Saturday, January 30, 2016

Miscelleanea Supplement!

I wish I had seen this in time for yesterday's miscellanea. Here, for all of those who thought it was likely impossible, is the Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov for two double-basses:

The version for two tubas is undoubtedly in rehearsal...

And while we are in the world of weird and wacky performances, here is the Force theme from Star Wars played using a light saber for a bow:

Friday, January 29, 2016

Time for a new music quiz

I haven't done this for a long time--largely because when I do put up a music quiz it is so hard that most readers avoid it! But let me hasten to say that this is a new quiz about music, not a quiz about new music. Whew!

There will be ten questions, the reader who gets the most right gets a lifetime subscription to The Music Salon. No t-shirt, though, we haven't got those yet. But soon. Maybe.

Oh, and no, you are not supposed to use Google.

  1. How many albums did the Sex Pistols release?
  2. What is the difference between serialism and dodecaphonic composition?
  3. Who, of these famous guitar players, is still alive? Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Francesco Corbetta.
  4. How many different pitches comprise an Italian augmented sixth chord?
  5. What does the title of Adele's latest album, 25, refer to?
  6. What pitch is the highest string of a Renaissance lute tuned to? A Baroque lute?
  7. How many tympani players are needed to perform Berlioz' Requiem?
  8. If you were dancing a branle, what country would you likely be in?
  9. In music theory, what is a pedal?
  10. Also in music, what does "Sturm und Drang" refer to?
UPDATE: You folks had better get busy with this quiz, because tomorrow I am going to put up the answers!

Friday Miscellanea

Let's start with a quote:
“The true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely. For he will read 'in the same spirit that the author writ.'... He will never commit the error of trying to munch whipped cream as if it were venison.” 
― C.S. Lewis
And similarly, never try and listen to Justin Bieber as if he were J. S. Bach. Or vice versa. You could hurt yourself.

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 Here is something that should be a bestseller: a collection of Donald Francis Tovey's articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica on musical form. The Forms of Music is available for Kindle for only $2.61! How could you resist? Tovey is one of the most brilliant writers on music of the first half of the 20th century.

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Allan Kozinn, let go from the New York Times, seems to have found a new home at the Wall Street Journal. Here is a new article titled "Reimagining Bach". The piece is about the revival of an interesting set of six pieces by contemporary composers inspired by the six Brandenburg Concertos of, J. S. Bach.
Mr. Rose did not wait long to take up “The New Brandenburgs,” a set of six works commissioned by Orpheus, the conductorless New York chamber orchestra, as modern responses to the popular set of concertos that Bach dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. Orpheus performed the works over several seasons, starting in 2006, and played the full set at a Spring for Music concert at Carnegie Hall in 2011. Mr. Rose and his Boston players offered their views on Friday evening at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
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This is an interesting take on the subject of women painters that tends to go against the narrative: "Women Made Up Sizable Fraction of Top Painters 200 Years Ago." Two hundred years ago at major exhibitions in France women painters comprised 14% to 18% of the total. Currently in a number of New York galleries and exhibitions the percentages range from 1% to 8%. Wait, can this be true? Follow the link for the whole piece. Still doesn't answer the question of women composers, though.

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Number three on this list of hobbies, after reading and ham radio, is playing the guitar.

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Alex Ross has a piece in the New Yorker about Jaap van Zweden who is to be the next music director of the New York Philharmonic. I don't obsess much about conductors and orchestras. They mostly do a good job, which is all I ask. I'm more interesting in what they are playing, frankly.

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Today's miscellanea is a bit light on actual music, so let's have two envoi. The first is Javanese gamelan music, something I have been listening to this week (if not this particular performance):

And the next is Jaap van Zweden conducting the Beethoven Symphony No. 7:

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Dynamic and Static

I've been reading Donald Francis Tovey's articles on musical form from the Encyclopedia Britannica, now available as a cheap Kindle book titled The Forms of Music. He keeps talking about the "dramatic" sonata forms. This was a very successful approach developed in the second half of the 18th century. Kicked off by C. P. E. Bach, elaborated and given a firm foundation by Joseph Haydn and perfected by Mozart and Beethoven, this approach, inspired by opera buffa, managed to communicate the feel of a dramatic narrative through harmonic means. The sense of moving forward, of pausing for dramatic effect and a host of other details were realized through purely instrumental means. This is one of the greatest triumphs of music history.

Prior to this, while there was certainly harmony with dissonance and consonance and resolution, it was not nearly so dynamic. Even Baroque harmony, which is certainly capable of dramatic effect, tended to be much more static. A typical form, with ritornelli, returned frequently and predictably to the tonic while with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (and yes, C. P. E. as well) you could go anywhere and when you returned to the tonic was usually a bit of a surprise.

The dynamic or dramatic approach to harmony was so successful in fact, that it seems to have destroyed itself through excess. The critical element always seems to have been the leading tone, as it is what drives us toward the tonic, and resolution. The role of the leading tone was expanded again and again. It was what generated modulations or temporary "tonicizations". Popping an F# into a piece in C major drives us toward the key of the dominant, G major, as it is the leading tone to G. There is a whole field of harmonic theory that deals with "secondary" or "applied" dominants, that is, the use of chords that are the dominants of other chords as created through leading tones. For example, in the key of A minor, the E major chord with its G# is the dominant of A. But you often see that harmony preceded by B major, containing a D# which is the leading tone to E. Sometimes composers even prepare a harmony by going further up the ladder with the dominant of the dominant of the dominant! All this is generated by the use of the leading tone.

An even more intense version of this is the group of augmented sixth chords which approach the dominant with two leading tones and act as a kind of super-duper secondary dominant to the dominant. This is an Italian augmented sixth chord in C major, moving to the dominant:

There are also French and German ones, which are configured a bit differently. Notice that this chord contains not only the leading tone to the dominant, G, the F#, but also an inverted leading tone which goes down to the other G, A flat. The interval between A flat and F# is an augmented sixth, which gives the name to the chord.

Another kind of inverted leading tone gives us the Neapolitan sixth chord, so called because of its supposed origins with composers from Naples. It has a similar function to the augmented sixth chords as it is used to prepare the dominant. Here it is in C major:

It is called a "sixth" because it usually appears in first inversion, as it does here. The chord, in C major, is D flat, F, A flat: a major chord on the flat supertonic. The A flat goes to the G as another inverted leading tone. Both of these are often described as originating from the Phrygian mode where the cadence is from F to E, going down a semitone.

Sorry for all the technical vocabulary! If you want more discussion, Wikipedia has pretty good articles on both the augmented sixth chords and the Neapolitan.

Another technique in this same general area is the frequent use of the key of the flat submediant in Schubert and the Romantic composers. It is, of course, the key of A flat in C major.

Composers kept upping the stakes with the use of the leading tone until we get to Wagner who rather burned out the circuits. It is not that Wagner weakened the fundamentals of harmony: they were crucial to his method, which was to extend the dissonance for long periods without resolution. There is finally a resolution to the tonic, but it takes a long time.

Perhaps the final, symbolic extinction of the leading tone is at the very end of Richard Strauss' tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra which is in the key of C major. It's opening passage in C major and minor is very famous from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it ends with this:

A B major chord in the high winds held, while the low basses play a C. After this, composed in 1896, the leading tone seems to have lost its power to create tension and many composers began writing chromatic music with no real tonic and, hence, no leading tone.

Now, the leading tone is almost the one harmonic device you simply cannot use! Just as an experiment the other day I wrote a short passage using leading tones in a new piece for orchestra I am writing. It sounded so horribly trite and out of place that I removed it immediately.

There is a great deal of talk about and use of the modes in music these days and I think that the main reason for their use is that they contain NO leading tones (except, of course, for the Ionian mode which is the same as C major and therefore not used).

What composers seem to do nowadays is either stay in one harmony throughout, or use drones or pedals or modes. Modulation is rare and never made clear through the use of leading tones. We have moved away from the drama and dynamic harmony of the 18th and 19th centuries to something much more static. Go and listen to a bunch of recent music and I think you will see what I mean. Then compare it to, say, Mozart.

Harmony these days tends to be rather static.

Here are a couple of examples. The first is Dark Waves by John Luther Adams:

And the Overture to the Magic Flute by Mozart:

Another Note on Comments

A little while ago we had a bit of a problem with a commentator who just didn't know when to stop and I had to delete a whole bunch of comments because of personal attacks and general irrelevancy. Now the problem has returned in a milder form. Two commentators, I will call them Anonymous I and Anonymous III--you know who you are--are trying again to use this blog for a personal dispute. Hey guys, go to it and I wish you both the best. But you are not welcome here and your comments will no longer be allowed to be posted. Why don't you start your own blog and have it out there?

The correct envoi for this post is a clip of Narciso Yepes, as that is where it all started. Here he is playing "Guárdame las vacas" by Luis de Narvaez:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Case of Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman (1926 - 1987)

Morton Feldman was associated with a group of experimental New York composers that included John Cage, Christian Wolfe and Earle Brown. Like the others, Feldman's compositions used the idea of indeterminacy, or making scores much less specific as to pitches, rhythms and so on. Around 1970 he gave up the use of radical indeterminacy and began to write music where the results were more clearly indicated. In 1973 he was appointed professor of composition at SUNY Buffalo where a Canadian composer friend of mine did a doctorate in composition under his direction. Prior to that he supported himself as a full-time employee at his family's textile business. The very last assignment I completed in a 20th century theory and analysis seminar was on Feldman's piece Rothko Chapel. Sadly, Morton Feldman died quite young, at age 61, from pancreatic cancer.

While John Cage seems to get most of the public attention, and Christian Wolfe and Earle Brown seem to have faded away entirely, I have the feeling that the most interesting composer in this group was Morton Feldman. Let's look at a couple of examples of his notation. This is a piece for orchestra from 1967:

A piano piece from 1952:

Later scores are more conventional with time signatures:

I can't find the score to Rothko Chapel online, but here is a photo of the interior of the chapel itself:

Rothko Chapel is a non-denominational chapel in Houston that is not only a place of worship or meditation, but also an important gallery of art. The interior contains fourteen paintings by Mark Rothko. The composition by Morton Feldman was inspired by and written to be performed in the chapel.

Let's have a listen to the piece, which was composed in 1971 for the very unusual ensemble of soprano, alto, choir, percussion, celesta and viola:

Like much of Feldman's music, the dynamics are often quite soft. In his later years he began writing very long pieces such as Violin and String Quartet (1985, around 2 hours), For Philip Guston (1984, around four hours) and, most extreme, the String Quartet II (1983, which is over six hours long without a break.)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Aural Tradition

A lot of what we see or hear is like walking in a forest or a field and noticing the trees or flowers or hills and dales without much awareness of the underlying geographical features. You might get a sense of either ascending or descending, but unless you are actually in the mountains, not much more. But fly over the countryside in an airplane and you get a very different sense. Just before New Year's I flew back to central Mexico from the US and was surprised to see how much of the country north of where I live is uninhabited mountains. There were just a few roads, hamlets and individual farms, widely separated by entirely uninhabited mountainous regions.

I've been reading a book on world musics lately and and starting to get a sense of some interesting underlying geography. I have posted on some ideological questions before in this post: "The War on Classical" because the book has an editorial animus against classical music, which it thinks is uppity or something. Also, some of the individual authors of the chapters on different world musics seem to bend over backwards to assert over and over again either that their music is just as aesthetically good as classical or maybe just a bit better because it isn't tied down to all that fixed notation and stuff.

The article on Turkish music I found particularly annoying. It turns out that the two major theorists on traditional Turkish music were both from outside Turkey, one the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir and the other Ali Ufki, originally a Polish church musician, Wojciech Bobowski, who was enslaved in Istanbul, converted to Islam and became a leading composer and the first to adapt Western notation to record Turkish music. You have to love a culture where even the musicologists are slaves. The Ottomans had a propensity for slavery: the elite core of their army, the Janissaries, were all recruited from enslaved Christian boys.

But I am getting away from what I want to talk about: the underlying geography of world music.

In one musical culture after another I run across comments which outline a cluster of approaches to music:
No matter how many Turkish musicians are playing together at one time, they all focus on executing a single melody line, though each may interpret it differently.
Indian music is generated through a complex modal system ... which provides the basis for composition and performance to happen simultaneously (what Westerners call improvisation)
Whereas a Western composer notates the work on paper in a more or less fixed form ... Thai classical composers notate nothing: their compositions are created in their minds and then committed to memory.
Most of the female singers were jawari or qiyan, singing slave girls. These were indeed slaves, in that they could be bought or sold, but they were also highly-trained performers, sometimes fetching extraordinary prices... (referring to the music of Medieval Andalusia, al-Andalus)
 Although the music was never notated - musicians have always learned this repertory aurally - by the sixteenth century songbooks had begun to circulate. These included the lyrics along with musical indications of the melodic modes. (referring to Andalusian music)
(In Chinese opera) Over time and a wide area, two basic creative approaches developed. One was the qupai system, where the librettist wrote lyrics to go with standard named tunes called qupai. To put it in Western terms, the librettist might specify, "sing to the tune (qupai) Yankee Doodle".
The instrumental groups of a gamelan perform specific functions, and their dense polyphony is created from just one melodic strand, drawing from a repertoire of patterns peculiar to each instrument.  
For most musicians, in most cultures, for much of history, music was an oral or aural tradition: it seemed entirely fitting that it be so as music is the most insubstantial of the arts, consisting of nothing more than compression waves in the air. By an act of pure creative genius, one Guido of Arezzo came up with an ideal solution for the notating of exact pitch: the simple idea of a horizontal line. All pitches could be judged in their relation to that line. Soon after, for even better precision, four more lines were added and voilá, the music staff was born. Mind you, it took another few hundred years to solve the problem of how to notate rhythms clearly and simply, but a few more acts of creative genius solved that too. As a bonus, since pitches could be written down clearly, that meant that Western musicians could notate not only melodies, but also harmonies. And if you stacked a few staves on top of one another, you could have a notation in which the entirety of an orchestral score could be seen at a glance. While there have been a number of other notation systems developed in other cultures, all of them are more like mnemonic guides than real systems of notation. The only time and place where a good music notation system was developed was in Western Europe between about 1000 AD and 1500 AD. Some other things that were uniquely developed in Western Europe: vaccines, antibiotics, the machines of the Industrial Revolution, the rule of law, and, sadly, modern warfare. But hey!

Since Western Europe, during those same years and for hundreds of years afterwards, also saw the development of musical styles and structures that did not develop anywhere else, such as true imitative counterpoint, tonal harmony and modulation and all the thousands of musical things that come from that, it is very likely that these developments presupposed musical notation. Don't you think?

So there are two basic musical approaches: the aural or oral tradition, and the notated, composed tradition.

Without a good musical notation to work with, music tends to be monophonic, with a heterophony of similar melodic lines, rhythmically complex, with a lot of extended rhythmic models and other formulas that need to be learned by rote, and essentially weak or lacking in genuine harmony. This, along with a tendency to be structured according to a poetic text and the likelihood of a complex treatment of pitches in the melody, describes nearly every non-Western musical style, whether it is from Thailand, China, Morocco or India. These are all markers of what is essentially folk music, that is, music transmitted via oral tradition and without what we would call composers as such.

The musical structures that we find in Bach, Mozart or Bruckner, depend on the ability to notate often very large musical structures, and do so clearly and creatively. Without notation, I think that the very concept of a composer as we find in Western music, just can't exist. The reason is that if you can write musical ideas down, sketch them, play with them, modify them, you are making the internal external where you can work with it. In all the other musical traditions, most of what the musicians are doing remains concealed, unexamined and therefore, not available to the composer's creative imagination.

This is Anton Bruckner - Symphony No. 6 in A Major with the Münchner Philharmoniker conducted by Sergiu Celibidache:

UPDATE: Just to head off any potential misunderstanding, I am not criticizing any particular musical culture here. More and more I realize that Asian music has a big influence on my compositions going right back to the 1970s. My point is just that the underlying geography of nearly all non-Western music is quite different from how music has developed in the West since the discovery of music notation.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

How much should you practice?

Over at the Violin Channel I ran across this little clip of Pamela Frank, who teaches at the Curtis Institute, talking about how much you should practice. Here, have a look:

I'm putting this up because, of course, I want to respond to what she is saying. First of all, we should have profound respect for anyone who teaches at Curtis, probably the foremost training school for orchestral musicians in the United States. But, you know, I have a little teaching and playing experience myself!

In one sense I completely agree with her and, in fact, that has been my practice in recent years. I only practice about an hour a day. Though when I was preparing for a recording session in October, for a couple of months before I was practicing between an hour and a half and two hours a day. But back when I was a student I typically practiced anywhere from three to six hours a day. An hour and a half of technique, an hour on learning new repertoire, an hour on maintaining old repertoire and another hour on new repertoire. That was my ideal when I was a concertizing soloist. I could simply not have gotten done what I needed to on an hour a day, even a very focussed hour.

For example, on one occasion I had to learn the Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto in three months for a concert with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra. I wasn't immediately sure it was possible, so I asked the producer to give me a couple of days to look it over. In a weekend I memorized the first movement. Believe me, you can't do that in an hour a day practicing. I probably spent a couple of hours the first day just working out the fingering.

Then there is the story of Arthur Rubinstein who apparently learned, from memory, the Grieg Piano Concerto in one massive eight hour session (I think I read this in his autobiography). Or Mstislav Rostropovich who memorized the whole of Shostakovich's first Cello Concerto in four days! That took a lot of hours.

So while I entirely understand what she is saying, I think that I would disagree with some of it. You should not limit yourself to one hour a day and, honestly, I kind of doubt that she has never practiced more than an hour a day.

But I wholeheartedly agree with her comments about focussed, concentrated, mindful practicing. Practicing without full awareness and concentration is worse than not practicing at all. I saw a clip where Isaac Stern was talking about practicing and he was saying that you have to practice in exactly the right way. It can take several hours to correct the bad habits you might have picked up in one hour of practicing the wrong way!

She is also dead right about spending most of your time working on just those things you have difficulty with.

Hmm, what would be a good envoi for today? I used to go out with a bassoonist who trained at Curtis and she told me that her teacher had her learn a different Vivaldi bassoon concerto every week. Which, I strongly suspect, took more than an hour a day. Here is the Concertus Hungarieus, under conductor Valeri Polyansky with Valeri Popov on bassoon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Listening to non-Western Music

Part of my philosophical approach to music is that listening, composing, evaluating--all those typical activities--always seem to revolve around asking the same questions over and over. I am reminded of this by my post the other day on Philip Glass where he talked about asking over and over "what is music?" Similarly the question "how do you compose music?" is one that composers keep asking and every piece is a kind of answer to it. Another question is "how do you listen to music?" and that is one that we tend to ask less often.

I am still reading that book on "the other classical musics" that I posted about here. It has chapters on Western Classical music and jazz as well as the musics of various non-Western cultures so the title is a bit of a misnomer. A better one would simply be "Music of the World", but that wouldn't sell as well. In any case, as I read each chapter I have the urge to do some listening so I have ordered from Amazon a recording of Javanese gamelan I used to have on vinyl decades ago and a couple of other discs as well. The only non-Western music I have currently on my shelf that is covered in the book is two discs of Andalusian music from Morocco contained in this box:

Sometimes, in my recent explorations of non-Western music, I get a feeling of deja vu. Reading the chapter on Javanese gamelan music I noticed that some of the recommended recordings were ones of Javanese court gamelan that I had owned in the 70s and some of the books were ones I had read around that time as well. This box looks nice and new, but looking at the fine print one sees that the Andalusian music discs are a reissue of ones that were originally released by Harmonia Mundi in 1984--and the recording itself was made in 1977!

In any case, as I had just browsed this box when I first got it, I sat down to listen closely to the Andalusian music. First off, why is it called that? Spain was conquered by Muslim forces in an advance that began early in the 8th century. Incidentally, it was at this time that bowed string instruments, which apparently originated in Central Asia, were brought into Europe for the first time. The Iberian peninsula was slowly won back, but it was not until 1492 that the reconquest was complete. For the whole of the European Middle Ages Spain, or al-Andalus as it was called, was an Islamic territory--at its peak, the Caliphate of Cordoba:

The music developed in this culture has lasted until today and is called "Andalusian music". It is played from Morocco to Egypt in various forms and styles. The style from Morocco is regarded as the most like the original music from al-Andalus and is often called "Andalusian classical music" because of its longevity and prestige. Western instruments like the violin, guitar, lute and oboe are descendants of instruments brought to the Iberian peninsula by the conquerers.

So let's have a listen to some Andalusian music. Luckily the whole of that first CD from the box is available at YouTube:

The whole disc is one long suite with unmeasured instrumental preludes, measured instrumental sections and songs. The claim is that this is very close to the music that was played in al-Andalus in the Middle Ages. In fact, some modern performances of Western Medieval music take this as a kind of model. But how close is it? Impossible to tell really. Sometimes I suspect that all our attempts to recreate very old musical performances are wildly wrong.

So what do you think of this music? It is supposedly a delight to connoisseurs, but I think I fell asleep about three-quarters of the way through. Interesting, yes, but perhaps you would have to listen many times to start to appreciate the subtleties. At this point I am just not sure how to listen to this music.

Monday, January 18, 2016

What is Music?

I recently finished reading Philip Glass' memoir titled Words Without Music and want to add a bit to my previous posts on it. One was "Words About Words." I strongly recommend reading the book, by the way. It is one of the most fascinating composer memoirs I have ever read.

There is a passage in the last chapter that I want to quote:
In my first year at the University of Chicago, the question I asked myself was, "Where does music come from?" The attempt to answer that question led to the composition of my first piece of music.
More than a dozen years later, still pondering the same question, I asked Ravi Shankar where music comes from. His reply was to bow toward a photo of his guru and say, "Through his grace, the power of his music has come through him into me."
Over time, for me, the question has evolved into another question: "What is music?"
For a while, the answer I found was that music is a place.
He goes on to say that he means this poetically: you can take a plane to Chicago either in reality or in your imagination and you can go to the place "music" in your imagination. I think I have talked about this in several places. Just before a performer begins a piece on stage, he goes to that place called "music". I often think of it as a place in the mind, but it seems to be a particular place in the brain as well. There was the case of the German cellist who had a terrible infection in his brain that wiped out much of his memory: he could no longer recall his friends or relatives or place names. But he could still read music and play the cello, indicating that these functions were in a different part of the brain. Glass talks about this quite differently, but I think that the basic idea is similar.

Music is like its own universe, close to but different from the ordinary world. If you have the aptitude and the discipline and the devotion, you can inhabit this universe, at least partly. I also sometimes think of music as being like a bridge between people. I will never forget a summer spent touring Europe with a flute player. We spent months in France, Germany and Italy and never visited a single art gallery or museum, but we met thousands of people (including my future wife). A musician is a kind of ambassador from another universe. Since it can be quite a magical universe, music can bring you many friends.

So let me thank all the wonderful friends I have met through this blog, itself a kind of bridge.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Comment on Comments

I have stated several times how proud I have been of my readers. In the four and a half years I have run this blog I have only had to delete one comment which was both obscene and insulting. But recently that has changed. In the last few days I have had to delete hundreds of comments all, I suspect, from the same person. Frankly it is not worth the trouble to get into what prompted this, but suffice it to say that he was infuriated that I found his comments on a post to be not suitable for this blog. As someone once said, hey, it's my microphone, I don't have to share it unless I choose to.

This is a not uncommon problem on the Internet, of course. The political/legal/lifestyle blogger Ann Althouse was plagued by nasty commentators to the point where for a while she closed the comments entirely. I am not quite ready to do that, but as of today, all comments will be moderated. We will see if that solves the problem. If it does not, then there are several other more severe measures I can take.

What is so odd about this is the whole kerfuffle came from a blog post that wasn't even objectionable to anyone. But one commentator left some comments that referred to another and then they started a fight between themselves. As this was entirely irrelevant to the post, I ended up deleting all those comments. This really infuriated one gentleman who has been doing everything he possibly can to annoy me ever since.

This blog has seen disputes and debates before and every single one of them, even when it involved politics, has been courteous and civilized. But there are some denizens of the Internet who have strange attitudes and, it seems, lots of time to indulge them. They are not welcome here.

Now let's have a suitable piece of music. How about the Mars movement from Holst's The Planets:

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Look Back at 2015

The site Bachtrack assembles some interesting statistics about classical music. Here are the top ten most-performed composers of 2015:
Top 10 concert composers in 2015 (2014 position in brackets):
  1. Mozart (2)
  2. Beethoven (1)
  3. J.S.Bach (3)
  4. Brahms (4)
  5. Schubert (5)
  6. Haydn (12)
  7. Ravel (10)
  8. Sibelius (26)
  9. Schumann (11)
The big jump in Sibelius' performances is attributable to the fact that 2015 was the 150th anniversary of his birth. It is also very nice to see Joseph Haydn break into the top ten. Here is their list of the top ten most-performed works:
10 most played concert works(2014 ranking):   
  1. Beethoven: Symphony no. 5 in C minor (9)
  2. Handel: Messiah (1)
  3. Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor (22)
  4. Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5 in E minor (26)
  5. Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor (29)
  6. Beethoven: Symphony no. 7 in A major (2)
 I'm not sure what this tells us other than Beethoven is a pretty good symphony composer and the violin concerto is an always popular genre. About the only other statistic of interest is the top ten operas:
Top 10 operas of 2015 (2014 ranking):
  1. Verdi: La traviata (2)
  2. Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro (9)
  3. Bizet: Carmen (3)
  4. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (6)
  5. Puccini: Madama Butterfly (5)
  6. Puccini: La bohème (1)
  7. Mozart: Don Giovanni (7)
  8. Verdi: Rigoletto (10)
  9. Puccini: Tosca (4)
  10. Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia (8)
Mozart and Puccini are the only composers with three operas in the top ten and Mozart is the only composer who excelled at both opera and instrumental composition. Notice that none of the other composers on the opera list appears on the two other lists.

As an envoi, let's listen to the overture to the Magic Flute. This is the Vienna Philharmonic directed by Riccardo Muti;

Friday Miscellanea

For some reason this photo reminds me of that possibly apocryphal comment of Artur Schnabel to the effect that for a long time he refused to record the Beethoven piano sonatas because he was afraid that someone, somewhere, would listen to them while eating a ham sandwich:

Click to enlarge
* * *

David Bowie, singer, pop musician, songwriter and crafter of image, has died, aged 69, of cancer. The Guardian has the obituary.
Bowie’s 25 albums produced a string of hits including Changes, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. He was known for experimenting across diverse musical genres, and for his alter egos Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. He also had a notable acting career.
His latest album, Blackstar, was released last week to coincide with his 69th birthday, and had received widespread critical acclaim.
I was something of a fan of Bowie's for a short time in the 1980s when he released the album Let's Dance:

* * *

Is it time for a protest song? Sure, it's always time for a protest song. Hmm, lemmesee, how about this one protesting Canadian authorities' overbearing attempts to prevent Canadians from having winter fun:

And it's not just Hamilton:
On New Year’s Eve, a couple living in North Edmonton, Alberta were putting the finishing touches on their homemade ice rink on the pond behind their house, when a cop showed up to fine them $100 for modifying the “land in a way likely to cause injury.” Their crime?  Clearing off the snow and hooking up a hose from their house to the pond to smooth out the top so that their kids could skate.
The mom, Morgann Tomlinson was really angry.
Follow this link for more.

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I know you have been wanting to hear Justin Bieber's interpretation of Beethoven, as I have. Sadly, all we have is this brief clip of him having a go at Für Elise in the lobby of the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. The Daily Mail has the story.

Did you ever think that maybe a lot of pop musicians are secretly classical music lovers, but just play pop music because, you know, that's where the money is?

* * *

Alan Rickman also just passed away from cancer. I recall attending a fascinating presentation at a musicology conference some years ago where his entrance in the first Die Hard film was analyzed in terms of a recitative and aria. I suppose something like this was inevitable:

* * *

This sounds like a series of recordings I would like to hear: Kristian Bezuidenhout's survey of the Mozart keyboard music on fortepiano. The etymology of the word "fortepiano" is interesting. It seems to be a modern coinage: i.e. a word invented to contrast the modern pianoforte with its smaller, lighter predecessor. And that gives us our envoi today. This is Kristian Bezuidenhout playing the Mozart Fantaisie in D, KWV 397 on fortepiano:

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Hammer and the Moon

I credit myself with great restraint for not titling a post "Boulez est mort!" in riposte to Pierre Boulez' famous essay "Schoenberg est mort" published in 1952, the year after Schoenberg died. However, as you will see from the link, not everyone was so restrained. On the occasion of Boulez' passing last week, I decided to do a couple of posts on his music which, frankly, has never made much of an aesthetic impression on me.

Most of Boulez' music was garnished with austere, remote titles like "Structures" or "Pli selon pli" ("Fold by fold"), but there is one early piece, and one that I had in my LP collection from the mid 70s, that not only has an evocative, if enigmatic, title, but also seems to relate to an earlier composition by Schoenberg. I am referring to "Pierrot Lunaire", a song-cycle by Schoenberg written in 1912 on German translations of 21 poems by Albert Giraud. Then, in 1955, Boulez completed a setting, in nine movements, of three poems by René Char titled "Le Marteau sans maître". Both compositions are for voice and chamber ensemble, both are settings of French poetry and both are innovative classics of modernism. Both also have a duration of about 35 to 40 minutes. The Schoenberg is for voice and five instruments, the Boulez for voice and six instruments. Both pieces even use the same vocal technique of Sprechstimme. The parallels are striking, but while it is likely that they exist, I have not run across any discussion of relations between the two pieces. So let's do it!

First problem, unless I order a copy of the study score from Universal Edition and wait a couple of months, I can't provide musical examples for the Boulez. The Schoenberg is available at IMSLP. There is a brief excerpt from Le marteau sans maître at Wikipedia. Here is the flute part from the beginning of the third movement:

Click to enlarge
Let's just have a brief look at that example. This is ridiculously difficult to play from a rhythmic standpoint: a septuplet in 3/8 with a fermata on the last note, tied to the first note of a four-note group of grace notes in the new time signature of 4/4, and during this you crescendo? Then a long F natural while you decrescendo, another group of two grace notes to a very high G. An eighth rest. Four quarter notes in the new time signature of 2/2 with a couple of grace notes, new time signature of 3/8 but with a hemiola so it sounds as if it were 6/16, quintuplet on the first beat of a new 3/4 measure and the final measure of the excerpt is 5/8. Every single measure is in a different time signature and on top of this, the rhythms themselves are very difficult. Honestly, playing this is an exercise in insanity. And the final insult is that the tempo indication is "moderate without rigor", i.e. don't play the rhythms too strictly!

I don't want to accuse Boulez of writing music that he cannot hear accurately--I'm sure he can. But I question whether anyone else can, apart from the poor musicians who have to learn this. And what is the point? As a number of other composers have shown, you can get pretty much the same results with indeterminate notation and fewer musician suicides. But the real problem I have with this is that it is aesthetically incoherent. If you want to depict chaos and despair, then I suppose this is just the thing, but that and nothing but, is an aesthetically disagreeable cocktail.

Here is the first page of the Schoenberg:

Yes, also very difficult, but not insanely so. The difficulties are surmountable, not just for the performers, but for the listener as well. There is enough rhythmic consistency to make the music, while certainly eerie, at least listenable. What Schoenberg was doing was a kind of extension or stretching of musical forms and techniques. He uses canon, fugue, passacaglia and other forms but with more than usually complex rhythms and with atonality. This piece lies in the transition from when he wrote in the usual extended tonality of the late 19th century to his use of twelve-tone serialism. You might think of this as tonality stretched to the point of no return.

Here is an English translation of that first song from Pierrot Lunaire:
The wine we drink through the eyes
The moon pours down at night in waves,
And a flood tide overflows
The silent horizon.

Longings beyond number, gruesome sweet frissons,
Swim through the flood.
The wine we drink through the eyes
The moon pours down at night in waves.

The poet, slave to devotion,
Drunk on the sacred liquor,
Enraptured, turns his face to Heaven
And staggering sucks and slurps
The wine we drink through the eyes.
Here is an English translation of the text of the first sung movement of the Boulez, "L'artisanat furieux:
The furious craftsmanship
The red caravan on the edge of the nail
And corpse in the basket
And plowhorses in the horseshoe
I dream the head on the point of my knife Peru.
This is even more surrealist than the Giraud.

Now let's listen to the two pieces. First the Schoenberg, conducted by Pierre Boulez with Christine Schäfer and the Ensemble InterContemporain:

And now the Boulez, again with Boulez conducting with Hillary Summers and the Ensemble InterContemporain:

I am not going to do an analysis: for one thing it would take a very long time and there already exist analyses of the Schoenberg and even of the Boulez. For brief analyses of both pieces have a look at the Wikipedia articles I linked above. The Boulez article is particularly useful.

But what I think would be very useful to do is listen to both pieces and notice what you hear and say what you think about what you hear. The comment section awaits!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Schubert: the last piano sonatas, part 3

Today I am going to have a look at the first movement of the second of the three last piano sonatas by Schubert, the one in A major, D. 959. I've mentioned before the quite good Wikipedia article on these three sonatas, so I recommend reading it again. It contains an interesting discussion of how the first movement is structured. What sticks in my mind is how Schubert has a great deal of modulation in the exposition, but confines the development itself to the key of C mostly with occasional departures to B and C minor before settling into A minor. This is the tonic minor, A minor, which has the same key signature as C major, so all he has to do to begin the recapitulation is change to the major. One of Schubert's typical harmonic gestures is the juxtaposition of major and minor.

So what's special about this? The traditional approach to the development section is to begin by destabilizing the tonality and putting one or more themes from the exposition through some harmonic changes and fragmentation. But Schubert does more of this in the exposition! Schubert's themes tend to be fairly complex, often consisting of ternary structures. The first theme begins with this phrase:

Click to enlarge
The first phrase is the first three lines and it dovetails with a restatement of the opening, with a different continuation. These triplets, in a chromatic version, will make up the second part of this first theme. Notice that the phrase is fifteen measures long--the sixteenth measure begins a new phrase. Theorists tend to be a bit fetishistic about irregular phrase lengths: eleven measures long in Haydn or five in Mozart, and this is certainly interesting. But the reason it is interesting is because so many composers tend to keep cranking out eight or sixteen measure phrases without much variation. I tend to think that the real magic here is not that the great ones wrote irregular phrases, but that they made them sound so normal!

As Wikipedia notes, the second theme is more lyrical and in four-part harmony. The theme begins on the third measure of this excerpt, where it says pp:

This theme is ternary, meaning that it has three parts, the first one shown above, a middle part:

Click to enlarge
which is a further development of the chromatic triplets from theme one, and then a return to the first part. This excerpt I just quoted contains the kind of fragmentation and harmonic velocity that is usually reserved for the development section, but which, as I said, is not found in the development of this movement.

What Schubert has constructed is a kind of reversal of some of the basic characteristics of the first movement sonata form. In Haydn, Mozart and even Beethoven, a harmonically stable theme is presented, often followed by another in the dominant and this exposition is followed by a development in which the harmony is unstable and wide-ranging and the theme or themes are broken up and sequenced. While Schubert does indeed have two themes, the second in the dominant, each theme contains a development section with fragmentation and harmonic instability. But the development itself has little actual development. Instead, it is a more calm contrast with the exposition and recapitulation. The development sounds rather Mozartean, in fact.

Another unusual quality is the extent to which the subdominant is stressed, not just in the coda, which is normal, but in the first theme itself. Finally, Schubert ends the movement with an unusual cadence. Instead of the nearly mandatory V7 to I (in A major an E G# B D chord followed by A C# E) he has, in place of the dominant seventh, this chord: B flat, D G#, which is an Italian augmented sixth chord, normally used to prepare the dominant. The effect here is to again, bend things toward the subdominant, D.

But enough talk, let's listen to the first movement of the sonata. This is Rudolf Serkin whom I prefer because, unlike most of the other clips available, he repeats the exposition:

Monday, January 11, 2016

Scylla and Charybdis

In the popular media, composition is depicted as being mysterious, emotionally agonising but technically simple: you just write what you "feel". Alas, two of these beliefs are wrong. Speaking just for myself, of course, composing, while certainly mysterious, is more emotionally exhilarating than agonising but technically--or rather, aesthetically--complex. The problem is always to negotiate between the Scylla and Charybdis of, on the one hand, derivative boring regurgitation of music of the past and, on the other hand, of incomprehensible private languages that are aesthetic nullities. Philip Glass seems to have gotten by with little more than ascending minor thirds, a few hemiolas and fast tempi. But there have to be other possibilities.

It is rather difficult to pick out examples of boring, derivative music though I'm sure we have all heard them. Think of the least distinguished film music, for example. A lot of it is just re-hashing of standard musical tropes: John Williams does it very well, but many of the others, less so. It is all too easy, however, to pick out examples of aesthetic nullities. Most of the most well-known composers of post-WWII high modernism are instances: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Sylvano Busotti and so on. These composers share a number of qualities: they shocked audiences to some extent, they were technically innovative and rejected all prior music, and they were, to my mind aesthetic nullities because their music was so alien that it had no aesthetic effect. Some of the eeriest music was stolen by film composers for horror movies.

Here is a sample score by Busotti to give you an idea:

Click to enlarge

Now, am I simply a reactionary? Well, reactionary, sure, but not simply, I hope! The truth is that music composition in most places has moved far away from the maximal modernism of the post-war years and is much more consonant and clearly rhythmic. I suspect that one of the reasons that Boulez, for one, seemed less creative as time went on, is that he was unwilling to give up any of the avant-garde turf that he had conquered. In the meantime, the minimalists came along and now it seems that every other composer is writing music with drones.

But every composition needs to carve out something new and a lot of the recent droney music just doesn't seem to do much in that direction. Perhaps there is a great reliance on orchestration, or timbre, to give a newish sheen to the music. OK, but I'm not sure that is enough.

Anyway, I've been experimenting with some ideas partly inspired by traditional Thai music. Here is a sample:

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Learning Violin: Nuts and Bolts

I just watched a fascinating video of the progress of an adult beginner on the violin over a two year period. I am going to make some general observations about this, not give a lesson on violin playing. Here is the video:

The player, twenty-four years old (after the two years, presumably) had a total of eight lessons, but most of this progress was without a teacher, it seems.

It is fascinating to watch, even for me, having spent around thirty years teaching and seeing the progress of many students over the years. What is interesting is to see the progress condensed into these short clips. I would have loved to have had some clips of my progress as a student, but sadly, video was much rarer then and the equipment so expensive that most people just didn't have it.

One thing to realize is that what you are seeing is just the highlights, the dessert, as it were. Each one of these little clips was preceded by hours and hours and hours and hours of slow, grueling and likely out-of-tune, practicing. Then, after a lot of work, the camera is turned on for a few seconds to capture the final results. In other words, learning an instrument is a very long, very demanding and often very boring process, at least from the outside. So why do people do it? Well, these days, a lot fewer do do it. But the answer is that there is something absolutely magical about creating music--even rudimentary music. Being able to play a tune, or lots of tunes, is a rare and special thing.

A music student approaches each day with the attitude that they will spend as much time as necessary and be as painstaking as necessary in order to make the most progress possible. Often there is a particular moment when this urge reaches a kind of climax and it is during this time that the bulk of the progress is made. For me it was a year I spend studying with a master in Spain in my early 20s. I practiced six hours a day, which took all day because there have to be rest periods in between, not to mention lunch! But I did not practice more than six hours because I discovered that your right hand fingernails would wear away faster than they grew with more hours practice. So I practiced the maximum possible. About an hour and half was devoted solely to technique: scales, arpeggios, slurs and other exercises. I would memorize two or three pages of music every day as well as maintaining older repertoire.

Before this year, I had played the guitar for a few years: first as a bass guitarist, then an electric and acoustic six-string one before switching to classical. But it was during this year of supreme effort that I actually became a good guitarist. I had been a bit of a hack when I went to Spain, but afterwards, when I auditioned to enter McGill University as a guitar performance major, I was not only the best student who auditioned, I was the best guitarist in the department. McGill is the finest music school in Canada.

Believe me, no-one could possibly sit through a video that documented the work that you actually have to do to master an instrument. But this little five minute video gives you just a taste of it.

Not to reduce in any way our Norwegian beginner's accomplishment, but this is what a violinist sounds like who has fully mastered the instrument. This is the Hungarian violinist Kristof Barati. In January 2008, he performed in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory all the sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach for solo violin. This is the first part, the three sonatas:

Friday, January 8, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking it off is a review of a new book titled "Inside the Great British Recording Studios." Oh, and that microphone you see in the top photo? That's a Telefunken U47 and it runs about $10,000 US. A great microphone is about the only thing that hasn't changed in the recording studio:
The technology that Jagger and Stones road manager Ian Stewart fitted into a good-sized truck to go mobile is now available inside a well-equipped personal computer and sophisticated audio interface. It’s now possible to make a very good sounding record in a project studio -- particularly if the goal is to record a demo recording; drum machines and drum loops eliminate the need for a large room and scads of expensive condenser mics to record a drummer, and excellent samples of strings and other orchestral instruments are readily available. Guitar and bass modeling devices, and beautiful sounding hardware and software synthesizers fill out the rest of the band. A vocalist can be recorded via good condenser mic, a portable vocal booth, and a carefully-treated room.
* * * 

It's my feeling that we haven't had enough funny items in the miscellanea lately, so, to rectify that, I am going to put up a non-musical item. This is a collection of some of the best corrections of 2015 in the media:
"Norma Adams-Wade's June 15 column incorrectly called Mary Ann Thompson Frenk a socialist. She is a socialite." - The Dallas Morning News.
"Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the number of years E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker. It was five decades, not centuries." -The New York Times.
"Just to keep the record straight, it was the famous Whistler's Mother, not Hitler's, that was exhibited at the recent meeting of the Pleasantville Methodists. There is nothing to be gained in trying to explain how the error occurred." -Titusville (Pa.) Herald.
"Karol Wojtyla was referred to in Saturday's Credo column as "the first non-Catholic pope for 450 years". This should, of course, have read "non-Italian pope." -London Times.
"The Ottawa Citizen and Southam News wish to apologize for our apology to Mark Steyn, published Oct. 22. In correcting the incorrect statements about Mr. Steyn published Oct. 15, we incorrectly published the incorrect correction. We accept and regret that our original regrets were unacceptable." - Ottawa Citizen and Southam News.
I have no idea what kind of suit Mark Steyn threatened the Ottawa Citizen with, but it must have been a doozy!

* * *

Here is an interesting anecdote about Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist:
Casals' first visit and tour of the United States came in the year 1901, when he traveled across the nation with a popular vocal artist, Emma Nevada. It was to have been an extensive series of engagements, with performances in 80 different locations! However, midway through the tour Casals suffered a serious injury to his left hand, while hiking in California. He had been climbing Mount Tamalpais, near San Francisco, when a large rock somehow become dislodged, and fell on his hand, crushing some fingers. Casals said that the first thought that came to his mind at the time was, "Thank God, I'll never have to play the cello again!" It may be helpful to amateur cellists, and young professionals, to remember that even the truly great musicians of history have had to contend with self-doubt, stress and burn-out. Casals, master of the cello that he was, still was always nervous before and during performances.
* * *

This is what perfect pitch is like:

I was in an ear-training class with people like this: ear-training virtuosos that came up through the Québec Conservatoire system from a young age. They could not only do stuff like this, they could sight-sing anything in any clef you liked. But were they musically creative? Not especially. A friend of mine with perfect pitch was nearly driven mad playing in a Baroque ensemble doing the Brandenburgs because they were using A = 415 instead of A = 440. Everything either looked wrong or sounded wrong!

* * *

This year and next Wigmore Hall is planning to present ALL of Schubert's 600 songs in a series of concerts. Worth a trip to London! Or several... The Guardian has an extended interview with some of the singers involved that is worth looking at.

* * *

Pierre Boulez has died, aged 90. There is an extensive obituary in the Guardian:
Pierre Boulez, who has died aged 90, was arguably the single dominant figure of the classical musical world through the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Without his compositions, his legacy of recordings as a conductor, his writings on music and his administrative skill and drive, the musical scene today would be of a quite different order. To some extent this dominance was achieved by the application of remorseless logic to both organisational and interpersonal problems. But at the same time he was a man of great warmth and charm.
I will have some posts on Boulez in the near future, but I see that Amazon is temporarily out of stock of his Oeuvres Completes. There is much that I would disagree with in the above evaluation, though. As a conductor, he was outstanding, as a composer, however, he had little influence in the last few decades, tied as his music is to the hyper-complexity of the immediate post-war years. There are lots of people that might disagree with that statement, but I hope to provide some basis for it in future posts. It is as an ideologue and behind-the-scenes manipulator that he had perhaps an unfortunate influence on the music world. Still, it is time for a thorough re-evaluation and perhaps I might change my mind!

This discussion, also in the Guardian, is closer to the truth, I think: "Pierre Boulez changed how we listen to the music of our time."

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Alex Ross has a piece praising John Williams' movie scores:
This is not to deny that Williams has a history of drawing heavily on established models. The Tatooine desert in “Star Wars” is a dead ringer for the steppes of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The “Mars” movement of Holst’s “Planets” frequently lurks behind menacing situations. Jeremy Orosz, in a recent academic paper, describes these gestures as “paraphrases”: rather than quoting outright, Williams “uses pre-existing material as a creative template to compose new music at a remarkable pace.” There’s another reason that “Star Wars” contains so many near-citations. At first, George Lucas had planned to fill the soundtrack with classical recordings, as Stanley Kubrick had done in “2001.” The temp track included Holst and Korngold. Williams, whom Lucas hired at Spielberg’s suggestion, acknowledged the director’s favorites while demonstrating the power of a freshly composed score. He seems to be saying: I can mimic anything you want, but you need a living voice.
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The obvious choice for an envoi today is a piece by Pierre Boulez. Here is one of his most important works, Répons, recorded in Japan in 1995: