Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Time to look around and see what's what in music this week. Tom Service has the latest in his symphony guide series up and this time it is the "Organ" Symphony of Saint-Saëns. I'm not a big fan of either the composer or the symphony. French 19th century music post-Berlioz seems to me paralyzed by its own pomposity--this piece in particular. But don't let me influence you! Have a listen and leave a comment:

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The scientists doing research into music seem to be finally getting into the swing of things. Researchers from the University of Kent report that "sad" music can cheer you up. Why? Because it's "beautiful". Well, that's what I've been saying...
The study identified a number of motives for sad people to select a particular piece of music they perceive as 'sad', but found that in some cases their goal in listening is not necessarily to enhance mood. In fact, choosing music identified as ‘beautiful’ was the only strategy that directly predicted mood enhancement, the researchers found.
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Here is an article about teaching composition. It is a rather odd sort of essay and doubt that it captures  much about how one learns how to compose:
we must address the master/apprentice mentality. I propose we to do this by continuing to allow more inquisitive learning to take place alongside modeling. Secondly, we desperately need to openly and pragmatically identify the inherent challenges of gender in composition. When you add gender roles into an extraordinarily male dominated system, the challenge becomes further complicated. 
These seeming "issues" appear to be more the fashion of the day than actually significant. I suspect my belief is that you really can't "teach" composition in the sense of making someone go through a set curriculum. Though some rare individuals can sometimes inspire other rare individuals.

Here is a quote from the first part of the essay. I have to say that I don't have the faintest idea what is being said!
Teaching composition requires a balance between the student and the teacher; between the micro and the macro. The strategy includes the teacher’s understanding of the creative process, the student’s reflection on that process, and a design of individually tailored tasks for the student—a set of activities mutually agreed upon. Constant shifting between the big picture and the small steps is critical.
I don't think anyone understands the "creative process".

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Heh, heh, heh! Here is yet another article taking up that perennial philosophical trap for the unwary, "is music a language?"
Listen to a few minutes of John Coltrane and Stan Getz tradingsaxophone licks, and there’s no denying that music is a form of conversation: The two jazz legends riff on each other’s melodies and build to a cat-and-mouse climax that is basically the musical equivalent of Shakespearean repartee.
But how the brain processes musical discourse is not well-understood. Is music a language? If not, how can we still use it to communicate?
Well, we don't of course. If I want you to meet me for coffee at 3pm this afternoon at Starbucks, I'm not going to hum you a tune.

But this research seems more a propos than most. They pretty much just hooked up some jazz musicians to MRI machines and looked to see what was going on when they were trading licks:
During the improvisations, the syntactic areas of players’ brains—that is, the areas that interpret the structure of sentences—were super active, as if the two players were speaking to each other. Meanwhile, the semantic areas of their brains—the parts that process language’s meaning—totally shut down. The brain regions that respond to musical and spoken conversation overlapped, in other words, but were not entirely the same.
Which is what I have claimed many times. Music is an intense form of communication--at least when we are listening closely to it--but it does not communicate any semantic specifics. Moods, not words.
“Meaning in music is fundamentally context-specific and imprecise, thereby differing wholly from meaning in natural language,” 
Yep. That's right. The "meaning" of a note, chord or phrase in a piece of music depends entirely on the context, that is to say, the structure. And this meaning is not linguistic, but aesthetic. That is to say that it is not telling you something specific, but what it is doing is communicating beauty. So this was actually a pretty good study of music.

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Let's listen to some of this beauty to close. Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Genius, Art and Money

A commentator left a long and interesting comment on my post the other day. In it he quoted an article in Wired magazine that talks about cultivating genius in the 21st century. My commentator quotes a bit from the article and adds:
"Bill James, the pioneer of Moneyball-style statistical baseball analysis, points out that modern America is already very good at generating geniuses. The problem is that the geniuses we’ve created are athletes." We basically value athletes & sports more than science, (classical) music, painting (although this one is valued quite much by certain rich people, you can own a painting after all, something that can't be said about music for instance) and so on.
Ah yes, what is the value of genius? I think the original article falls down badly in its analysis of what created clusters of genius such as we find in 5th century BC Athens, 15th century Florence, 16th century London and, for we music-lovers, 18th century Vienna. The article claims that:
We can begin to make sense of the “clotting” of creative talent. The secret, it turns out, is the presence of particular meta-ideas, which support the spread of other ideas. First proposed by economist Paul Romer, meta-ideas include concepts like the patent system, public libraries, and universal education.
Uh-huh. Does anyone even edit these off-the-cuff essays? Because if the "secret" is those "meta-ideas" there would seem to be a bit of a flaw as 5th century BC Athens, 15th century Florence, 16th century London and 18th century Vienna had none of this. Composers in the 18th century had no way of protecting their copyright and they had no access to any public libraries nor universal education. I guess we aren't supposed to notice glaring errors of logic these days.

But there is one element that we should examine: compensation. Is the reason that America is good at generating "genius" in the field of athletics (and I'm pretty sure that's the wrong word) is that they get paid enormous amounts of money? Let's have a look. Here is the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes for 2013. The top five range from around $50 million to nearly $80 million. Not bad! Now let's compare that to the earnings of some of the highest paid pop musicians. Now, of course, the article does not say "pop" musicians, but just musicians tout simple. It just happens that, through some quirk of fate, that all of the top musicians are in the pop field (including country, rap, and one dj). The top five here run from $64 million to $125 million. So, obviously, if compensation attracts genius, then we have a lot of genius in the field of pop. Aesthetically that doesn't seem to be the case.

Let's have another look at that quote from the article:
Bill James, the pioneer of Moneyball-style statistical baseball analysis, points out that modern America is already very good at generating geniuses. The problem is that the geniuses we’ve created are athletes. As James says, this is largely because we treat athletes differently. We encourage them when they’re young, chauffeuring our kids to practice and tournaments. We also have mechanisms for cultivating athletic talent at every step in the process, from Little League to the Majors. Lastly, professional teams are willing to take risks, betting big bucks on draft picks who never pan out. Because of these successful meta-ideas, even a small city like Topeka, Kansas—roughly the same size as Elizabethan London, James points out—can produce an athletic genius every few years.
But do we treat athletes differently? I don't think so. A lot of young music students get treated exactly the same way and there are also mechanisms to encourage success. Most places have music festivals and there are extensive programs (even though cut back somewhat in recent years) for music education from Suzuki up to youth orchestras.

Just out of curiosity, how are the superstars of classical music compensated? I'm not sure where to get the numbers for opera singers and other virtuosos, but a good indicator is how conductors are paid. Here is an LA Times article with the numbers. The top five range from $1.52 million to $2.17 million. That's just ... embarrassing! These are some of the greatest classical musicians alive and they get paid about what a successful real estate agent in a major urban center like New York can make. Yes, really.

My conclusion is that all of these explanations are off the mark. Genius does not come out of nowhere, as these clusters seem to show, but it certainly does not seem to be the product of careful cultivation through copyright protection, public libraries or universal education either. Because it would be fairly easy to demonstrate that the clusters of genius that we know about were not the result of any of this. And, as the figures for pop stars also seem to show, genius is not a product of huge amounts of money either.

So why not? I think a little quote from Einstein I recently ran across might give a clue. When the Nazis came up with 100 scientists who said Einstein was wrong about everything he simply replied "Were I mistaken, one would have sufficed." What I take from this is, for one thing, genius is not to be judged by mediocrity. Which is one reason why systems of education, universal, restricted or high-tech, do NOT produce genius. All systems of education are run by mediocrities for their own benefit and they, almost without exception, resent highly talented students because they always create problems for the institution.

Just as a speculation, I think that what creates clusters of genius are two things: genius itself and leisure to exploit it. You don't get an Aristotle by sending him to an Ivy League school with highly-paid professors and deluxe student dorms. But you do by exposing him at an early age to the thinking of Plato and Socrates. You need one potential genius exposed to another with the leisure to develop. So there does have to be some compensation. But I call it leisure because what genius really needs is not huge paychecks, but just time. You can't be a genius if you are slinging burgers because that just takes away too much of your energy.

Haydn was a potential genius who, through the patronage of the Esterházys was given the leisure to develop his abilities. In turn he was able to positively influence the genius of Mozart and Beethoven.

Let's listen to pieces by those three geniuses:

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Four Pieces for Violin and Guitar is Published!

I was wondering what I was going to write about today and coming up empty when I checked my email to discover that my Four Pieces for Violin and Guitar are now available from my publisher The Avondale Press, based in Vancouver. The publisher, well-known Canadian flautist Kathryn Cernauskas, was a delight to work with and I'm very happy to see these pieces now available. You can also download a recording of the pieces that I made in September with violinist Claudia Shiuh. Here is the link to the publisher's website where you can place your order (hint, hint!):

Here is a little video I did with photos from the recording session of the last piece, "Surreal Reel" based on an old Irish reel, which I dedicated to my mother, an old-time fiddler:

The four pieces are Strange Romance, Cloudscape, Xitango and Surreal Reel. I hope you enjoy them. You can also download the recording along with the score.

UPDATE: Here is the second of the Four Pieces, Cloudscape:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bizarre Baroque Program Music

My post yesterday provoked some interesting comments, one of which introduced me to a piece and a composer that I had not previously known. I might have read his name somewhere, but it must have been a long time ago. When I was an undergraduate student the series of volumes that were the most referenced for music history were published by Norton and included books on the renaissance by Gustav Reese and baroque by Manuel Bukofzer. These books sometimes had the feeling of being long-winded recitations of names and dates. But trying to research this composer, Jean-Féry Rebel (1666 - 1747), in the new Oxford History of Western Music made me appreciate the older books. Taruskin, in the new series, is brilliant, but in the interests of covering what he considers important features of music history, he doesn't hesitate to make room by leaving out what he considers minor figures.

In the comments yesterday I mentioned the big exception to my general view that music is rarely bound to any particular ideology. The exception is program music where the composer sets out to depict a set of events or moods or physical entities in music through mimesis of some kind. An example is Berlioz' depiction of an obsessive love in his Symphonie fantastique. "Program music" is the 19th century term for this and it fits pretty well. They thought of a lot of music, from Chopin's ballades to Richard Strauss' tone poems, as kinds of narratives where the "story" may be made evident by the composer, or, as in the case of Chopin, just remain in the background.

But there is an older version of this that is related to the way the ancient world viewed the arts: as imitations of nature. In the case of representational painting, this is pretty clear. But what about in the case of music? It was often thought to imitate, somehow, the flows and energies of the soul or spirit. But sometimes it was made to imitate the world in more obvious ways and the term for this was "madrigalism" from its frequent use to illustrate the text in madrigals. If a bird was mentioned, then birdsong was imitated and so on. I posted about madrigalism here.

So now let's get to that bizarre Baroque program music! This is a development of the madrigalism of the Renaissance, the Baroque just took it to greater lengths. One striking example is a piece by the great gamba composer Marin Marais that depicts an operation to remove a kidney stone! Yes, I kid you not. The piece is called "Tableau de l'opération de la taille" and here is a performance with the notations in the score read aloud:

The depiction is quite detailed as we view the instruments, witness the shivering of the patient and so on. One of my commentators responded with the piece by Rebel that I was unaware of, Les élémens, which depicts chaos in this manner:

Yes, a tone-cluster of all the notes of the scale!

UPDATE: I meant to put up a drawing of Rebel by Watteau:

Haydn in his The Creation oratorio also depicted chaos, but in a much less radical way:

Much tamer than Rebel! In Israel in Egypt, Handel sets the words "he gave them hailstones" like this:

Energetic certainly, but not particularly hailstoney. He could have been giving them sunshine or a brand new Lamborghini. But there was a tradition in opera and oratorio of the depiction of things like storms. Here is the storm scene from Marin Marais' Alcyone:

Now that's a bit stormier! Rameau's Les Indes galantes depicts a volcano in act 2, but alas, I can't seem to find it on YouTube. So let's end with a rondeau from the opera instead:

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Slippery Ideology of Music

The topic of music and ideology comes up fairly often on this blog from all sorts of different angles. But while it is often the job of musicology to notice things like the ideological context or associations of music, it is also good to notice that music can never be tied very firmly to any ideology. Music always seems to come from its own universe, just slightly apart from our own...

What got me thinking about this was a photo that Norman Lebrecht put up on his blog of the Ukrainian pianist Natacha Kudritskaya:

She is playing in Maidan Square in Kiev as part of the protests against the government. This piano has been there for a while and quite a number of people have played on it, often with their identities concealed. Here is a clip of someone--who we can't see, but it might be Kudritskaya--playing on another occasion:

The music is Nuvole Bianche by Ludovico Einaudi, a student of Luciano Berio who moved into composing movie soundtracks and a minimalist style of composition. The pianist Natacha Kudritskaya is also a fine interpreter of Rameau. Here is a gavotte with six doubles:

Why am I bringing all this up? Because of the slipperyness of music's ideological connections. The Einaudi piece I'm sure is quite suitable for playing in Maidan Square as it would be inspiring to the protesters. But so would the Rameau, probably. Both give a comforting accompaniment to whatever you are doing, and neither has a firm ideological content. You might point out, as I have on occasion, that there is certainly an ideological context to the music of Rameau: it was written very much to gild the Bourbon lily and the French aristocracy of the ancien régime. But, like most instrumental music, the ideology comes from the context, not from any actual content. A triad or a scale has no ideology, that comes from the surrounding circumstances. Played for the amusement of the roi in his chambers it honors and supports the aristocracy. Played to entertain or comfort the protesters in a square in Kiev, it has an entirely different purpose and ideology.

This is why a composer like Dmitri Shostakovich could be called a dissident (probably wrongly) by some even though he was awarded many prizes by the Soviet Union (including the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize in the arts) for his patriotic work. He wrote pieces that were obvious examples of socialist realism, and others that have been claimed to be sardonically undermining the regime. He could get away with this because the music, instrumental music without words, is without ideological content. Now, true, it is possible to write "codes" into instrumental music and Shostakovich did that. He put the letters of his name (and the name of a love interest) in his Tenth Symphony (and other places), but that is something that has to be uncovered and pointed out. And besides, that is not the kind of thing that gets you sent to Siberia. You can claim, perhaps with some justification, that the emotional power of his Symphony No. 5 offers comfort and support to the long-suffering people of the Soviet Union, which it certainly does. But it does not do so in an overtly ideological way, by opposing the regime. Which is why, though he was denounced from time to time, he was never arrested.

Another example might be Carl Orff. His cantata Carmina Burana, premiered in Frankfurt in 1937, was hugely popular in Nazi Germany and he also was commissioned to write music for A Midsummers Night's Dream after Mendelssohn's music was banned because he was a Jew. Whether or not Orff was himself a Nazi is irrelevant: during the Nazi era, his music was deemed to be ideologically suitable for the regime. But now these associations are forgotten and the music has a niche in popular culture exemplified by its use in countless contexts (from The Simpsons to The Matrix), some of which can be seen here

The only music that has an indisputable content is music with words and even then the meaning of the words might be ambiguous--what did the words of O Fortuna mean in Nazi Germany?--or the words can be changed. The original words of the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" were a hymn "To Anacreon in Heaven". Here is a version of the original:

So while you might claim that, for example, the Brandenburg Concertos of J. S. Bach are "about" the relationship between the individual and society in the 18th century, it is mostly speculation. And even music with words, like his cantatas, was often taken and used to set entirely different words. Music originally written for use in a Lutheran church, was re-used to set the Catholic liturgy.

And you can be sure that just about any catchy classical piece will sooner or later end up in a commercial for an airline--or Gatorade!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

One Moment of Perfect Beauty

One of my non-musical amusements is science fiction. On television, my favorite series was Firefly followed by the new Battlestar Galactica (up to season four when they went all wacky) and Star Trek (the original series, of course). But one of the most interesting and original series, probably because it was the brainchild of just one person, Michael Straczynski, was Babylon 5. There was one scene that, because of the music and the sheer incongruity of it, really sticks in the mind. This really didn't have a lot to do with the story arc or even character development. It was just one moment of perfect beauty:

According to whomever put this clip up on YouTube, the music is the Gregorian chant "Puer natus nobis est." The scene is from: There All the Honor Lies, Season 2, Episode 14.

This is just wrong...

Sometimes you run across something that is so dumb it almost seems to be a brilliant work of genius, something so magnificently bad that it is memorable for its badness. Such is this:

What makes it so bad in a great way is that absolutely everything in this video is a cliché. The scene is set with some insipid-sounding Vivaldi. Everyone is dressed in pseudo-18th century aristocratic formality. Then the cello duo enters, also dressed in 18th century garb. The unshaven stubble lets us know that we aren't really in the 18th century. The music begins well enough, but as the piece unfolds it becomes more and more insanely hyperactive--like bad Paganini on acid. When they reach the point where most of the hair on their bows is shredded and one of them is spinning around on the floor, the piece is over. It is like some nightmare where Marin Marais is transformed into Pete Townshend. You almost expect them to smash their cellos at the end.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

It's that time of the week, so let's see if I can find some brief items for your amusement/edification.

First off, I see that Tom Service's symphony guide has a new installment and this one actually catches me by surprise! Here is the link. The piece is the Symphony No. 10 by Nikolai Myaskovsky and I freely confess that while I may have run across his name somewhere, I am not at all familiar with his music. It is amazing how much music there is out there. Myaskovsky seems to be the link between the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and the later ones by Shostakovich. Pretty interesting music and I am grateful to Tom for introducing me to it.

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Over at Sinfini Music, the magazine that specializes in "cutting through classical" they are promoting Milos Karadaglic's new recording of the two best-known Rodrigo concertos. He gets the pop-star treatment even down to being known just by his first name: it's Milos! Here's the review of the album. Unfortunately, like nearly all record reviews these days, it is a mere wisp of a couple of hundred words of promotion, with just a hint of critique of the recording ambiance. Someone should really do a few record reviews that show what they should actually be. Oh. Wait.

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I once blurted out that a lot of classical musicians would love to sell out, but nobody's buying! Of course, that was in the old days before people figured out some pretty effective ways to "sell out". But usually, apart from modeling yourself after a pop star and shamelessly pandering to the audience, there aren't many ways to sell out in classical music. One director of a French conservatory has solved the problem. Apparently what you do is approve the admission of Chinese students to your school in exchange for expenses-paid trips to China and Thailand. Norman Lebrecht has the details.

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Also via Norman Lebrecht's blog is news about classical album sales. The Benedictines of Mary album Lent at Ephesus sold 8,160 copies last week, which in the classical world is huge. Here is a promotional video:

Sometimes we forget that there is a significant record-buying public out there that buys spiritually-oriented music. I was surprised by a large response to a post I put up on different kinds of chant.

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And the trend in radio is to play fewer songs more often leading to even more dumbing down of music in the public space and probably to the birth of the antichrist! Here is the link. The number one played song in 2013, Blurred Lines with Robin Thicke, was played about three times as often as the number one song in 2003 by Three Doors Down. Who? Just for comparison, a personal anecdote. Way back in November 1968 I was atypically sitting around listening to AM radio (which I almost never did, even back then) and suddenly at midnight the DJ came on and said "we have it" in hushed tones. And proceeded to play all four sides of The White Album, which had just come out.

That took us to about 1:30 in the morning. Let me just reiterate, this was AM radio, home of the non-stop commercials. And he played all four sides of the just-released album without interruption. Then he came back on, said "wow" and "let's hear that again" and played the whole album through again. On AM radio. What can I say, it was the sixties!

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Here's a weird little item. It is sort of like a social media site just for picking what songs to listen to. One interesting thing is that they give heavier weight to people who seem to be outliers in terms of being aficionados:
What about the obscure songs that have a lot less data attached to them? When someone picks those, it gets assumed that you're a bit more of a music connoisseur and your choice gets weighted heavier. It's an aspect that has more of the human element behind it.
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And finally, another weird little item. Blogger Amelia has discovered some musical notation buried in the famous triptych by Hieronymous Bosch and transcribed it into modern notation. You can hear it on her blog.

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Let's end with what I am listening to these days. The Piano Concerto No. 9 by Mozart, played by Malcolm Bilson on fortepiano with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bad Pop Reviews

Now here is something fun: a blogger is going to great effort to collect the worst reviews (worst as in poorly written or just mistaken) of pop albums from the pages of Rolling Stone. Let's sample a few:

On Jimi Hendrix' first album:
""Purple Haze" is the perfect beginning for this album because the intro is a perfect expression of Jimi's charismatic style. In words it seems to be saying, "Now, dig this."...Only on "Hey Joe" and "The Wind Cries Mary" does Jimi play in a more conventional style and on these cuts he gives us a brief taste of his melodic sense – on the solos, which in both cases is perfect. On the latter he uses the eclectic (sic) perfectly... 

...Everything else is insane and simply a matter of either you dig it or you don't. Basically I don't for several reasons. Despite Jimi's musical brilliance and the group's total precision, the poor quality of the songs, and the inanity of the lyrics, too often get in the way. Jimi is very much into state-of-mind type lyrics, but even so, lines like "Manic depression is a frustrating mess," just don't make it. It is one thing for Jimi to talk arrogantly, and without any pretense at artistry; it's another to write lyrics in this fashion." (Jon Landau, 11/9/67 Review) 
On Leonard Cohen's first album:
"The record as a whole is another matter - I don't think I could ever tolerate all of it. There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits." (Arthur Schmidt, 3/9/68 Review)  
 On Janis Joplin:
"Well, it's a real disappointment. After all the hoopla of signing with Columbia, using one of the best producers in the business and the well-spread reviews of dozens of limp-limbed and sweaty-brow reviewers who have seen Big Brother and Holding Company in performance, one would expect slightly more than what we have gotten...What this record is not is 1) a well-produced, good rock and roll recording; 2) Janis Joplin at her highest and most intense moments; 3) better than the Mainstream record issued last year. The record is a good representation of Big Brother and the Holding Company, as good as one as could have been expected and as good a one as there ever will be." (John Hardin, 9/14/68 Review) 
On Cream, Wheels of Fire:
"Cream is good at a number of things; unfortunately song-writing and recording are not among them...The set begins with a Jack Bruce original, "White Room," which is practically an exact duplication of "Tales of Brave Ulysses" from their Disraeli Gears album, including the exact same lines for guitar, bass and drums. The lyrics are not much to speak of and it's very difficult to imagine why they would want to do this again, unless of course, they had forgotten that they had done it before. The Sonny Bono-ish production job adds little." (Jann Wenner, 7/20/68 Review) 
On The Incredible String Band:
"L.A. sipping from a liquid cigarette with my favorite straw a thread from the radio blowing started tickling my ear sound of a pixie voice tiptoeing over the strings of a golden guitar and the dawn comes creeping up when it thinks I'm not looking lil row your boats of notes on a silver flute growly voice in the background like pooh humming about hunney the floor started to bounce along in time smiles walking all over our faces merry devils conjured clicking their heels in our eyes jigging irish welsh far away green song dances mist wind moving gentle frosting eyelashes and rolling up pearl rainbow tear tickles the radio stopped took another swallow blew smoke out left ear announcer said incredible string band no sleep blues robing williamson guitar (flutegimbristarrattleoudmandolinbass) & mike heron guitar (leadrhythmharmonicavoice) i said Wow ! ! ! ! ! ! pass that cigarette..." (J. Thompson, 5/25/68 Review) 
On Bob Dylan, "John Wesley Harding":
"The music is again a brilliant electronic adaptation of rural blues and country and western sounds...With all the spiced crispness of the Elizabethan verse of some Samuel Daniel, Dylan expresses in this early morning incidente, "As I Went Out One Morning," all the beauty of a different concept of Love: in his knowing, he can only refuse the hand of his "fairest damsel," as he must. This Sad-eyed Lady, reaching out for another answer, finds only rejection...Perhaps the most important track on the album is "Frankie Lee and Judas Priest." This too real, even surrealistic, dialogue between two opposed parties attains a steam-hammer urgency. (It recalls the "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in its intensity.)..."Drifter's Escape" is a weird Kafkaesque judgment. Here is the nation, as its own jury and judge, and the Trial has commenced. The Vietnam war, symbolized in the court and its process, has a personal and national level: "help me in my weakness" for "my time it isn't long." The choice is there. The consequences of no rational answer to the whole problem were made only too clear in Peter Watkins' The War Game. The choice is Black and White...As to the usual message and meaning, anybody can feel the return to a cooler, more hip, almost shrugged-shoulder awareness of the whole scene revolving around here." (Gordon Mills, 2/24/68 Review) 
One gets the distinct impression that Rolling Stone may not have actually had an editor at this point. Or if they did he/she was just as stoned or hungover as the writers. Frank Zappa had a point when he said that "Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read."

Let's listen to a little of that Janis Joplin album:

The Fruits of Celebrity

In complete contrast to the artist we have been spending this past week with, here is something associated with rather a different kind of artist: a special Lang Lang edition of a Bugatti sports car:

I'm sure there are good solid commercial reasons for doing this, but it is not really conducive to be taken seriously as an artist, is it? I can't help but contrast this with the approach Hilary Hahn takes to her career. She is always doing serious projects and taking her responsibilities as an artist to heart. This, along with her remarkable gifts, is what makes her a cultural treasure. Some other artists seem to regard their dexterity and virtuosity as a path to the fruits of celebrity: big fees, endorsements and notoriety.

Some other things Lang Lang has been up to that make you question his artistic character. Here he is playing with Metallica:

Here he is with a dubstep dancer:

Here he is doing the end of the third movement of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Prokofiev, with a drummer:

In contrast to the Hahn project, none of these endeavors have a particularly musical purpose. They are really just efforts in promoting celebrity. More people will hear about Lang Lang who are not primarily listeners to classical music.

You know, I don't think that this is the sign of the apocalypse or anything. This has been a strategy for some performers for a long time. It works, it builds audiences but at the same time it reduces the aesthetic authority of the music. Instead of putting yourself at the service of the music, you make the music serve your career goals. But I don't think it fools the more attentive listeners.

Let's hear another kind of pianist. This is Friedrich Gulda doing his variations on "Light My Fire" by the Doors.

Gulda was a somewhat eccentric figure who might be mistaken for the celebrity-seeking kind of artist. But he really wasn't. You notice that what he is doing in the clip is absorbing the rock music of the 60s into a more classical idiom (with a little jazz as well). He is not taking classical music and making it sound like pop music!

Here is Gulda playing the first movement of a Beethoven sonata:

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Music and Amnesia

One thing that really stuck in my mind from the Hilary Hahn posts was a quote from the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov who said"I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists."

I really loved that! "I do not write new music." One can imagine that with a certain emphasis: "I do not write new music." That is perhaps the clearest rejection of the modernist project I have seen from a composer. It is probably the case that the idea of writing "new" music is characteristic of a certain time in history and not of other times. Composers in the Middle Ages didn't think of writing new music so much as writing music that was needed for certain occasions. And they wove into most pieces a great deal of age-old chant material so a part of every piece was old music. The inventors of opera around 1600 didn't think they were creating something new as that they were reviving something very old: the music that had been used to accompany ancient Greek drama. Composers in the 17th and 18th centuries were certainly writing new music every day, but I think that the newness of it was less important than that it be pleasing to the right listeners. Composers recycled music by themselves all the time and sometimes, short of time, they might even recycle music by someone else! Again, what was important was that the music be suitable and pleasing.

But the project of modernism was all about the newness of the music. That it sound new, not sound like anything written before, trumped the pleasure of the music. This is frankly the best explanation of why so much music over the last one hundred years sounds so very bad! It is not meant to sound "good", it is meant to sound "new".

A lot of new music is new in the sense that it has no memory--it is music without any sense of the past, music with amnesia. If you are writing music as an amnesiac, then you have no idea what might work. You know nothing of harmony or how to build a melody or what rhythmic devices have what effects. You are like a toddler tossing building blocks around and delighted when some fit together.

This is the modus operandi of what is sometimes called "experimental" music. I am uncomfortable with that term because I think that it is meant to be protective rather than meaningful. The word comes from science where it has a clear meaning. Most importantly, experiments succeed or fail and give us information in either case. We drop a small, light ball and a large heavy ball off a tower and expect that the heavy one will fall faster. But we are astonished to find that no, they both fall at the same rate. The experiment failed in a very interesting way. But how could this possibly work with music? You write a piece of experimental music and play it for an audience. Has any composer ever said afterwards, "well, that was an interesting failure!" No, we are all just supposed to believe that every musical experiment is a success. How odd! If there are not a great number of failed musical experiments, then we cannot call them experiments at all. What experimental music really is, is just self-indulgence by the composer that we are supposed to accept.

Let's listen to a couple of pieces that might illustrate the points:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hilary Hahn, Musings on the Encore Project

Here is where I get to unleash my hounds of the aesthetic. That's a little over-stated--I must have been reading too much Camille Paglia. I mean, here is where we are going to step back a bit and see if this amazingly diverse group of pieces tells us anything. This project is an excellent cross section of compositional practices in the early 21st century. Generalizations are often deprecated, but I think they are useful if you are careful to link your generalizations to the specific things you are talking about. Here are some of the things I am noticing:
  • Composers, young or old, are faced with some very difficult challenges and choices at the present. I don't know if they are easier or harder than composers have been facing for the last fifty years at least, but they are difficult nonetheless.
  • Here are some of the options:
  1. Accept the ideology of modernism and write "progressive" music. The problem with that is, what is progressive now? Serial atonality? Probably not since the 1960s. Minimalism? Probably not since the 1970s. Neo-romanticism? Probably not since the 1980s (though I'm a little foggy about that one!). Extended-techniques-spectral-new-complexity-noise-etc-etc? Well, pick your decade! You see the problem? In the 20th century, styles and practices in music composition started to look a bit like fashions, changing every season.
  2. Refuse the ideology of modernism and either write whatever sounds good to you or write music influenced by the music of the past.
  3. Be a post-modernist and write music influenced by a blend of your own taste mixed with "world music", popular music and whatever else you can dig up.
I think that we can hear all of these choices reflected in different pieces in the collection. Let me hasten to say that making one choice or the other does not necessarily either save or doom your composition, aesthetically. It is perfectly possible to write a piece of atonal serial music that is a great piece of music. Alban Berg: Lyric Suite. It is also perfectly possible to write a piece that is imbued with the historic shade of Mozart himself and still have it turn out a crappy piece. It all depends on how you do it.

I think that as there is a wide range of styles here, there is also a wide range of quality. In other words, I don't think all of Hilary Hahn's choices were inspired ones. But quite a few were!

In my own composition I am mostly a No. 2 guy. The last piece I wrote was a Lux Aeterna based on my idea of a new version of organum. But I hope that I can appreciate that a piece written from a completely different basis can still be a great piece of music. So let me see if I can pick out a few highlights and lowlights for you. Probably the piece I enjoyed the most was the very last one by Max Richter. I'm not sure what the title Mercy means, but it is a truly lovely piece, economically presented. These are two qualities I really admire: musical beauty (with no trace of the maudlin) and economy of means. Probably my least favorite piece is Elliot Sharp's The Storm of the Eye. I can't seem to find any redeeming features there. It is both unpleasant to listen to, and fails the "Green Card" test. That is, it sounds no better than what a couple of crazy people might bang out at random.

In between are some very fine pieces like Valentin Silvestrov's Two Pieces. But don't think that I only liked the more tonal ones. Memory Games by Avner Dorman really works well but it carves out its own harmonic landscape and is not terribly traditional rhythmically. The first piece on the album, Impulse by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh is also a powerful and impressive piece of music, but it seems to owe no particular debt to past musics. Antón Garcia Abril's Third Sigh does however, but is an original and exciting piece nonetheless.

There are some fun pieces like Jennifer Higdon's Echo Dash, Mason Bates' Ford's Farm, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Hilary's Hoedown and James Newton Howard's 133 ... At Least. There are some charming but probably lightweight pieces like both the pieces by Somei Satoh and Michiru Oshima. There are some enigmatic ones that I am not quite sure how to think of like the ones by Bun-Ching Lam, Lera Auerbach, Nico Muhly and Gillian Whitehead. There are some really lovely gems like the ones by Einojuhani Rautavaara and, in a more robust manner, Christos Hatzis. And, yes, there are some unpleasant ones like the pieces by Elliot Sharp, Du Yun and Jeff Myers that I can't make much sense of and that seem to be actively bullying the listener!

I'm sure I am not qualified to evaluate all the music on the album. Some of it is from traditions that I am not very familiar with such as the piece by Kala Ramnath. But on the other hand, who is qualified? There is some wonderful music on the album and some not-so-wonderful music. I'm sure we would differ about which is which, though! If you have had the opportunity to listen to the album, I would welcome your thoughts and see how they compare with mine.

Some observations about genre and such. Hilary laid down some restrictions here: pieces for acoustic violin and piano between 2 and 5 minutes long. Also, of course, there was a subtext that it would be nice if the music would be suitable as encore material. What might that mean? Every composer took a different guess. Some thought that just writing fiendishly difficult passages for the violin was the trick. Others that the music should be tender and expressive--both are traditional encore strategies. Others thought of writing a fun romp. A little cadenza for the violin alone was included in quite a few pieces.

One of the interesting things about this project was looking at the background and careers of the composers. The old model of writing academic modernist music while teaching at a university is only followed by a very few these days. A lot of composers are also working in the areas of pop/alternative music and writing film, tv and video game scores.

Now to comment about what most reviewers would have started with and mostly stuck to: Hilary Hahn's performance of these pieces. She is an enormous talent and I'm sure she can play anything you put in front of her. Technically and musically this is a tour-de-force for the performers and one wonders if anyone else could have brought it off. Hilary takes the role of performer to be one of a transparent window on the music, adding very little of one's own personality. I can certainly appreciate that as it was one I tended to follow as well.

A couple of questions kicking around my head: how much back and forth editing went on? Did Hilary call up some composers and say, what you have written here and here just won't work or is impossible? Also, what were the amounts of the commissions? All the same? Different? Does anyone else get the sense that a couple of the pieces might have been "phoned in"? Also, do the composers share in the royalties? One presumes so. And how much would that come to in a year?

In any case, I think this is a fascinating album, well worth repeated listens and I recommend picking up a copy.

Hilary Hahn, Part 5

This will be the last post about the music on the double CD. Today I describe the last six pieces on the second disc. I say "describe" because that is really all that I have been doing. After this I will have a final post that will perhaps do some actual criticism.

Elliot Sharp is an American composer and, as Wikipedia says, "a central figure in the avant-garde and experimental music scene in New York City since the late 1970s." He also studied composition with Morton Feldman. He has released an enormous number of recordings with many different kinds of groups. His piece on this album is titled Storm of the Eye and it certainly is! Perhaps the most frenetic and agitato piece on the album, it sounds like an improvisation of a couple of crazy people--except for one unison passage that would be hard, not impossible, certainly, but hard to do in a pure improvisation.

Michiru Oshima is a Japanese composer known especially for her work on scores for video games, movies and television shows. Some of my commentators have been recommending these genres of music to me, so it is interesting to see one of these composers chosen for this album. The piece is titled Memories. Slightly resembling the texture of the earlier piece by a Japanese composer, Somei Satoh, the piano has gentle arpeggios underneath a wistful melody in the violin. This melody is elaborated with garlands of triplets. The music is certainly tonal and after building to a climax, returns to the opening material. There is a cadenza for the violin towards the end.

James Newton Howard is an American composer and he is known particularly for his work on film scores of which he has written over a hundred, including both of the recent Hunger Games films. He also toured playing keyboards with Elton John in the late 1970s and 80s. His film scores have been nominated for Academy awards many times. His contribution to the album is titled 133...At Least and one wonders if that is the metronome marking. It is in a quick tempo and has a kind of a 6/8 dance feel. Lots of imitation between the violin and piano. Towards the end the material is trimmed down and there is a brief violin cadenza.

One of the best-known composers on the album and one of the most familiar younger composers working today is Nico Muhly, still in his early 30s. He is American and currently lives in New York. He studied composition with John Corigliano. He moves between the contemporary classical and alternative music worlds with ease. His contribution to the album is Two Voices. This is an odd little piece, distinctive in its economy of means. Except for one brief moment just around the Golden Section point, the piano plays one note throughout. The violin has a widely-spaced line that wanders, seemingly aimlessly. It feels almost like an improvisation, though a gentle rather than furious one. This piece may reflect his recent fascination with drones.

Søren Nils Eichberg is a German composer who grew up in Denmark and currently lives in Berlin. The piece on the album, titled Levitation has a very clear unifying motif based on the notes B C D E. There are dissonant arpeggios in the piano, a contrasting modal tune in the violin and they both share that motif. The music seems to hover between tonal and atonal or perhaps we could say it is "extended tonality"? I had the feeling that perhaps Philip Glass and Erik Satie were both lurking somewhere in the background.

The last piece on the album is by Max Richter, who, despite his name, is a British composer. He is the composer who rewrote the Vivaldi Four Seasons in post-modernist fashion. He has released his own albums and written a lot of film soundtracks. The piece on the album is titled Mercy and it is a very lyric and beautiful piece indeed. Long notes in the violin float over gentle shifts in the chords in the piano. The music sounds like the slow transformations of clouds. Very good sense of the melodic phrase. In a slow triple time and very tonal.

Let's have one more photo of Hilary from the album:

And here is Hilary Hahn interviewing Max Richter.

She is a rather good interviewer, isn't she?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hilary Hahn, Part 4

Looks like this series is going to go on a little longer than I thought! I naively supposed that I would do three posts: one on background, one on the CD itself and one on aesthetic observations. Well, turns out that just talking about the recording itself is going to take four posts. So here is the discussion of the first half of the second disc.

The disc begins with a piece by Christos Hatzis, a Greek-Canadian composer who teaches at the University of Toronto. He studied at the Hellenic Conservatory, the Eastman School and at SUNY Buffalo. One of his teachers was Morton Feldman. The piece, titled Coming To uses what are often called "extended techniques" meaning extremely high harmonics and left-hand pizzicato. There is an interesting effect where the violin seems to go in and out of focus as a mostly tonal melody is distorted by sliding in and out of the "right" pitches. The piece feels a bit like a tango with frenetic interpolations. There is a tonal center.

Jeff Meyers was the winner of the competition for the 27th slot and his contribution is titled The Angry Birds of Kauai. He doesn't have a Wikipedia page, but does have a website. An American, he lives in New York and attended San Jose State, Eastman and the University of Michigan. He mentions a diverse set of influences. The music contains some real motivic development and imitation and there are a lot of frenetic virtuoso passages. The timbres are at times intentionally "ugly". Some dialogue between the instruments. In the absence of a firm tonal structure, the piece ends sections with hammered repeated notes.

Mark-Anthony Turnage is an English composer who studied with Oliver Knussen and Gunther Schuller. Jazz and Miles Davis in particular are cited as influences. The piece on the album, titled Hilary's Hoedown, is inspired by a different tradition entirely, of course. A hoedown is a traditional kind of country music associated with square-dancing and the fiddle is the traditional instrument. After a toccata-like introduction, the music sounds very "hoedowny". I like this kind of thing, where you take a traditional genre like hoedown or reel and "deconstruct" it by taking it apart and rebuilding it with different harmonies and effects.

On a completely different note are the Two Pieces by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, who studied at the Kiev Conservatory. His music is called both neoclassical and post-modernist. I might be tempted to call it "recovered tonality". The composer says"I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists." The two pieces are both slow and are like two views of the same material. The music is very "harmonic" and by that I mean that there is great sensitivity to tension and resolution in all voices, not just a tonal center with everything else whirling around it. The melody is floating and lovely.

Kala Ramnath is the first composer on the album who is herself a violinist. She is an Indian classical violinist coming from a very musical family. Her piece, Aalap and Tarana, is a powerful evocation of Indian music with clever touches like scraping the bass strings of the piano to get the effect of the sympathetic resonating strings of the sitar. The frequent slides in the violin are also expressive in a way reminiscent of both the singing and sitar technique of India. At the same time, there is more repetition than development and harmonically the feeling is that of a continual background drone.

Lera Auerbach is a Russian-born composer who studied with Milton Babbitt. She is also a concert-level pianist. Her piece is titled Speak, Memory. It is one of the pieces where it is safe to say that there is no tonal center! "Speak, Memory" is a memoir by the writer Vladimir Nabokov, but I can't say anything about the connection as I haven't read it. The piece very much has a "Viennese expressionist" feel and reminds me of the music of Alban Berg. It is quite dissonant with a tortured feeling. Uses some extremely high, scratchy harmonics.

The last piece I will talk about today is the seventh on the second disc, Blue Curve of the Earth by Tina Davidson. I would give it the first prize for the coolest title. She is an American composer who studied with the Canadian Harry Brant, among others. The music makes a lot of creative use of pizzicatos and harmonics. Rhythmically, there are some nice jerky hemiolas. There is a modal feel to both melody and harmony. Mostly it is in a regular duple meter with a definite tonal center.

I think we are starting to see both the strengths and weaknesses of this CD. They both derive from the incredible diversity of musical vocabulary. By the way, we often use the terms "vocabulary" and "language" in talking about music, but for philosophical reasons I want to insist that they are just metaphors. Music does not have a language-like vocabulary, though there are some similar elements. Music is too non-specific to be accounted an actual language. As someone once said "if music is a language, what are the words and where is the dictionary I can look them up in?"

As soon as you get accustomed to the style or practices of a particular piece, it is over and you are thrown into the utterly different style of the next piece. I suppose this is good for people with very short attention spans, but it means that you don't ever quite get fully into any one piece.

More about that another time. Here is Hilary Hahn interviewing Tina Davidson: