Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Couple More Haiku

I'm working on the Friday Miscellanea, collecting little tidbits from here and there, but I have a busy week, so I won't have anything much else for you. A few more haiku have turned up, though, (meaning I wrote a few more), so here are a couple:

Too much weather

From the valley to the peak:

Rain, then hail, then snow.

* * *

Fir trees on the ridge

(We are resting by the stream)

Burst into flame!

* * *

Both of these call for a comment. They both recall my experiences out of high school when I worked in forestry for a couple of years. This was in British Columbia where logging is a large industry. The first haiku recalls a day in early spring when young trees are planted. We were working on a mountainside, going up and down the slope, and at the bottom it was raining (it is usually raining on the coast of BC), in the middle of the slope it turned to hail, and a light snow at the top. So all day long we passed through these three. The second haiku is from a brief experience as a fire-fighter. This was also in the mountains and as we refreshed ourselves with water from a little stream in a ravine, a whole range of fir trees on the ridge above us suddenly burst into flame, from the base to the top. It was very dramatic and quite unexpected. What happens in the summer in BC is that if a fire gets started, it can work its way along the forest floor, slowly consuming the year's-long buildup of bark and pine-needles until it reaches more trees. A fir tree in a dry summer month is like a torch waiting to be lit.

Many years after he wrote it, Sibelius said that the opening of his Symphony No. 6 always reminded him of the scent of new snow. This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra:

Monday, October 26, 2020

Russian Modes

How odd that I didn't have a label for "modes" until just now! I recall standing about ten feet away from Richard Taruskin many years ago at the annual American Musicological Society conference (it was in Baltimore that year) when he asked the Russian musicologist who was giving a talk on Tchaikovsky where one of the modes he had just mentioned could be found in the music. The Russian gave a moment's thought and said, "it is in volume two of the collected works, the choral piece such-and-such." Musicologists know all the details! In any case, I forget now exactly what mode that was, but it is certainly the case that Russians use a lot of weird modes not found elsewhere. Let's have a look at them, shall we?

I have mentioned the octatonic scale often enough here. It is a symmetrical scale that comes in two forms, a "minor" one and a "phrygian" one. Those are not the official names, I'm not sure they have official names. But one starts with a tone-semitone repeated, the "minor" form, while the other is reversed, starting with a semitone-tone repeated, hence "phrygian." I just call them that for my own convenience. Here they are:

I think the first time they were actually used in a musical composition was by Franz Liszt, but the scale really found a home with Russian composers, especially Rimsky-Korsakov and his students. In Russia it is known as the "Korsakov scale." Stravinsky used it a lot and so did Shostakovich. Russian musicologists have pointed out that Shostakovich used other modes as well and Russian musical history is particularly rich in weird modes. From the book Shostakovich Studies, p. 91, here are some other Russian modes:

Click to enlarge

If the only Tchaikovsky you know is the Piano Concerto No. 1 played by Yuja Wang in an incredibly short skirt, then this piece by Tchaikovsky may surprise you: the Hymn of the Cherubim:

Kanye West and Taste

I ran across a fascinating post over at Ann Althouse about Kanye West and taste. The title is too long for a link, but here is the important quote:

"It was something that God put in my heart back in 2015. A few days before the MTV awards it hit me in the shower. When I first thought of it, I just started laughing to myself and all this joy came over my body, through my soul. I felt that energy and spirit. Two days later, I accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the MTV Awards. Instead of performing my array of hit songs, I gave just my perspective on awards shows.... It even took heart to say it in that context and people were just like: Oh! Their minds were blown.... I had different friends -- some people in the music industry, some tech elites -- and they took it as a joke.... I'm completely confident that I will figure out how to get America out of debt, that I have the ability, once I see everything. I never make the wrong decision when I'm given all the information. That's my skill set. Anything I go into — producing, rap, homes, clothing, anything — once I'm given the right information, I apply my taste. And I have the best taste on the planet. Could you imagine Quincy Jones as a president? Walt Disney? Steve Jobs? For America to be as warming and inviting as Disney World. There used to be this dream. People still have this dream of coming to America.... I know that me as president would be the best thing that would ever happen for America's foreign policy. I've traveled more than any president already, and I bring people together. I put rivals on songs together to create masterpieces.... I'm definitely 100% winning in 2024...."

And here is the video:

Now, of course, his 2020 campaign went nowhere, but what interests me is the assertion of the validity of the judgement of taste. In my numerous posts on aesthetics, I have often talked about taste:

And there are lots of others. I think what Kanye is saying is that he has an intuitive grasp of what is good and what is not good and the exercise of this is what we call "taste" --or used to! The whole notion of taste was formidably disparaged by modernist artists as you can read in the first of my posts linked to above. Picasso hated the idea of "taste." The notion of taste is tied up with that other heterodox notion of "quality." We have no problem with the idea of poor quality or high quality when it comes to fruit and vegetables, technology, automobiles or fabric. But we have been taught to shy away from any kind of hierarchy of quality when it comes to the arts. TASTE IS SUBJECTIVE we cry! I think what this comes from is the way things like beauty and ugliness are received. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder because that is where it is received. But this does not mean that beauty is subjective, just that its reception is.

What do I mean by that? Well, it is obvious that there are vast differences in quality between different artworks. The sketch I did the other day has value only to myself, but the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci are of immense value. And not just "in the eye of the beholder." They can be auctioned for vast sums of money because they have objective aesthetic value even though different people may perceive them differently. You might perceive a painting differently on different days and at different times of your life, but that does not change the painting itself. The subjectivity is only in yourself.

But somehow, out of this, the general consensus is that aesthetics is relative. That everyone's judgement is equally valid. Obviously not. Some people have high levels of intuitive judgement of taste and others do not. Kanye creates very popular music and designs very popular running shoes. In certain areas, he has a great capacity for aesthetic judgement.

I'm not sure it would be safe to trust him with the economy, though...

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Sunday Musings

I know I have just not been posting as often as I used to, but I have a variety of exciting excuses I'm sure you would like to hear! In the early years of the blog I would often post more than once a day. I had more of an educational urge then and I suppose I equated my blog audience to a group of potential students. This comes from teaching music in one way or another for two or three decades.

This reminds me of the one time I think I ever impressed my father! The only problem I ever had with my parents was that they, due to their educational and cultural limitations, could never appreciate to any extent my musical activities. Even if I played a high-profile concert, they had to struggle to see why it was worthy in any way. But once, my father was impressed. When I was quite early in my career, still an undergraduate music student, I got a job teaching an adult education guitar class once a week. It was out in a remote suburb so the first time I taught the class, my father drove me out there and hung around during the class. It was a big challenge: a huge number of aspiring guitarists showed up with their horrible old, untuned guitars. Of the hour-long class, I swear it took me the first half hour just to get all those guitars sort-of in tune. The school board expected maybe twenty to show up, but we had sixty students that first night--they split them up afterwards. So, sixty guitar-players, what do you do? I taught them the simplified chords to a simple Bob Dylan song, I don't remember which. So, by the end of the hour, I had them all singing and playing. Together. My father was amazed and couldn't imagine how I had managed to do that.

But I am not in an educational mode so much any more. Sorry! To be honest, while I was pretty good at it, I never really enjoyed teaching that much. Few of the students are talented to a significant extent, so you spend most of your career trapped in a small room with people who aren't very good! I remember the great violinist Paul Kling telling me a story once. He was a child prodigy, broadcast playing concertos on Vienna radio when he was nine years old. After a wonderful career touring with the Brahms concerto under Karajan and concert-master in Vienna, Louisville (Kentucky) and Tokyo, he was chair of the music department in Victoria, BC, Canada. Once an American violin student auditioned to enter the program and rather aggressively asked why she should study at this obscure Canadian school instead of a big American one (Paul had previously headed the string program at the Indiana University music school). Paul's answer: "Well, I have been fooling everyone for fifty years or so, I guess I can fool you too!"

I'm not sure I am running out of things to say, though that is always a possibility. This is the 3,175th post, after all! But what is true is that more of my energies are directed to composing than blogging. I also notice that since I have taken up journaling, one of my three new hobbies of sketching, fountain pens and journaling, I notice that these activities also take time away from the blog. Finally, it is hard to find new topics other than the ones that have been so thoroughly discussed: the current dire state of classical music (made direr by the plague), the incursions of political thought into the aesthetic realm, the state of popular culture, and the theory and practice of music itself.

Mind you, I have a number of projects left unfinished. I left everyone hanging after analyzing the first half of the first movement of the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich and I have not finished my series of posts on Sofia Gubaidulina and Luigo Nono among others. So there are things to do there.

If anyone has any suggestions for future posts, please share!

It seems as if the big guitar festival this year was in Koblenz and they just posted a number of videos of concerts from the festival. The one that really caught my attention was a terrific performance by Marcin Dylla who played as his second to last piece, that wonderful serenade by Sofia Gubaidulina. He starts with the Lute Suite No. 1 by Bach:

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Haiku of the Week

This blog has not exactly featured poetry previously. In fact, almost the only references have likely been to my song cycle Songs From the Poets when I have put up the occasional clip. I do have some history as a published poet, starting when I was seventeen. But it is something I have not done for a long, long time. Recently, reading over an old journal, I discovered a poem I wrote around 1990 and it was actually pretty decent. Since then I have started writing haiku. This is a pretty good collection if you want to read some traditional haiku:

For those unfamiliar with the form, a haiku is a traditional Japanese poem of only three lines. Typically there are five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five again in the third line. Most classical haiku date from the 17th to 19th centuries. Japanese and English have rather different semantic densities so the haiku often have a different number of syllables in translation.

There are two elements that are often found in haiku, though these should not be thought of as strict rules. The first is the season word. Most haiku reveal the season, often with a single word. Example:

first snowfall…

scarcely enough to cover

the dogshit

--Issa (1763-1827)

Kern, Adam L.. The Penguin Book of Haiku (Penguin Classics) (p. 109). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. 

Another typical element is the "cutting" word which divides the haiku into two parts. Think of it as a twist in the meaning or a surprising comparison. The last line of the haiku quoted above, for example, creates an entirely new context for the first two lines. Another frequent element in haiku is a natural setting with mention of blossoms, or frogs, or weather, or mountains.

Here are two of my recent haiku:

Autumn sounds: birds on roof

They know where they are going

Not sure that we do.


One way the iPad

Cannot rival a book:

Swatting flies!


I hope you enjoy these microscopic poems!

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Scylla of Commercialism

The thing about capitalism and the arts is that when you commercialize music you turn it into a commodity. This was something I always wrestled with as a classical performer and likely an important reason why I ultimately left the business. Today we have a particularly noisome example of the problem. Let's let the Globe and Mail tell the story: A new Glenn Gould remix album hips, hops and isn’t altogether welcome.

A new Canadian album in Glenn Gould’s name is occasioning a furor among fans of the revered pianist. It’s called Uninvited Guests, an adventurous compilation of nine tracks using Gould samples in pop, electronic and hip-hop settings. The composition Gettin' That, for example, takes a loop from Gould’s recording of Bach’s English Suite No. 4 and sets it to a sick beat and well-spit rhymes.

Here is that track (Blogger won't embed):

At least when they did disco versions of Mozart, Mozart's melodies were still prominent. Here little fragments of Gould recordings are used as accompaniments. Legally permitted as we find out from this part of the article:

Until 2017, Posen was the sole executor of the Gould estate. The rights to the pianist’s name, likeness and publishing royalties now belong to Primary Wave Music, the New York-based publishing company and management firm that is home to the likes of Bob Marley, Whitney Houston, Burt Bacharach, Prince and Alice Cooper.

So, a publishing company and management firm bought the rights to Glenn Gould, the public figure and commercial music resource whose music they can now use in whatever way they like. I presume this does not apply to previously released albums, but hey, who knows, I haven't read the legal documents governing that sort of thing. UPDATE: I missed a paragraph relating that Sony was on board with this project, so everything is fair game it seems.

But speaking as someone who has a passing interest in aesthetic issues, I think it is safe to say that this is an aesthetic nightmare. Not only does it turn me off everyone associated with this project who are, I am sure, destined for the fourth circle of hell, Greed, but I am less and less likely to listen to Glenn Gould himself, who seems more and more to be a caricature of himself. Honestly, I would rather listen to Bach played by Friedrich Gulda, Grigory Sokolov and Scott Ross, whose aesthetic standards seem to be intact even, in the case of Gulda and Ross, after their deaths.

Faced with the Scylla of commercialism and the Charybdis of obscurity, I know which I would choose.

Here is Gulda with some Bach from the Well-Tempered Clavier:

Friday Miscellanea

 Here is a very different kind of discussion: JAZZ, HOPE, AND PERVERSE MODERNISM.

In Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, Martha Bayles argues that too much contemporary pop music gets its inspiration from perverse modernism, which “makes obscenity and serious artistic value synonymous.” Rock and pop, argues Bayles, have been warped by decadent European ideas. Bayles observes that there are three kinds of modernism: introverted, or art for art's sake, which includes atonality and experimentation; extroverted, which revitalizes tradition and reaches out to its audience, the way artists like Duke Ellington did; and finally, perverse, whose goal is simply to goad, shock, and blaspheme.

* * *

It looks like the Guardian has launched another one of its mega-projects. In this one they are offering introductions to different composers. Last week it was Haydn: where to start with his music.

Humorous, earnest, prolific and always deeply humane, the Austrian composer is credited with inventing the symphony and the string quartet. Even if that’s not strictly true, his creativity shaped western classical music.

Unfortunately you have to register to read the article.

* * *

I don't want the Friday Miscellanea to be an unrelieved wail of doom, as it easily could be, so here is a ray of hope: 'If we don’t play, we’ll disappear.’ Charlotte Symphony resumes rehearsals carefully 

After sitting dark for months, music and light has filled Knight Theater once again. Twenty-two musicians from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra recently gathered there for their first indoor rehearsals together since March.

Despite challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the symphony is charging ahead with a revamped fall season, including virtual concerts, and carefully adhering to COVID-19 health guidelines to bring live music back to Charlotte.

* * *

What is performing opera like in Europe these days: Lisette Oropesa: ‘I’m glad I wasn’t thrust into superstardom’

“The first thing is that we have to take a Covid test every couple of days,” Oropesa says. “That’s not much of a big deal. We come in and get a nasal swab or a throat swab and that’s it. No one is allowed inside the building if they are not staff and if they have not tested negative. I can’t bring a guest. I can’t bring my manager. I can’t bring my husband. If they’re not specifically approved. Because, within the building, we all wear masks and do our best to maintain social distancing.”

Those rules fall away once the rehearsal starts. “Then we take our masks off and don’t practise social distancing, because we’re doing a proper production, as in holding hands, standing and singing next to each other. For that reason we have to be very, very vigilant that everybody who is on stage with us is tested. But any other time we’re in the building we wear our masks and try to avoid contact.

“The other thing that we have to do is maintain a ledger of every person that we’ve been in contact with every day. If you spend more than 15 minutes with someone, you have to write their name down, just so that if there is a positive test, we have contacts who can be traced.”

It's a strange new reality we are wrestling with these days!

* * *

From Canada: Choir classes with no singing

Music teachers in Canada are being forced to improvise. Choir classes, for example, either must meet outdoors to rehearse or they simply hum and chant their way through class. Host Marco Werman speaks with Toronto-based Anita Elash about how music teachers are managing to keep music programs alive during the pandemic.

* * *

Canadian music critic Arthur Kaptainis muses on the practicalities of musical performance:

Like most government actions, the shutdown of performance spaces was outwardly egalitarian. It might be patently obvious that a karaoke bar in Quebec City is a more likely vector of transmission than a spacious and well-ventilated concert hall seating a fraction of its normal capacity, but it is difficult to base public policy on such distinctions.

Impossible? I am not so sure. A system that permits exemptions linked to modern air circulation and adequate spacing would make it possible to open responsibly operated concert halls and museums while keeping the truly dangerous gatherings at bay.

It is interesting that Legault summoned a rationale for his prohibition of live performance. “…In a theatre, even if you’re only 250 people, even if you’re wearing a mask until you sit down, there is still a risk after an hour or two,” he was quoted as saying, as if sitting quietly in a concert hall can be compared meaningfully with the kind of activity that prevails in a bar.

* * *

 We haven't had any Haydn for a while, so today's envoi is Bernard Haitink conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in his Symphony No. 104:

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A Minimalist Guitar Concerto

 I believe that the last time I saw a video of this guitarist he was playing an arrangement of Arvo Pärt for two guitars. This just appeared on YouTube and might be worth a listen. The first part, at least, reminds me a bit of Philip Glass.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020


 Here is the sixth concert in Igor Levit's Beethoven sonata cycle from this year's Salzburg Festival. This one includes a couple of the most popular sonatas, the Pastoral and the Moonlight. Rather lovely playing. The thing about the Beethoven piano sonatas is that they, along with the Bach chorales, are probably the best course in composition there is.

Will Music in North America Survive?

 I was going to save this for Friday, but we really don't need any more depressing items in the Friday Miscellanea. GRIM NEWS: ONE-THIRD OF MET OPERA MUSICIANS HAVE QUIT NEW YORK.

Musicians of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, who have been upaid since April 1 this year, say 30 percent of their number can no longer afford to live in the New York area and are seeking new lives elsewhere.

Peter Gelb, the Met general manager, has said he will only pay the musicians if they agree to radically reduced rates.

Federal support for the musicians is non-existent.

I noted a couple of weeks ago that 30% of classical musicians in Sweden are leaving the business. This is likely to get worse before it gets better. The question is, if you are a musician, where are you going to go and what are you going to do? The news gets even grimmer when you start asking those questions.

This would seem to be a suitable envoi:


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Civilization and Barbarism

I want to just throw something out for general discussion. I really like it when commentators get fired up and argue with one another and usually the search for truth is advanced in the process. Arguments here have traditionally been conducted in the most courteous way and I assume that will continue to be the case. So here is a quote, that I made up, to ponder:

"You can have my Classical Western music when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!"

Put in more prosaic terms, as wave after wave of progressive initiatives wash over the institutions of Western Classical music, do we feel that the purity of aesthetic pleasure is being diminished or increased? In other words, do we feel or judge that, for example, the attempts to re-imagine Beethoven as a kind of musical Che Guevara or to cancel him entirely, are inherently virtuous or are they barbaric attacks on one of the greatest composers? Similarly, are attempts to equalize the number of female conductors also inherently virtuous or are they either a form of tokenism or a way of discriminating against male conductors? Similarly the projects to increase the number of performances of female composers. Are they inherently virtuous or do they shortchange young male composers? In other words, do we accept the whole ideological package of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity as being not only moral, but urgently required? Or does it merely seem like an excuse to oppress white males? Or is this all so very complicated that we should avoid all discussion?

I throw the question to the floor. Let the comments flow.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

* * *

My greatest disappointment this year was being unable to attend the Salzburg Festival--a disappointment shared by music critic Jay Nordlinger who nonetheless gives a chronicle based on listening to some concerts from the much-abbreviated festival online:

Andrew Manze, the Englishman, conducted an all-Mozart concert. The orchestra was a local band, and a very good one: the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg. Its principal horn, Rob van de Laar (a Dutchman, as his name tells you), was the soloist in the Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat. The pianist Francesco Piemontesi (another man whose name gives his origin) was the soloist in the “Coronation” Concerto. These two soloists are elegant and skilled players. About Manze’s Mozart conducting, I have rhapsodized before. He is a brainy musician and a natural, friendly leader who takes great pleasure in Mozart. So do the players under his baton. You can see it in their faces (as well as hear it in their playing).

What a gift, this conducting, and this music, and music in general—never more than in a screwy, sorrowful, dislocating time.

This was given in the Grosse Saal of the Mozarteum where I attended another Mozart concert last year. Here is a link to that post.

* * *

The Times Literary Supplement asks if it is time to sound An elegy for handwriting?

Is it time to compose an elegy for handwriting? Anne Trubek thinks so – indeed, hopes so. She deems the ability to form a cursive script “merely emblematic”, and dreams of a future in which the school curriculum will include it only for art classes. It will remain solely the domain of calligraphers such as Patricia Lovett, who is herself probably Britain’s best-known practitioner, teacher and advocate. Lovett’s latest book is a gorgeously presented survey of the work of masterly scribes from the third century AD to the twenty-first, culminating, appropriately (and with no false modesty), with her own work. Though Lovett would undoubtedly baulk at such a description, her volume constitutes, in Trubek’s logic, an alluring swansong of an “antiquated” skill.

I think that handwriting might be undergoing a small renaissance due to the current rage for "journaling" whether in bullet form or not. Writing down one's thoughts, goals, musings, projects and accomplishments in a journal rather than in some digital format makes it all more concrete and lasting somehow.

* * *

Things seem to be going backwards in Europe with rising infection levels prompting governments in France and the Netherlands to shut down concerts for the next month.

* * *

The Nation has an interview with John Luther Adams who is, apparently, a "legend." John Luther Adams’s Songs for a Vanished World.

Adams: Musically, I came of age in a time when there was this ongoing war between smart music and pretty music. And one of the things that I discovered was that it’s a false dichotomy. Music can be intellectually airtight and still sock you in the belly or grab you by the ears or seduce you, ravish you. So it brought me back to this idea that music is all about sound. And the mysterious power of sound to touch us and move us and make us more fully human in ways that perhaps nothing else can.

* * *

Igor Levit won the Instrumental Recording of the Year at Gramophone Magazine for his Beethoven Sonata Cycle.

* * *

Alex Ross has a piece at The New Yorker about The Hidden Costs of Streaming Music.

Listening to music on the Internet feels clean, efficient, environmentally virtuous. Instead of accumulating heaps of vinyl or plastic, we unpocket our sleek devices and pluck tunes from the ether. Music has, it seems, been freed from the grubby realm of things. Kyle Devine, in his recent book, “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” thoroughly dismantles that seductive illusion. Like everything we do on the Internet, streaming and downloading music requires a steady surge of energy. Devine writes, “The environmental cost of music is now greater than at any time during recorded music’s previous eras.” He supports that claim with a chart of his own devising, using data culled from various sources, which suggests that, in 2016, streaming and downloading music generated around a hundred and ninety-four million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions—some forty million more than the emissions associated with all music formats in 2000. Given the unprecedented reliance on streaming media during the coronavirus pandemic, the figure for 2020 will probably be even greater.

Do you ever get the feeling that progressive environmentalism will not be happy until they have forced all of us to return to pre-civilization levels of energy use? Have you heard the joke "What did progressives use for light before candles? Electricity."

* * *

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a review of a troubling book: The Great Unread: On William Deresiewicz’s “The Death of the Artist” 

EARLY IN HIS new book, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, William Deresiewicz relates two stories often told about the arts today. From Silicon Valley and its boosters, we hear: “There’s never been a better time to be an artist.” Anyone can easily market their own music, books, or films online, drum up a thousand true fans, and enjoy a decent living. We see proof of this, time and again, in profiles of bold creators who got tired of waiting to be chosen, took to the web, and saw their work go viral.

The artists tell another tale. Yes, you can produce and post your work more easily, but so can everyone else. Every year, every major venue — SoundCloud, Kindle Store, Sundance — is inundated with thousands if not millions of songs, books, and films, but most sink like a stone. Of the 6,000,000 books in the US Kindle Store, the “overwhelming majority” of which are self-published, “68 percent sell fewer than two copies a month.” Only about 2,000 US Kindle Store authors earn more than $25,000 per year. Spotify features roughly 2,000,000 artists worldwide, but less than four percent of them garner 95 percent of the streams. The pie has been “pulverized into a million tiny crumbs.” We may now have “universal access” to the audience, but “at the price of universal impoverishment.”

You should read the whole thing. The review goes on to note that the narrative described in the first paragraph turns out to be pure propaganda--the second paragraph describes the reality. The truth is that if you are spending most of your time on networking and promoting your "art" is likely to be little more than shallow entertainment. And why would we be surprised at that?

* * *

 Let's have a couple of envois to chase away our tears after that last article. Here is Gianluca Capuano conducting the Mozarteumorchester with Julia Lezhneva at the Salzburg Festival 2020:

And here is the 7th concert in Igor Levit's cycle of all the Beethoven piano sonatas, also from the Salzburg Festival this year:

Let's have a bonus envoi. This is the very young Kvartett Saphir from Norway playing two movements from the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich:


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Guest Post: Jack on Guitar Counterpoint

Today, a special guest post from an old friend who has done a great deal of research into how the 16th century vihuelistas managed counterpoint:

Bryan has asked me to write a guest post summarizing my research into counterpoint on the guitar. This has been difficult to condense to a short essay because of its extensive ramifications into further areas of research: the histories of the lute, of counterpoint instruction, and of intonation, fretting and tuning. Here I address only my central discovery of an authentic 16th century method of fugue for the vihuela.

 I have been a commercial musician for 50 years, but in my teens, before learning the more lucrative skill of jazz harmony, I studied Jeppesen’s Counterpoint  [Knud Jeppesen, Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century (in Danish, Copenhagen 1931, in English NY 1939, reprint Dover 1992)]. Over a period of 40 years I composed many species counterpoint exercises and a few studies in imitation, but Jeppesen’s method does not address fugue. Not to denigrate the valuable practice of species counterpoint, I only state that it raises some issues when applied to the guitar; this we will save for another essay. However, I ask: of what use is “counterpoint” without Fugue? Is not Fugue the real goal of counterpoint study? Species counterpoint, after all, is only a form of glorified four-part harmony.

Ten years ago I studied Fux’s teaching on fugue from his 1725 Gradus Ad Parnassum. [English trans. by Alfred Mann in The Study of Fugue (Rutgers Univ. Press 1958, reprint Dover 1987), pp 75-123.] To my disappointment I found his method not practical for the guitar. Fux assumes more independence of the voices and more florid motion than is possible on the fingerboard. But in 2013 I had my first nine-string guitar built, with fanned frets and a range from F#1 to F6. I wished to review the history of fugue, to see if I might find another approach, and this instrument proved useful in studying keyboard music. 

In 2018, several years into my fugue research project, I read and transcribed Fray Thomás de Sancta Maria’s 1565 Libro Llamado Arte de Tañer Fantasía, obtained online. The title page states that it is “for harp, keyboard or vihuela”, but in fact it is written for a keyboard with a range from C2 to A5, a range which my nine-string guitar accomodates fairly well, not perfectly. A plucked-string instrument designed specifically for the study of TSM’s work might be an eleven-course A-lute A4-E4-B3-G3-D3-A2, with five unfretted basses G2-F2-E2-D2-C2, basses which would correspond exactly to the short octave (lacking accidentals) on TSM’s keyboard. But I do fairly well with my own instrument. 

Though often exceeding the practical range of a six-course instrument, TSM’s affinity with the style of the vihuelists is such that much of his music does fit comfortably on the fingerboard with little modification. TSM’s model fantasía in the Dorian authentic mode [Thomás de Sancta Maria, Libro Llamado Arte de Tañer Fantasía (Valladolid 1565), Book I, f67v] opens with a point of imitation very similar to the point that Mudarra used for the very first fantasía in his Tres Libros en Cifra of 1546.

Note that both Mudarra’s and TSM’s soprano lines cover completely the upper Dorian authentic range D4 -D5, and both tenor lines cover the lower Dorian authentic range D3-D4. Mudarra’s alto and bass occupy only their respective modal pentachords D-A, thus not declaring themselves as either authentic or plagal, while TSM’s alto covers the partial plagal range A3-G4, and his bass occupies only the lower register of the lower plagal range, A2-E3. 

Example 1: Mudarra’s Dorian authentic point: 

Click to enlarge

Example 2: TSM’s Dorian authentic point: 

The Arte provides a guitar-friendly method of fugue (not to say that it is technically easy by any means) in a style similar to that of the vihuelistas, although with consistently denser voice leading. In a nutshell, the technique is (see examples) to play a closely linked subject-answer combination in the soprano and alto (or any other voice pair), followed by a cadence; before, during, or after the cadence, the bass and tenor (or other two voices) enter with the same point of imitation an octave lower ( or higher), and after this entrance, the first two voices may drop out, as in Mudarra’s fugue, or may play minimalist accompaniments as shown by TSM. All four voices play seldom at once except during the cadences, and all that is required to maintain the four-part contrapuntal texture is that each voice should be heard to state the subject or answer in its appropriate range – hence a necessary emphasis on the modal ranges. 

The use of the hexachords and/or of the plagal and authentic ranges as controlling limits on the voice leading keeps the composition mostly within the Gamut and on the fingerboard (to a point, with some necessary transpositions and minor edits, and given that TSM demonstrates the complete sonic range of his keyboard and that these limits are not carved in stone). These voice leading control techniques, originating in the improvised vocal counterpoint of the 15th century, I discovered separately from reading Guilielmus Monachus, [Eulmee Park, De Preceptis Artis Musicae of Guilielmus Monachus, A New Edition, Translation and Commentary, PhD diss., Ohio State Univ. 1993, pp 57-60], Ramos de Pareja, [Luanne Eris Fose, The Musica Practica of Bartolomeo Ramos de Pareia: A Critical Translation and Commentary, PhD diss., Univ. of North Texas 1992, pp 369-370] and Zarlino [Gioseffo Zarlino, On the Modes, Part IV of Le Istitutioni harmoniche, translated by Vered Cohen (Yale Univ. Press 1983), ch 31 p 92 ff]. An analysis of TSM’s fugues with these techniques in mind shows a very tightly disciplined counterpoint, with each voice confined either (a) to the modal pentachord, (b) to a given hexachord or (c) to a given plagal or authentic range (a nominal octave sometimes extended to ten notes). The bass line is the voice most likely to use a mixed plagal and authentic range of three registers, but in fact this is fairly rare. 

Neither Jeppesen nor Fux considered the distinction between plagal and authentic modes to be important, because their methods suppose a less limited Gamut than we have on the guitar. Note that the medieval Gamut is perfectly expressed by the tuning and fretting of the six-course G-lute: Gamma-Ut is the lowest string, the three lowest basses are the roots of the three lowest hexachords, and ee-la, the highest note of the Guidonian Gamut, occurs on the 9th fret of the high G string. (The question of pitch standards is among the ramifications of this study.) It is important to state here my opinion that in order to understand modal counterpoint in a way that is idiomatic for the guitar – as well as to composed in an authentic 16th-century style – the modal ranges must be taken seriously as voice leading guides.

The mapping of the modal ranges onto the fingerboard of the modern guitar in the “original” keys leaves the low E string almost unused, and places the soprano ranges high on the fingerboard. There is a strong argument for transposing the entire modal system down a fourth for use on the guitar, moving the four modal finals D-E-F-G down to A-B-C-D, with a key signature of one sharp, which is probably close to the working pitch of the 16th century vihuela. This would be a good basis for species counterpoint exercises using the full array of modal ranges SATB while taking best advantage of the guitar’s more idiomatic positions. Since I have an extended range instrument, I have been able to systematically transpose most of TSM’s fugal examples (as well as my own species counterpoint exercises) through the circle of fifths. I find this to be much more effective, for learning the chord progressions and contrapuntal devices as fingerboard shapes and to get them into my ears, than to memorize them in one key only. Also, the most idiomatic transposition for each example is revealed by trying all the keys. It is not necessary to write out the transpositions. This practice shows that many of TSM’s examples will work best on the modern 6-string guitar transposed down a minor seventh with two sharps added. 

The practice of transposition within the Gamut reveals another interesting fact: that the traditional standard transposition of the entire set of modes up a fourth with a key signature of one flat is useful because when there are four voices, it permits the reversal of the positional assignments of the alternating plagal and authentic modes to the voices. In the untransposed modes, the Bass naturally is assigned the plagal range, the Tenor the authentic, the Alto the plagal and the Soprano the authentic. 

When transposed to one flat, in order to stay within the Gamut – and on the fingerboard! - the Bass naturally takes the authentic range such as Dorian G2-G3, and the other three voices are similarly reversed and stacked above the bass in alternating ranges. 

In Zarlino’s practice, the Tenor is said to determine the mode. In TSM’s practice the Soprano is said to determine the mode: this displays the change to from a vocal to an instrumental idiom. The available transpositions and reversals of the modal ranges allow one to place the soprano in either an authentic or plagal range, and to then arrange the other voices idiomatically below, either in the most convenient hexachords, or in the appropriate alternating modal octave-ranges. Zarlino’s and TSM’s procedures are slightly different, because TSM often appears to rely more on the more traditional hexachord method rather than defining the ranges as alternately plagal and authentic as Zarlino does. When TSM composes an untransposed plagal soprano, he often merely compresses the ranges of the lower voices without reversing them. Both methods are valid and useful for considering voice leading on the guitar. 

The following examples show (Ex. 3) the original modal ranges of the Tenor (authentic) and Bass (plagal), with their octave duplicates in the Alto and Soprano ranges, as proposed by Zarlino; (Ex. 4) the transposition of the system to one flat, with the reversal of the ranges, and (Ex. 5) a transposition down by a fourth for use on the modern guitar.

Example 3: the “Original” Modal Ranges: in each case, the bass has the plagal range, the tenor the authentic, the alto the plagal, and the soprano the authentic. 

Example 4: The modal ranges transposed to one flat; the bass is in the authentic range, and the other voices are similarly reversed. 

Example 5: The modal ranges transposed for use on the modern guitar. The bass is in the plagal range, but lacks a transposed Gamma-Ut, which would be on D2. But Luis Milan did not use the Gamma-Ut, and we can do without it. (To offer the reader a glimpse into another ramification, it is my hypothesis that Milan used the A-tuning because it was a Hispano-Arabic projection of the Greek tonal system onto the vihuela without Gamma-Ut, while the G-tuning using the Gamma-Ut was Italian.)

The opinion of the later authors, that the plagal and authentic ranges may be disregarded, is counterproductive when applied to the guitar. There are clear technical reasons for making the distinction. But there is another dimension: the plagal and authentic modes were considered to have different affects, and different sets of cosmological associations. These distinctions are so subtle, even fantastical, as to be meaningless nowadays. But we are foreigners to this music. Do you understand the affects of ragas without explanation? No – not until you have lived in the culture for a number of years. Similarly, the modal affects as they were explained, for instance, by Ramos de Pareja in 1482, are foreign concepts to us over 500 years later. As this is one of the ramifications mentioned above, I save a lengthier explanation for another essay, along with the subjects of ancient fretting patterns, intonation and so on. However, even a brief consideration of the subject of modal affect yields a certain conclusion: modal counterpoint as taught by Jeppesen and other modern methods is undergraduate pablum designed for beginning composition students who will go on quickly to other studies, most certainly designed to avoid completely all metaphysical aspects of ancient modal practice, which are so completely contrary to modern materialist philosophy. The first step on this road to ruin was the invention by Glarean, elaborated by Zarlino, of the twelve-mode system, which utterly lacked any historical foundation (ostensibly found in ancient Greek theory, but considerably strained), appears to have been a very pale imitation of the much more colorful Arabic-Persian set of 12 maqams, and displaced or watered down the modal affects of the old medieval eight-mode system. The eight-mode system as used by the Spaniards in the middle 16th century was a unique expression of the modal system because of its hgh incidence of difficult-to-analyse chromaticism, variable expressions of the characteristics of the modes, and not least because of its retention of medieval modal metaphysics. The combined political pressures of the reconquista, the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation, together with the ongoing suppression of all things Muslim, did not permit the adoption of the progressive 12-mode system in Spain until Salinas’s treatise of 1577 [Francisco de Salinas, De musica libri septem, Mathias Gastius, Salamanca, 1577, 1592], after the era of the vihuelists, and even so, we still find the eight modes mentioned briefly by Gaspar Sanz in 1674 [Instrucción de música sobre la guitarra española (Zaragoza, 1674)], although in the altered form of the 17th century. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Rondeau and Dunford Together

 I don't know about you, I but I was hoping these two would get together.

Friday Miscellanea

First up, Leonard Bernstein gives a lesson in how to play "digiddy-dum" on triangle:

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This explains a lot:

Funny, I don't see Blogger anywhere there...

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Sometimes we just need a little reminder that art is one of the most precious elements of our lives and our souls. And sometimes it is artists, who are often neglected, who feel that no-one understands or appreciates what they are doing, who above all need a bit of reassuring. This is one of the most touching scenes from the British tv series Doctor Who. They have gone a bit back in time in the TARDIS and end up visiting Vincent van Gogh in Provence. He, you might recall, did not sell a single painting in his lifetime and died as unknown and neglected as a painter can be. The Doctor and his lovely companion, take Vincent on a trip in the TARDIS to the Musée d'Orsay in 2010 to see a little exhibit of his work. While there he learns that his life was not wasted after all...

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Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy the playing of Khatia Buniatishvili, but this combination of a particularly high-octane virtuoso piece by Liszt, souped up by Horowitz to even higher levels of fireworks, performed by Khatia in a red sparkly dress that through some miracle of design managed to stay on throughout the whole performance renders me more or less speechless. It took real courage to wear that dress on stage. Especially given the sforzato accents...

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The Guardian has a new educational series on classical music. Debussy: where to start with his music. There are others on Shostakovich and Schubert.

It was a description he always rejected, but Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is often thought of as an impressionist, a musical equivalent to Monet or Renoir. But he was much more than a composer of ravishingly delicate piano pieces and luminously coloured orchestral tapestries. Together with Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, Debussy was one of the great pioneers of modernism. Without him, the course of 20th-century music might have been very different, and his influence is still felt today.

True, that! A friend of mine did a doctorate in composition with Morton Feldman at SUNY Stony Brook and one of the questions on his final exam was "How did Debussy influence music in the 20th century?" One of those succinct questions that needs an eight-thousand word answer.

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The big question here in North America is when and how can we get back to live concerts again. In Bavaria they seem to have this figured out and Slipped Disc has the rules and procedures.

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And also from Slipped Disc is the answer, to be found in the comments: CANADA LOSES REST OF ITS OPERA SEASON.

in Europe it is Governments order and social mission to keep the arts accessible to the people. So to each seat and ticket the government pays a subvention. Because the costs of the chorus, singers, production costs, technicians, orchestra are much higher than the ticket income.

In the USA and Canada – without these subventions – the cost of one seat for an opera show would exceed several thousands of dollars, if you play only for 300-500 spectators… And then the house would stay completely empty.

In Europe the governments are willing to support the performing arts to the extent that it is possible to put on symphony and opera performances with every other seat empty. In North America, this would bankrupt every organization in a couple of weeks. So what will happen to musicians in North America? It is anybody's guess, but we know two things: they won't be receiving a paycheck anytime soon, and, they won't be getting jobs in restaurants either.

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There is an amazing number of articles this week that are not actually worth reading because they either rehash what we have heard before many times, and that would include this article: (Ethno)Music(ology): 12 Scholars Respond to a Field Undergoing a Key Change. Sample quote:

In discussing the fraught history of scholarly (and non-scholarly) music study, Roe-Min Kok of McGill’s Schulich School of Music explains: “Classical music is a very, very old profession, where the training and professional practices have feudal roots.” Typically, a music student progresses from instructor to instructor under an informal system of patronage, whereby connections are shared and rewards bestowed. “The ones who do best in this system tend to be white, male, and from privileged backgrounds.”

Or they manage to say nothing at all and do so in a very chaotic fashion: Is Pandemic Brain Changing Your Taste in Music? You're Not Alone.

After that we need to listen to some music!

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Here is an absolutely lovely envoi, L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin of François Couperin played by Blandine Rannou.

And for something completely different, here is a piece by Takemitsu for guitar with the 6th tuned to E-flat and the 2nd tuned to B-flat. Very interesting sonority.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Musing on Pencils

 Speaking of pencils, I just got a couple of nifty Japanese mechanical pencils. When it comes to anything stationary related like pencils, pens or paper, it is usually the Japanese or the Italians who are the best. And then, of course, the Chinese are copying them for less!

When I got my new pencils, one in .7mm and one in .5mm I noticed that I had an old mechanical pencil that was always my favorite: a Staedtler Mars Micro .5mm, still going strong. I have had it so long I don't even remember buying it. But it was at least thirty-five or forty years ago. Apparently good mechanical pencils, like good fountain pens simply don't wear out. This one even has the original eraser:

Click to enlarge

If you click you should be able to see the brand name. When it comes to mechanical pencils it is either the Japanese or the Germans. This is a German brand. I went on Amazon and you can still buy this exact pencil in exactly the same color on Amazon for $9.

Here is my vintage Staedtler with my new acquisitions, Pentel GraphGear 1000 which are really nifty pencils, but cost between $12 and $20 depending on where you order from.

Click to enlarge

I will obviously be passing all these along to my heirs...

Musing on Composition

I have to say that my new approach to composition is working pretty well. What I have done is gone back to a much older system of basic conception, followed by pencil sketches, followed by tryouts on the keyboard and finally putting it into Finale. For a long time I just defaulted to Finale, but it was always a double-edged sword: one side benefit, the other side restrictions. Oftentimes I would just be wrestling with the program to get the idea into a form the notation would accept. Or struggling to get the playback to sound like I wanted it to. This is all distracting from the actual job of composing. But a pencil doesn't distract you at all!

In any case, the piano piece, tentatively titled Remembering What Is to Come, is coming along quite well. The only thing I am really puzzled about is the harmonic structure. But that is just my usual headache.

There is this short story by Jorge Luis Borges, as I recall, that says something about every writer creating his own predecessors and influences. I heard a Japanese piece for piano about forty years ago that has really stuck in my mind, though I can't recall the composer. It for sure was not Takemitsu. But in the absence of that composer I am going to say that my new piano piece is not influenced by Takemitsu, because I don't even recall what any of his piano music sounds like. I am listening to one piece right now, Piano Distance, and I can definitively state that it is not influencing me. Well, hardly at all. But there is a Japanese sense of flow that does have an influence on what I do.

Here is that piece by Takemitsu, which I say again, is not an influence.

Or, as the Vorlon ambassador once said in Babylon 5, "knowledge is a three-edged sword."

Friday, October 2, 2020

Virtual Concerts

 I see the the Vancouver Island Symphony (based in Nanaimo, BC) with a predecessor of which I played a Vivaldi concerto with once, is doing some "virtual" concerts. A number of orchestras have been trying something similar. Now I understand why they are doing this: it is both to give the players something to do and to keep in touch with their audiences. But there is a terrible danger here: One of the reasons you go to hear a local orchestra is because you haven't the time or money to travel to Vienna to hear the Vienna Philharmonic or Berlin to hear the Berlin Philharmonic or Los Angeles to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic or St. Petersburg to hear the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater. Right? You go to your local orchestra concert because you really want to hear the sound of a live orchestra.

But what if it was just as easy to hear the Vienna player as your local ones? Well, of course you would catch the Vienna Phillies because, frankly, at many things, they are the best in the world. Just as the Mariinsky players are the best at different things. But the hard truth is that the local orchestra, if your orchestra is like the Vancouver Island Symphony, are not better at any repertoire than the big international superstar orchestras. They just aren't.

But in the world of virtual concerts there is absolutely no reason to listen to the local players when you can be listening to the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra with good sound and an excellent picture. Their virtual concert is exactly as easy to access as the local orchestra's. Does this mean local orchestras are doomed?


Unless we can get back to real, not virtual, live concerts pretty damn soon.

A Course in Composition

If ever I have to give a course in music composition--hey, stranger things have happened--then I think this is how I would organize it.

First we need some history; you need to know the context and background of the artform. Second, we need some theory. We should not be accused of not teaching the basics. Third, we need some aesthetics for inspiration and guide. Then you have to do a lot of work, figuring out just what sort of composer you are.

I. History

I would go right back to 12th century Notre Dame and the music of Léonin and Pérotin because often it is the older music that can be most appealing to young composers fearful of being influenced by the Latest Thing.

In a university context you should be able to count on your musicological colleagues to teach a lot of this, but absent that, we should have a look/listen to Guillaume de Machaut:

A little Renaissance sacred music:

And something secular:

Then some French Baroque:

J. S. Bach, of course:


The nearly-cancelled Beethoven:


All that should take a while because I would want to talk about what these composers were doing and how they were doing it. Now I know that this kind of instruction fell by the wayside during the Crazy Years of modernism. Someone like Steve Reich, for example, hardly studied any of this. He was a drummer in his early years and then became a philosophy major at university. Then he studied African drumming and Javanese gamelan. His first years as a composer were spent with tape machines. He refers to the 19th century as being dominated by "brown varnish" music or words to that effect. Philip Glass was different, though. He had a solid education in music at Peabody, the University of Chicago, Juilliard, and studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. You don't get more establishment than that.

Part of my sense that the education of a composer should involve exposure to the traditions of Western European music comes from the experiences of a friend of mine. He did a BFA at a Canadian university during the years when the visual arts were in the throes of "concept art." Instead of doing things like learn how to draw, perspective, life drawing studies, all that stuff, they did projects like figure out how to wrap an egg so it could be dropped two stories without breaking. Oh, and etchings, I'm almost sure they did etchings. In later years he complained bitterly about not getting a decent education in the basics of art and would sardonically refer to his credential as a "bachelor of f**k all." So if I have the opportunity of teaching composition students at some point, they are going to come out of it actually knowing something about music!

Theory and Aesthetics to follow in future posts.

Friday Miscellanea

 Guitar 4-hands? You bet!

Ok, well how about four guitars? Here is the Dublin Guitar Quartet playing Philip Glass:

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There seems to be a new genre of YouTube clips that consist solely of silent captures of Yuja Wang in various states of concert undress:

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You might recall that I was born in northern Canada where it typically gets down to 40 degrees below zero in the winter. Once, in fact, I was outside when it was 60º below zero, but that was a unique experience. At 60º below you will NOT get your car started, even with a block heater. Here is a little video of Whitehorse in the Yukon at 40º below. Notice that there are few people on the streets and every one of them is very warmly dressed with especially the ears covered. At 40º below, your ears will start to freeze in just a couple of minutes.

That mist you see? It's not water vapor, it's ice crystals. Except in the shot of the river, that's steam coming off the water. At 40 below.

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Via Slipped Disc we are alerted to this report on Opera in Vienna:
The Staatstoper in Vienna is normally the busiest opera house in the world, so it was no surprise that it announced it intended to mount a full programme of opera for the 2020/21 season despite Covid 19.  Austria has suffered the virus like everywhere in Europe but owing to sensible policies it has recorded much lower infection and death rates than the UK... The opera house had taken sensible precautions for Covid. Socially distanced seating meant they were seating roughly one thousand instead of two thousand people, with gaps between seats. You had to wear masks when entering the opera house until you were seated, and then you could choose whether to take them off during the performance, although some people kept them on throughout. 
We saw 4 operas over 4 nights and there aren't many other places in the world where you can do that just now. ‘Elektra’, which was streamed round the world on the 11th of September, the night we were there, is of course very much a Viennese opera, composed by Richard Strauss and written by Hugo Von Hofmannsthal based on Sophocles’ play but heavily influenced by that famous Vienna resident Sigmund Freud. Our second night at Vienna starred one of the oldest and perhaps most famous opera singers of all, 79-year-old Placido Domingo, singing in Verdi's ‘Simon Boccanegra’.  Domingo now sings baritone roles, but he really isn't a baritone, just a tenor who finds reaching the high notes more difficult and can't quite get the depth and darkness of the lower notes. Having said that he remains a fine actor and carried off the role of the aging Doge of Genoa very convincingly.

Read the whole thing!

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Here is an article on Beethoven beautifully illustrating the dangers of knowing a little bit about something and unleashing the fell monsters of ideology.

 We hear the famous melodies for the thousandth time, whether in movies, commercials, or concerts, from the third, fifth, sixth, or ninth symphonies or from piano concertos and sonatas or pieces of chamber music. But the cutting edge of this music has been dulled through overuse. That is, we have forgotten, and no longer seem to hear, the intensely political nature of Beethoven’s music—its subversive, revolutionary, passionately democratic, and freedom-exalting nature. 

Let us, then, turn again with fresh ears and open minds to “the first great democrat of music,” in the words of Ferruccio Busoni. Let us draw inspiration from him in our own struggles to humanize and democratize the world. And let’s be sure not to forget, in the cultural wasteland that is twenty-first-century America, the nobler aspects of our civilization’s heritage.

The thing is that this is very plausible, but at the same time, only a half-truth. If it was for the revolutionary fervor of his music that we revered Beethoven, we might revere composers like Cherubini and Luigi Nono even more, because they are revolutionary in a more obviously political way. Beethoven is in the first rank of great composers, not for his political content, but for his aesthetic content. Not to say that the things the writer points out are not there, they are, but it is not the political referentiality that makes the music great. Beethoven is not the musical equivalent of Che Guevara.

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Europeans always seem to have the best think pieces on music. Here is one by Xenia Hanusiak: Music is a philosophy, rich in ideas that language cannot say.

Music is a Socratic teacher. Its melodies and call-and-response mechanisms, together with the subsequent variations in modulations and rhythms, steer us away from linear thinking and towards nuance. When we attend to an improvisation, track the journey of a voice in any one of Bach’s preludes, or follow the route of a single instrument in a symphony – the oboe in Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No 3 (1971), or the clarinet in George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) – with our dissecting technique, we can subsume the formal inventiveness of music into our approaches to the art of questioning life, refining and redefining our interrogations to enlist more creative responses.

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Let's have some hopeful, heartfelt, happy envois today. First up, some Heinrich Biber, of whom we don't hear nearly enough:

And Mad Rush played by Philip Glass in a concert in Montreal:

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Role of Aesthetics

If you search for the tag "aesthetics" you will come up with many, many posts on this blog--hundreds at least. There are two reasons for this, first, that I tend to slap on the "aesthetics" tag when I can't think what else it could be or if the post is uncategorizable, second because of the crucial role aesthetics has played in my life and the one that I believe it does, or should play, in social life in general. One of the few places one hears this addressed is in a couple of times that Jordan Peterson has mentioned it in talks and clips on YouTube. Here is an example:

One interesting thing is that Jordan Peterson was born very close to where I was born in northern Alberta, Canada--twenty or thirty miles apart, which up there is like being next door neighbors.

The role of aesthetics in my life is so important that I think of it as what I fled to, trying to escape the stifling environment I was born into. I say stifling because, even though it was wide open nature, to someone with an intellectual bent, it was like being in one of those tanks where you float without sensation--no sounds, no light. One place we lived when I was young, was so far north it was taiga with permafrost, meaning that you could dig down in the ground at the end of August and, about ten or twelve feet down, the ground would still be frozen. The summer wasn't long enough for more than just the surface to thaw out. This was when I was five or six years old and, honestly, the only thing I could find to play with was moss.

The landscape was basically small, stunted trees and moss: frozen in the winter and soggy in the brief summer. You might say, gee, go to the store and buy a toy. Ah, no stores, not within a two or three hour drive at least. Well, wait, there was a Hudson's Bay trading post where if you took in some mink or beaver skins they would trade you flour and sugar. Yes, it must have been one of the last. There was a Department of Defence radar base in the neighborhood, and a tribe of Indigenous People, but that, literally, was it. My father ran a small rail terminal that served the DOD base.

You have to recall that this was before the internet. Indeed, in this place, not only was there no internet, there was also no television, no radio, no newspapers, no bookstores (no stores of any kind). The only place I have ever been that was more desolate was northern Vancouver Island when I worked as a tree-planter and while in one place there was not even a building, there was always the beauty of nature.

The first time I was in a place that had a library big enough to have books with aesthetic content I fell in love with Japanese art, specifically ukiyo-e:

Some of these, and some Chinese landscapes, looked a great deal like the landscapes of northern Vancouver Island.

To me, this art and music when I discovered it, offered what seemed to be the only door out of a drear and narrow life. I think this is the role of art: to beckon, to widen, to draw us out of the narrowness of our lives.

But in some ways, I regard my early life as being of immense benefit because it was free of the false appeal of the Internet, social, and mass media of today. It is hard to imagine what it is like for a child now. Instead of just some moss to play with, he has an iPad, with access to literally everything in the world. But 99% of what he sees is cacophonous drivel. Instead of silence and distance, the experience is of a million hucksters and a million diversions that may very well mean almost nothing. That's enough to make you long for a little moss! (By the way, after collecting different varieties of moss, I would take them home and install them into a large glass bowl, creating a little terrarium.)

But back to art: the benefits of real art in anyone's life are enormous. Even if you have little sensitivity to art you can still derive tranquillity and perhaps a bit of perspective from it. With more acquaintance it can give you access to a thousand worlds, a million points of view. But remember, real art always has a price of admission: you have to learn the context, the methods, the history, before you can understand and appreciate most artworks.

Well, enough preaching for today. Let's listen to some music by Toru Takemitsu, Folios, for guitar (that I played at Wigmore Hall in London at my debut concert there). It ends with a quotation from a chorale from Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Structure and Non-Structure

 I'am now 37% of the way through Marcel Proust's massive shaggy dog of a novel, In Search of Lost Time and I took a break for a couple of days to read a much shorter novel, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. At only 162 pages it would barely make a chapter for Proust. He, Proust, has been accused of writing a novel with no structure and that is certainly the feeling one gets. He seems to wander around with no plan except whatever digression comes to him. The Calvino on the other hand is all about structure. Wikipedia describes the novel as having a "rigorous mathematical structure" and provides a table to show how it works. Here is how the Wikipedia article describes the structure of the novel:

The matrix of eleven column themes and fifty-five subchapters (ten rows in chapters 1 and 9, five in all others) shows some interesting properties. Each column has five entries, rows only one, so there are fifty-five cities in all. The matrix of cities has a central element (Baucis). The pattern of cities is symmetric with respect to inversion about that center. Equivalently, it is symmetric against 180 degree rotations about Baucis. Inner chapters (2-8 inclusive) have diagonal cascades of five cities (e.g. Maurila through Euphemia in chapter 2). These five-city cascades are displaced by one theme column to the right as one proceeds to the next chapter. In order that the cascade sequence terminate (the book of cities is not infinite!) Calvino, in chapter 9, truncates the diagonal cascades in steps: Laudomia through Raissa is a cascade of four cities, followed by cascades of three, two, and one, necessitating ten cities in the final chapter. The same pattern is used in reverse in chapter 1 as the diagonal cascade of cities is born. This strict adherence to a mathematical pattern is characteristic of the Oulipo literary group to which Calvino belonged.

That sounds a lot like a discussion of form in Stockhausen! Have a look at this article for an example.

Proust reminds me more of a symphony by Allan Petterssohn: it just goes on and on and on, exploring several themes from every possible angle, but in a kind of formless way.

Here is a clip of the piece Plus-Minus by Stockhausen:

And here is the Symphony No. 7 by Allan Pettersson:

Monday, September 28, 2020

Quartet 3 Opening

With some help from Finale, I improved somewhat the playback of the glissandi in the opening section, so here is a clip that you can listen to. I have changed my mind about the basic structure somewhat. My original intention was to have five sections. The first, third and fifth were to be composed out and the second and fourth were going to be in moment form. For the present at least, I have dropped that idea. Instead we have the three existing sections which will be the Quartet 3. The three sections will be called

  1. Opening, Slowly, quartet note = 50
  2. Middle, Moderato, quarter note = 80
  3. Ending, eighth note = 240
And that's it! Here is the Opening:

And here are the links to the Middle (previously, Section 3) and the Ending (previously, Section 5). 

The main reason I decided to not add the other sections is that the quartet in Vancouver, the Pro Nova Ensemble, want to read the piece, so I thought I should give them something complete. And, I rather like it in this manifestation. It's a short quartet, about ten minutes total.