Friday, April 13, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

First up is one of those comparisons of an old violin with a new copy. This is a brand new instrument up against a 1724 Stradivarius.


I guessed wrong, by the way. I wish she had played exactly the same passage on each instrument as that would have made comparison easier.

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The Globe and Mail has a very odd article on Canadian composer Claude Vivier, who died, tragically young, in 1983.
There have been numerous tributes to Vivier over the past year, with Canadian outlets Soundstreams, Against the Grain Theatre and Esprit Orchestra (the latter being longtime supporters) presenting work. But if the old Canadian trope holds true about foreign recognition being a litmus test for success, then Vivier passes, with flying colors. One notable tribute unfolded in Berlin in late February. Presented by contemporary classical group ensemble unitedberlin (who have previously explored Vivier’s work), the concert saw Russian conductor and artistic adviser Vladimir Jurowski exercising his music talents and theatrical instincts with equal zeal, particularly during Hiérophanie (1970-71), in which he played a stern priest/judge, directing members of the ensemble through shouts, shuffles and prostrations, in a performance faithful to Vivier’s animated instructions.
Vivier is probably the most significant 20th century Canadian composer. I say odd because the second part is an interview with conductor Vladimir Jurowski that seems to be missing any indication it is an interview--probably an editing error.

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This is rather an interesting essay on the overthrow of the Great Books curricula in universities. It delves into the psychology behind the ideology.
...during the Canon Wars of the late-80s a banner was unfurled atop the façade of Butler Library at Columbia showing the names “SAPPHO MARIE de FRANCE CRISTINE de PIZAN SOR JUANA INEZ de la CRUZ BRONTE DICKINSON” above the carved names Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato etc., the organizers weren’t celebrating a female tradition to go along with the male tradition. If that were the case, then students would know more today about the cultural past than they did before. The feminists would have ensured a curriculum that taught students male greats and female greats both. But, no, the real aim was to tear down the male lineage, to displace it and then to forget it. Students today know less about ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages than they did during the ancient regime of the pre-60s. Multiculturalism didn’t enrich the streams of thought and creation. It only blocked the dominant one. And that was the point.
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I'm sorry to follow that item with another one with a political slant, but this most definitely falls in the category of "defending against politics." Courtesy of Slipped Disc, I discovered this post by Philip Sharp on identity politics in music:
Much of our public discourse is focused on identity politics. Our news cycle is replete with tales of gender pay-gaps, unmet inclusivity quotas and the great struggle for the elusive goal that is equality, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that we now find these issues played out in the classical music industry. The dark heart of all this is to be found in the (sadly) niche area of contemporary classical music. Of the numerous competitions and schemes on offer for composers in Britain, a disturbing number contain politically-driven caveats as part of their application process as a means of realising the great idée fixe of our time, ‘diversity’. The most startling example to have emerged recently is from a joint venture by the Centre for New Music at Sheffield and Sheffield University, offering young composers the opportunity to have their music workshopped and recorded by the Ligeti Quartet*.  Nothing to see here, Officer. That is until you scroll further down the page and discover the competition’s curious ‘two ticks’ policy.
“A ‘two ticks’ policy will be in place for female composers, composers who identify as BME, transgender or non-binary, or having a disability, to automatically go through to the second stage of the selection process.”
I had to look up "BME" which stand for "black or minority ethnic." Sharp continues:
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this. For a start, the policy is staggeringly patronising to the composers who belong to these groups. What should be an incidental fact about someone’s person now takes precedent over their craft. Composers who happen to belong to one of these select groups are given a pat on the back and a snide helping-hand by virtue signallers of the worst kind. They are not valued for their artistic endeavours, the time and effort they have put into their work. Instead, they are trotted out by the diversity apparatchiks as means of showcasing how wonderfully compassionate, forward-thinking and fluffy they are. Composers should be incensed that their music is forced to take a back-seat to their race, gender etc.
Go read the whole essay.

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Someone has figured out how ancient Greek music sounded! Again. Yes, generation after generation of scholars each seem to uncover the secrets of how the music sounded that was used in the recitation of epics and lyric poetry, not to mention plays and festivals. Oddly they each seem to come up with something that resembles the music of the current Middle East:
The songs that d’Angour has pieced back together do not sound at all like modern, or even medieval, Western European music. Instead, they seem reminiscent of eastern melodies, especially traditional Arabic music. Although there is a relatively limited tonal range and frequent repetition, they make use of strong, often impatient, rhythms and striking dissonances.
The only problem is that "traditional Arabic music" is about a thousand years distant from the ancient Greeks so I tend to think, "good job, fellows, now keep at it." As far as I'm concerned if you manage to get something sounding like Arabic music out of the extremely sketchy Greek notation, you are just projecting something into the music. As for the "striking dissonances" no ancient notation was capable of notating harmony or multiple voices, so that again has to be something contributed by the scholar. Most conclusively, there are no reliable ancient notations for rhythm at all, let alone impatient ones! So no, not for a minute do I think that we have the faintest idea what ancient Greek music sounded like. We do have some nice images, though:


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The next item comes from Musicology Now and I wholeheartedly recommend it! I know, that's an odd thing for me to say, but this brief post on Japanese composer Jo Kondo is really interesting. I attended a talk Kondo gave at McGill in the late 70s and I have always found his music both enigmatic and attractive. I used to have the score to a piece he wrote for two guitars (tuned in quarter tones) and cow bells, but sadly it is now lost and I never did get around to performing it. The piece discussed in the Musicology Now post, Paregmenon, is not on YouTube, sadly, but here is another piece by Jo Kondo, In Summer, from 2004.



7 comments:

Marc said...

The one 'ancient music' that I have any particular interest in is that of the Temple at Jerusalem-- you know the historians of Christian liturgical music will make/have made all sorts of arguments about this or that in the chant traditions reflecting this or that aspect of the performances of the Jewish rites there. Who knows. Anyway, I remain interested; usually I don't remain interested for very long when I hear recordings of putative 'Temple music' because it seems obvious to me that the artists/arrangers/composers are attributing to the past something from Syria or the Sinai in the 1700s or 1800s. The work of musicologist Suzanne Haik-Vantoura-- she believed that she had worked out how to read the marks of cantillation from Hebrew music MSS-- resulted in a fine CD (ca the end of the last millennium? I listened before 1990) but whether she accomplished what she thought she did, eh, many disagreed about that.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, exactly. I think it comes down to we really, really wish we knew what the ancient Jewish or ancient Greek music actually sounded like, but we just don't know and we don't have enough information to even have a plausible speculation.

Will Wilkin said...

Marc, I happen to have a CD called La Musique de la Bible Revélée which attempts to recreate ancient Hebrew music. The liner notes describe the work of Suzanne Haik Vantoura and her argument that "the Hebrew Bible is in its entirety an immense vocal score; the musical signs are indeed notated on either side of the Hebrew text, but these signs had become as hermetically sealed as Egyptian hieroglyphics before the work of Champollion....she revealed the significance of the musical signs and finally revived and transcribed in modern notation the music which was revealed to her following methodical deciphering...."

That disc is on the Harmonia Mundia France label, and I have another in the series called Musique de la Grèce Antique which, according to the liner notes, is "the rare fragments of music which have come down to us from Ancient Greece....nothing remains of its [Hellenic] music...but these sparse fragments miraculously preserved in a few papyri and marbles and in other documents copied in the middle ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque era..."

Fascinating works! I used to use both CDs when I was a HS history teacher. Actually at least once a week for each of my classes I usually played some kind of classical music at the beginning of class for about 5 minutes, often completely unrelated to the lesson but great for resetting their minds and opening their ears and all the neural pathways music stimulates. The kids would sit silently and listen. Other teachers would ask me "how do you do it?" and my only thoughts could be the kids must recognize I am sincere and totally into the music, and perhaps my long hair (at that time) helped make classical "cool"?

Marc said...

Had seen this article at the Times for a couple of days and finally read it-- the videos of the 'singing roads' (two videos there, one from Friesland and the other from California where they tried twice to install some Rossini, ahem) are amusing, and the cluelessness of the bureaucrats pretty amusing too, if only you don't live in an area immediately subject to it. I know you don't read 'Hell's Bible' (as Fr Zuhlsdorf calls it), so this link takes you to a Dutch news site; I don't read Dutch but it is amusing, and more of the tune is audible than in the NYT snippet. "Zingende weg maakt Friezen gek", the singing road makes Friesians gek, well, we get the sense of gek pretty easily.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't doubt for a minute that prefacing a class with a brief bit of classical music would put your students in an entirely different mental space, a more receptive one! Good idea, Will.

Thanks, Marc. I have not heard of this before. It reminds me of a skateboarder who meticulously set up gazillions of bottles filled with different levels of water so that when he skated by, little rods on either side would strike the bottles, playing Mozart. But god, how absurdly idiotic to think that you should install a singing road guaranteed to drive the neighbors crazy. There should be laws against sound pollution. I have long thought that the drivers of boom box cars should be summarily executed...

Marc said...

Thanks, Will! that is the CD I had listened to. Yes, SHV spent many years making a 'singing edition' of the Hebrew Bible (the Wikipedia page, here, includes lots more information) certain that she had deciphered the 'cantillation marks' made on Masoretic text MSS. No idea myself of course but the world being what it is I suppose it is more likely that she created a wonderful artefact of the creative imagination than that she accomplished what she thought she was accomplishing-- I don't keep up with musicological researches. On the other hand, what a triumph, were it so, of a marginalised female music education teacher.... When I can I think I must find a copy of that CD to add to my small library. You must have been a well-loved teacher, I think!

Will Wilkin said...

I find her thesis quite plausible, ie, that Hebrew traditions and what eventually became literature is much older than written Hebrew and thus, like oral traditions in any old culture, was originally preserved and transmitted as song by gifted cantors with musical memories. Not so different from the Homeric literature. How much of the Old Testament was preserved this way (and how accurately) is far beyond my expertise, but I can imagine that' just as with spoken language, time and geographic divergence of expanding populations leads to morphing and multiple versions. So this or that manuscript might not be the only one. I guess Torah and Talmud scholars would know a lot about such questions, but I don't.