Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Scientists explain how we musicians work in this article: "Great Musicians Go Into 'Trance-Like' State." Well, not really! As usual, there is much less in this article than appears from the headline. Actually we great musicians don't go into a trance-like state at all. Rachmaninoff used to count the house when he was playing to make sure the impresario wasn't cheating him. I like to figure out my taxes when I'm playing. No, just kidding! But muscle memory does help us out a lot. Right up to that awkward moment when it fails us. Then we need to actually know what we are doing.

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Here is a rather negative review of a new piano disc by Kirill Gerstein. It may seem odd, but I like to see the occasional negative review because I think it lends credibility to the whole critical process. Just as I would like to see the occasional high-ranking politician locked up for the criminal behavior they occasionally engage in. Alas, that's not gonna happen! Here is an interesting passage from the review:
Gerstein seems to be trying far too hard to make an impression; hardly a phrase goes by without some arch, expressive effect, so much so that it's sometimes difficult to know what the basic tempo is supposed to be, and in a work that builds towards a monumental climax, any sense of cumulative intensity is almost entirely lost.
I have noticed this problem before in a string quartet performance of Beethoven: everything overdone on the micro level. I think it is what musicians do who may not have a good instinctual or aesthetic grasp of the music, so they just do a lot of performance trickery. With most audiences it works all too well.

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From Norman Lebrecht comes this link to an ad for the St. Louis Symphony. I can't watch it at the moment, unfortunately, but just responding to Norman's extracts, I don't see anything wrong with saying these things. The best ad for an orchestra, I think, would be a bit minimal. Show them playing a very compelling brief passage and give contact info for tickets. That's it. The music sells itself if you pick the right passage. The Apple ad for the iPad with Esa-Pekka Salonen was excellent, I thought.

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Here are some tips for opera singers going into the studio to make their first recording. This could probably be better done, with the basic principles and issues better expressed. In fact, I should probably do a post on it! It boils down to be really well-prepared and then try to forget you are in a recording studio. One famous session that we have on film is the Beatles' one and only performance of "All You Need Is Love" done live before a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions of people. I think it was the first worldwide satellite broadcast ever done. If you look carefully you can see Mick Jagger sitting on the floor as one of the groupies/background singers.

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One of the few interesting music critics out there is Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. He envisions a fantasy music festival of several 20th century American composers in this article. The group are labeled "The Commando Squad" (odd name) by their founder, Virgil Thompson. They were "loosely led by Aaron Copland and [the] other enlistees were Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Roy Harris." Sadly, I don't think Canada has even got this far yet, not in music at least. We did have the "Group of Seven" Canadian painters, though. The Russians had the "Mighty Five" and the French had "Les Six". In all these cases the idea was, through collective action, to draw attention to a national group of composers that had been previously ignored.

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I have been told before about CD Baby and I have been thinking about releasing my own recordings under their auspices. Here is a New York Times article about the company and what they do.

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And that's all I have for you today. Let's end with some music by Virgil Thompson. Here are his Five Portraits from 1940:


Nathan Shirley said...

The first part of your post on musical memory mirrors something I recently read in a Wikipedia article. See 'Atypical Cases' and then 'Expertise'-

Nothing shocking here to the musical professional, but I find it interesting that neurologists are beginning to have the ability to observe these things in the brain.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very interesting section! Some of the most accurate commentary I have read on music memory. The idea of mental maps is a good one. Yes, one of the biggest problems talking about how musical memory works is that we have to do it verbally, but musical memory is not verbal! Muscle memory is part of it, but we also have visual memory of the appearance of the score, and of how our fingers and hands move while playing the piece, and of the sound of the piece (melodic, harmonic and rhythmic) and of the form of the piece and probably other things we don't really have names for. Having a piece well-memorized means that you have a fabric of all of these knitted together so if one of them falters, the others can pick up the slack.