Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

Allan Kozinn has a substantial review of a collection of music criticism by Virgil Thomson in the Wall Street Journal. Worth reading for this sage observation:
Thomson wrote, moreover, at a time when no one doubted the point and importance of publishing reviews. Today, newspapers across the country have reduced their staffs of critics and the space they devote to performance coverage, sometimes drastically, and it is not uncommon to hear the culture editors at even prestigious papers wondering—with no apparent realization that perhaps they should be in a different business—why they are publishing reviews at all, particularly of performances that happen only once.
The answer, of course, is that reviews, though couched in opinion—which is what makes them either illuminating or maddening but also, one hopes, compelling and worth debating—are fundamentally reportage. They are the chronicles of the cultural world, accounts of who did what on a given night, in a given hall, before hundreds or thousands of people interested enough to pay for the experience. They describe the performer’s technical prowess and musical judgment, with interpretive turns described so that a reader who wasn’t present has an idea of how the performance unfolded. Perhaps most important, they discuss the merits of new compositions and the ideas that animate them.
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More good news for classical music lovers: listening to a Mozart violin concerto can reduce your risk of brain degeneration. No, really:
Listening to music represents a complex cognitive function of the human brain, which is known to induce several neuronal and physiological changes. However, the molecular background underlying the effects of listening to music is largely unknown. A Finnish study group has investigated how listening to classical music affected the gene expression profiles of both musically experienced and inexperienced participants. All the participants listened to W.A. Mozart's violin concert Nr 3, G-major, K.216 that lasts 20 minutes.
Listening to music enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic function, learning and memory. One of the most up-regulated genes, synuclein-alpha (SNCA) is a known risk gene for Parkinson's disease that is located in the strongest linkage region of musical aptitude. SNCA is also known to contribute to song learning in songbirds.
Still no research on the precise effects of over-exposure to hip-hop, but I'm sure it can't be good.

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I'm going to do something a bit unusual for the Friday Miscellanea and refer you back to an old post: "The Tyranny of the Backbeat" which I put up way back in March, 2012. It didn't actually get a comment until November, 2013. But just a couple of days ago things really heated up when Ethan Hein, with whom we have been debating a couple of issues, weighed in with a comment. I answered it briefly as did another commentator, but then a very astute commentator on this blog weighed in with a long, two-part comment that is one of the most thorough and thoughtful ever posted on this blog. So please go and read it! And thanks again, Nathaniel.

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How about a quote from Richard Wagner? “I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven!"

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This article at the BBC on so-called "unplayable" works is not as bad as most BBC articles on music. In fact, there is even a sensible comment towards the end:
Is some ‘unplayably’ difficult music not ‘worth it’, then? “Yes,” Collon argues. “There are plenty of cases where pieces are unnecessarily challenging, in a way that doesn’t achieve much musically.
But of course the article does not answer the question posed by the headline: "How performers conquer 'unplayable' works." I'm sure there are genuinely unplayable works and we don't hear them because, of course, they are unplayable. It is quite easy to write something unplayable and lots of pieces have been written with passages that are either unplayable or unnecessarily awkward. So what do we performers do? Well, I guarantee you that most of us don't practice until our hands bleed while being yelled at by a sadistic teacher! What we actually do is change the music. Yep. In the early days of Segovia's career he got a lot of composers to write for guitar that were unfamiliar with the instrument. So they would often write a passage, or some chords that were impossible or just sounded bad. So Segovia just rewrote those passages. I'm not talking about something that changes the musical effect. Usually it is just a case of re-voicing a harmony or something. But, as the article indicates, in a lot of cases, over time, extremely difficult passages are handled through improved techniques--usually without bloodshed.

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This is an interesting, if technical, article about how musicians practice: "8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently." In a nutshell:
The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.
The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.

And one to rule them all

The top performers utilized a variety of error-correction methods, such as playing with one hand alone, or playing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strategy that seemed to be the most impactful.
Strategically slowing things down.
After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time.
This seemed to allow them to play the challenging section more accurately, and presumably coordinate the correct motor movements at a tempo they could handle, rather than continuing to make mistakes and failing to identify the precise nature of the mistake, the underlying technical problem, and what they ought to do differently in the next trial.
In other words, they are practicing intelligently!

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Time for our musical envoi. Let's listen to one of those piano pieces that is, if not unplayable, then certainly very difficult--especially the repeated notes in the last movement. Here is Ivo Pogorelich playing Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit:


Marc Puckett said...

"The effect was only detectable in musically experienced participants, suggesting the importance of familiarity and experience in mediating music-induced effects", researchers remark. Wonderful, although I no longer forget that scientific studies are only as useful as the premises are sound and the method's rigorous. Surely I remember a wave of sentiment based in who knows what science that infants ought to be immersed in Mozart, from a decade or more ago?

So far as I know, I'd never listened to Gaspard-- how long does it take a Martha Argerich or Ivo Pogorelić to learn such a piece? I imagine that intelligent practicing for some people is already university recital hall worthy performance for others.

I listened to a recording of Grigory Sokolov at the Salzburg Festival in 2008-- had been unfamiliar even with his name, tsk.

Ahem. Listened also, yesterday, to a hip-hop song-- had been looking in the Eugene Weekly to see what I might be able to go out to hear this week and noticed a feature about a hip-hop singer called Futuristic who had been here, so searched and the first song that came up is called I guess I'll smoke. Which activity is evidently appropriate at almost any time of day and in almost every circumstance and certainly before, during and after a casual sexual event. I had to laugh because it so exactly mirrored what is my prejudicial expectation of the musical genre, ha. But there wasn't any gunfire or violence. Futuristic seems to have a decent voice and is doubtless a perfectly pleasant acquaintance but... perhaps the whole three minutes is a perfect jest, ironically mocking my old white folks' ways. :-)

Today is the 100th anniversary of Sviatoslav Richter's birth. Another great pianist, they say.

Ken Fasano said...

I second the Happy 100th of Richter. Third album I ever owned was (1970) Richter, Debussy Preludes, bk. 2 (live). (Second was Beethoven's 5th, Bruno Walter, first was Abbey Road).

Bryan Townsend said...

In answer to your question "how long does it take a Martha Argerich or Ivo Pogorelić to learn such a piece?" As the Ravel? I have two possibly misleading anecdotes as answer. I had been working on my own transcription of the Bach First Cello Suite on guitar for a year or so and was complaining to a cellist that I always seemed to have a memory lapse in the Allemande. He just laughed and said that he had played that cello suite for ten years before it sounded good! On the other hand, Arthur Rubinstein relates in his autobiography that he learned the Grieg piano concerto, from memory, in eight hours. I memorized the first movement of the Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto in three days. But it took three months to really get control of it.

I am very sorry to say that I do not know a lot of Sviatoslav Richter's recordings apart from his live performance of the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, which was very fine.

Marc Puckett said...

Such pleasant anecdotes! Ah, eight hours, three days... to a non-performer, a not particularly well educated in music amateur, that seems just superhuman, although that's not a felicitous term perhaps. There is 'preternatural' so maybe there should be 'preterhuman', cultor Aoedes praeterhumanus-- that's just as bad as 'superhuman' maybe although quite differently bad.

Bryan Townsend said...

There is always a context to keep in mind. Bach is the kind of composer that you can spend your life playing. Many other composers can be absorbed rather more quickly. In my case, I had already memorized almost all of Villa-Lobos' music for solo guitar, so the guitar part to the concerto was a very familiar language. Plus, Villa-Lobos is easy to memorize. And Arthur Rubinstein was one of the great talents of his time, from a young age.