Saturday, April 10, 2021

An Argument for Music Education

This article is from American Scientist:

 Musicians dedicate their lives to focused, disciplined, and repeated practice. Moreover, playing music offers an unlimited capacity for improvement: Musicians constantly strive for nuance, defter technique, and better synchrony with their ensembles. Articles implying a link between musicianship and brain plasticity started to appear: Violinists had enlarged motor brain areas dedicated to the hand; expert musicians made finer judgments about sounds that differed subtly in timing or pitch.

We suspected something more might be going on with music. Playing music could affect more than our ability to process melodies and rhythms; it might trigger much broader cognitive and sensory changes. With our colleagues Gabriella Musacchia, Erika Skoe, Patrick Wong, and Mikko Sams, our lab decided to investigate. We recruited a cohort of college students, half of whom had been avid musicians for several years and the other half were musically naive. We then measured electrophysiological responses to speech and music—brain waves that tell us the integrity of sound processing in the brain.

In a pair of papers published in 2007, we reported that the musicians had heightened responses to the subtle acoustic details of speech, suggesting that music training generalizes to language. Indeed, the musicians’ brains could encode acoustic details of Mandarin speech too subtle for most English speakers to detect, suggesting that music training might enable a listener to be a more precocious language learner.

There is a lot more there, so read the whole thing.

We quickly discovered that music training forges a remarkably similar brain signature across all ages. Musicians’ brains more quickly and accurately encode certain ingredients of speech sounds than do those of nonmusicians. Music training improves the brain’s ability to process speech sounds against a noisy background, such as the din of a busy restaurant. This neural resilience made sense, because musicians also had a superior ability to understand speech in a noisy environment. Moreover, they had stronger memory and attentional skills than did nonmusicians. Although there were developmental variations, with certain aspects of brain function being fine-tuned later in life than others, music training seemed to have a strikingly consistent effect across the lifespan.

Some of the most surprising results came from musicians in their sixties and seventies, who showed stronger memory, attention, and hearing abilities than did contemporaries who had never participated in music training. We also found direct evidence for differences in brain function between older musicians and nonmusicians. Neural responses to speech generally slow as we age. Not so in lifelong musicians: A 65-year-old musician’s neural responses are indistinguishable from those of a 25-year-old nonmusician. The responses of a 65-year-old who played music as a child but hadn’t touched an instrument in decades fell in the middle: faster than those of a peer who had never played music but slower than those of a lifelong musician. Musical experience early in life imparts lifelong neuroplasticity.

And I suspect that there are lot of other, not easily measurable, benefits. Take for example, the learning of the disciplines of practice, of delayed gratification through slow practice, of developing the skills to communicate mood and atmosphere to listeners and a whole bunch of other things that are hard to find words for. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Classical and Class

Though I have been a professional musician since my teens and a classical musician for nearly all of that time, and always interested in composition, I never took my own composing seriously until a few years after I moved to Mexico. Musing over this recently I'm wondering if there were not some class issues I was not consciously aware of.

My parents both left school at the Grade 8 level and I was the first in my extended family to attend university--in the 1970s. I think we would be lower-middle-class at best. Of course, as soon as I started considering myself a musician, i.e. artist, I declared myself to be outside the class system. And besides, there are no classes in modern Western democracies, right? Oh how silly of me. Of course there are and I, in all respects other than my expertise as a classical guitarist, was still lower-middle-class. And not just because I was poor (as a classical musician I typically made between $20,000 and $25,000 CDN a year in earnings)--I also had some basic cultural attitudes associated with the lower-middle-class. Both I and my English professor might wear a t-shirt and jeans to class but for him it was inverted snobbery and for me it was just the costume of my class.

All of this got very confused because of the 60s, of course, when the costume and attitudes of the lower-middle-class became universalized. But over the years I succeeded in expunging much of the 60s madness from my mind. And, as I became more thoroughly ensconced in the classical music world, taking positions as chair of the guitar department at the conservatory and sessional lecturer at the university, I became more harmonized with the culture of the international classical music fraternity. Greatly accomplished musicians regarded me as a peer, for example.

But there still was a corner of my consciousness that thought as a member of the lower-middle-class and members of that class might be popular musicians or traditional musicians (like my mother), but they were not composers. Every member of the composing class in Canada that I am aware of comes from an upper-middle-class or higher background. This is possibly true in the US as well, though I haven't done any research.

So, while I composed in small increments throughout my career, I did not regard it as a serious artistic activity. Moving to Mexico seems to have changed my basic attitudes. Here I am a member of the expatriate class and hence truly out of the Mexican class system. This particular enclave is one heavily weighted towards the arts. So these factors together with my inherent interest in composition led me to start composing in a serious way some fifteen years ago. Now I have a substantial body of work and while I am unsure of its real quality I am sure of one thing: I am actually a composer! And, I suspect for the first time in my life, really not in the class system.

Here are some pieces:

Friday Miscellanea

The Remodern Review is an interesting place to visit for an oblique perspective on modernism in the arts: April 10 is Slow Art Day. Establishment Art Can’t Stand Up to Such Scrutiny.

It’s an often quoted statistic that the average museum goer only spends 30 seconds looking at each artwork they encounter. 

The sad truth is, regarding much of modern and contemporary art, that’s about 27 seconds longer than needed.

The visual arts are in a crisis of relevance, largely due to dire mismanagement by our cultural institutions. Instead of being encouraged as a communion for all, for over a century many art administrators have favored art as a divider, an opportunity to flaunt elitist attitudes. Officially sanctioned art often emphasizes theoretical formal matters and sociological notions designed to exclude, rather than engage, the general public.

* * *

 In Big Giant Wave, a film about the all-encompassing power of music, it all comes back to Montreal

Director Marie-Julie Dallaire’s new film has arrived at just the right time. After a year and change of being worn down by a pandemic that distances us from one another, Big Giant Wave (Comme une vague in French) explores how we are affected and connected by music.

“It feels strange to see people in concerts, collected; we’ve taken that for granted all our lives,” Dallaire says when looking back on the film’s footage of packed concert halls and busy streets. “The purpose of the film was to make people aware of all the music that surrounds them… to take an hour and half just to think about it. We always listen to or play music, but rarely do we stop and ask ourselves ‘why is music so powerful?'” 
In theatres since April 2, Big Giant Wave is a film that has the trappings of a documentary in how it explores how music is experienced by a variety of points of view, ranging from its anthropological and religious roots to its quantifiable, scientific effects on the brain and the simplicity of when music plays out in nature through birdsong or the rhythm of waves.

Now that sounds interesting!

* * *

From Slipped Disc an anonymous blogger suggests: IS MUSIC SCHOOL NOW IRRELEVANT?

The highest caliber of artistic education would give us clear and usable tools to help us navigate the paperwork-strewn networking maze that is the life of a freelance artist.  The highest caliber of artistic education would teach us why we should matter.  Instead, we are lectured on Gregorian chant, scrutinized for our knowledge of scale degrees and soprano clef, and applauded for our performance of complex polyrhythms.

Sounds like this kind of music school is indistinguishable from Harvard Business. The 21st century is turning out differently than I expected...

* * *

'We Will Never Break': In Iraq, A Yazidi Women's Choir Keeps Ancient Music Alive

DOHUK, Iraq — With rows of white tents filling a windswept hillside, the Khanke camp in northern Iraq shelters about 14,000 men, women and children from the Yazidi religious minority. They have been stuck here since ISIS invaded their home villages in 2014.

With its dirt roads and drab dwellings, the camp can be a bleak place. But the beat of a daf, a drum sacred to Yazidis, throbs underneath loud, energetic singing, rising over shouts of children in a trash-strewn playground.

Inside a small building, a dozen young Yazidi women are rehearsing folk songs. They sing about the dawn, the harvest and the Sinjar mountain the Yazidis consider holy. Sometimes their voices harmonize gently, sometimes they rise almost to a shout as the women chant.

* * *

Writing songs in lockdown: 'It was an escape'

"I'd never written a song before," he said. "But I came home from work and said: 'I need to write this down.' I sat down, wrote some lyrics and put together a melody on my guitar. Putting it down on paper… I definitely found that helped."

His song is one of several lockdown-themed tunes to feature in a BBC project. Now That's What I Call Lockdown is a collection of songs and music written by BBC Radio 5 Live listeners.

* * *

Reviews of some new books on music: Symphony of a Thousand Millennia

The first note known to have sounded on earth was an E natural. It was produced some 165 million years ago by a katydid (a kind of cricket) rubbing its wings together, a fact deduced by scientists from the remains of one of these insects, preserved in amber. Consider, too, the love life of the mosquito. When a male mosquito wishes to attract a mate, his wings buzz at a frequency of 600Hz, which is the equivalent of D natural. The normal pitch of the female’s wings is 400Hz, or G natural. Just prior to sex, however, male and female harmonise at 1200Hz, which is, as Michael Spitzer notes in his extraordinary new book, The Musical Human, ‘an ecstatic octave above the male’s D’. ‘Everything we sing’, Spitzer adds, ‘is just a footnote to that.’

Don't you love the astonishing arrogance of scientists when talking about art?

Nicholas Kenyon’s The Life of Music, which is primarily a survey of the classical repertoire from the 12th century to the present day. Kenyon presents the classical tradition in part as a centuries-long musical conversation, through which composers far distant in time speak to each other. Kenyon cites by way of example the manner in which the 15th-century Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem looks forward to the serialism of the 20th century and how the contemporary composer Thomas Adès has found inspiration in the French Baroque composer François Couperin.

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I think today's envoi calls for some Ockeghem, who is a much-neglected composer. Here is his Missa Prolationum with the score:



Thursday, April 8, 2021

Composers Have Huts

Troldhaugen is the name of the former residence of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and it has, apart from living quarters, Grieg's "composing hut" overlooking Nordås Lake. Here is a photo of the hut:

The interior of the hut

As you can see, a "hut" is exactly what it is, just big enough for a piano, a chair and a little desk

. Stravinsky composed the Rite of Spring in a similar environment:

In October he left Ustilug for Clarens in Switzerland, where in a tiny and sparsely-furnished room—an 8-by-8-foot (2.4 by 2.4 m) closet, with only a muted upright piano, a table and two chairs—he worked throughout the 1911–12 winter on the score. [Wikipedia]

Indeed, it is not unusual for composers to retreat to a tiny, isolated environment to compose. Mahler composed in a similar tiny hut overlooking Lake Attersee in Upper Austria. The hut even has its own Wikipedia page:

And here is the interior:

Mahler had a second composing hut near Maiernigg:

While I suspect that lots of other composers had similar huts, I can't find photos of them online. When I attended The Banff Centre many years ago, the extensive grounds were dotted with isolated little practice huts for musicians, writers and composers to work in. Here is a photo of the simplest ones:

But there are also much more elaborate ones:

This is the dream of many composers, writers and musicians, of course. The key elements are complete separation from other people and their noises (and the noises of their pets). You cannot imagine the sheer frustration when you are just working out some sound-combination in your mind or on the piano when next door Fido unleashes a furious round of barking or your neighbor decides he really needs to hear some Grateful Dead at high volume. The delicate, only half-comprehended idea vanishes like mist in the morning.

What do composers need even more than commissions and premieres? Solitude.

Here is the Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Edvard Grieg:

UPDATE: A commentator reminds me of composer Peter Maxwell Davies' croft in the Orkney Islands:

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Bach: WTC I, Prelude and Fugue in B flat major

We are getting close to the end of our project, just a few to go and perhaps Bach was feeling the same because this pair of pieces are quite brief. The prelude is right in the improvisatory/fantasia tradition and has perhaps the most impressive fireworks of any prelude we have heard. Let's start by having a listen to both pieces on harpsichord. This is the Belgian harpsichordist Bart Naessens:

It is amazing how many different ways Bach finds to arpeggiate chords and that is about all we have here, apart from scales and, in the second half of the prelude, the dotted chords of French overture style. The prelude is all about fireworks and harmony.

The fugue has a very long, but rhythmically conventional subject unlike the one from the A major fugue, so it is fairly easy to follow it every time it appears. The first half of the brief fugue is basically just a few statements of the subject and answer and a sequential episode. Then we have a couple more harmonically interesting entries of the subject, one in G minor and another in C minor. Following that we have another sequential episode and that's it. In the harpsichord version, together they take less than four minutes.

Now let's hear Sviatoslav Richter where we can follow the score. He manages to play both prelude and fugue in just a hair over two and a half minutes! He does this mainly by playing the prelude at a terrifying tempo--and one that seems just right. Fireworks indeed.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Friday Miscellanea

Here is an entirely laudable project: The rich world of African classical music

It has not been an easy journey for Omordia. Entirely self-funded until this year (when she secured a £15,000 grant from Arts Council England) she has battled scepticism, indifference and – most challenging of all – faced nearly insuperable difficulties tracking down the music itself, which remains mostly unpublished. Yet the 2020 African Concert Series has proved to be an outstanding success, which has sparked widespread interest in this hitherto virtually unknown genre. Launched the previous year with a mission to introduce music by African art composers to the mainstream, the series has already been promised a day of concerts in the 2021-22 season at one of London’s most enlightened concert venues, the October Gallery in Holborn.

Be sure to follow the link to hear some examples. 

* * *

Despite high levels of COVID, Europe is struggling to revive concert life: Dudamel conducts for an audience of 1,000 indoors. What reopening looks like in Spain

BARCELONA, Spain —  Try to imagine Gustavo Dudamel conducting 50 musicians huddled in an orchestra pit, with 75 singers packed on the stage above and 1,000 people on hand just to watch, all indoors.

That’s exactly what maestro Dudamel pulled off on Saturday night — albeit 6,000 miles away from a still-closed Walt Disney Concert Hall — when the Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor premiered a starry Bavarian State Opera production of Verdi’s “Otello” at the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

It was all perfectly legal and earned a healthy round of applause (and, to be fair, a few boos). Dudamel made his Spanish opera debut in an uncut, fully-staged production that many hoped would mark the beginning of the post-COVID-19 era.

* * *

 Colorado Public Radio helps us Discover The Music Jane Austen Loved.

Playing piano was an integral part of Austen’s life. She practiced every morning and acquired music from friends by copying pieces note for note, in addition to purchasing her own sheet music. But scholars like Ray believe that music was more than just a passion, it might have been a linchpin to her writing creativity.

When Austen was 21 years old, she and her family moved to Bath, England. “In Bath, we don’t think she had an instrument to play and she does very little, if any, writing in Bath,” Ray told CPR Classical. “Music scholars of the period who also read Jane Austen like to propose that unless Jane Austen had music in her life, her writing didn’t proceed the way it should.”

* * *

Long Beach Opera Refuses to Play It Safe:

 Long Beach Opera defies the odds in several ways. Founded in 1979, it’s the oldest producing opera company in Los Angeles and Orange County, a region that has not always been fertile ground for the unwieldy art form. (O.C.’s opera fans still get emotional when talking about the messy demise of Opera Pacific in 2008.) But unlike many regional companies that exist to dutifully produce the same dozen or so warhorses, LBO has made its reputation as a risk-taking and iconoclastic organization, exploring new and obscure work with innovative productions and championing up-and-coming talent, all on a budget that would make a shoestring look overfed.

The company’s vision is succinctly summed up in the self-description on its website: “Our artistic vision is to present unconventional works — repertoire which is neglected by other, more mainstream opera companies — ranging from the very beginnings of opera to modern, avant-garde works, emphasizing their theatrical and musical relevance to our time.”

* * *

Music’s Most Treacherous Assignment: Finishing Mozart

The new Mozart-Jones recording is unusual, though, in its choose-your-own-adventure approach. Jones, testing different aspects of Mozartian style, made multiple completions of each fragment, and the album includes some of that variety, giving a heady sense of how open-ended creative production is — how differently symphonies (or paintings or novels) we know and love might have ended up.

* * *

The problem of obtaining a traditional education in the humanities is being satisfied in unusual ways these days as we learn at Law & Liberty:

 Fortunately, the free marketplace of ideas is not yet dead. The unmet demand for a traditional humanities education in elite universities is increasingly being supplied by offshore institutions that set up shop near universities but are not officially part of them. Indeed, the last decade has seen an extraordinary blossoming of private humanities institutes that offer what progressive academe no longer offers:  a space to escape the suffocating taboos of contemporary university life, a place to explore the deep questions of human existence and form friendships in the pursuit of meaningful lives and (dare one say it) truth.

There are now many such foundations across the country, including the Morningside Institute near Columbia, the Elm Institute at Yale, the Abigail Adams Institute at Harvard, the Berkeley Institute at UC Berkeley, and the Zephryr Institute at Stanford. These institutes present themselves as non-political and non-religious but welcome students with religious convictions or unorthodox political views. The Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education currently provides support for 21 entities of this type. Others offshore institutes, like the Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania or Lumen Christi at Chicago, were set up to foster the Catholic intellectual tradition but have become places that support the liberal tradition of humane studies generally. Many of their events are oriented to students with no religious commitments but who value the chance to discuss the great landmarks of the Western intellectual tradition in an atmosphere that treats those works with the respect they deserve.

I really don't see how these institutions are "offshore" though. Off-campus maybe.

* * *

A couple of envois for you. First, if you want to explore some of the African Concert series:

And the Sonata for violin and piano, K. 301, completely composed by Mozart:

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Composer's Composers

As someone who became a composer late in life (though I have always done a bit of composing throughout my career), I am always discovering new things about this activity. One of them is noticing how some composers are particularly interesting to other composers. I don't necessarily mean influential, though this may be the case, instead I refer to certain qualities that some composers have that tend to attract the interest of other composers.

Here are some examples: Domenico Scarlatti, J. S. Bach and Joseph Haydn. What these three composers did that is of particular interest to other composers was to take up a particular style or genre and explore in great depth, all the possibilities it offered. This is a kind of pure creativity that is quite rare. Instead of the idea that creativity consists in exploring all the areas, materials and genres, this concept of creativity suggests that you define particular boundaries and work within them.

The 1960s were a time when the idea was popular that a composer might be best advised to throw everything including the kitchen sink into a piece. It was the era of "happenings" and "multi-media" and long, self-indulgent pieces that often are unlistenable today. The idea of focussing on one particular medium or style is to go in the opposite direction.

As an extreme example, Domenico Scarlatti wrote sonatas for the harpsichord in two repeating sections and kept doing it until he had written five hundred and fifty-five of them. To a composer this is an astonishing feat because not one of these pieces is boring! The pieces are fairly short, ranging between two and six minutes long, but while they all have a similar structure, every single one is different. This is an astonishing compositional feat.

The symphonies of Joseph Haydn are another example. There are one hundred and six and again, while they share a certain structural similarity he solves the problems of variety and unity differently in every one.

And, of course, Bach. I started out doing a post on each of the preludes and fugues from book one of the Well-Tempered Clavier on the supposition that looking at them as a whole would reveal just how remarkably different they all are, even though they all stay within the boundaries of the style and genre. The idea of taking up the same basic problem and doing it in every different major and minor key is the kind of thing that is fascinating to a composer.

Another remarkable thing is that, over time, all this music has become very popular with general audiences. I think this is simply because, in the long run, quality will out.

The only way to really realize just how remarkable these compositional projects are is to go through them, having a close look at each piece in turn. I did that with a lot of the Haydn symphonies a few years ago and now am doing it with Bach. But I don't think I will do it with the Scarlatti sonatas! Just too darn many of them...

Here is Scott Ross playing a hundred of the Scarlatti sonatas: