31 October 2010

Live a critic, diacritic

Let Pärt from his umlaut not be parted. (Hm, wonder what the Estonians call that diacritical mark?)

30 October 2010

Trick or Tierkreis

Get your Stockhausen mask for Hallowe’en here:

[ link → It is possible! ]

I did a quick Google search for "karlheinz stockhausen mask" and nothing came up, so I made one.

29 October 2010

Pathetic fallacy du jour

A mechanical device cannot have a "habit." Not even a "smart phone." It is a machine which does what it is designed to do. Or, it doesn't, and requires repair. Nothing habitual about it.

28 October 2010


What is it, Dress Like a Pirate Babe Night?

Hearty thanks to Heinrich Christensen for such musical and capable accompaniment at King's Chapel this Tuesday past. Still haven't checked the audio yet.

Reading what may well be the world's worst introduction to a classic novel. It's on exactly the same plan as some program notes my friend Brian Reinhart once mentioned, for a concert he attended — the piece is being performed for a paying public, so what in blazes was the author of the program notes thinking, when he talked the piece down in the program notes?

This case is even a bit worse, actually. A fatuous assurance to the reader that he who writes the introduction is so much cleverer than the critics who have acclaimed the novel, but he will show you what he is pleased to consider the shortcomings of the author's craft. Write your own damned article — or better yet, write your own novel and awe us with your cleverness on the wing.

Exulting in the 40th anniversary reissue of Stand Up.

16 October 2010

The Breviad

Lists and brackets are legion, and they are always being applied to the arts, which is actually a field whose nature does not lend itself to tidy quantization — The World’s 100 Greatest Symphonies (with its obligatory inclusion of all nine Beethoven symphonies), JS Bach is a greater composer than Mozart, who in turn is greater than Haydn (or is he?) . . . the misapplication of the Sports Standings mentality to the arts knows no end. Or if it be not with us always, it will be outlasted only by Death and Taxes.

Its cousin is the obsession for The Best anything: the best composer of all time (or even, of an era), the best symphony, the best oratorio, the best concerto whose accompaniment includes both contrabassoon and noseflute.

On a lighter note, the superfluous latest instance of this at the Good Music Guide forum — The Best Short Composition Ever Written (I mean, just read that aloud, and tell me you don’t feel silly) resulted in all the usual banter, and all the usual counter-proposals, and some YouTube samples. And the amusing thought occurred to me, apart from the futile exercise of settling on “the best,” of assembling a YouTube gallery for the ADD-impaired (if we consider it an impairment).

So, for your listening and viewing pleasure, a concert suite which in total shouldn't take up even ten minutes of your time:

Prokofiev, Vision fugitive Opus 22 № 10, Ridicolosamente

Ligeti, Musica ricercata VIII (arranged for percussion)

Skryabin, Prelude Opus 11 № 13, in Gb Major

Stravinsky, Epitaphium für das Grabmal des Prinzen Max Egon zu Fürstenberg for flute, clarinet & harp

Chopin, Prelude in c minor, Opus 28 № 20

15 October 2010

wind & rain

A friend from a bit further north posted:
Frank Zappa is frequently acknowledged as a classical music composer. I’m somewhat familiar with his music but 100 percent of the time I have been faced with this notion of Zappa the classical music composer, I confess to some inner laughter telling me otherwise. If you believe that he is such a composer, on what ground do you entertain such a belief? Training? Instrumentation? Recognizable forms? Thematic development and structure?
I replied:
I think that’s “overselling” one element of Zappa’s musical activity; and while those who worked with Zappa report that he didn’t think of boundaries dividing music (that he thought to the effect of, it’s all music, no matter what kind of music), Zappa never claimed to be “a classical music composer.” He was smitten with the music of Varèse, and with Le sacre, at an early age, and those were lessons he freely applied at times throughout his career; and he included parts written for orchestral instruments in many albums, starting with the inaugural Freak Out! But he was (simply) pursuing his own (widely varied) musical interests as he wished, and he was never after “recognition” as “a classical music composer.”

I think it means something about the musical intelligence with which Zappa pursued his work, that “legit” musicians as varied as Boulez, Kent Nagano & Nicolas Slonimsky had some respect for Zappa’s music. Was he more nearly “a classical music composer” than (say) Paul McCartney in such attempts as Working Man’s Classical and the Liverpool Oratorio? Certainly. (For only one small thing, Zappa was notation-literate.) But Zappa himself would have been (one suspects) derisory of the “bogus pomp” of trying to tout him as “a classical music composer.”

Have started to browse Alex Ross’s new book, Listen to This. Really enjoyed the introduction, one of whose themes is “It’s all music” (see above). Although (like The Rest Is Noise) it’s all well written, certainly, I find myself less crazy about the first chapter proper. Well, I should read the entirety before presuming to comment on the book, probably.

The opening line in a blog post headed Does Your Music Always Come Out the Way You Want It To? — to which my answer must be, Not always; sometimes it comes out even better — is: Creativity is as much a sickness as it is a gift.

Golly, people do sound fatuous when they take their own particular thoughts, and announce them as supposedly Universal Truth. Sorry he should feel that way about his work. As for me, 100% gift, 0% sickness. Maybe my native tolerance is greater.

We are what we gig, says Stuart Simon:

Start out with something louder, and you know what you're going to get, particularly from the front table: "could you tell that pianist to turn it down." As if I'm a stereo or something.

14 October 2010

H is for Hocket

13 October 2010

Revisiting remarks on the Leningrad

[A] quasi-Boléro march interruption breaks in upon the sonata design, and then, it is (deliberately, there can be no question that this is every measure what Shostakovich wanted to do here) a
little wooden-headed. The tune itself is simple, folksy, even a little carefree; in this way, it is entirely unlike the sensuous, yearning, arching tune of the Ravel “model.” Like the Boléro, though, the variations are not variations in the shape or make-up of the melody, but a process of evolving orchestration. There is a sense, really, in which Shostakovich ‘improves’ upon Ravel’s example, or accomplishes something very different, at least. The accumulating texture in the Ravel is essentially just a written-out crescendo (a modesty and simplicity of aim which is probably at the heart of Ravel’s tongue-in-cheek, “I have written only one masterpiece, the Boléro; unfortunately, it contains no music”); where in the Shostakovich, the shifting orchestration alters the character of the melody.

The propaganda of wartime publicized this repeated march as the Nazi invasion of Russia, and siege of Leningrad (the famous “900 days”); while according to Shostakovich as Solomon Volkov reports in (the admittedly controversial) Testimony, the symphony is not about the city that Hitler sought to destroy, but about the city which Stalin had crippled, and which Hitler “merely finished off.” The simplistic “programmatic” view of the first movement, then, has been to see Stalin’s boots imprinted in this interruptive march. I think both that this is a little easy, and yet that there is something in it. The tune begins in perfectly beguiling innocence (indeed, it is so unassuming a melody, that Bartók savagely parodies it in his Concerto for Orchestra) ... in which it is hard to find any illustration of Stalin at all. And even when towards the end of the tune’s transformation, it is blared out in the brasses, the tune does not strike me, strictly speaking, as an evil thing, but as a simple thing turned to evil use.

12 October 2010

Mind Games

Okay, an interesting NPR interview-once-removed, with a fellow (never did catch his name, which I could no doubt find through a little on-line research, but we’re capturing my listening experience here) who did a series of interviews with John Lennon, armed with a tape recorder.

Fair disclaimer: I should say that, year in year out, I never do remember Lennon’s birthday. There is always a time, a few days after my own birthday, when I’ve got the car radio on, and the Beatles are a little heavier in the rotation of whatever station we’ve got tuned in, and I think, Oh, yeah, it must be Lennon’s birthday.

Not all that long ago, I read The Act You’ve Known for All These Years: The Life, and Afterlife, of Sgt Pepper, and the Philip Norman biography of Lennon.

So, the interviewer-with-tape-recorder spoke of the fact that they were discussing the albums, LPs in hand, song by song, and that Lennon would dismiss some songs as ‘things [they] knocked off’, and here the interviewer is thinking, “But, you’re talking about songs that CHANGED MY LIFE!”

It’s all of a piece, meseems, with the fact that a work of art, piece of music, once it’s done and it’s out in the wide world, can take on a life of its own. And did not Lennon himself (rather famously, I thought) reject the whole three-ring-circus of Beatlemania, bridling at the fact that there was this juggernaut with their four names on it, and how it bore decreasing resemblance to . . . reality?

Parenthetically, I enjoyed the Pink Floyd saga narrative running through The Act You’ve Known for All These Years, about as much as I enjoyed the Beatles narrative. And while that was obviously the time of Piper at the Gates of Dawn, one recalls the remark by a band member that they “all wanted to become rich.” They also became rather publicly unable to get on one with another. And at times made wry comment on The Circus, even while that was the vehicle of achieving their stated goal of personal wealth.

In listening to the NPR interview (only a partial, broken-up affair from my end) I got the impression from the chap with the tape recorder that he felt disappointed that there wasn’t going to be some epic story of the artist/songwriter wrestling with his Beethovenian sketch books to produce This Song Which Like Changed My Life. Now, the disappointment is good, you might say, a necessary part of the process of Getting a Grip. Only I was, well, disappointed to note that the interviewer gave off the impression of being dissatisfied with things external to himself.

Where, I think, the fit object for dissatisfaction is the baggage he carried to the interview, as a worshipful fan. It is a commonplace to create a world of artistic importance in one’s own mind, a world which revolves around star-like gas jets of The Things the Music Does for Me. I don’t think the interviewer really benefited (as he might have done) from the lesson that, that song belonged to Lennon and the Beatles before it “belonged” to the interviewer, and that the musicians are not responsible to the maintenance of any individual’s sand-castles.

11 October 2010

Fathers & Sons (not Turgenev)

Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a FamilyFathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family by Alexander Waugh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, of course (I might almost say) I read this because I like so many of the Evelyn Waugh titles I’ve read over the years. The whole book is a marvelous story, very engagingly written. Makes me want to read Alexander Waugh’s other books. And (of course) makes me want to re-read all of Evelyn Waugh.

View all my reviews

Not that I’m the authority

A personable couple came to the MFA shop, and as I waited on them the lady picked up an eraser, finding herself a little disappointed that it bore the image of a cat’s head, and the word meow.

The gentleman inquired delicately after the reason for the disappointment, and the lady suggested that the cat might have said woof, instead. (The Element of Surprise, you see.)

So, I offered, “There is something like that on Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin logo.”

Zappa’s pet name for his wife, Gail (it was necessary for me to go on to explain), was pumpkin; and allusions to this in his discography reach back to the second album by The Mothers of Invention, Absolutely Free, whereon there appears the “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” (a title borrowing some resonance from scenes in Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, not surprisingly).

Gail (like Frank himself, I continued) was a smoker, and the smoker’s habitual cough was thus the origin of the phrase barking pumpkin.

In 1981, when Zappa established his own record label, he christened it Barking Pumpkin Records, whose logo shows a pumpkin with a speech balloon, showing arf! in Gothic typeface. Facing the pumpkin is an astonished cat (hackles raised) with its own speech balloon. The cat’s startled outcry consists of two Chinese ideograms signifying (I am led to understand) holy shit.

10 October 2010

Quotable composers

. . . music cannot be invented without a specific creative talent. This talent cannot be implanted in people, like good manners or smallpox bacilli, and composing cannot be taught the democratic way. If there is anything remaining in this world that is on the one side basically aristocratic and individualistic and on the other as brutal as the fights of animals, it is artistic creation. It is aristocratic, because it is the privilege of a very restricted number of people. If it could be democratized, it would lose its quality as an art, become reduced to a craft, and end as an industry.
— Paul Hindemith, from A Composer’s World

Bach wrote his St Matthew Passion for performance on one day of the year only — the day which in the Christian church was the culmination of the year, to which the year’s worship was leading. It is one of the unhappiest results of the march of science and commerce that this unique work, at the turn of a switch, is at the mercy of any loud roomful of cocktail drinkers — to be listened to or switched off at will, without ceremony or occasion.
— Benjamin Britten, from On Winning the First Aspen Award

I’ve drawn Britten’s remark out of context, and it’s not quite so music-reproduction-technophobe as may appear. He goes on to make the point that specificity of place, occasion and audience intensifies the power of a piece of music, though most of his examples — a Bach Cantata, Winterreise, Don Giovanni — have texts as drivers.

Music boasts no Henri Rousseau, no Grandma Moses. Naiveté doesn't work in music. To write any sort of a usable piece presumes a minimum kind of professionalism. Mussorgsky and Satie are the closest we have come in recent times to a primitive composer, and the mere mention of their names makes the idea rather absurd.
— Aaron Copland, from The Creative Mind and the Interpretive Mind

And the birthday boy:

It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean.
— Thelonious Sphere Monk (10 October, 1917 – 17 February, 1982)

09 October 2010

In defense of “juvenile” Shostakovich

In a message exchange with a friend, I was taken aback when he was (a little inconsideredly) dismissive of the first three symphonies of Shostakovich. I replied:

Now, to be fair: no. 1 is a student work. Well, but no, it’s an astonishingly assured symphony for a student work. “Bad” isn't at all a suitable adjective! It’s a concert-worthy work, which is the proper gauge for the obligatory “it is a work for which the composer need feel no shame.”

The badness in nos. 2 & 3 is not musical badness. One could argue that the music for no. 3 is a bit “rushed,” but I think that this argues for considering its virtues in light of an impromptu. It is certainly not the rich monument we have in no. 4. But (on the same lines as the Prokofiev Cantata, Opus 74) the fact that the texts with which the composer had to work were shoddy texts, underscores the detached professionalism wherewith the composer rose above that, musically. Perhaps the music of nos. 2 & 3 is a little bagatelle-ish, a bit experimental in the manner of the Zeitgeist . . . and I do think that Shostakovich did not concern himself with making them Heavy Symphonic Business, because he had faith in his future. All that, I think, reflects positively rather than otherwise. Sure, neither no. 2 nor no. 3 is the magnificent no. 4, but (as you know) I don’t disregard the Beethoven Eighth because it is not the Seventh, either. Here, I think that the composer’s comfort with letting symphonies inhabit a range of manner, is an aspect which Shostakovich broadens.

It was many years before I made any point to listen to the Second and Third. And at the time that I did, I found that I was less concerned with how unsuited they might be to The Cycle, and more taken with the musical glimpse of the composer in those (soon gone forever) comparatively uninhibited times before “Muddle Instead of Music.”

02 October 2010

Aside in the form of an introduction to nothing in particular

The trip out to Rochester was an idyllic interval; the week surrounding the interval was . . . demanding. Not impossible, and this sort of week does simply happen from time to time.

Mentally, today I should have liked to spend composing. Practically — well, I just slept for ten hours, and it may be that I do not push myself to be productive today, which will probably leave me in better condition to get creative work done around the week to come.

[ I’m not really crazy about practicality and my mindsight being at seeming odds; but one must be aware. It's no good complaining that an oak isn’t a cherry. ]