Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fidel Leal, Piano

Friday night I attended a local piano recital, part of a series titled the Steinway Series, largely because, for much of the year, they have the use of a quite good Steinway grand. The concerts are held in what used to be a nunnery and is now an arts center. The concert was well-attended by permanent residents rather than the transient population that we find at the winter concert series, Pro Musica.

The Steinway Series is organized by a transplanted New Yorker, Frederic Dannen, who does a pretty good job. For this concert he booked a young Cuban pianist named Fidel Leal who is currently a graduate student at the Hayes School of Music in North Carolina. Here is his program:

J. S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B major (WTC Bk I)

Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major

I. Cervantes: Cuatro Danzas Cubanas

Carlos Fariñas: Dos Sones Sencillos

Ernesto Lecuono: Dos Danzas Cubanas

Encore: Intermezzo by Manuel Ponce

The Bach was very well played in a brisk sort of way. The Prokofiev was excellent, but the last movement was just too fast for the rhythms to be clearly audible--mind you, everyone except Grigory Sokolov makes this mistake. The Cuban music was excellently played, of course.

It is a bit of a puzzlement to me why the musical cultures of Latin America vary so widely. Some nations, like Cuba, Brazil and Argentina are just overflowing with lovely and expressive music. Others, like Peru, Bolivia and, I'm sorry to say, Mexico, just don't seem to have the same gifts. Let me hasten to say that this is not a phenomenon restricted to Latin America. We see the same thing in Europe where the massively unmusical country of Switzerland is wedged in between two of the most musical nations of all, Italy and Austria. Sorry, Switzerland!

The Cuban music was charming, if a bit inconsequential. The only thing about the concert that didn't really work, I think, was the combining the fairly light Cuban pieces, with the more serious Bach and Prokofiev. The most striking and successful performance, certainly from the audience's enthusiastic reaction, was the Prokofiev so I would have put the Bach first, the Cuban music in the middle and the Prokofiev at the end. Incidentally, the program was played without intermission.

The Ponce is a lovely, haunting little piece, the perfect encore, especially in a concert in Mexico. Manuel Ponce, an exceptionally gifted musician who wrote a great deal of music for guitarist Andrés Segovia, was of the first generation of Mexican composers to take the traditions of the local popular music seriously.

What was particularly interesting to me in this concert was the high quality of the performance. Indeed, this is the best piano recital I have heard here in quite a while. The winter concert series, with the exception of a concert by Israeli Ran Dank, seems to get more and more mediocre players every year who pound away as they deliver one dreary and predictable program after another. Yet that is the supposed "professional" series. I would rather listen to young artists like Fidel Leal with solid musicianship.

About the only thing in the program that I found a bit tiresome were the lengthy verbal introductions to the pieces. I suppose they are necessary in these days when most audience members know almost nothing about the music beforehand. But still... A concert where no word is spoken is one that preserves the magic of the musical journey. One with constant verbal commentary does not.

Let's have a listen to that Intermezzo by Ponce. The pianist is Mauricio Nader.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

The first item is particularly miscellanea-worthy: The 30 Harshest Musician-on-Musician Insults in History.
15. Elvis Costello on Morrissey
“Morrissey writes wonderful song titles, but sadly he often forgets to write the song.”
Unfortunately, most of the rest were very disappointing! Simple calumny with no wit. I could do better! "U2 play as if they secretly realize they are talentless frauds."

* * *

Musicians' creative response to airline luggage policy: AIRLINE REFUSED TO BOARD THIS ORCHESTRA’S INSTRUMENTS, SO….
…. the musicians checked in empty cases, but carried their naked violins on board. And started playing.
* * *

Dhahran - The first international theater that opened at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithraa) Saturday will feature various international musical productions after opening with Russian orchestra Mariinsky who performed on the second and third days of Eid al-Fitr.
President and CEO of oil company Saudi Aramco Amin Nasser said “the theater will have a significant role in enriching the cultural and creative landscape in our country.”
* * *

Anne Midgette in the Washington Post reviews "Hamilton": Art by heart: ‘Hamilton’ is opera for our time.
Broadway shows have better production values than operas. How could they not? For all of the stereotypes about large-scale opera productions, and for all of their tremendous costs, opera generally comes to the stage after four to six weeks of rehearsal. Although the piece is almost always a known quantity, often adorned with the label of “masterpiece,” that amount of rehearsal time isn’t anywhere near enough to bring to the stage a well-oiled machine like “Hamilton,” honed over months of crafting and, by now, years of performance.
The irony is that what “Hamilton” represents now is exactly what opera used to be: a thrilling, contemporary, immersive stage presentation that’s a union of story, text, music, image and movement, and that gets under the skin and into the blood of a wide audience that feels it speaks profoundly to them.
I guess I will have to give it a listen.

* * *

Here is a very interesting piece on the rise and fall and rise again of sumptuary rules: The Evils of Cultural Appropriation.
In ancient Rome, only Roman senators were allowed to wear Tyrian purple on their togas—ordinary Romans could not. In feudal Japan, people of every class submitted to strict laws about what they could and could not wear, according to their social rank. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the nobility policed the clothing of the middle classes, making sure to keep them in their place. In any society in which there has been high levels of inequality—where monarchs and aristocrats have ruled over commoners and slaves—equality in dress has been considered, at the very least, bad manners.
While sumptuary laws (rules that govern conspicuous consumption, especially of food and clothing) fell mostly out of fashion in the West during the Enlightenment period, they appear to be back in style again, thanks to the orthodoxies of social-justice activism fueled by social media.
The whole essay is well worth reading for its account of recent instances of cultural appropriation. Then there is this:
In their newly released book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, the moral sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning describe the three main moral cultures that exist today, which they give the shorthand labels of dignity, honor, and victimhood. A dignity culture, which has been the dominant moral culture of Western middle classes for some time, has a set of moral values that promotes the idea of moral equality and was crystallized in Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that people ought to be judged according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
Victimhood culture departs from dignity culture in several important ways. Moral worth is in large part defined by the color of one’s skin, or at least one’s membership in a fixed identity group: i.e., women, people of color, LGBTIQ, Muslims, or indigenous peoples. Such groups are sacred, and a lack of deference to them is seen as a sign of deviance. The reverse is true for those who belong to groups that are considered historical oppressors: whites, males, straight people, Zionists. Anyone belonging to an “oppressor” group is stained by their privilege, or “whiteness,” and is cast onto the moral scrapheap.
In a recent interview in the online magazine which I edit, Quillette, I asked Campbell and Manning what they thought about cultural appropriation. They explained that they found such complaints baffling, like everybody else, but that they also “illustrate victimhood culture quite well.” One of the key components of victimhood culture is its projection of collective guilt, social offenses between individuals are no longer about the actual people involved, they are about “one social group harming another.”
To which I again reply that moral agency and desert is individual, not collective as anyone who has been accused of something their brother did will acknowledge.

* * *

We need something, uh, less serious now. How about a young violinist who can play some pretty fine fiddle music while hoola-hooping? Pauline Lee … The 10-Year-Old Hula-Hooping Violinist. I can't embed the video so y'all will have to follow the link!

