiment in Romanticism.

I have another, quite different example. Here is the Quebec group Beau Dommage performing their song "La complainte du phoque en Alaska" in concert. The audience joins in from the beginning and by the four minute mark, take over singing the song. At the 4:43 mark, the band stops completely and only comes back to end it. Nice.

UPDATE: Beau Dommage (the name means "beautiful damage") was a hugely popular rock band in Quebec in the 1970s. This clip comes from a reunion concert in 1995. A "phoque" is a seal.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Writing about Music

I was over at Ann Althouse's blog just now and she had a post up about Colette, Georges Simenon and advice about writing. Althouse has been on a bit of a crusade lately after reading an essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt on bullshit. Yes, he comes right out and says it, no dancing around the word! Anyway, Ann put up an interesting link to a site that purports to judge "how much bullshit hides in your text." The BlaBlaMeter. Well, I couldn't resist, so I pasted in the first two paragraphs of my last post into the BlaBlaMeter and here was the result:

Bullshit Index :0.05
Your text shows no or marginal indications of 'bullshit'-English.

So you can rest easy: even though I am talking about a very enigmatic art form, music, I'm not shining you on. Just the facts, ma'am. Oh, and some very opinionated opinions, but supported by facts. Or pretty much...

To round off this low-content post, let me put up some lovely music that I was just listening to: Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann sung, in his Salzburg debut recital in 1956, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Notice, among other things, the amazing harmonic ambiguity of the first song. Supposedly in F# minor, but with cadences on A and D and ending--ending!--with a C# dominant seventh chord...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Concert of Beethoven and Boulez

Blogger and music reviewer Jessica Duchen writes about a concert this week in London, part of the annual BBC Proms concerts. The program consisted of Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 of Beethoven and a piece for solo violin and electronics by Pierre Boulez: Anthèmes 2. I've been listening to Beethoven for over forty years and Boulez for nearly that long--I think I bought a copy of Le marteau sans maître in the early 70s.

What I find interesting about the review is not its rah-rah enthusiasm for the performance (which may have been completely deserved) or the little nuggets of information about the electronics in the Boulez, but the avoidance of any mention of the ideology of concerts like this. Nowadays we accuse one another of ideology a lot, but we don't talk much about how ideology actually works and we avoid completely any mention of aesthetic value especially when talking about works of art. Now there's a conundrum for you!

So I thought I would, as a public service, provide a little discussion of all the things Jessica Duchen avoids discussing. First of all, to program a concert, let alone a series of concerts, devoted to just two composers is to make a very large aesthetic claim: these two composers may be different, but they have equal claims to our time and attention. Therefore we are asserting that they have, in some way, equal aesthetic value or status. Never mind whether this is true or not, this is the underlying claim. After all, why Beethoven and Boulez? Why not Beethoven and Brahms, Beethoven and Berlioz, Beethoven and Babbitt or Beethoven and  Beyoncé?

I used the word 'ideology' so let me indicate what I mean by it. The word goes back to 1796 when it was coined amid the political disputes following the French Revolution. Whatever the ostensible meaning of the word, I find that it usually indicates a kind of underhanded argument where one assumes the conclusion and then uses any means necessary to reach that conclusion. A political ideology is one that has certain core assumptions that cannot be questioned.

I think that the ideology of this concert programming is that of progressive modernism: Beethoven was a good composer for his time, but since then we have made a great deal of technical progress in music as demonstrated in the piece by Boulez. What is the key word here? "Technical". Boulez in particular has been a strong proponent of the technical evolution in music as his leadership of IRCAM (the electro-acoustic research institute set up by the French government) has long demonstrated. Indeed this kind of piece, for live instrument with considerable real-time computer-guided electronic processing, is at the very heart of the IRCAM project. Boulez has long been an ideologue for the extremes of modernism. As early as 1952 in his essay manifesto "Schoenberg est mort" (Schoenberg is dead) he demonstrates the terrible force of modernism: the tyranny of the new and ever newer. Here is how the essay put it: "Since the Viennese discoveries, any musician who has not experienced -- I do not say understood, but truly experienced -- the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his entire work brings him up short of the needs of his time." By "Viennese discoveries" he is referring to the 12-tone system of atonality developed by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. The music of Webern was the model for modernist composers in the years immediately after the Second World War.

A certain ideology has also been associated with Beethoven as well. He was a young man in the years of and following the French Revolution and certainly felt the tremors as it shook the foundations of aristocratic society. We can hear in some of Beethoven's music the liberated energy of whole classes of people sensing the possibility of a new freedom. That is some of the background to the composers in the concert. Now let's listen to the music. The concert began with the Beethoven Symphony No. 8. Here is the last movement performed by Tafelmusik:

Next is an extended excerpt from Anthèmes 2. This piece is a development of an earlier piece. Anthèmes I is a short piece (c. 9 minutes) for solo violin, written in 1992 and commissioned by the 1991 Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition. The second version is about twice as long, dating from 1997 for solo violin and live electronics. There is quite a lot of information about the work available including academic papers and a public lecture by Boulez himself. The salient elements of the music include a seven-note series taken from another piece (groups of seven permeate the music), and the note D which begins and ends the piece and is a focus at important points. One of Boulez' later criticisms of twelve-tone music was that it prevents the assigning of different weight and importance to different notes. An inspiration for the work was the chanting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah during Easter holy week. Boulez' music is immensely complex and these few sentences merely scratch the surface. However, complexity  is no guarantee of aesthetic quality. Here is that excerpt:

The concert ended with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. Here are Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw with the second movement, the most famous movement from the symphony:

So, interesting concert? The idea of putting different things like this together in the same concert seems to be in the air. Two seasons ago I heard a pianist give a concert that consisted of alternating preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach with other pieces by Rameau, Beethoven, Debussy, Schoenberg and, in the second half, with jazz, popular and world music. I think that the ideological point there was something about the universality or diversity of music, but what it really showed was that Bach was a better composer than any of the other guys. The act of putting two different pieces of music side by side is a very powerful one and often results in things you did not intend. What impressions do we get from putting Beethoven and Boulez side by side?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson is a performance artist who sings and plays violin and keyboard. She began in the late 1960s  but probably the peak of her fame was in 1981 when her song "O Superman" reached no. 2 on the pop charts in the UK. I think she counts as a composer in that zone between contemporary classical music and alternative popular music. Her music can often be hypnotic and compelling and the lyrics interesting. Here is "O Superman":

"O Superman" is part of a larger work called "America" and was also included on an LP titled "Big Science". Here is the song that gave its title to the album:

I think my favorite song from the album is the first track, "From the Air":

You might locate Laurie Anderson's compositions as being somewhere on a line drawn between Philip Glass and Bob Dylan, but with a strong visual component. She has a coolly ironic angle on American culture and combines it with some simple, but eerie and expressive musical ideas.

The Music Criticism of Kingsley Amis

Of course, Kingsley Amis (1922 - 1995) father of novelist Martin Amis, was not a music critic at all. But in his novel Girl, 20 (1971) he does a very convincing job of depicting his central character, Douglas Yandell, as a pianist and music journalist. Usually I find that when writers who are not musicians talk about music, they make the most elementary mistakes. But as Wikipedia notes,
Girl, 20, for instance, is framed in the world of classical (and pop) music, of which Amis was not a part – the book’s relatively impressive command of musical terminology and opinion shows both Amis’s amateur devotion to music and the almost journalistic capacity of his intelligence to take hold of a subject which interested him.
Amis's most famous novel is the absolutely hilarious Lucky Jim, a farcical depiction of college life. Girl, 20 is about the romantic misadventures of a famous conductor and violinist and manages to deliver some delightfully brief off-hand musical criticisms. After inadvertent exposure to some pop music which he describes as "wordless yelling" and "various mechanical noises, chiefly metallic" Douglas muses on how suddenly the prospect of listening to all of Bruckner's 8th Symphony didn't seem so bad. After a subsequent exposure he notes:
I was sorry for having too hastily rejected those musical works which consist of a stated period of silence under concert conditions. First Bruckner, I thought, now John Cage. Who next? Nielsen, Busoni, Buxtehude? Yes, listening hard to the works of any or each would almost certainly prove less onerous than having a tooth drilled down to the gum without anaesthetic.
 What is so charming about this is the freedom and ease with which Douglas, in his inner thoughts, evaluates and dismisses various composers. In most places, popular journalism, blogs, even a lot of musicological writings, all 'classical' music is lumped together as 'good'. Or perhaps all lumped together as 'irrelevant' and fading away. But the truth is that all classical music is not easily lumped together: some of it is good, some of it is great, some of it is bad and some of it is simply too long, ponderous and wearing to listen to. Like Bruckner's 8th. Here is the whole 86-minute-long piece:

One of my favorite bits is when he responds to the conductor's wife asking, "Isn't pop music music?" His simple answer: "No." He refers to a Miles Davis record as "faithfully render[ing] that tiny, elementary universe of despair and hatred."

His longest bit of music criticism is his reaction to a rehearsal of a Mahler symphony:
The movement turned out to be the first movement of the First Symphony: a considerable mercy, seeing that it might so easily have been something broad, full, ample, spacious, massive, leisurely and going on for over half an hour from the Second or the Third. Thanks to some paroxysm of curtailment on the composer's part, I was in for little more than fifteen minutes' worth. ... At first against my will, I listened to Mahler's enormous talentlessness being rendered by Roy and the N.L.S.O. As they went on, flecks of seeming talent began to insinuate themselves. Factitious fuss turned itself into a sort of gaiety; doodles in the horns and woodwind were almost transformed into rustic charm; blaring and banging acquired a note of near-menace; even that terrible little cuckoo-motif reflected something more than the great man's decision to let the world know how jolly preoccupied he had been in those days with the interval of the perfect fourth.

Let's have a listen to that movement. Hmm, the first interval we hear (and the second, the third, the fifth, etc.) is that perfect fourth. Unfortunately, this clip does not contain the whole first movement.

I can't find the continuation of this performance, so here is another clip of the whole first movement, in a performance by a quite good college orchestra:

We can actually listen to this music, with its long-held high notes, mutterings in the bass, cuckoo-like motifs, horn doodles and so on in the respectful, admiring way that Mahler's music has more and more been listened to in recent decades. Here is a good newspaper article on Mahler that quotes some of the criticism of him, like Vaughan Williams' comment that he was a "tolerable imitation of a composer". But mostly conveys how Mahler is currently regarded: as perhaps the most important symphonic composer. The article, reluctant to actually say something as judgmental as "Mahler's symphonies are great musical works" instead cryptically says, "His symphonies live in the present tense, progressing on their nerves, each fearlessly unconventional and unpredictable." I'm sure we are meant to take this as praise.

But we could also listen to this movement and agree with Amis that it exhibits an "enormous talentlessness", couldn't we? Can we see what he meant? There is a kind of ridiculousness to that ever-recurring descending fourth, a kind of pointlessness to the themes, a kind of pompous fakery. Or we can hear it as "fearlessly unconventional and unpredictable". Except that it really isn't! Except for the length and the music's conviction that it is profound, there is really nothing unconventional about the music, and the return of that descending fourth and a lot of other things is very much predictable!

I'm starting to think that, for a novelist, Kingsley Amis was actually a pretty good music critic. For one thing, in his going against the grain of public consensus he often strikes closer to the truth. Public consensus about the relative merits of this and that composer often has to do with fad and fashion and it is nice to be reminded from time to time that everyone might have a quite erroneous opinion. The composer that everyone is admiring might indeed be enormously untalented... If you want to compare Mahler to another composer of symphonies who really is talented, you might have a look at this post.

UPDATE: One commentor took me to task for my off-hand dismissal of Bruckner's 8th Symphony. Looking over the post I see that I did go too far. So I spent some time with Furtwangler's 1954 recording and yes, it is pretty good stuff. I suspect that Bruckner might be a stronger symphonic composer than Mahler, though the latter gets all the attention these days.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Pop Music Too Loud and All Sounds the Same"


Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!

A team led by artificial intelligence specialist Joan Serra at the Spanish National Research Council ran music from the last 50 years through some complex algorithms and found that pop songs have become intrinsically louder and more bland in terms of the chords, melodies and types of sound used.
"We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse," Serra told Reuters. "In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations - roughly speaking chords plus melodies - has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."

Well, yeah!

Glinka on Liszt

Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857), the first widely known Russian composer who wrote A Life for the Tsar once commented on Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886), the great piano virtuoso that
...sometimes Liszt played magnificently, like no one else in the world, but other times intolerably, in a highly affected manner, dragging tempi and adding to the works of others, even to those of Chopin, Beethoven, Weber and Bach a lot of embellishments of his own that were often tasteless, worthless and meaningless.
Taruskin in the Oxford History of Western Music attributes this to a change in musical taste that was taking place. He links Glinka's remarks to the fact that he spent a year in Berlin studying with Siegfried Dehn, an "apostle of the new 'classicism' ". In turn, he attributes to this new attitude the removal from the training of musicians of the ability to improvise. Liszt, for example, often ended his concerts with an extemporized fantasia, but pianists of later times no longer improvise (or only very few).

I'm sure that there is some truth to this, but doesn't Taruskin prove too much? Is it not entirely possible that sometimes Liszt did indeed add tasteless, worthless and meaningless embellishments to the music of the composers listed? Taruskin sees the 19th century as a time when the classical repertoire became fixed and 'inviolate' with a loss of spontaneity. While that is also largely true, I think we can see it from a different angle.

Personally, if I go to a concert or listen to a recording of Chopin, Beethoven or Bach, I do expect to hear a more or less true account of the score. I also expect to hear the performer making the score come alive with dynamics, phrasing, articulation--the thousand indefinable things that make for a great performance. The score is nothing but a set of instructions and a kind of graphic representation of a performance. The notes on the staff are both. Things like dynamics (ppp or fff) or articulations like accents or staccati, are instructions and exactly how and how much are indefinite. A score tells us a great deal, but also leaves a great deal up to interpretation.

What I don't expect to hear at a concert or on a recording is the performer's embellishments of Chopin, Beethoven or Bach. Each of these composers arrived at a final (or reasonably so) version of the piece which they sent to the publisher. Beethoven was known to complain that, despite all his care, the published string quartets contain hosts of misprints (which could include missing or incorrect notes, misplaced or incorrect phrasing, accents, accidentals and so on). The obvious ones have been corrected over the years, but some may still remain! Beethoven wanted performers to have a correct version of the score. This they could then bring alive for performance.

Improvisation and embellishment are of a different order, I feel certain. Chopin, Beethoven and Bach could all improvise, Bach and Beethoven with a skill that we can barely imagine. But their improvisations were of a different aesthetic quality and category to the pieces they took the trouble to write down clearly and carefully and send to a publisher. Those works, I'm also pretty certain, they did not intend to be subject to embellishments that might on occasion be "tasteless, worthless and meaningless."

Here as an example of Liszt's more extemporaneous style, is his Fantasia and Fugue on B.A.C.H. That is to say, using the notes that correspond to BACH in German nomenclature: Bb, A, C, B natural.

Now do you really want to hear him or anyone else putting some music by Bach through the same kind of treatment? Do you want to hear him Liszticizing something like this:

Where is the room for embellishment? In music this highly and beautifully organized, I doubt adding notes would improve it in the slightest. It would be like dressing up a fine roast chicken with catsup and marshmallows.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Private vs Public, Part 2

Yesterday I put up the first post on this. The kind of music designed to be heard just by the performer or a very small group continued in the 18th and 19th centuries. J. S. Bach wrote a great deal of music designed to teach not only playing, but how to compose. The two-part inventions for keyboard are examples. This one, in F major, is a marvel of invertible counterpoint:

Bach's son, C. P. E. Bach wrote a number of keyboard fantasias that capture the sense of someone improvising just for themselves. When played on clavichord this is particularly apt because it is often called the most intimate of keyboard instruments. The key activates a small metal blade called a tangent that is held against the string. This means that the performer can feel the string tension through the key, unlike with all other keyboard instruments. Thus the performer has control of both dynamics and pitch--by pressing and releasing, vibrato is possible. Here is a piece by C. P. E. Bach on clavichord where you can hear quite clearly the vibrato:

The clavichord is so quiet that performance in a concert hall is really not possible without amplification. Pianists also wrote music largely intended for private use, such as this Fantasia by Mozart:

This feeling of the intimacy of music took on new significance in the 19th century as it was an important element in Romanticism. The most important composer of the romantic variety of private, or nearly private music was Chopin. People forget that while he made a big splash early on with brilliantly virtuosic compositions and with his concertos for piano and orchestra, for most of his career he only played in small salons. He played less than a dozen public concerts in his whole life. The nocturne, with its dreamy, floating character, is a good example of private music, whether it is just the pianist who is listening or a small salon gathering of a few others:

Individual subjectivity was a very big element of romanticism and even though it began with the piano in an intimate setting, they succeeded in transferring the feeling to the concert hall where perhaps a thousand listeners might be entranced by a solo piano piece.

The 20th century saw a new development in the story of private music. Now a performer goes into a studio and plays entirely alone, except for a microphone or two. In an adjoining room, there is a recording engineer and producer. Eventually, the music is heard by thousands or millions, but they too may be entirely alone, listening at home, or with an iPod. The intimate, private music now is becoming more important than the public music of the concert hall. I suspect that the consequences of this are still playing themselves out. One performer who responded to this early on was Glenn Gould who, at an early stage in his career, simply stopped playing concerts and performed thereafter only in the recording studio:

Thus the old tradition of the individual musician expressing something essentially private and intimate gains new life as it is shared through recording technology. Public music, though often glorious and splendid and for much of history the only kind of music most people had access to, has some potential weaknesses. Sometimes the performer concentrates on playing to the cheap seats with grandiose, excessive gestures. Subtlety can be lost entirely. The spectacle tends to overshadow the music. All these things also seem to apply to the music video, by the way.

While not always realized, the hope with private music is that it is the genuine expression of an individual, direct and intimate. This is one of those things that music has unique powers to convey.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Private vs Public

There are a lot of different ways to categorize music. The one that seems to get the most discussion these days is classical vs popular. Other ways are 'high' vs 'low' or 'clear' vs 'obscure', both of these distinctions coming from the Middle Ages. Or even 'chamber' vs 'orchestral' or 'vocal' vs 'instrumental'.

Yet another way that is not talked about very much is private vs public. There are some kinds of music that are specifically designed to be enjoyed just by the performer or the performer and a very few others. This kind of division tends to cut across most of the others. Here, for example, is Masimba Matyatya from Zimbabwe playing the traditional instrument of the region, the mbira or 'thumb piano' and singing.

There are several rough equivalents in Western music. In non-classical genres there is the folk-singer. Though  certainly popularized and played for large audiences, the roots of it are a single performer with a guitar who needs no audience or just a very few. Here are a couple of examples. First some blues by Robert Johnson from 1937:

Then Woody Guthrie with "The House of the Rising Sun":

We can use this one to show the difference between the 'private' version and the 'public' version because later on Eric Burden and the Animals did a rock version suitable for large audiences and this is the one most people know:

First of all, more performers are involved. You can't call it 'private' music if there are five performers and a big audience. But with just one performer, he might be playing just for himself with a couple of others listening in. Lots of cultures have this kind of music. Here is an example from Japan:

The classical Western tradition is not short of examples either. They begin with the beginning of secular music and the troubadours of Acquitaine in the 12th century. A lot of modern performances are very puffed up with a whole lot of instruments and singers even though in the original manuscripts all we have is a single line of melody. Here is a simple version, played on the oud, of a song by Bernart de Ventadorn:

The lute has a host of examples where the feeling of the music is of the performer musing to himself, with perhaps a couple of others listening. Here is some John Dowland, for example:

It is entirely possible that John Dowland, one of the greatest lutenists of the Renaissance, never played for more than five or ten people together at one time in his whole career. The public recital didn't even exist yet and he would have played just for small groups of the nobility in their homes. The same situation applied to the French lutenist Denis Gaultier:

This post is just going on and on, isn't it? I think what I will do is stop here and continue the thought in another post where I will take up keyboard instruments and move toward more recent times. I'll leave you with this thought: the common quality of all this music is that it has a meditative quality, the performer is musing to himself, musically...

Percussionists and Professionalism

I was thinking about some of the pressures professional musicians have to cope with and by chance ran across this story on the NPR blog: "A Musician and the Audition of His Life". At first you think it is going to be one of those motivational success stories, but no, it is more like a tragedy. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

This reminds me of an incident in my first year at university in music. An acquaintance of mine was a percussion student. The local orchestra had programmed some Wagner, I think it was the prelude to Lohengrin, not sure which act. Here it is:

After listening to that and looking at the score, I'm not sure that was the piece! But it at least gets you in the mood. Like this, the piece they had programmed had a long orchestral build-up and at the climax, perhaps six minutes in, as in the clip above, the percussion signaled the climax by introducing their new sounds. In the prelude to the first act of Lohengrin, in the clip above, it is the clash of cymbals that does the job. In my hazy recollection, it was a triangle. Perhaps one of my readers can recall which Wagner prelude I am thinking of? Anyway, it doesn't matter to the story. The orchestra, having only one full-time percussionist, the tympani player, had to hire a couple of extras for the additional percussion. My acquaintance was one of the students chosen, even though he was just in first year. As I recall, the part was very simple: count hundreds of measures of rests for those long six minutes of build up and then hit the triangle a few times (in the correct rhythm, of course). Anyone could have done it with a minute's instruction. He goes off to the first rehearsal, mis-counts the rests and misses his entry. So they fire him. Instantly.

That is one of the aspects of playing in orchestra that outsiders never see: if you play percussion, or brass, or winds, there can be long waits before you play. But you have to come in, in exactly the right place. Counting rests is quite nerve-wracking! If you have a fertile imagination, as I do, as soon as you start counting another part of your brain starts wondering, "did I start in the right place?", "did I miss a bar?", "did I just zone out for a minute?" Imagine this going on for six long, long minutes... Pretty easy to miss your entrance.

The solution is simple, though, and I'm surprised his teacher didn't clue him in. Just go to the music library, get the score of the piece and a recording and listen to it several times with the score so you know exactly what the music sounds like just before you come in. Then you don't even count those six minutes of rests, just wait for your cue. A 'cue' is a signal, perhaps a melody in another part like the violins, or a rhythm that stands out. Anything that will tell you exactly where you are. You just write this into your part in small notes. Nobody told me this, by the way, the first time I played in the orchestra. I think it was Rossini, The Barber of Seville that has a guitar part in act one. In any case, it was a fascinating experience playing in the orchestra pit. I wasn't used to trying to tune my guitar surrounded by forty other musicians also tuning! I also wasn't used to following a conductor. But after a rehearsal or two, I got the hang of it. Once, in another opera, there was an aria accompanied only by guitar and cello. The ensemble (meaning the precise fitting together of the voice and two accompanying instruments) never seemed quite right to me. It felt as if the singer were going one way, the cellist another and the conductor yet a third. One night I just instinctively followed the singer and got chewed out afterwards. Then I remembered that it was the conductor that was the boss! You follow him, no matter what.

One reason that I found following the conductor tricky is that a guitarist needs one eye for the shifts in the left hand and one eye for the music. So which eye do you use to look at the conductor? Luckily, for most of my career I didn't have to worry about following the conductor because I was the soloist. In a concerto for guitar and orchestra, the orchestra, led by the conductor, follows the guitar. When I was playing the Villa-Lobos concerto, we were playing through the second movement for the first time. The guitar just has argpeggios at the end so I played them, watching the conductor, waiting for him to slow down for the end. He never did. Afterwards I found out he was waiting for me and I was waiting for him. That section is from about the 4 minute to the 4:36 mark in this clip.

So much of music comes down to split-second timing. Oh, and by the way, we split the seconds pretty small sometimes! You can play a lot of notes in a second. Or miss a lot of notes!

Here's a little thought to muse on: all you need to pass a stockbroker's exam is 60%. So you may be entrusting your precious savings to a guy who got 39% of the questions wrong on the exam. For medical classes, it is apparently 70%. The teacher of your children might have graduated with a pretty low mark too, but I understand that with grade inflation these days, the average mark at university is an A minus, so it's hard to tell. Let's compare it to the standard of professional musicians. If a soloist walks out on stage and only gets 90% of the notes right he or she would get horrific reviews! I can recall hearing Pepe Romero play the Concierto de Aranjuez with the Montreal Symphony a few years ago. I knew the piece extremely well, having played it with orchestras several times myself, and had even spent a summer studying it with Pepe in Salzburg a few years previously. So it's not an exaggeration to say I know every single note of the guitar part. The score for the guitar part is 23 pages long and there are, at a guess, a couple of hundred notes per page. Say something between 4500 and 5000 notes altogether. In his performance he missed one (1) note and it was barely noticeable even to me. What's that in percentage terms? He played correctly 99.98% of the notes.

That's the standard of professionalism in music: 99.98%

Monday, July 23, 2012

502nd Post

One of my posts on Sunday was, without me noticing, my 500th post. So I think I will take a moment and have a look at the progress of this blog.

The main thing I notice is that I learn a great deal from posting. The obvious way is that most posts have to be researched to some extent. But there is a more interesting and less obvious way. Doing the blog is an exploration of my own engagement with music over some forty-six years. I tell anecdotes from that whole period and it puts it in perspective for me. I start to get a more or less objective sense of my own life and career while telling it to the blogosphere. Of course, this is not what I am actually trying to do.

My real purpose with the blog is to talk to people about music. I have always had a kind of instinctive attraction to teaching. I think you only start to be sure of what you know when you try to tell it to others. In so doing you discover things you didn't know you knew, you discover gaps in what you thought you knew and sometimes you even discover new things and connections between them.

One thing I have discovered is that it is difficult to have objectivity about your career and abilities when you are in the middle of it. You really don't think about these things, you are too busy learning music, playing concerts and teaching. Now that I am away from all that I realize some odd things. I was trying as hard as I could to be a guitar virtuoso and came pretty close.

At my peak I was playing the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra and doing a pretty good job--something that relatively few guitarists can do. I actually think that I may have been the first Canadian guitarist to perform the piece with orchestra. One performance was recorded for nation-wide broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. They also recorded my performance of the Villa-Lobos Concerto with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra. Another CBC broadcast was of a solo and chamber recital in which I played the Manuel Ponce 20 Variations and Fugue on Folias de Espana. That is one of the longest and hardest pieces in the repertoire.

So, a strong performer at least. But I had to work very, very hard to sustain that because I am not a natural virtuoso. I'm also not quite consistent enough--sometimes I made mistakes. The great virtuosi are like machines and rarely make mistakes. While I was struggling to become and remain a virtuoso, I was neglecting something much more interesting and important: I can compose music. I have always composed music, even before I was a musician. The first time I saw someone reading from a score I looked closely at it and then went off in a corner and scratched down an imitation of it on a piece of paper, then ran back and said "play this!" I was nine years old. I taught myself how to read music, something few people do. When it comes to understanding and creating music I have more natural talent than I do as a guitar virtuoso.

I have been composing music for at least as long as I have been a musician--forty-six years. But for all but the last five or so years, I didn't really take it seriously. It was something I did, but I barely noticed that almost no other performers of my acquaintance did the same. I was friends with composers, but didn't feel as if I was one of them. I did take some informal composition lessons at one point and wrote a piece for two guitars and harpsichord that was very well received by the audience. This was in 1977 and I much later realized that it was the first 'process' piece for guitar, preceding Steve Reich's own piece for multiple guitars by at least a decade.

So if I had been a lot more self-aware and open-minded, I would have switched from performance to composition back in the 70s. But many of we humans are not so self-aware! For some reason I became fixated on being a guitarist: that was my identity. Even though I could compose and was interested in it, I couldn't imagine myself being a composer. This might have been partly because the only models I had of being a musician up until I was twenty years old, were performers. I had never met a composer and probably thought that they only existed in books or the distant past. This may be why most musicians tend to come from families of musicians. They get exposed to different models from an early age and this gives them a wide field of possibilities. If I had met a composer when I was nine years old, that might have been an inspiration.

But enough of this. I'm not a narcissist and don't usually indulge in a lot of autobiography in this blog. Sure, I tell anecdotes from my experience, but they are meant to illustrate a point. Let's end with the first piece of classical music that really made a big impact on me and started my 'conversion'. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Musical Exercises: Week 2

Last Sunday I put up a post on Musical Exercises. If you haven't read it, go have a look as this one is meant to be a continuation.

One of my theory and composition professors used to like to do what he called "ear training" sometimes. The standard kind of ear training involves learning how to write down intervals, melodies, harmonies and rhythms from hearing them and also singing melodies from sight. His kind of ear-training was to play for us very unusual pieces of music and see how we reacted. What I am doing here with my "musical exercises" is trying to show ways to develop musical or aesthetic sensitivity. It is not so much concerned with the "nuts and bolts" of the music as a standard ear-training course, but more the overall feel of the music. More fun, less work!

Week Two: Rhythm

I'm giving shorter examples this week, but you should listen to each one several times to really get a feel of the rhythm. A note on terminology: in music we only use the word 'timing' to mean the minutes and seconds that a track on a CD lasts. The 'timing' of such and such a movement is 5'23. It describes duration only. For the actual rhythmic structure of music we use different words. The beat is the repeated pulse that underlies most music. Sometimes the exact speed of this pulse is indicated with a metronome marking of so many beats per minute: M.M. = 60 tells you, for example, that there is a beat every second. The meter is a group of beats in which the first beat is accented slightly. 3/4, 4/4, 2/4 and 7/8 are all examples of different meters. Three-four is a very well-known one as it is the meter of the waltz: oom pah pah. Four-four is the usual meter of rock and so on. The last term is rhythm itself, which is the pattern of long and short notes that are the musical surface. Now that you are thoroughly confused...
  • Day one. I started week one with rhythm, then added harmony and counterpoint. I'm going to go back to rhythm now, but on a different level. Here is some flamenco to start with, that uses a shifting texture of 3 beats versus 2  beats in a measure. See if you can hear it:

  • Day two. Now for some fancier rhythm: Stravinsky in the Rite of Spring:

  • Day three. Both of those examples use a complex (very complex in the case of Stravinsky) pattern of accented and unaccented beats. This is also the case with the music of Steve Reich, but his rhythms are very repetitive instead of always changing:

  • Day four. Let's simplify things a bit with a menuet by Haydn. Menuets are in 3/4 meter, meaning that the beats come in groups of three. You should be able to hear them quite clearly here:

  • Day five. Now for something in duple time. Here is the first movement of the first piano sonata by Beethoven.  If you tap your foot along with it, you will be tapping half notes. This meter is called 2/2 and it is indicated with a funny little time signature (how the meter is shown on the music) that looks like a half-circle with a vertical slash. This is a holdover from the middle ages and indicates that, while there are four quarter notes in each measure, it is the half note that we feel as the beat and tap with our foot. It is called alla breve meaning, "with the breve" or half note. Here is the Wikipedia article on alla breve.

  • Day six. The two basic meters are duple, any multiple of 2 such as 4 or 8, and triple, any multiple of 3 such as 6 or 9. When we go to 6 or 9 then we get into some interesting meters we call compound meter. If you have six beats, you can group them in two different ways: two groups of three or three groups of two. The menuet by Haydn we listened to on day four is three groups of two, shown as 3/4 in the time signature. If we group it differently, in two groups of three we don't get half-size measures of 3/4, but one measure of 6/8 in which there are two groups of three and the first one gets a stronger accent. Here is a piece in 6/8, see if you can hear what I mean. You will hear the pattern Doo dah dah doo dah dah. The second "doo" is not as strong as the first.  Compound meters, like 6/8 or 9/8 tend to make for a nice dance feel and they are often used for the last movement so we will go dancing home from the concert. 

  • Day seven. Since compound time is a bit tricky, let's just listen to another one. This is the first movement from Beethoven's Piano Sonata, op 7. The accompaniment sounds like "pah pah pah, pah pah pah" which is a whole measure of 6/8 and I've put in a comma to show it is in two groups of three. The melody, when it appears, is the same, of course. If you listen to this movement a couple of times you will have a good sense of what 6/8 feels like.

Uses of Music

In my last post I put up a clip of Australian hurdler Michelle Janneke running a race in Barcelona. This has become a YouTube sensation, more for the warm-up routine than the race itself. I had the choice of using the longer sports channel version with voice-over commentary, or the edited one with, as some mentioned, "cheesy 80s music". I chose the one with the music because, whether or not it was exactly the right song, it did transform the clip from an athletic experience to more of an aesthetic one. So the music performed a certain function.

Music is often used in this way, to underline or highlight the mood of a visual narrative. Here is a famous and very original use of a Viennese waltz in an unusual environment:

The director Stanley Kubrick was a genius at choosing the right music for a scene. Here is a duel from Barry Lyndon that uses a Sarabande by Handel, first just the bass line, then later with harpsichord:

Another famous use of music was Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to accompany this scene from Apocalypse Now:

Director Peter Weir can be rather more subtle. Here he is using some music by Boccherini to end the film Master and Commander. The captain has discovered that the ship they have just sent off with a skeleton or 'prize' crew has a large contingent of the enemy hidden below, so he gives the order for a pursuit. Then he and his friend, the ship's surgeon, sit down and play to while away the hour until interception. This, by the way, is a diagetic use of music, i.e. music that is performed by people who are part of the narrative, as opposed to non-diagetic music that is part of the soundtrack, played by invisible performers not part of the narrative. All the above examples are non-diagetic.

Last year I put up a whole post on music and narrative.

The Good, the Evil and the Stupid

I shocked someone the other day by telling him I was an Aristotelian. People usually look at you with puzzlement--what religion is that?--or surprise. In the history of science, Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) is usually cast as the bad guy. This is probably because there were few real advances in scientific theory since he, pretty much, invented the concept of science (not to mention biology, botany, meteorology, geology, physics, logic and ethics as a field of study) way back in the 4th century BC. By the 16th and 17th centuries, when science was taking off, it was the tradition of Aristotle that seemed to the young scientists to be what they were opposing. The reality was that it was the uncritical ossification of Aristotle that they were battling.

Aristotle himself was the remarkable student of Plato: the two of them laid the foundation for much of the thought of Western Civilization. In some areas, such as aesthetics and ethics, Aristotle's ideas seem to be as fresh and alive as the day he put pen to scroll. Virtue for Aristotle is the activity of aiming at what is good, true and beautiful. A good life is one that aims at realizing one's capacities to do good things and the end is happiness. 'Happiness' is how the Greek word eudaemonia is often translated, but perhaps a better translation is "human flourishing". For human beings the ultimate good or happiness (eudaemonia) consists in perfection, the full attainment of their natural function, which Aristotle analyzes as the activity of the soul according to reason (or not without reason), i.e., activity in accordance with the most perfect virtue or excellence.

It is hard to define excellence because, like good and evil, it is one of those words that is used to define other words. It is so often used in a weaselly way, to sell products or puff up someone's CV, that it is easy to forget that we know excellence, and good, and evil, when we see it. Every day presents us with fresh examples. I'm writing this because this week presented us with some stark examples.

I think we can admire this example because it is someone realizing in action her capacity for beauty and excellence, neither of which has to be serious or dull:

Opposed to this is the horrific example of James Eagan Holmes, who chose to murder the innocent at a movie premiere. If you want an example of evil, this will do.

Then, there is stupidity and we have a suitable example of that this week as well. Twenty-one people were treated for burns after trying to walk on 2000 degree coals at a 'motivational' event.

Choices are important in life. It's pretty simple, really.

Sorry for this departure from my usual exclusively musical postings, but I was struck by the starkness of these examples and wanted to share them.

Now we will return to our usual programming which is the considerably more difficult and subtle task of distinguishing between the good, the bad and the stupid in music.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Music and Aspiration

One learns so many things reading Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, a recurring theme in this blog. For example, music in the 19th century tends to encode the values of the society. It was a time of the growth of the middle class in both prosperity and education. More and more music was written to appeal to the aspirations of this class. In some ways the way music functions in society today is still based on the changes that took place in the 19th century. The public concert series, whether of individual recitals or orchestral concerts, is an artifact of the 19th century as are all the attendant phenomena such as artist's management, subscription sales and even touring. Paganini and Liszt were the first soloists to tour extensively. Here is some Liszt to show why audiences were so enthralled.

The virtues and values of the middle class such as individual aspiration to success were reflected in the 'heroic' contrasts of the 19th century concerto--as so often, prefigured in Beethoven's concerti. This short excerpt from the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is a good example of the individual soaring over the mass.

The subjectivity created and nurtured by the romantic trance that so much 19th century music expresses is part of this: to be truly individual you must go into and consult yourself and music such as Chopin's nocturnes is a vehicle for doing so.

This is an enormous topic and you could write books (and people have) on the precise ways in which 19th century opera encodes and expresses middle-class values. Other books have been written on what is called the "reception history" of music. Individual pieces such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 have a history of how they have been received by audiences that is as interesting as the work itself. The European Union, for example, has chosen the big theme from the last movement of this symphony as their supra-national anthem:

But all this backgrounding is because I want to ask, what does the music of today tell us about our values and virtues? Sure, that would make a nice book or series of books, but since this is a blog post, let's just take a quick run at it. For that reason, I'm going to skip 'classical' music entirely here, though I might do another post on it later. Let's look at the top ten songs for July 2012:

Well, that was...uh...interesting. The number two song I have already blogged about and it seems to be the most interesting one both musically and in terms of expression. What most pop music is about is fairly simple.  These songs are about wanting to party, go on vacation to beautiful beaches, oh yes and to BE beautiful and to be with someone beautiful--like Justin Bieber. Occasionally they are about waking up to your life, like the Katy Perry song. Incidentally, she has another song, "Part of Me" in which she breaks up with her cheating boyfriend and joins the Marines. That's an unusual aspiration in terms of most pop culture:

But it is the Gotye song that attracts my attention and I don't think it is just because I have heard it before. It has an original and appropriate video production and deals with the difficulties of having a relationship. Incidentally, "Gotye" is pronounced the same way you would pronounce "Gauthier" if you were French.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Let Freedom Ring!

I was just reading this story about two Seattle men who were detained for two hours and threatened with a $15,000 fine for trying to bring into the US some chocolate Easter eggs. No, really. These particular candies contain little toys that could possibly choke young children, so they are illegal in the US. Crossing an international boundary can be nerve-wracking, but even more so these days when some countries feel they have the right to interfere in the smallest detail of your life.

All of which makes me think of how free music is. The world of music, that is, not necessarily music in the world. I'm apprehensive about traveling to the US with my guitar because I don't have the necessary documents to prove that the ebony fingerboard was harvested in the correct manner. I'm not going to risk having my guitar, my companion for twenty-nine years, confiscated by the State. See these posts. There are so many ways that musicians can be constrained in the world. Take for example the shutdown of Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen in London recently. Perhaps that was justified, perhaps not, I don't really have an opinion on it. But music in the world is subject to all sorts of rules and restrictions, as is everything.

But that just highlights the fact that music, that is to say, the world of music, is a place abounding in freedom. Say you are a composer writing a piece. There are no rules, no musical limits to what you can do. You can write something for 1,000 performers like Gustav Mahler in his Symphony No. 8:

Or write a small piece for piano with no sounds at all:

Or anything in between. This is why it is a bit terrifying, sitting in front of a blank page of music paper and wondering what you could possibly put down on it. Terrifying for two reasons: anything is possible and you are hoping to find something good.

There are supposedly 'rules' in music, of which the most famous is the stricture against parallel fifths. I've even written about the rules of music. But these rules, which could equally be called "aesthetic principles" are self-imposed. You choose to follow them for some reason. You write a waltz in 3/4 instead of 5/4 because that is part of what makes a waltz a waltz. Or, if you are Dave Brubeck, you might begin with a 3/4 waltz and start inserting measures of 4/4. The tune is called "Three to Get Ready".

This album, Time Out is also famous for containing the most well-known piece in 5/4: "Take Five".

So you can put out a whole album about breaking the rules, which is really just extending the rules or commenting on the rules.

Music, the world of music, is free of the kinds of restrictions that the real world contains. True, it is probably best to follow aesthetic principles, or at least seek them! But no-one is going to confiscate your music-writing pen if you don't. At worst, they just won't listen. No-one is going to confiscate your guitar for not tuning it properly or for playing the wrong chord. If you play your electric guitar loud in the middle of the night you are probably going to get shut down, but that is music in the world, not the world of music.

So, let's be grateful for the freedoms we do have. Freedom to compose anything and to play anything. And everyone is free to have their own opinions about what we compose and play.

Let freedom ring!