Monday, February 29, 2016

Music by Steve Reich

I was talking to my ex-composition teacher in Montreal a while back who seemed to think that the important figure for contemporary music was Pierre Boulez, and I said, well, my baseline for influence in contemporary music is really Steve Reich! Which rather dampened that conversation.

I think that one of the most important awakenings in my musical odyssey was the first time I heard Drumming, composed in 1970/71. As an undergraduate in music performance at McGill in the mid-70s I liked to go to the listening library if I had a spare period and no urgent need to hit the practice rooms. This was in the days of vinyl and I would go to the stacks and just grab whatever looked interesting. On this occasion I had some pieces by Stockhausen for multiple orchestras, one of which I think was Carré, some Ligeti, maybe some Luigi Nono and so on. I would grab ten or so discs and if nothing grabbed me in the first couple of minutes, it was on to the next one.

Here is Carré, for example:

And here, from Wikipedia, is a description of the structure:
Carré unfolds 101 "moments" with durations varying from 1.5 to 90 seconds, each of which is characterised by one or several notes and chords (Rigoni 1998, 189). However, Stockhausen originally planned 252 sections in his draft form scheme, where eight basic categories of sound are arrayed, each with four levels (Toop 2005, 172):

Type: the four solo instruments used to furnish each of the four orchestras with a characteristic timbre: cimbalom, vibraphone, piano, and harp
Attack: four "attack transient" percussion instruments, also used to differentiate the four orchestras: Indian bells, drums, Alpine cowbells, and cymbals
Gestalt variation: four parameters within which transformations are to occur: rhythm, "height", timbre, and dynamics
Density: number of notes present, from one to four
Register: four principal octave registers
Duration: four generic values from "short" to "as long as possible"
Amplitude: four basic dynamic levels, notated in the sketch (but not the score) with numerals
Colour: four basic timbres: voices, strings, woodwinds, and brass
In contrast to the complex interrelationships of these eight sound categories, the underlying pitch structure of Carré is so simple that Stockhausen was able to write it out on a single sheet of music paper (Toop 2005, 172). The basic pitch series used throughout the work is
E♭ D E C♯ F C F♯ B G B♭ A♭ A.
So, pretty complex. After listening to a few minutes of it, I moved on to some other discs and ended up with Drumming by Steve Reich, which begins like this:

Here is an excerpt from the notes to the recording:

If you are in a context where the complexity of Stockhausen is the norm (or ideal at least), then hearing the astonishing simplicity of the opening of Drumming is, well, very impressive. The basic aesthetic principle of Reich's music is the opposite of that of Stockhausen. What is going on in Stockhausen is anything but evident, no matter how much you listen. But Reich has said that he has no interest in concealing anything from the listener. He wants you to hear exactly what is going on through the whole piece. At the beginning of Drumming, for example, what is going on is that that single beat you hear is NOT the downbeat, which only arrives later. When it does, you have to reorient your whole perception. The whole piece is about your perception of rhythm.

Slowly filling in or reducing the elements of a basic rhythmic pattern is only one of Reich's techniques. He began by working with tape loops and constructing layers that move at slightly different speeds resulting in a phenomenon he calls "phasing". Here is an early example titled "Come Out" from 1966:

He decided that this would only be musically interesting if he could do it with live musicians on acoustic instruments so he wrote a whole series of "phase" pieces such as Piano Phase from 1967:

This takes a remarkably fine control of tempo as what happens is one piano preserves exactly the opening rhythmic pattern at exactly the same tempo while the other piano initially duplicates it and then, very gradually speeds up just enough to move one sixteenth note ahead. Then the process stabilizes before moving on to another sixteenth note ahead and so on for the whole piece. You can hear this process beginning about one and a half minutes into the piece.

So already in the first few years of his career, Steve Reich made use of two rhythmic ideas that, while perhaps not absolutely novel, certainly were fresh in the context of Western music. But he was far from finished. Another idea, also rhythmically oriented, was to add string and wind instruments that hold long notes underneath the quick-moving percussion instruments. This might remind you of the techniques used in the organum of the 12th century. Yet another was to develop subtle contrapuntal ideas within his characteristic syncopated texture such as in the piece Six Pianos from 1973:

I'll leave you with that to listen to and will continue in a later post with where he went from here.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Is the Culture in Decline?

Lately I have been running into a few interesting items in the press about music. Today, for example, there is a reprint of a 1953 review of Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony when the BBC was bold enough to pay for enough rehearsals and musicians to present it--ten percussionists! Here is the link. And an excerpt:
when after five endless movements heard in the studio, I was told, innocently unprepared as I was, that there were another five to come, I began to realise to the full what the evening’s ordeal meant. Being well seasoned to that sort of thing, I could bear the harsh sounds that must have made many listeners in their homes turn off their sets precipitately; but the “beautiful” passages of a lushness never experienced before outside a cinema during the organ interlude, were not easily endurable.
Heh! What is really interesting is not the complaint about the harsh sounds, but about the lush ones! Boulez famously criticised Messiaen for writing beautiful passages because they were outside the ideology of what was permitted in "serious" music post-WWII. Ironically, I suspect that we will be listening to Messiaen long after we have forgotten just who Pierre Boulez was. Here, have a listen for yourself:

Yes, it is a love song in ten movements for enormous orchestra with a lot of unusual instruments, but it is hard to think of a more aesthetically interesting and challenging 20th century work for orchestra. There are more unpleasant works, certainly, and more dull ones, but none quite as bold as this.

Much of what is written these days by John Luther Adams, or Esa-Pekka Salonen or Thomas Adès is pretty weak tea compared to this piece by Messiaen.

But if you want to really compare past to present--the Turangalîla Symphony dates from 1949--you should watch any of the old William F. Buckley jr. Firing Line episodes, like this interview with Tom Wolfe from 1970 when "Radical Chic" had just been published describing a notorious party thrown by Leonard Bernstein to support the Black Panthers:

Never mind the subject matter, what is interesting is the level of discourse. Would anyone be introduced in those measured periods on television today? Believe me, if this is what was on tv now, I would never have cut my cable! Discussion these days seems more to resemble the howling of dogs and barking of hyenas.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

As a kind of footnote to my post on heavy metal this week, here is the third, not the frequently played/transcribed/arranged first movement, but the much more difficult third movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor "Quasi una fantasia", Op. 27, No. 2, commonly known as the "Moonlight" Sonata, played on electric guitar as if it were heavy metal:

* * *

Every now and then, and I suspect, largely by accident, the Globe and Mail has something interesting on music. This week it is this piece by Sean Michaels: "Three Songs You Need to Hear." Go have a look/listen. This is a recurring series in the Globe and Mail, but previous iterations I have mostly enjoyed making fun of. You really don't, ever, need to hear surfer music out of Toronto, trust me on this. But the first song in this piece is pretty interesting:
One of the past year’s most successful, left field collaborations is an album called Everything Sacred, uniting (1) the Scottish singer-songwriter James Yorkston; (2) Jon Thorne, long-time bassist for the English trip-hop outfit Lamb; and (3) New Delhi’s Suhail Yusuf Khan, who plays the stringed, short-necked sarangi and sings in a classical Indian style. The result is a beguiling mash-up of British folk and Eastern mysticism, with droney Sufi jams and frilled, intertwining voices.
Here is "Little Black Buzzer":

Sure, there isn't a lot there, but what is, is pretty nice. The next tune does not seem to be available where I am, but you might be able to listen to it. The last one is an odd tune by Kanye West.

* * *

Courtesy of Norman Lebrecht, here is the list of the world's worst airlines for musicians (go to the article for links):
1 Ryanair
The Irish budget line make it their business to be horrid to everyone, but they reserve a special extra nastiness for musicians.
The Dutch are rude to divas and even ruder to dogs.
3 WestJet
Our reader’s advice: ‘Cellists: Never. Fly. WestJet’.
4 American Airlines/USAir
Unkind to instruments. And worse to concertmasters.
5 Easyjet
Locked an orch in an airless corridor for half an hour. No apology.
6 Alaska Airlines
Alaska have the same tender concern for baggage as Sarah Palin does for truth.
7 Southwest Airlines
See Alaska, same problem.
8 Vueling
Probably the worst of the lot. Repeat offenders who never apologise, let alone compensate.
But be sure to read the comments because they offer a lot of illuminating detail. KLM, for example, seems an excellent choice for musicians.

Why does this matter? A significant number of the concerts that you attend probably feature soloists, chamber ensembles, conductors or even entire orchestras that travelled by air. If the airlines make it nearly impossible to do so, they just won't come. As my instrument is an irreplaceable guitar I have been playing for thirty-three years, I simply will not take it anywhere near an airplane. Their track record is simply too dangerous to musical instruments.

* * *

Due to their own videos we have this image of the popular crossover string players of today like Zoe Keating or 2Cellos spending their childhoods locked up in the dry discipline of that boring classical music with a nasty old white guy rapping their knuckles. But maybe they were always crossover...

* * *

And now, for some classical music news: "Physicists Prove Classical Music Inhabits Separate Realm, Inaccessible To Humans." Doesn't this make it cooler than ever?
“Classical music transcends both the linear, forward flow of time and the Euclidean space we are used to,” said Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN. “A musical work is a mysterious entity whose essence totally eludes our senses.”
Physicists claim that any given performance or recording of a classical music piece is a kind of audible hologram projected into our everyday reality by the true musical work, which vibrates eternally in an ethereal medium floating in and around us at all times.

* * *

Definitely in the "if you have to ask you can't afford it" category is this high-fidelity sound system from Wheel Fi:

I want one...

* * *

And that brings us to our envoi for today. I'm afraid I can't resist putting up a recording of one of my favorite pianists, Friedrich Gulda, playing the aforementioned last movement of Beethoven's Sonata op. 27, no. 2, often referred to as the "Moonlight" Sonata. Now this is how it is done:

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Stravinsky and Craft

Igor Stravinsky was and is in many ways a kind of iconic composer of 20th century modernism. His bold early works like Petrushka and the Rite of Spring are absolute classics of their kind, standing in the front rank of all music composed in the 20th century. The way in which they tended to irritate the more conservative listeners was also characteristic of much 20th century music. His progression from style to style was a trait shared with Picasso. Finally, his need to describe, explain and promote his music was a tendency that, while it began in the 19th century, certainly reached a climax in the 20th. To this end, his constant companion, amanuensis, publicist and assistant was Robert Craft. Richard Taruskin, in his magisterial history of Western Music, tiptoes around Craft's role, only briefly mentioning him as a conductor. But The Nation has a sizable article on Craft and Stravinsky titled "The Alter Ego of Robert Craft" (which seems to have things rather backward). Let's have a look:
from 1948 to 1971, Craft was inseparable from the music and household of Igor Stravinsky. The exact workings of their partnership, however, remain a matter of controversy. Not exactly an amanuensis, Craft was a constant companion, artistic consultant, coauthor, co-conductor, ghostwriter (for both the composer and his wife), and, after Stravinsky’s death, keeper of the flame. To some extent, he was also a co-composer, or so he claimed. As early as 1952, he persuaded Stravinsky to rescore a movement of his Cantata—no small matter, considering that Stravinsky is generally considered one of the greatest masters of orchestration. The Cantata also marked Stravinsky’s first move in the direction of serial composition, a change for which Craft took full credit.
How important was Craft's role? If we take him as witness, very important indeed:
In Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, published in 1994, Craft rejected the usual notion that he was Stravinsky’s Boswell, arguing instead for a much grander partnership in the spirit of the journal-keeping Goncourt brothers: “I would lean over his shoulder as he wrote, each of us acting as the other’s intercessory.” Craft similarly claimed in Stravinsky: Glimpses of a Life (1992) that the series of conversations between him and the composer, which began to appear in book form in 1958, were “the only published writings attributed to Stravinsky that were largely by him.” Yet Craft also stated in Glimpses that Stravinsky’s English wasn’t fluent enough for a sustained dialogue—an astounding admission, because the Conversation volumes present the composer as a contemporary Dr. Johnson with a masterful command of English, an Oxbridge don’s breadth of cultural reference, and a curmudgeon’s zero tolerance for fools, critics, and most other conductors. In short, “largely by him” was a fiction; the actual words were Craft’s. If you read the articles, letters to the editor, and testy rejoinders that Craft wrote for The New York Review of Books long after Stravinsky died, you’ll find that their style is indistinguishable from the distinctive, combative one that Craft says was entirely Stravinsky’s own.
At least one biography of Stravinsky takes a great deal of space to discuss Craft's role in detail and, as a result, prompted a literary battle royal between the author, Stephen Walsh and Craft himself.

Let's have a listen to Robert Craft conducting Stravinky's ballet Agon. This is part one with the Orchestra of St. Luke's:

Monday, February 22, 2016

Don Giovanni in Prison

There is an interesting controversy unfolding right now in the halls of academia. A significant number of musicologists seem to be upset by a recent article by Pierpaolo Polzonetti about his experiences in teaching music analysis and appreciation in a prison setting. His article is titled "Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars." Read the whole article, but this will give a taste of it:
When Bard College asked me to teach a three-hour class on Haydn’s Creation at Eastern Correctional Facility, I did not know what to expect. I accepted out of curiosity. Eastern Correctional Facility is a massive neo-gothic maximum-security prison built in 1900 in rural New York. Crossing into the prison’s mighty walls and passing through the security checkpoint can be intimidating. Encountering the incarcerated students has an even more powerful effect, but in a positive way. To me these men seemed to have dissolved the prison walls, thanks to their intellectual curiosity and their eagerness to learn. They opened their minds and ears to music that sounded exotic to many of them. Eighteenth-Century oratorios and operas can appear meaningless or dull to listeners mostly accustomed to the blatant lyrics and pounding beat of rap music. Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual. Fortunately they had already carefully read the texts I had assigned, including passages from Milton, Ovid, and the book of Genesis. This allowed us to engage with Haydn’s Creation on the basis of a shared intellectual background that made the oratorio somehow familiar and approachable.
The experience was so enlightening that I decided to teach an entire opera history class for inmates entitled “Opera and Ideas.” I taught it at the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana during the Fall semester of 2014.
If you think that there is nothing objectionable there, then you are just not in touch with some aspects of current musicology. Here are excerpts from some of the comments to the article (which are now closed):
I'm disturbed the tone of this piece, as well as some of the specifics. We can begin with the assumption that all incarcerated males listen to rap. Do none of them listen to pop, rock, country, jazz, or other genres? Is the author making assumptions about his student population? And are those assumptions based on race?
Next the author dismisses rap as having "blatant lyrics" and a "pounding beat." Does "blatant" mean sexual? violent? speaking a truth? Does opera not exhibit these same characteristics at times? Are there no examples of so-called classical music with a pounding beat? 
Next, why does the author feel he has to point out the race of the student who shouts "never" three times, with a frightening crescendo no less, thus associating the race of this student with frightening. 
The assumption that opera can "heal the mind" reduced inmates of the correctional system in a way that suggests that the author never bothered to understand the complexity of their stories and life experiences. 
While there are so many other points I found racist and elitist and entitled, I'll point out this last one--why, in the 21st century--do certain musicologists believe that an understanding of formal elements of musics trumps a visceral emotional response, that you cannot truly understand the music and your response until you know what a descending rapid staccato scale or loud ascending octave leap is? I thought we were so over that.
That the AMS continues to support this kind of rhetoric is shameful.
That is the whole first comment and it summarizes that kind of view well. This is a counterpoint to it:
To me the intent of this piece is the exact opposite of what the negative readings suggest. I'd say that any view that holds that we shouldn't 'impose' 'high culture' on prison inmates (homeless etc,) is the ultimate put-down and contempt. Let the people taking the course be the judge of that.
If these works of art have the power still to speak to us, they can speak to all of us; if a mode of a more technical analysis can teach new insights, they can teach all of us--precisely not merely an elitist minority. It's not Prof. Polzonetti's piece that reduces the inmates to the uncivilized.
In his blog this line stands out to me: 'Classical music and opera, like rap, are acquired tastes and their value is both intrinsic and contextual.'
Another musicologist, Bonnie Gordon, with experience in community outreach contributed a lengthy article discussing the issue with considerable finesse: "The Perils of Public Musicology." Her opening:
The online community of the American Musicological Society is currently exploding around a post by Pierpaolo Polzonetti called “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison.” The post, about teaching opera in prison, sparked both harsh criticism of Polzonetti’s efforts and writings as well as important discussions about implicit and explicit biases in our field.  I am weighing in as someone who runs a program that pairs undergraduates with under-resourced, mostly African American kids for a variety of arts programs and is currently designing a community engagement curriculum for the College of Arts and Sciences at UVa.  While I find the post problematic, I fear that calling Polzonetti and his defenders racists risks turning this moment into a twenty-first century version of the AMS 1964 meeting when Edward Lowinsky associated Joseph Kerman’s call for a native musicology that moved away from “alien” ideas with Nazism.
Here is a sobering passage:
Public musicology in these senses is is not the same thing as community engagement. Teaching opera in a prison certainly seems like one kind of “public musicology,” and like the kind of effort that could be community engagement.  If you take the suspension-to-prison pipeline seriously it’s likely that the men in Polzonetti's class didn’t even have the opportunities that were offered in their schools; if you are suspended you are not in school.  I usually don’t have the courage to write about community engagement because if I make a factual or rhetorical slip up talking about under-resourced African American kids in a town built by the enslaved, the consequences are devastating. That is not the case for writing about Monteverdi.
Yes, it is certainly the case that there are a lot of dangers in discussing anything that involves race, gender, sexuality or class as these are all areas in which politics and cultural theory loom large and that means that they are highly contested nexus of political partisanship. But oddly enough, the only areas of discussion on this blog that have provoked really intense commentary are a) enlightenment values in the context of the tensions with Islam and b) Narciso Yepes and the 10-string guitar--a discussion that I had to end by deleting all the comments! The discussion around Islam was courteous and respectful throughout, even though we disagreed.

I think that the way that I keep things ticking along here without too much outrage erupting is by focussing to a considerable extent on aesthetics and objective musical value. These questions are considered by the progressive cultural theorists to be long since settled, therefore they don't spend any time debating them. In my opinion they are not settled or rather were settled in the wrong way, so they are what I am interested in. If I say that there are problems with rap music because it is rhythmically, harmonically and melodically impoverished, that is an aesthetic judgment and has nothing whatsoever to do with race or gender. Mind you, ignoring race in itself would probably be considered racist in some quarters.

I guess the best choice of an envoi to this post might be Haydn's Creation as it was one piece that was the subject of Professor Polzonetti's first course. The credits are at the beginning of the clip.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ancient Acoustics

The Atlantic has a fascinating article on analyzing the acoustics of Byzantine churches:
The project began because Sharon Gerstel, an art history and archaeology professor at UCLA, realized something was missing from her already-deep understanding of Byzantine art. “What struck me was, we always look at paintings without thinking about the sonic accompaniments,” she told me. “So many paintings of a certain period contain representations of hymns and hymnographers, but people were looking at these paintings as if they were mute.”
The more Gerstel thought about it, the more this bothered her. The music of the Byzantine era, she decided, was a key to understanding her area of expertise—and not just the music itself, but understanding the experience of hearing it, and what it would have been like 700 years ago. “As an art historian, I could look at the pictures and say, ‘this is a nice painting of the hymn,’ but I couldn’t say anything about how the audience perceived that painting within a ritual setting.”
 They used some rather advanced technology to precisely map out the sound-profile of particular churches:
To map the acoustics of ancient spaces, to understand how a church was designed to reverberate at certain frequencies, Kyriakakis and Donahue gathered what’s called an impulse response. To do that, they placed loudspeakers omni-directionally throughout a church. Then, over the loudspeakers, they broadcast a test signal, like the one Donahue described in Hagia Sophia. “It’s a very long chirp that starts at low frequencies and goes up to high frequencies and it just sweeps through, like a whooooop,” Kyriakakis said. “And you record from various locations with microphones to see what happens to that chirp as it bounces around the church.”
The data showing what happened to the chirp in each part of the church is fed to a computer, which then registers the impulse response for the unique space. And here’s where it gets really interesting: Once you have a building’s impulse response, you can apply it to a recording captured in another space and make it sound as though that recording had taken place in the original building. 
“So you can take chanters with the original [Byzantine era] music and put them in a studio that has no acoustics,” Kyriakakis said. “They can sing a chant, and then we can process it ... and all of the sudden we have performances happening in medieval structures. It’s like time travel to me.”
I used to have a vinyl recording of the music of Giovanni Gabrieli recorded in the San Marco church in Venice--this was a big deal because his multi-choir and multi-ensemble music was specifically written to make use of the widely separated multiple choir stalls in that church. It is some of the most striking antiphonal music ever written.

 Being able to hear the original acoustic is almost a requirement for this music! But imagine how great it would be to have technology that could reproduce the original acoustic spaces of any music?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Heavy Metal Globalized

The Wall Street Journal has a big piece on heavy metal today: "The Weird Global Appeal of Heavy Metal." Here is the theme:
Today’s “world music” isn’t Peruvian pan flutes or African talking drums. It’s loud guitars, growling vocals and ultrafast “blast” beats. Heavy metal has become the unlikely soundtrack of globalization. 
Indonesia is a metal hotbed: Its president, Joko Widodo, wears Metallica and Napalm Death T-shirts. Metal scenes flourish in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia. China got an early seeding of metal 25 years ago when U.S. record companies dumped unsold CDs there. In a male-dominated genre, Russian band Arkona is fronted by singer Maria Arkhipova. Language barriers are less significant in the metal world, which is all about the sound, an often dissonant drone not grounded in any one musical tradition.
 Read the whole article for the details. From Botswana to India, heavy metal seems to follow economic development as mushrooms follow a spring rain. One of the earliest heavy metal bands in China was started by Kaiser Kuo, a Chinese-American who returned to China and formed the group Tang Dynasty:

Here is one of their songs, Pathway. Weirdly, Blogger won't embed it so you have to follow the link:

One interesting element in global heavy metal is the degree to which groups like Tang Dynasty or Dimmu Borgir from Norway evoke the ancient pasts of their regions through means like musical reference or the use of ancient instruments: this is termed "folk metal" or "pagan metal". In a way this echoes what Carl Orff was doing in his Carmina Burana. This partakes of a recurring theme in Western civilization, the return to roots or "primitivism" (taking this idea from Jacques Barzun's book From Dawn to Decadence).

Ironically, this particular primitivistic cultural gesture depends on fairly advanced technology: electric guitars, amplifiers, speaker systems, effects pedals and so on. While not a huge factor in commercial terms--a lot of the artists and their record companies are somewhat anti-commercial--it is a global phenomenon and you can find heavy metal bands and their followers in Norway, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Germany and a lot of other places. Heavy metal, though with regional differences, shares a fairly common culture both visual and musical.

What are its origins? Wikipedia has a pretty extensive article on heavy metal that you can refer to. My earliest years in music were involved with the antecedents to it, though we didn't call it that--the term came along later. But bands I played in played a lot of music by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and the Who, all bands that specialized in a "heavy metal" kind of sound: heavy drumming with extensive, distortion-laden guitar solos. For a short while I even played in a band that was a reverse of the Jimi Hendrix Experience: I, a white guy, was the lead guitarist and the drummer and bass-player were both black.

In the decades since the late 1960s, heavy metal has flowered into a host of different sub-genres that emphasize one or another of its basic characteristics. In one way it is reassuring that so many musicians are swimming against the tide of commercialism.

One of the biggest heavy metal bands is Metallica and here is a representative song from their 1991 Black Album, "Enter Sandman":

Friday, February 19, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Here is something new that I never knew I needed: wireless earbuds that enable you to shape your acoustic environment.
What it can do, via the app, is let you swipe to adjust the volume on a conversation you’re having with a friend who’s standing in front of you (or, say, a TV show you’re watching without having to change the sound level for anyone else who’s watching). You can play with an equalizer to fine-tune the bass, mid-range, and treble tones you hear while listening to music, or tap on one of many preset filters to give tunes a specific sound.  There are also eight different filters, still in “beta,” meant for eliminating noise in specific situations—on a subway, bus, plane, or office, for instance.
Wow! You can not only filter out or block what you don't want to hear, you can also amplify what you do want to hear. I want to try these. Not yet commercially available, but soon.

* * *

A while back I put up a post about the artist manifesto and how it functions. I just ran across an excellent discussion of arts manifestoes from the point of view of the Stuckist movement, a trend in British artists to move past the postmodern and rediscover the roots of art--something I am very much in sympathy with.
...many SJW artist types preen over the perception they are somehow cutting edge and challenging. They are oblivious that they are espousing the same causes and attitudes being championed by the universities, all the major newspapers, the big three networks and the majority of cable stations, Hollywood studios, ensconced and entitled government bureaucrats, go-along-to-get-along corporations, the official leadership of every major political party pretty much, and the authoritarian brow beaters of social media.
Such rebels, to be in unquestioning conformity to the steady diet of propaganda that barrages us from every angle.
This is what I call The Narrative.

* * *

Alex Ross has a nice piece up at the New Yorker about upcoming performances of Messiaen and in the process gives a good account of him and his historical importance in 20th century music.
After the Second World War, Messiaen formed links to the European vanguard, and taught three of its chief practitioners—Boulez, Stockhausen, and Xenakis. In the sixties, though, he swerved back to the eccentric, vivid tonality that marked the music of his youth. Explosions of E major cap his gigantic choral-orchestral piece “The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (1965-69). And “Zion Park and the Celestial City,” the final movement of “From the Canyons to the Stars . . .” (1971-74), dwells for a short eternity on a hyper-luminous chord of A major. What makes it unlike any A-major chord in history is the noise that wells up within it: clanging bells, bellowing gongs, an upward-glissandoing horn, the sandy rattle of a geophone (a drum filled with lead pellets). This supreme consonance seems less to banish dissonance than to subsume it.
* * *

 There is brief, but hilarious item in Alex' blog titled "Critic at a loss". You have to read it! But let me say that this is one of those jokes that has a grain of truth in it. If you are going to write about a performance it is a great help to have followed it in the score. On the other hand, surely a music critic knows the Beethoven sonatas pretty well, even without the score.

* * *

Ok, maybe there is a God after all. A recording by Agustin Hadelich with conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra of the violin concerto titled "L'arbre des songes" by Henri Dutilleux has been awarded a Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. We were just talking about this piece here at the Music Salon.

* * *

Here is a piece of good music journalism that talks about the kind of life touring soloists often have and how to handle it:
Once, many years ago, as a very young arts journalist, I asked superstar performer Pinchas Zukerman about the glamorous life of an international violin soloist.
“Glamorous!” he snorted. “Here’s what I can tell you about my glamorous life. I can tell you that the baggage carousels are a long walk from the taxi stands in the Narita airport in Tokyo. That the duty-free shops are excellent in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. That Chicago’s O’Hare is a nightmare. Here’s my life. I arrive in a new city. I go to the hotel, then to rehearse with the orchestra. I’m playing one of the same four concertos I always play – the Beethoven, the Mendelssohn, the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky. I play the concert. Go to the postconcert reception. Go back to the airport, get on a plane and do it all over again.”
Yep, it can often be like that. Sometimes I describe it as "become a classical solo artist and practice in small rooms the world over!" Yes, and perform in larger ones, but still, it is a strange and isolating existence. But violinist Gil Shaham is coping:
he often travels with his wife, violinist Adele Anthony. Balancing home and career, family and profession, is very important to him.
Shaham has also been both assiduous and creative in expanding his repertoire beyond the “four horsemen” of the violin concerto repertoire. He’s recorded and performed Bach’s solo works for violin, has added the Bach violin concertos to his repertoire, is involved with mutimedia projects and generally tries everything he can to amplify his music-making.

* * *

Here is a lovely account of how French horn player Roger Kaza came to know the great solo in Des canyons aux étoiles…  by Messiaen and record it in the Grand Canyon on a rafting trip. Courtesy of Alex Ross.
Finally, at mile 168 (measured from the put-in at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona), we found our ideal space. Fern Glen Canyon is a tributary of the Colorado, with hundred-foot vertical walls thirty to fifty feet across. Dripping springs create grottoes of ferns, greenery, and delicate wildflowers. Tim and I hiked up the canyon, played a few notes, and immediately reveled in the lush echo resounding off the ancient stone. This was the place to record the Messiaen. We convinced the group to stay an extra day, so we could carry out our recording project.
Read the whole thing!

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UPDATE: I saw this item just after posting the miscellanea. Roboticists invent a third arm just for drummers:

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Gil Shaham is in Toronto to perform the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Prokofiev, so let's take that as our envoi today. Here he is playing with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Musician Fashion Statement

I honestly don't know how to label this, so I just chose "marketing". Here is how Producer Shawn Everett, the winner of the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for Sound & Color decided to dress for the Grammy Awards:

I might let him produce an album for me, but no way would I take his advice on fashion.

This refugee from the Friday miscellanea is all you are likely to get today--but stay tuned because there are lots of good things already cued up for the miscellanea tomorrow. In the meantime, let's have a musical envoi. As Mr. Everett supposedly dressed to promote "Save the Arctic" (I didn't know it was stolen or kidnapped or disappearing?) let's hear the Sinfonia Antarctica by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is the middle movement, "Landscape" with the London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink:

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

This won't be about the English pop group of the same name, but about what sometimes goes on behind the scenes in orchestras. An orchestra, which might comprise anything from twenty or so musicians up to well over one hundred, is both the most sophisticated and capable musical instrument ever devised and a complex problem in interpersonal relations.

These thoughts are prompted by a story I just read illustrating just how fraught things can get in an orchestra. Here is the story of Pierre Roy, erstwhile oboist for the Buffalo Philharmonic:
A lawsuit filed by an acclaimed oboist who lost his job with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra struck a sour note with a federal court judge.
U.S. District Judge Michael A. Telesca refused to overturn an arbitrator’s decision that upheld the July 2012 firing of Pierre Roy, who had been the orchestra’s principal oboist for more than 15 years.
The orchestra fired Roy after fellow musicians complained he engaged in disruptive behavior toward some of his colleagues, according to court papers.
Apparently, Mr. Roy was not the most congenial member of the orchestra:
Roy’s confrontational behavior during rehearsals rattled some of his fellow musicians, to the point that symphony officials placed a plexiglass shield between one musician and Roy, according to Rabin’s arbitration decision.
“In February 2012, there were several incidents of intimidating behavior directed towards Christine Davis, the principal flutist. One incident involved Mr. Roy swinging his oboe into her space, causing her to feel threatened,” Rabin wrote. “Following this incident, a plexiglass shield was placed between Ms. Davis and Mr. Roy. During a subsequent service, Mr. Roy knocked on the shield and said ‘bulletproof,’ rattling Ms. Davis and others.”
Why would he be picking on the poor flute player, one asks? An orchestral seating chart should make this clear:

As you can see, the principal oboe and the principal flute are sitting side by side, so a confrontation, while not inevitable, could have been likely, given Mr. Roy's personal issues.

I recall a flute professor colleague of mine who used to resolve all sorts of problems with students by simply saying "that sounds like a personal problem" meaning, don't waste our time with it. The world of professional classical musicians is, despite how they are depicted in popular dramas, a highly disciplined one where your little quirks and eccentricities are not welcome. This is a theme stressed throughout musician's training. But, given the demands of a career as an orchestral musician, sometimes these things happen, though Mr. Roy seems to be quite an outlier. I don't think I have ever heard of another instance where a plexiglass shield was necessary to protect the principal flutist from the principal oboist!

I do recall a situation where an orchestra was rather plagued with the aftermath of romantic engagements. At one point there were considerable tensions because the principal cello and the assistant principal cello, stand partners, were going through a divorce. At around the same time the principal trumpet and the principal French horn who had been living together, had a nasty breakup and as a result  the horns and the trumpets no longer would tune to one another.

And of course, lots of orchestras nurture a deep and abiding hatred for the conductor, who gets paid so much more to wave his arms around and swan off to guest conduct many times a year.

But you should really offset all this gossip and anecdote with the greater truth that orchestras, yes, even including their conductors, spend most of their time in harmonious and beautifully coordinated performance of music. It is this unity of spirit that is the more important thing. The kind of incident that I have been recounting is easily told, but the ongoing love of playing together cannot be put into words very readily.

Let's listen to some of that wonderful orchestral playing to end. This is Trevor Pinnock conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the Unfinished Symphony of Schubert. Towards the beginning you can see just how close the principal oboe and principal flute are to one another.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Odd Music Writing

I'm convinced that some of the oddest writing ever written has been written about music. I think this is because music is so different from language that the temptation is to try and make writing about music musical in itself somehow.

I just ran across an example of writing about music that rates high on the perplexity scale and, as has happened before, it is on the site NewMusicBox, a site devoted to talking about new music. The piece is titled "Tracing Influence" by Jeff Arnal. Here is the first paragraph:
My mind is blank, but down one inch deep I have, we have, access. Access to what happened before—the universe is embedded in all of us. Is that too dreamy? What we heard, what was seen, what was felt…all that was picked up along the way. As moments click by, we find ourselves moving through time and space picking up fragments of experience. Our senses are tuned to what we want to hear and what we want to block. Some sounds stick—context, emotion, and openness allow for the sound faucet to be turned on. We ponder, work through, process, and invent. Invention is a tricky proposition. Are any sounds or structures unheard?
Now if you didn't know that was about music, or leading up to something about music, what would you have thought? Sometimes I find it very helpful to simply erase the first paragraph of something I have written, music or prose, just because it tends to be where I figure out what I am doing. Erasing it gets us to where I do know what I am doing! Perhaps Jeff should have done the same. This kind of writing--stream of consciousness--looks like it might mean something, but as soon as you engage that part of your mind that explores and evaluates meaning, you realize there ain't nuthin there! When you read stuff like this it is with the hope that the next sentence will explain what the last sentence was about. Alas, here each sentence is like someone waving at you to get your attention and then failing to say anything. Do we have access to what happened before? Only if we actually remember it. Do moments "click by"? Not that I have noticed.  Are our senses tuned to what we want to block? I would say the opposite. How would "openness allow for the sound faucet to be turned on"? What does that even mean? And the last sentence "Are any sounds or structures unheard?" must take some sort of prize for sublime meaninglessness. Yes, at this moment, pretty much all the sounds and structures are unheard because I'm not listening to them, instead I am reading, or trying to, this astoundingly useless prose. This is the stringing together of words, but it is far from being writing.

Do things get better? Here is the next paragraph:
Consider the path of water. An object in the water can be followed, but the water itself?  Does it matter? We live in a culture of mix-up. This line of thought circles towards the question: What are artists thinking about? What informs their decisions?
Nope. This is what happens when you read too much of the Tao Te Ching without understanding any of it. And when no-one has ever mentioned to you that mixed metaphors are bad. The next paragraph finally almost manages to articulate a thought:
In the digital age, we are tethered to each other more than at any other time in history. We are surrounded by thousands of unfiltered sounds. The way that we experience art and culture has been retooled and re-imagined—for better or worse, this is the “now” in the 21st century.
Does having many potential channels of communication mean we are "tethered"? No, thank goodness. There are certainly many sounds out there, but we do tend to filter them by avoiding the ones we don't want to hear. I want to ask where is the agency? Who is tethering us? Who is surrounding us with thousands of sounds? Who is retooling and reimagining the way that we experience art and culture? The problem with this kind of writing is that, even when it gets around to saying something, the causality is buried under a bleary hangover of babble.

The article goes on and on and on wandering aimlessly over a landscape emptied of logic and reason. Read it if you like, but I doubt you will find much of value therein.

I saw a clip the other day about The Great Unlearning (a reference to a work by Confucius) that our culture seems to be going through. After decades of nuanced critiques and vicious smears of the heritage of Western civilization, we seem to have reached a point where even supposedly educated people are largely incapable of rational thought--or writing! This is rather unfortunate, isn't it? Can we attribute it to "bad luck" or did someone actually do this?

Yes, that was a bit sardonic! Sorry I'm not putting up a more musical post, but if I can reassure you that the next time you run into writing about music that resembles this sort of thing, that you are perfectly within your rights to completely ignore it, then I count this as a public service.

Now let's listen to some music. Here is a piece by Joaquin Rodrigo that is not played a lot, but a very fine piece nonetheless. The performer is Sedona Farber, age fourteen and she does a fine job.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Couple from Steve

Steve Reich and Philip Glass are possibly the most influential composers working today. Steve Reich will be 80 years old this year and there will be a special series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, curated by him, in celebration. Details here.

Reich and Glass became notorious in their early days for writing minimal, repetitive music, but music that was strangely hypnotic for all that. This is still an inherent feature of much that they do and it has had an influence in both pop music and contemporary music. The use of a steady pulse, something that had become anathema to modernist composers after WWII, made their music highly listenable for all audiences. But both Reich and Glass have moved far beyond the earlier, simpler music to highly complex structures, but ones still anchored in a rhythmic base.

One of the characteristics that makes the music of earlier composers like J. S. Bach and Beethoven so compelling is the sense of inevitability: their music has a direction, a journey, to it. This sense of inevitability was something that seemed to get sacrificed in the avant-garde music of the 20th century. Whatever we were told or whatever we knew about the structure of the music, it just sounded arbitrary and fleeting. A lot of this was because of the non-repetitive, jagged rhythms.

So what Steve Reich did, inspired by non-Western music such as the drumming of Ghana, was to rediscover rhythm in its most pure form. Here is the first part of his long piece Drumming performed by the Portland Percussion Group:

Though it is incomplete (the next section is on marimbas), it is an excellent video as it shows something of how the piece is put together. Essentially, he takes a simple pattern in 6/4 and reveals it, element by element. Then he shifts the patterns against one another. He plays with our perceptions. Inevitably, confronted with one beat, we hear it as the downbeat, so when the real downbeat arrives, it is quite a surprise.

Steve Reich has  built considerably on these early ideas. Drumming dates from 1971 while the next piece, Sextet, dating from 1984, adds a lot of harmonic interest. This is the Yale Percussion Group in a complete performance:

Percussionists love his music because, for the first time in music history, they are the ones leading the way!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504 "Prague"

I've just been listening to the later Mozart symphonies and it has to be admitted that, compared to Haydn, when it came to the symphony Mozart was a bit of an underachiever. He only wrote forty-some while Haydn wrote one hundred and six and where Mozart wrote one symphony nicknamed "Paris", Haydn wrote six. Mozart wrote a symphony for Linz and another for Prague, but when Haydn went to London, he wrote twelve. Also Haydn was remarkably consistent: even from the earliest symphonies he adopted the four-movement form and continued it throughout his output. Quite a few of Mozart's symphonies are in the earlier three-movement Italian sinfonia form that was a slighter variety, suitable as an instrumental interlude in an opera or oratorio. Some of them feel a bit as if he had knocked them off in a day.

But all that being said, Mozart, in a number of late symphonies, achieved heights that Haydn could not quite match and even Beethoven could rarely equal. Among these is the Symphony No. 38, nicknamed the "Prague" symphony as it was first performed there in early 1787. First let's listen to it and then we will dig into it a bit. This is the Vienna Concentus Musicus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor:

I particularly like Harnoncourt's Mozart (and Schubert and Beethoven) because it is both rhythmically incisive and strongly expressive. He takes about ten minutes longer with this symphony than do most others, thirty-seven minutes as opposed to between twenty-five and twenty-nine minutes, and one of the reasons is that he repeats, not only the exposition of the opening allegro, but also the development and recapitulation, which is not marked to be repeated in the score. But it works, so why not--we can certainly stand to hear it again.

Like many of the later Mozart symphonies, though not the last two, this one begins with a dramatic adagio introduction:

This, while rhythmically energetic, just outlines the tonic. Immediately after, Mozart starts tonicizing some other keys, like B minor:
This is V6 to i in B minor. Then the same in E minor (flutes, oboes and bassoon):

Then V4/2 to I in G major:
Other keys he visits are D minor and B flat major before settling on A major, the dominant of D, which sets us up for the allegro in the tonic. This immediately suggests the subdominant, G:

Every major theme in this allegro makes use of syncopation; here it is quarter, half, quarter and then there is this variation with, again, the offbeats stressed:

A strong, repeated note theme makes an appearance:

And then this contrasting theme, which seems to grow out of the repeated-note one:

There are some slinky chromatic figures and the return of some earlier themes, but that along with some passage and cadential work, takes us to the end of the exposition.

Since this post is already pretty big, with a lot of scary musical examples, I think I will just stop here and let you discover how Mozart develops these themes in the rest of the movement. After he does that, the opening theme returns in the tonic key, which takes us into the recapitulation.

What is marvelous about this, and much Classical period music, is the fluidity, grace and adroit use of different keys to create a spontaneous sounding, but highly organized piece of music.

Let's listen again. This is  René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester with quite a brisk version:

Footnote: Sometimes before doing one of my drive-by analyses of a Classical era piece I have a look at what Charles Rosen has written on it, but other times I prefer to just start from scratch. In this case I had quite forgotten that Rosen did a brilliant analysis of this movement in his Sonata Forms (pp 202 - 220) where he quotes nearly all of the first movement as a musical example. I recommend highly reading it for a detailed look at just how truly magnificent this movement is. Rosen calls it "Mozart's most massive achievement in the symphonic genre--a work which unites grandeur and lyricism as no other..."

Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Not that we need one, but here is another reason not to go see Quentin Tarantino's movie "The Hateful Eight." They completely destroyed a 145-year-old Martin guitar from the Martin Guitar Museum. Here's the story. Kurt Russell was the destroyer, but it was apparently because someone neglected to tell him that he had to swap the real guitar for a prop one before smashing it against a wall.
Museum director Dick Boak told Reverb magazine they wanted to fix the guitar and asked for the pieces, but it was “destroyed.” He added, “As a result of the incident, the company will no longer loan guitars to movies under any circumstances.”
Never let someone who played a character named Snake Plissken play your vintage Martin!

* * *

I haven't the foggiest idea of how football works, but since I am writing this on Superbowl Sunday (is that an official religious holiday?), I happened to read a very funny piece on the game: "A non-fan's guide to Superbowl 50." Shouldn't that be "Superbowl L?" Anyway, it is worth reading because of this beautifully cogent example of music criticism:
Coldplay—the favourite band of people who like self-help lyrics set to music you’d hear on a mutual-fund commercial.
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I think this is why people who work technique in more creative ways do better: "Scientists have found a way to help you learn new skills twice as fast."
"What we found is if you practise a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practising the exact same thing multiple times in a row," said lead researcher Pablo Celnik, from Johns Hopkins University.
Which is pretty much what good teachers tell us. If you read on in the article you might find that this is not as directly applicable to music as it might seem. The new skill involved squeezing a device to move a cursor on a computer screen. This doesn't involve skills like, for example, precisely positioning a violin bow to get a desired sound or any other skill involving shaping a sound. Still, worth reading.

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"Where Classical Music Meets Social Justice" is a headline bound to provoke a few questions, isn't it?
Sphinx has had a historic impact on classical music. Two decades ago, the number of African Americans and Latinos in American orchestras was a little less than 2%. Today, that number has risen to more than 4%, and many winning auditions were past Sphinx laureates.
The competition has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships and prize money since 1998, sent alums to all the top music schools in the country and helped increase the number of black and Latino string players soloing with orchestras annually from nearly none to more than 25. This year, 20 semifinalists will be competing for more than $100,000 in prizes, scholarships and performing opportunities with major orchestras.
It is hard to disagree with the whole idea of encouraging people to participate and excel in classical music, but there is a tiny flaw in all this--should everything be divided up according to racial percentages? Does this apply to basketball players and long distance runners who tend to be overwhelmingly black? In the case of music, I suspect that ability is an individual trait, not a collective one.

* * *

At Plymouth University in England, scientists are finding ways to allow musicians with brain damage to communicate. It sounds like an amazing advance made possible through brain/computer music interfacing software and the collaboration of professional musicians. Here is the story: "Brain damaged violinist makes music for first time in 27 years with mind-reading technology." From the article it seems that Rosemary, and other brain-damaged former musicians, are able to make compositional choices and communicate them to players in real time:

* * *

Michael Barimo, whistler, doing "Der Hölle Rache" from the Magic Flute, otherwise known as the Queen of the Night's aria, even though she has another one, earlier on:

* * *

I hate to show musicians having embarrassing experiences onstage, but what the heck, plus, they seem to be laughing about it too:

As a friend wrote, this is why God invented binders.

* * *
If you are worrying about cultural appropriation, Josh Gelernter explains why you shouldn't. We don't have to refrain from sushi, yoga and toe rings until the rest of the world refrains from air travel (airplane invented in the US), polio vaccine (discovered in the US), music notation and things like harmony (developed in Europe), and most of the rest of modern civilization. Personally I am willing to negotiate with the Greeks for the return of democracy because, frankly, it's not working out as I hoped.

* * *

Here is an article about the use of music in political campaigns that is interesting: "How Donald Trump Broke the GOP's Music Curse." And there is some history and background:
In the past few years, Republican campaigns have turned into a kind of low-level war between musicians and the candidates trying to use their material. Tom Petty objected to Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann coming on stage to his “American Girl,” as well as to George W. Bush’s use of his “Don’t Back Down”; John Mellencamp, Van Halen, Dave Grohl and Jackson Browne all complained about John McCain’s use of some of their songs; Heart put out a blistering statement about Sarah Palin’s use of the song “Barracuda”: “Sarah Palin’s views and values in no way represent us as American women,” they wrote. Boston’s Tom Scholz asked Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to stop using “More Than a Feeling.” One anonymous Internet wag summed up the situation by quipping that GOP politicians “can only use country music or dead people’s music.”
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For our envoi today here is the original version of "Der Hölle Rache" with soprano Diana Damrau. This is probably the most terrifying aria ever written for soprano.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Rule of the Kinetic

From Merriam-Webster:

Full Definition of kinetic

  1. 1:  of or relating to the motion of material bodies and the forces and energy associated therewith
  2. 2a :  activelivelyb :  dynamicenergizing <a kinetic performer>
  3. 3:  of or relating to kinetic art

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal had an article fulsomely praising--well, who do you think? It's the Wall Street Journal after all, the repository of everything conservative and reactionary, right? Actually, it was praising Kanye West: "The Case for Kanye." It is hard to summarize with a quote, though the subhead calls him "the most important mainstream rapper of the millennium." You really should go read the whole thing which makes the five assertions that:

  1. He brought emotional honesty to rap.
  2. He’s a rarity in today’s music business: An old-fashioned “album artist” who’s huge on social media.
  3. His winning streak over the last 15 years—six straight hit albums—is one for the record books.
  4. His influence extends to art and fashion.
  5. He’s one of the few pop stars willing and able to be anti-commercial.
The editors at the WSJ probably thought that this was just the kind of "edgy" piece that would show how cool they are. Judging from the comments, the readers disagreed:
Rap is rhythmic ebonics that has destroyed the minds, morals, and the real music industry.
It, like an addictive narcotic, has generated tons of money at the perilous cost of a lost generation. It's content is all fluff with no substance as each rap star is burned in effigy with the winds of a new generation. This clown "Kreepy Pest" will get bald, fat, and continue to be ugly as he soon will be humbled with the pangs old age! His once beloved minions will be more concerned with hemorrhoid relief as our ears are burning from relief of his nonsensical overrated gibberish doled out to the mindless masses!
Heh! This is to set the scene for another of my theories about where music and the culture is going these days. If you go and look at the videos (sorry, but there is no way around it) and listen to the music, you will notice one recurring strategy (apart from the foul-mouthed excrescences): the relentless kineticism. The visuals, the words, the music, are a constant stream of kinetic assertions: music as blitzkrieg. The repeated hammering blows of the jump-cuts, the drum machine, the beating over and over of the nasty aggression of the words most certainly have an effect. A very powerful effect that has generated a very cash-positive return!

But I can't listen to it. Even small doses of it leave me wanting to flee or shut it off. It is not relentless positive energy like we find in Steve Reich or Philip Glass, no it is brutal egoism fused to a mechanical beat. This kind of soulless kineticism seems to be the common element in much popular music. And now that we see it praised in the Wall Street Journal we see that its conquest of popular music is complete. It is the establishment. Which means, I think, that the kind of music I like, the opposite of soulless kineticism, is now the counter-culture. If the Wall Street Journal wanted to be "edgy" then they should do something in praise of Joseph Haydn. Now there is something edgy for you.

Pop music these days is in an endgame of decadence, as bad in its own way as the absurd excessiveness of late-18th century French opera.

Merriam-Webster: Simple Definition of decadence
: behavior that shows low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc.
The interesting thing is that you can have kinetic music that is not soul-destroying.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Making Classical Music Cool?

Anne Midgette, music critic for the Washington Post, has an interesting piece about the participation of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles in the Super Bowl halftime show. She is a good writer on music, not afraid to criticize where it is due and she has even left a comment here on the Music Salon. Read the whole thing. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Dudamel moves in a world in which meeting Chris Martin of Coldplay, and striking up a friendship with him, is not remarkable; and this meeting gave rise to the idea of getting YOLA involved in this year’s halftime show at the Super Bowl. If YOLA and Dudamel were attempting to make classical music cool for young people, this invitation clinched it. Three days ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic released a video of the young musicians practicing for and talking about the halftime show, and every single kid had such a huge, infectious smile on his or her face that the venture was already a winner before the show even started.
Classical music’s vaunted elitism is tissue-paper thin: The field is always almost pitiably hungry for validation from the pop world, while appearing to disdain it. But if the field is really eager to win over young audiences, this is the way to do it. As one girl put it in the L.A. Philharmonic video, other kids were now going to think taking part in YOLA was really cool.
The youth orchestra is a wonderful project and Dudamel deserves praise for his support and for getting them involved in such a high-profile performance. I'm sure the kids had a ball. Here is the promotional video:

Now I, out of morbid curiosity, actually watched the Super Bowl halftime show and I barely noticed the participation of these young musicians. I noticed they were there, but I didn't notice them as playing classical music as such. Here, have a listen/look for yourself (I can't embed, so just follow the link):

I'm not a football fan and so the whole thing to me seemed like a parody of something or other. Did you see the kids? There they are, right at the beginning. Chris Martin of Coldplay runs right past them in the first 30 seconds. There is a line of them, head-bopping and playing brightly colored string instruments, leading to the stage. Mind you, you can't really hear what they are playing (just chordal accompaniment anyway), but you can't hear the words Chris Martin (or anyone else) is singing either.

Yes, there they are, two wings on either side of the stage, then they get to move in to provide a visual backdrop to the performance by Chris Martin.

OK, now let's talk about this. Here is Anne Midgette's take on it:
Given the street cred, it probably hardly mattered that the musical component of that involvement was minimal. The young players danced out on stage with Chris Martin at the start of the show, brandishing violins and a few cellos ornately decorated with flags and flowers in the ’70s spirit of the enterprise. By the final set they had abandoned their instruments altogether and were simply singing and clapping along with everyone else — with Dudamel standing behind and between Beyoncé and Martin, looking like just one of the crowd and yet managing to be right at the center of the action. For those who had hoped for a great blow for classical music in the form of Beethoven or Shostakovich, it may not have seemed like much; but for anyone eager to see classical music take its place on the same playing field as other art forms in our society, it was a signal, and delightful, satisfaction.
Is she right? Speaking as one of those vaunted elitists, no, I don't think so. I think that if I had been part of this group, after getting over the initial thrill I would have been asking what we were playing and how it would be staged and so on. If I had known that this was the final result I would have said thanks but no thanks. Yes, really. I turned down lots of gigs like this in my time. My two basic criteria were a) to get paid and b) to be actually playing classical music.

Here is why this is bad street cred, not good street cred: a group of young classical musicians were invited to be mere stage props at a big sports event at which they played not one note of classical music, but just comped background to a rather dull pop group. That's not street cred, that's an insult to classical music.

Let's look at what Anne Midgette said. She accuses classical music of "vaunted elitism" which means vain boasting. Is this just a stock phrase required by political correctness at the Washington Post? Because if she believes it, it is a strange attitude for someone whose job description is to write about classical music. Does she not consider herself part of the classical music world? Is she pitiably hungry for validation from the pop music world? That is sad!

The whole piece, while seeming to be a positive tribute to a wonderful triumph by some young musicians, is, at a second glance, a kind of subtle smear of classical music. This whole sentence is representative:
For those who had hoped for a great blow for classical music in the form of Beethoven or Shostakovich, it may not have seemed like much; but for anyone eager to see classical music take its place on the same playing field as other art forms in our society, it was a signal, and delightful, satisfaction.
Ah yes, if we could just get away from those dead white men Beethoven and Shostakovich and take our place on the playing field next to Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé, then finally we pathetic classical musicians could find validation. Setting aside for the moment whether the Super Bowl halftime show has anything whatsoever to do with art in any form, let me say this to those who have this kind of attitude about classical music:

Bite me.