Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Townsend: Cinco Preludios by Pujol, No. 4

The fourth of Pujol's preludes depicts "the secrets of a porteño's binge" according to the composer. A porteño is an inhabitant of Buenos Aires. You could translate the title, Curda tangueada as "Drunkard's Tango". This prelude has a slow first section, with a faster middle section. Then the first section returns with a different accompaniment. All through these preludes Pujol has made excellent use of the different kinds of textures and arpeggiated accompaniments the guitar is good at. As before, accompanying the recording are photos of the composer, first page of the score, tango dancers and myself.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New Catty Micro-Reviews

Something I find particularly fun to write is the one-sentence review. Must be my Canadian sense of humor...

Here are some previous posts, starting in the second month of this blog:

Now don't tell me those aren't funny!

I'm shocked to see that I haven't done an edition of the micro-reviews in over a year. So here goes. A little different this time. I'm just going to pick some composers/musicians and deliver a one-sentence comment. To start off, I'll plagiarize from myself in a recent post where I described Rihanna's oeuvre as:
every music video by Rihanna I have seen has seemed like a brassiere commercial with an annoying soundtrack
Let's try some others:

  • Handel: Bach with 73% of the counterpoint removed
  • Shakira: Hips don't lie, but they do tend to be the most interesting part of the music video
That's ok, but we really need some clips, don't we? Let's go to YouTube and see what we can find.

The last time I listened to Jason Mraz I said he sounded like the love-child of Bob Marley (for the reggae-style music) and Donovan (for the sweet singing and lyrics). Yep, he still does.

This is Scott Ramon Seguro Mescudi, better known as Kid Cudi. This song did very well on the charts and this video has over 83 million views, but I can't help thinking that they spent five minutes on the music, a couple of hours on the lyrics and weeks and weeks developing the fantasy women.

This is Rebecca Stella. It's as if Lady Gaga decided to hire the special effects guy from Alien and a fashion consultant from Brides Magazine.

The next several clips I went to randomly, by typing in a single letter in the search field, were all so, uh, explicit that I couldn't find anything humorous to say about them. Some of them made the Kid Cudi clip seem refined!

Townsend: Cinco Preludios by Pujol, No. 3

Máximo Diego Pujol likes the occasional pun as in the title of his third prelude: Tristango en vos. As he explains, "tristango" is a portmanteau word combining the words "tango" and "triste" (sad). The "en vos" means "in you" and is a reference to the including of the key in some titles, such as "Symphony in D". Again, the prelude is in two sections, an opening slow tango and a contrasting vivace (lively) section. The form is slow, quick, slow, quick. When the slow section returns it is first in a varied form, with the melody very high, then in its original form. Here is the piece accompanied by a photo of Pujol, the first page of the score, tango dancers and a photo of myself.

Monday, October 29, 2012

In Memoriam John W. Duarte

John Duarte, known to his friends as "Jack" was a very important figure in the classical guitar world and music world generally for many years. He was born in 1919, died in 2004 and a brief biography can be found here. Though certainly not a close friend I did come to know Jack even though I lost touch with him in his later years. He was a very kind man, though with an acerbic sense of humor! I met him through a concert I played in Wigmore Hall in 1980, my international debut. At the time Jack was reviewing all the guitar, harpsichord and Baroque concerts for the magazine Music and Musicians, though, as luck would have it, around the time of my concert something happened with the publisher--he either went mad or committed suicide, I forget which! In any case, that was it for the magazine and my review! So, I wrote Mr. Duarte a letter and asked him if he could comment on my concert and he very kindly sent me his notes--which were very complimentary.

A year or so later I invited him out to the Canadian West Coast for a couple of master classes and got to know him better. He was an energetic man and excellent company. One evening we ended up at my mother's house outside Vancouver. The thing about her place is that there were always a hoard of musical instruments tucked away in every corner as she was a very active fiddler and played old-time dances every weekend. Somehow Jack got hold of a banjo and started playing some old jazz tunes which I ended up trying to accompany on the electric bass. A good time was had by all.

Jack was an interesting teacher in a master class situation. He didn't offer a lot of hints about interpretation, but had good advice on technique (he was the author of quite a few books on guitar technique). He put particular focus on sitting position, which for guitarists can be a problem. Unlike all other instruments, we have to make ourselves into a stand for the instrument. One interesting thing I learned from Jack's master class is the role of the right foot. If it is flat on the floor, it fixes you in a rigid position, but if you tuck the foot underneath you, it completely frees up the back. Here is a drawing from my technique book that shows what I mean:

Jack was an excellent editor of music for guitar. His series for Universal Edition was a great resource--it included, by the way, the Cinco Preludios by Máximo Diego Pujol that I am posting these days. But it covered a wide range of music: lute music from the Renaissance, Baroque guitar music, contemporary music by Pujol, Reginald Smith-Brindle and Duarte himself, of course. There were also a healthy number of transcriptions, particularly of Scarlatti sonatas. These editions were of the highest quality: clear, readable, well fingered and above all accurate.

But perhaps Jack's greatest contribution was as a composer for guitar. He was early on given encouragement by Segovia who played one of his earliest pieces for guitar, the English Suite, op 31. Here is a lovely performance by Antigoni Goni, a Greek guitarist. She currently teaches at Columbia University and the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Here is an extended set of variations on the Catalan folk song Cançó del Lladre played by John Williams:

And for an example of his sense of humor, you couldn't do better than this quartet movement called "Hoe-Down" played by an Italian guitar quartet:

Townsend: Cinco Preludios by Pujol, No. 2

The second of the five preludes by Máximo Diego Pujol is in the slower milonga style, melancholy and contemplative. The title is Preludio tristón. The slow outer sections frame a quicker middle section. As with the first prelude, the images include the composer, the first page of the score, tango dancers and myself.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Music: Art Form or Consumer Product?

I just read this article in the New York Times about the changes Billboard has made in how they put together their charts. You should read the whole thing, but this will give you an idea:
Three weeks ago, the editors at Billboard, who for decades have defined what makes an American hit, shook up the song charts for various genres. The magazine started counting digital sales and online streams along with radio airplay in its tallies for most major formats. It also created two new charts using the same criteria, breaking out rap songs in one and R&B songs in a second. The results have given stars with a pop-oriented sound and broad crossover appeal an advantage over other artists, upsetting and puzzling some music fans. Take Psy, the pudgy South Korean pop star with the infectious dance moves whose video “Gangnam Style” went viral on the Internet. Since the new rules took effect, “Gangnam Style” has been the No. 1 song on the new Rap Songs chart for the last three weeks, even though Psy does not rap on the track and most American hip-hop radio stations have yet to embrace him as a bona fide rapper.
Of course we here at The Music Salon had a post up on Gangnam style way back on Sept. 23. Another artist who has benefitted from the changes is Rihanna whose song "Diamonds" went from No. 66 to No. 1 on the R&B and Hip-Hop chart. Let's have a listen, shall we?

Pretty much every music video by Rihanna I have seen has seemed like a brassiere commercial with an annoying soundtrack and this one is the same. There seem to be a few different videos out there, I hope I have chosen the correct one! Anyway, I'm sure Billboard has worked out a way of tracking more accurately what people are consuming. I was smiling to myself all the way through the article because what the New York Times calls "purists" of the  hip-hop, country and R&B genres were upset. Now they know what classical listeners have been suffering for quite a while now: what we view as music is pushed to the side in favor of, again, what the New York Times calls "pop-oriented sound and broad crossover appeal ."

There's consumer product music and art form music and they have rather different goals, purposes and methods. The whole idea of genres in popular music is so pulverized these days that Billboard might as well throw everything in the same pot, don't you think?

Understanding Metal!

I had an odd phone call from someone looking for guitar lessons a few years back. Occasionally I would run an ad in the paper and it led to some interesting conversations. This fellow wanted to improve his technique and upon questioning I learned that meant fast scales. He wanted to learn how to play scales really fast. Nothing wrong with that, but he seemed a bit obsessive about it so I asked "why?" I followed that by saying that fast scales were just about the most boring thing on earth, musically. He seemed nonplussed by that so I next asked what kind of music he played. The answer, "death metal." I told him I didn't think I was the right teacher for him!

But just what the heck is "death metal"? Is it more deadly than other forms of metal? What makes something "heavy metal"? At last, there is a clip on YouTube that explains all. Here you go, ten genres of metal demonstrated in three minutes:

Just in case you missed one, here are the ten 'genres':

  1. Glam Rock
  2. Heavy Metal
  3. Power Metal
  4. Folk Metal (or perhaps, "Celtic Metal"?)
  5. Black Metal
  6. Death Metal (aha!)
  7. Thrash Metal
  8. Melodic Death Metal (heh, heh, heh)
  9. Progressive Metal
  10. Metalcore
The guitarist who did this, a fellow named Raz, used the term genres. I guess that's fair enough, if that's how the players and listeners think of it. Assuming that this is an accurate portrayal of the different kinds, then I have to say that pretty much any sixteen bars out of a piece by Beethoven contains more musical variety. Is it really true that small modifications to a rhythmic pattern, or to the articulation of the harmony can result in an entirely new 'genre' nowadays? There was a time when it took more than that just to write one of a set of variations. Here, see what I mean. This is the first movement of the Piano Sonata in D minor, op. 31, no. 2 by Beethoven:

Townsend: Cinco Preludios by Pujol, No. 1

Máximo Diego Pujol was born in Buenos Aires in 1957 and is both a classical guitarist and a composer. His compositions are profoundly influenced by the great Argentinean tango composer Astor Piazzolla. There are three basic kinds of tango: the tango proper is urban and moderate in tempo; the milonga, of rural origin, is noted for its contemplative and somewhat melancholy character. The quicker candombe reveals its African origins with its rhythmic richness such as the abundant syncopations, ostinatos and displaced accents.

I believe that the first pieces I saw by Pujol--and the first published--were the Cinco Preludios (Five Preludes) I am going to post now. I learned them soon after they were published and have enjoyed playing them ever since. They are modern in sensibility, but not in compositional technique. They are direct and expressive without hidden complexities.

Pujol describes the first prelude, Preludio rockero as follows:
"Rockero" is related to rock music: anyone or anything connected with rock music can be described as "rockero". Buenos Aires was the scene, a few years ago, of an important rock movement, though there is some controversy as to whether it is truly 'national'. Be that as it may, the influence of rock on Argentine music, even before its world-wide acceptance, has been great, notably so on the tango.
And here is the Preludio rockero, No. 1 from Cinco Preludios by Máximo Diego Pujol. The photos are of the first edition of the score, the composer, the first page of the score, tango dancers and myself:

UPDATE: I forgot to tie this in with my previous post about the Latin American prelude form. These preludes by Pujol, like those of Villa-Lobos, also for guitar, break with the long tradition of the prelude which was a piece in one tempo with one main musical idea. The modern Latin American prelude for guitar always has contrasting sections with different themes and different tempos. The preludes by Pujol for example, have a quick inner section if the outer sections are slow and a slow inner section if the outer sections are quick.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Moment Form, Mobile and Night Rain

My usual position with regard to much avant-garde music is that it is less aesthetically valuable than it is usually portrayed. Every 20th century composer seems to be promoting themselves by coming up with new ways of writing music that often seem worse than the old ways of writing music! Music that is new every year, with new techniques is a lot like fashion and not much more important. But as always, it is the details that are important. While the mere fact that someone has invented a new way of writing music is not necessarily interesting, it is the case that there can be great works of music written in all sorts of different ways. UPDATE: Alban Berg, for example, showed that you could write wonderful music using 12-tone procedures.

"Moment Form" is one of the more interesting musical experiments of the 20th century. It is worth reading the Wikipedia article. The inventor of 'moment form' was Karlheinz Stockhausen whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Salzburg in 1988 when he brought his ensemble to the Salzburg Festival and gave a week of performances of his chamber music. I didn't discuss moment form with him, but rather how he incorporates theatrical elements into his chamber music. Stockhausen distinguishes between different kinds of form: moment form, strictly speaking, is a "mosaic of moments" each moment being a self-contained section. "Moment-forming" is a way of writing music that avoids narrative arc, in which the music, one might say, "lives in the now" and is not directed towards a goal. A different kind of form is what Stockhausen calls 'polyvalent' in which the components of the structure can be ordered in different ways. Others have called this kind of form a 'mobile' as the different elements are in a free relationship. Composers have been using these and related ideas to write music since the late 1950s.

One thing the different approaches have in common is that no two performances can ever be the same. This has appealed to a lot of composers and performers as it seems to free us from the horrible Procrustean bed of recording technology where, as soon as a performance is recorded it becomes frozen for all time--a very unmusical thing!

Let's listen to some examples. Here is the piece that originated moment form, Momente, written in various versions between 1962 and 1969:

Though it may seem as if there is a direction, an overall structure, that is really not how it works. There are different kinds of moments, or modular components, and different performances use different collections of them, in different orderings.

In the 1980s Anthony Genge, a Canadian composer I knew quite well and had worked with on several occasions, gave me the score to a new piece called Night Rain for alto flute and guitar. There were three 'movements'. Each movement was written on a single sheet of score. The alto flute part occupied the top half of the page and the guitar part, the bottom. Each part consisted of a number of measures of music, but each measure was a separate section and the measures could be played in any order. There were no indications of coordination between the flute and guitar. So, a musical mobile or, perhaps also moment form? The flute player that I performed this with, Richard Volet, and I noticed that there were certain recurring elements. For example, one brief melodic cell, three notes rising and falling, occurs a few times in the flute part and also comes in the guitar part. As Richard and I rehearsed the piece together we discovered that the usual issues of ensemble were simply irrelevant. We never needed to coordinate beats or dynamics or phrasing. Each part was independent. We did discover that we needed to know when each movement began and ended. But we developed no obvious signals to coordinate this. We just kept playing the piece and pretty soon we knew what the other player was doing and when the movement was over.

After we had played it for a while and performed it in concert a few times, the composer asked us to record it for him, which we were happy to do. We had gotten pretty good at it and recorded it in a single take, which took both Tony and the recording engineer quite by surprise. They had settled in for a nice long chat in the control room and we were done! Here is that recording with some photos of the west coast of Canada that seemed appropriate:

I have included right after the titles a photo of the composer, Anthony Genge and a photo of myself at the very end, but I was not able to find a photo of Richard Volet. Apologies!

The Status of Music

Back in August I put up a couple of posts on music and architecture and I started with the example of the consecration of the cathedral of Florence in 1436 that was the event kicking off the Renaissance and the modern world generally. For this a very special piece of music was commissioned from the leading composer of the day, Guillaume DuFay.

Keeping that in mind, you should read this article about a couple of recent state dinners held at the White House. The story is about the cost of the dinners, but in relation to what the federal government spends, frankly, the costs were insignificant. But what interests me was the music chosen for the dinner in honor of Felipe Calderon, president of Mexico, a very important nation next door to the US with whom is shared an important trade treaty and some important problems involving drugs, gun-running and immigration. The music chosen? Emphatically not a commission from the leading composer of the day. No, indeed. The Florentines recognized the seriousness of the occasion of the consecration of their Duomo. The Washington politicians decided that a formal state dinner in honor of the president of an important ally just called for a party. So the music was provided by Beyoncé.

A little research on the web does not reveal much about the musical tastes of President Calderon. Perhaps he is a big Beyoncé fan. Perhaps not. In one post I associated the music of Beyoncé with vulgar gaiety. But the point I want to make here is that the Florentines seemed to take themselves seriously in a way that we no longer do. They built a cathedral that is still one of the architectural wonders of the world and choose music of similar stature. Nowadays even an important state dinner musically is no different from a frat party. Here is a brief excerpt from a performance by Beyoncé in Trinidad in February 2010, the month before the dinner in Washington that should give you an idea:

The thought in my mind when I started this post was to say that we like Beyoncé and think her music is suitable for state occasions because we no longer take classical music seriously. But I've changed my mind: the problem is that we listen to someone like Beyoncé instead of classical music on supposedly serious occasions because we don't take ourselves seriously.

UPDATE: I reworded the last sentence to make it a bit clearer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Latin American Prelude and Some History

Last week I posted a performance of myself playing the Prelude No. 4 for guitar by Villa-Lobos. I'm going to put up some more preludes by another Latin American composer soon, but I want to say something about form first. The pre-lude, literally the thing you do before you play, started out in the 17th century as a couple of chords just to check the tuning for lute-players. I went into that in some detail in this post. Given that origin, the earlier preludes tended to be fairly simple arpeggiations. Bach, of course, made them a lot more complex, but the basic idea of a single, fairly simple, texture throughout, remained. Let me just give you some examples. First, a 17th century unmeasured prelude by Louis Couperin:

Other preludes by Louis Couperin extend into fantasia-like pieces. Here is a very typical lute prelude by S. L. Weiss based on a simple arpeggio:

And here is the kind of prelude Bach liked to write. There is but a single musical idea and it tends to be some sort of arpeggio:

Chopin, the next composer after Bach to really take the prelude seriously, followed this basic idea but with one important addition. Alongside a kind of arpeggio pattern he placed a touching and expressive melody:

But the idea of a prelude as being essentially a piece without contrasting sections was preserved. The first guitar composer to write preludes was Manuel M. Ponce, probably in the 1920s or 30s. He wrote twenty-four preludes, more or less emulating the example of Chopin. They are mostly very short pieces, less than a minute long, and each explores a single idea. Here is the Prelude in F# minor (they have different numberings depending on the edition), one of the longest:

Then came Villa-Lobos who wrote his five preludes for guitar slightly later, in 1940, with quite a different model. Though Bach was an important influence, when it came to his preludes the popular music of Brazil was just as important. All of his preludes are in at least two different sections with two different tempos, themes and moods. Take the Prelude No. 2, for example: short arpeggios with appoggiaturas and occasional scale passages are found in the first section, while the second section, piu mosso, uses a single arch-like arpeggio throughout. Then the first section returns for a basic ABA form. Here it is a live performance with John Williams. Sorry about the funny sound, but even with that, I think you would like to hear this version:

With the exception of the Prelude No. 5, that has three contrasting sections (ABCA), all the Villa-Lobos preludes rely on two contrasting ideas in different tempi. Except for the Prelude No. 3, that repeats ABAB, they are organized as ABA.

So that's a little history of the prelude with special attention to preludes written for guitar in the 20th century. This will be an introduction to the next group of recordings I am going to post. I am going to put up the Five Preludes by Máximo Diego Pujol (b. 1957), the Argentinian guitarist and composer. As one might expect, a major influence on his music is that of Astor Piazzolla, the great tango composer.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The War on Music

Not much need to comment on this story except to say that a similar policy was instigated in Afghanistan at one point:

Here is a song by the group Tinariwen mentioned in the story:

And here is more traditional music from Mali accompanied by a kora harp:

Rhythm and Mind Control

No need to get out your tinfoil hats, I'm going to be critiquing the notion that rhythm controls our minds, not supporting it. Readers of the blog know how much I love to rip into neuroscientists doing research on music, something I posted about here and here. Today's example is from Scientific American entitled, "The Power of Music: Mind Control Through Rhythmic Sound." Here is the first paragraph:
You walk into a bar and music is thumping. All heads are bobbing and feet tapping in synchrony. Somehow the rhythmic sound grabs control of the brains of everyone in the room forcing them to operate simultaneously and perform the same behaviors in synchrony. How is this possible? Is this unconscious mind control by rhythmic sound only driving our bodily motions, or could it be affecting deeper mental processes?
First of all, lots of people don't bob their heads to the beat all the time. Observe for yourself, the next time you are in a bar. Secondly, if it were me, I would probably be turning around and walking out the door, because I hate beats thumping at me. This is why I don't hang out in bars since they invented loudspeakers. Believe me, the medieval pub, with a lutenist quietly plucking in the corner, is more to my taste. So this assumption, that the beat grabs everyone's brain, forcing them to do anything, is very simply wrong. But that's what the research is going to 'prove', hence the opening paragraph. The author believes that:
Rhythmic sound “not only coordinates the behavior of people in a group, it also coordinates their thinking—the mental processes of individuals in the group become synchronized.”
 I don't want to quote the whole thing. For one thing, it is very badly written in turgid sciencese. But one thing easily seen is that this scientist, Annett Schirmer, is musically unsophisticated. She refers to the pattern of a four beat measure with the first three beats sounded and the fourth beat skipped as a "syncopation" which of course it is not. A syncopation, as I explain in some detail here , is the stressing of what would normally be a weak beat. Skipping a beat is just skipping a beat. In the music biz we call that a "rest". They tested subjects by flashing images at them, some of which were inverted. The subjects identified inverted images faster when they occurred on the missing beat, the rest. They come up with a convoluted explanation of this as follows:
Somehow, the brain’s decision making was accelerated by the external auditory rhythm and heightened at precise points in synchrony with the beat. Since the power of rhythm in boosting cognitive performance was evident on the missing beat when no sound was presented, the effect could not have had anything to do with the sound of the drumbeat acting as a stimulus. Mental processing must have fallen into a rhythm of heightened expectation and superior performance on the anticipated beat.
"Somehow"? Well, it is pretty simple really, the three beats were distracting. Thumping beats usually are. The rest was a moment of calm, so not distracting. The fact that the beats bracketed the rest tended to point to it. There is more, but I think you get the sense of the research. Quality stuff this is not. Schirmer's conclusions are:
“Rhythm facilitates our interpersonal interactions in term of not only how we move, but how we talk and think,” she concludes. “Rhythm facilitates people interacting by synchronizing brain waves and boosting performance of perception of what the other person is saying and doing at a particular point in time.” Rhythm, whether the lyrics to a song or the meter of a poem facilitates language processing, she concludes, and she is now undertaking new experiments to further test this idea. “When people move in synchrony they are more likely to perceive the world in synchrony, so that would facilitate their ability to interact.”
There is a simple grain of truth in this that opera composers have been making use of for centuries: you can differentiate two, three, even four or more different parts sung by different characters by giving them different rhythms and melodies. The amazing thing is that you can follow the different parts simultaneously because of the rhythmic organization. Just look at a Mozart opera for an example. Music can organize language through rhythm, "facilitating language processing". The rhythms of poetry similarly make memorization easier. Again, something known for, uh, millenia. What is horrifying in this approach is the assumption that people are vacant receptacles for thumping beats with no will of their own. A world of mere head-bangers.

Let's clear our heads with a little music. A march:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Music is a Time Art

Music is the most intensively, thoroughly a "time art" that we have. Many art forms like sculpture, painting and photography are visual. Others like theater and dance are both time and visual arts. Theater, which for my purposes here includes cinema and television, has a large narrative arc, plus precise timing in the delivery of lines and movement on the small scale. Dance is even more precise in this area. But neither, I think, is so thoroughly a time art as music, which is nothing but! Both theater and dance have a large visual element alongside the time element. With music that is almost unimportant--you can sit happily listening to music with your eyes closed.

This is, by the way, one of the ways that popular music has wandered down a path towards being less interesting musically than it used to be: too much importance placed on the visual element. Try a little experiment: the next five popular songs you listen to, don't watch the video. I think you will see what I mean.

But back to music as a time art. This is true on every level. Take a single musical note:
This note is caused by a musical instrument, in this case the soundboard of a piano, causing the air to vibrate in pressure compression waves 440 times a second, resulting in the sound, to our ears, of the note 'A'. The Wikipedia article on acoustics is a good introduction. But this inherent quality of music: vibrations in time, is one that exists on all levels. All the different pitches are just different frequencies of vibration. But on a different scale, all rhythm is also just different frequencies of vibration. For example, that note above, in 4/4 meter, is held for four beats which are measured according to how many beats there are per minute. This is the often seen Metronome Marking such as quarter note equal to 60 beats per minute. This is the basic pulse of a piece and it is simply a slow vibration rather than a fast one. Rhythms are just subdivisions of the pulse. So melody (composed of notes in sequence), harmony (composed of notes sounded together) and rhythm (how notes are distributed within the pulse), the three basic elements of music, are all different kinds of vibrations in time.

This is all pretty obvious but I thought it was worth underlining because where I want to go next is less obvious. Pieces of music are conceived on different time scales. There are short pieces of music and long pieces of music. Well, that's pretty obvious too! But the consequences and implications are interesting. Can we tell from the first few notes how long a piece might be? Is there something in the music that signals to us either that it will be over soon or that we should settle in for the long haul?

Some of the shortest complete musical compositions we have are the themes that accompany the opening credits of television shows. Here is one example that is a mere thirty seconds long:

Here is a longer, more complex one, at a minute in length:

Both of these feature a lot of percussion with electronic sounds layered above. Here is one with a more traditional musical texture:

Voice, violin, guitar, bass and drums. In all three cases we hear nearly all of the complete texture right from the beginning. In the case of the first two, there are secondary ideas introduced. In the Homicide theme, for example, a new harmony and a quicker percussion track is introduced at the 34 second mark. But in all of these the sense we get right from the beginning is that this is what we get. We are experiencing a moment, not a journey.

These short kinds of themes are what we are used to nowadays as most of what we hear everyday is short duration. Pop songs are a little longer, about three to five minutes. But a real contrast with these brief themes would be a musical composition that was much, much longer. A journey, not just a moment. I'm going to choose three examples of pieces that all have the same title: Symphony No. 5. The first one is Beethoven:

This is pretty dynamic at the beginning, with the whole of the strings in unison, but what they are playing is pretty simple: three eighths and a quarter, falling a third, then the same thing one step lower.

But there is a tremendous sense of direction signaled by the harmonic tension. So this is one way to indicate length: set up a lot of harmonic tension that will need to be developed and resolved. This first movement is about eight minutes long, but the whole symphony is about thirty-five minutes long. Here is another Symphony No. 5, this time by Mahler:

The first movement is a funeral march that begins, interestingly, with almost the same motif as the Beethoven but while the rhythm is the same, this motif first has all repeated notes, then instead of descending, it ascends. Altogether a more complex theme. We have the strong impression at the beginning of breadth. It just feels as if this is going to take longer than Beethoven because the theme seems to want to go somewhere, but at the same time, is in no hurry to do so. This movement, about eight minutes long, is a kind of introduction to the second movement and the whole symphony is about an hour and ten or fifteen minutes long. Finally my third Symphony No. 5, this time by Shostakovich:

Again this movement is about eight minutes long and the symphony as a whole is about fifty minutes long. The mood here is entirely different. While the Beethoven was full of compressed energy and the Mahler with a broad vision, the Shostakovich is taut, on edge, but at the 45 second mark changes mood completely to one of enforced calm. We can tell even this early that there will be a psychological complexity to this piece that will perhaps not be found in the two previous ones.

There are a thousand other examples I could have chosen, but I thought it was interesting to compare three similarly numbered symphonies. In each case, the listener is given clues about the nature and extent of the music they are about to hear.

I don't think this is the kind of thing they do in theory courses much these days. But they probably should!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Townsend: La Burgalesa by Federico Moreno-Torroba

Federico Moreno Torroba (1891 - 1982) is one of the finest composers to write for guitar in the 20th century. He was one of the first that Segovia encouraged and his first piece for guitar, the Suite castellana (composed, I believe, in 1927) is a real gem. Torroba had a genuine gift for melody and he was an excellent harmonist. The flavor of his music, while undeniably Spanish, is not that of the Andalusian south, but rather that of his birthplace, Madrid. For a long time I rather avoided his music because it seemed too facile to me but more and more I have come to love its charm and grace. He wrote a great deal for guitar, the largest and perhaps most significant piece being the suite titled Castillos de España. During his lifetime Torroba was most famous for his zarzuelas, a kind of light opera in Spanish. His extensive writing for voice probably explains his gift of melody! He seems to have been a rather shy man as there are very few photos available of him.

Back in Alicante in the mid-70s when I was studying there with José Tomas, it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to buy music, though the international community of guitar students had an intense need for scores! The only music store in Alicante had almost no sheet music so about the only thing we bought there was strings. I took a little trip to London where I buried myself in music stores like Schott's for hours and in the music floor of Foyles for even longer. But we students had specialized needs. For one thing, Tomas was justifiably renowned as, well how should I put this... His fingerings of the repertoire were respected as being the best. A new student like myself was counseled to seek out more senior students for their copies of standard pieces with the correct revisions and fingerings. Quite a few of the published editions of guitar music by Torroba and others, had passages that were simply unplayable. Segovia would just slap a few fingerings on and send it to the publisher. Later on he or Tomas or someone else would get around to 'fixing' the awkward passages. It is hard to write for guitar if you are not a guitarist!

So there were three categories of scores floating around the student community in Alicante at the time.

  1. Published scores on which fingerings and 'corrections' had been written in pencil (always in pencil!)
  2. Photocopies of handwritten scores with fingerings and corrections incorporated.
  3. When the photocopies had gone through several generations of copying they turned into an unreadable grey on grey so the score had to be recopied by hand.
La Burgalesa, the first piece I learned by Torroba was in the third category. This piece was published in a volume of Pièces caractéristiques in the key of F# major. Very awkward indeed! The solution was to transpose the piece to E major, a good key for guitar. So the version of La Burgalesa that one learned in Alicante was this transposed one, with fingerings by Segovia. I copied it out by hand and my penmanship at that time was quite bad! I still have that copy and here is an excerpt:

Click to enlarge

To this day, I don't think the E major version has ever been published and you see guitarists on YouTube playing it in both keys. The F# major version is playable, though the resonance is different and some bass notes can't be held as long. Here is my performance of La Burgalesa by Moreno Torroba. The title just refers to someone, a female someone, from Burgos, a town in northern Spain.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Townsend: Toccata by Štěpán Rak

Štěpán Rak (b. 1945) is a Czech composer and guitarist who has written a lot of very original music for guitar. He is rumored to be the only guitarist capable of actually improvising a fugue! This insouciant little piece is over in barely more than a minute and a half.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the tempo marking is Presto diabolico!


Just a few links for you this morning. From Alex Ross, this bit about the German new music festival in Donaueschingen:

I like the second photo where it says "Music is for all! Social equality is the key..." Would anyone care to deconstruct that? Music may be for all, but only if they have ears to hear or the discipline to learn. I'm not sure exactly what is meant by social equality, but probably nothing good.

This video is really terrifying:

This is the kind of music my mother used to play. I wonder what she would think of this 'packaging'? What happens when you take a simple genre of folk music and do this to it: big production (stage, lighting, choreography, costume) and over the top performance (note the compulsive smiling and winking at the audience)?

From Norman Lebrecht comes this story:

I liked this comment on the article:
Hey, it’s all just a matter of personal taste, right? Beethoven, Black Sabbath, Brahms, Beach Boys, Brittney, Berlioz… Who is to say that Eroica is intrinsically better than “Baby One More Time?” Besides, the rock industry is being stretched financially, as growth in the cost of cocaine is outpacing growth in sales and concert revenues.
It's stuff like this that should finally pull aside the veil and help everyone to realize that governments do not subsidize the arts out of much of a sense of duty to civilization, but out of a desire to curry favor for themselves.

After that we really need some music. In this song by Leonard Cohen, even the instrumental introduction is sardonic:

You were expecting Bach, maybe?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Townsend: Villa-Lobos Etude No. 7

I just mentioned the etudes of Villa-Lobos talking about that manuscript that surfaced. It will interesting to see which if any performers will decide to take that into account in their performances. My recording of the Etude No. 7 is from the standard published edition. The Etude No. 7 is one of the more virtuoso ones, right up there with the Etude No. 2 and Etude No. 10. The twelve etudes of Villa-Lobos divide into three categories in my view. There are the ones that are not very interesting, that no-one seems eager to learn or listen to and that you only hear when someone plays the whole set of twelve. These include Nos 4 and 6. Then there are the ones that are pretty good, but awkward technically such as No. 9 (hard to realize slurs) and No. 12 (the shifting makes for a lot of squeaks). Then there are the ones that really work well, both technically and musically and that everyone likes to hear. These include No. 1, No. 7, No. 8 and No. 11. So here is my recording of the Etude No. 7. As it has a certain exuberance about it, I have chosen photos of Villa-Lobos with that in mind.

Errors in the Text

This is one of those things that is very rarely discussed outside of professional circles--and less often even within professional circles than you would think. I am talking about errors in the text, by which I mean misprints. So what? A misprint in a novel is not a big deal. You can nearly always figure out what was meant. Same with most non-fiction writing. When you get into poetry, it might get a bit dicey: what if instead of "love" is printed the word "glove"? Could be significant! Imagine a scientific article with tables of numbers. A misprint in one of those numbers could cause huge problems. The reason for the greater problem in some areas has to do with redundancy, I believe. In a novel, there is a high level of redundancy as you can always figure out the meaning from context. In poetry less so and with scientific papers and numbers especially there is little if any redundancy.

This is also the case with music. In a musical score, there are really no redundant items. Every note is written down and every rhythm, but the musical text also extends to things like phrase marks, dynamics, tempo and expression words and markings and so on. There is nothing on the page that is not crucial in some way to the performance of the work. So knowing that there are misprints out there, some of which have been printed and reprinted for decades or longer, is rather a disturbing thought! And what if there are others we don't know about?

Want some examples? A really famous one is the Sonata in B flat minor, op 35 of Chopin. Very important item in the piano repertoire. However, as Charles Rosen notes in his book The Romantic Generation
"In almost every edition (and consequently most performances) of [the sonata], there is a serious error that makes awkward nonsense of an important moment in the first movement. The repeat of the exposition begins in the wrong place."
Some of the early editions had a repeat indicated after the four measures of Grave, but as the first London edition shows, the repeat includes those four measures. The 20th century editions seem mostly to be wrong including the one I have, published by Dover. Some performers avoid the problem by simply not repeating the exposition! Here is Grigory Sokolov with the first movement and he plays the repeat starting in the wrong place, right at the 2:25 mark:

Here is Maurizio Pollini also repeating from the wrong place and, since this video includes the score, we can see the error.

What is the proof of the error? Chopin's music was usually published in three places: Paris, Leipzig and London. Only the German edition has the repeat in the wrong place. Here is the opening in the London edition, which is correct:

Click to enlarge
As you can see, no double bar with repeat sign after the first four measures. Horowitz, Pogorelich and Michelangeli also repeat from the wrong place. Rubenstein and Kissin do not, but that is because they omit the repeat. I have yet to find a recording that does repeat from the Grave, the correct place, but Rosen assures us there are such. Anyone playing from the edition Brahms prepared or who goes back to look at the original editions (just not the German one) will have the repeat in the right place, for instance.

Another example I can't lay my hands on, but as I recall, there are several measures in the Berg violin concerto in the solo violin part that are printed a fourth away from where they should be. This mistake has been recorded by Anne Sophie Mutter among others. Probably the engraver misread a clef. The error was discovered by a musicologist in the 1980s, but no-one seems to have picked up on it.

Beethoven is known to have complained that his published works have hosts of misprints like schools of fish. We sincerely hope these are all, or mostly, just things like misplaced dots or phrase marks, but we can't be sure. The original manuscripts are often not available.

These are all unintentional errors that can have serious consequences. But what about intentional editorial interventions? For a long time editors blithely 'corrected' Beethoven's inconsistencies in expression marks, failing to notice that often there was an expressive reason for them. This has died down in recent decades. But in the 19th century editors were very aggressive. One editor of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier 'corrected' the opening C major prelude by inserting an entire extra measure because he found Bach's harmonies just too radical! I mentioned the other day about another editor adding a sharp to an F in the Siciliano to the First Violin Sonata, again, because Bach's harmony was just too much. The incredible thing is that Bach is recognized as being the greatest harmonist of all time! And him we are 'correcting'?

But a large percentage of published music contains errors and often they go uncorrected. A manuscript of the etudes for guitar of Villa-Lobos just turned up in the 1990s (they were written in 1928) and while it seems to be a fair manuscript, there are hundreds of differences from the published edition.

Performers, especially those with some training in theory and musicology, can often ferret out misprints as they can sometimes be revealed through the harmonic context, but in certain kinds of repertoire it is impossible, or nearly so, to identify an error from context. Take the complex scores of Boulez, Stockhausen or Carter, for example. The texture is so complex that misprints could easily go unseen (and unheard) forever. Which raises some interesting aesthetic questions if you think about it.

I could go on, but I think I have made my point. Now let's listen to something I'm pretty sure is error free. Bach was absolutely meticulous about his notation, often inserting extra accidentals to be sure there could be no mistake. His favorite copyist, his wife Anna Magdalena, was equally meticulous. So most of the music we have from Bach is in a very reliable text. Here is Glenn Gould with the allemande from the First Partita for keyboard:

Townsend: Villa-Lobos Prelude No. 4

Composers used to issue pieces in groups of six: Bach wrote six English Suites, six French Suites, six keyboard partitas, six Sonatas and Partitas for violin, six Suites for cello and Haydn wrote a whole lot of sets of string quartets issued in groups of six: Op 20, Op 33, Op 50, Op 76. Even Beethoven's first set of string quartets, Op 18, had six pieces. Sometimes, they would write a group of twelve, like Chopin's etudes in two sets of twelve. Really large projects might involve sets of 24, like the Chopin preludes or Bach preludes and fugues. Those sets coincide with the number of keys: there are twelve major and twelve minor keys. But why those sets of six? You know, I'm really not sure!

But one of the first to break the pattern was the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887 - 1959) who wrote not six, but five preludes for guitar. There has always been a rumor that he actually wrote six, but one was lost. But since his five preludes, a number of other composers for guitar have written groups of five, such as the Five Bagatelles of William Walton and the Five Preludes of Maximo Diego Pujol.

Today I want to post for you my recording of the Prelude No. 4 of Villa-Lobos--the one I learned first and that remains my favorite to this day. It is an unusual piece, with a haunting modal melody interspersed with quiet chords. Then there is a scintillating arpeggio section followed by the melody in high bell-like harmonics followed by a repeat of the opening. For some reason, the piece has always felt to me that it is floating in a very high place, so I have chosen photos of mountains in South America to accompany the music, with a couple of waterfalls for the quick arpeggios.

Friday, October 19, 2012

It's Dubstep Week!

Just the other day I had a post up about a new piano/dubstep collaboration and today Norman Lebrecht tells us about a "dubstep violinist" who is climbing the US charts. Her name is Lindsey Stirling and here is what she does:

A couple of the comments from Norman's blog were interesting:
1. How did I know, before I clicked on it, that she would be playing something in dorian mode? That could be played by a second year violin student. The drum track…oh…the drum track…please make it stop…
2. But what’s wrong with the basic nature of it? This is a pop act, not a classical violinist. Most pop songs could be played by a second year guitar or drum student, too; that’s no reason to dismiss them out of hand.
3. If this were dumbed down Mozart, with drum track, I would be the first to compain. But it isn’t. It’s pop, as Anon says. The classical world does not own the violin, and does not have the sacred right to dismiss anyone who plays one. I dislike inverted snobbery, having been on the receiving end on many occasions, but some of the snotty remarks on this page make me think that some people in the classical world really are the most appalling, narcissistic snobs. 
Those are comments from three different people.  The first one I think we can agree with: apart from the supposed 'dubstep' style dancing, this is pretty much warmed-over sequences. Now the drum track has a few different things that sound to me like easy-listening dubstep, but I'm sure no expert! Here is a Wikipedia article on dubstep.

UPDATE: Here is an example of the rhythmic texture of dubstep from the Wikipedia article:

Click to enlarge

But what I want to talk about is that comment #2 above. Yes, it's a pop act, but it didn't used to be the case that most pop songs could be played by a second year guitar or drum student. Well, let me qualify that a bit: the good pop stuff was a whole lot more difficult than it sounded. Beatles songs, for example, can be extremely difficult to figure out, let alone play. And how many second year students can sing good pop convincingly? James Brown and Whitney Houston are virtuosos in their realm. So this idea that pop is some kind of rudimentary kind of music is really mistaken. Good pop, like any other good music, demands real expertise. The fact that there is a whole lot of pop floating around nowadays that is pretty rudimentary just means that the aesthetic quality has fallen.

But this, pseudo-classical-crossover-dubstep stuff, is typical of what is acceptable these days. I've been told that people like this kind of stuff because it is soothing--a bit like the musical equivalent to Xanax or Prozac. It is not supposed to be interesting, it is supposed to be calming. The fact that this kind of music just makes me want to jump up and turn it off is obviously my personal problem!

Now that last comment is interesting in a different way. The classical world does not own the violin, true, and does not have the sacred right to dismiss anyone who plays one. But do you see what a straw man this is? I am a musician, mostly in the classical world, and like anyone else, I do have the right, if not sacred right, to express my critical opinion about anything. If I think that this music is crap, crap, crap, then I have complete freedom to say so. If I want anyone to take me seriously, then I had better give some good reasons, though. That "inverted snobbery" remark has me puzzled, though. It is this commentor that is exhibiting 'inverted' snobbery: as Wiktionary says,  "A form of snobbery where the practitioner deprecates the target for attributes that would normally be considered desirable." Normally aesthetic quality is considered desirable, right? So I'm the snob and this commentor is the inverted snob.

But I do insist that I'm not a narcissist: no, indeed, I don't think things are true because I say them, rather I say things because they are true. I normally argue for traditional aesthetic values, adapted though they must be to the music of our time.

Shall we hear something else to clear our aural palates? Here is the young Russian/English violinist Alina Ibragimova with some Franck: