Thursday, January 31, 2013

Popularizing Classical Music

There seems to be no doubt that classical music is having a tough time these days--perhaps all musicians are if the picture painted in this article is accurate. What classical music needs is some good popularizers--a role performed in the past by people like Leonard Bernstein. We may have fancier terms for this sort of thing nowadays like "branding" or "marketing", but the idea is the same. Or is it? Not quite. The earlier versions of popularizing were directed at opening the music to people not familiar with it, to revealing something about the music that would enable listeners to follow it and to enjoy it. Branding and marketing are concepts having to do with the sale of music or musicians. Instead of handling music as a form of art, these methods handle music as a salable commodity. There is a difference in emphasis.

Yes, music is a business viewed from one angle, but it is essentially an art form. I read an article the other day about the problems Apple is having these days. Under Steve Jobs it was a much-loved company who created much-loved products, now the focus seems to be more on sales volume and less on the marvelous designs and features. And the company is faltering. Apple was one of those rare companies that had an "aura", the article said, of engagement and charisma. Well, engagement and charisma are the very things that classical music, when presented and performed well, can deliver. But we desperately need popularizers who can open the doors and windows for an audience more and more de-sensitized and numbed by over-exposure to the raucous thumping of pop music.

What would a good popularizer look like? Bernstein certainly fit the bill as a handsome, personable, charismatic and enormously talented musician. But most popularizers are going to be working on a smaller scale and I think the basic requirements are the ability to communicate and a real understanding of music. Unfortunately, I don't see much of this in evidence these days. What's that you say? The Music Salon is a perfect example? Why, thank you! Of course, popularizing classical music is pretty much the raison d'être of The Music Salon. Plus, having fun. But looking around, I don't see a lot of this going on elsewhere.

Let me take an example: I just ran across this article on Debussy at The Smart Set. The author, Mary Sydnor, is a journalist and failed pianist. She writes
Debussy wasn’t just the first composer I never learned to play; he was the last composer I attempted. I was in the middle of struggling through Clair de lune, when I stopped playing the piano. Listening to it now, I think that it may have simply slipped out of my hands. Impossible to grasp, like light or water.
This is probably why she describes Debussy as "difficult" and "frustrating". I'm puzzled that she doesn't seem to realize that she has disqualified herself from pontificating on Debussy from the start. Ah, but she is not 'pontificating', that is absolutely forbidden these days. What we look to in our media is folks who are just like us, regular folks, folks who don't have special elitist abilities, like the ability to understand and perform Debussy!

Given that requirement it is not surprising that this article, entitled "The Difficulty of Debussy" is rather unsatisfying from a number of angles. It is a poor introduction and therefore a very poor attempt at popularization. The author's ignorance causes her to go down one rabbit hole after another. Let's have a look at her first paragraph:
Debussy was the first composer I never learned to play. After more than ten years of piano lessons, I had moved through baroque Bach; classical Mozart; and romantic Chopin Nocturnes — all of which had systematic rules to follow. I thought I was ready to move on to the next big thing: The Impressionist Era. I started with Debussy’s Clair de lune and later attempted the first of his Deux Arabesques. I listened, again and again, until I could hear the entirety of the works in my head, but between the key and tempo changes, it was simply music I couldn’t grasp. 
Ten years of piano lessons and she couldn't handle Clair de lune? She could be rather untalented or simply had a poor piano teacher because most reasonably able students are going to be able to play Clair de lune after several year's study. The Royal Conservatory of Toronto lists it as a Grade 10 piece--advanced, but not too advanced. Here, let's have a listen:

Lovely piece, but I don't think we would call it 'virtuosic', would we? It requires a competent technique and some musical sensitivity, but it is hardly a virtuoso showpiece.

Let's look at some other things Mary says in that opening paragraph. Baroque, Classical and Romantic music all have "systematic rules to follow"? Hmm, well, I'm not sure what she means, but yes, each of those musical styles has certain characteristics, but calling them 'rules' is really to misunderstand the nature of musical style. The next thing to bother me is the setting up of something called "The Impressionist Era" as an equivalent. "The Impressionist Era" really doesn't exist as an 'era'. It basically consists of two composers, Ravel and Debussy and Debussy in particular rejected the term very strongly. So Mary is a pretty weak pianist and also pretty weak on her grasp of music history. What about theory? Alas, not too strong there either as she says that "between the key and tempo changes, it was simply music I couldn’t grasp". Well, ok then. So why are you expecting us to read your thoughts on Debussy?

I'm not going to go on dissecting the rest of the article. Suffice it to say that the shortcomings of the author are revealed in every sentence. Apart from the music clips it contains, the article itself will leave you knowing less about Debussy than you did before you read it. You will be thoroughly misinformed! It's safe to listen to the music clips, but for god's sake, don't read the article!

It's odd that stuff like this gets published. It is certainly not going to do much to popularize Debussy. Too many ill-informed amateurs like this writer are doing a poor job of it. So where are the real professionals? The people who do know a great deal about Debussy and music in general? Where are the hoards of unemployed doctoral students in musicology? Or is it that their training in professionalism has rendered them incapable of communicating with the average reader or listener? That, sadly, might be the case. In doctoral school in musicology no-one ever really thinks about the need for popularizers. Instead, the drive is to greater and greater specialization to the point that after finishing your dissertation the only people you will be able to talk to are others who know all about middle-period Janacek harmonic inflections as they relate to long-scale formal development. Egads!

Now let's listen to another of those horribly 'difficult' pieces by Debussy:

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Schoenberg, Berg, Webern

I left things hanging a bit with my last post on Schoenberg. Let me see if I can wrap things up, provisionally at least. My exploration of classical music in the early days was partly guided by reading some library books and the purchase of recordings. One led to the other, of course. For some reason, the tiny municipal library I had access to had several books on 20th century music. In retrospect the interesting thing about these books was their relatively uniform view on the ideology of 20th century music. From these books I took for granted both who were the important figures (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg) and the context for understanding why: technical progress in new ways of writing music.

I accepted this paradigm for a long time and only much later did I really started to doubt it. I think the first inkling of a problem came in undergraduate music when I was in the listening library one day sampling some new music recordings. I happened to put on a disc of some Stockhausen for multiple orchestras (Carré or something) and followed it with Drumming by Steve Reich. The Reich was much more interesting and made a larger impact for me because it was not maximalizing dissonance and complexity! Well, according to the aesthetic parameters that I had learned regarding 20th century music, that was just wrong!

Technical progress in writing music is a very problematical concept as soon as you start to unpack it. For one thing it tends to place music in the same realm as science: research and development of new musical ideas. Milton Babbitt is the locus classicus for this viewpoint; another prominent practitioner is Pierre Boulez. Let's listen to some Babbitt. Here is his Composition for Four Instruments from 1948:

How are you supposed to listen to that? Are you supposed to hear the structure? Do you have to listen with the score? Should you study the score first? What kind of aesthetic experience could you have? Also, I have to point out that, there are a distressingly large number of pieces in this genre that all sound the same to me: the disjointed, fragmentary rhythms, the wide leaps in the melody, the huge changes in dynamics, the chopped off phrases--it all adds up to the same aesthetic effect. For me.

This is music that seems to be focussed only on the process of creating it. The syntax of it. The aesthetic effect is somewhat secondary. But it wasn't always so. If we go back to Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, two of the three always seemed to have also have a semantic or content side as well. In his early works such as Verklärte Nacht or Pierrot Lunaire or even the Six Little Piano Pieces, op 19, Schoenberg has a great deal of 'content'. Later on, he seems to have less and less, though there are exceptions such as his unfinished opera Moses und Aron. Some of his content seems to be related to issues surrounding his Jewish identity and the rise of anti-semitism in Nazi Germany. In other words, extra-musical events.

Schoenberg's student Alban Berg seems to have even more leaned towards the 'content' aspect and away from the structural aspect. His Lyric Suite for string quartet, long thought to be simply abstract music, turned out to have a rather detailed secret program referring to an affair between Berg and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. Here is the first movement to give you a sense of the music:

While written using 12-tone procedures, that music certainly has an expressive 'content' in the sense I am using the word. Berg, as the author of two successful operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, has a strong sense of theater in his music. This has not ever been discussed to my knowledge, but his Violin Concerto contains instructions to the orchestra to perform certain actions onstage--again, the result is a kind of theatre. Mind you, I have not noticed any orchestras actually enacting these instructions! But they are there.

Anton Webern went in quite the opposite direction: he has the least 'content' of the three and his music seems to be the most concerned solely with the technical aspects of composition. It is hard to imagine a 'secret program' in any of Webern's pieces! Here is his String Quartet, Op 28:

I think you can hear how that is going to lead directly to Babbitt and Boulez. After the war the choice was made in places where composition was being taught, like Darmstadt, to follow the example of Webern and not the example of Berg. We might speculate that with the just past horrors of the war, the last thing anyone wanted was aesthetic content! On the other hand, this didn't seem to stop people like Shostakovich from writing content-full music after the war. But in Western Europe and North America, the ideology of music composition was to take Webern as a model and stress the syntax of music while ignoring the semantic. Even though this model has begun to break down there are still places that turn out composition students who seem to follow it.

If I might inflict on you a metaphorical way to distinguish Schoenberg from his students I could compare Schoenberg himself to a hearty dish like wienerschnitzel which would make Alban Berg a Sachertorte and Anton Webern, well, schnapps!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Townsend: Songs from the Poets 5

This is the last of the songs that I will be putting up for now. The poet is Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885), one of the greatest writers of 19th century France, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables among many other works. He is somewhat less-known as a poet in the English world. This is the only poem I have not used a translation for because I wanted to keep the flavor of the French. Here is the poem:

Nuits de Juin

L'été, lorsque le jour a fui, de fleurs couverte
La plaine verse au loin un parfum enivrant;
Les yeux fermés, l'oreille aux rumeurs entr'ouverte,
On ne dort qu'a demi d'un sommeil transparent.

Les astres sont plus purs, l'ombre paraît meilleure;
Un vague demi-jour teint le dôme éternel;
Et l'aube douce et pâle, en attendent son heure,
Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.

Which translates as:

June Nights

In summer, when day has fled,
the plain covered with flowers
pours out far away an intoxicating scent;
eyes shut, ears half open to noises, we only
half sleep in a transparent slumber.

The stars are purer,
the shade seems pleasanter;
a hazy half-day colours the eternal dome;
and the sweet pale dawn awaiting her hour
seems to wander all night at the bottom of the sky.

When I first started writing this song, the influence of the French in my ears caused my setting to sound all too much like Fauré, so I went back and made the harmonies a little less sweet! Along with the portrait of Victor Hugo, I have included several photos of Vancouver Island at dusk, a magical time and place that I never got tired of growing up.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Townsend: Songs from the Poets 4

This song, on a poem by the wonderful Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966), is one of my favorites. The story goes like this: Akhmatova was trapped in Leningrad along with Dmitri Shostakovich during the siege of the city during WWII. It was a horrible time: one of the most brutal sieges in history. I talk about it here in connection with the Symphony No. 7 of Shostakovich, composed at the time. At first Shostakovich did not want to leave, but finally he relented and was flown out on Oct. 1, 1941 after a month of shelling. The city suffered for 900 days altogether. On that same flight out was Anna Akhmatova who wrote her poem "Music" as a hommage to Shostakovich. Here is the poem:


There is a magic burning in it,
Cutting its facets diamond clear,
And it alone calms me in minutes
When others do not dare come near.

When my last friend cast down his eyes,
It was at my side at the grave,
It sang as thunder in spring skies
As if all flowers started raving.

When I chose the poem to set as a song, it immediately occurred to me to make my music also a hommage to Shostakovich. The obvious choice for a quote was the famous march theme from the first movement of his Symphony No. 7, so I suggest you follow the link above and listen to that symphony. The little quote you hear at the beginning of the song echoes again here and there. But Shostakovich's influence can be heard throughout in things like the harmony. Like the symphony, we end in a radiant C major. You may find the images disturbing. I have chosen a photo and a painting of Akhmatova and a photo of Shostakovich. But then there are two photos from the siege of Leningrad. These clash horribly with the song at that point. But I left them because I think the whole point of the poem (and the song) is to take us into another world with "magic burning in it" where we can escape the horrors of this world and experience beauty...

UPDATE: Anna Akhmatova's dates added.

Townsend: Songs from the Poets 3

The next song from my cycle Songs from the Poets is on a poem by Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985) who was something of a scourge of post-WWII British society. His poem "Annus Mirabilis" describes when "sexual intercourse" was invented: between the end of the banning of D. H. Lawrence's erotic novel Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960 and the Beatles' first LP, Please Please Me in 1963. Here is the full text of the poem:

Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

As soon as I read it, I wanted to set those words. Of course I wove into the texture references to some songs on the Beatles' first LP, namely "I Saw Her Standing There", "Love Me Do" and "Twist and Shout". I have accompanied the recording with photos of Philip Larkin and the covers of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Please Please Me, the Beatles' first LP:

The Musical Sublime

I was just reading this post over at Norman Lebrecht's site. In it he is talking about words that should be banned from music reviews due to overuse or hackneyed cliché. The very first word he chose, "sublime" caught me up because, while I realize that it is frequently misused, it is a venerable and important word in the history of aesthetics. The source is a book by Edmund Burke called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756, revised 1757). In it he describes the sublime as follows:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.
This is an extremely important concept in aesthetics. I don't think we could really talk about how a lot of music affects the listener without this concept. Burke goes on as follows:
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.
He talks about beauty in this way:
I call beauty a social quality; for where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them (and there are many that do so), they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons; we like to have them near us, and we enter willingly into a kind of relation with them, unless we should have strong reasons to the contrary.
And about the relation between beauty and the sublime:
It is my design to consider beauty as distinguished from the sublime... By beauty, I mean that quality, or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it... attending to their quantity, beautiful objects are comparatively small... the beautiful in music will not hear that loudness and strength of sounds, which may be used to raise other passions; nor notes which are shrill, or harsh, or deep; it agrees best with such as are clear, even, smooth, and weak. The second is; that great variety, and quick transitions from one measure or tone to another, are contrary to the genius of the beautiful in music. Such transitions often excite mirth, or other sudden or tumultuous passions; but not that sinking, that melting, that languor, which is the characteristical effect of the beautiful as it regards every sense.
He contrasts them as follows:
On closing this general view of beauty, it naturally occurs that we should compare it with the sublime; and in this comparison there appears a remarkable contrast. For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent: beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line; and when it deviates, it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure; and, however they may vary afterwards from the direct nature of their causes, yet these causes keep up an eternal distinction between them, a distinction never to be forgotten by any whose business it is to affect the passions.
We notice when listening to music that there are soft, delicate passages and also wild, fiery passages. The former given perhaps to the flutes and oboes and the latter to the trombones and tympani with the strings always present as a kind of substrate. This corresponds to Burke's classification of the beautiful and the sublime. If you are using an aesthetics that talks about beauty, then you also need the concept of the sublime, otherwise you can only talk about those soft flute passages and how beautiful they are and are at a loss for words to explain why that noisy and terrifying passage with the trombones and tympani is even in the piece.

I can describe the beautiful and sublime in terms of personal experience. I was once out hiking in the mountains on Vancouver Island and passed through some alpine meadows of wildflowers. Very beautiful! Then I climbed up a ridge that I thought was the peak. When I got to the top, as my head rose to the point where I could see past the ridge, suddenly I realized that I was on a mere foothill. Towering above me was a vast, massive crag that was the true peak: miles away and thousands and thousands of feet higher. That was the sublime: something great and astonishing and a bit fearful.

Here is the whole of Burke's book if you want to have a look.

The symphonies of Sibelius are not a bad place to look for an example of the sublime and beautiful in music:

Post-Concert Receptions

I attended an orchestral concert last night. We are in the process of developing an orchestra and, as I missed the last concert they did due to my heart attack, I wanted to attend this one. The good news is they are coming along nicely. More precision and I noted more fine players than last time, especially in the winds. One of the pieces on the program was Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade which is quite a challenging piece for both conductor and orchestra.

Both last weekend and this weekend I attended post-concert receptions and dinners. Sometimes this is great fun, if you know enough people or get into interesting conversations. In the latter case, it helps if you have a particular role to play as this helps people start a conversation. Last weekend I had my songs premiered, so my role was 'composer' and some interesting conversations ensued. This weekend I was really at the concert to evaluate the orchestra's progress, something that is part of my duties as board member. But this is something of an incognito role.

So at the reception afterwards I was just floating around saying very little. Usually I have lots of opinions, but not this time. The reason was that I kept hearing things like "you gotta have a harp, it's essential in Rimsky-Korsakov and Beethoven!" True of the former, not true of the latter. I don't believe Beethoven ever wrote a note for the harp. But it would have been impolite to contradict the speaker and resulted in a pointless argument. I kept running into the same problem, so mostly I just kept my mouth shut and nodded politely while getting more and more bored. I'm not very good playing a regular schlub, I find!

You can find just about anything on YouTube. Here is our orchestra from a couple of seasons ago with the middle movement from the Haydn trumpet concerto. There are now almost twice as many musicians in the orchestra. Last night they did the Tchaikovsky violin concerto in a much bigger hall and did quite a good job of it.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Townsend: Songs from the Poets 2

Robert Graves, whom I talked about in this post, is a figure that has long fascinated me. An officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in WWI, he was badly wounded in the Battle of the Somme and never fully recovered his health. The casualty rate among officers commanding in the trenches was 90%. After the war he pursued a degree at Oxford where he was close friends with fellow student T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia").

Graves is perhaps most famous for his autobiography Goodbye to All That, written on the occasion of his departure from England. For most of his life he lived in Majorca. He also wrote the hugely successful historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God which were made into an excellent BBC series. He wrote a widely read account of The Greek Myths and a controversial study of the myths of The White Goddess. He did many translations of classical texts for Penguin Books.

But Graves always regarded as his real vocation that of poet--everything else was just to pay the rent! Apart from his war poems, which he later omitted from his poetry collections, he scarcely participates in any of the 20th century literary trends. His poetry somehow stands outside of his own time. He strongly believed, as witnessed in the book The White Goddess that "true" or "pure" poetry is inextricably linked with the ancient cult-ritual of his proposed White Goddess and of her son. She is the muse for all poetry--all his poetry, at least!

One of the poems by Graves that I chose to set describes the sensation of encountering that muse or goddess as manifested in a woman and the feelings of inadequacy that emerge. Here is the text of the poem:

Your Private Way

Whether it was your way of walking
Or of laughing moved me,
At sight of you a song wavered
Ghostly on my lips;  I could not voice it,
Uncertain what the notes or key.

Be thankful I am no musician
Sweet Anonymity, to madden you
With your own private walking-laughing way
Imitated on a beggar's fiddle
Or blared across the square on All Fool's Day.

And here is my setting for voice and guitar. I have included images of Robert Graves and at the end, a sculpture of the White Goddess:

Don't Swing my Bach

Browsing around on another blog I ran into this which, believe it or not, I had never heard before:

The Swingle Singers were originally a French group, founded in 1962, and the performance you just listened to was from 1963. The group has been in existence ever since, though now based in London and with different personnel. The current members are all either from the UK or Canada. The line-up is either seven or eight singers plus string bass and drums. They have been hugely successful in a niche they created for themselves. In addition to many awards and the use of their music in films and television shows, Luciano Berio wrote his Sinfonia with them in mind and they did the premier recording with the New York Philharmonic.

What I don't like about what they do with the Contrapunctus IX from Bach's Art of Fugue has less to do with their vocal performance than it does with the bass and drums accompaniment. True, I don't think that 'swinging' the eighth notes adds anything except superficial excitement, but that is partially offset by the nice chorale effect of the main theme in the long notes as it appears later on. This is more effective than it would be on the harpsichord, for example. But I just can't stand the bass and drums. The bass especially, as a walking jazz bass has no purpose in this kind of counterpoint and just muddies up the texture, making it harder to hear what is really going on. Also, the drums are an unnecessary added noise.

Here is a much better way to perform this Contrapunctus:


With that much going on, how could anyone think it was a good idea to add bass and drums?

The Structure of Musical Revolutions

The title immediately recalls the book by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Wikipedia summarizes the basic idea as follows:
Kuhn made several notable claims concerning the progress of scientific knowledge: that scientific fields undergo periodic "paradigm shifts" rather than solely progressing in a linear and continuous way; that these paradigm shifts open up new approaches to understanding that scientists would never have considered valid before; and that the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established solely by objective criteria but is defined by a consensus of a scientific community. Competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable; that is, they are competing accounts of reality which cannot be coherently reconciled. Thus, our comprehension of science can never rely on full "objectivity"; we must account for subjective perspectives as well.
A friend of mine gave me a copy of the book way back in the 70s or 80s and I found it fascinating. But as time goes on I am less and less convinced of its application to science, but more and more see its potential application to aesthetics. Science is about objective reality and a paradigm shift is really nothing but seeing all the data from an entirely new angle. The only thing that might be subjective there is the angle. But aesthetics? That's a whole 'nother thing.

I think that what we see in the dislocations of music history might well be described as a "paradigm shift". For example, a famous one is the shift from the 16th century way of structuring music based on equal, independent voices in a context of smoothly flowing, consonant counterpoint to the 17th century way based on the polarity of soprano and bass lines with other voices used to fill out the harmony and the de-emphasis on counterpoint and the increased importance of dissonance. Or the shift from the 19th century romantic ideals of naturalism, richly textured harmony and orchestration to the early 20th century practices of rhythmic intensity, atonality and artificiality.

Examples? Sure, we got examples! Here is the 16th century texture with a madrigal by Morley:

And this is the 17th century texture with a piece by Caccini, one of the inventors of 17th century style:

Here is the 19th century with an overture by Brahms:

And the 20th century with a string quartet movement by Bartok:

Plainly these pieces are structured in very different ways with very different aesthetic goals and need to be listened to in different ways. In Kuhn's terms these competing paradigms are incommensurable. But in aesthetics, my brand of aesthetics at least, judgments and evaluations are always necessary if only because we have to choose what to listen to out of an immensity of music. I think it is possible to evaluate pieces within their paradigm: there are better and worse examples of 19th century music, for example. But is it possible to evaluate different paradigms? That is something that is much harder to argue for. How do you evaluate paradigms? Not by different paradigms, surely. Are there aesthetic standards that transcend any particular paradigm? I think there must be, because we can come up with great works of music from all sorts of different times and places. Deciding what makes these works 'great' might be pretty tough though, as their qualities are, yes, incommensurable.

Just another one of those mysteries of music I will say...

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Townsend: Songs from the Poets

As it says in my bio, from 2008 to 2011 I wrote a set of twelve songs for voice and guitar on poems selected from a wide variety of poets. I had thought for years about setting some of Robert Graves' poems, so the first three are from him. For the rest I chose one poem each from Li Po (also known as Li Bai), Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Anna Akhmatova, Victor Hugo, John Donne, Rainer Maria Rilke and Aristophanes. With the exception of the Victor Hugo, all the poems are either in English or in English translation. Last weekend, six of the songs received their premiere and the next day we went into the recording studio to see if we could put them down on tape. We were mostly successful so over the next few days I will be sharing some of the songs with you.

I am grateful to Cherie Hughes and Roberto Limón for all their work in preparing these songs--there were some very tricky bits and they had no other performances to refer to for help!

I will start with the song "Listening to a Monk from Shu Playing the Lute" on the poem by Li Po (701 - 762), one of the most famous poets of the Tang Dynasty in China. He was also famous for two other things: as a calligrapher and as a drunkard! I have prepared a clip with a painting of Li Po reciting poetry followed by the only example of his calligraphy extant, then a painting of a performance on the pipa, the Chinese lute that was so popular during the Tang Dynasty. Next is a photo of a pipa from that era and last another painting of a pipa player.

Here is the poem in the translation of Vikram Seth:

The monk from Shu with his green lute-case walked
Westward down Emei Shan and at the sound
Of the first notes he strummed for me I heard
A thousand valley's rustling pines resound
My heart was cleansed, as if in flowing water.

In bells of frost I heard the resonance die
Dusk came unnoticed over the emerald hills
And autumn clouds layered the darkening sky.

In my setting I incorporate some sounds and ornaments of the pipa and I try to have the music simply respond to the poetry. In order to suggest the sound of the "bells of frost" I have used a technique stolen from John Cage--I have 'prepared' the sixth string of the guitar and the resulting odd, bell-like sound you will hear as the first and last notes of the song.

Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, Op 19

In 1911, before composing Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg wrote some tiny pieces for piano. Entitled Six Little Piano Pieces, op 19, they take only five minutes to play. Like crystallized fragments of music, I have always found them to be fascinating in their mystery. How were they written? What do they mean? I used to play them on guitar and they were featured in my debut program at Wigmore Hall in London many years ago.

Here is a fascinating clip of the Six Little Piano Pieces, op 19 with the original manuscript:

Musicians today seek a larger and larger audience; Schoenberg went in precisely the opposite direction. Here is a summary of a recent story about a current musical group. The headline was "Taking Aim at the Mainstream"
Indie-rock duo Tegan and Sara are trying to punch through a glass ceiling with an album of unabashed musical hooks intended to pull in a bigger audience.
Schoenberg was taking aim at the future by focusing his musical efforts on capturing the loyalty of a small group of cognoscenti. What went wrong? Perhaps it was his attitude. The "indie-rock duo" started out with idiosyncratic music and built up a small audience of fans. Now they are writing more pop-oriented stuff ("musical hooks") that should attract a larger audience. Schoenberg instead, confronted with unruly audiences that greeted his brand of new music with derision, founded the Society for Private Musical Performances which you had to join to attend. No applause was permitted and critics were not allowed entry! Call it a kind of anti-marketing. There were only a few hundred members of the society, most of them professional musicians. I have to say that the notion is appealing. In fact, an organization I am presently on the board of, presents a season of mostly chamber music every year and while the public is invited to attend, it is mostly supported by patrons who make substantial contributions. It is the kind of model that can support classical music during these difficult times.

But in the early 20th century, when the mainstream of classical music was hugely popular, it was only music by the notorious Schoenberg that needed special conditions for its performance. Nowadays, it seems all of classical music is in the same boat.

I haven't said much about those pieces, op 19, but apart from doing a cold-blooded analysis, I'm not sure what to say. They have an otherworldly charm, I find.

What do you think?

Music and the Muses (Μοῦσαι, moũsai)

I got into an interesting discussion the other day about the sources of musical inspiration. I often say that where music comes from is a mystery, but I do know one catalyst of musical inspiration: the Muses!

The Nine Muses of the Ancient World

Wikipedia comments as follows:
The Muses, the personification of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and music, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified). Hesiod's account and description of the Muses was the one generally followed by the writers of antiquity. It was not until Roman times that the following functions were assigned to them, and even then there was some variation in both their names and their attributes: Calliope -epic poetry; Clio -history; Euterpe -flutes and lyric poetry; Thalia -comedy and pastoral poetry; Melpomene -tragedy; Terpsichore -dance; Erato -love poetry; Polyhymnia -sacred poetry; Urania -astronomy.
That might seem an odd sort of list, until you realize that for the Ancient Greeks music was always associated with some kind of poetry or dance. Abstract instrumental music was not invented until the 16th and 17th centuries and even then it was largely an imitation of vocal music until the 18th century. Why is astronomy in there? Well, the Greeks, especially Pythagoras, thought the organization of the cosmos and the organization of the overtones of music have a mystical connection.

Ancient authors often invoked the aid of the Muse at the beginning of a work. Here is the beginning of the Odyssey, for example:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Music would seem to particularly require the aid of the Muses as it was named after them! Music is what the Muses inspire.

The use of the term in modern times was popularized by the English poet Robert Graves who says:
No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident; just as no Apollonian poet can perform his proper function unless he lives under a monarchy or a quasi-monarchy. A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse... But the real, perpetually obsessed Muse-poet distinguishes between the Goddess as manifest in the supreme power, glory, wisdom, and love of woman, and the individual woman whom the Goddess may make her instrument... The Goddess abides; and perhaps he will again have knowledge of her through his experience of another woman...
How has this manifested itself in music? There are some remarkable examples. Perhaps the most striking is that of Leoš Janáček (1854 - 1928) who, until his early sixties, was scarcely known outside of his hometown of Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic and at the time part of the Austrian Empire. Older than Mahler or Strauss, he is often called the "oldest 20th century composer" because stylistically he is part of the later generation of Debussy or Stravinsky. In 1917, in his early sixties, he met a young married woman, 38 years his junior, named Kamila Stösslová and over the next dozen years wrote a lifetime's worth of great music including several operas all part of the international repertoire, a large mass, a song cycle, a sinfonietta, chamber music including two string quartets, and a concerto. At the same time he wrote over seven hundred passionate letters to Kamila! Was she his Muse? Well, he certainly thought so. There are other examples in the lives of composers like Béla Bartók and Dmitri Shostakovich where a violin concerto and a symphony were respectively the fruits of a Muse-like inspiration.

I think this is a widespread phenomenon among artists. Picasso notoriously had a succession of mistresses whom he painted and who were undoubtedly an inspiration. I have often been inspired to write music or poetry by meeting a remarkable woman. It is often young men in their twenties who are struck in an overwhelming way by a young woman, but as we see from the example of Janáček, not just young men.

Do women poets and composers have male Muses? I suppose we could look at the life of Sylvia Plath for a clue. I'm really not sure, as it was separation from Ted Hughes that seems to have sparked a great burst of creativity for Plath.

In any case, the phenomenon seems both undeniable and yet still mysterious. Here is one of those quartets written by Janáček. This is the Second String Quartet, subtitled "Intimate Letters", a reference to all those letters he wrote to Kamila:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Schoenberg and Pierrot Lunaire

I was talking about Schoenberg with a friend yesterday and mentioned that a) he is a very important figure historically and b) that his music has often been known to drive away audiences. My friend clearly had difficulty reconciling these two things! The reason is that the role of music in society in the early 21st century is radically different than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. What with all the fuss over the 100th anniversary of the Rite of Spring this year, I'm almost surprised that more mention has not been made of this. "Almost" surprised because it is pretty clear that we live in a time that has little historical awareness.

The 'a' and 'b' of Schoenberg are difficult to reconcile for us because we can't really imagine someone being musically important who doesn't sell a lot of records. This has largely been the standard since the Beatles. I love their music, most of it, but I recognize that they were instrumental in shaping the changed musical world we live in where popularity is the most important criteria for the evaluation of musical quality. If you don't have a 'hit', your aesthetic worth is seriously in question. Stravinsky knew this and made sure to have some 'hits' including the Rite of Spring. But Schoenberg was coming out of a quite different aesthetic tradition. Born in Vienna, he felt the great weight of the Viennese tradition in music. He carried on his back, his entire career, the burden of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and before them, Bach.

For these figures, music was an important aspect of society. It expressed important things about humanity and God and the nature of reality. All through the 19th century this was heightened by philosophers and thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer. Music became the highest of the arts, most able to express the deepest inner feelings of humanity. As the century wore on, enormous, world-encompassing musical compositions like Wagner's operas and Mahler's symphonies were written to embody the profound significance of music.

In my last post I excerpted two pieces by Schoenberg in which he more or less extends this tradition. But he was fated to be one of those to break decisively with the past. Instead of more gigantic orchestral works, he was going to go on a different direction and this was signaled by choosing smaller instrumental forces and by writing music that no longer had a clear tonality.

Perhaps the most unusual piece Schoenberg wrote was his setting of 21 poems by Albert Giraud for singer and small instrumental group (piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola and cello) called Pierrot Lunaire, completed in 1912. Pierrot is often described as a melodrama, a recitation with musical accompaniment, as the voice uses an odd sort of half-sung, half-spoken style called sprechstimme. The instrumental group is ironically and intentionally modeled on a cabaret orchestra. Some of the devices of modernism used to separate itself from the idealistic, naturalistic romantic tradition were irony, pastiche, detachment and incongruity--Pierrot has these in spades!

Here is the English translation of the text of the poem used for the first piece:

The wine that through the eyes is drunk,
at night the moon pours down in torrents,
until a spring-flood overflows
the silent far horizon.

Desires, shuddering and sweet,
are swimming through the flood unnumbered!
The wine that through the eyes is drunk,
at night the moon pours down in torrents.

The poet, whom devotion drives,
grows tipsy on the sacred liquor,
to heaven turning his enraptured gaze
and reeling, sucks and slurps
the wine that through the eyes is drunk.

Each song uses a different instrumentation. For the first one, apart from the voice, there is flute, violin, cello and piano. Now let's listen:

That little piano ostinato figure that we hear at the beginning is the material that ties the whole piece together. This figure outlines a whole-tone scale which is completed by the violin. This is not tonal music, but rather atonal music. But that certainly does not mean unstructured music! Indeed not. Part of Schoenberg's burden was to find a way of writing music that would live up to the high standards of coherence set by his predecessors, Bach and Beethoven. At this stage, still searching for a method, he would write music from pure intuition then struggle mightily to analyze how it was put together!

There is a kind of unique eeriness to the music of Schoenberg and his circle from this time that I savor. It slides around with ambiguous murkiness, giving one chills as each new strange facet is revealed. For this kind of music, the best approach is to listen several times until you start to feel familiar with the music. It has a density that takes time to absorb. Here is all of the first group of seven songs of Pierrot with the score. Have a listen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Arnold Schoenberg and Modernism

Arnold Schoenberg is a very, very complex figure. He is of enormous importance in the history of music in the 20th century, the founder of the "Second Viennese School" that I talked about here. Let me illustrate Schoenberg's complexity with three images. First, the stern, serious composer of modern music:

Second, a self-portrait (Schoenberg was also a painter), showing a more tortured, expressionist side:

Third, an image of Pierrot, the sad clown from the 17th century Italian commedia dell'arte, from the eponymous character of the poems by Albert Giraud that Schoenberg chose to set in one of his most famous pieces: Pierrot Lunaire:

In addition to these three facets we could add others: the German nationalist who said that his discovery of the 12-tone method would assure the dominance of German music for the next hundred years; the charismatic teacher who numbered as students not only Alban Berg and Anton Webern, but also the philosopher Theodor Adorno and even the American composer John Cage; the brilliant theorist who wrote Harmonielehre and the collection of essays Style and Idea; the painter of considerable ability; the Jewish emigrant from Nazi Germany who settled in Los Angeles and even considered writing music for films.

Here is a quote from Schoenberg: When asked by students in class to define "good" music, Schoenberg said: "If you arrange a piece of music for zither and it still sounds good, that's good music."

Schoenberg is often accused of being the only composer who is guaranteed to empty any concert hall, but I think that is unfair. I know quite a few composers that could empty a concert hall or two!

I have a feeling that this post about Schoenberg is going to become two or three, so let me start with his early music. Born in 1874, he grew up surrounded by the last stage of German Romanticism and his early music, such as the Gurre-Lieder was influenced by Wagner and Mahler. Here is just the orchestral prelude to part one:

That was rather lovelier than you expected, wasn't it? He began composing the Gurre-Lieder in 1900, but the orchestration was not completed until 1913. A mere six years later than beginning them, he wrote a piece for chamber orchestra that showed a considerable change in style. Here is the first part of the Kammersymphonie, op 9:

Schoenberg himself regarded this piece as the first step towards a new style and I think we can certainly hear a change in atmosphere, a disturbance coming from the depths. There was a great deal more change to come and I will turn to that in my next post on Schoenberg.

Ottmar Liebert and the "New Flamenco"

Someone mentioned Ottmar Liebert to me the other day and I realized that while he is a pretty well-known guitarist, I haven't listened to much of his music. He is credited as being one of the creators of what is known as "New Flamenco". Here is a sample:

Wikipedia has this to say about "new flamenco":

Nuevo Flamenco ("New Flamenco") is synonymous with contemporary flamenco and is a modern derivative of traditional flamenco. It combines Flamenco-guitar virtuosity with musical fusion. Jazz, rumba, bossa nova, Gypsy, Latin, Celtic, Middle Eastern, Rock, Jazz, Cuban Swing, Tango and Salsa have all been fused into Flamenco by different artists to produce its sound.
I tend to call this sort of thing "flamenco stew" because it is a such a mish-mash. Historically, Spain is the geographic connection that links Europe and the Middle East. The Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century AD and were not finally driven out until 1492. Some of the characteristic traits of flamenco music are because of this long influence of Arabic culture. The rhythmic intricacies of flamenco are unusual in European music and include things like a 12-beat compas that layers two different kinds of grouping. Phrases in European music tend to start with a strong downbeat (or the upbeat to a strong downbeat). Flamenco phrases move toward a strong downbeat.

Spanishy sounding things are popular going back to The Doors song "Spanish Caravan" which came out in 1968:

That starts with a Granadinas that turns into a semi-quote from "Asturias" by Isaac Albéniz.

This so-called "new flamenco" is a style that was actually being developed long before Ottmar Liebert. We can trace its beginnings back to the early recordings of Manitas de Plata, a French gypsy. Here is a recording from 1963:

This was further popularized by the Gipsy Kings, a group of gitano musicians from southern France who, as Wikipedia says, "are known for bringing rumba catalana, a pop-oriented music distantly derived from traditional flamenco music, to worldwide audiences." Here they are:

Then there is the trio of guitar virtuosos Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin who show how flamenco, jazz and progressive rock can all overlap:

I think that the best way to describe what is going on with this synthesis is that you take some of the flavor of flamenco, it's rasgueado strumming and percussive scale passages and some of the simpler harmonic progressions and optionally add things like latin percussion and jazz harmonies. The tendency is to reduce the expressive range of flamenco to a narrow band of tempos and a narrow range of feeling.

Is it interesting? Well, not really. The more it consists of never-ending fast scales, the less interesting I find it. Nothing quite so boring as never-ending fast scales...

Lip-Synching: Everybody's Doing It!

For some reason there is a big fuss about the news that Beyoncé lip-synched her performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the Presidential Inauguration on Monday. The New York Post is in high dudgeon. But classical musicians Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill did the very same thing four years ago at the 2008 Inauguration as discussed here. UPDATE: I should have said 2009 Inauguration!

What is lip-synching? Typically, a musical performance is recorded in a studio specifically designed for sound recording. This is so the best quality sound is recorded. Then, at a later event, which might be outside or in some other context where good sound or a precise performance is difficult, the performer mimes the performance to a playback of the recording. Here, let's let Beyoncé show us how it's done:

The reasons for lip-synching an outdoor performance in January in Washington, DC are obvious. As Yo-Yo Ma said, it is standard procedure when you can't afford a mishap. Cold outdoor weather is not kind to delicate musical instruments and even less so to delicate vocal cords!

But if the authenticity of the performance is more important than the perfection of the performance, sometimes you might see performers playing outside, on a windy roof, in January:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Brief Glance at Witold Lutosławski

Alex Ross has a note about the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski up on the New Yorker site in which he wonders why his Symphony No. 3 isn't more of a "warhorse". That's apparently not a left-handed compliment as he goes on to say
it is a masterpiece of organic architecture, in which gleaming towers of brass emerge from gaseous clouds of instrumental activity. In a kind of reverse teleology of music history, the avant-garde engenders a new Romanticism.
I'm not sure exactly what he means by the first bit as a lot is going on. What I hear above all is a loud, brief exclamation from the brass at the beginning and at intervals after that sounds oddly like the opening motif of the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven speeded up and inverted. I guess a lot of what we hear in between could be called "gaseous clouds". That second sentence? I have absolutely no idea of what that could mean. Teleology is a philosophical term referring to the direction of things towards an end or goal. A 'reverse teleology' would seem to be an incoherent notion. I suspect what Alex Ross is trying to say in "New-Yorker speak" is that he finds a kind of new Romanticism in Lutosławski, a withdrawing from the wilder edges of modernism, perhaps?

I don't hear that myself. Lutosławski seems to me to be a characteristically modernist composer with the fractured rhythms and tortured dissonances of his brethren. I like that recurring Beethovenesque snippet because it seems almost the only element that has some easily graspable significance. I'm sure there are all kinds of underlying complexities here, but if I don't hear something that makes me want to listen further, then I probably won't listen further.

The problem I have with modernism is that the only thing they seemed interested in was the syntax of music: how to put it together in the most intricate fashion. They seemed terrified of the semantic of music, what you might call the 'content'. Now I know that I often say that music is not a language and has no semantic content as such, but it can have a sort of 'feeling' content. When Ross, later on in the note refers to "Beethovenian fury" he is referring to the feeling content of Beethoven's music which many hear as having a kind of driving impetus. Similarly the music of Shostakovich often has a quality of gripping the listener, projecting a strong feeling content.

Lutosławski? Well, I don't hear a lot of that. But I do find that recurring snippet interesting. Here is the first part of his Symphony No. 3. What do you hear?