Friday, October 2, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

I wish I could think of a way of doing a similar representation of contemporary music:


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One of the Hot New Things in music is supposedly the group with the misspelled name Chvrches:


Like most pop music it consists of All The Usual Clichés and Formulas. Apparently pop musicians are no longer capable of imagining music that does not have a rigid backbeat, dreary melodies and the Procrustean bed of strict four-bar phrases.

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I'm going to take what might seem a surprising position on this issue: "A Facelift for Shakespeare." So much vocabulary has shifted since Shakespeare wrote, four hundred years ago, that about 10% of his language is simply incomprehensible to us. The solution is to replace that 10% with words we will understand. Now, of course, there can be serious objections. A lot of Shakespeare depends on very subtle wordplay. For example, nearly everything that the Nurse says in Romeo and Juliet is an obscene pun. But we miss virtually all of it! So an effort to make more of Shakespeare immediately comprehensible to us makes sense to me. As long as we can still get the original to refer to, of course.

Here is an example from the article:
Besides, this Duncan 
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been 
So clear in his great office, that his virtues 
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against 
The deep damnation of his taking-off.
This sounds like the English we speak, but what does it mean to “bear one’s faculties”? Or to be “clear” in one’s office? And why would there be damnation in Duncan’s “taking off”? Taking off where? To lunch?
Here is that same brief passage as rendered by a teacher named Conrad Spoke, who produced what he calls a “revolutionary 10% translation” in the interest of “allowing every student to make contact with the original text”:
Besides, this Duncan 
Hath borne authority so meek, hath been 
So pure in his great office, that his virtues 
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against 
The deep damnation of his knocking-off.

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Brian Eno is asking us to rethink culture: "Arts seen as a luxury in the UK, says Brian Eno." Eno is responding to comments made by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan:
She said that as little as a decade ago, young people were being told that maths and sciences were the subjects you did if you wanted to go into a specific career, such as medicine, pharmacy or engineering.
''If you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn't know what you wanted to do, then the arts and humanities were what you chose, because they were useful, you were told, for all kinds of jobs.
''Of course we know now that that couldn't be further from the truth. That the subjects that keep young people's options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths," she said.
There are some half-truths in this, of course, but it is often the case that a narrow focus on just these kinds of "practical" subjects can lead to being over-specialized. You could find yourself working in an entirely different field from what you trained for and lacking general critical skills. Brian Eno's thoughts, as reported, at least, seem remarkably shallow however:
In his lecture, Eno said arts and culture are worth pursuing for reasons that are not just economic, arguing that they should play a central role in people's lives in a world of rapid change.
Eno said: "I think we need to rethink how we talk about culture, rethink what we think it does for us, and what it actually is. We have a complete confusion about that. It's very interesting."
Oh, right, that's just the kind of thing that will get people rethinking....not! Here is the problem: yes, the arts and culture are crucial to any civilized society because they are central to the very idea of civilization. They perform a host of functions such as maintaining civilizational confidence, cultivating creativity, offering models and mirrors of society, defining humanity and inhumanity, playing out moral dilemmas and many, many other things, none of which are part of STEM subjects. The arts are qualitative studies while the STEM subjects are quantitative. But the arts and culture are being systematically undermined and diminished by critical and cultural theory that attacks the author, the masterwork, the very idea of aesthetic quality itself, and replaces it all with crude identity politics. There is not a lot of art and culture left in the subjects with those labels in the universities. But if they went back to their real job, the transmission of the great artistic traditions of Western Civilization, then, yes, that study would be extremely valuable.

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And to cheer us all up, here is the Wiener Cello Ensemble with Ravel's Bolero. Too bad they could only afford one cello!

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I can't find anything in this piece in The American Interest to disagree with--and isn't that reason enough for you to follow the link? Walter Russell Mead writes that:
We want to make the case for “classic opera” and convince readers that learning to appreciate opera is a vital part of a liberal education and an invaluable part of the good life. We also want to do what we can to encourage new work that holds promise, and see if our criticism in some small way can’t do what criticism really ought to be about: assisting and supporting the artists who seek to enrich human civilization with sublime new work that illuminates the human heart, rattles the cage of the human condition, and glimpses eternal truths and lasting values in the passions and struggles of both the great and the small in the lives of their times.
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I also pretty much agree with this piece about enjoying art free of political and ideological biases:
to fully appreciate art one must be able to set aside their political and ideological notions. When you think of art not as an expression of culture or an examination of human nature but as a means to an ideological end, you risk creating a cultural experience in which you have closed yourself off to a broad swathe of the human experience.
 On the other hand, you needn't neglect having aesthetic principles--it's art after all.

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There is a review in the Guardian of a complete recording of the Sibelius symphonies by Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic. It's a mixed review:
The Fifth, in particular, seems perfunctory and glib here, by turns too ponderous, too lightweight and superficial. The way in which the first movement transforms itself into a scherzo – one of the great moments in the history of the symphony – is alarmingly glossed over, and the finale never hits the majestic stride it should. There’s something unresolved about this account of the Sixth as well, the opening string paragraphs self-consciously moulded, but Rattle’s account of the Seventh (thankfully not elided with the Sixth as it was in the concert hall) is much more convincing, rugged, uncompromising and all of a piece musically.
I've never quite seen what the fuss about Rattle was all about, myself.

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Something we have all been wondering about, I'm sure, is who were the "12 Beautiful Women Who Had a Huge Influence on the Stones’ Music." One was Marsha Hunt who was supposedly the inspiration for the song "Brown Sugar":


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I suppose that gives us our envoi for the day, "Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones:


Oh heck, let's have a double. Here is the Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius because you can't have enough Sibelius. This is Lenny conducting the Vienna Phillies in the non-perfunctory version:


16 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

I read that WRM essay at The American Interest with some surprise-- I infrequently see their articles and had no idea that music/opera criticism was part of the project.

Have been listening to Cavalieri's oratorio Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo (1600) quite a bit lately (and before that George Benjamin's Written on Skin; Messiaen called him his favorite pupil?!)-- and Glass's Einstein on the Beach in parts: it is fascinating (not that I know much about Glass's purposes in EOTB) that over four hundred years it has remained of concern to try to figure out how the human being deals with love, and love/the body.

And I'll even write something appreciative about a sentence in... what's her name, Suzanne... the Torture, Music, Repair musicologist who wrote about the insane music students burning: at some point, she noted (and I'm glossing, really, because I'm too lazy to go look) that no matter how simple/complex/extraordinary a passage of music is, no matter its composer's 'purpose', each auditor is going to hear it with his own ears/experience and it will affect him in a way specific to himself-- anyway, there are a few moments in the four hours of EOTB that I quite like, in a way that has very little to do with whatever compositional game Glass is playing at. Hmm. I don't know if that makes much sense.

Anyway, there's a new-ish recording of Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields that I'm going to listen to this weekend; wonder what WRM thinks of it.

Bryan Townsend said...

The American Interest only rarely has something on music. I have never listened to the Cavalieri--should do that! Yes, that comment by Suzanne Cusick is really quite true and I do get your point. Incidentally, while I was quite harsh with Cusick's essay, I don't doubt that she may be a fine musicologist, just suffocated, in that instance, by her own ideology.

Marc Puckett said...

My general experience of the only species of academics (chiefly graduate students) I have been familiar with: clever and amusing and observant and insightful when not involved in their own dark works of deconstructing the English language and its literature and rhetoric.

I listened to two or three Julia Wolfe quartets last night, which were palatable, and I liked one of them, moving to those after I had begun Anthracite Fields: it wasn't the moment for that; stopped just after the second movement had begun. Glass-ish lists. I think one must say, minimalist.

Bryan Townsend said...

There is no question that graduate students, and academics generally are smart and funny people. The problem seems to be the prevailing ideology these days.

Marc Puckett said...

James Bowman at Armavirumque doesn't think much of Professor McWhorter's cheering on of a new Shakespeare version. [http://www.newcriterion.com/posts.cfm/Bard-News-7882] Much as I prepare before I go to concerts, particularly of unfamiliar music, I read the Shakespeare before I go (lamentably infrequently) to performances of his plays, so I form up in the line of the anti-'new versions' camp. Having said that, I'm not not going to attend because the text is written partly (10% or not) by someone other than Shakespeare. Perhaps in a world where I got to the theatre a couple of times a week, I'd make a point of staying away from a Conrad Spoke 90/10 show.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for that link. Yes, it is tempting to make that criticism. Here is the core of it:

"But Shakespeare is difficult, and if he is not difficult he is not Shakespeare anymore. Any translation is not the genuine article but something adapted to the audience’s own presumptively limited capacity to understand him. In the name of “accessibility” it is not to be allowed to make up its own mind about his meaning but rather to be left undisturbed in the naïve assumption that he thought and spoke and wrote very much as we do about the world. Those who have taught Shakespeare to young people know the result. They do not actually learn anything about him or the times in which he wrote or the people he wrote about or for, but instead are merely confirmed in their own prejudices and encouraged to congratulate themselves for being so by their association with the Shakespearean “brand.” "

Yes, all true. But, I think that Shakespeare did and does appeal to a wide range of people: not just those who are willing to put in some effort to understand him in the original, but also those who are not, those who need some help. I don't think there is anything wrong with having a user-friendly Shakespeare alongside an "authentic" one. The "translated" Shakespeare is not intended for people like you, but for people who spend most of their time watching TV. Remember that there are scenes in Shakespeare with drunken, low characters whose farce is there specifically to appeal to the regular folks in the audience.

Marc Puckett said...

So am reading, lente, lente, the Messiaen biography by Robert Sherlaw Johnson and he refers to M. discussing, in his Technique de mon langage musical (1944), influences of Mussorgsky, Debussy, Grieg: will he, M., have heard those compositions in performance? oh, I suppose he will have had access to the scores and perhaps that's almost listening! to someone who is so talented? surely there are not lots of recordings of those people for sale in France prior to the war? I have no idea. 'Major US labels (had) adopted electrical microphones, electrical disc-cutting machines in 1925'. Hmm. I can see that Debussy, Ravel etc of course will have been performed in France; Grieg and Wagner and Mussorgsky?

Bryan Townsend said...

Composers, performers, music students of all kinds, have educated themselves largely through the study of scores and the hearing of live performances for hundreds of years. What changed in the early 20th century was the creation of a corpus of recorded music that made the HEARING of a musical performance much easier. But before that, composers would access the music of other composers largely through the reading of scores. Score reading is a skill taught to all music students to this day. It consists of learning how to accurately approximate on the piano or other keyboard music written for orchestra or chamber groups. It is a pretty complex skill involving the reduction of a score by the elimination of duplicated parts and the accurate reading of transposing instruments. It is taught and used to this very day because merely hearing a performance, or a recording of a performance, of a musical work is not the ideal way to study it! Everything goes by once and is gone. With a score you take the time to read the harmonies carefully, go back and forth, comparing different sections and so on: you are STUDYING the score, not just hearing a performance. You may have noticed that I quit my concerto series when I got to the point where copyright limitations made it hard for me to access the scores. If I can't see the score, it is much harder to know what is going on.

So whether or not Messiaen heard performances of all those composers (and I'm pretty sure he did), what is more important is that he had access to the scores!

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks very much for that! So a piano reduction doesn't reproduce all the parts? Ha, had always thought 'reduction' in the sense 'change into', as in the change from potentia to actus; never occurred to me that there would be parts or parts of parts eliminated.

Bryan Townsend said...

Just for fun I should compare an orchestral score with its piano reduction sometime. It can be pretty hard to reduce some scores without leaving out crucial elements. In that case, sometimes a two-piano version has been published. I think there is one of the Rite of Spring, for example.

In orchestral scores it is very typical to have parts "doubled", that is, duplicated, by other instruments. The flutes and oboes might double the violins and, in classical scores, the bassoon nearly always doubles the cellos.

Marc Puckett said...

Yes, you ought to do so. :-)

Marc Puckett said...

No idea who Elizabeth Watts is, but she 'faced the music' at the Guardian, and a) wants to forcibly remove mobile phones from pockets, b) is happy to tell people that she prefers they not applaud between movements, and c) last bought a Liszt recording, not one of Rihanna-- which is quite good! although I don't know what 'totes gorge' means.

[http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/oct/05/facing-the-music-elizabeth-watts]

Bryan Townsend said...

I have stopped reading those little interviews because they were getting repetitive. I think that "totes gorge" would translate into English as "totally gorgeous".

Marc Puckett said...

Ha; of course.

Marc Puckett said...

Another addition to the Shakespeare conversation-- that doesn't change my opinion, but does broaden the context, I suppose.

Bryan Townsend said...

It makes you realize how wonderful the art of music is because it can often transcend its era. With a little bit of exposure any 21st century music lover can enjoy with great pleasure nearly any music of the last 1000 years. But if you go back even 500 years in time, language has changed so much that it is an entirely debatable issue whether Shakespeare needs to be translated into modern English.