Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cras Christus natus est

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all of our readers.

Blogging will return to its usual frenetic pace in January.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Fire and brimstone

Kyle Gann links to an article by Christopher Hitchens on the upcoming inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama. Obama has chosen megachurch pastor Rick Warren to officiate at the event, and Hitchens - along with many others - objects to the Warren's socially conservative political views. What's interesting about this, however, is that instead of targeting Warren's more controversial pronouncements - including some extremely tasteless and inflammatory remarks about gay marriage and abortion - Hitchens targets his belief that only Christians will get into heaven. The problem isn't that Warren has compared women who have abortions to Nazis - the problem is that Warren doesn't extend the evangelical Christian concept of heaven to Jews and Mormons. Or, to put it more simply: Warren thinks that people who don't fulfill the Christian criteria for salvation will not be saved.

Hitchens, in other words, is tapping into a uniquely irritating tradition of half-baked, dorm room postmodernism. In order to be acceptable for Hitchens's purposes, a Christian has to cut his brain in half - one half of your brain (the half you keep strictly to yourself) thinks that Christianity is true, while the other (the half you use in polite conversation) thinks there is no objective truth to any religion and all ideologies are equally correct. This not only prevents a person from having any sort of unified worldview, but makes nonsense of any sort of logic. Inasmuch as Christianity makes positivistic statements about the nature of reality, it makes statements that are either true or false:

(Christianity is true if and only if all of its key doctrinal statements are true.)

Since each of those true/false doctrinal statements conflicts with claims made by other religions, it follows that Christianity is not compatible with those other religions. A key Christian doctrine, for example, is the divinity of Christ. If this doctrine is incorrect, there is no foundation to the Christian faith whatsoever. You can assert, as the Muslims do, that Jesus was a prophet but not divine; you can assert, as most other major religions do, that Jesus was an important historical figure but not a prophet; you can assert, as Tom Harpur has, that Jesus never existed. You cannot, however, claim that all four groups are equally correct on this issue: that is nonsense, and would be accepted as such in any other area of historical inquiry.

Yet somehow, this watered-down, parlour nihilism became sufficiently prevalent in society that a journalist like Hitchens would take it up deliberately to make an historical point. I say deliberately because Hitchens, as an outspoken atheist, has made it clear that he doesn't believe all religions to be equally correct: he believes they're all wrong. At the end of the article, he lets the secret slip by admitting that the best alternative to Warren is a "dignified old hypocrite with no factional allegiance". He knows that he's holding Christianity to an impossible standard - the only alternative is doublethink and hypocrisy - but he also knows that his readership is too besotted by postmodernist fuzzy thinking to realize this.

. . . and here I should make the disclaimer that I have no love for Rick Warren or the ultraprotestant, socially conservative McChristianity that he represents. My point is simply the obvious one that "cultural sensitivity" does not obviate the need for logic.

Why am I posting this on a music blog? Unfortunately, the Relativism Lite school of philosophy has spread from ethics, where it originated, westward into metaphysics and eastward into aesthetics, where it affects us. The people who claim that all religions are equally correct have doppelgangers in the musical world; they're the people who claim that all musical traditions have equal aesthetic quality, or that Bach and Beethoven are only considered great because of our societal indoctrination, and that if things had turned out differently we would be listening to Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf or Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre instead. In either case, their basic claim is that our musical tastes are totally subjective - we're blinkered by our cultural prejudices and neurobiological peculiarities, and are incapable of hearing music the way others do. Take this attitude to its logical conclusion, and we all become automata: incapable of communicating our musical experience to others, unable to expand our horizons, and bereft of any aesthetic judgment of our own.

. . . and here I must make the inevitable disclaimer that this attitude does not imply contempt for other musics than the Western classical tradition. Rather than saying that all musical traditions are equally valuable from an aesthetic standpoint, I would say that they are valid in different ways: the style of Mahler is terrific for building large-scale symphonic structures, but not so great for more intimate, concise utterances, or for providing a context for improvisation. When you open yourself to the possibility that all musics might not be of equal aesthetic worth, the logical next step is to compare them, to try to understand them, and to figure out what their relative strengths and weaknesses might be. It's one thing to avoid the rush to judgment: it's another to claim that judgment is impossible.

Proof of the poisonous nature of this aesthetic is everywhere. Consider the CBC's decision to gut its intelligent classical programming in favour of easy-listening in prime time and Lite Klassics during the day: if you don't believe that music has any objective value beyond its cultural milieu, why would you ever devote programming time to any genre that didn't have wide popularity? Or look at the appalling state of liturgical music in churches across the country: if you believe that people's cultural surroundings completely predetermine their aesthetic tastes, and your congregation seems to enjoy bad imitations of '70s folk rock, why would you perform anything else? I think that in retrospect, our current cultural problems will turn out to have been intellectual ones: fuzzy thinking, high-school-cafeteria relativism, and a false distinction between form (aesthetics; culture) and function (ethics; politics).

In other news, I think I have just become the first person ever to cite Christopher Hitchens in a discussion of aesthetics. If all of my site hits in the next month come from people searching for information about him on Google, I will be annoyed.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The strange case of organists

An interesting post over at Renewable Music, addressing just how much repertoire a performer can really know well. In Daniel Wolf's experience as an ethnomusicologist, the upper limit that a performer or ensemble can know really well is about fifty pieces. If you want to have more pieces than that on the go, you find that some of your older repertoire starts to slip.

The whole discussion, of course, was sparked by a post by Kenneth Woods about his own repertoire for the year as a cellist and orchestral conductor. As an organist, of course, I live in a completely different world entirely - where an orchestral conductor's repertoire is measured in fairly large units (overtures, symphonies, concerti), my organ repertoire is measured in Preludes and Postludes. In other words, the music I play is largely assembled to fill approximate five-minute chunks before and after worship services. I've posted below on my dissatisfaction with this custom - almost no-one pays attention to what you're doing, it becomes difficult to differentiate service playing and recital playing, and eventually you find that your entire repertoire consists of spastic, fortissimo toccatas and soupy French pieces for the Voix Celeste. You see the effects of this custom at recitals - people program individual movements of sonatas which suspiciously always turn out to be five minutes long and either unvaryingly loud or soft. Even when you hear a complete work, say Durufle's op. 5 Suite, you can be pretty sure that the performer diced it into voluntary-sized pieces before performing it complete. Hey, look - the Prelude and Sicilienne could work before the service, and that Toccata would be a really impressive postlude!

This is why I like to learn enormous twentieth-century works for recital purposes - it's hard to use a piece like Malcolm Williamson's Symphony in a liturgical situation, so playing it in a recital becomes a special event rather than a rehash of my service voluntaries for the past three weeks. (This argument is also circular - I play huge twentieth-century works, which are impractical for service playing, so no-one else takes them up, so playing them makes me feel unique, so I perform them more often.) On the other side of the coin, however, I love to mess with people's expectations for service music - every Palm Sunday, I play the congregation in with something fairly raucous (Langlais's Les Rameaux, last year), and send them out with Bach's O Mensch, bewein. It's perfect for this somewhat schizophrenic service, which begins with a great procession and ends by leading us into Holy Week. Yet every year people think this is a mistake ("Why were you playing so loudly before the service? Are you practicing for Easter?"), and I try to explain to them what the service music was intended to communicate. Unfortunately, the Christmas services that I play at this time of year are the epitome of "playing to the gallery", and so to satisfy their expectations you end up playing things like Mulet's Carillon-Sortie, which is great fun, but no-one would ever accuse it of being profound.

My issues with the prelude/postlude complex aside, though, I can't help feeling that an estimate of 50 pieces is probably right in terms of how much repertoire I have ready to play at any given time. Certainly I'd play more than that in the course of a year (fifty-two Sundays makes an average of one hundred and four Sunday service voluntaries, for example, and that doesn't include recital repertoire, or mid-week services for the major festivals), but most of the repertoire I've scheduled for the next month needs a fair bit of practice before I can get it up. Which has nothing to do with difficulty (I've been playing Dieu parmi nous a lot recently, so playing it again on Christmas Eve won't be a problem); rather, it seems to be linked to what sort of style I've been playing recently. If I do a lot of Romantic music for a few Sundays, it's difficult to get back into Bach playing at the standard that I'd like, or if I've been taking a break from Messiaen for a while, I wouldn't want to perform one of his works without a week or so to get back into his idiom.

To sum up: we organists have very different performing circumstances than the average musician, but much the same limits apply to us as to everyone else. Even the amazing repertoire feats you occasionally hear about - organists playing the complete works of Messiaen, or Buxtehude - don't change the basic repertoire limit. After all, Messiaen and Buxtehude both have certain formulae in their writing which make it much easier to learn their music once you have a few major pieces under your belt.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Coincidence?

from Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Messe de minuit pour Noel

from J. S. Bach, Mass in B minor

Monday, December 15, 2008

The organist as analyst, and other stories

At some point in the recent history of this blog, I must have used the word "analysis" in one of my entries, because I am now getting all sorts of fly-by Google hits from people looking for analyses of various contemporary works. Repertoire which Google thinks I might have analysed includes Hindemith's flute sonata, Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, and Turangalila. These people are undoubtedly extremely disappointed, but their e-disapproval weighs lightly on my conscience - good musicians analyse their own music.

In other news, Jeffrey Tucker (of The New Liturgical Movement) has posted an open letter to praise and worship musicians. Given the background of the NLM team, this obviously applies most readily to Roman Catholic musicians, but my own Anglican church has faced similar issues. An essential read for anyone who doesn't quite understand the need for traditional music in the Christian liturgy, and written much better than I would be able to (and with fewer expletives).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Happy birthday

December 13th, 2008 marks the one-year anniversary of This Blog Will Change the World. A glance through the archives from the first few months reveals that my basic blog fodder has changed little over that time: Messiaen, Hindemith, McLuhan, modernism, and dead languages. I hope, however, that my writing has improved somewhat since some of those early posts: yikes!

Many thanks to all of you for your support over the last year. Our normally scheduled programming will resume shortly.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Un automne avec Messiaen

With Messiaen's centenary having come and gone, the Automne Messiaen festival in Montreal is finally winding to a close. I caught only three of the events - St. François in concert at the OSM, the complete organ works at Notre Dame, and Louise Bessette's traversal of the Vingt Regards.

First, though, the obligatory Canadian ritual of complaining about the weather. Our party of Messiaen enthusiasts set out first thing in the morning, predicting that we'd arrive in Montreal a few hours after lunchtime. Instead, we arrived at the Place des Arts at 7:30 - having missed the first act of St. François completely. What made the difference? A freak snowstorm that raged throughout the entire day. By the time we had arrived in Montreal, enough snow had fallen to reduce traffic to a standstill - meaning that it took almost two hours to traverse the five-kilometer stretch of road from the highway to the Place des Arts. The Montreal drivers - already known nationwide for their resistance to such practices as signalling and obeying traffic signs - became even more cutthroat than usual. At the time, the ride was terrifying, although later we realized that the impact of a collision at less than 5 km/h would have been negligible.

By the time the concert was finished, the snow had turned to freezing rain, and we found our car covered in a layer of ice almost an inch thick. But the cruelest cut of all was not discovered until a day later, when I opened my satchel of Messiaen organ scores to find that almost all of them had gotten soaked with water while they were lying on the floor of the car. Most of the larger scores are undamaged (if anything had happened to my Livre du Saint-Sacrement, which took eight months to arrive from France at a cost of almost $100, I would have killed someone), but my copies of Les corps glorieux and La nativité du Seigneur are likely permanently ruined. As a souvenir of the trip, I am left with seven volumes of paper pulp with an Alphonse Leduc signature on the front.

Enough of this whining. How were the actual performances?

The main attraction of the trip was a chance to hear a live performance of the rarely-done opera St. François d'Assise. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to catch any of the first act, but there were plenty of wonderful moments in Acts II and III; the angel's viol music in scene 5, the "Sermon to the Birds" sequence in scene 6, the apotheosis of Messiaen's birdsong style; the chorus speaking as the voice of God in scene 7, first terrifying and then infinitely gentle; the final glorious blaze of C major that closes the opera. The performances were uniformly excellent, with a particularly impressive showing from Aline Kutan as the angel. Kent Nagano presided over it all authoritatively, beating through a labyrinthine series of meter changes with no apparent effort.

I had heard the opera before on recordings, but hearing such a spellbinding live reading was a different experience entirely. The stage setup was intimidating in itself (seven flutes! three tubas! three ondists! at least ten percussionists!) but most astounding was seeing the whole orchestra in action: the wind machine spinning around, the piccolos executing the most complicated figuration in perfect unison, the xylophonists performing minor feats of acrobatics in order to play their parts, and the pure tones of the ondes soaring above it all. To compensate for the lack of staging, the OSM created a video installation portraying scenes from the opera, and far from being a mere gimmick, this device made it much easier to follow: we saw close-ups of the singers' faces, scenes from the countryside near Assisi, and flying birds, all overlaid with a constantly changing rainbow of colour. The colours used bore no resemblance to any of Messiaen's descriptions of his own synaesthesia, of course, but the effect seemed to me precisely what the composer would have wanted: dancing patterns of pure light, almost too dazzling to look at directly.

It was a shame that the weather seemed to have scared off so many potential attendees: the auditorium couldn't have been more than two-thirds full. It would be a tragedy if the OSM lost money on this production; they deserved a great success. Although small in numbers, the audience was enthusiastic, and as with so many Messiaen performances I've attended, the final standing ovation seemed genuine rather than forced.

Messiaen's actual birthday commenced with a traversal of the complete organ works (from 9 to 5 pm at Notre Dame). I heard almost everything - I left to have lunch during the Meditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité - and had somewhat mixed feelings. The performances themselves ranged from adequate to superb. Jean-Willy Kunz's performance of the Livre de Saint-Sacrement (with two other organists contributing movements) was a particular highlight, with impressive virtuosity and, I thought, perfectly judged tempi. Patrick Wedd, who is in the middle of his own cycle of the complete organ works, ended up being the one to play most of the more obscure and arcane works (Livre d'orgue, anyone?) but was in fine form throughout. Wedd ripped through the duo section of "L'ange aux parfums", for my money one of the hardest things in all of Messiaen, with complete control and without missing a note - and despite the fact that he was subbing in for another organist who was supposed to play Les corps glorieux and couldn't make it. The other performances were generally very fine, although I found that most performers took excessively slow tempi - exhibiting a tendency towards "careful", inhibited playing which so often mars performances of contemporary music. Still, the sheer power of Messiaen's music was enough to overcome all difficulties. The programming was completely non-chronological, with the result that the essential unity of the music was emphasized; when you heard the Messe de la Pentecôte alongside "Diptyque", the differences between them became less important than the over-arching personality of the composer.

By 7:00 I had no energy left whatsoever, and was worried I'd fall asleep during Louise Bessette's performance of the Vingt Regards. I shouldn't have worried - the reading was absolutely superb. Bessette, a student of Yvonne Loriod, has a natural affinity for Messiaen's music and managed to embrace all the complexities and contradictions of the work without a problem. Not even this performance could quite convince me that the twentieth movement, banging out major chords again and again, is at the same level as the rest of the work, but flawed as it is, the cycle is one of the best things in the twentieth-century piano repertoire.

Hearing so much of the same kind of music is often irritating - I often come home from organ conventions wanting to hear anything except organ music - but upon returning home yesterday I wanted to learn more Messiaen, and to get to know his music even better. That his music stood up so well under such close scrutiny is, I think, another testament to his greatness as a composer.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Landscape with Olivier Messiaen and an extended rant


A belated happy birthday to Olivier Messiaen, who would have turned 100 yesterday. As many of the figures who worked around him seem to be declining in stature, Messiaen stands out as one of the greatest creative artists of his time.

I will write shortly on my trip to Montreal's Automne Messiaen festival, where I had the wonderful experience of hearing sixteen hours of his music within a two-day period. It is with some bitterness, however, that I must report the utter failure of our national broadcaster to commemorate the event appropriately - have a look at the grisly playlist for yesterday's daytime classical show, which included the following:
Messiaen: Lounge à l'immortalité de Jésus (the sole Messiaen piece)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 3
Grieg: Holberg Suite
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks
Templeton: "Bach Goes to Town"
Bach/Gounod: Ave Maria
A schizophrenic mixture of pieces which are not linked together in any intelligent way, which have nothing in common with each other except a conservative harmonic language and pretty tunes. An appalling tokenist presentation of modern music, with Messiaen's Quatuor being the only piece on the programme not to be performed in its entirety - would it have killed them to present the entire quartet, or a shorter piece like L'Ascension? And to place Messiaen's serious, genuinely sacred work alongside a piece of schmaltzy, nineteenth-century kitsch like the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria" is so glaringly inappropriate that I cannot even fathom a sane human being making the decision.

The "trial period" for the new CBC is officially over. I am disappointed that they failed to mark the Messiaen anniversary day appropriately, but more than that: I am tired of a classical show designed to be nothing more than pleasant background noise. I am tired of the brainless presentation on the program, which tells us nothing about the pieces played except that they are pretty. I am tired of being talked down to by corporate executives who show blatant disregard for the intelligence and good taste of the Canadian public. I emphatically refuse to support radio programming designed expressedly for the creampuff classical music listener, programming that is overtly anti-intellectual and anti-artistic. Goodbye.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A historiography of dynamic equilibrium

Part IV of an occasional series.

If you went to music school twenty-five years ago, your history professors portrayed mid-century serial music as the Great Experiment - nothing less than the logical culmination of a mounting trend towards complexity which can be traced back to the time of Gregorian chant. If you go to music school now, your history professors are probably somewhat embarrassed by mid-century serial music - they portray it as a historical blip, motivated largely by peer pressure, which is historically interesting but best forgotten. Implicit in both assumptions is the idea that there is a Correct Way to write music - it's just that one side thinks that Milton Babbitt is the standard-bearer, and the other has their money on David del Tredici.

I've gone into almost painful detail previously on why I don't like either model. What I have to offer instead is hardly an encyclopedic worldview, but a few observations which I've found useful in dealing with the mess of a century we just came out of. This first post borrows the scientific term "dynamic equilibrium", which most correctly refers to a sort of stalemate situation which is reached by most chemical reactions. Individual molecules in the reaction continue to collide with each other to form new compounds, but the overall situation has stabilized such that the proportions of the different substances in the reaction remain the same.

The term "dynamic equilibrium" works for my purposes, but it should be noted that the term "stochastic process" is possibly even more apt for the situation I'm describing; a stochastic process is a semi-random one in which the overall tendency of the process (for example, the movement of gas molecules in a closed container) is predictable, but the behaviour of individual elements (for example, the individual gas molecules) is too complex and interdependent to develop fully. I've avoided using the term "stochastic" because, of course, Iannis Xenakis has already applied it to music to describe a specific compositional approach.

My contention is that individual composers exist in a state very similar to that of dynamic equilibrium. General, vague trends and compositional fads can be discerned if you look from far away and squint a little, and these trends fairly a number of individual composers (usually, the ones that aren't very good). However, if you look closer you notice that the style characteristics of the other composers vary widely: in terms of complexity, in terms of motivic and contrapuntal activity, in terms of harmonic language, and in any number of other ways. Until finally you see composers that seem to belong to another time and place entirely than their own (Ives, Gesualdo, Rubbra)

The other similarity to chemistry, of course, is the fact that the fluctuations in the process are caused by interactions between individuals (whether molecules, in the chemistry version, or composers, in my version). Thus, the extent to which an individual composer may or may not reflect the overall Zeitgeist is determined not only by his own intentions, but by his interactions with others, whether they try to push him in one direction (cf. Pierre Boulez) or another (Josef Stalin). The idea of a bunch of composers flying around in midair and bouncing off each other (Classical Music Pinball!!) is perhaps amusing, but it also reflects several common verbal tropes (cf. "Let me bounce this idea off you").

Notice that accepting this model does not necessarily invalidate the old generalizations about music history ("Everyone wrote neoclassical music until mid-1953, when they switched to serialism before moving to neoromanticism on August 9th, 1976, except for those two months in 1982 when everyone wrote spectral music") - however, it makes it clearer that these reflect general trends only. It also means that one of the hoary old tropes of music journalism, in which every composer who writes differently from the Statistically Average Composer is treated as a Card-Carrying Rebel (cf. Andrew Ager) can hopefully be buried; composing differently from your colleagues is perfectly normal and makes for a much more interesting contemporary music scene. Finally, it reflects my own belief that the spread of compositional trends is partly random: there's no Historically Inevitable reason why Schoenberg's twelve-tone method became the rule rather than that of Hauer, Roslavets, or, heck, Richard Yardumian.

Messiaen provides a ready case-study, and not only because it's his birthday. His own tendency (as influenced by Debussy, Dupré and his other predecessors, as well as by his idiosyncratic compositional interests) was toward a modal harmonic language with idiosyncratic rhythms and unique melodic and cadential patterns. Flying around in the pinball machine, however, he hits Pierre Boulez (ouch!) and goes careening off in a different direction, this time one in keeping with the prevailing avant-garde aesthetic. A number of other, smaller collisions eventually return him to a similar course to his original one, and he is once again a Conservative Composer. The overall system is in equilibrium but Messiaen himself has gone through a number of changes. (It's also interesting to note that one can read a state of dynamic equilibrium into Messiaen's works themselves: in the Livre du Saint-Sacrement, for example, compare "Prière après Communion" with "Les ténèbres".)

If you've been paying close attention, you've probably noticed that I've taken a great deal of time to make the point that composers are influenced by their own personal stylistic tendencies, by other individuals, and by broader social and musical trends. Which should hopefully not be extraordinarly controversial, but you never know. This is not intended to be an all-encompassing system (in fact, that would be missing the point), but rather to restore some of the sense of individuality to the way that we talk about music.

An announcement

To the person who found TBWCTW by Google searching this phrase:
messiaen doesn't wear well
Does too!

Also: next time, use quotation marks.

Other Google searches for which this blog is cited as an authoritative source: "composing without octave equivalence" (sorry, can't help you); "examples of sad stories", and "chromaticism romantic period happy".

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Taking a stand

And lo, the centenary of two major composers didst approacheth, and the music bloggers were deeply divided among themselves. And Alex Ross didst lead the peoples towards those holy places where the music of Messiaen can be heard, but Matthew Guerrieri didst absent himself from the courts of Messiaen, and didst blog about Elliott Carter instead. Then did the other bloggers begin slowly to fall into line, with some of them enthusing about the Messiaen centenary, and others about the Carter centenary. For some reason - and the following is a totally unsubstantiated, anecdotal observation - there doesn't seem to be anyone who's celebrating both events. It's either Messiaen, or Carter.

I obviously fall into the Messiaen camp, and am a proud member of Bloggers fOr Olivier Messiaen (BOOM), but I rather like Carter's music, and am sorry I won't be able to do anything interesting for the centenary. The problem, I suppose, is that he hasn't written any organ or sacred choral music (stock reaction: WHAT A JERK) and so there's nothing he's written that I'm likely ever to perform. Even Milton Babbitt has written for organ, so I ought to know at least something about his music, but Elliott Carter is Someone Else's Problem. And so although I like the scores I've heard (the Double Concerto is brilliant), I can't claim any familiarity with the music and so don't have anything particularly interesting to say about it. That's my excuse.

As I reel at the realization that I have just emerged from another week-long blogging interruption only to announce that I have nothing to say about Elliott Carter, you can watch the weather forecast set to Anglican chant:
A thousand thanks to Nico Muhly for posting this - I've been trying to find this for years.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Johann's new wheels

From today's church bulletin:

"Organ Prelude: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BMW 678"


Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Messiaen legacy

As the anniversary of his birth gets closer and closer, I expect to be blogging on Messiaen almost exclusively. I'm particularly excited to be making the trip to Montreal for the day itself, to take in a festival Alex Ross describes as unmatched by anything on the continent: the Automne Messiaen in Montreal. So excited, in fact, that I might be inspired to produce regular content (!) on this blog despite the fact that this month is one of the most stressful times of the year for organists.

But there's a basic question worth asking: why Messiaen? Probably the most personal of composers, he established no school and attracted few followers. Among Messiaen's pupils, the only two that sound much like him are the Canadian Gilles Tremblay and the late Jean-Louis Florentz, and even they have their own voice. Think of other prominent composition teachers of the twentieth century - Nadia Boulanger, for example, or closer to home John Weinzweig. These people passed on a definite aesthetic to their pupils, which they chose either to extend or to rebel against. Messiaen's pupils, on the other hand, flew off in all directions - what does Xenakis's music have to do with Stockhausen's, or Boulez with Tristan Murail? It's all very well to say that Messiaen left these people free to pursue their own path, but if he left them nothing tangible to build upon, was his music anything more than a dead end?

Messiaen leaves us with this strange paradox; a defined and systematized style that is instantly recognizable, but one which died with him. Yet perhaps Messiaen's advice to Xenakis tells us something of his real legacy:
When I found out he was Greek, that he was an architect, and that he had studied mathematics, I told him, "Keep going with all that! Be an architect! Be a mathematician! Be Greek! And use all of this in your music!"
This quotation (reconstructed from memory from the Claude Samuel interview books, because I don't have them on hand) gains an unintentionally humorous quality in translation, but it tells us something of Messiaen's genius as a teacher. Xenakis was almost thirty years old: he had already gone to Boulanger, who told him she was too old to accept a beginning composer like him, and to Honegger, who had raked him over the coals for using parallel octaves. Clearly the answer for a man like Xenakis - a firebrand Greek refugee with an engineering degree, a traumatic past in the Greek Resistance, and a mostly autodidact education - was not to go and study strict species counterpoint for four years. Yet something about this always bothered me: was Messiaen saying that technique isn't important?

Then I tried rewording it this way:
When I found out he was a devout Catholic, that he was interested in birdsong, and that he had studied ancient Greek rhythms, I told him "Keep going with all that! Be a Catholic! Be an ornithologist! Be a rhythmician! And use all of this in your music!"
It seems to me that Messiaen's advice to Xenakis was precisely the advice that he wished he had received in his twenties: don't be afraid to put yourself into your music, even if this sounds different from the way others are writing. Messiaen's career could be summarized as a search for a clear compositional identity - first imitating others in his student works, later developing a more characteristic sound, being briefly diverted into avant-garde experimentation, and then finally reaching a fully personal, all-encompassing language. This, perhaps, was his real gift to his pupils. Boulanger's students tended to sound quite uniform, and the Darmstadt serialists created music in any colour you liked, as long as it was black: but Messiaen's students each found a characteristic sound-world. And so his message to today's composers is a profoundly humanist one: go find your own style, and run with it.

Not to say that some of Messiaen's technical procedures didn't rub off, though - would Xenakis have thought to create synthetic scales using sieve theory if not for Messiaen's modes of limited transposition?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hopefully uncontroversial post

Happy St. Cecilia's Day!

Composers born on St. Cecilia's Day include W. F. Bach, Benjamin Britten, Jacob Obrecht, Joaquin Rodrigo and Gunther Schuller.

If you haven't read Dryden's Ode to St. Cecilia, now is a good day to do so. Besides, if the weather where you are is anything like mine, it's not as though you wanted to go anywhere outside the house.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

O bonus!

My faith in humanity has been shattered. Wikipedia is now available in Simple English, a service designed for people who find Wikipedia's articles too intellectual, with overly complex vocabulary. (The tagline "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" has become "The free encyclopedia that anyone can change". Presumably the word "edit" is too complicated for a broad audience?)

My faith in humanity has been restored. Wikipedia is now available in Latin. Latin Wikipedia on Paulus Hindemith:
Paulus Hindemith fuit illustris psaltes violae et compositor Germanicus musicae quae dicitur novae (Germanice Neue Musik).

Anno 1938 propter vexationes contra musicam novam et leges Nazismi contra Iudaeos Hindemith, Iudaea Gertrud Rottenberg in matrimonio habens, in Helvetiam et postea in Civitates Foederatas Americae migravit.
Sed Vicipaedia Latina est sine biographia de Olivier Messiaen! Vir sapientiae debet id creare sine mora.

Monday, November 17, 2008

X is for Xenakis

The average musician may not be able to talk intelligently about Xenakis's "arborescences", "pitch sieves" or "cellular automata", but they've probably seen this excerpt from the score of Metastaseis:
An intimidating drawing, but the basic principle is simple: the sketch is a graph with time on the horizontal axis (the vertical lines represent measure numbers) and pitch on the vertical axis (the horizontal lines correspond to the pitch-class E in various octaves). Xenakis's goal is to replicate the curved lines of the Philips Pavilion in musical form. Just like you did in high school physics class, Xenakis has taken tangents to the curve at various points; each tangent represents a solo string instrument, playing a glissando.

Relatively straightforward, right?

Except I lied to you; the above is not an excerpt from the score, but a sketch that the composer made during composition. The conductor's score, and the player's parts, are conventionally notated. Yet every history of twentieth-century music prints this sketch as an example of Xenakis's "mathematical composition", giving the readers the impression that Xenakis scores are Cartesian plots requiring special training to interpret. This little factoid is the only thing most musicians will ever learn about Xenakis, and it's wrong. Sigh.

Xenakis had a tough life. During the Second World War he fought in the Greek Resistance, a sort of guerrilla wing of the Communist party which sought to overthrow the occupying Nazis. Upon repelling the Nazis, the country was thrown into civil war between right-wing and Communist political factions - with the American and British governments providing support to the rightist factions. During the conflict, Xenakis lost most of the left side of his face to an enemy shell, and fled the country just in time to avoid being sentenced to death by the new right-wing government. Upon arriving in Europe, he found himself in the middle of yet another ideological conflict; conservative composers like Arthur Honegger balked at his modernist style, while Boulez and the other Darmstadt serialists considered his music "too simple".

Yet Xenakis managed to produce some of the most interesting and characteristic music of the twentieth century. In conversation with Bálint András Varga, he comes across as a lively figure with an disarming sense of humour, and good taste in instruments:
Do you have a preference for any particular instrument?

I like the organ but I have a particular flair for string instruments. The only instrument I don't like is the flute - it has a silly sound. [. . .]

The dynamic level of your music still favours f to fff.

That's because I'm growing more deaf.

Do you really mean that?

No.
Later in the conversation, Varga asks him to explain the purpose of three of the unusual objects in his studio: a ladder, a knotted rope tied to the ceiling, and a tall, oversized music stand. Xenakis explains that the music stand is to compose; he works standing up because of his bad back. The knotted rope is an "eternal challenge" - he had originally intended use it to climb up to the ceiling, but has given up on this idea. The ladder is so that Xenakis can clean the curtains.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Happy birthday, Hindemith

My only excuse for not blogging is the usual one: too much work to do, too many performances, and no time to sit in front of the computer waiting for inspiration. If it comes down to a choice between blogging and practicing the pieces from Livre du Saint-Sacrement that I'm performing next week, Messiaen usually wins.

I hope to have time for a more substantial update in the near future, but for the moment I would just like to draw your attention to the fact that today, November 16th, is Paul Hindemith's birthday! If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know that I really like Hindemith (a lot). For me, Hindemith's music is a happy marriage of intellect and emotion - impeccably structured and crafted, but always in the service of a convincing musical narrative. I literally cannot understand how he's acquired his reputation as an arid modernist composer - to listen to a piece like Mathis der Maler and call the composer a pedant is, to me, clear evidence that you have left your ears in a drawer somewhere. In any case, whether you like or hate his music, one must respect the musicianship that allowed him to be a composer, a teacher, a conductor, a writer, a theorist, and a solid performer on every orchestral instrument. And even though he's been dead for over forty years, you can run over to YouTube any day of the week and he'll obligingly conduct his Konzertmusik for you. What a guy!

By the way, I'd appreciate it if someone could tell me who won the American election. I keep asking people if they've heard anything, but no-one seems to have been paying attention.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Anything but the American election

Today on This Blog Will Change the World: Etymology for Dummies.

agent - from verb "agere". Literally, "They will lead".
belligerent - from noun "bellum" and verb "gerere". Literally, "They will wage war".
Vincent - from verb "vincere". Literally, "They will conquer".
disco - from verb "discere". Literally, "I learn".

Previously: Middle English vocabulary challenge.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good news, for a change

[Alain] Trudel and Montreal businessman Philippe Labelle say the CBC's 70-year-old Vancouver orchestra will carry on after its official farewell concert on Nov. 16, with a new name and an expanded mandate.

"We've talked to a lot of people, and it's going ahead," said Labelle, who told The Globe and Mail in August about his desire to mount a rescue mission for an orchestra located 5,000 kilometres from his home. "It will be called the National Broadcast Orchestra (NBO), and it will be based in Vancouver."

The reformed entity will be independent from the CBC, he says, and will expand beyond conventional broadcasting into webcasting and other types of Internet distribution.
Original article here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Opera libretti and other sad stories

Writer Ron Rosenbaum has a long piece on Adams' recent opera Doctor Atomic, in which he takes exception to the opera's poorly-written libretto. (Thanks to The Penitent Wagnerite for the link.) I can't judge Doctor Atomic for myself, having never seen the opera - although I was less than impressed by the excerpt posted recently by Alex Ross - but I've heard enough similar criticisms to believe Rosenbaum that the libretto is severely flawed. What interests me, though, is why operagoers don't see this as a problem. Rosenbaum, rather cynically, suggests that the members of the audience at the Metropolitan are there to congratulate themselves on their own intelligence and good taste. Accepting the faults of the libretto, therefore, would be an implicit admission that they're wasting their time, that they have been hoodwinked, and so they blind themselves to the obvious problems right in front of their noses. I don't agree, obviously, and would like to point out some more realistic possibilities.

First, and most obvious, is the fact that most operas are in other languages than English. The translation blinds us to whatever faults, or virtues, the original libretto might have once had. Once translated and put up on surtitles, all opera libretti become equally stilted and awkward. Sometimes the effect is bathetic, as in a production I once say of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande: "I am not happy," sobs Melisande, who has just been verbally abused by her husband for losing her wedding ring. Being a regular operagoer, however, requires you to get over this awkwardness of expression. You learn to separate the music of the opera from the texts; the former is of high quality and high importance, while the latter is a mere aid to help you comprehend the action. To sum up: since the advent of surtitles, opera audiences have been trained to expect opera texts to be poorly written, and to compensate for this.

Writing as Samuel Marchbanks, Robertson Davies inveighed against the low literary quality of the translated texts at art-song recitals, and tried to imagine how an English song like "Drink to me only with thine eyes" would be translated for an Italian-speaking audience:
Let us agree, when drinking, to employ the eyeballs only; similarly with kisses. I sent you some flowers recently, and you sent them back after breathing on them; they are still alive but are now imbued with your own personal odour.
A second, related point is that an alarming number of composers have a tin ear for poetry. Here's an example from the "In taberna" movement of Carmina Burana:
Parum sexcente nummate
durant, cum immoderate
bibunt omnes sine meta.

[Word-for-word translation]
Few of six hundred coins
last, with immoderation
drinks everyone without limit.
If you know the work, you'll remember that this comes close to the end of the movement; each line ending is punctuated by a short, snappy orchestral interlude with lots of percussion. Musically, it's very exciting, but in terms of Latin text setting, it's terrible - Orff steamrolls through each line, without care for the terrified punctuation marks that lie in his path, and then adds huge breaks at each line ending despite the fact that the sense of the text continues onwards.

I chose a Latin example because it's supposed to be an easy language to set well - but Orff absolutely destroys any logical sense the text might originally have had. A persistent myth still exists in the musical world that English is extraordinarily difficult to set well, but it's not, and as Exhibit A I offer you the entire corpus of English cathedral music. Whatever you may think about the music of Stanford, Howells, etc., I would argue that an essential characteristic of their music is this exacting care in text setting, inherited from the Tudor polyphonists. Every accented syllable is in its appropriate place, every comma is observed, and the sense of the text is carefully matched to the musical form. And so, when Benjamin Britten came to writing operas, he didn't have far to look for models of English text setting. Which is why it annoyed me so much to read John Adams's disparaging comments about Britten's "stilted" text setting - it's Adams, with his subjugation of textual sense to the needs of postminimalist process, whose text setting is mannered.

The appallingly low standard of vocal text setting in contemporary music is one of my continual hobbyhorses, and so I fear that I've gotten far away from my original point, which is simply this: composers frequently butcher the texts they try to set. When punctuation marks are ignored, accented syllables are not placed in appropriate places in the bar, and the text is generally rendered unintelligible both from a phonetic and semantic perspective, we get out of the habit of listening to the text at all.

The upshot of all of this, unfortunately, is that attending vocal performances trains listeners to scan the text for general sense but not to try to follow it or to judge its literary quality. If we don't understand the language being set, we have to follow an awkward and often bathetic translation; if we do understand the language, the text setting often makes it impossible for us to follow. So why is it surprising that millions of listeners saw nothing unusual in an opera with a poorly-written libretto? And who better than Ron Rosenbaum, an outsider to the opera scene, to point out the problem?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Swedish discoveries

I listen to a lot of pretty obscure music. Some of it sticks, and I continue listening to it for years. Most of it doesn't, either because I failed to understand the music or because it wasn't worth extensive study. I've lost count of the number of times that I've read in CD liner notes about the terrible, hideous and unaccountable neglect of some little-known American symphonist - only to find that the music inside amounts to imitation Stravinsky, well-crafted but lacking any distinctive personality of its own. I had a similar experience recently upon listening to Myaskovsky's Sixth Symphony; the music was impeccably written - probably better than much Shostakovich, truth be told - but there were no surprises in terms of style; it was written in a mid-century Russian idiom familiar from works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich or Khachaturian. Myaskovsky, in other words, is not essential to our picture of Soviet music; he speaks a language that we can hear elsewhere. (This is an unfortunate historical irony - Myaskovsky is older than any of those three composers, and so it seem likely that they stole from him rather than vice versa - but their works happen to have been the ones that entered the international repertoire.)

Sometimes, though, you run into a composer who speaks a different language entirely, and you're bowled over. This evening I listened to a very different Sixth Symphony, this time by Swedish composer Allan Pettersson (1911-1980). The symphony lasts a full hour, and is cast in a single movement with an unchanging time signature and only minor tempo fluctuations - which sounds like the most boring thing in the entire world, except that I only know this from looking at the score. Pettersson's rhythmic language is incredibly subtle; a basic 2/2 time signature can breed all sorts of overlapping patterns in different meters, and I soon discovered that the music made a better impression if I stopped trying to count.

Pettersson's music is not easy to grasp, and is certainly not background music. The idiom is basically tonal, deeply rooted in counterpoint, but is at times highly dissonant, and has an white-hot intensity that makes listening to the music emotionally draining. Pettersson layers ostinato on ostinato, gradually accumulating power until finally, just when the tension is about to become unbearable, the clouds clear away to reveal a totally new landscape. The slow ending of the symphony presents us with a gorgeous, long-breathed melody which slowly moves upward through the cellos, violas and violins, until the music fades away.

I've never heard anything quite like this in orchestral music, and I can only admire Pettersson's ability to so expertly build and dispel tension over such long time spans. It's too early to say whether I'll remain a Pettersson enthusiast forever, but I'm intrigued and look forward to continued explorations of this repertoire.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The accompanist as editor

For amusement's sake, let's take six choral accompaniments I am currently preparing and arrange them from most to least idiomatic for the organ:

How dazzling fair (Charles Wood)
I was glad (C. H. H. Parry)
Zadok the Priest (G. F. Handel)
O how amiable (Ralph Vaughan Williams)
Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (Johannes Brahms - from Ein Deutsches Requiem)
The Hour has Come (Srul Irving Glick)

Most people, even other musicians, are probably not aware of the extent to which the organist-accompanist creates his own score for the works he performs. A part like "How dazzling fair" can be played as written and sound fairly good - the Glick, on the other hand, is literally unplayable as it appears in the score and requires extensive modification. As a collaborative pianist, your role is comparatively simple - to play the score accurately and musically, while being sensitive to the needs of the soloist or ensemble that you're accompanying. (I still do quite a lot of collaborative piano work, and can vouch for the fact that this is no easy task!) Yet accompanying on the organ adds another layer of complexity entirely:

1. If your part is written for the organ and has particularly detailed instructions, you must select stops and distribute the part across the various manuals in a way which suits the instrument, choir and acoustic. Because you will have limited rehearsal time, you must be able to change any aspect of this plan at a moment's notice.

2. If your part is written for the organ but lacks detailed instructions, you must develop a registration scheme entirely from scratch, trying to find appropriate colours to suit the style of the piece and looking for opportunities to "solo out" an important inner voice, plus everything listed under #1.

3. If your part is written for piano (or for "piano or organ", which means the same thing), you must edit the part to eliminate pianistic figuration, generally consolidating arpeggiated or Alberti-bass figuration into sustained chords. A pedal line can typically be generated by playing the bass voice of the piano part in the pedals, but this doesn't always work and it will often be necessary to compose a pedal line based on the implied bass line of the part. Generally, this will result in a rather "thin"-sounding part which must be filled out by adding additional notes from within the chords. Plus, of course, everything listed under #2.

4: If your part is an orchestral reduction, it is likely intended for performance on piano and thus has all the problems associated with group 3. In addition, it will probably be necessary to consult a recording or score of the orchestral original in order to select appropriate registrations. Placing the bass line (double bass, cello, or tuba parts) in the pedals makes it possible to write in an inner voice (cello, bassoon, viola, or horn) to be played by the left hand, often using a solo registration.

It's a tough life, in other words. Not all of these issues are unique to the organ - a good collaborative pianist will know the orchestral score for a concerto reduction, and add things to the part accordingly - but in combination, these problems become somewhat daunting. Unfortunately, the Glick is about as bad as it gets (group 4+++) and so will require almost total rewriting before I'm satisfied with it.

On the plus side, organ accompaniments don't get much more fun than "Zadok" or "I was glad".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Holmboe on music-blogging


Music is a disguised energy source which has a clear and strong influence on the thought and mind, an immediate effect which can reach far beyond the merely entertaining. Much is written about music, but when I consider the subject, as here, in a more psychological perspective, I must recognize the paradoxical in the relationship between the descriptive word and the inexplicable in music.
On the one hand, we can claim that music is exclusively forms moved in sound, that it cannot have any other substance, and that its assertions are as abstract as those of mathematics. On the other hand, it is precisely the substance that can be meaningful, be concretely present, produce a strong emotional impact and thought-provoking impulses. Music cannot say anything, yet it says so much. It is readily accessible to everyone, but nevertheless difficult to grasp. It is not logical, but can have a strict logic in its elaboration.
Such paradoxes are, of course, only apparent. They are pseudo-opposites which result from verbal formulations and visual ideas which can say nothing about the nature of music itself. It may thus seem absurd to wish to write about those aspects of music which words must relinquish. However, I believe that we must point out again and again the many particular relations there are between humanity and music, and that we discuss the subject in a perspective difficult from the purely technical, regardless that we can never get to the bottom of, but must constantly circle around, the inexplicable.
Vagn Holmboe, Experiencing Music, 105.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Great battles of textual criticism


[Klaus Beckmann's edition of the Buxtehude organ works] used a method of "internal textual criticism" ("innere Textkritik") which was based on inferred structural elements, analogies, and perceived musical logic. The result was a textually eclectic edition which a combination of conflation and conjecture that has proven extremely controversial.
[In this edition], no attempt has been made to reconstruct the readings of the composer's holographs. Recognizing that the texts of Buxtehude's free organ works must have undergone many changes both during and after the composer's lifetime, the editors believe that to present a text that claims either to be 'definitive' or, indeed, to be much more than a conservative rendering of an extant source can result only in text-critical and historical misrepresentation.


Christoph Wolff, writing in the introduction to the new Broude edition of Buxtehude's organ works. Italics mine.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

An "Organ Spectacular Day" manifesto

The organ is dying, we keep being told, and the people who say this are so sure of themselves that it seems somehow unkind to contradict them. Yet this dubious factoid is founded on premises which seem to me wholly absurd. “The organ doesn’t appeal to young people”, I am told solemnly by people who don’t seem to have noticed that I am less than half their age. “The organ is really only meant for Baroque music,” I am informed, although the piles of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music in my library would seem to suggest otherwise. But all of this is missing the broader question: what would it look like if a musical instrument “died”? Obviously, a musical instrument is dead if no-one plays it (when was the last time you attended a glass harmonica concert, or a krummhorn recital?), but a visit to the annual Canadian organ convention, or one of the many organ competitions, will confirm that there’s no shortage of musicians who play the organ at a high level. In fact, you don’t have to leave the city – just take a brisk walk down to the cathedral, where you can hear a different organ recital programme every week at noon-hour, or visit one of the many churches where organ music is an integral part of the parish community. It seems to me that the real situation is this: organists, like all classical musicians, have lost a preordained position of social privilege that they once enjoyed. In my view, this is all to the good; we now have to work to earn the respect of other musicians and the broader public, and if this makes us think more critically about what we’re doing, we’ll be better musicians for it.

Enough of this. The American Guild of Organists has declared October 19th as a day of general rejoicing to celebrate the organ and its music, and rejoice we shall! Not because the organ is an important part of music history, or – heaven forfend – a “Part Of Our Heritage”, but because pipe organs are really cool.

from the programme notes to my "Organ Spectacular Day" recital

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Very very sorry

Anyone who reads TBWCTW via RSS will have already noticed that the previous post, as originally published, is in an enormous font size which is almost totally unreadable. This is now fixed.

I'm trying to figure out a way that this could somehow be Blogger's fault, but nothing's coming. Whoops.

Unwanted political ramblings

Well, the Canadian election came and went without anything particularly interesting happening. We got to read about some not very interesting platforms and watch some highly deceptive campaign advertisements. Then we went to the polls, and elected the same minority government as before. I love Canadian politics!

There were no particular winners in this election, but there were two losers: firstly, the Liberal Party, which lost tremendous ground under lame-duck leader Stephane Dion. Dion's professorial demeanour and strong accent did not play well in English Canada. Myself, I rather liked Dion - he's a Frenchman who doesn't appeal to a general public, JUST LIKE MESSIAEN - but my endorsement does not appear to have helped his chances. Time for a leadership convention?

The biggest loser, however, was the Canadian electorate. Voter turnout in this election hit an all-time low, and it's not hard to see why. The election was called suddenly for no particular reason, fell at an inconvenient time, and was over before any of the parties were able to construct a coherent platform. Meanwhile, a series of extraordinarily disturbing events overshadowed the campaign, including a series of appalling politically motivated car vandal attacks. And then, of course, the usual madnesses of our electoral system; the separatist Bloc Quebecois party earned fifteen more seats than the New Democrats despite the fact that the NDP garnered twice as many votes as the Bloc, and the Green party earned 6% of the popular vote without winning a single seat. It seems practically designed to destroy any faith in the Canadian electoral system you might have left - particularly since the media have already switched back to the American election. Here's hoping for a better campaign next time around.

Despite not being an American citizen and having no sympathy for the McCain/Palin campaign, I cannot resist a call for help, especially a Messiaen-related one. So in the spirit of Bach for Obama, I present Messiaen for McCain:

Majeste du Christ demandant sa gloire a son pere (from L'Ascension)
Combat entre la mort et la vie (from Les corps glorieux)
Communion - les oiseaux et les sources (from Messe de la Pentecote)
Apparition de l'eglise eternelle
Institution de l'Euchariste (from Livre du Saint-Sacrement)
Nous, Dieu parmi (from La Nativite du Seigneur)

As an added bonus, this would actually work really well as a concert programme. I'd be delighted if someone actually performs this at a Republican campaign event, mainly because Sarah Palin's reaction would be priceless.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The agony of self-recrimination

The ever-alert David Sinden informs us that yesterday represented a rare opportunity to play Herbert Howells's Saraband for the Twelfth Day of any October at a Sunday service. (October 12th last fell on a Sunday in 2003, and will not do so again until 2014.)

The Howells piece is dedicated to Ralph Vaughan Williams - October 12 being his birthday. Of course, the coincidence is even more striking when you consider that 2008 is an RVW anniversary year. I am profoundly embarrassed to have missed this opportunity - even more so when I realize that I actually blogged about Vaughan Williams's birthday not two days ago!

Sunday, October 12 will next coincide with an RVW anniversary year in 2183, when we will commemorate the 225th anniversary of the composer's death. Thus, the period between opportunities to play Howells's Saraband during an RVW anniversary year is significantly greater than that of Halley's Comet.

The horrors of intercity travel

From my perspective, there are few greater horrors in our urban world than a large bus terminal on a holiday weekend. Hordes of people milling around, endless lineups, exhaust fumes everywhere, having to scramble out of the way of traffic, and - worst of all for this musician - the literally deafening noise of a dozen buses, all with engines idling, in a confined space. I kept having visions of calling up R. Murray Schafer and launching a nation-wide anti-bus campaign.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I did not have an enjoyable bus ride home from my Thanksgiving weekend. But all of this seems rather petty in retrospect - after all, I was travelling from a relaxing, enjoyable holiday meal with family to my comfortable, adequately-heated home. On a holiday intended for us to take time to be glad of what we have, how sad that my mood can be so totally ruined by an hour and a half standing in line at a bus depot.

Over at She Reads Books, Christine is setting a much better example - she's challenging her readers, between now and American Thanksgiving, to donate towards outfitting a school. If you feel, as I do, that the cause of education is worth supporting, please consider visiting her blog's World Vision page here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Wipe your feet

There's been a sudden upsurge of traffic on this site, with a number of other musician-bloggers linking here recently. A warm welcome to those of you visiting for the first time!

Thanks are due to Chris Foley, Alex Ross, and particularly A. C. Douglas, for his kind words. The classical blogosphere at its best has some of the most interesting music writing going, and I'm delighted to be a part of the conversation.

I'm leaving this blog unattended to go home and eat turkey, so please act responsibly - place your garbage in the appropriate receptacles, don't leave John Rutter octavos anywhere on the premises, and don't let the pets up on the furniture.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Exciting things elsewhere

The Mozart Effect conclusively disproved; the Shetland pony returns; two music bloggers team up to see if it's humanly possible to create more boring concert programmes than the New York Philharmonic; Cameron Carpenter has too much time on his hands; John Adams criticizes Britten's "stilted" text setting (he's one to talk); Queen Victoria finally has her own comic strip; RVW turns 136 tomorrow.

Friday, October 10, 2008

We plough the fields and scatter

In Canada, this weekend is Thanksgiving. For all of us, the Thanksgiving holiday is an ideal time to reflect upon our lives, and to remember the many wonderful things that we are fortunate enough to enjoy. So, here at TBWCTW, what do we have to be thankful for?
  1. The fact that "ordinary person" Stephen Harper does not (yet) have a majority government;
  2. The fact that the current American financial recession has had only a minor impact north of the border;
  3. Free blogging software, and the leisure to use it for the writing of lists;
  4. The good luck to be born into a peaceful and relatively affluent nation;
  5. Our loyal readership Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez?

This may seem an odd thing to be thankful for - isn't he the author of this quotation, familiar from every history of twentieth-century music ever written:
"Anyone who has not experienced -- I do not say understood -- but experienced the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. "
A friend of mine places Boulez, with Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter at the head of the "Unholy Trinity" of mid-century modernists. (I take a certain perverse pleasure in the fact that the initials of the three composers - BBC - are also the initials of the British public broadcaster, which under William Glock was one of the great strongholds of ultra-modernist music in the English-speaking world.) For conservative-minded listeners, Boulez symbolizes everything that is wrong with music today: an ideologically-driven agenda to write in a hypercomplex, atonal style. And we all know what the musical results sound like: arid, dull essays which may be interesting to analyse, but have no possible interest for the listener. This dubious collection of factoids has been elevated practically to the status of conventional wisdom, and with the ascent of minimalism and neo-Romantic composition, no-one feels any reluctance to attack Boulez's music with the most appalling, ignorant criticisms. So, for example, we read the following in a review of a CD of Boulez's piano sonatas:
The Third Sonata exists in five movements, called "formants" in French, "blobs" in English, of which Boulez has completed only two; the other three remain "in progress", we can only hope permanently. . . There's no doubt whatsoever that this sonata represents a huge advance, indeed an epiphany, in Boulez's development as a composer in that it reveals an awareness of the fact that it doesn't matter whether his music is played frontwards, backwards, sideways, upside down, or under water. . . Why bother with these obsolete, emotionally sterile essays? So a '10' for the performance, and a '0' for music of vast intellectual and cultural pretensions, and no substance whatsoever.
It should be obvious that if I submitted an similar review for a CD of music that I don't like ("This performance is terrific, but I still don't like Delius's music. Signed, Osbert") it would be instantly rejected as a biased review, and rightly so. That a similar review is considered acceptable for the music of Boulez shows to what extent polemics against his music have become conventional wisdom. However, some people have taken the time to properly take the measure of Boulez's music: one of my favourite summations of the composer's style comes once again from a CD review:
[M]y image of Boulez differs from that of many others, who picture him as a super-brain, to the exclusion of everything else. I, on the other hand, see him in the long line of French composers besotted with color and the "sensuous form" – the passion for proportion and beauty of line. One confuses Boulez's writings about his music (almost always terrible, unhelpful, and pretentious) with the music itself. I recall in particular one composer-supplied program note to a Cleveland Orchestra performance of Pli selon pli in which he compared the music to Brownian motion. If you found yourself in a kind mood, you'd call it poetry. If you actually know what "Brownian motion" means, you'd more likely call it meadowmuffins. The latter for me. I became so angry at this flummery that the program note actually got in the way of my hearing the music. It took me decades before I came around to this piece, and then only because I'd heard other Boulez works without his critical "help" in the meantime.
This last comment strikes at one of the major problems with contemporary music. The institution of programme notes for concerts has been extremely helpful, allowing the lay listener to learn something about the piece they're about to hear. For historical repertoire, well-written programme notes are now seen as a must for concerts, usually written by the performers themselves. But if you've just commissioned a new work, it seems to be bad form to allow anyone else to write the programme note than the composer, and what you get is either a technical essay filled with incomprehensible jargon or a position statement about the composer's relationship to contemporary composition. (R. Murray Schafer's programme notes are a notable example; downloadable as a package, they combine to form what is essentially the composer's autobiography. Although they are entertaining reading, they are no more useful than Boulez's programme notes in communicating the narrative of the piece to a general audience.) In any case, once a composer has set pen to paper, his programme notes are seen as definitive and are reprinted for every future performance of the piece.

In other words, we have a layer of jargon obscuring the music. No-one would let a writer on Tchaikovsky get away with gibbering about the "Euclidean language of forms" or saying that the music "unfolds like a prism". Before we can expect audiences to identify emotionally with contemporary music, we need to ditch the pseudo-scientific facade and share something of our own impressions of the music - even if it means taking the risk of being maudlin, sentimental or naively pictorial. Audiences may not immediately warm to works like Le marteau sans maitre or Explosante-fixe - to name two impressive Boulez scores - but at least this way they have some chance of experiencing the beautiful colours and exquisite counterpoint in these works with fresh ears.

The first thing they tell you in blog school is not to write paragraphs and paragraphs of unbroken, rambling prose - you need to incorporate a variety of media! So here's a YouTube video of Boulez conducting his Sur Incises.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Semiannual Messiaen-blogging

Photograph of this blogger Iannis Xenakis with Olivier Messiaen

The Messiaen centenary has not figured prominently in the Canadian or American election campaigns, but let it not be said that TBWCTW failed to cover the event! (I have a horror that I will be judged and found wanting by future generations based on my Messiaenic accomplishments this year - "Daddy, what did you do in the Messiaen centenary?" If the centenary had come about five years later in my organ-playing career, I might be able to consider attempting the complete works, but this year it's out of the question, and I feel a sense of lingering inadequacy.) Plenty has been written about Messiaen elsewhere, of course. Alex Ross has a roundup of the major Messiaenical events in North America, and links to the even more thorough Messiaen 2008 website, with its comprehensive listing of Messiaen concerts worldwide throughout the centenary year. The actual date of Messiaen's 100th birthday is December 10th, a day on which Messiaen lovers can look forward to these events, among others:

Salle Pleyel, Paris, France: Turangalila-Symphonie (Christoph Eschenbach)
La Trinite, Paris, France: Anniversary Mass
Royal Holloway College, Surrey, U. K.: Messiaen organ recital (Gillian Weir)
Royal Festival Hall, London, U. K.: Sept Haikai, Couleurs de la Cite Celeste (Pierre Boulez)
University of Glasgow, Scotland: La Nativite du Seigneur (John Butt)
New Caledonia: Quatuor pour le fin de temps

Messiaen lovers are rarely this spoiled for choice - generally, you wait years to catch any of the major orchestral works in live performance. I am particularly delighted to see New Caledonia as a venue for Messiaen performances on the day of his centenary; it seems appropriate, given Messiaen's birdsong-collecting expeditions in New Caledonia, that this tiny Pacific island should offer its own salute to the composer.

I myself hope to spend the anniversary day in Montreal, where the Automne Messiaen festival is proceeding apace. With Messiaen protege Kent Nagano at the helm of the OSM, a thriving organ culture and a number of Messiaen's former pupils now respected Quebecois composers in their own right, it's hard to imagine a better place for a Messiaen festival. The schedule is jaw-dropping - far from being a token gesture in the composer's memory, this festival encompasses practically Messiaen's complete oeuvre - including a complete performance of Saint Francois under Nagano's baton.

As far as I'm concerned, you can never have too much Messiaen, although not everyone agrees - several of my friends plan to be washing their hair for the duration of the Automne Messiaen festival in Montreal. However, for the next few months, we Messiaeniacs are running the world, and I plan to take full advantage. It is worth pointing out, too, that the centenary does not end on December 31st - it begins only on December 10th, the actual anniversary of his birth, and will continue until that date in 2009. Plan concert programmes accordingly.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Found art

Stop losses
___________
Coca Cola
$45

Encona $65
___________
Higher highs
& higher lows
Discovered inside a library copy of James MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross

Monday, September 29, 2008

A web of clashing blocks?

My new favourite mixed metaphor:
Edgard Varèse, however, went entirely beyond the familiar; in such works as Intégrales for woodwinds, brass, and percussion (1925) and Arcana for orchestra (1927), he deals directly with dissonant and disparate blocks of sound, clashing and contending with one another to create a highly charged polyphonic web.
Schwartz and Childs, Music Since 1945, 166.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Happiness is medieval manuscripts


My excuse for not blogging is that most of my free hours on the Internet have been spent browing the Medieval Bestiary. A perfect opportunity to learn about such creatures as the salamander (above), whose incredibly coldness can extinguish the hottest flames, the barnacle goose, a bird which grows from trees, and the hyena, which "eats human corpses and changes sex". Sure, it's a valuable resource to the works of Chaucer and other medieval writers, but mainly it's just really, really cool.

Of course, it's nice to have a window into the culture of the past when own culture seems to be falling down around our ears. The latest offensive against the arts has come from none other than Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, who informed us while campaigning for re-election that "ordinary people don't care about the arts". The results were predictable - a well-reasoned counterargument from Margaret Atwood in the Globe and Mail, a pro-culture Facebook group with over 32,000 members, and passionate speeches from Canadian arts leaders. Yet I have the feeling that Harper's divide-and-conquer strategy may well work. He knows that no-one in the arts community was about to vote for him anyway, and in Quebec - where the public reaction against Harper's comments has been greatest - his popularity was already at rock-bottom. By playing the anti-elitism card, Harper is appealing to one of the uglier sides of the Canadian nature, and stands to score a number of political points by doing so. If his political opponents defend the economic value of the arts, or - horrors! - suggest that a thriving arts culture has some intrinsic value of its own, they can easily be painted as elitists, out of touch with the concerns of real Canadians. It's not a subtle technique - in fact, it's a shamefaced appeal to the worst parts of human nature - but this is the prime minister who rode to political power by promising a cut in the sales tax.

If Stephen Harper wins the October election, I have a sinking feeling that the CBC debacle will turn out to be only the beginning.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Comment of the month

"I had no idea younger people played the organ!"
- a visitor to Osbert's church

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sketches for a recital that no-one will attend

Jonathan Harvey - Laus Deo (1969)
Bengt Hambraeus - Nebulosa (1969)
Mauricio Kagel - Selections from Rrrrrrr - - (1984)
James MacMillan - Le tombeau de Georges Roualt (2003)
Olivier Messiaen - Selections from Livre du Saint-Sacrement (1984)

I've been threatening to do a concert like this for years - nothing but hardcore modern and postmodern music! Now, I've decided it's finally time to go ahead with the idea. You now have sufficient lead time to come up with a good excuse to be out of town.

Depending on how much of the Messiaen I want to play, I might also throw in Kagel's Improvisation ajoutee. This is, of course, very much dependent on finding two registration assistants who are willing and able to add and remove stops at extremely specific intervals, shout things in French, and sing a line of music during the performance.

My working title: Evil, Unlistenable, Awful, Horrible, Incomprehensible Modern "Music"

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Le tombeau de Kagel


The publisher C. F. Peters has just announced the death of prominent composer Mauricio Kagel, after a long illness. Requiscat in pace.

I didn't know Kagel's music as well as I would like, which is a pity, as I've always liked his characteristic blend of historicism and wacky humour. The few Kagel scores which exist for organ are mostly quite difficult to play (the Improvisation Ajoutee and a Fantasie for organ and tape are the best known), but the one I always wanted to learn was Rrrrrrr - -, a suite of organ pieces which all begin with the letter R. (Kagel wrote similar Rrrrrrr suites for other instruments and ensembles.) I'll be having another listen to his music in days to come, and taking another look at those organ scores.

On a totally different note, I have seen the future of church music, and its title is "The Renewed Mind is the Key to the Christ in Me":
via Countercritic

This has been bouncing around the blogosphere for a while, it seems. A quick Google search reveals that this song was recorded not in 1982 but in 2007, and is the product of a Biblical research group in Ohio. Those of you with strong stomachs can also view other performances by their "Prevailing Way Chorus Choir", including a rendition of "Ein feste' Burg".

Edit: "The Renewed Mind" has disappeared both from YouTube and from the original source website.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Great moments in musical analysis

Prokofiev's Toccata starts off with a perpetual repetition of the note D, interchanged between the right hand (which plays the single note) and the left hand (which plays the same note but with the lower octave as well). After a brief development, there are chromatic leaps in the left hand whilst the right hand plays a repeated figuration. The two hands soon switch positions, although the leaps still continue for a while.

A series of split chromatic thirds leads upwards until a descending melody (in A) with chromatic third accompaniments begins, with the left hand traveling in contrary motion upwards. This leads back to the main repetition 'theme' before a very short pause. Both hands soon play a weaving series of the right hand's repeated figuration from the start, before the split chromatic thirds pattern reappears. This leads more violently to the descending melody pattern, but this time in D, before the D repetition 'theme' reappears, this time in alternating octaves in both hands. The toccata slows down and halts temporarily before a chromatic rising scale leads to octave exhortations, followed by a glissando sweep up the keyboard to end on the top D.
Wikipedia on Prokofiev's Toccata, op. 11

A wonderful example of why writing about music is so difficult. I mean, everything he says is true, as far as it goes, but the result is just a blow-by-blow account of the piece, couched in highly technical language. If you know the piece, this description might remind you of how it goes; if you don't, the description is no help at all.

At the beginning of the article, Prokofiev's piece is described as a "further development of the toccata form", and names Bach, Schumann, Kabalevsky, Ravel and Khachaturian as composers of well-known toccatas. Maybe it's just me, but I expect the average educated musician would think of an organ toccata (probably the Widor) before realizing that there's one by Ravel (it's in Le Tombeau de Couperin, if you're wondering) or by Kabalevsky (I mean, I'm not surprised that he wrote one, but it's not a repertory piece). This is pure discrimination - an egregious case of a pianist-author picking a group of his piano-toccata cronies over a group of better-qualified organ-toccata candidates - and I plan to report the matter to the appropriate authorities. And finally, kids - toccata is a process, not a form.

Lest you come to the conclusion that I'm just another snobbish Wikipedia-basher, I refer you once again to their Messiaen article. Not only is this one of the best Wikipedia articles I've ever seen, but probably the best introduction to the composer's life and work currently available in any medium.

Previously: Almost profound