Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Two Kinds of Time

I want to introduce this post by recounting one of Zeno's paradoxes. Zeno of Elea (c. 490 BC to c. 430 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who is known for his paradoxes, described by Bertrand Russell as "immeasurably subtle and profound" which, as you will see in a moment, is a rather subtle pun. Wikipedia relates the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise as follows:
In the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Achilles is in a footrace with the tortoise. Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 meters, for example. If we suppose that each racer starts running at some constant speed (one very fast and one very slow), then after some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 meters, bringing him to the tortoise's starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say, 10 meters. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles arrives somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has some distance to go before he can even reach the tortoise.
See the linked Wikipedia article for some of the solutions to the problem. This paradox is designed to show that motion is an illusion. We know the argument because it was preserved in Aristotle's Physics where he offers solutions:
Aristotle (384 BC−322 BC) remarked that as the distance decreases, the time needed to cover those distances also decreases, so that the time needed also becomes increasingly small.[20][21] Aristotle also distinguished "things infinite in respect of divisibility" (such as a unit of space that can be mentally divided into ever smaller units while remaining spatially the same) from things (or distances) that are infinite in extension ("with respect to their extremities").[22] Aristotle's objection to the arrow paradox was that "Time is not composed of indivisible nows any more than any other magnitude is composed of indivisibles."[23] (Footnotes from Wikipedia)
There are two ways of looking at time: either as a series of discrete points, or as Aristotle says, "indivisible nows," or as a smooth continuum without discrete points. The basic assumption lying behind most music and musical notation is that time is a series of discrete points which are represented as pulses or beats. The whole notion of a time signature is based on the idea of discrete beats. All music software that I know of is based on the idea of recurring pulses or discrete beats.

But alongside this concept of time, which seems to provide the interior skeleton, as it were, of music, is the idea of smooth continua. We see this other concept of time in the use of rubato, accelerando, ritardando and even in the idea of "grace" notes that fall outside of the discrete pulses. All these elements go against the Procrustean bed of the discrete beat.

My new piece for violin and guitar, titled "Dark Dream" makes use of the contrast between the two notions of time: time as a series of pulses and time as a smooth continuum. One basic motif and the most important structural element is a two second figure that moves smoothly between repeated notes slower than eighths to ones faster than sixteenths and back again and at the same time a dynamic range between ppp and mf is also traversed. Both of these are smooth continua. They take up a regular amount of time, which they have to do because the two instruments are expressing the motif against one another most of the time. That is, as one instrument speeds up and gets louder, the other is slowing down and getting softer, so they are constantly circling one another. Only at the end do they articulate the motif together. But within this regular amount of time, there are no discrete pulses.

The rest of the piece uses regular pulses. So the basic contrast built into the structure of the music is between music of pulses and music of smooth transitions. Some other music I know of that does something similar is the early "phase" music of Steve Reich, though there the realization is quite different. In pieces like "Piano Phase" Reich has one instrument play a repeating pattern in a fixed pulse while the other instrument, playing the same pattern, slightly accelerates so as to move one unit ahead. This is repeated several times until the two instruments are in unison again. What I am doing is having certain sections of the piece using only smooth continua while others use a set pulse. Yes, there are other pieces that do this, of course! But they do it in various ways that are, to my knowledge, a bit different than I do and the contrasting sections are perhaps not contrasting in the same conscious way.

Let me illustrate what I am talking about with the first page of the score of "Dark Dream:"

The "feathered" beams indicate a smooth accelerando and ritardando and this is combined with a smooth crescendo and decrescendo. In the third and fourth systems we see another kind of smooth transition with the glissandi between two fixed pitches.

There are certainly other composers that have explored these kinds of possibilities! So I don't want to claim that kind of unique innovation. But I hope that I am at least exploring some interesting possibilities in this piece. I am planning a recording of it, so I hope to be able to post that at some point so you can hear for yourselves.

Comments welcome, as always.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Transgender Don Giovanni

This one really has me stumped. The Tulsa Opera has announced American transgender baritone Lucia Lucas in the title role of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ for their 2018-2019 season: First Trans Woman Set to Appear in Principal Role on US Opera Stage. Here are some details:
The Tulsa Opera has this week announced American transgender baritone Lucia Lucas in the title role of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ for their 2018-2019 season – set to make her the first trans woman in history to perform a principal role on an American operatic stage.
“Making history, Tulsa Opera presents baritone, Lucia Lucas in her American operatic debut as a transgender woman …”  Tulsa Opera Artistic Director, Tobias Picker has said.
“Lucia Lucas’ appearance here will mark the first time a trans woman has performed a principal role on the operatic stage in the United States … it’s a testament to our company’s commitment to casting without regard to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation,” he has said.
Lucia has previously performed with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Il Teatro Regio, Daegu Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Santa Barbara, Sacramento Opera – and as a permanent member of the Staatstheatre Karlsruhe in Germany.
Setting aside all political, social justice, considerations, what puzzles me is simply the issue of voice type. How does a trans person become a baritone? Plus, should the press release have referred to Lucia Lucas as a "her"? In any case, here is a clip from YouTube of Lucia Lucas singing an excerpt from Falstaff:

The role of Don Giovanni poses some issues for any singer, I would imagine. The character of the archetypal seducer, who at the end refuses to repent and is dragged down to hell, is even more complex in our current climate. I would guess that what would be particularly tricky to get across now is that Don Giovanni has a charming side to his character. He is not just a bad, evil person.


Monday, February 26, 2018

Neil Young on Music Economics

The economics of the music business are a perennial item of interest as that was one reason I retired (cough*went on strike*cough) as a professional soloist. Over at Breitbart they have an article on Neil Young's views on the matter: Neil Young Blasts Google in Epic Rant: They Don’t Pay Musicians a ‘F*cking Cent’
“Today, in the age of FaceBook, GOOGLE, and Amazon, it’s hard to tell how a new and growing musical artist could make it in the way we did,” Young wrote. “The Tech Giants have figured out a way to use all the great music of everyone from all time, without reporting an artist’s number of plays or paying a fucking cent to the musicians. Aren’t they great companies!!! It makes you wonder where the next generation of artists will come from. How will they survive?”
On the other hand, Neil, I don't know if you have noticed, but some artists are doing rather well. The top three last year were:

  1. Sean Combs, $130 million
  2. Beyoncé, $105 million
  3. Drake, $94 million
So what is Mr. Young doing wrong? The fine arts are a very awkward area for social justice ideologies. They assert the underlying principle of economic equality, but the only way to achieve that in the arts is to tightly control all artists' earnings as they did in the Soviet Union. Because even if you hinder artists by making them conform to rigid aesthetic criteria such as "socialist realism" the talented few will figure out how to make great art notwithstanding. It is always the case that, in the arts, there are a tiny minority who excel and the vast majority who merely do journeyman work. In the Middle Ages when most artists were anonymous and there was only a rudimentary free market in the arts, no-one made much of a living from it. With the Renaissance came wealthy patrons with developed tastes and artists, even musicians, started to have some earning power. This system lasted up into the early 19th century in music with Mozart and Beethoven being the first to start to move away from noble patronage. Schubert is an example of a great musical talent who made virtually nothing from his music.

With the 20th century came entirely new income streams. Commissions from wealthy patrons were rare apart from donations to musical institutions, such as opera and concert series. These institutions would pass on a few crumbs to composers now and then. More and more governments, especially in Europe, set up bodies to grant money to artists and institutions.

But something else also happened in the 20th century. Due to the development of recording technology an entirely new way of commodifying music was developed. An early recording artist like Caruso could make more money from recordings than from concerts because he could only give one concert a day, but he could sell thousands of recordings. By mid-century recordings of popular music were, for the first time, outselling recordings of classical music. By the time Elvis Presley and the Beatles arrived, the economics of pop music dwarfed classical music entirely.

So now we have the top ten musicians, all in popular music, earning between fifty and over one hundred million dollars a year. This is many, many times what musicians were able to earn in previous eras. Doesn't that shed a rather ironic light on Mr. Young's remarks?

He should have been saying something like, "wow, musicians now can become fabulously wealthy, wealthier than even the richest potentates in past eras; the only problem is that some technology companies make even more money!"

The interesting question that comes to my mind is exactly how does one earn over $100 million dollars in the music business? Details, please.

Sorry, Neil!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Art and Suffering

This is going to be one of those posts that takes a poke at a topic that would probably make for an excellent doctoral thesis! However, since I don't have a couple of years of research at my fingertips this morning I will just do an intellectual drive-by. Sometimes my omnivorous reading ends up by juxtaposing some different things that seem to resonate with one another. For example, I just read a really interesting piece by Megan McArdle who writes for Bloomberg: You Can't Have Denmark Without Danes. It is a long piece and hard to summarize so you should go read the whole thing. What is excellent about McArdle's approach is that she really is not captive to any ideology, but just tries to see things as they are. Let's have some quotes:
On my first day of interviews, I met with Lars Hvidberg, who works as a speechwriter at the culture ministry. Hvidberg has lived in the U.S., so he seemed well qualified to speculate about the differences between the two countries.
“There are basically four stories about Denmark,” he said. Here’s a breakdown:
  1. The social liberal story: Free education, free speech and democratic government have created social trust and the ability of people to take responsibility and to act for themselves.
  2. The social democracy story: Benefits are high and the taxes are high, which creates equality and trust and enables people to plan for the long term without fear of destitution.
  3. The market liberal story: The real reason Denmark is so successful is that compared to other countries, it’s actually very classically liberal. It has free trade, low regulation, almost no corruption, and makes it easy to start a company.
  4. The nationalist version: The reason Denmark has a well-functioning society is that it’s homogeneous, with a lot of people who think the same, and who place a high value on things like work and honesty and trust toward strangers. In other words, Denmark works so well because it’s full of Danes.
A little apologetically, he said, “I believe all of these stories are true.”
Over and over again McArdle makes the point that things work in Denmark that would not work in most other countries because of the very high level of trust.
When I asked people in Copenhagen about the secret of Denmark’s remarkable success, I kept hearing the same thing: “Trust.”
“Trust,” said a photographer, when I asked him the best thing about living in Denmark. “If we agree on something, you would live up to that.” That confidence, he added, “makes everyday life more comfortable.”
“There’s a lot of social trust,” a speechwriter at the culture ministry told me. “Farmers putting out their products by the roadside, and then putting a jar and saying, ‘Put money in this.’ It’s very common here, and it works.”
Las Olsen, chief economist at Danske Bank, said: “We have this high trust, and it is a huge asset. It is very good for productivity that you don’t have to spend a lot of time and money checking everything.”
I don't think Canada has quite the same levels of trust as Denmark, certainly not in the big cities, but in rural Canada perhaps it does. For example, where I grew up in northern Alberta, we never locked the door to our house and, as I recall, my father never even locked the car doors.

The other thing that I've been puzzling over is why some places have astonishingly high levels of artistic creativity and production and others do not. This is where a couple of years of research would come in handy. Actually, I have this embryonic idea in the back of my mind that I would like to do a fact-finding trip to gather material for a book on the state of the arts, especially music, in Canada. In the meantime, here are some mere wisps of ideas.

  • I have long puzzled over what seems to me, after living abroad for nearly two decades, a serious deficit in musical creativity in Canada. Sure, we have a few pop stars and a couple of real musical icons in the form of Glenn Gould and Leonard Cohen, but it is safe to say that Canada has produced a remarkably low number of internationally known composers. As has Switzerland, by the way, despite being sandwiched in between two of the greatest musical nations, Austria and Italy.
  • Many of the best composers of the 20th century (meaning, favorites of mine) seem to come from Russia and the Soviet Union. These include Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and a recent discovery, Sofia Gubaidulina.
  • Another musical superpower that has produced a remarkable number of fine composers, such as Jean Sibelius and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and also an inordinate number of fine conductors and performers is tiny Finland.
  • Prosperous, reasonably homogeneous countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Canada seem to have fewer creative figures than countries with a more tormented history. (Finland, for example, did not become independent until the 20th century--prior to that it was under the control of Sweden and Russia. It also fought a nasty war with Russia.)
  • Countries with dislocated, violent and oppressive histories like Russia seem to have thrown up a lot more creative figures than ones with more tranquil, untroubled histories.
Now I have to reflect a bit on history. If we go back to the 18th century, for example, we find that the leading composers did not come from the more troubled environments, but rather the opposite. The ancien regime in France, a very static if somewhat oppressive environment, depending on your standing in society, produced a host of very fine composers and performers. It was the revolution that ended all that by executing the noble patrons and burning the harpsichords. Similarly, the stability of the Austro-Hungarian empire produced the towering musical figures of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

In the 19th century, as democratic and revolutionary movements spread over most of Europe, the nature of composition seems to have shifted from being the product of well-patronized stability, as we see in the life of Haydn, to being the product of the ferment of social division as we start to see in Berlioz, Schumann and even more so in Wagner and Mahler. I am a bit uneasy as I write that, as that is precisely where a lot of research is needed. But more and more what I see in the 19th century, starting even with later Beethoven, Schubert and continuing with the composers I just mentioned, is music that reflects the individual's isolation from society, i.e., social division. This trend just accelerates as we enter the 20th century and the horrible barbarisms of the warring first half of the century.

So it seems to be more and more true that nations with an untroubled recent history, at least, are also relatively untroubled by significant amounts of artistic creativity. Again, while I am fairly sure that is true in music, we would need a lot of research to see if it is true of the arts generally.

So, do you need to suffer a lot to be a great artist? That is one of the edicts of Romanticism, but is it still true? There seems to be some evidence for that.

Please weigh in, in the comments and while you are pondering, have a listen to one of those pieces that is the product of a certain amount of suffering. This is the String Quartet No. 13 by Shostakovich

Friday, February 23, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Not a lot of time for blogging this week, but I have a few items for you today. First up a discussion with composer George Pepper about modernism vs traditionalism in music composition. The site is Remodernism which I think I have linked to before.
Q: How does music express spirituality? .
 GP: It always has for me. Even music by other composers moves my spirit. And lots of genres too. The first thing I learned to jam on was the blues, so Stormy Monday Blues is one I’d say moves my spirit. Then lots of Charlie Parker, Larry Carlton, Jimi Hendrix – “Rainy Day Dream Away/Still Raining Still Dreaming” always moves me – The Who – I wore Quadrophenia out in high school – many others.  In classical music, my single favorite piece in all of the symphonic literature is the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It is, in fact, my first musical memory. When I was really little, like three to five years old, that Scherzo was the intro music to the Huntley Brinkley Report news program. My dad watched it every night, and I would just stand there spellbound until it faded out. I remember it like it happened five minutes ago. But that piece takes me on a spiritual journey, as does the opening movement and the slow movement. The Finale, for some reason, doesn’t really work for me.  It’s a sublime masterpiece by any objective measure, but it’s stubborn or something. The vocals and chorus don’t help for me. In fact, I actually prefer Liszt’s transcription of the finale for solo piano!
* * *

In the midst of a bunch of posts on the music of the latest Star Wars film there is actually quite an interesting one on the music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu over at Musicology Now: 
In analyzing Takemitsu’s music, especially his music after the 1980s,<2> the significance of the “parts” takes on more relevance than does large-scale coherence in the interpretation of his music. The importance of individual “parts” is important in many aspects of Japanese culture, including traditional Japanese gardens, Japanese language and literature, and Japanese architecture. It is well known that Japanese gardens gave great inspiration to Takemitsu, who saw connections between them and the coloristic shades of sounds, which exist alongside other natural fluctuations.<3> Many of his works from the mid-1980s are modeled on Japanese gardens, especially those designed by the 14th century Japanese monk Musō Soseki.<4> I find it especially crucial to investigate how the metaphor of following the garden path is manifested in Takemitsu’s music.<5>
The numbers refer to footnotes in the original post.

* * *

Here is a funny little piece in The Telegraph: Are lessons killing my child's love of music?
Today, my seven-year-old .... refuses to pick up the violin case. He had a pathological hatred for the ­piano lessons we tried. His dreams of playing the drums deteriorated, too, when he realised that packing out stadiums might involve some practice first, and that, in turn, would detract from playtime.
For a while I insisted. We rowed over the piano keys as I begged, bribed and cajoled him to fumble thunderously through Chopsticks. It was miserable. So we stopped. But have I failed him? Do music lessons matter?
Playing an instrument is a rite of ­passage for most middle-class primary school children. Fail to start early, the orthodoxy states, and you miss the chance of incubating a mini Mozart. Mastering music - quite literally - takes practice, practice, practice.
I think the problem here is that too many people actually believe the nonsense spewed by Malcolm Gladwell that anyone can master a skill with enough practice--say, 10,000 hours. Nope. A lot of people are massively untalented in music and actual creativity is extremely rare. So, no, lessons are not killing your child's love of music because probably he never had any.

* * *

And it's still not safe to turn on the radio: William Shatner signs with country music record label.
William Shatner signed with Heartland Records Nashville and "is currently working on a very special project that will be released later this year," according to a press release.
Few details are known about the 86-year-old "Star Trek" actor's new venture but the Heartland Records promised more details "will be released soon."
This isn't the first musical project to come from the actor. He has released eight previous albums, most recently 2013's "Ponder the Mystery."
* * * 

This piece in the San Francisco Chronicle reminds me of my mixed feelings about composer Philip Glass: Philip Glass concert celebrates composer’s monumental influence.
Let’s start with a sweeping but fairly sturdy proposition: No composer has left a more pervasive or distinctive stylistic imprint on Western classical music in the last half a century than Philip Glass.
Glass’ music is everywhere — in concert halls, in opera houses, on film and television soundtracks. He has created both a singular sound world and a repertoire of compositional strategies that have almost single-handedly transformed the face of contemporary music. His work has become a reference point for much of what audiences have experienced for decades.
What's wrong with this, of course, is that they are saying the right things but they are likely saying them about the wrong composer. The name that should appear here is that of Steve Reich who, starting in a slightly different place than Glass, has followed a similar path of rebuilding music from the ground up, starting with rhythm.

Glass has been amazingly successful, but at the end of the day, his music is largely a lot of rising minor thirds in eighth notes. A LOT of them! Steve Reich has done more interesting stuff in more interesting ways. But please, correct me in the comments!

* * *

The New York Times notices something I have commented on several times here: audiences for classical music are only shrinking and aging in North America, in Europe they are numerous with lots of young people. An Unlikely Youth Revolution at the Paris Opera:
...the Paris Opera’s extraordinary success in attracting younger audiences. According to the company, it had 95,000 audience members younger than 28 last season — more than 10 percent of tickets sold and 30,000 more than just two years before.
The company, which celebrates its 350th birthday next year, is an unlikely contradiction to the worldwide trend of an aging audience at operas. The average age of an audience member in Paris is 45 — 48 for the opera, 43 for the ballet — compared with 58 at the Metropolitan Opera and 54 at the Staatsoper in Berlin. The largest segment of the Houston Grand Opera’s audience is between 65 and 72.
The photo they use to illustrate the article is from a joint production (with the Teatro Real in Madrid) I saw two summers ago. Great production of a very unlikely opera by Schoenberg.

Click to enlarge
 * * *

And now for the depressing part of the miscellanea today: the economics of music in Britain. Unpaid ‘exposure’ does not benefit musicians’ careers:
Over half of musicians worked unpaid over the past 12 months, and 66% of musicians who worked for free ‘exposure’ believe doing so did not benefit their career, according to the ‘world-first’ live music census. 
Low wages and the expectation on musicians to work for free were identified as a major challenge. 68% of musicians said stagnating pay was making it difficult for them to make a viable income, and this figure rose to 80% amongst those identifying as professional musicians.

Responding professional musicians indicated nearly half of their annual income now comes from performing live, compared with only 3% from recording.
I would look up the average earnings for musicians in Britain from a previous post, but I don't want to depress you any further.

* * * 

Let's have some Takemitsu for our envoi today. This is a piece mentioned in the Musicology Now post, Far Calls. Coming, Far! for violin and orchestra:

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cultural Leadership in Canada

I moved from Canada to Mexico almost twenty years ago, but I still read Canadian newspapers online quite often. I just ran across two articles in the Globe and Mail about cultural leadership in Canada, which seems to be in a bit of a crisis. The first one is The outsiders who got in: Why sought-after arts positions in the country are going to non-Canadians and the second is How to change arts leadership in Canada: An insider’s perspective. Both are worth reading, but let me just quote some excerpts from the second article:
Canadian cultural organizations are experiencing a leadership deficit and the problem is worsening as more and more highly regarded chief executive officers announce their retirement. We are seeing a generational change in leadership. Coming retirements for 2018 include long-standing CEOs Peter Herrndorf of the National Arts Centre and Piers Handling of TIFF.
The National Arts Centre in Ottawa is a facility for the performing arts with four different spaces ranging from 150 seats to over 2,000 seats. TIFF is the Toronto International Film Festival.
Here in Canada, we have plenty of arts training models and success stories to build on for leadership development: think back to the Centre of Expertise on Culture and Communities (2005-2008) at Simon Fraser University, or the groundbreaking work of the Canadian Museums Human Resources Action Strategy (1995), or the Toronto performing arts collaboration Creative Trust (1998-2012). These were innovative programs, bringing people together for challenging learning and development.
The point is acute because it's getting harder. CEOs in any sector today have to concern themselves with an increasingly complex array of issues from diversity to digital to reconciliation. All while ensuring safe and creative workplaces and strategically leading their organizations into the future.
Are you starting to sense the blind spot here?
Rightly so, governments are investing more in culture. These new investments are upping the expectations for what the sector can achieve in society – and we are meeting the challenge. Canadian cultural organizations, together with their counterparts in other countries, are experiencing a transformation of engagement and empowerment – a transformation that will serve us all well. For our efforts and our examples, Canadian cultural leaders – past and present – are active and respected across the globe.
Ok. Well then, let's just name some of these internationally respected Canadian cultural leaders. I'm sure some of my Canadian commentators could step up, but just because someone is known in Canada for running this or that arts organization, doesn't quite signal an international reputation. One final quote:
Throughout my professional career working with cultural and creative organizations, I have never been more proud of the potential of our sector to contribute to our humanity and our society, nor have I been more preoccupied about the future of our sector – to train the next generation, to develop our own body of knowledge, and over all, to nurture culture and creativity for the benefit of all Canadians.
Do you see what is missing? Throughout both of these articles on arts leadership in Canada the missing element is, wait for it, the arts! Not one artist in any field was mentioned. Not one artwork of any kind was mentioned. The entire focus was on arts administration which is universally, in every culture I can think of, only haphazardly related to the actual arts. What is amazingly bizarre here is that all these people, all these cultural and arts leaders, seem to think that what they are doing has something to do with leading the arts somewhere. They see the arts as some sort of high-level education program or moral guide to "nurture culture and creativity for the benefit of all Canadians." I mean that is just totally obvious, right?

I hate to rain on their parade, but all of this "investing" in the arts does nothing for the arts. What it does is provide a wealth of middle and upper management jobs for the well-connected and credentialed. Yes, and they build some nice new buildings to present the arts. I guess it is so appealing to Canadians because it is so very terribly safe. The arts are tightly controlled through all of these well-managed arts organizations who are the gate-keepers. It all sounds very benevolent, though what I see is richly funded administration, not richly patronized artists. I have long noticed a pattern in Canada of well-padded administrative salaries together with the most pathetic crumbs given to the actual artists.

All of this is kind of a Potemkin village of the arts: instead of individual artists producing some artworks of some significance, what we have are arts institutions and organizations who attempt to administer the field from the top down. This is about as successful as petting a cat against the fur. The arts, now and always, flow from the individual efforts of individuals, not the collective efforts of institutions. Yes, arts institutions can be of immense value in nurturing and supporting artists, but what usually happens, and in Canada seems to regularly happen, is that these institutions end up serving the best interests of those people who run them and are employed by them instead of that vague and debatable goal of "the arts" or "aesthetics." Who the heck knows what they are?

And this is why almost no one outside Canada can name a single Canadian composer of any significance.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 11

When I was an undergraduate in my first couple of years, I was at a university with an active composition department. I think the professor of composition was a Czech bassoonist. The students formed a kind of collective that were very active. The music department at that time was camped out in the back of a building largely devoted to visual arts. I think we had three classrooms and the use of an auditorium that sat a couple of hundred people. This was used for student concerts every Friday and a couple of times the student composers commandeered the room for a special concert. This provided, at least, a relief from the brass quintets and shaky attempts at lieder. I was responsible for one of the latter as, at the time, I was enrolled in a vocal techniques class and ended up performing a Schubert lied--"Heidenröslein" as I recall.

So one Friday the composer's collective took over the hall and delivered a "happening." One fellow (who now teaches composition in this very same department) delivered some French nightclub chansons over desultory piano accompaniment; another climbed a high ladder, I don't recall why exactly; another fried up some pork chops in an electric fry pan. There was some other stuff going on, but I don't recall the details. This was followed by a tribute to the French clavicinistes who were accused of a fixation on poultry. Someone might have played "La Poule" by Rameau. Here is a performance by Hank Knox, who teaches at McGill and was a fellow student of mine there in the 70s:

This was followed or accompanied by the rolling of eggs, both raw and hard-boiled, onstage, the tossing of chickens, both raw and BBQed, and the final entry of an indignant rooster who strutted out to mid-stage and proceeded to stare down the audience (who by this point were diminishing rapidly). The next year saw them form their own ensemble, the "Vegteband," consisting of hollowed out vegetables with mouthpieces from wind instruments like the clarinet and trumpet.

This all took place in the early 70s, probably 1972 or 73. I mention this only because in my reading of the biography of Sofia Gubaidulina, I have come to the chapter where a group of young composers in Moscow that included Gubaidulina, Elena Firsova, Dmitri Smirnov, Alexander Raskatov, Vladislav Shoot, Viatscheslav Artyomov and others came together. The last, Artyomov, was a percussionist and collector of folk instruments from Central Asia and the Transcaucasus. Artyomov, Gubaidulina and Victor Suslin formed an ad-hoc trio that improvised together using these instruments. It was a kind of research project in, among other things, timbre. Here is a photo of the group. From left to right, Artyomov on Tár (an Uzbek-Tadzhik plucked instrument), Gubaidulina on Georgian hunting horn and Suslin on Pandura:

They were attracted by the spontaneity of folk music as well as the unusual timbres which they explored in every possible way. They would improvise for hours at a time. Gubaidulina in particular seemed to be guided by an inner voice or "demon" that directed her path and even forced the others to follow her. They gave public concerts, sometimes with other musicians, that attracted the attention of the KGB who, frankly, had no idea what to make of these musicians. "Where did you come from?" and "What did you study?" they would ask. The group, that came to be called Astraea, had weekly sessions between 1975 and 1981.

The later 70s were very difficult for Gubaidulina from a financial point of view as commissions for film scores dried up entirely. At one point she was approached to write a piece combining popular and serious music for a music hall performance. The actual performance did not materialize, but she wrote her Concerto for Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band for which she did receive a substantial honorarium. It was written in 1976 and first performed in 1978. I think I put this up before, but now we should hear it in its proper historical context. This version is for wind band and jazz ensemble:

It was also used as a ballet piece. In 1976 she also wrote a trio for three trumpets:

I find it fascinating that, during the same decade of the 70s, young composers in Canada and the Soviet Union were engaged in similar kinds of improvisatory work. The group in Moscow were older, of course, in their forties, while the Canadians were in their twenties. They also took different paths. The Canadians were probably influenced by John Cage while the Russians were reacting against the strictures of official socialist realism and the intellectualism of Westerners like Pierre Boulez.

I had no attraction to what my fellow students were doing for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was simply too unsophisticated to understand what they were up to. But more importantly, I was on a trajectory from being a folk, rock and blues musician to being a disciplined classical guitarist. I had spent years doing free-form blues improvisations and what I was looking for was to get away from that! The transcendental austerity of Bach played by people like Andrés Segovia was what was attracting me. My fellow students were rebelling against the strictures of classical music, which is exactly what was attracting me.

Here is what I was aiming for back then:

Talk about being out of step with history!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Defective Strings

Turning to more practical matters, one of the issues that one has to deal with as a string instrument player is, of course, strings. A while back I gave some simple advice to guitar players about how to improve and it boiled down to three suggestions:

  1. Change your strings!
  2. Either buy a better guitar or have the action gone over on yours
  3. Practice a lot slower!
Unfortunately, because of the frets, guitar strings have to be changed a lot more often than bowed instrument strings. When I was an active professional soloist I played around thirty hours a week and my strings would only last a couple of weeks before they became unusable. What goes wrong is the treble strings get dented by the frets and their pitch starts to become ambiguous. The bass strings start to go dead and the 4th string winding wears through on the second fret. There are guitar players who keep their strings on for a very, very long time, but this is why they sound so bad!

As you are constantly replacing your strings, you are also looking to find the best strings for your instrument and individual approach to tone color. A very popular string for many players that is consistently good and well-priced is the basic Pro Arté brand:

They also have some higher-priced sets that I tend to prefer such as:

A while ago I mentioned trying some new Italian strings that I really liked. I just put another set of their strings on, these ones are called "Rubino" and the trebles are colored red:

Alas, these ones are not working out as the second string (and also the third, to a lesser extent) is defective. We used to run into this problem very frequently with Augustine strings. The frequency or pitch of a string depends on three things: the length of the string, the tension and the mass per unit length or linear density. So:
  • the shorter the string, the higher the frequency of the fundamental
  • the higher the tension, the higher the frequency of the fundamental
  • the lighter the string, the higher the frequency of the fundamental
On the guitar the strings are all the same length so the difference in pitch is achieved through changing the tension with the tuning mechanism and by each string having a different mass, which means that the thinner strings are a higher pitch than the thicker ones.

The problem arises with the mass of the string. With the wound strings, this is pretty easy to control, but it is different with the treble strings. If they are not exactly the same diameter throughout, the pitch will not be clear and defined. Nowadays most trebles are reliably consistent, but you can still get a defective string. Amazingly, some guitarists don't even notice but just struggle a bit with tuning until they replace the string. But it is easy to detect a defective string. Just pluck it and watch closely how it vibrates against the dark background of the sound-hole. A good string will show a smooth band of vibration that grows narrower as the vibration ceases. A bad string will have a jerky, jagged vibration because it is trying to vibrate in more than one frequency due to the variation in the mass or diameter. It will not sound good and you will never get it in tune!

The solution (which I am going to apply this morning): take off the string and replace it with a new one! Luckily, I have a number of sets of extra trebles because sometimes I just replace the basses as they usually go dead before the trebles start sounding bad. With the old Augustine strings, about a third of them were defective. Nowadays it is pretty rare. But now you know what to do.

For our envoi today, the Carora-vals venezolano by Antonio Lauro played by me on a pretty good set of Pro Artés:

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on composer/impresario Paola Prestini that is likely worth your time:
Born in Trento, Italy, and raised in Arizona by a single mother, Prestini was one of only three women in her composition class of 50 at Juilliard, where her taste for experimental opera and large-scale multimedia works put her at odds with the school’s more conservative teaching. In 1999, while she was still a student and thinking ahead to staging her own pieces after graduation, she co-founded the scrappy production company VisionIntoArt; its ups and downs gave her a real-world education in getting music in front of an audience. A decade ago, Prestini met Kevin Dolan, a Washington, D.C., tax lawyer and arts patron looking to launch a venue for emerging talent. Seven years and $16 million later, National Sawdust opened its doors. Today it boasts a staff of 16 (10 of them women) and hosts seven diverse performances a week. Prestini dreams of opening satellites in London and Tokyo.
* * *

Curious about the Reigning Divas of Carnatic Music? Well, so was I!
India’s national instrument, the Saraswati veena, has been patronized by many artists over the decades. Even the legendary vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi was a trained veena player. In recent times, the undisputed queen of the veena is Jayanthi Kumaresh, who hails from a family of Carnatic music practitioners. Her mother Lalgudi Rajalakshmi was also a noted veena player. Her maternal uncle was the famous violin maestro, the late Lalgudi Jayaraman. Known for her technical expertise, strict classicism and authenticity, Kumaresh’s music has gained considerable global popularity. Kumaresh is also a composer. Her albums, like Mysterious Duality (2013), and her work with the Indian National Orchestra, a syndicate she formed along with 20 other musicians in 2011, have shown her to be a composer of high musical standards.

* * *

The Globe and Mail has a thoughtful article on the reign of Charles Dutoit in Montreal before his fall from grace:
An old story caught up with the board and administration of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra last week, as allegations of psychological abuse of players by former music director Charles Dutoit were spelled out in detail in two francophone newspapers.
The scenario resembled that of many recent accusations of sexual misconduct – including those against Mr. Dutoit – with one important difference: The players' complaints of bullying from the podium were made very public 15 years ago, and ignored.
An open letter alleging the abuse, in April, 2002, was the precipitating factor in Mr. Dutoit's abrupt resignation days later. "The reality of life in the MSO for most players," wrote Quebec Musicians' Guild president Émile Subirana, "is unrelenting harassment, condescension and humiliation by a man whose autocratic behaviour has become intolerable."
Regarding the way marketing and promotion can lead to abuse:
As shown by the Dutoit case, and by that of James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera, selling your leader as an indispensable wizard makes it hard to control him if he steps out of line. It also confuses the public about what an orchestra is. It's not a band of puppets waiting to be activated by an inspired pair of hands. It's a gathering of individual artists, who together maintain the sound, traditions and personality of the ensemble. However great the conductor, nothing would be heard without the craft, dedication and art of the players.
There is a complex relationship between the conductor and the orchestra. I was just talking with someone about her experiences. For quite a few years they had to contend with an erratic and abusive conductor. He was finally replaced with another, much easier to work with but, at the end of the day, rather boring! Some of the best conductors can be temperamental, but as long as it does not become actual abuse, that probably gives better results than a conductor who is bland and mediocre.

* * *

And the soap opera that is the Oregon Bach Festival just keeps a'coming:
Destrubé said he couldn’t continue as program director. “I have … relinquished my role as program director of the Berwick Academy,” he said by email. “As it was I who invited Jaap ter Linden, also at the suggestion of several of the other faculty members, and as the OBF/UO administration decided to un-invite him following your article, unjustifiably in my opinion, I felt that my position as program director was untenable. As simple as that.”
It's complicated, but as best as I can make out, the festival administration's hypersensitivity to anything outside the strict parameters of political correctness, combined with their utter lack of a sense of humor, seems to be causing a string of firings and resignations.

* * *

Once a meme gets firmly rooted, it is hard to get rid of it. Case in point, the ongoing complaint that classical music programs are larded with compositions by dead, white males to the exclusion of women and people of color. While there is certainly truth in this, the explanation of why this is so and the social justice ideology surrounding it are both deeply flawed. Let's look at this recent example: Systemic Discrimination: the Burden of Sameness in American Orchestras.
Classical music lovers feel a rush of excitement each year when orchestras release their plans for an upcoming season. Marketing brochures feature glossy photos of conductors and soloists, hopefully enticing patrons to swoon over the year’s top-flight catches. But many listeners also take a closer look at the musical programs. And every year, social media platforms explode with disappointment as one orchestra after another tries to sell a season riddled with music by dead white men.
I like that "riddled with" phrase: it suggests that white men are akin to termites or a deadly virus. Crude claims like this are the norm:
Simply put, lack of diversity on concert programs is built into the institutional structure of American classical music organizations, leading to systemic discrimination against women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented musicians.
Let's dismantle this, shall we? First of all, the buzzword "diversity" is simply code for saying that concert programs, membership in orchestras, conductors, soloists, and in every other aspect, classical music organizations must mirror exactly the gender and racial makeup of the society as a whole. Why is this? It is nothing more than a numbskull's concept of "justice." I think that one of the best ripostes to this kind of argument was Jordan Peterson's to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's virtue-signalling action of making sure exactly 50% of his cabinet were women. His reason? "Because it is 2015." Peterson's comment was that this was idiotic because what you have to select for in cabinet posts is not gender balance, but competence. Justice is not served when group identity trumps everything else. Similarly, we should apply a multivariate analysis to these other claims. For a variety of reasons that undoubtedly include child-bearing and raising, education, social biases, interests and the fact that men and women tend to have different goals, European music history has vastly more male composers than female ones. There are no women composers of the stature of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Now, if you want to simply decide by fiat that your music history starts in the year 1950 or 2000, then fine. I'm sure that you can find a great number of women composers. But good luck getting audiences to attend your concerts! Oh, and the whole notion of "systemic" discrimination is only hauled out when you can't find an actual individual to blame.

* * *

So if you don't get to shoehorn in women composers and composers of color just because they belong to "oppressed" identity groups, then how do they enter the canon? Just the way dead, white males did, through merit. Joseph Haydn is not widely performed because he is dead and white. If that were the case then his brother Michael, also a prolific composer, would also be widely performed. He's not and the reason is that Joseph is the far better composer. The process of canon formation is a constant one and there are always people advocating for the addition of neglected composers. A good case in point is a recent article by Alex Ross in The New Yorker about neglected composer Florence Price who was a woman and partly black.
Price was born in 1887, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and grew up in a middle-class household. She returned home after attending the New England Conservatory, one of the few conservatories that admitted African-Americans at the time. Her early adulthood was devoted largely to teaching and to raising a family. Life in Arkansas was oppressive; lynchings were routine. In 1927, Price moved with her family to Chicago, where her horizons began to expand. She divorced her husband, who had become abusive, and struck out on her own. Until then, her compositional output had consisted mostly of songs, short pieces, and music for children. She increasingly essayed larger symphonic and concerto forms, winning support from Stock, a conductor of rare broad-mindedness.
Beginning in 1931, Price wrote or sketched a total of four symphonies. The First and the Third have been published by A-R Editions, under the scholarly guidance of the late Rae Linda Brown, and recorded by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble and the Women’s Philharmonic, respectively. The Second was apparently never finished; the Fourth, whose score turned up in the St. Anne house, will receive its première by the Fort Smith Symphony, in Arkansas, in May.
And that is how it starts. Over time, the music of Florence Price may or may not find a niche in the repertory. What will determine that is the collective aesthetic judgement of performers, conductors, critics and audiences.

* * *

Here is a piece by Paola Prestini for solo cello with pre-recorded cellos and electric bass titled "Mourning" from a larger piece titled Body Maps. The cellist is Jeffrey Ziegler.

And here is the first movement of Florence Price's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major. Blogger doesn't want to embed, so just follow the link:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Diminished Blogging

I haven't put quite as much time into blogging the last little while for several reasons. First, I have had other responsibilities that have taken up quite a bit of time. Also, I am working on my piece for violin and guitar in which I am wrestling with some compositional problems that I have avoided until now. The piece is now titled Dark Dream and I read through it in its current form with my violinist friend last Sunday. It has some unique problems of ensemble.

I am also reading Jordan Peterson's new book, 12 Rules for Life which is, astonishingly, the most sold nonfiction book at Amazon. That would be worldwide! Pretty good for a guy from Fairview, Alberta. That's in the Peace River country in northern Alberta about twenty miles from where I was born. He also graduated from McGill, as I did. I do recommend the book, by the way. It falls into a odd sort of category: it has intellectual substance, but it is really about the practical problems of life.

The other project that is taking up time, most delightfully, is listening to Haydn. I'm up to the Symphony No. 17 which means only 155 CDs to go!

I do intend to get back to Sofia Gubaidulina pretty soon and to continue my series of posts on aesthetics, which have been in abeyance for much too long.

Just to get back to Peterson for a moment. I think one way to describe what he is up to is a revival of what are some hard truths: life is suffering, humans have the capacity to create a hell on earth, and you need to tell the truth, or at least, avoid lying. He connects totalitarianism with the propensity for human societies to allow a web of deceit to slowly develop over time to the point where everyone, nearly, is living some sort of lie. Yes, it is often, perhaps even usually expedient for us to avoid confronting the truth, but that road leads to a place that no-one wants to go.

The sorry fact is that the rise of various forms of relativism over the course of the 20th century allowed for the development of ever more sophisticated forms of lying. A lot of criticism of Peterson is along the lines that he is repeating worn-out platitudes and he lacks nuance and sophistication. It is interesting to watch some of his YouTube videos, especially when he is speaking to a non-university audience as you can hear the wry astonishment of the listeners as he tells them some pretty hard truths. We have become all too used to the empty recitation of comfortable deceits. I might well have put this up before, but here he is exploding some of the most popular of those regarding oppression. I want you to notice how the fellow on the left is reacting when the camera pans in that direction.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Haydn Edition

I have two confessions this morning: I have a weakness for those big boxes of CDs that are such good value these days, and I have an abiding enthusiasm for the music of Joseph Haydn. Given this, plus the news that Brilliant Classics released a big box titled the Haydn Edition in November, it was inevitable that one thing would lead to another.

So yes, I just received the box yesterday and I'm already deep in the symphonies that occupy the first thirty-three discs of this 160 CD box. Yes, I already have the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra thirty-seven CD box of all the symphonies, but those performances, fine as they are, are all taken from live concerts. The ones in the Haydn Edition are by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra and were recorded in the Haydnsaal of the Esterházy Palace where they were originally performed. From what I have heard so far, they are brilliant and energetic performances. Down the road I'm sure I will do a post comparing the two sets.

The other box of Haydn already on my shelves is a box of the complete string quartets with the Angeles String Quartet, a perfectly serviceable version but not one that keeps drawing me back. So I am looking forward to hearing the Buchberger Quartet performances. Some of the other reasons I got the new edition is for the piano sonatas and trios, the operas, the masses and, heck, even the baryton trios which I have never heard. Why oh why, I cry to myself, could not the Prince have been a serious guitar aficionado instead of a baryton player? Then we might have had dozens and dozens of guitar trios from the pen of Haydn and the history of the guitar would be quite different. Alas...

There are lots of things to bemoan about the general state of culture these days, but the accessibility of great music is not one of them. These CDs are less than a dollar each and contain a vast wealth of truly great music.

The wonder of Haydn is that, even from his very first symphony, he wrote energizing, charming, delightful music, and kept doing it with greater and greater subtlety for forty or fifty years.

Here are the first five symphonies performed by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra conducted by Adam Fischer:

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Going to Hell in a Handbasket

I was hoping to avoid this entirely, but I don't have another convenient topic to post on this morning, so, I guess I have to talk about a performance I saw Friday night. It was a miserable night with a cold drizzle and I was standing waiting for my driver getting wetter and wetter. I nearly threw in the towel. But I had a ticket waiting for me, so... A ticket for what, you ask?

Each year the local classical music series schedules an opera. In past years they have put on Madame Butterfly and other romantic operas. For various reasons, I have not made it to any of these performances which they have been giving for, I guess, four or five years. The cast is made up of singers from the Mexico City opera, sets are minimal and, instead of an orchestra, there is a lone piano. So I wasn't exactly in a hurry to hie myself hither. But this year they are doing Don Giovanni by Mozart, so I thought I would go.

Don Giovanni is one of the few operas I sort of know. I played mandolin in a production of it years ago, shoehorned into the orchestra pit, so I didn't have a good view of the stage. Heh! It was also taken up in a couple of music history courses at university and I have listened to a CD of it along with all the other Mozart operas in my big box Mozart Complete Edition.

I decided to opt for a side balcony ticket instead of a more expensive box or orchestra seat (down in front). Alas, my seat gave me a view of about 10% of the stage and it seemed to be the 10% where very little happened. The production started about fifteen minutes late and the first disconcerting thing was: no overture. We immediately launched into "Notte e giorno faticar." OK. The singing was all right, though not really to my taste. But as time went on the somewhat shaky piano part, the so-so singing and the inability to actually see any of the stage action became more and more tiresome. Also, the handling of the accompaniment of the recitatives showed little sense of 18th century style.

When the intermission belatedly arrived, I just left. I have left lots of concerts in the middle, but never an opera before. I guess I am a bit spoiled by seeing some productions in European opera houses. Sure, there are extreme and understandable limitations on what the local group can do. They have no access to a proper theater. The one they use seats 400 to 500 at the most and the sight-lines are bad for a lot of the seats. There is extremely minimal lighting and the set is nothing more than a painted backdrop. Also, there is no orchestra pit, which means nowhere to put an orchestra even if they could afford one. If the singing was less bombastic and they managed to tuck a string quartet away in a corner somewhere it might have worked. But as it was, it gave the impression of a not very accomplished high school caricature of a Mozart opera. Am I just being a curmudgeon? Well, yes, probably.

If I were to give some advice, it would be to suggest they try and put on something less ambitious, something that they have the resources to handle. But I'm sure that advice will be ignored. What they want to do is familiar works that everyone will want to attend. Well, everyone except me, I guess!

Here's that missing overture:

Saturday, February 10, 2018

And 7,245 Comments!

I really have to acknowledge the contribution made by my commentators on this blog. They are a great group that really stand out in my view. The Internet is full of trolls and just nasty people, but they almost never find their way to this blog (though I did get a flurry of spam comments this past week advertising escorts in India?!?). Indeed, except for one incident relating to guitarist Narciso Yepes that brought a host of weird and off-topic comments, I have only ever had to delete one comment due to slander and obscenity. That has got to be an Internet record.

Instead, my commentators are a fair and reasonable lot with considerable knowledge and education. If I ever misspell or misuse a Latin quote I have at least two commentators who will correct me. I have had well-known music critics and composers leave informative comments and we have had extended debates with professors of music. This is all as delightful as it is rare!

I have noticed that some online publications, such as the Globe and Mail, have ceased to allow online comments and I think their value suffers as a result. The Wall Street Journal comments are extremely useful as I nearly always consult them after reading any opinion piece. They are an invaluable corrective. It is very heartening to see how very savvy the commentators are, as a group.

So here's to you! Praise to my commentators and may they live long and prosper.

Time for more celebratory music. This is the Symphony No. 48, "Maria Theresa" by Joseph Haydn, played by The Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood:

Does anyone know a composer more sheerly delightful than Haydn? Ok, Mozart, possibly...

Friday, February 9, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

The Canadian Opera Company is getting some great publicity from the Toronto Globe and Mail this season. I don't recall such extensive coverage in previous years. Today's piece is on the upcoming production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) composed by Mozart at age twenty-six (he started composing operas at age eleven, so this is a mature work). The article goes into some depth (for a newspaper) on Mozart's Janissary band style, the spoken dialogue and the vocal virtuosity.
The music that Mozart wrote for Abduction (at 26 years old, believe it or not) is not for any old cast of singers. Packed into one opera are all the technical skills that opera singers work for decades to perfect. You'll hear dizzying displays of scales and arpeggios: The lovesick Belmonte kicks off Act 1 with more notes than you ever thought possible from a tenor.
You'll hear basses plunging into to their profound depths: Lean forward and listen as Osmin, right-hand man to the overseer of the harem, dives down to a low D and soars back up as high as an F – this is no droning bass role.
Most memorably, the sopranos of Abduction may cause your ears to pop by hitting impossible heights of their range. In particular, the character Blonde is tasked with singing a few much-anticipated – and freakishly difficult – high Es in her first aria. Konstanze may not rise up quite as high, but she makes a flashy entrance with her first aria, Ach, ich liebte ("Oh, I was in love"), twinkling like a beautiful banshee up on high Bs and Cs.
The way Mozart writes for sopranos is a mix of worshipping their skills and testing their limits – and Abduction is such a extreme example that Milos Forman included it in Amadeus, his 1984 film about Mozart's life. We catch a depiction of the debut performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio in Vienna, 1782, as soprano Caterina Cavalieri, the diva who first sang the role of Konstanze, flaunts the behemoth aria in Act 2, Martern aller Arten ("Tortures unrelenting").
The production runs until February 24 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

* * *

This is Mozart opera week as tonight our local production of Don Giovanni opens. I have to confess that while I have been at a number of performances of this opera, I have always viewed it from the orchestral pit! Yes, I took up the mandolin just to play the obbligato part in one of the arias one year. It was a great experience even though my chair was right up against the tympani! In any case, tonight I will be seeing it from the audience for the first time.

* * *

Salzburg has had the good sense to turn down the empty symbolism of being named a European "City of Culture." Slipped Disc has the details:
The city council voted overwhelmingly last night not to apply for the EU’s rolling title of City of Culture.
The reason given is that it will cost tens of millions of Euros that could be better spent on culture itself, rather than the trappings of a title.
Salzburg’s decision suggests that the title has been hopelessly devalued by being rolled around provincial fishing and mining towns in obscure corners of the EU under some all-must-have-prizes rule.
This illustrates rather well the futility of official boosterism. Salzburg is about as cultural as a city can get and certainly needs no Euro-stamp as validation. When I was last there, they had twelve concert halls and one (1) cinema!

* * *

Also at Slipped Disc is a quote from a piece by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post about how she sees her job as critic:
Think of the experience as a conversation: The evening offers a point of view, and you respond to it. Is it a conversation that you want to continue, by going back and hearing that music again? Is it one you’re glad to have behind you? Is it something you want to talk about to other people — and can another person change your mind? All of this is part of the experience we have with any art form. And it’s a lot more fun to become an active participant than it is to receive the music in reverential, passive silence.
The comments are also worth reading.

* * *

Quincy Jones, legendary music producer, gets nasty in his latest interview with Vulture (warning, he uses some strong language): 
What were your first impressions of the Beatles?
That they were the worst musicians in the world. They were no-playing motherfuckers. Paul was the worst bass player I ever heard. And Ringo? Don’t even talk about it. I remember once we were in the studio with George Martin, and Ringo had taken three hours for a four-bar thing he was trying to fix on a song. He couldn’t get it. We said, “Mate, why don’t you get some lager and lime, some shepherd’s pie, and take an hour-and-a-half and relax a little bit.” So he did, and we called Ronnie Verrell, a jazz drummer. Ronnie came in for 15 minutes and tore it up. Ringo comes back and says, “George, can you play it back for me one more time?” So George did, and Ringo says, “That didn’t sound so bad.” And I said, “Yeah, motherfucker because it ain’t you.” Great guy, though.
Were there any rock musicians you thought were good?
I used to like Clapton’s band. What were they called?
Yeah, they could play.
Well, I agree with some of that! Not the Ringo stuff, though. Ringo was perhaps the most musical and original drummer in rock. And Paul? A bad bass player? Quincy, whatcha been smoking?

* * *

 If you are interested here is a "new" musicology analysis of the theme music used on Canadian and US tv for the Olympic games:
Melding disparate musical sounds into one new work is part of the CBC’s mandate. In the early 2000s, the network was under pressure to make their programming more multicultural and so they shifted their focus to incorporate more “fusion programming.” This involved bringing together musicians from different cultures, styles and languages to see whether they might be able to find new ways to collaborate.
While the CBC’s intentions may have been good, the results have been mixed. According to ethnomusicologist Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw, the musical output has not served to reflect creative and multicultural “meetings” between different musical traditions. Instead it more often represents — musically — cultural minorities being assimilated into mainstream, white, Anglo codes that serve to reinforce the status quo.
Ah yes, those "white, Anglo codes" that oppress every other musical tradition... Damned C major!

* * *

 Our envoi today is the overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio by Mozart. This is the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Fabio Luisi:

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Post 2,500!

Yes, it's true this is the 2500th post to this blog. Hmm, lemmesee, at around 800 words per post that comes to

Two Million Words!!

Which is quite a few. And some of them were actually informative. And I'm not even counting those occasionally profuse musical examples.

This is, for me, a fulfilling experience and it is especially good when you comment as that always adds a lot.

Let's have some celebratory music. Bach, Magnificat:

Haydn, Lord Nelson Mass:

Mozart, Symphony No. 41, Jupiter:

Wait, is this getting excessive? Oh, probably. But that's one of the cool things about music. We have just piles and piles of really great, joyous, over the top, celebratory music. So let's end with one more, the Symphony No. 5 by Ludwig van:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Training is Expensive

A friend of mine who happens to be a seasoned orchestral string player and I attended a concert by our local youth orchestra on Sunday. The concert began with two isolated movements from different Mozart symphonies and continued with a movement from a Haydn symphony. At that point we left. Yes, we were horrible people, not giving these young musicians and their conductor a chance. But, believe me, the aesthetic pain was considerable!

So we should talk about how young musicians become capable performers. The short answer is: a great deal of painstaking work. This is also expensive work because students need a great deal of supervision by highly-capable teachers. I recently ran across a video clip that is a very good articulation of how this works. Over to Jordan Peterson, who explains how to teach people how to think:

As he says, marking a good essay is easy: check, A. Marking a bad essay is unbelievably difficult because everything is wrong. Well, that's the way it is with young music students. With very, very, very few exceptions everything they do is wrong: they hold the instrument incorrectly, they don't play in tune, their rhythms are shaky or soggy or just wrong, they miscount the rests, they play with an unpleasant grating tone, sometimes they play the wrong notes. What every one of the players in a youth orchestra needs is intensive private instruction from highly-capable teachers who have spent many years being trained themselves.

Some youth orchestras have gotten this kind of attention and one example is likely the students that have come out of El Systema in Venezuela and other places. I am not sure of the details of how they managed it--I suspect that if you have some pretty good devoted teachers and a very broad intake of thousands and thousands of candidates you can likely filter them down to a core of pretty darn good student players.

But the problem with our youth orchestra is that they are just getting started and I suspect that there is little quality private instruction available. There is probably limited rehearsal time as well. A very important intermediate step between weekly private lessons and orchestral performance is the sectional rehearsal where, for example, all the first violins get together and rehearse their part, ironing out differences in tuning and bowing so that they come together as a group. Every section in the orchestra needs this same attention and the leader of each section, the concertmaster in the case of the first violins and the principal players in each section needs to have the capacity and authority to lead and rehearse the section.

When we get to the full rehearsal it is the concertmaster and the conductor who need to be unambiguously in charge. The problem is that hiring capable concertmasters and conductors is very expensive and this youth orchestra, at least, simply can't afford it. My friend rather unkindly described our local conductor as someone who does not actually conduct, but rather does a kind of "interpretive dance" expressing what he feels about the rhythms. Amusing to watch, but not very helpful to the players.

My friend and I attended the first concert by this youth orchestra a few months ago, in the fall. Unfortunately they have not improved to any great extent. What they need to do is rigorous, disciplined work and they have to remove the less-capable players and seek out better ones to replace them. Or they can continue on as they have, which is more likely. I'm sure they will receive support from the local community.

As we were leaving the concert I said to my friend, that, you know, we really cannot beef about the performance because we, who are capable of helping them improve, are not actually doing so. We should probably be making a contribution. Unfortunately, there are turf issues here. The conductor, who has been growing this orchestra from scratch, likely does not want to hear our critique, nor accept our assistance because the first thing we would do is demand a much higher commitment to precision and accuracy as the sine qua non of any real progress.

I am reminded of a student I had when I taught at university who had come to us after a couple of years at a community college: he was an intelligent and motivated student, but, alas, he had a very sloppy technique that had not been well grounded. So for the first four months he studied with me I insisted he do nothing but play simple scales, slurs and arpeggios very slowly and only work on the very simplest of pieces. He had to take several steps back to go forward. This is what needs to be done with the youth orchestra. They need to understand that, no they really can't play a Mozart symphony. Not yet. They need to spend months or years learning how to play the very basic components that down the road would make up the elements of a Mozart symphony. If you can't play four notes in tune then you certainly should not be trying to play one hundred notes.

Unfortunately, every hour you spend playing with bad technique will take several hours to undo. There is no getting around this very hard truth. I would like to help the orchestra, but somehow, I suspect they would not welcome my help.

But, if you work hard for perhaps thirty years with a great deal of support from the surrounding society, you can get to some amazing results. As proof, here is a performance from the 2007 Proms by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by the charismatic Gustavo Dudamel in a remarkable performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Shostakovich:

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Composer's Musings

Just by chance I ran across an item in the Wall Street Journal from several years ago in which composer Morten Lauridsen muses about what inspires him.
At the core of my work as a composer over the past 45 years are seven multimovement vocal cycles, each centered on a single poetic theme, most often by one author -- for example, "Les Chansons des Roses" on Rainer Maria Rilke's delightful poems penned in 1924; the "Madrigali 'Fire-Songs'" on Renaissance Italian poems; "Cuatro Canciones," my chamber settings of Federico Garc&iacute;a Lorca's poems about time and night; and the "Lux Aeterna" on sacred texts about "light." And for each cycle I've selected my musical materials -- harmonies, melodies, rhythm, formal construction, orchestration, etc. -- to complement aspects of the texts I've chosen, including their style, content, language and historical context. The musical settings range from accessible and direct to atonal, abstract and highly coloristic.
The piece he is talking about in this essay is "O Magnum Mysterium" premiered in 1994 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Paul Salamunovich. Here is a performance from YouTube:

Somehow he manages to make the harmonies sound fresh and interesting, which is a pretty neat trick (no, not a trick, a method).

I ran across this reading an article in American Digest titled “O Magnum Mysterium:” The Persistence of Sacred Beauty
It is a commonplace that the overwhelming mass of our contemporary art that is “exhibited” has devolved into mere “exhibitionism.” Vapid, disposable and preening the works are doomed to be buried in the gaping garbage pits of marketing-driven museums, and crapulous galleries that hold most contemporary American and European art. Still, great souls persist among us and great art, though it is often obscured by poseurs and perverts and pallid imitators of all stripes, can still emerge when talent and skill are wedded to inspiration and belief.
It is too easy to simply condemn most contemporary art as garbage even though a great deal of it may be. The Lauridsen piece is absolutely lovely in a way that slightly reminds me of Arvo Pärt, but it does exist in a delimited realm. All I mean by that is that it renders homage to great vocal music of the past a bit too literally. If we set all ideology to one side, as we should, then music like this deserves a place in our contemporary musical world. But so does, for example, Lux Aeterna by Ligeti:

Yes, that is a bit disquieting, but we do live in disquieting times so we need music like this as well as music that soothes. We also need music that explores, like this piece by Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel:

Perhaps we even need music that challenges us, like this piece, Poem No 1 (1959), by Galina Ustvolskaya:

Is there any reason that we can't make a place for all of these different kinds of musics?