Sunday, December 10, 2017

Classical Music Has a Regional Problem

In all the discussions about classical music's "problem" what is missing is the specifics. The problem is usually stated as being one of a decline in popularity due to younger audiences abandoning the "genre" for the dubious pleasures of popular music. This is usually how the problem is framed in the mass media in North America and, occasionally, in Great Britain. The thing is that this does not seem to be the case in Europe where classical music seems as popular as ever and audiences as diverse as ever.

If we step back and look at some history, classical music is deeply rooted on the European continent, but a fairly recent transplant in the New World. The UK is the odd man out. Music there was pursued with great energy and creativity during the Middle Ages and, right up to the death of Purcell in the late 17th century, was quite influential on European music. Then it seems to have died out, as a native pursuit, until the very late 19th century when Edward Elgar began the flourishing of classical music in 20th century Britain.

Similarly, classical, that is to say, notated concert music, has been pursued avidly in pockets of the New World, especially the US, Brazil and Argentina, during the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and others are probably as important as any working today.

But it still remains the case that concert music has only very shallow roots everywhere in the world apart from Western Europe. What is happening in recent decades is that the thin veneer of Western European culture that has existed in a lot of the world is wearing away everywhere but in Western Europe. As an example, let's look at what inspired this post: the music page from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation There are a host of items on the page, color-coded as to genre. Classical music items are aquamarine. On this whole page there are three classical items out of dozens and dozens of other genres.

The traditional expectation would be that a national broadcast network like the CBC or PBS in the US or ABC in Australia would have an educational or cultural mandate that would certainly include the promotion of classical or concert music. In recent decades this has been completely overturned and now these entities go out of their way not only to not promote classical music, but to bury it amid a wealth of non-classical music--to virtually no protest. On the European continent things are quite different as classical music is a core element of European national broadcast networks. It is also promoted by the BBC in the UK, again following a path a bit closer to the continent.

I suppose the big question mark today is what is happening in China where literally millions of young people are studying concert instruments like the piano and violin as well as the voice. How deeply will classical music root itself in China and will it be pushed to one side by popular forms as it seems to have been in South Korea?

Let's hear a clip of a performance by the very popular Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. Here she is playing the Piano Concerto No. by Chopin in Tokyo with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Handel's Messiah

There is a new book out on Handel's Messiah (reviewed in the Wall Street Journal), just in time for a flood of performances associated with the season. Perhaps the two most popular pieces performed this time of year are Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet and Handel's oratorio. So what is an oratorio, anyway?

Its origins are in the 17th century and it became a vehicle for the expression of both the Reformation in the works of the great German composer Heinrich Schütz, student of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the Counter-Reformation in the works of Giacomo Carissimi, a priest, organist and choirmaster in Rome. An oratorio is basically an unstaged dramatic narrative on a sacred text, a sacred dialogue.

Schütz called his oratorios "historien" and one of the best-known is his joyous, Italianate outpouring of Christmas cheer titled Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes Jesu Christi (Historia of the joyful und blessed birth of Jesus Christ, son of God and Mary). This is often shortened in English to Christmas Story. It was first performed in 1660. Let's have a listen.

Carissimi's most famous biblical narrative, Jephte, was composed around 1649 and tells the tragic story of the sacrifice of Jephte's daughter. A chorus from this work was "borrowed" by Handel for a chorus in his oratorio Samson. Let's listen to the Carissimi:

Handel's great genius was to reinvent the oratorio in English as a solution to his problems with the decline in popularity of his operas in Italian. Interestingly Handel's oratorios in English became vehicles for the expression of civic heroism and national triumph. The English in the 18th century identified with the Old Testament Israelites and regarded the oratorios as gratifying allegories of themselves (see Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 2, p. 315). Handel began the composition of the Messiah in 1741 and it was first performed in Dublin in 1742. The great innovation that Handel made was to re-conceive the genre as being essentially choral. Indeed, the most famous section is the "Hallelujah" chorus, which is possibly the most famous piece of choral music ever written. Let's have a listen:

Now that is stirring! The book by Keates makes the point that performances throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries were characterized by enormous choirs and orchestras, quite distant from the original performances. But in recent decades, a return has been made to the modest forces and crisper tempos of the 18th century. Here, as an example, is the Messiah performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (soloists listed at YouTube):

Friday, December 8, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

The big news in the world of classical music this week seems to be exclusively the accusations of sexual abuse directed at conductor James Levine, for decades the music director of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. The New York Times offers a sober account:
The Metropolitan Opera suspended James Levine, its revered conductor and former music director, on Sunday after three men came forward with accusations that Mr. Levine sexually abused them decades ago, when the men were teenagers.
Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, announced that the company was suspending its four-decade relationship with Mr. Levine, 74, and canceling his upcoming conducting engagements after learning from The New York Times on Sunday about the accounts of the three men, who described a series of similar sexual encounters beginning in the late 1960s. The Met has also asked an outside law firm to investigate Mr. Levine’s behavior.
“While we await the results of the investigation, based on these news reports the Met has made the decision to act now,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview, adding that the Met’s board supported his actions. “This is a tragedy for anyone whose life has been affected.”
Levine was such an institution at the Met that some writers have suggested that the impact will be decisive:
For decades, the Met was essentially the Levine Company. Its identity was intertwined with his. His taste in composers, his relationships with singers, his hires, orchestra, conducting style, and even, for a while, his eye for productions all shaped what happened onstage in seven performances a week. Divas remained loyal to the Met because they felt safe onstage so long as he was in the pit. Audiences burst into applause as soon as his corona of springy curls bobbed into the spotlight. Critics — and I include myself — lauded his leadership as well as his musicality. His cheery, seemingly eternal presence thrilled the board and helped keep the spigot of donations open.
I’m not sure the Met can survive Levine’s disgrace.
Let's hope that is not the case.

* * *

 At a time when so many pillars of the intellectual elite seem to be falling like so many palm trees in a hurricane, perhaps we should take a moment to honor those very few that speak truth instead of lies and hypocrisy. Among those has to be Canadian university professor and psychologist Jordan Peterson. Here is an excerpt from a talk in which he goes full bore against one of the most insidious political stratagems of our day: the industry of the oppressed.

* * *

We are in the middle of the holiday season and some of us, myself included, will be doing some cooking. So let me share with you a recent discovery, Chef John from who is not only a very fine cook, a master of the pan sauce, but also an engaging YouTube personality with a host of expert videos like this one:

Excellent recipe that I have tested myself. Two things: my cooking time turned out to be longer than his, so be sure to use your food thermometer and second, go easy on the lemon juice. I think he puts in too much. Terrific recipe, though!

* * *

Alex Ross has a review of the new John Adams opera over at the New Yorker:
Like all of Adams’s stage works to date, “Girls of the Golden West” was directed by Peter Sellars, who also assembled the libretto. Both Adams and Sellars are California residents, but neither is inclined to romanticize the state. In forty years of collaboration, they have addressed all manner of provocative topics—Richard Nixon’s visit to China, the Achille Lauro terrorist incident, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the Trinity atomic-bomb test—yet they have never launched such a frontal assault on our national mythology. The California gold rush was the proving ground of Manifest Destiny, transmuting rugged individualism into wealth and glory. Here it becomes a grotesque bacchanal of white-male supremacy, capped by a Fourth of July party that degenerates into a racist riot. Clappe’s closing aria is therefore no rhapsody: the majesty of nature sits in silent judgment.
That is certainly a familiar trope, indeed, the subhead of the article reads: "John Adams’s new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” is an assault on American mythology." Honestly, for how many decades have artists been doing their best to assault all the "mythologies" that often turn out to be nothing more than the history of Western civilization? Is this one any different? I suppose we will have to wait and see. But I for one am just a tad tired of the dismantling, problematizing, nuancing and, at the end of the day, destruction of everything connected with American exceptionalism. As a Canadian I always want to say, "hey, we up in Canada have constructed a pretty terrific society as well, prosperous and well-regulated with a fairly honest government and legal system. Not to mention a few other places like Australia and New Zealand." But at the same time, any honest estimate of history will conclude that whatever the United States has been doing over the last couple of hundred years has been spectacularly successful and perhaps it is a better attitude to examine what has been going right than to be constantly tearing it down. But that has been the engine of artistic creativity for a long time and we have yet to truly transition into something else. For now we are still trapped in this kind of artistic vision (quoting from Ross' review):
What resonates most in Donald Trump’s America is the way that empty, stupid boasting devolves into paranoid rage.

* * *

 Here is an hour-long documentary on one of the last century's finest musicians, harpsichordist and organist Gustav Leonhardt (1928 - 2012). It is in Dutch, but with English subtitles:

* * *

Leading contenders in the most awkward way of performing Bach competition are Les objets volants, a French ensemble:

* * *

For our envoi today a new clip on YouTube. This is the Emerson String Quartet in a performance of the Quartet no. 16, K. 428 by Mozart in Tokyo in 1991. How young and slim they look!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

SF: An Addendum

Ok, it's not like there has been any demand from my readership, but I'm going to give you one more post on science fiction tv series anyway. Hey, it's free!

I got around to watching Stargate: Atlantis and yes, it's a good series. In place of Richard Dean Anderson's Everyman there is Joe Flanigan who is pretty good (though not as good as Anderson). The character who ends up dominating the show is Canadian David Hewlett who actually plays a Canadian character with Canadian flag patch and everything. He even says "zed pee em" instead of "zee pee em" which undoubtedly confuses anyone south of the border. This is the only instance of a Canadian character starring in a US series that I can think of. Hewlett's character is a kind of updated version of Michael Shanks' role from SG-1, a nerdy genius who is always getting athwart the other characters. But Hewlett's character is even nerdier and self-deprecatingly arrogant--now that's a uniquely Canadian character! Rachel Luttrell is an appealing character as is the Scot Paul McGillion. Indeed, this is the most international cast I can recall. In later seasons Jewel Staite, who was part of the cast on Firefly, comes on to replace the role of McGillion. Stargate: Atlantis, like SG-1, is shot in Vancouver, so we have the usual alien planets that always look a bit like the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, I quite enjoyed the series (I am in season 4 right now) which displays many of the same virtues as the original in that it is an action adventure with lots of humor. It makes few concessions to political correctness, which is nice. One of the most entertaining episodes involves an encounter between the muscle of the new series, Jason Momoa, with the muscle of the old series, Christopher Judge. At first they just glare at one another, but after a fair amount of sparring and testing one another, end up clearing the whole of the Stargate Command complex of Wraith invaders just by themselves.

The other series, which I discovered courtesy of a commentator is Warehouse 13, shot in Toronto (which is why there are so many snowy backgrounds and visits to supposed Mid-Western towns like Cheyenne, Wyoming). This show stars Saul Rubinek who has appeared in guest roles in a zillion other tv series including Star Trek: TNG and Stargate SG-1. I have not been a big fan as I often feel he is chewing the scenery a bit too much and by that I mean his performances seem mannered to me. But in Warehouse 13 he seems to have hit it just right and he is great in the part of the eccentric manager/leader of the team. Warehouse 13 seems devoted to presenting to us the most spectacularly beautiful Canadian actresses possible and by that I mean Genelle Williams:

--who seems to have little enough to do to justify her starring role. Then there is Allison Scagliotti who does grow into her role, but is even more stunningly beautiful:

Allison is actually American, not Canadian, but the lead female role is played by Joanne Kelly, who is from Newfoundland:

Warehouse 13 is a pretty good show, with a charming retro tech aesthetic, but seems to flag a bit after the first couple of seasons. I'm in season three right now. The villains are pretty good and the stories are fairly inventive. The whole series is like a take off on the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where some nameless government employee nails the ark into a packing crate and trundles it off into the depths of an enormous government warehouse. Voila, Warehouse 13, which explores what else might be in that fascinating place.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, final scene

Monday, December 4, 2017

All Strung Out

As a string instrument player, strings are an abiding interest with me. You are always looking for better strings or to assure the continued supply of strings you like. I have probably tried out thirty or more different kinds of strings in my career. One fine maker of classical guitar strings is Hannabach. Here is a little documentary (in German):

But I usually use strings from D'Addario Pro-Arte. They have various types and I have found the new carbon strings to be very good. Here is a little review of them:

That is the latest string technology, but a lot of string players prefer a much older technology: strings made from gut:

If you play a lot, several hours a day, guitar strings will only last a couple of weeks and that is due largely to being mashed on the frets. Pretty soon the wire will wear through on the 4th string and the clarity of pitch will start to decay on the trebles because they are no longer of uniform thickness. After a few years you get expert at changing strings! Here is a pretty good video on the subject.

Yes, I also melt the end of the treble strings to form a little ball so they won't slip, but I do it because the way my bridge is designed it is really necessary:

Unlike the usual bridge, the strings are held only with the knot in the end. He uses a string-winder, which is ok. I don't, because I don't wind as much on as he does--when I put the new string on I pull all the extra through. I never saw the reason to wind all the extra on so I don't use a lot of slack as he does. If you overlap it in the pegbox it won't slip.

D'Addario Pro-Arte are fine modern strings, but sometimes, especially when playing a lot of early music, I like the sound and feel of the older Savarez red card strings with their textured trebles. These almost feel like gut and give quite a different effect. Anyway, here is what my guitar sounds like with Pro-Arte strings. I think this was the older type, not the carbon ones. This is Las Abejas (The Bees) by Agustín Barrios, a nice virtuoso showpiece:

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Moral Quality of Music

In Jerrold Levinson's collection of papers on music, Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music, he talks about the moral quality of music. I need to quote a substantial passage to get the idea across:
The fundamental criterion of musical moral quality, perhaps too crudely framed, is whether the mind or spirit displayed in the music is such as to elicit admiration and to induce emulation, or instead such as to elicit distaste and to induce avoidance. If the former, the music has positive moral quality; if the latter, the music has negative moral quality; if neither, then the music is simply morally neutral. 
But why, one may ask, does such a property of music deserve the label of moral quality, and not simply aesthetic quality? Before answering let me relabel the property in question as ethical, rather than moral, quality, appealing to a broad sense of “ethical” that is familiar to us from Aristotle and the Stoics, comprising all aspects of character relevant to living a good life, and not only those corresponding to the moral virtues narrowly understood. With that relabeling in place, I see no way to avoid replying, to the question of why the display of an admirable mind or spirit makes for ethical quality in music, that it is simply because some minds or spirits are ethically superior to others, in the sense that they are such as to conduce to living a good life or to living as one should. Music can thus have ethical value in the sense of presenting exemplars of admirable states of mind that are conducive to, perhaps even partly constitutive of, living well, even if no demonstrable effect on character is forthcoming. And ethical value of this sort, one may add, in general makes music that possesses it artistically more valuable as well, artistic value being a broader notion than aesthetic value, plausibly covering rewards afforded by a work that are not directly manifested in experience of it. 
So music might, in principle, have ethical quality without that resulting in moral force of either the behavioral or the character-building sort. But in fact it is difficult to believe that repeated exposure to music that is ethically superior, in the sense I have indicated, should have as a rule no effect on character at all. And that is because of the plausibility of a contagion-cum-modeling picture of what is likely to result from such exposure. Just as spending time with certain sorts of friends invariably impacts on character, if perhaps in a transitory manner— this is what parents have in mind in classifying their children’s pals as on the whole either “good influences” or “bad influences”— so does keeping company with certain music rather than other music. It seems manifestly better, for one’s psychological and spiritual well-being, to spend time with music of sincerity, subtlety, honesty, depth, and the like, than with music of pretension, shallowness, or vulgarity.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 2547-2567). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
 This is a different view than that expressed by Peter Kivy, who believes that, while instrumental music can have a temporary uplifting effect, it has no real long-lasting moral influence. It also departs from what we might call the received wisdom of our day that holds that music, classical music at least, has no moral influence; indeed it may have a negative influence as witnessed by the behaviour of the Nazis who were perfectly capable of genocide against Jews, homosexuals and gypsies during the day and contentedly listening to Schubert and Wagner in the evening. It is perhaps because of this black stain that moral monsters like Hannibal Lector are seen in the movies listening to music by Bach.

The problem with Levinson's argument is, while it seems perfectly plausible, the way he presents it seems to lack evidence. He cites the quality of mind or spirit that shows itself in the music, such as the optimism of the first movement of Dvořák's "American" Quartet and the good humor that saturates the music of Haydn. He makes the odd argument that musical works are like persons and may have a similar moral influence:
Though they are not sentient, musical works are somewhat like persons. They possess a character, exhibit something like behavior, unfold or develop over time, and display emotional and attitudinal qualities which we can access through being induced to imagine, as we listen to them, personae that embody those qualities. In short, musical works are person-like in psychological ways. If so, then it hardly seems implausible that music regularly frequented will have moral effects on one, just as will being in the company of, and spending time with, real persons. This may transpire through the mere contagion or rubbing off of mental dispositions; or through a conscious desire to model oneself, in thought and action, on impressive individuals in one’s environment;
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 2585-2591). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
 While I am very sympathetic to this view as it correlates with my own impressions, I am surprised to find it standing in for an argument in a book by a professional philosopher. Because, again, it is a mere claim without any real evidence. This essay goes on to discuss in detail some jazz standards which, because of the text, do not really equate with instrumental music.

If the contrary argument is that very bad people can listen to classical music and continue to do very bad things, therefore classical music is either morally neutral or negative, then how should it be countered?

Let us imagine some scenarios: a concentration camp guard goes home each night and listens with great pleasure to Bach. The music not only presents intense expression, but it also models the virtues of industriousness and creativity. The guard then goes on to exhibit the virtues of industriousness and creativity in his duties as a concentration camp guard. Whatever empathy the music may suggest, it does not alter his lack of empathy towards the prisoners in any way.

There seems something missing in this account. How could you listen to the deeply religious and deeply human music of Bach and not be made more human and empathetic as a result? I think that what we are encountering here is one of the subtle differences between morality and aesthetics. These two things share a number of similarities as was noted by philosopher David Hume, but they are also quite different.

There are a number of different moral theories available: utilitarian ones stress the greater good of the greater number, which is sometimes used to justify killing one person to save hundreds. It is perhaps some variety of utilitarianism that might have justified the killing of Jews in Nazi Germany. Deontological ethics are based on the idea that morality is governed by rules that enable us to judge the morality of an action. Levinson in his essay seems to be following an older ethical theory that dates back to Aristotle and the Greeks, the idea of virtue ethics which is based on the idea of virtues of mind and character.

Perhaps the best way of analyzing the problem of the moral quality of music is to recognize the complexity of both human nature and historical context. It is the commonest thing in the world for humans to not only deceive themselves as to their good and the means used to achieve it, but to devise elaborate intellectual strategies to deceive themselves! Utilitarian ethics, for example, are very susceptible to being used for this purpose. Essentially you can justify any action, no matter how horrendous, by stating a Higher Good or Purpose. Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death in order to hasten industrial collectivization or to suppress Ukrainian independence, take your pick. In either case it was an instance of the Higher Good prevailing over the mere survival of individuals.

The same applies to the Nazi genocide: it was simply a case of the Higher Good of the Aryan peoples prevailing over unimportant minorities. We can see similar political activities today in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, North Korea and other places. Whether a few individuals starve is a lesser issue compared to the Higher Good of whatever ideology the rulers hold to.

So we can look at the case of the concentration camp guard and his love of Bach in a different way: it is perfectly plausible that the moral quality of Bach's music make no change in the moral behaviour of the guard because he is governed by a more powerful ideology that tells him what he is doing is both good and required. For him Bach is nothing more than a pleasant interlude.

Music lacks the moral rigor of an ideology. I have seen some video clips by Jordan Peterson recently that characterize ideologies as crude, simplifying templates applied to the world in order to give simple answers to all questions and this seems to me to be a good way to conceptualize it. There are many videos from him on this subject, some of them quite lengthy, but I think this one sums it up nicely in just over a minute:

Music is one of those things that can, if you allow it, help you develop your individuality, but it does not have the crude power of a political ideology, nor, without your engagement as a thinking individual, can it overcome the urgings of a crude ideology. But then, the best music never pretended to do so.

UPDATE: I just saw this news story which we might also reflect on: Legendary opera conductor molested teen for years: police report.
Legendary Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine molested an Illinois teenager from the time he was 15 years old, sexual abuse that lasted for years and led the alleged victim to the brink of suicide, according to a police report obtained by The Post.
The alleged abuse began while Levine was guest conductor at the Ravinia Music Festival outside Chicago, a post the wild-haired maestro held for two decades.
This brings up the related issue of how classical musicians, exposed to music of high moral quality every day for their entire lives, can fall so heavily to moral depravity. Again, it is likely a case of something more powerful overwhelming the positive example or influence of music, in this case, sexual desire.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Things to Listen to...

For Saturday morning a different kind of miscellanea. Just a few things to listen to. First up, a piece by Swedish composer Magnus Granberg who was featured at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (I've been to Huddersfield, but it was to deliver a couple of papers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not attend concerts):

I don't know if it is music or "sonic art," but I like the sounds.

Next up the first cut from the famous Miles Davis album Kind of Blue from 1959. This is a filmed version. The theme is an appoggiatura from E7 to D7 (with an added 4th):

Since it's morning, we really need some Bach. This is Grigory Sokolov in a 1982 performance of the Goldberg Variations:

Two of the most significant women composers of the last century are both Russian (Soviet) and both had some association with Shostakovich. I did a post on Galina Ustvolskaya who was his student a while ago. Now let's listen to some music by Sofia Gubaidulina. This is In Tempus Praesens, a concerto for violin and orchestra. The soloist is Anne-Sophie Mutter and the London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Valery Gergiev: