Sunday, July 5, 2020

Loves and Loathes

You'd think there would be an obvious tag for this one, after all, a lot of what goes through one's mind (well, my mind) on a given day is noticing things that we like or don't like, or as my title has it, things we love as opposed to things we loathe. So here is a list of loathes:
  • All of those movies where actors dress up in ridiculous costumes and engage in even more ridiculous fights while surrounded by supremely ridiculous CGI (computer-generated imagery)
  • Those other supposedly more "realistic" movies where a cast of Hollywood stars demonstrate their smug entitlement while an utterly unbelievable scenario unfolds. Examples? All the Ocean movies: Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, Ocean's Thirteen
  • Most movies with these actors: Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, George Clooney, Johnny Depp
  • Any sitcom with a laugh track
  • Any remake of a classic movie
  • The Android operating system
  • Most music written by Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler
  • Most pop divas: Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Beyoncé. I'm kind of neutral about Lady Gaga and Rihanna
  • U2
And a corresponding list of loves:
  • Gamelan music from both Java and Bali
  • Any film by Peter Weir, Clint Eastwood or Akira Kurosawa
  • Most films by Luc Besson
  • Most movies with these actors: Heath Ledger, Paul Bettany, Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Alicia Vikander, Denzel Washington and Jean Reno
  • Nearly everything written by these composers: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich
  • Most songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen
  • The English Beat
  • Grigory Sokolov and Valery Gergiev
  • Northern Italian red wines: Barolo, Dolcetto d'Alba and Amarone della Valpolicella
  • Ice wine
I feel like I have left out a bunch of stuff from both categories...

Hard to pick a good envoi for this one, so I'm going with Weird Al Yankovic:

Saturday, July 4, 2020

A Poetic Pause

I have a poetry tag, though it is rarely used. Poetry has been part of my life for over fifty years, but only recently have I taken notice of the social place of poetry in this changing world. My impression was that it held hardly any interest to people, especially young people, now. But some commentators have been disagreeing with that, saying that poetry, whether in the form of song lyrics, hip hop, or "slam" poetry readings is actually alive and well.

Let me share a bit of my personal history with poetry. When I was in my teens, and sporadically up to my early 30s, I wrote rather precious poetry myself, some of which was even published. I was astonished, when I was nineteen, to have a poem I submitted to an American literary magazine accepted and published. I'm still astonished. I never followed up on that because poetry for me was largely a private affair and I didn't really look for publication. At university in my early 20s I discussed my poetry with my English professor and he was reasonably encouraging. However, I was actually enrolled in the music department so didn't do anything with that. I did attend a poetry reading by Basil Bunting, who was in residence that year, and we became acquaintances, talking about poetry and music. As I recall, he was a fan of Andrés Segovia.

My tastes in poetry are pretty wide: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and the poets I selected for my set of songs, Songs from the Poets. Those included Li Po, Aristophanes, Anna Akhmatova, Rainer Maria Rilke, Victor Hugo, Wallace Stevens, Robert Graves, Philip Larkin (setting that one caused the loss of a very old friendship!), Theodore Roethke (my encounter with him was due to the aforementioned English professor), and John Donne.

I also like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, but for me song lyrics are a slightly different category than poetry simple. But, of course, I set to music a whole bunch of examples of pure poetry, choosing ones that seemed to trigger some sort of musical response in me.

So do people read much literary poetry these days? Just old folks like myself?

For an envoi, here is one of my songs, Nuits de Juin by Victor Hugo and the only text not in English.

Here is the text of that short poem:

L’été, lorsque le jour a fui, de fleurs couverte
La plaine verse au loin un parfum enivrant ;
Les yeux fermés, l’oreille aux rumeurs entrouverte,
On ne dort qu’à demi d’un sommeil transparent.

Les astres sont plus purs, l’ombre paraît meilleure ;
Un vague demi-jour teint le dôme éternel ;
Et l’aube douce et pâle, en attendant son heure,
Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

This has been a weird time for musicians. I have been able to get in much more practicing than usual and almost am back to being reasonably in shape, technically. I am actually thinking about doing a solo recording with video. Keep your eye on this space! And I was talking to an old friend of mine who is principal flute in a Canadian orchestra and even though there are no concerts, everything is cancelled until next April, at least, he is practicing three hours a day.

* * *

Ah, to be in Madrid, now that July is here: The Teatro Real is staging an indoor Traviata with audience--well, 50% audience!

* * *

Here is a sad tale that might represent what a lot of orchestras in North America are going through: A CELLIST’S TALE: MY ORCHESTRA JUST CEASED TO EXIST.
So as of today the Nashville Symphony, my employers for the last 36 years, ceases to exist in the form many of you know and love. And it won’t be back, at least not in its former state, for a long time, if ever.
I'm pretty sure that classical music in Europe will recover and do so pretty soon. But in North America? Right now it is odds or evens whether it will recover at all...

* * *

I was searching for something, anything, that was not coronavirus related and came up with this: IT’S THE NAKED PIANIST… LOOK AWAY NOW.
Mixed-race, openly gay, Stockport classical pianist Emmanuel (Manny) Vass, 31, continues to push boundaries and divide traditionalists with the release his third album, The Naked Pianist.
From stripping down to Union Jack boxers on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent; being spotted by the pool chatting to fellow daters in his orange speedos on Channel 4’s First Dates Hotel, to featuring as a ClassicFM Young Classical Star, Manny continues to take risks shaking up the classical world.
Frankly, I'm neither shaken nor stirred.

* * *

The New York Times confirms what I was saying above: Cultural Life Is Back in Europe. In the U.K., They Talk of Collapse.
In France, Germany, Italy or Belgium, where the arts are heavily subsidized by the state, performing companies and museums can survive with reduced ticket sales. But in Britain, where government funding is much lower and organizations rely on commercial income, most are unprepared for a future in which they can only admit a fraction of their usual audience.
* * *

Got the virus? Why not dance it away with a Neapolitan tarantella from the 17th century:

Here is some dance music by Shostakovich:

And a little Indian classical dance:

Here is Rihanna's CGI-assisted dance from the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets:

Of course, Russians can do incredible things without CGI:

And that it for today. Have a happy and dancey weekend!

Thursday, July 2, 2020


Reading a book on extended violin techniques I was amused to read the following passage:
An extended five-string violin with frets (discussed in chapter 6), produces a “quantized” glissando, in which the slide is broken into discrete half steps (fig. 2.53). This is the kind of glissando produced by a guitar. 
FIGURE 2.53. Quantized glissando.

Strange, Patricia. The Contemporary Violin (The New Instrumentation Series) . Scarecrow Press. Kindle Edition.
Well, yeah, of course. With all those frets there is no possible way of doing a glissando on guitar without hearing all the semitones. Right? The only thing is, way back when I was a young guitarist I heard a Segovia recording where he did a glissando from a fairly high note on the second string to a fairly low note on the same string and it was perfectly smooth. No discrete steps. It was so expressive and impressive that I set out to learn how to do it. Turns out that if you have exactly the right amount of finger pressure, it works. Too much pressure and you hear the "steps," too little pressure and you lose the note. The next step was to figure out how to do it on the wound strings without the whisking effect like wearing corduroy pants. The trick there is to turn your finger so you are sliding on a part that is away from the callus. Then, with exactly the right amount of pressure, you can do a smooth glissando even on the bass strings. There are lots of examples in my piece Dark Dream starting from around the one minute mark:

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Two Shostakovich 7ths

Somebody stop me, I'm about to do something malicious: I'm going to compare two performances of this symphony and say why I prefer one.

Here is the first: Marin Alsop conducting the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra:

For this particular exercise you don't have to listen to the whole thing, the first five minutes will do.

Now the second performance: Valery Gergiev conducting the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre.

Both of these are terrific orchestras and the solos are really excellent. Listen to the piccolo player with the Frankfurt band from the 5:45 minute mark. You may find Gergiev's conducting style to be odd with all his twitchy, wiggly beats--plus he is literally conducting using a toothpick! Alsop is more conventional with clear, disciplined baton technique.

But for me it is no contest at all: Gergiev and the Mariinsky have by far the better performance. Is it that they have the advantage of being Russian playing Russian music? That might be part of it. But the Frankfurters are a terrific orchestra. In May 2017 I heard them playing the Rite of Spring by Russian Igor Stravinsky in Madrid and it was terrific, conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada. So you don't actually have to be Russian, though it may help.

Here is how I would characterize the differences: from the moment he steps on the podium, Gergiev is in some kind of elemental musical space. He and the orchestra rip into the opening with fervor and despair. I say despair, because this is a serious symphony and they play it with a very serious demeanor. Alsop, on the other hand is cheery and personable, shaking hands with both concert-master and assistant concert-master, smiling at the audience and bowing a few times. Her opening is fine: tidy, organized, with really, really, really even sixteenth notes. "Tidy rhythms, tidy rhythms," I can almost hear her exclaiming to the orchestra in rehearsal. But we are already in the wrong space. Shostakovich and this piece in particular, is not about tidy rhythms. It is about existential terror. As Nick Harnoncourt said in a quite different context, all notes are not created equal.

Mariinsky with Gergiev don't have time to make their sixteenth notes all perfectly even--they are playing Shostakovich for Christ's sake and those sixteenths are about suffering, not about tidiness. Go listen to Gergiev's opening again. That first beat feels ripped from the depths of hell and the following passages are still trailing fire and brimstone. Alsop? Nope, still tidy. Yes, the lyrical sections are nice, I mentioned that wonderful piccolo player (even notice how many great solos Shostakovich gives to the flute and piccolo?), but she has framed the whole aesthetic space so narrowly that the performance never plumbs the depths.

The difference between a good performance and a great performance is huge, actually. In the one the performers get inside the music somehow and it just seems to spill out of them in a glorious torrent. In the other, everything is very capably played, the rhythms and notes are all very correct and the performers never actually get inside. Maybe great performances are not something we hear every day, or every year even, but it is the hope of hearing one that makes us go to concerts.

The Transmission of Culture

A perennial topic here at the Music Salon is the current state of affairs in classical music (and culture generally). There have been some good recent suggestions about how to improve things--that is, if we ever get past this pandemic crisis. But it might be worth while to give a thought to just how we got to this present state of affairs.

I'm not sure if very much research has been done on this, but if you look at music history you get the sense that, as far as written music goes, popular music slowly emerged from the shadows over the period from 1500 to 1800, then took a steeper ascent in the 19th century before positively exploding in the 20th century. And since World War II the climb accelerated. A nice graph of popular music sales from 1800 to 2020 would be really useful right now--it would look something like the climate change "hockey stick" graph:

But while that graph remains controversial, I doubt that, if we had the numbers, the music one would be. According to Forbes the highest-earning musicians in 2019 were Taylor Swift at $185 million and Kanye West at $150 million. The Beatles are still making a lot of money today, but back in the 60s they probably only made a few million a year--amounts are hard to find. Before the Beatles popular musicians earned relatively little.

Popular music has mastered all sorts of techniques for monetizing success and in the process the music has come to resemble an industrial product. We even refer to the music realm as the "music business" or "music industry."

So what does this have to do with the transmission of culture? All cultural traditions and practices need to be transmitted to each new generation or they will be lost. Some cultures seem to be pretty good at this, others not. Reading about music in Java I was struck by how, since Indonesian independence, there have been extensive efforts made to preserve and even spread the unique culture of the Javanese gamelan orchestra. I am at a loss to cite counterexamples, though I'm sure there are many. Cases where the traditions have not been preserved and are lost to us, are, well, lost to us and we may not even be aware they ever existed.

Perhaps the cultural tradition that I am most keenly aware of that has, I suspect, been almost lost to us, is that of poetry. I expect some pushback on this. I certainly don't know the whole story, but it is my strong impression that if we go back a few generations there was a general awareness of poetry among nearly everyone and specific competences among a small percentage. Maybe 10% of the population could recite one or more poems from heart. Perhaps 5% even wrote some poetry. Over the last fifty years or two generations, I think this has all gone away. No-one encourages (or forces!) public school students to memorize poetry and they certainly don't read it or write it to any extent whatsoever.

One of the things that got me thinking about this was the Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society that I watched recently. The message in that film, which takes place in a private school in the 1950s, is that you can kill the passion for literature by approaching it in a too-analytical manner. That was one stage in the internment of poetry in a cold, cold grave. The more recent stage is that educators simply decide that most literature is too difficult or too reactionary or too racist to bother teaching so they will focus on just those works that perfectly fit their progressive narrative. Oh, and analysis, this time called "deconstruction" is back with a vengeance.

The situation in music seems rather different. The higher educational system seems to be functioning at high efficiency. Sure, you may complain that Juilliard keeps cranking out unfeeling virtuosos, but they are doing it very efficiently! The problem is that all the university music departments and conservatories in North America are cranking out more highly-trained musicians than the market can absorb. There are not enough audiences.

That problem, the lack of listeners who really enjoy classical music, is one that lies rather lower on the educational ladder: good listeners are ones that have been exposed early enough and often enough and with some understanding and context to classical music and therefore develop a taste for it. The fact that music programs have largely disappeared from the school system is likely one of the main reasons why the classical audience only comprises 2% or perhaps 3% of the music market.

This is a vicious cycle: music programs are deemed less and less important as fewer and fewer administrators are musically aware themselves.

It doesn't take much to lose a cultural tradition. What may seem like a rock-solid institution today like the Metropolitan Opera or the LA Philharmonic can disappear in a couple of generations if neglected. I think the pandemic is revealing to us the fragility of the performing arts. Will they recover? More importantly, will they flourish and be handed on to future generations?

Wim Winters is making an interesting effort with historical reconstructions of tempi in Beethoven and others. Here he is playing a bunch of Haydn sonatas on clavichord.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Today's Concert: Grieg from Frankfurt

The Frankfurt Radio Orchestra were doing a great job with high-quality concert videos before the coronavirus crisis and they have kept on during it. Today's streaming music concert is Grieg's Holberg Suite conducted by Ruth Reinhardt. Is it my imagination or are we seeing a lot more woman conductors than usual these days?

Sunday, June 28, 2020

What I Am Reading

In case anyone is interested. If you are reading something interesting, tell us about it in the Comments. I've been reading the first one for a while and I'm nearly at the end:

Early on I was afraid that this was going to be an exercise in political correctness, but it was not so. Excellent book on Javanese music, i.e. the gamelan and wayang, from the inside. No attempts to squeeze anything into Western notation, which means that you have to learn the way Javanese musicians write down music. There is an accompanying CD with many musical examples.

This is a very unusual, but very interesting and worthwhile book. The sweep is wide, the whole of Western European culture considered and discussed with a critical eye. Some very sacred cows are given a bit of a bashing. It is really about the 20th century and the horrible things that happened and the ways people, especially cultural figures, reacted to them. From the Introduction:
If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.

James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Just starting this one, but it promises to be a very useful book.

Let's see, we need some music, don't we? First some music from Java. This is music from Mangkunêgaran, Solo, Java.

This is Alina Ibragimova, violin and Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano - Live from Wigmore Hall last week in music by Schubert and Beethoven:

Friday, June 26, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

Oh, those halcyon days of yore when so much of the Friday Miscellanea was devoted to the silly side of music: really unfortunate album covers, bizarre music videos and Yuja Wang's dresses. Well, I will try to avoid a litany of woe, but it won't be easy!

* * *

What have the musicians of the Metropolitan Opera been up to since they are not playing in the pit? Doing a little busking:

 With about five listeners, it looks like...

* * *

I was talking to a friend of mine on the weekend who is principal flute in a Canadian orchestra. His orchestra has simply canceled next season. Not just until January, until next September. This means that every member of that orchestra will have been without work for almost a year and a half. Why are North American orchestras canceling instead of incrementally re-establishing concerts as they are doing in Europe? In Germany and Austria, for example, orchestras have started over the last week or so giving normal concerts except that many seats in the halls are blocked off. The Dresden orchestra gave a concert this week in an 1,800 seat hall that was only able to seat 480 audience members. They are only able to do this because of very hefty government subsidies. In Canada, with much smaller government grants, a couple of concerts like that and the orchestra is flat broke, because they are losing tens of thousands of dollars with every concert.

* * *

Here is economist Tyler Cowan with some thoughts on how things for the arts might not be as horrific as they seem at the moment:

Of course, economics is known as the "dismal science."

* * *

A little survey from Slipped Disc of how some concerts are being given with success.
The Czech Philharmonic played last night to an audience of 500, seated 20 centimetres apart and without face coverings, in the open air and intermittent rain. There were no tickets left for sale.

The New Zealand Symphony are expecting 2,000 at their Friday-night comeback concert with local hero Simon O’Neill.
* * *

The Guardian with a very British understated headline: The future of the arts: ‘The classical music world has been transfigured’
Still no one knows when, or in what manner, live music will return. Europe is already starting up again, in confined ways. Austria hopes for audiences of 1,000 by August. America and the UK are looking, in many cases, far into next year. All musicians have sustained catastrophic loss. Some will look to other careers: an estimated 20%. Salaried orchestral players have been furloughed. Nearly half of freelancers are ineligible for government aid. Soloists, indeed all musicians, must maintain technique and commitment. Composers have lost commissions, representing years’ worth of income.
* * *

 One of the oddest things about this pandemic is that just about the riskiest thing you can do is sing in a choir: Choirs reimagine themselves as singing proves an effective way to spread COVID-19
Early in the pandemic, the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State became a cautionary tale after 45 members of a 56-person ensemble became infected with COVID-19 following a rehearsal. Two choir members later died of the virus. 
"If you're a professionally trained singer, all the power from the body can really send those particles a great distance," she said, adding the latest research she's reviewed suggests singers would need to be spaced 15 feet apart outdoors to minimize transmission.

Erick Lichte, the artistic director of Chor Leoni, a 60-person amateur men's choir in Vancouver, said COVID-19 has "decimated" chorale music, and that he doesn't anticipate group sessions resuming normally until a vaccine is developed.
* * *

Enough gloom! Time to turn to one of music's most angelic delights: Mozart’s infinite riches
One of the more intriguing games which music lovers play among themselves—formerly on long car journeys; now under indefinite house arrest—is to imagine a situation in which they are permitted, for the rest of their lives, to listen to the works of every composer, but restricted to one genre per composer. You can have as many composers as you like, and as many genres, but if you want Brahms’s symphonies, say, you can’t have anyone else’s. The challenge is to find, for each great composer, a format in which he was both prolific and characteristic; there is no point, however much one loves Fidelio, in choosing opera for Beethoven; it would be a waste of an opportunity to hear more (and even better) Beethoven, and deprives you of the operas of Wagner or Verdi, Janáček or Britten (albeit that you can only choose one of these). With a little thought, it soon becomes obvious that, among the great Viennese composers, you would be well advised to choose Haydn’s string quartets, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Schubert’s songs. Each of these three excelled in those respective forms, and though it will be a wrench for some to forego Beethoven’s 16 essays in string quartet form, the 32 piano sonatas are more than a numerical compensation for their loss.
You should go read the whole thing, but the answer to what should you pick for Mozart is, of course, the piano concertos.

* * *

For our first envoi, the Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 271 by Mozart. From the Grossesaal of the Mozarteum, Salzburg, 1989, Mitsuko Uchida performs with the Mozarteum Orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Tate.

 Another delight, Holst's The Planets with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in a streaming music concert (i.e. without audience) from last week.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Busy, Busy Music

I think if you spend much time on YouTube in the non-classical areas such as instructional videos, documentaries, cooking videos and so on, you will encounter a lot of busy, busy soundtracks. Heck, here is one in a GarageBand tutorial:

You only have to watch/listen to the first minute. I started looking at GarageBand because it seemed very interesting and loaded with possibilities. But I am starting to realize that the way it works reveals something of the sociology of popular music. But that is a topic for another post! Right now I just want to talk about the relentless busyness of so much music today. Here is another example, a cooking video about making dumplings:

I just want you to notice the music: drum breaks, and frenetic funk, at a lower volume, even during the narration. I don't think I need to provide many examples as this kind of brisk, even frenetic, soundtrack can be found in nearly every non-classical music video on the web. Here is another example with a more ominous soundtrack, but still busy:

At some point I realized that I really hate busy music. Why? It is generic, falling into a fairly limited group of musical ideas and gestures, it is redundant in that the busyness requires a lot of repetition, and most of all, it is extremely distracting. I suspect that to most people it is not as distracting because they are not trained listeners so the soundtrack is likely perceived as a kind of musical wallpaper, just there. Or perhaps it is intended to brighten up the atmosphere and is perceived that way. But if you focus your attention on it, it becomes astonishingly annoying. To me at least.

So, busy music. The busyness of it is supposedly good for the business of music and I suppose it is. In pop music you have to keep prodding your listeners to remind them how wonderful the music is.

I suspect that contemporary classical composers have reacted to this in various ways. I certainly have. We might do a brief survey. The most radical response might be John Cage's 4'33 which consists of nothing but silence. But there are a host of other examples: Steve Reich's Drumming which starts with isolated beats on a small drum. Morton Feldman's chamber music which often consists of an hour long movement with just a few notes and chords. I wrote a piece thirty years ago that consisted in one chord on guitar arpeggiated in various ways, and two notes, repeated, on flute. Nico Muhly did a whole album based on drones. Arvo Pärt has written many pieces based on very simple structures and with a minimum of busyness. Lots of other examples. Mind you, some classical composers are very busy indeed. Elliot Carter's music is densely packed with themes, structures, rhythms and harmonies as is music by Brian Ferneyhough and many others.

Apart from aesthetic considerations, I seriously wonder what kind of effect these relentlessly busy soundtracks have on the reasoning powers of the listeners? How can you think and evaluate the message of the video when this soundtrack is pounding at you? But that too is a topic for another post.

Your thoughts?

Monday, June 22, 2020

Today's Concert: Countertenor and Lute/Guitar from Wigmore Hall

A wide variety of music for voice and plucked instruments including music by Purcell, Dowland, Campion, Mozart and Schubert.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

In the Groove?

We had a discussion in the comment section recently about the steady pulse found in popular music, which was referred to as a "groove," and the compatibility with classical music. Now, of course, there is a whole very popular genre of classical music that very much has a groove. This is often called "minimalism" but I'm not sure that has ever been a very good label. Steve Reich used to call what he does "process music" and that might be a little better. In any case, this music is very much "in the groove." Take Music for 18 Musicians, for example:

This music has very distinctive energy that, while it shares something with pop music, is actually quite different. Compare "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones:

Or more recently "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West:

But there is an awful lot of classical music that would suffer enormously from being forced into a rigid beat. For example this performance of the Chopin Nocturne op. 9 no. 2 by Arthur Rubinstein:

No, it is not just Romantic repertoire that would suffer. Here is an unmeasured prelude by Louis Couperin that is an extreme example of music that is not intended to have a regular pulse:

Mind you, if I were to put up examples of 18th century music by historically informed performance ensembles we would hear a lot of quite strict rhythms. In Classical music there has always been a spectrum of expression between the more lyrical and free songlike side and the more physical dancelike elements. For example, taking two examples from the same suite by Bach, played by the same performer, here is Hilary Hahn with the Sarabande from the D minor Partita followed by the Gigue from the same suite:

But even in the Gigue with its strongly dancelike character there are subtle rhythmic inflections.

As a performer, while I see the powerful appeal of a rhythmic groove, I also see it as a potential rut preventing you from having some kinds of musical expression.

Tabula Rasa part one: Ludus

Richard Taruskin somewhat flippantly once referred to the history of music in the 20th century as "two zigs and two zags" by which he was referring to roughly four phases, two of which were devoted to increasing complexity and two to radical simplification. I talked about that in this post, The Second Zag: the New Consonance. The first zag was the simplification of the neo-classical phase of the 1930s and 40s. This was followed by the post-War zig of the complexities of the total serialists. That was in turn followed by the second zag, the simple pulse of the "minimalists" and the simple consonances of a number of composers from Eastern Europe including Arvo Pärt.

The first question the comes to mind in doing an analysis of this piece is what exactly do you analyze? For the first eight minutes of the ten minute plus piece, the harmony is A minor or A Aeolian. Basically one chord with passing notes. At the eight minute mark there is a cadenza for all instruments, again, mostly an A minor chord, but with an E in the bass which tips it slightly toward the dominant, a typical harmony for a cadenza. Then comes the third section which takes us to the end of the piece. This features a slower tempo and more harmonic complexity. The bass moves to F# then E flat and the harmonies above use those notes plus the A and C. This gives us a diminished seventh on F#. Ultimately the bass reverts to A while the F# and E flat continue above which just changes the inversion. Then the upper voices return to a simple A minor harmony and the piece ends with a fortissimo A and C in several octaves.

That paragraph describes the harmony. So, are we done? Not at all because obviously the harmony is not where the real action is. The first eight minutes, which I described the other day as a ritornello with ornamental sections needs to be described in much more detail, especially as regards durations. After the opening gesture, the two As at opposite ends of the tessitura, there is a Grand Pause over a measure of 8/2. Then the ritornello starts which simply consists of overlapping falling minor sixths dropping down to a bass A and then rising up again with rising minor sixths (C down to E and then E up to C) all accompanied by repeated As. Over this there is some brief ornamentation in the two solo violins using eighths, triplet eighths and sixteenths. This first statement of the ritornello takes seven measures. The last measure of the ritornello, which has all been 4/4, takes us to a two-measure passage of 5/4 followed by 6/4 with long very high As in one solo violin doubled with notes in the prepared piano (which, because of the preparation has a cluster of pitches resembling a bell). This is followed by another G.P. (Grand Pause) but this time on a measure of 7/4. I am going to label these three different ideas, the ritornello (R), the sustained high notes with prepared piano (S) and the G.P. (P).

Then the ritornello returns, but this time it is extended to ten measures in which the solo violins extend their ornamental passage from three measures to six measures. The second statement of S is now three measures instead of two and they are longer measures: 6/4. The P is shortened to 6/2.

Third statement of R is now twelve measures with the ornamental passages extended to ten measures. The S section is now five measures, again of 6/4. The P is shortened again to 5/2.

Fourth statement of R is now sixteen measures with thirteen measures of ornamentation for the solo violins. The S is extended to six measures in 6/4 and the P is shortened to 4/2.

The fifth statement sees the texture of the ritornello for the orchestra thickened and with passing notes so that the rising and falling minor sixths are now a scale passage falling from E down to D and rising again. The falling sixths are retained in the low bass. The solo violins are given much more to do as well with grace notes and passing notes. The R is now eighteen measures long. The S is shortened to two measures, 5/4 and 6/4, and the P is a measure of 3/2.

The sixth statement of R is extended again to twenty-two measures and the orchestra uses more of the scale passages. The solo violins develop their material and have an extended passage in triplets. S is also extended to nine measures and the P is now 2/2.

In the seventh statement the solo violins dominate the texture so thoroughly that we hardly hear the characteristic falling sixths of the ritornello. R is now twenty-four measures. S is extended to eleven measures and the P is 1/2.

This process continues in the eighth and final statement of R which is now thirty measures. At the end instead of continuing to S and P, there is a brief rallentando and the cadenza begins. You could argue that the cadenza replaces the S theme. The cadenza is twenty-two measures long. The final section, Meno mosso, is in 6/4 and takes seventeen measures. It essentially acts as a coda with the greatest harmonic variety of the piece.

One element I have not discussed is the function of the very low register chord in the prepared piano that acts as a punctuation point, a bit like the gong ageng in gamelan music. It occurs eight times, once in each statement of R. Here, counting from the beginning of R, is when the chord occurs:
  • measure 4
  • measure 5
  • measure 6
  • measure 7
  • measure 8
  • measure 9
  • measure 10
  • measure 11
So, at the same time the P is being shortened by one beat in each iteration, the piano chord is being moved one measure later in each iteration.

Pärt begins with a very simple ritornello with some elaboration in the solo violins. This is extended with each iteration. At the same time the S theme is also extended. The P idea is shortened with each iteration. Finally, the piano chord punctuation is moved one measure later in each iteration. This gives us four simultaneous processes being worked out in the A section. (I see three large sections in the Ludus movement: A is the RSP section, B is the cadenza and C is the coda.

The subtleties are in the areas of phrase and meter, not so much in harmony or melody. What is particularly attractive in this piece, which has been very successful with audiences since its premiere, is the choice of thematic material for the ritornello as well as the uniqueness of the structure.

So that's my analysis of the Ludus movement. Next, I will have a look at Silentium.

Please, leave me a comment. If you disagree with my analysis, that would be particularly interesting!

Update: Just adding a clip of the piece. Sorry, I couldn't find a clip with the score!

Also, here is the beginning of the 4th iteration of R. You can see the low piano chord in measure 50.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Friday Miscellanea

You have no idea of the challenges that met musicians working in the late 1960s--but one fellow stumbled across one just the other day: HACKER DOSED WITH LSD WHILE RESTORING HISTORICAL SYNTH
[Eliot Curtis] found himself a little too close to 1960’s counterculture while restoring a vintage modular synthesizer — he began tripping out on acid. The instrument in question is a Buchla Model 100. The Buchla is a modular synth. Instead of a keyboard, it used capacitance-sensitive touch plates. This particular model 100 was purchased by California State University East Bay Campus. The synth was popular for a while, but eventually fell into disuse, and was stored in a classroom closet. 
During the restoration, [Curtis] found residue and crystals stuck under one of the knobs of the Control Voltage Processing Module. Was it flux, conformal coating, or something else? [Eliot] hit the board with contact cleaner and wiped it down. Within 45 minutes, he was feeling a strange tingling. It was the beginning of a nine-hour LSD trip. Three independent tests on the module came back positive for LSD.
* * *

 This might be the weirdest thing you are going to see all week: 

Yes, it's nine tap-dancing noses from Shostakovich's absurdist opera The Nose staged by, ahem, the Royal Opera.

* * *

I've been reading up on the music of Central Java and it is remarkable how very different from Western music it is. The gamelan is a very sophisticated orchestra of many kinds of tuned metallophones, tuned gongs, drums, bowed lute and voices. Nothing it plays can be notated in staff notation. For one thing, the scales used, the five-note slendro and seven-note pelog, not only vary from gamelan to gamelan, but they have nothing in common with our twelve note chromatic scale. The concepts of tempo and meter are also wildly different from ours. This is a performance of Ladrang Asamaradana:

* * *

How are musicians handling widespread unemployment: OPERA STAR: I WON’T CLAIM BENEFITS. I’D RATHER STACK SHELVES.
The international coloratura soprano Laura Aikin has just signed off for the last time as a shel-stacker at a Rewe store in Berlin.

I never even thought of applying for unemployment benefits because I thought that only permanent employees would get that. There is no such thing in America, nor in Italy. I never got any help from the state there. I thought the idea that Germany would do something like this was crazy….
* * *

As concerts recommence in Europe, we see how social distancing works in a concert hall. In Dresden: WELCOME TO OUR DISTANCED CONCERT HALL.
There will be two concerts on Thursday to compensate for the small audience of 480 in an 1800-seat hall. The programme is Haydn symphony #99 and a Beethoven String quartet with Quatuor Ébène. The original plan was to play a Beethoven symphony but the stage is not big enough to have all the players it requires at a safe distance.
The seats covered in white have to be kept empty:

* * *

Still at Slipped Disc is this controversial post from a black opera singer: AFRICAN SINGER ALLEGES RACISM AT GLIMMERGLASS. There are a host of comments worth looking at as well.
Completing the summer with the festival was a soul-crushing task knowing full well the double standard between the internal lack of anti-racist structures and the external performance of surface-level diversity. I felt like my Black body was being used on stage in a painful charade of tokenism. I felt undignified. I felt dehumanized.

I’m sharing my story ahead of the Glimmerglass Festival’s town hall discussion on June 18 so that company leadership can see a firsthand account of the systemic harm they have inflicted through the lack of restorative justice (why does the YAP director still have his job?), lack of diversity in leadership, gaslighting, tokenism, and White liberalist “we’re not racist” rhetoric that fails to see its own shortcomings.
And a sample comment:
I really can’t take much more of this woke oneupsmanship. I’m being sincere in this comment, and I’m not trying to get a rise out of anyone. I’m in my late twenties now, but some part of me will always be that idealistic little boy who believed that the musical profession was a true meritocracy, and music itself a sublime haven from the politics and noise of the world. Now, the politicization of the industry is a foregone conclusion. Sometimes it feels as though the music itself is an afterthought. It’s become all about politics, wokeness, business, and self-promotion. Conservatories churn out joyless audition-winning robots who then go on to plaster themselves all over social media, either promoting themselves or getting up on their soapboxes and pontificating about political matters. Groupthink and herd mentality abound.
I think it is fair to say that this is not a comfortable environment for making music.

* * *

Something from the BBC about "drill music" which I have never heard of before. Why drill music is being used to teach philosophy.
It's been a couple of years since large sections of the media first started panicking about drill music, questioning if the genre's often violent lyrics were contributing to knife crime in London - sometimes claiming outright that they were.

For the youth workers helping young people navigate daily life, it was never that black and white.

Instead Ciaran Thapar saw drill as an opportunity to meet young people on their own terms.

"How can we use this undeniably organically popular type of music, and our understanding of that music, as a way of connecting with young people who otherwise are being lost to the system right now at unprecedented rates?"

Those conversations led to RoadWorks, an organisation that uses the artists worrying the media - and in some cases censored by the courts - to teach social sciences.
And here is a clip of UK drill music:

* * *

I’m an optimist, and I think a lot of things will clear up, and we will hit the reset button, but we need to reevaluate things. And this is where, I think, the arts industry comes into play.

I’m very convinced that people after this are more hungry for intellectual and artistic inspiration than before. So the wrong approach, I think, is to do a populist approach to the arts industry and just play happy tunes that everybody wants to hear and nothing profound. I think that would be the wrong approach. I think it should be the extreme opposite. I think now we can challenge our audience more than before. That’s my gut feeling. And I’m not alone with that.
* * *

 We need some good music to end with today. First, of course, the Symphony No. 99 by Joseph Haydn. This is the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conducted by Frans Brüggen.

And here are nine percussionists, plus conductor, with the percussion interlude from Shostakovich's opera The Nose:

That should keep you amused for a bit!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Procedural Issue

A commentator has just let me know that recently some of his comments have disappeared. Has anyone else had this problem? I moderate comments here because a few years ago a war erupted in the comments that I had to put a stop to because it was irrelevant to the blog. But I so rarely delete a comment that I haven't actually done so for the last few years! So, if anyone else has had a problem, I will simply stop moderation entirely and we can see how that goes.

Just let me know!

For a reward, a Wigmore Hall live streaming concert on right now: Ailish Tynan & Iain Burnside in a lieder recital:

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Bach Concert Today

Delighted to see the Netherlands Bach Society is still cranking them out. They just posted this lovely performance today:

Great resonant lower strings.

Tabula Rasa: Preliminary Observations

Tabula Rasa is a composition by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, written in 1977. From 1968 to 1976 Pärt withdrew from public presence to re-evaluate and re-think music composition. After he emerged with a new style, called Tintinnabuli, Tabula Rasa was one of the first pieces to be written. This is likely the origin of the title--he was beginning with a "blank slate." From Wikipedia:
Musically, Pärt's tintinnabular music is characterized by two types of voice, the first of which (dubbed the "tintinnabular voice") arpeggiates the tonic triad, and the second of which moves diatonically in stepwise motion.
This kind of approach has been attributed to Pärt's study of chant. The unusual orchestration, including a prepared piano, is because of the occasion of the commission when Pärt was asked for a piece to accompany the premiere of Alfred Schnittke's Concerto Grosso which has a similar orchestration.

There are two movements, Ludus ("game" in Latin) and Silentium ("silence") each between ten and fifteen minutes in length. Here is the first recording with Gidon Kremer:

The first part, Ludus, has a kind of Baroque structure with a ritornello alternating with ornamental sections for the solo violins. The chord in the low register of the prepared piano functions the way the large gong does in gamelan music, punctuating larger sections.

The first thing we hear is a fermata A in the solo instruments at the two extremes of the range. Then a long pause. I thought I was the only one to use the time signature 8/2! Then the ritornello starts. I’m using that term because it keeps coming back and, well, it just sounds like a ritornello.

Harmonically this is very simple as A minor, or rather the aeolian mode, is arpeggiated with a few neighbor tones. The complexities come with the rhythmic treatment which at first also seems quite simple. The ritornello is in 4/4. But little anomalies creep in. The fourth bar of the ritornello is punctuated with a deep harmony in the piano, an A minor chord doubled. From the instructions for preparation, it looks as if the upper A minor triad is prepared while the one below the bass clef is not, so the chord sounds fairly clearly but with some complex overtones. A couple of measures later we hear the bell-like prepared tones, first in a 5/4 measure, then in a 6/4 measure. Another Grand Pause ensues, this time in a measure of 7/2. That is a lot of metric variety for so few notes. This kind of structure continues for a while with the solo instruments continuing to vary their statements between the ritornelli and with the Grand Pause being reduced by one half note each time it returns.

I think that is all I will say today. Tomorrow I will try to take an overview of the whole movement. In the meantime, here is a live performance of the first movement with Gil Shaham, Adele Anthony, Erik Risberg and Neeme Järvi conducting the Göteborgs Symphony.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Today's Concert from Wigmore Hall, Paul Lewis, piano

From just a few days ago, Paul Lewis plays the Beethoven "Moonlight" Sonata and the Schubert G major sonata.

The commentator mentions that backstage, in the Green Room, the walls are covered with photos, with autographs, of the great artists who have played there. Seems like every great musician you have ever heard of, from Arthur Rubinstein to Jascha Heifetz, is there. Let me tell you, as a young musician making his debut there, it was seriously daunting gazing on these photos.

Skill-Testing Question

Back in music school they have things like listening tests, dictation, sight-singing and other little tests of your knowledge and abilities. Occasionally I have put up a little quiz here that has usually been received with horror and dismay. Today I am just going to put up a brief excerpt from a score. Here it is:

Looks simple enough, right? Ok, what piece is it? What composer? What century was it written? If you answer correctly you get a lifetime subscription to The Music Salon! With free comment privileges.

I will provide the answers in a couple of days. I don't think there is a way you can use Google Search to find the answer, but I could be wrong.

Good luck!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Weird Tunings

I called up a friend the other day who is very interested in modal systems and historic tuning systems. He is doing research into Arabic systems as well as historic Western ones. So I mentioned that I was studying the Javanese gamelan and he just started laughing, saying "that is the weirdest tuning system there is!" Yep.

The Javanese gamelan is an orchestra of mostly tuned percussion. Each set of instruments comprising the orchestra is largely made in one workshop where the final stage is the tuning of all the instruments to the same scale. There is no attempt to make this tuning consistent with any other gamelan, each one is unique. The musicians may come and go, but the gamelan itself is the ensemble of instruments.

There are two scales in use, the slendro, a five-note scale, and the pelog, a seven-note scale. Here is one version of the pelog scale from Wikipedia. They don't say from which gamelan they derived this scale.

If you follow the Wikipedia link you can hear this scale. Here is a link direct to the sound file.

I have never previously been much attracted to anything outside the usual equal-tempered system though through an ex-girlfriend who was a harpsichordist I became acquainted with the historical tunings they use. I also recorded a piece for three guitars using quarter-tone tunings for a composer friend of mine. The ensemble he originally wrote it for had a lot of trouble with the rhythm! Which is odd because it is all quarter notes and eighth notes. But the patterns are very hard to predict. Anyway, I have an affinity for this sort of thing, so I triple-tracked it fairly easily. There is a lot of Japanese influence in this piece, particularly from the biwa. This is Streams I by Anthony Genge:

Anyway, I am now quite interested in tuning systems other than equal-tempered. I just checked and yahoo, Finale offers the option of using quarter-tones.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Today's Concert: Young Recorder Virtuoso and the Concertgebouw

This was just streamed earlier today:

Oh, and there is an actual audience, though quite a small one, it appears, tucked away in the balcony on either side.

Friday Miscellanea

Click to enlarge. This is the most famous Chinese zither or qin, dating from the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD).
* * *
I think the return to some kind of normality in the concert scene will be the real test of musicians' and administrators' creativity in the coming months. I am on the mailing list for the Palau de Les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia and they just sent me this email:

I for one would love to start attending some concerts for €5 starting next week! Alas, that is not going to happen where I live, I'm afraid, where the summer chamber music festival has been cut to a brief two weeks in the last half of August.

* * *

This is not how I imagined the 21st century:

* * *

Norman Lebrecht has some tart words for the music establishment during this crisis: WHY IS THE WIGMORE HALL THE UK’S ONLY LIVE PROVIDER?
In this week’s Spectator, Richard Bratby reviews ‘The musical event of the year’ – the Wigmore Hall lunchtime recitals that are played to an empty house and broadcast live on the BBC. It’s the only live music heard in this country for almost three months.
As Richard says: ‘Listeners were in tears. Comparisons with Myra Hess’s wartime concerts at the National Gallery did not seem absurd.’
But why was it only John Gilhooly’s initiative at the Wigmore Hall? Where were the state supported South Bank and the banks-supported Barbican? Was it beyond the wit of their idle staff to devise a Covid-era broadcast series?
And what about Classic FM and Scala Radio – why weren’t they relaying live music instead of exhorting listeners to relax and buy something?
And what of all those so-called entrepreneurial agencies and manager who keep lecturing the world on how to run music as a business?
Let’s not mince words: this has been an organisational falure on a massive scale for the whole of the classical music establishment.
Yes and on the European continent, as mentioned above, great efforts are being made to return to live concerts. But in North America it is nothing but cancel, cancel, cancel.

* * *

Also from Slipped Disc a brief lament on the terrible situation of small ensembles in France:
 Les Arts florissants, Les Talens Lyriques, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Le Concert d’Astrée and other non-state French ensembles calculate that Covid has cost them more than 1,200 performances at a loss of 11 million Euros. Ther situation is becoming desperate.
* * *

The New Yorker tells us about online orchestral practicing, which I didn't even know was a thing.
...almost every day on Instagram, Morgan Davison, a twenty-two-year-old bassoon master’s student at Juilliard, has answers for the bassoon-curious, providing her nearly thirty thousand followers with a running selection of practice excerpts from Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky, and the gamut of bassoon-heavy composers.
Davison benefits from a years-old trend in the flourishing micro-niche of online orchestral practicing. In 2017, the renowned violinist Hilary Hahn posted an Instagram video with the caption “#100daysofpractice.” The premise was simple: for a hundred days, she would post a daily video of herself practicing, letting other musicians see how she prepared for performances. On one day, Hahn played a series of slow, precise double-stops from Robert Schumann’s piano quartet; on another, the athletic, isolated shifts from Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
* * *

Over at The Economist (I read The Economist so you won't have to) of all places is an article on pre-Columbian musical instruments in Mexico:
One afternoon last December Arnd Adje Both, a researcher at Huddersfield University, in Britain, stood on top of the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, in Mexico, and blew into a conch-shell trumpet, sounding a note that echoed in the plaza far below. Later this year—covid-19 permitting—he hopes to return with a group of colleagues to conduct an aural examination of the site using replicas of the ancient instruments dug up there.
Teotihuacan is a mysterious place. Once home to more than 100,000 people, at its zenith around 1,500 years ago it was among the biggest cities in the world. Its inhabitants, though, had no known system of writing.
This is not really "news" as there have been musicians and ensembles here in Mexico claiming to offer concerts of "pre-Columbian" music for many years. The fly in the ointment is that while they are able to re-create facsimiles of the instruments from images found in sculptures, no actual music notation exists. So it's all freejazz noodling.

* * *

The Guardian bemoans the plight of classical musicians in Britain: 'We could go to the wall in 12 weeks' – are we just going to let classical music die?
From top to bottom, from big to small, from freelancer to staffer, from humble hall to grand auditorium, the world of classical music is facing its biggest crisis in living memory. Most musicians in the UK work freelance, even members of many big-name orchestras, so for them no gigs means no earnings. Some qualify for help for the self-employed, but many don’t. Conservatoires – employers of musicians, producers of future talent – are facing a financial crisis as overseas students stay away. All the backroom people who usually keep the show on the road, from agents to publishers, are haemorrhaging money. Concert halls and opera houses cannot earn.
* * *

Wired tells us how those mosaic music videos are made:
FOR MOST PERFORMERS, social distancing means stopping. No more concerts or comedy clubs, no more plays or musicals. How weird, then, that one of the few bright spots of the pandemic has been the rise of a new musical-ensemble format: the virtual choir.
You’ve surely seen these videos, or at least scrolled past them in your feed: The singers appear in a grid, Zoom style. Each is clearly alone at home—and yet they’re all singing together, gorgeously and in perfect sync.
If you know anything about Zoom or its rivals, you probably sensed some fakery immediately. People can’t sing together over video chat. It can’t be done.
The problem is latency (audio lag): By the time your voice reaches the other singers’ speakers, the Internet has introduced about a half-second delay. Then they try to sing along with your already-delayed voice—and what you hear back is even further behind. It’s a vicious cycle of tempo dragging, and the result is always a train wreck.
The workaround: The musicians film themselves playing their parts individually, at home, on their phones. Then some poor, exhausted editor assembles their videos into a unified grid.
* * * 

My violinist and I tried to do a read-through of a new piece on FaceTime, but it just wasn't possible. What I notice about all these mosaic videos is that while they can put them in sync with the techniques mentioned plus a click track, the balance is pretty horrible because they can't hear one another and adjust.

* * *

There are lots of great performances out there, so let's hear a couple. Here is the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in a concert from the Sudtirol:

Here is one of those live-streamed Wigmore Hall concerts with pianists Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy playing music by Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven:

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Carnatic Improvisations and Rock

In the course of reading about South Indian music, often referred to as Carnatic music I stumbled across this:

What it reminded me of most strongly was the free-floating trio improvisations of Cream. I have always thought of their music as being blues-based though Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker thought of it as being jazz-related. But listening to this Carnatic music, I hear so many of the typical rhythmic interactions and the kind of improvisatory flow of the music as being similar to what Cream were doing. I haven't heard this mentioned anywhere, but there is a huge Indian music tradition in England and the clip above is from a large festival of South Asian music held in London every year over three months.

Eric Clapton attributes his main influence to American blues, while Ginger Baker studied African drumming and Jack Bruce was a classical cellist. But isn't it possible that they also heard a lot of South Indian music as well? Here, have a listen, don't you hear some Carnatic inflections buried inside the rock song structure from the 3 minute mark:

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Today's Concert: Andreas Hepp, percussion and Indian Music

Percussionist Andreas Hepp performs his own composition SAGITTARIUS for a wide variety of percussion instruments including piano. He gives an excellent introduction: in German, mind you. And yes, he does get to those water-filled glasses, around the 19 minute mark.

Next, an Indian instrument I just discovered, the rudra veena here played by virtuoso Ustad Asad Ali Khan. The instrument is a kind of bass sitar with two enormous resonating gourds. I am dying to see what a rudra veena travel case looks like...

Monday, June 8, 2020

Commercialism and the Arts

Last year sometime I got hooked on the Netflix tv series Billions. It was different from the usual stuff and at first I quite enjoyed it. They just released the fifth season and while I am still watching it, I suspect I won't get through the season. All the characters have become nearly unwatchable and the writing seems to have fallen off a cliff. Watching Chuck Rhoades claim that his goal in life is ethics and the law when he is obviously someone driven by mere hatred and jealousy is rather painful. Also, watching his adversary, Bobby Axelrod, bully his son's private school principal into letting him off on a serious offence reveals his moral vacuity. Yes, he is a monster. Who would want to do business with a monster?

In previous seasons there was more about the inner workings of a hedge fund and how it makes money, but all of that is gone and now there are just the nasty personalities. One sub-plot involves a painter who previously never thought about the commercial potential of his work beforehand. Now Axe, out of a desire to outdo a competitor, corrupts the artist and the instrument of his plan is Wendy Rhoades who in previous seasons was something of a moral compass, but now just subtilely undoes the artist by explaining to him that he is on the brink of a success few artists ever know. Visualize that success! It is kind of like self-affirmation à la Doctor Faust. We should be grateful for the series producers for at least revealing how that works.

Alongside that I am reading a Wall Street Journal piece on how "Blinding Lights" by The Weeknd became the "No. 1 Song of 2020." I tried and I can't even watch it past the first minute. They say:
The story of why “Blinding Lights” succeeded is a combination of deft songwriting and smart business planning. The Weeknd’s fame and canny use of ‘80s influences fueled its rise. But the artist also worked with hit producer Max Martin and met with Spotify and TikTok representatives early on about promoting it.
I don't doubt that. What both these instances reveal is how commercialism undermines and ultimately destroys art in the 21st century. Success is measured in only two ways: money and reach. These two things are closely related, of course. Being paid a lot of money for your paintings, as in the Billions case, makes you famous and you end up selling many more paintings for a lot of money. In the case of "Blinding Lights" being a huge hit, the no. 1 hit, on Spotify leads to a certain amount of money, but even more fame which will lead to packed concerts and more money yet once there can be packed concerts again.

Believe me I have nothing against money. I find it is the best way to obtain the basics and even the frills of life. But I have never been comfortable with the pursuit of money being the prime motivation for the creation of art. Art is not the same as other "products" like frozen fish sticks or Lamborghinis. It does not give pleasure in the same uncomplicated way that food, clothes, cars, houses or other material items do. Art must offer some challenges to the consumer, otherwise it is mere decoration. But if you want to sell your art for high prices or for it to have a wide popular reach, you can't really challenge the consumer. Mind you, in pop music and fashion and some other areas the strategy is often to seem to challenge the viewer, as in the "Blinding Lights" video. But seem is not be and they are actually contraries. These days punching the buttons of sensationalism is not challenging because it is what everyone is doing.

Hmm, what would be a good envoi? Can't think anything really suitable so let's just see what YouTube tosses up today. This is good, a concert of Bach violin concertos in Switzerland with Hilary Hahn as soloist:

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint, Performance Reviews

Here is the Wikipedia article. At this point I question the description of Steve Reich and this piece in particular as being "minimalist." His earlier music, such as Drumming, Six Pianos and quite a few other pieces could be characterized as minimal, but his recent music is no more minimal than Mozart or Palestrina--or Philip Glass for that matter.

Electric Counterpoint is his only piece for guitar and while written for electric guitar it has been performed (as Acoustic Counterpoint) on classical guitar as well. It requires no specifically electric guitar techniques or accessories. I want to look at some performances of the piece in various versions and use that as an excuse to talk about how the piece is structured.

First let's have some performances. This is the original with Pat Metheny which was released on the same disc as Different Trains with the Kronos Quartet.

And here is a performance with classical guitar orchestra:

And here is the performance by Mats Bergström:

I'm not sure we need to hear any more? Due to the kind of writing this is, the possibilities of interpretive freedom are pretty limited. Take tempo, for example. In a piece just shy of fifteen minutes in duration these three performances only vary a few seconds from one another.

The Pat Metheny performance is very clean and solid, as is the one by Mats Bergström. Quite similar. I wonder if he made his own multi-tracked backup tape? Boosey and Hawkes offers both the parts and the backup tape (what they call the "performance tape") for rental. Both the Metheny and Bergström performances get a good groove going. The guitar orchestra version is a bit different. It seems a bit tentative and there are timbral differences among the guitars that don't seem to add to the performance.

There is an acoustic version by David Tannenbaum also, but I could only find the slow movement on YouTube.

I am certainly an admirer of the music of Steve Reich and have been ever since I first heard Drumming way back in the late 70s. But I have to say that I don't think this particular piece is aging well. It certainly has its fans as we can see from the many different recordings of it. But honestly, listening to it again, I don't get much from it. It has to be one of the dullest pieces by Steve Reich. Here is the first page of the score:

Click to enlarge
Don't misunderstand, I am aware that this musical style involves enormous amounts of repetition and usually with his music this repetition creates a wonderfully transcendent mood such as in Music for 18 Musicians which has a quite similar opening. But his other music uses different groups of instruments to create a complex timbral fabric that is not present here. There are other factors as well, such as the way the notes are articulated that tend to lead to a certain dullness. Not trying to change anyone's mind here, just my personal impressions of this piece.