Friday, April 26, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

The Times Literary Supplement has an article on John Coltrane.
a clean Coltrane launched into a decisive phase of overachievement. Recordings that appeared under his own name for the leading independent labels Prestige, Atlantic and Blue Note resulted in a discography so rich that inevitably gems slip into obscurity. For example, the album Lush Life is worth the title track alone. Coltrane’s interpretation of the masterpiece written by Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s peerless co-composer and arranger, is an object lesson in how to capture the deep world-weariness and regret of a lyric through the inflections and nuance of the tenor saxophone. This is a big leonine instrument that Coltrane handles with consummate skill, using the tonal weight for scene-stealing melodic richness on some phrases, while brightening and hardening his timbre elsewhere to create a piercing effect in line with the sharp edges of Strayhorn’s cynical musings on the prospect of “a lush life in some small dive”.
And here is that fourteen minute performance:

I don't know why I have never fallen under the spell of the great jazz artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I'm not unaware of their stature, nor of the techniques they use to create these tapestries of sound. But I just don't jibe with the cultural context for some reason. This deep world-weariness is not mine.

* * *

Here is a pdf on the Economics of Renaissance Art. It is rather a long read, and one intended for professional economists, but it has some interesting perspectives:
When painting finally appeared as an independent decorative object hung on a wall, the frame began its evolution as a richly carved and gilded tondo or cassetta that could be made by artists as prominent as the painter... the picture, once it emerged in a domestic setting, became subject to the influence of the entire range of secular culture and took on greater variety in its content and a more highly charged cultural meaning. Soon, rich families started to decorate their own chapels in churches with altarpieces commissioned directly to the painters. The purpose was to invest in the next life or just to signal their "magnificence" to the community (Nelson and Zeckhauser, 2008). This created a multiplier of artistic production as new churches were built with new chapels to be sold to private families who then commissioned new altarpieces and tombs stimulating imitative behavior by others. Such a "laicization of religion" made it possible for the demand of art to increase rapidly during our period. Part of this was because paintings were capital goods whose value was increasing during Renaissance: altarpieces for private chapels were repeatedly seen and enjoyed by the entire local community, generating benefits for their commissioners. The essential consequence of this, for my purposes, is that the new social benefits associated with art increased the willingness to pay for paintings.
* * * 

Cat concerto?

That cat has an excellent grasp of the acciaccatura ornament!

* * *

Here's a slice of pop history: John Lennon and Chuck Berry playing together.

The slightly awkward context around this is that people like John Lennon and the Beatles took the kind of energy found in rock n roll as practiced by people like Chuck Barry, and made it into a huge commercial success. The enormous amounts of money flowing to those few pop musicians are still a rather awkward fact from the aesthetic point of view.

* * *

More on the controversy surrounding AI composition:
AI could easily compose a Vivaldi-like (Italian Baroque) piece that, if used as transitional music in a documentary or under dialogue and sound effects, would more than do the job. Could a lifelong, professional musician tell that piece was written by AI? Maybe. It depends on too many factors to go into here. Could a discerning audience? Highly doubtful. In fact, I’m going to put a flag in the ground here and simply say no. If they were not informed (warned), no general audience would have a clue as to how the track was created, nor would the audience care.
* * *

I mentioned the debate between Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson the other day and quoted a review. Here is a rather nastier one:
You may have your own personal idea of Hell. Mine is an eternity trapped in a room with Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek. I do not like these men. I consider Peterson a toxic charlatan and Žižek a humiliating embarrassment to the left. I believe they both show how far you can get in public life without having anything of value to say, if you’re a white man with a PhD who speaks confidently and incomprehensibly. In fact, this is not really a debate at all, because these men are nearly identical as far as I am concerned. I sincerely believe that history will look back on this moment as a dark human low point.
Heh! I wonder if we will get tired of this kind of unrelenting ad hominem bile at some point?

* * *

From Slipped Disc, here is a really odd and somewhat foreboding story:
The Norwegian label Lawo Classics has been suspended from Facebook after posting cover art on a Baroque release by the Dutch master Jan Davidsz De Heem (1606-1684), which Facebook deemed to be sexual.
As always with Slipped Disc, don't neglect the comments.

 * * *

Anne Midgette at the Washington Post weighs in on the Kate Smith controversy. It's a fairly long discussion, but she concludes by saying the baseball teams did the right thing:
You can’t edit out of history everything you don’t like. “If we go through history and we really take out everything that a person who’s controversial has done, that’s also robbing us of some of our American history,” Brownlee says.
But there’s also no need to pretend that the ballpark is the best arena in which to appreciate nuance or conduct reasoned debate about the significance of a piece of music. It’s less a question of censoring Smith altogether than of finding other appropriate places in which to encounter her work. Robinson draws a parallel to Civil War memorials in Charlottesville: “Put it in a museum,” he says, a context more appropriate for critical engagement. But leave the ballpark to the ballgames, with symbols appropriate to accompany them.
On the other hand, given the historic exclusion of black players practiced by the New York Yankees, this feels a bit hypocritical.

* * * 

Let me just point out one thing about artificial intelligence when it comes to music. It is really the case that one or more musicians are creating an application, program or algorithm to imitate a musical style. Any genius or creativity involved is entirely coming from the musicians involved. Shouldn't this be perfectly obvious? If you want to imitate or synthesize the elements that go into the style of, say, Vivaldi, then you have to intelligently study Vivaldi a great deal to understand how his structures work. Then you create a program to imitate this. All the intelligence and creativity involved is human, not artificial. So let's listen to some Vivaldi. This is the A minor concerto from L'Estro Armonico:

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


I just don't get inspired to put up new blog posts as often as I used to, though I love the blogosphere as much as ever. I used to put up a lot of educational posts on how music works, but I don't do that as much either. If any of my readers has questions about music, feel free to put them in the comments, by the way. It would be my pleasure to take a stab at answering them. My main interest these days is composition and I have just started a new piece, for violin and guitar, a medium I have written for a lot lately. I don't want to talk about a piece while I am working on it, but I might when it is finished. It won't be a large piece. At the moment it seems to be a pièce d'occasion inspired in roughly equal parts by François Couperin and the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Speaking of Couperin, I am getting close to the end of Wilfrid Mellers' excellent monograph on the composer. I just finished a chapter that gave very insightful descriptions of the musical ensembles available to him as well as the concert venues they were found in. Good heavens, a high mass celebrated every day with chorus and orchestra! Two choirs alternating as one could not learn new music fast enough. Four organist/directors, each taking one quarter of the year. All sorts of chamber music concerts every week all with new compositions. What a golden age of music! Well, in some ways at least. There was a real hunger for new music among the whole of the upper classes, something we see little sign of today.

I was reading a piece in city-journal about Europe and barbarism:
Today, being civilized means knowing that we are potentially barbarian. Woe to the brutes who think they’re civilized and close themselves in the infernal tourniquet of their certitudes. It would be good to inject in others the poison that has long gnawed away at us: shame. A little guilty conscience in Teheran, Riyadh, Karachi, Moscow, Beijing, Havana, Caracas, Algiers, Harare, and Islamabad would do these governments and their peoples considerable good. The finest gift that Europe could give the world would be the spirit of critical examination that it discovered and that has saved it from many perils. It is the best remedy against arbitrary violence and the violation of human rights.
Well, yes! Incidentally, this attitude and practice goes back to Socrates who was really the first to argue strongly, in debate and by example, for critical self-examination. Speaking of debate, there was a pretty interesting one in Toronto on Good Friday between Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian post-modern philosopher and Jordan Peterson the Canadian psychologist. They sold out Toronto's biggest hall and ticket prices topped those for hockey games. That's rather encouraging, isn't it? Sadly, I found the debate itself nearly unwatchable due to the incessant interruptions by the audience:

There is a good summary of the debate also at city-journal:
In disposition and comportment, the contrast between the two approached caricature: Žižek, the aging Slovenian enfant terrible, slumped in his chair in a rumpled polo, sneering at being introduced as a “dazzling theorist”; Peterson, the upright Canadian in a three-piece suit, diligently taking notes on his laptop. But the two have similarities, for each has parlayed academic research—Peterson in social psychology, and Žižek in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and theology—into global stardom. Žižek’s fame derives from his interpretations of popular culture and film, documented in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology and other works, while Peterson has built a legion of devoted followers based on Biblical commentary and self-help insights in his best-seller 12 Rules for Life. Both have also been lauded and despised in equal measure for their rejection of political correctness.
The big event upcoming this weekend will be the premiere of the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Avengers: Endgame. On a friend's recommendation I set out to watch the whole series of films, most of which are available on Netflix. Ultimately I find them progressively more and more tiresome and bloated with preening superheroes strutting around in their costumes, hurling one another around in absurdly implausible action scenes and with almost no worthwhile content. Of course, I'm not in the right demographic. Still, I would much rather watch a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where, despite the tiny budgets, a lot more interesting stuff happens.

Let's end with some Couperin, shall we? Towards the end of his life, Couperin wrote two suites for viol and figured bass. They were printed in Paris in 1728 and are a splendid example of chamber music in the ancien regime. This performance is by Mikko Perkola (viola da gamba) and Aapo Häkkinen (harpsichord)

Friday, April 19, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

The best news this week is that the organ in Notre Dame was unharmed by the blaze. Not currently useable due to dust and soot, but intact in all particulars. Jessica Duchen has the story: Notre Dame: an organic tribute.
Notre Dame's Cavaillé-Coll organ was inaugurated in 1868 and built using pipes from the previous instrument - which originates far earlier than the French Revolution, from which it bears some scars. Indeed, early mentions of the organ go back to 1357, and François Thierry constructed a new one in 1730-33, which was then renovated and extended by Cliquot in the 1780s before Cavaillé-Coll transformed it 80 years later. Successive restorations and reworkings have taken place across the intervening years, translating the instrument's power according to the capabilities of modern technology; most recently, in 2010-14, Bertrand Cattiaux and Pascal Quoirin gave it an overhaul which included a new computer traction. It still has 33 pipes from the pre-Revolution instrument and around 50 by Cavaillé-Coll.
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A little out of our usual purview, but this account of the discovery, restoration and sale of the painting recently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci reveals a great deal about the current art market: The Invention of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ Or, How to Turn a $1,000 Art-Auction Pickup Into a $450 Million Masterpiece.
On April 27, 2005, at 2 p.m., Simon wrapped a trash bag around the Salvator Mundi and took it to the apartment of Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a research professor at New York University and a lauded art restorer. As Simon waited, Modestini placed the painting on her easel. She was unimpressed. Christ’s face, which she’d later learn had been repainted in the 20th century, looked to her like a “clown’s mask”; as for the overall condition of the picture, she told me recently, “it was bad, even allowing for its age.”
“I could recommend a student restorer at NYU,” she said to Simon.
“I think this needs a grown-up,” the dealer shot back.
Read the whole thing!

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Here is a review of a new volume of the poetry of Leonard Cohen: The Dying Light:
The self, like every life, is always an unfinished business, and it’s one of poetry’s great deceptions to present itself in books, with stiff dustproof covers and self-important colophons. Cohen, for all the fame and fortune—much of which, anyway, was stolen from him by an unscrupulous manager—evinces more humility than a thousand lesser scribes, and all his love songs have the aching sorrow of failure and truth. He will go down as a romantic of the twentieth century, a troubled troubadour, a truth-seeker who fell back on love, and then got that wrong, too. As he puts it himself, in an untitled, unsung, dateless, unfinished “poem” toward the end of this final collection:
I’m standing here
          in the blinding light
& I don’t know what to do
the blinding light
     of what I lost

when I walked away from you.
* * *

The Times Literary Supplement has an interesting review of a couple of books on music. The review wanders around to a number of interesting places:
Writing about food is hard; writing about perfume must be even harder; but writing about music is difficult enough. Not only are musical patterns and effects hard to put into words, but because music flows in time, they are evanescent, never standing still long enough to be focused on – “in the air, and then it’s gone”, as Eric Dolphy said. One solution far too often relied on by programme note-writers is to fall back on technical description: “X’s use of a surprising sub-dominant chord to transition back to the minor key …”, which is exasperating enough for a musician, let alone the common listener who is supposed to learn something from it.
The thing is that if you want to talk about how music makes you feel, that's one thing, but if you want to talk about how music makes you feel, that is quite another!

* * *

There is something awesomely confounding about the music of Tyshawn Sorey, the thirty-eight-year-old Newark-born composer, percussionist, pianist, and trombonist. As a critic, I feel obliged to describe what I hear, and description usually begins with categorization. Sorey’s work eludes the pinging radar of genre and style. Is it jazz? New classical music? Composition? Improvisation? Tonal? Atonal? Minimal? Maximal? Each term captures a part of what Sorey does, but far from all of it. At the same time, he is not one of those crossover artists who indiscriminately mash genres together. Even as his music shifts shape, it retains an obdurate purity of voice. T. S. Eliot’s advice seems apt: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.”
At this point, before reading any further, I really want to hear some of his music--this is out of curiosity of course, but also because, as always with Ross, I want an immediate check on his claims. "Sorey’s work eludes the pinging radar of genre and style" is a lovely phrase, but it is the kind of statement that is so often made that it begins to seem perfunctory. Oh yes, this new musical artist has blurred the boundaries/broken the rules/escaped the ordinary/eluded the radar/etc, etc, etc. Has he really? This is a new piece titled Nebulae premiered in New York in 2018:

What I have often found when I read about some new musician working in the zone between classical and jazz is that the music is pretty much jazz with exotic overlays--not in this case! This is definitely not jazz. What is it? For the first several minutes it is a soprano sax playing two notes a semitone apart while three other saxophones play tone-clusters. After a while they are joined by occasional pointillist notes from the xylophone. I found it tedious and directionless. The clip has garnered a very modest 960 views on YouTube. As the piece progresses it becomes quite irritating. Your milage may vary, of course. But at this point I rather lost interest in both the music and Alex Ross' discussion of it.

* * *

Our snark quotient is nicely filled with an item from Slipped Disc on a memoir by Nicolaus Harnoncourt:
You realise how few conductors are interested in the music. For most conductors, the concert hall is just an arena where they perform masterly dressage as tamers.
Or, in some cases, an interpretive dance version of the composition.

* * *

The Toronto Globe and Mail occasionally has quite good primer articles on classical music, something that used to be a lot more common than it is now. Currently there is one on Bach's St. Matthew Passion which saw four performances in March by Tafelmusik, Toronto's excellent Baroque orchestra, in this case conducted by Bach specialist Masaaki Suzuki. John Ibbitson, one of the Globe's editorial writers, talks about how he got hooked by classical:
One day when I was about 12, Dad came home from a trip to the city with an LP called Beethoven’s Greatest Hits. (Why he bought it remains a mystery.) I was upstairs playing Monopoly with some friends when he put on one of the tracks: the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy.
I bounded downstairs. “What is that?!” Classical music has been embedded in my life ever since. Opera when cooking. Haydn when reading. Brahms chamber music after some minor eye surgery. And Bach, OMG Bach, at night, when everything is quiet and the lights are low. If I had to choose between giving up writing and giving up listening to music, I’d give up writing.
But there aren’t many like me left, at least in the Western world, for several reasons. For one thing, classical music failed to renew itself. After Brahms died, composers struggled to find ways to express music that didn’t simply repeat what had come before. In the 20th century, the art form degenerated into a civil war between traditionalists and the avant-garde, even as audiences drifted away in search of more popular entertainments.
Grains of truth there, of course. But let me qualify that a bit. Classical music audiences in Europe are as big and as youthful as ever, so what is actually true is that audiences are diminishing and aging in North America, not the Western world. Composers did struggle with finding new kinds of musical expression in the 20th century, but some of them succeeded spectacularly. Not just Shostakovich and Britten (ones mentioned in the article) but also Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina and others. But yes, more popular entertainments have certainly taken their toll.

* * * 

It seems we haven't had a clip from Leonard Cohen for a long time. This is a Cohen song in the form of a Viennese waltz:

And along with that we should really have a little Bach. Or, what the heck, why not the whole of the St. Matthew Passion. This is from the Netherlands Bach Society:

Monday, April 15, 2019

Notre Dame: 1163 - 2019

Some really horrific news today: the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is on fire and at this point it seems it cannot be saved.

Notre Dame is very important in the history of music as it was there, in the first century of its existence, that polyphonic music was invented by Léonin and Pérotin. We have talked about this in a number of posts on the blog: here and here.

Western Music is based on two remarkable ideas, the one following from the other. The first was the brilliant solution to the notation of music through the use of one or more lines to define pitch exactly. This was the innovation of Guido of Arezzo around the year 1000 AD. The second was the invention of counterpoint, or how to put more than one melody together, the invention of Léonin and Pérotin at Notre Dame over a hundred years later. The second innovation really depended on the first.

Here is Viderunt Omnes by Pérotin:

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Jean Rondeau, harpsichord

Jean Rondeau is a young French harpsichord virtuoso and you can read about him here. I first heard him in a Bach concerto:

I have to say that this is the kind of classical musician that I really like: overflowing with musicality and technique but oblivious to obvious marketing, promotion and branding. I suspect that it is only in Europe that someone like this is allowed to pursue a successful career. Elsewhere they would not be allowed access to the better venues without falling into the hands of those middlemen that seen to turn every promising artist into a kind of cartoon. Mind you, M. Rondeau is a real virtuoso and that opens a lot of doors. He plays repertoire that others tend to avoid, such as the quirky virtuoso music of Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (1705 - 1755), who composed this piece titled Le Vertigo:

Ah, well, that's as close to rock 'n roll as the harpsichord ever gets. For a more sober facet, here he is in a performance of the Goldberg Variations for the Netherlands Bach Society.

Like Scott Ross he has a powerful rhythmic sense, always under tight control. Apart from the occasional piece, he does not seem to have explored much Couperin. Here is Les barricades mystérieuses:

That clip is from a concert so you can see he doesn't get dressed up to perform in public. Hey, they're lucky he wore shoes! Speaking of no shoes, here he is playing Les Sauvages by Rameau in a non-concert setting:

How about a little Scarlatti? Here is the Sonata K. 481:

Well, I have a new favorite harpsichordist.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

The Friday Miscellanea have been way too serious lately. So here is the solution. Four German musicians (I think) turn Vivaldi into Kurt Weill in several easy steps and look good while doing it:

* * *

Ok, we're starting with a couple of clips today. Here is the Emerald carbon fiber harp guitar:

Re the sound? Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Mind you, the sound seems ideal for the lo-cal new agey dreary musical selection. Meeoowww!

* * *

And in the latest pop, er, I mean "post-hardcore" news, the Skrillex song “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” has been found by researchers to cause mosquitos to bite less and refrain from mating: Mosquitoes Don't Like Skrillex, But Listening To His Music Isn't Enough To Keep Them Away.
Considering that mosquitoes use sound to communicate, Hamady Dieng and colleagues at the University of Malaysia in Sarawak wondered if their behaviour could be disrupted by playing a Skrillex track. They set up an experiment to compare mosquito feeding and mating in the presence of the track “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” with that of mosquitoes listening to no music at all.
I guess now we have to listen to the song:

Ok, well now I also want to refrain from mating.

* * * 

Did you know it was illegal to have a home recording studio in Nashville? Nashville!?! 'Music City' Doesn't Want You Making Music at Home.
"Nashville is one of the few places remaining in the world where some of the very best musicians get together face to face to make music," says Shaw, who has worked with recording artists ranging from Jack White to Wilco to Adele. "That's why I wanted to be here and why I wanted to create a home studio."
But for the last four years, the city of Nashville has been trying to shut that studio down.
In August 2015, Shaw received a letter from the Department of Codes and Building Inspection informing him that his studio was an unpermitted home business and was therefore illegal. Shaw was given two weeks to cease and desist his recording operations or else face daily fines of $50 and potentially be taken to court.
This is one of a long list of reasons why I am a libertarian.

* * *

Canada has long had the tendency to fetishize the indigenous peoples and now it seems to have spilled over into the music world: Canada: one Indigenous group accuses other of cultural appropriation in award row.
LeGrande, a singer from Alberta who performs under the name Cikwes, was nominated for best folk album for her album Isko, but Inuit performers said that the work uses a specific throat-singing style with deep cultural and historical ties to the Arctic. Nearly two months of talks between between the artists failed to produce an acceptable outcome, said Fraser.
In related news, the Mississipi Delta is suing Chicago for appropriation of the blues, the estate of B. B. King is suing Eric Clapton for stealing some really hot licks and Detroit is just really pissed at the Rolling Stones for, well, mostly making way too much money from their rhythm and blues and being generally a pain in the ass.

* * *

Thanks to Slipped Disc, we find our way to this new selection of the worst classical album covers.

I think they used up the cream of the crop in the previous selection.

* * *

Yo Yo Ma is looking more and more like a political opportunist: YO YO MA TO PLAY ON US-MEXICO BORDER.

* * *

Here is an interview with the interesting Frederic Rzewski, who likely never became widely-known just because of the difficulty of pronouncing his last name ("chefski").
There is a new era in capitalism: consumer capitalism. Not just exploitation of the working class, but the double exploitation of the people who pay for it. You can even say that it is turning into a new kind of slavery. Amazon slavery. This is not just capitalism. There isn’t even a word for it.
* * * 

Yet another sign of the Apocalypse: Against Chill: Apathetic Music to Make Spreadsheets To.
the music wasn’t really for liking, in the traditional sense. The music wasn’t for anything. It merely existed to facilitate and sustain a mood, which in turn might enable a task: studying, folding laundry, making spreadsheets, idly browsing the Internet. Spotify presently classifies chill as a genre, and there are an incredible number of playlists devoted to insuring a chill experience.
* * *

 Whew, after that I think we deserve a really good envoi today. How about the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Prokofiev? I haven't put that up for quite a while, have I? This is Yefim Bronfman as soloist, Vassily Sinaisky conducts the Rai National Symphony Orchestra:

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Random Reviews

You know what you do when you have a day free and you are finally going to get back to that composition you have been working on? You start frantically looking for something to divert you so you can postpone the creative act just a bit longer! C'mon, you know you do it too. So here we go, just some brief random reviews. I used to do a series of catty micro reviews of pop music, but I don't bother any more.

First up, YouTube is always good for some brief diversion. One series I have stumbled across recently is James Blick's series exploring Spain with his girlfriend Yolanda. They seem to get everywhere. James is Aussie and an emigrant to Spain who really gets into the culture. There was a good video of them eating their way across Madrid tapas bars. This one is an excursion to Extremadura to view cherry blossoms and, of course, eat and drink.

This guy has got a pretty good gig, hey? Another big travel series is Rick Steves' the best of Europe with gazillions of clips. He's not as free flowing as James and Yoli, but probably more informative. I was watching this one, preparing for my upcoming trip to Salzburg:

My main critique of Rick Steves' clips is the unpleasantly out-of-tune cello solo in his musical introduction to each clip. Gets on your nerves. As a medicinal treatment, you could always have a look at one of Chef John's Food Wishes videos, in particular this one about how to make a beer float:

Ahh! Speaking of introductory music, the absolutely worst theme music for a video series on YouTube has to be, wait for it, Scott Adams' random scatting at the beginning of every one of his Periscope videos:

Scott confesses that he has no musical ability, ok, but does he have to demonstrate it every time? If you have never watched one of his videos, you might find it interesting as he has a rather different take on the events of the day from most. That's probably enough YouTube for now. One final word, Chef John's videos are usually pretty good, but don't try and make his recipe for Irish tea bread. Nope. Total failure. The rest are pretty good.

Over to Netflix which has an impressively huge lineup of shows, most of which seem to be for people of completely different genders, demographics and philosophical views from myself. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I got hooked on The Walking Dead for a while and, in season two, fell deeply in love with Lauren Cohan. But after a while I realized that I was only enjoying the scenes in which she was present and was completely sick of seeing rotting zombies get their heads slashed open, brutally crushed, completely decapitated, bashed with a baseball bat or mangled with various other hoes, machetes, samurai swords, garden implements and anything else that came to hand.

Lauren Cohan in The Walking Dead
Another show I was watching recently was the British historic crime drama Peaky Blinders. Love the name. It is an excellent view into the world of criminal gangs in Birmingham in the early 1920s run by people who are either psychopaths or suffering from PTSD. NTTIAWWT! I watched Arrow a bit, but while not bad, it got a bit too soap operaish. My big discovery was The Crown. Its two seasons cover the life of Elizabeth II from shortly before her coronation in 1953 into the 1960s. As a Canadian, she has been my sovereign for virtually my entire life. A really remarkable figure with a unique role in world politics that mostly consists in being extremely non-political. The weirdest thing about the show is that they have her married to Doctor Who. Well, sure, with the Tardis anything is possible. In any case, it is an excellent show and well worth watching. Alas, I have come to the end of season two so I have to look elsewhere. I find I am coming back to an Aussie show I watched a while back: Wanted. Due to the excellent acting and interesting story, probably worth re-watching.

Well, now I have to get to my actual work today. Wish me luck or something...

Wilfrid Mellers' Couperin

I didn't have high hopes for this book as it was originally published in 1950 (this is a 2008 reprint by an English bookshop), but so far it is quite interesting. Perhaps wrongly, I think of monographs from the 50s as tending to be dry and analytical, but Mellers surprised me by starting with four chapters on the origins of the Couperin family, the social and ethical culture of the time, the aesthetic context and the place of music in the court and the theater.

One thing that reveals the age of the writing is the great chunks of untranslated French prose! Oh yes, go back seventy years and a writer of a scholarly book could just expect everyone to read the occasional passage in French. Another book of this vintage I have been reading lately is Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy. He expects you to read, if not lengthy passages, then certainly individual terms, in Greek. And not Greek transliterated into Roman letters. No. Greek: εὐδαιμονία for example. The only issue with the Mellers book so far is that my copy is missing pages 51-2. Weird.

Those four chapters on the historical/cultural background reveal a more contemporary attitude than I would have expected. Of course it is not really up to date: he doesn't obsess about intersectionality, race and gender.

One of the stumbling blocks, at least for English speakers, in the music of Couperin, is his titles, nearly every one of them an impenetrable French obscurity. Mellers has an appendix with notes on virtually every one of Couperin's titles.

I'm still in chapter four, a discussion of the development of French ballet and opera, neither of which Couperin contributed to, but both of which influenced him, so a full review will have to wait. But so far, a hearty recommendation for this somewhat elderly book on François Couperin.

This provides the opportunity to put up another envoi of Couperin's keyboard music. The best performer to my mind is Grigory Sokolov, on piano, though only a couple of ordres are available on YouTube. Here is the Treizième Ordre followed by the Dix-huitième Ordre, both recorded at a concert in Schwetzingen, May 22nd 2001 (the clip is mislabeled):

You have to admire a pianist who will walk on stage and play nothing but Couperin for the whole of the first half of the concert!

Friday, April 5, 2019

Friday Miscellanea

There is something oddly compelling (and certainly audience-pleasing) about this rendition of the theme from Shaft by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain:

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Over at Vulture there is a piece on pop plagiarism: Welcome to the Age of Pop ‘Plagiarism’
...attitudes toward borrowing in music have changed incrementally since the end of the 20th century. The shift dovetails with hip-hop’s growth and the ways that rap producers have been able to morph and even break existing stigmas about quoting and sampling other artists’ work. ’80s rap was a Wild West period of collage art made through mostly uncontested cribbing. Sampling lawsuits made the practice expensive; by the ’90s, producers used chunks of old hit records to shore up their chances at charting and to flaunt their wealth. In the aughts, rappers tried each other’s beats and flows out to prove their proficiency and versatility. Listeners who came of age in the last three decades were, in effect, groomed into a new and evolving understanding of originality in music.

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The New York Review of Books has a review of a new biography of composer Elliot Carter.
Carter has been well served by those who love his music. Bridge Records alone has recordings of fifty-six of his pieces in its catalog, more than half of these performances supervised by the composer himself. His most significant work for solo piano, Night Fantasies (1980), has been recorded not only by the four artists for whom it was written (Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen) but by at least half a dozen others, and now ranks with Fredric Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated as one of the most popular large keyboard works of recent times.
I'm sorry to say that I have, despite repeated attempts, never managed to really enjoy Elliot Carter's music, especially, oddly enough, his piece for guitar. Let's have one more try. Here is a performance by Paul Jacobs:

Interesting, I guess. I just can't hear anything there except structure.

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Ok, ok, I am almost as skeptical of success stories as I am of gloom and doom stories when it comes to symphony orchestras. Let's have a look at this one: Shaking Up the SymphonyHow a millennial who believes in both Mozart and metrics saved a California orchestra, redefining the classical concert experience as we know it. This makes sense:
“People think that to bring in younger audiences you need ‘The Symphony Meets the Beatles,’ but a Beethoven symphony is amazing to anyone. You don’t have to ‘symphonize’ pop music,” Cabrera says. “We needed to change the experience, not the repertoire.” 
Bergauer tested this hypothesis by creating a survey project to collect information on the symphony experience. She called it Orchestra X, a nod to Google’s experimental research arm in Silicon Valley, and invited culturally minded millennials and Gen Xers to $5 concerts in exchange for their honest feedback. Their findings indicated that, indeed, only one person thought the music itself was the problem. The rest were in awe.
Yep. The reason it makes sense is that she did the research. All too often it seems that administrators are just trying out whatever suits what they conceive as The Narrative, instead of trying to find out what is actually going on. Part of the article sounds like the usual diversity narrative, but the bottom line is they are doing enough good marketing to make a real difference.

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You will have to download a pdf, but it is worth it. The Raritan Quarterly Review has a piece on Charles Ives and his role in the formation of an American musical language:
Ives died of a stroke in 1954. Leonard Bernstein had premiered Ives’s Second Symphony with the New York Philharmonic only three years previous. Ives declined Bernstein’s invitation to travel to New York. As he did not own a radio, he listened to a broadcast in a neigh- bor’s kitchen. When it was over, he spit in the fireplace and walked home. His wife Harmony wrote Bernstein an appreciative note. She added that Charles had found the fast movements “too slow.”
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The Guardian gives us a glimpse into the world of young YouTube artists: ‘Be urself’: meet the teens creating a generation gap in music.
For want of a better name, you might call it underground bedroom pop, an alternate musical universe that feels like a manifestation of a generation gap: big with teenagers – particularly girls – and invisible to anyone over the age of 20, because it exists largely in an online world that tweens and teens find easy to navigate, but anyone older finds baffling or risible. It doesn’t need Radio 1 or what is left of the music press to become popular because it exists in a self-contained community of YouTube videos and influencers; some bedroom pop artists found their music spread thanks to its use in the background of makeup tutorials or “aesthetic” videos, the latter a phenomenon whereby vloggers post atmospheric videos of, well, aesthetically pleasing things.
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Now here is a tired meme: The Myth of the Composer-Genius. Here is how the writer explains the myth:
Take a moment to picture a composer-genius in your head. What do they look like? Chances are, they are a male of European descent, someone like Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Or maybe even Stravinsky, Schönberg, or Boulez. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the Western canon of Classical music presents a lineage of composers who received the artform from their forefathers and advanced it through innovation and experimentation. This lineage also either implicitly or explicitly excludes women and people of color.
Ok, well, that comment about excluding women and people of color assumes facts not in evidence. Just because some composers are very highly-regarded in no way proves that some mysterious agency excluded others.
To clarify, I have no interest in disproving that composers of the Classical canon were geniuses. I have not searched dusty archives and found long-lost IQ tests taken by the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Rather, I argue that the persistence of this label is unnecessary to appreciate music by these individuals, and that it is a dangerous myth that great art can only be the product of genius. Such a myth is not only harmful to those of us who write music—poisoning us with constant imposter syndrome and anxiety that our work will never be enough—but it has allowed musical culture to become ossified around the work of a select few composers–those worthy enough to be elevated to the status of genius.
That's a kind of passive-aggressive argument. Musical genius may have nothing to do with IQ. But yes, sticking a "genius" label on is really unnecessary. So why is the writer obsessing about it? I don't care what label you stick on Mozart or even if you bother to stick one on at all. Pretty much irrelevant. But sticking the label on and then calling it "dangerous" and "poisonous" is rather a foolish and pointless project is it not?

I see this kind of thing as being related to Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours silliness. Both writers want to exclude the idea of native ability so they can say that achievement is just a matter of practice, practice, practice. Sorry, folks, you can practice all you want, but a Mozart only comes along very rarely.

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Now let's see, what shall we have for our envoi? Here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in the Symphony No. 2 of Charles Ives. Bernstein gives a lengthy introduction (in German) and the performance itself begins at the 19 minute mark.