Friday, September 17, 2021

Friday Miscellanea


In September 1999, one of the first stories we posted on AJ [Arts Journal] was an announcement that CD sales were at an all-time high — $22.4 billion accounting for 90 percent of all music sales. As first Napster arose (141 stories in the archive), then music piracy (222 stories), downloading (361 stories), then iTunes (308 stories), and streaming (374 stories) took over, annual sales of music fell off a cliff. Today, music sales have climbed six years in a row, totaling about $12+ billion last year, with CDs a sliver of that amount and streaming the dominant format….

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Also thanks to Slipped Disc, this live recording of Glenn Gould at the Salzburg Festival in 1959 playing the Suite op. 25 by Arnold Schoenberg:

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A professor of musicology leaves the profession: Why I left academia. Worth reading the whole thing, but here is an excerpt:
The short explanation for why I left academia is that I became profoundly disillusioned by it. It is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads. There are, of course, many musicologists who are everything I could have dreamt they would be, and many of them will, I hope, continue to be my friends. But they know as well as I do that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Nothing I am saying here will surprise them: we have discussed it together many times over the years. They will continue to strive towards the highest ideals of intellectual honesty from within musicology, and I admire their fortitude enormously. But I no longer can.

I would put the problem in this (Kantian) way: I wrongly supposed that universities would be critical places, but they are becoming increasingly dogmatic. Consider the following statement, which fairly well articulates an increasingly common view in musicology.

Nineteenth-century musical works were the product of an imperial society. The classical musical canon must be decolonised.

The statement, and the attitude that goes with it, are dogmatic by virtue of form, not content. It does not matter that the statement in the first sentence is one that I can assent to. It becomes dogmatic by virtue of the second sentence, which admits of no doubt, no criticism, no challenge.

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Jeremy Denk has an article explaining how Mozart deconstructs privilege in The Guardian: Diversity, dialogue – and a prankster bassoon: how Mozart speaks for us all

But privilege and Mozart have a fascinating, fraught relationship. Just look at his two most famous operas: The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Both plots are centred (not loosely, but obsessively) on the privileges of terrible people, and derive most of their momentum from destroying their outdated senses of entitlement. Count Almaviva asserts the right to deflower his servants; the Don claims the right to sleep with anyone and anything that moves, whether they consent or not. 

Mozart was not only attracted to these dangerous plots, but wrote some of his most vivid and iconic music for these moments of tearing privilege off its pedestal. You have only to think of the screaming minor scales and wild chromatic intensities as the Don is dragged by demons down to hell. And, on the opposite side of the spectrum, the gorgeous pleading phrases – all the possibilities of music without sharps or flats, just the beauties hidden within the major scale – as the Count begs to be forgiven for his endless cheating.

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Musicians Are Athletes, Too: The Physical Challenge of Being a Pro.

Shulman says the similarities between musicians and professional athletes cannot be understated.

“I see that comparison all the time,” he points out. Musicians, like top-level professional athletes work out, practice, and train; they have a locker room where they change into their uniforms. They go out and perform, and if they do their job well, the crowd goes crazy! Then they go off stage and become the people they were before.

“The work they do is arduous, with demanding standards and long hours,” Shulman continues. “There are long hours in rehearsal and performance. People tend to relate to a musical performance — be it operatic, chamber music, or symphonic — in terms of the single performance they attended, not the rehearsal time that led up to it or the performances that followed. If you don’t think what they do is intense and physically taxing, try playing a complete Mahler symphony or a Wagner opera!”

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Richard Taruskin has discussed the role of the CIA in supporting avant-garde music in Europe during the Cold War. Here is another aspect of the story: Louis Armstrong and the spy: how the CIA used him as a ‘trojan horse’ in Congo

It was a memorable evening: Louis Armstrong, his wife and a diplomat from the US embassy were out for dinner in a restaurant in what was still LĂ©opoldville, capital of the newly independent Congo.

The trumpeter, singer and band leader, nicknamed Satchmo as a child, was in the middle of a tour of Africa that would stretch over months, organised and sponsored by the State Department in a bid to improve the image of the US in dozens of countries which had just won freedom from colonial regimes.

What Armstrong did not know was that his host that night in November 1960 was not the political attaché as described, but the head of the CIA in Congo. He was also totally unaware of how his fame had allowed the spy who was making small talk across the starters to gain crucial information that would facilitate some of the most controversial operations of the entire cold war.

“Armstrong was basically a Trojan horse for the CIA. It’s genuinely heartbreaking. He was brought in to serve an interest that was completely contrary to his own sense of what was right or wrong. He would have been horrified,” said Susan Williams, a research fellow at London University’s School of Advanced Study and author of White Malice, a new book which exposes the astonishing extent of the CIA’s activities across central and west Africa in the 1950s and early 60s.

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Here is an interesting critique: 9/11 inspired an outpouring of classical music – too much of it thoughtless and emotionless

A whole body of classical music has emerged that attempts in various ways to respond to the tragedy.

Musical responses to such events might seem worthy and reasonable endeavours. Some demonstrate the composers’ engagement with a wider world. Others give a musical voice to collective trauma and suffering or serve as a moving memorial to the victims of the tragedy.

However, there are those pieces that can be seen as a morbid form of musical “ambulance chasing”. Here, 9/11 has the potential to artificially lend a sense of importance to music whose wider merits become hitched to this horrible event, placing it beyond criticism.

The discussion is too complex to excerpt, so I suggest reading the whole thing.

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It seems we will never get to the bottom of what Bach is all about: Maestro of more than music

With his music’s reputation of some kind of ‘eternal truth’ and implications of their divine transcription, it can be easy to forget that such heavenly work was the result of earthly toils. By blind luck of technological history, we are left with the beautiful manuscripts, but minimal record of the real-world stress, training, limited time and inky mess of putting quill to page. If indeed Bach’s talent was God-given, then it was a gift that demanded a reimbursement of decades of constant study, poring over Vivaldi scores by candlelight with failing eyes, walking 280 miles just to watch one organist perform, the re-use of compositional material, adaptation to changing tastes, all amid a dizzying array of professional demands, awkward taskmasters, petulant critics, vain royalty and personal tragedies.

This lengthy article is even more impossible to excerpt as it discusses many of the complex aspects of Bach's craft--some of which are still being uncovered today!

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We need some Mozart for our envoi today. Here is Mitsuko Uchida in the Piano Concerto in C major, K. 503 with Riccardo Muti conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.

We also need some Bach. Here is one of my favorite recordings of his Art of Fugue by the Emerson Quartet:

Monday, September 13, 2021

Alisa Wellerstein at Wigmore Hall

 One of the brightest lights in this rather dark season of shuttered concert halls has been London's Wigmore Hall that has consistently offered us high quality programming under whatever restrictions were in effect. Often the hall held only the artist, a BBC commentator and a sound engineer. Thankfully the Wigmore is back to full capacity concerts as we can see in this recital streamed today by cellist Alisa Wellerstein in a program of solo works by Osvaldo Golijov and J. S. Bach.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Friday Miscellanea

The New York Times has an article on an American composer: The Changing American Canon Sounds Like Jessie Montgomery Before even reading, I have a problem with the headline. Sure, it is clever and strongly supportive, but it is also a misunderstanding of what a "canon" is. Before you are solidly in the classical canon, I think your music has to have been around for, oh, fifty to a hundred years or so. But let's have a look at the article:

Classical institutions en masse have made earnest, if sometimes clumsy, efforts to rise to the moment and grant overdue attention to the marginalized composers who have always had answers to the question of America’s musical identity.

One composer the field has especially turned to is Jessie Montgomery, whose often personal yet widely resonant music — forged in Manhattan, a mirror turned on the whole country — will be difficult to miss in the coming season.

In 2021 she is expected to see 400 orchestral performances which is an amazing number!

“She’s pretty much changing the canon for American orchestras,” said Afa S. Dworkin, the president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, which promotes racial and ethnic diversity in music. “The true language of American classical music is something that will distinguish our canon, and she is shaping its evolution.”

I think I have heard Ms Montgomery in concert when she was with the Catalyst Quartet who were featured in our chamber music series a number of years ago. Let's have a listen. I think I have put this piece up previously: Strum, by Jessie Montgomery with the Catalyst Quartet:

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This seems totally off-topic, but it is one of the most fascinating things I have read this week, and it relates to a long-standing discussion here relating to the function of tradition in music creativity. The discussion is on Railroad gauges:
The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number.

Why was that gauge used?

Well, because that's the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that?

Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

So, why did 'they' use that gauge then?

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing?

Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break more often on some of the old, long distance roads in England . You see, that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since.

And what about the ruts in the roads?

Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome , they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder 'What horse's ass came up with this?', you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses' asses.)

Now, the twist to the story:

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature, of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass. And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important? Ancient horse's asses control almost everything......

My only quibble with this is that Imperial Rome did not actually use "war chariots." What they did use on those roads were transport carts and wagons and that's where the width came from. And it could have been the width of two mules or donkeys. It was the native Britons that used war chariots--and they didn't build roads.

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 Why can’t we identify music notes as well as colors? A perfect pitch study offers clues.

Both light and sound travel as waves, with characteristics that allow people with typical vision and hearing to perceive and categorize them when they reach their eyes and ears: “That’s a small red dog barking,” someone might say.

But while people can easily name most colors in different groups—distinguishing the specific frequencies and wavelengths of light—few can do the same for musical notes, which represent sounds with distinct, unchanging pitches. Hearing a musical note and naming it is beyond the listening expertise of most people.

In fact, this ability is rare enough that society celebrates people who can label musical notes heard spontaneously: They are said to have “perfect pitch,” or “absolute pitch” as scientists who study the science of auditory perception call the ability. More common among musicians is “relative pitch,” the ability to name musical notes in relation to one another on a scale (“do, re, mi”) but not without a reference note.

I stumbled across this thanks to Slipped Disc.

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Thanks to social media, the public sphere has been replaced with emotional outbursts and opportunities for consumption. Museums have followed suit, relinquishing their mission to enlighten and challenge the public and offering mere content instead. The one ray of hope is art, which, Kraynak believes, is unique as a vehicle for complex, critical thought.

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Why Poetry Is So Crucial Right Now

Indeed, in our age of social media, words are often used as weapons. Poetry instead treats words with care. They are slowly fashioned into lanterns — things that can illuminate and guide. Debate certainly matters. Arguments matter. But when the urgent controversies of the day seem like all there is to say about life and death or love or God, poetry reminds me of those mysterious truths that can’t be reduced solely to linear thought.

Poetry itself can engage in smart debate, of course. Yet even didactic poetry — poetry that makes an argument — does so in a more creative, meticulous and compelling way than we usually see in our heated public discourse.

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A rather eclectic mix this week. Let's have a couple of envoi. First, here is a rather nice performance by David Russell of Bach's Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998 just recently live-streamed.

And here is Vladimir Horowitz playing a Chopin Polonaise:

Monday, September 6, 2021

Another Perspective on Salzburg

Alex Ross went to Tanglewood this year instead of Salzburg, but Jay Nordlinger was there and wrote a nice piece on the Grigory Sokolov recital that I didn't manage to attend: ‘Hello to Music’

Grigory Sokolov is an odd duck — I say that with considerable admiration. He is his own man, going his own way. He is unconventional, idiosyncratic — you might even say eccentric. He won the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition when he was 16. (The year was 1966.) He is the youngest person ever to win that medal.

Early on, he toured Great Britain, the United States, and the rest of the world. Now he stays in Europe. He doesn’t play concertos, either — no engagements with orchestra. Just recitals. He plays about 70 of those a year, and they are all devoted to a single program: a single slate of pieces. (The slate changes each year, I should say.)

Typically, he walks onto a stage rather grim-faced and bows solemnly. Then he begins. He maintains his demeanor all through an evening. A Sokolov recital is like a religious rite. The pianist plays as though he were doing the most important thing in all the world — and his audience listens in hushed wonder.

Please be advised that musicians’ bios in programs are practically useless. They seldom give you biographical information: where the person was born, what his nationality is, who his teachers were, etc. It’s a lot of PR puff.

This is how Sokolov’s bio begins:

Grigory Sokolov is widely recognized as one of today’s greatest pianists, an artist universally admired for his visionary insight, spellbinding spontaneity and uncompromising devotion to music. His masterful interpretations of compelling intensity and expressive beauty arise from profound knowledge of the works in his vast repertoire.

All of that PR blather just happens to be true.


And here he is playing Chopin Polonaises:

Sunday, September 5, 2021

4'33 is never going away

John Cage wrote a lot of music using a variety of unconventional techniques but the piece that he will likely always be most famous for is the untitled piece usually known as 4'33. The piece, for no particular designated instrument or ensemble, is in three movements. The only detail in the score is the duration of each movement. Added together the total duration of the three movements comes to 4'33. It was premiered on piano by pianist David Tudor in 1952. The Wikipedia article linked above provides some context on the history of the score and performances, historical predecessors and context and so on. I have seen the Peters edition of the score, sometimes referred to as the First Tacet Edition because the instruction to the performer(s) for each movement is simply "tacet" or remain silent.

Cage has made a number of observations about the piece over the years. An early concept seemed to imply that the function was to insert three or four minutes of silence into a stream of music. He contemplated selling it to the Muzak corporation. A later conception was that the silence of the performer would simply reveal that there is no true silence--the space would be filled by the sounds of nature or even the breathing and heartbeat of the listeners, not to mention birds, passing cars, etc.

I say that the piece is never going away because it has utility in all sorts of dimensions. The conductor Kiril Petrenko used it to protest the closing of orchestra concerts in Germany:

I notice that even though he seems to be conducting from the score, he rushes the performance which is well under four minutes. Must have been the excitement of the moment.

One of the most interesting aspects of the piece from an aesthetic or semantic point of view is that it has potentially unbounded meaning or significance. Every time you play a note or a chord or a rhythm you are defining and hence restricting the expression. But the emptiness of this piece is like the emptiness of the open sky: it is open to all possibilities, all thoughts, all moods and atmospheres.

The contrast of this piece with almost all others highlights the busyness of so much music, the flurries of notes and rhythms, dashing helter-skelter from one moment to the next. This piece is one moment (or three moments) of silence which reveals to us the noisiness of our usual environment. It is like a meditation on silence--or anything, really. But a meditation, not an endeavour or pursuit. It pursues nothing, states nothing and implies nothing. And in doing so it implies anything and everything.

No, we will not be getting rid of this piece any time soon. Another performance, this time on piano by David Tudor:

Very different interpretation, don't you think?

High Culture vs High Demand

Adam Kirsch wrote a piece for the New Criterion recently that got reprinted in the Wall Street Journal: High Culture, Not High Demand. The opening makes a strong point.

Kindle and Spotify give us a degree of access to “the best which has been thought and said” that a Medici or a Rockefeller couldn’t have bought at any price, while simultaneously reminding us that almost no one cares.

For instance, if you search for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on Spotify, the most popular recording of the most popular piece in the classical repertoire is the one made in 1984 by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic. The first movement has been streamed about 1.5 million times, the third about half a million (which tells a story in itself). By contrast, the hit song “Driver’s License,” by the teen pop star Olivia Rodrigo, was released in January 2021 and by the end of May it had been streamed 800 million times. . . .

And don't even think about Gangnam Style! One of the benefits of growing older is that you can make comparisons over fairly long stretches of time based on your own experience, thereby avoiding all the distortions of the picture offered to us by the mass media, or by academic historians. From my own experience, the interest in high culture among young people has diminished considerably over the last fifty years. Another quote from the article.

How many Americans pay attention to serious contemporary literature, art, or music? An estimate of one-half of one percent of the population—1.6 million people—would surely be on the high side.

The Wall Street Journal just has a brief excerpt. Here is the whole piece: Culture as counterculture. Some further excerpts:

Today’s pop lyricists don’t poke fun at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because young listeners no longer recognize those names as possessing any cultural authority or prestige, if they recognize them at all. It would make as much sense to write a pop song called “Roll Over Palestrina” or “Rock Me, Hildegard von Bingen,” since all composers are equally unfamiliar to a mass audience. 

Like the disappearance of a certain species of frog or insect, this is a small change that signals a profound transformation of the climate—in this case, the cultural climate.

This is kind of reassuring:

Another way of putting it is that high culture now functions like a counterculture, entailing a conscious act of dissent from the mainstream. Popular culture—television shows, pop songs, memes—is every American’s first language, the one we acquire whether we want to or not. Learning to understand and appreciate high culture is like learning a second language, which requires deliberate effort (and which Americans are famously averse to doing).

Welcome to The Music Salon, a counterculture blog. And here is a countercultural envoi: this is Les Ombres du temps by Henri Dutilleux with the Radio France Orchestra conducted by Mikko Franck.

Let me add just one more quote from the article:

In twenty-first-century America, certainly, high culture appears deeply subversive. Plato’s Republic teaches contempt for democracy as surely as King Lear teaches contempt for humanity. The Goldberg Variations are useless in the strict sense—they can be put to no use; they do nothing to make the listener more effective or a better citizen. Indeed, the most unsettling thing about high culture is that it is not a means to an end but an end in itself—which makes it the exact opposite of money, our usual standard for measuring worth. 

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Why do so many Bach performances sound so robotic?

I'm including three examples of robotic playing below, though two of them would also qualify as "playing Bach as if you really hated his music." The first performance is of a young player and shows the technical perfection that young guitarists strive for these days. More power to them for that. But the robotic clunking through the notes is not to be praised. Not by me anyway. The first player actually took a tiny bit of time on one note in the first section and it was so unusual as to cause surprise in the listener.

The second and third performances are by seasoned players from an earlier generation and they are considerably less smooth technically. But just as robotic. It is as if there is some sort of stopwatch ticking away somewhere that prohibits them taking any time for phrasing or even taking a more reasonable tempo, you know, one that would allow the notes to breath and the listener, perhaps, to enjoy the performance?

Nothing against guitarists, by the way, I'm sure that there are examples on all the instruments. It is just that, being a guitarist myself, I know where to find the offending performances!