Friday, March 31, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

One of the things I like about my new place is that I have a banana tree and a key lime tree. And the banana tree is just beginning to fruit:

Do you see them there in the middle? I think they are actually plantains, those big, squarish bananas that you actually cook and serve as a vegetable, especially in Yucatan cuisine.

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Ann Althouse is devoting a post to her (and Paul Shaffer's) youthful discovery of the Four Seasons:
Shaffer was listening to the radio in the early 60s, at the same time I had my most intense radio experiences, and I had exactly the same reaction to The 4 Seasons and to the early Beatles. (What was the big deal in a world that already had The 4 Seasons?!).
Well, I dunno. It's certainly an unusual vocal style:

But I don't need to hear it more than once. Personally...

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Damian Thompson over at the Spectator is getting tough with Maurizio Pollini:
The man has been sucking the life out of Beethoven piano sonatas for decades, but surely never so annoyingly as he did last week, when he opened the spring season of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series.
The applause was thunderous, it’s true, but it was a particular type of applause that you hear more often at the Southbank than anywhere else: a veteran soloist being cheered to the rafters, not for the music (I hope — unless the audience were cloth-eared morons) but for being himself.
Listening to his Pathétique sonata, I wondered if he was just there to collect his cheque. He could hardly be bothered to dot the chords in the Grave opening, which should be tightly coiled so the main theme shoots up the keyboard like a rocket. That didn’t happen. In all three Beethoven sonatas, Pollini ironed out contrasts of tempo and dynamics. Also, he kept shaving the ends of phrases and squeezing pauses, as if to say, ‘Let’s get this over with.’
I don’t see why we should make excuses for him because he’s 75 years old. Knowing when to retire is one of the tests of a great pianist.
I heard Andrés Segovia in 1976 when he was 83 years old and he was magnificent. He played a program that would have been too demanding for me at the time, and I was a 25 year old performance major! The first half, including a large Sor sonata, was an hour of music and the second half almost as much. This was followed by six or seven encores! You know, Segovia never did retire. In the middle of his last tour, he fell ill, canceled the last couple of concerts and flew home where he passed away just a few months later.

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There is a new album of Bach out by the trio of Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer. That is, cello, mandolin and double bass. Sure, Bach never wrote for this combination, but transcriptions of his music abound for every combination imaginable. I have written about Chris Thile's Bach before, without much enthusiasm, I have to say. What puzzles me is why reviews of new recordings, such as Norman Lebrecht's of the new Bach album in Musical Toronto, omit links to clips on YouTube? There are a lot there as publicity for the album. I guess it is because the links go away after a while. But, since they are there, let's have a listen. This is the trio playing the first movement of the Trio Sonata BWV 530:

Very folksy in a contrived publicity and marketing manner. The music? Trivial. Lebrecht gives them a generous two stars for the inoffensive background noise. It is not bad--these are all fine players, of course--but it is not really worthy of Bach either.

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Norman Lebrecht has a little clip up of police sergeant Jim Quackenbush of Portland, Oregon playing Beethoven. He is a pretty fine amateur pianist who has studied with some well-known artists. Let's hear it for every amateur musician in the world!!

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Quite a while back I did a post on the violin concerto that noted that the concerto form (or genre, whatever) has amazing longevity. There are great concertos from every century since Vivaldi made the form popular until now. Vulture magazine has an article making the same point with some interesting examples:
A few decades ago, I would not have put money on the survival of the concerto, except as an antiquarian curiosity. Celebrity soloists continued milking the classics, but the rest of the music world seemed to have moved on from all that gladiatorial bravura, the individual versus the collective story line that made the genre such a Romantic-era staple. And yet composers have kept returning to the sturdy drama of a lone virtuoso (or a few) fronting a thronging orchestra, and new works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Lera Auerbach, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Timo Andres suggest that the genre is having a new heyday. Different as they are, these composers all revisit conventions but shun cliché, merging formal boldness with expressive flair.
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Back in the 1970s every aspiring young guitarist was in love with the music of Léo Brouwer, the Cuban guitarist composer. Finally we had a modern master who wrote music that was fresh and contemporary. Brouwer remains productive even now and has written an impressive number of guitar concertos. But for me, he never surpassed the excitement and novelty of the pieces he wrote in the late 1960s. The most impressive of these were Elogio de la Danza and La Espiral Eterna. The performers are, for Elogio, Pepe Romero and for Espiral, Brouwer himself:

The influence in Elogio is Stravinsky, but the wonderful use of the guitar's colors and textures is pure Leo Brouwer. Espiral Eterna is influenced by the tape music of Stockhausen, with whom Brouwer studied.

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As a bonus today, and a follow-up to yesterday's post on Jordan Peterson, here is a talk he gave ten years ago (note the goatee and darker hair) about music. He begins by saying "I think that music is a genuine mystery" which immediately caught my attention because I have been saying the same thing here for years. He starts by talking about music, but then takes a long journey through many other things, finally getting back to music at around the 39 minute mark. Worth taking the journey, though.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

What Artists Do

I had a commentator complaining recently that I always seem to have it in for academia. Well, I often do, yes, and I think they entirely deserve it! But, in point of fact, there are some brilliant and wonderful people in academia, some of whom I had the great priviledge to study and work with. I recall a terrific philosophy professor from my undergraduate days and a truly great violinist from my teaching days. I recently ran across someone that really exemplifies what academia should be, at its finest. This is psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson of the University of Toronto giving an impromptu talk about an artist named Tadeusz Biernot on the occasion of an exhibit of his work in Toronto. In the process he gives a brilliant explanation of who artists are and what they do and why it is so valuable. This clip begins with two and a half minutes introduction to the artist and the exhibit. The rest is the talk by Peterson.

Just about everything in the talk is interesting and unusual. Prof. Peterson recently became very notorious for criticizing new legislation in Ontario that requires that people in many walks of life must use the pronouns that individuals request. He put up a couple of videos pointing out that individual identity is NOT a subjective whim, but a negotiation between the individual and the people that surround him (or do I mean "her"?).

But Peterson is so very much more than a political gadfly. He is a genuinely brilliant scholar who is very learned in myth, philosophy, history and literature. Here is an excerpt from a lecture in which he talks about the mythology of ancient Egypt and what it might mean to us today:

He is a bit Jungian, but knows his Nietzsche as well. He just seems brilliant and very learned in all sorts of areas. Here is a TED talk he gave on, well, what? Being human?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Teaching Styles and Methods

At a rough approximation, I think I have studied with approximately twenty or so different instrumental teachers in my time. This includes a few amateur guitarists in the very early days, then José Tomas in Alicante, Spain, Michael Strutt in Montréal, Léo Brouwer in Montréal and Toronto, Oscar Ghiglia in Banff, Alberta and Pepe Romero in Victoria, BC and Salzburg, Austria. Plus I have sat in on several master classes given by Abel Carlevaro and the occasional one by a pianist or singer.

Everyone has a different approach. I can hardly remember a thing that Tomas said in the many private lessons I had with him, but I remember his examples very well. One day I came to class with the John Duarte arrangement of the First Cello Suite by Bach. In this version, probably the most widely performed, the original in G major is transposed up a fifth to D major. Then the sixth string of the guitar is tuned down to D and bass lines are added. After I played, just the prelude, I think, Tomas picked up his eight-string guitar, dug around amongst his scores, and sight read the prelude from the original cello music in G major. It sounded so rich in comparison with the tinny sounding version up a fifth that I immediately gave up the idea of learning the Duarte arrangement. In the original key, it certainly did not need an added bass line. I was playing a six-string, not an eight-string guitar so Tomas suggested I try it in A major instead, which, years later, I did. After transposing and learning the whole suite I decided that it needed the third string to be in F# as well as the sixth in D, so I re-learned it. I also recorded the whole suite. Here is the prelude.

With Oscar Ghiglia, on the other hand, I hardly recall him playing anything in particular, but I remember what he said, very well. He loved to teach with metaphor. I remember him comparing the slow part of the prelude to the first lute suite by Bach to an opera plot. When the harmony got to a very dramatic V4/2 chord, he uttered in a deep voice: "revenge!" It seemed to perfectly capture the drama of the moment. Another time he might teach the same passage with an entirely different metaphor. I remember the devastating critique he gave of one woman's Bach: "you played that like you were going shopping!"

But I think all teachers give little demonstrations of how a phrase might go best, or how to balance a certain harmony.

Pepe Romero seemed to take a two-pronged approach: on the one hand he really focussed on technique. Uniquely among all the master classes I have seen, he would start each session with ten or fifteen minutes of technique with everyone playing together. He has some great exercises and I use them to this day to warm up and maintain my technique. One happy result of this was that nearly every guitarist had, by the end of the course, a much higher level of technical confidence. The importance of this cannot be over-rated. The other part of his approach was perhaps psychological. He talked about things like not playing from ego and about having a spiritual base. When it came to the music, he didn't say a lot. I think he has a very instinctive approach.

Oh, one other thing about José Tomas' approach: he had a scholarly side and also was an absolute master of fingerings. His editions of Bach or Scarlatti or Weiss were always the most practically and efficiently fingered.

Frankly, I don't remember a darn thing Leo Brouwer said either of the times I played for him--oh, apart from him asking about my odd sitting position the first time. I used to sit with the guitar positively wedged into my left thigh and tilting very forward.

One very funny thing I remember from Abel Carlevaro's master classes: he would say the same thing to every player: "you have two problems, the right hand and the left hand." True enough!

One more thing about Oscar Ghiglia: he had a sardonic side and seemed to really dislike everything about Argentina. I made the mistake of playing a piece by Máximo Diego Pujol, a guitarist-composer from Buenos Aires, for him once and all he did was tell a really disgusting joke about Argentinians. This was the piece.

One final thought about teaching: hardly any style or method gets to the really nitty-gritty core of what you need to play music. I think it boils down to concentration: if you have really good focus and concentration, then you can use your musicality and technical command at its best. If not, then the performance will come apart. So however you work, you need to develop your focus and concentration. I don't recall any teachers talking much about that...

Let's end with a fine performance by a young Canadian guitarist who seems to have this concentration thing down. This is Drew Henderson playing the Allegro from the Violin Sonata No. 2 BWV 1003 by J. S. Bach.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Monteverdi Madrigal Techniques

One somewhat unwarranted slur against the madrigal is the use of the term "madrigalism" for what today we would call "Mickey Mousing." I talked about this in this post. Sadly, "link-rot" has caused all my embedded clips to disappear, but I think the text will give you some idea. Mickey Mousing is the musical effect, often used in cartoons, of having the music directly imitate in some way what is happening onscreen. But the constant effort to set the texts of madrigals also sometimes resulted in some direct imitation of things like waves or wind or perhaps weeping or sexual tensions as I discuss in the earlier post.

Monteverdi, however, makes use of many techniques that are much more sophisticated and reflect the wit and brevity of the texts. Tomlinson calls this Monteverdi's "epigrammatic" style. Sometimes the bifurcate relationship between the poet and nature is reflected in the alternation of lively textures and slow-moving affective passages. An example is "La giovinetta pianta" from Book 3:

Monteverdi also makes use of "struck" dissonances, i.e. ones not prepared through suspension. Here is an example on "ch'io" from "Occhi, un tempo mia vita" also from Book 3:

In the second measure of the example, the alto voice leaps to a minor seventh dissonance, the kind of thing much-criticized at the time. The E flat makes the chord a minor minor seventh one, making it sound just a tiny bit jazzy to our modern ears.

Monteverdi finds musical analogues of rhetorical devices such as the "isocolon," where parts of the sentence are composed of grammatically identical phrases. The most terse example is Julius Caesar's "veni, vidi, vici." Monteverdi might set a text using isocolon by using the same bass line, transposed, in parallel sections.

Another interesting technique is that of the "evaporated cadence" where a four voice texture is slimmed down to two or even one as the cadence is reached:

Click to enlarge
Here, as we get to the G tonic, the four voice texture thins to three, then two and finally the two voices merge into one. The purpose of this is to lessen the finality of the cadence--the bass doesn't reach its G until the beginning of the next phrase. A lot of Monteverdi's skill is in calibrating most finely his musical techniques to the text.

In Book 4, he sought out more epigrammatic texts to suit his epigrammatic style. Here is an example:

And here is a performance:

How beautifully and succinctly the music reflects the two parts of the text: the opening exposition followed by the witty paradox: Oh, deadly beauty!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Musical Anhedonia

Yesterday I included in my Friday miscellanea a piece from The Atlantic on "musical anhedonia." I've been thinking about it and think it is worth a second look. Go read the whole thing, but here is a sample:
Despite coming from a tremendously musical family, Sheridan is part of the roughly 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population that has an apathy toward music. It’s what’s referred to as specific musical anhedonia—different from general anhedonia, which is the inability to feel any kind of pleasure and which is often associated with depression. In fact, there’s nothing inherently wrong with musical anhedonics; their indifference to music isn’t a source of depression or suffering of any kind, although Sheridan notes, “The only suffering is being mocked by other people, because they don’t understand it. Everybody loves music, right?”
Later on, the article describes someone at the other end of their spectrum: a music-lover:
“I hear music in my mind a lot, and I can get chills from this imagined music,” says Silvia, a psychology professor at the University of Carolina at Greensboro, who experiences chills in response to music several times a day. In fact, it was this response that got Silvia to begin studying chills almost a decade ago.
“Chills are fascinating,” says Silvia, because “there’s a difference between some song you like coming on the radio and emotions from music that are deep.” It’s that feeling of wanting to cry when you hear a particularly moving piece or feeling your heart soar as notes get larger and more grandiose. “It seems to be part of this whole cluster of feelings that people find very hard to have words for,” Silvia says.
 There is something really wrong with this whole approach. Let me cite two hypotheticals to show why: first of all, there are lots of people who really thrive on music. They have music playing in the background nearly all time and thanks to the Sony Walkman (going back a few years) and the iPod and iPhone, they can have it with them all the time. It is like a constant blanket of sonic stimulation. Then there are people who rarely listen to music and a surprising number of professional musicians fall into this category. There are probably lots of other kinds of listeners and non-listeners, but you would have to do a truly objective survey to discover them--something that social scientists seem not to do. Instead, they lay out some crude categories that tend to dominate all the subsequent findings:
As part of the study, 45 students from the University of Barcelona (where most of the study authors are based) were asked to fill out a questionnaire that helped determine their sensitivity to musical reward. Based on their responses, they were divided into groups of three—people who don’t care for music at all, those who have some interest in music, and those who essentially live and breathe music. The researchers then had them listen to music while measuring their brain activity with an fMRI machine.
I don't know about you, but whenever I try and fill out a psychological questionnaire, I find that I cannot answer at least half the questions because I believe the underlying assumptions and ideological stance to be mistaken.

In order to get at the problem here, let me back up a bit and introduce the notion of the "Overton Window." The Overton window (you can read about its origins in the Wikipedia article) is the range of ideas that are deemed acceptable in public discourse. Ideas falling anywhere outside the window are regarded as radical, unacceptable or evil. In political environments where only a few outlets tend to form public opinion the Overton window can be quite narrow. From my own experience, I would adjudge Canada to be one such. I can recall decades of both the Globe and Mail (the dominant newspaper) and the CBC (the dominant broadcaster) going hard at it to diminish public support of Israel and create public support for the Palestinians. Then, of course, the Globe and Mail does a poll of public opinion and discovers that it has shifted away from Israel and towards the Palestinians. No surprise there!

I think that if we dig into the assumptions of this research we will find an Overton window delimiting neurological research into music. The ideas excluded from their Overton window are things like the differing aesthetic quality of music and the subsequent different kinds of engagement with it. For these researchers there is the simple duality of "pleasure from music" and "lack of pleasure from music." One concept completely outside their Overton window is the idea that some people might like some music quite intensely and dislike other music equally intensely. But this is in fact perfectly normal!

There are certain words that always seem to prefix a reveal of an assumption. One of these is "despite" as in the first sentence of the first quote:
Despite coming from a tremendously musical family, Sheridan is part of the roughly 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population that has an apathy toward music.
One assumption underlying this is that the ability to enjoy music is partly genetic! This is interesting because in most social science contexts these days, the base assumption is that humans are a blank slate, not genetically predisposed towards musical talent or intelligence or other abilities. Let's look at another quote, this time from the music-lover:
“Chills are fascinating,” says Silvia, because “there’s a difference between some song you like coming on the radio and emotions from music that are deep.” It’s that feeling of wanting to cry when you hear a particularly moving piece or feeling your heart soar as notes get larger and more grandiose. “It seems to be part of this whole cluster of feelings that people find very hard to have words for,” Silvia says.
This is a bit like things I have said here a number of times: what music does, what music is, is a bit of a mystery and fundamentally difficult to put into words. But I also have said a number of times that the effect music has on us is unlike what we might call "garden-variety" emotions in that they, unlike music, have objects. We love someone, we hate something, we are angry about something, etc. Music does not have specific objects in the world like our regular emotions do. Music creates something else that is partly somatic (we have bodily reactions to rhythm especially), partly mood (music has an intense ability to create atmosphere and mood) and partly something else that I find it hard to find a word for: spiritual? intellectual? There is a lot of music that operates in a realm that is pretty far afield from our everyday lives, so we don't seem to be able to easily describe it. A good example would be a Bach fugue. How would you describe your response to this:

One assumption of the article is that any music-lover would, as a matter of course, experience "chills" when listening to music. I have to confess that while this happened fairly regularly when I was young, it is less common now. And it certainly is no indicator of my interest or engagement in the music. "Chills" are kind of a fusion of somatic and emotional reactions to music that may or may not occur when you listen and really don't have much to do with your engagement. I doubt very much that any serious performer experiences "chills" when they are playing, but they are more engaged than anyone else in the hall:

The researchers talk a lot about the pleasure and joy that people experience from music:
in the brains of hyper-hedonics—people on the other end of the musical spectrum—researchers saw the strongest transfer of information between the auditory and reward parts of the brain. “It shows that the experience that you have for music is linked to this type of neural response pattern—the more you have it, the more interaction there is between those two systems, the more you are likely to feel pleasure to music,” says Robert Zatorre, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal and one of the authors of the study. “These are people who say life would be unimaginable without music.”
Sure, some music is joyous and pleasurable, but other music is tragic and demanding. One of the fundamental problems with this kind of research is that there is no interest in or ability to distinguish between different kinds of musical experience. They have to categorize very sad music that might move some people to tears as being somehow "pleasurable."

A "neural response pattern" may be something that they can measure, but I really doubt that it tells us anything of any significance. People may have stronger or weaker response patterns, but I doubt we are measuring an aesthetic quality. At the end of the day, the response they are looking at is no different from the response people might have to taking cocaine or heroin. Not much to do with music, really.

Let's listen to a demanding, challenging piece for an envoi. This is the Piano Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev:

Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Sometimes you read a review and you just get the feeling that the reviewer is out of his depth. Let's read Andrew Clements' review of a recent Beethoven concert by Igor Levit:
Three years ago Levit chose to make his debut on disc with late Beethoven – performances of the last five sonatas, that made a bold artistic statement, and one that suggested he was already a fully mature and searching Beethoven interpreter. Here, however, his playing of the A major Op 101 and the B flat Op 106 was far less convincing. Unlike the recordings, these seemed like interpretations that were still to be finalised, or perhaps were being radically rethought.
That first CD of late Beethoven was followed by another of Bach Partitas and a third one, all of these double CDs, of variations by Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski. An artist as bold as that--who else would dare to record the late Beethoven sonatas as his debut disc?--is likely the kind of artist that would be always exploring the aesthetic possibilities. I am reminded of a story told me by a friend of mine who was a music reviewer. He attended a couple of concerts by Ivo Pogorelich with the Vancouver Symphony (back in the 80s when he was in his prime). After the first one the local reviewer wrote a review complaining that the performance was too...something. Honestly, I forget. But you know, too something! Obviously Pogorelich read the review because the next night he played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 in exactly the opposite way to the way he had the night before. Just to mess with the reviewer. Someone at that level of artistry can do that. Reviewers sometimes forget that some of the people that they review are on rather a higher plane than they are.

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I dunno, I just found the whole performance rather cold: Tim Linhart’s Amazing ‘ICEstrument’ Orchestra
In Lulea, Sweden, Linhart has made his own igloo concert hall where musicians perform with string and percussion instruments made of ice. One of the major problems with conducting an ice orchestra is that the instruments eventually fall out of tune due to body heat from the performers and audience. This has led Linhart to create a unique venting system in his ice theater that filters the body heat out of the igloo.
Here is a clip of the music:

Sure, the music is rather banal, but hey, it's "cool."

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There is an article at The Atlantic about "musical anhedonics" who are people who just don't have any kind of reaction to music. One of them says that for her, “music sits in an odd spot halfway between boring and distracting.” Well, that's weird, because that is often my reaction too! Could I be a musical anhedonic? I suspect not. I find most music either boring or distracting because, well, it is. The people I find really incomprehensible are those who say "I like all kinds of music!" Jeez, how is that possible? According to the article, people who have a high interest in music seem to be into all sorts of music:
As part of his research, Silvia found that some people were more prone to get chills and experience goosebumps when listening to music, and those people also tended to be more open to new experiences. “People with high openness to experience are much more creative and imaginative, and they get these kinds of awe-style experiences so much more often,” Silvia says. “They’re much more likely to play an instrument, they go to concerts, they listen to a wider range of music, they listen to more uncommon music. They just get more out of music.”
Seems to me that they are just avoiding even mentioning that people with highly-developed musical tastes are going to hate a lot of music. They probably have an ideological reason for this that involves denying the existence of taste and even that of different levels of musical quality.

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We should listen to the new and unfamiliar on a regular basis. Here is something from Alex Ross' blog: the Face the Music Quartet play "Death Valley Junction" by Missy Mazzoli:

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The great blues harmonica player James Cotton also passed away this week. I heard him and his band in concert in the mid-80s. Great, high-altitude blues harp playing!

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With the software available these days, it is pretty feasible to set up your own home recording studio. Here is an article on how one guy went about it.
Back in the early 2000s, I wrote a review of PC-based recording software, which I dubbed “Abbey Road in a Box.” In retrospect, that obviously hyperbolic phrase was slightly disingenuous. It’s true that the various flavors of Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW) software are now so powerful, their ability to edit, process and manipulate sounds dwarfs what the Beatles and George Martin were capable of when they were recording Sgt. Pepper. However, that album still sounds timeless, because of the Beatles’ and Martin’s sheer talent, the material they were writing and performing, and not least because the rooms they were recorded inside EMI’s Abbey Road Studios sound so good. A DAW, a PC, the right audio interface and appropriate ancillary gear can take you far, but they really need a good-sounding room to get the most out of them.
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I've been a lot more interested in opera since I saw a terrific production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron in Madrid last summer. The Wall Street Journal has a review by Heidi Waleson of three unusual productions in New York:
Benjamin Britten’s church parable “Curlew River” was inspired by a Japanese Noh play, and directors often take that theatrical style as their starting point, using black costumes and somber lighting. In the New York premiere of his production at BAM last week, Mark Morris took the opposite approach. He put everyone in white pajama-like outfits under bright light, and choreographed the movements of the all-male cast, taking both the suffering and the final miracle of this restrained work out of the shadows and making it a hypnotic and powerful ritual.
You know, I really don't know the Britten operas and he is one of the most successful 20th century opera composers.

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Ageism in the orchestra? You bet! Slipped Disc has the story:
The Indianapolis music director Krzysztof Urbanski has been named in an unfair dismissal suit by former principal bassoon John Wetherill, who claims he was ousted from the orchestra on grounds of his age.
Wetherill, 62, says he was ‘duped and ambushed’ in 2012 by the 29 year-old music director.
He argues that ‘the [ISO] is economically benefited by moving out older musicians and bringing in younger musicians below the protected age of 40… A number of older musicians resigned during the period from late 2012 and thereafter, as a result of Urbanski’s ‘move out and replace’ plan and action.’
As always, the comments add a lot of perspective. I can recall labor disputes in a Canadian orchestra I knew quite well (I played a couple of concertos with them and some principles were my colleagues at the university). The principal french horn and principal trumpet had an awkward breakup and afterwards these two sections refused to tune together. Some time later, the conductor went on a crusade against the trumpet player and assembled a bunch of audio clips from concerts of cacks and mistunings (a "cack" is when instead of going "ta-dah" the trumpet just goes "cack"). Up until then, every orchestra performance had been recorded. Afterwards, the union specifically prohibited any recording by the management. Heh!

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 For our envoi today, let's listen to the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, written for an early chromatic trumpet. The performers are Alison Balsom, trumpet and Xian Zhang, conductor:

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Short Takes

I've tagged this "miscellanea" because I don't know where else it might fit. I keep having these little one-liners running through my head and, since I don't have a comedy writing gig to soak them up, I decided to stick them in a post. Trigger warning: there might be the occasional one related to politics or economics. Like the first one:

  • If you hate the idea of having your economic choices influenced by Big Corporations, then you should move to Venezuela or Cuba where you can have them dictated to you by malignant dictators and enforced by the army.
  • No amount of hip costuming, stimulating staging, social media promotion or chatting to the audience can compensate for poor choice of repertoire, faulty technique and musical insensitivity. Isn't this perfectly obvious?
  • The founding of Canada as a union of French and English-speaking colonies of Great Britain right next door to the USA led to the fond hope that it would result in a happy blend of British government, American know-how and French culture. Sadly, the result often seems to be an unfortunate mix of French government, British know-how and American culture.
  • If you go to the bank to get a mortgage so that you can buy a house, do you know where that money comes from? Do you think it is money that was deposited in the bank? Oh no, not at all. The bank simply creates it out of thin air. It's called fractional reserve banking. Doesn't that make you just a tad nervous?
  • When I was an undergraduate at university I took an excellent introductory philosophy course. The professor, a young recent PhD, was brilliant and engaging. One day we were discussing the perception of time and he stated that while humans perceive time as a line going from past to future, that dolphins perceive time as an expanding spiral:

Many, many years later it occurred to me that we don't know how dolphins perceive time. Nobody does. How could you? I'm not even sure how I perceive time. In Book 11 of St. Augustine's Confessions, he ruminates on the nature of time, asking, "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not." The amazing thing is that, even in a class that was devoted to critical thinking, we simply accepted, uncritically, a quite surprising claim by the professor, without a shred of evidence.
  •  I was at a concert the other night that turned out to be all 19th century music and I found myself thinking: "19th century music is a rich flow of sonorities that goes on and on and is fundamentally pointless." Your milage may vary, of course...
  • One company in Connecticut uses an interesting set of questions to qualify potential employees. One question is "When was the last time you cried and why?" Ok, the last two times were, first, the last time I listened to Grigory Sokolov play "Les tendres plaintes" by Rameau: 
and the other time was the last time I watched the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season five, where she dies. What do you think, would I get hired?
  • This didn't wander into my brain all on its own, but was inspired by a blog emanating from a secure, undisclosed location, so I won't reveal the source. But one very well-known social scientist, when asked who was the most accomplished person who ever lived, answered "Aristotle" who invented logical thought with six treatises in the 4th century BC. The measure of how important this was is that no-one was able to come up with any improvements or additions to them until the late 19th century, twelve hundred years later! All of our 21st century information technology is based on fundamental logical principles whose codification we owe to Aristotle. Oh, and he also invented metaphysics, ethics, meteorology, psychology, poetics, botany and a few other things. Not all by himself, he was strongly influenced by a couple of predecessors who included Socrates and Plato.

Dude, It's Dance Music!

One entertaining theme here at the Music Salon is the wacky high jinks that ensue when well-meaning people try to make classical music "accessible" to people who mostly don't seem interested. Dude, with millions of clips of classical music available for free on YouTube 24 hours a day, how much more accessible could it be?

Anyway, Anne Midgette has a piece at the Washington Post that illustrates the hazards: Conductor plays ‘Rite of Spring’ at a club — and then berates the audience for acting like they’re at a club
“We have started a revolution in classical music,” the conductor James Blachly told the crowd. Behind him was a 70-piece orchestra. In front of him was a dance club. The venue was Dock 5, a nightclub at Union Market in the District, and the event was billed by Septime Webre’s Halcyon Stage as a “Stravinsky Rave: Rite of Spring Dance Party.”
All around the world, orchestras are eager to break out of their conventional trappings to reach new audiences. The Tonhalle orchestra in Zurich has a long-standing series called tonhalleLATE, with concerts starting at 10 p.m. followed by a dance party with DJs. Two years ago, the NSO played at Echostage, the District’s largest club. So why not offer a Stravinsky rave, let people dance, break out of the traditional classical music mold, and abolish the outmoded idea that people are supposed to listen to certain kinds of music in certain ways?
The only problem: Blachly’s “revolution” didn’t really allow for that kind of freedom.
That is, having gone to all the trouble of putting an orchestra (largely made up of New York-based music students and freelancers) in a club, and assembling a trendy-looking audience (largely, it seemed, people with some connection or other to the various presenting organizations), he didn’t actually want a rave atmosphere. 
The conductor kept berating the audience for talking, took them to task for their cellphones (“we’re here to dance, not to take pictures”) and, at one point, actually stopped the music to try to force people to be quiet. Some in the audience tried to help, with cries of “It’s classical music!” and “Show some respect!” — which seems the opposite message to the one sent by playing Stravinsky in a club in the first place.
Heh! Well, of course! Turns out, now who could have guessed it, that a dance club is a very poor venue for one of the most demanding scores of the 20th century. If you want people to listen closely to complex music then you really need a specially designed space with good acoustics and good sightlines. Something like, I dunno, a concert hall?

Sometimes I just get the feeling that we are regressing culturally.

Let's have a listen to Stravinsky while we are on the topic. The Rite of Spring played by the Netherlands' Radio Filharmonisch Orkest conducted by Jaap van Zweden:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Ann Althouse and I seem to be on the same page today. She quotes this fascinating passage from a Victor Davis Hanson piece in the National Review:
More and more Americans today are becoming Stoic dropouts. They are not illiberal, and certainly not reactionaries, racists, xenophobes, or homophobes. They’re simply exhausted by our frenzied culture.... Monastics are tuning out the media.... When everything is politicized, everything is monotonous; nothing is interesting... For millions of Americans, their music, their movies, their sports, and their media are not current fare. Instead, they have mentally moved to mountaintops or inaccessible valleys, where they can live in the past or dream of the future, but certainly not dwell in the here and now...."
Hey, that's where I went, incrementally, starting, oh, about forty years ago.

Let's listen to a musical metaphor for moving to an inaccessible valley. This is Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 conducted by Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

UPDATE: I was in a big hurry this morning and never got to the end of that Hanson piece (he does go on). But sure enough, the best was at the end:
Today at 6 a.m. in the dark, I stopped at a gas station in the California coastal foothills. The car next to me had, I thought, way-too-loud booming rap music of the “kill the ho,” “bust up the pig” generic type. Why listen to all that before sunrise? I decided, in protest to the early-morning noise, to leave my own music louder than his as I filled the tank. The first song happened to be a short old folk rendition of Carl Sandburg’s lyrical “The Colorado Trail,” a sad homage to a 16-year-old girl who died on the way westward: "Laura was a laughin’ girl, joyful in the day. Laura was my darling girl. Now she’s gone away. Sixteen years she graced the Earth, and all of life was good. Now my life lies buried ’neath a cross of wood." I then switched tracks to Joan Baez’s folk version of the 18th-century “Plaisir d’amour.” As it ended with Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment? Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie, the young driver, his neck and wrists spotted with tattoos, got into his car (he had earlier turned down his stereo around “Now she’s gone away”) and drove up alongside me. What next? He grinned, “Hey, I liked your songs, okay?”

Now You Tell Me!

Turns out I'm an opsimath and I know that courtesy of Ann Althouse:
"A person who begins to learn or study late in life" — OED. 
1808   Gentleman’s Mag. June 480/2   From the dissipation and idleness of his earlier years, Mr. Fox in Greek and Roman Literature was necessarily an Opsimath....
1968   T. M. Disch Camp Concentration (1969) i. 58   ‘Opsi?’ I asked Mordecai. ‘Short for opsimath—one who begins to learn late in life. We're all opsimaths here.’
1992   W. F. Buckley WindFall xvii. 268   They took me thirty years to learn, opsimath that I am in so many matters....
This is a word I learned only because it came up in a NYT acrostic — "Late learner, like Grandma Moses." I searched the entire archive of the NYT and found not a single appearance of this word. Surely, it's a bit useful.
Because I was born into a very humble Canadian prairie family, I really had no opportunity to be a child prodigy, so I have to be more productive on the other end of life. What, you think Mozart would have started composing at age five if he had not had Leopold Mozart, a well-known violinist as father? And if he had not had the opportunity to tour the great capitols of Europe and perform before the nobility and royalty? And if his father had not taken him to Italy to study when he was a teenager? Believe me, if Mozart had been born into my family, he would not be a household name today. Or so I suspect.

My mother was also a violinist, or as she preferred, "fiddler", but where I grew up I was far indeed from any potential opportunities for study or exposure. If we had not moved close to a university in my mid-teens I would likely still be living in northern British Columbia either playing in a country band or working in a bank. Yep.

But instead I'm an opsimath, meaning not so much that I begin to learn late in life, but that the process of learning, at which I started relatively late, is one that I take up with renewed interest at my advanced age. Actually, the urge to learn and study and put it into practice has come in successive waves in my life.

  • In my late teens I became very interested in ukiyo-e, the 17th and 18th century Japanese art form
  • Also around this time I discovered classical music and began doing a lot of reading and listening--this impelled me to go to university
  • Alongside my musical studies at university I began to do some serious reading: Dante, Divina Commedia; Copleston, History of Philosophy, Shakespeare, Toynbee, Study of History; Spengler, Decline of the West, etc.
  • After quite a few years as a classical guitar soloist, which was more practical than intellectual, I returned to university as a graduate doctoral student in musicology where I did a lot of seminars on DuFay, Shostakovich, opera and comedy, theme types, fugue, experimental music, 20th century theory and analysis and so on
  • In recent years I have studied statistics, technical analysis of stocks, and the Canadian Securities Course
  • Most recently I have gone back to music history and done serious surveys of orchestral music (which involved listening to all the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Pettersson and others), piano music, chamber music and now, opera
The practical purpose of the last is because I am more and more interested in composition.

So there you go. I suspect the very first step is getting rid of your television.


Let's end with an excerpt from Falstaff by Verdi, which he completed when he was nearly eighty years old. This is just the finale with a nice fugue:

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Lute Player

Not sure if I will do any posting today or not, but as a token effort I offer this painting of a lutenist tuning by Theodoor Rombouts:

Click to enlarge
The painting is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and they comment as follows:
Lute players were often ridiculed for the inordinate amount of time they devoted to tuning their instruments. The intense look of this street musician seems to underscore the difficulty of the task and suggest that perhaps more than musical harmony is at stake. Showing a musical instrument being tuned was a veiled reference to striving for harmony in love. Stringed instruments could also symbolize temperance, especially when shown in the company of a tankard and a pipe, as here.
Yes, in one 17th century manual the author writes that a sixty year old lutenist has spent thirty of them tuning. But remember, a lot of lutes, especially after 1600, had an inordinate number of strings: twenty-five or more! Oh, and why would string instruments symbolize temperance?

Let's hear some lute music from the 17th century. This is "Narcisse" by Denis Gaultier played by Richard Labschütz:

Great Guitar Duos

When I was a concert artist, great guitar duos were few. Presti-Lagoya were a very fine one, but after Ida Presti passed away, a duo that was only a duo and not just two virtuosos getting together, was rare. The most famous duo was Julian Bream and John Williams, but while great players, they were not a great duo because they really didn't spend much time rehearsing together.

But times have changed and now there are a whole bunch of amazing guitar duos with spectacular technique, good repertoire and outstanding ensemble. And all they do is play as a duo, so they play a lot from memory, which traditionally chamber ensembles don't do. I just ran across a whole bunch on YouTube, so have a listen. First the Duo Françaix playing a piece that Bream and Williams made popular in the guitar duo arrangement, Oriental, Danza Española by Granados:

Here is the Henderson Kolk Duo with the Prélude to Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel:

And here is Le tic-toc-choc by Couperin in the arrangement by SoloDuo:

Are you going wow yet? How about a guitar quartet that plays Mahler from memory?

One more duo, the Kupinski Guitar Duo with the Ritual Fire Dance by de Falla:

What is remarkable here is that there are a lot of duos and they are all technically accomplished and fine musicians. Guitar duos used to be the realm of amateurs. No more.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

One Million Page Views!

It had to happen sooner or later, and, well, ok, possibly later than with most blogs. But it happened. My page views count just topped one million!

Let's have a fanfare or a Fish cheer or something:

Monteverdi and Tradition

In my last post on Monteverdi I focused on the contrasts he developed in his style and compared that to the smooth consistency of the ars perfecta style. But as the great historiographer R. G. Collingwood pointed out, you can view history from either the point of view of change or from the point of view of continuity. In other words, there are always new things happening and there are always other things remaining the same. This is as true of Monteverdi as anyone. Alongside the extreme harmonic juxtapositions and expressive dissonances we have the use of some age-old harmonic and melodic structures such as the Romanesca:

Click to enlarge
The pattern is C major, G major, A minor, E major, repeated with a tiny rhythmic flourish. Wikipedia says that this was a formula popular from the mid-16th century, but it was printed in vihuela books from the first half of the century. Luys de Narváez' book from 1538 contains both the Romanesca pattern and the Passamezzo antico one. And if they were printed in 1538 you can bet your paycheck that they were in use for decades before. As Tomlinson notes, these patterns "were associated by 1550 not only with the dance but also with oral traditions of semi-improvised poetic recitation. [Tomlinson, Monteverdi, p. 60] In using these formulas, Monteverdi was following the example of Giaches de Wert, his most important influence around the time of the Third Book of Madrigals of 1592. You can find clips of Wert on YouTube. This is "Giunto alla tromba":

And here is the score of the beginning:

As you can seem exactly the same chords are used, just in a different order. Instead of C G Am E, Wert opens with Am E (Am) C G. We don't have to look very far to find a similar harmonic pattern in Monteverdi. Here is the opening of "Sovra tenere herbette" from Book 3:

Click to enlarge
The harmonies at the beginning are E major, A minor, G major, C major. Both Wert and Monteverdi made good use of this limited set of triads. As Tomlinson says, "A restricted harmonic vocabulary is not necessarily an ineffective one."

Let's finish up by listening to the whole piece, "Sovra tenere herbette" from Madrigali, Book 3:

UPDATED to correct a typo regarding the Romanesca example, and thanks to a commentator.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chuck Berry

UPDATE: I put this up last night when I saw the news that Chuck Berry had passed away, age 90. He was a huge figure in the development of popular music after WWII. Jim Fusilli has a good obituary in the Wall Street Journal.
Singer, composer, guitarist and showman Chuck Berry, who died March 18 at age 90, bridged the gaps between blues, country and R&B to become one of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll. A dominant talent in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Mr. Berry, unlike many of his contemporaries, never seemed relegated to the distant past. With their wit and vitality—and in no small part due to his guitar playing in tandem with the mighty contributions of pianist Johnnie Johnson—Mr. Berry’s hits remained as engaging in later years as they did when recorded.
In 1956 he recorded "Roll Over Beethoven" (the clip above) and it is eerie how prophetic the lyrics were:
“Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news” 
Rock and roll was not only here to stay, but it was, along with pop music generally, going to become so dominant in music that classical music was going to be pushed aside into a economically precarious niche! Back in 1956 this was not evident, but as soon as the Beatles came along...

George Harrison was better at copying Chuck Berry's guitar style than Keith Richards, wasn't he?

UPPERDATE: Somehow this photo seems to capture what was happening. This is Chuck Berry performing at one of the temples of classical music, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1976:

UPPER-UPPERDATE: Ann Althouse has an excellent post on Chuck Berry's lyrics, which might have been even more important than his guitar-playing.

Contrast and Consistency

Whenever I dig into the work of a particular composer, I tend to find instances of general principles--maybe I just like to look for stuff like that! In the case of Monteverdi, his career seems to illustrate the idea that in music history there is an oscillation between the desire for consistency and the desire for contrast. Of course, these two things are found in most individual pieces, but we can also see them in long historic waves as well. What the heck am I talking about?

I think that, in the beginning of a new phase in music history, aesthetic choices are driven by strong contrasts. This might be because it is strong stresses in general that tend to cause a new phase in the arts. For example, Monteverdi lived at a time in which there were stark philosophical, theological and intellectual oppositions. Gary Tomlinson reviews these in the beginning of his book on Monteverdi, Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance:

One way of describing these oppositions is with the terms "scholasticism" and "humanism." These two ways of viewing the world were not new, but the opposition between them became especially keen in the later 16th century. Scholasticism, a characteristically Medieval world view, relied on authority and faith and absolute truth arrived at through deductive logic. Apart from the Scriptures and writings of the fathers of the church, the main authorities were people like Aristotle (who largely invented deductive reasoning in six treatises dating from the 4th century BC) and his 13th century AD follower, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The humanists, on the other hand, driven by monumental changes in the world such as the voyages of discovery of Columbus and others that opened up entire new hemispheres, emphasized things like moral and political philosophy that dealt with the pragmatic realities of the real world. This involved the growing importance of rhetorical persuasion. In the words of Petrarch, an early humanist, "It is safer to strive for a good and pious will than for a capable and clear intellect." The need for society to respond quickly to rapidly changing circumstances depended on swaying and channeling the passions to result in right action.

Now let's relate this to music. The world that Monteverdi was born into was the world of the ars perfecta as I mentioned before in this post. The style of ars perfecta emphasizes smooth consistency over contrast. There were a series of rules governing how melodies moved and how dissonances were introduced and resolved the whole point of which was to create a kind of contrapuntal perfection. The pinnacle of this style can be found in the work of Palestrina. Here is brief Psalm setting as an example:

This is what we would often characterize as "beautiful", that is, it is consonant, smooth, flowing and so on. But, of course, this is only one kind of beauty and the stresses and oppositions in the later 16th century led to a very different kind of beauty, one based on contrast and expressive intensity. Monteverdi was one of those who developed this new kind of writing to a high level.

One example of the kinds of contrasts that Monteverdi created can be found in his madrigal "A un giro sol" from the Fourth Book. The text of the madrigal is based on a contrast between the pleasantness and charm of the exterior world and the inner misery of the poet. This made it ideal for the creation of corresponding musical contrasts. There are many rhythmic contrasts between flowing representations of the waves and the winds and the more chordal sections, but the biggest contrast is a harmonic one, at around 58 seconds in this clip, where the poet breaks in to say "I alone" am in despair. From G major, the harmony instantly changes to E major (dominant of A minor), a huge contrast at this point in music history! These kinds of contrasts were simply out of bounds in the older style. Let's listen to the Monteverdi madrigal:

And listen to all those lovely minor second dissonances in the last part! Beauty, you see, can be heightened through the skillful use of dissonance and contrast.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the very gifted Finnish conductor and composer has just written a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma and the Wall Street Journal has a review of the Chicago premiere:
Clanging percussion opens the concerto, with the cello entering to largely relaxed accompaniment from the rest of the orchestra. The composer likened this first movement to a “zooming in from cosmic to planetary,” emphasizing the work’s “stylized chaos.” I heard almost Romantic gestures from the cello, with singing lines and phrases that unexpectedly evoked English pastoralists like Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. At one especially beguiling point, a gentle orchestral corona surrounded the cello as it evinced a heartfelt searching motif. But there was, indeed, a cosmic quality, with interplanetary space suggested by a combination of celesta, marimba and flute (Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, the orchestra’s extraordinary principal and one of its myriad glories).
I'm rather a fan of Salonen and look forward to hearing this piece. His violin concerto is excellent.

* * *

Let's take a walk down memory lane with George Harrison:

This extremely heart-felt song came about when George discovered that he was in a 95% tax bracket and thought that was just a tad unfair! That stubbly fellow taking a guitar solo is Eric Clapton, of course.

* * *

I have written about Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra before here at the Music Salon. The Guardian has a review of a recent concert:
When some average orchestras and soloists regularly sell out London’s larger auditoriums, it was odd to find Milton Court nothing like full for these concerts by an orchestra that, by any standards, is one of the wonders of the musical world today. The Australian Chamber Orchestra was there for the final part of its artistic director Richard Tognetti’s residency this season. The first of their appearances had been a performance of The Reef, Tognetti’s audiovisual celebration of his twin passions, music and surfing, while the other two were more conventional concerts that provided the perfect showcase for the group’s astounding finesse.
* * *

I think that Yuja Wang and Khatia Buniatishvili must be in some kind of publicity war to the death. I previously wrote about how Ms Wang seems to be more obsessive about her photo sessions than anything else:

And now Ms Buniatishvili returns fire with this publicity shot from Figaro:

Click to enlarge
This other shot from the article fits the blog format better:

There were some fairly extreme publicity campaigns in the 19th century, particularly by Franz Liszt and Niccolò Paganini, the latter of whom cultivated a nearly-Satanic public persona. But the 21st century certainly has the edge when it comes to visual impact.

* * *

Yet another in the perennial efforts to make classical music more appealing, but this one is more sensible than most: Time for changes
I truly believe that classical music is inherently accessible. But with concerts, it’s not just what we hear, but also what we see. An orchestra of people dressed in morning suits or tailcoats are too formal today. Classical music is always going to be called elitist if the musicians look like extras from Downton Abbey. Plus, they are boiling hot to play in. And I can’t think of a period in time where cream dinner jackets ever looked good. Just go simple: all black, smart and modern.
Well, maybe. This part I sort of agree with:
You may have noticed that I haven’t suggested changing one thing: the music. The music has never and will never be the problem. However, as times change, we must change the experience of how we listen to it.
The thing is, this is rather a perfunctory comment. My experience last weekend provides an example, where the pianist wore exactly what this writer suggests: black, smart and modern, no tux, no suit, no tie and he talked to the audience in a nicely accessible way. But I was wincing all the way through and my companion was bored stiff. Why? It was the way the music was played: poor phrasing and articulation, rhythmically lifeless and banging too much out loudly. I would a thousand times prefer to listen to Grigory Sokolov who does everything "wrong" according to this writer. He wears white tie and tails, no social media presence, doesn't talk to the audience and no, you can't get a drink in one of his concerts. But it is the music that triumphs because of the astonishing way that he plays. Please let's not mistake the wrapper for the contents?

* * *

I suppose the logical envoi for today would be a clip of Grigory Sokolov. Here he is playing Le tic-toc-choc ou Les maillotins by François Couperin:

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Note on a Piano Recital

I don't really do reviews on this site on a regular basis and I usually avoid doing reviews of concerts I attend unless there is something special about them. Sadly, there usually isn't.

I was at a piano recital on Sunday, part of our chamber music series, and it did prompt some thoughts.  The piano is a marvelous musical instrument, there is no doubt. It is the pinnacle of a long development of keyboard instruments that include the organ, harpsichord and virginal, among others. The piano is the most successful of these because it avoids the problems of the others. The organ is quite a remarkable instrument but until the invention of the electronic organ, it was simply not available in private homes. The virginal is an excellent domestic instrument, but very limited in dynamics. The harpsichord was a huge success in the 17th and 18th centuries, but its sonority is not to everyone's taste. Segovia described it as two skeletons making love on a tin roof! Around 1700 an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a new kind of keyboard instrument where the strings were hit with little hammers as opposed to plucked with quills as in the harpsichord. This allowed greater volume and, even more important, the control of dynamics from soft piano to loud forte. For this reason the new instrument was called the "pianoforte." The 18th century piano was much lighter in sound and had less range than the later versions developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nowadays when a performance is given on one of these earlier versions, such as was played by Mozart, the instrument is referred to as a "fortepiano." As far as I can tell, this is a very recent coinage.

But all pianos have in common the fact that they are instruments designed to play a lot of notes quickly and easily and, with the recent designs, to do so at pretty loud volume. A lot of the development in the 19th century was to enable people like Franz Liszt to perform in very large halls seating a couple of thousand people, and still be heard. When Mozart premiered his piano concertos at the Lenten Concerts in Vienna, a typical audience was around 120 people!

The interesting thing is that the very strengths of the piano highlight the weaknesses of the player. The great danger for pianists is to replace subtlety and articulation with banging out the notes loudly in a muddy blur. This is exacerbated by the use of the sustain pedal, a little pedal, depressed by the foot, that raises all the dampers and allows the strings to keep ringing even when the keys are not pressed down. That is a fairly simple mechanism, but the action that enables the hammers to strike the keys quickly and for the sound to be damped as soon as the finger lets the key up, is amazingly complex, the result of a long development:

We guitarists, on the other hand, use our fingers and carefully shaped fingernails on the right hand. So the piano is a kind of musical factory designed to produce large numbers of notes at different volumes as easily as possible. It makes it possible to play very dense textures and even reductions of orchestral scores, something Liszt was famous for.

But, as I was saying, this can lead to the characteristic weaknesses of mediocre pianists. What are they? Well, the temptation is to bang out the notes as loud as possible and to play scales and arpeggios as fast as possible. Most of the audience will love it and applaud loudly. But the problem is that this is pretty boring really and steamrollers over the music. The poor pianists can play very loud: the great pianists can play very soft!

The first piece on the program on Sunday was a sonata by Haydn and he, and Mozart, are the cruelest tests of a mediocre pianist. There were some quite fast scales and every one of them was a inarticulate blur. This meant that there was no rhythmic vitality, which pretty well kills off Haydn! A scale has to be articulated, especially in the Classical style, and it has to have direction and shape.

Now the fellow playing the concert was not a bad pianist: he played a lot of things well. Slow movements went better than fast and his memory was excellent. But that whole banging stuff out and ripping through fast passages with no sensitivity or articulation tendency meant I was wincing through much of the concert. And my companion was just bored.

Just to be fair, you want to know what the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of the guitar are? Sure: unless you amplify it is simply too soft to play in a large or even medium hall and concertos are really a problem. Also, it is difficult to play in keys with too many sharps or flats and the complexity of textures is severely limited.

I used to know a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who would call me up and ask my opinion about different pianists. I asked him why and he said that a guitarist was more objective about pianists than another pianist would be. And you never ask one soprano's opinion of another soprano! No, indeed.

Let's hear a fine pianist playing a Mozart concerto on a fortepiano, a copy of Mozart's own instrument. This is Malcolm Bilson with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner in the C major concerto, K. 467:

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Invention of Monody and "Le nuove musiche"

In my last post on Monteverdi, I sketched some of the historical context surrounding him, but I find I need to fill in a lot more of the picture. The truth is that neither Monteverdi nor any other great composer springs, à la Athena, fully-armed from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, they build on the work of many others, improving and fulfilling ideas that may have been in the air. And so it is with Monteverdi and the new kind of music that emerged around 1600. It actually began decades earlier and only emerged in the light of day when it began to appear in print--another big innovation!

Spurred by the idea of "representation" in music, which really came down to the expression of impassioned human speech, musicians had been experimenting with the idea of replacing the intricate counterpoint of the ars perfecta with a different kind of structure entirely. The idea was to focus on the single voice, hence the word "monody" which just refers to a single melodic line. This line was heightened with the use of chordal accompaniment. The same basic idea is what informs a lot of 20th century "folk music". Bob Dylan's earlier songs were formed in just this way: a single voice singing an expressive text with strummed guitar accompaniment. What the Italian monodists did was take expressive texts and sing them in a kind of reciting style accompanied by a bass instrument and a chordal instrument. One of the best composers of this was Giulio Caccini in his Le nuove musiche of 1601:

Click to enlarge
This is "Amarilli mia bella" taken, like so many other texts, from the very popular play Il pastor fido by Giambattista Guarini. There are two lines shown: the top one is, of course, for the solo singer and sets the text. The lower line is for a bass instrument and a chordal instrument such as a lute. But where is the lute part? If you look very very closely you will see tiny numbers over some of the notes. These indicate, in a kind of musical shorthand, the chords to be played. The number "6", for example, indicates that in addition to the standard note a third above the bass, another note a sixth above should be played. The very second note, for example, is an F# and the "6" indicates that in addition to an "A", a "D" should also be played (the note a sixth above F#). This gives us what we would now call a D major chord in first inversion, but the notion of inversions will have to wait for the harmony text of Rameau, over a century in the future. So what the performers would do is elaborate a bit on this simple musical text. The singer will add certain ornaments (discussed by Caccini in the publication) and the lute player will play the indicated chords in various ways, solid or arpeggiated as might best accompany the voice. The bass instrument player (viola da gamba or other low instrument) pretty much plays what is there.

There are a lot of ways you could perform this. Here it is with counter-tenor, theorbo (lute with a lot of bass strings) and spinet (a kind of harpsichord):

You could also do it with just theorbo (also called archlute):

But I find that understates the bass line. It is often performed with piano. I had to go five pages deep in YouTube to find the instrumentation that I think is called for: voice, lute and gamba: