Friday, January 31, 2020

Making Distortions More Accessible

I sometimes ask myself if I am being paranoid. And then I ask myself if I am being paranoid enough? Perhaps there really is an overarching strategy to turn us all into uninformed, ignorant patsies, easy to push around. But never mind that, let's talk about Tchaikovsky. I just read an excellent article in a Canadian newspaper about an upcoming concert of the "Pathétique" Symphony by Tchaikovsky:  Tchaikovsky concert opens door to fact, fiction. The writer, Kevin Bazzana, is actually a trained musicologist so he has a lot to say about the presentation, one of a series called "Naked Classics."
The Pathétique, premièred in Saint Petersburg barely a week before Tchaikovsky’s death there at age 53, belongs on even the most selective list of greatest and most fascinating symphonies. Still, when I heard that Naked Classics was taking up this particular piece, my first thought was: “Uh-oh …”
Why? Because Tchaikovsky studies have become a poisoned well, rife with errors, prejudices, rumours, and conspiracy theories, which have been foisted onto a trusting public by commentators incapable of assessing the scholarly record.
You’ve probably heard that Tchaikovsky was tormented by his homosexuality and lived in a state of self-loathing celibacy. You’ve probably heard that he committed suicide, either on his own initiative or on orders from “above.” You’ve probably heard that the Pathétique, with its slow, bleak finale, was a “homosexual tragedy” that expressed his depression and was effectively his suicide note.
It’s all rubbish. So, by all means, go this weekend and enjoy one of the glories of the orchestral literature. But if presented, beforehand, with a salad of nonsense about the composer and his death, just clap politely and ignore it.
Read the whole thing. The imposed fictional narrative, fits well with the general project of turning everything into progressive victimology.

One of the reasons that I resist the various strategies to make classical music more "accessible" is that it usually opens the door to disinformation that always, conveniently, furthers the incremental progressive project. Take the trend towards having performers give a little chat before each piece. This is the perfect place to insert little political messages. Which is exactly why, in the traditional concert format, performers were silent and we relied on a printed program to give us the necessary information.

Let's give a listen to the Tchaikovsky, without commentary! This is Lionel Bringuier conducting the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra:

The Awkward Concept of "Classic"

In a week when Yale ends its iconic introduction to art history and the Babylon Bee instantly satirizes it, let's contemplate the concept of "classic." And for a bit of inspiration, let's have a look at a wine column in the Wall Street Journal that takes on the same question: What Makes a Wine a Classic?
Our wine columnist makes a case for the canon and shares her list of wines that define what ‘classic’ means to her (that may be behind the paywall).
MOST BOOKSTORES have a section marked “classic literature” and another, much larger one where the “fiction” is shelved. What’s the difference? A classic work of literature is an accepted archetype of the genre, a book that has withstood the test of time and taste, while fiction is…everything else. I’d define a classic wine in much the same way: an archetype and an ideal.
No matter how hard we try to get away from the concepts of "classic" and the related one of a "canon,"* they are indispensable ideas if you admit the idea of quality at all. Classic wines, like a Chablis with its fresh minerality and unoaked fruit or a Champagne with its elegance and balance, are wines that have stood the test of time, that are a kind of archetype. In a somewhat related context, Matthew Arnold wrote that “Culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world."

Often the "best," the most characteristic, Chablis that tastes like Chablis ought to taste, is a regional concept. A classic Chablis is totally different, and should be, from a classic Barolo. Or, switching to music (as you knew we would!) a classic symphony would be one by Mozart (a classical era composer) whereas we would call a symphony by Mahler a classic example of a Romantic symphony. Different eras, different characteristics.

It is interesting that the whole post-modern project of demeaning and dismissing the whole idea of classic and indeed, quality, is also associated with the idea of doing away with genre, i.e. regional characteristics. The music of Billie Eilish, for example, is described as "genre-bending." Any time a new artist comes along, like Lil Nas X, his music is "genre-defying." You see, if you want to get rid of all the traditional concepts of quality like "classic" and "canon" then you also want to get rid of the idea of genre. Because if there is such a thing as genre, an artist can be criticized for failing to deliver a good example of the genre. If Mozart were a lesser composer he might have written a poor minuet qua minuet. But if we are bending and defying genres, then the critic has no ground to stand on.

Isn't that convenient?

In fact, if what you want to do is remove all possibility of criticism so you can foist pretty much anything on an unsuspecting public, then removing possible grounds for criticism is an excellent tactic. Notice how remarkably feeble criticism is these days. When a new movie comes out that no-one wants to see, the main criticism is that no-one went to it. Then, as in the case of Cats, critics can lambaste it for all sorts of failings. But genuine criticism, such as came from Martin Scorsese recently, is so rare that it is front page news.

The concept of classic involves being true to a regional characteristic. The terroir in the case of French wine, or the varietal in the case of most wines outside France. In the case of music, the genre of "symphony" even in the 21st century, has certain fundamental characteristics. A symphony by Haydn, Mahler, Shostakovich or even Stravinsky, shares some basic aesthetic goals.

Can the post-modern project do away with all this? Yes, of course, but it will severely compromise all non-commercial art forms because it takes away the fundamental ways to understand and appreciate art and replaces them with nothing more than political correctness.

*Isn't it cool to have a footnote in a blog post? A "canon" is simply a list of the most classic examples of a given art form or genre. The canon of classical music includes pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and so on. The canon of great poetry includes poems by Homer, Shakespeare, Dante and so on. There are canons with a narrower scope such as "great lieder" or "20th century symphonies." There is always, lurking in the background, the idea of greatest or best. The classical canon does not include mediocre examples. The tactic of the post-modern progressives is to say that all categorization of art works by quality excludes oppressed minorities because of racism or sexism or some other bigotry. This strategy has proven somewhat less successful with music than it has with literature. While we are striving to have more contemporary women composers and conductors, for example, there seems to be no real possibility of "canceling" Mozart and Beethoven in favor of Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn.

Friday Miscellanea

Along with the worst clickbait imaginable, YouTube also has some real gems. For example, in the 1970s a copy of the Goldberg Variations by Bach, his personal copy, was found to contain on the last sheet, fourteen canons on the bass line from the theme. Someone did a wonderful visual illustration of how they work.

I know you are wondering, "why fourteen?" The answer is simple: BACH.

B = 2, A = 1, C = 3 and H = 8. 2+1+3+8 = 14.

* * *

A lot of people have been saying lately that reality has gotten so weird that satire is no longer possible. The folks at the Babylon Bee just say "hold my beer." Here, in response to Yale University's ending its art history survey course because of the problematic prevalence of white, straight males, is their response: Yale Med School To Stop Teaching Medicine Discovered By White Males.
NEW HAVEN, CT—Yale University has been under intense criticism after the recent decision to stop teaching “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” because of its focus on Western art - mainly by white males.
Many people have called Yale out, saying they “didn’t go far enough” and that dropping a measly freshman art survey class was “wimpy” and “weak”.
In response, Yale has decided to take a stunning and brave stand against white males by striking all medicine discovered by white males from its med school curriculum. This has been lauded as a much-needed stand for diversity at Yale, especially by current med students who will now have much more time to deal with the stress of med school by watching Netflix.
"Yes, many people will get sick and die because of this, but it will be worth it for the woke points," one professor said. "We will now only teach medicine discovered by brave, oppressed, trans people of color."
* * *

 Slipped Disc points us to the latest triumph of computer analysis of music: the most creative composer ever was, wait for it, Rachmaninoff!
Rachmaninoff was officially the most innovative of all the great composers, a computer has declared.
Scientists in South Korea have built an algorithm which they claim is capable of judging objectively the extent to which 19 of the best known composers brought the art form forward.
They developed a computer model which divided each of the musicians’ compositions into “codewords”, which were then used to compare hundreds of pieces of music both against the composers’ previous works and the wider cannon.
* * *

You would never know it from the mainstream media, but there are actually classical categories in the Grammy Awards.
  • Best engineered album, classical – Riley: Sun Rings Leslie Ann Jones, engineer; John Kilgore, Judith Sherman & David Harrington, engineers/mixers; Robert C. Ludwig, mastering engineer (Kronos Quartet)
  • Producer of the year, classical – Blanton Alspaugh
  • Best orchestral performance – Norman: Sustain Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)
  • Best opera recording – Picker: Fantastic Mr Fox Gil Rose, conductor; John Brancy, Andrew Craig Brown, Gabriel Preisser, Krista River & Edwin Vega; Gil Rose, producer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Boston Children’s Chorus)
  • Best choral performance – Duruflé: Complete Choral Works Robert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir) Signum Classics
  • Best chamber music/small ensemble performance – Shaw: OrangeAttacca Quartet
  • Best classical instrumental solo – Marsalis: Violin Concerto; Fiddle Dance Suite Nicola Benedetti; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor (Philadelphia Orchestra)
  • Best classical solo vocal album – Songplay Joyce DiDonato; Chuck Israels, Jimmy Madison, Charlie Porter & Craig Terry, accompanists (Steve Barnett & Lautaro Greco)
  • Best classical compendium – The Poetry of Places Nadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers
  • Best contemporary classical composition – Higdon: Harp Concerto Jennifer Higdon, composer (Yolanda Kondonassis, Ward Stare & The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
* * *

Here is an even more hilarious story about the use of computers in music: And the Grammy goes to… AI.
At CES 2020, Samsung introduced Neon, an AI-based companion that is being developed to be indistinguishable from a human companion. AI models are composing at a pretty high level right now. It won’t be long before most production music (background music, music for breaks in and out of segments, and other utility music) will be fully produced by AI. We’re only moments away from synthetic artists and superstars. We’re only a few months (maybe a year or two) away from completely artificial artists (not virtual, artificial — see Neon above).
The production music composed by AI will be suboptimal at first, but it will become better over time, and it will be adopted very, very quickly. Why? Economics will drive the decision-making.
Oh, "economics will drive the decision-making." Which is precisely why we have the drearily uncreative music we have today.

* * *

The main reason I retired (cough*went on strike*cough) as a classical performer was unhappiness about the business of music. Here is a sobering account of just how bad it can be: Young Artists, Big Business.
Company X is a prestigious music apprenticeship festival for instrumentalists and singers. They take in about $15 million USD a year in revenue, own over $80 million dollars in assets, including real estate, investments, and cash on hand, and pay their CEO almost half a million dollars a year.  Nearly two thousand young musicians paid $60 each last year to apply for a handful of spots, with no guarantee of being heard in person. netting the company an estimated $118,000 in application fees. And they pay their newly-hired apprentice performers absolutely nothing.
Which “non-profit” Young Artist Program is this? If you are looking at applying for music training apprenticeships, it doesn’t matter. It could be almost any of them.
Read the whole thing for the depressing details.

* * *

For our envoi today, here is the first section of Jennifer Higdon's new Harp Concerto. The other sections are also on YouTube. Blogger won't embed so just follow the link.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Did Max Martin, Dr. Luke and Steve Jobs Ruin Music?

Why would I say such an incomprehensibly weird thing? Because of this video that Blogger won't embed:

Max Martin and Dr. Luke, between them, are responsible for writing the majority of hit pop songs recorded by a host of different artists, which does rather explain why they mostly sound the same. And Steve Jobs, whom we revere, normally? Well, he came up with the iPod which put thousands of songs at people's fingertips and ultimately resulted in the risk-avoidance of the modern music business. Go watch the video, which is well-argued.

I could make a lot of criticisms of it, from an aesthetic point of view. For example, the mere fact of the reduction of timbral variety need not have any aesthetic implications. Take Steve Reich's Drumming for example. It reduced every possible kind of musical variety down to the absolute minimum, which I think makes it one of the most important musical works of the 20th century. Not everyone agrees, of course.

But the creator of the video critique, known as "Thoughty2" makes a lot of good points. The only thing that really drives modern pop is dollars. And, if he is correct about the marketing, it is the dollars that drive the popular acceptance of the music. Rather a vicious circle.

I suspect that the main reason I like Kanye West's music is that he does in fact "write" his own songs and he certainly produces his own videos. Remember "Famous"? Blogger won't embed that one either:

Monday, January 27, 2020

Great Photo

A couple of years ago I was in Valencia for a pair of concerts and I wandered around their incredible City of Arts and Sciences. Here is a photo from a BBC competition:

Click to enlarge
The City spans a large portion of a dry river bed and the buildings are mostly surrounded by shallow lagoons. This photo at night has the IMAX theatre in the foreground (in the shape of a giant eye) with the Science Museum and a bridge in the background. If you ever get a chance, you should visit. Here is one of my posts from that visit.

Here is another post with lots of photos of the opera house.

Miscellaneous Musings

I'm about to give another presentation of my music in a few weeks and we were rehearsing some pieces for it yesterday. Traditionally I suppose you would call this a "lecture-recital" but that sounds so hopelessly dull! In any case we are going to play a couple of my transcriptions for violin and guitar (Rameau and Couperin) as a prelude to playing a recent piece I wrote as a homage to Notre Dame based on a piece by Couperin. I suppose it is all about the resonance that music history has for us, or can have. Then we are going to play one of my Four Pieces for violin and guitar and I am going to end by playing a synthesized version of a movement from my new string quartet.

* * *

I see that 18 year old Billie Eilish has won all the big awards at the Grammys. I tried listening to three of her songs and didn't get past the one-minute mark on any of them. Foggy, listless bass lines, dreary monotone vocals and I don't even want to try and suss out the lyrics. Young people seem to be in a really bad space these days.

* * *

A lot of the criticism of the humanities programs at university these days revolves around two claims: that these "studies" programs, which seem to be always asking "questions about race, gender and social justice" are really very undemanding: all you have to do is learn the vocabulary and regurgitate it on command. And second, that graduating in these programs will make you largely unemployable. When it comes to things like music, dance and theatre, however, the first of these critiques is false. You can turn art history into social justice propaganda, but if there is no discipline in the practice of fine art, it becomes evident to the onlooker. At least you could argue that. In music and dance it is ever more stark. Yes, the "new" musicology has certainly had its way with dead, white, European composers. But they still rule the concert halls. And no amount of "wokeness" will improve your playing of Bach. Only disciplined practicing will do that. Isn't the same true of dance? But yes, making a living in the fine arts is likely harder than ever.

* * *

Ok, let's have some music. How about a little François Couperin? This is "Le Rossignol-en-amour" from the Quatorzième Ordre for harpsichord played by Denis Bonenfant.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Education as Consumption

I just ran across the oddest idea. In a debate between two economists as to whether higher education should be free or not (as proposed by more than one presidential candidate in the US), one writes as follows:
Suppose you strongly desire to drastically increase the amount of education that people consume.  What should you do?
The obvious answer: Make education completely free of charge – and have the government pay the the entire cost.
I say this obvious answer is obviously right.  As I explain in The Case Against Education, I favor extreme educational austerity, because I think the education system is a waste of time and money.  Nevertheless, given the goal of drastically increasing educational attainment, completely shifting the cost burden from consumers to taxpayers is highly effective.
What word there is incomprehensible to me? "Consume"--the idea that education is something that people consume seems utterly wrong to me. Is this misunderstanding because the debaters are economists? That hardly seems likely. Even they can't conceive of education, vice "learning" as I understand it, as a pile of some material that students come to class and consume. But I don't even think that education is a service that universities provide to their student-clients, though it almost seems like that. No, education or learning is a process that students go through and it is one that is largely self-administered. Some of us are life-long students. If you decide you want to learn something then you set out on a journey of sorts. You don't consume a journey and a journey is not exactly a service. Mind you, other people can provide certain services to you that can aid your journey of learning.

Strongly desiring to increase the amount of education or learning that people consume is like pushing on a string. You have the causality all wrong! You can provide opportunities for those people who wish to learn such as professors, courses, programs, libraries and so on. But there is absolutely nothing you can do that can ensure that anyone actually learns something. The quantity of learning that occurs is really only a function of two things: the student's desire or propensity to learn something and their ability to do so. Government can have all the strong desires it wants, but that will have very little effect on how much learning takes place.

Does anyone else find this very peculiar?

Friday Miscellanea

Mostly we do music, but occasionally we might wander into dance. This, for example, is how Canadians tango:

* * *

This sounds pretty dire: a hedge-fund lawyer assaulted an underwear designer at the opera? It went to court and Slipped Disc has the details.

* * *

Ever since Johnny Cash played Folsom, everyone is getting into the act: GIDON KREMER TO PLAY IN CANADIAN JAIL. If he brings a couple of others with him, the most logical repertoire would have to include the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, by Messiaen, originally premiered in Stalag VIII-A.

* * *

If you try to go to the Musicology Now site, this is the message you get at the moment:
This site,, is currently not available. For more information about the American Musicological Society, see
* * *

Joseph Horowitz goes back and takes another look at Allan Bloom's classic The Closing of the American Mind and discovers it was prophetic. Re-Encountering Allan Bloom:
Even Bellow’s introduction reads as if it were written yesterday: “The heat of dispute between Left and Right has grown so fierce in the last decade that the habits of civilized discourse have suffered a scorching. Antagonists seem no longer to listen to one another.”
Taking aim at “cultural relativism,” Bloom attacked what we now call identity politics and a linked discourse stigmatizing “cultural appropriation”—a discourse that, to many my age, seems more impoverishing than nourishing for the “souls of today’s students.” For Bloom, a mounting failure to appreciate Western traditions of culture and thought was eviscerating the academy. He deplored a tendency to ecumenically equalize all cultural endeavors, old and new, East and West. In effect, he foresaw today’s all-purpose denunciations of the “misappropriation” of victimized cultures. As for “identity politics,” the term isn’t there, but the concept is, extrapolated from an exaggerated regard for the “other” and otherness—for Bloom, a force fracturing democratic community.
Bloom’s ultimate claim was that a generation out of touch with great music, great literature, and great traditions of philosophic thought—all unabashedly Western—is a generation diminished personally and emotionally.
There is a lot of interesting material in the rest of the essay:
American classical music is today a scholarly minefield. The question “What is America?” is central. So is the topic of race. The American music that most matters, nationally and internationally, is black. But classical music in the United States has mainly rejected this influence, which is one reason it has remained impossibly Eurocentric. As the visiting Czech composer Antonin Dvorak emphasized in 1893, two obvious sources for an “American” concert idiom are the sorrow songs of the slave, and the songs and rituals of Native America. Issues of appropriation are front and center. It is a perfect storm. 
* * *

 Alex Ross reviews the new production of Wozzeck at the Met: OPERATIC SHOWS OF FORCE.
Kentridge has transplanted “Wozzeck” from the early-nineteenth-century setting of Berg’s libretto to the period of the First World War. This makes good sense, since Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1915 to 1918 and began composing the opera during the conflict. Berg fashioned the libretto directly from Georg Büchner’s 1837 play, “Woyzeck,” an unblinking portrayal of an ordinary soldier’s degradation by military discipline and medical experiment. Berg wrote of Wozzeck, “There is a bit of me in this character, since I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact humiliated.”
Then, needing spiritual refreshment, he makes a pilgrimage to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California: THE PAST AND THE FUTURE OF THE EARTH’S OLDEST TREES.
My own bristlecone obsession is probably rooted in a fixation on extremely old people and things. Some of my favorite music was written centuries ago. When I was a teen-ager, I spent a summer wandering the Highlands and islands of Scotland, looking at Neolithic ruins as old as Methuselah. Meeting people with long memories gives me an elemental thrill. In 1990, when I was in college, I spoke on the phone to the Russian-born musical polymath Nicolas Slonimsky, who recalled walking the streets of Petrograd on the first day of the Bolshevik Revolution. “I saw nothing, and went back to practicing the piano,” he said.
That is a tiny excerpt out of a very long article.

* * *

 JSTOR Daily has a very interesting article on the effect of the Franco regime on music in Spain: What Did Franco’s Spain Do to Spanish Music?
Zarzuela was not the only musical genre whose reception in contemporary Spain still suffers from its history under the Franco regime. Further examples come from classical music, which, although far less popular and widespread among the general population than zarzuela, received significant attention from the regime. Manuel de Falla—at the time the most successful Spanish composer internationally—was not spared from attempts to portray his music in ways that suited particular ideologies. Falla was deeply religious and initially regarded Franco’s uprising with some sympathy, as he thought it would protect the Catholic Church from the excesses of the Second Republic. He, however, soon become disenchanted, particularly after his friend, the poet Federico García Lorca, was executed by a fascist squad.
* * *

I ran into a really interesting essay at Minding the Campus: The Humanities Throw in the Towel.
Today, when people speak of the humanities, they usually mean college English departments and other custodians of the parts of the curriculum that deal with the arts and culture. And they usually speak of such humanities as an overgrown graveyard, where the good ideas have been buried, and the above-ground occupants are a mixture of campers and vandals.
But it is good to be reminded that the real humanities—broadly and accurately conceived—have always lived elsewhere. Those are the humanities extolled by Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been thought and said,” but experienced by everyone whose life has been changed by reading a dazzling book, hearing a transcendent piece of music, or looking into the marvelous depths of a great painting. These are also the humanities that awakened the curiosity of Westerners to the humanity of other peoples and their cultural accomplishments. Western humanism propelled the desire to know humanity in its fullest range, to excavate the ruins of lost civilizations, learn the languages of far-flung nations, translate the seemingly untranslatable, and come to terms with ideas radically unlike our own. The universities were late to all these undertakings, and haven’t proved to be very adept at them.
The following is a very good expression of something I have argued over and over here:
At the simplest level, some people sing well, some poorly, and a few sing magnificently. Some people daub with paint, some have skill and discipline, and a few paint extraordinarily. Some people tell stories, some write compelling novels, and a few compose tales that ring across the centuries. If it is “elitism” to recognize these differences, we are all elitists. No amount of identity politics-based promotions of minor figures will change that. Nor will social justice-enforced demotions stick. The common judgment of humanity will do what all the PC academic humanities departments in the world refuse to do: sort out the best from the ordinary and the rubbish. 
* * *

I don't think we have had any music from de Falla for a long time, if ever. This is the music to his ballet El Amor Brujo from 1915. It was made into a wonderful film in 1986 by Carlos Saura.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Stravinsky: Svadebka (Les Noces)

Stravinsky's piece for vocal soloists, choir, four pianos and percussion was begun in 1917 (though conceived earlier) and premiered in 1923. It is a work strongly based on Russian folklore, particularly the melodies, lyrics and traditions of the peasant wedding. In English we should probably just call it "The Wedding." The piece is the culmination of years of exhaustive study of Russian folklore that included the composition of Petrushka, the Rite of Spring, Pribaoutki and other pieces. Stravinsky's reputation as an uncompromising modernist that de-emphasizes the Russian traditions is one that Taruskin specifically set out to correct in his two-volume work on Stravinsky. Of course, Stravinsky utterly transformed the folk material, but its influence is deep and thorough. The other modern composer who owes a great deal to folklore is Bartók, but that has always been prominently acknowledged by the composer himself. With Stravinsky it is more complex as his own relationship with his Russian origins changed as he settled outside Russia, living in France, Switzerland and ultimately the US.

I am going to write more about Svadebka in future posts. One thing I notice already is that this has been a difficult work to perform and many older performances are stiff or awkward. Here is a recent one that is very convincing. This is MusicAeterna conducted by Teodor Currentzis.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

There is no doubt in my mind that an engagement with the fine arts, music in particular, is psychologically healthy. I think it helps to prevent falling into some of the typical failings of our time: narcissism, neurosis, excessive emotionalism. So it is nice to see the idea echoed in a scientific study: Want to live longer? Art museums may be the key, study suggests.
“While previous studies have shown the association between arts engagement and the prevention and treatment of mental and physical health conditions, including depression, dementia, chronic pain, and frailty, whether arts engagement actually confers survival benefits remains unclear,” the study read. “Some research has proposed that the universality of art and the strong emotional responses it induces are indications of its association with evolutionary adaptations, while other research has questioned whether art is an evolutionary parasite, with no particular evolutionary benefits to our species.” 
Researchers found that adults 50 or older who engaged with arts frequently, or every few months or more — whether by going to the theater, museums, attending concerts, the opera or visiting art galleries and exhibitions — had a 31% lower risk of dying in the follow-up period.
What is left out of this discussion is the benefit accruing from the discipline of practicing the arts. Learning a musical instrument, for example, involves developing all kinds of disciplined approaches and techniques.

* * *

Norman Lebrecht has a rather breathless and inaccurate post over at Slipped Disc about the passing of the last "true" musicologist that I felt impelled to comment on.
 The Czech-born ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl died yesterday at 89. 
A child refugee from Hitler, he taught at the University of Illinois and conducted research among Native Americans, and in Iran and South India.
One of the other comments is such a hilarious parody that one suspects it is from the Babylon Bee. It received unanimous down votes...

* * *

I mentioned how sad it was that musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason had to stop posting on her blog due to her battle with cancer. She just passed away at the tragically young age of thirty-six.
Rebecca Schaefer Cypess: I never had the chance to meet Linda Shaver-Gleason in person, but conversing with her and reading her work was a great blessing for me, just as she was a blessing to the whole field of musicology. Her early death–she was, as she put it, “assassinated by cancer”–is a tremendous loss. She was a public scholar with grace and humor, in addition to being a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend. My heart goes out to Chris Gleason and Linus at this unbearably difficult time. Toward the end of her life Linda was interviewed numerous times by other journalists, but I’ll share the link to her blog because it’s best to let her speak for herself.…
* * *

Yes, this is the bicenquinquagenary, or two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, of the birth of Beethoven so we should be listening to quite a lot of Beethoven this year. Norman Lebrecht has a non-recommendation of an integral symphony recording: A BEETHOVEN A DAY: THE CYCLE QUESTION.
In all of my listening, I have yet to encounter a boxed set without flaws. Not just minor lapses, but fundamental, stagnant black holes like the indeterminate Pastoral in Hebert von Karajan’s otherwise imposing first Berlin cycle of 1963 (he went on to record seven or eight more), or the far-too rushed Eroica in Nikolaus Hanoncourt’s refreshing 1990 set with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.  Boxed sets, I’ve always understood, are for Christmas. Beethoven is for the other 364 days of the year.
The last one I listened to and quite enjoyed was the Roger Norrington box with the London Classical Players. The idea that every single cycle has "flaws" assumes that there is a Platonic Ideal Form of performances of the Beethoven symphonies. Does anyone actually believe that?

Oh, and could any of my readers either correct or support my attempt at finding the Latin equivalent of "two hundred and fiftieth anniversary"?

* * *

 I have seen a number of disturbing stories of public libraries that are more or less doing away with actual books. But maybe there is also an upside: Public Libraries’ Latest Offering: Musical Instruments. This is what is happening in Brooklyn:
But in one quiet wing on the third floor, the 78-year old institution goes beyond a place to read and rent books. There, it becomes New York City’s only library branch where patrons can take home musical instruments — for free.
For a 30-day period, any library-card-holder (with the permission of an adult, for minors) can take home instruments that range from electric guitars and keyboards to drum pads and cowbells. The library also boasts on-site recording studios, where borrowers can freely play.
But I gotta ask, who is actually going to take out cowbells?

* * * 

We had something on this story in the New York Times recently. Here is another take from Rolling Stone: How Music Copyright Lawsuits Are Scaring Away New Hits.
In the five years since a court ruled that “Blurred Lines” infringed on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 “Got to Give It Up,” demanding that Thicke and Williams fork over $5 million to the Gaye estate for straying too close to the older song’s “vibe,” the once-sleepy realm of music copyright law has turned into a minefield. Chart-topping musicians have been slapped with infringement lawsuits like never before, and stars like Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry are being asked to pay millions in cases that have many experts scratching their heads. Across genres, artists are putting out new music with the same question in the backs of their minds: Will this song get me sued?
“There is a lot of confusion about what’s permissible and what’s not,” says Sandy Wilbur, a forensic musicologist who served as an expert witness for the defense in the “Blurred Lines” case. Because cases are decided by “the average listener, who is not an educated musicologist or musician,” she notes, “labels are very afraid.” Since that game-changing ruling in 2015, Wilbur says, she’s received triple the number of requests from music companies to double-check new songs before they are even considered for release.
I have at times dreamed of being a "forensic musicologist" called to crime scenes to identify a musical murder weapon: "this man was strangled by a set of sleigh bells imported from Austria," or perhaps, "what a horrible death--bludgeoned to death by a contrabassoon!" But alas, it seems that what you really have to do is listen to a whole bunch of 70s tracks. Oh well, this is how dreams perish...

* * * 

I once horrified a writer on music by saying that Beethoven did not write very well for the voice to which he replied "But Fidelio is one of my favorite operas!" "Exactly!" was my response. I'm not the only one who wonders about FidelioDavid Lang: why I freed Fidelio's other prisoners. After discussing the problems with the original opera, composer David Lang explains how and why he decided to re-write it.

* * *

Damian Thompson at The Spectator is overcome with the marvelousness of Beethoven: Beethoven wasn’t just history’s greatest composer but also one of its greatest human beings.
That was Beethoven’s message to himself: to revolutionise music as economically as possible. And he succeeds, even when the page is black with notes that make terrifying technical demands. Although some of his later music may sound wild, verging on the atonal, it is not confused.
The strangeness does not reflect the chaotic despair of Beethoven’s drink-sodden personal life (he may unintentionally have drunk himself to death). On the contrary, Beethoven is making musical recompense for his behaviour. Some aspects of composing, such as counterpoint, didn’t come naturally to him. His two great fugues, the finale of the Hammerklavier sonata and the Grosse Fuge for string quartet, reach unprecedented levels of experimental complexity which still scare off some 21st-century listeners. But every note justifies itself. Beethoven sweated over them through fevers and hangovers. People in Vienna sometimes mistook him for a tramp; what they were actually witnessing was the ultimate musical perfectionist, albeit after a few too many beers.
There is absolutely no doubt about the astonishing quality of Beethoven's music, but it is hard for me to extend that to saying that he is one of history's greatest human beings. I just don't think it works like that.

* * *

We have not had much Beethoven lately, so let's listen to an excerpt from Igor Levit's new integral recording of the piano sonatas. This is the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, "Pathétique" which Blogger won't embed:

Incidentally, he will be playing all the sonatas in a series of concerts at the Salzburg Festival this coming August.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Roger Scruton, R.I.P.

I just learned that Roger Scruton passed away on Sunday. Have a look at his Wikipedia article. I had a great deal of respect for him as a writer on philosophical aesthetics. When I have a chance, I will do a post on him as, glancing at the article, there is a great deal I did not know of his life and work.

I have got to organize my library. I think this is the only book I have of his, but I can't locate it at the moment:

UPDATE: Here is an interesting conversation between Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson under the auspices of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Socio-Economic Theory of Guitar

I had an odd thought I wanted to share: I notice that fine classical guitarists seem to come in waves from different parts of the world. Here they are over the last hundred years.

  • First wave from Spain late-nineteenth through first half of 20th century: Francisco Tárrega, Miguel Llobet and Andrés Segovia
  • Second wave from Latin America and southern Europe: Alirio Diaz, Abel Carlevaro, Oscar Ghiglia
  • Third wave: the UK and Australia: Julian Bream, John Williams, Pepe Romero (the Romeros are a bit of an anomaly--they moved from Spain to the US in the 1950s)
  • Fourth wave: the US, Cuba, France: Manuel Barrueco, Eliot Fisk, Sharon Isbin, Leo Brouwer, Ida Presti and Alexander Lagoya
  • Fifth wave: Eastern Europe, Canada: Ana Vidovic, Marcin Dylla, Drew Henderson
I'm not doing any actual research here and closer examination might reveal something quite different, but it seems to me as if the classical guitar is something of a transitional instrument. It does well in cultures that are neither wealthy nor highly developed culturally. And as a particular culture becomes wealthy and more developed, young musicians tend to gravitate to instruments other than the guitar. For example, there don't seem to be too many first rank players coming from Spain these days (or am I wrong?) or the UK, or the US. Instead they are coming from places like Eastern Europe. I could have included China there, but while there is one very fine Chinese guitarist, Xuefei Yang, most music students in China are singers, violinists or pianists. That's where the money is!

The other thing I notice is that, with each wave, the economic rewards grow less and less. Segovia did very well, as did Bream and Williams, Pepe Romero had a rewarding career as did Manuel Barrueco. But since then, even very fine guitarists, easily as accomplished as any of those, have meagre careers with very modest rewards.

Here is the terrific Canadian guitarist Drew Henderson with some fine Bach:

What is Tonality?

Music composition and philosophy share the occasional tendency or need, perhaps, to be perplexed by things that everyone else takes for granted. Take tonality, for example. I can't locate it at the moment, but at the beginning of one of his texts, Schoenberg says that the easiest way to achieve unity in a composition is through tonality. But this does not necessarily mean "tonality" as it is described in a first-year harmony course.

What is tonality? You could argue that any music that organizes structure through pitch is, in some sense, "tonal." Most of Steve Reich's music is tonal as is that, most certainly, of Philip Glass. There have been arguments that a lot of Schoenberg's music is tonal in a very broad sense. Some pieces by Berg likely are. Perhaps some pieces by Ligeti. Certainly music by a great number of 20th century masters from Stravinsky to Shostakovich to Britten to Messiaen. The term "extended tonality" was doubtless coined to describe the many different ways composers have approached tonality. It is no longer, if it ever was, a question of following a fixed set of "rules" governing how tonality must be used. It would be hard to find a composer who didn't break the rules whenever it was necessary or useful--even Haydn and Beethoven!

So we find ourselves on the verge of claiming that any music that organizes pitches is in some sense "tonal." I don't find that terribly problematic, frankly. There are, of course, pieces that are in no sense at all tonal such as this one:

But how could you argue that this piece is not tonal:

Schoenberg fiercely resisted classifying his music as "atonal," he preferred "pantonal" or "music written with twelve-tones equally" or some variation of that. Because certainly his music uses tones in various structural ways. Only a piece without tones could accurately be called "atonal" as a person without a moral sense would be called "amoral."

The two biggest differences between traditional or common practice tonality and extended tonality are first, the tolerance of higher levels of dissonance and second, the organization of pitches in a symmetrical rather than asymmetrical way. If you replace perfect 4ths and 5ths with tritones you make a profound change in harmonic structure by dividing the octave equally. Similarly, if you use an octatonic collection you also divide the octave equally. This leaves it open as to which pitch you choose as a "final." Using the whole-tone scale has a similar effect as we see in Debussy. Incidentally,  Messiaen was referring to these symmetrical pitch collections in his "modes of limited transposition" because, yes, they can only be transposed a limited number of times. Also, a symmetrical rhythmic structure is, in his terminology, "non-retrogradable" because, like a palindrome, is it the same backwards or forwards.

Setting aside the more extreme approaches such as we find in Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, it seems to be mostly true that 20th (and possibly 21st) century composers have taken a myriad of approaches to the tonal organization of music without actually casting aside the idea of tonal organization! Asking the question is a particular piece of music tonal or not is actually a very, very complicated question. For most purposes I am going to answer "uh-huh, probably."

Here is a nice example for you: Renard by Stravinsky. In A. Or "on" A. Or "in the general neighborhood of A".

Friday, January 10, 2020


This missed making the Friday Miscellanea, but I just couldn't wait until next week to share it with you:

You know, I am pretty eager to hear that disco treatment of Operation Barbarossa, which, I'm pretty sure, will be a fresh approach to song-writing.

Friday Miscellanea

Here is an odd little ad from Advertising Standards Canada:

Now is this valid aesthetic criticism or just a cheap shot? Is there any reason it can't be both? I'm reminded of that fantastic scene in Green Card where Gérard Depardieu fakes an avant-garde performance on piano--or does he? At the end he just gives a Gallic shrug and says "it's not Mozart." Here is another ad from the same folks:

Same idea, but with painting. Incidentally, the music is the Badinerie movement from the Orchestral Suite No. 2 by Bach. Let me make one crucially important modification to their premiss that creativity is subjective. The reception of creativity (art, music and so on) is subjective. The aesthetic objects themselves are not. They have real existence just like anything else. But how you take them, interpret them, perceive them as beautiful, is indeed subjective. Up to you, in other words. By the way, the Advertising Standards folks ought to take a look at political advertising. I understand some of it is pretty uh, subjective!

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Bachtrack has crunched the numbers for 2019 in music. Let's look at a few. But first here are some of their premisses:
It’s not unknown for us to groan in despair at how slow classical music is to change and, indeed, some of the stats for 2019 show, shall we say, a degree of continuity (Beethoven and Mozart the top two composers, with Brahms and Bach in the top five).
As a person of a certain age, I am rather in favor of things, especially good things, staying just as they are. Would they prefer that Beethoven was largely replaced by Nico Muhly? Ah, but that's not what they mean:
But look into the numbers more closely and you’ll see that slowly but surely, there’s progress: more women composers and conductors, more contemporary music being played, more variety of operatic repertoire. The whole scene feels pretty vibrant from where we’re sitting, with our reviewers getting every bit as excited about the music and the musicians they’ve seen during the year.
So, just the usual virtue-signalling. Passing that by, here are some of the actual numbers. The most-performed concert piece: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" by Beethoven. Here are the top ten:
1 Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 “Eroica”
2 Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
3 Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5
4 Vivaldi: Four Seasons
5 Handel: Messiah
6 Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
7 Brahms: Symphony no. 1
8 Brahms: Symphony no. 2
9 Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
10 Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
No Mozart, no Bach? Mozart gets on the list of the top three opera composers preceded by Verdi and Puccini. Lots of statistics about the increasing numbers of women composers and conductors. Here are some miscellaneous statistics: 29% of opera productions in Austria were new in 2019. The busiest conductors?
1 Andris Nelsons
 2 Valery Gergiev
 3 Paavo Järvi
 4 Jakub Hrůša
 5 Jaap van Zweden
=6 François-Xavier Roth
=6 Yannick Nézet-Séguin
=8 Herbert Blomstedt
=8 Daniel Harding
10 Semyon Bychkov
And the busiest pianists:
Yuja Wang
Jan Lisiecki
Emanuel Ax
Daniil Trifonov
Rudolf Buchbinder
Sir András Schiff
Dénes Várjon
Yefim Bronfman
Leif Ove Andsnes
Kirill Gerstein
Igor Levit
Jean-Yves Thibaudet
* * *

The New York Times has a piece on the increasing litigation in pop music: It’s Got a Great Beat, and You Can File a Lawsuit to It. My feeling is that since this end of the music business has become so engorged with revenue, then opportunistic lawsuits are sure to follow. I'm pretty sure no-one will be coming after me, though!
Occasionally, pop innovates in a hard stylistic jolt, or an outlier comes to rapid prominence (see: Lil Nas X), but more often, it moves as a kind of unconscious collective. An evolutionary step is rarely the product of one person working in isolation; it is one brick added atop hundreds of others.
Originality is a con: Pop music history is the history of near overlap. Ideas rarely emerge in complete isolation. In studios around the world, performers, producers and songwriters are all trying to innovate just one step beyond where music currently is, working from the same component parts. It shouldn’t be a surprise when some of what they come up with sounds similar — and also like what came before.
The idea that this might be actionable is the new twist. Every song benefits from what preceded it, whether it’s a melodic idea, a lyrical motif, a sung rhythm, a drum texture. A forensic analysis of any song would find all sorts of pre-existing DNA.
Yabbut, what about cultural appropriation? Oh, never mind. What the above boils down to is that pop music is a high-revenue version of folk music, the result of a kind of collective unconscious and with not a huge amount of creative individuality.

* * *

Who or what is "Musicology Duck"? Not sure, but they do have an interesting proposal: why don't we expand our listening habits in the new year: Listen Wider Challenge 2020. Sounds good!

Well, it did sound good, right up to the virtue-signalling thingy. Really, if you decide to base your musical explorations ONLY on things like gender and skin color, isn't that just a category error? Or sexism and racism? For more examples of the above see their list of how you should broaden your horizons. Some of them are pretty good, such as "A composition written when the composer was older than age 80." I'm sure there are possibilities other than Elliot Carter? Or: "A concerto for tuba, bassoon, or double bass." That could be interesting. But at least half of the suggestions are mere political correctness run amok: "An opera with a libretto by an author of color."

* * *

Taking a cue from that last item, why don't we resolve to expand our listening in the new year? I think I will listen a bit more to some of these:
  • Morton Feldman: I don't think I know much of his music and I probably should.
  • Luigi Nono: same thing. I started to do some posts on him and got sidetracked. But I want to do more reading on him and more listening as well.
  • Mozart Piano Sonatas: there are a bunch of them and I have only the vaguest sense of them.
Others will likely turn up.

* * *

I am astonished to hear for the first time about an interesting musicology blog just as it comes to an end: Myth-busting music blogger honored, mourned online in her final days.
Beethoven’s late music sounds the way it does because he was already deaf when he wrote it. The premiere of “The Rite of Spring” was a historic explosion of anti-modernist outrage. Music is a universal language.
These are things that everyone knows, or at least everyone with an interest in classical music. They go with other familiar stories, like Bach’s houseful of 20 children or Mozart’s deadly feud with Salieri.
And they’re all wrong.
Please don’t take my word for it. For the details on these and other musical yarns ripe for debunking, you could scarcely do better than to consult a blog with the winningly outraged name Not Another Music History Cliché! 
Since 2016, California musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason has been using that site to compile a clear-eyed and level-headed accounting of the ways in which the conventional wisdom about classical music (like conventional wisdom in all walks of life) consistently leads us astray. She’s tackled issues as specific as whether a newly discovered flute concerto is really by Mozart, and as broad as the role of beauty in music, with particular application to the “ugly” sounds of contemporary composition.
How terribly, terribly sad! I am going to follow her advice and read her blog even though it will no longer be added to.

* * *

 For our envoi today, here is the Orchestral Suite No. 2 by Bach from the Netherlands Bach Society's mammoth project:

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Problems of Composition

I have read a lot of discussions of music composition, but there are certain aspects that are rarely if ever discussed. For example, there is a lot of theoretical discussion of things like harmony, motivic structure and counterpoint, but not much about the character of the various sections of the piece. What do I mean? Most music needs sections that are introductory, sections that are going somewhere, sections that are climactic and sections that are concluding. Traditional analysis of formal functions, such as we find in the recent theoretical work of people like William Caplin, deals with this to some extent, but always tied to common practice harmony. These sections are called "exposition," "development," "recapitulation," "coda" and so on. The great strength of common practice harmony was that methods were discovered using harmony and thematic structure to give narrative shape to music in both the microcosm and macrocosm, whether we are talking about something as brief as a Haydn theme:

Or as lengthy as a Bruckner symphonic movement. Modernism brought with it a host of problems in composition. One way of handling them was to load everything onto contrapuntal structures which was the tendency of 12-tone music. Though we find in Schoenberg, for example, that a lot of tonal gestures linger here and there. Another strategy was to simply eliminate the concept of narrative shape altogether. This was the approach of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen among many others. Composers like Steve Reich have attenuated the harmonic and motivic aspects in favor of long-range rhythmic structures.

For many of us, the problem of giving the appropriate character to the openings of compositions, to the places where forward movement is needed, to places where something climactic is needed and to places where and ending is sought, remains a difficult one. Often one has to resort to texture, to orchestration, to using a whole bunch of percussion instruments or to other aspects such as timbre. But the problem isn't going away and re-presents itself anew with every new piece. How lucky people like Haydn and Mozart were that they had a well-stocked toolbox with all the things they needed to build well-structured pieces of music. Of course, Haydn actually invented a number of these...

Here is the string quartet by Haydn that I quoted above, the Op. 76, No. 2, nicknamed "Das Quinten" or "The Fifths" because of that opening theme. That incredibly simple motif is the ONLY theme Haydn needs to build an entire movement.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Radical Folk: Stravinsky

In 1914, while living in the tiny village of Salvan, in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, Stravinsky composed a number of pieces based on Russian folklore. This is carefully documented in the second volume of Taruskin's monograph on Stravinsky, Stravinsky and the Russian traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra (cf op. cit. pp 1136 passim).

I call this "radical folk" music because Stravinsky, in the process of composing these often tiny pieces (the four songs of Pribaoutki take just over four minutes to perform), radically hewed away everything that smacked of European influence. This can be seen by reviewing the compositional process in the sketchbooks.
It is only by knowing the sketches that we can see the plainness of this music for the "second simplicity" it is and appreciate the merciless repression of spontaneous "instinct" in pursuit of a higher truth. Ultimately both the received folkloric model and the unmediated personal response have been refined away, leaving behind a "small, dry thing" such as T. E. Hulme, that great prophet of modern art, foretold as the vessel of a new beauty he called Classical. [Taruskin, Stravinsky, vol. II, p. 1182]
 This fills in some of the gaps that people have puzzled over between Stravinsky's early Russian compositions, including the Rite, and his later neo-classical style.

Here are the four tiny Pribaoutki songs:

Friday, January 3, 2020

Friday MIscellanea

Some of the greatest musicians have lived under tyrannical regimes. Some, like Shostakovich, survived by making public efforts to satisfy the demands of the rulers while hiding works that might not be well-received. His Symphony No. 4, which he withdrew when his music was attacked in Pravda, was not premiered until twenty-five years after it was written in early 1936. Alas, not all musicians were so lucky. Here is the story of a promising young pianist who was summarily executed by the Nazis for criticizing Hitler in private: The tragic story of pianist Karlrobert Kreiten: how speaking one's mind in private could be fatal in the Third Reich.

* * *

The JACK quartet are going to premiere a really dark work next month. And by "dark" I mean in total darkness. Should be fun. And, of course, they could optionally perform it nude as well, I suppose.

* * *

These are not happy times if you are Jewish. Via Slipped Disc we learn that pianist Igor Levit has had to have police protection due to a death threat.

* * *

There is a new book out about "socially conscious music" or, protest songs. Music is Power: Popular Songs, Social Justice, and the Will to Change. I have a list of titles of protest songs I would like to see:
  • "This Land Is Privately Owned"
  • "We Shall Continue Lobbying Until Everyone Gets a Subsidy"
  • "A Hard Climate Change Is Gonna Fall"
And so on...

* * *

Alex Ross has a large piece up at The New Yorker: Opera Against the Patriarchy, in which he reviews the European premieres of three new operas, two by women composers.
Notwithstanding the conservatism of the opera business, many top houses offer a world première every season or two. On a one-week swing through Europe in early December, I caught three such productions: Hans Abrahamsen’s “The Snow Queen,” at the Royal Danish Theatre, in Copenhagen; Chaya Czernowin’s “Heart Chamber,” at the Deutsche Oper, in Berlin; and “Orlando.” One suspects that, in many cases, commissioning work plays a palliative role: a company can applaud itself for having acknowledged contemporary reality and then scurry back to the safe space of the past.
Isn't the opera business conservative because the people that buy the tickets are conservative? And it seems to me that the European opera houses are more adventurous than North American ones. Or is that just my limited experience?

* * *

Musicology Now has come to life for the first time since September and I must confess that the only reason I mention this rather humdrum article on Christmas music is because the author, Jake Johnson, assistant professor of musicology at Oklahoma City University's Wanda L. Bass School of Music, has absolutely fabulous hair:

* * *

Over at his website, Wenatchee the Hatchet is working his way through all the preludes and fugues for guitar by Nikita Koshkin. There is a lovely new recording by Asya Selyutina on Naxos.

* * *

For our envoi, let's have a brand new clip just uploaded from the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. This is David Afkham conducting the Three Pieces for Orchestra op. 6 by Alban Berg. Blogger won't embed:

Berg is the most fin of fin-de-siècle composers is he not?