Thursday, February 28, 2008

How to confuse Google

This post inaugurates a new, hopefully recurring feature in this blog: Little-Known Liturgical Gebrauchmusik! In it, we hope to feature examples of choral music which serve a useful, unassuming purpose in Christian liturgy. These are not Great Works of Art - you won't see them on recital programmes, or on recordings - but they are nevertheless written with skill and craft. They meet my unscientific standards for quality in choral music: does the voice leading suggest that the author passed university harmony? Does the text setting suggest that the author understands the rhythm of the language? Is there gratuitous bassploitation? The works featured here are generally quite practical for parish choir performance, sometimes for unison voices alone, but for one reason or another don't seem to be widely known to choir directors. So I'm posting them on this blog, where important world leaders will read about them and pass appropriate legislation.

The feature is also a thinly disguised polemic against the choral-industrial complex. Every choir director receives leaflets in the mail from sacred music publishers with samples of new choral music. Much of this literature is simply garbage, but because it's so practically scored and easily available it becomes the main diet of many congregations throughout North America. My position on the matter is that there is simply no excuse for bad choral music. There is no ensemble with a wider-ranging repertoire than the mixed choir - to perform music which falls below a certain minimum standard of craftsmanship is a failure of imagination on the part of the director. And so I hope to demonstrate that it is possible to reconcile the need for quality with the practical needs of parish church performance.

Little-Known Liturgical Gebrauchmusik #1 is Bairstow' Service in E-flat. A complete setting of the Morning, Evening and Communion services for unison voices, this is extraordinarily well-designed. Built on a few motives which are repeated, combined and extended throughout the course of the service, this is easily teachable to a less experienced choir. We're going to be switching to this setting of the Communion Service after Lent is over; the choir enjoys it very much, especially the Agnus Dei. If the congregation picks it up readily, we'll put it into our regular rotation of mass settings. And I'll have the Morning Service in the organ bench in case we need to do a choral matins in a hurry sometime - it'd be much more impressive-sounding, and easier to teach, than the dull canticle chants in the Canadian Psalter.

All still in print from OUP, except for the Morning Service, which is available in a reprint edition.

And on an slightly different note, let's all give a warm welcome to the person from Poland who found this blog while searching for "Middle English Vocabulary". I'm not sure if discussions of liturgical music and the works of Brian Ferneyhough were what you were expecting, but maybe those were the search terms you were going to try next.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The art of bad writing

To write badly is not difficult. A quick glance around the blogosphere will verify this; even the best writers occasionally produce inapt turns of phrase or unfortunate typos in the heat of battle. Little stylistic infelicities creep into our prose and confuse whatever message we might be trying to get across. A glance through the archives of this blog will probably provide the best examples of this; I always try to avoid reading my unpolished prose after the fact because the accumulated poor word choices, tangled syntax or awkward turns of phrase annoy me so much. These things happen to everyone at some level; this is why smart writers edit their work mercilessly.

To write badly on a really epic scale, however, is very difficult. Mere illiteracy does not suffice; a poorly spelled and grammatically weak piece of writing only tires the reader. The best examples of truly bad writing I've come across (Eye of Argon is a notable exception) go beyond this level; their writers could write relatively correct, unostentatious prose if they tried, but this isn't enough. They want to be Profound, to be Serious Writers, to write Great Narrative. They struggle mightily with a task that most of us would never attempt, and their reward is the mockery of generations of readers.

An interesting case is Amanda McKittrick Ros, whose work was "admired" by such twentieth-century luminaries as Tolkien, Aldous Huxley, and C. S. Lewis. And one can easily see why; no ordinary writer would think, for example, of the following opening line, from her novel Delina Delaney:
Have you ever visited that portion of Erin's plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?
I don't have a clue what this means. But you get the impression that a great deal of effort went into crafting it, and you almost feel bad for so churlishly failing to understand it. And try as you might to emulate it, you quickly realize that such bad prose is incredibly difficult to craft. Witness the Lyttle Lytton Competition, which since 2001 has challenged entrants to write the worst possible opening line to an imaginary novel. Some of the entries have been very good, but most are unconvincing - you can't imagine a real novel beginning that way, or the prose style makes it clear that the author is a good writer trying to be funny.

The only musical analogue I can think of is the Waltz from one of Stravinsky's Suites for small orchestra. This is a rare example of successful, purely musical parody; a little band playing almost impossibly banal music, with a trumpet player who can't seem to count.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

More piano destruction

My friend Christine of SadOatcakes posted a link to the following wonderful video in the comments section of my post below, and I enjoy this far too much not to share it:

Flaming pianos! In a trebuchet! But my favourite part is the caption "Hew Kennedy - Rich English Guy" that appears about six seconds in. "Rich English Guy"?

Osbert Parsley - your source for senseless piano destruction since 2007.


Ah, February - that time when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts like "I wonder what repertoire the major symphony orchestras will be performing next season?". Most of the orchestra websites now have this information, and so I spent a few happy minutes flipping through the upcoming season of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The staff of This Blog Will Change the World would like to commend the TSO administration for programming some interesting repertoire which I'll try to get out to see when I'm in town. Nielsen's Fifth! Takemitsu! (I've never heard Takemitsu live! Excitement!)

However, when I realized that the TSO is running a Mozart@253 Festival, a little voice inside my head started to scream. You see, they've been running festivals under that title since 2005. I didn't object when I saw Mozart@249, 250, and 251, because the 250th anniversary celebration is a pretty significant event, but guys! It's. Time. To. Stop. There is no need to come up with a pretext to have a three-concert series of Mozart's music. Mozart has been standard repertoire for as long as anyone can remember. Audiences like his music. Musicians like his music. Peter Oundjian is a good Mozart conductor. Therefore, you should feel free to give all-Mozart concerts a couple of times a year. But stop pretending it's because of the anniversary. No-one cares.
We know the Mozart of our Father's time
Was gay, rococo, sweet, but not sublime
A Viennese Italian; that is changed
Since music-critics learned to feel "estranged";
Now it's the Germans he is classed amongst,
A Geist whose music was composed from Angst,
At International Festivals enjoys
An equal status with the Twelve-Tone Boys;
He awes the lovely and the very rich,
And even those Divertimenti which
He wrote to play while bottles were uncorked,
Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked,
Are heard in solemn silence, score on knees,
Like quartets by the deafest of the B's.
What next? One can no more imagine how,
In concert halls two hundred years from now,
When the mozartian sound-waves move the air,
The cognoscenti will be moved, than dare
Predict how high orchestral pitch will go,
How many tones will constitute a row,
The tempo at which regimented feet
Will march about the Moon, the form of Suite
For Piano in a Post-Atomic Age,
Prepared by some contemporary Cage.
Excerpt from W. H. Auden: "Metalogue to The Magic Flute" (Lines composed in commemoration of the Mozart bicentenary, 1956. To be spoken by the singer playing the role of Sarastro.)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Take that, piano!

A lot of organists go through a stage of extreme disenchantment with the piano, usually around the time they switch permanently to the organ. I certainly did; when I started playing the organ I was struck by the tonal variety of the instrument in contrast to what then seemed the monochromatic sound of the piano. The instruments are really opposites, of course. the piano's sound is essentially black-and-white, but it's easy to provide intermediate shades of grey by varying your touch on the keyboard. The organ has lots of tonal variety, but the smooth dynamic changes of the piano are almost impossible. The same applies to articulation; the piano is essentially a percussion instrument which tries very hard to produce sustained tone, while the organ can sustain tone for as long as you want but has difficulty being incisive and rhythmic.

As usual, I've wandered into the realm of pseudo-philosophical ruminations where what I really wanted to say was "Hey guys! It's a video of a piano going into a shredder! Ha ha!"

(via Classical Convert)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Schedule of an organist's madcap Sunday

8:30 AM: Stride confidently out the door, prepared for a brisk, ten-minute walk to church and a successful service!
8:30:01 AM: The porch and steps are sheer ice! Barely avoid major accident. Mental note: buy road salt.
8:31 AM: Belay that; everything is sheer ice. Cars are creeping along the road at approximately 15 km/hr, and they're STILL skidding and fish-tailing all over the place.
8:40 AM: Have successfully traversed three blocks without being killed.
8:45 AM: Lose control on icy sidewalk and very nearly slide into the path of a bus. Stop just in time.
8:55 AM: Reach totally unnavigable portion of sidewalk. By totally unnavigable, I mean that it was on a very slight incline. Fed up. Start walking through two-foot-high snowdrifts, as this is the only way to get any traction.
9:05 AM: Church finally reached, in more than triple the usual time.
9:06 AM: Realize that the new book of responsorial psalm settings hasn't arrived yet.
9:07 AM: Write a responsorial psalm.
9:15 AM: Practice voluntaries: the Howells Rhapsody no. 3 and "Via del silenzio" by Czech composer Lubos Sluka.
9:45 AM: Rehearse choir.
10:30 AM: Service begins.
12:00 PM: Service ends. It went well! The choir outdid themselves in the anthem (Oldroyd's "Prayer to Jesus", if you must know).
12:30 PM: Reach home. Ice has cleared, but now it is raining and the sidewalks are giant puddles. Yay.
1:40 PM: Depart for Faure Requiem performance.
2:00 PM: Dress for Faure Requiem.
3:30 PM: Performance of Faure Requiem.
5:00 PM: Performance over. Realize I have to be at another rehearsal in half an hour. Begin hitch-hiking routine.
5:30 PM: Rehearse for flute recital.
6:00 PM: Finish rehearsing for flute recital. Realize it's my turn to bring refreshments to chamber choir rehearsal.
6:02 PM: Begin wading to nearest corner store.
6:40 PM: Success! Refreshments obtained. Approach other chamber choir members to whine about my horrible day. They seem underwhelmed.
7:00 PM: Rehearsal begins.
9:08 PM: Rehearsal ends.
10:33 PM: Blog.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why I don't like Ferneyhough

I've just been reading an interesting exchange in the music blogosphere between critic A. C. Douglas (Sounds and Fury) and composer Matthew Guerrieri (Soho the Dog) The point of contention is a post by Guerrieri discussing his systematic approach to composition; for him, composition is less a matter of sudden inspiration than of methodically testing a variety of musical possibilities on each material. Douglas takes umbrage at this; for him, successful compositions are based on fully developed ideas which are worked out to create a continuous narrative, and any compositional artifices should be carefully concealed. In fact, Douglas views this emphasis on process to be a major flaw in contemporary composition. The workings of the machine should be invisible; you judge the product that comes out.

This disagreement is interesting for me only in that it reveals how differently I and ACD listen to music. For example, Tippett's Concerto for Orchestra, a work I admire, is based on an obvious compositional conceit; the orchestra is divided into small chamber groups (flute and harp, tuba and piano) which state musical material idiomatic to themselves. These musical ideas are then overlaid in different ways. The system is strict; the flute never plays the themes entrusted to the clarinets, for example. Once he's tried all the superimpositions he wants to, the movement is over. There are plenty of other examples of twentieth-century pieces which I love not despite, but because of the fact that their compositional conceits are obvious. Think of Stravinsky riffing on Mozart operas in The Rake's Progress, or Ives wondering how you could musically reproduce two different bands playing totally different pieces simultaneously.

In general, the music I dislike from the past century leaves me with no clues as to how it's put together. To take another Tippett example, I'm sure The Vision of St. Augustine is really cleverly written and an analyst would have a field day with it, but after struggling through it with a score a few times I find myself incapable of perceiving any musical coherence in it whatsoever. But the works which really infuriate me in this regard are the works of Brian Ferneyhough. After listening to a CD of his chamber works, I can't say that I understood what was going on for more than about ten seconds at a time. Occasionally I'd catch a hint of a phrase I could latch on to, a recognizable melodic contour, or something. Then, chaos. For minutes at a time. It's so rare that I feel like that when listening to music that I was actually horrified. I went to the library and consulted a volume of his prose writings, which I found equally impenetrable. You get the sense that, far from making the nuts and bolts of his composing (and prose!) visible, he's cultivated a surface layer of noise to scare off all but the initiates.

I'd bet I'm not the only one who shares this approach to music; when you can understand some of the nuts and bolts behind the piece, even in the anecdotal ways I've just described, it starts to make sense. Rather than being opposed to Douglas's ideal of a "seamlessly coherent musical narrative", these procedures can help bring the narrative into the foreground. The atonal pitch structures of Tippett are readily coherent when the form makes sense (the Concerto) and difficult to penetrate when the form is not audible (the Vision). Remember, the critics of twelve-tone music never complain that its compositional conceits are too obvious; they complain, instead, that its procedures are too complex to be perceived on an audible level. So let's have more fugues, and fewer pieces with titles like Unity Capsule.

The above should not be interpreted as one-sided criticism of Mr. Ferneyhough; the fault may well be mine, and not his.


Eloquent in its terseness

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Foraying into Faure

. . . and, once again, you get to witness the spectacle of a slightly shame-faced blogger returning to regular writing after being otherwise engaged for a week or so. Normal people probably think it's slightly bizarre that I feel such an obligation to write on this thing, but anyone who blogs understands the strange guilt that comes after falling behind on updating the thing. Blogs are like small children; if you leave them alone for long enough, you can almost hear them screaming "Feed me! Feed me!" And, like children, it is sometimes good for their character to let them suffer for a while, but you eventually have to succumb to their pleas or Children's Aid will come and take you away.

My life has been absorbed with the sort of time-consuming work that is at once overwhelmingly difficult to get finished and totally uninteresting. Must be mid-February! However, one pleasant change has been preparing for a performance of the Faure Requiem, which I'm accompanying; I've admired the piece for years but have never played any of it until now. Capturing the right orchestral sound is particularly difficult on the organ, and where Faure would have simply added a few more instruments to the texture I'm scrambling to wedge the swell box open with one foot and press a piston or two with my thumbs.

Here's King's College, Cambridge, in a 1980s performance of the Pie Jesu and Agnus Dei of the Requiem. The Agnus is by far the most challenging movement in the Mass to play well on the organ; constant dynamic changes, some of them extremely abrupt, but still retaining a sense of flow which is easily lost on the organ. It's interesting, too, to hear the famous soprano solo of the Pie Jesu done by a boy soprano. It's a lovely, pure sound, but in my opinion it does a disservice to the music. Like the corresponding movement of Durufle's Requiem, this is a "lullaby of death", and the voice of an adult, female soprano adds a layer of nuance that a boy soprano can't capture. In general, I find the English cathedral sound distorts French music a bit, and I'd rather hear an North American choir have a go at it if an authentic French ensemble isn't an option. But then, what do I know.

If none of the above interests you in the Faure recording I linked to, the video is also highly enjoyable for the 1980s hairdos and enormous eyeglass frames.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Hindemith on atonal music

To be sure, [atonal composers] do not, contrary to their conviction, eliminate tonality; they rather avail themselves of the same trick as those sickeningly wonderful merry-go-rounds on fair grounds and in amusement parks, in which the pleasure-seeking visitor is tossed around simultaneously in circles and up and down and sideways in such fashion that even the innocent onlooker feels his insides turned into a pretzel-shaped distortion. The idea is, of course, to disturb the customer's feeling of gravitational attraction by combining at any given moment so many different forms of attraction that his sense of location cannot adjust itself fast enough.
So-called atonal music, music which pretends to work without acknowledging the relationships of harmonies to tonics, acts just the same as those devilish gadgets; harmonies both in vertical and in horizontal form are arranged so that the tonics to which they refer change too rapidly. Thus we cannot adjust ourselves, cannot satisfy our desire for gravitational orientation. Again spatial dizziness is the result, this time in the sublimated realm of spatial images in our mind. I personally do not see why we should use music to produce the effect of seasickness, which can be provided more convincingly by our amusement industry. Future ages will probably never understand why music ever went into competition with so powerful an adversary.
Paul Hindemith, excerpt from A Composer's World, quoted in Henry Pleasants, The Agony of Modern Music. I really like Hindemith, and because he's a much livelier writer than Pleasants (burn!), even in translation (double burn!), reading his comments was a breath of fresh air. He's wrong too, of course, but he's charming about it.

One last kick at the can

As a first taste of Lenten discipline I ploughed through to the end of Henry Pleasants's The Agony of Modern Music this evening. My basic impression (he's wrong! and his ears aren't working properly!) hasn't changed since I posted my preliminary remarks: he's still wrong. And he's wrong in one stupid, obvious way and a few subtle, interesting ways.

The stupid, obvious way is, well, obvious. He doesn't like modern music. It doesn't appeal to him. This is reasonable; Pleasants himself quotes an aphorism attributed to Oscar Wilde that "to like equally and impartially all schools of art is to betray the soul of an auctioneer". It frankly astonishes me that anyone can give such a quote a prominent place in the introduction of a book whose thesis is that one particular school of art is without exception uninspired and awful. It's as though he honestly hasn't considered the fact that his own tastes are subjective; he's too busy criticizing concert promoters for failing to take into account the fact that other people's tastes are subjective. Throughout the book, these small hypocrisies and little contradictions accumulate, a result of his essential failure as a critic: not only is he unable to obtain any aesthetic pleasure from the art he describes, but he fails even to understand how other people might find it pleasurable.

I'd rather talk about the subtle, interesting ways that he's wrong, though, because they're, well, more subtle and more interesting. In particular, he displays a strange ambivalence about the Romantic period in music: on the one hand, he condemns it as a decadent age when the art-for-art's-sake justification for modernism was defined; on the other hand, he displays a definite preference for its music and spends most of its time talking about his composers. So his arguments contradict each other:

1) The Romantic period was a golden age of composition because its works are most appealling to large audiences.
2) The Romantic period was a golden age of composition because its composers achieved such material success and public adulation, which is in direct proportion to the quality of their music. (I am, if anything, making this argument less extreme than it was in the book. At one point, Pleasants makes the damning point against Schoenberg that he doesn't get swarmed in the streets by admirers like Verdi was.)
3) The Romantic period was a golden age of composition because its compositions best exemplify the narrative framework which allows listeners to follow a musical argument.

But on the other hand:

1) The Romantic period was a period of decline in composition because its composers separated themselves from society and cultivated individualist mythography.
2) The Romantic period was a period of decline in composition because its composers increased the use of chromaticism, which deprives listeners of a sense of tonal centre.
3) The Romantic period was a period of decline in composition because its composers turned away from melody as a source of musical interest and towards motivic development, flashy orchestration and rhythmic complexity.

Never mind whether any of these arguments are actually true; what's important is that they cancel each other out. The Romantic period prevents heart disease! but it causes cancer and you'll die by thirty-five. Pleasants's problem is that he can't persuade himself not to like Romantic music, but he can't accept their individualist philosophy of art or their historiography of continual "progress" which Schoenberg used to justify his break with tonality. And so he tries to have his cake and eat it too, with little success. He rejects the Romantic historiography of progress, but rather than jettisoning it entirely he just reverses it to turn music history into a decline from some golden age to the Mess We're In Now. (Composers cited in the book as instigators of this decline: Wagner. Strauss. Beethoven. Brahms. Bach. Mozart. Haydn. Pick one.) The reality, of course, is that there is no artistic progress - different artistic periods are different, not inherently better or worse. The sad part is that Ernst Krenek is quoted IN THE BOOK as saying exactly this, but Pleasants misunderstands it. Oh well.

Enough of this. I'll loan it to a few friends and then put it on a shelf where I will forget about it and not be able to find it when I remember about this book in twenty years.

Ash Wednesday

Bless├Ęd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.
from T. S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday"

Monday, February 4, 2008

Middle English Vocabulary Challenge

What is a "bonke"?

A "freke"?

A "marjory"?

(highlight to read answers)

bonke: hill
freke: person (c.f. modern English "freak")
marjory: pearl

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Liturgical Update

You'll be pleased to learn that I've continued to integrate silly church music conceits into my music lists since I last wrote on the subject. For example, last week was "Composers that Begin With 'V' Week", with organ voluntaries by Louis Vierne and an anthem by Victoria. This week is "Five Centuries of Church Music" week, and so we have an organ prelude from the eighteenth century (Bach: the underplayed BWV 663 setting of "Allein Gott"), communion music from the seventeenth century (Frescobaldi: one of the elevation toccatas, which I play despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that I know absolutely nothing about the style and couldn't read the tablature to save my life), and hymn tunes from the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The choir is singing an anthem by Thomas Attwood, which unfortunately duplicates a century we've already covered (they just couldn't get the Ockeghem up in time!) and the twentieth century is represented by a William Mathias organ postlude (the Processional - not his best piece, but lies well under the hands and congregations seem to like it.)

I ought to teach a course in liturgical planning; most of the music lists I see are much less subtle than this. For the season of Lent, I'm going to arrange the composers on my music list so the the first initials of the composers' names, read from top to bottom, spell "Self-Abnegation."

The Agony of Modern Music

What kind of books do I turn to for pleasure reading in my spare time? Why, wrong-headed polemics on musical subjects from several decades ago, of course! (Music Ho, anyone?)

Supposedly incredibly controversial in 1955, Pleasants's book plasters its manifesto on the back jacket. "Modern music is not modern and is rarely music. It represents an attempt to perpetuate a European musical tradition whose technical resources are exhausted, and which no longer has any cultural validity. . . New music which cannot excite the enthusiastic participation of the lay listener has no claim to his sympathy and indulgence. . . The evolution of Western music continues in American popular music, which has found the way back to the basic musical elements of melody and rhythm, exploited in an original manner congenial to the society of which it is the spontaneous musical expression."

Gack. How tiresome. And yet you hear poorly developed versions of the same arguments from the sort of concertgoers who are determined to dislike all twentieth-century concert music on principle, and from modern pundits who should know better. And so the book is of more than historical interest.

The basic problem with Pleasants's criticism becomes apparent in the first chapter. To wit: his ears are on backwards. To describe Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Ravel's Bolero as "fleetingly attractive novelties" is so totally wrong-headed that this is the only possible explanation. If someone had helped him to adjust them correctly before he wrote the book, we could have been spared years of fruitless argument. But it's too late, and we're stuck with it. Darn.

Here, basically, is the problem. Pleasants doesn't like twentieth-century concert music himself. That'll happen. But he projects his own lack of aesthetic sympathy onto faceless audience members, who he quotes as saying things like "I can't say I liked the new symphony, but then I don't understand modern music". As a performer, I can provide innumerable examples of twentieth-century works that excited genuine interest and enjoyment in lay audiences, dating from the beginning of my career as a church musician to the all-Messiaen concert I attended last night. And so Pleasants's idea of the state of modern music, a group of cognoscenti forcing bad music upon an audience that hates it but is too afraid to say so, is the reverse of reality. Audiences will accept all but the most extreme of modern musical constructions given a suitable frame of reference and a congenial environment; the ones holding them back from doing so are the performers, concert promoters, and other members of the "cognoscenti" who are too afraid to program modern music at all. Often, their musical education prevents them from fully appreciating the music themselves; their classical training makes them see all music through a lens of common-practice harmony and makes it impossible for them to accept music which differs from their textbook harmonic and formal narratives. It's the musicians that joke about the inaccessibility of modern music, not the public: the musicians have lost the ability to hear with lay people's ears and are really joking about the music's technical difficulty, and the public has never heard the music.

I actually intended this to be a short post. Whoops! I did break it up with a picture, though. I'm learning.