Sunday, August 31, 2014

Plagiarism, Copying and Forgery

I was in an art gallery the other day and saw a painting that looked to me a lot like Mark Rothko. I mentioned this to the artist and she said, yes, she had done an imitation of a Rothko painting as a prop for a play that was recently produced here. That prompted a little discussion about art forgery and famous forgers. I casually dropped the remark that you can't forge music, which garnered some quizzical expressions. I actually put up a post about this a couple of years ago, here. But it is such a fascinating phenomenon that I think it is worth revisiting.

What is a forgery and why can't a piece of music be forged? Here is a pretty good Wikipedia article about art forgery. The interesting thing might be that forging artworks could well be more lucrative than forging $100 bills. The reason is that a forged artwork could be worth millions of dollars, which is a lot of $100 bills. Also, there are a lot of very highly-trained professionals working full time to catch people that forge currency, but far fewer are working on uncovering forged works of art. Also, the $100 bills are designed to be hard to forge, but artworks are not. And the means of detecting a forgery vary greatly depending on the period and medium. How would you detect a Rauschenberg forgery? Or one of Mark Rothko?

Now, why can't you forge a piece of music? In my previous post I explained it like this:
[A forgery] can only be done with so-called 'autographic' works, ones of which there can only be one original. According to the theory of Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art this cannot be done with so-called 'allographic' works such as music, dance and theater where the history of the production of the work is not essential to the value of the artwork. There can be hundreds of copies, both written and printed, of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and thousands of performances and they can all be authentic as long as they follow the specifications of the score. In this theory it is inherently impossible to forge a Beethoven symphony even though you might be able to forge a manuscript copy of one.
The core of the problem is the ontological nature of music or any performing art. A Beethoven symphony exists in the original manuscript, but also in the printed editions and in accurate performances. Is a disco version of a Beethoven symphony still the symphony? Only partly, because some of the specifications have been altered significantly. You could get into a lot of philosophical conundrums about this if you get too abstract. You might start asking if a piece of music is still the same piece of music if it is transposed to a different key. The answer is yes because if we look at actual musical practice, singers, for example, often sing music transposed to suit their voice and listeners accept these changes easily. So, same piece. But if you took a Beethoven symphony and transposed it up seven octaves or down seven octaves, that would change its character so much that it would no longer be recognizable as the piece. Similarly, I can recall hearing a very, very bad guitarist practicing an etude by Villa-Lobos and playing it so badly it was at first unrecognizable, even to me, who knew the piece from memory!

This "recognizing" factor is important, I think. By recognizing a performance of a piece of music with which we are familiar, we acknowledge THAT it is a performance of that piece. An unrecognizable performance is one that is in some way, NOT that piece. As I said before, the history of the production is not important, but the character is. You can take a Beethoven symphony, accurately record it, subject it to some kind of cryptography and, as long as you are able to decode it later on, you can play it back and it will be, ontologically, that same symphony. This is exactly what happens every day as nowadays, all recordings are digital, which means that analog sound waves are transformed into zeros and ones with an analog to digital converter and then the process is reversed on playback.

Now here is where it gets interesting and I don't recall reading any discussion of this point: can you "recognize" a symphony as being by Beethoven if it is not actually by him, but a clever imitation? Before you answer, let me mention a symphony that for a very long time was thought to be by Mozart as he himself passed it off as his own work. In my previous post I discussed it:
Occasionally composers do something a bit nefarious when they take music from another composer and pass it off as their own. In 1783 Mozart took a symphony by Michael Haydn, revised the wind parts throughout and added a slow introduction to the first movement. He then performed it in a concert along with his Symphony No. 36, where it was undoubtedly accepted as his own work. That most of the symphony was actually by Michael Haydn wasn't discovered until 1907.
Michael Haydn was Joseph Haydn's less-talented brother. So, for over a hundred years people "recognized" this as a symphony by Mozart when it mostly wasn't. So why couldn't someone "forge" a Beethoven symphony and sell the original manuscript, suitably aged, for lots of money? I imagined how this might happen as follows:
However, it is certainly possible to create a parody of a work by Beethoven. Imagine a musicologist, a composer and a manuscript forger getting together and writing a new composition so closely imitating the style of Beethoven that it could fool not only listeners but also professional musicians and other musicologists. Once written, the score would be handed over to a forger who would create, on old paper and with old inks, an exact facsimile of a typical Beethoven manuscript, scribbles and all. This could then be announced to the world and given a big premiere. This is highly unlikely for many reasons. First of all, there wouldn't be the millions of dollars of potential profit enough to attract people good enough to bring it off. Second, we have a pretty extensive knowledge of Beethoven's life and it would be difficult to find a niche big enough for a whole symphony to have been composed with no clues in the biographical material.
 The more I think of it, the less likely it seems. Mozart's works are so numerous and of such a wide range of quality (he began composing when he was five years old!) and so varied in style (his father wrote to him that he could imitate any style) that it is quite possible to be mistaken about the authenticity of a piece by Mozart. He actually wrote only a bit more than half of his Requiem, which was finished by a student, but we accept the whole of it as "Mozart". But with Beethoven, the situation is a bit different.

For one thing, as I mention, we know Beethoven's biography so well, and have so much documentary evidence in the form of sketchbooks and conversation books that finding a way to squeeze a new symphony by Beethoven into the narrative would be extremely difficult. On another level entirely, each symphony by Beethoven, even ones like the Symphony No. 8, are so individual, so unique, that it is frankly beyond the bounds of the believable to imagine someone being able to come up with a new Beethoven symphony. Each one is like a milestone in music history. Mind you, so is Schubert's unfinished symphony, which languished unperformed for decades before it was discovered by Schumann. But this was an authentic symphony by Schubert, and one of earth-shaking importance. I believe very firmly that the only person who could really write a Beethoven symphony was Beethoven! Simply while it is certainly possible to copy the style, say, of the Eroica or the Pastoral, but it is not possible, I firmly believe, for someone to originate a piece in a new Beethoven style. Because this is what he did: he invented a new style, a new idiom for each symphony. And that is what you can't copy.

Beethoven wrote ONE Moonlight Sonata and ONE Hammerklavier Sonata and never imitated himself, which is why you can't write a new piano sonata in the style of Beethoven unless you can write one that is as different from both of those sonatas as they are from one another.

So this is why you can't forge a piece of music, though you can certainly plagiarize one...

Let's listen to those two piano sonatas, just to underline the point. First, the Moonlight Sonata, first movement:


And now the first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata:


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Miscellaneous Footnote

This is a footnote to Friday's post. Seems that a fellow named James Murphy took "data" (whatever that means) from the US Open tennis tournament and by means of a computer program turned it into "music". Here is the link. If, like me, you are allergic to videos like this one (all chopped up into meaningless little soundbites), then if you click on the link below, and keep clicking, you will eventually come to a really dreary piece of music that sounds like random little bleeps with a pounding drum track underneath. Apart from changing the speed of the drum track slightly, they seem to be mostly all the same. In other words, not much worse than a lot of pop music. Why is it that no-one (or almost no-one apart from me) is willing to step up and say that this is crap? No, it's not an "interesting" new way to make music. There is no musical content here at all. Music is an artform created by human beings in order to explore the possibilities of organizing sounds and silence for the purposes of aesthetic expression. There, I said it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking things off, a blog post about a gallery exhibition on color and music.


* * *

And here is a feature article on Joni Mitchell's song from 1968, "Both Sides Now", which I recall learning and playing during my brief phase as a folk-singer (it lasted about a year). It's a nice song:


* * *

And while we are talking about pop, here is what one big-name rock band is really like behind the scenes. And no, it isn't pretty...


Hmm, well the music is rather nasty and sneering, isn't it?

* * *

Here is some news that might take some pop musicians down a peg: weekly album sales are at a new low and CD sales are down almost 20% from last year. Billboard has the story. But, of course, classical sales are a minute portion of that! Here is a song from the top album of the week:


I can't think of any reason why that soggy blend of rock ballad and lethargic reggae wouldn't just leap off the shelves, could you?

* * *

Here's a little reminder: thou shalt not make jokes, even mild ones, about the reigning royalty of pop.

* * *

Follow this link to hear the Israeli Defence Force's version of the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah". They translated everything but the title into Hebrew. Oh, wait, my editorial board tells me that the word "hallelujah" is actually already Hebrew.

* * *

Still not done with music and economics it seems. Here is a chart of the global music industry from 1973 to 2013:


Go here for the original. The comments are interesting. The steep drop is attributed by many to the rise of digital piracy. Could be, I suppose. Technology for the last 100 years has been in some ways a boon to the industry, but in other ways a distinct disadvantage to the artform.

* * *

We have to find some non-pop news and I ran across this article in the Guardian. For those of you lucky enough to be in Edinburgh this weekend, there will be two performances of Harry Partch's Delusion of the Fury. This must have been extremely difficult to stage as it first involves having to build all the musical instruments and then learn to play them. Harry didn't believe in all modern systems of intonation and went back to the Greeks for his tuning systems. I had the unusual pleasure of being able to play some of his instruments a number of years ago. The bass marimba was truly awesome! I was taking a seminar on American Experimental Music and we did a field trip to White Plains, NY where Partch's instruments were stored in an archive. Apparently for this project, they built them all from scratch. Go read the article and watch the clips, which are quite interesting. Here is the trailer for the project:


Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Economics of Music

Here is a little story that I am sure will delight any economists out there. I was having breakfast with a friend of mine in a sidewalk cafe yesterday when a young man walked up right in front of us and turned on a boom box he was carrying which began playing an instrumental accompaniment. I sensed what was going to happen next and said to my friend, "if he starts to sing I am going to kill myself!" Just an idle threat of course. Then he commenced to sing, in a not-too-bad voice, a song about how he has had sex 1000 times, but with you is the first time he has made love. We both wished he hadn't shared that thought. In any case, as soon as he stopped I stepped over and gave him 50 pesos (about $4) on the condition that he leave. He nodded, unsuccessfully hit up a couple of other diners and left. My friend thought he would either get angry or stick around. But I said people like that are not actual artists, just working blokes. He made more than he expected. I have also paid the worst-sounding clarinetist I have ever heard to go away.

Sadly, these public musical assaults are usually unpunished by law. Though I did see a very funny New Yorker cartoon once that depicted a burly, unshaven, hulky guy standing on the street with a sandwich board that read: "Kill the street musician of your choice: $5".

As a matter of fact, many, many years ago I spent a summer working as a busker in Italy but we did not perambulate around to outdoor cafes tormenting the patrons. Instead we set up in front of a statue of Cosima de Medici in the middle of a plaza and let people come to us. On a good night there would be over 500 people listening at one time.

Tough to find the right clip, but here is a guy busking outside Notre Dame in Paris. I saw a small chamber orchestra busking in the Metro in Paris at the La Bastille stop once.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Group Therapy at NewMusicBox

I have the composer site NewMusicBox saved in my music links, but I find it a bit depressing going there. It always feels like a post-traumatic group therapy session because most articles, like this one, are laments about the difficult situation musicians are in these days. The article is illustrated with this revealing graphic:


For the first half of your career, when you can still be called "young", everyone is always suggesting that you play for free for "exposure". The problem with this is that this will work out well for a small minority of musicians, those who are playing just the repertoire people want to hear in the just the way they want to hear it. But for another small minority, perhaps the most creative ones, the exposure will not help much because it will merely reveal that most people don't want to hear their music. And, of course, it won't help the majority because they are mediocre musicians.

Here is another article on the site that talks about a British survey of composer's commissions:
• 66% of the 466 composers who responded stated they do not find commissions to be a significant proportion of their income. Given that the respondents had an average of 2.65 commissions in 2013 with an average fee per commission of £1,392 it’s easy to see why.
• 74% of composers received the same amount or more commissions in 2013 than in 2012 but only 15% earned more income. We also discovered that those who had been undertaking commissions for more than five years were likely to win more commissions but get paid less per commission.
• There are significant variances in income: the best paid 1% of composers received over 25% of all commission income captured by our survey. Once we excluded them from our sample, average annual commission income fell from £3,689 to £2,717.
Based on this, I think it is safe to say that music composition in Great Britain, except for a very small group, is an amateur activity. If you are making less than $5000 a year from your work, you are not a professional, or only a very part-time one.

I was having lunch with couple of Canadians the other day, one a composer, and someone accused me of being a snob. I quickly said that I wasn't. What I am is an elitist, there is a difference! I think that great music is fairly rare and what I strive to do personally is to get as close to writing great music as I can. Whether it is possible or not is perhaps a judgement that only posterity can make, so I don't trouble myself about it. I just try and write music as well as I can and leave it at that. To this end, I see myself as a non-commercial musician. That is, I have next to no interest in making money from music. I have an occupation that does not take up an excessive amount of time, and that provides me with sufficient income. Therefore, I can devote a significant part of my energies to the creation of music and I can do so without worrying about any non-musical concerns like commissions or sales. I am concerned about performances, but I have a strategy for that, too.

So, unlike many of the contributors at NewMusicBox, I am not depressed about music. I used to be, about career matters at least, but that is why I retired as a professional musician. If people like my music, then I am thrilled. But I am not writing particularly for short term approval. I am writing music of a certain kind because I can and perhaps one day this music will find an audience. I don't really know any other way of going about it. Frankly, I just can't see myself attempting to craft a composition to appeal to a competition jury or commissioning organization or the mass media. It seems to me that that leads you down the wrong path. One day you wake up and find yourself a mere hack. And as those numbers above show, you are a mere hack with a pathetically small income!! Years ago I mentioned in conversation to someone that there were lots of classical musicians ready to "sell out", but that nobody was buying!!

As kind of a metaphor for that, when I was packing up to leave Montreal quite a few years ago, I found myself with several musical instruments that I couldn't take with me and several computers as well. The musical instruments included a Roland keyboard and several violins. The computers were all second-hand Macs and PCs. After placing an ad in the paper, I sold all the computers in a week. There were no buyers whatsoever for the musical instruments so I finally donated them to the university music department.

My personal solution is to make money by offering people a service that they seem to have great need of, while pursuing my musical activities free of the need for income. This seems for me to be a happier solution than the depressing one of trying to survive in this current musical scene dominated by sheer commercialism.

Hmm, what will we listen to today. Ah, how about the Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Brahms:


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Symphony Guide does Tchaikovsky

It's Tuesday so time to check out what Tom Service has for us today over at the Guardian's weekly symphony guide. I'm going to miss this series when it is done in the very near future.

Today's installment is on the Symphony No. 6 by Tchaikovsky, nicknamed the "Pathetique" and his last and most-perfect symphony. I just listened to this a few days ago and it is an impressive work. As is usual with him, Tom begins by exploding some of the typical characterizations of the piece and in this case, it is called for and well done. No, this is not a "suicide note" from the composer and it is probably the finest music Tchaikovsky wrote. Mind you, Tom then blots his copybook by dragging back in some programmatic comments that Tchaikovsky originally wrote about a previous symphony that he was sketching. So, six of one taken away only to add on half a dozen later on. Tom is quite right in describing the symphony in this way, however:
That slow, lamenting finale turns the entire symphonic paradigm on its head, and changes at a stroke the possibility of what a symphony could be: instead of ending in grand public joy, the Sixth Symphony closes with private, intimate, personal pain.
Yes, it is with this movement that Tchaikovsky creates (or perhaps recreates if we take Beethoven and Schubert into account) the notion of the symphony as existential struggle rather than public celebration. It certainly started as a communal act of celebration: nearly every symphony by Haydn and Mozart fulfills that purpose. But with Beethoven darker elements begin to appear and with this symphony by Tchaikovsky they take over the form. I have written about this here. Tom ends his essay with this comment, which I think is quite true:
He knew this piece marked a new high-watermark in his confidence as a composer, and that he had re-invented the symphony on his own terms, and for so many composers who came after him. Mahler, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and many others could not have composed the symphonies they did without the example of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. It’s just a terrible fluke of fate that this was his last symphony, and not the beginning of what could have been his most exciting creative period as a composer.
Now let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 6 by Tchaikovsky. Here is Mravinsky and the Leningrad Symphony:


This is the second symphony by Tchaikovsky to appear in the series. Tom previously wrote about the First Symphony.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Update on the Symphony Project

I don't have much for you today. I was out late last night, slept in this morning and didn't have anything prepared beforehand. But, as I have been doing a lot of listening lately, perhaps I can catch you up on the Project.

What project is this? When I set out to do some writing for orchestra and decided to take up the form and genre of the symphony, I realized that while I knew some symphonies pretty well, such as ones by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, there were a lot of others that I simply did not know very well, such as those by Brahms, Bruckner and Schumann. So I set out to listen, at least once, to all the significant symphonies. I think I put up the list before, but it includes all those by the ones I just mentioned plus Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Schubert and others. In the process I added Allan Pettersson, whom I had never heard of before. I think I will get around to Carl Nielsen as well.

But I just finished, over the weekend, listening to the symphonies, all nine of them, bAntonín Dvořák and started on the ones by Brahms. Incidentally, I got an excellent Decca box of the symphonies, concertos, Hungarian Dances, Serenades and Variations on a Theme of Haydn all conducted by Haitink with the Concertgebouw. I have loved the Haydn Variations since I had a recording of them on two pianos played by the Kontarsky brothers. While I have often been critical of Brahms' chamber music in the past, I think that I am going to come away from this project with a high opinion of his orchestral music.

Dvořák is an entirely different kettle of fish, though. He was one of the very first composers, along with Debussy, that I really fell in love with when I was discovering classical music way back when. The New World Symphony just bowled me over. But now, listening to him today, I hear him a bit differently. The first four symphonies are quite bad, I think. The constant tympani rolls, barking brass and over-reliance on dotted rhythms to create a kind of artificial excitement gave me a headache. It is interesting to hear the not-good symphonies from the 19th century because they give us a kind of read on audience taste. They were delighted with loud, blaring sounds in the concert hall because all this was rather a new experience for the middle-class audience that was coming to classical music for the first time. Previous to the 19th century, classical music was, except in church, mostly listened to just by the aristocracy.

After the first four symphonies, things get a bit better as Dvořák learns how to create charming textures with the woodwinds and finds a lyrical mode. But I can't say that there are any really great symphonies until we get to the last one, the New World Symphony. This is a fine piece, with some really memorable melodies. But my overall impression of Dvořák is that, even after he mastered writing for the orchestra, he was still rather a lightweight. There are simply no profound movements here, just a lot of charming music with a likable surface.

Let's listen to an example. Here is the Symphony No. 8 by Dvořák:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Computer Taught Me to Play Guitar!

Did you hear the one about the guitarist who learned how to play from a book? Sadly his career was ruined by a misprint! Well now there is a computer program, a development of the Guitar Hero game, that offers a course in how to play the guitar. Unfortunately I have never played Guitar Hero, so most of the description is lost on me. The closest I have gotten to anything like this is the scene in Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johansson is wandering around in a Tokyo video arcade and sees this guy playing what I assume is Guitar Hero. Here is a video clip about the method:


I have to admit that I dipped in and out--I have a short attention span for this sort of thing--but I did notice some things that seem appropriate. There is a feature, riff repeater, that allows you to isolate a particular short, difficult passage for practice. Well, of course, this is how you learn stuff, by breaking it down into small, easily-digested parts. So maybe this might actually facilitate learning guitar. It might even be an improvement over your local rock guitar teacher who is likely an inarticulate dweeb.

The impact of the possibilities offered by computer software and the internet on teaching is probably just in the very early stages. There are a whole bunch of mediocre guitar teachers, piano teachers, instructors in business and sales and, a particularly ripe target, college professors, who have hanging over their heads, whether they realize it or not, the sword of Damocles. The MOOCs (massive open online courses) just starting to be offered by universities, are going to have a huge impact on the institutions of higher learning who have been going down the road of less for more for a long time. Tuitions are skyrocketing as undergraduates find themselves more and more stuffed into huge lecture classes of 300 or more students with a once-a-week session in a smaller group with a grad student. Replacing this with an online course would likely be an improvement!

A couple of little anecdotes from my experience. In the early 70s I was an undergraduate in a Western Canadian university where I was lucky to get an excellent introduction to a university education. Apart from music I had classes in linguistics, English, German and philosophy. Each of these classes, at the first-year level, had no more than twenty students. The philosophy class in particular was taught by a recent PhD and he did it by assigning readings and then debating them with us. In other words, we actually did philosophy in the class in much the same way that Socrates would have in the 4th century BC. Years later I became an instructor myself in that same university and was shocked to discover that that same first year philosophy class now had 300 students! There won't be any debating in that class! Another example. In another university where I was teaching a music appreciation class to non-music majors, with an enrollment of around 100 students, I was waiting outside with a group of students for the previous course to end when I fell into conversation with one of my students. As we walked in a few minutes later she confided in me that she was in 2nd year psych and just now was the first time she had actually spoken to a professor. Now I was just a sessional lecturer, but I got the point. Universities have, in many respects, turned from being transmitters of the great traditions of Western culture into sausage-factories, turning out certified know-nothings in great quantity. It wouldn't be quite so insulting if it were not that the cost of this has become prohibitive--in the US at least. Canadian universities are still pretty cheap, though with a lot of the same problems.

All this makes universities a big fat target for internet instruction.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Debate Over Art and Politics

There are two recent hefty contributions to the ongoing debate over art and politics. I want to link to them here because I think they are both worth reading and because I want to add a comment myself. The first article is by Jed Perl and appears in The New Republic. The title is "Liberals Are Killing Art". Here is a brief section that will give you a taste of Perl's article:
It is also, so I believe, a grave mistake to imagine that because art has so often been placed in the service of governments or religions that it is somehow essentially a medium through which political or social or religious beliefs are to be conveyed. By this logic, art has no independent life, and is never much more than a reflection of some particular set of values. But this argument can easily be turned on its head. The very fact that art has so often been embraced by those in positions of power suggests an awareness that art has some unique, autonomous valuesome capacity or capability that trumps temporal concerns and lends to time-bound ideas, ideologies, and ideals an enviably timeless aspect.
I might add a bit to this by saying that coverage of the arts in the mass media is often one of the biggest offenders against the real value of art because, these days at least, it is focussed on the most superficial forms of art and in the most superficial way: record sales, video views, salacious costumes and dance, the celebrity cult of the artists and so on.

The riposte to this is found in a New Yorker column by Alex Ross titled "As If Music Could Do No Harm" which is a quote from Socrates. Plato, who put those words in Socrates' mouth, is particularly known for desiring to control the role of music in society. Ross' column makes some good arguments contra Perl as regards the fact that music does often have a political dimension that is hard to ignore:
The illusion I have in mind is the belief that one can engage in blatantly political activity and then, in the face of protest, insist that politics has nothing to do with art. The rote repetition of a tidy cliché about artistic autonomy rings hollow when it is used as a protective shield. Such rhetoric poisons the art-for-art’s-sake mentality that Perl ardently defends. The problem is acute in classical music because of a longstanding devotion to the concept of “absolute music”—the idea that Bach, Beethoven, and the rest inhabit a spiritually pure sphere, far above the vulgarities of politics.
Point taken, but notice how the effect of this paragraph is to paint as naive those who might want to look at music apart from "the vulgarities of politics".

UPDATE: Looking back over this post, I feel that there is point here that needs to be underlined: Politics is often vulgar and Bach, Beethoven and the rest do usually inhabit a spiritually pure sphere far above it. The really odd thing here is that we read the statement by Alex Ross and just accept his positioning it so as to seem questionable, if not out right wrong.

I think both essays are worth reading and make some good points, but I think the very medium of a debate in print denatures all discussion of music. In the case of a lecture or master class on music, one can lard the presentation with frequent appropriate musical examples. But in an essay, or any discussion where the music, in the form of the sounds themselves or the notation of those sounds, is absent, the discussion inevitably shortchanges music as an independent phenomenon for the very, very simple reason that the discussion is a purely verbal one! Surely this is obvious? Politics is easy to discuss in an essay; music, not so much.

As soon as I put up a piece of music in the form of a clip from YouTube, the quality of music as something that certainly can have an existence quite separate from politics is obvious. Note the word "can". Because, as we can demonstrate with a different piece of music, it can also have a very strong political character. Let me put up an example of music simply as music:


Now I'm quite sure that an excellent way to get a doctorate these days would be to unpack the political subtext to this or any Haydn quartet. But that speaks more to the prejudices of the present day than to the music. This music was written for the enjoyment of the players above all and it succeeds because of its musical characteristics. You can write a political subtext if you wish, but I think you are on thin ice and add nothing to one's understanding of the piece. On the other hand, here is a piece that is all about the politics:


That is the French national anthem, written by Rouget de Lisle during the French Revolution and originally titled the "Marching Song of the Army of the Rhine". This arrangement is by none other than Hector Berlioz.

Then there are the myriad of pieces whose political character is subtle, various or ironic, such as a lot of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich:


This symphony is dedicated to the city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Shostakovich's home town and during WWII subjected to possibly the most horrific siege in modern times. Over 900 days of siege, over one and a half million soldiers and civilians died in Leningrad. Shostakovich was there in the initial stages before being evacuated and the first movement was composed entirely in the besieged city. I'm sure this is a patriotic work, one that recalls the suffering of the people, but is it "political" in the sense that either writer of the above essays means? What is Shostakovich's attitude towards the Soviet authorities? Does it matter?

My feeling is that much of the talk about the relationship between music and politics tends to collapse as soon as you look at specific pieces of music. Which itself speaks to the fundamental autonomy of music.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Music and Mathematics

I'm reminded of something a classical scholar said to a musicologist many years ago: "do not look into Greek music theory; that way lies madness!" Somehow I have stumbled into some strange mathematical realms while innocently poking around in some Wikipedia articles trying to understand a little bit about the Poincaré conjecture that Grigori Perelman solved. That led me to an article about hearing the shape of a drum:




This little illustration is explained thusly:
Mathematically ideal drums with membranes of these two different shapes (but otherwise identical) would sound the same, because the eigenfrequencies are all equal, so the timbral spectra would contain the same overtones. This example was constructed by Gordon, Webb and Wolpert. Notice that both polygons have the same area and perimeter.
And then I wandered over to an article about the vibrations of a circular membrane (a drum in other words) and saw this very weird thing:


That, by the way, is one way that a circular drumhead can vibrate. Maybe if you hit it really hard in just the right spot? That's known as Mode u_{23} (5d) with \lambda_{23}=11.6198.

And that led me to things that vibrating strings do. Here are the first five overtones shown as standing waves on a string:


And then my head started to hurt and I had to lay down...

Two Russians Named Grigory

This is a bit peripheral to our primary interest here at the Music Salon, but so very interesting I wanted to put it up anyway. There is a very interesting fellow, a Russian mathematician, who may be the smartest person in the world. His name is Grigory Perelman.

Grigory Perelman

I recommend reading the whole Wikipedia article as it is fascinating. Some highlights:
In 1994, Perelman proved the Soul conjecture. In 2003, he proved Thurston's geometrization conjecture. This consequently solved in the affirmative the Poincaré conjecture, posed in 1904, which before its solution was viewed as one of the most important and difficult open problems in topology.
In August 2006, Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal[1] for "his contributions to geometry and his revolutionary insights into the analytical and geometric structure of the Ricci flow." Perelman declined to accept the award or to appear at the congress, stating: "I'm not interested in money or fame; I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo."[2] On 22 December 2006, the scientific journal Science recognized Perelman's proof of the Poincaré conjecture as the scientific "Breakthrough of the Year", the first such recognition in the area of mathematics.[3]
On 18 March 2010, it was announced that he had met the criteria to receive the first Clay Millennium Prize[4] for resolution of the Poincaré conjecture. On 1 July 2010, he turned down the prize of one million dollars.[5][6] He additionally turned down the prestigious prize of the European Mathematical Society.[7]
Apparently he is working on another one of the problems that the Millennium Prize people have designated as deserving of an award. If he solves that one, that will be another embarassing moment for them if he turns it down as well.

I like this guy! He seems to have the crazy idea that higher mathematics really has nothing to do with either money or fame.

So who is the other Grigory? That would be Grigory Sokolov who is possibly the finest pianist alive, but who refuses to do commercial recordings (all the CDs available are from live concerts) and, when the US and the UK put in onerous new visa requirements for touring musicians, simply canceled his concerts in those countries. He seems to share Perelman's stance. The fine arts, like classical music, really have nothing to do with how many records you sell or how many concerts you give.

Here is Grigory Sokolov, showing us how it's done:


What is it with these Russians?

Friday Miscellanea

You know, I am almost certain that fifty years ago the arts section of a major newspaper would NOT have had as the main item something like this: "Katy Perry Shares Her Latest Piercing on Instagram." Believe it or not, fifty years ago, most people would have thought that the "arts" were about, well, the fine arts: painting, sculpture, literature, theater and classical music. And even if one of the artists had had something pierced recently, it would not have been considered news. Not arts news at least. But times have changed, and not for the better. I'm still thinking about releasing my own fragrance...

* * *

Now here is something quite nice, found in a slightly odd place: the National Review Online, which we don't necessarily associate with discussion of classical music. But here is an interview with Heather MacDonald on the future of classical music. She is quite optimistic, which is refreshing. It is only four minutes long, an excerpt from a longer interview, so have a listen.

* * *

So, you are due to perform the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev and at the last minute he, Gergiev, cancels. So what do you do? Easy, you conduct and play it yourself. Here is violinist Vadim Repin, showing us how it's done.

* * *

Here is a little statistical analysis of the relative popularity/obscurity of popular songs:


There's more to it in the post, so go have a look.

* * *

Instead of getting paid for this gig, the promoters are asking the artists to pay them. As I recall, if you pay to play a gig, or if you do one for free, the Musician's Union is likely to make you pay a fine. The gig is the Superbowl and the publicity is likely to add a lot to the performer's bottom line. But still...

* * *

Here's a quirky little story about a man who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods for nearly 30 years and is now returning to society. He isn't really happy about it, saying:
"I don't think I'm going to fit in," he said. "It's too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia."
So, it sounds as if what drove him into the woods in the first place was pop music and tv advertising. Boy, do I ever know how he feels! And now, it's even worse. Instead of The Police and Talking Heads, he is going to have to deal with Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.

* * *

To end this brief miscellanea, let's have a listen to the Talking Heads. Here is the leadoff song on side one of Speaking in Tongues, the song "Burning Down the House":




UPDATE: Here is an article substantiating my comments way, way back, that this 10,000 hour rule is a bunch of bunk. For most people, working on something for 10,000 hours will NOT make you an expert.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Economics of Composition

There is a series of articles in the Globe and Mail that offer career advice in the form of "if I become a jet test pilot, how much will I make?" I have never read any of them so I don't know if the answer to that one was, "$100,000, but you will only work a couple of years before suffering a fiery demise!" But I do, from time to time, think about the economics of composition.

I suspect that the most successful film composers might do pretty well. I have seen numbers like up to $500,000 or even $600,000 for the top rank big budget composers like John Williams. But this might include all the costs of having to deliver a recording of the music. That means having to pay the musicians, conductor and recording costs, which makes you a general contractor as well as a composer. On the bottom end, a low-budget film or TV score would mean around $20,000 to the composer. Again, this might include having to deliver the recorded score, so hello synthesized and sampled instruments. I watched some behind the scenes interviews with Christophe Beck, the composer of most of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtracks and how he worked was to compose the score on his digital audio workstation (a digital keyboard hooked into a computer with music software) and just hired the occasional soloist to lay melodic tracks on top. The results are pretty good. The only time he used an actual orchestra was for the series finale.

But this is all commercial stuff, even if it sounds a bit "classical". It is a tricky thing to describe or define the difference between a film score or video game score and a "serious" composition. I think it is pretty easy to hear if I put them side by side, though. Let's try that. Here is John Williams conducting and commenting on his "Harry Potter Symphonic Suite":


To be honest, I didn't listen to the whole thing as the first piece, Hedwig's Flight, I think makes my point. Lovely sound in the celesta, as Williams says. And it is a direct lift from the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Tchaikovsky:


Except, of course that the Tchaikovsky has two things that the Williams piece lacks: it has more distinctive melodic and rhythmic character AND it is original.

It goes both ways, of course, sometimes, perhaps a bit cattily, I have accused a passage from a Mahler symphony as sounding like a banquet scene from Harry Potter. But that is a bit mean!

In any case, I think there are some real, if perhaps subtle, differences between a film composer looting the history of music for little remnants he can dress up and use in his score and what a more serious composer would do. This gets very tricky to talk about because if I say the difference is in the intention, then there are some potentially serious objections to that line of argument. It doesn't matter what a composer intends, you might reply, only what he does. If I intend to write a great symphony, that doesn't mean I will succeed!

But some kinds of intention shape the way you work and therefore the result. John Williams is creating music to accompany a filmed narrative, therefore the needs of the narrative drive the process. If I could refer to someone I have been talking about a lot lately, what the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson is doing is quite different and so are the results. His work is entirely about a kind of spiritual inner journey that involves a great deal of suffering, very audible in the music, with sometimes "lyrical islands" of beauty glimpsed on the journey. Parts of his Symphony No. 10 were actually sketched on bandages as he was confined to a hospital in critical condition for a considerable time.


I think you get the idea? But I find that I have wandered away from my topic, which is the economics of composition.

So, if you are a commercial composer like John Williams you might make seven figures a year, which is around what the most successful classical soloists probably make, though these numbers are not made public. Most classical soloists and film composers, I am sure, eke out a bare minimum.

But what are the economics like for the serious composer? I talked about this in this post where I quoted the standard fees suggested by the Canadian League of Composers. Basically, if you spend a year writing a 20-minute piece for orchestra, you will be paid about, wait for it, $16,000 CAN or around $15,000 USD. Wow, that's easy street for sure! Of course, if you are a very, very famous Canadian composer you might get a commission like this every few years. Serious music composition, in Canada at least, is an amateur pastime. Either you have a day job as composition or theory teacher at a university or conservatory or you are independently wealthy.

Now here is what I really wanted to talk about. What sort of model, economic and aesthetic, is there for really worthwhile music composition, what we would like to call "serious" or "art" music? In the case of Allan Pettersson, he suffered terrible poverty and illness his whole life, relieved occasionally by stipends or grants from the Swedish government. His is an interesting case, because the similar kind of model in Canada does not seem to have produced anything like a body of work like Pettersson's. I have long suspected that the problem in Canada is one of the bland leading the bland. The juries of peers that pick the people that get the grants are comprised of the people that have typically gotten the grants previously and they seem to be the people who compose the properly fashionable kinds of music. This might even be the case elsewhere, though I haven't and don't intend to do the research.

Let's look at a couple of American examples. Three actually. One would be Harry Partch who was a genuine original and probably never got a grant (nor applied for one) in his life. He was so out there that he not only wrote original music, he had to design and build all the instruments to play it. Poor, yes, of course. For a lot of his life his lot was pretty much that of a hobo. Let's listen to a bit of his music. This is an early piece called "Barstow" after the town in California:


Another example would be Conlon Nancarrow who lived in Mexico for many years creating strange and impossible piano music by cutting slots directly in the paper rolls of player pianos. Here is one of those pieces:


And a third example is Charles Ives, now greatly respected as the father of modernism in the US, but from an economic point of view, a complete amateur. His day job was as an executive for an insurance company where he developed the concept of estate planning, but he wrote piles of scores that for the most part remained unknown during his life. His music might be regarded as musical experiments, many of which were never performed until after he was dead. Of course, no-one was offering him any commissions. Here is his "Central Park in the Dark":


So, our models are, composition supported by stipends from the state which often, but not always results in mediocre music; a life of poverty; a life of exile; or a productive career in business while composing music on the side.

I seem to have managed to combine all of these except the first two! I am proud to make the claim that I have never been awarded a penny in government grants.

Now, can we find some counter-examples? Great, or at least really interesting music, that was composed by commission or other direct payment. Up until the 20th century this was the norm. Every symphony Haydn wrote was composed under aristocratic patronage. I won't talk about this here as I have done so elsewhere, but during the 19th century the whole economic structure changed and by the 20th century it was largely states and government bodies that supported or did not support composition. This is still the case. Composers that seem to do ok with this, receiving commissions for their work, but writing compositions of outstanding quality, are people like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Thomas Adès and others. Here is Insomnia for orchestra by Salonen:


This was intended mostly as a "food for thought" post, so leave a comment...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Great War and Music

This month is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, sometimes called the Great War, which was an horrific rupture in European civilization that shaped the modern world. The Times (of London) has an article about the effects on music that is quite good. There will be a concert at the Proms devoted to some of the composers who died. Sample paragraph:

Two other promising young composers, the New Zealander Willie Manson and the Englishman George Wilkinson, were both killed on July 1, 1916 — the ghastly first day of the Battle of the Somme. And then there are the two relatively unknown figures whose music is being featured in the forthcoming Prom: the German, Rudi Stephan, and the Australian, Frederick Septimus Kelly. Though the former was only 28 when he was killed in 1915, he was already regarded as the leading German composer of his generation. His powerfully elegiac Music for Orchestra shows why, but tragically we will never know the full extent of his powers because, in a stroke of supreme irony, most of the music he wrote was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid in the Second World War.
The article has no illustrations nor clips, so, just to underline the horror of this war, I give you this photo of a machine gun squad (maybe two squads?) of the Irish Guards. Every single person you see in the photo died in the war. Imagine the impact of this on a small Irish town.



There were two main effects that I can think of: first, the deaths of a whole generation of the best and brightest. These were the people that tended to end up in the officer corps and, according to the remarkable book on his experiences by Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That, the casualty rate among front-line officers (of whom he was one) was 90%. The other effect was on the survivors and explains the extreme pessimism and tortured aesthetic vocabulary of those who survived. The years before the Great War were prosperous and peaceful in Europe and the book that describes this is The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck.

One of the most horrific things about the Great War was that it was not the "war to end all wars", but merely the first part of a greater conflict that only ended in 1945 with the end of the Second World War. There has been a revival of optimism and a less-tortured approach to aesthetics since then, so perhaps we can hope that the Great Wars of the 20th century, which have been called a "suicide attempt by Western Civilization" were finally an unsuccessful suicide attempt! Perhaps civilization will survive after all, though there are certainly enough new barbarians to confront...

The logical piece to listen to would be the Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel, each movement of which is dedicated to a friend of his who lost his life in the war:


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Symphony Guide: Finally, Berlioz!

And, speaking of symphonies, if this is Tuesday, we must be in Belgium? No, wait, wrong meme. If this is Tuesday, there must be a new installment of Tom Service's symphony guide in the Guardian, something that has been providing us with a lot of entertainment and some information for quite a while now. The series began in September last year, so we are near the end. Time to cram in the big, significant pieces that we have neglected so far: Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique!

This is a great piece and a greatly innovative one, as Tom says. I have always had a special fondness for Berlioz, not just because he was a guitarist, but because he really was such an original composer, shaking composition in France out of the doldrums that it frequently falls into. But let's have a look at what Tom has to say. The problem with Berlioz, at least as we encounter writing about him in the mainstream media, is that Berlioz himself was a brilliant writer and wrote a lot about this piece. Therefore, what any journalist would do, to avoid having to do any work himself, is simply loot the writings of Berlioz for his commentary. And yes, that is exactly what Tom does. And then he tells us a bit about the piece itself, right? Nope, all he does is quote opinions about the piece from contemporary observers. Perfectly all right as reception history, but if you want to learn something about the music, then you need to look elsewhere. I talked a bit about what Berlioz was doing in this post.

Here is the final paragraph of Tom's almost-article on the piece:
There could be no higher praise for Berlioz; the wild alchemical mixture of Faustian diabolism, his extension and expansion of Beethovenian sonic possibility, the unflinching, opiate extremity of his musical imagination, and the essential catalyst of his incomparably intense emotional life, made – and still make – the Symphonie Fantastique an experience that turns all of us into its exalted, executed and eviscerated hero.
Too many adjectives, Tom, just too many adjectives.

Let's listen to the music:

Thomas Adès on His Asyla

I recently listened to a YouTube clip of the premiere of Thomas Adès piece for orchestra entitled Asyla, which, one learns from the introductory talk, is the plural of "asylum". I found the composer's remarks rather more interesting than the piece itself, so I will put a partial transcript of them below:

"[symphony orchestra] no longer a mainstream medium"
"orchestra something that has been basically static since before the first world war; as a medium it hasn't evolved and composers have"
"I'm very much aware that if I was a different creature as a composer, I would certainly have called this piece "symphony"
"I feel very uneasy with using the word "symphony" to describe a four-movement orchestral piece ... it just seems that it's rather a debased sort of word ... I can't take it seriously any more"
I won't take the time to transcribe it all. Most of the rest is simple description of the four movements that boil down to

  1. Quick, melodic, flight
  2. Slow movement, taking refuge somewhere
  3. Contemporary dance, equivalent to a minuet in a Haydnesque symphony
  4. Slow, sort-of passacaglia
Go and listen to the introduction and the piece itself:


Now the piece itself isn't bad at all. It received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2000. But the first commentator on the clip makes an interesting observation:
All the effort is put into the surface. What the music 'says' is merely the conventional clichée of alienation, chaos, disruption, nihilism etc. etc. that has become de rigeur in 'established modern music' for half a century by now. Music is not about interesting sounds but about something musically interesting to 'say'. The snippets of musical lines in the midst of 'nice, interesting sounds' betray a longing to write real music... which was still possible at the beginning of the last century. Ades is a convincing symbol of the conventionalized modern music scene.
But I want to talk more about Adès' remarks than the piece, at least in this post. He comes across as rather too pleased with himself and too ready to disparage both the orchestra itself as a medium, and the venerable composers who created the instrument and the genre of the symphony. The ironies are manifest. First of all, the interviewer, before Adès makes his appearance, carefully lists the mammoth percussion ensemble that has been added to the symphony for the piece by Adès. As he says, it includes six tympani, roto-toms, tuned cowbells, water gong, two pianos (one tuned a quarter-tone flat),  washboard and other even odder instruments. The irony comes with Adès' remark that the orchestra hasn't evolved since before the first world war. It certainly has. A lot of twentieth century symphonies don't call for more than a late 19th century worked with. But a lot, like this piece, certainly do. And still others call for a lot less, in a return to the Classical norm, as in Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. So Adès remark is mere preening: we composers have evolved, but the poor old orchestra hasn't. What he means by saying that is it no longer a mainstream medium, I have no idea, unless he thinks that rock bands and sequencers are the mainstream medium. But it is more preening, in any case. As is the remark about if he were a different creature he might have named the piece a symphony. But then he goes out of his way to demean the symphony as such, saying it is a "debased" word. Only to you, Tom, only to you!

What he writes is, of course, the very model of a post-modern symphony, all tarted up with exotic percussion to give it a fashionably alluring surface, but underneath, it fulfills exactly the format of a classical symphony, the only departure being the choice of a passacaglia for the last movement, something that Brahms also did, of course.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Townsend: Symphony No. 1

As I promised some commentators a while back, here is a clip of my Symphony No. 1, which I finished a couple of months ago. It is not a proper recorded version, but rather an audio file exported from Finale in which the instruments are synthesized. Some instruments come out better than others. The oboe and double bass seem pretty good, but the violins never sound quite right and the flute is very feeble. The dynamics, especially crescendos and diminuendos are a bit hit and miss. But a program like this is an incredible boon to composers, even with its limitations. In my Symphony No. 2, which I am working on right now, I was having some real problems with the playback of percussion instruments and the customer support people at Finale were very helpful in solving the problem.

I have created a video clip of the symphony with titles so you know the movements apart, and with a single photo for each movement, just to have something on the screen. The first photo is of a sunset on Mars, the second a mountain landscape, also on Mars. The last two are just photos of light in natural landscapes. Don't read much into the choice of photos, as they are just ones I had lying around.

The symphony is in four movements and is very much in the classical tradition. There is an opening movement, Maestoso, then a Scherzo, a Passacaglia and a Vivace. The main influences are the Classical masters, especially Haydn, with a bit of influence of Sibelius here and there. But the symphony is mine above all. It makes no attempt to be fashionable, but just to be a decent piece of music, expressive and providing enjoyment to the listener. It is rather brief, under fifteen minutes for all four movements. It is also my first attempt in the genre.

I welcome criticism, so don't be shy!




UPDATE: On listening to the clip after uploading it, there is an unfortunate "rain-barrel" effect that seems to come about whenever there is the full orchestra. I had to compress the clip down to a pretty small size to make it uploadable to Blogger. In the original version it sounded much better. If anyone has any ideas how I can put up a better version, please share in the comments.

UPPERDATE: Yesterday I met with a conductor about premiering the symphony next season. It will receive its first performance in the 2014/15 season of the San Miguel International Symphony series. We haven't set the date yet, but I think it will be before Christmas.