Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fifteen Albums in Fifteen Minutes

Just ran across this older post from Terry Teachout who shares with us one of those internet list games: "choose fifteen albums you’ve heard that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes." Follow the link to see his choices that start with

 Louis Armstrong, Satchmo at Symphony Hall

Here is my list, right off the top of my head:

  1. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
  2. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde
  3. J. S. Bach, Mass in B minor, Karl Richter
  4. John Williams, Spanish Guitar Music
  5. Glenn Gould, Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier
  6. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
  7. Beethoven, Late Quartets, Guarneri Quartet
  8. Leo Brouwer, Scarlatti Sonatas
  9. Béla Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
  10. Monteverdi, L'Orfeo, Harnoncourt
  11. Beethoven, Piano Concertos, Friedrich Gulda, Vienna Philharmonic
  12. Julian Bream, 70s, music by Bennett, Rawsthorne, Walton & Berkeley
  13. Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C major, "The Great"
  14. Shostakovich, String Quartets, Emerson Quartet
  15. Haydn, Complete Symphonies, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Davies
Why don't you have a go? I'm sure it would be interesting.

Here is a sample, for inspiration. Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Friedrich Gulda, piano with Horst Stein, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, April 1971:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Beethoven's Cheeriest Piano Sonata

We have this biased image of Beethoven as a kind of musical wild man, furiously writing tortured but profound music:

Or even this, a very common image:

And then we tend to focus, at least in our talk and writing about Beethoven, on the most demanding, not to say depressive pieces like the Symphony No. 9 or the Great Fugue.

But the truth is that Beethoven, like Haydn and Mozart before him, wrote a great deal of amazingly cheerful music. And I'm going to prove it by introducing you to his Piano Sonata Op. 31, No. 3 in E flat major. It has four movements, all very lighthearted and cheerful. There isn't even a true slow movement. That function is given to a minuet, moderato e grazioso. Here are the beginnings (in the biz we like to call them "incipits") of each movement:

A fast, but somehow coy and graceful first movement:

Click to enlarge
A scherzo (which literally means "joke" in Italian):

The very elegant minuet:

And finally, the finale, a presto con fuoco, somewhere between a shindig and a hootenanny:

All together about 20 minutes of sheer, effervescent pleasure and fun. Now let's have a listen. My favorite Beethoven piano sonatas are by Friedrich Gulda. Here they are complete. To listen to just this one, go to YouTube where they are listed with links, or scroll ahead to the 5:12:54 mark:

Now why would we want to privilege Beethoven's more tortured efforts over sheerly beautiful and joyous ones like this? Are we just neurotic?

Virginal Music

I just like this painting:

Emanuel de Witte, "Interior with a Woman Playing a Virginal" (c. 1660)

Sure, they may have had poor dental care and no antibiotics, but they had lovely interiors and time to sit around playing the virginal. The name does not come from the supposed sexual status of the performer, by the way, but from part of the key mechanism. The keys push up jacks, or virga in Latin, that hold the plectra that pluck the strings--like little guitar picks, one for each string. Here is another painting of someone playing the virginal:

Woman at a muselar, by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1672
And what music might they have been playing? That's always what I ask myself when I see paintings like these. It could well have been something by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck:

Somehow I find it reassuring that someone, somewhere, is sitting at a virginal playing a little Sweelinck.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Lost in Non-Thought

A long time ago, perhaps thirty or so years, I went through a phase when I read a great deal of writing about Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Recently I have re-read some Chinese philosophy. Interesting stuff. But, at the end of the day, I don't think that these ideas have much to offer Western Civilization. Asian countries themselves seem to agree as Japan, Korea and China have been making every effort to completely remake their societies according to the basic economic and technological ideas of the West.

But there has been, for several decades now, an effort by some enthusiasts to remake Western culture using ideas from the East. It seems clear, by this point, that this is a mistaken effort that would be best categorized as a sub-category of the Marxist critique of the West. In other words, this is a small front in the general effort to destroy the culture of the West by destroying its intellectual foundations. The two world wars of the first half of the 20th century have been called a "suicide attempt by Western civilization." Since that attempt failed, there has been a concerted effort to demoralize the West from the inside by attacking every foundational principle: logic, objective reason and evaluation, the rule of law, individual moral responsibility and the masterworks of Western art.

I just ran across an example of this that is so perfect that it almost seems a parody. The piece is a new opera called "Lost in Thought" that is a distillation of every idiotic new age idea, masquerading as a music drama--which it plainly is not. The article in the Guardian is titled "Turning opera inside out: how I got Lost in Thought." You really should read the whole thing, if you have the stomach for it. Here is a sample of the experience:
Perhaps 15 minutes later we’re walking in circles again. What are those strange, otherworldly sounds? Are they coming from the accordion? No, the mindfulness leaders are handing out swizzle sticks to wave above our heads. One is given to me. I can’t tell you how happy I am, twirling and walking, walking and twirling, making a sound like the owl of Minerva hooting wisely in the twilight of its existence. Possibly. Then a mindfulness leader approaches me as I walk, and suggests with eloquent eyebrow that I surrender the swizzle stick to someone else. I do and feel intensely not just the pleasure of giving, but the pain of loss. I loved that swizzle stick and the noise it made.
Here is the entire libretto (from Rumi):
“I have lived on the lip / of insanity, wanting to know reasons / knocking on a door. It opens. / I’ve been knocking from the inside.”
If you created something specifically designed to lower the IQ, evaluative capacity and perceptual acuity of a room full of people, to make them as stupid as possible, what would you do differently? Isn't it astonishing that we think that experiences like this are in some way valuable, instead of being the attempts at cultural suicide that they obviously are? Lost in Thought, or just plain lost?

After that, let's listen to a real opera, a masterwork of Western art. This is Don Giovanni, or, the rake punished, by Mozart on a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Who Supports the Arts?

Alex Ross of the New Yorker performs a valuable function: if you want to see what the conventional wisdom is on nearly any issue, just look at what he is saying. Here is a beautiful example, his recent post titled "The performing arts in America." The post is simple, consisting of two photos of performing spaces:

What is the point of this post? It is likely intended as a criticism of rich philanthropists. David Koch in particular is usually considered by everyone on the left (which includes the New Yorker and most of Manhattan) to be Evil Personified so if he gives money to something, even a ballet theater, this must be a Bad Thing. But the inclusion of David Geffen is a bit puzzling: apart from being rich and a philanthropist, he is also gay and was a supporter of Barack Obama, so plainly one of the Good Guys. A post like this is not intended to be an argument for anything, however, but simply a kind of shibboleth enabling the Right People to self-identify. I suppose the "argument" goes something like: "It is bad that the arts have to rely on rich people for funding as that enables them to put their names on buildings." Pretty feeble, really.

There are two subtexts that we can identify as well: one is that, in the absence of relying on rich philanthropists, which must be Bad, the arts should instead rely on, what, government? That would be the only other alternative as the performing arts are notoriously uncommercial. That brings up the second subtext which is that this argument is utterly ignorant of history. The major support for the performing arts has always been rich patrons. Until the 20th century, the only significant institutional support for the arts was the Church.

But history must be ignored because the conventional wisdom is that anything the rich do is bad because inequality or something.

On a few occasions I have talked about classical music's "business model" which boils down to support from wealthy patrons who are music lovers. Reliance on the generosity of governments is a weak reed as that support is always grudging, minimal and biased by political rather than aesthetic considerations. For all of its 1,000 year existence, classical music has been supported by a relatively small group of wealthy patrons. As an example, let me mention Oscar S. Schafer, chairman of the private investment firm Rivulet Capital, who has become a major supporter of the New York Philharmonic. As recounted in Barron's this week:
This month, [Oscar and his wife] bankrolled the parks concerts in perpetuity, among other projects, with a $25 million endowment. But saving the parks concerts is just a prelude. Schafer, who became chairman of the Philharmonic’s board in January, is presiding over one of the orchestra’s most tumultuous periods in its history.
During the 2012-13 season, the orchestra raised a record-breaking $31 million, a good chunk from its own board of directors. At a minimum, directors are expected to give $150,000 annually to the orchestra’s coffers, a relatively modest sum in New York cultural circles, but the pressure to do more is ratcheting up. Already, during the 2013-14 season, the board contributed $7.9 million, up from $4 million four years earlier, and the number this year is expected to rise appreciably more.
Schafer, whose passion was forged at Harvard University while studying music appreciation under the inspiring Prof. G. Wallace Woodworth, is energized by the idea of attracting a new generation of donors looking for high-impact giving opportunities.
Take note of that last paragraph: a life-long patron of classical music can be created by one inspirational music professor! Yet another argument for high quality music education at all levels.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tolstoy on Performance

The "Anna Karenina" principle derives from this quote that begins Tolstoy's novel:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
We might adapt this principle to music performance by noting that outstanding musical performances are all alike, but every bad musical performance is bad in its own way. But is this true? Oddly enough, I think the opposite is true! Why this is the case reveals something important about the nature of art.

What distinguishes art from mere design is some kind of unique element or tension in the artwork itself. In music, what distinguishes art or concert music from commercial pop, folk or genre music is the same: musical materials or structures that create a unique element or tension in the piece. You might respond by asking what is unique about those innumerable sonatas by Scarlatti or symphonies by Haydn. Of course, they are not innumerable because they do indeed have numbers. And, as I think that I have demonstrated in dozens of posts on Scarlatti and Haydn, the remarkable thing is just how unique each one of those many, many sonatas and symphonies are! I won't take the time to reiterate that here--just use the search box on the right and read my many posts on Scarlatti and Haydn for lots and lots of examples. Good composers never fall prey to the formulaic; each piece has its own individual character even though certain basic structural elements may recur. There are lots of buildings built using bricks, but they can be very, very different nonetheless.

So if you accept the idea that good pieces of music are not good because they fit some kind of predetermined formula, but are good for precisely the opposite reason: that they are the opposite of formulaic, then the next step should be logical. Performances of good pieces of music are good in that they reflect the individuality of the piece of music. The greater the performance, the greater the individuality.

Before looking for examples, let's take a moment to do an analysis of how a weak or poor musical performance might be characterized. As someone who taught guitar at conservatory and university for decades, I'm something of an expert! From long experience, I would describe a weak or poor rendition of a piece of music as including some (or all!) of the following characteristics:

  • halting or wobbling pulse unrelated to the musical phrase
  • soggy or incorrect rhythm
  • mechanical execution of the rhythm unrelated to the musical content
  • poor or inappropriate tone colors
  • lack of dynamic contrasts or inappropriate placing of them
  • poorly balanced chords indicating an obliviousness to the harmony
  • lack of awareness of the harmonic movement and tension
  • inability to "sing" the melody and make the phrases evident
  • obvious technical inadequacies such as inability to play equal notes equally
I'm sure there are many more, but this should give you an idea. Nearly every bad performance I have heard (and I have heard thousands) has included at least one of these faults and many have included most of them! Bad performances, like poor pieces of music, tend to share certain qualities. In the case of a piece of music it is usually boring, repetitive, formulaic, incoherent and unimaginative. In the case of a performance it is weak and inconsistent technically in ways that masks the aesthetic qualities of the piece.

One objection to my theory might be that great performers are often easily identifiable, so is this consistent with them interpreting each piece in an individual way? Yes, I think it is, though the argument is going to be fairly subtle. Let's take Vladimir Horowitz, a great performer on the piano, for an example. If my theory is correct, then he should take a hugely different approach to two composers as different as Mozart and Chopin. Let's have a listen. This is the Rondo in D major K485 by Mozart from a live concert:

From the same concert here is Chopin's Polonaise Op. 53 in A flat major:

Same concert, same piano, same hall, but notice how the colors of the piano are very different. Of course, due to the mechanism of the piano, you can't actually change the tone color. But pianists do so all the time through subtle control of articulation, balance, dynamics and so on. The sound of the Chopin is much thicker and colorful than the Mozart, where he emphasizes the clarity and purity of the sound.

A great musician approaches every piece looking for differences and ways to make it unique. Let's take a couple of other examples. Here is Grigory Sokolov playing Rameau, Les sauvages, originally for harpsichord:

I doubt you could actually play the piano more crisply than that! Now, for contrast, let's hear him playing Brahms. Again, same artist, same concert, same piano but this performance of the Intermezzo No 2 in B flat minor Op 117 by Brahms is legato, flowing and with very different colors from the Rameau:

I think that my theory would be even easier to demonstrate on other instruments as guitarists and string and wind players have more ability to alter the timbre of their instruments. As for singers, well, the possibilities are enormous. But these two examples should be suggestive if not actually conclusive!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

A production of The Mikado was recently cancelled in New York as reported in this story:
A production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” planned for New York this December was canceled after it drew criticism over how its largely non-Asian cast planned to portray the stereotyped Japanese characters and culture that are often seen as central to the work, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players announced on their website ... “The Mikado” poses special problems: it has some of the most beautiful music and wittiest lyrics of any Gilbert and Sullivan work, but its use of a fictional Japanese setting to satirize British culture presents staging challenges if it is not to come off as a jumble of ugly caricatures and stereotypes. A production last year in Seattle was criticized as “yellowface” by a columnist in The Seattle Times, setting off a wide-ranging discussion of the work.
Let's just underline that: the work is a satire of British culture, not Japanese culture. But what if it did satirize Japanese culture? Is satire suddenly illegal? Why, yes, it seems that it is. Apparently they are going to replace this production with one of The Pirates of Penzance. Haven't they considered that this might be offensive to pirate culture?

* * *

Oh yes, we can: an article over at the Guardian by Dreda Say Mitchell opines that "We can't leave it to the elite to decide who's cultured." Her solution, of course, is to remove any kind of qualitative distinctions. At the end of her day, Justin Bieber is just as good as J. S. Bach.
All liberation starts from the idea that we’re as good as them – a quality those outside our cultural elite now need to start asserting.
Ok, I'm waiting...

(Notice how every essay in this genre: "high culture is just elitist and popular culture is just as good!" never gets past simply asserting it. They never make any actual attempt to prove their case.)

* * *

Here is an interesting essay about the sexualization of music that I think is worth reading. It is a perspective a bit different than mine, though with some of the same fundamental principles. Here is a little sample:
Over the years I’ve watched pop music degrade to the point that it’s so sexually explicit as to be virtually indistinguishable from what was considered to be soft-porn entertainment in my youth. That sort of thing is now mainstream, accepted, and even considered by many feminists to be empowering. Who was the entertainer who made it that way—Madonna (whom I’ve always found coldly repellent—but then again, I’m neither a heterosexual male nor a lesbian woman, nor even a gay guy)? Whoever it was, it’s in full flower now, and even pre-pubescents get to watch, right in the comfort of their own homes.
* * *

This was almost inevitable, now wasn't it? "Evidence Suggests Mozart’s Sister Helped Compose His Early Works." This "evidence", by the way, was dug up by the same musicologist who, a while back, was claiming that the six Cello Suites by J. S. Bach were actually written by his wife.
A controversial Australian academic has released preliminary findings suggesting that Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna, may have assisted her younger brother with composing a number of his early works.
Just to put this in perspective, Mozart's sister was five years older than he was. Even if this claim were true, we are talking about a ten or eleven year old helping out a five or six year old! Because that was when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart started composing. By the time he was eight, he was correcting even his father's work.

Oh, and in late-breaking news, evidence has turned up that Hildegard von Bingen's older brother Ralph actually composed significant amounts of her music. Traditionally, she was depicted as listening to a dove, representing the Holy Ghost, singing tunes to her, as a reference to divine inspiration. But it was probably Ralph.

* * *

I guess you could call this extreme early music, but it is rather too new-agey for me. Why is it that all reconstructions of very early music (in this case 4500 year old Babylonian music) sound like Donovan singing Indian music?
I sing melodic contemporary settings of poetry in ancient Mesopotamian languages, accompanied by a replica 4,550-year-old gold Sumerian lyre. It’s not ancient Mesopotamian music – it can’t be, because nobody knows what that music sounded like. There are some cuneiform tablets that describe the ancient tunings and modes, and I incorporate that theory into my musical language, but I am not attempting to reconstruct ancient music. I sing contemporary pieces that draw inspiration from the ancient world.
I like that she admits that we really have no idea what this music sounded like.

* * * 

Here is a fairly long essay by Allan Kozinn, musing on what music critics do and what they should do:
In the 21st century, after all, a classical music critic should come to the job with an overstuffed (conceptual) tool bag. It must include a familiarity with the great works of the historical canon, as well as a sense of their place in history, both general (political, social, etc.) and musical – and a familiarity with some of the more interesting outliers by so-called minor composers as well. The canon is sprawling now, taking in opera, symphonic music, chamber music, sacred works, art song and solo instrumental music from the last millennium.
But a critic who focuses only on the canon and who cannot respond to the wildly variegated contemporary canon is useless. And to respond properly, these days, a critic needs a functional knowledge not only of the formal styles and techniques – serialism and post-tonal approaches, minimalism and post-minimalism, not to mention the various neos (neoclassicism, neo-romanticism, et al.) – but also the vernacular ones: with so many new works drawing on jazz, rock and world music, a critic cannot afford not to know them. And really, it’s hard to imagine anyone growing up in the late 20th or early 21st centuries who hasn’t moved in all those worlds. Today’s composers do. Critics should as well – and not just out of a sense of duty but because this is our musical universe.
But doesn't that second paragraph sound just a bit too fuzzy idealistic? After all, I can pretty much guarantee you that there is not a critic on earth who has a genuinely thorough and functional knowledge of all those different kinds of music. And I don't think that they really need to. You see, I don't bow down to multiculturalism. Just because Zimbabwean mbira music exists doesn't mean that it is significant in any way. I don't deny the possibility, though.

* * *

 Sarcasm, irony and the sardonic are not absent from the Music Salon, but I believe that they are almost always found in a humorous context. In the wider world, however, unrelieved sarcasm is sometimes presented as constituting an actual argument and such is the case with this essay "In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers." It is, well, not so much a response as an extended snark, to the essay in the Spectator that we posted about here a few days ago. Here is a sample for flavor. The first paragraph is a quote from the Spectator article, the rest is the snark:
A delicate question lies at the heart of the subject of female composers, and it’s not ‘Why are they so criminally underrepresented in the classical canon?’ It’s ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’
Yes. Luckily the “goodness” of music is a totally scientific and quantifiable thing that allows no room for personal preference, bias, or interpretation. There’s a scale of goodness in music. Pretty sure it goes Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and then toward the bottom there’s Grainger and Bruckner and Lalo. Or something.
Also lucky: that the creative output of the respective two halves of humanity can be placed on this scale.
If we were to reword this in the form of an actual argument it might go: quality in music is entirely relative and has no objective basis. The fact that Bach is more well-known than Grainger is pure happenstance. Any biological, cultural or creative differences between genders is a complete illusion. I said "argument", but of course this is not an argument, just assertion of things that are unproven. Go and read the rest of the essay if you wish, but I warn you, it only goes downhill from here with liberal use of obscenities. Don't you find that that is always an indicator of a sound argument? The liberal use of obscenities? Oh, and pure snark.

* * *

 We haven't visited Sinfini Music lately, so let's see what part of "classical" they are cutting through this week. Ah, here is an interesting piece on current concert etiquette: the split second between the closing flourish of the concerto and the audience erupting in a roar of approval, we got a rude shock. The woman in the seat behind vigorously poked my friend on the shoulder. ‘You were moving your head up and down during the music,’ she said. ‘You need to learn to behave in concerts, or stay at home!’ Despite being seasoned, professional concert-goers – ladies of a certain age with a degree of hard earned confidence – we both felt humiliated and upset, told off like naughty schoolgirls.
The whole piece is about some audience members rudely disciplining other audience members for trivial things. This is, of course, consistent with the over-arching Narrative these days that classical concerts are too stiff and formal and should more resemble the mosh pit at the local dance club. That this account is selective and anecdotal I can demonstrate by relating a contrasting story. My students told me of an occasion when they were attending one of my concerts: solo classical guitar so rather quiet. Directly behind them two people were carrying on a conversation that was very disturbing to the enjoyment of the concert. In between pieces, one of my students requested that they not talk during the concert and was immediately threatened with bodily harm for being so bold! On the whole, I would say that it is my belief that the scale is weighted on the side of those people who prefer a more tranquil concert experience as opposed to those who talk, gesture wildly, receive and send text messages, refuse to turn their phones off, unwrap candies loudly and so on. Those are the ones who are far more annoying than the ones who are simply requesting that their neighbors not interfere with their enjoyment of the concert. But that goes against The Narrative...

* * * 

For our musical envoi let's have some of that very early Mozart that his sister likely did NOT help him with. This is his Symphony No. 1 in E flat, K. 16, written in 1764 when he was eight years old:

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Un peu de Messiaen

Blogging will be light for a while, but in the meantime have a listen to this, the first movement of Messiaen's Des canyons aux étoiles... The title is "Le Désert". One of the unusual instruments is the eoliphone or wind machine. Like most pieces by Messiaen, a birdsong is heard, in this case, the hoopoe lark from the Sahara.

The miracle in music like this is however does Messiaen hold it together despite such incredible diversity of materials and means?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Last Night's concert

I'm not likely to have much for you today. Last night three of my songs from Songs from the Poets were featured in a concert here at Bellas Artes. The soloist was Canadian soprano Hannah Pagenkopf who did a great job. Probably the big hit was my setting of Annus Mirabilis on the poem by Philip Larkin, a rather sardonic account of the 60s sexual revolution. It begins with the singer shouting out "sexual intercourse!" and the guitar part is larded with quotes from the Beatles' first LP, mentioned in the poem. At the after-concert gathering people from time to time would call out "sexual intercourse" in the rhythm of the song. Some audience members told me afterwards that their favorite was the song "Listening to a monk from Shu playing the lute" by Li Po, the 8th century Chinese poet. Each song is in a musical idiom proper to the poem, so in that one I use a preparation to make the guitar sound a bit like a Chinese bell.

Here is a poster for the concert:

Do you notice the error on the poster? My songs were not written in the 20th, but rather in the 21st century.

Sometime soon I will likely have some clips to post for you. We may even do a video of one of the songs.

For a musical envoi today I am going to link to a post from a couple of years ago where I present a piece of mine for solo guitar. This is "Chant" from my Suite No. 1.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Listening to the Moonlight

This won't be a long post as I have a concert to play tonight. But I would like to just put a couple of ideas out there sparked by some passages in Beardsley's excellent book Aesthetics.

As I wrote in a post a couple of weeks ago, Beardsley discusses all the major theories of meaning, expression and signification in music and finds them wanting. He points out that, for example, the Expression Theory offers us the interesting truth that music has what he calls "human regional qualities". By this he means that music can be cheerful, dolorous, energetic, dancelike and so on. A near-infinity of qualities that we hear as human. Oh, and music can also sound inhuman and mechanical, but no-one seems to talk about that as much. But Beardsley's succinct conclusion is that, once the Expression Theory has pointed this out, it renders itself of no more use. We are better off without it because saying that music is joyous is a plain and simple truth, but saying that music expresses joy adds nothing but unanswerable questions.

He also disposes of the Signification Theory that holds that music is an iconic sign of psychological processes and by virtue of this iconicity, music is a sign of the psychological process. Something can only be a sign of something else in one of two ways: either there is a conventional stipulation as to the meaning of a sign (not usually the case in music, of course) or there is a cause and effect connection. There can be conventional musical signs, of course, but they are a fairly rare phenomenon: when Bach "signs" his name in the Art of Fugue with the corresponding musical notes (B flat, A, C, B natural), this is a conventional sign based on the German words for those notes. Shostakovich does the same with his musical motto: DSCH. So the argument for music as conventional signs is very weak, indeed because of the extreme rarity of them. What about as natural signs? While music, as we said, has human-like qualities, can be joyous or dolorous, these are non-specific moods, rather than signs or messages. Music cannot be a "language of the emotions". As once was asked, if music is a language, what are the words and where is the dictionary in which I can look up their meaning?

But despite the shortcomings of these theories of musical meaning, they are the bread and butter of much writing about music. People who write about music are constantly offering their "interpretation" of the "meaning" of specific passages or pieces. Listeners who can't hear this in the music may feel inadequate or, if they aren't familiar with the interpretations may feel inadequate because of that! Perhaps we should call this, in honor of the "Moonlight" Sonata, the "not hearing the moonlight" syndrome. You ain't never going to hear the moonlight!

As Beardsley concludes,
Music, then, is no symbol of time or process, mental or physical, Newtonian or Bergsonian; it is process. And perhaps we can say it is the closest thing to pure process, to happening as such, to change abstracted from anything that changes, so that it is something whose course and destiny we can follow with the most exact and scrupulous and concentric attention, undistracted by reflections of our normal joys or woes, or by clues and implications for our safety or success.
As I have said before, music is a universe all its own.

The point to take away is that true listening to music is simply about listening to the music, not trying to hear the unhearable or inflict some program note writer's wacky "interpretation" on the music.

What about much of the music of Messiaen, then, full as it is of exactly the kinds of things that Beardsley just said were not possible? Ah, that brings up the interesting and complex question of the relationship between words and music, because we only know the kinds of meaning Messiaen incorporated into his music because of the words he wrote about them. Also, there is a rare kind of iconicity that suffuses nearly all his music: birdsong. We will talk about the philosophic issues raised by Messiaen's music on another occasion.

For now, let's end with that infamous "Moonlight" Sonata that has nothing whatsoever to do with moonlight. To reassure you as to the absence of the notion of moonlight from Beethoven's mind regarding this sonata, here is the original title page:

And here is a performance of the "Sonata quasi una Fantasia, op. 27, no. 2":

(Despite the credits at the beginning of the clip, it was NOT dedicated to Joseph Haydn, but to Giulietta Guicciardi, his pupil and romantic interest.)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Uses of Silence

Music is, to a large extent, the organization of sounds and silence. Much of the time, with much music, the silence part of this is scarcely present. All too much music consists of unrelieved droning and thumping with no silences whatever. But skillfully used, silence is a very powerful musical element and some composers have been especially good at showing this.

One of the earliest instances is found in a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, K. 544. This is the whole first half of the sonata:

As you can see, in the third staff the music comes to a stop on an ornamented V of V. This is followed by a whole measure of rest with a fermata. (The fermata is that half circle enclosing a dot, which indicates an unmeasured pause.) This prepares a restatement of the theme on the dominant. The same effect is used in the second half, but this time on the dominant to prepare a return to the theme on the tonic. A simple enough effect, but powerful nonetheless because it was not a device used to any extent in this era. I can't think of any other examples! Let's have a listen to hear what the effect sounds like. The harpsichordist is Trevor Pinnock:

Because the silence occurs in a logical place in the phrase structure, we might call this a structural silence, even though it has a dramatic effect. A purely dramatic silence would be one in a less-anticipated place, such as in this symphony by Haydn:

The unsettling pause at the end of the first four measures, along with the piano dynamic, gives this symphony opening an unusual dramatic tension. Let's listen to how that sounds.

In this period there were two typical ways of beginning a symphony for dramatic effect: one was with an adagio opening with perhaps intense harmonies or brass and tympani; the other was to begin with the allegro straightaway, perhaps with a piano phrase answered with a forte one. But to my knowledge, there are no other openings like this one, with its two dramatic silences.

Haydn made even more radical use of silence in his String Quartet op. 33 no. 2. It is nicknamed "The Joke" because he has, at the end of the last movement, six false endings, trying to trick the audience into applauding too soon! Here is that final page:

Audiences nowadays are prepped for this by either the program notes or by commentary from the performers, but imagine when it was first played. I think that the way to play this would be to preserve the joke and not warn anyone! Let's listen. This is a live performance by the Endellion Quartet from our own chamber music festival in 2010 and I was in the audience for this performance. The recording isn't the most professional, but still listenable, I think. The first silence falls at around the 2'29 mark:

One modern master of the silence was Olivier Messiaen. In the first of his Catalogue d'oiseaux, "Le chocard des alpes" (the Alpine chough) he uses silence very effectively. This bird lives and nests at high altitudes. Here is a picture in its usual environment:

Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux is a representation, not only of the sounds of the birds, but also their environment. In "Le chocard des alpes" he captures the immense voids and distances between the mountains by separating each block of music with long silences. In this recording, the first occurs around the 50 second mark. There is another at around the 1:30 mark and many others. I don't intend that you listen to all of this clip, which contains the whole of the nearly three hour piece, but just the first piece (about the first ten minutes). The pianist is Yvonne Loriod:

Inevitably the example of John Cage's 4'33 comes to mind, which is a piece consisting entirely of silence. Ironically, while of considerable philosophical interest, this is of very little musical interest because it is nothing but silence. The musical drama only comes with the skillful juxtaposition of sound and silence.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Music of Messiaen: Part 8, Turangalîla Symphony

There are a few works by Messiaen that could be regarded as symphonies, such as L'Ascension, "Quatre Méditations symphoniques pour orchestre" or, if you accept the very unusual orchestration, perhaps even Couleurs de la cité céleste or Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. But the only work that he called a "symphony" right there in the title is the Turangalîla-symphonie composed between 1946 and 48 on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Turangalîla is a symphony like no other, a syncretic work that has so many facets and aspects that it can take a long time to really become comfortable with it. That is to say, it rewards repeated listening! At times it sounds like George Gershwin on a bad acid trip, at other times it sounds like a profound meditation on the depths of human experience: love, hate, life and death. And everything in between. It is a big and very bold piece, about an hour and twenty minutes long for large orchestra of over one hundred players of whom ten or so are percussionists. There are two important soloists, one on piano and one on ondes Martenot, one of the earliest electronic instruments. There are ten movements:

  1. Introduction
  2. Chant d'amour 1 (Song of love)
  3. Turangalîla 1
  4. Chant d'amour 2
  5. Joie du sang des étoiles (Joy of the blood of the stars)
  6. Jardin du sommeil d'amour (Garden of love's sleep)
  7. Turangalîla 2
  8. Développement de l'amour (Development of love)
  9. Turangalîla 3
  10. Final
There is a very fine recording of the new, revised version that Messiaen prepared not long before his death. The conductor is Myung-Whun Chung with the Orchestre de l'Opera Bastille and the two soloists most closely associated with the work, Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod, piano and her sister, Jeanne Loriod, ondes Martenot. The recording was made in 1991, the year before Messiaen's death and under his supervision and comes with extensive notes by the composer:

It is particularly useful that Messiaen provides examples of the four main themes of the work:

It is well worth reading Messiaen's notes though they may not reveal as much as you may hope! For example, apart from mention of many of the techniques we have discussed, such as "non-retrogradable" rhythms, he also mentions something he calls "rhythmic characters" in which there are three elements: one is active, taking the leading role, another is passive, reacting to the first, and the third is apart and remains the same. This technique, which he uses in a number of other pieces as well, is never explained more clearly except to say that one character may augment, the other may diminish and the third stays the same. One can imagine how this might work, but further explication would require close study of the score, which, for now at least, I do not have.

The Turangalîla Symphony is one of Messiaen's most popular works, partly due to the fact that it is one of the few orchestral pieces by him that can fit into a normal orchestral program. It has, over the sixty-seven years since its composition, become one of the classics of 20th century music, a piece that can be listened to and enjoyed for the sheer pleasure of it, and one that is, at the same time, an influence and inspiration to other composers. Esa-Pekka Salonen, as guest artist with the New York Philhamonic this season, has chosen presenting this work as his major project other than conducting his own music.

I said that the orchestra is large: it includes triple winds and a large string body with 16 first and second violins and the other sections to match. The extensive percussion includes glockenspiel, celesta, vibraphone, triangle, temple blocks, Turkish cymbal, normal cymbals, Chinese cymbal, tam-tam, Basque drum, maracas, side drum, Provençal tabor, bass drum and tubular bells. And out front, of course, the solo piano and ondes Martenot. If you hear something that sounds like the sound-track to an old Star Trek episode, that's probably the ondes Martenot.

The title of the work is the combination of two Sanskrit words. Turanga means, loosely, movement and rhythm, while Lîla signifies divine action on the cosmos, creation and destruction and love.

There are very simple and lyrical sections, such as we find in the Garden of love's sleep, and enormously complex sections with many layers of interlocking rhythms; there are chorale-like chants and wild orgiastic dances. It is safe to say, I think, that this work can stand alongside The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky as one of the great works of the century, bold, challenging and ultimately rewarding.

Luckily we have a good version of the complete work on YouTube of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung (even if the camera work may make you a bit dizzy):

Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Do concert programmes cheat the public? As you can tell from the spelling, this is from a British newspaper and in Europe, you typically have to pay a significant sum to get a program.

In this, the final week of the Proms, I had the pleasure of seeing the great German violin virtuoso Julia Fischer. She not only played brilliantly, but unlike some of her peers, had commanding stage presence. So, in the interval I paid my £4, and bought an official programme to find out more about her. 
It was a mine of information. Useless information. It listed all the orchestras she had performed with “in recent seasons.” There they all were, from the Cleveland Orchestra to the Leipzig Gewandhaus and many others. But wait, there’s more. The next paragraph listed the orchestras she had played with “this season.” And in case you were wondering – I wasn’t – these included the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to name but two.
I have written about this problem before, but I can't find the post. The biographies of musicians are so hilariously bad that I wrote a parody of them. Just as David Lister says in the article, the information we really want to know, where is the artist from and where did she study and with whom, is always omitted in favour of a dreary list of competitions won and orchestras and conductors with whom she has played. We don't care!

* * *

The Weekly Standard is an odd place to find an article on Bartók, but this one by musicologist George B. Stauffer is pretty good. One very interesting comment from my point of view is this one, describing Bartók as:
one of the world’s first systematic ethnomusicologists, collecting, transcribing, and publishing vast amounts of traditional music that was soon to be lost to the industrial and technological onslaught of the 20th century
As I am coming more and more around to describing myself as a traditionalist, someone who is always trying to reconnect with the foundations of music, this is an important clue as to the source of some of the aesthetic quality in Bartók's music: it wasn't just sterile abstraction because it drew inspiration from the foundation of traditional musics.

* * *

Here is an interesting look into an historical moment: the rise of psychedelia:
In 1969, the story goes, the ‘alternative snake-oil salesman’ Leary telephoned Huxley’s widow to say that the Grateful Dead had arrived in Los Angeles and would she put the band up? A concert violinist, Laura Huxley had never heard of the freaky rock‘n’rollers. (‘We should be grateful to be alive, not dead,’ she told Leary.) The Dead were set to descend with their fuzzboxes and feedback, but Mrs Huxley shooed them away. Her husband would not have cared for the Dead’s weird sound, preferring instead Renaissance madrigals.
Between 1953 and his death in 1963, Huxley took acid some ten or 12 times only. The psycho-chemical expeditions were self-experiment in the name of science, yet Huxley was credited with setting in motion an international psychedelic movement causing the mental derangement of millions of people. Jim Morrison and his humourless California band the Doors named themselves after The Doors of Perception; the Beatles included Huxley’s photograph on their Sergeant Pepper album sleeve. Whether he liked it or not, Huxley was hip.
Sadly, this is true. During the 60s the dangers of psychedelic drugs were not yet evident, but their hipness was. So many people, like myself, who probably should not have experimented with them, did, and the world became a much wackier place.

* * *

You may have noticed that I take great pleasure in poking holes in sacred cows (sorry for the mixed metaphor!). It is a particular trait of a certain kind of philosopher as we see in this delightful tribute to Frank Cioffi, professor of philosophy at the University of Essex. Apart from the kind of clarity we see in this quotation, the essay offers a brilliant elucidation of the problem of scientism and the true nature of philosophy. Be sure to read the whole thing!
I was studying English and European literature in my first year at college, but my friend Will and I were considering switching to philosophy, partly because of Frank. We went to see him in his office for advice. I don’t remember him giving any ... Some years later, I went back into his office to ask permission to switch from one course to another. “Which courses?” he said indifferently. “I’m meant to be reading Foucault, but I want to do a course on Derrida.” “Man” he replied “that’s like going from horseshit to bullshit.” In fact, as others can confirm, the latter word was his most common term of reference and it also expresses his approach to philosophy: No BS.
No BS. Let's take that as our polestar in navigating the dangerous waters of music aesthetics as well.

* * *

This goes out to all those people who deny there are objective aesthetic standards in music. This is Miss Mississippi Hannah Roberts playing some kind of zapateado in the talent part of the Miss America competition:

* * *

I know this is going to upset the Music Salon readers who are 2Cellos fans and/or Lang Lang fans. But this video presents such a long list of aesthetic mishaps, excesses and clichés that it really is a classic:

Let's list a few:
  • excessive head-banging
  • redundant arm-waving
  • farcical piano-lid shutting
  • shock mood changes with no musical reason
  • pointless piano glissandi
  • truck-driver modulation towards the end
  • a panoply of arpeggiation with lots of diversity but little musical sense
Yes, some music can be performed as if it is a circus or vaudeville act, but does poor Paul McCartney deserve this?
* * *

Here is a little tune from one of my favorite bands, Spinal Tap:

And you thought they just did satires of heavy metal!

* * *

Unexpectedly! Sometimes we hear classical music in the oddest places as this item from Slipped Disc shows us:
This just in from Morris Robinson, principal artist at Houston Grand Opera:
Walking to the store here in Uptown NYC, I see a young brother halfway leaning out the window of his massively tinted, new model Nissan, sittin on them shiny thangs (Rims). He has on a black wife beater, tattoo’d throughout his neck, shoulders and arms … baseball cap on slightly tilted … chillin.
His radio is blasting, and I remove my ear buds because I THINK I hear something, but I’m really not sure.
Me, being the bold brother that I am, walked right up to his car door and asked, “Is that the Lacrymosa from the Mozart Requiem?” He turns down the radio, and asks “What you say?”
“Lacrymosa, Mozart Requiem?”
He says, “Oh. Yeah dawg!”
I smiled, put my ear buds back in, and walked off.
* * *

 That gives us our envoi for today. The Lacrimosa from the Requiem of Mozart. Performed at the Lucerne Festival in 2012. Claudio Abbado, conductor, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Swedish Radio Choir.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Female Composers

Unless you are parroting the standard position of The Narrative, i.e. that there have been lots of great women composers in history and the only reason we don't hear more about them is because of patriarchal oppression or something, it is very dangerous to talk about female composers.

The first thing to take into account is that, just as with The Narrative regarding all the other designated victim groups: poor people, black people, native people such as North, Central and South American Indians, Australian aborigines, people from the Middle East (except Jews) and all other visible minorities (except Japanese, Chinese and Koreans), the source of this political strategy is Karl Marx via the Frankfurt School and people like Antonio Gramsci. While the error of this has long been clear, it remains so useful to anyone seeking political power that it simply refuses to die and, along with the nonsensical economic theories of these same people, continues to plague modern societies. Every ambitious politician finds that every time he stands up and tells people that they are being treated unjustly and that he can fix it, he wins increased support. Whether it is true or not is simply irrelevant. Sadly, one of the many problems with democracy is that we allow even massively deluded people to vote...

So, bearing all that in mind, let's have a look at an article in The Spectator that commentator Marc drew to my attention: "There's a good reason why there are no great female composers." The author of that essay is Damian Thompson and it is likely that as soon as it is discovered there will rise up a tsunami of tweets savaging him for daring to say the unsayable:
A delicate question lies at the heart of the subject of female composers, and it’s not ‘Why are they so criminally underrepresented in the classical canon?’ It’s ‘How good is their music compared with that of male composers?’
Yes, I'm afraid that is the question. He goes on:
[Clara Schumann's] G minor Piano Sonata ... isn’t a success. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘repugnant’ (Clara’s verdict on Tristan) or ‘horrible’ (her description of Bruckner’s Seventh), but it’s embarrassingly banal.
Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix [also] wrote a G minor Piano Sonata and it’s bloody awful. Whether it’s worse than Clara’s sonata I can’t say, because that would mean listening to them again. But we can be pretty sure that neither of them would have been recorded if they had been composed by a man.
Let's have a listen to both of these pieces. First Clara Schumann:

That sounds great, doesn't it? Well, only if you don't compare it to an actually great piano sonata. Melodically, rhythmically and harmonically it is banal and routine. Accomplished without being imaginative or charming. Now Fanny Mendelssohn's sonata:

That sounds like very, very bad Liszt (and I'm not too fond of him either). Loud diminished chords are a cliché of 19th century virtuoso piano music, not a virtue.

Mr. Thompson goes through a long list of female composers and concludes that there are no great composers among them. His list includes Judith Weir:
Judith Weir (born 1954) is a minor figure whose ‘stark’ scores sound as if crucial instrumental parts have gone missing. Her opera Miss Fortune received such a savaging at Covent Garden in 2012 that the Santa Fe Opera dropped its plans to stage it. Last year she was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music.
He mentions a recent discovery of mine, Elizabeth Maconchy:
The 13 string quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994), for example, are distinctively knotty — but when they turn spiky you think of Bartok and her bleaker moments sound like Shostakovich. Again, the phrase ‘well-crafted’ comes to mind...
Yes, that was my impression as well, though I also thought of Alban Berg. I quite liked her quartets, but perhaps they are not on the same level as Berg, Bartók  or Shostakovich.

Here are a couple of observations: while it may seem admirable that female composers receive more recognition, is it a good thing? Mr. Thompson's essay begins with what started this:
Last week a 17-year-old girl forced the Edexcel exam board to change its A-level music syllabus to include the work of women composers. Jessy McCabe, a sixth former at Twyford Church of England High School in London, started a petition after studying gender inequality. Good for her, you might think. But is it good for A-level students?
If we are concerned about justice then we have to ask, is it fair to either the composer or to students that a significant male composer be pushed aside so that a lesser female composer can be acknowledged? If we believe that there are as many great female composers as male ones--probably a cardinal assumption of The Narrative--then yes. But if we listen to the two composers, we are likely to say no.

One last point, a recurring problem in the mass media, even the Spectator, is that the headlines are chosen, not by the author, but by an editor. What this essay plainly does not do is tell us "why there are no great female composers." So I put the question to my readers. First of all, do you think that there are female composers who are as great as the male composers we categorize as great? You might take the list in the New York Times of the ten greatest composers as your guideline. Second, if you do think so, could you give examples and explain why? If you don't think so, then could you offer an explanation as to why? There really seems no obvious reason why there are not as many great female composers as male ones.

Just to clear your palate, here is a truly great piano sonata by, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven, who identifies as male:

UPDATE: I should add this clarification. The fundamental error in the approach of the Marxist-inspired theories about justice relates to the "is-ought" problem that has been discussed here previously. You can't get from an "is" to an "ought" as David Hume observed. All affirmative action and disparate impact policies in the US are founded on this error. IF a workplace has fewer women or blacks or hispanics than are present in the general population THEN this is grounds for legal action because of fundamental injustice. Let's take an extreme case to show the illogic here. Let's suppose that we are looking for instances of economic injustice, groups of people earning or possessing fewer assets than are the norm (however you determine that!). Suppose we run across a Franciscan monastery where all the residents have taken a vow of poverty. Should we be forcing them to all have a median income or something? Obviously not. But the same logic applies to forcing Marine combat groups to admit or include a certain proportion of women because they are women. Or making cities hire a certain proportion of women firefighters. Or any other rule based on a determination that any variance from the proportions in the population as a whole is some form of injustice. If this were truly a universal rule, which it is not, then we would be looking to solve the problem that 96% of workplace fatalities are suffered by men by insisting that an equal proportion of women be killed to even it out. It is hard to believe that this insane logic has been, not only accepted, but become so ingrained that pointing out its error can result in being fired from a job in government or academia, as Larry Summers discovered. Justice has nothing to do with membership in an identifiable group such as women or visible racial groups. Justice means being treated according to your individual merits and nothing else.

We now return to our regularly scheduled music programing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fine Lieder Performances

I was saying to someone the other day that the lieder recital, in parts of North America, at least, seems to be on its last legs. I don't recall a single lieder recital in either of the two chamber music series in my area in the last decade and a half.

So, let's look at some outstanding lieder performances to see what we are missing. First of all, I want to extend the definition of "lieder" to mean, not just German songs of the last three hundred years, but all songs, chansons, mélodies and ballads from all eras. Let's start with one of the very first to express the personality of the composer. This is Ensemble Unicorn with "Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys" by Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397 - 1474):

Here is one of the great lute songs by John Dowland (1563 - 1626). To show how a modern singer and writer of songs can be connected with one of the great composers of the past, I have chosen a performance by Sting:

At the beginning of the Baroque Giulio Caccini (1551 - 1618) was discovering an entirely new way to write songs. This is "Amarilli mia bella", his most famous song. The artists are Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor and Björn Colell, theorbo.

Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) is the most prolific song-writer in history. He probably wrote the equivalent of a Beatles' album every week. Sometimes he would write a song before getting out of bed in the morning! He wrote some 600 lieder in his very short life--dying at age 31. Here are two of his songs, the early "Heidenröslein" on a poem by Goethe. The artists are probably the greatest interpreters of Schubert, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone and Gerald Moore, piano.

And, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, the very dark song that ends the Winterreise cycle: "Der Leiermann". Again with Fischer-Dieskau, but this time accompanied by Alfred Brendel:

Another very great writer of lieder was Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856). In 1840 he composed a set of songs on poems by Heinrich Heine that, along with the cycles by Schubert, consitute the core of the lieder repertoire. Here is the first song, "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai". Again, the singer is the inescapable Fischer-Dieskau, this time accompanied by Vladimir Horowitz:

One of the points of this exercise is to show the continuity in the song tradition, so now we will move into the 20th century. Here is a modern lied:

And another:

With Leonard Cohen we come back to a situation where the lyrics are as important as the music, which is where the whole thing started, with Guillaume de Machaut in the 14th century.

And finally, a very modern chansonnier, here is David Byrne of the Talking Heads with that classic lied "Psychokiller" from the film "Stop Making Sense":

This is, of course, a very partisan, subjective and biased survey of songs I like and part of the purpose is to set you up for my own set of twelve songs, Songs from the Poets, that I am about to record at the end of the month. In the meantime, enjoy!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Music of Messiaen, Part 7

I was in a seminar once on American experimental music and one of the participants, a composer, presented a piece in which he analyzed the formants (overtone structures) of various percussion instruments and, using an algorithm, converted them into rhythms that the percussion instruments would then play. Very clever and designed to appeal to theory and composition teachers as it was a novel way of achieving structural unity. After his presentation I asked "that was the syntax, now what is the semantic?" I received no answer. The whole idea of developing new compositional techniques which are then not used for any particular expressive end is one characteristic of modernism. The interesting thing about Messiaen is that he did take the next step and found uses for the techniques he developed whereas most of his colleagues simply stopped with the technique.

A case in point is the piece we are going to look at today, "L'alouette calandrelle" (short-toed lark), one movement from the Catalogue d'oiseaux for piano. This work, a set of thirteen pieces for piano, at nearly three hours in length, is one of the great accomplishments in 20th century piano music. Written between 1956 and 58, they were inspired by his student (and later wife) Yvonne Loriod, an extraordinary pianist. The work is very much more than merely a catalogue of birdsong: each piece is actually a representation of the songs of the main bird, other birds who share the same environment, and the environment itself.

L'alouette calandrelle, at around 5' in length, is the shortest movement (the longest is thirty minutes long!). Here is Messiaen's description of the movement:
Provence in July. The short-toed lark. Two o'clock in the afternoon. Les Baux, les Alpilles. And rocks, broom and cypresses. The monotonous percussion of the cicadas. Staccato alarm of the kestrel. The Route d'Entresson. The crested lark in two-part counterpoint with the short-toed lark. Four o'clock in the afternoon, La Crau. A desert of stones, intense brightness and torrid heat. Alone, the little, short phrase of the short-toed lark peoples the silence. About six o'clock in the evening. A skylark soars into the sky and delivers its joyous strophe. Amphimacer of the quail. A reminiscence of the short-toed lark.
"Amphimacer" refers to an ancient Greek metrical foot consisting of three syllables: long, short, long. The use of these rhythmic units was part of Messiaen's compositional toolbox.

A few days ago I was looking at IMSLP and saw quite a lot of Messiaen's piano music so I thought that I would be able to find lots of musical examples. But today I see it has all been taken down for copyright violation. So, I'm afraid we will have to get by with just verbal descriptions and YouTube clips!

Getting back to the music: what Messiaen has chosen to do here is remarkable in the extreme. What an amazing vision! I think I have experienced the kinds of things he is trying to capture here--that sense of the whole of a place, sounds, smells, light, air, landscape. It is a kind of reverence for our world that inspires music like this. The place is as important as the birdsong in these pieces. Oh, and the time of day as well, which influences the light, the feel of the landscape and of course the call of the birds. There are layers upon layers here: some things are static, almost mechanical, such as the repetitive sound of the cicadas. Other things develop, musically, such as the strophe of the skylark. There is exposition, development and coda. There is also an underlying, unchanging solidity. In L'alouette calandrelle, it is the pair of repeated chords that capture that static landscape. Alongside are a trio of monotonous sounds: the cicada, and the deadpan calls of the kestrel and quail. Over this soars the lark's song, which contains the only real musical development (which involves that two-part counterpoint with the crested lark).

This is a rather sophisticated and complex idea of musical form, with some elements unchanging and others reshaped and developed. Remarkably, there are no formulas here: each of the thirteen pieces pursues entirely different strategies and structures as it presents a different landscape with a different population of birds.

Let's listen to L'alouette calandrelle and see if we can hear what Messiaen is trying to do. I believe Tomislav Baynov is the pianist:

While we are at it, why don't we listen to another performance of the same piece. This is pianisHåkon Austbø:

My only question, is who goes out and measures lark's toes to see if they are short or not?

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Brief Social History of Music

I wrote an answer to a comment the other day that got so out of hand that I think I would like to put it up as a post. This was in answer to a question about why so many people like things like EDM (electronic dance music). In trying to answer I had to review the recent history of the economics and reception of music:

I think that we can discern three stages of the reception of music since the 18th century. The first stage, up to the first quarter of the 19th century, is one where a very sophisticated aristocracy employed composers and musicians to provide music for their private enjoyment. The music-loving members of the aristocracy were very knowledgeable and provided patronage and employment for all the composers we know so well such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and all the lesser ones. The only other significant employer of composers in this period was the Church (who employed Bach for much of his career).

Then in the 19th and early 20th century the source of employment shifted from the aristocracy, who lost a great deal of their power and prestige following the French Revolution, to the middle class. They tended to synthesise the moral foundation of the lower class with aspirations to some of the refinements of the upper class, including the enjoyment of classical music. This period saw composers beginning to derive most of their income from publishing music, from public concerts and from teaching music. Chopin, for example, derived most of his income from giving private lessons in Paris. Most of the symphony orchestra concert series and the necessary concert halls were established in the 19th century. The newly prosperous middle class bought music and instruments (most middle class homes had a piano) in great quantity. The profession of the music critic also began as they also bought periodicals talking about music. At the very end of this period the gramophone was invented and people started purchasing recorded music.

In the 20th century much of this remained, such as the concert series, but other forces became important. Music in the 19th century was crafted to appeal to middle class tastes. A lot of it was considerably cruder than the more refined 18th century music. In the early 20th century a reaction to this occurred. I'm not sure if I can even give a complete explanation, certainly not in this brief note. But we start to see the artistic movement we call "modernism". Partly a reaction to the too-obvious tastes of the middle class and partly a reaction to the violence and inhumanity of the First World War, composers began to write much more acerbic and challenging music. They were, I suppose, composing for a new urban elite. In any case, as the century wore on, modern music became more and more difficult and had a smaller and smaller audience. Two other trends became important: popular music became a huge economic force and some of the classical music world "went retro" and began rediscovering older forms of music: Baroque and pre-Baroque.

I guess the conclusion I am leading to is that the function of music has changed radically. In the 18th century it was like a kind of conversation between people of considerable intellectual capacity. In the 19th century it became more sensationalistic and emotional. In the 20th century it fragmented into many different categories: some soothing, some challenging, some intellectually complex and some, like Calvin Harris and EDM, designed to function on a very basic level.

Shall we have examples of all three? Sure! First, 18th century refinement. This is the Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat, K. 595 with Maria João Pires, piano and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

Then some emotional and sensational 19th century music. This is the Symphony no. 7 in D minor, op. 70 by Dvořák. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

Finally, hmm, well, there are so many different styles and genres in the 20th century... But let me pick one piece that at least draws on a few of those styles. This is Six Pianos by Steve Reich, which is a kind of be-bop minimalism:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Modernists and Traditionalists

Just something to get you thinking:

  • Messiaen is a traditionalist masquerading as a modernist
  • Philip Glass (in his symphonies and concertos) is a modernist masquerading as a traditionalist

Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jésus: XIX, Je dors, mais mon coeur veille:

Philip Glass: Symphony No. 9, Movement III:

Any other candidates?