Monday, October 21, 2019

Blind Audition Statistics

When I was a graduate performance major I shared a required chamber music concert with a very fine flute player. He later auditioned for principal flute in one of Canada's finest orchestras. That audition was blind, that is, each candidate played behind a screen so their identity was unknown to the auditors. At that time the procedure in Canada was to hold national auditions, open only to Canadians, and then, if no suitable candidate was found, to hold international auditions. After the first round, no-one was chosen though my friend was certainly the leading candidate. Then he went on to win the international auditions as well and became the principal flute in the orchestra. This pretty much shows up the process as being a mere gesture to political correctness as however good the national candidates were, they were going to be rejected and an international audition held anyway.

The principle of blind auditions, which here concealed the fact that the same Canadian flute player participated in both rounds, is widely used in orchestral auditions. It has many justifications. For example, it conceals which candidates are the special favorites of the conductor or administration (or vice versa), it conceals which candidates are members of a visible minority, or which are women and so on. Screens are not used as much in European auditions and some orchestras ask a short list of candidates to play in concerts with the orchestra in order to see how good the fit is.

One of the main stimuli to the use of screens and blind auditions was a survey done twenty years ago, though blind auditions were common long before. Christina Hoff Sommers has just written a very interesting critique of that study in today's Wall Street Journal, Blind Spots in the ‘Blind Audition’ Study: A lauded 2000 article claiming to find sexism in American orchestras looks increasingly spurious. That's probably behind a paywall, so let me excerpt part of it.
It is one of the most famous social-science papers of all time. Carried out in the 1990s, the “blind audition” study attempted to document sexist bias in orchestra hiring. Lionized by Malcolm Gladwell, extolled by Harvard thought leaders, and even cited in a dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the study showed that when orchestras auditioned musicians “blindly,” behind a screen, women’s success rates soared. Or did they? 
They collected four decades of data from eight leading American orchestras. But the data were inconclusive: The paper includes multiple warnings about small sample sizes, contradictory results and failures to pass standard tests of statistical significance. But few readers seem to have noticed. What caught everyone’s attention was a big claim in the final paragraph: “We find that the screen increases—by 50 percent—the probability that a woman will be advanced from certain preliminary rounds and increases by severalfold the likelihood that a woman will be selected in the final round.”
For all the details, you need to read the whole article. But the results were finally put into question by a new study:
In 2017 a team of behavioral economists in the Australian government published the results of a large, randomized controlled study entitled “Going Blind to See More Clearly.” It was directly inspired by the blind-audition study. Iris Bohnet, a Harvard Kennedy School dean and Goldin-Rouse enthusiast, served as an adviser.
For the study, more than 2,000 managers in the Australian Public Service were asked to select recruits from randomly assigned résumés—some disguising the applicant’s sex, others not. The research team fully expected to find far more female candidates shortlisted when sex was disguised. But, as the stunned team leader told the local media: “We found the opposite, that de-identifying candidates reduced the likelihood of women being selected for the shortlist.” It turned out that many senior managers, aware that sexist assumptions had once kept women out of upper-level positions, already practiced a mild form of affirmative action.
I think that the lesson to be learned here is that all studies that seem to deliver results that support or favor current progressive ideas should be regarded with considerable skepticism. Does this apply to the "climate crisis" as well? You bet.

And now, chosen completely randomly, a major Canadian orchestra playing the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune by Claude Debussy:

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Bach the Rebel -- NOT!

A frequent commentator alerted me to a piece in Lapham's Quarterly. Wow, you must really be a well-connected insider to get two big excerpts from your upcoming book published in the same week. The other one was about song outsiders in the Wall Street Journal.

So following in the fine tradition of Michael Crichton and Kanye West, who both warned against believing anything you see in the news or read in the paper, let's do a bit of a hit and run on Mr. Gioia's take on Bach. J.S. Bach the Rebel: The subversive practice of a canonical composer. My first question is how does Mr. Gioia define "subversive" and "canonical" and will either of these definitions be anywhere near the usual ones?
You can hardly find a more sanctioned and orthodox insider than Johann Sebastian Bach, at least as he is typically presented. He is commemorated as the sober bewigged Lutheran who labored for church authorities and nobility, offering up hundreds of cantatas, fugues, orchestral works, and other compositions for the glory of God. Yet the real-life Bach was very different from this cardboard figure. In fact, he provides a striking case study in how prickly dissidents in the history of classical music get transformed into conformist establishment figures by posterity.
We do have some receipts from an inn where Bach was staying where he consumed a remarkable amount of brandy while finishing a cantata, but on the whole I think it is safe to say that he was "sober." Certainly his music is quite sober if by that you mean clear and well-organized. And yes, any portraits of him we have show him wearing a wig. He was also unarguably a Lutheran, employed by the town fathers of Leipzig and patronized by various nobles. So how is that a "cardboard figure"? Ah, right, because it does not fit the narrative that Mr. Gioia is going to foist on us. As for character, yes, he did not suffer fools gladly so he could be described as "prickly" but it boggles the mind to try and see Bach as a "dissident"! So it seems that this argument, such as it is, is getting off to a very rocky start.

I have mentioned before how the political corruption of our day has been slowly seeping into our musical historiography. Every important composer has to be seen as a subversive or dissident in some way or be downgraded. Schubert was oppressed and possibly gay so that makes him more important. Beethoven was a political dissident, Berlioz an inveterate innovator, Wagner a creator of a new kind of subversive harmony and they are all important because of those things, not primarily because they wrote great music. Pretty soon you find yourself creating a narrative out of whole cloth to justify the importance of a composer like Bach, who, if you just look at the music, not only doesn't need it, but doesn't deserve this distortion.

I'm not going to quote all of it, but Gioia inserts a long list of Bach's excesses and indiscretions ending with the comment:
This is the Bach branded as “incorrigible” by the councilors in Leipzig, who grimly documented offense after offense committed by their stubborn and irascible employee.
Bach and the city fathers had a lot of disputes over the twenty-seven year tenure in which he was in charge of the music, not only at the Thomaskirke, but the other main churches in Leipzig as well as teaching the choristers not only music, but Latin! Over that long a time, you could easily assemble a list that would present Bach as incorrigible or irascible. And I imagine you could assemble another list of occasions in which the city fathers were incorrigible and irascible, or at least unreasonable. There was a time, not too long ago, in which all this would have been simply disregarded as irrelevant crap, but that was when writers on music tried to present a balanced picture instead of, as now, forcing everything into the Procrustean bed of their noxious narrative.

Once you go down that dangerous path you find yourself writing nonsense like this:
When the mythos of Bach’s genius finally emerged, it coincided with a rising sense of German nationalism and a religious revival, movements that envisioned ways they could use this now long-dead composer to advance its own agendas.
There is nothing mythic about Bach's genius and it was there all along. It just took a while for public taste to shift around to it. Both Beethoven and Mozart were big admirers of Bach's music. I'm sure that German nationalism did not suffer from clutching Bach to its bosom, but to use that as a way of characterizing Bach is to seriously distort history and causality. And yes, Mr. Gioia is using this long-dead composer as a mere pawn in his agenda.

But enough, I am losing interest in this argument, largely because it does nothing but rehash all of our prejudices and biases about culture and history.

Bach for our envoi. This is a little different. Someone has taken a performance by Grigory Sokolov of the Art of Fugue and lowered it to the "early music" pitch of 432 hz.

Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder

We have talked a bit about what an outsider Arnold Schoenberg was, but while he had little formal music education, he was thoroughly self-taught to the point that he was capable of absorbing and working within the most advanced musical idioms of the day when he was young. Case in point, at twenty-six he wrote Gurre-Lieder a two hour oratorio/cantata for enormous orchestra, chorus and soloists. Mind you, it took ten years for him to orchestrate it, but the basic conception and composition was largely accomplished when he was quite young. In this piece he absorbed what Wagner, Mahler and Strauss were doing and quite successfully too. No "outsider" could possibly have achieved this. Bear in mind that Schoenberg was born in Vienna, at the very heart of the Austrian-German music tradition.

The piece is so large and challenging to mount that it is not as well-known as it should be. Here is a BBC Proms performance from 2002.

Four harps, five vocal soloists, four piccolos, two sets of tympani and lot of other percussion, three male choruses and an eight-part mixed choir, two English horns, ten horns! And a lot more, plus a string section to match. To tell the truth, I would just as soon listen to this as Wagner or Strauss and probably more than Mahler. But your milage may vary!

Intermittent Blogging

I feel a bit like California's PGE utility company who said yesterday that the blackouts could continue for another decade. Does anyone else find that almost incomprehensible given that California is home to the highest technology on earth? As I was saying, I feel a bit like PGE because my blog has been dark all too often lately--in the past week I have only managed two posts, the Friday Miscellanea and a brief one on decorative rosettes on guitars and lutes. Heck, I used to do double that in a single day.

When I started this blog, eight years ago, I had a lot of pent-up stuff to say. Teaching music can be grueling, but it is also a satisfying outlet for creative thought and after a few years of doing almost no teaching, I found I had a lot to say. These days the impulse to instruct is less intense and besides, I have talked about a lot of the most interesting stuff already and the more boring stuff is, well, boring. Plus, as I edge more and more into my role as composer, I find that I no longer want to simply pass on the half and semi-truths that are commonly expressed in music classes. In the immortal words of Kanye West, "First rule in this world, baby, don't pay attention to anything you see in the news."

Yes, of course, in the more refined circles of classical music education and criticism, the falsehoods are considerably less blatant (there being so much less at stake, or is there?), but they are still present. For example, a couple of things about Schoenberg that are widely believed, but quite untrue. His Verklärte Nacht was not the first piece to have a minor ninth chord in last inversion in a prominent place. Beethoven, in the introduction to the last movement of his Quartet, op 18, no 6, also uses that harmony. A much more major error is the often-expressed view that Schoenberg wrote "atonal" music. Actually, everything he wrote, including his later twelve-tone pieces, was tonally organized in various ways. His so-called early "atonal" music shows characteristics of tonal attraction and resolution and in his serial compositions he often sets up analogues to traditional tonal organization, but using different transpositions of the original row as stand-ins or developments of different chords or harmonies.

Another kind of misapprehension  was in the Wall Street Journal this week in a piece titled The History of Song Is All About Outsiders.
Innovative songs almost always come from outsiders—the poor, the unruly and the marginalized.
The scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord confirmed this fact in the 1930s, when they set out to trace the origins of ancient epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey. Their research took them to Bosnia, where they met Avdo Mededović, an illiterate peasant farmer they dubbed the “Yugoslav Homer.” Accompanying himself on a one-string instrument, Mededović performed a single story-song that took seven days to complete and went on for 12,311 lines—roughly the same length as the Odyssey. He performed entirely from memory, aided by patterned improvisations of the kind used by jazz musicians.
Parry and Lord later declared that every one of the great singers of tales they encountered during their field research was illiterate. The ability to sing an epic poem was not only a skill that couldn’t be taught in college, but a formal education would almost certainly destroy it.
Now of course there is a grain of truth there. It is indeed true that one of the basic functions of music schools, even if not recognized as such, is to crush genuine creative originality. But while a great deal of innovation tends to come from outside the usual sources, simply being an outsider is neither necessary nor sufficient. You mustn't forget that genuine creativity is very rare and almost all those outsiders have nothing to offer. You could spend a great deal of effort sorting through outsiders before you found a crumb of talent. So another important function of music institutions is to offer a place where a talented outsider can come to tap into the traditions and practices that are essential to being able to shape inspiration into a form that can be transmitted.

Also, who is and isn't an outsider is definitely a matter of perspective. I can guarantee that their Yugoslav Homer came out of a long-standing oral tradition, just as the original Homer did. And Bob Dylan, with all his innovative ideas, has always been thickly interwoven with the whole tradition of American popular song, from Depression ballads to homespun country. Here's an example:

Even a famously eccentric outsider like Harry Partch is only an outsider from a certain perspective. He did everything he could to overturn the basic principles of tuning used in the 20th century mainstream, and he did it by going back to a far more ancient tradition deriving from ancient Greece.

A great deal of creative innovation turns out to be creative primitivism as the artist seeks out some deep wellsprings in his soul. Where do creative ideas come from? Let's ask Leonard Cohen. This is from an acceptance speech he gave on being given an honor by the King of Spain:
"Poetry comes from a place that no one commands, that no one conquers. So I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from I would go there more often." 

Friday, October 18, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Are conductors feeling insecure these days? I notice a flurry of articles on what they do with the implication that it is really, really important. Anne Midgette did a piece the other day over at the Washington Post and I just ran across this more informative article in The Epoch Times: Explainer: What Exactly Do Musical Conductors Do? I'm more curious about what the unmusical conductors do, but never mind.
Many conductors use a baton to help pinpoint this use of time, although some do not. Such an individual choice can vary with the size and style of the repertoire being performed. The beating arm is usually on the individual’s strongest side: I am right-handed, for example.
A major part of the conductor’s role is to accurately show the length of each bar according to the interpretation and theoretical structure of it. A bar is a mathematical tool that helps to visually organize the music for the performers concerned.
An avid audience member will notice that most bars have beating patterns that conductors utilize. The beating pattern is dictated by the number of beats in the bar. (The usual number of beats would be between two and four.) It is defined by a combination of vertical and horizontal beats. (The conductor will indicate these by moving the arm up or down or side to side.)
This piece is more technical than most because it was written by a conductor.

* * *

In this clip a rather unusual performer plays an excerpt from Sonata VII from John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes (1946 - 48):

* * *

Over at NewMusicBox the revolution continues with this piece: ANSWERING THE CALL: ANTIPHONY BETWEEN THE MUSIC AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS.
Our hope as composers and conceptualists is to summon the social memory of the oppressed, which bore witness to the horrors of capitalism, with its building blocks of genocide, slavery, and ecocide. These memories generate multiplicities of meanings when their call for justice summons the activists of ongoing liberation movements. Such figures animate and re-animate the call for a revolution of values, a revolution of the self and community, and ultimately, a revolution against global capitalism.
 Well, that's fairly clear. I guess the question is, if every one of your presuppositions about history, economics, morality and climate science is completely wrong, does this have any negative repercussions on the music?

* * *

The Violin Channel has the latest news: Florida’s New World Symphony To Host New 5-Day Viola Festival. Which prompts the inevitable question, what is even better than a five-day viola festival? A three-day viola festival, of course!

* * *

Years ago I was a serious wine aficionado. Not to the point of flying in to wine auctions and buying cases of aged Pétrus, mind you, but enough so that I could distinguish the bouquet of sauvignon blanc from that of chardonnay without much trouble. One of the wine writers that I particularly enjoyed reading was Auberon Waugh, the son of English novelist Evelyn Waugh. The Times Literary Supplement has an article on some new collections of his work: Like a fine whine.
But what of the fermented juice itself? Waugh was conscious of the perils of writing about it, yet baulked at the starkness of Kingsley Amis’s observation “You can call a wine red, and dry, and strong and pleasant. After that, watch out”. In the 1970s there was a revolution in wine writing, in which anthropomorphic language gave way to a vocabulary that recognized wine as an agricultural product. The new wave found its most influential expression in the writings of the former Baltimore lawyer Robert Parker, typified in a note such as this, about a legendary Pauillac: “A dark, opaque garnet colour is followed by a fabulous nose of cedar, sweet leather, black fruits, prunes and roasted walnuts, refreshing underlying acidity, sweet but noticeable tannin, and a spicy finish”. Waugh was inclined to mock such geoponic rigour and even found another American wine writer absurd for likening a pinot noir to cherries. Yet he could still refer to an Italian red having a “beautiful hare’s blood or red garnet colour and a fragrance of freshly cut pine”.
That makes most writing about music seem rather tame, doesn't it?

* * *

Over at The New Yorker, Alex Ross has two articles up this week. One is on Nietzsche so we will quickly divert to the other one, on new opera productions. Nothing against Nietzsche, of course, but are any of us really ready for him this morning?
Several events at the beginning of the fall music season demonstrated the virtue of projects that are driven not by celebrity allure but by a strong artistic purpose. Just as the Domingo crisis was hitting the Met—the singer withdrew from the roster on the eve of scheduled appearances in “Macbeth”—the company introduced a new production of “Porgy and Bess,” its first presentation of the work in thirty years. A brilliant cast of African-American performers infused Gershwin’s score with authority and nuance. In the same week, the New York Philharmonic mounted a stylishly enigmatic double bill of Schoenberg’s monodrama “Erwartung” and Bartók’s one-act opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle.”
* * *

I invite you to go to Slipped Disc for the latest "musicians trying to travel by air with their instruments" scandal. This time it is six cellists, six cellos and British Airways. As always, the comments offer the most interesting entertainment.

* * *
 And that brings us to our envoi for today. I was just going to embed Schoenberg's Erwartung, his early totally chromatic expressionist work, but realized that would be as cruel as subjecting you to Nietzsche! So, yes, Erwartung for those who want to explore some Schoenberg and for those who fervently do not, an excerpt from Porgy and Bess by Gershwin.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Guitar Rosettes

I was showing my guitar to a friend who is not very knowledgeable about music the other day and she looked at the rosette and said "is that painted on?" I realized that a lot of people probably don't know about guitar rosettes. Here is a photo of my guitar:

Click to enlarge
That is a close-up of the soundhole and surrounding rosette. A rosette is any round, stylized flower design, but as you can see, the flower motif is no longer necessary or even common. This design, by Robert Holroyd of Vancouver, BC, uses a traditional Haida motif. No, it is not painted. It is instead, a very precise and meticulous kind of marquetry, a very ancient art. What you have to do is assemble little wooden sticks of different colors in a cylinder around a form the exact size of the outer diameter of the soundhole. For example, the inner circle here is, I believe, a thin sheet of ebony, as is the very outermost circle. Inside those are other sheets of light colored wood and darker brown wood. I think the lighter colored is probably spruce, but the darker one I am unsure of--Honduras mahogany possibly? In any case, what you do is assemble these around the form and carefully--very carefully!--glue them in place. Then when the whole assemblage is dry, you simply saw off thin sections for each guitar needing a rosette. Here is a website that describes a rather more high-tech process.

Historically, the rosette was far more ornate than it is today and an opportunity for the luthier to show the limits of his art. Here are some examples from lutes and Baroque guitars:

As you can see, the rosette was a carved wood insert in the soundhole rather than a design around it. They could be even more elaborate as this Baroque guitar illustrates:

The origins of this kind of intricate design came from the Arabic 'oud, the predecessor to the European lute. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Who killed the American arts? Which I think would be better phrased "Who killed the arts in America? But never mind, here is their point:
The arts are quarantined on campus, where the highest common denominator is theoretical pretension, and where no art of any worth is ever made. Entertainment is ghettoized on the internet, where the lowest common denominator, and the only sure way to make money, is sex and violence, and the even surer way is to combine sex and violence in the same image. No more Jackson Pollock and Elvis Presley. Today, the world looks to American ‘art’ only for pimps and porn — the imagery of slavery. 
The idea that Americans could educate their own sensibilities to international standards lasted little longer than Emerson and Whitman. By the late 1800s, the United States had adopted a university system along German lines, and ambitious Americans were funneling themselves into its specializing disciplines. By the early Sixties, University of California administrators were boasting that they had created a ‘multiversity’ geared to the needs of technocracy, while University of California students were rioting about an alleged lack of free speech.
By the end of the Sixties, students and administrators had arrived at a Westphalian peace. The students permitted the university to stay in the business of training specialists and technicians. The university let the students redefine the humanistic curriculum. Henceforth, the purpose of liberal education was to prevent the education of classical liberals.
Some huge claims there, but I'm not entirely sure they are wrong. Something went wrong, that's for sure.

* * *

The New York Times has weighed in with a substantial article on the incident where violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter stopped a performance to demand that an audience member stop recording and videoing her performance. There was a lot of controversy at the time and this piece takes a broader look at the issue and contains some comments from Mutter. The article is headed with a photo of a cast member of a musical snatching a phone out of the hands of an audience member and tossing it under the risers.
Both artists were cheered — first in person, later on social media — for taking a stand against the growing ranks of smartphone addicts who cannot resist snapping pictures and making recordings that are often prohibited by rule or by law, that are distracting to performers and patrons, and that can constitute a form of intellectual property theft.
And here is the counterpoint:
One dissenter argued on Twitter that “people who wholly submit to and enforce outdated/archaic concert rituals that require insane amounts of cultural capital to begin with are going to be completely irrelevant in about 15 years’ time.”
Mutter commented:
Ms. Mutter, the German violinist who stopped mid-concerto, said she was in favor of sealing phones at concerts. In her first interview about the Cincinnati incident, Ms. Mutter said that she had grown distracted as she played the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto because a woman in the first row was holding up her phone and filming her. After Ms. Mutter shot her stern looks, she said, the woman put down her phone.
“The first movement is over, and I’m trying to concentrate and stay calm,” Ms. Mutter recalled. “Then she takes out a second phone, and a power bank. I continued the second movement, but it’s already boiling in me. I’m totally out of the flow.”
“I feel violated in my rights, of my artistic property,” she said, noting that unauthorized filming is illegal. “As an artist you take such care when doing a recording — that you have your own sound engineer, that the mics are hung in the right spots. The sound is a part of you, you want your voice replicated in a way that really represents what you have worked on for an entire life.”
Should a serious artist like Mutter be accorded a minimum of respect? Beyond question, in my view. Should that extend to doing nothing to disturb the performance or the performer? Yes.

* * *

 Speaking of being disturbed, The Atlantic has a big piece on the ubiquitous noises of high-tech civilization: Why Everything Is Getting Louder. It is hard to excerpt, but the bottom line is that there are places, especially in Arizona, where they are  building huge data storage centers with "chillers" that keep the equipment at a constant cool temperature, and the consequence is that there is an ubiquitous hum that permeates everywhere. It drives some people up the wall.

* * *

Norman Lebrecht's album of the week is a box of five discs of Dmitri Shostakovich playing his own compositions. We don't usually have this much from a composer of his stature, plus he was an excellent pianist. Lebrecht calls the album "indispensible". Maybe so, maybe so.
But the truly shattering experience is saved for the final disc where Shostakovich sits down in 1954 with his friend and neighbour, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and plays his new symphony, the tenth, four-handed on his home piano. Mark the date. Stalin has been dead for a year and Weinberg has been sprung from an NKVD cell by the brave intervention of Shostakovich. The tenth symphony draws a line under an era of sheer terror and moves tentatively into light, barely daring to imagine a better future. I listen open-mouthed. Rarely has music so accurately reflected a moment in history, projecting and preserving it for all time. Indispensable? That might be an understatement.
* * *

 Why is it that every headline in the newspaper turns out to be, more or less, an untruth? For example, in the New York Times: The Unsingable Music That Stumped a Diva. Well, of course it didn't. She just worked on it until she mastered the technical problems:
On paper, John Zorn’s “Jumalattaret” — which has its New York premiere at the Park Avenue Armory on Oct. 15, with Ms. Hannigan joined by the pianist Stephen Gosling — looks impossible: breathless vocalise; abrupt transitions from head-spinning complexity to folk-song simplicity; and, within the span of a single measure, whispering, squeaking and throat-singing like a winter storm.
It’s the kind of piece that leaves you asking, repeatedly, over the course of its 25 minutes: Can a voice even do this? The answer, for Ms. Hannigan, is yes. It took a lot of practice, a thwarted summer vacation, and a well-timed email to get there. But once she and Mr. Gosling gave the first performance of “Jumalattaret,” it was clear Mr. Zorn had created something special.
Every story like this follows exactly the same template. It would be much more interesting if someone wrote a piece that really was impossible and they did an article on why it was impossible.

* * *

For today's example of psychobabble we offer this item: Why music has such profound effects on the brain.
We are essentially pattern-recognizing machines. Every great musician knows that a great performance involves building up tension to an eventual release. And that's because that taps into our pattern recognition apparatus in the brain. Our brain is trying to figure out what's going to happen next. So often, we love music that has a predictable pattern, maybe that we've heard before, but that either delays that release of tension like Barber's Adagio for Strings. You know the melody just weaves around the final climax over and over and over again.
Well, yes, but this describes only one type of music: that which follows a typical narrative pattern. For nearly a hundred years, composers have been finding other ways of structuring music that avoids this pattern. So again, a psychological theory that goes wrong because it simply starts with an incorrect assumption.

* * *

The answer is "no." Is there a case for considering New Age music as art? Or, as The New Yorker avers: The Case for New Age Music as American Folk Art.
How did New Age end up carrying so much baggage in our musical memory? Its fall from grace, when it once soared, might be due to New Age’s status as one of the most heavily marketed musical genres, making it the equivalent of aural snake oil, to be sold on the yoga-conference circuit and in corporate supplement chains. It’s not often that an emerging style of music becomes indistinguishable from a wellness product—one with excessive claims promising listeners reduced anxiety, altered biorhythms, and the soothing of inflamed prostates.
Alternatively, the aural equivalent of tapioca or tofu. And it tends to inflame, not sooth my prostate. Or soul, to make a more salubrious metaphor.

* * *
And now the moment you have been waiting for, the much anticipated Friday Miscellanea envoi of the week. Today we shall have two. First, the Beethoven Violin Concerto that Anne-Sophie Mutter was playing, or trying to, when she was disturbed by the amateur videographer.

And here is Shostakovich playing the last prelude and fugue from his set of 24 Preludes and Fugues:

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Professionalization and Credentials

I am reading a monograph on Arnold Schoenberg by Malcolm MacDonald published by Oxford in the Master Musicians series. Right from the beginning there are some interesting paradoxes, which is not too surprising in the life of a very paradoxical man.

Arnold Schoenberg

Here is the odd thing: this hugely important figure in 20th century music never actually had any formal training as we would think of it today. He was musically gifted from an early age and learned to play the violin, viola and cello, but he never became a student at a music school. Yes, he did study with Alexander von Zemlinsky, whom he met through an amateur orchestral society, but Zemlinsky was a near-contemporary, only three years older than Schoenberg. It was through him that the young composer was exposed to professional musical training and standards, though at second hand. Zemlinsky had attended the Vienna Conservatory. Schoenberg absorbed music through his skin, it seems, not only from Zemlinsky, but from playing in amateur chamber groups and from composing for them and for whatever ensemble was handy. He also was friends with a wide range of artists and writers in fin-de-siècle Viennese society. Another early mentor was Oskar Adler who gave Schoenberg some early lessons in elementary harmony and ear-training. They were friends from boyhood, Adler being only three months older than Schoenberg.

Most musicians, even a hundred or more years ago, were the product of music schools. We might look at the examples of Stravinsky or Shostakovich. Stravinsky was a private student of Rimsky-Korsakov, but Shostakovich followed the formal course of studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In both cases, they were instructed by leading members of the musical establishment of the day. This was not true of Schoenberg who even though being born in Vienna, the heart of musical conservatism at the time, was always a contrarian.

And here is another odd thing, this iconoclastic figure was one of the few composers in the first half of the last century to write important textbooks on harmony and composition. On my shelves are copies of his Structural Functions of Harmony, Fundamentals of Musical Composition and Style and Idea. Though never sitting at the feet of any established pedagogue, he became one himself.

Today a hundred schools of music churn out a thousand credentialed musicians and composers. So let's not forget that the foundations of modern music were laid down by people obviously unqualified for the task as they had no credentials!

Here are Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, op. 11, played by Di Wu:

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

François Couperin, 15eme, 16eme et 17eme Ordres

A friend of mine once remarked to me that music has been in decline since 1733. I have never forgotten that. That was, of course, the year that François Couperin died. One could certainly quibble with that. What about J. S. Bach, for example? Not much decline there. Or, if you like your music a little jollier, then there is always Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Still, he did have a point. Instead of arguing about it though, let's simply listen to three Ordres (what Couperin called his suites for harpsichord). Here is the unparalleled Scott Ross with three of the later Ordres.

Psychology Tells Us ... Crap

For two or three decades I had a simple and very effective policy regarding psychology and its pompous pronouncements about human nature: they were all crap. I simply stopped believing in modern psychology as a whole. Completely solved my neuroses because I no longer believed in the existence of neuroses. I loved telling people I had no psychological problems.

Then I ran into Jordan Peterson and had to admit that he had a lot of very wise stuff to say. I even did his online psychological evaluation and it made a lot of sense. But, you know, I still think most psychology is crap. And here is a lovely example: Psychology tells us why older people don’t enjoy new music.
As I’ve grown older, I’ll often hear people my age say things like “they just don’t make good music like they used to.”
Why does this happen?
Luckily, my background as a psychologist has given me some insights into this puzzle.
First of all, let's unpack that a bit. Turns out that it is not "psychology" that is telling us anything. It is rather Francis T. McAndrew, a professor of psychology at an obscure liberal arts college in Illinois, Knox College, whose homepage looks like a marketing seminar gone over the edge on psychedelic drugs.
We know that musical tastes begin to crystallize as early as age 13 or 14. By the time we’re in our early 20s, these tastes get locked into place pretty firmly.
His first link, on the phrase "begin to crystallize" is to a mainstream report on a study of data from Spotify exclusively confined to pop music. So, we need to add this caveat: one psychologist, using undefined statistical methods, found that people who use Spotify and just listen to pop music tend to have the development of their musical tastes arrested in their early adolescence. Well I for one am not too surprised!

But then in the next paragraph he comes up with an entirely different claim:
In fact, studies have found that by the time we turn 33, most of us have stopped listening to new music. Meanwhile, popular songs released when you’re in your early teens are likely to remain quite popular among your age group for the rest of your life.
So is it early teens or is it thirty-three? That first link is to an article about a "study" by Deezer, a music streaming service:

according to a new survey from Deezer, which suggests people stop discovering new music at just 30 and a half.
The music streaming service surveyed 1,000 Brits about their music preferences and listening habits. 60% of people reported being in a musical rut, only listening to the same songs over and over, while just over a quarter (25%) said they wouldn't be likely to try new music from outside their preferred genres.
So is is thirty-three or just thirty and a half? In contrast to the other "study" this one found that the peak year for discovering new music was twenty-four. Also, I really think it is a stretch to call something a "study" when it is just an informal survey of people using a particular service. And again, we are given no hint as to the methodology.

Let's rephrase this all over again: a number of different, highly informal surveys, come up with wildly different estimates of at what point in life people who listen primarily to pop music tend to discover new music or tend to stop discovering new music.

I get this approach, by the way, from my first philosophy professor who would assign us texts making outrageous claims and then, when we argued vehemently against them, would calmly pace back and forth until we finished. Then he would ask, "may I re-phrase that?" After reducing our rants to a succinct philosophical position or claim, he would then demolish it quite handily. Nice thing to learn how to do.

Turns out that all these "studies" and "scientific" claims that we keep seeing in the mainstream media, all turn to mist and vapor when closely examined. Let's call them collectively "vaportruths."

Let me survey myself, just for your entertainment. I was born in 1951 so my musical tastes were supposedly shaped by the music of the middle sixties when I was in my mid-teens (according to still other "studies"). That would include the Beatles whom I do in fact enjoy. But it would also include the Rolling Stones, Eric Burden and the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, Vanilla Fudge and a host of others whom I do not enjoy. Incredible String Band were ok, and yes, I do like Cream. After 1970 I quit listening to pop music entirely for about a decade. Then in the early 80s I heard some stuff I liked from the Talking Heads, David Bowie and the Police. All the other stuff I didn't like. I pretty much missed the 90s as well. The next thing I heard that I liked was Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" in 2009. Unfortunately I didn't much like anything else she did. Then, a couple of years ago I discovered Kanye West and I have liked quite a few things from him. So that's the pop history.

The classical history is rather more complex. Sometime around 1969 a friend played a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for me and I was very impressed. It seemed to me head and shoulders above any other music I was familiar with. I soon started listening to other classical music and particularly liked Dvorak, Debussy and similar symphonic music. Then I discovered Bach and the Mass in B minor in particular. I also started listening to Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, again, symphonic music. When I attended university in 1971 I became acquainted with a whole bunch of other music courtesy of Music History 101 that included everything from Gregorian Chant to Machaut, to Monteverdi, to Corelli, to Schumann, to Wagner, to Bartók, to Berg, well, you get the idea. It's a survey course. In six months you get hustled through a thousand years of music history.

So that's the first two years of my encounter with classical music. I think it is safe to say that in the nearly fifty years since, I have become acquainted with at least one new piece of music every week and one significant new composer every year. Right now I am rediscovering Arnold Schoenberg for about the fourth time. The really important composers you "discover" several times at different stages in your life.

Hey, let's listen to some Machaut! Here is a piece, his Messe de Notre Dame, that the professor in that music history course, one Dr. Christine Mather, used to say was really important. The performers are the Ensemble Gilles Binchois:

Monday, October 7, 2019

Dead White Males

The debate over diversity and gender is going to be going on for a long time, I suspect. As a followup to my comment on Clara Schumann vs Beethoven in the concert review, I want to draw your attention to this initiative: Columbia's library building features the names of only male authors. After 3 decades of trying, these students have fixed that. Yes, indeed they have, but in an interesting and not offensive manner. They could have chipped away or covered up the objectionable male authors, but instead, simply placed an alternative banner above. See the photo at the link.
Homer. Herodotus. Sophocles. Plato. Aristotle. Demosthenes. Cicero. Vergil.
Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male.
These are the author's names chiseled into the stone facade of Columbia University's Butler Library. In case it hasn't become clear yet, every single one of them is a man.
Yes, and not only male, but also Greek and Roman and all of them core thinkers in the Ancient world. Which you might think is even more important.
The new 140-foot banner emblazons the last names of Toni Morrison, Diana Chang, Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gloria E Anzaldúa and A. Revathi across the face of Butler Library and directly above the original names.
To which I say "who?" Well, ok, I have heard of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, but the rest are a mystery. The names were selected by a small committee of students.
The original 1989 banner included the last names of Sappho, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Brontë (meant to represent all three Brontë sisters), Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf.
I have heard of nearly all of those names, at least, though the list had to comb through a couple of millennia of literary history to find enough names. There was another list in 1994:
For the 1994 interpretation, the names of Sappho, Murasaki Shikibu, Mirabai, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko and Sandra Cisneros graced the northern face of the library.
You can see the tendrils of politics slowly exerting their influence, can't you?

Basically, what is going on here is a category error: the current banner is a demonstration that the students have not only no comprehension of history, they are also pretty weak in aesthetics as well. The new list is of those names that are fashionable among impressionable students in the humanities in the second decade of the 21st century. I would bet that those names will disappear in a decade or two to be replaced with other, equally ephemeral ones. But Homer, Herodotus and the rest of those vile males will continue to be just as important as they have been for the last two and a half millennia.

Concert Review

Last night was the first night of the new winter chamber music season. But perhaps I shouldn't say "chamber music" as this year they are doing two operas as well. But the season started in traditional fashion with a violin and piano recital and quite a good one. I notice that Salzburg has spoiled me a bit, though.

The program included two composers we are going to hear a lot from this year: Clara Schumann, who has her bicentennial this year, and Beethoven, who celebrates his 250th--as soon as 2020 rolls around. The first half had a violin/piano sonata by Franz Schubert (I neglected to retain my program so I can't tell you which, but it was nicely dynamic) and the only violin/piano sonata by Leoš Janáček. This was written in 1914, before he met his muse, Kamila Stösslová, who inspired all of his late-in-life masterpieces. Quite a good piece with a lot of strong gestures ending with a very subdued adagio.

The second half began with Three Romances by Clara Schumann followed by the Spring Sonata by Beethoven. The recital ended with an encore, the Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) by Pablo de Sarasate. I suppose this is what recitalists are doing more and more these days: not knowing if the audience will demand an encore, heck, just stick one on at the end of the program. I confess to doing it myself!

Two things became very evident in the second half of the program. We knew from the very beginning that the violinist, a Chinese-Australian now resident in the US, was a bold and strong player, but especially during the Beethoven, the shortcomings of the pianist became evident. She was an accomplished pianist, of course, and a good accompanist, but she didn't seem to have a clue as to how to play Beethoven. Every scale was rushed, with the notes all blurred together with no articulation. I heard a lot of Beethoven on piano in Salzburg and all of it was clear and defined. Sloppy, blurry Beethoven doesn't work at all. The other thing that became evident, apart from how boring unrelieved cheap virtuosity can be on the violin (coughSarasatecough) was that Clara Schumann is nowhere near being anywhere in the same league as Beethoven. The Three Romances were slight diversions and nothing more. Next to the Beethoven they were just a bit dreary. I'm afraid that we are going to hear this demonstrated time and time again this season...

But please don't take my word for it! Have a listen and decide for yourself. First the Schumann:

And then the Beethoven:

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Adieu to Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker, drummer for Cream and other groups and archetypal force of nature, has passed away at eighty years of age:
He gained early fame as a member of the Graham Bond Organisation alongside bassist Jack Bruce - but it was their partnership with Eric Clapton in Cream that made all three superstars.
One of rock's first "supergroups", they fused blues and psychedelia to dazzling effect on songs like Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love, Badge and I Feel Free. They sold more than 35 million albums and were awarded the world's first ever platinum disc for their LP Wheels of Fire.
One of his most interesting performances was for the song "We're Going Wrong" with soft mallets:

The Straight and the Crooked

Richard Taruskin in a review of some new recordings of Bach trio sonatas talks about two kinds of performers: the straight and the crooked. The definition of "straight" vs "crooked" is not so simple and no, it has nothing to do with sexual proclivities. Here's how he introduces it:
One of the bonniest postconcert mots ever to reach my ears was uttered after a performance by a touring English early-music group, by the leader of one of its best-known American counterparts. 'They're one of the best straight groups I've heard," he said. After his listeners had recovered from the apparent sexual innuendo, he continued: "It's like this: There are the straight players and the crooked players. I can respect the straight players, but my heart is with the crooked players."
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 4032-4034). Kindle Edition.
Whuzzat? Some more description:
Straight players have significant strengths and virtues. At their best (and they come, just like crooked players, both good and bad, and in various shapes and sizes), they display really solid and reliable all-purpose purpose technique at the service of a very scrupulous musicianship, and they work very hard at ensemble. You can sit back and relax with them, confident that every jot and tittle will be perfectly executed and in place.
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 4035-4038). Kindle Edition.
Crooked players are harder to define:
most performances of early music - of any music - consist of matching the nearest template to the music at hand. But the crooked performers ... are forever bending the templates out of shape, struggling against ingrained habit in quest of a really exact, and therefore authentic, rendering of what it is that makes this piece this piece and not that one. Struggles do not make for relaxed listening.
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 4056-4058). Kindle Edition.
This helps me to understand things about how I always approached music. I am, I confess, a bit of a crooked performer. I was always struggling to find the heart of the music, to wring out the last bit of expression, to find the unique nature of each piece. But at the same time I was always wondering why I could never achieve the technical perfection of someone like John Williams. Once he decides how a piece is to be played, and resolves the technical problems, he will play the piece exactly the same every time. That was something that I just couldn't do. Partly that was because I did not quite have the same technical command, but it was also very much because the exact repetition of one version of the piece every time, while it does make the job easier, seemed to me to be to be just wrong. It elevates the surface over the depths. Another quote from the Taruskin essay:
the really big reputations in any field of musical endeavor are always likeliest to be made by straight musicians. Only an unchallenging approach can ever be popular.
Richard Taruskin. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Kindle Locations 4059-4060). Kindle Edition.
And how true that is! The world is always going to prefer Lang Lang to Sokolov. Taruskin's example of the archetypical "straight" performer is, as he terms him, the "profoundly uninteresting" Christopher Hogwood.

The business side of the music world is always on the side of the profoundly uninteresting and easily marketable which is likely one reason why classical music is having such difficulties today. It is only in places where there is a deep well of educated and sophisticated listeners that classical music is still thriving.

I mentioned John Williams above as an exemplary "straight" performer on guitar. The exemplary "crooked" guitarist is Leo Brouwer whose recordings from the 1970s, particularly his highly ornamented Scarlatti recordings, are the model of "crooked" performance. I played some for the very accomplished and very straight guitarist Manuel Barrueco and all he said was that they were "sloppy." Well, sort of! Also brilliant. Here is the Sonata in E major, K. 206:

Friday, October 4, 2019

All of Bach

The Netherlands Bach Society is embarked on an excellent project: informal video recordings of performances of all the Bach repertoire. What is particularly and refreshingly different is that while they are choosing very good performers, none of them are celebrities and there is no "marketing," the curse of the 21st century. As a sample, here is the Cello Suite No. 3 played by a young, but accomplished cello student, Reinier Wink. Blogger won't embed so just click the link.

They often choose more seasoned players, but again, with no marketing fuss. Here is the Prelude and Fugue, BWV 855 played by Frédérick Haas in what looks like his living room:

There are simply a host of very fine musicians that are just not part of the international celebrity virtuoso set.

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a headline designed to provoke: In praise of cultural elitism. The subhead explains that "We have become so tolerant of each other’s taste that taste no longer matters."
At present we have a series of ‘culture wars’ over a wide range of issues — race, gender, sexuality, power and privilege. But the one culture war we don’t have any more is over culture.
Yes, we fight about the ideological messages of literary texts, but not about matters of personal taste. We scrutinise and interrogate works of art for their latent — or blatant — sexism and racism. Often what matters is what the work in question says about marginalised groups — not what it says about us as cultured individuals.
It hasn’t always been so. There was a time when we judged people, labelled them, loved them or hated them because of their taste in literature, art and even pop music.
Yep, and here at the Music Salon we still try to evaluate music and musicians with musical criteria only. Read the whole thing for more disquieting but truthy statements.

* * *

Last week was the 50th anniversary of the release of the Abbey Road, the Beatles last album. Hard to believe. The Wall Street Journal has a nice piece on it and the release of a new deluxe version of the album with remixes and previously unreleased outtakes.
The pity is, “Abbey Road” captures the Beatles on the cusp of a new maturity in their music-making. Their playing is more fluid than ever, with probing, contrapuntal guitar lines, and some fresh timbres, including those of a primitive but inventively used Moog synthesizer. Their vocal harmonies, always a hallmark, had become both more sophisticated and more playful.
All four contributed songs that covered vast musical ground—from Lennon’s soulful, proto-Minimalist “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and his otherworldly fantasies, “Sun King” and “Because,” to Ringo Starr’s child-friendly “Octopus’s Garden” and Mr. McCartney’s popsy but sociopathic “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” George Harrison’s “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” are among the best of his Beatles contributions.
* * *

Here is an incident open to debate: Should a musician ever shout at an audience member?
This occurred during the second movement of the Beethoven violin concerto. Anne-Sophie Mutter said that she could not perform while watching someone illegally film her entire performance from feet away (not an exaggeration). The individual filming did talk back, though English was not their first language and there was some confusion. They would not put down their phone or leave (even after the audience booed). The president of the Cincinnati Symphony eventually stepped in to escort this person out. After all of this ASM told the audience that they could enjoy the beautiful introduction by the winds a second time.
There are 81 comments over at Slipped Disc.

* * *

If you are unfamiliar with the use of classical style music in video games, you might want to have a look at this article: Game On: How Classical Music Helps Create the World of Online Role-Playing Games.
Today’s video games feature electro/symphonic scores by composers like Austin Wintory (the first composer to receive a Grammy nomination for a video game score); Andrew Skeet (who has released two albums of his video game music recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra); Jeremy Soule (who has composed the scores to more than 60 video games); and Chad Seiter (who has scored games from Tabloid Tycoon to Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions. There are worldwide concert tours of video game music that attract audiences large enough to fill the 17,000 seats of the Hollywood Bowl.
* * *

At the Washington Post, Anne Midgette talks about what conductors do: What does a conductor do, anyway? A music critic lays it out.
Fritz Reiner, a 20th-century Hungarian autocrat, famously conducted with gestures so restrained and small that once, a musician in the back of the orchestra brought in a pair of binoculars. (Reiner responded by writing “You’re fired” on a piece of paper and holding it up when he saw the binoculars come out.) Leonard Bernstein, by contrast — who was one of the most beloved conductors of the Vienna Philharmonic — leaped around the podium, gesticulated and thrust his pelvis in Elvis-worthy contortions. Yet there’s also a video of Bernstein conducting a movement of a Haydn symphony while standing, his arms folded, using his eyebrows and flicking motions of his eyes.
That video, which I have posted here, was Bernstein's tribute to the Vienna Phillies.

* * *

For our loony item I offer this on the Arts Council of England (ACE) ACE urged to declare climate emergency.
Protesters say the funder’s draft strategy “neither addresses the urgency of the climate and ecological emergency, nor grasps the chance to trumpet boldly the pivotal role arts and culture play in bringing about societal changes”.
To which I reply: 500 Scientists Write U.N.: ‘There Is No Climate Emergency’
“There is no climate emergency. Therefore, there is no cause for panic and alarm,” they note. “We strongly oppose the harmful and unrealistic net-zero CO2 policy proposed for 2050.”
“If better approaches emerge, and they certainly will, we have ample time to reflect and adapt. The aim of international policy should be to provide reliable and affordable energy at all times, and throughout the world,” they state.
In particular, the scientists criticize the general-circulation models of climate on which international policy is currently founded as “unfit for their purpose.”
* * * 

The ideal pair of envoi today, I feel, would be Become Ocean by the very environmental John Luther Adams:

Followed by "Here Comes the Sun" by George Harrison from Abbey Road:

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Healthcare in Mexico

As those of you who read the biography in the right hand column know, I have lived in Mexico for quite a while now. Sometimes, as recently, there are disturbing news stories about Mexico concerning violence, civil unrest and so on. But the truth is that I have greatly enjoyed living here. Sure, if I want to see the very best concerts I take a little trip to Europe, but there are lots of compensations.

The weather is one reason I relocated here from Canada. I recall that song by a famous Quebec singer: "Mon Pays C'est L'hiver." "My Country Is Winter." Sadly true. Montreal gets six months of snow every year. Mexico is pretty much the land of summer. Where I live, at 6,400 feet altitude, the climate is excellent year round. The Mexican people are warm and welcoming.

Sometimes I am asked about healthcare, but my experiences there have been good. Mexico is known as a healthcare destination for dentistry and plastic surgery. When I lived in Montreal a friend of mine with some dental issues would fly to Mexico City, have work done and fly back and it was still a lot cheaper than Canada. My experience with Mexican dentists is that they are often better than Canadian ones.

Recently I had a couple of issues. A couple of months ago I woke up with a headache and with the loss of some peripheral vision on the right side. Then, on my trip to Europe, as we were landing in Frankfurt, I had a pain in my right ear as if there was a pressure gradient that did not want to 'pop'. The funny feeling in my right ear stayed for quite a while and only recent returned to normal.

So I decided to see the doctor that a good friend recommended. She turned out to be ethnic Chinese, born in Toronto, grew up in Mexico with excellent English. She went to McGill for med school and interned at the Royal Victoria hospital in Montreal. An appointment, which for me included a more or less complete physical, cost $1,000 pesos or about $50 US. Because of the peripheral vision thing, she said I needed an MRI. Turns out there is a new clinic about four blocks from where I live that provides this service. The cost? Just under $3,000 pesos or $150 US. Results available immediately. (And I should add that when I called for an appointment I was given one the very next day.)

Turns out that I do not have a brain tumor, which is often the cause of the vision thing. She thinks it is something vascular and we are going to wait to see if it goes away on its own. Surprisingly, it is the ear symptom that is more important. The MRI revealed that I have mastoiditis which is an infection in the area of the mastoid bone next to the ear. I have to go on two antibiotics for a month! The cost of those, plus a daily pill to prevent possible gastric upset came to about $75 US. So that's Mexican healthcare: quick, accessible and inexpensive.

And yes, private health care insurance is available for a modest cost. The much bally-hooed Canadian health care is, in my experience, not so satisfactory. It is hard to get a doctor's appointment, very hard to see a specialist and there is a long wait for an MRI and treatment. But it's "free." Meaning that the average family pays, last time I checked, about $4,000 CN a year in taxes to support the system.

Plus, I really like my doctor who is full of enthusiasm and has a good sense of humor. She was testing my hearing with a big, overgrown tuning fork. As soon as she twanged it and held it up to my ear I said "ah yes, 440 cycles per second. What next?" She said, "tell me when you can't hear it any more." As it was decaying quite slowly I said, 'we're going to be here a while..."

I do have one beef: the MRI is horrible if you are a musician. You lay on this movable table and before they slide you into the machine, they trap your head inside this plastic cage so you can't move it. They also stuff some ear protectors in and hand you a "panic button." Nothing like a panic button to encourage panic! I asked and he said, yes, the machine is quite loud. Which it is, but even worse, it is like being trapped inside the worst piece of electronic music ever composed. I was tempted several times to hit that panic button. Hey, I never was given a panic button before, not even during rehearsals of extreme experimental avant-garde music!

So, for our envoi today, let's have some electronic music. This is a scary piece by Edgard Varèse: Déserts:

UPDATE: Déserts is the wrong piece by Varèse. The one I actually had in mind was this one: Poème electronique from 1958.

Antiquarian Fantasies and the New Sound of Beethoven

I'm just about to receive the box set of Beethoven symphonies and concertos with the London Classical Players conducted by Sir Roger Norrington and I realize that Richard Taruskin must be right about the historically informed performance being so popular with audiences now NOT because it is actually historically informed, but more because the crisp, rhythmically taut, transparent sounds are what WE prefer. In other words, the popularity of HIP performances is not really due to an antiquarian fantasy, but more to the tastes of the 20th and 21st century audiences (and players).

I also have Nicolaus Harnoncourt doing the Schubert symphonies and I enjoy that in a way that I don't quite enjoy similar performances by Herbert von Karajan and others of his generation. I find them too thick and too rhythmically soggy. So I am looking forward to Norrington et al delivering a "new sound" for Beethoven that I am probably going to like a lot and it will be one that is not too much like the kinds of performances of fifty years ago, nor, likely, much like the performances of two hundred years ago either when new orchestral works were lucky to get ONE rehearsal and standards of tuning and precision of ensemble were a far cry from what they are today.

I have heard one of the Norrington Beethoven symphonies before, years ago, but I don't recall which at this point. Now I am listening to the whole box, Symphony No. 4 at the moment. The performances are a delight. What is especially outstanding are the winds, brass and kettledrums. For the latter we have a crisp thud instead of the boom of the modern instrument. The winds and brass are more nasal with a bit of a bite instead of the smooth mellifluousness of the modern winds and brass. And much as the marketing advertises the antiquarian aspect, it is really the modern sensibility that informs the performance: taut, crisp, transparent and oh so defined. Sure, this is likely related to how the music might have been played in the 18th century, not that we have any way of really knowing, but what it mostly is, is the 20th century's reaction to the thick, rubatoed blanket of 19th century performance practice.

Here is the Norrington performance of the Symphony No. 4 by Beethoven:

UPDATE: One of the shocking things that Richard Taruskin proposed in his paper on "The Presence of the Past..." was that the 20th century taste for crisp, clean textures and rhythmic regularity originated with, among others, Stravinsky. So when we listen to an "historically informed" Baroque performance we are hearing something that may be played on original instruments by folks that have read some treatises on early music performance practice, but the performance itself is not nearly as "historic" as we might believe. What it really is, is a performance informed by modern tastes--as it should be given that the listeners are modern. All this stuff about "original" and "authentic" is mostly marketing. I just recalled seeing on the Salzburg Festival programs a concert on August 11 that I wanted to attend, but didn't get to. The conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, with the Salzburg Camerata. The program? Mozart, Haydn and Stravinsky!

Click to enlarge

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Symmetry and Harmony

I just noticed a rather odd and surprising overlap between Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In the latter's analysis/discussion of his Four Songs with Orchestra, op. 22 [reprinted in Perspectives on Schoenberg and Stravinsky] he points out numerous instances of the use of a particular little set of intervals: the minor second and minor third, in various configurations and sometimes expanded to a major second and major third in various configurations. Now notice something about the first set, the minor second and minor third. Depending on how you organize them, with the minor second within the minor third, for example, as Schoenberg often presents them, if you extend that over the octave you get, that's right, the octatonic scale, which was used extensively by Stravinsky (he got it from Rimsky-Korsakov).

I don't want to imply any influence here, but I do want to note that the octatonic scale is a symmetrical way of dividing up the octave, as opposed to the major and minor scales of common practice harmony, which are asymmetric ways of dividing up the octave. Composers like Bela Bartók were also exploring symmetrical alternatives, in his case it was often the tritone.

Unsurprisingly, I am not the first to notice this. Taruskin offers extensive quotes from Russian modernist critic Vyacheslav Karatïgin on the Rite of Spring and mentions that:
Like Myaskovky, Karatïgin professes to see a deep kinship between Stravinsky and Schoenberg--prompted in his case, no doubt, by the enthusiastic letter he had received from the Russian composer about the German. [Tarusin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, p. 1029]
Stravinsky heard Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in Berlin on 8 December, 1912 and that was the occasion for the letter to Karatïgin where he says:
I saw from your lines that you truly love and understand Schoenberg--that truly remarkable artist of our time. Therefore I thought you might be interested to learn about his very latest composition, in which the whole extraordinary essence of his creative genius is most intensely concentrated [i. e. Pierrot Lunaire]. [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 824]
Another commentator on connections between Schoenberg and Stravinsky was theorist Allen Forte who said in his 1978 study of The Rite that: The Rite of Spring Stravinsky employed extensively for the first time the new harmonies that first emerged in the works of Schoenberg and Webern around 1907-08 [quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 1022]
In later years both Schoenberg and Stravinsky said a lot of critical, even derogatory things, about one another, which illustrates more the fact that they were career rivals.

For an envoi let's hear some of Pierrot Lunaire, one of the most unusual pieces in Schoenberg's output:

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Writing About Music: Then and Now

This is a followup to an item in my miscellanea yesterday. I mentioned that nowadays there is never anything in the mainstream media that requires the slightest acquaintance with music to understand--and that applies specifically to articles supposedly about music! --I know!

I'm finally getting around to reading volume 2 of Richard Taruskin's magisterial book on Stravinsky: Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra. He could only have written this if he were intimately familiar not only with every piece that Stravinsky composed, but also every letter he ever wrote and every letter that was ever written to him (if it were preserved in some archive somewhere) as well as every article every written about Stravinsky in any language whatsoever. And he is not shy about offering voluminous quotes and musical examples. This two volume monograph should be the model for any future publications of this type. Sadly, I suspect that there will be virtually no future publications of this type! Who has the intellectual capacity to do it? Right now I am wishing that there were a similar book(s) on Arnold Schoenberg, because surely he deserves it. But never mind, let's just have a brief sample of the Taruskin to get my argument started.

Stravinsky was feted by the French avant-garde, especially by one Jacques Rivière in the pages of the Nouvelle revue française. This kind of magazine really doesn't exist any more. It was an aggressively nationalistic (as Taruskin describes it) literary forum and ironically it looked to the aesthetic revolution heralded by Stravinsky and the ballets russe as a model. As Taruskin describes it:
Henri Ghéon, one of the founding editors, would announce: "Our dream has been realized--and not by us." The Russians great gift to the French had been an object lesson in "two principles common to all the arts, unity of conception and respect for materials [respect de la matière]." The exemplar of exemplars had been The Firebird, which "confronts us with the most exquisite miracle of equilibrium--of sound, movement, form--that we have ever dreamed of seeing... [Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, p. 990]
Rivière was particularly eloquent about the Rite:
The great novelty of Le sacre du printemps is its renunciation of "sauce." Here is a work that is absolutely pure. Bitter and harsh, if you will; but a work in which no gravy deadens the taste, no art of cooking smooths or smears the edges. It is not a "work of art," with all the usual attendant fuss. Nothing is blurred, nothing is mitigated by shadows; no veils and no poetic sweeteners; not a trace of atmosphere. The work is whole and tough, its parts remain quite raw; they are served up without digestive aids; everything is crisp, intact, clear and crude. [Rivière, Nouvelles études, 73, italics added by Taruskin, quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 992]
There are a couple of points I am trying to make. First, that the music of Stravinsky was important to the art scene in general. Paris was a major, perhaps the major center of artistic activity and Stravinsky was at the heart of it. As such he received real criticism, not just positive as in this case, but lots of negative as well. His work was a nexus of aesthetic debate. Second, notice who Stravinsky is being contrasted with. Who was active in Paris in the early part of the century whose music could be described as atmospheric and poetic? Debussy, of course. Despite that fact that they were friends, it was necessary in terms of the aesthetic battle to see Stravinsky as being the counterpoint to Debussy. Another thing to note here is that the coming neo-classical period of Stravinsky is being hinted at with phrases like "crisp, intact, clear."

Sadly, musical discussion in the mainstream media these days is really not about any kind of aesthetic questions. It consists of puff pieces that simply advertise upcoming concerts such as the piece I mentioned in the miscellanea yesterday. This probably covers 90% of the writing. The other kind of piece revolves entirely around identity politics: why are there not more women conductors, why are there not more black composers featured and so on.

The inevitable conclusion is that, apart from being a small source of income for a few people, classical contemporary music really has very little importance in society and there is virtually nothing at stake musically!

Let's listen to The Firebird for our envoi. This is Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000:

Friday, September 27, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

The Plácido Domingo affair continues to unfold: Domingo withdraws from Met Opera after harassment reports.
The Metropolitan Opera announced Tuesday that Plácido Domingo had agreed to withdraw from his slate of scheduled performances at the opera house following allegations of sexual harassment made by multiple women in two Associated Press stories. The opera legend indicated that he would never again perform at the Met.
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We have obtained a pre-publication look at an upcoming Babylon Bee article titled: Opera companies in the US, unable to confirm that no tenors, basses or baritones have committed sexual harassment against their co-stars, promise that all future productions will feature women-only casts. Directors of Russian opera productions most affected.

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Warning: exposure to this next clip may make you feel that life is no longer worth living, at least if you happen to love the middle movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo:

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I don't know if music is in such dire straits that this is the most creative and interesting musician practicing today, but it certainly seems as if the MacArthur people think so: SMALL PICKINGS: JUST ONE MUSICIAN AMONG 26 MACARTHUR GENIUS GRANTS.
Among the 26 creators and thinkers who will each receive $625,000 MacArthur Fellowships over the next five years, there is one musician.
Here’s the citation
Mary Halvorson, 38, guitarist and composer
“Experimenting at the intersection of jazz and rock with a signature sound on her instrument and an aesthetic that evolves and surprises with each new album and configuration of bandmates.”
And the clip:

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Another in the seeming never-ending series of stories about long hidden sexual harassment in the world of classical music: Music's Perpetually Open Secret. The discussion there is very hard to excerpt, so go read the whole thing.

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Anne Midgette, one of my favourite music critics, is resigning from her post at the Washington Post.

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I am developing this theory about the social presence of music: all discussion of music in mainstream society must now revolve around politics and specifically identity politics because the general public no longer has the knowledge or interest in the aesthetic aspects of music. Case in point, this initiative: Hearing injustice a concert based on a group of pieces responding to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
As Portland composer Kenji Bunch watched last year’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which included accusations of sexual assault, he “had this weird idea of a concert” based on the hearings.
“It was such a fraught moment, a watershed event,” Bunch recalled. “Something about the theatricality of that hearing just seemed to me that it could work for this kind of artistic exploration.”
Another piece I saw today was about the role of black composers in American music. What is common to both of these stories and, frankly, to just about all the other stories in the mainstream media, is that the subject matter is immediately comprehensible to any reader, even if they have absolutely no knowledge of nor interest in music as such. Everyone understands the ideas of sexual harassment and racism. No need to explain anything. On the surface at least. And if there are explanations they are political or social ones, nothing to do with the music as music.

I have just been reading some of the journalism that was written about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring around the time of its premiere and it is remarkable how it focussed on the music itself and the choreography of the ballet. Magazines even published pages from the score as musical examples. The whole focus was on the aesthetic innovations of the music. Not a trace of that in the above article! This is as close as they get to actual mention of the music:
She and Bunch both believe classical music brings unique authority to bear on today’s issues. “We have a richer harmonic palette that lets you explore complex emotional things without words, so people can bring their own meaning to them,” she says.
And, of course, that comment about a "richer harmonic palette" is mere hand-waving likely based on no actual musical facts. I seriously doubt that their "harmonic palette" is any richer than that of Stravinsky or Schoenberg.

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 That brings us to our envois for today, of which we will have two. First, a piece for piano trio and percussion by Kenji Bunch. (I have heard the Ahn Trio play music by Kenji Bunch in a couple of concerts in our summer chamber music festival.)

Good stuff, but the harmonic palette is not hugely rich. Next, the Piano Concerto, op. 42 by Arnold Schoenberg: