Sunday, August 10, 2014

Musical Meanderings

Some days I don't have any big thoughts about music, just a bunch of little ones. Here is one that was running through my head as I was listening to a Pettersson symphony last night (No. 6 if you must know): I prefer music to reality because rhythmically it is better organized and has a clearer tonal center.

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I see Jeremy Denk has a nice essay about piano lessons in the New Yorker. He really is a wonderful writer and this ability is quite rare amongst musicians. He comments about lessons with one teacher that she:
had a dedicated music room, with two grand pianos, and a dark waiting room, where you endured the last moments of preceding lessons—other seven-year-olds playing their Clementi and Kabalevsky, music so transcendentally mediocre that it is thought a child cannot ruin it.
Oh yes, we know that repertoire quite well, don't we? We teachers of music that is. The guitar repertoire for students, with its innumerable little etudes by Aguado and Carulli and Giuliani is so dreary that I'm surprised anyone's musical sense survives it!

Here is Jeremy Denk commenting on how the severe technical disciplines of music might affect you:
Learning to play the piano is learning to reason with your muscles. One of the recurring story lines of my first years with Leland was learning how to cross my thumb smoothly under the rest of my hand in scales and arpeggios. He devised a symmetrical, synchronous, soul-destroying exercise for this, in which the right and left thumbs reached under the other fingers, crablike, for ever more distant notes. Exercises like this are crucial and yet seem intended to quell any natural enthusiasm for music, or possibly even for life.
Heh. Yes, any virtuoso on any instrument has somehow had to become an obsessive fetishist about technique. This is one of the wisest descriptions of teaching music I have ever seen:
Teaching makes you understand what your own teachers must have endured—frustrations as great as any performer’s. Ninety per cent of a teacher’s job is directing students to read what’s plainly on the page. The other ten per cent is attempting to incite their imagination about what’s behind and between the notes, what could never be written down in any score—and sometimes this seems unteachable, like the creation of life itself.
Sometimes I think that I could have simply have made a really big poster reading:

PRACTICE SLOWLY

and just held it up in front of the student for most of every lesson. Other times I have joked with students that I am going to launch a new line of publications for music students in which all the scores have every single note and rhythm pre-circled with a big black pencil (because in the course of the lessons you often have to circle stuff the student is missing and... oh, heck, if you have to explain the joke...)

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Just ran across yet another symphony composer of whom I had no knowledge previously: Irving Fine, composer of one symphony in 1962 premiered just two weeks before his death:


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Re-listening to several of the Pettersson symphonies I am becoming more aware of the harmonic stasis, as if the music is an enormous block of granite resting on bedrock. There is a solidity to the rhythms as well. But there is nothing boring about the music. Indeed, it is as compelling as any orchestral music I know.


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I think I have, with the aid of a hint from Esa-Pekka Salonen, determined what to say to people who ask what kind of music I write. I am a neo-medieval post-modern impressionist. Plus, it is likely to forestall any further questioning.

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And, in a kind of ironic riposte to everything Pettersson ever did with his sixty-minute-long symphonies in one uninterrupted movement, one radio station is limiting every song to a two-minute duration because:
Our attention spans are short, four minutes seems like an eternity, therefore something designed to capture our attention — say, a pop song — should be twice as good at half the length.
Dude, your attention span is miniscule, but I've managed to lengthen mine and the reason is that I stopped listening to radio about thirty years ago and stopped watching television about ten years ago. The article makes one succinct observation:
After awhile, you don’t mind that the songs have been hacked in half because they’re generally not interesting enough to be damaged by the blade of attenuation.
One link in the article leads to a brilliant little compendium of the utterly repetitive beginnings to Pharrell Williams' songs.

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 Finally, like a last lingering insult ringing in your ears, yet another instance of musicians being treated with unbelievably rude condescension:
Campbell Webster of Concord and his friend Eryk Bean of Londonderry were returning from Canada on Sunday after a bagpipe competition that served as a tuneup for the world championships in Glasgow, Scotland. The 17-year-olds, fresh off winning several top prizes in the competition in Maxville, Ont., east of Ottawa, got to a small border crossing in Vermont when they were told they’d have to relinquish their pipes because they contain ivory.
Read the whole thing. It is not just musicians, of course. Also in the Globe and Mail is this story about new regulations for renovations in Vancouver:
Once the code is implemented, a major renovation of a single– or two-family house will trigger a review of guardrail safety and width of staircases. Assuming it’s a drafty old house, a major renovation may also require building envelope air sealing and upgrades to the thickness of walls and attic to meet energy efficiency requirements. As well, new homes more than 583 sq. ft. will require a bathroom on the main floor with a low-barrier shower. And of course, for new houses, there is the requirement that made Vancouver the subject of a mocking piece last year in The Economist: that all round door knobs are to be banned, replaced with easier-to-operate lever handles. Those are just some of the new changes.
 Maybe I have just been away from Canada for too long, but I read stuff like this and I think "who do you think you are? What business do you have interfering with how I want to renovate my home? What business is it of anyone's how wide my stairways are or what kind of knobs I want on my doors? Butt out! BUTT OUT!!" And as for ivory in music instruments, don't get me started! Have the ruling class gone completely insane? Or do they think we are just morons who need to be told how to live? I ran into a couple of guys who worked in pharmaceuticals at a piano recital in Montreal a number of years ago and when they told me about a project they were involved in where they hoped to find a drug that would make the general populace more amenable, I replied, "well, if you are coming to administer this drug to me, be sure to bring lots of guys with lots of guns." They started backing away slowly...

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We certainly don't want to end with that rant, do we? Here is Hilary Hahn with the gigue from the Violin Partita in D minor:



See what I mean about music being better than reality? Especially these days when it seems that reality is being run by idiots.

8 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

- "I am a neo-medieval post-modern impressionist. Plus, it is likely to forestall any further questioning."

No, no, don't even think about it. You can't hide from my questioning: What does it mean? Explain.

- Attention span certainly seems to be trainable. It would be strange if it wouldn't. In work or in school you need a certain amount of attention span. The same goes for music listening of course. However, it's hard to have a long attention span when the music isn't interesting (like most pop music). Pharell Williams' intros for instance reduce my attention span significantly (maybe even to just 1-2 seconds). Ah the repetitiveness.

- "I ran into a couple of guys who worked in pharmaceuticals at a piano recital in Montreal a number of years ago and when they told me about a project they were involved in where they hoped to find a drug that would make the general populace more amenable"

I hope it was a joke. Well, I'm not big on conspiracy theories but if it's not a joke then I'm a bit worried. Although it's important to note that drugs of these kinds are given to school children (often boys) who don't sit still enough in the classrooms (I guess: have short attention span) and the drugs can create severe psychological damage through extended use.

Rickard Dahl said...

To clarify the 2nd point: should be: "when the music isn't interesting (as the case is with most pop music)."

Bryan Townsend said...

I should have said that it would forestall further questioning from most people! Not the musically curious. I noticed in the liner notes to the Salonen violin concerto that the writer described his music as "post-modern impressionism" which seemed not a bad description. I have tendencies that way myself. But in my music, I think there is a bit of a medieval sense of voice-leading. So voila!

No, the anecdote about the guys at the piano recital was a true story. And they did back away slowly. This same theme is the plot for the science-fiction movie Serenity.

Rickard Dahl said...

Medieval sense of voice-leading? Hmm, what makes it different from more recent types of voice-leading? Impressionism in the more artistic sense (hard to explain but basically more like being inspired by something and finding musical impressions (?) for it (like your 2nd symphony where the movements have clear inspirational origins)) or more in the musical sense (I guess more fluid tonality or maybe even modality, more use of extended chords, parallel chord progressions etc.)?

Bryan Townsend said...

The truth is, Rickard, that all we composers are uncomfortable with the labels, no matter what they are. If you asked Salonen what made him a post-modern impressionist, I bet he would start to disavow the phrase: "well, I'm not really that..." I think that the phrase comes about very simply because of his use of extremely colorful orchestration. Tossing in the phrase "post-modern" is just to make that point that we are in the 21st century, so we must be practicing a new and improved impressionism. (Debussy hated the label, by the way.)

I took over that part of the description because, as you say, some of my music is inspired by nature, not just the 2nd Symphony, but going back years and years. The neo-medieval comes from the way medieval composers tended to work. They were, all of them, singers, not keyboard players as today, and they thought in terms of long horizontal lines, rather than vertical alignments. The modern idea of the full score, with everything lined up neatly, had not yet arisen. So they even wrote in part books, not score format. I tend to think that way a bit. But frankly, I put together that whole phrase "neo-medieval post modern impressionism" largely as a sardonic comment on labeling.

Like all composers, I just sit down and try and figure out where the music should be going. And I don't think at all about how someone might describe it years later.

Rickard Dahl said...

You're right. Labels are just limiting for a composers. By the way, I heard that Sibelius was composing more in the horizontal manner (that even that for his symphonies he composed one instrument line before adding the next and and then the next and so on). I don't know if it's true though.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmm, that's interesting. Do you remember where you heard that about Sibelius?

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, it might have been in a Youtube comment so wouldn't be surprised if it's not true. On the other hand great composers are known for doing even more amazing things (for instance Mozart writing down a piece after hearing it once (don't remember which one) or Beethoven's composing when being deaf).