Thursday, October 31, 2019

Bachian Variations

Speaking of variations, Bach did a really interesting variation piece that follows the French clavicinist model of doing "doubles" on a dance movement. A "double" follows the basic harmonic and metric structure of the original with varied figuration. A famous example is by Rameau where he does six doubles on a simple gavotte in A minor:

Bach's Violin Partita no. 1 in B minor is a tour de force in which each movement is followed by its double. Shunseke Sato performs it for the Netherlands Bach Society:

Compare this kind of variation with what Beethoven did with the form.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


One of the most interesting musical forms is the theme and variations. When I was a concert guitarist I only played two examples of the form, one the Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, op. 9 by Fernando Sor. The theme is from “Das klinget so herrlich” towards the end of Act I of The Magic Flute. The other was the 20 Variations and Fugue on "Folio de España" by Manuel Ponce. In both cases, I think I only played them in concert once! While I loved the Ponce, at nearly thirty minutes long, it was just too big for most recital programs. The Sor, while charming, did not quite seem worth the effort of mastering all the intricate figurations. Mauro Giuliani wrote several sets of theme and variations, but I found them rather formulaic and again, not really worth the effort. So, I guess I wasn't a big fan of the form!

There are innumerable sets of rather uninspired variations for all instruments, but there are a few brilliant examples that stand out: the Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach, of course, and the Diabelli Variations by Beethoven to which we could add the Haydn Variations by Brahms and perhaps the variations on "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" by Frederic Rzewski (pronounced "ZHEF-skee"). The Bach is for harpsichord and the others for piano except the Brahms which was written for two pianos, but is more often heard in the orchestral version.

Variation form is, for composers, a technical challenge and an exercise in creativity. What makes it interesting to the listener is the brilliant figuration and the continuity of structure across the variations. Possibly the greatest master of the variation form was Beethoven who left us many, many examples, all of them well executed.

I mentioned "continuity of structure" above and if you were wondering what I meant, this is what unifies the variations. A very bad set of variations would be one in which each variation was simply different from the others. There would be no unity, just a random collection of ideas. Theme and variation form involves a dynamic tension between what is retained across the variations and what is varied. Each variation, therefore, needs to retain the basic structure of the theme while presenting an interesting variation on that structure. This is often done using what Schoenberg calls a motive of variation, a figure or embellishment that is perhaps derived from the original theme and is used in a predetermined form throughout a variation thereby unifying that variation. If this is unclear, it is very clear to the ear! One single figuration is often used for a whole variation and then a different one is used for the next variation.

The theme needs to have clear and distinct qualities that the listener will be able to easily identify across the variations and for this reason composers have often used folk tunes with simple harmonies or simple melodies from operas. Beethoven set a melody from an opera by Ditters von Dittersdorf that will illustrate some of these features. Here is the piece, 13 Variations on an Arietta by Dittersdorf, WoO 66 (the "WoO" refers to a "work without opus number") and the arietta is "Es war einmal ein alter mann." The pianist is Alfred Brendel:

One unique element of the theme is that in measure 21 the theme stops on the dominant of the dominant ( V of V or B major) and there is a measure rest with a fermata. After, there is a short coda with a return to the original tune followed by a cadential formula. Beethoven retains this pause in every single variation and often uses it to set up a short section in a contrasting mood using a different tempo, meter or harmony before returning to the original tune. Here is the theme and I have circled the measure pause:

UPDATE: I forgot, I I also played the Theme and Variations by Lennox Berkeley.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Sunday Diversion

I wish I could put something up occasionally without telling you what it is--make you guess. It is quite an interesting exercise because it sidetracks our biases and enables us to listen without prejudice. I would like to put up this piece without you knowing what it is, but with YouTube you can't really do that.

I said a while back that Schoenberg's music, despite its reputation, isn't really atonal. I was waiting for some disparaging comments, but none appeared! Mind you, his music certainly redefines, extends and complexifies tonality to a high degree, but it isn't atonal. Even when it is twelve-tone, there are tonal-type relationships between the transpositions of the rows. And, even in his middle years, in the late 1930s, we find a piece like the Chamber Symphony No. 2, began in 1906 but not completed until 1939, given a key signature of E-flat minor.

It is a surprisingly beautiful piece. Let's listen. This is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antonello Manacorda. There are only two movements: Adagio and Con Fuoco.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

We're Eclectic!

But only on Saturdays, so don't get used to it. The big news of the day is:

  • Today is Domenico Scarlatti's birthday, October 26, 1685 which makes him the same age as J. S. Bach, three hundred and thirty four years old.
  • And Kanye West has a new album out--Christian hip-hop. Hmm, the 21st century is not turning out as I expected.
So let's have a couple of pieces. First, one of my favorite Scarlatti sonatas, K. 544, played by Leo Brouwer on guitar:

And a song from the new Kanye West album, Jesus is King, "Closed on Sunday":

And what if you made a song out of the ding you get when you leave your car door open with the keys in the ignition?

Keeping with the religious theme, here is Exsultate Jubilate by Mozart with Regula Mühlemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada:

I've always wondered, did Mozart write stuff like that because he loved sopranos? Or because he hated sopranos?

Friday, October 25, 2019

Historical Fiction

I tend to alternate between worrying whether I am not focused enough on music in this blog and whether I am too focused on some music in particular! It does say in the frontispiece that the topics include "popular culture ... and whatever else catches my fancy..." So this will be a post with almost no music in it.

For much of my life I have been an avid reader of historical fiction, by which I mean fiction, usually though not always light fiction, that is set in historical times and involves recreating long-lost worlds and characters. Incidentally, music too can be a gateway into the atmosphere and character of times long ago. Take the organum of Léonin and Pérotin for example:

One of the first historical novelists I discovered was Mary Renault whose book The Mask of Apollo was assigned reading in some course or another:

This book is set in Ancient Greece and is written from the point of view of an actor so we get a lot of interesting details about Greek tragedy (not comedy if you are wearing the mask of Apollo). One of the people befriended by the actor was Plato. Renault also wrote a number of other books set in classical times including a trilogy about Alexander as well as a couple of books about Theseus and one with the poet Simonides as the focus. Good stuff, if a tad romanticized.

Another writer I encountered early on was C. S. Forester who wrote an extensive series of books about a Royal Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars named Horatio Hornblower. Also good stuff, but again a tad romanticized. Later on another writer, Patrick O'Brian, covered the same ground but much more authentically in his series of novels with Jack Aubrey, RN captain and Stephen Maturin, surgeon and spy. No romanticizing here, and an incredible wealth of historic detail. There was a wonderful film by Peter Weir based on these novels. The film ends with a great musical scene. Both Maturin and Aubrey are amateur musicians, playing the violin and cello, and in fact they met at a quartet concert. Music is a recurring theme in the books.

A more serious book by French writer Marguerite Yourcenar moves from light fiction, no matter how well done, to more serious fiction. One sentence from the English translation (she wrote in French) has stayed with me ever since I read the book some forty years ago: "I begin to discern the profile of my death." Hadrian actually wrote an autobiography which was lost to history so Yourcenar tried to re-create it.

Another writer of serious historical fiction was Robert Graves (even though he didn't regard it as serious). His two books on the emperor Claudius, I, Claudius and Claudius the God were also attempts to recreate Claudius' own memoirs, also lost.

It is distressing how much we have lost of ancient literature. Did you know that we have seven plays (roughly) by each of the great Athenian tragedians simply because the Byzantine copyists decided that that was how much they should preserve? The BBC did a quite successful television series based on the Graves books with Derek Jacobi in the eponymous role. Graves also wrote a number of other historical novels from Homeric times to the 17th century, but I have not read them. It doesn't count as historic fiction, but his memoir of his own experiences as an officer in the trenches in WWI, Goodbye to All That, is a very powerful book indeed. In one of my favorite passages, Graves, who had T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) as roommate at Oxford after the war, introduces him to Ezra Pound, who was passing through: "Lawrence, this is Pound. You won't like one another."

One of my very favorite historical novels is Imperial Governor by George Shipway which is a memoir of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, governor of the Roman province of Britain at the time of the rebellion of Boudicca. It is a brilliant evocation of the atmosphere and logistics of the time down to the exact range of ballistas and legion battle tactics.

I just discovered that he wrote other historical novels and right now I am reading the first book of a two book series focused on Agamemnon and Mycenaean Greece. He also wrote another set in Medieval France. Be prepared for a lot of historic vocabulary!

So there you go, a whole bunch of books that you will either love or that will bore you to tears depending on your personal preferences.

For our envoi, here is that ending scene from the Peter Weir film of Master and Commander:

Clip updated.

Friday Miscellanea

Blogging is an ever pleasing delight and it was particularly interesting this week when music historian Ted Gioia left a comment critiquing my critique of a recent column he wrote for Lapham's Quarterly on Bach. This is the best thing about blogging. We can express opinions and hash them out with others in a civil manner. Thanks very much to Ted for his comment and to all the others who leave comments here. It adds immeasurably to the value of the discussion.

Now I'm waiting for musicologist Richard Taruskin to leave a comment taking me to task for something I said about Stravinsky! I would probably just faint dead away...

* * *

Heather MacDonald in Quillette gives what appears to me to be the fairest summary of the Plácido Domingo affair: The Defenestration of Domingo.
The feminist nostrum that “the personal is political” was false from its inception. It has now become a warhead aimed at the edifice of a civilization deemed too male. Institutions like the Metropolitan Opera, LA Opera, or the Philadelphia Orchestra should be the prime defenders of that civilization. When, instead, they surrender to furious irrationality and sacrifice our greatest artists to avoid a wholly imaginary threat, they betray their most fundamental mission. I am cutting off my support for the Metropolitan Opera; other donors who care about our musical inheritance should do the same.
At least cowardice in the face of feminist grievance appears to be predominantly an Anglo-American affliction. So far, Domingo’s future engagements in Moscow, Vienna, Hamburg, Valencia, Milan, Cologne, Krakow, Berlin, Madrid, and Munich have not been cancelled. The director of the Vienna State Opera, Dominique Meyer, said over the summer that Vienna would honor its contracts with Domingo, who is “valued both artistically and as a human being by all in this house.”
It seems to have been pretty much a North American disease.

* * *

The Wall Street Journal takes the unusual step of publishing a straight-ahead review of three new classical piano recordings--with no political hook! What's next, the Babylon Bee becoming America's paper of record? Oh, wait, I think that already happened.
Clever packaging, deft promotion and imaginative musical content may help draw attention to classical recordings. But in order for an album to distinguish itself artistically, it must communicate an almost subliminal connection between a performer’s skills and a composer’s inspiration.
Three very different young pianists have new releases out this month that exhibit that kind of elemental kinship: 36-year-old Swiss keyboard artist Francesco Piemontesi, 26-year-old Italian virtuoso Beatrice Rana, and 25-year-old American composer-performer Conrad Tao.
I heard Francesco Piemontesi play the late Mozart Piano Concerto KV 595 in Salzburg in August accompanied by the Mozarteum Orchestra and he did an excellent job.

* * *

Math is a deeply frustrating subject for many elementary and high school students. But Seattle public schools are gearing up to accuse math of a litany of more serious crimes: imperialism, dehumanization, and oppression of marginalized persons.
The district has proposed a new social justice-infused curriculum that would focus on "power and oppression" and "history of resistance and liberation" within the field of mathematics. The curriculum isn't mandatory, but provides a resource for teachers who want to introduce ethnic studies into the classroom vis a vis math.
Read the whole thing for the full picture. I don't just mention this to cast a pall over your week, but because while in this context the ideas seem particularly idiotic, something similar crept into the new musicology a long time ago. This is the politicization of math, but there are those who did something similar with music theory. Yes, C major is likely imperialistic, dehumanizing and oppressing. If you buy the political package. But you can make it all go away by just seeing that that is all that it is: a political agenda with which you need not agree. This public service announcement was brought to you by my Grade V teacher who insisted that we learn fractions: BECAUSE!

* * *

You know how much I love an aesthetic debate? Well one has just erupted in the mainstream media over the super-hero blockbuster films versus, well, the "regular" cinema. On one side we have the great filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola of "Godfather" fame along with the guy who got the ball rolling, Martin Scorsese, director of a gallery of great films. The AP has the story: In Scorsese and Coppola, Marvel meets formidable foes.
Plenty of rumbling has followed since Scorsese, in a magazine interview earlier this month, suggested Marvel movies aren’t cinema but “something else” — theme park rides uninterested in “trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Coppola doubled down over the weekend, telling journalists in France, gathered to see him accept the Prix Lumiere, that Scorsese was not only right but that he didn’t go far enough. Marvel films, he said, are “despicable.”
Read the whole thing. For me, I lost interest a while back in films where ridiculously overpaid actors stand around in even more ridiculous costumes uttering the occasional quip in between absolutely ridiculous "action" sequences where computer-generated imagery is used to depict things that violate the laws of physics. It wasn't just the Marvel blockbusters that ruined the movies, it was CGI. Just look at the second "Matrix" movie. Hey, this is a bit like how the computerized drum machine ruined pop music, isn't it?

* * *

Over at Slipped Disc we find Daniel Barenboim lamenting the failure--or is it celebrating the success?--of his political orchestral project West-East Diwan.
Twenty years after he co-founded with Edward Said an orchestra of young Arabs and Israelis, Daniel Barenboim has spoken openly about the Diwan as a dream that has, so far, failed.
In a sombre 20th anniversary interview with the German press agency Barenboim said: ‘The orchestra exists (but not as) an orchestra for peace… We can not do that.
‘Today we cannot play in most Arab countries or in Israel…’
He takes credit for the training and experience the orchestra has given to many young musicians but is frustrated by the lack of political progress.’
I think, if he had asked, I would have said that this is an airy-fairy idea that may be musically interesting but politically will have no effect at all. If the lack of peace is of political value to politically powerful people, then a few musicians aren't going to make any difference whatsoever.

* * *

Top architect Jean Nouvel is suing one of his former clients, the Philharmonie concert hall in Paris, in a dispute over the cost of building the venue, which opened in 2015.
In a complaint filed in the Paris court on October 14, his company Ateliers Jean Nouvel counters a 170-million-euro ($190-million) claim lodged by the Philharmonie de Paris against his company.
The concert hall argues the architect's firm owes them the money because of budget overruns during the building of the hall, sources told AFP Monday.
But the counter-claim filed by the architect's studio describes that demand as "exorbitant" and "unjustified", according to documents seen by AFP.
The cost of the building rose from 173 million euros when the project was announced in 2006 to 386 million euros by the time it opened on January 14, 2015. Each side blames the other for having mismanaged the project.
And isn't the next stage when someone announces that the acoustics are crappy anyway?

* * *

Yesterday was American composer George Crumb's 90th birthday. In honor of the occasion, here is the first movement of his string quartet Black Angels which features a really remarkable panoply of sounds and textures:

* * *

I spent the summer of 1979 in New York and I remember discovering this FM radio station that seemed to play nothing but Haydn quartets and the occasional piece by Webern. It probably wasn't the NPR station that this article is about, but it sure gave me an idea of how remarkable the New York radio scene was. Humanity is Not an Algorithm: What We Lose with WNYC’s Cancellation of New Sounds.
On the airwaves since 1982, “New Sounds” bills itself as “New York Public Radio’s home for the musically curious,” telling us to “free your listening from the limits of genre and algorithm.” Avant garde giant Laurie Anderson was the show’s very first guest. Here was a space on the radio where tuning in could take you to Olafur Arnalds’ otherworldly field recordings of his native Iceland that he transformed into glistening electro-acoustic singles on the album Island Songs. It was a place for Pulitzer Prize winner and Bang On a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe’s Fire In My Mouth, a multimedia orchestral work that compiles archival information collected about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Premiered by New York Philharmonic earlier this year, Fire in My Mouth is a musical exploration of this tragedy for full orchestra, women’s choir and unusual instrumentation that includes 100 pairs of scissors.
The latest news is that the show will NOT be cancelled due to the considerable outcry that greeted the announcement.

* * *

Norman Lebrecht offers a little insight into the politics of the avant-garde over at Slipped Disc: WHEN PIERRE BOULEZ STOPPED SPEAKING TO ME. Go read the whole thing. Boulez was upset that Lebrecht thought that George Crumb was a better composer than he was. There is a nice little critique of Boulez:
Without stretching the contrast, Boulez is a relic of an empirically discredited movement. He has not composed a work of substance for 18 years. His pseudo-scientific theories of musical progress are laughed off by today’s composers. Not one of his works is standard repertoire. Boulez is starting to resemble Arthur Scargill and Egon Krenz, true believers whose creed collapsed.
Crumb, on the other hand, is one of the few composers to change the perception and function of new music in the last third of the 20th century. His electronic string quartet, Black Angels, was an ear-opener to America’s Vietnam generation, suggesting that Haydn’s art form could grapple with post-nuclear conflict. Hearing Angels inspired the formation of Kronos and other front-line ensembles; it has been recorded four times and performed, I suspect, more than any modern string quartet.
That last bit isn't true, of course. I would guess that the Quartet No. 8 by Shostakovich is performed far more often than the Crumb.

* * *

For our envoi today, let's have tenor Plácido Domingo in one of the great tenor arias, "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot by Puccini:

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Blue Over Red

What if your kid comes up to you one day and says, "dad, I can't decide whether to become a visual artist or a composer? What do you recommend?" Not that that is ever going to happen, of course. He or she is more likely to not even ask and to end up choosing between computer coding or marketing. Yes, these are the End Days. But supposing it did happen, you might point out that the odds of making a success of either calling is likely to be 100 to 1. Or perhaps 1,000 to 1.

I was prompted to this thought by an article in Barron's, the financial newsweekly: Mark Rothko’s ‘Blue Over Red’ Could Top $25 Million. That might be behind the paywall so you could try googling the headline. But here is the meat of it:
Mark Rothko’s Blue Over Red from 1953, a critical period during which the artist developed his signature style of abstraction, will headline a Sotheby’s contemporary art auction in New York on Nov. 14.
The painting is expected to fetch between $25 million and $35 million, and will be on public view at Sotheby’s York Avenue galleries beginning Nov. 1.
I suppose that this might be the equivalent of what, in music? An early piece by Steve Reich like Eight Lines? I don't know how much money Steve has made off that piece, but if it were more than a few thousand dollars I would be surprised. I also don't know how much money Mark Rothko made off Blue Over Red, but somebody sure has made a pile. Let me just speculate for a moment: let's say he sold the painting when it was new for, what, $10,000? $50,000? Some collector bought it and either sold it to another collector or collectors until finally it goes up for auction. The individual or group of collectors are going to make an enormous profit. Ok, fair enough.

But now consider the poor composer: not only does he make a pittance from an early commission and performances, he will also make a pittance from sales of the score by his publisher. And two or three pittances does not make much of a muchness. So how do composers make a simple living? The answer is, they don't. Stravinsky did ok for commissions early on, but that was a different time and not duplicable today. Nowadays either you have a university job teaching theory and composition for not much money, or you starve. Philip Glass, a very successful composer, had to work as a moving man, taxi-driver and plumber into his forties before he was making enough in commissions to live on.

It seems to be the case that if you create a unique purchasable object like a painting there are potentially huge gains. But if you create a piece of music, there are not. Unless, of course you are a pop diva. Weird, huh?

Here is Blue Over Red:

And here is Steve Reich's Eight Lines:

From an aesthetic point of view it is hard to see how one is worth $25,000,000 and the other is worth almost nothing.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Retro Book Review: Schoenberg: Fundamentals of Musical Composition

The "retro review" theme is one that I occasionally resort to here. I don't have much interest in reviewing current CDs (or the streaming equivalent), films, tv shows or books, though I have reviewed a concert or two. But the idea of taking a second look at some important ones that have achieved more recognition over time appeals to me. I think one of the best ones I did was a review of several different recordings, from the 70s through the 90s, of recordings of the Bach Goldberg Variations on harpsichord. That was a lot of fun.

I'm reading a "life and works" bio of Schoenberg right now so that means that he is sort of in the back of my mind a lot and I started thinking about this book. I have not worked through it in any detail, but I have browsed it fairly extensively and today I decided to have another look at the section on theme and variations. Here is a quote:
Production of an entire piece through the application of variation is an approach to the logic of larger compositions.
As the name indicates, the piece consists of a THEME and several VARIATIONS upon it. The number of variations is determined by whether it is a movement in a cyclic work, like Op. 26-I, Op. 14/2-II, Op. 111-II; or an independent piece like the 32 Variations in c minor, or the 33 Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. A middle movement in a cyclic work includes a lesser number of variations. Often the piece is concluded by a coda, finale or fugue. In other cases the last variation is extended; and sometimes there is no special ending after the last variation. [Schoenberg: Fundamentals of Musical Composition, p 167.]
I know what you are thinking--that semi-colon in the last sentence is really redundant! Oh, that's not what you were thinking? Perhaps it was that this seems strangely cryptic because it is a quote ripped out of context? Actually, this is from quite near the beginning of that chapter. So what are those compositions referred to only by opus numbers? Who was the composer? The reference to "Diabelli Variations" gives the game away, of course, as the most famous composer who wrote a set of those was Beethoven. But who wrote the mysterious "Op. 26-I"? For the answer we turn to the Explanatory Note in the beginning of the book where it says:
ALL citations of musical literature which do not specify the composer refer to works by Beethoven. If the title is not specified the reference is to his piano sonatas.
Huh? I mean, huh? Isn't Schoenberg one of the notorious enfants terrible of 20th century music? The man who, almost single-handedly destroyed tonality and emptied concert halls everywhere with the screeching dissonance of his music? Isn't he, along with Stravinsky, the father of modernism in music? And you are trying to tell me that in his most important textbook on composition, written between 1937 and 1948, i.e. his mature thoughts on the subject, he doesn't even mention atonality and the overwhelming majority of musical examples are Beethoven? How does this compute?

Well, the truth is that the perception of Schoenberg, like the perception of Stravinsky, is wildly different from the reality. Malcolm MacDonald, the author of the Oxford monograph on Schoenberg, stresses over and over and again that Schoenberg's music is really not atonal and in fact he hated that term. Even his later music, written using serial principles, is often an extension of some kind of tonality.

In 1947 Schoenberg wrote an essay titled "Brahms the Progressive" and his first large-scale compositions were actually attempts to apply the abstract principles of Brahmsian composition to program music. In an interesting irony, Pierre Boulez wrote an essay in 1952 titled "Schoenberg est mort." Perhaps now we could write an essay titled "Schoenberg the Conservative" because I suspect that a close look at his life and work will lead one to the conclusion that everything Schoenberg did was based on a thorough understanding of music history and a reasoned extension of the fundamental concepts of musical structure.

But we have to add a caveat: in the years between when he first made major breakthroughs in composition, around 1908, and when he worked out the concepts of composition with twelve tones in the 1920s, he went through a period of intense musical expressionism where he did everything by sheer intuition. But even there you will find his music thoroughly permeated by intricate imitative counterpoint which itself goes back to Renaissance and Baroque musical structures.

About forty years ago I read R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History and while I forget a lot of the argument, I do remember one point. He observes that you can look at history from two differing perspectives: in terms of innovation and dislocation, i.e. what has changed, and in terms of continuity, i.e. what has not changed. The bias towards modernism has made all recent music histories look at it from the former point of view. The important composers are supposedly all revolutionaries, radicals and innovators--the rest are merely derivative. But it is equally valid to look at it from the other point of view and see what continued, what was conserved, what was not radical and innovative. Mozart is in no sense a lesser composer for being more of a synthesist than an innovator.

I haven't done much reviewing of the book, have I? The important thing is that this is Schoenberg's major practical guide to music composition. Really, do you have to know much more?

Let's have an envoi of a little music by Beethoven. Here are those mysterious 32 Variations in C minor with pianist Evgeny Kissin:

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Where do they keep the good songs?

That was Leonard Cohen's comment: "if I knew where they kept the good songs I would go there more often." Yeah, me too. I'm still struggling with the first movement of my String Quartet No. 2. The last two movements are already written, but the first remains ab ovo (which means in or of the egg, if I recall the Latin correctly). I have gone back to pencil and paper as it offers the least resistance to the putting down of ideas. This morning, over the course of forty or so minutes, I managed to create perhaps seven or eight seconds of music, which tomorrow I might throw away. I am reminded of the comment of an old Hollywood screenwriter who once said: "writing is easy, you just sit there staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood pop out on your forehead."

Where was that bassoon melody that opens the Rite of Spring before Stravinsky wrote it down? Was it in his head somewhere? Or in an old book of Russian folksongs in a somewhat different form? One begins to see why creative people act so strangely or are susceptible to the lures of drink or drugs. Sometimes you just want to shake something loose.

But that's not me. I'm just going to have to keep sitting in front of that blank sheet of paper a lot longer. Sometimes I think I need to plan the work out beforehand, have a harmonic or formal outline. But that never seems to work for me. So I have gone back to my old way of working: just put down whatever occurs to you without thinking about it. Then when you have a bunch of stuff written down, start to try and make sense of it. What would work as basic motif or idea? What would be a nice ornamental idea? Any harmonic implications? You know, that kind of stuff.

Maybe not Beethoven, but Mozart and Haydn had it easy in one sense. They had a whole bunch of styles and ideas laying around. Sure, Haydn was responsible for getting them going, but Mozart, I suspect, simply learned every style there was by imitating it from an early age. Then he made them all MORE PERFECT. Not so easy after all!

Let's listen to the Piano Concerto no 27 in B flat, KV 595 by Mozart:

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: