Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

This year would have been Leonard Bernstein's one hundredth birthday and the Wall Street Journal has a piece on his artistic legacy:
It would be fair to judge his “serious” side as a mixed success. Take, as an example, “Serenade,” the second most performed of his works in this celebratory season (after “Symphonic Dances From West Side Story”). The composer described it as having been based on Plato’s “Symposium.” This was a warning sign. He could have simply labeled this piece a violin concerto, because the connection between the literary model and the musical score is very tenuous. The reference to Plato, following a 20th-century artistic trend of basing works on ancient Greek themes (spearheaded by Igor Stravinsky ), was no doubt meant to convey a certain level of high-mindedness; audiences are likely attracted in part by that pretense.
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 Norman Lebrecht recounts an old anecdote about Jascha Heifetz. Exactly one hundred years ago today, Oct. 27, 1917, the sixteen-year old violinist gave his debut at Carnegie Hall:
The hall was packed out on advance hype. Every musician in New York needed to hear this kid.
It was an unseasonally warm Saturday afternoon. Mischa Elman [violinist] turned to his neighbour, the pianist Leopold Godowsky, before the debutant came on stage.
‘Phew,’ said Elman, ‘it’s hot in here.’
‘Not for pianists,’ said Godowsky.
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There is a review in The Guardian of a new recording of John Cage's Piano Concerto, composed according to chance procedures:
Performers of John Cage’s piano concerto could theoretically play nothing at all, if that’s what they wanted. The point is about choice. “John, you’re my man,” said a trombonist who played in the original performance. “I’ll play for you any time.” Trust is the making of indeterminate music and Apartment House’s new recording is all trust. Philip Thomas makes the piano part magnetic, like the centrifugal planet in an erratic constellation. Around him spin trumpet, violin, flute and others, everyone quick-witted and playful.
The piece is for prepared piano and chamber orchestra and there are several clips on YouTube. This is Giancarlo Simonacci, prepared piano with the Orchestra V. Galilei conducted by Nicola Paszkowski:

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Cellist David Finckel was a long-time member of the Emerson Quartet. He and his pianist wife Wu Han are "two patricians in chamber music society" according to an article in San Francisco Classical Voice:
they’re master directors and guest curators, artistic directors of Chamber Music Today, the first major Korean festival; founders of the Finckel-Wu Han Chamber Music Studio at the Aspen Music Festival; and together have established more than a dozen residencies for CMS Lincoln Center, across the country and abroad: from the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg to Wigmore Hall in London to Shaker Village, Kentucky, where they play in a historic barn
The article speculates:
What makes them particularly interesting is the way they’ve become forerunners in the new world of artistic endeavor. It’s long been clear that it’s no longer enough to be a superb musician, no matter how driven. Everybody’s driven. The new trinity is performing, promoting, and entrepreneurship. You could argue that the last two are much more important than the first. The principles according to Wu Han and  Finckel are unchanging: you court patrons, trust the audience, deliver excellence, and remain flexible. And keep humor next to your breast at all times. To do all that effectively and consistently over a long period of time, you need to be a fanatic.
Not to overstate it, but the fact is that the Finckels, and others like them, may be the best shot to keep classical music in this country, in the broadest sense, relevant and vibrant.
 Well, maybe so, but I rather think that there are actually very few superb musicians.

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One reason the Beatles stopped touring in 1966 was that more and more they wrestled with the simple logistics of getting to the stage without being trampled by their fans. A darker fear was that of being the target of an assassin, which became a reality for John Lennon in 1980. After a string of terrorist attacks, popular musicians today are dealing with similar fears. The Pacific Standard has the story:
Deadly attacks have turned concert venues in Paris, Manchester, and Las Vegas into grisly battlefields. America's latest mass shooting, which took place during a performance by country star Jason Aldean, took 59 lives, terrified concert-goers and re-opened the debate over gun control in Congress. In the process, these tragedies have shaken up a pivotal industry: the market for terrorism insurance.
Performers have always opted to insure their acts in case of cancellation. But now artists from Britney Spears to Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan are putting an extra 0.25 to 1 percent of their profits toward terrorism and political violence coverage, which pays an artist for shows canceled specifically in the event of a threat or attack.
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 It ain't easy: a new report by the Musicians' Union in the UK finds that
Music teachers have never had lower pay or less job security, a new report by the Musicians’ Union (MU) has found.
It also stresses job dissatisfaction is on the rise due to a widespread lack of financial support, such as maternity pay and sick pay, and questions the extent to which a career in music teaching “is still viable”.
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And finally, science takes another look at musicians and creativity:  Classical and Jazz musicians show different brain responses to unexpected events, study finds.
The researchers used EEG to compare the electrical brain activity of 12 Jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 Classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some of the chords followed a progression that was typical of Western music, while others had an unexpected progression.
Louie and her colleagues found that Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progression, which indicated they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.
“Creativity is about how our brains treat the unexpected,” Loui told PsyPost. “Everyone (regardless of how creative) knows when they encounter something unexpected. But people who are more creative are more perceptually sensitive and more cognitively engaged with unexpectedness. They also more readily accept this unexpectedness as being part of the vocabulary.
I find that when you are looking at these kinds of research, you should be aware of the unsupported assumptions. Here, for example, the statement "creativity is about how our brains treat the unexpected" is the one that rings a warning bell for me. Says who? Ok, the researchers. But based on what? Is that what creativity is? It seems to me that the causality is backwards. Creativity in the arts is the discovery and use of ideas that are either new or neglected in aesthetically successful ways. I'm not sure what they are measuring here, but it is likely not creativity. I'm pretty sure that there is no scientific way to measure creativity.

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Our envoi for today is the Serenade, after Plato: Symposium for violin and orchestra by Leonard Bernstein. The performers are Vadim Gluzman violin with the  Spanish Radio and Television Orchestra conducted by Carlos Kalmar:


Larry said...

I think you have found a new fan for your blogs!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Larry!!

Christine Lacroix said...

"Louie and her colleagues found that Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progression," I guess we can't argue with that though perhaps 12 subjects aren't enough to confirm anything? It's this next bit that seems to be quite a stretch:
"which indicated they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events."

How on earth can they conclude that a "different electrophysiological response" is linked to 'increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events"?
Are they speculating that an eeg of a person listening to music could be used to predict reactions to events in other contexts? And maybe those chord progressions aren't really unexpected at all to the ear of a jazz musician? Reminds me of dream interpretation or ink blot analysis. What do you see when you look at the eeg?

Bryan Townsend said...


Christine Lacroix said...

Do you mean 'eegzactly'?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, eegzactly!

You know, it's not so much the scientists (I hope!) as it is the stories in the mass media that seem almost entirely devoid of any understanding of logic and common sense.