Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Composer's Composers

Sorry I didn't get a post up yesterday. I was occupied putting the finishing touches on my String Quartet No. 1 and with social events. Plus, I just didn't think of anything!

I was musing over the problem of form and how much and how little the "form" of a piece tells us about it. Take the binary dance forms popular during the Baroque, for example. These include allemandes, courantes, sarabands, minuets, gigues and other less-known dances. From a theoretical formal point of view they all have EXACTLY the same form! Which is both astounding and remarkably useless! Yes, they all begin with the tonic and over the course of a couple of standard-length (usually eight measure) phrases, move to the dominant (or, in the case of minor keys, to the relative major). Then in the second half, which is usually about 50% longer, the movement is back to the tonic. And that's it, from a theoretical viewpoint. So the problem is, if that's all our standard approach to form tells us, then our standard approach to form is sterile because we literally cannot tell one allemande from another.

The truth about form is that, as it is usually taught, it is little more than a container in which you can put almost any content. If I were to pick a metaphor it might be the wine bottle. Traditionally, French wine from different regions has a distinctive bottle shape. The Burgundies come in bottles with gently sloping shoulders like this:

While wines from Bordeaux come in bottles with straight sides and high shoulders like this:

And bottles from the Rhône are a bit like the Burgundy bottles but a bit slimmer and with a coat of arms on the neck:

The point is that all the wines from Burgundy come in the same shape bottle, just as all allemandes have the same formal layout and basic tempo, but the contents are different! Every wine comes from a different vineyard, is vinified differently and has a different taste. Just as every allemande is different. But it is not the formal layout, the harmonic structure or the tempo that makes the difference; it is, rather, the content.

There are some treatments that are a bit more detailed and subtle such as William Caplin's discussions of classical theme types that I have talked about before. But even with him, the fundamental impulse is to look for the standard, the typical and to take it as a paradigm. But what we listen to and enjoy and remember is precisely that which is individual, not standard, not typical, just as what we enjoy in wine is the not the shape of the bottle, but the taste of the wine.

And this, finally, brings me to my topic of composer's composers. Which composers do other composers like and why? Of course, there are composers that on general principle do not like other composers, but they are just grumpy so we will ignore them. Bach doesn't seem to have had a huge amount of regard for other composers of his time, but really, he had no peers, so that's not surprising. Beethoven, judging by who he emulated, especially in his earlier works, had a great deal of admiration for Mozart, as do we all. Haydn and Mozart were a mutual-admiration society, which speaks highly of both of them.

But as we look around, there are a couple of composers who stand out as being particularly admired by other composers. These two are Domenico Scarlatti and Joseph Haydn and I think the reasons for both are quite similar. Both of them wrote many, many pieces within the same genre. Scarlatti is particularly famous for having written nothing but binary-form sonatas for keyboard (harpsichord), five hundred and fifty-five of them! Haydn was much more prolific with one hundred and six symphonies, sixty-eight string quartets and forty-five piano trios, not to mention nearly-innumerable other pieces.

I think composers in particular are fascinated by someone who can keep going back to the same challenge and creating something new every time and do it over and over again. Scarlatti is an extreme example: over and over and over he made keyboard sonatas and each one was new and different. Composers really admire that because it is confronting the challenge of creation head-on. Similarly with Haydn: every symphony has a minuet and trio in moderate tempo in ¾ meter and every time he writes one he manages to make it different from all the other ones. This is what is so amazing about it.

Theorists like to think of themselves as practicing "composition in retrograde" or "reverse-engineering" the piece of music, but what they really end up doing is describing what is going on in light of certain standard features, such as the harmonic layout. But the true achievement of the composer is what he does differently in each piece. Very often, especially in the case of dance forms, this difference has a lot to do with how the rhythms are handled. But theorists never seem to have gotten completely comfortable with studying the rhythmic structure of music: they really prefer to stick to the pitches.

I said a while back that I was going to do some comparative studies of Haydn slow movements, and I still plan to, but right now, I would like to take a look at a couple of Haydn minuets to see if I can flesh out some of the points I made above.

Since there are over a hundred Haydn symphonies (and I am not quite done listening to all of them yet, but I am up in the 80s) I am literally just going to pick two minuets at random and see what we can learn from them. I'm going to pick the Symphony No. 50 in C major and the Symphony No. 60, also in C major, just because they are even numbers and back in my Haydn survey in October I didn't talk about either of them. No. 50 is pretty conventional layout with the usual four movements. Here is the minuet and trio:

And now for No. 60. This is a very unusual symphony in that the music is largely derived from incidental music written in 1774/75 for the play Le Distrait by Jean-François Regnard. There are six movements in all. The minuet and trio are the third movement, starting at the 11:40 mark in this clip:

Now for the scores: for my purposes I just need to look at the first page, I think. Here is the Symphony No. 50:

Click to enlarge

And here is the first page of No. 60:

Click to enlarge

What we know even before looking is that they will both be in the tonic key of C major and that the cadence at the end of the first section will be in G major. The tempos will be very similar as well and so will the instrumentation: two oboes, two horns, two natural trumpets ("clarini"), bassoon, tympani and strings. So what is different? Or, rather, what can you do to make two pieces with so much in common, including the need to be in a clearly-accented ¾ meter, different? Hmm, well, No. 50 starts with a strong upbeat and then has a five-measure phrase that merely outlines the C major triad in quarter notes, ending with a bare half-cadence. This is followed by a seven-measure phrase that stresses over and over G major. I would call it modulatory, except it just starts and continues in G major. Then the first section ends with a softer, more lyrical eight measure phrase in G major, ending with a full cadence. Total: 20 measures. Well, that is certainly odd enough!

What about No. 60? The rhythmic activity is quite different starting on the downbeat with an inverted sixteenth-note turn creating energy on the third beat. This is repeated, leading to a dotted-note figure and triplets outlining a weak cadence on G major. There is an F# and a seventh, but in first inversion: V6/5 of G. This is a pretty standard eight-measure sentence.  And that's it for the first section. The second section has some interesting imitation between the second violins, first violins, then cellos before the opening basic idea comes back.

About the only thing in common, apart from the formal aspects I mentioned above, is the turn figure on the third beat. It also appears in No. 50, but not inverted.

Haydn has managed, within the constraints of the same key, same instrumentation, same meter and same general harmonic layout, to write two very-different sounding minuets. The really amazing thing is that he managed to do it over one hundred times. I'm not sure I can even think of an equivalent, except, of course, for the very similar feat of Scarlatti.

It is one thing to come up with a good musical idea. It is quite another to keep coming up with them over and over decade after decade.

I guess this is why people like Scarlatti and Haydn are particularly admired by other composers. You might call them "composer's composers".

UPDATED to fix a spell-check altering of "clarini" to "clarion". I really want to figure out how to disable this "feature" as it is constantly "correcting" words surreptitiously!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cash Prizes for Composers!

A while back I put up a post talking about the economics of the music business--actually I have put up several, but this one talked about how the best fee I was offered in my career as a middle-rank classical guitar soloist was a very paltry amount. I was just perusing some composer competitions and I am astounded to learn that, even now, the amounts offered as prizes in typical composer competitions are, well, absurdly paltry! Not wanting to point fingers at people who are no doubt devoting time and effort to put on these competitions, but how could you possibly think that $500 USD is a suitable prize? Another prize was the generous amount of $1000 USD. And you may get some travel expenses, too.

Unless you were a musical idiot savant, i.e. simply incapable of any other skill whatsoever, wouldn't you want to go into absolutely any other field than music composition? Except for the always-important boredom factor, why not be a used-car salesman or, perhaps, work in the expanding fast-food service industry. It pays much better!!

Being a composer is sort of like being a Franciscan or Dominican monk, without the dental plan.

But at least celibacy is not a requirement...

Suitable music? Hmmmm. Here is Kovács Szilárd playing his organ transcription of the music of the Angel-Musicians from Olivier Messiaen's opera St. Francis of Assisi:

Saturday, December 28, 2013


It's the Friday Miscellanea, one day late! I keep forgetting... Let's start with something that is either really, really funny or really, really scary depending on whether you are booked to play a concert tonight. It's a thriller/horror movie in which Frodo, sorry, I mean Elijah Wood, is threatened with death (for him or his wife, it's not clear) if he plays one wrong note in a piano concert. Let's run the clip:

Of course, the solution is obvious: you just have to pick the right repertoire, the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra by John Cage:

* * *

Thanks to Alex Ross' blog The Rest is Noise, here is a really magnificent sounding harpsichord. The piece is a Passacaglia by Georg Muffat and the player is Andreas Staier. For some reason Blogger refuses to embed the clip, so here is the link. Well worth hearing!

* * *

While we are over at The Rest is Noise, here is another item:
Not surprisingly, many self-described leftists have rejected John Halle's thesis that the vast majority of pop music serves as a tool (wittingly or not) of élite capitalist forces and that classical music has a role to play in resisting them. He is accused of defending "old white people's tastes nobody gives a shit about." Take that, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. On the Minnesota matter, Halle is sadly right in observing that many on the nominal left have accepted "the right's rhetoric, viewing classical musicians as a 'coddled' workforce receiving an unjustified exemption from market discipline." The collectivist model of the orchestra, the chamber group, or the chorus is unfashionable; instead, our heroes are mega-rich superstars who peddle populist fantasies while residing on a plane far removed from ordinary life.
I can't see how you can possibly defend the thesis that the pop music of today is the voice of youthful rebellion against a repressive society. It has long since become exactly as Halle depicts it:
The “new generation of goateed, rule-breaking entrepreneurs” now privileges immediate gratification, self-expression and originality albeit within market imposed limits, or,  as Oppenheimer puts it, “fun.”
It should be obvious that the leisure complement to this now dominant managerial class philosophy could not possibly consist of the sedate, repressed rituals of the classical concert hall. Nor is it a surprise to find the New Republic's meritocratic class contributors opining in favor of jettisoning instruction in Mozart sonatas in favor of the three-minute rock tune, campfire singing and ukelele strumming.
 The article ends with this peroration:
the virtues of classical music are inherently hostile to neoliberal mindset now dominant in all sectors of society. For many, classical music, its refusal to engage in high-volume harangues, its reliance on aural logic rather than visual spectacle, its commitment to achieving often barely perceptible standards of formal perfection, all serves as a repudiation of late capitalism —a refuge from hideous strip malls, the 24-hour assault of advertising copy, and marketing hype. Ultimately, it is a protest against the cruder, meaner and self-destructive society we have become.
Achieving this recognition is not easy, nor are most things worth doing. That’s the underlying lesson learned by a child confronting a Mozart sonata. And it will need to be relearned by adults if we have much hope of surviving the century.
Read the whole thing.

* * *

For comic relief, have a look at this article explaining, completely seriously, why tuning A to 440 is really a Nazi plot and why the universe would be much happier if we tuned instead to A = 432. Just slightly flat. Uh-huh. Here is a little clip proving the thesis:


* * *

Now some John Williams, to clear the palate. A Volta by Praetorius recorded when Williams was just twenty-two:

* * *

UPDATE: Just one more for you. I ran across this funny and musical cartoon here.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Music and Creativity

As creativity seems to be one of those things that everyone admires and wants to know more about, books and articles about creativity abound. But I have to say that nearly every one that I have looked at has been disappointing. I suspect most of them are just marketing scams, I mean ploys. You know what I mean, the TED version of having your star pitcher wear garters under his uniform to rebalance his brain or something as Susan Sarandon recommends to Tim Robbins in Bull Durham.

But I just read an article that was a) brief, b) to the point and c) very instructive. It explains why I can look at, for example, Carl Jung's classification of different personality types and say to myself, "but I fit into all of them!" Here is the link. What the heck, I think I will just quote the nine characteristics:
1. Most creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but are often quiet and at rest. They can work long hours at great concentration.
2. Most creative people tend to be smart and naive at the same time. “It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas. These are the dimensions of thinking that most creativity tests measure, and that most creativity workshops try to enhance.”
3. Most creative people combine both playfulness and productivity, which can sometimes mean both responsibility and irresponsibility. “Despite the carefree air that many creative people affect, most of them work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not.” Usually this perseverance occurs at the expense of other responsibilities, or other people.
4. Most creative people alternate fluently between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality. In both art and science, movement forward involves a leap of imagination, a leap into a world that is different from our present. Interestingly, this visionary imagination works in conjunction with a hyperawareness of reality. Attention to real details allows a creative person to imagine ways to improve them.
5. Most creative people tend to be both introverted and extroverted. Many people tend toward one extreme or the other, but highly creative people are a balance of both simultaneously.
6. Most creative people are genuinely humble and display a strong sense of pride at the same time.
7. Most creative people are both rebellious and conservative. “It is impossible to be creative without having first internalized an area of culture. So it’s difficult to see how a person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.”
8. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, but remain extremely objective about it as well. They are able to admit when something they have made is not very good.
9. Most creative people’s openness and sensitivity exposes them to a large amount of suffering and pain, but joy and life in the midst of that suffering. “Perhaps the most important quality, the one that is most consistently present in all creative individuals, is the ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake. Without this trait, poets would give up striving for perfection and would write commercial jingles, economists would work for banks where they would earn at least twice as much as they do at universities, and physicists would stop doing basic research and join industrial laboratories where the conditions are better and the expectations more predictable.”
But go read the whole thing. I find this explains a lot of odd discontinuities in my own personality. Sometimes a student would come to me with a particular problem and I would recommend more and more disciplined practice. Another time a different student (or perhaps even the same student!) would come to me with the same problem and I would recommend taking a rest from practicing for a few days. Contradiction? Yes, but now I see why I might do something like this. I used to think it was just a case of making a call based upon a particular set of circumstances, but now I see it as a typically creative response.

Try something different. The next time, try the opposite and see what happens. Creativity is largely based on the ability to imagine different possibilities and the courage to try them. And, as we see in number 8 above, a crucial element is the ability to evaluate your results and toss them out if needed.

A lot of the methodology and ideology that surrounds the act of composition is really just peripheral. Here are some of the things that purport to be "behind" or "inspiring" composition:

  • serialism
  • chance procedures
  • sonata form
  • minimalism
  • fugue
And so on. But all these different methods are really just peripheral to actually composing. They might give you a ground plan, but everything has to be filled in. What you need are little ideas occurring to you, just popping into your head. Maybe you have found that doing or thinking certain things helps things to occur to you. Maybe it is just random. In any case, this, the really crucial part, cannot be taught because it really isn't a skill any more than tripping over a pebble is a skill. It is something that just happens. All the methodology of composition takes effect AFTER something occurs to you...

Or so I think.

What would be an appropriate piece of music? Something really different and imaginative... How about a prelude by Debussy? Here is ...des pas sur la neige from the Préludes, Bk 1:

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Discovering Musicians: Part 6, Arvo Pärt

I haven't done a "Discovering Musicians" post since Kevin Puts, last August. So let me present to you the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Follow the link for the Wikipedia article, which is a good place to start. He is also the subject of Norman Lebrecht's Album of the Week over at Sinfini.

Pärt's music shows an interesting mélange of influences. He has worked as a sound producer for Estonian radio and when young, played both oboe and percussion. He studied composition at Talinn Conservatory. He spent much of the 1970s studying Medieval and Renaissance music. He has a religious sensibility and is a convert to the Russian Orthodox Church. He is often called a "minimalist" though his is quite different from the minimalism of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. One of his influences is Gregorian chant. But one element that unites the various different streams of minimalism is the use of consonant harmony.

His earlier music shows the influence of composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartók, but from his Third Symphony (1971) on, his music goes back to earlier influences and takes on a mystic simplicity.

Here is a sample of his earlier style, the Symphony No. 1 from 1963. It does not sound terribly distinctive. Volleys of percussion, barking brass and lots of dissonance could be from various composers of the time. It does make you realize that continuous dissonance has a sameness to it.

Now, to show how dramatically his style changed, here is the first movement of his Symphony No. 3, dating from 1971:

Quite a transformation. There is a distinct Medieval influence (such as in the opening melody with its similarity to Gregorian chant). From a site devoted to Arvo Pärt comes this list of stylistic elements typical of his later music:
  • Slow tempi
  • Use of silence
  • Long rhythmic values
  • Pandiatonicism
  • Use of church modes
  • Little or no use of chromaticism
  • Use of medieval rhythmic devices (hocket) and rhythmic modes
  • Use of medieval tonal devices (drones, chant, organum)
  • Frequent use of minor tonalities
  • Controlled use of dissonance
  • Tintinnabulation creates harmonic tension and release
  • Homophonic and homorhythmic writing
  • Textural contrasts
  • Mirror form
  • Form determined by text (in choral works)
  • Text creates arsis and thesis of phrases
  • Declamatory delivery of text
  • Close proximity contrasted with open spacing between voices
  • Use of short motives
  • Stepwise melodic motion
  • Decreased activity preceding a cadence
  • Individual voices enter and exit independently of one another 
  • Exploitation of color and tessitura in each voice type
  • Sustained sonorities
  • Philosophy of extended time
  • Static harmonic activity
  • Repetitive patterns
One of his most well-known earlier pieces is Tabula Rasa (1977) for two solo violins, prepared piano and chamber orchestra:

As Richard Taruskin points out in the Oxford History of Western Music, Vol 5 (pp 400 et seq.), by this point Pärt has removed the archaisms from his style and developed a distinctive personal idiom that, while drawing on the past, is certainly not contained by it. He has developed a new kind of tonal theory, inspired by bell sounds, called "tintinnabulation" that Taruskin describes as a kind of "oblique organum". He uses this most typically in his vocal music. His setting of the St. John Passion (1982) contains many examples:

The performers in that clip are the Choir of the Warsaw School of Economics. Somehow I find it deeply encouraging that a school of economics even has a choir, let alone one that is capable enough to sing this music.

Arvo Pärt is an outstanding example of the compositional strategy that I have called "racinative" where you go back and rediscover certain roots of music in order to revitalize what you are doing. It is the opposite of and antidote to the progressive development of more and more complex techniques and music that was the strategy or ideology of modernism.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Best Posts of 2013, Part 2

Continuing on from yesterday, here are some of the best posts of the second half of the year.

The two main things that went on in July were first, my attempt at a model record review. I was amazed at how tiny record reviews are these days: around 250 words with "in-depth" coverage extending to 500 words. So I did a sample review of my own where I compared three different performances of the last movement of Beethoven's Quartet in C# minor, op. 131. Here they are. The other big project was to do a post on each of the Beethoven symphonies. Here is No. 1. The others are easily found in the Blog Archive in the column on the right.

August was a month of a whole lot of different kinds of posts. Here was one on useful books on music. For a lot of the month I wrote about harmony, here, here and here.

The two main projects on the blog in September were first, a multi-part post on the Shostakovich Piano Trio in E minor. Part 1, part 2, part 3. The other was a four part post on my new set of pieces I had just written for violin and guitar. Here is the first movement and the other three can easily be found in the Blog Archive in the column to the right. By the way, the Avondale Press in Vancouver is going to publish these pieces early in the new year. At the end of the month I put up an introduction to Haydn and the symphony.

This theme continued in October with thirteen (!) posts on individual Haydn symphonies. Here is the first and the rest are easily found in the Blog Archive. I also did a post on Stockhausen and the avant-garde just after World War II.

I started off the month of November by kicking the BBC around for another silly article misinforming us about music. But the most serious project of the month was a series of posts on the Mozart piano concertos starting with this one. The others, again, can be accessed from the Blog Archive to the right.

I won't do December because we are still here and the posts are so recent. But I will leave you with a very funny cartoon that an ex-student just sent me.

And a Christmas card:

Creative Historiography

Now there's a title likely to send you right to sleep! But historiography, the study of the methodology of writing history, is actually one of the most interesting kinds of study. The book of essays by Richard Taruskin, The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, that I have been reading lately, consists largely of critical historiography. An example? Sure. Taruskin quotes a passage from Arthur Schopenhauer at the very beginning of the book:
Intellectual life floats ethereally, like a fragrant cloud rising from fermentation, above the reality of the worldly activities which make up the lives of the peoples, governed by the will; alongside world history there goes, guiltless and not stained with blood, the history of philosophy, science, and the arts.
[from Pererga i Paralipomena (1851)]
Under this he makes the one word comment "Not." No, much as we like to think that the music we love floats above the grimy realities of life like a fragrant cloud, the truth is that music is part of history and life and society. It has a context and an audience. It even has composers and performers who are, most of them, real human beings. There is music that is guilty and stained with blood. There is some music that is morally courageous and other that is morally cowardly, hypocritical and sincere, emotionally direct and pure phony melodrama.

But even as we acknowledge this, we can recognize that we can go too far with it. Even while recognizing that, for example, neo-classicism has connections to fascism, that is not the whole story. The universe of music is set somewhat apart, largely because of the non-specific nature of instrumental music. You can kick Beethoven around all you like, and rant about the cult that grew up around his music in the 19th century and later, but his music is still going to be around long after your brand of historiography is forgotten. Or so I suspect!

I have done a little creative historiography in the past as in this post from 2011 in which I proposed a new way of looking at music history: instead of looking at it in terms of progress, how composers have invented new techniques, I propose that composers often reveal a "racinative" impulse where they go back and "re-root" themselves in some older form or style. Examples would include Haydn's revival of fugal counterpoint in the finales of some of his Op. 20 quartets or Steve Reich's return to the fundamental rhythmic idea of the pulse in several pieces.

In another post I looked at music history in two dimensions, comparing a single formal idea, the rondo, over a long stretch of time and contrasting that with the idea of looking at what kinds of different music things were all happening at the same time. I chose the year 1964 and three different pieces all composed in that year: Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 9, Stockhausen, Momente, and The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night. Yes, hard to believe, but they were all being created in that same year. Don't we live in dull times, by comparison?

The new thing I want to do is really not such a new thing at all. I am listening my way through all the Haydn symphonies right now, yes, all 106 (or is it 108?) and what I would like to do is look at some Adagio movements as I notice a lot of interesting, and very different, things going on in those movements. This won't be typical music theory, which tries to find consistent models, because what I am looking for is not the similarities, but the differences. One of the fundamental problems of music theory, useful though it may be, is that all the really good pieces of music are different and good (or great) exactly because of those differences! Music theory can show us that the chord progression that Beethoven uses in the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is a variation of a very old chord progression, but the whole reason that we listen to the Moonlight Sonata particularly is because of the unique way he uses that progression.

In any case, I am going to pick out some different Adagios from Haydn symphonies and look at just what he is doing to make them so interesting.

Typically, the second movement of a symphony by Haydn is the slow movement and it usually is either an Andante or an Adagio. But Haydn's slow movements are often much more cheerful and dynamic than you might expect. We are more used to the slow movements in Romantic period symphonies that are extremely slow and lumbering. The agile grace of a Haydn slow movement is quite different. Here is the second movement Adagio from the "Farewell" Symphony:

Here is the second, Adagio, movement from the Symphony No. 26, which is more like what we might expect from an Adagio with its long, sustained lines in the violins. This might almost have been written by Mozart:


Here is the Poco adagio movement from the Symphony No. 46. It has quite a different approach with secco scale passages and a lot of variation in orchestral color:

Here is the Adagio movement of the Symphony No. 78. It has quite a different effect with a wide-ranging theme using chromatic grace notes and rests:

My point is that Haydn, with a very small audience mostly consisting of Prince Nikolaus, sat down dozens upon dozens of times to write a new symphony. If he started repeating himself, I'm sure the Prince would have let him know in short order! So he had to be original. Many, many times! And he was. Music theory isn't of much help here, as it is the differences, not the similarities, that are important.

That was just a little introduction. In subsequent posts I am going to look at the details that go into making a Haydn Adagio what it is.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Best Posts of 2013

It is kind of fun to go back and look over the year's posts and see which ones stand out. There was lots of variety in January with posts on some songs from my cycle for voice and guitar, some posts on theory, one on a late Shostakovich quartet, a few posts on Schoenberg and lots of other stuff. Hey, maybe you should go back and read them all! But if not, then a couple of posts stick out a bit. In this one, Music and Social Identity, I take on some academic writings on music and dismantle them. In this post, Hacks, Artistes, Dullards and Con-Men, I attempt to categorize different performing qualities.

In February I put up this rant about how the mass media are tossing classical music down the memory hole: Is Classical Music Invisible? There were a lot of posts on various issues like consonance and dissonance and the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven, but one of the most interesting was about my discovery of a very early piece by John Cage: Third Construction (1941).

March had a wealth of different posts on everything from music and tax policy to self-criticism to Prokofiev. One post was an introduction to Beethoven's Symphony No. 6. Another was about the forgotten composer Mieczysław Weinberg. I also did a post with a whole lot of examples on what I called Classic Ensembles, meaning, groups of instruments that just seemed to really work well together, both popular and classical.

In April I concluded a series of posts comparing Debussy and Ravel with this one, which sparked some interesting discussion in the comments. I also did a post on Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. I ended the month with several posts on the Beethoven late quartets including this one on the A minor quartet.

Early in May I put up one of my continuing series of posts on the Shostakovich quartets, this one on the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor, op. 138. I did a post critical of one of the leading figures in the "new" musicology, Susan McClary. I also did an amusing post on the top ten myths about classical music.

Lots of interesting stuff in June, including this post on some rhythmic qualities of the Rite of Spring. I put up posts for each of the five movements of my Suite No. 1 for guitar starting with this one. For contrast, I put up a post on the greatest love stories from classical music.

And I think I will stop here and pick out posts from the second half of the year in another post.

Now, to get you in the mood for Christmas, here is some Bach:

Sunday, December 22, 2013

About Weather

Forgive me for putting up a post that has nothing to do with music! One of the main reasons I moved from Canada to Mexico was a really terrible ice storm back in 1998. Our part of Montreal was without power for eight days. In January.

I am reminded of this because a similar ice storm has just hit Ontario and something like 350,000 people are without power. Here is what an ice storm looks like:

Looks pretty, but it is very difficult to walk or drive. Plus, big trees fall down and take out power lines. Also, those really big electrical transmission towers end up with 200 to 300 tons of ice and they just start to crumple. So, no power.

UPDATE: Another ice storm picture:

Click to enlarge

Here is what Mexico looks like this time of year:

Taken from my kitchen window.

Music and Education

I think I have mentioned that I was quite attracted to philosophy when an undergraduate--to the extent that I took three philosophy courses, two of them higher-level ones. I seriously considered switching my major from music to philosophy. But I think I can recall the exact moment when I decided not to. I was in the office of the chairman of the department, with whom I had just taken a course in philosophy of mind, and we were discussing a paper I had written for him. I think he was saying something like I did seem to be able to appreciate some important distinctions. But as he was speaking I observed his demeanor. He was like a disembodied intelligence housed in a physical body, but not so terribly connected to it. I have no idea whether this was a fair observation or not--for all I know he was a demon salsa dancer on the weekends--but that was my observation. And I continued to muse that one of the great things about music is that it engages you on all levels:
  • you can dance to it (it is somatic)
  • it engages on an emotional or mood level
  • playing is physically challenging
  • it is intellectually engaging as you study history and theory
  • it is socially engaging as you play with and for other people
And on and on: music is a whole, complete universe that challenges and engages you on virtually every level. I liked that. Philosophy, while fascinating, seemed too purely intellectual.

The reason I bring this up is an article I just ran across in Forbes about how students at university simply do not seem to be learning how to write. Here is how it opens:

Suppose you sent your daughter to a music camp—an expensive camp lasting months. She had said that she wanted to learn the violin, so you bought her a nice one and sent her off to camp.
Upon her return, you ask how the camp was and she replies, “Great! We studied lots of stuff about music and the violin.” Then you ask her to play something.
“Well, we didn’t play much and I still don’t know how to tune my instrument. But it was still a terrific experience!”
You would probably think that a music camp ought to concentrate on essentials first—tuning, scales, simple pieces—before moving on to music theory, music history, conducting technique, and so on.
For many American students, college is like that music camp. They take lots of courses and study lots of stuff (or at least seem to), but don’t even learn how to use the English language well. You might think that would be a top priority, but actually it’s not a priority at all.
The article goes on at some length to explain why no-one at university takes responsibility for instruction in writing. Of course, this should probably be done in high school, but that is another kettle of fish! So why is it so easy to avoid learning fundamental skills in writing, but the very idea, when applied to a music camp, is ridiculous? Why does the comparison work so well for the writer of the article?

I think it goes back to my observation about the differences between music and philosophy. In
Philosophy, as in English, History and probably the rest of the humanities, one can ignore basic fundamentals while constructing elaborate intellectual theories. In music, one cannot. If you cannot play a simple piece of music with some fluency, you will not be credited with being any kind of musician. BUT, and here is the rub, in many fields these basic skills have been denigrated as being part of a reactionary past that we have left behind. Just as, in the visual arts department, sketching the human figure may no longer be taught.

But there is something hidebound and traditional about music. As far as I know, all music departments still require all their students to take private music lessons and pass a playing exam at the end of the year. This may be being eroded around the edges--perhaps there are schools that have substantial electronic music programs where all you do is, in the immortal words of Deadmau5, "hit the space bar", but these are surely not the majority?

The wonderful thing about music in education is that it brings you face to face with yourself, I think. At some point you will find yourself all alone in a little practice room with your instrument and in front of you a little piece of music: perhaps a minuet by Bach. You are going to have to learn how to play that little piece: perhaps even memorize it. You will have to keep coming back to that little room until you do so. This is discipline and music is one of the best ways I know how to develop a personal sense of discipline.

Somehow people can go for years and years being unable to write simple prose. But when they are trying to play a piece of music the flaws and weaknesses and errors are very evident. It is not just that the teacher is pointing them out, is it? If that is the case then the solution to college is simple: just give everyone private lessons in how to write.

Of course, in order to have enough teachers to do that, you would have to fire nearly all the administrators.


Bob Dylan on Songwriting

I just ran across a pretty interesting quote from Bob Dylan about songwriting. The link to the original seems to be broken, but here is where I read it. And here is the quote:
Dylan leans over and picks up the acoustic guitar. “Well, you have to understand that I’m not a melodist,” he says. “My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or songs or variations of the blues form. “What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head…I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”
He’s slowly strumming the guitar, but it’s hard to pick out the tune. “I wrote in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s the folk music tradition. You use what’s been handed down. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ is probably from an old Scottish folk song…
No, no, no,” Bob Dylan says sharply when asked if aspiring songwriters should learn their craft by studying his albums, which is precisely what thousands have done for decades. “It’s only natural to pattern yourself after someone,” he says, opening a door on a subject that has long been off-limits to reporters: his songwriting process. “If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry.
“But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster.”…
“I always admired true artists who were dedicated, so I learned from them,” Dylan says, rocking slowly in the hotel room chair. “Popular culture usually comes to an end very quickly. It gets thrown into the grave. I wanted to do something that stood alongside Rembrandt’s paintings.”…
“To me, Woody Guthrie was the be-all and end-all,” says Dylan…his curly hair still framing his head majestically as it did on album covers four decades ago. “Woody’s songs were about everything at the same time. They were about rich and poor, black and white, the highs and lows of life, the contradictions between what they were teaching in school and what was really happening. He was saying everything in his songs that I felt but didn’t know how to…
“I had read a lot of poetry by the time I wrote a lot of those early songs,” he volunteers. “I was into the hard-core poets. I read them the way some people read Stephen King. I had also seen a lot of it growing up. Poe’s stuff knocked me out in more ways than I could name. Byron and Keats and all those guys. John Donne…
“I’m not that serious a songwriter,” he says, a smile on his lips. “Songs don’t just come to me. They’ll usually brew for a while, and you’ll learn that it’s important to keep the pieces until they are completely formed and glued together…I’m not thinking about what I want to say, I’m just thinking ‘Is this OK for the meter?’ “But there’s an undeniable element of mystery too. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.”
There are a number of interesting things in that interview. When he says he is not a "melodist" and that he bases his songs on old Protestant hymns and Woody Guthrie, this makes sense. It also makes sense that he says he has read a lot of poetry. Dylan is really a great writer of song lyrics and his musical settings are very traditional in many ways. There are no fancy melodies in his songs. This is probably as articulate as someone like Dylan is ever going to get about how they write songs.

The reason is that these kinds of questions, "how do you write your songs", like asking a writer "where do you get your ideas", are questions that artists often regard as "centipedal" ones. That comes from an interview with Glenn Gould. He tells the story of the centipede who, when asked which of his hundred feet he started with when he walked, became so perplexed that he couldn't move and fell over and died. Gould, for one, does not want to think about how he does something for fear of disturbing the automatic intuitiveness of it. Similarly, questions about creativity are often uncomfortable for artists to answer--they really don't want to think about it!

The other problem is that talking about the process of writing music in detail is impossible because it is a musical not a verbal process (though I'm not sure how that would apply to a writer talking about writing...). This quote gets pretty close:
I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.
"Listening to the song in your head" and sensing it change into something else is sort of what goes on. When I am writing, once I have some sort of germ or fragment, I am trying to hear what "comes next". In music it is a lot about what comes next. Where is this going? Getting more specific means talking about details. The only place in popular culture where I have seen this almost happening was in the scene from Amadeus where Mozart re-writes Salieri's march. But, of course, it was so brief and sketchy that you don't get any real idea of what happened. A better exposition was in the movie La Belle Noiseuse where we get to watch the painter sketch his model. That hesitant and scratchy exploratory process is the closest I have seen to the creative process being depicted.

When Dylan talks about "the ghost" I think I know what he means. Sometimes a little musical idea just pops into your head. That is just the beginning, all the work is yet to come because you have to figure out what to do with it. One morning Paul McCartney got up and the whole song "Yesterday" was just in his head. All he had to do, according to the story, was figure out the chords. Mind you, there were no words. It took him months to figure them out. In the beginning he just called the tune "Scrambled Eggs" because that went with the opening:

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Yes, I contributed the rest of the first line!

Schoenberg's comment to a student that the eraser end of the pencil was the most important end is also good to know. Sometimes--pretty often, actually--what you need to do is throw something out completely. I had the beginning to a nice little fugal scherzo in the string quartet I am writing right now until I realized how unsuitable it was and tossed it out.

How do you learn or study composition? Just listen to a lot of music and study a lot of scores and absorb whatever else you find creatively stimulating and then just let your mind freewheel. If you are a composer, things will start occurring to you! Then you can start to work hammering them into a piece of music.

As the writer Gene Fowler once said of his creative process:  “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Or you could sell your soul to the devil like Robert Johnson...

Now for some music:

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"absurdly overcomposed monstrosities"

I have been reading, with great interest, a collection of essays by Richard Taruskin called The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays that was published at the end of 2008. To anyone interested in the kinds of ideology that often have surrounded the composition, performance and enjoyment of music in the last one hundred years or so, this book is really invaluable. But be prepared to see just about everyone's ox being gored. Sacred cows are fair game in this book. And not the easy, low-hanging (to mix a metaphor) sacred cows that I often go after like Andrew Lloyd Weber or silly pop music. No, au contraire, Richard Taruskin takes on the biggest of big game: Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, the Early Music Movement, everyone that everyone else just says nice things about.

The quote I have selected for my title, "absurdly overcomposed monstrosities" comes from an essay titled "The Poietic Fallacy" that drills down into one of the most pervasive and unfortunate ideological positions, and one that has dominated classical music for well over 100 years. As Taruskin puts it:
the conviction that what matters most (or more strongly yet, that all that matters) in a work of art is the making of it, the maker's input.
Let me contrast that with the opposing view, that what matters most, or more strongly yet, all that matters, is the pleasure that the listener derives from the music. The compositional virtuosity, the influence on other composers, all this is really secondary to the enjoyment of the listener. This might seem obvious, but the fact is that virtually the whole of the modernist aesthetic is based on the opposite, the total denial of the rights or relevance of the listener's response. A typical strategem is to describe all music that listeners actually enjoy as being "superficial", "vulgar", even "reactionary". One of the primary theorists of the poietic fallacy was Theodor Adorno, who despised all jazz and popular music.

No, the important thing, for modernist ideologues is not whether the poor listener is given something to enjoy, but whether the music is "serious", whether it fulfills the correct compositional criteria. As Taruskin comments,
The twelve-tone method was invented precisely to produce the sort of maximized motivic consistency and saturated texture that analysts look for... And promoting it into a primary musical value is the ultimate poietic fallacy, the one that led modern music into the cul-de-sac where absurdly overcomposed monstrosities by Elliot Carter or Milton Babbitt have been reverently praised by critics and turned into obligatory models for emulation by teachers of composition.
Whew! I think you can see why Taruskin is much hated in some circles! But I'm afraid he is correct. There are a great number of absurdly overcomposed monstrosities out there, and not just by Carter and Babbitt.

When you read a reverent article praising music by Elliot Carter or other of the high modernists, you should ask yourself, does the writer really enjoy listening to this music? Or is he just saying this because it is expected of him? Might this be a case of what Timur Kuran has called "preference falsification" where people tend to say what they believe others want to hear? Wikipedia says about this:
In articulating preferences, individuals frequently tailor their choices to what appears socially acceptable. In other words, they convey preferences that differ from what they genuinely want. Kuran calls the resulting misrepresentation “preference falsification.” In his 1995 book, Private Truths, Public Lies, he argues that the phenomenon is ubiquitous and that it has huge social and political consequences. These consequences all hinge on interdependencies between individual decisions as to what preference to convey publicly. A person who hides his discontent about a fashion, policy, or political regime makes it harder for others to express discontent.
For some reason this reminds me of a comment made about a premiere of one of my compositions. Way back when I was a graduate student in performance at McGill University, I was doing a public concert in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Concert Diploma. One of the pieces on the program was one I had written specifically for the occasion called Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord for the indicated ensemble. In true modernist fashion, the notes were all derived from prime numbers, but since my musical instincts as a composer and guitarist were what I was really following, I had bent these into something that was both very idiomatic for the instruments and that sounded good. (One of my favorite comments on compositional method was said by a composer friend of mine: "I just put down the notes that sound good.") The audience seemed, on first hearing, to really enjoy the piece, which was just what I had hoped for. Now the interesting thing was the comment from the chairman of the composition department who was on the jury marking the performance. He said that "while it sounded good on the instruments it was compositionally thin." And there you have the modernist ideology in action. What is important is now how it sounds, but how compositionally "thick" it is.

I wish very much I had the recording of that piece to play for you, but alas, it is long since lost. I do have plans to make a new recording, however. But in the meantime, let me put up two pieces for your amusement. The first, Night Fantasies for piano by Elliot Carter:

And Six Pianos by Steve Reich:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Miscellanea

There is a whole set of lectures on aesthetics by James Grant from Oxford University on iTunes. Absolutely free!


I've just listened to the beginning of a couple of them, but my first impression is that they might be rather tedious. But I will explore further!

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Some really "cool" music:

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Here is an interesting article from The European on how musicians handle the economic problems of the music business.
The European: In the traditional music business, the record companies took care of business…
Palmer: I don’t think “traditional” is the right word…
The European: Why not?
Palmer: You call it “traditional” – referring to the 1930s or the dawn of recorded music. But what about the rest of human history?
The European: Mozart didn’t have a record company.
Palmer: Exactly. But many of those guys had the church, wealthy patrons or were traveling musicians, living from meal to meal. It’s important to bear all of that in mind because it is becoming increasingly important to look at the long trajectory of artists and how they had to find the right balance between creating art and feeding their families. Even if there has been this blip with the recorded music industry that created some strange utopia where artist got to focus only on their craft, we shouldn’t take it for granted. The music industry of the 20th century wasn’t a sustainable system.

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Canada tends to be rather shy about too much innovation. An example is the 19-year span when the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, Canada's largest, failed to put on a single new opera. Here is the link to the article. The odd thing is that the "composer" selected is the pop singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright!
Wainwright’s opera Hadrian (with libretto by Daniel MacIvor) got the nod after three other full-length operas commissioned by the COC were abandoned one by one. The feeling among Canadian composers is perhaps similar to how visual artists would react if our selection for the next Venice Biennale turned out to be a graphic novelist who had recently taken up oil painting.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

DSCH and other Bargains

There is a large, nearly complete, edition of Shostakovich from Brilliant Classics available. Apparently it has been out for a while, but I just noticed a review in the Guardian.

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I am sorely tempted, but I already have Haitinck doing the symphonies and Emerson doing the quartets plus two different versions of the preludes and fugues, so a lot of it would be redundant. Brilliant Classics have been doing some great editions. I have had this one for a while and it is an excellent recording at a great price:

But I see that it is now only available for resale at a hefty price! I think I bought it for $33. But you can get this one for only $37 and it includes all the sonatas AND all the concertos:

It was Gulda's vinyl box set of the concertos that turned me on to his Beethoven and I think I bought that way back in the 1970s. I also have Gulda doing the Well-Tempered Clavier which someone once characterized as Bach for those people who find Glenn Gould's Bach too romantic!

So if you are thinking about buying yourself a Christmas present, and why shouldn't you, then one of these might be just the thing.

Me, I'm still working my way through this box of Haydn symphonies (up to disc 25):

And I see that it is now only available through expensive re-sale. That's a real shame. I purchased it for only $33.

One thing that all these collections seem to have in common is that they quickly go out of print and they are poorly documented. But, honestly, it is trivially easy to do your own documentation. Just go to Wikipedia for articles on the pieces and to IMSLP for the scores. In some ways we live in a Golden Age as prior to the internet (and amazingly cheap box sets) you had to go to a well-stocked music research library for this kind of access. Now, it's only a click away...

Here is the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich with Martha Argerich and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich.