Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Very Interesting Program

I may have to go to Paris in October after seeing this fascinating program at the  Cité de la Musique:



  • DIMANCHE 21 OCTOBRE 2012 / 16:30

  • Andreas Staier  clavecin
  • Alexander Melnikov  piano

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    Prélude et fugue n°1 en ut majeur, BWV 846
    Prélude et fugue n°12 en fa mineur, BWV 857
    Dmitri Chostakovitch
    Prélude et fugue n°21 en si bémol majeur
    Prélude et fugue n°22 en sol mineur
    Prélude et fugue n°7 en la majeur
    Johann Sebastian Bach
    Prélude et fugue n°5 en ré majeur, BWV 874
    Prélude et fugue n°11 en fa majeur, BWV 880
    Dmitri Chostakovitch
    Prélude et fugue n°15 en ré bémol majeur
    Prélude et fugue n°16 en si bémol mineur
    Johann Sebastian Bach
    Prélude et fugue n°8 en mi bémol mineur, BWV 853
    Prélude et fugue n°17 en la bémol majeur, BWV 886
    Prélude et fugue n°9 en mi majeur, BWV 878
    Dmitri Chostakovitch
    Prélude et fugue n°3 en sol majeur
    Prélude et fugue n°4 en mi mineur

    I've talked about these preludes and fugues by Shostakovich before, but what a wonderful opportunity to hear them together with the pieces they are emulating, by Bach. Of course, if you have the recordings you can just reproduce the concert at home...

    UPDATE: A thought-provoking comment was left, to which I responded, but I also did a new post on this concert with some further thoughts.

    Music Journalism

    Reading music journalism and watching television is like living on hot dogs and potato chips--you don't realize how bad they are until you switch to real food. I canceled my cable ten years ago and I'm glad I did. But I do occasionally stumble into music journalism if I'm not paying attention. I was sent to this article, on contemporary music, by a link from this blog.

    I think music journalism must have fallen precipitously from where it was fifty to a hundred years ago. Back then people like George Bernard Shaw and Donald Francis Tovey were, respectively, writing criticism and program notes. Tovey's program notes were later collected and published as Essays in Musical Analysis. But now?

    Here's how that article starts:
    The music of our time is the music of all time. I've just come up with that, but it's a pretty good motto for a new strand of what you'll be seeing on this blog for the next year. Next week, we launch a new series on contemporary classical music. Each week, I'll be giving a brief overview of the life, music, and online presence of the composers who matter the most to today's musical life, who have made the greatest difference to the last century's musical history - and, to be honest, the ones that mean the most to me, and, I hope, to you too!
    Once you wean yourself off this kind of writing, you start to see how annoying it is. For example, what could the first sentence possibly mean? It is like the long scene with the Architect in the second of the Matrix films that put a stake in the heart of the franchise: it sounds vaguely cool, but that is only because it is meaningless. This is the kind of pseudo-prose that would be right at home in a blue jeans commercial. Baby! The second sentence is nearly as annoying for two reasons: it tries to justify the first sentence, which is impossible, plus, misuse of the word "strand". One characteristic of journalists is that they have only a foggy acquaintance with the meaning of the words they attempt to use. The rest of the paragraph is just the usual hand-waving. Well, that was so much fun that it makes me want to 'fisk' the second paragraph as well:
    Of course, a mere 52 weeks and 52 composers isn't enough time to reflect a cross-section of everything that's happening in contemporary music, but it is enough time to curate a new-music gallery that should open ears and minds to the music of today.
    How does one "reflect" a cross-section, anyway? Special goggles? The very vapidity of the prose makes me want to have nothing to do with anything "curated" by this person.

    What sent me to the article was the very clever phrase mongered by Alex Ross:
    "Contemporary" is broadly defined as "born in the past hundred years," plus Elliott Carter....
    Heh! Elliot Carter is, of course, that astonishingly long-lived and productive composer born December 11, 1908 which means he is coming up on his 104th birthday. And still getting commissions, by the way. The only person you could set beside Carter would be Jacques Barzun, born November 30, 1907, which means he is possibly the only person in the world of arts and letters that can call Elliot Carter "sonny".

    The problem with music journalism is that it accepts all the current ideologies without question and mixes them with irrelevancies, personal biases and enthusiastic attacks on straw men. You come away from reading music journalism stupider and less informed than when you started. Hey, it's just like television! Do you insist on examples? Very well. Here is the head and sub-head for one of the articles in the series:

    The five myths about contemporary classical music

    Contemporary classical music is devoid of melody and appeal, all noise and no fun. At least, that's the cliche. But this is music that is very much at the heart of our modern world
    A myth? So this tends to imply that contemporary classical music does have melody and appeal. I wonder if we could find a counter-example...



    Catchy tunes! And so immediately appealing! I'll pass on fisking the article itself because I would just start citing those logical errors in medieval Latin and we don't want that. Ignoratio elenchi! Petitio principii!

     But of course, there are certainly pieces of contemporary music that are melodic and appealing:

    It's music journalism that needs to be avoided, not music.

    Saturday, April 28, 2012

    A Musical Contest

    Everyone else seems to have fun with games and contests, so why not music-lovers? No reason at all. So let me present my own eccentric version of a music quiz. There will be no prizes, alas! But put your answers in the comments so we can all enjoy them. Extra points for humorous answers.

    1. The most famous composer who became deaf was, of course, Beethoven. Who was the other one?
    2. Without going to YouTube, what was the order of instrumental solos in the 1968 tune "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and The Drells?
    3. How many concertos for cello did Mozart write?
    4. What voice type is the famous singer Barry White? (Remember, no cheating with YouTube!)
    5. Name a well-known composer of today who was recently accused of plagiarism.
    6. Name two famous singers who really can't sing (and one who also can't play the harmonica).
    7. Which instrument in the orchestra gets the least respect and the most jokes?
    8. Name three famous musicians who died before they were thirty, choking on their own vomit.
    9. What famous composer owned several pink silk dressing gowns?
    10. What composer dashed off an orchestration of "Tea for Two" in forty-five minutes?
    11. What character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer talks about the exotic Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac?
    12. Which composer composed a violin sonata in an hour?
    Some of those are easy, some are hard and some cannot be answered by any amount of Googling! Have fun! (Well, except with no. 8.)

    Let's end with a musical selection:

    Footnote to Taruskin

    As I said, I just finished reading all five volumes of Taruskin's monumental Oxford History of Western Music and occasional musings sparked by that have popped up here from time to time--and will again! It is really above and beyond any quibbling I might engage in, but here are a couple anyway. It is not possible that a book of this kind will be free from error, but I noticed very, very few. One was the claim that Berlioz, who played the guitar, wrote no music for guitar. Well, of course he did, but nothing terribly significant.

    There was one particularly comic moment that I enjoyed. Throughout the book, Taruskin adopts the historian's neutrality, even though he often quotes strong opinions from others, critics and composers, as important historical evidence. These quotes are, of course, footnoted. But on one occasion, when he quotes a particularly scathing review of the opera by John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer, accusing the composer of "moral blankness and opportunism", if one turns to the footnote one finds that the critic in question is none other than Richard Taruskin. Mind you, he does say that the review was "possibly overwrought". Heh!

    There is really only one hobbyhorse that I have my doubts about. Taruskin has long been known for making the counterintuitive point that the revival of early music and its austere mode of performance ("no vibrato!") was in fact just one manifestation of modernism. We like early music and we like it performed that way because it fits our taste. Not to detract from the truth of that,  but I think he takes it too far when he says that the rigid, metronomic tempos typical of some manifestations of the early music movement (and of music by, among others, Stravinsky and other moderns) is specifically a modernist quirk. I think that most music in most times and places has been composed and played in a range of rhythmic modes. Some of these are fluid and with a lot of rubato, while others are motoric and have a real groove. I think this was as true in 1500 as it was in 1700 as it was in 1900. Sure, there are historic trends, but music with rhythmic precision and drive was not a discovery of the modernists.

    The Healing Power of Music

    One of my teachers, Pepe Romero, used to talk about how music has healing powers. I have often found it to be an immense consolation in times of sorrow or despair. Music also seems to act as a bridge between people that connects them in a way nothing else does. A few days ago NPR (National Public Radio in the US, a bit akin to the CBC in Canada or the BBC in the UK) put an interesting article up on their website about how music can help elderly people with dementia. In the article Dan Cohen, who creates personalized iPod playlists for elderly patients, says:
    "Even though Alzheimer's and various forms of dementia will ravage many parts of the brain, long-term memory of music from when one was young remains very often. So if you tap that, you really get that kind of awakening response. It's pretty exciting to see."
    So music, it seems, can, like the famous episode of the madeleine in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, invoke long-lost memories and bring people back to themselves despite brain deterioration. Remarkable! Cohen ends with the thought "what's more core to your being than music?" That tickles the musicologist in me, so let's muse on that for a bit.

    Not all people have the same connection to music. I usually feel that the core of my being is music because there always seems to be some kind of music chugging around in my brain somewhere--usually banal sequences. Sometimes I think I compose just to quieten that down. But surely there are lots of people for whom something other than music is the "core of their being"? What does that mean, anyway? I think for Cohen, music is some fundamental part of personal identity. Now I want to steer around all those philosophical issues surrounding personal identity because it has been much too long since I read in that area. But the idea that music, one's recollections of music, form a kind of substratum in one's consciousness is an interesting one.

    In the 2004 revival of Battlestar Galactica there is an evocation of this that works pretty well. There are four characters on the ship that believe themselves to be human, but who are actually Cylons. They are brought to consciousness of this by means of a song, at first heard concealed behind bits of static on a radio and only slowly revealed. Each character quotes a line from the song, but interwoven with dialogue so it is not evident. Finally, the episode ("Crossroads" Part 1 and 2) ends with the whole song. The song, a famous one from the 60s, is "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan made a hit by Jimi Hendrix. I know the song quite well from its first release over forty years ago. It was a remarkably eerie sensation when I finally realized that they were referring to that song! It was like entering some deep part of your mind or memory.

    Here are all three versions of the song (which I have put up before). First, Bob Dylan's simple arrangement from the album John Wesley Harding:

    Now the version by Jimi Hendrix:

    And finally, the Battlestar Galactica version [UPDATE: I should have mentioned that this version is by Bear McCreary]:

    The irony is that this is the precise moment when the series jumped the shark. But the point, that music does seem to be able to access deeper levels of memory, remains. And since each person will have different musical "madeleines", I suppose this does form part of our unique identities. Here are a couple of my musical "madeleines":

    And a classical one:

    UPDATE: How could I have forgotten this one:

    Friday, April 27, 2012

    Histories of Music

    When I was a young man in my late teens and early twenties, just discovering classical music, I hungrily absorbed everything I could find about it. The main histories I read were the standard text by Donald J. Grout which is now in its 8th edition and more expensive than ever! Grout passed away and the book has acquired two new additional authors, but remains an expanded  version of what I read, oh, getting on forty years ago. The book has, therefore, influenced untold numbers of college students. Here is a telling quote from one review of the book: "Although I bought this book for my college class, I like it. It provides a lot of helpful information, and it thoroughly explains how music has progressed over time." It "explains how music has progressed over time..." Remember that phrase. As I continued to study at university, I discovered the Norton series of books on music history with Gustave Reese's large volumes on Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Written in the 40s and 50s, these are still in print. There was another series of smaller paperbacks that included a widely read history of 20th century music and some on non-Western music, but I can't seem to find them on Amazon.

    All these histories of music are unreflective with regard to ideology and music history was taught in just this way. I was in graduate school doing doctoral seminars in musicology when the 'new' musicology was just starting to gain a foothold. I recall one seminar on twentieth century analysis where the professor (who had been teaching the course for probably twenty years) curtly listed the 'important' 20th century composers to make some point or another. One of the other students caught my eye and made a sweeping gesture with her hand in the air indicating a hierarchy: 1, 2, 3. Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok. She had become aware of the ideology surrounding the way the history of music was seen and taught.

    I said these accounts were unreflective, but some of them, particularly in the case of 20th century music, were actually polemic. The series of books published by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft were particularly so in their tireless self-promotion, attacks on rivals, dogmatic insistence on performing rigor and outright fabrications. Another important book of this kind was René Leibowitz' Schoenberg and His School: The Contemporary Stage of the Language of Music. I quote the whole title because it is very indicative of the underlying ideology.

    And what is this or these ideologies that I have so coyly hinted at? It is the historicist one that believes that music progresses, developing newer and newer technical means and vocabularies for greater and greater precision in expression of... Well, more ideologies, of course, like heroic romantic individualism or existential despair or moral complacency! Or at its most extreme, the technical perfection of a compositional method is its own end and listeners are not even needed any more. Some call this 'patent-office modernism'.

    I have had my awareness of these issues hugely expanded by reading the newest (and possibly the last of its kind) general history of music, the Oxford History of Western Music in five hefty volumes by Richard Taruskin, possibly the only musicologist and historian with a profound enough knowledge to be able to write such a book. I just finished the last volume yesterday. Yes, I strongly recommend reading it. It is stuffed full of musical examples in score and does not shy away from detailed analysis. It is not, however, a mere chronicle. Taruskin summarizes his approach in the fascinating introduction titled "The History of What?" in which he discusses his goals and methods. He does not merely survey the history; he examines and investigates causes. He looks at music's social context and mythologies. This is an extraordinary set of books (4000 pages in all) drawing on original documents and the most recent scholarship of the 'new' musicology. Which he is no slave to, by the way. I think it is safe to say that Taruskin does not simply replace one set of ideologies with another!

    The ever-recurring theme is that there are and always have been two streams of music--at least since the beginnings of music writing: the literate and the oral. As soon as music notation was developed, it was possible to set down compositions, to 'write' music. Before this, all traditions were oral ones. Music was passed on directly. But from the very early Middle Ages, music became 'literate', though the oral traditions still co-existed. And a fantastic journey it has been. But it seems that now we may be moving into a post-literate age where most people and even many musicians, no longer 'read' music. In the pop and digital worlds, the reading of music no longer seems to be necessary.

    The melody of this very old sixth-century chant may predate its written down version:

    Nine hundred years later, Josquin wrote a mass based on it:

    And five hundred years after Josquin, the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has revived this kind of music:

    Yes, that notion of music progress is a rather questionable one, isn't it?

    Thursday, April 26, 2012

    Josquin des Prez and Yuja Wang?

    I get a lot of pleasure out of writing this blog, but some things puzzle me. For example, after we exclude my post on "Guitar Wars" which got an Instalaunch (meaning a link from the Blogfather, Glenn Reynolds), the two most popular posts are the one on pop sensibilities with the photo of Yuja Wang striding onstage in a very brief miniskirt followed by my post on Josquin des Prez. Now the Yuja Wang I can understand, but it is the Josquin des Prez that has me puzzled. That post has been the number one for traffic all this week and today as well.

    I would love to know what keeps attracting viewers to this months-old post, but no-one has left a comment. Why not the two posts that I wrote just before on the two "Bills": Guillaume de Machaut or Guillaume Dufay? Is it that people are really more interested in Josquin? That's a real possibility. Well, for whatever the reason, here are a couple of other pieces by Josquin for your listening enjoyment. The first is "Mille Regretz" (A Thousand Regrets), which is a French chanson:

    I have performed this piece many times in the setting by Luys de Narvaez (fl. 1526–49), the Spanish vihuelist:

    As you can hear, this is a transcription of all the parts with ornaments to fill out the long notes that would die away on the vihuela or guitar. Here is another chanson: Adieu mes amours:

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012

    The Globalization of Music

    The repercussions of the development of sound recording technology on composers have been talked about a lot in one aspect: how it led to the creation of electronic music and musique concrete. But there is another consequence that has been little discussed; how it widened the possible influences on composers. For example, much of the music that influenced me was experienced through listening to recordings. I spent one whole summer when I was young listening to nothing but music from the Folkways collection and this included music as remote as Javanese and Balinese gamelan, mbira music from Zimbabwe, harp music from Mali and so on. I spent another summer listening to nothing but Haydn string quartets. This kind of listening is only possible if there are libraries of recorded music from the whole world. And now, with YouTube, the amount of music you can be exposed to is very nearly unlimited.

    How might a composer respond to this kind of stimulus? It seems a lot of the post-modern spirit in music has to do with this broad spectrum of influence: everything from 12th century organum to The Grateful Dead seems to be an influence on the latest couple of generations of composers. Sometimes I think that this can be exaggerated, either by critics and commentators or by the composers themselves. Perhaps this is just romantic of me, but I think, out of the myriad of possible influences (i.e. everything), we choose the ones that we like or that we think matter. Sometimes it is music that we feel closest to, but not always. Jigs and reels on the violin were what I grew up hearing my mother play, but I can't say that they have ever had the slightest influence on my music. Sometimes we go far afield to find something intriguing. Javanese gamelan has interested composers like Debussy, Ravel, Britten and myself.

    But my own feeling is that we choose our influences because we have certain inherent tendencies, which is to say that we are individuals. As Borges observed, we even 'create' our own predecessors. This to me seems just as valid as the opposite theory put forth in Allan Bloom's Anxiety of Influence where creators stumble upon their own ideas by misreading their predecessors'. Personally, there always seems to be some music that attracts me and other music that repels me. I abhor massive pieces, full of seemingly pointless activity and redundancies. I love music that is sparing of material and I find the expression more effective as a result. So I prefer Debussy to Wagner and technical ingenuity or lack of it may be interesting, but it doesn't make the music better or worse.

    So I suspect, at the end of the day, no matter how many different kinds of music you listen to, if you are a composer of any substance, you will pick and choose which ones will influence your work. I am reminded of the story of the composition of Elliot Carter's first string quartet. He was awarded a grant in aid of its composition so he temporarily moved from New York to the Sonora Desert outside Tucson where he spent a year composing the piece in complete isolation. It resembles, more than anything else, some of the mensurally complex music from the 13th and 14th centuries.

    Sunday, April 22, 2012

    Two Musicians

    My diverse and recondite tastes are, I'm sure, confusing for those programs that sites like Amazon and YouTube use to determine what sorts of things you might be interested in. For example, I went to YouTube to see what music they had by Milton Babbitt and the first clip on the "recommended" list was Toccata and Fugue in D minor performed by Vanessa-Mae. Just now I opened up YouTube and the first few recommended items are

    • Beethoven, 7th Symphony, Allegretto
    • An MIT lecture on music and technology
    • a song, in Japanese, by Genki Sudo and World Order
    • Martha Argerich playing Chopin, Ballade #1
    • a student version of Greensleeves on piano
    • a clip from Babylon 5
    For me, the search for aesthetic 'truth' obviously involves a lot of comparing different things! (Well, except for Babylon 5, that's pretty much just entertainment.) So let's compare a couple of different things. How about Vanessa-Mae and Milton Babbitt? Here she is with the aforementioned toccata and fugue written by that Saxon organist, J. S. Bach:

    I've said disparaging things about Vanessa-Mae from time to time, but viewed from the right angle she is pretty much perfect: young, sexy, good violinist and she really wants you to be happy and have fun. What could possibly be wrong with that? And if she does a funky version of Bach, well, so what? There are no rules in music, not nowadays. Millions enjoy her music so what's the problem?

    Ok, now let's have a look/listen to Milton Babbitt. He may be less familiar to you. Babbitt is what Richard Taruskin calls the 'apex' of the thousand-year literate tradition of the West. Ever since people started writing down music a thousand years ago, there has been developing a tradition that looks to create complex, intricate music for those who have the intelligence and interest to hear and study it. In the 13th, 14th and early 15th centuries, composers wrote isorhythmic motets where there was a repeating rhythmic pattern, called the talea which was combined with a repeating melodic pattern called the color. As these two patterns had different numbers of units, the repetitions did not coincide. Composers also used different texts in different languages in different voices sounding at the same time and often created intricate textures in which one voice might imitate another voice, but backwards or upside-down or in different note values. The possibilities were endless. But all of this sort of thing is really only comprehensible if you are very familiar with the techniques, or study the score. Here is an example of some of this kind of writing; the last great isorhythmic motet--Nuper rosarum flores by Guillaume Dufay:

    You can listen to this and enjoy it just for the sounds, but to actually understand what is going on will take study of the score. To understand what is going on in the music of Milton Babbitt will take considerable study of serialism in music, perhaps some mathematical set theory and a long sit-down with the score! It took theorists twenty years in some cases to figure out what was going on in some of this music. He is the exact opposite of Vanessa-Mae in the sense that he is trying to make music that is nothing but rules. Here is Babbitt's Composition for Four Instruments written in 1948:

    If you want to study this piece, you might start with the Wikipedia article. Milton Babbitt (who passed away last year) does not care if inattentive, naive listeners do not 'get' his music. He is not writing for them. He is not really writing for anyone; what he is doing could be described as technical research into the possibilities of musical structure. He is a research scientist in music. Now, mind you, there are problems with this approach as it could be questioned aesthetically on the grounds that if it has no aesthetic appeal then it is not music as an artform, but rather a kind of mathematics. You can question what Vanessa-Mae is doing with precisely the opposite position that she is doing nothing whatsoever interesting with the music, just pandering to the audience.

    My position is that I'm actually glad that both these musicians exist (or did, in the case of Babbitt). This is all music, in my view. And comparing how differently music can be approached and produced tells us about music and about ourselves. You can actually enjoy, appreciate and perhaps understand both what Vanessa-Mae and what Milton Babbitt are doing. Personally, even after giving both of them a fair hearing, I have to say that I don't see much possibility in listening/watching more performances of Vanessa-Mae as you can pretty much hear/see what she is up to the first time. But Babbitt is a little different. You may justifiably complain that he has utterly removed any trace of genuine human expression from his music, but still, it is definitely the case that repeated listenings and study of the score will reveal much more over time. So in that case, Babbitt's music is interesting--to me, at least--in a way that Vanessa-Mae's is not.

    UPDATE: The clip from Vanessa-Mae has had over 629,000 views and another clip of the same piece, in a concert performance, has had over 8 million views! The Babbitt? A little over 7,000 views...

    Saturday, April 21, 2012

    When I Was Seventeen

    Ann Althouse has a blog that rarely talks about music but a while back she said:
    "It's the music you love when you are 17 that sticks with you all your life."
    I know other people that say this too. But I wanted to leave this comment on that:
    Not in my case. When I was 17 (I'm the same age as you) I loved Eric Burden and the Animals and found the Beatles confusing. I soon fell in love with Sgt Pepper's and the White Album and later on, Revolver and Rubber Soul. But I developed new loves in music every year since. When I was in my early 30s I fell in love with some stuff by David Bowie and the English Beat. Also true of classical music. First Dvorak and Debussy, then Bach and Beethoven. Lately I've been really fond of 12th century organum.
    I think I know the reason why this is often true. A lot of your basic characteristics are formed when you are a teenager. Sometimes it is a case of settling into a way of seeing the world that, barring catastrophic events, will stick with you for your whole life. But sometimes you are struck by a kind of 'vision' that starts you on a journey and you don't know where it will take you. For me, I had a progressive, incremental revelation about music that has stuck with me. But this revelation is an open-ended one. The expressive power and magic of music just came home to me and I continue to explore it to this day.

    I used the word 'magic' because there are things about music that have always seemed magical to me. Certain pieces or passages from pieces have a wonderful expressive effect but it seems impossible to pin down exactly why. I know musical theorists and analysts will be uncomfortable with this, but analyzing music is only useful up to a point. I remain fascinated with the magical effect a single note, played in the right way, can open the door, set the scene, whatever metaphor you like! I remember a conversation I had with a clarinetist once who had just heard a Jessye Norman recital and told me she sang one note that he would remember the rest of his life!

    Some pieces start with, and keep returning to, a single, haunting note:

    Some pieces have a harmonic aura that seems magical:

    With a few pieces, the rhythm seems to create magical effects:

    This magic is limited to no particular genre or style. There are pieces of non-classical music that have their own magic:

    That's an old blues song. I always thought he was singing: "Woke up in the morning and all my hair was gone".

    When I compose, I try to find a way to create just a bit of magic for the listener, an ineffable mood that is unique... To get back to the title of the post, you may indeed fixate on some specific music when you are seventeen that you will stick with, and I suppose most people do. But you might just discover music (or art, or literature or, who knows, video games) in a more general way, and be discovering and re-discovering it for the rest of your life.