Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a link to a letter record producer Steve Albini wrote to Nirvana talking about how he likes to work. On the one hand, I'm sure that most of us would find what it reveals about what record producers actually do as quite informative. On the other hand, it is also interesting to see the level of idealism exhibited:

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Norman Lebrecht has an item up about how poor classical sales were last week in the US. I'm not sure it captured my purchases as I bought four Philip Glass symphonies and the big box of all the harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti played by Scott Ross. Heh!

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Ok, here is a confusing bit of pop music criticism. It is genuine music criticism because it is an in-depth discussion of the song, "Teenage Dream" by Katy Perry from a theoretical point of view, but the theory is rather unconvincing. For example, he claims the song is in G, and adds that except for an instant at the beginning, there are no G chords. Mind you, the article has a footnote that says:
Update, March 25, 2014: This article has been updated to clarify that "Teenage Dream" is not the key of G.
Here is how he describes the song's avoidance of the tonic:
“Teenage Dream” begins with a guitar sounding the I chord but an instant later, when the bass comes in, the I is transformed into an IV (an IV7 chord, to be exact). The I chord will never appear again.

The problem with this is that the guitar, at the beginning and for a long, long time (pretty much the whole song) is playing a dyad of D over G alternating with C over G. What Katy is singing is often a B flat and the key of the song is simply G minor. This is the "tonic" he refers to. What the guitar is playing IS the tonic chord, but without the third, which we hear in the voice. So I'm afraid that what we are actually getting here is the tonic pretty much all the time. What he calls a IV7 chord is actually misinterpreting the C as a root instead of a lower neighbor to the D (and anyway, it is in inversion, so it should be described as a IV 4/3). I've made the same mistake myself. If you are going to claim that a pop song avoids the tonic, you need to a) give a lot of solid evidence and b) be right. Sorry!! Now, if you want to hear a composer both indicating the tonic and successfully avoiding it, you need to go listen to Beethoven, the first movement of the Piano Sonata op 101 in A major, where he almost entirely avoids any tonic chord in root position, but at the same time, the tonality is quite clear:

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Here is an odd sort of essay--and even odder, I ran across it on an economics blog. It is all about authenticity, or rather, post-authenticity, in pop music and the authority seems to be Bruce Springsteen. A lot of the paper seems to be about different genres and how they cluster:

To see the whole thing, follow the above link. But frankly, in the absence of a lot of detailed musical definition of what these genres are, the whole thing seems to be without foundation. Perhaps these genres are very clear and defined to those who are working in them, but surely, the first thing to do if you are going to talk about Big Beat or Nu-Jazz is to tell us what these actually are?

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Norman Lebrecht has a sadly typical post up about a bit of gossip relating to Mahler's lovers. I don't actually recommend following the link, but if gossip interests you, then go for it.

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NewMusicBox has an article about the state of music criticism. I get the distinct impression that the writer is all in favor of incisive criticism--except of course when it involves one of the taboos of contemporary liberalism as when several English critics wrote that a particular female opera singer had the wrong body type for the part. That sort of thing is not permitted, of course. The article also holds up for praise the essay on Katy Perry that I criticized above because everything it said about the song was wrong. So, all in all, pretty much a pointless and useless article.

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And there is more from NewMusicBox. Why I am linking? I think it is criticism of music criticism! This article opens with a really remarkable amount of misinformation:
Tracing the origins of tango is nearly as impossible as tracing the origins of jazz or determining the earliest string quartet.
Tango originated (along with milonga) in the bordellos of Buenos Aires. Jazz originated in the bordellos of New Orleans (see the book Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje) and the earliest string quartets were written by Joseph Haydn in the early 1760s for himself and some friends to play. Any more questions? Doesn't anyone know anything about music history anymore?

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Here is a pretty good essay on practicing from the Telegraph. Sample paragraph:
Slow practice can be a complete waste of time if the mind is not working quickly. Simply to trawl through passages like a contented tortoise is a waste of the felt on your piano's hammers. Good slow practice is more like a hare pausing to survey the scene – sharp in analysis, watching through the blades of grass, calculating the next sprint. My favourite kind of slow practice is the half and half variety. For example in a semiquaver passage I will play four notes at performance tempo then four notes exactly half the speed – then reverse the groups. It can sometimes be useful to do this with eight-note groups. It stops any tortoisian ambling and it focuses the mind quickly from one reflex to another. It is a hare with alert eyes.
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As a follow-up on the "Klinghoffer" controversy, Sounds & Fury weighs in with this interesting perspective: 
I've never seen _Klinghoffer_ and was looking forward to the HD telecast of the opera just to discover what all the fuss was about. That now looks like an event unlikely to take place. There is, however, something I can say about such operas generally (i.e., operas grounded in real, historical events still alive in living memory which would include Adams's _Nixon_ and _Dr. Atomic_) which is that as intended works of art they're a really bad idea from the get-go. The reason for that is that it's all but impossible for a viewer to, at least subconsciously, NOT overlay and/or graft his thinking, biases, and prejudices concerning what was true or perceived as true about the historical case and its surrounding context onto the operas even though the operas themselves may not even so much as have touched on any particular point(s) in question. Once that happens, the work instantly degenerates into propaganda (agitprop) and so becomes, poetically and aesthetically, of little value or worth in its totality as an artwork. Such was true of _Nixon_ and _Dr. Atomic_ (the latter of which two operas has some sumptuous and genuinely beautiful music) both of which operas I did see.
Opera creators would do well to stay away — far away — from involving themselves in the creation of such operas — unless, of course, it's their intention to create such Brechtian-poisoned crap.

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Let's listen to this to end up. Mozart, Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310:


Rickard Dahl said...

It's indeed a good article about the practice of practising. Many of the things mentioned are in "The Fundamentals of Piano Practice", for instance:

1. First analyze the piece, this means things such as listening to recordings, finding suitable fingerings, find bars that are repeated, find the hard sections.
2. Focus most effort on the hardest segments as they take most time to learn. Also practice in short segments, it's not so effective to include lets say 4 bars in a practice segment when only maybe four, three or even two notes are the issues.
3. Slow play shouldn't be used for the purpose of ramping up the speed. The book describes a different approach which is to practice using chord attacks and parallel sets as he calls them (it's not easy to explain so I refer to the book instead). And then once you know how to play fast you can use slow play to reinforce the movements needed for fast play. Slow play is also for practice at thinking ahead (i.e. what to you need to play a few notes ahead or even a few bars ahead), practice relaxation and many other things.
4. The mind is very important. The book recommends mental play which is a memorization method in which you memorize the keys, finger movements, hand movements etc. With this you can actively remember what to play rather than relying only on muscle and sound memory. Another benefit is that you can memorize, do maintenance of memories and in a sense practice, away from the piano.

And so on.

As for the article about the origins of tango etc. I wonder if it's made to sound mysterious on purpose (i.e. we don't know/can't know) or if it's just misinformation.

Bryan Townsend said...

My only beef with all these books full of excellent advice about learning and practicing, is that I have the suspicion that every piece needs to be learned in a slightly different manner. How you learn a Mozart piano concerto, for example, is probably radically different from how you learn the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Right?

I just bristle every time I see something in a mainstream publication that displays its ignorance or even, sometimes, glorifies musical ignorance.