Sunday, November 30, 2014

Unexpected Rejoinders

This is only partly music-related, but it's Sunday here at the world headquarters of the Music Salon, so what the heck? I ran across a great little story about one-upmanship here told by an SR71 Blackbird pilot. I saw one of these planes in person at the Davis-Monthan Air Force museum in Tucson, Arizona a number of years ago. Amazing airplanes that go very fast, very high and are made out of titanium. Anyway, let's hear the anecdote. All you have to know is that Walter, in the back seat, is supposed to have complete control of the radio--and that they are flying at 80,000 feet, at which altitude, when you are over Arizona you can already see the coast of California:
Just to get a sense of what Walt had to contend with, I pulled the radio toggle switches and monitored the frequencies along with him. The predominant radio chatter was from Los Angeles Center, far below us, controlling daily traffic in their sector. While they had us on their scope (albeit briefly), we were in uncontrolled airspace and normally would not talk to them unless we needed to descend into their airspace.
We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot asked Center for a readout of his ground speed. Center replied: "November Charlie 175, I'm showing you at ninety knots on the ground."
Now the thing to understand about Center controllers, was that whether they were talking to a rookie pilot in a Cessna, or to Air Force One, they always spoke in the exact same, calm, deep, professional, tone that made one feel important. I referred to it as the " Houston Center voice." I have always felt that after years of seeing documentaries on this country's space program and listening to the calm and distinct voice of the Houston controllers, that all other controllers since then wanted to sound like that, and that they basically did. And it didn't matter what sector of the country we would be flying in, it always seemed like the same guy was talking. Over the years that tone of voice had become somewhat of a comforting sound to pilots everywhere. Conversely, over the years, pilots always wanted to ensure that, when transmitting, they sounded like Chuck Yeager, or at least like John Wayne. Better to die than sound bad on the radios.
Just moments after the Cessna's inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed. "I have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed." Boy, I thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna brethren. Then out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore came up on frequency. You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he sounded very cool on the radios. "Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check". Before Center could reply, I'm thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he asking Center for a readout? Then I got it, ol' Dusty here is making sure that every bug smasher from Mount Whitney to the Mojave knows what true speed is. He's the fastest dude in the valley today, and he just wants everyone to know how much fun he is having in his new Hornet. And the reply, always with that same, calm, voice, with more distinct alliteration than emotion: "Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground."
And I thought to myself, is this a ripe situation, or what? As my hand instinctively reached for the mic button, I had to remind myself that Walt was in control of the radios. Still, I thought, it must be done - in mere seconds we'll be out of the sector and the opportunity will be lost. That Hornet must die, and die now. I thought about all of our Sim training and how important it was that we developed well as a crew and knew that to jump in on the radios now would destroy the integrity of all that we had worked toward becoming. I was torn.
Somewhere, 13 miles above Arizona, there was a pilot screaming inside his space helmet. Then, I heard it. The click of the mic button from the back seat. That was the very moment that I knew Walter and I had become a crew. Very professionally, and with no emotion, Walter spoke: "Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?" There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request. "Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground."
I think it was the forty-two knots that I liked the best, so accurate and proud was Center to deliver that information without hesitation, and you just knew he was smiling. But the precise point at which I knew that Walt and I were going to be really good friends for a long time was when he keyed the mic once again to say, in his most fighter-pilot-like voice: "Ah, Center, much thanks, we're showing closer to nineteen hundred on the money."
For a moment Walter was a god. And we finally heard a little crack in the armor of the Houston Center voice, when L.A.came back with, "Roger that Aspen, Your equipment is probably more accurate than ours. You boys have a good one."
It all had lasted for just moments, but in that short, memorable sprint across the southwest, the Navy had been flamed, all mortal airplanes on freq were forced to bow before the King of Speed, and more importantly, Walter and I had crossed the threshold of being a crew. A fine day's work. We never heard another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast.
For just one day, it truly was fun being the fastest guys out there.
You have to love that, just for the three levels of one-upmanship! I've got another for you, also not music-related. I was involved in negotiations for a client on a land purchase and in one meeting the agent for the seller, a very experienced fellow with 30 years experience, rather pompously started to explain to my client how wire transfers worked. You have to understand that my client was a very high-level executive with a very large data-processing company. In fact, he was the Chief Information Officer. He held up his hand to stop the other agent in mid-flow and said, "I already know about wire transfers. My company handles them for mutual funds and we do between 10 and 15 billion dollars worth of wire transfers every night." Not another word was heard from the other agent on the subject.

Sure, there are musical examples, just not quite as dramatic unless you happened to be there. There are stories of a trumpet teacher who, every time he had a new student, would rip off a three (or maybe four?) octave G major scale, put his trumpet down and say to the student, "ok, now you impress me."

But my favorite personal example is at my own expense! I was in competition for the affections of a rather attractive French horn player with another fellow who happened to be an outstanding French horn player. Over at his place once I noticed on his mantlepiece a Juno award. The Junos are the Canadian equivalent of the US Grammy awards. Yikes! I knew right then that he was going to be very tough competition.

But it is pretty hard to top that SR71 Blackbird story...

And that gives us a clue as to the musical envoi for this post. Oh, what is this "envoi" I keep referring to? Here's the Wikipedia article. It was something used by the medieval troubadours as a final verse to comment on what came before. So what better choice for this post than Marin Alsop conducting the BBC Symphony in John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine":

Saturday, November 29, 2014


One of the episodes in season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is titled "Hush" and for most of the episode, all the characters cannot speak, their voices stolen away by some very scary-looking Gentlemen:

At the end of the episode Buffy and Riley, having recovered their voices, sit down to talk but fall into another silence, which is repeated at the beginning of the next episode. Joss Whedon is one of the few writers who fully understands the power of silence.

I'm reminded of this episode by thinking about concerts and about people talking in concerts and why, as a rule, I don't like it. For me, a good concert of classical music is magical because it is entirely possible to arrive at the concert, find your seat, enjoy the performance and return home, all without saying a word (except maybe at intermission). Sitting in the concert hall, seeing the performer(s) come onstage, listening to them perform and then clapping at the end is all free of chatter. But more and more, classical concert artists are encouraged to babble at the audience at every opportunity as if it were a good. Not in my book. The meaning, the significance of the music (assuming it is instrumental music) is not enhanced by talking superficially about it. Quite the contrary. Even if the performers had something interesting to say, it would be preferable not to hear it, but most of the time what performers say is more distracting than anything. Sometimes it is even misleading or simply incorrect. The entire purpose of programs and program notes is to remove the need for performers to talk to the audience.

Please, performers, remain silent, do what you do best, play music, not talk about it. Don't make me send the Gentlemen to your town!

The musical envoi for this post simply has to be the Danse macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns as it was the music chosen by Giles to accompany his slide show presentation in the Buffy episode:

Sharon Isbin, classical guitarist

I never quite know what to do when I read a piece about a well-known, though not particularly admired (by me) guitarist. There is always the need to counter the "sour grapes" reaction, but also the awareness that I am capable of certain amount of objectivity when it comes to the classical guitar. So I read this recent article in the Wall Street Journal about classical guitarist Sharon Isbin reluctantly and sighed heavily afterwards. This is a puff piece, of course, meaning a piece of journalism meant to burnish the image of an artist with no real attempt at balance or accuracy:
As a guitarist in the classical music world, and as a woman in the guitar community, Ms. Isbin has had a steep climb in her career. This month, American Public Television will release a new documentary called “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour,” tracking her rise as a musical pioneer.
In a way this reminds me of those articles about a particular female politician who is usually presented as being the "inevitable" next President of the US. So what do I have against Sharon Isbin? I've always felt with her that there was a promotional agenda that never had too much to do with music. That whole Bach thing for example:
Ms. Isbin went on to Yale University, and after graduation in 1978 she started studying Bach interpretation with Rosalyn Tureck, a pianist. Ten years later, she released the compilation “J.S. Bach: Complete Lute Suites,” and has since released over 25 albums, including “Journey to the New World” (2009) and “American Landscapes” (1995), which Mr. Hadfield brought up to the Russian space station Mir. She has personally won two Grammys and contributed to a third Grammy-winning album.
Is she a good Bach player? Not particularly, in my view. I've just never found her to be particularly convincing as a musician. She is certainly a good technician on the guitar, a thin, naily tone aside, but there are lots of those out there. If you want just to focus on women guitarists (and why?), there are lots better artists like Ana Vidovic and Margarita Escarpa.

Here is a clip of Sharon Isbin playing the Double to the Gigue to the Lute Suite, BWV 997 by Bach:

You might think that I searched long and hard to find a performance so uncongenial, but no, this was the first clip that came up when I searched on YouTube for "sharon isbin bach". What's wrong with this? Well it is, sort-of, technically virtuoso, yes, but it is also very harsh and insensitive. This is playing Bach like you hate him! Normally that is not something I would say is technically praiseworthy. A technically polished performance also includes the need to make a good sound, to phrase, and to play with some grace. This is one of the most graceless performances of Bach I have ever heard with harsh accents pounded out on every downbeat. To be fair, let's listen to a different Bach performance. Here are the bouree and gigue from the Lute Suite No. 1, BWV 996:

Yes, that is much nicer, a studio, not a live recording, but it is still rhythmically unpleasant with excessive downbeats chopping up every phrase.

Am I just jealous of her career success? Well, to be honest, yes and no. Yes, because she has undeniably had more success than I have, no, because the only thing that really counts is the quality of what you do, not the raw numbers of how many people actually notice...

Let me find two other guitarists that play Bach rather better in my view, for comparison. Here is Göran Söllscher playing that same bouree and gigue:

Here is John Williams playing the gigue and double from the Lute Suite No. 2. The double starts around 2:51:

Williams can be a tad heavy-handed, as in the gigue, but I think the double shows how to play virtuoso Bach without crushing it in the process.

And to establish that there really isn't any kind of gender bias going on here, let's hear some better Bach from a female guitarist. Here is Margarita Escarpa playing the Fugue in A minor:

I heard her win the Guitar Foundation of America competition in Quebec in 1995 playing the most fluid, lovely and compelling Bach I have ever heard on guitar.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Lowbrow and Highbrow

You know I had actually thought that the old distinction between "lowbrow" and "highbrow" had faded completely from public discussion, largely because of the absurd underlying assumption that different kinds of "art" or music can be of different levels of quality (sarcasm alert). But Pacific Standard magazine is still talking about it in this article.
Pop culture is making us dumber, crasser, more immoral, and, especially, less adult. Such, at least, has been the claim of a number of articles over the last year or so.
Well sure, I don't think there is much doubt about that. Or perhaps we just are dumber and crasser, which is why we like the kind of popular culture we seem to like. What is interesting is that people, as in the culture as a whole, or at least the mass media/intelligentsia/political class, just don't seem to care. As long as some people get rich and other people consume whatever they want, then all is tickity-boo with the world. Right? The article continues:
All of these critics feel that pop culture, variously defined, is infantilizing and stupid. The writers also all share a sense that the ascendency of pop culture is new and dangerous. DeBoer’s language verges on the apocalyptic when he insists that “Pop culture such as comic book movies, sci-fi, pop music, and genre TV shows has become the most powerful force in the history of human culture. There has never been a cultural force of greater economic power, artistic hegemony, media ubiquity, or social enforcement than today’s pop confections.” He adds: “There is no such thing as high culture. There probably never was but even if there was it died long, long ago.”
This author at least, seems to have imbibed a bit too much pop culture himself. The article presents an odd, though fashionable, theory:
the sacralization of Shakespeare was also, Levine says, pushed along by highbrow critics and patrons, who wrote against lowbrow theater-going habits, and created venues where Shakespeare was presented seriously, without melodramatic advertisements or farces.
You see, high culture was "sacralized", that strange process by which something merely really good, becomes something sacred, to an elite at least. I have a simpler theory: Shakespeare (and Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn) were really good then and are really good now. But through a concatenation of technology and the debauching of taste, they are completely overshadowed by popular culture which is more flashy, louder and, of course, dumber.

These fancy theories are I think hypocritical attempts to defend spending one's time and energy writing about Justin Bieber instead of Bach because they pay you to do so, not because Justin Bieber's music is actually worth writing about. That's not really a process of sacralization, now is it? It is more a process of now I go cash my check.

Sorry, I didn't really pay attention to most of the rest of the article as it seemed to be rather askew of both ideas and facts. But let's end with some highbrow stuff. Here is Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Friday Miscellanea

If you want some good thinking on the intersections between music and science you really need someone who is an expert in both areas. This is nicely demonstrated by an article in the Guardian written by Christine Rice, a physicist turned singer. She makes a lot of very cogent observations about patterns and repetition in music.

* * *

Also in the Guardian is a poignant article about the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet. Despite political tyranny, war, years of civil unrest and yet more war, this is a tiny enclave of culture and civilization.

* * *

Here is something kind of cool. Cellist Johannes Moser plays a piece for 12 cellos by Julius Klengel all by himself! (I recall seeing Paul McCartney do this back in around 1970 and classical guitarist Julian Bream filmed a couple of duets with himself, probably in the 1980s.)

* * *

Here is another set of graphs illustrating data relating to opera performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The compiler is Suby Raman and they pretty much speak for themselves. Here is the first one to give you an idea:

This shows the percentage of operas performed that were composed within the last 25 years of the performance. Around 1910, nearly half were composed between 1885 and 1910, whereas in 1985, all of the operas performed that year were composed before 1960. Putting it into prose like that illustrates something else about these graphs: they are very striking and at the same time, covey little real significance.

* * *

Sorry for this very brief Friday miscellanea. Usually I dig up an item or two each day until Friday arrives, but this week was just too busy! I did finally complete my listening to all 555 Scarlatti sonatas recorded by Scott Ross. Here is that final disc with numbers 541 to 555. Unusually, two of this last group of sonatas have recurring pauses that always seem to catch you by surprise.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Followup on Nature and Intention

A few days ago I did an post titled "Nature and Intention" that took an article from the Guardian about the sounds of space exploration as the occasion to make some comments about aesthetics. My point was that natural phenomena that we perceive as beautiful, whether sunsets or the sounds of Saturn, while they might be aesthetic objects, are not aesthetic expressions because there is no creative agency. This is a question of the ontology of the work of art: what sort of thing is an artwork. A simple description is found in "The Ontology of Art" by Amie L. Thomasson in the volume The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 2004), p. 78.
We normally think of works of art as things created at a certain time, in particular cultural and historical circumstances, through the imaginative and creative acts of an artist, composer, or author. Once created, works of art are normally thought of as relatively stable and enduring public entities that may be seen, heard, or read by a number of different people who may enter legitimate arguments about at least some of the work's features.
The whole essay is worth reading as it has a lot of sensible observations about artworks. Thomasson comments about the score of a classical composition that
although we may privilege the author's signed manuscript, it is only of historical interest, and may be destroyed without the work itself going out of existence.
An original painting may, however, be destroyed as photos and digital copies are not considered to be the artwork. Music is a bit tricky because if the original manuscript is of only historical interest (though very useful to check various editions against), then what is the actual piece of music? Is it the recording? Is it only a live performance? Is it a particular live performance? Can a performance, live or on recording be faulty to the point of NOT being an instance of the artwork? Is the real, definitive Beethoven Symphony No. 5 only an Idea floating in the minds of musicians and audiences? Some interesting questions, certainly. All these sorts of questions are what philosophers call "ontological" questions, ones that relate to the being of something.

My previous post elicited a very interesting comment by one of my readers:
"On a simple level we can see this in the movies where the subtle repartee of movies of the past is currently replaced by Things Going Boom and Things Moving Very Fast accompanied by Whoosh and Pow."
Any specific examples in mind?

Anyways, one of the failings (or successes, depending on who you ask) of late modernism was the lack of intention. I suppose Cage didn't care about intention (due to the randomness in his music) but the serialists who took absolute control over every musical aspect still managed to get something that sounds awfully close to John Cage's randomness and with almost no sound of intention to it.

I think that for a regular composer there's a good balance between intention (form, keys, dynamics etc.) and randomness (in the sense that musical ideas come out of improvisation, directly from the head or in various other ways and it's a more uncontrollable aspect than for instance choosing form or keys for various sections). I guess it can be seen as a balance between analytical creativeness and emotional creativeness.
 Oh yes, just about every movie from Hollywood I have seen recently has had an excessive use of computer-generated imagery to create a frenetic, hyperrealistic experience. Along with a really loud soundtrack, the source of the booms and whooshes. I suppose the archetypal examples would be the Fast and Furious franchise. One longs for some really good dialogue instead, like Bogart's line from Casablanca:
"I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.
This was when the Germans captured Paris in WWII.

Yes, the whole idea of 4'33 was to have no aesthetic intentions. By the way, if you look at the original score for the piece (first published in an art magazine as I recall), you see that it is not actually written for any particular instrument. There are three movements, each with a specified duration (in the original), but indicated "tacet", i.e. be silent, for all movements. The total duration adds up to 4:33. As Cage says in the introduction, this was how David Tudor performed it in 1952, but it can be played on any instrument and last any length of time. This is to aggressively shirk the whole idea of aesthetic intention. Most hilariously, I think, you can purchase the score for this piece for $6.25 here.

By the way, the idea of aesthetic intention has been suspect since an article by Wimsatt and Beardsley, published in 1946, argued that "the intention of the author was neither available nor desirable as a standard for the interpretation and evaluation of the literary text." But there are two schools of thought on this and while it may be a useful tool to discourage interpretations of an artwork based on autobiographical details ("Beethoven wrote the Moonlight sonata about this woman he knew and it is all about their love") which are almost always irrelevant, it is claiming too much to say that the intention of the author is always unavailable. My point about intention was the more general one: whether we know anything specific about the composer's intentions, we do know that he intended to write a piece of music and, presumably, that it was meant to entertain us, move us in some way. And that is enough to distinguish composed music from the random sounds of the cosmos.

My commentator makes reference to randomness in a different sense: the chance discoveries that come from improvisation. While I don't use this a lot in my work, I certainly appreciate its value. Improvising is a kind of intuitive and physical activity that can turn up all sorts of interesting things. But then the composer's work consists in shaping and using these ideas in the structure of a piece.

I suppose the only logical choice of music to end this post would be either the Moonlight Sonata or 4:33 by John Cage. But I think I will choose this instead, from Casablanca:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Concerto Guide: C. P. E. Bach, part 2

I talked last time about C. P. E. Bach's style in terms of its eccentricities and harmonic adventurousness. From a different angle, music historians refer to this new style as Empfindsamkeit or "sensibility". It was more, in a way, romantic than the unified style of his father, J. S. Bach. Instead of the objective and consistent older style, C. P. E. Bach created an introspective, variegated, sometimes fragmented music in which the rhythmic intensity and sudden contrasts had an integral place. Before the Romantic era proper, beginning around 1830, there were two harbingers to this style. The style of C. P. E. Bach and one phase of the music of Joseph Haydn, around 1770, that is usually described as "Sturm und Drang" (storm and stress) both exhibit qualities that would later on be described as essentially romantic (by E. T. A. Hoffmann).

A famous description of this kind of emotion in music comes from an essay on music criticism by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg:
The rapidity with which the emotions change is common knowledge, for they are nothing but motion and restlessness.
That's a pretty good description of the music of C. P. E. Bach! In the case of both the empfindsamer style and the Sturm und Drang style, there is a literary connection. For Bach it was the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock who was Bach's neighbor in Hamburg. For Haydn, though less directly, it was the play by Friedrich Maximillian Klinger titled Sturm und Drang, though Haydn's music came before the play.

One of the best examples of the empfindsamer style is the slow movement from the Prussian Sonata No. 1 in F. Although this movement has no key signature, it is, with a great deal of chromatic wandering, in F minor:

So why am I telling you all this? What's this got to do with the concerto? The style of this movement is very much like a stylized operatic aria, perhaps even an instrumental recitative. Aria style is very closely connected to the development of concerto style because in both cases the fundamental texture is that of a soloist, often highly ornamental, contrasting with an ensemble. The devices used in opera, the brilliant display and the emotional intensity, transferred over to the concerto.

One of the more popular keyboard concertos by C. P. E. Bach is the one in D minor, Wq 23:

The outer movements certainly demonstrate the impetuous intensity that I have been talking about. For another example, we can listen to the Concerto in F major. The second movement, Largo e sostenuto, shows more of the emotional style. It manages to be simultaneously agitated, touching and tempestuous. That movement begins around the 9 minute mark in this recording:

I hope that you might be getting more used to the style of C. P. E. Bach. I find that with time, it grows on you and is well worth your time. Only recently has his music started to see a bit of a revival and this year is the 300th anniversary of his birth in 1714.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Mountain to Mohammad

The origin of the phrase "If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain" is in a slight misquotation of a passage from Francis Bacon's essays. It gives us a bit of perspective on the trend towards taking classical ensembles out of their usual environments and putting them in unusual ones like subway stations, clubs, and chapels. There is an article outlining the success of these efforts in the Independent:
In 2013-14, we saw a 54 per cent increase in new attenders to see our chamber orchestra, Manchester Camerata, compared to the previous season. We have a restless ambition to redefine what an orchestra can do. We’re constantly challenging how we engage with audiences – so if that means we perform in a grand concert hall one day, and a car park the next, so be it.
Like any big city, there’s a real wealth of performance spaces in Manchester – clubs and bars, chapels and cathedrals, impressive concert halls and everything in between. We’ve found that by performing in venues like Gorilla Bar or the Royal Exchange Theatre, we’re cultivating a new audience for our work – taking the music to them, rather than expecting them to come to us.
This seems like a real success--read the whole article for more details. These days you have to applaud any strategy that increases attendance by 54%! My own experience with unconventional venues was also mostly positive. I once toured around in Italy playing outdoor concerts in plazas including the Piazza Signoria in Florence, bordered on one side by the famous Uffizi Gallery, and it was a wonderful experience. The audiences were numerous and enthusiastic and there was absolutely no question that they were there solely for the music as they could walk away at any time.

But I want to look at some of the history here. The idea of a performing space designed specifically for the presentation of concerts of classical music was one that originated in the late 18th century. As the patrons of classical music at that time were either members of the nobility or the Church, the two options were either a private concert space, a "chamber" in a private residence, hence the name "chamber music" or, of course, a church. Churches do have elements that are specifically included for the presentation of music--mostly things like choir stalls and organs and some churches like the San Marco in Venice have multiple choir stalls which led to pieces by the Gabriellis and Vivaldi for multiple ensembles, but most of church design is for worship, not music specifically. Members of the nobility who were particularly fond of music, like Prince Nikolaus Esterházy and Frederick the Great, would have specific rooms for playing and listening to music in their palace residences. Here is a portrait of Frederick the Great playing the flute in a concert at his palace Sansouci at Potsdam. His composer in residence, C. P. E. Bach is at the harpsichord:

Click to enlarge

Here is a photo of the large music room at the Esterházy palace where Haydn's symphonies were premiered:

As you can see, nobility who loved music did not hesitate to provide a spectacular setting for its performance.

The public concert began a few decades into the development of the dynamic and popular Classical style. In the 1780s Mozart typically gave a series of concerts during Lent in Vienna in which he premiered his piano concertos:
Mozart arranged for his Lenten concerts of 1784 to be given at a salon in the residence of the court printer and publisher, Johann Thomas von Trattner (Frau Therese von Trattner was a piano student of Mozart and the dedicatee of the Sonata and Fantasia in C minor, K. 457 and 475), on the last three Wednesdays of the season — March 17th, 24th and 31st — and he was overjoyed to have as subscribers 174 the most genteel representatives of the Austrian aristocracy, the worlds of finance, government and scholarship, foreign diplomats and other wealthy patrons of music.
Given in a private salon because there was not yet a public concert hall in Vienna! Also, notice the size of the audience: 174 people. For comparison, the typical audience in Prince Nikolaus' hall for a Haydn symphony would have been much smaller: ten or twelve perhaps, or smaller than the orchestra itself, which numbered 16 to 20 in the early days. A generation later Beethoven would premiere a symphony in the Karthnerthor Theater which was the lower-class German language theater in Vienna, still it could hold a much larger audience than any private salon.

In the 19th century the audience for classical music increased a hundredfold and this sparked the construction of halls designed specifically for the public performance of both chamber and orchestral music. One of the earliest was the Hanover Square Rooms in London where Haydn's music was performed during his London visits in the 1790s:

I recall reading somewhere that the large hall could hold perhaps 800 listeners. The first real concert hall in Germany was the Leipzig Gewandhaus, built in 1781. Only in 1831 did Vienna acquire its own designated concert hall, built by the private association of music-lovers the Gesellschaft der Musicfreunde. Most urban centers followed suit and by the end of the century concert halls had grown to seat 2,000 or more listeners. This, along with the growth of subscription series and the immense growth of both music publishing and the purchase of pianos for middle-class homes, was the economic base that supported the enormous 19th century orchestra and the enormously long symphonies written for them.

The 19th century was the century of music. Music was the chosen avenue for the expression of the emotional life of the middle class and so it was given special halls--temples, almost--in which music could be listened to in comfort and concentration. This trend continued well into the 20th century with newer centers of musical life being built like Lincoln Center in New York, Place des Arts in Montreal and so on.

But now the emotional life of the middle class is more to be found in yoga classes and their smartphones I suspect. The concert hall is no longer the center of things and so smart organizations like the Manchester Camerata (part of whose name, ironically, dates back to the private club of aesthetes in Florence in the late 16th century) go to the audience. The mountain does indeed go to Mohammad.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nature and Intention

Tom Service has been really struggling to find a new theme for articles over at the Guardian. His latest effort is to collect together several "soundtracks" from space explorations and call it "implacable awesomeness." These are electronic emanations from comets, Saturn, the sun and Jupiter simply (though one wonders about the details) transposed into human auditory range.

I suppose the rough equivalent would be the beauty of a sunset or any other natural phenomenon. But these sounds of space exploration are special because they are relatively new. Our ancestors did not have access to them. But while they sound "spacey" enough, there really isn't much there to be interested in. While I love and appreciate natural beauty, and I suppose this could be characterized as a kind of natural beauty, there is a fundamental aesthetic emptiness to all this sort of thing.

What I think is important about natural beauty is our witnessing of it. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the First Duino Elegy:
Ja, die Frühlinge brauchten dich wohl. Es muteten manche
Sterne dir zu, dass du sie spürtest. Es hob
sich eine Woge heran im Vergangenen, oder
da du vorüberkamst am geöffneten Fenster
gab eine Geige sich hin.

Yes--the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing.
[from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell p. 150-151]

We are the witnesses and real art is the expression of our reaction to the world's beauty (and ugliness and every other aspect). It is one of the fundamental dumbnesses of our time that we are getting a bit foggy about this. But there is another even more disconcerting aspect: we seem to be losing our ability to notice the difference between aesthetically finer expressions and cruder ones. On a simple level we can see this in the movies where the subtle repartee of movies of the past is currently replaced by Things Going Boom and Things Moving Very Fast accompanied by Whoosh and Pow.

Getting back to the spacey music of Tom's article, he says:
Thanks to Cassini, Voyager and Rosetta, we can encounter the music of the spheres as a physical, sonic phenomenon rather than only as an abstract philosophical concept
The "only" is the interesting word. Tom is making a typical move in valorizing the "physical, sonic phenomenon" over the "abstract philosophical concept". What are, more or less, random clickings and sheaths of sound are less interesting than the philosophical idea behind the music of the spheres, aren't they? What is perhaps appealing about these kinds of aesthetically vacuous sounds is that they are indeed empty of meaning. The wonderful thing about that for our narcissistically obsessed generation is that we can derive or impose or simply imagine any content at all. It's all about us!! I suspect that this might even be some of the appeal of the music of John Cage where you can also pretty much imagine whatever content you wish.

But real aesthetic expression does have content--not always obvious or simple, but really there. Whatever the inspiration might be, natural beauty or philosophical concept or Greek myth or just the musical materials themselves, the composer crafts his or her music as an expression of or reaction to (or against) something in his or her experience. Gustav Holst wrote a suite of pieces for orchestra called The Planets whose inspiration is more astrological than astronomical, but it still gives us something of a musical example:

The difference between this and the soundtracks that Tom has in his article is intention. Composers usually mean something by their music, though due to the abstract nature of music, we need to use a rather broad definition of "meaning". Some of the meanings found in the "Mars" movement of the Holst are martial. This is an otherworldly march, otherworldly because it is set in 5/4. But the stern, martial qualities are evident. What are missing from the space soundtracks are any intentions or meanings. Saturn is not trying to tell us anything or express anything; this is literally nothing but the swirling of atoms in the void. To our time, in which all meaning and intention seems fraught with danger, this is refreshingly empty, it seems. But empty it is.

Some composers have managed to capture both the spaciness that we seem to like, but within the context of an expressive musical composition. One of the best examples of that that I have heard lately is Nyx, named for the Greek goddess of the night. This piece uses, as Salonen describes them: "the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods" to capture a kind of contemporary spaciness, but still the music is highly organized and "meaningful":

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

If you haven't seen the classic Monty Python sketch about Beethoven, then you really must:

You have to love the madly wandering plot that leads back to Beethoven. Wagner apparently at one point lived in an apartment across from an iron-monger, which made composition rather difficult.

* * *

Tom Service over at the Guardian is looking around for another project after his two year-long ones on contemporary composers and symphonies. In the meantime he is putting up the occasional article that seem to be oriented towards pumping traffic. Lists, when in doubt do lists! So here are "10 of the best: where jazz meets classical". As Tom says:
As the London jazz festival gets into full swing, this week’s 10 picks are devoted to that much denigrated, occasionally inspired, sometimes insipid, but also genuinely fruitful interzone between jazz and classical. There’s a deeply problematic but potentially catalytic cultural politics and musical symbiosis between the practices and possibilities of both worlds - as if it were possible to reduce the massive diversity of both “jazz” and “classical” to single musical planets rather than the musical multiverses that they both are. The point is, composers and musicians over the last century have wanted to make the most of everything in the sonic world around them, trying to create something that sounds like a distinctive, single thing rather than that most benighted of phenomena, a “fusion” that sounds like neither one thing nor the other.
Well, I'm deeply grateful that I didn't write that! Tom's first example is Mr. "Third Stream" himself, Gunther Schuller, who really wanted to unite jazz and classical:

Twenty seconds of modernist meanderings followed by a whole lot of bebop pretty much shows it is a bad idea in my book. But that may be just because it combines two kinds of music that I particularly don't like! Next is Duke Ellington, which is quite a different story. But it is kind of interesting that he only performed it complete three times in his career. Next is a piece by Milton Babbitt for jazz ensemble that is not likely to have too many fans in either genre. Then the Ebony Concerto by Stravinsky which is not one of his better pieces. Are we starting to get the impression that trying to fuse together jazz and classical usually brings out the worst in both? I think we can skip over jazz versions of Mahler and Bach, don't you?

* * *

Here is a little piece about Sibelius' Valse Triste and copyright law over at Slipped Disc. The interesting thing is the discussion in the comments section that takes Norman to task, then goes into detail about copyright law and the "corporate murder of classical music".

* * *

Tomorrow, November 22, is Saint Cecilia's day, the patron saint of music. Here is Henry Purcell's Ode to St. Cecilia:

* * *

Here is an exhaustive statistical analysis of female versus male players in American orchestras. It is fascinating to note that 95% of harp players are female while 95% of tuba players are male. Conductors are 91% male. Only one orchestra has a preponderance of female members, that's the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with 53% female. What I would really like to see is a discussion of what these numbers might mean other than a conspiracy by the heteronormative patriarchy! And can we please get more male harp players? I mean, only 5% male? That's a disgrace!

* * *

Can being open and tolerant to diversity be taken to excess? Well, sure, as evidenced by this article in NewMusicBox: "Listen To Music, Dammit!" The opening is not too promising:
Too often I hear people say things like “pop and rock concerts are a massive snore, unless you live and die by A minor and C major.”
C'mon, nobody says that--nobody talks like that! This is slightly more plausible:
There is no way to make an argument that one type of music’s formal devices are better than another’s. This is not to say there isn’t a range in the quality of how well pieces take advantage of those devices.
But since the writer, Nick Norton (whose schtick always seems to be the same: there is no right and wrong in music), offers no specifics and doesn't even try to make an argument, one wonders. Nick meanders his way to this sanctimonious close:
Ultimately, it comes down to this: what, as an artist, is the benefit of being closed-minded or closed-eared? There isn’t one. What are the benefits to listening to and being aware of as much music as possible? There are about a zillion. Make it a mission to hear something new each day. Even if you hate it, figure out why you hate it. It’ll make you a better musician.
That's called beating a straw man to death. There is just something so deliciously inept about arguing vehemently and so very definitively about something that is stated in such vague terms! Here are some of my thoughts on the same topic: "How to listen to music: the Boring Quotient".

* * *

To clear the audio palette, let's close with some Sibelius. Here is Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic in the magnificent Symphony No. 2:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Four Influences

But enough about you, let's talk about me! Wait, I mean, enough about all these famous composers from the past and present, who are all, face it, boring old white guys. Let's talk about my music, after all I'm a, um, well, sure, another boring old white guy. But, as Harrison Ford averred in Six Days, Seven Nights, I have "skills". Sure, I can't repair a de Havilland Beaver like he did, but I can write music.

Back in October I put up a post on my Symphony No. 3. One of these first few symphonies is going to be premiered in an orchestral concert in January (or maybe February). I didn't get many comments on this symphony, so I request you visit that post and give it a listen. I think it has some nice bits!

What I want to talk about today is why I started writing symphonies, after just writing for guitar or chamber music with guitar for most of my career. Coming out of that will be some thoughts on just what composers inspired me and influenced me.

I started composing just a few months after I started playing an instrument. The instrument was the bass guitar and what I wrote were songs. I probably wrote forty songs before I was twenty years old. They are all lost, except someone might have a reel-to-reel tape of three or four of them.

After I became a classical musician, at around twenty, I spent a number of years simply mastering the technical challenge of the guitar before returning to composition. I wrote a couple of pieces for solo guitar, but the best one from those years was a piece, inspired equally by Ligeti's piece for harpsichord, Continuum and by Steve Reich. My piece was titled Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord and it was very well received by the audience. Unfortunately, both the score and recording of it are also lost (don't ask, evil moving company!).

When I started teaching a lot and chairing a guitar department at a conservatory, I began to think about writing for students and I wrote a few pieces for a guitar orchestra I was conducting. I do actually have a recording of one of those pieces, Long Lines of Winter Light:

This is in moment form, invented by Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1950s. How that works is there are a number of small musical "cells" arranged in a kind of flow chart. The conductor indicates what level in the flow chart the players are and when to move to the next one. At each level, the players have options as to which cell they choose to play. The conductor can also select particular players to go back or forward and play particular cells. For example, in this performance, I pick the very first cell, the "snare-drum" effect one, and have it keep intruding later on, threatening to blot out whatever else is going on. The piece ends with a few players playing a little lyric melody.

I didn't continue with this sort of thing. In fact, for quite a few years composition was rather hit and miss as I didn't consider it my central musical activity. This changed several years ago. I realized, bit by bit, that the really important activity for me was composition. I started out writing again and the influence of Steve Reich was important. But soon I drifted away from that and realized that what I wanted to compose was music that used more traditional devices, especially harmonic ones. My feeling was that harmony was where a lot of the most interesting, subtle and affective musical impact came from. Most contemporary music, Steve Reich included, does not make a lot of use of harmony in this manner. Harmony for Steve Reich is rather static and for a lot of other composers it is unrelieved dissonance. Mind you, with composers like John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov and Esa-Pekka Salonen, this is no longer true as they seem to be using harmony in a lot of interesting ways. Not to mention Philip Glass!

So as I worked with various pieces for odd ensembles like violin, harpsichord, harp and guitar, or two guitars, or violin, viola and guitar, I was trying to rediscover harmony. I wrote a couple of suites for guitar with this aim. I recorded and posted the five movements of the first suite here, here, here, here and here.

As I worked on the pieces for solo guitar, I discovered that fully half of the ideas I was having simply could not be fitted onto the guitar. So the radical idea occurred to me of writing for orchestra! I was encouraged in this by discovering that it was not so difficult to write for violin and I had previously written for flute. I had never written for brass or percussion so I wrote a short piece for choir and brass to try it out. Then I set out to write an overture for orchestra. This was so exciting and fulfilling that decided me on writing symphonies.

Who influenced me? I have owned recordings and attended concerts of symphonies by the Big Three, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, for many years. But recently, much as I love Mozart and Beethoven, it is really Haydn that keeps interesting me. Over his 106 symphonies he did an astonishing number of remarkable things. The next, chronologically, would be Jean Sibelius. Yes, I'm skipping over everything written between 1830 and 1900 (Sibelius' first symphony was written in 1898/99, but it is really his second that grabbed me), but the very large 19th century symphonies really aren't an influence. I must give a mention to Franz Schubert, though, whose last two symphonies are simply magnificent.

Of the 20th century symphonists it is Sibelius that really grabbed me first. Then I did a seminar on the symphonies of Shostakovich and that has really stuck with me. Utterly unlike Sibelius--unlike anyone else, really, largely tonal, but powerful and expressive. The last of the four influences is Philip Glass who has to date written ten symphonies. Yes, I like them and I think they are good music, but I think what I get most from Philip Glass is simply permission to write symphonies. You might think that the romantic idea of composers responding only to their inner muse or compulsion is the truth, but it is not. In fact, composers, from before Haydn on, tend to respond to the needs of their patrons. Or, in the 20th century, the fashions of the day. If everyone decides the cool thing to do is to write multi-media oratorios, then a surprising number of composers will do just that. Have a look at a lot of the stuff written in the 1960s if you don't believe me. So the fact that a cool composer like Glass is writing symphonies tells me that there may even be people who want to hear them.

So those four influences I mentioned in the title are Haydn, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Glass. Let's have a listen to one of them to end. Here is Philip Glass' Symphony No. 3 played by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies (the same ensemble who recorded the complete Haydn symphonies!):

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Concerto Guide: C. P. E. Bach

C. P. E. Bach (1714 - 1788)

The German music historian Hermann Abert has noted that in the mid-18th century there were two main approaches to instrumental music. One is a Viennese tradition which used a lot of thematic material and affective contrast. Think of J. C. Bach, whom we talked about last week, and his successor, Mozart. The other approach, a North German one, is found in the music of C. P. E. Bach. Charles Rosen talks about him in Sonata Forms:
The most prominent representative of the North German tradition was Philip Emanuel Bach, a composer whose interest in intimate and intense expression led him to explore the possibilities of dissonance and remote key relationships (i.e. dissonance on a higher structural level). Striking modulations in Scarlatti are generally more coloristic than expressive; in C. P. E. Bach, they have a remarkable and sometimes incoherent passion which is reflected in the intense and idiosyncratic character of his themes. The highly individualized motif or theme was to become central to sonata style. [Sonata Forms, p. 143]
Of course, the successor to this tradition was Joseph Haydn who is known for his use of many of the features of C. P. E. Bach's style including juxtaposition of remote keys, sudden silences and irregular phrase lengths. Rosen points out that it is the memorability of C. P. E. Bach's themes that allowed their transformation during development sections to be heard thus having a large influence on the development section of the sonata. Incidentally, while he had a short-term influence on Haydn, you might even notice some on another North German composer from Hamburg where C. P. E. Bach spent the last part of his career: Johannes Brahms.

Why this division between two sons of J. S. Bach, who was based in Leipzig in Saxony? J. C. Bach, like so many before him and Mozart after him, went to Italy to study. From age 21 he studied in Bologna. Later on he pursued his career in London. C. P. E. Bach, on the other hand, went north. His first employment was in Berlin and he spent the last and most prolific part of his career in the northern port of Hamburg.

C. P. E. Bach's concerto output was enormous: many times that of his symphonic output. He wrote numerous concertos for flute for his patron in Berlin, Frederick the Great, but also many for oboe and cello. But the largest category is for his own instrument: keyboard. He wrote about fifty concertos for one and two keyboards.

Today I want to look at his Concerto for Cello in A minor, Wq 170, written in 1750. This is a powerful, tempestuous piece with enormous rhythmic energy. Think Vivaldi, but painted in richer colors. Here is a performance:

There is not a good score online; all I could find was a so-so piano reduction, but here is that first, chromatic, angular theme:

Some things to note: the arpeggios get some of their drive from where the semitones are placed: as upbeats to the next harmony. That first idea takes up five measures and the next, a sequence, takes four, followed by two different three measure sequences. The total of this opening phrase: fifteen measures. The last measure on the page is the beginning of the next, six measure idea which finally has an irregular cadence (viiº 6/4 of D minor) on the minor iv chord in first inversion. If you want to think of all this, five different thematic ideas, as a single phrase, it is twenty-one measures long.

When the cello enters it has an entirely new theme, a lyrical one to contrast with the orchestra's, firmly in A minor:

Click to enlarge
This goes on for a while, then the orchestra returns with its opening theme, but this time in the subdominant, D minor. In a Baroque concerto, the ritornello would always come back in the tonic, but that system is breaking down. The new kind of concerto in the classical style will take a different kind of approach that I will get into in some detail in future posts. For the moment, let's just notice how little the dominant has been emphasized so far. No significant cadence on the tonic in the opening section, the cello solo starts in A minor, but cadences, as I said, on D minor. A lot of this opening movement wanders between A minor, E minor and D minor -- sometimes within a single measure! The only prominent cadences are to first inversion chords. Even at the cadence setting up the cadenza there is no standard cadence:

How odd is this? In the Classical period, every cadenza by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven begins with the orchestra and soloist sitting on a V7 chord, usually with a trill. What we have here is a tonic! But the preceding chord is equally odd: D# A C F# is viiº7 of V, but here it prepares the tonic. (UPDATE: True, the underlying skeleton, considering the measure before, is V to i, but the V is underemphasized, mostly in first inversion, and it is that odd viiº7 of V that gets the accent.)

C. P. E. Bach, though acknowledged as an important influence by both Mozart and Beethoven, is really going in a completely different direction than they did, harmonically. His is the path not taken: more obscure harmonically, without the clear definition afforded by the Classical tension between dominant and tonic found in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Like Domenico Scarlatti, he is carving out a territory all his own that will not be taken into the mainstream after his death--at least not the harmonic structure.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Why Composition is like (and not like) Building a Bridge

I was out walking the other day and started musing about how we structure music compositions. How do we do it? The question is pretty simple, but the answer could be enormously long. You might consider the whole of the Oxford History of Western Music, in five hefty volumes, to be just a brief introduction to the answer! This reminds me of a friend of mine who did a doctorate in composition with Morton Feldman at NYU Stony Brook. At the end there was an oral exam and one of the questions was the very simple "what was the influence of Claude Debussy on 20th century music?" The answer to THAT question could go on for a very, very long time.

So, how can music compositions be structured and how does that relate to bridge building? The metaphor occurred to me because I was thinking about the problem of long compositions. How you structure a two or three minute piece is pretty clear, at least we have a lot of examples that are easy to analyze. Usually it is something like one phrase (8 measures or 16 measures as a period or sentence) followed by a different phrase, followed by the first phrase repeated. In Baroque binary dance movements we can label the first phrase A and the contrasting one B. This gives us a form A repeated, B A, then B A repeated. This is often shown as AABB, but since the A is often repeated after the contrasting B, this leads to a form called "rounded binary" which is better labeled AABABA.

That's not much like bridge building! By the way, I never took engineering in university, so I know almost nothing about bridge building, just so you know. But I have a feeling that the structure of something like this:

is based on factors like the strength of the materials used, the distance spanned, the weight of the bridge and basic principles of physics. In music the analogous factors might be the instruments used in the composition (orchestra, string quartet, solo harmonica, whatever) and their ranges and timbral qualities, the duration of the piece and? Ah, there is the rub! Because what comes next is where it gets very complicated. The composer has a myriad of confusing choices. Say you are writing a symphony. You have historical models in three, four and even five or more movements (Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 is in five movements). Each of these movements might be structured in various ways using forms as varied as "first movement sonata form", minuet and trio, scherzo, aria form, rondo form or something entirely different. But there are other symphonies in eleven movements, each of which is a setting of a poem for voice and orchestra--this is what Shostakovich chose for his Symphony No. 14. Or you could go in a completely different direction and write a lengthy single movement as Allan Pettersson did in several symphonies. His Symphony No. 9, for example, is in a single, uninterrupted movement about 70 minutes long. (Oddly enough, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 was written in 1969 and Pettersson's Symphony No. 9 in 1970.)

So how are these structured? I don't think that question has ever been answered with any thoroughness. When it comes to genuine theoretical understanding of the principles underlying the structure of a lot of music, we just don't know. It makes sense when you listen to it, but just how and why is hard to answer. We have a pretty good theoretical understanding of how music was structured up to, say, 1830, but from then on, the answers are rather tentative.

Unlike engineers, composers work from intuition, not a clear set of physical laws. Sometimes I think there are some basic musical principles, like tension and release, like dissonance and consonance, like pulse and sustain, but how these can be used in a composition seems to have so many applications, that general principles just don't seem to be evident. Still, it is tempting to think that musical structure can be as evident as engineering.

In fact, there was a school of composition that tried very hard to make this happen. It is a school of what Taruskin calls "maximal complexity" and that is also called "total serialism". The most well-known practitioners are Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, who looked back at the music of Anton Webern for inspiration. These composers create a musical structure whose entirety is dictated by a set of basic principles used to create a tone row that is processed in various ways. Two interesting things came to pass with this method: first of all, audiences did not find the results very palatable and secondly, the principles and processes used became more and more complex and ultimately obscure so one begins to wonder if there is much difference between this method and intuition.

So, the upshot is that music composition is not very much like bridge building after all. But it would be very interesting to read what music theorists might have to say in, oh, a century from now...

Pettersson's Symphony No. 9 doesn't seem to be on YouTube, so here is the much shorter, at 43 minutes, Symphony No. 7:

UPDATE: I replaced the clip with one with better sound. 

(One final thought: Pettersson's symphonies tend to be monothematic in the sense that the whole large form is spanned with a single theme or motif such as a scale segment or even a simple melodic cell like E to F. One is reminded of the simple, soaring arc of a suspension bridge...)