Friday, December 30, 2016

Smörgåsbord or Focus?

I've just been reading Jim Fusilli's article on the music festivals he covered this past year: What I Learned Covering Nine Music Festivals in a Single Year. One bit stood out:
In 2016, I had the pleasure and responsibility of covering nine rock-and-pop festivals for the Journal. I say “responsibility” because a critic can’t understand the popular music of yesterday, today and tomorrow without diving into festivals that present a multitude of artists. With that obligation comes the great joy of being thrust willingly into a series of events that confirm that this period in rock and pop is deep, diverse and wildly democratic.
I hope you will forgive me if I say that the idea of attending a music event that had a multitude of artists and was "deep, diverse and wildly democratic" causes me to shudder, just a bit! Now don't get me wrong, I have attended some rather festival-like events such as the Salzburg Festival, the Banff Festival, the San Miguel Baroque Music Festival, the Festival Internacional de Música, the Montréal Jazz Festival and so on. But in all those festivals, each event, that is to say, each concert, was by an individual artist or ensemble. And the ones in Salzburg were noteworthy for things like a whole series of concerts of the chamber music of Stockhausen, plus other artists and ensembles doing the complete Schubert piano sonatas and complete Beethoven string quartets. In other words, what was great about that festival, at least, was not the diversity or democracy, but the intense focus on specific repertoire.

The festivals Jim Fusilli is writing about are akin to the Woodstock model where each group plays a set and is followed by another group and this goes on for many hours, long into the night. (I did attend one of those kinds of festivals, but it was so long ago that I think we were even consuming an entirely different palate of drugs!) Just for a taste of what he is talking about, here is an artist he raves about, "avant-garde jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson in a solo performance":


I was rather looking forward to hearing what she would do as I am stretching my ears right now looking for some new textures for a solo guitar piece I am writing. But listening to this left me with an unpleasant blend of boredom and queasiness. Fusilli comments:
Reflecting today’s listening habits, the best festivals are gumbos of music from around the globe.
Yes, exactly! Which is probably why I had best stay away from them. I came up with a similar metaphor to describe a kind of musical fusion: flamenco stew. This is that unholy blend of jazz and flamenco that seems to bring out the most dreary self-indulgence in the performers.

Now I can sense that some of my readers are about to fire off some comments about how old farts like me should not be offering aesthetic opinions, but should rather be run out of town on a rail. So let me offer my positive alternative: the kind of musical experience that I think is the most profound, transcendent and fulfilling is one where there is, rather than a smörgåsbord of contrasting styles, tastes and artists, instead a focus on a particular style or repertoire.

I really like the idea of a pianist playing a whole program of Schubert sonatas or a string quartet doing an all-Beethoven program or a singer doing a whole Schubert cycle and so on. Instead, what we hear over and over and over in so many concerts is a classical piece, some 20th century pieces and in the second half some lengthy romantic piece. And this is found, over and over, in countless chamber music concerts and solo recitals. It is kind of a knee-jerk, formulaic gesture toward "diversity".

Mind you, it would take some really bold programming to get past that formula. But that in itself would be a marker for creativity in the arts. Here is the kind of thing I am thinking of: harpsichordist Andreas Staier plays a whole program of music based on the Aristotelian notion of a melancholic temperament. It begins with one of my favourite pieces, the "Plainte faite a Londres pour passer la Melancholie, laquelle se joue lentement avec discretion" by Johann Jacob Froberger:


Friday Miscellanea

I'm always fascinated by the details, which is why I don't care for what we see in the mass media: they abhor the details! This is a very interesting account, from the inside, about how orchestral auditions really work: at least in Germany. Our guide is Rob Knopper:
The preliminary audition normally consists of a single round. For most instrumentalists that would mean playing part of the first movement of a standard, classical concerto, plus the cadenza, and maybe a bit of the slow movement. In the case of a percussion vacancy, the candidates would probably be required to each play one set study and a long pp<ff>pp roll on the snare drum, maybe Firebird and Sorcerer's Apprentice on mallets and a variety of cymbal clashes.
At the end of the discussion, those present vote (secretly) on whom they want to take on to the main audition. The section generally votes on slips of coloured paper, anyone else on white. The normal procedure is that any candidate receiving at least 50% from both the section and those present as a whole will go through to the main audition.
If the orchestra is lucky, it may have chosen a handful of particularly impressive candidates to join those players invited directly to the main audition.
At this point, German federal law requires those not accepted into the main audition to proceed to get hideously drunk together, complaining wildly about the fact that the whole business is totally fixed and that the section of this orchestra are all utter w****** anyway.
Heh!

* * *

Here is an item for our Spanish readers. At a performance of Handel's Messiah in Madrid, conductor William Christie had an audience member thrown out when his cellphone rang during the aria "He was despised." Here is a Google translation, edited by me for clarity:
At the end of the first part of the concert, during the aria "He was despised" in which is sung: "was despised and rejected by men," sung by the countertenor Carlo Vistoli, rang a phone mobile from a seat practically by the stage where the Orchestra is located. It was not the first time that it happened and Christie ordered his musicians to stop and said "You have just ruined one of the most beautiful arias in one of the most beautiful works ever written." The audience member left the room after his exclamation of "Get out!".
* * *

Katherine Needleman, principle oboe of the Baltimore Symphony, gives us a demonstration of the latest in wind instrument extended multiphonic techniques, using Jingle Bells. Follow the link to Slipped Disc.



* * *

Credit where credit is due: Alex Ross has a fine article at the New Yorker on Bach's Holy Dread:
What went through the minds of the congregation at the Nikolaikirche, in Leipzig, on Good Friday, 1724, when the St. John Passion had its first performance? A year earlier, Johann Sebastian Bach, aged thirty-nine, had taken up posts as the cantor of the St. Thomas School and the director of music for Leipzig’s Lutheran churches. He had already acquired a reputation for being difficult, for using “curious variations” and “strange tones.” More than a few of his works begin with gestures that inspire awe and fear. Several pieces from his years as an organ virtuoso practice a kind of sonic terrorism. The Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor feasts on dissonance with almost diabolical glee, perpetrating one of the most violent harmonies of the pre-Wagnerian era: a chord in which a D clashes with both a C-sharp and an E-flat, resulting in a full-throated acoustical scream.
In the St. John Passion, Bach’s art of holy dread assumes unprecedented dimensions. The almost outlandish thing about “Herr, unser Herrscher” is that it does not simply take the point of view of the mourners and the mockers. It also adopts the perspective of the man on the Cross, gazing up and down.
* * *

Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal has a nice article about a new project by Daniel Barenboim on YouTube. Little five-minute videos about classical music that look to be an excellent way of sparking interest in people of all ages:
Mr. Barenboim is onto something here—something with much wider potential applicability, not just to classical music but throughout the world of art. What if (say) Tom Stoppard did a “Five Minutes On…” YouTube series about his best-known plays? Or Martin Scorsese did a series about classic films of the 20th century? You wouldn’t have to publicize such a venture, either. Once the word got out that it was up on YouTube, or available in podcast form, I have no doubt that “Martin Scorsese: Five Minutes on ‘Citizen Kane’” would go viral.
* * *

Scientists at Stanford have been engaged in an interesting project: recreating the acoustics of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in the 6th century and for a thousand years the world's largest church). There aren't many details in this report, but it seems they made use of recordings made in the space:
The “Icons of Sound” project focuses on the interior of Hagia Sophia, using recordings of balloon pops taken in the space and other audio and visual research to  figure out the building’s acoustics by extrapolating from those noises. The scientists used that data to recreate the experience of being there
I wonder if there might not be another way to experience the acoustics of the Hagia Sophia? Couldn't we just schedule some concerts and recording sessions there? You say we can't? How come?

* * *

Our envoi today has to be that disturbing chorus from the St. John Passion, "Herr, unser Herrscher."


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Nature of Blogging

I've been musing over how this blog gets done lately. There are several different models. One of the most popular and enduring blogs is Instapundit, run by Glenn Reynolds who was one of the earliest bloggers in the wake of 9/11. He used to do it all himself, with dozens of posts every day usually consisting of just a couple of sentences and a link to something interesting. That is still the formula, but now he is assisted by several other bloggers. The blog is, of course, extremely topical.

A contrasting format also dating back to the early days was that of Steven den Beste whose blog USS Clueless was avidly read until he closed it down due to health issues. His blog consisted of long, sometimes very long, essays delving deep into contemporary issues. Another influential blog is that of Ann Althouse who posts a few times a day, sometimes with lengthy analysis of legal or media issues, more often with brief items. There are a zillion bloggers who post more or less infrequently.

The only music blogs I look at are that of Alex Ross and Jessica Duchen. I read Slipped Disc from time to time as it is, like the Drudge Report, a quick and easy summary of the latest news, but neither of them is a blog.

I suppose that my approach is something in between Ann Althouse and Steven den Beste: I tend to just write one post a day (fewer lately!), but it often is of some length. Here is the problem: the purely topical is not too interesting to me as what I consider important is what lies underneath the surface. I like to dig into things and get behind the shallow news of the day. But when you do, it seems as if the same few general themes keep emerging: the declining fortunes of classical music in public culture and the marketplace, the problem of aesthetics or the lack thereof, trends in composition and the classical canon. I think that if you look back, you will see that perhaps the majority of posts end up touching on one or more of these themes.

So the problem is that in some areas, I don't have a lot to add to what I have already said. In the early days it was very easy indeed to find a topic as there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of them. Some days I would write several posts. But as the years went by, I started to run out of easy ideas. This presented the opportunity to take on more extended projects such as my surveys of the Haydn symphonies, the Beethoven piano sonatas and symphonies, the string quartets of Shostakovich, the symphonies of Sibelius and a pretty lengthy series of posts on the concerto form.

This is probably a good direction to take in the future, but the problem lately has been that I have not had quite enough time to do that sort of post. A single post on a piece of music, even if it does not do any close analysis, takes hours and most days I do not have quite enough hours to spare! So I end up doing something less demanding in terms of time.

Assuming I can find the time, I think I will do a series of posts on the Prokofiev piano sonatas, which I think are both sufficiently interesting and sufficiently unusual to be worth the trouble.

But the real point of this post is to appeal to my readers: do you have any ideas of posts that you would like to see? Or larger projects? Composers you would like to hear about? Drop me a comment!

In the meantime, let's listen to the first of Prokofiev's piano sonatas, completed in 1909. The performer is Boris Berman:


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Joy to the World

This is rather an odd Christmas for me, but I suppose, as a mostly non-religious person, all Christmases, and Hanukkahs for that matter, are odd. But I am a deeply embedded member of Western Civilization so I feel the spirit of the season nonetheless.

I used to play concerts with a dear friend who was a flute player (lots of good repertoire for flute and guitar) and a colleague of mine in the university music department. He was from Texas and as a young man he played in the US Air Force band. He once told me that the most terrifying experience he had in those years was when they were on tour and one night had to share a barracks with Marines. Heh! I think he was kidding. But maybe not.

In any case, I wanted to share with you a clip of the US Air Force Band and Choir in a flash-mob style performance at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. They are performing a medley (duodley?) of Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and the traditional Joy to the World:


I want to wish everyone who reads this blog the most peaceful and fulfilling holiday and prosperous and healthy New Year. And I promise to get back to posting more regularly soon!

I have been reading the Psalms lately and I want to leave you with one that Steve Reich chose to set in his Tehillim. This is Psalm 18: 26-27 translated from the Hebrew:

With the merciful You are merciful,
with the upright You are upright.
With the pure You are pure,
and with the perverse You are subtle.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Grammatically Speaking

In keeping with the season:


Music vs "Sound Art"

Roger Scruton, in that essay I linked to in the miscellanea, makes an interesting distinction between musical tones and acoustical sounds. He doesn't actually use the phrase "sound art", which comes from a comment. Here is how he defines the difference:
Sounds are objects in the physical world, albeit objects of a special kind whose nature and identity is bound up with the way they are perceived. Tones are what we hear in sounds when we hear the sounds as music. They have features that no sound can possess – such as movement, gravitational attraction, weight, and position in a one-dimensional space. They exemplify a special kind of organisation – an organisation that we hear and which exists only for someone who can hear it.
This gets at an aspect of the avant-garde in music that tends to perplex many listeners: why is it that it does not sound like "music" but rather like random sounds (and noises)? Scruton explains further:
When we hear tones we are also hearing sounds; but we are hearing in those sounds movement, organisation and gravitational forces in a one-dimensional musical space. That is the fundamental musical experience, the experience that causes us to hear one note as moving on from another, answering another, attracted to or repelled by another. It is what enables us to hear tension and release, beginnings and endings, goals and starting points. It is at the root of the art of music as we have known it, since it is what gives music its fundamental nature as an art of motion, which grips us and takes us with it in a space of its own. We are moved by music because music moves.
The whole point of the partimento method of musical instruction, that all composers up to and including even such modern giants as Prokofiev and Stravinsky studied, was to teach this tonal dynamic: how notes want to resolve, harmonic tensions, beginnings, endings, goals, etc. Oddly, examination of this method has only recently caught the attention of music theorists with two excellent recent books on the subject. Prior to that, music theorists, even those who did not specialize in 20th century music, tended to regard music from a less practical perspective.

Scruton's insight is perhaps the kind of thing that only a philosopher might have. Practical musicians, whether they are performers or composers, tend to regard what they do from a more sensual, less intellectual, perspective. John Cage, who is most certainly a practitioner of "sound art" rather than music, always referred to what he did as music, just a different kind. For him, this applied even to 4'33, his silence piece that is the archetypal example of "sound art".

Let's listen to a performance:


That is, of course, a brilliant piece of "sound art" but not a piece of music as it contains no musical tones. Which corresponds to our common sense perception. But anyone who has set foot in a university music department has had that common sense hammered out of them long ago! One of the absolute best ways to indoctrinate malleable students into the principles of avant-garde modernism is to confront them with 4'33 and bully and browbeat them until they accept it as music. I suspect that it didn't quite "take" in my case because around 1972 or 73 I got into a furious two or three day debate about the piece with a close friend who was not only a very able debater, but one with considerable background in philosophy. He simply rejected all the usual feeble ploys. At the end of that discussion, we could agree that while one might consider 4'33 as an example of "meta-music" it could not be considered a piece of music as such. That discussion lingered in the back of my mind for a long time before I started to undertake serious study of the history and aesthetics of music.

Scruton specifically excludes composers like Edgar Varèse from the concept of "sound art":
Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer and their immediate successors awoke composers and audiences to the many new sounds, some of them produced electronically, that could enter the space of music without destroying its intrinsic order. These experiments are not what I have in mind when referring to the replacement of tones by sounds and musical by acoustical hearing. I am thinking of a more general transition, from Tonkunst to Klangkunst, to use the German expressions – a transition of deep philosophical significance, between two ways of hearing, and two responses to what is heard.
However, what has likely always stood between me and an appreciation of Varèse might be that the way he hears is more in terms of sound art than music. Here is Déserts:


As one commentator says about this clip: "Different styles of music require different ways of listening.  Varese and some others require listening to the spaces between the sounds as well as the sounds themselves." Yes, exactly. But while this might be a wonderful example of sound art, it turns out that I no more like sound art than I do maudlin, hectoring pop music!

The reason that so much avant-garde music sounds as if it escaped from a science fiction film soundtrack is that it is about abstract sounds and textures rather than the human sounding tensions and directions of musical tones.

This makes the job of musical composition in a post-avant-garde environment to be very tricky indeed. As Scruton observes:
Bureaucrats charged with giving support to the arts are, today, frightened of being accused of being reactionary. I suspect that everyone in this room is frightened of being accused of being reactionary. The history of the French salons in the 19th century, and of the early reactions to musical and literary modernism, has made people aware of how easy it is to miss the true creative product, and to exalt the dead and the derivative in its stead. The safest procedure for the anxious bureaucrat is to subsidize music that is difficult, unlikely to be popular, even repugnant to the ordinary musical ear. Then one is sure to be praised for one’s advanced taste and up-to-date understanding. Besides, if a work of music is easy to assimilate and clearly destined to be popular it does not need a subsidy in any case.
There were a few that managed to steer that dangerous course between the Scylla of facile cliché and the Charybdis of "sound art". One was Henri Dutilleux who was contemporary with Pierre Boulez. This is his violin concerto titled L'arbre des songes:



Friday Miscellanea

If the Wall Street Journal won't give us the best classical music of the year, The Guardian will. Here are Andrew Clements' top 10 classical CDs of 2016. I will just quote the first one:
1 Liszt: Transcendental Studies; Paganini Studies, etc / Daniil Trifonov
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Trifonov’s Rachmaninov recording was a highlight of 2015, and his extraordinary account of the Transcendental Studies, one of the greatest challenges in the piano repertoire, surpasses even that. Despite the sustained brilliance of the playing nothing is done for effect; the dazzling technique is entirely used to musical ends. These are the performances of a great musician, not of a showman.
Oddly, I have not heard a single one of his selections.

* * *

An article at the New Yorker reminds me why I used to read it faithfully: How to Be a Stoic:
For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good.
That is pretty much the principle I follow in talking about music: how do we judge what is good? Here is the summing up:
Born nearly two thousand years before Darwin and Freud, Epictetus seems to have anticipated a way out of their prisons. The sense of doom and delight that is programmed into the human body? It can be overridden by the mind. The eternal war between subconscious desires and the demands of civilization? It can be won. In the nineteen-fifties, the American psychotherapist Albert Ellis came up with an early form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, based largely on Epictetus’ claim that “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.” If you practice Stoic philosophy long enough, Epictetus says, you stop being mistaken about what’s good even in your dreams.
Yep. Though I would also recommend Plato and Aristotle.

* * *

Also at the Guardian, is a feature on young recorder virtuoso Lucie Horsch:
Lucie Horsch arrives with a small backpack from which she produces half a dozen recorders of various sizes. Showing the skills of an assembler of Ikea furniture, she puts them together at lightning speed, before giving a demonstration of her art.
Horsch is the latest big thing in recorder playing, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. She is 17, Dutch, gamine – as, it seems, recorder players ideally should be – and has just released a charming disc of Vivaldi concertos, the first recorder player ever to sign to Decca Classics. Recorder playing, sometimes seen as the Cinderella of classical music, is going to be allowed to come to the ball.
I have always had a lot of respect for the recorder as an important instrument due to my friendship with a real recorder virtuoso many years ago. I recall visiting his basement studio once and gazing around with wonder at rack after rack of shelves teeming with recorders I asked, "James, how many recorders do you have?" After a moment's contemplation he replied, "I'm not sure exactly, but I have twelve working altos..." Pepe Romero, when I studied with him, supposedly had, to his wife's despair, around eighty guitars. No wonder he was pursued by up-and-coming luthiers wherever he went! I'm rather the opposite, I have to say. I have had a superb guitar since the mid-80s and rarely feel the need to even play another, let alone purchase one. Still, if I had to, I would probably fly to Australia for one, where they have some outstanding builders.

* * *

 In a remarkably disinterested act, the Donaueschingen Music Festival, a long-time venue for avant-garde modernism, invited one of the foremost critics of such, Roger Scruton, to give a lecture this past October. The Future Symphony Institute is publishing it:
IMPORTANT COMPOSERS, FROM SCHOENBERG AND STRAVINSKY to Ligeti and Stockhausen, have been premiered in this place and before this audience. Along with Darmstadt, Donaueschingen has helped to restore Germany to the central place in European musical culture that it has occupied in the past and will always deserve. Now, in its latest and securest phase as the Musiktage, the Donaueschingen festival has become a symbol of musical modernism, and it is a great honour to be invited to speak from this podium to one of the most educated musical audiences in the world today. But in this short talk I will try to outline why I question the prominence in our musical culture of the experimental avant-garde.
That is the introduction, but I encourage you to read the whole thing. As this is rather a core topic here at the Music Salon, I'm sure I will be putting up a post devoted to the talk.

* * *

 Arthur Kaptainis, Canada's best (and almost only) classical music critic, opines that CDs offer one advantage over streaming: they make great gifts at Christmas. He recommends Danse Macabre, a recording on Decca by Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal:


Apart from the delightfully creepy Danse macabre by Saint-Saëns, there are some interesting novelties as Kaptainis notes in his review, plus the familiar Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky that we will put up as our envoi today. YouTube has an excellent live performance from 2015 by Nagano and the OSM, but sadly, it is just an excerpt.


For the whole piece we turn to Leonard Bernstein:



Monday, December 19, 2016

Musical Moods

A lot of my posts get the all-too-broad tag "aesthetics" because I don't know where else to put them. Like this post!

I read a fascinating essay by Richard Taruskin the other day that was about the origins of the use of the octatonic scale in the music of Franz Liszt (who seems to have discovered it), Rimsky-Korsakoff (who used it quite a lot) and Stravinsky (who used it in interesting structural ways). The essay recounts an interesting debate between Taruskin and some music theorists. He was interested in the history of the usage, but they were, emphatically, NOT! Their focus was purely on the interval structure. I suppose this is the difference between musicology and music theory.

That discussion, somehow, percolated around in my mind for a few days and sparked some distantly related thoughts: what if the most salient thing about music is not the instruments it is played on, or the musical form or the kind of meter or the way it is presented on stage (dancers, light show) or the way the performers are dressed, but simply, the kind of musical mood it presents?

I have talked before about musical moods. I agree with those writers, like Peter Kivy, who say that ordinary garden-variety emotions such as love or hate or anger are not what are presented in instrumental music (though they might be in sung music with a text). No, what we hear in music are uniquely musical moods, some of which might remind us of non-musical moods, events, places or things.

An examination of music from the perspective of musical moods might tell us something about why we find some kinds of music appealing and others not. For example, Mozart has been perennially popular since he was a child in the 1770s, and even more popular today as people have been buying the big new box of Mozart at a great rate. I have read a lot of books on Mozart: some that discuss his music in terms of his psychological makeup, the loss of his mother, his disappointments in love and so on, others that delve into how the music is put together and the organization of the structure. But none of that captures the moods we hear as we listen:


The serene delicacy of that, leading into the piercing, clashing seconds of the harmony is the musical mood. Sure, I know why professional musicians disdain talking about music in this way. I'm sure I have criticized it many times myself! But this kind of language, the language of the moods we hear, is more indicative of how we hear music than talking about F major or secondary dominants or what happened in Mozart's life the week he wrote this.

Individual pieces of music have characteristic moods that are, yes, pretty much impossible to capture with a verbal description:


Actually, "moonlight" is the verbal attempt to capture the mood!

Genres of music also have a kind of generic mood spectrum. Music of the classical era, while offering a great variety, tends to have certain mood-characteristics: it is charming, balanced, has clarity and so on. The traditional Delta blues has a rustic depth of tragic expression (with some humor). Bebop has a kind of urban, sauntering sneer. Polka has a certain stiff energy. And so on. Just my tossed-off miniature descriptions. These are of no use to a musical scholar as they lack any sort of detail. But they may capture some of why we like this, don't like that. A lot of marketing uses and manipulates musical moods to suggest what is cool or not cool.

That leads me to propose a musical distinction between generic musical moods and highly specific ones. The generic ones are very useful in the commercial use of music. For a blue jeans ad you want something that tells that listener that if you buy these jeans you will be in with the cool people.


Now that is, of course, a generic re-creation of some of the moods of the Beatles' music who were, in 1974 when the ad came out, the coolest of the cool. Let's compare it to the original model:


I could have picked other songs from around that time, as the jeans ad is a pastiche of different stylistic elements.

The distinction is between a utilitarian use of certain musical elements to create a useful generic mood as opposed to a musical composition that has a unique musical coherence and focused expression. Let's take another couple of examples. First, the generic:


And the more focussed expression:


As you can, I hope, hear, the distinction is not an invidious one between classical music and the other stuff, but a distinction that can be applied within any musical style or genre. There is undistinguished, generic Baroque music just as there is undistinguished, generic pop music. Possibly more of the latter as it is more useful, commercially.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Creation of Musical Taste

I have said many times that the contributions of the commentators to this site are invaluable. This is especially the case when they disagree with me! A case in point is a comment left by an anonymous commentator on yesterday's post: When the Best Music of the Year Isn't. The part of the comment that I want to mention was this paragraph:
Also, considering that the vast majority of the West no longer cares for classical music outside of a niche and popular music has long since won out among the ordinary masses, for you to paint this as an “progressive bubble” media versus ordinary people reverses the actual state of things. If newspapers started giving classical music more attention rather than less, most ordinary people would complain about the media serving elitist interests. I love classical music myself, it’s why I follow this blog, but the battle for cultural supremacy has been lost, and its your pop-listening neighbours, friends, and family on the other side of the lines, not faraway "progressives".
To which I replied:
I'm glad you are pushing back on my analysis, though. But I think that what the reality is, is likely different from either my view, which is, frankly, speculative, and from your depiction which is the more conventional wisdom. Who is right? Perhaps neither of us. But I have seen so much distortion of the truth in the mass media over recent years, that I think it is prudent to question it.
Perhaps we are dealing with a phenomenon similar to "preference falsification" where people tend to go with the flow, except for, as you say, a tiny minority. Perhaps popular music looms so large because a small, not a vast, majority pushes for it to be heard in public places. I don't know. But I certainly don't trust the mass media view.
As to cultural supremacy, well that is the question! That is a pretty loaded phrase, but I like it. If it were a fair contest between Beyoncé and Bach? Hmmmm...
This raises some interesting further thoughts that I would like to explore. And yes, by all means, comment!

We have to step back a bit, I think, and look at the history of cultural trends over the last several decades. In an essay in his recent collection, Richard Taruskin quotes from an essay by Rousseau on how Poland could resist being absorbed into Russia:
National institutions: This is what gives form to the genius, the character, the tastes, and the customs of a people, what causes it to be itself rather than some other people; founded upon habits of mind impossible to uproot...
Taruskin describes this as the "seed of modern Romantic nationalism" but it is rather more than that. After all, the analysis would be the same whatever distinctive social group we are describing: the ancient Greeks or pre-Columbian Aztecs. It is the idea of national institutions that cultivate the particular character, tastes, customs and habits of mind that is perhaps new. We owe to the French Revolution the idea of a nation promoting a particular set of characteristics in its population. We owe to people like Antonio Gramsci the idea of a subversive movement within a society promoting a new set of characteristics to overthrow the cultural hegemony of the older culture.

This is only part of the picture, though, as we can see in the history of music in the 20th century. The 18th century in music is largely a history of the tastes of the aristocracy and their ascendence over the tastes of the Church. The 19th century was a complex tapestry of elements: there was the vast influence of 18th century music, especially by composers like Mozart and Beethoven, but there was also a new kind of music, such as that composed by Schubert, that explored the psychology and inwardness of the emerging middle class. There is a huge amount of research still needing to be done in this area. Other important currents were realismo or verismo in art and opera and nationalism.

In the 20th century the situation became still more complex as added to all the above qualities (all of which continued in the 20th century) were others which included avant-garde movements that were intent on wiping the slate clean of all tradition and influence. The trend of the de-priviledging of the tastes of the aristocracy in favor of those of the middle class continued as the tastes of the lower classes, marginalized and "ordinary" people came to the fore in the vast upwelling of popular music. Though this began early in the century with ragtime, blues, and dixieland jazz, it only became culturally predominant after the Second World War when figures like Elvis Presley and the Beatles began selling records and attracting audiences far greater than any classical musician.

I think there is actually a complex of things going on of which not the least is the great energy and spirit of popular music. Just look how powerful the expressivity of the blues has shown itself to be. The Rolling Stones' newest release is a demonstration:


But along with the purely aesthetic elements are also social and economic ones. One mechanism whose effect is often under-rated is that of the shaping of taste through mass media. As pop music came more and more to dominate the airwaves, it tended to crowd out everything but the most mainstream genres. Pushed to the sidelines were ethnic genres like polka, complex stylistic ones like jazz and ones tainted with privilege like opera and classical music. These mass network effects feed on themselves: as fewer people are exposed to classical music because it has been crowded out, fewer take music lessons, fewer buy CDs and fewer attend concerts.

This is an on-going process. It is really only in the last few decades that classical music has started to lose its grip on higher education. Popular music and jazz are studied not only in specialist music schools like Berklee, but in most university music departments. But classical music is rather tenacious. People, and in vast numbers, still go to symphony, opera and even chamber music concerts, though they sure don't buy as many CDs as they used to. What is often over-looked is that pop music sells a lot fewer CDs as well these days. What we need is a really accurate accounting of how much classical music is streamed versus other kinds of music. It might also be worth noting that, according to Billboard, the biggest selling CD of 2016 is the big box of Mozart, 200 CDs released on the 225th anniversary of his death.

Two other things that are misunderstood or underestimated are the fundamental differences between classical music and other kinds of music. If you only understand classical music as an economically tiny niche in the vast goliath of pop, then you are missing a lot about the aesthetic and historic aspects. Bach is deeply rooted in Western Civilization in ways that Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or even the Beatles will never be, no matter how powerful their current appeal is. The other thing is that trends shift and the perennial truths of aesthetics never entirely go away. We are not condemned for the rest of eternity to the ubiquitous presence of the drum machine backbeat.

The other day I played some music for an acquaintance. First a Prokofiev piano sonata (No. 6 first movement) just to break the ice. Then some Rameau in the stunning performances of Grigory Sokolov and finally Steve Reich, all of Music for 18 Musicians. This person had no previous significant exposure to classical music. She just loved the Steve Reich. What is happening in that music, as Reich himself has mentioned, is that he is managing to bridge the gulf between where pop music is and where classical music is.

I think that in all places and times there is pop music, the music of everyday in easily absorbable styles, and there is what we call "classical" music these days, which is the music of transcendence and contemplation. These two basic approaches are constantly fertilizing one another. The rude energy of popular music is often sublated into classical music as we see in Beethoven's marches, Haydn's minuets in gypsy style and in the rhythmic foundation of Steve Reich's music. Influence can flow the other way as well, as we see in those 60s and 70s experiments with concertos for rock band and orchestra and in the many crossover acts of today.

The situation where pop music has dominated to the extent that it nearly exterminates classical music from the public space is a badly distorted one. I have no doubt that the pendulum will swing back to the historic norm which is one where each kind of music has its own important role to play.

This is Steve Reich's The Desert Music:


Saturday, December 17, 2016

When the Best Music of the Year Isn't

As we have noted before, these are not the best of times for classical music. Mind you, there are some things that are great: lots of wonderful musicians, some great composers and a never-ending stream of great recordings re-released at bargain prices. I'm just coming to the end of the eighteen CDs contained in this collection:


But if we look at the fortunes of classical music in public spaces, they are dismal indeed. Take the Wall Street Journal's end of year stories on art and culture. This is what they offer for The Best Music of 2016:
In rock and pop the year 2016 is defined for now by the loss of David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, George Martin, Prince and Maurice White, among other exemplars of modern music. To help assuage the grief, there seems an almost endless supply of musicians who enrich, inspire and entertain; in 2016, as in recent years past, there were too many good recordings to access and comprehend. I’ve listened to all or part of about 1,300 albums this year, and what follows are capsule summaries of the best of what I’ve savored.
The writer, Jim Fusilli, is "the Journal’s rock and pop music critic." And he doesn't pretend to be anything else. But the editors place his article on the best pop and rock of the year as the best music of the year. And no, there is not a companion article on classical music. As far as the WSJ is concerned, classical music doesn't exist (despite their employing other people to write about it). Taking a glance at the New York Times, they don't seem to have end of year tributes up yet. But in past years they have commemorated the deaths of any kind of musician (the drummer for Spirit?) as long as they were not classical musicians! Even Alex Ross complained about it.

There has just occurred a significant upheaval in the world of politics demonstrating that the mass media, far from having their finger on the pulse of the world, are actually closed off in their own "progressive" bubble. There is a concerted and widespread policy to suppress all news that does not support The Narrative. That bubble seems to be starting to pop. We can only hope that some of the same thing happens in cultural news.

Hundreds of thousands of people attend classical music concerts, millions more buy or stream classical recordings. Everywhere there are music schools with dutiful students and cranky teachers. As a result there are possibly more classical musicians playing today than ever before in human history. But as far as the mass media are concerned We Don't Exist. Being made invisible in the public space is something of a crime against humanity, wouldn't you say?

Edward Gardner leads the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and the CBSO Youth Chorus in a performance of Gustav Holst's The Planets:


Friday, December 16, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas... And with the season comes the seasonal music. Oddly, an awful lot of Christmas music was actually written by Jewish composers. This survey comes from Tabletmag:
As Michael Feinstein recently reminded us in the New York Times, Jews wrote lots—most—of the great American Christmas songs. David Lehman, author of A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, from Nextbook Press, says that this Christmas phenomenon is just one example of his larger point: that the story of American popular music is massively a Jewish story. Tablet Magazine asked Lehman to list his 10 favorite Christmas songs written by Jews. His only regret? “I really wish that ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ was by Jews,” he says. “That would definitely be in the top five.”
* * *

I am often critical of the Globe and Mail, but occasionally they have something good. Or semi-good! Russell Smith has an essay about P. G. Wodehouse up that is refreshingly free of the usual conventional drivel:
There are fashions in these things. Right now, it seems a far greater sin in an artist to be a misogynist than to be a Nazi. It is known that T.S. Eliot’s conservatism veered toward the scary, but not widely known that he was cruel to his first wife; she suffered from a mental illness and once she was committed to an institution he never visited her. I suspect that this knowledge would do more to have him removed from university reading lists than his vile politics could. Being mean to his wife may finally make him worthless as a poet.
Many educated people want to boycott Woody Allen because of an accusation of rape, and I couldn’t get my sensitive friends to go see a Roman Polanski film with me if I paid them, but a clever Ezra Pound quote doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Indeed, it makes one seem more sensitive to know Ezra Pound.
The fashions are complicated. It is by no means clear how stringent a good moralist must be when it comes to refusing the art of flawed people. Michael Jackson is a puzzling example. I have not once heard a call for a boycott of Jackson’s music, despite the allegations that he was a serial child sex abuser. Indeed, the kind of person calling for the repudiation of Annie Hall tends to be exactly the kind of person claiming Thriller as the apotheosis of art. Michael Jackson is simply cooler.
This is rather an interesting brief glance at the issue of the moral orientation of artists and whether it should affect how we view their work. I spent a great deal of my youth reading T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, both their poetry and their literary criticism, and I don't think I was adversely affected by the things Smith mentions. If Eliot was an anti-Semite it certainly didn't make me one and Pound's loony economics was something easily ignored. It really doesn't diminish their aesthetic quality in any fundamental way. Though I do recall reading with amusement a little blurb on the back cover of an edition of the transcripts of Pound's radio broadcasts for Fascist Italy. There were actually two quotes, one from Eliot opining that Pound was the most influential poet of the 20th century and one from Robert Graves suggesting that they should have hung Pound for his treason. I wouldn't want to boycott Woody Allen, but when I watch movies of his like Match Point, where through sheer luck a man gets away, literally, with murder, I am pretty sure that the movie is morally bankrupt. As for Michael Jackson, while I can appreciate some of his music (and dislike the rest), it doesn't have much to do with his sexual proclivities. By the way, you have to read the comments to the Smith essay as each of them corrects, with some asperity, egregious errors in the essay. Don't you love the fact that many online newspapers allow comments?

* * *

Over at Slipped Disc we find yet another reason to dislike the New York Times. The slick emptiness of their reply to a reader complaint about reduced classical coverage is really a masterpiece of its genre:
Thank you for reaching out, and thank you for your feedback. I understand your frustration with the changes we’re making, but they’re necessary to keeping up with the current, fast-paced arts climate.
The redesign of the daily arts and Weekend sections reflects an investment in arts coverage and a commitment to giving readers the best experience possible on all platforms, especially print.
The changes have all been made with the goal of being a more engaging and useful resource for readers, who are confronted with more information and options than ever before. Being more intentional in our coverage, and delivering stories and reviews with the visual emphasis they deserve enhances engagement and tells readers that what they are reading matters.
Thank you for being a valued subscriber.
Kristen Stanley,
Customer Care Advocate
The New York Times
I think the nastiest phrase there is "Customer Care Advocate". 

* * *

On the topic of composers and alcohol, The Spectator has an entertaining essay:
The list of heavy-drinking composers is worthy of Monty Python’s ‘Philosophers’ Song’. It includes Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. There are no reports of Bach getting drunk — but during a fortnight’s trip to Halle in 1713 his beer bill came to 18 grossen, which suggests that he got through eight gallons of the stuff (plus lashings of brandy). Berlioz and Wagner preferred opium, and it’s not fanciful to suggest that you can hear it in the Symphonie Fantastique and Tristan.
I suspect the main reason you can’t hear ‘the drink talking’ in the output of heavy-drinking composers is that it’s easy to talk, write and even play an instrument (badly) when you’re plastered — but difficult to engage in the quasi-mathematical activity of composing. You’re more likely just to give up. Sibelius wrote nothing of consequence in the last 30 years of his life, worn out by years of drinking that was heroic even by Finnish standards.
Yes, in my experience, Finns really do take an heroic approach. I had to carry home a Finnish guitarist friend of mine after he over-indulged on one occasion and when I went out for a drink with his diplomat father, I discovered that "going out for a drink" meant having a drink in every bar in town!

* * *

Alex Ross and I have both been reading Richard Taruskin's latest collection of essays that I blogged about here. Ross talks about one interesting essay on exiled Russian composer Arthur Lourié in a blog post where he posts a clip of Lourié's masterwork Concerto Spirituale, which may be his masterwork (and an influence on Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms). Sorry about the quality!



* * *

Anne Midgette, writing for the Washington Post, keeps showing why she is among the most thoughtful writers on classical music:
Yet the idea that music can convey something literal, and that conveying it will make the resulting piece more “accessible,” is widespread, and pernicious. Hence we have NSO performances of works based on Shakespeare interspersed with actors giving earnest Shakespeare readings, or slides projected on screens above the stage. You might as well show pictures of cuckoos and a thunderstorm during Beethoven’s “Pastoral.” Inspiration, be it taken from another work of art or from nature, is a lot more ephemeral than such literal renderings suggest.
* * *

Musical Toronto has an item about the oldest surviving piano, one built by the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Christofori. Have a listen:


* * *

 For our envoi today, a composer mentioned in Midgette's piece: Enrique Granados. This is John Williams playing his brilliant transcription of the Vals Poeticos:


Monday, December 12, 2016

One More Left Hand Exercise

Now I know that you all rushed to try out my exercises yesterday, right? I hope you didn't sprain anything! After I posted the exercises I realized that I left out an important preliminary one. Before the exercise with two fingers swapping strings (originally from Abel Carlevaro), you need to warm up with a similar exercise with three fixed fingers and one finger moving. That gets you ready for the harder ones. Here is how it looks:

Click to enlarge
The first measure shows which fingers you fix. I have shown it in fifth position, but you can do it anywhere. Fix three fingers on the third string without playing them and leave them while you move the remaining finger, playing the eighth notes. Starting with the first finger, you jump from the fourth string to the second, the fifth to the second and the sixth to the first, then return. Play slowly and cleanly. Do this with each finger in turn, as shown. This is the necessary preparation for the exercises with two fixed and two moving fingers.

As an envoi, let's have another Villa-Lobos study. This is the Etude No. 5, which has some interesting left hand challenges. This is Andrea Dieci again with a very fine performance:


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Two Left-Hand Exercises

I haven't done any posts on guitar technique for a long time. There are a couple of good exercises for the left hand that classical guitarists might find useful.

Every time I watch a pianist play, after I am impressed and astonished at their virtuosity, I secretly think to myself how much easier their job is. On keyboard instruments a lot of what is needed to produce each note is automated. Every time you strike a key, an internal mechanism goes to work with a hammer (in the case of the piano) striking a string at just the right angle and, as soon as the key is released, a damping mechanism stops the sound. How very cool!

Things are more complicated for guitarists. Instead of each hand being able to produce notes independently, both hands are needed for most notes. The left hand most commonly is needed to stop each note on a fret while the right hand plucks the string. What this means is that usually we are limited to four notes at a time as there are four available fingers on the left hand (the thumb is behind the neck for stability) and four on the right hand (the little finger is rarely used to pluck). But, you will say with surprise, we often hear a lot more notes on the guitar? Yes, there are a couple of techniques that enable all six strings to be played at once: they may be strummed, passing quickly across all six, and the left hand index finger can be laid across all six strings at once. This, along with the other fingers, enables the use of six-note chords.

But the bottom line is, in order to reproduce some of the complex textures we find on the piano, each hand has to do the job on guitar, whereas on the keyboard, the task can be split up between the two hands. This being so, there are all kinds of textures that the piano can create that the guitar cannot. Still, three, four, even rarely five, independent voices can be played on the guitar--with a lot of restrictions, of course. For one of my graduating recitals I played a piece by Valentin Bakfark, a Hungarian lutenist notorious for articulating four, five and once even a six-voice structure. I couldn't find the one I was looking for, but here is a clip of three of Bakfark's transcriptions of polyphony for multiple voices:


So, just to clarify, whereas on the piano you can play a four-voice texture by dividing it between the two hands so each hand is responsible for two voices, but on the guitar, each hand has to play all four voices.

This being the case, guitarists have to develop a lot of independence in each hand.

The first exercise is from  the "Cuadernos" of Abel Carlevaro, perhaps the most gifted modern guitar pedagogue. I attended a guitar festival in Toronto many years ago where he gave master classes and a concert. The concert, which included the Sonata by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, was an excellent demonstration of real technical command. In the master classes, after the student played, he would begin each commentary by saying: "hay dos problemas: el mano derecho y el mano izquierda!" ("There are two problems: the right hand and the left hand.")

This exercise involves "fixing" one or more fingers while moving the others. This method is one of the very best for developing finger independence. I show it on the fifth fret, but it can be done anywhere on the fingerboard. You will notice a half note at the beginning. This note is stopped by the first finger on the fifth fret of the third string. You can sound it or not, but if you don't sound it, make sure that the note is cleanly held. Then the other fingers simply play the pattern 4342 across the whole fingerboard. I only show it going up to the first string, but you should go up and back:

Click to enlarge
Then you simply go on to fix each of the fingers in succession, while playing the same pattern with the remaining fingers. With the other three fingers, you have to skip the third string. This shows the pattern with the second finger fixed:

Click to enlarge
UPDATE: oops, I indicated the wrong fingering above. With the second finger fixed, the fingering for the eighth notes is 4341!

Then you just go on and fix three and then four while playing the pattern with the remaining fingers.

Carlevaro adds a couple more difficult versions. Next you fix two fingers and play a different pattern with the other two. Here it is with one and two fixed while playing three and four:

Click to enlarge
I have put the fixed fingers in a separate measure for clarity. So you start by fixing your first and second fingers on the third string (in fifth position, as before, though you can do this any where). Then you play the fourth finger on the second string and the third finger on the fourth string simultaneously. Then the third and fourth fingers leap, trading strings and the next pair of notes have the fourth finger on the fourth string and the third finger on the second string. This repeats then you simply expand the pattern to the second and fifth strings and then the first and sixth strings--that one is quite difficult. It is very important to do this very slowly and carefully so that the fingers can find the right strings cleanly.

I'm not going to write the rest out, but you follow this by fixing the second and third fingers, while playing with the first and fourth, then fixing the third and fourth while playing the first and second. Then you fix the non-adjacent fingers: fix one and four while playing two and three, fix one and three while playing two and four and fix two and four while playing one and three. Did I miss any?

I haven't actually looked at Carlevaro's book for about twenty years (I lost a lot of my library because of an Evil Moving Company) so he may notate it differently.

Now for my left hand exercise. When I was playing a lot of Baroque music I felt the need to improve my trill technique so I invented this exercise: trills with each pair of fingers while holding a bass note.  As the exercise is for cadential trills, they all start on the upper note:

Click to enlarge
You start by fixing the first finger on the sixth string, again in fifth position. Then you do slow, measured slurs with your fourth and second fingers on the fifth string. Do a full measure in 4/4 of sixteenth notes. Then just move this pattern across the strings as indicated, going up to the first string and returning to the fifth. Then do the same pattern but this time with the third finger slurring to the second, each on their fret. Finally, repeat the pattern using the fourth and third fingers. Then do it all over again, but with the second finger fixed on the sixth string and doing the slurs with the first, third and fourth fingers. These two groups of patterns cover most of the typical situations, but if you really want a workout, do the same fixing the third and fourth fingers! Very difficult.

Those two exercises should give you a lot of independence in the left hand. There is a very appropriate study by Villa-Lobos that you might also try: the Etude No. 10. Here is a performance by Andrea Dieci:


Friday, December 9, 2016

Friday Miscellanea

Here is the kind of advertising you just don't see any more:


Though, oddly, you might see something similar in the promotional materials for an up-and-coming young artist. I think that what puts this beyond the pale is probably the product--who smokes any more?

* * *

Here is a serious piece by Anne Midgette from the Washington Post about the very unproductive commissioning program at the Met:
If you start handing out $50,000 commissions to major artists, there’s not a lot of excuse for coming up almost completely empty-handed at the end of a decade. Muhly’s “Two Boys,” which began under the program’s auspices, made it to the Met’s main stage; everything else was either rejected (like Rufus Wainwright’s “Prima Donna”), fell through, or simply withered on the vine, and no new blood has been added to the pipeline for years.
* * *

The New York Times has a review of three concerts of music with overt political themes.  
But surely the advantage that artists have over bureaucrats is precisely the freedom to make the unheard audible and to conjure the unimaginable. “A Gun Show” almost coquettishly advertises its underlying uncertainties and flirts with its own impotence. It’s unlikely that victims of gun violence will draw solace from it, or that grass-roots members of the National Rifle Association will come out of it reconciled with the idea of tighter controls.
The article doesn't quite manage to put its finger on the problem, so let me help. Artists are almost uniformly political progressives and the recent election demonstrated quite clearly that people are very sick and tired of being preached at by those who consider themselves morally superior. As a matter of fact, they are not morally superior and this kind of sanctimonious artwork is simply bad political propaganda. Best if they stuck to, you know, music.

* * *

The Guardian has got some of the finest performers of today to pick out some of their favorite pieces by Mozart on the occasion of the release of a new complete Mozart, released on the 225th anniversary of his death.

* * *

The Wall Street Journal reviews the new complete Mozart box--even more complete than the last complete box with 200 CDs and two books.


* * *

I guess we knew this was coming: Alex Ross weighs in on Donald Trump in a piece at the New Yorker: The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming:
With the election of Donald Trump, the latent threat of American authoritarianism is on the verge of being realized, its characteristics already mapped by latter-day sociologists who have updated Adorno’s “F-scale” for fascist tendencies. To read “Prophets of Deceit” is to see clear anticipations of Trump’s bigoted harangues.
And:
However the Trump Presidency turns out—whether it veers toward autocracy, devolves into kleptocracy, or takes some unheard-of new form—America has, for the time being, abdicated the role of the world’s moral leader, to the extent that it ever played that part convincingly. “Make America Great Again” is one of Trump’s many linguistic contortions: in fact, one of his core messages is that America should no longer bother with being great, that it should retreat from international commitments, that it should make itself small and mean.
This reminds me of the old joke about the perennial New York Times headline: "Republicans: Threat or Menace?" I may have to do a whole post on this piece. As usual, Alex Ross is trapped within his Upper West Side echo chamber where Certain Truths Are Just Self-Evident.

Let me just re-iterate my policy on politics on this blog: it is to avoid politics entirely except as it intersects in an interesting way with music. One way to approach it is as Richard Taruskin does in an essay I was just reading. He examines in considerable detail the phenomenon of "Russia Abroad", the cultural currents of the diaspora of Russian artists and intellectuals after the Revolution of 1917. The influence on composers like Stravinsky, who separated himself from the Russian traditions to become an internationalist, Prokofiev, who returned to the Soviet Union in hopes of greater public acceptance of his music and Shostakovich who lived much of his career in the shadow of Stalinist oppression, was significant.

The problem with Alex Ross' take is that, instead of researching the complex details in an objective way, he just regurgitates the standard clichés. That Trump's rallies were nothing but "bigoted harangues" is received wisdom by people, like those who read the New Yorker, who have never attended one. I avoid political speeches like the plague, but I forced myself to watch parts of a couple of Trump's speeches and I heard nothing even faintly resembling a bigoted harangue. What I heard were promises to "drain the swamp" in Washington, which, in conjunction with a look at his appointments so far, looks as if there will be considerably less oppressive authoritarianism in the US since where it comes from is, overwhelmingly, federal bureaucrats and their myriad micro-oppressions in the form of constantly increasing regulations. Everything he accuses Trump of has been the standard operating procedure of federal administrations for a very long time. If we look at how the stock market has reacted, it seems as if the election of Donald Trump is very good news indeed.

One other element of my policy re politics is to push back against errant nonsense, which is what Ross' take is.

* * *

Now let's have a really great envoi for today. I've been listening to a lot of Sviatoslav Richter lately, specifically the six concerts he gave at Carnegie Hall over the course of a couple of weeks in the fall of 1960. In the middle of the Cold War, no less. Here is a concert he gave in Leipzig in November of 1963. The first half is three late Beethoven piano sonatas! Honestly, other than Grigory Sokolov or Igor Levit, who plays programs like that these days?


Monday, December 5, 2016

The Diversity Racket

I really wish I didn't have to write posts like this, but if we want to keep music free from politics, then we have to do some pushing back from time to time. I just discovered a website in the UK titled "Arts Professional" that is a focal point for exactly what needs to be resisted. Here is a typical piece: Arts diversity: The quota conversation:
Quotas in the arts failed in the 1980s. But now is the time to champion their reintroduction, across workforce and artistic programming, argues Christy Romer in the fifth in a series of articles.
The thing to remember is that these people never give up. No matter how wrong-headed their policies and principles are, they just keep pushing them until they win. It's a bit like the referenda on joining the European Union: if a nation votes no, they will just keep holding new referenda until they vote yes.

Part of the methodology is to assume the conclusion: diversity must be good because diversity must be good. This is the logical error that used to be known as "begging the question." Let's read how this is presented:
The BBC has quotas on gender, disability, ethnicity and sexuality. Ofcom has quotas for regional output and subtitling. Should arts organisations implement all of the above, including an older person quota and a class quota? Should they be allowed to choose a number of quotas which are most relevant to their region and output? How should they overhaul a workforce to fulfil a quota within a certain timeframe?
I searched the article for an argument stating exactly why quotas were necessary, but all I found was, over and over, statements that quotas are necessary because the "workforce" is not diverse enough. In none of these kinds of articles are attempts made to examine the priorities and goals in any more depth than simply to state the principle that people working in the arts have to reflect the same kind of diversity found in the population as a whole--and they won't even state that principle clearly. The hilarious irony is that the constant cry is for "color-blind casting" but that is precisely what they don't want: what they do want is ethnic quotas!

The thing is that the progressive political wing has an agenda that they never argue for with much clarity, but instead simply assume. Why? Because it is pragmatically useful. Everything they do has the ultimate end of giving more and more power to political actors to control society down to the microscopic level:
In the Theatre Royal’s production of Sherlock Holmes, Cruden said that 36% of the women met and offered jobs were BME, and 18% were disabled. For the men, this was 41% BME and 6% disabled. He added that the final cast included 17% BME and disabled actors, and that the theatre had “quite comfortably” achieved a target of gender-balancing the team on and off stage.
"BME" stands for "black and minority ethnic." This prompts a whole series of questions: do these percentages reflect the actual makeup of society in the nation as a whole? In the urban region? Why should the cast of a theater production of Sherlock Holmes mirror the ethnic makeup of society? Was this ever democratically decided? And speaking of the ethnic makeup of society, was it not the case that the Tony Blair government embarked on a years-long strategy of upping the intake of "BME" immigration to the UK with the specific purpose of making a permanent change in the ethnic makeup of UK society--and did so secretly with no attempt to discern the preferences of the citizens?

Why is it that these kinds of quotas are only applied in areas that are perceived to be desirable, prestige jobs like the arts? If the proportion of BME members in a geographic area receiving social assistance is very high, why are there no attempts made to ensure that a proportionate number of white citizens are included?

It is deeply ironic that the failure of previous attempts at setting quotas in the arts are attributed to "unconscious bias." Viz:
The worry for many is that letting arts organisations set their own diversity targets will simply lead to pledges and good intentions which fail to grapple with unconscious bias. In short, it’ll lead to the failures witnessed in the 1980s.
Given the constant drumbeat of articles like this one, how could anyone with a pulse possibly retain any unconscious bias?

Let us be clear about what is going on here: the agenda of all left-wing organizations is the same: to achieve the maximum possible political control of society. An extremely effective means of doing so is the manipulation of public opinion through identity politics. The argument is always that we are fighting for justice on your behalf. But the "you" is never the nation as a whole, but always some identity group: women, visible minorities (but rarely Chinese or Jewish), people of varying sexual orientation and so on. The categories get smaller and smaller. The crucial lever to achieve acquiescence is the notion of oppression: your group is being oppressed. The oppressors always seem to be middle-aged white males, preferably Christian!

Now, to any objective observer, are middle-aged white Christian males actually and actively oppressing minority groups? They are really not, though this is the perennial bogey man.
"TV is still not very diverse. There might be more noise than in the arts, but I don’t think it’s any more diverse – especially not off screen. The gatekeepers are still overwhelmingly white and male. There have been schemes to place more diverse commissioners in the industry, but they’re normally in assistant positions on short term contracts. There’s a limit to what can be achieved.”
Identity politics assumes a number of logically absurd and fundamentally insulting ideas: members of any sub-group in society always act in the interests of their sub-group, never from higher motives, any member of a sub-group who does not act in the interests exclusively of that group or holds ideas that are not the (assumed) norm for that group is a traitor to his sub-group, and so on. This is why the narrative in the mass media always covers up any divergence from these notions. A black Supreme Court justice who is conservative is simply an anomaly and must be ignored. A black policeman who shoots a white suspect is another anomaly.

You ARE your group identity, nothing more nothing less. This is why so-called "cultural appropriation" is the new bad: a white man cannot play a black role, nor a non-Asian an Asian and so on. The fact that all the female roles in Shakespeare were, in his time, played by boys, is just one of those weird historical things that are best ignored. For the Greater Good.

What is wrong with all this was stated by a US justice a long time ago: if you want to stop discriminating on the basis of race, then stop discriminating on the basis of race. All of these plans for quotas are simply another form of racism. One final example from another article at the site:
Tired of seeing classical music magazines filled with middle-aged white faces, James Fleury proposes four ‘mental makeovers’ that could help increase diversity in the sector. 
 Could the racism be any clearer?

It is hard to find a suitable envoi for this post, so I will simply choose a piece of music based solely on aesthetic quality. From the 2000 Salzburg Festival this is Stravinsky's The Firebird with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev:


UPDATE: Because this is such a polarizing topic, I just wanted to add some practical reasons why I oppose the whole "quota/diversity" approach. For a few decades now it has been the standard practice with a lot of orchestras to hold auditions with the candidates playing behind a screen. This is to prevent any kind of favoritism whatsoever. In the past, a candidate might have been favored because they were the cousin or brother-in-law of the conductor, or someone's friend, but auditioning behind the screen means that the ONLY criteria available to the auditors to judge the candidate was the playing. This also prevents candidates being favored because they are of a particular gender or visible minority. The guiding principle of orchestral auditions is the technical proficiency and aesthetic quality of the playing AND NOTHING ELSE. This is as it should be. All policies advocating quotas go directly against this, which is why I am against them.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Richard Taruskin: Russian Music at Home and Abroad

This book is a new collection of essays on Russian music by the leading musicologist. Taruskin is the author of the five-volume Oxford History of Western Music and has probably forgotten more about music than the rest of us ever knew. He is sometimes accused of being confrontational, but my sense is that he just doesn't have a lot of patience with idiotic points of view.

In an environment where a great deal of silliness is becoming more and more ensconced, Taruskin displays a very clear understanding of what the real job of musicology is: to unearth and understand the facts. Of the three transcendental values of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, a musicologist, or any scholar, has allegiance to only one: the True. How refreshing to hear someone simply state that.

I am a long way from finishing the volume, but as it consists of separate essays, I thought it would be good to talk about a couple of the earlier ones. The title "Suicide Notes, Faked Memoirs, Toasts to Killers" is a particularly characteristic one. The references are to controversies involving three Russian composers, Tchaikovsky (whose name Taruskin insists on spelling Chaikovsky--probably a more correct transliteration, but it still looks wrong to me), Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The controversies are respectively, Tchaikovsky's death and sexual orientation, the book Testimony purporting to be Shostakovich's memoirs as told to Solomon Volkov and the propriety of performing music by Prokofiev written in praise of Stalin.

The bottom line: Tchaikovsky was indeed homosexual and the evidence is clear from many of his and other's correspondence once it had been rescued from Soviet and other censorship, but there is no reason to believe he was so tormented by it that he committed suicide. The book by Volkov is an obvious fraud and has been shown to be so quite decisively. Finally, if you are going to have the poor taste to perform sycophantic tributes to the mass-murderer Joseph Stalin, at least have the courage to translate the text so the audience can be aware. Taruskin spends quite a lot of time excoriating those who present the discredited narratives and sometimes it can seem a bit like an intramural squabble. Still, musicology is about the details and he certainly has lots to share.

Taruskin also takes the time to torpedo another absurd claim, this time by Robert Craft, Stravinsky's long time associate and ghost writer. At a conference towards the end of his, Craft's, life, he tries to claim that around the time of the Rite of Spring and Petrouchka, Stravinsky was bisexual and enjoying romps with other men including Ravel! No-one left alive to dispute this, of course, but Taruskin examines the extremely sparse evidence and concludes: not a chance. While we are on the topic, he also alludes to the definitive dismissal of the idea that Franz Schubert was also homosexual.

One essay is on the topic of "nationalist" versus "non-nationalist" Russian composers and, frankly, I never quite get what the fuss is all about. Being a nationalist Russian composer, or classified as such, means that you are consigned to a special musicological ghetto? Ok. Am I just an "essentialist" for having the sense that Russian music has some distinctive qualities? Taruskin gets so far in the weeds of Russian history that I tend to forget what the point was. He seems to think that excessive attention to Russian composers as Russian nationalists is a kind of dispensable identity politics and in that case, I suppose I agree.

His discussion of Russian opera and its 18th century predecessors is fascinating however.

It is often the breadth of Taruskin's scholarship that attracts. In discussing Russian opera he outlines the three categories of Russian historical thought:

  1. dynastic history as established by Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin, official historiographer appointed by Alexander I
  2. neo-Hegelian statism represented by Sergey Solovyov, rigorously teleological in its praise of the centralized state
  3. a "populist" school, short-lived, whose exponent was Nikolai Kostomarov
I love that he knows all about these guys. If we were to apply these varying historiographical schools to current American politics then we would have the dynastic view represented by both the Clinton and the Bush dynasties, the centralized statism by Barack Obama and the populist school represented by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Heh!

As with most of Taruskin's writing I find 95% of it both intriguing and convincing. But there is always that 5% that I am skeptical about. In an earlier collection it was the claim that the whole foundation of the Early Music Movement's approach to performance practice was based on the taste for terrace dynamics and brisk, mechanical tempi by modernist composers like Stravinsky. Not among lutenists it wasn't! And I doubt the whole concept.

In this book the claim that caught my attention was that the direction musicology ought to be going (and is in fact going) is away from understanding great composers as individual geniuses and towards  understanding them in terms of the social context and what they were doing in relation to everyone else. Perhaps this is a productive direction for musicologists from a career point of view, but that is likely because they keep running up against the brick wall of individual genius which is why we listen to those great composers and tend to avoid the far more numerous dullards and frauds.

I'm sure that my progress through the book will produce more posts. In the meantime, let's listen to something Russian. This is Evgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Symphony in a 1957 recording of the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky: