Tuesday, May 29, 2018

You Will Be Diverse!

Honestly, I really do try to avoid politics here at the Music Salon, except, as previously stated, in self-defence. But this item from Ludwig van Toronto is hard to ignore: Canadian Opera Company And TSO Get Funding Slashed Over Diversity Concerns.
As first reported by Signal Toronto, an independent outlet that focuses on covering Toronto City Hall, Toronto City Council has clawed back funding expected by the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) for the 2018-19 season.
The city has cut $100,000 from the COC’s proposed $1.6 million grant, and $50,000 from the TSO’s $1.27 million grant. The money represents a significant financial blow to each of the organization’s bottom lines.
Norm Kelly, a board member of the TSO and city Councillor, described the cuts as a “wake-up slap,” to those arts groups who might otherwise take city diversity guidelines lightly.
Ah yes, the civilized courtesy of a "wake-up slap."
Ludwig Van first made mention of concerns towards the diversity of Toronto’s big six arts organizations this past December, when we found that board memberships were generally white, and in some cases, mostly male.
Diversity requirements have become an increasingly important feature for granting programs that look for assurances that applicants audiences, staff, board membership all reflect the demographics of the city.
“We’re looking for evidence that they’re trying to reflect the city’s demographics,” Williams said in a statement to Signal Toronto. Otherwise, they are in danger of not accurately representing the cultural fabric of the city, which now sits at the top of global urban diversity rankings.
In 2017, The Canada Council for the Arts implemented new diversity assessment guidelines which were no longer seen as best-practice, but a major factor in determining how much money an organization receives. The diversity criteria not only extends to staff and governance but also a commitment by arts organizations towards diversifying audiences.
Canadians are, on the whole, an agreeable people--the national motto is "Peace, Order and Good Government" which often seems to lead to A Great Deal of Government. Canadians also like to think of themselves as being very fair and reasonable. Discussion of social problems often comes down to making a few "reasonable" restrictions on natural freedoms of expression and association for the Greater Good. As has been pointed out many, many times, most recently and quite vehemently by Jordan Peterson, Canada's current most prominent public intellectual, the drive to diversity and equity is a direct attack on freedom. Here is a very brief clip where Peterson talks about diversity:

You can find dozens of others if you hunt around. The point is that the drive for public institutions to simply fall into crude identity politics is not only simple-minded, it is also simply wrong for technical reasons. Oh, and it is also profoundly racist and sexist! Just look at the quotes above: "board memberships were generally white, and in some cases, mostly male." The implication is that the crucial factors in determining the worth of these board members were race and sex. You can't get much more racist and sexist than that!

So the idea is that you have to replace white, male board members who were presumably chosen for their competence, experience and knowledge in the specific cultural area with people who have less of that, but are of the correct skin color and sex. And if you don't, you will be punished by having your government grants reduced. Wake up, Canada, you are now under the authoritarian rule of cultural commissars who will tell you who can serve on your board of directors and, presumably, following the same logic, who can play in your orchestra and sing in your opera.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Haydn: piano trio no. 44, Hob. XV:28 in E major

There is a lot of amazing music in the trios for piano, violin and cello of Joseph Haydn. I almost said "hidden away", but as they are all available in numerous versions on YouTube, not very hidden! But certainly not as well known as they might be. As we learn from the excellent liner notes accompanying the first Vivarte 60 CD box, the last three trios (as well as the last three piano sonatas) were written, in 1796, for the brilliant British pianist Therese Bartolozzi. All three are remarkable works. The first, in E flat major, goes so far afield harmonically as the key of C flat major in the first movement. The second, in E major, begins the first movement with the strings accompanying the fortepiano pizzicato. The slow movement, in E minor, begins with all instruments in a unison line, wanders into some strange territory and ends with a very unusual cadenza:

Click to enlarge
Haydn, it seems, just wasn't capable of writing a dull piece of music. The piano trios are full of unexpected delights. Here is the Trio no. 44 from the Vivarte collection with Robert Levin, fortepiano, Vera Beths, violin and Anner Bylsma, cello:

Here is a performance by the Van Swieten Trio from the Haydn Edition Box. The E major trio is the second one beginning at the 17:38 mark:

I think that we have so many good recordings of these pieces, even though they probably don't sell a lot of copies, because musicians are so fond of Haydn.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

I did a post recently on a Kanye West song that I actually liked, so let's hear from someone else. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is not as complimentary: Rap is More Damaging Than Confederate Statues.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis didn’t hold back during a new interview in which he discussed the impact rap music has had on the Black community. He believes hip-hop is more damaging to African-Americans than statues of the confederate leaders who fought to preserve slavery.
In a recent interview with journalist Jonathan Capehart on his Cape Up podcast, Marsalis shared that he’s never been fond of the vulgarity some rappers spew on the microphone.
* * *

“Today, we are launching a campaign for every primary schoolchild to be taught to play an instrument, at no cost to them or their families,” writes the group, which includes oboist and conductor Nicholas Daniel, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and cellist and reigning champion Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
“It is crucial to restore music’s rightful place in children’s lives, not only with all the clear social and educational benefits, but showing them the joy of making and sharing music. We are especially concerned that this should be a universal right. This is an opportunity to show the world that we care about music’s future and its beneficial impact on our children.”
Well, if it's for the children... The idea of providing resources so that every child who wants to study an instrument and who shows some aptitude is a really good one. But c'mon, the idea that everyone has to learn to play an instrument is just absurd. Not all children are that interested in music, at least in learning to play an instrument. It is a long and challenging discipline and most children are not up to it. It's a vocation and a discipline, not a "universal right."

* * *

Marginal Revolution (I read everything!) links me to this article on the unimportance of music:
Music is not something that we’re prepared to invest in anymore. Coincidentally, or perhaps consequently, music is no longer the great cultural force and influencer that it once was. It seems to matter less to us, and many of us have found other things to do with our time, especially the young.
Much of this story will be familiar, even overly familiar. As ordinary music fans went online in the mid to late 90s the opportunity to greatly increase one’s music collection with free (illegal) downloads proved too big a temptation for most. A generation grew up unaccustomed to the idea of paying for music – and that generation is now reaching adulthood.
From a purely commercial point of view, this was a game-changer and one that the industry has never overcome, or is likely to anytime soon. But, it’s not just music industry profits which have shrunk. The cultural capital of popular music as a whole also appears to be in permanent decline. So how did we get here and will things ever get back to “normal”?
MP3s didn’t just detract from the commercial value of music. They inadvertently did much to reduce the aesthetic value of music too, I would argue. To be sure, this is a difficult, if not impossible thing to quantify and its causes are multiple and interconnected. Naturally any argument along these lines is necessarily subjective and speculative.
That seems like it might provoke a discussion or two.

* * *

Musicologist Philip Gentry rakes the Philadelphia Orchestra over the coals for being, as he sees it, nostalgic and reactionary:
A right-wing fantasy tour of Israel, a glaring absence of women’s voices, an artistic vacuum when it comes to contemporary music – all hiding behind a romantic notion of the sanctity of classical music. These problems are all connected, and speak to the orchestra’s anxiety at its own status in this city, and in the larger world. For generations the Philadelphia Orchestra was one of few institutions in this town that could claim a world-class status, and even for the many citizens who could care less about classical music, this was a source of pride. Today, it’s hard to find similar pride in an organization so attached to a nostalgic, often reactionary vision of its own history. There is room for lots of different kinds of music in our big city, and maybe it is for the best if the Philadelphia Orchestra is no longer at its center.
 Well, he certainly knows the narrative...

* * *

Time for something wacky. Courtesy of the Violin Channel we learn just how expressive the violin can be. In fact, it can imitate the sounds of a number of animals:

* * *

Canadian superstar conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin had some words on political protests at concerts.  Here is an item on the protests. Slipped Disc has the story on Yannick's remarks.
Musicians are not men and women of words, but of notes and peace. The expression of a political opinion had no place here tonight.
The only thing is that we seem to be in the middle of a culture war and I'm afraid that classical music is no more isolated from it than any other element in society. I'm not sure where this is going, but one thing for sure, it ain't over yet!

* * *

Time for something to remind us just how wonderful and, yes, important music can be, even when it is mere diversion. Some of Haydn's greatest music is to be found in his piano trios. The ensemble playing these trios in the box I am working my through is the Van Sweiten Trio with Franz Polman on violin, Jaap ter Linden, cello and Bart van Oort on a copy of a 1795 fortepiano. Here are four trios:

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Diminished Blogging

I feel I need to apologize to my readers for the scarce amount of blogging I have managed lately. I'm not sure it is going to greatly improve in the near future. The problem is that my current career in business has been going so well that it is taking up most of my focus. There is little time or energy left to delve into musical matters. I manage to pick up the guitar from time to time and sporadically work on a new composition, but this is in the bits of time that come free.

I am still working my way through the Haydn Edition, just coming to the end of the string quartets. Next up are the piano trios, of which I only know a few. I have been watching a few videos of Valery Gergiev conducting lately, like this one, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade with the Vienna Phillies:

Much of the time, as here, he conducts with no baton and a lot of finger wiggling. But I have seen him conducting with what seems to be a cocktail skewer as in this performance of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 with the National Youth Orchestra of the US:

And here he seems to be conducting with what almost looks like a toothpick:

Maybe he just likes to travel light? I can't find any mention in the Wikipedia article on Valery Gergiev that mentions his propensity for really tiny batons. Do any of my readers have any information?

Friday, May 18, 2018

Civilization Strikes Back!

I knew this was a thing, but I didn't know it was so big of a thing: We Were Lied to by "A Clockwork Orange"
… Experts trace the practice’s origins back to a drowsy 7-Eleven in British Columbia in 1985, where some clever Canadian manager played Mozart outside the store to repel parking-lot loiterers. Mozart-in-the-Parking-Lot was so successful at discouraging teenage reprobates that 7-Eleven implemented the program at over 150 stores, becoming the first company to battle vandalism with the viola. Then the idea spread to West Palm Beach, Florida, where in 2001 the police confronted a drug-ridden street corner by installing a loudspeaker booming Beethoven and Mozart. “The officers were amazed when at 10 o’clock at night there was not a soul on the corner,” remarked Detective Dena Kimberlin. Soon other police departments “started calling.” From that point, the tactic — now codified as an official maneuver in the Polite Policeman’s Handbook — exploded in popularity for both private companies and public institutions. Over the last decade, symphonic security has swept across the globe as a standard procedure from Australia to Alaska.
Today, deterrence through classical music is de rigueur for American transit systems. …
Baroque music seems to make the most potent repellant. “[D]espite a few assertive, late-Romantic exceptions like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff,” notes critic Scott Timberg, “the music used to scatter hoodlums is pre-Romantic, by Baroque or Classical-era composers such as Vivaldi or Mozart.”
 So, oddly, it turns out that thugs and ne're-do-wells don't actually like classical music? Let's listen to a little Mozart to celebrate. This is Hilary Hahn with the Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel:

Friday Miscellanea

Terry Teachout has a column in the Wall Street Journal on the defenestration of James Levine: Portrait of the Artist as an Unperson. (If you run into the paywall, you can probably access the article by Goggling the headline.)
Meanwhile, Met Opera Radio, the Metropolitan Opera’s Sirius XM satellite radio channel, has admitted that it is no longer broadcasting live recordings conducted by James Levine, who performed at the Met from 1971 until last December, when he was suspended and subsequently fired after an investigation in which the Met claimed to have found “credible evidence” that he “engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct toward vulnerable artists…over whom [he] had authority.” 
Few of us like to admit it, but most human beings are impossibly complicated, none more so than artists. You can simultaneously be a great comedian and a sexual predator, a great musician and a pedophile. To argue otherwise is to falsify history, and to falsify history is to dynamite the foundations of reality.
Well, yes. I suppose the urge to rewrite history comes from the imposition of a moral ideology. Do we expose and punish those who offend? Do we conceal and ignore as previous eras did? Do we assert that people can simply have private lives? Do we encourage accusers? I guess the devil is in the details and some offenses are worse than others. Bill Cosby will go to jail, but perhaps James Levine will not. But pity all those artists who performed under Levine's baton who are now also banished from the airwaves.

* * *

Wagner mariachi style? Why the heck not? ARTNEWS has the story: ‘It’s Not Wagner Anymore’: In New Work, Gonzalo Lebrija Updates Composer’s Classics with All-Women Mariachi Band. Read the article for the whole picture, but I think this is an early version of the idea:

* * *

If you weren't anxious before, this might get you there: Compose yourself: The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety.
[Calixto Bieito] explores mental illness in his latest production, a music-theatre collage called The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety. “It’s a kind of poem, a kind of concert,” he says, just off the plane from his home in Basel, when we meet at Birmingham Rep. “I hope it gives people a lot of hope.” 
With a nod to the box office, however, he’s gone for a title that sums up a show in which the Heath Quartet will play angsty Ligeti, while four actors draw on texts ranging from WH Auden’s The Age of Anxiety to Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society. “The show is not just about anxiety disorder,” he says. “It is also about existential thinking and music, which is a very important part of my whole life.”
* * *

Over at The New Yorker, Alex Ross delivers a review of two younger generation harpsichordists: The Rebel Harpsichordists.
A new generation of harpsichordists is coming to the fore, one that has given an almost hipsterish profile to an instrument that is popularly stereotyped as archaic and twee. The Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has started beefs with early-music eminences and adopted such provocative repertory as Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase.” The young French keyboardist Jean Rondeau plays jazz on the side. These performers have room to mature, but their recent concerts and recordings—both with an emphasis on the Goldbergs—suggest that the venerable harpsichord, which Landowska called “the roi-soleil of instruments,” will have a long future.
* * *

Israeli composer recently wrote a piece for solo violin titled Half Tiger, Half Poet. Here is a performance by 18-year-old Armenian violinist Diana Adamyan.

* * *

How about some solo violin music by Bach for our envoi today? This is Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti playing the prelude to the E major partita:

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Progress in the Arts

Whether there can be progress in the arts is often doubted, but even more often assumed. Later Beethoven is always assumed to be better than early Beethoven, 80s pop music to be better than 70s, Impressionism to be better than Neoclassicism and Classical Era music to be better than Baroque Era music. Whoa, wait a minute, who said that?

You see, you could argue the opposite pretty easily: the early Baroque music was crude compared to the refined counterpoint of the late 16th century. Early Classical music was crude compared to the heights of the High Baroque (just compare the music of J. S. Bach to that of his sons). Cubist painting crude compared to the best examples of French Impressionism and so on. It's complicated.

Yet there is some kind of progress in the arts because history does not, in fact, repeat itself, despite the frequent claim to the contrary. But progress in the arts is by fits and starts and the measurement of it is haphazard. There are a near-infinite number of variables influencing artistic creation: the aesthetic needs and tastes of the society, the aesthetic goals of the artist, the economics of the arts, the nature of the materials available, the recent history of the art form and on and on. Underlying it all is the way creativity in the arts works.

Of the Big Five psychological traits, the one that is most responsible for creativity is Openness. The artist must be open, of course, to new ideas. A useful metaphor might be that ideas or themes are like neutrinos, invisibly sleeting through all of us all the time, but only a few of us are aware of them and even fewer are able to make use of them in artistic creation. Musicians and artists often speak of themes just "coming to them" or of stumbling across them randomly.

The corollary to this is that, as a Zen master said, the cup must be empty before you can fill it. He was referring to learning about Zen, but it applies in many situations. The act of creation is often preceded by the act of clearing away. Before Haydn and others could invent the crisp clarity and balance of the Classical Style they had to clear away all the thick textures and complex harmonies of the High Baroque, replacing them with opera buffa inspired jostling rhythms. Before Steve Reich could create his monolithic rhythmic structures he had to clear away virtually everything of 20th century modernism: no more dissonance, intricate pitch structures, fragmentary rhythms  and so on. They were all replaced by little more than pulse at first.

This even applies to pop music. The punk artists of the mid-70s sneeringly threw away all the pretensions and complexities of "art rock" in favor of the simplest and crudest textures they could find. Similarly, performers of rap and hip-hop got rid of harmony and melody in favor of the rhetoric of speech, sampling and drum tracks.

This is not the only way the arts progress, by excision and the upsetting of priorities (rhythm over harmony, speech over singing, pulse over melody, etc.); sometimes a new era in the arts consists of addition and a change in perspective. The Romantic Era in music added harmonic and melodic complexity to the Classical Style without changing the fundamental bases. The best example of that is the music of Franz Schubert, undeniably Romantic in its sensibility, but based very firmly on the Classical structures.

That's probably enough musing for today, let's have a musical example. Well, two actually. First, a Haydn piano sonata, which is a good example of the pure Classical style, second a Schubert piano sonata which, despite the great differences (not least in length), is still based largely on the Classical foundation.

Haydn: Piano Sonata nº 59 in E flat:

Schubert: Piano Sonata No 18 in G major, D 894

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Haydn, op. 76, no. 2, in D minor, "Quinten"

One of the things I really liked about the Kanye West song I posted on yesterday was the extreme simplicity of the basic material, the isolated high notes on the piano on the offbeat that tie the whole together. The figure in music history that largely originated and perfected this strategy was Joseph Haydn. Whereas Mozart's sonata movements are typically characterized by a wealth of themes, Haydn's often consist of just one. Sonata form is supposed to involve the contrast between two tonal areas and two themes, but Haydn violated that principle more often than he observed it. One of the most famous examples is the first movement of his String Quartet, op. 76, no. 2 in D minor which has the nickname "Die Quinten" or "The Fifths." The reason for that is the theme that utterly dominates the first movement. This theme is nothing more than two falling fifths:

There is hardly a measure that does not include this theme in some form or another. Hidden away in the 2nd violin:

Falling fifths in a rising sequence:

Compressing some of the intervals:

Wandering into remote keys:

Some simple variants:

And all these examples are just from the exposition! The development starts with the opening in inversion. This was the beginning:

And this is how the development starts, the whole thing turned upside down:

And, of course, the accompaniment is in a new key. Here the theme is in augmentation (quarter notes instead of half notes) and in close canon:

Shortly after it is back in half notes, but in triple canon with one voice a quarter note delayed and two others a half note delayed:

Are you tired yet? Haydn isn't. We have a false recapitulation in the wrong key:

Then, after the real recapitulation, some statements of the theme with accompanying figuration in close imitation:

The final statement of the theme, leading into the cadence, turns the second interval into a diminished 7th!

What an amazing tour de force this movement is. Let's have a listen. This is the Cleveland Quartet and we have the score so you can look for that theme.

The second movement is one of Haydn's charming sets of variations in D major. Then, just when you are least expecting it, he delivers yet another tour de force in the minuet. This is sometimes called the "Witches' Minuet" because the whole thing is a canon between the violins, in parallel octaves, and the viola and cello, in parallel octaves, at the distance of one measure:

Click to enlarge
Not just for a phrase or two, nope, for the whole minuet. Oh yeah, he did something similar before, in the minuet of his Symphony no. 44.

The final movement is just one of Haydn's superb, rollicking finales; it begins in D minor and ends in D major. Here is the Alban Berg Quartet playing the whole piece:

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Now here is an important and timely warning:

Yes, those pesky buglers can really be annoying!

Just so you don't all think I have lost my mind, with that post on Kanye West, the next post I am preparing will be an extensive look at the Haydn quartet op. 76, no. 2 in D minor.

Aesthetic Refugee

It used to be that the term "refugee" was limited to those persons fleeing an actual war-zone. Then it was extended to those escaping religious persecution. Other kinds of persecution, such as for being homosexual, were added. Now we seem to be including economic refugees. I want to make the claim of being an aesthetic refugee. Yes, it's true, I am fleeing the horrid cacophony of bad music, which pursues me wherever I go in public. For years I have railed against bad music and have even found entire genres, like "grindcore," to be completely devoid of any aesthetic value. I have said a lot of bad things about rap and hip-hop as well and found the accompanying videos to be an aesthetic horror. But the corollary of the claim that 90% of everything is crap, is that 10% might be good. Well, it has finally happened, I have come across a piece of hip-hop that is really interesting aesthetically! Believe me, no-one is more surprised than me. But I think that part of that whole aesthetic evaluation thing I keep talking about, is that you do need to be objective.

So here we go, I present to you a piece by Kanye West. In the past I have not had anything good to say about his music and that was based on just a few, haphazard listenings so I hasten to apologize. The other day I stumbled across something that made me completely re-evaluate his work. The piece, from his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is titled "Runaway" and I want to present three different versions of it. First of all, the one with the cleaned up lyrics:


In some ways I like the mix the best in this version. Next the "explicit" version so you can hear what he is actually singing:


The odd thing about that version is that the ambient sounds of footsteps are muted, but you can hear the words blurred out in the other version. The best version is the segment found in the full length film, thirty-four minutes long, that has an extended ending with more solos of the dancers.


There are a lot of things I find both remarkable and aesthetically compelling about this work (I mean the song "Runaway," not the whole film, which has lots of CGI). It is refreshingly minimal in that it uses no special effects, no computer generated imagery and no jump-cuts. All the shots are long and have much more weight because of it. The setting is as natural as could be: an empty warehouse with a plain cement floor, just the kind of place this sort of thing would be rehearsed in. All the emphasis is on the music and the dance. Honestly, how many hip-hop videos do you know that feature twenty or so Russian ballerinas? And nothing else except Kanye? The music itself I find particularly compelling. The stark piano at the beginning unites the whole piece. The long end with what sounds like sampled cellos reminds me very strongly of a Baroque passacaglia in its remorseful inevitability. As for the lyrics themselves, I find them particularly striking, not the least for the sarcasm of "Let's have a toast for the douchebags, let's have a toast for the assholes..." and so on. Yes, let's for there are lots of them around.

Remarkable guy, Kanye West. I'm afraid I was completely mislead by his celebrity status and the random hearing of one or two songs that did not impress me. But "Runaway" is a whole other ball game. This is a very impressive piece and I hope you come to enjoy it as well.

But I still hate EDM!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Let's see what interesting items turn up in our miscellanea today. First off, here is an article in the Wall Street Journal that admits that the quality of streamed music is, well, not that great: Streaming Music Sounds Terrible. These Apps Can Help.
NO ONE DEBATES the impact of streaming music. Having virtually every song ever recorded just a few clicks or a shout to “Alexa” away has revolutionized the way we enjoy and interact with our favorite artists’ work.
Also beyond debate, sadly: how terrible most streaming music sounds, especially to generations weaned on the quality of CDs and the warm sound of vinyl. Worse, Spotify and Apple Music, the two streaming services that sport the greatest reach, lack intuitive interfaces and are by far the weakest.
I suspect, and some commentators agreed, that fiddling with the results does not compensate for the original loss of quality. One thing about CDs is that, on cheap systems, they tend to sound better than vinyl because they don't scratch and they have a punchier sound. But on a really high end system, the superiority of vinyl is audible. Nothing, however, sounds good on laptop speakers!

* * *

And another university manages to come up with a really pointless "study" of music: Sharks love jazz but are stumped by classical, say scientists. Bypassing that dumbed-down headline we discover:
In a paper published in Animal Cognition, the researchers, led by Catarina Vila Pouca, trained juvenile Port Jackson sharks to swim over to where jazz was playing, to receive food. It has been thought that sharks have learned to associate the sound of a boat engine with food, because food is often thrown from tourist boats to attract sharks to cage-diving expeditions – the study shows that they can learn these associations quickly.
The test was made more complex with the addition of classical music – this confused the sharks, who couldn’t differentiate between jazz and classical. “It was obvious that the sharks knew that they had to do something when the classical music was played, but they couldn’t figure out that they had to go to a different location,” said researcher Culum Brown. “The task is harder than it sounds, because the sharks had to learn that different locations were associated with a particular genre of music, which was then paired with a food reward. Perhaps with more training, they would have figured it out.”
Uh, guys, sharks are animals? They may be relatively smart instinctual predators, but still. "Figuring out" stuff is what human minds do.

* * *

I think we have mentioned this piece before here at the Music Salon, but it is in the news again due to performances in Philadelphia: Bowerbird's 2-man music contraption is a hot ticket for 4 remaining Philly shows. This likely the oddest musical instrument ever created:

Mauricio Kagel is the composer of the music for this collection of instruments:
The cluster of musical instruments seems to stretch as far as the eye can see, both down the room and up to the ceiling. They’re pointed every which way, and played in a way that suggests the world forgot what they are and how they usually work.
Timpani is played by a rolling pin with spikes. A trombone slide is equipped with a mallet that hits a xylophone. A horn has a Hindustani tabla drum stuffed in its bell; it’s both blown and tapped.
Rather than having a bow play a cello, the cello — strapped to a rocking chair, swaying back and forth — plays the bow.
The piece is Mauricio Kagel’s Zwei Mann Orchester (“Two-Man Band”), heard last week in the first of a series of “Sound Machines” performances in the Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University’s URBN Annex.
If I were in Philadelphia I would try and get a ticket, if only to watch the two players in action.

* * *

 The New York Times has an interesting article about the survival of a library of Baroque music in the lowlands of Bolivia: Jesuit Legacy in the Bolivian Jungle: A Love of Baroque Music.
The music has admirers well beyond the Bolivian lowlands. One is Ashley Solomon, a professor at the Royal College of Music in London who traveled to the city of Santa Cruz this April to conduct at a festival of baroque music held once each two years at the former Jesuit missions.
Of course, since it is the New York Times, ideological points have to be made:
Mr. Solomon recalled years ago giving a concert in San Javier, west of Concepción and the site of a sprawling white-and-black Jesuit mission whose wood facade overlooks the main square.
When his group, Florilegium, began to play an 18th-century flute concerto, “Pastoreta Ychepe Flauta,” he was amazed, he said, to hear members of the audience, townspeople who knew the piece, humming the music too.
“We could play Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ in London and no one would be singing along,” Mr. Solomon said. “But in Bolivia people took the music for their own — and got to the core essence of what music is about.”
You see what they did there? The Bolivians are better because they have this mystical connection to the core essence of the music, unlike the imperialist, oppressor audiences in London.

* * *

John Luther Adams is undoubtedly America's most geographic composer and the LA Times has the story: Becoming John Luther Adams: The evolution of one of America's hottest composers.
A month ago, the Seattle Symphony premiered a sequel, "Become Desert," which was international news. A week later, the orchestra brought the work to Berkeley, where I heard it, for the California premiere.
Compared to "Become Ocean," "Become Desert" is a study in stupefying stillness. High string harmonics reminded me of the relentless sun. In real life, Adams is often seen wearing a hat. But in this music, there is no protection from aural ultraviolet light. Rustling sounds are like insects or plucked cactus or shifting sand. After a long while, you begin to lose a sense of reality, the shimmer stimulating aural mirages.
There is something about the immense geography of North America, much of it devoid of the signs of human life, that inspires composers. One thinks of the year Elliot Carter spent in the Sonoran desert composing his first string quartet.

* * *

The Violin Channel has dug up a performance, by the Istanbul State Symphony conducted by Efdal Altun, that may herald the future of classical music performance if we take the advice of all those marketing experts:

* * *

And finally, to clear the palate, let's have a more traditional kind of performance, without selfies. How about that String Quartet No. 1 by Elliot Carter? The performers are the Julliard String Quartet:

Monday, May 7, 2018

Great Symphony, Great Conductor

Still not a lot of time for blogging, but I'm sure things will improve in the near future. In the meantime, I am still reading Sviatoslav Richter's notebooks in which he comments on just about every concert he attended. On Jan. 27, 1972 he heard the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in Moscow conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky. He conducted the orchestra from 1938 until his death in 1988. Since then they have been conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, but now they are known as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (I saw them in concert last May).

The first work on the program was the Symphony No. 6 by Shostakovich:

I don't know how Shostakovich manages to grip the listener so strongly from the first note. One of those many mysteries of music...

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Wonderful Bach Cantata

Today has been productive, but not as far as blogging goes! I've been tinkering with a couple of pieces and reading some sections of the user manual for my music software. It is such a complex program that there is always stuff to learn. I've also been reading Sviatoslav Richter's memoirs and he reminds me of this absolutely magnificent cantata by Bach, the Cantata BWV 51,  "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen," here performed by Lenneke Ruiten, Soprano; Javier Simó, Trumpet; Anka Smeu, Violin; Grigori Nedobora, Violin and the Real Filharmonia de Galicia conducted by Helmuth Rilling. What a fine job this soprano (and trumpet player as well) does!

Just the thing to listen to on Sunday.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Soporific to Stimulating Spectrum

This post was inspired by listening to two very different performances: the Buchberger Quartet ripping their way through some Haydn opus 54 and Beyoncé's "Sandcastles." The stereotype is that classical music is all smooth and boring while pop music is energetic and stimulating. But, y'know, that is often not the case. Here, for example are the Buchberger Quartet with the first movement of op. 54, no. 1:

That is dynamic, effervescent, punchy and unrestrained. Now let's listen to Beyoncé:

For some reason, Blogger refuses to embed either clip, so just follow the links. Here are my impressions of the Beyoncé song: first of all, I find the pompous, pretentious introduction to be so off-putting that it took a real effort to even listen to the subsequent song. Ok, so she and Jay-Z had a little stumble in their relationship, why does it need to be puffed up to something like the Clash of the Titans or the Misbehaviour of the Demigods? Honestly, who cares? Especially when it seems to have inspired nothing more than an entirely derivative pseudo-spiritual. This is maudlin, emotionally deadening drivel. Please god, let's hear some more aesthetically and emotionally authentic Haydn! Here is the Buchberger Quartet with the last movement from the same quartet:

Now, of course my examples are chosen to prove a point and there are a host of counter-examples. Sad to say there are lots of smooth soporific performances of classical music (though likely less than you might think) and there are lots of driving, dynamic pop performances. Among those, The English Beat are a personal favorite:

There are even some Beyoncé performances that were pretty dynamic before she fell into the black hole of her own ego:

But I think it is safe to say that, on the whole, you are going to find a lot more aesthetically pleasing performances by listening to a bad-ass string quartet like the Buchberger Quartet than to most pop music. Just a personal opinion, of course. Your milage may vary. Here is one more Haydn performance by the Buchbergers. This is the first movement of op. 54, no. 2:

Oh, and you can also congratulate yourself on not listening to what everyone else is listening to: this last clip had only thirteen views when I accessed it!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

I have to keep reminding myself that the Friday Miscellanea should mostly be a collection of the wild, weird and amusing and not get too, y'know, serious. So here is something for ya: Piper Blush, a new YouTube star from Montreal, uh-huh. Here she is talking about a new iPhone X feature that doesn't quite seem to work so she tries to cover that up with some little fragments lifted from a Jimi Hendrix recording of Voodoo Child. Uh-huh. Mind you, no-one seems to notice because they are mostly watching her, uh, costume. Uh-huh. But she has got the post-modern weirdness really down. Uh-huh.

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The Guardian has a review of a new album of ambient music by Brian Eno. I have to confess that I have never really been attracted to this kind of thing. It always reminds me of the soporific music that one used to hear in new age bookstores accompanied with floating wisps of smoke from sandalwood incense.... Whoa, started to drift off there! Anyway, here is an example from the album, Kazakhstan, composed for an art exhibition there.

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Slipped Disc has a post with a clip of Christiane Amanpour interviewing Gustavo Dudamel. Interviews with him, due to the crisis in Venezuela, can be a bit awkward. How do you manage to completely avoid any criticism of the regime and, of course, most important, how do you manage to also avoid the use of the word "socialism?" Well, they seem to have that part down.

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Orchestral earnings in the dark: but now revealed by Norman Lebrecht. This is rather dispiriting, isn't it?
Now a reports from a tutti player in the famed Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam, living not much above the minimum wage:
I have been a member (tutti) for about twenty years. Before tax monthly income is €5.040 (US $6,000) and this is the maximum. Of this, I give about 55% to the taxation office. Extras are €1.000/year (before tax) for recordings and radio/tv things, 8% ‘holiday money’ (of course that is taxed as well), per diem when on tour plus a small compensation. Without a family, you will not starve, of course, but we do have to compromise on what food we buy with a wife and children to feed, too. Amsterdam is also not cheap (new colleagues struggle to find an affordable place where they can live, and preferably practise), I feel that I am paying a big monetary price for the honour of playing in this famous orchestra, and if another band wants to appoint me that will reward me with better conditions (money isn’t everything, but it helps to convince that lesser acoustics, possibly different conductors and what not might be worth the move), I will definitely consider it.
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Here is another article on the subject from the BBC: Nearly half of the UK's classical musicians don't earn enough to live on, says the Musicians' Union.
Forty-four per cent of players told the MU they struggled to make ends meet.
And two-thirds of veteran musicians - who'd been playing for more than 30 years - said they'd considered alternative careers.
"Wages are increasingly depressed," said Michael Kidd, who plays French horn with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
"If it continues in that direction, it's not going to remain a viable career option."
The 29-year-old, who played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, receiving a piece of wedding cake from Prince Charles as a thank you gift, told the BBC that many musicians were also saddled with debt.
"A lot of the string players are basically having to take out a mortgage to buy an instrument on top of a not very good salary," he said.
A couple of friends of mine, long-time classical musicians, have remarked to me that what used to be a pretty good middle-class job seems to be slowly sliding down the economic spectrum. There used to be some compensation in the social prestige that came with being a highly respected classical musician. But that is fading as well.

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The Quince Ensemble, an all-women vocal group specializing in contemporary music, has a new album coming out that sounds pretty interesting.
...the vocal quartet’s third studio set explores four vibrant contemporary works. It takes critical aim through its anchoring piece, the a capella oratorio “Prisoner of Conscience” by Jennifer Jolley, with texts by Kendall A. It draws from protest art collective Pussy Riot’s trial and imprisonment for demonstrating against Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012. Square at the intersection of power, people and sexual violence — as well as three women’s courage in the face of it all — the content suits Quince quite well.
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VAN Magazine has an extended piece On Music and Activism:
Musical activism reached its zenith in the wake of the political turbulence of the 1960s and ‘70s. From Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” the cold war era was a time when people, even faced with the prospect of global annihilation, still believed in the power of music to promote peace and equality. And while change did come to some extent, namely in the form of the civil rights movement, the end of the cold war only brought a tenuous reluctance toward global conflict predicated on the less-than-peaceful doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Nevertheless, the idea that music can influence politics continues to be a popular talking point for artists, writers, and musicologists alike. It’s long been a cliché to see “Ode to Joy” rolled out by governments of varying democratic integrity as an anthem of political unity, within a wider tendency to see classical music as a unifying force; Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which, despite fairly unanimous praise in the West, has been criticized in the East for its perpetuation of an ideal of universal peace grounded within a distinctly Western cultural tradition. Can music alone ever be a successful mode of political activism?
That has the usual weird distortions that these kinds of articles always seem to fall into. First of all, the fundamental assumptions are always that all forms of political "activism" coming from the left are inherently good and that the function of art and music is simply to promote them to the general population. There is little difference between this and the tenets of "socialist realism" as it was practiced in the Soviet Union. Second, it is more likely the case that it is politics influencing music, not the other way around, as witnessed by the never-ending series of works by John Luther Adams and others that are essentially propaganda pieces for the climate change doctrine. Art that seeks to win popularity by adhering to the latest political fashions is definitionally bad art.

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From the Violin Channel we discover that there is a Mozart concerto performance by the great Russian violinist Leonid Kogan newly-uploaded to YouTube. Here are the second and third movements of the Violin Concerto No. 5 with Lev Markiz conducting the Moscow Chamber Orchestra:

My dear departed friend Paul Kling once mentioned to me that nearly every great violinist of the 20th century was either a Russian Jew from the Caucasus--or studied with one!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

21st Century Smiles

When I was visiting relatives in Virginia recently I noticed a photo portrait displayed in the kitchen of a young woman dressed in college graduation garb. My sister mentioned she was the daughter of a friend who had recently graduated from Harvard Law. For some reason the portrait bothered me and I finally figured out why. She was giving the obligatory smile, but the more you looked at it, the more you realized it was not actually a smile. The facial expression was actually saying something like: "yes, I graduated from Harvard Law--and you didn't. This makes me more important than you are." Sorry, I really wish I had a copy of that photo for illustration. But there are other similar ones out there. Take this photo that appeared in recent coverage of the White House Correspondents' Dinner:

Michelle Wolf gave a comic presentation at the dinner that was widely criticized for being excessively harsh. But never mind that, look at her "smile." This is another one of those smiles that is really not a smile, but rather a sneer or grimace projecting superiority. The eyes aren't smiling and merely exposing ones's teeth does not necessarily indicate the pleasure and sociability we associate with smiling. Here is another smile that seems less than genuine:

This guy looks like his smile has possessed him without him having much say in the matter:

Here is another example of the obligatory and not very authentic smile:

I think the modern expression that we seem required to turn on whenever we are photographed--which is pretty often these days--is less and less an expression of sociability and more and more an act of personal promotion in a dominance hierarchy. In other words, we smile to market ourselves and to project our self-image--often one of superiority.

If you look at older photos, ones from the 19th century, for example, you will notice that almost no-one is smiling in them.

I suppose one reason this interested me was because, like many Canadians, I have a furtive, slightly insecure smile!

A lot of musicians adopt a serious demeanor for their portraits:

Or only offer a half-hearted smile:

But some offer a semi-smile that is really not a smile, but an assertion of superiority:

Nothing against Yuja, there are just a lot of photos of her out there! Here is another example, a photo of Khatia Buniatishvili, sort of smiling:

Of course what a publicity photo of a musician is often trying to project is not dominance, but rather "interiority" or expressive weight or something.

That last photo is of pianist Igor Levit.

Gibson in Bankruptcy

The sad news yesterday was the announcement that Gibson Brands was filing for bankruptcy.
Gibson, which makes its Gibson-brand guitars in Tennessee and Montana, employs about 875 people on the instrument side of the business.
The company is particularly dominant in the market for high-end guitars, with market share of more than 40% of electric guitars priced more than $2,000. Gibson also makes instruments under a number of brand names including Dobro, Epiphone, Kramer and Tobias. The company also owns such brands as Slingerland drums and Wurlitzer pianos.
But it hasn’t been enough to overcome the debt the company took on to finance acquisitions of home-entertainment and audio-equipment makers years ago. Among businesses the company has added are some of Royal Philips’s home-entertainment systems, TEAC home audio electronics and Onkyo stereos.
Under a restructuring pact filed with Gibson’s chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, a group of bondholders—among them funds managed by KKR & Co., Silver Point Capital LP and Melody Capital Partners LP—will take control of Gibson’s musical-instrument business.
Follow the link above to the Wall Street Journal article that has a photo gallery of famous musicians who played Gibson guitars. Such as B. B. King:

I guess that the news isn't so bad. The people that acquired the company in 1986 made a lot of business missteps including with guitar design and those mistakes are coming back to haunt them. The new owners, a shadowy investment firm, will hopefully put the company back on course again. And yes, you will still be able to buy Gibson guitars. Way back when I played electric guitar, I owned an old Les Paul model from the 1950s. Never should have sold it!

Let's listen to B. B. King showing us how it's done on his Gibson named "Lucille":