Monday, July 30, 2018

Top Ten Transcriptions for Classical Guitar

This is the last of my three posts that are meant to refine my original post on the Top Ten Pieces for Classical Guitar. That one remains the most popular post at the Music Salon. So I decided to fine-tune it a bit by focusing on three types of repertoire: larger pieces over fifteen minutes, shorter pieces up to eight minutes in length and transcriptions. That does leave out those pieces between eight and fifteen minutes in length which include some excellent pieces like Ponce's Sonatina meridional and Rodrigo's Invocation and Dance, so maybe in the future I will do a post on medium length pieces. But today we are going to look at transcriptions.

Transcriptions play a very important role in the repertoire for classical guitar because, as an instrument, the guitar has some awkward gaps in its historical repertoire. In very broad strokes, music for instrumental soloists and ensembles didn't really become important until early in the 16th century. Publishers like Ottaviano Petrucci were among the first to issue sheet music from movable type. Before then, music was disseminated through manuscript copies. From Wikipedia:
A total of 61 music publications by Petrucci are known. By far the most fruitful period of his life for publishing music was the period between 1501 and 1509, during which he published the three volumes of chansons (the Odhecaton being the first), 16 books of masses, five books of motets, 11 anthologies of frottole and six books of music for lute.
You can see that, after vocal music, the most important genre was music for lute, the premiere domestic instrument. The music for lute usually comprised either transcriptions of vocal polyphony or pieces in that style, or instrumental dances. One early exception were the sets of variations we find in the books for vihuela, the Spanish cousin to the lute. The lute dominated solo instrumental music until the harpsichord took over in the later 17th century. The five-course Baroque guitar enjoyed a flurry of interest in the late 17th and early 18th century, but the writing was on the wall: from then on keyboard instruments were completely dominant. The late 18th century composers of music for guitar like Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani were completely overshadowed by keyboard composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The guitar hung on by a thread in the 19th century, but by the end it was relegated to mere local color in the music of Francisco Tárrega. I don't mean to slight his fine compositions, but they are not even close to being in the same league as the great 19th century keyboard composers such as Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt or Robert Schumann. Largely through the efforts of players like Agustín Barrios, Miguel Llobet and Andrés Segovia, the guitar enjoyed a renaissance in the 20th century that saw outstanding compositions from the pen of composers such as Benjamin Britten, Eliot Carter, Steve Reich and many, many others.

But artists like Segovia, in their quest to put the guitar back on the concert stage, encountered some real problems with the repertoire. Apart from a scattering of works by Sor, Giuliani and Tárrega, the only repertoire was being created from scratch by composers like Moreno-Torroba and Ponce who were working directly with Segovia. So he started investigating how the repertoire could be substantially augmented through transcription. The implication of the term "transcription" as opposed to "arrangement" is that the transcription is a version faithful to the original and one that can stand in for the original in a concert performance. An arrangement is often a considerably altered version suitable for particular circumstances.

The big holes in the guitar repertoire were in the Baroque and Romantic eras, so that is where Segovia concentrated. He found excellent potential in the music of the Spanish nationalist composers like Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados whose piano music so evokes that guitar that, if you can manage to fit the notes on the instrument, it sounds entirely natural. These transcriptions have been so successful that pieces like Asturias (Leyenda) by Albéniz are probably played on guitar more often than they are on piano. Another composer who saw his music transcribed for guitar was Chopin, though the effort was not as successful (there is an excellent version of one of the nocturnes by Tárrega). Liszt was not feasible, though a few of the shorter pieces by Schumann have appeared.

The big prize, as far as Segovia was concerned, was Bach. If he could only find some music by J. S. Bach that could be added to the guitar repertoire that would go a long way to proving the instrument's suitability as a major solo instrument. It was here that he really struck gold. One of his most inspired ideas was to transcribe the enormous Chaconne that forms the last movement of the Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin. This, and the other suites for solo violin, are so contrapuntally rich that they are ideal for performance on guitar. Indeed, except for a few added bass notes, Segovia had no work to do in transferring the Chaconne to guitar. It was and is a huge part of the repertoire. Other pieces that proved successful were the Siciliana from the Sonata No. 1 and all of the Partita No. 3 in E major, which Bach himself did a version of for Baroque lute with added basses.

Bach was important because he was the only one of the truly major composers that could easily be included in the guitar repertoire. Transcriptions were attempted of pieces by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but none of them proved very successful. The only other Baroque keyboard composer who has seen a lot of performance on guitar is Domenico Scarlatti whose 555 sonatas for harpsichord were many of them inspired by guitar timbres and textures. Perhaps ten or twelve of them are often heard in guitar concerts.

Another area that is very suitable for transcription is the enormous quantities of music for lute and vihuela, most of which transfers over to guitar with one minor change in tuning. You can even play directly from the original tablature if you want. (Until the 18th century, all music for lute and vihuela was published in tablature.) This is not true of the music for Baroque lute, which uses a different tuning entirely.

In recent years the growth of the Early Music movement and the subsequent appearance of many performers on the lute and vihuela has meant that we are losing a lot of this repertoire back to the original instruments.

Now for the list:

1. Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor by J. S. Bach. Originally for solo violin. There are innumerable recordings on guitar but the version by Segovia remains a benchmark:

2. Fugue (and Siciliana) from the Sonata No. 1 by J. S. Bach. Originally for solo violin. Ana Vidovic has a quite brisk performance of the fugue:

3. Partita No. 3 in E major (in the version for lute) by J. S. Bach. Originally for solo violin. The guitarist who really put this piece on the map for guitarists was John Williams whose integral version of the lute suites (this is the Lute Suite No. 4) was a revelation. This is the prelude:

4. Suite in D major by J. S. Bach. Originally for solo cello. I called this the "Suite in D major," but it is often referred to just as the "First Cello Suite" because that's what it is! It is usually played in D major due to an early transcription by John Duarte (that Williams recorded). When I played it for José Tomas in Spain when I was studying with him he picked up his eight-string guitar, dug out the cello music and sight read through the prelude. He suggested doing it in A major instead of D to keep it close to the original G major key. Then you wouldn't be tempted to add gratuitous bass notes. Decades later I got around to it and have recorded the whole suite in A major. I think it works quite well. Here is the prelude:

5. Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti: K. 322 and 208. Originally for harpsichord. Out of a host of possibilities I pick these two which are especially popular. Here is Scott Tennant with K. 322:

And here is Leo Brouwer with K. 208:

6. Asturias (Leyenda) by Isaac Albéniz. Originally for solo piano. Again, simply everyone has recorded this piece, which sounds absolutely natural on guitar. Everyone includes me, so here is my version:

7. Granada by Isaac Albéniz. Both this and the previous piece are from his Suite Espagnola and Manuel Barrueco showed everyone how they should be played on an album devoted to Albéniz and Granados. Here is his performance. Blogger can't seem to find it, so follow the link:

8. Valses Poéticos by Enrique Granados. It was John Williams that put this piece on the map for guitarists. Other pieces often played on guitar include Granados' Danzas Españolas. Here is Williams with the Valses Poéticos. He did two transcriptions, the first one of just some of the walzes, the second with all. This is the second version. Again, follow the link.

9. Estudio Brillante by Alard (transcribed/arranged by Tárrega). This is a bit of a surprising choice because it is not a piece played a lot, but I think it is a very successful transcription (or arrangement, I have never seen the original) by Tárrega of a piece originally for violin by Alard. Christopher Parkening does an excellent performance:

10. Suite Española by Gaspar Sanz arranged for guitar by Narciso Yepes. This is standing in for a host of transcriptions of music for Baroque guitar. Here is the last movement, Canarios, played by Yepes:

Of course I could have made a lot of different choices. For one thing, I completely missed out all the Renaissance lute music, but you can play that on guitar without actually doing any transcribing! Just tune your third string to F#.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Few Musings

Just a few musings this morning as I want to write something, but can't quite decide what. I am coming to the end of my odyssey through the Haydn Edition. Better than halfway through the piano music which are the last group of CDs in the box. The piano sonatas were one of the main reasons to buy the box as I don't know them very well, but every time I hear one I am impressed. The ones written before 1766 are fairly light, just entertainment. But a lot of the later ones are really interesting with a lot of unexpected dramatic gestures. I find them a bit more interesting than those interminable sets of variations we find occupying so much space in the Mozart piano oeuvre. Mind you, I am still in the sonatas; the last couple of discs are variations. One nice thing about the Haydn box is that they offer all the piano sonatas in performances on fortepianos, some copies and some originals. The performers include Bart van Oort, Ursula Dütschler, Stanley Hoogland, Yoshiko Kojima, and Riko Fukuda. The pianos include an original Broadwood from 1794.

Here is Stanley Hoogland with the first movement of the Piano Sonata in E-Flat Major, Hob. XVI:52 and yes, this is on that 1794 Broadwood. Presumably with new strings! Blogger won't embed so follow the link:

This is a rare find: when I accessed it this clip had one (1) view!! I quite like the sound of these old fortepianos.

Our chamber music festival starts next week and the programming is a bit better than in recent years as I notice that there are a few late Beethoven and Shostakovich quartets appearing. I will pretty much go to any string quartet concert with Shostakovich as there are a lot of the quartets that I have not yet heard in concert. Yes, I'm afraid that my very favorite string quartet composer is Shostakovich, just beating out Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. I think that Robert Schumann is among my least favorite string quartet composers so there are couple of concerts I am avoiding for that reason. Schumann is a very interesting composer, one of the ones that really shaped romanticism in music. But his strengths are in the songs and the early piano pieces, not in the string quartets and symphonies which I find very tiresome. Just an opinion.

I'm re-learning the early piece by Leo Brouwer written as a homage to Stravinsky: the Elogio de la Danza. I really love this piece as it has the originality (in the way it adapts some Stravinskian language to the guitar in brilliantly idiomatic fashion) and concision that so much of his later music lacks. I have to say that I think that this piece and the Espiral Eterna are really his best pieces and they were both written in the 60s. Since then he has written great stacks of music for solo guitar and guitar with orchestra, some of it good, like the Decameron negro, but a lot of it just going over and over the same ground. We have more than enough "Cuban Landscapes" thanks very much! (I noticed in the score the other day that there are some pencil marks that I think were put there by Leo himself as I played the piece for him in a masterclass in the 1970s!)

A master-class with Leo Brouwer in the 1970s in Toronto (that's me in those horrible plaid pants!)

I put up Elogio the other day, so here is a performance of La Espiral Eterna, a wonderfully unique piece inspired by both tape loops and Ligeti. The performance is by the composer.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Unfortunately I did not get to the Salzburg festival this summer--maybe next year! Here is an article from the New York Times about a new production at the festival of the early Rossini opera L’Italiana in Algeri that rethinks things in terms of the "MeToo" era:
“The piece at its core, in a certain way, is a very Western take on Islamic culture, and normally Mustafa is portrayed as just stupid and ugly and the Italians are clever and very heroic,” Mr. Leiser said. “That was something I was not interested in at all. We had to find another story line to keep the genius of Rossini and the music and the libretto, and keep it as a real comedy, because it’s important to laugh. But comedy is serious business, and you must know what you are laughing about.”
Rather than altering the libretto, which Mr. Leiser said would be “cheating,” he engaged in many long conversations with Ms. Bartoli and Mr. Caurier to shift the interpretation. They decided to change Mustafa’s status from an Ottoman bey to a kind of local gangster who smuggles electronics at the port of modern-day Algiers, because they “felt that his behavior shouldn’t be generalized as Muslim behavior.”
That seems to me to be a reasonable approach.

* * *

I hope you can get past the Wall Street Journal paywall on this one (try googling the headline: On-hold Music Dividing the Nation) because then you get to not only read the article about some music that CVS Health has been using for two decades to entertain people on hold on the phone, but also hear the music in a clip. Down here I'm used to either a little minuet from the Ana Magdalena Bach book or Scott Joplin.
One of the most polarizing pieces of music in America isn’t being performed at any of the nation’s concert halls. Anyone can hear it by calling CVS.
The on-hold tune drives Harvard psychiatrist Steven Schlozman out of his mind. “What they’re playing is supposed to soothe you, but after the three-billionth time it’s particularly unsoothing,” Dr. Schlozman said. Adding up a career’s worth of pharmacy calls, he estimates he has spent nearly 600 hours listening to the same song.
I'm sure part of the "charm" is the horrible quality of the recording. Go have a listen. Actually, the most interesting part of the article is the tracking down of the source of the music.

* * *

 This musician couldn't even get her instrument on the train! First class! Slipped Disc has the story. I'm wondering if we keep hearing more and more stories like this simply because the Internet enables them to be transmitted easily or if the basic courtesies that used to be granted to musicians have been completely wiped out by rigid corporate policies. What do you think?

* * *

While we are over at Slipped Disc, let's have a look at this item on the ever-perennial question of the musical value of hip-hop. A piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education is quoted:
Nitasha Tamar Sharma, an associate professor at Northwestern University, teaches a class and has published a book focusing on the racial and gender politics of hip-hop culture. The course traces the foundations of hip-hop, from its 1970s beginnings in the South Bronx, and explores its influence in politics, race relations, gender and sexuality issues, and other aspects of American culture.
But the fun really starts in the comments:
Nobody is denying that hip-hop is culturally significant. As such it merits study — I have acknowledged this in yesterday’s Professor Benjamin discussion.
The mystery is its claims to musical credibility. Whatever importance rap has is in its lyrics, its messages (which are far from universally salutory) and its general attempt to self-define certain communities — usually those with grievances, but also those prepared to develop through violence, sexism and other unlovely aspects. These are slices of life, and as such warrant some attention. Some of the grievances are well-warranted. Other things do happen.
But music? Not. I know people who swear by this genre, and their ears are incapable of discerning anything musical in any other. If they wanted to call it poetry (which I daresay upon scrutiny would be pretty bad poetry) it would be on stronger legs. But it is a “music” by and for the unmusical, and it is draining the possibility of any other music out of society as the ears that listen to it hear the same thing, aside from the words, for years on end.
Definitely something worth studying. How the hell has this managed to become a dominant force in what is broadly referred to as the popular music world?
I have been thinking about this myself a bit since I got interested in Kanye West. I think that while the traditional musical elements of melody and harmony get short shrift in hip-hop, other elements like timbre, texture, layered rhythms and micro-tonal inflections in the voice are more prominent. These are harder to analyze with traditional tools. Do they make up for the impoverished melody and harmony? For a lot of people they seem to. Tell me what you think.

* * *

But hey, that was nothing. The comments on this other item, how Prof. Gerald Benjamin got slapped down for saying that rap isn't real music, ran on and on and on. Some commentators say rap is not "real" music, others say, of course it is.

* * *

This item, about analyzing the plot structure and emotional arcs of movies to determine which is the most successful formula, resembles attempts to rationalize how to write a popular song. With equal unlikelihood of success in my estimation. Whenever I read one of these articles it just reminds me that the devil is always in the details. It always comes down to exactly how you realize the basic idea. Basic ideas are common to many works, but the really successful movies and songs are few indeed. They are few because they are unique, not because they share a common formula.

* * *

The Washington Post has a couple of items worth looking at. The first is how critic Anne Midgette came to dislike Leonard Bernstein:
It’s all very well to say that one should separate the man from the music, but in Bernstein’s case, the two are particularly intertwined. The excesses of the man are plainly audible in music that, brilliant as some of it is, is constantly trying to get your attention, prove something about itself, make some kind of statement. There’s no doubt that Bernstein was a smart man and a born musician, but he needed an editor even in his “West Side Story” days — when, according to something he told the conductor John DeMain before the 25th-anniversary production, Jerome Robbins kept him from having the entire dance in the gym and the final scene be entirely sung. “Lenny gave Robbins credit for having shaped it into the great piece that it is,” DeMain said in a telephone interview in the fall. In Bernstein’s later years, he was too great and too self-involved to be edited.
The second piece is a very serious one about sexual harassment in the classical music business. It is even more widespread than was realized:
Onstage, classical music is larger than life. But the preparation behind the scenes takes place in more intimate environments than most workplaces: dressing rooms, rehearsal studios or windowless practice rooms in hours of one-on-one instruction. And in a field that venerates authority and embraces the widespread fallacy that great artists live outside the mores of society, these conditions can create fertile ground for harassment.
It is hard to excerpt the piece, which is quite long, because it consists of detailed accusations of quite a number of powerful, established musicians, agents, conductors and concertmasters. However serious the accusations, in this atmosphere, I'm not sure "innocent until proven guilty" still applies.

* * *

The Tablet has a fascinating article about a forgotten archive of Ukrainian Jewish music in a library in Kiev:
I set out to visit the library to learn more about its musical archive—a huge set of Jewish vocal and instrumental recordings from the early decades of the 20th century. It is mind-boggling that long before any serious recording technology was invented, without much funding or publicity, groups of ambitious scholars set out on ethnographic expeditions into the heartland of the Ukrainian shtetl world, aiming to capture the community’s folklore, and amassed a treasure trove of material. In recent years, these fragile, virtually unknown recordings were digitized and released in CD format. There are currently nine volumes of music out, with the three latest volumes released just within the past year. These most recent discs included the 1930s recordings of “Jewish Agricultural Colonies of the Southern Ukraine” and, oddly, a 1913 collection of fieldwork conducted in the Jewish communities of Palestine.
* * *

For our envoi today, let's listen to some Leonard Bernstein. He was a very great conductor and music educator, but his compositions are not on the same level. This is his Serenade for violin and orchestra inspired by Plato's Symposium. The performers are Svetlin Roussev, violin and Myung-Whun Chung, conductor with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Top Ten Shorter Pieces for Classical Guitar

Continuing my project to create lists of guitar repertoire that refine my original top ten list, today I offer a list of shorter pieces. This follows my list of larger pieces. What I am looking for are pieces written for classical guitar up to around eight minutes in length of outstanding quality. I won't be including obvious pot-boilers, no matter how popular (the Spanish Romance, for example), because, while undoubtedly possessing charm and attractiveness to listeners, they just don't reward repeated hearings. Of course the people that hear them the most often are the performers! So I am aiming for pieces that reward both audiences and performers. I am also avoiding transcriptions which will appear in another list. So, shorter pieces for guitar of high quality, but in no particular order. (I wasn't able to resist making some brief comments on the performances.)

1. Serenade (1960) by Sofia Gubaidulina. I have been playing through this piece for a few months now and it continues to fascinate. Written when she was only twenty-nine, it still shows a remarkable originality.

(A brisk and muscular performance, she seems to have missed the change on page one to a slower tempo.)

2. Nocturno by Federico Moreno-Torroba. While performed quite often, I still think this piece does not receive as much recognition as it warrants. A simply lovely and lyrical meditation with intriguing harmonic gestures and a surprising whole-tone scale, this piece is both idiomatic for guitar and original in its organization.

(Like pretty well everyone, Williams plays this a bit too fast. It's a nocturnal! Not as fast and sloppy as Segovia, mind you...)

3. Fandanguillo by Federico Moreno-Torroba. There are just a bunch of excellent short pieces by Torroba who rather specialized in this kind of thing. This is the first movement of the Suite castellana and the second and even third movements could also qualify. The whole suite is not long enough to qualify as a large piece, so I'm picking out just this movement.

(I really think Pepe has the best version of the piece. He takes the time to enjoy it. In this clip he plays all three movements.)

4. Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega. This is one of the great idiomatic pieces for guitar. Everyone would be playing it if only it weren't so difficult! That smooth, liquid tremolo takes years to master. I have avoided putting any of my performances in these lists so far, but I spent a long time working on this piece, with pretty good results. So here you go:

5. Homenaje pour "Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy" by Manuel de Falla. This piece, the only one written for guitar by one of Spain's greatest composers, was composed for inclusion in a special edition of Le Revue Musicale, a tribute to Debussy a couple of years after his death in 1918. It is a unique and original piece, quite idiomatically written, and towards the end it quotes Debussy's piano piece "La soirée dans Grenade."

(Alvaro Pierri, one of the most relaxed performers on guitar, was a student of Abel Carlevaro.)

6. La Catedral by Agustín Barrios. Coming in at just under eight minutes is the three movement piece that for many years was the only piece widely known by Barrios. John Williams uncovered and recorded much more of his music, but for me, this remains the most interesting and original of them.

(Pretty much the definitive performance.)

7. Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, op. 9 by Fernando Sor. I don't have many pieces on this list that are not from the 20th century, but this one deserves a place. A staple of the repertoire for many years, performances vary between seven and nine minutes so I think it just makes the cut. Some play the slow introduction and some do not. Ana Vidovic's is one of the more leisurely versions.

(This piece is much harder than it sounds as you have to play a lot of tricky passages but make them sound light and effortless! She does a pretty good job.)

8. Chaconne by Robert de Visée. This is standing in for a host of great pieces for guitar from the late 17th and early 18th century by French and Italian masters. This was the first great "renaissance" of the guitar and, sadly, not very well known. This is a performance on modern guitar done with real sensitivity to Baroque style.

9. Fandango by Joaquin Rodrigo. A great virtuoso showpiece that is at the same time a brilliant synthesis of traditional harmonic elements of flamenco music combined with the influence of Stravinsky. I have chosen the very fine version by fellow Canadian Jérôme Ducharme.

10. Elogio de la Danza by Leo Brouwer. Speaking of Stravinsky, an even more evocative homage to Stravinsky's ballets russe is found in this early piece by Brouwer. Influenced by both Stravinsky and Bartók, this piece is superbly idiomatic, making brilliant use of the guitar's resources of timbre.

(I chose this version, out of a host of possibilities, by the Czech guitarist Vladimir Mikulka, largely because he is not as well known as he should be. Very precise player.)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Alphorn Festival

I recently suggested that Switzerland is an unmusical country and, surprisingly, did not receive a host of angry comments! However, in all fairness, I just noticed a characteristically Swiss music festival and thought I would bring it to your attention. Actually, the festival just came to a close yesterday, so too late to attend this year. The publicity describes it as:
The Valais Drink Pure Alphorn International Festival of Nendaz is a musicians meeting place, an official competition, a grand traditional procession, concerts, performances by folk groups, traditional dances and ‘morceaux d’ensemble’ (with over 150 players). In brief : a true festival devoted to tradition and folklore.
Here is the link.

What is an alphorn you ask? Here is what they look like:

Click to enlarge

And here is a piece written for last year's festival:

Click to enlarge

Let's have a listen. Here is a clip from the 2011 festival:

I wonder what an ensemble of alphorns and didgeridoos would sound like?

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tips for Concerto Players

This blog certainly does not lean towards populism, despite the occasional post on Kanye West, but this post is aimed at an even smaller readership than normal! I like to pass on whatever little nuggets of wisdom I have accumulated in fifty years of being a musician. Some of them are of wide application, but others are not. Tips for concerto players are in the latter category. How many guitarists play concertos with orchestra in an average year? We can get a very rough idea from looking at how many performances of the Concierto de Aranjuez are scheduled. Here is a helpful website. What would be your guess? I was ready to say around one hundred, but after looking at the Rodrigo website, it looks like it might be around two hundred! Every small orchestra in the known world seems to have scheduled a performance. I would really like to know the names of the guitarists, but that is not shown on the Rodrigo website.

So if there are around two hundred performances of the most-played guitar concerto annually, then one might guess that the total number of guitar concerto performances would be no more than three or four hundred as I suspect that all the other concerto performances put together would not exceed the number of performances of the Aranjuez, the archetypal guitar concerto. Who is playing all these concerts? Not my new favorite, Marcin Dylla, who only has fourteen concerts listed on his website for the year, none of them with orchestra. Pepe Romero is getting on in years, but still does a respectable number of concerto performances. His website lists what look to be three or four concerto engagements this year. Ana Vidovic lists five concerto performances, three of the Aranjuez, on her website. Manuel Barrueco's healthy concert schedule includes six concerto performances, all of the Aranjuez! Eliot Fisk's website lists just one Aranjuez performance, in Massachusetts, but I see it was in October of 2017.

So how many guitarists are there in the world out there on the concerto circuit? Not very damn many! But what the heck, I'm going to do a post of advice for prospective concerto players anyway, directed to all those guitarists who would like to be out there playing concertos.

Playing as a soloist with orchestral accompaniment is really the zenith of one's career as a classical musician. The challenges, technical, musical and even logistical, are formidable. But so are the rewards, not least because the fee for a concerto performance is the largest you are likely to receive. What are my particular credentials in this area? I have actually played quite a few concertos, not always with a large orchestra as some are better suited to a small orchestra and a couple were with just piano accompaniment, but still in a public concert. Here are the ones I recall:

  • Karl Kohaut, Concerto for Lute (my transcription)
  • Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in D for Lute
  • Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Concerto in D
  • Joaquin Rodrigo, Fantasia para un Gentilhombre
  • Joaquin Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos, Guitar Concerto
I also learned a couple of others, ones by Manuel Ponce and Leo Brouwer, for example, that I did not get the opportunity to perform. Most of my work was done on my own as you don't learn a lot about concerto playing from teachers who have never played one! But I did spend one summer studying the Aranjuez with Pepe Romero in Salzburg: that was of inestimable value and a lot of what I have to say was learned from him.

When you are playing a concerto you are in reality an ensemble musician and one thing that I learned from Pepe is to rehearse facing the orchestra. They are curious about you and this is an excellent way of establishing a rapport with the musicians. In a lot of concertos, including especially the Aranjuez, there are interchanges with soloists in the orchestra that you can cement by rehearsing facing towards your fellow musicians, rather than away from. I'm thinking of those great staccato passages in the first movement of the Aranjuez that you share with the bassoon and the brilliant passage in thirds in the last movement that are echoed by two muted trumpets. You might share your intention with conductor in case he has an issue with it. On one occasion this practice caused me difficulties in the performance. When we got to the third movement and I was playing the guitar solo that introduces the movement (again, the Aranjuez) I suddenly noticed in the background the conductor furiously conducting all the measures of rest (which alternate between 2/4 and 3/4) for the orchestra. Very distracting! I hadn't noticed it in rehearsal because I was looking at the guitar neck and away from him. But in the concert, facing the audience, he was in the immediate background. So watch out for that!

But the more you make a connection with the conductor and the orchestra, the better. The soloist who just drops in, plays his virtuosic passages, and leaves, is not likely to give the most musical performance. The audience will also enjoy a good interaction between you and the musicians. Of all the guitarists I have seen play concertos, either in person or in video clips, the ones that have the best rapport with the orchestra are Pepe Romero and John Williams. Not too surprising, really.

Your rapport with the conductor is also very important. You should know the orchestral score as well as your own part and be prepared to share ideas with the conductor, if he asks. You can help him out sometimes in passages where the orchestra comes in after a big solo. Pepe suggested to me that after this one big scale in the last movement of the Aranjuez, you should really give the conductor a nod so he will know for sure where the downbeat is going to fall.

Regarding more mundane questions, be sure you know what the dress code for soloists is with each orchestra. Sometimes there is a lot of leeway, others there is not! Be aware.

Now for some more universal advice: practice slowly! I used to be friends with a French horn player who told me that when he was with the Dallas Symphony and Pepe was playing a concerto with them (guess which one) he passed by his dressing room and heard him practicing the first movement with a metronome. At one-quarter tempo! I have heard a very similar story regarding John Williams. These guys have very solid, reliable technique because they maintain it. Practicing at one-quarter speed is certainly not necessary if you are playing the Spanish Romance or other bon-bons. But if you are playing a big challenging concerto I seriously recommend it. When I was studying in Salzburg I went out to this little building in back of the residence that was divided up into several little practice rooms to go over the Aranjuez first movement that I was due to play for Pepe in the morning. On my way in I passed a room where a violinist was practicing. It sounded like he was playing this one brief passage in thirds from the cadenza to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto over and over again. Slowly. So I went on, did my work, which consisted of playing the first movement a few times at quarter tempo. A couple of hours later, when I was on my way out I passed the same studio and guess what, the same student was still playing that same passage...

Virtuosity takes a lot of work.

For our envoi, let's listen to a performance of the Aranjuez with Pepe Romero:

Nobody does the rasgueado better.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Top Ten Large Pieces for Classical Guitar

I am doing this new post, one of at least three I am planning, to refine the project a bit. My four year old post on Top Ten Pieces for Classical Guitar has risen to be the most popular post here, so I thought I might have another go. Of course we all know that the Internet just loves lists and they are often little more than clickbait, still, it is an interesting exercise to perform. I am a big believer in qualitative judgements, but it is all in how you go about them. As in most things musical, I am moved by pragmatic estimates of quality. Actually, the inspiration for this particular list was looking at the clips online of the outstanding Polish guitarist Marcin Dylla. He tends to play exactly the larger pieces that I have long regarded as being the best in the repertoire. And why not? After all, any performing artist, unless they are driven by marketing considerations, is going to always be seeking out the most substantial repertoire to perform. Why waste time on the lesser stuff?

So how do I define "large pieces"? While there are lots of exceptions, the guitar repertoire tends to fall into a few categories, just as the keyboard repertoire does, which makes sense as it is mostly modeled after the keyboard repertoire (since the 18th century, at least). Looking just at pieces that have a total duration of at least fifteen minutes (we could set it lower, but that would make me want to create another category of "medium length pieces" and I don't want to do that right now!), we find that there tend to be four sub-categories: the first is pieces that are more or less sonatas for guitar, modeled after the classical and romantic piano sonata. These pieces usually have three or four movements, but are conceived as a single piece. Then there are sets of variations that have a larger number of shorter sections, but these are all based on the original theme. A third category is the suite: a set of several movements that contrast with one another. The model for that is probably the Baroque suite. The other category is the concerto: a three movement work for guitar and orchestra. That pretty much exhausts the large piece category.

One final note, I am trying to pick the ten best pieces in this category, but I am not claiming to be able to order them within the category. In other words, they are not in order of quality. The thing about outstanding pieces of music is that they tend to be unique, i.e. not comparable to one another.

1. "Variations sur Folia de Espana et Fugue" by Manuel M. Ponce. This is a truly outstanding set of variations, certainly one of the very best in the guitar repertoire. It was written for Andrés Segovia and takes nearly half an hour to perform. There is an excellent recording by John Williams and an excellent recent performance on YouTube by Marcin Dylla. There have even been dissertations written on the piece:

2. Nocturnal, by Benjamin Britten. Speaking of variations, the other great variation piece for guitar was written for Julian Bream and it reverses the usual order by putting the theme, a song by John Dowland, last, preceded by the variations.

3. Sonata "Hommagio a Boccherini" by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. I suppose the inclusion of this piece is a bit of advocacy on my part! It does not seem to be very popular these days. The only clip of the whole piece I could find in YouTube was by a guitarist I had never heard of. Still, I think this is a fine piece and, frankly, there are not a lot of capably-written guitar sonatas!

4. Castillos de España by Federico Moreno Torroba. This is a fine example of the suite. There were originally eight short pieces, each inspired by a different castle in Spain. Later he added another six pieces, but it is often played in the original form. Written for Andrés Segovia. There are good recordings by Segovia and Ana Vidovic among others, but it is hard to find a good recording of the complete suite on YouTube! I originally put up a few separate clips. But then I found the complete Segovia recording. You have to skip ahead to the 18:55 mark for the beginning of Castillos de España:

5. Sonata romántica by Manuel M. Ponce. Yes, Ponce gets another one on the list because he, unlike most guitar composers, wrote a lot of larger pieces. This sonata is modeled after the piano sonatas of Franz Schubert and while certainly not in their class has a great deal of charm. There are outstanding recordings by Segovia and Ana Vidovic among others.

6. Five Preludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos. If anything these pieces are over-played! Together they form a kind of suite, always popular with audiences while posing some interesting technical challenges. There are recordings by almost everyone, but the ones that stick in the memory are those by John Williams and Pepe Romero.

7. El Decameron negro by Leo Brouwer. I was torn between this piece and the Sonata by Ginastera and gravitated towards the Brouwer because it seems to be just a bit more popular among guitarists. I was actually the first person to record the piece! There are outstanding versions by John Williams among others.

8. Rossiniana Op 119, No. 1 by Mauro Giuliani. This is the odd-man out on the list. It is a potpourri, a 19th century genre that was popular at the time, but less-so now. This particular piece is a medley of themes from operas by Rossini, set for guitar by Giuliani. It has become popular as a virtuoso display piece because of a really stunning recording by Julian Bream who brings out its insouciant nature.

9. Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. This is by far the most popular guitar concerto. In fact, it is probably one of the most popular concertos for any instrument written in the 20th century. It has been recorded by absolutely everyone and by the leading artists, such as John Williams and Julian Bream, at least three times! It is fiendishly difficult, but the spectacular melody of the second movement makes it all worth while. Williams did a lovely performance of it in the Proms several years ago.

10. Guitar Concerto by Heitor Villa-Lobos. There could have been lots of other possibilities for this slot as there are many fine guitar concertos other than the Aranjuez. The ones by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Leo Brouwer come to mind as well as the others by Rodrigo. But the Villa-Lobos is a perennial and has a unique quality that sets it apart. There are recordings by Bream and Williams, of course as well as a live one of me playing it with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra buried somewhere deep in the CBC archives.

I might add some runners-up in the future!

UPDATE: I just realized that, with the exception of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Sonata and the Nocturnal by Britten, I have played every one of these pieces in concert! Yes, even the concertos, but I only played the Villa-Lobos on one occasion.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

This August will be the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, composer, conductor and all-round brilliant musician. The Guardian has an article in celebration: 'He was high-brow, low-brow, every-brow!' – the genius of Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein was impossibly brilliant in so many different areas: a genius conductor, composer, author, pianist, thinker, activist, educator and entertainer. But for me, his genius was in connecting the dots between all of these. Everything he read and experienced influenced everything he thought and did. I think he once said that he didn’t know whether he loved music or people more.
He had passion, enthusiasm and intense and boundless curiosity about our world. Bernstein did not think about education and music as being separate entities; for him, they were part of a systemic, organic, whole-person educational approach. He was at the forefront of interdisciplinary learning - both a radical new concept and a harkening back to the Greeks. Education as a whole was important to him: information as food, nutrition, a source of power and, most importantly, possibility.
One of my favorite Bernstein moments is something only he could have pulled off: conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the last movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 88 without actually conducting, except with facial expressions! I think this was an encore and his tribute to the orchestra that he particularly loved was to just stand there while they played without direction.

* * *

For another view, we can go to Slipped Disc where Norman Lebrecht links to his review of a new recording of the Bernstein symphonies:
The third symphony, ‘Kaddish’, written in 1963 in memory of John F. Kennedy, is an embarrassment from start to finish. Josephine Barstow’s restrained narration claws back some of the worst mawkishness, but the text reads like an early script of Fiddler on the Roof and the best of some very bad music is lifted wholesale from West Side Story. There’s a place for us. Not in this place.
Go to the Slipped Disc site for some entertaining comments.

* * *

Daniel Barenboim was forced to stop a concert twice to harangue the audience! Normally one would think that this was both rude and overkill. But in this case, perhaps not.
Daniel Barenboim is having trouble with his Buenos Aires compatriots.
His Brahms concert started at 8.20 because the audience were late to arrive.
They applauded between movements.
Barenboim stopped the music and asked for them to wait before clapping until the sound had died away. He also put in a request for no applause between movements.
The next time he stopped the concert was because people were taking phone pictures.
‘It hurts my eyes,’ he said.
The comments over at Slipped Disc are, again, quite amusing.

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We haven't visited NewMusicBox for a while. They have an article up about women in music: PLAYING LIKE A GIRL: THE PROBLEMS WITH RECEPTION OF WOMEN IN MUSIC.
The year was 1942. In the USA, all-girl orchestras toured extensively, rather like a jazz version of A League of Their Own. Audiences were surprised to find that these girls played “just like men!” As in A League of Their Own, though, when the men returned, women were expected to go back to homemaking or other acceptably female professions. Those women who were leaders found themselves in the background once more. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington play large in the bylines of the Swing Era, but women’s bands such as the Sweethearts, the Melodears, and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “All-Girl Orchestra” disappeared.
Essays like this can be painfully ideological when they set out to "prove" a predestined conclusion, but this one is rather more thoughtful.

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There is another interesting piece in The Guardian, this one about the scandal surrounding the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In the eyes of its members, there is no more important cultural institution in the world than the Swedish Academy. The members, who call themselves The Eighteen (always in capitals), are elected for life by their peers, and meet for a ritual dinner every Thursday evening at a restaurant they own in the heart of the old town in Stockholm. And once a year, at a ceremony brilliant with jewels and formality, the permanent secretary of the academy hands out the Nobel prize in literature and all the world applauds.
But this year there will be no prize and no ceremony. In November 2017, it was revealed in the Swedish press that the husband of one of the academy members had been accused of serial sexual abuse, in assaults alleged to have taken place over more than 20 years. Jean-Claude Arnault, a French photographer and cultural entrepreneur, is married to the poet and academician Katarina Frostenson. In addition to assault accusations against him, the pair are accused of misusing academy funding. Arnault has denied all accusations, and Frostenson has refused to comment.
The academy is paralysed by the scandal, which was followed by a slew of resignations and expulsions. Six of The Eighteen have withdrawn from any part in its deliberations; another two were compelled to do so. The statutes say that 12 members must be present to elect any new ones, so with only 10, no important decisions can be taken and no new members elected. The vacuum has been filled with invective.
Worth a read. One the one hand, art and culture seems to benefit enormously from deep wells of tradition. Just look at J. S. Bach whose brilliant genius rested on a foundation of three hundred years of music traditions in the Bach family. On the other hand, the conservatism of long-established institutions can be used to shelter corruption, incompetence and distasteful attitudes. It's complicated.

* * *

On the more practical side, here is an illuminating article from Dance Magazine on what can happen when an artist without much financial experience receives an unrestricted grant:
"I had no knowledge of how to invest, or deal with the tax implications. I wound up losing a fair amount of money because I didn't know how to properly channel the money so it could accrue interest. I kept it in my savings account and when tax time came around I was really shocked and scared by some letters from the IRS!"
 Every government over time makes the tax structure more and more complex. The reasons are manifold, but there are always incentives to tailor the tax structure to aid activities that either make politicians look good or help out their major donors. Over time you end up with a system of terrifying complexity. The very wealthy handle it with ease because they can hire squads of lawyers and accountants. Poorer people, however, are always caught in the net of complexities. The solution is a simpler tax system. Every now and then someone comes along and launches a real reform. They are always met with universal criticism!

* * *

One of the great tragedies of history, for me at least, was the loss of all the great libraries of antiquity. The library of Alexandria was probably the most famous. It was finally burned around 279 AD. There is some hope that the library at Herculaneum, buried in the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, might be accessed with modern technology:
The scrolls represent the only intact library known from the classical world, an unprecedented cache of ancient knowledge. Most classical texts we know today were copied, and were therefore filtered and distorted, by scribes over centuries, but these works came straight from the hands of the Greek and Roman scholars themselves. Yet the tremendous volcanic heat and gases spewed by Vesuvius carbonized the scrolls, turning them black and hard like lumps of coal. Over the years, various attempts to open some of them created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text. Hundreds of the papyri were therefore left unopened, with no realistic prospect that their contents would ever be revealed. And it probably would have remained that way except for an American computer scientist named Brent Seales, director of the Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments at the University of Kentucky.
* * *

Desiring to Desire is a fascinating essay over at the Times Literary Supplement about the construction of taste:
So why should I pursue classical music so ardently? In part, because I already grasp, murkily, how I will later value such music. So pursuit speaks to the self that I am becoming. What of reasons that speak to my current self? Well, perhaps I want to impress someone or gain a qualification. Any such consideration will complete the justification for aspiration.
I aspired to appreciate classical music because I desired to understand a value that was opaque to me. Further, while I may not have desired to listen to classical music, I desired to desire it. That is, I wanted my desires to change. Why, then, did I pursue classical music so ardently? Because I desired to understand its value and wished to desire it. This justifies aspiration, without any need to mention the values of the person I am attempting to become.
* * *

I just ran across this, which perfectly fulfills the need for one silly item in the Friday Miscellanea:

* * *

Hm, quite a varied menu this week, but not enough actual, you know, music! So for our envoi today, let's listen to one of the most unusual composers in music history, Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. This is his Tristis est anima mea performed by La Compagnia del Madrigal:

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Marcin Dylla and the Guitar

I know that I have been posting less frequently lately, just two or three a week instead of the daily posts I usually try and keep to. Apologies! One of the reasons is that I have been playing more regularly. I have actually managed to put practice time in on the instrument every day for more than a week now. Yes, I know that doesn't sound like much! When I was a full-time professional guitarist I would practice around four hours a day and spend another four or five hours teaching which also involved some playing. In recent years, I have been lucky to get more than two or three hours in in a whole week. Not good. Mind you, I have lots of other things to do. But if you play infrequently, as I have been, it never feels good when you do play, which discourages you. So getting into a more regular schedule has been productive and my hands are starting to feel much more capable and responsive.

I also ran across a very fine guitarist on YouTube the other day, Marcin Dylla, who is from Poland. His Wikipedia entry merely lists his teachers (one of whom, Oscar Ghiglia, we shared) and a long list of competitions he has won. When I was doing my list of the top ten classical guitar pieces, I recall searching without success for a good clip of the Ponce Folias variations. Well, that is no longer a problem as Marcin Dylla has done an excellent version:

He is a very muscular guitarist, with an impeccable technique. He has an excellent tone and good dynamic range. Sometimes I wish he had just a bit more refinement in the details, but that is just a quibble. He is very listenable and musical. I am sad to say that I find most guitarists these days pretty much unlistenable, but not Dylla. Here he is with a very fine performance of the Five Preludes by Villa-Lobos:

Here he is with the Sonata romantica by Ponce:

He is obviously of the serious artist school of guitar playing, not the glitzy it-is-all-about-the-marketing school that seems to be dominant in recent years. He only seems to have a couple of discs available:

I like his repertoire, which focuses on the big pieces. In fact, I am thinking of re-doing my top ten list, which continues to get a lot of attention. I am thinking of refining it into three lists:
  • Top Ten Large Pieces for Classical Guitar which will include things like the Ponce Variations, the Britten Nocturnal, the Ginastera Sonata, the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Sonata and the Invocation and Dance by Rodrigo
  • Top Ten Shorter Pieces for Classical Guitar which will include the Nocturnal by Moreno Torroba, Elogio de la Danza by Brouwer, En los trigales by Rodrigo, La Catedral by Barrios, the Fandanguillo by Turina and the Capricho árabe and Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tárrega
  • Top Ten Transcriptions for Classical Guitar which is where I will put pieces like the Bach Chaconne, Asturias and Granada by Albéniz, Valses poéticos by Granados and pieces for lute and vihuela commonly played on guitar
Any comments? Does that sound like a good idea?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fidel Leal, Piano

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

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

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

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

I. Cervantes: Cuatro Danzas Cubanas

Carlos Fariñas: Dos Sones Sencillos

Ernesto Lecuono: Dos Danzas Cubanas

Encore: Intermezzo by Manuel Ponce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Anna Meredith

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

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

I love her shirt.

I think...

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

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

Friday, July 6, 2018

SLAVery and Aesthetics

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

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