Saturday, May 31, 2014

Saturday Miscellanea

Yes, that's right, I didn't get my Friday Miscellanea up this week, so you get it today.

First up, an excellent little piece by Alex Ross talking about the extended Esa-Pekka Salonen ad for Apple that I posted about the other day. Here's a little sample:


How odd to see a commercial that doesn't actually insult the intelligence...

* * *

Anthony Tommasini walks us through a survey of dissonance in music in a lengthy piece in the New York Times. It is larded with video clip examples, but, alas, they all come with an annoying and unskippable commercial so I didn't watch most of them. Dissonance was like a banner held high by composers for over a hundred years, from the late 19th century through the late 20th century. But as some have noticed, these days we are seeing the return of consonance! Now there's a twist:


* * *

We have seen a lot of stories lately about how musicians have suffered mistreatment at the hands of airlines and customs bureaucrats, but this is one of the few stories where the musicians pushed back.


* * *

And to really get your blood boiling, here is an article in Forbes that gives us some of the background to that inexplicable SWAT raid in the Gibson guitar factory a few years ago.
While 30 men in SWAT attire dispatched from Homeland Security and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cart away about half a million dollars of wood and guitars, seven armed agents interrogate an employee without benefit of a lawyer. The next day Juszkiewicz receives a letter warning that he cannot touch any guitar left in the plant, under threat of being charged with a separate federal offense for each “violation,” punishable by a jail term.
Read the whole thing!

* * *

 How about some humor? The two great piano comedians are Victor Borge and, and, wait for it, Dudley Moore. Don't believe me? Here is the star of Arthur and 10 showing us his piano chops:


That's a pretty good imitation of a Beethoven sonata, but there is just something familiar about that theme... Hmm, where have we heard that before? Oh yes:


* * *

And finally, courtesy of the inimitable Norman Lebrecht comes this lesson in how to conduct an orchestra using only your lips, eyebrows and eyeballs:


And that's all for today. Was there ever a conductor like Leonard Bernstein?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Praising Pop

I'm not sure what I planned on doing this morning, but I ran across a long piece about pop music, specifically that kind of pop music that is called "schlock", that is so interesting that I want to talk about it a bit. The essay is by Jody Rosen and here is the link.

Despite Frank Zappa's famous quote about rock journalism:
Rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, in order to provide articles for people who can't read.
there is occasionally good writing about popular music--very occasionally! But this article is an excellent one. Taking as his model the Journey song "Don't Stop Believing", which has become a kind of icon in the 33 years since its release, Rosen defines schlock like this:
Schlock, at its finest, is where bad taste becomes great art. Schlock is music that subjugates all other values to brute emotional impact; it aims to overwhelm, to body-slam the senses, to deliver catharsis like a linebacker delivers a clothesline tackle. The qualities traditionally prized by music critics and other listeners of discerning taste — sophistication, subtlety, wit, irony, originality, “experimentation” — have no place in schlock. Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures.
Here's the song by Journey:


Rosen goes into considerable fascinating detail about schlock in pop music, tracing its origins, outlining its methods and finally appending a long list of the best examples. Here he is talking about the old-fashioned nature of schlock:
Accordingly, schlock often has an old-fashioned ring. Schlock’s signature musical instrument is the piano, that dowdy crown jewel of the Victorian parlor. (If a song opens with ponderous piano chords — a stately “Let It Be”–style intro — you know it’s a schlock anthem.) There are other telltale schlock sounds: syrupy string orchestrations; saxophone solos; black gospel choirs, annexed by white singers to give choruses a soulful boostBarry Manilow modulations — the florid key changes that appear on the far side of the middle-eight, like a herd of unicorns bursting into view on a mountain ridge. Schlock is theatrical, and its flair for the dramatic harks back to earlier, hammier eras: to the vaudeville of Al Jolson, the Broadway of Ethel Merman, the Vegas of Elvis’s later years.
 There is an awful lot of schlock in popular cinema as well. I think the first time I noticed a director shamelessly pushing the emotional buttons of the audience was in Spielberg's E.T. the Extraterrestrial. But that was just the first time I noticed it, it is really age-old and goes back to Plautus at least.

Rosen does a great job describing and taking us on a tour of schlock. But I think that we can make some aesthetic observations. Schlock is a sub-category of what we might call simple, direct music with great emotional appeal. Now I know that I have talked in the past several times about how what we hear in music is not the same thing as garden-variety emotions, but that is not the angle I want to take here, so just assume that when I talk about "emotion" I am referring to the specific kinds of moods that music expresses.

Classical music also has pieces with enormous direct emotional appeal like the "Moonlight" Sonata:


Or the slow movement from this Mozart piano concerto:


Fast, dynamic movements can also have a direct appeal:


I think that what all this music shares with the schlock pop music Rosen is talking about is that it is emotionally calming or supportive. It does not threaten us, emotionally. As he says:
It’s the soundtrack we turn to for a good long cry in a dark little room, when we’re dumped by someone we love. We recoil from schlock even as we lust for it, because it hits us where it counts, revealing us at our most wretchedly vulnerable and human.
You can get that from Beethoven or a lot of other classical music as well. One way of understanding the aesthetic of it is to see it as what Donald Francis Tovey referred to as "normality". Some of the greatest music of Beethoven is when he pares down the musical language to the most basic bedrock, the most fundamental musical atoms, like the one he builds the Symphony No. 5 from:


The "Moonlight" Sonata as well, has a kind of archetypal essence to it. I think that the great examples of pop schlock share a bit of this as well:
Music is the most immediate, the most visceral and ineffable of human inventions, and its essential power, the trump card it holds over the other arts, is its bald appeal to the emotions, the way a rapturous tune, a stirring beat, a charismatic voice, can override everything, transporting us to a realm beyond concerns about tastefulness or “cool” or even coherence.
Another great example from Beethoven is the big tune from the finale of the Symphony No. ):


To finally isolate this kind of aesthetic gesture we might consider its opposite pole: music that presents a complex fabric of emotion, that is not simple, that is ironic or even threatening. Shostakovich is one who did this kind of thing well:


As did Stravinsky:


Modernism was largely opposed to the big emotional gesture. But it has an essential place in music and we find it in lots of 20th century music. Here is one example by Górecki:


Hmm, now how did I do that? Start off with a song by Journey and end up with a symphony by Górecki? That's the magic of music, I guess.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Brain is VERY Complex!

As frequent readers know, I sometimes mention current neurological research, especially as it concerns music. Often I complain about the superficiality of the research. I ran across this cartoon, which could serve as a kind of motto:


But I just ran across an article about a researcher that is excellent--a model of what could be done in the field. Here is the link. The story in the NYT is about researcher H. Sebastian Seung who says;
“We’ve failed to answer simple questions,” he said. “People want to know, ‘What is consciousness?’ And they think that neuroscience is up to understanding that. They want us to figure out schizophrenia and we can’t even figure out why this neuron responds to one direction and not the other.”
He is working on the very detailed, specific level of research to begin to be able to answer the simplest questions. Right now he has been studying how a nerve cell in the retina of a mouse detects the direction of motion in the visual field. So maybe, several decades from now, neurologists might be able to figure out how we hear and then move on to those fascinating questions of music and aesthetics that the pseudo-scientists have been purporting to address. Here is one of my critiques and you can find many others by typing "scientism" into the search field on the right.

One of the neat things that I learned from the article is just how complex the brain really is, which explains why so much very basic research needs to be done before we can even approach the big questions. How big is the brain? In the human brain there are 85 billion brain cells and each one can have up to 10,000 connections. ?!??!?!?!???!?!!!!! This is roughly equivalent to the capacity of 75 billion iPads! Oh. My. Goodness.

Speaking of iPads, here is a fascinating article about composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and an app he has created for the iPad that is designed to teach people about the orchestra. I really liked the whole thing, despite the fact that it is rather an over-grown commercial for the iPad. Here is why:

  1. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a very interesting composer and conductor and I am studying his music prior to writing a post on it.
  2. Instead of just complaining about declining or aging audiences for classical music, he is doing something about it.
  3. Usually something that is really useful in terms of educating people about music is not terribly "cool" and things that are particularly "cool" are usually not very useful. This app, though I don't have an iPad and haven't tried it out, seems both cool and useful for its purpose.

Here is a recent orchestral piece by Salonen that appears on a new CD accompanying his Violin Concerto. The piece is titled Nyx, who was the goddess of night in Greek mythology.



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tom Service on Mozart

Tom Service's symphony guide in the Guardian, after a few stumbles early on, seems to be getting better and better. Today's article is on one of the greatest symphonies ever written, the Symphony No. 41 of Mozart. I have written about this here where I show the different themes that Mozart used in his remarkable finale. But Tom's article is really excellent with a lot of good research. I didn't know about the connection between the aria "Un bacio di mano" and the first movement. Now I think he rather overdoes the significance of this. One of Mozart's stylistic traits (and gifts) was the ability to weave a lot of different themes into the fabric of a composition. Just the opposite of Haydn who was able to weave a whole movement, ofttimes, out of a single theme. Tom has an excellent discussion of the sources of the counterpoint in the finale in the works of other composers. But surely we could have used a bit more information about the themes themselves? Oh, I am forgetting, it is verboten to include any musical notation in the discussion of music. Never mind, for the themes, just go read my post, linked above. Oh, I have another post, here, in which I talk about the use of that four-note motif in the prior symphony by Haydn. Tom Service has the occasional tendency to let colorful language run away with him, such as in this phrase:
Which all means that Mozart’s composition of the finale of the Jupiter Symphony is a palimpsest on music history as well as his own.
"Palimpsest" is one of those words that people think lend instant cachet to their writing. No-one is quite sure what it means, but it is very learnéd. Here, from Wikipedia:
palimpsest /ˈpælɪmpsɛst/ is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that it can be used again.
The significance to scholars is that sometimes long-lost manuscripts have been discovered lurking underneath a later text that can, through chemical, optical or digital means, be made visible. One example is the recovery of a work by Cicero, de Republica, in a 4th century version that was overwritten by a discussion of the Psalms by St. Augustine, written in the 7th century. So, tell me, just exactly how is the finale of the Jupiter Symphony a palimpsest? It is a complex contrapuntal fabric, to be sure, with many layers, but it is rather a metaphoric bridge too far from that to a palimpsest, don't you think? But enough of my pettifoggery! Let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 41 by Mozart, one of the pinnacles of the symphony:


We have been keeping score on how many symphonies appear by each of the great masters. With today's we have four by Mozart (nos 38, 31, 29 and 41), and two each by Beethoven, Haydn and Sibelius. All other composers mentioned so far have appeared only once. So Mozart is currently well in the lead.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Case of Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen

"The Case of..." series here at the Music Salon is a very occasional one devoted to mulling over a particular composer from the point of view of history. I have, in the past, used it to offer comment on composers as different as Vivaldi and Leonard Cohen. Sometimes, as in the case of Hindemith, I note that the composer's stock or reputation seems to be falling. I just ran into an article on Karlheinz Stockhausen that depicts an odd situation where the composer's own concern for his creative rights has resulted in his music almost disappearing from public spaces. Norman Lebrecht has a rather more pithy take on it here. Read the article at the first link from the New York Review of Books, it is a thoughtful and well-researched essay on the composer.

While very doubtful of some of his efforts, such as the massive pieces for multiple orchestras and the "Helicopter" string quartet, others, such as the Klavierstücke and his chamber music, I find quite appealing. There are some sweeping claims made in the first article where Tim Page comments that
But for the past thirty years, most of Stockhausen’s music has been all but impossible to hear, and a generation or more has come of age without the slightest understanding of what he once meant to young composers and musicians, who cheered him on as passionately as an older generation rejected him. From the 1950s through the early 1980s, almost all of Stockhausen’s compositions were issued on LP by the Deutsche Grammophon label, which disseminated his work throughout the world. When the leading recording format changed to CD, around 1982, Stockhausen took back all of his rights and the majority of his significant works became available through him, at outrageously expensive prices (while the composer was still living, some of the discs cost more than $100; the prices have recently been lowered).
While correct (you can download the catalog for yourself to see), this is misleading. Just go to Amazon and you will find a host of recordings of Stockhausen's music by various artists at various prices. The recordings of the Klavierstücke do seem very pricey, though. The remarks above just apply to what you might think of as the "officially" approved recordings, supervised by Stockhausen and issued by DGG. Saying his music is "impossible to hear" nowadays is even more misleading. One of the reasons I sought out Stockhausen in Salzburg in 1988, when I was a student there, was because his music was so rarely played in North America. Apart from the occasional piece for piano, the only Stockhausen I have ever heard live was in Europe. But virtually nothing is "impossible to hear" when YouTube is available. Here are some samples. First of all that very piece, played by Mauricio Pollini, mentioned in the article:


And here is Klavierstück IX with the repeated dissonant chord:


And here is Klavierstück V, also played by Pollini:


So if you want to hear his music, it is, like everything else, just a click away.

If you want the scores, though, that is a different matter. But still, they don't seem any more expensive than pieces by other composers (piano music by Peter Maxwell Davies seems priced higher than Stockhausen, for example).

Some composers from the modernist school seem to be fading as time goes on--I mentioned Hindemith as one (of all his numerous pieces, the only one that seems to stick in the repertoire is his Mathis der Maler). Other composers have become much more liked since their death, like Shostakovich. Stockhausen is still a big question mark, I think. But some of those Klavierstücke are quite interesting...

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mozart and the String Quartet

Probably the finest chamber music written by Mozart is found in his string quintets, which I wrote about here. He was an accomplished violist and his quintets are "viola" quintets, meaning they are written for string quartet plus an added viola. Most string quintets, such as those by Boccherini and Schubert are "cello" quintets, with an extra cello. But I want to talk about the quartet today.

The string quartet is an ideal medium for a Classical era composer. The strings offer a wide range of expressive possibilities without the distractions of the more pungent sonorities of the wind instruments. The string quartet is also the ideal chamber ensemble, offering the intimacy of close conversation but at the same time, with its four voices, it can handle all the basic harmonies and dissonances of the style as well as four-part counterpoint.

We don't know too much about the occasions for the writing of much of Mozart's music for string quartet. The first group of quartets, probably written in Milan while there on tour with his father in 1772, are rather slight, inconsequential pieces in three movements often ending with a minuet. All the movements barely last more than ten minutes total. Here is K. 155 in D major:


Still, pretty good for a sixteen-year-old! What is missing here is the influence of Haydn, which was to prove enormous on Mozart's later chamber music. In the same year, 1772, while Mozart was in Italy, Haydn wrote the set of quartets, op. 20, that are considered by many to be the ones that really established the string quartet as the premiere chamber music ensemble over and above others such as the violin/piano sonata, the string or piano trio, the piano quintet and the various other combinations. Here is one of the two minor quartets from the six, the no. 5, in F minor:


What a contrast with the Mozart! This is more dramatic, more affetuoso and, instead of ending with a minuet, there is a fourth movement, a fugue with two subjects. When Mozart returned to Vienna in August and September of 1773, he wrote a new set of six quartets that were likely inspired in part by Haydn's. Here is K. 168 in F major from this new set. Not only is it in four movements, but the last one is a fugal finale!


Mozart is also using sonata form to structure the movements more, though the length is still only half of the Haydn example. But give him time, he probably just heard a Haydn quartet for the first time the week before! Mozart's father Leopold wrote to him in a letter once that he was sure that he, Wolfgang, could imitate any style or form, though of course the challenge of absorbing the influence of a composer as great as Haydn, is of a whole other level than that of copying someone like J. C. Bach.

For the next decade Mozart wrote no string quartets and did quite a bit of traveling in search of employment, including to Mannheim, where he heard the latest in orchestral virtuosity, and Paris. But in 1785 he published a new set of quartets and acknowledged the influence and inspiration of Haydn by dedicating the set to him. This was most unusual as dedications were usually made to noble patrons in exchange for their support. In 1781 Haydn had himself written a new and even more important set of string quartets, his op. 33, which Charles Rosen considers to be the real locus classicus of Classical Style--the set of pieces that truly defines and establishes all the elements of the "language". It was this set of quartets that Mozart was responding to with his "Haydn" Quartets. Here is Haydn's Quartet in E flat major, op. 33, no. 2.


Apart from the total confidence and aplomb we hear, Haydn is doing some very interesting things in the fourth movement. It is a rondo, which he begins to establish as the normal form for the last movement, but it is also one of the most comic Haydn ever wrote with a number of false endings that try to trick the audience into applauding prematurely. This gives the quartet its nickname "The Joke".

As I mentioned, Mozart responded to these quartets in 1785 with the set of "Haydn" quartets. Here is his dedication:
To my dear friend Haydn,
A father who had resolved to send his children out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend. Here they are then, O great Man and dearest Friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor, yet the hope inspired in me by several Friends that it may be at least partly compensated encourages me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last Visit to this Capital. It is this indulgence above all which urges me to commend them to you and encourages me to hope that they will not seem to you altogether unworthy of your favour. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their Father, Guide and Friend! From this moment I resign to you all my rights in them, begging you however to look indulgently upon the defects which the partiality of a Father's eye may have concealed from me, and in spite of them to continue in your generous Friendship for him who so greatly values it, in expectation of which I am, with all of my Heart, my dearest Friend, your most Sincere Friend,
W.A. Mozart
Perhaps the most famous of this very famous set is the last, nicknamed the "Dissonant" Quartet due to the extraordinary harmonic contortions of the introduction:


Notice that this quartet is three times as long as Mozart's earlier excursions. He has fully taken up, and risen to, the challenge of Haydn.

This is one of the very, very few occasions in music history where the flow of influence is both clear and acknowledged. For his part Haydn paid back the compliment (of Mozart's dedication to him) by saying to Mozart's father when he first heard the quartets that "Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."

Beethoven, for example, was far more reluctant to acknowledge Haydn's influence, commenting that while he had taken lessons from him, he had not learned anything. Ironically, he did, several times, write pieces that were significantly influenced by particular pieces of Mozart. In general, composers like to keep their influences hidden away so as to preserve the illusion of creation ab nihilo!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Music and Self-Expression

As everyone knows, music is all about self-expression. I recall a comment made by a piano student once that Brahms was her "sex" music. And Kanye West certainly seems to do a lot of self-expression in his music.


Kanye and Kim are much in the news right now because they are, finally, getting married. The pre-wedding party was at Versailles and the wedding will be in Florence at the Belvedere. The Daily Mail has all the details. Here they are at the party. Nice, uh, dress?


So what you do is, express yourself in your music, like Kanye West, make over $100 million, hook up with a Kardashian and throw a big wedding. I'm not sure that "big" quite captures it. Go read the Daily Mail story which just seems to get longer and longer as the weekend unfolds.

Now all this seems a nightmare to me! I think the last place on earth I would want to be is within a hundred miles of this wedding. I don't think I have ever seen a more dismaying display of sheer ugliness.

So let me pose an alternate theory: music isn't about self-expression at all. Sure, you can pervert it to those ends the way you can pervert anything, but the real aesthetic nature of music is quite different. It is fundamentally about structure and beauty or beauty through structure. Trust me, Beethoven did not sit down to the piano and mutter to himself, "hmmm, I need to express myself--how about a gloomy arpeggio in C# minor?"


That is not about Beethoven's mood, biography, or love-life. Nor is it about Valentina Lisitsa's, nor mine, nor, I'm sorry to say yours. That is just "about" beauty.

As soon as we start thinking that music is expression or "self-expression" then we start looking at the life of the composer for clues as to what it "means". In that sense, it doesn't "mean" anything. It is just about the beauty of the music. But "beauty" in this sense, has a perhaps complex meaning. We create musical beauty in many ways, often through contrast with passages that might sound "ugly". We create a feeling of tranquillity by preceding it with agitation. We create passages with the energy of the dance and others with the calm of meditation. We create passages that we might call "passionate", though really only by metaphor.

But if we decide that we need to express ourselves, we risk the danger of ending up like Kanye West.

Oh, incidentally, Louis XIV, who built Versailles, liked to listen to some music when he retired for the evening. The musician who provided this service, Robert de ViséeMaître de Guitare du Roi, left us several volumes of his music. He was a lutenist as well as guitarist and here is a sample:


And no, he wasn't expressing himself. But he is expressing something: musical beauty.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Sorry for the meagre posting this week: lots of other things occupying my time and I came down with one of those mysterious 24-hour bugs... Still, I hope to put up something substantial on the weekend.

* * *

First up, a fascinating list of fees charged by popular artists. This was leaked from a booking agency and posted here, along with some remarks as to its accuracy. Just some highlights:

Bob Dylan: $150 - $300k? Seems about right, I guess. If he is still on that never-ending tour, what does that come out to a year? Assuming 150 dates at a modest $200k per, that's $30,000,000!! Sure, he's got some expenses, guitar strings, that tour bus, gotta pay the guys in the band, but still. Bear in mind that Stevie Ray Vaughan refused to tour with David Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour even though he played on the album "Let's Dance" because Bowie only offered him $200 a night. No zeros missing there.

Jason Mraz, $150 - $250k?? Just slightly less than Bob Dylan? What strange universe is this?

Skipping past zillions of acts I have never heard of and noticing that the real Lords of Pop: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, are not on the list, we drop way, way down to the $1000 to $10,000 bargain basement and find the English Beat, one of my favorite bands from the 80s available for your wedding, funeral or bar mitzvah for only, wait for it, $5 - $10k! Wow. Here they are with one of their hits:


Love the reincarnation of the Cavern, where the Beatles used to play in Liverpool before they were famous.

I don't have something similar for classical musicians, but a lot of up-and-coming young virtuosos with big careers ahead of them, including string quartets and trios, can be booked for $5000 for a concert.

* * *

The big controversy this week in the world of classical music is over whether a music critic is allowed to comment on the physical appearance of an opera singer. Here is a piece in the Guardian arguing that they should not:
How, then, have we arrived at a point where opera is no longer about singing but about the physiques and looks of the singers, specifically the female singers? I am, of course, obliquely referring to the storm that has been stirred up by the publication of reviews by the UK's national newspapers of Glyndebourne's new production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Five separate critics, including one from this newspaper, discussed a young singer's physique, describing her variously as: "a chubby bundle of puppy fat", "dumpy", "unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing" (£) and "stocky".
Barely any mention of her voice, a gloriously rounded and well produced instrument, was made, and there was little comment on her musicianship, dramatic commitment or her ability to communicate to an audience and to move that audience to tears. Comment was also made about another female singer being "stressed by motherhood". I, for one, had thought we as a country had moved beyond the point where women were treated as second-class citizens, but clearly overt sexism is still rife, no matter what we are led to believe.
Now I can certainly appreciate this point of view. In fact, in my on-going series of posts about how a pop music sensibility is invading classical music, I think I have taken the position that I am far more interested in how an artist plays than how they look. But let me just point out one incongruous aspect of this controversy. If we are to ignore the physique of an opera singer who some have characterized as slightly overweight, then to be fair, shouldn't we also be ignoring all those publicity photos and onstage costumes designed to exploit the comeliness of other female (or male, I suppose) artists? Like Yuja Wang?


* * *

What is it with the exaggerated obeisance to the oeuvre of Radiohead? First Alex Ross and now Norman Lebrecht commenting on the Chicago Symphony programming music by Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead. He says, "They’ve come a long way since the Solti days" like it's a good thing. Chicago Symphony under Solti:


And here is part of Jonny Greenwood's score to the movie "There Will Be Blood" which will be played by the Chicago Symphony.


Well, ok, not bad, but it is still movie music. What is the difference, by the way, between an orchestral movie soundtrack and a symphonic score? Apart from the context. What is the actual musical or structural difference?

* * *

This story just keeps getting flogged and flogged: professional violinists can't tell a 300-year-old Stradivarius from a brand-new violin. I'm sorry, but I don't think I will quite believe it until I witness it with my own eyes. This always reminds me of a commercial swearing you can't tell butter from this new margarine product or the myth about the "Mozart Effect". For one thing, just like I used to always ask "why Mozart? why not Bach?" now I would ask, "why only Stradivarius?, why not ever Guarnerius or Amati" the two other renowned builders of the time? I used to play concerts with an extraordinary violinist who played a Guarnerius and I feel quite sure that if a modern violin were just as good, he would have played one.

* * *

Let's end with some music. The Beethoven Violin Concerto played by Itzak Perlman:



Incidentally, Perlman also plays a Guarnerius violin.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wihan Quartet: The Beatles

My basic position on arrangements or "covers" of the Beatles is that they should be at least as interesting as the originals. As this is almost impossible to achieve, it is better not to do it. Just say "no"! But this is a pragmatic, not an a priori position. That is, it is certainly possible for someone to do some great arrangements of Beatles tunes that are not less interesting aesthetically than the originals--it is just unlikely.

Let me take a minute to explain why I think so. Apart from being extraordinary performing musicians, outstanding songwriters and fascinating personalities, the Beatles invented an entirely new way of composing. This took place from Rubber Soul on. Stepping away from their exhausting touring commitments, they spent over a month in the studio writing, arranging and recording the all new songs. Compare this to the mere ten hours they spent in the studio for their first album. What they were doing was composing for the studio. In other words, they were creating unique soundscapes for every song using available resources and inventing new ones as needed. Some examples of the latter include "varispeed" recording where you alter slightly the speed of the tape recorder. When you play it back at normal speed, it alters the quality of sound. They used this technique to make the instrumental tracks sound "fatter" and the vocals sound more forward. They also used double-tracking on the vocals. A solo vocal line was recorded twice. Since it would never come out exactly the same, there was a added presence to the line. As this was very time consuming, one of the technicians invented a way to do this automatically. It is called "automatic double-tracking" of course and now it is available as a software effect. They did a lot of other things too, like recording voice or guitar lines and playing them back backwards. Or using tape loops to create a kind of "musique concrète".

So from Rubber Soul on, a Beatles song is, in its recorded incarnation, a whole aesthetic object. Inevitably, most cover versions take the bare bones of the song and render them in the style of the artist. Here are a couple of examples. the first is a pretty good version of "A Day in the Life" by José Feliciano:


And the original:


Of course, the reason the Feliciano version is pretty good is that he goes all-out to try and reproduce the original, even to the extent of having a full orchestra backing him up!

Here is an arrangement/recomposition of "Penny Lane" for guitar and orchestra by Leo Brouwer:


Not too bad, but I would prefer the original as it is more uniquely what it is, than when it is turned into a guitar concerto:



But, as I was saying, this is not a foregone conclusion and there is a new album that might be rather interesting. I ran across this courtesy of Norman Lebrecht at Sinfini Music. If you are a really good string quartet with a really creative arranger, then the Beatles offer some interesting challenges. Here is a link to the Amazon page where you can listen to brief samples of the songs on the album. There seem to be no clips on YouTube of the Wihan Quartet playing the Beatles, so have a listen to the brief samples and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Janâček: Sinfonietta

Tom Service hits another one out of the park with his choice of the Sinfonietta by Janâček for the symphony guide this week. After spending more than a week listening to the complete symphonies of Bruckner this is like dunking my head in a bucket of cold water. It is everything Bruckner is not: pithy, brisk, crisp and with captivating melodies and motifs. Even after listening day after day to the Bruckner symphonies, I couldn't hum a tune from one of them if you held a gun to my head. But the Sinfonietta begins with some very clear motifs:





This kind of crisp writing continues. To make the comparison, here is the very beginning of the Symphony No. 9 by Bruckner:



Of course, that is just hideously unfair to Bruckner as he is, again, doing a kind of open-fifthy, spacey introduction modeled after Beethoven's to his Symphony No. 9. So let's have a look a few pages later, when he gives us the first theme, which, oddly, starts by outlining a fifth and a fourth:



Yes, of course there is other stuff later on. As I said, I am being unfair to Bruckner. But it is rather astonishing just how much of a lengthy Bruckner symphony is long-held tremolos and pedals. I mentioned to a string-player friend of mine that I was enjoying listening to the Bruckner symphonies (this was after the first few) and she retorted that I certainly wouldn't enjoy them if I had to play them! And cited one passage where she had to do the same tremolando for 350 bars!

But let's get back to Janâček. Tom Service mentions the "cinematic editing and shuffling of musical time" (i.e. the juxtaposing of different musical "cells") without mentioning that both Janâček and Stravinsky were doing this kind of thing. The equivalent in cinema is called "montage" and the interesting thing is that the composers arrived at the idea at about the same time, the mid-1920s, but independently. As I was saying, the crisp writing is a real treat after Bruckner. Let's listen to the whole Sinfonietta:



Monday, May 19, 2014

Just some miscellanea

Berklee College of Music is going to offer more online instruction. Also, there are some very entrepreneurial guitar teachers out there that have been very successful. I'm not sure what I think of all this as the model that I have seen to be the most valuable is rather medieval: a small group of talented students cluster around a master. Pretty well every fine musician I know of has come out of this sort of situation. Of course that is elitist and I suspect that these new kinds of online music education are anything but elitist. So what does that make them?

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Now this is just a charming story. How terrific that this young cellist is not only composing, but getting the opportunity to perform and premiere her composition.


I liked this comment she made in the article:
Most people of my age have a limited exposure to classical music: it is not the modern expectation for children to sit through a long concert and enjoy it. But I don’t think that dumbing down classical music to make it more “accessible” would help though - it could go the wrong way and become so similar to pop music that it would lose its unique way of conveying emotion.
Exactly!

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I have found the perfect cartoon, from Calvin and Hobbes, to illustrate my series of posts on pseudo-science:


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I just don't have anything more for you today. Yesterday was pretty productive as I finally finished listening to all the Bruckner symphonies. After I do some comparison listening, I will do a big post on Bruckner, Mahler and Brahms. But my feeling just as I finished the Symphony No. 9 of Bruckner is that there is a bit less there than one would hope. While his symphonies are rich in harmony and orchestration, they seem weak rhythmically and dull motivically. Too many long, long pedals. There is a kind of sameness to them. But more about that later! I also listened to Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto, which is a pretty interesting piece. It won the Grawemeyer Prize in 2012. But, more importantly, I did some work on my symphony, which may be restrained in terms of orchestration, but, damn it, will be interesting rhythmically!

Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the Symphony No. 9 by Bruckner:


Sunday, May 18, 2014

New York Sounds

I know that New York is the cool metropolis where a good deal of progressive artistic innovation is concentrated, but why is it that so much of what I hear emanating from there is beyond merely awful? Yes, I said, "awful" not "awesome". The latest example, discovered through Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, is a debut album by up and coming composer Guy Barash. Blogger refuses to embed, so either go to Alex Ross' post or follow this link:


You have to go listen. This is piano with interactive computer processing. Honestly, I found this sort of frenetic, jagged chaos tiresome twenty or thirty years ago. Why is it still considered the latest thing in New York? The producer for the album that this will appear on is Elliot Sharp, whom we last ran into as a contributor to Hilary Hahn's Encore album. Here is a sample of Mr. Sharp's work:


And that is exactly the kind of thing I would go to great lengths to avoid hearing!! I guess the apocalyptic/industrial waste/dystopia feel of this sort of thing must appeal to lost and overheated young minds. There was a time when the long improvisations of Cream seemed essential to me. But at least in their music there was some sort of aesthetic appeal:


But the Guy Barash/Elliot Sharp aesthetic is one I just can't get behind. And again, I am reminded of the Gerard Depardieu fake of a piece of avant-garde piano music at a fashionable New York dinner party in Peter Weir's movie Green Card. His performance is preceded by the hostess playing some Chopin:


It's not Mozart!

What is it about New York?