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:

Friday, December 1, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Pop-star Katy Perry and wizard investor Warren Buffet met recently to discuss--proper integration of the bass drum into the backbeat in up-tempo pop numbers? No, apparently the topic was cryptocurrencies.

* * *

If NPR is an indicator, the battle for the ears of the general public has long since been lost. The model for public broadcasting networks like NPR or CBC Radio in Canada or the BBC in the UK used to be that they were a conduit for the less commercial higher culture--classical music in other words. But now, for a generation or two, it seems as if classical music is hardly even a niche anymore, but just a vague historical echo. Witness this item from the Wall Street Journal about NPR Music:
Well before NPR Music was founded, popular music was part of the arts-and-culture coverage of the parent network and its affiliates, though many were committed to classical music or jazz. As a producer for “All Things Considered,” which featured album reviews and artist profiles, producer Bob Boilen heard from folks who wanted more: In the pre-Internet, pre-Shazam days, they clamored for the names of songs excerpted between news items. (Disclosure: Several years ago, I did a few reviews for “ATC” that Mr. Boilen produced.) He proposed a podcast to introduce new music to listeners; “All Songs Considered” launched in 2000. Its popularity, as well as NPR’s forays into presenting live concerts online, led to NPR Music, which launched in November 2007.
For its “Tiny Desk” series, NPR Music challenges its guests to do something different in a stripped-down setting. When I visited NPR in mid-October, Billy Corgan, best known for his work with the Smashing Pumpkins, was playing for the first time with a string quartet. In June, Chance the Rapper not only performed a Stevie Wonder song but read a poem he had written for the occasion. Recent “Tiny Desk” guests included jazz’s Nate Smith + Kinfolk, R&B’s Benjamin Booker and folk’s Ani DiFranco, who was accompanied by Ivan Neville and Jenny Scheinman. The Roots brought along seven horn players and singer Bilal. Randy Newman came alone.
The ultimate in diversity these days seems to mean: everything but classical.

* * * 

Let's look at two attempts to write a sleep-inducing lullaby: one by composer Eddie McGuire and the other by Jukedeck, an artificial intelligence taught how to compose by CEO Ed Newton-Rex. You can hear both pieces over at the Mirror.

* * *

Now is the time of year when Forbes announces its list of the highest-paid women in music 2017. At the top is Beyoncé raking in a cool $105 million. Adele is a distant second with $69 million and Taylor Swift is in third place with $44 million. I guess that this must be the golden age of music as I don't think any musicians in history have earned even a tiny fraction of the sums that popular musicians can earn in the 21st century.

* * *

On the other end of the music world, the Eugene Weekly continues to chronicle the slow decline of the Oregon Bach Festival:
When Linda Ackerman was fired by the Oregon Bach Festival in 2016, her story didn’t end up in The New York Times. 
Her departure from the festival wasn’t the subject of outraged posts on classical music blogs like Slipped Disc. 
But the tale of Ackerman’s firing — pushed through that summer by OBF Executive Director Janelle McCoy — may shed light on the still-unexplained firing this past summer of OBF’s Artistic Director Matthew Halls, a case that has drawn international news coverage and nearly unrelenting criticism of the 47-year-old festival and of the University of Oregon, which operates it.
In both cases, it appears that McCoy was behind the firings. Ackerman, a contract artist liaison, was closely allied with Halls, whom she considers a friend. And, like Halls, she insists she still doesn’t understand why her contract was terminated.
One gets the feeling that this is one of those situations where exactly the wrong person is given a position of power and influence and abuses it. Sadly, this can destroy a fine musical institution.

* * *

In music we have had a number of critiques based on the concept of "cultural appropriation" lately, but so far the issues of "colonization" and "de-colonization" have not had much play. I'm sure it's just a matter of time, though. So as a little amuse-bouche I offer this article from the Globe and Mail on decolonizing Canada--symbolically at least! The article is really hard to excerpt, but this will give you an idea:
And then there is Shia's noodle shop, a place where the hipsters are chowing down on noodles savoured for their exoticism but now long removed from the original dish that was appropriated; it's a place where the colonizers no longer recognize the thing they took in the first place.
"And where does that leave the colonizer?" Wente asks. "It seemed to be addressing Canada in the moment." Indeed, in the figure of Egan Emmett, the diner whose commitment to cosmopolitanism has somehow morphed into a daily bowl of noodles he no longer really wants, Shia seems to capture the settlers' dilemma, trapped in a society they can't see the way to change.
The solution? Well, political reform in Canada will only be driven by a change of Canadian attitudes, Wente figures: "For me, storytelling, our making movies like this, is important because it's going to take a cultural shift."
The critique of colonialism originates with Frantz Fanon a "Marxist humanist." Isn't it odd how, without so much as a genuine public debate, we seem to have moved from a basically Western European culture of classical liberalism into a disingenuous cultural Marxism? Canada, widely recognized as being one of the finest places in the world to live with a reasonably strong economy, a fair and open society, a highly respected political and legal system and everything else that attracts immigration from the world over, continues to berate itself and apologize--for what? Being a better place to live? No, with the ideological shibboleths of the extreme left. About the only thing that is unfortunate about Canada is the climate!

* * *

I'm pretty sure that early on at The Music Salon I did a post on the music of plants. But here is another one.
During a small lecture at a private residence in Delray Beach earlier this month, I watched a houseplant play music, unabashedly and beautifully. Potted and still, it was hooked up to a MIDI machine via electrodes, its bio-emissions creating twinkling melodies. Attached to the same machine, an orchid and rosemary plant played nothing, but this one was active and virtuosic, as though  it enjoyed playing. 
The MIDI machine is part of a project called Music of the Plants, developed in the 1970s by researchers at Damanhur, a spiritual eco-community in Piedmont, Italy. Damanhur’s primary tenet is that the natural environment is conscious, and meant to exist in cohabitation with humans; in 2005, the community received recognition from the United Nation’s Global Forum on Human Settlements as a model for a sustainable society. While plant music has been created before —Mileece, a sonic artist, makes plant symphonies using similar technology — the Music of the Plants is essentially Damanhurian. It’s as much about art as it is about plant sentience and intelligence, which is its own field of study.
The clips at the link offer abundant evidence that, like aeolian harps, MIDI programmed in the right way can take any input and turn it into the dullest new-agey music.

* * *

Let's have a cheery envoi today to celebrate surviving another week, unbloodied, unbowed and unbent. This is the Magnificat by Bach with the Concentus Musicus Vienna and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Bent Sørensen

This year's winner of the big prize in composition, the Grawemeyer Award, is Danish composer Bent Sørensen. One of his best-known pieces is his violin concerto titled Sterbende Gärten:

He is visiting professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The piece for which he was awarded the prize is L'Isola della Citta a triple concerto. Here are the first two movements:

That is music that, on first hearing, sounds as if it could stand a great deal more hearings! Tonal with a lot of microtonal inflections might be one way of describing it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Timey Wimey Stuff

My title comes from an episode of Doctor Who, who says:
People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to affect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey...stuff
I was recently reminded by a commentator of the dispute between Peter Kivy and Jerrold Levinson as to the architectonic versus the concatenationist nature of music and our appreciation of it. I've been reading a collection of essays by Levinson titled Musical Concerns: Essays in the Philosophy of Music which contains his reply to Kivy's critique. I find that the extremely abstract nature of the arguments leaves me rather puzzled. This quote makes things a bit clearer:
A few square inches of the sleeve of a duke in a portrait by Titian, for instance, may attract our gaze and cause us to marvel at the painter’s skill, but it is the way the achievement of those few square inches fits with the rest of the canvas that is the primary focus of appreciation. The main theme of the opening movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, however, is no mere detail, and retains an extraordinary value even when the rest of the movement is put to the side, because its value is not, in anywhere the same degree as with static works of visual art, tied to its architectonic relationship to the rest of the composition.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 954-959). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Ok, yes, a painting is in one way a kind of map of reality that we look at in a synoptic way. But a piece of music is like a journey through the landscape itself--a journey that takes place in time. You might want to claim that the musical score is the "map" of the composition, but musical scores themselves cannot be viewed synoptically, but only in bits:

Beginning of Symphony in B minor "Unfinished" by Franz Schubert
You can recall earlier parts of the journey and anticipate later stages, but your experience is overwhelmingly of that part of the trek that you are in at the moment. In this sense, I quite agree with Levinson's claim:
Why do we listen to music, how do we listen to music, and what is the main source of our satisfaction in listening to music? The answer to these three closely related questions, I believe, is to be found in the phenomenon of following music, that is to say, of attending closely to, and getting involved in, its specific movement, flow, or progression, moment by moment. That is to say, it is not so much a matter of thinking articulately about the music as it passes, or contemplating it in its architectural aspect, as it is a matter of reacting to and interacting with the musical stream, perceptually and somatically, on a non-analytical, pre-reflective level.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 736-741). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Music is a bit like Heraclitus' stream that we can never step into twice. But at the same time it is not like a stream, but is instead the creation, according to a plan, by a human composer. Music is not simply running downhill; it is moving and gesturing expressively toward a goal.

My problem with so much writing about the philosophy of music is that it moves the discussion up to an abstract level where the individuality of compositions and composers tends to vanish into a grey goo of homogeneity.

Bach's music is extremely architectonic while Debussy's is extremely moment-to-moment. Bach is Kivian while Debussy is Levinsonian! Music can be intensely unified, as in some compositions by Beethoven, or very episodic, as in other compositions by Beethoven. There is an odd sense in which every single philosophic assertion about the nature of music is true: for some particular pieces! And false for a whole lot of other pieces.

You know, I think this is why I did not transfer from the music department to the philosophy department back when I was contemplating that change in major as an undergraduate. In some unconscious way I sensed the concrete variety and complexity of music and that was what attracted me.

Our envoi is the Symphony in B minor, "Unfinished" by Schubert in a performance by the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch:

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Uncommon Sense

So often on the Internet one starts to read something that appears promising only to realize partway through that it is the same old, same old with a clickbaitey title. How rare it is to read something that gets better and better and ends with something actually worth reading. I offer for your consideration this surprisingly interesting article from The Spectator: Class prejudice is keeping talented children out of classical music. It begins well enough:
Musicians have always had an uncertain social status in England, the traditional reactions varying from amused condescension to mild repulsion. The former was the old class-based judgment on men who had chosen to take up a profession which at best was associated with society women and at worst seemed menial; the latter directed towards brass players from rough backgrounds whose lips juggled pint pots with mouthpieces and not much else. The most respectable practitioners were probably organists, often referred to as ‘funny little men’, but taken seriously. As evidence of the class-based comment, this was Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son towards the end of the 18th century: ‘If you love music, hear it; go to operas, concerts and pay fiddlers to play to you; but I insist upon your neither piping nor fiddling yourself. It puts a gentleman in a very frivolous, contemptible light…Few things would mortify me more, than to see you bearing a part in a concert, with a fiddle under your chin, or a pipe in your mouth.’
But the real gem is the last paragraph which describes classical musicians rather better than the usual stereotypes and clichés:
Professional musicians remain a difficult body of people to classify. They are not posh; they are not detectably from really poor backgrounds; they have known how to work drillingly hard at one thing, sometimes against the advice of their families; they do not expect to earn a fortune but fight tooth and nail for what they do think they are worth. They tend to be plain and undemonstrative, difficult to gauge though easy to get on with, which may explain why they have proved easy targets for people to pin their petty theories on to. What I keep coming back to is the number of talented children, rich and poor, who have been denied the opportunity to develop as musicians, because their talent one way or another has not been taken seriously.
To someone who has spent most of his life in their company, that seems a fair description.

Let's listen to some of these plain and undemonstrative, but deeply capable people. This is Julia Fischer playing the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Bohuslav Martinů with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by David Zinman:

The State of Music

I want to ask my readers their thoughts on a recent Guardian editorial on Taylor Swift. Unfortunately the editorial does not take up musical questions or even publicity or promotion, but focuses on, well, not Taylor Swift's politics, but instead her lack of politics! Let's have a look at the essay titled "The Guardian view on Taylor Swift: an envoy for Trump’s values?"
In the year since Donald Trump was elected, the entertainment world has been largely united in its disdain for his presidency. But a notable voice has been missing from the chorus: that of Taylor Swift, the world’s biggest pop star. Her silence is striking, highlighting the parallels between the singer and the president: their adept use of social media to foster a diehard support base; their solipsism; their laser focus on the bottom line; their support among the “alt-right”.
The idea that the "entertainment world" is united in their politics is disturbing enough, but the implication that simply being non-political as a public figure in the arts is not only blameworthy, but an indication that one is somehow aligned with the great boogeyman of our time, Donald Trump, is astonishing. How long ago was it that everyone in the arts and entertainment was advised to be non-political, simply out of professional ethics? Even here at the Music Salon we take the position that we prefer to limit any political discussions to ones in defence of the aesthetic independence of the arts from politics. But now the official editorial position of a major leftish medium is that every figure in entertainment must signal their political opposition to Trump or be judged an ally?

What this reminds me of more than anything is the absolutist demands of authoritarianism as exemplified in the famous quote from Mussolini: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” Later in the editorial;
In a well-publicised Twitter exchange with rapper Nicki Minaj, she treated the discussion of structural racism as not only incomprehensible, but a way to disempower white people such as herself – though her lawyers have taken action over articles that associate her with the far right, and have taken issue with claims that she has not sufficiently denounced white supremacy.
Well, frankly the idea of "structural racism" along with that of "unconscious bias" and a bunch of other post-modern shibboleths is incomprehensible--intentionally so!

I'm not a Taylor Swift fan (but hey, at least she isn't Nicki Minaj!), but I would certainly defend her right to say that "structural racism" is nonsense and to sue people that slander her. Accusations that someone has not sufficiently denounced white supremacy are nothing more than warmed over Maoism.

So let's listen to some Taylor Swift.

That seems reasonably mentally healthy for a conventional pop song. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

One of the most important centers for neurological research, and specifically into how the brain processes music, is located at my old alma mater, McGill University in Montreal. The Independent has a report on the latest: Scientists zapped people’s brains with magnetic pulses and it changed their taste in music. Unfortunately, the account lacks the detail to find out exactly what they did and what the results were:
The circuitry in question is found in a part of the brain called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Previous brain imaging studies have demonstrated that stimulation of this region leads to the release of a substance called dopamine, which acts as a chemical 'reward'. Other studies have show that pleasurable music engages reward circuits in the brain.
But this is the first time anyone has manipulated this circuitry to change the way people think.
When the scientists used ‘excitatory’ stimulation on the target brain region, the participants reported that they liked the music they were listening to more, and when ‘inhibitory’ stimulation was used they liked it less.
Other studies of this kind gave enough detail to enable some sort of critique, but here all we have are the bland claims. The original study is not accessible without a subscription. But one wonders what they mean by changing people's taste in music. Is it like compelling you to suddenly prefer Olivier Messiaen to Justin Bieber? Or is it more like encouraging you to like a Katy Perry song more than a Taylor Swift song?

* * *

Very sad news, the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky passed away on Wednesday, age 55. He had been suffering from brain cancer.

* * *

Guitarist Miloš Karadaglić is planning his return to the concert stage after having to cancel a couple of seasons due to what was called a "severe movement disorder" which usually means injuring the hand through either over-practicing or faulty technique. Miloš is not quite the be-all and end-all of classical guitarists as the comments at Slipped Disc imply. He is a pretty good guitarist with a powerful publicity campaign based partly on his good looks and partly on his willingness to do some crossover repertoire. In more serious repertoire he is not terribly compelling. Here listen for yourself.

But that being said, it is wonderful news that he is able to develop his career which was really just getting started!

* * *

As my readers know I am rather a fan of the no-holds-barred critical review because it is usually a nice antidote to the usual fare in the mass media which is little more than a publicity puff-piece. So this review by Joshua Kosman of the new John Adams opera is worth a read:
Imagine being on the receiving end of a Thanksgiving dinner monologue by a veteran of an earlier era — let’s say Grandpa Abe from “The Simpsons.” His stories about life in the old days meander on and on, full of nebulous detail and the occasional sense memory, often without arriving at a point. Sometimes the tales trail off entirely; sometimes they’re interrupted by impassioned howls of outrage at some real or perceived injustice. 
Finally he falls asleep, his face in the cranberry sauce.
That pretty much sums up the experience of “Girls of the Golden West,” the operatic tofurkey from composer John Adams and librettist-director Peter Sellars that had its world premiere on Tuesday, Nov. 21, at the War Memorial Opera House. Bloated, repetitive, self-righteous and dull, this commission by the San Francisco Opera (in partnership with the Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam) represents a miscalculation of astonishing dimensions.
The writer does not hesitate to praise where it is deserved and is an admirer of Adams' previous operas, but doesn't hesitate to point out flaws in this latest work.

* * *

The ever-sensationalist Slipped Disc directs our attention to this concert and implies that it will be performed in the nude:

In reality, that is just a poster and the actual concert is a benefit for the poor just before Christmas. Each audience-member is asked to bring a shoebox with around ten food and beverage items that will be distributed to the poor.

* * *

This article by John Burge, professor of composition at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, offers a look at the details of what it is like to be a student composer in Canada. The good news, I guess, is that there is a government program, Canada Summer Jobs, that offers funds that can be used to commission music from student composers. Here are the details:
the process was actually fairly simple and the Canada Summer Jobs application was easy to complete. While the hourly rate was fixed at $11.50, everything else could be tailored to the choir’s needs.
The choir wanted the student to compose a four- to five-minute unaccompanied composition for a soprano, alto, tenor, bass (SATB) choir, perhaps setting a poem written by a Canadian poet or capturing some other aspect of Canada.
The board, led by the choir’s artistic director, Gordon Sinclair, decided the job would require 30 hours of work per week and run for seven weeks for a total salary of just over $2,400.
It is worth comparing this total fee to the Canadian League of Composers’ suggested minimum commissioning rate for professional composers. For an unaccompanied choral work of this duration, the rate is $475 per minute. This makes the student salary align with the minimum fee that a professional composer would be paid. Of course, it can be assumed that an experienced composer would not take over 200 hours to write a similar piece. Still, this kind of payment is a significant boost for any emerging composer.
As I interpret this, a student composer, someone who is on track to soon be a creative professional, is going to be paid less than one would as a restaurant worker. According to this site:
Food Service Worker Salary  (Canada)
A Food Service Worker earns an average wage of C$12.00 per hour.
Well, sure, this is a student job and it is far better to be paid to compose than to sling hash, but at least with the hashslinging you get tips.

* * *

 For our envoi today let's listen to Hilary Hahn play the Sonata No. 5 "Danse Rustique" by Eugène Ysaÿe:

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ten Books and Ten Books

I just ran across a little post about the ten books everyone should read. Here they are:

1) The Iliad and Odyssey, by Homer
2) Plato’s Dialogues
3) The Aeneid, by Virgil
4) The Confessions, by St. Augustine
5) The Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas
6) The Divine Comedy, by Dante
7) Shakespeare’s plays
8) The Penseés, by Pascal
9) The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky
10) The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien
Talk about overwhelming whiteness! I guess a lot of present-day academics would be severely triggered, but so much the worst for them. Now what about music? What would be the ten books on music everyone should read. Ok, let me take a stab at it:
  1. The Oxford History of Western Music, by Richard Taruskin
  2. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, by Richard Taruskin
  3. The Beethoven Quartets, by Joseph Kerman
  4. The Art of Fugue, by Joseph Kerman
  5. The Classical Style, by Charles Rosen
  6. Sonata Forms, by Charles Rosen
  7. Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, by Charles Rosen
  8. New Essays on Musical Understanding, Peter Kivy
  9. Aesthetics, by Monroe C. Beardsley
  10. Life of Beethoven, Alexander Thayer
I'm looking for books that are detailed and informative without being excessively technical and obscure--ones that the general reader with some musical knowledge would find interesting and stimulating. I also lean towards those few authors who combine both excellent writing skills and profound knowledge of their subject. There are lots of other possibilities: I was tempted to include biographies of Bach and Shostakovich and some collections of essays on Sibelius and Shostakovich. There are also several collections of essays by Taruskin that are well worth reading. But these ten books are the ones that I have, in recent years, found the most valuable.

For our envoi, let's have the Sonata in A major, op. 110 by Beethoven performed by Hélène Grimaud:

Monday, November 20, 2017

Shoehorning it in

I've been so critical of the folks over at Musicology Now that I lean towards trying to find something nice to say. I mean, there have to be some good posts, right? I did just run across an interesting one: Building a Better Band-Aid by Gwynne Brown. It is about the difficulties of teaching a music history survey course. Of course, survey courses come in various guises. I remember one professor bemoaning the ever-increasing difficulty of his survey course--20th Century Music--because when he started teaching it, in the mid-70s, the century was a whole lot shorter. Every year, it got longer (needless to say, this was a while back).

Now, what with the demands that music survey courses be "de-centered" away from purely classical repertoire so as to include jazz, world music and popular music, the task has suddenly become much harder:
I was daunted by the logistical challenge, but also excited to teach a class that combined virtually all of my favorite things. I divided the semester into thirds. The first, on art music after The Rite of Spring, concluded the prior two semesters’ overview of classical music history. The second unit attempted a concise overview of the “official version of jazz history” so ably identified and fileted by Scott DeVeaux in “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography” (which I assigned).[2] The third provided a swift introduction to the field of ethnomusicology, followed by a taste of Shona mbira music and South Indian vocal music, chosen largely because these were of particular interest to me. 
Since the catalog had promised that the course would include popular music, I shoehorned it in. There was obviously no point trying to survey every major pop style in three class meetings, so instead I explained that our goal was to sample some of the different methodological approaches in pop music scholarship. I assigned three readings that ranged widely both in their authors’ scholarly perspectives and in the music under consideration. We had particularly lively and worthwhile discussions of Jeffrey Magee’s revelatory song biography of “Blue Skies” and Peter Mercer-Taylor’s dazzling and eccentric analysis of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People.[3]
On the whole, that first semester went smoothly, but by the end it was clear to us all that we had plowed through jazz history, pop music scholarship, and two non-Western musical traditions at an almost comically accelerated pace. The students were openly critical of the disproportionately lavish amount of time the music history sequence had bestowed on Western classical music. My new third course, designed to improve the inclusiveness and diversity of our music history curriculum, had rendered unmistakable that curriculum’s ongoing imbalance—not to mention its overwhelming whiteness.
Well, yes, overwhelming whiteness is certainly going to seem a problem. It is not, however, a problem exclusive to classical music. I watched a really interesting history of mathematics the other day and, guess what, every single figure mentioned, from Pythagoras to Euclid to Descartes to Leibniz to Gauss to Gödel was, you guessed it, not only white, but male. (I have to qualify this just a tad: Arabic and Hindu mathematicians were mentioned, largely because that is where our number notation comes from.) I can hardly wait until math survey courses start figuring out how to change their curricula for the sake of diversity and inclusion.

The solution musicologists seem to be drifting towards is to make it all about them and their methodology:
When I abandoned comprehensive stylistic survey as a realistic goal, I discovered the advantages of calling my students’ attention to the diverse values, goals, and tools that musicologists bring to their work on the music they care about. I have made this “meta” perspective a unifying theme for the semester. Major styles, canonic repertoire and recordings, and important individuals and groups remain important, as one would expect in a typical music history survey. However, when students consider questions like “What kind of evidence does the author use?” and “What relevant topics does this scholar leave out?” they gain additional knowledge: that music history is constructed, brick by brick, by individuals with particular priorities, strengths, and limitations.
The great advantage here is that because you are prioritizing the methods and interests of current musicologists, who are a pretty diverse bunch, you can mostly ignore the embarrassing fact that the great classical repertoire of Western music is, like the history of mathematics, almost exclusively the creation of white men.

So far as I can see, the students who come out of this course are going to know a bit more about jazz, world music and popular music, and a whole lot less about classical music. I guess that's ok with them.

When I took a music history survey course myself as an undergraduate, the professor took all of the fall term to get to Monteverdi. In January she began with the post-Monteverdi Baroque and she had to tack on an extra class at the end to cover the 20th century: Schoenberg, Bartók and Stravinsky all jammed into one class! And, of course, she didn't even mention jazz, world music or popular music. That you can explore on your own. So for our envoi today, we will listen to the Magnificat by Claudio Monteverdi:

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

Tunku Varadarajan at the Wall Street Journal, conducts a lovely interview with Zubin Mehta, musical director of the Israel Philharmonic and in the process we learn about the history of both the maestro and the orchestra.
The Israel Philharmonic has evolved along with the country. When Mr. Mehta first arrived, it was an orchestra of very uneven quality. “It was still mostly the orchestra that Huberman had put together,” he says. “The strings played beautifully, because they were from Vienna and Poland. But the brass and woodwind”—here, a pause in search of euphemism—“was not so good.” Jewish émigrés from Russia in the 1970s and ’80s brought a new excellence. “Thank God for the Russians!” Mr. Mehta says. “But we never hired them because they spoke Russian and carried a violin. They were all chosen after blind auditions from behind a screen.”
Those Russians have all retired; they came to Israel in their 30s and 40s. Today’s orchestra is predominantly Israeli. “We have,” Mr. Mehta boasts, “probably one of the best woodwind sections today, anywhere. And the brass section is magnificent. All of that never used to be the case when I first joined.”
* * *

I have to confess that a lot of the talk surrounding the British superstar conductor Simon Rattle leaves me a bit rattled. What I have heard of his work has left me unimpressed. But still... This review in The Spectator makes me think I really should have a listen to his Rite of Spring:
No masterpiece is harder to pull off than the Rite. So often it deflates midway and never regains its shape. Rattle made his name with the piece when he was at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, taming the brute, slowing it down, prising open its interior, allowing us to inspect its fangs, look straight down its snappy gob.
Here, the beast was unleashed. Rabid brass, uncontrollable winds, strings scything through the rabble behind. Key to the pungency was the bite of the percussion, allowed to go to such extremes my eyes began to water. The LSO can come across as a bit slick. Last Sunday they were monstrous. Before letting loose their inner animal, they delivered an invigorating Firebird and a Petrushka that sounded (in the best possible way) like they’d passed the vodka round early.
Now if only I could find someone to translate that into English for me.

* * *

A commentator sent me this: Misattribution of musical arousal increases sexual attraction towards opposite-sex faces in females. Wait, what? Let's quote a bit from the abstract:
only women in the fertile phase of the reproductive cycle prefer composers of complex melodies to composers of simple ones as short-term sexual partners
Well, ok then!

* * *

I always suspected this was the case: What music do psychopaths like? More Bieber, less Bach.
Despite the film industry’s depiction of psychopaths, classical music is not their go-to soundtrack in the real world.
“In the movies, if you want to establish in one shot that a monster has a human side,” said Pascal Wallisch, a psychology professor at New York University, filmmakers play a certain kind of music. There’s Beethoven in “A Clockwork Orange” or Mozart in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Wallisch and Nicole Leal, a recent graduate of NYU, wanted to find out if a preference for certain musical genres is correlated with psychopathy, a personality disorder characterized by manipulativeness and a lack of empathy.
They don't know their Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal Lector was listening to Glenn Gould's recording of the Air to the Goldberg Variations by Bach. Not Mozart. And if you read the whole article it seems that they really don't come up with much in the way of findings anyway.

* * *

The Wall Street Journal has a big piece on the new "gatekeepers" in music. It turns out that, basically, three people control what we all listen to. Well, not you and me, but you know, everyone else.
“It’s a brave new world,” says David Jacobs, a music-industry lawyer whose clients include the rapper Aminé, DJ Martin Garrix and Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis. “We’re consolidating 60 years of regional tastemakers, spread around dozens of markets around the country and the world, into one system. Basically, three or four people.”
The most influential is Tuma Basa, according to several music-industry experts. The global head of hip-hop at Spotify curates RapCaviar. With around 8.3 million followers, the playlist sets the agenda for hip-hop the way New York radio station HOT 97 once did, says Larry Miller, who heads the music-business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School. “He’s the most important gatekeeper in the music business right now,” says Mr. Miller.
Just a few years ago wouldn't have statements like these been greeted with, well, horror? Here is one of the tunes that Mr. Basa picks for our musical edification: "Bodak Yellow" by Cardi B:

* * *

Some sad news via Slipped Disc: a friend and colleague of mine at McGill University in Montreal, Winston Purdy, has passed away. Here is the more extended obituary from the university. I was lucky enough to have done a number of performances with Winston. We did a program of 16th and 17th century songs for voice and guitar from Spain and France that was broadcast by the CBC. But the most memorable was a performance of El Cimmarón by Hans Werner Henze. This is a kind of chamber opera for four musicians, baritone, flute, guitar and percussion, that takes up an entire evening. Everyone, including the singer, gets to play percussion at some point. It was a hugely challenging role for Winston and he did a terrific job. He was a very generous man. I recall learning a large set of variations for guitar by Petr Eben that required the performer to sing an old Czech folksong, the theme, while accompanying himself. Winston offered some really helpful coaching. I'm sure he will be greatly missed at McGill.

* * *

And now the article we have all been waiting for from Forbes, How To Make It In The Music Business Today: Improvisation All The Way.
Being a professional musician takes practice—lots of practice. But those looking to make a steady living as a musician have to pay much more attention to the networking and management aspects of their careers than they used to.
Last year the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded that there were just over 40,000 people in the nation employed as musicians or singers. Their pay, the bureau says, stood at an average $34.56 per hour. But how do full time musicians go about finding work?
At one time it was common for musicians to have managers who would book them jobs playing live. Established recording companies were also a source of steady income for some, and wages earned for recording music could help a professional get by. Now many musicians manage themselves, and recording companies’ revenue streams have been upended by streaming technology that allows consumers to access music cheaply or at no cost. And the money a musician can hope to earn from services like Spotify is slim.
“Artists need to know a lot more than they needed to know twenty years ago or ten years or five years ago,” says Richard Kessler, dean of the New School's Mannes School of Music in New York. “They need to know social media, they need to know publishing … they need to direct their own careers.”
You should read the whole article. What interests me is the erasing of an important distinction. Imagine that this article was talking about the visual arts instead of music. I suspect that the point would be made that there are two rather different career paths: the one is commercial art where you design imagery and visuals for commercial advertising. The other is fine art where you produce aesthetic objects that are not for some immediate commercial purpose. I'm sure we all understand and appreciate that distinction. But notice that here, talking about music, the idea of producing musical aesthetic objects for no immediate commercial purpose is not even mentioned. Musical artists today are either commercial artists or they are nothing, is the implication. The really horrifying item in the article is that blandly stated statistic that, in a nation of more than three hundred million people only just over 40,000 are employed as musicians or singers. And they make an average of $34.56 an hour.

* * *

I'm not sure that El Cimmarón by Henze stands up to the test of time. It was composed in 1970 and the musical language of that time sounds rather dated today. I have to say that it was a lot of fun to play, though. Everyone gets to play various percussion instruments and the guitarist gets to use a cello bow and to play the mbira or thumb piano. Here is a 2013 performance of Part One:

Henze wrote a lot of music for solo guitar as well. Here are his Drei Tentos from 1958:

Later he wrote two large sonatas for guitar based on Shakespearean characters. This is Ariel from the First Sonata played by Julian Bream: