Monday, January 15, 2018

A Note on Bachtrack

Looking over the Bachtrack statistics for 2017 from the link I posted on Friday, I notice something interesting. If you go to the complete infographic and scroll down to the "Busiest Instrumentalists" section towards the bottom you will see a section on pianists. At the top is Dénes Várjon with 64 concerts followed by a tie between Daniil Trifonov and Yuja Wang with 57 concerts each. Conspicuous by his absence is one of the most active pianists, Grigory Sokolov. A quick trip to his website shows an impressive list of concert dates for this season, 74 by my count, which should have put him at number one on the list. Now why did he not appear? Another quite active pianist is Khatia Buniatishvili, also not listed and on her website I count 42 upcoming concerts this year. Yes, perhaps she would have been number 11 on the list, just under Kirill Gerstein. But the absence of Sokolov is simply inexplicable. So, obviously the Bachtrack numbers cannot be trusted...


Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 5

According to a German documentary on her, Gubaidulina's last name is pronounced with the accent on the "du." I don't know if this is the case in Russian as well. We are up to 1965, Gubaidulina is living in an apartment on Leninskii Prospekt in Moscow and working as a free-lance composer. As she refuses to do commissions for the Communist Party, sometimes things are very difficult financially and she largely survives on film score commissions. Her Piano Sonata was completed in 1965 and she also married Nikolai Bokov, a poet and philosopher. Let's have a listen to the sonata, the last of her works to be written, nominally, in a traditional form.


You will certainly hear some jazz influence and extended playing techniques. The second theme in the first movement, for example, has passages where the strings are played directly, not using the keyboard.

Through her husband Gubaidulina had contact with a circle of political dissidents. This was during the reactionary Brezhnev era when underground "samizdat" publications strove to communicate a sense of what was going on in the world outside the constrained world of official truth.

After the Piano Sonata she struck out on a more independent path, as she said in a 1992 interview:
Until then, I had wanted to write for the theater, to compose ballets, symphonies... But then I understood: no, absolutely not. I need to write miniatures, miniatures in a whisper. I picked instruments that have almost no sound. The harp, a quiet, gentle instrument; the string bass is purposely muted; the percussion instruments are also treated the same way, so that the score calls for very few sounds. It was from this moment that I realized that I would pay no attention at all to anybody else. I would do what I liked... That doesn't mean, of course, that afterward I only expressed myself in a whisper.
The piece she is referring to is her Five Etudes for Harp, Double Bass, and Percussion, also from 1965:


It is as if the music is for ritual dances of previously undiscovered peoples living in unexplored regions--and aesthetically, that is pretty much what it is. I hear a bit of jazz, but I also hear passages that remind me of Canarios by Gaspar Sanz, the 17th century Spanish composer for guitar. For Gubaidulina this journey was an inner one, seeking greater depth. Instead of inventing more and more novelties, she saw her role as a filter, rather than a generator.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Star Is Born

This story is too interesting to wait until the next Friday Miscellanea. The Wall Street Journal has a behind the scenes look at what happens when one of the stars of an opera production bows out sick and someone has to fill in on very short notice:
Singer Sabina Puértolas was buying groceries in Madrid when her agent called with a question. Would she like to perform one of opera’s most prestigious roles on a world-famous stage?
Yes, she said, of course, when?
Tomorrow, the agent replied, with Ms. Puértolas as Gilda in a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Royal Opera House in London, one of the company’s biggest, most popular titles.
Heh! Well, this is what every talented middle-rank soloist hopes for, the moment when you get to show you are ready to step up. This is how Leonard Bernstein achieved his early success. In 1943, a mere 25 years old, he stood in on very short notice for an ailing Bruno Walter and conducted the New York Philharmonic with no rehearsal. In 1949 Serge Koussevitzky was scheduled to conduct the premiere of the very difficult Turangalîla-Symphonie by Messiaen but again, Bernstein stepped in when Koussevitzky fell ill.
Theatrical agent Alex Fernandez was in a hotel room in Córdoba, Spain, when the Royal Opera called at about 5 p.m. He immediately called Ms. Puértolas, who was shopping with her 12-year old son.
“Are you sick?” Mr. Fernandez asked. She answered: “No, why?”
The agent said: “Are you sure you’re fine?” She replied: “Yes, but why?”
Mr. Fernandez got to the point. “OK, you’re flying to London tomorrow morning to sing Gilda at the Royal Opera House,” the agent recalls telling his client. She was so shocked that she shoved her shopping cart away.
She got on an 8:30 am flight to London and by 11 am was being rushed into a rehearsal room to familiarize her with the set and how she should move on stage. Then there was hair, makeup and costume! Bear in mind that an opera singer has to give a perhaps three hour performance from memory! How did she do?
Near the end of the first act, Ms. Puértolas stepped up to deliver the opera’s most challenging aria, “Caro nome,” punctuated with an array of high notes. When she finished, the crowd erupted. “It was absolutely wonderful,” Ms. Rebourg says. Near the end of the three-hour opera, the curtains fell. Ms. Puértolas got a standing ovation, leaving her in tears.
That's a lovely story, is it not? The performance was just a few days ago. Here is clip of Sabina Puértolas singing the role from a 2010 production:

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Multicultural Puzzle

I just ran across something that I find a bit puzzling. There was an article in a Canadian newspaper the other day, the Times/Colonist of Victoria, BC, where I used to live, about a collection of Indigenous music being nominated for a UNESCO program. That is excellent news, of course. The person who collected this was the Austrian-Canadian musicologist Ida Halpern who specialized in the music of the Indigenous peoples of the coast of British Columbia. Here is an excerpt from the article:
Her life was steeped in classical music, but Ida Halpern was passionate about the songs of British Columbia's Indigenous people, music she set out to prove was equal to that of Bach and Mozart.
See, that is the part that puzzles me. I'm very fond of the classic music of north India and the music of the Balinese and Javanese gamelan and have heard interesting music from Ghana and Zimbabwe, the traditional music of Japan and other places. Some of it is quite sophisticated, but in terms of structure and aesthetic power, these musics have limits that I suspect come from the lack of really good systems of notation. In the absence of that, what tends to happen is that a small core of traditions is preserved instead of the radical advances of individual composers--call it an inherent difference between "folk" music and "art" music. That is just a private theory and, yes, it would take a great deal of research to flesh it out. Call it an informed intuition.

The music of the Indigenous peoples of Canada that I have heard is particularly limited in its techniques and devices. There is not much rhythmic interest and even less harmonic interest. The vocal lines tend to focus on just a very few intervals, seconds and thirds mostly, and the impression one gets is of a single chanting tone, with a small amount of variation. In the absence of notation, of any kind of formal training for musicians and of the largely ritual function of the music, this is not surprising. If you want to sample a few fragments, you can go to Amazon and listen to the clips from this album:


Now why would someone with a PhD in musicology from the University of Vienna think that this was equal to the music of Bach and Mozart? Even for a second? And how would she go about proving it? That's what puzzles me.

I can only find one significant article on her work, by Kenneth Chen, and I can't find any original articles or books authored by her. Chen comments that most of her written scholarship was in the form of liner notes to the albums of field recordings. This passage from his paper reveals a bit of her approach:
Halpern did, however, do more than instantiate Kulturkreis concepts even in her early scholarship. Notably, in comparing West Coast First Nations and Euro-Western art musics, she reasoned that:
"The [former] may be considered melogenic [my emphasis]. Sometimes it is logogenic (world-bound, logos-word) as when the chief sings his potlatch song and recites some parts. Sometimes it can be pathogenic (pathos-full of emotion) as in a medicine man's song. Often, however, it passes these two primitive stages, blending already into the melogenic style which is the style of our western culture."
This argument downplays the "primitive" (logo- and pathogenic) features of First Nations musics in favor of the more "progressive" (melogenic) style found also in Euro-Western art music—a disconcerting move logically insofar as Halpern's inference (underlined) does not flow from what her evidence actually supports. From a phatic point of view, though, her rationale betrays her eagerness to present First Nations music-making as developmentally "like" Euro- Western art music-making: advanced rather than backward.
It is worth reading all of Mr. Chen's paper as it outlines some of the reasons why Halpern's pioneering work has received such little attention over the years. Perhaps one of the reasons why she worked so hard to record and preserve this music and also why she wanted to give a high aesthetic valuation to the music was a kind of collective guilt over the very harsh way that Indigenous culture was treated in the 19th and well into the 20sh centuries:
Halpern began and conducted much of her fieldwork during a period when it was actually illegal for First Nations cultures to be celebrated, much less preserved. From 1880 until 1951, the Indian Act forbade First Nations Peoples to partake of their own cultural activities, and Section 140(1) of its 1927 version specifically decreed that: "Every Indian or other person who engages in, assists in celebrating or encourages either directly or indirectly another to celebrate any Indian festival, dance or other ceremony ... is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months and not less than two months." Halpern herself acknowledged: "all of us could have been jailed and fined because of strict Canadian laws proscribing native culture at that time."
Institutionally, the Department of Indian Affairs, the Board of Education as well as the Church enforced a policy of cultural assimilation professedly with the honourable intention of "saving the Indians" by "civilizing" them—à la Western standards of civilization.
I am quoting from the Chen article. It is astonishing how severe these policies were and how we have swung to virtually the opposite policies today! If you will recall my series of posts on Stravinsky and the road to the Rite of Spring, it seems that the Soviet Union, where similar projects to record and preserve the folk music of Russia were being undertaken around this time as portable recording equipment became available, was far more "enlightened" than the colonial administrators in British North America and the subsequent Canadian government.

My conclusion is that, while Halpern certainly wanted to attribute aesthetic value to the music of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, she likely never said anything like that she regarded it as "equal to that of Bach or Mozart." For that we can likely blame an ideologically-blindered journalist.

I have ordered the album pictured above in CD form so that I can study Halpern's liner notes, so I may have more to add later on.

Here is one Nootka song available on YouTube:

Friday Miscellanea

In my tireless search for silly items to amuse you on Friday I sometimes turn up a real gem. Here are the twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic playing an arrangement of the theme to the Pink Panther.

* * *

I'm not sure of the source of this quote, but it is too much fun to pass up:
Every socialistic type of government… produces bad art, produces social inertia, produces really unhappy people, and it's more repressive than any other kind of government. --Frank Zappa
I'm not sure I entirely agree with this. After all, the amount of really impressive music coming out of Russia when it was the Soviet Union argues against the first point: "produces bad art." Social inertia? One thing that socialism seems to do is reduce the vast majority to an equal state of poverty and despair while enriching the elite few. In order to do this a great deal of repression is normally required!

* * *

I have previously expressed the view that the supposed decline and aging of classical audiences is largely a North American phenomenon and much less the case in Europe. I offer as an instance the stellar success of the new Hamburg concert hall in Germany. Slipped Disc has the story:
Annual results are in for the first year of the Elbphilharmonie and they make pretty good reading.
A planned half-million deficit has turned into a surplus of 374,000 euros. Some 4.5 million people have visited the site. Tickets are in high demand.
One stat: for some concerts, the demand is more than 20 times higher than the number of seats available.
* * *

Here are some important statistics: Bachtrack has released the figures for classical music in 2017. The most-performed composer was neither Bach nor Beethoven, but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Sorry, Beethoven, but the top spot for the composer with the most performances in 2017 has returned to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, while Hallelujah choruses will be sung around the world to celebrate that Handel's Messiah reclaimed its position as the top performed work. The Bachtrack database listed a similar number of events to the previous year, around 32,000.
The top six composers in order were Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky. And let me give a shout out to composer number seven, Joseph Haydn! Shostakovich is number 16 on the list, two ahead of number 18, Vivaldi. There are lots more interesting statistics, so go have a look.

* * * 

Answering the important question "do composers picnic?" is this photo of Debussy and his daughter Chouchou in 1915:


That photo comes from an article in The Spectator this week about upcoming musical events in 2018.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Debussy Festival, taking place over two busy weekends (16–18 and 23–25) in March, is the first really sizeable statement from the orchestra’s new music director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. The most obvious bases are covered — La merImages and virtually all the chamber music — but there’s no sense of an exercise in completism. Instead, with music ranging from Wagner and Szymanowski to Boulez, Takemitsu and Tristan Murail, the festival attempts to map Debussy’s place in musical history. It’s all informed by Grazinyte-Tyla’s instinct for drawing musical connections, and she follows up on 23 June with a concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.
* * * 

Norman Lebrecht has an item about the shrinking world of music criticism that is worth a look. He links to a couple of previous pieces and notes how things have just gotten worse. I am more and more noticing a decline in simple literacy. Even in prominent publications like the Wall Street Journal or the Toronto Globe and Mail, I see more and more little things that signal a weakening grasp on how language works and the meaning of words. When someone uses a phrase like "woe betide" it is often in a context that shows an unfamiliarity with its use. Another example that drives me crazy is the constant misuse of the phrase to "beg the question." No, it does not mean that the situation demands that we question it. It comes from philosophical rhetoric and if someone begs the question, it means that their argument assumes the conclusion, a common logical error. If people cannot get these basic things right, then the higher level skills of aesthetic criticism are even more out of reach.

* * *

We have talked about what a classical music superpower Finland is these days, but today the Globe and Mail has a big piece on what a pop music superpower Sweden is. From the days of ABBA until now, when an amazing amount of pop songs are either written or produced by Swedes, or both, Sweden wields an influence well out of proportion to its population.
Sweden has infiltrated global pop for decades. ABBA ruled the seventies; Robyn and the Cardigans tore a strip off the nineties; Tove Lo and Zara Larsson carry the country on charts today. Countless North American hits, too, are written by Swedes you've never heard of. The root causes of the disproportionate dominance of this country of 10 million, however, are less evident. One clue can be found in a single, vastly influential studio that began ushering in a new school of songwriting in the 1990s, sending teen-pop artists including the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Britney Spears flocking to Stockholm. Further clues can be found in Swedish culture itself, and the deep appreciation of music that's instilled in Swedes from an early age. "They're gods of pop music," says Carly Rae Jepsen, who regularly travels to Swedish studios, most recently for her forthcoming record.
* * *

Normally I am somewhat of a fan of Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post, but her latest article on classical crossover has me squirming... This is where she starts to go wrong:
"Classical music is very particular about its categories."
It's that agency thing again that obscures what is really going on. No, "classical music" does no such thing as "classical music" is a mere intellectual abstraction. Rather, the people who create, perform and listen to classical music are the ones who are particular. And the reason they are is because it is extremely annoying to be offered something purporting to be classical music only to discover that the reality is some maudlin concoction with no real substance. It's like purchasing what you thought was a fine confection from your local patisserie only to discover when you cut into it that it was a Hostess Twinkie.

* * *

We really haven't said much about Debussy recently, or listened to much either. So let's rectify that with this performance of La Mer.  This is Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra:


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Guitar Apps!

