Saturday, February 29, 2020

Lost and Not Lost

I don't have a proper tag for this! I just ran across a fascinating article on the loss and preservation of ancient literature. The author dismisses the story that it was Christians who were responsible for the burning of ancient pagan libraries and instead finds a lot of evidence that the survival of much ancient literature was due to the Christians. I ran across a number of interesting facts that I was not aware of:
  • It has been claimed that about ten million words of classical Greek and one million words of classical Latin, excepting Christian works, have come down to us. Of the former, two million words are the medical corpus of Galen alone, while of the later about a third is made up of the surviving three quarters of the works of Cicero. In fact, whereas much classical Greek is technical and not of interest to the general reader, nearly all preserved classical Latin is worth reading in its own right.
  • So just what proportion of ancient literature has been lost? This is difficult to answer but we can get a rough estimate from the size of ancient libraries. Archaeology suggests that the biggest contained 20,000 or so scrolls and the Great Library of Alexandria itself is most reliably said to have contained 40,000. On the other hand, all the extant pagan classical works would not fill much more than a thousand scrolls so we have been left with about 5% of what might be found (barring repeat copies) in Rome. As for Latin, we have the names of 772 classical authors.  Of these, not a word survives from 276 of them.  We have fragments ranching from an aphorism to several pages of 352 of the authors.  Of the remaining 144, we possess at least one of their works but rarely all of them.
Wow! I had no idea that Greek literature amounted to so much more than Latin. Nor that the level differed so much, the Greek being much more technical and the Latin more popular. 95% lost.
  • Some of the reasons that important literature disappeared are in fact very prosaic. The most important was language. When the Roman Empire was at its height the educated classes could read both Latin and Greek but after the fourth century the two languages split on geographical grounds with Greek completely dying out in Western Europe. In the East, Latin was first confined to the army and then disappeared altogether. As late as the thirteenth century the humanist scholar Petrarch could bemoan in a letter to Nicolas Sygeros that he was unable to read any of his collection of Greek manuscripts. Clearly, copying a manuscript that no one understands is not going to be a priority so Latin in the East and Greek in the West was lost.
  • This is also the reason for the near total lack of scientific scholarship in Western Europe before the translations into Latin of the High Middle Ages. There never was a scientific tradition in Latin, only popular writings like Pliny the Elder's Natural History. Once Greek died out, these were all that anyone could read and the technical Greek works (apart from one or two like Plato's Timeaus that had already been translated into Latin) were lost to the West.
Again, wow. No scientific tradition in Latin. For some reason this never dawned on me, I suppose because I tend to read much more in Greek authors than Latin ones. Now that I think of it, the Latin authors are poets, biographers, historians and not writers on science. How odd!
  • Today we regret how much has been lost but we have been remarkably careless ourselves. Many classic television serials, such as Doctor Who from the 1960s, have disappeared because at the time no one felt they were important enough to use up video tape for. Even more tragically, large numbers of early movies like the second part of the incomparable Wedding March (1928) have been lost through carelessness and the perishability of nitrate film (for further details see here). Some surviving classics were preserved in a single print. To those of us who mourn the loss of classical literature this is a depressingly familiar story.
Yes, and the recent fire at the Universal archive in which a lot of master tapes of popular music were lost shows that the problem is ongoing. I preserved some files on zip drives that I no longer have any means of reading, for example.

Just as a footnote to the nature of preserved Greek literature: we have a number of texts on Greek music theory by people like Aristoxenus, but almost no actual music. The Greeks lacked a good system of music notation, but they were very interested in the theory of music and that had a significant influence on the later development of Arabic and Western European notions of music theory. I was very amused to read in the introduction to Gustave Reese's book Music in the Middle Ages with an Introduction on the Music of Ancient Times (published 1940 and one of the first books in English on the topic) that when he consulted a classical scholar about ancient Greek music theory he was told to avoid it completely as "that way lies madness!"

Still reading Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography and he just mentioned Stravinsky's Piano Rag Music, the first piece of any importance he wrote for piano and which was dedicated to Rubinstein:

Rubinstein couldn't make much sense of it and didn't play it much. Last night I listened to the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra playing the 1947 Petrushka ballet score by Stravinsky. Excellent performance conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada and excellent quality:

Every time I hear that I am astonished at how good the music is.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

Every possible melody? Doubtful. Musicians Algorithmically Generate Every Possible Melody, Release Them to Public Domain.
To determine the finite nature of melodies, Riehl and Rubin developed an algorithm that recorded every possible 8-note, 12-beat melody combo. This used the same basic tactic some hackers use to guess passwords: Churning through every possible combination of notes until none remained. Riehl says this algorithm works at a rate of 300,000 melodies per second.
Just about every word of that needs explanation. "Finite"? What distinction is that aiming for? Are there "infinite" melodies? And what does "8-note" refer to? They only looked at diatonic melodies without chromaticism? They only looked at octatonic melodies? Where does the "12-beat" come from? This "explanation" sounds like a garbled and misunderstood version of a longer and more complete one.

* * *

This is an interesting, if troubling, post: Classical musicians hunt in tribes.
Composer Ruth Gipps wrote "I have been told that Britten was personally responsible for having the careers of possible rivals ruined if he could", and named Willian Alwyn, William Walton, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, and Lennox Berkeley as the alleged victims of Aldeburgh tribal warfare. Other examples from the past of classical musicians hunting in packs are the celebrated Glock/Boulez pack which hunted down other fine composers including Robert Simpson, Malcolm Arnold and Edmund Rubbra, and the less celebrated bigots in the BBC who sabotaged the black conductor Rudolph Dunbar's career in the 1940s.
Today classical musicians and those close to them continue to hunt in tribal packs. In fact the hegemony of social media has amplified the role of the tribe: because social networks are agglomerations of communities of common interest - aka as tribes. So in classical music we now have social media hunting packs that are anti-Brexit, pro-CBSO, anti-Domingo, pro-new London concert hall, anti-BBC rationalisation, pro-#metoo vigilantism, etc etc.
I suppose that a traditional justification for this sort of thing might have been the promotion of various "schools of thought." We have seen the Second Viennese School or the Russian Five lending support to one another and don't see anything wrong with that. But if Britten or Boulez was attempting to cripple the careers of rival composers as has been claimed, then surely we would condemn that as mere careerism or factional rivalry. Would claims of theoretical authenticity or something be justification--or would they not even be bothered with? How common is this in the area of the visual arts?

* * *

The coronavirus crisis seems to be leading to some over-reaction:
The Swiss government this morning banned all large events of over 1,000 people until March 15 at the earliest, due to coronavirus fears.
That will include all opera and concert performances.
* * *

Via Slipped Disc I am alerted to a new website for Anne Midgette, late of the Washington Post. He directs us to a post on Plácido Domingo:
Domingo is, indeed, irreplaceable — because the world no longer has a place for this particular kind of artist, who has done so much to help the field and so much to harm it. And it may well be that without him, the field loses some of its patrons, and some of its funding. It may be, indeed, that the institution of opera fundamentally changes — which is something we should all aspire to if we want this intoxicating, bizarre, glorious art form to continue to be vital, now and in the future. Will the fall of Domingo bring about the fall of opera? Those who fear that are forgetting another operatic plot: the idea that  Götterdämmerung is necessary in order that a brave new world can be born.
That is the conclusion; it is worth reading the whole post, which raises a host of questions, some of them about the nature of patronage. I was musing over the role of patronage by the rich and powerful in the career of Arthur Rubinstein and I wonder if replacing it with a regime of nothing but government and foundation grants will not result in a much blander artistic world.

* * *

Here's an odd reflection: when it comes to prestige propaganda, why is it that the Left always seems to do it better? Case in point, Picasso's Guernica, that I saw when I visited the Reina Sofia art museum in Madrid a couple of years ago. This enormous painting, 11 by 25 feet, taking up an entire gallery, is an depiction of man's inhumanity to man (and horses). It is the most famous anti-war painting and depicts the bombing of the Basque village of Guernica in 1937 in the course of the Spanish Civil War. This was shocking because it was the first instance of the aerial bombing of civilians and gained worldwide attention. It resulted in nearly 2,000 casualties. Now of course, the allies in WWII launched many massive bombing raids that resulted in far more civilian casualties--one of the most notorious was the bombing of Dresden late in the war with little strategic justification resulting in the deaths of about 25,000 people, many of them civilians. But we can find examples during the Spanish Civil War of atrocities committed by the Republican left. These are often referred to as the Red Terror.
The violence consisted of the killing of tens of thousands of people (including 6,832 Roman Catholic priests, the vast majority in the summer of 1936 in the wake of the military coup) as well as attacks on the Spanish nobility, industrialists, and conservative politicians as well as the desecration and burning of monasteries and churches.
I think it is safe to say that, in the case of the Spanish Civil War, both sides committed many atrocities. I just want to notice that the Left always seems to have better artistic depiction of the atrocities of the Right. Is that odd?

* * *

Via The Strad, here is something interesting: 12 Ensemble, an innovative, conductorless string ensemble, perform ‘Honey Siren - II. (Full like drips)’ by Oliver Leith taped in the loading dock at the Barbican.

* * *

The Times Literary Supplement has a piece on George Gershwin: Gershwin: The quest for an American sound.
Gershwin died at the age of thirty-eight, in 1937. Yet his music continues to hold a place in the American consciousness. Ever since the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, his works have been linked to jazz – some even call Porgy and Bess a “jazz opera” because of its African American characters.  Gershwin was not a jazz musician, and the works he composed were not jazz. Nonetheless, after his death, in the hands of musicians including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald, songs such as “I Got Rhythm” served as jumping off points for important jazz movements like Bebop.
All of this is to say that Gershwin’s compositions do not fit easily into a single musical category.  They are shifting entities, whose content, orchestration, performance style and cultural significance continue to change from one generation to the next. This is especially true of the works that engage with African American culture. Gershwin’s depictions of race – be it in masterworks like Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess, or “blackface” numbers like “Swanee” – are relevant to our understanding of the American soundscape.  Their creation and reception reveal much about the complexities behind Gershwin’s development as a composer, and the continued development of the United States as a nation.
* * * 

Yuja Wang caused a stir in a recital in Chicago by playing the pieces in a different order than listed in the program. The Chicago Tribune discusses: Why piano star Yuja Wang’s daring recital raised some hackles.
In fact, Wang went beyond surprising her listeners and startled at least one when she opened the recital. Rather than starting with the earliest pieces, the Bach Toccata in C Minor or Galuppi’s Andante from Sonata No. 5 (both 18th century works), she jolted expectations with a 20th century landmark: Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major. Because of its ample technical demands, most pianists would have played it later in the program, when their fingers were warmed up. Its revolutionary approach to harmony, structure, rhythm and phrase also suggested that conventional pianists would have placed it much later in the recital, as a culmination of the baroque and romantic idioms that preceded it.
* * *

I don't think we have heard much Scriabin in our envois. So let's remedy that. Here is the Sonata No. 4 in F# minor played by Yuja Wang:

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Arthur Rubinstein (1887 - 1982)

Towards the end of the Taruskin's book on Stravinsky, volume 2, he refers to a memoir of Arthur Rubinstein for some insights on Stravinsky. That reminded me of how much I enjoyed one of his memoirs, he wrote two, a few decades ago. That book was titled My Young Years and it is available on Kindle for, ahem, a song. Rubinstein is an entertaining writer because he remembers so many details, knew so many people and had such an eventful career. I had the great good fortune to hear him play a recital in Spain in 1974. It was one of the finest piano performances I have ever heard. I swear he changed the whole color of the piano when he got to the D major section of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. The second half had a lot of Chopin. He was one of the greatest performers of Chopin of the 20th century.

So I'm re-reading My Young Years and I have the second book, My Many Years, that I will get to soon. Apart from the fascinating details of his life, what is really interesting is how different the musical, and social scene generally was from now. In the whole book there is no mention of applying for a government cultural grant. For much of his early life Rubinstein, along with many of his fellow musicians, was desperately poor and constantly struggling to survive. Apart from concert fees, his support came exclusively from wealthy patrons, most of them members of the aristocracy which still existed even more than a hundred years after the French Revolution. Remarkably, quite a few of them were real music lovers.

Wealthy patrons today seem to be less interested in young musicians but quite willing to give ten billion dollars to fight climate change:
“Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet,” Bezos said. “I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.”
 Uh-huh. And what about the threat Justin Bieber poses?

Another thing about the Rubinstein memoir is how candid it is about the many intimate liaisons he participated in. He also seemed to meet just about everyone in the performing arts including composers, singers, ballet dancers as well as fellow pianists and violinists.

Let's have a listen. This is Arthur Rubinstein playing one of his favorite warhorses from his early career, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor by Saint-Saëns:

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Reading Music

I am a pretty good sight-reader, but I notice lately, since I do a lot less playing than I used to, my sight-reading isn't quite as good as it used to be. If I am in a scordatura, with the 6th string in D or the 3rd string in F#, I might occasionally forget I am in the tuning. And I probably wouldn't be able to zip through a virtuoso Giuliani score the way I used to. You have to put a lot of hours in every week to keep these skills up.

Sight-reading is a lucrative skill. If you can do it accurately, you can play a lot of ensemble music and do studio work. I have mentioned this before, but every orchestral soundtrack you have heard in a movie was recorded in ONE SESSION of two and half hours. This is a single "service" under the Musician's Union contracts. Most if not all of the score was played once and once only. Session musicians are people who can walk in, sit down and play whatever is on the stand. Pretty impressive. Mind you, it would be easy to write parts that they simply could not play at sight--but if you do that, they will never hire you to write another soundtrack! Film composers are usually going to stick to things that are reasonably easy to read.

Some instruments are tricky to sight-read on: the guitar for one. Every time there is a chord, which might be three, four or five notes together, it is likely that it can be played in some positions, but not in others. So you have to make some quick decisions--or leave a note out, which is what the really seasoned players do. Today, just for fun, I tried to do something I haven't done in a long, long time: sight-read a vocal and guitar score simultaneously. Sure, it's possible. I picked a very easy little song, "Delicate Beauty" by Henry Lawes, the 17th century English song-writer. If you are reading a vocal part and a guitar part at sight, you are engaged in two quite different things simultaneously. You have to find where the starting note is for the voice and then read the intervals and reproduce them. At the same time, you are reading the guitar part (originally the accompaniment was a bass line, perhaps with some figures to indicate inversions, but I was playing from a version for guitar in three or four voices) and have to decide which finger to put on which note. Oh, and also, there are words so you have to read them as well. Sounds complicated, but if the song is very simple as this one is, it is not too hard. I had a student that took up the lute and got very good at performing Dowland, singing and accompanying himself. As he was playing from the original lute tablature, he would actually be reading three entirely different systems of notation simultaneously: vocal notation, the lyrics and lute tablature which consists of letters on a six line staff (one line for each string or course and letters to indicate which fret). Here is how that looks:

At the top you have ordinary vocal notation on a five-line staff. The clef, though funny-looking, is an ordinary treble clef. There is one flat and the time signature is 3/2. Under that staff are the lyrics in ordinary Roman letters, though since it is the 16th century, they show a lot of 's' letters as 'f's. Underneath that is the lute tablature. This is French tab, with the 1st string on top and letters for the frets. 'a' is open, 'b' is first fret and so on. In Italian tab they use numbers and the 1st string is on the bottom, not the top:

Click to enlarge
The easiest to learn is the tablature of Luis Milan, the Spanish vihuela composer as he uses numbers with the 1st string on top, which is the same as the tablature used today. The Germans used a very different system entirely and one with a number of archaic features probably indicating it predates the printed and manuscript copies. Each fret on each string is not shown with a simple and logical system, but with its own symbol. First of all, the five upper strings are notated differently than the 6th string, which means that the system was originally for a five-string lute. The five open strings are indicated with numbers,  1 2 3 4 5. The notes on the first fret are indicated by letters running across the fingerboard, a b c d e. These letters continue for the second fret, f g h i k and so on. Madness! Just to add to the confusion, there were several different systems used for the 6th string. Here is a sample:

This is the kind of job you give to a musicologist, of course: transcribe all these nearly unreadable German tablatures into either French or Italian tablature so modern lutenists can read them, or into ordinary vocal notation so guitarists can read them. I once met a musicologist who had obviously done a great deal of this as she claimed to be able to sight-sing from German lute tab. Think about it... Now that would be a very complex mental operation, indeed!

I mentioned sight-singing. This is part of standard training at music schools. Ear training consists of learning to hear and identify intervals, harmonies and rhythms by learning to write them down. This is called "dictation." The opposite process consists of looking at a written-down melody and singing it at sight. These used to be widely practiced skills if you go back a few centuries, but now they are fairly specialized. At McGill first year sight-singing required that you sing simple melodies at sight, like I was doing with the Lawes. Second year sight singing used a text called Quatre-vingt Études de Solfege avec Changement de Clés which translates as Eighty Studies in Solfege with Changing Clefs. This means that every two or three bars, the clef would change: treble, bass, alto, soprano, tenor! Agh! Plus, the melodies were extremely chromatic in the first place. Pretty much a sight-singing nightmare. For third year you had to sing atonal melodies at sight. Oh, yeah!

Here is that song by Lawes:

Stravinsky at the Close

I have finally finished Taruskin's two-volume book on Stravinsky that he describes as "a biography of the works" and a spectacular project it is. I don't think that there is anything to compare to it for depth and breadth--other than the same author's Oxford History of Western Music. I would love for him to take on another big project, but after those two, we probably shouldn't expect anything more.

The last work he examines is the Requiem Canticles, written in 1966, towards the end of Stravinsky's life and his last major composition. The work uses Stravinsky's unique approach to the serial method. As requiems go it is brief, fifteen minutes long, but compelling. For some reason, before this morning, I had never listened to it. One of the things I take from my reading of the second volume of Taruskin is how much of later Stravinsky is still not widely known. Productions of his operas are not nearly as common as you would think and some works, like Les Noces, are so unusual that one suspects they have yet to find an audience. Stravinsky's early triumphs, The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, are now over a hundred years old and have become recognized as the masterpieces that they are. But the later works are still infrequently performed--excepting popular ones like the Symphony of Psalms, now ninety years old!

When you think of it, describing pieces like The Rite or the Symphony of Psalms as "contemporary music" is quite absurd. Even the moniker "modern music" is a stretch. Reminds me of a famous essay "When was Modernism?" "20th century music" is at least accurate, if uninformative. A few years ago a couple of my songs were part of a concert described as "20th Century" music, but they were actually written in 2010, so "21st Century" music in fact.

We might recognize a few odd things about recent history: even before the First World War, there were some serious dislocations in European civilization heralded by Nietzsche's writings about the death of God and "master-slave morality." The most serious musicians were already dismantling the inherited structures of tonality and rhythm and searching for alternatives. This was an even more profound dislocation than was perceived at the time. Even though, between the two wars, a neoclassical synthesis was attempted, it never quite achieved the hoped for success and the canon of classical music was still dominated by music from the 18th and 19th centuries.

It remains the case that some really important music from a hundred years ago, and I am thinking of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments from 1920, are still, not only unappreciated, but uncongenial to the whole context of music in the 21st century. Instead of a growing acceptance of this kind of repertoire, we have a general lowering of musical taste to the point that music like this is not even disliked. Instead, it is completely unknown! In essence, music now is written by and for teenagers of very limited knowledge and experience. Billie Eilish is the embodiment of our current musical taste. I wonder how she will be regarded a hundred years from now?

Let's listen to two pieces by Stravinsky. The first, the hundred-year-old Symphonies of Wind Instruments:

and the over fifty-year-old Requiem Canticles:

Friday, February 21, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

On an economics blog, a post recommending the reading of art books: In praise of art books. One interesting caveat:
These books tend not to be politically contentious, or if they are it is in a superficial way that is easily brushed off.  (Note there is a whole subgenre of art books, from theory-laden, left-wing presses, with weird covers, displayed in small, funky Manhattan or Brooklyn bookstores where you can’t believe they can make the rent, where politics is all they are about.  Avoid those.)
Yep. I have a recommendation for a general history of art that is a bit out of the mainstream, but very well done: Paul Johnson, Art: A New History.

* * *

Back when I first attended the Salzburg Festival, in 1988, as a student, I was struck by their willingness to program integral projects. Then it was the complete Beethoven string quartets by the Alban Berg Quartet, the complete Schubert sonatas by Alfred Brendel and seven concerts of chamber music by Stockhausen. There may have been more, I am relying simply on memory here. In recent years these kinds of projects have been less common, but this coming August, Igor Levit will play all the Beethoven piano sonatas in a series of eight concerts at the festival and on August 21st, Alexandre Lonquich with the Camerata Salzburg will play ALL the Beethoven piano concertos in one mammoth concert, conducting from the keyboard. I mention this because Mr. Levit has a piece in The Guardian about the Beethoven sonatas and one that might be worth having a look at:
I sensed that Beethoven would mean a lot to me when I first heard the Missa Solemnis in concert. I was 14 or 15, and doubt I grasped much of its spiritual essence, but what I felt is hard to capture in words. I heard grandeur and internal struggle, friction and sheer awesomeness. Of course, I was swept away by the beauty of the Benedictus and held spellbound by the bleak brass of the Agnus Dei. The Missa Solemnis quickly became my favourite work. I must have listened to the early Gardiner recording dozens of times. The score became sacred to me in the truest sense of the word. Even today I could almost write it out by rote.
That was chosen almost at random. Have a look at the whole piece, which is not that long. As a eulogy to a great chunk of repertoire by a great composer it is pretty good. But if you want to read a bunch of pompous, smug and dismissive comments on it, then by all means hasten over to Slipped Disc. Honestly, don't these people feel any shame?

* * *

And from the Annals of the Stunningly Obvious we have a piece on the possible effect of the Climate Crisis on musicians in, of course, The New Yorker: THE DAY THE MUSIC BECAME CARBON-NEUTRAL.
It’s also possible for musicians to share the financial burden of environmental responsibility with their fans. Dan Snaith, a composer and producer who records as Caribou, has partnered with, a nonprofit founded by the indie-rock band Arcade Fire, which adds one dollar to every ticket sold and then consults with artists on how best to donate the money. “Over the past four years, our artists were mainly interested in supporting mental health, gender equality, and civil rights, with climate change much lower down the list,” Marika Anthony-Shaw, a co-founder and the C.E.O. of PLUS1, said. “Now that list is looking much different, with climate justice right at the top. There is obviously no easy or single solution or path forward for touring. It’s going to require a big shift in industry practice—production, energy management, tour routings, travel requirements—as well as cultural and policy practice.”
I'll leave it to my readers' finely honed critical skills to sort through that... "Climate justice..."

* * * 

Speaking of integral projects,  John Eliot Gardiner will conduct the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a series of concerts of all the Beethoven symphonies at Carnegie Hall over the coming week and the New York Times has a piece on it: A Revolutionary Approach to Beethoven: Period Instruments. Well sure, it was revolutionary--about thirty years ago!
For listeners who have grown up hearing their Beethoven played by regular modern symphony orchestras, our performances will present some striking differences. They may be surprised to hear more detail and more of the content of what’s in Beethoven’s score, as the different strands of the instrumental lines emerge with an enhanced clarity. The way the instruments were formed and constructed in that period make them much more distinct from one another than their more powerful modern equivalents. What you get in a period orchestra are three things: greater individuality of timbre, more transparency of texture and an increased dynamism once all the instruments are stretched to their absolute maximum capacity of volume and expressivity.
Just bear in mind the caveat expressed in a number of places by Richard Taruskin that the values of the early music movement rather remarkably share a number of things with the values of, for example, Igor Stravinsky: "enhanced clarity" and distinctness of timbre are dead giveaways. We like the style of Gardiner's approach to Beethoven because it suits our tastes. Oh yes, and some of it may even correspond to what Beethoven imagined.

* * *

 Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir was a big winner at the Oscars for her score to the Joker. What is it with Iceland? They seem to have more musical clout than the whole nation of Canada with the population of a rather small city. Here she is, performing an older piece, Erupting Light:

* * *

Here is a bit of news that raises a lot of questions: Course leader suspended by Conservatoire of Scotland amid review into ‘bullying’
Mr Caird and Ms Chavrimootoo concluded that there was extensive criticism of the course, with some respondents of the view that it “over-reaches appropriate boundaries of behaviour, favouring some students over others and undermining the confidence of many students.” However, in a sign of how the course “sharply divides opinion,” they added that others regarded it as a “unique programme run with vision, invention and great social awareness”.
They added: “Despite a body of supportive opinion about the [head of programme], there is a significant weight of critical opinion, much of it very strong and over a considerable period of time, to give grounds for concern for the programme and its students.”
The review makes a range of recommendations, including a review of its complaints handling procedure, and the “active” discouragement of offensive stereotyping of any person or group.
Let's try and read between the lines. On the one hand, it is quite possible that an environment grew up at this school that was toxic and demeaning to the students. This can happen and I know of a number of instances. All you need is one unfortunate choice of a person in authority with skewed values who hires a number of friends with similar values and you have the breeding grounds for a very bad situation. This can go on for a long time because even bad institutions instinctively present a wholesome public face. But on the other hand, the situation here might be that a few demanding and charismatic teachers are doing a very fine job and it is rubbing a few untalented students the wrong way. From this article it is impossible to tell. The reforms might either dislodge some bad teachers or turn an excellent program into undemanding pablum. Here is the thing: in the arts, and music specifically, you can either design a program that achieves the highest results by challenging the best students and driving away the worst students, or you can design an unchallenging program that treats everyone very fairly and achieves only mediocre results. Guess which is the safest course?

 * * *

On the face of it this article in The Atlantic would seem perfectly suited for the full Music Salon treatment: The New Rules of Music Snobbery. After all, here is where music snobbery goes to relax and take its shoes off. But let's have a read:
A less perceptive reboot would simply have made Ed Sheeran the new sentimental, tacky crap, but Hulu has gone beyond grafting contemporary references onto Hornby’s tale of 30-somethings who are more adept at sequencing mixtapes than at maintaining healthy relationships. The series captures a fundamental reorientation in listening these days: Elitist condescension about musical preferences isn’t cool anymore, but maybe—die-hard fans fear—obsessing and connecting over music are no longer cool either. Barry-types once used their taste to prop themselves above the less erudite, mainstream-minded listeners they mocked. Cherise, by contrast, just wants to chat about a song—and the consumer, cozy in a private digital bubble, decidedly does not.
That's kind of interesting, actually.
Cloistered listening has become more common, as Spotify and the omnipresent earbud turn an entire art form into an on-demand, all-you-can-stream personal utility. Meanwhile, many of the remaining gatekeepers have mellowed into “poptimists” who say Taylor Swift and Radiohead can be equally worthy of praise and exegesis.
Oh lord, give me strength... Well, after reading the rest, all I can say is that if there is any snobbery there it is very small calibre indeed.

* * *

Did you ever wonder why you write or create music? Here is a list that is remarkably different from the one I came up with a few posts back. It is from NewMusicBox: IN PRAISE OF UNREMARKABLE MUSIC: PART 1.
Why did you start writing music? Now, what do you hope to accomplish? This year? This decade? By the end of your life?
In response to these questions, you might envision your music’s success according to a variety of measures:
  • The awards, press, and publicity it receives.
  • The size of audiences it attracts.
  • The money it makes.
  • The joy you had in creating it.
  • The degree to which it meets a performer’s need or fits their skill level.
  • The experience shared by those in the room when it is performed.
  • The appraisal of your colleagues and other connoisseurs.
  • The social impact it has.
Really? I mean, really? Well, this explains a lot. Here is what I wrote about why and how I compose:
I was trying to explain to someone how one goes about composing a piece of music and described it in these terms: While it would be nice if everyone enjoyed it and gave me lots of money, that is actually completely irrelevant to the art object itself and the act of creating it. If you are trying to guess what will sell, you might or might not create something that will sell, but you will almost certainly create something that is not a good piece of music. Mind you, I am still puzzling over the strange nexus of the creative originality AND the commercial success of the Beatles. But let's set that aside!
If people like my music and want to perform it, I am delighted. If it communicates something important to them, I am delighted. If they perceive it as beautiful, or expressive, I am delighted. But I don't aim for any of these results when I am composing. I am trying to explore something about the nature of music, or one aspect of it. I am not trying to express how I am feeling at the moment, or generally. I am not trying to express my "philosophy." I am just trying to write a piece of music. I am trying to tread new ground, if I can find any. I am trying to see where a certain idea or sound leads. I am composing! Most of the time, the idea doesn't lead anywhere or proves to be empty or a feeble echo of some other piece of music. At that point, you throw it away and start again. There are lots of things that can provide an "inspiration" such as a random sound you hear, or a bird singing, or a strange rhythmic effect. Anything, really. But the inspiration is just a kind of happenstance.
Based on that, I am the most unsuccessful of composers! However, I doubt that most of the composers I personally admire were very much enslaved to those criteria.

 * * *

For our envoi, let's listen to the real pioneer of Beethoven symphonies on period instruments. Here is Roger Norrington conducting the London Classical Players in a 1989 recording of the Symphony No. 7:

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Guitar Obsessions

I should have realized early on that I was not like most other guitarists. I'm not quite as obsessed with the instrument as some players are. The Wall Street Journal has a case study: When Your Husband’s Hobby Takes Over the House. That is probably behind the paywall, so here are some quotes:
I have been battling the guitar problem for years—guitars on the sofa, guitars in the kitchen, guitars on the bed, guitars in the bathroom. Guitars tripping me when I walk through a room. And now, despite all efforts to contain them in the garage, they are multiplying like Tribbles.
I'm an eccentric. Way back in 1983 a friend called me up to alert me to a guitar builder named Robert Holroyd in Vancouver. He built just three or four guitars a year, each one a meticulous masterpiece. And since they were spoken for even before he built them, it was rarely possible to try one out. But my friend informed me that he had just finished one and I could go over and try it. After five minutes of sitting down with the instrument, I asked him for his next one. I am still playing that same guitar, one of the finest I have ever seen and I have seen and played instruments belonging to Manuel Barrueco, Pepe Romero and Andrés Segovia. But for many guitarists, owning one is not enough. Pepe in particular has a large collection that thirty years ago was approaching a hundred instruments. But back to the WSJ:
“I just want to sit on my sofa in peace,” I said to psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, an emerita professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whom I called for advice. “But my husband’s guitars are taking over the furniture. This can’t be good for our marriage.”
“Without knowing anything about your husband, I don’t know if this is a phase or if he plans to keep them forever,” she said.
“He’s joined a dad band,” I said darkly.
You know you have a problem when your husband's guitar collection makes you go into counseling! I remember hanging around outside a masterclass in Salzburg when I was there as a student waiting for Pepe Romero's class to begin when his wife came up and asked where Pepe was. I said he was inside trying out a guitar by an Italian builder. She rolled her eyes and exclaimed "oh no, he's buying another guitar!"

Actually, reading on in the article, it seems that the husband only has a few guitars. Perhaps no more than five or six. He's a piker. Imagine Pepe's wife's problem. Some of his guitars are so famous they have names. Not only that, but Pepe jr has become one of the leading builders of the next generation. I think they are going to need, not an extra room, but perhaps an extra house.

Here is Pepe Romero playing a piece by Sebastian Yradier:

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Stravinsky the Conservative

Coming to the end of the long journey of reading Richard Taruskin's magisterial two-volume Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions and what a wonderful education it has been. I think the only monographs that can stand alongside this one are the two-volume Johann Sebastian Bach by Philipp Spitta (three volumes in the English translation) and Thayer's Life of Beethoven, originally in two volumes, both 19th century projects. There are many, many single volume treatments of the "life and works" variety, but one senses that the truly exhaustive multi-volume efforts are now a thing of the past.

I titled this post "Stravinsky the Conservative" because of an interesting passage late in the book:
Nineteen twenty-eight was the year in which Stravinsky's openly professed anti-modernism reached its peak. In that year he allowed himself to be described in print by Lourié as the leader of the "conservative and reactionary element" in contemporary music, the "antithesis" to the Schoenbergian "thesis," who sought "to affirm unity and unalterable substance" as against the ceaseless flux and disintegration of culture that was the inevitable consequence of modernist chaos. [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 1610]
In practical terms what this meant was that the next piece Stravinsky composed, the ballet Le baiser de la fée, was based almost entirely on themes from the composer of Imperial Russia, Tchaikovsky!

In the great duovir of modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, for some reason we often think of Schoenberg as being the "conservative," the author of all those books on composition and theory that take Beethoven as their model. While at the same time we think of Stravinsky as the more adventurous modernist with his brash innovations often inspired by primeval Russia. But it was Schoenberg that aligned himself with the worker's choruses and thought of himself as being a man of the left, while it was Stravinsky, at certain times in his career, who was the admirer of Mussolini. It has been argued that neoclassicism was a fascistic movement in music.

My sense is that we should take all this with a grain of salt. The reasons Stravinsky regressed, if that is the word, to the idiom of Tchaikovsky, were perhaps more personal than political. Similarly, it might well have been the rise of Naziism and his rediscovery of Judaism that drove Schoenberg towards the left.

The idea that music is always somehow related to its roots, and sometimes very deep roots (in some places Stravinsky goes back all the way to Glinka for inspiration), should restrain us from making too facile political associations. At the end of the day Schoenberg and Beethoven were confronted with similar compositional problems and so were Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. The context was utterly different, of course, but context isn't everything. It is not even necessarily the most important thing though it looms overly large in the "new" musicology.

Here is the Stravinsky ballet Le baiser de la fée with Ansermet conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande:

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Nonexistence of Art?

One perennial essay topic is the General Debunking, or finding a sacred cow to gore. Here is a fine example of the genre: A Treatise on the Nonexistence of Art.
Art is mostly fraud perpetrated by narcissistic academic quacks on a public easily gulled. They should be prosecuted. This is as true of literature as of painting and sculpture. If modern sculpture were placed in a junkyard, art critics couldn’t find it. Most of what we are told are great works are great works only because we are told that they are.
Well that's clear enough! There are certainly narcissistic academic quacks and there are certainly fraudulent artworks and yes, it is quite likely that a lot of modern sculpture could be easily lost in a junkyard. So the only word there that one should really question is the word "mostly." Is art mostly fraud? Partially fraud? Just a little bit fraud? After some irrelevancies, the argument starts to go south:
Art has nothing to do with what the thing looks like, and certainly nothing to do with beauty. If it did, an indistinguishable copy would serve as well as the original. But no. The point is not to look at the thing, but to feel superior for owning it, and how can you do that when every mutt in Boise can get an equally good one for $37?
The visual arts certainly have to do with how the object looks, denying that is silly. As for beauty, that is the subjective experience of art and the perception of beauty has a lot to do with context, experience and training. Yes, a lot of collectors might feel superior for owning a great piece of art, but the international art market certainly denies the claim that someone in Boise can get something equally good for $37.

The essay goes on, flinging spaghetti on every surface hoping some will stick, but making very few actual points. For example:
You see the critic’s progression. To maintain superiority, he has to appreciate ever worse daubs, so that he can be increasingly alone in his exalted insight. The up-and-coming critic goes through Mondrian, who painted what would normally be considered linoleum patterns, and arrives at Kandinsky, who sold his drop-cloths.
There is nothing worse than Kandinsky. The critic who appreciates him has reached the pinnacle.
A classic instance of "begging the question" in the correct use of the phrase, meaning an argument that assumes its conclusion. Modern art consists of "ever worse daubs" so the critic who appreciates them merely demonstrates his hypocritical fraudulence. Here is train of thought that we have flirted with occasionally:
Art critics can’t even recognize art. Suppose you went on a castle crawl in England and found an original, unknown play by Shakespeare, a really good one, like King Lear if it combed its hair and put on a clean shirt. Suppose that you copied it out and sent it to fifty publishing houses and Shakespearean scholars, saying that you were a graduate student trying to imitate the bard’s style, and what did they think of it?
This seems like a nice thought experiment so why hasn't someone gone ahead and done it? If you find an actual undiscovered manuscript by Shakespeare, a brigade of scholars would leap into action to trace the provenance. But at this point, it is quite unlikely. So perhaps you could just run off a convincing fake? Ah, now that would be rather difficult, wouldn't it? So the experiment is pretty much an empty threat. What has been done is to create some fake pseudo-science papers, which proved easy to do. Some of them were even published. But faking a genuine work of art? I rather suspect that is a logical impossibility. The act of faking art will result in a fraud, not a genuine work of art.

Unfortunately the writer ends up by settling on an empty distinction, between "literature" and "writing," neither of which he defines.

I was trying to explain to someone how one goes about composing a piece of music and described it in these terms: While it would be nice if everyone enjoyed it and gave me lots of money, that is actually completely irrelevant to the art object itself and the act of creating it. If you are trying to guess what will sell, you might or might not create something that will sell, but you will almost certainly create something that is not a good piece of music. Mind you, I am still puzzling over the strange nexus of the creative originality AND the commercial success of the Beatles. But let's set that aside!

If people like my music and want to perform it, I am delighted. If it communicates something important to them, I am delighted. If they perceive it as beautiful, or expressive, I am delighted. But I don't aim for any of these results when I am composing. I am trying to explore something about the nature of music, or one aspect of it. I am not trying to express how I am feeling at the moment, or generally. I am not trying to express my "philosophy." I am just trying to write a piece of music. I am trying to tread new ground, if I can find any. I am trying to see where a certain idea or sound leads. I am composing! Most of the time, the idea doesn't lead anywhere or proves to be empty or a feeble echo of some other piece of music. At that point, you throw it away and start again. There are lots of things that can provide an "inspiration" such as a random sound you hear, or a bird singing, or a strange rhythmic effect. Anything, really. But the inspiration is just a kind of happenstance.

Composers have influences too, but that is such an enormous topic that I am going to deftly sidestep it!

Let's have a nice envoi. Here is a musical work of art one can have few doubts about. It is a suite for solo cello written at a time when there were no suites for solo cello (only viola da gamba). It is a masterpiece likely written when J. S. Bach was in charge of the music in Köthen for a minor noble. We know nothing about performances. Though editions were published from the first quarter of the 19th century, the suites did not catch on until Pablo Casals' advocacy of them through performances in the 1930s. The Netherlands Bach Society's unpretentious survey of Bach provides us with an excellent video performance.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Jacques Hétu: Canadian Composer

As most of my professional music career was spent as a performer, not a composer, I haven't spent much time either socializing or studying with composers. I really have only met a few--and only a couple of well-known ones. After posting about the Orchestre Métropolitain and their upcoming performance of the Symphony No. 5 of Jacques Hétu, I recall that he is one of the few composers I have met. Wikipedia has a basic bio. We learn that he died in 2010, age seventy-one. He studied in various places and most notably with Lucas Foss in the US and with Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen in France. He taught at the three most important French language universities in Quebec: Laval University, the University of Montreal and the University of Quebec at Montreal.

I first encountered his music in the form of his Suite for Guitar, op 41, written in 1986. I did the West Coast premiere of the work at a contemporary music festival at the University of Victoria in, I think, 1987 or 88. In 1989 I played the piece in a solo recital at McGill University in Montreal. This was the occasion when I met M. Hétu as he not only attended the concert, but he came backstage afterwards to talk to me. He was quite complimentary and we had an interesting chat about the piece. Alas, I never got around to recording it. Here is a performance by Andrei Burdeti:

The composer that most reminds me of Hétu is Dutilleux. They are both lyrical, meticulous composers, not prolific, but the creators of lapidary delights. The Suite for Guitar is a fairly minor piece, for a better idea of his range as a composer we should listen to his Symphony No. 5, which might have been his last finished work. This is the premiere performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (Conductor), Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers.

UPDATE: On reflection, I have actually met a few more composers: my old friend Canadian composer Anthony Genge, Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, English composer Stephen Dodgson and probably a couple of others. Oh, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a very unusual performance of the last movement of the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven:

* * *

One problem in music theory, apparently, is the necessary re-education of music theory professors: PROMOTING EQUITY: DEVELOPING AN ANTIRACIST MUSIC THEORY CLASSROOM. Here are NewMusicBox's thoughts on the problem:
“Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible.
So, uh, "whiteness" is abnormal? And "maleness" as well? Contributor Dave Molk offers a comment that sounds like it comes directly from a Moscow show trial, circa 1937:
As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.
Given this, I assume that we should simply ignore his "whiteness" based authority? This is really confusing, isn't it? And remarkably irrelevant to music theory.

* * *

Perhaps all the Musicology Now contributors have already been sent to the gulag as the site is still missing in action.

* * *

Here is a re-introduction to the music blog of Jessica Duchen:
JDCMB has:
• Personal thoughts and occasional polemics, links to my various projects and articles, occasionally exclusive reviews of live performances. 
• Values about music, art, quality, equality, passion. I believe everybody deserves to have great music, art and creativity in their lives.
• A feminist slant, because people are people are people, but the music business and related fields (actually, most fields) still often treat women as second-class citizens. There's been progress recently, but not enough.
• An internationalist outlook. Music is an international art and depends on its internationalism for its very existence. 
• Irony and sarcasm. Please be prepared.
• English English, not American. I'm in London, UK.
* * *

Over at The Violin Channel they have a clip of NEW MUSIC TUESDAY | Composer Joseph Summer – ‘Sea Change’ String Quartets 1 & 2 [PREMIERE]. Here is the first of the two quartets:

* * *

Lapham's Quarterly has a substantial article about the complex political currents flowing in and around art collections these days: Rules of Engagement.
News about museums reconsidering their values abounds in recent years, making clear how complex relationships can be between funders’ financial interests and public expectations for moral transparency. The most notorious recent example involves Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, and the members of the Sackler family who own the company. The Louvre removed the Sackler name from one of its wings in July 2019, and both the Met and Guggenheim announced they would no longer accept donations from the family. In the summer of 2019 Warren B. Kanders, founder of Safariland, a maker of tear-gas canisters used against migrants by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the San Diego–Tijuana border, stepped down from the Whitney Museum’s board of trustees after numerous artists pulled their work from the Whitney Biennial to protest his role at the museum. Complex relationships can also make it difficult to address historical errors in the collections while courting financial support for those collections.
* * *

After listening to some Billie Eilish, I've been wondering the same thing: Why are pop songs getting sadder than they used to be?
The rise of negative lyrics in popular English-language songs is a fascinating phenomenon, and we showed that this can be due to a widespread preference for negative content plus some other, yet to be discovered, causes. Given this preference, what we need to explain is why pop-song lyrics before the 1980s were more positive than today. It could be that a more centralised record industry had more control on the songs that were produced and sold. A similar effect could have been brought about by the diffusion of more personalised distribution channels (from blank cassette tapes to Spotify’s ‘Made For You’ algorithmic tailoring). And other, broader, societal changes could have contributed to make it more acceptable, or even rewarded, to explicitly express negative feelings. All these hypotheses could be tested using the data described here as a starting point. Realising that there’s more work to be done to better understand the pattern is always a good sign in science. It leaves room for fine-tuning theories, improving analysis methods, or sometimes going back to the drawing board to ask different questions.
And presumably you could come up with a way of measuring similar aspects in the music itself. Lethargic, dark, gloomy musical settings are even more important than the lyrics I suspect.

* * *

Skipping over a whole lot of other doom-laden articles about music (no, you really can't make a living from streaming) here is a positive one: A tale of two orchestras. I lived in Montreal for over a decade and it really is a wonderful place for food, culture and learning (several outstanding universities, plus a conservatoire)--horrible climate, mind you! But here is an article about the remarkable fact that this medium-sized city has not one but two world-class orchestras: the Orchestre Métropolitain and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal with two world-class conductors.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Orchestre Métropolitain start the second half of their Montreal subscription season Friday with a concert that was sold out weeks ago. Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor and Jacques Hétu’s Symphony No. 5, if you want to know the particulars. 
Yet there is another crowd count, one that invites quiet admiration. Kent Nagano and the OSM sold 92 per cent of available seats to a January Schubert festival that packed six concerts into six days. That would be more than 11,000 tickets. Not many cities can support a sustained outflow of serious symphonic repertoire in a month when potential ticket-buyers are gasping at their credit-card expenses.
The big Schubert turnout was not due to a special fascination with this composer. Nagano-led concerts on Feb. 18 and 20 (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” and a newly commissioned Symphony for Organ and Orchestra by the hardcore French modernist Pascal Dusapin) are also sold out.
Montreal is a special city and one that takes music very seriously. Put this alongside that never-ending stream of articles about the decline of classical music.

* * *

No Friday Miscellanea would be complete without a little Slipped Disc: WHAT CLASSICAL MUSIC NEEDS IS MORE YUJA WANG. Here are some suggestions from the linked article:
Clap between movements. Treat famous performers like pop stars. Dance around in your seat if the music moves you. Dress sexy, or metal or punk for your recital. And if any of these suggestions seem too daunting, at least think about why these rules are in place, and why anything should dictate how you enjoy music.
And since it is Slipped Disc, read the comments for some nice pushback.

* * *

It is surprisingly hard to find a complete performance of the Orchestre Métropolitain on YouTube. But here is the first movement of the Symphony No. 6 of Bruckner from a recording session:

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Why Read the Classics?

We have been having an on and off conversation about "classic" art and I happened to run into a link to this essay by Italo Calvino: Why Read the Classics? It was published in the New York Review of Books way back in 1986. Do people still read Italo Calvino? In Europe they do. When I was on the train from Salzburg to Innsbruck last summer, the lady across from me was reading a book by Calvino, but I don't recall which.
Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.
1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”
This at least happens among those who consider themselves “very well read.” It does not hold good for young people at the age when they first encounter the world, and the classics as a part of that world.
The reiterative prefix before the verb “read” may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that he has not read.
Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it was completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmogonical family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.
I only got partway through Herodotus, but I did read Thucydides (but I need to read a new translation with lots of maps). I have read Livy and Suetonius, does that count? Oh, and Plato and Aristotle, of course. No Saint-Simon (though I know who he is) and just one book by Balzac (but I have read Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert). Dickens? Sure, as well as Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope.
The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.
Notice how Calvino doesn't feel any need to defend the very concept of a "classic."
The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).
This almost seems why the classics now are to be condemned because those "traces" they contain are racist, colonial and oppressive. The interesting question is, what is left once you have eliminated all the classics? I think we know the answer to that! Here is a good point:
The reading of a classic ought to give us a surprise or two vis-à-vis the notion that we had of it. For this reason I can never sufficiently highly recommend the direct reading of the text itself, leaving aside the critical biography, commentaries, and interpretations as much as possible. Schools and universities ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite. There is a very widespread topsyturviness of values whereby the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used as a smoke screen to hide what the text has to say, and, indeed, can say only if left to speak for itself without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text does. 
This essay would not be printed today, not in the NYRB at least. The reason that the classics have to be banned or at the very least, censored or veiled with commentary and criticism is precisely because:
The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about.
Naturally, this only happens when a classic really works as such—that is, when it establishes a personal rapport with the reader.
What makes the classics dangerous to ideologues is that they are an antidote to ideology. Instead of a predigested and ideologically pure version of history you get the real thing. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Let's have a nice classic envoi today. This is a concert from the Elbphilharmonie (the new concert hall in Hamburg) that was streamed yesterday. The piece is the Symphony No. 9 by Mahler with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. The concert starts around the 7:30 mark.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Summer Concerts in Europe

I'm going to be in Salzburg again this coming August and looking forward to hearing some great concerts. But there are lots of other great music events in Europe in the summer:

  • Verona Opera held in a spectacular Roman amphitheater.
  • Vienna concerts at the Musikverien, Schönbrunn and other locales
  • Verbier Festival in the Swiss Alps
  • BBC Proms just to show that there are festivals that do not start with the letter "V" but sadly, the 2020 season doesn't seem to be up yet
Oh, here is the Salzburg Festival schedule.

For our envoi, Martha Argerich playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at last year's Salzburg Festival,

UPDATE: A commentator suggested adding this one to the list:

Mozartfest Würzburg 2020

Consciousness Didn't Evolve

The Institute of Art and Ideas has a very interesting piece on the stubborn challenge of consciousness to science: Consciousness Cannot Have Evolved. Here is the kernel of the argument:
our phenomenal consciousness is eminently qualitative, not quantitative. There is something it feels like to see the colour red, which is not captured by merely noting the frequency of red light. If we were to tell Helen Keller that red is an oscillation of approximately 4.3*1014 cycles per second, she would still not know what it feels like to see red. Analogously, what it feels like to listen to a Vivaldi sonata cannot be conveyed to a person born deaf, even if we show to the person the sonata’s complete power spectrum. Experiences are felt qualities—which philosophers and neuroscientists call ‘qualia’—not fully describable by abstract quantities.
But as discussed above, qualities have no function under materialism, for quantitatively-defined physical models are supposed to be causally-closed; that is, sufficient to explain every natural phenomenon. As such, it must make no difference to the survival fitness of an organism whether the data processing taking place in its brain is accompanied by experience or not: whatever the case, the processing will produce the same effects; the organism will behave in exactly the same way and stand exactly the same chance to survive and reproduce. Qualia are, at best, superfluous extras.
Therefore, under materialist premises, phenomenal consciousness cannot have been favoured by natural selection. Indeed, it shouldn’t exist at all; we should all be unconscious zombies, going about our business in exactly the same way we actually do, but without an accompanying inner life. If evolution is true—which we have every reason to believe is the case—our very sentience contradicts materialism.
This has some relevance to the problems of aesthetics. Art works, or as Beardsley calls them, "aesthetic objects," have objective material existence in the form of sound waves, physical matter, light, texture and so on. But they are experienced as subjective phenomena. The saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is literally true. An artist creates an aesthetic object according to how he perceives and the commonality of perception is his assurance that others will perceive it similarly. The object itself has physical existence (even music, which is ephemeral sound waves). But the experience of the object, by the creator, the performers and the listeners, is a subjective experience of consciousness.

That there can be and often are, wildly varying evaluations of an experience by different listeners is to be expected. Indeed, a composer likely has different experiences and evaluations of one of his own pieces over time. I certainly do. Similarly, a performer's experience and evaluation of a piece will change over time as will a listener's. The relativity of perception, that old problem in philosophy, is simply the normal variation of subjective experience which differs among people and in the same person over time.

And yes, it is all qualitative, not quantitative which is why we seem to have so much trouble understanding it. We are raised to think that only the quantitative is "real." The fact that this denies our very consciousness seems to be missed!

Friday, February 7, 2020

Alma Deutscher: Composer Prodigy

I first heard Alma Deutscher's music a couple of years ago. In this month's New Criterion, Heather MacDonald has a review and appreciation:
 Alma Deutscher rejects the last seventy years of non-tonal music theory and practice in favor of the deliberate search for musical beauty. She works within the harmonic tradition that unites Palestrina and Richard Strauss. As she explained in her Carnegie Hall program notes: “It has often been suggested to me . . . that as a modern composer I need to integrate more harshness, experimental noises, and unresolved dissonance into my compositions, in order to reflect the modern world. [But] there is enough ugliness in the world as it is, and I’ve never understood why I should add more ugliness to it with ugly music.” To the classical music press and composing establishment, them’s fightin’ words.
Yet every time Deutscher recounts her musical philosophy to an audience, it erupts in grateful agreement. Listeners are voting with their feet and flocking to her concerts, affording her an advantage enjoyed by few other contemporary composers: hearing her compositions performed multiple times by different orchestras. The typical new orchestral work today from the legions of academic composers turning out the latest manifestation of spectralism or integral serialism is performed once and then shelved forevermore, to almost no one’s regret but the composer’s.
I went through a bit of this myself. As a young performer one of my specialties was contemporary music and I did a bit of composing myself. But when I took up composing as a serious vocation, I went through an apostasy. On review, a lot of the more extreme avant garde works seemed to me to lack aesthetic value. Unfortunately I found that returning to an older tonal language was not a satisfactory solution either! If I was to approach composition seriously, I had to sort out the currents of the 20th (and 21st) century. Music, and the arts generally, did take some strange paths, but they were in reaction to events in the real world and you can't simply ignore them. Heather MacDonald, in the above quote, is picking on a straw man. Spectralism and integral serialism are hardly the mainstream in composition these days.

I think that what Alma Deutscher is doing is simply adopting a style of composition that was worked out in detail by composers a hundred and fifty years ago. If you do that you end up writing music that is sentimental kitsch--because instead of creating a musical style, you are simply borrowing one. I don't know how much recent music she is familiar with, perhaps very little. If you are completely unaware of Igor Stravinsky, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, Sofia Gubaidulina and all the rest, then you are not quite a qualified member of the composer trade. But I'm sure that the very existence of Alma Deutscher, who has many admirers, is a sore trial for music critics. And if it is, then it is a sign that there is still a bit of music criticism left.

Listening to some excerpts from her recent Carnegie Hall concert, we hear rehashed Johann Strauss. Which is ok, of course, but it is after all, rehashed Johann Strauss. The only remarkable thing about it is that it was composed recently by a fourteen-year-old. So what we are actually buying here is not a new artwork, but a biography.

The really interesting thing will be how her career will progress over the next ten years. Will she still be writing Bruckner-lite? Or will she develop something of a style of her own?

Friday Miscellanea

What's on the concert program tonight? We're not telling you! Secret symphonies: reimagining the classical concert experience.
Some time ago I went to a great restaurant in Malmö, where my other orchestra, the Malmö Symphony, is based. At this restaurant (called Bloom In The Park, for all you fellow foodies out there) they have a philosophy that you engage with the food, with no expectations. That means, you sit down, you tell them about any allergies you might have, then the meal commences, each plate arrives and they don’t tell you what you are eating. You simply experience the food.
The experience of that meal made me realise that in some way or another we all are pseudo-connoisseurs - by which I mean, many of our experiences in aesthetic, subjective art forms are evaluated - even pre-evaluated - through highly formed expectations and preconceptions. We come to things with well-defined preferences, we don’t usually engage openly and directly with what has been presented.
Now that's a cool idea! And here is the concert. If you don't peek (unfortunately I did) you can have the reimagined concert experience.

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 Alex Ross has a new piece up at The New Yorker: THE PITTSBURGH SYMPHONY’S SAVAGE PRECISION.
After listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s recent recording of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony for the tenth or eleventh time, I began planning a trip to Pittsburgh, in the hope of understanding how such a formidable achievement had come about. The playing is, first of all, at a very high technical level; the Pittsburgh musicians can withstand comparisons with their better-paid counterparts in Boston, New York, and Chicago. Yet note-perfect performances are hardly unusual in an age of impeccable conservatory training. What distinguishes this Bruckner Ninth is the rare and disconcerting expressive power of the interpretation. Savagely precise in detail, and almost scarily sublime in cumulative effect, it gives notice that the right orchestra and the right conductor can unleash unsuspected energies in familiar works.
What is nice about this sort of article is the implicit admission that a normal symphony orchestra, with a traditionally trained conductor, playing very mainstream orchestral repertoire, can deliver very fine aesthetic experiences.

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I suppose this sort of thing was inevitable: Classical Music Has a ‘God Status’ Problem.
Over the past year, The Atlantic talked to more than four dozen young musicians about their experiences with classical-music education and sexual misconduct. Their accounts reveal a culture built on hierarchy, critique, and reputation, and show how such a culture can facilitate abuse.
The long article summarizes the training and discipline that classical musicians undergo and then recounts the recent sexual harassment scandals. Unfortunately it is true that there are power dynamics in classical music education. I'm not sure that they can be removed without seriously crippling the process.

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Pianist Peter Serkin just passed away. Here is an appreciation: Peter Serkin, In Real Time
The conventional dime-store Freudian take on Peter Serkin is that he tried to do something different than his father, the legendary Rudolf Serkin. Rudolf was all storm and stress, brilliant, driven, someone who stormed the heavens with the German classics. (If you are allowed only one recording of the Moonlight, Pathetique, and Appassionata sonatas, there’s nothing wrong with acquiring the old Columbia LP by Rudolf Serkin.)
In reaction to the muscular and direct perspective of his father, the son was consciously gentle and wayward — or, at least, so went the dime-store Freudian take.
I had the vinyl disc of his recording of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto way back in the 70s.

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Here is a rather sobering account of the politicizing of academia: Wokeademia.
I'm working on an economic view of political polarization. One aspect of that project is the extent to which many institutions in our society have become politicized. Today's post is one little data point in that larger story. It tells a little story of how to politicize an institution and silence dissenters.
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There has been a lot of activity lately in employing more women conductors and commissioning women composers: New York Philharmonic Begins Premiering Work of 19 Female Composers
[Nina C. Young] is among 19 composers whose works will have their world premieres as part of the Philharmonic’s Project 19, billed as the largest women-only commissioning initiative, in celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage. Ms. Young’s “Tread softly,” which references a W.B. Yeats poem and thwarted dreams, on Wednesday kicked off the first of six this month. Two more world premieres will follow in May and June, with the other 11 in coming seasons.
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For our envoi, let's listen to Memento Mori for string quartet by Nina C. Young.