Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tuning the Guitar

Just so we don't get too abstract for too long here at the Music Salon, I like to mix in some practical stuff. One of the things that used to give beginning guitarists a headache was tuning. How the heck do you get the guitar in tune? Technology has leaped to the rescue with electronic guitar tuners that do everything except turn the pegs for you. Speaking of pegs, let's have a look at the parts of the guitar:

Yes, I know I called the "tuning machine" a "peg", but I just don't know anyone who actually calls them "tuning machines". I think we call them "tuning pegs" from the history. That's what they are on the violin and cello and what they were on the lute and older guitars: just simple ebony pegs that held the tension by friction alone.

Back to those electronic tuners, here is what one looks like:

And you can pick one up here. Funny thing, though. I notice that every student I have had who uses one of these is tuned just a bit sharp. The only thing I can figure is that there is a little bit of lag in the response. By the time the indicator says you are at the pitch, you are actually just a bit above. Anyway, I still use one of the old-fashioned tuning forks:

No batteries! There are a few odd things about guitar tuning that plague beginners, which is the main reason for this post. Have you ever watched a guitarist spend minute after minute trying to get the guitar in tune? Going back again and again to the same strings, but never quite getting it right? This is very probably because he doesn't realize the difference between Equal Temperament and Pythagorean tuning. Here is a pretty good article that explains this in considerable detail. I think I can demonstrate it in fewer words. The problem is that equal temperament, which has been used in Western music since the 18th century, is different from Pythagorean tuning. Pythagorean tuning is based on the overtones and gives you nice pure intervals in some keys, but makes other keys hopelessly out of tune. Equal temperament solves this problem making all keys equally useful at the cost of making all intervals slightly out of tune.

Our hapless guitarist is caught in this contradiction because he is using harmonics (probably) to tune and then cannot reconcile the results with chords he plays to test. If he gets his E major chord perfectly in tune, the C major chord will be badly out of tune. I recommend something very close to the method used in the article on Equal Temperament tuning. That is, use your tuning fork to get one string exactly in tune. Paraglider suggests the fifth string, but I use the fourth string instead. Tune every string to the fourth (or fifth) string and you will not go far wrong. You may have to make some tiny adjustments, splitting the difference with a couple of strings. One big suggestion: never check your tuning with an E major chord! The third string is always going to sound a bit sharp. But if you fix it, then other chords will be out of tune. The reason is this: the sixth string has a very audible overtone that is the harmonic on the fourth fret. This is a Pythagorean G#, which is flat from an equal-tempered G#. If you tune the third string down to fix it, then it will be flat. The solution is to always check your tuning with an E minor chord!

I was going to be very clever and end this with a duet by Manuel Barrueco and David Russell introduced by saying "here are two guitarists who managed to get both guitars in tune!" But, alas, they did not quite manage it! So here are two other guitarists who are pretty much in tune. Julian Bream and John Williams with a transcription of "Clair de Lune" by Debussy:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

One Hundredth Anniversary of the Rite of Spring

Today is the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the Rite of Spring, possibly the most important piece of early 20th century modernism. Here is an excellent article on the piece and its reception.

I'm not prepared to do so today, but I think it would be an excellent project to investigate the Rite, especially its rhythmic structures. For all the talk about how hugely influential the piece is, it is remarkable how little composers seem to study it. Other composers have been much more forthcoming about how they approach composition. I am thinking of people like Arnold Schoenberg, who wrote several very interesting books, one of which, Structural Functions of Harmony, I am reading right now. Bartók is another composer that has attracted a lot of investigation by composers as has Olivier Messiaen who also wrote about composition. But they have usually steered clear of Stravinsky.

One reason might be that how he set out to compose is rather hard to figure out. He went through a number of radically different stylistic phases, which might also discourage investigation. And there is always the sneaking suspicion that Stravinsky worked from instinct. He certainly didn't offer much in the way of clues in interviews--in fact, he often lied about things like whether he used folk melodies in the Rite. He did, as Taruskin demonstrated in a rather weighty book on Stravinsky.

The piece probably sounds rather different today than it did at the premiere. For one thing, orchestras nowadays are well up to the technical challenges, but in 1913, this was formidably difficult music. Take that compelling bassoon solo that opens the piece:

Click to enlarge

In 1913 this was well above the normal range of the bassoon. So it would likely have sounded strained with a harsh sound. Today, every bassoon student learns it as a matter of course, so it sounds perfectly normal with a nice, rounded sound.

Let's have a listen to the Rite, one of the few pieces from that time that seems as fresh today as the day it was premiered. Here is Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballet. The choreography is a reconstruction of the original by Nijinsky:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Time for a post on those little things that drift by that are not quite worth a post on their own.

  • Forgive me for drawing your attention to something that is not about music specifically. Business Insider has a piece about new scientific concepts that are going to make us smarter. Ha! And that's a sardonic 'ha'. I've noted this before: just about everything that makes its way into the mass media is so watered down as to be useless. My advice to everyone: stop paying any attention to the mass media. These so-called scientific concepts are neither new nor useful. Instead they are old crap with new packaging. Take the first one, "cognitive humility": take away the "cognitive" part, which is just a five-dollar word meaning "thinking". This boils down to "be humble" which is a concept that has been around for a few thousand years. Sadly, the rest of the ideas are no better. One sage reviewer summed up by saying, "Not only did it not make me smarter, it annoyed me. Trite and smug little essays which are either too abstract to be understood or frustratingly brief." The problem with most of this stuff is that the useful stuff would be in the details, but it is precisely the details that are omitted in popular writing. I have commented on this ad nauseam in writing about how music is discussed in the mass media. Test it out for yourself. Look for any story in the mass media that is in an area in which you have professional expertise. I think that you will find that it is all, or mostly, wrong. Now remind yourself that the same low standards prevail in those areas about which you know nothing!
  • £2,500 for a vinyl record? Wow, do I ever regret throwing away my old LPs! Pete Hutchison sounds a bit like one of the more florid writers on wine when he describes the sound of a really good analog recording. But he is probably right. I was visiting a friend in Niagara-on-the-Lake one summer and we got into discussing this whole audio fidelity thing. Chris Donison is a professional musician like myself and at the time he was music director for the Shaw Festival. He had a very high-end sound system with, yes, a turntable for playing vinyl. His view was that the digital CD had a pretty bad sound, but it sounded clearer and punchier on cheap sound systems. On a good sound system, analog vinyl sounds better.
  • Here is a composer reflecting on his first negative review. It would have been a whole lot more interesting if he had actually bothered to link to the review itself so we could see what he was talking about. As a performer, the only negative reviews I ever received were when my concerts were ignored! Total silence is pretty negative. But I never was able to benefit from really negative comments on my playing, which might have been of great help. It is pretty hard to be objective about your own work, so most outside perspectives, positive, negative or whatever, are potentially valuable. When it comes to composition I tend to do my own interior negative reviews: "oh God, I hope nobody thinks this piece sounds like Hindemith!" Or, "that sounds a bit like Shostakovich getting mugged in an alley by Rossini--maybe I should revise?"
  • Here is a pretty good interview with composer John Adams. Here is a good quote: "Part of [the problem of how to be a successful classical composer] is that there is this entity called pop music, and a certain potential audience is siphoned off by hip hop, rock, or other genres."
  • Here is an essay that attempts to track down and comment on everything Ludwig Wittgenstein ever said about music. Here is a good quote: "To watch Wittgenstein listening to music was to realize that this was something very central and deep in his life…I will never forget the emphasis with which he quoted Schopenhauer's dictum, 'Music is a world in itself.'”
  • Wittgenstein was particularly fond of Schubert songs, so let's end with one. Here are two of the finest interpreters you could hope to find, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Sviatoslav Richter with "Am Fenster":

Monday, May 27, 2013

It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That 12/32 Swing!

Way back in 1931 Duke Ellington wrote a tune called "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)". The title was an oft-expressed sentiment at the time among jazz musicians even though the "swing" era was a couple of years in the future. Here is a 1943 recording.

Nice tune, nicely done. But jazz musicians did not actually invent 'swing' --wait a minute, just what the heck is 'swing' anyway? Here is the Wikipedia article. Here is the section on the specific rhythmic technique:
A "swung note" or "shuffle note" is a performance practice, mainly in jazz-influenced music, in which some notes with equal written time values are performed with unequal durations, usually as alternating long and short. Music of the Baroque and Classical notes inégales era follow similar principles. A swing or shuffle rhythm is the rhythm produced by playing repeated pairs of notes in this way.
Yes, that is quite correct, the notes inégales of the French baroque was basically the same technique, though in a somewhat different context. Here is an allemande by Rameau with lots of notes inégales:

Of course, the idea of playing notes written as even notes unevenly predates the Baroque, though in the Renaissance it was regarded more as an optional way of ornamenting. The French made it more systematic. Pretty much any piece in 3/4 with flowing eighth notes could be played inégale.

But for a really stunning example of rhythmic virtuosity and swinging rhythms, we look to the last piano sonata of Beethoven, the Sonata in C minor, op. 111, composed in 1822. The last movement is an Arietta adagio molto semplice e cantabile: slowly, very simply and singing. It certainly starts that way. But the rhythms get more and more complex. This is one of Beethoven's great sets of variations. Here is that theme and the first variation:

The notes of the theme are certainly simple enough with an absolutely diatonic theme in regular note values. But the time signature is a bit unusual: 9/16. Mind you, unless you are following in the score you are hardly going to notice that this is a compound time signature. Just those couple of times when you have an eighth followed by a sixteenth. But the basic beat here, and in all compound time signatures, is not a simple note value, but rather a dotted note value. So when, in the first variation which starts in the middle of the page, we get the beat subdivided, we suddenly realize that the beat consists of three notes. We might even think we are hearing triplets. The feeling of subdividing the beat in three parts moves us to another rhythmic level, propelling us forward. The second variation takes this to another level. Here we can see the end of the first variation followed by the second variation:

As you can observe, the second variation is the same tempo ("L'istesso tempo") as the first, which was the same tempo as the theme. But now Beethoven moves to yet another level of division where the notes are exactly half as long as in the first variation. The eighth/sixteenth pairs are replaced by sixteenth/thirty-second pairs. It starts to sound a bit "jazzy", something one would not have expected from the original theme. But Beethoven is just getting started. The next variation really goes to town:

Again, same tempo, and again, a halving of the note values. The sixteenth/thirty-second note pairs are now replaced by thirty-second/sixty-fourth note pairs! Notice the change of time signature to 12/32. This is another compound time signature. Where the original signature 9/16 had three beats, each beat consisting of a dotted eighth, this one has four beats, each one consisting of a dotted thirty-second. I can't actually recall another similar time-signature in a piece by Beethoven--or anyone else up to this time, for that matter. From here on things get rather more complicated and the variations tend to flow into one another. But I want to pick out two more examples from the coda. After a great deal of thickly-textured rhythms, everything quietens down and we have a recall of the original theme in the bass in the original note values:

Click to enlarge
We have since returned to the 9/16 time signature. There are actually three levels here: a bit of the theme in the bass (with echoes in the tenor), a counter melody in the soprano and a trill in the alto. The trill moves up and up into the stratosphere and then the triplet subdivision returns (not really triplets, of course, just to the ear). This is all on the dominant of E flat major. Beethoven works around a few different keys: C major, A minor, C major again, before arriving at the last page:

What is extraordinary about this is the rhythm again. He has three absolutely separate levels: first, the trill on G that goes on for a long time. Then the melody, in dotted eighths as in the original theme. Finally a rumbling decoration in the bass in thirty-second notes. This performs the function of somehow uniting all the various rhythmic levels of the movement. The ending is simplicity itself, with the original theme, split up between treble and bass, in the simplest of cadences.

There are hosts of books about Beethoven from just about every angle: his biography, spiritual development, sketches, harmony, handling of form and on and on. But I don't know of a single one that really has a thorough look at his handling of rhythm--just as important in my view.

So there you have it, a brief look at the rhythms of one movement of one of his piano sonatas, in which he did a number of things that no-one had done before (or since). One writer, on hearing that third variation proclaimed that Beethoven had invented jazz! But of course it only sounds that way to us because we know jazz and ragtime. One wonders what the listeners at the time thought of it.

Let's listen to this movement, which is about fifteen minutes long. Here is Maurizio Pollini live in Lucerne in April 2012:

Sunday, May 26, 2013

What Does Music Represent?

I was just roaming around the Web and ran across this fascinating clip:

What stopped me in my tracks was Prof. Searle's first comment about Wittgenstein's picture theory of meaning where he mentions that, according to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, "if language was to represent reality, if sentences were to represent states of affairs, then there had to be something in common between the sentence and the state of affairs."

If you read this blog very extensively, then you have run into other of my posts on the philosophy of music and in particular, the relationship between music and language and why music is not a language. Here is one post. Searle goes on to mention Wittgenstein's belief that the representation depends on a structural similarity. The interesting thing about this idea is that it might offer an insight into how music communicates--which it certainly seems to! Music certainly has structure, but what in the world does that structure mirror?

There is a lot of literature, though perhaps it could be better characterized as "loose talk" about the mystical significance of music. The philosopher Schopenhauer provides an example:
Music, for Schopenhauer, was the purest form of art because it was the one that depicted the will itself without it appearing as subject to the Principle of Sufficient Grounds, therefore as an individual object. According to Daniel Albright, "Schopenhauer thought that music was the only art that did not merely copy ideas, but actually embodied the will itself." [from Wikipedia]
Schopenhauer's idea of the Will is rather too Idealistic for me. But if music does not "embody the will", then what does it represent? There are isolated instances of music mirroring the world directly; Beethoven's imitation of the songs of three different birds in his Pastoral Symphony, for example. And we might make a case for dance music somehow mirroring the movements of the dancer, though you could probably make a better case for the dancer's mirroring the movements of the music! And that itself might give us a clue. Music is partly in the world and partly out of the world in the sense that language, with its intricate conventions of grammar, orthography and meaning is a reflection on the world and not the world itself.

Music has its conventions as well, but they are not conventions that govern meaning in the semantic sense, rather they are conventions of structure. Here are some examples:

  • no parallel fifths (a rule governing counterpoint)
  • sevenths resolve down
  • important sections of the piece are ended with a full cadence
  • in fugues, the subject is answered at the fifth
and so on. These rules are designed to have a number of uses. The one about parallel fifths is to avoid the empty and usually ugly sound they produce. The rule about sevenths is because of the general nature of suspensions, which resolve down because of their origins in counterpoint. The rule about cadences gives the harmonic structure of the music clarity as does the one about the fugal answer.

But none of these conventions governs musical expression itself. Think of them as rather guaranteeing a stable container for the expression. Also note that one would be hard pressed to find anything in the world that these structural conventions of music corresponds to. But we might have better luck with the expression. The philosopher Suzanne Langer, "regards a piece of music as something functioning as a symbol, and which can thereby create in our minds ideas related to feelings." [from here] Now, I'm not sure what that means exactly, but from other reading of Langer, my impression is that, for her, a listener to music comes to regard the musical events as symbols for emotional states because in terms of energy, gesture, pitch contour and so forth, they can be seen that way. As Shakespeare put it, music can have a "dying fall".

This gets us very close to Wittgenstein's picture theory of language. It might be possible to see music as a kind of sound-image of emotional states or moods. I have argued before that music does not depict actual "garden variety" emotions (in the phrase of Peter Kivy), because these kinds of emotions, such as anger or love have objects. We are always angry AT someone or ABOUT something. We are in love WITH someone. Music has no real-world objects in this sense (even if a composer were to say "this piece is entirely about my love for Wilma" that doesn't mean that we are hearing it that way!).

But in the sense of depicting non-specific moods and emotions, then I see it. Energetic music recalls energetic moods, languid music recalls languid moods. The thing is that so much, perhaps a majority, of music seems to be depicting or symbolizing moods that we don't have words for! If this piece of music can be seen as representing a mood of powerful energy and direction:

then how would you put into words the mood of this music:

Is that the Will of Schopenhauer? Or the slow thoughts of the crystalline beings that live on the moons of Jupiter? Is it simply musical ecstasy? It's my belief that there is a lot of music that mirrors the world to us, but a lot of music that doesn't, that seems to live in its own transcendent universe. We might treasure that music simply because it takes us completely out of our daily existence and into another place. It wouldn't be that hard to observe that a lot of musicians, such as Glenn Gould, playing the Bach contrapunctus above, barely seem to live in our world!

Ke$ha's music takes us to a party on Friday night:

But the music of Mozart often seems to come to us from another reality entirely:

And that's all I have to say about that today.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Digital Media and the Decline of Curiosity

Something that has puzzled me for many years is why so many people show so little curiosity about things. I've been thinking that this just sticks out for me because curiosity is a ruling passion of mine. But it has occurred to me that there might be another explanation. My biography is a bit unusual: from birth up until I was twenty years old I lived in an environment that was, from an intellectual and cultural point of view, severely impoverished. I lived on homesteads or in very small towns (pop. circa 800) until I was fifteen, then we moved to a town of fewer than 4000 people. The first time I was in a genuinely rich environment was when I was twenty and went to university where there was a good library boasting around a million volumes. Plus, there was a pretty extensive listening library.

But the point is that up to that time, I lived in an environment where there were no bookstores, just one radio station, one tv station (CBC, and that not until I was nine years old), and one tiny library with, at most, a couple of thousand books. Contrast that with today when virtually every child grows up with the Internet, which is the equivalent of huge numbers of radio and television stations, not to mention an online library of incalculable size. Children now live in a hypercharged information environment.

I suspect that the result of this is a profound lack of curiosity. In fact, what is needed, for simple self-protection, is an active disinterest in most of what you see and hear. You need to protect yourself with cynicism and irony. There is a charming little text symbol for this: tl;dr which means "too long; didn't read". But in my formative years, I was intellectually deprived. Anything I ran across that showed any signs of real intellectual or cultural substance I fell on like a starving man on a tasty meal!

I retain this curiosity to this day. Mind you, I have learned to avoid all forms of broadcast entertainment such as radio and television and only use the Internet because I can control how I encounter the constant flood of information.

I can remember how I cherished the few old, scratchy LPs of classical music I borrowed from a friend in my late teens. They were precious partly because they were few... To this day, whenever I hear the "Unfinished" Symphony of Schubert, I imagine the ghostly ticks and scratchy hiss from the old LP I used to have.

Here is an interesting article that looks at the issue from a different angle: how digital distribution has increased the sheer quantity of scientific error:
Fraud (the principal cause of retractions, which are up roughly tenfold since 1975)  is not a new phenomenon, but digital manipulation and distribution tools have increased the spread and impact of science, both faulty and legitimate, beyond the confines of the ivory tower.
Classical music, like any other manifestation of high culture, needs context, background, exposure to some history. It does not reveal itself on first hearing, like a pop song. Sure, there are pop songs that reveal much more on repeated listenings, but few of them are designed that way--they are meant to make their impact immediately.

To really get into classical music, or Japanese woodcuts, or Russian novels or any other kind of high culture, you need some curiosity. You need to explore a bit, ask some questions.

I've used the phrase "high culture" twice now, which is sure to make some folks squirm. In the name of 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism' all cultures are deemed to be equal so there can't be any such thing as high culture or low culture. It's all just one glorious spectrum of wonderfulness. Ke$ha and Beethoven are on a par aesthetically. Whoops, I used another forbidden word, "aesthetically". As that might lead to implying differences in quality, we really don't want to talk about aesthetics any more.

Sorry for this meandering muttering, but I don't have the energy to do a big analytical post this morning. I just completed 8000 words of program notes for our upcoming chamber music festival. All I really want to do is sit down and listen to a new CD I just got. The complete Beethoven string quartets by the Emerson Quartet. It has just been re-issued in a bargain format for only $24.78 so I couldn't resist.

Well heck, let's listen to the Emerson boys play some Beethoven. Here is the minuet and trio from the Quartet in A major, op. 18 no. 5:

Friday, May 24, 2013

Orchestra on the Dole

Norman Lebrecht has an interesting piece this morning about the Madrid Radio Orchestra:
From Orquesta Sinfónica y Coro de RTVE:
We are an orchestra and choir dependent on the national public radio and television, which proposed, as part of new contract negotiations, that we work for eight months a year and go on unemployment four months of each year. This is an unprecedented measure in Spain and the public opinion and our audience have felt so outraged that since it was announced there were spontaneous chants in our support,”publica” meaning “public”-as in “we want public, state supported culture”.
This reminds me of a couple of things. Back when I lived in Canada, I remember that sometimes artists who were able to get unemployment benefits, known as UIC for Unemployment Insurance Commission (if I recall correctly), now known as EI, would refer to them as a "UIC Cultural Grant". They would use the weekly check to support themselves while pursuing artistic endeavours.

It also reminds me that some Canadian orchestras simply do not pay players during the off season. I walked into a 7-11 (a 24 hour convenience store) once and saw the principal cellist of the orchestra working behind the counter. For him, being able to collect unemployment would be an improvement!

But what is truly odd here, unless there are some important facts being unreported, is that unemployment benefits come out of the same public funds as arts subsidies, do they not? It might be a different department, ministry of culture rather than ministry of labor, but it all comes from the same taxpayers, so economically there is no difference. Chanting that they want public, state-supported culture seems rather redundant when paying unemployment benefits to the orchestra members is certainly supporting them with state funds.

What seems obvious about our current system of support for the arts is that it is coercive in a way that the private patronage systems of the pre-welfare state were not. What am I saying? Now, state-supported culture means that all taxpayers are forced to pay for things they may not like or may be personally opposed to. Under private patronage, such as was practiced in Europe from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century, this never happened. A group of nobles got together to guarantee a stipend to Beethoven. The inhabitants of the city of Vienna were not assessed a tax for this purpose.

The chamber music society that I am part of relies on no government subsidy, but only private patronage. This is preferable here because government support is notoriously unreliable and those arts groups that rely on it tend to disappear as soon as the funding does. Our group has presented concerts for decades with private patronage alone.

Now, let's listen to some music. Here is the Madrid Radio Orchestra with an excerpt from the Verdi Requiem:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Listening Habits Have Changed"

The BBC just did a little piece on the Cleveland Orchestra's new initiative to build audiences. Here is the link.
Audiences for classical music across the US have declined in recent years because people's listening habits have changed.
It is often easier and cheaper to experience great orchestras online and while older music lovers might shudder at the idea, research shows that most Americans under the age of 30 actually prefer it.
But Cleveland, Ohio, boasts one of the world's top orchestras and rather than accept the empty seats at Severance Hall, the musicians decided to seek out new audiences in an unlikely venue.
The BBC's Jane O'Brien went to a Cleveland neighbourhood and listened to Schubert and Beethoven in a very different environment.
It seems like a nice, happy story. Orchestra takes creative steps to reach out to people who are unused to classical music and gets new subscribers. At the end of the story there is the usual genuflection to the general economy and how the arts, specifically music, can stimulate it.

But all this makes me uneasy. I played my first 'gig' when I was sixteen in a tiny little dance hall. As I recall we made something like $6.75 at the door. I was lucky enough that my career eventually took me to some grand concert halls like the Orpheum in Vancouver, the Wienersaal at the "Mozarteum" in Salzburg and Wigmore Hall in London: some of the most beautiful and famous halls in the world. I really don't have much desire to go back and play in a bar again. The BBC piece presents it in the best possible way and perhaps it was an excellent experience. There is something very stimulating about knowing that the people listening are there just for the music and not because of the social cachet.

But I'm still uneasy because one of two things might be going on here. First, as the BBC avers, a drop in audience subscriptions might be improved by some creative seeking out of new audience members. In other words, it might be temporary. I doubt this is the case. I think the writing has been on the wall for a long time. Popular music in all its various forms has been the dominant force in music since at least the 60s and this is not going to turn around. People are unfamiliar with classical music because there is less and less opportunity to encounter it. For example, music education programs have been trimmed down more and more over the years. Here is a newspaper story from a couple of weeks ago about cuts to music programs in Toronto.

We still have a lot of cultural and physical infrastructure from the middle of the last century and before, but the trend is for this to erode, I believe. A world-class orchestra like the one in Cleveland having to do bar gigs to scare up a few more subscribers is not good news no matter how you spin it. It might seem like a 'cool' idea to get out of that stuffy concert hall, but bars are just not ideal places for classical music: the layout of the room is rarely conducive to good sight lines or good acoustics, people are going to be chatting instead of listening and unless you stop serving, there will be the clinking of glasses. A lot of this can be overcome, and the idea of going to the audience is still appealing, but concert halls are designed the way they are to make them ideal places to hear music. The reasons why audiences are shrinking, why people are avoiding concert halls are more fundamental than just "people's listening habits have changed."

That passive construction, all too similar to "mistakes were made", conceals, I think, what is actually going on. We are experiencing a profound cultural shift at the roots of our civilization. Would I be overstating the case to say that, if you are attuned to it, music is a barometer for civilization? Doesn't this music, in its exuberance and confidence, attest to the idealism and optimism of the Enlightenment?

The leaping, bounding effervescence of the theme when the allegro arrives captures the historical moment. Europe was on the verge of a magnificent century. After centuries of wars over religion, class and nationalism, the next century, from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was one of the greatest eras of peace in history. Under the auspices of the Pax Britannica, there was progress and prosperity for a century. The Banquet Years, an excellent book by Roger Shattuck captures some of the flavor of the end of this era.

Something went horribly wrong in the first half of the 20th century with two World Wars. The finest young men of Britain died in the trenches and this destroyed the Pax Brittanica. Another excellent book, Goodbye To All That  by Robert Graves does a very good job of capturing that moment in history.

While we now enjoy the kind of prosperity and technical advance that previous generations would have marveled at--just take Skype for example!--I am still concerned that some crucial part of the culture has been crushed, shot away, simply disintegrated under the pressures of the events of the 20th century.

If we look at the characteristic music of our time as a barometer of the culture, it is hard to be optimistic. Instead of the glorious exuberance of the late 18th century we have this:

According to Canadian Business this is currently the biggest-selling song on iTunes. Yes, there is a kind of exuberance there, but to my ears it is mechanical, physical, somatic--a kind of barbarism. The never-ending pounding of the beat makes it unlistenable for me.

I could probably work out a theory of musical culture based simply on rhythmic elements, but since this is a blog, not a dissertation, I won't bother. But just compare these two pieces of music and ask yourself what they reveal.

There are those who argue that we are experiencing something like a Bizarro version of the Enlightenment: a Dark Enlightenment. Maybe that is what the music is telling us.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vanity, It's All Vanity!

Funny how stories seem to come in clumps. I've just run across two stories that do not reflect well on the music business. Here is one, courtesy of Norman Lebrecht:
The composer Nathan Currier has been given a green light by the state supreme court to sue the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra for stopping the premiere of his evening-long oratorio before it finished. Currier, 53, had paid $72,000 for the performance of Gaian Variations, but at 10.45, with overtime looming at 11 pm, the orchestra stopped playing.
The composer wants his money back. The orch says that would cause them financial difficulties. Not the finest hour for either side.
Ok, the thing to note is not the lawsuit, but the fact that the Brooklyn Philharmonic were charging Mr. Currier $72,000 for playing his music. Now for the other story, this time courtesy of the Guardian. There is a bit of a backstory, but the basic facts are that a person with no training or experience in music has a dream in which he hears a whole symphony and becomes so wrapped up in it that he leaves his wife and moves to London to see if he can get it performed. Here is what happened:
One day I sat on a bench outside BBC Television Centre and a man stopped to chat. He was a musician called Anthony Wade and after I told him my story he listened to the very rough recording I'd made using a guitar I'd bought for 50p. He was amazed by it and told me that it could be magnificent if it was orchestrated, but that would take hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Uh-huh. Apart from the pricing, this is a pretty similar story. I could add one of my own. I had made a master recording and was looking for someone to distribute it. A company in Toronto agreed, but said that they needed $5000 up front for production costs. I foolishly agreed and of course, they did not fulfill their contract and there was very little distribution and marketing. Years later they made the mistake of putting some tracks from my album on a compilation CD and I sued them for breach of copyright (which had reverted to me). They settled out of court for $5000.

I think you might be getting the idea? If you are not wise in the ways of the music business, DO NOT agree to pay someone a significant sum of money to perform or record or orchestrate your work. If it is worth while musically, sooner or later someone will want to perform/record/orchestrate it. Though my feeling is that if you can't orchestrate your own music, you should really learn how.

It's that story about sitting on the bench and some musician happening along and saying it would cost "hundreds of thousands of pounds" to orchestrate it that really outraged me. Unless we are talking about Gurre-Lieder or a five-hour opera, that is just ridiculous. First of all, do your own orchestration. If you can't then I have serious doubts about whether you have written anything worth the trouble. Second, for "hundreds of thousands of pounds" you could commission just about any composer to write a whole lot of pieces. Classical composers work pretty cheap these days. As an example, here are the commissioning rates from the Canadian League of Composers:

Schedule of Minimum Commissioning Fees
The fees indicated are the CLC's suggested minimum rates, effective January 1, 2013
*Please note that rates were raised on January 1, 2013 from previous rates.

I Chamber Ensembles Fee per minute
One or two $425
Three or four $475
Five to Eight $535
Nine to Fifteen $615

II Orchestra Fee per minute
Chamber orchestra up to 15 parts $615
Orchestra over 15 parts $790

III Chorus Fee per minute
A cappella (or with piano) up to seven parts $475
A cappella (or with piano) eight parts or more $535
With instrumental ensemble (up to eight performers) $560
With chamber orchestra (over nine to fifteen performers) $615
With full orchestra (over 15 parts) $790

IV Electroacoustic Music per minute
Plus studio rental unless provided $560
For the addition of an electronic part or tape to an ensemble add to the rate $145 to the appropriate rate

Hilariously inexpensive, isn't it? This means that you could commission pretty well any Canadian composer to write a 30 minute piece for large orchestra for-----wait for it----$23,700 Canadian, which is pretty much equal to US dollars these days. That's thirty minutes at $790 a minute. Hundreds of thousands of pounds? Hey, I have a bridge in Brooklyn (oddly enough) I could get for you really cheap!

Well, let's listen to Mr. Sharp's symphony:

Was that what you expected? It was certainly better than I expected. It does tend to sound too much like movie music for my taste, but it shows that some strange things can happen in the music world. Of course what we are really dealing with here is the back story: dead child, leaving everything behind, life on the streets, finally ultimate triumph. It's a book! The symphony is not so much a piece of music as the symbol of a human triumph. How genuine is it? Perhaps as genuine as the unnamed "musical experts" who attest that the symphony is a work of genius. It pretty much has to be to make the story come out right, doesn't it?

UPDATE: Here is a crazy comparison for you. This painting by Jackson Pollock sold for $140 million dollars:

Now sure, it's really nifty, but how would you compare the creativity and craftsmanship involved in creating it with the creativity and craftsmanship involved in creating a large-scale work for orchestra? More? Less? Similar? It just seems very, very peculiar to me that a large piece for orchestra is valued at $23,700 and this painting at $140 million.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Top Ten Myths About Classical Music

1. Classical music is just for stuffy, rich people.

It certainly has that reputation in some circles. I think that the ultimate source of this is found in music history. For a long time the main supporters and consumers of classical music were the church and the aristocracy. This started to break down with the French Revolution when they guillotined the nobles and burned the harpsichords. All through the 19th century it was the middle class that supported and consumed classical music. Nowadays the rich and powerful tend to look to major pop stars for their amusement. If President Obama is having a party, he calls up Beyoncé and Jay-Z, not Yo-Yo Ma.

2. Classical music is complicated and hard to understand.

There is certainly a grain of truth in this. In fact, the avant-garde throughout the 20th century went out of their way to create particularly difficult music. But it would be more accurate to say that some genres of classical music, such as much avant-garde music and serialism in particular, are very complex and difficult to appreciate. Going by the numbers, it is probably safe to say that 90% of classical music is charming and easy to listen to. Here is a good example: a Concerto for Two Violins by Vivaldi:

3. Classical music was all written by old white guys in wigs.

I'm stealing this from a Frank Zappa quote. He said something like all the good music was already written by white guys in wigs. He may or may not have been being ironic--with Frank it is sometimes hard to tell. There was certainly a lot of great music written during the 18th century by, yes, white guys in wigs. Here's one:

But there are a whole lot of composers who don't fit that description. The great medieval woman composer Hildegard von Bingen, for example. Here she is receiving divine inspiration:

And here is some of her music:

At the other end of classical music history is the young American composer Nico Muhly:

No wigs there. Here is a brief excerpt from his piece Gait, performed at the Proms in 2012:

4. You need to know a lot about music to understand classical music.

Again, there is a little grain of truth here. If you are going to be a classical musician you certainly need to know lots of stuff, but not to be a listener. The great majority of classical music was written to be enjoyed by ordinary people. What stands in the way of its appreciation these days is that we live in this peculiar musical environment where wherever we go we hear bad pop music blasted out at us from speakers. This tends to give us a strange baseline. When we hear some actual classical music it sounds "funny" or "boring" in comparison to what we are used to. So we think that we need to know lots of theory or something. Not true. You just need to give it a chance. Just listen to a few pieces and you will get used to it. Don't you think that pretty well everyone is going to be captivated and transported by something like this, the Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven?

5. "Chamber music is just soooo boring!"

This is an actual quote. I was walking through the plaza a few days before the local chamber music festival was about to being and overheard this. Someone was trying to talk their friend into attending a concert and this was the response. It is probably often said of classical music in general. But the image of staid old guys in tails playing a string quartet probably does evoke the idea of "boring music" in the minds of lots of people. Mind you, they have probably never heard the Kronos Quartet play Jimi Hendrix:

Or the Emerson Quartet play Shostakovich:

I rest my case!

6. In order for classical music to appeal to young people it needs to be more accessible.

This is really a bizarre myth! But it is one that is parroted over and over again in classical music circles. Some orchestras, like the Toronto Symphony, opt for a "casual" setting. Others offer free pizza and beer. This seems pretty accessible to me. Not to mention that virtually every piece of classical music is available for free on YouTube. Here is an excellent performance of all the Brandenburg concertos by Bach:

Or perhaps they mean "intellectually" or "aesthetically" accessible. There might be more to that. The juggernaut of pop music has run roughshod over the music world, wiping out everything that isn't pop. Classical music coverage has almost disappeared from the mass media. So most people are unfamiliar with classical music. But if they want to become familiar it is pretty easy. Most places have concert series and the Internet has just about everything you want to know. You can even find scores for a lot of music on the Internet here.

7. Classical music lost its moral authority after the Second World War and its popularity with the Nazis.

This is another bizarre myth, but one that is often heard in cultural circles. Alex Ross of The New Yorker seems fond of it. One odd fact that seems to support the idea is the association of classical music with villains in popular culture. One striking example is Hannibal Lector's love of the Goldberg Variations in Silence of the Lambs:

Or the use of the music of Beethoven in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange:

Why this urge to transgress by putting together sublime examples of classical music--the more sublime the better--with the most vicious acts of violence? Well, it is very transgressive and attention-getting and the sad truth is that many 'progressive' artists for the last hundred years have been doing little more than look for every possible occasion to crap on the best cultural traditions. Who better than Beethoven and Bach!

I also think I answered Alex Ross' argument in this post.

8. Classical musicians are all repressed and hung up and don't know how to groove with the beat.

If by this you mean "disciplined and organized and taking a subtle approach to rhythm and phrasing" then yes! Heh. This kind of critique usually comes from the jazz musicians who tend to resent classical musicians for being "legit", meaning slightly better paid than they are. Now, sure, some classical musicians might seem a tad neurotic, mostly oboists and violinists, but no-one could ever call brass players, especially trumpet players, repressed. There's that old joke, what do trumpet players use for birth control? Their personalities! Here are some classical musicians "grooving with the beat" in Eight Lines by Steve Reich:

9. Classical music is all about getting dressed up--it's just way too formal!

There is a tradition of formal dress for formal concerts. This is one that became standardized during the 19th century and still continues in more traditional contexts. The Vienna Philharmonic perform in white tie and tails:

A conductor friend of mine swears that white tie and tails is actually a lot more comfortable than it looks. But these days you are likely to see classical musicians dressed a lot less formally. Here is John Williams playing the Concierto de Aranjuez at the BBC Proms. As you can see, everyone is in summer garb. John Williams himself hasn't worn anything but a turtleneck to perform in for decades.

10. Classical concerts are awkward and uncomfortable because we never know when to clap!

Heh. There is that famous quartet by Haydn where he does everything he can to trick the audience into clapping early. There are, if I recall correctly, something like four false endings! But it is all in good fun:

Someone must have tipped them off, because nobody clapped too soon! Look, in the 18th and into the 19th century, audiences clapped whenever they wanted. If they really liked an aria at the opera, they clapped until the singer repeated it. As the 19th century wore on, the tradition of keeping very quiet in concerts grew more established. It's a simple idea: be quiet so we can all hear the music really clearly. The trouble is that classical music often comes in movements and it is considered best to wait until the last movement is over. But that means you have to keep track of the movements. Not a problem if there are only three or four, but what if there are seven movements? Well, it is pretty easy, really. It is the job of the performers to signal us when they are really done. I once saw a classical guitarist play a recital in a big hall. He had this little quirk of sort of throwing up his right hand at the end of every movement. The audience took this as a signal to clap--and why wouldn't they? So, just watch the players. If they stay motionless and focussed at the end of a movement, then don't clap. If they all throw up their bows and leap to their feet, then clap your heart out!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Hating Modern Music

I've just run across a cluster of articles about why people hate "contemporary classical music". I scare-quote the phrase because every time someone uses it people point out in the comments how it is a contradiction in terms. Well, the phrase "modern music" has problems too! I'm going to have to wax a bit philosophical and say we need to define some terms. Let's do it with history.

Bach didn't think of himself as writing "classical" music or "baroque" music either. He just thought of writing music for the church, or the cafe (some of his concertos were written to be performed in a cafe), or in a chamber music concert for the nobility or to test out an organ or whatever. Beethoven didn't think of himself as writing "classical" music either, just music.

The whole problem of categorizing or classifying music is really one of marketing, which means that it didn't come along until the 19th century when a huge middle class market for music opened up. As time went on symphonic, chamber and domestic music was joined by other categories: "folk" and "popular". Now we are beset by a host of genres from hip-hop to death metal to dance pop to alt country. So "classical" music, in whatever form, becomes just another genre and a niche genre at that! But in terms of history, "classical" music is central and the others, with the exception of genuine folk music, are spin-offs.

Now with that in mind, let's look at a couple of these articles. Here is one by Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise and classical music critic for The New Yorker. Here is the core of his argument:
The core problem is, I suspect, neither physiological nor sociological. Rather, modern composers have fallen victim to a long-smouldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music's idolatrous relationship with the past. Even before 1900, people were attending concerts in the expectation that they would be massaged by the lovely sounds of bygone days. ("New works do not succeed in Leipzig," a critic said of the premiere of Brahms's First Piano Concerto in 1859.)
The music profession became focused on the manic polishing of a display of masterpieces.
What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty – a kind of spa treatment for tired souls. Such an attitude undercuts not only 20th-century composers but also the classics it purports to cherish. Imagine Beethoven's rage if he had been told that one day his music would be piped into railway stations to calm commuters and drive away delinquents. Listeners who become accustomed to Berg and Ligeti will find new dimensions in Mozart and Beethoven. So, too, will performers. For too long, we have placed the classical masters in a gilded cage. It is time to let them out.
If Ross is ruling out the possibility of classical music offering a consoling beauty, then I think he is ruling out a very large part of its aesthetic value. Ross also pointed out that contemporary visual artists have been promoted in an completely different way, one that seems to have been very successful as their works sell for astonishingly large sums of money. The blogger A. C. Douglas of Sounds & Fury responded to Alex Ross here. Here is the central part of that response:
That perceived lack may be due a listener's untrained and/or unrefined musical sensibilities, but more often than not — far more often than not — it's due a real lack in the music itself; a music too often obsessed with sound and process per se rather than with musical ideas and their development in which sound and process are simply and properly naught but means to an end and the business of the composer exclusively and not of his music's listeners.
On hearing a new, wildly dissonant piece for the first time, a listener may be shocked initially by that dissonance, but will readily come to not only accept it, but embrace it if it's perceived as an inseparable organic element of a coherent, audibly perceptible musical narrative. That's why so much of, say, Bartók's wildly dissonant music is today part of the classical music canon, and why almost all of, say, Karlheinz Stockhausen's or Pierre Boulez's music will never be...
The third article is a bit different. It is in the form of a dialogue between someone who wants to understand contemporary music and her friend who is knowledgeable. Who is Jaime Green? Well, she is a writer, certainly, but at least half of her articles seem to be about food. Let's call her a "lifestyle" journalist. She goes to a concert of music by Gabriel Kahane, known for a song-cycle using texts from Craigslist, and finds herself not enjoying a lot of the more contemporary sounds in the concert. So she enlists the help of a supposedly knowledgeable friend to help her 'get' contemporary music. Her friend is not identified so we have little idea of his actual expertise. I suggest you go read the whole dialogue.

One of the first things that strikes me is how odd their discussion is. Here is Jaime's first question:
Jaime: There were two big questions I was left with after the performance: dissonance vs. lack of melody, and appreciation vs. enjoyment—or vs. effect. The first is sort of a terminology thing, a where-does-this-fit-in-the-world-of-music. The second is more about purpose.
Well, she calls them questions... Honestly, I hardly know what she is talking about. I'm sure she knows what melody is, so, ok, lack of melody bothered her. But does she know what dissonance is? Because I don't see what opposing these two very different things "dissonance vs. lack of melody" is about. What is the question? The second "question" is even more peculiar. What could she possibly mean by "appreciation vs. enjoyment"? How is it "about purpose"? So, if it were me, about all I could say to this would be "what do you mean exactly?" Her friend just moves on and asks if there were sections she enjoyed more and less. Later on the friend makes sort of an odd comment. After he says that it is perfectly ok for Jaime not to enjoy some kinds of music he says:
I think for several reasons contemporary classical music hasn't allowed listeners, or maybe invited listeners, to have that same sort of context that allows them to approach pieces with some confidence in their personal viewpoint.
Again, there is something rather odd about the way this is put. Is this an "under 35" thing that I couldn't possibly understand? Because it sounds to me that the implication here is that contemporary classical music has to treat its listeners with kid gloves. Hold their hands. Give them a context that somehow flatters their "personal viewpoint". So you grew up listening to Eminem and now you wander into a concert of Stravinsky or Gabriel Kahane and you just don't get it? It must be our fault, we in the classical music world. We didn't give you a context or something.

Look, there are quite a few young composers that are writing very consumable music these days and more power to them. Sometimes it is called "minimal" or "beat-oriented". But there are other composers that are a bit more difficult to "get". What I am missing in this whole discussion is the important concept that some things are easy and others more difficult. In order to get into the more difficult things you have to do some work. It is not necessarily the job of the artist to give you the context. Sometimes you have to give yourself the context. Is it absolutely beyond the pale to say to a young and inexperienced listener that she should pick up a book on music? Learn something and see if that helps? But no, from this discussion that would seem to be unheard of. No, it is all about the delicate sensibilities of the listener. What turns her on or off. OK, but that is the terminal point of the discussion. There is no sense that these sensibilities have been formed by a lifetime of a certain kind of listening and if you want to do a different kind of listening you have to prepare yourself.

How I approached music was first by listening a little bit, then learning to play a little bit, then reading a bit of history, then learning a bit of theory, then listening to more challenging music and so on. If you put very little into music, you might get very little out.

One thing that seems to hang over classical music like a spectre is its origins in music for the European aristocracy. Let me qualify that a bit: some of the older music--Gregorian chant, Medieval dance music--and newer music like virtuoso music of the 19th century, was not intended for the aristocracy in particular. But the core classical repertoire from the Renaissance into the 19th century was written for and enjoyed largely by the aristocracy. Which means that in our time, when cultural analysis based on class, race and gender is all-powerful, the main arbiters of culture are actually opposed to much classical music, or are at least made uneasy by it.

But the truth is that the aristocracy, judging by the music written for them, were a very aware group with highly developed aesthetic sensibilities. Let's listen to a piece written to be performed for one or two or at most several aristocratic listeners. Here is Hopkinson Smith playing music by "Le Vieux Gaultier":

I'm not sure that Jaime would 'get' this music either...