Time for something satirical, I think! This might be behind the paywall, but if you google the title, it will probably come up: These Guitar Apps Will Teach You to Shred Like Slash. Here is an excerpt:
Mastering the guitar is a classic fantasy. But if you’re wary of hiring a teacher who’ll only show you the simplest chords while reminiscing about the time he opened for Sugar Ray, consider going digital. This might be the best time in history to learn (or relearn) the instrument from home. Whether you’re a rookie or a rusty old hand, new online tools and apps could fast track you to guitar demigod status, provided you put in the practice.
Yes, it certainly was my fantasy way back in the 1960s.
Dave Isaacs, a 20-year music veteran who instructs students in Nashville and across the internet via Skype, said much has changed since he first picked up a guitar as a cash-starved teen. “To learn a song, I used to have to go to a music store, open a book and sneakily write the chords down on my palm,” he said. Now you can scour sites like ultimate-guitar.com for chords of more than a million songs—even indie obscurities like Ween’s “Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down”—and find countless tutorials on YouTube, all free.
But there’s a catch. Most of that information is created by amateurs, for amateurs, so your melodic rendition of that Bon Iver anthem might not ring true with the real version. “Since anyone can post anything, there are a lot of inaccuracies,” Mr. Isaacs said, warning that beginners can get lost in an online maze of data and quickly lose interest.
The article goes on to describe several online courses and apps offered by Fender and Berklee.

Now for the critique! I know I have mentioned before Crichton's Rule. I can't find the quote online, but the famous author said something like this: "If you read articles in the mass media on a topic where you have professional expertise, you will notice that about 80% of the information is wrong. Now extend that to all the other fields!" I find this to be quite true. Any time I read an article about music in the popular press, I do indeed see that it is about 80% wrong. And so it is with this piece.

The truth is, and this comes from forty years of teaching music, that the learning process is really in the hands (and ears and mind) of the student. Course materials and high quality personal instruction can certainly help, may indeed even play a crucial role, but learning happens within the student and only their energy, curiosity, initiative and capacity for concentration and work will advance them. Yes, a good instructor, or well-crafted materials can certainly save the student some time and help them to find the right path. But only the student can walk that path.

A typical experience teaching is the feeling that, like Sisyphus, you are pushing a stone up a hill, only to have it tumble down as soon as you stop. No-one in the professional music teaching business wants to say this, but it is still true. There are a few gifted students that hardly need any help at all, a few massively untalented students that nothing will help and a bunch in the middle that, with a lot of work and a bit of help, will make some progress.

Dave Isaacs lets the cat out of the bag a bit when he describes going to the music store and copying down some chords out of a book. He was showing some initiative there. But I'm sure that, a bit later in his progress, he was figuring out those chords just by listening to the recording.

I guess there are three stages or levels here. First of all you go find the information you need, chord progressions out of a book maybe (and by the way, the Ultimate Book of Chord Progressions has been in print, and available for a modest price, since the 18th century (though it seems they have put it into two volumes recently):


Or perhaps it is a music teacher in your area. In any case, you find what you need because you are motivated by some fantasy or vision. Second, you absorb the material and develop the skills necessary to play. It is the third stage that is the interesting one: you forget all that and hew your own path and this is what the really fine musicians and composers do.

They don't have an app for that...


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sofia Gubaidulina, Part 4

Gubaidulina began to be recognized in music circles in the Soviet Union from the early 60s. She joined the Moscow branch of the Composer's Union, at the time a crucial step in advancement as they not only organized concerts, composer's retreats and symposia, but also controlled Soviet cultural policy in music. The Composer's Union offered a "Meet the Composer" evening in December 1962 the first part of which was devoted to the music of Sofia Gubaidulina. Along with the Chaconne we talked about in the last post, one of the works featured was her Piano Quintet (composed in 1957-58). Let's have a listen to the first movement. The performers are Kathryn Woodard, piano and Brooklyn Rider (Colin Jacobsen, violin; Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello). Recorded live at the Rudder Theatre, College Station, TX, February 26, 2009.


That does not depart too far from the Shostakovich model, though the musical language is certainly different.

A year later, in early 1963, Gubaidulina's candidacy came to an end along with her state financial support. She was not attracted to many of the avenues pursued by her colleagues which included teaching or working as an editor for a state music publisher. The idea of film composition seemed more promising and her teacher Nikolai Peiko helped to open some doors for her. She also won a prize of several hundred rubles at the 1963 All-Union Competition for Young Composers that helped sustain her. The award-winning piece was an Allegro rustico for flute and piano: