Friday, April 8, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Here is an essay by philosopher Roger Scruton on the unintended (?) consequences of the saturation of all public spaces with dreary, pop-oriented soundtracks: "Why it's time to turn the music off."
The belief that there is a difference between good and bad, meaningful and meaningless, profound and vapid, exciting and banal - this belief was once fundamental to musical education. But it offends against political correctness. Today there is only my taste and yours. The suggestion that my taste is better than yours is elitist, an offence against equality. But unless we teach children to judge, to discriminate, to recognise the difference between music of lasting value and mere ephemera, we give up on the task of education. Judgment is the precondition of true enjoyment, and the prelude to understanding art in all its forms.
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This is just perfect for the Friday Miscellanea: "Suri Cruise fires her music teacher over 'creative differences' " Heh! She's nine and had a guitar teacher before they parted ways. It's all about standards.

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Is this an April Fool's joke or a real story? I can't tell. "Musician sues Royal Opera House over ruined hearing."
A renowned viola player is suing the Royal Opera House for ruining his hearing and his career during rehearsals of Wagner's Die Walkure.
Chris Goldscheider claims his hearing was irreversibly damaged by brass instruments put immediately behind him.
The Musicians' Union says hearing damage is a major problem for musicians playing in orchestras.
The Royal Opera House denies it is responsible, but around a quarter of its players suffer hearing illnesses.
In court documents seen by the BBC, Goldscheider claims that in 2012 his hearing was "irreversibly damaged" during rehearsals of Richard Wagner's thunderous Die Walkure "from brass instruments placed immediately behind him" in the famous "pit" at the Royal Opera House.
The sound peaked at around 137 decibels, which is roughly the sound of a jet engine.
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Here is an interesting review of a performance of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Toronto with piano soloist Gabriela Montero. Interesting because it is a nice, traditional review with no irrelevant "social justice" axe-grinding.

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Terry Teachout is a pretty good critic writing on the arts at the Wall Street Journal. This week he took up a question that has had a lot of discussion around here: the issue of quality in the arts. The piece is titled "Pandering or Populism in the Arts?"
Time was when [museums] operated on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, proceeding on the assumption that museums are teaching institutions whose curators know more about art than their patrons do. The same was historically true of performing-arts organizations like symphony orchestras and theater companies: They existed to give the public access to major works of art, and they presented those works in such a way as to explicate and illuminate their importance.
All this used to apply to the IMA, whose 54,000-work collection contains such indisputably major paintings as Cézanne’s “House in Provence” and Van Gogh’s “Enclosed Field With Peasant.” But times have changed, and nothing is more illustrative of the nature of those changes than the following press release: “The Indianapolis Museum of Art will tee off its summer season on May 6 with a new interactive art experience—an artist-designed putt-putt course set within the beauty of the IMA campus. Mini Golf at the IMA combines original art with playful competition. The course, located on the IMA’s Alliance Sculpture Court, features 18 holes designed by local and regional artists. In honor of Indiana’s 2016 Bicentennial, each hole is inspired by Indiana history, heritage and landmarks.”
Terry's conclusion is that this is more pandering than populism and it is a trend that he abhors. The charge of elitism, usually a club to beat up people who argue for quality in aesthetics, has been wielded so successfully that even major museums and art galleries think that their job is to offer the public mini-golf rather than some exposure to artists like Van Gogh. When did this happen? And how can we turn it around?

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Here is a piece that seems to echo a lot of discussions we have had here: "Brave Old World: On Ruining Paris." This sums it up pretty well:
From the Gallo-Roman era to the recent past, almost everything Parisians built was beautiful, in many cases more beautiful than anything else in the world; and at least, not aggressively ugly.
After the Second World War, Parisians lost this ability — entirely. What has been built since then is at best tolerable, and at worst, among the ugliest architecture in the world.
 Why?
 Translating that into musical terms we might note that true polyphonic music, in notation at least, was virtually an invention of the Parisian composers Léonin and Pérotin around the year 1200. And music in Paris was gloriously composed by people like the Couperins, Louis and François, Rameau, Gluck, Berlioz, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Satie, Debussy and Ravel. Then, after the Second World War we had Boulez and his followers. I think it is entirely in order to ask what happened and why.
Europe is justly famed for beautiful cities, but none of that beauty was created after the war. The mystery of that is profound. What causes a whole continent suddenly to lose its genius? That there’s a connection to the war is clear, but what exactly was the cause and the mechanism of the loss?
The nearest I can come to an answer is a kind of aesthetic post-traumatic stress disorder.

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I'm rather a fan of the music of Messiaen so this sounds like a fascinating project: all of his Catalogue d'oiseaux performed in various natural settings in and around Aldeburgh. There is a sample at the link.


But I should point out that the sound you hear is not the kind of sound that would be heard in that open space. It is most certainly a studio sound. So the music was prerecorded in the studio and the pianist is finger-syncing for the video. Another clue is that there are no microphones present! This is not a complete performance: Le Courlis cendré takes around eleven minutes to perform, not two.

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Alex Ross, the New Yorker's music critic seems to have wandered off the reservation with this piece on the inscrutable French poet Mallarmé: "Encrypted" There is a musical connection, of course:
...his influence has been immense. Paul Claudel and Paul Valéry moved in his shadow; so, to varying degrees, did Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and, especially, Wallace Stevens, who staged similar collisions of grand abstraction and mundane reality. Mallarmé also affected the visual artists of his time, having helped to define Impressionism in an 1876 essay; Manet, Whistler, Gauguin, and Renoir made portraits of him, Degas photographed him. In music, the advent of modernism is often pegged to Debussy’s 1894 composition “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun,’ ” a meditation on Mallarmé’s most famous poem.

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 Here is a meditation on why the music of Bach is so appropriate to ameliorate the stress of traumatic events: 
Nobody says J.S. Bach cures post-traumatic stress disorder. But few would be surprised if his music helped, whether it is the Goldberg Variations, heard after the Paris terror attacks last November, or the St. Matthew Passion on the day after the Brussels suicide bombings last month.
Not every composer writes music with medicinal effects. Mahler's darker symphonies could make a bad day even worse. Yet Bach (despite the furrowed brow and 18th-century wig seen in formal portraits) is described by passionate advocates as music for times of modern-day crisis, music that can help rebuild order in shattered psyches - one reason the Matthew Passion went on as scheduled in Brussels.
"Bach's music has the capacity to reach out to everyone," said conductor John Eliot Gardiner in his pre-performance remarks the day after the March 22 Brussels attacks. "His St. Matthew Passion expresses better than any other music a deep sense of human suffering." Then he requested a moment of silence.
Perhaps it is because the music of Bach has a solidity, a confidence, a kind of transcendental inevitability about it with none of the shifty nuance of so much recent music.

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At the end of today's miscellanea I feel we deserve two envois to carry us through the day. First, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune by Claude Debussy. This is the Montreal Symphony conducted by Charles Dutoit and those luscious flute solos are played by my old friend Tim Hutchins.


And let's also hear some Bach. I have put up the Matthew Passion before a couple of times and talked about the Goldberg Variations a lot, so let's listen to a bit of the St. John Passion. This is the opening chorus with Bach's own manuscript:


7 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Poor Suri! I felt a bit guilty about laughing out loud but, eh.

You will recall perhaps that I 'heard' Marin Alsop Saturday-- she was music director here from '86 to '99, something like that. Apparently she was known also then for being an exponent of the modern! the new! the progessive! & for favoring all of that over the old decrepit classical warhorses &c &c. & evidently at some level the Eugene audience was receptive to that line, & in any case over time an empathy begins to exist, whether one agrees with specific programming decisions or not... anyway, the point is that while everyone seemed to be happy that she was back on the podium, I had to wonder how many actually listened to her jocular mockery of what I'm describing in shorthand as 'the old', with its implicit denigration of the classical 'canon' and the seasons' content of most symphony orchestras (including Eugene's)-- epater les bourgeois while they're a captive audience, and convince them to love it, too! She was perfectly polite & gracious (of course), after the concert, I mean, & I didn't have the courage to ask her about any of this nor would it have been appropriate in the circumstances. We have to repeat the phrases taught us by the cultural hegemons, whether we actually believe them or think they're nonsense.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marin Alsop was for quite a few years the music director of the Cabrillo Festival, an important festival of contemporary music. So she is something of a specialist in contemporary music just as Trevor Pinnock is a specialist in 18th century music. I'm not sure we should hold that against her.

What did she say or do that was a denigration of the classical canon? I'm curious.

Marc Puckett said...

I think the key phrase there was 'jocular mockery'-- I would be hard pressed to recall the specific word choices she made. KWAX is broadcasting a recording of the concert next month, I think, that I'll try to listen to. It is possible I'm overly sensistive to even jocular assaults on the old order, ahem. The president of the trustees irritated me at the very beginning, when he took to the stage to beg us to complete the to-be-emailed questionnaire about our reactions to the 'gala', by joking that 'and if you aren't using email you probably shouldn't be at this evening's [Adams/Bernstein/James Johnson ('Charleston')] show'-- presumably if I were there just because of the Mahler I could remain content in my use of pen and ink. It's possible also that I have misunderstood Marin Alsop's history here-- perhaps each of her non-BBB programming choices were cavilled at and fought against tooth and nail; I don't know. She did, in her opening remarks, refer to our fair "little city" and lovely "little orchestra", which I thought was perhaps a bit patronising, ha, but I expect was more rightly understood as simple truth spoken affectionately. The folks I talked to seemed to have been more bemused than outraged by her 'modern' choices; and perhaps learning that she featured Bernstein's Mass (in her last season, did she say?) didn't earn her any points in my book, either.

A propos the David Patrick Stearns review of the Tharaud therapeutic Bach, I happened to see this at a site called We left at the interval... (the Berlioz opera Béatrice et Bénédict is being done here next season, so I went looking about; the performance he's talking about was done at La Monnaie's temporary venue): "At the rear was a war-memorial wall of dead soldiers's photos that the living soldiers burst through in modern camouflage with guns (with Brussels still in shock after suicide bombings in March, we had been warned about this in advance by management). Wardrobes that at first were linen cupboards became soldiers' lockers, and were later used for hiding in and eavesdropping from before lying down and turning into a banqueting table. Washtubs became bathtubs as the soldiers stripped to their boxers to soap down. ("This being La Monnaie," said a friend after, "it's a wonder they kept anything on at all.")" It doesn't seem like this was therapeutic Berlioz.

ursusdc@netscape.net (Patrick) said...

Re the Roger Scruton: First he comes across as a curmudgeon, smugly dismissing young people and their way of experiencing music. A malicious tone.
But to his simplistic solution that we teach 'judgement'. Who's judgement? Pierre Boulez's (RIP)? A Tchaikovsky devotee? A Classical snob who sees no value in folk or jazz styles? I agree with him that learning an instrument is crucial, and I actually think more young people participate in that than he lets on. But musical judgement is terribly subjective, and 'teaching' it is nearly impossible, I tend to think. Even an individual can come to different judgements, depending on their mood and the time of day.

Bryan Townsend said...

Patrick, welcome to the Music Salon, where we reserve a special place for curmudgeons!

Scruton does not dismiss young people and their music tout simple. He believes that pop music, like all other music, is of variable quality. He is arguing for valuation, judgment and active listening instead of just letting whatever is around lap over you.

It seems as if it is the concept of judgement that you reject. This is of course the received wisdom of the day but one that I have spent hundreds of posts trying to critique. Perhaps you might look around on the blog? Just type "aesthetics" into the search gadget. Musical judgement can certainly be very subjective, but that kind of judgement is just poor judgement. When done well, backed up by a great deal of knowledge and experience, aesthetic judgement can be quite objective. But that is a Forbidden Truth these days.

Marc Puckett said...

Bryan, You'll have seen this somewhere or other, James Levine being retired at the Metropolitan Opera. NL at Slipped Disc, eh-- [http://slippedisc.com/2016/04/sad-end-for-a-once-great-conductor/]; one commenter said 'tasteless' but really what caught my eye was that he devoted more space to Levine's 'emotional intelligence' and (according to him anyway) his less than great people skills than to his musicianship. Pft.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hadn't seen that, but I guess this had been coming for quite a while as his health was failing.