Monday, November 30, 2015

The Case of Henri Dutilleux

Henri Dutilleux
Henri Dutilleux (1916 - 2013) is a composer I have only recently begun to listen to. I am just finishing listening to the seven CDs contained in a new box of his music titled The Centenary Edition as the centenary of his birth is next year.

Dutilleux was hardly a prolific composer: these seven discs contain nearly all the music he approved for publication. His output boils down to one piano sonata, two symphonies, a ballet, a very few other orchestral works, a cello concerto, a violin concerto, a few songs, a string quartet and a few other pieces of chamber music.

You might be tempted to dismiss his music as being "derivative" or not adventurous enough, which are the official reasons why he is not more well-known. But a derivative, unadventurous composer would surely have found it easy to crank out a lot of music instead of just these few pieces. He is quoted as saying:
I always doubt my work. I always have regrets. That's why I revise my work so much and, at the same time, I regret not being more prolific. But the reason I am not more prolific is because I doubt my work and spend a lot of time changing it. It's paradoxical, isn't it?
A few days ago I played the beginning of his violin concerto for a couple of friends, one a violinist and the other a composer. They had never heard it before and were unable to identify it. Not even the continent! But they were pretty sure it was 20th century. The pice is titled L'Arbre des songes (Tree of Dreams) and was commissioned by Isaac Stern. Here it is:

Here is the interesting paradox of the music of Dutilleux: it is, if you are familiar with 20th century music, immediately captivating. It is aesthetically powerful, very well composed and full of character and color. But not well known! I suspect that a lot of the reasons have to do with ideology. Falling between Messiaen and Boulez in age, Dutilleux simply did not fit into the available niches. He was not an enfant terrible like Boulez, nor a trickster like Cage, nor did he have a dramatic narrative like Messiaen and certainly was not a technical innovator like Stockhausen. He just wrote good music. That particularly endears him to me!

This is very French music in its sense of melody, its colors and its harmonies. Also, very beautiful music!

I am going to put up a few posts on Dutilleux. In the meantime, you should listen to L'Arbe des songes a few times and perhaps some of his other music: the piano sonata, the two symphonies and the symphonic fragments of Le Loup his ballet. While very listenable the first time, the music undeniably grows in interest on repeated listening.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

I learned from an old Calvin and Hobbes strip that the reason all those photos taken back in the 30s and 40s are in black and white is that the world was all black and white back then. It's just obvious! I used to think that people talked funny in old movies because, well, people just talked funny back then. But apparently that's not so: that kind of accent was learned. Here, let's go to the video for the explanation:

Dirigible races? Is that like submarine races? Hmm, well now I will have to re-think that whole black and white thing...

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I love my guitar. We have been together for nearly thirty-three years which included one marriage and several girlfriends. So maybe I should get one of these:

Yes, that's right, a Free-standing humidified guitar case in flamed maple and African mahogany. But while practical (keeps the dust off, but humidity up) it seems just a tad too shrine-like...

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Because I just don't know how to not live dangerously and because our furious debate over terrorism seems to have died down, I offer this piece: “Massively Altered” …German Professor Examines NASA GISS Temperature Datasets in which
From the publicly available data, Ewert made an unbelievable discovery: Between the years 2010 and 2012 the data measured since 1881 were altered so that they showed a significant warming, especially after 1950. […] A comparison of the data from 2010 with the data of 2012 shows that NASA-GISS had altered its own datasets so that especially after WWII a clear warming appears – although it never existed.”
So, "man-made" global warming turns out to mean something just slightly different from what we thought.

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From the annals of "that sounds very Canadian to me" comes this quote from Samuel Beckett. When asked "Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?" He is said to have replied "I wouldn’t go as far as that."

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You may have noticed my occasional lampooning of the Guardian's interview feature "Facing the Music" with its pre-packaged questions and predictable answers. Well, I guess it depends on who is answering. The latest interviewee is Esa-Pekka Salonen and here are some samples:
What was the first record you bought?
Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, conducted by Seiji Ozawa.
What’s your musical guilty pleasure?
If you found yourself with six months free to learn a new instrument, what would you choose?
Theremin, no question.
I'm pretty sure he was having them on with those answers! The next answer to the most hackneyed question of all, specifically designed to stick the big letter "S" on the snobs, is a nice way of saying "no":
Is applauding between movements acceptable?
I don’t mind, except when an expressive silence is broken too soon.
Well, yes, that is why it is better not to applaud between movements.  And he really blew them away with the last answer:
It’s late, you’ve had a few beers, you’re in a karaoke bar. What do you choose to sing?
Either a Finnish tango or the Captain’s cheerful tune from Berg’s Wozzeck: “Wozzeck ist ein guter Mensch, aber er hat kein Moral, Moral, Moraaaaaaal!”
Which they deserved, of course!

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The Guardian has a review of a concert with Lang Lang playing the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. They capture his unique style:
You can’t fault his often formidable dexterity, but this was a wayward interpretation that proceeded by fits and starts. The best of it was perversely exciting, but lurching tempo changes threatened to pull the first movement out of shape, and dynamics were extreme to the point of exaggeration in the adagio. There were plenty of characteristic grand gestures and ecstatic glances towards the audience in moments of rapt contemplation. Playing a passage for the right hand alone, at one point, he placed his left hand over his heart and gazed heavenwards.
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I have thought for a while that the Grawemeyer Award for composers is the most well-adjudicated because of the process which involves consulting not only a committee of experts, but also laymen. The latest winner is Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen for his song cycle "let me tell you". Here is the story which includes a brief clip. Here is his Double Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Orchestra:

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Last night I had some musical friends over for Thanksgiving dinner and played for them this piece. They all liked it but were unable to identify the country or composer. They did know it was 20th century, though! This is "L'arbe des songes" for violin and orchestra by Henri Dutilleux:

Monday, November 23, 2015


I confess: I am a francophile. No, this is not one of the lesser-known perversions, but rather an inclination towards French language and culture. I have lived in Québec for over a decade and spent time in France as well. At one point I was fairly fluent in French and I know how to curse in Quebécois! But my real qualifications are that I have long had an affinity for French culture which includes everything from the rationalism of René Descartes to the music of Guillaume DuFay to the gastronomy of Brillat-Savarin to the later music of Louis and François Couperin to the theatre of Molière to the novels and poetry of Victor Hugo to the still later music of Hector Berlioz to the still later poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. And wait, I haven't even mentioned the remarkably long tradition of French art and architecture. Skipping right over the Merovingian, Carolingian and Romanesque periods we might mention artists like Nicolas Poussin and Antoine Watteau and later ones like Claude Monet and--wait, was I about to forget about the sculpture of Rodin?

But enough of that! Suffice it to recognise that, apart from Italy and Germany in music, France really has an artistic and cultural tradition second to none in Europe, which also means second to none in Western Civilisation generally. I have had this underlined for me in recent months by my examination of some 20th century French composers who may well be, alongside a couple of Russians (Stravinsky and Shostakovich) the most interesting composers working during that time. I say this despite the fact that they have been, in scholarship over the last few decades, greatly overshadowed by the Genesis or Deuteronomy of Modernism, taught in countless undergraduate 20th century music history courses. "And in the beginning there was Schoenberg and he separated the light from the darkness and created serialism and saw that it was good and taught it to Berg and Webern. And they begat Boulez and Stockhausen and also of their tribe was John Cage. Other acolytes came from distant lands and were called Stravinsky and Bartók."

There is no denying the importance of these composers, of course. But for the ideology of modernism to be really successful, other composers who did not follow the rules of modernism, which included the necessity of techniques that erased and denied all prior musical traditions, had to be demeaned and exiled to the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. So people like Shostakovich in particular had to be decried as "hacks" and people like Olivier Messiaen, who really went off the rails with his Turangalîla Symphony, had to be ostracised whenever possible.

My discovery, or rather re-discovery of Messiaen as I hardly knew his music before, is being followed by my discovery of another fine 20th century French composer who has been unfairly thrust aside into an undeserved obscurity: Henri Dutilleux.

This reminds me that the traditions of French music extend from the very first polyphonic composers whose names we actually know, Léonin and Pérotin in the 12th century, right up to now. The great French composers who have worked in the last 100 years include not only the ones I just mentioned, but Claude Debussy (who really kicked off the 20th century), Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. And I haven't even mentioned popular music stars: Alizée! That's almost a thousand years of music of elegance, profundity, charm, grace and intensity. No other nation can claim as much.

This is Maurice Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte, played by the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, conductor at the London Proms, 2014:

Sunday, November 22, 2015


I had a theory professor once who told me that he put together a whole semester of lectures based on looking at what was going on in music in a particular year. The year he picked was 1951 because that was the year he was born. Well, me too. So 1951 it is.

One of the things that happened that year was the death of Arnold Schoenberg, which is why I have always wondered, if there is anything to this metempsychosis thing, if I might be the reincarnation of Mr. Schoenberg. Maybe not.

But there was a lot more happening that year, including the piece I just put up on another post, the Symphony No. 1 of Henri Dutilleux, a quite lovely piece. I'm just starting to explore the music of Dutilleux, so there will be more posts on him.

1951 was the year that Karlheinz Stockhausen started composing in his characteristic style (pieces prior to this date were more student efforts). Kreuzspiel dates from 1951.

Another piece, begun in 1951 but completed in 1952, was Structures I for two pianos by Pierre Boulez:

It was in 1951 that John Cage started writing music using chance procedures. The Music of Changes for piano, dates from that year:

1951 comes in the middle of one of the darkest phases of the life and career of Dmitri Shostakovich. Between the second denunciation of his work, in 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953, he was unable to premiere his most important works such as the Violin Concerto No. 1. In 1950, however, he was on the jury of the First International Bach Competition in Leipzig (celebrating the 200th anniversary of Bach's death) and hearing so very many preludes and fugues inspired him to write a complete set in all the keys. He finished the last one, in D minor, in February 1951:

Alas, there does not seem to be a piece from Messiaen dating from 1951. His Quatre études de rhythme come just before and the first of his pieces inspired by birdsong, just after. Here is Le merle noir from 1952:

The last work of Stravinsky's neo-classical period, The Rake's Progress, was composed in 1951:

The premiere recording of Duke Ellington's Harlem (commissioned by Toscanini!) was released in 1951:

Elliot Carter's String Quartet No. 1, the fruits of a long stay isolated in the Arizona desert, was completed in 1951:

I could go on, but I think that this certainly gives you a sense of the year (other than pop music where Perry Como, Mario Lanza and Tony Bennett--who is still recording!--reigned). Some of the information I got from this useful site: 1951 in music.

Is Composing Just a Job?

I just read this in the book thread on another blog:
I've never liked the view that sets up art with a capital 'A' and the artiste is some elevated being whose devotion to pursuing his Art places him far above the rest of us schlubs. From what we know of him, Shakespeare was just some guy trying to make a buck writing plays and managing a theater company. He was not an artiste crafting words into Art. He was writing plays to earn coin for himself and his acting company, and the more coin, the better. I really am a proponent of Larry Correia's view, also held by Isaac Asimov, that writing is an everyday job that you do, well, every day, 8 (or more) hours a day, week in, week out. The only way you get good at something is practice, practice, practice, and writing is no different than anything else.
This kind of scenario would seem to fit a number of 18th century composers such as Joseph Haydn or Mozart or any of the Bachs who wrote what was required on a daily basis. Need a symphony for the weekend, when you have some guests over? Sure, Prince Nikolaus, no problem (as Haydn may have responded to his patron). But things seem rather different for composers today who are not writing film scores. The situation today seems to have evolved into two radically different kinds of scenarios. In the one, Steven Spielberg calls you up and says he needs a score for his latest flick and you have three months to write and record it. For delivering the finished score, synched to the movie, you get paid, what? According to this link, anything from $20,000 to $800,000 (if you are John Williams and it is the latest Harry Potter movie).

But for most classical composers, it is quite different. Here is an article on the state of commissioning new works today. It doesn't have much in the way of specific numbers,  but one gets the impression that most commissions for new works are for $20,000 or less! Perhaps more if you are a very established name like John Luther Adams or Philip Glass. But even then, since Glass had to work a day job well into his forties, you have the sense that a $20,000 commission a couple of times a year might be considered by most composers to be the Big Time. Yahoo! Easy Street!

Not only that, but for this measly amount what a composer today is expected to produce is not a routine work for a standard ensemble within familiar forms or genres. Oh, no. What you are expected to produce is something Entirely New, Revolutionary, Pushing the Envelope and Revealing New Aspects of the Language of Music. Just for an example, read Alex Ross in The New Yorker on the latest piece by Thomas Adès, Totentanz.
Adès’s latest creations are anything but circumspect: they are wilder, stranger, and bolder than the intricate, insolent scores with which he first made his name, in the nineteen-nineties. The opening bars of “Totentanz” give us winds shrieking in their upper registers, hectoring brass, whistles and whipcracks from the percussion section, and a splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance. It is a sound at once grand and gaudy, majestic and mordant.
Now, to be honest, I don't know what Adès was paid for this work, surely much more than $20,000. But every composer is expected to produce music of this heightened intensity--on a shoestring budget!

I'm pretty sure this is why most parents tell their kids not to go into music, but become software entrepreneurs, venture capitalists or lobbyists in Washington. That's where the money is.

Just to add insult to injury, I read a year or so ago that the average annual income for a composer (i.e. a member of a professional composer's organization) in Britain was something like £3,689. Here is the link.

The ideal, perhaps, might be a situation like Haydn's where you had to write new music on a weekly basis, but while that allowed you some room for innovation, there wasn't the appallingly heavy weight that is on a composer's shoulders today. Re-invent music? Today? Well, ok, but can I do it incrementally over my whole career and not from scratch with every piece?

There is a kind of ideology, hanging over from modernism, that pushes composers to do something at least somewhat outrageous with every piece--almost like the obsession in pop music a couple of years ago that every artist had to come up with a new dance-move. Twerking! Gangnam Style! Naked on a Wrecking Ball! For contemporary composers lately it seems to be how many new and exotic percussion instruments can you cram into your orchestral score?

The reason why composers are pretty much forced to be Artistes these days is interwoven with the complex history of music during the 19th and 20th centuries. Occasionally we run into one that does not seem to have forgotten the virtues of beauty and restraint.

This is the Symphony No. 1 (1951) by Henri Dutilleux (1916 - 2013):

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Mystery of Adele

A friend was saying to me yesterday how impressed she was that I keep up with pop music. It's nothing much, really. I keep an eye on pop music the way that motorists keep an eye on a traffic accident as they slowly pass by in the other lane. There is a kind of horrible fascination about it.

Apart from the astonishing disaster that is Miley Cyrus' latest choice for concert garb, the big news lately seems to be the release of Adele's new album "25". What is it with these number titles? I can understand "1", but "25"? It's not her age, she is 27. Her previous albums were titled "19" and "21" so there must be an age reference. Yes, indeed:
According to the singer, the album's title is a reflection of her when she was 25 and the frame of mind she was in during that age.
Ok, but I'm not going to start titling my albums that way. Too embarrassing! I put up the clip of the first single from the album, "Hello" a while back. Frankly, it was so boring I only listened to half of it. Another go?

Yes, in the interests of objective assessment, I made it all the way through. Now obviously, this is not aimed at my demographic. According to this Wall Street Journal article, her most devoted fans are mothers between 25 and 44:
They are mostly women and they’re more likely to work in health care than any other field. They shop at Victoria’s Secret, read parenting magazines and like taking risks. Perhaps most remarkably, they still buy albums.
Ok, I get all that except the "taking risks" part--how do they know that? But she is selling to them and selling huge (from the Wikipedia article):
On November 18, Billboard reported that Columbia Records shipped 3.6 million physical copies of 25 in the United States, the largest number since NSYNC's No Strings Attached, which shipped 4.2 million units in 2000. During its first day of release 25 sold 323,000 copies in the UK, becoming the fastest selling album of the century and second fastest of all time, behind Oasis's Be Here Now, which sold 424,000 copies on its first day in 1997.
She is way ahead of most classical musicians--and me for sure!--in that she has a devoted group of fans and she knows who they are.

The music is pretty ordinary to my ear--a nice emotional ballad, but that is what her fans are looking for, so good. I find that the video is too much like a cellphone commercial to my taste, but again, that seems to suit her demographic. There are a few odd things: the lip synch when she is doing a quick vocal ornament seems shoddy and poorly matched and there is a fairly high frequency that keeps popping out and giving her voice an unpleasant edge. It's around 1864.66 hz if you are interested--a high B flat.

More interesting than the music is the visual presentation of the artist herself. One of the things that I noticed about Adele in her previous outing was that she was not built like a professional dancer, something that seems almost a requirement for divas these days. She was, rather, a bit bulky. I actually thought this was a nice contrast blunting the trend to choosing singers based on their ability to dance. At last a female pop singer that is not about to start twerking on the chorus. But the new and improved Adele is almost unrecognizable. She has cheekbones!

Here is the evolution:

I'm really not trying to pick on Adele! As a friend pointed out to me, she is doing this because she can. Who knows, maybe I should do the same. I keep saying I need to lose 10 kilos. But what we are seeing here is a highly professional, very thorough, re-imaging of a rather ordinary looking chubby girl into a sleek goddess. Still with the same voice, though.

Surely part of the appeal is the whole package here. The message is "you too can be a sleek goddess with a bit of work". The song is saying something like, "I am the kind of person who feels personal relationships deeply and am willing to admit that I have made mistakes." It's all, while melodramatic and contrived, very positive and speaks directly to her fans, many of whom might stand to lose a little weight (like myself!) and could really use those cheekbones.

I guess the only problem I have with this is that I just don't see how it fits with any of the notions I have about what music is and what it should do. This is basically pop psychology set to a nice tune and soothing piano chords and a little backbeat.

There is just no way I can see doing anything like that. Which is probably an excellent reason why my leaving the pop world for the classical world was a very good choice.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

I'm 87% sure that this is a joke: "Composer Raises $140,000 to Compose Music Specifically for Cats."
It has been announced that American composer David Teie has raised more than US $140,000, via a crowd-sourced KickStarter campaign, to create the world’s first full-length album specifically for felines.
The 60 year old composer and long time cellist with Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, has to date released two compositions for cats – with a study by the Applied Animal Behavior Science publication suggesting 77% of felines reported a favourable reaction to the works.

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I guess after that we have to hear the Cat Fugue (K. 30) by Scarlatti, so called because the beginning sounds like a cat walking on the keys.

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This starts off with a bit of the Moonlight Sonata and then turns into, yep, what could be the Greatest Bass Solo Ever:

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Time to hear jazz guitarist Pat Metheny's thoughts on classical music: "10 Questions for Jazz Legend, Pat Metheny."
2. I read an interview from several years ago where you were asked if you listened to Wagner…to which you replied there was too much modulation going on…you wished he would stay in one place. But you did say you were into the “Russian guys…Stravinsky, Prokofiev, etc…. And the French…Debussy, Ravel and Satie. What classical composers, if any, interest you these days?
I must have meant the Wagner comment as a kind of a joke - actually the more modulations the better for me! While I feel an ongoing attraction to trying to understand all the composers that you listed and many others (Berg, Webern, etc.), I don’t feel like I have ever really had the time to devote to sitting down with scores and spending the months I believe it takes to truly digest that music with the kind of seriousness that I have been compelled to invest in other forms. I keep thinking someday I will. I would love that.
But, I do need to add - as much as I love the musicians on your list there, hands down the most important composer in this general realm for me was J.S. Bach. His music has a place in my life that rivals that of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in that in addition to loving it as a fan, any time spent under the hood with it also has an instant pragmatic effect on the specifics of what I aspire  to achieve in music myself.
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Here is a very interesting article on tonal languages: languages that use pitch to alter the meaning of words: "The Linguistic Mystery of Tonal Languages."
Mandarin Chinese, with its four tones, is a typical example. Take the word ma. If you say it the way an English-speaker would say it, just reading it sitting by itself on a page, then it means “scold.” Say ma as if you were looking for your mother—ma?—and it means “rough.” If you were just whining at her—“ma-a-a?!?”—with your voice swooping down a bit and then back up even higher, that would mean, believe it or not, “horse.” And if you say ma on a high pitch, as if you were singing the first syllable of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as ma instead of “oh” for some reason, that would actually mean mother. That’s the way almost every syllable works in Chinese.
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Dude, here is some totally wild news: you don't have to spend a lot of money on weed to boost your creativity! I know, I know, I'm amazed too. Here's the piece: "I Used to Spend $1,000 a Week on Pot Because I Thought Smoking Made My Music Better. I Was Wrong." Luckily we have some of Mr. Bixler-Zavala's music on YouTube:

Sounds a bit like they spent way too much money on weed and way too little on music lessons, doesn't it?

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Alan Kozinn in the Wall Street Journal has a review of a new recording of Frank Zappa's "rock opera" (if that is what it is) 200 Motels which I happened to see him and the Mothers of Invention (with guests Eddie and Flo from the Turtles) perform in Vancouver in, I think it was 1970 or 71. The new recording is conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:
The latest addition to the Zappa classical discography, “200 Motels (The Suites),” due out on Friday from Zappa Records/UME, offers a reconfigured and generally clarifying version of Zappa’s sprawling 1971 rock opera, captured in a 2013 live performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Mr. Salonen leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a handful of rock musicians and vocalists, including the composer’s daughter Diva Zappa.
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I offer this link, pointedly, without comment: "Viral French Iman video: 'Music is a creature of the Devil' " Don't miss the comments, some of which are quite interesting.

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For today's musical envoi a magnificent "Fortuna Desperata" à 6 by Alexander Agricola (1445 or 46 - 1506):

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Music and the World

No-one is more aware than myself of the way in which music manages to be a universe all of its own, a refuge from the world. Perhaps more than any other art form, music is something we can lose ourselves into, taken on a journey to a different and strange universe. Opera offers some of the most intense experiences of this nature, but it is also true of instrumental music. Listening to a symphony by Beethoven, Mahler or Sibelius is an aesthetic journey--and some even feel it is a spiritual one.

But as soon as you start to reflect on music, its creation, history and reception, you notice that music is after all, part of the world, even if a very special corner of it. The idea of music as inspiring a kind of trance in which one journeys into an inner world is actually a concept or practice that was particularly a feature of the Romantic era. This was not how music was typically thought of in the 18th century and earlier. Composers like Stravinsky would also likely have not thought of music in this way.

A lot of musicology in recent years has been devoted to looking at things like the influences on music and the way it influences the world. The role of music in the French Revolution and its aftermath is a topic I was looking into at one time. The very complex relationship between the music of Shostakovich and the Soviet regime is a topic that has received massive attention. The way that the operas of John Adams reference recent political events has been the focus of critical attention as well.

So it seems very safe to point out that different kinds of music have different kinds of relationships with the world or, if you insist, "society". Bach's Art of Fugue has a fascinating relationship with its contrapuntal predecessors, but it is a towering masterpiece of pure music with little or no political aspects or ramifications. So if someone were to put out a paper (expected any day now) tying it to some current crusade such as income inequality or gender I would resist that with some asperity.

But other music seems to be very closely linked with institutions or events in the world. A great deal of music was written to be used in the Catholic and other churches for devotional purposes. This includes a host of masses by generation after generation of composers and hundreds of cantatas by Bach. Some music was written specifically to be social commentary such as Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" or "Wozzeck" by Alban Berg. Let me hasten to say that in both these instances and many others exactly what the content of that social commentary is may be hotly disputed!

Where music comes from and how it affects us are complex questions that some scientists are trying to answer with the use of scanners to see what the brain is doing when we make or listen to music. I'm pretty sure that they are not going to come up with any answers very quickly.

Music itself seems almost to occupy a different quantum reality than the mundane world. But musicians live in the real world and performances take place in the real world and so they are affected by events of the real world, for better or worse.

I can't believe that anything I have just said could be considered controversial in any way. These seem to me to be obvious facts and a few reasonable deductions.

That is all I want to say about this at the moment, so let's end with a musical envoi. This is a song by Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn titled "If I had a rocket launcher". Not the kind of thing one readily expects from a mild-mannered Canadian folk-singer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Manuel de Falla: Siete Canciones populares Españolas

The singer I have been working with is proposing that we perform at least some of the songs from de Falla's lovely cycle Siete Canciones populares Españolas. Last night I attended a concert with soprano and guitar, part of a guitar festival in a neighboring city here, and the Siete Canciones ended the program. Afterwards I was chatting with the director of the conservatory and the festival and commented that I just didn't think these songs work on guitar. She looked surprised and asked why. It seems pretty obvious to me. Whereas de Falla was imitating the atmosphere and rhythms of the guitar, especially flamenco guitar, the textures and chords he wrote cannot be easily accommodated on guitar. The great Catalan guitarist and scholar Emilio Pujol made a transcription for guitar long ago and there is a more recent one that I have not yet seen.

I'm not sure which transcription the guitarist was playing last night, but, despite a lot of fiddling between songs, putting on or taking off a capo, changing its location, making large changes in tuning, it was still a wan and feeble echo of the piano original. His lackluster approach to Spanish music didn't help either! Let's have a look and see what is on YouTube. Here is a live performance with Elizabeth Sterling, mezzo-soprano and Anthony Rizzotto, guitar.

She is quite good with the Spanish and is a much better singer than the one I heard last night. Mr. Rizzotto also has a much better feel for the Spanish style than the guitarist last night, but sadly is even less accurate. The very beginning of the introduction of the first song is cut off, but of what we do hear, about 15% of the notes are either missed entirely or poorly played. This is exactly what you would expect given how fiendishly difficult trying to play these songs on guitar is. I don't have either of the guitar transcriptions handy at the moment, but here is that introduction to the first song, "El Paño Moruno" in the piano original:

Yes, this actually sounds a lot like guitar music, but the basic technical differences between the piano and the guitar is what tells. The guitar would be excellent at delivering the lower voice, even augmenting it with chords if they fit under the fingers, but that second, upper voice, easily played on the piano, is what is hard on the guitar. Believe me, this is far from being one of the harder passages, but it illustrates the problem. The guitarist has to play all the notes you see with just one hand, instead of the pianists two. Imagine if you put this score in front of your pianist and said, "ok, now play all of it with just your left hand." It might be possible, but certainly not all of it and certainly not without severe strain. Which is what it is like trying to play it on guitar. Here is an even more difficult example from the second song, the "Seguidilla Murciana". Again, it sounds like guitar music, largely because of the rhythms, but these particular chords are simply impossible on guitar at a quick tempo:

Click to enlarge
Again, ask your pianist or try yourself to play it with the left hand alone--really fast! What transcribers have done is to thin out the chords to just the essential notes. Take all the D notes out of the beginning of each three note group, for example. It is still really, really hard, but not quite as impossible. But this really distorts what de Falla is doing and dilutes the "punch" of these chords. Unfortunately, at this tempo, you have to take a lot more out! Here, have a listen to that second song in the clip. It starts at around the 1:30 mark:

But what if a really professional duo were to play the songs? Say, the great Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza accompanied by Narciso Yepes, in his day probably having the greatest technique on the guitar.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention one other advantage that Yepes has, apart from his nearly unmatched technique. He plays, not a six-string guitar, which is the norm, but a 10-string guitar, which enables him to play more notes on the bass end.

Ok, yes, much, much, much better. But the chords still have to be thinned out and still don't have the kind of punch they do on piano. So let's listen to these songs performed with voice and piano. The artists are Victoria de los Ángeles (soprano) and Alicia de Larrocha (piano):

Undeniably richer, I think you would agree? Yes, it would be very desirable to have those distinctive timbres of the guitar, but so far at least, transcribing it for guitar results in the loss of a lot of harmonic richness and, unless the guitarist is an absolute master, it is going to sound clumsy and feeble.

Here is an interesting approach. This version for cello and guitar is more convincing for two reasons. First of all, as we see in the introduction to the first song, the cello can help out with those awkward to reach notes, giving us a fuller texture. Then, in the second song, the guitarist changes the texture to accommodate a more flamenco approach with rasgueado chords rather than that awkward chordal texture of the piano. I'm thinking that this is the kind of approach to take. Essentially re-compose the music for guitar. The artists are Julia Willeitner, Cello and Danilo Cabaluz, Guitar:

So now I have to decide if I want to take on the job of recomposing all of these songs for guitar...

Monday, November 16, 2015

Musical Satisfaction

If you want the standard narrative on everything, go read Alex Ross; but if you want something other than the usual, you might find it here. So let's ask what might seem to be the most obvious question of all: what does musical satisfaction consist in? What makes us musically satisfied? What music is satisfying? It is an obvious, but funny question, that I at least don't find myself asking very often. Sure, sometimes at the end of a piece of music I sit back with a sigh of satisfaction, but I don't think about it much. So let's have a look.

Let's start in fine philosophical form by asking what kinds of things might be called "musical satisfaction." Here are the definitions of "satisfaction" from
1. an act of satisfying; fulfillment; gratification.
2. the state of being satisfied; contentment.
3. the cause or means of being satisfied.
4. confident acceptance of something as satisfactory, dependable, true, etc.
5. reparation or compensation, as for a wrong or injury.
6. the opportunity to redress or right a wrong, as by a duel.
7. payment or discharge, as of a debt or obligation.
Only nos. 1 to 4 seem to be relevant. Oddly, they immediately point to the fatal flaw of the progressive, modernist model of art: for them, art must always be challenging and uncomfortable, hence, never satisfying. Though I suppose that if you are used to constantly being challenged, that in itself might be satisfying. This is certainly a factor in what performers find satisfying. They would rather be challenged than bored, much of the time.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I am satisfied with my own performance if it is accurate, well-paced and expressive. I suppose there is an extra level of satisfaction if the piece is challenging. As a listener and for audiences in general, I suspect that there is a fundamental difference. A piece might be challenging and the listener might enjoy the challenge, but even in that case there has to be what you might call a satisfactory summing-up. The ending, in particular, has to be satisfactory and not leave the listener lost or disappointed.

Perhaps the most crucial element for audiences is that there be something they can connect with. If every single aspect of the work is novel to the point of being disconcerting, then I can't see the audience feeling satisfied at the end. In all the definitions of satisfaction there is a thread of familiarity, implied by words such as contentment and fulfillment. The latter word especially implies that the listener had some sort of expectation that was not denied.

In recent years a couple of books have come out talking about how 18th century composers worked and the way they were trained. These books focus on the partimenti (singular: partimento) which were models of harmonic structures and involved the improvisation of melodies over a figured bass. This method of teaching was developed in 18th century Naples, but used formal structures from a long stretch of music history. The romanesca is a typical example. Wikipedia says it was used in the 16th to the early 17th centuries, but it was still part of partimento instruction much later. Here is a simple example:

Click to enlarge

And here is how it might have been elaborated:

Click to enlarge

The point is that composers up to and including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and likely Schubert as well, were taught by the partimento method which meant that they had certain fundamental harmonic patterns and phrase structures in their bones. Here is a romanesca pattern in Mozart's The Magic Flute:

These patterns, through long use, have a certain familiarity and satisfaction to them. If you look at the romancesca above you will notice that it contains a sequence, which is a melodic/harmonic cell that is repeated at different pitch levels, followed by a cadence. These are what you might call the foundation and pillars of 18th century music and as such, they provided a certain level of guaranteed satisfaction to the listener familiar with them. There is probably something similar going on today in pop music, which tends to rely on a similar limited set of patterns and textures.

The composer's job, therefore, was to ornament, decorate and vary these patterns in such a way as to intrigue the listener without either boring them or alienating them. The composer's job then, that is! Now, one suspects that rule one is to avoid any suggestion whatsoever that there is a familiar pattern anywhere in the music. For some composers that is. For other composers, they are trying to solve the problem by inventing new kinds of partimento, but so far it is a bit hit and miss.

(For a discussion of that aspect of modernism which perhaps underlies a lot of the alienation of composers and audiences, it is worthwhile looking at Bertolt Brecht's concept of "distancing" which you can read up on here.)

It ain't easy being a composer! But seeing how the 18th century masters were trained and worked, you can see why they were so awesomely productive: they had frameworks ready to hand that they could fill with inspired musical ideas. The composer of today faces a page that is rather formidably blank.

I have two envoi for this post. The first is the whole of the fifth number from act one of The Magic Flute excerpted above. The section quoted above comes right around the 4:25 mark in this clip:

And the second is, inevitably, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones:

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Enlightenment Values

I apologize in advance for the length and dryness of the following, but after the events of this weekend, I felt it had to be said.

I've been reading a number of commentaries on the attacks in Paris on Friday night. A couple of them referred to "enlightenment values" as being something we are, or should be, defending against this kind of barbarism. This is an underlying theme of this blog, though it may not always be evident. The Music Salon is an advocate of reasoned argument, free speech, Western civilization, English common law and that whole panoply of things sometimes called Western Civilization.

We are, therefore, opposed to those elements in the contemporary university that chant things like "Western Civ has got to go!" For one thing, classical music is an integral part of "Western Civ" and the appreciation and promotion of classical music is our main priority. But we take a broader view than that even. Another project or interest here is philosophy, the repository of wisdom in the West (meaning Europe and the New World). Not to say that there are not fonts of wisdom elsewhere, such as in Chinese and Indian philosophy, but they are not as central to the intellectual and cultural tradition that I feel part of: Western Civilization.

I have commented in the past that in some ways my favorite century for music is the 18th century that began with the spectacular and rich music of people like Vivaldi and Bach and ended with the astonishing brilliance, grace and power of the music of people like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It was also a century in which so much was written of profound and civilized wisdom. This included things like Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739, Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1789, and a host of other writings and discoveries in nearly every field of human endeavor including, especially science, politics and economics.

It is perhaps the case that that aspect of the Enlightenment that critiqued religion has been the most problematic as there are those who might trace some of our current difficulties to the loss of a religious sense or spirit in society, but that is not my feeling. It is certainly the case, however, that the enlightenment did offer a critique of religion and some aspects, such as Hume's critique of miracles and Gibbon's of the role of Christianity in the decline of the Roman Empire, were telling. But philosophy and religion have long had an awkward relationship going right back to Plato's first Socratic dialogue, the Euthyphro which poses the very difficult question, do the gods condemn murder because it is wrong, or is murder wrong because the gods condemn it?

In some senses the Enlightenment, like the earlier Renaissance, consisted in part of the rediscovery of certain aspects of philosophy and culture that originated with the ancient Greeks. The power and role of reason is a crucial one, of course, but so were the literary genres of epic and lyric poetry, tragedy and comedy and, of course, philosophy and history. It can never be emphasized enough that all these, and including things like ethics, aesthetics, political science, music theory and many other disciplines were all, all, invented or discovered by the Greeks. Aristotle's six treatises on logic went unchallenged for over two thousand years until other forms of logic were discovered in the late 19th century.

In one particularly ironic historic event, the invention of opera in Florence around 1600 was an attempt to recreate the use of music to accompany tragic drama as was done in ancient Greece. They had to invent something entirely new because while we have the texts to the Greek tragedies, the music has been lost.

All this is to underline that while there have been many dislocating and alienating trends in art and culture in the last century or so, the foundations of Western Civilization are still those that I catalogue above. The various heresies and totalitarianisms of the 20th century were in fact defeated, even though their mutated offspring seem to continue to pop up now and again.

The long rival and opposition to Western Civilization is Oriental Despotism and by "long" I mean that it goes back to the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC. If the hugely outnumbered Greeks had not won those wars, Western Civilization might never have come to be, certainly not in its present form. The successor to Persia, as far as competition with the West is concerned, was and is Islam and we have been at war with various forms of Islam since the 8th century AD. One crucial moment was a battle fought in 732 in Poitiers in southern France where the Muslim army was beaten by Charles Martel, halting the conquest of Western Europe. Another crucial moment was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 when the Ottoman fleet was defeated by the Holy League, a coalition of maritime Catholic states. Yet another was the Battle of Vienna in 1683 when the imperial city of Vienna was besieged for two months by the Ottoman Empire.

Turkish or Ottoman music appeared in pieces by Mozart and Beethoven for some time after.

The point of mentioning this dusty history is that Europe was under existential threat from various entities of Islam for nearly a thousand years, between the 8th century and the 17th century. Spain was partly a possession of Islam until 1492. The Balkans were possessions of the Ottoman Empire until late in the 19th century and not completely free until after the First World War.

Between 1683 and the 1970s, Islam, at least as an aggressive, invading force, was largely moribund. But the huge oil revenues that came to the Middle East after the Second World War and a revival of radical Islam, one example of which was the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, has seen a revival of Islamic aggression. Since then, various radical factions such as al-Qaeda and ISIS have began a new terrorist champaign against the West.

Unfortunately their campaign against Western Civilization seems to be aided and abetted by trends within our culture that both weaken and dilute the moral and cultural authority of Western Civilization and empathize with Islam, members of whom are perceived as being "oppressed". Well, sure they are, but not by us. No, indeed, it is Islam itself that oppresses its own people.

But it is not our responsibility to free them from its yoke. No indeed. Our duty and plain and simple self-interest is to protect Western Civilization and Enlightenment values from being attacked, destroyed, eroded or diluted by forces from without or from within.

Ask any citizen of Paris this morning.

The obvious envoi for this post is Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio:

Saturday, November 14, 2015


After a week of barbarisms from within and without I can't summon the necessary objectivity to write one of my usual posts. Instead, let's listen to some music to remind us of France in other, less fraught times. This is Paavo Jarvi (conductor) Chen Reiss (soprano) and Matthias Coerne (baritone) with the Orchestre de Paris performing the Requiem by Fauré:

This is Montserrat Figueras and Maria Cristina Kiehr with Conductor & soloist: Jordi Savall and Le Concert Des Nations performing the Troisième Leçon De Ténèbres À 2 Voix by François Couperin:

This is Gustav Leonhardt performing the Tombeau de M. de Blancrocher by Louis Couperin:

And finally, something that may be more immediately relevant. The original title of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, was "Chant de guerre pour l'Armée du Rhin" composed in 1792:

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a piece from NPR about "Selling Sex and Symphonies". It manages to completely miss actually considering the issue, but does have an extensive gallery of sexy album covers:

Like so many of this kind of article, its notion of the history is completely subsumed to the Narrative. For example, this quote:
Overweight men in opera, who sang lead roles, could pretty much expect to be judged on their voice and their acting, with no mention of their size. But a large woman would always be criticized for her size, often before any comment was made about her voice or acting.
—Deborah Voigt, soprano
As a matter of fact, I can recall lots of conversations from back then that critiqued male opera stars as much as female ones. A friend of mine was telling me of a performance she saw, probably in the 70s, with Luciano Pavarotti and, I think, Jessye Norman who were supposed to be lovers in the opera (don't recall which one!). But they were both too fat to actually embrace, so they had to be content with a bit of hand-holding. It was quite comic, apparently. So take all these claims with a grain of salt...

* * *

You may have noticed that I sometimes complain about the crude attempts by "scientists" to explain, or explain away, music, aesthetics and other non-scientific phenomena. I'm not alone of course and I read the beginning of this article with particular glee:
Scientism, manifested most dismally in exaggerated claims about the capacity of neuroscience to explain (or explain away) human nature, is perhaps the most serious intellectual disease of our time.
 Well, maybe not the most serious intellectual disease of our time, that would be socialism. Or Electronic Dance Music.

* * *

You know you want it, so here it is: Sibelius' Valse Triste arranged for six double basses:

* * *

It is only with great apprehension that I venture to put up the following item on climate change, "Cold Sun Rising." But I feel I have to because of its fascinating--and music-related--last paragraph:
Recent research has determined that the famous Stradivarius violin owes its unique, esteemed sound to the last Maunder Minimum. The solar condition changed the texture of the trees that provided the wood from which the instrument was crafted. So lovers of classical music can place their orders for the next generation of incomparable violins, coming - giving the trees time to mature - in about 100 years.
 * * *

And now for a piece on the venerable viola joke: "The History of the Viola Joke."
The more masochistic viola players are keen tellers of viola jokes themselves. They write them down, collect them and even invent new ones so that they may be further taunted by their colleagues. I am fascinated by this. Most viola players that I know seem perfectly normal people (well, at least as normal as any other musician). Yet these jokes play on notions that viola players are in turn incompetent (Why are orchestral tea-breaks only 20 minutes long? Because if they were any longer the violas would have to retrain), neurotic (How do you get a viola player to play flying staccato? Write a semibreve with the word ‘solo’ beside it), and despised figures, the object of everyone else’s sadistic impulses (How do you stop a viola player from drowning? Take your foot off his head!).
* * *

 More bowed instrument news, though slightly less funny: "Hong Kong Sinfonietta concertmaster collapses on stage during concert."
The leader of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, James Cuddeford, collapsed midway through a concert on Saturday in front of a shocked audience.
The Australian born violinist had been ill prior to the orchestra’s performance of Schumann’s Cello Concerto with French soloist Aurelien Pascal. However, it was not until 20 minutes into the concert, during the slow movement of the concerto, that the violinist stopped playing and slipped off his chair, falling onto the floor and crushing his Gagliano violin in the process.
James is recovering nicely, apparently, but no word yet from the violin hospital about the Gagliano. Still in surgery, it seems.

 * * *

And, save the envoi, I'm afraid that is all for this week's miscellanea. I was unable to access the Internet for half the week, so I just didn't collect many items. Here is the Piano Trio No. 44 in E major by Joseph Haydn. The artists are Robert Levin, fortepiano, Vera Beths, violin and Anner Bylsma, cello:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Philosophy of the Music Salon

One of the great failings—or gifts!—of humanity is that we have the ability to imagine important questions to which it may be impossible to find answers. The fact that only few people notice this, and the implications of it, makes it no less true. The people that tend to notice these questions most of all we call “philosophers”. I mention in the header of this blog that “philosophy”, along with classical music and popular culture, is one of the interests of the blog. But I should hasten to say that, while I am fairly indisputably a classical musician, I am not much of a philosopher. I am, in fact, something of a hack in that field. A “hack” is someone who does something without fully accepting or mastering the necessary technical components of the field. A hack guitarist is someone who plays badly (or some things badly), but manages not to care enough to fix it.

So I am a hack philosopher, as I have been told by a real philosopher. But despite this, I am pretty sure that bringing a bit of philosophy into the occasional post here at the Music Salon is worthwhile.
I have just been reminded of the benefits of philosophy by an absolutely brilliant book review by Arthur A. Leff of the Yale Law School of Knowledge and Politics by Roberto Mangabeira Unger, also a professor of law. What sets this book review apart from every other I have read is that Prof. Leff adopts the persona of the Devil and the review is in the form of a memorandum from the Devil. He was likely inspired to do this by the way in which Prof. Unger ends his book, with the words, “Speak, God.” When I first started browsing through this fairly lengthy review/memorandum, I was inspired myself to write a similar essay titled “Memo from Apollyon.”

But I have just now been reading the review more carefully and my appreciation grows and grows. Here, in a nutshell, is the problem: setting aside the possibility of universally agreed upon objective value and divine revelation, is there any way of grounding the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil? Or, as the Devil puts it:
“How does one tell, and tell about, the difference between right and wrong? Why ought one-a person or a society-do any particular thing rather than any other? How can one ground any statement in the form "It is right to do X" in anything firmer than the quicksand of bare reiterated assertion?” 
The relevance to my writings is that the problem of good and bad in ethics or morality is very similar to the problem of good and bad in aesthetics, which I talk about at great length here. I have to confess, therefore, that the Devil’s argument poses as great a problem for me as for Unger. How can I prove or demonstrate anything regarding why one piece of music is better than another than by simply asserting it? I suppose I can’t. Nor can anyone else.

Mind you, as you might expect, I can do a great deal of singing and dancing around the question. I often put up two contrasting examples and invite the reader/listener to make their own aesthetic judgment. Surprisingly, this often works—well, enough, at least. For my purposes it is as if there is no god but Music and Bach (or Beethoven, or Mozart, or Haydn) is his prophet. Hey, it works for most religions! But while this may be persuasive, it is no argument. I suppose what I foggily assume is that there is a kind of intuitive realization that is provoked by hearing good music that it is good music. Especially when contrasted with bad music. But this is, at best, hack philosophy. Indeed, I’m afraid that confronted with the skepticism shown by the Devil in this review, even Socrates would struggle.

Or would he, because I am beginning to think that there may be a way of dealing with this problem and it is a way typical of Plato and his dialectic. The Good is always defined by contrast with Evil or the Bad. As the Devil points out, you cannot define the Good as what is because Being does not get you to Good—it just as easily gets you to Bad, as anyone who has visited Chibougamou or Cincinnati already knows.

I think I started thinking along these lines when I was thinking that, where it would certainly be impossible to define good as corresponding to a universal perception of humankind, perhaps it could be isolated within an appropriate context. This piece of classical music is “good,” within our general understanding of the character and boundaries of classical music. But this is just an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. If you define a Scotsman in any specific way, and someone provides a counter-example (“I knew a Scotsman who didn’t X”) then the fallacy occurs when you claim that that Scotsman was “no true Scotsman”.

But then it occurred to me that universals, such as the Good, the True and the Beautiful are not susceptible to definition because they are how we define other things. They are transcendental.  The only way to define them is by their opposites: the Bad, the False and the Ugly. These contraries provide the context for understanding.

But this still fails to escape the trap: you either intuit the Good and distinguish it from the Bad, or you don’t and, in the absence of objective value and divine revelation, there still seems to be no way to guarantee it.

So what is the value of all this? I think the value is enormous. What we are left with after striving unsuccessfully to answer the question of what the Good is truly grounded on is skepticism and the tendency to ask difficult questions. I can think of few healthier states of mind! Imagine how different politics, education, the arts, every part of our culture would be if people, or most people or, heck, just a few more people, knew how to ask these kinds of questions. The mind boggles.

Imagine the improvement in politics alone if more people realized that the grandiose claims made by nearly all politicians are grounded on precisely nothing or, as is startlingly common, grounded on some variety of Evil. Which leads me to think that what we really need is a thorough discussion of Evil perhaps more than this one about Good…

As the Devil sagely ends his review:
But while you try to live as best you can until His revelation, perhaps you will accept some practical advice from me. Look around you at your species, throughout time and all over the world, and see what men seem to be like. Okay? Now take this hint from what you have seen: If He exists, Me too.
But we don't want to end up as nihilists either. In fact the Devil's argument is all too successful--remember, he is the Devil! Every day in ways large and small we have to distinguish between Good and Bad and Good and Evil and even if how we do it is ad hoc and lacking Universal Validity, we still have to do it. Every time we walk over to our self of CDs or go online or fire up the iPhone, we have to pick out one thing to listen to over all others. And while we might think that it is just a matter of personal taste or mood or marketing, perhaps there are some aesthetics involved.

And I can't help but think of the famous words of Bertrand Russell about ethics:
"I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it."
Why don't we end with a good piece of music? Here is the Quatuor Mosaïques playing The Seven Last Words of Christ for string quartet, Op. 51:

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Calm Mind and a Quiet Hand

No, you haven't stumbled onto Deepak Chopra's blog by mistake! This is still the Music Salon, home of the acerbic quip and sardonic metaphor. But as I was doing my technique the other day I found my mind wandering as it sometimes does (bad mind, bad!) and I had a thought that might be helpful to guitarists and maybe even other musicians.

Good playing isn't that difficult really, but it sure seems so when you are learning! Guitar students are so often plagued by misunderstanding, physical difficulties and neurosis that sometimes the best thing you can do as a teacher is just be positive and affirmative. I think that the best guitar teacher I worked with did just that with a minimum of commentary.

So what do I mean by "a calm mind and a quiet hand?" I guess I should define both of those things so you know what I am talking about. Let's start with the easy one: a quiet hand. If you watch some great guitar players to see what you can learn, it is amazing how little you see--with classical players at least. They tend not to do wild, arm-swinging power chords while leaping in the air like Pete Townshend of The Who:

Quite the opposite:

The ideal is minimum movement. The right hand is particularly difficult to see what is going on, because if your technique is really good, nearly all the movement of the fingers is concealed by the hand. Here is a good example:

And that's Manuel Barrueco ripping through some particularly virtuoso passage!

The problem students have is that they are impatient and obsessive (often), which means that they are always trying too hard, working too hard, playing too hard and struggling. If you are struggling then you have to stop and start again. The way to approach everything is very, very, very slowly and gently until you have the physical movements under control. From there on it is just a question of gaining surety and speeding things up. But always under control! A quiet hand gets the job done quietly.

Roughly the same principles apply to "a calm mind." If you are mentally agitated, nervous, neurotic and terrified about making a mistake, then you will not be able to play at your best. Obviously! Unfortunately, all too many music students exhibit all these mental qualities! What brings this about are some of the same things that cause technical problems: impatience and trying too hard.

This is understandable because the discipline of classical music is pretty stringent. You read things like professional guitarists saying you need to be able to play all your repertoire through perfectly ten times in a row before venturing it in public. And you are sitting there thinking, "I don't think I have ever played anything perfectly in my life! Not even once!" Dude, I hear ya! Making this demand on yourself in these stark terms is what makes you neurotic. You are basically creating a situation too difficult to cope with. So don't do it.

Here is what you should think: make everything easy. Relax, not just your body, but your mind. You do that by not making impossible demands, but easy ones. Learn a very easy piece and practice it very slowly. Suddenly accuracy is possible. The word "perfection" is so dangerous to music students because they associate it with everything they don't feel capable of doing. But the word "accuracy" may not have the same psychological traps. Be accurate, don't even try to be perfect and pretty soon, you will be just where you want to be.

Recording is one of those things that can lead to neurosis because, at least until you get used to it, it seems to exaggerate every tiny flaw in your playing. I used to avoid recording myself until I had to for this very reason. But then I came to terms with it, got used to it, and it has become a very useful tool.

In general beware of all advice that seems to be too "psychological" because worrying about being neurotic is what makes you neurotic--for example. Just have a calm mind and don't do anything or allow anything to happen that will disturb your calm. If you have to practice slowly to remain calm, then do it.

I'm pretty sure that if you asked two of those gentlemen whose photos are above, not Pete Townshend, but the other guys, John Williams and Manuel Barrueco, they would say the same thing.

UPDATE: I just recalled one of those misunderstandings that students tend to have. It relates to causality. When you are starting out, you see one of these great masters play and you think, "wow, he's so calm--it must be because he is such a master" i.e. he is calm because he plays perfectly. But the causality is quite the opposite: he plays so well because he is calm, not the other way around!