Friday, May 8, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

This weekly feature, which started out because I was short of time and just couldn't think of a topic, has grown so popular amongst my regular readers that they, wait for it, actually look forward to it!


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Kicking things off with an item on gender bias in the arts. The current Received Wisdom is that women are prejudiced against in the arts because:
Despite all the liberalism of the practitioners, the arts are a really sexist place. Women tend to be equally or overrepresented in theatre schools, film programs and art colleges, but once they graduate they find their male colleagues have more luck launching successful creative careers and are more likely to be offered leadership roles in arts organizations, while the women may find themselves ghettoized in supporting roles such as stage management, marketing and communications.
That's from a recent article in the Globe and Mail titled "We need to speak up about sexism in the arts." Oddly, since this is about the fortieth article I have read this year saying exactly the same thing, I think that "we" (if you mean feminist activists) are already speaking up. A lot. This is not news. What is news is the comment section to this article. If you go to the comments and sort them by highest score you will find that every single comment on the first page (ten on my computer) is intensely critical. For example:
How about we speak up about sexism in education where a vast majority of the work force is female? How about medical doctors where the vast majority of new doctors are female. Perhaps we should speak up about sexism in universities where there are two female students for every male student. 
How about we talk about sexism on network TV where men are either shown as stupid, criminal, crazy or dangerous. When is the last time you saw a television sitcom where all of the men were not ridiculous? 
How about we talk about sexism in schools and universities which are now set up for girls to succeed and boys to hopefully exist. But then who cares about the boys? They are just smelly noisy things that are better left outside. 
Maybe just maybe feminism has run its course and your complaints have turned into whining.
How about we speak up about sexism in education where a vast majority of the work force is female? How about medical doctors where the vast majority of new doctors are female. Perhaps we should speak up about sexism in universities where there are two female students for every male student. 
I am all for equality between the sexes. However that equality should be achieved in the arts strictly on the basis of artistic excellence, not through quotas or any other artificial construct. No special funding, no disproportionate class sizes. The only criteria must be merit. I want to see a play or a movie or take in a symphony or read a book because they are good. The gender of the author, composer, director, or actor is irrelevant to that.
I go to my CD shelves and run my eye over the covers and I notice only one woman composer, the very fine Jennifer Higdon. I may, with more listening, decide to add Julia Wolfe, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in Music. I have absolutely no bias against women composers. But what I mostly see is Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bartók, Rautavaara, Ives, Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Hindemith and so on. Each of them has earned their place on the shelf. None of them deserve to be replaced by a woman composer due to a quota system based on some flawed ideology. Well, maybe Hindemith... But not the others!

The people that make these kind of recommendations have only the shallowest notion of either the arts or justice. They are marching to the beat of a failed ideology. The disturbing thing is that, at least based on mass media articles, they seem to have won the battle.

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The world of music is varied, rich and strange, once you wander off the usual paths. Here is a selection from a new album by a duo of astonishingly, bass saxophone and violin, that is, I suppose, to be placed in the "pop, independent, experimental" category if there even is such a thing.

The closest thing to this I have ever heard is Violin Phase by Steve Reich:

The Globe and Mail has an informative article on the album, "Never Were the Way She Was" by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, both based in Montreal.

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One of the more unpleasant traits of the "new" musicology is to project back the Big Issues of our time into the past and inflict them on innocent composers. One case in point is Tchaikovsky, about whom a whole mythology connecting his music and his biography was created, mostly out of nothing. A detailed account of the matter is found in a recent essay in the Times Literary Supplement titled "In bed with Tchaikovsky":
David Brown, the scholar most heavily invested in yoking Tchaikovsky’s life to his art (and vice versa), died last year at the age of eighty-four. In his four-volume chronicle of Tchaikovsky’s career, published between 1978 and 1992, Brown invoked the hoariest clichés about the tortured Russian soul as part of his effort to interpret the composer’s music as an intimate diary ... To justify his analysis, Brown matched select and sorrowful passages from the composer’s letters with the pages of the scores. Tchaikovsky’s life is heard in the kitschiness of the Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture; in Francesca da Rimini, an orchestral evocation of lovers condemned to hell; in the Manfred Symphony, whose protagonist roams the Alps to seek the meaning of it all. Whatever works do not fit the mould tend to be given short shrift or dismissed as creative misfires. The perennial Christmas favourite The Nutcracker comes in for the greatest censure. “Why Tchaikovsky should ever have let himself be persuaded to accept this tale as the subject for a ballet is bewildering”, Brown writes. “Some, of course, will think this judgment too harsh. Yet the fact remains that The Nutcracker is the most inconsequential in all Tchaikovsky’s mature theatrical pieces, and its dramatic structure the least satisfactory.”
 It is well worth reading the whole, illuminating, article. Music is not biography!

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Quite a few years ago I wrote a piece for flute and guitar in which the guitar basically played the same chord throughout, being constantly varied rhythmically and with changing arpeggiations, while the flute played the same two notes a tritone apart. I have a recording of it that I never posted because, well, I decided it was a failed piece, just too unutterably dull for words! But after listening to this Serenade by Christian Wolff, perhaps I should go back and re-evaluate. Apparently the unutterably dull is actually cool and groovy. It's on Vimeo, not YouTube so I can't upload. You will have to follow the link:

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Anne Midgette, the excellent music critic for the Washington Post has a fascinating essay up about concert hall etiquette and the dilemma of even having such a thing. The article is titled "How (not) to behave: Manners and the classical music audience." Sample: is a truth almost universally acknowledged among serious concertgoers that the experience of being deeply immersed in a quiet, ethereal passage of music, only to be ripped from the moment by the sound of someone’s cellphone — that muted bubbly electronic jingle, which momentarily grows louder as the embarrassed owner yanks it from pocket or pocketbook in order to silence it — can give rise to a brief flash of pure, murderous rage.
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If you were wondering what Philip Glass has been reading, the New York Times has the answers for you here. Here's a sample:

your favorite biographies of or memoirs by musicians? 
A book by Hector Berlioz called “Evenings With the Orchestra.” It’s been around for a long time. The book begins with the performance of an opera, and as the opera opens people in the orchestra one by one put down their instruments and they have a talk about music. And you realize the opera is going on while they have this conversation and the conductor is conducting and making faces at them. It’s funny and it’s smart and it’s divided into the evenings he spent with the orchestra and you learn something about music at the time. Berlioz was a composer who had a side to him that people didn’t know about.
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Our envoi for today will be an excerpt from Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto:


Marc Puckett said...

The Anne Midgette is incoherent, over there, I think; I just read her the other day on Nico Muhly's opera Two Boys and she made perfect sense, as she must often do (I don't habitually read her reviews): so one wonders why she felt the need to profess her faith in democracy! popular culture! and shoeless feet, I suppose, too, like the flautist in that awful piece of CW's, and all that nonsense. Pft. I myself don't have any problem expecting individuals to respect the customs adopted by the 'listening community'-- it is not as if I'm trying to forcibly violate their consciences. (Happened to read the other day about some critic-y sort of fellow associated with National Review who took the mobile away from the obnoxious female user during a performance and threw it into... who knows where he threw it; it was a musical, now that I think about it: while I can understand the 'murderous rage' AM evokes I don't think taking the damn machines and throwing them away can be considered an acceptable solution, even if there's no blood shed).

I had put off listening to any Steve Reich, in spite of your several encomia, but took the plunge with that Violin Fase. Microchanges, the YT page person is talking about. Hmm.

Jennifer Higdon's something or other was on the radio last Sunday but I wasn't really listening; something with the flute having a major part. I've heard her before, on the radio, and so have presumed that she is important on the contemporary musical stage.

That Les soirees de l'orchestre by Berlioz is online, and appears to be ironic and humorous; I only read the prologue and the first soiree but certainly knowing that PG is enjoying it adds to my mental portrait of the composer. Granted, it is a fictitious orchestra, but as you point out about the former, less etiquette-bound practices of opera-- sorry, perhaps AM did that; have been much distracted from writing here-- I suppose that orchestra members chatting while not actually playing isn't entirely without the bounds of possibility.


Bryan Townsend said...

Violin Phase is one of my least-favorite pieces by Steve Reich. Have a listen to Six Pianos to get started, then perhaps the Octet and work up to Different Trains, which I think is a masterpiece!