Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a really interesting piece of jazz musicology that looks at a pair of 1967 concerts for clues as to why jazz has been sidelined in the decades since, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and One Night in New York City:
the basics of straight-ahead jazz were also being taught to incoming freshmen at an increasing number of American colleges. The influx of students mandated digestible rules. During the mid-seventies, a lead sheet of “In a Sentimental Mood” appeared in “The Real Book,” the most widely disseminated jazz manual ever made, a “fake book” of tunes and chord changes produced by students in the powerful jazz program at Berklee College of Music, in Boston.
If a student wanted to sound like Bill Evans on “In a Sentimental Mood,” he or she could quickly start getting close with the help of a chart in “The Real Book.” The sheet begins with four versions of D minor, “D-, D-(maj7), D-7, D-6.” These aren’t wrong, exactly, but they are far closer to Evans than Ellington, and suggest ways of articulating harmony in a blocky and unmusical fashion, one divorced from the idea and emotion of the original song.
Read the whole thing for a fascinating and informed look at how jazz is transmitted.

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I've been on a long crusade against what I call "scientism" because much of it appears to me to be wildly misinterpreted or simply wildly wrong attempts to prove the, at least, dubious. Call it science as cult. I started on this because just about every article I ran across on the scientific study of music was hilariously mistaken. This week the Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece supporting my view titled Studies Are Usually Bunk, Study Shows:
Pop psychologists have churned out mountains of books proving some intuitive point that turns out to be wrong. It’s “sciencey,” with a whiff of (false) authenticity.
Malcolm Gladwell is the master. In his 2008 book, “Outlier,” he argues that studies show no one is born better than anyone else. Instead success comes to those who put in 10,000 hours of practice. That does sound right, but maybe Steph Curry shoots hoops for 10,000 hours because he is better than everyone at basketball in the first place. Meanwhile I watch 10,000 hours of TV. Facing criticism, Mr. Gladwell somewhat recanted: “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.” News alert: Professional sports are cognitively demanding.
Gladwell's 10,000 hours claim was one that I attacked years ago--as any music teacher knows, there are lots of students for whom 10,000 hours of practice will get them not very far, while with some students a fraction of that time will see them far ahead. In fact, most of these studies are simply mistaken:
In August 2015, the Center for Open Science published a study in which 270 researchers spent four years trying to reproduce 100 leading psychology experiments. They successfully replicated only 39.
Things like "unconscious bias," that is the theory that underlies masses of social engineering are simply unlikely:
In his best seller “Blink,” Mr. Gladwell finds studies suggesting we are all unconsciously biased sexists, racists, genderists, ableists, and a litany of other “ists”—victimhood’s origin story. Newer research has deflated this theory, but the serious conclusions, and boring training seminars they inevitably lead to, remain.
What we have to always remember is to be skeptical, especially of those ideas that are very beneficial to those people that purport to administrate society for the better. Turns out it benefits them and almost no-one else. Now that's critical thinking!

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There have been several articles lately bemoaning the invitation to conservative pundit Dennis Prager to conduct the Santa Monica Symphony in a benefit concert. According to them, anyone who disagrees with them is a bigot and should not be allowed to show his face in public. Here is an article making the contrary case that politicizing everything, especially classical music, is just a very bad idea: Was Haydn a Bigot? Are you?
My friend Dennis Prager, the radio talk-show-host, is conducting the Santa Monica Symphony in a Haydn symphony this Wednesday at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and, of course, his appearance has "drawn fire" and "raised controversy" in the fever swamps of the Left, which is freaking out at the prospect of having a "bigot" on the podium. Anyone who knows Dennis, or who even listens to his daily radio show on the Salem Radio Network, understands this is codswallop.  Prager is an observant Jew and a man who has spoken and written extensively on the moral issues of our day. His bona fides as a public intellectual are impeccable.
I can remember when most of life was entirely free of politics--and it wasn't that long ago! If I sat down to play chamber music with someone it wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years to even wonder what their views on socialized healthcare or immigration policy were. And I really can't see why the horn section of the Santa Monica Symphony should care either.

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The BBC Proms concerts in London, one of the great summer music festivals, apparently have an Early Music problem, Time to ditch authenticity for early music Proms:
They say the first step towards recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So I’m staging an intervention and asking the BBC Proms to admit what they’ve known for some time: they have a big problem when it comes to early music. How to perform it, where to perform it, even who should perform it — these are all questions that, year after year, remain unsatisfactorily, inconsistently or superficially answered, and there’s little in this year’s programming to suggest that 2017 will be any different.
If the problem is that the repertoire and ensembles do not translate well to the large halls, what is the solution?
Some of the most exciting performances of baroque and early classical repertoire we’ve heard this season (Rattle’s Haydn with the LSO; Rebel’s Les élémens — an opener for Joshua Weilerstein and the BBCSO) have been not from period specialists but symphony orchestras. Not because the quality of playing was any better, but because the repertoire was embraced into a musical continuum, was explicitly related to the rest of musical history rather than ghettoised, set apart. If this means we lose authenticity then I think it’s a price worth paying for music that has the spirit (if not quite the sound) that the composer intended.
Yep, the problem of translating subtle, smaller ensemble performances into the larger spaces of today has never really been acknowledged.

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This is the kind of article I like to see, all about the librarian for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Librarian helps keep Philadelphia Orchestra running smoothly:
“We’re not taking 40-year-old parts and putting in new bowings,” Grossman said. “Rather, there are three new ways this is done: Yannick marks his score and we transfer everything to the parts; or he marks only the principals’ parts (concertmaster, second violin, viola, cello, bass); or, because we understand his approach, he lets the principals work together to produce a bow master. They now have regular meetings to look at all the music. Yannick likes the orchestra to be prepared. He’d rather spend time in rehearsals getting into interpretive issues.”
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All the rights to the royalties as well as to the name and image of Glenn Gould have been sold to a US agency. I'll bet he's glad he is dead and doesn't have to hear about this. I think that was black Canadian humor...

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Since I'm planning on attending next summer I am delighted to hear about a rejuvenated Salzburg Festival. Alex Ross waxes ecstatic:
In recent years, this most sumptuous of classical-music gatherings has reverted to its default identity as a parade of musical celebrities with no clear artistic destination in sight. Last year, though, the progressive-minded Austrian pianist and impresario Markus Hinterhäuser took over as Salzburg’s artistic director, and he is stirring memories of the festival’s most vital period—that of the nineteen-nineties, when Gerard Mortier presided over a superb array of provocations, including an avant-garde series that Hinterhäuser co-curated.
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As has been said before, for the post-modernists, all relationships are power relationships so any respect for the aesthetic quality and traditions of Western music has to be understood as a naked claim to superiority and therefore crushed. Sorry, but classical music is neither racist nor the Black Plague. These kinds of arguments are nauseating...

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For our envoi today this is the Symphony No. 51 in B flat major by Joseph Haydn, the one chosen for the Santa Monica benefit concert. The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood:


14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you have it backwards with the Prager controversy. The issue is not that a musician's political stands should have no bearing on his suitability to play in an ensemble. I agree there. The problem is the opposite. The only reason Prager is even there is because of politics. Prager knows nothing about music beyond your average amateur's level. He's brought in to conduct simply because he is very famous and his name will fill seats because of the celebrity factor. It's a charity event so filling seats is what matters. It's no different from Yuja Wang wearing a bikini at a concert (something I remember you criticizing).

To add insult to injury it confirms the widely held view among the masses that a conductor does nothing. After all, no musician would trade places with Prager since the guy can't play any instrument. But conducting? Hey, any moron can do it. In fact there's a famous Bernstein episode where he stops conducting after 2 minutes and the Orchestra continues to play flawlessly. Of course there's a reason for that we all know here. But a stunt like Prager is just one more joke on classical music. Maybe Justin Bieber should conduct the BSO. That would fill Tanglewood all right!

Maybe the musicians who protested did so for the wrong reasons (his rightwing views) but it is legitimate to feel uneasy about such a display, where the role of the conductor is presented as, essentially, a joke.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, those are some good arguments! As I always say, the commentators add so much to this blog. Prager is, I guess, a "celebrity" participant who is not actually a real conductor. But don't we cut some slack for this sort of thing? After all, the concert was a sold-out success and helped the symphony's bottom line?

Yes, there is that great Bernstein video where, after giving the downbeat. basically just stands there wiggling his eyebrows for the whole movement (also Haydn, the Symphony 88 finale). But that was just a tribute to the Vienna Phillies.

Marc Puckett said...

I don't see how utilising Prager's conducting skills-- he's done this before X number of times with Y number of orchestras and so has some skill, one would think? some?-- for this sort of fundraising/awareness-raising is a 'joke', really. No one pretended that he is Toscanini. And the protesting musicians-- this is an untestable hypothesis, of course-- were he what's his name or what's her name, a famous leftist celebrity, Rachel Maddow, e.g., would have fallen all over themselves embracing the wonderful gesture of goodwill and arts advocacy (in spite of the fact-- in this my hypothetical construct-- that Maddow hasn't as much conducting experience as Prager). I had forgotten all about this but am glad the tickets sold out!

Will Wilkin said...

Speaking of fakebooks (or was it a Realbook?), I just got my Bluegrass Fakebook and I'm very excited to have signed up for my first Bluegrass jam session a week from tomorrow! Making live music with other amateurs in a supportive and accepting atmosphere is the front-porch-music approach I need, and its rarity shows, I think, a great loss in our contemporary consumerist culture where music is left only to the professionals.

Regarding "scientism," I think humanism and the sciences are separate branches of study for very good reason. I've never given psychology much credit as a science, mostly because man has a spiritual dimension that will never be measured or explained. One of my favorite poets is Sigmund Freud, best read on the beach with a bottle of wine nearby. Laugh heartily, for like the religions, truth is found mostly at the level of metaphor, however ridiculous the literal words might be out of the time and place in which they were originally formulated.

I read a great little book a few years ago, "Strengthfinder," which gave a great little equation: Achievement = Talent x Effort. BOTH factors are very important in determining the product. Nonetheless, I practice a lot anyway....

Unconscious bias is only a politicized simplification of the fact that, as described in the book "Philosophy in the Flesh," ALL cognition is mostly unconscious and metaphorization of bodily sensations. Yes, metaphorization is a word, I think I followed all the standard rules of English in adapting the root to my application here as a verb.

In my own self-imposed ghetto of mostly ignoring popular culture and mass media, I confess I do not know who Dennis Prager is. I do agree with "Anonymous" that the role of conductor should not be treated as a trifle or mere ornament, though I have zero qualifications to judge the qualifications of Mr. Prager. Perhaps if he needed it, the members of the orchestra have taught him a thing or two in the rehearsals, and perhaps they readied him to ornament their performance in a way that evokes whatever serious preparation they've done in the rehearsals, perhaps under the leadership of the concertmaster and other section leaders?

Will Wilkin said...

Part 2

Regarding early music, it's ultimately just MUSIC and I'm always glad when any professional musicians are doing it. Leaving it to me would mean its total demise, though I'm doing my best with the 17th century stuff via commercially-available sheet music. More than "authentic," music must live and breathe today, like the musicians who play it.

Bryan, we have to ignore the political silliness of "Musicology (Today)" and take quiet comfort in the music that will survive many more centuries based on its aesthetic merits, oblivious to the rages of the myriad decades through which it slides, intact and serene. Just tonight I listened to your "4 Pieces for Violin and Guitar" and, Bryan, your art is another perfect piece of that timeless mosaic of seriously beautiful music that cannot be touched by politics or ideology, as spirit cannot be harmed by fists or petty mortal rage.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Marc, I read in another place that Mr. Prager took the engagement quite seriously and worked on his conducting "chops" with a number of musicians from the orchestra for a few days before. And yes, he has done this lots of times.

@Will, good show with the bluegrass group! One of the greatest thrills of being a musician is the pleasure of playing with other musicians. There is really nothing like it and the fact that most people don't seem to be able to experience it any more is a real tragedy. Thanks so much for your kind words about my Four Pieces for Violin and Guitar. I am about to send out a bunch of copies to various musicians, including my friend in Finland, in hopes of getting some international performances.

Marc Puckett said...

(In case anyone is interested and didn't notice, Norman Lebrecht at Slipped Disc invited a post from Lawrence Wheeler, who played first viola at that Prager-led Santa Monica Symphony performance, here.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc. That was the piece I was thinking of. Thanks for providing the link. As always, the 50 comments offer a lot of amusement.

Will Wilkin said...

Yes Bryan, I love the "Four Pieces" that much! I predict public performances!

Please compose more for violin and publish the sheet music with downloadable audio I can burn to CD.

Marc Puckett said...

Finally read the Ross essay. If one factors out his preoccupations with transformative power and identity politics, one is left with a) well sung parts of Mozart's Clemenza, b) bewilderment at Sokolov's interpretive decisions, and then c) Christian Gerhaher's Schumann. Had never listened to Gerhaher, so am grateful for the heads up.

Are you really going to Salzburg for the entire thing next season? very jealous but I'd be wandering about in a daze after the first week. Whatever nonsense Markus Hinterhäuser causes, the glories of the rest of the program would be enough to cover up any lingering unpleasant aftertaste. All three of Monteverdi's operas this season! multiple performances of Ariodante! I'd stay just for the solo recitals, gosh.

How long does the New Yorker keep Alex Ross in Salzburg, do you think? the Liederabend Gerhaher was on the 31st July, the Sokolov happened on the 1st, and then there were performances of La Clemenza on the 30th July and the 4th August. A week?

Bryan Townsend said...

@Will: I confess that my creative springs have been stopped up for several months now, but I take your request seriously. A piece for violin and guitar might well serve as an ice-breaker...

@Marc, I was a bit rushed doing this week's miscellanea and only skimmed the Ross essay. I just now read it through and saw his remarks on Sokolov. It is odd how strangely he received the recital. It reminds me a bit of that famous New Yorker cover that sees the whole world from the foreshortened perspective of Manhattan! As for my trip, I am hoping to spend a week, or perhaps two there. It is more expensive than Madrid. I will decide once I see next year's program.

Marc Puckett said...

There was a portrait of sorts in the Times yesterday of Markus Hinterhäuser; well, it is in print today.

I don't quite see what would be a defensible rationale for 'interpolating other music by Mozart, including from his Mass in C minor' into La Clemenza but of course the primary blame/responsibility for that lies with Theodor Currentzis, not Hinterhäuser. But he is working pianist, which ought to count for something.

Marc Puckett said...

Not Currentzis of course although doubtless he was involved-- that name is stuck in my head for some reason-- but Peter Sellars. From a Diapason review, its obvious that it really is interpolations referred to, parts added into the opera, not Sellars messing about with the Mozartean score itself, if I'm making that distinction clear.

Bryan Townsend said...

I suspect most people attending performances of Mozart operas are unaware of how often the scores are tinkered with. Usually they are subjected to cuts, but this is the first time I have heard of sections from a mass being interpolated. I suppose the proof of the pudding is in the eating.