Sunday, June 30, 2013

Musical Architecture

What the general listening public perceives of music is a delightful, or passionate, or energetic, or doleful, musical surface sparkling with percussion, or droning with bassoons, or barking with trumpets and horns, or singing with violins. But how composers construct this music is quite different from how you might think...

That was the beginning of Scheherezade by Rimsky-Korsakov, a brilliant and colorful orchestral showpiece that is a pretty representative example of the kind of musical surface I was referring to. Let's have a look at the opening. First of all, to look at the underlying structure instead of the surface, let's eliminate all that orchestral color. Here is a piano transcription of the first page:

Click to enlarge

The first thing we notice is that all that fantasy and color comes in two six-measure phrases and one four-measure phrase. After this opening page, there is a return to the opening theme, so this page is a complete musical idea. Now, those two six measure phrases are actually four-measure phrases with extensions. One of the ways composers are creative is to take fundamental building blocks, like four-measure phrases, and expand them. Rimsky-Korsakov's expansion consists of adding a one-measure silence and repeating the last of the four measures a semi-tone lower: expansion by adding two measures at the end. Other times composers might expand the middle of the phrase or by having a measure or two of introduction that expands the beginning of the phrase. What is happening here harmonically is that the music starts in E minor, the tonic and the first four measures end on the dominant of the dominant. Then the extension of the phrase turns this into a Neapolitan sixth. Quite clever!

I've been using the neutral word 'phrase', but there are more precise terms for kinds of phrases. For example, the 'period' is a very specific and common kind of phrase. Schoenberg in his Structural Functions of Harmony describes it like this (the Roman numerals stand for chords built on those scale degrees; "I" stands for a chord on the tonic "V" on the dominant and so on; upper case is major, lower case is minor):
the period consists of two segments of four measures each. The first, the antecedent, may end on V, either through mere interchange (e.g. I-V-I-V) or in a more elaborate manner, or through a half-cadence with or without substitutes. In the minor, the procedure is similar.
The second segment, the consequent (mss. 5 - 8), may repeat part of the antecedent, and usually concludes with a perfect cadence to I, V, or III in major, or I, III, V, or v in minor. [p. 115]
With those few words Schoenberg describes perhaps the most typical way of constructing a fundamental musical idea, used by hundreds of composers over hundreds of years, but one that few listeners are consciously aware of. He is describing what he calls a "school-form" or what might be better called in English a "theoretical model" for musical phrases. I might be tempted to call it a Platonic Idea or Form of a phrase, in that it captures the essence of the period whereas each example in the real world may depart from or vary the model in different ways.

Here is an example chosen by Schoenberg: the opening of the second movement of Beethoven's first piano sonata, op. 2 no. 1:

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The opening period consists of the first eight measures, the first line in the score and half of the second line. Here is Schoenberg's harmonic analysis:

                                    Antecedent               Consequent
measure      1       2         3        4       5         6          7       8
harmony      I       V      I-V-I      V      I      IV-V-I   IV-I-V       I

Now, let's listen to that opening. The first period takes up just under forty seconds of playing time:

The basic idea is to clearly state the harmonic structure in a precise and efficient way: one short phrase starting on the tonic and ending on the dominant followed by a phrase of equal length ending with a full cadence on the tonic. To give you the full weight of just how ubiquitous this structure is I should really offer hundreds of examples, but neither of us has that much time! Would you accept just one other example in a different medium and from decades earlier? It took me less than a minute to find this example. Here is the opening of Haydn's String Quartet op 20 no 1, the second movement:

Click to enlarge

It is in the key of E flat major and as you can see, it follows Schoenberg's prescription exactly. It begins with I and the first four measures end with a half cadence on V (in first inversion) and the consequent phrase begins on I and ends with a perfect cadence on I, just as did the Beethoven example. Here is performance of the whole movement. This opening section is repeated.

I should offer a historical caveat here: as the German philosopher Hegel mentioned, "the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk" meaning that a sober understanding of a particular event or phenomenon in history only comes after the fact. Haydn and Beethoven probably did not sit down and say to themselves "I think I will start off with a nice period" as the term was invented long after, probably by the 19th century theorist A. B. Marx (1795 - 1866):

The remarkable thing is how widely the basic forms were used, which probably means they reflect a fundamental way that humans like to organize musical sounds.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Man with a Guitar

There is really nothing you need to add to this story:

For women, it seems, there’s something about a man holding an instrument.
That’s the conclusion of a just-published study from France, which found a man is more attractive to the opposite sex if there’s a guitar in his hand. Its results confirm the findings of a similar study from Israel published last year. Across cultures, the research would suggest, male musicians are viewed as promising mating material.
Not drummers, though. Oh no.


The "Provocative" Future

First up is this story about envisioning the future of classical music. Here are the opening paragraphs.
Two striking visions of the future came my way last week. First was a presentation by Elizabeth Merritt, the keynote speaker at the League of American Orchestras national conference in Saint Louis, themed "Imagining 2023." The second came from Claire Chase in the form of her commencement address to students at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music.
Elizabeth is the mind-bending founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums. Claire is the founding director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, a group ablaze with virtuosity and creativity. While covering very different dimensions they both agree on one thing: we can see signs of the future right now, and ignoring them is a sure path to marginalization.
After that big opening, you would expect an exciting article, but it consists of just the usual genuflections to creativity, openness, breaking down hierarchies, erasing traditional limits and so on. Apparently, the future is still celebrating the 1960s! Here's my riposte: when I dropped my cellphone on some rocks recently which caused it to stop working, I went to the service center for a new one. I asked for exactly the same model basic phone because it was perfectly functional and I didn't want to waste any time learning new quirks. I told the service rep: "I hate change!" As it is, the text message function doesn't work quite the same, so I have to fool with it.

When I go to concerts I fervently hope that they are playing the music according to the best traditional standards and I hope that the audience will be sitting in the hall and the performers on the stage and that the lighting will be standard. I came for the music, not for some stage-director's fever dream. You know what I mean? I don't want new and improved chamber music: I want the good, old stuff.

I came by this attitude from using word-processing software. Look, 99.99% of the people that use Word would be perfectly happy using a mid-90s version: Word 5 or Word 6. Those programs could do absolutely everything we need. All the subsequent changes and "upgrades" have done nothing more than bloat the program, make it necessary to buy faster computers with more RAM. Which is exactly why Word and other programs were "improved". Most of the changes are just moving stuff around and making cosmetic changes. Change the grey icons to blue and vice versa. All this stuff about how the arts have to change with the times and be "progressive" is just a bunch of hooey. Music doesn't progress. No-one today is writing better, more "improved" music than Bach did. Or Beethoven. Or Stravinsky.

Keep Your Hands off my Folio!

This is not quite music-related, but it is related to the previous item. Contemporary authors are going to "rework" Shakespeare. Here is the article. Here is a quote:
Publisher Random House hopes it will bring Shakespeare "alive for a contemporary readership", and plans to kick off the programme with prose "retellings" of The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare's late play of jealousy and forgiveness, from Whitbread award-winner Winterson, and The Taming of the Shrew from the Pulitzer-winning American novelistAnne Tyler.
Now I know what you are going to say, "this is just what Shakespeare did as his plays are often reworkings of Italian tales from a century before." Yep. But Shakespeare took simple folklike tales and turned them into great literature. I suspect what these authors are going to do is take great literature and turn it into modern folklike tales. Plus, exploit the name of a much more famous author. It's win-win for them and lose-lose for us. Afterwards, the publisher can make more money by releasing a new series of the plays in their original form: The Original Shakespeare. We could call it "period" Shakespeare. You see, we have been down this road many time in the music world. Right now, the trend is for "historically informed" performances. But in the past, there have been lots of examples of "updated" or "modernized" Bach or Mozart. In the music world we have come to our senses and realized that Bach's version of Bach is better than any "improved" version we might come up with. And yes, there is a special circle of hell reserved for Those Who Alter Bach's Bass Lines.

The Myth of Progess

Continuing my theme, here is an article about a new book by John Grey that seriously questions the whole idea of progress. Here is the critique:
[Progress] may be the most powerful idea ever conceived in Western thought—emphasizing Western thought because the idea has had little resonance in other cultures or civilizations. It is the thesis that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably over the centuries from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and civilization—and that this human progression will continue indefinitely into the future. “No single idea,” wrote the American intellectual Robert Nisbet in 1980, “has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization.” The U.S. historian Charles A. Beard once wrote that the emergence of the progress idea constituted “a discovery as important as the human mind has ever made, with implications for mankind that almost transcend imagination.” And Bury, who wrote a book on the subject, called it “the great transforming conception, which enables history to define her scope.”
Gray rejects it utterly. In doing so, he rejects all of modern liberal humanism. “The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.” In an earlier work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he was more blunt: “Outside of science, progress is simply a myth.”
Now, what piece of music would be an appropriate end to this post? Ah, I have it. One of the most beautiful and complex pieces of music ever written. Composed in the 15th century by Guillaume Dufay, the motet "Nuper Rosarum":

Friday, June 28, 2013

Music, Sex and Creativity

This is an area I have written about from a couple of angles before: here and here. But it is a fascinating topic and I certainly haven't exhausted it.

The ancient Greeks found a very telling metaphor to describe the phenomenon of the relationship between artistic inspiration and sexuality: as I discuss in the second link above, it is the idea of the muses. The Greeks, in the person of Plato, invented the very idea of the Ideal, the Perfect, which could only be imperfectly embodied in concrete reality. Plato's metaphor of the Cave resonates with us still. These ideal perfections we only perceive imperfectly, like shadows on the wall of the cave. So the Greeks invented the Muses, nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne ('memory'), that were the personification of knowledge and the arts. The very idea of 'personification' is deeply Platonic.

We can see how the muses function in the modern world in the career of Picasso. Here is a website that collects on one page all the women that were muses for Picasso between 1904 and 1973. For example, around the time of Guernica, Picasso was living with and inspired by Dora Mar, whom he described as his "private muse". Here is Dora and a painting of her by Picasso:

Picasso's muse/lovers were all young attractive women between the ages of 17 and 29. He fell in love with and had children with many of them. As Robert Graves notes,
 A Muse-poet falls in love, absolutely, and his true love is for him the embodiment of the Muse... But the real, perpetually obsessed Muse-poet distinguishes between the Goddess as manifest in the supreme power, glory, wisdom, and love of woman, and the individual woman whom the Goddess may make her instrument
From one point of view, Picasso's dalliances with these many women (at least eight) might seem shallow, but understood from the perspective of inspiration, perhaps it makes more sense. I'm not sure I can really explain it, but I have certainly felt it, many times.

In order to create something, energy is required. You may be working, struggling with the materials for hours, days, weeks, months. Or years. You don't know exactly what you are doing or where you are going, but this energy animates you and perhaps in some way directs you. Because this energy is a particular kind of energy. It is the energy of life. Dynamic, burgeoning. You meet someone that seems to embody an ideal of beauty, of creation and you simply must respond to that. What you create is a homage, not just to an individual woman, but to all women. To life, because it is only young women who can create life, who hold the future of all humanity.

It is unfortunate that the depiction of sexuality in our contemporary world is so crude, so blatant and so ubiquitous. We do everything we possibly can to erase the magic and mystery of sexuality. I wonder if growing up with a never-ending succession of sexualized music videos short-circuits the possibility of muse-like inspiration...

Not all art and certainly not all music has this kind of inspiration. Not all artists are like Picasso. But perhaps there is a bit of muse-inspiration in all art. Other things that drive inspiration, at least for me, are things like need. I have written quite a bit of music simply because there was an ensemble that needed it. Here is a post about a piece I wrote for guitar orchestra because we needed some music. Other times it was Nature that was the inspiration. I wrote a piece called "Unbounded Vision in Blue and Purple" inspired by a seascape. Inspiration is like a grain of sand dropped into a supersaturated solution that causes crystallization. Or it is like a grain of sand inside the shell of an oyster that causes it to cover the irritant with layers of pearl.

But whatever the catalyst, the artist, in order to bring the work into being, needs a flow of energy. The energy of sexuality is often the most suitable. Some artists, like Picasso or Bach (who had thirteen children by two wives) are very prolific sexually as well as artistically. Other artists, like Beethoven, who never married or fathered children, seem to transmute all or most of their sexuality directly into the art.

Let's end with some music by Beethoven, the very passionate Piano Sonata No. 8, the "Pathétique":

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Classical Love Stories

Not everyone wants to read about harmonic structure, or fugue, or the problems of modernism or anything technical. No, some people would just like to hear a good love story. Classical music history is full of them!

There are many different kinds of love story and the way each unfolds does tell us something about the people involved. The claim is often made that music compositions are a kind of sonic autobiography, but I really don't think that is true. But I do think that autobiographical information, such as a composer's romantic involvements, does tell us something about the character of the composer.

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky was the title of a 2009 French film, based on a fictional novel, that traces the course of an affair between the great fashion figure and the Russian composer. Wikipedia tells us that in the film
Chanel invites Stravinsky to live in her villa outside Paris, along with his ailing wife and their children. The summer months that follow see Chanel and Stravinsky begin an affair, one which Stravinsky's wife cannot avoid becoming aware of. Tensions between Stravinsky and his wife, and between Stravinsky's wife and Chanel, are unavoidable.
The film implies that the affair, and the later termination of the affair by Chanel, has a major influence on the lives of both Chanel and Stravinsky. It is during this time that Chanel creates Chanel No. 5 with her perfumer, Ernest Beaux, and that Stravinsky begins to compose in a new, more liberated style.
The basic facts are not fictional, but quite true. With Stravinsky one always has the suspicion that his motives might be rather selfish. His cultivation of a close relationship with Coco Chanel might have had something to do with her having donated 300,000 francs for a new production of the Rite of Spring.

The Poème of Ernest Chausson

Chausson was a French composer who died tragically young in a freak bicycle accident. One of his most famous pieces is his Poème for violin and orchestra that has a fascinating genesis. The Poème is inspired by a story by the great Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev called “The Song of Triumphant Love.” Way back in 1843, Turgenev, age 25, heard the celebrated mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, age 22, sing in St. Petersburg. She was married to the much older Louis Viardot. Turgenev fell head over heels in love with her and for the rest of their lives the three of them were closely associated, sharing residences in Baden-Baden, London and Paris. In 1872 Gabriel Fauré was introduced to the Viardot family and Turgenev. Pauline had a daughter, Marianne, with whom Fauré fell in love, and a son, Paul, for whom he wrote his violin sonata op 13. Alas, Marianne ended up marrying someone else as Fauré was a bit too gloomy for the family. Then, in 1881, Turgenev wrote his very unusual story “The Song of Triumphant Love” set in Renaissance Italy in which the young friends Fabio and Muzzio are rivals for the hand of the lovely Valeria. It appears that the character of Valeria is based on Marianne and Muzzio on Fauré. Muzzio loses out and for five years travels in the Far East returning with an exotic Indian violin with which he enchants Marianne. Fabio retaliates by stabbing Muzzio. Some time later, Valeria, picking out on the organ the strange Indian melody Muzzio played, realizes she is pregnant, at which point the story ends. Now Fauré had a very good friend, Ernest Chausson, who, in 1896 based his Poème for violin and orchestra or piano on the story by Turgenev. The opening theme is associated with Valeria and the more dynamic second theme with Muzzio. You can even trace the main outlines of the story in the music. Whew! You could certainly say that artistic circles in Paris in the 19th century were very interwoven! Here is Hilary Hahn playing the Poème:

Béla Bartók and Stefi Geyer

In 1907-08 Bartók wrote his first violin concerto for the nineteen-year-old violinist Stefi Geyer. Alas, he was not the only composer interested in her as Othmar Schoeck, a Swiss composer, also wrote a concerto for her. Stefi seems to have rejected at least the concerto by Bartók and probably the one by Schoeck as well as both composers filed them away. The one by Bartók was not performed until after both he and Stefi Geyer were dead. Incidentally, Stefi later married a Viennese lawyer. Here is Antal Zalai playing the first movement of the concerto:

Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin

Here is one example where a real world love affair was reflected directly in a piece of music. The New York Times has an excellent summary. In a kind of musicological detective story, a copy of the score of the Lyric Suite for string quartet that Berg gave to Hanna turned up that explained all the references built into the composition. For example, the musical structure is based on the pitches B natural, F, A and B flat. In the German names for the notes this comes out as HF and AB for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and Alban Berg. A repeated C note, pronounced as "doh" in solfege stands for Hanna's daughter Dorothea, nicknamed "Dodo". The metronome markings and the numbers of measures in movements were all multiples of either 23 or 10. Berg had determined that his mystical number was 23 and Fuchs-Robettin's, 10. The movements of the suite are claimed to trace the course of their affair and musicologists have gotten into some nasty scraps over whether the fourth movement proves that they consummated their affair--they were both married. I agree with David Schiff, the author of the NYT article that it is best to enjoy the piece just as a piece of music and not get too concerned with a literal mapping of their affair into the music. It works very well just as music. But Berg's obsessive coding of their identities into the music does say something about his personality. Here is the Julliard Quartet with the complete Lyric Suite:

Dmitri Shostakovich and Elmira Nazirova

Another bit of coding occurs in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 where he, for the first time, encoded his own name in the score: DSCH which stands for the notes D, E flat, C, B natural. He also encoded the name of his composition student Elmira Nazirova. That was a little more difficult so he had to resort to cobbling together German names and solfege syllables: E, La, Mi, Re, A or "Elmira". I wrote at some length about this symphony here. The third movement, usually described as a nocturne, has the two mottos sounding together. Here is Gustavo Dudamel with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra with the third movement (which comes in two parts):

Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová

My favorite classical love story is that between the Czech composer Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová whom he met in 1917 when he was sixty-three years old and she was a young married woman of twenty-six. He was also married and they both remained married, though had a relationship until his death eleven years later. He wrote her some 700 love letters! Referring to his string quartet named by him "Intimate Letters", he said:

"You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately..."
The reason I find their love story fascinating is that it had such a huge impact, not only on Janáček's own career, but also on music history. When he met Kamila, he was a very obscure composer, mostly of minor choral works and a researcher of folklore. He had no international renown whatsoever. But after meeting Kamila, he suddenly flourished and composed most of the works on which his fame is based which included several operas, two fine string quartets, a sinfonietta, a mass and other works. This is probably the clearest case in music history of the influence of a muse on a composer's work. Poets, especially classically-influenced ones like Robert Graves, talk a lot about the inspiration of a muse, but one rarely sees it in music. Here is that string quartet, "Intimate Letters"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Power of Humor

While I have played quite a few auditions and a few competitions in my day, I have had to do very few job interviews. The few I have done have mostly been successful. As an undergraduate, I flubbed one interview because I was obviously over-qualified. But I want to tell you a story about one interview that seemed bound for disaster that I managed to rescue through the power of humor.

It was a pretty crucial interview. I had just moved back to Montreal in an attempt to get my career out of the doldrums and I needed a decent teaching job pretty badly. Vanier College, a CEGEP (these are two year colleges in Québec that comprise what in the rest of Canada would be the last year of high school and first year of university--"CEGEP" is an acronym for Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel) with a good music department, had an opening for a guitar instructor. I made an appointment to see the chair of the department, a conductor. As I was fairly new to town, some friends of mine wanted to take me out to an Ikea store way out in the suburbs that morning. They insisted I would be back in plenty of time for the interview. As it happened, they dropped me off at a bus stop and said to wait for bus number, I think it was, 51. So I did. And waited and waited. That bus was supposed to take me to the nearest subway stop--in Montréal they call it the "Metro". There were lots of different buses that served that stop so finally I gave up and jumped on the first one to come that indicated it went to the Metro on the theory that once on the Metro, I could get to the Vanier stop quickly. Alas, I was wrong! The bus I got on went all across town to a very far-flung arm of the Metro system. We arrived at a Metro station at about the time I was supposed to be at my interview. So I called the conductor's office and explained what had happened and that I would be there as soon as I could. The long, long ride back took about forty minutes as it involved going from one end of the system to the other. Finally, finally, I was striding down the corridor of the college only to see the conductor locking the door to her office, having given up on me as I was now forty-five minutes late. I had had quite a while to think over what I was going to say as "sorry I'm late" just seemed a little inadequate. So I walked up to her, held out my hand and said, "Hi, I'm Bryan. How am I doing so far?"

She gave me this look, then started chuckling. I got the job. I should mention that being on time is particularly crucial in the music business. As an undergraduate I had had the humiliating experience of being late for an orchestral rehearsal where I had a solo guitar part and having to walk through the empty concert hall with the entire orchestra and conductor glaring at me. In the orchestra biz, if the rehearsal is scheduled for 8 pm, at that precise moment is when the conductor's baton drops. You have to be there fifteen minutes before to make sure you ready: tuned up, reeds ready, music on the stand, etc.

A lot of musicians have a great sense of humor, especially Czechs! I was doing the Schubert quartet for flute, viola, guitar and cello once with a Czech violist. One rehearsal, I had just put new strings on and was having to tune them up every time we stopped because they were still stretching. He leaned over to me and said in his thick Czech accent, "if you are doing that for me, don't bother, I'm deaf!" He was the same guy who said one day that "there is musical talent -- there is also anti-talent!"

Occasionally I get off a good line. One of my best came out of the blue in a moment of, well, inspiration, but not divine inspiration. I had a guitar quartet consisting of some young students that had actually started out as a group. One of my most successful teaching experiments. I had started a group class of beginners and originally had five ten-year-olds. One of them dropped out, but the other four stayed with it for several years. They eventually all took individual private lessons, but I kept them together as a quartet ensemble. They learned quite a lot of music for guitar quartet and I even took them on local television a couple of times. Two of them ended up going to university in music and one graduated in performance and went on to study in Europe. Pretty remarkable. Anyway, back when they were sixteen or so, they were reviving a piece that they hadn't played in a while and I was listening from the back of the hall. It wasn't going very well and they kind of galumphed themselves to the end. The leader looked up at me and said, "that sounded a bit like..." and trailed off. I immediately said "copulating dwarves, yes, I know". If you had heard them play, you would be laughing your head off right now.

My finest moment in graduate school, where I was in the doctoral program in musicology, came in a seminar on 20th century music taught by a very dour composer. He had a big beard and was widely known to have never actually smiled in his entire life. One day we were talking about Messiaen and he was telling us the story of the famous piece Quatuor pour la fin du temps known in English as the "Quartet for the End of Time". Wikipedia summarizes the story as follows:
[Messiaen] was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now ZgorzelecPoland). While in transit to the camp, Messiaen showed the clarinetist Henri Akoka, also a prisoner, the sketches for what would become Abîme des oiseaux. Two other professional musicians, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier, were among his fellow prisoners, and after he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard, Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano. The combination of instruments is unusual, but not without precedent: Walter Rabl had composed for it in 1896, as had Paul Hindemith in 1938.
The quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on January 15, 1941. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen later recalled: "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."
It is a very compelling story and the whole class sat quietly musing to themselves when he had done. I had another of my moments of inspiration and after pausing a beat said, "Yeah, but, 'captive audience'!"

The whole class burst into laughter and the professor, after glaring at me for an instant, actually gave a brief guffaw.

This reminds me of something another Czech said about his time in a concentration camp. He was a violinist and was sent to Terezin, the "cultural" concentration camp started by the Nazis. He had with him his violin but no scores. In an interview he said“I had everything memorized.  And I wasn't thinking of, you know, staying there for a long vacation."

I like to end every post with a piece of music. The obvious one today is the Quartet for the End of Time, by Messiaen:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Music Competitions

I have experienced music competitions from both sides, as both competitor and judge, but I can't say I'm very fond of them. Via Norman Lebrecht comes this account from a recent competition winner.
"I'm a bit angry at the world for not having come up with another way of discovering talent other than competitions," he said.
I only entered a couple of competitions when I was a young performer seeking a career. One was a kind of talent competition I entered just for the heck of it and was more surprised than anyone to be chosen for the finals. I have no idea how many auditioned--hundreds? But I was one of five finalists chosen to play in the final round before an audience of about 5,000. Oddly enough, I wasn't nervous. I played the Prelude No. 4 by Villa-Lobos that I had played at the audition. Not the best choice as I was informed in no uncertain terms by the classical judge on the panel. He was the tympanist from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. As I recall, one of the other competitors was a vocal group modeled after Manhattan Transfer. Much more popular kind of music so no wonder they won. But if I had played Asturias instead...

Here is my recording of the Prelude No. 4 by Villa-Lobos:

Years later, not long after releasing a commercial recording, I got a phone call from New York. The promoters of a competition called "East and West Artists" wanted me to come down and play for them. The prize was representation by the New York artist's agency sponsoring the competition. They just wanted to see who was out there. So several months later I went to New York and walked into this room at the 92nd Street "Y" where there were three or four people to play for. That's what much of a career in music consists of: you walk into a room, sit down and play for some strangers and hope to hell you don't have a memory lapse! One of them, as I recall, was like a cliché New York agent: short fat guy with a big cigar: "So whaddayagotfaus?" The winner was a bassoon player from Julliard.

A more typical competition was one named after and sponsored by Andrés Segovia in England in the mid-1980s. How you qualified for this one was by getting an endorsement from some well-known figure in the music world. I got a letter from John Duarte, well-known composer for guitar and music critic. He had heard me perform at Wigmore Hall and thought well of my playing and musicianship.

Let me outline the demands of this competition as well as I can recall them. There were a lot of set pieces and only one free choice. At different stages you had to play various pieces which included:

  • Prelude, Fugue and Allegro by Bach
  • Fantasia para un Gentilhombre for guitar and orchestra by Rodrigo
  • Sonata by Castelnuovo-Tedesco
  • Nocturnal by Britten
  • Concierto del Sur for guitar and orchestra by Ponce
There were some others that I can't recall. My free choice was going to be one of the Rossiniana by Giuliani. This is a formidable list and they all had to be played from memory. The only one I knew previously was the Fantasia by Rodrigo which I had played at my bachelor's graduating recital. So I set out to memorize all of these. I had about six months. I was deep in the process when I just started to come apart psychologically. This is a brutal amount of music to learn from memory in six months and I had a teaching job as well. I taught around 22 hours a week, which is itself pretty draining. Anyway, somewhere in there my girlfriend broke up with me and I had a kind of nervous breakdown. I dropped out of the competition, quit my teaching job and just hid out for a few months. I was really shattered.

Many months later I heard what happened in the competition. The winner, a Japanese guitarist, had a bit of a nervous breakdown himself. After returning to Japan he cut off one of his fingers so he would never be tempted to play the guitar again.

Competitions are vicious and brutal, especially if you know what is going on behind the scenes. In the competitions I have watched, I have usually found the second or third place competitor to be the most interesting musically. The one who won was usually the best technician. Ideally you would be a sensitive musician with nerves of steel. Not many of those around!

I have been a judge in quite a few music festivals, which is usually a less high-pressure context because these are mostly younger players not yet embarked on a professional career. I have also judged the year-end performing exams of the Conservatoire du Québec and graduating recitals of performance majors at McGill University. I regarded my role in these events as one of helping the performers advance.

But the big-time professional competitions are a very mixed blessing. They can destroy performers through excessive stress. I suppose the only real benefit is bringing forth young artists who have been judged by other musicians and not just by their commercial success in the marketplace.

My career was always an uneasy balance between commercialism and musical quality--and it was not a dilemma I was ever able to resolve...

Here is my recording of Asturias by Albéniz:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Harmony as Structure

I titled yesterday's post "Chord Progressions", which is the familiar term. But it would have been more correct to call it "Chord Successions". The distinction is one made by Arnold Schoenberg in his very useful book on harmony, Structural Functions of Harmony. He says,
A triad standing alone is entirely indefinite in its harmonic meaning; it may be the tonic of one tonality or one degree of several others. the addition of one or more other triads can restrict its meaning to a lesser number of tonalities. A certain order promotes such a succession of chords to the function of a progression. A succession is timeless; a progression aims for a definite goal. Whether such a goal may be reached depends on the continuation. It might promote this aim; it might counteract it. A progression has the function of establishing or contradicting a tonality. The combination of harmonies of which a progression consists depends on its purpose--whether it is establishment, modulation, transition, contrast, or reaffirmation. A succession of chords may be functionless, neither expressing an unmistakable tonality nor requiring a definite continuation. Such successions are frequently used in descriptive music. [then follows an example from the Prelude to Lohengrin by Wagner]
The harmony of popular music often consists only of a mere interchange of tonic and dominant, in higher forms concluded by a cadence. Though a mere interchange is primitive, it still has the function of expressing a tonality.
I have quoted this at such length because it expresses well some fundamental principles of harmony. We live in what I have called "post-tonal" times. In both popular and contemporary music, even if the composers are using ordinary triads, they are still avoiding the expression of real tonality in favor of vaguer, more ambiguous successions of chords such as we heard in the two songs by Bob Dylan. A recent collection of pieces by Nico Muhly, to give a contemporary example, consists of pieces based on drones: by their very nature, allowing no real definition of tonality.

Schoenberg's slightly Germanic English needs some elaboration. He is saying that tonality, real tonality, is a network of functional relationships. A single chord, on its own, a triad to be exact, implies no tonality:

That looks like C major, right? But what if it were followed by these chords:

Now we see that we are actually in E minor and that C major triad is actually a VI chord. The whole progression would be analyzed as VI III6/4 V i (uppercase Roman numerals stand for major chords, lower case for minor). Want another example? That C chord could be the beginning of a progression in F major:

We would analyze that as V vi ii N6 V7 I. The N6 stands for "Neapolitan sixth" chord, which is a major chord built on the lowered supertonic in first inversion--a very popular and exotic way to set up the dominant. Want to hear that? I think I can put up an audio file:

The point of all this is that from the Baroque through to the late Romantic period, harmony was understood as something functional. That is to say, it was a structure of relationships in which each chord had a different function. The tonic is the destination. Often it is also the beginning, but more and more composers liked to start with an ambiguous harmony and let the tonic be revealed later. But during the whole of this period, you had to end with the tonic and to define it, you had to have a cadence which consists of the dominant, often with a seventh, followed by the tonic. There are an awful lot of other chords, some of them quite exotic, that are used to prepare, to set up, the dominant and make it more dramatic--to 'seal the deal' as it were. The Neapolitan sixth is one of these kinds of chords. But the dominant can be preceded by ordinary chords like the ii chord or the IV chord or other exotic chords known as the "augmented sixth" chords. Any of these harmonies can be extended, prolonged in various ways. The ones that are most commonly prolonged are the tonic and the dominant.

As Schoenberg points out, the composer may decide to fool us by setting up one tonality and then switching to another. Or he may keep us in the dark for a long time before finally revealing the tonality. This is what Mozart is up to in the introduction to the first movement of his "Dissonant" quartet (K. 465) that I put up yesterday. Here is the score:

Click to enlarge

Mozart is making brilliant use of the kind of ambiguity Schoenberg was talking about. That opening C pedal is contradicted by the notes in the other instruments: A flat, E flat and A natural! By the time the A natural arrives, the viola has moved to G, then F#. By measure five, the cello is on B flat and the other instruments have G flat, D flat and G natural. The whole Adagio is a kind of contradiction of C major. But it ends up by arriving at a nice dominant seventh in C major. This page was so disturbing to one Italian publisher that he wrote asking for the misprints to be corrected! Despite all the chromatic ambiguity, this page has a very simple and obvious harmonic function: it is an elaborate prolongation and setting up of the dominant which in turn sets up the tonic. The allegro which follows is in C major.

Schoenberg points out later in the book that every chord can be understood in terms of its relationship to the tonic: direct, indirect or remote. This relationship is defined by those Roman numerals that we theorists are fond of. If I write bVI, that tells us exactly what the relationship of that chord is to the tonic and also tells us what chord is the tonic.

Let's end with another performance of that quartet by Mozart. Here is the Litton Quartet with the introduction and first movement:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Chord Progressions

I haven't done a post about music theory for a while, so here is one about harmony. I've talked a lot about harmony, especially about how it is a problem for composers of contemporary music. Here is one of those posts.

But today, I want to talk about harmony in a more practical way, about chord progressions, to be specific. The Wikipedia article is worth looking at, though it is written from the point of view of popular music. The author seems to have very little knowledge of how classical musicians understand harmonic progressions as witnessed by the tiny last paragraph, "Chord progressions in classical music."

As understood by popular musicians, a chord progression is a kind of cyclical harmonic gesture that repeats. One song that is a pure example of this is "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan:

Here are the chords in that version. The most famous version is the one by Jimi Hendrix, who does it in A minor instead of the C# minor of the original:

What both versions share is a kind of floating, eternal quality that I think comes from the harmonic progression. This song is extremely focussed: there is no bridge, chorus, middle-eight, nothing except that harmonic progression and the words. In Dylan's version the only contrast is provided by the harmonica solos and in Hendrix' version by the guitar solo.

Here is the bass line which I am going to notate in A minor, not C# minor because, as Dylan capos his guitar on the 4th fret, from the guitarist's point of view, it feels as if you are in A minor! Actually, Hendrix' version doesn't quite sound in A minor as he seems to be tuned a semi-tone flat so it comes out in G# minor. I suppose it is possible he is playing in G# minor, I just kind of doubt it.

And that's it, the whole song just cycles back and forth between these three chords:

Click to enlarge

What you hear is more complicated because of the rhythmic execution of the chords, but those are all the notes. In terms of harmonic analysis, the progression is i VII VI VII over and over (minor chords indicated with lower case Roman numerals, major by upper case). The "key" is actually the Aeolian mode on A. It is not the conventional A minor because there is no leading tone. Part of the floating quality comes from the fact that the chords move only by whole tones.

There is another song by Bob Dylan with a bit more complex and directed progression. These are the chords to the verses of "Lay Lady Lay":

Click to enlarge
The bass player has a number of options, most logically either follow the chromatic line down, or play A, C#, G natural, B, which are the roots of the chords. Perhaps A, C#, D, B. And, of course, you can do different ones at different points. The harmonic analysis would go I iii VII ii. Here is the song:

The "bridge" or "middle-eight" as it is conventionally called, moves to the the dominant with this progression:

Click to enlarge

The harmonic analysis would be V vi I.

In both these songs, conventional cadences are avoided as in all music of the "post-tonal" era that we are living in.

Well, I seem to have written a complete post and I haven't gotten anywhere near what I really wanted to talk about, which is chord or harmonic progressions in classical music! I guess I will save that for next time. In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here is a famous introduction to a string quartet by Mozart, nicknamed the "Dissonant" quartet because of the extreme chromaticism of the harmonies. In this recording, that introduction is the first 1'43 which is followed by a more conventional allegro:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Case of R. Murray Schafer

Who? Well might you ask. But R. Murray Schafer is probably the best-known Canadian composer. In fact, Make Music New York was just scheduled to give the premiere of two of his pieces at Central Park Lake. Here is an article on the performances. One of the pieces performed was this one:

I can understand if you don't want to listen to all of that, only four hundred some people have bothered since it has been on YouTube, so here are a couple of short choral pieces by Schafer:

How about some instrumental music? Here is a piece for solo harp:

And a piece for solo guitar:

Here is his String Quartet No. 12:

This last piece is a bit more interesting, though parts of it sound a lot like spooky theremin music from Ghostbusters and in general it sounds like it is searching very hard for some sort of character, but not finding much apart from diminished chords.

The music of R. Murray Schafer frequently consists of long, sustained chords, often with seconds. This is usually followed by trippy sound effects. Sometimes, as in the harp and guitar pieces, we have trippy sound effects followed by trippy sound effects, followed by more trippy sound effects. Schafer seems incapable of coming up with a melody or motif and his harmonies never seem to go anywhere. My feeling, after trying to listen to quite a few pieces, is that he is a massively untalented composer, re-hashing the European avant-garde in a very dull fashion. One wonders how one could make dissonance and sound effects so very boring, but that seems to be Schafer's specialty. Only in Canada... Schafer's paucity of musical talent is accompanied by an over-bearing pretentiousness.

Please, if you disagree, let me know in the comments! But from the few hits these clips get on YouTube, I doubt there are many rabid R. Murray Schafer fans out there. The string quartet, for example, has only sixty views.

The question is, how did someone with so little talent become the grand old man of Canadian music, festooned with honors? You got me. I think he started at the right time. He was probably the first one to do trippy avant-garde sound effects in Canada, which people in Ontario seem to find very impressive.

I previously posted about R. Murray Schafer here. You might find the discussion in the comments to that post to be rather amusing!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Speaking of Modernism...

I just ran across a brilliant discussion of the aesthetics of modernism and post-modernism here. Some key quotes:
Postmodernism in the arts repudiated many of the basic teachings of modernism: the myth of individual genius, for example, and the concept of originality. Yet arts institutions continued to operate throughout the postmodern period, and do so right up to the present moment, as though that critique never happened. Museums, foundations, government endowments, and university art departments all effortlessly absorbed a movement which was more or less devoted to destroying their conception of the arts. They treated the postmodernists exactly the way they’d treated the modernists.
Yet remarkably, the entire discourse and institutional context which was developed in relation to Manet, Kandinsky or de Kooning, and explicitly attacked by Warhol and the postmodernists, is simply reproduced by ... virtually all institutions that deal with postmodern art. It’s roughly analogous to scientists trying to account for the latest results in physics using the intellectual equipment of medieval theology.
Why is that? If modernism died in actual art practice, why did the art market and museum system go on as though nothing had ever happened? First of all, modernist ideology is extremely effective commercially. Once you jettison ideas like originality and genius, there is no justification for prices in the millions.
The institutional economics of art — public or private — depends on what the postmodern art theorist Rosalind Krauss called “the originality of the avant-garde and other modernist myths.” It doesn’t matter what you do: if you are an “important artist,” arts institutions will portray you and market you as an original genius and your work as the high-water mark of human transcendence, which not incidentally increases its price. The canvas on which you have someone in Bangladesh stencil “this is not a work of original genius” will be “authenticated” as a work of original genius, and probably turn out to be more valuable than the Bangladeshi economy as a whole.
 My emphases. It would seem that commercial considerations lie, if not behind the original statements of modernism, then certainly behind their dissemination and continuance. The real irony here is that the post-modernists like Warhol and John Cage achieved their fame as original creative geniuses by repudiating the whole idea of original creative geniuses. It is as absurd to attribute artistic genius to some of the "compositions" of John Cage as it is to some of the "artworks" of Andy Warhol. After all, if the notes and rhythms of the composition were chosen by change procedures, coin tosses or the I Ching, then what is the difference between Cage doing the tossing or anyone else?

Here is an excerpt from Music of Changes (1951) by John Cage, composed using chance procedures:

Steven Pinker on Aesthetics

Sometimes I tell people that all the interesting Canadians are from Montreal and offer as evidence jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, actor William Shatner and songwriter Leonard Cohen. I just noticed that another name I can add to the list is Steven Pinker, currently a cognitive scientist at Harvard and author of some challenging books such as The Blank Slate. He was recently interviewed by Steve Sailer for UPI and made the following comments about modernism and high culture:
Q: You argue that the modernist high culture and post-modernist criticism have, on the whole, failed to engage humanity's interest because they ideologically rejected basic truths about human nature. What are some of modern art's flaws?
A: My quarrel isn't with Modernism itself, but with the dogmatic versions that came to dominate the elite arts and bred the even more extreme doctrines of postmodernism. These movements were based on a militant denial of human nature, especially the idea that people are born with a capacity to experience aesthetic pleasure. Beauty in art, narrative in fiction, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, ornament and green space in architecture, were considered bourgeois and lightweight, or products of mass-marketing. Instead, modernist and postmodernist art was intended to raise our consciousnesses, illustrate a theory, or shock us out of our middle-class stupor.
Q: Why, in contrast, did popular culture become so much more, well, popular?
A: Popular culture, to become popular, had to please people, and (at least at its best) it perfected engrossing plots, catchy rhythms and melodies and gorgeous fashions and faces.
I think that these points are ones that I have made pretty frequently on this blog. If you replace the concept of beauty with that of technical innovation, then you get modernism. Note that I say "replace" as in instead of beauty, we seek innovation. Anton Webern is an excellent example. If we do happen to perceive beauty in some of his music that is almost an accidental byproduct.

I tried to get back to a more beauty-oriented theory of aesthetics by reflecting on an essay by David Hume in this post.

One contemporary composer that was not afraid to revive the concept of beauty in his music was Philip Glass: