Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

One of the very, very few contemporary classical compositions to become a hit record was Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3. The New York Times has an article on the 25th anniversary:
“The first royalty check he got was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he kept it in his wallet for a long enough time that we had to reissue it, because he wouldn’t cash it,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “It may just have been such a shock to all of a sudden go from someone who had struggled to find recognition, to someone who was at that moment as famous as any modern composer in the world.”
Even if it was notoriously trendy among Gen-Xers in the ’90s, Mr. Gorecki’s symphony holds up as an impressive artistic achievement. As in the large-scale sacred works of Mr. Pärt, the trance-like allure of slow-moving tonal harmonies has the undergirding of an elegant structure: The simple language of the first movement, a canon that expands outward from subterranean low strings, accrues a granitic weight that is sustained across the entire work. The first entrance of Ms. Upshaw in the Nonesuch recording, intoning a 15th-century Polish lament, maintains its original pathos.
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Perfect pitch is a wonderful gift, but can it be learned? Apparently it can, with the aid of a fairly uncommon drug, valproic acid. The Wall Street Journal has the story:
Relatively few people in history—even musical virtuosos—have been known to possess perfect pitch, the ability to identify or reproduce any musical note without having another note with which to compare it. Mozart was said to be one of those people. Ella Fitzgerald was another. The trait is so rare, it is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people can tell an F-sharp from a B-flat in Western cultures, where the gift has been widely studied.
I'm not sure that it is that uncommon--I have known quite a few people with perfect pitch--but that may be just because I know a lot of musicians. None of these articles mention the accompanying problem of having perfect pitch, which is the fact that different kinds of music may use a different reference point. Historically, every town or ensemble probably had its own standard "A" which was likely different from our modern "A" at 440 cycles per second. The early music community uses an "A" that is lower than the modern one, at 415, which is the same as the modern G#. Also, different orchestras are known to use a somewhat different pitch for their "A" than the standard one. I knew one singer, a specialist in early music, who actually had two "perfect pitches", one for modern music at 440 and another for early music at 415. He could switch back and forth at need! Not having perfect pitch myself I sometimes wonder how those who do, hear. Does every note come with a little label: G5 and so on? Does this ever distract from the expressive content? What about complex textures as we might find in Ligeti or Xenakis? Does every note still come with a little label even if there are hundreds of different ones? It's funny that all these studies seem to only be interesting in seeing if ordinary people can acquire perfect pitch instead of really digging into the details of how it actually works...

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David Mermelstein writes about this years Ojai festival at the Wall Street Journal and gives it a mixed review:
...by elevating jazz to a position of primacy while re-engaging several artists prominently featured at the festival last year and the year before, Ojai’s decision-makers created an atmosphere in which much of the programming seemed either out of place or regurgitated. Mr. Iyer was a welcome new face who brought ethnic diversity as well as ample talent to Ojai. But seeing a former music director, the percussionist Steven Schick (2015), on stage more frequently than his successor undercut the message. To be fair, Mr. Iyer’s music was abundantly represented, though not always well received, throughout the long weekend.
The sense of déjà vu was furthered by the return (for the third year in a row) of members of the versatile and virtuosic International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), serving as the house band in all but name. Claire Chase, an ICE flutist as well as a flamboyant soloist, was among them, but her presence became unwelcome following a self-indulgent recital on Friday afternoon. Ms. Chase is immensely talented technically, but her showboating stage manner (silver metallic shorts over black leggings, awkward dance-like effects) and overreliance on a limited number of performance gimmicks didn’t wear well. (Enough already with the amplified lip smacks!)
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I am a great admirer of John Lennon as a musician and songwriter, but he said some remarkably silly things in his time, and this has to be the silliest:
"Before Elvis, there was nothing."  --John Lennon
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My favorite among the younger pianists is Igor Levit who just completed a journey through all the Beethoven piano sonatas at Wigmore Hall in London. The Guardian gives a well-deserved laudatory review:
Igor Levit’s performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall have stretched from early last autumn to the start of the summer. Individually and cumulatively, they have provided one of the most compelling experiences of the current London concert season. This final recital, consisting of the last three sonatas, epitomised the several that I was able to attend – boldly conceived, sometimes questionable and even uncomfortable, but full of thought and technically outstanding.
Levit is not a Beethovenian purist. He does not play with head metaphorically bowed in reverence to the canon. His Beethoven loves to surprise, and this is surely a necessary instinct. He is at one with Beethoven’s boundary-testing radicalism, a feature that was especially evident in the sometimes reckless but gloriously exciting treatment of some of the early sonatas. In the last three, of course, the stylistic boundaries are tested to even further extremes, but Levit mostly kept his repertoire of shock tactics in check.
 Igor Levit's Beethoven is not comfortable and predictable: it is challenging and fresh, just as it should be.

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I recently posted a rant about coughing in concerts and Slipped Disc has a post about a much milder instance of concert etiquette that prompted the whole panoply of different attitudes on the subject from commentators. It's worth a read.
One of the aspects of concert etiquette underscored in the comments that I think worth pointing out : most concertgoers have an expectation that the concert should be a silent and still moment (though their tolerance to this or that small disruption will vary). Any breach can then upset this balance and in the worst cases ruin the whole experience.
The important thing here is the expectation set : a tennis player can be flustered by a few people talking behind him, yet a football player will shoot penalties with an entire stadium roaring. They’re no different, but just have to concentrate in different environments, the parameters of which are defined beforehand and presumed to be accepted by all.
I happen to think the expectation of silence at a concert is a great thing and something to be preserved, especially in the noisy, shambolic world we live in.
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A really suitable envoi would be some Beethoven from Igor Levit. Here is the slow movement from the "Tempest" sonata, op. 31, no. 2:


12 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Was reading this morning and came across this:

Though much of this repertoire [later 19th c vocal music: song, opera, oratorio-- think of the 30 other Massenet operas, or the 40-odd by Halévy...] fell quite rapidly out of vogue in the early twentieth century (thanks in part to the economics involved in mounting some of the larger-scale works), it’s all immensely attractive music, and I can think of no finer advocates than [Véronique] Gens and the Münchner Runfunkorchester under Hervé Niquet, who sound for all the world as if they’re playing period instruments thanks to the idiomatic handling of style and sonority on show.

What 'period instruments' can the writer be talking about? what am I missing?

Marc Puckett said...

You've got to wonder why the Times imagines that Randy Gibson's three hours of D is worth all the space? Fifteen minutes was peculiar if vaguely interesting: there are two other tracks (movements?) available for free listening at the CD label's site but I haven't been inclined to take them up on their offer to do so. I thought of this in connexion with your comment on perfect pitch because Gibson and 'drone music' seem to rely on the use of overtones (not that I quite understand about those) which depend evidently on 'compromising the pure intervals of just intonation to meet other requirements' or something like that. "Does every note come with a little label: G5 and so on? Does this ever distract from the expressive content? What about complex textures as we might find in Ligeti or Xenakis? Does every note still come with a little label even if there are hundreds of different ones?" Expressive content, indeed.

Bryan Townsend said...

Do you have link to this handy? So I can see the context? It sounds a bit like an English writer. I think that we are starting to see performances of not just early, but middle and perhaps soon, late 19th century music on "period instruments". Instruments, wind and percussion instruments at least, are continually being modified and "improved" which means that the horizon where a contemporary performance will be heard to significantly deviate from a "period" performance is constantly moving forward. Fifty years ago it was pretty much just Medieval and Renaissance music that called for the full Early Music treatment. Bach was ok on modern instruments. But when Bach and all the other Baroque guys fell to the HIP movement, the rest was inevitable and we soon (as of the 80s, I guess) started seeing performances of Beethoven and Schubert on "original instruments". The process continues, though I suspect it will be quite a while before we see Boulez on original instruments!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think of these sorts of compositional strategies as being driven by a kind of historical determinism: we had the steadily increasing complexity of music from the late 19th century through the 60s at least (it continues in some corners even today). This then provoked the antithesis of minimalism. If, as a composer, you see no alternative but to keep extending the boundaries, then you go to great lengths such as hours and hours of a single note. The thing is that LaMont Young was doing this decades ago. The electronic processing of acoustic instruments goes back decades, though the results seem a lot "cleaner" these days.

It doesn't seem to have much aesthetic interest though.

Marc Puckett said...

Yes, Gibson abandoned the schools apparently and became an apprentice of La Monte Young.

The 'period instruments' are in the Presto Classical weekly email yesterday, the first part of it (touting the Gens CD Visions).

Bryan Townsend said...

Re the CD Visions, it all sounds rather like Berlioz and water!

Marc Puckett said...

Just read the NL post about his page turning being shushed; gosh, both the shushing and his reaction to it on the blog seem equally ridiculous. I suppose he may write such things knowingly & be in actual real life one of those people capable of a hearty laugh at his own expense.

I enjoyed the Visions track from... Félicien David's Lalla Rookh-- thought it was a pleasantly tuneful little piece. Read that novel by Moore about a hundred years ago, once, barely, but it's popularity in 19th c Europe certainly seems to have been widespread (and now of course utterly incomprehensible).

Marc Puckett said...

I've got a new opera for you: The Woman of Salt (think Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, from Genesis), the opera prima of a woman named Anice Thigpen who lives in this area; the site is here. I scribbled that "... (f)rom Lot's wife 'telepathing' the conceit of the opera to her [Thigpen], to glorious Eugene being 'the promised land' where the suffering lesbian mothers find peace, I'm afraid that we'll hear, more than anything else, ninety minutes of self-referential musical therapy ('tuneful' and 'dissonant') on the 23rd. But, perhaps not." I tell myself that there must be something musically valuable or else this production wouldn't have been made to happen-- reason and experience tells me that's not necessarily true, however.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, you are very wise! I used to read a lot of 19th century fiction, including the six Palliser novels by Trollope, but I suspect I couldn't get through them now. Where did all our time go?

Can we expect a report from you on The Woman of Salt?

Marc Puckett said...

I have a ticket but whether I actually take myself to the theater in Springfield after eight hours of work Friday is another question; the logistics will necessarily involve the city buses and at least one taxi. We're beginning a run of 90 degree F. days, too, through the weekend.

Marc Puckett said...

I've forgotten exactly where or why the subject was dance music but has anyone seen or heard the expression 'ancient groove music'? Saw it used ("so-called ancient groove music") in the NYT yesterday-- looked about online and while there is a music publisher named Ben something who does fine engraving for scores et cetera and uses AGM as his business name I came up empty. I think it must just be jargonish for 'dance music before EDM and HH'? that's where I'm leaving it anyway.

It seems to me increasingly unlikely that I'll be at The Woman of Salt this evening. Had been, there for a while, very enthusiastic from the spectacle! point of view but not so much this Friday morning.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, I don't know Marc, you may not get on the Music Salon Concert Reviewer short list after all if you miss this opera premiere!

8>)

"Ancient groove music"? Nope, never heard that one before. More fake news from the NYT.