Monday, June 17, 2019

Nono the Student

Under the direction of Malipiero, Nono had a very traditional training.
In 1947, Nono took the courses and examinations of the first level of composition, achieving 9/10 for tests of harmony and classical pastiche. He worked through the early chapters of Hindemith’s A Concentrated Course in Traditional Harmony , presumably at Malipiero’s behest. In the middle level, two years later while already working on his own language, Malipiero awarded him only 7. Here the tests were of another order: a four-part fugue on a given subject, a double chorus over a bass line, an analysis of the Kyrie from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli (the first score Nono had seen some years previously in the library of the choir of San Marco), and the completion of a movement for piano. In the latter, one can see the traces of an emerging individualism, to which Malipiero presumably took exception. In the context of a 3/4 classical pastiche, Nono creates an additional level of structural rhyme with the regular insertion of a bar of 2/4. Trivial as these details might be, they illustrate an extraordinary speed of development, from complete absorption in the established techniques of music to their assimilation and transcending. 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 1203-1211). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Music tends to be a realm apart for some reason. By the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate music student, the same sort of training as Nono received was still present in nearly all serious music schools. A friend of mine was an undergraduate in a Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the same time and over there all traces of traditional craftsmanship had been eliminated. Instead of classes in drawing, they were all into "concept" art which may have been clever, but involved little or no craft. Indeed, when I returned to school in the mid-1990s taking the seminars for a doctorate in musicology exactly the same kind of training was in effect. I found myself studying fugue, DuFay, early polyphonic notation and classical formal structure alongside courses in 20th century analysis, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

I have mentioned before that music seems to have a kind of natural resistance to the inroads of progressivism. Much as activists bemoan the imbalance between male and female composers and conductors and no matter how many recommendations are made by marketers as to how to improve audience engagement, there simply does not seem to be any way of devaluing the music of the great composers without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We are going to keep loving Bach, Beethoven and Mozart despite their unfortunate skin color and gender!

Nono, while chafing at some aspects of Malipiero's traditionalism, remained influenced by others:
A sense of Venice as an idealised cradle of modern Western musical thought emerges from [Malipiero's] study of the development of Italian music theory from Zarlino to Padre Martini, l’armonioso labirinto. Published in 1946, it gives a picture of Malipiero’s thought during the period of Nono’s study with him, and which he was presumably discussing during their ‘ritual meetings’. In his own copy, Nono underlined Malipiero’s assertion that: ‘Certain rules cannot be broken – rules not dictated by nature or by God but by philosophers, by mathematicians, and by reflection by the theorists of music.’ 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 1236-1240). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
The next important influence was Bruno Maderna:
It was Malipiero who proposed that Nono should contact Bruno Maderna. Maderna had returned to Venice from Verona early in 1946 after his wartime experiences, was studying composition with Malipiero and newly married. Malipiero helped him find work at the Conservatory as his assistant, nominally teaching solfeggio . Nono was keen to study Hindemith’s Unterweisung in Tonsatz , and Maderna had a copy. 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 1278-1281). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Nono later described the influence of Maderna in these words:
Maderna taught me to think in music […] Thus, he didn’t teach me to compose – I repeat, it’s not possible – he taught me much more: “What is thought?”, in this case: “What is it to think in music?” Bruno Maderna taught me to think. Thought, musical thought, needs time. 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 1338-1340). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Let's end with an early piece by Nono that shows some of those historic influences, the Canonic Variations from 1950:

Saturday, June 15, 2019

"Western Classical Music is Rooted in White Supremacy"

From some comments on yesterday's post I am led to a post over at NewMusicBox: AM I NOT A MINORITY? That's innocuous enough, but a later subhead that I use as my title let's the cat out of the bag: The Problem: Western Classical Music is Rooted in White Supremacy. Why not go all the way? Western Civilization is rooted in white supremacy. I struggle a bit with the word "supremacy" as it is simply there to stimulate outrage. So let's be a bit more precise: the foundation and development of civilization generally, which would include the invention of aesthetics, logic, history, music notation, calculus, harmony, ethics, rule of law, democracy, economics, physics, biology, chemistry, universities, and pretty much anything else you can think of was, are you sitting down? largely the creation of the ancient Greeks and Romans (white people), Jews and Christians (semitic and white), and Western Europeans (white).

Now in the interests of fairness, we have to give points to the ancient Egyptians and inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent for a lot of early art and agriculture. We also have to give credit to the peoples of India, China and Japan for more early aesthetic and other contributions (the Chinese came up with noodles, gunpowder and paper, for example). But the only significant contributions in the last five hundred years have been from Western Europeans and their offshoots. Sorry, but there it is.

Unfortunately the most recent developments in Western Civilization seem to be designed to tear it all down and apologize for coming up with it in the first place! To any person of normal understanding and moderate knowledge of history this seems quite insane.

But go read the article and see if you find the argument convincing. Just one caveat: the citing of statistics is, by itself, not an argument. Quotas and Quality are contradictory notions.

I am, of course, sorry if I have offended anyone, but frankly, I find statements like "Western Classical music is Rooted in White Supremacy" to be deeply offensive!


Friday, June 14, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Back in 2008 there was a fire at the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot that, while not reported at the time, destroyed hundreds of thousands of master sound recordings of artists since the 1940s. The National Post:
The extent of the loss, documented in litigation and company records the article cited, was largely kept from the public eye through a concerted effort on the part of the music label, the magazine said.
Many of the artists whose own material was reported to have been destroyed expressed shock.
“Oh my Lord … this makes me sick to my stomach,” singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow wrote on Twitter, posted with a link to the article. “And shame on those involved in the coverup.” 
Almost of all of Buddy Holly’s masters were lost, as were most of John Coltrane’s masters in the Impulse Records collection. The fire also claimed numerous hit singles, likely including Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” Etta James’ “At Last” and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.”
There seems to be a lot of confusion about the issue with news media reporting that the masters, original recording media, are lost forever and Universal countering that very little was lost and the fire “never affected the availability of the commercially released music nor impacted artists’ compensation.” The truth is likely that, while the original masters may have been lost in the fire, there are likely copies indistinguishable in audio quality from those originals.

* * *

Jessica Duchen has a post up of an interview with composer/pianist Stewart Goodyear:
Absolutely thrilled to present a Q&A with the American composer and pianist Stewart Goodyear, who's in London today (QEH), Basingstoke tomorrow, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday and the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on Sunday to perform his own suite Callaloo with the Chineke! orchestra. We talk inspiration, celebration, composition and golden ages...
Included in the post is a clip of the composer playing his own "Baby Shark" fugue:


The theme comes from a children's song that is a transformation of the ominous original from the movie Jaws. Doesn't the fugue remind you just a bit of the French neo-classic composers such as Poulenc?

* * *

Musicology Now is rocking these days with a new post on alternatives to the traditional research paper.
The “problems surrounding the final research paper assignment,” as Knyt put it, have been well documented. Instructors report that students don’t possess the necessary research skills, are not prepared to engage critically with the material, do not understand the objectives, are not interested in their topics, don’t perceive value in the assignment, become overwhelmed by the scope of the project, or simply procrastinate. At the same time, few instructors are willing to abandon such assignments. In his 2011-2012 study of college music history classes, Matthew Baumer found that instructors placed a high value on skills associated with “the final research paper assignment.” These included the ability to find and evaluate sources, to construct a compelling thesis, and to write a substantial and well-documented research paper.
* * *

Khatia Buniatishvili seems to attract a lot of attention and criticism these days. First of all, a snide little item in Slipped Disc where the comments are where the real fun is. The artist is accused of having a voluptuous figure, wayward musicality and supporting ultra right-wing Ukrainian nationalists. Classics Today has a review of the new Schubert album that says:
To call the pianist’s outsized dynamics and grotesquely exaggerated tempos in the C minor Impromptu a caricature is putting it kindly. One cannot deny Buniatishvili’s fleet-fingered wizardry as she subjects the E-flat Impromptu’s rapid scales to a smorgasbord of articulations and stresses, even though her approach seems better suited to Moszkowski etudes. In this context her robust yet sensitive shaping of the G-flat Impromptu surprises. So does her crisp delineation of the A-flat Impromptu’s main theme, even if her tempo adjustments in the Trio section are a mite theatrical.
I have to say, that of the two dueling pianists, Yuja Wang and Khatia, I slightly prefer her exaggerated Romanticism to Yuja's superficial agility. But that's just me.

* * *

More accusations of "cultural appropriation" this time from the Mexican government directed at fashion designer Carolina Herrera:
On June 13, the Spanish newspaper El Paìs reported that Alejandra Frausto, Mexico’s secretary of culture, sent a letter to Gordon and Herrera accusing both of cultural appropriation.
Frausto asked the team to “publicly” explain why and how the collection used traditional Mexican design elements. The secretary also inquired if Mexican craftspeople would be compensated for their designs.
The serape-printed knit dress approved by Vogue was called out as originating in Saltillo. Another “animal embroidery” motif repeated on a white gown came from Tenango de Doria in Hidalgo.
As Frausto explained, “In these embroideries is the history of the community itself and each element has a personal, family, and community meaning.”
Similar accusations were recently made in Canada toward a musician accused of stealing musical techniques from Indigenous artists. Legal issues aside, while you can certainly see characteristic motifs of Mexican (and Guatemalan as well, I think) designs in the collection, are we to assume all traditional motifs are now copyright in some way?

Click to enlarge
I think that underlying these kinds of disputes is a fundamental clash of cultures. On the one hand there is the developed world (what we might call "Western civilization") and its legal framework for the claiming of copyright within the context of free market capitalism. On the other hand there are the aesthetic designs and practices of traditional peoples outside that framework and context. These things are not going to blend seamlessly. A couple of very famous examples would be Picasso's "borrowing" of motifs from African masks and Stravinsky's use of Russian folk melodies.

* * *

Here is the kind of dispute you can get your teeth into: Should the Pittsburgh Symphony play more new music? How do they choose?
Should orchestras play more new, diverse music? Or should they continue to program as they have for decades, emphasizing established ideals of quality and audience experience?
Proponents of new music argue that performing work by composers whose ethnicities and backgrounds reflect the diversity of the community should be a higher priority. A common counterargument is that art should be a strict meritocracy, i.e., that the best music should be programmed regardless of who the composer is. 
But then, who determines what is of artistic quality, really? So goes one of the more philosophically heated debates in the classical music world at the moment.
Apart from digging into the process the orchestra goes through in planning out new seasons and discussing the issue of how much new music to program, the article doesn't answer the questions, of course. This orchestra's solution seems to be to try and balance the new and the old, to seek out quality and to be constantly checking to see how the audience is responding. That's probably a good practical solution. Just don't get caught in the quota trap!

* * *

This brings us to our envoi and today it will be double. Let's listen to the two up and coming women pianists we mentioned above. Tell me what you think of their contrasting approaches. First, Yuja Wang with the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky:


Second, Khatia Buniatishvili with the Piano Concerto by Schumann:


I think that's a reasonably fair selection? So let loose in the comments!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Nono the Venetian

Like the Gabrielis and Vivaldi before him, Luigi Nono is a Venetian composer. In fact, he comes from an old Venetian family. His grandfather, Luigi Nono, sr. (1850 - 1918), was an important verismo and landscape painter.
The family name derives from their feudal landownership in Santa Maria di Non, a small rural parish in the diocese of Padova. Luigi senior’s father, Francesco, was born in Bergamo, nearer Milan than Venice. He followed in the steps of his own father, a customs collector on the western border of the ex-Venetian republic, which had been an Austrian possession since the downfall of Napoleon. As Bergamo was incorporated into the new Cisalpina, the family moved back to Venice in 1849, 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 722-725). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Here is one of Luigi's more famous paintings, Refugium peccatorum:

Click to enlarge
The family also included a renowned sculptor, Urbano Nono.
Mario, the composer’s father, was born to Luigi and Rina in 1890. In 1921 he married Maria Manetti – again from a historic noble family, this time Florentine. Trained as an engineer, Mario was to become chief surveyor for the Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia , the city’s major bank. 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 807-809). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
One of the characteristics of Venetian music, historically, revolves around the great Basilica of San Marco where composers from Adrian Willaert to the Gabrielis to Monteverdi to Vivaldi all wrote music utilizing the multiple choir stalls of the church for spacial effects. Impett comments:
Venice is a city where ‘soundwalking’ has sense, where one can navigate by sound alone; a polyphony of intersecting alleys, cross-cut acoustics, sudden state changes of piazza, canal or sea, punctuated by soundmarks of church, café or ship. Echo, resonance and reverberation will become important structuring metaphors in Nono’s later technique. 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 913-916). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Like so many composers in the first half of the 20th century (Stravinsky, for example), Nono's studies began as a law student, in his case at the University of Padova. While there, however, he read Rimsky-Korsakov's Treatise on Harmony (Rimsky-Korsakov was also Stravinsky's teacher). Nono's family was highly-cultured: he received piano lessons and his parents were both amateur musicians (his father on the piano and his mother a soprano) good enough to perform excerpts from Musorgsky's Boris Godunov at home. Nono's main music teacher was Gian Franceso Malipiero, Director of the Venice Conservatory.
Malipiero’s reputation was based equally on his work as a composer and his advocacy of earlier music, especially Monteverdi – the first modern edition of whose works he had completed in 1942 – and later Vivaldi. 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 1196-1198). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Let's end today's post with a clip of Malipiero's Symphony No. 3 "delle campane" written in 1945 when Nono was studying with him.


Sunday, June 9, 2019

Introducing Luigi Nono

One of the benefits of YouTube that isn't mentioned much is the good chance of running across something interesting from time to time. True, the algorithm keeps throwing up stuff that you have heard a zillion times, but every now and then it tosses in something new to the mix that might, somehow, be related to something you once listened to. That is how I stumbled across some clips of music by Luigi Nono. Now I had certainly known his music since the 70s, but I had only a superficial acquaintance with it. The one LP I had of a couple of orchestral pieces was lost in a move and never replaced. So it was with interest that I listened recently to some more of his music courtesy of the vagaries of YouTube.

Here, for example, is a piece that just came up today:


One remarkable thing about that is how much it sounds like Medieval music from time to time. In any case, since I know very little about how Nono went about composing and very little about his life as well, I will do a series of posts on him so we can all get better informed!

There are a few reference books available through Amazon, but they are all quite expensive:



https://www.amazon.com/Routledge-Handbook-Luigi-Musical-Thought-ebook/dp/B07H4YS42F/ref=sr_1_4?crid=2D3GBDIX37E9L&keywords=luigi+nono&qid=1560089948&s=books&sprefix=luigi+nono%2Caps%2C190&sr=1-4

I will be working through both this monograph and the works themselves in a series of posts. Here is a little quote from the introduction:
In many respects his music anticipates the new technological state of culture of the twenty-first century while radically reconnecting with our past. His work is itself a case study in the evolution of musical activity and the musical object: from the period of an apparently stable place for art music in Western culture to its manifold new states in our century. 
Impett, Jonathan. Routledge Handbook to Luigi Nono and Musical Thought (Kindle Locations 640-642). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Another busy week with not a lot of blogging. I did run across a couple of things though. Here is an oddity: a music video where Paul McCartney appears, but isn't allowed to actually sing.


This came out a few years ago, in 2015, when Paul was 72 years old. Somehow, strumming along in the background (which is pretty much all the backup instrumental), he manages to look almost like a teen--a teen with a really hard life! Rihanna does her sexy routine and sings well. Kanye also forgoes any rapping and sings surprisingly well. But Paul just strums along in the background, hardly even mouthing a line. But listening to the song, you know, I kind of think he wrote it...

* * *

The Guardian has a big piece on Karlheinz Stockhausen on the occasion of an upcoming performance of his opera Donnerstag aus Licht and a festival of his music at the Southbank Centre. Of course the writer struggles with the inconvenient fact that while we must, as a matter of course, deplore any instances of alpha-male geniuses, still, they just seem to keep coming up.
Matched in musical-myth-mania perhaps only by Richard Wagner, Karlheinz Stockhausen is the ultimate conundrum for those of us who believe keenly in shifting classical music culture away from its alpha-male genius complex – but are still enthralled by the music. Do we get to have it both ways?
The German-born composer was the self-mythologiser extraordinaire who had entrancing charisma, bullish intelligence, no shortage of game-changing opinions, nor shortage of confidence with which to assert them. A guru with disciples and rivals, he fostered a personality cult that went way beyond his music to encompass fashion, spirituality, even a galactic origin story. Isn’t this precisely the artist-as-hero narrative we need to dismantle?
* * *

I've got a bit of a bias against competitions in general, so it is nice to see this item where a competitor, offered a bit of a consolation prize, simply says "no thanks," and leaves town.

* * *

And Lang Lang got married -- at Versailles! Page Six has the details:
Although it was held at her French countryside palace, Marie Antoinette might have considered the whole thing slightly over-the-top.
We’re told 300 guests — including John Legend and Chrissy Teigen and HRH Prince and Princess Michael of Kent — were treated to a Bach recital by the newlyweds, a seven-course meal, including a “transparency of lobster” served over dry ice and an 8-foot-tall wedding cake accompanied by two Dom Pérignon vintages.
* * * 

I find the obsessions of progressivism entertaining, on the whole. One of them that won't go away is the idea that artistic creativity these days is all about blurring lines and dissolving boundaries. Doesn't that lead to immigration problems? Oops, wrong field of discourse. Are We Done With Genre Yet? How Young Musicians Are (Again) Dissolving Boundaries:
It’s easy for musicians to become trapped in the strictures of genre or style. How many times has an orchestra or chamber group been accused of playing Beethoven “too romantically” or a historical performance ensemble of failing to adhere to some anachronism or another? Crossover music, despite the name, deliberately upholds these sorts of distinctions, as the whole point is to attract listeners from multiple traditions. Conversely, the advent of the internet has allowed artists around the world to experience and assimilate new musical ideas and idioms.
Oh for <%(/·)'s sake! The problem these days is that musicians often only know the genres and styles they grew up with. Learning to become a professional musician, of whatever kind, involves learning basic principles, various styles and genres and some history. This ain't news!

* * *

For our silly item today, we have Hilary Hahn going for a swim in a Norwegian lake in her concert gown. Courtesy of the Violin Channel.



* * *

We are on the verge of festival season and the LA Times has an article on the Ojai Festival.
Thus, this year’s festival begins with Ojai’s first staged full-length opera, Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” written in West Hollywood 60 years ago and standard repertory everywhere except, scandalously, L.A. It also happens to be the first opera that Hannigan sang in. This new production was created to tour Europe for singers from her training program Equilibrium Young Artists, and she conducts.
“Each festival is designed as an emotional journey, and I work on that really hard with the artists,” Morris said.
When Hannigan told him a piece by John Zorn was the most difficult thing she had ever sung, Morris’ immediate response, he said with delight, was: “We have to do that.” It took a while, Morris said, but getting to know boundary-breaking artists, be they Zorn or John Luther Adams or Sellars, who insisted on bringing the community into the picture, have made Morris realize that “Ojai is in my blood.”
Sounds tempting, but there's those boundaries again!

* * *

Stockhausen seems a logical choice for our envoi today. I don't think we have ever posted a performance of his vocal work Stimmung from 1968.


Monday, June 3, 2019

Dream Vacations

What is living in a free society all about if not to delight in one's weirdnesses? I had the oddest thought when I was practicing this morning and it led to other odd thoughts, so here they are.

Back when I was studying in Spain with Maestro José Tomás he gave a concert in, I think, Benidorm, that a few of us students attended. The highlight of the concert was the suite Castillos de España by Federico Moreno Torroba, at the time a fairly newly-written piece. I didn't learn it myself until several years ago. I think, at the time of the concert, it wasn't widely available. Ok, so this morning I was working on the first movement, Turégano, a lovely piece, and it occurred to me that my perfect vacation would be to have a whole month free so I could time-travel back to 1974 and study the piece with Tomás. Now that's something I really wished I had done when I was there as it would have been the perfect repertoire for me at that stage. That's my dream vacation.

How about some others?
  • The first performance of the St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach in Leipzig, 11 April 1727
  • The premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky on the 29th of May, 1913 in Paris
  • The first performance of L'Orfeo by Monteverdi in Mantua in 1607
  • Any of the celebrations of the Great Dionysia in Athens at the theatre of Dionysus in the latter half of the 5th century BC. These celebrations included performances of the great tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes
  • Shakespeare at the original Globe in Southwark, London which existed between 1599 and 1613
  • On a more hedonistic note, it would be wonderful to join Baron Philippe de Rothschild at his chateau in Bordeaux for a dinner just after the war when they opened the cellar where they hid all the good wine during the German occupation.
Talk about your dream vacations!

And some people go on cruises? Weird.

Theatre of Dionysos in Athens (click to enlarge)
Turégano by Moreno Torroba played by Segovia:


UPDATE: Ok, one last secret dream excursion. I would have liked to be at Winterland in San Francisco, March 10, 1968 to hear one of Cream's very best live concerts.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

No, No, Nono!

Long ago I had a vinyl LP of Nono, which tells you how long ago. Can't even remember what piece. I just ran across this piece by him, which I didn't know:


I think of Nono as a particularly political member of the immediately post-WWII avant-garde, but this shows a different side. The music's sensibility is very Japanese. The coolest thing about the YouTube clip is that when I posted it, it had only 287 views. I take a somewhat perverse pleasure in stumbling across significant pieces of music with astonishingly small numbers of views. Which I like to contrast in my mind with those astonishingly insignificant pieces of music with horrifically large numbers of views: "Gangnam Style" by Psy with 3.3 billion views. That's a "b".


(The clip with the 3.3 billion is another one of the same song that won't embed.)

Now you have to listen to Nono again. Yes, sorry, but that's the price you pay. Besides you need something to clear your palate.

Surprised? Not Really

Have a look at this:


Look at the set-up: who are you and what are you doing here? You're going to play piano? Classical piano? The judges look suitably cynical and once he starts to play there are shots of bored audience members yawning. Then it goes all funky as he does a robotic dance to a pumped up version of Für Elise with orchestra. All is saved! We won't have to listen to boring old piano music after all. Just moments before I read this:
One day, while giving my annual talk in 2005 about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1856 at a respected East Coast college made famous by Lincoln, I had a eureka moment of sorts. I was trying to explain the deep differences between Northern and Southern Illinois, which reaches well below the Mason-Dixon line
I expected these sterling students – based on their SAT performances – to know about this famous dividing line which was important for Senator Stephen A. Douglas’ support. But I was mistaken. I saw the puzzled look in their eyes, and I realized that these college sophomores had never heard of the Mason-Dixon line. I pressed on. I asked. Where is Illinois?
One answered, “near Philadelphia,” most just shrugged their shoulders, with the best of the lot explaining that it was “in Chicago.” In what followed I gave the supposed college students an 8th-grade geography lesson.
I had loved teaching history. But it was from that moment on that I began to plan my escape into retirement.
We are living in a time when it seems that most people are not just musically illiterate, but illiterate period.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Here is something kind of cool: watch and hear someone put together a version of "Gangster Paradise" by Coolio (which is based on a song by Stevie Wonder) on an iPhone running Garageband:


This is giving me some ideas, I have to say. I am working on my string quartet and I have a section where all the instruments are doing glissandi in different directions and my Finale program frankly just isn't up to it! So I may have to see if Garageband can handle it. Looks like it might...

* * *

Here is a wonderful interview with ex-Prime Minister of Australia Paul Keating who is an avid (perhaps obsessive) aficionado of classical music.
KEATING: I’m a listener; I’m not an occasional listener. I find it very difficult to do something with music in the background. In fact, I can’t do something with music in the background. I always have to listen. So, what I normally do, I block out about six hours on a Saturday afternoon. I generally begin about 2:00 in the afternoon and finish about 8:00; but I’m always finishing on the big symphony, and after eight the neighbors, you wear the neighbors down, so I don’t press my luck past 8:00 p.m.
KAPLAN: That’s amazing.
KEATING: Yeah. I have six hours but I start off on some songs, or a violin concerto, or some encore pieces by Fritz Kreisler or, you know, something I was playing last week, I was playing Fritz Kreisler, playing in 1929 the Mendelssohn. There’s just a kind of lyricism that comes with that middle European feeling, you know? It was not something I had played for years, but there it was, and I thought, how good is that?
KAPLAN: Wonderful. So that’s quite extraordinary. You actually play music non-stop for six hours on a Saturday afternoon.
KEATING: Yup.
If you're going to listen, then listen!

* * *

Alex Ross rediscovers Salieri in this week's New Yorker.
Salieri is one of history’s all-time losers—a bystander run over by a Mack truck of malicious gossip. Shortly before he died, in 1825, a story that he had poisoned Mozart went around Vienna. In 1830, Alexander Pushkin used that rumor as the basis for his play “Mozart and Salieri,” casting the former as a doltish genius and the latter as a jealous schemer. Later in the nineteenth century, Rimsky-Korsakov turned Pushkin’s play into a witty short opera. In 1979, the British playwright Peter Shaffer wrote “Amadeus,” a sophisticated variation on Pushkin’s concept, which became a mainstay of the modern stage. Five years after that, Miloš Forman made a flamboyant film out of Shaffer’s material, with F. Murray Abraham playing Salieri as a suave, pursed-lipped malefactor.
Lovely summary!
The classical-music world has fostered a kind of gated community of celebrity composers. Our star fixation produces the artistic equivalent of income inequality, in which vast resources fall into the hands of a few. That arrangement lands particularly hard on contemporary composers, who must compete with a group of semi-mythical figures who are worshipped as house gods. Salieri is better seen as the patron saint of musicians who prefer to live in a republic of like-minded souls rather than in an authoritarian regime where only certain voices count. With that in mind, I left my cheap rose on Salieri’s grave.
I'm not quite sure that I welcome Salieri as my patron saint...

* * *

One of my obsessions is how little most musicians get paid. Here with one story is techcrunch:
Tired of noisy music venues where you can hardly see the stage? Sofar Sounds puts on concerts in people’s living rooms where fans pay $15 to $30 to sit silently on the floor and truly listen. Nearly 1 million guests have attended Sofar’s more than 20,000 gigs. Having attended a half dozen of the shows, I can say they’re blissful… unless you’re a musician trying to make a living. In some cases, Sofar pays just $100 per band for a 25 minute set, which can work out to just $8 per musician per hour or less. Hosts get nothing, and Sofar keeps the rest, which can range from $1,100 to $1,600 or more per gig — many times what each performer takes home. The argument was that bands got exposure, and it was a tiny startup far from profitability.
The exploitation of young musicians by wily promoters is an old, old story.

* * *

 A violist friend alerted me to the fact that the new emperor of Japan is an avid violist a while ago. Now Slipped Disc has the story that President Donald Trump, on his recent visit to Japan, presented the new emperor with a viola:
Slipped Disc has learned that the viola was sold to the US State Department by a violin shop in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was made in 1938 by Ivan W. Allison of Charleston, West Virginia.
Message from Joe Joyner, owner of the Little Rock Violin Shop:
On April 30th I heard a news story that Japan’s Emperor Akihito was stepping down and that his son, Naruhito, would be taking his place. 24 hours later I received a call from the U.S. State Department seeking an American made viola to give as a diplomatic gift. Shortly after this call, I began seeing news stories about Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito being a violist.
Nearly a month later, I can now say that last week I sold the Emperor’s new viola, an instrument made in 1938 by Ivan W. Allison of Charleston, West Virginia. The instrument was presented to Emperor Naruhito by President Donald Trump today.
* * *

Let's have a listen to the Viola Concerto by William Walton. This is the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra with soloist Antoine Tamestit:


Saturday, May 25, 2019

Favorite French Baroque!!

By request of a commentator, here are some of my favorite pieces from the French Baroque:

Forqueray: La Couperin


And because turnabout is fair play here is Couperin: La Forqueray


There there are the tombeaux. This is the Tombeau de M. Blancrocher by Louis Couperin, played by Gustav Leonhardt.


Too much harpsichord? Ok, here is the rondeau from Les Indes Galantes by Rameau:



And if you are ready to shed a tear or two, here is Les Tendres Plaintes by Rameau, played by Grigory Sokolov:


What I Owe to Bach

One photo I very much wish I still had shows me, age about 19, leaning out of the living room window of the little bungalow we lived in at the time, holding cradled in my left arm the Archiv box containing the three vinyl records of the Mass in B minor by J. S. Bach. It was a handsome box resembling white canvas with blue lettering. The sleeve containing the very same performance in the Bach Masterworks box is not nearly as nice:


The significance of the photo, I realize many years later, is that the discovery of Bach was, for me, a turning point in my life. It wasn't just Bach, of course, but in the fullness of time it becomes clear that the music of Bach is a kind of still point in the turning world to slightly misquote T. S. Eliot. Eliot, along with Hiroshige, Haydn, Homer, Rilke and some others, also played a role, but Bach is really the central figure. To this very day I try to play Bach every morning.

I once speculated to a friend that there are not very many people in the classical music world (with the exception of managers and record company executives of course) who are, to some degree, sociopaths. The reason I gave is that early in every classical musician's career he or she finds him or herself alone in a small practice room with their instrument, a chair and a music stand. Sitting on the music stand is the score of a piece by J. S. Bach that you have to come to terms with, i.e. learn how to play. It won't be easy and will take many hours of selfless dedication that a sociopath is simply not capable of. There is no-one else to blame if you can't get it right and no mercy if you fail. The only reward is an aesthetic one or, perhaps, a word of encouragement from your teacher.

I remember chatting with a cellist once, remarking to him that I had been playing (in guitar transcription) the Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach for a year or so and still occasionally had a memory lapse in the allemande. He simply said, "I played that suite for ten years before it sounded good." Around that same time I was sharing a concert with a very fine violinist. His solo piece in the concert was the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor. As I was planning out the program I asked him how much time his performance would take. His answer: "thirteen minutes and forty-three seconds." You realize how complete his mastery of the piece was to be that certain? And, believe me, he was!

Bach, often voted the finest of all classical composers, is a kind of musical pinnacle that musicians, even those who are not classical, esteem without the usual caveats. He is buried in the Thomaskirke in Leipzig by the altar and fresh roses are placed there regularly (they were there when I visited the church in the 90s). Outside is a statue of Bach with the pockets of his coat turned out--perhaps that is to indicate he never made very much money from his music. At his death he was known as a fairly obscure Saxon organist. Three of his sons became important composers in their own right. A few other composers knew of his music which spread through hand-copied manuscripts. Beethoven owned a copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier excerpts from which he played in salon concerts as a young man in Vienna. Mozart, in his travels, heard some motets by Bach in a concert in, I think it was, Leipzig. At the end he leapt up and exclaimed, "now that is music we can learn from!"

What Bach came to be for me, a young man in a small town in Canada in the early 70s, was a bridge, a path, from the narrow horizons of the world I grew up in, to the wider horizons of history, art and meaning. In other words, he took me out of my petty self and surroundings and made me aware of the universe.

There is something almost cosmic about the music of Bach and it is not due to its supposed complexity. Bach touches and evokes a kind of fundamental being that underlies all of humanity. His music awakens something unnameable and inexpressible in words. When I was young it seemed I ran into Bach almost everywhere. On CBC television Sunday afternoons would appear Glenn Gould, at the pinnacle of his career, playing a few preludes and fugues. An amateur classical guitarist, the first one I ever met, averred that the only music really worth playing on guitar was Bach. And then there was that handsome box from Archiv (a label of Deutsche Gramophon).

Let's just listen to some pieces that I encountered for the first time in my youth. First, the Chaconne from the D minor partita, on guitar and then on violin. This is a performance by John Williams on guitar:


This is Jascha Heifetz on violin:



From the Mass in B minor, here are the last two movements, the Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem in a 1969 performance by Karl Richter and the same performers that made that recording for Archiv:


Many, many years later I discovered The Art of Fugue, but that is a story for another day...

For some odd reason, I am reminded of two quotes from Aristotle. The first is from the Metaphysics and, since digging it out would take too long, I am simply going to try and remember it:
Things are not good because we are attracted to them, rather, we are attracted to them because they are good.
And the beginning of the Nichomachean Ethics:
 Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. [from The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, p. 935]

Friday, May 24, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Lots of musical Photoshop memes lately:


That's always been the argument for the bagpipe.

* * *

Yes, I know that I am normally very critical of these so-called 'scientific' studies of music that usually seem to turn up something we already knew (or something likely false) but here is one study I kind of want to believe: Smarter people listen to instrumental music: study.
A new study published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences suggests that those who prefer instrumental music tend to be more intelligent.
Study author Elena Racevska, a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University, became interested in how musical preference is tied to personality traits as she learned about the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis, which presumes that more intelligent individuals seek more novel experiences compared to less intelligent people.
* * *

Musicology Now has sprung back to life with three new postings in May. One of them is on the promotion of Avengers: Endgame and the music therein, one of many posts on the site dealing with popular culture. Another is on music in Paris and still another is about jobs for musicologists in academia. The situation seems as dire as in English departments.
Since 2008, the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty at higher-education institutions has declined by 35%. The Delphi Project reports that contingent (adjunct) instructors now teach 73% of courses (AAUP Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, p. 3; Delphi Project). Working conditions for contingent faculty vary widely; most work on one-semester or one-year contracts with no promise of renewal. The pay and working conditions for part-time contingent laborers are especially poor: pay may be as low as $1800 per course, and more than 70% of institutions that employ part-time faculty do not contribute to their health insurance costs (AAUP op. cit., and AAUP Annual Report, Appendix III). Part-time contract work is the fastest-growing part of the academic work force (Coalition on the Academic Workforce). The few musicologists who do find tenure-track jobs in the academy see increasing workloads and declining research support at all but the most elite institutions.
And what they don't mention is that the growth of administrative positions has outpaced that of faculty for a couple of decades. If you want a job in academia your chances are best if you are a diversity specialist or member of a "bias response team." Administrative bloat on campus has replaced full-time faculty and resulted in the decline of quality in education.

* * *

I've posted about the Grace Notes series at the Times Literary Supplement before, noting that its basic premiss biases it towards seeing composers as "pioneers," that is, as fundamentally innovators. This is an assumption taken from the modernist manifesto, of course, and I believe I cited composers like Mozart and Bach as being ones who tend to disprove the theory. Now they have a piece in the series on Mozart so let's see how they spin it!
A more familiar instance is the A major piano sonata, K. 331, conveying the musical sense of the word “rational” in its reliance on an utterly transparent series of ratios. Phrase answering phrase, two shorts followed by a long, and so on, contrast followed by return.
And then, within this tightly structured geometry, an explosion of invention, as idea follows idea, each seemingly fresher and more original than the last.
This is the problem that Mozart poses for our contemporary ears. His music is so balanced, clear, rational in its order, especially in comparison to the music that has come after, that it is easy – for performers as well as listeners – to miss the drama. Which is why we have to turn to the one place where drama cannot be ignored: opera.
In the original, they embed musical examples. The writer, Stephen Brown, goes on to discuss Beethoven's views on and uses of themes from Don Giovanni, which gets quite away from the issue, which is, was Mozart in any sense a "pioneer" or innovator in the radical way that, oh, Beethoven was? Instead, he focuses on how Mozart creates musical drama. Quite so! But that is a slightly different question. I think that Mozart's real role, somewhat akin to J. S. Bach's before him, was to look at all the advances in musical language discovered or invented by people like J. C. Bach and Joseph Haydn, and then to work out the possibilities, create a new synthesis and generally just to perfect what everyone else was doing.

* * *

What would a Friday miscellanea be if we didn't have a look at what is new in the avant-garde? One new figure that seems to be getting attention is Christopher Rountree:
At the vanguard of new music, composer/conductor/curator Christopher Rountree, who is also a music director and founder of the renegade ensemble wild Up, is certainly having a moment. A seventh-generation Californian, the 36-year old Rountree is the curator of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Fluxus Festival (in conjunction with The Getty Research Institute), a celebration of the anti-establishment interdisciplinary art movement that emerged in the ’60s. The year-long bash is part of the orchestra’s centennial season, with the festival culminating in two very different 12-hour marathon concerts (May 25 at REDCAT; June 1 at Walt Disney Concert Hall). The programs aptly mirror Rountree’s audacious, forward-thinking philosophy.
A graduate of Cal State Long Beach, where he studied trombone performance and education, Rountree earned a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Michigan and has been on a musical tear ever since. In 2010 he created wild Up, whose eccentric blend of new music, pop, and performance art has been lauded by critics across the board, with The New York Times’s Zachary Woolfe writing in 2015, “Boisterously theatrical and exuberantly talented, the group barnstormed its way through works written by its own members, and a couple of punk-rock arrangements, too.”
Isn't it odd how the CVs of just about every musical renegade these days sound just like all the other musical renegades? And there always has to be some punk rock in there somewhere.

* * * 

Across the pond The Guardian continues its never-ending quest to erase all high culture, School music lessons should cover hip-hop and grime, says charity: Youth Music calls for a focus on ‘Stormzy rather than Mozart’ to engage hard-to-reach pupils. Oh yes, by all means, replace Mozart with hip-hop in music classes because the students would certainly never run into hip-hop in their everyday lives!
A national charity has called for school music lessons to be overhauled to include grime, electronic music and hip-hop after research found that more inclusive music-making improves attendance among pupils at risk of exclusion.
A four-year study by Youth Music concluded that too many schools fail to include current musical genres and recommended that lessons should focus on “Stormzy rather than Mozart” in order to engage hard-to-reach young people.
That really doesn't need comment does it?

* * *

Hilary Hahn phones in an encore. No, it's not what you think! Usually the phrase indicates an indifferent, lackluster performance perhaps delivered with professionalism, but with little enthusiasm. That is never the case with Hilary Hahn. No, what happened was that she was not given sufficient time to play an encore after a performance with the Chicago Symphony because it would have resulted in unaffordable overtime charges by the musicians' union. Follow the link for both the lovely clip of the Gigue from the E major violin partita and for some illuminating comments.

* * *

I have been nervously waiting to see if my tickets to the Salzburg Festival will make it through the somewhat unreliable services of the Mexican Post and this week they did! Austrian efficiency delivers once again. The procedure, in case you were wondering, for obtaining tickets to the Salzburg Festival, reputedly the biggest music festival in the world with around 250,000 tickets sold every year, begins in December of the previous year when programs are announced. I ordered tickets in January to several concerts online and surrendered my credit card information. Then in March or April you are "allotted" your tickets (I seem to have gotten all that I requested) and your card is charged. They then mail the tickets, priority post, to your home address and I received them late last week. Yahoo! For one of the concerts I am inviting my German ex-wife, her new husband and their daughter to a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic, a pretty good up-and-coming orchestra. For our envoi today, here they are with the Leonore Overture No. 3 from Fidelio by Beethoven conducted by Franz Welser-Möst in a performance from the 2015 Salzburg Festival.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Procrastinating


This is certainly a fun meme and it is even close to being true. According to his wife Constanze, he wrote the overture the night before, while consuming large amounts of punch, finishing it by seven the next morning, when the copyist arrived to collect it. (Reference, The Complete Operas of Mozart by Charles Osborne, pp. 258-9.) In the same book we learn that the librettist, Da Ponte, wrote the libretto while consuming Tokay and snuff. Those were certainly the days!

Let's hear that overture. This is the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with Manfred Honeck, conductor.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Tacito Sensu

I was idly browsing through Cicero's De oratore the other day when I ran across this passage:
Omnes tacito quodam sensu sine ulla arte aut ratione quae sint in artibus ac rationibus recta ac prava dijudicant.
For those with "small Latin and less Greek" that translates as:
Concerning arts and reasons everyone judges right and wrong by means of a silent sense, without any art or reason.
Well, of course I wasn't browsing around in Cicero in Latin, I ran across this quote in Carl Dahlhaus' (translated by William Austin) book Esthetics of Music. I have even less Latin and Greek than Shakespeare! But I quite liked the quote.

Dahlhaus states that Cicero is "appealing to the capacity that eventually came to be called, metaphorically, 'taste.' " He mentions that the 18th century spent a great deal of effort trying to resolve the issue of taste, and never managed it (perhaps David Hume, whom Dahlhaus does not mention, came closest).

But I like the idea of a "silent sense" that responds to and evaluates music. I don't know if the metaphor of "taste" is the right one, apparently not, but the idea that there is something beyond art and reason ("art" in the sense of "artifice") goes along with my sense that there is always something magical about music--good music at least. What could be more magical than the peal of a single, mysterious note, falling into the silence? With all the infinite possibilities of its continuation?

Imagine a great, deep forest, silent save for the soughing of a breeze in the high branches. Then imagine a sound: the caw of a raven, the crack of a twig, the crystalline flurry of a birdcall, the sound of distant water. All this is like the basic materials of a composition. Then one searches for a narrative to unite them. But not a narrative in words or any concrete meaning. No. A musical narrative, one that only suggests without defining.

Now this is quite different, but just a bit similar. Debussy: Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune. Montreal Symphony, Charles Dutoit:


Saturday, May 18, 2019

String Quartet

I have been asked to write a string quartet for the Pro Nova Ensemble for next season and I've been thinking a lot about the genre. I have been very fond of this combination ever since I bought a box of the Beethoven late quartets by the Guarneri Quartet in the early 70s. I once spent an entire summer listening to the Haydn quartets. Back then you could buy Vox Boxes of the different opus numbers on vinyl. At some point I picked up the Juilliard Quartet playing Bartók. Not that many years ago I discovered the Shostakovich quartets and have listened to the complete box of CDs by the Emerson Quartet many times.

Now I find I want to take a close look at two recent contributions to the genre: those by Philip Glass and Elliot Carter. I have never gotten into Carter (I find his pieces for guitar particularly uncongenial) but I feel I have to investigate his quartets. Right now I am listening to the first and I am finding it surprisingly interesting, especially in the contrapuntal aspects. For some odd reason, I find composers I don't particularly enjoy personally to be inspiring and thought-provoking. I am not a big fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen, but I find his ideas really interesting. The same for John Cage. But while one movement of the quartet I am planning is going to be in moment form, an idea from Stockhausen, there is not likely to be any Cageian influence!

Here is the String Quartet No. 1 by Carter:


That was written the year I was born.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

I was looking at Slipped Disc for some wacky item to kick of this week's miscellanea, but instead stumbled across this: On Agents Who Demand Payment Up Front.
Whenever an artist tells me that an agency wants to sign him or her but expects to be paid for their services, I have given the best advice available in these circumstances: don’t go near them.
An agent who demands money up-front from artist is an agent who has failed to make money by legitimate means.
The link to a VAN magazine article takes you to a lengthy article about one agent's practices that might be worth reading. It seems the case that there are managers out there that do not hesitate to take advantage of the naïveté of young artists. One comment on the Slipped Disc piece is sobering:
Where the art form is considered a ‘highly competative business’ it has been killed-off and the music treated as a mere commodity to make money and a career. This is, mainly, the position of classical music within a capitalist, free market society, as it developed in the 19th century. In the ‘ancien régime’, however limited by restrictions by courts, nobility and church, musicians had decent, paid jobs and more security.
One reason I finally decided to be a "non-commercial" musician was due to bad experiences with record companies and artist management.

* * *

What do you do if your piano soloist falls sick at the last minute and you have to come up with half a program at the drop of a hat? The CBC has the story: Karina Canellakis conducts unrehearsed Tchaikovsky after OSM soloist Daniil Trifonov suddenly falls ill.
In one of the most anticipated concerts of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal's season, she was making her OSM debut on May 15 with a program comprising orchestral excerpts from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as well as Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra in the first half, and after intermission, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Russian piano phenom Daniil Trifonov as soloist.
But things did not go exactly as planned. OSM double bassist Scott Feltham posted the following account on Facebook after the concert:
"Daniil Trifonov, tonight's scheduled piano soloist, became suddenly ill just before the beginning of the concert and had to be taken to the hospital.... Instead, Madeleine Careau, our CEO, announced Trifonov's illness and the resulting change in program. We performed Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. Cold. No rehearsing. In front of 2,000 ish people. Bravo to all my colleagues. Bravo especially to maestra Karina Canellakis, conducting us for the first time. Time for a beer."
The more cynical among us might say, "oh yeah, they probably played the Tchaikovsky just last week..." But no, the OSM hadn't played Tchaikovsky 4 for twelve years, though the conductor had done it fairly recently. On the other hand, it is likely that some newer members of the orchestra had never played it! Every time you go to a big budget movie and hear an orchestral soundtrack you are hearing an orchestra play something for the first time! Those scores get played once and once only--for the recording of the soundtrack.

* * *

The opening night of Opera Australia’s Rigoletto in Melbourne on Saturday saw drama both on stage and off, with audience members witnessing the latest protest by composer George Dreyfus. Rising from his centre front row seat just as the conductor was about to take their place in the pit, the nonagenarian used a megaphone to express his frustration about how the company had commissioned, but never performed, his 1970 opera The Gilt-Edged Kid.
Members of the audience became increasingly irritated at the interruption, with Dreyfus’ actions delaying the performance for 15 minutes. The front row was eventually evacuated in order to allow venue staff to remove Dreyfus from the theatre. He was then met by police who escorted him out of the building, where he was taken to hospital for medical attention. Charges have not been pressed against Dreyfus.
The composer has staged protests in previous years as well. Hey, my sympathies are with him. Or he has lost his mind? Whichever. Opera does seem to bring out the dramatic side of things, doesn't it?

* * *

This story is sort of entertaining: Academe's Extinction Event; Failure, Whiskey, and Professional Collapse at the MLA. As a sign of the academic background of the writer, it is almost impossible to summarize the long article. But this might give you an idea:
The number of jobs in English advertised on the annual MLA job list has declined by 55 percent since 2008; adjuncts now account for all but a quarter of college instructors generally. Whole departments are being extirpated by administrators with utilitarian visions; from 2013 to 2016, colleges cut 651 foreign-language programs. Meanwhile the number of English majors at most universities continues to swoon.
None of this shows any sign of relenting. It has, in fact, all the trappings of an extinction event that will alter English — and the rest of the humanities — irrevocably, though no one knows what it will leave in its wake. What’s certain is that the momentum impelling it is far past halting; behind that momentum lies the avarice of universities, but also the determination of politicians and pundits to discredit humanistic thinking, which plainly threatens them. They have brought on a tipping point: The stories they have told about these disciplines — of their pointlessness, of the hollowness of anything lacking entrepreneurial value — have won out over the stories the humanists themselves have told, or not told.
There are similarities in musicology, which is why I didn't pursue that career.

* * *

I am so busy this week that I haven't anything further for you. Let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky as we haven't put up anything by him for a long time. This is Carlos Miguel Prieto conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony:


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Buying a Guitar

I try to post on a variety of topics and from a variety of perspectives here, but sometimes one area or another gets neglected. I haven't put up much for budding guitarists lately, so let's talk about buying a guitar.

If you are a beginning guitar student you should buy a student guitar, of course! With online retailers this is easier than it used to be. Look at this student guitar from Amazon, for example:


Without trying it out, I can't give it much of a review, but this is the kind of instrument you want if you are a young beginner. Seven or eight is a good age to start and you will certainly need a smaller size instrument. This one is a 3/4 size which will suit a lot of beginners. But younger ones might need a 1/2 size guitar. You need an instrument small enough so that your fingers can, with a bit of reaching, span the first four frets.

I haven't played any student guitars for a long time, but one of the most reliable brands has been Yamaha. Here is that same bundle from that company. Notice that the price is higher.


These bundles include odd things like picks and a strap, which a classical guitarist won't need, but a folk guitarist will. The Yamaha bundle does not include a case. You can get by with a "gig bag" which is a soft canvas case, but that offers little protection for the instrument. As soon as you move up in quality you will need a sturdy hard case.

If you are an adult beginner you will want a full size guitar and a little higher quality. Here is a Yamaha model with a cedar top in the low 200s:


The same is also available with a spruce top:


Yamaha makes guitars at various levels. This is one in the mid-400s with a spruce top:


Once you get past that level, you will want to start visiting music stores to see what they have. There are a few very simple things to look for.
  • the "action" is the relationship of the strings to the fretboard. This is critically important. If the strings are too high, it will take too much effort to press them down to the fret. If the action is too low, the strings will buzz on the frets as they vibrate. The action can be adjusted, but if it is really far from correct, it is a sign the music store doesn't know or doesn't care too much about their product!
  • the neck needs to be straight, not warped. Hold the guitar up to your eye and sight along the length of the neck to see if it is straight.
  • the instrument should not be too heavy. One quick way to sort out instruments is to simply go along the row and lift each one. Try out the lightest one!
  • Tap on the body to see if it is resonant and responsive
  • Finally, sit down and play it!
Just a few thoughts to get you started. Send me questions in the comments.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Composer Narrative

As a composer myself, I am intrigued by how composers are portrayed in the mass media. Of course, they aren't given much space these days, but occasionally we get a glimpse. Such was the case this week as Toronto's Globe and Mail published an extensive piece on Andrew Balfour, an up and coming choral composer. Canada has a pretty strong choral tradition, especially in Ontario where the Mendelssohn Choir is well over a century old and a major musical institution.

Journalism has been described as the "first draft of history" and as such it is interesting to have a look at how the story of a composer is told in 21st century Canada (though the narrative is one that certainly is not limited to Canada). Here is the link to the story. If you are blocked for some reason, try searching for the headline: Choral maestro Andrew Balfour pursues his Indigenous identity through music.

Read the whole piece and then let's look for the salient themes. The first paragraph gives us the generic picture of a classical music composer: early signs of talent, exposure to ensemble playing and devotion to classical rather than popular music. This is just to set up the ways that Mr. Balfour departs from the generic picture. He is of Cree descent and as part of a government policy referred to as the "Sixties Scoop" was removed from his indigenous family and raised in a middle-class family of Scottish descent.
The Sixties Scoop refers to a practice that occurred in Canada of taking, or "scooping up", Indigenous children from their families and communities for placement in foster homes or adoption. Despite the reference to one decade, the Sixties Scoop began in the late 1950s and persisted into the 1980s. It is estimated that a total of 20,000 aboriginal children were taken from their families and fostered or adopted out to primarily white middle-class families as part of the Sixties Scoop.
This controversial policy, along with the residential school system, abandoned in the 80s, was designed to "educate Aboriginal children in Euro-Canadian and Christian values so they could become part of mainstream society." Perhaps one should note that living conditions on indigenous reserve communities are often very poor and certainly offer little or no opportunities for education or advancement, which goes some way to explaining why these kinds of policies were instituted.

Balfour says:
As a child of the Sixties Scoop, he considered himself lucky. He’d been adopted when he was six months old by a family with Scottish roots that he describes as loving and supportive. His parents shared their passion for music with him – his father, the minister at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Winnipeg, encouraged his choral singing, and played trombone. His mother was a violist.
But as Balfour grew older, he’d struggled, and become conflicted and confused about his identity. Attention-deficit disorder made focusing on schoolwork difficult. He dropped out of Brandon University after a year, plagued by growing pangs of isolation. His parents had relocated to British Columbia, and the move intensified feelings of abandonment that gnawed at him when he thought about his Cree background and his separation from his birth mother.
So his musical gifts likely were fostered and developed as a result of his adoption. But he increasingly felt deracinated from his core identity. As a result he went through a difficult period of drug and alcohol abuse, part of which was spent in jail. As a result of exploring his identity as an indigenous person he experienced a vision:
It felt like a near-death experience, he says, in which he was visited by people he’d known throughout his life, who spoke to him. None of it made sense at the time, and he still struggles to articulate what transpired exactly, but he’s certain about this: “It was another power, another spirit … something telling me that life was going to be okay. And from then on, that’s how I felt. And I knew that I wanted to pursue my identity through music.”
The article recounts the kind of compositions and performances that were a result of this pursuit. Occasionally we read pro forma digs at classical music and its sinning, racist past:
Balfour’s versatility has made it easier for him to breach the staunchly white bastions of the classical-music scene, which has been slower to embrace Indigenous artists than literature, film and even pop music have. 
For now, at least, there’s no getting around the fact that when Balfour writes a choral work, the sea of faces that ultimately performs it will likely be white. And so, too, will the audience that listens to it.
Well, yes, Canada does still have an inconveniently large number of white people. But doesn't anyone notice how astonishingly racist comments like these are?

The issues surrounding identity bring with them consequences regarding agency:
Arts organizations that want to perform music with Indigenous themes and content need to be true collaborators, Balfour says. “They need to reach out, talk to elders, do a lot of listening; not just take a work and perform it however they want to.”
This makes the claim that if you write music that stems from your identity as an indigenous person, this gives you all the agency. The institutions and performers who realize the work have to follow your requirements. What makes me uneasy about this is that it implies a lot more than just singing the right notes with the right phrasing. Somehow the performance has to carry with it the ideology of identity.
At a recent gathering in Banff, Alta., of the tiny community of classically trained Indigenous musicians in Canada, Balfour and nine other artists signed a manifesto in support of “musical sovereignty” that called for arts organizations to involve Indigenous artists in every step of the creative process.
Musical sovereignty is an interesting concept, not least because it has more political and ideological aspects than merely aesthetic ones.

I think what we see here are a number of conflicting currents. One of them is simply the excellence of a musical talent able to realize his gifts and have them recognized by the Canadian arts community. Another is the relating of his work to his rediscovered indigenous identity. Still another is the musical context of Canada at large, which has its roots in European music. We see all these currents in his piece Qaumaniq for choir, cello, percussion, narrator and vocal soloists.


There are elements derived from traditional indigenous music, from European tonal traditions and from the contemporary avant garde. The effect is sometimes uncomfortably diverse.

One can see the appeal of this kind of journey for an artist like Andrew Balfour for whom it offers a kind of ready-made authenticity. But it is a bit disconcerting to realize that, for that sea of white faces that the Canadian performing and listening community consists in, the focus on and validation of his identity implies a deprecation of their identity. True, there is a certain moral satisfaction coming from displaying one's appreciation of Indigenous art, but the price is a tendency to reduce one's own authentic identity. The embedding of identity within aesthetics has a number of unfortunate consequences, not the least of which is that it tends to divide a society into identity groups in conflict with one another.