* * *

A propos of absolutely nothing, let's have a listen to Miles Davis' take on the Rodrigo guitar concerto Concierto de Aranjuez from the album Sketches of Spain:


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Anna Meredith


I've run across a couple of clips of music by Anna Meredith, a British composer, lately. My first impression was that it sounded like Vivaldi being mugged in an alley by members of Metallica. The first piece in the concert above doesn't stray far from that characterization! The second one, with shaky singing by the composer and the band, is quite different. She sort of sits in that odd zone between composition and song-writing which is, I guess, these days, not odd at all but almost the recommended place to be, from a career point of view at least.

I don't know what you think, you will let me know in the comments, but I actually found this listenable. The second piece, or song, reminded me of the Incredible String Band if they had had a tuba player.

I love her shirt.

I think...

The third piece, song, item, whatever, was also pretty interesting with a wildly divergent texture held together by one of the most frenetically difficult rhythm guitar parts I have ever heard. But interesting, no doubt. And original.

And they are undeniably having a lot of fun. Which makes it all more interesting, not less! Well, not the tuba player, of course. But the cellist is having an indecent amount of fun so it all balances out. Hell, I had fun!

Friday, July 6, 2018

SLAVery and Aesthetics

One of the major productions of the Festival de Jazz de Montréal this year was the theatre revue SLAV directed by Robert Lepage. Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail has a column on the controversy.
Are white people entitled to perform songs composed by black slaves?
The answer, it appears, is a resounding no. This week, in the face of mounting protests, the Montreal International Jazz Festival cancelled the show SLAV only a few days after it began its sold-out run.
SLAV is (or was) a theatre revue that explored slavery and oppression throughout history, using the vehicle of black slave songs. Its star was a white singer named Betty Bonifassi. Four of its six supporting cast members were also white, and so was its director, the legendary theatre great Robert Lepage. That spelled trouble from the start. Protesters denounced the show as a racist appropriation of black culture. “Is there nothing y’all won’t steal?” one sign read. “White culture is theft.”
The column also takes a look at the trend:
Complaints of cultural offence are widespread these days. They have shut down two separate theatre productions of Othello in Canada, where the directors had the idea of casting Othello as a woman. In Britain, a student production of Aida was shut down because activists warned that white people (instead of, presumably, Egyptians) might be cast in the leads. Yet when the Stratford Festival cast a black actor in the lead role of The Music Man (that whitest of all shows), everybody cheered. How does this make sense?
Something else that doesn't make a lot of sense is condemning the star, Betty Bonifassi:
Ms. Bonifassi has been performing these songs for 15 years, based on material she researched and developed herself. She has released two albums related to her research. This show was five years in the making. She has an impressive voice and a huge stage presence. She’s not just a hired gun. She created the show. Without her, it wouldn’t exist.
So, if you are white, you are not allowed to make creative use of black culture as that would be cultural appropriation. If we were to apply that more widely the music of, among others, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton would be disallowed. What if we reversed this logic? What if other ethnicities were not allowed to use anything from white culture? It sounds weird just stating it. But things like music notation, tonality, 12-bar blues and a host of other structural underpinnings of music would be disallowed under that criterion.

The underlying moral truth that I think is being violated here I would state as moral agency and moral desert are individual, not collective. In other words your moral and aesthetic worth, positive or negative, has nothing to do with your ethnicity or any other collective grouping. It is individual. This truth was behind the creative understanding of the producers:
But Ms. Bonifassi never had a chance. She was doomed by the colour of her skin. She was also doomed by her explanation that she wanted the show to be colour-blind. “I don’t see colour; to me it doesn’t exist, physically or in music,” she told the Gazette’s music critic. ”We don’t talk about black and white in the show. We talk about human pain, experienced together. All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same.”
Alas, even saying that is not allowed these days and the production was cancelled early in its run. Strange days. Here is a clip of Eric Clapton re-creating a great Robert Johnson song (that was also covered by the Rolling Stones), "Love in Vain":

Friday Miscellanea

One of the topics that I find endlessly fascinating is the economics of the art world and here is a new scholarly paper on the subject: The Economics of Renaissance Art. Sadly, I don't think you can access it unless you have a subscription to The Journal of Economic History, but here is the abstract:
I analyzed the market of paintings in Florence and Italy (1285–1550). Hedonic regressions on real prices allowed me to advance evidence that the market was competitive and that an important determinant of artistic innovation was driven by economic incentives. Price differentials reflected quality differentials between painters as perceived at the time (whose proxy is the length of the biography of Vasari) and did not depend on regional destinations, as expected under monopolistic competition with free entry. An inverse-U relation between prices and age of execution is consistent with reputational theories of artistic effort, and prices increased since the 1420s.
The music world does not have an equivalent to Vasari that enables us to calibrate the relative reputations of Renaissance composers. I suppose that Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music might have to do.

* * *

There was a rare performance of Gruppen, Stockhausen's formidably difficult piece for three orchestras, in London recently. The Guardian has a review:
Stockhausen’s 1958 masterwork Gruppen für drei Orchester (Groups for three orchestras) involves no helicopters, but the forces it does require – three spatially separated orchestras comprising about 100 musicians all told, and three conductors – plus its sheer intricacy, are enough to make it a rare work to experience live. But this is as much an art installation as a concert work, and in many ways it was right at home in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
Go read the whole review. Gruppen was preceded by Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum:
The public nature of the space felt entirely appropriate and the music made a forceful impact, but there were moments of quiet, intense beauty too. The final movement, with the gong pulsing, suggested a giant creature slowly breathing; then the sound grew into a mass of noise that seemed to feed off itself. It was exhilarating to the ear.
* * *

Apparently I am not alone: What Classical Music Can Learn From Kanye West is a new article in The Atlantic.
Since 2016, Feigenbaum and the conductor Yuga Cohler have periodically put on performances they call “Yeethoven,” including two in Los Angeles and one at New York City’s Lincoln Center. With a contingent of classical instrumentalists, they trace the similarities between the works of a 21st-century rapper/producer and a 18th- to 19th-century composer.
“We wanted to figure out why it was that the two of us, and a lot of our friends in classical music, were so enamored with Kanye’s music,” Feigenbaum said before an abridged Yeethoven set last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival (sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic). The five songs they played comprised selections from 2013’s Yeezus—a noisy and divisive album that Cohler and Feigenbaum hear as a turning point in West’s career—and 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Some of the tracks were mashed up with Beethoven compositions. One point of comparison: the jarring tonal switch in the end of “New Slaves,” recalling the turn at the close of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Another: the way West’s “Waves” uses its high end to keep time and its low end to convey melody, much like in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.
Here is a sample: some Beethoven (the Egmont Overture followed by "New Slaves"):


One of the interesting things there is the audience reaction: as soon as they hear something they recognize, they start clapping. And I'll bet Viennese audiences did the same as soon as they recognized the themes of their favorite arias in The Magic Flute.

* * *

A really unfortunate holiday, related in Standpoint Magazine:
The most notoriously unsuccessful holiday in the history of classical music was that taken by Chopin and his androgynous literary lover George Sand (and her family) in Majorca in 1838-1839. The trousered, cigar-smoking Sand was derided by Baudelaire as possessing the morals of a janitress; her future lover Alfred de Musset mordantly observed of the silver dagger which pinned her hair that “a woman of such slight virtue hardly required so immoderate a weapon”. Chopin’s characteristically acidulous comment on his first encounter was, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” That was in 1836; by 1838 the two were lovers. They numbered Delacroix (who painted them both) and Heine among their Paris friends.
* * *

The Spectator weighs in on the "new musicology" in a piece by Damian Thompson: The virtuoso virtue-signallers of classical music. This will not be an unfamiliar theme for Music Salon readers:
If you’re looking for virtuoso virtue-signallers, then classical music is the place to start. But right-on competitions are merely the gruesome fruit of something more deeply rooted: an intellectual culture poisoned by late 20th-century identity politics and postmodern verbiage. That’s a problem in other disciplines, of course, but at least artistic and literary pseuds attract mockery. It flourishes in university music departments because no one gives a toss what happens there.
From my experience, university music departments have a kind of dual nature. On the one hand, a minority of the students and professors are involved in musicology and are to one degree or another affected by the tenets of post-modernism. On the other hand, however, the majority of the students and professors are practical musicians who are focussed on delivering a good concert experience. The world of performers is less influenced by what you might call "extra-musical" criteria. The Slipped Disc post referring to this article has attracted some interesting comments.

* * *

I think the first piece I ever heard by Messiaen was Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum an excerpt of which was on a sampler album I purchased around 1970. I believe the conductor was Daniel Barenboim, just starting his career as a conductor. Let's have a listen. This is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conductor: Myung-Whun Chung:


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Should Art Make You Uncomfortable?

I read Ann Althouse's blog on a regular basis, largely because she talks about a wide range of things, nearly all of which I don't talk about. She also has a good comment section. Very occasionally she writes about music. This recent post is an example: "This is the definition of art that has always most excited me: the feeling of being taken to the boundary of the universe, then beyond that boundary..."

Go read the whole post. The quote is from this article in The Atlantic. Here is the whole paragraph:
This is the definition of art that has always most excited me: the feeling of being taken to the boundary of the universe, then beyond that boundary into the surrounding darkness, and you’re the first person to ever be there. It’s not an experience that happens very often, but I’m willing to wait. I’ve never been someone who’s enjoyed music in general, or contemporary fiction in general, or films in general, or theater in general. I feel I’m standing on the runway waiting for the next big one to come in, carrying some of that outer darkness with it.
That is something that resonates with my understanding. It also echoes some comments Jordan Peterson has made about art, that artists are those people who go out into the darkness (the chaos) surrounding the comfortable fire of society and discover/gather new things and ideas to inspire artworks. In case you don't know it, here is the first track from the album Bitches Brew released in 1970. I think I bought it on vinyl the year it came out.


This was certainly an influential album and quite an experimental one. Ann brings in the fields of comedy, religion and politics, asking if they should also make you uncomfortable. I guess my view is that some art (comedy, religion and politics) certainly should make you uncomfortable, but not all. A lot of people listen to music, not to be made uncomfortable, but to be soothed. Similarly with religion and politics. Comedy I am less sure of. I'm not sure if uncomfortable is the right word for what I look for in music. Again, different musics provide different kinds of experiences. I think what I look for is music that takes us somewhere, on a journey, perhaps. It doesn't have to take us to an uncomfortable place, just a different one. If that place is interesting and unusual and unfamiliar, then the journey was particularly successful. But the experience of most people with most music is probably that of comfort and familiarity! That is often what we look for. And when we get bored with it, then we look for the new and unusual and will tolerate some discomfort. It is always a bit uncomfortable to stretch yourself, but usually a very healthy thing to do.

Here are three pieces of music that may make different listeners a bit uncomfortable. The first one is "All of the Lights" by Kanye West that is very likely to make classical listeners very uncomfortable:


Next is something that would apparently drive away "loiterers" from outside 7-Elevens, Concerto No. 3 from L'Estro Armonico by Antonio Vivaldi:


And finally something that would make most listeners uncomfortable unless they are in that small group that seeks out this kind of thing: Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Peter Maxwell Davies:


Monday, July 2, 2018

A Moment with Louis Couperin

I just stumbled across a lovely recording of suites by Louis Couperin (c. 1626 – 29 August 1661). This is Blandine Verlet and I think she is playing on a 1624 Ruckers.


The 17th and 18th century French music, that is, the music of the ancien regime, for some reason I find particularly elegant and expressive. It is both lively and melting, warm and piercing, and with a unique intimacy. I suspect the reasons for this might include that it was composed and performed for a small class of highly refined listeners, the nobility, who were great music lovers and strongly supported talented musicians. Yes, I'm sure there was a lot of competition, back-biting and so on. But it was all on the personal level, not at the industrial levels we have today.

You might find the tuning to be unfamiliar. I'm not sure of the exact temperament she is using, but it is certainly not equal temperament! There are a lot of possible choices, from meantone to Werckmeister III and I can't distinguish them offhand. I'm pretty sure it's not meantone as that would be a lot crunchier!

One thing I particularly like about this music is the rhythmic "feel" of it, the way it rolls over and wanders expressively. It is propulsive without ever having the lead-footed heaviness that seems to plague pop music.

What do you think of this music?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Citizen Lebrecht

When I lived in Montréal I enjoyed the benefits of a bi-cultural and bi-lingual city. You could see first-run English films and you could see first-run French films. You could walk down to the corner newsstand and pick up a copy of not only the New York Times but also Le Monde diplomatique. For the local newspapers there were two (now just one) middle-of-the-road English newspapers, very like I was used to in other parts of Canada, but on the French side there was a very discernible hierarchy. At the bottom was Allô Police a weekly tabloid specializing in lurid photos and blood-drenched headlines. Sadly, it disappeared in 2004, but while it was there it was the gritty foundation of the newspaper world in French-speaking Montréal. I suspect they would only have had a classical music item if the conductor of the symphony was murdered! The middle was occupied by the respectable La Presse and Le Journal de Montréal where you would find lavish coverage of the Festival de Jazz de Montréal. At the top of the hierarchy was the organ for the intellectual class, Le Devoir, where you could find lengthy, detailed, critical reviews of organ and harpsichord recitals. I just checked and in the current issue there is a review of a new recording of Haydn's Stabat Mater.

I recount all this because I am just reading an interview in Van with Norman Lebrecht, the author of that other classical music blog Slipped Disc. One with a zillion times the readership of mine, I hastily add. It's a pretty good interview. He characterizes what he does as follows:
I came into music because nobody was writing about it in a way that interested me. Musicologists were writing arcane and abstruse things which had no relation to who the composer was, where he or she was at that particular time in her life. They weren’t answering the questions of, “Why is this piece meaningful to me, why is this phrase meaningful to me?” In the way that you’d ask in every other human transaction from the restaurant to the bedroom. And so I started asking those questions. 
What is important to somebody who’s just got out of bed, had a shower, got dressed, and is having their morning coffee? It’s not Sibelius Four. It might be, “What happened to this conductor last night?”
It wouldn't be too hard to satirize this, of course. The things musicologists write have no relation to who the composer was? Oh, you mean regarding the personal life of the composer? Right! Why is this piece meaningful to me? I guess we are talking about the reader. Well, that's pretty hard to know without actually, you know, knowing the reader personally. So the focus is on what the conductor was up to last night because while abstruse musical things are not universal, gossip certainly is. Heh!
I’m at war with musicology as a whole, alright? I’m not the first person to say this, but musicology is a phony discipline. 
WHY?
It’s like parapsychology. It’s a cultish thing which makes up its parameters as it goes along. It started out as a quasi-science. In the late 19th century, people were calling everything Wissenschaft. And so this became Musikwissenschaft. Probably the first credible musicologist was Guido Adler, Mahler’s friend, who was actually a pioneering scholar of Gregorian chant and early church music. The people who followed in Adler’s wake were not scientists, but fact-based scholars, at least.
After that it went through two phases. The first phase was its academization, in which they turned it into a kind of forensic study of the notes. That’s not of interest to musicians, who just want to play what’s on the page, and it’s not of interest to people who love music. And then it went to the next phase, where music is actually not about music at all anymore, it’s about values. It’s about social equality, and it’s about inclusivity and how all musics are equal. 
YOU DON’T BELIEVE THAT?
I don’t. Call me a heretic.
Well, sure, call me a heretic too. But while true of a lot of current musicology, this critique is largely directed at a straw man. None of these bullets hits musicologists like Richard Taruskin who makes sense of a great deal of music in a grandly historical manner. But I also have to say that I strongly agree with Lebrecht's thoughts on the inequality of musics of different cultures. Go read the whole interview.
There’s good music and bad music. Let’s just try and find the good stuff. But I see it as a falsehood to say that simplified music forms are equivalent to sophisticated music forms. It’s like saying that the witch doctor is as good as my general practitioner. 
Slipped Disc, which I read on a regular basis, especially on Fridays, is a bluff, blustery collection of who died, who got hired, who got fired and who has been hit with scandal. It is unique in its way and probably indispensable. But at the end of the day it is not Le Devoir of classical music. Or even perhaps La Presse. It is probably more similar to Allô Police but a bit less lurid.

For our envoi today, let's have a listen to that Stabat Mater by Haydn, whose religious music is pretty darn good. This is Davide Lorenzato conducting the vocal ensemble AllaBreve with the Tiroler Kammerorchester:


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Musicians and Jealousy

I was watching a video of Hilary Hahn playing an encore, the Presto to the Violin Sonata No. 1 by Bach, and I was shocked to see a whole bunch of comments to the effect that the violinists in the orchestra behind her were all bitter and jealous of her success and skill! Here is the clip:


And here is a sampling of the comments:
"If you look closely, you can see the jealous mofos in the background."
"Yep, and it's a little bit sad.. I don't even see a face with positive vibes in beteween the other musicians. :/ Just jelous little bastards."
"yup so obvious, their careers have gone nowhere and they are bitter"
"The envy in the faces of the violinists behind her....."
"The orchestra violinists may look jealous.. but none of them will ever reach Hilary's technical level."
Mind you, most of the comments are very positive. But these ones struck me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is astonishing how adept the commentators are at reading minds! This "mind-reading" ability is something that a couple of online commentators have been talking about lately: Ann Althouse and Scott Adams for example. Once you notice you start seeing it everywhere. Political writers are notorious for inferring the inner thoughts of both the people they oppose and those they agree with and this without a shred of evidence. This all falls apart when they are confronted with unidentified quotes that they often misattribute.

But back to the musicians. Non-musicians or non-professional musicians often mistake the expressions, or lack thereof, of orchestral musicians. The reasons for this are manifold. Orchestral musicians spend their working lives in front of the public, but not as exposed as the conductor or soloist. So sometimes you catch an unguarded or spontaneous expression. But most of the time they cultivate a neutral demeanor as being more professional. If you see a musician yawn onstage, it is more likely that they are relieving stress than that they are bored. Similarly, if they have a neutral expression this does not indicate that they are filled with burning jealousy. They usually have a neutral expression!

Also, in general, it is likely that most professional orchestral musicians are not jealous of Hilary Hahn, but rather respectful of her musicianship and technical accomplishment. I say this because this has been the typical attitude of orchestral string players I have discussed her with. A lot of them are fans. But at the same time, they are also highly accomplished musicians who likely spend more hours a week playing concerts than Hilary does. They are also very fine musicians and technicians. It would not surprise me in the least if a significant percentage of the seated violinists in the clip could stand up and give an excellent performance of either this or similar movements from the solo Bach repertoire. They all spend their formative years playing this stuff after all. Perhaps the performance might not be quite as perfect or as enthralling as Hilary's but most listeners might not even discern a difference in quality.

Are there jealousies in the musical world? Yes, certainly. But while there are all sorts of stories and anecdotes about what this soprano did or said about the other soprano (applies to pianists and guitarists and other soloists as well) instead of tarring all musicians or soloists with the same sin, it is probably better to assume that people with poor emotional control are more likely to be susceptible to jealous fits than more emotionally mature people. Musicians or not.

Now let's listen to that same movement played by a non-celebrity violinist. This is one of my favorite violinists, Kristóf Baráti, who is hardly known at all outside Hungary and eastern Europe:


This is Anna Savkina who just graduated from the Moscow Conservatory:


I could probably put up a dozen others if I looked! And this is not to diminish in any way Hilary's accomplishment, just to point out that, by objective evidence, there are lots of violinists that don't need to be too jealous!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Starting with something silly: Big guitar outside Hard Rock Hotel contains big typo
A 30-foot guitar installed outside of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City in New Jersey was corrected after onlookers pointed out a massive typo.
The sign, installed Thursday at the corner of Route 30 and Virginia Avenue, contains the details of a Gibson Les Paul guitar, including a rhythm and treble pickup selector switch with a giant misspelling, "RHYTHEM."
In the original Greek it is spelt: ῥυθμός.
* * *

Here is a pretty long piece about how music (and the other arts) make their impact by setting up and then defeating expectations:
Contrary to the proverbial tree-falling-in-the forest quandary, a musical note that fails to materialize is at least as present in our brain as it would be had it actually sounded. That’s because neural substrates of imagined sound correlate with those of perceived external sounds. The more vivid the image of what must happen, the more jarring it is when that certainty is subverted.
Lots of little musical examples there, which puts this article head and shoulders above most other ones!
We found the brain recognizes and reacts to violated expectations in highly specific ways. Not only does it register a wrong event, it also—even more strongly—reacts to the missing event. Furthermore, both the cortical and sub-cortical responses to violated expectation—particularly when a silence replaces a firm and specific expectation—suggests a well-integrated network of brain activity that draws from experientially acquired schemas to focus the auditory system on expected events, and to immediately register and react to failed expectations.
Yep. All the great composers work with this constantly. I encourage you to read the whole thing, which is permeated with interesting musical examples.

* * *

Alex Ross has his annual piece on the Ojai Music Festival up over at The New Yorker:
The Moldovan-born violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, this year’s music director, had selected her programs long before December, but they spoke with eerie aptness to a town that had faced an apocalypse. The central composer was the twentieth-century Russian ascetic Galina Ustvolskaya, who wrote spiritual music of flagellating force. A world première by the Baltimore-based composer Michael Hersch harrowingly evoked the spread of cancer in a body. Works by György Ligeti and György Kurtág mixed bleakness with black humor. The concerts were heavy going at times, but Kopatchinskaja invested them with vital purpose.
The "apocalypse" he is referring to is the wildfires that came close to the town last December.
Not all of Kopatchinskaja’s ideas cohered. On the first night of the festival, she presented a program entitled “Bye Bye Beethoven,” which protested classical music’s excessive dependence on the past—the sense of being “strangled by tradition,” as she has said. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a versatile Berlin-based group that was on hand throughout the festival, accompanied Kopatchinskaja in a most unusual performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was ceremonially swaddled in yards of fabric before she played. (Her arms were not constrained, fortunately.) Toward the end, the musicians enacted a rebellion against routine, throwing down their music stands and stalking offstage while a chaotic electronic collage of Beethoven excerpts swelled on the sound system. Kopatchinskaja battled on alone and then collapsed in defeat, as the back wall parted to reveal replicas of various composers’ tombstones.
The theatrics were arresting, but the message felt less than fresh.
Yes, that does sound rather 70s. The tour-de-force of the festival was likely the performance of all six of Ustvolskaya's piano sonatas in a single concert by Markus Hinterhäuser who, as Ross notes, in his spare time runs the Salzburg Festival. I think I may have put this up before, but here it is again. This time, give it a listen!


* * *

The weaponizing of music continues apace: He Writes the Songs That Make the Neighbors Cry ‘No More Barry Manilow!’
A Rite Aid spokeswoman said last week that customers had found it difficult to enter “a select few stores” because of loiterers, so Rite Aid was exploring various ways to make it easier, including the use of Barry Manilow. “We are in the early stages of exploring this approach and have not made any decision about the potential rollout of this to additional stores,” she said.
To tell the truth, I find this somehow more comforting than hearing they were using Mozart and Bach to drive away loiterers. But does the shift to Barry Manilow imply an improvement in the musical taste of the "loiterers"? Will they move on to Celine Dion next?

* * *

By chance I ran across this on YouTube. This is the kind of thing that never appears in the mass media these days: a half hour of conversation with Igor Stravinsky. Sure, you might see a composer interviewed on television, but it would be all cut up, interspersed with performances, rehearsals and scenes of him (or her) walking in the park with wind-blown hair. Oh, and for sure there would be one of those slick talking heads interviewing him (or her).


Apparently, in Hollywood in 1957, there was a serious shortage of piano tuners.

* * *

The Toronto Star launches a new series of heretical (their term) opinion pieces with one slagging the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven: ‘Ode to Joy’ has an odious history. Let’s give Beethoven’s most overplayed symphony a rest.
Western classical music usually thinks of itself as being apolitical. But the Ninth is political. Beethoven saw it as political when he wrote it in the early 1820s. And his fellow Germans, looking for a sense of identity, embraced it with fervour.
Beethoven’s Ninth became the musical flag of Germanness at a time when nationalism was a growing force in all of Europe. It also became a Romantic monument to the artist (Beethoven, in this case) as a special creature worthy of special treatment.
Franco-Argentine scholar Esteban Buch analyzed these intersections and the good-evil paradox in an insightful book, Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History. Buch argued that the Ninth was the right piece of music at the right time — socially, politically and aesthetically.
But from today’s perspective we know that unilateral calls to world brotherhood in joy have a flip side, which is tyranny. We appreciate now more than ever that joy is accessible to everyone only if some people are taking antidepressants.
If you follow the link and read the whole piece looking for the argument, you won't find much more than I have quoted. The influence of this piece on music and composers is monumental and very complex and its political influence no less so. It is surprising to see all that reduced to the odd critique that, if this particular joy is not accessible to everyone, then it is a form of tyranny. If we apply a little reductio ad absurdum to that we might conclude that all great art, whether it be expressing joy or sorrow or existential despair or perhaps just sheer elegance, is also some kind of tyranny because it is not equally accessible to everyone. The writer, John Terauds, needs to look up "tyranny" in the dictionary and perhaps the word "aesthetics" as well.

What does the "odious history" of the headline refer to? Here is the relevant passage in the essay:
Adolf Hitler adored the Ninth Symphony. Musicians waiting for their deaths in Nazi concentration camps were ordered to play it, metaphorically twisting its closing call to universal brotherhood and joy into a terrifying, sneering parody of all that strives for light in a human soul.
Ah, odious by association! Hitler's favorite composer was actually Franz Lehár, but we don't hear anyone calling for a moratorium on The Merry Widow. I knew one of those musicians who spent time in a Nazi death camp and he would be shaking his head at the absurdity of attaching blame to Beethoven. Honestly has everyone completely lost the concept of moral agency?

* * *

I'm actually not a huge fan of the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, especially of the last movement the "Ode to Joy," but my reasons are different from Terauds'. I just think that it was an error of genre to slap a half-hour long cantata in as the last movement of a symphony. But hey, what do I know! Let's give it a listen. The first movement alone is a spectacularly brilliant piece of music. This is the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann:


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 14

I see that I have not put up a post on Gubaidulina since April 9! Past time to continue this series which began in December last year.

The next piece in her series of religiously inspired works is In Croce (1979, revised in 1992). This was written quite quickly, commissioned for a performance in Kazan. The original version was for cello and organ, but it has also been performed with bayan and accordion replacing the organ part. Gubaidulina says:
In that particular combination I imagined the organ as a mighty spirit that sometimes descends to earth to vent its wrath. The cello, on the other hand, with its sensitively responsive strings is a completely human spirit. The contrast between these two opposite natures is resolved spontaneously in the symbol of the cross. I accomplished this first of all by criss-crossing the registers (the organ takes the line downward, the cello upward); secondly, by juxtaposing the bright major sonorities of natural harmonics, played glissando, and expressive chromatic inflections.
Here is a performance with cello and accordion with Julius Berger, violoncello and Stefan Hussong, accordion:


After a couple of intervening works, the next piece in the series is Offertorium for violin and orchestra which brought the composer world-wide recognition. The seed for the composition probably came from a casual remark by violinist Gidon Kremer, just becoming famous in his own right, when he shared a taxi with the composer after a concert in Moscow: "Wouldn't you like to write a violin concerto?" She made a study of what she called his "musical signature," the way he handled extreme contrasts and the transitions between them, but above all the surrender to and focus on the tone. In keeping with the idea of offering, the work uses the "Royal theme" from Bach's Musical Offering.
The violin concerto consists of three continuous movements. In the first movement the theme disintegrates step by step in a succession of variations: in each instance one single note of the theme is omitted at both the beginning and the end, until, in the second movement, which is not thematically related, only the pitch E remains. "You cannot be reborn until you have died." In the third movement, in the "Chorale," a seemingly new theme emerges one note at a time in the bass line of the harp and the piano which eventually--in the closing violin passage--turns out to be the original theme in retrograde. "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." [quoted from Kurtz, op. cit. pp 149-50]
The way the theme is orchestrated in the beginning, in pointillistic style with each note on a different instrument, is a homage to the other main influence: Anton Webern's orchestration of the Musical Offering.

The score was completed in March 1980 but not performed until May 1981. Gubaidulina's disfavor with the Soviet authorities (not to mention Gidon Kremer's refusal to return to the Soviet Union) meant that the score had to be smuggled out. Kremer, the dedicatee, managed to arrange a first performance at the Wiener Festwochen. The conductor was the Finnish conductor and composer Leif Segerstam. After this performance, which perhaps suffered from insufficient rehearsal time, the composer made some cuts in the work. The new version was given by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Charles Dutoit a year later and in this iteration has been enormously successful.

Here is a performance by Gidon Kremer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit:


And here is a live performance by Vadim Repin, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski:


Monday, June 25, 2018

Scott Adams Agrees With Me

A while back I put up a couple of posts on Kanye West because he did something that I thought was good and fascinating. I was told I probably needed an intervention! Lately I have been watching some clips from Scott Adams, who seems to have a refreshing take on a lot of stuff and, guess what, he commented on Kanye West's new album Ye. Yes, I know this clip is an hour long, but trust me, you only have to watch the first couple of minutes:


That was certainly a surprise. Yes, I've listened to some cuts from the new album, but the song that I am liking right now is from the older album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Here is "Lost in the World" which I find quite interesting:


That really doesn't sound like anyone else, does it?

We now return to our regular scheduled programming.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Richter: Handel

I've been captivated by Grigory Sokolov's Rameau on piano for a while now, but I just discovered a recording of Sviatoslav Richter playing Handel on piano and it is also simply marvelous: delicate, crystalline and transparent:


Oh. Wow. And it is from a concert! I used to think Handel was, well, boring.

Women Composers

The Guardian has a cluster of articles on women composers that is worth a look: Women composers: why are so many voices still silent?
Classical music is still a man’s world. Female performers in the entertainment industry learn this early. As a soprano, my career has been defined by playing muses – roles such as Cleopatra (in Handel’s Giulio Cesare), Susanna (in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro) and Rosina (in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville) that were clearly adored by the male composers who created them. Performing them came naturally – after all this is what I had been trained to do. But where was my voice, where was the female perspective? The answer was simple, by and large there’s isn’t one. Almost every portrayal of a woman in the entire regularly performed opera repertoire is constructed through male eyes. The dominance of male composers is, today especially, staggering.
Last week’s Donne – Women in Music report expressed this in stark statistics. Across Europe, 97.6% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons was written by men, leaving a paltry 2.3% written by women.
But why? Is the patriarchy of the music business, the crushing influence of their husbands, or society at large to blame for such a skewed situation?
The writer is soprano Danielle de Niese and the question is a fair one. While I have always argued against quotas and the social engineering of women composers into places of prominence, I have never had anything against women composers. When I was an undergraduate there were always student women composers, though not as many as men. The same in graduate school where I was often in the company of fine young composers, quite a few of whom were women. Right now I am still posting on my most recent discovery, Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina and I recently put up a post on her slightly older contemporary Galina Ustvolskaya.

The very next paragraph in the Guardian piece is on British composer Elizabeth Maconchy, about whom I have written here. De Niese notes that
[Maconchy's] favourite form was the string quartet, of which she wrote 13. In 1942, a Royal Albert Hall concert featured her work alongside that of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, and in 1952 she won a competition to compose the Coronation Overture. The piece, Proud Thames, was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in London to critical acclaim. She was the first woman to chair the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, and she carried on composing until she was nearly 80. And yet her work is almost never heard today and she is little known. Why?
That's a very good question! In the cases of Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, she offers evidence that Robert and Gustav were oppressive figures. Women composers seem to have just lacked any kind of genuine social support and tended to be denied scholarships and other opportunities provided to male composers.
The mechanisms of the classical music industry have long been a patriarchy. Music is a living thing, and any composer lives via the oxygen of performance, on stage, over the airwaves and through publishing. Did all those concert promoters, opera directors, orchestra managers and radio controllers simply forget to provide platforms for women? Without a platform, music as a living art form dies.
This may well have been the case for much of music history, but I'm not sure it has been so over the last forty or fifty years. I really can't speak to bias in musical institutions in Great Britain which seems to have been widespread. But they also treated guitarists with equal disdain, at least according to Julian Bream, up into the 1950s at least. In my own experience in music schools and other institutions since the 1970s, there really didn't seem to be any bias and women composers got as much attention as men. Mind you, both men and women classical composers are pretty much ignored in the wider world. But it is astonishing to hear that only 2.3% of classical and contemporary classical music performed in the last three seasons was by women composers. Wait, I think I see the hidden factor. This statistic was for ALL classical and contemporary music. So it includes all the regular concert seasons with Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky and so on. If we just looked at contemporary music concerts I'm sure the numbers would be quite different. Why didn't they mention that statistic? Looking at the Bachtrack numbers, the closest I can find is this:
Top female contemporary composers
14. Sofia Gubaidulina 16. Kaija Saariaho 26. Sally Beamish
That is not quite as bad: out of the top 26 contemporary composers, three are women. Another article in The Guardian looks into this: Female composers largely ignored by concert line-ups. They have some numbers to back that up. If we are talking just contemporary music, then one would not expect a very significant difference. The article ends with comments from two orchestral managers:
The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, said the orchestra championed the work of women. “Of the 12 young composers on our programmes this season six are women, and while entry to them is based purely on merit, we have seen a 50/50 gender split emerge for the past two years, signalling that the best composers writing in Britain today are just as likely to be women as they are men, which is exactly as it should be.”
Timothy Walker, chief executive and artistic director of the LPO, said the orchestra did “not make artistic choices based on issues of gender, religion or ethnicity” but was “strongly committed to supporting female musicians and composers”.
That kind of policy sounds exactly right. You can't just force a quota on musical organizations, but the search for composers of merit should not exclude women or any other group.

Let's listen to some music by Elizabeth Maconchy, particularly known for her string quartets. This is the Signum Quartet playing Elizabeth Maconchy's 3rd Quartet at Cadogan Hall during the BBC Proms 2013.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Violinist Anthea Kreston is a member of the Artemis Quartet and pages from her journal have been appearing at Slipped Disc for a while now. The most recent is about recording the Quartet No. 7 of Shostakovich.
Our recording location this week was in a charming, repurposed dance hall on the outskirts of Berlin. The herringbone wood floor, high ceiling and tall windows made for warm and clear acoustics, and the old stage is now an enclosed recording booth. This Shostakovich 7th is one of the first pieces I learned with this Quartet and, in fact was one of my audition pieces. As all Shostakovich, it requires both extreme power-playing and extreme stillness – endless, almost inaudible notes which (on a recording especially) must have perfect sustain, impossibly controlled.
I have recorded enough times, and with enough different people to realize that there are two main camps, philosophies. One is – I must control this, and present a perfect picture. The second is – perfection is the job of the people in the booth – my job is to play like I have never played before in my life.
I was lucky, this week, to be surrounded by people who believe the second, and not the first. Recording in this way (any way, actually), is exhausting. It is a combination of running a marathon, stopping frequently for high-intensity-interval-training, performing spinal surgery, and arguing a case before the Supreme Court. My feet ached, my arms and back felt like I had just mowed the lawn at Versailles, and my brain felt like I had just finished a chess match with Nikolić–Arsović. And that was at the end of day 1.
She really captures the experience well!

* * *

 One of Norman Lebrecht's crusades has been against corruption in music competitions and to that end he has a piece in The Spectator: You vote for my pupil, I’ll vote for yours – the truth about music competitions.
A young Korean, 22 years old, won the Dublin International Piano Competition last month. Nothing unusual about that.
Koreans and Chinese, raised in a school of hard knocks and rounded off in western conservatories, are winning most prizes. A few — like the phenomenal Lauren Zhang who made child’s play of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto in the BBC Young Musician of the Year — are prodigious talents with bright futures ahead. Dublin’s winner Sae Yoon Chon is probably not one of them.
His Prokofiev, an effortful shadow of Zhang’s electrification, trundled along at pedestrian pace with one or two stumbles. I was therefore surprised to see that Chon won. I also noticed that he is a student of the jury chairman.
While the unsuspecting pupils remain none the wiser, this kind of outcome has become familiar at international music competitions, of which there are 300 every year. You can count on one hand those that are fair, honest and transparent. They include the BBC, the Chopin in Warsaw and, latterly, the Tchaikovsky in Moscow. You can imagine the jurors’ conversations elsewhere — you vote for my pupil, I’ll vote for yours. Like Fifa’s World Cup ballot, this business is largely controlled by a bunch of time servers, in this case professors at major conservatories.
That's the basic argument, read the whole thing for the details.

* * *

The American Scholar has a list of the twenty-five best American symphonies:
That distinctly European art form known as the symphony began to flourish on American soil in the latter part of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, the earliest American symphonists composed in a style heavily indebted to Brahms, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, among others. Only with the advent of a certain insurance executive–cum–maverick composer named Charles Ives did the American symphony begin to truly come into its own.
In last week’s column about Walter Piston, I happened to list a few of the most essential American symphonies. Immediately I began thinking of works that I’d neglected to mention. So this week, let’s expand the list. For the sake of a nice, neat number, I am identifying 25 great works—hardly a comprehensive tally, and somewhat arbitrary. Looking over the finalists, I began second-guessing at once: Why no Virgil Thomson or David Diamond? Why Bernstein’s First and not his Second? Why not Ives’s Third? I have not, moreover, included symphonic works that do not bear the title Symphony; therefore, I have left out Samuel Barber’s Essays and Joan Tower’s Concerto for Orchestra. What do you think I ought to have included?
Go read the rest. The list includes a lot of pieces I have never heard!

* * *

The Pacific Standard has an interesting article on instrument-builder Caleb Byerly:
Byerly began making instruments in 2007, when he was a 22-year-old Christian missionary in the remote jungles of the Philippines. He was working in the mountains with the indigenous Tigwahanon tribe, largely isolated from the outside world. Byerly immersed himself in their culture, and, as an avid musician, asked them about their music. "We noticed that he really loves to play any indigenous instruments," says Eddie Payaron, a Tigwahanon teacher whom Byerly met in the Philippines. Soon, Byerly learned that the musical elements of Tigwahanon heritage had been taken from them by outsiders much like him. The elders spoke of missionaries from the mid-1900s who had admonished the tribe that its traditional music, used to worship ancient gods, was profane. The Tigwahanon artisans who built the time-honored instruments gradually lost interest in their craft, and the kuglong and its kin were lost.
* * *

Here is a somewhat philosophical article about the classical music tradition and the Future Symphony Institute:
The Future Symphony Institute, which launched in 2014 after around a decade of preparation, seeks to research the viability of classical music today, and put forth ideas and approaches to secure its future. It is, as talking to Balio makes clear, about finding ways to increase the audience for classical music, and because of its U.S. focus, it recognizes and accepts it must play to the market forces that dictate much of what orchestras there can do. (As opposed to the kind of government arts funding more common in Europe.) 
To me at least, tradition has become something to be embraced with caution, lest it look like you’re getting too cuddly with all those almost exclusively white and male figures that dominate the classical canon, and continue to dominate its programming. There’s also a wider issue—not only in the classical music world—of those promoting tradition doing so while spitting vitriol at newer art forms and simultaneously pushing some fairly right-of-center politics. However, in an effort to air out the echo chamber of criticism against the term, I got in touch with Balio to see whether it might not play a key role in the future of classical music. To argue against it in any musical genre, especially in classical music, would be not only difficult, but completely at odds with how art works. The question at hand is how it can be incorporated within the future.
Here is a passage you might want to debate:
The core difficulty with reconciling traditional aesthetics and ideas with the contemporary world is that, try as we might, no art is immune to politics. This is not to say that all art is political, but that all art will have political implications quite out of the hands of the artist. Common accusations that social discourse and identity politics, or leftist academics, hijack art and instrumentalize it toward a political aim fail to see this distinction. It’s not necessarily the art itself that is politicized—enjoying Wagner does not mean your politics coincide with his—but the social consequences of that art; what its existence says about broader social structures, and how we interact with it.
* * *

I was studiously trying to avoid even a hint of politics in today's miscellanea, but that proved to be impossible as nearly every article published on music these days, concert and record reviews aside, seems to be about music from a political point of view! Or complaining about music being too political. Or not political enough! Let's end with an envoi of the String Quartet No. 7 by Shostakovich mentioned in the first item above. This is a 1982 concert video of the Borodin Quartet:


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl'a7shn!

This is not directly about music, though I suppose it is music-adjacent. The CBC reports that two prominent plazas in Vancouver, the one on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the one adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, are going to be renamed. The former will now be known as šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl'e7énḵ Square and the latter as šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl'a7shn. Say it with me! Well, ok, they have a little video clip showing how each is pronounced:


Best of luck with the voiceless velar fricatives! This is just another in a long line of examples of multicultural virtue-signalling, but a particularly striking example. These names are from the Indigenous languages of the region from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Indigenous groups are no longer referred to as "tribes" but as "nations." It always seems to come down to labels, names, designations. Perhaps we can next look forward to the theatre also being re-named. A while back they re-named the Queen Charlotte Islands "Haida Gwaii." Rather hilariously, Wikipedia says that the "nickname" for the islands is the Queen Charlottes. Perhaps the whole province of British Columbia needs to be re-named, referring as it does to the hated imperialist oppressors, the British, and that other hated oppressor Christopher Columbus.

I think that this kind of thing is just a symptom of the hollowing out of culture. First history and culture are either emptied of meaning or reinterpreted according to cultural Marxist theory. Then the fragments are re-labeled giving place to designated oppressed groups. I'm beyond being surprised at how long this can go on before everyone rises up en masse and says "hell, no!" But I hope it is soon. As a small act of personal rebellion I will not be using the designated names for the two public spaces. Instead I will just refer to them as "Plaza of the Hated Oppressor Number One" and "Plaza of the Hated Oppressor Number Two."

As suitable envoi, let's have some music of the Indigenous peoples of the region. This is "Victory Song" from the album Nootka: Indian Music of the Pacific North-West Coast, collected by Ida Halpern.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Reflections on Education

I think I posted this clip by Jordan Peterson a while back. It is really short, just four minutes, so have a look. Just ignore the little bit towards the beginning where they are trying to decide where his "rubric for essay writing" was posted. He gets right to the basic issue, which is, how to teach people to think:


I was reflecting on my fairly long (about thirty years) career teaching music and I realized that what I typically did was something quite similar to what he is talking about. Most of my time was spent giving individual instrumental instruction--guitar lessons in other words. I remember once being asked by a fairly bright student what it was I taught exactly. My answer "whatever you need." He found that a bit unsatisfying! But it was quite correct. Every time a student walked in the door I was presented with a variation on a single problem: what does this student need? For many it was simple technical instruction: how to hold the guitar, the best hand position, how the fingers should approach the strings, how to make a good tone, how to make different tones, and so on. Slurs, arpeggios and scales. But immediately following these issues were the musical ones: how to make a phrase, how to balance a chord, how to handle different tempos and how to do accelerandi and ritardandi. Then there is repertoire which brings with it questions of style and performance practice. Really, there are an almost infinite number of things to know and to know how to do. But each lesson was simply a response to what the student needed at the time. And yes, extremely labor intensive since the instrumental instruction model in music involves one professor and one student in a small room for one hour each week.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Peterson is talking about, I think. Sure, there are differences. For one thing, I rarely encountered a performance in the studio where there was nothing to say except, "A, good job." Every lesson was basically a taking apart of the performance and examination of the details with an eye to correcting faults and improving things. Apparently, while we still do this in music lessons, we, that is, universities (and before them public schools) have given up entirely on the idea of teaching people how to write. Peterson subtly implies that this might be a kind of conspiracy to rob people of the ability to think critically. He might be right. Or, on the other hand, maybe it is just incompetence and laziness.

I think that I have some writing skills. Where did I get them? Not from a classroom, at least, not that I recall. When I arrived at school for Grade One (there was no kindergarten where we lived) I already knew how to read. I don't recall how I learned, but I guess it was my parents. The basic idea of how to write I just picked up from reading. About the only thing I remember from all those years of English classes was in Grade Five or Six, I wrote a little thing in which I was using quotation marks to show dialogue and the teacher said something about how I was doing it wrong.

When I got to university there was an entrance exam where you had to sit in a big room and write an essay for an hour. Those who were bad were assigned to a remedial course. I passed and was put into an English literature class. They did assign a research essay, so I guess that was teaching us how to write. But I honestly don't recall the critiques I received.

I think I taught myself how to write by writing letters to the editor of the Globe and Mail when I lived in Canada and was under-employed for a year or so. You had to come in under 800 words, the subject had to be topical and you had to make an interesting point. I got so I could get about 40 to 50% accepted.

And, of course, writing this blog is another extended course in how to write.

Jordan Peterson's grim conclusion about universities is that, since they charge you a great deal of money and fail to actually teach you the most important things, like how to write, they are really instances of "indentured servitude" with students graduating $100,000 in debt. He doesn't use that phrase in this video, but it is in another one.

In the music department, I suppose we are more honest and do actually try to teach people how to play, performance majors at least. We just kind of gloss over that part where, when you go to the audition, there are two hundred other people auditioning for the same position.

After all that blather we really need an envoi. I just watched the new video, shot in the Louvre, by Beyoncé and Jay-Z called "Apeshit," but it is so astonishingly pretentious and narcissistic and so uninteresting musically that I think we should just ignore it. Instead let's have something by a really first rate musician. Mozart is the only composer I know of who wrote virtuoso concertos for himself to play on two different instruments, the piano and the violin. That guy was just way too talented. This is Ayako Uehara accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Fabio Luisi playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No 22 E flat major K 482:


Only 580 views on YouTube!

Iceland, AI, and Music

There is an interesting article in the Globe and Mail about an upcoming concert in their Luminato Festival: Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds brings a techy twist on the classic concert to Toronto’s Luminato Festival. I continue to be astonished at the number and variety of musicians that keep coming out of Iceland which is a country about the size of a small city: population around 350,000!
Icelandic composer and musician Olafur Arnalds is bringing a small ensemble to the Luminato Festival in Toronto on June 24 for a concert with a conceptual and technological twist. Arnalds, who is best known for TV and movie scores (notably for the British series Broadchurch), makes melodic, melancholic, simple and repetitive music that’s on the line between classical and pop. It owes a debt to both the rhythmic minimalism of the classical tradition (think Arvo Part) and ambient electronica. The twist on his recent stuff is that he is using a couple of player pianos (mechanically operated) that are controlled by a computer algorithm.
That could be either really interesting or really, really dull. There is probably no shortage of composers out there taking inspiration from both Arvo Pärt and ambient electronica. What is interesting in the article, by writer Russell Smith, is that about halfway through, having run out of things to say about the upcoming concert, he skews into a discussion of artificial intelligence and art:
One thing AI does while attempting to create art is analyze it – often large quantities of it – in the most inhuman of ways. This in itself is useful to scholars. The recent field of “digital humanities” uses computers to speedily “read” (i.e., scan) and prepare complicated concordances of large bodies of work. You can get computers to digest all of Shakespeare, for example, and tell you not only how often he uses adjectives but in conjunction with what nouns or what genders or what dramatic situations. You can do the same for whole genres. Such analysis can tell you what characters are most likely to say in what situations in Western novels or in young adult novels about illness. It’s a quick way of seeing trends and themes that emotional readings might not give.
This is the analysis that AI art-creating is based on, and often the resulting statistics are more interesting than the machine-art itself.
Not too surprising that artificial intelligence is better at analysis than creativity, is it?

There are some clips of Ólafur Arnalds' music on YouTube. This is titled "re:member"

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Tricky Mr. Haydn

I'm still working my way through the Haydn box (up to CD 122!) and, indeed, still in the baryton trios. I was just listening to No. 28 in D and heard a minuet I have to share. Haydn delighted in putting both players and listeners off-balance and sometimes he would even do it in the usually very staid context of a minuet. Here is the third movement of the Baryton Trio No. 28 in D:


Now doesn't that sound weird? Sounds like they just stop and add a beat every now and then. Haydn creates this illusion by fooling you as to where the downbeat is:

Click to enlarge

If you notice, the first note is tied over from the third beat to the first so that you think that it is a half note on the downbeat. But no. You aren't quite sure where the downbeat us until the eighth measure. And then it starts all over again. 

For Shame!

The Harvard Medical School, obviously at the forefront of, well, every good thing, has just admitted to a long-standing bias: Harvard Medical School ashamed of white male department heads.
The Harvard University Medical School has removed portraits of former department chairs from a lecture hall because the individuals pictured are not sufficiently diverse.
School officials confirmed Friday afternoon that the portraits of 31 medical school deans—which formerly hung in the school’s Bornstein Family Amphitheater—have been “dispersed” to various lobbies and conference rooms. 
All 31 individuals depicted in the portraits are men, and while one is Chinese, the other 30 are also white.
Good god! Now, grammatical errors aside, individuals cannot be "diverse" or "not sufficiently diverse" only groups, they obviously caught this just in time. This particular group of individuals certainly seems to lean male and white. Obviously, since this is 2018, this has to be an error. Now the solution for Harvard was relatively simple: just take them down, or rather "disperse" them (probably a prelude to immolation).

Alas, for we in the classical music community, the solution won't be so easy. After all, it is 2018 for us as well and just look at this representation of the top ten composers, according to the New York Times:


Again, good god! Not only no women, but not even an Asian! People of color? Hah! Obviously we have to take this down immediately. But then what? Do we replace it with something? What? And who?

Well, I'm stumped. All I can think of is more White Males: Haydn, Shostakovich...

Help me out in the comments, would you?

Music in the 21st Century

This could become a series, maybe. Despite the growth of wireless connectivity, there are still a lot of cables in the world of music. Hence, this article: How to Tell a Loved One They’re Coiling Cables Wrong. Satire or not?
Coiling cables is an everyday part of live shows. When done incorrectly, however, it can be heartbreaking to watch a loved one, or often time a band mate, make the same mistakes over and over again. Know that you are not alone and help is available.
Hmm, sounds like satire.
Suggest ways to improve. It takes about three minutes to teach someone how to properly wrap up a 1/4″, but you are certainly not going to do it; you’ve got to spend 20 minutes later unknotting and correcting this person’s work. Instead, refer them to youtube where there are a plethora of instructional videos with more being added every 5 seconds.
Intervene if necessary. “No! Ugh, c’mon! Gimme that, just go take some more drums out to the van.”
Or, maybe not...


Let's have some music! From the idyllic, cable-free world of the 18th century, another of Haydn's baryton trios. Blogger doesn't want to embed, so just follow the link: