Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

It is taking a while, but everyone is finally coming around. Here is Norman Lebrecht talking up Mieczyslaw Weinberg whom I have posted about:
The more I hear, the more I am convinced that Mieczyslaw Weinberg deserves to be ranked with the other two giants of the 20th century [he is referring to Prokofiev and Shostakovich].
Of course, he completely forgets about the most prominent figure in Russian music in the 20th century, Stravinsky.

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What if another Mozart was born today and we just ignored him?


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The Globe and Mail have a review up of a Toronto Symphony Orchestra program of newish music. Worth reading just to demonstrate that yes, living composers do get played now and then. I say "newish" because one of the pieces, the Doctor Atomic Symphony, arranged from John Adams' 2005 opera, is actually a few years old. Here is a performance of part 1 from the 2008 Cabrillo festival:


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I was afraid we were going to get to Carl Nielsen sooner or later in Tom Service's trek through the symphony and here it is, an article on Nielsen's Symphony No. 4 the "Inextinguisable".


If you listen to the big symphonic music written from around 1900 to the outbreak of the First World War, you can almost sense a cataclysm around the corner. I wonder if the music of today is telling us anything?

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Thanks to Norman Lebrecht I discovered this short clip from a Soviet documentary about Shostakovich working on his Piano Trio in E minor.


And here is the finished product--the last movement, at least:


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According to Alex Ross, Finnish composeLeif Segerstam is currently at work on his 270th symphony!! My goodness, I didn't realize that Joseph Haydn, with his 106 symphonies, was such a slacker! Here is the first movement of Segerstam's 212th Symphony:


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Now this is pretty funny, but I wonder if he might just have something...

It’s all very well until the oboist blows a rotator cuff

...orchestral and big-band music is a killer app of Western civilization, but one whose frontline practitioners, in the form of regional orchestras, are said to be in a state of permanent crisis. Sports fans love Sam Spence’s lumbering NFL Films soundtracks and still wriggle orgiastically at the sound of “Brass Bonanza”. There would appear to be space for creative enterprise here: I wonder, for example, if Mr. Denler’s contract would allow him to sell a full-on three-movement Rockies Symphony once his main theme becomes familiar to fans. Different variations for different game situations is a good idea, but perhaps only a first step; maybe each inning should have its own theme? Individual players represented by their own Wagnerian motifs?
If the sports guys have all the money, why don't we write music gilding their lilies? Worked for the French composers writing for the aristocracy in the 18th century. Obviously knuckle-ball pitchers and quarterbacks who can really deliver are the aristocracy of our time.

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This just has to be wrong, doesn't it?
The music genre of jazz is commonly associated with creativity. However, this association has hardly been formally tested. Therefore, this study aimed at examining whether jazz musicians actually differ in creativity and personality from musicians of other music genres. We compared students of classical music, jazz music, and folk music with respect to their musical activities, psychometric creativity and different aspects of personality. In line with expectations, jazz musicians are more frequently engaged in extracurricular musical activities, and also complete a higher number of creative musical achievements. Additionally, jazz musicians show higher ideational creativity as measured by divergent thinking tasks, and tend to be more open to new experiences than classical musicians. This study provides first empirical evidence that jazz musicians show particularly high creativity with respect to domain-specific musical accomplishments but also in terms of domain-general indicators of divergent thinking ability that may be relevant for musical improvisation.
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It's true, absolutely everything is on the Internet. Here is a map showing the number of heavy metal bands per 100,000 population:

Click to enlarge

Now, could we get this for string quartets? And would the distribution be similar?

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And finally, the reason why popular music seems more and more like industrialized product and less and less like an individual artistic vision. A new report on digital music services that shows how more and more revenues go to fewer and fewer "superstar" artists.
Music industry analyst Mark Mulligan’s MIDiA Consulting has published a new report exploring the ‘superstar artist economy’. It suggests that while artists’ share of total recorded-music income has grown from 14% in 2000 to 17% in 2013, the top 1% of musical works are now accounting for 77% of all those artist revenues thanks in part to a “tyranny of choice” on digital services.
All commodification of musical product seems to push in the same direction: a smaller and smaller percentage of artists make a greater and greater share of revenues. I think this has been going on ever since the first recordings were marketed over a hundred years ago. One famous tenor can only sing one concert a night to a limited number of people. But once the recording was invented, the amount of records of his singing that could be sold skyrocketed. An internationally-famous tenor like Enrico Caruso, the first big-name recording artist, could make a lot of money while slightly less famous tenors still made the relatively small amounts they did before recordings came along.

Just for comparison, I ran across a fascinating number recently. Mozart, who was a celebrity superstar musician from when he was a child, made a significant amount of his earnings from selling tickets to subscription concerts in Vienna. How many people attended these concerts? Around 120 people. True, these were largely aristocrats and the tickets were not cheap. But still... Everything about the way mass media and network effects works seems to be pushing us toward fewer and fewer celebrity musicians making more and more money for, frankly, duller and more predictable music.

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Let's listen to a little Caruso. Here he is singing "La Donna e mobile" from Rigoletto recorded in 1907:


14 comments:

Bridge said...

What exactly is so amazing about Weinberg, or Shostakovich for that matter? I find Shostakovich's themes to be poorly formed and developed, the harmony unconvincing and the structure to be blunt and uninteresting. I judge this mainly on the string quartets, of which I have heard 5 or 6, including the famous eighth (which is the best I've heard but still full of wasted opportunities). I should listen to more of his music before making such a statement, his symphonies at least, but from what I've heard it doesn't seem like it is going to be worth my time to delve into his music (though I am going to finish listening to his quartets.) There are on occasion very cool moments, but they are not connected to each other in a satisfying way and there are long sections of utter boredom where nothing interesting happens. Honestly, I have no trouble understanding why many conductors refuse to conduct his music and why Shostakovich himself found his music to be underwhelming. I haven't listened to enough Weinberg to say the same thing, but his music reminds me much of Shostakovich in the sense that I perceive many of the same faults. The string quartet no. 3 you linked in the older blog post was really boring and tasteless. Could you perhaps link to what you think are the absolute best works of both composers? It's possible I have been incredibly unlucky in my choice of introductory music, but as I said I do like Shostakovich quartet 8. It's no Bartok quartet, but it's far better than his other quartets that I've heard.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm just newly discovering Weinberg myself, so I hesitate to give a big defence/appreciation of his music. But I sure can give one for Shostakovich. In your comment I am not always sure if you are criticizing Weinberg or Shostakovich? Anyway, I don't need to argue for Shostakovich's music in this comment. If you go to the search gadget in the right hand column of my blog and type in "Shostakovich" you should see dozens of posts. I have done individual posts on most of the symphonies and string quartets and on the trio in e minor. Yes, the String Quartet No. 8 is a particularly good one and another place to start is with the Symphony No. 5. I did one post that was an introduction to Shostakovich for those who don't know his music: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2011/07/introduction-to-shostakovich.html

All I can really suggest is to keep listening, because, once you get used to the surface of his style, Shostakovich is a really incredible composer with stunning emotional power.

Bridge said...

My comment only touches on Shostakovich. Anyway, I will check out your previous posts. Hopefully his music will "click" but I've heard what I've heard. At the very least he has written a few dreadful quartets.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, I gotta ask! Which quartets are "dreadful" and why exactly?

Bridge said...

The first handful with the exception of the 2nd. As I said, I find them really boring. There are some fairly interesting moments strewn about but the bulk of the music to me is harmonically unconvincing, it meanders aimlessly and the use of dissonance is arbitrary, the themes have poor melodic contours (in my opinion) and are not developed in a particularly interesting way. I also find the form generally to be quite square and structurally nondynamic. That's the best description of my first impressions I can give without referring to the score. But this is only my opinion, they just don't excite me that much. Anyway, I find your insistence that Shostakovich has been neglected (or even suppressed) simply because he writes music in a more tonal idiom to be a little ridiclous. Sure, I can well imagine such sentiments were the mainstream in some areas during certain key moments in the 20th century, but there are too many tonal composers who are regarded as among the best for that theory to hold water. I refer you to Gustav Holst, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Samuel Barber, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok for example (the last two are perhaps a stretch.) All of them are considered masters of the 20th cent. despite not associating with the atonal crowd. The reason why they are appreciated is because their music is good, and while Shostakovich's music may be a little conservative (at least what I've heard) the reason I personally I don't like it is for the aforementioned reasons. I don't hate traditional music or anything, even if it is written in the 20th century or contemporary times. The scherzo from the fifth symphony I'm liking a lot though (very Prokofiev.) I'll definitely check out the symphonies some more. The excerpt you posted from the 8th however already has many of the characteristics which I dislike about his music, most of all though it is just so monotonous and repetitious (though the trumpet solo at the beginning of the march is quite cool.)

Bryan Townsend said...

I think this is one of those generational things. Believe me, if you were in a university music school in the 1970s you would have come away with the strong conviction that Shostakovich was a bad, hack composer writing nothing but derivative crap! And you wouldn't have taken Holst, Rachmaninov or Barber seriously either! Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok, yes. This has now changed radically (maybe not for Rachmaninov or Holst), which is why you find my claim ridiculous.

It is hard to question your impressions of his music. They are your impressions, after all! But, there is a funny thing that can happen with music. The first time you listen to an album you find maybe one song you like and maybe you put a little check mark by it. Then, after a few more listens you suddenly realize that there are a couple of others that are also pretty good. Maybe a year later, you find out that you have check marks by nearly all the songs...

When I am confronted with a composer that seems to be important, but that I just don't get, I give myself the equivalent of a graduate seminar on him. I get a couple of books, a biography for context and another of essays on the music from different angles. Then I listen to the important pieces of music with the score a few times. After this, I usually end up with quite a different sense of the composer and his music.

Bridge said...

"… which is why you find my claim ridiculous."

Enlightening, thanks for the perspective.

"… maybe you put a little check mark by it."

This is how I normally approach new music and in fact made such mental check marks with the 2nd and 8th quartets. The Theme with variations from the 2nd quartet I found particularly striking, and although the Recitative & romance was unbearably boring the quartet I found quite okay.

"When I am confronted with a composer that seems to be important, but that I just don't get, I give myself the equivalent of a graduate seminar on him."

Quite noble of you, but there is a limit to how much patience one has for a composer, isn't there? I don't normally just give up immediately but if nothing I hear interests me that much it seems to me nonsensical to continue. There is far too much good music out there to listen to for it to be worth my time to study every composer I don't particularly like in depth, don't you think? In the case of Shostakovich, a big name, it might be a good idea to give him a little more leeway than an unknown composer, but I have already listened to two and a half hours' worth of music. Think about it, if I find two hours of a composer's body of work to be almost completely superfluous, is it really that likely I will end up loving his music? In the case of all of my other favorite composers, there was always something to latch onto. For example, the Bartok quartets are really the first classical works I listened to seriously and while I didn't understand them when I first listened they still appealed to me, which was what motivated me to listen to them all, which I have done countless times since. It's possible there is meaning in Shostakovich that I am just oblivious to, but the music is not unfamiliar to me. That is, I am fairly certain I "understand" it. That being said, I'm not going to go around preaching that he's a terrible composer or anything, it just personally doesn't appeal to me though I recognize that it might appeal to others.

Bryan Townsend said...

Try a couple of symphonies before you give up on Shostakovich. At least the 5th and 10th.

Bryan Townsend said...

I owned a copy of Shostakovich's preludes and fugues for piano for years and then suddenly "got" the music.

And if you don't have an ear for him now, you might five years from now. He's dead, he is in no hurry!

Bridge said...

Haha, exactly. I will listen to the symphonies. As I said, I found the scherzo from the fifth really good.

Rickard Dahl said...

Strong reaction to Shostakovich I see, but no fear is needed for thee. Anyways, I consider Shostakovich to be one the greatest composers (and one of the absolute best symphonic composers). I didn't like the 5th symphony at first, took me a while but this documentary helped: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHCIJ_oLoHw. I think better symphonies to start with are the 7th, 11th and 12th. I preferred them the most and still do. The 4th is also very interesting, at least once you get into Shosty. Ofc the rest of the symphonies are also interesting.

Moving on:

- Yes, a new Mozart could be out there somewhere, it certainly seems very likely considering the amount of people currently living on Earth. The question is where to look and if that potential Mozart is encouraged to compose (classical) music.
- "I was afraid we were going to get to Carl Nielsen sooner or later in Tom Service's trek through the symphony" Afraid? His 4th and 5th symphonies are great masterpieces. It's hard to say what music today can tell us, at least if you refer to contemporary classical music. It seems to be spread into many different directions. Maybe freedom of going in every direction? As for popular music, well, it tells us we are living in a consumer age where quality is not really valued so much. We live in an age where the quick fix, i.e. whatever that is marketed to us right now and whatever is most popular is the right thing. We not only should but need to reduce our consumption to be more modest. Buying something if it doesn't have any honest use to use is a waste. Throwing perfectly working items away to buy something new is also a waste. Still, the product quality has probably gone downhills, which in a sense probably makes sense. We want new things all the time and we don't mind if it breaks after a few years.
- I've heard about Leif Segerstam, he was conducting the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (btw it's the orchestra playing the music in the videoclip and the very same I was listening to for instance today) in a concert maybe last year or the year before that. I heard he also is a composer but not that he has composed that many symphonies. If the symphonic style in general is that of the video clip then it's pretty bad. It would be better if he would have 10, 20 or maybe even 30 solid symphonies (imagine what a musical wealth it would be) rather than 270 extreme-modernist ones. But I don't know, haven't checked out any of his output yet.
- Classical music for sports, sure, why not?
- Well, musicians need to be defined better. I guess classical performers don't do much improvisation or practice much ear training, which in a sense leaves out two potential areas where creativity could be improved but if we look at classical composers I think we will see more creativity than in jazz musicians (assuming it's not the academic, extreme-modernist, postmodernist or conservatist type of composers). Improvisation and ear training is ofc very important for classical composers, for classical performers, not as much.

Bridge said...

Ear training is actually very important for classical performers. Instruments with frets or keys are perhaps a little more forgiving, especially guitar and piano, but play any wind instrument or fretless string and you absolutely need to have a good ear. Sure, performers learn standard positions which makes landing on the notes themselves perhaps a bit automatic but one constantly needs to adjust the intonation to fit the other instruments being played with if the result is supposed to be good. For pianists/guitarists this is obviously impossible, but string players and especially brass players (if they are good) will always make sure their intonation is good. That doesn't only mean playing in tune with yourself, but others. Improvisation is perhaps not something many performers practice but it is essentially just an ability to compose in real-time, for that you need both a good ear and extensive knowledge. If somebody is good at improvising, especially a pianist or an organist they are also good composers.

Bridge said...

Sorry, I misread "not as much" as "not so much", it's of course true that a good ear is much more valuable to a composer.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Rickard: my comment on Nielsen was a bit tongue in cheek! I'm not really down on him, but I'm also not much of a fan either. I am tempted to re-name his Symphony No. 4, "The Inextinguishable" instead "The Interminable", but maybe I should give him more of a listen...