Saturday, December 29, 2018

"Chase" (2015) for violin and piano

Time to give you a listen to some of the music we recorded in Toronto this month. The shorter piece, one I wrote in 2015, is rather like an encore.

Some background: I wrote this piece over three years ago for a couple of friends who were about to appear in a concert a few days later. Without much thought at all, I sat down and wrote the piece in a couple of hours. There are some typically Latin American syncopated rhythms and a lyrical middle section. The piece was rather a hit at the concert as lots of people came up to me afterwards with compliments (which rather surprised me). Afterwards, looking at the piece, I decided it was a bit too short and rewrote it, extending the middle section in particular.

Several months ago I organized a recording session in Toronto for my new piece for violin and guitar, "Dark Dream" so it seemed a good time to do a recording of "Chase." The violinist is Valerie Li, first violin with the Afiara Quartet and one of the finest chamber musicians in Canada and she is accompanied by the very excellent pianist Todd Yaniw.

The video clip is mostly of the performers and the studio, but it begins with a photo of the exterior of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto where we rehearsed the piece before going into the studio. The recording took place on the 9th of December in the Glenn Gould Studio at the CBC Broadcast Centre. This is one of the finest recording venues for classical music in Canada.


UPDATE: Sorry for the "unavailable" link. I think I have it fixed now, so let me know if the link is working.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Let's open with this very invigorating arrangement of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor for brass quintet:


* * *

The Guardian is doing the usual end-of-year lists: Classical CDs of the year: a year for lieder, piano recitals – and remembering. Here is critic Andrew Clement's list of top releases:

1. Stravinsky: Perséphone/Esa-Pekka Salonen

2. Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 4/Daniil Trifonov

3. Rossini: Semiramide/Mark Elder

4. Hindemith: Das Marienleben/Juliane Banse

5. Ferneyhough: La Terre est un Homme; Plötzlichkeit/Martyn Brabbins

6. Bach: B Minor Mass/William Christie

7. Schumann: Frage/Christian Gerhaher

8. Messiaen: Catalogue d’Oiseaux/Pierre-Laurent Aimard

9. Reich: Pulse; Quartet International Contemporary Ensemble/Colin Currie Group

10. Tippett: Symphonies 1 & 2/Martyn Brabbins

* * *

I have sometimes made the point that all the hand-wringing about the aging and just loss of audiences for classical music is more a North American phenomenon than a European one. Case in point, in the past year the Finnish Radio Orchestra, featuring series of concerts devoted to Witold Lutoslawski and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, had a 97% attendance. Slipped Disc had the report.

* * *

Speaking of Slipped Disc, here is a post of Norman Lebrecht's top stories of the year. Follow the link for the links.
10 Gatti is fired by Concertgebouw
9 International soprano is killed in glider crash
8 Anne-Sofie von Otter is tragically widowed 
7 Principal oboe: Why I had to leave Chicago
6 Steinway to be sold to Chinese
5 Berlin Phil loses US principal horn
4 Why Peter Gelb fired Uncle John Copley
3 Top conductor breaks skull in bike crash
2 NY Phil fires two musicians
1 John Williams leaves his scores to Juilliard
* * *

A hat tip to Slipped Disc for unearthing this rare clip of a young Pierre Boulez rehearsing with Yvonne Loriod, the wife of Messiaen. There is no mention of what they are rehearsing at the YouTube clip, but from the interview in German later on we find that it was Structures II by Boulez.


* * *

Skipping over a zillion stories about misogyny in opera, boys choirs and which record store just went bankrupt we find an interesting article in the New York Review of Books on Bach as recycler. Apparently he was adept at separating plastics from organics and glass. No, wait, sorry, I misunderstood! What he actually recycled was earlier music into later compositions.
Around 1730 Johann Sebastian Bach began to recycle his earlier works in a major way. He was in his mid-forties at the time, and he had composed hundreds of masterful keyboard, instrumental, and vocal pieces, including at least three annual cycles of approximately sixty cantatas each for worship services in Leipzig, where he was serving as St. Thomas Cantor and town music director. Bach was at the peak of his creative powers. Yet for some reason, instead of sitting down and writing original music, he turned increasingly to old compositions, pulling them off the shelf and using their contents as the basis for new works. 
The roots of this change can be traced, perhaps, to the summer of 1726, when Bach decided to incorporate instrumental music written earlier in Cöthen into his third Leipzig cantata cycle, refashioning concerto movements for violin or oboe into a series of inventive sinfonias (orchestral introductions), choruses, and arias featuring solo organ.
 The article is a review of a new book on Bach by Daniel Melamed:
In the end, Melamed’s book is about Bach the craftsman, the astonishingly inventive but pragmatic composer who compiled monumental choral works by blending styles—old and new, secular and sacred—and by appropriating, revising, and even abridging preexisting pieces.
A while back I wrote a post about two fundamentally different kinds of composers: the innovators and the synthesists. Bach, along with Mozart, was a synthesist while Beethoven and Haydn were innovators and Stravinsky was both at different times in his life.

* * *

Here is why I prefer CDs to digital files. You don't actually own music if it is a digital download. Slate has the story:
Ever bought a song or an album on iTunes and, after a while, decided you didn’t like it? Did you wish you could sell it somewhere, to someone, for something, the way you might have done with an old vinyl record or CD? In 2011, a company called ReDigi figured out a novel way for iTunes music purchasers to do just that. But for the past few years, it’s been tangled up in litigation. In what may prove to be ReDigi’s death knell, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has all but shut the business down.
Follow the link for the whole story.

* * *

 A commentator once mentioned here that a composer has to learn how to hate. I agree with this sentiment and have found myself explaining it on various occasions. Thankfully someone else has written an essay on the topic: In Defence of Hate.
We have forgotten how to hate.
This may seem like a counterintuitive—or even gallingly stupid—assertion in a world rocked by partisan political infighting, by global-scale ideological conflict, and by a renewed activity in formalized hate groups. Indeed, in 2018, the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of hate groups in the United States has swelled by 20 percent since 2014. On the face of things, the problem would not seem to be too little hate but far too much of it. Hate is a boom industry.
So let me clarify: we have forgotten how to hate well. We have forgotten how to hate rigorously and virtuously. This is, I believe, because we have forgotten how to distinguish between hate’s negative and positive iterations. In the former camp is racial hatred, religious hatred, and other forms of intense, frothing, violent dislike inflamed by malformed ideological doctrines and blind prejudices. The latter, more productive, form of hating is conceived as a form of rigorous, ruthless critique. Anger, says my therapist, inadvertently summoning the spirit of ex–Sex Pistols/Public Image Limited singer John Lydon, is an energy. And this energy can be productively harnessed.
Yes, exactly! Part of one's evolution as a composer is a series of winnowing distinctions that go towards forming your own style. You have to start deciding, not only what kind of music you like, but more importantly what kind of music you hate. Liking actually doesn't get you too far because what you are looking for as a composer is something new, something fresh, not something already done. And you get there partly by moving away from music you dislike which may take you into places that have not been too much explored. Call it a via negativa for musicians.

* * *

One of the works discussed in the book on Bach is the Confiteor from the B minor Mass which was one of the few sections that was newly-composed. The conductor is Philippe Herreweghe:


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

One Year in the Studio, part 4

Now we come to the year in the studio. In the fall of 1973 I decided not to continue at the university even though it had been a marvelous experience for me. The reason was that they had no acceptable guitar teacher, instead insisting that I take piano lessons and play lute in a Medieval ensemble. Yes, one of my earliest experiences in ensemble playing was Machaut! I dropped the piano after a while as it was quite painful for my right hand--I'm not the only guitarist to have experienced this. My decision was also sparked by the advice of my guitar teacher in Vancouver (with whom I started studying after the end of classes at university) to travel to Spain to study. So I started work with the Ministry of Education in order to save money. Then, in January of 1974, I flew to Spain. First time outside Canada. Actually, first time West of Saskatoon! No discernible Spanish.

I had a little Spanish phrase book, but soon discovered the limitations of that. As soon as I got there I wrote a letter to my parents to let them know I had arrived. Yes, this was pre-Internet and trans-Atlantic phone calls were very expensive. I hadn't seen a mailbox anywhere (in Canada they are bright red) so I consulted my phrase book and came up with "¿Dondesta el buzón? "Where is the mailbox?" The doorman at the hotel, very helpful, responded with a flurry of absolutely incomprehensible Spanish while pointing in several directions. I responded with one of my few Spanish words: "gracias" and set out to find a mailbox. It turned out that they were grey with the colors of the Spanish flag in a narrow band around the middle. That was then, now they are bright yellow.

Several months previous I had ordered a guitar from the shop of José Ramirez, the great Madrid guitar builder. Prior to that I was playing a hundred dollar student guitar:


This was taken just before I left for Spain. What surprises me about the photo is how good my hand position is. I think that starting on the electric bass guitar was likely quite advantageous for my left hand as it forced a good hand position and developed a lot of muscle.

So off I went to the guitar shop. When I visited Madrid two years ago I dropped by the shop just for nostalgia and took a photo:

Click to enlarge
It seemed different from my recollection. Apparently they changed location quite a while ago, so it isn't even on the same street. When I arrived there in 1974 and explained that I had a concert guitar on order (they also make student models) they first showed me to a chair in the back of the store and brought out a guitar. After tuning, I started trying it out and began with a prelude by Manuel Ponce. After they heard a bit, they showed me to a studio in the basement where I could try several different guitars. On the walls were several glass cases containing old guitars that used to belong to Andrés Segovia. After deciding on the guitar, I paid off the balance and set out on the train for Alicante, on the Mediterranean coast where José Tomás lived. The folks in the Ramirez shop provided the address. Oh, and the cost of that instrument? As fine a guitar as could be purchased in 1974 (as far as I knew)? $654 Canadian. I later sold it for two thousand dollars.

I first stayed in a little pension owned by a couple of brothers from Argentina. That was an interesting experience. They were really hospitable people. One time when there was a great abundance of smelt (a small fish the size of a sardine) they knocked on my door and handed me a big plate of freshly fried fish. Another time they came with the welcome news that another Canadian was staying in the pension. I popped around, but when I knocked on the door I discovered that it was a couple from Quebec who spoke not a word of English! At that time I spoke almost no French. Spain back then was a different place, much less modern with a lot of old customs. Returning to the pension one evening in company with a Canadian guitarist he made the enigmatic comment: "see you, I've gotta go down to the corner and clap my hands." ?!?!?!? The custom then was if you returned to your apartment late at night you would find the street door to the building locked. On every block was a watchman (here in Mexico we call them veladores) who had the keys to all the buildings. You went to the corner of the street and clapped your hands and he would come around and let you in.

Soon after I arrived I went by José Tomás' apartment which was on Taquigrafo Marti street. My teacher in Vancouver said not to bother trying to contact him in advance. He didn't have a phone and didn't answer letters. So I just knocked on his door. He was a fairly tall man with a head of glossy black hair, of calm temperament and dignified demeanor. I explained that I had studied with his student in Vancouver and wanted to study with him. He was delighted to hear his student's name and asked how he was. He then asked me what repertoire I was currently playing. I told him the Etude No. 8 by Villa-Lobos and some other pieces which seemed to satisfy him that I was advanced enough. Then he said he was leaving for Japan in a few days to give some master classes there, but we could begin when he got back.

So having my lessons all arranged I decided to go to London for a few days to buy some music and attend some concerts. I was hungry to hear live music and Alicante, being a small regional capital, had no significant concert scene. London was a marvel with numerous orchestras, ballet companies and a host of great musicians playing in wondrous venues like Wigmore Hall. It also was the location of the famous Foyles bookshop. Back then it was in two multi-storey buildings with a little street in between. The, I think, third floor of one of the buildings was entirely devoted to the arts. I recall walking through a room filled with inexpensive editions of the classics to get to the room with all the musical scores. This was the first time in my life where I was actually able to view a wide selection of music for my instrument. I stayed there six hours, delving into every drawer where the scores were kept, finally staggering out, lugging a big bag of music in search of a restroom!

Back in Alicante, I moved into a flat near Tomas' apartment, sharing it with an Irish guitarist. We had four bedrooms, fully furnished, linens and kitchenwares included and we even had a maid. All this for the princely sum of $75 a month. Not each, shared. Across the street was a little bar where one went for breakfast. The first time I was there the fellow behind the bar enigmatically said: "you're a guitarist." Yes, ok. "A classical guitarist." Uh-huh. "You study with José Tomás." Right again! I later realized that Tomás was one of the most famous residents of Alicante and that he had a community of young guitarists studying with him was common knowledge. But how did the bartender know I was one of them? I was obviously foreign, of the right age and I had the fingernails longer on the right hand.

So I settled into a long period of intense concentration on mastering the instrument. I had my room in the apartment. It was nearly bare with a bed, a little table, and a chair. That, plus a music stand, was all I needed. I am reminded of a painting of Van Gogh of where he lived in the South of France:


No allusions here to my similarity to Van Gogh!! Just that these little rooms in little towns on the Mediterranean coast were a bit similar.

All I did for month after month was practice guitar. The routine was to start with technical exercises to build agility, control and speed. I would spend at least one or two hours on slurs, scales, arpeggios and studies. I don't recall the details at this distance in time as I have changed my approach a few times since then. I also don't recall Tomás ever giving me any particular exercises to work on. Lessons with him were purely about repertoire. He started me off on the fairly simple pieces in Emilio Pujol's collection of music from the vihuelistas. I still have that book:


Apart from tone and consistency, one of the obvious things you learn from this kind of repertoire is how to handle independent voices. I continued to work on the Villa-Lobos etudes, particularly the first one, a formidable arpeggio study that it took me years to master. I used to have a little book that I noted down every piece that I learned in, but sadly, I lost it years ago. I recall learning a couple of Venezuelan waltzes by Antonio Lauro, some Bach, the English Suite by John Duarte, Preludes by Villa-Lobos and lots of other music. The editions and fingerings by Tomás himself were particularly sought after and we either made photocopies or wrote them out by hand. I still have a hand copy I made of La Burgalesa by Moreno Torroba which is to be played in E major, not the published key, which I think is F sharp. I would memorize pieces fairly quickly. I think I memorized all three movements of the English Suite in a little over a week. I also was working on the Studies by Stephen Dodgson.

It is safe to say that all I did for the eight or so months I was in Alicante, was to practice guitar four or five hours a day, read Russian novels and go for lunch with other guitarists. My most frequent companion was Klaus Helminen, from Finland. I found a little bookstore that had the Penguin translations of Russian novels and I read Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Sholokhov and Turgenev. I guess I was in a rather removed state of mind. On one occasion my Irish roommate had a friend staying with him, a California blonde, quite voluptuous. As I came out of my room after a couple of hours of technique with a lot of scales in dotted rhythms she came up to me and said, "we're going to go skinny-dipping in the ocean tonight, want to come?" I blearily consulted my watch and said something like, "I dunno, I really have to practice." Excessive practicing of scales can do that to you!

For an envoi today, I have La Burgalesa by Moreno Torroba in my recording:


Monday, December 24, 2018

No Art Was Possible

I'm still reading Simon Leys' collection of essays The Hall of Uselessness in which I found this delightful paragraph (p. 501):
Sometimes it takes a poet to deflate effectively the windy pronouncements of a philosopher. To Theodor Adorno, who declared that, after Auschwitz, no art was possible, Joseph Brodsky replied: "Indeed, not only art, but breakfast as well."
Yes, art has continued on quite well since WWII. What did seem to perish in the gas chambers and concentration camps was the more mystic fantasies of German idealism. And good riddance. I suppose that was what Adorno was mourning.

This might be a good time to re-listen to the String Quartet No. 8 by Shostakovich, a good example of the kind of art still possible after the war. This is the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

One Year in the Studio, part 3

After high school I was really at loose ends--it was one of the worst times of my life, so pointless that I would sleep in until noon and get up not having a single goal. I worked sporadically at weird jobs like digging clams ( eight cents a pound as I recall), and picking salal, a small ornamental shrub that grows wild in British Columbia. It is used in floral arrangements.

As I recall, a friend and I spent a whole week gathering the shrub and earned a splendid $40. So, not a promising career! Actual jobs were limited to planting trees in the mountains of Vancouver Island, which builds strong legs at $4 an hour, and working as a laborer for a stuccoer which paid about the same, but was closer to home. Planting trees means you are an eight-hour drive on logging roads from the nearest traffic light.

The only two things in my life of any promise were the discovery of classical music and a slowly awakening interest in philosophy. I recall at one point I was bunking on a small ship anchored in one of the inlets on the Western side of Vancouver Island, planting trees during the day and reading A Hundred Years of Philosophy in the evening.


The summer I was working for the stuccoer I decided I had to make a change in my life. Some friends who attended university had got me thinking that might be an option. I managed to save up $1,000 and there seemed to be three ways to spend it: go to university, buy an upright piano and do some composing or buy a secondhand Jaguar automobile. I noticed one in the paper for $1,000. I ended up at university, likely the best choice. I remember the first time I visited the library, six floors not counting the basement where the listening library was. I stood there looking around in amazement thinking to myself "I will NEVER read all these books!"

Due to advice from various people, I enrolled in the music education program. An audition was required, which I wasn't aware of, so when I showed up at the music department without my instrument the conducting professor dragged me into a practice room and tested my musical aptitude. "Sing this note. Sing this note. Sing this interval. Is this a major or minor chord?" That was about it. If you know what to listen for a simple little test like this can tell you a lot. Music education didn't really work for me so in second year I switched to the music department proper as a music history major. They did not have a guitar teacher, so I had no real choice.

My real goal was still to become an accomplished classical guitarist so I did not go on into third year. Instead, after working for six months for the Ministry of Education (a desk job in statistics), during which time I was commuting to Vancouver on Saturdays for guitar lessons, I decided to go to Spain to continue my studies. This was on the advice of my teacher in Vancouver, a fellow from Holland who had done the same. The place to go was Alicante and the maestro was José Tomás, a student of and assistant to the great Andrés Segovia.

A fairly young José Tomás playing his eight-string guitar
I made the trip, my first outside Canada, in January of 1974 and stayed there for most of a year. That year is the One Year in the Studio that the post title refers to and it has shaped my life.

As an envoi, here is my recording of a vals venezolano by Lauro with some photos from around that time.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

Thanks to Ann Althouse for finding this brilliant little satire on clichés of musicals. You have to follow the link. The thing is that you could do a similar satire for a lot of popular genres: 60s psychedelia, ragtime, Viennese waltzes, hip-hop, sensitive ballads, Irish laments and just about every other genre!

* * *

Continuing in a whimsical vein, the Husak Quartet perform the theme from Friends, courtesy of the Violin Channel.

* * *

The New York Times has an excellent musicological article on Bach's Brandenburg Concertos: There’s More Religion Than You Think in Bach’s ‘Brandenburgs’ What makes it musicology rather that just journalism is that it tries to describe and critique a common view, that "One of the most persistent myths about Bach is that his work is marked by a fundamental conflict between the sacred and the secular." Instead, Michael Marissen shows that, to the contrary, even his secular music has a religious subtext:
Those today who view religion negatively sometimes go even further and view Bach’s church cantatas as essentially instrumental concertos, with the religious texts more or less extraneous. But historically informed interpretation suggests the opposite: Bach’s instrumental concertos, including the “Brandenburgs,” are essentially church cantatas with implicit (and therefore harder-to-read) “texts” that do have real meaning. 
Accepting the idea that the “Brandenburg” Concertos harbor social and religious designs needn’t involve downplaying the magnificence of Bach’s artistic gifts. But insisting on exclusively aesthetic contemplation of his works — or implying that in the “Brandenburgs” he was freed from the perceived burden of including religious content in his music — pales their meanings, diminishes their complexity and reduces their stature.
Good article with lots of musical examples in the form of sound clips. Mind you a lot of these same points were made by Richard Taruskin in the Oxford History of Western Music.

* * *

Here is a piece about an executive at Deutsche Bank in New York gave up a successful career to become executive director at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, rescuing them from near-insolvency: 
Two years ago, after a 16-year Wall Street career—and with the blessing of his wife, fellow Stanford Business school graduate Claire Ellis—Cooper, 45, walked away from all that to take the executive director’s job at the nearly insolvent Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. In doing so, he willingly stepped off his chosen career path and into a subterranean office that doubles as instrument storage space in the conservatory’s five-story Victorian building. 
Since Cooper took the reins in August 2016, the 121-year-old nonprofit institution in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood has seen a 71% increase in individual donors over fiscal 2016 and a fivefold increase in attendance after shifting its development model from a single annual gala to a handful of special events. Assets have shown a net increase of $400,000 over fiscal 2016. Attendance at its flagship Community Music School is up 19%.
Music education should be an integral part of people's lives, I feel. Sadly, in a lot of places what is available is rudimentary at best.

* * *

The Toronto Star has a story about what happened when radio stations, including the CBC, decided to ban the popular Christmas song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" because of a purported endorsement of sexual coercion. The response from listeners? 
While 6 per cent of listeners appreciated the stations’ enlightened stance against rape culture, radio polls indicated up to 94 per cent thought they were nuts and wanted that song back on the air, pronto, before their heads exploded.
It's beginning to look a lot like sanity is breaking out!

* * *

Music critics are lamenting the possibility of a machine-driven world that rewards artists not for their originality, creativity, or emotional authenticity, but for their ability to replicate proven, predetermined formulas. Studies show that pop music and lyrics have grown increasingly repetitive and homogenous over the past few decades, and there is a whole graveyard of startups mining streaming and social data to predict the next big hit. Research initiatives like Google Magenta and Sony’s Flow Machines are even training machine-learning algorithms to compose songs on the spot, aiming to be indistinguishable from human songwriting.
Go to the original article for several links in that paragraph.
Because of its inherently passive nature, algorithmic curation has also made one core function of criticism defunct. Traditionally, critics acted as trusted tastemakers and, in the words of Larson, “consumer guides”—drawing upon their decades of subject-matter expertise to convince music fans about which CDs and vinyl records to buy at their local store. Now, streaming algorithms arguably have more influence over consumers’ listening habits, but in a rather different way: they don’t serve as tastemakers so much as “taste-reflectors,” serving up music with the highest quantifiable chance of reflecting a user’s already-existing preferences.
One of the things that annoys me about purchasing online is that as soon as you buy something, you are immediately hit with ads for numerous other examples of the same thing. But immediately after you buy a toaster, you certainly don't need to buy another one. Why isn't the same thing true of music? If you have just bought an album of soppy Andrew Lloyd Webber musical excerpts do you really need more? Don't you need some diversity in the form of Javanese gamelan or Haydn string quartets as a palate-cleanser?

* * * 

Let's listen to the lovely Brandenburg Concertos by J. S. Bach as our envoi today. The performers are the Freiburger Barockorchestra.


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Most Popular Posts of the Year

I'm probably doing this as much for me as for my readers, as it is interesting and useful to review just which posts attracted the most attention over the past year.

Blogging this year has been less frequent than in past years. The most posts I have ever put up was in 2013 with a total of 430 posts, more than one a day. Next most productive was 2012 with 382 posts. So far this year I have put up a paltry 219 so I will be lucky to make it to 225 for the year. There are a number of reasons for this, foremost of which is that I have decided to devote more time to composing and less to blogging. I also have other work responsibilities and if I am to record some of my own music, I have to set aside time to practice guitar. So, less blogging! There is also a faint possibility that I am running low on topics.

The most popular post this year, surprisingly, was the one on Sviatoslav Richter way back in March. This drew nearly three times as much traffic as other popular posts. One of the things I learned from the book of notebooks and conversations was that there are people, Richter being one, who are simply enormously talented. He never seems to have devoted a lot of his life to practicing technique but despite this he was a giant among pianists.
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.
That's a quote from the book that I included in the post. I did a lot of sight-reading when I was a young guitarist, but in order to become technically proficient I had to devote long hours for years and years to technical development. Violinist Valerie Li told me that when the Afiara Quartet were in their early years they would practice together for four hours every day.

A semi-satirical post I did on guitar apps, or instructional programs on the Internet was quite popular.
The truth is, and this comes from forty years of teaching music, that the learning process is really in the hands (and ears and mind) of the student. Course materials and high quality personal instruction can certainly help, may indeed even play a crucial role, but learning happens within the student and only their energy, curiosity, initiative and capacity for concentration and work will advance them. Yes, a good instructor, or well-crafted materials can certainly save the student some time and help them to find the right path. But only the student can walk that path.
This is all in manifest contrast to the happythoughts we read about in books by Malcolm Gladwell that propose that nearly anyone, if they devote 10,000 hours to the task, can become a master of a particular skill. That's only true if you have a natural gift.

Another popular post was one I did on defective strings:
The problem arises with the mass of the string. With the wound strings, this is pretty easy to control, but it is different with the treble strings. If they are not exactly the same diameter throughout, the pitch will not be clear and defined. Nowadays most trebles are reliably consistent, but you can still get a defective string. Amazingly, some guitarists don't even notice but just struggle a bit with tuning until they replace the string. But it is easy to detect a defective string. Just pluck it and watch closely how it vibrates against the dark background of the sound-hole. A good string will show a smooth band of vibration that grows narrower as the vibration ceases. A bad string will have a jerky, jagged vibration because it is trying to vibrate in more than one frequency due to the variation in the mass or diameter. It will not sound good and you will never get it in tune!
Another one of my semi-satirical posts was on a fantasy fee schedule if I were to be a performing artist today. All kidding aside, there are probably in the world today three or maybe four guitarists that can actually command fees in this range. And that's about it.

A couple of my posts on guitar repertoire received a lot of visits. The most popular was a list of the best shorter pieces and another was a list of transcriptions for guitar. Each of these posts is much more than just a list as I go into a lot of the surrounding context.

A non-musical post that got a lot of traffic was one on Understanding Psychology in which I describe my odd relationship with the field and why I have recently changed my mind.
I have had a strange relationship with psychology for most of my life. I think my first encounter was with a counsellor when my parents were getting divorced. I was around fifteen or sixteen at the time. I was interviewed and then given a test which in retrospect I think was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. I just thought it was peculiar and no, the counseling didn't help my parents who got divorced anyway. The counsellor suggested that I was kidding around when I answered the questions! Then there was some kind of career aptitude test administered in high school. I did the test but never went to the counsellor's office for the results. I guess you could say I was aggressively uninterested! Later on, in my late 20s and 30s, I got interested in Zen, Chinese philosophy and Carl Jung, which led me to Karen Horney, a neo-Freudian who specialized in neurosis. I read a few of her books, but I seemed to get more neurotic with every one, so I developed an interesting theory about modern psychology: it's all crap!
The most popular recent post was the one where I did a favorable review of a Chromebook.

At the very end of last year, and therefore not mentioned in that year's popular posts, were two I did on Russia: the first on Sofia Gubaidulina which I wrote not long after first discovering her music:
I'm going to start a new series of posts devoted to a single composer, the, as Wikipedia describes her, "Tatar-Russian" composer Sofia Gubaidulina (1931 -). What fascinates me about her music is what often draws me into a new piece or new composer: there is something about the music that keeps my attention, keeps me listening and, I have no idea how this music was composed. Yes, I love and am fascinated by the music of, say, Joseph Haydn, but at this point in time we have a fairly good idea of how the music came to be, even if imperfect and incomplete. In the case of Igor Stravinsky, that I just spent dozens of posts discussing, we are starting to have an idea of how his music came to be. But with Gubaidulina we (or at least me!) are stumped.
The other post was titled Two Russias? and it explores the odd contradictions of a country with a wealth of creative individuals in fields from music to literature to mathematics to design that seems to have always had a really horrible political system.

For an envoi let's listen to Sviatoslav Richter playing the first book of preludes by Debussy:


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, part 16

The last post on this topic was way back in August, so time to follow up, I think! In the early 1980s Gubaidulina encountered the thought of music theoretician Pyotr Meshchaninov, who lectured at the Moscow Conservatory on the evolutionary history of music. Meshchaninov proposed that the foundational source of musical pitch was the overtone series and that the Fibonacci series served a similar function with regard to rhythm. Meshchaninov was influenced in his thinking by his study and performance of the music of Bach, particularly the Art of Fugue. The Fibonnaci series is a sequence of numbers, each one of which is the sum of the two previous. Bartók also used the series to structure some of his pieces. Here is an illustration:



Gubaidulina approaches music from a different perspective. For her artistic form is a distillation of spirit, an organic, living process both fluid and moving. In a discussion with musicologist Olga Bugrova, Gubaidulina explained how she views the three realms of melody, harmony and rhythm, or, more organically, the root, trunk and leaves of a tree:
Mulling over which of the three fundamental elements of musical fabric within the sonorous complex might be seen as the "roots" of the tree I realized that it was rhythm. All of the harmonic, the mass of the resonance, forms the "trunk," while the contrapuntal lines exemplify the "leaves." Under the conditions of sonoristics, the melody can no longer be conceived, as in the past, as the means for developing, elaborating the material. Instead, it must manifest itself as a transformation of the material itself, and the consequence of growth from the "roots" through the "trunk." ... But with all that, one must not suppress intuition nor lose imaginative spontaneity. But, why rhythm? Because it alone presupposes the agency of laws that do not conflict with a system that embraces all possible sonic and timbral conceptions. [this quote comes from Kurtz' biography, p. 175]
I'm not sure what she means by the last sentence, but the rest is implying that rhythm is like a deep movement in the earth's crust that generates the harmonic waves of a tsunami while melody is the waves crashing on the land. Choose your own metaphor! Valeryia Tsenova has written an essay on the numerical aspect of Gubaidulina's music and I will take up that paper in a later post.

Gubaidulina, due to her non-compromising attitude, had been prevented for many years from traveling outside the Soviet Union to attend performances of her music. Finally in 1984 she was able to attend a special edition of the Helsinki Festival devoted to Soviet and Russian culture. The authorities were still unwilling to allow her to travel, but gave in when Veijo Vapio, the artistic director, stated that if Gubaidulina was not allowed to attend, the whole festival would be canceled! The first evening concert of the festival featured two pieces, Offertorium by Gubaidulina, followed by the Symphony No. 8 by Shostakovich. We have talked about the Offertorium before, a violin concerto written for Gidon Kremer, but let's listen to it again, re-creating this concert by hearing clips of the Offertorium followed by the Shostakovich symphony.



Now that's a concert! This event really was the beginning of a widespread recognition of Gubaidulina's importance. The Finnish composer Kalevi Aho wrote about the great impression she made on him when he visited Moscow in early April 1984:
I thought to myself that composers like Gubaidulina can only come from Russia. Perhaps it was fortuitous for her development as a composer that she had been confronted by many ... difficulties in the course of her career. Without these struggles she might not have developed her mind as much as she did; if everything had gone smoothly she might not have pushed herself to understand the reasons for being a composer or to thing about the higher purpose of her compositions. [op. cit. p. 180]
The first fruits of Gubaidulina's new understanding of the rhythm of musical form was a commission for percussion ensemble, In the Beginning There Was Rhythm:

Friday, December 14, 2018

One Year in the Studio, part 2

In my last post in this series I talked about moving from northern British Columbia to Vancouver Island which happened when I was fourteen. Were it not for this move the available options in my life would have been far narrower. I first started getting interested in music a year or so after the move and it was rock and pop music, the most ubiquitous, that caught my attention. I took up the electric bass guitar and joined a band. Actually, I wanted to take up the drums, God knows why, but they cost $12 a month to rent while a bass guitar was only $9. Yes, we were on a tight budget! Six months after my first lesson on bass guitar (I think I only had a couple) my band played its first "gig" in a little hall in a tiny town whose name I forget. There were less than ten people in attendance and I think that we made six dollars each. Now that's professionalism! After a while I took up the acoustic six string and became interested in both the Beatles and Bob Dylan. In a brief folk music interlude I recall performing, in a state of high anxiety, Dylan's "Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands," an eleven-minute dirge (though a nice one) at a local talent festival. This demonstrates two things, I think, my wide-ranging aesthetic curiosity and taste and my inability to either notice or care what the tastes of the audience might be!

From time to time I would notice the existence of classical music. As I recall my mother had an LP of Ferrante and Teicher, an American piano duo specializing in light classics and I quite enjoyed their arrangement of Malagueña. But the real revelation came when a friend played me a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and I realized that there was a whole musical universe of intricate harmonies and orchestrations and extreme virtuosity that I knew little of. At first I started borrowing classical LPs from another friend's father. I recall listening to the "New World Symphony" by Antonín Dvořák, the "Unfinished Symphony" by Franz Schubert, the Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven and "La Mer" by Claude Debussy. A transcendental wow. All these gems were listened to on an old monophonic cabinet stereo and the discs themselves were a mass of tics and surface noise through which the music appeared as a spectral ghost. I still almost expect the sound to skip a groove at a certain place in the Unfinished Symphony from listening to that old record so many times.

One summer I worked for a stuccoer (very demanding physical labor) and before going to work in the morning I would listen to an LP of violin music by Pinchas Zukerman that had Romantic showpieces by Henryk Wieniawski, Camille Saint-Saëns and others. Here is the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Wieniawski:


Noble and lovely music. After a hard days work I would often drop by the local record store and pick up a new LP. I recall that re-issues of older recordings were often available for $2.99 from the well-known companies (or $1.99 from the lesser-known). Mind you, I was only getting paid something like two or three dollars an hour!

At some point around then (1970) I discovered J. S. Bach. I used to have a photo, taken by a friend, of me leaning out a window holding an Archiv box set of the Bach Mass in B minor, looking very much like the tablets of Moses. This same recording is still available:


At the time this was a new 1969 recording. The whole performance is on YouTube with a short introduction in German:


Music does not get much better than this. Not too long after I discovered two things: that there was such a thing as a classical guitar and that one could play actual music by Bach on this instrument. That pretty much set the course of my life for the next few decades. The great Chaconne by Bach, the last movement of the Partita No. 2 for solo violin, transcribed for guitar by Andrés Segovia, was my inspiration for years:


Ironically, this was the only goal that I did not ultimately achieve. I never did play that piece in public.

Friday Miscellanea

First up a whimsical performance where two comic violinists take on Hilary Hahn in a hula-hoop Paganini contest:


That's the Caprice No. 24, by the way.

* * *

Yo-Yo Ma on cello in the Montreal Metro with some chopped-off Bach and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.


Many years ago I played a few times in the Metro and believe me, you have to pick your location.

* * *

Back in Montreal I used to occasionally read Le Monde diplomatique for its interesting and intellectual perspective on things. Here is an article on The music of migration.
There has been a tectonic shift in global urban culture, with shrinking spaces for free musical expression in Britain. The old community pub culture is being replaced by an imperialist coffee shop culture where people are isolated with online social media, listening to pre-recorded music on headphones. You cannot sing in a Starbucks. In London, street music is controlled through licensing, often limited to solo performers; unlicensed buskers can be fined £1,000 and their instruments confiscated. Privatisation and enclosure also silence voices; a people’s choir in the rich university city of Cambridge can’t find a space to rehearse. And while religion in British cities used to be Christian and choral, churches are in decline and all community singing is gone; Islam thrives in those cities, but regards music, song and dance as haram.
This is partly a long-coming unintended consequence of the development of the technology to record and play back music. I find most public spaces these days very unpleasant solely because of the music--whether blasting or unobtrusive.

* * *

Speaking of public spaces I had a glimpse of the future recently. Waiting lounges at Toronto's Pearson airport are outfitted with hoards of iPads at nearly every seat. I tried one out and found it to be non-functional in interesting ways. There were a lot of the icons you find on your iPhone screen, but with significant omissions. No web browser, for example. This is presumably so unsavory characters can't view pornography. Is this what they do in libraries these days? There was a News icon, but no way of choosing what news. I got some outdated articles on George H. W. Bush's funeral from a paper in Texas. There was a CNN channel and some games, but the map icon was also non-functional. What is  creepy about this is that I can easily see authoritarian governments of the future tightly controlling all public access to information for their own purposes. No criticism allowed, of course. This is already the case in some nations. The public information and discussion space in Canada is already quite limited; all those little magazines that used to exist with a variety of different viewpoints seem to have vanished. There is a tiny bit of ideological variance between the Globe and Mail, along with the CBC the voice of the central Canadian establishment, and the National Post, the radical conservative upstart just celebrating its 20th anniversary. The Globe and Mail believes that caution and compassion is the solution to French President Emmanuel Macron's problem with weeks of riots over his fuel tax. Over at the National Post they see the solution to resistance to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's carbon tax in adroit handling of the rebates to affected parties. If you squint you can see that the National Post is slightly on the right and the Globe and Mail slightly on the left, but both are handmaidens to the oligarchy of Canadian big business. And that is what passes for public discussion in Canada.

* * *

For a diametrically different perspective on Yo-Yo Ma, we have a new piece by Alex Ross in The New Yorker: Yo-Yo Ma’s Days of Action.
The cyclone of exuberance that is Yo-Yo Ma tore through the Washington, D.C., area at the end of November. The cellist is in the middle of a sprawling tour called the Bach Project, which involves performances of Bach’s six solo-cello suites in thirty-six places, on six continents. Classical music has taken to attaching the word “project” to undertakings large and small. If two or more Brahms symphonies are played, it becomes a Brahms Project. The Bach Project, though, is deserving of the name. Most of Ma’s concerts are slated for large spaces capable of accommodating thousands. Each is accompanied by a Day of Action, in which Ma meets with local artists, community leaders, students, and activists, exploring how culture can contribute to social progress. In Washington, the venue was the National Cathedral. The Day of Action took place in Anacostia, the historic African-American neighborhood in southeast D.C.
I have to admit that I have never quite fallen under Yo-Yo Ma's spell. He seems an entirely serious musician and compassionate spirit who only wants to do good in the world and more power to him. Ironically, the one jarring bit in Ross' article is about the power of culture to do good:
The premise underlying the project—that “culture helps us to imagine a better future,” as Ma wrote in a program note—is open to question. It is far from clear that culture makes the world better. Put to wrong ends, it can make the world worse; Hitler and Stalin proved as much. In our own time, Valery Gergiev lends lustre to Vladimir Putin and Kanye West hypes Donald Trump.
Ah, that's the Manhattan intelligentsia ideology we were waiting for. Yes, Hitler, Stalin, Putin and Trump are all a much of a muchness. At least Yo-Yo Ma avoids such crude equivalences.

 * * *

The Spectator takes up the horrifying injustice of there being too many male instrumentalists in jazz:
The legislation of gender parity is also injurious to the music. I’ve exchanged a flurry of emails with Birmingham’s head of jazz, Jeremy Price. He observes: ‘The band leader’s choice of personnel is as important as the composing and the band leader’s playing. You choose personnel to fit your music and that’s the way it should remain. That a festival dictates or seeks to overly influence your personnel choices is way too anti-art for me.’ Yet if Price warns festival organizers against ‘searching for inexperienced female jazz artists to make up the numbers’, he’s ‘hung out to dry as a misogynist’. He describes the usual response as, ‘So you’re saying that women aren’t as good as men at jazz!’
* * * 

Let's listen to some Yo-Yo Ma for our envoi today. Here he is with the Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach at the 2015 Proms:


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Laptop Review

I don't usually don't do reviews of anything, but I have had an excellent experience with my new laptop, so here are some comments. I wanted a lighter laptop with a larger screen than my older Macbook Pro so I bought a Chromebook. They take some getting used to, but I have used them before and they are quite manageable for most purposes. I bought the newest Acer 15.6 inch model:

As I said in the previous post, I just got the laptop and charged it up the day before getting on the plane to Toronto. As I forgot the charger, it had to last the whole six days I was there, which it did, but after checking my email the last morning, it only had five minutes left! Pretty impressive, especially compared to my older MacBook Pro that only has a couple of hours of charge. I love Chromebooks because they boot up in just a few seconds and shut down instantly. Mac and Windows machines, especially the latter, seem to take geological time to boot up.

So what is the hitch? Chromebooks run the Chrome operating system from Google which will not run any ordinary applications. So I can't compose on the road as it won't run Finale. It also won't run Word or Powerpoint or any other ordinary program. What it will run is Google docs so for normal purposes just open your Word file with Google docs and edit therein, saving it as a Word file to send to others. Mind you, I haven't done this much, but I think it would work. For web browsing there are no issues. I am writing this review on my Chromebook.

Why did I get a Chromebook instead of a MacBook Air like everyone else? A new MacBook Air with a 13' screen costs north of a thousand dollars. My 15.6' Chromebook cost $212 (plus $58 shipping and import fees to Mexico).

How does the screen definition and speakers compare to my older MacBook Pro? Quite well. Viewing this YouTube clip on the Chromebook compares well with the Mac:


The picture seems very comparable (mind you, my old MacBook does not have a retina display) and the sound also seems just as good--a bit better in fact as it delivers more volume at max. The MacBook is a bit quiet even when you crank it up. The Chromebook has some fair-sized speakers on either side of the keyboard. The keyboard is nothing special, not as nice as on a Mac, but perfectly useable.

So there you have it. Why are Macs so much more expensive? They are gorgeous examples of industrial design, and Apple has found that their customers are loyal enough to accept higher prices. Windows machines are more expensive largely because of the hefty fee Microsoft charges for the operating system. So, you might consider buying a Chromebook at a fraction of the cost.

UPDATE: How hard was it to connect my Chromebook to my HP printer? It took 30 seconds.

Back From Toronto

I got back from Toronto last night so I can give a bit of an update on the project. First some background: over the last few years I had developed a good working relationship with a recording engineer down here in Mexico. Ken Basman was originally from Toronto and was an outstanding jazz guitarist. He was also a very talented recording engineer with his own studio and an impressive collection of microphones. Sadly, he passed away a couple of years ago so I have been looking for an alternative. I just completed a piece for violin and guitar, Dark Dream, and there was another piece for violin and piano that also needed recording so I approached violinist Valerie Li, first violin with the Afiara Quartet whom I had met when they gave a number of concerts here in Mexico. She was interesting in recording the pieces with me and knew a very good recording engineer in Toronto. As Toronto is also home to some fine pianists, that made the project feasible. I just had to fly up to Toronto in December when the daytime high is often around zero! Never mind, just dress warmly.

The project was a real success. We recorded in the Glenn Gould Studio, a small concert hall in the CBC broadcast centre that is outfitted as probably the finest studio for recording classical music in Canada. We recorded two pieces, Dark Dream, which I just completed a couple of months ago, and Chase, composed three years ago. I flew into Toronto last Wednesday, getting in at 1:30 in the morning. At noon the next day I had a rehearsal with Val which was our first run-through of the piece. As she is a highly accomplished chamber music musician it went very smoothly and we largely worked out the ensemble problems. The next day I attended the rehearsal of Val with pianist Todd Yaniw for the much shorter piece, Chase. That went quite well, though I was not impressed with the beat up piano at the Conservatory. Saturday Val and I had another rehearsal of Dark Dream and Sunday we recorded both pieces at the CBC. Total rehearsal time Dark Dream: 3 1/2 hours and Chase, 1 1/2 hours. Total recording time: Dark Dream, 2 hours and Chase 1 1/2 hours. Dark Dream turned out to be about 14 minutes long and Chase about 4 minutes. I expected Dark Dream to come in at ten minutes as that is how it was originally planned. However, I rewrote the piece three or four times so it just grew!

Here is a look at the Glenn Gould Studio, named after perhaps Canada's most famous classical musician, pianist Glenn Gould who was pretty much resident in the CBC building for much of his career:

Click to enlarge

Inside the control room:


Our recording crew, Paul, technical assistant from the CBC, Pouya Hamidi, our recording engineer, and pianist Todd Yaniw. I believe that Pouya is performing a traditional invocation of the gods of recording for a successful session.


Myself, Pouya and violinist Valerie Li, getting ready to do a take:


I will have more about the actual recording in future posts.

While the recording itself went very well, there were a few unexpected challenges. As I said in a previous post, I completely forgot my charging cables for my iPhone, my Chromebook and my Kindle. They were all charged up when I left so it was not a complete disaster. In fact, the Kindle lasted the whole trip. Val had a spare iPhone charger, so that helped. But the Chromebook only lasted the whole time due to stringent rationing! I was going to do a lot more blog posting and maybe watch a few shows on Netflix, but had to keep the usage to an hour or two a day. It turned out that the Chromebook, advertised as having up to 12 hours of battery time, actually delivered about that much. However, taking an Uber to the Royal Conservatory for a rehearsal, my iPhone slipped out of my jacket pocket in the back of the cab. It took several days of phone calls and a significant tip to get the phone back. Luckily, I did! But my recommendation is to NEVER leave anything in an Uber.

On the plus side, I discovered a really good sushi restaurant near my hotel.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Sunny Toronto

Sure, it starts to get dark around 4:30 in the afternoon, but Toronto can be sunny in the winter as it was yesterday. Mind you, it was also 8 degrees below zero, so there's that. We had a rehearsal at the Royal Conservatory of Music, one of Canada's leading musical institutions. Here is a photo of the original building that has since been added on to with new construction on one side and at the back:


I also paid a little visit to the LCBO another uniquely Canadian institution. Canada, traditionally, was a bit conflicted about sinful things like alcohol, so in most provinces, sales of alcoholic beverages are tightly controlled by the government. LCBO stands for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The Quebec equivalent is the SAQ, the Societe des Alcools de Quebec (sorry, no accents on this keyboard), and in British Columbia it is the BCLDB, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch. These shameful products are usually sold out of dull, generic government buildings. On the other hand, provinces like Ontario and BC are more and more producing fine wines and are justifiably proud of them.

I ran into another wine aficionado just before coming to Toronto which reminded me of my interest in ice wines. Ice wine (Eiswien in German) was invented in Germany, by wineries in the Moselle valley. Sometimes, if you let your grapes fully ripen in late fall, which gives you those luscious late-harvest wines, you get caught by an early frost which ruins the grapes by the time they thaw out. But sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century vintners started to crush the grapes when they were still frozen which gives a highly concentrated juice as the water is taken out in the form of ice crystals. The result is a sweet, completely natural wine, balanced by good acidity. Other sweet wines, like Sauternes, are created by a fungus, referred to as "noble rot" that causes the skin of the grapes to degrade and some of the water to evaporate, again resulting in a more concentrated juice.

The two main nations that produce ice wine are Germany and recently, Canada. So I dropped by the LCBO and picked up a couple of bottles of ice wine to take back to Mexico with me. Very little of this wine is exported and, as far as I know, none to Mexico! I also picked up what I hope will be a good Barolo to go with the Christmas turkey:


Ice wine is traditionally made with the Riesling grape, but in Canada is often made with the little-known Vidal blanc grape:
Vidal blanc (or simply Vidal) is a white hybrid grape variety produced from the Vitis vinifera variety Ugni blanc (also known as Trebbiano Toscano) and another hybrid variety, Rayon d'Or (Seibel 4986). It is a very winter-hardy variety that manages to produce high sugar levels in cold climates with moderate to high acidity.
Ice wine is not cheap as the whole crop has to be picked all at once, often in the pre-dawn so the grapes are still frozen when they are crushed. Save it for a special occasion!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Friday Miscellanea

This will be a combined miscellanea today with some bits about my trip to Toronto as I am rationing time on my laptop due to my forgetting my charging cable at home. I had my first rehearsal with violinist Valerie Li yesterday and it went very well. Val is a terrific violinist, first violin with the Afiara Quartet, a really outstanding ensemble. Val is originally from Vancouver and attended the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, one of the finest music schools in the US. She and the other members of the quartet came together at the San Francisco Conservatory and later on at Julliard in New York. They just got back from a three week tour of Denmark. I met the quartet in Mexico when they performed a few times in our local festivals. They stood out for me for their superb musicianship, especially in the Beethoven quartets. So when I was looking for a violinist to record some new pieces, she was at the top of the list.

We rehearsed for a couple of hours yesterday and I was very pleased with how it went. Val is a meticulous musician and working on my piece "Dark Dream" for violin and guitar, I had some new insights into what is going on in the piece! How this piece came to be, something I will go into in more detail in another post, was first of all at the conceptual level, then later on I rewrote much of it intuitively. With new music, the details of interpretation will develop as you rehearse the piece. Val was very insightful in shaping phrases and the dynamic layout. Today I will meet her and pianist Todd Yaniw at the Royal Conservatory of Music where I will hear them rehearsing my older piece, "Chase" for violin and piano. I have only written two pieces for piano in my life, this one and a song for voice and piano from a couple of years ago. "Chase" is a pretty straightforward piece designed to be a bit of a romp for both instruments and easily enjoyable for the audience.

* * *

The New York Times has a piece on creativity and asceticism. They recount how artists have often, in the past, been associated with hedonistic excess:
In classical Greece, in fourth- and fifth-century Athens, the major artistic prize of the era, for drama, was given under the auspices of Dionysus, a god of wine and ecstasy. Dionysus is a curious proto-patron saint of the arts, given the story of his birth. Zeus — king of gods, thunder god — wooed the mortal Semele. Hera, Zeus’ wife and the goddess of heaven, tired of her husband’s philandering, learned of Zeus’ latest conquest and convinced Semele to demand that Zeus reveal his true form — lightning — a sight Hera knew would kill her: No mortal can bear a god in full. Zeus assented, Semele died, but Zeus saved Semele’s fetal son, tucking him into his thigh, carrying him to term, earning the child the epithet “twice born”: to a mortal, to a god.
That there is something divine in the mortal act of making things is another part of the lore around creativity. The process of giving artistic birth is said to court a kind of violence that the maker must reckon with. Recent books have wondered about the tension between varieties of addiction and creativity, often by writers who themselves had been alcoholics, booze being a way to blunt or redirect the violence of making.
But the writer, Wyatt Mason, goes on to note that:
if it is fact that a kind of excess often accompanies the making of art, then there’s another kind of excess — less cinematic, for sure — that seems closer to the point: Artists, even the hedonistic ones, are fundamentally, one might say excessively, ascetic.
For the artist, though, asceticism isn’t a fad or a fashion or a mindful cleanse — a thumb of turmeric and a pinch of cayenne — prudently chosen. It is a regimen that evolves out of the need to do something unreasonable that an artist can’t be reasoned out of doing: work, demanded by no one but the self that makes it, because making is what the artist needs and knows.
* * *

I have long been a fan of Esa-Pekka Salonen both for his conducting and as a composer so I am delighted to read that he will be the next musical director of the San Francisco Symphony. This orchestra, unlike many others in North America, does not change conductors on a whim. The current director, Michael Tilson Thomas, has been at the helm for a quarter-century. Joshua Kosman writes in the San Francisco Chronicle:
The 60-year-old Finnish musician’s arrival in 2020 to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas promises to be an exciting development on every conceivable front. It’s going to mean a high level of musical execution from an orchestra that already plays like one of the best in the world. It’s going to mean a healthy infusion of contemporary music and a broadening of the repertoire, and it’s going to mean a range of new approaches to the very structure of orchestral music-making.
It’s really something of a coup.
If that assessment sounds a little breathless, consider that it could not have been made about any other conductor the Symphony might have chosen. There are fine conductors out there, but there’s simply no one on the orchestral scene today who can boast the range of musical and leadership skills that Salonen is poised to bring with him.
* * *

 They don't link to the story and I can't find it, but Arts Journal mentions a piece by critic Jennifer Gersten that sounds interesting:
Classical radio stations promote their programming as “calming and refreshing,” an “oasis,” or “an island of sanity.” Playlists on YouTube and audio streaming services have titles like “8 Hours Classical Music for Sleeping”; inexpensive compilation CDs offer “The Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe.” Jennifer Gersten, winner of the 2018 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism — identifies at least one reason why the industry keeps falling into this rut, and argues that the habit sells both the music itself and potential listeners very short.
Well, sure. The thing is that while I, and some of you as well, look to music for an enlivening, occasionally transcendental experience, a lot of listeners just hope for a respite from the hectic stress of everyday life.

 * * *

This item struck close to home: Canadian orchestra is forced out of its hall.
After decades of performances at its home base at the Royal Theatre, the Victoria Symphony has announced that it is being forced out of the Theatre due to exorbitant rental increases and curtailed access to booking dates.
Recent changes to rental fees and newly created priority scheduling policies and procedures developed by the Board of the Royal Theatre have created an untenable situation for the Victoria Symphony. ‘With the new policy our rent will increase by 100%, and combined with significantly reduced access to available dates in the Theatre we can no longer continue to offer our series of concerts,’ says says Chairman Alan Hollingworth.
The Symphony will pull out half of its season offerings from the Royal and take them to the Farquhar Auditorium at the University of Victoria.
I played the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo with that orchestra on that very stage. This isn't quite as bad as it sounds because the Royal Theatre is an older facility with frankly, minimal backstage amenities. The newer auditorium at the university is a better performing space.

* * *

Ending with a bit of whimsy, Yuja Wang's agent, Mark Newbanks, has, according to Slipped Disc, dropped her because she is too "high maintenance."
The boutique artists’ manager Mark Newbanks has dropped the pianist from his elite list, apparently for being too high maintenance.
Mark erased Yuja from his website this month and she has reciprocated in kind.
This is an uncomfortable situation for an international artist, but she won’t be alone for long. The vultures are circling quite low in the sky.
* * *

Which brings us to our envoi. One of my favorite orchestral clips, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting an orchestra of young students at the Verbier Festival. This is the last movement of the Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius:


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Recording in Toronto

I am in Toronto for the next few days recording two pieces with violin. While I am here I will take a few photos and share some experiences with you. In the planning for a good part of a year, over the next few days we will hopefully get good performances of two recent pieces of mine recorded. We used to say "in the can" or "on tape" or maybe "on vinyl" none of which longer apply. "On hard drive" just seems odd.

Anyway, I got in late last night on an Aeromexico flight which, apart from leaving a half-hour late, was excellent. I have been worried about my guitar ever since I booked the flight a few months ago. As I have mentioned before, my instrument was built by Robert Holroyd in Vancouver in 1983 and it has been my sole instrument ever since, undergoing a couple of repairs and restorations over the years. It is a superb guitar and irreplaceable since Bob passed away decades ago. I will not let it travel in cargo. My travel agent assured me that the policy on Aeromexico was that musical instruments can travel as carryon luggage as long as the case is less than 1.15 meters in length (which I guess lets out cellists). My case is 1.07 meters, so I should be good. But I was extremely apprehensive because of many bad experiences over the years where I was often lied to and sometimes forced to check my guitar. When I showed up for checkin in Mexico City yesterday there was no problem. I held up my guitar case saying, "this is my carryon" and they simply said," that's a guitar?" and waved me on. It came to me that all the bad experiences I had back when I was touring, were with Canadian airlines, who seemed to actually hate guitars.

Seated next to me on the flight was a gentleman who commented on my case and asked me if I was a classical guitarist. He turned out to be a Mexican guitarist who just started teaching at the University of Toronto and he gave me a copy of a recent album he recorded that I will review when I can get to it. So that was a nice coincidence.

I got in very late last night--it was snowing lightly and around 0 degrees (32 Fahrenheit), but the hotel folks were very nice. That is the first thing I notice, Canadians are polite to a fault! Now, yes, I do realize that I am in fact Canadian, born and raised, but I have not actually lived in English Canada for the last twenty-eight years so I do feel a distance from English Canadian culture. The first eight of those years were in Quebec, which is quite different, and the last twenty in Mexico, which is really different. It is fascinating to view one's own culture from the outside, as it were, which is what I am doing. I have never spent much time in Ontario (apart from a summer back in the 80s) and I have not been in Toronto since around 2000. One of my first goals will be to see if I can find some Montreal smoked meat!

I am writing this on a new laptop, an Acer 15.6 inch Chromebook that I purchased from Amazon for $213. Yes, not a misprint. There was a charge for shipping and import duties to Mexico, but not that much really. Why so cheap? Chromebooks are much cheaper because they do not include hefty fees for the Windows operating system. They take some getting used to because they do not run any of the usual programs, but for web browsing they are perfect and you can use Google docs instead of the usual Office programs. I find that, for most purposes, they are ideal. They boot up in a few seconds and shut down instantly. This is the third one I have owned and I love them when I travel. My Macbook Pro is a bit too heavy. Plus, 15.6 is a lot of screen on a laptop, which I appreciate. I can't do any composing on it as it will not run Finale. I should look and see if there is any music software available.

I managed to completely forget all of my charging cables so I will have to ration my computer time. It says that the average battery life is twelve hours (!) so that gives me two hours a day as I charged it up before I left. Fingers crossed! My iPhone is going to die a lot sooner, so I am going to leave it turned off most of the time. Why did I forget the cables, which I usually remember? I think it was because I was mostly focused on packing everything I needed for the recording. I haven't traveled with my guitar for twenty years so there was a lot to remember:

  • guitar
  • extra sets of strings (2)
  • sandpaper (2 kinds) for the nails
  • polishing board for the nails and nail file
  • clipper for the strings if I have to put a new one on
  • metronome/tuner
  • scores for both pieces
  • music stand
  • foot rest
Often the most challenging part of being a musician is simply the logistics of getting there with everything you need.

I am staying in a Marriot just a couple of blocks from the CBC building where we are going to be recording and while a modest, older hotel is quite suitable. The room is great--it has a kitchenette with a fridge, stovetop, dishwasher and kitchenware so I can actually cook here. I wonder if I can find a decent bagel? I am told I have to visit the Kensington Market, which I vaguely remember from years ago. I won't be here very long and every day involves either rehearsing, recording or editing, but maybe I can fit that in.

And now, time for breakfast!

Monday, December 3, 2018

Best Albums of the Year?

We live in a time when criticism, music criticism in particular, is abhorred. Ok, let's go with that. If you don't have criticism, which has to be some sort of bigotry: sexist, colonialist, oppressive, exclusionist, etc, then you have wide open doors and windows, let the sunshine in! In practical terms this means that, as we find from Ted Gioia, you just give a long, long list of everything under the sun: The 100 Best Recordings of 2018. Not only that, but there is a long list of also-rans. Just reading the list makes me tired. So is this any kind of service to the listener? Maybe, let's listen to a few samples. Number two on the list is Marisa Anderson: Cloud Corner, described as "Serene Folk Guitar Instrumentals from Portland"


Uh, ok. Fairly harmless, but I have heard pretty much exactly this dozens of times before. So nothing special. I only skipped the first one because it was described as "Contemporary Soul/R&B Influenced by Billie Holiday, Etta James, Nina Simone" and I have heard lots of that before. The third one is Mark Applebaum: Speed Dating, described as "Experimental Spoken Word Music / Contemporary Classical Music" Blogger won't embed, so follow the link for "3 Unlikely Corporate Sponsorships: No. 1, Nestlé"


This is a polyphonic version of Kurt Schwitters Ursonate mixed up with Tom Waits "Step Right Up" in a special version for kindergarten. Number four is Typh Barrow: Raw, described as the Belgian Amy Winehouse.


Pretty typical soul/blues to my ear, but with a nicely gravelly voice. Number five looks really promising: Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly: Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music, described as "Gamelan Transcriptions and Contemporary Songs Inspired by Them" Oh dear, imagine my disappointment when what I hear is gamelan reduced to kind of bland new age music with dreary breathy semi-spoken vocals. I would describe this as road trip music for overstimulated folks who really need to calm down.


And besides isn't this the worst kind of cultural appropriation?

I could go on, but all this seems to prove is that 90% of everything really is crap. If Ted Gioia had actually done the proper job of a music critic and tried to pick the ten good ones out of the hundred, now that would have been a public service. And we could have some good arguments about it. But as it is, in this post-critical wasteland, he makes no critical judgements so you have struggle through the whole bloody list to find the few gems that might lie within. How marvelous.

UPDATE: Just to be fair, this is Ted Gioia's reason for presenting the list as it is:
I am listing my top 100 and honorable
mention albums for 2018 in alphabetical
order, rather than ranking them. This
marks a change from pre-2017 lists. I
am doing this because each of these
albums deserves recognition and the
sequential ranking tended to focus
too much attention on just a few
recordings.
Each of these albums deserves equal recognition? Why is that exactly? How delightfully egalitarian.