Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Concerto Guide: Bartók, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1926)

Béla Bartók is one of the most important composers of the first half of the 20th century and, along with Liszt, one of the two most important Hungarian composers. What does "important" mean, in this context? The prevailing ideology (or "practice" if you want a neutral term) during the first half of the 20th century was modernism, which largely meant innovation in the basic materials and structures of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. Bartók is important because he wrote music that was innovative, but also that was influential on other composers and, most importantly, that resonated with audiences strongly enough that it became widely performed. All this adds up to "important".

Now for some details. Bartók was innovative and original in a number of ways. He developed new notational practices such as extending a beam over a barline to indicate a rhythmic grouping. Here the beams for the piano part extend over the barline between the 3/4 and 2/4 measures to show how the phrase should be grouped:

Example from the Piano Concerto No. 1, first movement

Another innovation was, in a context of frequent changes of meter, to write the time signatures very large and centered on each group of instruments. That looks like this:

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Previously the time signature would only appear on each individual stave; showing them like this makes them much more visible for the conductor (this is only done in the score, obviously).

Bartók also used a lot of very unconventional key signatures in his Mikrokosmos for piano, but we don't see that in this piece, where there are no key signatures. The first movement begins with  low Bs in tympani and piano and ends with a big chord of E, B and F#, so not in C major!

The Wikipedia article on this piece, while giving some historical information, is not too revealing about the music itself. Without doing a lot of research to see if there is any kind of consensus on this, the first movement appears to me to be in sonata-allegro form. It is hard for anyone writing a piano concerto to completely ignore the Mozart concertos.

The piece begins, unusually enough, with the piano and tympani on a B pedal accompanying the orchestra that presents fragments of a theme. The piano then presents it more fully:


Notice the repeated note motif, the shifting time signature and the scale passages with chromatic interpolations. Later there is an important anapest motif in the winds. In this example, in dialogue with the piano, note the beams crossing over the barlines:

Click to enlarge
(An anapest, taken from prosody terminology, is a rhythmic figure with two short notes followed by a longer one.)

To end sections, Bartók uses this vamping figure instead of a conventional cadence:


This new theme appears, related to the anapest motif:


Then, in a different tempo, we have this theme, presented in the piano:


These themes are then given a development and here is a fairly typical page:

As you can see, this concerto is pretty challenging for everyone: the pianist, the orchestra and the conductor.

After this, I hear something resembling a recapitulation and then the first movement ends with an abbreviated version of that cadence figure, using the same notes.

Bartók's method seems to be to use the broad structural outlines of classical forms, but to fill them with entirely different material: much more dissonant and metrically complex. His music has an intense expressivity that is very compelling, which probably accounts for a lot of his enduring popularity.

Now let's listen to the whole piece. This is the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski:


Monday, June 29, 2015

Pilgrimage to Ojai

Joss Whedon, until he started directing super-hero epics at least, had this unique knack for turning your expectations upside down. I particularly remember one episode from Angel, an underrated series, where Angel is sent to visit a swami in Ojai, which is where you would expect to find a swami, for some therapy. Imagine his surprise when the swami opens the door and he turns out to be a burly, aggressively blue-collar, no-nonsense kind of guy with the demeanor of a retired traffic cop. He loves to put Angel through the wringer, asking him why he, a vampire, in a particularly sunny climate, drives a convertible of all things. When Angel gives a particularly implausible answer, the swami says, "pal, that car IS your problem!"

All this is a lot funnier if you know much about Ojai, a kind of rustic retreat for gurus, self-discovery and celebrities in recovery.

Every spring since 1947 a contemporary music festival has been held in Ojai, sixty-five miles northwest of Los Angeles. This year Alex Ross, of the New Yorker, attended and provided a fascinating write-up of the events. Here is a taste:
At the heart of the 2015 festival, which unfolded from June 10th to June 14th, was a solo program by [music director and percussionist Steven Schick], and its centerpiece was “Zyklus”—a magisterially ambiguous creation that combines precisely notated sections with more open-ended passages that leave considerable choice to the performer. Schick’s interpretation, which he has been honing for forty years, is a sinuous audiovisual ballet in which hard-hitting, rat-a-tat drum solos intermingle with subtle, whispery sounds, as of a tapped gong or a brushed gourd. Although Schick meticulously plans each performance, he gives the impression of engaging in intuitive action, as if no score existed and the music were all muscle memory. The distinction between idea and gesture was similarly blurry in his accounts of Xenakis’s percussion pieces “Rebonds” and “Psappha,” and it disappeared altogether in Vinko Globokar’s “?Corporel,” which calls for a semi-naked percussionist to make sounds with his or her amplified body, slapping hands against skin.
This is not the only contemporary music festival in California, Cabrillo also comes to mind, but it sounds like it might be the most interesting. There was lots to listen to:
In all, there were eighteen concerts (I saw thirteen), featuring forty-seven composers, most of them living.
Go read the whole article for the whole picture. Well, as much as possible, given Alex Ross' usual policies. What do I mean? Alex is an excellent writer and a strong advocate for contemporary music. But like all activists he is more of a booster than a critic. The contemporary world hates criticism of course as it is way too judgmental. Unless it is criticism of a Certified Oppressive Group™ of course. You know, Christians, White Males, Traditional Classical Music. So the problem with everything Alex writes is that he only writes about music that he likes to advocate, and everything he likes to advocate is automatically wonderful. So, out of those eighteen concerts, of which he saw thirteen, featuring forty-seven composers, the closest he comes to not saying every single piece by every single composer was just wonderful, was this brief passage:
Works are sometimes criticized for being too accessible; such was a not uncommon reaction to a piece performed at this year’s festival, Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops,” in which the cellist Maya Beiser spun out soothingly euphonious lines.
"Works are sometimes criticized" but not by Alex. Still notice the subtle hint that "soothingly euphonious lines" are bad--for being too accessible.

Out of forty-seven composers, I would expect that ten or fifteen would be writing interesting, compelling music, about twenty or twenty-five writing ok or pretty good music and the remaining five to ten writing bad, boring, agonizing, painful music. In Alex Ross' world, this latter group simple doesn't exist. Which is why I never really trust anything Alex says.

But, the festival still sounds like a great series of concerts, which probably vary considerably in quality and style, depending on who is the musical director (it changes every year), something else Alex doesn't talk about. So I am very, very strongly tempted to attend next year's festival. Get my ears blown back. Hopefully there won't be too much "semi-naked percussion".

Stockhausen, Zyklus, unknown percussionist:


UPDATE: One of my favorite things about Alex Ross' writing is his adroit use of what we might call the Dispensable Double Adjective/Adverb. It is this skill that has perhaps brought him so much of the acclaim he currently enjoys. There is a particularly savory example in the first quote above where he describes Stockhausen's Zyklus as "a magisterially ambiguous creation". You see, just saying it is "ambiguous" would be ordinary--heck, anyone could write that. It is more of a stretch to say it is "magisterial" because, for one thing, what does that even mean in this context? But combining them as he does: "magisterially ambiguous" is the creative brilliance that got him where he is today. Plus, half-a-point for using the word "creation" instead of composition. It is the kind of prose decoration beloved of those who also are hooked on Martha Stewart.

Some other examples from the article linked to above, so you see what I mean:

  • speaking, spluttering chorus
  • soothingly euphonious lines
  • coolly spastic “Dialogue de l’Ombre Double,”
  • sinuous audiovisual ballet
  • subtle, whispery sounds
  • free, impassioned rendition
  • helter-skelter, electronically enhanced cadenzas
  • jagged lightning streaks
  • vast, hushed creation
  • tonally refined and rhythmically vigorous accounts
  • staggeringly flexible vocal soloist
  • subdued, eerie fabric
  • darksome bitonal chords
  • incrementally shifting clouds
  • the blendings of harmonics were grand and dire
Sometimes the two elements of the device support one another, other times they contradict one another and on rare occasions, such as the last example, he reverses the order. But a lot of the time the pseudo-poetic effect comes from the fact that the two terms are simply irrelevant or incompatible with one another. And, of course, that they communicate next to nothing about the music itself!

But if you want a good-paying gig with a major media institution in the cultural field, using this kind of formula, combined with never criticizing anyone or anything, will likely spell success for you.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Case of Conlon Nancarrow

Conlon Nancarrow is one of the more fascinating 20th century composers, not only because of the nature of his music which is, as almost no music is, truly unique. His career, or rather non-career, is almost as interesting as his music. Sparked by a festival of his music hosted by the new Whitney Museum in New York, Nancarrow is attracting quite a lot of attention these days. An example is an extended article on him in the New York Review of Books by Andrew Katzenstein titled "The Prince of the Player Piano." And this is where his uniqueness comes from: most of his compositions were incised directly on player piano rolls and are not humanly possible to play. In this, they are more closely related to computer, electronic or synthesized music than to traditionally composed music. Here is an introduction to Nancarrow from the article:
Nancarrow’s interest in the player piano arose partly out of necessity, as there was a scarcity of conservatory-trained musicians in Mexico City, where he lived for decades in self-imposed exile until his death in 1993. But even before he left the United States in 1940, he was drawn to the technical possibilities of the machine, which can play faster and with greater precision than the most virtuosic pianist. Nancarrow explored the limits of the player piano with staggering imagination and persistence, diligently punching piano rolls by hand and often with the aid of a magnifying glass. He lived in obscurity and near-isolation for many years before his work was championed by prominent composers such as the Hungarian experimentalist György Ligeti, who claimed that Nancarrow was the most important composer of the late twentieth century. Only after his fame grew did Nancarrow again write works—still highly demanding—for human musicians.
Born in 1912 in Texarkana, Nancarrow played trumpet in jazz bands during his youth. He studied composition in Boston with Roger Sessions, who helped popularize European modernism in America, and the neoclassicist Walter Piston, whose other students included Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. Drawn to Communism while in Boston, Nancarrow later joined the Republican Army during the Spanish Civil War and, upon his return to the US, was unable to get his passport renewed because of his political beliefs. He settled in Mexico City instead and there began his work for player piano.
 The excellently-researched article, while very informative, also raises a few questions. As an expatriate myself, living in Mexico like Nancarrow, I am quite sure that Mexico City, even in the 1940s, did not lack in "conservatory-trained musicians", though they may have had no interest in playing the music of Nancarrow as their tastes were likely too conservative. Also, I suspect there is more to the story of his leaving the US than is related here. I have known people who were drawn to Communism and fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side and returned without problems to the US--went on and fought in the Second World War as well. So, I think it is time for a neutral examination of the life and works of Nancarrow that will delve into these sorts of questions.

The article has some interesting details about the complex mathematical relationships between the voices in some of the studies for player piano. They are often mensuration canons in which the two voices have a mathematical relationship that is not only impossible for a human to play, but also likely impossible for a human to hear as we are not used to even trying to hear this sort of relationship:
The tempo ratio in the twelve-voice Study #37 is 150:160 5⁄7:168 3⁄4:180:187 1⁄2:200:210:225:240:250:262 1⁄2:281 1⁄4, which is derived from the frequencies of notes in a chromatic scale.
Let's have a listen to Study 37, to hear how that works out:


Well, ok. Not sure I am hearing all 12 voices. It would be useful and interesting to have a transcription of this in conventional notation, but that is likely impossible. The lack of one is a serious obstacle to any theorists sitting down and actually analyzing this music. Until someone does I'm not sure I would simply accept all the things said about this music as being true.

However, it is well worth your while to read the whole article and listen to the several clips that it contains.

There is a lot remaining to be thought and said about the music of Conlon Nancarrow, not least its aesthetic burden and social and political import. Despite the advocacy of prominent figures like György Ligeti, the position or status of the music of Nancarrow is still very much a question mark. One index of this is the fact that Richard Taruskin deftly sidesteps the issue entirely by completely ignoring Nancarrow in his mammoth Oxford History of Western Music. There is no entry in the index for Nancarrow, but there is considerable space given to that other American eccentric, Harry Partch.

Time to move on from the booster/discovery stage to the sober evaluation stage, I suspect.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Magic of Musical Instruments

Ever since I was a child I have felt the magic of musical instruments. They just have a kind of numinous aura: they speak when you pick them up or touch them! Not all of them, of course. You can't actually pick up a piano and if you pick up a tuba it does not have quite the same magic.

I suppose I am mostly talking about the kind of instruments that were always kicking around our house. My mother was mostly a fiddler so there were a few violins in cases hidden behind the easy chair and under the couch. But there were also guitars, mandolins, banjos, an octophone and even an upright piano, though that felt more like a musical piece of furniture.

But string instruments, they definitely have the magic. Because, when you pick them up, they thrum with tension. The slightest tap or movement can set the strings moving and with them a sound. There is an energy, a dynamic, to string instruments even when they are not being played. The strings of a classical guitar, when tuned up to pitch, exert a torque of about 125 lbs on the bridge.

String instruments speak to you as you touch them. Nothing else in the house does--well, ok, the radio (we didn't have a tv), but that kind of "speech" is all too mundane. No, the speech of string instruments is like the speech of oracles: obscure and veiled in mystery.

To many guitarists their instruments have a personality: B. B. King's Gibson was always Lucille and she even has her own entry in Wikipedia.

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He even wrote a song for her:


My guitar is named Hermione, not after the character in Harry Potter, as I named her in 1983, when she was built, long before the books were written. No, she is named after the daughter of Helen of Troy, said to be even more beautiful. Instead of the face that launched a thousand ships, my Hermione is the sound that launched a thousand concerts:


And here she is with Leyenda by Isaac Albéniz:

video



Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

As regular readers well know, the Friday Miscellanea is where the less-serious items end up. And what could be less serious than an article about what songs go with your favorite beer? (Any Deadmau5 concert perhaps, but I digress.)

The least-objectionable combination on the list is Gotye's Somebody That I Used to Know and Stella Artois. But I would suggest instead a delicious combination of my favorite beer, Mort Subite from Belgium, drunk while listening to a Vieuxtemps violin concerto.


Mort Subite runs about 9% alcohol. Here is Sarah Chang with the Violin Concerto No. 5 by the Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps:


* * *


We all struggle with those weird and wacky Internet abbreviations, so now there is a handy guide to them:


IYKWIMAITTYD!

* * *

Gunther Schuller has passed away at 89 years. He was a pioneer in what he termed "third stream" music, i.e. music that combined different genres and styles. Here is an example, his "Variants on a Theme of Theolonius Monk" in collaboration with Jim Hall:


Alex Ross offers a brief eulogy with this quote from Schuller:
"Third Steam is a way of composing, improvising, and performing that brings musics together rather than segregating them. It is a way of making music which holds that all musics are created equal, coexisting in a beautiful brotherhood/sisterhood of musics that complement and fructify each other. It is a global concept which allows the world's musics— written, improvised, handed-down, traditional, experimental— to come together, to learn from one another, to reflect human diversity and pluralism. It is the music of rapprochement, of entente—not of competition and confrontation. And it is the logical outcome of the American melting pot: E pluribus unum."
While you have to admire the idealism, the critic in me can't help but mention a few caveats: first of all, this manifesto subsumes musical considerations into purely political ones, likening the practice of making music in different styles as "segregation", giving musical styles "civil rights" as if they were persons, absorbing all the musics of the world as if they were all immigrants to America's melting pot. As a Canadian, it makes me shake my head in puzzlement. The point where it all falls apart is the idea that "all musics are created equal" which is nothing more than the myth of multiculturalism asserted as a fact.

The way I see it, good music is created by means of a ruthless process of elimination and self-criticism that cruelly throws out everything that is not of the highest quality. But maybe that's just me...

* * *

This paper, titled "A Sustainable Music Industry for the 21st Century" looks quite interesting. Judging from the abstract, it is an historical and economic analysis of how we got where we are and what can be done to fix it.

* * *

As a composer I try to model myself after the great Japanese artist Hokusai who said:
From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.
Here is one painting from his famous series "Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji", this one is "Imume Pass in the Kai Province":

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* * *

I swear Tom Service at the Guardian is getting more sensible by the day. Here he is condemning the latest cynical mashup of Brahms and Radiohead.
Have we really reached this nadir of all musical cultures where we can no longer distinguish the meaningful differences between anything, and that the only index of pop music’s quality is how it can be smeared within a symphony, or the only way that classical music can be relevant is if it’s oleaginised as part of this nausea-inducing mash-up?
In some circles, yep. But if you actually listen to the clip, or part of it, as I did, it is rather different than described. Yes, it does combine Brahms and Radiohead, but less offensively than it might have. Instead of a Berioesque clashing of different musics, it is as if Brahms had been listening to a lot of Radiohead while composing his First Symphony. This then alternates with pops concert arrangements of Radiohead songs with orchestral accompaniment. The whole thing is much blander than, say, John Zorn. I also have to disagree with another thing Tom says:
Berio, John Zorn and the whole culture of sampling across all the musical art forms relies on the creative juxtaposition and superimposition of pre-existing musical fragments, and is an essential part of compositional practice wherever you work in music.
No, this kind of mix 'n match fusion is NOT an essential part of compositional practice. In fact, one of the big problems with every piece is to find the focus so the music does not just wander around indiscriminately. I think this is what you might call a "radio" problem. We are used to twirling around the radio dial and hearing a bit of this and a bit of that, so we are become insensitive to stylistic heterogeneity. But the integrity of an artwork demands, I think, a stylistic unity.

Now I have a confession to make: after listening to the Steve Hackman arrangement, I realize that I have done something a bit similar. In my song sequence Songs from the Poets one of the songs is a setting of the poem Annus Mirabilis by Philip Larkin. In it he mentions the "Beatles' first LP" so of course the guitar part is permeated with short phrases and motifs taken from four of the songs on that album. But while some of them are like little quotations, much of the setting is a blend of motifs from the album with my own setting of the poem. Or, rather, my setting of the poem has as background the sound of motifs from the Beatles' album. But I think it still achieves a stylistic unity because, like Bartók with a folk song, I structure the harmonies using ideas from those motifs--they become structural foundations of the song.

I'm going to be recording the songs with a fine singer in September. Keep your eye on this space!

* * *

Hmm, well the correct musical envoi to this miscellanea is a song by the Beatles that was among the first pieces to exhibit the blending of different musics in a really creative way. The song is "I Am the Walrus" by John Lennon and you have to imagine hearing this on AM radio in the late 1960s to get the full effect. Note how at around the 2 minute mark it is as if you had moved the tuning dial and suddenly were listening to a different station:


Oh, and the lyrics are wrong, it is "they are the eggmen."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Spirits of the Times

The German word for this is "Zeitgeist" (nouns are capitalized in German), but that word is so over-used and misused that I think I prefer the English version. Plus, I forget what the plurals of "Zeit" and "Geist" are. Yes, I think there is a spirit of the time and each time has a different spirit. I say "spirit" instead of "mood" or "taste" because it is a bit more neutral.

What I am saying, in more concrete terms, is that the music of a particular era, no matter who composed it, tends to have a certain feel, a certain spirit, to it. I twigged to this reading Rosen on Classical style who mentions somewhere that the Classical Era composers wrote particularly unconvincing religious music. I say "unconvincing" meaning not that the music was not good and aesthetically convincing, but that it was religiously unconvincing. Both Mozart and Haydn wrote reams and reams of religious music, but it is indistinguishable from the mood and spirit of their other music. The musical vocabulary is identical with that of their secular music. To pick one of a host of examples, the soprano aria "Panis vivus" from the Litaniae de venerabili altaris sacramento in B flat, K. 125 is indistinguishable, apart from the text, from any number of soprano arias from Mozart's operas. That aria is at the 3:54 mark in this clip:


We tend not to notice this because the Mozart religious music we are most familiar with is probably the Requiem which is considerably darker than his other religious music--not surprising as it was written on his death bed. But if you listen to a selection of his and Haydn's other religious music it is generally as bright and cheery as their symphonic music or as lyrical and touching as an opera aria. But not religious in any discernable way. Here, for example, is the Kyrie from Haydn's Missa Sancti Nicolai:


"Kyrie eleison" means "Lord, have mercy" in Greek and it is hard to imagine a cheerier or less-appropriate setting. Compare this to J. S. Bach's setting from his Mass in B minor. This is Philippe Herreweghe, conducting the Chorus of Collegium Vocale, Ghent:


Now that is serious religious music.

My larger point is that by comparing how Classical Era composers set religious texts with how Baroque composers did, we can read off a change in the spirit of the times. Haydn and Mozart were full in the flush of the fresh air of the Enlightenment and their music is overwhelmingly bright, positive and charming. They can touch darker moods as Haydn did in his "Sturm und Drang" symphonies and Mozart did in his Symphony No. 40 and Requiem, but these are the exceptions. Just look at the number of major keys vs minor ones. Out of over forty symphonies Mozart wrote only two in minor keys and Haydn scarcely more than a dozen out of over a hundred symphonies. Compare this with the very large number of pieces that Bach wrote in minor keys.

Similarly, we can gauge another shift in spirit in the Romantic Era as minor keys become, not only popular, but almost universal. In the past, musicological evaluations of the characteristics of different musical eras tended to focus on the technical devices used by composers and in recent years this has shifted to the reception of the music and its social history. But the aesthetic quality of the music and its shift in emphasis from era to era has, in my opinion, been neglected.

To take another striking example, let's look at some pieces from another era: the extreme complexity of the music characteristic of the post-WWII era. The composers to note are Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, all of whom I have talked about at length here. But I want to look at them from a different angle: how they exemplify the post-war spirit.

There are perhaps three elements in the spirit of this time to note: ebullient optimism, benumbing post-traumatic stress and worship of technological advance. The first two are at odds with one another and present in different amounts in different places. Post-war America was more optimistic because they won the war, but did not suffer the way Europe did because it was not fought on their soil. The Europeans had just a bit of this optimism, which was overshadowed by the destruction of so much of their culture and people--especially of course, the Jews, who were almost eliminated from Europe. But both America and Europe were worshipers of technology because it was that that won the war and the advances were so numerous and promising. It was during and immediately after the war that classical guitarists, to choose a minute example, switched from gut strings to the newly-invented nylon. Radar, the jet and a host of other discoveries transformed the post-war world. Another new invention was the recording tape which was a crucial element in forming the aesthetics of both Stockhausen and Cage.

Let's grab the bull by the horns and listen to three pieces from the immediate post-war period. First, an excerpt from the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano by John Cage:


Next, Klavierstück IV by Stockhausen:


Finally, Structures, Bk 1 by Boulez:


All three of these pieces are from the early to mid 1950s. Just as you would expect, the one that has quite a different aesthetic is the Cage. Remember, the American and European experiences of the war were quite different. What these three pieces all have in common is the worship of technology. I know it is a bit unusual to apply that concept to music but it is apt. [UPDATE: I should have said to compositional strategies, not "music" tout simple as music has always used some form of technology.] All three of these pieces use radically new technical ideas. In the Cage it is the use of screws and other devices to enormously alter the sound of the piano. In the case of Stockhausen we read in Wikipedia that:
Reinforced by his studies with Meyer-Eppler, beginning in 1955, Stockhausen formulated new "statistical" criteria for composition, focussing attention on the aleatoric, directional tendencies of sound movement, "the change from one state to another, with or without returning motion, as opposed to a fixed state"
And Boulez is particularly known for rejecting all previous musical styles and saying:
"[A]ny musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch."
Ah yes, the needs of the epoch. That is exactly my point. The post-war era, like all musical eras, had a particular spirit and a key element was new compositional technique. It sometimes led to what we usually call "technology", such as in Cage's preparations, a new kind of piano technology, or Stockhausen's tape music, an obvious technology. But the Greek word technos which forms part of our modern word technology, originally meant "art" as in something artificial, newly created by humans. Any new compositional technique, whether inserting screws into a piano, using statistical criteria or serializing all aspects of music, is a new compositional technos or technology.

As for the benumbing post-traumatic stress, I think this comes out in the strict avoidance, by all three of these composers, of any personal expression whatsoever. In some ways this is the most radical strategy of all.

I think that provides sufficient examples to present my point that each age has its proper aesthetic spirit.

UPDATE: One of my very alert commentators points out that the Cage Sonatas and Interludes were actually composed in the mid to late 1940s, not the early 1950s when he experienced a significant aesthetic shift. What I should have chosen instead was his Music of Changes, composed in 1951. Which actually makes my point even more powerfully as it is very similar, from the listener's point of view, to the textures of the Boulez and Stockhausen pieces:


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Concerto Guide: Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 19

If this is Tuesday, it is time for another installment in my concerto guide. I was inspired to do this by two excellent series that Tom Service did in The Guardian. The first was a year-long survey of contemporary composers and the second was a year-long survey of the symphony. I greatly enjoyed following along and disagreeing with Tom! But they were still about the best attempts at music education that you can find in the mass media these days. Anyway, I thought, someone should do one on the concerto, an equally long-lived genre that has survived quite well to the present day.

I am going in chronological order so the next important concerto after last week's Piano Concerto No. 2 by Prokofiev is the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Prokofiev, completed in 1917, but not premiered until 1923 at the Paris Opera. On the same program was Stravinsky's Octet for Wind Instruments conducted by the composer.

What strikes me initially about this piece is how very lyrical it is compared to the red meat aggressiveness of the piano concertos. It is fascinating how different solo instruments affect the composer's approach.

The first movement opens quietly with a long, wandering violin solo marked sognando (dreamily):


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This texture, with the violin joined by solos from the flute and oboe, accompanied by minimal strings, goes on for quite a while. According to Wikipedia:
He composed the concerto's opening melody in 1915, during his love affair with Nina Mescherskaya.
The movement becomes more and more energetic and finally introduces a trill motif:

This is followed by another new theme, this one marked narrante (narratively, as if telling a story). That's a very odd sort of instruction, but we just saw it last week in Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto.

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The tempo is still the opening Andantino, but with this skipping theme festooned with grace notes, it feels as if we are in a faster tempo. Shorter and shorter note values appear and the violin is soon engaged in this kind of virtuoso passagework:

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This all comes to an end with a pause and the music begins again, still in the same tempo, but the violin introduces a pizzicato theme:

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This leads to entirely new kinds of passagework for the violin:

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This is using stopped notes interspersed with open strings, an effect we call campanella on the lute and guitar--not sure what it is called on the violin. This ultimately culminates in a strumming passage that you would swear was from a guitar concerto:


Things ultimately slow down and a new tempo is introduced: Andante assai (Assai più lento che la prima volta) meaning much slower than the first tempo. In a characteristically Prokovian move, he creates a unique, crystalline texture that I am tempted to call "fairy dust" that is a kind of strange recapitulation. He returns to the original D major and the original 6/8 time signature (the narrante theme was in 4/4), but now the flute has the wandering melody while the solo violin and harp accompany with 32nd notes:


And that, believe it or not, takes us to the end of the movement. He has transmuted the opening theme into "something rich and strange" to quote Ariel's song from The Tempest.

Now let's listen to the whole piece. Here is Hilary Hahn with the Spanish Radio Orchestra:


Monday, June 22, 2015

Don't Mess With Taylor!

I'm a fan of Apple as a happy owner of a couple of iMacs, a Macbook Pro and an iPhone. (I also own some stock, but don't tell anyone.) Apple, whose name originated as an homage to the Beatles' corporation, is a little different than most corporations: more creative and more whimsical. But it is still a corporation and now, the biggest one in the world. So occasionally it does those tone-deaf corporate things that we wish it wouldn't. Like the latest venture into streaming music called Apple Music. The original plan was to offer the new service free for three months to lure subscribers away from competitors. But Taylor Swift, in an open letter posted online, squelched that idea:
"When I woke up this morning and I saw Taylor's note that she had written, it really solidified that we needed to make a change," said Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue in an interview with The Associated Press.
Apple had already agreed to share revenue from paid subscriptions to the new Apple Music service, which will cost $10 a month. But Swift said she would withhold her latest album from the service because Apple wasn't planning to pay artists and labels directly for the use of their music during the free, introductory period.
"We don't ask you for free iPhones. Please don't ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation," Swift wrote in an open letter posted Sunday on her Tumblr page, under the heading "To Apple, Love Taylor. "
You bet!

Despite that fact that every musician I know automatically gravitates toward Macs because, from the very beginning, they were designed for musicians, the corporation Apple sometimes seems rather tone-deaf. I suppose we can't blame them for making Dr. Dre the first billion-dollar rap star, as buying his company Beats was probably a good business decision. But we can fault them for inflicting U2 on us, can't we? U2, on the long downslope of their career, were delighted to get some publicity from Apple, but Taylor Swift is a megastar just getting started. From Wikipedia:
Swift's fifth album, the pop-focused 1989, was released in 2014. It sold more copies in its opening week than any album in the previous 12 years, and made Swift the first and only act to have three albums sell more than one million copies in the opening release week.
 So she definitely does not need any publicity from Apple.

There are lots of middle-men in the music world that are ready and eager to take advantage of young artists. I'm not the ideal person to advise young performers because my career was somewhat problematic, but I think I have enough experience to say that you should probably not bother with any of these guys that want you to perform free for them to increase your "exposure". That kind of exposure you probably don't need. In fact, you should probably ask for fees just a bit higher than your competitors because I suspect that a lot of middlemen, not particularly gifted in terms of aesthetic perceptions, will probably evaluate you higher if you charge more and lower if you charge less. You are not a package of frozen fish sticks, you are an artiste!

So let's listen to a little Taylor Swift, She Who Humbled the Great Apple:


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Listening to Eddie

Is Eddie Van Halen, the last of the guitar gods? Not in my book, as that pedestal is already occupied by Eric Clapton! There is an article about Van Halen in Billboard. I found this quote interesting:
Eddie Van Halen doesn't listen to music. 
This is not a fake-out or a misdirection, nor is it a seemingly straightforward statement that actually means its opposite. Eddie Van Halen does not listen to music. “I don’t listen to anything,” he tells me from a greenish couch inside 5150, the expansive home recording studio built on his seven-acre residence in Studio City, Calif. I’d just asked if he ever revisits old Van Halen albums, but his disinterest in those records is merely the tip of a very weird iceberg: Unlike every other musician I’ve ever met, he does not listen to any music he isn’t actively making. The guitarist maintains that the last album he purchased was Peter Gabriel’s So, when it came out in 1986. He’s not familiar with the work of Radiohead, Metallica or Guns N’ Roses. He appears to know only one Ozzy Osbourne song Randy Rhoads played on, and it’s “Crazy Train.” He scarcely listened to Pantera, even though he spoke at the funeral of the group’s guitarist and placed the axe from Van Halen II inside the man’s casket. He doesn’t listen to the radio in his car, much to the annoyance of his wife (“I prefer the sound of the motor,” he says). He sheepishly admits he never even listened to most of the bands that opened for Van Halen and worries, “Does that make me an asshole?” Sometimes he listens to Yo-Yo Ma, because he loves the sound of the cello. But even that is rare.
Not as weird as you might think. Right now I am doing a lot of listening, but there have been extended periods in my career when I did very little listening. For many years nearly all my listening was restricted to listening to my students, listening to my own practicing and recordings (for editing purposes) and, very occasionally, listening to concerts and recordings of rival musicians.

There is this kind of myth in the air these days that, à la DJs, what musicians do is spend a lot of time listening to a very diverse heap of recordings, and then create their own Very Special Blend. But a lot of musicians, and usually the better ones, don't work like this. They actively try to avoid listening to most music. If you are pursuing your own vision, the last thing on earth you want to encounter is someone else's vision. It would just interfere. Most musicians are producers of music, not consumers of it.

I don't listen to the radio in the car either. Well, actually, I haven't listened to the radio at all for, oh, twenty years or so. Oddly enough, I recall driving to play a recital once a long time ago, and putting on a cassette of Michael Jackson's Thriller, specifically the song Beat It which has a great guitar solo, by, yep, you guessed it, Eddie Van Halen (though he was never credited). The guitar solo, which begins by sounding a bit like a Tyrannosaurus Rex emerging from a Jurassic jungle and ends with a quote from Jimi Hendrix' solo in All Along the Watchtower, begins at the 3:10 mark:


A Discourse of Adepts

Via Ann Althouse I come across a piece in the New Yorker about German painter Albert Oehlen whom they call "the foremost painter of the era that has seen painting decline as the chief medium of new art." Here is an image from the article:

Click to enlarge
They say that, "His pictures possess no unity of composition, only unremitting energy." I was particularly interested in this quote, from which I drew my title:
He shrugs off appealing to anyone who doesn’t really—even helplessly—like painting, fulfilling a prophecy made years ago by the critic Dave Hickey: “Painting isn’t dead except as a major art. From now on it will be a discourse of adepts, like jazz.”
"A discourse of adepts, like jazz." Hmm, well I wonder about that. I notice that one place you might find such a discourse is in the detective novels of Michael Connelly that feature the character Harry Bosch who both plays and is an avid listener to jazz. Both books I have read recently have long passages in which Bosch is listening to and commenting on some outstanding jazz musician or another. But there is never any technical vocabulary and indeed, he wanders into non-adept territory, making me suspect that Connelly himself is not really an "adept". For example, he talks about a bass player not being a mere "sideman" because he "drives the beat". This is, of course, what bass players, along with drummers, do. They are the rhythm section so of course they drive the beat. But the actual definition of sidemen, which Connelly seems to use to mean, "mere accompanists", is musicians hired to perform or record with groups of which they are not regular members. So I am afraid that Connelly is probably not an adept, though I'm sure he fools most readers.

Jazz does, like classical music, have real adepts who include all those who actually play the music well and those who have an adept's knowledge of the music. But these people are vanishingly few these days and often do not include those who write professionally about the arts. I even wonder a bit about Peter Schjeldahl, the author of the New Yorker piece. There is nothing in his brief bio indicating whether he has had any actual training in the arts.

He says, for example that Oehlen's paintings possess no unity of composition. There are two photos of his paintings in the article so let's have a look at them. My training in the visual arts consists of no more than auditing a couple of lectures on architecture and reading Paul Johnson's Art: A New History and Munroe Beardsley's Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. But to me it is obvious that the above painting most certainly has some unity of composition, even if it is a bit concealed. Have a look at the shades of yellow: the large cloud of pale yellow on the upper left, the more intense yellow in the upper right, the hazy patches of yellow in the center, the yellow band on the lower right and at the bottom center and finally the orange-yellow block in the upper left center. Don't these act as a unifying element? There are lots of other colors, of course, and a wealth of textures, but yellow is the element that brings the painting together: at least to my eye. The other painting in the article is this one:


The unity of composition of this painting is perfectly obvious: there are three main hues: black, white and orange and they are present throughout. Apart from the human figure, the other image is of sprockets--and that's it. It is a very unified composition.

So I'm starting to wonder: perhaps it isn't painting that is, as a major art, "dead", but writing about it?

I think it was Michael Crichton who commented that if you have knowledge of some professional specialty, every time you see something in the mass media about that area, you will notice that 90% of what they say is wrong. But for some odd reason, you go on believing what they say about things like foreign affairs or economics, things that are not your specialty.

So maybe things like contemporary painting, jazz and classical music are now relegated to a discourse of adepts, but when they are reported in the mass media that report is not likely an example of the discourse of adepts, but rather semi-ignorant journalists.

One other interesting thing: I would have thought that it would have been a qualifying element of a major art that it BE the discourse of adepts, instead of a DISQUALIFYING element. The hidden assumption there is that a major art has to be more than the discourse of adepts, it has to be widely-known, appreciated and loved by the populace as a whole, not a few adepts, it has to be POPULAR.

So if you follow that argument to its absurd conclusion you will have to accept that the major arts of our time are represented by figures like Beyoncé and Thomas Kinkaid:


Forgive my wandering out of music criticism and into art criticism and please correct my errors in the comments!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Reviews Paid For by Promoters

Slipped Disc has an item up about the disappearance of genuine music criticism in favor of pieces paid for by promoters. They link to a longer piece on the subject by John Terauds at Musical Toronto. Mr. Terauds argues that having promoters pay a fee for critical articles is the only feasible financial model:
The Los Angeles Times has reported on how local theatre scene blog Bitter Lemons, which used to be a Rotten Tomatoes-style compiler of theatre reviews, is getting into running reviews by its own critics. The twist on this particular piece of citrus is that the site is requesting producers pay $150 for the privilege of having their play reviewed.
The argument used by Colin Mitchell, who runs Bitter Lemons, is that as traditional media outlets reduce or eliminate their arts coverage, keeping the public conversation going over what is good and bad, worthy and unworthy, needs to find new and creative stimuli.
Mitchell insists that he is sending out capable theatre reviewers to write what they see fit – be it positive, negative, or indifferent.
The cry of foul from traditionalists is that journalistic integrity goes flying out the window as soon as a producer or presenter starts paying for the review.
As more and more discourse about life and culture migrates to social media and other forms of online sharing of ideas and opinions, finding creative ways to keep public the voices of reason – people with knowledge of each particular art, craft, its history and its generally accepted standards – becomes all the more important. The only thing holding people like Michael Vincent and his merry band of excellent contributors at Musical Toronto – and all the people and websites like theirs around the world – is money.
 I'm sure that there is a grain of truth there and in fact, I strongly suspect that a great deal of what passes for objective critical commentary in the music world is bought and paid for in advance. Read the comments at the Slipped Disc piece for some examples.

I have been approached by a performer to write a piece reviewing her upcoming concert. I declined for a number of reasons. First of all, she was performing repertoire that I am not fond of so she was not likely to get the kind of fulsome praise she was looking for and second, I am not fond of the newspaper that was going to print the review. Also, I don't really see myself as a conventional music critic.

Let me add one thing: Mr. Terauds says that:
the only thing holding people like Michael Vincent and his merry band of excellent contributors at Musical Toronto – and all the people and websites like theirs around the world – is money
But of course, there are lots of people like myself who write about music on blogs that do not have any discernible earnings. I do not write because of the money. So I can pretty much say what I want. Mr. Terauds and Mr. Vincent likely cannot. Without examining it in detail, what I see at the Musical Toronto site is a lot of civic boosterism, not music criticism.

What would drive the production of genuine music criticism would be a reading and listening public that demands informed discussion of artists and performances. This was the case in the 19th century when an enthusiastic middle class were the economic force behind the growth of classical music concerts. That was also the era when modern music criticism originated coming from people like Robert Schumann and much later, George Bernard Shaw.

So, I suspect that things will get worse before they get better!

Here is Canada's Premiere Symphonic Ensemble™(the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) performing Ravel's Bolero as a TEDxToronto "talk".



Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

I can recall attending a couple of concerts at the South Bank complex in London a long time ago and I was impressed with the quality of the music and the presentation (and that you could buy the scores of the pieces in the lobby). But the whole atmosphere of the place has now changed, apparently. There is a report at Slipped Disc by composer Christopher Gunning. After an amazing Sibelius concert he:
...came out, and wanted to saunter quietly along the Thames and Hungerford Bridge. From each eatery/drinkery loud music pumped out. Ten thousand people shouted to make themselves heard above the din. Empty beer bottles and dog-ends lined the rails overlooking the river. It was no better walking along towards Shakespeare’s Globe, where another few thousand congregated to shout at one another. What I’m saying is that a boozing culture has invaded London’s prime cultural hub and frankly it’s pretty much wrecked.
With one exception, the comments support this observation. And the dissenting comment also proves the point:
Boohoohoo I wish our ivory tower was taller!
Does it make me a misanthrope if I just want to permanently remove myself from the appalling tastes and noises of most of humanity? Oh, I see, that is pretty much the definition? Oh well, guilty as charged.

 * * *

This is a pretty good review of a couple of books on how the music industry got into the situation it is in today. Here's a sample:
Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free details decades of foolishness in the industry and its decline in the 21st century by focusing on three simultaneous developments: the construction and massive growth of the Universal label, Brandenburg’s efforts to get the MP3 taken seriously and the contemporaneous development of the internet, on which a tiny group of hip-hop fans and computer geeks slowly dismantled a multimillion-pound industry.
* * *

It is always refreshing when someone speaks out candidly without weighing all their words beforehand. Of course if an elderly scientist does it in a way that is perceived as offensive to women, then he will be condemned and asked to resign his positions and maybe even his Nobel Prize. But if it is an English teacher who doesn't want to teach Shakespeare any more because he is some dead British guy, then ok:
In the 25 years that I have been a secondary teacher, I have heard countless times, from respected teachers (mostly white), that they will ALWAYS teach Shakespeare, because our students need Shakespeare and his teachings on the human condition.
So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior?
Isn't it a bit dispiriting to encounter a teacher of English who is so utterly oblivious to aesthetic quality? She really hasn't the slightest idea why we read Shakespeare.

* * *

I just ran across this extraordinary story of a concert by Rudolf Serkin back in the 1920s:
I have one and a half recordings of the Goldberg variations. The Glenn Gould, which is still marvellous in its own way, but the other one is essentially excerpts from a piano roll made by Rudolf Serkin in 1928. I was alerted to this performance by an extraordinary story I heard about a recital of Serkin in Berlin around that time. As an encore, he decided to play the entire Goldberg Variations, with repeats. After each variation, members of the audience left the hall, until by the end there were only two people left. When Serkin finally finished , he bowed to the two and recognised them. One was Artur Schnabel and the other Albert Einstein. It is as if the desire to hear this work live even at the end of a long recital was only totally present in geniuses on the same level as Serkin himself!
This is from an interview with the conductor Jan Latham-Koenig in the Guardian. Nowadays, of course, audiences are in such a hurry to leave the hall at the end of a concert that they don't even have time to hear a single, brief encore. Which pretty much says it all!

* * *

In response to Rachel Dolezal commenting that "I identify as black" I offer the proposal that "I identify as a Great Composer." What do you mean, you will be the judge of that?

* * *

The New York Times has an article on the history of the New York Philharmonic concerts in the park. They started 50 years ago and are going strong.

* * *

There's now a word for it: years ago, when I had just played the Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, I was talking to a colleague who taught guitar at the local university. He said a student of his had attended the concert and commented that it was "depressingly good". Heh. This is the opposite of schadenfreude, when you feel joy at another's pain. This is feeling pain at someone else's pleasure or triumph. And now we have a word for it: "gluckschmerz", described in this article in the Wall Street Journal.

* * *

For your amusement, an unusual photo:


Yes, that fellow on the left, smirking at the camera, is composer Arnold Schoenberg, playing tennis.

Want another one? Here is Dmitri Shostakovich doing shots with Jean Wiener and Darius Milhaud.



These are both from a very fun website called "Composers Doing Normal S**t"

* * *

Here is an appropriate envoi for today's miscellanea. The New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert playing the 1903 tone poem by Arnold Schoenberg, Pelleas and Melisande:


Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Culture Without Art

The Smart Set, published by Drexel University, succinctly says what we all have come to fear: we are now a culture essentially without art. The article is titled "Artless" and the writer, Michael Lind, gets right to the point:
The fine arts don’t matter any more to most educated people. This is not a statement of opinion; it is a statement of fact.
As recently as the late 20th century, well-educated people were expected to be able to bluff their way through a dinner party with at least some knowledge of “the fine arts” — defined, since the late 18th century, as painting, sculpture, orchestral or symphonic music, as distinct from popular music, and dance/ballet.
After outlining the situation as it seems to be today, he continues:
What happened? How is it that, in only a generation or two, educated Americans went from at least pretending to know and care about the fine arts to paying no attention at all?
Here is part of his answer:
Having lost their royal and aristocratic patrons, and finding little in the way of public patronage in modern states, artists from the 19th century to the 21st have sought new patrons among the wealthy people and institutions who have formed the tiny art market. It was not the mockery of Pop artists but the capitalist art market itself which, in its ceaseless quest for novelty, trivialized and marginalized the arts.
Now I am a pretty big fan of capitalism generally, but yes, it does not seem to generate high quality artworks, but rather a whole lot of flashy trivia like pop music, pop art and popular movies. He elaborates as follows:
Capitalism, applied to the fine arts, created the arms race that led to increasingly drastic departures from premodern artistic tradition, until finally, by the late 20th century, “art” could be everything and therefore nothing.
The textbooks in my college art history classes lied about this. The texts treated the sequence from Cezanne to Picasso to Pollock as purely formal developments within a tradition unaffected by vulgar commercial considerations, like fads and branding and bids for attention — unlike, say, the rise and fall of fins on cars.
In fact Picasso, like Warhol and Koons after him, Picasso was rewarded by the market for pushing the boundaries a bit further for a progressively-jaded audience of rich individual and institutional collectors. The novelty-driven art they produced for private purchasers was and is different in kind from the traditional art commissioned for church and state.
UPDATE: Sorry, forgot to include the link to the article. Here it is.

Alas, I don't think we can extrapolate from the visual arts to music in this argument. Yes, perhaps things started out a bit like this. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring fits into the model pretty well, but once it was accepted--rather quickly considering the riotous first performance--Stravinsky fairly soon embarked on a quite different direction with his neo-classicist works like Pulcinella which only pushes the envelope in the sense of being an unexpected retreat from an advanced technical vocabulary into music that strongly references the past.

But the winds of modernism continued to blow strongly among composers (even Stravinsky, later on) and after the Second World War, the attempt to create a progressive music of the future took another step. But while commercial pressures and temptation may have had their effect on the visual arts (I don't know this to be true, but I am not enough of an expert to disagree), they certainly did not drive avant-gardism in music. There were no significant commercial rewards for Schoenberg, Webern, Bartók, Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen or Cage. True, their bold transgressions did lead to a notoriety which undoubtedly led to some funding, but not in terribly significant amounts. It enabled them to struggle on, minimally.

So, I think that we need to look elsewhere for an explanation of modernism in music. People like Schoenberg have tried to justify their technical advances through some sort of theoretical or historical analysis, but I find these unconvincing as well.

With great reluctance, therefore, as I congenitally hate this sort of explanation, we might need to seek a psychological cause. Music composition is, fundamentally, an intuitive process. You literally don't know what you are doing most of the time. For some reason, many composers had to stop writing the kind of expressive, audience-pleasing music in the style of the late 19th century and replace it with a jagged, dissonant, rhythmically disjointed style. Schoenberg provides the perfect example. In a very few years he moved from the delightful sonorities of the prelude to his Gurre-Lieder, to the astringent textures of Pierrot Lunaire:



What happened? The First World War happened, the first and perhaps most surprisingly deadly phase of the 20th century suicide attempt by Western Civilization. To acquaint yourself with this ancient history I suggest reading Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves who himself (and like Schoenberg) never quite recovered from the experience. He was a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and fought (and was badly wounded) in the trenches. I can't find a reference for it, but as I recall, Schoenberg drove an ambulance during the war. Taruskin in The Oxford History of Western Music (vol 4, p. 679) says:
No composer suffered a graver creative crisis in the years surrounding the Great War than Schoenberg. The war itself, oddly, was not (at least consciously) a trauma for him.
As I said, composition is deeply intuitive and, in the absence of a better, clearer explanation, I choose to view the war and the tensions leading up to it, as an underlying force driving composers (and other artists) toward the extremes of modernism.

The First World War disrupted every European culture. The finest young minds of England, France, Germany, Austria and Italy died, horribly, in the trenches. The Battle of the Somme alone saw one million casualties. The casualty rate among officers in the trenches was 90%. Whether it was conscious or not, I suggest that this must have been a traumatic experience for Schoenberg and everyone else. Each movement of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin is dedicated to a friend who lost his life in the war.

An entertainer's goal is to divert, charm and amuse his audience. Up until the 19th century, a musician could comfortably combine the roles of entertainer and artist. For Mozart it was no contradiction to write charming aesthetic truth. But an artist in the last hundred or so years has a different task: to transmit an aesthetic truth even if unpleasant. For the first half of the 20th century, wracked by horrors on a scale never previously known in human history, this truth was a brutal one. It is not surprising then to hear music that captures intense emotional distress.

The dispiriting thing about where we are at now is that composers seem to be struggling to find a way back from the aesthetic extremes, to discover how to survive the suicide attempt and learn once more how to be graceful, charming, diverting, but still remain artists. Essentially we have to reclaim part of the territory that is now ruled over solely by pop musicians. The only composer who has come even close to this is Philip Glass and a lot of classical musicians don't think that what he does is classical music.

We do live in interesting times...

Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin is like a fragrance reminding us of the beautiful world of Europe before it was brutalized by the First World War, a kind of musical madeleine: