Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Derrière Garde Festival

I want to link to an interesting article about a different kind of arts festival. Here is the article. It is hard to summarize in a quote, but the idea is one that the novelist Tom Wolfe came up with, the idea of a "Regime Shift" that is akin to Thomas Kuhn's idea of a paradigm shift in science. Wolfe says he got it from economics, though:
"The `Regime Shift,'" says Wolfe, "is a term that I'm borrowing from economics. It refers to a situation in which suddenly the rules are changed. And when that happens, suddenly a lot of assets are lost, chaos results....Well, such things oddly enough can happen in art. Not quite as rapidly, but they have happened extremely rapidly."
He is talking about how the most successful painters around 1900 suddenly became forgotten just a couple of decades later because the modernist painters changed all the rules.
Wolfe believes that such a cultural shift is occurring right now. "I think it was 1985 or 1986, I was giving a talk at a museum out on Long Island. And the title of the talk was, `Picasso, the Bouguereau of the Year 2020.' And this was really a prediction of a Regime Shift." Wolfe's prophecy went totally unnoticed at the time. "The only reward I had was a diatribe at the end of the talk," he recalls, by "an extremely angry man."
So now we have a Derrière Garde festival that aims to acknowledge another change in the rules:
De Kenessey's proposal for the festival explained that, "What was once revolutionary is now the ruling orthodoxy...the avant-garde has become the status quo. A new generation of artists are actively re-engaging history...they neither regress to the distant past nor yearn for a now vanished world; instead, they strike out in an altogether different direction. By fusing tradition with innovation, the Western with the Eastern, they offer a radically new alternative for the art of the new millennium."
One group performing at the festival were the Ahn Trio whom I have heard in concert.

Kind of a bluesy, bluegrass sound...

Now what is kind of ironic here is that there doesn't seem to be anything sudden about this shift, assuming it is happening. For one thing, I think I would trace the beginnings, in music at least, to Steve Reich's Drumming of 1970. Also, if you go look at the article I have been quoting, it appeared in 1997! And it is still going on today with Philip Glass, now up to his Symphony No. 9:

Our Robot Overlords

As one blogger likes to say, I for one, welcome our robot overlords (quoting a 1977 film):

(But doesn't the phrasing seem a bit, well, mechanical?)

"Women Prefer Complex Composers..."

I haven't posted about the latest scientific research in a while. Benjamin Charlton of the University of Sussex in Great Britain has some great news for the "complex composers" among us: you have an excellent chance of getting lucky this weekend! No really. The whole title of the study is this:

Menstrual cycle phase alters women's sexual preferences for composers of more complex music

And the abstract explains as follows:
Two-alternative forced-choice experiments revealed that woman only preferred composers of more complex music as short-term sexual partners when conception risk was highest. No preferences were displayed when women chose which composer they would prefer as a long-term partner in a committed relationship, and control experiments failed to reveal an effect of conception risk on women's preferences for visual artists. These results suggest that women may acquire genetic benefits for offspring by selecting musicians able to create more complex music as sexual partners, and provide compelling support for Darwin's assertion ‘that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex’.
Here is a link to the study and here is a journalist's report. You might think that we are talking about the sexual attractiveness of the Elliot Carters among us, but it turns out that the study's idea of "complexity" is pretty simple:
the women listened to four versions of two different piano melodies, each increasing in complexity. For example, at level one, both compositions used only two chords, but by level four, they turned into a seven-chord mini-opuses with syncopation.
We may be talking about "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" with or without added sevenths and quarter note syncopation.

The trouble with the reporting on this study is it never quite gives the reader enough information to decide just how loony the study really was. I don't know about anyone else, but I sure didn't pick up the guitar to get more dates with girls. I think it was more to have something to do while not getting dates!


Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

I've got a few things for you today. First up, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner takes an early retirement. I'm very sorry to say that I have not followed his career, not being much of an opera fan, nor Wagner fan. He made his name especially singing the big Wagner tenor roles. I should have known him better as we actually hail from the same part of Canada: he grew up in Dawson Creek and I grew up in Pouce Coupe, which is about five miles down the road. Both towns are in the isolated north-eastern corner of British Columbia. He attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and I attended the University of Victoria nearby. In recent years Heppner has suffered from problems with his voice and in 2011 withdrew from a production at the Met where he was due to sing Siegfried. He will trade his singing career for a broadcast one at the CBC.

The life of a singer, like that of a dancer, is not easy. A guitarist can change his strings, have his instrument repaired or just buy a new guitar. A singer has no such options: he has to live with his instrument which is part of him. Opera singers, particularly ones who specialize in Wagner, have particularly difficult challenges to meet. Like dancers, their careers can be cut short if they suffer injury. Let's hear Ben Heppner singing one of his characteristic roles: Walther from Die Meistersinger. This is my favorite Wagner tune, the "Prize Song":

* * *

Over at Sinfini Music ("chopping away at classical"), Norman Lebrecht gives five stars to a bunch of new Shostakovich recordings.

* * *

In this meandering essay, Grant Chu Covell talks about what it is like to be a reviewer of new music recordings.
If you start to think about it, there really ought to be more negative press out there. We have all attended poorly prepared performances and have heard completely forgettable pieces. To compensate for the major labels’ disinterest in new music, countless vanity projects have sprung up. There are fewer barriers to self-publication and so it follows that the standard of quality would slip. Proportionally we ought to see more negativity, but in the interest of time and sanity, I think the critical legion is trying just to keep up with the good stuff.
His basic principles are these:
1)      Always be factually accurate
2)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to educate an unfamiliar reader
3)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to inform the composer/performer
But I think you really need more. For example, instead of trying to calculate how negative or positive you should be, I think that just being honest about what you hear would be a good idea. Also, it is nice to have some aesthetic principles as well. He mentions some things he dislikes here:
  • Orchestral pieces which were clearly written on a synthesizer and scored using a paint-by-numbers technique
  • Noisy or dimly recorded live performances (unless they have historical merit)
  • Pieces where the composer doesn’t recognize the limits of their material (perhaps doesn’t develop it enough, or conversely doesn’t know when to let it alone)
I'm not quite sure how these work in practice, though, except for number 2.

Now here is something interesting. Quite a while back I did an odd sort of post comparing the singing of Bob Dylan and Céline Dion. But I see that a few years ago someone published a whole book about how horrible Céline Dion is. Let's let Mary Galtskill at Slate tell us all about it. It is hard to summarize or even pull a quote from so I just recommend reading the whole thing. What I noticed is that they really talk about images and perceptions rather than the music. I'm not so fond of Céline Dion myself, but it is more about the music. Still, let's have a listen. Here is the big love song from the movie Titanic:

That's the same mixture of maudlin sentimentality and glitz that I associate with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Very popular with most people, I guess.

* * *

 The most popular classical piece in Great Britain, according to listeners to FM radio, is Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Ok, let's give that a listen:

Quite pretty. It was inspired by a poem of the same title by George Meredith that you can read here.

* * *

And finally, in a Globe and Mail article about next season's offerings by Toronto's Royal Conservatory, we see this item:
Through no fault of their own, the good programming folks at the Royal Conservatory of Music often fall just under the radar in the classical music world in Toronto. No longer. Their gutsy, eight-concert festival devoted to the music of today makes quite a statement about their desire to be at the forefront of concert life in the city. With 12 world premieres (including four commissions, appearances by artists as diverse as famed pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Chilly Gonzales, Eve Egoyan and the ARC Ensemble, and music by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Louis Andriessen and Christos Hatzis), the festival has the makings of a major cultural event. New music means so many different things today. The 21C Festival aims to explore most of them in one go.Royal Conservatory of Music, 273 Bloor St. W., Koerner Hall, Mazzoleni Concert Hall, May 21 through 25.
Perhaps, almost certainly I suppose, the writer just chose a few familiar names from a longer list, but doesn't it strike you odd that the composers listed to be played in a concert "devoted to the music of today" consists of four people, two of whom are dead, another of whom has been a figure in the contemporary music scene for many decades and only one of whom you might loosely think of as writing the "music of today"? Let's listen to a piece by him, Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis:

He also contributed a piece to Hilary Hahn's encore album.

And that's it for today...

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Cultural Treasures

You know how you can be in conversation and someone says something, perhaps just a simple phrase, and it sticks in your memory and ultimately a whole sequence of thoughts organizes themselves around that phrase? Or is it just me? This happened to me a while ago and I've been mulling it over ever since. I was talking to an interesting fellow, a New Englander. In his younger days he had started a yacht-building company that became very successful. In his early 40s he sold the company and hasn't needed to work since. I think he is now in his 70s. As he was relating to me some of his life, I told him a bit of my life. He looked at me and said "you are a cultural treasure." I didn't quite know what to think. But I think I have come to understand the comment.

First of all, to head off thoughts that I am arrogant or narcissistic, let me say that I am choosing to understand this remark as being not necessarily a comment on absolute aesthetic quality--after all, this gentleman had not heard any of my music--but rather a comment on category. "You are a person in the category of cultural treasure, irrespective of the precise quality of your work." That being understood, let me try and sort out the meaning of the phrase "cultural treasure".

I think that there are many things that we can easily see as belonging to the category: cultural treasure. A characteristic example would be the Elgin Marbles. The Elgin Marbles are an extensive group of marble carvings made by the great Greek master Phidias in the 5th century BC and originally part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis in Athens. They were rescued from possible destruction by Lord Elgin and currently reside in the British Museum. Greece wants them returned, of course and the debate continues. Here is a sample:

These marbles, which are striking examples of the brilliance of the culture of the ancient Greeks, are not only a cultural treasure of Greece, but of the whole civilization of the West, which has descended from the Greeks and Romans on the one hand, and the Judeo-Christians on the other.

Lots of things can be cultural treasures, not just objects of marble, but paintings, writings and musical manuscripts. The manuscript I put at the head of this blog, a 14th century love song in the shape of a heart, is a cultural treasure. But we can also extend the category to include those people who create these cultural treasures. Phidias the sculptor was a cultural treasure, as were Socrates and Plato. So were the anonymous creators of Gregorian chant. So were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

But there are cultural treasures on a more humble level as well. I think that if someone devotes significant parts of their time and energy to improving the culture, they are cultural treasures. I think there are a few key elements: one is that the work has to be cultural, i.e. someone who devotes their time to feeding the hungry or in other charitable work, they may be a moral treasure, but they are not a cultural treasure. Cultural work, at least as I see it, is aesthetic in some way. It enriches the culture aesthetically as did the sculptures of Phidias.

I know a couple of music teachers who are struggling, with inadequate funds, to start a conservatory here. A little while ago myself and a violinist played an educational concert for their students. I was having lunch the other day with these teachers and told them that they are cultural treasures. Yes, they are getting paid, though not well, but their work and more importantly, the motivation for their work, is really cultural enrichment, not their personal enrichment, which is not going to happen. I think that I can claim that a great deal of the time and energy in my life was spent in precisely the same way: in enriching the culture or trying to do so.

If you are pursuing a primarily aesthetic goal, then you are likely a cultural treasure. Of course the society would be well advised to support people like this and my music teacher friends are going to receive a bit more support I believe. But, and this is very important to understand, you cannot BUY a cultural treasure in the form of a person. All you can do is support one if you find one.

The problem with government arts programs, which always have good intentions, is that they tend to become captured by either political actors or by an "old boy" network. That is, either they become political footballs and the funds used to support the most politically correct projects, or the funds are primarily handed out to those people who become very skillful at cultivating the people in charge of the funds. In both cases the support goes to the wrong people. Real cultural treasures are often not good at applying for funding!

Another consequence of the "you can't buy a cultural treasure" principle is that you can't set up programs to create or educate them. Throwing money at an institution will support the goals of the institution, which are usually to enlarge the institution and make life better for those running it, but very little of that money will end up supporting actual cultural treasures. As I say, all you can really do is look around and see if you can find some--I guarantee they exist--and support what it is THEY think they should be doing.

Cultural treasures are sometimes recognized fairly early on, as Glenn Gould was, the minute he walked into a recording studio. This is his first recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations made when he was twenty-three years old:

Other times, they may not be recognized for many decades later as is the case of Charles Ives who, during his lifetime was unknown as a composer. His Central Park in the Dark was composed in 1906 and is sometimes called the first piece of radical 20th century music:

Sometimes cultural treasures are recognized in their lifetimes and sometimes not. And a lot of those recognized as cultural treasures may not be! Ask yourself, how many of the famous musicians of our time are actually cultural treasures and how many are mere poseurs?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Sergei!

Today is Sergei Prokofiev's 123rd birthday. I usually miss these things, but I just happened to notice. Let's listen to some of his music. Here is the third movement of his Piano Concerto No. 3 played by Yuja Wang:

Never Check Your Instrument!

A picture is worth a thousand words and a video, perhaps more. Here is how airline passengers' luggage might be handled. This video is of Air Canada baggage handlers, but I'm sure they are not unique. This is why your shampoo ends up all over your shirts. Imagine how a guitar would fare. Or a cello...

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beyond Parody...

I warn you, if you don't want future hearings of the last movement of the Dvorak "New World" Symphony to be accompanied by flashbacks of horrific images, DO NOT watch the following clip.

Can we officially declare that the "let's popularize the classics by reducing them to the same moronic level as popular music" movement is now beyond parody?

Aaron Copland and the Symphony

Apart from quoting a couple of things he said, I haven't written about Aaron Copland before on this blog. This week's edition of Tom Service's symphony guide at the Guardian is devoted to his Symphony No. 3, written immediately after the end of the Second World War. Tom keeps surprising me with his choices and makes me realize just how many hundreds of symphonies there are out there that I have never heard a note of!

This is a fine and listenable symphony, very much in Copland's "populist" style. The last movement is based on his Fanfare for the Common Man which I am familiar with, of course. I recommend reading Tom's article introducing the symphony and listening to the whole piece. He has links to other performances, but I will embed here Leonard Bernstein's recording of the last movement with the New York Philharmonic:

There is more to be said, of course. For one thing, there was a fierce competition with William Schumann and Roy Harris among others to write the "Great American Symphony". And, following Beethoven's example in his Symphony No. 3, it needed to be an heroic one. It is acknowledged that Copland won that competition! The symphony was written between the D-Day landings in Europe in the summer of 1944 and the summer of 1946, just after America had won the war in the Pacific with Japan by dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. This triumph also brought anxiety as the whole world now had to live with the possibility of nuclear destruction as the Soviet Union soon had its own bomb. Also, the Cold War between the West and East began soon after the end of the war. Churchill's speech announcing that an "Iron Curtain" had fallen across Eastern Europe was made in March 1946.

As a consequence of the Cold War a hunt began in the US to root out supposed communist sympathizers. One of these was the German composer Hanns Eisler who had fled the Nazis in 1933 and lived in Hollywood. He was deported in 1948 for being a communist. Copland came close to being guilty by association as he was mentioned in an interview by Eisler as being a person with "progressive ideas" which made him suspect. Copland was also photographed at a conference in New York in 1949 with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich who was traveling as a cultural ambassador for the Soviet Union. This conference was a holdover from the wartime alliance, but the publication of the photo in Life magazine under the headline "Dupes and Fellow Travelers Dress Up Communist Fronts" did Copland's career no good! Ironically, Shostakovich was also in disgrace after the 1948 denouncing for "formalism".

Shostakovich (center) and Copland (right) in New York in 1949

After all this, Copland was not going to risk any more "populism" which could all too easily be termed sympathy for communism. Indeed, a performance of A Lincoln Portrait that was scheduled to be given at the inauguration of President Eisenhower in 1953 was canceled because of Copland's "questionable affiliations." Around this time, pressured by ultimately being called to testify at the infamous hearings of the McCarthy subcommittee, Copland made a major change in his musical style, turning away from the tonality of his populist works to the austerity of twelve-tone composition. Here is the first movement of his Piano Quartet, composed in 1950:

Withdrawing from the populism of tonality to the Ivory Tower of "pure art" (symbolized by serialism) was a way for Copland and other American composers to avoid being drawn into the political battles of the post-war period.

It is just one of the political and aesthetic complexities of the Cold War that the CIA funded the European avant-garde after the war as an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Western aesthetic procedures over the socialist realism of the Soviet Union. Much as the scientific expertise of Albert Einstein and the Manhattan Project (which gave rise to the atomic bomb) demonstrated the superiority of Western science over that of the communists.

Copland wrote his Symphony No. 3 in a sincere attempt to capture the heroic feeling around the end of the war. At around the same time Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 9: originally intended to be a heroic celebration of the end of the war as well, it turned out quite differently. Shostakovich, while certainly capable of disingenuous celebrations in the mode of socialist realism such as we see in his Symphonies Nos. 11 and 12, at this moment in time, he just couldn't do it and instead wrote a more classical symphony full of wit and irony. This is the lightest and most cheerful symphony he ever wrote. He just couldn't bring himself to write something puffed up and pompous on this occasion. Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the piece:

Monday, April 21, 2014

TED on Music, plus some photos

Attributes of Music, painting by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Technology and music always seem to have a tricky relationship. On the one hand, technology is crucial to all music. Some examples: the wound metal and nylon strings on the guitar, the clever and complex mechanism of the piano, the intricate mechanisms that enable wind instruments to be conveniently played in tune, and more recently, the development of high-quality recordings of musical performances.

But at the same time, technology, in its burgeoning energy, always seems just on the verge of running rough-shod over the music itself. I've just run across an interesting example in a TED talk. I'm rather a newcomer to the whole Ted-talk phenomenon. TED, which stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design" is a conference project owned by a non-profit foundation. The main conference is held each year in Vancouver, BC, Canada. A whole host of talented and famous (not always the same thing) people have given talks, which are limited to 18 minutes. I wonder how much the organizers work with the presenters to create the most impactful talk. In any case, the talks, at least the very few I have seen, are pithy, entertaining and present cool things in a humorous way. So, very attractive. While you have to pay the large sum of $7500 to attend the talks in person, they are available on YouTube for free. Here is one where a vocalist demonstrates how computerized sound recording technology can be used to augment his already impressive gifts:

Quite entertaining. Amazingly accurate imitations of all sorts of sounds, natural and musical, with just the voice and amplification. And he can, with the aid of the technology (sampling and looping) quickly create tracks that mimic familiar musical genres. And that's about it. What's wrong with this, from my quirky point of view, is that it is about everything but creativity!! Mimicking the sound of a cat or dog or housefly or Pink Floyd, is all still just mimicking. To me this, while seeming to be very cool and slick and techno, is aesthetically no different than a Frank Gorshin impression:

Or, perhaps, rather less creative than a good impressionist. If Frank Gorshin is before your time, Jim Carrey has shown how to do a good impression:

Which shows the creative aspect of impressions: they are satirical caricatures of the originals and, hence, creative.

So the problem with the technology of Beardyman's polyphony, is that it is rather too accurate. He manages to make his voice sound just like sounds in the real world and, with the aid of the digital sampler, to put together textures that sound just like jazz or Pink Floyd. Which is clever and talented, of course. But what it is certainly not is interesting or creative.

I wonder how many TED talks are just like this? I suspect that this is high-class entertainment for the privileged class that makes them feel really good about themselves because they appreciate all this cleverness. Which is actually dreary and dull as soon as you dig into it.

Oh yes, and technology always seems to present a danger to creativity because it distracts from actually doing something. Creativity always, with no exceptions I can think of, comes from somewhere in the human mind, not from a gadget.

Or is it just me?

And as a little bonus, here are some photos of composers out having fun.

Schoenberg playing tennis:

Schoenberg swimming:

And Stravinsky sun-bathing:

UPDATE: I just ran across a brilliant critique of the whole TED idea, ironically in the form of a TED talk!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Just Some Listening

I have yet to discuss the ending of Sibelius' last symphony and I probably won't get to it today. We are having a little music salon tonight and I am going to play a Scarlatti sonata that I haven't quite learned yet! Also my violinist and I are going to play some pieces, but as we just did a concert last week, that shouldn't be a problem. It is mostly for other musicians, mostly guitarists, to get a chance to play.

Here is the Scarlatti sonata I am playing tonight, K. 544. I transcribed it for guitar years and years ago, but never got around to learning it. Here is Leo Brouwer's version:

And here it is on harpsichord:

Very unusual piece. My version lies between these two. The tempo indication is "Cantabile". It is simply amazing how Scarlatti re-invents the form with virtually every one of his five hundred and fifty-five sonatas!

Now, to whet your appetite for the Symphony No. 7 of Sibelius, when I finally get back to it, here is a performance conducted by Mark Elder:

Oh, another reason I am not doing a big blog post today is that I just started writing a symphony yesterday and when inspiration strikes, you have to go with it... I'm almost scared to listen to Sibelius for a few days until my ideas have gelled.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Elitism and Quality

One of the problems that classical music has these days is that one of the underlying fundamentals of the discipline (and yes, it is partly a discipline) is that achieving high quality in classical music education always smacks of elitism. Talking to some people who have been trying to start a conservatory here, one of the characteristics of Mexican culture, egalitarianism, was holding them back. They wanted to just take everyone who was interested, but if you do that, the ones who lack potential or talent will just hold back the others and you will get nowhere. So they reconciled themselves to auditioning, screening, candidates based on their showing some musical potential.

It is pretty easy to do that. I can't recall if I recounted here my first audition in music. It was when I had applied to enter the School of Music at a West Coast Canadian university. I showed up there one day, but not realizing that I had been scheduled for an audition! I didn't even bring my guitar. So the conductor just dragged me into a room and started playing notes to me on the piano: "sing this back", "now this". He played them in widely different octaves and then may have played pairs of notes and asked me to sing the pair back. He may even have played some chords and asked me if they were major or minor. In any case, I passed with flying colors because I had already been a professional musician, albeit in the pop field, for four years. I played by ear, learned music by ear and had already written forty songs. So that little aptitude test was nothing. But I still started too late to become a virtuoso very easily.

The truth is that the standards in classical music are shockingly high. Perhaps they are high in pop music too, but when I listen to singers there, they rarely sound very accomplished and the videos are often just ludicrously pretentious posturing over a computerized drum track, so, doesn't seem so high quality to me, aesthetically. But to be an outstanding classical musician you have to either have astounding amounts of talent and a lot of luck meeting the right people young, or be born into a privileged part of society, or be born into a family of classical musicians. Because, apart from the willingness to accept a rigorous discipline for many years, you also have to have a huge amount of aptitude, plus money and connections. I didn't have any of these things (well, I do have some aptitude!) so my career was a constant struggle.

Hilary Hahn shows us just what is involved. There isn't any information about her family on Wikipedia, but as she started in a Suzuki violin program at age four at Peabody in Baltimore, one of the most famous music schools in the US, one can assume that her family had cultural capital at least. At ten years of age she was accepted into perhaps the most elite music school in the world, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Actually, according to some figures, it is the most selective higher educational institution in the US. It only accepts enough students to fill out an orchestra and opera company, though added to this are a few composers and keyboard players as well. Total enrollment between 150 and 170. I believe that all students are on full scholarship. I had a girlfriend, a bassoonist, who graduated from Curtis. Their graduates fill the first place chairs in most of the orchestras in the US.

At eleven years, Hilary made her major orchestral debut playing a concerto with the Baltimore Symphony. I'm not sure which one, but she had options, as during her years at Curtis she learned, apart from piles of etudes, twenty-eight concertos! My friend told me that her teacher made her learn a new Vivaldi bassoon concerto every week. Can you imagine how hard these students work? I am reminded of when I spent a summer studying in Salzburg. We had five hours of master class every day. Added to four or five hours of practice, a couple of hours of concert-going, sleeping and eating, that's a full day. One evening I went out to the practice studios to work on the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez for a couple of hours as the next morning I was playing it for Pepe Romero in the master class. On my way in to the studio, I heard a violinist working on a brief section, perhaps four to eight measures, from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto cadenza. At half-tempo. As I left, hours later, he or she was still working on the same passage. The grueling discipline required for the precise mastery of the repertoire is inconceivable unless you have actually done it.

At eighteen years of age, Hilary Hahn released her first album, the kind of thing that many violinists would wait many years to record: a whole album of Bach partitas and sonatas for solo violin. A year or so later she released her first recording with orchestra, containing another Mount Everest of the repertoire, the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I was listening to it the other day and it is far better than merely spectacular: it is profoundly musical.

Hilary Hahn is probably, at age 34, the finest violinist in the world. Technically she can play anything and she has an astonishing musical depth. She had a real gift, but was born into an appropriate family and was able to attend the right school at the right time. Then she worked stupendously hard for many years. And the result is a truly great violinist.

It is fashionable to sneer at anything smacking of "elitism", but this is to sneer at quality. This doesn't stop people from doing it, for lots of self-serving reasons. But the truth is that very, very few people have the aptitude, energy, dedication and discipline to become outstanding musicians. You bet they are elite. But wash away the stain from that word, because it should not have any hint of injustice to it. Anyone who achieves high quality in music has most certainly earned it. No one gets there by accident or by spending their time in night-clubs or watching television.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Sorry I didn't put up a post yesterday--these things happen! So let's see what is shaking in the world of music today.

First up, from the Annals of the Weird, an airline actually seemed to care that they damaged a guitar!! I know, it is hard to believe, but Norman Lebrecht has the details.

* * *

Ok, I'm not the only music blogger with a sense of humor. Here are the top ten music schools, according to one blogger.

* * *

This year's Pulitzer Prize in music has been awarded to John Luther Adams for his piece Become Ocean. It's not on YouTube, but here is an older piece called Dark Waves for orchestra:

It sounds just a bit like Sibelius, getting mugged, on the beach, at dawn, by Steve Reich--which is actually kind of interesting... John Luther Adams is not a composer I know, but I will certainly seek out his music in the future.

* * *

Here is an interview with the always-perplexing Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. I mean how can you be a fan of Janet Jackson and dislike the Beatles?

Yep, kind of perplexing...

* * *

Here is some more weird news: young people are into buying cassette tapes purely as collectibles and then not playing them. Here is the story from the BBC. Apparently the group Haim are among those releasing music on physical media in reaction to the trend towards digital only purchases.

* * *

Here is another article about experiments with repetition in music. On the one hand, I think it demonstrates yet again some of the reasons why the avant-garde in music did not ever achieve much popularity (not that that was the goal), but on the other hand, it might also be demonstrating the decline in culture that has been going on for decades now. Or maybe both!

* * *

Here is a poll from CBS/Vanity Fair with all sorts of interesting little bits of information. Most people listen to music over the radio? The two ways I listen to music the most often, with a CD player and computer, are the least used by most people at 1% and 6% respectively while 49% listen most to the radio. The last time I listened to the radio, it was at least twenty years ago and only because they were broadcasting a concert of mine! Ok, now here is a weird statistic. Here is how people responded when asked which musical artist you would want your child to study:

The Beatles, not too surprising, Mozart, ok, but Michael Jackson? Ok, he is the king of pop, I guess. Jay-Z because you should learn how to get rich with music. But the one I can't figure out is Billie Holiday. Sure, great blues singer, but huh?

However, 42%, a plurality, declare that this decade has the worst music ever. The people cannot be wrong! They also declare that the sexiest instrument to play is the guitar, so, pretty accurate study. Heh.

* * *

And for a light-hearted finale, here are some string players that have an unusual stage presence:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Canadian Music: Colonial or Post-Colonial?

Reading  a book of essays on Sibelius I ran into one on colonial and post-colonial, two terms that describe first the cultural domination of one people by another and second, the emancipation of such. Normally I take that sort of thing with a grain of salt, but it started resonating with my experiences in Canada. Canada was, until quite recently, a colony of Great Britain. By quite recently I mean that Canada as a nation didn't exist until 1867 and even though we had been an independent nation since 1931, officially (though with Queen Elizabeth as our sovereign), we didn't actually have our own constitution until 1982 as before then the constitution of Canada resided in England as an Act of the British Parliament. Canada has been remarkably restrained about achieving its independence.

So what are the corollaries or consequences of this from a cultural point of view? The popular musicians seem to have their own identity. We have distinctive Canadian musicians like Don Messer from the Maritimes:

Then there is the inimitable Stompin' Tom Connors:

From Francophone Québec we have Beau Dommage:

That word that you hear that you think is a bad word is actually the word "phoque", French for "seal" and the song is the complaint of a seal in Alaska.

Then from Jewish Montréal we have the truly great Leonard Cohen:

And from Winnipeg, those rockers, The Guess Who:

You want someone more recent? How about Shania Twain?

That is exactly like a gender-reversed version of Robert Palmer:

My god, I think they are even using some of the same prop guitars! And the costumes are remarkably similar except instead of mini-skirts the male models are wearing fishnet tops. Thank goodness... or ... wait ... I mean, thank goodness the men aren't wearing mini-skirts. I think...

And finally, and very reluctantly, Justin Bieber:

The odd thing is that, while the Canadian pop stars (and more folk-oriented ones as well) tended to have their own identity from the beginning (based on traditional music), the closer we move to the present, the more Canadian pop stars sound exactly like American ones. It is as if we moved from being a colony of Great Britain, through a brief window of post-colonialism, to being a cultural colony of the US.

So what about classical music? I'm afraid that is no less dismal. Right through the 19th century and well into the 20th century Canada was simply a minor offshoot of British musical culture. The further west you went, the more there was American and Asian influence as well. The first genuinely remarkable Canadian classical musician was probably Glenn Gould, who was very likely the most important piano interpreter of the music of J. S. Bach in the 20th century.

As for composers, the one that has tried the hardest to be a uniquely Canadian modernist is R. Murray Schafer:

Points for effort, I guess. But I just don't think he quite carves out a space for himself. As for contemporary Québec composers, one (English Canadian) composer of my acquaintance, who I will not name, characterizes their music as "Messiaen plays hockey". Shockingly unfair, I know, but it is just a more pithy way to say what I would have said: Québec composers are, mostly, paler copies of whatever is going on in Paris. One exception might be Claude Vivier:

Compared to the extraordinary music composed by Russian, Finnish, Danish and even Swedish and Norwegian composers in the 20th century, it is tempting to call Canada, as England used to be called, the "land without music".

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The "London" Bach

The Bach family was probably the greatest artistic dynasty of all time. From the sixteenth century right into the 19th century they played such a pervasive role in the musical life of Europe that some German communities used the word "Bach" as a generic term for any musician: "We need a new Bach to run the band concerts on Sundays." I previously wrote about musical dynasties and the Bach family in particular in this post.

Tom Service has done an excellent thing in this week's symphony guide by picking a symphony by one of J. S. Bach's sons, Johann Christian Bach, the "London" Bach, to talk about. At this point in music history the symphony is still close to its origins as an overture or entr'acte in an opera so it is a fairly short work in three movements: fast slow fast. Tom picks the excellent Symphony in G minor, op. 6, no. 6:

Nice stormy example of "Sturm und Drang" which, since it was composed in London and before the German literary movement from which the name derives, demonstrates again that the musical phenomenon probably doesn't have much to do with the literary one. As Tom mentions, J. C. Bach was a big influence on the very young Mozart when he (Mozart) visited London in the 1760s. This piece by J. C. Bach could stand up pretty well against a lot of lesser Mozart. It may have even been an influence on the early G minor Symphony, K. 183 by Mozart written a few years later:

But there is a whole lot more going on in the Mozart. There are more melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas in the first two minutes than in the whole symphony by J. C. Bach. What we hear in the Bach symphony is the rhythmic stiffness and predictable sequences of Baroque music, without the contrapuntal interest. Listen for example to the development section from about the 1'34 mark to about the 2'15 mark in the first movement of the G minor J. C. Bach symphony. One long sequence in which nothing much happens that isn't predictable.

Apart from his childhood tour of the capitols of Europe, Mozart as an adolescent spent quite a bit of time in Italy and perhaps some of the grace and effervescence of his music in all dimensions, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic, comes from Italian music. Certainly when we listen to the Mozart symphony we hear a harmonic and rhythmic flexibility that makes the phrases much more fluid than the ones in the J. C. Bach symphony.

I hope very much that Tom also gives us a symphony by the older Bach son, C. P. E. Bach, the "Berlin" Bach. He was a much more eccentric composer as we can hear in this symphony in B minor:

Tom Service's series is really about the best and most educational one on music in the mass media these days. Thanks to him for it. The only problem with it is that it tends to present every single piece as an stunning bit of innovative wonderfulness, which is both untrue and a bit dull. He is striving for the utmost diversity in the series, which is good, but one of the reasons for listening to, say, J. C. Bach and C. P. E. Bach, is to notice the ways in which the generation of Haydn and Mozart far exceeded them. A list of the fifty greatest symphonies is likely to be a lot less diverse than Tom's selections as it will probably consist 90% of symphonies by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart with a few by Schubert, Sibelius, Shostakovich and possibly Mahler, unless I am right about him, in which case, Brahms and maybe Bruckner. And for a token modernist exemplar, Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms.

Our urge for diversity often ends up conflicting with critical aesthetic judgement. You can't simultaneously ride the horse of diversity and the one of quality. You can't have your horse and eat it too--wait, I think that was a Metaphor Too Far.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Class, Race, Music and Dance

A couple of weird items for you this morning. First of all, the Guardian tries to write the usual article about how horrible it is that classical music excludes people of color. The title comes from a story in the Guardian titled "Class, race and classical music" and it makes all the usual claims. But, interestingly enough, the article quickly runs aground on the details. Here is the sub-head:
Western classical music – performers and audiences alike – is still an almost exclusively white concern. What can be done?
 I boggled at this because, in my experience, it just isn't true. Way back in the 1970s, that supposedly unenlightened era, at least half of the piano students in the music department at university were Chinese. At the same time, the Lieutenant-Governor of the province (in Canada) was east Indian. But what about black people you ask? Well, at that time there were only a handful of black people living in that city but one of them was the conductor of the orchestra. There were a few people of Hispanic descent and one of them, my girlfriend at the time, was a harp student at the conservatory. So, really, there simply was no discernible racism, individual or institutional that I was aware of.

When it comes to music, it is very hard to sing the blues about how black people are excluded from classical music when they dominate pop music so thoroughly and make infinitely more money as well. Here are the musical power couple of the day, Jay-Z and Beyoncé:

Somehow they just don't look that oppressed! Combined net worth as of March 2014, about $900 million.

The article makes a valiant attempt, running against the obvious facts:
In years/generations past institutional racism, of commission and omission, was undoubtedly at play. With no possibility of entry into mainstream – read Caucasian – ensembles, the vast majority of talented, serious musicians of colour went into jazz and later pop, where there was at least a possibility of expression and financial self-sufficiency. These days however, even in the most elite classical organisations, skin colour alone does not guarantee automatic exclusion. While there will remain the odd mostly private exception, among professional musicians, from top to bottom, it’s all about the music: can he or she play at the necessary, Himalayan level and in a manner commensurate with whatever ensemble’s characteristic style? But how to achieve that ascendency without the requisite tools and knowledge of the terrain?
Skin color doesn't actually exclude anyone these days (if it ever did)? So the article defaults to we have to have special programs to help people enter the world of classical music who otherwise wouldn't have. And then there is the obligatory slap at the elitists:
And then there are the gate-keepers, the holy idiots who police performances with trainspotter obsessiveness and the diktat that only those who worship in these often publicly funded temples with the same knowledge and style of commitment as themselves are welcome.
That's me! Holy idiot! The article ends with the hope that:
Like Shakespeare, this music belongs to all and can only benefit from a willingness to welcome and encourage fresh blood into its midst.
This is a remarkable level of incoherence. While on the one hand, Himalayan levels of achievement are needed in classical music, at the same time the "gate-keepers", presumably those who actually know something about the Himalayas of music, are the only bad guys in the article. Bizarre.

Also bizarre is this video of Canadian violinist Lara St. John, playing the Presto from the Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin by J. S. Bach, accompanying tap-dancer Stephanie Cadman. Locations, various places, malls and subway stations and trains in Toronto:

Both the violin-playing and dancing are pretty good. But I have the distinct feeling that a hundred years from now, people will look back on our time as one in which the oddest things were being done to sell classical music.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The String Quartet since 1900

The string quartet was the invention of Joseph Haydn in the early 1760s. He wrote some pieces for himself and some friends to play. Now this would not have been much of a muchness if he hadn't followed it up by writing a lot more string quartets. In the early 1770s he wrote a set that were hugely important in the development of musical structure and compositional techniques, the op. 20 quartets. He followed this set with a lot of others, writing a total of 68 in all. This genre, a four-movement work for two violins, viola and cello, has proven to be one of the most successful in all of music history, right up there alongside the symphony, piano sonata and concerto.

Composers that lent their efforts to Haydn's, making the string quartet perhaps the most prestigious musical medium, were Mozart and Beethoven, followed soon after by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. But it can be said, I think, that the preferred medium in the 19th century was really not chamber music, but rather the symphony and opera. So you can see a decline in both quantity and quality of the string quartet throughout the century.

Rather surprisingly, though, it saw a considerable revival in the 20th century and that was through the efforts of a number of composers. The first on the scene was actually Arnold Schoenberg whose first quartet was written in 1905:

Schoenberg's quartet dates from before his innovative ideas on serialism and didn't make much of a splash. You might think of it as more post-Brahmsian than as the first 20th century quartet.

That title is usually given to Bela Bartók whose first quartet dates from the beginning of 1909. Here is the first movement played by the Emerson Quartet:

That does have a new air to it and Bartók followed it with five others. One of the most characteristic is the String Quartet No. 3, written in 1927:

That is full of new and striking ideas. Another interesting quartet was written just the next year by Leoš Janáček:

One of the most well-known quartets of the century is by Schoenberg's student, Alban Berg. His Lyric Suite dates from slightly earlier, 1925/26. Oddly, there doesn't seem to be a complete version on YouTube, so here are the first three parts:

A bit later one of the most important bodies of string quartet repertoire was begun by Shostakovich with his String Quartet No. 1 dating from 1938:

After this modest beginning, he wrote a lot more important quartets, such as this one, dating from 1960:

A composer who also wrote a lot of interesting quartets was Mieczysław Weinberg. Here is an excerpt from his String Quartet No. 3

Composers have continued to write string quartets pretty regularly as it became a 20th century medium of choice. Some of note are George Crumb's Black Angels for electric string quartet from 1970:

Morton Feldman, String Quartet No. 2 from 1983:

You don't get the whole thing because it is six hours long! Both Steve Reich and Philip Glass have made important contributions. Here is Steve Reich's Different Trains:

And the first part of Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 5:

Like the violin concerto, the string quartet just seems to go on and on, inspiring each new generation of composers.

I want to end with one of the newest pieces for string quartet that I heard just a couple of months ago in a concert by the young Catalyst Quartet. The piece is called Strum and it was composed by Jessie Montgomery, one of the violinists in the ensemble. In the photo accompanying the clip, she is the young woman in the black dress on the right. This piece is just a year or so old and it has a pretty good groove: