Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tradition and Progressivism

A long time ago on the blog, way back in July 2011, I put up a post titled Progressivism vs... that presented a theory of music historiography that I thought was interesting. I am inspired to revisit the idea because of a very intriguing comment left by Anonymous-R a few days ago. Go read the previous post first. Here is an excerpt:
So, "racinative" as in, music that refers back to some past music or re-discovers some rooted aspect of music. Historians have ignored this fairly successfully, but I suspect it is an important aspect of music history. Composers are often fascinated with music history, even when they aren't looking to steal an idea. I know a young composer who worked hard to learn how to do a convincing pastiche of the style of Palestrina. Now there's something no-one is clamoring for! But it was important to him because it got him in touch with something important, deeply-rooted. This may also have something to do with Harold Bloom's theory of influence in literature. As Wikipedia says, "Writers find their creative inspiration in previous writers and begin by imitating those writers; in order to develop a poetic voice of their own, however, they must make their own work different from that of their precursors. As a result, Bloom argues, authors of real power must inevitably "misread" their precursors' works in order to make room for fresh imaginings." I don't know about misreading, but I think that composers often look back at those who came before in order to tap into some deep river of the essence of music and to escape the influence of the superficial fashions of the day.
My commentator had quite a different perspective on what I sense is a similar aspect of music history:
As a general comment, I may be a little more conservative than you, in that I attach a great deal of importance (maybe too much) to tradition as the best intellectual frame to help us understand art. As I see it, classical music is made of 3 concentric circles: the first one is Italy/France/Germany (the latter includes the Netherlands and Austria). Western music was born in that tradition (chronologically in that order, Germany being the latecomer). Germany became the dominant force in that triumvirate by the 18th c. largely eclipsing the others until the French revival in the late 19th c. I believe that inner ring (really a tripod) is the key to every subsequent development.
The second circle is Russia/Central Europe/Scandinavia. It never quite left the orbit of the first circle. As Stravinsky rightly said, "there is no Russian music tradition per se." In fact, what makes him the best Russian composer was his genius in blending the inner-circle tripod (especially French) with his own Russian sauce. That he was a genius tout court also helped... The 3rd circle is Spain and, more important, the English speaking world. 
My conservative side believes that great genius can only emerge from a deep, rich tradition. England never produced a musical Shakespeare because of its weak musical tradition. Bach is the greatest of them all because not only is his music entirely anchored in the innermost circle, but no one was more successful in seamlessly blending French, Italian, and German music together: Bach dances better than the French, he sings better than the Italians, and he does harmony on the organ better than the Dutch. He's the motherlode of all Western music at its best. Likewise, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven tapped into, and refined, modified, codified, innovated within the motherlode. It's not all about their big brains (big as they were) but also about their location in time and space (think of Vienna for music and Florence for painting! Location, location, location..)
It would be much better if one could argue that other motherlodes were found or created, but that didn't happen. The second circle (especially Russian) developed its genius by drawing connections between Slavic folk tradition and the innermost circle. But it didn't leave that orbit (something that pissed off Stravinsky endlessly). The reason it is stronger than the English-speaking circle is that it had much richer local fare to tap into and better music schooling. Leaving Jazz aside, the Anglo-American tradition had only weak local material to thrive upon, so it became mostly derivative without ever developing its own voice. Reich and Ives are great composers who happen to be American. But Verdi is not a composer who happens to be Italian: he is an Italian composer. Because there is such thing as Italian music but there is no such thing as American music (in the sense I explained earlier). 
I don't believe the Italian/French/Germans are naturally more talented. These are all accidents of history. Some people argue that the French are more literary and the Germans more musical, hence... Except that the causal arrow might run the other way. I am skeptical about any essentialist reading of history. Probably geography played a big role too.
This idea of deep, rich cultural traditions as providing the soil in which creativity is rooted is a fascinating one. I think that this aspect of music history has been seriously neglected for a long time for two fundamental reasons:

  1. Music history is largely written from an event perspective. That is, historians look for "firsts" and "originality." Who wrote the first opera? How did Beethoven expand the Classical symphony? What were Wagner's harmonic innovations? The emphasis falls on the progressive element.
  2. The second reason comes from the changing role of the composer. For the last hundred years and more, composers have had to fight to find an audience. In so doing they become, in a way, their own marketing directors. Stravinsky was at pains to underline his own originality and to downplay the influence and importance of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.
But music-lovers and musicians are usually well-aware that music has deep, rich traditions and that older music is a wide and fundamental context for newer music. In a sense, all new music is a blend of the influence of older music, combined with the individual fantasy of the composer. Each are important, but one, the tradition, is ignored and depreciated. We see this very strongly in articles like the one in NewMusicBox that I linked to in yesterday's Miscellanea. The author, Hannah Schiller, quotes composer William Brittelle as saying:
I think we have to get really aggressive about deconstruction. Every single time somebody tries to put you in that box, and tries to make things objective, you just have to push back on it. Every single time.
Well sure, I guess this is useful to composers who are intent on making their individual mark, branding themselves. But from a listener's point of view, it is rather a barrier to understanding. For example, Schiller's discussion of a piece by Wally Gunn:
While there is still much work to be done in terms of devising a concrete theoretical framework for post-genre and understanding how this framework would be applied widely in the musical world, it has already served as a helpful tool for my thinking about new music. Prior to my shift towards this post-genre mentality, much of my analysis of Roomful of Teeth had to do with how non-Western classical stylistic elements broke the convention of what we’d expect from a group of classically trained musicians. Take Wally Gunn’s The Ascendant for example, a piece written for Roomful of Teeth and drum kit.
When first exploring the piece, I wondered why Gunn had decided to use the drum kit. What statement was he making by throwing a drum kit, more typically associated with pop/rock projects, into this group of singers? Was he actively trying to genre blend and expand classical music to include this type of instrumentation? My shift towards a post-genre aesthetic allowed me to rethink this analysis. My assumption that a composer’s use of drum kit had to mean something related to stylistic commentary is a problematic one within this framework; instead, by looking at Wally Gunn’s background and speaking with him about intent, I was able to gain a better understanding about this piece as an individual entity, rather than as a part of a collective genre-based musical identity. 
The problem there is the veering away from any objective understanding of the music into the psychological intentions of the composer. In addition, in the absence of any objective elements, Schiller gives us an impenetrable word-salad. What could she mean by "non-Western classical stylistic elements" or "stylistic commentary"? Yes, the piece is an individual entity, but Schiller's aesthetic prevents her from seeing anything objective in the piece. If we listen, some things are pretty clear. Blogger won't embed, so follow the link:

In the beginning, at least, there is a real resemblance to hocket, a technique used in music of the 13th and early 14th centuries. Later, there are other discernible influences. The focus on the intent of the composer is very problematic indeed, as I think I have pointed out in a few posts. The result of "post-genre aesthetic thinking" is to obfuscate understanding, not to further it.

This post got rather out of hand, didn't it? Let's end by listening to some Medieval music using hocket technique. The Wikipedia article I just linked to has a nice discussion of its use in recent music.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

From The Quietus comes Songs Of Discomposure: Quietus Writers Pick Their Most Disturbing Pieces Of Music.
For this feature, we set our writers a brief: write about the most disturbing music you own, or have ever heard. The responses were varied. 'Disturbing' is a broad term, and the resulting 40 pieces of music, compiled below, plumb all manner of darkness.
I wish I had thought of this! Mind you, I don't have forty people to consult. But if you want to weigh in in the comments, please do. Most of the selections are from pop music, but there are some classical choices:
Composer György Ligeti is one of the few artists to even come close to getting a glimpse of what a possible image of the absolute could be. Having in his youth experienced the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the brutal totalitarianism of Soviet-backed Hungary, he was ready to push the boundaries of what we call music beyond any accepted boundaries, systems, or ideologies to try and find a musical riposte to the horrors of the 20th century. His most profound statement was with Requiem.
Along with 'First We Take Manhattan', 'The Future' is one of the most illustrative and potent of Leonard Cohen's brilliant mid-period albums when he managed to combine superficially cheery production values with prescient lyrics of humanity out of sorts with itself - or as he so brilliantly put it, "the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold / and overturned the order of the soul". All you really need to do to point out why this is one of the most chillingly disturbing songs of all time is to read the lyrics in one browser tab and the day's news in another. Leonard Cohen saw what was coming. Leonard Cohen was right.
* * *

Finally a scientific "study" that makes some sense: Playlist of the Lambs: psychopaths may have distinct musical preferences
Contrary to the movie trope epitomised by Alex in The Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs, psychopaths are no fonder of classical music than anyone else, though they do appear to have other musical preferences, psychologists say.
In a study of 200 people who listened to 260 songs, those with the highest psychopath scores were among the greatest fans of the Blackstreet number one hit No Diggity, with Eminem’s Lose Yourself rated highly too.
Well that makes more sense, doesn't it? I often wonder if a lot of nonsense that we seem to put credence in isn't just the attempt of some director, columnist, writer, somewhere to "push the envelope." More from the article:
Kevin Dutton, a psychologist at Oxford, and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, has been gathering data on musical tastes and other preferences for a psychopath study with Channel 4. More than three million people have responded so far, and while online surveys have serious weaknesses, the results so far suggest psychopaths favour rap music over classical and jazz. They also seem more likely to read the Financial Times than other newspapers.
Regardless of its accuracy, Dutton suspects movie directors like the idea of classical music-loving psychopaths because of the “irresistibly alluring” juxtaposition. “The coming together of the dark, visceral, primeval psychopathic mind and the higher aesthetic of classical composition is inherently incongruous, and there is a whole body of literature on the creative potential of incongruity,” he said. “It is the hypnotically captivating and age-old appeal of the ‘beauty and the beast’, only under the same cortical roof.”
* * *

This seemed so interesting that I wanted to share: Three wild speculations from amateur quantitative macrohistory. I know it is rather off-topic, but we talk a lot about music history here and the contrast between that and world history is rather interesting.  We sometimes have the feeling that there was a kind of aesthetic peak somewhere in the past--different times and places according to taste--and that we are now living in an age of aesthetic decline. There may be some truth there. But taking a wider view, the lot of humanity was pretty bad for nearly all of history, then, at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, everything got fantastically better:
In How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?, I looked for measures (or proxy measures) of human well-being / empowerment for which we have “decent” scholarly estimates of the global average going back thousands of years. For reasons elaborated at some length in the full report, I ended up going with:
  1. Physical health, as measured by life expectancy at birth.
  2. Economic well-being, as measured by GDP per capita (PPP) and percent of people living in extreme poverty.
  3. Energy capture, in kilocalories per person per day.
  4. Technological empowerment, as measured by war-making capacity.
  5. Political freedom to live the kind of life one wants to live, as measured by percent of people living in a democracy.
(I also especially wanted measures of subjective well-being and social well-being, and also of political freedom as measured by global rates of slavery, but these data aren’t available; see the report.)
Anyway, the punchline of the report is that when you chart these six measures over the past few millennia (data; zoomable), you get a chart like this:

Click to enlarge
* * *

Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic for the New York Times, pens a piece talking about his job:
Music, especially purely instrumental music, resists being described in language. It’s very hard to convey sounds through words. Perhaps that’s what we most love about music: that it’s beyond description, deeper than words. Yet the poor music critic has to try. Musicians can use a precise terminology to describe music. But I have to assume that these complex terms — chromatic harmony, canon, tone row — will baffle the majority of readers, even amateur music lovers who go to concerts all the time.
Well, perhaps, unless you make the minor effort now and then to acquaint your readers with their meaning? Chromatic harmony: chords that use notes not normally part of the key; canon: when the same melody overlaps with itself as in "Row, row, row your boat"; tone row: all the notes available arranged in a certain order--used by modernist composers to avoid any suggestion of a key. There, that wasn't too hard, was it?

* * *

This piece at NewMusicBox is almost a demonstration of the problems of using a psychological approach to aesthetics--what I was talking about in my post a couple of days ago on Aesthetic Objects:
At its most simple, [post-genre] is a system of thinking about music that steps away from using genre as the main method of characterization and appraisal. Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer.
 "Genre" is a word standing in for all concepts of aesthetics that involve an objective element. Instead, everything is subjective. Which makes evaluation impossible, of course.

* * *

I just don't seem to have anything frivolous for you today, well, except for the NewMusicBox theory of aesthetics! So let's have a lovely, light and airy piece of music as our envoi. This is pianist Grigory Sokolov playing "La Poule" by Jean-Philippe Rameau:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Music, Society and Cultural Policy

Most of the time government is content to throw a few dollars (pounds, euros?) at "cultural industries" and go on ignoring the arts. That phrase "cultural industries" that always seems to pop up in government policy studies, gives me a headache. I have this fleeting image of rows of composers at little desks writing thousands of hemidemisemiquavers in a backstreet sweatshop somewhere. I have little faith that government cultural policy--which means, basically, subsidies--will have much effect one way or the other on the cultural fabric of the nation, so, for me, examining what is being said is largely a way of understanding how the mainstream of society tends to regard the arts.

Today's post is inspired by two recent articles, one in the Globe and Mail about Canada's new cultural policy: The 10 key takeaways. The other is in The Guardian: The Guardian view on musical education: it needs social harmony. Let's have some quotes, first from the Globe and Mail:
Last spring, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly launched a broad Cancon policy review, saying "everything was on the table" in how the federal government funds Canadian culture and media.
For those of you not familiar with Canadian cultural policy, the main thing driving it is Canada's proximity to the giant engine of US culture. Eighty percent of the population live within two hundred miles of the US border so they are inundated with US radio and television. Canada has a native media industry who are always trying to get hefty government subsidies so that in Canada we can hear and see our own stories instead of American ones. Yes, it is a problem. But the result of this seems to be Canadian programming (called "Cancon" for "Canadian content") that is even duller and less creative than it otherwise would have been.
A "Netflix tax," which would have been levied upon digital media producers and Internet service providers, had been discussed previously as a potential source of revenue to fund more and higher quality Canadian content.
Netflix has been killing cable companies in Canada, just like in the US. The expected response was to hit them with a tax to support local content. As it turns out, they got Netflix to "voluntarily" promise to invest $500 million in
developing and distributing Canadian television shows and movies
Six of one, half a dozen of the other in my view. Canadian cultural policy, no matter how nice it sounds, always comes down to punishing successful businesses economically so you can support, with subsidies, ones that people are less interested in. The secret ingredient is always the government who chooses whom to punish and whom to reward.

Now let's look at Great Britain, where there is a very different cultural context:
Opening the conservatoire, its principal, Julian Lloyd Webber, said the new building came at a difficult time for arts funding, and he hoped to use the new college “to ensure that the future arts industry is not dominated by the wealthy elite”. He will have to try hard. Those studying music at university are vastly more likely to hail from private schools, or from abroad.
The driving force in cultural policy in the UK seems to be the fight against historic class divisions: the "wealthy elite" serve as the scapegoat much as the US does in Canada.
Music is taught in the majority of schools around the country, but it is skewed towards the rich. Those wishing to study classical music, a grounding that can lead to rock and pop, must often pay for private tuition and own their own instrument, which cuts out those who cannot afford it.
The same is true in Canada, of course. Those families who through cultural tradition or wealth or both who provide private music lessons for their children give them the possibility of becoming musicians that other families do not. But in Canada it does not seem to be an issue, while in the UK it is.

I guess my cynical takeaway from these two articles is that, first, Canadian cultural policy is all about, all about, finding a way to subsidize influential cultural moguls that can be sold to the general public. In the UK it is all about trying to find ways of supporting cultures, like classical music, that are tarred with the brush of elitism, by making them seem not elitist. So it's really about smoke, mirrors and hypocrisy. Isn't it?

Let's have a suitable envoi. For those who don't know, Julian Lloyd Webber is the brother of Andrew Lloyd Webber and a fine cellist. Here he is playing the last movement of the Haydn C major cello concerto:

But, good grief, what is he wearing?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Aesthetic Objects

We just had a mini-debate about what should have been included in my list of Ten Best Compositions of the 20th Century. I admit that sometimes I put up a list because it is the traditional way of attracting traffic on the web! But I think that these kinds of things can also be useful exercises because they encourage us to evaluate and be critical. In a world where all the Big Narratives are about Diversity, Inclusiveness and Equality, it is precisely the critical and evaluative functions of our minds that are neglected.

At The Music Salon, the kind of evaluation we are usually doing is aesthetic valuation or criticism. That is, statements about aesthetic objects, so it is a good idea to talk a little bit about what an aesthetic object is. My guide for this discussion is the excellent book by Munroe C. Beardsley I have referred to before: Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism.

Psychological definitions: these ways of defining an aesthetic object refer to them as objects deliberately produced by human beings, moreover, for aesthetic motives like self-expression. The problem with this kind of definition is that we still have to define "aesthetic object" independently of its psychological conditions, otherwise we could not identify those psychological conditions that are involved in the production of aesthetic objects (as opposed to other kinds of objects). Further, there is the problem of, say, ancient cave art. We have no idea of the psychological conditions that produced them. The same applies to religious art which may or may not have any aesthetic motives involved.

Instead of examining the psychological motives, we might instead look at the effects of an aesthetic object. We might say that a perceptual object is not an aesthetic object unless it produces a certain kind of experience. We might distinguish the effects of aesthetic objects from mere entertainment in this way. But here we run into the same problem that is illustrated by putting the problem in the form of this question: "What psychological states and processes are generally, or universally, found in responses to aesthetic objects?" Again, we have to define aesthetic object independently of its psychological effects to avoid begging the question.

Yet another problem is the need to avoid the normative element. If you are defining an aesthetic object in terms of its aesthetic effect, which has an underlying element of valuation (meaning an aesthetic effect is assumed to be "good"), then it is hard to talk about worthless aesthetic objects!

Another way of defining an aesthetic object is in terms of our attitude toward it. We could call this the "aesthetic attitude." You might, for example, regard an apple from various perspectives: its economic value, its nutritional value, or its qualities of appearance and taste. In the latter case you are taking more of an aesthetic attitude. Or you could be reading a book like Darwin's Origin of Species and following his theory of evolution and the evidence he assembles. But if you are reading it more for the clarity and force of his prose, that would be an aesthetic attitude--you are paying attention more to the literary values of the work. This definition is relational. Anything can be regarded as an aesthetic object, though some kinds of things are more likely to be approached with an aesthetic attitude. The advantage of this kind of definition is that it is very broad. Perhaps too broad, as while we might choose to read Aristotle's Metaphysics for its poetic charm, it is not very satisfactory to do so!

The above notes and commentary are derived from Beardsley, pp. 58 - 62. Let's stop here for today and listen to some music. This is a little tune, premiered in 1896, by Richard Strauss titled Also Sprach Zarathustra, based on the book by Friedrich Nietzsche. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Berlin Philharmonic:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Shostakovich's Birthday Today!

And I didn't get him anything! Let's celebrate with three of his silliest and most whimsical compositions. The first, Tahiti Trot, came out of a bet. He was with a friend, forget who, and for some reason his friend bet him that he couldn't do a full orchestration of "Tea for Two" in under an hour after hearing it once. Here is the result, after forty minutes or so:

Here is his potential top-forty hit, Waltz No. 2 from a Suite for Jazz Orchestra:

And finally, his Polka from a ballet, "The Age of Gold"

Now blow out the candles!

A 20th Century Debate

My post from Saturday on the Ten Best Compositions of the 20th Century sparked some interesting comments. One of them made such outstanding points that I want to bring it, and my response, into a separate post. First you should go read the original post so you know what we are arguing about. Where the discussion got very interesting was with this comment from Anonymous (a regular commentator):
I find that list depressing. Mind you, the selection is perfectly reasonable. I would probably add Ligeti, remove Prokofiev or Ives. But it's scary to think how relatively weak these pieces are compared with a 19th c. equivalent. (Only the Rite stands out.) Wagner alone has produced greater music than all of your pieces combined.
I think the problem is the very concept of 20th c. music. It actually makes little sense historically. Twenty is just a nice round number but it's meaningless. Historically, the period you want to consider and compare would be called "modernity" and that's 1870-1950. You would then have a more coherent, and far stronger selection.
To which I responded:
Very good point about the arbitrariness of the century and yes, 1870 to 1950 is an era in itself. However, in recent years historians have been eschewing using terms like "Baroque" and "Romantic" in favor of labeling their studies simply the "19th Century" or the "20th Century." However I have to disagree about the 19th century. It is just personal taste, but I don't find much that I enjoy from the death of Schubert to Debussy. Shocking, I know, but I have never had much liking for the ponderous pomposity of 19th century music. Exceptions for Chopin, some Brahms... I find Wagner to be particularly unpleasant! But, as I say, just a personal view. I look at the list of 20th century music and think, "wow, what great stuff!"
Anonymous came back with a further comment:
In your list only Stravinsky might be seriously considered in the top 10 among all composers. Perhaps Bartok but that's already pushing it. 
Meanwhile, in the 19th c., you have Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy, Wagner who are all instant top-10 members. Next, people like Schumann, Brahms, Verdi, Chopin, Puccini are all knocking on the door. 
In other words, nearly half of the 10 greatest composers who ever lived can be associated with the 19th c. 
Another problem with your list is the sole inclusion of Reich. To me, he's the greatest American composer that ever lived. But his inclusion requires the consideration of Jazz musicians, for example, Miles Davis, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk, and especially John Coltrane. So if you're going to have Reich, then you need to have Coltrane because they share so much -- and in just about all aspects (originality, range, influence), people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane leave, say, Ives or Messiaen in the dust.
The problem is this: until 1950, the best musical minds went into classical music. After that, this was no longer true. Also, too much of music composition moved into academia, from which great art has never emerged.
This was a very stimulating comment, so I responded with this:
Excellent comment!! I did say that this was just personal taste for me, so setting that aside and looking at it objectively, yes, there are a lot of great, that is to say, widely loved, composers from the 19th century. Let's take the New York Times list, put together by Anthony Tommasini as our benchmark. The list, in order, is Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Brahms, Verdi, Wagner and Bartók. We might quibble over some, but let's just take it as a reasonable attempt to list the greatest composers no longer living starting with Bach (pre-Bach composers were excluded).
Here are my quibbles: Beethoven and Schubert are composers born in the 18th century who had their greatest influence in the 19th century, but to my mind, they are not really 19th century composers. What Charles Rosen calls "The Romantic Generation" begins with a number of composers all born around 1810: Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann and Chopin. Those are the true 19th century composers. Beethoven and Schubert wrote music on a solid 18th century foundation. Debussy, while born in the 19th century (as were Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Sibelius, all composers we consider 20th century) is considered to be perhaps the founder of 20th century music. I know that it seems as if I have just promulgated a contradiction: why do I consider composers born in the late 18th century to be more 18th century and ones born in the late 19th century to be more 20th century? Yes, it seems odd! But I think that is due to the fact that the large tidal movements in the arts do not quite align with the zeros! In other words, the 18th century musical structures did in fact endure into the first part of the 19th century, while the 20th century concepts of structure began a bit before the turn of the century. This is all debatable, of course! But assuming that what I have proposed is plausible, that means that, on Tommasini's list, four of the ten are 18th century (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert), three are 20th century (Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartók) and only three are 19th century (Brahms, Verdi and Wagner) and two of them are known only for opera.
Your other point is regarding Steve Reich. Yes, he does seem to both be an awkward fit with the other composers on the list, but at the same time, I agree, he is perhaps the greatest American composer. He is the only one on the list who came to prominence after 1950. But I think it is pretty clear that he is a "classical" composer. According to Reich's own way of classifying music, he is one of the guys who writes it down, that is to say, he creates a musical score which is then performed by specialist musicians. Jazz, while an influence on his style, is a very different genre with different methods. If we accept your criteria we would have to consider other influences: drumming from Ghana and gamelan from Bali. In a similar vein, we would have to bring in Ravi Shankar if we are talking about the music of Philip Glass.
But your last point is a very powerful one! I have experienced this with my own students: the most highly gifted tended to go into something else other than classical music! And yes again, academia does not produce great music, though I am not sure why. Composers are always bemoaning their poverty and difficulty of getting performances and general insignificance. Academia provides a nurturing environment with a steady paycheck, enthusiastic students, performance opportunities and prestige. So why don't academic composers write great music?
Here is the Tommasini list from the New York Times:

The question of why the environment of academia seems to stifle creativity is a good one, and one that I don't have an answer for.

On reflection, it seems that one of the most important events in music in the 19th century was the dominance of opera. I don't think any other century or era witnessed the over-reaching of one genre to this extent. The concerto was very important in the 18th century, but it did not dominate the way opera did in the 19th century. Just look, two out of the three 19th century composers were known ONLY for opera! And the century is rife with other composers who were nearly exclusively opera composers: Rossini (yes, born in the 18th century, but worked extensively in the 19th), Puccini, Massenet, Bellini, Gounod, Offenbach, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov. The only serious rivals to opera were the solo piano recital, invented by Liszt, and the symphony concert. These two genres were almost as important as opera, to music historians at least, if not the audiences of the day. Opera was the mass entertainment of the century as the cinema and team sports were of the 20th century.

It is spectacularly true that no 20th century composers were very successful with opera, with the exception of Alban Berg, who only wrote two (well, one and a bit). Overnight, it seems, composers moved into other genres.

Fascinating subject...

Let's have an envoi. How about some great 19th century music? Giuseppe Verdi's life precisely spans what I see as the "19th Century" which actually begins a bit into the century: 1813 - 1901. Aida is one of his greatest masterpieces. This is a San Francisco Opera production starring Luciano Pavarotti and Margaret Price:

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Veridical and Illusory Aesthetic Characteristics

Getting back to Monroe C. Beardsley's book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, I want to do a few more posts on aesthetics.

The title sounds rather fancy, I know. It is just pointing out that some characteristics belong to the aesthetic object, while others do not. For example, knowing that Sibelius had great financial difficulties or that Charles Ives worked in the insurance industry are not facts or characteristics belonging to the music they wrote. So much of what we read in program or liner notes actually points us away from the music, rather than toward it. Things that depend on knowledge of the causal conditions of the production of an artwork, whether a building contains steel beams or not, or whether a composer used software rather than manuscript paper, are not part of the aesthetic object as perceived by the viewer or listener. Beardsley writes: hear properly certain kinds of music, it may be necessary for a listener whose phenomenal field is easily affected by his beliefs about the lives and loves of composers to push those beliefs out of his focus of attention: if Schubert's music sounds pathetic to one who sympathizes with his poverty, that is a mistake. [op. cit. p. 52]
This is not to say that we come to all aesthetic objects cold: an experienced listener brings to the table a lot of knowledge of the style, genre, and general construction of the work even if hearing it for the first time.

There are some interesting problems associated with the performing arts that do not trouble us in the case of, say, paintings or sculptures. The main ones have to do with the fact that a musical composition has various productions, each of which may reveal some, if not all, of the characteristics of the aesthetic object. Beardsley writes:
Let us, then, distinguish, in the case of music, three things: (1) There is the composer's artifact--in this case, the score. (2) There is the performance; any rendition of the sonata that is recognizably guided by the composer's instructions in the artifact will be called a performance of that sonata, but there will, of course, be many different performances of the same work. (3) There is the presentation-- a single experience of the music--and for each performance there may be a number of presentations. [He means that there is a presentation for each listener, including the performer. Op. cit. p. 55]
There is an interesting problem that arises: how do you answer the question, "how long is the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor?" If we look at this clip of the movement conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste we see that it is 15:34 long:

But when we listen to this clip of the same piece conducted by Vaclav Naumann it is 17:19 in length:

So how long is the movement? Fifteen minutes or seventeen minutes? This just demonstrates that the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, first movement, is not the name of a single aesthetic object. These are both productions of the same work, but they are not producing the same aesthetic object. Music critics, when they are reviewing a performance of a musical work are reviewing a particular production of that work as it was presented to them. A music theorist or musicologist, however, might be talking, not about any particular production or presentation, but about the composer's artifact, i.e. the score. So I might be tempted to answer the question, "how long is the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 by saying, "It is 547 measures long" which is how many measures there are in the score.

There are some interesting differences in popular music where there is often one unique production of a work. For example, The Beatles' recording of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is the one and only original production of the song (though there are some varying and fragmentary recorded versions created during the writing of the song--we could consider them "sketches"). It is 4:07 in duration. So for this composition, there is an answer to the question, "how long is Strawberry Fields Forever?" Mind you, each "cover" of the song by other artists will have a different length.

So there you go, just some little observations about aesthetics to muse over.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ten Best Compositions of the 20th Century

Way back in the mid-1970s I was enrolled in an undergraduate course in music titled "20th Century Music" that was a survey course. Twenty years later I found myself in a similar course, "20th Century Theory and Analysis" (a doctoral seminar) taught by the same professor! At one point he remarked that every year he taught either course it got more difficult because the century got longer. When he started, he only had seventy or so years to teach, but now it was almost a hundred. Actually, I think it would be much easier now because the winds of time have started winnowing down the repertoire you have to cover. Back then you had to discuss Momente by Stockhausen and Le Marteau sans Maître by Boulez and something by Ligeti and Xenakis and Nono and Kagel. But now I think we can ignore that stuff as it seems to have sunk below the surface due to widespread audience rejection. The uncomfortable truth is that the audience does in fact have the final word. If no-one wants to hear your music, then musicians will sooner or later give up playing it.

One of the best ways to attract traffic on the internet seems to be by doing lists. Of course if you are doing lists of classical music you do limit your audience! Much better to do lists of the best cat videos or the stupidest things politicians said this week or best recipes for pasta sauces. Still, my list of the top ten pieces for classical guitar remains a perennial favorite, the most-viewed post on the blog. So here goes, my pick of the ten best compositions of the 20th century. I suspect you know what number one will be. In traditional internet style, we begin with number 10. The links will undoubtedly decay over time, but for now I will put in clips of each piece.

10. Charles Ives, Three Places in New England

9. Alban Berg, Wozzeck

8. Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2

7. Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie

6. Igor Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms

5. Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 5

4. Bela Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

3. Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

2. Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians

1. Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

(I don't know why, but this clip insists on starting a few seconds in. Just put it back to the beginning!)

Enjoy! And explain to me how I'm all wrong in the comments. I wasn't too analytical with this. I just went with my gut for most of it. These are pieces that continue to fascinate me and that I always enjoy listening to. For some of them I could have swapped in others: instead of Wozzeck I could have listed the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. Instead of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto I could have listed the Sibelius Violin Concerto and so on. The only ones on the list that are really indispensable are The Rite, Steve Reich's Music, and the Turangalîla-Symphonie because they really don't have any equivalents! But I could have replaced the Shostakovich symphony with a couple of other pieces by him and the same with the Bartók. Anyway, these are my choices! If I had one more space I would have included the Symphony No. 3 by Gorecki or something by Arvo Pärt.

Just a final note: I do in fact think that The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky is the finest composition of the 20th century and there is a lot of evidence to back that up. But for the rest of the list, the order is somewhat arbitrary. If you want to say that the Sibelius symphony should come before the Bartók, then I won't argue. These pieces are in such different styles that they are rather incommensurable. Which is better, Wozzeck or the Symphony of Psalms? Or the Music for 18 Musicians? Tell me about it in the comments.

Models of Artistic Lives

Artists of all kinds are outliers in the social fabric. The reasons for this are probably complex, but they likely include things like the difficulty of earning money through artistic creation, a disinterest in the usual criteria of success in life and an ambiguous relationship with the social hierarchy. All this does tend to free one to focus on the creative act, but it also complicates ordinary life.

In the era of patronage, when most artists were funded by the church or the nobility, often in competition with one another, what you had to do was fairly clear, I would imagine: appeal to the tastes or vanity or ambition of your patron. Italy seems to have been particularly blessed with wealthy, visionary patrons which partly explains the great art of the Renaissance and Baroque. As the eighteenth century came to an end the patronage began to shift from the aristocracy, more and more eliminated by revolution and social change, to a widespread support by the middle class, who began to adopt some of the artistic tastes of the nobility. Haydn was supported for most of his life by a single aristocratic family, the Esterházys, Beethoven by a circle of wealthy patrons, but Schumann wrote music criticism and edited a journal. Chopin taught private students, Mendelssohn was a conductor, as was Mahler, and director of an important music school. Some composers, like Wagner, still had aristocratic patronage, but that was rare in the later 19th century. By the time we get to someone like Sibelius (1865 - 1957) the struggle to support a family was dire indeed. Here is a lament he wrote in 1911:
My domestic harmony and peace are at an end because I cannot earn sufficient income to supply all that is needed. A constant battle with tears and misery at home. A hell! I feel completely unworthy in my own home ... Poor Aino! [his wife] It can hardly be easy to manage the house on so little. It makes me more than aware of the truth in the old saying: do not marry if you cannot provide for your wife in the style to which she was accustomed before. The same food, clothes, servants -- in a word the same income.
Sibelius, like many Finns, was a family man. He and Aino had six daughters. Most artists, while they are, as I said, outliers, they are outliers from a certain level in society--the upper middle class. Yes, there are working class artists and aristocratic artists, but I suspect that they are the minority. Most come from some level of the middle class, especially considering that this is the largest part of modern societies. All his life Sibelius struggled with the two problems of providing for his family and his overindulgence in cigars and alcohol. He received support from the state and an income from publishing, but this was never quite enough.

Charles Ives' life (1874 - 1954) illustrates the difficulties of an artist in the New World. Though he studied music at Yale, he never seriously attempted to earn a living as a composer. Soon after graduation he entered the insurance business and later on founded his own company. It was Charles Ives who invented the field of estate planning for the wealthy! He composed a great deal of largely experimental music, but stopped around 1927. His manuscripts moldered in a garage and his music was largely ignored until Leonard Bernstein did some important premieres in the 1950s.

In the later 20th century things got even worse because few governments outside of northern Europe provide any pension for their artists, just a few paltry and sporadic grants. Nearly every composer has to follow the path of academia, teaching theory and composition in a conservatory or university. This does not seem to lead to much brilliant, creative work! The outstanding composers all seem to be outside that model. Philip Glass worked at lower class jobs like driving a taxi, being a plumber and a furniture mover and he did this well into his forties when he started getting enough commissions to scrape by. He lived a largely bohemian life. Steve Reich seems to have found enough patrons to subsist until he formed his ensemble and began doing a lot of performances and recordings.

Stravinsky seems to have been the last composer to have achieved enough fame in society to generate a good income. Early on he got significant commissions from Diaghilev and continued to write well-received ballets for decades after. He got a lot of important commissions and also derived income from performances, recordings and a long series of books written with Robert Craft.  Alas, with the exception of Philip Glass, who has followed a similar path in his prolific writing for theatre and film, this seems out of reach for anyone else.

One siren call these days seems to be to figure out a way to emulate or share in the bounty of popular music where it is possible to earn fantastic sums of money. But while the occasional popular artist might dabble in art music and the occasional classical composer might dabble in popular music, the two seem largely unreconcilable.

It ain't easy!

Let's listen to a fairly early piece by Charles Ives. This is Central Park in the Dark, composed in 1906. This the Northern Sinfonia conducted by James Sinclair:

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Kicking off the miscellanea with the 50 best-selling music artists of all time from the Independent. It starts with The Beatles, of course:
England's greatest rock band holds the top spot on the all-time ranking of best-selling artists by album sales, and it looks untouchable on a bizarre list filled with a number of surprising appearances.
It's somewhat shocking to find out, for instance, that smooth-jazz saxophonist Kenny G has sold more albums than Eminem, and that Garth Brooks has sold more than Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. 
We compiled this list by ranking the most successful acts in music history according to their total certified album units sold in the US, as provided by the RIAA. 
I have GOT to release a "smooth classical" album! Here are the top 4:
4. Led Zeppelin -- 111.5 million units
3. Elvis Presley -- 136 million units
2. Garth Brooks -- 148 million units
1. The Beatles -- 178 million units
The thing is that this is only for the US. Other lists have the Beatles and Elvis Presley tied for first place with about a billion units each on worldwide sales.

* * *

The Washington Post has an article on the legacy of Leonard Bernstein:
But Bernstein also spotlights some of the fault lines running through the American musical establishment, and the centennial makes it clear that, in spite of his example, they haven’t changed all that much. Ironically, the classical music world will be feting Bernstein in part for his role in merging the American vernacular with high-art music, in works such as “Candide” and “West Side Story.” But throughout his life, critics castigated him for not being serious enough. And even today, the classical music world tends to look down on Broadway, or film scores, as not being fully serious, or somehow tainted. Some of the artists who most energetically took up Bernstein’s mantle as a champion of both musicals and operas — such as DeMain and John Mauceri, who worked closely with Bernstein for 18 years — haven’t always gotten the respect accorded to conductors who focused on the standard European canon.
That last bit is just the usual shibboleths isn't it? If you write light music or Broadway or film scores it is not that the classical world thinks you are unserious or "tainted" (good grief, tainted?), it is just that these genres have a different function and audience. Even Beethoven wrote light music such as Scottish folksong arrangements and Wellington's Victory and no-one says he is "tainted."

* * *

Yes, I know I am often complaining about Alex Ross, but he had quite an interesting item on his blog about John Wooldridge who was both a Royal Air Force bomber pilot and a composer. The two streams met when he wrote the music for a film, starring Dirk Bogarde, about his, Wooldridge's, life!
The best account of Wooldridge's life available is a Music Web International essay by his son, Hugh Wooldridge. During the war, he flew ninety-seven missions, an extraordinarily high number. He continued to compose while serving in the RAF. Hugh Wooldridge writes: "During the first three years of the war, and in between flying, he wrote his first and most notable musical work — a symphonic poem The Constellations (1944) working alternately on borrowed pianos and the local padre’s organ. Much of this was sketched during the long bombing missions over occupied mainland Europe."
* * *

The New York Times weighs in on the Oregon Bach Festival controversy. You should read the whole thing, but this bit really caught my eye:
After the Eugene Weekly broke the news of Mr. Halls’s firing last month, the festival released an upbeat statement claiming that it was “moving forward in an exciting direction.” Janelle McCoy, who became its executive director in 2016, said in the statement that she wanted future festivals to be planned by “guest curators” — “a choreographer, stage director or jazz musician, for example” — not by a single artistic director.
So we go from Helmut Rilling's "old-school, big-symphony approach to Bach" to Matthew Halls' more historic approach to this new, exciting direction? I think that I would describe a Bach festival with a music director who was a choreographer or jazz musician as rather a horrifying prospect! But I actually like Bach, unlike, it seems, the current administration of the Oregon Bach Festival.

* * *

Just as my Rite of Spring series comes to a close, the Wall Street Journal reviews a revival of a Pina Bausch production.
At 35 minutes in length, “The Rite of Spring,” the older of these works, closes the program with generically fraught and repetitious moves. Two 16-strong contingents of female and male dancers moving, sometimes at frantic paces, all over designer Rolf Borzik’s plush-rug-thick layer of russet-colored peat provide moments of visceral impact. But, mostly, Bausch reduces Stravinsky’s primal and often thundering sonorities evoking the arrival of a dramatically changed season into an animated depiction of matched sets of fearful women and overweening men. Climactically, to the score’s “Sacrificial Dance,” a woman, who’s been singled out from the group by an anonymous man, dances, at an exhausting pace, many of the sharp and flailing moves that have come before.
 * * *

The Paris Review has a review of a performance, on violin, of John Cage's 4'33. It is the kind of stream-of-consciousness that Virginia Woolf might have written.
And even bad music, and especially bad music, has what they call hooks, bits you can remember and by remembering enjoy, but the music Cage “composed,” the music the “red-haired” man was “playing,” and everything ought to be in quotes because everything is partly something else. And because the “silence” I was hearing wasn’t something else, had no hooks to distract me from the purity of what it was, although that sounds pleasant, in the actual act of sitting there, I noticed anger arising. That’s how D. T. Suzuki, the Buddhist writer and the teacher of Cage, would have described it, and it was arising in me because, beneath the anger there was a desolation I didn’t want to feel, an aversion that caused the anger, and yes, I was judging myself, my inability to confront that desolation, and the judgments, were evolving like the music...
* * *

My feeling is that the perfect review of 4'33 would be more like this:

If you see what I mean.

* * * 

Also in The Paris Review is a piece on my favorite musical, The Band Wagon, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse (who has possibly the greatest legs ever):
I’ve always thought of The Band Wagon as a poor man’s Singin’ in the Rain. In film classes, one is encouraged to compare the two, presumably because they are contemporaneous and both regarded among the top five of the genre. If The Band Wagon holds together at any point, it’s because of a certain continuity of mood and feeling. It’s the consummate “putting on a show” musical. And it’s a movie about the theater that seems to suggest, even more than Singin’ in the Rain does, that if your problems can’t be fixed by love, they can still be fixed by art. And that art, in turn, can be fixed by self-knowledge, including the knowledge of one’s own limitations. “I’m just an entertainer,” says Astaire, trying to nip the “Faust” business in the bud. Entertainers have no business making art. But of course, art is the result of The Band Wagon’s messy weirdness, in both narrative and meta-narrative—and it lends the film a sense of completeness in spite of itself. The Band Wagon is a movie that tries to break up with the Hollywood system while using all its tricks.
* * *

 Let's have a double-barreled envoi today. I would like to put up The Constellations by John Wooldridge, but there are just a few brief clips of his film music on YouTube. This is an excerpt from his music for the movie Angels One Five:

And for our second item, the famous scene from The Band Wagon where Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse learn how to dance together in Central Park:

Oh, and notice that the dance number is shot in just a couple of long takes instead of the frenetic jump cuts of today's videos. Fred and Cyd had to memorize the whole sequence and perform it flawlessly because, no editing!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ad hominem plus guilt by association!

I wonder if my critique of the Musicology Now website a while back has not galvanized them into more activity. If that is so, I certainly apologize, because the heightened level of activity has not led to an improvement in quality. But given their core assumptions, I suppose that was to be expected. If Musicology Now is an accurate index of current musicology (which I don't believe), then they seem to have surrendered entirely to cultural Marxism. For an extended discussion, follow the link. But this quote gives some idea:
Cultural Marxists argue that all of life is a struggle against the forces of oppression and repression. Originally, classical Marxism focused rather narrowly on economic oppression and class conflict, but by the 1930s Neo-Marxists began to widen the scope of their cultural critique to include a broader range of social issues and even psychological factors – in particular, issues related to sexual repression. In their condemnation of Western culture, they emphasized social injustice and the plight of marginalized minorities – those victims of the bourgeois social order that included the working classes, racial minorities, radical feminists, homosexuals, and non-Christians in general. Therefore, it was within the context of their Neo-Marxist Critical Theory that they encouraged the politicization of the arts as part of a full-scale assault on Western culture.
The claim that all music, indeed every aspect of life, is political is a blatant ploy to end the discussion before it starts. If you disagree, then you are just another evil oppressor! My philosophical background leads me to reject all these sorts of arguments. One of my commentators alerts me to a recent post that really sums up what is wrong with this approach. The post is titled Does "Music Trump Politics"? Dennis Prager and the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. The first part is a re-hashing of the recent controversy over a conservative pundit conducting a benefit performance by the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra. The discussion is little more than an ad hominem smear as if you follow the links you will find that Mr. Praeger has been seriously misrepresented. The author, Ted Gordon, complains that the performance, instead of bringing people together, was divisive. Ironically, it is precisely the identity politics of cultural Marxism that result in deep social divisions. We are not allowed to enjoy a concert without dissecting it for political aspects. All of life is a struggle against the forces of oppression and repression! Of course, as it is the cultural Marxists that define what oppression is and who are the oppressors, they turn out to be the major force of repression.

The second part of the post is all about guilt by association. Apparently, as poor Joseph Haydn wrote a slow quartet movement that was later used as the anthem of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he has a "long history with politics." Another sin was to be admired by the music theorist Heinrich Schenker. Haydn himself appears to have done nothing wrong except to write very fine music. But still
"As scholars, we must think seriously and carefully about what we mean when we talk about "classical music"--and how to remain vigilant against the promotion of "Western Art Music" in the name of "Western supremacy" built on hatred, fear, and bigotry."
These are not arguments: they are nothing more than vicious ideological assertions with no basis in reality. But wow, a lot of people fall for them.

Let's listen to that hateful, fearsome and bigoted piece of music by Joseph Haydn, the "Kaiserlied," originally the slow movement to the Op. 76 "Emperor" Quartet. The performers are the Veridis Quartet:

UPDATE: Misspelling of "ad hominem" corrected.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite, part 6

We're getting very near the end, as some pop lyricist said, and not many pages remain to cover in this series. Taruskin delves into the ways that Stravinsky evokes and contrasts three different modalities or "polytonalities": the octatonic collection, the whole tone collection and the diatonic collection. Out of these three he can construct simple C major chords, or strong dissonances. As Taruskin summarizes:
we now have whole-tone, octatonic, and diatonic constructs from the source melodies all running concurrently, and all intersecting on C, which pitch is thus promoted to the status of a specious tonic. [op. cit. p. 930]
I have worked with this kind of structure myself, to a limited extent, and it is both effective and curious. It seems as it you are writing, sort-of, tonal music, but always with strange twists. This is so different from the completely atonal approach of Schoenberg and his followers, where you are always wandering in a trackless (though at times very, very symmetrical!) landscape.

The "Dance of the Earth" is the section that the above discussion is about and Taruskin describes it as:
at once one of the most radical sections of The Rite--surely the most radical by far in Part I--and the dance most rigorously based on folk-derived source melodies.
He goes on to say that The Rite is Stravinsky's "Eroica," referring to the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven which represented a similar kind of fundamental breakthrough. Nothing before (except, perhaps parts of Petrushka?) prepares you for the bewildering originality of The Rite. Taruskin's book, brilliant as it is, is not a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the work. For that he directs us to two books: The Harmonic Organization of "The Rite of Spring" by Allen Forte and Stravinsky and "The Rite" by Pieter Van den Toorn.

The Rite resonates, not only with folklore, but with earlier Russian music for the stage such as Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada and Snegurochka. Incidentally, the Opéra Comique production of the latter opera and Stravinsky's ballet shared not only the same designer of sets and costumes, Nikolai Roerich, but nearly the same designs! The characteristic timbres of Russian folk wind instruments is another shared quality. What Stravinsky did that was truly new and original was to take two elements present in Russian music, the folkloristic and modernistic, and synthesize them in an original way.

One unifying factor in The Rite is its use of two octatonic tetrachords, a tritone apart:

A characteristic "triad" is created by taking the outer notes of the upper tetrachord, D and G, and the lowest note of the lower one, G#, or the outer notes of the lower and the top note of the upper: G#, C# and G. This kind of sonority is common enough for Taruskin to dub it The Rite chord by analogy with the Petrushka chord.

Taruksin points to an exact contemporary of Stravinsky's, Mikhail Laryonov (1881 - 1964) and his partner Natalia Goncharova (1881 - 1962), as pursuing the same synthesis between folklore and modernism in his work:

Click to enlarge
Both have transcended their sources and contexts to achieve a "pan-human" result in the phrase of Roerich. Both are about a radical formal simplification, the sacrifice of kul'tura on the altar of stikhiya. The culture rejected by The Rite was that of the German symphonic tradition. Instead, formal procedures are stripped down to what is most basic: extension through repetition, alternation and sheer accumulation. This is what gives The Rite its elemental power. Instead of harmonic progression, thematic development and smooth transitions there would be stasis and abrupt discontinuities.

Taruskin sees two different kinds of rhythmic innovations: the immobile, hypnotic ostinato and the irregularly spaced downbeats, both features of Russian folk music. Here is an example of the latter, which Rimsky-Korsakov took down from the singing of Borodin's maid!

The barring, both in this song transcription and in The Rite, is rather arbitrary. When you combine the two different rhythmic techniques, as Stravinsky characteristically did, you obtain one of his most original textures.

And that brings us to the end of our long journey. I might offer a drive-by analysis of one or two movements in the near future, but this, I think, completes our survey of the context for The Rite of Spring. This has been just a collection of notes from Richard Taruskin's monumental work of music scholarship, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra.

So for our final envoi, here is, yet again, a performance of the work. This is the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez, which is, I think, the version I first purchased around 1970:

Monday, September 18, 2017

From Prestige to Notoriety

I don't have quite the right tag for this--my subtitle might have been "what has happened to our institutions of higher learning?" What got me thinking is the latest kerfuffle over the firing of Matthew Halls as director of the Oregon Bach Festival by the University of Oregon. If you want a quick, nasty take on it, read this over at Slipped Disc. For a longer and more nuanced treatment, there is an article in The Spectator:
Mr Halls insists he has not been told why he has been fired. Sponsors and supporters of the festival are also in the dark. Oregon University, which runs the bash, has said only that it intends to pursue a ‘different direction’ to the one pursued by Mr Halls, and hence he has to go. I would have thought there were a limited number of directions one could pursue with a Bach festival, most of them in the general direction of playing some Bach, but there we are. However, a very close friend of Mr Halls’s thinks he knows why he was fired. Reginald Mobley, a hugely talented counter-tenor, and an African-American, believes it is because a stupid white woman overheard a conversation between himself and Halls and construed one of Halls’s comments as being — yes, yes, we’re there again — racist. And complained to the authorities.
Another theory has it that the festival was experiencing a drop in attendance and this is why Halls was let go, but just a few weeks before his contract had been renewed to 2020, so that seems unlikely.

What I want to talk about is not the merits of this individual case, or related cases such as the debacle at Evergreen State College where out-of-control student protests allegedly created a hostile work environment for a biology professor and his wife or the fraught circumstances suffered by Madison Faupel at the University of Minnesota where she is president of the College Republican chapter. Instead, I want to examine what seems to link these and other cases: a collapse of integrity at institutions of higher learning.

If we go back a few decades, universities and colleges were very prestigious places where distinguished scholars pursued their researches free of political bias and did so with a certain amount of courage on modest salaries. This seems to have changed, though, I am sure, some still remains. But if you look into the instances I cite above and other similar ones, it seems that the best characterization of current institutions is that they are now vehicles for political indoctrination and the administrators seem to be unable to resist pressure from extremists. Indeed, these extremists now seem to be the mainstream.

Instead of courage, what we see is rank cowardice. If you hunt around you can find videos of college administrators being berated by groups of student protestors and all they seem able to do is appease them. This seems to me to be the tail wagging the dog. Undergraduate students have always been susceptible to wacky idealisms, but what we are experiencing now is a level of viciousness that seems so out of proportion that one wonders, is it simply political correctness gone viral or is this a very clever strategy?

What does seem to be revealed is an emptiness at the heart of Western culture that makes it susceptible to a ravaging virus. The idea of preserving, presenting and teaching the quality of Western culture as exemplified in, for example, the music of Bach, used to be its own justification. But now it seems that the whole hierarchy of value is overturned and the mere (false) suspicion of racism overrules anything else. What we need are some serious antibodies to fight off the infection! Oh, yes, and to recognize that this is a cultural war and one that needs to be won.

Well, I hope that wasn't too political! There are not a lot of clips of Matthew Halls on YouTube, but here is the Sinfonia from the Bach Easter Oratorio with him conducting the Retrospect Ensemble:

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stravinsky and The Rite, part 5

When I talk about the "use" of folk melodies in The Rite, do not think for a moment that this is not a wholeheartedly creative act! As you can see from the last post, the rhythmic transformations were so thorough that you might not even see the connection. Other kinds of transformation were from major to Dorian mode, inserting a profusion of leaping grace notes reminiscent of dudki, the expansion of intervals (replacing half steps with thirds) and so on. There are some instances where the relationship between a folk melody source and The Rite is only traceable through the mediating authority of Stravinsky's sketchbook, where we can witness the transformation.

Taruskin explores four different instances of these transformations which he describes as Stravinsky's use of Russian folk music as a self-emancipation from the cul-de-sac that Russian music was trapped in. Let's look at one of his examples. Here is a facsimile page from the sketchbook. At the top of the page, tidily written out, is the Semik song "Nu-ka, kumushka, mï pokumimsya" which comes from Rimsky-Korsakov's anthology. The rest of the page shows developments of the tune for the "Spring Rounds" or "Khorovodï."

From p. 907 of Taruskin, op. cit.

We are so lucky to have access to Stravinsky's sketchbook! Taruskin offers a comparative analysis showing how the tune was transformed and incorporated in The Rite:

Taruskin, p. 909
What is really remarkable here is not that he found inspiration in folk melodies, that was quite common in composers of many countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What is remarkable is that he absorbed some stylistic elements, such as the leaping grace notes, and wholly transformed the original material with great freedom.

Another example, that I won't quote (see Taruskin pp. 911 et seq.), involves the deconstruction of a wedding song by using motifs from it as tesserae in a melodic mosaic, subjected to varied juxtapositions, internal repetition, transposition and so on. There is even a folk source for the kind of dissonant counterpoint we often find in The Rite. I mentioned many posts back that Russian folk music is actually performed by groups, not soloists, and it is typically full of heterophonic polyphony, meaning a melody accompanied by variants of itself. Taruskin quotes examples from the sketchbook. 

In a burst of enthusiasm, on page 36 of the sketchbook, Stravinsky scrawled a phrase that might serve as a motto for The Rite of Spring: "There is music wherever there is rhythm, as there is life wherever there beats a pulse."

And with that, let's pause for today and listen to another performance of The Rite. This is the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest of the Netherlands conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Just follow the link:

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Composers and Biographies

I've got a "biographies" tag that I use for general talk about the biographies of musicians and for the specific discussion of the relationship between biographical events and compositions. One of the things I like about Taruskin's book on Stravinsky, which he subtitles: "A Biography of the Works Through Mavra" is that he focuses the discussion on the works and what events and ideas influenced them and does not talk about Stravinsky's private life except as it is relevant.

I have said before that, despite a lot of loose talk, a musical composition is really not so much autobiography. I just ran across an interesting example in the life of Sibelius. I have been reading the monograph by Guy Rickards from Phaidon and ran across this passage:
Sibelius returned home at the end of May [1909] to a financial crisis ... He had totalled up a large number of his debts while still in London and these came to well over 50,000 Finnish marks, approximately five years' average income ... but by December, matters had come to a head and he put out a desperate appeal to Carpelan who came to Ainola to work out Sibelius' exact position. To the horror of all concerned, the final total debt was closer to 100,000 marks, and Sibelius' expenses exceeded his income annually by 6,000 marks which was twice the amount of his state pension. By the time Christmas arrived, help was at hand after Carpelan had successfully petitioned the wealthy Dahlström family in Turku for funds to alleviate (but by no means clear) his debts. Such was the measure of security this afforded the composer that Sibelius immediately declared to Carpelan that he would devote himself to the composition of a fourth symphony...
Ok, good news, so one would expect something rather celebratory in the symphony, wouldn't one? Here is a performance of the Symphony No. 4, op 63, with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:

That's a bit of a surprise. But not in my book. The aesthetic form and mood of a piece of music has nothing really to do with the psychological mood of the composer. Why not? I think they just live in different parts of the mind or brain.

The moral of the story? Never allow a composer to run a tab.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

This is, I guess, really good news. Canadian violinist Marc Djokic is awarded the $125,000 Prix Goyer, which is named after art patron Jean-Pierre Goyer of Montréal. What is really great about this is that it is a significant amount! Remember the last time I wrote about music prizes in Canada it was in reference to the insultingly tiny amounts for a competition in Vancouver? $800? Canadian? Now this one is worth winning. I know some of his collaborators as well, Jérôme Ducharme and Jaime Parker, both brilliant Canadian virtuosos. Djokic seems to be well-adapted for a career in today's media world. He won this, it seems, for the multitude of unusual collaborations which include marimba, piano, two guitars, dance and visual arts. Here is a short clip showing the diversity of his efforts:

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Make a joke with a friend and if it is overheard by a "useful idiot" then you can be fired from your prestigious job directing the Oregon Bach Festival. Read the Daily Mail for the details:
A British conductor has been fired from his job directing a prestigious American music festival after being branded racist over a joke, his friend says.
Matthew Halls, who was educated and taught at Oxford, was hired in 2014 as artistic director at the Oregon Bach Festival which is run by the University of Oregon.
But he has now been fired after a joke he made with African American friend and singer Reginald Mobley was overheard by a white woman and reported as racist.
Mr Mobley, who is from Florida, has since spoken out to defend his friend, saying Mr Halls was 'victimised' and the jibe had nothing to do with race.
He told The Sunday Telegraph: 'It was an innocent joke that has been entirely taken out of context.'
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This might be just a tad cruel, but I found this interview with pianist Yuja Wang and conductor Jaap van Zweden on the occasion of a concert in New York when, I believe, she was playing one of the Prokofiev concertos.

Ok, so what does she say when she does actually say something? Here, let's listen to her discuss the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3:

Well, actually, I think I prefer the first interview...

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Offered without comment is this remarkably articulate essay by a student in the UK about the sidelining of classical music:
Growing within our schools today is a disturbing trend; increasingly, music is viewed as an optional subject – something equivalent to a passion that merely runs parallel to ‘academic’ subjects – that leads to contempt for classical music borne out of an ignorance of all it contains. Maxwell Davies, speaking of his students at Cirencester Grammar School, said that 'It was extraordinary how the musical activities of those youngsters I taught influenced their whole attitude towards life inside the school, and outside. It was as if music were a catalyst or a trigger, which in so many instances sparked off a creative understanding in subjects which, on the surface, may not seem to be closely related - foreign languages, mathematics, religious studies.'
Read the whole thing.

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I'm always whining about how, in the absence of any really strong arguments from aesthetic value, the classical repertory will be swept away as if it never existed, replaced with ephemera. I say this because the process in literature is far advanced, English departments having long since been gutted by post-modernism. Witness this denouement in the Ontario school curriculum:
"There's probably a small minority who still believe that there is a literary canon that we need to hold onto. I think it's because it is the way we've always been taught," said Poleen Grewal, associate director of instructional and equity support services at the Peel board. "[But] if we are focusing on equity and inclusion as a school board, the work around inclusion must be visible at the student desk."
Ms. Grewal sent a memo to English department heads in June, asking them to explore culturally relevant texts after the school board heard from its students that their experiences were not being reflected in classroom literature. She attached a list of books, which includes A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse. Students in Ontario are required to take an English course every year of high school.
The Globe and Mail allowed comments on this article and when I read it there were forty-three comments of which forty-two were strongly against this policy and one (1) was weakly for it.

The 60s idea of "relevancy" is now buttressed with "equity" and "diversity." Any arguments to the contrary are depicted in the news story as "backlash." Instead of any kind of aesthetic criteria, the idea is that literature, to find its place in the curriculum, has to reflect the "experience" of the students. What experience? The experience of being indoctrinated in the assumptions of post-modern identity politics? It would appear so. Music has been resisting this fairly well, but recent indications seem to show that it is being overwhelmed as well.

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This concert was a bit of a tour-de-force, but one that he has done before, Yo-Yo Ma does the impossible at the Hollywood Bowl: all six of the Bach cello suites in one concert with a tiny intermission in the middle.

Safety tip: don't drink a lot of coffee before the concert.

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Here is a follow-up to the Oregon Bach Festival story, UNIVERSITY PAYS SACKED MAESTRO $90,000 FOR HIS SILENCE. As always with items at Slipped Disc, the comments are fun reading.

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This item has a bit of a "pushing on a string" feel to it, Can City Hall Make a Music Scene?
If a city wants to cultivate its musical biome to boost quality of life, education, tourism, and the local music biz itself, then it has to get serious about it. “That means it needs a policy,” he says. “It needs assessment mechanisms. It needs to be discussed in public. It needs to be less reactive and more proactive.”
Truth be told, local governments can hinder local music more than help. Hot scenes often arise from illicit spaces in struggling neighborhoods—musicians gravitate to lightly regulated and low-rent environs. Witness the punk and hip-hop movements that emerged from Lower East Side and South Bronx, respectively, during the 1970s: That didn’t happen because nigh-bankrupt New York City was promoting them. Today, several cities wary of disasters like Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire last year have shuttered the kinds of underground ad-hoc live-work-performance spaces that can incubate local scenes.
I don't know how it plays out in the US, but what often seems to happen in Canada is that as soon as some government arts policy, meaning funding of some sort, is announced, a host of opportunists spring up to siphon away the money.

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The inevitable envoi for today will be Yo-Yo Ma playing the Cello Suite No. 1 from his 2015 performance at the Proms when he also played all six suites in one go. YouTube won't embed, so just follow the link: