Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

This is not strictly about music, but it is interesting nonetheless: fairy tales may be much older than was thought.
To come to these conclusions, the researchers applied a technique normally used in biology—building phylogenetic trees to trace linguistic attributes back to their origin. They started with 275 fairy tales, each rooted in magic, and whittled them down to 76 basic stories. Trees were then built based on Indo-European languages, some of which have gone extinct. In so doing, the researchers found evidence that some fairy tales, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, were rooted in other stories, and could be traced back to a time when Western and Eastern Indo-European languages split, which was approximately 5,000 years ago, which means of course that they predate the Bible, for example, or even Greek myths.
The researchers placed confidence factors on different results, depending on how strong the trees were that could be built—some were obviously less clear than others, but one fairy tale in particular, they note, was very clear—called The Smith and The Devil, they traced it back approximately 6,000 years, to the Bronze Age.
Now if we could only figure out what ancient music really sounded like!

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The Guardian has a nice article in praise of the chamber orchestra by Lars Vogt, conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia.
Back in Mozart’s time, a chamber orchestra was the orchestra. That’s what he, Brahms and Schumann all worked with, and they enjoyed working with it (as we know from Brahms, for instance, and his extremely fruitful connection with the Meiningen Court Orchestra). It’s not that alien from a symphony orchestra, just fewer players. Perhaps 30, as opposed to at least 90 musicians. Big difference? Big difference.
Nowadays, we’re told that size really matters. We’re all obsessed with what’s big in entertainment; the next big thing. The blockbuster film with its enormous spaceships and outsize special effects. Towering stage sets. In classical music, that trend was set by the huge orchestral forces demanded by Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner (who, of course, used the larger orchestra for music that needed those big forces).
I heard Claudio Arrau in concert, aged over 80, playing Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, and it seemed to me that he never went beyond a mezzo forte. But the intensity was so immense as to render that performance full of weight, depth and real inner drama.
That’s what you get from a chamber orchestra. You hear every last bit of concentrated detail in the playing. Every player is much more exposed, every instrument is not just heard but is somehow alive, in full characterisation. You can almost see the different characters – the oboe, the bassoon, the clarinet, the violins – and they have conversations. Suddenly it’s as though you have an opera stage in front of you and everything is alive upon it, telling its story.
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The Wall Street Journal has an article about a newly-commissioned cello concerto that tries to build bridges across some political divides:
One of the things symphony orchestras do well is build bridges, creating bonds through music. That was certainly a goal when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Leonard Slatkin, commissioned the young Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz to write a concerto for Maya Beiser, an Israeli-American cellist. The resultant work, “Desert Sorrows,” received its premiere on Jan. 14—unconventionally, in a synagogue in nearby Southfield, Mich. Not till two nights later, following a second performance in the Detroit suburb of Clinton Township, did the piece make it to Orchestra Hall, the ensemble’s ornate and acoustically gratifying downtown home.
There are some interesting technical details:
 Mr. Fairouz’s concerto embraces various musical traditions, particularly the Arabic modes known as maqam, yet much of the work feels familiar to Western ears. In the opening movement, “Yowm Ad-Dīn” (“Day of Reckoning”), rhapsodic figurations in the cello (slightly amplified, as called for in the score) recall Elgar’s and Dvořák’s great concertos for this instrument—though Mr. Fairouz’s use of contrasting elements like motoric flutes, tambourine and various Minimalist gestures give individual voice to his efforts.
I would like to hear this piece when it is recorded.

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Norman Lebrecht brings us the bad news: classical recording sales are at an all-time low (in the US) with just 1.3% of the total for 2015. As he says, "bumping along the bottom with jazz and children's records."

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I have said a number of times that Alex Ross in the New Yorker seems to fulfill the dual role of suitably flattering his Upper West Side readers while expressing exactly the current progressive view of everything. So let's have a look at his just-published article on Pierre Boulez, who recently passed away. Here is his lede:
In the wake of the Second World War, a phalanx of young composers took hold of European music, determined to discard a compromised past and remake their art. Chief among them were Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, and Pierre Boulez. They were in their late teens or early twenties when the inferno ended, and they bore scars—some physical, some psychological—from what Europe had endured. Boulez, who died on January 5th, at the age of ninety, never reached the front lines, but he exemplified the ethos of his generation. Cool, brutal, elegant, fiery, he established a kind of International Style in music, and propagated it in polemical writings and through institutional networks. As a conductor, he was an exacting, absorbing interpreter of the advanced styles he favored. His death marks the end of an epoch: all those revolutionaries of the mid-twentieth century are now gone.
Yep, that is exactly the Narrative. But we underrate Alex Ross, because he follows that with some of the truth about Boulez:
After Arnold Schoenberg’s death, in 1951, Boulez wrote a rather cruel article titled “Schoenberg Is Dead,” in which he said that the modernist master had lost his way in later years and should not be mourned with “pointless melancholy.” It would be antithetical to Boulez’s spirit, then, to offer nothing but banal praise at his passing. He was brilliant, and he was also infuriating; his pugilistic politics did not always serve his cause. The ferocity of his opinions—at one time or another, he found fault with Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Copland, Shostakovich, Britten, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, not to mention a great many contemporary figures—was hardly surprising in an active composer; artists almost require such animosities to clear the air for their own work. It was more troubling in a music director, an administrator, a mentor to young musicians. And Boulez frustrated not only those whom he deemed insufficiently radical but those whose experiments went too far.
I tend to summarize my own view as follows: Boulez was a first-rate conductor, a second-rate composer and a third-rate ideologue.

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 Now here is an unusual proposal that might be worth considering: let's dump the controversial term for what we do, "classical" music, and replace it with this one: "composed" music. That's the argument of this article: "Classical Music Needs a New Name."
Composed Music’s primary virtue is its blunt veracity. It is what it says it is: works by a singular mind, fixed and promulgated in written form. When you think about it, that is probably the one and only thing that unites all eras and styles of so-called Classical Music. Composed Music covers everybody and every work we’ve ever described as Classical Music, plus anything written in the 20th and 21st century, right up through right now, without privileging any era or style. Perhaps it can vanquish the reflexive recoil we see sometimes see from “Contemporary” or “Modern” music or the peculiar banality and meaninglessness of “New” music. With its inclusivity and candor, Composed Music wins for plainspokenness.
Oddly enough, I was just thinking along these lines while reading the book "The Other Classical Musics" because the problem with that book is that it wants to elevate every musical style and genre in the world into a "classical" music if it has any longevity or prestige. But all those musics of world cultures tend to, like pop or folk music, be oral traditions with all the inherent limitations. Perhaps it is the case that the best way to identify what we have been calling "classical" music, is to call it "composed" music. But do we really have to welcome Jonny Greenwood into these ranks?

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For our envoi today, here are the second and third movements of Mohammed Fairouz' Sonata for Solo Violin performed by Rachel Barton Pine:


9 comments:

cnb said...

"Boulez was a first-rate conductor, a second-rate composer and a third-rate ideologue."

You hit all three nails on the head.

Bryan Townsend said...

8^)

Marc Puckett said...

Am listening to the Fairouz while at work, so may or may not hear both movements. I appreciate historical continuities (like 'the Smith and the Devil' e.g. which I'll have to look up; but it sounds like there are an awful lot of variables those fairy tale researchers are having to adjust or adjust for...), and it would be nice to be able to think that the familiarities in the new Fairouz are due to whatever of the Andalus tradition continue to resonate in early 21st c ears. But who knows, eh. And may get around to reading up about maqam.

Marc Puckett said...

Your notice of Alex Ross about Pierre B. left me feeling tolerably well disposed toward him, ha, and then I read the Cuepoint writer's quotation ('the phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour-de-force of anti-hype' in re 'classical music') and I'm returned to the status quo ante. Nor am I going to read his book to figure out what 'masterpiece of negative publicity' might mean. :-)

I did something last night I've never done before, at least so far as I can recall. The Symphony gave us Maurice Duruflé's Requiem, with Respighi's Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome after the break: had really wanted to hear the R. (which I've never heard in the concert hall), didn't particularly care one way or the other about the Respighi, so... I went home at the interval. Part of me felt like I was betraying some unwritten covenant, ha, but the winning part was tired after a long day at work &c &c.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have left quite a few concerts at intermission, though I don't want to boast about it! There seem to be so many string quartet programs that feature a lengthy 19th century piece after intermission that sometimes I just skip it! Morton Feldman and John Cage met in the foyer of a concert hall as they were both leaving at the intermission because they went to hear Webern in the first half and were leaving to avoid some Brahms in the second half.

Christine Lacroix said...

Felt like a sneak when I escaped from a concert at intermission last summer. Glad to hear I'm in good company.
The news about classical record sales might very well be much worse. What are they including under 'classical record sales'? Looking at the Billboard chart for classical you see in descending order: Star Wars, the Force Awakens, Cinema by Andrea Bocelli, Star Wars: The Ultimate Soundtrack Collection, If I Can Dream, Elvis Presley with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Amor and Pasion by Il Divo, Wonders by the Piano Guys. How much of that qualifies as classical??!!

Bryan Townsend said...

As usual, you get to the good question, Christine. I don't see anything I would call "classical" tout simple until #10 the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's concert. But the others on the list aren't exactly non-classical either. John Williams' soundtracks are his takes on a lot of symphonic ideas and textures, just adapted to the needs of the film. Elvis Presley was from the last generation of pop singers that had a foot (or a toe perhaps) in classical repertoire. His recording "Wise Men Say" is an arrangement of a song by Jean Paul Martini dating from around 1800. A lot of the others consist of what I might call "light" classical, i.e. classical crossover or light arrangements of widely popular pieces. Nothing wrong with that. Actually, nothing wrong with anything people listen to, with the possible exception of grindcore and some EDM!

Marc Puckett said...

I see that the NY Philharmonic has a new conductor (well, next year, I guess), a Dutchman who is at Dallas now. Norman L. is quite 'down' on the choice (he's not a woman or a member of a reputable minority, nor is he flamboyantly committed to innovation! innovation! inter alia); Anne Midgette seemed more positive. What makes a good conductor? I'll search, since I suspect you've a post or two....

Bryan Townsend said...

I only have one post solely devoted to talking about conductors, which in itself is a commentary!

http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2013/10/conductors.html