Thursday, July 31, 2014

Musical Taste

The New York Times has a piece in the Sunday Book Review on the cultural categories "highbrow", "middlebrow" and "lowbrow". Though focusing on literature a couple of things are said about cultural categories in general. Writer Pankaj Mishra summarizes like this:
Such distinctions as lowbrow, highbrow and middlebrow are now mostly useful in identifying their early adopters: a tiny minority of artists and intellectuals who felt a sense of siege as capitalism became global. Political defeat, isolation and irrelevance had devastated their old presuppositions about art and its relation to human beings. Modernism was their last desperate attempt to reimagine modernity, to move beyond bourgeois notions of representation and harmony. But it turned out to be a patchy and mostly elitist phenomenon.
The glaring error in this version of things is the not-so-hidden assumption that capitalism is the enemy of high culture. This must mean that socialism is the friend? Historically, socialists of various stripes are the first to politicize and propagandize the arts; while some of the greatest music ever written was commissioned and supported by members of the aristocracy. An example: virtually every note written by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Another view comes from writer Thomas Mallon who says:
Criticism is the realm in which I’d prefer to see hierarchy abide. In the end, we’re all better off with a republic of letters, not a democracy. No amount of mindless “liking” or one-star customer-comment scorn can replace the lengthier, more considered critical judgments we used to have time to write and read. With everyone clamoring for recognition in the same ether — with everyone now, in effect, his own publisher — our judgments are ever less nuanced, ever more nasty or stupidly appreciative. Speed is imperative, and rumination is out. The brow that’s really in danger of disappearing is the furrowed one.
And this is the main reason for the existence of this blog, of course. While not aiming for serious scholarship, I try to provide a more thoughtful understanding of music than is available in the mass media. "Stupidly appreciative" captures rather well most writing about pop music in the mass media, don't you think? Those kinds of writing are so ubiquitous I won't even link one for you. But even the supposedly "highbrow" discussions of popular music in the mass media are bizarrely superficial. Here is a case in point, a nearly interminable piece on Bob Dylan by Bill Wyman. Here is a sample from near the beginning:
We think of Dylan in a pantheon of great rock stars, at or near the top of a select list that includes the Stones, Springsteen, maybe U2, but not too many other active artists. But he behaves much differently. He’s released more albums than Bruce Springsteen in the past 25 years and played more shows than Springsteen, the Stones, and U2 combined. Yet he hardly ever does interviews and does virtually nothing to publicize his albums or tours. For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher. Normal questions don’t seem to do him justice. You want to ask: What is Bob Dylan? Why is Bob Dylan? After listening to him since I was a kid and seeing him live for—gulp—nearly 40 years, I think I’m beginning to figure it out.
How could anyone think of Bob Dylan, of all people, as a "rock star"? And then go on to set him beside the Stones, Springsteen and U2? If that is how Wyman sees Bob Dylan, then no wonder he thinks he is weird. Bob Dylan is a songwriter, one of the greatest of the 20th century and the people you might compare him to are Lennon and McCartney and Leonard Cohen. He doesn't like being a celebrity and avoids being treated as one. Plus, he likes to mislead interviewers. I think that understanding these few things clears up all of Bill Wyman's confusion! But Mr. Wyman is confused by nature, I suspect. Take this sentence for example:
For an artist as rooted in our musical culture as Dylan, the linearity of a narrative works more to disconnect him from the influences and traditions his work comprises than to explain him.
Is there any possible way that that sentence means anything at all? Self-contradictory meaningless drivel is how I would describe it. This sentence I found particularly entertaining:
His uncanny musicianship—producing enduring melodies and lovely harmonica solos—included an ability to effortlessly transpose keys that would impress professionals throughout his career.
Heh, heh, heh! Enduring melodies? Compared to whom? Tom Waits? Bob Dylan writes great songs, but their strong point is their lyrics. It is hard to think of many that have much of a memorable melody. They tend to wander back and forth between two or three notes. They are eminently suited to his striking lyrics, but on their own? When was the last time you were in an elevator and heard an instrumental version of a Dylan song? "Lovely harmonica solos"? Oh, good lord. Dylan's harmonica playing is almost as grating as his singing. Though there are times when both are quite nice. But no-one would ever hire Bob Dylan as a harmonica session man. The "ability to effortlessly transpose keys" I will, in the absence of concrete evidence, attribute to his ownership of a capo. By simple clamping one onto the neck of the guitar you can transpose up nearly any interval. For example, "All Along the Watchtower" is in C# minor on the album John Wesley Harding due to him putting a capo on the fourth fret and playing in A minor. Jimi Hendrix doesn't use a capo and just plays it in A minor.

Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of interesting information in the essay about Dylan's personal life, but it is so flawed, inaccurate and just ignorant about the music that you can't trust it.

I see I have gotten far from my topic, which was the idea of levels of taste. As I am sure I have said before on many occasions, musical taste is pretty simple, really. There are different levels, aesthetically, and they require a different approach. On what you might call the lowbrow level there is simple dance and pop music. This would include EDM and most pop music you hear. It is designed to be appreciated immediately and serves a number of utilitarian functions. Dances and serenades from the 18th century probably were not much different.

But there are always artists, like Bob Dylan and Lennon and McCartney, who transcend the medium and who create at least middlebrow and sometimes even highbrow music.

Middlebrow I would describe as music that takes a bit more exposure to enjoy and would include a lot of world music as well as some pop and dance music. Examples would include a lot of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads. Maybe some Lady Gaga? Classical examples would include pieces like Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and a lot of other classical "hits" like Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, arrangements of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", Handel's Hallelujah chorus, the "Moonlight" sonata and so on.

Highbrow is most of classical music and certainly all the difficult stuff like Beethoven quartets, whole symphonies and sonatas, most operas and contemporary music. Highbrow music is usually longer and in a kind of structure that is not immediately obvious. In order to appreciate it you need more exposure and perhaps even some study of the background. It is standard operating procedure for me to read up on the composer and the piece if I have no knowledge beforehand.

I think that is about all I wanted to say today on this. Let's listen to some of that weird guy, Bob Dylan. I really wanted to put up something else from John Wesley Harding, but it seems that they keep most of the original versions off YouTube. Here is "All Along the Watchtower":

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Musicians Have Several Words for Time

Sorry I didn't get anything posted yesterday--just too busy!

You know that old folk-tale that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow? Turns out that isn't actually true. I grew up in northern Canada and while we certainly dealt with a lot of different kinds of snow, ice, sleet, frost and related phenomena, we still only had a few words. Which turned out to be sufficient.

I don't know enough about the other time-arts like theater and film, but I do know that in music, we have a lot of words for time. Or as it is often put: "timing".
  • Time: in music the only time we use the word "time" or "timing" is in calculating the duration of a piece of music. This is the length of a track on a CD in minutes and seconds.
  • Tempo: is the word that describes the pace of a piece of music as fast or slow. We actually have a whole bunch of words in different languages that specifically identify a particular pace or tempo. Allegro is a fairly quick tempo and adagio a slow one.
  • Beat or Pulse: this is what you follow when you tap your foot or bob your head to a piece of music. If you want to be fancy, you could also call this the tactus.
  • Meter: In nearly all music, beats are grouped into packages. When written down, these packages are defined by barlines and at the beginning of the score you are told what is in the packages with a time signature. The time signature tells you the meter, such as 3/4 or 9/8. The 3/4 signature says that there are three beats in a bar and each beat is written as a quarter note. 9/8 is a bit more complicated because each beat is a dotted quarter note and there are three of them in the bar. When you have this kind of thing it is called a "compound" meter.
  • Rhythm: is the pattern of notes of different durations that make up the actual melody and accompaniment of the music.
These are the basic words that describe "time" in music. But there are host of other ones that tell the performer to slow down (ritardando, rallentando, allargando) or speed up (accelerando, stringendo) or to modify in some other way the basic pace. Wikipedia has an article on tempo words that lists a lot of examples.

We also use numbers to precisely define an exact tempo and some composers use only that. This is why you may see a track on an album listed as a musical note equals 80 or another number. This means that the note is the pulse and there are X number of them in a minute. In an odd sort of way, that is the "name" of that particular movement. Otherwise it would be allegro or some other tempo word. Interestingly, there seems to be a trend in composers in recent decades to name their pieces with something evocative. So Esa-Pekka Salonen, if he is not writing a concerto, might call a piece Nyx after the Greek goddess of night. Debussy was one of the first to make a practice of this with his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and other pieces. But the tradition of calling a piece "Symphony No. 1" and listing the movements by their tempos still continues with some genres. If Debussy had followed that practice I suppose he might have titled his piece just Très modéré as that is the tempo word at the beginning of thPrélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. But the title is definitely better!

Let's listen to that one to end:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Symphony Guide on Mahler 9

I don't have time to put up a post this morning, but I do want to draw your attention to the new Symphony Guide essay on the Symphony No. 9 by Gustav Mahler in today's Guardian. I might make some comments later on.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday Miscellanea

This won't be a regular feature, but I didn't have a larger topic this morning, so here are some short items.

Let's start with this carefully prepared analytical chart of the anatomy of songs:

The "weird key change" interests me, but not quite enough for me to actually listen to some songs to see if it is true or not. But I strongly suspect "not" because if there is one thing that is true of current pop is that it is not into weird key changes. Or any key changes. Sometimes not even into changing the chord.

* * *

Just starting to listen my way through The Debussy Edition, a reasonably-priced collection of music from Deutsche Gramaphon by Debussy issued on the 150th anniversary of his birth, in 2012. It is not called "The Complete Debussy", probably because it is not complete. But it does have all the Debussy you really need. One surprising thing is that seven of the eighteen discs, or over a third, are devoted to vocal music, mostly songs (chansons or mélodies as Debussy called them) with a couple of discs devoted to his operPelléas et Mélisande. One really doesn't think of Debussy as so devoted to song, but it is the largest item in his output. Here is the first of four mélodies on poems by Paul Verlaine:

* * *

Jimi Hendrix, in his early career, was known for playing the guitar in weird ways and ending by soaking it with lighter fluid and setting it on fire. But he wasn't the first to wow audiences (nor the last as Stevie Ray Vaughan did some behind-the-back guitar playing as well). Here is some rather spectacular showmanship by a violinist on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1959. Not on YouTube, but here is the link:

* * *

Here, courtesy of Norman Lebrecht is a well-written article about music criticism from the composer's point of view. Here is Derek Bermel talking about the first nasty review he received.
Each victim recalls this traumatic moment differently. Some remember every reprehensible word, taking a masochistic pleasure in reading aloud the cruelest phrases, perhaps hoping that the brutal edges will gradually soften. Others, optimists, scour the few lines of text for all they’re worth, seeking to dredge from the muck a vaguely positive – or even neutral – spin. With what other experience can it be compared? Perhaps a sudden, bitter breakup…a few stark words etched instantly into the jilted lover’s brain. In this particular instance, I retained most vividly the summing-up: “Bluesy notions hardly worth a sideways glance.”
And here is the piece that prompted the review:

Which sounds like it deserves a good review!

* * *

Judith Weir has been appointed Master of the Queen's Music, taking over from Peter Maxwell Davies. I honestly did not think much about the gender of the appointee, until that is, I noticed that the discussion in every single article about the appointment was almost entirely devoted to the gender issue! Here is the article in Sinfini Music, for example. An extract:
One of the most striking aspects of the commentary around Judith Weir’s appointment as Master of the Queen’s Music has been just how much of it has been about her gender – as if somehow her being a woman comes first, and her being a composer comes second.
And this article follows lockstep! Look, all you media folks, all you have to do to break with the narrative is break with the narrative. Just write one article about the appointment that is not entirely focussed on Judith Weir's gender. But no, every article has to be about the terrible, awful bias in the classical music world. Pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy. An example:
I would also note that (as rather unedifying recent debate about women conductors, or indeed opera singers, has revealed) there is still a strong undercurrent of sexism – by which I mean treatment of people either more or less seriously or respectfully because of their gender – bubbling under the surface of the music industry. What assumptions are we holding, consciously or unconsciously, about women composers?
This very quote, of course, is itself a perfect example of sexism. You should also notice that apart from two adjectives (magical, beguiling) there is absolutely no mention whatsoever of Judith Weir's music, just the gender issue.

* * *

 So let's listen to some music by Judith Weir. Here is a movement from a string quartet:

Yes, I know she is better-known for her vocal music and opera, but I always find how composers approach the string quartet to be revealing.

* * *

UPDATE: Just a kind of footnote to my post on The Art of Repetition. The French painter Matisse once said: "A square meter of blue is more blue than a square centimeter of blue." And he meant aesthetically of course. And in music, when you repeat something, it has a different weight the second time than the first time. And when you repeat it several times, it has a different weight and effect again.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Music Competitions

I have written about music competitions before. Here is my account of my personal experiences with music competitions, both as competitor and judge.

The Guardian has an article up in which Julian Lloyd Webber discusses the problem of corruption in classical music competitions. I hadn't even considered this problem!
Classical music competitions are rife with corruption and bribery, Julian Lloyd Webber has claimed.
The distinguished cellist and conductor, and brother of musicals impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, told the Times that the winners of internationally esteemed music competitions were chosen by jurors selecting their own pupils.
The competitions, which can award more than £15,000 to winners, are often seen as the launching pad for the classical careers of talented young musicians.
However, Lloyd Webber said corruption was rife in Britain and abroad, singling out the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, held every four years and open to musicians between the ages of 16 and 30, as the most prestigious example of unscrupulous judging.
Gee, if only I had known! But, since I never had any money, I guess I couldn't have bribed anyone even if I had known about the possibility. Of course, there may be less corruption in classical guitar competitions simply because the stakes are so low compared to those for other instruments or for conductors.

I had an interesting discussion with one very prominent classical guitarist about his experience with competitions. I probably should not mention his name. In any case, he told me that the Really Big Competition that he participated in resulted in him coming in second with a less-talented performer (based on my own estimation and that of this guitarist's subsequent career) coming in first. His opinion was that the placing was so obviously wrong--plain to most people in the audience--that it actually helped his career more to come in second than first as the scandal had more legs than the actual results. In any case, his career has done famously since and I don't think he even bothered to enter any more competitions.

So, as a young artist what should you do? At this cynical stage in my life, I might suggest that you should look around and try to find the most corrupt competitions and start saving money for strategic bribes. After all, when you stick in your bio that you won the Dubrovnik Classical Guitar Competition, are the people reading this publicity blurb going to know or care how you won it? They are just going to assume you won through sheer talent. I think I would give this advice because, based on competitions I have followed carefully, attending the various stages, the most talented musician NEVER wins. Even in competitions where there is no corruption. Why? I suspect because of the general dumbwittedness of the judges, some of whom might even be jealous of a really outstanding musician. Certainly a musician with an original and creative approach is going to be punished accordingly.

But all that being said, great artists do sometimes win competitions... Two examples, Scott Ross who won the Concours de Bruges in 1971 at age 20 and Grigory Sokolov who won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1966 at age 16. So I guess if you are a superlative musician you might do well if you enter competitions at an early age. At least back then. Now, I'm not so sure. And Julian Lloyd Webber is convinced not.

Let's listen to a performance by each of those two competition winners. First, Scott Ross playing a little François Couperin:

And second, Grigory Sokolov playing a Brahms Intermezzo:

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Aesthetic Models

Not this kind of aesthetic model:

But an aesthetic model in the sense of a example of the aesthetic strategy of a musical composition. Hmm, well that wasn't very clear! What I mean is that, since the rebirth of aesthetics in the 18th century, various models have been proposed to explain how music works. Philosopher Peter Kivy in his book The Fine Art of Repetition: Essays in the Philosophy of Music describes three of these models as the "literary" model, the "organism" model and the "wallpaper" model. How does this work? Well, these are what I would usually call metaphors: music is "like" literature in that it can be akin to a "discourse" (think perhaps of a dialogue between the instruments in a Haydn string quartet) or a "drama" (think of piece of music that reminds you of an emotional play) or a "narrative" (think of a piece of music that is like an emotional story--perhaps the "stormy weather" of a Pettersson symphony resolving into a "lyrical island").

Why is a piece of music like a narrative? Kivy says because it is experienced as a series of ordered events. This was a popular way of looking at music in the 18th century. A theme or subject in a piece of music is perhaps similar to a character in a play or novel. Different themes interact the way different characters interact. As my conviction is that these are nothing more than metaphors, my feeling is that as soon as you try to examine the details of how this might work, the metaphor collapses.

The "organism" model might seem to have more accuracy as it proposes that a piece of music is like an organism that follows certain patterns of development as it unfolds and develops, progresses to a goal and is organized in a way similar to that of living systems.

The weakest model of all, at least to someone who is trying to establish music as a prestige art for whatever "truths" it may hold for us, is the "wallpaper" model. Music is mere patterns of decoration or adornment. It is to the ears what perfume is to the nose or wallpaper to the eyes.

Now here is where I depart from Professor Kivy who goes on to discuss how the "wallpaper" model is able to account for the phenomenon of repetition in music while the others cannot. Instead, I am going to propose some other aesthetic models for the construction of music.

  • Music is like a landscape. It is often inspired by and modeled after natural scenes (from Vivaldi to Haydn to Beethoven to Berlioz to Mahler to Debussy to Stockhausen whose Gruppen was inspired by the outline of mountains in Switzerland).
  • Music is like architecture. It is often inspired by and modeled after buildings and architectural principles (from Dufay to Gabrieli to Bach to Berlioz again to Edgar Varèse)
  • Music is like a painting. It is often inspired by and modeled after paintings (from Granados to Michael Tippett to Morton Feldman who were inspired by Goya, Picasso and Mark Rothko respectively)
  • Music is like a mathematical formula. It is often inspired by and modeled after things like the Fibonacci sequence or set theory or even chance operations, which are all mathematical (from Mozart to Bartók to John Cage to Stockhausen).
So there are four other aesthetic models. With the aid perhaps of a bottle of Châteauneuf-Du-Pape Vieux Telegraph 1985 I might be able to come up with even more.

So why have I come up with so many more models than Professor Kivy? I think the simple answer is that he is looking at the philosophical literature on aesthetic models and I am looking at the actual music.

Here is the truth of it: the inspiration for a piece of music can come from almost anywhere. A brief list of some of the most obvious would include relationships, especially ones that end unhappily (that accounts for over 50% of all pop music), sensory experiences aided by drugs (that accounts for Pink Floyd and all other "psychedelic" music), basic somatic things like dance and bodily movements generally (ballet, etc.), just walking around in the beautiful countryside (which inspired Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Bruckner and me), the calls of birds (Messiaen), philosophy (Richard Strauss), machinery and factory sounds (the Italian futurists) and on and on. In fact, if you cited any random thing or event, it is likely that there was a piece of music that was inspired by it. Boats? Any number of ballads and songs.

UPDATE: Here's a nice example:

What happens when an inspiration strikes is why I want to say that every aesthetic model mentioned above is nothing more than a metaphor. Because the instant you have an inspiration, the next microsecond you move from whatever inspired you into the music. An example? You see some absolutely striking natural sight and what happens is that you start having a musical thought: a little tune or fragment comes to you, you "hear" a particular orchestral color or perhaps a rhythm comes to mind. These things happen because your imagination is a musical one, which means that everything that inspires you is instantly converted into a musical idea.

The natural landscape, or whatever prompted the inspiration, is just the catalyst. It is like dropping a grain of sand into a super-saturated solution. This "causes" the solution to crystallize, but only because it was on the verge of so doing and needed only a tiny stimulus to flip over. That is how musical inspiration works. An ordinary person has an erotic experience and says, "wow, that was nice". Bob Dylan has one and writes a song:

Now, of course, I am departing a long way from Peter Kivy's idea of an aesthetic model. But that is because, as far as I can see, both his models and my lists of inspirations are not so different. I say this because all these attempts to link music to something in the ordinary world, whether it is a play or a living organism or wallpaper, are nothing more than metaphor and have no more real relationship to the music than whatever it might have been that gave the inspiration to the composer, from a seascape to a trout to a painting.

Here is how I see music: it is a dimension or facet of the world that is quite independent of ordinary reality. What works and makes sense in the world of music is unique to it. There is no equivalent to parallel fifths or Neapolitan 6ths in the real world. Things in the real world may inspire composers, but what they create is a musical creation, essentially autonomous of physical reality. Music manifests itself to us, with the aid of performers, as patterns of sound and silence that, in their turn, inspire thoughts in us that are actually metaphors. Music also inspires moods, feelings and bodily sensations. It may make us jump up and dance, for example. But music itself is another dimension. This is, of course, why musicians so often seem a bit other-worldly.

Let me see, what would be an appropriate piece of music? La Mer by Claude Debussy, of course:

UPDATE: I just realized that this post, a bit obliquely, explains the joke behind the title of a piano piece by Erik Satie. The piece is titled "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear" and the joke is that anything can be the inspiration for a piece of music, even a fruit, but that there is no actual necessary relationship between the form of the piece of music and the form of the inspiration:

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Let's kick off this edition of the Friday Miscellanea with one of the most blatantly suggestive publicity photos I have seen since, uh, Rihanna. This is cellist Ana Rucner advertising ... something:

* * *

And here is a big article about how the really important artists in shaping today's music scene are actually Led Zeppelin. But the writer also sounds like sometimes he doesn't like them much:
Today “Whole Lotta Love” is so famous that it’s easy to forget that it’s probably one of the stranger singles to scale the upper heights of theBillboard charts. For starters, it’s not much of a song: There are no chord changes to speak of, and the “bridge” is an extended interlude that sounds like someone faking (?) an orgasm in a haunted house. The rest of the track is just a guitar riff supplemented by Plant intoning lame pickup lines. And the pickup lines aren’t even his: The lyrics to “Whole Lotta Love,” originally credited to Page and Plant, are blatantly lifted from Willie Dixon’s composition “You Need Love,” a theft redressed only after Dixon took the band to court.
(It’s worth pausing to marvel at the unbelievable stupidity of this. For starters, “You Need Love” was first recorded by Muddy Waters in 1962, as the follow-up to his hit “You Shook Me”—which Led Zeppelin had covered on their previous album.Secondly, Dixon wrote some great lyrics in his day, but these certainly aren’t them, unless you think the opportunity to rhyme “coolin’,” “foolin’,” and “schoolin’ ” is worth being hauled to court over. The “Whole Lotta Love” plagiarism was a failure of ethics, execution, and just plain good taste.) 
All that said, “Whole Lotta Love” is Led Zeppelin at their most essential. It’s big, loud, riff-driven, not terribly bright, and probably twice as long as it ought to be.
Ok, other places he raves about how great they are. But then there is this:
But Led Zeppelin weren’t a minstrel show—they were something so much weirder. To suggest that all they did was steal from the blues is an insult to the band, but also to the blues. Zeppelin’s appropriations could be bereft of ethics, but they were more often just bereft of logic: Here was a band that wedded Robert Johnson-isms to plots borrowed from Tolkien novels with no sense of incongruity, or embarrassment.
Worth reading at least, though I will refrain from embedding any clips.

* * *

Aaaannnndddd, debuting in the Number One spot this week is Weird Al Yankovic's new album "Mandatory Fun". Which you should definitely have this weekend. The fun that is. Here is a cut from the album, the instant classic polka version of Miley Cyrus's song "Wrecking Ball":

I just want to remind you that I called this the cutting edge of pop two days ago, way ahead of the curve. Weird Al Yankovic, the biggest talent in pop!

* * *

On a serious note, conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim has published an essay on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that you might want to read. As a holder of both Israeli and Palestinian passports (and how many of those are there?) he tries to strike a middle path. Yes, both parties are suffering and both have rights. He ends by saying:
At the very heart of the much-needed rapprochement is the need for a mutual feeling of empathy, or compassion. In my opinion, compassion is not merely a sentiment that results from a psychological understanding of a person’s need, but it is a moral obligation. Only through trying to understand the other side’s plight can we take a step towards each other. As Schopenhauer put it: “Nothing will bring us back to the path of justice so readily as the mental picture of the trouble, grief and lamentation of the loser.” In this conflict, we are all losers. We can only overcome this sad state if we finally begin to accept the other side’s suffering and their rights. Only from this understanding can we attempt to build a future together.
Yes, I'm sure this is true, but it reminds me of something Golda Meir said many years ago:
Peace with the Arabs will only come when they love their children more than they hate us.
Unfortunately, this seems not to have come to pass.

* * *

 And on a much less serious note, here is the latest on Yuja Wang's wardrobe choices from Norman Lebrecht.

For the full panoply of opinions on this sort of thing, read the comments, which are fairly entertaining.

* * *

And that gives us our music for the day. Yuja Wang, playing selections by Scriabin:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Art of Repetition

Music is sometimes defined as "organized sound", but you could make an argument that "music is the art of repetition" is as good a definition. In fact, I even have a book titled "The Fine Art of Repetition: Essays in the Philosophy of Music" by Peter Kivy. The title comes from the next-to-last essay in the book which talks about the fact that a great deal of music consists of repetition and the implications of this for aesthetic theories of music--which are considerable! I won't get into these philosophical aspects, at least not in this post, but I do want to look at some of the interesting things about repetition in music.

Repeats in music are indicated in scores by a double vertical line and two dots:

When the player sees this sign he or she repeats everything between the two sets of dots. If the repeat is from the very beginning, there will often only be the right-hand set of dots. The repeated section may be very short: a mere eight measures in the case of many minuets. Or it may be very long, 150 measures in the case of the repeat of the exposition in Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. It is often the case, especially with binary forms where both halves are indicated to be repeated, that performers omit the repeat of the second half. Sometimes they omit both repeats. How significant is this? Well, in the case of a particular Scarlatti sonata I am thinking of, K. 213, the difference between playing it with both repeats or with no repeats turns it from about a three minute piece:

Into one that might run to almost seven minutes:

And notice that we are not necessarily seeing much difference in tempo. The first pianist takes no repeats, while the second repeats both halves. It makes for quite a different piece as there is something fundamentally different about a three minute piece versus a nearly seven minute piece.

Nearly every one of the over five hundred keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti indicates that both halves are to be repeated. Just from a cursory glance at YouTube performances of K. 213, it looks as if 80% or more of the performances repeat the first, but not the second, half, for a duration of around five minutes.

We are often told that, when performing minuets with trios that when the minuet returns after the trio that it is to be played "without repeats". But I notice that orchestras often do all the repeats both times in Haydn symphonies, so maybe this "rule" is just one of those many lazy bits of folk "wisdom" that we pick up from our childhood music teachers without ever thinking about.

Repeats are very common in a great deal of music, as I said. Dance music is full of them because sometimes dancers need a lot of music and the easiest thing to do is just keep repeating. So dance music, even when found in a symphony, also has a lot of repeats. But not just dance music. The first movement of nearly all Classical symphonies has a repeated exposition and sometimes both parts are repeated, especially in the earlier symphonies. The same is true of piano sonatas, string quartets, trios and any other music using first movement sonata allegro form.

The polar opposite of this kind of music is the continuously developing kinds of music that we find in the later 19th century and for a lot of the 20th century. You could probably create a graph of the quantity of repetition in music that would build steadily through the 16th through 18th centuries, reaching a peak in the late 18th and early 19th century, and then dropping sharply with the later Romantic composers like Wagner and Mahler. It would reach a nadir with some of the music of Schoenberg and Webern where there is no exact repetition whatsoever. These composers attempted to balance the lack of repetition by devising intricate structures in which there is a kind of continuum of similarity by the use of fixed interval sets.

But this did not last a terribly long time and when repetition returned, it did so with a vengeance. The whole idea of "minimal" music is to have a lot, A LOT, of repetition. Here is an example from Steve Reich:

Another composer who is famous for his repetitions is Philip Glass. After browsing through the three CD set "The Essential Philip Glass" I had the distinct impression that for two or three decades he pretty much kept repeating the ascending minor third:

Don't believe me? Here's some examples. Ok, the first one is descending not ascending:

Ascending minor thirds:

In this one the minor thirds are mixed up a bit:

Ascending minor thirds:

Ascending minor thirds with a syncopated rhythm:

And now, in a major departure (heh!) minor thirds alternating irregularly with major thirds in the first movement of his Symphony No. 9:

And I haven't even mentioned Electronic Dance Music!

I think that aesthetically, repetition is extremely effective. A lot of repetition with just a bit of variation for spice is one of the most successful strategies in composition. The most common mistake a lot of young composers make is to wander aimlessly from one idea to another with little repetition to tie things together, just blundering on, one theme after another and all of them different, without anything to link them, blathering on and on and on...

Well, you get the idea. But if, on the other hand, you decide to use ascending minor thirds over and over and over in your music, decade after decade, well, you can do pretty well. Apparently...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

We have a winner! Answers to the quiz

You could find most of these just by Googling, but here are the questions:

  1. What is a "tam-tam"?
  2. How many strings on a mid-16th century lute?
  3. On Sylvius Leopold Weiss' lute?
  4. What is the order of instrumental solos on Archie Bell and the Drells' 1968 hit "Tighten Up"?
  5. What is "automatic double-tracking"?
  6. What does MIDI stand for?
  7. How many cents in a semitone?
  8. Who was Janáček's muse?
  9. What solo instrument did Chopin write for other than the piano?
  10. Who wrote the longest string quartet ever composed?
  1. A large, suspended gong.
  2. Eleven: five doubled courses and one single.
  3. The typical instrument would have 13 courses, all but one (or two) of which would be double, for a total of 25 strings. It was joked that a sixty-year-old Baroque lutenist had spent about twenty years tuning...
  4. Drums, bass, guitar, organ.
  5. A technique developed by the twenty-year-old engineer Ken Townsend to save time (around the time Revolver was being recorded). The Beatles had developed the technique of recording the lead vocal twice which gave it much more presence and intensity. This took up a lot of time so he developed a way of delaying the signal by microscopic amounts which gave the same final effect.
  6. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (According to Wikipedia: "is a technical standard that describes a protocoldigital interface and connectors and allows a wide variety of electronic musical instrumentscomputers and other related devices to connect and communicate with one another.")
  7. 100, duh!
  8. Kamila Stösslová, whom he met when she was 26 and married and he was 63 (and also married, but separated). She was the inspiration for the late life burst of creativity that produced most of the pieces that he is famous for.
  9. The cello.
  10. Morton Feldman, about six hours duration.
If you got ten out of ten, then you might be eligible for a tenured position as professor of musicology somewhere.

Congratulations to Robin, who got seven out of ten with these answers:

1. A tam-tam is a large orchestral gong
2. I am going to guess 6 courses for 15 strings for that time period
3. and by Weiss, maybe 13 courses, so 25 strings idea
5.we used to do this in analogue recording, a second voice added to the original via tape delay
6. MIDI is musical instrument digital interface
7. 100
8. Kamila . . . . . cannot remember her last name
9. Voice?
10. Feldman
Chopin did write for the voice, but the question specified "instrument" and the only instrument he wrote solos for, other than the piano, was the cello. Here is the Cello Sonata in G minor, op. 65:

Cutting Edge of Pop: Weird Al Yankovic

Yep, it's true, the biggest news in pop this week is Weird Al Yankovic's new releases.

And some classics:

Yes, well, as someone said on another blog, "Generally, if Weird Al Yankovic's parody of a song is better than the original song, the artist is doomed."

Yah hear that, Robin Thicke?


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Symphony Guide: Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral"

This week's edition of the symphony guide over at the Guardian is on the Symphony No. 6 of Beethoven. As I have said before, Tom Service is doing us an excellent service with his year-long tour of the symphony. He has uncovered some pieces I was unfamiliar with (Myaskovsky?) and given us some charmingly overheated prose on a lot of the stalwarts of the repertoire. Today's essay is one of the latter. Possibly the most famous classical repertoire of all are the Beethoven symphonies and I suspect that Tom might be working up to end the whole series with the Ninth. For those of you keeping score at home, today's piece on the Sixth Symphony puts Beethoven solidly in second place after Mozart. Here are all the composers who have more than one symphony in the series so far:
Symphony Guide score by composer
Mozart: 38, 31, 29, 41
Beethoven: 5, 8, 6
Haydn: 6, 102, 
Sibelius 6, 7,
Bruckner 8, 6
Schubert, 8, 9
Mahler, 1, 6
I expect to see at least one more from Mozart, the Symphony No. 40, and, of course, the Symphony No. 9 from Beethoven and surely we will get a couple more from Haydn. I would expect to see one of Philip Glass' symphonies and at least one more by Shostakovich, so far represented only by his last, the Symphony No. 15. Surely Tom will cover at least the Symphonies Nos 5 and 7? But what about Allan Pettersson? Will we see one of his make it into the series? We have certainly seen far less formidable ones.

But on to today's essay. It is a pretty good one with a minimum of steamy cultural theory and a maximum of discussion of the music. One of the best essays in the series. Given the inherent limitations of mass-market journalism, Tom does as good a job as possible. Well, except in one respect. He presents a vision of music in which there is really no history. He says, for example:
I want to show how Beethoven creates a new kind of symphonic rhetoric in the Pastoral, a universe in which lulling repetition rather than teleological development is what defines the structure, on the small and large-scales, and in which the patterns, continuities, and disturbances of the natural world that Beethoven knew (above all in music’s most violent storm, up to this point of world history, in the Pastoral’s fourth movement!) are transmuted into the discourse of a five-movement symphony.
For Tom, every important symphonic work is "new", breaking the mold, going past the boundaries, baffling and astounding us. There are no predecessors. No symphonic work ever relates to other works in the genre. There are no influences. In his discussion of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony, he stresses how radically different it is from anyone, especially Beethoven. But there is so much in that symphony that reflects, in Schubert's own way, this symphony, Beethoven's Pastoral. Those lovely, long repeated motifs that Tom mentions echo again and again in the Schubert.

Another aspect that Tom does not discuss is that the Beethoven Pastoral is a particular kind of symphony, the sinfonia characteristica, of which there are many, many examples in the late 18th and early 19th century. I suppose that a journalist is the precise opposite of a historian. To a journalist everything is "news", even a two-hundred year old symphony. To a historian, everything is part of a web, a texture of events, all of which interrelate.

So no, in the Pastoral, Beethoven breaks no molds, just writes what is probably the finest sinfonia characteristica we could possibly have. Tom talks about the storm in the next-to-last movement as if it were the first time a composer ever tried to compose a storm. But not so. Haydn even wrote a cantata titled "The Storm" and there is some great storm music, even though it is titled "Le Cahos" ("Chaos") by Jean-Féry Rebel. Plus, several operas have storm effects. Here is Rebel's Chaos:

And of course, the last movement of Vivaldi's "Summer" concerto from The Four Seasons has a storm as well:

And finally, here is the complete Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven with its storm (which comes just before the final movement):

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Beef and a Quiz

NewMusicBox has an essay up titled "The Dangers of Secondhand Music" that bemoans the ubiquitous presence of background music almost everywhere you go. That is certainly a beef I share! Yesterday I had lunch at a very fine restaurant in a very high-class hotel. The menu was original and creative and the preparation and presentation outstanding. The service was courteous and attentive. Everything was excellent. With one exception: there was a constant thumping, very bad, background music--just a bit too loud to be really in the background making it impossible to ignore. What was so bad about this music was its industrial quality. There were no vocals, it was just instrumental tracks that were vaguely like Electronic Dance Music, but without any trace of creativity. I would much have preferred regurgitated 60s hits! They brought a little comment form to the table, so I made sure to point out how horrible the music was. We will see if anyone takes note.

So that's the beef. Now the quiz. The Guardian has a quiz on the Beatles up on their site. Let's see how we do.

Well, I did pretty good with ten out of a possible thirteen correct. The average score is six. No fair looking anything up! I really had no idea what Stones song John and Paul sang backing vocals on, so I picked "I Wanna Be Your Man" because John and Paul wrote it and then gave it to the Stones to record. And I had no idea what song kept Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane from the number one spot. Anyway, a fairly fun quiz if you like that sort of thing.

I am tempted to do one of my quizes, but the last one so demoralized my readers that I'm afraid to! Maybe a really short one?

  1. What is a "tam-tam"?
  2. How many strings on a mid-16th century lute?
  3. On Sylvius Leopold Weiss' lute?
  4. What is the order of instrumental solos on Archie Bell and the Drells' 1968 hit "Tighten Up"?
  5. What is "automatic double-tracking"?
  6. What does MIDI stand for?
  7. How many cents in a semitone?
  8. Who was Janáček's muse?
  9. What solo instrument did Chopin write for other than the piano?
  10. Who wrote the longest string quartet ever composed?
Oh, darn, I think I came up with another really daunting one! All of these can be answered easily with Google, except maybe the last question, but it is really more fun to do without a search engine. Just like the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle. In pen.

Bonne chance!

And some music to end with, a suite for Baroque lute by Sylvius Leopold Weiss. And no the illustration is not of a Baroque lute (that's a Renaissance lute) so you can't answer the question by counting the pegs:

UPDATE: Anyone want to have a go at the quiz? Or should I just put up the answers?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Note on Pettersson, Symphony No. 6

Allan Pettersson (1911 - 1980)

I listened again to the Symphony No. 6 by Allan Pettersson last night and again I am struck by the depth and seriousness of this music. I don't have the score so I can't embark on a real study of it, but here, from the liner notes, is a bit of the opening:

Sorry for the fuzziness: the original was really tiny. As I was listening, a comparison came to mind. This piece reminds me of a great Japanese film trilogy, The Human Condition, directed by Masaki Kobayashi. There is great human suffering, but, perhaps more in the symphony than the films, this suffering is balanced by great beauty. The beginning is ominous and gloomy:

And the tension grows and grows:

Sadly, the third part does not seem to be on YouTube and it has some of the most beautiful music. But here is the fourth and last part, which also has some beautiful sections:

What came to mind as the symphony ended was the thought: there is always suffering and there is always beauty.