Friday, October 11, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Who killed the American arts? Which I think would be better phrased "Who killed the arts in America? But never mind, here is their point:
The arts are quarantined on campus, where the highest common denominator is theoretical pretension, and where no art of any worth is ever made. Entertainment is ghettoized on the internet, where the lowest common denominator, and the only sure way to make money, is sex and violence, and the even surer way is to combine sex and violence in the same image. No more Jackson Pollock and Elvis Presley. Today, the world looks to American ‘art’ only for pimps and porn — the imagery of slavery. 
The idea that Americans could educate their own sensibilities to international standards lasted little longer than Emerson and Whitman. By the late 1800s, the United States had adopted a university system along German lines, and ambitious Americans were funneling themselves into its specializing disciplines. By the early Sixties, University of California administrators were boasting that they had created a ‘multiversity’ geared to the needs of technocracy, while University of California students were rioting about an alleged lack of free speech.
By the end of the Sixties, students and administrators had arrived at a Westphalian peace. The students permitted the university to stay in the business of training specialists and technicians. The university let the students redefine the humanistic curriculum. Henceforth, the purpose of liberal education was to prevent the education of classical liberals.
Some huge claims there, but I'm not entirely sure they are wrong. Something went wrong, that's for sure.

* * *

The New York Times has weighed in with a substantial article on the incident where violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter stopped a performance to demand that an audience member stop recording and videoing her performance. There was a lot of controversy at the time and this piece takes a broader look at the issue and contains some comments from Mutter. The article is headed with a photo of a cast member of a musical snatching a phone out of the hands of an audience member and tossing it under the risers.
Both artists were cheered — first in person, later on social media — for taking a stand against the growing ranks of smartphone addicts who cannot resist snapping pictures and making recordings that are often prohibited by rule or by law, that are distracting to performers and patrons, and that can constitute a form of intellectual property theft.
And here is the counterpoint:
One dissenter argued on Twitter that “people who wholly submit to and enforce outdated/archaic concert rituals that require insane amounts of cultural capital to begin with are going to be completely irrelevant in about 15 years’ time.”
Mutter commented:
Ms. Mutter, the German violinist who stopped mid-concerto, said she was in favor of sealing phones at concerts. In her first interview about the Cincinnati incident, Ms. Mutter said that she had grown distracted as she played the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto because a woman in the first row was holding up her phone and filming her. After Ms. Mutter shot her stern looks, she said, the woman put down her phone.
“The first movement is over, and I’m trying to concentrate and stay calm,” Ms. Mutter recalled. “Then she takes out a second phone, and a power bank. I continued the second movement, but it’s already boiling in me. I’m totally out of the flow.”
“I feel violated in my rights, of my artistic property,” she said, noting that unauthorized filming is illegal. “As an artist you take such care when doing a recording — that you have your own sound engineer, that the mics are hung in the right spots. The sound is a part of you, you want your voice replicated in a way that really represents what you have worked on for an entire life.”
Should a serious artist like Mutter be accorded a minimum of respect? Beyond question, in my view. Should that extend to doing nothing to disturb the performance or the performer? Yes.

* * *

 Speaking of being disturbed, The Atlantic has a big piece on the ubiquitous noises of high-tech civilization: Why Everything Is Getting Louder. It is hard to excerpt, but the bottom line is that there are places, especially in Arizona, where they are  building huge data storage centers with "chillers" that keep the equipment at a constant cool temperature, and the consequence is that there is an ubiquitous hum that permeates everywhere. It drives some people up the wall.

* * *

Norman Lebrecht's album of the week is a box of five discs of Dmitri Shostakovich playing his own compositions. We don't usually have this much from a composer of his stature, plus he was an excellent pianist. Lebrecht calls the album "indispensible". Maybe so, maybe so.
But the truly shattering experience is saved for the final disc where Shostakovich sits down in 1954 with his friend and neighbour, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and plays his new symphony, the tenth, four-handed on his home piano. Mark the date. Stalin has been dead for a year and Weinberg has been sprung from an NKVD cell by the brave intervention of Shostakovich. The tenth symphony draws a line under an era of sheer terror and moves tentatively into light, barely daring to imagine a better future. I listen open-mouthed. Rarely has music so accurately reflected a moment in history, projecting and preserving it for all time. Indispensable? That might be an understatement.
* * *

 Why is it that every headline in the newspaper turns out to be, more or less, an untruth? For example, in the New York Times: The Unsingable Music That Stumped a Diva. Well, of course it didn't. She just worked on it until she mastered the technical problems:
On paper, John Zorn’s “Jumalattaret” — which has its New York premiere at the Park Avenue Armory on Oct. 15, with Ms. Hannigan joined by the pianist Stephen Gosling — looks impossible: breathless vocalise; abrupt transitions from head-spinning complexity to folk-song simplicity; and, within the span of a single measure, whispering, squeaking and throat-singing like a winter storm.
It’s the kind of piece that leaves you asking, repeatedly, over the course of its 25 minutes: Can a voice even do this? The answer, for Ms. Hannigan, is yes. It took a lot of practice, a thwarted summer vacation, and a well-timed email to get there. But once she and Mr. Gosling gave the first performance of “Jumalattaret,” it was clear Mr. Zorn had created something special.
Every story like this follows exactly the same template. It would be much more interesting if someone wrote a piece that really was impossible and they did an article on why it was impossible.

* * *

For today's example of psychobabble we offer this item: Why music has such profound effects on the brain.
We are essentially pattern-recognizing machines. Every great musician knows that a great performance involves building up tension to an eventual release. And that's because that taps into our pattern recognition apparatus in the brain. Our brain is trying to figure out what's going to happen next. So often, we love music that has a predictable pattern, maybe that we've heard before, but that either delays that release of tension like Barber's Adagio for Strings. You know the melody just weaves around the final climax over and over and over again.
Well, yes, but this describes only one type of music: that which follows a typical narrative pattern. For nearly a hundred years, composers have been finding other ways of structuring music that avoids this pattern. So again, a psychological theory that goes wrong because it simply starts with an incorrect assumption.

* * *

The answer is "no." Is there a case for considering New Age music as art? Or, as The New Yorker avers: The Case for New Age Music as American Folk Art.
How did New Age end up carrying so much baggage in our musical memory? Its fall from grace, when it once soared, might be due to New Age’s status as one of the most heavily marketed musical genres, making it the equivalent of aural snake oil, to be sold on the yoga-conference circuit and in corporate supplement chains. It’s not often that an emerging style of music becomes indistinguishable from a wellness product—one with excessive claims promising listeners reduced anxiety, altered biorhythms, and the soothing of inflamed prostates.
Alternatively, the aural equivalent of tapioca or tofu. And it tends to inflame, not sooth my prostate. Or soul, to make a more salubrious metaphor.

* * *
And now the moment you have been waiting for, the much anticipated Friday Miscellanea envoi of the week. Today we shall have two. First, the Beethoven Violin Concerto that Anne-Sophie Mutter was playing, or trying to, when she was disturbed by the amateur videographer.

And here is Shostakovich playing the last prelude and fugue from his set of 24 Preludes and Fugues:

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Professionalization and Credentials

I am reading a monograph on Arnold Schoenberg by Malcolm MacDonald published by Oxford in the Master Musicians series. Right from the beginning there are some interesting paradoxes, which is not too surprising in the life of a very paradoxical man.

Arnold Schoenberg

Here is the odd thing: this hugely important figure in 20th century music never actually had any formal training as we would think of it today. He was musically gifted from an early age and learned to play the violin, viola and cello, but he never became a student at a music school. Yes, he did study with Alexander von Zemlinsky, whom he met through an amateur orchestral society, but Zemlinsky was a near-contemporary, only three years older than Schoenberg. It was through him that the young composer was exposed to professional musical training and standards, though at second hand. Zemlinsky had attended the Vienna Conservatory. Schoenberg absorbed music through his skin, it seems, not only from Zemlinsky, but from playing in amateur chamber groups and from composing for them and for whatever ensemble was handy. He also was friends with a wide range of artists and writers in fin-de-siècle Viennese society. Another early mentor was Oskar Adler who gave Schoenberg some early lessons in elementary harmony and ear-training. They were friends from boyhood, Adler being only three months older than Schoenberg.

Most musicians, even a hundred or more years ago, were the product of music schools. We might look at the examples of Stravinsky or Shostakovich. Stravinsky was a private student of Rimsky-Korsakov, but Shostakovich followed the formal course of studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In both cases, they were instructed by leading members of the musical establishment of the day. This was not true of Schoenberg who even though being born in Vienna, the heart of musical conservatism at the time, was always a contrarian.

And here is another odd thing, this iconoclastic figure was one of the few composers in the first half of the last century to write important textbooks on harmony and composition. On my shelves are copies of his Structural Functions of Harmony, Fundamentals of Musical Composition and Style and Idea. Though never sitting at the feet of any established pedagogue, he became one himself.

Today a hundred schools of music churn out a thousand credentialed musicians and composers. So let's not forget that the foundations of modern music were laid down by people obviously unqualified for the task as they had no credentials!

Here are Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces, op. 11, played by Di Wu:

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

François Couperin, 15eme, 16eme et 17eme Ordres

A friend of mine once remarked to me that music has been in decline since 1733. I have never forgotten that. That was, of course, the year that François Couperin died. One could certainly quibble with that. What about J. S. Bach, for example? Not much decline there. Or, if you like your music a little jollier, then there is always Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Still, he did have a point. Instead of arguing about it though, let's simply listen to three Ordres (what Couperin called his suites for harpsichord). Here is the unparalleled Scott Ross with three of the later Ordres.

Psychology Tells Us ... Crap

For two or three decades I had a simple and very effective policy regarding psychology and its pompous pronouncements about human nature: they were all crap. I simply stopped believing in modern psychology as a whole. Completely solved my neuroses because I no longer believed in the existence of neuroses. I loved telling people I had no psychological problems.

Then I ran into Jordan Peterson and had to admit that he had a lot of very wise stuff to say. I even did his online psychological evaluation and it made a lot of sense. But, you know, I still think most psychology is crap. And here is a lovely example: Psychology tells us why older people don’t enjoy new music.
As I’ve grown older, I’ll often hear people my age say things like “they just don’t make good music like they used to.”
Why does this happen?
Luckily, my background as a psychologist has given me some insights into this puzzle.
First of all, let's unpack that a bit. Turns out that it is not "psychology" that is telling us anything. It is rather Francis T. McAndrew, a professor of psychology at an obscure liberal arts college in Illinois, Knox College, whose homepage looks like a marketing seminar gone over the edge on psychedelic drugs.
We know that musical tastes begin to crystallize as early as age 13 or 14. By the time we’re in our early 20s, these tastes get locked into place pretty firmly.
His first link, on the phrase "begin to crystallize" is to a mainstream report on a study of data from Spotify exclusively confined to pop music. So, we need to add this caveat: one psychologist, using undefined statistical methods, found that people who use Spotify and just listen to pop music tend to have the development of their musical tastes arrested in their early adolescence. Well I for one am not too surprised!

But then in the next paragraph he comes up with an entirely different claim:
In fact, studies have found that by the time we turn 33, most of us have stopped listening to new music. Meanwhile, popular songs released when you’re in your early teens are likely to remain quite popular among your age group for the rest of your life.
So is it early teens or is it thirty-three? That first link is to an article about a "study" by Deezer, a music streaming service:

according to a new survey from Deezer, which suggests people stop discovering new music at just 30 and a half.
The music streaming service surveyed 1,000 Brits about their music preferences and listening habits. 60% of people reported being in a musical rut, only listening to the same songs over and over, while just over a quarter (25%) said they wouldn't be likely to try new music from outside their preferred genres.
So is is thirty-three or just thirty and a half? In contrast to the other "study" this one found that the peak year for discovering new music was twenty-four. Also, I really think it is a stretch to call something a "study" when it is just an informal survey of people using a particular service. And again, we are given no hint as to the methodology.

Let's rephrase this all over again: a number of different, highly informal surveys, come up with wildly different estimates of at what point in life people who listen primarily to pop music tend to discover new music or tend to stop discovering new music.

I get this approach, by the way, from my first philosophy professor who would assign us texts making outrageous claims and then, when we argued vehemently against them, would calmly pace back and forth until we finished. Then he would ask, "may I re-phrase that?" After reducing our rants to a succinct philosophical position or claim, he would then demolish it quite handily. Nice thing to learn how to do.

Turns out that all these "studies" and "scientific" claims that we keep seeing in the mainstream media, all turn to mist and vapor when closely examined. Let's call them collectively "vaportruths."

Let me survey myself, just for your entertainment. I was born in 1951 so my musical tastes were supposedly shaped by the music of the middle sixties when I was in my mid-teens (according to still other "studies"). That would include the Beatles whom I do in fact enjoy. But it would also include the Rolling Stones, Eric Burden and the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, Vanilla Fudge and a host of others whom I do not enjoy. Incredible String Band were ok, and yes, I do like Cream. After 1970 I quit listening to pop music entirely for about a decade. Then in the early 80s I heard some stuff I liked from the Talking Heads, David Bowie and the Police. All the other stuff I didn't like. I pretty much missed the 90s as well. The next thing I heard that I liked was Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" in 2009. Unfortunately I didn't much like anything else she did. Then, a couple of years ago I discovered Kanye West and I have liked quite a few things from him. So that's the pop history.

The classical history is rather more complex. Sometime around 1969 a friend played a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for me and I was very impressed. It seemed to me head and shoulders above any other music I was familiar with. I soon started listening to other classical music and particularly liked Dvorak, Debussy and similar symphonic music. Then I discovered Bach and the Mass in B minor in particular. I also started listening to Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, again, symphonic music. When I attended university in 1971 I became acquainted with a whole bunch of other music courtesy of Music History 101 that included everything from Gregorian Chant to Machaut, to Monteverdi, to Corelli, to Schumann, to Wagner, to Bartók, to Berg, well, you get the idea. It's a survey course. In six months you get hustled through a thousand years of music history.

So that's the first two years of my encounter with classical music. I think it is safe to say that in the nearly fifty years since, I have become acquainted with at least one new piece of music every week and one significant new composer every year. Right now I am rediscovering Arnold Schoenberg for about the fourth time. The really important composers you "discover" several times at different stages in your life.

Hey, let's listen to some Machaut! Here is a piece, his Messe de Notre Dame, that the professor in that music history course, one Dr. Christine Mather, used to say was really important. The performers are the Ensemble Gilles Binchois:

Monday, October 7, 2019

Dead White Males

The debate over diversity and gender is going to be going on for a long time, I suspect. As a followup to my comment on Clara Schumann vs Beethoven in the concert review, I want to draw your attention to this initiative: Columbia's library building features the names of only male authors. After 3 decades of trying, these students have fixed that. Yes, indeed they have, but in an interesting and not offensive manner. They could have chipped away or covered up the objectionable male authors, but instead, simply placed an alternative banner above. See the photo at the link.
Homer. Herodotus. Sophocles. Plato. Aristotle. Demosthenes. Cicero. Vergil.
Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male.
These are the author's names chiseled into the stone facade of Columbia University's Butler Library. In case it hasn't become clear yet, every single one of them is a man.
Yes, and not only male, but also Greek and Roman and all of them core thinkers in the Ancient world. Which you might think is even more important.
The new 140-foot banner emblazons the last names of Toni Morrison, Diana Chang, Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gloria E Anzaldúa and A. Revathi across the face of Butler Library and directly above the original names.
To which I say "who?" Well, ok, I have heard of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, but the rest are a mystery. The names were selected by a small committee of students.
The original 1989 banner included the last names of Sappho, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Brontë (meant to represent all three Brontë sisters), Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf.
I have heard of nearly all of those names, at least, though the list had to comb through a couple of millennia of literary history to find enough names. There was another list in 1994:
For the 1994 interpretation, the names of Sappho, Murasaki Shikibu, Mirabai, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko and Sandra Cisneros graced the northern face of the library.
You can see the tendrils of politics slowly exerting their influence, can't you?

Basically, what is going on here is a category error: the current banner is a demonstration that the students have not only no comprehension of history, they are also pretty weak in aesthetics as well. The new list is of those names that are fashionable among impressionable students in the humanities in the second decade of the 21st century. I would bet that those names will disappear in a decade or two to be replaced with other, equally ephemeral ones. But Homer, Herodotus and the rest of those vile males will continue to be just as important as they have been for the last two and a half millennia.

Concert Review

Last night was the first night of the new winter chamber music season. But perhaps I shouldn't say "chamber music" as this year they are doing two operas as well. But the season started in traditional fashion with a violin and piano recital and quite a good one. I notice that Salzburg has spoiled me a bit, though.

The program included two composers we are going to hear a lot from this year: Clara Schumann, who has her bicentennial this year, and Beethoven, who celebrates his 250th--as soon as 2020 rolls around. The first half had a violin/piano sonata by Franz Schubert (I neglected to retain my program so I can't tell you which, but it was nicely dynamic) and the only violin/piano sonata by Leoš Janáček. This was written in 1914, before he met his muse, Kamila Stösslová, who inspired all of his late-in-life masterpieces. Quite a good piece with a lot of strong gestures ending with a very subdued adagio.

The second half began with Three Romances by Clara Schumann followed by the Spring Sonata by Beethoven. The recital ended with an encore, the Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) by Pablo de Sarasate. I suppose this is what recitalists are doing more and more these days: not knowing if the audience will demand an encore, heck, just stick one on at the end of the program. I confess to doing it myself!

Two things became very evident in the second half of the program. We knew from the very beginning that the violinist, a Chinese-Australian now resident in the US, was a bold and strong player, but especially during the Beethoven, the shortcomings of the pianist became evident. She was an accomplished pianist, of course, and a good accompanist, but she didn't seem to have a clue as to how to play Beethoven. Every scale was rushed, with the notes all blurred together with no articulation. I heard a lot of Beethoven on piano in Salzburg and all of it was clear and defined. Sloppy, blurry Beethoven doesn't work at all. The other thing that became evident, apart from how boring unrelieved cheap virtuosity can be on the violin (coughSarasatecough) was that Clara Schumann is nowhere near being anywhere in the same league as Beethoven. The Three Romances were slight diversions and nothing more. Next to the Beethoven they were just a bit dreary. I'm afraid that we are going to hear this demonstrated time and time again this season...

But please don't take my word for it! Have a listen and decide for yourself. First the Schumann:

And then the Beethoven:

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Adieu to Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker, drummer for Cream and other groups and archetypal force of nature, has passed away at eighty years of age:
He gained early fame as a member of the Graham Bond Organisation alongside bassist Jack Bruce - but it was their partnership with Eric Clapton in Cream that made all three superstars.
One of rock's first "supergroups", they fused blues and psychedelia to dazzling effect on songs like Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love, Badge and I Feel Free. They sold more than 35 million albums and were awarded the world's first ever platinum disc for their LP Wheels of Fire.
One of his most interesting performances was for the song "We're Going Wrong" with soft mallets: