Saturday, November 16, 2019

Volans with a small blanket

This is the most interesting piece for a solo percussionist I can recall hearing. Kevin Volans, She Who Sleeps with a Small Blanket performed by Tomasz Kowalczyk:


There must be a couple of dozen performances of this piece on YouTube by different percussionists, but this one really stands out.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

I rather like 89-year-old Clint Eastwood's retirement plan. Last weekend there was a 34 acre fire close to the Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles and they asked everyone on the lot to evacuate just as a precaution. Clint refused to leave saying he had work to do. And this was a Saturday. His retirement doesn't even involve weekends off!

* * *

Here's the pull-quote: "The digital age has given us two "gifts." The technology used for playback sounds terrible and our recorded music no longer has any monetary value" and here is the article: What the digital age means for my music — and my paycheque.
I had recently come to the conclusion that the record business is more profitable than the film and television business.
I explained that last week I received my royalty statements for a TV series I had created and produced. It cost $1.2 million to make and had been on YouTube for a year. My royalties, for 12 months were — are you sitting down? — .01 cent. Cent. Not even plural. No "S" required. .01 cent!
On the other hand, I got my music statement for our 11th CD recording and for only three months we got the whopping sum of .01 cents. But it was only for three months. You don't need an MBA to see how much more profitable music is!
The situation for the vast majority of working musicians is beyond horrible.

* * *

I was trying to find a good performance of the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich the other day and stumbled across this one:


Blogger won't embed but that is Klaus Mäkelä conducting the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. His conducting style really reminds me of two Russian conductors: Yevgeny Mravinsky and Yuri Temirkanov, both conductors of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

* * *

From Slipped Disc comes the news that Plácido Domingo has been engaged to sing in a Verdi opera at next summer's Salzburg Festival. The comments are nearly all supportive. How interesting and odd that he has been fired from all engagements and employment in North America, but from none in Europe (that I know of). Now there's a cultural divide.

* * *

Also at Slipped Disc is an eloquent essay about how one orchestral couple are leaving their jobs and moving to Italy. You have to read the whole thing, but here is an excerpt:
Over my career in American orchestras, I’ve found that the proportion of pops to classical in my orchestra job has vastly shifted. I always knew Pops would be a part of my career, and in the right proportion, I found it engaging and fun. But the proportions are well out of whack, at least for what I am willing to do. Compounding that issue is the fact that the concerts have gotten louder and louder, with seemingly no reasonable solution or end in sight.
Maybe the tipping point was when I had to purchase lawn-mower-guy ear cans to use in addition to my earplugs, or maybe it was the first time I puked in the bushes in front of patrons after a concert from the concussive effects of extended exposure to extreme levels of sound. Or maybe it was just the first time that I realized that I counted down the days until the season was over, instead of what I used to do, count down the days until it began.
Turning my focus to the classical portion of our programming, I realized that something very important was missing. As I grew older and more experienced, I had more ideas and skills, not fewer. At the same time, my opportunity for contributing anything artistic seemed to shrink to zero. I wanted to contribute more than what was deemed appropriate or desirable within the string section of an orchestra. A lot of what I love about being a violinist was not appropriate in an orchestral setting: moving with the music, interacting musically with other players, choosing how to turn a phrase. It hit me like a thunderbolt when I realized that facial expressions are the only thing I have control over.
* * *

Here's something fun for the whole family. A clever fellow has put together a video of Steve Reich's Clapping Music that shows exactly how it is put together. It really is the simplest of musical ideas. Like much of his music from around this time (1972) it is in 6/4, though without a meter shown. The entire composition is a one-measure syncopated rhythm. The two performers clap this rhythm in unison eight times, then one of the performers simply moves one eighth-note ahead and that configuration is repeated eight times. Then one more eighth-note and so on with each configuration repeated eight times until the two performers arrive back at the original alignment which repeats eight times. End. That's it. A beautifully simple and elegant musical idea. Get with someone and try it out. Waaay harder than it looks!


* * *

The Montreal Gazette has an item about an incident with a guest conductor: OSM guest conductor Schiff 'flew off the handle' in rehearsals, musicians say.
The Hungarian-born pianist, who was scheduled to play and conduct in the Maison symphonique on Oct. 23 and 24, ended up performing only before intermission in both concerts. Schiff withdrew from the second half of the program after an acrimonious rehearsal in which OSM sources say he criticized the players unfairly and even accused them of “sabotage.”
The incident resulted in a letter to Le Devoir from the orchestra’s CEO, Madeleine Careau, in which she fiercely defended the professionalism of the players and decreed a policy of “zero tolerance” of the abusive language Schiff is alleged to have used.
Three musicians consulted by the Montreal Gazette said Schiff walked out of the first rehearsal on Oct. 21 after less than an hour of unproductive work on Bartók’s Dance Suite, a score with frequent changes of time signature and tempo. The trigger, according to these sources, was a testy exchange with a brass player who was himself on the verge of making his exit.
“What is the problem?” Schiff is alleged to have asked. “You are my problem,” was the response from this musician, whom no one consulted by the Montreal Gazette was willing to identify.
The Montreal Symphony or Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, to give their French title, do not suffer fools gladly, even if they are great pianists like Sir András Schiff. They have quarreled previously with Charles Dutoit who is a real conductor. Not everyone who stands in front of an orchestra and waves a baton is actually a capable conductor. As a friend of mine used to say, "there are conductors, semiconductors and choral conductors."

* * *

The New Yorker weighs in on the Scorsese controversy: Martin Scorsese’s Radical Attack on Marvel Movies.
Scorsese isn’t inveighing against fantasy but against a system of production that submerges directors’ authority in a network of dictates and decisions issued from the top down—a network in which the director is more of a functionary than a creator.
Scorsese doesn’t so much lament the existence of such a corporatized and impersonal mode of production as decry its dominance. He contends that this system is rooted in “the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption.”
For years I have made similar complaints about pop music. The presentation of the character and imagery of the pop star overshadows the fact that the music itself is a kind of industrial product.

* * *

The obvious choice for an envoi today would be that tricky Dance Suite by Bartók. Here is the very capable Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra:


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Some Schoenberg Quotes

Most composers are either poor at communicating in words or tend to lie. One of the exceptions is Arnold Schoenberg who left quite a lot of written prose on a wide variety of topics--mostly music related of course. There is a fat book, Style and Idea, collecting his writings over his whole life that is worth looking into. I am also going through his text, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, and I notice some very quotable passages there and not ones that tend to appear when he is quoted. Here are a couple:
  • "A piece of music resembles in some respects a photograph album, displaying under changing circumstances the life of its basic idea--its basic motive."
  • "The concept that music expresses something is generally accepted. However, chess does not tell stories. Mathematics does not evoke emotions. Similarly, from the viewpoint of pure aesthetics, music does not express the extramusical. But from the viewpoint of psychology, our capacity for mental and emotional associations is as unlimited as our capacity for repudiating them is limited. Thus every ordinary object can provoke musical associations, and conversely, music can evoke associations with extramusical objects." [Compare to Stravinsky's famous comment that "Music is powerless to express anything at all."]
  • The first sentence of his essay "My Public" reprinted in Style and Idea, written in 1930: "Called upon to say something about my public, I have to confess: I do not believe I have one."
  • From "On My Fiftieth Birthday, September 13, 1924": "I am obliged to mention one clear symptom of age which is present in my case: I can no longer hate as once I could. Sometimes, and this is worse still, I can even understand without feeling contempt."
  • From "Circular to my Friends on my Sixtieth Birthday, September 13, 1934." Forced to leave his post in Berlin because of the Nazi regime, he landed in the US with some disappointing teaching jobs. On the occasion of a performance by the Boston Symphony, which he thought quite good, he mentions: "The permanent conductor is Serge Koussevitzky, once a travelling double-bass virtuoso, who in the ten years he has been there has never played a single note of mine. In my firm opinion he is so uneducated that he cannot even read a score..."
There is probably a book to be written about the influence of political circumstances on the careers of the two most significant composers of the first half of the 20th century, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Schoenberg had to leave Europe because of the rise of anti-semitism and did not easily adapt to circumstances in the United States. Despite some handsome offers from Juilliard and other institutions in New York and Chicago, he could not accept them because his health could not endure winters in the Northeast. He ended up in Hollywood (as did Stravinsky) where his music was less well understood. Stravinsky adapted much better to life outside Russia. First in France, where he was lionized, then in the US. He was always given many performances, unlike Schoenberg. It might also be interesting to note that Stravinsky, at least before the Second World War, was an admirer of Mussolini.

Schoenberg wrote an essay titled "How One Becomes Lonely" in which he tries to explain how his music is not as difficult to enjoy as many early listeners thought. In it he cites examples from Verklärte Nacht and his String Quartet No. 1. Certainly at this point in time, it is hard to see how the audience at their first performances reacted so strongly.



Friday, November 8, 2019

The Joy and Sorrow of YouTube

I just can't get interested in the streaming services for music--probably because they seem to be ill-adapted to classical music generally. But I am a heavy user of YouTube because there are so many riches to be discovered there and it is all free. Sure, there are a lot of poor or mediocre performances and many of the older clips have poor video or poor sound, but alongside those are a lot of great performances.

The problem with YouTube is mainly sorting through to find the good stuff. For example, I was looking for a good performance with good video and good sound of the Mozart Requiem to share with a friend and found the search function to just not work well. It turned up a lot of inadequate performances and then, as you scrolled down, was offering up other pieces of music entirely. Then, a few minutes later, I went to the main YouTube page and there was what I had been looking for: a 1988 film of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Requiem with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Choir. Here it is:


The YouTube algorithm is not your friend. I am constantly telling it not to offer up obscure pop music and dance on my personal page, but it keeps on keeping on.

YouTube contains thousands of absolute gems, but it hides them quite successfully. Looking for a good performance of the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich, the first on the list was Marin Alsop with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. These clips from Frankfurt are really excellent in terms of video and sound: crisp and clear and the camerawork does not go overboard. The problem with this one, I am afraid to say, is that Marin Alsop delivers possibly the most boring Shostakovich I have ever heard. God knows it was tidy, too tidy, but it had about as much fire and passion as a trip to Macey's. How could you make this piece in particular sound dull? Wow. The next clip was Bernstein conducting, it is unclear, but I think the New York Phillies. That had all the fire that Alsop was missing, but no video, just audio. Next Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra. Lots of fire again, but no video. Next, the utterly authentic Leningrad Symphony conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky, but no video and the sound was poor. Next is Semyon Bychkov conducting the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln in a concert in Japan with video. A brisk, no-nonsense performance.

The thing with this piece, I think, is that if you have ever heard it live, you will not be satisfied with any recorded performance because the dynamic range will be seriously compressed. No ordinary sound system as far as I know, can reproduce the 11 minute crescendo in the first movement from one snare drum played very quietly to the whole orchestra, with ranks of tympanists, trombones, trumpets, horns, etc. playing full blast.

Well, I have gotten a bit off-topic, but I think what I will do, from time to time, is post particularly good YouTube clips for your general edification and amusement.

A Little Kanye

After I put up "Every Hour," a cut from the new album Jesus is King from Kanye West, a commentator asks "what is Kanye actually doing on that song?" which was gospel choir plus piano. Here is a live performance of another song from the album, "Closed on Sunday" which gives a pretty good idea of how this music is working. Kanye is singing and there are three percussionists, three keyboard players, six brass players and a whole bunch of other folks singing backup.


Friedrich Gulda: Beautiful Eccentric

Friedrich Gulda is a wonderful pianist, one of my favorite players. Decades ago I owned his box of vinyl LPs of the Beethoven piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and I still think it is the best recording. I have his box of the Beethoven piano sonatas on my shelf and his Bach Well-Tempered Klavier--the latter I have described as being for those people who find Glenn Gould's Bach too romantic!

Anyway, I just ran across this film of him playing Mozart in Munich in, I think, 1995. Could you imagine any of today's stars playing a concert wearing that shirt?


Why do I call him a beautiful eccentric? He once faked his own death just to publicize a concert.

Friday Miscellanea

I hate to brag, but this blog just passed 1.5 million page views the other day. So, yahoo and here is the champagne:


* * *

This study seems pretty straightforward: Recognition of favorite songs almost instant, researchers find.
"Our results demonstrate that recognition of familiar music happens remarkably quickly," study senior author Maria Chait said in a school news release.
"These findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory," Chait added.
And if you played the beginning of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, classical listeners would know it within half a second as well.

* * *

Ok, I have to admit that Norman Lebrecht has a gift for the catchy headline: HIDING WILLY: MET BANS DICK FROM AKHNATEN CINEMA RELAYS.
We hear that the daring moments of full-frontal male nudity in the forthcoming Philip Glass opera will not be allowed to leave the house intact when Akhnaten gets a live screening on November 23.
* * *

This reminds me of Kanye's Sunday Services: Divine transports.
the French sociologist Émile Durkheim ... observed that social activities create a kind of buzz that he called effervescence. Effervescence is generated when humans come together to make music or perform rituals, an experience that lingers when the ceremonies are over. The suggestion, therefore, is that collective experiences that are religious or religious-like unify groups and create the energy to sustain them.
The explanation is resurfacing in what can be called the trance theory of religious origins...
* * *

This sounds like it might be really interesting: Rock, Pop, and the Development of Avant Garde Music After World War II.
These discourses established new frameworks of judgment for musics entwined in the commercial marketplace, distinct from numerical popularity and long-standing taste formations perpetuated through the educational institutions of the ruling classes. Popular music aesthetics did much more than invert or blur the line between high and low culture. Instead, it provided the grounds for a thorough fracturing of those two positions into a new, intricate system of orders and relations.
Uh-huh. Well, we know this is a scholarly publication, at least.
“Any person in today’s music scene knows that rock, classical, folk and jazz are all yesterday’s titles,” Coleman wrote in the liner notes to 1977’s Dancing in Your Head. “I feel that the music world is getting closer to being a singular expression.” Although persistent (and novel) asymmetries in prestige and resources would continue to disenable that singular expression, the late 1960s moment differed substantially from earlier ones such as Third Stream, because the latter, as George E. Lewis explains, “failed to realize or support the complexity of black musical culture’s independent development of a black experimentalism that, while in dialogue with white high culture, was . . . strongly insistent upon the inclusion of the black vernacular.”
And they really are incapable of actually making a comprehensible point. I think the problem with this kind of "discourse" is that the terms have hidden or ambiguous meanings. For example, in these brief excerpts I would very much need these terms to be defined pretty precisely:

  • "frameworks of judgment"
  • "taste formations"
  • "invert or blur the line"
  • "system of orders and relations"
  • "singular expression"
  • "asymmetries in prestige"
And I would likely challenge each of those definitions as being an unacceptable ideological position or assumption. Yep, that's how it works.

* * *

Darn, am I going to have to buy a turntable again? Gen Xers, millennials and even some Gen Zs choose vinyl & drive record sales up.
Vinyl sales have been surging in the last few years, as CD sales stay flat and digital downloads decrease. In the United Kingdom, data from 2016 reveals that vinyl LP sales revenue surpassed that of digital downloads. And in the United States, LP sales are on par with the sales of CDs.
* * *

Economist Tyler Cowan interviews music historian Ted Gioia about music as cultural cloud storage, which is quite a cool idea.
To Ted Gioia, music is a form of cloud storage for preserving human culture. And the real cultural conflict, he insists, is not between “high brow” and “low brow” music, but between the innovative and the formulaic. Imitation and repetition deaden musical culture...
 Couldn't agree more.
What people don’t understand is that, for most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies. I like to tell people that music is a technology for societies that don’t have semiconductors or spaceships. If you go to any traditional community, and you try to find the historian, generally it’s a singer. Music would preserve culture; it would preserve folklore.
Well, nowadays, we rely on cloud storage to be the preserver of these same things. And I think there’s a strange shift. Both we rely on the cloud to preserve our music, but also, we no longer rely on music to preserve our culture. This is potentially a dangerous thing because it could create a situation where our musical lives grow more and more distant from our actual social lives with the people around us in our larger community.
Read the whole thing for a lot of very interesting observations about music, technology and culture.

* * *

How about some new music? Here is a song for voice and violin by Lisa Bielawa, who is, I assume, also performing the voice part. The violinist is Jennifer Koh.


Or you can go to the Violin Channel.

* * *

Returning from a research trip to Vienna for her new book, blogger Jessica Duchen complains Is Beethoven actually trying to kill me?
I came home from Vienna on Friday evening sick as the proverbial dog and barking like one. I was already unwell when I set off the previous Sunday; charging around the city, trying to see everything, walking about 7 miles a day during a nasty cold snap, did me so little good that I wondered if Beethoven is trying to kill me. 
Nevertheless, it was worth every second, because this trip will radically transform the atmosphere of IMMORTAL. Seeing what's available of the pleasant yet very plain apartments that the composer lived in, then visiting the former residences of his princely patrons in a grand city centre where palace piles up next to baroque palace, hammers home the desperately divided nature of that society. Among his chief supporters, Prince Kinsky's extravaganza is phenomenally OTT; Prince Lobkowitz's odd corner block is rather more tasteful (it is now the Theatre Museum, which is handy); and those are just two examples, neither of them the most extreme.
* * *

Since we are on Beethoven, for our envoi let's listen to a piece the theme of which Schoenberg (and others) refer to as the perfect example of the musical "sentence," a particularly important kind of theme-type in music history. This is the Piano Sonata, op. 2, no. 1, dedicated to Joseph Haydn.


Those first eight measures are as perfect a theme as anyone ever wrote.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Art Without Art?

I am confronted with an aesthetic challenge this morning and I want to deal with it in the fairest manner possible. There is an article in the Wall Street Journal this morning titled ‘Lost Wisdom Pt. 2’ Review: From Personal Tragedy, an Artistic Triumph by Mark Richardson, their "rock and pop music critic." The review is of a new album by Phil Elverum. It is not so much the review that I find troublesome, but the album itself. Here is how Mark describes it:
Following the 2016 death of his wife, artist Geneviève Castrée, from cancer, which happened shortly after the birth of their first child, Mr. Elverum has used Mount Eerie as a platform for exploring loss and grief with an almost unbearable level of detail and intimacy. His 2017 album, “A Crow Looked at Me,” which focused exclusively on her passing and the wrenching aftermath, placed highly on many year-end polls and set the emotional tone for his subsequent releases. While it may sound like you need to know the details of Mr. Elverum’s story to appreciate his music, actually the opposite is true—the words he sings provide all the required information, and the songs stand on their own.
Now I have to say that this is a truly awful tragedy and since I have not experienced something so traumatic myself, I can only empathize. I have lost both my parents, but that was certainly not as piercingly painful as the tragedy of losing both wife and child in short succession. All that being acknowledged, now we have to listen to the music itself. The new album is not yet available, but the previous one A Crow Looked at Me is on YouTube with the lyrics. Let's listen:


I suppose when it comes to art and aesthetics I am something of a traditionalist. I wasn't born that way, it was something that evolved over quite a few years. There is a real internal tension I have that I suppose comes from two different psychological traits: one is openness to experience and the other is orderliness or conscientiousness. I am pretty strong in both these traits and relatively low in politeness and agreeableness. So when I work, on the one hand I am open to all the possibilities, but on the other hand, I have to transform these possibilities into something that has aesthetic coherence.

The problem I have with the music of Phil Elverum is that while it is painfully candid about his tragic experiences, it seems to me to lack the transformation into art. It is simply a man talking about his experience, but while that experience is communicated, it is not transformed or transfigured by art. I would like to know what a literary critic would say about the lyrics. For me, the music seems clumsy, amateurish, without any attempt to work with the music materials. All the songs have a dreary sameness. Oddly, they seem depressingly low-key. The poignancy of the lyrics is not reflected in the music. Whatever the words are saying, the accompaniment is the same fingerstyle folk guitar underneath a drooping melody with no direction. All this is rhythmically dull and lifeless.

Is this art? Well, not good art, certainly. What troubles me is that there is no attempt to make art out of personal experience, no interest in musical structure or aesthetics whatsoever. Bear in mind I am not trying to make an inappropriate comparison with songs by Schubert or Schumann. Not at all. But this is feeble compared to great song composers like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits who do create music with great musical character. There doesn't seem to be any of that here. The songs just begin and end randomly and there is no attempt to make each song have its own character.

What do my commentators think?

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Scorsese on Cinema

Just a couple of weeks ago Martin Scorsese (supported by Francis Ford Coppola) caused a bit of a dust-up by questioning the aesthetic validity of the Marvel films. I mentioned it in a Friday Miscellanea. As that came in the form of a brief answer to a question, Scorsese has followed up with an essay elaborating his point: Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.
In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.
I’m certainly not implying that movies should be a subsidized art form, or that they ever were. When the Hollywood studio system was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made — in the words of Bob Dylan, the best of them were “heroic and visionary.”
Today, that tension is gone, and there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.
For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.
From my point of view, this process, whereby the individual aesthetic vision is slowly replaced by formulas and thrills, market research, computer-generated imagery and what are little more than live action cartoons, resembles the way that certain kinds of popular music have driven both other kinds of popular music as well as classical music out of the marketplace. I think this works through a slow-acting kind of deception. The first artists in a new form such as cinema are experimental and base their work on what is authentic human nature to them. But over time, certain little formulas are discovered that have a particular effect on audiences and over time, the formulas take over the art form. This is true whenever aesthetic or human values are replaced by monetary ones because at the end of the day, the formulas pull audiences into the theaters. For a good review of what kind of formulas we are talking about, review a number of trailers for recent films. They are thickly larded with just those formulas that market research and focus group testing have revealed to have an immediate impact.

I think there is a cycle here: innovative creativity is slowly replaced over time by stultifying regurgitation of formulas. As these become dominant, the whole field becomes ripe for the next wave of genuine creativity. In this sense, I suppose I am more optimistic than Scorsese. If we look at the recent history of popular music we see the phenomenon repeated several times. The Beatles were a huge creative leap over their immediate predecessors, but were followed by a great deal of formulaic repetition. Disco, grunge, heavy metal and other forms made the occasional splash before all was washed away by rap and hip hop. Those genres as well as the repetitive diva ballad ones have now become moribund. So when Kanye West released his new album Jesus is King the other day, a fusion of gospel and hip hop, it made quite a splash. Whatever you may think of Kanye, he is most certainly his own man and every album he releases makes some kind of creative point. Listen to this, the first cut on the album, for its creative use of a gospel choir and dynamic jazz/boogie woogie piano:

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Uncommon Truths

This won't be philosophy exactly, but that seemed the closest tag. I am nearing the end of Malcolm MacDonald's book on Schoenberg and he sums up like this:
Schoenberg, then, was essentially a religious composer. I mean that in the widest sense ... Almost all Schoenberg's vocal works deal in some fashion with the relation of the individual to the inner and outer worlds..to the spirit and to the collective, to humanity at large and, beyond that, to the yet larger, eternal world of religious conviction and speculation ... Schoenberg would have placed far more importance on this aspect of his work, than on his intellectual achievements as a constructor of systems. In his music he sought to reassert the traditional romantic and religious values of European civilization. In this sense he was a conservative composer.
But because such a reassertion was not just aesthetic but ethical in intention, it inevitably involved an attack on the bogus traditionalism and intellectual inertia of the decaying society in which he found himself; and in this sense his approach was a critical, even revolutionary one.
That is certainly not how I understood Schoenberg for most of my life in music. I think the turning point for me was a couple of years ago when I was in Madrid for a couple of weeks and the opera then being performed at the Teatro Real was Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. Seeing that wonderful production and being in the theatre full of 2,000 or so people enjoying that music made a fundamental change for me not only in how I saw Schoenberg, but how I saw music.

* * *

A number of years ago my half-brother-in-law (long story) told me that everyone should have a hobby and a job, but you should switch them every few years. He was an interesting fellow. Not only did he work for IBM for many years, in his spare time he built and flew his own ultralight helicopter.  I seem to have several jobs and hobbies, but I'm not always sure which is which! For example, I spend a lot of time creating posts for this blog, but since it pays nothing, it is obviously not a job. I spend much less time managing my investments, which do pay. In connection with that, I just ran across an absolutely fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal about the most successful investor in history--and I would bet you have never heard of him. Over the last thirty years he has averaged 66% a year! He runs a fund with very high fees: 5% of the principal and 20% of the profits every year. But even after that, the average annual return is 39%. Good lord, that means that you double your money every 21 and a half months. You may have heard of George Soros, Warren Buffet and Peter Lynch. Well, this fellow beats all of them. His name: Jim Simons. How did he do it? Big data quantitative analysis going back to the 1700s. I don't know if his fund is open to new investors or what the minimum is, the name of the fund is Medallion so you could look it up. But I can suggest a quite simple and effective investing strategy: just buy an exchange traded fund that tracks the Standard and Poor's 500 index. That's it. If you are older, put part of your investment into a bond fund. That really is it. And it beats 90% of the active money managers out there. Not Jim Simons, of course!

UPDATE: Just for fun I checked out the Medallion Fund and, you are going to enjoy this, investment is by invitation only! In other words, the only people who can invest in the fund are invited to do so. Never heard of that before, but hey, there is lots of stuff I don't know.

* * *

 Here is another uncommon truth: the problem with a lot of public policy is simply that it is one-size-fits-all, top-down, dreary proceduralism run by faceless bureaucrats. Even if the policy is really well designed your life is still being at least partly run by those faceless bureaucrats who probably have a much better pension plan than you do because, hey, they are in charge. I have a kind of instinctive revulsion to this sort of thing. It partly comes from my father who had a bit of an obsession about authority, but it is partly from my own experience. I once had a job on the other side of the fence where I was collecting educational statistics and bullying high school principals if they did not deliver the numbers in the approved form. Sure, that was fun, but it is no fun being on the receiving end. How could you possibly want to have your health care delivered by a government agency? Sure, it's "free" if you live in Canada where they have a single-payer socialized system. But is it free? The average family pays about $4,000 a year in taxes to pay for the system and that figure is from years ago. And as I mentioned a while back, the minimum wait for an MRI in British Columbia is 41 days. And the maximum you might have to wait is 244 days. Here, in a private system, I got an appointment the next day and the cost was $150. No faceless bureaucrats involved. Now where I live there is a problem with cartel violence and the lack of a lot of government "services" but whereas there might be a 0.1% chance of me being the victim of cartel violence, if I lived in Canada there would be a 100% chance of my life being at the mercy of faceless bureaucrats and suffering my financial health being drained away by absurd taxes.

* * *

You want another example? Here is a classic one. With all the best intentions, a "common core" curriculum with standardized testing was designed by experts to improve public education in the US. The results?
For the third time in a row since Common Core was fully phased in nationwide, U.S. student test scores on the nation’s broadest and most respected test have dropped, a reversal of an upward trend between 1990 and 2015. Further, the class of 2019, the first to experience all four high school years under Common Core, is the worst-prepared for college in 15 years, according to a new report.
That's from The Federalist. Also:
Common Core is a set of national instruction and testing mandates implemented starting in 2010 without approval from nearly any legislative body and over waves of bipartisan citizen protests. President Obama, his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, and myriad other self-described education reformers promised Common Core would do exactly the opposite of what has happened: improve U.S. student achievement. As Common Core was moving into schools, 69 percent of school principals said they also thought it would improve student achievement. All of these “experts” were wrong, wrong, wrong.
This is a perfect example of "one-size-fits-all, top-down, dreary proceduralism run by faceless bureaucrats." Education is when a student goes to a teacher to learn stuff and the teacher responds to the student's needs. A fixed, standardized curriculum is precisely the opposite, about as useful as pushing on a string. I once had a new guitar student ask me what I was going to teach him. It was as if he were interviewing me for the job! I hadn't heard him play yet so I said "I have absolutely no idea what I am going to teach you or if I am going to teach you anything at all." He was really nonplussed by this so I explained. "I teach the student, not some abstract curriculum. I will listen to you play and from that I will derive an idea of what you know and don't know and need to know. That's where I will start." That's education. Everything else is posturing and job-creation for education bureaucrats.

* * *

That's my rant for the day, so let's have some music. Here is the Suite for Piano, op. 25 by Schoenberg. This is his idea of neo-classicism!


Friday, November 1, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Here is an article about the problem of singers losing their voice and how surgery may not be the best answer: Why Do Stars Like Adele Keep Losing Their Voice?
There is no precise data on the number of performers who have gone under the knife over the years. But several surgeons told me they estimate that vocal cord surgery has been performed on thousands of pop, rock and classical singers, as well as on theatre and stage musical stars. Cancelled shows reverberate across social media and hit a struggling music industry hard. When Adele pulled out of her remaining two Wembley shows this summer, nearly 200,000 tickets had to be refunded. It’s unclear if she will ever tour again.
After Adele’s 2011 surgery, Zeitels became something of a celebrity. Occasionally, a reporter asked him if Adele was cured for good. He made no assurances, but told Channel 4’s Jon Snow that her surgically repaired voice “sounds smoother now than before”.
While the media was celebrating this miracle surgery, one woman in the music industry raised a dissenting voice. According to Lisa Paglin, a former opera singer turned voice coach, Zeitels had simply found a temporary fix; in the not too distant future, Adele would once again be forced off the stage and back into the operating theatre. It was a prediction that Paglin and Marianna Brilla, her coaching partner, were willing to stake their reputations on. The rash of vocal injuries silencing our most promising young talents, they argued, is too big a problem to be solved by microsurgery.
* * *

 Norman Lebrecht, who usually delights in scandal, seems to have come around to Plácido Domingo's side: MUSIC JOURNALISM FACES A POST-DOMINGO BACKLASH.
Every day, my social media feed carries messages of support for Placido Domingo, the singer whose US career was derailed by mostly unnamed female accusers. Many of the messages are from young female musicians. 
These messages have persisted and increased in recent weeks, while newspapers have gradually lost interest in the Domingo story. The people who support Domingo are aware of the reports about Domingo. They simply don’t believe them, nor do they trust the journalism that produced this furore.
Many colleagues of Domingo’s post daily messages of support. Today’s pack includes fond waves from tenors Piotr Beczala and Javier Camarena. They don’t trust AP’s reporting, either.
Nor does the Vienna State Opera, which will feature Domingo in a livestream this weekend, greatly increasing its online footprint.
What we are witnessing in the post-Domingo environment is a widening gulf between the media industry and the world of opera.
Where this will lead no-one can tell, but what was once an easy dialogue has been coated in frost and we hear that some media organisations will not be welcome in certain opera backstages from here on.
 * * *

I think that Lola Astanova may have just won the performing costume contest over Yuja Wang and Slipped Disc has the clip.


* * *

I haven't ranted about pseudo-science for a while, so let's look at this article in Forbes: What Makes Music Enjoyable? It’s Complex, But Measurable.
Who is to say what people find predictable or unpredictable? To try to answer that question, researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, found a new way to study predictability in music. 
They used a mathematical model to determine how predictable or unpredictable a musical fragment is. Then they asked volunteers to listen to different pieces of music and rate how much they liked them, and learned that the most well-liked music has a somewhat intermediate level of predictability.
As is often the case with these sorts of studies, there is a bit less there than is promised.

* * *

I just discovered Jay Nordlinger's article on the 2019 Salzburg Festival over at the New Criterion: He mentions street musicians--I saw a hammer dulcimer player myself, but mostly, as it is a very big festival, we seem to have attended different concerts. He mentions the Enescu opera:
I will give you a sampler of the festival itself, the festival proper—beginning with an opera. It was Œdipe (“Oedipus”), by Enescu. George Enescu, you remember, was the Romanian composer—and violinist and pianist and conductor—who lived from 1881 to 1955. He lavished great care on his opera (his sole opera). He worked on it, off and on, from 1910 to 1931. The opera did not have its U.S. premiere until 2005. It is an opera very much worth hearing and seeing. The score is a blend of Romanticism and Modernism. There is a lot of intelligence behind it, musical and otherwise. There is nothing showy about it; it is not a crowd-pleaser, though it may be a crowd-satisfier, depending on the crowd. Sometimes, it is dream-like, hypnotic, reminding me of Pelléas et Mélisande, the Debussy opera (1902). There are also shades of Salome and Elektra (the Strauss operas, 1905 and 1909), with their exoticism. (The second of these operas, of course, is another Greek tale.) Yet Œdipe is its own thing.
Here he is on a piano recital and again, he attended one I didn't:
The Salzburg Festival always offers a slate of piano recitals. Many of the same pianists are invited back, summer after summer. Five of them this year were Pollini, Sokolov, Kissin, Levit, and Volodos. Let me tell you about the last of these, Arcadi Volodos, the Russian pianist born in 1972. If he is not the best pianist in the world, he is unsurpassed. Who might tie him? Grigory Sokolov, for example.
At Salzburg, Volodos played a recital whose first half was all Schubert—Volodos is a devotee of Schubert, like many a profound and songful pianist. He began with the Sonata in E, D. 157. This sonata is unfinished, missing a last movement. You recall that Schubert left a symphony unfinished, too. He was careless that way. The recital moved on to the Moments musicaux, a set of six, D. 780. I could go through Volodos’s playing piece by piece—almost bar by bar—but let me speak in general terms. He has nearly unerring taste. He plays in a singing line (where appropriate, as it often is). He commits no wrong accents. He gets the most out of the music—whatever it is—without forcing anything on it.
Nordlinger tends to be a bit chatty, but it is worth reading the whole, long piece. It seems we didn't attend one concert together. I think he came for the last two weeks while I was there for the first two weeks. Ah well, it is back to Salzburg next year for me and this time, more opera!

* * *

 We  haven't said much about philosophy for a while so let's have a look at this piece in the Times Literary Supplement: Why bother with philosophy?
Is philosophy relevant to anyone outside academia? Those of us who believe in what has come to be termed “public philosophy” say yes. But the answer is not without its complications. For some time, philosophy has been an activity that has primarily taken place within universities, following the specialization model of the natural sciences. The vast majority of academic philosophers work within a subset of a handful of specialized areas. Philosophers specialize in epistemology or metaphysics the same way that physicists might focus on particle physics or condensed matter theory, producing research papers – the fundamental unit of academic distinction – equally unreadable to the uninitiated.
Unfortunately most of the rest of the article is behind the paywall, but let me weigh in on why bother with philosophy. Philosophy is simply an intellectual discipline that is pretty much essential to most people's lives and certainly any society's. It is essential because it is the one discipline that really does teach critical and objective thinking. Others may claim to, but usually don't. Supposedly philosophy is no longer worth bothering with because its essential lessons and practices have been incorporated within the operating procedures of all the other fields and specialties. Psychologists and sociologists don't need philosophy because they already know all that stuff. If only! The truth is, if more people would simply be acquainted with the most basic ideas in just one philosophical area, epistemology, the world would be a far better place. Epistemology can be summed up pretty easily: how do you know what you think you know and is it at all reliable? If people stepped back and took a look at their basic assumptions and evaluated them for their validity, just think how differently elections would go.

* * *

Browsing around for items for the miscellanea I ran across one of my favorite things about Montreal: it is a city devoted to the pleasures of life. Things like Schwartz's smoked meat sandwiches, the greatest sandwich ever invented:


And the superb Montreal-style bagel:


And for the seriousness with which they take the consumption of fine wines. Every week in the Montreal Gazette, Bill Zacharkiw publishes a column on recommended wines in different price ranges. This week it includes a crisp sauvignon blanc from France, a well-oaked Spanish blend, a bubbly from Nova Scotia (!) and a well-aged Lebanese cabernet sauvignon. Most weeks he also publishes another article on wine. This week it is about a favorite practice of mine: seeking out lesser-known and cheaper neighbors of famous appellations.

* * *

Christian Henson gives a tutorial on how to create orchestral scores for movies and tv shows without actually, you know, knowing harmony or how to read music or other stuff like that. He does have a point about creativity though.


* * *

We almost got through a whole Friday Miscellanea without a single political item. Yay! But wait, maybe we should mention this one: Eastman to Remove Koreans from Top Orchestra For China Tour. Update: Tour postponed.
China refused to issue visas for Korean students, forcing Eastman to either remove them or cancel their tour. Eastman has shockingly chosen to go with the former.
Even more stunning, the students in the orchestra themselves voted overwhelmingly to go ahead with the tour by leaving their peers behind. Under such tremendous pressure from their fellow students and school administrators, the Korean students could never have voiced any objections that they may have had.
There have been countless times in history where musicians have been called to stand up for their colleagues in the face of discrimination. In the Civil Rights era white jazz musicians would refuse to tour when their black colleagues were unwelcome. In World War II, which musicians chose solidarity with their colleagues and which chose collaboration is forever linked to their legacy.
As of Tuesday night, however, Eastman rethought the issue and decided to cancel the tour after all.

* * * 

I think that brings us to our envoi for the day. It is time to put up some George Enescu. This is his Sonata for Cello and Piano no. 1 in F minor, op. 26:


Thursday, October 31, 2019

Bachian Variations

Speaking of variations, Bach did a really interesting variation piece that follows the French clavicinist model of doing "doubles" on a dance movement. A "double" follows the basic harmonic and metric structure of the original with varied figuration. A famous example is by Rameau where he does six doubles on a simple gavotte in A minor:


Bach's Violin Partita no. 1 in B minor is a tour de force in which each movement is followed by its double. Shunseke Sato performs it for the Netherlands Bach Society:



Compare this kind of variation with what Beethoven did with the form.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Variations

One of the most interesting musical forms is the theme and variations. When I was a concert guitarist I only played two examples of the form, one the Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, op. 9 by Fernando Sor. The theme is from “Das klinget so herrlich” towards the end of Act I of The Magic Flute. The other was the 20 Variations and Fugue on "Folio de España" by Manuel Ponce. In both cases, I think I only played them in concert once! While I loved the Ponce, at nearly thirty minutes long, it was just too big for most recital programs. The Sor, while charming, did not quite seem worth the effort of mastering all the intricate figurations. Mauro Giuliani wrote several sets of theme and variations, but I found them rather formulaic and again, not really worth the effort. So, I guess I wasn't a big fan of the form!

There are innumerable sets of rather uninspired variations for all instruments, but there are a few brilliant examples that stand out: the Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach, of course, and the Diabelli Variations by Beethoven to which we could add the Haydn Variations by Brahms and perhaps the variations on "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" by Frederic Rzewski (pronounced "ZHEF-skee"). The Bach is for harpsichord and the others for piano except the Brahms which was written for two pianos, but is more often heard in the orchestral version.

Variation form is, for composers, a technical challenge and an exercise in creativity. What makes it interesting to the listener is the brilliant figuration and the continuity of structure across the variations. Possibly the greatest master of the variation form was Beethoven who left us many, many examples, all of them well executed.

I mentioned "continuity of structure" above and if you were wondering what I meant, this is what unifies the variations. A very bad set of variations would be one in which each variation was simply different from the others. There would be no unity, just a random collection of ideas. Theme and variation form involves a dynamic tension between what is retained across the variations and what is varied. Each variation, therefore, needs to retain the basic structure of the theme while presenting an interesting variation on that structure. This is often done using what Schoenberg calls a motive of variation, a figure or embellishment that is perhaps derived from the original theme and is used in a predetermined form throughout a variation thereby unifying that variation. If this is unclear, it is very clear to the ear! One single figuration is often used for a whole variation and then a different one is used for the next variation.

The theme needs to have clear and distinct qualities that the listener will be able to easily identify across the variations and for this reason composers have often used folk tunes with simple harmonies or simple melodies from operas. Beethoven set a melody from an opera by Ditters von Dittersdorf that will illustrate some of these features. Here is the piece, 13 Variations on an Arietta by Dittersdorf, WoO 66 (the "WoO" refers to a "work without opus number") and the arietta is "Es war einmal ein alter mann." The pianist is Alfred Brendel:


One unique element of the theme is that in measure 21 the theme stops on the dominant of the dominant ( V of V or B major) and there is a measure rest with a fermata. After, there is a short coda with a return to the original tune followed by a cadential formula. Beethoven retains this pause in every single variation and often uses it to set up a short section in a contrasting mood using a different tempo, meter or harmony before returning to the original tune. Here is the theme and I have circled the measure pause:


UPDATE: I forgot, I I also played the Theme and Variations by Lennox Berkeley.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Sunday Diversion

I wish I could put something up occasionally without telling you what it is--make you guess. It is quite an interesting exercise because it sidetracks our biases and enables us to listen without prejudice. I would like to put up this piece without you knowing what it is, but with YouTube you can't really do that.

I said a while back that Schoenberg's music, despite its reputation, isn't really atonal. I was waiting for some disparaging comments, but none appeared! Mind you, his music certainly redefines, extends and complexifies tonality to a high degree, but it isn't atonal. Even when it is twelve-tone, there are tonal-type relationships between the transpositions of the rows. And, even in his middle years, in the late 1930s, we find a piece like the Chamber Symphony No. 2, began in 1906 but not completed until 1939, given a key signature of E-flat minor.

It is a surprisingly beautiful piece. Let's listen. This is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antonello Manacorda. There are only two movements: Adagio and Con Fuoco.




Saturday, October 26, 2019

We're Eclectic!

But only on Saturdays, so don't get used to it. The big news of the day is:

  • Today is Domenico Scarlatti's birthday, October 26, 1685 which makes him the same age as J. S. Bach, three hundred and thirty four years old.
  • And Kanye West has a new album out--Christian hip-hop. Hmm, the 21st century is not turning out as I expected.
So let's have a couple of pieces. First, one of my favorite Scarlatti sonatas, K. 544, played by Leo Brouwer on guitar:


And a song from the new Kanye West album, Jesus is King, "Closed on Sunday":


And what if you made a song out of the ding you get when you leave your car door open with the keys in the ignition?


Keeping with the religious theme, here is Exsultate Jubilate by Mozart with Regula Mühlemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada:


I've always wondered, did Mozart write stuff like that because he loved sopranos? Or because he hated sopranos?

Friday, October 25, 2019

Historical Fiction

I tend to alternate between worrying whether I am not focused enough on music in this blog and whether I am too focused on some music in particular! It does say in the frontispiece that the topics include "popular culture ... and whatever else catches my fancy..." So this will be a post with almost no music in it.

For much of my life I have been an avid reader of historical fiction, by which I mean fiction, usually though not always light fiction, that is set in historical times and involves recreating long-lost worlds and characters. Incidentally, music too can be a gateway into the atmosphere and character of times long ago. Take the organum of Léonin and Pérotin for example:


One of the first historical novelists I discovered was Mary Renault whose book The Mask of Apollo was assigned reading in some course or another:


This book is set in Ancient Greece and is written from the point of view of an actor so we get a lot of interesting details about Greek tragedy (not comedy if you are wearing the mask of Apollo). One of the people befriended by the actor was Plato. Renault also wrote a number of other books set in classical times including a trilogy about Alexander as well as a couple of books about Theseus and one with the poet Simonides as the focus. Good stuff, if a tad romanticized.

Another writer I encountered early on was C. S. Forester who wrote an extensive series of books about a Royal Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars named Horatio Hornblower. Also good stuff, but again a tad romanticized. Later on another writer, Patrick O'Brian, covered the same ground but much more authentically in his series of novels with Jack Aubrey, RN captain and Stephen Maturin, surgeon and spy. No romanticizing here, and an incredible wealth of historic detail. There was a wonderful film by Peter Weir based on these novels. The film ends with a great musical scene. Both Maturin and Aubrey are amateur musicians, playing the violin and cello, and in fact they met at a quartet concert. Music is a recurring theme in the books.



A more serious book by French writer Marguerite Yourcenar moves from light fiction, no matter how well done, to more serious fiction. One sentence from the English translation (she wrote in French) has stayed with me ever since I read the book some forty years ago: "I begin to discern the profile of my death." Hadrian actually wrote an autobiography which was lost to history so Yourcenar tried to re-create it.



Another writer of serious historical fiction was Robert Graves (even though he didn't regard it as serious). His two books on the emperor Claudius, I, Claudius and Claudius the God were also attempts to recreate Claudius' own memoirs, also lost.



It is distressing how much we have lost of ancient literature. Did you know that we have seven plays (roughly) by each of the great Athenian tragedians simply because the Byzantine copyists decided that that was how much they should preserve? The BBC did a quite successful television series based on the Graves books with Derek Jacobi in the eponymous role. Graves also wrote a number of other historical novels from Homeric times to the 17th century, but I have not read them. It doesn't count as historic fiction, but his memoir of his own experiences as an officer in the trenches in WWI, Goodbye to All That, is a very powerful book indeed. In one of my favorite passages, Graves, who had T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) as roommate at Oxford after the war, introduces him to Ezra Pound, who was passing through: "Lawrence, this is Pound. You won't like one another."

One of my very favorite historical novels is Imperial Governor by George Shipway which is a memoir of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, governor of the Roman province of Britain at the time of the rebellion of Boudicca. It is a brilliant evocation of the atmosphere and logistics of the time down to the exact range of ballistas and legion battle tactics.


I just discovered that he wrote other historical novels and right now I am reading the first book of a two book series focused on Agamemnon and Mycenaean Greece. He also wrote another set in Medieval France. Be prepared for a lot of historic vocabulary!

So there you go, a whole bunch of books that you will either love or that will bore you to tears depending on your personal preferences.

For our envoi, here is that ending scene from the Peter Weir film of Master and Commander:


Clip updated.

Friday Miscellanea

Blogging is an ever pleasing delight and it was particularly interesting this week when music historian Ted Gioia left a comment critiquing my critique of a recent column he wrote for Lapham's Quarterly on Bach. This is the best thing about blogging. We can express opinions and hash them out with others in a civil manner. Thanks very much to Ted for his comment and to all the others who leave comments here. It adds immeasurably to the value of the discussion.

Now I'm waiting for musicologist Richard Taruskin to leave a comment taking me to task for something I said about Stravinsky! I would probably just faint dead away...

* * *

Heather MacDonald in Quillette gives what appears to me to be the fairest summary of the Plácido Domingo affair: The Defenestration of Domingo.
The feminist nostrum that “the personal is political” was false from its inception. It has now become a warhead aimed at the edifice of a civilization deemed too male. Institutions like the Metropolitan Opera, LA Opera, or the Philadelphia Orchestra should be the prime defenders of that civilization. When, instead, they surrender to furious irrationality and sacrifice our greatest artists to avoid a wholly imaginary threat, they betray their most fundamental mission. I am cutting off my support for the Metropolitan Opera; other donors who care about our musical inheritance should do the same.
At least cowardice in the face of feminist grievance appears to be predominantly an Anglo-American affliction. So far, Domingo’s future engagements in Moscow, Vienna, Hamburg, Valencia, Milan, Cologne, Krakow, Berlin, Madrid, and Munich have not been cancelled. The director of the Vienna State Opera, Dominique Meyer, said over the summer that Vienna would honor its contracts with Domingo, who is “valued both artistically and as a human being by all in this house.”
It seems to have been pretty much a North American disease.

* * *

The Wall Street Journal takes the unusual step of publishing a straight-ahead review of three new classical piano recordings--with no political hook! What's next, the Babylon Bee becoming America's paper of record? Oh, wait, I think that already happened.
Clever packaging, deft promotion and imaginative musical content may help draw attention to classical recordings. But in order for an album to distinguish itself artistically, it must communicate an almost subliminal connection between a performer’s skills and a composer’s inspiration.
Three very different young pianists have new releases out this month that exhibit that kind of elemental kinship: 36-year-old Swiss keyboard artist Francesco Piemontesi, 26-year-old Italian virtuoso Beatrice Rana, and 25-year-old American composer-performer Conrad Tao.
I heard Francesco Piemontesi play the late Mozart Piano Concerto KV 595 in Salzburg in August accompanied by the Mozarteum Orchestra and he did an excellent job.

* * *

Math is a deeply frustrating subject for many elementary and high school students. But Seattle public schools are gearing up to accuse math of a litany of more serious crimes: imperialism, dehumanization, and oppression of marginalized persons.
The district has proposed a new social justice-infused curriculum that would focus on "power and oppression" and "history of resistance and liberation" within the field of mathematics. The curriculum isn't mandatory, but provides a resource for teachers who want to introduce ethnic studies into the classroom vis a vis math.
Read the whole thing for the full picture. I don't just mention this to cast a pall over your week, but because while in this context the ideas seem particularly idiotic, something similar crept into the new musicology a long time ago. This is the politicization of math, but there are those who did something similar with music theory. Yes, C major is likely imperialistic, dehumanizing and oppressing. If you buy the political package. But you can make it all go away by just seeing that that is all that it is: a political agenda with which you need not agree. This public service announcement was brought to you by my Grade V teacher who insisted that we learn fractions: BECAUSE!

* * *

You know how much I love an aesthetic debate? Well one has just erupted in the mainstream media over the super-hero blockbuster films versus, well, the "regular" cinema. On one side we have the great filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola of "Godfather" fame along with the guy who got the ball rolling, Martin Scorsese, director of a gallery of great films. The AP has the story: In Scorsese and Coppola, Marvel meets formidable foes.
Plenty of rumbling has followed since Scorsese, in a magazine interview earlier this month, suggested Marvel movies aren’t cinema but “something else” — theme park rides uninterested in “trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Coppola doubled down over the weekend, telling journalists in France, gathered to see him accept the Prix Lumiere, that Scorsese was not only right but that he didn’t go far enough. Marvel films, he said, are “despicable.”
Read the whole thing. For me, I lost interest a while back in films where ridiculously overpaid actors stand around in even more ridiculous costumes uttering the occasional quip in between absolutely ridiculous "action" sequences where computer-generated imagery is used to depict things that violate the laws of physics. It wasn't just the Marvel blockbusters that ruined the movies, it was CGI. Just look at the second "Matrix" movie. Hey, this is a bit like how the computerized drum machine ruined pop music, isn't it?

* * *

Over at Slipped Disc we find Daniel Barenboim lamenting the failure--or is it celebrating the success?--of his political orchestral project West-East Diwan.
Twenty years after he co-founded with Edward Said an orchestra of young Arabs and Israelis, Daniel Barenboim has spoken openly about the Diwan as a dream that has, so far, failed.
In a sombre 20th anniversary interview with the German press agency Barenboim said: ‘The orchestra exists (but not as) an orchestra for peace… We can not do that.
‘Today we cannot play in most Arab countries or in Israel…’
He takes credit for the training and experience the orchestra has given to many young musicians but is frustrated by the lack of political progress.’
I think, if he had asked, I would have said that this is an airy-fairy idea that may be musically interesting but politically will have no effect at all. If the lack of peace is of political value to politically powerful people, then a few musicians aren't going to make any difference whatsoever.

* * *

Top architect Jean Nouvel is suing one of his former clients, the Philharmonie concert hall in Paris, in a dispute over the cost of building the venue, which opened in 2015.
In a complaint filed in the Paris court on October 14, his company Ateliers Jean Nouvel counters a 170-million-euro ($190-million) claim lodged by the Philharmonie de Paris against his company.
The concert hall argues the architect's firm owes them the money because of budget overruns during the building of the hall, sources told AFP Monday.
But the counter-claim filed by the architect's studio describes that demand as "exorbitant" and "unjustified", according to documents seen by AFP.
The cost of the building rose from 173 million euros when the project was announced in 2006 to 386 million euros by the time it opened on January 14, 2015. Each side blames the other for having mismanaged the project.
And isn't the next stage when someone announces that the acoustics are crappy anyway?

* * *

Yesterday was American composer George Crumb's 90th birthday. In honor of the occasion, here is the first movement of his string quartet Black Angels which features a really remarkable panoply of sounds and textures:


* * *

I spent the summer of 1979 in New York and I remember discovering this FM radio station that seemed to play nothing but Haydn quartets and the occasional piece by Webern. It probably wasn't the NPR station that this article is about, but it sure gave me an idea of how remarkable the New York radio scene was. Humanity is Not an Algorithm: What We Lose with WNYC’s Cancellation of New Sounds.
On the airwaves since 1982, “New Sounds” bills itself as “New York Public Radio’s home for the musically curious,” telling us to “free your listening from the limits of genre and algorithm.” Avant garde giant Laurie Anderson was the show’s very first guest. Here was a space on the radio where tuning in could take you to Olafur Arnalds’ otherworldly field recordings of his native Iceland that he transformed into glistening electro-acoustic singles on the album Island Songs. It was a place for Pulitzer Prize winner and Bang On a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe’s Fire In My Mouth, a multimedia orchestral work that compiles archival information collected about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Premiered by New York Philharmonic earlier this year, Fire in My Mouth is a musical exploration of this tragedy for full orchestra, women’s choir and unusual instrumentation that includes 100 pairs of scissors.
The latest news is that the show will NOT be cancelled due to the considerable outcry that greeted the announcement.

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Norman Lebrecht offers a little insight into the politics of the avant-garde over at Slipped Disc: WHEN PIERRE BOULEZ STOPPED SPEAKING TO ME. Go read the whole thing. Boulez was upset that Lebrecht thought that George Crumb was a better composer than he was. There is a nice little critique of Boulez:
Without stretching the contrast, Boulez is a relic of an empirically discredited movement. He has not composed a work of substance for 18 years. His pseudo-scientific theories of musical progress are laughed off by today’s composers. Not one of his works is standard repertoire. Boulez is starting to resemble Arthur Scargill and Egon Krenz, true believers whose creed collapsed.
Crumb, on the other hand, is one of the few composers to change the perception and function of new music in the last third of the 20th century. His electronic string quartet, Black Angels, was an ear-opener to America’s Vietnam generation, suggesting that Haydn’s art form could grapple with post-nuclear conflict. Hearing Angels inspired the formation of Kronos and other front-line ensembles; it has been recorded four times and performed, I suspect, more than any modern string quartet.
That last bit isn't true, of course. I would guess that the Quartet No. 8 by Shostakovich is performed far more often than the Crumb.

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For our envoi today, let's have tenor Plácido Domingo in one of the great tenor arias, "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot by Puccini: