Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Anna Meredith: Industrial Noise

Sometimes I think that most of the people at the Guardian who write about music graduated from a music appreciation course for non-musicians last year and spend most of their time at EDM festivals. That impression is strengthened by this piece about composer Anna Meredith: "Classical composer's industrial noise is a triumph." Here, let's have a read:
The list of upcoming gigs on Anna Meredith’s website is boggling in its range: band shows alternate with concert performances of a recorder concerto, a symphony for body parts, music for jazz orchestra and a reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Varmints, her debut album, is where she turns her work as a contemporary composer up to 11: she’s said in an interview that her iPod is “90% Queen” and it certainly shows.
This “international launch party” begins, like the album, with Nautilus: a pulverising instrumental track that swells through a series of rhythmic detonations designed, at a guess, to demolish buildings.
After that, we really have to listen to the piece:

Ohkaaaayyy... It is hard to hear that as anything other than the perfect music to accompany the cartoonish video. It is like a children's animation from a Saturday morning tv schedule in hell--or Bizzaroworld. However, since I am way out of the intended demographic and besides a noted reactionary, let's look at a video review:

Ohkaaaaayyy... I managed to listen to about three minutes of that babbled out word-salad before I had to stop. By that point I was pretty sure he was not actually going to say anything either comprehensible or worth hearing. My guess about the background and training of many of the Guardian writers would seem to apply to this fellow even more. He is talking to consumers of music who have even less basic knowledge than he does, so I suppose that is ok. But I think what we are seeing here is the inexorable defining down of aesthetics to the point where albums like Anna Meredith's Varmints and reviews like this one are counted the new normal, i.e. this is an acceptable level of aesthetic achievement.

Anna Meredith (follow the link for the Wikipedia article) is a young Scottish composer with an impressive resume and what seems to impress everyone is how easily she moves around within genres and styles that are very contemporary and hip. But still she is a classical composer with credentials. Wikipedia tells us she has a master's degree from the Royal College of Music, but don't tell us who she studied composition with, which to me would be more interesting.

Her breakthrough composition seems to have been froms written for performance at the Proms in 2008. That doesn't seem to be available on YouTube. But we do have this piece, Handsfree, from the 2012 Proms:

It is only six minutes long so you should be able to listen to the whole thing. UPDATE: I was fooled like the audience into thinking the piece was over. But it goes on for the whole clip.

Creative and innovative, sure. Plus it is entirely free of those unforgivable sins of racism, mysogyny, orientalism, otherism, sexism and so forth. You might, at a stretch, be able to accuse it of cultural appropriation, but only if you consider kindergarten an actual culture. Apart from the fact that by the end, it is probably quite tricky to keep all the gestures and movements straight, this is a perfect example of the infantilization of the culture. I wonder that the orchestra even agreed to perform it. If I were a member of the orchestra I would be asking myself, "is this what I spent years learning my instrument to go onstage to perform?" Just good fun or humiliating absurdity? I guess that after a few decades of stringent propagandizing both young musicians and audiences are able to watch a display like this with little or no sense of incongruity or embarrassment.

Still, this is undoubtedly a triumph because there is no danger that a piece like this will make even the least educated audience member feel out of place or in danger of misunderstanding the music. This is about as egalitarian as you can get. Plus, bonus, no problem of clapping in the wrong place!

The only problem is, while music like this richly deserves to be parodied, it seems to be rather beyond parody.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Bane of the Serious

I just put up a post about Peter Maxwell Davies, a most serious composer, and that got me thinking about what "serious" means when we are talking about music. And where it came from.

This week I finished listening to all of the Mozart symphonies in Trevor Pinnock's excellent recording--despite the numbering, which ends with #41, he wrote around fifty symphonies--and this, combined with listening to some Haydn ones as well, makes me think that they, and a vast number of other composers before 1800, would not have thought of themselves as writing "serious" music. But now we think of most of what they wrote, including all of those symphonies, as "serious" music. What changed?

I think we can start to hear the change with Mozart. The trio of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven have always fascinated me, not just because of the quality of their music, but also because of their close geographic and temporal proximity. Haydn was born in 1732 and Beethoven died in 1827 (Mozart's life was within those dates) so the great flourishing of Western music took place in less than 100 years and largely in one city: Vienna. To return to my point, in the music of Haydn, which is all of it superbly crafted and delightful to hear, we only hear in a few pieces, typically those with the "Sturm und Drang" label, the tragic glint that comes to dominate 19th century music. Here is an example:

This symphony carries the nickname "Trauer" or "Mourning" and it is in the key of E minor. By later standards it doesn't sound too mournful, but at the time of composition (1772) the use of a minor key was itself unusual. The majority of Haydn's symphonies and all but two of Mozart's are in major keys. What Haydn really excelled at was effervescent delight as exemplified in the last movement of the Symphony No. 92 "Oxford":

But with Mozart that tragic cast comes a bit more to the fore as we see in the first movement of his Symphony No. 40 in G minor:

It was precisely this element of tragedy that Beethoven--who was far more influenced by Mozart than Haydn--picked up and amplified in his own symphonies (the odd-numbered ones, at least). Here is the first movement of his Symphony No. 9:

After that, the whole 19th century wrote nothing but very serious symphonies!

Now here is why I titled this post "The Bane of the Serious": I don't want to write music that is serious in that sense. Nothing wrong with it when Beethoven did it, but after Bruckner re-wrote Beethoven's 9th nine more times and Mahler added his version of serious music followed by Richard Strauss and even Schoenberg in his early years, I think that well is pretty dry.

To me, what I hear more and more is that the effervescent joy of Haydn, Mozart and even some Beethoven has been replaced by dreary, depressing dirges. It is the rhythm that has suffered the most. The crisp incisive rhythms of the 18th century were slowly replaced by plodding dullness and, in the 20th century, by jagged rhythms of pain.

But still people want to, or in composition schools are told they want to, write "serious" music. Depends on how you define "serious" doesn't it? I want people to listen closely to my music and perhaps, occasionally, chuckle, but certainly smile. I don't want to write music that sends people into anxiety attacks and deep depression. That's what the news is for.

Here is Leonard Bernstein listening to the Vienna Philharmonic play the last movement of Haydn's Symphony No 88 and pointedly not bothering to conduct them. Serious? Hardly, but great music nonetheless:

Peter Maxwell Davies, Part 2

Continuing with a brief look at the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, today I want to have a glance at one of his symphonies. The one that is the most listened to on YouTube is the Symphony No. 5, dating from 1994.

The Wikipedia article mentions that he studied at the University of Manchester and the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College), but it does not say who with, just that his fellow students included Harrison Birtwhistle. Later he studied at Princeton University with Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions. His training and early aesthetic allegiances were very solidly within the high Modernist tradition therefore. But, as with so many other English composers, he was not entirely consumed by it and also absorbed considerable influences from Medieval and Renaissance traditions, especially English ones.

So it is not entirely surprising to see him following his early avant-gardism with works that, at least in their titles, refer to established genres like the symphony and string quartet. Interestingly, Davies picks up on perhaps the last of the great symphonists (outside of Russia, that is), Jean Sibelius. There is a YouTube clip of Davies introducing and conducting the Finnish master's Symphony No. 6.

The symphony is in one uninterrupted movement about 25 minutes long, though this is divided into a number of sections. Without the score I can't do any analysis (which would take a great deal of time, in any case), but we can let our ears be a guide. Though the music is not exactly tonal, it is not exactly atonal either. There are tonal centers which include C# and G (a tritone apart). Though I have not read any theoretical discussions of Davies's style, it seems to me that he might approach tonality in a way vaguely similar to the way Bartók did: transforming some traditional structures through replacing perfect fourth and fifth relations with tritone ones. Rhythmically, of course, they are very different.

The Symphony No. 5 of Davies is quite listenable, though very moody and dark. Here is the composer's own program note on the music:
The Symphony is based on material from my youth orchestra piece Chat Moss (1993), but behind both pieces is a hidden source: two plainchants from the Liber Usualis - the 'Haec dies' Easter music and 'Domine audivi' from Habakkuk 3:3. The music of Sibelius, in particular its possibilities of self-generating form, was also central to my thinking, having recently studied and conducted Sibelius's Symphonies 6 and 7 with several orchestras.
The symphony would seem a good choice for today then, Easter Sunday. So, let's have a listen. This is the Philharmonia Orchestra directed by the composer:

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Allan Kozinn, author of an excellent book on the Beatles, takes a look at the creation of one of their greatest songs, "Strawberry Fields Forever" in the Wall Street Journal. If it is behind the paywall for you, try googling the title "Let Me Take You Down Creation's Path." Here is the set-up:
In September 1966, John Lennon went to Almería, Spain, mainly to film his only acting role outside the Beatles, in Richard Lester’s “How I Won the War,” but also as a needed respite from Beatlemania, which had turned nightmarish on the world tour that had ended the previous month. There, Lennon examined his life with a detachment that found its way into the gentle ballad “It’s Not Too Bad.” The song proved far more important than the film. By year’s end, the Beatles and their ingenious producer, George Martin—who died at age 90 on March 8—had transformed this folk-like tune into “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a recording (released in 1967) that many critics regard as one of rock’s most enduring masterpieces, a rich-textured, dark-hued four-minute essay in musical and lyrical psychedelia that both captures and transcends its time.
Read the whole thing.

* * *

Here is a piece on the mishearing of the words in pop songs: "Delete 'Hook'. Insert 'Heart'."
It's a common problem with the lyrics to pop songs that they are often misheard by the listeners. These ear blips are called "mondegreens." I have a old friend who has bought apartments in New York City by exploiting and cataloguing the phenomenon in books. ('Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy and He's Got the Whole World in His Pants , among others.)
Mondegreens are commonly explained by the facts of loose recording standards, production choices, and the volume at which all the instruments play and the singers sing. It is more simply explained by the fact, as noted by my old friend Ethan Russell about Mick Jagger many years ago, "Well, you know, he does slur a lot."
* * *

This is a fascinating essay on the difference between training and education: "B.A., M.A., Ph.D., But Little Education." I link it because the writer makes a lot of the same points that I have made in this blog.
Because my degrees involved so much training that was called education, I had no idea that I hadn’t actually received much of an education. It was only after I completed my Ph.D. that I realized how uneducated I was. With the freedom and leisure to think about what I had and had not read, I realized that I needed to educate myself.
So I read things that I’d never been assigned: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, Goethe’s Faust, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment. The list of works I should have read and still haven’t, including Proust and many Shakespeare plays, is far longer.
I’m not the only one who has been left undereducated by college. I would venture to say that a large majority of American students who enter college get little in the way of education.
I spent eight years studying music at university and came away with almost no knowledge of the basic repertoire: the Beethoven quartets and piano sonatas, the symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, anything at all by Schubert and so on. I have spent quite a few years filling in the gaps.

* * *

From Joe Morgenstern's review in the Wall Street Journal it sounds as if the new Batman vs Superman film is one to be avoided. But the review is worth reading, if only for this delicious quote on the soundtrack:
everything sounds the same, thanks entirely to a pitiless score, by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, that suggests platoons of percussionists high on magic mushrooms.
 * * *

Here is a piece in the Guardian, "Messiaen gets the multimedia treatment" that puts in perspective how some of these projects can actually detract from the music:
For the second evening of their Barbican residency, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic turned to Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Étoiles for a performance that was as much an installation as a concert. Messiaen’s profoundly Catholic meditation on the glory of creation as revealed in the landscape of Utah was transformed into a big multimedia event by photographer Deborah O’Grady and lighting designers Seth Reiser and Stephen Terry. Shifting coloured lights reflected the composer’s synaesthesia. Images of Bryce Canyon and Zion national park, their landscapes slowly changing before our eyes, were displayed on a vast screen behind the players.
There were, however, tensions within it. Messiaen saw the canyons as an earthly paradise that formed an intimation of its celestial counterpart. For O’Grady, they are more a despoiled Eden, their grandeur endangered by the humanity that creeps ant-like across their surfaces. She is at her best when she replicates Messiaen’s sense of awe: macrocosm becomes microcosm as the Milky Way is transformed into drifting sands; her footage of the canyons themselves takes your breath away. Elsewhere, however, her shots of pylons, oil derricks and tramping tourists grate at times against the music’s numinosity.
The visuals aroused mixed feelings. Were they necessary at all? Those sitting in the back stalls had to put up with the aggravation of someone noisily cueing the projections during the first half of the performance.
I often listen to music with my eyes closed. There is a reason for that.

* * *

The new Liberal government in Canada has hugely increased funding for the arts, as reported on Slipped Disc. I post that link so you can read the interesting comments. I'm afraid that I have a somewhat jaundiced view of arts funding in Canada as it has long been the case that one hand washes the other. In other words, the jury system tends to keep the funding circulating among the same circle of cronies.

* * *

I guess the appropriate piece to put up as our envoi today would the "Des Canyons aux Étoiles" by Messiaen. Here is just the first movement, "Le Désert". Full credits on the clip:

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Music That Says "Farewell"

There are four pieces in music history that say "farewell" that I can think of. The oldest one is a rondeau from around 1426 by Guillaume DuFay titled "Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys":
Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys,
Adieu dames, adieu borgois,
Adieu celle que tant amoye,
Adieu toute playssante joye,
Adieu tous compaignons galois.
(Farewell to the fine wines of the Laonnais,
farewell ladies, farewell townsmen,
farewell to her I loved so much,
farewell to all joy and pleasure,
farewell all boon companions.)
Je m'en vois tout arquant des nois,
Car je ne truis feve ne pois,
Dont bien souvent [au cu] er m'ennoye
(Off I go cracking nuts,
for I can find no beans or peas,
which often makes my heart grieve.)
Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys,
Adieu dames, adieu borgois,
Adieu celle que tant amoye.
De moy serés par plusiers fois
Regrets par dedans les bois,
Ou il n'y a sentier ne voye;
Puis ne scaray que faire doye
Se je ne crie a haute vois:
(Farewell good wines of Lannoys,
farewell ladies, farewell citizens,
farewell to the one I so much loved)
(I will often miss you
out in the woods
where there is no path or track;
I do not know what else to do
but cry aloud:)
Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys,
Adieu dames, adieu borgois,
Adieu celle que tant amoye,
Adieu toute playssante joye,
Adieu tous compaignons galois.
(Farewell to the fine wines of the Laonnais,
farewell ladies, farewell townsmen,
farewell to her I loved so much,
farewell to all joy and pleasure,
farewell all boon companions.)

DuFay was born in the region of Brussels but spent much of his life in the south and Italy. This song is a tribute to his homeland and the prevailing mood is nostalgia.

Another famous farewell is by Heinrich Isaac: "Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen":
Innsbruck, ich muß dich laßen
ich far dohin mein straßen,
in fremde land dohin,
mein freud ist mir genomen,
die ich nit weiß bekomen,
wo ich im elend bin.

Groß leid muß ich jetzt tragen,
das ich allein tu klagen
dem liebsten bulen mein.
ach lieb, nun laß mich armen
im herzen dein erbarmen,
daß ich muß von dannen sein.

Mein trost ob allen weiben,
dein tu ich ewig bleiben,
stet, treu, der eren frum.
nun muß dich Got bewaren,
in aller tugent sparen,
biß daß ich wider kum.
Innsbruck, I must leave you;
I will go my way
to foreign land(s).
My joy has been taken away from me,
that I cannot achieve
where I am in misery.

I must now bear great sorrow
that I can only share
with my dearest.
Oh love, hold poor me
(and) in your heart compassion
that I must part from you.

My consolation: above all other women,
I will forever be yours,
always faithful, in true honor.
And now, may God protect you,
keep you in perfect virtue,
until I shall return.

 This is a sorrowful plaint over losing a post and consoling himself with his dearest.

A modern example is "Farewell to Stromness" by Peter Maxwell Davies that I put up the other day. Stromness is a town in the Orkney Islands where Davies spent much of his life. This piece is an interlude from a longer piece written to protest a plan to open a uranium mine in the area. So the mood is perhaps "regret recollected in tranquillity" except for the middle section which is a bit more active.

The last example is quite different. Rather than merely expressing regret or sorrow over having to leave a place or a job or having one's home perhaps affected in some way, this piece is a farewell in itself expressed by both the music and the musicians. Can you guess what piece I mean? It is, of course, the "Farewell" Symphony by Joseph Haydn (also known as the Symphony No. 45 in F# minor). Wikipedia has the story behind the work:
When the symphony was written, Haydn's patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy was resident, together with all his musicians and retinue, at his favorite summer palace at Eszterháza in rural Hungary. The stay there had been longer than expected, and most of the musicians had been forced to leave their wives back at home in Eisenstadt, about a day's journey away. Longing to return, the musicians appealed to their Kapellmeister for help. The diplomatic Haydn, instead of making a direct appeal, put his request into the music of the symphony: during the final adagio each musician stops playing, snuffs out the candle on his music stand, and leaves in turn, so that at the end, there are just two muted violins left (played by Haydn himself and his concertmaster, Luigi Tomasini). Esterházy seems to have understood the message: the court returned to Eisenstadt the day following the performance.

The Haydn offers some interesting aesthetic puzzles. For one thing, a piece that begins as a typical presto last movement of a symphony for orchestra becomes, incrementally, an adagio piece of chamber music. But even more interesting is how the piece is concretely a farewell, not an emotional expression of how a farewell feels, but an actual farewell. They really leave! This is interesting I think because art, music anyway, is usually an abstract recollection or sketch of our moods. But this is a concrete representation of an action: leaving.

There is an interest in this sort of thing these days: making the abstract concrete. One example that comes immediately to mind is Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 which uses audio recordings from NORAD and the New York Fire Department made on the day of the attack. He then transforms these into the melodic materials of the piece. Another example might be some of the work of Josh Whedon who, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in many different ways turned the anxieties and fears of high school and university into actual concrete monsters. Again, a case of making the abstract concrete. Just one example from the series, when Buffy is brought back from what was thought to be a demon dimension, another character says "the jet lag from Hell must be, uh, the jet lag from Hell!"

You bet.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Musical Identity

I won't dig around for it, but a long while back I put up some posts about musicians and identity. I think I mentioned something about how as many musicians take up their instruments at a very early age (five or six years in many cases), their personal identity is fused with being musicians. Not only that, but this identity is very stable over their entire lives. A classical violin virtuoso at seven is likely to be still a classical violin virtuoso at sixty-seven. A good friend of mine has played in the same orchestra for her whole career, nearly forty years.

Now, for better or worse, my own path has been quite different and I mention it just to illustrate diversity. That's a good thing, right? While most successful musicians do follow a single, focussed path, there are exceptions. My mother was a musician (traditional fiddle music) but I didn't immediately catch the bug and, apart from signing me up for piano lessons at age eleven, she didn't try to direct me. The piano lessons didn't take and I didn't become a musician until my middle teens when I started listening to popular music with more interest and took up the bass guitar. My later teens were devoted to playing blues and rock on bass guitar and later electric six-string. Then, after playing in a few mediocre bands, I swerved into what was often called "folk" music at the time. By this was meant Bob Dylan, Donovan, the Incredible String Band and other groups whose sound was more acoustic than electric (Bob himself switched from acoustic to electric). It was a time of considerable musical ferment.

At the very end of the 60s somehow I discovered classical music. I think my mother had a couple of Ferrante and Teicher LPs. They were a piano duo quite popular in the 60s:

All I can remember is that I really liked the Spanishy stuff like Malagueña:

There were little glimpses of other musical genres even in rock back in those days like the introduction to the Doors' "Spanish Caravan" which uses a flamenco granadinas:

Again, it was the Spanish flavor that I found interesting. But I soon realized that classical music was this huge other world so I started listening to Debussy, Dvorak, Beethoven and most of all, Bach. When I discovered that there was a whole repertoire of Bach that could be played on guitar, my way forward was clear:

For the next twenty years I was completely devoted to being a classical guitar virtuoso with pretty good results: I rose to the level of doing national broadcasts for the CBC and playing concertos with orchestra that included the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez and concertos by Villa-Lobos, Vivaldi and others.

But I became disenchanted. Looking at the careers of others in my field I realised that, if you could not break through into the stratosphere of international virtuoso with a recording contract and touring internationally, you were, sooner or later, going to slump into the same tired routine of teaching, teaching, teaching with the occasional concert. That just didn't appeal to me. So I took another swerve and did graduate studies in musicology. This was actually a real delight because it reawakened a whole intellectual side that had been a bit dormant after all those years of practicing scales, slurs and arpeggios. At the end of the day musicology was not a good fit for me and, after a years-long hiatus in which I was pretty far away from music, I came back and started exploring composition in a serious way. I have been doing this for nearly a decade now and it is what I should have been doing all along! What can I say, in some ways I can be pretty oblivious.

But this kind of wandering career through music is pretty rare, at least in my experience. I think that perhaps the fundamental reason for it was that my early life was itself very multi-faceted and unstable, meaning that from when I was born to when I was seven we lived in seven different small towns in northern Alberta. This gives a kind of restlessness to my view of the world and makes me not want to be put into any kind of box. What I like about composition is that I get to make my own box!

Now, what can I possibly find to put as an envoi for this post? I am not on my home computer so I can't put up one of my own compositions, so it will have to be something else... Oh, I know. This is a tune that I used to play during my brief "folk" period (and yes, I know it is more country than folk):

And this is what I was playing five or six years later:

If you follow this link, you can hear my version of the piece: "En los trigales."

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Ineffable Beauties of Music

Despite the title, I am not actually going to talk about those ineffable beauties of music--I do that in most of the other posts on this blog. Instead I am going to talk about a phenomenon that is present, to a greater or lesser degree, in nearly all other kinds of human activities but is thankfully largely absent from the world of music. I will call this phenomenon "administrative truth". Here is an article that beautifully describes administrative truth and how it works: "999".

It is the story of a father and his daughter, who was mathematically gifted, and how she was mistreated because of the difference between administrative truth and real truth. He was called to the principal's office one day because his daughter was being "disruptive in class". Here is the story:
"Your daughter tried to correct her math teacher. The teacher explained why she was wrong, and she insisted that she was correct."
I laughed.
I knew she was right and the teacher was wrong. I couldn't wait to hear this one.
"What was the question?" I asked as the principal was about to interject a rebuke to my outburst.
The teacher was also present, and he spoke up. "The question was, what was the largest number that can be represented with 3 digits. I said it was 999, your daughter disagreed."
I remember thinking "Uh-oh. What the heck was she thinking?"
That's when she spoke up, anger in her voice, "Oh yeah? Tell me what 9 raised to the 9th power raised to the 9th power is then??"
Holy crap! She was right! Technically, the problem is not asking for the largest 3-digit number, which is exactly where my mind went upon hearing the question. The question is asking you to represent a number using 3 digits, so exponentiation cannot be ruled out.
You really have to read the whole thing. In order to get the administrative truth overruled in favor of the real truth it took three months and an attorney, but he was finally successful. Sadly, I suspect that the usual result in cases like these is quite different. As he says:
Forget about it being my daughter for a second. The truly sad thing is, look how a unique mind was mistreated for being brilliant. How many times does something parallel to this happen in our once great country? How many teachers squelch out the faint cry of genius from some shy personality sitting in the back of a classroom?
Now let me present a different example. The other day I was in a discussion with someone about building inspections. Here in Mexico we have a lot of buildings that are constructed using traditional methods and materials such as thick walls made up of stone, bricks and pieces and brick and tile in a melange held together with mortar. Ceilings are often wood beams or vaulted brick. These methods are centuries if not millennia old. The question was, are these buildings inspected by an official for conformity with standards regarding not only construction but things like plumbing, electrical and so on. The answer is, no, they are not. Where I live the only significant inspection is for conformity with historic norms. This is a world heritage site according to UNESCO so nothing can be built in the historic part of town that conflicts with the appearance of colonial structures. No neon! No glass towers! But the idea that the building we were standing in was built according to age-old principles and not according to the latest official standards was shocking to him. It was, you might say, built according to real truth, not administrative truth.

Bear in mind that other structures built according to real truth include all the cathedrals of Europe such as Notre Dame in Paris. Construction was begun in 1163 and completed around 1345. It is still standing last I heard! Contrast this with modern constructions that passed an administrative building inspection but later had to be demolished for all sorts of reasons--asbestos!

What does this have to do with music? I think that one of the things that has always attracted me to music is that it inhabits a world of its own, a world in which administrative truth can find almost no foothold. As a performer, you are judged on how well you play. True, there can be considerable disagreement on what "playing well" consists of, but there is no "official" or "administrative" truth to refer to. At the end of the day, playing well is just playing well. The same with composition: a good piece of music tends, at the end of the day, to be noticed. Sure, the most fashionable pieces tend to win the composition contests, but it is remarkable how rarely the contest winners actually make it into the repertoire. Over time they are replaced by the pieces that are actually good, a kind of group judgment by the whole corpus of musicians and music-lovers.

It is hard for me to think of many examples in music where truth is determined, not by the facts and realities, but by some sort of official code or rule. The Soviet Union tried something like this with its banning of composers who did not adhere to "socialist realism", but what that was, was vague enough so that composers like Shostakovich could finesse their way around it. Recently I have seen signs of a project to install principles of "social justice" in the world of music in the form of what seem to be civil rights. Political correctness demands that, for example, there be some sort of equality of gender in the world of music. We must have more women conductors and composers. I think that a lot of people sense instinctively that this is a mistaken project, but that doesn't seem to stop activists agitating for it. After all, they have been very successful in so many other areas of life.

Apart from projects to encourage more women and minorities to pursue careers in music, which is perfectly reasonable, I don't see this as making too much more of an impact. Still, the idea that 50% of all conductors and composers must, by administrative fiat, be women, is one that will continue to be argued for, or demanded, at least. Witness the kerfuffle surrounding race at the Oscars this year.

But the real truth, as opposed to the administrative truth, is that the only thing that really matters in the world of music is aesthetic quality. Everything else rests on that.

Here, as an example of aesthetic quality, is the Symphony No. 29 in A major, K. 201 by Mozart played by the English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

UPDATE: After I wrote this post I noticed that a number of people have pointed out that there are a lot of incongruities and errors in the math class story. So it might be entirely fiction! But I hesitate to take it down because it is a beautiful example. I might do so if I run across a better example. If anyone has one, please put it in the comments.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Peter Maxwell Davies, Part 1

I suppose I should be contrite that I have written hardly anything about Peter Maxwell Davies in this blog until now, just after he passed away. But you can't do everything. So now seems an appropriate moment to talk about his contribution to music.

Peter Maxwell Davies (1934 - 2016)

I would like to approach him from a slightly different angle: as a guitarist, it seems natural to look at his guitar music first as he made a solid contribution to the repertoire. We have Julian Bream to thank for the fact that nearly every 20th century British composer wrote something significant for guitar.

I suppose I should confess first of all that the utterly beautiful piece "Farewell to Stromness" that I posted on my miscellanea yesterday was actually originally written for piano:

But its extreme simplicity has made it easily transcribable to guitar and other instruments and it is in the guitar transcription that I know it best. The two important pieces for guitar by Maxwell Davies are first "Dark Angels" for soprano and guitar, written in 1973 and the Sonata for guitar written in 1987.

"Dark Angels" is a very difficult piece for both singer and guitarist, rhythmically complex and with a wide tessitura for the voice. Here is a performance (with the lyrics) by Susan Young and Alex Dunn:

The text is by the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown.

The Sonata for guitar from 1987 is fairly brief at around eleven minutes duration. Here is a performance by David Tannenbaum.

I find this a more pleasing piece than the songs, but I'm not sure why. They both share about the same level of dissonance. I suppose it is that I just don't care for this kind of vocal writing.

The first piece that garnered Maxwell Davies wide recognition was "Eight Songs for a Mad King" for a chamber ensemble plus voice. The ensemble is modeled after that of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire". This performance was under the supervision of the composer and the credits are at the beginning.

This is a brilliant depiction of madness and it cleverly utilizes tunes from a mechanical organ owned by George III and the libretto is based on words of the king. I have known this piece from the mid-70s when I purchased a vinyl recording of it. Now this is without a doubt a brilliant and dramatic piece of music, highly effective in its way. And I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't make it past the first few minutes. The depiction of madness is not a pleasant experience though there was a time when the inhabitants of London did visit Bedlam, the insane asylum, just for entertainment.

Here is my problem with this piece: it is very much in the tradition of Pierrot Lunaire, another depiction of madness, though in a more sedate Viennese manner. That, along with a lot of the music of the 20th century, is really recording the dissolution--the trainwreck--that was the end of European culture. From the brilliance of the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to the numerous advances of the 19th century, Europe went from strength to strength. And then it all went horribly wrong with the Great War to End All Wars (with a 20 year intermission to design more and better killing machines). Is it any wonder that artists went just as far off the rails as everyone else? They were, after all, just reacting to the carnage.

So I see Pierrot Lunaire and its successor Eight Songs for a Mad King as being the end of a story, with no real path forward. This is why I am so interested in someone like Steve Reich because he, instead of just doing Pierrot Lunaire over again, made a truly fresh start.

Another piece from around the same time as the Eight Songs is Maxwell Davies' music theatre piece "Vesalii Icones". Only a few excerpts are available on YouTube:

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Here is something you don't see too often, not if you live where I live--it's a mob of sitars!

Click to enlarge
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You know, when I saw this, I just thought it was perfect for the Friday miscellanea, that part of the week when the Music Salon, normally a place of genteel classical restraint and grace, lets down its hair and releases a pack of ravenous wolves:

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The British composer Max Richter has done some interesting things, including writing a piece for Hilary Hahn's encores album and recomposing Vivaldi's The Seasons, but this new piece seems a bit, well, soporific:

Here is an article on a recent performance in Berlin.

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Here is another article about that crisis in psychology--you know, the one where they are discovering that a great deal of the "settled science" is in fact, just wrong? The article is "Many scientific “truths” are, in fact, false." We tend to think that the arts are all fuzzy and subjective while the sciences, even the social sciences, are all objective and truthy. Turns out not to be so. In fact, I think there is considerably more objectivity in the arts than you might think. It is just that a lot of powerful people benefit from pulling the wool over our eyes!

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Could this be the reason no-one has invaded Switzerland for, oh, a thousand years or so?

You just don't want to mess with guys with this level of discipline...

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This is turning out to be a bad year for musicians: after seeing Nikolaus Harnoncourt and George Martin pass away in recent weeks, this week British composer Peter Maxwell Davies died. Here is a tribute by Simon Rattle. And here is a lovely piece for guitar by Davies. This is "Farewell to Stromness" played by Matthew McAllister:

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The art rock musician Keith Emerson also passed away recently and here is a brief note in Slipped Disc with a clip of a performance of his three string quartets!

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NewMusicBox, one of my bêtes noir, beats the drum for diversity: "Pursuing Diversity: New Voices, New Sounds."
Conversations about diversity are happening everywhere these days. The changing face of America is increasingly bringing what used to be a dodged or back-burnered dialogue to the forefront of the national debate. The visibility of this issue has grown in recent years due to highly publicized police incidents, national grass-roots protest and advocacy movements, and the resignation of university presidents. Talking about diversity can be difficult and potentially fear provoking, and can often leave people feeling defensive, shamed, or angry. But the discussion is happening. In a recent @musochat Twitter conversation, Gahlord Dewald led a fearless and poignant exchange about diversity in new music. Without presuming to have any answers, I want to expand the dialogue and rearticulate the pressing need for us to cultivate an atmosphere of active diversity in our music and projects. Not just because we should but also because the studies are clear: people thrive when surrounded by others who are different.
What I dislike about this kind of writing is that it reveals a mode of thought that is deeply unreflective, enslaved to every fashionable conceit and mired in cliché. Sadly, these folks, while following in lockstep every plank in the progressive platform, think they are speaking truth to power or something. I have news for them: the cultural Marxists ARE the establishment, firmly ensconced in the mass media, political offices and academia. Read the whole thing for a compendium of clever and innovative ways new musicians are finding to distract themselves from, you know, writing good music.

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Here is an interesting article on the mystery of Sibelius' Symphony No. 8.
From 1904 until his death in 1957, the composer Jean Sibelius lived some 20 miles north of Helsinki, in a rural villa built of timber and stone on the shores of Lake Tuusula. He called the house Ainola, after his wife, Aino. Surrounded by fields and birch forests, it befitted the isolation of Sibelius’s later years, when Finland’s most revered musician became a withdrawn, reclusive figure. From about 1933 onward, he published no music of any significance, nothing but a few trifles and arrangements. Yet he continued to wage a turbulent artistic struggle with himself as he attempted, over the course of several years, to write his Eighth Symphony.
Sometime in the 1940s, the struggle was seemingly lost. One day, Sibelius carried a laundry basket filled with his manuscripts into the dining room at Ainola and began feeding the pages into the raging fire in the stove. Aino, who would recall the event after her husband’s death, could confirm the identity of only one of the pieces her husband burned—the early Karelia Suite—but it is now considered a certainty that the Eighth Symphony was destroyed as well. Afterward, a strange calm descended upon the composer. His mood lightened. He appeared strangely optimistic, no longer depressed, as if the fire had brought on some magnificent catharsis.
I have my own theories about what went wrong, but read the whole article.

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I was thinking about putting up a major work by Peter Maxwell Davies for the envoi today, but I think I will save that and do some stand-alone posts on his music. So instead, let's listen to Sibelius' last completed symphony, the 7th. This the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, conductor:

Thursday, March 17, 2016

New Old Masters

Long time readers of this blog know that I have something of a radical, not to say reactionary, approach to aesthetics. I simply don't accept a lot of the fundamental principles of modernism and am constantly seeking another path. I think that a lot of the clues to that path lie in the great artistic traditions of Western art. But I am not the only person with this view. I just ran across a visual artist, New Yorker Jacob Collins, who has been teaching from this point of view for decades:
Collins explains: “My general feeling in terms of art making is the train got off the rails in the 1860s and 1870s, and my practical instinct is to go back to where it was, try to put it back, fix it up, and start going again.”
“Our culture,” he continued, “has inherited the idea that if artists are not avant-garde they cannot have a significant role. That’s a fallacy we’ve inherited from some Parisian nut-job radicals. The rejection of beauty is so accepted. It’s high time that we as a culture attend to our beauty position.” To much of the New York art world, Collins’s “beauty position,” which he applies to his own paintings of nudes, still lifes, and landscapes, might look embarrassingly retrograde. He enjoys the support of a small minority of critics and writers—most of whom, like him, regard modern art with skepticism. Novelist Tom Wolfe has called Collins “certainly in terms of skill, one of the most brilliant artists in the entire country.” But you would never find the Collins style in a commercial gallery in Chelsea, say, or in a museum survey of contemporary painting. Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, another Collins admirer, told me that he believed that the “current art establishment, the so-called gatekeepers, hate the kind of skill and craft and vision that an artist like Collins has.” Even among representational painters, Collins is a world away from fashionable realists like John Currin or Elizabeth Peyton, portraitists whom he sees as steeped in the ideology of detachment. Yet to a growing number of young students, Collins clearly satisfies a deep urge to reconnect with tradition. To them, he’s a radical artist in the true meaning of the word—“going to the origins.”
This is exactly the way I have characterized the way I look at it: "going to the origins". One of the posts where I laid this approach out was this one: "Progressivism vs..." In that post I coin a new word "racinative" to describe the action of going back to or rediscovering the roots of art.

In music the situation is different from the visual arts and this comes largely from the fact that music is a performing art. The arts departments in most universities were able to easily toss aside the whole traditional curriculum in the 70s because they could. It was very much harder for music departments because most of their students were not composers, but performers and people majoring in history, theory and music education. All of these students, the great majority, had to be taught all the traditional skills: ear training, harmonic analysis, counterpoint, history and, of course, performance with its emphasis on technique and repertoire--and that repertoire was largely the established canon of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and so on. Therefore, unlike in the visual arts, the historic traditions in music never went away, no matter how much the 20th century modernists tried to erase them. Our "nut-job radicals" just didn't have the clout they had in the visual arts.

But here is the problem: perhaps because the Classical traditions are still very much alive in music, when you try to emulate them it causes a kind of aesthetic short circuit. I think I have mentioned that as soon as you try to use one of the fundamental structural devices of classicism in a contemporary composition--I am thinking here of the cadence--it just collapses the whole piece. It sounds so jarringly wrong that you can't use it. Philip Glass has commented that the secret to harmony these days is to be ambiguous and that is what a cadence is not--ambiguous. It's entire purpose is to define and clarify the harmonic center. Perhaps we have Wagner to thank for draining the cadence of its useful identity, leaving it as nothing more than a hackneyed cliché.

So I look around and the composer who seems to have mastered this challenge is Steve Reich. He has indeed gone back to the origins--a long, long way back, to a kind of primeval state of music. Starting with the simple idea of a repeated pulse, he has, over the last forty-some years, worked to elaborate that single idea into an entirely new approach to musical structure. And one that sounds fresh and full of energy. It seems as if the continued presence of not only the Classical traditions, but also the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque ones in music means that in order to go back to the origins you have to go a long, long way back. A couple of other influences on Steve Reich are non-Western musics like the Balinese gamelan and the drum music of Ghana as well as 12th century organa.

But in the visual arts, the traditional methods of painting were so thoroughly killed off in the last one hundred years that painters now seem to be able to revive them by, as Collins says, going back to the 1860s and 70s. In music we have to go a lot further back--or away...

Here is a sample of drum music from Ghana:

Monday, March 14, 2016

Humanists, Ideologues and Careerists

This is kind of a footnote to the post I put up earlier today titled "The Composer and the World". As sometimes happens, after I posted it, some related thoughts kept running around in my head so here they are.

It occurs to me that there are different kinds of composers. I just did a post on Steve Reich talking about his pieces that involve some sort of text or message ("Trains and Planes"). As a matter of fact, in each case, I think the position that he appears to take is a humanist one, that is, showing compassion for human suffering. For that reason, I would characterise him as a humanist. A lot of composers probably are humanists, though in the absence of any kind of indicative text, I'm not sure how we would know for sure. Some other "humanist" composers: Joseph Haydn, Mozart, J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Messiaen--well, you could go on and on. I think that it would be very easy to find numerous examples for each of these composers showing a humanist orientation.

But what about those other categories? Who would be characterisable as an ideologue, for example? I would define "ideologue" as someone who is in the grip of an ideology. These are usually, it seems to me, totalitarian in nature. Examples would include fascism, Nazism, communism and so on. Human compassion comes a distant second to following the strict demands of the ideology. So who among composers might we put in this category? For artists, the category is much fuzzier than it would be in the political realm. A musical ideologue could be someone like Pierre Boulez who was utterly loyal to a kind of zeroing out ideology that declared all pre-serial music to be worthless--at least if it were composed now. For Boulez and his followers nothing could excuse the back-sliding tonal music of composers like Sibelius and Shostakovich. Other obviously ideological composers would include Cornelius Cardew, Fredric Rzewski and possibly someone like John Luther Adams, that is, if you consider environmentalism to be an ideology, which I do.

That leaves the category of careerism. I believe that composers of this ilk might not be really responding to an aesthetic vision, but rather reading the tea-leaves of the culture and coming up with something that follows some cultural trend. Someone once said that Stockhausen was always just five minutes ahead of what was fashionable--this is a critique of him as a careerist. Apart from him, who else might fit in this category? Bear in mind that there is a lot of guesswork involved, but someone who seems to respond all too readily to the needs of the cultural marketplace seems to fit. These are still serious artists, though, so the response might be indirect or delayed or even anticipatory as in the case of Stockhausen. I think that a likely example for this category would be Stravinsky, who always seemed to be catching the wave: exotic ballet, primitivism, neo-classicism and finally serialism. He also seems to prove that you can be both a careerist and a great composer.

This last point seems to show that these categories do not map directly onto aesthetic quality. Presumably you could be a first-rate humanist and a poor composer, just as you could be a careerist and yet a first-rate composer. I'm not so sure about ideologues; I suspect that the ideology pretty much stands in the way of the music, but I could be wrong. Would anyone like to venture some examples either way?

Let's have an envoi illustrating one of these categories. How about "Song for the British Working Class" by Cornelius Cardew:

The Composer and the World

The relationship between any artist and the world can be a complex one. Mind you, it doesn't have to be. You can be the useful sort of artist who is always reliably producing what people want--much like John Williams as he cranks out film score after film score to Hollywood blockbusters. And I don't in any way want to diminish what he does. Well, ok, I did say a couple of unkind things about him in a post once, complaining about how his work was rather derivative. But that is likely a necessity. If you are trying to burnish age-old archetypes, then you need to use well-known musical cues.

But you can be another sort of artist: the kind who is "pushing the envelope" or doing something that is "edgy" and therefore will appeal to the intellectual elite who live in New York or London. This is also a guarantee of a successful career, though one that will be less lucrative. Gets your name in the history books. This kind of artist/composer is exemplified by someone like John Cage.

Music composition is, like dance and theatre, a uniquely social art form as it needs performers (with the exception of electronic music) to be realized. Most successful composers have forged links with performers to get their music heard even if they had to virtually invent new kinds of performing ensembles as both Steve Reich and Philip Glass had to early in their careers. There were simply no pre-existing groups who could play the early music of Reich or Glass. But most composers have worked within the existing structures and institutions of musical ensembles even if their music was experimental. We can think of the examples of Pierre Boulez or Arnold Schoenberg or Bela Bartók or more recently John Adams or Esa-Pekka Salonen. These figures have successfully negotiated the existing institutions of classical music as avenues to performances of their music.

There is yet another group of figures who were so far out on the fringe of things that they existed largely outside all the means of musical production and either had to build their own instruments and find people to play them, like Harry Partch, or found a way of realizing their musical ideas without any recourse to performers at all, as in the case of Conlon Nancarrow.

Sometimes I think that I vaguely resemble Mr. Nancarrow who spent much of his life in exile in Mexico City, carefully carving slots into player piano rolls. You can read about him here. But I am not the free-spirited experimenter that he was. Nor am I interested in pushing the envelope the way that Cage did. Nor am I terribly interested in sterile abstraction as we find in the music of Boulez.

Sometimes I think that the difference between great talent and not-so-great talent sometimes boils down to having the right vision at the right time in your life and being in an environment where it can grow and be developed. I guess it is a bit complicated!

How it seems to work is that a composer has some kind of aesthetic vision and finds ways to realize this in compositions and then finds ways to enable people to hear the compositions. If he is very, very lucky some of the listeners at least will find enjoyment in the experience. It is pretty much a crap shoot! And the only thing that drives you on is the strength of that original vision.

I think that this is a piece that might have captured just a touch of my original musical vision. It is from a suite for guitar and this movement is titled "Chant". Here is the post.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Trains and Planes

I have always thought of Steve Reich as a composer of "absolute" music, that is, primarily instrumental music with no "message", political or other. That is certainly true of a lot of pieces, but there were two sides to Steve Reich even from the very early tape pieces in the mid-1960s. His two tape collages, "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out" both have a political subtext. Reich comments on the first piece that:
It’s Gonna Rain … is a very heavy piece written in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the voice is a spectacularly moving, intense voice about the end of the world. 
"Come Out" on the other hand, is a commentary on police brutality in the aftermath of the Harlem Riot of 1964. In both cases, he avoids any suggestion of melodrama or hectoring by simply using a fragment of recorded speech as material to be put into a characteristically Reichian musical process.

For over a decade he pursued purely musical processes in pieces like "Drumming", "Octet" and "Music for 18 Musicians". Then in 1981 he wrote "Tehillim", a setting in four movements of texts from the Hebrew Psalms. In 1988 he explored another aspect of his Jewish heritage with the piece "Different Trains" for tape and string quartet. On the tape are recorded speech fragments from Reich's governess Virginia and a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence, both of whom talk about traveling on trains before the Second World War when Reich, as a young boy, travelled back and forth between his two separated parents, living in Los Angeles and New York. The second movement uses speech fragments from survivors of the Holocaust who had their own train journeys with rather a different destination--the extermination camps. Also on the tape are train sounds from the 30s and 40s and pre-recorded string quartet music. In the liner notes to the CD, Steve Reich gives an example of how he uses speech fragments to generate the melodic material:

Click to enlarge

He used a similar procedure in the composition "WTC 9/11" a memorial of the terrorist attacks in September 2001 that brought down the two towers of the World Trade Center. In his abbreviation, "WTC" stands for both World Trade Center and for the "world to come" from a recorded speech fragment. The piece uses extensive recordings from NORAD and the Fire Department of New York recorded during the event and, in the second movement, from recollections of survivors recorded in 2010. The third movement uses recordings of the voices of people who sat by the bodies reciting passages from the Psalms and other biblical texts, the Jewish tradition called Shmira. The result is a kind of dark oratorio using as text nothing but words spoken by witnesses to the event.

In the case of both of these pieces, melodrama and emotional excess are avoided by using the basic materials to generate musical processes. I don't mean to imply that this is not extremely effective musically--it is, and nowhere more so than in the beautiful and lyric third movement of "WTC 9/11".

Here is the first part of "Different Trains" and right near the beginning you can hear the melodic example I posted above:

Here is a live performance of "WTC 9/11" with the Kronos Quartet. The last movement begins around the ten minute mark:

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Dolors of Psychology

Margaret Wente, my favorite columnist at the Globe and Mail, has an excellent column on the recent travails of social psychology: "Social psychology's credibility crisis". I mention this because this bears out a view I came to personally some twenty years ago. After noticing that every time I read a book on neurosis it seemed to make me more neurotic, I decided that perhaps there was something deeply wrong with modern psychology. Deciding it was like a religion, or perhaps a cult, I simply stopped believing in it and stopped using the associated technical terms like "ego", "id", "subconscious" and so on. I'm not denying any actual facts here, just the weird theories scaffolded around them. As a result, I no longer have neuroses! Heh.

Anyway, back to Margaret's column:
The bombshell came last August, after an inquisitive scientist at the University of Virginia, Brian Nosek, launched something called the Reproducibility Project. It was designed to test how reliable psychology studies really are. Hundreds of researchers replicated 100 published psychological experiments to see if they could get the same results. Their success rate was a dismal 36 per cent. There’s been a lot of squabbling over those results. But the Reproducibility Project was just the latest in a string of doubts and scandals that have plagued the field. And now, a lot of people, including scientists who have invested years of their professional lives in these theories, feel as if they’re in a train wreck.
Yep, 64% of the studies they examined are simply ... wrong. I don't know about you, but I demand a slightly higher level of accuracy. When I gave concerts, the standard of accuracy was probably 99% and even that one percent some audience members would notice!

Let me link this to a recent post on music. The post on polymeter I just put up a few days ago cited a couple of examples where the tension between the two meters was what drove the piece forward. Now, according to psychology, this isn't possible because they believe that in any case where there are two different meters or textures or whatever, one will inevitably be perceived as "figure" and the other as "ground". This is the classic example:

This will be perceived as either a vase or two people facing one another in profile, but not both simultaneously. But music doesn't work like that. In both of the examples I cited it is the tension from hearing both of the layers that gives the music its drive. Music simply is not analogous to the visual environment.

Here is another example from Margaret's essay:
The prevailing theory is that willpower is a finite resource, like a muscle that can be exercised to exhaustion. This is among the most widely accepted findings in social psychology. But is it true? Maybe not. Prof. Inzlicht was part of a replication team that chose one classic experiment on the depletion theory of willpower, and repeated it in 24 different labs. And what they found was – nothing. Only three of the labs produced any significant result at all, and one of those was negative.
Psychology often seems to rely on some crude analogy and then cobbles up some statistically smelly studies to "prove" it. Why not think of willpower as being a virtue of habit as Aristotle would have characterized it? You learn it by observing a model and become good at it with practice until it becomes a habit--oddly enough, just as a muscle becomes stronger with use.

I'm pretty leery of everything science tends to claim about music and aesthetics--but I am twice as leery if it comes from the pseudo-discipline of modern psychology. Psychology, by the way, was invented by Aristotle in the 4th century BC and his psychology is still pretty good.

Let's listen to a little music to close. How about a bulerías by Sabicas illustrating the drive coming from the skillful use of polymeter:

UPDATE: I changed the clip for a different one.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Critical thinking is more often praised in the abstract than actually practiced. As an example, I present the case of a theory--or rather bald assertion--about the nature of taste that has been accepted wisdom for a long, long time. I recall reading a long time ago, when I was fairly young, the claim that different parts of the tongue are responsible for the different kinds of taste: sweet, salty and so on. Well, it turns out that this all rests on a mistranslation. Here is the article: "How a mistranslation made you think your tongue had 'taste zones' ".
the 'taste zone' map was first sketched and published in 1942 by Edwin G. Boring, a psychologist who worked for multiple universities in his time such as Harvard and Clark University.
Boring's map outlined areas for four tastes - sweet, supposedly at the tip of the tongue; salty and then sour in the middle; and bitter at the very back - but didn’t account for the fifth: umami, a taste that is often described as 'meaty', sort of like how MSG tastes.
This error was because, according to Steven D. Munger from The Conversation, Boring got most of his data from a 1901 paper by a German scientist named David P. Hänig, who also failed to test for umami.
Hänig, unlike Boring, presented his information in a graph that was incredibly confusing to other researchers at the time, because it appeared to outline where tastes were picked up on the tongue. In reality, he was trying to show that areas of the tongue were slightly more sensitive to certain tastes than others, not that they were only sensed in these areas, which is a pretty big difference.
When I think back I realize that a huge portion of my education consisted in accepting bald, weakly supported, assertions about a host of things that I later on had to think through and excise! What has your experience been?

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Is this finally a reason to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma? Sure, if you are a Bob Dylan scholar: "Inside Bob Dylan's Historic New Tulsa Archive: 'It's an Endless Ocean' "
Tulsa, Oklahoma, is about to become the center of the Bob Dylan universe. The singer-songwriter has sold a previously unknown treasure trove of 6,000 artifacts from his private collection — including handwritten lyrics, photographs, contracts and private letters alongside video and audio recordings — to the University of Tulsa and the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation, and they will be soon be accessible to Dylan scholars from around the world. "There are a lot of books written about Bob Dylan," says Steadman Upham, president of the University of Tulsa. "But there are going to be a whole lot more based on these materials." 
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George Martin has died at 90 years of age. He was the first record producer to recognize the skills and potential of the Beatles. He made the instrumental arrangements that backed up many of the Beatles' best songs like the string quartet behind "Yesterday" and the octet accompanying "Eleanor Rigby" not to mention the orchestral arrangements for "A Day in the Life", "Strawberry Fields" and "I Am the Walrus". None of the Beatles could read or write music notation, so if a part had to be written down for a studio musician to play, it was George who did it. He also played piano on some of their earlier albums. You would be shocked to hear how little he got paid for producing the earlier recordings!

Click to enlarge
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And now for some classical news: pianist Yefim Bronfman has just traversed all of the Prokofiev piano sonatas in three concerts at the University of California’s Hertz Hall—offering Sonatas Nos. 1 through 4 on Jan. 24; 5 through 7 on March 4; and 8 and 9 on March 6. The Wall Street Journal has an article "A Program in Praise of Prokofiev." I'm a bit surprised to hear that this is a rare, if not unprecedented, event. But then again, I realize that I have only heard a couple of these sonatas myself. Maybe I should do some posts on them...

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I don't think that the editors who affix the headlines to articles always read the articles! That might be the case with this piece from the Guardian: "CBSO/Chauhan review – new Golijov cello concerto given fine debut" As we learn in the article:
The City of Birmingham Symphony’s spring season includes three significant UK premieres. Works by Hans Abrahamsen and John Luther Adams are due in the next two months. The first of the novelties was Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul, a cello concerto in all but name.
It’s not, by any means, a brand-new work: Yo-Yo Ma gave the first performance of Azul with the Boston Symphony Orchestra a decade ago, and Golijov has revised it a couple of times since.
What caught my attention was the phrase "new cello concerto" because the last we heard much of Golijov was a few years ago when he was first accused of plagiarism and then had to delay and cancel some premieres. He had, it seems, hit a composer's block. Based on this NOT being a new piece, it seems he is still caught in that block.

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Very sad news, one of my favorite conductors, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, passed away this week, aged 86: "Nikolaus Harnoncourt obituary"
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who has died aged 86, was one of the most innovative and influential conductors of the second half of the 20th century, bringing the scholarship and sensibility of historical performance to the mainstream repertoire with sometimes controversial, but always illuminating results.
With the Concentus Musicus of Vienna, an ensemble he formed in the early 1950s, he recorded, in collaboration with his friend Gustav Leonhardt, the complete sacred cantatas of JS Bach and continued to work with the group in later years. But he also began to operate with modern instrumental ensembles, notably the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and, later, the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, in classical and Romantic repertoire. Performances of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Dvořák, among others, were distinguished by their bracingly astringent qualities. While some found such readings mannered and idiosyncratic, others relished their freshness and vigour. He made more than 500 recordings.
I have his recordings of both the Beethoven and Schubert symphonies and one of the first recordings of early music I ever purchased was his production of Monteverdi's Orfeo.

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This gives us our envoi for this week. Here is Nikolaus Harnoncourt in one of his last projects: a fresh approach to the last three Mozart symphonies with the Concentus Musicus Wein:

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


I was listening to some Steve Reich the other day and I either noticed something for the first time, or rediscovered something I noticed decades ago: one of the techniques he uses is something you might call "polymeter" though it doesn't really fit into either of the categories described in the Wikipedia article.

Polymeter, very simply, is when you have more than one meter at the same time. In the way it is used by Steve Reich it is a kind of development of the age-old technique of hemiola that I talked about in this post. As you can see in that post, it was often used in the Baroque to signal a cadence or the end of a section. It is also a feature of Spanish music to this day. You can hear it in the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo and in genres like the zapateado. It is a particularly powerful element in the flamenco form called bulerías, described in this article from Wikipedia which very usefully has a sound clip illustrating the effect. They don't describe it as a polymeter, though that is really what it is as what gives the music its impetus is the tension between 3/4 and 6/8 which we hear simultaneously:

It is traditionally counted in 12 with the top part as either two bars of 6/8 or one bar of 12/8. The lower part is in 12/8 or 6/8 for the first half of the bar and shifts to 3/4 in the second half. What makes this pattern sound odd to our ears is that metric groups in flamenco don't begin with a downbeat as they ordinarily do in Western music, but rather end with the downbeat. The strongest beat here is actually the twelfth.

Steve Reich has used a similar effect to create impetus in a number of pieces including Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians. Here is what he does:

I haven't looked to see if this is how he notates it, but it might be different in different pieces. I just discovered last night that you can view various scores by Steve Reich on the Boosey and Hawkes website, so I will be able to examine them in some detail in the future. But for now, this is what I hear happening. The top part can be heard in various meters: 2/4, 4/4 or any multiple, but it is really a two-beat package. The tension comes from the other part being in either 3/4 or 6/4 depending on how you hear it. And, of course, he is constantly shifting everything around, so you hear it in different ways in different places. But the basic idea is the same as the bulerías: tension and impetus created through the layering of two different meters on top of one another. The sensation is hard to describe, but it is a kind of rolling over feeling as the meters interact with one another.

This might seem a simple kind of technique, but I think that the strength of it in both flamenco and especially in Steve Reich's music is that he finds ways to make you feel it very clearly. Frankly, there are piles and stacks of music that use every kind of complicated effect there is and the final result is a jumble of confusion. The important thing is to get the listener to hear what you are doing and Steve Reich is the master of that. Here are the first two parts of Drumming, which uses this technique and a bunch of others. The second clip begins with a passage using a pattern similar to the one I show above: