Monday, June 30, 2014

Discovering Musicians: Jennifer Higdon

One of my frequent commentators has posed a challenge, or at least so it appears to me. He says, "I have yet to hear of a good living female composer." Actually, I think I have already talked about several good living female composers, but without singling them out as women. This was in my series of posts on Hilary Hahn's recording of newly-commissioned encores, of which about half were written by women.

While at Curtis, Hilary met and studied with the composer Jennifer Higdon, whose violin concerto she also recorded.

Pay no attention to the video as it has nothing to do with the audio track, which is of Higdon's Violin Concerto. Higdon was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in music for that piece. Incidentally, when I put up my final post on the album I posed a few questions about the commissioning process and Jennifer Higdon herself left a comment answering them. Nice gesture! She even complimented this blog. Higdon has also won a Grammy for best contemporary classical composition in 2009 for her percussion concerto.

So I think that the task of finding a good living female composer has been achieved very easily: Jennifer Higdon, currently professor of composition at the Curtis Institute. The Wikipedia article assembles a nice paragraph of praise for her work:
Higdon's music is popular with orchestras and audiences and the League of American Orchestras recently reported Higdon as one of the most performed living American composers.[6] "Higdon's music is lithe and expert," wrote Robert Battey of the Washington Post. "Jennifer Higdon's vivid, attractive works have made her a hot commodity lately," wrote Steve Smith of the New York Times. "Jennifer Higdon is in my assessment one of the greatest of the newer composers," wrote Steven Ritter of Audiophile Audition.[7] Of her Concerto for Orchestra, Richard Morrison in The Times(London) stated that "it is rare to witness a big new orchestral piece being acclaimed as Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra was cheered on ... The most impressive aspect is the panache with which a huge orchestra is deployed ... This colourful, ever-changing instrumental panoply is doubtless one reason why the work makes an instant impression ... Higdon's work is traditionally rooted yet imbued with integrity, freshness and a desire to entertain. A promising mixture. More, please."
 Let's listen to some more of her work. Here is her Percussion Concerto dating from 2005, played by the University of British Columbia Orchestra:

And here is her Concerto for Orchestra, dating from 2002 played by the Atlanta Symphony:

She doesn't just write concertos. Here is an excerpt from a piece she wrote for the Lark Quartet titled, "An Exaltation of Larks":

And here are "Trumpet Songs" for trumpet and piano:

So I think that she easily qualifies as a good, living composer. Does her music rise to the level of greatness? We will have to check back in fifty or a hundred years!!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Another Look at Mahler

As part of my symphony project, I have been listening to a lot of symphonies. The nine (or ten?) symphonies by Mahler I have been familiar with since the 1970s, though I probably know the first, fifth and ninth better than the others. But in the interest of doing a thorough examination of the repertoire I have been listening to the Mahler symphonies through in order--yes, even the interminable Symphony No. 3:

which is well over an hour and a half in duration. I am only up to the Symphony No. 6, but I wanted to share some thoughts on the way as I think my current opinion has firmed up.

Yes, my views on composers, pieces, instruments, styles and just about everything else connected with music change over time. I won't say "evolve" because I think that is a faulty metaphor. I do think that my views are sounder as I age, though.

In the 70s, as I was becoming familiar with Mahler, I greatly enjoyed listening to his music. I didn't know anyone in my circles that was not a big Mahler fan and I had a trumpet-playing roommate that was mad about him. I went through a long period where, while I did a prodigious amount of playing, I did much less listening than in my earlier years and so, for many years, I hardly listened to Mahler. Then, recently, whenever I put him on, I developed a bit of an antipathy to the music. I wasn't a Mahler fan anymore.

So I was curious to see what would happen when I sat down to listen to the symphonies systematically. They are, of course, stunning pieces of music: powerful, colorful masterpieces of orchestration and symphonic drama. So is there a problem? Well, yes. These pieces are undoubtedly a pinnacle of the symphonic repertoire, but at the same time, they are historic in that they are of a time and that time is past. What do I mean?

The problem for me is that they no longer sound, to me, authentic, in the sense of genuine, direct human expression. They sound, artificial, contrived, excessive as if someone is trying just too hard to convince you of something and, in the interests of doing so, keeps throwing more and more and more stuff at you. As I got halfway through the last movement of the Symphony No. 6 last night I found myself uttering derisive guffaws at the sheer absurdity of the piled-up monstrosities of theme and orchestration:

Listen to part of the movement from around the 14 minute mark. I found myself muttering "sure, throw another cymbal crash, even more screeching from the violins, reinforced by the piccolos and you just can't have too much rumbling in the cellos and double basses." At some point the music seemed to pass over any reasonable proportion or sense and become mere wild frenzy. Sure, we run into this in the symphonies of Pettersson as well, but in his case, it seems to come from some real inner suffering. With Mahler, he seems to be doing it just because he can.

Mind you, I want to hasten to say that this may be partly because of our, or mine at least, perspective. I said that this music was of a time and I think that the horrors of the 20th century, especially as they have been captured in the symphonic music of, for example, Shostakovich and Pettersson, makes Mahler harder to accept. The egoism of the music starts to grate on one: who else would seriously nickname their first symphony the "Titan"?

Another curious thing, after I stopped the finale of the Symphony No. 6 halfway through, I decided to check on a couple of other symphonies, just for perspective. I put on the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius. This comes out of the grand 19th century tradition as well, does it share the failings of Mahler? Well, no, not to my ears. It sounds wonderfully original and fresh and has a great finale that does not seem to need to descend to throwing the kitchen sink into the mix to make a point:

Then I listened to the first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 to confirm:

I have to say that, great as Mahler is, I'm afraid that Shostakovich has spoiled me: he is an even greater symphonic composer (well, if we set aside nos 2 and 3). And, without digging too deep into the details, there is some way in which the later symphonies of Shostakovich make, again to my ears, the earlier ones of Mahler sound unconvincing, somehow. It seems clear that Mahler wanted us to believe something very strongly with his symphonies; the suppressed programs seem to show that. The problem is that I am unconvinced by what he wanted us to believe, vague as it was. The sheer grandiosity of these funeral marches leaves me cold. From World War I on, there were far too many senseless funerals and this is the wrong kind of music for them.

I will stop here in case I am getting too far from the point. My re-listening to Mahler shows me the amazing fertility of his imagination and astounding ability to command orchestral color and texture. But, apart from the occasional truly beautiful movement, I am not much in love with the music.

Let's end with possibly Mahler's most beautiful movement, the adagietto from the Symphony No. 5:

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Modern Madness

The kind of modern madness I want to talk about is not the idea of hammering away at a dissonant tone cluster for twenty minutes, or going to great lengths to have no repeating rhythms or droning away at a single note for hours. Those are mere aesthetic misdemeanors. No, what I am talking about is a political modern madness that affects musicians in a most unpleasant way: the dangers of traveling by air or across borders with a violin and bow. Here is the article.
Over the last year, air travel with a stringed instrument has grown much more difficult in the United States. Violinists have been left on the tarmac while the plane left, after being denied onto the plane with their violins. Others have had their bows confiscated because they possibly contained ivory. It's stressful and confusing.
Here are some further remarks from a bow-maker:
"Thanks for posting about the current problems with trying to travel internationally with a bow. However, there were a couple inaccuracies in your blog post.
First, it is currently OK to travel with a pernambuco bow. The CITES listing is only for raw wood, but a finished bow is OK from a pernambuco standpoint.
Second, it would be great if a letter from the maker was accepted by importation officials, but there's no guarantee. It's better than nothing, I suppose, but still agents on the ground may or may not accept it. And while almost all bows made in the last 20-25 years by modern makers like me would have a mastodon tip, there's no way an official can easily tell the difference so your at the mercy of their whims.
Third, there's also a species of shell which is subject to import/export restrictions. And so, even though no maker uses this shell, a government agent might decide to confiscate your bow for that.
Fourth, the New York legislature is considering a bill which will make it illegal to sell ivory. There is an exception in the law for musical instruments made before 1975, but that still outlaws a lot of bows from being sold. And the New Jersey Legislature this week also passed legislation for signature by Governor Christie that would ban the import, sale, purchase, and possession with intent to sell of any ivory (elephant, hippopotamus, mammoth, narwhal, walrus or whale) or rhino horn, with no exceptions. I'm not sure, but that sounds like a New Yorker couldn't even legally drive across the bridge to play a gig in Jersey with a legally purchased bow which has a mammoth tip.
And we all need to start organizing, because the next possible banned substance will potentially be ebony, which is in every musical instrument.
Bowmakers are working to try to find a suitable replacement material which will be easily distinguishable from ivory, yet not ugly as sin. But it needs to be good and stable and glue well to wood, which not all plastic materials will do. But we're trying." 
 And the profound irony in all this is that harassing musicians and confiscating their instruments will save not one African elephant. Not one! The real purpose of this sort of regulation is to morally reassure if not not glorify those people who think the Correct Thoughts. Protecting endangered species is Good, therefore regulations that punish people who are in possession of ivory is also Good. But most importantly, if I support these regulations then I am a Good Person.

A similar situation obtains with the Department of Homeland Security which harasses innumerable travelers every day and, it is most likely, even at a cost of untold billions of dollars, has not prevented one terrorist attack. Well, maybe one, but the cost/benefit ratio is insanely bad.

When you think of it, there are parts of the US where it is probably safer to travel with a bag of marijuana than with a violin bow containing a tiny amount of ivory...

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Occasionally we get a bit of data that supports the idea of objective aesthetic judgment. Here's one, underlining the importance of the song "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan. The story is about how a lyric sheet for the song just sold for over $2 million. Now ask yourself, would an ABBA lyric sheet sell for as much, or the original lyric sheet for "Whole Lotta Love"? I think not! Here's the song:

Sorry, couldn't find the original version. This is live from 1978.

* * *

Here is an interesting piece on orchestral payscales. American musicians are paid much more than their British counterparts. I think in Canada it is closer to the British levels than the American ones. But we have the same union. I remember one intriguing little incident. I was playing mandolin in the pit for a production of Don Giovanni and at the setzprobe (the last rehearsal  before the dress rehearsal and the first time you play the whole opera through) after two and half hours the principal violist (who was also the union representative) stood up, halting the rehearsal and formally inquired of the conductor "do you wish to extend the rehearsal?" The conductor started to say "yes" because we hadn't even got to the finale yet, but then hesitated and said, "I have to consult a board member." Luckily, there was one listening in the back of the hall. You have to understand that asking to extend rehearsal time past the 2 and one half hour standard service means a minimum of 30 minutes overtime to every member of the orchestra. This is thousands and thousands of dollars. So we went ahead and finished the run through. But as we came in to set up for the dress rehearsal the next night, every stand had a sheet on it of sections to be cut from the opera. There were several cuts and we were going to be playing the dress rehearsal, at which there were hundreds of school kids, making the cuts on the fly. Amazing how resilient orchestral players are...

* * *

For those of you wanting to pick up one of those rare Stradivarius violas, here you go. So the question is, who in their right mind would pay $45 million dollars for a viola, even one by Stradivarius?

* * *

Here an article posing the misconceived question "are the barriers between pop and 'serious' music finally crumbling?" Actually worth reading. Here is a sample:
 Even when bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer and Yes pioneered their own brand of “symphonic rock” in the 1970s, it would never have occurred to them that they could make albums for Deutsche Grammophon, perhaps history’s most illustrious classical label. But times have changed, and this month DG released Music for Heart and Breath, the debut classical album by Richard Reed Parry of the Canadian band Arcade Fire.
In stark contrast to Arcade Fire’s widescreen rock anthems and jittery dance beats, the solo Parry has created a set of fragile instrumental compositions in which tempos and rhythms are dictated by the heartbeats and breathing rates of the performers. The music is minimalist and introspective (Parry describes it as musical “pointillism”), and by its nature can never be played exactly the same way twice.
Parry follows in the footsteps of Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood and The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner, whose classically inspired pieces were paired on a Deutsche Grammophon disc earlier this year. Greenwood’s vivid and full-blooded suite from the film There Will Be Blood radiates confidence and authority. Meanwhile Dessner has found a convincing way to integrate electric guitar into his orchestral compositions, but this music belongs in a different universe than his work with The National.
However, these releases aren’t an illustration of the way classical and rock music are merging, so much as evidence of the way that musicians are increasingly able to work in a variety of styles and genres that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago. Music, like much else, has become globalised, drawing from different times and places. As Bryce Dessner puts it, “You can’t really say, that’s a guy from a rock band who writes classical music. You should say the opposite: Jonny Greenwood was a classical violist who became a guitarist with Radiohead.”
I suppose the thing to notice is that classical music which, for most of the 20th century was still reeling drunkenly from the heady days of 19th century idealism when it, music, was accounted to be the transcendent truth of all reality, has become far more open to influences from outside itself. Something that was true for most of music history, by the way. Composers in the 14th century had at least two modes of composition: serious music, often for the church, and fun, bouncy secular dance music. So if there is a lot more crossover between pop and classical these days, it can be seen as a reversion to a more typical state of affairs.

* * *

Alex Ross has a skillful discussion of the "Klinghoffer" controversy up at the New Yorker. The only thing I would add to it is that this precise event, as part of the general fabric of history in the Middle East as it relates to Israel over the last century, is one that cannot reasonably and morally be treated as ambivalently as it is in the opera:
an abiding problem at the heart of “Klinghoffer”: its pensive, ambivalent attitude toward present-day issues about which a great many people feel no ambivalence whatsoever.
* * *

Here is an article about the battle between YouTube and independent labels over revenue.
anxiety about competition and fairness in the digital marketplace runs deep in the independent sector of the music industry. Small labels complain that consolidation by the major record companies has left them squeezed in negotiations with the online music services that now account for a majority of their revenue.
 Here is my little beef about YouTube. I have put up a number of my own performances on the blog from time to time. Here is a link to one. I won't repost the video, but please go have a look at it. This is a recording I made a number of years ago in a studio in North Vancouver. Some of these recordings were commercially released in Canada, but that copyright has long since reverted to me. This was even demonstrated in a suit I filed against the label when they released a compilation recording using some of my tracks. They settled out of court. Now here is what is very, very odd. I took my original recording and using iMovie, added some images to it. Then I saved it as a Quicktime video file suitable for uploading to my blog. It has never been uploaded to YouTube. So tell me, why is it that there is the YouTube logo on the file? How did that get added? Do I have grounds for a legal proceeding? Is this just because Blogger is owned by Google who also own YouTube? Can I get them to stop doing this?

* * *

Now what would be a suitable piece to end this post? Not "Klinghoffer" again. How about "Don Giovanni"?

Nothing like a little music by "Volfgango Mozart"!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Narrative vs Numbered Symphonies

I just finished listening to four symphonies (nos. 2, 3, 8 and 9) by Philip Glass. The surprising thing to me about this is that he is writing symphonies at all, let alone nine of them. The first time I heard Philip Glass' music was on an LP I bought in the late 1970s from some composers' label and it consisted of strangely additive pieces for solo piano. Much later I owned "Glassworks" which is also for solo piano.

I quite liked that and still do. I was aware of his larger works like Music in 12 Parts:

Which is roughly in the same style as the music from the same time of Steve Reich:

But for quite some time now, Philip Glass has been writing music that is at least partly indebted to the older instrumental forms like the symphony and concerto. He has an interesting way of thinking about them. Having worked a great deal in the realm of theater he thinks of certain kinds of music as having what he calls a "narrative base". In other words there is either some text that offers narrative clues or, in the case of a concerto, the solo instrument is itself a kind of narrator. But the pure symphonic form, what he calls "numbered symphonies" has no narrative base other than "the language of music and the lineage of symphonic writing". [from the liner notes to the recording of the Symphony No. 9 conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.]

It is interesting to me that at this point in his life Philip Glass is so interested in the "lineage of symphonic writing". He relates that he and other students used to spend a lot of time listening to Mahler and Bruckner symphonies when they were undergraduates at the University of Chicago. Steve Reich, on the other hand, seems to have had no interest at any time in this kind of music.

There is certainly a rich lineage of symphonic writing and particularly when it comes to a symphony labeled with the number "9" as this resonates with the last completed symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler. Glass says that he actually had the Mahler 9 more on his mind than the Beethoven 9.

Here is the first movement of the Symphony No. 9 by Philip Glass.

Any symphony with no text and no external references he calls a "numbered symphony" and the lineage is that of the great symphonic writing extending from Haydn right up to the present day, with these symphonies of Philip Glass.

The other category, that of what he calls "narrative" symphonies, would include several other symphonies by Glass, such as his Symphony No. 6 "Plutonian Ode" with text by Allen Ginsberg. Examples by other composer would include the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven with text by Schiller, but also the Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven, the "Pastoral" because of its programmatic aspect given by the composer. Another like this would be the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz with its program. I would put "La Mer" by Debussy in this category because of its obvious symphonic nature. There are a host of tone poems that you might argue fall in this category, but it would probably be better to allow them their own category to avoid confusion.

Just for fun, let's have a listen to an older member of this lineage and one with the label "9": the Symphony No. 9 by Joseph Haydn, from very early in his output:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Louise Farrenc: Symphony No. 3 in G minor (1847)

Tom Service makes a surprising choice this week. It seems he is trying for maximum diversity and again has come up with a composer I have never heard of before (another was the Russian Myaskovsky)! This one is Louise Farrenc, a French woman composer from the 19th century. Feminist musicologists have been beating the bushes for neglected woman composers for a while now and I suppose the only surprising thing is that they have not turned up more. The ones I am already familiar with from the 19th century include Cécile Chaminade (who lived well into the 20th century) and Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix. But of these three, it seems that Louise Farrenc was the only one to really venture far outside the salon repertoire of songs and piano pieces. She was particularly renowned during her life for her chamber music, but also wrote three symphonies. Ironically, it seems that this itself was the main obstacle to her continued recognition as a composer. Not so much because she was a woman, but because no French composer in the 19th century achieved much recognition unless they had written an opera. Even César Franck wrote opera and secular cantatas.

Tom asserts that "Farrenc’s symphony is as impressively energetic and structurally satisfying as any of Mendelssohn’s or Schumann’s symphonies." Well, perhaps, but in my book that still puts it into the second rank as neither Mendelssohn nor Schumann wrote symphonies that quite match up to their immediate predecessors Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, nor their successors Brahms and Bruckner. But never mind, it was a pleasure to listen to a composer I had previously been completely unfamiliar with. Let's listen to Louis Farrenc's Symphony No. 3:

Oddly, YouTube refuses to find the clip of the whole work that Tom embeds in his article, so I suggest you go there and listen to the whole piece. But here is the link in any case:

In trying to hit the correct feminist points, Tom gets rather more incoherent than usual:
the performance of gender in the symphony in the 19th century is much more complicated and contingent than those labels might make you think. The symphony as transgender interzone of gender representation. 
Would anyone care to translate that into some form of English?

Farrenc's Symphony No. 3 seems quite a decent piece to me. I'm not sure if it directly reminds me of anyone. Perhaps, as Tom suggests, the scherzo is rather Mendelssohnesque. In terms of quality I would put this alongside one of the earlier Schubert symphonies. If there is a problem with the piece it might be something that Tom briefly glances at:
What this piece is not is an heir to Berlioz’s 1829 Symphonie Fantastique– music that was heard, for better and for worse, as a crazed aberration, the insane musings of a drug-addled weirdo (but more of that in a later instalment of this series!). Instead, Farrenc’s musical gods are those of symphonic seriousness and self-referential musical integrity.
The 19th century in music was in part a battle between the conservatives and the progressives, between Brahms on the one hand and Liszt and Wagner on the other. In France, a lot of Berlioz' fame rests on his innovations, such as in the Symphonie fantastique. Brahms was able, through truly heroic efforts, to reestablish the symphony in its most classical form against the burgeoning "tone poems" and other loose forms. But this was an exceptional achievement and he made it work through reimagining the texture in a much denser way. Composers like Farrenc and many others did not quite manage this so their works are neglected because they are simply conservative. At least that is a theory you could argue for!

Let's listen to the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms to see if it gives any support to the theory. This was premiered in 1876 but Brahms had written and thrown away several previous attempts.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Idea of the Canon

I just ran across a rather lengthy but intermittently interesting piece on literature and the idea of the canon which, despite the efforts of a couple of generations of scholars, has refused to disappear. My ongoing symphony project which is to listen, not to every symphony (which is probably impossible), but to all the important symphonies has got me thinking about how we define these things. That word "important" is a bit of a weasel-word--(important to whom and why?)--so let me talk about this a bit.

There are many ways of talking about "the canon" without actually saying those words. For example, yesterday I listened to Mahler's Symphony No. 3 which is over 90 minutes long. The notes to the recording mentioned that it was the "longest symphony in the standard repertoire". This is another way of referring to the canon: standard repertoire, that is, the collection of pieces that most orchestras are likely to play at some point.

This is a larger repertoire than what we might call the "popular" symphonies, though that is a kind of synonym for "the canon" as well. The popular symphonies are those ten or fifteen or forty or fifty pieces that most symphony-goers would recognize immediately: Schubert's "Unfinished", Beethoven's Fifth, Haydn's "Surprise", Mozart's "Jupiter", Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique". Often, but not always, these popular symphonies acquire nicknames. Mozart's 40th is just as popular as his 41st, but has no nickname.

CORRECTION: I actually wrote that only the 9th Symphony of Beethoven had acquired a nickname, completely forgetting about the Eroica and Pastoral. Luckily a reader corrected me!

But, as I was saying, the standard repertoire is larger than just the really popular symphonies and includes pieces that are played pretty often and enjoyed but that have a modest profile in the minds of even concert-goers. I am thinking of pieces like all those wonderful Haydn symphonies that don't have nicknames, the earlier Schubert symphonies, the even-numbered Beethoven symphonies like No. 2 and No. 4 that are played a lot less often.

But then there is another, more obscure category that I'm not sure how we should name: pieces that are certainly part of the repertoire, but are far from being "standard". Pieces, in other words, that are rarely played and only known by and popular with a small percentage of listeners and performers. Perhaps they are pieces that are of merely historical interest, like the symphonies of J. C. Bach. Or perhaps they are just slowly edging their way into some version of the canon like the symphonies of Allan Pettersson. Or perhaps they are just too new like the symphonies of Philip Glass or Peter Maxwell Davies.

What do we need the idea of a canon for, anyway? I think my sketch of the different kinds of canons gives us a clue. There is a functional purpose for each of the different kinds of canons. If you are a music director planning out an orchestral season you want to include some real audience draws: some of the really popular symphonies. But you don't want to use the same ones you did last year. So over the years there accumulates a list of symphonies that are reliably popular with the people that buy season's tickets. That list is constantly changing, though, as symphonies do go in and out of fashion, at least some do. Then there is the other list of symphonies that you include to balance or fill out a program or to lend variety. "We can't keep flogging the same Beethoven symphonies every year, this year let's do a few by Sibelius." So that is how the standard repertoire develops.

Despite what I said about about scholars trying to "cultural theory" the whole idea of a canon out of business, they too play an important role. Some scholars are involved in re-evaluating the worth of parts of the repertoire and how they do this is by giving some works more prominence in their histories or by writing monographs on the composers. Some scholars are trying to educate both musicians and listeners about composers they feel deserve a wider exposure.

So there is a kind of constant "Brownian motion" of symphonies rising and falling in terms of popularity measured by number of performances and recordings.

And apart from mentioning that sometimes the use of a work or more likely a part of a work in a film or television show can give a piece of music a real boost, that pretty much covers what I wanted to say about the canon.

Here is a piece that got a big boost in popularity from being used in a Swedish film called "Elvira Madigan". It's not a symphony, though, it is the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major by Mozart:

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Thrill of the Classical

I was reading a thriller by one of my favorite authors, John D. MacDonald, the other day--one of the Travis McGee series, he of Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This particular novel, The Quick Red Fox, was published in 1966 and the series as a whole spans the period from 1964 to 1985. I don't think I have ever read this particular book before, or not for many years at least, and I was floored when I ran across a brief passage where Travis is describing to us how he updated his sound system on his boat with new speakers, amplifier, etc. He has an artist friend over temporarily, working on a series of illustrations for a children's book, and is about to receive an important visitor. So what piece is he playing to test out his new system? The latest pop? Or, what I might have expected, some Antonio Carlos Jobim? No, au contraire, mes amis, Travis McGee, popular hero and tarnished knight, is playing, wait for it, Leonard Bernstein's recording of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. And no-one, not the artist, nor the important visitor, takes the slightest umbrage at being forced to listen to Shostakovich which MacDonald describes as "one hell of a big bold heroic piece of music".

Well, it is, of course. And here it is:

Big, bold, heroic and a thousand other things, but above all, a great piece of music. So how is it that popular culture now is no longer able to appreciate great music the way it was able to fifty years ago? Classical music is not worse now, certainly Shostakovich 5 is as good as it ever was, and popular music is not better now than it was. Fifty years ago the Beatles were tearing up the charts and just releasing Rubber Soul and Revolver. So what happened? Is it just that simple that two things came to pass? There was great technological advancement in popular music with computerized drum tracks and synths and elaborate music videos combined with a general coarsening of the content of the music. We know what caused the former: a revolution in information technology. But what caused the latter?

You got me...

Uncompromising Music

At a rough estimate, I have written over a million words on this blog. That's approximately 800 words per post and over 1300 posts. I think that amounts to several books worth of thoughts on music. So I'm thinking, what with the fact that it is easier than ever to self-publish an e-book, that after I get this symphony finished in the next month or so, I might look into putting together an e-book of the most worthwhile posts from the blog. The Music Salon needs some commercial product! After this come the coffee mugs and t-shirts. I'm kidding. Well, maybe not about the t-shirts...

So I would like to ask my readers, do you think this is a good idea? Would anyone actually purchase such a book? I would try to add value, of course. The book would collect just those posts that are outstanding and I would work them over to improve the writing and argument. Remember, these posts are mostly thrown together on the day and would undoubtedly benefit from editing. The question is, what sort of posts to choose and what sections the book would fall into. Discussion of individual pieces of music would be one section, while others might include some chapters on pop music, some on aesthetics, some on the lives of musicians, etc.

There are some other important questions: how should I handle the problem of YouTube embedding? A lot of older posts have seen the original YouTube examples disappear. Should I include YouTube links at all or just say, "for the following musical example, go to YouTube and type 'Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata' into the search bar." And another big problem is how to title the book. One possibility is the title of this post: "Uncompromising Music" because that might give readers a hint as to the basic stance. But I could go with one of those lengthy titles so many non-fiction books are saddled with these days: "Exploring Music with a Performer/Composer/Musicologist: Getting the Inside Scoop on What's Wrong with Music These Days and How to Fix It".


Or maybe I should just write a few more symphonies?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Here is what I have been listening to lately in my comprehensive survey of the symphony:

Now, I know what you are thinking, "isn't this the same guy that has always been complaining about how he can't stand the Mahler symphonies?" Sure, in recent years I have found them rather irritating for a number of reasons, but I have decided to do a comprehensive listening survey of the symphonic repertoire and Mahler's are some of the highest-regarded symphonies ever written. A few decades ago I was a big fan and listened to them a lot. Back then, purchasing even one meant buying an expensive box!

In any case, Mahler was on my list to re-listen to and I finally got to him just the other day. I realized that I have not listened to a Mahler symphony all the way through for years and I have never sat down and listened to all nine (or ten) in order. So that's what I am doing. They are, of course, enormously skilled compositions, superbly orchestrated. After I am done, I will have some more detailed comments and some criticisms.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Compared to Mozart...

Norman Lebrecht has an item up about a passage from the memoirs of Ludwig-William Ferguson-Tepper where he recounts a meeting with Joseph Haydn where he spoke very glowingly of Mozart, still alive at the time. Follow the link for the whole context, but here is the Haydn quote:
"Ah, sir: we have someone in Vienna who will crush us all; he is a universal genius compared to whom I am a child."
It would be nice to have the original German (I assume the remark was made in German as Haydn's English was not very fluent). But of course, Haydn said something similar to Mozart's father Leopold to the effect that they would not see his son's like again for a hundred years. And that is probably an understatement.

Haydn, despite rising to the height of being the most famous composer in all of Europe, was actually a humble man and had no reticence in praising his dear friend Mozart. Mozart in his turn learned a great deal from Haydn--just compare his string quartets written before he heard Haydn's op 20 and 33 with those he wrote after, and dedicated to the master.

But Mozart was indeed a universal genius and we will likely never see his like again. He was a child prodigy as a composer, not just a performer. We are inundated these days with 13, 12, even 9 year old child sopranos with startling voices. But we have never been inundated with child composers. Apart from a couple of minor examples, we have only Mozart.

I think I have mentioned before playing a little duet with a student many years ago. It was a minuet by Mozart transcribed for two guitars and the very thorough German publisher had indicated the year of composition on the score. After we got to the end I glanced at the date, did a quick mental calculation and said to my young, 9 year old student: "good heavens, do you realize that Mozart wrote this when he was seven years old!" It keeps happening. I am teaching myself piano right now and just was playing another little piece written by Mozart when he was six!

Just to summarize, Mozart began composing when he was five, wrote his first symphony at age eight, his first opera at eleven, his first commissioned opera at fourteen and so on. No, as a matter of fact I know of no others with this kind of precociousness. It was only possible because he was, in the words of Allan Pettersson, "born under a piano". Born, that is to say, into the family of a famous violinist and composer, his father Leopold Mozart. This also created difficulties for Mozart his whole life in terms of separating himself from the excessive influence of his father.

But Haydn, in his enthusiasm, was actually over-stating the case a bit. Mozart is not actually a better composer than Haydn. Don't take my word for it, go and listen to all the symphonies of Mozart and all the symphonies of Haydn. It should take about a month. I'll wait.

* * *

All done? You see what I mean? Mozart wrote several spectacular symphonies, but, like his string quartets, most of his early ones are rather crude and forgettable. And, of course, he wouldn't likely have written any truly great symphonies if he hadn't learned so much from Haydn. Now Haydn, on the other hand, had to figure it all out for himself. He didn't have much in the way of influences. He never knew the music of Bach very well (Mozart only came across it later in life) and the Classical style that we are so familiar with was largely the invention of Mr. Haydn. Who proceeded to write, not several, but one hundred and six symphonies, most of them spectacular.

It is rather ironic that someone once wrote to Beethoven, on the eve of his moving to Vienna, that he would "receive the spirit of (the recently deceased) Mozart from the hands of Haydn". The reality is that Beethoven disliked his lessons with Haydn and instead emulated the forms and structures of a number of pieces of Mozart directly. The greater truth is that Beethoven actually received from Mozart the spirit of Haydn. 

Let me see if I can find an example. Here is the scherzo from the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven:

Now compare it to the last movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 41, chosen pretty much at random (the last movement starts around the 15:12 mark):

The Haydn symphony was written in 1769 when Mozart was thirteen years old and Beethoven wasn't even born yet!

I guess my point is simply that of these three great Viennese classicists, Haydn and Mozart had the greatest mutual respect, while Beethoven admired Mozart and begrudged Haydn's fame. In terms of aesthetic quality, they are all three remarkable, but while Mozart is hugely admired along with Beethoven, Haydn gets much less recognition. He didn't even make the New York Times list of the top ten greatest composers. But he is in absolutely no sense a lesser composer than Mozart or Beethoven. Compared to Mozart, he is also a universal genius.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Stormy Weather and Lyrical Islands

Now that I have worked my way through the last of the Pettersson symphonies, I can make some further comments. These are challenging and troubling works. There were times, such as forty or fifty minutes into the Symphony No. 13, when I was ready to give up on a piece. And then a passage of warm humanity broke through the suffering and seemed to redeem it all.

Sometimes you want to say that there has never been a clearer case of OCD in music. There are certainly obsessive qualities in the music: the compulsive hammering on a single rhythm, the seeming inability to stop the music from constantly hastening to the next climax. The sudden quiet, followed by more compulsive ranting. At times one feels that one is experiencing a mental disorder.

The piece that I feel might be the real historical precedent for Pettersson's way of composing is Schoenberg's equally troubling Erwartung, composed in 1909:

A symphony by Pettersson is akin to a stream-of-consciousness novel by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. There are few traditional structural elements, which, paradoxically, makes the music perhaps more modernist than the music of some of the more well-known figures in modernism. I had always thought that Erwartung was an experiment in athematic stream-of-consciousness that had no heirs, not even in the music of Schoenberg himself. But I think that Pettersson, perhaps without realizing it, was proceeding on a similar path.

The phrases "stormy weather" and "lyrical islands" are used quite a number of times by the writer of the liner notes to the complete recordings, Andreas K. W. Meyer, and they seem appropriate. Pettersson, while exploring a wealth of atmospheric effects, often seems to create a dichotomy between a stormy mood and a lyrical one.

With one exception, I found all the symphonies both listenable and fascinating. The exception being the Symphony No. 12, "The Death of the Square", a choral symphony based on texts by Pablo Neruda. This is a frankly political work inspired by the events in Chile around the time of its composition. I don't believe Pettersson, on the evidence of this piece, to be a good composer for choir and I think it was a mistake to venture into the political field when all the rest of his work repudiates the whole notion of politics in music.

But the rest of the symphonies, while demanding and often grueling to listen to, do fascinate and have an uncompromising approach to music that is to be admired. The central group of works, nos. 5 through 9, written in the decade of the sixties, are probably the most accessible. The Symphony No. 9 will likely strain your powers of concentration with its single movement, seventy minute span. But in many ways it is the best of his symphonies with both powerful expression and the sense that it has a real coherence to it. The ending has a long, powerful unison passage for the strings ending with what I swear sounds like a plagal cadence!

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a clip of it on YouTube. But there is still a box of the symphonies available from Amazon:

We can find the Symphony No. 8, atypically in two movements, in one of the few commercial recordings of Pettersson's work, with Sergiu Comissiona conducting the Baltimore Symphony. Here is the first movement:

Friday Miscellanea

Canada's singing astronaut, Chris Hadfield, is still doing musical projects as we learn from this piece in the Globe and Mail. If you remember, a while back Chris, who is a pretty fair singer and guitar player as well as being a fighter pilot and astronaut, did his cover of a David Bowie tune. The first music video shot in space!

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For all of us who might be lacking in self-confidence, here is the "Kanye West Self-Confidence Generator". My favorite quote:
"For me to say I wasn't a genius, I would just be lying to you and to myself."
Wow. Now I'm having a moment of cognitive dissonance because when I hear what he actually does:

I think, what a load of crap...

But that's just me, right?

* * *

One entrepreneur in West Hartford, CN, has a plan to stage Wagner's Ring with a digital orchestra. The New York Times has the details. My orchestral musician friend says that the comment around the musician's union office i"Welcome to the blacksmiths' union!" Or, perhaps, buggy-whip manufacturer's association?

* * *

And now, in the interests of pandering to the audience, three supposedly classical musicians decide to do their impression of Taraf de Haïdouks (or any gypsy ensemble). Seems to me that this is the musical equivalent of a bad ethnic joke.

* * *

Ginger Baker is a wild man. One third of the super group that invented heavy metal, Cream, he is one of the finest rock drummers ever. Mind you, he has always thought of himself as a jazz drummer. He once said about Cream that while Eric Clapton might have thought they were playing the blues, he and bassist Jack Bruce were doing jazz. If you were in a group with him, there was always the slight danger of getting stabbed if you pissed him off enough. Just a rumor! In any case, Mr. Baker, now age 74, is just about to do a tour of the US with his group Jazz Confusion and he has a new album coming out on June 24th. In an article in the Wall Street Journal he muses about what really turned him on to music.

Here he is in a Cream revival concert in, I believe, 2005, showing what a groove is:

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And while we are talking about drummers, here is an article that really could have benefitted from a little Ginger Baker. From Open Culture are the isolated drum tracks from several big names in drumming. But I was disappointed they didn't feature Ginger Baker and the one they picked for Ringo is less interesting than a lot of other tracks. I think Ringo's drumming on, for example "Rain" and "Something" pretty much makes both those songs. Here is "Something". Just listen to the drums:

And "Rain":

And here is Ginger Baker, with the only rock drum part I know of that has a front beat instead of a back beat:

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And here is the very best of very good news: Scott Ross' complete Scarlatti is again available, this time at a reasonable price: 34 discs and lots of documentation. Here is a review. And here is what you would be missing if you didn't order this box set:

But, wow, who painted the case?

* * *

Norman Lebrecht picks up on an anniversary I am sure I would have missed, the tercentenary of the birth of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762), an important writer on aesthetics. Of course Norman manages to both muddy the waters and insult the practice of aesthetics. Wikipedia describes the work of Baumgarten as follows:
With the development of art as a commercial enterprise linked to the rise of a nouveau riche class across Europe, the purchasing of art inevitably lead to the question, "what is good art?". Baumgarten developed aesthetics to mean the study of good and bad "taste", thus good and bad art, linking good taste with beauty.
By trying to develop an idea of good and bad taste, he also in turn generated philosophical debate around this new meaning of aesthetics. Without it, there would be no basis for aesthetic debate as there would be no objective criterion, basis for comparison, or reason from which one could develop an objective argument.
 Norman finishes his comment with this:
Kant said of him (in Critique of Pure Reason, 1781): The Germans are the only people who presently have come to use the word aesthetic[s] to designate what others call the critique of taste. They are doing so on the basis of a false hope conceived by that superb analyst Baumgarten. He hoped to bring our critical judging of the beautiful under rational principles, and to raise the rules for such judging to the level of a lawful science. That endeavour is futile.
Next time you’re judging a music competition, remember that.
As a matter of fact, I have judged lots of music competitions, often in company with other adjudicators and I am struck by how often, despite coming from different traditions and locales, we come up with very similar results. I can remember hearing a young guitarist in a competition in Quebec with another judge from the Maritimes (me being originally from the West Coast, but I studied in Spain) and, after hearing the guitarist, the other judge turned to me and said: "what do you think? Around 81 or 82?" This is out of a hundred. I was thinking the same thing. Norman's little sneer on behalf of absolute relativism in aesthetics is incoherent on the face of it. If there are no objective criteria for aesthetic judgement, then the very idea of a music competition is incoherent.

Oh, and of course Baumgarten did not "invent" aesthetics, but just reconfigured it for the needs of a new age. Probably the best candidate would be Aristotle whose Poetics are usually accorded the title of being the first work on aesthetics.

And there were a lot of other people working on aesthetics in the mid-18th century, among them David Hume. Here is an excellent article on his aesthetics.

* * *

Let's end with a bit more Scarlatti from the fingers of Scott Ross. Here is K. 455 (Scarlatti really had a gift for catchy titles):

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Composers and Control

On page 34 of Charles Rosen's wonderful book The Classical Style, he tosses off a little remark in a parenthesis:
(The greater the composer, the larger the terms of his control over the significance of his ideas, even when the range of his conception is deliberately narrowed: that is why Chopin must be considered in the company of the greatest in spite of the limitations of genre and medium that he imposed on upon himself.)
Now, what does this mean, exactly? The context is a discussion of the usefulness of Schenkerian analysis in the Classical period and specifically the long term linearity of some compositions. I'm not sure if this is the example Rosen would choose, but it makes me think of how the way the theme of the opening fugue of Beethoven's quartet op 131 prefigures the key of the second movement:

Click to enlarge

The key is C# minor, but notice how the sf in m. 2 highlights an A natural. When the subject is answered, atypically, on the subdominant in mm 4 et seq., the sf now falls on a D natural, the Neapolitan. The significance of this (or some of it) is revealed at the beginning of the second movement when the octave C#s that end the first movement are suddenly contradicted by the second movement opening, with an octave from D to D, the new tonic key:

Click to enlarge
So this is an example of Beethoven's control over the significance of his ideas, if that means that the stressing of A and D natural in the fugue theme is significant in prefiguring the second movement. I'm ok with all that. What troubles me is the assumption that this guarantees aesthetic greatness: "the greater the composer..."

You see, I, and lots of other people, are perfectly capable of sitting down and crafting a long-term linear strategy for a composition that would control every aspect of it. In fact, there are a whole lot of examples from the mid-20th century. I am thinking of pieces like Milton Babbitt's Partitions dating from 1957. Decades ago I spent some time analyzing this piece with a student of Babbitt's and the whole piece is very complexly organized:

Another example might be Structures by Pierre Boulez:

And there would be many examples from Stockhausen who has many ways of organizing a composition. Setting aside the aesthetic quality of these pieces for the moment, I want to argue that, whatever their aesthetic quality, it is not a result of the degree of organization of the material.

There was a whole school of composition that wanted to achieve the total control of every detail and one version of this was called "total serialism" and you can read something about it here.

The closest I got to this kind of method was a piece I wrote in the late 1970s for two guitars and harpsichord. I derived all the pitches from a scale calculated using prime numbers. But everything that went into the actual expression and aesthetic impact of the piece really had nothing to do with prime numbers. The aesthetic impact of a piece of music is the result of a complex blend of factors that include timbre (single, blends and changing), phrase structure, harmony, rhythm and most especially how these elements are integrated. In pieces like those posted above, there is most certainly an aesthetic impact, but the relation between that and the compositional methodology is obscure.

A great example is Alban Berg who used serial techniques, but shaped them so as to achieve a strong expressive effect.

What is missing from the account that says "the greater the composer, the larger the terms of his control over the significance of his ideas" is the way the ideas are received. Are they graceful, emotionally compelling, atmospheric, delicate, brutal, forceful, driving, serene or a thousand other things? This is what the listener hears. The foundations are important, but you can build some remarkably ugly buildings on sound foundations!

Taking the Beethoven example, yes, it is significant and beautifully crafted the way he uses that D natural to set up the second movement. But the bulk of the expressive weight of the first movement is not that particularly, but the expressive power of the theme and the way he interweaves it.

Believe me, I wish that all it took to write a great piece of music was significant control of the ideas. But it's not. One indispensable element is to have musical ideas that are just great to listen to. Right?