Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hilary Hahn, Part 3

Continuing on with my review of the new album of violin encores by Hilary Hahn and twenty-seven different composers, we last did the first half of the first CD. Now on to the next seven pieces on this disc. Track eight is Memory Games by Avner Dorman, an under-forty Israeli composer who studied with both John Corigliano at Julliard and Josef Bardanashvili in Tel Aviv. This a very organized piece based on a syncopated "lick" at the beginning, but becoming more and more introverted and lyrical as it unfolds.

The next piece is by the well-known David del Tredici who won a Pulitzer Prize in music way back in 1980 for one of his settings of Lewis Carroll. Titled Farewell, it is probably the most traditional-sounding piece on the album, very much in what you might call a neo-romantic idiom, fading away into trills and a final tonic chord.

Mason Bates is a fairly young (mid-30s) American composer who takes his cue from fiddle music, blues and bluegrass in the piece called Ford's Farm. Motoric throughout, it does some nice developing of the original idea. Tonally structured with a final cadence.

At 85 years old, the oldest composer on the album is the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. The piece is titled Whispering and it is a very lovely and tuneful brief piece with a lingering romantic melody floating over soft, repeated chords in the piano. Towards the end both instruments launch a passage in quicker notes.

Gillian Whitehead is a New Zealand composer in her early 70s. I don't know why I even mention the age of the composers, but there is such a wide range that it seems as relevant as anything else. She studied with Peter Sculthorpe and Peter Maxwell Davies. She has lived in both the UK and Australia in addition to New Zealand. I mention these things because I think geography has some kind of influence on what you write. It certainly does on my music and a lot of composers like Brahms and Mahler were of a similar opinion. Her contribution is titled Torua and it is intensely and concentratedly expressive with enigmatic rumblings in the piano and obsessive little harmonics in the violin. I wish I had some idea of what "torua" was supposed to refer to as all I can learn from the web is that it is a verb in Finnish meaning to scold or rebuke and I suspect that is not the intended meaning here!

Richard Barrett is a Welsh composer in his 50s who began as a scientist and only later switched to music. His music partakes of both the "new complexity" movement (he studied with Brian Ferneyhough) and free improvisation. His piece is titled shade. It is in the kind of jagged, disjunct idiom that we associate with "high modernism" à la Stockhausen in which instrumental sounds often imitate those of electronics.

Which brings us to the last piece on the first CD, Echo Dash by Jennifer Higdon. She teaches composition at the Curtis Institute where Hilary Hahn studied. She previously wrote a violin concerto for Hilary. This brief be-boppy piece is jaunty, dashing and seems quite tightly composed.

What a bewildering variety of styles! After going through all the pieces, I am going to do some serious reflecting on the music on this CD as it provides the perfect vehicle to talk about the current state of music composition. But I have just a couple of brief thoughts right now. I really don't know how other composers work, how intuitive or contrived their methods are. By "contrived" I just mean pre-selected as in: this piece is going to be tonal or serial or whatever. I know composers who work mathematically, deriving all the rhythms from analysis of the overtone structure of the instruments. I also know composers who work completely intuitively. And presumably there is everything in between.

But just stepping back from the nuts and bolts of it for a moment, it seems to me that you face a series of decisions or choices in composition. For example, one age-old choice is that of genre. When Haydn or Mozart sat down to write a minuet and trio, there were a whole lot of parameters that they worked within. It should sound like a minuet and trio. Music history provides us with hundreds or possibly thousands of possible genres to exploit. I mentioned above some genres in connection with Mason Bates' piece. I find this an interesting way to proceed if you can find a new angle on the material. I used an Irish reel to create a piece for violin and guitar and it is fun to do. I suppose it is vaguely like what Andy Warhol was doing, but really, in music, the use of a traditional or folk theme is an age-old procedure. So that is one kind of choice, to use a style or genre that might be familiar with the audience but find a new take on it. This seems to be something that very few composers are willing to risk as it has the potential of getting them labeled "derivative" which is apparently one of the nastiest words in the book!

So you could make a different choice and decide to do nothing that will have any echoes or resonance of past musics in it. You will work just with pure elements of sound. One thing that is often done is to try and find new sounds, but after the last several decades of this, it is pretty hard to do. Examples in these pieces are the kind of scratchy, grating violin sounds that beginners are taught not to do. Sometimes interesting combinations are found as harmonics played simultaneously with pizzicato notes. Associated with this kind of choice is the one to avoid doing anything that might be heard as a theme or motif. Instead, the maximum in variety is sought so that the piece essentially sounds as if there are no repetitions of any kind.

The ironic thing about this is that pieces of this sort often sound very much alike and even tend to sound like they are free improvisations. The other problem with this kind of writing is what I think of as the semantic problem. After listening to one composer present his new piece based on mathematical algorithms of overtone series, I said to him, "that's the syntax, what about the semantic?" I meant by that, what is the significance of it? Not meaning in the linguistic sense, but what is the expressive content? This is the great advantage of all those styles and genres. When you use them you are offering to the listener a kind of doorway into your piece. They have something to hang on to. But when you work with pure sound materials, the listener might be at a loss. I have argued previously that this is a bit like a "private language" which is a kind of impossibility.

Anyway, I will take this up later on. In the meantime, here is another photo of Hilary Hahn from the album:

To end, here is a discussion between Hilary Hahn and Jennifer Higdon about her piece Echo Dash:

UPDATE: I shouldn't leave you hanging on that "private language" stuff. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The idea of a private language was made famous in philosophy by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in §243 of his book Philosophical Investigations explained it thus: “The words of this language are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language.” This is not intended to cover (easily imaginable) cases of recording one's experiences in a personal code, for such a code, however obscure in fact, could in principle be deciphered. What Wittgenstein had in mind is a language conceived as necessarily comprehensible only to its single originator because the things which define its vocabulary are necessarily inaccessible to others.


Augustine said...

I've always wondered what does someone like Hahn make? Is it comparable to pop star earnings? If so, how does that square with the funding difficulties in classical music?

Bryan Townsend said...

Artist's fees are not usually publicized for all sorts of reasons. Often because they have an "official" fee, but it is frequently reduced on negotiation. A very well-known artist that I know makes about $5000 a concert. More for some, less for others. How much he makes a year depends on how many concerts he plays, obviously. But if he plays 100 a year, that would be $500,000. Travel expenses are usually paid by the booking organization, so expenses wouldn't reduce it a lot. Income taxes certainly would, but touring artists have many ways of hiding cash income! On the other hand, if you get caught, it is embarrassing. I believe Pavarotti got nailed with tax evasion? Now someone like him makes a lot more. I have heard that he could make five or six million a year. A front rank conductor makes something like that. I heard of one very well known conductor that was getting paid $60,000 a week twenty or thirty years ago.

But alongside this you have to realize that this is what the crême de la crême get paid. 99.99% of the artists in the classical music world get paid a pittance. Pavarotti could make $100,000 a night while your local tenor might get paid a couple of hundred. Talk about income inequality!

Here is an article that talks about conductor's fees and mentions some of them:

Bryan Townsend said...

Forgot the comparison with pop star earnings. So a superstar classical musician might make as much as $5 million in a year. That is about what a big pop star makes in a week, I think. Madonna made $125 million last year, Lady Gaga $80 million. The Beatles were paid $250,000 for the single use of their song Tomorrow Never Knows on the television show Mad Men last year. That is what a really successful classical musician would make in a year. Not a superstar, just a really successful musician.

Augustine said...

Thanks. Mind-blowing. That this sort of money should flow in what is basically a 'leisure' aspect of the economy is baffling.

Augustine said...

Thanks. Mind-blowing. That this sort of money should flow in what is basically a 'leisure' aspect of the economy is baffling.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that the comparison should be made with that other "leisure" part of the economy: sports. I think that the amount of money flowing around in the sports world dwarfs that even of pop music. While the world's highest-paid athletes ( don't seem to make as much as the very highest earning pop stars, there are a lot more of them. And a lot more people employed in sports facilities, media coverage and so on. As an industry it is much larger.