Thursday, January 31, 2019

Salzburg 2019

I am going to get to Salzburg this summer and the slate of concerts looks pretty good. I have applied for the tickets already--you have to select them online and then wait to see if they have been "allocated" to you. I notice that the production of the Mozart opera Idomeneo is sold out already. Looks like there are tickets for everything else. I requested tickets for Grigory Sokolov on August 1st, the Bavarian Radio Symphony on Aug. 2 conducted by Mariss Jansons (Beethoven and Shostakovich), on Aug. 3 the Mozarteum Orchestra conducted by Ivor Bolton playing Mozart of course, on Aug. 4 Igor Levit playing Mahler and Liszt, on Aug. 5 the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Franz Welser-Möst playing Wagner, Strauss and Shostakovich, on Aug. 6 Evgeny Kissin playing Beethoven and that's all for now. I may try to get an additional ticket to the Camerata Salzburg conducted by Roger Norrington doing Mozart, Stravinsky and Haydn. I have been dying to hear Stravinsky in an historically informed performance on original instruments. 8>)

Here is a photo of the Big Hall, or as they say, the "Grosses Festspielhaus"

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Aussie TV

My latest discoveries on Netflix are Aussie tv series. I have sampled Swedish and Finnish crime dramas, a Serbo-Croatian newspaper drama, action series from Israel and Turkey, a Russian show about a detective with an exceptional sense of smell, and one show about disaffected youth in Rome. None of them caught my fancy. But then I had a go at an Australian tv series and got hooked. So far I have not found one not worth watching.

Pine Gap is a one season show that takes place on a high-tech intelligence facility run jointly by the US and Australia in the Aussie outback. It just aired in 2018 so there likely will be more seasons coming out. It involves international intrigue and romance.

The Code also involves high-tech espionage, but it is more personal centered around two brothers, one of whom is a journalist and the other a brilliant, high-functioning Asperger's personality who can do just about anything with computers so he usually has to be kept away from them! Somehow he lands a gorgeous Iranian immigrant girlfriend. The three get mixed up in corruption in high places. Two seasons and well worth watching.

Secret City I have just started watching. It also involves corruption in government and stars a journalist. The amazing architecture of the Parliament House in Canberra, where much of the action takes place, is almost another character:

Click to enlarge
Wanted is my favorite so far. It follows the adventures of two women, one hiding out from the authorities after she killed her husband in self-defence, and the other the sheltered daughter of a wealthy businessman. While coincidentally waiting at a bus stop together they get mixed up in illegal drug deals, corrupt cops, and end up wanted, on the run and, of course, best friends. Three seasons and still going.

What all these series have in common is interesting and believable characters which seem to be rare in US tv these days. Plus, NO SUPERHERO COSTUMES AND NO CGI SPECIAL EFFECTS. If I see Thor throw his hammer one more time, or Iron Man rocket into the sky or Captain America do something really ludicrous with his shield I swear I'm going to hurl...

UPDATE: Just watching Season 3, episode 5 of Wanted and there was a little bit of dialogue that captures rather nicely the Australian view of things: the two leads are still on the run, on foot, and they come across an abandoned barn at dusk where they decide to hole up for the night. One character looking dubiously into the dark barn says "Do you think there'll be rats?" to which the other replies, "Not if there's snakes." Yep.

Art is Right Wing?

Reading Ann Althouse this morning, she refers to an old post of hers that sounds rather interesting: Art is right wing. That post itself quotes a comment she made on an even older post:
To be a great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist like Dylan or Picasso may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath, where it counts, there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world and focusing on that.
Especially in today's environment, something like this is very provocative. Here is one comment on the post I linked:
There are two separate issues here: the creative element, that is, the art itself, and the artist's personal politics. Those artists who are leftists do not seem to realize that their individualism is at odds with actual leftism in practice.
Soviet and Chinese "art" and "literature" (the words require scare quotes in this context) made a mockery of true art, because their mandatory service to leftism destroyed originality and individualism. Only the dissidents made anything lasting.
I like the mapping out of a distinction between an artist's activity qua artist and their personal politics, but! The second paragraph, while seeming plausible, goes wildly wrong if you know something about Soviet art, specifically music composition in the Soviet Union. Three names come immediately to mind: Sergei Prokofiev, who left Russia in 1918 but in the 1930s spent more and more time going back and forth between the Soviet Union and France and in 1936 he returned permanently and took up residence in Moscow until his death in 1953, on the same day that Stalin died. Dmitri Shostakovich lived his entire professional life under the Soviet regime, born in 1906 he died in 1975. His music was condemned twice, in 1936 and 1948, but he survived both those attacks and continued to compose without ceasing until his death, though he did keep a number of works, such as the Violin Concerto no. 1, in the drawer until after Stalin's death. Sofia Gubaidulina struggled her entire career in the Soviet Union against official strictures and in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, she took up residence in Hamburg, Germany.

Two out of the three: Prokofiev, Shostakovich with Aram Khatchaturian on the right.
Gubaidulina is a later generation, of course. The irony here is that a lot of the finest musicians in the oppressive political environment of the Soviet Union, were quite creative individuals whose work was often contrary to the imposed narrative. Of course they were not dissidents--there were no active, living dissidents under Stalin as he either had them shot or banished them, like Solzhenitsyn, to concentration camps. They were forced to write works that were at least superficially regime-praising, like some rather embarrassing cantatas, but most of their output was creatively quite free of those requirements. Examples would include all of Shostakovich's string quartets and Prokofiev's piano sonatas and concertos. Gubaidulina never seems to have written anything directly in service to the regime, but she came along much later.

If we look at the work of artists in Western countries today we seem to see more ideological conformity than in the Soviet Union! Isn't that a surprise? Most of the composers working in the US, for example, seem to be following the same playbook of identity, gender equity, diversity, environmentalism and so on. Art, for them at least, does not seem very right wing. We might look for evidence at Alex Ross' column on Notable Performances and Recordings of 2018:
At a time when some orchestras are unspooling entire seasons devoid of female and nonwhite composers, the L.A. Phil has commissioned twenty-two women and twenty-seven people of color. In October, at an event in the orchestra’s Green Umbrella new-music series, I was shaken by Tina Tallon’s “. . . for we who keep our lives in our throats . . .,” a response to sexual abuse.
Most works mentioned are quite free of political reference though none that I know of are as satirical of the current pieties as Shostakovich's Preface To The Complete Collection Of My Works And Brief Reflections Apropos This Preface, Op.112, or his absurdist opera The Nose.

I guess my point here is that the truth is in the details, not the superficially plausible generalization.

A good envoi here might be Shostakovich's Anti-Formalist Rayok, a work so satirical that it was not premiered in his lifetime:
In January 1989, a much-rumored work by Dmitri Shostakovich titled Anti-Formalist Rayok received its public premiere. Rayok is a single-act satirical opera/cantata for bass soloist and mixed chorus. Each character represents a prominent Soviet political figure: Joseph Stalin, Andrei Zhdanov, and Dmitri Shepilov. The text of the libretto is either taken directly from actual speeches given by these political figures or follows their idiosyncratic style of public speaking.

Of course we are not going to get any of the jokes.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Rameau for violin and guitar

Continuing my series of posts on transcriptions for violin and guitar. This piece by Rameau does not have the ideal texture for transcription for violin and guitar, but it works quite well and it is so very beautiful I make no apologies! The guitar needs to be tuned in low D. It is not hard to play, you just have to know that it is in rondeau form which means that you play (and repeat if you wish) the first section up to the double bar, then you play the first reprise, then repeat the first section again. You then jump to the second reprise and finish by ending with the first section. This can be summarized as A(A)BACA.

There is an absolutely sublime performance by Grigory Sokolov on piano, an encore from a concert in Berlin a few years ago.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

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Plans are being released for a new London Centre for Music and The Guardian has the story. Price tag is 288 million and that's pounds not dollars.
The £288m figure is a large one, although much less than Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie, which opened two years ago. It was originally estimated at €450m (£395m) and ended up costing €866m, most of it public money. Jean Nouvel’s publicly funded concert hall in Paris came in at €390m, three times over budget.
Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the managing director of the Barbican, pointed to the success of both concert halls in creating new demand for music.
“Hamburg’s hall has become a new symbol of that city as Disney Hall did for Los Angeles,” he said. “Think what Tate Modern achieved at the start of the millennium for raising the profile of contemporary visual arts. We can do the same for music in the 21st century.”
I hope to attend some concerts in the hall some day.

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Important news: from Slipped Disc we learn that the flat in St. Petersburg where Shostakovich began composition of his Symphony No. 7 is up for sale for a mere 27 million rubles or about $400,000 US.   Shouldn't it be a museum or something?

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There is a new biography of Chopin by Alan Walker. Terry Teachout talks about it and Chopin generally in Commentary.
Of the well-known composers of the 19th century, Fryderyk Chopin (as his name is spelled in Polish, his native tongue) is the only one whose complete works continue to be played regularly—indeed, without cease. Most of the pianists who had major international careers in the 20th century performed and recorded such staples of his catalogue as the A-flat Polonaise (“Heroic”) and the B-flat Minor Piano Sonata (“Funeral March”). They remain central to the repertoires of the rising generation of virtuosi, just as they have always been beloved by concertgoers. Yet Chopin’s phenomenal popularity was long viewed with suspicion by critics, in part because his compositions, without exception, all make use of the piano; in addition, most of them are solo pieces that are between two and 10 minutes in length. No other important classical composer has worked within so tightly circumscribed a compass.
Much as I like Terry Teachout's writing, he often reveals a smattering of musical ignorance. That first sentence needs correcting. There are quite a few 19th century composers whose (nearly) complete works get played regularly: Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and Franz Schubert to name a couple. And yes, there is at least one other important classical composer who worked within an even more tightly circumscribed compass: Domenico Scarlatti who is known almost exclusively for 555 brief sonatas for harpsichord. The article ends:
The once-conventional critical “wisdom” about Chopin’s music has finally become a thing of the past: He is now recognized as a master for whom no apologies of any kind need be made. And as fine as Alan Walker’s biography is, it is not necessary to read a word of it to know that Chopin was in every way the equal of any of the greatest classical composers who have ever lived. One need only listen—and marvel.
I really hate the casual use of scare quotes, especially around words like "wisdom" (oops). Yes, Chopin is a great composer about whom no apologies need be made, but not, perhaps, quite the equal of those guys who get placed first, second and third: Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. It comes down to a question of range or breadth or something.

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I expect great things, down the road, from students hailing from Pocatello, Idaho. District 25 announces new orchestra plan following parent, student backlash.
After dozens of parents and students voiced concerns about proposed changes to the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 orchestra program during a school board meeting this week, district officials believe they have found a viable solution.
Jan Harwood, the district’s director of secondary education, told the Journal on Wednesday that district officials were able to coordinate scheduling that will allow for certified orchestra instructors to teach all 11 orchestra classes at Pocatello, Century and Highland high schools and at the district’s four middle schools during regular class hours every day of the week and all school year long.
Yahoo, and, how the heck did they manage that?
“After much discussion and schedule shuffling, we did it,” Harwood wrote in an Wednesday email distributed to all parents of students currently enrolled in the district’s orchestra program. “All 11 (daily) sections of orchestra will be taught by a certified orchestra teacher. High school students will have the opportunity to take orchestra in their high school each trimester without the need for travel.
“Ultimately, our orchestra program will grow from elementary to middle school to high school with a clear pathway to the Idaho State-Civic Symphony.”
Well, what I meant was, how the heck can you afford it? But no figures are mentioned in the article. Most school districts seem to cry lack of funding when it comes to competent musical instruction. But they always seem to have a big budget for administrative assistants, diversity counselors, and a host of other nebulous niches.

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Something Alex Ross does pretty well is keeping us abreast of what contemporary American composers are up to. His last is about two festivals of new opera: Psychotic Opera at the Prototype Festival.
In early January in New York, two festivals of new opera, music theatre, and multimedia events—the Prototype Festival, which has been running since 2013, and the Ferus Festival, which began in 2010—dismantled preconceptions of what opera is and does. In a Prototype event at the lower-Manhattan art space here, the downtown performance artist Joseph Keckler mixed operatic singing and oblique standup comedy in a one-man show called “Train with No Midnight.” At Ferus, which unfolds at National Sawdust, in Brooklyn, the composer Angélica Negrón showed scenes from “Chimera,” a work in progress about drag queens, featuring Alexis Michelle and the eleven-year-old performer Desmond Is Amazing.
Prototype likes shows with hot-button relevance, which can be exhausting: opera doesn’t always have to be dire. But there was no denying the sledgehammer power of Philip Venables’s “4.48 Psychosis,” which was presented at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, under Prototype’s aegis. This is an adaptation of the play of the same name by the British dramatist Sarah Kane, who committed suicide in 1999, shortly after completing it.
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We need a couple of envois today as well. Skipping over psychotic opera, let's have some Chopin. This is his Ballade no. 1 in G minor played by Krystian Zimerman:

And, what the heck, how about that Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich? This is Marin Alsop conducting the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra:

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Critic Wars

Anne Midgette at the Washington Post, a classical music critic whom I quite like and who is often linked to in this blog, has a piece up about the virtues of symphonic Star Wars: As a classical music critic, I used to think the ‘Star Wars’ score was beneath me. I was wrong. That headline is another example of humble-bragging or straw-man-creating that is so ubiquitous these days. Sure, John Williams is a hugely successful film music composer, but the success of the music in symphonic programs has perhaps more to do with the fact that audiences crave familiarity than actual inherent quality. Let's let Anne tell it:
I saw “A New Hope” with both the NSO and the BSO in September and found that the experience confirmed something I had started to suspect: As a classical music critic, I was clueless. That is: While I liked John Williams’s music just fine when I first saw the film at age 12, by the time I had attained legal adulthood, laden with a cargo of acquired snobbery about the superiority of Western civilization, I had learned, and bravely parroted, that “film music” was somehow beneath me. And for the next three decades, through all the sequels I didn’t see and the quartet Williams composed for the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, which I did, I continued to use “film music” as a pejorative term that, if looked at closely, probably meant to me something akin to “something which one enjoys, but shouldn’t.”
I detect something of a forced confession here. This is a standard trope these days as all classical critics are supposed to humble themselves and, of course demean the classical traditions of Western civilization. I think you have to sign a disloyalty oath or something. Let's let Anne continue:
This isn’t a reflection on Williams, who is one of the most successful and popular composers of all time. It’s a reflection on me, and a reflection on the notion of the canon that so many classical music lovers unquestioningly embrace. Buying into this hierarchy seemed for years to be an entry-level requirement for the kind of life in the arts I hoped to live: initially as a Serious Writer With Intellectual Pretensions; later as a classical music critic. Film music, and populism, were easy targets. It has taken me half a lifetime to fully realize what most people knew at the first hearing: Good means good, effective means effective. Given that I’ve always made a point of embracing the best of popular fiction — Rex Stout and StephenKing and John le Carré — why was I so closed to the best of popular music, including a score that always had me, and everyone else, humming along?
It’s not that I had a conversion experience only this September. I first started to realize the merits of the Williams score when the BSO programmed Williams alongside Philip Glass, and I realized that Williams held up just fine.
 More straw-man stuff. The phrase "notion of the canon" is already assuming the conclusion as does the subsequent phrase "that so many classical music lovers unquestioningly embrace." I can assure you that, as a matter of course, I question the quality of all the music I listen to! "Buying into this hierarchy" is another phrase making a foregone conclusion. Wouldn't it be nice if someone actually argued their point instead of just assuming it?

I had to chuckle at the Philip Glass comparison. Oh yes, Williams does hold up just fine alongside Glass. They are both very effective and rather thin musically. The truth is, if we wanted to actually pretend to be music critics for a moment, that John Williams is an enthusiastic looter of every striking orchestral effect used in the last hundred years from Rimsky-Korsakov to Gustav Holst, from Berlioz to Mahler, if there is a good trick, he has likely used it. Oh, I forgot Tchaikovsky. Sure this is good music but while effective it is also deeply, dare I say, derivative, which is why we enjoy it as a soundtrack but likely don't want to put it in the same category as some really great orchestral music by, you know, Rimsky-Korsakov, Gustav Holst, Berlioz, Mahler and Tchaikovsky who actually came up with these ideas and devices in the first place. See what I mean?

We need envois by Williams and some of his mentors. Here is a suite from Star Wars:

Here is a little Holst:

And a little Rimsky-Korsakov:

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The General and the Specific

No idea what tags to use for this one! I was thinking about composition and about something that has bothered me for many years that I had trouble clarifying in my mind. Part of the idea comes from something a musicologist said in a doctoral seminar years ago. The seminar was on DuFay and we had been talking about some of the details of his employment by the church and the professor said, "as musicologists we are interested in the details." Another class on another occasion, theory this time, and the professor averred that theory was something like composition in reverse: what we were trying to do was "reverse-engineer" a piece of music to see how it was put together so that you could use what you discovered to write a piece of your own. On a fairly basic level, that has some truth to it, but on another level it is impossible. Imagine you are trying to reverse-engineer a sonata movement by Haydn. Every movement you look at is going to be put together differently in significant ways.

Ok, that's a couple of things that relate to what I am going to talk about. A third is something that goes on in my mind when I am thinking about composing. Sometimes I just have a very general idea like: "the climax of this piece should be a section that progressively saturates the rhythmic and harmonic space." Good idea, right? Actually, not, because it is too general. Most climaxes saturate the rhythmic and harmonic space to some degree, so this idea doesn't actually get you very far.

So, the general and the specific. Now that I think about it, this might also relate, distantly, to Plato's theory of the Forms.
The theory of Forms or theory of Ideas[1][2][3] is a philosophical theory, concept, or world-view, attributed to Plato, that the physical world is not as real or true as eternal, absolute, unchangeable ideas.[4] According to this theory, ideas in this sense, often capitalized and translated as "Ideas" or "Forms",[5] are the non-physical essences of all things, of which objects and matter in the physical world are merely imitations. Plato speaks of these entities only through the characters (primarily Socrates) of his dialogues who sometimes suggest that these Forms are the only objects of study that can provide knowledge. The theory itself is contested from within Plato's dialogues, and it is a general point of controversy in philosophy. Whether the theory represents Plato's own views is held in doubt by modern scholarship.[6] However, the theory is considered a classical solution to the problem of universals.
The problem of universals might be described as being about what we mean by certain terms. For examples, there are lots of objects we describe as being "chairs":

What makes them all "chairs"?  They are made of different materials and have different shapes. Their functions are even a bit different. We might say that what they share is "chairness" or the form of the Chair. For Plato, this Form has a reality of its own on a transcendent plane and everyday chairs are chairs because they metaphysically share in this "chairness." Aristotle had a slightly different take on it: the idea of a chair is in the mind of the builder and constitutes the "formal cause" of the physical chair. There are other theories, of course, that philosophers like to bat around.

Getting back to music (whew!), my point is that value in music is closely related to specificity. Another thing that prompted this thought is a musical neighbor that I have heard several times recently. He seems to only know two chords and spends hours simply going back and forth between them while improvising singing or synthesizer tracks on top. It is rather annoying and part of the reason is that this kind of thing is generic, not specific. The generic, the general, the abstract is, I propose, the enemy of creativity and aesthetic quality. Those pieces that we particularly enjoy and praise are very particular pieces. They have specific qualities that they do not share with other pieces. This is true, I believe of paintings, sculptures, drama and dance as well as music. Our intellectual faculty is always looking to generalize and abstract to arrive at some higher truth. But in art, certainly music, that "higher truth" is specific, not general. Every good piece of music that I can think of has a unique character that sets it apart from every other piece of music. Pieces of music that sound vaguely like other pieces of music are not highly valued aesthetically.

At this point you could certainly make an opposing argument. Lots and lots of popular music sounds vaguely alike, in fact it is intentionally made so. Lots of people highly value popular music, by definition, therefore my argument is invalid. Well, maybe. I tend to think that popular music has a superficial, immediate charm that fades rather quickly. Those songs that become popular "classics" tend to have just those kind of unique qualities that I have been talking about. Generic pop tends to fade pretty quickly.

So when you are trying to compose a good piece, you are always looking for the specific, not the general. What I find really remarkable is how composers so often manage to take something that seems at first to be rather general, and turn it into something specific and distinctive. A powerful example is the Art of Fugue by Bach, the whole of which is based on a very simple, almost generic, subject:

D minor triad outlined, C# leading tone, movement by step to third, descent by step from 4th to tonic.  That's it. Every subsequent fugue is based on a variation of this simple subject.

People sometimes talk about how art is about the imposition of order on chaos. In music at least, it is also about finding the unique and specific in the general and abstract. It is about creating or discovering individuality.

Let's listen to the Art of Fugue. This is Grigory Sokolov in a live concert in Leningrad around 1980:

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Debussy for violin and guitar

This is another in my series of posts of transcriptions I have made for violin and guitar. The inspiration for these was the desire to have something to play with my violinist friend. We found the usual repertoire of Giuliani et al to pall rather quickly and she begged me not to make her learn the Paganini sonatas (though we have played a lovely little piece by Paganini that is not so technically difficult). So I started transcribing what I thought might work on violin and guitar. The two Shostakovich preludes I put up recently certainly qualify as does the piece I am putting up today, one of my favourite Debussy preludes "Des pas sur la neige" which translates as "Footsteps in the snow." this is from his first book of preludes for piano. Here is the transcription. Again, there is no fingering for either instrument. I have made as few changes as possible from the original. The guitarist will have to work out the fingerings for some passages as the harmonies get rather complex!

The score poses a couple of interesting philosophical questions as well. I am largely of the school of thought that instrumental music does not express garden variety emotions as such, but rather moods and atmosphere. But Debussy certainly challenges that with this piece. An integral part of the score are the textual expressive indications, one of which we run into at the very beginning. The tempo indication is not too bad: "triste et lent" which means "sad and slow" but what are we to make of the instruction for the accompaniment: "Ce rhythme doit avoir la valeur sonore d'un fond de paysage triste et glace"? "This rhythm needs to have the sonic value of a deep countryside sad and frozen"? Uh, ok, how does that effect how you are going to play this rather subtle rhythm? Whatever I am going to do with that rhythm likely can't be put into words, so how do the words Debussy wrote influence how we play? Good philosophical question which I do not have the slightest intention of answering in this post. The "sad" part can be expressed with a dragging or lethargic treatment, but the frozen? There is also a challenging instruction for the violin on page two where it says a melody should be played "Comme un tendre et triste regret." Again, the sad should be possible, but the tender regret? What I suspect performers do is to read the instruction and try the melody in different ways until it feels a bit like the text suggests.

In any case, this is an absolutely lovely piece and it works very well indeed on violin and guitar. Try it out and let me know what you think! Here is a performance on piano.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

Here is a photo of the inside of a cello. An old cello, because if you look closely you might see that some vellum or parchment has been used to strengthen the central seam:

Click to enlarge
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An article in the Montreal Gazette celebrates the long and devoted career of music critic Claude Gingras who wrote for La Presse, the largest French-language daily in Montreal.
For many years, press conferences in Montreal on subjects related to classical music took place in the afternoon. This was possibly for a few practical reasons, but above all because Claude Gingras, whose first story in La Presse appeared in 1953, would not attend such events in the morning. There was little sense in provoking the ire of the best-read classical critic in the city, and no sense in disseminating information that would not appear the following day under his magnetic byline. 
Many readers thought that certain performers had a harder time of it in a Gingras review, but he never betrayed his perceptions. “Has Pinchas Zukerman decided to become a decent musician?” he asked in a strongly positive 2014 assessment of a concert by a musician who had not formerly fared so well. (Something tells me this is one rave that did not make it to Zukerman’s press kit.)
I can recall reading an enormous review of an organ recital that must have been 2,000 words at least...

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From CNN comes this report: Toto's 'Africa' to play 'for eternity' in Namibia desert.
Toto's "Africa" has come home, so to speak, thanks to an installation by an artist who plans to play the song on loop in a Namibian desert -- for eternity.
German-Namibian artist Max Siedentopf has set up the sound installation, called "Toto Forever," in an undisclosed location in the 1,200 mile-long Namib Desert.
The blog where I saw this item labeled it. "WHAT CRUEL NEW COLONIALISM IS THIS?" which seems about right.

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This is something we all wish did NOT happen during a performance. Steven Isserlis has a string break during a pizzicato passage:

That has never happened to me, but it nearly did. At the Shaw Festival in Canada one summer I was asked to play something at an after-hours gathering for the actors. Just as I was being introduced I opened my case to discover that my fourth string had snapped at the bridge! I had an old set in the case for just such emergencies and quickly slapped another 4th on. The show must go on.

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The Salzburg Festival calendar is up for this summer's festival and three of my favorite pianists are scheduled: Igor Levit, Grigory Sokolov and Khatia Buniatishvili. This year I am going to try extra hard to get there!

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Last year was the 100th anniversary of the death of Claude Debussy and among other events, there was an interesting book published by Stephen Walsh. I think we already linked to a review of it, but there is a new and interesting article on the book and Debussy: Debussy’s Radical Search for Simplicity.
As Stephen Walsh shows in Debussy: A Painter in Sound—published in 2018, 100 years after the composer’s death—Debussy craved this simplicity and directness, but he had trouble finding it in his own musical milieu. He admired older French music—its “clarity of expression, that precision and compactness of form”—but felt it had been corrupted by German influences. French color, lightness, and concision were at odds with the drama, severity, and burdensome forms of Bach, Beethoven, and, most recently, Richard Wagner.
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The New York Times has an article on the violin makers of Cremona:
Florencia Rastelli was mortified. As an expert barista, she had never spilled a single cup of coffee, she said. But last Monday, as she wiped the counter at Chiave di Bacco, the cafe where she works, she knocked over a glass and it shattered loudly on the floor.
The customers all stood still, petrified, Ms. Rastelli recalled. “I was like: Of all days, this one,” she said. “Even a police officer popped in and asked me to keep it down. I was so embarrassed.”
The people of Cremona are unusually sensitive to noise right now. The police have cordoned off streets in the usually bustling city center and traffic has been diverted. During a recent news conference, the city’s mayor, Gianluca Galimberti, implored Cremona’s citizens to avoid any sudden and unnecessary sounds.
Typically as journalism goes, they get a lot wrong. The article is titled: "To Save the Sound of a Stradivarius, a Whole City Must Keep Quiet" which gives entirely the wrong impression. The article conflates two quite different things: the need for quiet around the violin museum where they are doing high quality recordings of the violins for posterity, and the fragility of the instruments themselves. No, a barista dropping a glass is not going to damage a fragile, old violin! Here is another semi-truth:
A Stradivarius violin, viola or cello represents the pinnacle of sound engineering, and nobody has been able to replicate their unique tones.
Well, sure, every wooden instrument is unique because every piece of wood is unique and the 17th and 18th century Italian builders both perfected the design of the violin and made some of the finest instruments every built, which is why so many violinists play them today. The violinist I recently recorded with plays an Italian instrument from the 1680s. But there are other great violin builders more recently that also build wonderful instruments. Hilary Hahn, for example, plays a 19th century French instrument.

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Let's finish with some good news/bad news. Italian cellist Franceso Raspaolo was fined 50 Euros for traveling on the train with his cello! Slipped Disc has the story. And the good news? When I was booking my ticket to Toronto for my recording sessions in December the travel agent promised me that I could take my guitar on board and stow it in the overhead compartments as it was within the size restrictions of the airline (Aeromexico). I was extremely dubious based on many negative experiences with Canadian airlines. But they were absolutely correct and I carried my guitar onboard and stowed it in the overhead on both flights. I recommend business class as I don't know what would happen if you were seated in coach and there simply was no room in the overhead. Your instrument might get bumped to cargo at the last minute...

* * *

For our envoi today let's hear Hilary Hahn on her 19th century French violin which sounds pretty good even if it is not a Stradivarius. This is the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor with Paavo Jarvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra:

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Symphonic Outreach

I can't begin to count the number of articles I have read about symphonic outreach--that is, the frequently proffered advice to orchestras and classical musicians generally that they have to get out there in the community and build a new audience by somehow connecting with them in their environment. Anne Midgette talks about how one recent effort went in the Washington Post:
How do you reach people who are new to classical music and make them want to come back? One answer is to give them the very best you can and hope something sticks, and that, Noseda is doing to the utmost. Orchestras across the country are experimenting with this kind of outreach program, but you don’t always see your marquee music director leading the concerts. Noseda, however, who was introduced to NSO in Your Neighborhood when he was announced as the music director three years ago, has taken it seriously, carving out time for this school performance, and offering heartfelt spoken comments between the pieces.
Well, that's what you are supposed to do, right?
Yet the connection isn’t quite there. Noseda himself, an Italian who lives largely in hotels, can’t be expected to gauge the context in which these kids live. He assumes they’ve seen “Mozart in the Jungle,” because he’s heard it’s a TV show; he assumes they’ve watched the Golden Globe Awards. A-plus for the effort to establish cultural relevancy, but as well-meaning and informative as his comments are, he isn’t telling these students why they should care about the roster of unfamiliar European male composers being thrown at them.
The article continues with some further examples:
Connecting with people isn’t rocket science, but it’s an area in which classical music consistently struggles. One of the most famous illustrations of failed outreach was Joshua Bell’s infamous 2007 performance in the Washington Metro during the morning rush hour, during which almost no one stopped to listen to the famous violinist. In the wake of that controversial performance, one busker said something that stuck with me: Musicians who regularly play on the street, from violinists to singers to trash-can drummers, learn how to connect with passersby in such a way that this doesn’t happen. Classical musicians aren’t usually trained to establish this kind of rapport, and even a born communicator like Noseda can’t do it single-handedly. 
You should read the whole piece. She goes on to talk about how the project is sometimes approached:
Outreach risks taking on a missionary, self-satisfied glow, getting caught up in the innate value of sharing such great music with those who have not been privileged to have been exposed to it. Lurking within this well-meaning construct is the toxic view of music as a kind of largesse: the idea that this music is better than the music you already like. The school concert, with all the best intentions, to some degree demonstrated that if classical music is offered in its own bubble, without context, it has little chance of really connecting with new audiences — though, as some observed before the school show, if even one student leaves with new ideas in her head, the attempt will have been worth it.
I have had a lot of experience as a bassist in a rock band, as a classical music soloist and even as a busker (one memorable summer in Italy) so I can make a few observations. First up, do not do this as a kind of virtue-signalling in a "missionary, self-satisfied glow." Virtue-signalling is virtually always a very bad idea as it is inherently condescending. Second, most people are not going to be attracted to classical music for a variety of reasons so don't try and force-feed them something they won't like. Offer them the option of attending the performance, but don't make it mandatory. That way you won't have to drag a student out, kicking and screaming. One thing I learned busking in Italy is that there are some pieces that just draw an audience to which a lot more people will come to see what is so attractive. I'm not sure that program was ideal for that audience (the one described at the beginning of the article). Third, you can't market or promote classical music as if it were frozen fish sticks or pop music. It is what it is: a highly developed art from with a long history and immense subtlety. There are some people who will find that very attractive and fascinating. Most won't. So if you try and force classical music on people you will just make it look like something that, well, has to be forced on people. I really can't think of a more uncool approach, can you?

Die Fledermaus overture would seem to be the right envoi:

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Another Transcription

This is another transcription of one of the preludes from the set of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, op 87 for piano written in 1951 by Shostakovich. This is the F# minor prelude, a brisk little romp that makes for an excellent duet. Again, I originally made the transcription for viola and guitar and later modified it for violin and guitar, but neglected to change the name of the upper staff. Also, there are no fingerings, but they are quite obvious. If you get a chance to read through this and the other transcription, please let me know what you think!


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Vive la différence!

No, that's not a sexist remark, au contraire. I have just been reading an interesting piece on modernism and the history of the novel: Was Modernism Meant to Keep the Working Classes Out? This item is just a brief blurb about a scholarly book by Jonathan Rose titled Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes published by Yale which I have not yet read. But the blurb has a couple of intriguing quotes:
The intelligentsia was driven to create literary modernism by a profound loathing of ordinary common readers. The intellectuals feared the masses not because they were illiterate but because, by the early twentieth century, they were becoming more literate, thanks to public education, adult education, scholarships, and cheap editions of the great books. 
If more and more working people were reading the classics, if they were closing the cultural gap between themselves and the middle classes, how could intellectuals preserve their elite status as arbiters of taste and custodians of rare knowledge? They had to create a new body of modernist literature which was deliberately made so difficult and obscure that the average reader did not understand it.
The difference that I am citing is between the history of modernism in literature as opposed to the history of modernism in music. While we can certainly find suggestions of the dislike of the common listener in music, Arnold Schoenberg's creation of a concert society specifically designed to not appeal to the usual listeners, for example, with many other composers like his student Alban Berg or his rival Igor Stravinsky, we find the situation quite different and much more complex. Why is this? Or, if you disagree, how do you see it being similar? What about the fine arts? Paul Johnson, in his book that I keep citing, describes one trend in art in the 20th century as "fashion art" meaning art that was designed to be instantly eye-catching and to become obsolete after a season or two, hence the numerous "periods" in Picasso and the multiple varieties of cubism and abstraction.

Architecture, which is covered quite well in Johnson's book, seems to have quite a different dynamic in its recent history. The problem with that book is that, while it expresses a lot of fresh and provocative opinions (one of my favorites is his dismissal of Francis Bacon as being unable to draw, therefore also unable to paint), it doesn't flesh out the arguments and suffers from some poor editing. What I would really like to see is an in-depth discussion of how the history of the arts, visual, literary, musical, theatrical, dance and so on, differs and why this is so. Not sure who could write such a book, but I will start looking for it. If my readers know of such, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, I might have to take a stab it it myself!

The financial aspect is often telling, so I might put up a post on the financial incentives in the visual arts as opposed to the world of music. As an envoi, let's listen to two very different pieces of twentieth century music that are both, in their own way, very popular, i.e. not written out of a "profound loathing of ordinary common [listeners]". The first, "A Day in the Life" by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, is from 1967:

The second is the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich from 1937:

My Transcriptions for Violin and Guitar

Some of the most important inspirations for me are other musicians. The people I play music with fairly regularly tend to get me interested in composing music for them. When I was doing a lot of concerts with a flute-player I wrote a couple of pieces for flute and guitar. Recently I have written several pieces with violin because of a friend and collaborator who is a violinist.

As the guitar repertoire is limited compared to, say, the piano or harpsichord, I also find myself occasionally transcribing music originally written for other instruments for flute and guitar or violin and guitar. I also have transcribed some songs for voice and guitar. Last weekend my violinist got together and played through a bunch of music including several of my transcriptions. It occurred to me that they do fill in some gaps in the repertoire so I thought I might share some of them with you as I have no plans to publish them at this time.

These are pretty straightforward transcriptions and they don't include fingering for the guitar as I didn't take the time to put that into the score. I just penciled in some fingerings as needed so you will have to do the same. I do think these pieces are worth the trouble, though. Let's start with a prelude by Shostakovich featuring his favorite interval, the diminished fourth. This is from his set of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, op 87 for piano written in 1951. In July 1950 Shostakovich was in Leipzig for the two-hundredth anniversary celebrations of the death of J. S. Bach where he served on the jury for the First International Bach Competition. Hearing so much Bach and in particular preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier inspired him to write his own complete set in all the keys. By February 1951 the cycle was complete.

Here is the transcription which I see I did ten years ago. Oops, I see that it indicates that the instruments are viola and guitar, not violin and guitar! That is because I originally did the transcription for viola and later changed to violin as you can see from the treble clef. I forgot to change the name of the instrument.

The original has a metronome mark of 100 instead of 80. Not sure why I changed it, but it might just be because it sounded better a bit slower on violin and guitar. In any case, we have played this quite a few times in small venues and it seems to work quite well. Next time I will put up the F# minor prelude which is a lot of fun.

UPDATE: I also see that I forgot to indicate that the guitar should be tuned in low D.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Guilt by Association

I have mentioned in a few posts the peculiar argument against classical music launched by, among others, Alex Ross at The New Yorker. Classical music has an indelible stain because it was enjoyed by the Nazis. I can't seem to find my post that is the best example of this, but I took up the issue of the Moral Quality of Music in a related post. I just ran into an interesting comment in Paul Johnson's Art: A New History that beautifully puts it into context:
What can be said is that the Nazi campaign against so-called degenerate art was the best things that could possibly have happened, in the long term, to the Modern Movement. Since the Nazis, universally reviled by all governments and cultural establishments since 1945, tried to destroy and suppress such art completely, then its merits were self-evident morally, for the familiar if illogical reason that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'. [op. cit. p. 709]
So we have a long-standing association between, on the one hand, classical music and moral monstrosities like Hannibal Lector, shown listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations:

This is from the recent television series, not the movie, but the movie has exactly the same kind of scene. In both cases we are also shown images typical of high culture. In the movie, the camera pans over a well-executed drawing, in the clip above, over a meticulously arranged still life of fruit, both signifiers of high art.

Flipping the associations, this means that the art the Nazis condemned as degenerate, Entartete Kunst in German, shown in a large exhibition in Munich in 1937, which included works by Kandinsky, Chagall, Munch, Gauguin and Matisse among others, must be, again by association, great art of high moral quality. The Nazis also abhorred what they called degenerate music by people like Schoenberg, Kurt Weil, Paul Hindemith and Alban Berg among others. Since the 1990s there has been a cottage industry surrounding composers suppressed by the Nazis based on the same idea that we might call "innocence by association". Hey, if the Nazis hated it, it must be good.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

This is almost as cruel as the cartoon I once saw depicting a thuggish looking bruiser holding a sign saying "Kill the street musician of your choice: $5."

* * *

The Internet is cursed with cat videos and lists, but this one is a bit more interesting than most: 10 Times Musicians Were Banned From Playing In Certain Countries.
Frank Sinatra played a string of music performances in Mexico during the early 1960s. However, with no small degree of irony, he was banned from entering the country in 1966. In other words, he could no longer play South of the Border.Sinatra starred alongside Deborah Kerr in the 1965 film Marriage on the Rocks, in which the lead married couple get divorced by mistake in Mexico. The film was perceived by the Mexican government as offensive because the country was displayed as a place people could get “quickie” marriages and divorces. Marriage on the Rocks was also deemed offensive for its portrayal of Mexican officials, which was viewed as detrimental to Mexico’s “national dignity.”The film was promptly banned in Mexico, and even Sinatra’s songs were pulled from the Mexican airwaves. However, the Mexican government took it one step further and actually barred Sinatra from entering the country.
* * *

The Guardian has an article on an adventurous music festival that combines Baroque musicians and contemporary repertoire: Baroque at the Edge.
This weekend-long festival mines a fertile seam, inviting experimentally minded performers to take 17th- or 18th-century music and run with it into the present day. For some this is their stock in trade. Viol player Liam Byrne has inspired many new works for his old instrument; spotlit next to his laptop in LSO St Luke’s, he showcased several in his afternoon concert. Composers included Nico Muhly, Edmund Finnis, Alex Mills, whose Suspensions and Solutions created hulks of sound through different reverb processes, and Samuel Milea, whose Unvoiced examines dementia in the way its phrases move in and out of lucidity. Byrne is an unassuming performer but his glee in the sonic potential of his instrument is infectious; he was mesmerising building up a Tudor consort work line by line, the music changing shape with each addition. His unamplified playing was just as spellbinding, especially in his encore, a gorgeous Vivace by Karl Friedrich Abel.
* * *

Somehow I missed the first list, but here is the second:  10 More Works that have been Dumped from Concerts.
1 Berlioz, Roman carnival overture
2 Honegger 3rd symphony
3 Prokofiev 5th piano concerto
4 D’Indy, Symphony on a French Mountain Air
5 Goldmark violin concerto
6 Henze 7th symphony
7 Birtwistle, Endless Parade
8 Irving Fine, Notturno
9 Kancheli 6th symphony
10 Schnittke, concerto grosso 4.
As always at Slipped Disc, the comments are the most entertaining part. Some of these were barely part of concert repertoire in the first place. But the inclusion of the Prokofiev piano concerto is certainly a mistake.

* * *

Critic Allan Kozinn has a piece about what we might call the new tonality:  Tonal Evolution: Great New Music That Makes Room for Tunes.
It is only natural that the fiercest arguments are engendered by music that sets aside the old rules and looks in new directions: that there are always those who react to avant-gardes of all kinds with suspicion, as either puzzling or fraudulent, even when the music they prefer was once greeted similarly.
But through it all, there have also been composers who stood aside from the aesthetic battles, because they prefer evolution to revolution and cherish what was once thought of as the “common practice,” or musical language rooted in tonality, as it has developed from the 17th century onward. Usually, we hear their music, decide whether it more closely resembles the streamlined style of the Classical or the more broad-boned Romantic approach (or occasionally, earlier styles), and then slap a “neo-” label onto whichever conclusion we’ve reached.
But the best of this music is almost always more than a prefix suggests. Composers of neoclassical and neo-Romantic works may prize aspects of 18th- and 19th-century composition — typically, the structural and syntactical coherence that makes it accessible to listeners who prize such traditional values — but their music invariably embraces contemporary elements that keep it from being mistaken for Mozart or Mahler.
The whole article is well worth reading as it discusses in some detail a plethora of new music.

* * *

 Here is Bachtrack's survey of the statistics for classical music for the past year. Top ten composers:
1. Beethoven
2. Mozart
3. Bernstein
4. Bach
5. Brahms
6. Schubert
7. Tchaikovsky
8. Debussy
9. Schumann
10. Handel
I might do a separate post on some other of their statistics, some of which I am very suspicious of. For example, Grigory Sokolov typically plays some seventy-five recitals in a given year, but he doesn't even make the list of busiest pianists, whereas most of the ones on the list play far fewer concerts. Hilary Hahn is also omitted from the list of busiest violinists! Are they determined to ignore all my favorites?

* * *

The Daily Beast has a piece on the plummeting of enrollment in history at universities: History Majors Are Becoming a Thing of the Past, Except in the Ivy League. This seems to me to imply that being a music major would be a good antidote as college music departments are still unable to ignore the fact that most of the best classical music is, ahem, historical.
According to a new analysis by the American Historical Association, the number of students choosing to major in history at the nation’s colleges has plummeted. Undergraduate history majors have fallen by more than a third in less than a decade, declining to their lowest levels since the ’80s. The evidence indicates that the vanishing history major is not a short-term response to the Great Recession’s lousy job market. If anything, the trend is accelerating. The undergraduate history major seems to be on the way out.
 I suspect that the primary reason for this might be that much of history has to be suppressed because it runs contrary to everything social progressives would have us believe.

* * *

The most egregious entry on the list of works "dumped" from concert programs is the Piano Concerto No. 5 by Prokofiev, which gets a lot of performances. I would love to find a clip of Grigory Sokolov playing this, but one is not available on YouTube. Listen to Sergei Babayan instead:

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

One Year in the Studio, part 5

I don't know how long this series will go on for, but there are a couple of other things I would like to mention about the time I spent in Spain. This was perhaps the most productive year of my life due to concentration and focus. Living in a very plain apartment, devoting all my energies to working with the guitar, developing technique and memorizing repertoire--this was what enabled my transition from, to be honest, rather a hack guitarist, into one who could really play. And this happened over only eight months. A friend of mine, a very fine flautist, once remarked that everyone who is really accomplished on an instrument has, at some point in their lives, sat down and gave it their total attention for an extended period of time.

This is true even though it is not something you would glean from most musicians' biographies. The year, or years, of work is interior rather than exterior so there is not much to say about it. The biographies just focus on the achievements: competitions, premieres, recordings, awards and so on. All these come after the "year in the studio." I think one of the really crucial elements is the lack of distractions. I was in a foreign country where I only knew a few words in the language. At first I had no friends to hang out with, though by the end I got to know many of the other guitarists. Here is a group shot of the guitar community in Alicante taken at the end of the masterclass in August:

Click to enlarge
I am the second from the right, crouching down, and next to me on the far right is my friend Klaus Helminen from Finland. Also in the photo are my Irish roommate and guitarists from Belgium, the Philippines, Peru, France, Mexico, England and the US. There were also several guitarists from Japan, though not seen in this photo.

I mentioned the lack of distractions. I had no telephone, no radio, no television, no Internet (hah, in 1974?!?). I went across the street for breakfast. About the only thing I can recall that I spent much time on other than practicing was reading Russian novels. I said before that there wasn't much of a concert scene in Alicante. This is not quite true. There were only a couple of concert halls, but in one of them there was a quite respectable concert series. How respectable? I don't remember all the artists that played that year, but they included Arthur Rubinstein, Paul Tortellier and others of that stratospheric level. So it was also in that year that I likely had my first exposure to really great musicians in a live performance.

I said I was a hack guitarist when I arrived. Maybe I should say I was unformed. But the intensive work I did in Spain put me in a quite different category. After I returned to Canada I went back to work at the Ministry of Education in British Columbia for the winter. I had met Michael Strutt, student of Julian Bream, in Alicante as he came for the masterclass in August. He was a very fine guitarist, he came second in the competition only beaten by a Japanese guitarist who had been there for a couple of years. Michael was on the faculty at McGill University in Quebec so when it came time to take the next step, which I had decided was to finish my degree at university, I decided to apply to McGill. Then, as now, McGill is possibly the finest music school in Canada with an enrollment of around 800 students. When I auditioned, Michael took me aside afterwards and said, "that was like night and day!" What he meant was that my audition was of a very high level. In fact, I was the leading guitarist at McGill for the three years I was there. Michael wrote me a letter of recommendation at the end of my time there that said that I had given more concerts than any other guitarist in the history of the department.

I had a great time in my three years at McGill and I probably should have stayed longer. I got a good grounding in music theory, ear training, music history, performance practice and chamber music. I sang in a small choir, played an obbligato part in the orchestra for a contemporary piece, played in the Canadian premier of El Cimmaron by Hans Werner Henze, played concertos by Karl Kohaut, Joaquin Rodrigo and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, did solo and duet recordings for the CBC, accompanied madrigals, did obbligato lute parts in Baroque cantatas (on guitar) and so on. McGill gave me a host of performing opportunities along with the chance to learn ensemble skills and how to record. I also took private lessons in composition and wrote my first serious compositions. None of these things would have happened if I hadn't laid a solid groundwork of competence on the instrument. I was amused to read that Eric Clapton did much the same, in his case it was working hard learning blues guitar from listening to a lot of records. He called it "woodshedding!"

For an envoi, here is En los trigales by Joaquin Rodrigo that I first learned in my year in Alicante:

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Truth in Art

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
--John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Keats notwithstanding, the notion of truth in art, or even beauty in art, is often challenged. Keats' poem, and especially the last two lines quoted above, sparked a critical debate as outlined in the Wikipedia article (linked above). While interesting, the debate seems to confine itself to literary matters, which is fair enough, but my first reaction re-reading those lines now is that they obviously relate to Platonic idealism. The Good, the True and the Beautiful are, to philosophers, known as the transcendental properties of being.
The transcendentals are ontologically one and thus they are convertible: e.g., where there is truth, there is beauty and goodness also.
 The idea is that, at the highest level, the level of the Platonic Forms, these transcendental ideals converge into one thing, perhaps this is what Plato had in mind when he spoke of the Form of the Good.

When we come to talk about actual works of art, however, the idea of "truth" in art is sometimes described in terms of truth to nature. A good artist might be striving to capture the effects of light on a seascape or the squalor of poverty, or the beauty of the human form or the character of an individual in a portrait. Sometimes these kinds of art are described as "realism" or "social realism" or "naturalism" and we find lots of examples in the late 19th century.

UPDATE: I decided to add a couple of visual examples as well. Here is a very fine watercolor landscape by Thomas Girton, The White House at Chelsea (1800):

The White House at Chelsea, Girton, click to enlarge
An example of truth to nature. And here is a famous example of expressionist truth, The Scream (1893), by Edvard Munch:

The Scream, Munch, click to enlarge

We have something of an equivalent in music in the trend in Italian opera in the same period towards a pared down and "realistic" approach in the sense of depicting events and emotions that were close to the audience's own lives and not as in the impressive and remote German operas of Wagner. In Italian this movement is called verismo ("truthism" in English). The idea was to avoid the traditional virtuosity in favor of a forceful simplicity. The origin of the style was in the writings of Giovanni Verga who wanted to give the impression of an objective narrative where the facts speak for themselves. Of course, the author chooses which facts. The impression of realism was aided by the use of regional dialect, echoed in opera by the use of folk idioms and "local color." For a good discussion, on which I have drawn, see Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 3, Music in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 658 et seq. Criticisms of these operas accused them of being melodramatic and manipulative. Many popular verismo operas like Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci end in brutal crimes of passion. Plainly "truth" in music is no simple matter.

In the early 20th century many composers rejected the kind of crude realism found in some verismo operas in favor of what we might call "truth in expression," what is usually called expressionism in music. As Paul Johnson remarks in his Art: A New History, this rather reverses the process of realism or naturalism where the eye observes closely, the mind processes and the hands deliver the result to the canvas. In expressionism, the mind or soul of the artist forms a mood or image, the hands create the painting and the eyes estimate its accuracy or truth to the original feeling. Musical expressionism is likely the most common theory of musical aesthetics in the public sphere, by which I merely mean that this is probably how most people conceive of it if they ever give it a thought.

But so much music, and particularly highly regarded music, is written in a quite different way. Take who is often the most highly rated of all, J. S. Bach. While his music, the cantatas in particular, contains many passages that are highly expressive, it is more of the universal sorrows of mankind and not Bach's particular inner self. An enormous amount of Bach's music is what you might call "structural" in that it is written in highly elaborated counterpoint. The very popular music of Vivaldi is similarly based on purely musical structures. The very successful contemporary composer Philip Glass' music is similarly written using repetitive musical structures. What is ironic and paradoxical is that attempts at "realism" in music can result in something akin to soap opera or reality television, i.e. something highly unrealistic! On the other hand, music that is more "abstract" can be universally enjoyable even though it seems to make no claims to realism.

The idea of "truth" in music is often associated with the idea of "authenticity" and some years ago the Early Music movement often made claims to "authentic" instruments or ornaments or just performance practice and expression. The reference was to historic authenticity. Richard Taruskin, in a number of papers, made the point of exploding these ideas as being largely mythical.

So what is a composer doing if he is trying to do a good job? There is a kind of aesthetic truth that one is seeking unless you are merely trying to generate another example of a particular genre. If you are just seeking to turn out a typical polka or pop song, then your methods are going to be completely different than if you are trying to make some kind of musical exploration. That is just a metaphor, of course. I like Jordan Peterson's idea that artists are people who venture out from the comfort of the fire to the darkness beyond. That's just a metaphor as well. We are reduced to metaphor because it is the easiest way to try and capture the sense of what artists do.

If you are trying to do something truthful in music (which hopefully converges on the Good and the Beautiful as well) then you are looking for an expression that seems to come from somewhere inside you and not be a mere reflection or echo of something you heard. You are trying to be true to the materials you are using and perhaps trying to choose materials that are themselves truthful in some manner. It is hard to be more specific because every individual piece, choice and expression is, well, individual. Every good piece of music is unique in some way.

There are so many pieces I could choose as examples, hundreds if not thousands, but here are a couple that exemplify for me truthfulness in music. The Quartet in C# minor, op 131 by Beethoven:

The Piano Concerto No. 2 by Prokofiev:

Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg:

All of which are "truth in expression" pieces, but the Well-Tempered Klavier by Bach is equally truthful in a different way: