2/29/08

Composer of the Day!

Today’s composer of the day is Morton Feldman.

(1926-1987)

He was thick and wore thick glasses, sometimes covered by greasy, brown hair. He had a thick Brooklyn accent.

His music is sun-dappled. He tried out graph notation, but ended up opting for traditional looking scores. Little known, he also made use of serialist procedures. His music is often confused with minimalism, but it never really repeats. The music is very long and very quiet. John Cage was a good friend. So was Mark Rothko.

Here’s a link to his cool piece, For Stephan Wolpe (you’ll need realPlayer to listen to it; there’s a download link on the page, if you need it). It’s about thirty minutes long, but well worth your time.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Fred Orton and Gavin Bryars, taken from Morton Feldman Says, edited by Chris Villars, who also runs a website devoted to Morton Feldman stuff.

Fred Orton: You once referred to the ‘terror’ inherent in the teachings of Boulez and Stockhausen.

Morton Feldman: Yes. The terror is that you have to have an idea, while with me my ideas came out of the piece. ‘Idea’ became the new myth for that old word ‘inspiration’. If I was going to wait for an idea to write a piece I’d go out of my mind, I’d commit suicide. But it’s a very important terror that the piece has to be good, that it has to make sense, that it has to go somewhere, it has to exploit the materials, you have to use up its potential, it has to feed on itself, that it has to be something.

In his essay, called The Future of Local Music, Feldman sums up his position on many things.

IX. There is a marvelous story about Duchamp and an art student in San Francisco many years ago. Duchamp goes to this art school and he sees this kind of tough, macho San Francisco painter and Duchamp looks at this picture he doesn’t know. He says to the fellow, “What are you doing?” And the painter says, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” Duchamp pats him on the back and says, “Keep up the good work!”

You should listen to his music. Seriously.
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Ooh! I Like Music

I was reading today’s article, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, by Pierre Ruhe about the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s concertmistress Cecylia Arzewski. She’s retiring, which is a bummer. However, towards the end, there’s a link—a double-underlined, green link with the word “music.” Ooh! I thought to myself. I like music. Let’s see where this link directs me.

Here’s the article. Now click on the link in the article, the one that says “music.”

That made me sad, which is why I’m writing about it. It's also why I'm linking this standard American expression of sadness. Did it make you sad, too?

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Addendum: I am sorry to report that the hilariously stupid link has been removed by an editor less than a day later. Someone actually cares.

If you missed it, you were supposed to click on "music" and it directed you to an advertisement for Intel. Stupid and sad, huh?

But I'm not so sad anymore.

Addendum II: I am happily sad again! For some reason, the funny link doesn't like it when it's linked from here. So, in order to witness this absurdity, simply click this then navigate to the article entitled, "Star violinist Arzewski bows out from ASO in style." It'll be happily sad.
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Up a River with No Dance

The Chicago Sun-Times is really having trouble finding places to put things. Yesterday it was the iTunes thing. Today it’s the Chieftains. Notice, at the top-left, what section you’re in.

Chieftains and guests to play Sunday concert

So it’s being played at the Symphony Center. See them in action. What of it? That doesn’t mean that it should be filed under “classical.” If I were the type of person who liked the Chieftains, I wouldn’t look under “classical” to find them. Would you?

I suggest the “bars and clubs” section. Get it? An Irish stereotype. Whew that was fun.
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2/28/08

An Ethicist Extraordinaire and Poulenc Is a Drunken Ape!

We’ve only scratched the surface of ClassicsToday.com, the “online guide to classical music.” The Detritus Review has had some cheap laughs at Executive Editor David Hurwitz’s expense. But there are many, many other contributors.

One such regular contributor is composer, teacher and blogger Daniel Felsenfeld.

Before we get to him, however, I’d like to point out a few things. Classics Today (CT) is, in itself, a wonderful idea. For our benefit, CT rates recordings on two facets, each on a scale from 1 to 10, performance quality and recording quality. According to their review philosophy, found here, they believe that

the performance rating far outweighs the significance of the sound rating.

I would agree. If I were a critic. You can’t dismiss great performances from yesteryear because they didn’t have digital technology.

The best recordings are those in which a listener’s attention is primarily drawn to the music itself. Great sound adds to your enjoyment of the music, bad sound interferes with it.

I applaud their philosophy.

The problem with any rating system, however cleverly devised, is that it tends to place undue emphasis on differences that ultimately may be trivial at best, and misleading or inconsistent at worst. The standard of classical music performance today is relatively high, and the difference between say, a 9 and a 10 may be self-evident to the critic, but either inaudible or irrelevant to another reviewer or to individual listeners. For this reason, whenever possible and appropriate, we include with each review a "reference recording" of the music in question.

Fair and Balanced, if I may use a registered trademark.

You should feel no compulsion to agree with our critics; in fact, disagreeing is equally important, because the ultimate purpose of ClassicsToday.com is to enable you to find the music and recordings that suit your personal taste.

Thank you. I will disagree when I have sufficient cause.

CT elaborates on how we can find recordings that suit our tastes:

by taking the advice of the critics you find sympathetic, and by ignoring the advice of the ones whose perspective leaves you cold.

Sympathetic or cold to my tastes, my perspectives. Good enough, I suppose; it’s a perfectly cromulent foundation for an online site that reviews classical music.

CT even wishes us

Happy Listening!

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Then there is Daniel Felsenfeld.

Listening to the piano music of Salvatore Sciarrino, I was reminded of Truman Capote's excoriation of Kerouac's On the Road: "That's not writing, it's just typing." This is not composing, it's just notating.

On an unsanctioned, imaginary scale from 0 to 0 for compositional quality, Felsenfeld gives this a -i, which is neither here nor there, because the scale doesn’t exist, in this world or his, or Truman Capote’s, which is pretty weird and smoky. Very weird and smoky.

Aside from the early (1983) Sonata II, which is not un-beautiful with its flurrying filigree against dark, lush chords (in a fearlessly heavy-handed live performance by Shai Wosner), these pieces are almost completely devoid of interest.

“Not unbeautiful.” Not unbackhanded.

I was under the impression that by coming to this site, we’d get a fair and balanced review of a newly released recording, based on the quality of performance and sound. Unfortunately, I think that the pieces were so bad, so devoid of interest, that Felsenfeld decided that the most ethical thing to do was to take preventative action by breaking the philosophical bylaws of CT. The ends justify the means. It’s like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We had to do it. Just had to.

Sciarrino has only two gestures at his disposal: the plink and the thunk, with variations of course (such as the ker-plink and the ka-thunk).

Unless you’re John Cage or an imitation, that’s all the piano does: plink and thunk, and the like.

What if I was already a huge fan of Salvatore Sciarrino? Felsenfeld’s crusade won’t be successful. He’s just making this difficult on himself.

The pianists--Nicolas Hodges, Oscar Pizzo, and the aforementioned Shai Wosner--no doubt give committed and accurate readings,

Hey, hey! The performance sounds good. There. Was that so difficult?

but who can know in material this muddled?

Yes. It’s that difficult.

Ultimately, what could have been interesting and artful sounds like Poulenc played by a drunken ape.

Poulenc is a drunken ape! And Liszt has limp noodles!

I was defending Schoenberg's piano music to a student of mine some years ago, a non-musician who after hearing Op. 23 said "I could do that." I led her to the piano and made her try, and she found it not so easy.

You’re so understanding. And you stood up for Schoenberg. What a guy. What an ethical guy.

If she happens to be reading this review, perhaps Sciarrino would be a better place to start. This she can probably do.

Gross. I thought I was supposed to hear something about how it sounded.

Anyways (rolls eyes sarcastically)...

Felsenfeld even gave this recoding a score, because he had to. Let’s see. Oh! A three for performance and a nine for sound quality. That review sounds cold to my tastes.
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File It under... "Who Cares?"

We get it. Classical music is dead. The only people who still listen to it have white hair. They probably don’t even know how to use the inter-world-wide webs, which is why you’ll find this prominently filed under “classical”:

iTunes takes bigger slice of music pie

It informs us that music sales are down, CDs are yesterday’s cassettes, and iTunes is gaining popularity.

Where’s my daily allowance of North Korean poetic waxing? Where can I find some good hatred of new music? Where’s the content related to classical music?!

What? There is none? Fine. Just shove this in there instead—nobody’ll notice.

Well, Mr. Editor, I noticed. And I would like an apology. I accept Diners Club and American Express.
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2/26/08

Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day! is Bedřich Smetana.

(1824-1884)

Smetana was a Bohemian (modern-day Czech Republic) composer. He is associated with the 19th century Nationalist movement.

This means, essentially, two things. First, his music was sometimes based on folk and national music from his...nation. Second, much of his music is about Bohemia (or Czechoslovakia), in one way or another. This includes topics about traditional Bohemian stories or folk heroes and stuff like that.

His most famous piece is a series of symphonic poems about Bohemia called "Má Vlast" (My Fatherland). Also famous is his opera "The Bartered Bride", the overture to which is often performed in symphony programs today. He wrote many other operas, and lots of symphonic music.

Lesser known are his chamber works, which are more biographical in nature. Or so the story goes.

He died in an insane asylum in Prague. He had a progressive neurological disease (possibly tinnitus). Back then, anyone with a neurological disease was deemed insane, I guess. Oh, well!

You can check out some music here and here and here.

Most importantly, perhaps, his name translates roughly to "Fred Sour Cream". Which is awesome.

You should listen to his music!
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Exciting Economic Report

Before I get going, I need to apologize for two things. One, I try to make it a policy to only go after music critics who write reviews (or, as in the previous post, critics who make “liberal” use of the word review)—those who write for major daily newspapers. Unfortunately, I stumbled across this clunker, which is from an opinion blog associated with the L.A. Times. However, its author, Tim Cavanaugh, is widely respected for his political blog and opinions; so I don’t feel that bad. And this time, he says some strange things about music. Second, I don’t like going after the blogs of bloggers. But, I can’t resist. So I’m forgoing ethics, just this once, hopefully. Sorry.

I’m sure that it goes without saying that music, especially “classical” music, is not terribly profitable, which forces or, more likely, directs composers to seek financial stability in academia. Tim Cavanaugh has a problem with this, as I do. But not for the same reasons.

Sound of money: free-market economies and long-hair music

Longhair does not need to be hyphenated. But I don’t care about that, this time. What’s important is that we’re going to discuss the free-market. Is it good for “classical” music? Is it bad? Something along those lines, anyway.

KUSC ran a richest-classical-composer feature a few days ago, which drew its top-10 list from a 2005 survey by a U.K. radio station.

There’s a link to this in Tim’s blog. In it, the survey adjusts composers’ salaries and commissions for inflation. Its purpose, to simply compare financial success among composers across different eras. And to Tim’s surprise some names were absent.

It's unlikely the numbers — which were apparently calculated in adjusted currencies — have changed much since then, so here's the list:

1. George Gershwin
2. Johann Strauss II

3. Giuseppe Verdi

4. Gioachino Rossini

5. George Frideric Handel

6. Joseph Haydn

7. Sergei Rachmaninoff

8. Giacomo Puccini

9. Niccolò Paganini

10. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


Why is this interesting (to me at any rate)? Because longhair music is pretty much universally recognized as an art form that can't compete in an open market and must be supported through royal or (these days) public patronage. Yet this list is remarkable for the lack of patronage its members enjoyed.


A thesis! Financially successful composers were antithetical to general economic knowledge.

All but two of the composers on the list date to the industrial revolution or afterward, and the two who came earlier than that — Haydn and Handel — did plenty of lucrative for-profit work in Britain, which boasted the most liberal economy in Europe. Verdi, Rossini and Puccini were all piece-work producers who were less interested in pleasing the royal ear than in filling up the house with paying customers. Paganini and "Waltz King" Strauss were expert self-promoters and brand builders, Rachmaninoff made much of his fortune on recordings and performances, and Gershwin made it to the top of the list strictly by producing music for a large popular audience. I'm not sure he ever got a dime of public support.

For the most part, I agree with the above analysis. Those composers were, and still are, financially successful. These guys filled seats; in some cases, to do so, they pandered.

By comparison, Richard Wagner, another 19th-century rock star with a long list of patrons and supporters including a king who built the composer his own mansion and theme-park/mini-city, didn't make the list. That's a special irony given how massively popular Wagner was and still is, not just in opera houses but throughout the popular culture.

He is still popular, to a degree. What are we supposed to learn from this?

You could counter that money earned is no indication of musical achievement,

Yes. I could counter with that. But, then again, we weren’t talking about musical achievement. We were talking about how financially successful composers did not require patronage, thus bucking common knowledge off its horse.

and that wastrels like Wolfgang Mozart and Franz Schubert, or humble workers like J.S. Bach, would top a list of actual composing value.

They would. (I think “wastrel” is a little archaic. Don’t you?) So give some counterpoint, buddy boy.

True enough, but hardship and poverty are the default positions of human existence.

Like Jeb and his comatose brother.

It's success that's the unusual thing,

“Financial” success, not success, which we already knew, and agreed upon.

and the numbers here indicate [financial] success becomes a little more likely in a profit-centered environment.

In other words, in order to make a lot of money, i.e. be “financially” successful, you should focus on making a profit. Those words of wisdom would moisten Benjamin Graham’s eyes.

Interestingly, Gershwin and Rachmaninoff, who both died before the middle of the 20th century, are the most recent names on the list. Audience indifference has since encouraged classical composers to avoid the uncertainty of the marketplace;

There have always been only a few composers who wee able to make a living solely by composing—the lucky ones, like John Adams. Hell, even Beethoven taught piano lessons.

but maybe all those composers with academic sits would have been better off trying to make a bigger buck.

Again, his point: if you want to make a bigger buck, try to make a bigger buck. Foolproof! How come no one ever thought of this before?

What I find funny, though, is that many of the composers on the list wouldn’t necessarily be financially successful today, much less “in the canon,” without the exploitation of their music in commercials, television shows or movies.

So, I’d like to try an experiment. Guess the piece that I have linked with the composer. Are you correct? Have you it heard before? If so, where?

1. George Gershwin
2. Johann Strauss II
3. Guiseppe Verdi
4. Gioachino Rossini
5. George Frideric Handel
6. Joseph Haydn
7. Sergei Rachmaninoff
8. Giacomo Puccini
9. Niccolò Paganini
10. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Were you right? Okay, I admit that the Haydn is tough, and I could have found a better Rachmaninoff (but Shine crossed your mind, didn’t it?). Either way, can you think of a second melody by these guys? In some cases, I’m very hard pressed to do so. Now how about Beethoven, the financially crippled piano teacher? Of course you can.

I'm not entirely sure what I'm saying, except that the free-market influences the canon. And one hit wonders like Rachmaninoff, Leoncavallo and Pachabell benefit.
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The Detritus Review: Off-Topic! (Sort of.)

Detritus’ first ever, and perhaps only, pop-related post! Apologies, but I could not let this shit go.

A critic for Maxim magazine (they have music criticism? Jesus!) has been taken to task for his review of the new Black Crowes album.

I wonder why? Surely Maxim upholds the highest standards of journalistic integrity (in between pages of soft-core porn). Who gets their music reviews from a crappy frat-boy skin rag, anyway? (From Yahoo!):

The review in Maxim's March issue gives the Crowes' "Warpaint" a rating of two-and-a-half stars out of five. The band posted an exasperated statement on its Web site last week saying the Maxim writer hadn't heard the entire album because advance copies weren't available.

He…could not have listened to the whole album. Because he didn’t have it. And yet, he published a review? What was he thinking?

The Crowes' manager, Pete Angelus, said the magazine explained that its review was an "educated guess."

Wow. I…wow. That is some fucked up shit right there.

Maxim editorial director James Kaminsky responded Tuesday with this statement: "It is Maxim's editorial policy to assign star ratings only to those albums that have been heard in their entirety.”

Really? That’s your policy? Because it kind of seems like common fucking sense to me.

“Unfortunately, that policy was not followed in the March 2008 issue of our magazine and we apologize to our readers."

That is unfortunate. Perhaps “readers” is also a mischaracterization.

Maybe we in the "classical" music world don't have it so bad after all.

For He's a Jolly Good Fellow!

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe has never been directly in the Detritus spotlight, until today! Congratulations, Jeremy! We knew you could do it.

What exactly did he do? He swiped his Charley Ticket on the Green Line, got off at Copley Square, skipped up the magnificent steps of the Boston Public Library, and found the biggest, oldest and dustiest dictionary known to mankind, closed his eyes, opened to a random page and (eyes closed) pointed to a random word. He then triumphantly skittered home and ferociously typed this lovely adjective-noun pairing.

...interstitial tenderness...

It was something the encores had,

making it clear that [Alfred] Brendel was in no particular hurry to leave the stage.

Goodbye Alfred and HEL-LOOOOOOOO Jeremy!

Seriously, take it easy Alfred.
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2/25/08

Music Theorist of the...Week?

Today's Music Theorist of the...Week? is Heinrich Schenker.

(1868-1935)

Schenker developed a reductive form of linear analysis of tonal music that aims to show the structural basis of tonality.

Think of it as a line graph that shows the organization of a painting. Or, if you prefer, think of it as a plot synopsis of a play or movie that shows the important structural events.

The basic idea is that the background of tonal "masterworks" are all structured about simple voice-leading principles. An hour-long Beethoven symphony, to Schenker, has the same principles of design as a Schubert song. This both makes sense and is confusing.

Many of Schenker's students fled Europe in face of Nazi invasions. They all landed in New York or New England, and got jobs all over the place, and thusly his ideas have been disseminated throughout the American music theory landscape. (No one in Europe studies Schenker.)

His ideas are profound and important. I have been forced to study them on more than one occasion. When you do, you make lots of graphs that look like this:

This is very confusing to the uninitiated. Sorry!

His theories are cool. And esoteric, which is also cool. He is also problematic in many ways. He refused to acknowledge music that was before Bach and after Brahms as "music". He was a bigot. He had many hard-to-deal-with ideas.

In the end, his structural ideas about tonal music are compelling. The graphs are fun to make, and to look at! And hard to understand. Here is a picture of Mr. Schenker that is not fun to look at.


You should not listen to his music! However, if you are interested in nerdy, esoteric music theory, you should check out his theory and graphs. They are totally fun to look at.

(All of the graphs get bigger if you click on them!)
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Hyphens and New Music!

How to make modern music user friendly

Once again, someone’s style sheet forbids capitalization in titles. Why? Also, “user-friendly” should likely be hyphenated. (See previous post….)

However, this is exciting! We’re going to learn to do what the title promises, I hope. If not, I will be disappointed. And probably sarcastic.

The promising yet still-nascent state of Miami's modern-music scene is evident by the fact that many of its most adventurous events are presented by universities and their affiliates.

Minor points in re: hyphens: “Modern-music”? I think you mean “modern music”? “Still-nascent” is…fine. But it sounds like “stillborn”. Which is creepy.

A worthy example is Sara Laimon's compelling piano recital Thursday night at the Wolfsonian-FIU in Miami Beach, which offered a trio of contemporary works spanning three generations of composers.

By “is” I think you mean “was”, because “offered” is past tense. Also considering that the concert took place [last] Thursday. Nitpicking. But still excited? How are we going to make modern-music user friendly? Or modern music user-friendly? Whichever.

A founder and co-artistic director of the New York-based experimental music group Sequitur, Laimon is an extraordinary musician with a prodigious technique allied to a communicative precision well suited to this music and evident in her user-friendly spoken introductions.

“Well-suited” should also have a hyphen, I think. But now we’ve got our “user-friendly” hyphen. At least you’re not consistent!

Are the “user-friendly” spoken introductions how we’re going to make modern music user-friendly? I can’t wait to find out!

Cast in seven sections, Brian Cherney's In the Stillness of the Seventh Autumn is loosely inspired by words of Debussy and T. S. Eliot, with music meant to evoke an open-ended mystery. Cherney fuses Impressionist elements with 21st century edge, as with isolated ''thudded'' notes, in which Laimon manually mutes the piano strings. There are aggressive outbursts, but a peaceful, limpid atmosphere predominates. The Canadian composer's work utilizes the entire keyboard, and Laimon made all the turbulence, subtle hues and stark effects register incisively with extraordinary focus.

You should meet my friend Empiricus. He loves adjective-laden phrases. I, on the other hand, love correct hyphen usage!

Harold Meltzer's Piano Sonata is likely the first work written in 2008 to be heard on the local music scene. The Brooklyn-born Meltzer is co-artistic director of Sequitur with Laimon, for whom this work was written. His Sonata was inspired by Cezanne's use of light and shade and effectively mines three-part sonata form with a graceful merging of tradition and contemporary style.

“Three-part” = well done! Still waiting for the explanation about the user-friendly thing, though.

There's a motoric, Prokofiev-like driving energy but also a distinctly American feel. Meltzer's sonata suggests early Copland in its spiky, acerbic writing, yet there's a compelling individuality in its quickly shifting meters, jazz-flavored syncopations and hushed coda. Meltzer, who was in attendance Thursday, will have his Piano Concerto premiered next month by Ursula Oppens with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

I see a Mad Lib in your future! What about the…

At 83, Ezra Laderman was the most veteran composer represented. Written in 2002, his Piano Sonata No. 3 is an epic work, spanning about 50 minutes in three movements, with a middle part of 10 shorter sections.

…user-friendly…

The opening Fantasia switches expressive gears, going from violent outbursts to an uneasy, pensive calm. The final movement is a set of variations that grows increasingly agitated with moments of hard-won solace, closing with a quiet air of resigned transcendence.

...you were saying that we can make modern music…

Laderman withdrew the sonata's subtitle The Circus of My Mind, yet it's hard to avoid the feeling that this vast, varied central movement amounts in large part to a bracing self-portrait, given such descriptive titles as ''Mercurial,'' ''Forceful, Brusque,'' and ''Driven and Impetuous.'' Laimon showed complete mastery of this sprawling music in a tour-de-force performance that was alive to its brooding reflection as well as forcefully articulating in the bravura pages.

…user-friendly. Did you forget? Surely not. Surely your final paragraph will clear everything up!

Kathleen Wilson, FIU's new director of music, is a committed contemporary-music advocate, and perhaps such one-off events as Thursday's could be expanded into a mini-series of modern piano and chamber music at the Wolfsonian, with its intimate venue offering the perfect setting.

Is…is it the perfect setting that makes modern music user-friendly? Or the spoken introductions? One-off? Mini-series? Contemporary-music? Really? Ugh.

Oh, I get it. It’s hyphens. Sigh.

Socrates on Virtuosity!

A stunning discovery was unveiled on Sunday, when an unknown Socratic dialogue by Plato was revealed by the New York Times. The dialogue (like most) is named for Socrates’ interlocutor, in this case one Sator Arepo. Also, like most Platonic dialogues, it focuses on the definition of a common word that, under Socratic scrutiny, is harder to pin down than previously thought.

An Introspective Shade of Virtuosity*

Sator Arepo: Tell me, O Socrates, what is virtuosity? Is it technically adept playing, good interpretation, or something else?

Socrates: We tend to think of virtuosity as the musical equivalent of an extreme sport: lots of fast, loud, bravura passages that show off finger power and agility, ideally with enough originality in the phrasing to make the performance seem more than just whiz-bang display.

Sator Arepo: Yes! “Whiz-bang” playing is how I think of virtuosity. But also with musicality, I hope!? Is there a virtuosity of interpretation too?

Socrates: But in his recital at the Rose Theater on Wednesday evening, the pianist Christian Zacharias argued that virtuosity comes in other forms as well, most notably as an expression of patient introspection.

Sator Arepo: “Patient introspection” seems to me to be the…opposite of virtuosity. It is not showing off. It is good musicianship. I like that. But I am confused. Can you elucidate, O Socrates? This seems counterintuitive.

Socrates: That may seem counterintuitive, but some of Mr. Zacharias’s most electrifying playing was graceful and understated, with commanding gradations of tension.

Sator Arepo: The electrifying playing was…understated playing? Surely you are trying to catch me in a contradiction, as is your wont, Socrates.

Socrates: This was certainly true of his account of Schumann’s “Kinderszenen.” These are gentle pieces at heart, and Mr. Zacharias addressed most with a light touch…

Sator Arepo: That sounds very musical and wonderful. But, Socrates, is that virtuosity?

Socrates: …that defined fantasy in terms of dreaminess.

Sator Arepo: It did what now? The…light touch defined…fantasy…in terms of dreaminess? O Socrates, what are we talking about again?

Socrates: But he also acknowledged that straightforward simplicity was not an effect Schumann could sustain for long, and even in the most nostalgic pieces he supplied a restless undercurrent that was true to Schumann’s spirit.

Sator Arepo: Mr. Zacharias acknowledged, by means of his virtuosity, that Schumann could not…sustain straightforward simplicity. Is that right, Socrates?

Socrates: It was subtle, more a matter of a slightly rushed figure or the accenting of a chromatic line. But it was impossible to miss.

Sator Arepo: You are losing me, O Socrates. What is the antecedent to the “it” in these two sentences? Is it “the restless undercurrent” that he supplied? You seem to imply that interpretation, and not merely technical brilliance, can be virtuostic. Is that right? Because I am on that trireme!

Socrates: Mr. Zacharias was more expansive in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in E flat.

Sator Arepo: He was…more expansive? Is this about avoirdupois?

Socrates: If you think in terms of crowd pleasers, this early sonata, normally heard only when a pianist undertakes the full cycle, was an odd choice.

Sator Arepo: It was an odd choice…of programming? If I think in terms of crowd pleasers? I try not to think in terms of crowd pleasers. I also think that “crowd-pleasers” might be better hyphenated. Virtuosity is crowd-pleasing? Usually? Is that what you’re saying?

Socrates: But it was the perfect work to share the first half with the Schumann. All the feverish anxiety that drives Schumann’s piano music has its roots here, particularly in the remarkably idiosyncratic slow movement, with its sudden, brusque chords and unprepared (and unresolved) dissonances nestled amid hymnlike themes.

Sator Arepo: Was the playing or the interpretation virtuostic, O Socrates? Both? Neither? Was the choice of programming virtuostic?

Socrates: After intermission Mr. Zacharias offered a dozen Scarlatti sonatas that pointed up this composer’s cosmopolitan breadth. Some works, like the Sonatas in G (K. 91c) and G minor (K. 4), offer Apollonian refinement, with hints of French and Italian style. By contrast, the Sonata in C (K. 132), with its rolled chords and flamenco-tinged progressions, is as Spanish as anything by Albéniz. Mr. Zacharias played these short works with energy and clarity, but as in the Schumann, power was tempered by elegance.

Sator Arepo: Virtuosity is power tempered by elegance. Virtuosity is power tempered by elegance? I like that, but is that what you mean, Socrates? Socrates? No, that’s hemlock!...

*(I really, really want to read this as a Procol Harum reference.)

K-blapinablapinablapinablap

My head just got a flat tire trying to read this one, edited by Johnny Walker.

This the quartet romped through dressed in pirate-like garb and with heavy reliance on a small repertoire of sight gags.

Fortunately, I wasn’t left stranded nor was it all for naught. Johnny Walker previously informed me that the Red Priest Quartet specializes in spoofing baroque music, hence the pirate-like garb—I was ready for the pirate thing. The positive part, however, was when my friendly AA repairperson dispelled any leftover confusion by informing me that when critics refer to a cellist’s “snarling,” it really means “continuo.”

Cellist Angela East, who spent most of the evening unenviably assigned to cellistic snarling, [etc.].

Click here for an example of some snarling (pay close attention to the snarling bass and cello). See? No longer baroque–en down!

Ha!
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2/24/08

Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Anton Webern.

(1883-1945)

Webern was an Austrian composer, a student of Schoenberg, and a fascinating figure. Little known in his lifetime, he was revered by the post-war serialist school of composers.

His music tends to be short and dense, with compact expressive gestures. He was very sensitive to timbre, and much of his work is concerned with minute changes in tone color.

He was killed, accidentally, at the end of World War II. He was shot at his brother-in-law's house by an American security officer when he went out to smoke a cigar. Oops!

As noted, his compositions tended, increasingly, to be very short. His entire oeuvre is on three CDs. Some pieces span less than a minute. His Symphony, Op. 21 is less than 9 minutes long.

At first a late Romantic expressionist, he soon turned to atonality, and then to Schoenberg's 12-tone serial system of composition. Arguably, he was a stricter adherent to the system than either Schoenberg or his other famous student, Alban Berg.

I find his music fascinating and rich. Some people hate it. It is dense and often challenging, but (I assert) ultimately extremely rewarding. He was interested in Renaissance music (he wrote his dissertation on it) and intertwined its complex canonic and contrapuntal forms into his modernist idiom. Palindromes abound! Which is awesome.

I recommend the Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9 as an example of his early atonal style. And the Variations for Piano, Op. 27 as a good example of his later serial style.

Here and here and here you can listen to some music.

You should listen to his music. (He is a personal favorite; if you read this space regularly, you'll note that he's often attacked and maligned.)
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Musical Adjective Mad Lib: Extreme Expert Level

Warning: this one is not for the feint of heart nor pregnant women.

Arrange the extracted adjectives into their appropriate places. One might be able to convince me that a cash reward is appropriate for the person(s) who correctly answers this puzzle.

No hints, sorry.

atmospheric
bold
brooding
compelling
complex
emotional
exquisite
fantastical
frolicking
intoxicating
jagged
memorable
nervous
purest
skittish
soft
sunny
troubled
weighty

Among the many _______ ingredients of the evening was the impossibly _______, _______ lightness of being that [the pianist] provoked in the partitas, opening and closing the program. As well, his ability to illuminate the _______ extremes of the _______ Humoreske—a journey from _______ tenderness and _______ simplicity to _______ darkness and _______ animation—was captivating. Most striking, however, was [the pianist’s] _______ take on his countryman’s _______ Masques, a(n) _______ —yet highly structured—exploration of _______ and _______ psyches. In Scheherezade, the first of the work’s three _______ movements, [the pianist] beautifully played the _______ themes into and against each other, whereas in the Clown Tantris movement, he shifted gears to fully voice its _______, _______ and rhythmically _______ constitution.

Good luck! The answer will be posted after a day or two.
-

Merdle and Haggard

Scene I

(Merdle at the breakfast table; enter Haggard)

Merdle: Good morning sleepy face! How’d sleep last night?

Haggard: (yawn, wipes crusties from eyes) Fantastic. I love sleeping in on Saturdays.

M: What can I getcha for breakfast? Some coffee?

H: Sounds good. Can I have some eggs, too?

M: How’d you like ‘em?

H: Sunny-side up, please. Thanks sweetheart. Oh! And I see you already got the paper.

M: Yeah. I was thinking we could do something this afternoon.

H: Yeah, what? (yawn)

M: We haven’t been to the movies in a while.

H: Oh! You know what else we haven’t done in a while? Go see the symphony.

M: Perfect. That sounds cool. We haven’t seen them in almost a year. See if there are any good concerts today; I haven’t gotten that far in the entertainment section. Would you like sausage with your eggs?

H: Do we have bacon?

M: I think so. Yes. We do.

H: I’d like the bacon, please. Ooh. Here’s a concert: “Both the Dallas and Fort Worth symphony orchestras are in show and play mode this weekend. The DSO is performing Debussy’s La Mer with projected J.W.M. Turner paintings and watercolors.” That sounds neat.

M: Totally. That’s one of my favorites. I tried to play a Debussy disc the other day at work, but it annoyed the guy in the cubicle next to me, so I put on some Kenny Chesney for him, instead. What a dork. He’s sort of religious about Chesney—he’s been to like all his concerts and stuff. Here’s your coffee.

H: Thanks.

W: What else?

H: Umm... “The FWSO is projecting Peruvian images with two works connected to music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s homeland.”

W: Oh, weird. So the review is about two concerts?

H: I guess so. Let’s see. “Inspired by cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, presenting contemporary music from the old Asian trading route...” Well that’s a weird thing to say. Contemporary music from an old trading route.

W: That doesn’t make any sense. Is the salt over by you?

H: No. Mr. Harth-Bedoya has his own Caminos del Inca (Inca trail) project. This week’s offerings include Mr. Harth-Bedoya’s arrangements of three 18th-century Peruvian dances and a recent work by the FWSO’s composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank (American-born, but of mixed Peruvian, Chinese and Lithuanian heritage).”

W: Who wrote this article? I bet it’s Cantrell. He, for some odd reason, always highlights someone’s race, like it’s a big deal for him.

H: Yup. That’s weird.

W: Thought so.

H: Do you have any clue what Peruvian dances sound like?

W: That’s a strange question, too. Do you mind if I make my breakfast first? Just thought I’d give you a warm plate, while mine cools off.

H: That’s thoughtful, honey. Thanks. Where was I? Oh. “Sparingly scored for chamber orchestra, with toe-tapping drummings and rattlings, the dances were drawn from a collection by an 18th-century Peruvian bishop, Baltazar Martínez y Compañón.”

W: Does that answer your question? Toe-tapping drummings and rattlings.

H: No. It says here that “Accompanying images were the bishop’s own illustrations of attires, from European to fantastic native, and activities of his day.”

W: European attire is surely not Peruvian attire. What was the name of the conductor’s project?

H: Inca Trail.

W: That’s odd. Either way, it sounds like an eyesore, unless the bishop was like Rembrandt or something.

H: Ha! No kidding. Oh man! “Both music and illustrations were delightful.” Thanks Cantrell! If the music was as delightful as the pictures he described, I think the orchestra is doomed.

W: Yeah. He sure doesn’t paint a clear picture. Does He? Here. I forgot the milk for your coffee.

H: That’s okay, honey. It’s fine without it. Thanks, though. Oh here’s a bit about the composer-in-residence’s piece. “Dr. Frank’s Illapa is a 12-minute tone poem inspired by the eponymous, flute playing weather god of Andean mythology.”

W: What’s “eponymous” mean?

H: I don’t know.

W: That’s kind of pedantic, don’t you think?

H: Well, maybe we’re the idiots. It's certainly better than "orchidaceous," anyway.

W: No. I mean the “Dr.” part. Calling yourself a doctor can be misleading if you’re not a medical doctor. Besides, it’s like showing off, or something. I especially hate it when artists do that. What do you think?

H: I think I’m getting hungry.

W: Okay. Okay. I just finished making my eggs. I’m getting to yours now.

H: Just kidding, sweety. Take your time. “Soloist Jessica Warren played two more or less modern orchestral flutes...” How can flutes be more or less modern? This kind of writing is starting to bug me.

W: Well if you ever got your head out of the comics, you’d be used to it by now.

H: Touché. Where... oh. She “played two more or less modern orchestral flutes in the piece and two traditional Peruvian examples, one with a seductively hollow and husky sound.” Sounds like Cantrell has a thing for the larger ladies.

W: Ha!

H: An introductory soliloquy flows, jerks and oozes, with occasional overblowings.”

W: Sheesh.

H: “Clacks of claves are echoed by string pluckings. Slithering violin tremolos...”

W: I think he means “violin repeaties.”

H: See? This what I thought you meant by “pedantic.” He uses words like “eponymous,” then, for us lowly travel agents and software engineers, he switches to... what was it? ...drummings and rattlings, and pluckings and overblowings.

W: I see your point. Though, "overblowings" isn't too bad. Would you like Tabasco for your eggs?

H: Cholula if we got it. Well how about "clacks," then? That's no better. (reads on) Blah, blah, blah. Arresting and engaging, the piece got a wholly persuasive performance. For an encore, Ms. Warren and the orchestra played the third movement of Alberto Ginastera’s Impressiones de la Pluna.”

W: Enh.

H: "Making Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schehezade sound fresh is no small challenge. But Mr. Harth-Bedoya and his charges did just that, in a performance of considerable flair. Wind solos might have had a little more personality, but concertmaster Michael Shih spun out the violin ruminations in threads of aural gold.”

W: Christ! That’s a metaphor and a half. Here’s your eggs and bacon.

H: Thanks, babe. Here’s the paper. (eats)

W: “The orchestra’s violins played with silken unanimity, and, from loud to soft, the brasses made glorious sounds.” That’s the end.

H: Oh really? I thought it continued to go on about the Dallas Symphony on the next page. That’s it? I guess the review was only about the Fort Worth Symphony. Well that sucks. That’s like an hour-long drive from Dallas.

W: More like an hour and a half.

H: Oh well, we'd never make it in time, anyways. Wait a minute. Why was this article in the Dallas Morning Star when the concert is in Fort Worth? I mean, you really have to want to go, in order to make it to a 2PM concert one and a half hours away after sleeping in till 10:30. Either that or you have to have a teleporter.

W: Funny man. See what you miss when you only read the sports and comics? Scott Cantrell. You know he was the President of the Music Critics Association of North America for a number of years?

H: Wow. (eats more) Well, Cantrell didn’t make it sound too interesting anyway.

W: I know. I would still like to see the Debussy, though.

H: That’s in Dallas, right?

W: Yeah.

H: Okay then. (eats) Mmm. There’s no comparison between Tabasco and Cholula.
-

Composer of the Day!

Today’s composer of the day is Gustav Mahler.

(1860-1911)

The poster child for late romanticism, Mahler wrote relatively few pieces, busy with conducting engagements throughout his career. Among the best known are his nine symphonies, with extensive sketches for a tenth, which has been completed by various people. There are also a number of songs, mostly with orchestral accompaniment.

His music is performed regularly. In fact, it is difficult to find a symphony concert without either Beethoven or Mahler on its program. His place in the musical canon is, perhaps, due to a rich and nearly inexhaustible palate of topics the music seems to conjure up.

Each work, according to Mahler, in their own way represents a kind of autobiography. Lengthy and filled to the brim with evocative musical imagery, the music is said to explore every emotional situation placed from the countryside to the bedside, to inside the head and back again.

This is a typical reaction to his music. Silly isn't it?

He famously once visited Dr. Freud. Mahler not Lenny. Go figure.

You should listen to his music. I do.
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2/23/08

Mad Lib: for Authors

Arrange the extracted adjectives into their appropriate places. Then, guess the author.

broad
complex
energetic
lean
long
rhythmic
scrappy
virtuosic

Hyla tends to write _______, _______ music for both chamber music groups and large ensembles. [...] While challenging, his music has _______ appeal, due in part [...] to his _______, if _______, music with _______ drive and _______, _______ lines.

Good luck! Here is the answer. Ooooh! Burned!
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Nothing Says I'm Sorry like a Barber Sympathy Card

The Minnesota Orchestra is on tour throughout the southern part of the state, something of a tradition. Another tradition seems to be that they whip out Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as a sympathetic gesture to console communities’ hardships.

They did it a few years ago in honor of fallen troops in Iraq. And they’re doing it again in the wake of a bus accident that killed four children in Cottonwood.

This, obviously, is not the problem, because it’s

a piece certain to evoke strong emotions from the audience.

Don’t you think so? Click here.

In fact, I think it’s a nice gesture. The problem I have here is one miserable sentence, albeit insignificant in light of the situation. The article’s author, Graydon Royce,

(612) 673-7299

recounts conductor Osmo Vänksä’s impressions of the first time the orchestra played Barber for similar reasons thusly:

It was an extraordinarily emotional moment, he recalled, and it fulfilled his core philosophy that music is an essential service, not an elitist luxury.


Here are some essential sevices: electricity, water and sewage treatment, waste management, fire, police, medical, etc.

Is music really an essential service? Hesitantly continuing his line of thought, at theoretical best, music is a socio-biological necessity, i.e. we are naturally musical beings who require the benefits of sharing music. I suppose we can live without music, but life wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding. I hope that’s all he’s insinuating.

But providing expensive orchestral music, that’s not luxuriant? How many people are involved in the production of a two-hour concert filled with symphonies and concerti? The required resources are mind-boggling. If Vänksä means that his type of music should be less expensive and more accessible, I agree. But, it will never be cheap. Orchestral music, by nature, is luxuriant, pure and simple.

Perhaps he's in the wrong profession.
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2/22/08

Atonal Music Sucks

Sympathy for the Serialists

Good gravy. This is going to take a while. Bear with me, gentle readers!

Sympathy for the Serialists

You probably hate serialism. Am I right?

It’s probably a truism to say that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad,

A truism. Hmm. Art appreciation is not subjective? Oh, you’re beholden to the canon. I bet you really, really like music written in the 18th-19th century German tradition. Me too! But I also allow for other music. To be, you know, good or bad.

but now that tonality is back in vogue

It is!?

and the serialists are on the retreat,

They are!?

it may be a good time to step back and take stock.

It may!?

My principal motivation has been the audition of a number of new releases and reissues by some mediocre-to-truly-miserable 20th century tonal composers,

You…found some bad tonal composers? Awesome. There are tons. (Now who’s being subjective?! Hint: It’s me! Aesthetics are subjective. See?) I totally want to hear more about these composers.

an experience which has driven home just how desperate the situation must have seemed at the turn of the last century if you happened to be working within the German classical tradition.

Wait, what? There was lots of…bad tonal music written because…the situation was desperate…because those atonal freaks were taking over? Also, and not for nothing: the German classical tradition, by the turn-of-the-century, was only one of many things happening in the world of music. Right? The Javanese gamelan orchestra came to Paris in the 1889 World’s Fair, where Debussy was in attendance. See? German classical tradition is one of many, many musical things that were happening. 100 years ago. And even now! It is (while awesome) not the best, or most important, or anything. At all!

It has also become clear just how inadequate traditional music history is in describing (never mind explaining) exactly what was going on at the time.

You are now going to correct this inadequacy once and for all. I can’t fucking wait.

First of all, there is the obvious and somewhat artificial distinction between “tonal” and “atonal” music.

I…can’t even begin. You are wrong. Please bear with me, as this is going to get technical for a minute. Well, a paragraph.

Tonal” music takes one primary tone (the “tonic”) as the reference point for an entire piece. The harmony and melody all relate to this tone as primary. All of the other tones, or pitches, have specific harmonic or melodic functions in relation to the primary tone. The pitch one half-step below the tonic (the “leading tone”) has a strong tendency to “lead” to the tonic tone. Similarly, the chord built on the fifth tone above the tonic (“V”) also tends strongly to lead to that important structural note. Tonality is by nature a heirarchal system where one note is priveliged above the others, and their functions are subservient to, and predicated on, it.

Atonal” music eschews this principle of heirarchy. The idea of one note being primary is cast away; this leads to new ideas about melody and harmony. The origins and history of this idea are beyond the scope of this…whatever this is. It is basically the opposite of what I wrote above this just now. I am already tired.

It is artificial because when most people think of music they don’t classify it on this basis at all.

They don’t?

What most of us really mean by “tonal” is “melodic,” which is a different matter entirely, although tonality certainly has its role to play.

This is false. Atonal music is often, if not mostly, highly melodic. The melodies are not conventional, but they are still melodies! The strategy of composition and/or function of pitches is very different. But melody is still a primary concern for atonal music.

The reason for the emphasis on music’s harmonic aspect is simple: it is the quality most easily analyzed and discussed by music theorists.

As a music theorist, I have to say that you are an idiot. There are numerable theories dealing with melody. Prioritizing harmony is the domain of a particular branch of theory. Or branches. Still, your unfounded assertion is…unfounded.

To date, no one has ever been able to quantify the expressive qualities of melody,

This is not true. Or, at least, many have tried. Like this guy. Or this one.

but harmony can be addressed systematically in wholly technical terms.

It can, yes, sort of. But that fails to address any other aspect of music.

Still, the fact is, there’s plenty of atonal music that is quite melodic, indeed ravishingly so (think: Berg).

I…yes! You are correct. Why are you contradicting yourself? Stop contradicting yourself!

All of the generally acknowledged great composers were, in some form or another, melodists, able to express in just a few bars of tune those personal qualities found nowhere else.

“Generally acknowledged” = the canon canon canon canon canon. Also, Beethoven is often derided for his melodies. (Not by me.) We’re back to your “two kinds of music, good and bad” thing. Which sucks.

Rather than seeing 19th century music history as a gradually evolving “crisis of tonality,”

It was. Tonality became more and more saddled with its own weight as composers experimented with stretching its boundries. The late Romantics (Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, et al.) took tonality to its limits, beyond which was visible atonality. As early as Liszt (in his Bagatelle sans tonalité) composers saw the edges of the system breaking down. But you don’t think so, do you?

is seems more logical to view it as both composers and listeners did themselves: as an ongoing search for new types of melody.

The search for new types of melody? I would recommend atonality! Or, perhaps “world” music and/or folk influences, for starters. Or, you know, some kind of pioneer.

From this perspective, the situation in greater Germany looks all the more interesting, and becomes increasingly understandable.

The Germans couldn’t find any new melodies? Or new types of melodies?

By the end of the 19th century, German music had, melodically speaking, effectively written itself out. The works of Brahms and Wagner, each in their own way, demonstrate this quite clearly.

You are seriously going to argue that Wagner and Brahms (for fuck’s sake!) were bad melodists?

Wagner, whose early work reveals him to be at best a spotty melodist,

I guess so! Good luck with that.

avoided traditional instrumental music entirely and evolved a style that allowed him to construct his music dramas on a basis more congenial to his strengths: using brief, pregnant motives.

You…I…he was an opera composer. Melodies in opera are…different, than, say, the theme of a symphony’s first movement. Jesus!

Brahms faced a bigger problem, in that he worked in the large, abstract forms created by the great composers of the classical period, and the basis of these media was melody.

It was really harmony and form (not to promote your previous argument). Melody is, of course, important, but the structure of the “large, abstract forms” is harmony-driven. Also, Brahms wrote awesome fucking melodies.

Writing good original tunes was, as Brahms himself recognized, one of his greatest challenges. His recourse to Hungarian melodies, alongside other supplements to his propriety thematic material (such as his frequent acts of thematic homage to past masters), was a frank acknowledgment of the importance in finding distinctive--or at least appropriate--ideas with which to populate his musical structures.

I…Symphony No. 4, Op. 98. Intermezzi Op. 117. Horn Trio, Op. 40? Have you ever heard Brahms?

Outside of Germany, things were going swimmingly.

Imperialism was totally underrated. That, and the Nationalism that consumed Europe and lead to WWs I and II! Awesome.

The great nationalist composers such as Dvorák, Sibelius, and the Russian school were exploring a vast fund of melodic archetypes inspired by their native folk music.

Nationalism is outstanding! Fairly, these composers integrated their folk music into their compositions, which is fine. Or even great. But your larger point is:

In France, music in large abstract forms had never been a priority, and when it became one at the turn of the 20th century, it proved infinitely adaptable to the French approach of “borrow from wherever but call it French.” Melody never had it so good.

Fuck the French! But your larger point is:

Only in Germany did the aesthetics of nationalism result in a doctrine of musical purity that made it virtually impossible for native composers to absorb new influences, and renew their stock of musical materials.

They had no folk music? So they were forced to turn to…progressive techniques? Those bastards! Also. Are “folk music” influences really new? Aren’t “new influences” more like musical developments (atonality, serialism) than adopting folk tunes?

Composers that attempted to do so, like Mahler, already an outsider by birth and ethnicity, were either spurned, or like Richard Strauss found themselves avoiding abstract forms such as symphonies, concertos, and chamber music entirely.

Those poor, poor, early 20th century Germans.

Enter Schoenberg and his crew.

What is this, fucking “Entourage”?

It’s worth remembering that the twelve-tone method was born as a rejection of free atonality, and has as its basis a new way of thinking about melody.

Yes! What is your fucking problem?

The most immediately appealing thing about it, aesthetically, is that it represents a closed system: as “pure” as any there is.

Yes! What?

From a strictly intellectual point of view, and ignoring the question of depth of musical expression,

Which you completely define using tonality. And/or the canon. Right?

it would seem to be ideally suited to the creation of the kind of large, abstract forms that had come to symbolize musical greatness, German style.

It’s not, really. The miniaturization of the early 12-tone works conincides with the rejection of the large, Romantic orchestral genre. The eschewing of the Romantic tonal doctorine, logically, coincided with the discarding of the huge, sweeping grandeur of Romantic forms. This seems very logical to me. Compare Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with Webern’s Symphony, Op 21. The compression of expression matches the compression of scale.

At least, Schoenberg thought so. It has tremendous appeal on paper, which is how most third-rate composers conceive of music anyway. That the final result may sound awful is always a secondary consideration.

Some people actually like this music. Maybe not too many. But that doesn’t mean you get to put it in the “bad” category. Even inferring that Schoenberg is a “third-rate composer” will get you some profanity-laced barbs from me. To wit: You are a fucking ignoramus. You have never listened to Pierrot Lunaire. You dismiss atonal music out-of-hand. Wait, I missed a profanity! OK: Fuck!

More to the point, there is plenty of twelve-tone music that does not sound awful, in which the method can be used to create a personal, expressive, and even appealing melodic style (take Rautavaara, for instance).

Not-awful twelve-tone music! Hedging. Better, but back-handed.

The serial revolution also aided in the creation of music based on criteria other than melody, a difficult proposition in non-programmatic pieces, but one which a few composers have managed triumphantly (consider Dutilleux).

You are so fucking generous.

We also know this because we now find composers writing tonal music equally devoid of traditional melody, and the result as often as not simply sounds ridiculous, the musical equivalent of trying to communicate in a language devoid of nouns. At least the atonal stuff does not lead the ear into expecting something that it has no intention of delivering.

Crappy tonal music is caused by crappy atonal music, which is basically all of it. Canon!

At a time when many composers of that nationality despaired of the creating an individual melodic style that was also aesthetically “German,” the opportunity to write music on a different basis entirely must have been all but irresistible.

What the fuck does this sentence mean? Atonal composers basically…could not help themselves from doing what they did? What!?

It’s not their fault that the vast herd of worthless lemmings at the university level

Jesus fucking christ.

took advantage of what started as a purely local artistic solution, and turned it into a style that allowed them to be at once modern and resolutely unoriginal, not to mention impersonal. Even so, there’s a certain honesty in the pride that they took in their sterility.

Sterility.

More to the point, greatness transcends the technicalities of style. It's a quality that may have seemed in short supply during the recent "twelve-tone interruption," but this is largely an illusion. It's always been a precious commodity.

I think it’s awesome that you’re the arbiter of greatness of composing. Fortunately, I’m the arbiter of greatness in criticism! And you, sir, are not great. You’re the atonal critic, as it were. Although in my book that’s a compliment, in your book it clearly is not.

Not the least of the atonal revolution’s accomplishments was to remind us of this fact, particularly now, when once again we are tempted to award the accolade of “great” to music whose principal value lies in its being merely inoffensive.

You are wholly offensive. You do not deserve the accolade “great” because you fail to be inoffensive.

Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day is Lee Hyla.

(b. 1952)

Hyla was a longtime faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music, and now holds the chair of the composition department at Northwestern University.

Hyla tends to write scrappy, virtuostic music for both chamber groups and large ensembles. He is oft-performed and -commissioned, as well as -awarded. While challenging, his music has broad appeal, due in part (in my opinion) to his energetic, if complex, music with rhythmic drive and long, lean lines.

My meager descriptions do little justice. Try this or this on for size.

If that wasn't enough, Hyla (in my day) was often seen sporting a Boston Red Sox cap. Which is awesome.

You should listen to his music.
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The Best Analysis Ever

This happy little article—found on classicstoday.com and written by the Executive Editor, David Hurwitz—is really depressing. Will this never stop? Do I have to write these things up for the rest of my life?

Is suicide an option?

There has been no shortage of juicy classical music news recently, starting with the death of German composer and space cadet Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Seriously, dude. Is suicide an option?

Yeah? Sweet. But how? I guess I could cut myself. (pulls out dull, rusty Swiss Army Knife from back pocket, opens it up, stares at it)

I was planning to use that event as a springboard to comment on the ongoing and welcome demise of the European Post-War avant-garde: its hypocrisy, institutional rigidity, and its hopeless failure to capture the minds and hearts of audiences the world over.

(cuts wrist lengthwise) Ouch!

But we already know that, and it strikes me that the above sentence is about as much as Stockhausen and his crew deserve.

(bleeds) ...

(cuts other wrist)

Happily, an even more inspiring subject presented itself for consideration:

(bleeds some more) ...

(passes out) ...

...

...

...

Sator Arepo: Empiricus? Empiricus!? Wake up!! Empiricus!?? Wake up!!!! Someone! PLEASE call an ambulance!!! Oh God! No!!!!!
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Honorary Composer of the ...burp... Day!

Today's honorary composer of the day is Charles Bukowski.

(1920-1994)

Poetry. Beer. Wine. Cigarettes. Beer. Horse racing. Odd jobs. Wine. Classical music. Beer. Leukemia.

His gravestone says: "Don't Try." Nuff said.

Here are a couple of really cool music related poems, among many.

organ play, Bruckner, huzza and huh?.

You should read more of his stuff.
-

A Smelly, Half-Minute Quicky

This is just a brief “screw you” to Robert Batty of the Washington post, who took the time to pull out his thesaurus, find the word “spinose” and apply it to Elliott Carter.

Elliott Carter’s Second String Quartet is almost 50 years old,

That would put Carter at 49.

yet it remains as spinose and elusive as ever. Carter’s highly refracted and layered music lacks any conventional gestures (the instruments never play anything together),

Screw you.

let alone harmonic or melodic guideposts.

Screw. You.

But when essayed with such fervor as [the Julliard String Quartet], his vision is somehow compelling;

Somehow?! Screw you, somehow.

it is as though some complex scientific process like atom-splitting is rendered in sound. Not for every taste, but reflective of today’s clinical, minatory world.

Minatory: expressing or conveying a threat.
-

2/21/08

Shame on Allan Kozinn!

Like Steve Smith in an earlier post, I caught NY Times columnist Allan Kozinn with his hand in the prefabricated, stock sentence jar.

__________ was at his best, bringing crisp articulation and an irresistible zest to the outer movements and giving the Largo an understated but pleasing lilt.

Shame on you, Allan! Go to your room, too! And no TV for a... what!? Don’t you talk back to me! Don’t you get that tone with Alfred Schnittke!

Tone rows melt into stretches of arching Romanticism, which coalesce into modernist acidity.

Don’t ever, ever talk about composers like that! Shame on you! You are so grounded. Just wait ‘til your father gets home.

Seriously, this is FUBAR. Kozinn has apparently taken Holland’s place on top of the modernist-hating pedestal, with an even more spiteful and backhanded tone. In one lousy sentence, he makes his opinion heard, loud and clear. This is, honestly, the worst piece of hateful music writing I have ever encountered.

Right off the bat, he belittles “tone rows”—which we all know by now are associated with Schoenberg—by comparing them to Romanticism. Tone rows, a humble little compositional technique, are compared to a rather hefty, stereotypically aggrandized period of sentimental thought. Why not replace “Romanticism” with a technique of the composers from that period, say functional harmony? You know, to be fair about this whole thing. Or instead of “tone rows,” why not name the period of thought associated with tone rows, say modernism? Right? Equal weight, no emphasis on either one. Of course, this is not what Kozinn does.

He also qualifies “Romanticism” with “arching.” Why? To what end? In the same spirit of fairness, as before, why not qualify “tone rows” with something similar, like “shapely?”

Notice how Kozinn cleverly capitalizes “Romanticism” but does not give “modernist” the same respect? Subtle, isn’t it? Not that it’s poor usage, but, for aesthetic reasons, it diminishes, or taints, the importance of modernism.

And when you mix modernism and romanticism, you get “modernist acidity.” Again, anything modernism touches turns into something nasty and “acidic.” This is just a flagrant and gratuitous stereotype. Shame on Kozinn.

To top it off, I’m not quite comfortable placing Alfred Schnittke in the modernist camp; one could easily argue that his eclectic musical personality is more indicative of post-modernism. Either way, this just intensifies Kozinn’s anything-new-is-to-be-lumped-together stereotype. And it reinforces his lack of knowledge, or research, about music, especially Schnittke.

Allan?! I’m not going to tell you twice! Apologize to Mr. Schnittke!

Yet it’s not quite a free-for-all.

Allan!? That’s not an apology!

To be fair, though, let me explain. I jumped into the middle of his description of Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings. He said this earlier:

This is Schnittke in his quirky, wry mode.

Schnittke is quirky.

The work’s single movement quotes, with distortions, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and Russian Orthodox chants and alludes to Renaissance choral writing and Stravinsky.

This is why Schnittke can be quirky: he is eclectic (that’s also why I think he’s a post-modernist). This is all fair and good. However, after the penultimate shit-slinging sentence, he says:

Yet it’s not quite a free-for-all.

So, given the Beethoven, the Russian Orthdox chants, the Renaissance writing, Stravinsky, tone rows and arching Romanticism, I can see how he might think that it’s a free-for-all, of styles. No problem, there. The problem is that he begins with “yet,” suggesting that the “modernist acidity” is a direct result of Schnittke’s eclecticism. Kozinn even tempers this with “quite,” acknowledging that it is a free-for-all, but that there’s something else that might make this acidic mess go away.

The wispy, tentative piano figure that opens the work resurfaces in different guises, giving the piece a measure of unity.

A measure of unity? That’s it?

Translation: the piece is a bunch of nonsensical modernist poo, but the piano repeats some wispy things, which gives it a “measure of unity.”

That is most definitely NOT an apology! Shame on you, Kozinn!

Empiricus: Mr. Schnittke, I must apologize for my little Allan’s actions. But then again, he doesn’t know any better, which is why he writes for the leading daily in the country. Also, if you’ve read the rest of the article, please give my apologies to Ms. Higdon as well. The inner movements of her piece were good, too. Oh, and while you’re at it, could you apologize to the horn players. They play a particularly difficult instrument and a mistake now and then is okay, in fact, it’s normal.
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2/20/08

Best Anachronistic Phrase of the Day!

Today's Winner is Olin Chism of the Dallas Morning News. Mr. Chism reaches back to the mid-19th century for a gem. Congratulations, sir. You're on the trolley!

We'll get to the winning phrase soon. First, some gentle fun with Mr. Chism.

Chamber Music Society covers vast territory with ‘Voices of Vienna’

Monday night's program for the Dallas Chamber Music Society was titled "Voices of Vienna."

I am glad you typed that. Because I totally had not inferred it from your title.

It was a fine lesson in how varied the compositional voices of that remarkable musical city were.

But not anymore?

The performers, in Caruth Auditorium, were cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han…his wife…

The biggest shocker of the evening was a pair of pieces by Anton Webern,

Mmm, I love me some Webern. I’m guessing you hated his “shocking” atonal non-music?

who was something of a shockmeister

Shockmeister? That is a made-up bullshit Myspace-person word. ("They call me the Shockmeister, baby!") I’m sorry, but really. Shockmeister.

when he formed a 12-tone team

He formed a 12-tone team? I…

with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg in early- 20th-century Vienna.

If anyone formed this “team” it was Schoenberg. But that’s not the point. I guess “was in a circle of like-minded artists” or something would have confused readers? Schlocky vernacularisms are schlocky. Perhaps I’ll call you the Schlockmeister.

But the shock this time was not generated by atonality.

Hey-O! Color me surprised!

Quite the contrary. These pieces were sweepingly lyrical, and solidly tonal. The shock was in the unexpected.

Oh, I see. They were some early Webern works. Well, then, I sort of forgive you for the “shockmeister” thing, maybe. You were setting up a long-term construction in your schlocky vernacular paragraph. I’m a little sorry, Schlockmeister.

The works are from Webern's teen years. Both are marked "Langsam," or "Slow," and at two or three minutes each are quite brief. But Webern was already showing a knack for packing a lot of significance into a short span of time, and this music is melodic and, at times, impassioned. If not forewarned, you'd never know they were by Webern. They'd make a tough entry in a "Who wrote this?" quiz.

I’d like to play that quiz! In fact, I have to play that quiz (to finish my degree). Huh, suddenly it doesn’t sound like as much fun as I thought.

Three more pieces by Webern were back on comfortably familiar ground.

Familiar atonal ground? You, sir, have just earned some respect. Awesome. I thought critics were isolated from atonal music! However, you have failed to name the pieces, which is confusing. They are called Drei kleine stücke, Op. 11. You’re welcome.

They were composed in 1914, 15 years after the opening pair, and they are extremely brief, measured in seconds rather than minutes,

I measure my gas mileage in rods to the hogshead!

and use wide-leaping intervals to set an austere mood typical of Webern in his Schoenberg-ian years.

The remainder of Monday night's program was more traditional, with compositions by Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms…

Let’s cut to the chase.

Ms. Han, a forceful pianist, took the spotlight with Beethoven's Sonata No. 2 in G minor, an outgoing work in which Beethoven was obviously feeling his oats as a composer for piano…

He was…feeling his oats? Congratulations! You’ve won the Detritus Review’s first ever Best Anachronistic Phrase of the Day award. Feeling his oats. So, so very old-timey. I found a reference here.

Did you read it? Awesome. Did Mr. Chism use the phrase correctly? Hmm. Lastly:

Brahms' Sonata No. 2 in F Major was a more balanced piece for both performers, and it was going very well when an approaching deadline forced me to leave, reluctantly.

You…left? The concert you are reviewing, presumably for money? During a piece?

Not a classy move, Schlockmeister.