Tuesday, January 30, 2018


I was just reading NewMusicBox, a site for young composers, and ran across this passage:
Frankly, I’ve never understood why there has—until recently­­—been such a demarcation between genres in music.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enormously responsive to music, independent of genre.   I know I’m not alone in this, especially in today’s eclectic musical environment, but for many people, classical music’s vaunted tradition excluded an appreciation of popular or folkloric forms—and heaven forfend that any classical composer should write something as shallow as film music!  Fortunately, my open nature allowed me to at once love rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, Brazilian samba, and South African popular styles such as mbaqanga (township music), and hold a particularly reverent fascination with Indian forms, while immersing myself into the vastly diverse realms referred to as concert or classical music.  I believe this enabled me to survive the shark-infested waters of the classical establishment, especially at Columbia University, where I received my doctorate in composition, and Tanglewood, where I studied with 12-tone icon George Perle.  Of course, these institutions weren’t fatally dangerous, and I basically ignored any insinuation that my love of “non-classical” forms was a kind of intellectual or artistic weakness, because they were wrong: it was a sign of creative strength and somehow, in my heart, I knew it.
I have always understood this demarcation because of my personal musical journey. As you can see from my post yesterday about my mother, who was a fiddler, I come from non-classical roots. As a teenager I encountered rock music and started my professional career as an electric bass player, later switching to six-string. My first great conversion happened around 19 or 20 years when I first encountered classical music. I spent the next several years becoming a fully-trained classical guitarist (with a sideline in composition!). I was very aware, at each stage, of the differences between the different genres. Every time I reinvented myself it was in terms of the differences between different musical worlds.

My musical journey was one of moving from a landscape of traditional and popular forms to the highly disciplined one of classical forms and genres. So for me, aesthetics was about achieving more and more control over the materials and becoming more and more aware of the historical context.

I also journeyed across the political spectrum from a kind of received socialism to a more aware conservatism or libertarianism.

I have been recently watching quite a few clips of psychology professor Jordan Peterson and as a result have stumbled across an underlying problem. As he outlines it, liberalism is associated with openness and conservatism with boundaries--well, it is a lot more complicated, but that is one aspect. This leaves me with a bit of a dilemma! As a blogger and performer, it is perfectly reasonable to have a conservative leaning towards boundaries. But as a composer, the creative potential of openness is more important. How can I reconcile this contradiction? At the same time I believe very strongly in the demands of aesthetic quality and the rejection of poor quality, hodgepodge, fusion, crossover and all that stuff. But creativity is always, as Peterson also points out, a journey into the unknown, into what he calls chaos. An artist is someone who journeys outside the known and returns with what he has discovered.

It's a problem...

Ligeti: Continuum for harpsichord:

Monday, January 29, 2018

Alma Townsend, Fiddler

A relative just sent me an entry on my mother from a book on old-time fiddlers in British Columbia. Old-time fiddling, which is based on a repertoire of jigs, reels, schottisches and other genres of dance music largely from Scotland and Ireland and dating back centuries, is a deeply-rooted folk music in Canada. It is found in rural places right across the country and is particularly strong in the Maritimes, especially Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, parts of Quebec, where the style is a bit different, and right across the Canadian prairies to the Pacific.

My mother was an accomplished fiddler in this tradition as well as having a natural musical talent that enabled her to play several other instruments including piano, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass guitar and so on. When I was growing up there was a musical instrument case under and behind every piece of furniture! Here is the entry on my mother from the British Columbia Old Time Fiddler's Association book:

Click to enlarge

The two main things missing from this account are that she passed away in 1997 and that she was the provincial fiddling champion on more than one occasion. She also won a radio contest once for playing a tune on more different musical instruments than the other competitors. The article also does not mention her wayward son, who ended up as a classical guitarist instead of following the family tradition!

I have an album of her playing made in 1987. I had been doing a lot of recording in a private studio in North Vancouver and that connection provided the occasion for her and a couple of friends, Charlie and Bill, to spend a few hours recording some of their favorite material. Throughout her life my mother played thousands of Friday night dances, usually for no or minimal pay, but this is the only time to my knowledge, that she made a recording. I was going to put in a clip of her playing some traditional repertoire, but I have to prepare it in iMovie first. In the meantime, here is another track from the session of her one and only composition, the "Silvertone Waltz":

UPDATE: The photos are of where we used to live in Northern BC and of the typical dance my mother would play for.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 9

In the mid-70s Gubaidulina was commissioned by Vitaly Kataev to write a piece for wind ensemble. She chose an ensemble consisting not only of winds but percussion, harp and mezzo-soprano singing a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva from the cycle Hour of the Soul. Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941 after a life of great suffering. The original version of Gubaidulina's portrait of her went thirty years before it was performed. She revised it twice, the last version dating from 1987 for orchestra, percussion solo and mezzo. It is without a doubt a challenging piece, containing great ranges of textures and orchestrations, micro-tones, wide-ranging melodic figures, and a great variety of instrumental techniques. It ends with a cantilena for the singer that begins after the 15 minute mark in this recording:

Friday, January 26, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Finally an item with sufficient intellectual challenge for our Music Salon readers, a quiz on Name the Logical Fallacy. Hint: the first one is post hoc ergo propter hoc. Not to brag too much, but I got nine out of ten correct. The second question stumped me...

* * *

Over at the New Yorker, Alex Ross has a piece on "Star Wars" Musical Leitmotifs.
The film-music scholar Frank Lehman, an assistant professor at Tufts University, works fast: within a day of the opening of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” he had updated his “Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in ‘Star Wars,’ Episodes I-VIII,” which can be found online. The catalogue now includes fifty-five distinct leitmotifs—thematic ideas that point toward characters, objects, ideas, and relationships—and forty-three so-called incidental motifs, which, Lehman says, “do not meet criteria for proper leitmotifs” but nonetheless possess dramatic significance. Such beloved tunes as “The Force,” “Han and Leia,” and the dastardly “Imperial March” are here, along with more esoteric items like “Planetary Descent Figure,” “Ominous Neighbor Figure,” and “Apocalyptic Repeated Minor Triads.”
Oh, God, yes, those Apocalyptic Repeated Minor Triads! Frankly, I cannot quite bring myself to care much about the Star Wars franchise.

* * *

I'm sure this will be no news to any Music Salon readers, but apparently listening to classical music daily can improve your life. The BBC has the story:
It turned out that, when I converted my listening habits into a conscious daily ritual, I began to feel less anxious almost immediately. I curated myself monthly classical playlists with a specific piece for each day. Getting on the Tube and pressing play, instead of automatically being sucked into a social media scroll hole, seemed to be spiritually stabilising. I began to look disproportionately forward to it. And it occurred to me that, if I could benefit in such a meaningful way from this small but powerful act of soul maintenance, so might others. What if I could build on my lifetime’s love of classical music? What if I could open up this vast treasury of musical riches by demystifying both the music and humanising those who created it by giving each piece some context, telling some stories, and reminding readers/listeners that this music was created by a real person, probably someone who shared many of the same concerns as them, who in many ways might be just like them.
Later on she goes on to say:
I decided to write a sort of field guide, not so much a history of classical music as a hand-curated treasury of music that I dearly love. It includes plenty of women - who for centuries have been written out of the canon — composers of colour; gay and transgender composers; differently-abled composers (Beethoven, after all, wrote some of his most magnificent works while fully deaf); composers who battled — or are battling — mental health issues, addiction, low self-esteem; composers who had to make ends meet by doing all manner of unlikely day jobs (taxi drivers, plumbers, chemists, orange pickers, postal workers) but who kept at it, despite the odds, and created these glorious pieces for our listening pleasure. And maybe for our salvation.
Sounds very useful, but I do have a caveat or two. The little aside that women have "for centuries been written out of the canon" is not really the case. It sounds as if there were some mysterious secret organization that had a list of approved composers and simply crossed out names because they were women. Actually, in the Soviet Union that was pretty much the case, but not because they were women, rather because they did not conform to the dictates of "socialist realism." Nothing mysterious about it. But the way it is characterized here is ignorant of how canon-formation works. The canon, or repertory, comes about as the result of the contributions of thousands of listeners, who communicate their wishes by which concerts they choose to attend, hundreds of performers who add their own inclinations, dozens of music administrators who make decisions taking the first two categories into account, and finally, composers themselves, by writing music that inclines performers and listeners to engage with it. For most places and most music history, there were no shadowy patriarchs "writing women" out of the canon. Nor any of the other groups she mentions.

* * *

ArtsProfessional has an article on what seems a laudable project: New and inclusive music.
Inclusive Creativity began with a conference at Ulster University in Derry as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations in 2013. We brought together existing and new collaborators including innovators in music, disability and technology Drake Music, Share Music Sweden and Derry-based Walled City Music, as well as leading academics and practitioners. This two-track academic and artistic approach has since been carried through into a range of research projects including Sharing the Stage and NonZeroSum.
As part of these projects, we formed the Acoustronic ensemble, a mix of disabled and non-disabled musicians. They meet weekly to improvise, compose and perform using digital and acoustic instruments. A team comprising undergraduate, masters and PhD researchers works with the ensemble to investigate digital instrument-building and compositional and improvisational approaches in inclusive music settings.
My only reservation here is that we are presented with prose and platitudes. The hard truth is that what really matters is the artistic quality. Articles like this seem to avoid presenting anything that will allow us to make a judgement about artistic quality, so I don't really trust them.

* * *

The Los Angeles Times has an article about the very successful conductor Susanna Mälkki who is chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the LA Philharmonic.
Mälkki is one of four women conducting the L.A. Phil this season. Throughout most of her career, she has tended to redirect conversations away from gender and toward the music she is passionate about bringing to life.
"I've always tried to stay neutral on the subject," she told the Chicago Tribune's John von Rhein in 2016. "I have just tried all along to make music as good as possible and let others think what they may, since I can't control that anyway."
Finally the interviewer manages to provoke her into a political statement:
"Women have been conducting for decades," she says. "They just haven't been welcome. It's as simple as that."
Mälkki notes that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when her profession was growing in prestige, women did not even have the right to vote.
"If you did not have a say about your own life," she says, "how could you imagine that you could be a boss of an orchestra?" She adds that "things change gradually" and "sometimes society is just not ready for changes."
I suspect it is not quite that simple. If we did a proper "multivariate" analysis as someone like Jordan Peterson would recommend, we would likely find that there were quite a few different reasons why previously women were rare conducting orchestras while now they are becoming more and more common. I'm sure that an important reason Mälkki is sought after as a conductor is because she has always "tried all along to make music as good as possible and let others think what they may."

* * *

The entertainment side of classical music is subject to the same smoke and mirrors that the entertainment industry is generally. Promoters do whatever it takes to get "bums in seats" as the ungracious phrase goes. Case in point, the somewhat wayward aesthetics of the new Carnegie Hall season which features these artists and themes (thanks to Slipped Disc):

Click to enlarge
Follow the Slipped Disc link for some intriguing comments. These are all colorful musicians with successful publicity but, apart from Tilson Thomas, I'm not sure that they, as commentators mentioned, would be the first choice for concertos or recitals.

* * *

Let's end with a performance conducted by Susanna Mälkki. This is the "Mars" movement from Holst's The Planets at the BBC Proms with the BBC Symphony:

That'll clear out your ear-wax!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Problems of Composition

A composition is something that is put together, composed of different elements. Music composition is composed of sounds and silences. Well, with a couple of exceptions! You know what they are: that piece by John Cage for just silence (and there was an earlier movement by another composer that was just rests).

So what is the problem? What elements do you choose and how do you put them together? The big question, or one of them, is what sort of elements do you choose? Do you invent or dream up a tune?

This kind of tune radiates a whole historical era in music when tunes had a metric regularity and were deeply connected to a whole harmonic foundation. This theme outlines a tonic and dominant seventh in G major. This was typical of music in the late 18th century but saw a revival in the 20th century called neo-classical. Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, "Classical" is a great example:

Click to enlarge
Prokofiev makes this fresh and interesting by harmonic means, giving this kind of theme an acerbic quality.

But the ability to give a tonal theme a new life only lasted a few decades even though we still see occasional examples where a tonal theme is embedded in a non-tonal context. Alfred Schnittke's String Quartet No. 3 from 1983 is an example. Here we see he quotes the theme from the Grosse Fuge for string quartet by Beethoven:

But in general the movement is away from themes, textures and harmonies that are too linked to music of the past. The reason is that using this kind of material creates a problem in composition. Despite how well Schnittke does it, the usual result is music that sounds trite. Sometimes the interjection of even a small element of melody, rhythm or harmony from a past period in music sets up expectations that are difficult to handle. Each of these elements tends to pull others with it as, for example, a certain kind of melody implies certain kinds of rhythm and harmony.

For many composers in the last hundred years the only path forward seemed to be to try and limit or eliminate as much as possible of these historic elements. My series of posts on Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring outlines how one composer worked. He took one novel element, the octatonic scale, which had been in use in Russia for some time, and developed it in ways that took him outside traditional harmonies. This, combined with new approaches to orchestration and rhythm, yielded very successful aesthetic results.

The Second Viennese School took a different approach with their 12-tone system. This guaranteed independence from tonal melody and harmony, but it was a technical solution that ultimately proved a Procrustean bed for many composers, forcing them into solutions that were not necessarily aesthetically ideal. Extending the 12-tone method to rhythm as Boulez and others did further removed it from the possibility of making an expressive connection with the audience. Ultimately these methods did not seem to offer a way forward and were largely abandoned by the 1970s.

Other kinds of solutions involved making rhythm and repetition central which produced a lot of very successful pieces. This was the stylistic choice of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams and others.

Yet another path involved exploring in great depth the parameters of music that had been usually regarded as peripheral. These include timbre, texture, unusual means of sound-production and the use of unusual combinations of instruments. Some composers that took this path included Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse, George Crumb and Sofia Gubaidulina whom we have been taking an extended look at. The basic assumption here is that, except for limited expressive purposes, the traditional kinds of melody, rhythm and harmony are no longer of great value. Instead we must pursue other avenues that involve new uses of instruments and sounds. One early possibility involved the use of electronic instruments that had no traditional uses. Composers like Stockhausen and Gubaidulina did a lot of work in electronic studios but ultimately returned to the use of ordinary instruments and musicians. This might be because audiences are less responsive to electronic and tape music, especially if it does not involve actual musicians on stage.

So, bearing all this in mind, let's listen to a string quartet by Gubaidulina that is an exploration of some techniques and sounds that were traditionally regarded as peripheral. The string pizzicato is found in a lot of compositions, but traditionally it is an occasional color. Here Gubaidulina uses it exclusively (along with glissandi) for the first eight minutes of the piece! The result is unusual to say the least. This is the mdi ensemble in a 2013 performance of Gubaidulina's String Quartet No. 3 composed in 1987:

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 8

Sofia Gubaidulina in 1969 speaking at a Moscow Youth Musical Club concert

I don't have a photo from 1973, so the one above will have to do. The year 1973 was marked by several important events in Gubaidulina's life. She separated from her second husband Nikolai Bokov (nicknamed "Kolya") and wrote her first work for large orchestra "Steps" ("Stufen" in German). Here is the description of the piece from Kurtz' biography of the composer:
The work is composed in the form of seven descending steps: the orchestral timbre and tone color undergo gradual transformation, moving downward from high to low register. A moment of stasis and rest marks the end of each episode. The descending motion is enhanced by a continual expansion of the sound spectrum: from the cold, impersonal sonority of the instruments at the beginning to the rich sound palette of a thirty-part string section at the climax, and, finally, all the way to the dark, chaotically vibrant whisper of the human voice at the seventh step. At this point each member of the orchestra speaks the opening lines of "Vom Tode Mariae," from Rilke's poetic cycle Das Marienleben:
The same great angel, who once
Brought to her tidings of her birth,
Stood there, waiting for her attention,
And said: “Now is the time for you to appear.”
In this recording of the piece, the spoken text is by overlapping speakers and, I believe, is delivered in Russian. Blogger won't embed the YouTube clip for some reason, so just follow the link. Currently there are only 48 views of this piece!

I'm still not sure why I find the music of Gubaidulina so listenable even when it uses the most advanced sorts of textures and idioms. But I do. Perhaps it is because tying together all these technical devices is an underlying musical purpose and design.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Money, Nothing Funny

The philosophy department at Johns Hopkins University has just received a huge donation:
Despite what conventional wisdom may suggest, reports of the death of humanities-related philanthropy, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. IP's Higher Ed vertical is replete with examples of funders giving big to support the liberal arts.
That said, giving generally flows to the "usual suspects" like endowments, blended curriculum, and digitization projects. All of which makes investor Bill Miller's $75 million donation to John Hopkins University's philosophy department both unique and tantalizing.
According to the school, Miller's largess will allow Hopkins' department to nearly double in size, while also supporting graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and new courses aimed at attracting undergraduates. Deemed "wonderfully contrarian" by university president Ronald Daniels, the gift also appears to be the largest by far to a philosophy department anywhere in the world.
Bill Miller was a doctoral student in philosophy at Johns Hopkins who later went on to be one of the most successful portfolio managers in finance, beating the S&P 500 for fifteen consecutive years, 1991 to 2005.
Miller is a rare donor who can articulate how the liberal arts—and philosophy in particular—influenced his life and career.
Philosophy "has made a huge difference both to my life outside business, in terms of adding a great degree of richness and knowledge, and to the actual decisions I've made in investing," he said.
I put this together with some recent reported research from Google that revealed that the most successful managers and team leaders at the company were not the ones with the highest technical skills, but the ones with the highest skills in working with people.

So what does a philosophy department do with a big whack of money? By "double in size" I assume that they mean to hire more professors, maybe acquire or build a new building, accept more graduate students, offer more undergraduate courses and so on. I kind of hope they don't spend a bunch of money on hardware and "research." Buying a lot of complex machines that go "beep" is really not necessary in philosophy.

I wonder if the strength of philosophy does not lie in its meagre departments and lack of flashy technology? At bottom, the practice of philosophy is pretty much people sitting around thinking and talking to other people. More perhaps than any other discipline, instruction in philosophy is nothing more than a teacher sitting on one end of a log and a student on the other.

I was very blessed in my early days at university by taking a 100-level philosophy course taught by a newly-minted PhD. There were only twenty or so students in the class. We had assigned reading such as Bishop Berkeley's dialogues between Hylas and Philonous that we found outrageous as it made the absurd claim that the physical world did not exist, only our perceptions. Once we got to class and started discussing the matter, we soon found that, no matter how absurd the proposition, defeating our professor in argument was far from easy. As we ranted on with our poorly stated arguments he would walk back and forth in the front of the room. Once we ran down, he would pause, look over at us and say the words we came to realize signaled our doom: "May I rephrase that?" Once rephrased, which he did in the fairest way possible, we would quickly come to see the poverty of our arguments.

Over the years I have come to see the tremendous value of that course to my thinking generally. We were engaged in the actual practice of philosophy, just as Socrates and the Athenian youth did in the 5th century BC when philosophy was largely invented. There are not a lot of public intellectuals these days that have these kind of skills in debate. Public space has long been polluted by a host of logical fallacies that Medieval thinkers would laugh at. Perhaps the most predominant of these is the use of straw man arguments where you state your opponent's position in the most absurd way possible. This is endemic in much public debate.

One public intellectual that seems to have philosophical skills in abundance is Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson. The value of these was made painfully evident in a recent interview he did with BBC's Cathy Newman. She was used to interviewing people with the usual rudimentary intellectual skills and frankly, expected to encounter a bigoted reactionary. Instead she found herself faced with a brilliant thinker who was armed with a great deal of research into the topics she brought up. I recommend watching the interview with close attention to what was said:

You might notice that Ms. Newman is constantly misrepresenting what Prof. Peterson is saying and every time he catches her on it. He also turns her most bold attack on him back on her with undeniable logic, which brings her to a stuttering halt. How often does that happen with a big-time television journalist?

I very much hope that Johns Hopkins sticks to genuine philosophy in its department expansion and does not wander off into fashionable nonsense. We are in desperate need of people who can actually think and not just mindlessly parrot "talking points."

Monday, January 22, 2018

Huffpost Explains Why Classical Music Is So Awful

This reminds me of an occasion, years ago, when I was walking through the central plaza just a few days before the chamber music festival was due to begin and I overheard one visitor say to another "chamber music is so boring!" Well, so are superhero movies, dear.

The article over at Huffpost is titled: The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained and you should follow the link and read the whole thing. Here is an excerpt:
there are a great many “clap here, not there” cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied — as I believe are many classical concert goers — by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole.
I don’t think classical music was intended to be listened to in this way. And I don’t think it honors the art form for us to maintain such a cadaverous body of rules.
One step therefore we might take to make classical music less boring again is simply for audiences to quit being so blasted reverential.
The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.
All this falls into the general category of what I would call "let's make classical music palatable to those people who have no experience of it by making the experience as much like pop music as possible." But Mr. Dare goes overboard with his purple prose, doesn't he? A "thousand dead looking eyes?" Eww. Classical music is just like slavery! Or North Korea! And this is the guy that Huffpost lets write about classical music?

Let me break it down for you. Yes, in the past the etiquette of concerts was quite different. In the 18th century the nobility liked to sit in their private boxes when they attended opera performances so that they could not only eat and drink, but also have liaisons with their mistresses. However, as time went by, a certain etiquette grew up along with the development of public concert halls and subscription series that was designed to reduce the annoying behaviour of some concert-goers and allow the others to hear the music without distractions. Honestly, you can learn this etiquette in about two minutes. None of this applies to pop music, of course, but since it is normally performed with the aid of massive stacks of amplifiers and speakers, it is virtually impossible for any kind of behaviour, no matter how noisy, to actually distract from the deafeningly loud music. The same is not true of a Beethoven adagio.

I could deliver a similar, equally baseless, critique of pop music performances. I find them very unpleasant because of the crush of people, the confusion, the deafening amplification and not least the mechanical drum machine rhythms.

Let's listen to some of that awful music. This is the Emerson Quartet performing the "Dissonance" quartet by Mozart:

Reviews and a Concert

I just ran across a delightful piece of journalism that is a bit of a homage to nasty, critical reviews. It is full of gems ranging from restaurant reviews to record reviews to movie reviews: Why everyone likes to read a negative review, but nobody likes to be reviewed negatively. A sample:
When Pete Wells, restaurant critic at the New York Times, descended upon Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square in the winter of 2012, and returned to his desk to pen an outrageously scornful open letter to owner and namesake Guy Fieri (in lieu of a straightforward review), he transcended New York, transcended his reputation and transcended even the circulation of the Times. “Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?” Wells writes, worked into a paroxysm of sardonic fury. “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?” Those, by the way, are some of the milder barbs. Even a harmless Baked Alaska Wells eviscerates as nothing less than “a representation in sugar and eggs of the experience of going insane.” Wells is, of course, an influential and prolific critic, and a fine writer. Not one word he has written before or since is quite as famous as these.
Restaurant reviews, like movie reviews, can be even more entertaining than their subjects. Music reviews, alas, rarely are. Not sure why, unless it is because popular music reviews tend to be largely advertisements for the product while classical music reviews have to avoid the kind of technical detail that would make for a really telling critique. Mind you, this was much less true in the past. Apparently Hanslick's review of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto haunted him the rest of his days and he was able to quote large portions of it verbatim! Nowadays most classical musicians trudge along, suffering the humiliation of no reviews at all, with the occasional ones consisting of a kind of bland boosterism: "audiences thrilled this past weekend to concerts by ******* and ****** as they performed a selection of music by ******** and *******.

This past weekend I did attend a concert by visiting artists Dmitry Kousov, cello and Yulia Kousov, piano in a concert of music by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev and quite enjoyed it. I have to admit to a fascination with Russian music and musicians in recent years. This was true even before my mammoth series of posts on Stravinsky (and before him, Shostakovich). Russians, as a people, just seem to take music so very seriously. The first piece on the program was the Sonata in C major, op. 102 for cello and piano by Beethoven. I don't know the Beethoven cello sonatas very well, but from the very first notes, the performers gave an engaging and committed performance. What do I mean by that? As a matter of fact, a lot of performers in classical music are what I call "note-spinners." They go onstage and deliver the right notes in the right order and right rhythm, but one senses that they don't mean a lot by them. They are something less than deeply committed artists. Audiences often don't pick up on this and regard these performances, if they involve enough virtuoso fireworks, as being perfectly acceptable. I find them boring. How is this manifest? It is really in how the details are handled: the timbres, the balancing of harmonies, the minutia of how phrases are shaped. This is where the soul of the music is communicated. In any case, our Russian duo were very much in the music and it was communicated very well.

The second piece was the Cello Suite No. 3, also in C major, by Bach and this was a lively performance. Actually, I thought the prelude was rather too fast. Also, I wish he had done the repeats, at least of the first halves of the dance movements, which he did not, apart from the second bourrée. Very enjoyable nonetheless.

In the second half the Schumann was beautifully lyrical, just as it should be. The Prokofiev was successful as well and I need to investigate his chamber music more. I was puzzled by the enthusiasm of the audience at the end of this piece, given as it was the most challenging on the program. But my companion explained it to me: the audience leapt to their feet and shouted bravo partly because this was the last piece and it is sort of expected. Ah. The performers came back and gave an encore, the Vocalise by Rachmaninov. Luckily we have a YouTube clip of the artists playing that very piece:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 7

Continuing our journey of discovery through the music of Gubaidulina. The Composers Union has a creative retreat in the town of Sortavala in Karelia where she had spent a few weeks in the summer of 1970. In the fall of 1971 she returned there and found the peaceful solitude immensely stimulating. She proceeded to write her first string quartet to test some musical possibilities. She later wrote about the piece in these words:
The idea of disintegration, dissociation, lies at the heart of the First Quartet. I have to say that there is a certain amount of pessimism in it, a metaphor for the impossibility of togetherness, of understanding one's neighbor, a metaphor for the utter deafness of humanity (life itself in those years was so dark, so sad and hopeless...) The work grows out of a single pitch, from a common point. But various aspects of the musical material--the rhythmic and melodic successions, the types of articulation, and the dynamics--gradually begin to contradict one another. [quoted in Kurtz, p. 97]
There is a performance on YouTube by the Molinari Quartet, so let's have a listen. No score, alas!

In early 1972 Boris Berman commissioned Gubaidulina to compose a piece for harpsichord and percussion. She ended up selecting three instruments from the collection of Mark Pekarsky, the chang, a dulcimer-like instrument from Central Asia, byan chung (Chinese bells), and Chinese cymbals. To these she added antique cymbals. The piece was premiered in April 1972 and received a very enthusiastic response from the audience. Sadly, this piece does not seem to be available on YouTube. I have posted this before, but never mind, let's have a listen to In the Beginning Was Rhythm, written in 1984:

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Whetting your appetite with a picture from a travel article on Budapest. This is a local confection, Esterházy torte, with layers of almond meringue and buttercream frosting. Named, of course, after the noble family that employed Joseph Haydn.

Click to enlarge
* * *

Here is an interview with Paul McCartney on his life as a bassist. Here is a sample:
It seems to be around Rubber Soul that you start to hear the basslines a bit more.
That’s right, yeah.
And that coincided with the arrival of the Rickenbacker.
Yeah, it did. Also, it coincided with us being allowed in the control room. It was very much us-and-them in the beginning, where you just entered by the tradesman’s entrance, set your stuff up, did your session, and left by the tradesman’s entrance. We were hardly ever asked to come up to the control room. Maybe at the end of a session. [Adopts posh voice again.] "Would you like to come up and hear it, boys?" [Switches to young awed voice.] "Oh could we? Thank you, mister."
It was really like that?
Oh yes, very much so. Tradesman’s entrance. You never entered through the studio until years later. And engineers had to wear shirts and ties. No trousers [laughs]. And all the maintenance men had white coats, very BBC.
* * *

This is an interesting contrast with our posts on Sofia Gubaidulina: Steeped in Guns N’ Roses and Philip Glass, Missy Mazzoli is a leading composer of her generation
Mazzoli’s story is something of an American dream — from the time that she, as a high schooler, was teaching tap dance to children and one of the fathers put up a sign in the studio advertising piano, drum and composition lessons. “Oh my God — you can study composition?” she thought, and was soon taken under this teacher’s wing (he was a percussionist with the Philly Pops).
Now a teacher, and a leading woman in a field that still has too few of them, she has set out to provide role models for teenage would-be composers. The Luna Composition Lab, a partnership with New York’s Kaufman Center, provides mentorship, regular lessons and field trips to concerts for a small group of female-identifying composers between 13 and 19, drawn from every corner of the country. Now in its second season, the program is “a very simple pattern,” she says, “but I think it’s very effective.” As a female composer, she says, one is aware “I’m entering a world that is inhospitable to me.” Strong role models can make a huge difference for the next generation of black sheep.
* * *

The fall from grace, or perhaps it might be better described as a complete erasure from history, of conductor Charles Dutoit, has created a bit of a problem for the CBC as regards recordings of perhaps Canada's finest orchestra the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal:
“We are aware of the serious allegations against Charles Dutoit and the OSM third-party investigation that is currently pending,” writes Emma Bédard, from the corporation’s public-affairs department, in response to an email. “And we have carefully considered our actions in light of this.
“As you know, the recordings of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra make up an important part of our Canadian classical repertoire on CBC Radio Two.
“While the allegations made towards Charles Dutoit are serious, we truly believe that removing these recordings entirely from our broadcasts would unjustly diminish the efforts of the many talented musicians who are featured in them. At this point, we are no longer crediting Mr. Dutoit as conductor.”
If there were a video, I suppose we might enjoy the sight of an orchestra playing along while the conductor was blurred out, like one of those anonymous witnesses.

* * *

At a time when an inordinate number of prominent figures in the fields of politics, academia, entertainment and the arts seem to be falling like dominoes, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that much of our creative/intellectual elite are hopelessly incompetent, morally bankrupt, cowards or worse. Someone who contrasts with all that by being genuinely learned instead of ideologically blinkered is University of Toronto professor Jordan B. Peterson, like myself, hailing originally from Northern Alberta (and also, like myself, an alumni of McGill University). His public profile and influence is growing fast and is started to be noticed even outside Canada. Here is a typical article on the phenomenon from the Chronicle of Higher Education: What’s So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson? While not presenting him in a negative light, the writer does not quite grasp what is going on. There is a pretty good biography of Peterson and a reasonable sketch of his current popularity. It is very hard to excerpt the long article, but the intellectual shallowness of the writer comes out in passages like this:
To understand Peterson’s worldview, you have to see the connection between his opposition to gender-neutral pronouns and his obsession with the Soviet Union. He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism. The imposition of Marxism led to the state-sponsored slaughter of millions. For Peterson, then, the mandated use of gender-neutral pronouns isn’t just a case of political correctness run amok. It’s much more serious than that. When he refers to the "murderous ideology" of postmodernism, he means it literally.
Peterson is not only a very learned man and also a very wise man, he also has a rare courage. The simple truth is that he is head and shoulders above virtually everyone he has been interviewed by or debated with, with the exception of fellow professors Jonathan Haidt and Camille Paglia. He is Canada's Socrates, speaking truths that most do not want to hear. His courage and wisdom have won him a tremendous following among young men in particular who find in him the moral compass that is lacking in contemporary society. It is likely that he is one of the wisest thinkers in Canada, which also makes him the most dangerous.

* * * 

The Globe and Mail has a lengthy piece introducing Verdi's opera Rigoletto ahead of upcoming performances in Toronto. They actually go into a bit more musical detail than usual in the mainstream press:
In Act I, you'll hear Caro nome ("Dear name"), one of the opera's many famous numbers. It's sung by Gilda, Rigoletto's overprotected daughter, who has just fallen for a man whose name she thinks is Gualtier Maldè (it's not). Gilda begins from the place of a young woman, properly flustered and blushing after being swept off her feet by this man; by the end of her aria, she's in full mating-cry mode. It's as though Verdi has written a musical version of a woman's sexual awakening.
A great soprano will seem to pant with anticipation in the first few minutes of Caro nome; Verdi writes stuttering, broken lines for Gilda as she describes her "Gualtier Maldè," punctuated by sexy upward portamenti (Italian for "carrying," when the singer slides between two pitches). Listen for the ease the soprano brings to the gentle jabs up to high Bs, and the stretchy, jazzy riff she sings up to a high C-sharp about halfway through the aria. The real test comes at the end, as Gilda sings her cadenza (an unaccompanied chance for singers to show off their best tricks); often the hardest part for the soprano is to stay in tune, so that when the orchestra joins her on her last note, it sounds magical, not twangy.
* * *

Let's have a listen to Mazzoli's chamber opera Breaking the Waves:

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 6

Reading Michael Kurtz' book on Gubaidulina (translated from the German original) the truth that they take music very seriously in the Soviet Union and Russia is underlined again and again. The person that headed the Composers Union was an important figure whose role was to essentially control who got performances and commissions according to political ideology. After the crushing of the "Prague Spring" in August 1968 by Soviet troops, the Party loyalist Serafim Tulikov was chosen to head the Moscow Composers Union. The response of the non-conformist composers like Gubaidulina was to form a tight network of mutual support with both performers and listeners. Despite this there was a continuing problem of getting permission to organize concerts.

Pyotr Meshchaninov was an important organizer of chamber concerts using members of the State Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately nine out of ten applications were turned down. Programs featuring composers like Gubaidulina and Denisov were typically rejected with the Party representative simply crossing out their names!

Very occasionally Gubaidulina received a performance abroad. In 1971 the Royan festival in France featured Eastern European composers and two works by Gubaidulina were performed, the Piano Sonata and the premiere of Concordanza, a new work for chamber ensemble. I suspect that this piece may be been revised at some later point as one writer, Doris Redepenning, refers to four instrumentalists, but the performances on YouTube have ten players. Here is the Esbjerg Ensemble:

One thing that stands out are the enormous contrasts: between simple unisons and massive dissonances, between soft, slow harmonics and rapid cascades of percussion, between fierce rhythms and lyrical melodic passages, between clearly defined pitches and glissandi. But at the same time, one has the sense that everything is there for a purpose. What I enjoy about this performance is how they handle it as chamber music, without a conductor. You can see the musicians providing one another with cues, which leads to a more unified performance.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Need for Criticism

A hat tip to Slipped Disc for sending me to this article about the need for criticism: The Reviewer’s Fallacy: When critics aren’t critical enough.
The Reviewer’s Fallacy is a different sort of phenomenon, less premeditated than baked into today’s critical enterprise. One of the root causes stems from Sturgeon’s law, named after its originator, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, who once observed, “It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” The “It can be argued” part usually isn’t quoted, and the figure is very ballpark. But it’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse. It would be tiresome for critics to constantly be counting the ways that the work under review is crap, nor would their editors and the owners of the publications they write for be happy with a consistently downbeat arts section. The result is an unconscious inclination to grade on a curve. That is, if something isn’t very good, but is better than two-thirds of other entries in the genre—superhero epics, quirky or sensitive indie films, detective novels, literary fiction, cable cringe comedies—give it a B or B-plus.
Which can be summed up as "mediocre works reviewed by mediocre critics lead to a universe of mediocrity!"

What is the situation in classical music? One thing that skews both criticism and audience reaction is the impact of popular music. Economically, classical music is dwarfed by the huge amount of money devoted to popular music. In the world of classical music itself, contemporary music is dwarfed by the (relatively) large amount of money devoted to the standard repertoire. I see the trend toward streaming as yet another kind of pressure on classical music and contemporary music in particular. In the past, and still the case in Europe, classical music was so deeply rooted in the culture that it retains a high visibility. concert halls and opera houses dominate the cultural landscape in major urban centers and there is a strong, healthy festival culture that attracts very large numbers of listeners.

The Glastonbury Festival in the UK, five days devoted to popular music, attracts a total audience of 135,000 (figures from the last two years available) while the nearly 100 year old Salzburg Festival in Austria attracted 261,000 last year. Mind you, this is over a six-week span.

Along with the deeply-rooted presence of both standard repertoire and contemporary repertoire in the leading European music institutions, goes a level of criticism that also participates in the traditional aesthetic values--I am speaking here largely of Europe. It is only in the occasional pocket in North America that one encounters much genuine music criticism. When I lived in Montreal, for example, it was only found in the French newspapers and among them only in the most intellectual, Le Devoir. (Real intellectualism seems to be almost restricted to the French press where we also find it in Le Monde and Le Monde diplomatique.) You might also expect it in, for example, the New York Times, the New Yorker and perhaps the Globe and Mail. But, in my view, this is not the case. I have mentioned on a number of occasions my reservations with the writing of Alex Ross at the New Yorker and, absent the occasional column in the past from Richard Taruskin, I don't find a lot of criticism at the New York Times. What is missing? Largely the critical spirit and the tools necessary to express it. Instead we find a slavish genuflection to the received wisdom of the progressive left.

It would take a great deal of courage, backed up with considerable knowledge and expertise, to go against any progressive shibboleth, of course. And I have only seen this exhibited with much finesse in the popular press by Richard Taruskin, who has both in abundance. And even he is very careful to only opine in areas where he has overwhelming expertise.

For a good read, go to the comments on the Slipped Disc post.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Note on Bachtrack

Looking over the Bachtrack statistics for 2017 from the link I posted on Friday, I notice something interesting. If you go to the complete infographic and scroll down to the "Busiest Instrumentalists" section towards the bottom you will see a section on pianists. At the top is Dénes Várjon with 64 concerts followed by a tie between Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang with 57 concerts each. Conspicuous by his absence is one of the most active pianists, Grigory Sokolov. A quick trip to his website shows an impressive list of concert dates for this season, 74 by my count, which should have put him at number one on the list. Now why did he not appear? Another quite active pianist is Khatia Buniatishvili, also not listed and on her website I count 42 upcoming concerts this year. Yes, perhaps she would have been number 11 on the list, just under Kirill Gerstein. But the absence of Sokolov is simply inexplicable. So, obviously the Bachtrack numbers cannot be trusted...

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 5

According to a German documentary on her, Gubaidulina's last name is pronounced with the accent on the "du." I don't know if this is the case in Russian as well. We are up to 1965, Gubaidulina is living in an apartment on Leninskii Prospekt in Moscow and working as a free-lance composer. As she refuses to do commissions for the Communist Party, sometimes things are very difficult financially and she largely survives on film score commissions. Her Piano Sonata was completed in 1965 and she also married Nikolai Bokov, a poet and philosopher. Let's have a listen to the sonata, the last of her works to be written, nominally, in a traditional form.

You will certainly hear some jazz influence and extended playing techniques. The second theme in the first movement, for example, has passages where the strings are played directly, not using the keyboard.

Through her husband Gubaidulina had contact with a circle of political dissidents. This was during the reactionary Brezhnev era when underground "samizdat" publications strove to communicate a sense of what was going on in the world outside the constrained world of official truth.

After the Piano Sonata she struck out on a more independent path, as she said in a 1992 interview:
Until then, I had wanted to write for the theater, to compose ballets, symphonies... But then I understood: no, absolutely not. I need to write miniatures, miniatures in a whisper. I picked instruments that have almost no sound. The harp, a quiet, gentle instrument; the string bass is purposely muted; the percussion instruments are also treated the same way, so that the score calls for very few sounds. It was from this moment that I realized that I would pay no attention at all to anybody else. I would do what I liked... That doesn't mean, of course, that afterward I only expressed myself in a whisper.
The piece she is referring to is her Five Etudes for Harp, Double Bass, and Percussion, also from 1965:

It is as if the music is for ritual dances of previously undiscovered peoples living in unexplored regions--and aesthetically, that is pretty much what it is. I hear a bit of jazz, but I also hear passages that remind me of Canarios by Gaspar Sanz, the 17th century Spanish composer for guitar. For Gubaidulina this journey was an inner one, seeking greater depth. Instead of inventing more and more novelties, she saw her role as a filter, rather than a generator.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Star Is Born

This story is too interesting to wait until the next Friday Miscellanea. The Wall Street Journal has a behind the scenes look at what happens when one of the stars of an opera production bows out sick and someone has to fill in on very short notice:
Singer Sabina Puértolas was buying groceries in Madrid when her agent called with a question. Would she like to perform one of opera’s most prestigious roles on a world-famous stage?
Yes, she said, of course, when?
Tomorrow, the agent replied, with Ms. Puértolas as Gilda in a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Royal Opera House in London, one of the company’s biggest, most popular titles.
Heh! Well, this is what every talented middle-rank soloist hopes for, the moment when you get to show you are ready to step up. This is how Leonard Bernstein achieved his early success. In 1943, a mere 25 years old, he stood in on very short notice for an ailing Bruno Walter and conducted the New York Philharmonic with no rehearsal. In 1949 Serge Koussevitzky was scheduled to conduct the premiere of the very difficult Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen but again, Bernstein stepped in when Koussevitzky fell ill.
Theatrical agent Alex Fernandez was in a hotel room in Córdoba, Spain, when the Royal Opera called at about 5 p.m. He immediately called Ms. Puértolas, who was shopping with her 12-year old son.
“Are you sick?” Mr. Fernandez asked. She answered: “No, why?”
The agent said: “Are you sure you’re fine?” She replied: “Yes, but why?”
Mr. Fernandez got to the point. “OK, you’re flying to London tomorrow morning to sing Gilda at the Royal Opera House,” the agent recalls telling his client. She was so shocked that she shoved her shopping cart away.
She got on an 8:30 am flight to London and by 11 am was being rushed into a rehearsal room to familiarize her with the set and how she should move on stage. Then there was hair, makeup and costume! Bear in mind that an opera singer has to give a perhaps three hour performance from memory! How did she do?
Near the end of the first act, Ms. Puértolas stepped up to deliver the opera’s most challenging aria, “Caro nome,” punctuated with an array of high notes. When she finished, the crowd erupted. “It was absolutely wonderful,” Ms. Rebourg says. Near the end of the three-hour opera, the curtains fell. Ms. Puértolas got a standing ovation, leaving her in tears.
That's a lovely story, is it not? The performance was just a few days ago. Here is clip of Sabina Puértolas singing the role from a 2010 production:

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Multicultural Puzzle

I just ran across something that I find a bit puzzling. There was an article in a Canadian newspaper the other day, the Times/Colonist of Victoria, BC, where I used to live, about a collection of Indigenous music being nominated for a UNESCO program. That is excellent news, of course. The person who collected this was the Austrian-Canadian musicologist Ida Halpern who specialized in the music of the Indigenous peoples of the coast of British Columbia. Here is an excerpt from the article:
Her life was steeped in classical music, but Ida Halpern was passionate about the songs of British Columbia's Indigenous people, music she set out to prove was equal to that of Bach and Mozart.
See, that is the part that puzzles me. I'm very fond of the classic music of north India and the music of the Balinese and Javanese gamelan and have heard interesting music from Ghana and Zimbabwe, the traditional music of Japan and other places. Some of it is quite sophisticated, but in terms of structure and aesthetic power, these musics have limits that I suspect come from the lack of really good systems of notation. In the absence of that, what tends to happen is that a small core of traditions is preserved instead of the radical advances of individual composers--call it an inherent difference between "folk" music and "art" music. That is just a private theory and, yes, it would take a great deal of research to flesh it out. Call it an informed intuition.

The music of the Indigenous peoples of Canada that I have heard is particularly limited in its techniques and devices. There is not much rhythmic interest and even less harmonic interest. The vocal lines tend to focus on just a very few intervals, seconds and thirds mostly, and the impression one gets is of a single chanting tone, with a small amount of variation. In the absence of notation, of any kind of formal training for musicians and of the largely ritual function of the music, this is not surprising. If you want to sample a few fragments, you can go to Amazon and listen to the clips from this album:

Now why would someone with a PhD in musicology from the University of Vienna think that this was equal to the music of Bach and Mozart? Even for a second? And how would she go about proving it? That's what puzzles me.

I can only find one significant article on her work, by Kenneth Chen, and I can't find any original articles or books authored by her. Chen comments that most of her written scholarship was in the form of liner notes to the albums of field recordings. This passage from his paper reveals a bit of her approach:
Halpern did, however, do more than instantiate Kulturkreis concepts even in her early scholarship. Notably, in comparing West Coast First Nations and Euro-Western art musics, she reasoned that:
"The [former] may be considered melogenic [my emphasis]. Sometimes it is logogenic (world-bound, logos-word) as when the chief sings his potlatch song and recites some parts. Sometimes it can be pathogenic (pathos-full of emotion) as in a medicine man's song. Often, however, it passes these two primitive stages, blending already into the melogenic style which is the style of our western culture."
This argument downplays the "primitive" (logo- and pathogenic) features of First Nations musics in favor of the more "progressive" (melogenic) style found also in Euro-Western art music—a disconcerting move logically insofar as Halpern's inference (underlined) does not flow from what her evidence actually supports. From a phatic point of view, though, her rationale betrays her eagerness to present First Nations music-making as developmentally "like" Euro- Western art music-making: advanced rather than backward.
It is worth reading all of Mr. Chen's paper as it outlines some of the reasons why Halpern's pioneering work has received such little attention over the years. Perhaps one of the reasons why she worked so hard to record and preserve this music and also why she wanted to give a high aesthetic valuation to the music was a kind of collective guilt over the very harsh way that Indigenous culture was treated in the 19th and well into the 20sh centuries:
Halpern began and conducted much of her fieldwork during a period when it was actually illegal for First Nations cultures to be celebrated, much less preserved. From 1880 until 1951, the Indian Act forbade First Nations Peoples to partake of their own cultural activities, and Section 140(1) of its 1927 version specifically decreed that: "Every Indian or other person who engages in, assists in celebrating or encourages either directly or indirectly another to celebrate any Indian festival, dance or other ceremony ... is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months and not less than two months." Halpern herself acknowledged: "all of us could have been jailed and fined because of strict Canadian laws proscribing native culture at that time."
Institutionally, the Department of Indian Affairs, the Board of Education as well as the Church enforced a policy of cultural assimilation professedly with the honourable intention of "saving the Indians" by "civilizing" them—à la Western standards of civilization.
I am quoting from the Chen article. It is astonishing how severe these policies were and how we have swung to virtually the opposite policies today! If you will recall my series of posts on Stravinsky and the road to the Rite of Spring, it seems that the Soviet Union, where similar projects to record and preserve the folk music of Russia were being undertaken around this time as portable recording equipment became available, was far more "enlightened" than the colonial administrators in British North America and the subsequent Canadian government.

My conclusion is that, while Halpern certainly wanted to attribute aesthetic value to the music of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, she likely never said anything like that she regarded it as "equal to that of Bach or Mozart." For that we can likely blame an ideologically-blindered journalist.

I have ordered the album pictured above in CD form so that I can study Halpern's liner notes, so I may have more to add later on.

Here is one Nootka song available on YouTube:

Friday Miscellanea

In my tireless search for silly items to amuse you on Friday I sometimes turn up a real gem. Here are the twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic playing an arrangement of the theme to the Pink Panther.

* * *

I'm not sure of the source of this quote, but it is too much fun to pass up:
Every socialistic type of government… produces bad art, produces social inertia, produces really unhappy people, and it's more repressive than any other kind of government. --Frank Zappa
I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. After all, the amount of really impressive music coming out of Russia when it was the Soviet Union argues against the first point: "produces bad art." Social inertia? One thing that socialism seems to do is reduce the vast majority to an equal state of poverty and despair while enriching the elite few. In order to do this a great deal of repression is normally required!

* * *

I have previously expressed the view that the supposed decline and aging of classical audiences is largely a North American phenomenon and much less the case in Europe. I offer as an instance the stellar success of the new Hamburg concert hall in Germany. Slipped Disc has the story:
Annual results are in for the first year of the Elbphilharmonie and they make pretty good reading.
A planned half-million deficit has turned into a surplus of 374,000 euros. Some 4.5 million people have visited the site. Tickets are in high demand.
One stat: for some concerts, the demand is more than 20 times higher than the number of seats available.
* * *

Here are some important statistics: Bachtrack has released the figures for classical music in 2017. The most-performed composer was neither Bach nor Beethoven, but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Sorry, Beethoven, but the top spot for the composer with the most performances in 2017 has returned to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, while Hallelujah choruses will be sung around the world to celebrate that Handel's Messiah reclaimed its position as the top performed work. The Bachtrack database listed a similar number of events to the previous year, around 32,000.
The top six composers in order were Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky. And let me give a shout out to composer number seven, Joseph Haydn! Shostakovich is number 16 on the list, two ahead of number 18, Vivaldi. There are lots more interesting statistics, so go have a look.

* * * 

Answering the important question "do composers picnic?" is this photo of Debussy and his daughter Chouchou in 1915:

That photo comes from an article in The Spectator this week about upcoming musical events in 2018.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Debussy Festival, taking place over two busy weekends (16–18 and 23–25) in March, is the first really sizeable statement from the orchestra’s new music director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. The most obvious bases are covered — La merImages and virtually all the chamber music — but there’s no sense of an exercise in completism. Instead, with music ranging from Wagner and Szymanowski to Boulez, Takemitsu and Tristan Murail, the festival attempts to map Debussy’s place in musical history. It’s all informed by Grazinyte-Tyla’s instinct for drawing musical connections, and she follows up on 23 June with a concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.
* * * 

Norman Lebrecht has an item about the shrinking world of music criticism that is worth a look. He links to a couple of previous pieces and notes how things have just gotten worse. I am more and more noticing a decline in simple literacy. Even in prominent publications like the Wall Street Journal or the Toronto Globe and Mail, I see more and more little things that signal a weakening grasp on how language works and the meaning of words. When someone uses a phrase like "woe betide" it is often in a context that shows an unfamiliarity with its use. Another example that drives me crazy is the constant misuse of the phrase to "beg the question." No, it does not mean that the situation demands that we question it. It comes from philosophical rhetoric and if someone begs the question, it means that their argument assumes the conclusion, a common logical error. If people cannot get these basic things right, then the higher level skills of aesthetic criticism are even more out of reach.

* * *

We have talked about what a classical music superpower Finland is these days, but today the Globe and Mail has a big piece on what a pop music superpower Sweden is. From the days of ABBA until now, when an amazing amount of pop songs are either written or produced by Swedes, or both, Sweden wields an influence well out of proportion to its population.
Sweden has infiltrated global pop for decades. ABBA ruled the seventies; Robyn and the Cardigans tore a strip off the nineties; Tove Lo and Zara Larsson carry the country on charts today. Countless North American hits, too, are written by Swedes you've never heard of. The root causes of the disproportionate dominance of this country of 10 million, however, are less evident. One clue can be found in a single, vastly influential studio that began ushering in a new school of songwriting in the 1990s, sending teen-pop artists including the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Britney Spears flocking to Stockholm. Further clues can be found in Swedish culture itself, and the deep appreciation of music that's instilled in Swedes from an early age. "They're gods of pop music," says Carly Rae Jepsen, who regularly travels to Swedish studios, most recently for her forthcoming record.
* * *

Normally I am somewhat of a fan of Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post, but her latest article on classical crossover has me squirming... This is where she starts to go wrong:
"Classical music is very particular about its categories."
It's that agency thing again that obscures what is really going on. No, "classical music" does no such thing as "classical music" is a mere intellectual abstraction. Rather, the people who create, perform and listen to classical music are the ones who are particular. And the reason they are is because it is extremely annoying to be offered something purporting to be classical music only to discover that the reality is some maudlin concoction with no real substance. It's like purchasing what you thought was a fine confection from your local patisserie only to discover when you cut into it that it was a Hostess Twinkie.

* * *

We really haven't said much about Debussy recently, or listened to much either. So let's rectify that with this performance of La Mer.  This is Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra:

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Guitar Apps!

Time for something satirical, I think! This might be behind the paywall, but if you google the title, it will probably come up: These Guitar Apps Will Teach You to Shred Like Slash. Here is an excerpt:
Mastering the guitar is a classic fantasy. But if you’re wary of hiring a teacher who’ll only show you the simplest chords while reminiscing about the time he opened for Sugar Ray, consider going digital. This might be the best time in history to learn (or relearn) the instrument from home. Whether you’re a rookie or a rusty old hand, new online tools and apps could fast track you to guitar demigod status, provided you put in the practice.
Yes, it certainly was my fantasy way back in the 1960s.
Dave Isaacs, a 20-year music veteran who instructs students in Nashville and across the internet via Skype, said much has changed since he first picked up a guitar as a cash-starved teen. “To learn a song, I used to have to go to a music store, open a book and sneakily write the chords down on my palm,” he said. Now you can scour sites like ultimate-guitar.com for chords of more than a million songs—even indie obscurities like Ween’s “Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down”—and find countless tutorials on YouTube, all free.
But there’s a catch. Most of that information is created by amateurs, for amateurs, so your melodic rendition of that Bon Iver anthem might not ring true with the real version. “Since anyone can post anything, there are a lot of inaccuracies,” Mr. Isaacs said, warning that beginners can get lost in an online maze of data and quickly lose interest.
The article goes on to describe several online courses and apps offered by Fender and Berklee.

Now for the critique! I know I have mentioned before Crichton's Rule. I can't find the quote online, but the famous author said something like this: "If you read articles in the mass media on a topic where you have professional expertise, you will notice that about 80% of the information is wrong. Now extend that to all the other fields!" I find this to be quite true. Any time I read an article about music in the popular press, I do indeed see that it is about 80% wrong. And so it is with this piece.

The truth is, and this comes from forty years of teaching music, that the learning process is really in the hands (and ears and mind) of the student. Course materials and high quality personal instruction can certainly help, may indeed even play a crucial role, but learning happens within the student and only their energy, curiosity, initiative and capacity for concentration and work will advance them. Yes, a good instructor, or well-crafted materials can certainly save the student some time and help them to find the right path. But only the student can walk that path.

A typical experience teaching is the feeling that, like Sisyphus, you are pushing a stone up a hill, only to have it tumble down as soon as you stop. No-one in the professional music teaching business wants to say this, but it is still true. There are a few gifted students that hardly need any help at all, a few massively untalented students that nothing will help and a bunch in the middle that, with a lot of work and a bit of help, will make some progress.

Dave Isaacs lets the cat out of the bag a bit when he describes going to the music store and copying down some chords out of a book. He was showing some initiative there. But I'm sure that, a bit later in his progress, he was figuring out those chords just by listening to the recording.

I guess there are three stages or levels here. First of all you go find the information you need, chord progressions out of a book maybe (and by the way, the Ultimate Book of Chord Progressions has been in print, and available for a modest price, since the 18th century (though it seems they have put it into two volumes recently):

Or perhaps it is a music teacher in your area. In any case, you find what you need because you are motivated by some fantasy or vision. Second, you absorb the material and develop the skills necessary to play. It is the third stage that is the interesting one: you forget all that and hew your own path and this is what the really fine musicians and composers do.

They don't have an app for that...

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 4

Gubaidulina began to be recognized in music circles in the Soviet Union from the early 60s. She joined the Moscow branch of the Composer's Union, at the time a crucial step in advancement as they not only organized concerts, composer's retreats and symposia, but also controlled Soviet cultural policy in music. The Composer's Union offered a "Meet the Composer" evening in December 1962 the first part of which was devoted to the music of Sofia Gubaidulina. Along with the Chaconne we talked about in the last post, one of the works featured was her Piano Quintet (composed in 1957-58). Let's have a listen to the first movement. The performers are Kathryn Woodard, piano and Brooklyn Rider (Colin Jacobsen, violin; Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello). Recorded live at the Rudder Theatre, College Station, TX, February 26, 2009.

That does not depart too far from the Shostakovich model, though the musical language is certainly different.

A year later, in early 1963, Gubaidulina's candidacy came to an end along with her state financial support. She was not attracted to many of the avenues pursued by her colleagues which included teaching or working as an editor for a state music publisher. The idea of film composition seemed more promising and her teacher Nikolai Peiko helped to open some doors for her. She also won a prize of several hundred rubles at the 1963 All-Union Competition for Young Composers that helped sustain her. The award-winning piece was an Allegro rustico for flute and piano: