Saturday, January 25, 2014

Musical Miscellanea

Just too busy the last few days to post so here is my Friday Miscellanea one day late!

The Guardian has a review up of a new CD by a French wind quintet, Les Vents Français, that provokes some thoughts. Les Vents Français don't seem to be on YouTube, but here is some of the music from the album, three pieces by Jacques Ibert played by a different quintet:


So what is my observation? Well, wind instruments have been around a long time. The oboe's predecessor the shawm was brought back from the Middle East during the Crusades a thousand years ago. So why is it that all the great composers wrote loads and loads of string quartets, but very few wind quintets? I am only referring to the period since the late 18th century and the development of chamber music post-Haydn. Actually, there is quite a lot of chamber music for and including winds such as the music for eight or nine wind instruments by Haydn and others and the serenades with strings and winds by Mozart and others. There was also a lot more music for winds that was written than ever gets played today.

But the fact remains that the typical wind chamber ensemble, the wind quintet as we hear in the clip above, is far less popular with both composers and audiences than the string quartet. Care to venture a guess as to why?

I think the answer is that the winds are both more sharply distinctive in their timbre and more limited in their technique and expression. This is not to deny that, for example, the clarinet is capable of amazing things with dynamics or that the flute is very mellifluous, but the winds' role in the orchestra, to give contrast, add power and highlight the sound of the strings, means they are less successful as chamber music instruments. The very distinctiveness of the sound becomes tiring to the ear after a while. And the bowed strings are just so remarkable in the subtlety of their expression and range of techniques that they are ideal for chamber music. Strings can play with the bow, normally or on the bridge, pizzicato, with harmonics, double-stops, glissandi and on and on. This is the pizzicato movement from the String Quartet No. 4 by Bartók and it is a particularly virtuoso demonstration of what you can do with pizzicato!


* * *

Is this the Year of the Mandolin? Oh god, I hope not, but Norman Lebrecht seems to think so:


Is it just me or is the really distinctive thing about that video how really, really annoying is the fellow who keeps going "woo-hoo" every few seconds?

* * *

Also on the Slipped Disc site is an interesting interview with a winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine about the value his training as a bassoonist had for his later career. This quote is particularly interesting:
in the US at the present time, classical music is fundamentally a dying art.
There are few people who are willing to pay for it and its importance is miniscule compared
to that of popular sports. Musicians earn a fraction of what even a mediocre athlete earns.
There is no vibrant musical culture at present—everything is geared towards being commercially successful, not towards content.
I think there is a lot of truth in those few words. The thing about classical music, and its great strength as far as I am concerned, is that it is fundamentally a transcendent, non-material art-form. It is not something that is easily commodified (though the vinyl record was a pretty good attempt) and now, with the pervasiveness of digital copies, it is less material than it was a couple of decades ago. Music is the expression in organized sound of human creativity and disappears once the performance is over. It can be preserved in digital forms and as a musical score, but that still makes it, along with perhaps dance, the most abstract and least material art form. Rich people cannot (or do not, at least) buy musical performances so they can hang them on their walls. They cannot own a musical performance the way they can a Mark Rothko or a Damien Hirst or a Lamborghini (or a set of custom-made knives or antique furniture or...).

So it is the very values of our culture, which have more and more become material values, that mitigate against classical music. The power of classical music is that it is equally accessible to everyone. All it needs is a bit of sensitivity and patience, something the poor can have as well as the rich. Learning to appreciate a Beethoven quartet or a Mozart piano concerto is something that is available to everyone in society. This is the strength of music!! Here is that wonderful eccentric, Friedrich Gulda, conducting and playing the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor by Mozart:


* * *

And just to show how very immaterial classical music is, yet another item from Norman Lebrecht's blog shows us how dismal classical music sales are. The biggest-selling classical record last week according to Nielsen Soundscan was this one, Hilary Hahn's collection of new encores with 341 sales. Yes, that's correct. 341. Second was the Barenboim New Year's concert from Vienna with 260 sales. Actually two things surprise me: that the first and second spots aren't Bach on mandolin and the latest 13 year old diva AND that the sales are so incredibly low. What does that add up to a year? Fifteen to eighteen thousand sales? And the artist gets perhaps a dollar a sale? And these are the biggest-selling classical musicians? No need for us to take a vow of poverty! Plus, there is vanishing little chance that we classical musicians are likely to be arrested for drag-racing in our Lamborghini while drunk and on drugs. We can't afford the booze, let alone the Lamborghini!

* * *

Well that's my Friday miscellanea, delayed one day. Maybe I will have something else later on.

10 comments:

Bridge said...

Ah, but you're forgetting that shallow rich people can attend live concerts so as to be seen by other shallow rich people and then there is of course the essential 15 min. intermission where everybody goes to continue their drinking and talk to people. Frank Zappa once said that the only thing keeping classical music alive is white wine (I'm paraphrasing). In all seriousness though, I have seen people (and unfortunately sat next to some) that clearly were not there for the music. Perhaps it's unfair to judge, but I don't see how anybody can expect to get anything out of a classical concert, which is as much an emotional experience as it is an intellectual one, in any other state than stone-cold sober.

Anyway, good thoughts on wind instruments. Not really anything mind-blowing, I think most people who have read an orchestration manual know that the strings are the most versatile of the instruments when it comes to expression. Still, I disagree somewhat with your comment about winds being more tiring to the ear and therefore not being good for chamber music. First of all, the fact that winds, especially woodwinds are more orchestral coloring rather than the meat and potatoes is a matter of fact, of course. Also, they are clearly more wearing on the ear than strings or brass (I assume by winds you were referring to woodwinds). That being said, I still disagree with the fundamental idea that winds need to be subservient. They certainly need more care than strings, but in the right hands wind instruments can be just as deadly as string instruments.

I can think of no better example than Rite of Spring. Now, obviously, it has heavy use of strings, but I think what makes it so colorful and moving is the fact that the strings and winds carry pretty much equal weight. In less capable hands, it could easily result in a poorly balanced score, but I think Stravinsky has adequately proven that wind instruments are capable of much more than was previously thought. Possibly an even better example is the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which I hadn't heard before making this post so I cannot make the same claims about it as I can the Rite, but even after one superficial listen I can say it's further evidence that winds can pull their own weight. Granted, it's only one movement and nobody has ever said that short episodes of winds unaccompanied by strings are impossible, but a 9 minute movement of only winds (woodwind by threes and a standard brass ensemble, so moderately large to large) is something that Mozart would have laughed at as an absurdity, I'm sure. Not that the piece wouldn't be improved by strings.* Then there's Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra which has some lovely extended sections featuring solo instruments and families playing alone.

None of this is really intended as a refutation of your post per se, just a continuation of your thoughts and perhaps a warning to people who would underestimate winds. Personally, I just look at it as a different experience. Obviously, a symphony with the scope of the Ninth played only on winds would be strange, but in short bursts winds are in some ways more capable than strings (for example in Ligeti's amazing Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet). There's something about the lack of strings that leaves woodwinds sounding somewhat empty. To describe it without invoking the negative connotations "empty" has, they feel more open and somewhat floating and ambiguous. I think this quality has perhaps been slightly misunderstood by composers in the past, with people writing music for them that ends up sounding like a bad string quartet rather than taking advantage of this unique opportunity. Just my two cents.

Rickard Dahl said...

I also disagree about your harsh description of wind instruments (assuming woodwinds). I think they can work fine on their own if written for properly. I think the same goes for any instrument or group of instruments. Sure, some combinations work better, some worse, but there's no reason to avoid writing for a certain combination of instruments. If you have an idea that suits whatever combination then go head. In the end it's alot about the content itself. You can have something that is bad or good. If it's bad then it's hard to adjust to any combinations of instruments, if it's good then there are many possibilites. For instance my bass guitar duet (the parts I've written so far) may be far from ultimate writing for the instruments but if the content (melody, rhythm, counterpoint, harmony etc.) is good and it's playable without too much trouble for the music's worth then it works.

I've recently discovered that there are brass quintets (1-2 trumpets or 1-2 cornets, french horn, some sort of trombone, bass trombone or tuba) and I think it would be very interesting to write a piece for that sort of ensemble down the road. Sure, it may not be as versatile as a string quartet but I like experimenting with various unusual ensembles or including various unusual instruments. Either way, I should stop rambling now. Anyways, I will end with a nice early modernist piece for woodwind quintet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBZE8CbRgNE (the background video suits very well by the way).

Rickard Dahl said...

I also disagree about your harsh description of wind instruments (assuming woodwinds). I think they can work fine on their own if written for properly. I think the same goes for any instrument or group of instruments. Sure, some combinations work better, some worse, but there's no reason to avoid writing for a certain combination of instruments. If you have an idea that suits whatever combination then go head. In the end it's alot about the content itself. You can have something that is bad or good. If it's bad then it's hard to adjust to any combinations of instruments, if it's good then there are many possibilites. For instance my bass guitar duet (the parts I've written so far) may be far from ultimate writing for the instruments but if the content (melody, rhythm, counterpoint, harmony etc.) is good and it's playable without too much trouble for the music's worth then it works.

I've recently discovered that there are brass quintets (1-2 trumpets or 1-2 cornets, french horn, some sort of trombone, bass trombone or tuba) and I think it would be very interesting to write a piece for that sort of ensemble down the road. Sure, it may not be as versatile as a string quartet but I like experimenting with various unusual ensembles or including various unusual instruments. Either way, I should stop rambling now. Anyways, I will end with a nice early modernist piece for woodwind quintet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBZE8CbRgNE (the background video suits very well by the way).

Rickard Dahl said...

Sorry about the double comment. I got the "Service Unavailable
Error 503" error and thought that my comment wasn't posted.

Rickard Dahl said...

Ah, I was mistaken, it's not so "early" modernism. I forgot it was written during the neoclassical part (1934). Sorry about the spam.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, I go away for half a day and my comments section goes wild! Very cool. And I'm constantly surprised at what gets people fired up. I promise you I'm not all "death to wind instruments!" I was just observing that it seems clear that the wind quintet, as the typical and characteristic woodwind chamber ensemble is far less popular (and historically less important?) than the string equivalent, the string quartet. Wouldn't we all agree that this seems to be the case? Then I was just speculating on why. Some of my reasons were influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov's book on orchestration, I don't deny. Bridge, very good point about how in 20th century music like Stravinsky's, one of the things he did that gave his music a new and distinctive sound was to make the winds much more important. The bassoon solo in the first few measures of the Rite of Spring is the perfect example.

Let me reiterate: I'm not anti-winds at all! Rickard, thanks very much for the Henry Cowell miniatures. Really interesting pieces. It makes me realize that the only music I know by Henry Cowell is his experimental music for piano. That's all that people seem to study.

One final point about winds: I was just talking about chamber music, where they tend to take second place behind the bowed string instruments. But there is another way to look at it: there used to be a clear distinction between indoor instruments and outdoor instruments. The bowed strings, while they could be found outdoors, in the Salzburg serenades, for example, were usually considered indoor instruments. While wind instruments like the oboe and bassoon, brass instruments like the trumpet and trombone and percussion instruments generally, were considered to be outdoor instruments. This distinction over time has completely broken down as the orchestra has absorbed all sorts of different kinds of non-string instruments.

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, strings were very important in the classical period but other instruments grew in importance over time, first woodwinds, then brass (which is ofc mainly due to the improvements of brass instruments), then percussion and so on. It's a really great time to compose music in considering the immense number of instruments that can be used in compositions. We have all the classical strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion etc., we can use historical instruments, instruments more commonly encountered in popular music or instruments from all corners of the World.

I think Cowell is a great yet relatively unknown modernist composer. While he may have used modernist techniques a lot of his music is really interesting. He was much more a "society" composer rather than "progress" composer. Here are a few works I recommend:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__XuT1u1iKQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeFWSWc-Pgg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bCBmTySvkE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TTesu_-ddc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwvH_nx4oqo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-o37qzHX8A

Bryan Townsend said...

I think it is not so much that other (non-string) instruments grew in importance over time: I think brass, woodwind and percussion instruments have been around the whole time, it is just that their role has changed from being primarily outdoor instruments for use in marches, serenades and so on, to being brought into the concert hall and added to the orchestra and also added into the chamber music ensemble. They most certainly add considerable variety and diversity of sound which, as you say, is a great benefit to composers!

I knew a lot of the Cowell music for piano, as that has been written about quite a bit in the history of music in the first half of the 20th century. What I wasn't so aware of was his music for other instruments. His music has a modal foundation, it sounds like. There is a rough parallel to Cowell in the English composer Peter Warlock. I say "rough" because Warlock writes in a more conservative modal idiom. Nice music, though:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFwt6exTne4

Rickard Dahl said...

Will check out more of Peter Warlock's music.

A few days ago I discovered Alan Hovaness. He composed 67 symphonies and many other works (I wonder if anyone has composed that many symphonies except for Haydn). Haven't really started listening to his works but here's something interesting I'm listening to right now (very exoticly/mysteriously sounding): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG_gAMwGG-Q

Bryan Townsend said...

I didn't know that piece by Hovhaness! And I am pretty much expert in the guitar repertoire. A good friend of mine used to play a transcription of piece by Hovhaness on guitar. The combination of guitar and harp is an interesting one because their sonorities are close, but still different. As for this piece, The Spirit of the Trees, I keep waiting for something to happen...