Sunday, March 31, 2019

Two Symphonic Openings, part 2

The reason that the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius also came to mind when I was reading about the interesting rhythmic aspects of the opening of the Symphony No. 40 by Mozart is that I recollected that there is something odd about the meter there as well. Let's just have a listen first.

Let's pretend we are taking it down in dictation. How would you notate that opening? Some kind of compound duple time, right? Either 6/8 or 6/4. Here are a couple of possibilities:

These are taken from the essay "Meter in the opening of the Second Symphony" by Tapio Kallio published in Sibelius Studies, ed. by Timothy L. Jackson and Veijo Murtomaki, Cambridge University Press, 2001. Tapio Kallio suggests that what we actually hear is the second version. The first version is how Sibelius notates it in the published score. Mr. Kallio offers some interesting evidence for his interpretation taken from the original manuscript held in the Sibelius Museum in Turku. Above is the original version from the manuscript and below is the final version:

Click to enlarge
Sorry about the teeny tiny image. If you click it should be big enough to read. Kallio's example goes on for three more pages, but I think this opening gives us enough to talk about. Essentially, Sibelius moved the opening to later in the measure. What I hear is that in Kallio's hypothetical rebarring, the listener hears the barlines as being where the top of the chord rises from F# to G. It is also natural to hear just one rest instead of several. Notice this, though: in Sibelius' rebarring it is the F# and A that fall on the strong beats and the crescendo is delayed accordingly. Kallio offers some interesting commentary suggesting that the opening could be heard as a 2/2 meter instead of a 6/4 meter. Here is his analysis:

That doesn't look or sound like 2/2 to me, but maybe I'm missing something as he is relating it to the following woodwind theme. But I could certainly hear the opening in 3/2 instead of 6/4, despite the indicated phrase groupings. Actually, I think a lot of performers, myself included, try out different metric groupings when we are learning a piece. It gives you different perspectives and can add to your interpretive understanding. It seems as if what Sibelius is up to with his revised metric notation is to make the character of the opening more ambiguous, more tentative, to create a narrative in which the ambiguity of the opening leads to a later unfolding. Kallio mentions that the horns seem to contradict the meter when they come in.

The paper by Kallio goes into a lot more detail, so please seek it out if you are interested. In the meantime, enjoy the whole symphony. The last movement is a particularly successful symphonic finale in my view!

This is Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. Notice that he beats all the rests of the opening measure!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Two Symphonic Openings

As a child of the 60s I grew up, musically, surrounded by rock n roll and ragas, the Rolling Stones rhythm section and Alla Rakha on tabla. So I had a special interest in rhythm, even more than melody and harmony. The instrument I wanted to start on was the drums, but I got switched onto bass guitar instead. All this is by way mentioning that in recent decades interest in the rhythmic structure of music has grown more and more. Some older theorists, like Heinrich Schenker, tended to diminish the role of the rhythmic structure of music into mere surface activity, having little real importance. It makes one long for a Schenkerian analysis of Drumming by Steve Reich!

I got to thinking along these lines from reading Matthew Riley's recent book The Viennese Minor-Key Symphony in the Age of Haydn and Mozart in which he looks into the rhythmic structures quite thoroughly. The book finishes up with a magnificent discussion of the Symphony No. 40 by Mozart in which he goes a long way to explaining both why this symphony is so compelling but at the same time, so confusing. Here is how he describes the opening of the first movement:
The idea that this opening is a sped-up gavotte that has been overlaid with the breathless repetitions of an aria agitata and then squeezed into the form of the main theme of a fast symphony movement (statement-response presentation) accounts for the sense of something strange in a recognizable guise.
I'm going to have to explain all of that, but you can see that the foundation of the analysis rests on rhythmic character.

All this, in turn, reminds me of another symphonic opening that also has considerable rhythmic sophistication, the beginning of the first movement of the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius. I had a lot of enjoyment a while back looking into all the different ways Sibelius found to end his seven symphonies. In today's post, I won't have any real original research, I am going to just talk about two brilliant analyses of two great symphonic openings.

First, let's listen to the two movements. This is The Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt playing the first movement of the Symphony No. 40 by Mozart:

Here is the first movement of the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius conducted by Charles Mackerras:

What the two openings share is a deceptive or misleading presentation of meter and phrase.

The opening of the Mozart, now that I come to think of it, has always bothered me and it is mostly because of the accompaniment that starts just before the theme. You don't quite know what just happened.

Click to enlarge
It opens with the strings alone, piano, which is itself mysterious. But while the accompaniment starts on the downbeat, the theme begins on the upbeat. While rare, it was not unprecedented for the first movement of a symphony without a slow introduction to begin quietly. Beginning with this sort of accompaniment figure is unusual for a symphony at this time, but again not totally unprecedented. Let's let Riley isolate what is really unusual:
There are three genuinely distinctive aspects of the opening of K. 550/i: topic, accompaniment figuration, and rhythmic and metrical organization. The first is the buffa idiom of the aria agitata. A short rhythmic motive is repeated continually, as though breathlessly, in a way that would support a fast, syllabic text setting. [p. 251]
What he is referring to here is the eighth-note motive in the violins and its resemblance to a typical brisk aria from an opera buffa. It has long been noticed that a good part of the classical style owes a lot to the vivacious sparkle of opera buffa. Follow the link for the Wikipedia article on opera buffa which will give you some context. The innovation of the composers in the classical style was to humanize their instrumental music by giving it the bounce and immediacy of the opera buffa style.

Riley points out that the theme has a lot more motivic repetition than is usual. The basic idea is four measures, what I quoted above from the score. (It begins on an upbeat and goes to the second beat of the fifth measure.) That little E flat to D motive is repeated three times in the presentation phrase (the first two measures). What is unusual here is that buffa allusions are more usual in the subordinate theme, not the main one which is more likely to be in seria style (see the Wikipedia article on opera seria).

Typical of the first movements of minor-key symphonies is a "stormy" kind of texture that Mozart suggests with the busy accompaniment figure in the violas.

The whole presentation of the theme takes eight measures. I quoted the first four above. Here is the whole phrase:

Click both to enlarge
The time signature is alla breve, or with the half note as the beat, but Riley argues, citing the theorist William Caplin, that an eight-bar presentation in Classical period music is typically a standard four-bar presentation with the meter renotated. That makes this opening in 2/1, not 2/2 (for the whole argument, see Classical Form by William E. Caplin, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 35). There is another twist: underlying this surface meter is the rhythm of a gavotte, a formal, aristocratic dance form. Here is how Riley analyses this:

Hypermeter is when you have the "real" meter at a higher level than the notated meter. There are fast movements, for example, in 3/4 time where the actual meter is one beat per bar. The actual felt meter might consist of three or four of these notated measures. This why, by the way, there are instances of compositions that end with a blank measure--it was needed to complete the hypermeter. Looking at the sketch above, we see the 2/1 meter in the bass notes, one per bar. Then, looking at the speculative gavotte rhythm at the top, this clarifies how we should hear that theme. The first little motive is really an "upbeat to an upbeat" as the gavotte itself starts with an upbeat. The first big downbeat here is really the beginning of measure three. The organization of the theme bears this out. Go back and listen to that movement a few times.

I think I will just post this part as it is and leave Sibelius to tomorrow.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

On the 29th of March in 1902 English composer William Walton was born. The Wikipedia article fails to mention an excellent set of pieces for guitar, the Five Bagatelles, written for Julian Bream. They are a finely crafted balance of virtuosic display and lyric expression.

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The Times Literary Supplement has a series called "Grace Notes" that "celebrates pioneering composers and musicians, and assesses the enduring impact of their work." The most recent entry in the series is on Tchaikovsky. That mission statement seems innocuous enough, but current theorists and musicologists are leery of anything that suggests an "evolutionary model" of music history. You know, the kind of thing that looks at composers in terms of early, middle and late works and organizes everything in terms of innovation and influence? This particular essay is a tidy, non-technical survey of Tchaikovsky's music and connects him with the wider culture of the time.
Of course the idea that Tchaikovsky anticipated the experimentalism of the Symbolists and Surrealists runs counter to his conservatism as a person and as an artist, his reverence for the music of eighteenth-century composers, reliance on the number format in his operas, general adherence to the diatonic system, and predilection for German augmented sixth chords. But he embraced these things in order to counter them, or to highlight and enhance them with his own unmistakable signature. In his late works, meters are scrambled and gestures displaced over the registers before fading into nothingness. Lives, Tchaikovsky believed, should have the textures of dreams.
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Over at the Washington Post the reliable music critic Anne Midgette gives us a short course in bel canto.
Every so often, when I’m pontificating about opera, in print or in person, a reader or an editor will ask me, “But what exactly is bel canto?” And I’m brought up short.
The quickest answer is, “It means ‘beautiful singing.’ ” That doesn’t explain much. Yet when I say, “Bel canto denotes the style of Italian opera of the early 19th century, specifically the works of Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini” — well, that gives you the facts, but it still doesn’t really help you. (It doesn’t even let you know how you are most likely to have heard of those three composers, who wrote “The Barber of Seville,” “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Norma,” respectively.) 
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 Also in the Washington Post is one of the clearest examples of cultural appropriation in music: The future of classical music is Chinese.
Seventy-five percent of my students at UCLA are Chinese or Chinese American. Pianists from China, after graduating from the best music schools in Europe and the United States, return home to pass on classical music traditions in their own distinct ways. This musical exchange is exponentially growing. Concert halls may remain empty in our nation’s cities, especially when traditional classical recitals are offered by a non-household name, but in China, playing a Beethoven or Chopin program is not boring or unhip. Chinese audiences are hungry for more.
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Here is a weird little item from Slipped Disc: CRISIS AT CURTIS AS PRACTICE ROOMS ARE SHUT. The Curtis Institute is a unique musical institution that offers the highest quality instruction to a very limited number of students, all of whom are offered full scholarships. I had an ex-girlfriend who was a graduate. After a rash of petty vandalism in the practice rooms the Dean has lowered the boom:
Unfortunately, three more instances of vandalism occurred overnight—a mirror and thermostat lock box being ripped off the wall/damaged and lipstick found on the acoustic paneling in another room. Any purposeful damage to our facilities is disappointing, but what has transpired over the last two weeks—the number of rooms damaged—is abhorrent. All Lenfest Hall practice rooms are now locked. They will remain locked until the person(s) responsible for the damage come forward or I receive credible information concerning who may have done this.
I don't know what to think. I have never heard of this kind of thing. Music students are so dependent on unlimited access to practice rooms that it is hard to envision them vandalizing them. Is it someone from outside? Some sort of nasty personal disagreement? Hard to say. But the response seems rather Draconian. Some of the comments to the Slipped Disc post are interesting...

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Economist Tyler Cowen has a post about how streaming has changed song structures. Here is an interesting bit:
Artistic competition is so fierce nowadays that artists need to constantly release music. One way to do this is to make songs shorter and simpler; another way is to get a producer to make the beat, a singer to make the chorus, and another rapper for the second verse. This leads to Migos member Offset, DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne all appearing on the same 2017 song, “I’m The One.” It also means that fans start to see credits like those from Cardi B’s new album “Invasion of Privacy”. The 13 tracks on the album features 104 total writing credits, meaning 8 people per track. Its single “Be Careful” has 17 alone.
In most areas of the economy, fierce competition leads to significant benefits to consumers. But I have my doubts about music. Competition is good in the abstract, but it seems as if it is leading to generic, industrialized production by committee and that is not going to produce anything of high aesthetic quality. What do you think?

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For our envoi today here are the Five Bagatelles by William Walton played very well by Sanel Redzik. The world is full of fine guitarists I have never heard of before!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The War of the Aesthetics

Via fellow music-blogger Wenatchee the Hatchet I discover this essay: Why “The Great Music” Is as Important as “The Great Books.” Now I want to be basically supportive of this point of view. I think that every member of Western Civilization should have a nodding acquaintance with the Iliad and the Odyssey, Dante and Shakespeare and if they know those works then they should also know some Gregorian Chant, Renaissance madrigals and some symphonies, string quartets and operas. I don't think that replacing this sort of encounter, even if superficial, with an account of history that attributes all evil to colonialism and white oppressors is terribly good for the social fabric.
One often hears a false claim: Today’s popular music is “more emotional,” some say, while traditional music is “less emotional.” In reality, the emotions evoked in today’s popular music are more crude and monotonous. The emotions elicited by the music of Palestrina, Bach, or Mozart, being more intellectual, are actually more profound and pure—therefore, more variegated, subtle, and rich. There is no expression of joy or sorrow as profound as what you find in Victoria’s Passiontide motets, Bach’s cantatas, Mozart’s piano concertos, or Beethoven’s string quartets. Intellectual pleasures are the highest pleasures, as Aristotle notes, but awareness of them requires a certain process of maturation, which must be accompanied by a purifying of the passions. Nevertheless, the final result of this journey is the ability to experience passions that are more subtle, more all-encompassing, more fully what passions are supposed to be. In that sense, the best music is also the most emotionally satisfying.
So the defence of classical music is linked to a critique of popular music and therein lies the problem. Wenatchee the Hatchet makes the point:
This is, as we see, a more traditionalist Catholic approach.  There's variants on this theme about emotional resonance and real vs. fabricated emotion in pop vs. art music.  The idea is, roughly, that the profound and distilled and purified emotions of musical art convey spiritual content that is not in the vulgar music of the street.  I suppose if we want to go all the way back to affect as a musical theory (not the more recent theory, to be clear) then we can say that music is a kind of artful caricature of emotions that we could not expect to feel in real life.  That's the short of a Roger Scruton style explanation of what the emotional content of art music can do.  
I mean ... I'm not completely unsympathetic to aspects of this traditional polemic.
But the assumption that the emotions expressed in art music are more profound and pure depends, as even the author quoted above went on to note, upon a slow and steep learning curve.
Wenatchee goes on to quote Hindemith and concludes:
Music that expands or develops or whatever-it-does more quickly or with more complexity than listeners can understand will, quite possibly, fail to evoke "pure" or "profound" emotions because the recipient/listener does not have the education and accumulation of listening conventions with which to judge what is heard or to be moved by it.  Elsewhere Hindemith wrote that the very idea that music evokes emotion is a misunderstanding, if by "evokes emotion" people mean that there is some kind of one-to-one, direct correspondence between what the composer sets to page which the musician(s) play and to which listeners listen and thereby receive the great potent wave of the emotional experience of the composer.
Yes! This is a big part of the problem. Aesthetic objects are experienced differently by different people. While there is certainly an argument to be made, and I have made it here and there, that there is such a think as objective aesthetic quality, this quality is not necessarily experienced by everyone in the same way. Musical works are not mere jugs of emotion like bottles of wine are jugs of flavored alcohol. A musical work, as we are constantly talking about here, has a unique aesthetic personality, a particular approach to expressive techniques and structural devices. Much like the personality of an individual human being, it will be regarded and appreciated differently by different people. The most we might expect is a kind of vague, general acknowledgement by people with adequate exposure that, yes, those quartets and piano sonatas by Beethoven are pretty good stuff and worth listening to a number of times.

But there does not need to be trailing after these sorts of claims, like a smelly fisherman's net, the further claim that popular music only expresses "vulgar" or "crude" emotions. That would require an entirely different kind of argument with a different intellectual toolbox. This is an example of how the first essay goes astray:
A sign of the difference can be seen by comparing real dancing with the aerobic flailing that passes for dancing in the youth anti-culture—a difference traceable to the styles of music that accompany these activities. The Baroque gavotte, the classical minuet, even a Strauss waltz, are embodiments of order, pattern, symmetry, and gracefulness, examples of disciplined motion that is more human, more social, and more aesthetically pleasing than individualistic gyrating. Which of these exercises is more truly dancing? Ballet, when all is said and done, is more beautiful, requires more strength, exhibits more fully the inner potentiality of man and woman, than rock or pop “dancing.” Being a more rational and more unified activity, it is more fully the perfection of the activity itself and of the human person who performs it. Needless to say, we can learn a lot about the nature of music itself by observing the human excellences or abominations to which it gives rise.
This is the kind of argument that people with not much acquaintance with popular music might just nod their heads at without thinking about it too much. But if you have watched a few music videos you might have noticed that the professional dancers in those videos are often doing things that are complex and demanding even while they might be, at the same time, lewd and suggestive. The problem with this kind of argument, the musical version as well, is that it is setting up a straw man. Look at those people flailing around at the local rave. Now compare them to classical ballet. You bet they are wildly different. But compare, say, a ballet performance of Stravinsky with a tightly choreographed video by Beyoncé and they will likely both look like well-organized aesthetic objects. And I doubt the Stravinsky would be seen as more pure--not the Rite of Spring, certainly. You really have to be careful when making an argument that you are not just comparing apples and oranges and saying, "see, the apples are much shinier!"

The aesthetics of popular music are quite complex, not least because of the need to consider the function of different subgenres, the economic aspect and issues of medium and reception. Go ahead and criticize popular music if you want, but do it as a separate argument, don't just tack it onto your praise of classical music.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Musical Satire

As someone who has an overdeveloped sense of humor, I take particular notice of humor and satire in music. Wikipedia avers:
Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.
There are some famous examples in music. One of the best sources for humor in music is Haydn, but he really didn't do satire as such. But we do find excellent examples in Shostakovich and I just ran across one in François Couperin. Sometimes musical satire is purely instrumental, with no accompanying text to alert us. A good example is the Polka from the ballet The Golden Age that was written in 1930. Wikipedia summarizers the plot:
The ballet is a satirical take on the political and cultural change in 1920s' Europe. It follows a Soviet football (soccer) team in a Western city where they come into contact with many politically incorrect bad characters such as the Diva, the Fascist, the Agent Provocateur, the Negro and others. The team falls victim to match rigging, police harassment, and unjust imprisonment by the evil bourgeoisie. The team is freed from jail when the local workers overthrow their capitalist overlords. The ballet ends with a dance of solidarity between the workers and the football team.
In the early days life in the Soviet Union was more fun than later on... Here is a performance by the New Russian Quartet:

My second example is by François Couperin, from the Second Livre de pièces de clavecin, Onzième Ordre. The title is Les Fastes de la grande et ancienne Mxnxstrxndxsx ("The Splendors of the Great and Ancient Minstrelsy"). The unpronounceable last word is Couperin's satirical rendering of the name of the Parisian guild of minstrels, the Confrérie de St. Julien-des-Ménétriers, or the last part at least. A lot of Couperin's titles seem like private jokes, but we can find out part of the back story for this one:
In Couperin's time, there was a running controversy over the authority of the minstrelsy and the musicians of the royal court and the churches. He depicts his view of the guild in a delightful little suite, a drama in five acts. His titles and notations in the score tell the tale.
From this website where we also have a listing of the parts of the piece--a harpsichord piece in the form of a five-act play:
Premier Acte. Les Notables, et Jurés-Ménéstrandeurs, Marche, Sans lenteur (first act: the notables and the minstrel jury, march, not slow)
Second Acte. Les Viéleux, et les Gueux, Premier Air de Viéle with Bourdon, Second Air de Viéle (second act: the hurdy-gurdy players and the beggars, first and second air for hurdy-gurdy with drone)
Troisième Acte. Les Jongleurs, Sauteurs, et Saltinbanques, avec les Ours et les Singes (third act: jugglers, tumblers, and tight-rope dancers, with bears and monkeys)
Quatrième Acte. Les Invalides, ou gens Estropiés au service de la grande Ménéstrandise; [right hand:] Les Disloqués; [left hand:] Les Boiteux (invalids, or those crippled in the service of the great minstrelsy; right hand: contortionists; left hand: the lame)
Cinquième Acte. Désordre et déroute de toute la troupe, causés par les Yvrognes, les Singes, et les Ours, tres vîte; [left hand, toward the end:] les béquilles (fifth act: confusion and rout of the whole troupe, caused by the drunkards, the monkeys, and the bears, very fast; [left hand, toward the end:] the crutches)
There are also some jokes in the notation. For example, act three is notated like this:

Click to enlarge
The tumblers are referred to by putting the time signature upside down: 8/3 instead of 3/8. For act four, each hand of the player represents a different group, the right hand the persons with dislocations and the left hand the lame:

Click to enlarge
In addition to the contrasting rhythms, Couperin marks the deformations by using "white" notation, where the noteheads are hollow. The last movement is in the form of a moto perpetuo to indicate the confusion and rout.

As the custom these days is to redundantly announce each piece to the audience even when there is a printed program, I confess that I long to attend a concert where this piece will be played--just to hear how they pronounce the title. Here is a performance by Olivier Beamont:

Sunday, March 24, 2019

An Unexpected Result

Just watch this:

I have to say that I am a sucker for this sort of thing. It always provokes an emotional reaction. It is just so marvelous a thing to witness. Taken at face value, a bunch of well-trained musicians just happen to show up and play the best tunes from the last movement of the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, itself a naked appeal to emotion and brotherhood, and we all are overwhelmed with delight.

We are, very sadly, living in an era of lies. I'm sure I don't have to specify? Whatever your political leanings I'm sure you sense that the public space is overflowing with lies of all kinds. Lies as to what happened or didn't happen. Even bigger lies about what it all meant. The enormous lies of political ideologies and the lies of economics. Of course we can keep piling up debt and of course there will never be a reckoning. Everything we see crafted for public consumption is based on lies or half-truths. All advertising is untruthful. Under the sheer pressure of so many lies, some philosophers have simply declared that truth, along with God, is simply dead. There is no truth, only different perspectives.

What is so striking about a flash-orchestra is that there seem to be only truths here. Music can't really lie to us, at least not this kind of music, we think, because it is simply abstract instrumental joy. And sure, you can argue that. You could argue on the other side, making snide insinuations about Beethoven and the text to the singing, but unless you are trying to get tenure in a progressive university, really, why bother? This music wears its heart on its sleeve. Just look at the images of the people responding to it. It is the transcendence of it that makes it its own kind of emotional truth.

We could chip away, of course. This was part of an advertising campaign for a bank, of all things. And no, you don't normally get a whole orchestra and chorus for the cost of a small coin in a hat. So it was all deception. Economically, certainly. But not emotionally. The players really were expressing what they felt and the audience was receiving it and at the end it was pretty joyful. The behind the scene details, in this case at least, are not very important.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Engaging Couperin

I'm still listening my way through the complete harpsichord music of François Couperin but I'm starting to realize that my favorite Couperin is that played by Grigory Sokolov. Here is a sample, L'Engageante from the Treizième Ordre:

Is it really his fault that he makes everyone else sound rather ham-handed?

Friday, March 22, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

I seem to recall seeing something like this before: Scientists Played Music to Cheese as It Aged. Hip-Hop Produced the Funkiest Flavor.
Last September, Swiss cheesemaker Beat Wampfler and a team of researchers from the Bern University of Arts placed nine 22-pound wheels of Emmental cheese in individual wooden crates in Wampfler’s cheese cellar. Then, for the next six months each cheese was exposed to an endless, 24-hour loop of one song using a mini-transducer, which directed the soundwaves directly into the cheese wheels.
The “classical” cheese mellowed to the sounds of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The “rock” cheese listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” An ambient cheese listened to Yello’s “Monolith,” the hip-hop cheese was exposed to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and the techno fromage raved to Vril’s “UV.” A control cheese aged in silence, while three other wheels were exposed to simple high, medium and low frequency tones.
Well, I'm glad that they had some control tests as well. But since what we are talking about here is the simple physical effect of air compression waves on bacteria there should have been a lot of other tests. What about a number of cheeses exposed to different rhythmic patterns and tempi? Obviously there is no aesthetic component of significance here even though the headline tries to create one.

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Over at On An Overgrown Path is a post recommending some CD collections. The Rameau looks particularly interesting.

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Alex Ross has an article on two new piano concertos by John Adams and Thomas Adès at the New Yorker. It opens with a characteristic blast of purple prose:
Glamorous, gladiatorial, faintly disreputable, the concerto is an essential feature of modern concert life. Few symphony orchestras venture far into a season without summoning a soloist to execute the majestic opening arpeggios of Beethoven’s “Emperor,” the throat-clearing double-stops of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, or some other familiar bold gesture. Orchestral economics would presumably collapse without a supply of celebrity soloists playing celebrity works. The disreputability of the genre has to do with its slightly seedy showmanship, its carnival trappings. The virtuoso violinist is a devilish hypnotist, descended from Paganini. The pianist is a Lisztian magician, conjuring wonders from a long black box.
Here is a comment on the Adès concerto:
Adès’s fractal orchestration and atomizing interplay of intervals keep the Jazz Age ambience at a distance: nothing stays fixed. In the recapitulation, the Bette Davis theme assumes grander proportions, with solemn, unmuted horns in attendance. The first theme returns in the coda, amid delirious orchestral commentary. A pell-mell duet of piccolo and xylophone had me on the brink of laughing out loud.
Fractal orchestration? Whazzat?About the Adams he says:
The piece begins in trickster style, with the soloist playing a funky ostinato modelled on Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” theme and a detuned honky-tonk piano adding offbeat accents. As this jollity grinds on, though, it takes on a machinelike brutality. A composer who has long used popular material to poke at the solemnity of the classical tradition here seems to be exposing the dominating urge behind much pop music.
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We haven't grumbled about scientism lately, defined as the clumsy, lumbering attempts by "researchers" to stuff the arts and aesthetics into a test tube so they can discern the 'real facts'. Here is a good one for you, and no, it is not satire: What Makes Music Special to Us? Clarifying the differences between what animals and humans hear.
What we know for sure is that humans, songbirds, pigeons, rats, and some fish (such as goldfish and carp) can easily distinguish between different melodies. It remains highly questionable, though, whether they do so in the same way as humans do, that is, by listening to the structural features of the music.
The article is actually interesting, though without a lot more detail as to how the research was done, it is hard to decide how reliable the findings are.

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Here would be a useful project for "researchers": just how worthwhile are the wide, sweeping comments by artists or scientists when they wander out of their specialized areas? For example, how useful were Stephen Hawking's comments on the existence of god? Or how valuable are Yo Yo Ma's comments on music "as a force for social justice"? Thanks to Slipped Disc we found this article: Yo-Yo Ma and Philharmonic director Borda discuss music as a force for social justice.
Ma said embracing the issues of the world was natural for a musician, and dismissed the idea of “art for art’s sake.”
“We have a bigger purpose,” he said. “It’s never art for art’s sake, because even if I do it for myself in my head, I have an ideal. I’m actually trying to take something — a construct, a concept, a theory — and then I want to make it visible, I want to make it audible, I want to make it tactile. I want to make it felt.”
It is very hard to actually pull anything like an actual position out of that string of platitudes so the obvious conclusion is that this is pretty much just marketing.

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I don't use Google so I missed their tribute to Bach on Thursday: Today’s Google Doodle proves that a bot can’t top Bach.
You, too, can compose like Bach. Or rather, artificial intelligence can compose like Bach. Or at least, that’s the premise of Thursday’s delightful Google Doodle, which promises to take any two-bar melody you type in and turn it into a Bach, or Bachlike, chorale in four parts, played by charming little music-box figures of bewigged 18th-century musicians.
It may only add to the doodle’s charm that what it actually proves is the opposite of what it sets out to do. Nobody can compose like Bach. Especially not a machine. You already knew that. But you can have a lot of fun along the way to finding it out.
* * *

For our envoi today, let's have some non-AI, gluten-free, non-GMO Bach. This is the St. Matthew Passion conducted by Philipp Herreweghe. Further credits onscreen:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

CD Review: Couperin Edition

I hardly ever do record reviews, but occasionally it seems worthwhile. I have been listening to this collection lately:

The Couperin family are probably the best-known family of musicians after the Bach family. Active mostly during the 17th and 18th centuries the two most prominent members are Louis Couperin and his nephew François Couperin le grand. The Couperin family were mainly keyboard players producing a wealth of music for organ and harpsichord. François wrote chamber music as well, including some lovely trio sonatas and excellent music for voice, the Leçons de Ténèbres for two sopranos and continuo, as well as several pieces for chamber orchestra and three organ masses, but it is for his harpsichord music that he is most recognized. Eight out of the sixteen CDs in this collection are devoted to his twenty-seven suites or ordres for the instrument. In comparison, Jean-Philippe Rameau's music for harpsichord can be fitted onto just two CDs. Mind you, Rameau put most of his energy into composing operas. Rameau's pieces for harpsichord are more spectacular and virtuosic and are perhaps more well-known as a result, but for subtlety, elegance and graceful simplicity Couperin has no superior.

Keep in mind that the suite or ordre in Couperin's version is not the brief set of dances that Johann Jakob Froberger put together consisting of an allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. Couperin's ordres often have eighteen or twenty movements with those dances interspersed with others and including movements with characteristic names instead of dance genre titles. These include names like La Voluptueuse and La Diligente as well as Les Idées heureuses. The dance movements include not only the ones that Froberger used but lesser-known dances such as gavotte, canaries, passepied, rigaudon. In addition the same ordre might have two courantes, two sarabandes, two gigues and the occasional rondeau. The dances are usually in binary form and often have accompanying doubles (ornamented versions with the same bass line). Not all the movements of an ordre need be in the same key. The Premier Ordre for example has seven movements in D minor followed by one in G major, returning to D minor for two movements, then two in G major, one in D minor, one in G major and so on, ending in a movement in D minor. Audiences today struggle to know when to clap when they are confronted with pieces in three or four movements--one wonders what would happen if they met up with a Couperin ordre. Of course Grigory Sokolov plays these in concert, but he has his audiences trained to only clap if and when he stands up.

The movements of a Couperin ordre are typically quite short, ranging between one and five minutes in length with most of them around two minutes or so. The texture is highly ornamented in most pieces. For an example, here are the first three measures of the first piece, an allemande, in the Premier Ordre:

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I count eleven ornaments and ten grace notes in that brief passage! Allemandes and sarabandes, partly due to the slower tempo, tend to have slightly more ornaments than courantes or gigues. Of course, when Couperin writes out a double, the already densely ornamented texture becomes even more so. Here is the simple version of the beginning of the Premiere Courante and its ornamented version (the bass is the same):

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Here are the first two movements from the Premier Ordre, Allemande l'Auguste and Premiere Courante played by Laurence Boulay, the performer in the Couperin collection.

And after all that, I seem to have forgotten to do the actual review. I don't really have anything to say! The performances seem quite fine. You can go to YouTube and compare the two clips above with ones by several other performers. The standards for harpsichord performance are quite high these days so I don't think you go wrong with any well-known performer. The ordres on the the disc excerpted above are played on two seventeenth century instruments. I imagine they put some new strings on...

UPDATE: I should mention that the Laurence Boulay recordings of the integral harpsichord music that take up half of the discs in the box were originally made in the mid-1970s and remastered in 2018. The sound quality is just fine though a couple of pieces have a questionable temperament.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Mute Inglorious Miltons

My title refers to the famous poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which is perhaps the finest tribute to the ordinary, uncelebrated people that make up most of every society. There is a contemporary echo in the Wall Street Journal this weekend in the form of a column by Peggy Noonan: Kids, Don’t Become Success Robots. It is likely behind the paywall, but you might be able to access it by googling the title. Here is a quote:
I came away from Tennessee Tech thinking what I always think when I see such schools: We’re going to be OK.
And now, because you’d be lost without it, my advice to students still considering college in the year 2019. Avoid elite universities if you can; they’re too often indoctrination mills anyway. Aim at smaller, second-tier colleges, places of low-key harmony, religiously affiliated when possible—and get a real education. Every school has a library. Every library has books. That’s what you need.
You’ll be with a better class of people—harder-working, less cynical, more earnest. First-generation college students who are excited to be there and committed to study. Immigrants who feel grateful to be there. Home-schooled kids with self-possession and dignity, who see the dignity in others.
Do not network. Make friends. Learn about the lives of others.
She is responding to the Ivy League admissions scandal that came out this week where dozens of people were indicted for fraudulently obtaining access to elite universities by paying remarkably large bribes. This is all about networking and getting valuable credentials: it is NOT about becoming educated. As she says, a lot of elite universities are "indoctrination mills." The very valuable point she makes is that a lot of smaller, lesser-known schools are emphatically not indoctrination mills but places where you can still get a good education.

I was reading a column in Canada's National Post on the admissions fraud where the writer, the usually reliable Colby Cosh, writes:
This all reflects on Canada in a complicated way. We congratulate ourselves as Canadians on not paying much attention to where grown men and women attended university. It matters within some professions — law or medicine or journalism — but only temporarily, upon entry, even in those fields. We just don’t have socially dominant or “elite” institutions of higher education, and pride ourselves on not wanting them.
This is, at best, a half truth. Yes, Canadians are not nearly as obsessed with elite credentials as Americans seem to be, but the idea that Canada does not have elite institutions is hilariously wrong. Two come instantly to mind: Upper Canada College and McGill University. The reason Canada tries to ignore these schools is likely because we are embarrassed by things like wide differences in quality and prefer to not acknowledge them. Evidence? Well, you might just have a look at the differences between the classical studies program at McGill and at the University of Victoria, for example. For a musical example, consider that candidates for graduate degrees in performance at the University of Victoria never are failed in their graduating recitals while the failure rate at McGill while I was there was about 50%. No, it is not that McGill had less able players. It is that you are not going to get that degree unless you give a very good recital.

I've talked about how I am impressed that McGill, among other places, has not become an indoctrination mill, but continues to preserve high standards of academic quality. All we seem to read about in the mass media is about those places where the mob has taken over or where everything is doctrine and propaganda. But I suspect that a great deal of scholarship remains of admirable high quality.

For example, I just got a book this week that illustrates this. The publisher is the venerable Oxford University Press.

I miss the older royal blue covers with gold letters, but in every other aspect this is up to Oxford's high standards. Thanks, by the way, to a commentator who recommended this book a while back. It is a fine piece of scholarship, looking at the subgenre of the minor key symphony that began in the 1760s and extended to the great 40th Symphony of Mozart written in 1788. The author delves into the whole context of the minor key symphony in examples written not only by Haydn and Mozart, but also by lesser-known composers of the time like Wagenseil, Gassmann and Vanhal and discusses such intriguing features as the mediant tutti, the extent of contrapuntal treatment and their distinctive stormy energy. One index to the kind of discussion is the other authors quoted who include William Caplin, my theory professor at McGill and author of an excellent book on formal function, as well as Charles Rosen and others of their level. Read this to learn the deficiency of referring to this repertoire with the phrase stolen from literature: Sturm und Drang!

Not so mute, but certainly Miltonic.

Our envoi really has to be Haydn's first symphony in this subgenre, the Symphony No. 39 in G minor, composed in 1765.

Friday, March 15, 2019

I Don't Have an "Identity" But Perhaps I Have an Ontological Status?

I vaguely recall from taking undergraduate classes in philosophy decades ago that there was a book on personal identity by, I think, P. F. Strawson. Don't remember a single thing it said, though. Now, of course, we are inundated with identity, identifying, ID, identity theft, and Id, no, wait, that's something different.

I just ran across this in an article in the New York Times on plus-size dining:
For people who identify as large, plus-size or fat, dining out can be a social and physical minefield. Chairs with arms or impossibly small seats leave marks and bruises. Meals are spent in pain, or filled with worry that a flimsy chair might collapse.
Not wanting to pick on anyone, I'm a little plus-size myself from liking food a bit too much, but this grammar is just a bit odd, isn't it? Why would you say "identify as" instead of just "are?" I don't "identify" as being a bit overweight, I just am a bit overweight. From an Aristotelian point of view, I am substantially a man and my weight is accidental (meaning an adjunct quality, not essential) and it is true, I could lose that extra weight--and intend to! Starting next week!
The substance theory of Aristotle underlies his entire philosophy. Substance theory is the belief that substances are the ultimate things in the universe. The universe at rock bottom is not made up of elementary particles but substances. This is completely different from our modern view of the world. Aristotle defends this position in his books Categories and Metaphysics. His defense is long and detailed. Without an understanding of Aristotles logic, such a defense cannot even be understood today. Aristotle divides the world into two categories: substances and accidents- substances are the most fundamental.
A substance is a dog, a rock, a planet, a particle and a computer. An accident is something like being white, standing up, kicking that ball or being hit by Tom. It is somewhat helpful to think of substances as nouns and accidents as every other part of language. Nouns are about people, places or things. Substances are people, and things (places just refer to things). Accidents refer to features of substances. They are always the subject and object of the sentence. This gives a good indication of what substances and accidents are.
When I think of "identity" I think of something rather inherent to who or what I am. I underwent a significant transition a few years ago, one that I realized on my way to a concert. As I arrived at the door, wearing a nice sports jacket, a friend said, "I didn't realize you were playing in the concert tonight!" I had to reply I wasn't. Why was I dressed up? Ah, well the reason was that I had written a piece that was being premiered in the concert and so I might have to stand up at some point and bow.

This was for me a change in ontological status: I was no longer a performer but now a composer. My basic being in the world was not as someone who played music written by others, but one who wrote music for others to play. Of course I might write a piece with a guitar part that I might play myself, but that wouldn't return me to the ontological status of performer.

Let me give another example. In the great series of historical novels by Patrick O'Brian about the Royal Navy there is an instance where Captain Jack Aubrey, who plays the violin for personal entertainment, explains why he cannot be seen carrying the violin case in public. It always has to be carried by a servant or ordinary seaman. If he, an officer and gentleman were seen carrying a violin case someone might say in jest something like "give us a tune then, guvnor!" In which case, Aubrey might have to fight a duel or something just to preserve his honor. 18th century social practices were complicated! In any case, his ontological status as officer and gentleman prevented him from carrying his own violin around. Ah, those were the days!

I think I want to opt for this weird switch in terminology because if "identify as" is swapping in for "is" and "are" then I prefer to not have that sort of "identity." I'm ok with "ontological status" though because almost no-one will understand what it means. Philosophy is useful after all!

Let's have a tune, then. Here is the extraordinary Hilary Hahn with a little Presto by Bach:

Friday Miscellanea

Over at the blog On An Overgrown Path there is a sobering post on supply and demand in classical music:
Slipped Disc reports a rumour which may well have substance that the BBC Concert Orchestra is targeted for abolition in a list of proposed BBC budget savings, and Norman ends his report with the exhortation "Prepare to go to the barricades". Before manning the barricades Slipped Disc readers should consider the following. The BBC including its house orchestras is funded by a license fee. Over the last four years almost 3.5 million households have stopped paying that license fee. The rate of cancellation is increasing: up from 798,000 in 2016/17 to 860,00 in 2017/18. This means the decrease in license fees numbers is running at more than a compound 3% a year, a loss that has not been recovered by fee increases - the cost of a license was frozen for six years from 2010. That decrease represents an annual loss of BBC income of £130 million. To put the loss into perspective, the total license fee funded budget for BBC orchestras and performing groups is £33 million. So the saving from abolishing all the BBC orchestras would only offset one third of the annual revenue loss from license fee erosion.
Read the whole post which argues that there is an oversupply of classical music in all forms.

* * *

The Times Literary Supplement has an article on a new biography of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn that discusses his brief stint as a music critic in the 50s and 60s. He was
possessor of a strong judgemental streak, shading into intolerance. ... That last character trait was also to the fore in his role between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s as a music critic under the pseudonym Francis Newton. Elvis Presley he dismissed in 1956 as “a peculiarly unappetising Texan lad”; Miles Davis four years later was not only “of surprisingly narrow technical and emotional range”, but came unhealthily close to “self-pity and the denial of love”; soon afterwards, the musical limitations of the trad jazz phenomenon were “only exceeded by the deficient amateurishness of many of its musicians”. In 1959 his survey entitled The Jazz Scene received a respectful enough review from Philip Larkin. Even so, “there are times when, reading Mr Newton’s account of this essentially working-class art, the course of jazz seems almost a little social or economic parable”. And Larkin added that “Mr Newton has little charm as a writer”.
 * * *

Here is a very heart-warming project: Afghanistan's first all-female orchestra Zohra visits the UK.
No-one claims that in Afghanistan, the Taliban influence has been rooted out entirely. Violence continues. But two decades ago, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music would have been unthinkable.
ANIM was founded in 2008, with international support, to bring music education to young Afghans. Not long before that, the Afghan capital Kabul had finally been wrenched from the grasp of the fundamentalist Sunni Muslim Taliban.
In the Taliban years, music - once a thriving and rich part of Afghan culture, admired around the world - had all but disappeared.
Today in Kabul, ANIM teaches music skills to some 250 young people, both male and female. That figure is about to rise to 320 and there are plans to expand to cities such as Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad.
I wish them well, but worry that the Taliban might yet return to power in Afghanistan in which case this orchestra, like the Hungarian Philharmonic in the late 1950s, might have to continue their touring in exile.

* * *

When I was a concert artist there were a number of activities I tended to avoid: bowling (potential broken fingernails), skiing (potential broken arms), carpentry (potential hammered fingers) and so on. I used to shudder at the news that guitarist John Williams liked to build furniture in his spare time. The thought of those irreplaceable fingers being in the neighborhood of a power saw... And now Anne Midgette in the Washington Post tells a story that confirms all those fears: A pianist/composer’s dream of dog-sledding in Alaska came true. It ended with a severed finger.
Yotam Haber is an established composer and pianist, an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans, a former artistic director of New York’s MATA festival and winner of a Guggenheim fellowship and a Koussevitzky Foundation commission, among many other honors and awards. Since childhood, though, he has had another dream: to race sled dogs in Alaska.
Last week, Haber’s dream came true. On March 2, he got to ride through the streets of Anchorage in the ceremonial opening leg of the 2019 Iditarod, the legendary dog-sled race, on the sled of Blair Braverman, one of the most visible contestants in this year’s race. Haber had come to Alaska to help with Braverman’s sled dogs, as well as to record the sounds of runners on the snow to incorporate into a piece he was writing for the New York-based Argento Ensemble.
But the dream ended three days later when, dragged behind a tipped dog sled, Haber watched his right index finger snap off “like a twig,” followed by a geyser of blood.
* * *

The Victoria Symphony Orchestra, based in my old home town of Victoria, British Columbia, has a new conductor, Christian Kluxen, and I like the cut of his jib:
The concert will start with a bang — a dissonant chord comprising every note of a D-minor scale. For thus begins Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les élemens (1737), a programmatic suite, originally intended for a ballet, that was inspired by the four elements (earth, water, fire, air) and opens with a depiction of the chaos preceding Creation.
(By a curious coincidence, this rarity has been performed twice here in the past few years.)
Sunday’s program also includes a short symphony by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1775) and Arvo Pärt’s Tabula rasa (1977), one of the first specimens of Pärt’s trademark “tintinnabular” style — slow, spare, contemplative music inspired by Medieval chant and polyphony and by the sound of bells, and often dubbed “holy minimalism” because of its evident spiritual aspirations. Tabula rasa is a two-movement concerto grosso for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano, and will feature violinists Christi Meyers and Victoria Lindsay.
The program closes with Haydn’s splendid Symphony No. 96 (the “Miracle”).
What a great program! When I lived there the orchestra never wandered outside a rather narrow, tired repertoire.

* * *

Time is short this morning so let's move right on to the envoi. I just acquired a 16 CD box of François Couperin and the first disc features his Leçons de Ténèbres the third of which is for two sopranos and is one of the great landmarks of French Baroque vocal art:

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Classical Music is Just Evil?

Theodore Gioia at The American Scholar talks about The Sound of Evil: How did classical music in movies and television become synonymous with villainy? Oh yes, we have certainly talked about this before. It seems every time we have a really evil character, like Hannibal Lector, he is accompanied by the most beautiful classical music. Why, oh why?
For Hollywood, classical music has become the trademark of villains. On screen, orchestral melodies accompany the meditations of mad geniuses and pouting serial killers. Norman Bates practices the Moonlight sonata in Psycho II. Sociopath Lou Ford relaxes to Richard Strauss throughout The Killer Inside Me. Alex Forrest, in Fatal Attraction, plots her revenge while listening to Madama Butterfly. And on the BBC’s Sherlock, Moriarty waltzes to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie on his iPod as he steals the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Baroque music, in particular, seems to satisfy the cravings of a deranged mind. The very talented Tom Ripley plays Bach between shifts as a symphony-hall bathroom attendant. In Schindler’s List, a Nazi officer pauses to play a bit of Bach on a piano while his troops massacre the Kraków ghetto. Hannibal Lecter waves a bloodied cudgel like a conductor’s baton while brutalizing two security guards to the Goldberg Variations in The Silence of the Lambs, and in the sequel the same piece plays as Lecter cooks Paul Krendler’s brains table-side. In cinema psychographics, mid-murder is the ideal time for musical appreciation.
And in The Year of Living Dangerously Guy Hamilton (played by a young Mel Gibson) listens to Richard Strauss Four Last Songs while visiting with his Chinese/Australian photographer and mentor, but hey, let's not mention contrary instances!
The implication is that aesthetic sophistication and psychopathic violence spring from the same mentality, a decadent hyperintelligence that becomes so cultivated that it savors homicide as a refined pleasure like Baroque cello. Slaughtering civilians and appreciating Vivaldi are depicted as two forms of the same psychosis, a connection hammered into the popular imagination in film after film, scene after scene, for the past quarter century.
It couldn't possibly have anything to do with the triumph of popular music over classical music in the marketplace, could it? Read the whole article for the author's slightly different conclusion.

Here is my, completely different, theory. It is a cinematic technique to accompany certain images with a soundtrack that is a complete contrast. Here are two really famous examples. The first is a rather tranquil score by Tōru Takemitsu that accompanies a battle scene from Akira Kurosawa's film Ran. The aesthetic energy comes from the contrast.

The second example is even more famous: Stanley Kubrick uses The Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss to accompany the docking of a passenger ship with a space station in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There are probably hundreds if not thousands of examples of ominous, threatening music accompanying a scene of ordinary peace and tranquility as a sign to the audience that something is about to happen. Another kind of contrast would be the use of a cheerful, lilting march in a scene set in a prisoner of war camp--but no-one would ever do that, right?

Of course that is diagetic, that is, the music is in the narrative, not in a separate soundtrack. Here is another example of a cheery bit of dance music by Boccherini used to accompany a scene of naval pursuit:

So, the fact that beautiful classical music has been used in a number of famous instances to accompany scenes with horrific mass murderers does NOT mean that classical music is synonymous with villainy as Mr. Gioia would have us believe. It just means that classical music offers a powerful CONTRAST to villainy. Now isn't that a lot more credible? Let me end with a couple of more examples: Samuel Barber's Adagio for strings used to accompany scenes of war in the movie Platoon:

And another example from Kubrick who uses a waltz by Shostakovich to accompany the title sequence in Eyes Wide Shut:

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Luys Milán: Vihuela Virtuoso

Years ago I owned a volume with the complete instrumental music of Luys Milán, 16th century composer of music for vihuela, a guitar-shaped instrument roughly equivalent to the lute that was widely played in Spain. Not to be confused with the modern folk instrument played in Mexico. Alas, I lost it together with a lot of other music, years ago. All I have had of Milán for quite a while are the two fantasias found in the very useful Hispanae Citharae Ars Viva collection by Emilio Pujol. I find myself playing more and more those fantasias so I decided to replace my Milán holdings. There seems to be only one available option these days:

This is a good series--I have previously owned volumes devoted to Luis de Narváez--but it is expensive and the Milán instrumental works are divided into four volumes. Incidentally, the date is likely wrong: Milán's collection for vihuela seems to date from 1536. This makes it the first book published for vihuela and it was followed by six more, up until 1576, each by a different composer. The Die Tabulatur series is semi-scholarly in that it includes three different versions of each piece, aligned vertically. The top version is the original tabulature (very similar to modern tabulature). Underneath it is a transcription on two staves in the notional original key, supposedly for lute or keyboard. On the bottom is the transcription for guitar. I say "semi-scholarly" because a proper scholarly edition would contain a full apparatus of critical commentary and a reference bibliography.

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This is useful in a couple of ways. For one thing, you can always consult the tabulature to see how Milán would have fingered a particular passage. The problem with tablature for contrapuntal music is while it shows where each note begins, it does not show how long it lasts, so the voice-leading is anything but clear. Both transcriptions are interpretations of how the editor thought the voices should be sustained. On the guitar, at least, they are not always feasible and the tablature fingering often does not permit voices to be sustained the way the editor imagines. The big plus of the tablature is that it shows the exact pitch of each note. In the vocal notation of the time there was sometimes a certain ambiguity because there were certain conventions covering the application of accidentals. This practice was called musica ficta. Follow the link for a discussion in Wikipedia. Lute and vihuela tablature shows us how musica ficta was often applied. The only inconvenience with this layout is that there are a lot of page-turns and sometimes your eye might go to the wrong line!

Here is a performance on guitar of this fantasia by Mario Oriz:

Until the invention of the tuning fork in 1711, there was no standardized pitch, but it is usually claimed that the lute was tuned from G to g. The vihuela had the same tuning, though both instruments came in different sizes at different pitches. For this reason the guitarist in the clip has put a capo on the third fret which notionally re-creates the vihuela tuning. It does lighten the sound, which is a plus, and also makes some stretches easier.

As you can hear, this fantasia and others by Milán generally, follows a typical 16th century contrapuntal structure with sections that unfold a single motif in different voices concluding with a cadence. But there are also other, more chordal, sections. In a future post or two I am going to analyse a couple of fantasias in terms of their point of imitation structure, cadences and use of accidentals. How, for example, in this piece might we explain the frequent use of C# alongside the prevailing C natural?

One interesting thing about the efflorescence of vihuela music in 16th century Spain was that from the first book, by Milán, to the last one, by Daza, there is a movement from more abstract musical forms like the fantasia, tiento and pavana, to dances, variations and transcriptions of popular vocal music. Then the guitar took over and the vihuela disappeared.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Aleatoric vs Improvised Music

When I was in Toronto recently recording two of my pieces I referred to a particular passage in once piece as "the aleatory section." As my collaborators were seasoned professional classical musicians I assumed they would know what I meant, and they did, roughly, but it was evident that the term "aleatory" was not one that was heard with any frequency! Sounds like a good topic for a post. Also, there was a comment on my recent post on composed and non-composed music that mentioned both aleatoric music and improvised music without distinguishing them clearly. They are different things!

As the term "improvised" music is in common use, let's take it up first. Wikipedia is usually fairly useful in providing a basic understanding of terms like this so let's consult their article on Musical Improvisation:
Musical improvisation (also known as musical extemporization) is the creative activity of immediate ("in the moment") musical composition, which combines performance with communication of emotions and instrumental technique as well as spontaneous response to other musicians.[1] Sometimes musical ideas in improvisation are spontaneous, but may be based on chord changes in classical music[1] and many other kinds of music. One definition is a "performance given extempore without planning or preparation."[2] Another definition is to "play or sing (music) extemporaneously, by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies, rhythms and harmonies."[3] Encyclopædia Britannica defines it as "the extemporaneous composition or free performance of a musical passage, usually in a manner conforming to certain stylistic norms but unfettered by the prescriptive features of a specific musical text. Improvisation is often done within (or based on) a pre-existing harmonic framework or chord progression. Improvisation is a major part of some types of 20th-century music, such as blues, jazz, and jazz fusion, in which instrumental performers improvise solos, melody lines and accompaniment parts.
That's the whole first paragraph. The article goes on to discuss the use of improvisation historically and in various musical genres. There are a few odd things about the above discussion, don't you think? For example, saying "the creative activity of immediate ("in the moment") musical composition, which combines performance with communication of emotions and instrumental technique as well as spontaneous response to other musicians" is a bit confusing. What does it mean to combine performance with communication of emotions and musical technique? Isn't that a category error? Performance is communication using musical technique, is it not? It's not like you add communication to performance.

Yes, improvisation can certainly encompass a spontaneous response to what the other musicians are doing, but, on the other hand, so can all performance. The first time reading, for example, a piece for violin and piano, the two musicians will not only be playing their parts in an expressive manner, they will also be responding, in an expressive manner, to the way the other musician is playing. Over time these responses will become settled, but for most creative musicians I suspect there will always be an element of expressive spontaneity, otherwise the performance would become dry and stilted, not to mention, boring.

The idea that improvisation is a performance "given extempore without planning or preparation" is a nice thought, but it almost never happens. You can have absolutely free improvisation in nearly any musical genre, but it typically happens behind closed doors, not in a performance with a listening public. Jazz, classical, rock musicians do do this sort of thing, but it is rarely done in public. It is exploratory and while it is an interesting kind of communication between musicians and can lead to original ideas, it often results in meaningless thrashing around, which is why it is not done in public much.

What is typically called "improvisation" is something rather more rehearsed. Out of practice sessions that are more or less improvised, the most expressive or useful bits are preserved and used in public performances. The musicians know, more or less, what they are going to do, individually and collectively, and there are portions that are fixed and portions that are relatively freer and everyone knows which are which. This is the typical situation with jazz and fusion.

With pop music, while there can be lots of improvisation in rehearsal, by the time of performance and recording the performance will have gelled to the point of being very largely fixed in its final form. In a lot of traditional musics, improvisation in the form of improvised variations is quite common, but it occurs within particular boundaries. In classical music, as the article notes, there were certain places, the cadenzas of concertos for example, where the individual performer was expected to improvise a solo. Sometimes this was extemporaneous, but often prepared in detail beforehand so as to avoid the tragedy of not coming up with anything good on the night!

In the Renaissance and Baroque the performance practice included the improvising of ornaments to nearly any piece. Just which and where were learned as part of one's musical education.

We have lots of examples of musicians improvising whole performances from scratch. Bach could improvise fugues and there were even contests between him and other musicians. He could improvise a fugue on a subject given to him on the spot. Beethoven could improvise whole lengthy pieces as could Mozart and a number of other musicians. As these people are primarily composers it seems that what they were doing was simply composing on the spot.

So much for improvisation, what about aleatoric music? The Latin word "alea" means "dice" so the term means music with the element of chance. Wikipedia says:
Aleatoric music is music in which some element of the composition is left to chance, and/or some primary element of a composed work's realization is left to the determination of its performer(s). The term is most often associated with procedures in which the chance element involves a relatively limited number of possibilities.
The concept is more easily understood through examples. Aleatoric music is music that is written down, unlike improvised music, but the way it is played involves chance procedures. There are examples of this in Charles Ives and Henry Cowell where the result of notated music will occur partly due to chance. There is always an indeterminate aspect to aleatory music. Three different kinds can be distinguished:
1) the use of random procedures to produce a determinate, fixed score, (2) mobile form, and (3) indeterminate notation, including graphic notation and texts
Examples of the first kind include a number of pieces by John Cage in which he used coin tosses and the I Ching to pick the notes and rhythms which he then notated in a score. The choices were random, but the score is entirely determined. Mobile form was developed by Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Karlheinz Stockhausen and consists of a score that is precisely notated, but in which the various parts can be played in an order chosen by the performer either randomly or decided beforehand. The third kind uses a kind of notation that is intentionally vague as to pitches and rhythms so the performer is expected to intuit what would be an appropriate performance.

The type that I find the most interesting is the second one and I would like to refer to two examples. The first is perhaps the most famous instance, Klavierstück XI by Stockhausen that I posted the other day. Here is a brief excerpt with the score so you can see how it works.

Wikipedia describes the structure as follows:
Klavierstück XI consists of 19 fragments spread over a single, large page. The performer may begin with any fragment, and continue to any other, proceeding through the labyrinth until a fragment has been reached for the third time, when the performance ends. Markings for tempo, dynamics, etc. at the end of each fragment are to be applied to the next fragment.
So the order of the musical phrases is by chance as are the expressive parameters that will be applied to each phrase. This kind of structure is often called "moment form" after another piece by Stockhausen for orchestra. In my recent piece for violin and guitar I used a type of moment form in one section. The inspiration was from the Canadian composer Anthony Genge who used a version in a piece for alto flute and guitar. In my piece, this section acts as a kind of development section. All of the individual elements are taken from the rest of the conventionally notated piece. Each performer has a number of "moments" and they can be played in any order. Then they are repeated, again in any order. What moments are heard together is by chance and the performers are free to express or interpret each moment in response to what the other musician is doing. I find this a quite interesting contrast to the rest of the piece. Here is that section:

Click to enlarge
I will be putting up that whole piece, called Dark Dream, fairly soon. Right now I am working on two companion pieces to it, one called Articulated Dream and the other Dream Scherzo.