Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Guardian view on female conductors

Just when I was wondering what I could post on today, the Guardian, as so often, comes through. Yes, they are beating the identity politics drum once more. This is perhaps the most interesting passage:
On Wednesday, Simone Young, until recently the head of the Hamburg Opera and a far too infrequent presence in British music, will conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It is the only time in its 12 appearances at the 2016 Proms that this taxpayer-funded orchestra has been directed by a woman.
 The Guardian presents this as an entirely uncontroversial view and indeed, there is a kind of vague public consensus that if there are equal numbers of women in society there should be equal numbers of women in every segment of society. Only a bigoted mossback would even question this.

But the reality is just a tad more complicated than that. Identity politics, currently a political fashion in the West, are a development ultimately stemming from cultural Marxism. The basic method of Marxists and socialists generally is to achieve power and control of society by playing different groups off against one another. A good Marxist or socialist politician says to the voters, yes, I know you are being treated unfairly and oppressively and I know whose fault it is: them! The "them" is whoever looks like a good scapegoat: the ruling class, Jews, middle-aged white males, Easterners, foreigners, whoever. The actual facts are not the issue, but the method of always finding someone else to blame is.

The prize in the cereal box is that the solution ALWAYS involves giving the politicians more power to right the supposed wrongs. There ought to be a law! And there have to be hosts of bureaucrats and police to enforce the law. And the law will correct the wrongs. But the long-standing principles of the rule of law, that is, the foundation of most successful societies, state that justice and punishment are enforced on the individual, not the group. If one individual oppresses another individual, that is cause for punishment. But this is insufficient for the political purposes of the socialist: he must win the votes of the oppressed by promising to punish the oppressors as a group. Guilt is no longer individual, but collective. If you are a middle-aged white male, you are guilty of oppressing everyone else. This is not only absurd and false, it also runs directly opposite to the rule of law where everyone, regardless of identity or origin is treated equally by the administration of justice. This is why the statue symbolizing justice is wearing a blindfold:


There is a precise analogue for this in the selection of players for symphony orchestras. After complaints that certain candidates were favored in auditions because they were friends of the selection committee, or relatives of the conductor or disfavored because they were women or a racial minority or for whatever reason of perceived unfairness, nearly all symphony auditions these days are done with the candidates playing behind a screen so the committee cannot see the identity of the performer. This is simple justice, of course. Over the course of the last few decades, more and more women have chosen to audition for symphony positions and whenever they have won a position there has never been any question as to whether they deserve it.

But look at what the Guardian is implying in their editorial:
By the end of the BBC Proms next week, there will have been 75 concerts this season. Just eight will have been conducted by women, with one woman, Marin Alsop, in charge of three of them. Quite simply, it’s not enough, both in principle and at a time when women are playing in increasingly equal numbers in British orchestras.
Let's have a look at that principle, because, as is typical in this kind of piece, they simply do not state what principle they are talking about. Is it the principle of equal justice under the rule of law? In that case, every conductor would have to be chosen blindly, based on recordings or screened rehearsals. But what the Guardian is implying is that there should be women conductors equal in number to men conductors, or that there should be women conductors in proportions equal to the numbers of women in the orchestra. The threat they imply is that taxpayer funding could be cut if orchestras do not comply. This is a very real threat because these days, just about every politician is a bit of a socialist and very susceptible to socialist arguments.

Music is one of the areas in society least susceptible to political machinations because much of what is seen as success comes down to empirical facts like record sales, audience response, aesthetic evaluation and so on. Neither the Guardian nor anyone else is going around suggesting that the proportions of women divas vs male pop stars is out of whack. No-one is saying that the disparity in gender balance in, say, the Rolling Stones needs to be corrected by firing Keith Richards and hiring a female lead guitarist even though there are probably lots who are even better players than he is. But taxpayer-funded symphony orchestras are pretty much fair game. They should not be. There is absolutely nothing preventing anyone from starting up a all-woman symphony orchestra (and there are a few out there) or an all-minority symphony orchestra (and there is one of those in the UK). And the audiences will decide if they want to attend their concerts or not.

There is a name for what the Guardian is up to with articles like these: virtue-signalling. It is all about showing how they are on-board with the cause of the day.

Our envoi today is an easy choice. Here is a news clip of the British Women's Symphony Orchestra dating from 1934:


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Philosophy and Aesthetics

I was almost going to title this one "The Uses of Philosophy" but I hate to oversell a post! A post on the uses of philosophy would have to be a couple of hundred thousand words! But I do want to talk about one use of philosophy. In modern times, one fruitful approach in philosophy has been to examine how we talk about things for a clue as to what we mean and what the truth might be. Sometimes this is called "ordinary language philosophy." Ludwig Wittgenstein is sometimes viewed as an ordinary language philosopher. But we can see some similar methods used in Aristotle who, in his Nichomachean Ethics, for example, looked at what people usually meant by ethical language.

In any case, I am going to pick out an application of this method, or a version of it, to the never-ending dispute about quality in music or what we mean when we talk about "good" music or "bad" music. The first thing to note is that a very large number of people who write about music, like Alex Ross at the New Yorker, avoid using those terms at all. I once wrote, after reading some Alex Ross, that he would likely prefer to stab himself in the ears with knitting needles rather than call a piece of music good or bad!

For a while now I have been working my way through a brilliant book on aesthetics by Monroe C. Beardsley. It is the best survey of the whole field I am aware of. One of the most interesting chapters, after a great number of preliminary questions have been discussed in previous chapters, is titled "Aesthetic Value" which is, of course, one of the ongoing themes in this blog.

There are many different kinds of philosophical methods, indeed, sometimes it seems as if philosophy is nothing but methodology and the examination of methodology. But one of the central methods is the crafting of questions--what are the right questions to ask? An intriguing twist on this is to look at a theory and see if it prohibits asking certain kinds of questions and whether that is appropriate. Let me give an example: we are aware of certain kinds of things when we listen to music, such as does it seem beautiful to us, is it enjoyable or the reverse, does it soothe or agitate and so on. We are also aware of other facts pertaining to the music: what medium is it presented in, mp3, vinyl, CD? There is also the question of cost: is it a free download, an inexpensive CD, a very expensive collected edition? It might be a live performance we are thinking of attending: is it free admission, are the tickets $10 or will it cost us $300 for a box seat?

I divided these questions up into categories to make the point that these categories are separate and easy to distinguish. The implication of this is that there may or may not be causal relationships between these categories. Just because we are listening to an mp3 of the Bach B minor Mass does not mean that the aesthetic value is low. Nor does paying for the most expensive seat at the opera guarantee that we receive high aesthetic value--the soprano may have a head cold that night! So the question of whether or not paying more guarantees higher aesthetic value is certainly an appropriate one. But if you look at the way pop music is covered in the mass media you might almost get the impression that higher record sales are somehow connected to higher musical worth (aesthetic value).

We live in the Age of Psychology so a lot of writers avoid any discussion of objective aesthetic value because they believe in a psychological or subjective definition of aesthetics: "X has aesthetic value" means "Someone likes X in a certain way, i.e. aesthetically." [From p. 513 in Beardsley's book.] One advantage of this sort of definition is that it is testable empirically. We can determine who the greatest composers or pop musicians are by simply polling people to see how many like them because "like" is the same as "aesthetically valuable." Of course there are those who will immediately start objecting that there are cultural and group differences. Elgar is a great English composer because most English people like his music. This what Beardsley calls an Impersonal definition because it does not refer to the speaker. A Personal definition would be "Elgar is a great composer because I like him!" We might even claim that "all red-blooded Americans would like the music of Charles Ives."

But here is where it gets interesting. This equation of aesthetic value with the likes of people, whether individual or en masse, has a problem. As Beardsley puts it:
All of the Subjectivist definitions render unaskable certain questions that people do ask, and that are perfectly good questions, and this shows that the definitions do not correspond to actual usage.
If aesthetic value is defined in terms of the speaker's sensibility and that of his time, then when he says "This is good" he can only mean "I and most critics of my own time like this." He then may wonder if indeed the work is good. But in the Subjectivist definition, this question can only amount to:
"I see that I and most critics of my own time like this, but do I and most critics of my own time like this?"
The Subjectivist definition renders this question unaskable because it becomes nonsensical. But it is not nonsensical to question our own tastes. We can indeed wonder if the tastes of our time do indeed recognize aesthetic value or not. In fact, this is pretty much what I do here on a regular basis.

The next time you are reading some writing on music, see if you can uncover what the hidden assumptions are and if the writer is asking good questions or just trying to avoid certain questions.

Time for some music! Our envoi today is  the entirely suitable piece by Joseph Haydn. The Symphony No. 22 in E flat major is nicknamed "The Philosopher" from a manuscript dating from the composer's lifetime. The scoring is uniquely two English Horns, two horns and strings. The name might come from the question and answer kind of texture that begins the work. The performers are the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Whooping it up, millennial style

Thanks to a commentator who tipped me off to this piece of musicology from the folks over at Slate: The Millennial Whoop: The Simple Melodic Sequence That’s Showing Up All Over Contemporary Pop. Sure, we've all heard it, but it's nice when someone points out what is going on. There is a rash of pop artists using the same wa-oh-wa-oh melodic hook. The interval is a descending minor third from the fifth to the third of a major chord. A good example is Katy Perry's "California Gurls" where we hear it first at the 52-53 second mark before it is restated in the chorus at the 1:05-1:09 mark.


(For some reason, Blogger won't embed the original video, but if you follow the link above, you can watch it there.)

The article explains why this pattern is so popular:
Humans crave patterns. The reason pop music is successful to begin with is because almost every song is immediately familiar before you get more than 10 seconds into a first listen. Between the formula of European classical scales and chord progressions that have gelled over hundreds of years and the driving heartbeat rhythms that stimulate our internal organs at the right decibels, listeners are immediately hooked in by familiar structure and themes that have likely been ringing in their ears since they were in the womb. And with the pervasive nature of pop music, where everything is a remix, a feedback loop has been created in which songs are successful because they are familiar, so in order to be successful, songs are created that play on our sense of familiarity.
So it is that the Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe. In the age of climate change and economic injustice and racial violence, you can take a few moments to forget everything and shout with exuberance at the top of your lungs. Just dance and feel how awesome it is to be alive right now. Wa-oh-wa-oh.
The minor third is perhaps the most fundamental musical interval of all. We find it everywhere. Listen to a mother calling out for her wayward son to come home for dinner. It is likely that the interval is a descending minor third: "John-ny! John-ny!" The blues song "Spoonful" as performed by Cream is about as saturated with the minor third as you can get:


Unless you are listening to Philip Glass, where we find it permeating a lot of his output:






With a few major thirds, for variety!

Food on a Sunday Afternoon

I see that I have never had a "food" tag before. I guess the only time I have talked about food on the blog was when I was visiting Madrid. But a lot of musicians are secret foodies, myself included. Yesterday I roasted a chicken, which I often do on a Sunday afternoon. I have been trying some new recipes lately, but the one yesterday really came out great:

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Roast chicken is really a very simple thing to make and it is an excellent accompaniment to a good wine. It was a warm day, so instead of opening a red, which I would usually do, I opened this:


I am not the biggest fan of Italian whites, which seem to lack flavor when vinfied bone dry, but I've always liked Orvieto, especially the slightly off-dry version called Orvieto Abbocato. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it for sale for quite a while. But this was quite nice.

Back to the recipe. A long time ago I roasted a chicken stuffed with garlic and it turned out great. This recipe calls for both lemon and garlic. It's really easy. Just take a whole chicken, rinse it off and dry it thoroughly inside and out. Salt and pepper the interior. Stuff it with a lemon, quartered and two heads (not cloves, heads!) of garlic cut crosswise so as to expose all the cloves. Tie the legs up. Put it in a roasting pan surrounded by cut up carrots, small potatoes cut in half and onions. Melt five tablespoons of butter and brush the bird all over. Pour the rest of the butter over the vegetables and bird. Salt and pepper everything. Then roast it in a 400-425 oven for between an hour and an hour and a half. A few months ago a friend gave me a meat thermometer and I don't know how I got along without one! After about an hour, test the chicken by inserting the pointy end deep in between the thigh and the breast. When it reads 165º, the chicken is done. All those other methods are inaccurate and too subjective.


After it is done, remove from the oven and put the chicken on a cutting board. Allow it to rest for fifteen minutes. While it is resting, put the roasting pan with the vegetables back in the oven for fifteen minutes to finish them. That's it. Carve the bird and serve with the vegetables and a good wine. This will go with absolutely any wine and vice versa.

  • aged Pauillac
  • Riesling
  • Chardonnay
  • Malbec from Argentina
  • Rioja
  • Ribera del Duero
  • any of the fine premium wines from Torres like Celeste, which is from the Ribera del Duero
You name it! But please, nothing in a box!


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Chamber Festival Concert

I attended the last concert of the chamber music festival last night--this is the 38th year it has been presented! This concert was the Shanghai Quartet (who are, oddly enough, based in New Jersey) and they played two pieces: the Mendelssohn F minor quartet and the Beethoven Quartet in A minor, op. 132. My violinist friend attended the concert the night before and was raving about how good their Haydn op. 20 no. 4 was. Wish I had gone! Anyway, I won't give a review of the concert, I just want to say that their playing of the slow movement (Molto adagio; Andante) of the Beethoven was as good as I have ever heard. This may be the best slow movement ever written and I say that having heard a lot of slow movements. We in the biz call this movement the "heiliger dankgesang" movement from the beginning of the lengthy title Beethoven places on it: "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart." And yes, it is in the Lydian mode, about the only piece I can think of!

So, let's just listen to the whole quartet. You will thank me later. This is the Alban Berg Quartet. If you just want to listen to the Heiliger Dankgesang, it is at the 17:45 mark. If you go to YouTube there is even a link you can click on. But you really need to listen to the whole piece. Then, if you wish, you may go back and just listen to the slow movement. You're welcome.


The Sensitive Female Chord Progression

Don't blame me, I didn't name it! Boston.com had an article about something they called the "sensitive female chord progression": Striking a Chord. Here is how they describe it:
...what is the Sensitive Female Chord Progression, exactly? It's simple enough for the music theory-inclined: vi-IV-I-V. No good? Well, for a song in the key of A minor, it would be Am-F-C-G. Still confused? Here's an easy way to see if a song uses the chord progression: Just sing Osborne's lyrics, "What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?" over the suspect four chords. If it fits, you've just spotted one in the wild. Once you're attuned to it, you'll hear it everywhere.
I have the feeling that the writer called up a musical friend to get the technical vocabulary--he almost got it right! The vi-IV-I-V is good, and that does stand for A minor, F major, G major and C major, but that's in the key of C major, not A minor. Here is how that looks and sounds:

video

Later in the article they quote one music teacher's take on it:
Jack Perricone, chair of Berklee College's songwriting department, thinks the mixture of chords gives the progression emotional heft. "It starts on a sense of maybe disquiet," he says. "In a sense, it's three-quarters major and one-quarter, but a very important quarter, being minor.
"And I think that has to do with credibility, what people experience in life. . . . I mean, that's not a bad mixture, one-quarter sadness or darkness and three-quarters light."
Now I'm imagining myself on the hiring panel at Berklee and we are interviewing candidates for the theory position. I ask every candidate "do minor chords mean sadness and major chords happiness?" And if they say yes, I say "next!" One thing is clear: the four-chord progression, whether it is this one or a similar one, is pretty much a cliché, which tends to support my belief that much popular music is industrialized formulas for evoking conventional emotional reactions.

If you want to be creative, try some three-chord progressions like I-VII-IV-I. That's the progression for the long coda to "Hey Jude":

video

Happy, sad? You got me, though the mood is more ecstatic than depressed. My theory is that music isn't really an expression of ordinary everyday emotions, but rather musical moods. Music is an "aesthetic object" not the acoustic equivalent of a pep squad or a therapy session. Here is another three-chord progression and I won't do a simple piano version because it wouldn't sound very good. The progression is VII-i-VII-VI or G major, A minor, G major, F major. As you have already guessed, that is the whole harmonic content of the song "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan:


That is, I believe, the original version from the album John Wesley Harding, but just the instrumental backing tracks. Dylan's people are pretty good at keeping his songs off YouTube. Anyway, happy? Sad? One third sad? Again, you got me. That song has a very particular and unique mood that I don't have any words for: driving forward with a certain amount of distance?

What all these progressions have in common is the avoidance of any clear cadential progression from V to I. That is pretty much what any of us do these days when writing tonal music. Perhaps we should call what we do "vague tonal music blended with modal music for extra vagueness."

Let's end with that great television performance of "Hey Jude" that is preceded by a little clip showing the Beatles could have been a pretty good tearoom gig band if they had wanted to:



UPDATE: There is a bit of a problem I neglected to mention. With a lot of these pop chord progressions, the tonality is rather ambiguous. For example, in the Dylan song, you could think of it as being in A minor and that is how it is usually conceived, but in the absence of any cadence a theorist might want to say that the tonality is not confirmed. Certainly if it were a piece from the Classical Era. You can't tell from the key signature, because since these songs are fundamentally the performances of them, the score has no authenticity other than being a transcription of a performance. I suppose that we tilt towards A minor rather than, say, G major, because the F major chord means we can't use F#s. In any case, we hear A minor as the tonic chord even without an actual cadence. I've been talking about A minor as that is always how I envisioned the song. But Bob Dylan actually plays it in C# minor with a capo so that the chord fingerings look like A minor. And Jimi Hendrix plays it with the guitar tuned down a semi-tone so that it comes out in C minor, but he plays it without a capo.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Terraces of San Miguel

The focus of the blog is, of course, music, but occasionally I get the urge to wander off the plantation. One blog I enjoy from time to time is that of Ann Althouse, who has an interesting and quirky take on a lot of things. One way she livens up her blog is to put up the occasional post of photos she has taken. I think I might start doing this as well. Just for fun.

Let's kick off with some photos I have taken from various roof terraces in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I live. As you can see, there are lots of good reasons to have a roof terrace in San Miguel, not the least of which is from some of them you can see six or seven 18th century churches.

San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato, is in central Mexico at an altitude of 6400 feet. It is one of the so-called "Colonial Silver Cities", that is, one of the places founded by the Spanish and connected with silver mining. By the 18th century, Mexico was the world's leading producer of silver. The mines were not located in San Miguel itself, but in Guanajuato, the state capitol, and other towns including Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. San Miguel was just a stopping place for the caravans on their way from the silver mines to Mexico City. This was what preserved the city. As the silver mines production wound down, San Miguel came close to being a ghost town and in 1926 the federal government of Mexico declared it an historic monument. To this day, the central historic district preserves its colonial appearance. The Wikipedia article I linked above is a fairly extensive and accurate description of San Miguel.

But I just want to put up a few photos I have taken from various roof terraces over a number of years. San Miguel is a hilly place and, depending on where you are in town, you get completely different perspectives on the architecture. The feature that stands out wherever you are, are the colonial-era churches, of which there are seven large ones.

This is a photo I took years ago, early one morning. The city was wreathed in fog with the churches sticking out above. You can see three churches in this photo: from the left, the Inmaculada Concepcion Church, which is called "Las Monjas" (the nuns) as it is a nunnery, its bell tower, the San Francisco church and its bell tower and the neo-Gothic facade of the Parroquia church. In the middle is a hot air balloon!

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To show you what I mean about different perspectives, here is another shot of these same three churches, but this time taken from the northwest looking southeast instead of from the southwest looking northeast. From left to right are the San Francisco church, the Parroquia and Las Monjas:

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San Miguel's Parroquia, located on the central square, is one of the most-photographed churches in Mexico:

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The next photo was taken late one afternoon when the sun's rays were slanting under a layer of cloud, giving quite an interesting aura to the shot. It just shows part of the terrace, some Mediterranean cyprus and a charming cupola of a neighboring house constructed with glass bricks.

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This one was taken from my terrace and shows a jacaranda tree in full bloom:

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Here is a shot from another terrace of the moon, just becoming visible in the late afternoon/early evening:

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Taken at the same location and same time, this shot looks toward the city center where you can see those same churches again. This time the order, from left to right, is Las Monjas, the Parroquia and the San Francisco church. They always stick out, wherever you are, because they are so much higher than any of the other structures. In the immediate foreground you can see an elaborately carved limestone bench, part of the terrace.

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It's not all churches, of course, here is a shot I took last winter of los Picachos, the range of hills lying to the south of town. That white stuff you see is actual snow! Yes, because of the altitude it is, barely, possible to have snow here. It occurs about every thirty years and lasts a few hours. Just on the hills, of course!

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Let's have one last shot. This one is from my terrace again, with that jacaranda tree, but this time it is early in the morning and that hot air balloon is out again:

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I hope you have enjoyed this little photo essay from the terraces of San Miguel! Please comment if you did. Or if you didn't!

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Music Salon Mission Statement

After putting up that post about Alarm Will Sound, I started thinking that perhaps the Music Salon needs a mission statement. So here goes:

We here (that's the blogging "we") at the Music Salon regard it as our ongoing mission to boldly go... No, wait, that's not it! Ok, to observe the fortunes of classical music as it struggles to survive in the harsh environment of the 21st century. Also, to praise the fine work of great performers and composers. To do some educational outreach from time to time. To do overviews of the repertoire. To appreciate popular music when that is possible and satirize it unmercifully when it is not. To expose hypocrisy now and then. One ongoing project is to uncover the shameful tactics and agendas of the "new" musicology and to point out how many so-called "friends" of classical music are in reality its worst enemies. To have fun, whenever feasible. To engage in entertaining debates with readers. But mostly to boldly go...


Music and the Numbers

We were just talking about music as a business and coincidentally a friend sent me this link: Pop Singer Taylor Swift Gives $50,000 to Seattle Symphony. I saw this a few days ago, but it didn't strike me as blogable. But in conjunction with my last post, there might be something to note. I was saying before that classical music has always needed the support of an enlightened minority because it has never been feasible as a business. So three cheers to Taylor Swift for her contribution. If every pop diva contributed...

But let's put this in context. Taylor Swift's 2016 earnings, according to Forbes, are $170,000,000 USD. $50,000 is a little less than 3/100ths of a percent of her income. If I were to give a proportional amount of my modest income it would be, let me do the math here,  $15! What the numbers tell us is that the very wealthy only need to contribute a small amount of their resources in order to give healthy support to classical music. The question we should be asking is what would encourage them to make these modest contributions?

The Problem of Classical Music

What is the problem of classical music? This question is usually approached in some of the following ways:

  • classical musicians have to learn to be entrepreneurial and market themselves more like pop musicians
  • classical music has to be more progressive and leave behind its more outdated traditions and practices
  • the history of classical music has to be "problematized", that is, the misogyny, racism and classism of it has to be revealed
  • the rigid boundaries of classical music have to be erased, enabling more creative collaborations with other musicians and an appeal to a wider audience
and so on. I think that examining these ways of looking at the "problem" of classical music might reveal what the real problem is.

First of all, we need to make an important distinction: there are two sorts of people proposing these ways of looking at the problem. There are administrators, agents, record companies and impresarios who represent the business of classical music. Like any business leaders, they see their role as increasing sales while controlling costs. To them, selling classical music is hardly different from selling frozen fish sticks. The other sort are educators, professors and music teachers. This category includes everything from band teachers to private music teachers to people teaching music appreciation in college to professors of music theory and musicology at university. Some of them are simply practical musicians, passing on knowledge, but the ones at the top are part of higher education in the humanities, which means that a very large percentage of them are part of the Gramscian march through the institutions, that is, their agenda is basically one of cultural Marxism, which they think of as being "progressive."

Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony, that I just linked to, is superficially quite persuasive, though at the end of the day no more appealing than economic Marxism, which universally reduces every society in which it is tried to appalling poverty with the exception of a small class of very wealthy commissars (Hugo Chavez' daughter is the wealthiest woman in Latin America, while ordinary Venezuelans starve)! The real advantage of Marxism, both economically and culturally, is to provide very powerful tools for cynical seekers of power to manipulate the society of which they are a part. I am not going to provide an argument for these claims as this is not the place, instead I would just reference the writings of F. A. Hayek and Paul Johnson, who have expressed them pretty clearly.

What I do want to do is analyze the "problems" of classical music, as they are typically stated, from the point of view of examining the motives of the people who provide them. Business people, of course, are interested fundamentally in profit and who can blame them? Business is the practice of providing goods and services that people want at a price they find attractive. The trick is to not go broke doing it and, in fact, make a nice profit. Classical music, of course, is the poster child for a very difficult, if not impossible, business. Opera and symphony concerts have never, NEVER been profitable in their entire history, if they are looked at purely in terms of ticket sales. Opera was born in Florence as a gala celebration of the nobility. The symphony was also a celebration of the nobility. Most of Haydn's 106 symphonies were composed while he was in service to Prince Nikolas Esterházy and premiered in the concert hall at his estate to an audience of perhaps a dozen people--fewer than were playing onstage! Opera is a fiendishly expensive project that has almost always been funded either by the nobility or by the state, in modern Europe. It would be an interesting project to do a financial analysis of how Broadway musicals are able to be profitable, given their costs, but that is a project for another day (and probably someone else!).

That leaves us with the other important group: those leading academic figures who, over the last few decades, have successfully been transforming the humanities in academia from a role of passing on the great cultural heritage of the West, to essentially deconstructing it by characterizing it as a history of hegemony and the influence of power.

What is missing from both these models, the business model and the political model, is music as an art form, as an aesthetic object. Yes, music can make money and it can influence people, but in both instances, it does so as an art form, an aesthetic object.

Given that, I think it is pretty clear that all of the typical ways of describing the problem of classical music are flawed and missing the point. Academics are placed in a particularly keen dilemma as their true agenda, to fight the cultural hegemony of capitalism, means that they run straight into the fact that nearly all the great music of Western civilization was produced by people who were in service to the nobility or composing for the most highly educated people of their societies. This means that classical music, politically, is nothing more than a tool of hegemony. It therefore needs to be destroyed! Well, that's an awkward position to take if your job is teaching music history, isn't it?

But the business people also are in a bit of a bind. The best way to make classical music profitable is to model it after pop music, hence the appeal of "crossover". But if you do that in any sort of thorough way, many of the most powerful aesthetic traditions of classical music will wither away. It has to be acknowledged that there is no situation in which more than a very small percentage of the listening public will be able to appreciate classical music to a significant extent.

What saves classical music from the Scylla and Charybdis of these two approaches to the "problem" is likely the simple realities of the music itself. There are a lot of truly great pieces of music out there and we are perhaps more aware of them, and the whole history of classical music generally, than ever before. There are a large number of gifted and well-trained musicians in the world, giving outstanding performances of this music, again perhaps more than ever before. The music is widely available to anyone with access to the internet. Musicians discover that in order to play the music with the technique and aesthetic qualities it deserves, they have to work very hard in a disciplined way, essentially following in the traditions of expertise that have been developed over centuries. All these factors together put the lie to both the pure business model and the pure political model.

Great music is great and sounds great, and every well-played concert demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt that it is not the equivalent of frozen fish sticks, nor is it some kind of political brainwashing. We all know this, actually, so the arguments to the contrary will always fail if you look at them closely.

For our envoi today, a musician who has always disdained both the economic and the political, Grigory Sokolov playing "La Poule" by Jean-Philippe Rameau:


Friday Miscellanea

Let's start with some Mozart! The Wall Street Journal has a review:
Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival continued its 50th-anniversary celebration last week with semistaged concert performances of two Mozart operas, both featuring the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, a superb period-instrument ensemble. The first, on Monday, was “Cosi fan tutte,” featuring the cast and conductor of this year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival production. Even without the reportedly controversial staging of Christophe Honoré, which relocated the piece to 20th-century colonial Africa and added disturbing racial elements, the performance was tight and vivid. Conductor Louis Langrée, who is also the music director of Mostly Mozart, led a fleet reading that emphasized the comic, even sardonic, qualities of the opera, rather than its heartbreak of lost illusions.
"Even?" Especially? Honestly, you don't have to #&%\¿ -up a Mozart opera in order to stage it.

* * *

Here is an announcement about a new book on musicology with forty (40!) dissenting comments. Lots of fun is had by all.


In case that doesn't quite reveal what the book is about, here is the blurb from Amazon:
Just Vibrations bends our collective ears toward the vitality and precarity of optimism, dependence, and reparative agendas in academia and in daily life. William Cheng calls for a radical embrace of interpersonal care as a core--as opposed to extracurricular--component of intellectual labor. In the event we break, who will rush to criticize and who will stop to offer aid? Should our voices crack, who may take pains to listen all the more closely? Traversing the resonant archives of reindeer games, personal impairment, scholarly strife, queer hope, and accessible soundscapes, this book advocates for care work as a barometer of better worlds.
* * *

Hat tip to Norman Lebrecht for alerting me to the new Mozart Complete Edition. With 200 discs, 2 hardcover books, 5 books of tracklists, new Kochel catalogue guide and 4 art prints, this is way more complete than the last complete Mozart with only 170 discs. The list of artists is impressive: Mitsuko Uchida, Bryn Terfel, Florian Birsak, Cecilia Bartoli, Andras Schiff,  and a host of others. The only drawback I can see is that it won't be released until late October and the price is $480 USD.

* * *

Before we leave Slipped Disc, there is one more interesting item: Atonal music is a form of musical terrorism which is a translation of a portion of a comment by Jacques Attali:
Je crois personnellement que la musique atonale est une impasse, elle ne correspond pas à la nature même de l’audition, elle a constitué une tentative de « terrorisme musical » qui ne correspond pas à la nature profonde de ce qu’est la musique. En dehors de ça toutes les musiques qui sont à l’intérieur de la gamme, et en particulier la musique indienne, mais avec des nuances tout à fait considérables, méritent d’être prises au sérieux.
As always, the extensive comments are what are really worth reading!

* * *

 Sadly, I only discovered these performances long after they took place, in May. The Bard goes bare: The Tempest performed naked in New York:
On top of a hill in New York’s Central Park about a dozen women flit about naked, as two more play a pagan folk tune on the violin and acoustic guitar. The sunlight is slowly disappearing, and murmurs of the oncoming cold are quieted as on the makeshift stage, a storm erupts.
This is an all-woman, fully nude, abridged adaptation of William Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest, performed in part to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Produced by the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society (they go by Topless Book Club for short), this is the first of two consecutive performances.
 That "pagan tune" on the violin and acoustic guitar is what really interests me, of course!

* * *

This is the strangest thing I have read all week: one poor fellow in England died from playing the bagpipes! Usually that only happens from listening to someone playing the bagpipes (heh!). But no, here is the story in the Washington Post: He withered away for 7 years. Doctors didn’t realize his passion was killing him.
Tests conducted on the man’s bagpipes found a slew of fungi and yeast living inside the musical instrument.
Inside the air bag was a mixture of Paecilomyces variotti, Fusarium oxysporum, Rhodotorula mucilaginosa, and Penicillium species. In a petri dish, they formed a psychedelic swirl of green, orange and red mold.
There was pink yeast on the instrument’s mouthpiece as well as fungi on the neck, chanter, chanter reed, chanter reed protector, bass drome and tenor drome, researchers found. Even the bagpipe carrying case had mold inside.
The moist, airtight bagpipes made an ideal home for the spores.
Unknown to the piper, who was not named in the study, every time he played his instrument, he was inhaling a mixture of mold that caused his illness.
Always keep your instrument clean!

* * *

Our envoi today will be my version of a pagan tune for violin and guitar. This is "Surreal Reel" from my four pieces for violin and guitar:

video

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Joy of Being Irrelevant

Sometimes I think we in the classical music world are not grateful enough for being ignored by society at large. Yes, I know that is a rather different take on things! Usually we pass the time between performances by whining about insufficient government grant money, or not enough ticket sales, or plummeting CD sales and so on. But perhaps we don't appreciate the freedom that being irrelevant gives us.

Let's find some examples. "Society", that is, elected politicians, plus the immense hordes of administrative functionaries, plus various special interest pressure groups, invest a lot of time and a great deal of money in trying to influence the behavior of citizens. The justification for this is that society as a whole has an overwhelming interest in things like the health of the individual citizen, so policy decisions can be made that purport to influence that health in a positive way. This article in the Wall Street Journal describes how this worked in one California city: Soda Consumption Falls After Special Tax in California City.
Consumption of soda and other sugary drinks fell by more than a fifth in low-income neighborhoods of Berkeley after the California city became the first in the U.S. to introduce a special tax last year, according to a study published Tuesday.
The peer-reviewed research is the first to measure the impact of the penny-per-ounce tax. It found that consumption declined 21% and many residents switched to water after the tax went into effect in March 2015, according to the study published online in the American Journal of Public Health.
Apart from the difficulty of interpreting the data (consumers might simply have gone to a nearby town to purchase their sugary drinks to avoid the tax), that all seems good, right? But there are just zillions of government initiatives out there that have, at best, mixed results. Take ethanol, for example. It seems as if, to placate Gaia, a policy has been put in place that forces vendors to blend in a certain percentage of ethanol, largely distilled from corn, into the US gasoline supply. The subsidies supporting this caused enormous amounts of arable land to be devoted to it which in turn caused a considerable increase in food prices. Have a look at Wikipedia for some details.

We could easily multiply examples: the development of technical innovations like AirBNB and Uber have revolutionized travel, but this has been countered by local authorities who want to ban or punish these innovators (through taxes, mostly). You just can't let people go ahead and do what they want, even if it is perfectly legal, because it might not suit our vision of how things should be. So let's put in some rules to protect our traditional supporters: taxi companies!

All right, I confess, I am a bit of a libertarian. Don't judge me! Anyway, I am just mentioning these things to contrast this with the situation for classical musicians. Sure, when we travel we are caught in the same net as everyone, but when we walk onstage we are not hampered and manipulated by a galaxy of regulations and taxes and fees designed to influence or force us to play particular music in a certain way. No, we can just go ahead and play that phrase any damn way we want. These days, with the ideological suppression of aesthetic criticism, we are not likely to get any negative response, no matter how we play. Of course, people can always just stop buying tickets to our concerts.

But "society" seems to have no interest in the aesthetic quality of our lives, though it is obsessively interested in everything else: our consumption of sugary drinks, but not our consumption of sugary music (cough*Justin Bieber*cough); what percentage of the gas in our tank is ethanol, but not what percentage of our CD collection is gangster rap. We can listen to music at home without having to stick to certain percentages of music by oppressed minorities and women (but there is a movement to equalize the number of women conductors vs male conductors, though not, oddly enough women harpists vs male harpists), and so on.

We in the classical music world are experiencing the untrammeled joy of the freedom to play anything we want, any way we want and listen to any music we want. This is the kind of freedom that has been significantly restricted in most areas of life. About the only counter example I can think of (yes, there are always counter examples) is the prohibition on the performance of the music of Wagner in Israel. But it is not illegal to perform Wagner in Israel, it is just considered by a large number of people, musicians and the general public, to be in very bad taste. Read the Wikipedia article for details.

Hm, well I guess that gives us our envoi for today. This is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner with Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper Bayerisches Staatsorchester:


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Alarm Will Sound presents Modernists

Alarm Will Sound is perhaps one of the few music ensembles that has an actual mission statement:
Alarm Will Sound is a 20-member ensemble dedicated to the creation, performance, and recording of today's music. It is an advocate for innovative work by established and emerging composers, especially works that incorporate theatrical and multimedia elements by choreographers, visual artists, designers, and directors. It fosters the education and professional development of young musicians through residencies, master classes, readings and workshops. With the goal of cultivating a diverse and sophisticated audience, the ensemble brings intelligence and a sense of adventure to the rich variety of musical expression in the contemporary world.
I first encountered the group through their impressive recording of two important pieces by Steve Reich: Tehillim and The Desert Music. Alarm Will Sound came out of a group of friends at the Eastman School of Music in the late 1990s who noticed that music by so-called "minimalist" composers was never performed. Since their first concert in 2001, they have demonstrated a refreshing capacity to take new approaches. The recording I want to have a look at today is their most recent, just released in March. Here is the terrifying cover:


The raison d'être of this and the title is explained thusly:
Terror is often the first response to unfamiliarity, and some of the boldest forays into the unfamiliar have launched under the banner of Modernism. Listening to new sounds can be akin to watching a horror movie—with ears covered rather than eyes—but given time, what was once disturbing can become intriguing.
Alarm Will Sound ventures into the outer reaches of propriety on Modernists. The album is bookended by tributes to two masterworks of modern recorded sound that have been arranged for the ensemble: “Revolution 9” by The Beatles (arranged by Matt Marks) and “Poème électronique” by Edgard Varèse (arranged by Evan Hause). Each piece is strange and otherworldly in its own way, with a provocative history of upsetting as many, if not more, listeners than they have won over.
The 23-piece band led by Alan Pierson, AWS Artistic Director, also performs work written for the ensemble by Wolfgang Rihm, Charles Wuorinen, AWS pianist John Orfe, and Augusta Read Thomas (whose “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” features vocal performances by Kirsten Sollek and Caleb Burhans).
As the Denver Post has noted, “Alarm Will Sound has grabbed the future of classical music and made it now—merging styles, erasing boundaries, championing experimentation and obviously having fun along the way.” This joyful and adventurous spirit fuels the beating heart of the Modernists album.
 Now I have to admit that I ordered this CD for two reasons: first, because I wanted to hear Alarm Will Sound doing something other than Steve Reich and second, because I couldn't resist hearing Revolution 9 (not, as is often thought, Revolution No. 9) played by a real ensemble. Now that takes chutzpah! The idea of transcribing what is largely a piece of musique concrète into standard notation so that it could, notionally, be played by musicians in a concert is not entirely novel. I believe that Stockhausen did a graphic transcription of one or more of his electronic pieces in the 1950s, probably for copyright reasons. Revolution 9 has even been roughly transcribed into standard notation before, in the big white Hal Leonard book of the Complete Scores to all Beatles' songs. Those transcriptions, which are mostly quite good, were by Tetsuya Fujita, Yuji Hagino, Hajime Kubo and Goro Sato. Incidentally, here are the first two pages of that transcription:


They make no attempt to sort out some of the more confused and inaudible layers of voices.

So how does this new recording compare with the original? At the beginning, apart from leaving out a few seconds of muttering voices it is delightfully similar to the Beatles' version (which is the next-to-last track on the White Album). But as we move through the piece, the differences start to add up. Perhaps the most difficult to reproduce are the exact accents and intonations of the voices on the original tape fragments. The "number nine" ritornello is pretty good, but a lot of the other voices sound very different from the original. Other differences are the "feel" of the acoustic. The original tape loops all had different resonances due to where and how they were originally recorded and in combination all that tends to cancel out. This recording does have its own particular ambiance, which I suppose is part of the charm. Another difference is that cutting in and out of tape loops is a very distinct, but unmeasured, effect. It is really very hard to reproduce this feeling with actual musicians who have to "get in" and "get out" with some sort of preparation. Another problem is that there are some sounds, such as the choir, some percussion, and sounds of what seem to be firearms, that are not reproduced very closely.

But that is probably enough nit-picking! You might chalk all these differences up to a different "interpretation" of the composition. The overall effect is to "aestheticize" the original. By that I mean that the harsh juxtapositions and electronic effects are smoothed out as they are transferred to live musicians' voices and instruments. This process, by the way, reminds me strongly of what Steve Reich was doing in the middle and late 1960s. He had a number of pieces that exploited mechanical processes such as accumulating tape loops and swinging microphones (in Pendulum Music) and discovered some interesting rhythmic effects. But he decided that, unless they could be performed by real musicians they were not very interesting. So he worked with a number of musicians and worked out how to do that and the results were a lot of his pieces written in the 1970s.

The album contains pieces written for the ensemble by Wuorinen, Rihm, Thomas and Orfe as well, but the opening and closing ones are both transcriptions from electronic media: Revolution 9 is, as I said, musique concrète, while the last piece, Poème électronique by Varèse, was composed for the Phillips Pavillion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. The piece was intended to be heard just in that particular space and it was heard along with a film of black and white photographs by Le Corbusier. While just Varèse's electronic piece can be heard by itself, on YouTube, for example, a transcription for chamber orchestra that leaves out the images and the intricate sound scheme would seem to be a bit problematic. Here is how Wikipedia describes how it was originally heard:
Varèse designed a very complex spatialization scheme which was synchronized to the film. Prefiguring the acousmonium style of sound projection, hundreds of speakers were controlled by sound projectionists with a series of rotary telephone dials. Each dial could turn on five speakers at a time out of a bank of 12. Many estimates of the pavilion's sound system go as high as 450 speakers, but based on the limitations of the switching system and the number of projectionists used, an estimate of 350 seems more reasonable. The speakers were fixed to the interior walls of the pavilion, which were then coated in asbestos. The resulting appearance was of a series of bumps. The asbestos hardened the walls, creating a cavernous acoustic space.
The spatialization scheme exploited the unique physical layout of the pavilion. The speakers stretched up to the apex of Le Corbusier's points, and Varèse made great use of the possibilities, sending the sound up and down the walls.
 Both the Varèse transcription and the Beatles transcription are tours-de-force, of course. Most of us would probably have said, nope, can't be done. But it can, of course. Hey, if you can play Brian Fernyhough, then you can play anything!

So what is the aesthetic point of this present project? It is just a trick? Or does it have an aesthetic message? Is the message that we can humanize what originally was rather inhuman? What was the message of the originals of these pieces and do the new versions have a different message? If the message, say, of the Varèse was to celebrate technical virtuosity beyond the pale for conventional musicians, is the present recording a triumph because it says, yes, we can do it just as well as the machines? That would be a nice message. Does the humanization of the Beatles' piece say that that chaos has ended and we can move past it? What do you think?

We have to end, of course, with the Revolution 9 live performance available on YouTube:


While I admire this full-blooded presentation of unfamiliar music, I suspect that there is a lot more going on than can be captured in the simple typology of "familiar" vs "unfamiliar".

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Blogging Musicology

I sometimes find myself complaining that the program notes you usually find in concert programs are rather inadequate when it comes to the actual music. One example I think I mentioned somewhere had all sorts of biographical details even to the extent of mentioning how much the fellow who commissioned the work weighed: I believe it was 300 lbs! Fascinating, I'm sure, but the discussion of the piece being played was limited to a couple of adjectives. I usually solve the problem for myself by simply not reading the program notes, but I guess some audience members enjoy them.

But when it comes to blogging, where there is no real limit on the length of the discussion, you might expect to find a bit more detail about the music itself---especially on a blog that is labeled to be about musicology! There you should not be surprised to find all sorts of information about the music, even extending to, shudder, actual musical scores! So I was greatly surprised, browsing around on the blog dial "m" for musicology, to find that not only are there no musical examples, but there is virtually no discussion of music either.

Let's have a look at some of the recent posts:

"Othering and smOthering" is about "othering" the medieval mind. What's that you ask? Here is a concise definition from another blog:
Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other. The Greeks’ use of the word ‘barbarian’ to describe non-Greeks is a typical example of othering and an instance of nationalism avant la lèttre. The ease with which the adjective ‘other’ generated the verb ‘to other’ in the last twenty years or so is indicative of the usefulness, power and currency of a term that now occupies an important position in feminist, postcolonial, civil rights and sexual minority discourses.
 This is a methodology derived from cultural Marxism, of course, which is identity politics par excellence. The question to ask is are you really trying to assert that there is no such thing as people other than ourselves? Oh, you are? Well, begone! There, that problem solved. The post on the musicology blog begins with this:
In the comments of my last post, Elizabeth Upton warns me against Othering the Medieval mind. It’s a point well-taken. If we accept the idea that certain ways of thinking about the past constitute a sort of epistemic violence — or at least an epistemic boorishness, drowning out the voices of other peoples with our own self-satisfied monologue — then Othering is what happens when we ignore those things we might have in common with another subjectivity. In saying “they’re not like us,” we deny other subjectivities their full share in the humanity we presume for ourselves.
Ah, the delightful concept of "epistemic violence" which has the dual effect of both benumbing the intellect and shaming the interlocutor! Epistemology is simply the philosophical examination of how we come to know things, the foundation of our knowledge. There really is no logical justification for yoking it with "violence" now is there? Except as a disreputable attempt at manipulation. Recognizing, from the sources of information that we have about the middle ages, that there were some rather profound differences between how we think and act and how they thought and acted is nothing more than the recognition of simple fact. Contorting ourselves to somehow avoid the baseless accusation of "epistemic violence" is ludicrous. If you are looking at sources of knowledge about the middle ages, then how are you "drowning out the voices of other peoples"? This is nothing but a bad and inappropriate metaphor. Saying that there is a "self-satisfied monologue" is simple libel. Adding to this the claim that this is denying other "subjectivities" is just another libel. This is crap piled high on other crap. It's crap all the way down. However did we get to the point that we bought into any of this nonsense?

Ok, that was probably just an anomaly. Let's look at some other posts. The next one, Better Off Not Knowing? starts with a political smear and then wanders into Mick Jagger, ending with some misquotes of composers talking about borrowings:
In an interview I once read, Warren Zevon admitted: “Sometimes you’re better off not knowing where things are from.”  And, of course, there’s the cliché that a student borrows, but only a genius can steal.  (Stravinsky?)  And again, we have Brahms railing against people who seek to identify the sources of tunes, peering into the composer’s closet as it were (I’ve never found that to be entirely what it seems to be on the surface).  What about stealing something that isn’t there?
So let's just pass that one by as it is too confused to critique! The next post is titled The weird and the naïve and a lot of it is just weird. He does make a musical point later on:
Think of it this way. When you’re young, you have a transformative musical experience — you hear a great work of music, like a Bach passion, and you are swept away by its power. You think, this is a work of genius; its power and greatness is intrinsic to what it is; it has the same power and greatness now as it did when it was composed, and it will be as great and powerful in a year, or 100 years, or 10000 years; it is as great here in the United States as it was in Leipzig and it would be just as great on Alpha Centauri; the genius that went into it makes it essentially different from other pieces of music. Then you go to college and are taught genius is not in the music, but something certain people at certain times have attributed to the music, for various reasons that seemed important at the time; in other words, you come to see that genius is historically and culturally contingent, whereas formerly you thought it was unchanging and universal. In short, what we took for a work of genius is merely a “work of genius.” I have written at length about the difference those scare quotes make, and here I would simply suggest that the difference between the un-scare-quoted work of genius and the “work of genius” is the difference between an idea of music as having an essential meaning and the nominalist idea that such qualities as genius, power, and greatness are simply conventional words or concepts we attach to things.
 This seems quite plausible, doesn't it? I mean obviously nothing is truly transcendental: even if every person on earth recognizes that Bach wrote works of genius, we can be pretty sure those aliens from Alpha Centauri won't think so! How do we know that? I've never heard an answer to that, it is just one of those thing we are tricked into assuming. So you go to college and all that plausible stuff about context and attribution soaks in and the final result is that you somehow start thinking that Bach and all those other dead, white guys are just not as great as you thought. There is something sneakily illegitimate about them. We have "scare-quoted" them into something much less. Nothing essential about them at all--genius is just a label and probably an illegitimate one at that. So what those clever musicologists at college do, instead of passing on to new generations the great cultural traditions of the West, is subtly diminish those traditions. The process of education is turned from a detailed absorption of what has come before (Bach, Homer) into a nuanced shaming of us for even thinking there was anything special about these guys at all. Good job, hey?

We can skip the next post as it is about the writer's wedding anniversary. The next one after that is titled Hey, Hey! and it is about the new album by the Monkees. Nothing wrong with that, I mentioned it here a while back. But it is not really about the music. The one after that is about animated gifs. I think I can stop here.

This blog, which purports to be about musicology, is devoted to the "new" musicology, which seems to be fast becoming the "only" musicology. There is never any discussion of the music in any detail. What is discussed are peripheral things or music from the point of view of cultural Marxism whose real function and purpose is to delegitimize all the cultural products and traditions of Western Civilization as a preparatory step before the Socialist Utopia. I'll pass thanks.

Let's listen to one of those historically and culturally contingent "works of genius" that are really just, well, what? Interesting how what the music actually is, or might be, is never part of the discussion. This is the St. John Passion by J. S. Bach with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir:



Monday, August 22, 2016

"Reading" Music

I have scare-quoted the present participle in order to distinguish what I want to talk about from the ordinary thing musicians do when they look at a musical score. The kind of "reading" I want to do is not in order to play or analyze a piece of music, but rather to get a sense of the import of the piece in a social or historical context. Of course, a great deal of writing on music purports to do exactly this, but I want to do it from a fresh perspective, uninfluenced, if possible, by the sociology of music as it has been practiced for the last hundred years or so.

My method is going to be simple and direct--this is how I hope to avoid the usual wrong turnings that come from an excessively involuted method and from hidden assumptions and intentions. In other words, there will be no identity or class politics! I intend to pick a few pieces and notice how they project and reflect their social and historical context.

I think one of the things that we can read off from listening to a piece of music is the level of social or cultural confidence it exhibits: the ebullience factor, if you like! The history of modern Europe really began in the Middle Ages as learning and prosperity slowly began to emerge from the centuries of chaos that followed the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire. (Please forgive my bald simplifications--I am just trying to give a very simple overview.) Some of the triumphs of this period include the three Medieval renaissances that scholars have noted. In the last of these, the earliest universities were founded in Bologna and Paris. Towards the end of the 12th century, the first steps toward a sophisticated polyphonic music were taken by Léonin and Pérotin at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This is the first flowering of what would be the astonishing development of music in Western Europe. Here is an example, Sederunt Principes by Perotin, to my knowledge the very first example of a music composition in four independent voices:


What is really remarkable about this is that it came out of centuries of plainchant, unison single-line music not fundamentally different from any of the music of the ancient world. Now, true, there may have been lots of improvised multi-voice counterpoint going on in all sorts of cultures, but until an Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo figured out how to write down music in a clear and effective way, it would have disappeared as easily as it appeared. In other words, what happened between 1000 and 1200 is that in Western Europe composers learned how to take advantage of notation and voilá, the history of Western music really took off.

Just listening to this music, we can hear things like religious devotion, a delighting in the rich sound of the multiple voices and a feeling of space and stability from the long-held tenor notes. This correlates well with the contemporary architecture:

Notre Dame Cathedral
Let's jump ahead a few hundred years. By the 16th century the ability of composers to handle harmony through the detailed control of dissonance and consonance was highly advanced. Here is an example by Tomás Luis de Victoria:


This music also embodies religious devotion in sound and an appropriate architectural comparison would be to the Escorial in Spain. Both exhibit an almost mystical sobriety and restraint along with technical mastery:


This sobriety and restraint is perhaps a reflection of the brutal religious wars that tormented Europe between 1524 and 1648.

Once these wars ended and Europe managed to arrive at a religious tolerance, and once the threat of Islam was also defeated with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the existential threats to European culture were over--at least for a while. This is reflected in a greatly increased ebullience and in the growth of instrumental music which added to the timbres of vocal music. A splendid example is the Magnificat by Bach, born in 1685, just two years after the Battle of Vienna:


This wonderful extroverted brilliance continued to develop in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and one thing we notice is that the devotional character starts to vanish from the music. More and more it reflects the secular values of the Enlightenment. Yes, these composers and many others wrote religious music in the form of masses for orchestra with choir and vocal soloists, but the music itself is really indistinguishable from purely secular forms like the opera and symphony. Here is the Symphony No. 104 by Haydn that was very popular and played at some of the first public concerts in London:


The idea of music written for public performance instead of private ones just for the nobility really took off with the enormous growth of orchestral and opera performances in the 19th century. Large halls were built and large orchestras formed to play in them. And, of course, composers wrote larger and larger pieces of orchestral music for them. Here is the Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner for an example:


It is fairly easy to notice that, alongside the magnificence of this huge orchestra with its wide range of instrumental colors that we luxuriate in over the more than an hour performance, there is also the development of an introspective aspect. The music is no longer simply brilliant and charming, it is also ponderous and foreboding. This is the Romantic aspect of the 19th century. There is the sense that something social or historic is coming to be (also reflected in the philosophies of Hegel and Schopenhauer). Again, please forgive my excessive simplification.

As we move into the 20th century the confidence of European society and culture is shattered by brutal wars, not over religious differences, but political ones. Totalitarianism and total war comes close to destroying Europe entirely. The music reflects this very clearly as in place of the confidence and brilliance of earlier times we have tortured and agonized music. This is Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg, a thirty minute monodrama for soprano and orchestra. Note that this prefigures the dislocations of World War 1 as it was composed in 1909, five years before the war began!


After the First World War, composers tried to recapture the confidence of pre-war Europe, but they did it mainly with technical innovations and the Second World War caused yet another dislocation answered by even more complex technical innovations. I think that Le Marteau sans Maître of Pierre Boulez exemplifies this quite well:


Yes, this is sophisticated and highly complex music, but we are just listening to it in a simple, direct way. To an ordinary listener I think that the general impression is one of chaos and confusion with no clear themes or rhythms.

I don't want to take this any further in this post. To summarize, the clear certainties of the earlier days of European civilization enabled the development of clear and confident musical forms. But sometime in the 19th century these certainties began to erode. The history of how and why that happened is not going to be discussed here, but the effects on music are quite evident, I think. As the 20th century exploded in violence, the foundations of culture and music were shattered and the result was a music that reflected all of this. And we can hear it, very easily. It is right there on the surface.