Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Disinterested in Aesthetics

We live in times so partisan and biased that a major re-think is in order. I confess to being a curmudgeon of a certain vintage, but the upside of that is that I have internalized a set of values that seem to be in abeyance these days. One of these values is that of "disinterestedness." You can be interested in something which has the special connotation of being an advocate. That is, someone with an interest is someone with a dog in the fight. If your family attends one of your recitals they have an interest in seeing you do well. Well, not my family necessarily, they usually just wondered what the heck I was up to, but most families!

On the other hand, you might simply be uninterested, which means that you are indifferent to or unconcerned with something. I am uninterested in most polka music, for example.

But the most interesting category is that of disinterest, which means that you are not influenced by considerations of personal advantage. I think that I picked this up in a thousand different places as, if you go back fifty years or so, this was the benchmark standard of any serious intellectual, scholar or scientist. When I read now that the proportion of Democrats to Republicans in the social sciences is somewhere between 8 to 1 and 44 to 1 I am astonished, not that there is a bias that severe, but that any of these so-called scientists bring their political opinions into their workplace.

One of the places I encountered a laudable disinterest was in a place you might expect to find the contrary: Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy. Copleston is a Jesuit and the book was originally written for use in seminaries. So you would expect that he would be a strong advocate of, for example, the perennial philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and a severe critic of Karl Marx, among others. But frankly, while he does present Aquinas in a favorable light, he does the same for every philosopher insofar as it is possible. His is the very model of a neutral approach. In this he very much takes after the example of Thomas Aquinas, of course, whose methodology in approaching any question was to present the arguments both for and against as clearly and strongly as possible for it is only in that way that you have a hope of arriving at something close to the truth.

I delight in the fact that our comment section here at the Music Salon sometimes approaches this kind of disinterested debate.

I think that any person who understands the value of disinterestedness welcomes any argument that adds to knowledge and understanding, particularly if it corrects a previously held error or sheds light where previously there was only ignorance.

This kind of view owes a great deal to the Socratic dialogues of Plato, where the pursuit of knowledge and the defeat of ignorance is always the priority.

Mind you, the disinterested stance does not mean you need to give equal weight to every feather-headed vagary and wild-eyed conspiracy theory. But you very much need a policy that when you encounter a point of view that differs widely from your own, that you test, in a neutral manner, the two views against one another. This may at times be difficult, in which case the best policy is to suspend judgement until the support for each view becomes clear.

As is so often the case, the greatest danger to our disinterestedness is pseudo-disinterestedness! That is rather a mouthful, isn't it? What I mean is the kind of moral equivalency that the news media purvey in, for example, all news dealing with the Middle East. Don't assume a moral equivalency where none exists! On the other hand, beware as well of the biased assumption that in an instance of a genuine dispute, such as that surrounding anthropogenic climate change, the truth is 99% on one side.

(Just to give a little background to this, we used to be told that "97% of climate scientists agree on the issue of global warming." Recently I have heard this changed to "99%" and just the other day it had climbed to "99.9%"! Let me refer you to Forbes magazine for a refreshing examination of this claim:
Bottom line: What the 97% of climate scientists allegedly agree on is very mild and in no way justifies restricting the energy that billions need.
But it gets even worse. Because it turns out that 97% didn’t even say that.
The original 97% figure came from a study by John Cook:
Cook is able to demonstrate only that a relative handful endorse “the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.” Cook calls this “explicit endorsement with quantification” (quantification meaning 50 percent or more). The problem is, only a small percentage of the papers fall into this category; Cook does not say what percentage, but when the study was publicly challenged by economist David Friedman, one observer calculated that only 1.6 percent explicitly stated that man-made greenhouse gases caused at least 50 percent of global warming.
In fact, quite a number of the scientists whose papers were included in the study protested that their view had been miscategorized. So that 97% statistic turns out to be a chimera.)

A great deal of other things we take for granted because we are told over and over that they are true are, simply, lies. And lies told for very "interested" reasons by people with a dog in the fight. You should always be on the lookout for what I call "special pleading", that is, argument with no pretensions to any objectivity whatsoever, but mere propaganda in favor of a particular point of view.

The trick is in being able to distinguish this from genuine advocacy of something without personal motives. I suspect that the key is in discerning the motives: are they clear and unambiguous? For example when I keep saying things like the symphonies of Joseph Haydn are wonderful and you should listen to them, it is because this is what I believe and not because I have partial ownership of a Haydn distributor.

On the other hand pretty much any argument with regards to tax policy, trade policy, government subsidies and so on, needs to be examined with extreme prejudice because it is rare that these sort of things are NOT governed entirely by hidden (or not so hidden) special interests.

Speaking of Joseph Haydn, let's listen to the Trio no. 44 in E major played by Robert Levin, Vera Beths & Anner Bylsma:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Pauline Oliveros has passed away

This year is one of many changes and passings away: this week Fidel Castro and Pauline Oliveros. Alex Ross posts this representative work of hers:

Here is another that he recommends, an early work from 1966:

Is it just me or do all these droney, electronic pieces all sound the same? What is missing from any music primarily about drones and sonorities is rhythm, meter and pulse. The great renovation that Steve Reich and Philip Glass brought to 20th century music was the return of pulse and rhythm to a central place in musical structure. Apart from giving music a form and direction, it also tended to re-connect classical and popular music.

The problem with drones, for me, is that they are formless and floaty. They always sound like the introduction to a bad musical soundtrack of a second-rate science fiction movie. Let's listen to some examples. Brian Eno:

Well, ok, that sounds more like the soundtrack to a movie about Tibetan Buddhism or background music at a yoga retreat. John Luther Adams:

The Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi:

There is something more happening there, but it is still not rhythmic.

I guess my fundamental bias is that music is really always about time: articulated time, time measured with pulse, structured time. Droney music, of whatever variety, is about escaping from time. I reject it as I reject transcendental meditation and "paradise" defined as sitting around gazing at sunsets while sipping chardonnay with an insipid look on your face.

Now, can we please have some rhythm. This is the Symphony no. 59 by Haydn:

Friday, November 25, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Our kickoff this week is "Enter Sandman" the tune from Metallica's Black Album, performed on toy instruments by Metallica, Jimmy Fallon and his band The Roots:

It's ok to find that deeply disturbing. Stay tuned, we will have a better version a bit later.

* * *

This is a quite interesting little video by Adam Neely on how classical and non-classical musicians feel rhythm differently:

Mind you, I think that his picking on a single moment by that string bass player might have been a little unfair. We classical musicians can do three against two pretty reliably. In fact, we can even do five against four, though I confess that five against three is pretty tough.

* * *

 Even for musicians, Thanksgiving Dinner is a conversational minefield just waiting for you to take the wrong step. You’ll be passing the yams when you’ll hear yourself say, “Guatemalan Balsa? Now there’s a tonewood. I could wear mittens and make that guitar sound good,” – Boom. Triggered.
* * *

Now here is an interesting example of criticism: David Goldman offers a critique of the use of rhythm in rap by going back to St. Augustine's treatise De Musica and working his way up via Keats and Coleridge:
The kerfuffle over Vice President-elect Mike Pence's run-in with the cast and audience of "Hamilton" provokes me to raise another issue: I won't go to see "Hamilton." I don't like rap in any form, even in the sterile, commercialized version in the popular musical. Poetry elicits powers of mind more intense and elevated than quotidian thought, and it does so by forcing us to think of poetic rhythm at a higher level. By contrast, rap imposes an unchanging sing-song rhythm that does nothing to provoke us to think in this way.
* * *

How about Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini playing "Michelle" by Paul McCartney?

Or is this a clever hoax?

* * *

Let's have a Fine Art Moment. This is "The Bagpipe Lesson" by Henry Ossawa Tanner:

Click to enlarge
* * *

In the annals of stuff we already knew is this Chinese study: New research finds we respond intellectually to classical music and physically to pop music:
‘The sub-cortical reward region was more sensitive to popular, while the cortical region was more sensitive to artistic music,’ reported the study. In addition it was found that ‘cognitive empathy regions’ of the brain responded more favourably to classical, implying a richer and more complicated level of engagement.
‘This study gives clear neuronal evidence supporting the view that artistic music is of intelligence, while popular is of physiology,’ concluded the researchers.
In related news, Beethoven late string quartets are newly discovered to be more aesthetically profound than Beyoncé and pasta should be cooked al dente.

* * *

Developing a theme today, here is Korean gayageum virtuoso Luna with her arrangement of Metallica's "Enter Sandman":

Soembody buy that girl a wah-wah pedal! Isn't this a blatant case of cultural appropriation, though?

* * *

Ok, too much Metallica today! So for our envoi, let's have a Metallica antidote. How about some Emil Gilels? This is the Fantasia in D minor, K 397 by Mozart:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Pop Music is Now for the Rich

I take my cue from The Guardian: Pop music was a great leveller. Now it’s a bespoke plaything for the rich:
There’s a new Pink Floyd record out, as they used to say in the 1970s. Only it’s not a record, a CD, or anything resembling the modest recorded artefacts with which that group made their name, but rather a 27-disc cornucopia, containing more than 26 hours of music, 42 “items of memorabilia”, five reproduction vinyl singles and three feature films. It is titled The Early Years 1965-72, so prepare for a sequel, and its outward appearance suggests an item of colour-coded furniture. Obviously, any devout fan of the group, me included, will love it. And the price? £375.99.
We can put this alongside the news from Australia that as soon as tickets for Adele's new tour went on sale the price jumped to $5,000 at resellers. Why people want to pay even the regular prices of around $300 to listen to her spend half the concert in rambling chats about her personal life is a mystery to me, but hey.

Pop festivals are going upmarket as well:
The clientele of most festivals is now split between standard ticket holders and those who can afford a super-expensive mini-holiday. Once you have a Glastonbury ticket, for instance, you can progress to something exclusively nicer from a set-up called the Pop-up Hotel – five nights for two adults in an Airstream caravan, maybe, for £5,995). Anyone playing a stadium now offers the upper end of their audience plenty of optional extras: you can go to see the Stone Roses at Wembley as a base-level punter for between £35 and £65, or stump up for a hospitality package that will cost £359 (plus VAT).
Bands and solo acts now routinely charge the earth for the kind of meet-and-greet packages that entail, for instance, a $1000 charge for the briefest of encounters and a “professionally taken photo” with the Canadian rapper and singer Drake. (Beyoncé’s new “Beyfirst” package comes in at $1,505, but a “pre-show reception” apparently doesn’t include the artist herself.)
I recall driving up from Courtenay on Vancouver Island up to Campbell River around 1970 where The Guess Who, Canada's big name rock band at the time, were playing. Before the concert we hit the local greasy spoon for a bite. The guy I went up with had some friends in town and asked around at some of the other tables for their whereabouts: "hey, anybody seen Bob tonight?" After the last table with four rather scruffy, long-haired inhabitants, he turned to me and said, "you know, I think that was The Guess Who?" And so it was.

The 21st century is turning out a lot differently than I expected.

This is, I suppose, an inevitable result of a culture scrubbed clean of any non-material elements. Aesthetic quality cannot be quantified in dollars, but popular culture sure can be. But is it still "popular" culture, or is it just the culture of the coastal elites?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Music and Health

I'm surprised to see I have a tag for this but I did some posts a few years ago loosely on the topic. But it comes up again as I just saw an item at Slipped Disc announcing the cancellation of an upcoming concert tour by guitarist Milos Karadaglić.
Dear all
It saddens me deeply to need to write these lines. Performing is all I live for. There is nothing I love more than being on stage and sharing the gift of music. In two weeks’ time I was about to embark on the most exciting tour of my career. I’ve spent all these months preparing for it – just giving it my absolute best. And yet, despite all that, no matter how hard I tried, the physical condition I was suffering from in 2015 has most unfortunately returned.
My doctors have been very clear with me now – the kind of movement disorder I have is complex and uncompromising and it cannot resolve itself within a few weeks or months. Hence, I’ve been unanimously advised to withdraw from all concert engagements for at least this whole season and break the vicious cycle I have found myself in.
It is so incredibly hard for me to accept this, but sadly, I have no other choice but to comply. In the next year, while firmly on the quest to fully recover and play again, I am planning to focus my energy on other things that truly matter to me. I will continue to work with my chosen charities and education organisations and I will work with promising guitar students and guide them towards a fulfilling musical future.
I am adamant in my promise that I will be back on a stage near you, sooner than you think, stronger and better than ever before. However, for now, I can only say, once again, how desperately sorry I am for the disappointment that this news will bring in amongst so many of you.
Yes, this is indeed sad. He doesn't specify which movement disorder he is wrestling with, but my bet would be on some variety of repetitive strain injury such as tendinitis. I have never suffered from this myself, nor has it appeared in more than a tiny fraction of my students (only one that I can recall in over twenty years of teaching), but I have helped a number of guitarists who have come to me specifically because of this problem--most recently two professional guitarists.

I don't have any medical training, but I do have a pretty good understanding of how guitar technique works and I have talked to a lot of people about this and attended a fascinating lecture on RSI in guitarists and lutenists by someone with medical training. Oftentimes the problem is related to the way the musician uses their hands. It seems to show up most often in the right hand and comes about as a result of playing with a constant and high level of muscular tension. One should not try and diagnose a problem from a video (especially one shot with freaky music video cuts and tricks), but looking at Milos' video of Blackbird over at Slipped Disc, it looks to me as if his right hand is held twisted a bit to the left, indicating a fairly high level of base tension. If you are a hard-working musician, practicing and playing several hours a day, this kind of thing can creep in without you being too aware of it.

Apart from his doctor's no doubt excellent advice, what Milos probably needs to do is rebuild his right hand technique from the ground up (assuming, of course, that I have come to the correct conclusions!). I have done this at least three times in the course of my career, but I see from an old photo that my right hand had good positioning even very early on:

That photo was from just before I went to Spain to study, but you can see that the right wrist is straight, not twisted to the right or left. My first instrument was the bass guitar and I wonder if playing that instrument might have helped with right hand development?

Of course, there are lots of other health issues musicians can have--psychological ones such as performance anxiety (there are some very famous musicians that truncated their careers because of this) or hearing issues (sitting next to the piccolos in orchestra can cause hearing loss with prolonged exposure) and of course, singers can have all sorts of problems related to the fact that their body is their instrument!

Let's look at some video clips of guitarists to see how their right hands are being used. First, Milos:

I don't see quite as much twisting in this video, but there is a bit when he uses the ring finger on the melody.

Liona Boyd:

This is a very good illustration of a right hand with problems. First of all, she is twisting to the right and there is considerable stiffness and tension in the hand generally.

Julian Bream:

Bream is, of course, a great master of the guitar, but he tends to play out of sheer willpower and there is quite a lot of tension in both hands. His right hand seems a bit compressed.

Alvaro Pierri:

Pierri is a student of the great Uruguayan pedagogue Abel Carlevaro and it shows. He has a very relaxed and flexible right hand.

John Williams:

This is quite an early clip of Williams, but you can see he has a really exceptional technique. Loads of facility with no obvious right hand tension.

So there is my little tour of the right hand! I hope you didn't find it pretentious or condescending.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Years ago an astute commentator on this blog insisted that I pay more attention to and evaluate higher Sergei Prokofiev. He was right and so I have added him to my short list of great 20th century composers that seems, these days at least, to include three important Russians: Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.

I've been thinking recently about getting a box of all the piano sonatas (I already have all the symphonies and concertos). One movement that seems particularly popular these days is the Precipitato last movement of the Sonata No. 7, the middle of the three "War" sonatas composed during the Second World War.

I first became acquainted with this sonata as it formed part of Grigory Sokolov's recital at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that was filmed in 2002 by Bruno Monsaingeon.

The last movement, the brief Precipitato, is a tour-de-force of motoric velocity. Even though it only takes three minutes to play, I am not going to analyze it, not today at least, as that would take several days. I sometimes wonder if Prokofiev is not more highly ranked by professors of 20th century music simply because he is, as the phrase goes, "refractory to analysis." Composers like Schoenberg or Webern, or even Bartók, are perhaps easier to get an analytical grip on because there is some kind of system that you can work with. But one suspects that Prokofiev is a largely intuitive composer, which makes the analyst's job very hard indeed.

A couple of things are evident just from a glance at the opening, though:

Click to enlarge
You can see that Prokofiev indicates the subdivision. Odd time signatures like 5/8, 7/8, 13/16 and so on, virtually always are compounds of smaller groupings, usually 2s and 3s. In this case the 7/8 is divided 2+3+2. Another interesting thing is that there is no metronome mark which means that the exact tempo is very much up to the performer. One more thing I notice is that I tend to hear the basic motif (seen in the lower clef) as a minor third easing up into a major third, but it is written as simply a tonic going to an accented augmented supertonic:

Click to enlarge
Most of the top clef I hear as accompaniment, except for that D in the middle of the measure that I hear as where the C# is going. This is the basic motif of the whole movement, so how you hear it is pretty important. Is it just me or would most listeners hear it this way? Let me know in the comments. This is a heard ambiguity, on paper it is quite clear. The bottom clef is the motif or melody while the top clef is the accompaniment. Both the accent and the C# accidental signal this as do the repeated chords. Some more ambiguities: this is obviously in the key of B flat: the piece starts with a B flat triad and ends with B flat in octaves. But there are no conventional cadences and in some places there are suggestions of E flat. Not to mention that pesky C#. We might tend to hear it as a D flat, but the C# notation suggests the leading tone to D which in turn pushes towards the key of D minor or perhaps even G minor which has the same key signature as B flat. But I'm not going to dig into it any further here. What I would like to do is compare some recordings. First, Lang Lang:

Just under 168,000 views on YouTube. I won't offer a comment yet. Let's listen to some more. This is Valentina Lisitsa:

Maurizio Pollini:

Khatia Buniatishvili:

Martha Argerich:

Vladimir Horowitz:

And finally, Grigory Sokolov:

Do I need to make any comments? I mean, it's pretty clear, isn't it? At least two of these pianists thought they were playing the Flight of the Bumblebee which is why they were hitting all the notes very fast. A couple of pianists played the notes instead and did a nice tidy job with some lyric touches. Two of the pianists took a bit slower tempo, noticed the dynamics and made evident the musical structures. And one pianist, the slowest of all, made the most of the piece. An example would be the way he made the B flat octaves that end the piece sound the most right of all the performances. But there were a lot of touches and details along the way, too.

In order from poor to superb:

Khatia Buniatishvili
Lang Lang
Valentina Lisitsa
Maurizio Pollini
Martha Argerich
Vladimir Horowitz
Grigory Sokolov

But honestly, did you expect anything else?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Let's start off with a very early television appearance by Frank Zappa, on the Steve Allen show in 1963:

I think he was channeling John Cage...

* * *

And for everyone who is tired of female artists showing off their, uh, assets, here is The Shirtless Violinist, Matthew Olsen, playing Czardas while taking a bath, courtesy of the Violin Channel. Alas, this is one of those clips that Blogger refuses to embed, so you will have to follow the link.

* * *

After that we need something serious. Here is a link to a BBC article about the origins of punctuation. Punctuation is actually closely related to musical notation. They are both about notating things like pauses and intonations and the very earliest musical notation actually started with some of the ancient punctuation signs. The article hints that it was the other way around, but not so.
This, then, was the state of punctuation at the height of the Renaissance: a mixture of ancient Greek dots; colons, question marks, and other marks descended from medieval symbols; and a few latecomers such as the slash and dash. By now writers were pretty comfortable with the way things stood, which was fortunate, really, because when printing arrived in the mid-1450s, with the publication of Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, punctuation found itself unexpectedly frozen in time. Within 50 years, the majority of the symbols we use today were cast firmly in lead, never to change again: Boncompagno da Signa’s slash dropped to the baseline and gained a slight curve to become the modern comma, inheriting its old Greek name as it did so; the semicolon and the exclamation mark joined the colon and the question mark; and Aristophanes’s dot got one last hurrah as the full stop. After that the evolution of punctuation marks stopped dead, stymied by the standardisation imposed by the printing press.
* * *

Ok, this is terrifying--but in a good way! This is the thirteen-year-old German guitar virtuoso Leonora Spangenberger playing one of the most difficult etudes ever written, the Etude No. 2 by Villa-Lobos. The only person I have heard play it anywhere near this well was Manuel Barrueco. Have a listen:

That piece is even harder than it sounds!

* * *

I hadn't run into Masterpiece Reviews before, but, except for the brief excursion into politics, this is not a bad introduction to one of the great albums of all time, Blonde on Blonde:

* * *

Alex Ross has an interesting piece at the New Yorker about a new viola concerto by a new composer, 28-year-old Julia Adolphe. This is the kind of thing that Alex Ross does very well and it is worth reading. This is an intriguing section:
She began not with notes but words: a page of adjectives and images, indicating moods that she wanted to capture. They range from “claustrophobic, contagious, cyclical, vivid, fiery,” at the beginning, to “deep breaths, peace and calm,” at the end. “It might be my theatre background,” she told me, “but I tend to think of orchestra players as characters with intentions, and plot a narrative arc for them. It’s not about the audience needing to have these exact same emotions—they might feel something very different. It’s that my music will communicate more effectively if I’m as specific with myself as possible.” The narrative proceeds from relative darkness to relative light—from “drowning in uncertainty,” Adolphe writes in a program note, to “embracing ambiguity.”
That is an unusual look inside the compositional process. I think that a lot of composers are not comfortable talking about what they do. There may be two reasons for this: some composers are just uncomfortable with talking about music in any detail at all, others don't approach music from the point of view of language. I am of the opinion that music is far too broad and fluid to be captured with any kind of ordinary vocabulary, but it seems to be working for Julia Adolphe. The work is to be premiered by the New York Philharmonic and I look forward to hearing it.

* * * 

Let's go back to Leonora Spangenberge for our envoi today. At age eleven she recorded the first of the Drei Tentos of Hans Werner Henze:

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dispensable Music Critics

I got a very interesting comment on a recent post that I thought deserved its own post. The post was The Thin Edge of a Critical Wedge which you should read first. Here is the relevant paragraph:
Unfortunately most of the cultural trends these days exclude the notion of objective criticism of the arts entirely, so the first task might well be to explain to everyone just how and why arts criticism is important and necessary.
And here is the Anonymous comment:
“so the first task might well be to explain to everyone just how and why arts criticism is important and necessary.”
This has been discussed recently at Amazon’s classical forums. I tend to agree with this post arguing that criticism is superseded now that audiences have access to more information than the venerated critics of old ever did. To whit:
“Criticism was, in its heyday of the postwar 1950s, an elite class of followers explaining, perhaps arbitrating, culture to the rest of us. Today, few need it. 21st century people have the same access to just about everything as critics. Anyone with the Internet and a computer or tablet can locate as much culture as any critic and learn to make judgments themselves.”
I count a couple of professional classical music critics among my friends, and one thing that’s always struck me is that my record collection is much larger than theirs, thanks in part to most classical recordings now being readily available at no cost through internet filesharing. Back when music cost money, a critic might have helped one choose what to spend one’s limited funds on, but now that it’s all free, I can just download it all.
 There are a whole lot of comments at the link, pro, con and otherwise. I think that this is an interesting variation on a critique of criticism that might be summarized as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" which is interpreted to mean that anyone's aesthetic perception is as good as anyone else's, or, aesthetics is relative. The interesting new element is the access pretty well everyone has (at least in modern, first world nations) to virtually every piece of music there is. This was not true a hundred and more years ago when it took critics like Robert Schumann to introduce audiences to newcomers like Chopin. What remains the same, however, is the dispute over the objectivity of aesthetics and the utility of criticism.

Yes, you can "just download it all" though if the "all" means all classical music that is going to take a while. You don't even have to download it though, you can just listen to it on YouTube or stream it on a number of commercial services. But while this may cost you very little or nothing in terms of money, there are very significant costs in terms of time!

I yield place to no-one in my distrust of so-called "experts". I have often commented that some of the supposed friends and supporters of classical music are really our worst enemies. And we have just seem a mammoth demonstration of just how far wrong the assembled hoards of intellectuals, media personalities, newspapers of record, journalists, celebrities and pundits can be. But despite all this, the thoughts of those who really are experienced, educated and possessing of finely-tuned sensibilities are as valuable as ever. Perhaps more so.

Don't even call it "criticism" if the word offends you. Just call it "writing about music". This is a difficult task, but one I find very fulfilling and so apparently do rather a large number of readers and commentators on this blog.

What criticism really offers, when it is well done, is a process and means of selection. Frankly, no-one has time to listen to everything. If a critic or writer I trust points me to a particular composer or performer that is worth my time, I am grateful. There is an astounding amount of music that is probably best avoided, so counsel as to which is also valuable. Not to deny the importance of everyone's individual judgment. But I think that there is nothing wrong with learning from people who really have something to say and penetrating observations to share.

One phenomenon that is probably not marked enough is the decline in culture generally which we can see if we compare Donald Francis Tovey's essays on musical analysis, originally written as program notes, with recent books on music by people like David Hurwitz. Perhaps the last gasp of really serious writing on music for the general public was Richard Taruskin's monumental Oxford History of Western Music and we are not likely to see something like it anytime soon.

Music recordings and information about music are more available than ever before. Real knowledge and wisdom about music is perhaps rarer than ever.

Let's have some Chopin for an envoi. This is Grigory Sokolov playing the Preludes, op. 28 in a concert in Salzburg in 2008:

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Role Models

The function of role models is often talked about and I can vouch for their importance. As a young Canadian classical musician I really had no role models. After running through a succession of teachers and finding most of them wanting, I had to go to Spain for a year to learn my trade as a classical guitarist. I see now that there really did not exist a niche for me on my return to Canada. Sure, I could find a job teaching at conservatory and university, but trying to hack out a career as a touring performer was pretty much a doomed project. Why? Well, who were the role models? Who, in fact did have a successful career as a classical guitarist in Canada in the late 70s and 80s? The answer is: Liona Boyd. Let's have a listen:

What I was doing could only compete with that if the audience were open to it, which, based on my experience, they were not. Now, I have to confess that I wasn't open to a few things myself! I didn't know how to develop my career, I didn't play programs that were easily accessible, I didn't play the political game and so on. In other words, I played musically challenging concerts and expected the audience to get into it. Well, mostly they weren't interested! I could probably have found more willing audiences in Europe, or perhaps even the US, but my self-deprecating Canadian character wasn't so ready to take that step. The one time I toured Europe, audiences were wildly receptive and when I did my international debut at Wigmore Hall in London, critic John Duarte, who had heard everyone, was very positive. But moving to Europe or the US always felt like a bridge too far and audiences in Canada were just not so interested. Hey, they had the fabulous Liona!

This is what I had to offer:


So one of the obvious functions of role models is to show you what is possible in your environment.

Knowing What You Are Doing

Sorry for the lack of posts in the last few days. I threw a dinner party for twenty people on the weekend and that kind of took up my attention. Plus, I've been processing the results of the US election. I have to say that, most of the time, US elections are much more entertaining than Canadian ones--especially if you don't have to live with the results.

The only recent Canadian election that I can recall that was as dramatic as last week's US one, was the federal election in 1993. Canada, as most of you will know, uses the British Parliamentary system where the leader of the party with the largest number of seats becomes the Prime Minister. Elections are not set, but are called by the Prime Minister (with the approval of the Queen's representative, the Governor General) at his discretion, but must be called before five years are up. One consequence of this is that Canadian elections are not the long, drawn-out torture that US elections can sometimes be. The last Canadian federal election was held last year and the whole campaign, from start to finish, was over in a few weeks.

Going back to that '93 election, which I recall quite well as I was resident in Canada at the time, at dissolution of Parliament, the Progressive Conservatives had a majority of 156 seats out of 295 in the House of Commons. (The Canadian Senate is rather less important than the US one. It consists of appointed members and has little power other than to veto legislation coming from the House of Commons.) Due to a number of factors (the popular Prime Minister resigned and the election was called by a new and inexperienced one, the Progressive Conservatives had been in power since 1984 and the voters were tired of them, plus, any party named the "Progressive Conservatives" obviously has issues) over half of their supporters ended up voting for someone else, including some new political parties.

The results were beyond astonishing: from a majority of 156 seats out of 295, the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two, TWO, seats! The Liberal Party returned to power with 177 seats. There were no Progressive Conservative members in the whole Western half of the country. The husband of one of the remaining members, holding a seat in Nova Scotia, joked that he was sleeping with half the Progressive Conservative caucus. Yes, they retained their sense of humor, at least.

Canadians sometimes lose patience with provincial parties as well and consign them to the dustbin. The Progressive Conservatives never recovered from this disaster and disappeared entirely a few years later. The current Conservative party is an alliance between the remnants of the Progressive Conservatives, the Canadian Alliance and the Reform Party. They did return to power, but it took four federal elections.

I have often wondered at the remarkable stability (or is it stasis?) of the US system where senators can be re-elected over and over and over for thirty or forty years and where elections are finely balanced with only a couple of percentage points between the popular vote. Third parties are few and far between. I wonder if anyone has done a really detailed comparison of the Canadian and American systems? Maybe we should swap for a couple of decades and see how that goes?

This American election has been, given the differences, as earth-shaking as the '93 Canadian one. Remarkably nine out of the eleven most prominent polls had it wrong as did nearly all the mass media. Just days before the election the New York Times, among others, was giving Hillary Clinton an 86% chance of willing. Election night, from nine o'clock on, things started looking very different. Donald Trump, who always said he was going to win, turned out to be right. Ann Coulter suffered a gale of laughter from her fellow panelists and the studio audience when she predicted he was going to win many months ago. Everyone said that Donald Trump would never be president.

Why was that? I guess the post-mortem analyses will be going on for a while. I can't figure out what, if any, difference it is going to make for classical music or culture generally. It is said that politics is downstream from culture, but I can't see that this election substantiates that.

The point I want to make is that people that supposedly know what they are doing, pundits, political marketers and campaigners, media, academics, and so on, sometimes haven't got a clue, sometimes are wildly wrong! I think we should all learn one lesson from this election: don't put trust or faith in those folks that are always telling you what to do and think. They are frequently wrong. For years they treated Donald Trump as a distasteful clown and now they are paying the price.

Thinking that you know what you are doing is often just self-deception. The wisest people I know rarely act that self-assured. They treat life as an exploration, full of surprises. One interesting example I just ran across is Leonard Cohen talking about religion:

As a composer, I know mostly that I don't know what I am doing. Every new piece is an exploration of the unknown. How can you possibly know what you are doing? Perhaps we can all just be a tiny bit humbler about all those things that we think we know. After all, Socrates' real claim to fame was that he was the only one in Athens who knew that he knew nothing.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

You can never have enough puns, right?

* * *

Another interesting article in the Wall Street Journal: physicist Carlo Rovelli discusses how he discovered the music of Arvo Pärt:
“Für Alina” opens with the pianist moving tentatively along the keys, in an almost childlike way. Most fascinating are the pauses between measures. At first, I thought something was wrong with my radio. It was the piece, ruminating and catching its breath.
The song only runs about three minutes. It never explodes in crescendo but instead flowers with introspection. There’s something about its spareness that’s completely pure. Hearing the song that day, it was as if the light in the room had changed, leaving the space serene and magical, like a pearl.
Today, I never listen to the song while driving or working. I listen undistracted and savor it. “Für Alina” doesn’t help me write an equation or solve a problem. It connects me to my emotions and allows me to put life in perspective.

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Hardeep Phull at the New York Post has assembled the list of the 20 worst songs of all time according to their readers. A lot of the ones that made the list are no surprise: extremely catchy songs can get extremely annoying with repeated exposure. Examples include "Don't Worry, Be Happy", "We Are the World" and "Who Let the Dogs Out?"  One song that was both loved and hated was John Lennon's "Imagine", which I can certainly understand. But I was surprised that one song that made the list was Paul McCartney's "Hey Jude". Well, ok, that coda does go on. And on. But isn't "Yellow Submarine" even more annoying?

* * *

Very sad news on Thursday: one of our greatest songwriters, Leonard Cohen, passed away. Here are some obituaries. Leonard Cohen was one of Canada's greatest and most creative musicians, but he started out as a writer, known as an outstanding poet before he ever took to songwriting. He was perhaps the only one to be in some ways the equal of Bob Dylan. I will always remember an interview he did once on Canadian television. The host mentioned that Leonard Cohen was very known for being a pessimist. He replied "a pessimist is someone who thinks it is going to rain--I'm soaked to the skin!"

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One of the things that bothers me about our culture these days is the fundamental assumption of the mass media and public institutions generally that we are all dim-witted dolts. It used to be that you could read or view a report on some science topic without distracting and inappropriate music. But no longer, it seems. Take for example this item from NASA on methane clouds on Titan. Watch the video and notice the weirdly odd Brian Eno style music that they felt had to accompany the time-lapse photography. Why can't the video just speak for itself instead of being pumped up with the music?

* * *

Our envoi today has to be something by Leonard Cohen. This is my favorite of his songs, partly because of an extraordinary opening line: "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin."

Let's have another: "First We Take Manhattan":

And one recent song, "Darkness" from 2012:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Varieties of Musical Time

I'm surprised to find I have only one tag that really fits: tempo. I used to tell students that the "timing" of a piece of music only refers to the length of the performance or recording: so many minutes and seconds. The words we use to describe musical time are tempo (the pace of the music measured in beats per minute), the meter (how those beats are grouped) and the rhythm (what pattern of long and short notes are played in that meter at that tempo).

But that really just scratches the surface. In the experience of playing and listening to music, we can distinguish many different kinds of musical time. For example, one of the oldest forms of Western music is the chant of the Catholic Church. Though often called "Gregorian" chant after Pope Gregory (pope from 590 to 604 AD), he did not have a great deal to do with the creation of the corpus of chant. Here is a sample:

This is a kind of musical time in which there is an open and relatively free kind of pulse. In fact the pulse is de-emphasized in favor of the flowing line. I wrote a piece for guitar in which I specifically sought to have as little sense of pulse as possible:


There are actually three kinds of musical time in that piece. Most of it is long held single notes without a measured pulse. This is the "chant" music. Then there are brief flurries of grace notes that also don't have a pulse, but are like little glimmers or a spray of sound fragments. Then there is a quote from the chant Pange Lingua, which is measured, though not very strictly.

In opera and oratorio there is a long tradition of different kinds of musical time. Recitative sections are performed in a rather free way that is a kind of musical prose. They are used instead of spoken dialogue to explain or describe or advance the narrative. Typically a recitative sets the stage for an aria. In fact, musicologists refer to "aria time" when the narrative of the opera stops while a character expresses a particular feeling or mood. In one sense the aria is a moment out of time. Here is an example of a famous recitative and aria from the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, "Deh vieni, non tardar":

The singer "speaks" her phrases over held chords in the orchestra, there is no consistent pulse. Then the aria, beginning around the 1:30 mark is in a very clear 3/4.

The French overture provides us with two other contrasting kinds of musical time: there is a slow section, characterized by dramatic harmonies and very dynamic dotted rhythms--this is contrasted with a middle section in a quicker tempo with running notes. It is a bit hard to describe in words, but the effect of the first section is to capture the listener's attention with dramatic gestures while the middle section is action and movement oriented, more dance-like. This is the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 by Bach, played by Scott Ross. The first movement is the actual overture. The faster middle section starts at the 2:28 mark, in a quick 3/4, which contrasts with the duple time of the slow section:

There are a host of other kinds of musical time: long-held drones such as we find in John Luther Adams, constant pulse as we find in Steve Reich, layered textures where there may be long-held notes in one part while others move in contrasting rhythms (lots of passages like that in Shostakovich symphonies) and so on. A composition can be in a single kind of musical time, or have sections in contrasting musical times or have layers of different music times.

I think I will leave it there for today!

[I am not seeing the clip of my piece show up, though it is there in the post. Is it just me or can others see it? It is the second example.]

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Earworms Revisited

Every few months we have another article on the topic of "earworms", those catchy bits of melody that get stuck in your head. The latest is The Science Behind “Earworms”:
Don’t worry, there’s a reason why “Don’t Stop Believin'” gets stuck in your head for days every time you hear it. In fact, there are a couple of reasons. And they’re backed by science.
Songs that get trapped in your head for long periods of time, commonly called “earworms,” are the subject of a study by Durham University (in England) researcher Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, who recently published a paper on the subject in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Jakubowski and her team found that earworms have three distinct qualities that separate them from other songs: pace, melodic shape, and unique intervals.
All these articles have the same characteristics:

  1. They claim to have the answer to some age-old and puzzling question
  2. They take a scientific approach, and
  3. They display a near-total ignorance of hundreds of years of music history and theory
Given those shortcomings, it is not surprising that the "answers" they come up with are shallow and, to any musician, unconvincing. Let's have some more from the researchers at Durham University:
Pacing, the team found, is crucial. Many commonly cited earworms have upbeat, danceable tempos, but are still slow enough to easily track. Most earworms follow the melodic preferences of Western pop music, which in turn follows many of the melodic contour patterns in nursery rhymes. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” for instance, has a rising pitch in the first phrase that falls in the second, a common trait of earworms. (Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” was specifically called out by the study for this.)
But childlike simplicity and a peppy tempo aren’t enough to make an earworm. A true earworm changes its game up with at least one unusual interval structure, defined by the study as “unexpected leaps,” repeated notes, or any other idiosyncratic tick in the song’s composition that makes it memorable, in addition to catchy.
The basic problem with this kind of "research" is that it is nearly always a case of using the wrong set of tools. Science, at least this kind of science, is nothing more than statistics and surveys with a thin veneer of technical vocabulary. The vocabulary has been eliminated from the news story, but you can see it in the original paper here where an "earworm" is given the scientific moniker "involuntary musical imagery". The idea of sounds being misnamed "images" already makes me uneasy. Looking over the original paper to get a sense of how they approached the question musically, I see that again, it is purely a question of statistics:
First- order features are features that are calculated based on the intrinsic content of a melody itself, such as the average note duration, average interval size, or pitch range of the melody. Second-order features, also called corpus-based features, are features that compare a melody to a larger collection or corpus of melodies (generally comprised of music from the same genre or style as the melodies that are being analyzed, such as pop songs or folk songs). For instance, one example of a second-order feature might measure to what degree the average interval size within a particular melody is common or uncommon with respect to the distribution average interval sizes within a large corpus of comparable melodies.
This is inevitable if the tools used are scientific. In science, you can only examine those things that you can measure and you can only measure those things that you can assign numbers to. Now, of course, you can look at music entirely in terms of numbers: tempo is how many beats per minute, pitch is how many vibrations per second and so on. But those things are nothing but the externals and bear as much relation to a musical performance as a recipe does to the dish on the table. The musical expression as implied and encoded in the score and as evoked by the performer and as experienced by the listener is simply another order of reality from the notes on the page and the numbers that science can deduce from them.

Let me explain why. Really catchy earworms each have a memorable quality. This is why they, and not a thousand generic examples, are memorable. It is their individuality that makes them memorable. This individuality is precisely the quality that cannot be captured by any methodology based on statistics. To make another metaphor, imagine trying to identify Albert Einstein when he was a patent clerk by doing a statistical survey of patent clerks. That is the equivalent of trying to identify those qualities that make for an earworm by doing a statistical survey of catchy tunes. If you look at the quotes above you will see that each description begs the question (as in "assumes the conclusion"). A rising pitch in the first phrase that falls in the second, a "common trait in earworms" is found in thousands of melodies that are NOT earworms. This same critique applies to every single characteristic claimed as being indicative or characteristic of earworms: they are all characteristic of all popular melodies, nursery rhymes, Haydn string quartets, Bach minuets and, for all I know, Brazilian sambas (though I haven't done the research on the latter).

The question of what makes a particular piece of music "catchy" is unanswerable using scientific methodology. What is extremely odd is that the researchers, their subjects, the journalists reporting and nearly all of the readers fail to realize this!

In related news, science also has no answers for questions regarding aesthetic quality, ethics, theology and why I am having trouble organizing my latest composition.

Now for our envoi, and we deserve a good one today. Here is one of the most catchy compositions ever written, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It's a little divertimento that he referred to as "a little night music" in a letter to his father and so, ever since, it has been known as "Eine kleine Nachtmusik". It was composed in 1787. This performance is by Concerto Koln:

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Apocalypse is Nigh!

No, I'm not making a reference to tomorrow's US election, why do you think that? Rather I just ran across something that illustrates how our culture is fragmenting. Music can be an indicator of this. For example, on Slipped Disc I ran into a link to a music quiz:
Pit your brains against Jeremy Paxman’s University Challenge questions.
Ok, no idea who Jeremy Paxman is nor what the University Challenge is, but hey, I'm game. I rather like music quizzes as you can see if you follow those links. I even like to throw in the occasional pop question, just for fun. But what did I discover when I followed the University Challenge link?

  1. a pop music question
  2. a current literature question about pop music
  3. a pop music question
  4. an electro-pop music question
  5. an Albert Einstein question that almost was about classical music
  6. a classical music question!!
  7. a pop music question
  8. a pop music question
  9. a jazz music question
  10. a pop music question
I had to take the test as the only way to reveal the next question is to answer the current one. There were only two questions (nos 5 and 6) that had anything to do with classical music and I got both those correct. All my other answers were random as I hadn't the slightest idea. By sheer chance I also got number 4 correct, so, 3 out of 10! A pop music enthusiast might have gotten seven or eight out of ten, which was the desired result, I assume.

And this is a University Challenge? The thing is that there was a culture, which seems to be passing rather quickly these days, in which some knowledge of classical music was assumed for every educated person, while pop music was assumed to be too ephemeral to be worth knowing about. But now classical music is a tiny minority interest of no particular aesthetic heft or prestige about on the level of polka music or virtuoso accordion playing. But that is only from one point of view! From another point of view every major city in Europe and the Americas has an active symphony orchestra and there are quite a few chamber music series. A few major cities have opera companies. All these give frequent performances, often to sold-out audiences. But the existence of this classical music world is more and more a puzzlement to the mass media and mass culture generally. It still exists, though, which is why I say our culture is fragmenting because there are huge segments of our public culture for whom it does not or only scarcely exists.

The thing that deeply concerns me, and this does relate a bit to the impending election, is that there are vast and powerful forces that are working very hard to frame everything that we are required to think and required to not think. Music is just a tiny microcosm. But the idea that certain kinds of culture and certain kinds of ideas must be promoted while others are suppressed is manufacturing history rather than allowing it to take place. It reminds me of the Battlestar Galactica slogan in the opening credits: AND THEY HAVE A PLAN! That is, the cylons have a plan. The whole series descended into absurdity, but that ominous slogan echoes.

Yes, someone, or a whole bunch of someones, does indeed have a plan and they are executing it bit by bit. A great deal of what I consider to be the crucial elements of our civilization seems to be being put on the discard table, preliminary to being cleared away entirely. Classical music and traditional aesthetic objects generally, history, poetry, philosophy and so on are all on the list. I'm sure you can make your own list. It wouldn't bother me so much if I didn't see the clearing away project to be entirely disingenuous. We are, I suspect, being lied to on a grand scale and constantly presented with falsehoods in order to manipulate public opinion. If a particular fact or event does not fit with the desired narrative then either it is not reported at all, much as classical music receives less and less profile in the mass media, or the truth is distorted out of all recognition.

But here is a ray of light that I find encouraging. The movement of mass media online has opened up the possibility of public commentary on the narrative. There are many, many occasions when a particularly biased story is answered by hundreds of comments that disagree strongly and present a more accurate version. You might check the Globe and Mail's comments for some examples. Of course, they are trying to figure out a way of preventing this while still pretending to have open comments and they close comments entirely on controversial stories.

I won't end this with one of my famously difficult quizzes--we are stressed enough! So let's just have some good music. This is the Piano Sonata No. 9 in E major, op. 14 by Beethoven, played by Grigory Sokolov in a recital at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 2002:

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Westboro Baptist Church vs The Julliard School

The Westboro Baptist Church staged a protest at The Julliard School in Manhattan this week. As the church is based in Topeka, Kansas, one wonders what this is all about? Westboro, as you may learn from the Wikipedia article, is a notoriously active congregation that fight hard for what most people regard as their mistaken beliefs. I suppose we can admire their conviction (and travel budget) if nothing else. The congregation is very small, around forty members. The Julliard School has around 850 students and is one of the most famous music schools in the world. Sure, they have a reputation of being a pressure-cooker environment, churning out masses of technically accomplished virtuosos and I'm still annoyed with them because a Julliard bassoonist beat me in a music competition in New York decades ago, but hey, in a contest between them and the Westboro folks, there really is no contest. Here is an account of the demonstration: Westboro Baptist Protesters at Juilliard Get 'Rickrolled' by Student Musicians:
Protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest at The Juilliard School in New York on Thursday and were joined by counter-protesting students, who greeted them with music.
Apparently the protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church Cult have run out of dead soldiers' funerals to disrupt, so they looked far and wide and decided that the greatest menace currently bearing down on America right now is—I am not making this up—the arts. All of them.
The church cult announced on their website last week that they would be protesting at The Juilliard School. In a press release, WBC decried the school's dance, drama, and music programs.
Oh the vanity of it all! “For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.” (Gal. 6:3) Too many words to cover the awful sin of this “institution of higher learning”. Sum it up like this: You have made your children to be good for absolutely nothing except full, final and awful destruction!
In an apparent message to the students' parents the release said, "If you had taught those children to invest 5% of the energy they use for the vanity called 'The Arts' America would not be leading the world in racing to destruction."
The report, as in all media reports these days, is anything but objective. Here is another account from Playbill:
The Kansas-based hate group the Westboro Baptist Church, known for disrupting soldier’s funerals with chants and signs displaying gay slurs, is coming to the supposed heart of Gomorrah 8-9 AM November 3, to picket outside The Juilliard School in New York City.
The cause of the protest appears to be nothing more than the group’s anger at “the vanity called 'The Arts’,” according to a statement posted on the group's webpage. The call to action can be read in its entirety here.
Juilliard students told that they are planning a counter-demonstration called ”God Loves Jazz.”
Using Bible verses to attack the supposed vanity of the school, which is ranked as one of the top music academies in the world, the Westboro group decries ”Too many words to cover the awful sin of this ‘institution of higher learning.’ Sum it up like this: You have made your children to be good for absolutely nothing except full, final and awful destruction!”
The site goes on to explain, “If you had taught those children to invest 5% of the energy they use for the vanity called ‘The Arts’, America would not be leading the world in racing to destruction. Clarifying, God will not ever have idolatry, fornication, adultery, divorce and remarriage (which Christ said is adultery, at Luke 16:18, and other places) sodomy, same-sex marriage, murder, lying, stealing and all the rest of your proud sin, including your awful pride.”
The Juilliard School is part of the Lincoln Center arts complex on Broadway at 66th Street in Manhattan.
 I doubt that the Julliard students are guilty of anything more than excessive practice of scales. I think we can label this story The Most Inappropriate and Mistaken Critique of the Arts in the 21st century so far.

I run into the occasional Julliard alumnus and have noticed that they do have a touch of hubris. I used to tell them that I graduated from the McGill School of Music, also a body of about 800 or so dedicated students, but that never seemed sufficient somehow. So lately I have been responding to the phrase "I went to Julliard!" with the comment, "you know, I attended one of the very few music institutions in the world that has a higher reputation than Julliard: the Mozarteum in Salzburg." That is usually followed by an extended silence. Here is a photo of me playing a concert in the Wiener Saal at the Mozarteum:

Friday, November 4, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Turns out we were all wrong: Bob Dylan did notice he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he just was busy or something and didn't get around to responding for a couple of weeks. Turns out he might even show up for the ceremony, but he wasn't sure. In an extraordinarily good bit of timing, a definitive collection of his lyrics is just being published: The Lyrics: 1961 - 2012. The Wall Street Journal has a review:
Usually when I discuss Bob Dylan as a poet I point to his visionary songs. “Desolation Row” (1965), which I selected for inclusion in “The Oxford Book of American Poetry,” is terrific in its phantasmagoria:
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
‘Which side are you on?’
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow.

Another fine example is the title song of “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), which begins with God and Abraham mixing it up in Genesis 22: “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’ / Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’ ”
But you could as easily make the case on the basis of his powers of rhetoric. His gift is oracular. Some of his strongest lines are infused with the spirit of protest: “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man?” Others verge on heartbreak: “It don’t even matter to me where you’re wakin’ up tomorrow / But mama, you’re just on my mind.”
* * *

 Also in the Wall Street Journal is an item on Steve Reich, whose 80th birthday it is, and who will be premiering a new piece titled Pulse in a few days.

* * *

Still in the Wall Street Journal, obviously your go-to medium for important arts coverage, is a nice piece on two recent performances of the Schubert Quintet that I just put up as the envoi to another post. Sure, that's where I got the idea. I left a comment thanking them for doing something on classical music, as so much music coverage lately has just been on pop, and I got a lot of thumbs up from other readers and a couple of replies. So when you go to the piece, don't forget to read the comments.

* * *

I link this without comment except to say that this is probably the most blatant example of cultural Marxism in classical music this week: Classical music is subject to ‘unconscious racism and class’, says composer:
 ‘One would like simply to be commissioned regularly without racial agendas – and not just for Black History Month,’ she told the BBC.
‘The powers that be must start to include all races on an ongoing basis. These powers could also entertain a broader concept of what a mainstream contemporary composer sounds and looks like so there isn’t just an inner club of composers who get heard while others are effectively silenced,’ she said.
As someone, a Supreme Court justice I believe, once said, the way to avoid racial discrimination is simply to not discriminate on the basis of race.

* * *

 In some ways we are living in a golden age of classical music: despite the best efforts of some very iffy "friends" of music: symphony boards trying to cut back salaries, committees awarding prizes to not very good composers, the relentless pressure from pop music, increasing inroads from the cultural justice warriors, shallow misleading attempts at music "appreciation" and the near elimination of music from the schools, there is still great music being made and great young artists coming on the scene as fine as we have ever had. Hilary Hahn, of course, on violin, Igor Levit on piano and there might be another. I just read a fervent appreciation of a young Greek conductor named Teodor Currentzis who has recently recorded three of the greatest Mozart operas. James Rhodes writes in the Guardian
...along comes a young Greek conductor called Teodor Currentzis. He is the conducting equivalent of Glenn Gould morphed with Kurt Cobain. Gould said there is no point performing something that’s been performed a thousand times before unless you do it differently. And Currentzis, who has a work ethic and attention to detail that would have made Steve Jobs look like an unemployed bum, goes way, way beyond that.
He formed his own orchestra, Musica Aeterna, hand-picking the very best musicians he could find – largely from Russia, where they have quite the selection. He somehow convinced Sony to inject an obscene amount of money, and he set to work producing and recreating definitive performances of Mozart’s three greatest operas. He records in Perm, a city in the middle of Russia whose temperature redefines cold. He, his orchestra and singers, along with producers, sound engineers and technicians, spend weeks in what can only be described as a classical music lock-in – they live, eat and breathe there, and the majority of their waking moments are spent creating music. Hundreds of hours of takes are recorded, with Currentzis pushing everyone involved beyond the limits of what most would consider possible. He chooses speeds that are, to many, unplayable. Vocal techniques that are not taught in any schools. Interpretations that make most music critics and regular opera audiences question everything they thought they knew. His conception of these works is so grand, so life-affirming and life-changing, so far beyond anything that has come before it that it has, for me, redefined music itself. This is classical music breaking the four-minute mile.
The third of the series, Don Giovanni, is being released today on Sony Classical. 

* * *

There is some bad news from the Wall Street Journal: there will be less arts and culture coverage. Norman Lebrecht reports:
Here’s the relevant part of Baker’s memo to staff:
– Our uniquely engaging lifestyle, arts, culture, entertainment and sports coverage now featured in Personal Journal and Arena will be combined in a section named Life & Arts, and included in the main news section of the paper every day from Monday to Friday. This new part of the A section will also feature the cultural commentary and criticism written by the Editorial Page’s team of critics that currently appears in PJ and Arena. The name Life & Arts not only better captures the range of this combined content but also aligns more closely with the relevant sections in our digital products.
* * *

 It's a musical year in literature. After the Nobel Prize announcement comes the award of the Chicago Tribune Literary Award to composer Philip Glass for his memoir Words Without Music. It is a fascinating book and I wrote about it in this post, back in January.

* * *

I am tempted to attribute this to our ever-expanding therapeutic culture where everything has to be an illness: Seven out of 10 musicians report mental health problems – survey:
More than 70% of musicians have experienced anxiety and panic attacks, the largest ever survey into mental health issues in the profession suggests.
Professionals working in the music industry, including those in theatre, may also be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression than the general public, according to the Help Musicians UK survey results.
The cynic in me suspects that part of this initiative is to create a justification for a new organization that can, while doing some good, mostly provide salaries for highly-paid administrators. I say this because this always seems to be how things end up. Just look at the Veterans' Administration in the US. Here is a little clue from the article:
When the campaign was launched in May, Help Musicians UK said it hoped to have a service dedicated to musicians' mental well-being in place by 2017.
* * *

 Let's have some good orchestral news: The Atlanta Symphony has completed its fundraising campaign to restore orchestral positions two years ahead of time and is adding eleven players to the orchestra.
The news is in stark contrast to the gloom of 2014, when ASO musicians were locked out of Symphony Hall for nine weeks after they refused to accept a contract that would fix the number of full-time musicians at 77, below the standard level of a major symphony orchestra. That lockout, the second in two years, delayed the opening of the season and led to the resignation of then-president and CEO Stanley Romanstein.
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There is not a huge selection of clips by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on YouTube, but they do include this older recording of the Symphony No. 5 by Mahler: