Monday, October 31, 2011

Official Didgeridoo Performance Costs

I know you have been worrying about this: what will it cost to hire a didgeridoo player to lend just the right touch to your next visit to Australia? Well worry no more. Here, according to the government of New South Wales, is what it costs:


Didgeridoo players are frequently used in Welcome ceremonies to ‘call’ speakers, special guests and the audience to begin the ceremony. A didgeridoo player may also be used as a soloist in other parts of the ceremony.

Professional didgeridoo players, registered with an agent, charge a standard industry fee. Fees may be negotiable, according to individual performers needs and the type of performance required.

The National Musicians Enterprise Agreement, certified in July 2003, contains the following minimum rates for musicians.

Category 1 performer, for a minimum 3 hour performance:

3 x $104.00 per hour + $12.43 make up and costume allowance + $ 4.00 instrument allowance + $28.37 rehearsal rate.

Total cost is $356.80 per performance

Fees vary within the industry, from agent to agent and performer to performer. Agent fees, administration, transport and insurance costs may be charged on top of the award minimum.


Nature, an Aboriginal didgeridoo duo who were used extensively during NSW Centenary of Federation celebrations, charge between $450.00 to $800.00 per performance.

The EORA Centre for Visual and Performing Arts (TAFE) often assists with requests for student musicians/didgeridoo players. The EORA Centre recommends a minimum fee of $150.00 per performance.

If you can do that for the three hour minimum performance time, I admire your stamina!

Being Narrow-Minded

I didn't set out to be narrow-minded--it just turned out that way. I've had a pretty wide range of listening and playing experiences in music. When I was 19 I played lead guitar in a band with a black drummer and black bass-player. Think the Jimi Hendrix Experience in negative. Wish I had some photos from then. We would get up around 2 or 3 pm, hang out, then around 11 or 12 pm we would head out to the rehearsal hall and play until three or four in the morning. It was an interesting experience... I have also busked in Europe with a flute player, performed live on television, played concertos with several different orchestras and done innumerable solo and chamber recitals. One of my earliest experiences in chamber music--believe it or not, it was just a couple of years after my time in the band with those black guys--was playing lute in a trio doing Guillaume Machaut (1300 - 1377). Another very interesting ensemble experience was performing Hans Werner Henze's 1970 chamber opera El Cimmaron. So I've done a lot of different things.

But after all that, I'm pretty clear on what music matters. What music is truly significant and important. This is a personal view, of course and I can sketch out why I think so, so you can come to your own conclusions.

Most music is pretty bad: predictable, cliched and shallow. Some music is exotic and possibly interesting, but too remote to be meaningful (this depends on your perspective, of course). A small amount of music is profound, interesting, moving and brilliantly creative. Here are examples of each:

You might say, it's all relative. If you listen to a lot of the first type of music, all the recent pop stuff, then you will probably find the other two pieces I put up, by Machaut and Bach, to be unutterably dreary and depressing. Or if you tend to listen to lots of Bach, you will probably be irritated and annoyed by the pop stuff. But I think the real difference is not just what you are used to. The more closely you look at generic pop music, the more you can see how it is an industrial product, like processed cheese. It is full of snappy, poppy rhythms (Latin, in this case), has a video with pretty pictures and good-looking singers, but really, this is just, like a thousand others, Ricky Martin's "La Vida Loca" regurgitated. The Machaut is an acquired taste, but pretty remote from us. But if you dig into Bach, you discover the opposite to the pop example. The more you look at it, the more interesting it is. The whole piece is based on a single theme: six long notes. That's it. No fancy rhythms. The style is virtually archaic by this point in time. No concessions to fashion. And the result is a piece of astonishing depth. Go ahead, go back and listen to them all again...

So what it comes down to is, for me, there really are only about four and a half composers that stand out in all of music: Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich. The half? Well, that would be Mozart. Amazing, lovely music, but sandwiched in between Haydn, who invented this style and Beethoven who expanded it to the heavens.

Narrow-minded, that's me!

Haydn Quartets, Part 3

Continuing my trek through the Quartet op 20, no 4 in D major, the third movement is one of Haydn's most hilarious. Not an obvious prank, like the finale to the "Joke" Quartet from op 33, that has several false endings, but one designed to cause the musicians to fall apart in disarray the first time they read through. The minuet had become the standard third movement for quartets and symphonies in the expanded form of minuet and trio. The 'trio' is a contrasting dance movement so called because Lully had typically written them for two oboes and a bassoon. Usually the contrast is achieved with different instrumentation or texture or by having the trio in a parallel key. But not this one! Haydn writes one of the oddest minuets you will ever hear: alla zingarese or "in gypsy style". The Esterhazy family, Haydn's patrons, employed gypsy musicians as well as classical ones and their music was certainly familiar to Haydn. Before saying anything more, let's listen to the minuet and trio:

It is often said about this movement that it is written in 3/4 meter, as a minuet should be, but sounds in 2/4. I doubt that is what you hear. It isn't a simple hemiola, either. One of the trademarks of gypsy style is rhythmic freedom in the violin, who often plays before or after the beat. I think Haydn is creating his own version of this effect. If you look at the score, the violins are offset from the viola and cello. Considered by themselves, the viola and cello are doing this: a simple bar of 3/4 followed by a bar in which the second beat is accented, followed by a hemiola where two bars of 3/4 become one bar of 3/2. Followed by thee bars of 3/4. The violins are doing something similar, but a bar earlier! Upbeat, 3/4 with second beat accented, bar of 3/2, two bars of 3/4 with second beat accented, three bars of 2/4 (which sounds quite different from one bar of 3/2). That's what it sounds like to me! Your mileage may vary. What I hear is this: the violins are a measure ahead of the viola and cello and both groups are using accents and hemiola to confuse the listener as to where the downbeat is. The effect is not 2/4, but polyrhythm! In other words, there are two layers of meter and they are not synchronized. For contrast, the trio is in utterly humdrum 3/4 meter with a cello solo. The contrast between minuet and trio is metric! Cool.

Just in case you think I made all this up, here is my metric analysis of the first half of the minuet:

Click to enlarge

Of course, my music software won't allow anything as odd as this, so I had to cut and paste and still the automatic spacing confuses things a bit. But this is how I hear each part. They are moving through 3/4, 3/2, back to 3/4 and then 2/4, but the violins are ahead of the viola and cello. Wacky guy, Haydn...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Yo-Yo Ma and Bluegrass

Yo-Yo Ma is a classical musician who has done an amazing variety of collaborations. His latest is with bluegrass musicians and they have a new album out called The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Here is the song "Here in Heaven":

Now this is undeniably an excellent performance of a nice piece of music. Is there anything else to be said about it? Perhaps not. I'm a big fan of simple music, after all and this is, underneath the bluegrassy elaborations, a pretty simple piece of music. Does this count as classical outreach? Well, not really as there is nothing classical about it. Yo-Yo Ma can play pretty well anything on the cello, so this presented few challenges. Does this count as crossover? It is certainly unlike the examples I talked about in this post. There is usually something a bit awkward about a pop musician performing classical music--though Sting does a pretty good job on Dowland. But it can be equally awkward when classical musicians try to do popular music. Luciano Pavarotti comes to mind:

Interesting tell-tale detail that Pavarotti is reading from the music... A classical musician has a formidable technique that can easily handle this sort of music--though he may have difficulties with the style or interpretation. For a lot of music, popular songs or bluegrass, there is enough commonality that crossover is feasible. But is it interesting? Well, not really. This is usually done for commercial purposes and if you look at a list of best sellers in classical music, the Goat Rodeo album is number one. At the moment, anyway. So it worked. The perhaps unfortunate thing is that on the list of best selling classical albums we don't actually get a classical album until number nine (if you aren't too fussy), or number twelve. If you are me, there isn't much until number seventeen which has two Beethoven symphonies.

I've said before that there are two senses of the word 'classical' when applied to music: that musical style from the death of Bach to the death of Beethoven (as opposed to, say, Baroque or Romantic) and that music that has stood the test of time, that is of long-lasting quality whether it is Medieval or Stravinsky or the Beatles. But the Goat Rodeo album doesn't fall into either of those categories. Fun music, well played, though.

At the moment that is all we can expect from 'crossover'. But there is something else looming on the horizon. As did many classical composers, the young composers of today are listening to and being influenced by the popular music of today. It hasn't resulted in much interesting so far. But it might...

Haydn Quartets, Part 2

The previous post was a brief introduction to the first movement of the Quartet in D major, from op 20. Now let's look at the slow movement. The logical thing to do for a second movement in a piece in major, is to move to the minor and a slow tempo. This is just what Haydn does:

This seems like a good place to mention some things about multi-movement pieces. The sonata in more than one movement was a development that took place during three periods in music history: the Baroque, the Classical and the Romantic. It is the most important form in instrumental music because sonatas for keyboard, chamber music ensembles with continuo, string quartets and even symphonies and concertos all share the basic structure. A piece for string quartet is called a "string quartet", but it is really a sonata for four string instruments as opposed to a sonata for piano solo. The fairly lengthy second movement is a set of variations in D minor. Here is the first half of the theme:

Click to enlarge

This uses simple harmonies with some graceful decorations and moves from D minor to F major; the second half moves back to D minor. There are four variations and a coda. Haydn gives nearly equal time to all the instruments: the second variation is a solo for the cello. It took me a long time to appreciate sets of variations even though they are a popular medium for guitar because they normally don't modulate as much as other kinds of structures. But most sets of variations are a bit, uh, uninspired. It is too easy to fall into a formula. True, it is an interesting exercise for composers because there is the challenge of finding something new but staying within a defined structure. I also suspect that audiences often like variations because there is a lot of repetition and the possibility of some virtuosity as well. But I have come to appreciate those few sets of variations that really are transcendent such as the Goldberg variations by Bach and the Diabelli variations by Beethoven. What Haydn is doing here is laying the groundwork for Beethoven and giving us a lovely piece of music in the process. He is exploring the possibilities of using the kind of complex figuration that the Baroque was so good at, to decorate the clear harmonic structures that are typical of the Classical period. This is exactly the combination that Beethoven took up and pretty much exhausted in movements like the Adagio from the String Quartet in E flat major, op 127. But Haydn led the way...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Haydn String Quartets, Part 1

The great English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey wrote this about Haydn:
"Every page of the six quartets of op. 20 is of historic and aesthetic importance... there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much."
In the 18th century, compositions were often written and published in groups of six or twelve. The String Quartets, op 20 of Joseph Haydn are of considerable importance, as Tovey says. These were not the first string quartets ever written, even by Haydn, but what he achieved with these pieces set up the string quartet as possibly the most important genre of instrumental music, one that was later chosen for their most profound thoughts by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich. Even more important, it was with these pieces that Haydn laid out the general principles of the Classical style and forms. It would be hard to overstate how important that was for music history!

But what interests me is what Haydn did, exactly, and how he did it. You might start by looking at the Wikipedia article on op 20, which is particularly comprehensive. I'm going to pick the D major Quartet for a couple of reasons and go through it. Here is the first movement:

This charming music is also a lesson in composition and creativity. Start with some very simple themes:

Click to enlarge

Those two ideas are really all Haydn needs to write an eight minute movement for string quartet. In fact, he often writes a movement with just one theme. What we have here is Haydn inventing sonata form from scratch. First theme: repeated notes laying out the meter, triple time, then rising an octave, ending on the fifth note of the scale. Themes don't come much simpler than that. But here is something odd: most music comes in four-bar segments. Two four-bar segments go together to make up an eight-bar phrase. This is so fundamental that we don't even think about it. But look what Haydn has done. This theme is six measures long, not four. It is really a four-bar phrase expanded to six. The first measure of repeated notes is like an introduction, then the phrase itself is just four notes: D, G, D and A. Nothing simpler. Ah, but there is one other bar inserted--the three notes of the 4th bar. The other odd thing is that this six-bar theme is heard three times. Then Haydn starts taking us into different harmonies. Finally, in measure 31, he introduces that second theme. The first theme was soft, this one is loud and in eighth-note triplets. That's really it. All the rest of the movement consists in taking apart, varying, these themes, running them through different harmonies and modifying them rhythmically. Each of the two parts of the movement is ended by detaching that little turn at the end of the first theme as I've shown in the third line of the example. Now go back and listen to the movement again. You see how amazingly fluid it is: everything is based on these two simple themes and what variations can be made of them.

Music Journalism

Most music journalism is news about artists and events, new releases, hirings, firings and so on. But it also includes reviews of recordings and performances which is when it becomes, potentially, interesting from my point of view. Here is a piece about a new album, a collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica. I find it very odd, but then I find most reviews very odd. It seems to start with the conclusions, then go on to discuss specifics, but without ever linking them to the conclusions. I wonder if this is because of the distorting demands of journalism that seem to turn most stories upside down so you have to read to the end to find the most pertinent details that should have been at the beginning. Here is a bit from near the beginning:
It's not really designed for people who like music. It sounds like what it is: an elderly misanthrope reciting paradoxical aphorisms over a collection of repetitive, adrenalized sludge licks.
I went to listen to the album but couldn't get past the first thirty seconds of the first three cuts; but they do seem to bear out this comment. The article goes on for much longer, but after that beginning, I wonder why? He does make an interesting point towards the end. This collaboration is a free initiative by the artists, bowing to no commercial demands. The writer, Chuck Klosterman, comments:
For much of my life, I lived under the myth that record labels were inherently evil. I was ceaselessly reminded that corporate forces stopped artists from doing what they truly desired; they pushed musicians toward predictable four-minute radio singles and frowned upon innovation, and they avariciously tried to turn art into a soulless commodity that MTV could sell to the lowest common denominator. And that did happen, sometimes. But some artists need that, or they end up making albums like this.
There are some half-truths there. It is true that art needs discipline. Often that discipline is imposed from the outside--by the noble patrons of the Renaissance, for example. More often it is an essential part of the work of the composer to impose self-discipline. But a creative pop artist faced with, say the four-minute (or even two-minute) limits of a radio single, does not turn out the predictable, because that won't get you to number one!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Musical Genres and Musical Forms

These are fascinating and revealing topics, but ones that are not susceptible to analysis leading to a clear conclusion. But I won't let that stop me! Please accept these remarks as informal musings. Hey, it's a blog!

Here is the Wikipedia article on musical genres. Musical forms are a little clearer. Here is the Wikipedia article. For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to go with these definitions: musical forms are those structural aspects that we usually parse out with letters. A piece in ABA form has an opening idea or theme, then it goes to a different one, then returns to the first one. Musical genres, on the other hand, are described in more concrete ways as the feeling of a specific genre, such as a waltz, is defined by the meter (3/4) and tempo. A concerto, which may or may not use the classical forms typical of a concerto, is defined by the opposition or contrast between a solo instrument such as the violin, and a larger body of instruments, such as an orchestra. There are innumerable genres and sub-genres and composers may blend them together to achieve unique effects. Chopin's Nocturne in G minor has been described as combining a mazurka rhythm with the nocturne and also using religioso passages.

Here is an easy way to distinguish form from genre. The baroque suite was comprised of a number of different dances sometimes preceded by a prelude. The form of these dances was usually the same: AABB or two distinct sections, each repeated. Harmonically the first section begins with tonic harmony and the second section ends with tonic harmony making for a tidy conclusion. In a major key, the first section usually ends with dominant harmony and the second section works its way back to the tonic. In a minor key, the first section often modulates to the relative major--the major key that has the same number of sharps or flats as the minor tonic. So if the form is basically the same for all these dances, what distinguishes one from the other? The answer is genre. Let's look at Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 for an example. Here is the courante, which is in two sections, each repeated and the first section ends with a cadence on the dominant. It is also in 3/4 meter.

Immediately following this is the sarabande which is in the same key, G major, the same meter, 3/4, also in two sections of which the first cadences on the dominant.

So the two movements share the same form. Why do they sound so different? The answer is that a courante is a different genre than a sarabande. The courante, a dance that divides into two sub-genres, is quicker than a sarabande. The two types are the French and the Italian. This is an Italian type that is the quicker of the two and is rhythmically lively with running passages. The sarabande, a Spanish dance, is much slower and, in contrast to the courante, stresses the second beat. Immediately after the sarabande are a pair of dances with, again, the same form: two sections, the first ending on the dominant and also in 3/4. These are the two minuets. The tempo is slower than the courante and the rhythms are simpler and more graceful. The first minuet, AABB with the first section ending on the dominant, is followed by the second minuet, which is in the parallel minor--the minor key with the same tonic as the major of the first minuet (G major, then G minor). Then, the first minuet returns, but this time without the repeats.

All three dances are roughly in the same form with the same key, same modulations, same sectional layout and same time signature. But they sound so different from one another that they can immediately follow one another in the suite without the listener becoming bored. The reason is that they are of very different genres. The dance genres are responsible for the different tempos and the internal rhythmic structure.

One of the things that was largely lost in the move towards musical modernism was this repertoire of genres that composers could make use of. They are still available, of course, but composers have usually avoided them in the last hundred years.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Mesopotamian Manner

I was just over at Greg Sandow's blog reading about his music criticism course and leaving a comment. One of his reading assignments was this essay by George Bernard Shaw in his role as one of the great music critics. He makes fun of a new (at the time) book on music theory by H. H. Stratham called Form and Design in Music. Shaw doesn't like it for a couple of reasons. One is that Stratham chooses a melody by Wagner as an example of bad melodic writing and Shaw, of course, is a famous Wagnerian. The other is that Stratham engages in what Shaw calls the "Mesopotamian manner", that is, he talks about music using technical vocabulary such as "the dominant of D minor". Shaw delivers a brilliant satire of this by subjecting Hamlet's soliloquy to the same technique. A sample: "Shakespeare, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive..." Brilliant, funny and almost telling. But it is really a straw man, isn't it? It is usually quite unnecessary to discuss Shakespeare in this manner because he is writing in what we almost recognize as our own tongue (though more and more remote from us with every decade) and there is hardly a need to point out that "To be or not to be" is in the infinitive, because we know it by virtue of speaking English. But the dominant of D minor is not necessarily obvious until it is pointed out, and it has a very definite function and role that may be worth mentioning.

Unlike Shaw, we are living in a time when fewer and fewer books on music contain what I would recognize as talk about music. If I buy a book on Shostakovich symphonies and concertos, I hope very much that it will inform me about them. I hope to find the important themes in musical notation, discussion of the harmonic structure and so on. But that is no longer the case. A book on Shostakovich symphonies and concertos contains no musical examples whatsoever, but merely the author's attempt to communicate, in metaphor, his impressions of those themes. You can talk all you like about passionate reveries and juggernaut marches, but at the end of the day it is just vague metaphor and I know very little more than I did before. Instead of ten pages of rambling metaphor, I would much prefer a line or two of musical examples.

Shaw delivers some scathing criticism of Brahms in this review and while I think he is actually too kind, I think the argument would have benefited from a couple of specific examples. Having strong opinions is all very well,  but it is even nicer to mention why. The internet provides us with some amazing resources. Not only can we put up thoughts in writing, but we can also put up musical notation and even performances to demonstrate our points:

Sometimes, we can do both simultaneously! I leave you to find on your own the other seven (7!!!) clips that make up the rest of the piece.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Musical Knowledge

I have told this anecdote before, but I would like to expand on it. I went to a string quartet concert in which they played a Janacek quartet. I knew the first violinist and was talking to him about the piece afterwards. We chatted for a couple of minutes when suddenly he asked "do you know the piece"? Now I had just listened to him play it and I had a recording of it at home that I had listened to on several occasions, but my answer was "no, I don't". Why? Well, I knew what he meant: he meant; had I studied the score; did I know something about how the piece was put together? Since I hadn't, I said no. There are several different levels and flavors of musical knowledge. Let me sketch them out:

  1. You have heard the piece and would recognize it on hearing it again
  2. You have heard it a lot of times and could sing along or hum some or all of the melody
  3. You have followed it in the score and could say what key it was in and perhaps describe the form (when I attended concerts in London a number of years ago I noticed that music publishers set up tables in the lobby where you could purchase the scores to the pieces being played)
  4. You have analysed the piece in some detail from the score
  5. In a slightly different direction, you are a player and have played through the score
  6. You can play the piece from memory
  7. You can write out the piece from memory
  8. You are very familiar with how the piece was constructed and could write a new piece using the same form and style
  9. You can place the piece within its historical context and describe its relationship with other music before and since
These are all the levels I can think of, off the top of my head. In some genres of music, there could be additional ones. For example, in jazz, another level would be the ability to improvise convincingly on the piece.

Now the sad thing is that I strongly suspect that the writers of many books on music don't get much farther than level two or perhaps three. Journalists are probably confined to level one! No wonder the general level of musical understanding is low.

Notice that everything on my list is related to the music itself, either in performance or score form. There is nothing there about the composer's biography, political leanings or favorite color. So many books on music contain little about the music and a great deal on these peripheral matters. The interesting thing is that there are quite a few composers about whom very little is known. And that little is known by very few people. PĂ©rotin is an example. We don't even know the dates of his birth and death. But he wrote some fine music:

Approaching Shostakovich

In the last few days I have put up five posts on the Shostakovich string quartets. This was an experiment and I think it turned out well. My conclusion is that I want to delve more into this music, because it is some of the most important music I know. What do I mean by 'important'? Let me get at that obliquely. I was in a shopping mall yesterday and heard the sort of music one hears in those places: generic pop music. And it dawned on me that one of the things wrong with this music is that no-one means anything by it. The singer doesn't really mean anything by singing it, the arranger didn't mean much, and similarly with the other musicians. They went into the studio and did their jobs. Part of the job is to sound like you mean something. The singer, especially, has to emote and ululate appropriately. But, since it is all generic, consisting of predictable and cliched gestures, it really doesn't mean anything to him or anyone else. Often, in fact, the more fuss that is made, the less genuine meaning underlies it.

The absolute polar opposite of this are the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich. Politically, they were mostly off the radar of the authorities, so there was a freedom to their composition that was not present for the symphonies. But also, the very tradition that they follow, that of the profound quartets of Beethoven, impels a composer to the highest standards. There is also a kind of intimacy to the relationship between composer and string quartet that leads to authenticity. So, yes, in his string quartets, Shostakovich meant something. But there is no way of talking about it in non-musical terms.

Here is a new book, just published, on the fifteen quartets of Shostakovich. I will probably purchase it, but I am already deeply dissatisfied with it! This review explains why:
The author clearly loves the string quartets of the great Dmitri Shostakovich and she has tried to pay hommage to the legacy that he has left us. She has also skillfully intermingled the composition and content of the quartets with what is known about DSCH's life, from existing sources as well as her interviews with people who knew him and loved him, not least several members of string quartets that pioneered his works. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult for a non-musicologist to write intelligently and informatively about music without resorting to cliches and platitudes, something that this author does quite a lot of. I think that the entire discourse of 'silent voices' is such a tired one and one that does not begin to capture the complexities of life for a creative genius in a tyranny. Many of the great Soviet artists, including composers like Shostakovich, performers like Richter and Oistrakh, dancers etc. enjoyed a relatively great lifestyle compared with many of their compatriots, provided that they adhered to certain routines and standards. Of course, many of them found them intolerable, though undoubtedly the unfreedom and oppression stimulated their creative imagination and disciplined delivery in remarkable ways (probably helping them rise to greater levels than their Western counterparts). But what price did they have to pay? The author does not really begin to cast any light into the psychological complexities of someone like Shostakivich beyond what is already known.

I am very reluctant to criticize a very honest effort, but as a psychologist, I find the author's venture into Shostakovich psyche simplistic and unenlightening. Her ability to articulate what she herself finds in the quartets and why, at times, they engulf her entire being is also very limited, frquently lapsing into tired and well-rehearsed generalizations. There are very few non-musicologists who can write intelligently about music and reveal some of the reasons why it has a particular effect on the listener. I am thinking of Thomas Mann towards the end of Magic Mountain and a few others. Wendy Lesser does not belong to those gifted few. 
This, like so many other books written recently about classical music, is written by someone who, fundamentally, does not know anything about classical music. This is like reading a book on jogging by someone who does not jog, or a book of recipes by someone who does not cook. Actually, an exact comparison would be an audio 'book' on Shakespeare put together by an illiterate. It is not only "incredibly difficult" for a non-musicologist to write intelligently about music, it is simply impossible.

How did this odd situation come to be? Well, musicologists should accept at least half the blame. The general trend in academia for the last several decades has been toward more and more specialization and with that comes a more and more complex technical vocabulary so we have arrived at the absurd situation that the only people that can read and understand books by musicologists are other musicologists!

That is not quite true: three very fine writers on music are both readable and knowledgeable. You cannot go wrong by reading anything written on music by Richard Taruskin, Joseph Kerman and Charles Rosen. I have mentioned them before.

But back to Shostakovich. I see that the scores to all the quartets are now available at a reasonable price so before I blog anything more about them I will obtain and study them. My five posts on the quartets have convinced me that they deserve the closest consideration. When I come back to writing on them, I will try to demonstrate that you do need to know about music, i.e. be a musicologist, but also that a musicologist can write in an easily comprehensible way about music.

In the meantime, enjoy this:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Music Criticism and the Music Business

I just read the most amazing post over at Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc called "How to Buy a Record Review". Go and have a look. It boils down to the most well-known American publisher of reviews of classical recordings offers favorable reviews in exchange for buying ads. A nice piece of behind-the-scenes corruption. Now doesn't that explain why a number of artists seem to have much better careers than they deserve? My experience with the music business is that it is a very tough business indeed and many musicians are simply at the mercy of shady operators.

I think that the best way to fight corruption in the music business is through focus on quality. If musicians and audiences look for quality that can filter out the poor musicians. It is not the outstanding musicians that need to buy record reviews--well, maybe in a corrupt situation, they do. But in a halfway fair system they won't need to. The only answer to the celebrity, super-model trend in classical music, is to return the focus to the music instead of Yuja Wang's dress. Here are several posts of mine on what music criticism can do:


Monday, October 24, 2011

Shostakovich Quartets, Part 5

Shostakovich with the Borodin Quartet in the 1950s

The most well-known, by far, of the quartets is No. 8 which is likely performed more often than all the others put together. I heard a concert a couple of years ago in which No. 8 was sandwiched between excellent quartets by Haydn and Beethoven but won the most applause. Because it is the most popular and the others are far less known, I am going to skip over No. 8 for now and go to the Quartet No. 9 in E flat major, op. 117. Most available commentaries on this quartet, such as the notes to the Emerson Quartet's box from Deutsche Grammophon or the online commentary found here, are amazingly thin and uninformative. The latter site, that I began by recommending in my first post on these quartets, I am less and less happy with. The discussion seems to always get caught up in irrelevant biographical information and very peripheral thoughts about the significance of the key. But the most obvious facts about the music are overlooked. As for the notes to the Emerson recordings, the author tries to develop some weak theories about periods in Shostakovich's work, without much evidence, then hopes this gives us insight! On the one hand he says that the present quartet is "basically uncomplicated music" but just a couple of paragraphs later that it has a "complex system of thematic relationships". Oh, and by the way, I think that pretty much every one of Shostakovich's quartets has that! So, after having read a few commentaries, you come away knowing almost less than you did at first.

What is Shostakovich really up to here? What all composers of this sort of music are: he is trying to write very different, highly individuated pieces that are, well, I suppose the only word I can use is "beautiful" --that exemplify musical beauty. I think that is what is important to Shostakovich. More important than who the quartet was dedicated to, the choice of key, or the biographical context. What is important is the basic musical material, such as the three-note group that was a kind of generative cell in the Quartet No 7. I think that he chooses his basic material and then realizes how it can be worked out in different contexts. He might be thinking, "ah, this theme could be transformed into an eerie waltz" or "no, I can't see how the theme would work as a sardonic polka." I think that trying to figure out the music based on the superficial effect of it might be rather backwards. He isn't writing an eerie waltz because he and his second wife danced an eerie waltz on their honeymoon, he is writing an eerie waltz because that little melodic or rhythmic cell could be developed into something really interesting or beautiful using an eerie waltz. You see?

The building blocks of this quartet are so different from No 7. Here are a few of them:

Click to enlarge

In No 7 that three-note anapest cell was the basic germ. Here, everything is foursquare with two and four note groups. The first line above is a measured trill that sometimes goes up a tone and sometimes up a semitone. The melody in the second line is a kind of expansion, and the figure in the third line, a contraction which is used as the theme for the sardonic polka of the third movement. The first line is used as an accompaniment for the second line melody, a neat trick that Chopin was also fond of using. Instead of fluidity, these themes all have a march-like feel to them. As in the 7th Quartet, this material is developed in different ways in the first four movements and in the last and longest movement, all the different developments return and are synthesized. There is also a prominent quote that stands out, but I haven't run down where it is from. It sounds very much like a folk tune. There are five movements in the quartet:

  1. Moderato con moto -
  2. Adagio -
  3. Allegretto -
  4. Adagio -
  5. Allegro

 Here is the whole quartet, played by the St. Petersburg Quartet:

Amazing music, worth listening to several times.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shostakovich Quartets, Part 4

Shostakovich wrote two quartets in 1960. The first, in F sharp minor, and the shortest of all his quartets,  is dedicated to his first wife, Nina. No-one seems to know what to say about this quartet! I've read lengthy commentaries that consist of nothing but metaphors and it isn't clear that the writer realizes that they are just metaphors--and unlikely ones at that! Take this description:
Suddenly with the commencement of the third movement we are confronted with the fortissimo yapping of an attacking dog. 
Uh-huh. Well, the dynamic marking is ff, he does have that right! I just don't see any barking and attacking dogs. Let's have a look at the music. Here are some of the themes from the quartet:

Click to enlarge
You know how in gangster movies there always seems to be a character that says "it's all about the Benjamins"? In this quartet a lot of it seems to be about the anapests. In metric prosody, an anapest is two short syllables followed by a long. As a musician I want to ask, but where is the barline? The first beat of a measure is inherently a strong beat, so where you place the shorts and long in relation to that strong beat is important. Take that first theme, from the first movement. The two shorts are on the offbeat and lead to the strong beat. Then, the next theme, on the second line, has the strong beat falling on the middle note. The third theme, on the third line, has the strong beat on the first of the three. So in the first movement, Shostakovich makes use of all three possibilities. The fourth line of the examples is from the second, slow, movement and the last line is from the last movement. Notice that the two are linked as the eighth notes at the end of the fourth line are exactly the same as the fifth line, but written differently. B double flat is the same as A natural and the tempo change from slow to fast makes the eighth note equal to the whole note. Notice also that the second theme is an inverted version of the first theme, going up instead of down. The third theme is falling like the first, but in different note values. Lots of complex interrelationships between all these themes.

Let's listen to the quartet. Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet. There are two clips; the first is the first two movements and the second is the last movement:

This is a wonderfully tightly written quartet with a group of closely-related themes. The first movement uses a number of rhythmic techniques to create a fluid effect. The second movement is static, relying on repetition to establish a dreamlike mood. The third movement is linked to the previous ones, but is more aggressive and introduces a very quick fugue. Halfway through the themes from the first two movements return in a varied form. It ends quietly with the three note anapest. No attacking dogs. As for the pitches, notice the flattening of the notes that is typical of a lot of Russian modes. In the first theme, for example, F sharp, E flat, D, C sharp, C natural, B flat, A, G natural, F sharp. Except for a couple of passing notes, this outlines the octatonic scale, often used in Russian music, that alternates semitones and tones. It doesn't really correspond to the Western major and minor scales. This kind of modality underlies a lot of the exotic sound of Shostakovich's melodies--why they seem to wander in and out of what we hear as major and minor. It is really neither!

That should get you started on this quartet!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The "Natural Flow of Music"

I just saw this post at Instapundit. Apparently the group drumming has been causing tensions among the Occupy Wall Street folks. As one drummer said,
“They’re imposing a structure on the natural flow of music.”
What a horrible thought! Structure! Imposed! On music! Dude, music IS structure, imposed on sounds, in time. Or even, if you believe John Cage, on silence. After several hours of drumming every day, I would be looking for another social movement to join! One without drumming...

But the mention of a percussion tax got me thinking. Do you suppose that we could figure out a way to tax anyone who blasts out bad music from loudspeakers in a public place? No? But wouldn't it be nice? It might be safe to enter a mall again.

Catty Micro Reviews - New Edition

From time to time I dip into YouTube by typing a single letter of the alphabet into the search line and seeing what comes up. Today I'll start at the end with Z: and what comes up is "Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z with Alicia Keys.

It is always a smart thing to do a song that appeals to the biggest number of fans and Jay-Z is a smart guy and has a lot of fans in New York. This is a professional production and the Alicia Keys bits are charming enough. But I was pretty much bored to tears. Haven't we seen all these images and heard all these musical ideas a thousand times before? If you type Y in you get a whole lot of predictable Latin music, but down a bit there was this by a South Korean band called C N Blue:

The music sounds like generic 80s ballad rock. But those lyrics! Here is the first verse and chorus:
I know I've fallen in love when you're coming down to my eyes
wanna make you, wanna feel the beauty as you are
girl, I wanna tell you some I'm not a man who say in lie
wanna love you I wanna hold you can you be the part of my life

you can have it your way girl if you mind
I don't wanna bend you girl, all the life all the life
Well, I'm not a man who can say in lie, either! Three thumbs down. X doesn't seem to come up with anything but a whole bunch of contestants on The X Factor and one rap tune that I don't really want to listen to, so let's try W:

I'm not sure that is the absolutely worst music I have ever heard, but it is probably in the top ten. And it is the worst thing I have ever heard done to poor Carl Orff. I'm almost scared to try V, but here goes:

I'm not sure why this comes up under V, but never mind. This is original at least, though with not a lot of content. The lyrics consist of a string of disjunct metaphors that obliquely suggest a number of progressive ideals which I suppose appeal to a lot of people. How about U:

Which turns up another South Korean musician, Taeyang, a hip hop artist with tight dance moves. The interesting thing here is that rich Asian countries are turning out a lot of music and it all seems to be reproductions of American popular culture. Well, not all, Genki Sudo from Japan has some unique things going on:

That takes us right back to New York. By the way, Genki Sudo's first career was as a champion martial arts competitor and you can see some spectacular matches on YouTube. His second career was as an essayist with eight books published. This is his third career.

Shostakovich Quartets, Part 3

The Quartet no. 6 in G major, op 101 was written in 1956. Shortly before, Shostakovich had met and impulsively proposed to his second wife Margarita Kainova (his first wife, Nina, had passed away from cancer in December 1954) the day after meeting her. The G major quartet was written during their honeymoon. So it is not surprising that the music is good humored! It also makes continual references to classical harmony including ending each movement with a traditional cadence--approached with tongue in cheek. Here is the first movement, an Allegretto, played by the Borodin Quartet:

The second movement, Moderato con moto, is rather obsessively in triple time. The second theme is more mysterious and dreamlike. Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet:

The third movement, in G flat major but with a strongly modal feel, is one of Shostakovich's trademark passacaglias in which a repeating bass line is added to, layer by layer, with growing intensity. This slow movement, a Lento, is gravely and soberly beautiful. Here is the Borodin Quartet again:

I apologize for the chopped-off ending. The third movement goes without pause into the fourth and in this clip, the characteristic cadence that ends each movement is cut off in the middle! It reminds me of a story about Bach. He went to visit a friend and just as he knocked on the door he heard his friend playing the harpsichord. As the knock sounded, he had just played the dominant, and immediately got up and answered the door. Bach, hearing this, rushed to the harpsichord and played the tonic to complete the cadence! Well, I'm sure we have all done that...

The last movement combines thematic elements from each of the preceding ones into a sonata form in four different tempos. Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet. Remember, it begins with the end of the cadence from the third movement.

After a dynamic development, the movement ends quietly with the ubiquitous cadence. You know, if you slightly distorted the dominant harmony and added a 7th and a minor 9th, you would have, um, lemmeseenow, in G major, D, B, C, E flat. The D is the root of the dominant, you could go from A to B, anticipating the third of the tonic and the C and E flat are the 7th and minor 9th. Why would you do this? Well, as a matter of fact, using German names for the notes, it spells DSCH, Shostakovich's motto. You know, I think that's what he is doing on the dominant in these cadences. I don't have the score, but this is what it sounds like to me:

Friday, October 21, 2011

How I Teach

I once had a prospective student ask me what I was going to teach him. I suppose the answer would have been easy if he had been a beginner, but he had been playing for a few years. So my answer was, "I haven't the faintest idea!" Which puzzled him no end. I really don't know how I am going to teach someone until I hear them play. My method varies with every student because every student has different strengths and weaknesses. I loaned a book on technique to a student once who came back complaining that after reading the section on slur problems she had worked hard on her slurs and didn't see any improvement. "But you don't have any problems with your slurs!" was my reply.

I want to help each student improve their playing and musical understanding. This means working with them on technical weaknesses they have; filling in gaps in their repertoire; exposing them to ideas they haven't encountered and increasing their level of confidence. The details are different with each student. This is, by the way, why you can't really learn an instrument from a book.

Sometimes I tell a student that I can't really teach them how to play; they have to teach themselves. The reason for this is so they know that their own efforts are what is crucial. A teacher just guides, encourages and introduces. The actual work in the trenches is all up to the student. You can inspire a bit and point in certain directions, but all the wood-shedding is the job of the student. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

I wonder how much of this is true of disciplines other than music?

Pretty good playing for her age!!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Classical Herbie Hancock

Just ran across this interesting article in the Globe and Mail.

I didn't know about Herbie Hancock's origins as a classical musician. This is an interesting quote:

“Improvisation was one of the tools of classical music,” he points out. Keyboard virtuosos from Bach to Chopin to Liszt were famous improvisers, and up until the early 19th century, cadenzas – the extended solo section in classical concertos – were routinely improvised.

“But at a certain point they became repertoire,” Hancock says. Specific cadenzas were written out, and that’s what everyone played. “Pretty soon, because learning repertoire takes up so much time for a classical pianist, there’s no time to learn to improvise.
“So one of the things I’m interested in is sparking up a new interest in classical musicians for improvising. Not necessarily improvising in a swing way with jazz – yes, if that’s what they want – but also improvising in a classical way.”
Hancock himself has been practising “improvising in a classical way” himself, something he says takes a lot of work. “But if it’s not hard, then I’m not working hard enough,” he says. “I have to make it a challenge.”
My emphasis. Yes, I think one of the reasons classical musicians rarely improvise these days is that the repertoire became so complex and demanding that there really wasn't room for it any more. As composers demanded more and more control over every detail of the performance, something we can see in examining the greater complexity of scores from 1800 to the 20th century, the free space that could be filled by improvisation shrank. Interesting...

Shostakovich Quartets, Part 2

Today I want to look at the third quartet in F major. It is twice as long as the first, about half an hour in duration. There are five movements:

  1. Allegretto,
  2. Moderato con moto,
  3. Allegro non troppo,
  4. Adagio, attacca
  5. Moderato
The quartet was written in 1946 and premiered in December of that year by the Beethoven Quartet in Moscow. The first movement is in sonata form, meaning that themes are presented in the first part, developed in a second part and return in a third part. The second, development section here is in the form of a double fugue (a fugue with two subjects). The mood of this movement, at the beginning, is of a Haydnesque pastoral innocence. Here is the first movement played by the Borodin Quartet:

The second movement is an eerie and obsessive waltz in E minor. It begins with an ostinato in the viola--the three notes repeated over and over that accompany the violin melody.

The third movement is a favorite with both musicians and audiences. It is an energetic and very Russian scherzo with canonic elements in G sharp minor. Here is a terrific film of a terrific performance by the Emerson Quartet:

The slow fourth movement is a synthesis of funeral march and passacaglia. The passacaglia form is one that Shostakovich will turn to many times when he wants a movement that is both emotionally powerful and dark in mood. The passacaglia was originally a processional dance from early 17th century Spain with a repeating bass line in triple time. In the hands of composers like Bach it became a very serious set of variations over a ground bass. Composers have made use of it ever since, in particular Brahms and Shostakovich. Whereas most passacaglias, such as the monumental one in the first movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony, grow ever more agitated and intense, this one seems to simplify, ending up finally with a spare texture and then a long-held note that leads to the last movement. Here is the Borodin Quartet:

The last movement begins very tentatively with a cello theme accompanied by furtive plucking, but ultimately returns to the confidence of the first movement. Along the way are many twists including the return of the passacaglia to add emotional complexity. It ends with three F major chords, plucked, dying away into silence. Here is the St. Petersburg Quartet:

Quite a journey...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Shostakovich String Quartets

Shostakovich in 1935
It is not possible to approach Shostakovich's quartets the way I did the Beethoven piano sonatas by choosing one from the early, middle and late periods. This is partly because Shostakovich's life does not divide up that way and partly because he did not begin to write string quartets until after the great crisis brought on by his first denunciation by the authorities in 1936 for writing "muddle instead of music". For an excellent online guide to all his quartets, go here. All Shostakovich's quartets come from his middle and later years and his intention was to write twenty-four, one in each possible key. Unfortunately this project was not completed, but we have fifteen quartets to go with the fifteen symphonies. Those listeners used to the symphonies, with their large forces and often long durations, will find the quartets much more spare. Let's start with the first one, written in 1938. Before this, he had written almost no chamber music apart from the Cello Sonata of 1934. According to the composer he started it merely as a compositional study, but "work on the quartet captivated me and I finished it rather quickly." He also described it as having "bright, springlike moods". Quite suitable for a first work in the genre. Here is the St. Petersberg Quartet playing the first two movements, both moderato:

The last two movements are an allegro molto followed by an allegro. The whole quartet is about 14 minutes in duration, or half the length of some of his longer symphonic movements. Here is the third movement, a scherzo, played by the Emerson Quartet:

And the finale, also in sonata form like the first movement:

Cheerful, accomplished music with no great profundity. One of the most interesting things about this is that Shostakovich does not seem to have felt the great weight of the string quartet tradition on him that tended to crush composers like Brahms. He set out just to write a piece of music. But by the end of his fifteen quartets he had made the greatest contribution to the string quartet since Beethoven.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cool Music

This is very cool:

Here is an article on the composer and instruments. I'm a little puzzled about the details because it seems to me that while ice horns are quite feasible, an ice harp or drum would be problematic. Ice doesn't seem to have any potential as a vibrating body--as opposed to wood. So, unless you are amplifying electrically, I can't see an ice harp as making any amount of sound at all. And the ice drums he is playing sound like they are made of wood. Well, they're not, of course, but perhaps there is a drum synth pad on top? Just wondering.

But the music leaves me cold...

5 against 4

5 against 4 is the name of a blog by composer Simon Cummings. He has recently released a collection of electronic compositions titled Simulated Music. Generally I find myself uninterested in electronic music, but these pieces seem, well, listenable. Here is the 11th Simulation. Give it a listen! But what really attracts me to his blog is his music criticism. It is well-written, intelligent and above all, critical! You would be surprised how rare real music criticism is these days. He describes a new piece by Peter Maxwell Davies, premiered at the 2011 Proms as having "a shudderingly cringeworthy epicentre in which a flat litany of vacuous platitudes is chanted, with all the solemnity of psalms recited by mental patients". He describes a piece by John Taverner as "one of the most fantastically horrific demonstrations of pseudo-composition ever to be heard at the Proms, or indeed any concert". His praise is equally direct. Of an orchestral arrangement, or better to say perhaps "re-composition" of Purcell's Chacony in G minor by Joby Talbot, Simon refers to its "staggeringly beautiful conclusion to an unforgettable arrangement".

Now I haven't taken the time to listen to most of the performances he mentions so I don't know if I agree with the estimations. With one exception: I did listen to the Talbot 'arrangment' and it is very beautiful indeed. If you go to this post, you will find a downloadable version at the bottom. Have a listen!

But what I like about the blog is that he expresses his views clearly and describes why he thinks so. You would think this would be common...