Friday, February 10, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Alex Ross has finally unleashed the piece on art and politics that he has been wanting to since the election of Donald Trump. And it's a doozy: "Making Art in a Time of Rage." Much of the essay is fairly predictable: how does the artist of integrity resist and fight back against political tyranny? Also predictable are the underlying myths and distortions. Here are a few excepts:
On Inauguration Day, the percussionist and conductor Steven Schick was in San Francisco, leading a concert of challenging contemporary and late-twentieth-century pieces. In a program note, he spoke of a “resistance born of complexity”—of the dissent implicit in artistic work that cannot be assimilated into the pop-culture machine that Trump has mastered and disarmed.
The reference is to Twitter, of course, but the truth is that it was Obama who turned the White House into a pop-culture machine with frequent performances by guests like Jay-Z and Beyoncé. We have no idea of Trump's musical tastes and frankly, they are pretty much irrelevant to the job he was elected to perform.
In the field of classical music, practitioners habitually respond to man-made disasters by quoting a statement that Leonard Bernstein made on November 25, 1963, three days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The previous day, Bernstein had led the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection.” Afterward, Bernstein explained why he had offered, in place of a conventional requiem or memorial, Mahler’s “visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain.” Bernstein’s words have been tweeted and Facebooked countless times since the advent of social media, and have made the rounds again since November 8th: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
The irony here is that Alex Ross is equating the election of Donald Trump as president to the assassination of JFK. An assassination is a violent act, an election is the very antithesis! What makes the irony especially keen is that the violence, and there has been a lot of it since the election, has all come from those whose candidate lost. Alex Ross lives in some sort of Bizarro world where everything is reversed. Has he really not noticed the actual violence--over 200 people arrested for felony rioting at the Inauguration?

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Lots of politics in music these days, including in this interview with John Adams: "Why John Adams Won't Write an Opera About President Trump."
The idea of a Trump opera doesn’t interest me in the least. First of all, because so much of what he does is theater to begin with. It’s a terrible form of exploitive theater, but there’s no point in trying to make theater about theater. Furthermore, you don’t want to spend time as an artist giving your very best to a person who is a sociopath. He’s not an interesting character, because he has no capacity for empathy. The only empathy that he can extend is to his family, who are just extensions of his own ego, and beyond that, he doesn’t care. Everyone else is someone to be manipulated and controlled.
That would be news, of course, to all those people who voted for Trump because they were convinced that he did have empathy for their plight.

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John Williams, the film-music composer, had his 85th birthday two days ago. Here he is conducting the main theme from Star Wars:


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Why is it that the so-called pundits in the arts have been hectoring us with the same dreary message for decades? "Disruption and diversity are key to the future of classical music, says BBC Radio 3 controller: Classical music must address issues of diversity to remain relevant, says Davey." At what point can we stop paying attention to this stale nonsense? On the very same web site as the last item is another one that contradicts it: "Britain’s classical audience grows while orchestras lose money." In the disrupted, diverse future, that is to say "now", after decades of singing the same old song:
‘Many of the achievements [in bringing in larger audiences] have been fuelled by audience development initiatives such as discounted ticketing, free concerts and fixed fee performances at open air events,’ said ABO director Mark Pemberton. ‘These have left orchestras suffering a double whammy – a decline in earned income alongside significant cuts in public funding. The message is simple: Orchestras cannot continue doing "more for less".’
 "Issues of diversity" have absolutely nothing to do with the arts as aesthetic objects, they are mere ideological shibboleths that have the capacity to harm the practice of the arts.

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I have--not yet at least--really gotten into the spectralist composers. Here is an article, with a nice photo, about a new release of three works by these fellows.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tristan Murail and George Benjamin listening to a playback of their world premiere recording of Murail's piano concerto Le Désenchantement du monde
Tristan Murail was together with Gérard Grisey a pioneer of the spectralist movement, and it was Grisey who reminded his peers that "We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture"
Not to mention, politics!

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I was never a fan of the classical music site Sinfini, not least because of its tendency to dumb everything down. It is interesting to read music blogger On an Overgrown Path about why it failed:
It is now standard practice to apply consumer marketing techniques to classical music, and Sinfini was an example of the currently fashionable technique of native advertising - surreptitious mixing advertorial and advertising content. During my career I worked both in classical music and fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) marketing, and the conclusion I reached was that classical music does not behave like a consumer product such as cornflakes. So my proposition today is not only that FMCG marketing techniques such as native advertising are an ineffective way of promoting classical music to new audiences, but that this type of marketing actually produces a negative reaction in the crucially important established audience. In applied psychology cognitive dissonance theory recognises that individuals seek consistency among their cognitions (opinions); which means when there is an inconsistency (dissonance) between cognitions, something must change to eliminate the dissonance. The remorseless hyping of classical music's next big thing inevitably creates dissonance when experience fails to match expectation. A good example is Valery Gergiev's tenure at the LSO, when to eliminate the dissonance between experience and expectation both the orchestra and the audience voted with their feet.
Bach and Mozart are not able to be marketed like frozen fish sticks or denim jeans. And thank god for that!

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Our envoi for today is Le Lac by Tristan Murail for chamber ensemble:


8 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Just listened to Murail's Le Désenchantement du monde, all thirty minutes of it; probably won't again, but there is a certain dramatic movement throughout, I'll give it that. The Wiki article on spectral music was of very little help to me, as dense as I can sometimes be; several months ago I took a certain pleasure in becoming acquainted with Benjamin's Written on Skin without ever having heard the term 'spectral music'-- wonder if that was conceived as somehow being 'spectralist'? no idea.

SACD... never have taken the time to understand what that recording method (?) entails. Have a couple CDs in that format (from Savall et al's Alia Vox) but since I don't have a SACD player of course it makes no difference to me. Hmm.

Bryan Townsend said...

Good for you, Marc. I haven't had the opportunity yet. But we should all, from time to time, stretch our ears be listening to something quite unfamiliar. I should have a go at the Benjamin piece. I think I wrote a post on spectralism, have to check.

Yes, I have a disc in SACD format, but I thought that it had superior fidelity even on a regular CD player. Silly me!

Marc Puckett said...

Have been listening off and on to Philippe Boesmans's operas Au monde, Reigan, and Yvonne Princesse de Bourgogne (there are a couple of others I believe whose titles escape me at the moment) for months (as you note above, 'stretching' is healthy) and discovered today that critics (or a couple of them, anyway) consider them spectralist or quasi-spectralist; who knew.

Searched, and you have written a post explicitly about spectralism-- something about timbre; "I wrote that and I'm not sure what it means!" Ha. Fast Fourier Transforms. But there is something attractive about the Boesmans....

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc. That's another one I will have a listen to.

Christopher Culver said...

"Not to mention, politics!"

I think you’ve misunderstood Grisey’s oft-quoted statement of principles. When he says that music is sound and not all the other stuff, he is talking about the musical material itself and how it evolves. However, a text may be laid on top of that abstractly written musical material to speak of other themes, and Grisey just that in his vocal works. His sung texts dealt with love (Les Chants de l’amour), death (Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil) and Renaissance painting (L'Icône paradoxale). Who knows if Grisey would have ever written an overtly political work had he not died so young, but it could have been entirely possible.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, for sure. Steve Reich's musical materials are sound-based as well, but that certainly didn't prevent him from setting texts of various kinds. But maybe I did miscomprehend what Grisey was trying to say. Now that I think about it more, I'm not sure what he was saying! Literature, mathematics and the other things he mentions are based, in their turn, on materials specific to their fields: literature on words, mathematics on numbers and so on. But this is not so say much, is it? What makes literature of any interest is the human creative element. What makes music of any interest is also the human creative element. "Sound" is just a raw material, after all. On the other hand, probably I still don't understand the spectralists!

Will Wilkin said...

I love the music of John Adams, and even had the bizarre experience of walking through protestors to hear his "Death of Klinghoffer" premiere at the Met. But we know that theater about theater actually has had some great examples, such as Hamlet's "Murder of Gonzago." And Bryan, I appreciate very much your not running with the herd of the cultural left who assume that those of us who voted for Trump are a bunch of racist sexist xenophobes motivated by hate and stupidity. You said it so concisely and generously when you said we "were convinced he had empathy for our plight," which might overstate our skeptical "faith" but nonetheless assumes humanity in those of us who felt forced to resort to the uncouth unpredictable Mr. Trump because he at least acknowledged how badly ordinary Americans have been economically hurt by the offshoring of our manufacturing under free trade of corporate globalization.

Bryan Townsend said...

I love some of the music of John Adams too. I just about wore out a lovely recording of Shaker Loops years ago.

Thanks for the rest of your comment as well!