March 30, 2007

Physical modeling synthesis

I freely admit that I'm so far behind the curve on electronic music that the road looks straight to me. Logic? Max/MSP? I don't know what you people are talking about.

My experience with the wires and dials was forever tainted by my first experience, in a closet at my high school that happened to have an old ARP 2600. That thing was fun—hands on, unpredictable, and everything that came out was worthy of Forbidden Planet. Once I got to college, though, everything had gone digital; I found that I missed the patch cords and the touchy sliders, and I lost interest.

These days, of course, analog synthesizers are retro cool, or whatever the current term for "retro cool" is. (In honor of Phil, maybe it should be "cop pension show.") I once looked into configuring my computer to run emulators of all the old machines, but it involved a lot more software than I was interested in buying, and again—no patch cords. And I certainly don't have the money to pick up the real thing (EBay has an ARP 2600 for auction at the moment that's already way out of my price range, and the reserve hasn't even been met).

So until those commissions start rolling in faster than I can turn them down, I'll just have to resign myself to building my dream studio on paper. Literally.

Astro Boy and monkey with papercraft instruments
Astro Boy there has himself a fine "Moog Modular V" (no such beast actually ever existed, but it looks pretty cool) courtesy of this PDF download. (He's joined by special guest DJ Monkey on turntables.) In the meantime, I'm debating whether to plunk down a few euros for some more elaborate paper synth kits from this place. I may have to: one of the models is, you guessed it, a cardboard ARP 2600.

(Luddite? Build yourself an ocarina.)

March 29, 2007

Sky and Sea

Some Thurday afternoon fun: the great Brazilian accordionist Sivuca performing "Céu e Mar" on Swedish television in 1969.

Sivuca, who passed away last December, actually lived in New York for a dozen years or so (mainly working with Miriam Makeba), which makes his comparative anonymity in the States even more baffling. He had quite a following in Scandanavia, though. Great stuff.

March 28, 2007

Cattle Call

Time to limber up your rhymes for "Alamagordo": the New Mexico House of Representatives passed a nonbinding memorial a couple of weeks ago asking the New Mexico Music Commission to sponsor a competition to compose a "State Cowboy Song."

Now, New Mexico already has one of the better state songs, "O Fair New Mexico," written by Elizabeth Garrett, the blind daughter of the guy who killed Billy the Kid. They also have a Spanish state song, Amadeo Lucero's "Así a Nuevo Méjico" (which was adopted after the then-Lieutenant Governor sang it to the legislature in 1971). Then there's the bilingual state song, "Mi Lindo Nuevo Mexico," by Pablo Mores. Oh yeah, there's also the state ballad, "Land of Enchantment,", co-written by Michael Martin Murphey. But apparently, there's a need for a cowboy song as well.

The language of the bill, introduced by Gloria Vaughn, is actually quite pragmatic:
WHEREAS, the members may be able to agree on declaring an official state cowboy song so long as the process for selecting such a song is less arbitrary than by a vote of a majority of the members of the legislature, whose tastes and musical abilities may vary....
Entries, though, will be limited to composers who either were born in the state or have lived there consecutively for twenty years. I'd consider that a prohibitively high entrance fee. Plus, it means I can't nominate Doctor Atomic, about New Mexico's wildest cowboy ever.

(Peruse the rest of "The Cowboy Rag.")

March 26, 2007

Really Idiotic And Asinine

The Copyright Royalty Board, promulgators of the recent we're-just-the-lapdogs-of-the-RIAA decision to drastically up licensing fees for Internet radio, have agreed to reconsider. Well, kind of. They're accepting additional written comments on the decision until April 2, but whether they'll actually hold additional hearings or change their minds on the rates they already set is still in a bureaucratic haze. (See this story from the useful clearinghouse blog Save Our Internet Radio.) There's a petition online, and a call or e-mail to the most muckraking of your local congresspeople might be in order.

If you're wondering what this is all about, Kyle Gann and Doc Searls can get you up to speed on the whole eye-rolling fiasco. (And get in your listening to PostClassic and Counterstream while you can.) Message from an actual working musician to the industry organizations allegedly working on my behalf: cut it out, will ya? I'm trying to make a living here.

Inconspicuous consumption

My lovely wife and I had occasion to drop in to our local Barnes and Noble printed matter monstro-mart over the weekend, and, out of habit, I checked the Classical Music book section, which seemed to be, how shall I put it, somewhat less buxom than I remembered. Out of curiosity, I counted, and found that this particular store was offering eighty-three different titles related to classical music—and I'm charitably including books concerning Il Divo, Andrea Bocelli, and Joe Volpe in that total.

Eighty-three is not a lot of books. To put it in perspective, I could have, two shelves over, picked from twenty-nine different tomes on the Beatles alone. (This too is wrong, especially considering that there were only six books about Elvis. But I digress.) Ten years ago, this would have been a cue for much hand-wringing over the red-headed-stepchild status of classical music in American culture. Now, though, I think it says more about the Internet's inexorable pressure on bricks-and-mortar corporate balance sheets than anything. It's a fair guess that a large portion of classical music practitioners and aficionados have shifted their discretionary spending to the Web; it only follows that big chains will be less inclined to devote valuable real estate to books and CDs that the target audience is probably browsing via computer.

The online world is still not terribly friendly to browsing, but I imagine that will change, and soon. What's more, an encyclopedic selection won't be a loss-leader, like it was in the pre-Internet dark ages. I can remember spending lunch hours at the Barnes and Noble in Evanston, Illinois, while I temped at Northwestern for a summer. I liked to hang out in the Literary Theory aisle. Once, a saleslady asked if I needed help, and I said no, I was just browsing. Her disbelief was indignant. "Nobody just browses in Literary Theory," she said. I was polite enough not to scold her for mistrusting a customer that was on the verge of buying a book that had probably sat on the shelf since the store was built. But that was the attraction of those stores when they opened: they were liable to have everything, a tempting thought even if it meant pockets of product that were rarely, if ever, picked over. With the Web, though, every niche and category is equally served, and maintaining such a large retail selection is a fool's errand.

So I wasn't particularly put out at the paltry classical offerings. One way to read Alex Ross's summing up of the current state of classical recording—nobody knows anything, basically—is that small but viable revenue streams have sprung up too fast and too numerous to be tracked with traditional metrics. Marketers won't be able to try and shoehorn all music into one particular distribution model—a recipe for classical disaster in the 90s—because no one model will be demonstrably more successful than any other. Ignorance is bliss.

Still, though: c'mon, guys. Eighty-three? I've come out of yard sales with more books than that.

March 23, 2007

Hope, blood, Turandot

jazz album: The $64000 Question
Quiz time! This idea is a total rip-off from the excellent movie blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Then Handel was quite the narcissicist.

Anyway, here's ten questions to kill your Friday afternoon. You can leave your answers in the comments, or else leave a link to wherever you're posting. Do please include the questions when submitting your answers.
1. Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don't particularly like the music.

2. Name a piece you wish Glenn Gould had played.

3. If you had to choose: Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles?

4. Name a piece you're glad Glenn Gould never played.

5. What's your favorite unlikely solo passage in the repertoire?

6. What's a Euro-trash high-concept opera production you'd love to see? (No Mortier-haters get to duck this one, either—be creative.)

7. Name an instance of non-standard concert dress you wish you hadn't seen.

8. What aging rock-and-roll star do you wish had tried composing large-scale chorus and orchestra works instead of Paul McCartney?

9. If you had to choose: Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius?

10. If it was scientifically proven that Beethoven's 9th Symphony caused irreversible brain damage, would you still listen to it?

The trouble is he's growing; the trouble is he's grown

postcard: What will HIS future be?
West Side Story turns 50 this year, which, when you think about it, is pretty old for a juvenile delinquent. If you're in Boston, you can celebrate by taking in a production of the show by On Broadway, the student musical theatre group at Boston University. Shows are tonight and tomorrow; tonight, there's also a pre-concert talk by Jamie Bernstein, the composer's daughter.

Music director is our good friend Brett Abigaña, who somehow managed to get his snazzy website up before I did (warning: auto-loading percussion music).

March 22, 2007

Guile of the Dead

Alexander Temple Wolkonsky Rachmaninoff Wanamaker is the great-great-grandson of Sergei Rachmaninoff. And the 21-year-old University of Arizona student is about to take over Rachmaninoff's legacy—and that includes rearranging Sergei's works so they can be re-copyrighted.
"It's as little rearrangement as possible, preferably," he explained.

Wanamaker said the family already has approached a few composers about doing the rearrangement. "We're in the process now of having the music rearranged so that we can re-establish the rights and generations can enjoy it for futures to come," he said.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I would think that generations would be able to enjoy the music for futures to come regardless of whether anybody's making any money off of it. Sergei died in 1943—that means his post-1923 works (including the Symphonic Dances, the Paganini Rhapsody, and the Fourth Piano Concerto) already won't start going into the public domain in the U.S. until 2019. And now, four generations removed, they're trying to make sure that the royalties on those—and everything else—keep coming for another 95 years? (Actually, based on the fact that any "rearrangements" would probably be "works for hire," they might fall under the 120-year corporate copyright term.) That's pushing copyright's "temporary monopoly" to possibly over two centuries, in some cases. From the article:
Wanamaker is quick to dispel concerns that the family will increase the fees for orchestras to rent and play Rachmaninoff. Actually, he says, the cost will be less because there will be fewer hands in the pot.

"What we would like to do is actually lower the prices," he said, noting that over the past 30 years, royalties have generated at least $50 million in income that's divided between the family and the publishing firms. Without the publishing firms, the family would get a bigger cut and could afford to drop the price, he reasoned.
Even a two-percent cut of that is more money then I'll ever have, ever. Can't he just invest what he's got, and use the interest to pay for scotch and Jay-Z albums? The ridiculousness of the copyright regime in this country never ceases to amaze me.

March 21, 2007

There's a hole in the bucket

dollar bill folded in shape of ukeleleI have an article over at NewMusicBox today on Baumol's cost-disease and what it means for the economics of live performance and recording. My lovely wife pointed out something to ponder while you read: if you're one of those who thinks that the steady wane of school arts programs is big trouble for the future of jazz and classical music, keep in mind that the education sector is also unusually affected by the cost-disease.

(How to play with your money.)

And the world exhales

Things are continually Yeatsianally falling apart, which is why I grab good news where I can find it.

March 20, 2007

La fenice

If you're not already aware, a fire gutted the offices of the Oregon East Symphony in Pendleton, Oregon on Thursday. They're in a bad way, and if you have a few bucks or other stuff that might be useful, they've set up a fire recovery fund. They do a lot of educational outreach in areas that don't always get that kind of attention—they're the good guys, in other words.

Most links are to the blog of Kenneth Woods, Oregon East's conductor, who, in the midst of crisis, still manages to read minds. I was thinking about a post on Hans Rott for this week, but Woods got there first, and I was going to defend Elgar from his own countrymen, but Woods is already on it, quick and funny. Just like a good conductor: a beat ahead of you, ready with a cue.

Update (3/21): Donations can now be made via PayPal.

March Madness

Reviewing the Boston Camerata and Ensemble Aziman.
Boston Globe, March 20, 2007.

(Yes, I know Adam de la Halle's name is misspelled. That's what comes from talking to the copy desk on a cell phone. Thanks, Verizon!)

Update (12:30 PM): It's been fixed. As good a time as any to gratefully acknowledge the people at the Globe copy desk, who save me from at least one howler a week.

Call it what you want

Reviewing Boston Secession.
Boston Globe, March 20, 2007.

The final paragraph seems to be missing online:
Ring Frank does like to talk—a lot—and most of what she says could more effectively be conveyed in program notes. Closing the distance between performer and audience is not an unworthy aim, but if it could have meant a few more of Duckworth’s marvels, at least one listener would have opted for a little less conversation.

March 19, 2007

Droit de seigneur

Lisa Hirsch points out a Bernard Holland review of Nico Muhly that makes me green with envy: I'm just a freelancer now, but my dream is to get to that level in the criticism hierarchy where I can be lazy enough to express my bafflement in print at a question that had been answered in my own paper not a week before. Lexis-Nexis is for the rabble.

(Full disclosure: as a TA at the BU Tanglewood Institute, I gamely tried to teach sight-singing to a crowd that included, among others, Nico, Judd Greenstein, and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum. That took a lot of coffee.)

They got a message for the action man

I had a hard time getting up this morning—maybe I could get some help from English schoolkids. As part of Manchester Metropolitan University's celebration of National Science and Engineering Week, students from three Manchester-area schools, St. Paul's (Walkden), St. Barnabas (Clayton), and Wyche Primary (Nantwich), composed wake-up music for the residents of the International Space Station, with some help from the members of the Manchester Camerata: "The musicians... worked with the children composing new music for the wake-up calls based on astrophysical data, such as the radio waves emitted by celestial bodies, and visual images of space." (They also had an Internet improv session with astrophysicist/rock musician Fiorella Terenzi.)

The three entries were judged by Russian rocket scientist Alexander Martynov and legendary cosmonaut Alexander Volkov, with the Camerata recording the winner for future early-morning duty (though this news report was coy as to who that winner actually was.) In the words of MMU Science Week organizer Conway Mothbi, "The call will be heard 250 miles above the earth by Expedition 14 cosmonauts under conditions of weightlessness. This is a great honour as it is a UK first."

Update (3/21): Wyche Primary took the prize (see comments). I'll make sure to provide a link as soon as the recordings are posted.

March 16, 2007

Croí follain agus gob fliuch

St. Patrick's Day is tomorrow. (So is Evacuation Day—basically a Bostonian work-around to make the occasion an actual legal holiday.) There's been a radio commercial here in Boston for the past few weeks that uses some variant on the phrase "Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day." My lovely wife and I thought this would be a good marketing tack for the Boston Symphony to promote this weekend's performances of Mahler 3.
ANNOUNCER: On St. Patrick's Day, everyone is Irish—even a nervous Austrian Jew!

MAHLER (in the voice of the Lucky Charms leprechaun): I'm Gustav Mahler! Come and be hearin' me Third Symphony! The trees, the flowers—they've all been talkin' to me! We'll even have a chorus of wee little ones!

My last name notwithstanding, I'm one-quarter Irish, although, to put things in perspective, that makes me only half as much a man of the auld sod as, say, Richard Nixon. On the other hand, a childhood's worth of sunburned freckles has to count for something, right? Besides, on St. Patrick's Day, everyone is Irish—even Toru Takemitsu! Here's his arrangement of "Londonderry Air," AKA "Danny Boy," as performed by Kosei Kubota.

March 15, 2007

Gaining One's Definition

Definitions of music are by no means rare.

The most usual, the official one, is this: "Music is the art of combining sounds in a manner agreeable to the ear."

According to Hugo Reimann, music is "the manifestation of Beauty through the medium of sound."

Another German has it that "Die Musik ist eine klingende Arithmetik" (Music is a sonorous arithmetic).

Spencer, on the other hand, considered music as a natural development of the accent imparted to the human voice by passion.

To Mazzini music was "the faith of a world whose poetry is but high philosophy."

To the average listener, music is melody, that is to say, a mere "pretext to sing."

And lastly, we have the famous definition of Théophile Gautier, that "music is the most expensive of all noises."

* * * * *

Feeling constrained to give a definition myself, I should say that, in my opinion, music is the art of combining sounds both in time and space (successively and simultaneously) according to the composer's creative egoism and his complete indifference to every law that opposes his sincerity.
From L'Evoluzione della Musica, A traverso la storia della Cadenza perfetta ("The Evolution of Music, Throughout the History of the Perfect Cadence"), by Alfredo Casella, 1919. (Emphasis in the original.) A fun party game: try and match each definition with a subsequent 20th-century musical style, vocabulary, or school. Even Gautier's.

March 14, 2007

Appellation spring

Composers are aiming for the wrong star. Commissions? Pulitzers? Joan Peyser tell-all biographies? Pffft. Everybody knows the real fame is in taxonomic designations. You'll know you've made it when there's a sludgy, possibly extinct organism that's named for you.

Buxtehudea scaniaeTo the left there is the microsporidian parasite Buxtehudea scaniae, surrounded by a mitochondrion of the cell it's mooching off of. Both the genus and the family, Buxtehudidae, were named for the guy Bach hiked across Germany to hear by Swedish biologist Ronny Larsson of Lund University, who's also honored his countrymen Hugo Alfven and Franz Berwald with microscopic fungi of their own.

The Australian chalcidologist A. A. Girault killed two birds with one stone in 1926 with the wasp Mozartella beethoveni. As he described the species:
Mozartella (Ectromini).
As Mesorhopella but golden, antenna short, capitate, club equal funicle, funicles transverse. Ovipositor ¼ abdomen, latter depressed=cordate[.] Veins subequal. Minute.

M. beethoveni. Wings clear, veins pale. Funicles 1-2 twice wider than long, longest, rest wider. Pedicel bit longer than wide. Discal cilia well toward base, of hind wing, 15 lines. Pinkenba, Q. ex galls, May 10, 1916. H. Jarvis.
Cymbiola rossinianaChopin has a moth, Fernandocrambus chopinellus. And Rossini has a seashell, Cymbiola rossiniana, described by M. Bernardi in 1859, making him possibly the first musician so honored. (That's the shell, commonly called Rossini's volute, at right.)

Most recent speciations have pertained to pop musicians. The Beatles have quite a few beasties named after them, the most pertinent being Greeffiella beatlei, a nematode worm identified by S. Lorenzen in 1969—the worm's shagginess perhaps resembling a Beatle haircut. The Godfather of Soul lives on as the mite Funkotriplogynium iagobadius, named by Seeman and Walter in 1997 ("iago"="James" and "badius"="Brown"); Mark Knopfler got a dinosaur. But Australian paleontologist Greg Edgecombe leads the field here, naming scores of trilobites after the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Simon & Garfunkel, and, my personal favorite, the Sex Pistols: Arcticalymene viciousi, A. rotteni, A. jonesi, A. cooki, and A. matlocki.

The best story, though, has to be the jellyfish Phialella zappai. Marine biologist Ferdinando Boero got himself transferred to a lab in California so he could meet Frank Zappa, his musical hero, by naming a jellyfish after him. The plan worked—in spades: take a listen to You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, vol. 6, and you can hear "Lonesome Cowboy Burt" rewritten as "Lonesome Cowboy Nando."

When I get off, I get plastered.
I swim till I fall on the jellyfish.
Then I find me some academic kind of illustrator,
I describe the little dangling utensils on this thing,
And tell him to draw it up
So it looks just like a brand new jellyfish.

(You can read more about Boero's friendship with Zappa here. Here's more stuff named for Zappa. Scroll down here and you can find more musicians.)

March 12, 2007

Every little cloud always sings aloud

Some people out there know that I'm a confirmed Winnie-the-Pooh freak, so imagine my delight to find Fyodor Khitruk's 1969 Russian version, Vinni-Pukh, had turned up online:

(Courtesy of Cartoon Brew.) If you're used to the E.H. Sheperd illustrations, or their crude Disneyfication, the visuals may be a surprise (albeit a vibrantly pleasant one), but once that bear launches into his unbelievably catchy song, Khitruk's version leaves all others behind.

The music is by the Polish-Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg, who remains largely unknown in the West, although that seems to be changing. Born in 1919, Weinberg hardly had an easy life—the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust, and his father-in-law, the great Soviet Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels (famous for his Yiddish King Lear) was killed on orders from Stalin. But Shostakovich noticed Weinberg's talents and befriended him, and when, a few years later, Weinberg himself was arrested on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism," Shostakovich sent a letter to the head of the NKVD, Lavrenta Beria, on Weinberg's behalf. (He was released upon Stalin's death.) In turn, Weinberg was most likely the driving force behind Shostakovich's turn towards Jewish subject matters in the 1960s and 70s. Before his death in 1996, Weinberg wrote over 20 symphonies, several operas (the work he himself thought his best, the Holocaust-themed opera Passazhirka ["The Passenger"] was posthumously premiered in 2006), and quite a bit of film music, including two more Pooh shorts for Khitruk. Here's another one:

That's Vinni-Pukh idet v gosti ("Winnie-the-Pooh Goes on a Visit"), from 1971. Khitruk was one of the first Soviet animation directors to break out of the rut of Socialist realism, and you can see the Russian folk influences in his Pooh films. Weinberg's music is a perfect fit, vaguely folk-like but also sophisticated and scintillating, setting the mood with a stylish economy of means.

March 09, 2007

The Soul of Wit

Phil at Dial "M" posted an unbelievable video of Glenn Gould playing a Beethoven bagatelle this week; go there and watch it, and then you can come back here for more miniature fun.

Paul Crossley performing Luciano Berio's "Leaf":

Simon Keenlyside sings "Fin ch'han dal vino" from Don Giovanni (Abbado conducting):

John Zorn and Naked City do "Snagglepuss" live:

And the late, great Dave McKelvy covers Chopin's "Minute Waltz":

The Wrong Trousers

This week, Greg Sandow posted an essay by one of his Eastman students about what's wrong with classical concert formats. It's the usual suspects:
At times even I feel uncomfortable in the stuffy atmosphere of the concert hall and sometimes I wish I could just go to a concert in jeans and a sweatshirt instead of feeling like I need to dress up for the event.... Less formal attire for musicians would not only make us more comfortable when we’re playing, but I think it would also let the audience feel more relaxed.
(For the record, I've gone to probably several hundred classical concerts in jeans and tennis shoes and never once was refused admission. Is Rochester more hardcore about that sort of thing?) The student goes on:
Throw in some pop/rock lighting experiments and I think we might be talking about real entertainment.... What if the composer also specified that the woodwinds should stand and the lighting should be blue during the second movement? Spotlighting on soloists is also a direction that might be interesting in concerts....
In other words, it's the veneer, not the actual musical content. Now, the outward trappings of a concert experience are important, but here's where the trouble comes in: this student (and some of the commenters) think outward trappings to be of primary importance, and they want the trappings to be, well, those of a rock concert.

One of the commenters proposes this program:
How does commissioning a ballet for Ades' Living Toys and a film for Reich's Eight Lines with Ligeti's piano concerto sandwiched between sound to you?
Frankly, to me, it sounds like way too much distraction. But that would be about the level of visual stimulation you'd expect from a rock band. For them, there's a lot more to compete with: audience members come and go, they feel free to talk, they feel free to sing along. They applaud themselves for recognizing a song, and they spend as much time socializing as listening. A rock act needs a stronger signal to cut through that level of noise. That's the milieu, and it's fine—rock music is engineered around it such that it's still musically worthwhile. But that much simultaneous activity would hardly be conducive to really getting into the sonic world of an Adés or a Ligeti (let alone a Feldman, Lucier, or Webern).

What seems to be missing here is the realization that one of the indispensible and vital pleasures of art music (classical and jazz, I should add, even though the focus of this post is classical) is the immersion in the sound on its own terms—not just rhythm and harmony, but the actual sound of the music. And a lot of the logistics of traditional classical performance—the uniform attire, the comparative silence of the audience, the lack of patter and superfluous stage business—have the salutary effect of not diverting your attention from that sound. I emphasize that I don't hold any particular brief for current practices, but these types of proposals introduce elements that would interfere with the musical potential of concerts far more than they would promote it. For example, I'm hardly a stickler on applause: if you feel the urge to put your hands together, you should. I wonder, though, if the constant focus on the issue isn't evidence of a stifling tradition, but, rather, an inability to appreciate the beauty of sound fading into silence—as a collective experience, an entire audience cheering can't compare with an entire audience holding its breath. Has the predominance of rock and pop aesthetics somehow made that sort of suspended moment an uneasy terra incognita for those such as Greg's student? Even her plea for new music is misguided:
When was the last time a new ballet caused a riot as in the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring?
Not recently, thankfully—a riot is not the best atmosphere for perceiving a new work of art. But note that she's not highlighting the engagement with something new, the intellectual excitement of coming to terms with an unfamiliar piece, but the crowd's verdict; the ideal is an instant sensation, a ready-made flow for the listener to go with. Which means that the clothes and the etiquette and the distance of the performers aren't what's intimidating, it's that none of those things give any clear instruction as to what you're supposed to think of the experience. It ends up being just you and the music. And if you've spent your life having marketers and mass media telling you what to think, that freedom can be disquieting indeed.

The student describes a faculty recital with approval:
During the recital they interacted with the audience, allowed themselves to show their strange but hilarious personalities and got the audience involved in their performance. Suddenly their ‘serious’ classical music was not so serious anymore. We laughed, we were entertained and most importantly, we talked about it to our friends the next day.
All concerts can be experienced on the level of personality and stage presentation, but for this student and her friends, that's the most important aspect. These are all (presumably) music students, and every concert they go to (presumably) has music on it. Why aren't they talking about all the other concerts? Because then, they'd have to talk about the actual music, which is not easy to do; they're used to the standard level of discourse surrounding pop music, which is based around celebrity. It's a fine line between making the audience comfortable and allowing them to never leave their comfort zone. A concert that lets you view and discuss the world the way that you're used to is hardly an unpleasant experience, but that's pretty much the opposite of what I've always believed good art is supposed to do.

That's a pretty curmudgeonly thing to say, isn't it? I'm a curmudgeon about a lot of things. And those people calling for a more rock-like classical experience aren't wrong to want what they want. We all do. But they're in danger of closing themselves off from an awful lot. Greg's student describes a performance:
I turned toward the audience and played one extremely loud note and not surprisingly, a woman in the front of the hall jumped about two feet out of her chair. How often can typical classical music concerts affect an audience member so directly?
Surprisingly often, in my case. But that's because I finally figured out that it's not about being knocked out of my chair, it's about being able to aurally go up to the music and engage it actively, openly, maybe even foolishly. The more that classical music borrows from popular music, the more the artistic content is skewed in a pop direction: towards sensation and away from contemplation, and more crucially, towards expectation and away from exploration. The most important music is the music we don't yet know that we want. Structuring the presentation along popular lines makes it that much more unlikely that we'll ever find it.

March 08, 2007

Not long for this world

I'm the first to admit that my skill at prognosticating competitions is non-existent, so I wasn't surprised that none of the composers I considered in the running for the Grawemeyer Award won (see comments here). I was pleasantly surprised that my other prediction failed to pan out—that the honored piece would be an opera or concerto (the winner, Sebastian Currier's Static, is for five players). That call, in fact, was based on solid evidence: 12 of the previous 20 winners had been either stage works or solo-and-orchestra affairs. The inherent flash and drama of virtuosity or figurative action, after all, is always going to make a bigger impact than a well-wrought but understated meditation for a few players that don't seem to be working very hard.

I've been thinking about such things this week as I've been revisiting the Webern op. 27 Variations for solo piano. In Moldenhauer's biography, he quotes Webern writing a colleague about his progress: "The completed part is a movement of variations; what is evolving will be a kind of 'suite.' In the variations I hope I have realized something I have envisioned for years now." To another correspondent, a couple of weeks later: "During the last few weeks I was uninterruptedly at my work and now see that the variations go on further, even if they turn into movements of most diverse types." (Emphasis in the original.)

Webern first started working on the Variations in October of 1935, went at it full-steam starting the next June, and finally finished it in September. That's a long genesis for a not-very-long piece of music, but the quotes reveal that Webern had to live with the notes for a long time before he could see where they were going, generating a type of fully organic form that he had clearly been trying to imagine for the better part of his compositional life. The pianist who premiered op. 27, Peter Stadler, remembered coaching the music with Webern: "For weeks on end he had spent countless hours trying to convey to me every nuance of performance down to the finest detail. As he sang and shouted, waved his arms and stamped his feet in an attempt to bring out what he called the meaning of the music I was amazed to see him treat those few scrappy notes as if they were cascades of sound." For Webern, they were: highly charged phrases packed with a year's worth of thought and emotion.

I doubt the Variations would win any major music award today. The Grawemeyer specifies a "large musical genre"; the Pulitzer is for a work "of significant dimension." Webern's few pages wouldn't get much of a look from such juries. Yet op. 27 is a piece of significant dimensions, even if those dimensions are curled into themselves like something out of string theory. Big awards, thankfully, don't always go to big ensembles, but there's a long way to go before a couple of perfect minutes of lapidary precision and ineffable depth can hope to compete on equal terms with a Wagnerian stem-winder.

Hats Off

Vormittagspuk stillIt's Thursday, so it must be time for Paul Hindemith and Darius Milhaud to star in a Weimar-era avant-garde German version of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" video! That's Vormittagspuk ("Morning Ghosts"), directed by Dada luminary Hans Richter in 1928 (with music by Hindemith). The Nazis deemed it "Degenerate Art" and destroyed the negative, but a print survived, and, of course, is now available on YouTube. Richter later spent some time in America, where, among other things, he collaborated with Jean Cocteau on the late surrealist romp 8x8: A Chess Sonata (portions of which are also online—check out this sequence featuring Paul Bowles awakening to compose from a slowly draining swimming pool.)

March 07, 2007

Boy, boy, crazy boy

From the wires:

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are about to buy Leonard Bernstein's old apartment. (That's a Scientological E-Meter to the right there, like the one that will soon sit in the place formerly occupied by Lenny's ashtray. Build your own!)

Peter Frampton (link warning: auto-loading guitar music) just narrated Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf in Kentucky.

Go to Syracuse and you might just end up as an official Lou Reed scholar. (Reed's also picking up the George Arents Pioneer Medal for Excellence in the Arts.) English majors only, which may confirm your opinion of Metal Machine Music. Not mine, though—I love the noise. (Thanks to awesome sister Jeana Stewart for the tip.)

Oboist H. David Meyers has been sentenced to a year and a day in prison for running an illegal sports gambling operation. (Speaking of gambling, just one more day to get in on your office Grawemeyer pool. My money's on Steve Reich—but I came up empty in MegaMillions, so maybe you should ask someone else.)

Update (3/8): The Grawemeyer? We were all wrong—me especially. Congratulations, Sebastian!

March 06, 2007

In a Persian Market

Remember Nader Mashayehki? He's the conductor of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, who last year, toured Europe with a program that included Frank Zappa's Dog Breath Variations. He's at it again: tomorrow night, he'll lead a perfomance of John Cage's Four6 at the Tehran Conservatory of Music. “It will be interesting to find out whether there is any penchant for Cage’s works among Iranians or not, and if so, to what degree,” Mashayekhi says. As far as anyone knows, this is the first Cage performance in Iran since the Islamic Revolution. The Tehran Symphony faces chronic funding shortages, but Masayekhi isn't inclined to shift to a more conservative programming philosophy. “[Cage's] works create a hope and a philosophical view toward life," Mashayehki says. "This view is very helpful and we really need that hope in Iran… his music creates joie de vivre.” Indeed.

(Article via New Music ReBlog, which I'm shocked and mortified to find is not on the blogroll. I really need to update that thing.)

Update (3/6): Alex Ross, who's more productive on his lunch hour than I am, tracks down a poster for the concert that I can't wait to print out and hang on the wall.

"Oh, she didn't hit it"

Our former DePaul roommate Mark Meyer sends along news that one of our favorite professors, Tom Brown, passed away last week. The "scholar and gentleman" epithet doesn't begin to descibe Dr. Brown, who had the irrepressible enthusiasm of the true nerd and enough endearing quirks for at least a dozen other musicologists. Two facts that probably won't make it into his obituary: he met and romanced his former wife, so the story goes, while she was still in a convent, the discovery of which gave us a whole new level of respect for the man; and every ten years or so, he'd put aside all other books and spend the year re-reading Proust. He was living proof that the field of music is so rich that one could happily spend an entire life thinking deep, idiosyncratic thoughts about it. (Post title is a direct petulantly indignant quote from Dr. Brown's "Shakespeare and Music" seminar, when, after talking for weeks about the high D-flat at the end of the mad scene in Verdi's Macbeth, the soprano on the video he showed the class chickened out and sang an A-flat instead.)

If they asked me, I could write a book

Reviewing the Cantata Singers Chamber Series.
Boston Globe, March 6, 2007.

March 05, 2007

Pushing the envelope

Brün: Mutatis Mutandis #12
A composer of music has to be aware of, and to have a penetrating insight into, all the factors which converge to an ideology in the cultural make-up of his contemporaries. He has to come up with an idea, a musical idea, which just passes the accumulated past by not exactly belonging to it, by not conforming to its approved laws, by labeling its claim to eternal validity succinctly as a mere ideology.
That's the pioneering electronic composer Herbert Brün, in a book I came across while brushing up on the op. 27 Variations of Webern: The Computer and Music, edited by Harry B. Lincoln (Cornell University Press, 1970). As you might expect from a 1970 survey of the topic, it's not terribly practical, but it's a fun snapshot of the state of the art at the time. The big advances in computer analysis are programming the machine to recognize basic relationships that would be obvious to a human observer, and computer composition is limited to fairly simple stochastic operations (no one's yet quite sure what to make of Xenakis's Musiques Formelles).

In the midst of all this, Brün's contribution, "From Musical Ideas to Computers and Back," bursts forth like a Roman candle. Ostensibly a proposal for a program of computer composition research, it's also a philosophical tract and a historiographical analysis of musical style. Equating musical styles with compositional systems, he points out that any system is ultimately a way of limiting the vocabulary of available sounds. As such, any system contains only a finite number of possibilities, and as more and more information is extracted out of the system, the possibilities decrease. Brün characterizes the life-cycle of a given system/style as four stages:

  • Experimental: the first stab at decreasing the chaos of available information by limiting choices.
  • Speculative: the system matures to the point that likely avenues of development begin to be perceived.
  • Reflective: the system is completely defined, even if all the possible information has yet to be extracted. "Speculation is gradually replaced by variation," as Brün puts it.
  • Administrative: "the now wholly communicative system at the same time becomes wholly uninformative." All possibilities are exhausted; all that remains is rule-based note-spinning.

  • Brün clearly thinks that Western music has reached the "administrative" crisis point:
    Recent developments in the field of musical composition have shown that the limited and conditioned system of acoustical elements and events, considered musical material for several hundred years, has now entered the administrative stage, where all further permutations will no longer possess any new meaning. The degree to which contemporary composers are consciously aware of this fact may vary widely. But equally widely varied are the signs giving evident proof for the growth of at least an intuitive suspicion that the system of well-tempered pitches, harmonic spectrums, and harmonic time periodization has had its day, and has now become so thoroughly organized that nothing unheard and unthought of could possibly find, therein, its communicative equivalent.
    At its core, this construct echoes the mythical musical march of progress a little too much for my taste, but it's nothing if not provocative, and it's a particularly intriguing framework to think about decadence, artistic stagnation, and the sprouting of various neo-this and that movements.

    But really, like the rest of Brün's work, it's the tone and sheer scope that I love. The rest of the articles in The Computer and Music are academically careful and reasonable—when the authors do venture to make predictions or try to characterize the importance of their research, they're appropriately modest and qualified. Not Brün. He can't seem to get through more than a couple of paragraphs without putting the topic at hand into the widest possible philosophical and historical perspective. The quote at the beginning of this post is immediately expanded into a set of trenchant and broad verities that are worth quoting at length:
    Whenever a man finally recognizes and understands the notions and laws that rule his behavior and standards, he will, usually, honor himself for his remarkable insight by claiming eternal validity for those notions and laws, though they be ever so spurious, ever so limited to but temporary relevance. Ideologies flourish on retroactively made-up beliefs which are complacently proclaiming to have found the truth, while skeptics are already busy looking for it again.... An idea, on the other hand, usually challenges the adequacy of using approved criteria as standards of measurement, and expressly demonstrates the irrelevance of the approved in questions of desirability concerning changes of state or law. It is for this that ideas come under attack; not for being good or bad, but rather for uncovering the impotence of persisting ideologies. To cover this shame, the ideologically possessed apostle finds himself frequently provoked to advocate indifference, complacency, corruption, or even murder. Often enough, unfortunately, such a defender of an expiring ideology, by proclaiming it to be nature's own law, succeeds in contaminating the more gullible of his opponents, who, unaware of their defeat, then begin to retaliate in kind. The most contagious disease in our human society is the agony of dying ideologies.
    Brün, who fled Nazi Germany in 1936, studied with Stefan Wolpe in pre-independence Israel, spent a summer at Tanglewood, then bounced around Europe before settling at the University of Illinois in the 1960s, always believed that composers had an almost moral obligation to work outside their comfort zone, to constantly demonstrate the bankruptcy of any sort of dogma, to prod those of us in society to reach beyond what we already know or think we know. "If a composer takes a political view of his role in society, he may see that a certain lack of new orders is not only threatening his own system, his ego, his biological existence, but the biological existence of his contemporaries and neighbors," he once said. "He may say that this society, as it sees itself, will now not give any more new answers to repeated questions. It needs an input which will change it just that much that the next time a certain set of questions is asked, it will give new answers." That's awfully close to my ideal of composition, regardless of style or vocabulary.

    Brün is compulsively quotable; you can start with a sample of writings and interviews posted on the Brün website (which also contains many of his graphical scores, including Mutatis Mutandis #12, above). Not much of his music seems to be online, but you can hear a quartet of works, including the seminal electronic piece Futility 1964, on this archived program from Brown University's BSR radio (it's in the midst of a lot of college-radio musique concrète hijinks; Futility 1964 starts at the 7:26 mark). And here's a YouTube snippet of an undated but characteristic Brün lecture; he starts from a pregnant, unexpected linguistic observation, then, when you finally think you know where he's going, he takes off in another, even more provocative direction.

    Seven years after his death, Brün is mostly known only to electronic-music specialists, which, given the breadth of his ideas, is a shame. My sense is that the current new-music ethos is in retreat from Brün's tough, wildly ambitious idealism; the most common goal seems to be to carve out a little space of order and beauty in the midst of a chaotic world. Brün would insist that you could change that entire world with every single note you put down.

    March 02, 2007

    Fraud at Polls

    Remember this week's election? The votes are in, and so is the fix—WCRB has announced Boston's Top 100 Classical Pieces, and surprise, surprise: nary a living composer to be found. Here's the first 40:

    WCRB list 1-40
    I'll be charitable on the quaint Victorian transliteration of "Rimsky-Korsakov", but "Musorgsky"? "Copeland"? Really? And including both Appalachian Spring and "Variations on a Shaker Theme" is rather gilding the lily, isn't it? They even screwed up my name:

    WCRB list 61-64
    Even auf Deutsch it's two T's. On the other hand, there's some interesting musicology going on at the WCRB compound:

    WCRB list 72-76Tchaikovsky's 35th Symphony, eh? I'd send both that and the Mozart to Pristine Audio and see what they think.

    This thing stinks to high heaven, though. No vote counts, no list of nominees, just a corporate fiat with a bunch of very suspiciously familiar characters on it. Thanks to everyone who threw away a vote, if only to prove a point. Pride goeth before a fall, WCRB—you just lost this music lover. Nice work.

    Update (3/5): Either accidentally or purposefully, WCRB did use a proper transliterated version of what's usually seen in the U.S. as "Mussorgsky." See comments.

    Update (3/6): Nope, it was a typo. Now that they've fixed most of them, "Mussorgsky" it is.

    March 01, 2007

    If you want something visual that's not too abysmal

    How long before this story and this story intersect?

    I wanna be a man, man-cub

    The other night, over pre-concert burgers and fries, my lovely wife and I were doing a post-mortem on the Hatto shenanigans, and critiquing confidence games in general. (She, with her keen judgement of character, was deeply skeptical of any of Barrington-Coupe's motivations, even in confessing; I, with my ADHD demand for diversion and somewhat more depraved sensibilities, was disappointed that the old guy hadn't tried to keep the game going longer.) And then she came up with a great philosophical entertainment. Barrington-Coupe claimed that he had chosen his plagiarism targets based on their similarities to Hatto's artistic temperament, which begged two questions, one easy, one pretty hard:

    1. Whose recordings would you like, as a performer, to pass off as your own?
    2. Whose recordings would you actually be able to pass off as your own?

    Me? This is the best I could come up with:

    1. Glenn Gould. Idiosyncratic technique, pinpoint accuracy, eccentric interpretations.
    2. Alfred Cortot. Eccentric technique, casual accuracy, idiosyncratic interpretations.

    The more Cortot I hear, the more I recognize my own habits: a focus on touch and line, a wayward tempo, and an aural emphasis (maybe over-emphasis) on the the architecture of the piece, all value-adding features to make up for a technical apparatus that, let's face it, isn't going to land me a Leventritt award anytime soon.

    One thing I noticed is how hard this question is for me now: I hadn't actually compared myself to other pianists for years. Back in college, I would have answered these questions, particularly the first one, with GPS accuracy: I want Gilels's fingers and Gould's brain, I want Argerich's energy with Brendel's rhetoric, I want Van Cliburn's sound and Pollini's repertoire. But no more. Maybe it's the wonderfully mundane daily work of music—I'm much more likely to think things like, "I want this phrase to sound like this, and I have to figure out how to do it." Maybe it's smaller ambitions, realizing I'm probably much happier noodling around behind singers than I ever would have been on display in front of an orchestra. Or maybe that kind of comparative self-analysis is sufficiently ingrained that it's become subconscious.

    But there's another reason, too: the knowledge that the image of the fully-formed artist is a myth. I used to imagine how much fun it would be to be up on stage, running a masterclass, having all the answers and a distinguished patina of experience—in other words, being the performer that others hoped to imitate. Years later, I instead find myself still sneaking in to masterclasses, hoping to pick up pointers, trying to figure out just what the hell I'm doing. I was going to say it's probably more fun this way, but I'm not sure that's true; being able to sail through the Prokofiev second concerto in front of a world-class orchestra has got to be a blast. Having all the answers, though, is more poignant and melancholy than we likely imagine. So I'll say this: even when performing is workaday and frustrating, it's at least never boring. I could do a lot worse.

    Addendum (3/1): A.C. Douglas touches on this issue:
    I do question [why the Hatto plagiarisms weren't noticed by] professional concert pianists, a routine part of whose job is to keep tabs on the competition — most especially the competition who've released recordings of works also recorded by them (the professional concert pianists), and which competition's recordings have not only received critical raves in the music press, but raves accompanied by a sensational if tragic back-story.
    My own sense is that concert pianists actually don't spend a whole lot of energy keeping up with the competition via recordings. If there's a new pianist getting rave reviews, they'll make the effort to see them live if the opportunity presents itself, but unless it's a particularly noteworthy performance or choice of repertoire, they're not all that interested in hearing them on CD. For them, recordings are foremost a window into the past, a library of performance practice by the greats of yesteryear. If you're going to tackle the Beethoven sonatas, you're far more likely to listen to Schnabel than any of your contemporaries.