8/31/09

Gauche

The abbreviated story of Ravel’s Concerto pour la main gauche en ré majeur, written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein:

In 1930, the French composer Maurice Ravel (author of the famous Bolero) composed the Piano Concerto in D major at the request of an Austrian pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who, as the title implies, was left-handed.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. See, as the story goes, in World War I, Wittgenstein had been shot in the right elbow and captured by the Russians, then sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia. At some point during the horrific sequence of events, Wittgenstein’s right arm was amputated.

Thus ends the abbreviated story of Ravel’s Concerto pour la main gauche en ré majeur, for pianist Paul Wittgenstein.

-

Now that you know the story, it’s time to look at this, from the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s very own Zachary Lewis:

In [the pianist’s] hand, the score's downward-dashing motif was like a focused stream of bullets...

[dismay]
-

8/26/09

Composer of the Day!

Today's (sad) Composer of the Day! is Joe Maneri (1927-2009)

R.I.P., Joe.

Website here; obituary here.

Also, this.

8/25/09

How Many Paragraphs Can We Manage before Contradicting Ourselves?

And, really: not just merely contradicting a point, but completely contradicting the lede and topic sentence.

Figure 1: Which falsely implies that the answer is three.

Let's see!

[Aside: What the hell is with the random hyperlinking in online newspaper articles? It seems to have neither rhyme nor reason.]

Symphony dives into season with a 'blockbuster splash'

That is, perhaps, the worst title ever. That title just got beat by the 2008 Detroit Lions.

Why qualify 'blockbuster' with 'splash'? 'Blockbuster' is already a stupid, overused word.

Figure 2: I mean, it did pretty well and all, but I'd hardly call it a 'blockbuster.'

The answer: it comes from a quote used in the article. Well, fair enough, I guess; but that neither explains nor excuses the emendation of 'dives into' to match 'splash' in the headline.

Ha ha! It's like the orchestra concert season is a pool!

Wait, what?

The Phoenix Symphony opens this season with Beethoven's monumental paean to universal brotherhood, his Ninth Symphony -

Wait, which one?

- also known as the "Choral Symphony,"

Um. Is that the one with...

...with the "Ode to Joy."

Oh, that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Welp, I reckon if you're gonna start with a self-proclaimed blockbuster, that's one of your choices right there.

Unlike most orchestras

, which use the grand choral piece as the final gala of the season, in Phoenix, the symphony has a habit of starting the season with the big bang.

A habit? A practice? Tradition? 'The' big bang'? "A" big bang?

But, okay. We're clearly building up to something (unlike the Phoenix Symphony season, which is, apparently, carefully constructed to be one long denouement), so lay it on me.

"Last season, we had Jane Eaglen and the Wagner spectacular," music director Michael Christie says, "and before that, we brought in James Galway and his flute."

Galway's a nice guy and all from what I hear, but his concerts are much, much better when he brings his flute.


Figure 3: A picture of Sir James Galway that is Fun to Look at, with Unidentified Friend (date unknown).

Last season also jumped immediately into the World Music Festival.

This...what? Is that supporting evidence for the 'blockbusters first' argument? Wagner + 'world music' = blockbuster opening? Mmkay...

"It's frankly that, in Arizona, it's tricky to start the season in September, when we don't have the whole core of our audience back from where they go in summer," Christie says.

What is "it"? If an orchestra programs a blockbuster splash extravaganza happening event and no one's there to hear it, does it make a sound [at the ticket office]?

"So we try to put some blockbuster splash at the beginning of the season. Beethoven's Ninth is a good way to do that."

Is it? Isn't that sort of like starting the 2009 summer movie season with "The Wizard of Oz"?

It helps that it's such a known quantity and won't require weeks of extra rehearsal for chorus and orchestra.

Known quantity! Kerpow! SPLASH! In your face!

It also underlines the thought that goes into programming a season, which doesn't happen at random.

I love love love this sentence.

The thought...that goes into programming a season...does not happen at random.

Awesome.

And Beethoven's Ninth underlines it.

And it's widely acknowledged that one of Christie's strengths is his programming.

Clearly.

"We're always keeping an eye on music not played recently, so we don't overdo it with the big warhorses,"Christie says.

Wow.

Really?

Wow.

Man, that's speeding even in rural Arizona: Blockbuster splash smash opening to not overdoing the 'big warhorses' in under nine paragraphs* flat

*Some of the paragraphs are very, very short, so judge accordingly.

The rest of the article is available via the link above.


Figure 4: I have no idea. I merely Googled "war horse".

8/23/09

Excerpted for Commercial Appeal

But only slightly excerpted.

The good news: "New Classical Music" is alive and kicking in places one associates perhaps more with other kinds of culture. In this case, Memphis.

The bad news: They seem to be not quite sure what it is, or what to do with it.

All in all, it's a good thing, yes? Yes.

Let's try not to reinforce any stereotypes while we're at it. Yes? No?

Oh..No.

Luna Nova Ensemble focuses on new music, Mark Jordan, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Perhaps the name of the newspaper should have been fair warning?

Everyone knows the "three Bs" of classical music -- Bach, Beethoven and Brahms -- as well as Mozart and maybe a few others.

I don't know. I can't think of any other composers. Well, maybe a few... And if everyone knows them, is it necessary to explicate them?

But what about Stolz, Brandon and Patterson?

I assume these are featured composers on the concert in question, and not a quiz. That's cool; I'm all for exposure for hyper-obscure composers.

Even fans of classical music might be surprised to learn that not all classical music is so classic, that there are artists still producing original works for orchestra and chamber ensembles today.

What?

Even fans of classical music might be surprised to learn that not all classical music is so classic,...

I don't know what that means. Some of it is bad? obscure? contemporary? Let's go with contemporary...

...that there are artists still producing original works for orchestra and chamber ensembles today.

Even "fans" of classical music might be surprised to learn...that there are...living composers? Really?

The mission of Memphis' Luna Nova New Music Ensemble is to seek out and present such pieces for modern audiences.

Okay. Good. I favor such endeavors...

The group will kick off its fourth concert season Tuesday with a free show at the Hernando Public Library.

I thought libraries were supposed to be quiet.

The animal-themed program...

Uh.

...will feature performances from clarinetist Nobuko Igarashi, horn player Robert Patterson and bassoonist Jennifer Rhodes, all members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

"Animal-themed?"

They will perform "Mozart's Dream" by Christopher Bailey, "Three Haiku for Clarinet and Bassoon" by Nolan Stolz, "Chansons de la Nature pour la Clarinette" by Jenni Brandon and Patterson's "the Cat Menagerie."

You can tell the last piece is particularly avant-garde because the composer is too cool to capitalize the "the" in the title.

Or the copy editor is dead. One or the other.

"People hear new music and think, 'Oh, that must be awful, but actually our audiences really like our music because there's a lot of music being written today that's listenable," said Patterson,...

First: the implication is that there is--obviously--a lot of music being written today that is not listenable, whatever that means.

Second: The "people" think really long run-on sentences that don't make a lot of sense. Or: the copy editor is dead.

Third: Way to reinforce the "new music is awful" meme. Good work!

...said Patterson, who debuted his seven-part piece last spring at a benefit for the House of Mews feline rescue in Memphis. "My piece is about these six cats that I owned, and it's very funny. At least I think its funny."

Usually I see lots of "it's" that don't need the apostrophe thrown about; here, in a stunning reversal--much like listenable new music--the apostrophe is missing from the contraction. But not in the previous sentence, in parallel construction.

[snip]

For Patterson, a Ph.D. in composition...

It's good to see living composers, eh? (Too bad about the editors, though.) I guess you can make a living as a contemp...

...who works days as a computer programmer...

...d'oh.

...groups like Luna Nova are a vital resource, not just as a creative outlet for him but as a jolt in the arm of the classical world.

A resource...for a jolt?

Figure 1: How do I get it in my arm?

"It's the way to save the art form," he said. "I'm very much a populist composer. It doesn't mean I think we have to pander ... but I think we can find other ways to reach audiences."

Other ways than...what? Other ways like...what?

What? Jolt?

Also, I like that we "don't have to pander" as long as we make sure the music is accessible, or "populist." I wish "populist" meant what it used to mean.

Figure 2: Mary E. Lease (1853-1933): The means of production must belong to the worker, and so forth.

Patterson is a 15-year veteran of the MSO whose works have been performed in South Africa, Norway and Spain.

While interesting, this sentence does not, in my estimation, merit its own paragraph.

"One of the most played contemporary composers in the country is John Adams. I happened to randomly meet his neighbor one time, and she told me he was constantly complaining to her that no one would do his music. So all composers feel like their music should be played more than it is.

First: This quotation never ends, as the quotation marks are never closed. Which is philosophically fascinating. And bad copy.

Second: This anecdote (of sample size = 1) shows that John Adams speaks for all composers according to this one time when someone met his alleged neighbor. This, therefore, is a fact worthy of inclusion in a "news paper."

Igarashi, the MSO's bass clarinetist, said the group allows her to branch out as a player.

Another interesting supporting fact; another questionable stand-alone sentence-paragraph. But that's trivial...

Tuesday's concert is part of the Hernando library's Cultural Arts Series funded by the Elizabeth Entrikin Cooke fund.

Erm. See above.

"I like having things that are not the usual fare," said head librarian Heather Lawson, who manages the series.

Me, too. I also like not reinforcing the imaginary assumption that people hate new music.

"One of the great thing about this particular concert is you learn to appreciate the individual instruments and the beauty of those instruments that a lot of times tend to get lost in the orchestra."

This interesting sentiment (by a non-musician) would be a great angle to pursue, perhaps, to generate interest in the concert series. Alternately, it could be left dangling at the end of the article.

I sincerely hope the concert series is successful. I also sincerely hope the copy editor is found and resuscitated.

8/14/09

American Music Does Not Exist

I am always a proponent of American music. Not because it is inherently good, but because so much of it is unjustly neglected. Also, I think that some of the 19th century Americans get shorted as being merely derivative of European styles and trends of the time.

Which is why I was glad to see a review about a neglected American composer who has recently had a new CD released, specifically:

Arthur Foote:

A-Fall of Francesca da Rimini, Air and Gavotte (from Serenade); Four Character Pieces after the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; Suite in E major. Seattle Symphony, Schwarz (Naxos)

Here is a link to the disc in question (Naxos 8.559365)

Naxos has long done an admirable job of promoting and producing neglected music from many places, and their American Classics series is particularly of note in this respect.

Mr. Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News reviews it for us:

American concertgoers – indeed, conductors – are largely unaware of American music before Ives, Gershwin and Copland.

Sadly, all-too true.

But composers including Horatio Parker, Amy Beach, Charles Martin Loeffler, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and John Alden Carpenter penned music...

Yes, and some fantastic and original music to boot!

(Beach and Griffes, to me, are the most interesting in the group. That said, I have a lot of work still to do in this area to become more familiar with this music.)

...music that bears comparison with that of late 19th- and early 20th-century Europeans.

Oh. Well. Certainly the European influence is not to be ignored, but there are uniquely American things about them too. Right?

Most of these Americans were trained at least partly in Europe.

This is true as well. Actually, it continued to be true throughout most of the 20th century, as almost anyone who was anyone (to coin a phrase) went and studied with Mme. Boulanger in Paris for a while.

But Arthur Foote (1853-1937), a Bostonian most of his life, was entirely homegrown.

Foote was unique in this way, and his music was, again, strongly influenced by the European tradition. So the most interesting thing to address, it seems (and is implied), is what was American about his music. Yes? Yes.

Or, rather: no.

Still, his early tone poem Francesca da Rimini sounds like an attractive amalgam of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.

Jewish, crazy, and never married?

I kid; but really, if this is the way we're going to go with this (and it is), how about some words about the not-European things? Anything? Something? I know: how about nothing.

The four Rubáiyát pieces suggest more up-to-date influences from Dvorák and Tchaikovsky; the Suite, for strings, could almost pass for Elgar.

I like how "almost pass for Elgar" is both sort of a compliment, and sort of condescending. And, more importantly, give no clue whatever to what facets of the music would not, in fact, pass for Elgar. Our only point of reference is European music.

Dating from around the turn of the 20th century, these are beautifully crafted and unfailingly appealing pieces.

Unfailingly appealing = practically European in every describable way!

The Seattle orchestra isn't the most refined, and sonics lack some clarity, but still this is a CD well worth hearing.

Fair enough, and the fact that it was reviewed and recommended at all is encouraging and welcome. But can we please carve out a little, tiny niche where American music can be considered on its own merits? I know it's a little three-paragraph review and not a dissertation, but how about a word or two about American music per se?

Figure 1: Arthur Foote. I've never seen his birth certificate, so he was probably a secret European, or, more likely, a secret Fascist Communist European Kenyan Muslim.

8/9/09

Critic in Wonderland

(With apologies to Lewis Carroll)

I hardly know where to begin, so let's

"Begin at the beginning" the King said very gravely, "and go on until you come to the end: then stop."
Even the title makes me think that my friend went to the good concert, while I was stuck with:

Marko Feri offers new classical guitar music that's full of personality

You would characterize Marko Feri’s solo guitar concert Thursday as classical.


No. No, you would characterize it thusly, apparently, and just did. And whatever I may have thought you meant by "classical" will be absolutely goddamn unclear by the end of this review.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I chose it to mean - neither more nor less."
But pieces by four living composers owed a huge debt to jazz, pop, folk, even rock — contemporary influences heartily embraced by today’s guitarists and composers.

So clever: begin with a vague assertion ("classical!"), move on, in one grand sweep, to destroy all of the genre boundries that have been plaguing Western music for, oh, a couple of centuries or so. Plus: we're all friends here, "even rock" - right?

So: it was classical, but not really. But it was, sort of. But it was, you know, friendly; comfortable. But it was serious, though:

Each piece on the program at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was serious and intelligently presented by Feri, a Slovenian who lives and teaches in Italy.

It was intelligent, and played by a Real European!* Golly! Maybe it was classical after all?

"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on. "I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least - at least I mean what I say - that's the same thing, you know."

The next paragraph is my favorite.

Three of the works are sonatas and the fourth a theme and variations — epitomes of classical forms.

First, as almost an aside: "are"? What happened to the tense? Ach, so.

Anyway:

'Theme and variations' is not a form, it's more like a description, like 'pet store.' It gives some inkling of what kinds of things could be in it, but not really. Also, through no fault of the reviewer, "Sonata" has ceased to mean anything like "sonata" and instead often just means something like "longish, possibly multi-movement piece" which is pretty vague.

However, these objections to the argument "You would have called it classical--but! Gotcha!" are pretty trivial compared to:

But the sound and feel of the music was pop...

Wait wait wait.

Although the music...was (sort of) classical...the sound of the music was pop?

The sound of the music?

"Curiouser and curiouser."
Which part of the music wasn't the sound? Was it the "feel" which was also "pop"?

But the sound and feel of the music was pop, its coherence conveyed through comfortable chord changes and rippling, repeated "licks" familiar to any jazz player or garage-band rocker.

Uh. The...level of repetition was "pop"? Is Reich pop? Do uncomfortable chord changes give one a musical wedgie? Also, putting "licks" in scare quotes merits demerits.

Dissonant "outside" notes brightened the colors and sharpened the musical poetry.

Oh good christ. Someone please explain what dissonance is and/or does so we don't have to sit through this tripe? As if there were no dissonances in Mozart. Or Machaut. Or whatever.

Because, look: Dissonance was introduced simultaneously by Schoenberg and "Jazz" in the 1920s, when people were too distracted by flappers to notice until it was too late.

Under Feri’s sensitive fingers, liveliness prevailed; he charged moody introspection with lovely stillness.

That sentence is utterly meaningless: it describes basically nothing, and does not advance the argument one way or the other.

Which, admittedly, might be difficult at this point: It was classical music, but not. But really, it sort of was. Or was it? Kind of, in some ways. Except how it sounded.

Sonata by Giorgio Tortora of Italy began the program and was dedicated to Feri’s daughter. Composer and performer are friends; a familiarity of spirit was conveyed in the easy grace of Feri’s playing.

This description serves to debunk the idea that, although the work is dedicated to the guitarist's daughter, the guitarist and composer do not know one another.

"It's as large as life, and twice as natural!"

Libra Sonatine by Roland Dyens of France began jazzy, went into a slow, soulful largo and concluded con fuoco, which included tangy bends that hinted at slide guitar.

This pretty much describes Dvořák's 9th. Except I guess for the "tangy" bends. How I hate that description: it makes it seem as if they're unimportant, decorative, superficial. Perhaps, instead, they're somehow related to the "sound" of the "music"?

In Variations on a Theme of Django Reinhardt by Leo Brouwer of Cuba — the most renowned composer on the program — Feri brought delicate but decisive machinations to the patterns of the wistful melody.

And...

The four-part Jazz Sonata by Dusan Bogdanovi of Serbia had the pleasing pulse and comfortable chord changes...

Really? Liked "comfortable chord changes" so much as to use it twice in a 300-word review, huh? I guess the editor was asleep that day.

"It's a poor sort of memory that works only backwards."

...of jazz and world music — including a gorgeous ballad, a jig and a fast, happy reel.

I also hate the term "world music," largely because it tells me nothing. Thorough-composed music, apparently, is not of this world. Dun dun dunnn!

Here was music full of invention and personality, new classical music that connected with listeners as easily as the tango and the torch song, which Feri played as encores.

Ah. So, the point was that new classical music can appeal to audiences as long as it borrows from the "comfortable" idioms of jazz and "world" and pop musics?

Or:

It's okay if it is "classical" as long as the sound of the music is "pop."

Gaaaa!

When you are describing

A shape, or sound, or tint;

Don't state the matter plainly,

But put it in a hint;

And learn to look at all things

With a sort of mental squint.

Figure 1: Lewis Carroll. Or, as his friends called him, "Sarcastic McWordy"

*A Slovenian who lives and teaches in Italy is sort of like a Rhode Islander who lives and teaches in Boston.

8/1/09

Inventions and Discoveries

There are several confusing bits in an otherwise New York Times-y New York Times review by Mr. Kozinn last weekend.

2 Pianists in Supple, Flowing Dialogue

I like the way that "two" (or "2") is reinforced by "dialogue." Clever, no?

Classical music has been treated as a poor relation at the Lincoln Center...

Since when?

Classical music has been treated as a poor relation at the Lincoln Center Festival in recent summers,

Oh. Wait, what?

but this year the tally was down to one:

The tally? Of what? Down to one what? What?

...a program of contemporary works for two pianos performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, the next-to-last night of the festival.

The tally was down to one program?

That is one confusing run-on sentence. Let's see:

Classical music has been treated as a poor relation [of what?] recently (at the festival), but this year the tally [of classical music-s?] was down to one: a program of contemporary works etc., on the next-to-last night.

The tally of musics was down to one program? Okay.

Lincoln Center apparently considered even that much to be heavy lifting.

That one...tally...was...heavy? Much?

The concert was presented as a collaboration with the Ruhr Piano Festival in Germany, which commissioned the works by Chen Yi and Philip Glass that made up the second half of the program.

Is the fact that the Ruhr Festival commissioned the works why the Lincoln Center Festival is felt to not have done the "heavy lifting" for the concert? It seems to me that pens and checkbooks are not all that heavy compared to, say, composing new works or learning, memorizing, and performing them.

Mr. Davies, though best known as a conductor, is also a fine pianist, and he has been playing duo recitals with Ms. Namekawa since 2003. A memorable concert at the Miller Theater in 2005 was also devoted to modern music, but their repertory includes Zemlinsky’s four-hand arrangements of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” They have recorded both, and a contemporary American program, for the Ruhr festival’s label, Edition Klavier-Festival Ruhr.

They play contemporary music. But they also play Mozart arrangements, but they also play contemporary music. The Ruhr Piano Festival's label is called Edition Klavier-Festival Ruhr. Who knew?

Mr. Davies and Ms. Namekawa began with a lively account of Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos (1935), a work Stravinsky composed for his own use in duo concerts with one of his sons, Soulima. He kept it eminently practical: by arguing that the orchestra parts that might normally be expected in a concerto were incorporated into the keyboard fabric, he guaranteed the work’s portability.

Okay, that's logical. Is there a reference to Stravinsky's "argument," or is it borne out by the fact that the piece, you know, exists?

And by couching it in Neo-Classical gestures and textures, he made it accessible and appealing, if not quite as sharp-edged as his most enduring work.

Ah, my. Sharp-edged is the opposite of accessible and, especially, appealing. We like our modernism drowned in a gigantic puddle of accessible pudding (e.g. Barber, Samuel).

Curiously, though, "appealing" does not necessarily equate to "enduring." Take that, anti-formalists!

The following is, inexplicably, the next paragraph in its entirety:

Its charms include a rhythmically vital opening movement and inventive variations, and Mr. Davies and Ms. Namekawa gave it a supple performance with a hint of modernist steeliness in its closing fugue. They ended the first half of their program with another, more recent oldie, Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” (1967), an early experiment in applying to instrumental music the phasing techniques that Mr. Reich discovered in his seminal tape pieces, “Come Out” and “It’s Gonna Rain.”

Yeah, what? The entire last paragraph was about the Stravinsky; the entire next paragraph is about the Reich. Methinks the copy editor had an Idealized Paragraph Paradigm that somehow failed to take into account the subject of the sentences in their grouping preferences.

Figure 1: Goddamn it do I hate grouping preferences.

But let's back up to what should be the first sentence of the next paragraph:

They ended the first half of their program with another, more recent oldie, Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” (1967), an early experiment in applying to instrumental music the phasing techniques that Mr. Reich discovered in his seminal tape pieces, “Come Out” and “It’s Gonna Rain.”

I like "recent oldie;" it amuses me. However, did Reich "discover" the phasing techniques he used in those [excellent] tape pieces? I guess...sort of. I mean, it's basically a really really really tight canon; and I think he more "invented" than "discovered" the phasing idea. Does this matter?

Figure 2: Steve Reich (r) with David Wooderson (played by Matthew McConaughey) from Dazed and Confused

Figure 2 [supplement]: (File photo of Wooderson for reference)

Anyway. So, phasing, huh? Sounds interesting. What's the idea?

The idea is that two musicians playing brief, simple figures begin in unison and then move apart one beat at a time.

I see!

Eventually they return to the positions from which they began, but along the way the displaced beats create an increasingly dense web of sound from which phantom themes emerge and interact.

Sounds about right, even if the procedure in the aforementioned tape pieces is more complicated.

Or at least, they seem to: Mr. Reich’s real discovery here is the power of the overtone series and of psychoacoustic effects.

Again, did he "discover" the "power" of the overtone series? I don't know about Pythagoras, but Helmholtz might be pissed about that claim.

Figure 3: Was 1863 before 1963?

In his phase pieces we hear rhythms and counterpoint that no one is actually playing.

Well, sort of. Someone is playing them, but between the echo and the overtones, and our acoustic memory...but I guess that's the "power" that Reich "discovered." Invented? Experimented with? Employed? No...? Discovered?

I find this turn of phrase very, very odd. Did Albers discover colors? Or combinations of colors in squares? Wait--maybe it was Mondrian?

Figure 4: I've "discovered" the "power" of embedded images!

Well, that was my main concern, I guess. The rest of the article basically...well, here:

Mr. Glass employs an amusing trick in his Four Movements (2008)...

The "amusing trick" is that it doesn't sound like Glass!...but then, it does. Ha ha! He's a one-trick pony! Hilarious.

The rest of the article is available from the link at the top, or, if you're lazy, here.

Thoughts about discovery or discoveries about thought are welcome.