Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Apparently in the UK they regard sex education as so important that classes in arts and culture are being removed to make room for it. I dunno, can't kids learn about sex in the traditional way, by necking at drive-in theaters like I did? Oh, right, no more drive-in theaters.

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Did you know that one annual tradition at MIT is to throw a piano off the roof of one of the dorms? Why a piano? That's an easy one: if you throw an oboe or a viola off the roof it doesn't make much sound when it hits and nobody cries.

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Let's see what Sinfini Music is cutting through this week. Ah, the Moonlight Sonata. I always wonder if we would listen to it as much and with such devotion if it had picked up a rather different nickname? Something like the Limburger Sonata or the Bratwurst Sonata? Jessica Duchen is a very knowledgeable writer on music; I wonder if they had her take those pills that make you stupider in order to write this piece for Sinfini Music? Too catty a remark? Let's have a look at what she says:

Why the name?

That title, naturally, is probably not Beethoven’s.
Certainly not Beethoven's, whose own title is Sonata quasi una fantasia.
Some associate the introspective, funereal quality of this music with Beethoven’s state of mind as he faced the onset of this cruel malady (his encroaching deafness). There seems, though, little limit to the theories on this sonata that abound; there may yet be further surprises in store.
Some associate every piece of music Beethoven (or anyone else for that matter) wrote with some biographical event or other. A particular horrific example is Maynard Solomon's book on Mozart that reduces every piece to a kind of psychological excrescence. Please, can't it just be music? And who says anything about the Moonlight Sonata is funereal?
The nature of the music, so strongly defined, speaks its message to every age.
And what "message" is that? What is so strongly defined about it? This kind of vague hand-waving is the stock-in-trade of mediocre politicians. By the end Jessical Duchen puts up some clips of different performances (but of course you have to sign up for Spotify to listen) and a podcast analysis of the work. But Sinfini, while probably good at luring you into purchasing recordings, continues to be hapless at informing you about music.

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Also at Sinfini is another execrable article on how biased, prejudiced, blinkered and oppressive classical music is for not employing precisely the correct numbers of "women and people from black and minority ethnic (BME) and working class backgrounds." I guess the acronym for that whole thing would be WBMEWC! Oh yes, I'm sure that the BBCSO (British Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra) would be immeasurably improved if only they could get the working class background contingent up to, what? 40%? As usual, the truth that what we are talking about are mandated quotas, is concealed by the happythought word Diversity. Where is George Orwell when we need him?

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This article from the Guardian is rather interesting. It makes the point that perhaps the reason that there are not more working class background people succeeding in the arts is that opportunities for them to learn their craft have been severely hampered by government cutbacks in education in cultural fields:
The arts sits in the eye of a perfect storm of failing social provision, substandard education systems and a heartless welfare state. In the past 20 years, government policy has decimated arts provision in the national curriculum. The introduction of tuition fees means higher education has come to represent a life sentence of debt, while cuts to welfare provision have removed any viable safety net for those without family money to fall back on. Meanwhile, the role of art and artists in our society is consistently undervalued by those in power. Last time I checked, actors, designers and directors weren’t the ones making those decisions in parliament.
Well, yes, if you keep telling people to go into computer programming because that is where the future is and keep raising tuition so no-one can graduate without a huge debt, then that would rather tend to discourage people from careers in the arts.

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 Here is a truly provocative article by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal about the positive aspects of post-modernism in music. I say provocative because, while I want to disagree with many statements and quibble with others, he makes some very good points:
Whatever you think of the radical relativism of postmodern cultural theory—and I detest it—the fact is that the coming of postmodernism has proved to be both liberating and stimulating to musicians of all kinds. It made it possible for minimalist classical composers like Mr. Glass and neo-romantic moderns like Lowell Liebermann to get a hearing in the concert hall and find their own loyal audiences.
Here is a track from the album that provoked this discussion, Really Love from Black Messiah by D'Angelo and The Vanguard:

One beef I have is despite all the talk about how post-modernism absorbs classical music into the mix, what I always hear, as in this track, is a little string noodling followed by hints of flamenco that inevitably drift into the usual funky back-beat pop texture. All this is just window-dressing on top of the usual pop stuff. In other words the structures of classical music have absolutely no effect on the style. Instead it is just used for a touch of 'local color'. Thanks, but no thanks... This sounds to me mostly like a jazzier version of Prince. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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Let's clear the palate with some actual classical music. Here is what I have been listening to lately. A really original piece of musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev, the Symphony No. 5 in B flat major with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2013 Proms. If you want to skip the introduction the performance begins at the 4:35 mark:


Augustine said...

I think you should actually give D"Angelo's music a listen. The whole album's only about 30 mins or so long. It IS a remarkable synthesis of music on the order of Sergeant Pepper (if not more so).

BTW, you do love the Beatles a lot. I'm not sure if its nostalgia or otherwise, but I don't think you've ever done a good job of indicating why you think they're miles above anything else. Give this a chance! This one song is not wholly representative.

Bryan Townsend said...

This is probably good advice! If something doesn't grab me right away, I may not listen too long. So much music out there. Maybe I will listen some more.

I think I have written quite a bit about what I think is outstanding in the Beatles' music. Here are a couple of posts in particular:

Anonymous said...

I love the Beatles, too. Their songs are very well-crafted, which is all the more surprising coming from artists who were basically music illiterates. Which goes to show one can write excellent music with next to zero formal musical training.

Yet for all their genius, the music is essentially trivial. I can pick a random Beatles tune and it takes me a grand total of 5 minutes to master everything about it: the harmonies, the voices, the bass line, etc. I understand it's still on the sophisticated side of rock music, but rock music is essentially trivial music.

To master a Bach partita or a bebop tune takes me at least a whole day of hard work and usually longer. There's lots of meat there. I love the Beatles as much as anyone, but I find the music pleasant but essentially trivial. I understand its popularity but I find it strange that a professional musician would not be bored by it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Mr. Anonymous! Thanks for pumping up the debate. Yes, I do love the Beatles, but it's not just nostalgia as I think the first link I put up above, How I Re-discovered the Beatles, shows. I don't question your comment at all, but if you can master any Beatles tune in five minutes, then you are an enormously gifted musician. However, you strain my credulity a bit when you claim to be able to master a Bach partita in just a day. These are large, multi-movement works that gifted soloists take a very long time to master.

Also, you refer to the harmonies, voices, bass line as being what make up a Beatles tune and indeed they do. But as I think I have pointed out in quite a number of posts, from Rubber Soul on, what they were crafting went far beyond that and included a great deal of studio wizardry that was highly creative. Just one example would be the remarkable sounds and textures of Tomorrow Never Knows.

I'm not the only professional musician who does not find the Beatles boring. Let me cite two theorists, Walter Everett, who has written a massive two-volume tome for Oxford University Press analyzing all the recordings of the Beatles and William Caplin, authority on the structures of Classical era music, also published by Oxford, who is also very fond of and interested in the music of the Beatles.

But of course, you are quite right about the general triviality of pop music. It is just that the Beatles are the rare exception.

You are also right to point out that even someone with no formal musical training can create excellent music (though not write it down). The thing is that music does not have to be complex to be good. There is some great music that is fairly simple and some fiendishly complex music that is probably not very good. As B. B. King once said, sometimes you only have to play one note if it is the right note!