Monday, October 31, 2016

Beach Privilege

In the category of "writing about music that is so bad it is impossible to parody" I think we have a winner! And, for extra schadenfreude goodness, it's in the New York Review of Books. They really should have stuck to books. But no, Ben Ratliff just had to opine about the philosophical problem of the Beach Boys and now we can all laugh until the tears roll down our cheeks. We will get to the music in a minute, but first let's savour just how bad the writing is:
The story of the Beach Boys is a kind of philosophical problem. Not that they didn’t make some albums still eminently worth hearing, if we go by the unit of the album: Pet Sounds, from 1966, is the prize pony, full of confident hits as well as deep-purple self-absorption...
It is the kind of writing that has the feel of being machine-translated from one of the Finno-Ugric tongues--Estonian, perhaps. "Unit of the album?" "Prize pony?" "Deep-purple self-absorption?"

But the most delicious bits come later. After reading this section, I had to sit down and catch my breath:
But time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Their best-known hits (say, “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around”) are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights.
"Beach privilege?" Hard to imagine why any respectable rock-and-roller from the mid-60s wouldn't see their first priority as being to help folks achieve their, ahem, "social rights." This doesn't deserve a critique, of course, but it does deserve a long hard cackle followed by a bottle of Mogen David perhaps. But let's continue:
A lot of the allure of the Beach Boys may be about not knowing: about us not knowing them, which is pretty common in the relationship between pop stars and their audiences, but also about them—in some way, if only a performed way—not knowing themselves.
And a lot of the allure of this essay is about knowing--or not-knowing--just what it is the writer thinks he knows or not-knows about his own unique literary style. This bit captures the unerring sophistication of his musical understanding:
[Brian Wilson] often brings up “Be My Baby,” and the song’s ability to “make emotions through sound.” You sense that this is where Wilson really lives: in emotions triggered by sound.
My lord that's weird! A musician who lives in emotions triggered by sound? What next?

Sadly, the essay just meanders on to its lame conclusion which we can mercifully ignore. But hey, let's listen to that song "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes.

Well, that certainly brings up the urgent question did The Ronettes fully realise their responsibility to help everyone toward their self-determination, not to mention achieving their social rights?


There is actually a musical answer to that question, and it is by the Beach Boys:

Audiophile Sound Systems

I opened up the link to the New York Times article with anticipation: Listening Clubs Tantalize Audiophiles in London:
Numerous listening clubs now invite people to experience recorded music played through hi-fi rigs that most humble audiophiles can only dream about.
The newest is Spiritland, a cafe-bar in central London that claims to offer “the best sound system in the world” — an imposing array that dominates the room like a shrine in a temple. Two sets of bulky yet elegant speakers finished in vintage wood sit on either side of an Italian amplifier with colorful valves and tubes that glow orange when the lights are low.
“I always wanted to go somewhere which could be all about musical appreciation, to hear someone dig really deeply into their record collection and explore their private passions,” said Paul Noble, Spiritland’s creative director. After two successful years with a pop-up venture at a restaurant in East London, his team found a permanent home and invested heavily in a customized system, designed by the British company Living Voice. It is valued at just under a half-million dollars.
Well, cool! We used to listen together a lot. With a friend I spent a few nights building a Marantz kit amplifier because we couldn't afford to buy an expensive one. One time I blew his mind by slapping on a record of the Mars movement from Gustav Holst's The Planets when he had the headphones on. That'll wake you up.

However, as the article progressed I began to get uneasy:
“These speakers were built totally without compromise,” Mr. Noble said. “When you have equipment this good, it can deliver such high quality that it emotionally connects you to the music. We’re not afraid to say that listening to music is a very magical thing.”
Listening to music is always magical if the music is magical and if you are really paying attention it doesn't have much to do with the sound system. I remember reading an article in an audiophile magazine decades ago about what different systems people had. There was this prominent audiophile with his expensive system raving about the physical presence of the music when he listened to a Mahler symphony. Then there was Pablo Casals sitting listening to an old record of Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin on a tiny little box system. The contrast was striking. I'm pretty sure that Maestro Casals, with his little box, was getting more out of the listening than the audiophile because he was listening to the music, not the sound system.

As I read on, it all became clear:
At a recent Classic Album meeting, a pair of Klipsch La Scala speakers (valued at $8,000) were installed in the basement bar of an East London hotel on either side of a Rega P9 turntable at center stage. The audience sat in rapt silence for New Order’s 1983 record “Power, Corruption & Lies,” taking in every detail of the sparkling electro-pop riffs, soaring vocals and bouncy polyrhythmic beats.
They're listening to electro-pop!?!?!?!?!? Agghh!

Because I move around a lot, not just city to city, but country to country sometimes, I tend to lose my sound system as soon as I get a good one. That Marantz amp that we built from a kit? A couple of years later I sold it when I moved to Spain to study. In Montreal, years later, when I started listening to a lot of Shostakovich, I realized that my speakers just couldn't really project the low bass lines with much clarity so I bought a pair of Cerwin-Vega speakers for around $500. They sounded great. Alas, a couple of years later I moved to Mexico so I had to sell that system. For a while I had no designated system, just computer speakers, then a low-end component system. So a couple of years ago I decided to invest in a decent system and bought a Harmon/Kardon CD player all-in-one system that they apparently don't make any more:

The sound is very good, but I thought it might be a little weak in the bass, so I added a Polk Audio sub-woofer:

And that's it. I have a good pair of AKG headphones, but I rarely use them. This system, which is under a thousand dollars, (including the headphones) is quite sufficient for my listening needs. Orchestral players that hear what the orchestra sounds like every day from the inside, also think my system works just fine. Emotional connection? You bet.

Let's hear that Mars movement as our envoi:

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Book Review: The New Philistines

One item in my Friday Miscellanea this week was a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Sohrab Amari, a journal editorial writer based in London. The piece is an excerpt from his just-published book The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts. I downloaded the Kindle version (the hard copy is not yet available) and spent part of yesterday reading it--which was not hard as it is only 144 pages long.

Some background: as readers of the blog know, I am something of an apostate when it comes to contemporary art. In the first half of my career as a performer I did a great deal of contemporary music including national and regional premieres of works by Hans Werner Henze, Jacques Hétu, Léo Brouwer, Claude Vivier and many others and world premieres of works by Anthony Genge and other Canadian composers. To an extent I specialized in contemporary music. But as time went on, I gravitated more and more to the mainstream repertoire for two reasons: it was what audiences preferred and I began to have some real misgivings about the aesthetic value of a lot of contemporary music. I began to see the foundation of aesthetics as being more transcendent and universal and less about progressive politics. Indeed, progressive politics began more and more to leave a bad taste.

This blog explores these kinds of questions and I am happy to discover that there are a lot of readers who find this interesting.

I am not the only one to critique current trends in contemporary art, of course, and I read Amari's book with interest. But apart from its brevity, it fell a bit short of expectations. As one would expect, Amari is not a bad writer, but he has perhaps insufficient background and exposure to the history of art and aesthetics. The book reads just a bit like a master's paper, but without the necessary references. But the core of his critique is sound: that a great deal (not all) of contemporary art is obsessed with identity politics and approaches them with a fixed set of ideological formulas. Amari's point, and it is a good one, is that contemporary art is disfigured and restricted by politics to the point that it scarcely has an aesthetic any more. It resembles propaganda as much as anything. In defence of this critique, he visits a few London venues and describes them in some detail. And that, I'm afraid, is pretty much it!

One of the most valuable parts of the book is a discussion of four basic principles operating in the art world: Intersectionality, which is the analysis of social identity from the point of view of systems of oppression and discrimination; Visibility, which is becoming suspect as a political principle as so many battles for the inclusion of previously marginal groups have been won; Individualism, which is anathema if you are only interested in group identity; and Legibility, which refers to work that appeals to a broad audience--what around here we call "canonicity". So, three of the four technical terms refer to things that are undesirable to the progressive art world.

One way the book overreaches is by insisting that contemporary art is only about identity politics. A lot of it is, certainly, but it also takes in other political issues such as environmentalism. Just think of the music of John Luther Adams for one example. But this just reinforces the fundamental truth that a large amount of contemporary art consists in the re-hashing of politics under the guise of art. You can trace all this back to the French Revolution, which was the first occasion when art was harnessed to the purpose of re-making society according to progressive principles. This has returned over and over again every time some political "vision" takes hold: Woodrow Wilson's Americanism, Benito Mussolini's Fascism, Adolf Hitler's National Socialism, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Joseph Stalin's Socialist Realism--all of these involved the creation of new men through means that often included propaganda in the form of art. You might be shocked at who I include in that list, side by side, but I think the historical evidence is pretty clear.

The sad truth is that art has been conscripted into the progressive project and the aesthetic cost is enormous. Not all art, of course, but the concentration on political ways and means seems to have created a situation where those people most gifted at political power and manipulation, are pulling the strings, making sure that the "right" artists are the ones honored and commissioned and the "wrong" artists are excluded--right and wrong from a political point of view! In music this project seems, perhaps because of the abstractness of the medium, to have been less successful in picking winners and losers, but not entirely so.

What is needed is some pretty powerful works of art that do not follow the party line, and we do have a few of those, but equally important are writings that explain what is going on in clear and powerful terms so that the grip that politics has on art can be loosened in the mainstream culture. This book is a promising attempt, but we need a lot more. We need writers that have, not only enthusiasm and good instincts, but also the intellectual skills to make the argument very strongly.

Let's end with a quote from Amari's Wall Street Journal excerpt that gives some sense of his approach:

Soon after seizing power in 1979, Iran’s new Islamist regime set about transforming the country’s identity by staging a “cultural revolution.” Followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini temporarily closed the universities, purged thousands of ideologically suspect faculty and students and rewrote the curriculum wholesale.
My mother, then an art student in Tehran, remembers how the revolutionaries raided the country’s great libraries, using markers to cross out offensive images in the art books. The nascent Islamic Republic was fighting a bloody war against Iraq at the time, but there was also a battle on the home front: against Hellenistic sculpture, the Renaissance nude and American cinema.
Growing up in that climate alerted me to the power of great art. Khomeini’s regime was a seemingly omnipotent police state that claimed to derive legitimacy from Almighty God. Yet it was somehow fearful of the human form (and the human soul) as represented by, say, Titian.
There was some connection between beauty and freedom—a link I only made years later after immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager. The mullahs resorted to censorship and violence to sever that connection. But in the Free World today it has been severed, not by any repressive regime, but by the art world itself.
Art is at its best, not when it aligns itself with one political vision or the other, but when it rejects the political in favor of the aesthetic. So let's have a contemporary example of that. Here is a piece by György Kurtág for string quartet, Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky, Op. 28. Blogger doesn't want to embed so you have to follow the link:

Friday, October 28, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Sometimes I worry that I amuse you too much with these Friday miscellaneas, I really do. So to cool things down a bit, I want to start off with a very calming piece of performance art. The description I think really captures what is going on. Just follow the link for "Wall Melody."

* * *

It is always heartening to read a well-argued defence of aesthetic beauty and this one, in the Wall Street Journal, is worth your time because it looks at the situation from a different angle: Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful?
There was some connection between beauty and freedom—a link I only made years later after immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager. The mullahs resorted to censorship and violence to sever that connection. But in the Free World today it has been severed, not by any repressive regime, but by the art world itself.
In today’s art scene, the word “beauty” isn’t even part of the lexicon. Sincerity, formal rigor and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendent—all of these ideals, once thought timeless, have been thrust aside to make room for the art world’s one totem, its alpha and omega: identity politics.

* * *

I know you've been waiting for this: the salsa version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5:

* * *

On a slightly more serious note, Alan Kozinn gives a judicious appraisal of a new work by ex-R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills' new composition "Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra".
Melody is Mr. Mills’s strong suit, and he has filled his work with bluesy themes, propulsive figures and ear-catching riffs—but also with abidingly sentimental tunes that quickly turn syrupy. Don’t look for novel timbre combinations, quirky turns of phrase or, especially, unusual rhythmic twists: a soporifically steady drum beat underlies much of the work. And the orchestration, which Mr. Mills turned over to David Mallamud, is entirely conventional, its most vivid moment a Dvorak-like swirl at the end of the “Nightswimming” movement.
You weren't actually expecting Mozart, were you?

* * *

Alex Ross has a very interesting article on Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho in the New Yorker. Her credentials are impressive: she studied with both Brian Fernyhough and at IRCAM in Paris where she currently lives. Her music is complex and involving. Laterna Magica might be a good place to start. The music starts at the 3:07 mark:

* * *

In honor of his 80th birthday, The Guardian has a fairly substantial interview with Steve Reich that provides a good introduction to his music and thoughts on music:
“I am not an activist, never have been,” he explains, playing down the resonance between Come Out and the Black Lives Matter movement. “I mean I have beliefs and if offered the opportunity, I will help out.” But, he says “in the long run, subject matter doesn’t mean crap. Let me give you an example. One of the greatest artists of the last millennium is Pablo Picasso. And one of Picasso’s greatest masterpieces is Guernica … It’s extremely topical, it’s extremely passionate, it’s extremely political. As a work of art, it’s a towering masterpiece. As an effective political tool, it’s an absolute waste of time. Pablo, get out of here, you’re an idiot.”
* * *

This is rather interesting: the Globe Theatre in London, built to house productions of Shakespeare, is firing its artistic director Emma Rice:
How very disheartening: Emma Rice is to leave Shakespeare's Globe in 2018, after a tenure of only two years. She's clearly been pushed, but it's the speed that's so shocking. The decision comes at the end of her very first season – a season that has shaken things up without being given the chance to shake down again.
Rice has challenged a hell of a lot in a short space of time – too much, too soon it now seems. Pledging gender parity in Shakespeare (and almost achieving it straight away) is not something that can be done without radical revisions. The same goes for audiences and accessibility. For all we say that Shakespeare's for everyone, it can just as easily be exclusive and elitist. Accessibility isn't just a price issue. It's about taste.
If people feel aggrieved by today's news, that's why. The changes she's made have sought to open Shakespeare up and it's hard not to feel that the Globe board is closing him back down again.
Rice writ her intentions in big neon letters right from the off. The words 'Rock the Ground' blazed over her opening show, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was a riot of colour, lit up in blues and pinks, and mic'd up for good measure. Katy Owens tore up the space like a lusty little Puck, and there were bursts of Bowie and Beyonce.
The article is opposed to the firing, but despite the special pleading, it gives a few clues: perhaps, in an oak and thatch replica of the original theatre of Shakespeare's time, it is not the ideal location to deliver the most radical productions? Perhaps it rather provides a context to acquaint audiences with the original Shakespeare? I mean, does Shakespeare really need "bursts of Bowie and Beyonce"? The BBC has a more balanced article:
Mr Constable added: "The Globe was reconstructed as a radical experiment to explore the conditions within which Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked, and we believe this should continue to be the central tenet of our work.
"Whilst the realisation of Emma's vision has been a vital part of our continuing experimentation as a theatre, we have now concluded that a predominant use of contemporary sound and lighting technology will not enable us to optimise further experimentation in our unique theatre spaces and the playing conditions which they offer."
 * * *

Some very clever folks in Sweden seem to have solved the problems of travelling violinists with this new kind of violin travel case. Watch the video, it's fascinating:

If only they could do something for guitarists! I would be able to travel by air with my guitar, something I refuse to do under present conditions.

* * *

Hmm, what should our envoi be today? Beyoncé or Steve Reich? Honestly, it's a toss-up. Still, I think I will go with Mr. Reich. This is the first part of "City Life" which he wrote when he moved out of New York city to the countryside (to get away from the noise). It's kind of a musical exorcism:

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bob Dylan Revisited

The back and forth debate on Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize in Literature keeps going on. I usually only refer to the New York Times to say how addle-pated they are, but Adam Kirsch has a pretty good take on the issue:
The Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer. Mr. Dylan may yet accept the prize, but so far, his refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.
According to Mr. Kirsch, Dylan's ignoring of the Nobel Prize is simply an instance of existential authenticity. Well, that's as good an explanation as any! We live in a world where, more and more, the institutions and mechanisms of bureaucracy define and delimit us. Big Data has our number and there is a regulation governing every possible action. As J. R. R. Tolkien said in a different context, this is impertinent and irrelevant. It is so heartening and refreshing when someone simply ignores the false authority of one of these institutions. It is particularly powerful when the institution is one that supposedly is entirely beneficial. What's wrong with the Nobel Prize in Literature? As someone said once, only race horses get prizes--or something like that! In other words, the very notion of awarding a "prize" for some sort of aesthetic or intellectual achievement is hopelessly corrupted by all the associated politics and fashion. If you go back and look at the composers and writers that were most honored with prizes in their lifetimes you encounter a list of desperately mediocre artists--so mediocre that they could be fully appreciated by their contemporaries. The list of those who refused prizes probably includes the more significant figures.

My favorite example is the great Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman who in 2006 was awarded the Fields Medal (a kind of Nobel Prize in Mathematics) which he declined saying: "I'm not interested in money or fame; I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo." In 2010 he was going to be awarded the Clay Millenium Prize for solving one of the thorniest problems in mathematics, the Poincaré conjecture. Like the Nobel Prize, it comes with a cash award of one million dollars. He turned this down as well as other honors. I suspect that, no matter what he accomplishes in future, the powers that be will refrain from trying to give him further awards.

So let's listen to some music by that refuser of prizes (this one anyway), Bob Dylan, in a live performance of "Like a Rolling Stone":

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hahn and Creativity

Anne Midgette, one of the best music critics in the US these days, has a nice piece on Hilary Hahn in the Washington Post: A violinist’s methodical search for creativity:
“Creativity” is one of the most misused terms in the lexicon. We assume that all artists are creative, and we assume that creativity is something wild, unfettered and liberating. But not every classical musician would agree. First, honing an interpretation of someone else’s work is at the very least a different kind of creativity from making something new. Second, every successful artist, in any field, has to put in a lot of knuckle grease; creativity is, in general, the result of methodical hard work.
Exhibit A: Hilary Hahn. Now 36, a star of the violin world, returning to Washington for a concert at the Kennedy Center at the end of this month, Hahn is one of the most creative, illuminating violinists of our time — and one of the most methodical.
Read the whole thing, which is basically a promotion for an upcoming concert in Washington on Oct. 28 in which she will play six solo pieces by the Spanish composer Antón García Abril. She previously recorded a piece by Abril on her encore album In 27 Pieces and I reviewed that album, consisting of commissions of new pieces, in a series of posts starting with this one:

Actually, I ended up writing six posts on the album and one of the composers, Jennifer Higdon, left a comment on one of them answering a couple of questions I had.

But back to that creativity thing, which is mostly just a hook to hang the essay on. Ms Midgette is making a good point: creativity requires a lot of hard work. She wants to counter the common impression that artists just dream up stuff in a "wild, unfettered and liberating" way. If only! You can and probably should spend some time fooling around or, as we musicians like to call it, improvising, but this has to be distilled down into the aesthetic object and that is where a lot of the work comes.

As well-intentioned and well-thought-out as the essay is, it tends to give a bit of an illusory impression. Whenever I see phrases like "musical creative process" or "that whole process of trying to understand how a composer creates" I start to fidget a bit. I'm a composer, what do I know about the "creative process"? Not much that I can relate. How about other composers? What have they had to say about the "process"? Not much that I can recall. As a rule, they pretty much hate to talk about it. Sure, they might say stuff like "my cook knows more about counterpoint than so-and-so" (Handel) or "works of art make rules, rules do not make works of art" (Debussy) but they offer few clues as to what the "process" actually is. Mind you, in recent years a host of monographs have appeared purporting to tell us all about musical creativity:
This chapter presents reflections about an important and much discussed aspect of art-music composers' creative process, namely, the role — if any — that emotions, and specifically acute emotional states induced by life-events, play in that process. In contrast to the emotivist attitude, it argues for the paramount importance of contemplation, analytical and technical skills, problem-solving, and planning — in short, reason — as the key features of art-music composers' daily work, especially when developing large-scale pieces.
But you know, I somehow doubt this will offer much insight to musicians, though non-musicians might find it fascinating.

Here's the thing: there is no process.

There are moments when stuff just occurs to you, there are long stretches when you work and work, trying to find out how to use the stuff that occurred to you. The problem is that while creating music does indeed involve a lot of hard, methodical work, hard, methodical work is no guarantee of anything at all. Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule, that with 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" you can become world-class in any field always was bunk. Yes, Hilary Hahn is a very hard, methodical worker, but so are thousands of other violinists and almost none of them have the sheer musical talent that she has.

As Debussy said, "rules do not make works of art" which means that no, there is no creative process or method or procedure or rule that will lead to a satisfactory result. The essential truth about creativity is that it is impossible to deduct abstract truths about it. Creativity deals with the concrete and the particular, with the specific, not the general. Whatever "process" Beethoven used in writing the Symphony No. 5 would not have served him in writing the Symphony No. 6. Every good composition is a unique solution to a unique set of problems. If not, it is a boring, humdrum piece of music.

The closest I know of to a compositional method is Schoenberg's book Fundamentals of Musical Composition which in large part consists of working through a number of pieces by Beethoven to see how he worked out certain ideas. This will not actually help very much in composing something new or in a different harmonic language. But it will teach you how to work.

Let's listen to some Hilary Hahn. This is Third Sigh, the piece by Antón García Abril on the encore album:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Musician's Dreams

I had the oddest dreams last night: it seemed as if I was half-awake, obsessively thinking of, well, musical things. What things exactly? Those kinds of ambiguous harmonic gestures that you find so often in Bach, especially the cello suites. You know, where you have a melody split up into two parts: E D E C# E B E C# --that sort of thing.

I used to read a lot of Carl Jung. Not to say I was a disciple, but for a couple of years I found him to be very interesting. He talks a lot about dreams. One thing I remember is that a lot of the people and animals you meet in dreams are actually just facets of yourself. When I was a child I had some very odd dreams. For example, there was a whole series of dreams where I was being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex and I kept running around trying to find a pin to poke myself with because I knew I was dreaming and really wanted to wake up. Don't know what facet of myself that represents! I also had some very abstract dreams where the environment was all geometric figures in odd colors. Then there are the ones where you are sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

But my dreams last night were really, really odd because there was nothing visual at all, just musical figures. Somehow they all seemed to be related, distantly, to the Bach Partita No. 1 in B flat, the prelude:

Yes, I know that those notes have nothing to do with the ones I mentioned above. There were two parts to my odd musical dream: one part was this prelude on piano and the other it seemed as if I was playing on guitar and those notes were played on the 1st and 2nd strings. Hey, it's a dream, it doesn't have to make rational sense.

A lot of music seems to be about dreams, like the piece by Sibelius titled Valse Triste which is like a musical representation of a dream:

There is also the lied by Grieg: Ein Traum:

And there has to be something by Debussy, but I can't recall it at the moment.

Anyone else have any musical dreams?

Monday, October 24, 2016

High (Remunerating) Culture

I'm all for economic decisions being made on the basic of economic facts, but I'm also all for aesthetic decisions being made on the basis of aesthetic facts. The Wall Street Journal has some tough love from Terry Teachout to the orchestral musicians currently in salary disputes with management in Fort Worth, Pittsburgh and one recently settled in Philadelphia. He reviews the history of orchestral pay in the US and concludes: a market economy, the price of labor is determined by the interaction of supply and demand. You get what someone else is willing to pay you—and nothing more.
“Demand” is the key word here. In 1967, classical music still occupied a central position in our high culture. Now it doesn’t. Most Americans don’t care about classical music and don’t go to orchestral concerts. I think they should, but it doesn’t matter what I think. They’ll do what they want to do—and one thing they don’t want to do is go out of their way to hike the salary of a violinist in Philadelphia who already makes over $2,400 a week, especially when the median weekly household income in the U.S. is $1,073 (which is roughly what the average London orchestra player earns per week).
The mention of the year 1967 refers back to some research Mr. Teachout did:
Prior to 1968, membership in the Cleveland Orchestra was a part-time job. When [Arnold Steinhardt] joined the orchestra, the regular season was just 30 weeks long, with lower pay for summer concerts. In 1952, the base salary was $3,240—$29,231 in today’s dollars. By 1967, it had only gone up to $11,700. (The current base salary is $120,000.) The U.S. median household income in 1967, by contrast, was $7,970. According to a 1952 survey, 60% of the players moonlighted in nonmusical jobs, and many of them did so until 1968, when Cleveland, in keeping with other top-tier American orchestras, finally lengthened its season to 52 weeks.
If you read the whole thing, Mr. Teachout is making two points: first of all that conductors and administrators are paid very high salaries while players make much less, but even so, players in orchestras like Philadelphia's make double the median household income. Therefore, they should shut up and play. Well, ok. As I said, economic truths are economic truths. But the problem I have is with the mention of "high culture".

We live in topsy-turvy times when all those who are supposed to be educating us about the value of culture and high culture in particular are instead off fighting social justice wars. One gets the distinct impression from this article that high culture in the form of classical music concerts has no importance whatsoever now. If you look only at remuneration, the central position in "high" culture these days is obviously occupied by Taylor Swift (earnings in the past year: $170 million), Beyoncé and Katy Perry. That's the little logical hiccup in the column: yes, in a market economy, you get what someone is willing to pay you, the classical violinist in Philadelphia, $2400 a week and Taylor Swift, $170 million a year. But I don't think you should connect market value with the concept of "high culture" which is an aesthetic concept, not an economic one. Hopefully, the Philadelphia Orchestra does still occupy a central position in high culture.

It seems as if in the USA these days, high culture, like music programs in schools, could be dropped entirely. Contrast this with another article at The Huffington Post: Kent Nagano Discusses Ten Years with Montreal Symphony:
When I first got to the city, many people on the administration staff said, ‘...oh dear, we have a grey-haired syndrome here...,’ meaning that our audience is getting older and older. But, we decided over the course of the season, that we would never change one thing - we felt that the one thing that transcends generation is the natural human tendancy to appreciate exceptional quality.
So rather than push the bar down, we pushed the bar very, very high, where we challenge the audiences with extremely adventurous programming. We promote not only very well-known marquee international soloists, but we support young and up-and-coming soloists that our audience takes under its own wing. They feel that the young soloists belong to them, and are a part of our tradition in Montreal. The same thing with young composers.
The result, after ten years, is that the audience today—and I think you probably felt that when you came to our concerts—is so much more homoginized. All from as young as 8, 6 years old up to people who have already retired from their profession and everything in between. Families come. In short the concert hall looks like Montreal. It looks like what you see when you walk in our parks, walk on our streets. That’s what our public looks like.
 What I take away from this is that if you lose focus on the reason why you are playing this music, that is, the aesthetic reason to give to the audience, the community, the highest quality music you can, then you end up squabbling over the "market value" of your work and when you do that, then Terry Teachout will tell you that most people don't go to orchestral concerts. Well, they never did. Just the ones who appreciated aesthetic quality.

This is the Stravinsky Capriccio for piano and orchestra with Yulianna Avdeeva, piano and Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

It's Canonic: Addendum

One of the very best things about this blog is the commentariat who always make valuable contributions. The comments on the canonic posts are an excellent example, so this will constitute an addendum of works that I should have mentioned in both my posts on 20th century orchestral music.

To the pieces listed as forming part of the canon of orchestral music in the first half of the century should be added a couple of pieces by Benjamin Britten that I forgot (and included in a later post), the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and the Sea Interludes, adapted from the opera Peter Grimes. I have been convinced that some pieces by Leonard Bernstein, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs should be included. And by George Gershwin, the Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto and An American in Paris.

As expected, there was a lot more discussion about the second half of the century as it is just a bit too close to us to have much perspective. Here are pieces and composers I just plain missed:
  • James Mcmillan (I don't have any pieces to suggest yet, but a number of comments have convinced me that I need to get to know his music)
  • Arvo Pärt --I don't know how I missed him! Here are some memorable and canonic works of his: Tabula Rasa, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and the string orchestra version of Fratres
  • Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and his later work Polish Requiem
  • John Adams: Shaker Loops
  • Einojuhani Rautavaara: Symphony No. 7
  • Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel
There were more suggestions and more composers, but these ones I was particularly convinced by. This is all guesswork, of course. A hundred years from now maybe everyone will be listening to Harry Partch and Conlon Nancarrow!

For our envoi, a few clips. First Gershwin's An American in Paris:

Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa:

John Adams, Shaker Loops:

and Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel:

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

I have never seen a production of Philip Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach and after watching this except I am almost certain I never want to:

* * *

The LA Times has an article about Toru Takemitsu that has some interesting anecdotes:
Everyone who knew Takemitsu has stories. He was intentionally vague. He had a wicked sense of humor. He saw more than 200 films a year, and after a few drinks he could hilariously recite the plots of obscure B movies you’d never of.
Knussen had been a close friend. They were an odd couple — the tiny Takemitsu a fraction of the size of the Brit. Before the concert, I reached out to Knussen for a few anecdotes.
“The first time I met Toru was when I conducted ‘Rain Coming’ in 1982,” Knussen recalled. “He was very nervous, actually shaking. I asked him if anything was wrong, and he said, ‘Very nervous, first time I ever wrote piece without harp.’ ”  
In fact, the piece sounded terrible, even though he had carefully followed all the metronome markings. “I asked Takemitsu if he had any comments,” Knussen explained, “and he said, ‘Everything perfect.’ ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘he’s going to be one those: “Are you sure?” “Everything perfect.” ’ 
“Then I went back to the beginning and lifted my arms to give the downbeat, when he said, ‘Just one thing. All tempi twice too fast.’”

* * *

I was just saying to someone that Bob Dylan is probably the only person in the world to whom you could give a Nobel Prize who might not even notice. And sure enough: Nobel panel gives up knockin’ on Dylan’s door.
The Swedish Academy says it has given up trying to reach Bob Dylan, days after it awarded him the Nobel prize in literature.
“Right now we are doing nothing. I have called and sent emails to his closest collaborator and received very friendly replies. For now, that is certainly enough,” the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, told state radio SR on Monday.
So far the American troubadour has responded with silence since he won the prize on Thursday.
* * *

Here is an article on a new app for the iPad that is a "virtual controller": music synthesis made easy and intuitive. I don't think the headline writer understood the essay any more than I did: "When music can be made on a screen, we lose abstraction." Oh, for sure. Here is my favorite line, which I think is meant to be sardonic: "People with deep musical talent are not necessarily also good at increasing their output buffer sizing for RAM optimization." Well no, not most of them, anyway. Heh! Here is an interesting bit:
More nebulously, this pretty technology can be seen as part of a larger tendency in our lives towards the graphic representation of everything. Very little is abstract any more. Sounds and words and numbers are all spinning and glowing, colourful three-dimensional objects in our minds, because that’s what they look like on our screens. When we check the weather forecast on our phones we see an image of a stormy sky or a sun. That hits us before the actual temperature does.
When we use screenplay-writing software we become used to moving scenes around physically, as if stacking neat plastic boxes. Similarly our music – once represented only as cryptic black scratches on white paper – is now circles and squares and starbursts. Whether this has any long-term effect on our cognition will be for the scientists to study; I wonder if our ability to conceive the invisible will change, or even shrink.
I'm wondering if this kind of technology is similar to those innumerable ones developed over the years, essentially as teaching aides for those who are mostly lacking in musical ability.

* * *

I'm sorry to miss this one: a production at the Royal Opera in London of Shostakovich's early satirical opera The Nose--in English! The Guardian has photos of the rehearsals:

Click to enlarge
* * *

The Internet and networking software that uses the Internet like, oh, I dunno, Blogger?--are still causing fundamental changes in the way everything seems to work. The latest seems to be an interesting idea modeled after Uber, but for musicians. Wired has the story: Uber, But for Millenials Who Want Orchestras in Their Living Rooms. Sort of:
Professional musicians and those studying in conservatories can upload samples to a Groupmuse profile, which an internal team approves. Next, the Groupmuse team pairs performers with hosts who volunteer to host strangers and musicians in their home: a soloist for 10 people, a quartet for a house that can fit 50 listeners. Around 20 Groupmuse shows happen across the country every week, mostly in Boston, New York, Seattle and the Bay Area. Groupmuse suggests each attendee pays $10 for the show; musicians go home with an average of $160.
Sounds like a great idea. Most musicians have been frustrated with the difficulties of working with traditional impresarios and concert organizers, this seems like an interesting alternative.

* * *

A suitable envoi for today would be Shostakovich's absurdist opera, The Nose. The libretto is an adaptation of a short story by Gogol. This is a performance from 1979 by the Moscow Chamber Opera Theatre Chorus & Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kinds of Performance

I've been listening to Grigory Sokolov lately and it leads me to mull over different levels of performance. Frankly, he plays at a level that I don't think I have heard before--certainly not often! Way back in 2011 I did a post on levels of creativity so I think I will try to do the same with performance, just as an exercise. Here let me quote the relevant bit from that post:
Let me see if I can define levels of musical creativity:
  1. You write a simple piece in a well-established musical form or genre such as a minuet or a folk-song. Mozart could do this when he was seven.
  2. You write a piece in a more demanding genre such as a sonata movement or a two-part invention. (I say 'write', but this could be improvised as well-in Jazz, you wouldn't write it down, for example.) Second and third year music students typically do this sort of thing.
  3. You write a really appealing piece or song in a well-established genre. A rock group or individual artist in pop music might do something like this that becomes popular--a 'hit'. A classical example might be something like a Haydn minuet.
  4. You write something that really captures the genre, exhausts the genre or exceeds the genre. A good example of this would be one of the more famous songs by the Beatles: "Yesterday" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" for example. A classical example might be one of the Bach fugues like the C major from Bk 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a good Beethoven symphonic movement like the second movement of the Symphony no 7. Perhaps one of the Chopin mazurkas.
  5. You write something that absolutely transforms the genre or form. Examples: The Beatles, Revolver; Bach, the keyboard suites; Haydn, the symphonies; Mozart, the piano concertos, Beethoven, the early piano sonatas.
  6. You create an entirely new form or genre: Haydn, the string quartets and symphonies; Chopin, the nocturnes, the scherzos, the ballades; Stravinsky, the modern ballet; Steve Reich, process music; Scarlatti, the single-movement keyboard sonata.
  7. You create something that transcends not only the form or genre, but that is a master work transcending its era. Bach, the WTC, the Art of Fugue, Beethoven, Symphonies 3, 5 and 9; and several of the later piano sonatas; Shostakovich, Symphonies 5, 7 and 10.
I added some caveats that you can see if you go back and read the whole post, but that's the core of it. Now it seems as if there might be an equivalent for performance. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to suspect that there might be a better way to estimate performances than this kind of hierarchy of creativity. I think that there is one fundamental principle that applies over a wide spectrum of performances. That principle could be stated as "attention to detail."

There is a great deal that is automatic in musical performance. One of the reasons we spend so much time in the practice room is to make secure and infallible all the possible technical devices and musical situations. This is the reason behind constant practice of scales, slurs and arpeggios. You have to be able to execute them every time flawlessly. But the downside of this is the possibility of the performance becoming rote and mechanical.

So we can categorize a few ways in which a musical performance can be bad:

  • the player can simply lack the basic technical command of the instrument: this is what you hear in poorly-prepared student recitals
  • the player can have basic technical skills, but be lacking in music understanding so that the expression and argument of the music is lost
  • the player can be technically adroit, but tends to indulge in a display of dexterity rather than any depth of interpretation
Now let's think about possible performances from the point of view of attention to detail. There are various ways of understanding this. First of all, attention to detail is what informs your technical practice. A technically adroit performance means that you handle every note with clarity and definition: there is nothing blurry and the rhythms are not distorted. Harmonies are clear and chords well-balanced. This is attention to technical detail and it is an essential precursor to a good performance. But it doesn't stop there. The next step is attention to musical detail and that involves the following things:
  • understanding and making evident to the listener the structure of the piece from the smallest level (the shaping of individual motifs, the handling of phrases) up to the overall structure (the pacing of the movement, leading to musical climaxes and denouements)
  • understanding of historical performance practice so that you do not play 17th century ornaments in a 19th century piece or vice-versa
  • understanding of the fundamentals and elegances of the style: Classical Style, Romantic Style and so on
  • responding to the aesthetic challenges of the piece
  • playing the music as if it were being created on the spot, or as if it were eternally inevitable (oddly, this is often the same thing!)
After all this has been accomplished and, frankly, very few performers ever get this far, then you can really start paying attention to detail! By this I mean that every note, every chord, every rhythm is played with full attention and awareness so that it is an aesthetic truth. I think that it is this kind of transcendental performance that we hear in the playing of Grigory Sokolov. I would like to offer a performance of his as an example of what I have been trying to describe. This is an entire concert he played in Madrid in 1998:

Tilted Axes

Alan Kozinn, an outstanding writer and music critic, has a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘Tilted Axes‘ and ‘Rushing Past Willow’: Classical, Jazz or Rock? Here is a sample:
On a drizzly December night in 2011, the composer and guitarist Patrick Grant and about 20 of his colleagues gathered on East Fourth Street at Second Avenue in New York; strapped on electric guitars and plugged them into the small, battery-powered Danelectro amplifiers clipped to their belts; and marched through the streets for nearly 90 minutes, playing “Tilted Axes,” a piece Mr. Grant composed for the occasion, the first Make Music Winter, an annual celebration of the Winter Solstice.
At the time, “Tilted Axes” was essentially just a cheerful chord progression and a rising, four-note figure, played over and over for a continuously replenishing audience of passersby. Since then, Mr. Grant has expanded the work into a 17-movement score for massed guitars, Chapman Stick, bass and drums, and he has just released a recording, “Tilted Axes: Music for Mobile Electric Guitars” (Peppergreen Media).
Kozinn goes on to ask the perennial question: is this classical music, jazz, or rock? He ends by concluding:
In a sense, both composers are reframing that old debate about the stylistic labels that listeners find helpful but that composers have long found irksome. It doesn’t matter whether this music is post-Minimalist, indie classical, or not classical at all, they seem to be saying. Style and even genre are increasingly meaningless now, so abandon the categorizing impulse and just listen.
Ok, so lets. The article contains no links to any musical clips, but we can certainly find a number of partial performances of Tilted Axes on YouTube. Here are a few:

Uh-huh. Well my categorizing, or at least, describing impulse just kicked in. First of all, this is basically rock music. It doesn't matter if you walk down the street with a portable amp or not, if it quacks like a duck, it's a duck. If you listen to around the 2 minute mark of the first clip, for example, there is every feature of blues-based rock music: the bent-note bluesy solos, the backbeat drumming and the whole feel of it. Other times it sounds a bit like In C by Terry Riley or uninspired minimalism, but the basic elements are rock based. The most salient feature of this kind of performance is that it has to be deeply annoying to many of the passers-by. There is a kind of arrogant assumption by these folks that everyone in a public space is really going to delight in a chaotic, under-rehearsed, warmed-over collection of rock clichés. The only thing missing is bad vocals.

When the Beatles decided to invade public space and do a concert from the roof of their London office building, the bobbies shut them down after forty minutes. I guess public nuisance laws have been repealed since then.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It's Canonic: 20th century, 2nd half

The first half of the 20th century was surprisingly easy, but the second half won't be and I expect a lot of disputatious comments whatever I choose. The reason is that the closer you get to the present day, the foggier the picture is. I think that a hundred years is needed to really see what stands out from the crowd with any certainty. By 2100 will it be generally acknowledged that Harry Partch is the great American composer of the second half of the 20th century, or will it be Steve Reich? Will Karlheinz Stockhausen be forgotten or widely loved? I don't think anyone knows for sure at this point, but I have some opinions. So here we go. Bear in mind this is just orchestral music after 1950.

Let's start with France as I find it helps to look at specific traditions in sorting out who's who. Olivier Messiaen is an obvious choice. He made the pre-1950 list with his Turangalîla-Symphonie, one of the most striking pieces of orchestral music of the era, but there are some good candidates from after 1950 as well. Messiaen lived until 1992 and was very productive. I think I would pick out two pieces, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) for wind, brass and percussion and Des Canyons aux étoiles for piano, horn, glockenspiel, xylorimba and small orchestra (1974). Another composer very active in the second half of the century was Henri Dutilleux, a lapidary composer who wrote a select few outstanding pieces. Among them, perhaps the most memorable are two concertos: one for cello, written for Mstislav Rostropovich titled Tout un monde lointain (1970) and one for violin, written for Isaac Stern, titled L'arbre des songes (1985).

German composition post-war was very different from before simply because of the desolation of war and the departure or loss of Jewish musicians. The sense was that everything had to begin anew, a blank slate as it were. Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen found themselves in the class of Messiaen at Darmstadt. In the 1950s and into the 60s, there grew up a "Darmstadt School" of composition that included, apart from Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Bruno Madera, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel and others. Characteristically, their music was avant-garde, experimental, and, at least in my opinion, hasn't aged well. I think that if we regard "canonic" works as ones that have a special aesthetic appeal to audiences, then hardly any of this music has become part of the canon. That phrase "hardly any" is rather weaselly! So let's have a look: are there any possible candidates? Two that come to mind are Gesange der Jünglinge by Stockhausen, an early electronic piece, and the Sinfonia by Berio. I think that my readers should weigh in on this. Do you think they have achieved canonicity?

Let me know in the comments.

More and more, as the century progressed, we see composers from outside central Europe, not just Russia and North America, but Poland, Greece, Great Britain and Japan. Shostakovich wrote some wonderful symphonies post-war of which I think that the Symphony No. 10 (1953, but possibly completed earlier) is perhaps the most-enjoyed (that is the basic measure of canonicity). There is one enormously popular symphony by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki, the Symphony No. 3 the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" of 1976 that even crossed over to the pop charts in Europe. British composers became more and more prominent after the war, particularly Benjamin Britten, though his strengths are perhaps greatest in opera and vocal music. Still, his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and the Sea Interludes, adapted from the opera Peter Grimes, would likely qualify. Unfortunately, due to my oversight, they should have been included in the first part as they were composed before 1950! Sorry, Britten fans.

After all the experimentation in the 50s and 60s, a new kind of approach arose in the 1970s with the so-called "minimal" composers whose music, though featuring a steady pulse and lots of repetition, was hardly minimal. The two names to note are Philip Glass and Steve Reich and I think that there are likely canonical works from both of them. But we have to bend the category a bit: they both tend to write music for unusual ensembles that are somewhere between what we usually think of as chamber music and orchestral music. An example, and I think a piece that is sure to be in the canon, is Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians:

Philip Glass, on the other hand, has written quite a bit for conventional orchestra and the Symphony No. 3 from 1995 is a good candidate for the canon:

Going even further afield, the first composer from Japan to have real recognition in the West was Toru Takemitsu and he might have a bid for canonicity with the piece November Steps for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra from 1967:

From here on, the number of composers multiplies enormously and the difficulty of sorting out the exceptional pieces becomes harder and harder. For one thing, there are so very many works--and even composers--that I simply have not heard. Here is where my astute and knowledgeable commentators will undoubtedly make a contribution. What have you heard that you think will make the cut?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Listening to Les Tendres Plaintes

I labeled this "reception history" even though it isn't quite that. Think of it as the first draft of a reception history. That term, by the way, refers to a way of doing musicology where you examine the history of how a piece or a style or a composer was received by audiences over time. It can be quite interesting. But it does raise the problem of understanding how people listen.

I've listened to a piece by Rameau, Les Tendres Plaintes, a few times recently for different reasons: it is on a recent CD of Grigory Sokolov, there are a couple of clips of it on YouTube and I was sharing them with a couple of friends and I just transcribed it for violin and guitar to see what that would sound like. So I noticed a couple of things about how I listen to it. By that I basically mean my moment to moment reactions which vary from occasion to occasion, of course.

Here is the clip I have watched the most:

Now I will try to do a kind of stream-of-consciousness account of my reactions:

...those trills! and then how silvery the ring of the melody...
...the trills in the melody and the accompaniment are offset, intentionally kept unaligned.
(there are actually several different kinds of ornaments I am calling "trills" here: Rameau has a table in the front of his book naming and describing them: the cadence is a trill from the note above and the pincé is to the note below. We tend to call them a trill and a mordent respectively. There is also a cadence apuyée, where the first note is held longer and the double cadence which is a cadence that ends with a turn.)
...he does just a hint of notes inégales in the bass line that connects the first two phrases...
...when he gets to the descending sequence that begins the 1re Reprise, it is so lovely that I just start swaying my head from side to side...
..that A major chord that ends the 1re Reprise is always a surprise... the piece is in D minor, but the 1re Reprise is in A minor...
...he handles the refrain so differently the second time: a crisper inégale in the bass with an added cadence...
...the 2de Reprise (in F major) is almost whimsical, but at the same time wistful...
...the last refrain is even more beautiful... the high A in the second phrase is I think the most delicate note I have ever heard from a piano--it is like a guitar harmonic or an orchestral bell hit with a feather...

Let me show you the score I have been looking at. These two pages are from Rameau's Pièces de clavecin avec une méthode by which he means that he has an explanatory preface about how to play them. The table of ornaments is from there:

And here is the score to Les Tendres Plaintes:

Click to enlarge
This is a very simple piece, of course. Just that theme in D minor which has two eight-measure phrases, the first ending on the dominant and the second on the tonic. Then another two phrases in A minor, then the theme again followed by the second reprise (or episode) in F major but this time both phrases end on the tonic, and finally the theme again. You just should bear in mind that Jean-Philippe Rameau literally wrote the book on harmony--it was his Traité de L'Harmonie of 1722 that formalized the theory of tonal harmony and the basic principles are still followed today.

Here is a portrait of Rameau done in 1760:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

It's Canonic: 20th Century, first half

I took a 20th century music history course as an undergraduate, which means that it was a long time ago. I remember the professor complaining that he had been teaching the course for years and years and every year it got harder, because the century was longer. Heh! That was in 1975. Well now the century is complete and those great revolutionary works of the early part have already had their centenaries: pieces like the Rite of Spring (1913) by Stravinsky and the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune of Debussy ... oops! That was written and premiered in 1894 so not even 20th century. But we, or at least I, think of Debussy as being an inherently 20th century composer even though he was only one, strictly speaking, for the last 18 years of his life (1862 - 1918). Just sticking to pieces composed in the 20th century by Debussy, we could pick instead La Mer, completed in 1905.

But if we do stick to the 20th century, then the later music of Mahler also qualifies. Part of the 20th century canon should include the symphonies from No. 5 on as well as Das Lied von der Erde.

All of these are orchestral pieces (sometimes with voices), so let's stick with works for orchestra and do chamber music, solo music (largely for piano) and opera in separate posts. Another piece by Stravinsky that fits is the Symphony of Psalms from 1930, one of those brilliant commissions by the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony. Another one was the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen, completed in 1948, also for the Boston Symphony.

Great German orchestral works might include the Violin Concerto by Arnold Schoenberg and the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg. A lot of their most important works are chamber or vocal music, so not included here.

The 20th century saw the growing importance of composers from outside the core nations of Italy, France and Germany, who had dominated music for so many centuries. Foremost among these are Bela Bartók whose Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) is one of the loveliest in the first half of the century. Another great piece from that decade is Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, written in 1937. While we are visiting Russia, we could include Prokofiev's Classical Symphony (1917) and Piano Concerto No. 2 (1923).

While we are talking about piano concertos, there were some great ones written in the 20th century such as the three by Bartók (all good, but let's pick the Piano Concerto No. 3 from 1945).

Also part of the 20th century canon would be some music by Charles Ives. I would pick the Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set No. 1) from 1914 rather than one of his symphonies.

You might have noticed that all these works are from the first half of the century. I will do the second half in another post. That will be the really difficult one because there is so much to sift through and the really important pieces have probably not all surfaced yet. It really takes about a hundred years for what is essential to become clear. Semi-clear, at least!

Ok that's a rough try at a list of the core canonic pieces of 20th century orchestral music up to 1950. Now, as is traditional on the internet, you can all weigh in in the comments and tell me about all the ones I missed. Of course, some of those were intentional.

Let me muse for a moment on how I approached this. It was largely intuitive: I did not pore through long lists of 20th century works and then hone it down. Instead I just thought about what orchestral pieces from the first half of the century really stick in your mind--which ones are really essential. I'm sure I missed some important ones, so here is your chance to remind me.

Just picking a couple from the list for our envoi today, here are first, Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This is from the Deutsche Grammophon box of Boulez conducting Bartók:

And next, Charles Ives' Three Places in New England. This is the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Nicholas Collon:

UPDATE: A frequent commentator helps me out by mentioning Sibelius. I'm pretty sure I was thinking of him but got distracted somehow. But yes, some of the finest orchestral works of the first half of the 20th century are the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. The Symphony No. 2 was written in 1902, so everything from then on qualifies and I would include all of them. I have never been as fond of the tone poems like Finlandia and Tapiola, but that might just be me. This reminds me of another omission: the tone poems of Richard Strauss of which we might want to include Also sprach Zarathustra.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a short documentary in French about the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili who seems to be living in Paris these days. Never mind if you don't speak French, the music (and the visuals) come across anyway:

* * *

Speaking of visuals, here is something you don't see too often--or ever: a composer posing naked onstage while a string quartet premieres his latest work:

Only in Australia, you say? That's composer Andrew Batt-Rawden re-enacting his appearance at the concert. Let's let reporter Amanda Hooten tell the story:
I was in the audience for the Australian Art Quartet's Butt-naked Salon concert at Sydney's Yellow House. As the show began, the quartet came in and sat down. Nearby, multidisciplinary artist Clementine Robertson was lying motionless on a dais with vials of beetroot juice dripping all over her. Then, in the silence, Batt-Rawden entered wearing a fluffy bathrobe, à la Muhammad Ali. With him came Archibald Prize-winning artist Wendy Sharpe. Batt-Rawden walked to a low white box, took off his robe, climbed onto the box, and struck a pose. The quartet played, Robertson dripped, and Batt-Rawden stood starkers while Sharpe painted him onto the walls.
* * *

And on the instrumental front, the Strad reports that a violin made from one of Winston Churchill's cigar boxes is to be auctioned off:
A 1950s violin crafted from one of Winston Churchill’s cigar boxes is to be offered for sale this October in London by Ingles & Hayday.
The 1956 fiddle ‘in a rustic style’ was made by self-taught English maker and former master saddler William Robinson, who spent his childhood converting empty boxes into violins, according to the auctioneers. The instrument was played by Yehudi Menuhin in a radio broadcast to America in April 1958, and is expected to fetch between £500 and £1,000. It is branded ‘Made in Havana – Cuba’, and on the back, ‘Selección Privada, Fabrica Tabacos Don Joaquin, Habana’.
Here's a case where the aroma of the instrument might be better than the sound.

* * *

The problem of the intersection of identity politics and aesthetics is hardly a new one, and the classic response is age-old as well. But rarely has it been put better than by J. R. R. Tolkien in his letter replying to a German publisher in 1938 who, as part of the process of arranging to publish a German translation of The Hobbit, inquired as to the ethnic background of the author. Was he German? Did he have any Jewish blood?
25 July 1938
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford
Dear Sirs,
Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.
I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and
remain yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien
Yes indeedy, the inquiry as to an artist's ethnic (or other) identity is indeed impertinent and irrelevant.

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The prize for The Least Gracious Comment on Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize goes to, and why am I not surprised, Norman Lebrecht:
They couldn’t find a writer so a musician was the next-best thing? Or was the committee just looking to big itself up with a blaze of celebrity? For lyrics written half a century ago and known the world over?
And if literary merit of lyrics had anything to do with it, shouldn’t Leonard Cohen take precedence?
Much as we love Bob Dylan, this gives no cause for cheer.
For further entertainment, the fifty comments are worth a look.

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The New York Times has a story on the fascinating and growing field of forensic musicology. I used to tell people that I was a forensic musicologist, but I meant it as a joke: "this man was obviously killed with a violin bow, re-haired by the Viennese bow-re-hairer Herr Helmut Schmidt-Wolfenbüttel."
Peter Oxendale, a onetime glam rocker (“We all have skeletons,” he says), is perhaps the world’s leading forensic musicologist, the person musicians call when they believe someone has ripped off their work. In a penthouse overlooking the English Channel, he analyzes songs, everything from pop hits to classical pieces, until he is sure there has been an infringement, or not.
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I'm not sure precisely why, but every time I read something that is intellectually opaque and hopelessly confused it is at NewMusicBox. The latest is about A Universal Music and I wish I knew what they were talking about:
Prior to this lesson, I was fervently driven by a personal mission to express the hybridity of my biology and experience as a half-Indian/half-Euro-American person within my music. The search for stylistic confluence manifested itself in numerous trips to study in India and four recordings of original music that explored Indian concepts, environments, and sounds within my jazz quartet.
I'm not trying to be difficult, honestly, this paragraph is not ripped bleeding from a context which would explain it. Go read the whole thing to be sure. Here is some more:
As I ruminated on my Banff experience, I began to understand that the idea of musical genre is an illusion that ignores the plurality of ideas, experiences, and sounds that exist within a community. When a sonic experience is reduced to a category, we establish boundaries that inhibit creativity with notions of stylistic correctness. This approach creates myriad problems that throw into question the objectivity that is inherently placed on genre.
What could it possibly mean to "express the hybridity of one's biology"? What is "stylistic confluence"? There are problems of agency and abstraction in this: "the idea of musical genre is an illusion that ignores the plurality of ideas..." How can an "idea" ignore anything? Does anyone, when listening to a minuet or allemande or symphony or polka, "reduce it to a category?" How would that work? How does "genre" have objectivity inherently placed on it? How do you train your mind to think in this bizarre way? You got me.

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A really appropriate envoi for today would be some transcendently cool tune by Bob Dylan, but I just put up a bunch yesterday, plus the really good Dylan tracks are mostly not available on YouTube. So in honor of J. R. R. Tolkien, here is Galadriel's song of Eldamar, sung by Signe Asmussen in the original Elvish: