Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Every Friday I put up a post of smaller items. Today we begin with Anna-Maria showing us how to do overtone singing:


* * *

The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel on which the movie Bladerunner was based and one of the best titles ever, was a big lover of classical music, especially Beethoven. Here is a link to a list of some of his favorite pieces.

* * *

I just want to assure all readers of the Music Salon that sighing and using irony will continue to be featured here on an ongoing basis. That is, assuming I have the writing skills to put them in print. I mean pixels! Sparked by reading this article about the treatment of a professor at the University of Warwick. Everyone seems to have come to their senses as we can read in this followup.

Sigh...

* * *

Here is a review of a recent performance of a Handel opera at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. This paragraph from the review outlines some of the differences in musical style of Baroque versus more recent operas:
Witnessing an 18th-century opera in a version of its original state is like overhearing a discussion about astronomy with people who still believe the sun revolves around the Earth. We just see things differently now. And in opera, it’s the concept of dramatic time that has changed beyond reckoning since opera seria ruled the world. We expect preparation, conflict, resolution in our dramatic timelines. Handel and his contemporaries, on the other hand, present a situation, explore the emotional intensity of that situation, and then move on to the next. It robs us of our contemporary expectation of dramatic time, but it provides a composer with dozens of opportunities to plumb emotional depths without worrying too much about plot, character development, or any other modern operatic convention.
What is left out is how "dramatic time" is expressed in music. It really boils down to a completely different way of handling harmony which in the Baroque era was more static. It was the early Classical composers that discovered how to make harmony create a feeling of narrative impetus and hence, "dramatic time". The odd thing is, in these times of widespread musical ignorance, someone reviewing a Baroque opera is not actually allowed to mention the music! You notice that the word "music", let alone the word "harmony" is absent from the above description?

UPDATE: To clarify, the review talks a lot about the music in reviewing the performances, just not in this paragraph, which is about the piece itself. Still odd.

* * *

This has to be my favorite item of the week: "Bach's wife composed his most famous works".
Born in 1701, and married to Bach in 1721, Anna Magdelena [sic] was known to have transcribed for her husband in his later years, however Jarvis will argue the handwriting does not match the slowness or heaviness attributed to someone copying – and it’s more likely that the inspiration has flowed from her mind.
Wow, is that a feeble argument, or what? If we can't find a great woman composer since Hildegard von Bingen (1098 - 1179) then we will just have to invent one!! Steven Isserlis gives this theory the treatment it deserves here.

In other news, Clara Schumann was the author of all of Robert Schumann's better stuff and the actual composer of Stravinsky's ballets was Coco Chanel. Stay tuned for more breaking news...

* * *

What really bothered me about this performance was that the guitar was out of tune... <sarc off> Blogger won't embed, so follow the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lSGlhbftrc


Hey, every guitarist does this sort of thing. But they usually stop after a minute or two, not keep it up for 6:47. Sheesh!

(And I really don't see the need for a score when you could just have a post-it note saying "just piss around on the guitar for six minutes or so in a random fashion...")

* * *

Apart from the fact that everything he says about Taylor Swift could probably apply to most pop musicians, this is not bad: "When Music Sounds Like a Cash Register: Taylor Swift"


* * *

You can learn a lot about music online these days. This course, "The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works", comes highly recommended. Has anyone purchased and watched it? Was it worth $114? I have to say, that while it does seem to have more than its fair share of warhorses, it does end in the right way, with two symphonies by Shostakovich: nos. 5 and 10.


* * *

Rounding off this special Halloween miscellanea let's listen to Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky:



You can hear Stravinsky's roots in that music. And for a different take on the macabre, here is Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre:



Which answers the question, what is that weird music Giles plays during the "Hush" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season four, episode ten when he is giving his analysis of how to fight the Gentlemen?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Heavy Halloween Classical

Over at the Guardian Tom Service has a special piece up suitable for Halloween: "10 of the best: metal meets classical". It is suitable for Halloween because these versions are musical monstrosities! Go have a look and then come back as I have a few comments.

The article begins with one of those journalistic slights of hand that we have learned to watch out for:
It is, of course, one of the most honourable cross-connections in contemporary musical culture, the virtuosity and emotional extremity that bind classical and metal together.
"Honourable"? Arrangements of classical pieces performed by heavy metal musicians certainly boldface the virtuosity and emotional extremity at the cost of undermining every other quality such as rhythmic subtlety, phrasing, dynamic shading and beauty of tone color. Heavy metal is, like most pop music, one dimensional. It is a narrow genre and the raucous tone color, "Cookie Monster" vocals and pounding percussion keep the emotional expression to that narrow palette. Classical music, like a round peg shoved into a square hole, does not come off unscathed. That being said, some pieces suffer less than others!

Schubert's lied Der Erlkönig is certainly an imaginative choice, but the singing makes it very uncomfortable to listen to. The eeriness of the original is completely effaced in this version.

Night on a Bare Mountain I couldn't really listen to, but The Hut of the Baba Yaga came off better than expected. The Mussorgsky original has a bit of heavy metal in its DNA.

Dr. Voissy doing the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata is pretty impressive. More than that, actually: his ability to get all that onto the guitar seems uncanny. No, wait, more than uncanny: impossible. That's when you realize, listening closely, that he has at least one other guitar, usually playing accompanying chords, pre-recorded. Aha!

The duel between the classical guitarist and the electric guitarist over the Paganini Caprice No. 24 was just as dreary as you might expect. Mind you, many purely classical performances like that of Eliot Fisk are equally unlistenable. Why? I think the obsessive quality of the theme, plus performances that bring out nothing but velocity is the answer. If you want to watch a pretty good duel between electric and classical, have a look at the film Crossroads, but they use music by Mozart, a far better composer than Paganini!

I guess if you want to hear Vivaldi with a really ugly tone then Children of Bodom is just the thing...

Pergamum deliver a suite of all the most cliched classical themes performed in the most cliched heavy metal fashion. It is a kind of unpleasant perfection, I suppose.

I thought I could listen to Heavenly carpet bomb Beethoven, but I really couldn't.

The Yngwie Malmsteen piece is rather a different category. This is an original composition, a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra that relies on heavy metal versions of Vivaldiesque themes. And yes, there are the usual harmonic sequences, with chorus. I suppose this deserves a more thorough treatment, but not today!

The last piece is Nagaroth's version of the Schubert lied, Der Leiermann. This is even more unsettling than Der Erlkönig. Believe me, it is not a good musical idea to sing Schubert in a choked-off Cookie Monster voice. It is not trivializing it exactly, like doing a polka version. It is performing an aesthetic defacement, rather. Like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa or throwing a bucket of paint on a Van Gogh. Please, just don't?

I have to end this dispiriting post by putting up the original of Schubert's Der Leiermann.  Here is Thomas Quasthoff accompanied by Daniel Barenboim:


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Concerto Guide: Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins

As Vivaldi is probably the most prolific composer of concertos in music history, with 500 to his credit, I want to look at one more of his before moving on. This concerto, written for four violins and small orchestra, was also one admired by J. S. Bach, who did an arrangement of it for four harpsichords and orchestra. Here is the original by Vivaldi in a spirited performance by Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini, director:



Apart from the four soloists, the orchestra itself consists of only nine or ten members in this performance. Here is the first page of the score:

In the Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin quotes a very different looking score, with many more parts, most of which duplicate other parts. As he doesn't cite a source for his score, I'm not sure why it is laid out the way it is. The one I excerpt from above is found in the Bach Complete Edition, published in 1894. A couple of unhistorical details to note. This music, first published in Amsterdam in 1711, was not published in score as we see above. Instead, it was published as a set of partbooks, i.e. one folio for each instrument. It was hugely popular and Bach undoubtedly obtained a copy. Another unhistorical detail in the performance I posted above: performances in the early 18th century would likely NOT have had a conductor. If Vivaldi were performing the concerto with his students, it is likely that he himself would have conducted while playing the first violin part as well. The "modern" tradition of having a non-playing conductor stand in front, directing every beat, comes later. It was Beethoven, conducting his own symphonies and Berlioz a bit later, who began the tradition of the virtuoso conductor.

Here is the beginning of the arrangement by Bach:


As you can see, apart from changing the key from B minor to A minor and filling in some bass lines, Bach keeps fairly close to the original. Here is a performance of the Bach arrangement. I would have liked one with video, but all that I could find were amateur performances.


One of the interesting things about this concerto, apart from its effervescent energy, is the "four soloists" who are an ensemble in themselves. This kind of concerto, very popular in the early years, is called a concerto grosso. It was soon to be largely replaced by the truly solo concerto, with only one solo instrument. But occasional examples are found later on such as a couple of piano concertos by Mozart for more than one piano, the triple concerto of Beethoven for violin, cello and piano and the Brahms double concerto for violin and cello. Examples in the 20th century are even more rare--apart from the quite different idea of the "concerto for orchestra" the example that comes first to mind is the Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, op. 35 by Shostakovich, but that was likely inspired by the Baroque concerto grosso.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Townsend: Symphony No. 3

I completed my Symphony No. 3 the other day so I have created a clip of it to post here. The piece is a little over twenty-one minutes long and is in four movements:
  1. Moderato - Prestissimo
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Allegro risoluto
  4. Grave - Moderato - Allegro deciso - Grave - Moderato
Here is the first page of the score, so you can see the instrumentation:



I think I like it the best of the three so far. But I was stumped as to what images to put in the clip. So I'm afraid they are a bit random! There are some photos from a recent trip to Mexico City and the Museo Soumaya there which had an exhibit of 20th century sculpture. There are a couple of photos of Mexico City around my hotel. A couple of photos of me earlier in my career and now, working in my studio. And there are some photos of nature taken here in Mexico. One photo from a trip to British Columbia. Basically, these are just photos of my environment. The last movement is all one photo I particularly liked, taken just a few days ago. It is a photo of a church and associated convent called Las Monjas.

I am no photographer, of course! The music is the important thing and these photos are just intended to be mildly amusing while you listen.

I hope you enjoy the piece. In order to be able to post it here, I had to compress it quite a lot, so the quality of sound is not the best. I apologize. This is a synthesized audio file from Finale and in its original format, sounds not bad.


UPDATE: As soon as I posted this I realized that I forgot to mention a couple of things: don't be put off by the percussion chaos at the beginning. It doesn't last long and is meant to set up the ethereal chord that follows. This symphony is for the largest orchestra I have written for so far: I added piccolo and tuba to the usual winds. There is also a hefty percussion section, though I think that on consultation with a percussionist I should be able to consolidate the parts into three players. I think there is both more lyricism in this than my previous symphonies and also, in the last movement, more of a "groove". Again, I hope you enjoy it!

UPPERDATE: A friend tells me she can't get this clip to play. Anyone else have the same problem?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Goodbye to Jack Bruce

I didn't fall in love with music until I was in my mid-teens. Before then, piano lessons at age eleven just didn't capture my attention. What I thought I wanted was to play the drums, but my mother found out that it cost a lot more to rent a set of drums than it did to rent an electric bass. So, electric bass it was! My mother, a fiddler herself, explained to me that they were both in the rhythm section. Whatever that meant! So, in that inauspicious fashion, began my short career as a bassist. Throughout the three or four years I played bass in a band, my model was the bassist, Jack Bruce, for the world's first supergroup power trio, Cream. Sadly, we learn today that Jack Bruce has passed away, age seventy-one.

Here he is in the days when Cream were together from 1966 to 68:


And here he is during their revival concerts in London in 2005:


He started out on cello, which may be why his approach to the electric bass was both so melodic and so virtuosic. In any case, it certainly shaped the way I approached the bass. One consequence for me was after a few years I switched, first to six-string guitar, both acoustic and electric, and then to classical guitar as I discovered classical music. I'm sure that Jack Bruce was a big influence all through those early years, not just as an instrumentalist and singer, but also as a composer. Here is "As You Said", one of the songs Jack wrote for Cream's double album Wheels of Fire:


Apart from having written the music and the lyrics (in collaboration with Pete Brown), Jack sings the song and is playing both the cello and acoustic guitar (I believe). That is one of the most unusual songs he wrote. A more popular one he wrote (again with lyric contribution from Pete Brown) is "White Room", famous for its introduction in 5/4:


He was also a hell of a harmonica player as we can hear in this cover of the Muddy Waters tune, "Rollin' and Tumblin'":


Now that's a groove! That clip was from their series of revival concerts in Royal Albert Hall in 2005. Perhaps the most poignant performance from those concerts was another Jack Bruce song "We're Going Wrong" about his own personal life. One of my favorite songs from that era, not least for the very creative drumming of Ginger Baker:



Jack said in an interview once that he and Ginger always thought they were playing jazz--they just didn't tell Eric!

So long, Jack. You were a famous musician from a time before everything became about the bottom line.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Schubert and Harmony

We have discussed harmony a lot here at the Music Salon, most recently in this post on Harmonic Deficiencies. The so-called "common practice" period of harmony, lasting from around 1600 to around 1900 is well behind us now and its felicities are really only heard at classical music concerts. Nowadays the more old-fashioned composers are still writing atonal music, which is music that defies all the rules of harmony. The more up-to-date composers are writing some kind of modal music or using drones or perhaps some kind of polytonality. The "common practice" of harmony is less-known than it should be. The truth is that common practice harmony is the most developed, subtle, sensitive, finely-calibrated harmony ever developed in music--little wonder that it reigned for three hundred years!

I was listening to several pieces by Stravinsky in the last couple of days and while his harmony is inventive, fresh and stimulating, it is, compared with the best examples of common practice harmony, crude and harsh to the ears.

This is all prompted by reading a post on Luke Dahn's blog. He is an excellent theorist and wrote a fascinating post about the possibility of using one piece of music as material for teaching everything there is to know about chromatic harmony. The piece he chose is the masterpiece by Schubert, the song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin. Luke has prepared a beautiful chart showing just what harmonic devices Schubert used in the songs. Here is the link. I can embed it here as well:



But it is much more legible if you follow the link. This is a beautifully graphic analytic overview--the kind of thing I might do if I were teaching a theory course! You can download the complete score here. And here is a complete performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore with the score. It even includes the poet's prologue:



So you can, through the wonders of the internet, give yourself a complete course in chromatic harmony taught by Luke Dahn, with the aid of Franz Schubert. How, exactly? Well, let me walk you through the first song. First, go download that score from IMSLP (what a wonderful resource!). Then print out the two pages of the first song, Das Wandern. Now, let's have a look at Luke's chart. As we can see, Das Wandern is in the key of B flat. That is shown in Luke's chart by the "Bb:" at the beginning. This is a very simple song and the only harmonic device he shows is the little purple "V" in measure 13. The purple indicates that this is a "tonicized key area". Tonicized? Whazzat?

What Luke is teaching is not the most basic level of harmony, i.e. all those chords that are a normal part of the key, but rather chromatic harmonic, that is, all those devices that use accidentals, chromatic alterations, to either strengthen chords that are in the key, as the augmented sixth chords do, or to intensify certain chords by "tonicizing" them, i.e. making them momentary tonics in their own right by using secondary or applied dominants. Let's look at the Schubert song to see how this works. The song is in B flat. In measure 13 (you have numbered your measures, right?), which is the first measure on the second page in the score I downloaded, we see this:

Looks ok--hey, wait a minute, what is that F# doing there in the bass? That's the chromatic part. In order to temporarily make a chord into a tonic that is not the tonic in the key, Bb, we have to use an accidental. In this case the F# is the leading tone in the key of G minor, which is the relative minor (meaning it shares the same key signature of two flats as Bb major) of Bb. This makes the last harmony of m. 13 into a dominant of G minor, what we would analyze as a "V6" of V (V6 because the F#, the third of the chord D, F# A, is in the bass). Now go and listen to the song and see if you can hear this momentary departure from the key of Bb--it adds harmonic richness to the third phrase, creating the climax of the song. Incidentally, this tonicization forms the first part of a sequence, which means that the same idea is repeated at a different pitch. The tonicization, using F#, of G (minor) is followed in m. 15 with the tonicization of the dominant ("V of V"), F. This is done with its leading tone, E natural.

In the second song, Wohin?, we get not only more tonicization, but also, in mm 38-40, use of the Italian augmented sixth chord, shown with a little Italian flag. You can read up on augmented sixth chords here.

That should get you started!! With all the resources available online these days, anyone who actually wants to learn about music, can do so---for a song!

Heh!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking off this week's miscellanea is a tribute to the opera singer Anita Cerquetti, an extraordinary singer who retired at the age of thirty.

* * *

Here is a Concerto Fantasy for two tympanists and orchestra by Philip Glass


I doubt if any other composer has gotten so much milage out of just two ideas: 3 + 3 + 2 and rising minor thirds!

* * *

I'm trying to decide if this is good news or bad news: "Not One Artist's Album Has Gone Platinum in 2014." If this is a case of the public recoiling from the purchase of second-rate music, then isn't that good news? Mind you, I would hope that good music would start selling more, but that's obviously me dreaming!

* * *

Tom Service shows his value over at the Guardian with an excellent piece about Haydn's neglected operas. Some good clips from YouTube. One conductor that has really made a contribution is Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Here he is conductinL’anima del filofoso with Cecilia Bartoli:


* * *

One thing we should always keep in mind is that the mass media and opinion-shapers in general think that the people that read their stuff are basically low-information idiots. Sure, there may be some truth to that, but the hypocrisy is that these opinion-makers think that they are being very clever when what they are usually doing is serving up warmed-over clichés. Two recent examples: Baldur Brönnimann tries to tells us what is wrong with the classical concert format and just shows himself as a dolt. For example, he says:

6. The artists should engage with the audience

Many of us do: we speak to the audience before, after or during the concerts. But this can’t be an option, it must be mandatory for every artist to at least be able to introduce a piece, greet the audience or to sign a program. On that note, I think it is a shame that the public is often prevented from going backstage after a concert. Everybody should be able to talk to the musicians and share their thoughts and opinions, if it’s backstage or in the bar. We don’t live in an ivory tower and we have an obligation to talk to the people who love music as much as we do.
Uh-huh... Well, in my experience over the last few years, just about every string quartet and pianist on the planet is already doing this and straining my patience to the limit! My favorite was the very fine string quartet who thought it would be a good idea to have their Russian violinist introduce everything at great length in an absolutely impenetrable Russian accent which was, towards the back of the hall, also inaudible. Please, in most cases, unless you have a very articulate member with something to say, JUST DON'T. The reason program notes were invented was to provide mundane information to the audience about the music so that the players didn't have to.

Equally annoying are the comments by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead about live classical concerts. Hey BBC, can I have equal time to tell you what I think of Radiohead concerts?

* * *

I was expecting something classical, Franz Joseph Haydn or George Harrison,
says Tom Hanks in this piece in the New Yorker. I just like the equating of Haydn and Harrison as both being, in some way, "classical". Well, sure, works for me.

* * *

John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which I have written about before a couple of times, is about to be put on at the Met and the Wall Street Journal decides to do a nice little puff piece about the composer. And gets their ass handed to them in the comments. Go have a read. The comments especially.

* * *

People who think that classical music is stuffy and rigid are people who do not know the rich repertoire of classical music humor. Apart from the purely musical humor of someone like Haydn, there is the astounding variety of musical parody and satire. The Guardian has collected some of the best examples here. Here is a sample: Dudley Moore accompanies himself in two impressions of songs by Fauré and Schubert. In the former there is some particularly effective use of the eyebrows. Alas, YouTube refuses to embed, so just click on the link:


* * *

Let's send "get well soon" wishes to Hilary Hahn who has still not recovered fully from a muscle strain issue. She had to cancel a performance of two Bach concertos this week in Cleveland. And that gives us this week's envoi. This is a recording of Hilary playing the Bach A major Violin Concerto, but the video is of a completely different piece (no quartet of French horns in the Bach!):


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Harmonic Deficiencies?

Back a couple of years I put up a lot of posts about harmony and the problem of harmony in modernist music. I just ran across a post by theorist Luke Dahn that has some similar observations. Go read the post "Vertically Challenged?" There are a lot of very intriguing observations there including this one:
 I remember when I was an upper class undergraduate composer who was beginning to look at graduate schools. I sent an email to University of Michigan composer William Bolcom asking if he had any advice for a young composer who was preparing for graduate studies in composition. His reply was curt: “Go study Beethoven.” Not the response I was expecting.
Arnold Schoenberg, in his book Fundamentals of Music Composition spends most of the time discussing examples taken from Beethoven! Mulling over that is a nice antidote to those absurd flights of fancy such as Alex Ross' recent essay/review on Beethoven that throws up all sorts of dust, but tells us virtually nothing about why Beethoven is such a good composer.

Luke mentions some thoughts of the compose Tristan Murail as well:
Murail, too, implies that composers who are harmonically deficient or indifferent would be well served to look at music of the past, especially considering how “harmony relates to form.”
The relationship between harmonic structure and phrase structure in Classical Era music is very striking and I have looked at that quite a lot, especially in my numerous posts on the Haydn symphonies.

Let's listen to some Haydn. Here is an early symphony, No. 34 in D minor, with a very long slow movement in D minor followed by three short movements in D major. It was written in 1765:

Aleatory Quiz

Theory professors have blogs too and Luke Dahn has an interesting one. The current post is an "aleatory quiz" that tests whether you can distinguish between extremely complexly organized contemporary works for piano by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and music written using chance operations by John Cage. Go read the post and listen to the pieces. Luke acknowledges the

"ironic fact that aleatory of the kind represented by Cage’s Music of Changes often produced results that are strikingly similar to works of composers in the modernist avant-garde, composers that came to loathe Cage’s aleatory."
I think he might have taken this thought just a bit further. All these pieces by the three composers, were composed at around the same time: between 1948 and 1952. They all have the distinct flavor of the extreme modernism of the immediate post-war years. It is interesting that all the pieces sound so very alike, but from a historian's point of view, this is not so surprising. Why the composers who write highly organized music loathe the composers who use chance methods is that they believe that it is their methods that guarantee the significance of their music and its place in posterity. The music of Cage, sounding so very similar, disproves this entirely, does it not? It is too bad that our modernist-leaning commentator Bridge seems to have departed, as I'm sure he would have something interesting to say.

It seems to me clear that there are macro and micro epochs in music history: little moments of extremity and larger moments of shared style. The Classical Era from around 1770 to around 1830 (give or take a decade) is an important one that originated a great deal of the music we enjoy greatly. The "sturm un drang" was a micro moment of extreme expression within that period. Similarly, the Modernist Era from immediately after WWI (say, around 1920) to around 1970, was one of a shared style of atonality and rhythmic complexity. Within this era was the micro moment of extreme complexity that we can hear in these piano pieces: wide intervals, jagged rhythms and harmonic dissonance. Here are some links so you can read up on this music:

What is really, really interesting is that what you have just read, about the details of the structure of these pieces--or, in the case of the Cage, the details of how chance operations using the I Ching were used to make compositional choices--all seems to end up with the same results. Here is how Wikipedia describes Cage's methods:
The structure of the piece is defined through the technique of nested proportions, just like in most of Cage's pieces from the 1940s. The proportion remains the same for the entire work: 3, 5, 6¾, 6¾, 5, 3⅛. So there are 29⅝ sections, each divided into phrases according to the overall proportion: 29⅝ by 29⅝. This is then divided into four large parts of one, two, one and two sections respectively. The tempo is varied throughout the piece, using the I Ching and a tempo chart. The rhythmic proportion is expressed, then, not through changing time signatures as in earlier works, but through tempo changes.
All this has to do with what we might call the "aesthetics of production", that is to say, the aesthetic principles that the composers used. But when we listen to the music, we have a different point of view that might be described as the "aesthetics of reception". How do we listen? What do we hear? How does it affect us? And the fascinating thing is that from a reception point of view, all this music is very similar. If you were just a tiny bit cynical you might suspect that the elaborate scenarios and structures discussed by the composers were merely a kind of bizarre marketing or promotion scheme. Cage, for example, has so much of his music predefined through his "nested proportions" that whatever the I Ching says, the music is going to sound the same. No C major chords here! But the fact that he publicized his use of chance methods, distinguished him from his contemporaries, the composers with whom he competed for public attention. Smart marketing!

Let's listen to the Music of Changes of John Cage:


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Composers in Photos

Have you ever notice that composers look just a bit odd in photos? As if they are not quite part of this universe, but just visiting? Here are some examples:


Debussy certainly looks as if he just teleported in from another place, doesn't he?


This is George Crumb, and doesn't he look as if he is just about to dematerialize back into that piano?


And Stravinsky looks like he is just taking a coffee break from dwelling somewhere else.


Harry Partch looks as if he never left that other dimension.


Bruckner? Well it doesn't look like he visits Earth very often!


And Stockhausen can hardly wait to get back to his part of the sky.


Being here in our reality makes Schoenberg rather troubled.


Even Nico Muhly looks a bit glazed.


Prokofiev just whiles away a few idle minutes before he takes that wormhole back to his dimension.


And Puccini is wondering why he dropped by at all!


Shostakovich finds being here on Earth very anxiety-producing.


Even when he is with his friends Prokofiev and Khachaturian.


Even I look at bit puzzled to be here in this quantum reality.

But if we go back a bit, we find composers were a bit more at home in the late 19th century, as we can see in this photo of Mahler. With the exception of Bruckner, of course...



So why is this? Why do most composers look out of place in photos? I think it is because their home environment is sound, not sight. It's a bit like audio recordings of painters, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Concerto Guide: Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi


This is the second part of what is going to be a fairly long series of posts about the concerto. It is partly in emulation of the Guardian's symphony guide which we followed as it unfolded over the last year. I started with a post on the origins of the instrumental concerto last week and today's post will be on the first major concerto composer, Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741). He may also be the most prolific concerto composer of all time as he composed over 500 concertos--that is, we have five hundred of his concertos, some 230 for violin, and it is certain that an unknown number have been lost. It was the discovery of the manuscripts for a few hundred of Vivaldi's concertos immediately after the end of WWII that was the spur for the revival of interest in Baroque music.

Vivaldi had an unusual career. He was music teacher at an important institution in Venice, an orphanage for girls, thOspedale della Pietà. The girls were given vocational training in the form of instruction in music and achieved such a high level of virtuosity that they became one of the major tourist attractions in Venice. Vivaldi not only provided musical instruction in the violin, but also coached and conducted orchestras and choruses as well as playing the solo violin parts in many concertos. Oddly enough, the second most important solo instrument after the violin was the bassoon for which he wrote thirty-seven concertos. A good friend of mine studied bassoon at the Curtis Institute and her professor had her learn a new bassoon concerto by Vivaldi every week! Here is the Concerto for Bassoon in C major, RV 477, first movement:


In Corelli we saw how the fundamental structures of tonality were developed: the idea of structuring harmonic movement using the circle of fifths (follow the link for the Wikipedia discussion) and the use of melodic sequences leading to a cadence. It was Vivaldi who exploited and perfected these methods in creating the basic model of the Baroque concerto. There are three movements in all: fast, slow, fast (which may have come from the sonata da chiesa, slow-fast-slow-fast by simply dropping the first movement). The first movement is structured by alternating ritornelli and episodes. A ritornello is a theme with a number of distinct sections, that leads to a concluding cadence. As the movement proceeds this ritornello returns in parts on different scale degrees. The first and last iterations are complete and on the tonic. In between the solo instrument provides variations and developments of motifs from the theme. All musical forms are essentially ways of handling the two basic devices of repetition and contrast and the Baroque concerto form is a particularly successful way of doing so.

Here is the twelve measure ritornello to the bassoon concerto. Each of the four motifs is marked with a letter: A, B, C, D:


Sorry for the askew scans! That's what happens when you jam a big volume into the scanner. The line to follow is the not the bassoon line, which in the ritornello is just accompanying. The line to watch is the first violin, who has the theme. The four elements of this theme are A, a rising turn figure, B, an arpeggiated chromatic descent, C a descending scale in octaves and D, a cadential figure. As always, it is surprising to many how very simple the building blocks of a successful composition are.

In between statements, whole or part, of this theme, are the solo episodes of the bassoon who, in the words of J. J. Quantz, "dismembers and intermingles" the motifs of the theme. Now go back and listen to the movement again. As you can hear, the bassoon builds its solos from variations on the motifs. Also, listen to how the first ritornello abbreviates the theme.

The Baroque concerto is an extremely successful form as indicated by the fact that one set of concertos by Vivaldi, the Four Seasons, is one of the most popular pieces of classical music today. There are some other interesting aspects of the form. There is the soloist, who never repeats anything, and the orchestra, who always repeat. This has been mapped onto social structure with the soloist, of course, representing the individual and the orchestra, the group. The interactions of the two are coordinated, but also competitive.

The second movement owes its structure to aria form from opera seria where the soloist spins out expressive melodies over a minimal accompaniment. Then the third movement returns to the ritornello form.

I mentioned that the Four Seasons, a set of four concertos representing Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, are hugely popular with audiences. Vivaldi appends a poem to the beginning of each movement describing what is about to be heard. Since these concertos are not actually better music than other sets by Vivaldi, I suspect that this little "cheat-sheet" and program music aspect is part of the appeal. Most listeners benefit from some kind of simple doorway into a piece of music, a story they can relate to. Here is a performance of the four concertos for solo violin and orchestra:


But my favorite set of Vivaldi concertos is one even more influential in music history, L'estro armonico (Harmonic Inspiration) a set of twelve concertos for one, two, three and four violins that were an inspiration to J. S. Bach who recomposed six of them for keyboard instruments, in the process inventing the keyboard concerto. Here are all twelve concertos on original instruments:


It must be admitted that Vivaldi, in exploring all the possibilities of the concerto, was prodigiously creative and those people who say he wrote the same concerto five hundred times are just, well, wrong! I myself have not been the biggest Vivaldi fan, but just the process of preparing this post has converted me. What Bach probably derived from Vivaldi was a rhythmic crispness and harmonic clarity that he combined with the elegance of French Baroque music and the contrapuntal density of German music to create the most profound synthesis in music history.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Heritage of Music

I ran across an article in Inside Higher Ed about a recent conference on the future of the liberal arts. It attracted a lot of comments from different perspectives. Here is the kernel of it:
SANTA FE – Part celebration, part intervention, a conference on the future of the liberal arts at St. John’s College last week offered high praise and harsh advice for an embattled tradition. Speakers on Friday said that while the future of the democracy depends on a broadly educated public, advocates need to return to a less politicized, more siloed vision of the liberal arts for them to survive.
By "siloed" (never ran into that as a verb before) I assume is meant "isolated in an ivory tower". Just as the standard journalistic narrative has become entirely about breaking down these academic enclaves and "accessibility" (as least as far as music is concerned), some people are starting to see that this is the problem. It is not stated nearly clearly enough in the article, but I think it boils down to this. For a couple of reasons having to do with the advance of critical theory and with the demands of doctoral specialization, higher education in the liberal arts has become unattractive.

As a doctoral student you have to somehow find a new take on a topic or a new special niche to write your dissertation on. As the basic assumptions these days come from critical theory, you need to shape your topic to something that will fit with that world view. Anything where you can do a gender, race, class analysis is welcomed. Anything else is problematic. Therefore, you do your dissertation on something like "Queering the Harmony: Secondary Dominants in Tchaikovsky". Ok, I just made that up. In any case, finding something where you can boldly knock some dead white male off his pedestal is a surefire formula for success.

Then you get a job in a university and have to start teaching. So you just continue along your path and put together seminars where you continue to boldly knock dead white males off their pedestals. This is sort-of ok for graduate seminars, but the same approach is less appropriate if you need to teach a class to engineering students in music appreciation. Of course, you aren't allowed to call it "music appreciation", but that's really what it is.

What you should be doing, not only in the class for engineering students, but also for your music students, is introducing your students to the heritage of Western Music. I am talking about someone teaching in a school in Western Europe or North America, elsewhere other curricula might be appropriate. So you should be introducing your students, at an appropriate level of complexity, to a whole bunch of dead, white males like Bach, Beethoven and all those other guys. And you should do so with an attitude of respect, not a kind of sneering pleasure in uncovering their feet of clay, if they have any. You have one job: transmission of the stream of culture of Western Civilization.

Unfortunately, no-one ever says this, but perhaps conferences like this one are starting to.

I think that the core of the problem is getting over the idea of aesthetic relativity. If the music of Bach and Beethoven is not objectively better than the music of Justin Bieber and Beyonce, then why bother with it, except as grist for your mill, showing the mechanisms of oppression and power relationships?

Now let's listen to some Tchaikovsky!


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Applaud, friends

Towards the end of his life one of Beethoven's favorite sayings was "Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est" ("Applaud, friends, the comedy is over") a paraphrase of the last words of Augustus Caesar. A fitting response to the work of perhaps the greatest composer (along with Bach, of course) is simple applause. But, alas, we all, including your blogger, always seem to want to do more: to explain, to characterize, to memorialize and, even more likely, to exploit and misrepresent. All of these strategies are present in Alex Ross' recent large essay reviewing Beethoven's place in history as viewed through a great stack of recent and not-so-recent books about him. The catalyst for this project is the recent weighty book by composer Jan Swafford, which sounds like a pretty good book. Praising with faint damns, Ross says:
Swafford, in his introduction, declares his fondness for Thayer’s Victorian storytelling and belittles modern musicological revisionism. He writes, “Now and then in the course of an artist’s biographical history, it comes time to strip away the decades of accumulated theories and postures and look at the subject as clearly and plainly as possible.” He also distances himself from the psychological approach of Maynard Solomon, who, in his 1977 biography, attempted to place Beethoven on a Freudian couch. Though Swafford does not look away from the composer’s less attractive traits—his brusqueness, his crudeness, his alcoholism, his paranoia—the portrait is ultimately admiring.
As readers of the blog know, I recoiled in horror from the psycho-babble of Maynard Solomon's awful book on Mozart, so anyone who decides to avoid that nonsense gets a thumbs-up from me.

Ross begins with a lengthy introduction that tells us how we ought to think about Beethoven and his influence. This heavy-handed attitude is underscored by little editorial clues like the sub-heading asking the journalistic question:

Beethoven transformed music—but has veneration of him stifled his successors?

Not to mention the caption to the ugly little graphic:


Which says:
Recent scholarship shows that Beethoven was perpetually buffeted by political forces.
Like crap it does!! You have to be on guard. As I was saying the other day, virtually everything you read in the mass media is crafted not so much as to tell you things as to tell you how to think about things. A couple of hilarious satires coming from the right of American politics purport to demonstrate this tendency in the New York Times. For example, if the world were to end tomorrow, this is how the NYT would headline it: "World to End Tomorrow: Women and Minorities Hardest Hit" not to mention the ever-popular "Republicans: Threat or Menace?" Don't worry, I'm not getting political, those are just examples and I'm sure there are lots from the opposite point of view. I just find those ones particularly entertaining.

Back to Alex Ross' framing of how we should regard Beethoven. Bear in mind as you read the following quotes that Alex wants us to look at things as he does: there are no absolute aesthetic values so if we think some music is really good there have to be subtle, underlying reasons for doing so, possibly political. Also, classical music is basically uptight, so we always have to either apologize for that or point it out. And so on. In other words, what makes Alex Ross such a successful writer is that he always confirms the prejudices of those folks who live on the Upper West Side. Here let me bold some key words and phrases:

After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty. 
Beethoven shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music. In the course of the nineteenth century, dead composers began to crowd out the living on concert programs, and a canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center. As the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph
More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible.
“We ourselves appear to become mythologized in the process of identifying with this music,” the scholar Scott Burnham has written. Yet the idolatry has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory. As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “BEETHOVEN” emblazoned on the proscenium arch. “Don’t bother,” it seemed to say.
Wow, it is even Beethoven's fault that Alex didn't become a composer! And no, music history was not "designed" to prolong Beethoven's glory.

From then on the essay unfolds as a fairly typical omnibus review. So now that I have shown how Alex' essay tries to tell you how to think, let me have a turn at bat.

I'm not going to run out and buy any of these books, not even the new one by Swafford (whose writing I have enjoyed in the past). Why not? I don't need them and you probably don't either. Writing about music is always less valuable than the music itself. A journalist always has to find an angle which, in the case of music particularly, always turns out to be a misrepresentation. Sometimes this misrepresentation is close to being a felony, as in the horrid book by Solomon on Mozart. Other times it is just a misdemeanor in that it, while not actually lying to us, distracts us from the music itself. A few books, like those by Charles Rosen and Joseph Kramer, actually stay focused on the music and are worth your time. In most cases, though, you would be far, far better off just listening to the music.

Let me be blunt(er): you are not going to garner any clever insights into the music of Beethoven by reading the essay by Alex Ross or any of the books he reviews. You are going to spend a lot of time being misled and, worst of all, reading about rather than listening to, Beethoven.

Beethoven was a truly great composer. The reason he is so famous is not because of politics, or celebrity or psychology or any of that crap. It is because he wrote very, very good music. Some of it great music. You have to accept the concept of objective aesthetic value to wrap your head around that. But Alex Ross and all the rest would rather be put in stocks and pelted with turnips than admit there is such a thing as objective aesthetic value. So they write a lot of breezy prose. This is why it is sometimes pointed out that a lot of so-called supporters of classical music are actually its worst enemies.

Now let me shut up, so I can put up something for you to listen to. This is the Piano Sonata op. 101 in A major played by Mauricio Pollini:



UPDATE: I just thought of a good way of summing it up: in the 19th century Beethoven was admired for being a great composer. In the 21st century we resent him for the same reason!

Friday, October 17, 2014

"Culture of Celebrity"

I might have mentioned recently a kerfuffle over the financial difficulties being experienced by the Conservatoire du Quebec. Rumors that it might be forced to close were met with a huge public reaction. Here is the meat of the Globe and Mail's account:
the fracas du conservatoire brought a swift denouement for those seen to have provoked it. Nicolas Desjardins and Jean-Pierre Bastien, the Conservatoire’s director-general and president, respectively, both submitted their resignations this week over the affair.
Bastien had been on the job for less than four months, and was appointed by the same minister – David – who happily bid him adieu. His faux pas was to sign a board report – still not made public – that recommended school closings.
The savior, reacting to the public protest, is likely to be Quebec's culture minister Hélène David. The Conservatoire, with schools in a number of cities across the province, is such an integral part of the cultural life of Quebec, that this doesn't surprise me. But the reason I even mention the story is one interesting phrase, repeated in the article. This phrase is "culture of celebrity" and I think that the reason it is there is to frame the narrative according to the cultural prejudices of the Globe and Mail editors, all based in Toronto. To a Torontonian, the whole idea of the Quebec Conservatoire is vaguely absurd: why make such a fuss about a trivial little music school? The reason?
while Quebeckers have a fatalistic attitude toward corruption, they are passionately devoted to the culture of celebrity
For many Canadians, conservatories have a mild, apple-pie allure as places where children can spend their Saturday mornings learning to play Clair de lune. In Quebec, however, a crop of star musicians has forged a powerful link in the public mind between piano lessons in Rimouski and Quebec’s cultural prowess in the world.
Outside of Quebec, Canada very much resembles a "land without music" where culture is, while tolerated, certainly not encouraged! So the narrative is cleverly framed as Quebec's (unhealthy) attraction to celebrity. That's what a famous and accomplished classical musician is to the folks in Toronto: just another celebrity. Conservatories are worthy places where ten year olds learn how to play Clair de lune. Wow, could they be more dismissive?

Keep this in mind as you read the newspaper: virtually every story, certainly every one connected with politics or culture, contains a narrative frame that serves to tell the reader how to think about the story. The frame and, indeed, the facts presented within that frame, are all designed to further the desired narrative. Desired by whom? By the ruling caste of intellectuals. The thing is, in Quebec, that ruling caste tends to be supportive of the arts while in the rest of Canada they are regarded as being largely superfluous having merely a "mild, apple-pie allure".

The musical envoi to this post is pretty obvious: