1/31/08

If I told you that you had a beautiful body...

would you promise to stop using semicolons? One of the Detritus’ new favorites, Matthew Guerrieri, apparently has little or no idea how to use a semicolon, or write coherently about music. Again, this is a favorable review; but, as usual, Guerrieri muddles his good-natured intent with poor punctuation and ambiguous narrative.

This one is about Collage New Music, who presented a program featuring the music of Luciano Berio. If you don’t know Berio’s music, check this out (fantastic performance, but I especially love the comments).

Without further ado, take it away Guerrieri!

In the fourth of the “Folk Songs” Luciano Berio arranged in 1964, a lover petitions a nightingale. “Apprends-moi ton langage,” he implores, “teach me your language.” On Monday, one could hear Berio asking the same of music itself.

Um, well... I thought Berio was dead. I’m not quite sure that anyone in the concert hall could hear Berio ask anything, especially, if he’s the one doing the asking, as opposed to the music. The music could, perhaps, pose questions. I guess. So, I’ll go on that presumption. New translation: Berio’s music asked, “teach me your language.” Hmmm. That still doesn’t sound right. Maybe, Berio, in 1964, asked of music, “teach me your language.” Still doesn’t sound correct. Either way, I’m sure Guerrieri will clear this up. Right?

...[the concert] focused on works of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the late Italian composer both honed his avant-garde expertise and began to stake his claim to the unexpected directions where his music subsequently would go.

This has nothing to do with him asking things; it would seem the opposite. Berio was refining his musical language. Which people heard on Monday. That makes sense, Guerrieri. Why didn’t you just say so? Why this round-about poeticizing? This doesn’t make you a learned writer. This makes you a failed poet. One who gets paid. Yuck.

One would assume, then, that, from the first two sentences, the point of the article, aside from critiquing the performance, is to show how Berio’s music changed over two decades.

Show away my fine poet friend.

[Sequenza I, for flute] is designed to dazzle, and Christopher Krueger certainly did, with playing of confident proficiency; but a deeper emotional thread to the piece never emerged.

Beautiful! Seriously. The first piece was dazzling, but that’s all there was. Guerrieri described the piece (because that’s what we’re going to do—see how Berio changed) and the performance (because this is a review). On point, so far.

Also, notice his crafty punctuation. He skillfully, and correctly, joins two independent but related clauses with, my friend, the semicolon.

“Sequenza II,” for harp, triumphed both as etude and narrative; in Franziska Huhn’s technically accomplished, superbly paced performance, the production of exotic sounds...was adjunct to the drama of their interaction.

Kshhht. Columbia, this is Houston. We’re gonna have to contextualize the mission. Over. Kshhht.

While Guerrieri continues to tell us about how Berio’s music changed, I find it difficult to swallow this loosely relevant linearity—“dazzling” to “etude” and “narrative.” Yes, etudes are purportedly dazzling. However, narratives are, at best, metaphoric associations. Is Guerrieri saying that the flute Sequenza (the first piece on the program) is devoid of any possible narrative-like interpretation, while the second Sequenza is rife with imagery? I’m not sure one can say that. Besides, I’m listening to them right now and, in my opinion, they’re both pretty evocative pieces, capable of engendering narrative.

What really gets my goat, though, is the semicolon. His first was exemplary. Here it’s suspect; the two clauses are nebulous, in their relationship. If “their interaction” refers to the piece’s etude-ness and narrative, then maybe one could defend semicolon use. It’s not clear, though, if “their interaction” refers to the performer’s technical accomplishments and superbly paced performance. I just don’t know. For this, he gets a B-.

Either way, how can exotic sounds be adjunct to the interaction of etude-ness and narrative-ness? On the other hand, how can exotic sounds be adjunct to the interaction between technical accomplishment and superb pacing? Awkward, to say the least.

The fact remains: Berio’s music was dazzling. Now it’s dazzling and narrative-ing.

In 1959s “Differences,” tape-recorded versions of five instruments morph into alien electronics as their live counterparts attempt communication with bristling urgency; in the end, Berio restores the music’s initial common-tongue. Collage’s vibrant reading made for an intense conversation.

Berio’s music: morphing, communicating with electronics and recapitulating.

Unfortunately, the semicolon, again, is thorny.

For your pleasure, here’s quick lesson in grammar from the Chicago Manual of Style:


Semicolon

Use of the semicolon. The semicolon, stronger than a comma but weaker than a period, can assume either role, though its function is usually closer to that of a period. Its most common use is between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction.

e.g. The controversial portrait had been removed from the entrance hall; in its place had been hung a realistic landscape.

Before an adverb. The following adverbs, among others, should be preceded by a semicolon when used transitionally between independent clauses: then, however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, and therefore.

e.g. The controversial portrait had been removed from the entrance hall; indeed, it had disappeared entirely from the building.

Before a conjunction. An independent clause introduced by a conjunction may be proceeded by a semicolon, especially when the independent clause has internal punctuation. For more common use of a comma with conjunctions, see conjunction between clauses.

e.g. Maria had determined to question the ambassador; but bodyguards surrounding him, as well as the presence of dancing girls, prevented him from noticing her.


Here, Guerrieri should have begun the second clause with a conjunction, like “but” or “yet.” Instead, he begins with a preposition, in which case the semicolon should really be a period. Or, maybe, he should have dropped the preposition entirely, which could have then warranted the use of a semicolon. Just saying, the writing is immature. Normally, one or two trespasses wouldn’t bother me. But, in a 600 word article, I expect a better effort.

Score so far: Berio’s music was dazzling, then dazzling and narrative-ing, and now it’s morphing, communicating with electronics and recapitulating; Collage New Music performed well.

“Circles,” from 1960, also seems designed to loop around..,

You didn’t mention that before.

Addendum: Berio’s music was dazzling, then dazzling and narrative-ing, and now it’s morphing, communicating with electronics, recapitulating and looping.

...settings of three E.E. Cummings poems, the texts repeated to form a five-movement arch—but the effect is of a new language coming into existence.

So now it’s looping and arch-ing. And this leads Guerrieri to conclude that Berio achieved a new musical language. You hear that, composers? Looping and arch-ing. New musical language.

Soprano Janna Baty, expertly delighting in the deconstruction of each word into its constituent parts, began by trading phonemes with Huhn’s harp; her sounds and choreographed gestures soon brought two percussionists... to vociferous life.

I’d make the argument for two sentences. How ‘bout you? Or I’d omit “her sounds and choreographed gestures soon.”

Read this way:

Soprano Janna Baty, expertly delighting in the deconstruction of each word into its constituent parts, began by trading phonemes with Huhn’s harp, bringing two percussionists to vociferous life.

I think it’s more clear this way.

With the “Folk Songs”... Berio began to apply his newfound vocabulary to the whole of human activity; Baty’s traditional singing and the group’s untraditional playing were united with seamless ingenuity.

Wait a goddamned minute! What on earth is this? How did Berio apply his new musical language to the whole of human activity other than music making? Did he send some starving, third-world family a copy of his score? Did he resolve the Vietnam conflict with incessant looping? Arch-ing? Did he make a withdrawal from his bank by recapitulating? This is quite possibly the weirdest thing I have ever read.

And he follows that up with another hopelessly unnecessary semicolon! How is Berio’s super-musical looping at all related to the group’s seamless ingenuity? Two. Sentences. Guerrieri.

Berio never exhausted his curiosity.

Yes. He was very curious. I thought you were going to tell us how Berio changed over the period of a couple decades. No? Okay. I wasn’t really expecting it anyway. But, thanks for telling us how he didn’t change.

Collage opened with the 90-second-long “Autre Fois,” a 1971 memorial to Stavinsky (performed twice). An unstable rocking interval in the harp that traditionally would resolve instead proves the music’s unchanging core.

So Berio’s music didn’t change at all? Across two decades.

And, by the way, I doubt that an interval, defined more or less as two periodic sound waves presented simultaneously, forming one periodic sound complex, can prove anything, ever.

The journey is the point; the goal is possibility.

Nice semicolon. (grumbles to self, looks at watch)
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1/30/08

Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Carl Ruggles.

(1876-1971)

Ruggles was an individualist, cranky, transcendentalist New Englander. He had a fierce modernist bent. He was friends with, and championed by, Charles Ives. His music is delightfully atonal, rugged, and beautiful. He later turned his interest to painting, which may account for his limited compositional output.

Ruggles was a true American original. His limited oeuvre is individualistic and fascinating. He is long overdue a revival of interest in his work.

His most famous pieces are The Sun-Treader and Men and Mountains. His work is scrappy, experimentalist, obscure, and delightful. He represents, and/or typifies, the forgotten between-war American atonal composers that I love.

You should listen to his music.
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I Am Here to Report to You about Some Excellent Music Criticism!

I am here to report to you about some excellent music criticism!

I know, right?

It does exist! I am very pleased. I, however, have one small issue regarding the following. Let it be known, though, that I am very much mostly pleased.

This gentleman has written a very good review for the New York Times about a recent concert featuring some oft-derided music from a century ago. The concert sounds like it was great. The reviewer seems like he genuinely likes the repertoire. Plus: I really like the repertoire! He made me wish I had seen the concert. My quibble is: would someone who does not already know/like the repertoire be encouraged by the review to see the concert?

James Levine is a well-regarded conductor and pianist. The Met Chamber Ensemble is similarly well-regarded. The featured composers should be regarded similarly. Although the author, as noted, above, seems to like the music, he felt the need to...to what? Take an easy dig at it? Or, perhaps, nod to those that don't like it? Who would read a review about a Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg concert with any real interest if they've already made up their mind about the music? Certainly, in the first paragraph, Kozinn sort of abandons any effort to convince any unbelievers to attend the concert to gain greater understanding or appreciation of...

For some listeners the music of the Second Viennese School is by now - a century on - so thoroughly entrenched as to be standard repertory;


Yes. Yes it is. It is not played often enough, or written favorably about enough. And, when mentioned, it is often to deride better-loved composers such as Brahms. But it is historically significant. Also, if one cares to spend time with it, is fucking awesome music.

for others it was supplanted by other styles so long ago that it's irrelevant.


I suppose I understand what he's getting at, here. However, I could easily make the same argument about Bach vis-a-vis people who only listen to rock. Or jazz. Or hip-hop. Or Copland, for that matter. Supplanted by other styles? Like Renaissance in the Baroque era? Or Baroque in the Classical era? Or Classical in the Romantic era? Or Disco in the 1990s?

But if you're still trying to figure out what you think about it, the best idea may be to seek out a performance with James Levine at the helm.


Okay! That is great. I love that you wrote that. It encourages people to be intellectually and/or artistically curious. Which is great. Did I mention that it's great? You are totally asking people who are undecided to be welcome to listen, and attend, and, I guess, decide for themselves. Awesome.

Mr. Levine is a true believer,


This sounds sort of like he's in a cult. The cult of the Second Viennese School. Which I would totally join. However, your sentiment contains a note of...condescension? Even if the condescension is unintended, or well-intended. But you make it sound like he's not normal. Non-normative.

but where other true believers approach this music with earnest reverence, he makes it sing.


Ah. He makes the non-music sounds musical. He is an irreverent true-believer, in that he believes the crazy atonal nonsense is music, and in his role as interpreter, makes it sing.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great article, and I encourage you to read the rest. I only want to point out that even the best-intentioned review can contain hidden, or unintended, critique of music that a) is having image trouble anyway, and b) it purports to acclaim.

So, I was wrong. Kozinn doesn't abandon the effort to convince people to attend and listen. He merely subtly undermines his effort with loaded language. That's my issue.

Otherwise: well done, sir! Well done.
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Composer of the Day!

Today’s composer of the day is Daniel Pinkham.

(1923-2006)

He was a harpsichordist. He was a musicologist. He was even a teacher. Most importantly, he was a composer. He was very prolific, winning all kinds of awards, including the Alfred Nash Patterson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

Lenny Bernstein once conducted one of Dan’s orchestral pieces with the New York Philharmonic.

Also, I had a class with him. On the first day, there was a shy girl sitting in the corner. Dan said to her, “C’mon, get a little closer. I don’t bite... unless you ask me to.”

Unfortunately, he recently died of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

His music is fun and quirky. And sometimes his music is religousy—he was an organist, too.

You should listen to his music.
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1/29/08

Oh, magic Ouija board! Tell us why Matthew Guerrieri has a job.

(after lighting the candles, the Ouija board speaks!)

I. D. O. N. T. K. N. O. W. G. O. A. S. K. T. H. E. E. I. G. H. T. B. A. L. L.

I have a particular affinity for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP). It’s one of my favorite ensembles in the country. They program only newer works, often written by local Boston composers, and often New England Conservatory students. It’s a great opportunity for today’s composers to get their pieces played in the spotlight, where, under normal circumstances, their pieces only serve to fill the time between the opening tone-poem and the gigantic symphony.

That said, they don’t deserve this poor excuse of a review. While the tone is favorable, Matthew Guirrieri trips and falls on his own shriveled wit, and the orchestra suffers.

Friday’s wide-ranging Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert demonstrated how unhelpfully vague the umbrella term “modern music” can be.

A sonorously malignant first utterance! I don’t think that I have to touch upon the abysmal, vomit-inducing sentence construction. Suffice it to say, the rest is as poorly written as the first f-ing one. Just keep that in mind.

But what is interesting here is Guerrieri’s assertion that “modern music” is not descriptive enough. Perhaps he’d like to go to the record store with me. And perhaps he’d like to follow me into the “alternative” section, where he’d likely find Erykah Badu sitting next to David Bowie. Has he never noticed how the ancient music section (chant and churchy stuff) throws the early baroque composers in to limbo? Is Purcell in or out? Is he classical? Is he ancient? Has Guerrieri ever noticed how “modern music” can describe, at the same time, Debussy (dead for 90 years) and Adés (alive for 37 years)? Grow up Guerrieri. Labels are useless, especially today. If you want clearly defined categories, maybe you should have become a librarian instead. (Now that I think about it, library science is pretty difficult, probably too difficult for Guerrieri)

Some New England Conservatory link was the only correspondence among the disparate works, gathered under the title “Boston ConNECtion”...

What gave it away? The title? The composers? The performers? The hall, in Boston? At NEC? This is a lame thing to say.

...(and performed under Jordan Hall’s architecturally ill-mannered “New England Conservatory” signboard, which continues to intrude on the season’s concert experience like a dinner-time telemarketer).

...and performed in Jordan Hall’s architecturally splendid concert space like a dinner-time blow job. F.Y.I. Jordan Hall is a public landmark. What was it again that you were complaining about?















Photo © by Ed Kunzelman

In some ways, NEC doctoral candidate Osnat Netzer’s “Common Ground” (a premiere) resembled an action movie—skillfully choreographed activity concealing a threadbare plot.

For reference: the Oxford English Dictionary defines “plot” as the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence. The OED also defines “threadbare” as poor or shabby in appearance.

Thus, logically, we can conclude that “threadbare plot” means: a poorly or shabbily appearing sequence of interrelated events.

So finally, just a tiny question, Guerrieri. Is it possible that Netzer purposefully and overtly omitted linear references? If you are still looking for thematic unity (whatever that means, today) or narrative (whatever that means, today), may I suggest another little tune for you? How bout “Marry had a Little Lamb?” Don’t waste your time. And ours.

Also premiered was “Concert Piece II,” for two clarinets and small orchestra, by Ezra Sims, venerable explorer of the far-flung intonation of an octave divided into 72 parts, rather than the usual 12.

Daredevil.

A reduced string complement diminished the outer fast sections’ harmonic context, but the slower, wind-anchored center revealed the exotic virtues of Sims’s sound world, veering from murky shadows to pungent brightness, orchidaceously vibrating close dissonances contrasting with the hollowed-out depth of wider intervals.

Gasdkfjhwbshga?!?!??

Um...

Um...

“Orchidaceously?”

Seriously, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t have the seven free hours it would take to parse this “sentence.” I’m sorry. I’m done. I think I’ll leave you all with some of my favorite hyperbole and “ajhgwygs!!??!!.” Do with them what you will.

Regretfully yours,

Empiricus

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[the soloists] leading an incandescent, bracing chorale, was transporting.

...initially pedestrian themes engender Technicolor apotheoses.

...a fearlessly expressive soloist...

...the ensemble’s energy flowed past [the soloist] rather than through him.

...the closing confabulation was a hoofer’s dream.

...but the fascination was in how the simplest ideas a descending third, a dotted rhythm beget abundant rhetorical variety.

...[the bassoonist] swapped corresponding operatic temperaments—hero, menace, comic relief—with unassuming stylishness.

Leon Kirchner’s 1955 Toccata for Strings, Winds, and Percussion’s muscular, expressive post-Schoenberg atonality might have seemed an incongruous close, but echoed much of the evening in its rhythmic drive and confident directness of utterance.

Artistic director Gil Rose, presented with Columbia University’s Alice M. Ditson Conductor’s Award, prior to the concert, led notably crisp, articulate, performances; the ensemble’s lean clarity ideally matched each divergent [dinner-time?] course.


P.S. My assumptive insertion. But, if it is appropriate, I like how his earlier little rip on the NEC billboard about the dinner-time telemarketer resurfaces to become a subtle exclamation point and metaphoric punch-line of the review. Blow me.

P.P.S. See? I can do it, too.

[Edit Empiricus] P.P.P.S. Matthew should, of course, have a job writing about music. He's usually darn good at it.
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1/28/08

Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Charles-Valentin Alkan.

(1813-1888)

Alkan was a virtuoso pianist. He was also a composer of difficult piano music. Alkan was, famously, antisocial (see picture, left).

Nobody remembers Alkan much. Although, Ronald Smith, an English pianist and writer, championed his music in the 1990s and wrote a biography about him, which has led to a small revival of interest.

He was Jewish and lived in Paris. There is a long-standing rumor that he died when a heavy bookcase fell on him as he was reaching for the Talmud on the top shelf. Unfortunately, this story is now in doubt.

He was Chopin's next door neighbor for a while, and knew Liszt and other famous figures of the day. Too bad he was shy. He did not perform much. His music is obscure, which is awesome.

You should listen to his music.
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Fun with Commodification!

It disturbs me that "art" music has become so marginalized that it is frequently characterized as the cultural equivalent of other snobbish luxury goods. Really, many "classical" concerts, whether of music old or new, are more affordable than pop music concerts or sporting events. Honestly, art music has never been more accessible to anyone who is interested.

Still, the myth of the blue-haired widower climbing out of her troika to see the symphony persists. She is a relic; she probably likes fancy food and wine that only she can afford. Only true, rich connoisseurs could appreciate the pairing of food and wine! Or music and wine! Or music and food! (And, perhaps, wine? Only rich fucking nerds like wine. And classical music.)

Yet more disturbing, here, is the wholesale assimilation of "low" culture (read: the Midwest) in the service of said commodification of music. Squeee! Whoever thought this up...I...I have no words. Oh, wait...yes I do!

Dvorak BBQ Sauce

I can already tell this is going to be awesome.

Although we can’t be absolutely sure,


Conjecture. Spectacular. Conjecture is a splendid reason for doing what you're about to do.

it’s likely that during his three-year stay in the United States (1892-95) — and especially during the summer months he spent in the rural community of Spillville, Iowa


So, so rural. Wow. Those hayseeds! Okay, in fairness, it is pretty rural. But the sentence above stinks of derision...

— Czech composer Antonín Dvorák experienced the irresistible smells and flavors of a real American barbeque.


...the tangy derision of barbeque!

And as you listen, for instance, to his “American” quartet,


I think you mean his String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (1893), sometimes referred to as "America" or "American." Nice faux-scholarship.

sketched out on one of those visits to the American heartland, can’t you just imagine


Guh. This is going to be good, right?...

that some of those pungent/sweet/spicy/rich-flavored musical sounds may have been inspired by the multi-layered, sensuous experience of perfectly seasoned beef grilled over hot, smoky coals?


...or: worse than I imagined! My favorite musical sounds are totally pungent/sweet/spicy, and also, rich-flavored! Certainly not richly flavored. Adverbs are so rural.

Well, whether you can or not,


I totally can. Once I was writing a piece for class, and I smelled some barbeque, and I totally changed an F to an F#. Spicy! Rich-flavored!

this recipe is a natural compliment to Dvorak's universally appealing music


First: what? Second: This dude is some sort of musical/culinary synaesthete. Third, in re: the clause "universally appealing"...you may want to ask around.

— and the inclusion of Czech beer is no accident! —


This is so clever I threw up on myself.

inspired by the desire for a quick, uniquely-flavored but not overpowering sauce


Not overpowering--like Dvorak?

for grilled beef (although it will happily serve to enhance other kinds of meat as well).


I chose not to reproduce the recipe. If you are really curious you can follow the link. Suffice to say that, in Texas, they shoot you if your sauce has ketchup in it.
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Composer of the Day!

Today's composer of the day is Cornelius Cardew.


(1936-1981)

English serialist turned experimental free-improvisor turned Socialist post-Romantic composer.

He was once Stockhausen's whipping boy. Then, he discovered John Cage and David Tudor. Cardew's most famous work, Treatise, is a 193-page graphic score, which was recorded by numerous ensembles, including Sonic Youth. He then wrote a lengthy article entitled, "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism." It's a fun read.

Finally, he was run over by a car. He died.

You should listen to his music.

1/27/08

Back in my day,

I had to walk to school only one sun-filled block, downhill. I get the impression that it was very different for Mr. Holland. Here's his homework, which is seemingly about an all-Brahms program given by the Emerson String Quartet, on what must’ve been a tough day for Mr. Holland to get excited.

You greet a cold, hard, wintry Sunday afternoon with either avoidance or embrace.

In other words, you commit suicide or you live. Okay, so that’s probably not exactly what he’s intending to convey. I’ll try that again. On a typically lazy Sunday, either you avoid going outside so to stay all fuzzy and warm, pessimistic about the yucky conditions, or you go outside, optimistic about the day’s potential. I’ll buy that.

Stay home and dream about the beach at Waikiki, or go hear the Emerson String Quartet play Brahms chamber music in three different minor keys.

One can avoid the day by staying home and dreaming of Waikiki, or one can embrace the day by going out to listen to Brahms. Sounds great to me. I love Brahms’ music. I’ll go out on a cold, hard, wintry day for some good Brahms. But, wait. Three minor keys? Aren’t minor keys usually associated with sadness and, or, cold, hard, wintry days? Maybe I won’t go outside if all I hope to get is a cold, hard, wintry day. That does not sound pleasant. Sorry, Brahms.

For all their sophistication and invention, Brahms’ string quartet’s are tough love, and hearing consecutively both ends of his Opus 51—one piece in C minor, the other in A minor—is an awful lot of genial determination at one sitting.

Here, I believe that “genial determination” refers to the Emerson Quartet. Their concert plagued by a nasty winter’s day, with sophisticated and inventive music in three different minor keys, making for tough love. You gotta really, really want it. I wonder what Mr. Holland wanted?

To ensure any hint of a smile off its collective face, there was the F minor Quintet for Piano and Strings after intermission...

Good. Something to make the six-mile, uphill trek on a snowy day worth it.

The quintet may be the most welcoming of the three items, but it is also classical music’s prototype for stubbornness.

Well, so much for that. I should’ve stayed home, had some hot cocoa, curled up with my absurdicon thesaurus and listened to the radio play convivial flute music, all the while dreaming of Hawaii and its long-overdue statehood.

First Brahms wrote it for five string players and didn’t like it. Then he wrote it for two pianists and didn’t like that either. Clara Schumann told him that the final version sounded like orchestra music...

Brahms: too stubborn to “stay the course.” Flip-flopper. I wouldn’t vote for him. Nor would I walk twelve miles uphill in a fierce snowstorm to listen to his music.

...indeed the piece is an awful lot of energy crammed into one relatively small piece.

It’s welcoming; it’s stubborn; it’s dense. The quartets are tough love. They’re all in minor keys. Hmmm. I’m on the fence. But, before I think about putting on my galoshes, Mr. Holland, entice me a little more for my troubles.

Brahms evidently did not wait for inspiration to compose, the result often being intense rectitude born of enormous craftsmanship.

Uninspired? Righteous craftiness? I just lit the fire, put the water on the stove, slipped into my brand new Fun Sleepwear Mario Brothers Red Mushroom Slippers, and got out the thesaurus. All that’s left is to turn on the radio and find some conviv...

In this quintet some light is allowed to enter. Measures of lyrical beauty and even jauntiness help mitigate—for both players and listeners—the virtuoso fierceness that makes the first and last movements sound so...

Halt! How could I have been so rash? There is something in the quintet that will make all of the snow trapped in my long johns melt! Let’s get dressed! We’re going out! But first, let’s finish Holland’s thought. Now, what about the first and last movements sounding so... what?

...warlike.

Fuck.

I don't know what to do.

I know. I'll make a list. Brahms and his music has been described thusly: sophisticated, inventive, stubborn, dense, uninspired, righteously crafty, warlike—and, to top it off, all behind this imposing backdrop of a cold, hard, wintry day.

Doesn’t it sound eerily like something we’ve heard before? Wait! Oh no. You can’t be serious. Could it be? Really?

It is easy to understand why Schoenberg so attached himself to the music of Brahms...

Fuck. It is.

Another backhanded insult to Schoenberg, or at least whatever Mr. Holland decides he associates with Schoenberg.

...[Schoenberg] would go on to raise the idea of high density to another level.

Dense = bad?

I don’t think I ever came across the “idea of high density,” sir. If by “high density” you mean that Brahms’ music was dense (stated above) and Schoenberg liked (“attached” himself to) dense things, thus Schoenberg liked Brahms, then I am forced to call you a sack-of-mostly-Hudson-River-water. Brahms was dense compared to Beethoven. Beethoven was dense compared to Handel. (continue ad infinitum) Hell, Bach’s music is still dense. Whatever.

I thoroughly sympathize with your Sunday afternoon walk in the five-foot high snow up the Himalayas to get to hear some good music by a good composer only to get paid to write about it. I don’t, however, sympathize with your ideological chauvinism towards certain music. If you don’t like Schoenberg, that’s fine. No one is forcing you. Nevertheless, as a member of the press, reporting on concerts and giving your opinions, it is your duty to understand the music to a higher degree than your readership, and then write about it in an intelligent and fair manner. If you can’t, or won’t, understand, or learn about, organicism, “developing variation,” or the f-ing definition of density, not to mention the history and development of ideas within a specific musical community (about which you opine often), then you are 1) doing your readership a disservice by insulting their intelligence, 2) proliferating absurd and generally negative myths about musicians and their music, 3) effectively stifling the new music culture’s ability to gain an already dwindling audience, self-perpetuating classical music’s extinction, in general. To put it another way, learn your shit or we’ll keep writing things like this.

Sorry, again, about the white-out conditions when you tried to scale that cliff on your way to see the Emerson String Quartet. I’ll have some cocoa ready for you when you get home.
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You're Crazy, Man!

Radu Lupu recently performed Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the NY Philharmonic. And Mr. Holland got to tell us about it.

Emphases mine

Unusual was the way the piano part was made to mingle with the orchestra rather than stand out against it. When higher-register melodic lines shifted from the keyboard’s treble keys to the violin sections, Mr. Lupu changed from soloist to accompanist. Lower voices rose out of the bottom and the middle of the piano and became principle players. Again and again one heard a leading man happy to give way to his supporting cast. If Mr. Lupu had been a singer, he would certainly have been a tenor or bass.

I agree. A tenor or a bass.

Besides, those castrati were all primo uomos.
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Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Karlheinz Stockhausen.

(1928-2007)

Recently deceased, Herr Stockhausen was, by turns, a well-regarded/widely-hated composer.

He pioneered total serialism with Boulez. He was an early proponent of/experimenter with electronic music. In the late 1950s-early 1960s he was, in Europe, The Shit. Later, he became a crazy improvisationist. Even later, he went even more experimental and weird. Go figure!

His music is difficult. However, he is worth checking out. He is loaded with controversy. He is all over the place. He was a crazy person. Perhaps a genius, perhaps a chameleon. Again, totally worth checking out. Trust me on this. You won't like all of it, but some of it is bad-ass.

You should listen to his music.
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Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Achille-Claude Debussy.

(1862-1918)

He was an early modernist, often called an impressionist, although he hated that label. He was a very good composer. He had a daughter named Chou-Chou. He died of rectal cancer.

He was also French. Go figure.

You should listen to his music.

1/25/08

I'd like to tell you a story about a storyteller

His name is Edward Ortiz of the Sacramento Bee. He likes to tell us colorfully misleading stories about storytellers telling storytellers’ stories.

Every good story is born in the telling.

And every bad story is born in the grammaring. What a marvelous beginning! Pray tell. How was this story told?

And if that story is a musical one, like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” then the telling is all the more crucial.

C’mon! I’m on the edge of my seat. Tell me! What was the story? How was Beethoven’s story told?

In this work, sonic wallflowers and shy storytellers need not apply.

Yes. Yes. If the performers don’t adhere to the dynamics and other performance cues, then I’d say they are not good storytellers.

Let’s go. I’m giddy with good-‘Eroica’-storytelling anticipation. Squeee!

Broad strokes and fervor are required.

Oh man, how I want broad strokes and fervor! Did they deliver the broad strokes? And the fervor? C’mon! Did they? Did they?

This notion was in motion during the Sacramento Philharmonic’s bold and crisp performance of “Eroica” in Saturday evening at the Community Center Theatre.

How’d it go? Did they achieve the broad strokes and fervor? They attempted it, right? But how’d they do? Did the bold and the crisp contribute to the fervor? I need to know.

It was an inspired performance in what proved an uneven all-Beethoven concert delivered to a sold-out audience.

Still, short of broad strokes and fervor.

Under the baton of musical director Michael Morgan, this group of musicians never wavered from spinning out the in-your-face dramatic thread that Beethoven created with his “Eroica.”

Geez. I’m so not excited anymore. Beethoven’s story sounds fervent. But the orchestra just kept plugging along, spinning it out. BOR-ing.

Morgan coaxed a tight and bright allegro from the musicians to start things off.

So they just didn’t have any fervor? Could they have been coaxed into having it?

Clarity and speed brought Beethoven’s musical ideas to the fore. The use of both gave a certain elegance to the music.

In lieu of broad strokes and fervor, maybe they should have played the “Eroica” super-fast. Then the piece would have been extra-super-elegant.

The second movement, “Marcia Funebre,” offers a poignant and dense collection of musical details.

Oh, brother. Just what I wanted—another movement from a poorly told Beethoven story. Maybe then they should have played super-special-clearly. Especially when details are keenly felt and dense. Elegance for elegance’s sake. You know?

Each section of the orchestra played with clarity,

Good. Elegant.

making for gripping and dramatic music.

[Emphasis mine]

What? What! Halleluiah! Being clear is now gripping and dramatic? ...sqeee! We’re kinda getting close to fervor! Clear = gripping and dramatic = slight fervor. Oh, boy! Tell me a story about how there was more fervor, Ortiz! I can’t take this lack of fervor any longer. Please! Please! Please! Tell me!

There were no lulls in the sonic drama.

Yes! A broad stroke of fervor! Finally, good storytelling. (raises fists, looks toward God in accomplishment) I just knew they could do it.

This was one of those moments where you were tempted to think that conductor and musician were destined to play together.

I agree, totally. When a conductor can coax the orchestra to play with a broad stroke of fervor, it’s truly preordained. Preordained to tell musical stories well. This story, in particular. Which is about...?

It was one of the orchestra’s strongest performances in recent memory.

Yes. But what was the story about?

In four movements, Morgan and orchestra seemed to have entered an extremely fruitful and dynamic state of musical storytelling.

WHAT WAS THE STORY ABOUT?

Hello...?

Hello...?!
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1/22/08

Mr. Holland's Opus

My last post criticized a long-standing NYT music critic. But who am I to lambaste such a bastion of the nation's leading daily? I began to feel unworthy, a silly blogger who cherry-picked an article, perhaps not representative of the author's oeuvre, to deride. Yes, perhaps my snarky commentary was undeserved.

Until I found this. It is quite recent, and made me quite angry.

CRITICS are sometimes asked how they prepare for premieres.

I'm pretty sure the passive voice is frowned upon in writing. Someone's getting Strunk & White for Christmas!

In my business a new piece is a threat;

That sounds like a problem--

it strips the writer naked.

...

Unlike Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, it springs from nowhere and asks on the spot to be loved, hated or endured.

Wait. What? Brahms' Fourth sprang from...what exactly? It, too, was once "new music" and bore all of the responsibility and onus that new music bears today. And really, does a new piece ask anything more than to be listened to? Didn't (anecdotally) Boston's Symphony Hall once feature signs above the exit that read Exit Here in Case of Brahms?

Is prior knowledge a kind of cheating, or does a look at the score or a visit to the rehearsal hall create a cushion of experience, something that makes new music more “understandable”?

No, I'm pretty sure it's the opposite of cheating. Familiarity with the composer/style/genre can only inform your first listening. Your expectation will inevitably inform your hearing. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was met with a mixture of elation and disdain. More recently, Shostakovich's opera was widely lambasted in the Soviet press. If you expect Puccini and get Cage, you'll be frustrated and unhappy.

If you have already heard (or read) the piece, maybe a premiere is not a premiere at all, but that flash of newness warmed over.

(Referee): Flag: personal foul, un-diagrammable sentence. Five yard penalty.

In any case, is newness for newness' sake a virtue? Or not?

At any rate, preparation signals a critic’s work ethic, an obligation to reach out (or up) to a composer, to speak his or her language, to enter someone else’s territory and ask for directions.

This seems reasonable. Given the abundance of styles in which contemporary composers are writing, each piece should be considered on its own merits, and within its own style (which could be defined by one piece!). Consider that, in the same time frame (say, the 60s), one could attend a concert and encounter such disparate approaches as those of John Cage, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Crumb, Pauline Oliveros, or maybe even The Beatles. John Coltrane. Captain Beefheart. Artists define their own styles and genres. So, Holland, I'm with you!

The more I follow this line of thought, the more irritated I get, for haven’t we got things backward?

I am not with you.

Shouldn’t composers be preparing for me rather than me for them?

I think you mean "I for them." Strunk & White for Christmas!

Also: what? Composers, I suppose, should conduct market research to determine what kind of music people would like to hear. The "artist" should not "create" or "express" anything, the artist should, I guess, fulfill niches in the market? Follow current trends? Satisfy demand? Gee, I'd hate to think an artist would, I don't know, challenge a listener. Or critic. Which is like a listener, but worse.

By “me,” I mean not me the critic but me the audience member in general. A new piece owes less to critics than to anybody else. Listeners paid for their tickets; usually we haven’t.

Uh, wow. The composer should prepare for...the audience? People who make "art" (such as it is) should...pander? I thought we were talking about "art" music. If your goal is to be popular, composer is probably not your best career choice. People write music. People who write music like to get their music performed, and heard. People who write music are pleased when people like it, I reckon. However, getting people to like you is not the goal of writing music. Is it?

Repeated hearing can correct or deepen first impressions.

Okay. Sure.

It can just as easily confirm initial boredom or distaste.

Fine. Have opinions and taste. That's awesome with me.

I can listen and be dead wrong,

I don't know what that means. I don't know if what you're saying means anything. What would that mean, to be "dead wrong" by listening? You...were wrong about...the structure? The form? The...point? Meaning? What? Taste? Purple Monkey Dishwasher?

but I reserve the right to that immediate impulse and so should everyone around me.

The impulse to be dead wrong? Predicate something something.

In classical music the onus of responsibility has been shifted from creator to receptor.

Wow. Well, reception theory is one thing. The "myth of authorial intent" is another. The meaning of a work, I guess, is as much dependent on the listener as the creator. But that's not what you're pushing here, is it? No. It's not. You want to be pandered to. You wish it was 1774 and you're at the new Haydn symphony.

Do I owe the waiter a good tip, or does he owe me good service?

This is the worst argument ever. Arts = service industry. "Hey! Asshole! Your painting sucks! I want my price of admission back!" If you don't like coffee, don't go to Starbucks. If you don't like new music, don't go to new music concerts. Oh, it's your job? Sucks to be you! Maybe you should have been a laborer.

Give me your hand, your time and your devotion, says the ambitious composer, and I shall lift you to a level of understanding that will make you love me.

I know lots of composers, and none of them have said anything remotely like this to anyone, ever. Not even metaphorically. Mostly they're like, "Fuck! I have to get this commission for a wind quintet done by Tuesday!"

Beware of disliking my new piece lest you betray your ignorance. If anyone asks you what you think, just reply that you need to understand me better. Then change the subject.

Total crap. Anyone who says or thinks this is a total piece of shit, and their music probably blows. I am not naming names.

Composers ought to write anything they want.

Yes! Wow, how generous of you. (I'm not even a composer, just a lowly music theorist.)

And how nice it is that lovers of Duparc or Ned Rorem can gather in small recital halls and listen to the songs they wrote.

Oh, you're being disparaging. How cute. Let me return the favor.

Let explorers of microtonal imagery or computer-generated randomness revel in their exclusivity.

Modernism is terrible. Mozart was awesome. And Beethoven? Don't get me started. Computer music: for nerds. Microtones? Experimentation is totally without the Western musical tradition. Just ask Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms...Ives (oh, you probably hate him too)...

The Internet seems made for niches of specialized interests; and if Milton Babbitt disciples want to crawl into one and exchange examples of combinatoriality, let us leave them to it.

You wouldn't know a combinatorial hexachord if it bit you in the ass, you hack. Also: only nerds who live in their mom's basement are on the internet! And nobody likes serial music. Nobody!

Simply know that if broad acclaim and the universal acknowledgment of genius have been denied you, you have not an uncomprehending public to blame but the choices you yourself have made and, more important, your own gifts or lack of same.

Most composers compose because it's what they do. Few have hopes or even ambition of recognition in the short term. Innovators are not afraid of your small-mindedness. Experimental composers could care less what the fuck you think. Your appraisal of "lack of gifts" is laughable. If you know so much about music and what makes music good and what music people like, why don't you write some fucking music?

Be grateful for your teaching job.

Fuck you. I am grateful for my teaching job. If you continue to belittle me, I will continue to make fun of you on the internets.

Thinking small can bear with it great dignity, and in the age of the computer and audiences of one, maybe the idea of universal genius is passé.

You are stuck in the canon. You think it is 1885. You have never heard music from another culture. You, inexplicably, work for the most respected newspaper in America. We are not here for you.

For thinking big, you need to need the people. I sometimes wonder where Sibelius’s music might have taken him had he not been financially supported by his government. Many intelligent listeners admire the increasing remoteness of his later pieces. I personally miss the communicative power of the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto.

Thinking Big = Wanting to Be Loved? You're basically saying that composers should aspire to be Rupert Murdoch. Put any trashy shit on TV, then give a bunch of money to right-wing candidates whose constituencies would hate the trash that you peddle. Coddle the masses. Don't challenge anyone. And for gods' sakes, don't piss off the old-school critics. They might compare you to Sibelius!

It is satisfying when composers can pay their mortgages and send their children to college. Starvation is not a satisfactory working condition.

You are so generous. Composers are people?! Tell me more!

But the cushions of independent means and professorial tenure — when granted the rare, brilliant talent — can dull the competitive edge. The marketplace has motivated a lot if not most of what we think of now as the standard repertory. Giving composers the luxury of being important and disliked debilitates music.

You almost came to terms, there, with the problem of The Canon. Back in the day, when composers were supported by the Elites (Haydn, et al.) the problem was different. Do you understand that most contemporary composers are poor graduate students with little or no means? That they are pursuing their art against all odds? No? Oh, right, apparently not.

No one can deny the oceans of irrelevance that have always resulted from giving the public what it wants.

Right. Did you just change your position?

But any music intended for public consumption must ask on every page: “How can I make them respond? What common denominator between their sensibility and mine can I discover?” Otherwise it bears irrelevance of a different kind.

Oh--wait, no, you didn't. Clever rhetorical device, there. The audience is greater than the art, or something.

Haydn and Mozart — purveyors of the most profound and original music ever written — asked these questions every day, or they would have had nothing to eat.

"Ever written." Nice. You're beholden to the what now? Oh right, the canon.

Every composer wants to be loved by as many people as possible.

This is exactly what composers want. I asked them.

If it doesn’t work out that way, too many of them are content to let posterity put things right. The posterity myth has a few success stories but is for the most part an excuse for failure in the present. Starry-eyed critics of the 1930s and ’40s predicted that by 2007 we would be singing Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” in the shower. Most of us still lean toward “Embraceable You.”

Nice. Shoenberg sucks. Modernism was/is a failure. People like tunes, dude!

I hope it is not unreasonable to suggest that composers, not listeners, are the servants here,

Yes. The arts = service industry metaphor prevails. The market rules! They should give you a column on the Op/Ed page. Bill Kristol is jealous.

and that every new opera or orchestral piece they write should be brought in on a tray with hopes that it has something substantial to say that we can like.

Public sentiment = good art. Shallow-ass criticism.

When Haydn worked for the Esterhazys, he wore a uniform. That’s not a bad idea for our premiere-givers too. They can also tend bar at intermission.

Wow, you effete fuck. How about the critics spoon caviar into my mouth?

How do I prepare for premieres? I read about the people and the circumstances, where the piece came from and what the composer eats for breakfast. If I have a score, I look at the orchestration. It’s nice to know how many crayons are in the composer’s coloring box. I don’t listen to anything. Surprise me.

Funny, your last paragraph almost makes it seem like you're into new music. I don't get it. Except you "don't listen to anything." That, actually, makes your whole article make a lot of sense.
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1/21/08

Lazy Critics Who Write for Major Publications

Look. I understand that "classical" concert reviewers are given precious little space and time to submit their material, even in the nation's most prestigious newspapers. Thusly, I am not attacking, specifically, this writer, but the lack of substance of the post, which is endemic of the problem at large. That is to say, I don't necessarily blame the writer. Well, maybe a little.


Here, New York Times reviewer Bernard Holland gives a brief account of a recent recital in Carnegie hall by distinguished pianist Radu Lupu.

Listeners could forget about thematic unity at Radu Lupu’s Carnegie Hall recital on Monday night.

Thank God! I am so sick of thematic unity in concert programs. Wait, what? Is this important? Why would you open your article with this sentiment? Because I totally usually go to the concert review section of the paper with a critical eye towards the thematic unity of the program. Did you see that time that that guy programmed Brahms with Palestrina? Total faux pas. What a rube.

A sold-out house heard Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D (D. 850) before intermission and Debussy’s first book of “Préludes” after it. The Schubert represents the composer’s strenuous efforts to be big-time in the manner of Beethoven. The Debussy is a series of scenes painted by a master.

Okay...different composers from different eras are...different? Also, since Beethoven is clearly infallible and the best composer ever gee whiz, Schubert's "strenuous" [read: failed] efforts are to be "big-time"? "Big-time"? Whoah, stop with your fancy words, there, wordsmith!

If much of Schubert’s best music drifts to the point of sleepwalking, the sonata’s first movement is wide awake, hammering out hard-headed little themes, then massaging them in orderly, Germanic fashion.

Germans love order! And Schubert's best music is totally boring. Soporific, even. However, I will grant kudos for the awesome alliteration of "hammering...hard-headed."

The human touch comes in the lovely echoes that trail after these sharp attacks.

Read those two passages again. Implication: Germans are not human!

The image of Schubert the cuddly tunesmith is deceptive.

Cuddly! Cuddly? Oh, right, he may have been gay! Also, citation needed? Whose image? Oh, the image.

After sufficient lubrication at his tavern of choice, he was not too shy to announce his big ambitions and his qualifications to achieve them.

And drunk! He liked beer. Beer, I tell you! And after drinking, had the courage to...compose? Or: to compose something other than songs? That cuddly tunesmith? Dude, the man wrote like 15 String Quartets, 18 Piano Sonatas, 9 Symphonies (in various states of Finished-ness), and a crapload of other piano, orchestral, and chamber music. Oh, but only when he was drunk. (I need a drink.) Not to mention that the Sonata for Piano in D, D. 850 was composed in 1825 by a mature composer near the end of his (tragically short) life (1797-1828). Oh, those song composers and their wacky aspirations to be Beethoven!

Now: to explicate the ways in which Schubert is not Debussy!

Debussy’s 12 pieces occupy a different world.

Wow! Tell me more, Mr. Expert! I mean, besides that they were composed 85 years apart (Schubert: 1825, Debussy: 1910) in completely different eras, with different tonal resources, by completely different composers.

People who find in them some sort of charming travelogue and little more

Citation needed?

would do well to remember the visual arts, in which mundane subjects are routinely raised beyond their ordinariness.

That is a fair point. In some eras. Certainly, the 19th, and sometimes 20th centuries saw many artists treat mundane subjects to great effect. However, 1910 saw things like this and this. I am not an expert in visual art.

You do not need sonata form to write great music.

And all this time I've been going around saying how Palestrina was an idiot.

Piano sound is a mysterious business, and Mr. Lupu manages to sit at one end of this sizable hall and fill it with color and clarity. There is no sense that he is trying hard to do so; it simply happens. If these two composers speak in different voices, they were unified here by Mr. Lupu’s tender respect for what the written score in each case was asking him to do.

Well put, sir. Also, I respect how you respect Mr. Lupu's respect for the score.

The end of the article is a description of the music using vague adjectives, the sort that my co-blogger Empiricus loves to deride. I won't bother right now. What? I should? Oh, okay, but just one thing.

The glory of the sonata is its slow movement: a long, nostalgic sigh, but one that thrives only if Schubert’s written admonition not to dawdle is observed. Its brief opening phrase occupies a harmonic world of vast and sudden change, offering modulations filled with delight and surprise.

That sounds great! I love the harmonic ambiguity of Romantic music. Delight and surprise are outstanding qualities of this kind of music.

Wait, what's that, Mr. Holland? You have a technical explanation? Outstanding! I love analysis. Are you going to describe how these surprising modulations are achieved? Oh, you'll probably only describe one of them in any detail; you wouldn't want to ostracize your less technically-minded readers. Okay, that's fair.

How Schubert arrives at one place from another with the flick of a raised or lowered tone can be analyzed, but no one else seems to have been able to do it.

Uh, I am pretty sure that's patently false. Oh, wait, you're a critic. Analysis tells us nothing! How dare those intellectual elites tell us how music works?! I just feel it, okay?! Analysis tells us nothing. NOTHING! [yelling, shakes fist at sky, looks vainly for god, head explodes]

To reiterate, in closing:

no one else seems to have been able to do it.

Citation needed?
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1/18/08

Get Well Soon Milwaukee

It occurs to me that I may have been a little unfair towards Strini in the last post. Lord knows, I get a little worked up when people disparage modernism. Their arguments against experimentation tend to be irrational and often hateful. Besides, it’s difficult to summarize the history of music in a couple of sentence fragments. So, in the spirit of fairness, let’s take a quick look at what he says about the Renaissance composers.

Go Strini!

Polyphony, as sung by increasingly expert choirs of monks, becomes enormously complex and increasingly hard to cram into modal theory.

Touché, my fine friend, touché.
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1/17/08

Comments Now Enabled...

Gentle Readers,

Please now feel free to leave comments on our posts. We want to know what you think! And stuff.

Sator Arepo
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R.I.P. Milwaukee

Not so long ago, Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel attempted something admirable—to give concertgoers a brief rundown of musical history so that they wouldn’t be intimidated by the average concert program’s historical baggage. He gives us a few sentences about the main developments of each era, puts them in perspective (via extra-musical events), then lists a few composers of note. Sounds great. Sure. Fine. He even gives us a smart sounding quip so that during intermission (you know, after the Rachmaninov and before the Brahms) we too can hobnob with the white-haired snobs with ease. Presto! I’m an expert. Thanks Strini.

Unfortunately, he runs a red light and his good-natured manual gets blindsided by a hazardous materials rig. And again, the modernists get burned.

MODERNIST
1911-1974


RIP. Poor fellow. Lived only 63 years. Didn’t like him much, though.

In intellectual circles, the tonal system, like God, is dead.

God is dead in intellectual circles. Like the tonal system. Dead. Both of them. They’re both dead. In intellectual circles.

Pulsation and consonance die with it.

With...? The tonal system or God? In intellectual circles: four dead. Six, if you count God as three.

Composers seize on a new intellectual framework (Serialism) or rely on intuition (Impressionism, Expressionism).

Serialist: (bursts into board room) Put your hands up! This is a robbery! We’re taking all the serialism.
Board Member: That seems unfair. What does that leave us?
Serialist: Intuition.

Schoenberg dreams up Serialism in 1911.

1923, jerk. If you really want to have a debate, you'd lose, because it's 1923. Not 1911. When he dreams it up. In 1911, which is wrong. Because it's 1923. Jerk.

This brainy, chilly approach becomes the only intellectually respectable method in Western art music until the 1970’s.

Key figures: Babbitt, Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, (Serialism); Debussy, Satie, Ravel (Impressionism); Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Varese (Expressionism); Barber, Copland, Sibelius, Walton, Vaughn Williams (contrarian Neo-Romantics).

Wow. Seriously, come to think of it, I can’t name one piece from 1911 to 1974 that has tonality, pulsation or consonance. I can’t even name one that has religious overtones. Jesus, he’s right! Modernism did kill God.

Babbitt (mostly twelve-tone)
A Solo Requiem (1977)
From the Psalter (2002)

Schoenberg (half twelve-tone)
Kol Nidre (1938)
Prelude to “Genesis” (1945)
Psalm 130 “De Profundis” (1950)
Modern Psalm (1950, unfinished)
Moses und Aaron (1930/32, unfinished)

Webern (two-thirds twelve-tone)
Op. 15, Five Sacred Songs (1917-22)
Op. 16, Five Canons on Latin Texts (1923-24)
Op. 18, Three Songs (1925)

Debussy (tonal)
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien (1911)

Ravel (tonal)
Saint Francois d’Assise (1909-10, lost)

Stravinky (tonal, more often than not)
The Flood (1962)
Credo (1932)
Symphony of Psalms (1930, rev. 1948)
Ave Maria (1934)
Babel (1944)
Mass (1944-48)
Canticum Sacrum (1955)
A Sermon, a Narrative, a Prayer (1961)
Abraham and Issac (1963)
Introitus (1965)
Requiem Canticles (1966)

Varese (not tonal)
La Procession de Verges (1955)

Barber (mostly tonal)
Prayers of Kierkegaard (1954)
Wondrous Love: Variations on a Shape-note Hymn (1958)
God’s Grandeur (1938)

William Walton (completely tonal)
Te Deum (1961)
Gloria (1961)
Anglican service music, including Missa Brevis and Jubilate Deo (1972)
Set me as a seal upon thine heart (1938)
Cantico del sole (1974)

Vaughn Williams (completely tonal)
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1909-51)
Job, a masque for dancing (1930)
Mass in G minor (1922)
Sancta Civitas (1923-25)
Te Deum (1928)
Benedicte (1929)
Magnificat (1932)
Dona Nobis Pacem (1936)
Festival Te Deum (1937)
Hodie (1954)

Remember, Strini doesn’t cite Ives or Messaien, whose entire catalogues are filled with God music! But he does cite Walton, Vaughn Williams and Barber?!? I’m not an expert here, but, I don’t think just anyone gets knighted by the queen, or buried in Westminster Abbey, or wins two Pulitzer Prizes (at least while alive, anyway) by writing music with an unaccepted method.

And now, perspective...

MODERNIST
1911-1974

In intellectual circles, the tonal system, like God is dead. Pulsation and consonance die with it. Composers seize on a new intellectual framework (Serialism) or rely on intuition (Impressionism, Expressionism). Schoenberg dreams up Serialism in 1911. This brainy, chilly approach becomes the only intellectually respectable method in Western art music until the 1970s.

Key figures: Babbitt, Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, (Serialism); Debussy, Satie, Ravel (Impressionism); Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Varese (Expressionism); Barber, Copland, Sibelius, Walton, Vaughn Williams (contrarian Neo-Romantics).


To sum up Strini’s viewpoint: Modernism consists of intellectuals concerned with intellectual compositional systems, so much so that other composers were silenced, like God, who were not intellectuals. They used intuition instead.

Or put another way: Serialism killed everything anyone ever liked about music.

Or another: Schoenberg, and everyone else who bought into his load of crap, is the devil, because he killed God.

Or another: Intellect—bad.

Let me just say this, that serialism is merely a technique to achieve one’s compositional goal. Nothing more, nothing less. In fact, serialism is sudoku. Simple. A technique. A puzzle. It has very little to do with the outcome, or sound. Christ! Schoenberg’s music, to some (including me), sounds Romantic in nature. This stems from an organizational principle he borrowed from Brahms (a Romantic composer), “developing variation” (a technique). Impressionism and Expressionism, on the other hand, are philosophical movements. Philosophical goddamned movements are not wedded to particular techniques but have a generally similar outcome.

Fuck these writers who think that serialism, or Schoenberg, ruined it for the rest. Webern was relatively unknown during his lifetime. Schoenberg struggled to get performances; he was more of a teacher. Berg, the other in that holy trinity, was the only one to get some notoriety (for a partial performance of Wozzeck). Boulez is known more as a conductor (only a few pieces have made into the history books). Babbitt is a relative hermit. Carter is finally getting some recognition (he’s 100 years old). Who’s even heard of Wolpe, Krenek, Martino, Searle, Sessions or Wourinen? On the flip side, who hasn’t heard of Berstein, Copland, Barber, Hindemith, Vaughn Williams, Holst, Gershwin and Orff? Hipocracy, see?

For that matter, what about all of the other techniques that popped up between “1911 and 1974’? Micropolyphony, microtonality, set-theory, spectral music, indeterminate music, chance, Eastern-influenced, electronic music, etc.? Do they get to participate, Strini? Don't feed me (or anyone else for that matter) this stupid bullshit about how Schoenberg and his "disciples" turned gasoline into goat piss. Tonality, or pretty music, or accessible music, or whatever you want to call it, never really died. It survived. It won awards. People listened. So, that "ivory tower" turns out to be nothing more than an attempt to hide your ignorance. The irony is that you never had to like "atonal" music in the first place. By constructing an "intellectual" wall, you cut yourself off from logical argument, rationalization, objectivity, etc.

For better or worse, as I see it, there is only one common element that binds everyone from this period: a freedom to stay the same or change. Some stayed the same, and some changed (experimented). Schoenberg, to his credit, was merely the straw that stirred the glass. Or, if you prefer, Debussy (whose most famous works were written well before 1911). Change happens.

Grand Finale:

Smart remark: “Modernism had two general streams, one essentially French, sunny and sensual. The other was essentially German, dark and ascetic. It took 60 years, but the French, for once, won.”

“Modernist” American Composers not cited, making this statement utterly absurd:

Charles Ives
Herny Cowell
Harry Partch
Ruth Crawford Seeger
Goerge Antheil
Walter Piston
Amy Beach
Leonard Bernstein
John Cage
Elliot Carter
Lou Harrison
Alan Hovhaness
Roger Sessions
Ralph Shapey
James Tenney
Morton Feldman
Earle Brown
Christian Wolff
Cornelius Cardew
Mario Davidovsky
Lukas Foss
Roy Harris
Ben Johnston
Gian Carlo Menotti (Italian-born)
Conlon Nancarrow (lived in Mexico)
Vincent Persichetti
Gunther Schuller
Joseph Schwantner
Virgil Thompson
Carl Ruggles
William Schuman


Other Nationalities:

Zoltan Kodaly (Hungarian)
Gyorgy Ligeti (Hungarian)
Luciano Berio (Italian)
Luigi Dallapiccola (Italian)
Carlos Chavez (Mexican)
Manuel de Falla (Spanish)
Witold Luoslawski (Polish)
Krzysztof Penderecki (Polish)
Luigi Nono (Italian)
Iannis Xenakis (Romanian-Greek)
Sergei Prokofiev (Russian)
Benjamin Britten (English)
Michael Tippet (English)

etc., etc., etc.

So, if you go up to one of the aged white-haired orchestra patrons and repeated Strini’s wity ice-breaker as if you were an expert...

MODERNIST SCHOLAR
1974-2008

RIP. Poor fellow. Only thirty-four years old. What a shame. And to go like that. Shoulda seen it coming. Didn’t like him much, though.
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1/16/08

How to make Barber's "Andromache's Farewell"

This painful recipe is an American take on the classic German-Greek dish. “It’s underlying form is conventional (Mozart would have spotted it instantly), yet Barber joins it to the [original Greek] text with consummate ingenuity.” The ingredients are the same: one soprano and one orchestra. When done right (“with vitality”), the main ingredient (the soprano) is painted “at the extremity of pain and suffering.” The soprano will “sound energized by all this unrestrained fury,” which will "bite off consonants with barely concealed ferocity.” But, at the same time, the orchestra will match the soprano “punch for punch,” culminating in a “...raw dramatic set piece, [consisting of] all anguish and fervent outbursts.”


Ingredients

One Soprano, “crisp” with “vocal power” and “nervous energy” (if possible, choose a Deborah Voigt)
One Large Orchestra, with a “forward-pushing” Michael Tilson Thomas (best found in the San Francisco region of California)

1 tsp. “Lament”
1 tsp. “Accusation”
1 tsp. “Pathos”
1 tsp. “Outcry”


In a large concert hall, bring the orchestra to rage (“the first few minutes”), while the “soprano contributes comparatively restrained snippets of recitative.” Then, “as the scene continues, the [soprano and the orchestra] reach out to one another, as if in sympathy – first in a stretch of lyrical melody, then in increasingly unhinged bursts of dramatic frenzy.” Next, “gradually [bring] the orchestra and singer into phase with one another,” until a “fever pitch” so that it “still has room for dramatic maneuvering.” Gradually stir in “lament, accusation, pathos, and outcry.” Let rage for "a terse 11 minutes" or until “lament, accusation, pathos and outcry” are all explored in various ways. Serve sporadically.

This nefarious recipe may be paired with Oliver Knussen, Richard Strauss, or an even-numbered Beethoven Symphony.

Empiricus: Oh. So that's how you compose.
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1/15/08

Guess! That! Piece!

Studio Announcer: From the Detritus Review, here in beautiful Burbank, California, this is (audience shouting) Guess! That! Piece!


Empiricus: This is how to play. I will give you the name of a composer and three phrases that describe one of his/her works. All you have to do is (audience) Guess! That! Piece!

There will be three rounds with one clue each. The faster you guess that piece, the better the prize.

Are you ready?

Contestant: Oh I'm ready, Empiricus. I've studied music all my life.

Empiricus: Then get the clock ready. Here we go!

The composer is Dvorak. Dvorak.

This piece is said to be "ever-ingratiating" and "sun dappled."

Contestant: ... (tick, tock, tick, tock)

Empiricus: Moving on. If this piece's first three notes are stretched out to delicious effect, this piece has "a hint of wistful nostalgia."

Contestant: ... (tick, tock, tick)

Empiricus: Okay, final clue. Ready?

Contestant: Mmm, hmm.

Empiricus: This piece's lyrical moments may have a "lovely shine," a "lovely shine."

Contestant: You know Empiricus, I don't think I know. So, I'll just start listing pieces I know Dvorak wrote... in chronological order.

Empiricus: Better hurry. Time's running out.

Contestant: Okay, um... Polka Pomnenka? Mass in Bb major? Polka in E major? Harfenice? Polka? Galop? String Quintet in a minor? String Quartet in A major? Symphony Number 1? Cello Concerto Number 1? Cyprise? Symphony Number 2? Dve pisne pro baryton? Clarinet Quintet in Bb minor? Meziaktni skladby? Serenade? Alfred? Tragic Overture? String Quartet Number 2? String Quartet Number 3? Strin...

Empiricus: Five...

Contestant: String Quartet Number 4? Cello So...

Empiricus: Four...

Contestant: nata? Kral a uhlir?

Empiricus: Three...

Contestant: (sweating) Overture in F major? Piano Quint...

Empiricus: Two...

Contestant: ...et, Symphony Number 3?

Empiricus: One...

Contestant: String Quartet Number Five?

(BZZZT!)

Empiricus: Time's up! Sorry contestant. You were not able to Guess! That! Piece! Let's find out the answer, shall we? What is ever-ingratiating, sun dappled with a hint of wistful nostalgia and lovely shine? ...(sign flips over, lights up) Dvorak's Eighth Symphony (whanh, whanh, whanh sound)...the eighth symphony.

Unfortunately, we have to take a look at what you could have won. (doors open) A week-long vacation to Tuscany! (audience: awwwwww). A forty-inch plasma screen TV! (awww) A degree from the Devry School of Journalism! (applause) That's too bad. I'm sure you would've enjoyed the Italian countryside.

Well, you'll be happy to know, since you almost got last week's piece, you'll be able to come back for the tournament of champions next March. Good luck, contestant. See you then.

Well, that's all the time we have for now at (audience) Guess! That! Piece!From all of us here at The Detritus Review, good night. See you next time! (exit music)

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Viewer turns to Wife: Honey, let's go see Dvorak's Eighth. I like to be sun dappled and I like wistful nostalgia.

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[Edit: Empiricus] It seems that the link to the original source has been lost. Sorry.