Monday, July 31, 2017

Tommasini is Wrong if...

A commentator alerts me to a piece by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times on Trump's comment on the symphony. I appreciate the heads up as I quit reading the NY Times back when snarky political commentary started creeping into the Travel and Food sections. I have already talked about Trump's defence of civilization in his speech in Warsaw in a couple of posts, but let's see what Mr. Tommasini has to say:
During one riff, Mr. Trump extolled the richness, history and, indeed, the superiority of Western culture. “We write symphonies,” he proudly proclaimed, as if to prove his point.
Many commentators seized on the line as a clue to the president’s thinking, his “white-nationalist dog-whistling,” as Jonathan Capehart, a columnist at The Washington Post, bluntly put it.
But the president’s smug invocation of the Western symphonic heritage also pressed a sore spot for me as a music critic. Nothing impedes the appreciation of classical music — and keeps potential listeners away — more than the perception that it is an elitist art form, that composers throughout history, and their aficionados today, uniformly consider it the greatest, loftiest and most ingenious kind of music. Few classical music fans, in my experience, argue that the Western symphonic repertory stands apart from or atop music of other cultures, or other types of Western music.
It must be a terribly awkward position to be in, to have one's career devoted to the critical appreciation of classical music but to have one's soul riven by doubt as to its quality:
“Eleanor Rigby,” I’d argue, is just as profound as Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. But the Mahler, scored for large orchestra, chorus and two vocal soloists, is a whole lot longer, lasting more than 80 minutes. You have to have a penchant for hearing large-scale structures unfold over relatively long periods to appreciate classical music, though this can be an acquired skill.
It’s this large-scale quality, the sheer dimension of expression that the master composers strove for, that makes classical music different. This doesn’t mean it’s superior.
What would make it superior, one wonders? Better choreography?

What Mr. Tommasini and many of his colleagues seem to have are some deep-seated neuroses about art, history and certain words. As an important part of their role is to educate and shape taste, even though they might deny it, this makes it difficult for them to say good things about classical music. It is long and requires focus, therefore more difficult to appreciate than, say, Eleanor Rigby. So if it does not offer a depth of aesthetic experience commensurate with the greater challenge, then why bother? Why indeed!

I think the problem is that the intellectual elite of our day, which certainly must include Mr. Tommasini, have instilled in them a certain ideology that commits them to a profound guilt about Western Civilization. Part of this is an egalitarian ethos that erases all standards of taste and quality. This is an unquestioned assumption that, if you sincerely hold it, causes you to say that Eleanor Rigby is just as profound as Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. Or, my favorite example, that Justin Bieber is just as profound as Bach. Lady Gaga and Franz Schubert. Hey, we could go on all day. This, by the way, is what we in the philosophy biz call a "reductio ad absurdum."

Here is another manifestation of the ethos:
Few classical music fans, in my experience, argue that the Western symphonic repertory stands apart from or atop music of other cultures, or other types of Western music.
But with just three words Mr. Trump buttressed this unfortunate perception. Did he mean that Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is simply greater than, say, an Indian sitar master playing a classic raga? Or an exhilarating Indonesian gamelan ensemble?
Well, few classical music fans that are as deeply indoctrinated as Mr. Tommasini, certainly. But whenever I see judgments like this I strongly suspect that the author of them knows very little about North Indian music nor Javanese gamelan. There is a fundamental difference between the way those musics are composed and performed and the Western tradition in music which takes on very different and much more profound aesthetic challenges. Frankly, the doctrine of multiculturalism is pretty much a lie.

Leaving that outrageous statement for you to ponder, let's listen to Eleanor Rigby and, ok, Mahler:

What do you think?

Aesthetics, part 3

This series on aesthetics has gotten off to a good start in terms of provoking lots of interesting comments, but my sense is that I have not managed to put us on the right track yet. Let me restate an important point: virtually none of what we read in the mass media contains any aesthetic discussion. All the articles that keep popping up (and that I sometimes write about) deal with things peripheral to aesthetics. The most common "experts" consulted, psychologists, neurophysiologists, other kinds of scientists, even people closer to the topic like music theorists and historians, do not actually deal with aesthetics directly. I remember when I was a graduate student in musicology, one of the professors mentioned that she was thinking about offering a course in aesthetics sometime. The general reaction was "wow, that sounds really interesting," but we were also thinking that it was a topic far outside of what we usually did.

What the experts I listed above look at and think about instead of aesthetics, are the normal objects of study of their disciplines: psychologists study the psychology of people, neurophysiologists study brain waves (and other similar stuff, I guess), other kinds of scientists study whatever their objects are, music theorists study how music is structured, music historians study the history of music and so on. Both music theorists and music historians can venture into aesthetics as it is a field that can overlap their own, but they usually don't.

I think that aesthetics, a branch of philosophy, was banished to the wilderness sometime in the last few decades because it seemed too abstract for scholars who were more interested in non-aesthetic issues like diversity, oppression, equity and so on. Aesthetics has a long history as it was one of the many fields of philosophy that was born out of the intellectual ferment of Athens in the 4th century BC. The locus classicus of aesthetics is usually considered to be the Poetics of Aristotle which is described as follows:
The Poetics is in part Aristotle's response to his teacher, Plato, who argues in The Republic that poetry is representation of mere appearances and is thus misleading and morally suspect. Aristotle's approach to the phenomenon of poetry is quite different from Plato's. Fascinated by the intellectual challenge of forming categories and organizing them into coherent systems, Aristotle approaches literary texts as a natural scientist, carefully accounting for the features of each "species" of text. Rather than concluding that poets should be banished from the perfect society, as does Plato, Aristotle attempts to describe the social function, and the ethical utility, of art.
 The only real difference between what Aristotle was doing and what a music theorist would be doing today is that the contemporary theorist draws strict lines around what counts as music theory and they do not include things like historic or social context (which are left to musicologists) or criticism or examination of the reception of musical works. The last two things take us into aesthetics. I suppose that you could argue that all music theory is really a kind of sub-branch of aesthetics, as it involves a close examination of the musical work, which is an aesthetic object. But I think that theorists don't like to think in those terms. They want to stick to the internal mechanics of the composition and avoid the broader picture.

The kinds of questions aesthetics poses and attempts to answer include:

  • what was the intention of the artist (composer)?
  • what is the relation between the artist's intention and the aesthetic object?
  • how can you account for the variation in taste between people?
  • how can you account for the consistency in aesthetic valuation?
  • what is the ontological status of the aesthetic object? (By this I am referring to the question of what is, exactly, the Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven? Is it the score? If so, is it the autograph score or the one in the Beethoven Edition? Is it the disco arrangement? Is it a particular performance? Is it all the performances? Is it only the "correct" performances? Does one where half the notes were wrongly played count? And so on.)
  • do aesthetic objects have ethical content? do they make us "better" persons? The answer to this is usually "no", but is that true? How do we know?
  • is there a causal relationship between the mood of the composer when he was writing it and the mood of the musical work? what about the mood of the performer(s)?
  • are judgements of value about artworks possible?
These are characteristic aesthetic questions and while they might seem to be a bit abstract, they do all focus on the nature of the artwork which makes them aesthetic questions and not scientific ones.

For our envoi, here is Walter Murphy's disco arrangement of passages from the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven. If you say that this is NOT the Symphony No. 5 and we argue about it, that would be an aesthetic discussion.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 2

The development of harmony in the 19th century, at least as it concerns third relationships, is a bit under-recognized in theory texts, which tend to focus on harmonic functionality. Some 19th century harmony extends functionality to the point where it becomes color rather than function. For example, the idea of dividing the octave into equal parts adds a great deal of chromatic color, but dilutes the functionality of the dominant. Typical symmetrical divisions are the tritone and the minor third. The latter comes from extending the use of the º7 chord. Here are some examples from the standard text, Harmony and Voice-Leading, Third Edition, Aldwell and Schachter:

Click to enlarge
Of course, if you are dividing up the octave in minor thirds, you are likely to find yourself using the octatonic scale, which just takes it one step further: 

Each pair of intervals in the scale spans a minor third. So we can find isolated examples of the octatonic scale in a lot of 19th century music. There are examples in Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov. But it was only the latter who cultivated it for its own sake and passed the practice on to his students, Stravinsky especially.

There are also some examples of use of the whole-tone scale, before Debussy. It is used as the leitmotif of the sorcerer Chernomor in the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila by Glinka. In general, Russian composers tended to make symmetrical third relations more explicit than in Western composers. Rimsky-Korsakov in particular approached the whole area with his characteristic clarity and orderliness. For him it was a bulwark against the "sea of decadence" that he saw in the wayward chromaticism of, for example, French music--he called this "d'Indism."

What Rimsky-Korsakov passed on to his students was a "set of operations, of routines and techniques, stemming from an outlook on the total chromatic that was heavily prejudiced in favor of symmetrical partitions of the octave." [Taruskin, Stravinsky, p 272] Though all axes of symmetry were possible, the chromatic scale itself, whole-tone, minor thirds, major thirds and the tritone, in practice the one that was most widely exploited was the minor third which contains the tritone and outlines the octatonic scale. The octatonic scale also provided many ways of interacting with traditional diatonicism. What is very cool about this is that you can create harmonic structures of seemingly traditional major and minor triads that seem "without tonal motivation." [Taruskin, op. cit. p. 273, quoting a review by Elliott Antokoletz of The Music of Igor Stravinsky by Pieter C. van den Toon.] Rimsky-Korsakov was well aware of this as can be seen in his sketchbooks. Taruskin offers this summary showing how the octatonic scale can be used to generate triads:

And here is an excerpt from one of his sketchbooks showing the harmonisation of ascending minor thirds:

If I am losing you here, the thing to remember is that Rimsky-Korsakov developed and passed on to Stravinsky a harmonic method that was both based on an underlying theory, and offered a fresh kind of sonority.

Finally, let's tie this theory to actual music. In the introduction to Act 1, scene ii of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko, virtually every note is traceable to the harmonic complexes in the Example 4.17 above. The only exceptions (shown in circles below) are chromatic passing notes. The passage ends with an authentic cadence in C major, preparing the entrance of Sadko--and this demonstrates the compatibility of octatonic harmonies with traditional ones!

Let's end with a clip of that passage from the opera.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Advanced-Pop Criticism

That sounds very promising, doesn't it? "Advanced-pop criticism?" This is a phrase from a New Yorker piece on poetry and pop music: Can Poetry Change Your Life?
Advanced-pop criticism would be criticism premised on the belief that you can talk about cultural goods loved uncritically by millions in terms originally developed to talk about cultural goods known mainly to an overeducated few. Advanced pop is Boethius and Springsteen, Artaud and the Ramones, and it yields sentences like “I assume that what Burke”—the literary theorist Kenneth Burke—“says about poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the songs of Def Leppard.” It’s erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside.
That's just so ... twee. After much pondering, I decided that the mysterious word "caj" was actually a hip abbreviation for "casual." This is where diversity has led us: to sentences that contain both the Latin phrase "mutatis mutandis" and Def Leppard. I also heave an internal sigh over the phrase "cultural goods." What they mean, of course, is "aesthetic objects" but you can't say that any more because it implies the existence of aesthetics. "Cultural goods" is appropriate because we have turned aesthetic objects into consumer products and no longer even recall that they were ever anything else.

The New Yorker essay is actually a book review of Michael Robbins’s new book, “Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music” (Simon & Schuster) and the act of writing tweely about a book that has its own tweeness issues results in passages like this:
There’s only one full-dress essay in the book, and it’s much more heavy-duty than the rest. The subject is the poetry of Frederick Seidel, and the essay handles a familiar critical problem—the morality of bad taste, the Jeff Koons–Michel Houellebecq–Bret Easton Ellis problem—expertly if not entirely originally. The essay does include observations like “The death drive is figured here as the desire to literalize the trope of the subject’s dispersal.” When I hear the words “literalize the trope,” I reach for my remote.
The real problem with this kind of stuff is that it is semi-educated: all sorts of clever references are semi-correctly referenced. Take this, for example:
“Listening to most rock and roll now involves remembering what it used to do for me that it can’t anymore,” Robbins says. And, in fact, a surprising amount of pop-music criticism is bottled nostalgia, owls that fly at dusk. In preparation for writing about “Equipment for Living,” I got a copy of “Shake It Up” (Library of America), an anthology of fifty years of pop-music criticism, “from Elvis to Jay Z,” edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. I figured I would dip into its pages and refresh my recollection of the field of play. Many hours later, I had to force myself to put the thing down.
There is some truth there in that as we grow older and listen to the popular (and classical) music that we adored in our younger days, we hear it with a different perspective. Our tastes have developed and the rawness or triteness is evident to us now, but we still recall the excitement with which we listened to the music before. But notice the tossed-in reference to Hegel: "owls that fly at dusk?" Educated people will vaguely recall this quote, something about the owl of Minerva only flying at dusk. So we get a little frisson of pleasure: "I'm reading someone who can make clever allusions!" The thing is that the allusion butters no parsnips, it is just a meaningless genuflection to learning. The quote is from the preface to Hegel's Philosophy of Right and the meaning is that philosophy, wisdom, only understands reality after the event. It does not mean anything like "bottled nostalgia" which has nothing to do with understanding, but is merely an emotional residue.

It is all too often the case that as soon as we actually look closely at this kind of so-called criticism that we see that it is all smoke and mirrors, clever but faulty allusions, sneaky hip turns of phrase and wayward conclusions. Poor criticism, in other words. In good criticism, I suspect, you are always going back to the details of what you are critiquing in order to examine it more clearly and to check your interpretations. If the post-modernists are correct and everything has a near-infinity of interpretations, then the conservatives are also correct that most of them are useless and farfetched. Criticism is about good interpretations of aesthetic objects. It ain't "erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy—on the inside of the outside." Whatever that means!

And I would be willing to bet actual currency (not a lot, but some) that the author, Louis Menand, has not actually read Boethius.

Let's have a musical envoi to clear the palate. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an exact contemporary of the German/Austrian composer Ludwig van Beethoven so let's listen to his Concerto for Piano no. 3, op. 37, composed in 1800. The pianist is Mitsuko Uchida and the conductor Seiji Ozawa:

Friday, July 28, 2017

Musical Transactions

I think one of the less-noticed aspects of the decline of aesthetics is the confusion about the nature of an aesthetic experience or transaction. As a commentator pointed out on a recent post:
I believe appreciation of music takes a lot of time and effort. Most people either cannot spare the time or use the time they do have for a different purpose. The simple reason for this is: music appreciation does not answer any of the following questions in the affirmative:
1) Is it easy and takes only a few minutes?
2) If it takes more time, can it earn me money?
3) If it can't, can it make me more attractive, sociable, popular or healthier?
4) Is it illegal not to do it?
This nicely highlights the difference between an aesthetic transaction and most of the other ones we experience. Most of what we experience in our daily life are transactions like those listed: we purchase things that we want or like (lunch, a ride on the subway, a magazine) and enjoy or use them in an ordinary way. Or we do work that earns us money. Or we do things to make ourselves more attractive, popular or healthy. Or we do things that are required by law: fill in our income tax returns.

But aesthetic experiences or transactions are of a different nature entirely. They often lack the easy accessibility of most other things. Yes, you might fall in love with a piece of music on hearing it for the first time (Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto):

But more often the first time you hear a fine piece of music you might be perplexed or just a bit lost: (Schoenberg, Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19)

One of the most basic problems is that aesthetic appreciation runs counter to the prevailing narcissism of our time: it really isn't about you! It is about you taking a journey towards something that is outside yourself. I happen to think that this is an important journey, more important certainly than a week at the beach or a shopping trip to the mall. But hey, that's just me!

One of the things that I find really appealing about aesthetic transactions is the implied freedom. You are entirely free to choose, as with few other things in life, exactly what kind of aesthetic experience you want and, depending on your other responsibilities, when and how you experience it. That's pretty cool, actually.

Here is a nice one for you (Beethoven, String Quartet op 59, no. 3, mvt 4, Alban Berg Quartet):

Friday Miscellanea

Sometimes really bad ideas die, but then are revived to go on to spread more badness. I give you the office soundtrack from MUZAK:

According to The Guardian, the idea of piping background music into workspaces is returning. Agh!

* * *

Over at the Future Symphony Institute, John Borstlap, composer and frequent commentator at Slipped Disc, has an essay on The Myth of Progress in the Arts:
IN THE LAST CENTURY, VERY OFTEN the concept of “progress” was projected upon the arts as a measurement of quality: “good art” was “progressive art.” If an artist did not commit some “groundbreaking” artistic deed, his work was considered worthless. While progress in science is a fundamental notion, in the arts it is meaningless because the nature of art has nothing to do with progress. There may be progress in terms of physical means – like the types of pigment used in paint, which became more stable in the last century, or the relatively cheap paper for musical notation that became available with the advent of the 19th century’s Industrial Revolution, or the iron fittings in architecture that allowed builders to vault bigger spaces. The discovery of perspective by Bruneleschi in the 15th century was also something like progress, as was the “sfumato” brushwork developed by Leonardo da Vinci, which gave painters the means to create a hazy atmosphere on the canvas. But expression, artistic vision, the quality of execution has never been dependent upon the physical means of an art form: Vermeer has not been superseded in terms of artistic quality by Picasso or Pollock, Bach not by Mahler or Boulez, Michelangelo not by Giacometti or Moore, Palladio not by Gropius or Le Corbusier. And we can appreciate the brilliance of the “primitive” masters of Flanders, who lived before the great surge of 16th-century inventions in Italian painting, just as we can the music of Palestrina, who had no clue of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin simply because he lived in an earlier time.
* * * 

How we make music now: this is a desk specially designed as a digital audio workstation.

Click to enlarge
* * *

Somehow, this musician and collector, really made his wife mad:
A woman accused of a rampage through her husband’s violin collection in 2014 was finally arrested on 25 July this year, Japanese press has reported.
The alleged victim, Daniel Olsen Chen, 62, a Norwegian national living and working in Japan, is a former violinist who maintained a making and repairing workshop in Nagoya. He posted a video of the destruction on his YouTube channel, AV Daniel Violin, and has claimed that in total 54 instruments and 70 bows were damaged, including his own Amati, the value of which he places around 50m yen ($450,000).
* * * 

A commentator recently accused me of being paranoid. Well, maybe, but read this and see what you think: a UK professor of composition explains why he is leaving academia. You should read the whole thing, but this will give a sample:
we have in recent times witnessed an administrative coup in UK academia. In an article focussing on Oxford University but painting a picture that will be familiar to most academics, The Spectator wrote that the “university’s central administrative staff is now almost three times what it was 15 years ago. There was no similar increase in full-time academic staff, the people who teach students or do research…”. I won’t speculate here on the many reasons why this might be, rather I’ll merely point out that an increase in administrators—lovely and well-meaning as most of them are as individuals—naturally does not do what you might naively expect, i.e., take care of the administration so that academics can focus on academic work. No, instead it breeds ever more complex administrative mazes that are not just difficult to navigate but are de facto becoming the main part of the job. Kafkaesque would not be pushing it too far by any means.
 * * *

Jordi Savall ignites a controversy over at Slipped Disc:
The veteran Catalan musician, 75, is under fire for some injudicious interview comments in La Stampa.
Savall said, among other things:
– The meaning and value of classical music are in decline
– At this time in the classical world there is no more creativity. There are great performers, great composers, but they do not know how to create, improvise.
– In the eastern world, the soul of music is improvisation. Every time the result is different, even unpredictable. It is a musical culture that is preserved and renewed.
As always, the comment section is full of entertaining responses.

* * *

 Also over at the Future Symphony Institute is an essay on Recovering the Sacred in Music:
“O word, thou word that I lack,” cried Schoenberg’s Moses before falling to his knees silent. Górecki, Pärt, and Tavener have found the Word that Schoenberg’s Moses lacked, and they have sought new expressive means to communicate it. The new expressive means have turned out to be the old ones, lost for a period of time in the desert, but now rediscovered by these three who know that “the rock was Christ.”
That something like this could emerge from under the rubble of modernity is moving testimony to the human spirit and its enduring thirst for the eternal. Is this too large a claim to make for these three composers? Perhaps. But be still, and listen.
 * * *

Alex Ross weighs in on Toscanini, Trump and the Symphony over at the New Yorker:
Trump said, “We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes . . .” The Internet cried with one voice: “We write what?” Like many of Trump’s utterances, the line was at once ludicrous and sinister. His veneration for orchestral music came as a surprise to almost everyone, and the implication that some cultures are incapable of creating symphonies stirred bad memories. Jonathan Capehart compared the passage to white-nationalist rhetoric about the genetic limitations of inferior races. Sentences like “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive” made me think of Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West,” a fixture of the alt-right reading list.
For the New Yorker crowd and, well, the established intelligentsia generally, anything outside their Overton Window is ludicrous and sinister: free markets, public choice theory and any criticism of the tenets of multiculturalism, of course. Actually, I read Spengler's The Decline of the West long before the alt-right was invented, probably back in the early 70s. So let's just take a moment and inquire, are there some cultures that are incapable of creating symphonies? Well, sure. Actually, to make a long story short, the only culture capable of creating symphonies is the culture that invented the form: Western Civilization. Sure, there are some imitators, mostly in Japan and China, but other than that, no non-Western culture has created any symphonies. Why would you think otherwise? Oh, right, it has to be the case because "multiculturalism." 

For our envoi today let's listen to John Tavener's Thunder Entered Her (for credits go to YouTube). Blogger will not embed, so follow the link:

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Intersectionality of White, Male, European

I ran across an article about intersectionality recently. This is a fairly recent concept or strategy unfurled in the culture wars. Elizabeth C. Corey provides an overview:
Thus the metaphor of “intersectionality” was born. Black women found themselves at the intersection of two different kinds of prejudice—about race and gender—and could not receive remedy by addressing one or the other alone. Writers since Crenshaw have expanded the term to cover studies that integrate the disadvantages caused by sexual orientation, class, age, body size, gender identification, ability, and more. Personal identity results from the combination of these many aspects of identity, they say, and each one signifies a measure of either oppression or privilege. As a whole, these traits determine an individual’s position in the “matrix of domination.”
You should read the whole piece, but here is another excerpt:
In demonizing non-radical political views, white men, and tradition in general, intersectionality ­theorists make precisely the same mistake they so vehemently abhor: They classify people in terms of names and characteristics that they often have not chosen, and then write them off as enemies. The intersectional project of oppositional, activist scholarship demands it, for nothing brings people together like a common enemy. When that enemy must be eradicated in a quasi-­religious movement of destruction, we are in for a long and bitter fight.
It seems to me that it is the white, European male composer that is the prime candidate for some intersectional analysis. In today's university climate, at least viewed from certain places (Musicology Now, for example), the one group that is experiencing the most bias, prejudice and bigotry is the group of composers that have been the most prominent in Western civilization: Machaut, Josquin, DuFay, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev.... Well, the list goes on forever. Every one of these people is white, male and European (a couple are Jewish, but that doesn't seem to matter) and for precisely those reasons the new on-campus progressivism demands that their role be demeaned and diminished. Sounds like intersectionality to me!

It is rather painful to have such a successful, even though intellectually vacuous, tactic used against you, isn't it?

Art and Money

I've often puzzled over the different economic directions the visual and performing arts have taken in the last century. At the bottom end of the economic spectrum, both beginning visual artists and composers are struggling in poverty. But at the top end, the visual artists are far ahead. Vincent van Gogh provides an example. During his lifetime he sold only one painting for less than $2000 in today's money. Few of his paintings go to auction these days as they are mostly held in museums, but one sold in 1990 for over $150 million in today's money. A Willem de Kooning sold recently for $300 million. Yes, it is usually, but not always, the case that it is not the artist that benefits, often being dead, but someone does!

Composers are far less well off. The very famous American composer Philip Glass had to work at various menial jobs (driving a cab, moving furniture, plumbing) until he was into his 40s when commissions began to be enough to barely support him.

The situation seems to be that there is a lot of money in visual arts, but a lot of expenses in performing arts!

As I say, I have puzzled over this and never come up with much of an explanation other than rich people like to buy things they can hang on their walls. But Ann Althouse put up a post the other day that offers a suggestion, The Art Donation Tax Evasion. You need to read the whole thing, but the idea is that the New York Times evasively describes a long-standing strategy for avoiding taxes that depends on donating art to museums at inflated values. But the NYT commentators are on to it:
"Ah, the good old-fashioned donation evaluation for taxes. The wealthy have been doing this for a very long time. Museums are there for this very reason. To deposit overly valued art pieces in lieu of a tax deduction. Same goes for property, buildings and other funding to arts, medicine and pet projects. Art is tricky. How is it exactly evaluated? And by whom?"
Could this be part of the reason that prices for visual arts seem a little high?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Aesthetics, part 2

As I said in my post yesterday on aesthetics, we have a desperate need for it! The reason is that as soon as we start to talk about art, aesthetic questions arise. What is truly hilarious about nearly all the articles that are constantly appearing in the mainstream media that are purportedly about music, is that the only thing they actually avoid talking about is, you guessed it, music! So what are they talking about? Most of the time, as the quotes in yesterday's post show, it is psychology, not music. They talk about brain scans, dopamine levels, the answers to questionnaires, surveys and so on. These things, while suitable things for psychologists to talk about, are not music.

There are other typical kinds of articles supposedly about music and they include ones discussing how many records have been sold (that is obviously about economics or marketing, not music), or about the scandalous things a musical celebrity has gotten up to (that is gossip, not music) or articles promoting a new album by someone (that, again, is marketing, not music). Occasionally we do get an article that seems to be talking about the music, but they are virtually always crippled by avoiding any actual musical vocabulary or musical examples. In a media universe where an image like this is perfectly acceptable:

Miley Cyrus, pop singer

One like this is absolutely forbidden:

It would be a great topic for a dissertation to trace how we got here, but my guess is that it is a consequence of a couple of psychological anomalies in our current society. Why is the top image acceptable, but the lower one not? (Oh, and if you think I am exaggerating, try and find a musical score anywhere in the mainstream media where they frequently review classical music.) The top image is ok because sex is ok and promotion is ok and notoriety is ok and, I guess, police nightsticks (the prop) are ok. The lower image is not ok because it makes people who can't read music uncomfortable. Thou shalt not present anything that might make anyone in your readership uncomfortable (though, god knows, the upper image has got to make a lot of folks uncomfortable!)

Another reason is that discrimination of any kind is now classified as evil. Never mind that discrimination is a fundamental mental activity and skill. We do it all the time. Life is impossible without it. When we go to the supermarket we discriminate between the good tomato and the soft, mushy one. When we go to the movies we discriminate between films we like and want to see and ones we don't. When we go to our CD shelf to pick a piece to listen to we discriminate between ones we want to hear at that time and ones we don't. When we are hiring an employee we discriminate between ones that seem to have the necessary skills and ones that don't. But whoa, that starts to get onto dangerous ground, does it not?

Possibly as a result of civil rights legislation running amok and being taken over by post-modernism, discrimination has been redefined as bigotry for most purposes. There are certain kinds of discrimination that are obviously unjust and wrong, so the safest course is to ban all discrimination. Also, as everyone's opinion is equally valid, we don't want to hear any talk about why a particular piece of music is better than any other. Not without scientific evidence at least! Of course there is no scientific evidence in this area. So the fact that some discrimination is perfectly ok has faded away. A big reason for that is that evidence to support someone's opinion about, say, a piece of music, has been largely forbidden. Thou shalt not quote from the musical score or use musical vocabulary. Without that, everything is just metaphor, babbling and psychology.

So I guess it is no wonder that no-one knows how to talk about music from the aesthetic point of view any more. But really, it is the only way! What kinds of music do you like? Why do you like them? Why might you dislike a piece of music? What about it do you find objectionable? What does music express and how does it do it? Why do we enjoy "sad" music? Why is it so hard to describe music in words? And so on. Virtually every kind of ordinary question about music is actually an aesthetic question. But we have, through endless propagandizing, been forbidden to ask these kinds of questions. Like I say, that would make a great dissertation...

Ok, well that was my attempt to describe why aesthetics is more necessary than ever. For our envoi, let's listen to that Bach Concerto for Two Violins. The soloists are Arabella Steinbacher & Akiko Suwanai:

A Shout Out to Musicology Now

If you look at my "popular posts" list on the right hand side, you will see a new entry: How Now, Musicology Now. This is a post I put up just last week and the explanation for why it has suddenly leapt into the popular column is that one of the editors of Musicology Now, the official blog for the American Musicological Society, Robert W. Fink, linked to the post from the AMS FaceBook page. He also, courteously, left a comment:
Bryan - As one of the editors of Musicology Now, let me thank you for your attention to our blog. We could definitely publish more content, but our situation is slightly different than that of a single-authored blog. The editors don't publish their own material, and, as you note, publishing a piece in Musicology Now does not advance one's career like peer-reviewed publication. We're always looking for more material, but since no one really "owns" this blog, we do have a problem getting people to put stuff out there for the no-so-tender consideration of the internet at large.
I'm shamelessly linking to this attack on the blog in my FB feed, on our page, etc. in order to rouse the collective pride of the Society, and perhaps drum up more submissions. I'm not sure the result will be to your intellectual taste (chacun, etc.), but we can all agree that it would be great to have more material to the AMS blog.
Thanks for your help. :)
Let me just say that this is great! Who wouldn't love a big launch from the AMS? As far as I can tell, the post has attracted about 1200 more pageviews than it would have otherwise. Prof. Fink describes my post as an "attack" and it was certainly a thorough bit of criticism of the blog. But after a new, and even more objectionable, post appeared on Musicology Now a few days later, I put up a more extensive critique in this post in which I described a curriculum proposal as a "Maoist re-education plan." I think that that one has attracted some traffic from AMS members as well.

So as of now, perhaps a third of the 3,500 AMS members may have visited this blog, or at least a post or two. Frankly, what I expected was a great deal of critique of my critique, widespread disagreement, spitballs, rancor, opposing arguments and possibly thundershowers. What I got, apart from the comment from Prof. Fink was, wait for it: nothing. Nada, nichts, rien!

What's the deal guys? Do you agree with everything I said? Or are you just afraid to leave a comment? Will we see some changes over at Musicology Now? As of today, the last post on their site is still the one from last Monday about racial and gender diversity.

Here's the thing: there are unending articles about the dire situation of classical music and what we need to do to reverse the trend. A lot of them stress that the "accessibility" of classical music needs to be increased. Frankly, with millions of clips on YouTube of classical music, I don't see how it could be MORE accessible. The solutions described usually involve changing the nature of classical performances so they resemble popular music performances more which might attract more people who usually listen only to popular music. This often doesn't go too well because the one element you can't change too much, or replace for that matter, is classical music itself. The truth is that the portion of society, in North America particularly, that is able to listen to classical music in an appreciative and discerning manner is not large and seems to be decreasing. If we pander to them too much all we will do is throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As I know from spending a month in Europe recently, the situation there is quite different. Concert halls are full and the audience is larded with young people. The reason is that in Europe, the proportion of educated listeners is much greater.

To me the solution is obvious: we in North America have to provide a better introduction to the music through educational outreach. And it has to be real and substantial, not the feeble and diaphanous efforts that usually pass for educational outreach. Who in North America possesses the greatest wealth of knowledge and expertise in this area? The American Musicological Society would seem to be it. How do you reach out? I would think the same way that I do. The purpose of this blog is to talk about music in an entertaining and informative way. Surely the AMS blog should be doing something similar. But you ain't! So give it a go. I think it is important for the future health of music.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Introduction to Aesthetics

What the heck is aesthetics? Is it something that is somehow bestowed in one of those salons you see tucked away in strip malls (but surely the point of this establishment is to reveal, not to hide, beauty?):
"Esthetics" is a common spelling and even though it seems more common in the beauty salon context, is usually defined the same way as "aesthetics." It might be informative to read the Wikipedia article which begins by defining aesthetics as:
Aesthetics (/ɛsˈθɛtɪks/ or /iːsˈθɛtɪks/; also spelled æsthetics and esthetics) is a branch of philosophy that explores the nature of art, beauty, and taste, with the creation and appreciation of beauty.
But I wouldn't take the article too seriously as, with so many philosophical concepts, a brief explanation usually does little more than confuse the reader irreparably! For an example, try reading the article on "ontology."

I'm going to go at this from a different angle and I'm going to start by showing exactly why we have a desperate need for aesthetics. Here is an article I put in this week's miscellanea titled: What's the Best Song, According to Science? We live in such weird times that we expect science, a perfectly respectable field of human endeavor, but one with very clear boundaries, to actually answer all our questions! About everything! Examples from this article show us just why this doesn't work:
Daniel Glaser
Neuroscientist and Director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London
Is there any way to scientifically determine what makes a “good” song? Why or why not?
The best way to test a song is still a human. We can measure how people respond to songs in a bunch of ways including brain scans, measures of chemicals in the the brain, including dopamine (which is associated with the internal reward system reward, perhaps you give yourself a pat on the back for selecting a great playlist). Actually measuring foot tapping or the smile muscles is probably just as good as most more ‘scientific methods.’
I can't imagine a more useless way of evaluating the aesthetic value of a song, though I'm sure this tells us something about whatever people they got inside their brain scan machine. Here is another example:
Amy Belfi
Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Psychology at New York University, researching the relationship between music and the brain
Why do some of us have viscerally negative reactions to certain songs?
There’s some interesting research that shows that people fall on a spectrum in terms of their “musical hedonism.” A small group have what you’d call musical anhedonia, so these are people that don’t like music at all. It’s not that they get a viscerally negative reaction, it’s just that they don’t really listen to it, they don’t really get music, they don’t really respond in a viscerally positive way to it.
Again, this tells us something about people, but absolutely nothing about songs. Amy Belfi has another very interesting answer:
Are there any qualities that make a song “good”?
The challenge in psychology, but especially when we’re looking at music, is the fact that there’s individual differences. Taste is so varied in terms of music. In several studies about musical chills or really positive responses to music, they have the participants in the study bring in their own music to listen to. So you would have to have a comparison of highly pleasing music versus non-pleasing music. So the highly pleasing music is totally different from one person to another.
My research tends to focus on the response to music rather than the particular qualities of it, since it’s so hard to pick a song that everyone across the board likes, unless you pick a group of participants that have very homogenous taste which is also kind of challenging. If we knew what made the perfect song, someone would be making millions of dollars off it.
My emphasis. Yes, of course psychology will always focus on the people responding to the music, rather than the music itself because all of their tools are designed for that purpose. They have no tools to examine the music! Most hilariously, there are people making millions of dollars off writing and performing songs all the time! Why? Because that is their profession. They are called "musicians" and they know about music in the specific sense of what musical elements are likely to appeal to the largest numbers of people. That's how you make a million dollars in music. Aren't psychologists aware of this?

I could go on quoting this and other articles about music in popular media, but there would just be a lot of repetition. You learn absolutely nothing about music by scanning people's brains or by interrogating random groups of listeners. You can learn an awful lot about music by actually looking at the music. And by "looking at" I mean listening to, playing and studying the score. But when you do that you are examining, not human brains or dopamine levels or answers to questionnaires, which are things susceptible to scientific examination, but rather aesthetic objects, which are emphatically not susceptible to scientific examination.

It seems to be the case that there is no easy and simple definition of what an aesthetic object is, as for every one offered there seem to be exceptions and teams of philosophers standing ready to knock any definition down. But if I could be allowed an ostensive definition, then I would simply say that, for our purposes, a musical aesthetic object is any musical performance that provides the listener with an aesthetic experience. Of course, I broke a fundamental rule by using the word itself in the definition. But I don't think that matters too much as my real definition is just to point to examples. What we go to a concert hall or a dance club to hear is usually "music." What we hear from a wind-chime is not, because it lacks the necessary element of intentionality: in other words, there has to be a human performer involved. So music composed by computers doesn't count, which is fine by me.

That's it for this post. In succeeding ones I will try to summarize the best bits from Monroe C. Beardsley's excellent book on aesthetics. Let's end with a musical aesthetic object. This is Martha Argerich playing the Sonata in D minor, K. 141 by Domenico Scarlatti as an encore at the Verbier Festival in 2009:

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 1

This is where the rubber meets the road: now we have to really come to grips with the structure of Stravinsky's music which is what Taruskin takes up in the next chapter: "Chernomor to Kashchey: Harmonic Sorcery." He pulls no punches here, the chapter is heavily larded with musical examples. Incidentally, this is how you can tell a book intended for musicians from those intended for the general public: any form of musical notation is absolutely prohibited in the latter. Even a book that appears to be for a specialized musical audience, like the Cambridge Handbook on the Rite of Spring, does not have an overabundance of musical examples, though certainly the essential ones. But the Taruskin volume is chock full of extensive musical examples (not to mention footnotes).

He begins the chapter with Rimsky-Korsakov's comment, after an evening in which Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov's wife, Nadezhda, had played through the Schubert late C-major symphony in a piano four-hands arrangement. He said that before Schubert certain "bold and unexpected" modulations simply did not exist. For Rimsky-Korsakov, Schubert was the father of modern music. What kind of modulations was he referring to?

I want to just back up a bit and fill in a bit of background here. Music in the Western world, for a long time, was based on the individual melodic line. Most music in most places is still structured in this way. But in Western music going back eight or nine hundred years, the practice of combining independent melodic lines became the standard practice. In order that they blend in a pleasing way and not clash, certain methods or rules were adopted. This is where the idea of consonance and dissonance came from. Some notes clash, are dissonant, while others blend, are consonant. A good piece of music actually uses both these phenomena so as not to be bland and boring. But there were pretty strict rules for how dissonances were to be handled or resolved.

As we move into the 15th century, harmony begins to develop a life of its own as composers like DuFay developed techniques like fauxbourdon to harmonise melodic lines. (I know I am getting into esoteric knowledge when Blogger starts underlining words in red, even though I know they are spelled correctly!) Roughly from 1600, harmony became more and more structurally prominent and the idea of functionality came to the fore. Functional harmony was the common practice from around 1600 to around 1900, though just how it functioned changed enormously. Taruskin points out in passing that a good book on the use of harmony in the 19th century still has to be written!

The first stage of functional harmony focused on the idea of a tonic and a dominant. Pieces of music basically began in the tonic, the harmony built on the first note of the scale, or tonic. Then the music moved to the dominant harmony, that built on the fifth note of the scale. A couple of other chords or harmonies were used built on the fourth note of the scale, the subdominant (which prepared or led up to the dominant) and the sixth note of the scale (which was used to stand in for the tonic in a deceptive cadence), the submediant. Pop music to this very day rarely uses any harmonies other than these basic ones, though jazz certainly does. Closure is achieved by simply returning to the tonic after the dominant. This harmonic movement, from dominant to tonic, is called a cadence and all tonal music ends with one.

The tonic/dominant relationship was so powerful that it was soon extended in various ways. One was by using secondary dominants, that is, any harmony or chord can be preceded by its dominant. The whole harmonic space can also be organized by the circle of fifths:

As you move up by fifths, each key adds a sharp, while as you move down by fifths, each key adds a flat. This enabled modulation, the movement from one key to another, to be handled in a clear and organized way. A great deal of music, especially in the Baroque and Classical periods, is filled with harmonic sequences, which are passages that move through different harmonies in a specific pattern. The most common are ones that descend or ascend by fifths. Here is a good page on that. Sequences were used as a kind harmonic engine to drive the music forward.

By the time we get to Schubert and the early Romantic period, composers were looking for something different. Rather than driving forward, they wanted to pause, reflect and give the music an inwardness. What Schubert did was to exploit and normalize the use of sequences that moved by thirds rather than fifths: these are called mediant progressions. As Taruskin notes, third relations operate in Schubert on every structural level. Here is a harmonic reduction of a forty-bar passage from the Finale to the C-major symphony that provides an example. The chords marked "x" are flat submediants that have no functional role in harmonic structure up to this point. They alternate brusquely with the tonic and only work because of the common pitch, C, that unites them:

The flat submediant, a major third below the tonic, A flat major in the key of C, was the Romantic harmony par excellence and its use is largely credited to Schubert. That other harmony you see, the F# diminished chord, also has a mediant origin, it is two minor thirds above the tonic. Both these chords contain a C natural, which links them to the tonic.

This might be enough harmonic theory for one post, so let's listen to that Schubert symphony. This is the "Great" Symphony in C major (so-called because there is another, shorter, symphony by Schubert also in C major) with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

Incidentally, in the first movement Schubert inserts a complete circle of major thirds within a circle of fifths!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Criticism, as She is Done

Criticism, whether of literature or music or visual arts (though I never know what they are talking about) can be a delightful thing. All the really good criticism I have ever read has been based on personal taste informed by a thorough knowledge of the artwork. In music I take particular delight in the criticism of Charles Rosen. His books on Classical style might seem to be primarily analysis, but to my mind they are simply informed criticism. Richard Taruskin's writings, on the other hand, downplay the element of criticism in favor of historical context and more power to them.

I am writing this post because I just ran across a beautiful example of literary criticism from David Mamet in the Wall Street Journal. The title is Charles Dickens Makes Me Want to Throw Up:
Dickens’s characters are cardboard cutouts, even in their names: Inspector Bucket, the Brothers Cheeryble, Jerry Cruncher. They are mechanicals. His prose is turgid and, less forgivable, tortured. Here’s his rendition, in “Dombey and Son,” of a sea-captain’s dialect: “It’s an almighty element. There’s wonders in the deep, my pretty. Think on it when the winds is roaring and the waves is rowling.”
What a load of bosh. The public devotion to Dickens’s work is sententious and perhaps even self-congratulatory—like that affection of New York theatergoers between the wars for the lugubrious plays of Eugene O’Neill.
I find Dickens’s gloomy view of London stinking of the lamp: that sputtering meager lamp which hardly brightens the overpowering darkness of the cold garret room, where, huddled in the corner, poverty has moored a guiltless ragamuffin, who, et cetera.
Yep! Mamet reserves his particular praise for Anthony Trollope, whom I greatly loved as I read all of his Palliser novels many years ago.
I’ve read Anthony Trollope’s entire work several times, not because I am schooled, educated or right-thinking—I don’t believe I am more afflicted in these than most—but because I like to read. Trollope’s 47 novels, nonfiction and incidental work are a delight. His prose is clear, perfectly rhythmic, concise and, at turns, trenchant and profoundly funny.
His plotting is stunning. How does one write a three-decker novel, which will appear in installments over a year and a half, and have the equation resolve magnificently—although making it up as one goes along? Compound this, if you will, with his work habits: Trollope rose every morning at 5:30 and wrote 2,500 words. If he completed one novel before meeting his daily goal, he began another. All while running various departments of the British General Post Office.
I can hardly wait to make a start on the Barchester novels. Mamet has a delightful denouement to his essay:
I loathed Henry James and counted myself boorish until I read the opinion of his best friend, Edith Wharton, who pronounced him unreadable. As per Marley’s Ghost, we each wear the chains we forged in life; if fortunate, the various spirits come to induce us to shed them. I’m not chutzpadik enough to think I rank among those shades, but if I have relieved one reader of the burden of a factitious and oppressive affection for Chuck Dickens I will rest evermore content.
Amen. And let's raise our glasses in toast to a bit of literary criticism that is delightful, humorous, engaging and inspiring without once exhorting us on the basis of resentful, smug, identity politics!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Making up for last week, today I have an action-packed miscellanea for you!

I have to admit that I quite liked Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." The only thing better than a good music video is a satirical cover of a music video, so here you go, this is On the Rocks, the University of Oregon's premiere a capella ensemble, with their cover of "Bad Romance":

UPDATE: Now with the right song!

* * *

A commentator sent this link in, which is a quiz that is supposed to be able to guess your age from your musical taste. Why don't you do it and report the results in a comment?

* * *

This is rather a nice little rant:
Popular culture in the English-speaking world is in the grips of a downward nerd-driven death spiral. Outside of the art-house theaters of our major cities it is almost impossible to find more than one semi-decent film a month that is not an adaptation of some decades-old picture book franchise about men in rubber costumes punching each other. The average video game player is more than 30 years old. The only book that most Americans between the ages of 23 and 40 seem to have read whose title does not begin with some variation of "Harry Potter and the” is a fable about talking animals that they were assigned in middle school. Things are bad.
That's from an article about Game of Thrones at The Week.

* * *

Direct from the Violin Channel is this video of South Korean violinist Jenny Yun and her backup dancers:

My violinist friend says she wants to either hurl or play Russian roulette with bullets in all the chambers. Me too, but I suspect we are not in the target demographic!

* * *

This might be the most hilarious item of the day: "What's the Best Song, According to Science?"
Obviously, all art—and taste—is subjective. But is there one song—or one kind of song—that’s generally more enjoyable? Recently, author Tom Cox tweeted some musings on the philosophy behind what makes the “best song ever.” A significant portion of the internet, however, argued that he was full of shit because the best song of all time is Toto’s classic 1982 hit, “Africa.”
And then they try and approach the question with scientific method. One thing for sure, science has no way of approaching aesthetic questions.

* * *

Painter Andrew Wyeth is finally receiving his due. Why Andrew Wyeth’s Art – Once Derided – Has Outlived His Critics:
This commitment to a narrow range of subjects made Wyeth unique and precluded him from critical popularity during life. It was not fashionable to find order in everyday life when most of the world was aroused by the sexual revolution or terrified by the imminent threat of nuclear war. Wyeth’s seemingly idyllic scenes of country life were dismissed as irrelevant. Even when he branched out and released a series of highly publicized nudes nicknamed “The Helga Pictures,” he was criticized for attempting the sensual without including the pornographic. When he died, The Guardian sneered that his art “belongs in retired Republican politicians’ homes, and the boardrooms of bankrupt banks.”
Scorn, however, doesn’t last, at least in Wyeth’s case. Most of Wyeth’s detractors are dying out, and the quality of his work endures. As the world spins into chaos—and it always is—paintings like “Christina’s World” are reminders that even the wild has its own order. And seeing that is clarity.
* * *

 The Chicago Tribune has an article on John Adams:
"It can be a challenge to fill those enormous halls with an entire program of just my music," he said. "I was reminded that classical music is what people say it is, largely music of the past. It takes great time and effort to write music that might have a chance of entering the repertory, eventually."
Of similar concern is what he perceives as mounting classical music illiteracy in American society.
"One thing that disturbs me is that the friends I have dinner with — people who bear the same intellectual, social and political interests as I — don't listen to my music. Very few of them even listen to Beethoven. They listen to — I don't know — James Taylor or the Gipsy Kings. I realize I travel in a small cultural arena." 
Can this really be true? Is it because of where he lives, Berkeley, California? Surely if he lived in a major musical metropolis this would not be the case?

* * *

To a musician this information from a survey of choirs in the UK seems not only unfair, but a little insane:
The report makes a direct comparison between choirs and amateur sports clubs, noting that while around 300,000 more people sing in choirs than play amateur football, football receives £30m in funding every year – compared with under £500k a year for choirs. 
* * *

The authors, Lucy Dearn from the University of Sheffield’s Performer and Audience Research Centre, and Stephanie Pitts from its Department of Music, came up with interesting results. They found that most of the participants, even including those who were studying music at university level, experienced difficulty in identifying with the music emotionally, and with the concert experience as a whole.
They concluded: “While some respondents were pleasantly surprised by their enjoyment or impressed by the performers, most remained fairly fixed in their views, and it would clearly take more than one concert to begin to assimilate classical music listening within their established musical identities.”
The main obstacles that prevent them enjoying the concerts were “the emotional pace of the music”, the length of concerts they attended, and “the restrained behaviour of other audience members, which was interpreted by some as being indicative of a lack of emotional engagement”.
I can't help thinking that the wrong conclusions are always being drawn from studies like these. Go read the whole article and I think that a few things are clear:
  •  you can't come to enjoy classical music after attending one concert if you have never heard it before and spent your entire life listening to pop music--they are really opposite kinds of experiences
  • concert organizers cannot win young listeners by trying the ape the conditions of pop music performances unless they also replace the music with pop music, which defeats the whole purpose
  • if young people are surrounded by nothing but pop music and receive no proper music education, they have no real way to access what is going on in classical music
* * *

We haven't listened to any John Adams for a while. This is the first movement of Harmonielehre with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony:

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Some Thoughts from Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist who has won a huge internet popularity through posting videos on YouTube that address some of the important issues of the day. Doesn't that sound boring! But not at all. It happens to be the case that if you actually talk about things that are significant, a lot of people simply want you to shut up. The reason is that a great deal of our public discourse is dominated by people who are enslaved by one or another ideology. And as he says in the video I am going to embed below "there are no innocuous ideologies." I want to put this up, even though it might seem to be both too political (though nothing he says is actually in the domain of politics) or too unrelated to the realm of music.

I have a good reason for posting this, though, and that is because some of the ideologies invading the world of music come from another place entirely and it is one that I am far from expert in. Jordan Peterson, on the other hand, has thought through these things pretty thoroughly, so I think that he can be of considerable help to us in this area. I hope you will take the time to watch this video, it is only 25 minutes long and contains a lot of important stuff.

Aesthetics: A Crash Course, part 1

A frequent commentator just left a wonderfully sardonic comment on my post How Now, Musicology Now. In so doing, he directed my attention to a new post at the Musicology Now site that offers detailed instructions in how to turn your music history survey course into a kind of Maoist re-education plan. You think I'm exaggerating? Go read Six Easy Ways to Immediately Address Racial and Gender Diversity in Your Music History Classroom:
The suggestions we propose are worth employing if they make our students play their part in making our world more beautiful, equitable, and just. Our classes can become places where we can effectively expose classism, racism, and sexism even when issues of identity are not the primary topic of conversation.
Making your students "play their part" in exposing classism, racism and sexism would seem to be a viciously ideological goal and one having nothing to do with music history. But no, this is crucial because of the horrific history of music, dominated by European males:
At the beginning of your class, state the obvious: the canon of western art music is dominated by European male composers. By acknowledging it, you also show your students that you plan to explore moments of the canon’s construction. One way to offer transparency is to point out to your students that you will be using the pronoun, “he,” frequently in class because systemic conditions favored men as composers and performers of western art music. Women were frequently denied access to musical training and elite cultural networks. Similarly, when teaching about the history of classical music in America, make sure to specify if the people in the audience or the people involved in the production of music were white or black Americans. In being explicit about this, you make students aware of the ways in which racism functioned in histories of classical music in America. By offering these explanations to students, we make transparent that assumed racial or gender norms were actually historical processes.
Moral condemnation is smuggled in through the use of undefined terms like "systemic conditions" and "elite cultural networks" which are markers for unsupported theories about history that are, frankly, nothing more than cultural Marxism. This is only a hair's breadth removed from simply stating that Beethoven was a racist, classist oppressor simply because he was a white European male and wrote good music. This is not a School of Music, this is a School of Resentment.

How we got to this sorry state of affairs is by short-circuiting the appropriate tool for the study of art forms, aesthetics, and replacing it with crude ideological ones like collective identity politics, equity and social justice, all of which stem from cultural Marxism. I think the way to push back is to reassert the role of aesthetics.

Is it not perfectly obvious that the reason we perform a great deal of music by Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and others is that their music is overwhelmingly powerful from an aesthetic point of view? The instant you lose sight of this you leave the door open for the Diversity Counselors to come in and put you in the stocks for failing to honor the contributions of women and people of color. If you have no aesthetic reason for preferring the music of Robert Schumann over that of his wife Clara Schumann, then you might as well play her music instead and rectify an historic imbalance. If you have no way of evaluating music in terms of aesthetic quality, then the only reason you have for programming music by, say, Camille Saint-Saëns over that of Cécile Chaminade is that audiences seem to prefer it. But maybe that is simply because they have not heard much of Chaminade. So again, programming her music instead would seem to right an historic imbalance. And so on for every sliced up identity group you can imagine: gay composers, transsexual composers, composers from the Caribbean, black composers, indigenous composers and on and on. Once you start slicing up the population into identity groups there is no logical stopping place short of the individual. And in fact, the only actual existing elements in a society ARE individuals--all the rest are mere abstractions.

So, given the fact that the best way to resist this project is to revive the practice of aesthetics, I think I will do a short, crash course on it, based on a very fine survey of the field by Monroe C. Beardsley titled Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. This is a substantial volume, over 600 pages, first published in 1958 with a revised second edition in 1981. In it he surveys the central issues, theories and problems in aesthetics and offers a usable theory of his own. One of the central issues is the question of the relativity or subjectivity of aesthetic judgement, so a good part of the book takes on that problem.

Aesthetics, almost banned from serious consideration for decades now, was not dismissed because of the weakness of its philosophical foundations, no, it was rather a case of being replaced by more fashionable topics such as the doleful trio of classism, racism and sexism such as we see over at Musicology Now.

I have actually put up lots of posts on aesthetics before and you can search for them using the widget on the right, but I want to do something a bit more organized and put up a few posts that condense and summarize the arguments in Beardsley's book.

As an envoi, let's hear something by Cécile Chaminade and then something by Camille Saint-Saëns. First, the Concertino for Flute and orchestra by Chaminade (the music begins at the 2:15 mark):

And the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra by Saint-Saëns:

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Stravinsky: Context and Development, part 3

On to Stravinsky's studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. Again, this is just a summary of my notes on Tarusksin's mammoth book on Stravinsky.

Rimsky-Korsakov was an indefatigable teacher over 35 years at three different institutions: St. Petersburg Conservatory, Free Music School and the  Court Chapel Choir (which also taught instrumental music and theory)—over which time he turned out some 250 students in theory and composition. Stravinsky was Rimsky-Korsakov’s sole private pupil in his declining years. Rimsky-Korsakov’s usual method was to give Stravinsky unpublished works to orchestrate as he had already had basic training with Kalafati. Perhaps the most important lesson Stravinsky got from Rimsky-Korsakov was his philosophy of work: you must always keep working whether inspiration comes or not, better to write by formula than not to write at all. I have heard similar advice from professional writers who get up every morning and write a certain amount whether they feel any inspiration or not. Rimsky-Korsakov’s lessons concentrated on technical means, rejected raw emotionalism and anything improvisational. [p. 171] For the last three years of Rimsky-Korsakov s life Stravinsky came for private lessons 4-6 pm every Wednesday.

The first fruits of his studies was his opus 1 (though sketches were begun before he commenced lessons): the Symphony in E flat, conceived in the spirit of Beethoven’s Eroica but with resemblances to Glazunov's Symphony no. 6 and Symphony no. 8, the latter Rimsky-Korsakov's favorite symphony as soon as it was written (fall of 1905). Stravinsky's use of superimposed themes in counterpoint was likely following the example of a symphony by Taneyev and ultimately deriving from Franck's Symphony in D minor. The first performance was a public read-through by the Court Orchestra in January of 1908. The performance was given a substantial review by Vyacheslav Karatïgin a young music critic:
“Especially pleasing in the young author is the cheerful, buoyant turn of his musical thinking … Stravinsky’s ideas are as clear and as natural as their development”
A recurring word in the Russian reviews was bodrost’ “high spirits” or “cheerfulness” not a typical quality in Russian music! The “national coloration” of Stravinsky’s early symphony is obvious, but its nationalism, a Belyayevets characteristic, was unrelated to folklore—it was Rimskian in its harmonies and modulations and for the rest Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. The interesting question is how did Stravinsky get out of this cul-de-sac when other members of his circle did not?

His next piece, composed entirely under Rimsky-Korsakov's direction, was the suite for mezzo and orchestra titled "The Faun and the Shepherdess," op. 2 (composed wholly in 1906). Using a text by a very young (17) Pushkin, this is an epithalamium that Stravinsky began when on his honeymoon—he chose bits and pieces of the original poem resulting in a bit of a "disjointed hash." Stravinsky’s musical setting, especially of the first tableau, has excellent and resourceful declamation with some subtle harmonic touches and the borrowings (Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky again) are more successfully blended into a general stylistic resonance—nothing to “irritate” Rimsky-Korsakov's conservatism despite Stravinsky's claims much later in life.

The performance and publication history of the Faun offers a sketch of the young and struggling composer lost in a herd of others—his first attempt at publication with Zimmerman was refused, but Rimsky-Korsakov intervened in order to schedule a performance—and a vocal score was published in 1908. The critical reception was mixed and the piece was described as pale and lacking in style.

Let's listen to both of these student pieces. First the Symphony in E flat. This is the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conductor, Valeriy Platonov:

Even more obscure is "The Faun and the Shepherdess." The three parts are only available in separate clips.

The second and third will not embed:

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Stravinsky: Context and Development, part 2

Continuing with my summary of the background as uncovered in Taruskin's book on Stravinsky.

Being as Stravinsky was born into a very cultured musical family at the center of the Saint Petersburg musical establishment, he should have been a natural reactionary. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a highly respected baritone at the Mariyinsky Theater, the dean of Russian opera singers. Fyodor had a large library, strong in history and folklore, which he used in preparation for the creation of realistic characters--his specialty. He was very close to Musorgsky, with whom he performed a number of times in public with Musorgsky himself accompanying.

Igor was born June 5, 1882 (Old Style, June 17 in the new Gregorian calendar) and grew up on the stage of the Mariyinsky, a favorite mascot of the troupe. He therefore possessed from childhood an intimate knowledge of the operatic repertoire. He was something of a young Wagnerite, well-read in aesthetics and not a fan of the absolute music theories of Eduard Hanslick. Stravinsky was descended on both sides of his family from landed aristocracy, identified in Tsarist-era documents as dvoryanin or "nobleman." The family passed their summers on country estates belonging to his mother's sisters.

Stravinsky's earliest composition is a Tarantella for piano. Taruskin describes it as follows: “The only thing remarkable about the Tarantella is how little talent it displays. It is the sort of piece every thirteen-year-old piano student writes, only Stravinsky wrote it at sixteen.” [p. 95] Bear in mind that at sixteen Glazunov was premiering his first symphony and Mozart, of course, had written dozens of symphonies and several operas already. The young piano student Stravinsky was a passionate improvisor but with little knowledge of musical rudiments. His first important teacher was Leocadia A. Kashperova, pianist and composer, who provided him entry into the New Russian School circles.

Fyodor S. Akimenko was his first harmony teacher, who taught from Rimsky-Korsakov's Practical Course in Harmony. He also studied counterpoint by himself and with Vasiliy Kalafati. The next composition is a "fearfully symmetrical" Scherzo for piano with a Trio using chromatic auxiliaries that still shows a somewhat "retarded musical developmen"—compare Glazunov at the same age or a much younger Prokofiev! Stylistically there are echoes of Tchaikovsky. The song setting of "The Storm Cloud" by Pushkin, composed at 19, is more mature, following a Rimsky-Korsakov model harmonically.

In 1902, Stravinsky met Rimsky-Korsakov, an important turning point, armed with a letter of introduction from his father. He also knew Rimsky-Korsakov's sons from university—Stravinsky was enrolled in legal studies, the usual option for people of his class. After completion of this course in 1905 he began lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky became estranged from his mother after his father’s death due to her insistence on his following a career in law and became very close to the Rimsky-Korsakov family. He was a regular attendee at the bi-weekly Wednesday musical evenings at Rimsky-Korsakov’s apartment at which Stravinsky became known for his short comic songs that were performed at these evenings (1903).

The piece written to be his official qualification for lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov was the Piano Sonata in F# minor completed in summer of 1904. For a while the music was thought to be lost and Stravinsky claimed, much later, that it was an inept imitation of Beethoven, but it was more an imitation of sonatas by Glazunov and Scriabin’s Third Sonata, also in F# minor, a kind of pledge of allegiance to the Rimsky-Korsakov circle and the Belyayev circle. The basic conception was harmonic rather than linear and followed the expanded diatonic vocabulary of the Belyayev circle: “no end of decorative, ‘trompe l’oreille.’ Any dominant seventh can be resolved as an augmented sixth and vice versa. Any first inversion can be treated as a Neapolitan. Any tone can be a ‘common tone’ for instant links between ‘unrelated’ chords” and so on. “But all the harmonic novelty is surface embellishment” [p. 116]. The basic form, for this and the Belyayev circle in general, is entirely conventional: form is objective, content subjective: form is reduced to a set of operating procedures.

Stravinsky’s sonata, modeled on Scriabin and Tchaikovsky’s Grande Sonate of 1878 uses devices typical of its models, but there is also the first appearance of the octatonic scale in a passage in the development mm 136-38. Both the strengths and weaknesses of the early sonata are representative of the school of composers he was joining, showing good command of the instrumental medium and harmonic technique. It is amazing that it comes only five or six years after the juvenile Tarantella!
Stravinsky in his early years was a docile and cosseted scion of the nobility, adopted into the Rimsky-Korsakov circle, another house of nobility—without a trace of rebellion! (Bear in mind that I am just summarizing both the facts and the evaluations from Taruskin!)

Now let's listen to that early F# minor Piano Sonata. The performer is Victor Sangiorgio: