Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Guitar Center in Debt

The LA Daily News reports that The Guitar Center is one billion dollars in debt! How is that even possible?
Guitar Center, the nation’s leading musical-instrument retailer, is in trouble. Changing musical tastes are partly to blame.
Ratings agency S&P Global downgraded Westlake Village-based Guitar Center Holdings Inc. for the second time last week as the troubled instrument retailer seeks to refinance and restructure more than $1 billion of debt.
“Most of what’s really selling today is rap and hip hop,” said George Gruhn, owner of the Gruhn Guitars shop in Nashville. “That’s outpacing other forms of music and they don’t use a lot of recognizable musical instruments.”
Or recognizable musical materials, for that matter, like melody and harmony.
The instrument is also facing an identity crisis. Guitar heroes – who have inspired many a player and fueled strong instrument sales – are few and far between these days, according to Gruhn.
Instead of people like Eric Clapton who could really play we have people, and I won't name them, who can really mug for the camera. Ok, yes and some of them can sing--but mostly they are singers chosen for their looks and ability to dance. When did pop music turn into a weird form of ballet?
The bigger problem, according to Concotelli, is that most aspiring players don’t want to put in the time to become proficient on the instrument.
“If they do want to learn they’ll just go to YouTube, but they’re not getting the proper instruction,” he said. “With kids these days, it’s all about instant gratification. No one wants to take six months or a year to learn. They don’t want to do the work.”
Uh, six months to a year? You think that's how long it takes? As I recall Clapton spent several years woodshedding, learning from old blues records. My estimate of how long it takes to become a really capable classical guitarist is five to ten years. That's IF you have a basic ability on the instrument.

Here's a couple of pretty fair guitarists, George Harrison and Eric Clapton and a few other folks playing George's song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" which seems a nice eulogy for The Guitar Center.

The Moon over Chesapeake Bay

Yes, this has been a very feeble week for blogging, but hey, I'm on vacation. I will be back to my usual efforts next week with posts on Sofia Gubaidulina, composition, maybe something on the basics of music and perhaps even something funny. You never know. In the meantime, a couple of photos. There is a lovely old hotel here in Virginia Beach that was just restored to its former glory. In the 1920s it was quite a sight and is so again. This is the Cavalier Hotel where we had lunch the other day. Excellent wine list, by the way, with some fine California pinot noirs by the glass.

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The entrance:

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This morning I got up to the sight of a full moon in the pre-dawn sky, low on the horizon. The moon always looks so huge when it is low in the sky, even though it is no larger in reality. This is an optical illusion coming just from its proximity to the horizon. Whereas it appears a bit like this:

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In reality, this is what the camera sees:

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I am always astounded at the difference! The full moon seems to loom so large, but only seems. As artists we often want to create illusions like this, but we are always humbled by nature.

Let's listen to some excellent scene-painting by Claude Debussy who died in 1918, making this the hundredth anniversary. This is his work for orchestra, La Mer with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Orchestre de Paris:

Friday, March 30, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

I'm pretty sure I knew this: Going to a concert is better for you than yoga.
Watching live music is better for your wellbeing than yoga, a new study has found.
Experts came to the conclusion after volunteers were fitted with heart rate monitors, split up and sent to a Paloma Faith concert, a yoga session or to walk their dog.
Psychometric tests carried out before and after the activities — all of which are known stress-busters — found those who enjoyed 20 minutes of a Paloma Faith concert had a higher level of “wellness” than other participants.
I dunno, a Paloma Faith concert would probably make me agitated and disconsolate, but that's just me! Stravinsky, however...

* * *

Slipped Disc has a brief excerpt from a Mravinsky rehearsal that shows what used to be done. As commentators mention at the link, he does not "lose it" but simply works on a specific section. Incidentally, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic has had only two conductors since the mid 1930s: Mravinsky and the current holder, Yuri Temirkanov.

* * *

ONCE UPON A time, artists had jobs. And not “advising the Library of Congress on its newest Verdi acquisition” jobs, but job jobs, the kind you hear about in stump speeches. Think of T.S. Eliot, conjuring “The Waste Land” (1922) by night and overseeing foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank during the day, or Wallace Stevens, scribbling lines of poetry on his two-mile walk to work, then handing them over to his secretary to transcribe at the insurance agency where he supervised real estate claims. The avant-garde composer Philip Glass shocked at least one music lover when he materialized, smock-clad and brandishing plumber’s tools, in a home with a malfunctioning appliance. “While working,” Glass recounted to The Guardian in 2001, “I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him that I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”
I always wrestled with a great deal of tension between what people of expected of me as a musician and the kind of music I actually wanted to make and this is probably the main reason I retired as a performer. Now, whereas I have much less time to devote to purely musical activities, I feel no pressure one way or the other. The freedom is important to me.

* * *

When I read fervid attacks on traditional culture such as this one excoriating the use of the word "maestro" I see them more and more as tired offensives by the ignorant.
Amid the manifold campaigns to make classical music more accessible, less patriarchal, to take itself less absolutely seriously and to crack a smile—if not a joke—the outdated term is getting slightly grating to read. It was already a lame joke in the 1995 “Seinfeld” episode “The Maestro.” That a composer’s press team, who presumably refer to him in conversation or writing on a semi-regular basis, would employ the term in such a way makes me wonder how far it goes—if I send him a birthday card this year, should I write it to the “maestro”? Penderecki is, of course, a giant of 20th century classical music, there’s even an asteroid belt named after him—but who gains anything from reaffirming this status every single time the man is mentioned?
I think the real problem here is that anything that smacks of or suggests an actual hierarchy of quality is now anathema. We are all equal, we are all equal... This principle used to have application and limits: we are equal before the law, have equal rights to practice our religion and so on. But it was expected that we would get different marks on exams, earn different salaries and have different fashion senses. Two out of three are more and more threatened. "Equity," if it were to triumph, would equalize our incomes and marks in school and university are already gravitating towards a norm of A for everyone. The use of a word like maestro indicates a recognition that someone should be respected due to their special, individual achievements. No, it does not reveal "a kind of uniquely fragile masculinity." The article manages to drag in the case of James Levine whose use of the word "maestro" is used to disqualify its use generally.

* * *

Here is a case both interesting and troubling: Musician wins landmark ruling over ruined hearing.
According to Help Musicians UK, the leading UK charity for professional musicians: "The unfortunate circumstances surrounding Chris's tragic hearing loss reflect a growing number of hearing related issues, as highlighted in our 2015 hearing survey, where 59.5% of musicians said they had suffered hearing loss and 78% said working as a musician was a contributor to their hearing loss."
But you should read the whole article. It was a Wagner opera that caused the problem. I don't see anywhere in the article any reference to monetary compensation.

* * *

We have a general policy here that we make no reference to politics unless it is to note the intrusion of politics into what should be a purely aesthetic space. I think that Musicology Now would be a far better place if they adopted a similar policy. Have a look at this post on the recent student protests:
This movement is all about voice and silence. Most modern social movements have been predicated on metaphorical understandings of voice that position it as both a site and as an act of agency.<1>  The current protests present a doubly agentive framework of voice, acknowledging the ever-mounting numbers of vanished voices silenced in gunfire, and the living voices that bear the burden of speech, of speaking, for them.
The problem here is not noticing the musical aspects and elements of a social phenomenon, no, it is rather the uncritical acquiescence in the political ideology that underlies it. Uncritical acquiescence is not what musicologists should be doing.

* * *

If you want an example of what scholars should be doing, the Times Literary Supplement provides one: The problem of hyper-liberalism. John Gray writes:
For liberals the recent transformation of universities into institutions devoted to the eradication of thought crime must seem paradoxical. In the past higher education was avowedly shaped by an ideal of unfettered inquiry. Varieties of social democrats and conservatives, liberals and Marxists taught and researched alongside scholars with no strong political views. Academic disciplines cherished their orthodoxies, and dissenters could face difficulties in being heard. But visiting lecturers were rarely dis­invited because their views were deemed unspeakable, course readings were not routinely screened in case they contained material that students might find discomforting, and faculty members who departed from the prevailing consensus did not face attempts to silence them or terminate their careers. An inquisitorial culture had not yet taken over.  
...what has happened in higher education is not that liberalism has been supplanted by some other ruling philos­ophy. Instead, a hyper-liberal ideology has developed that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world. If a regime of censorship prevails in universities, it is because they have become vehicles for this project.
 * * *

Ludwig van Toronto has a big article on the problem of new music that covers a lot of perspectives. That being said, talking to composers about their work is not always illuminating as that kind of analysis is actually something they are usually better off avoiding! Case in point:
“I always see music as an act of communication,” says Christos Hatzis. In the world of art music, it is difficult to escape the weight of the past. “Berlioz was writing under the ghost of Beethoven,” he notes. As art music relinquished its place as the forefront of popular music, its nature changed. “It’s no longer at the forefront of innovation,” he says. “Non-classical composers are much more attuned to that situation.”
Yes, of course music is an act of communication, which tells us less than nothing. Yes, classical music has long-standing traditions, which we knew. I think what he means by the next statement is that art music gave way to pop music in terms of not only its public profile, but also its economic strength and even its position as the characteristic musical art form of the elite. But it is a non-sequiteur to go on to say that it is no longer at the forefront of innovation. It may or may not be, as that is a judgement that has to be made about individual pieces, not whole genres. Non-classical composers are more attuned to innovation? We could certainly discuss that claim, but it doesn't seem obviously true on the face of it. If by "non-classical" you mean people working primarily in the fields of pop, rock and hip-hop, I certainly don't notice a lot of innovation unless you think basing your songs on passages from decades-old r&b tunes is innovative?

* * *

We should listen to something by Canadian composer Christos Hatzis for our envoi today. This is his String Quartet No. 1. "The Awakening" (1994) played by the Molinari Quartet in 2016:

I rather like it! Hey, while we are at that Molinari concert let's listen to them play the Quartet No. 16 by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe who is not afraid to include a dijerido in his instrumentation:

Monday, March 26, 2018

Lighter Blogging

I'm currently out of town, visiting family in Virginia Beach and this is what it looks like:

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Plus, it is damn cold! It was warmer when I was here for Christmas a couple of years ago. But I am looking forward to hitting some fine seafood restaurants. That's one thing I miss in Mexico, living far from the ocean.

Friday night we had a little workshop concert. My violinist and I played a couple of transcriptions from Rameau keyboard music, La Triomphante and Les Tendres Plaintes, I played Sofia Gubaidulina's Serenade (1960) and we did a tryout of my new piece "Dark Dream" and come to think of it, I'm not sure if I even announced the title! It went ok, though we discovered several new mistakes we hadn't made before. I haven't listened to the recording yet, but if it is not too embarrassing I might put it up in a post. Or not!

It was interesting--some said afterwards it was "ear-expanding." Honestly, I have been trying to avoid doing anything radical for years now. I rejected the typical avant-garde gestures years and years ago and have been trying to find a way of returning to the roots of music. But using tonal gestures and ideas has not been getting to where I wanted to be. So I finally decided to strike out in some new directions and it is working so far. I see what artists mean when they talk about going where the material takes them or being a reluctant innovator! That's me, a reluctant innovator.

I don't think you really have a choice. I am starting a new piece, for violin, guitar and percussion titled "Dark and Light."

This is a 2006 piece by Sofia Gubaidulina, Light of the End, part 1, London Philharmonic, cond. Kurt Masur:

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Kinds of Bad

As I write this, I am sitting in my office while the dulcet tones of a Pan pipe drift in from the restaurant next door. This is, sadly, a normal state of affairs. Sometimes it is an inexpert flautist noodling away. What's wrong with this? Well, it is a particular kind of aesthetic badness that we probably need a name for. Actually, we probably need several names for different categories of aesthetic badness.

The Stale Maudlin: Genres, styles and instruments that have been so over-done for so long in such maudlin and clichéd ways that they are almost unbearable to listen to if you have any aesthetic nous. Locus classicus, the Pan pipe:

I think it is the seedy vibrato that is the icing on the cake. Similar examples would include "Memory" from Andrew Lloyd Weber's Cats:

The Empty Épater: This is when the composer, in defiance of any aesthetic whatsoever, simply sets out to annoy the listener with various kinds of random unpleasantness. This was John Cage's specialty, but others who indulged included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel and Sylvano Busotti. One nice example:

The Long Goodbye: This was the name of a slow-acting poison on The Game of Thrones, but I think it also describes quite well those pieces of music that wear out their welcome. Oddly enough, it is not through a paucity of material--Haydn showed us hundreds of times how marvelous music can be made from the most limited material--but through the dreary repetition of material, the choosing of tiresome material and just by going on much too long. I know that this will incur the wrath of a certain Canadian commentator, but my thoughts go immediately to the Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler where never has so much been made of the perfect fourth for so long:

An alternative choice might be the Symphony No. 1 by Bruckner.

The "More Cowbell" Syndrome or the "More Trombones" Effect: This is when the composer, for want of any creative spark, just decides that more is better: more percussion, more brass, bigger orchestra and, in the final stages of the disease, multiple choirs. The locus classicus, again, has to be Mahler, the Symphony No. 8, but we might give honorable mention to the English composer Havergal Brian, who contracted a bad case of Mahleritis. So here you go, Mahler 8 and the Gothic Symphony by Mr. Brian:

Also, for the visual effect, part of a Proms performance of the Brian symphony:

Those seem to be the main categories of aesthetic awfulness, but perhaps my commentators could either add some more categories or more examples?

Friday, March 23, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Blac Rabbit is a pretty good Beatles cover band who busk in the New York subway:

Ok, they don't quite sing in tune and they could sure use Ringo on the skins, but, not bad!

* * *

A friend suggested I take a break from furious practicing and do this quiz for relaxation. You have to identify pieces of music just from the score:

There are some really tricky ones. One of them only has the bit of the score before the notes! But it is clear what it has to be. I missed out some obvious ones like Holst and Vaughan Williams.

* * *

Here is an article about Bernstein's Mass, which is getting more outings these days due to the centennial of his birth, but is it even a piece of music? Or just a groovy experience?
Whether the Mass can be heard as pure music — listening as you might do with, say, a Haydn symphony — is something listeners get to decide for themselves with the just-released Deutsche Grammophon recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra and a battery of forces led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Is the piece better off as a live, shared social experience? Probably.
The recording, drawn from Verizon Hall concerts between April 30 and May 3, 2015, has tremendous energy. But, of course, it can’t deliver exactly what the Mass’ subtitle promises: “a theatre piece for singers, players and dancers.”
Rather, conceived by Bernstein and Godspell composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, the Mass comes across in recording as an erratic aural trek through music theater, sacred music, rock, classical, jazz, carnival music, and parade music, with a little Copland and more Blitzstein, and on and on.
Maybe the technical term for it all is simply this: groovy.
* * *

For those visiting New York, the Metropolitan Museum has re-opened the musical instrument gallery:

The new gallery will feature over 5,550 instruments from six continents – including violins and cellos by Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Amati. Mind you, the Royal Palace in Madrid has an entire matched quartet of instruments by Stradivarius.

* * *

Jessica Duchen has a whirlwind account of what happens when someone calls you the morning of an orchestral concert and asks if you can sub for a conductor whose flight was cancelled due to a snowstorm. Oh, and it's the London Symphony calling. Furious logistics ensue!

* * *

A rose is a rose is a rose, but the director of the Royal Philharmonic thinks that the "stigma" of classical music can be avoided by calling it something else:
There is a certain “stigma” attached to classical music which is off-putting for youngsters who see it as old fashioned, according to James Williams.
He said that orchestras must “recognise the need to change with the times” and “think more broadly” if they want to widen their appeal.
“Classical music has a certain stigma attached to it in certain people’s minds,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “There is a perception that classical music is for older people.”
He said that research commissioned by the RPO shows that they need to diversify their range of concerts in order to appeal to new audiences.
Ok, I have some suggestions: "white-tie music," "music of the cis-hetero-patriarchy," "music old white people like," "pre-hip-hop," "music from before the decline of Western Civ." You get the idea! Oh, and, just a suggestion, but if the director of your symphony orchestra thinks that classical music has a "stigma" then perhaps you need a new director?

* * *

The dean of New Zealand’s Auckland University has told members of the music department that jobs will have to go because they are being ‘subsidised by architecture’ we learn over at Slipped Disc. As usual, the comments are particularly interesting. One wonders if, once all those students have got good-paying jobs in architecture, science, business and so on, what they will do at the end of a hard day's work? Look at spreadsheets and architectural plans for fun? Or might they just possibly feel the need for some art and music? Hey, it could happen!

* * *

In honor of this being the centennial of his death, I am going to feature a bit more music by Claude Debussy than usual. This is the Victoria Symphony conducted by Tania Miller. I didn't choose this version because the conductor is a woman, even though she is doing a good job. I used to do a lot of concerts with the principal flute, Richard Volet, before he got the orchestral job. Also, this is one of the very few clips online that shows the orchestra in good quality. These are the Three Nocturnes:

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sviatoslav Richter

Why is it that so many of the really great pianists are Russian: Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Grigory Sokolov? I've just been exploring Richter recently as I don't know his work very well. He certainly is in the front rank of pianists. I've been reading an interesting book put together by the French film-maker Bruno Monsaingeon (who did the excellent film of a Sokolov recital in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris). Monsaingeon was in the process of preparing a documentary on Richter when he passed away. Richter was very leery of being filmed so it was a long, difficult process. But along the way, Richter gave Monsaingeon a number of notebooks of comments on concerts and recordings that he listened to. I will pass on some of the comments as I work my way through the book. But I wanted to quote a passage from a short memoir also included in the book:
I've never practiced scales. Never. Nor any other exercises. Never, not at all. Czerny neither. The first piece I played was Chopin's first nocturne, followed by his Study in E minor, op. 25 no. 5. Then I tried sight-reading Beethoven's sonatas, especially the one in D minor.
He also sight-read a lot of operas. Carl Czerny, by the way, was a pianist, student of Beethoven, who produced great quantities of studies and exercises for the development of piano technique. So what are we to make of this avoidance of technical exercises? The usual reason given for this kind of practice is to make all the basic formulas, scales, arpeggios and so on, absolutely automatic by practicing them in a context where there are no musical elements to distract one. The idea is to develop touch and control by simplifying the context. But does everyone need to follow this path? Apparently not, if Richter is a reliable witness. Could he be lying? Yes, possibly. But it is more likely that he was just one of those extremely rare individuals who had enormous physical and mental gifts so that he could focus on anything he played and use it to establish and refine his technique. Before I began serious studies with a maestro, I did much the same thing: almost the first piece I tried to learn was the Chaconne by Bach and I used to spend hour after hour sight-reading through great piles of music. Was I developing my technique? Or was I just developing bad habits? I really am not sure. My sense is that when I did begin studying with José Tomás in Spain that I had no particular bad habits to overcome. So perhaps my obsessive concern with developing a perfect technique was a bit misplaced? I am honestly not sure. This is a pretty good reason to read a book like this. Assuming that Richter is being honest and candid, it can cause you to question a lot of basic assumptions. However, one should not assume that one has talent on the scale of someone like Richter!

Here is another quote, this time regarding Prokofiev. Richter gave the premieres of the Piano Sonatas nos 7 and 9 by Prokofiev (the former of which he learned in four days):
Sergey Prokofiev was an extremely interesting person, but ... dangerous. He was capable of hurling you against a wall. One day a pupil was playing him his Third Concerto, accompanied by his teacher at a second piano, when the composer suddenly got up and grabbed the teacher by the neck, shouting: "Idiot! You don't even know how to play, get out of the room!" To a teacher!
Well, yes, there are a surprising number of established teachers who really are not very good musicians.

Speaking of Gilels, there is an anecdote about him. During his first tour in the United States he was greeted with rave reviews from the critics. His response: "wait until you hear Richter!" Here he is with the Sonata No. 7:

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

81-year-old pianist makes debut

Anne Midgette has a piece in the Washington Post about an upcoming debut at the Kennedy Center:
The Kennedy Center will see a long-overdue debut Friday when the composer Philip Glass, 81, will perform there for the first time, playing his piano etudes with four other pianists as part of the Direct Current festival. On March 16, the festival will present another Glass work: the score to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film “Koyaanisqatsi,” with the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Washington Chorus.
Not this Friday, sorry, the article is a few days old. You have to really admire Philip Glass for his stamina, productivity and agelessness. No child prodigy, he! Indeed, he had to support himself working at various jobs including driving a cab and doing plumbing and furniture moving well into his forties. Since then he has managed to live off commissions and performances. As he said recently, if you live long enough, you can actually make a living at this! I recommend his memoir, Words Without Music, a pretty good read, even if one longs for an unauthorized biography.

It seems that most of the composers who really managed a prolific production of music throughout their lives were ones who discovered a niche and then explored it over and over again, always discovering new glints of creativity. A couple of examples would be Dominico Scarlatti with his 555 keyboard sonatas and Joseph Haydn with his 106 symphonies. Philip Glass has a harmonic and rhythmic spectrum that, while certainly limited, has served him very well for decade after decade.

Here are the first ten of his Piano Etudes:

Monday, March 19, 2018


I just finished reading a very disturbing article in the Boston Globe about the way James Levine allegedly conducted himself with his proteges over several decades. Disturbing because it is the kind of thing that can happen with someone who is very charismatic, very talented and somewhat empty, morally. Perhaps he was borderline sociopathic.
As Albin Ifsich, a young violin student, stood in the doorway, the conductor wanted to know one thing: If he could save just one person, who would it be — the conductor or the violinist’s own mother?
“If you pick your mother,” Ifsich recalled the conductor telling him, “you will walk out this door and never see me again. If you pick me, you will close the door, step into this house, and be with me forever.”
It was the fall of 1968, and for Ifsich, a 20-year-old student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the answer was clear: He must choose James Levine, the magnetic conductor who’d developed a provocative cult-like following among a small group of students at the institute and who, 50 years later, would be accused of sexual assault while leading the school’s University Circle Orchestra.
That's the opening and you don't have to read any further to recognize that here you are dealing with the kind of malignant egoism that knows no bounds. I doubt that I ever met anyone quite this unsavory in my career--the closest was a conductor at the first music school I attended who tended a bit this way as well, though he was a heterosexual. The one time I sensed this kind of manipulation from him, when he was asking me to take part in a new contemporary piece and thought he could motivate me by demeaning the last performance I gave, my reaction was likely not what he expected: I handed him back the part and told him to get someone else.

I seem to have a kind of radar for this kind of personality. I can sense it from afar and steer clear. In my mind there is nothing to be gained by becoming part of a personality cult. Indeed, this really repudiates all your responsibilities as an artist. And what a lot of horseshit Levine was peddling:
interviews with nearly two dozen former students and musicians from Levine’s Cleveland days, including six from the maestro’s inner circle, indicate the conductor’s alleged sexual behavior was part of a sweeping system to control this core group. As Levine yoked his musical gifts and position to a bid for power, he dictated what they read, how they dressed, what they ate, when they slept — even whom they loved.
 Oh, please! The first requirement of an artist, in my view, is not to be controlled by some ambitious ass.
Lestock, who in the summer of 1972 traveled with Levine’s entourage to the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, said the conductor’s efforts to “un-inhibit” his players occasionally became physically abusive.
He recounted an episode when Levine, who was staying at a nearby hotel, started to berate Lestock for his lack of emotional range, saying he was unhappy with his musical progress.
“He asked me to take my clothes off and he started pinching me,” said Lestock, who added that Levine zeroed in on the sensitive inner-thigh flesh near his groin. “The emotional and physical pain got so great — I didn’t know why he was hurting me.”
Lestock said that although he began to weep, Levine was relentless and would not stop pinching him.
Yes, musicians, when they are this cut off from ordinary life, can fall into such repugnant and ridiculous beliefs and behaviors. But it is still astonishing to read that this was justified by some aesthetic nonsense. The truth is that there are always little corners in the music world where people like this can attain to a position of power and wreak their will on the vulnerable. Levine just seems to have been the most prominent of this tribe.

I don't know Levine's work as a conductor--for some reason I have never made any attempt to seek out his recordings. For this reason, I am not devastated at these revelations. If similar things were revealed about musicians that I have great respect for, such as Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolas Harnoncourt, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Dmitri Shostakovich, Grigory Sokolov or Mstislav Rostropovich, I would likely feel quite differently.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 12

Not premiered until 1976, Gubaidulina's cantata for baritone and chamber orchestra, written in 1968, on texts from the Rubiyat is a single-movement work in seven sections. The use of the voice is quite original, utilizing pitched sounds, breathing sounds, spoken words, glissandi, whispering, falsetto and so on.

The premiere in the Hall of the Composers Union was very successful and was followed by a banquet for all the participants (for which the composer borrowed the funds from somewhere!).

Soon after, in April 1977, Gubaidulina completed a piece for flute quartet for the ensemble founded in the 60s by Pierre-Yves Artaud in Paris. Artaud was a specialist in 20th century repertoire and attended composition classes by Messiaen and Jolivet. The piece was premiered in February 1979 in the church of St. Denis on the outskirts of Paris. Gubaidulina was more and more unsuccessful in getting premieres of her new works inside the Soviet Union so risked premiering works in other countries. As a protection from political retaliation, her name was not listed on the program! This piece was one of a group of works written for instruments in the same family that included the Trio for Three Trumpets and the Duo Sonata for two bassoons.

In October 1977 the members of Astraea, the composer's improvisatory trio that included Gubaidulina, travelled to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where they collected a number of folk instruments including the tar, Gubaidulina's favorite. Persian in origin, the tar has a figure-eight shaped body of mulberry wood and nine to eleven metal strings.

Gubaidulina has made a point of studying the folk music of a number of cultures: Armenian, Georgian, Yakutian, African, Balinese, Indian, Tibetan and so on.

A work from a bit later, 1982, and one that is, after her violin concerto Offertorium, one of the most-performed of her music is her Seven Words (of Jesus Christ on the Cross). The piece has solo parts for cello and bayan, the Russian accordion.

Just to reiterate, what I am doing in this series of posts is just going through the biography by Michael Kurtz and listening to the works in roughly chronological order. At the end I am going to do some closer examination of a few representative pieces with a bit of analysis.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Real Recompense

I was standing in the doorway to my office the other day when a guitarist, passing by, stopped to greet me. It took me a minute to remember his name, Antonio. He teaches guitar at the local music school and a few years ago he came to see me for two or three lessons because he was having trouble with his right hand. Due to using the muscles in an odd way, he had developed severe tension in his hand to the point that it was nearly immobile. I worked with him on rebuilding his right hand technique and he seemed to be improving. I hadn't seen him in years so I asked him how his hand was. He thanked me effusively and said I had saved his guitar-playing! We talked a bit about what he was playing these days (Villa-Lobos etudes and preludes). He said again, "gracias, maestro!" and took his leave. "Maestro" in the context he used it, means "master."

A few years ago I helped out two other professional guitarists with similar problems and they too ended up rebuilding their technique and credit me with saving their ability to play. It is often the very enthusiasm and dedication to the instrument that gets musicians in trouble because they practice even though their body is trying to tell them something is wrong. I remember a video of Isaac Stern one time saying that every hour you practice incorrectly takes a couple of hours of practicing correctly to fix. Sad, but true.

I'm not sure exactly how I figured out guitar technique, but starting on the electric bass guitar might have had some influence. I was fifteen or sixteen when I finally got interested in music. I wanted to play the drums but my mother, after visiting the local music shop, came home and said "we can't afford to rent drums for you, they cost $10 a month!" Let me hasten to say that this was 1965 and my mother got paid about $250 a month. Our mortgage was $80 a month. Long time ago! You could rent a bass guitar for only $4 a month so that's what I started on. As my mother said "the bass guitar is also in the rhythm section!" She was a fiddler, by the way. So, apart from some abortive piano lessons when I was eleven, the bass guitar was my first instrument. Four very big heavy strings that you play with your right hand index and middle fingers. Pretty demanding for your left hand as well--you need lots of muscle.

Soon after I took up the six-string guitar as well and a few years later switched to classical guitar. I have a photo of myself taken in 1973 just before I went to Spain to study with Maestro José Tomás, so this is me before high quality instruction:

I'm playing a cheap student guitar, but the interesting thing is my hand position. For both hands it is quite good, no over-extension or obvious tension. There are a host of things that go into being a good player, but one of them is some basic physical aptitude, what my mother called "touch." She was a naturally good fiddle player and she used to say that so-and-so had a good "touch" on the instrument. That's a quality of string players and, I guess, keyboard players as well. I suspect it is something you really can't teach. Another element that is important is your sense of timbre. How aware are you of the exact kind of tone color you are producing? I have had students that were good in every other aspect, but they just could not seem to make a good sound. Another element is your sensitivity to the phrase. This is a purely musical element, of course. How you feel and direct the flow of a phrase comes directly from how you feel the music. On a higher level it is how you handle the structural flow of the piece.

With great musicians all the elements are present and reinforce one another. With pretty good musicians they have a lot of them and have to work on whatever ones they are weak on. So being able to analyze your own strengths and weaknesses is a crucial skill because you really can't count on anyone else, even a master teacher, to do it for you. And that's about all I have to say on the matter!

Here, by way of envoi, is Carora - vals venezolano by Antonio Lauro in my recording:

Friday, March 16, 2018

Fee Schedule

A long time ago I put up a post on the official performance fees for didgeridoo players in New South Wales. You really should follow the link. This reminds me of a pianist I used to know (he ended up the musical director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario). He used to do the occasional cocktail piano gig and his specialty was Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin. But he would only play that demanding piece if he was given a $50 tip. Makes sense. An old friend of mine who has retired to a beach in Brazil writes me that he wishes I would do a classical arrangement of The Girl from Ipanema that he could listen to while relaxing on his veranda. I wrote him back that my fee would be $1,000 US plus another thousand for recording costs. Heh! This gets me thinking about performance fees and I see the opportunity for a bit of satire.

Based upon my experience in the professional business world since retiring as a classical guitar virtuoso, this is what I would charge for performances these days, if I were giving any. All amounts in US dollars.

  • Short 20 minute program of 16th century Spanish vihuela music with original ornaments derived from my own research: $500
  • Longer 30 minute program adding favorite pieces by Bach in my original transcriptions: $1,000
  • Full recital program of about an hour and ten minutes including intermission of the above works plus music by 20th century Spanish composers (Rodrigo and Moreno Torroba): $2,000
  • The same but with entertaining remarks before pieces, add an additional $500
  • Full recital program including selections from above but featuring original compositions that might include one of my two suites for guitar: $3,000 (add $500 for informative commentary)
  • Full recital program with music for violin and guitar including original transcriptions of works by Rameau, Debussy and Shostakovich as well as my Four Pieces for violin and guitar and my new piece "Dark Dream" for violin and guitar. $5,000
  • Performance as soloist in concertos by Castelnuovo-Tedesco ($5,000), Villa-Lobos ($8,000) or Rodrigo ($10,000)
These are actually quite reasonable fees based on the level of professional training, experience, creativity and sheer work involved.

OK, now what did I actually get paid for a performance back when I was a touring virtuoso? For being the featured soloist in the Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto (as well as playing two of his preludes for guitar) in a gala concert before the Brazilian Consul-General in the gloriously restored Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra conducted by Mario Bernardi, recorded for national broadcast: $1,300 dollars. Canadian dollars.

Here is one of my pieces for violin and guitar: Surreal Reel.

Friday Miscellanea

It doesn't get much wackier than this:

Mind you, I don't know if this illustrates the eccentricities of musicians, or of bagpipe players specifically, or if it is really all about a bungee jumper who happens to play the bagpipes. Your call.

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When I wasn't looking Vancouver has developed a quite interesting concert scene. Here is an article on upcoming seasons of Early Music Vancouver and the Vancouver Recital Society. It was in a concert of the latter, many years ago, that I first heard the Piano Trio in E minor of Shostakovich--actually the first Shostakovich I heard in concert. Here is one concert I would love to attend: Schubert lieder in their original early 19th century arrangements for voice and guitar, performed on an historical instrument.

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While we are on the subject, here is a performance of the last song from Die Winterreise, "Der Leiermann" in a version for voice and guitar:

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Norman Lebrecht, master of clickbait, over at Slipped Disc headlines an item Shostakovich: I wish I'd written Jesus Christ Superstar. Best comment: "I think we ALL wish Shostakovich had written it!" Yep.

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An article in the Wall Street Journal introduces Chinese pipa player Wu Man:
Though China looms larger than ever in the news, Americans remain largely ignorant of its musical culture. And while opportunities to broaden our perspective occasionally occur—Carnegie Hall made China the focus of a major festival in 2009 and Lincoln Center has presented various Chinese troupes over the years—rare are visits by ensembles from China’s heartland, where peasant traditions go back generations, if not centuries. Enter the pipa virtuoso Wu Man, arguably the pre-eminent ambassador for traditional Chinese music in the U.S. Born in Hangzhou, China, and educated in Beijing, Ms. Wu, whose four-stringed, fretted instrument resembles the Western lute, relocated to the U.S. in 1990 and has since crossed all manner of cultural boundaries, performing regularly with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet.
There is also a good clip on YouTube about Wu Man and Chinese music. Don't miss the segment on the Taoist band performing joyful funeral music:

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 The latest on the James Levine affair is that the Met finally officially fired him and his lawyers immediately responded with a suit for unfair dismissal. Honestly, you can't make this stuff up. Slipped Disc has, not only the story, but an extended set of entertaining comments.

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For our envoi today, a piece from Shostakovich's lighter side and yes, he did have one. This is the polka from his ballet suite The Golden Age:

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

The fact that Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is not much better known is an interesting curiosity of music history. Was he a composer of the stature of Haydn or Mozart? Likely not, but who is? Was he a pretty good composer of the rank just below? Quite likely. Here is his portrait:

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 - 1799)
As you can see, he was a master swordsman, but also a virtuoso violinist and a leading conductor who conducted the premiere of Haydn's Paris Symphonies. Oh, and also, he was a black man. I wonder if he is not neglected simply because he so contradicts the narrative we are supposed to believe, that the 18th century was nothing but a hellhole of racism where a black man would never have been allowed to enter polite society, let alone become an officer of the king's bodyguard and a chevalier. He also became the conductor of two of France's finest orchestras and came within a hair of being appointed director of the Paris Opéra. In London he was the guest of the Prince of Wales, before whom he gave a number of exhibition matches against various opponents. I did mention that he was a famous and brilliant master of fencing? And a virtuoso violinist who wrote a number of concertos for himself. Here is a recording of several of his violin concertos:

Nice stuff! He also did pretty well as an opera composer, but, sadly, most of his operas have been lost and I wasn't able to find a good clip of the few isolated arias that remain.

I recommend reading the Wikipedia article on him, which is quite lengthy. He had a fascinating life and for two months shared a house with a young Mozart in Paris.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Tension and Resolution

Tension and resolution is one of the basic technical devices of music and therefore one of the basic problems of composition. Over the long development of tonality and even before, in the period of modal harmony, the basic means of structuring music in a way that was both expressive and perceivable by the listener was to use dissonance and consonance to create tension and resolution. The basic arc was always to move from a state of stability or rest to one of energy and tension, then to return to the state of rest. This was done through micro and macro use of consonance and dissonance. By the 18th and 19th centuries this had been developed to a tremendous extent and the so-called "common practice" system of harmony had sophisticated and subtle resources to structure the flow of music.

Unfortunately, these resources are scarcely available to us anymore. The harmonic progressions of tonality, unless quoted or used ironically tend to sound trite and trivial. So our options are either to give up the techniques of tension and resolution entirely or to find new ways of incorporating them. Traditionally the tensions and resolutions were based on degrees of harmonic dissonance but the possibility of using other parameters such as rhythm or dynamics or timbre or texture was always lurking in the background.

I am a fan of the music of Steve Reich and, to a lesser extent, Philip Glass, but their music, while energetic and compelling, does have an underlying problem. On the macro level, it is relatively static but compensates for this with a built-in tension on the micro level. What do I mean? Take for an example the piece "Octet" by Steve Reich. It is a dynamic, energetic piece:

But the level of energy and tension scarcely varies throughout the piece. It starts with a high level of tension (5/4 time signature, syncopated rhythms and a stretto between piano 1 and 2) and while it adds and subtracts different components (bass clarinets, flute solo), the basic texture keeps this same level of energy throughout. It starts and ends with roughly the same level of tension. The piece works because of the sheer ingenuity of the ideas, but it does not use the technique of tension and resolution because it avoids anything resembling a resolution. This is generally the case with most of his music.

A lot of the composers in the high modernism phase avoided the issue entirely. The "moment form" of Stockhausen, for example, by definition avoids any kind of long-range, structural organization, therefore cannot use tension and resolution. Each "moment" is as structurally important as every other. Other composers use complex methods of structuring that leave the listener unsure of any kind of direction in terms of tension and resolution. The level of dissonance, for example, remains high throughout. This is usually the problem with serial compositions that build in a specific level of dissonance. Composers like John Cage who use chance procedures avoid tension and resolution as well.

One way of structuring music is to have a relatively low level of tension throughout. This seems quite popular these days and extends from the mellow stylings of "New Age" music right up to the environmentally sensitive textures of John Luther Adams whose "Become Ocean" won a Pulitzer Prize for basically being cosmic and ominous. Blogger doesn't want to embed, so just follow the link:

The problem is that it is cosmic and ominous throughout, again, basically static except for crescendos and decrescendos.

I don't find that any of these procedures work for me, so I have been trying to find other ones that do. After all, if you have some materials, whatever they are, you can surely arrange them to create large-scale tensions and resolutions. The area of rhythm, despite a lot of focus, still has great potential. Steve Reich's early piece "Drumming" did use some fascinating devices on both the micro and macro levels to create structure. For example, the technique of "phasing" where a particular rhythmic pattern slides past a mirror of itself, creates tension and resolution on the micro level while the filling in of the metric structure over time creates a medium level of tension and resolution. On the level of the whole piece he creates direction through instrumentation. An opening section with just small drums is followed by sections for marimbas, glockenspiels and finally all instruments together.

I have developed some other ways of using rhythm to create structure and they seem to be working quite well. I am hoping to make a recording soon of my new piece "Dark Dream" so I can show them to you. Suffice it to say, for now, that if you set up a very high-tension, oppositional texture earlier in the piece, you can resolve this by transforming it into a rhythmic unison.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Catty Micro-Reviews, New Edition

I can't claim to have invented the mini-review, in fact as classical record reviews seem to be shrinking more and more, pretty soon everyone will be doing them. With horror, I realized the other day that I haven't done a set of catty micro-reviews for years and years. So here goes. My methodology is simple. I just go to YouTube, type in a single letter of the alphabet and listen to the first pop song that comes up. Then I try to deliver a one or two sentence review. Let's start with "A."

First up, believe it or not is "Adventure of a Lifetime" from Coldplay with an astonishing 721,780,550 views:

The opening of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey redone in CGI with a tedious pop-rock back-beat. Kubrick's original soundtrack featured music by Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss and Györgi Ligeti.

Agh, this isn't my day! The first thing that comes up with "B" is "Bodak Yellow" by Cardi B and Blogger doesn't want to embed the original video. Just follow the link.

It is a rare accomplishment for a music video to be aesthetically unpleasant in all these dimensions: music, lyrics, fashion, and culturally, but this one manages. How over 490 million people managed to watch this without resulting nausea is a mystery to me.

Typing in "C" brings up a tune by Mexican rapper C-Kan, "Un Par de Balas" which means "A Couple of Bullets."

As rap goes, this is fairly tolerable. I wonder, is it sort of illegal for anyone in this sub-culture to actually not, you know, have any tattoos?

"D" brings up a tune by Ludacris, well known for his recurring role in several Fast and Furious films. Everything in the video is turned into a weird cartoon with more CGI. You know, I think this is how the elite of music these days distinguish themselves from the low-rent artists: CGI budget. A couple of guys in a garage just can't compete, which is the whole idea. Mind you, they certainly could musically, as this music is about as tediously formulaic as possible. Again, follow the link.

"E" brings up a song by Matt Mason, a country singer with a mere 4 million views.

This video is so low-budget that they use default captions from iMovie! Apart from that it is pretty much a standard country song: unfaithful wife, car (or rather truck) chase, use of shotgun, steel guitar solo. Kind of like Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan around the time of Nashville Skyline, with about 70% of the inspiration removed.

After all that, we really need a palate cleanser, don't we? Here is "Lay, Lady Lay" from the aforementioned Nashville Skyline:

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Art, Life and Jordan Peterson

Here is another post inspired by Jordan Peterson, for which I make no apology whatsoever! He has quickly become a world-famous thinker for very good reasons. This shocks the hell out of me because he was born about twenty miles away from where I was born, in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, Canada.

There are likely many reasons why the thinking of Peterson is becoming so well known. Probably the most fundamental is that he has tapped into a lot of the perennial wisdom of the West, from the Bible to Socrates to Nietzsche to Jung to modern clinical research, and made a great deal of sense of it. This immediately sets him apart from the crowd because he is rejecting the Long March through the institutions of Gramsci and the other neo-Marxists that seems to have taken over so many universities. The other thing that makes him stand out from the crowd is that he stands up, very courageously, for what he believes to be true. This makes him almost unique among contemporary academics and administrators who seem to recoil in cowardice whenever the mob rises up.

Watching a talk or lecture by Peterson is a pretty bracing experience which is why they seem to always sell out. Here is an excerpt I ran across the other day in which he talks about the importance of art to your life, and why the great bank of cultural capital represented by great art and architecture is why millions upon millions of people visit France, Spain and Italy every year. This is worth incalculable amounts to their economies, but, sadly, the artists themselves almost never are able to monetize their own creativity. This little excerpt is only twelve minutes long:

He has some ferocious criticism of the place of art in Canada tucked in the middle there. Every arts administrator and bureaucrat in Canada needs to watch this, stat! Because one of the real problems with art in Canada is that while everyone goes around pretending to appreciate art and beauty, the reality is that it makes us really uncomfortable so we prefer to ignore it. This explains why, in Canada, arts and cultural "leadership" is thought to be in the hands of the faceless, grey nonentities that administer arts organizations. Isn't that an interesting delusion! For more on that see this post: Cultural Leadership in Canada.

Honestly, there is more genuine wisdom in this little excerpt about the arts, society, life and, yes, punk rock, than you normally run into in entire books and university courses. One tiny insight from the excerpt: "art is a window on the transcendent." Yep.

Do we need an envoi? Don't see why not. This is Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphonie:

Friday, March 9, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

The Wall Street Journal chronicles a rash of tuba thefts. Yes, you read that correctly, lots of people have been having their tubas stolen. But as one thief discovered, it's not so easy, trying to unload a hot tuba:
The tuba, the biggest and lowest-pitched among the brass family, can run from around $2,000 for beginner band models to more than $20,000 for specialized professional versions, says Martin Erickson, a past president of the International Tuba Euphonium Association.
People with “nefarious” intentions, he says, probably try to resell tubas or use them in other bands. “You don’t expect tubas to fall into that sort of thing.”
Kenneth Amis, assistant professor of tuba at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, imagines thieves assuming something so big would be valuable, not realizing how tough it is to unload one. “Few people are looking to buy tubas from a pawnshop.”
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The British Library has done us the favor of putting online Mozart's journal of his last seven years in which he records themes from new compositions. Most of us don't compose quite as many pieces so that we are in danger of forgetting them if we don't put them in a thematic catalogue. Mozart however...

The third item down is the beginning of his "Dissonance" Quartet, the last of the group of six string quartets dedicated to Haydn.

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Russian violinist Dmitry Rotkin must have fallen in with bad company--guitarists, to be specific--because where else would he have picked up the outrageous right hand techniques necessary to execute his "Mad Fingers Pizzicato"?

Hat tip to the Violin Channel.

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I should probably recuse myself from this topic, out of boredom if nothing else, but the intellectual sleights of hand are so egregious that I keep wanting to comment. Once again, The Guardian boldly goes where just about everyone else has in the search for the Great Unsung Woman Composer. The title of the article is Settling the score: celebrating the women erased from the musical canon. The article is celebrating International Women's Day, but the writer, Anastasia Belina, seems to be at odds with the headline writer--and logic, for that matter:
The music written by these forgotten composers shows integrity, gravitas and invention, and deserves to be heard on its own merit, with 21st-century ears, and without 19th- and 20th-century prejudices. We do not differentiate between female and male violinists, pianists, or other instrumentalists. Why do we still feel the need to point out that a conductor or composer is female? And, most importantly, does making a distinction between male or female composers prejudice our experience of their music?
So, all the while celebrating International Women's Day with special BBC Radio 3 broadcasts, we should be gender-blind? Or should we be seeking out women composers because they are women? I'm confused...

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I knew this was only a matter of time: COLLEGE BANS MEN-ONLY CONCERT PROGRAMMES
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in east London has said it will ensure that at least half the music it performs in future will be by women composers, with a particular focus on ‘missing’ modern British women.
For a series of comments on the above, ranging from the sarcastic to the scathing, please follow the link.

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Here's something you don't see every day: Marcel Duchamp and John Cage playing chess. Since it was the 60s they had to turn it into a "happening" with each move triggering different electronic compositions.

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Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go commune with my emotional-support iguana. And here is our envoi for today, the "Dissonance" Quartet by Mozart.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Is Music a Universal Language?

This reminds me of the old joke about the cor anglais or "English horn" that, as so many have pointed out, is neither English nor a horn (it is a kind of tenor oboe). Or perhaps the other old joke about the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire! What am I talking about? The Smithsonian has an article about the idea that music is a universal language that takes a properly critical approach:
Every so often, a study grabs headlines as researchers attempt to answer the question: “Is music a universal language?” The way that chords can tug at heartstrings and tear ducts without words might lead people to assume that music can transcend differences of speech to convey emotions. Ethen of the Sideways YouTube channel, however, makes compelling case for why the answer is a strong “No.” Or, at least, a thoughtful “This is a badly worded question.”
You are perfectly welcome to watch the clip, by the way, though I warn you it is one of those fast-talking, very annoying clips that seem all too numerous on YouTube:

Let me save you a bit of wear and tear by pointing out that, in order for music to be a universal language, it would first of all have to be a language. While it does have some language-like properties, it really isn't a language. For one thing, instrumental music does not have distinct semantic units like words, nor is there a dictionary in which you can look them up. Within specific traditions certain motifs might come to have a particular expressive import, like the minor sixth interval in early opera, but even those have quite a different impact depending on how they are used.

Music is also not universal, by the way. All those instances people like to cite of how music universally tugs at our heartstrings are within particular musical traditions. In other words, musical expressive gestures are learned, not naturalistic. Though, to be sure, music often contains elements, as the clip mentions, that can have similar responses in all cultures. He mentions the connection between rhythm and movement or dance. As well, insofar as loud bass notes can have a threatening aspect and fast rhythms a physically stimulating aspect, these aspects of music are cross-cultural. But this is a low-resolution truth. In other words, it is a truth that doesn't capture much. If I make a wildly threatening gesture at you, that is likely to make you duck no matter what culture we are. But that does not in any way mean that we share anything significant culturally. Similarly, a loud thump on a bass drum might make you jump whether it is in a performance of the Rite of Spring or one by a master-drummer from Ghana. The musical context is so utterly different that it is hard to see that aesthetically the two gestures have anything in common.

I guess the underlying principle here is that if you want to say anything productive about particular pieces of music, the very first thing to do is to stop trying to throw one big blanket over everything. Bottom up, not top down. If you are looking for a grand generalization, then start with the details. Then, at the end of that process you might discover an interesting general truth. Or not. But at least there will be some basis for it.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Devaluing Music

Via the blog On an Overgrown Path, I stumbled across a pretty good article on the multiple issues facing music today. The Devaluation of Music: It's Worse Than You Think.
When I hear songwriters of radio hits decry their tiny checks from Spotify, I think of today’s jazz prodigies who won’t have a shot at even a fraction of the old guard’s popular success. They can’t even imagine working in a music environment that might lead them to household name status of the Miles Davis or John Coltrane variety. They are struggling against forces at the very nexus of commerce, culture and education that have conspired to make music less meaningful to the public at large. Here are some of the most problematic issues musicians are facing in the industry’s current landscape. (My emphasis)
The writer, Craig Havighurst, sees seven ways in which the culture is devaluing music. One is the loss of context. In a streaming environment the music has almost no associated information other than artist/song title/album. Even in popular music this is a serious deficiency, but for classical music it is deadly. Another realm in which music is devalued is that of the media. Havighurst points out:
In the 1960s, when I was born, mainstream print publications took the arts seriously, covering and promoting exceptional contemporary talents across all styles of music. Thus did Thelonious Monk wind up on the cover of TIME magazine, for example. When I began covering music for a chain newspaper around 2000, stories were prioritized by the prior name recognition of the subject. Art/discovery stories were subordinate to celebrity news at a systemic level. Industry metrics (chart position and concert ticket sales) became a staple of music “news.” In the age of measured clicks the always-on focus grouping has institutionalized the echo chamber of pop music, stultifying and discouraging meaningful engagement with art music. (My emphasis)
Another problem is the conflation of music with all other forms of entertainment:
A little noticed but corrosive quirk of the digital age is the way our interfaces conflate music with all other media and entertainment choices. iTunes started it by taking software ostensibly for collecting and playing music and morphing it into a platform for TV, film, podcasts, games, apps and so on.
Yet another is the trend towards anti-intellectualism:
Music has for decades been promoted and explained to us almost exclusively as a talisman of emotion. The overwhelming issue is how it makes you feel. Whereas the art music of the West transcended because of its dazzling dance of emotion and intellect. Art music relates to mathematics, architecture, symbolism and philosophy. And as such topics have been belittled in the general press or cable television, our collective ability to relate to music through a humanities lens has atrophied. Those of us who had music explained and demonstrated to us as a game for the brain as well as the heart had it really lucky. Why so many are satisfied to engage with music at only the level of feeling is a vast, impoverishing mystery.
Yes, that hits home. I suspect that if you mentioned to most people that music has aspects other than the immediacy of emotion, they would be astonished to hear it. Havighurst also mentions some consequences of the migration of some of the textures of classical music into game soundtracks:
How does a young person steeped in the faux-Shostakovich rumbling of a war game soundtrack hear real Shostakovich and think it’s any big deal? This is rarely remarked on, but I believe that thousands of cumulative impressions of background music assigned to “romance” and “grief” and “heroism” have laid down layers of scar tissue on our ability to feel something when tonal symphonic music is made or written in the 21st century.
I have noted a similar problem in the characteristic rhythmic rigidity of much pop music. I suspect it leads to an inability to even hear the subtleties of phrasing that are common in classical music. The writer's final point is about the impoverishment of music in the educational systems. That would follow, really, as the educational system's primary purpose is to instill the basic values and beliefs of the surrounding culture. As the culture devalues music, so would the educational system.

Of course the basic problem of value when it comes to music, or any of the fine arts, is that while there are certainly economic factors in play, the fundamental values are humanistic and aesthetic, not economic. And we seem to be rather inept at measuring anything other than economic values these days! Which reminds me, I need to get back to my series of posts on aesthetics.

In the meantime, let's have a musical envoi with real aesthetic value. Here is a piece written for an audience likely smaller than the number of performers, the Symphony no. 55 in E flat major by Joseph Haydn, written around 1774. The second movement is one of his more interesting sets of variations with contrasts between staccato ones and legato ones.