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 LabschĂŒtz:

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 NarvĂĄez' 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 (StefĂĄn 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 NiccolĂČ 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, Ă  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:

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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:

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Shostakovich the Secret Dissident?

The problem of the position and function of composers under the regime of Joseph Stalin is both complex and often misunderstood and never more than in the case of Dmitri Shostakovich. Sadly, even after a lot of scholarship on the part of musicologists to sort things out, writers in the mainstream media are still retailing the confusion and errors. Case in point, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Stuart Isacoff titled A Subversive, Symphonic Response to Stalin:
Alexander Fadeyev, head of the Soviet Writers’ Union, found in the music’s assertively luminous conclusion not a sense of resolution, but “a punishment or vengeance on someone.” In “Testimony,” the composer’s memoir, Shostakovich decried the effect: “It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’”
The phrase "In "Testimony," the composer's memoir..." gives us a clue as to where the writer went astray. The book Testimony, though attributed to both Dmitri Shostakovich and Solomon Volkov likely owes very little to the composer but is rather a concoction of Volkov's. Arguments about this have been heated since the book came out and entire volumes have been devoted to evaluating and eventually dismissing most of Volkov's claims to authenticity. Perhaps the most cogent discussion of the issues surrounding the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich is in Richard Taruskin's "Public lies and unspeakable truth: interpreting Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony" (reprinted in Shostakovich Studies, Cambridge University Press). Regarding that controversial finale he writes:
...if we claim to find defiant ridicule in the Fifth Symphony, we necessarily adjudge its composer, at this point in his career, to have been a 'dissident'. That characterisation, popular as it has become, and attractive as it will always be to many, has got to be rejected as a self-gratifying anachronism ... There were no dissidents in Stalin's Russia. There were old opponents to be sure, but by late 1937 they were all dead or behind bars. There were the forlorn and the malcontented, but they were silent.
If Shostakovich had indeed written a subversive, symphonic response to Stalin, then he would have suffered the immediate consequences, which he did not. Instead, he was showered with prizes and acclaim by the Soviet apparatus.

Towards the end of Taruskin's essay he offers this conclusion:
We can learn a great deal from the cultural artefacts of the Stalinist period, but only if we are prepared to receive them in their full spectrum of greys.
Alongside the example of Shostakovich, we could set that of Prokofiev, who returned to Soviet Russia after being disappointed with his career in the West. He tried, in all sincerity, to write music that would appeal to the people in a heroic way, the basic requirement of "socialist realism." But the "meaning" of music is ambiguous and complex, or can be. So we can discern many strands in a work like the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich and they can include irony, despair, beauty and a thousand other things. Just not, you know, subversive ridicule of Stalin.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

An Anniversary

This is the 20th anniversary of the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which, in contrast to so many other television shows, actually stands up pretty well. The Spectator has a couple of essays devoted to the show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer transformed pop culture and Buffy the Vampire Slayer made me the man I am.
Joss Whedon’s generation-defining TV hit debuted 20 years ago tonight. Its anniversary is being marked by the fans who adored it and the critics whose cool detachment it drove a stake through. It is fourteen years since Sunnydale collapsed into the Hellmouth and Buffy left the airwaves after seven seasons. But far from turning to dust, this unlikeliest of cultural landmarks has enjoyed an afterlife through graphic novels, fan fiction, merchandise, conventions and the long-running chatter about a Hollywood adaptation, a rumour that has proved harder to kill than the show’s durable lead. (She died twice.)
I only discovered the show after it was in re-runs. One day, by accident, I watched one of the early episodes from season six, when Buffy is actually dead and has been temporarily replaced by a robot (played, of course, by the actress who plays Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar). For some reason, probably the humor, I got the urge to watch more and finally ended up buying everything Joss Whedon ever did including Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly and even Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. What a remarkable congeries of creative genius! Of course nowadays his soul has been trapped in an urn by the implacable forces of Hollywood blockbuster commercialism...

But Buffy (and Angel) still stand out because of their brilliant originality, not because of their feminism or social justice or whatever. One of the remarkable aspects is the lack of moral relativism, though the moral ambiguities develop in interesting ways. There is always a price to be paid for evil. Angel has one of the most gripping finales ever with the remaining characters faced with an impossible battle they cannot win, but must fight anyway. Angel's last lines are "personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon, let's go to work." Fade to black.

Out of many remarkable Buffy episodes, I think my favorites include the homage to Hollywood musicals, "Once More With Feeling" and "Hush" where the characters, for most of the episode, lose the ability to speak. One of the few clips available on YouTube is this one, from season five:

The context would help--for example, this scene plays better if you know just how truly insufferable Quentin and the Watcher's Council had been over the previous seasons--but I think it still comes across well. This is a writer's show: it's not about the special effects or the cinematography or all of the other things that distract us from the usual bad writing on television. It's about the writing and how brilliantly we can be fooled as to where the story is going. Whedon was a master at playing the varying conventions of drama, horror, action and comedy against one another and changing the mood in an instant.

Revising the Narrative

One of the first songs I noticed, as a child, was "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash. I've pretty much always thought of him as a salt-of-the-earth populist musician. But that hardly jibes with the information that he was a voracious reader of, among other things, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We learn this from his son John Carter Cash writing in The Spectator:
He was a scholar, learned in ancient texts, including those of Flavius Josephus and unquestionably of the Bible. He was an ordained minister and could easily hold his own with any theologian. His books on ancient history, such as Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, were annotated, read, reread, and worn, his very soul deeply ingrained into their threadbare pages. I still have some of these books. When I hold them, when I touch the pages, I can sense my father in some ways even more profoundly than in his music.
The whole piece is worth reading.

Our envoi has to be:

What I never noticed before was the mariachi influence in the brass.

Signor Claudio Monteverdi and the Historical Context

Last month I promised a series of posts on Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643) who was so creative and so long-lived that he spans two different eras of music history. I've been reviewing what Richard Taruskin says about him in the Oxford History of Western Music (a hefty set of five large volumes that I heartily recommend) and the first thing I am reminded of is that Taruskin is not much in favor of even using the terms "Renaissance" and "Baroque" which is why he breaks with tradition by titling his volumes after the century and not after a supposed musical style.

But that does not detract from the importance of Monteverdi, nor from his emergence from the earlier style and role in the creation of the newer style (called at the time the prima pratica and seconda pratica). My links to the Wikipedia articles are not meant to acknowledge their credibility, by the way. Whoever wrote them is rather confused about the whole thing! The prima pratica refers to the older style of the ars perfecta with its smooth lines and highly controlled dissonance. The newer style was not thought of as "Baroque" of course, that term came along very much later as a critique of Rameau. The exemplar of the ars perfecta is Palestrina, very much a 16th century figure writing in what we traditionally called "Renaissance" style. As Taruskin writes:
...the central irony of the "Renaissance," as the term is applied to music, is the way in which the Greek revivalism that motivated the "rebirth" of philosophy and the other arts actually undermined the dominant "Renaissance" musical style, if we take that style to be the ars perfecta. [op. cit. vol. I, p. 797]
 Instead of the term "Baroque" which Taruskin insists we don't need as it does little more than mislead, he proposes several others that point towards the developments in science and philosophy. If we need a musical term we might note that the era is typified by the emergence of musical theatre, one of the characteristics of the 17th century and one in which Monteverdi was very much in the forefront. If we want to refer to something even more characteristically musical, we could refer to it as the age of the basso continuo, the nearly obligatory new element of a bass line and its realization in harmony. It emerged early in the 17th century and died out in the late 18th century as the Classical style became central.

Getting back to the irony Taruskin refers to, the traditional clichĂ© is that the rediscovery of the learning of Classical Greece prompted the Renaissance, but in music that is not the case. It was the researches of Girolamo Mei, associated with the Accademia Fiorentina, that explored the intricacies of Greek music theory and prompted the new, more expressive style (which we are carefully not calling "Baroque"). What his erudite treatise did not reveal was what Greek music actually sounded like, which was actually a benefit because it meant that composers were not tempted to imitate an ancient model. Mei was pretty sure that Greek music did not contain things like the complex counterpoint of the ars perfecta but was instead monophonic and exerted expressive and moral influence through the use of different modes. The new style in music should be representational, that is, it should imitate in sound the intonations, pitch, tone and other expressive elements of impassioned human speech. These ideas were coming from one Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo Galilei the scientist and were part of a new intellectual movement that we can term "radical humanism." Instead of the traditional persuasion through pure logic and reference to authority, the new persuasion is based on rhetoric and persuasive expression. You can see the appeal to musicians!

This was the environment into which Monteverdi entered as a composer. His early madrigals are in the style of the ars perfecta, but more and more they tend towards increased intensity of expression, which in the context of the style, meant more dissonance and less deference toward the strict control of the older style. An example that Taruskin offers is "Cruda Amarilli" from the fifth madrigal book of 1605 where the soprano enters with a dissonance (not permitted in the older style) and, instead of immediately resolving as it should, moves to yet another dissonance!

Click to enlarge
The box indicates the section: the soprano enters with a typical expostulation ("ahi lasso!" "ah, weary me" from which comes our word "alas") on the dissonant A (over a G major harmony) which moves to an F which is still a dissonance! In the next measure it resolves to an E, the third of a C chord.

Cruda Amarilli (Cruel Amarilli) is the first piece in the Fifth Book of Madrigals. This performance is unattributed, but we have the score:

This performance, with ad libitum lute accompaniment, is by R. Alessandrini & Concerto Italiano:

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

This is a little far afield, but the civilization of ancient Greece has always fascinated me. The Wall Street Journal has a piece about an upcoming exhibit of works by the Berlin Painter, the anonymous Greek artist responsible for what they call “the largest body of pictorial imagery to have survived from antiquity.” Some of the images are of musicians such as this one of Eros playing the double flute:

Here is an excerpt from the article:
The Berlin Painter was identified in 1911 by a young British scholar, John Davidson Beazley (1885-1970), who meticulously cataloged stylistic details suggesting a single creator for some 200 surviving vessels (attributions now number over 300), examining, for example, the splayed fingers of figures’ hands or the ways in which figures are framed on the vase itself. Beazley originally named the artist “Master of the Berlin Amphora,” after a vase he studied at the State Museum of Berlin and which can be seen here, on loan, as you enter; later his name was shortened to the “Berlin Painter.”

* * *

The Guardian has an interesting article on a collection of anonymous motets from the 16th century that the editor, Laurie Stras, believes to be the work of a nun, Leonora d'Este, daughter of Lucrezia Borgia:
Like the rest of her family, Leonora was highly educated and deeply interested in music, but, unusually for a woman, she was allowed to develop that interest into real expertise that was noted and admired by the most respected musicians of her time. But her musical abilities were all the more unusual, and potentially controversial, because she was a nun. Nuns’ music was highly valued by the populace: travel writers throughout the 16th century would recommend musical convents to potential visitors to Venice and Ferrara, in particular.
The article has some clips of the music that are well worth listening to.

* * *

The world of classical music is enormous. Doctoral candidates in musicology supposedly have to master the entirety of it for their comprehensive exams which include single pages of scores with no text that you have to pin down to the decade in which they were composed--and yes, that could be almost any time in the last thousand years. But we know that this cannot be strictly true: you only learn what is considered to be "significant" as no-one, not even a doctoral candidate in musicology, can know everything. Case in point, a New York Times classical music critic learns about a composer she doesn't know from a cab driver:
He brought up Sibelius and suddenly we were ping-ponging Nordic composers back and forth.
I tried out the name Nielsen.
“What I’ve noticed with less well-known composers like Nielsen,” he said, “is that they come and go on the radio. There was a time, a while ago, when they played a lot of Nielsen.”
Did I know BrĂŒll?
I was stumped. He spelled it out for me, with the two dots over the u. “His piano music sounds like Beethoven," he said. "You should listen to it.” 
We were fast approaching my neighborhood. I found myself wishing for slightly heavier traffic.
* * *

And here is the story of the page-turner: seen but not heard:
In performance, the page turner is the pianist's shadow. As the pianist strides onstage, the page turner, cloaked in muted hues, trails behind. She is not to bow, but rather to sit immediately on the spare chair beside the piano bench and hunch. She is to be small and silent. Her movements she must circumscribe to a covert swoop above the pianist’s left hand so that, upon the pianist's nod, she can seize the played page by the topmost corner and pull it to safety. (To seize elsewhere all but ensures the page turner’s elbow making rapid communion with the player’s nose.) At the performance's close, she is the first to retreat. The applause is not hers.
Which reminds me of a story a conductor told when I was a student. When Liszt was in his prime he did a lot of remarkable things. One evening he was sight-reading through a Beethoven symphony on the piano and had a page-turner assisting. Every time Liszt wanted the page turned he nodded. Towards the end of the movement he nodded, the page-turner turned the last page and Liszt kept playing. He had been reading ahead and by the end of the movement he was reading five pages ahead of where he was playing! Could be apocryphal, of course...

* * *

That gives us our envoi for today. This is Liszt's transcription of the Symphony No. 6 by Beethoven played by Glenn Gould:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Snobbism and Classical Music

I didn't have a "snobbism" tag until I created one for this post, but I'm sure the subject has come up. It is an awkward theme for me, because I suspect myself of snobbism sometimes. Here is a definition:
the double inclination to ape one's superiors, often through vulgar ostentation, and to be proud and insolent with one's inferiors. 
Well, that certainly sounds like a bad thing! But what is the difference between this and, say, admiring the work of outstanding composers? If I think Haydn was pretty great, in what way is this "vulgar ostentation"? The definition seems to recall an historical epoch when the middle class was trying to creep into the upper class by imitating their tastes. Does that go on any more? Last I checked, the tastes of the upper classes seem to revolve around Beyoncé. I suppose there was a time when nice middle class families had their children take piano lessons so they could lord it over the poor kids down the street. But isn't that all in the past?

Perhaps not, as I just ran across a blog post criticizing some typical snobbisms of today:
When people get rich, they shed their skin-in-the game driven experiential mechanism. They lose control of their preferences, substituting constructed preferences to their own, complicating their lives unnecessarily, triggering their own misery. And these are of course the preferences of those who want to sell them something. This is a skin-in-the-game problem as the choices of the rich are dictated by others who have something to gain, and no side effects, from the sale. And given that they are rich, and their exploiters not often so, nobody would shout victim.
I once had dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant with a fellow who insisted on eating there ... Dinner consisted in a succession of complicated small things, with microscopic ingredients and contrasting tastes that forced you to concentrate as if you were taking some type of exam. You were not eating, rather visiting some type of museum with an affected English major lecturing you on some artistic dimension you would have never considered on your own. There was so little that was familiar and so little that fit my taste buds: once something on the occasion tasted like something real, there was no chance to have more as we moved on to the next dish. Trudging through the dishes and listening to some b***t by the sommelier about the paired wine, I was afraid of losing concentration. I costs a lot of energy to fake that I was not bored. In fact I discovered an optimization in the wrong place: the only thing I cared about, bread, was not warm. It appears that this is not a Michelin requirement.
I have had that experience: a gourmet menu with wine pairings that was excessively complex and stressed externals (number of courses, variety of unusual ingredients and so on) rather than a couple of dishes prepared with real skill and attention.

There is a great deal of snobbism driven by commercial considerations. When people achieve a certain level of affluence they want to show it off in some way. As he says, they lose control of their actual preferences, replacing them with constructed preferences that ape their superiors. What do really rich people eat in restaurants? And the bonus is that you can lord it over the people who can't afford it.

Does this actually happen in the music world? There are a lot of things mitigating against it. For one thing, music for several decades now has been taken over by a very powerful populism: rock, pop and other genres all stemming originally from the music of the people: blues, jazz and country. Classical music, the music of the European aristocracy transplanted over most of the world by now, is pushed into a fairly minor niche these days, sociologically. If you try to lord it over someone by mentioning your taste for classical music, they are likely to laugh in your face! Though the other day a business client asked me my taste in music and just for fun I said: "agonized Russian modernism!" She replied "like Shostakovich?" So that was rather nice. But normally you are going to get perplexed confusion or a chuckle.

Here is my experience: there is a lot of false ostentation being flogged in the marketplace these days and a lot of people can't tell the difference. The difference with what, you ask? With genuine quality. Yes, there is such a thing, though there is certainly an ongoing effort to smudge or conceal this. People really are out there trying to sell you stuff that really isn't worth it and this happens on all levels from a Snapchat IPO that is likely a bust, to a poor quality hamburger at your local fast-food outlet, to a cheap pair of shoes from China that wear out in a couple of months, to a glitzy special menu at your local pretentious restaurant. We encounter poor quality every day.

But we also encounter high quality, though less often. That pair of Italian shoes that were comfortable, looked great and lasted a long time, that Canadian mining company whose shares just kept going up and up, that piece of technology that worked really well and didn't cost an arm and a leg, that great little restaurant that always had good food at a good price, and on and on. Quality and price are often not correlated. I used to delight in searching out wines that were really excellent and cost less than ten dollars. That was a lot more satisfying than paying too much for a disappointing premier cru chĂąteau.

There can be false ostentation and insolence in classical music, of course. Just look at some of the publicity for solo artists and conductors. The audiophile who always mentions how much he paid for his speaker system is another example. But we also have unassuming artists of high aesthetic quality. Preferring to enjoy what they do is hardly vulgar ostentation, is it?

So I guess what I am trying to say is that you can genuinely prefer classical music without being a snob. All it really costs you is the time to sensitize yourself to a certain kind of musical quality. You don't have to spend a lot of money and you certainly don't have to lord it over other people. Though the urge to turn them on to a particular composer is always a lurking danger!

For our envoi today, let's listen to something by John Dowland, the great English lutenist at the end of the Renaissance. This is the "Tremolo" Fantasy played by Nigel North:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Palau de les Arts Reina SofĂ­a

I'm returning to Spain this summer for the month of May. Mostly I will be staying in Madrid where I have an apartment for the month, but I intend on taking some side trips. One of them is definitely going to be to Valencia where I plan to attend a performance of Massenet's Werther in the magnificent Palau de les Arts Reina SofĂ­a. This is part of a spectacular complex, the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences that includes a number of other complexes as well, such as a science museum, oceanographic park and planetarium. But the opera house and cultural center Reina SofĂ­a is what catches my interest. Here is a photo:

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That astonishing structure contains one of Europe's finest opera houses as well as three other spaces of varying sizes and uses. It opened in 2005.

This is the aria "Pourquoi me réveiller" from the opera sung by Jonas Kaufmann:

[French corrected!]

Beethoven in Havana

Over at Slipped Disc I ran into this arrangement of the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 as a rumba:

In the comments there we get the two typical responses: "it's fun and creative" versus "it's a vile, tasteless desecration." You might expect me to come down on the side of those who dislike the whole idea, but I have a bit more nuanced view. I don't think that we should be in the habit of thinking that any composer, even one as great as Beethoven, is not to be desecrated. A piece of music is not a sacred object. It is also kind of fun to hear this familiar music in a radically different arrangement.

But notice what happens when you alter Beethoven in this way: instead of the shades and hues of the original, we have the more one-dimensional motoric frenzy of Cuban dance. Nothing wrong with that, but it is like taking a colorful original and making a sepia reduction. It rather illuminates the quality of the original, doesn't it?

Or, in a more romantic vein:

Essentially, rumbaizing Beethoven takes a complex manifold of musical moods and gestures and turns them into a single mood.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Life, Meaning of

I think a lot of musicians might agree that while the "meaning of life" cannot be put into so many words, despite that fine Monty Python movie, it is very likely that it can be played, or sung. I say this because a good musical performance, by a soloist, chamber group or orchestra, with or without singers, just seems to embody or represent in some mysterious way, what life should be: a deeply engaging activity that captures, suggests or realizes the fundamental currents of life. These are things like joy, sorrow, delight, melancholy, energy, despair, humor and on and on and on. Life itself is often tiresome or awkward, but a good musical performance never is.

This odd thought came to me the other night when I was watching a clip on YouTube of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting a young orchestra in the last movement of the Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius. It occurred to me that, yes, this was a pretty good metaphor for life in the best sense: a group of people, furiously but precisely engaged in a collaborative effort that was touching, glorious and beautiful. Heck, let's just have a listen. This is the Verbier Festival Orchestra:

Friday Miscellanea

Anyone with a birthday today? Just in case, let's start off with an arrangement of "Happy Birthday" in the style of a Shostakovich string quartet:

This is what musicians do when they want to avoid doing actual work!

* * *

Here is a fairly accurate version (apart from the change in instrumentation) of Vivaldi's Four Seasons (well, a movement from "Winter" at least) performed by electric guitar orchestra:

By "fairly accurate" I mean that they are avoiding bluesy note-bending and pretty much just playing the notes.

* * *


Beauty is objective.  
Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

--David Gelernter

* * *

Another quote:
Who is history’s greatest composer? (I encourage my students to ask this sort of wildly unpopular question because it sharpens one’s critical understanding, and forces one to make choices.)  
The composer is Franz Schubert; he died at 31, and none of his three competitors had finished masterpieces to compare with his at 31. His three opus posthumous sonatas are among the deepest achievements in art. The slow movements of the last two might be the most beautiful in all of music—in competition only with Mozart’s Requiem and the last movement of Beethoven’s op 111 sonata. And what if Schubert’s competitors had each died at 31? Beethoven had finished his stupendous C minor piano concerto, op. 37, and several perfect piano sonatas; but his great work was yet to come.  
Bach had finished Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, one of his finest cantatas and his single biggest hit (it includes “Jesus Joy of man’s desiring”); but his greatest music all came later.  
Mozart is the toughest competitor, because he finished Figaro at 30—Figaro, greatest of his operas, greatest of all operas, the best answer in music (better even than Don Giovanni) to the hardest of all musical problems--how to come to an end. But listen carefully once more to the three sonatas and Schubert wins. (Which doesn’t change the underlying truth, that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, his op 110 and 111 sonatas, his string quartet in C# minor and the Gross Fuge are the greatest music of all.)
--David Gelernter

* * *

Here is a well-written review by Anne Midgette at the Washington Post:
Though the program contained only music written in the past 104 years, it was anything but daunting, and the performers, smiling at each other and at the music, emphasized “playing” rather than “performing,” with all the artificial earnestness that the latter entails. It was a performance given by people who cared more about the music than about what you, or I, or anybody thinks of it — a performance at once intimate and uncompromising, a concert given by two working musicians, at work.
What is really good about this, and the whole review, is that at no point do you feel that chunks of some obligatory ideology have been wedged in. On the contrary, she is simply responding to what she heard and saw in the concert: a couple of fine musicians working through some interesting music. That's pretty much what every good concert is, after all.

* * *

Here in Mexico, soccer (called "el fĂștbol") is much, much more popular than classical music. But in Germany it is just the opposite: Classical concerts are officially more popular than football matches in Germany
The Deutsche Orchester-Vereinigung DOV have released statistics showing a 10% increase in classical concerts last year, with 13,800 events held in Germany, of which 5,800 were symphonic.
The DOV’s Managing Director Gerald Mertens said classical concerts drew an attendance of 18.2 million, around 40% more than the football Bundesliga. Furthermore, the survey logged more concertgoers aged 20-29 than aged 50-59.
* * *

For a while--I think it was way back in the 19th century--it seemed that everyone was writing about the origins of language. These days the topic is mostly ignored except for Tom Wolfe. The new interest is in the origins of music. Somehow I suspect that this search will prove to be equally fruitless. The Pacific Standard has the story:
“The evolution of music must be a complex, multi-step process, with different features developing for different reasons,” says Samuel Mehr, who co-authored the paper with psychologist Max Krasnow. “Our theory raises the possibility that infant-directed song is the starting point for all that.”
Mothers vocalize to their babies “across many, if not all, cultures,” the researches note in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. Its ubiquity suggests this activity plays a positive role in the parent-child relationship, presumably soothing infants by proving that someone is there and paying attention to them.
You know the problem I have with this? It's the procedure, really. Does anyone think that these "scientists" did what scientists are supposed to do: notice some phenomenon, data or evidence and then try and come up with the most plausible explanation or scenario? Isn't it the case here, as in so many other efforts, that the "scientists" look at what others have speculated and come up with a new speculation then go rummaging about looking for a shred of evidence or two?
In their admittedly speculative thesis, Mehr and Krasnow write that infants intuitively understand the importance of such attention, and are unhappy when a parent turns away to attend to other matters (including another child). They want the focus to be back on them, and often will cry until they once again have it.
My emphasis. The problem with speculative theses is that, unless there is some compelling evidence for them, they are nothing but castles in the air. And in an ideologically-charged environment, such as we see all around these days, you can be absolutely sure that the speculation is going to reinforce the Narrative in some way. Guys? This ain't science! Nowhere near.

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I really hope you will forgive me for linking to this hilariously delightful compendium of the twenty worst sentences of best-selling author Dan Brown. Honestly, I knew he was a bad writer, but I had forgotten how bad:
19. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 83: "The Knights Templar were warriors," Teabing reminded, the sound of his aluminum crutches echoing in this reverberant space.
“Remind” is a transitive verb – you need to remind someone of something. You can’t just remind. And if the crutches echo, we know the space is reverberant.
11. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.
Do angry oxen throw their shoulders back and tuck their chins into their chest? What precisely is a fiery clarity and how does it forecast anything? Once again, it is not clear whether Brown knows what ‘forecast’ means.
You owe it to yourself to read the whole thing.

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Our free-flowing envoi for today is Hilary Hahn playing the Gigue to the 3rd Violin Partita as an encore after a concerto performance. Guitarists know this as the Lute Suite No. 4: