Sunday, June 25, 2017

Classical, Smassical

The Los Angeles Times has another one of those think-pieces on the future of classical music. At risk of plowing already plowed fields, let's have a look.
Classical music may be the art of the sublime, liquid architecture and all the rest, but it has nonetheless always been a long-suffering kingdom of kvetching. Born to serve the church, Western music became in the Middle Ages an ideal medium of sacrilege, and the art form has continued over the centuries to bite the hands that have fed it, be they the aristocracy, ruling powers, philanthropists or the public. However high-minded, the history of classical music is riddled with worry and an obsessive desire for reinvention.
That's a pretty generic opening. Classical music is a rather particular art form, not really like any other, but most of that opening paragraph would apply to any art form. But this next quote hits the nail on the head;
Technology is ever the elephant in the room. The history of sharks out to cheat musicians is long and dishonorable. Today it’s Silicon Valley’s ability to redirect profits from the creators and producers to the likes of Apple, Amazon and Spotify. Equally troubling is the power of technology in the form of virtual reality, holograms and things we may not yet know about, to suck the life out of live music making.
Classical music has not made an easy transition from aristocratic patronage, to middle-class support to becoming a tiny niche in a world dominated by pop music. The visual arts have somehow found a way to become a high-end commodity, while the economics of classical music remain desperate. If we just glance at the material foundations of the art forms we get a clue why: a contemporary visual artist can make art out of pretty well anything from high-tech installations to oil on canvas to slapping a little paint on his own unwashed bedsheets. The costs can be high, as in the case of Damian Hirst's jewel-encrusted skull, or they can be low. And yes, you can be impoverished or not. But the production of visual art is not necessarily expensive while the production of high-quality classical music is always very expensive. Take the performance of The Golden Cockerel I just saw. It required the services of two different casts of vocal soloists capable of singing in Russian, plus chorus, orchestra and then the whole production staff: design, lighting, costumes, set, props and so on. Not cheap! There is an article on the subject at The Guardian, which, even though a bit old, gives some information. Most of the important numbers, such as artists' fees, are confidential, but:
One observer's educated guess is that the biggest stars, such as Pavarotti, Bartoli and Alagna, command between £12,000 and £15,000 per performance. But however expensive singers may be, they will not form the main cost of mounting an opera. Production costs - set, props and costumes - will always be the chief expense. "We have capped the expenditure on a new production at £300,000," says Padmore. "But you don't get a great deal in a house of this size for much less than £180,000 or £200,000." At ENO the average cost of a new production is £150,000.
I suspect all these numbers are higher now. But they haven't mentioned the biggest cost of all: the opera house itself. Opera requires a building custom designed and built for its very special needs and the cost of a new one is likely in the $300 million dollar range, though, again, these numbers are not readily available.

One significant cost is the orchestra in the pit. A typical fee per service is $150, multiply that by 80 musicians, multiply that by four rehearsals and you get a total of $48,000 before you have even had the opening night performance!

But getting back to the LA Times article, the occasion for it was a two-day conference on the topic of the evolution of classical music. One speaker had an interesting take:
For his part, Sam Bodkin asked what the world needs and rapidly answered his own question: “It needs more substance, beauty and intimacy, and classical music checks all those boxes.”
Frankly, that's the only kind of approach that interests me. All this other stuff, music streaming, holograms of Yuja Wang, virtual reality tours of the orchestra, all that has a faint whiff of BS about it, the elevation of shallowness and spectacle over real substance.

Let's have an envoi of substance. Here is the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg with Frank-Peter Zimmerman, violin and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Daniele Gatti, conductor:



Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

I frequently refer to the work of brilliant musicologist Richard Taruskin here and he has just been awarded the mammoth $450,000 Kyoto award in Japan. Of course, now he has to write a bunch of articles on Takemitsu! (No, I'm kidding.) But I would hardly call him "combative."

* * *

This sounds like terrible news: The Shrinking Oregon Bach Festival.
“Helmuth Rilling wasn’t the only individual who retired in 2013, so too did many of his most loyal and passionate supporters,” Evans wrote. “And the donor, corporate, foundation, audience, and ticket revenue figures bear this out.”
During the transition from Rilling to Halls, OBF attendance dropped by over 50 percent : 2011 had 44,148; 2014 had approximately 20,000. There are no figures for recent years.
I'm pretty sure this is not Bach's fault; he is just as popular as he ever was.

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AI and machine learning will make everyone a musician. Here's the first paragraph:
Music has always been at the cutting edge of technology so it’s no surprise that artificial intelligence and machine learning are pushing its boundaries.
There are a couple of nasty writing quirks that seem endemic these days. The first is to have a headline that is so absurd its only possible function is to be "clickbait" and the second is to start off by stating something as an unquestioned truth that is probably nonsense. This article starts off two strikes down. I was going to do some more fisking, but as the claims get feebler and feebler the further you read, it's not really worth the effort.

* * *

Also shrinking are sales of electric guitars and the Washington Post has a huge piece on that:
Over the past three years, Gibson’s annual revenue has fallen from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion, according to data gathered by Music Trades magazine. The company’s 2014 purchase of Philips’s audio division for $135 million led to debt — how much, the company won’t say — and a Moody’s downgrading last year. Fender, which had to abandon a public offering in 2012, has fallen from $675 million in revenue to $545 million. It has cut its debt in recent years, but it remains at $100 million.
And starting in 2010, the industry witnessed a milestone that would have been unthinkable during the hair-metal era: Acoustic models began to outsell electric.
* * *

 The extent to which things like "public policy" are now nearly exclusively tendrils of the progressive project to remake society continues to trouble me. Today's example is an article on a new cultural policy in the UK reported on at ArtsProfessional. For much of the article I wasn't sure exactly where they were going, but the conclusion made it clear:
What if cultural policy makers and cultural organisations began to think strategically about ensuring the cultural capability of all – not only opportunities to participate in great art, but the substantive freedom to make, transform and contest versions of culture?
Such an approach would provide a progressive path beyond the deficit model, in which cultural policy not only invests in great art and audience development but in the conditions which enable everyone to make versions of culture. This is cultural democracy. The possibility of cultural democracy has been of interest to people working in the tradition of community arts since at least the 1960s. Now is the time to bring this approach to the heart of cultural policy in the UK. 
The underlying principle or assumption here is one of "equity" which means replacing equality of opportunity, something that is fairly tricky to handle, with equality of outcome which is a bad idea. The real bonus and incentive these kinds of projects support is the army of cultural bureaucrats needed to develop them. "Ensuring the cultural capability of all" is not only something that government cultural policy should have nothing to do with, it is also contrary to human nature. A whole lot of people don't have a lot of interest in "culture" and don't want to be bothered with it.

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 Jazz musician Maria Schneider makes an impassioned argument about the ills of the music business and how they can be addressed in a piece at JazzTimes:
Why am I speaking about the power of music? Because at this moment in history, our livelihoods and the entire culture of music—jazz and more—stand in jeopardy. And so does the power for good that music brings the world.
So, who exactly has put all of this in jeopardy? I see three culprits. First: big data, with their endless appetite for eyeballs and information. Second: our government, buckling under oppressive lobbying from Silicon Valley. Conflicts of interest are everywhere, as Google inserts their people into all three branches of our government.
Third is, sadly, some powerful people within our own industry. A good example is how the three majors [Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group] made Spotify the giant it now is. Together, they handed over 80 percent of the world’s recorded music in exchange for equity. At a recent intellectual-property [IP] conference, counsel for Spotify confirmed that that contract “made” Spotify. He additionally volunteered that, of the 1,200 employees at Spotify, 900 are data analytics scientists, making the streaming service more of a big data company than a music company. What a breach of trust, to trade our music for ads and data. It’s like when the Titanic started sinking, the executives at the majors elbowed their way to the lifeboats, right past the musicians, who just kept on playing. And those musicians are still playing, but are also slowly drowning. And not just those trapped in steerage by their contracts: We’re all drowning, the whole jazz family and beyond—all being sucked down the sinking ship’s vortex, because the majors gave the unsustainable model of streaming a monopoly over how music is distributed.
But you should read the whole thing.

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 Terry Teachout has an article in Commentary on the hoary old problem of classical musicians' participation in the Nazi regime in Europe.
The story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
Like so many other commentaries the claim is that people who cling to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit are sadly mistaken. The evidence that classical musicians were at the very least compliant with the Nazi regime is all too clear:
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
But the same is true of the ordinary people of Germany and Austria who were equally supportive. This is a knotty problem and I would love to see someone write a book discussing it. My instinctive reaction is to say that the arts are a kind of medium or tool or channel that can be used or misused, just like so many other social phenomena. Music, or any other art, is not inherently ennobling. It is only so when used in the proper way. It does not immunize its practitioners against racism or fascism or socialism, in fact it has been used in the production of propaganda both for and against those and other ideologies. It can be a force for good--or evil. But I think that if we look at the history of music as a whole, we might find that it is usually and commonly a force and discipline for good. The story of European classical music under the Third Reich was a squalid chapter--but just a chapter.

* * *

Let's have a cheery envoi to balance that last item. This is Grete Pedersen conducting the  Oslo Camerata/Det Norske Blåseensemble & Solistkor Oslo in Haydn's Nelson Mass:


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Road to the Rite, Part 3: Petrushka

In my last post in this series I made a passing reference to "a lot of quite lovely and quite conventional ballet music, the sort where you see the dancers wafting around on stage." This "wafting around on stage" music I associate with 19th century ballet such as Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. Let's have a listen. This is an excellent complete performance from the Kirov (complete credits at the beginning) and if you want to focus on specifically what I mean, go to the 31 minute mark:


This is classic 19th century Russian ballet and therefore the establishing context for Stravinsky's pieces for the Ballets Russes. This is, in other words, what the audience had in mind when they attended a performance of a Russian ballet company. The music is in various tempos and uses various dance genres, but a lot of it is lyrical, meaning not too fast and with smooth, legato phrases. No stomping around! Classical ballet is all about defying gravity and lyrical beauty.

In parts of the Firebird, and more so in Petruska and the Rite, Stravinsky makes a fundamental stylistic change. Most of the commentary on this music is about the melodic and harmonic aspect, as we discussed last time, but the most important changes in the style are on the rhythmic level. Small parts of the Firebird, larger parts of Petrushka and a great deal of the Rite are very much "stompy" music, music with a heavy pulse. In the Firebird, this is largely restricted to the Infernal Dance, but in Petrushka we get more and earlier. Most of this ballet is at very fast tempi and quite a bit of it has a heavy pulse.

First, let's have a listen to Petrushka. This is a production from the Bolshoi that recreates the original sets, costumes and choreography from the original production:


Right from the beginning we hear the much greater role given to the percussion, the ubiquitous accents instead of flowing legato and the heavy pulses in the bass instruments. This, more than the famous "Petrushka chord," is what gives the ballet its unique character. Sure, the melodic and harmonic structures are important, and most particularly when we have two very different textures, rhythmic and harmonic, colliding, which creates a kind of musical irony or cubism, depending on how you want to analyze it. There are a lot of examples starting in the introduction, whose motoric music is interrupted by tweedling in the high winds in a different tempo. Another example is at the 20:10 mark where a kind of limping waltz is periodically interrupted by a meandering melody in the cor anglais in the "wrong" key. But the underlying musical vocabulary is rhythmic, accented and much weightier than previous ballet music. For an example of what I am talking about, go to the 25:10 mark in the above clip, the dance with the peasant and the bear, where we hear a characteristically heavy accompaniment in the low strings, with a raucous melody in the high clarinet. (And, good god, I think that's a real bear!)

As is often done, you can look at this ballet in terms of its Russian folktale flavour, the leading role given to a marionette, the use of Russian folk music and so on, but I like to look at the musical foundation that makes all this work, the frenetic, syncopated and heavily accented rhythms that drive the music forward, the piquant slow sections that give eerie pause and prepare the next fast section. What I find most striking about the musical texture here is how very different it is from previous ballets and even from the Firebird. Instead of romantic lyricism we have crisp, sardonic, rhythmically involved music that can express tragedy, exuberance, irony and an earthy expressiveness. This is what distinguishes these ballets by Stravinsky from the earlier ones by Tchaikovsky which were also based on Russian folktales. It's the medium not the message (if by "medium" we mean the musical elements and by "message" we mean the story elements, costuming, sets and so on).

All three of these ballets are heard more often with just the orchestral score in a concert presentation than they are with a full ballet production. The reason is that the music works just fine on its own. Taruskin even makes the point that it was the ballet production, not the music, that was the real cause of the riot at the premiere of the Rite of Spring. Audiences have always readily accepted the music, even from the earliest performances.

Let's end with a concert performance of the score of Petrushka. This is Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic, with the score:



Monday, June 19, 2017

Classical Smackdown

The Guardian has an account of an unusual sort of concert: Eine kleine slam poetry: Mozart comes to Shoreditch:
Classical Smackdown is roughly equivalent to a boozy poetry slam. While the venue is informal and the alcohol flows freely, no concessions are made to the repertoire. Hearing solo classical music away from any sort of ceremony, completely on its own terms, highlights the simplicity and accessibility of what one might tend to see as complex pieces: contrapuntal Bach partitas and Gypsy dances full of flying staccato technique.
So far it sounds totally cool...
“In an ideal concert, you can chat to the audience a bit before,” says Balanas. “But in the classical world, it’s usually the case that you go on, you bow, you play: you don’t get to interact. Performing here becomes daunting in a different way, because your onstage persona becomes much more of a focus.”
But now I see the problem. Like virtually every other attempt to "improve" the classical music concert, it does so by making it all about the personalities of the performers and the audience. More narcissism! "You don't get to interact" in a traditional classical concert? Just with the music, dude.

But I loved this picture of the MC:


How about some Mozart, just to remind us what we missed? This is the Fantasia in C minor, K. 475 played by Friedrich Gulda:


 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Road to the Rite, Part 2: Firebird Infernal Dance

The Firebird was Stravinsky's first big success as a composer and his first ballet for the Ballets Russe of Diaghilev. He was just twenty-eight when it was premiered so it was written in his twenty-seventh year. He was still searching to find his unique compositional "voice" but this piece set him on the right path. There is a lot in it that is owed to his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, including elements in the story of the ballet which echo in some respects Rimsky-Korsakov's 1907 (premiered 1909) opera The Golden Cockerel which also revolves around a mythical bird.

Mind you, Stravinsky was the first to deny any influence from his teacher whom he described as
“shockingly shallow in his artistic aims.” His knowledge of composition “was not all it should have been.” His “modernism” was “based on a few flimsy enharmonic devices.” Summing up, Stravinsky patronized his teacher wickedly: “I am grateful to Rimsky for many things, and I do not wish to blame him for what he did not know; nevertheless, the most important tools of my art I had to discover for myself.”
[Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 2475-2478). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.]
However, the immensely learned Richard Taruskin goes on, in this same essay "Catching up with Rimsky-Korsakov," contained in the above volume, to point out that when music theory finally, in the 1960s, caught up with Stravinky's musical language, it was discovered that one important element was the use of the octatonic scale, an example of a harmonic structure that was based on a tonal centre, but not tonally functional in the usual way. I have mentioned this scale before, but it is worth repeating:

The scale consists of alternating tones and semitones and there are two versions depending on which one you start with. The famous "Petrushka" chord which is an F# major chord sounded simultaneously with a C major chord is easily derived from the octatonic scale: take out one of those chords and the remaining notes contain the other chord. The theorist, Arthur Berger, who discovered this found other instances of its use in Les Noces and the Rite and quite a few other pieces.

Now here is the interesting thing: a couple of other composers have also mentioned this scale, Olivier Messiaen (in his book on his musical language) and, yes, Rimsky-Korsakov in his book on orchestration. In Russia one of the names for this scale is the korsakovskaya gamma, the "Korsakov scale!"

The reason the Petrushka chord comes out of the scale so easily is that each note in the scale has a tritone counterpart: the C to G flat, the D flat to G and so on. Let's have a look and see if this useful scale is also in the Firebird. Here is the first theme in the bassoons (bass clef):

Click to enlarge
And here is its continuation in trombone, also bass clef:


If you will allow me to use this continuation, I can map it nicely onto the octatonic:

Click to enlarge

The first line is the theme, shown in treble clef. The second line is the notes arranged as a scale and the third line is the octatonic starting on the same note. Everything matches up (except those pesky B naturals in the first part of the theme!).

The use of the octatonic scale, plus the orchestral virtuosity, are things that give an exotic Russian color to the ballet and they are both, as we see, derived from Rimsky-Korsakov. Here, by the way is an example of that exotic orchestration, from the introduction:

Click to enlarge
He has the strings doing a glissando while playing harmonics! On a string instrument, you get a "harmonic" (a high note created by forcing the string to vibrate in smaller sections than usual) by touching a finger to the string at a "node". The sound is eerie and high-pitched. This example comes from very early in the score. You can hear and see this technique around the 2 minute mark in this clip:


There is also a lot of quite lovely and quite conventional ballet music, the sort where you see the dancers wafting around on stage. Also in the Infernal Dance are some sections that sound like a manic Parisian music-hall:

Click to enlarge
You can hear this section from the 1'17 mark in this clip:



To my ear, Stravinsky has not yet integrated all his influences with the eerie orchestrations, octatonic elements, Parisian music-hall and Stravinsky's own brilliant rhythmic ideas, so the Infernal Dance in particular sounds a bit like a dog's breakfast--just too many elements that don't quite cohere. His next ballet, Petrushka, goes a long way to solving this problem and the integration is complete with the Rite of Spring.

Let's listen to the whole ballet in the excellent performance by Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000:


Friday, June 16, 2017

Rating the Beatles

I promise there will be a substantial post tomorrow, but in the meantime, here is one that just missed the Friday Miscellanea because I didn't see it in time: All 213 Beatles Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best. I only like these kinds of things if they aren't afraid to level some devastating criticism, or quips at least. Here are some excerpts that I enjoyed:
206. “Free As a Bird,” single (1995): This single enraged me, in 1995, when it was released to gin up interest in the first Anthology album. It was a Lennon song from long after he’d left the Beatles; he sounded so vulnerable, and the studio work that had gone into making this distant-sounding, crummily recorded demo sound presentable felt like too big a burden for the martyred star to bear.
204. “She’s Leaving Home,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): A bathetic lugubrious mess, the nadir of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The call-and-response chorus is labored; the whole thing reeks of having come from a squaresville OffBroadway musical about kids these days. The instrumentation is unusual; there are no actual Beatles playing on the track, but no one cares because the song is so bad.
That was particularly enjoyable because the Wall Street Journal, who can be tone-deaf, just published a laudatory essay on the song by Alan Alda.
194. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): The whimsy will continue until morale improves. Definitely in the top five of Most Irritating Songs Paul McCartney Ever Wrote. It took a long time for the band to get this right in the studio. No one liked it; but it was reportedly Lennon who finally sat down and banged the piano part out appropriately. This is a song that isn’t about anything in the first place; the last two verses are the same except for having Desmond and Molly’s names switched out, but McCartney’s vocal gets more and more excited. Newsflash: No one cares about Desmond and Molly Jones.
I would have put that one a LOT lower.
189. “I’ll Be Back,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): The least of the lesser songs on the second non-soundtrack side of the A Hard Day’s Night album, and an anticlimactic album closer.
I totally disagree with that one. The major/minor alteration and the vocal harmonies make this one of my favourite early Beatles' songs.
164. “Good Night,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Lennon’s attempt to write a lullaby for Ringo to sing as an envoi to “The White Album.” It’s lulling, and nothing wrong with that, but it’s also kinda boring.
I rather disagree with this too. In context, following Revolution #9, it is well beyond surreal.
117. “Don’t Let Me Down,” single (1969): Another of the so-so unadorned Lennon songs from the last days of the Beatles. Too many of his songs consist of the title words repeated over and over in the chorus. The case for it is that it’s a naked profession of his love for Ono and a new statement of vulnerability. The band played it on the famous rooftop concert in Let It Be, but it was left off the album. It turned up as the B sideB side of the “Get Back” single.
Maybe it's just me, but I have always loved this song. I captures a special kind of emotional desolation like no other song.

Well, I stopped there because as we work into the better songs, he doesn't have a lot to say.

Skipping to the top songs, numbers one and two are, as they should be A Day in the Life and Strawberry Fields.

Your milage may vary and if it does, tell me about it in the comments.

Friday Miscellanea

One of the very, very few contemporary classical compositions to become a hit record was Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3. The New York Times has an article on the 25th anniversary:
“The first royalty check he got was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he kept it in his wallet for a long enough time that we had to reissue it, because he wouldn’t cash it,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “It may just have been such a shock to all of a sudden go from someone who had struggled to find recognition, to someone who was at that moment as famous as any modern composer in the world.”
Even if it was notoriously trendy among Gen-Xers in the ’90s, Mr. Gorecki’s symphony holds up as an impressive artistic achievement. As in the large-scale sacred works of Mr. Pärt, the trance-like allure of slow-moving tonal harmonies has the undergirding of an elegant structure: The simple language of the first movement, a canon that expands outward from subterranean low strings, accrues a granitic weight that is sustained across the entire work. The first entrance of Ms. Upshaw in the Nonesuch recording, intoning a 15th-century Polish lament, maintains its original pathos.
* * *

Perfect pitch is a wonderful gift, but can it be learned? Apparently it can, with the aid of a fairly uncommon drug, valproic acid. The Wall Street Journal has the story:
Relatively few people in history—even musical virtuosos—have been known to possess perfect pitch, the ability to identify or reproduce any musical note without having another note with which to compare it. Mozart was said to be one of those people. Ella Fitzgerald was another. The trait is so rare, it is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people can tell an F-sharp from a B-flat in Western cultures, where the gift has been widely studied.
I'm not sure that it is that uncommon--I have known quite a few people with perfect pitch--but that may be just because I know a lot of musicians. None of these articles mention the accompanying problem of having perfect pitch, which is the fact that different kinds of music may use a different reference point. Historically, every town or ensemble probably had its own standard "A" which was likely different from our modern "A" at 440 cycles per second. The early music community uses an "A" that is lower than the modern one, at 415, which is the same as the modern G#. Also, different orchestras are known to use a somewhat different pitch for their "A" than the standard one. I knew one singer, a specialist in early music, who actually had two "perfect pitches", one for modern music at 440 and another for early music at 415. He could switch back and forth at need! Not having perfect pitch myself I sometimes wonder how those who do, hear. Does every note come with a little label: G5 and so on? Does this ever distract from the expressive content? What about complex textures as we might find in Ligeti or Xenakis? Does every note still come with a little label even if there are hundreds of different ones? It's funny that all these studies seem to only be interesting in seeing if ordinary people can acquire perfect pitch instead of really digging into the details of how it actually works...

* * *


David Mermelstein writes about this years Ojai festival at the Wall Street Journal and gives it a mixed review:
...by elevating jazz to a position of primacy while re-engaging several artists prominently featured at the festival last year and the year before, Ojai’s decision-makers created an atmosphere in which much of the programming seemed either out of place or regurgitated. Mr. Iyer was a welcome new face who brought ethnic diversity as well as ample talent to Ojai. But seeing a former music director, the percussionist Steven Schick (2015), on stage more frequently than his successor undercut the message. To be fair, Mr. Iyer’s music was abundantly represented, though not always well received, throughout the long weekend.
The sense of déjà vu was furthered by the return (for the third year in a row) of members of the versatile and virtuosic International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), serving as the house band in all but name. Claire Chase, an ICE flutist as well as a flamboyant soloist, was among them, but her presence became unwelcome following a self-indulgent recital on Friday afternoon. Ms. Chase is immensely talented technically, but her showboating stage manner (silver metallic shorts over black leggings, awkward dance-like effects) and overreliance on a limited number of performance gimmicks didn’t wear well. (Enough already with the amplified lip smacks!)
* * *

I am a great admirer of John Lennon as a musician and songwriter, but he said some remarkably silly things in his time, and this has to be the silliest:
"Before Elvis, there was nothing."  --John Lennon
* * *

My favorite among the younger pianists is Igor Levit who just completed a journey through all the Beethoven piano sonatas at Wigmore Hall in London. The Guardian gives a well-deserved laudatory review:
Igor Levit’s performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall have stretched from early last autumn to the start of the summer. Individually and cumulatively, they have provided one of the most compelling experiences of the current London concert season. This final recital, consisting of the last three sonatas, epitomised the several that I was able to attend – boldly conceived, sometimes questionable and even uncomfortable, but full of thought and technically outstanding.
Levit is not a Beethovenian purist. He does not play with head metaphorically bowed in reverence to the canon. His Beethoven loves to surprise, and this is surely a necessary instinct. He is at one with Beethoven’s boundary-testing radicalism, a feature that was especially evident in the sometimes reckless but gloriously exciting treatment of some of the early sonatas. In the last three, of course, the stylistic boundaries are tested to even further extremes, but Levit mostly kept his repertoire of shock tactics in check.
 Igor Levit's Beethoven is not comfortable and predictable: it is challenging and fresh, just as it should be.

* * *

I recently posted a rant about coughing in concerts and Slipped Disc has a post about a much milder instance of concert etiquette that prompted the whole panoply of different attitudes on the subject from commentators. It's worth a read.
One of the aspects of concert etiquette underscored in the comments that I think worth pointing out : most concertgoers have an expectation that the concert should be a silent and still moment (though their tolerance to this or that small disruption will vary). Any breach can then upset this balance and in the worst cases ruin the whole experience.
The important thing here is the expectation set : a tennis player can be flustered by a few people talking behind him, yet a football player will shoot penalties with an entire stadium roaring. They’re no different, but just have to concentrate in different environments, the parameters of which are defined beforehand and presumed to be accepted by all.
I happen to think the expectation of silence at a concert is a great thing and something to be preserved, especially in the noisy, shambolic world we live in.
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A really suitable envoi would be some Beethoven from Igor Levit. Here is the slow movement from the "Tempest" sonata, op. 31, no. 2: