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?

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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.)

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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 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:
...in 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...

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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:


13 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

I went over to read the Song of the Lark post, and did, although I, ahem, skimmed swiftly beyond a certain point.

Do you know, though, one thing that puzzled me when I read DT's original piece is to know how Dame Ethel Smyth "once sang solo, orchestral parts included" The Wreckers, her Mass in D, to Queen Victoria? Apart from the interminable length of time involved! I don't understand what he is saying.

Bryan Townsend said...

I remember that passage, but I can't remember where it was! I think there are two possibilities: either the passage is confusingly written and doesn't mean what it says, or Dame Ethyl Smith sang excerpts from her opera including vocal excerpts and solo orchestral bits as well. This is quite possible.

Marc Puckett said...

The Song of the Lark blogger prompted me to go back and read the comments thread at Damian T.'s Spectator post and eventually will get to her post's thread at the New Music Box.

Have already discovered Kathy Brown, courtesy of one the commenters at the Spectator! [https://youtu.be/QkQJwbtZ094]

Bryan Townsend said...

And one minute after discovering Cathy Brown, I am engaged in undiscovering her!

Marc Puckett said...

Ha, indeed yes; perhaps I should have prefaced that link with a trigger warning.

Marc Puckett said...

The Babylonian nonsense is so utterly ridiculous that I wonder how those people have the gall to stand up on stage. On the other hand, the history of the development of the stringed instruments is pretty fascinating-- I learned earlier today about the lirone and the ceterone (have been listening to Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo). It's a pity-- for that proverbial rainy day when one is bored-- that none of the groups pointed out by a commenter (on the Babylonians' Guardian post) that purport to do 'ancient Greek and Roman music' are on the streaming sites.

Bryan Townsend said...

I just got a box of "Mediterranean" music that has a disc titled "Sappho and Her Time". This is one of those boxes that has absolutely no liner notes, but there is a photo. They play auloi, baritoi, kithara, krotala and seistron and the ensemble is called Ensemble Melpomen. As these things go it seems reasonably authentic, though I have just listened to a bit of it. At least it doesn't sound like it was orchestrated by Carl Orff!

Marc Puckett said...

I see that Music Web International is looking for a reviewer who specialises in the guitar repertoire, if you're interested in yet more writing.... [http://www.musicweb-international.com/]

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmmm, interesting. Where exactly did you see that? I think my traffic on the Music Salon beats theirs by a bit!

Marc Puckett said...

Where on that page? It's down toward the bottom, in the Notices section, below the ugly pink box noting MWI's 20th anniversary. Which-- the fact that the site has been around for 20 years-- is why I passed that along; figure they must be doing something right.

I had never seen the site until this morning when I caught up with Bach Cantatas posters at my Yahoo account that I check only every few days (there is a Yahoo mail group based on this [http://www.bach-cantatas.com/] site).

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc.

Marc Puckett said...

In case you hadn't noticed this... Grigory Sokolov refused an award because it had earlier been given to that Lebrecht fellow. [http://www.overgrownpath.com/2015/09/i-raise-my-hat-to-grigory-sokolov.html]

Searching through the posts to get here, I see there have been a couple I've missed altogether; it's been a week without the usual time available at the computer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I saw that. Apparently there has been a feud between them for a while. But I think I know whose side I'm on!