Friday, December 29, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

From The Federalist are two interesting essays on jazz and how to get into it. Some excerpts:
I love music, pretty much every type imaginable—just not jazz. Especially not the kind of jazz that jazz types like. You know, the free-form bebop stuff that always sounds like four guys who get paid by the note playing solos to different songs at the same time. Gibberish.
But I have always harbored the thought I might not be treating the music fairly. So I kept trying jazz and it kept making my brain hurt. I would think, Why can’t they have at least something vaguely resembling a song, or a melody, or a clue somewhere in the cacophony?
Enter David Reaboi, whom I work with, and is a jazz guy. 
For us early twenty-first-century listeners, jazz takes work for two main reasons: (1) we’re primarily used to listening for the familiar, rather than for new, very different musical variations; and, maybe most importantly, (2) because we grew up on post-Beatles pop music, hip hop, or classic rock, we just don’t have the repertoire in our ears and aural memories that allows us to really understand what’s happening on a typical jazz recording.
For a pretty interesting introduction to jazz, follow the link and read the essays. The second one is chock-full of illustrative clips.

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The Wall Street Journal has a review of a new book on the art of conducting. The review, by another conductor, is both detailed and extensive:
In his self-effacing autobiography, the Russian composer and pedagogue Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov confessed that conducting “baffled” him. If Stravinsky’s teacher had a hard time making sense of what someone standing in front of an orchestra waving a baton was doing (or was supposed to be doing), how can we expect audiences to appreciate and comprehend the art of conducting? Suspicion whether there is actually anything difficult or substantial to conducting is commonplace among instrumentalists who play in orchestras or with them as soloists. To the eminent chamber musician and critic Hans Keller, conducting was just a “phony” musical profession.
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We knew this was just a matter of time, right? Area musicians call on BSO to diversify programming:
A group of more than 60 area musicians is urging the Boston Symphony Orchestra to expand its programming beyond a white male canon to feature more works by female composers and people of color.
In an open letter, the group pointed out that though the symphony touts its diverse programming, the 2017-18 season “showcases neither diversity nor innovation.” Of the 73 pieces scheduled to be performed at Symphony Hall, only one is by a woman, the group noted.

“The remaining 72 pieces are all written by white men,” wrote the signatories, including performers in local ensembles and academics from Boston-area institutions including Harvard University and Berklee College of Music. The BSO “should demonstrate a commitment to equity by showcasing musical talent that is too often marginalized.”
I dunno, wasn't the traditional idea to demonstrate a commitment to aesthetic quality? I predict the next demand is to program a whole season or more of ONLY women composers, just to catch up. I guess I'm ok if a lot of the music is by Sofia Gubaidulina. Oh, darn, there I am with that aesthetic quality thingy again.

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Here is another story in a similar vein: Lido Pimienta, a Canadian musician (originally from Columbia), winner of the Polaris Prize and the Globe and Mail's artist of the year got involved in controversy at a concert in Halifax in October. Pimienta asks men at her concerts to move to the back, women to move forward and brown women to stand in front. OK. However, in this case a white woman photographer refused to move and caused an "incident." The festival venue later apologized to Pimienta for "overt racism." Well, there was certainly racism involved, wasn't there? Not to mention sexism. As a US judge said decades ago, the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is simply to stop discriminating on the basis of race. So my question to you is, if you were asked to move to the back (or to the front) at a concert based on some personal characteristic, race, sex, height, fashion sense, whatever, would you do it? Or would you protest as apparently some of the audience did in Halifax?

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Woo-hoo! Now here is a story about music economics that is going to make you wish you were in the business: On the Heels of Lady Gaga, the Economics of Las Vegas Residencies Reach New Highs.
The race to lock down Las Vegas’ highest-paying residency is heating up with Lady Gaga announcing a two-year engagement at the MGM Park Theater. According to two well-placed sources, Gaga is guaranteed just over a million dollars per show, and is committed to 74 appearances. Should all go well with ticket sales, she could extend that run, inching closer to the $100 million mark, a new — and record — threshold for the city and for even the biggest of current pop artists. Gaga stands to earn even more on merchandise sales — typically a 50/50 split with the venue — and VIP offerings.
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Andrew Clements over at The Guardian does a round-up of the year's ten best discs that is well worth reading for its reflections on trends and repertoire.
Winter & Winter is another label with a reputation for championing a quirky roster of contemporary composers, one of whom is Hans Abrahamsen. Its collection of Abrahamsen’s four string quartets, magisterially played by the Arditti Quartet, follows on from the releases of his elusive ensemble piece Schnee and the entrancingly beautiful song cycle Let Me Tell You. NMC continues its steadfast support for British composers, most notably this year with a bewitching disc of Simon Holt’s concertos – including the percussion piece A Table of Noises, and Witness to a Snow Miracle, for violin and orchestra – while a newer, British-based label, Another Timbre, offers a rather different perspective on the music being written today. My personal discovery of 2017 was the insistently haunting music of the US-born, Canadian-based Linda Catlin Smith, both in concert at the Huddersfield festival and on Drifter, Another Timbre’s disc of her chamber music, which includes two string quartets and a piano quintet.
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Arthur Kaptainis at the Montreal Gazette has a piece on Charles Dutoit and why he seems to have gotten away with so much for so long: 
there was a fully documented account of the conductor’s interview style at the Lanaudière Festival in the summer of 1995 by Natasha Gauthier. The former freelance columnist for the Gazette, who went on to write music and dance criticism for the Ottawa Citizen, was preparing a feature about Dutoit and the OSM for L’Actualité, and planning to accompany the orchestra on part of a U.S. tour.
Arriving backstage at what is now called the Amphithéâtre Fernand-Lindsay for an interview, Gauthier was surprised to find the maestro dressed in a white bathrobe. Soon Dutoit was posing the questions, including “Are you married?” and “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Then the “pawing” started, Gauthier said, even though her tape recorder was on. “He doesn’t care,” she recalled from Ottawa on Thursday after the AP story broke. “He’s used to getting his own way.”
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For our envoi today, here is a piece for string orchestra by Linda Catlin Smith: Orient Point with the Vancouver New Music String Orchestra:


Patrick said...

Bryan, you should listen to our friend Tom Cole's piece on John Williams (the guitarist).

Interesting points:

"And that's another of Williams's contributions: demolishing the boundaries between popular and classical, between European music and that of the rest of the world."

"I think our experience of life itself is broadened if we, through our music, we can connect outside our own constricted or restricted upbringing or tradition," he says. "We can actually learn a lot and adapt a lot and join in."

Bryan Townsend said...

John Williams was a huge influence on my playing--but one that I should have ignored more often! Yes, he did pursue that trend toward demolishing the boundaries between different genres, not terribly successfully in my opinion. Largely because, again in my opinion, what you get as an end result is a sort of mishmash or stew that lacks individuality. Williams was, along with Julian Bream, the most accomplished classical guitarist of the last fifty years.

What I found most interesting (and troubling) in the article was this passage:

Williams had enjoyed more than four decades of success, but by the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the music business was struggling with slumping sales. His label started poaching his back catalog for short pieces for compilation discs, rather than releasing the new music he'd always championed.

"I mean I had one request for 'music to listen to with your pet," he says, laughing. "No really — hand on heart. You know, you get dinner classics, after-breakfast classics. So I just thought, look, I'm sick of all this. So I thought that the only answer is I have to make my own."

Even Williams wasn't able to make the kind of discs that he wanted to anymore.

Will Wilkin said...

Back when I was an 18yo rocker listening to a lot of blues guitar I met an older guy who bravely lent me his LP of John Williams playing Rodrigo's Fantasia para un gentlehombre and the Concerto de Aranjuez. I was probably already just beginning to explore classical music but that John Williams guitar album helped get me over the bridge because at least I could follow a familiar instrument into the very strange new world of classical music, where I've been ever since. And after I returned his LP I bought the CD of that recording, it was on CBS Masterworks and of course I still have it. Funny isn't there a big movie soundtrack composer with the same name?

Regarding the calls for "diversity" in orchestral programs (indirectly indicated by your account here of Lido Pimienta's asking men to move to the back of the audience), in my opinion that is horribly misguided, an example of how supposedly anti-sexist (or anti-racists, etc) end up discriminating based on the same criteria they supposedly object to. I want aesthetics, and it is not "bias" or "prejudice" today if the repertoire was historically built in centuries when men had more opportunity and consequently really did compose more art music. The fact remains that still gave us great MUSIC. I don't choose my music based on affirmative action, I choose it for what sounds best to me. I enjoy music for its own sake, not because of the personality or gender or race or politics etc of the composer --I don't usually want to know anything about my artists except their works.

Bryan Townsend said...

I had that same LP! And a bunch of other ones by Williams. His mid-70s disc of Spanish music was particularly fine. Yes, there are two famous musicians both named John Williams. One is much richer than the other!

I agree with your views regarding "affirmative action." All of that ideology is based, not on any notion of quality, or even justice, but just on the single element of power. And the goal is, of course, to exercise raw power.

Will Wilkin said...

Bryan here is an article I found fascinating and I expect you too will appreciate it:

EXCERPT: could be at least as old as Homo sapiens, who appeared about 200,000 years ago. But what is its function?

...Montagu argues that music is so primitive that it would be prior to language. He argues that the humming a mother makes to calm her baby is music and that it probably happened before we were able to speak.

For this expert, the bond that music establishes between mother and child is also present in a group of workers or in the ancestral men who danced and sang before a hunt or battle. “By establishing such a bond between individuals, music created not only the family, but society itself,” he says.


Gavin said...

Your comment about the women composers and the BSO makes the a priori assumption that the only thing keeping women composers out of the BSO's schedule is aesthetic quality.

But it looks to me like a result of programming almost nothing from the last 60 years (there's a piece by Ligeti, something by Bernstein, I'm not seeing much else). I like Mozart as much as the next person (and the last concert I went to at the BSO featured one of his piano concerti), but I don't see why there are something like 8 concerts featuring his work.

As far as asesthetic quality goes, the Chopin piano concerti are usually considered kind of minor works -- are you really suggesting that no women have written anything as good? Or the Janaceck Sinfonietta?

Bryan Townsend said...

No, that's an unjustified assumption, Gavin. All I am pointing out is that the signatories to the petition are saying that programming should be governed by membership in certain groups that they feel are under-represented. In other words, they are saying that equity demands, well, equity in programming. All I am doing is noticing that that is a non-aesthetic criteria.

I am not defending, by the way, the programming that the BSO has chosen. I haven't even examined it. Perhaps they should program more contemporary music. Or perhaps they feel that their audience would not enjoy it.

Here is what I actually think: the people that program concert series should try and strike a balance between two different criteria: one is aesthetic quality and the other is audience enjoyment. The idea of quotas for any identity group would seem to go against both of those criteria, would they not?

But I am very glad you brought this up, because it enables me to articulate my argument.

Will Wilkin said...

Gavin, I have never read Bryan's analyses of composition or program repertoire to have any sexist or racist assumptions, yet that has sometimes been the interpretation from more explicitly (ie, self-identified) "liberal" commenters, both here occasionally and more stridently and consistently at the Musicology Now blog. And over there it's not just Bryan who gets such interpretations but myself and anyone else who is not an active "social justice warrior" (SJW) in everything they write.

Gavin, please understand I'm not accusing you of everything I'm about to describe, since I know nothing about your mind besides this brief discussion. But very quickly in your comments are echoed some larger trends in contemporary discourse that have come to bother and discourage me.

Frankly, it gets tiresome to wade through the illiberal assumptions of SJWs that white men are typically racist and sexist. There is often a superficial intellectuality to these assumptions, sometimes even with academic citations, pseudo-historical analyses and marshalling of evidence. But to me it is indeed usually superficial in the sense of ignoring the material and historical forces that were the underlying basis for the unequal opportunities and inter-group competitions (and all the ideas and attitudes resulting) that have become anachronistic in today's economy and society. The result is a set of (mostly younger) thinkers who despise the history and achievements of their own civilization based on a superficial application of today's standards to past centuries and millennia, often to the point of "reverse-discrimination" that turns them into a weird version of racist and sexist thinkers, however well-intentioned .

Gavin said...

I'm not in favor of blindly including music because the composer was from an under-represented group. But I think that the quest to add one or two works by under-represented composers can have value in itself, in the same way that the Alvin Ailey Dancers have an interesting take that other troupes don't necessarily have. That's not really a social justice argument as an argument that under-represented groups may have something to offer that's new and worth hearing/seeing.

I live in Boston, so maybe this hit closer to home than it otherwise might. But when I look at the BSO programming to see if there's anything I'd want to see, there's very little. Their programming is very timid, and feels very conservative. And I think that if they took a wild chance on replacing, say, the Janaceck "Sinfonietta", with something by an under-represented group, it could make a more interesting concert.

Bryan Townsend said...

Gavin, I couldn't agree more! I have the same problem with our local concert series. I look at the programs and ask myself, couldn't they come up with something a bit more interesting? You bring out the good reason for seeking out unfamiliar repertoire: the possibility that it might make for a more interesting concert.

Gavin said...

Glad we're agreed on that. My feeling is actually that if they started doing that, and let the chips fall where they may, I'd bet a substantial number of under-represented groups would end up being programmed. The same way that when women started writing science fiction, they wrote some neat (and different from their male counterparts) books.

So in that sense, I don't think there should be a quota system (so many women, so many Asians, etc). The real problem is that everyone's competing for that one or two precious spots allocated to living composers.