Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Punk rockers support Messiaen

(via the Punk Rock Jacket Generator)

Eight months to go

The arrival of May 1st tomorrow means that we are exactly one-third of the way through the Messiaen centenary. (Aaaugh! It's going by too quickly, and I still haven't learned the complete works!) By an interesting coincidence, May 1st also happens to be Ascension Day this year, the festival in the Christian calendar most associated with the composer. Part of this is good marketing by Alphonse Leduc: the sheet music for Messiaen's organ cycle L'Ascension has the name of the festival in huge letters on the cover, printed atop a 9 X 12 picture of a sculpture of Jesus. It couldn't be any more obvious that this is sacred organ music for Ascension Day. In fact, the smallest thing on the title page is the composer's name: perhaps they hope that stores will file it next to the Rutter and K. Lee Scott, and organists will buy it by mistake.

In any case, the cycle makes liturgical planning really easy; just plug in a movement anywhere that you need organ music, and you look like you've thought through the service really carefully! For me, this is the excuse I needed to learn "Alleluias sereins", the only movement in the cycle I haven't played yet. I'm also pulling out the "Transports de joie" movement as a postlude. No matter how many times I perform it, there are five bars that I can never quite play properly. Whatever - if it's not ready by Sunday I'll ask someone to start vacuuming the sanctuary around page 4.

The choir of Westminster Abbey gets no points for Messiaenological correctness; they have just released a CD of organ and choral music for Ascension Day which includes no Messiaen whatsoever! Messiaen enthusiasts worldwide will be boycotting English products in protest, and will immediately begin referring to the cor anglais as the "Freedom Horn".

BTW I'm quite aware that there are good reasons for the lack of Messiaen on the Westminster Abbey discs - such as the fact that everyone and his brother will be playing the Messiaen cycle for Ascension, the fact that the rest of the programme consists of English music (and, errr, Schutz), and the fact that the CD was actually recorded over a year ago, well before the centenary. I don't care. I'm not paid to be reasonable.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bizarre activities

Taking the advice of Arnold Bax to heart, your humble correspondent accompanied fellow blogger Heather to a Venetian blinds convention! Considering how infrequently such conventions are held, I was surprised at how fascinating it was.

Errr, no. Actually, I was helping Heather move her stuff into her new apartment. Tantalizing as it sounds to me now, the idea of a "Venetian blinds convention" was a product of my own fevered imagination as I loaded three (!) sets of Venetian blinds into a van. (Note to Heather: time to start throwing things out.)

What's on for tomorrow? Bus joyriding - a bit of fin-de-siecle extravagance before my bus pass expires. Yes, you read that right.

Hardly less bizarre is my ambition to learn the serial Organ Symphony (1960) by Australian composer Malcolm Williamson. I'll be test-driving a portion of the symphony in recital in Toronto next Wednesday, before performing the piece in full at the end of the month. It's a fascinating piece, based on a nine-tone row but including a variety of influences from medieval organum and isorhythm, the French romantic organ tradition, Olivier Messiaen, to jazz and popular music of the time. I don't plan to mention to the audience that the piece is serial - the musically literate might smell a hint of tone-rowishness in the second movement, but surely not in the gorgeous F-sharp minor modality of the Aria I or the quartal harmonies and angular rhythms of the Toccata. I think that if the modernist music of the mid-twentieth century is to be revived, we must somehow separate itself from the dry scholasticism which used to accompany it. (The audience doesn't need a two-page programme note explaining the row permutations in a serial piece, any more than it needs a fold-out Schenkerian voice-leading diagram for a Beethoven symphony. They don't care.)

Williamson's music is worth reviving. I first encountered his music when I sang as a member of the children's choir for his Julius Caesar Jones. This figure gave us headaches:

You'd think this would be enough to make any normal child run screaming from the room, but the music clicked with me surprisingly quickly and has stayed with me all these years. I had no idea who Malcolm Williamson was at the time, although he was very much alive when we performed it and serving as the Master of the Queen's Musick. I only realized last year that he died in 2003; I read nothing about it in the papers at the time. (For anyone else who was in the same boat, here is one of the better obituaries.) I suspect that part of his recent obscurity had to do with his colourful lifestyle (his unusual sexual proclivities made the papers a few times, and he had serious problems with alcoholism), and the fact that the royal family apparently grew to dislike him (he frequently failed to deliver on important commissions for ceremonial events, and perhaps because of this is the only Master of the Queen's Musick in recent history not to have been knighted). Still, none of this should matter if the music's any good, and I've been pleased to see some of his orchestral music appear on recordings in the last few years. Organists should take note - here's a composer who learned our instrument for the sole purpose of playing the organ works of Messiaen (a worthy goal!) and spent his whole life writing organ repertoire. Humour your blogging friends - learn a Williamson piece today!

By the way, if you ARE the kind of person interested in the row permutations of the Williamson symphony, there's a really interesting article (PDF format) here.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Spotted in Toronto

. . . a dead ringer for Maurice Ravel, sitting in a coffee shop window.

What is the polite thing to do in situations like this? Do people appreciate having strangers tell them that they look like a particular dead composer?

Osbert: Excuse me, sir - has anyone told you that you look just like the composer Ravel?
Man: What? Who is Ravel?
Osbert: He was a twentieth-century composer, mostly of orchestral and piano music.
Man: I don't know what you're talking about; I myself only listen to country music.
Osbert: Never mind. Sorry to have troubled you.
Man: Are you happy with your current long distance coverage?

Organists in modern literature

I took advantage of some time on a train yesterday to read The Confidential Clerk, the only remaining one of T. S. Eliot's verse dramas I hadn't read. (Interesting as they all are, Murder in the Cathedral is by far the best of them. I can't see a play like The Family Reunion, for example, holding the stage today. Pace Vagn Holmboe, some works of art are unknown for a good reason.)

The interesting thing about it, however, is the presence of an organist as protagonist. The central character, Colby Simpkins (what a name!) is a disappointed musician; at one time, he aspired to be an organist but soon realized that he was at best, a second-rate performer and would never be able to reach the apex of the profession. So, as usually happens in these sorts of dramas, he ends up working in some ill-defined position in the world of finance. Will he settle into his new life, forgetting the charms of a smoothly voiced principal chorus, or will he pursue his dream and settle down as the organist of a medium-sized parish church? You'll have to read it yourself and see.

The best literary organist is still Robertson Davies's inimitable character Humphrey Cobbler, who appears in the three volumes of the Salterton Trilogy. Cobbler is an amalgam of every eccentric, avuncular English organist you've ever met, and even has appropriately organist-like enthusiasms, such as a preference for the "private pleasure" of Purcell over the mass-marketed music of a Handel or Vivaldi. If you don't know these books, consider adding them to your summer reading list; you'll be supporting the kind of Canadian literature that isn't about growing up on the prairies in the Great Depression.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Words of Wisdom

You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk-dancing.
Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Surgeon General's warning

Before the Abbey concert [Walton] went for a drink with a friend who was a doctor. She noticed that, after climbing a long flight of stairs, Walton was alarmingly out of breath and she arranged from him to see a heart specialist. There was nothing wrong with his heart, but the specialist noticed a shadow on his left lung. A second opinion diagnosed cancer, the result of smoking twenty pipes a day[!]. He at once instructed his wife to throw away all his pipes and tobacco and he never smoked again.
Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Walton, 229.

This is probably the most revealing bit in what is proving to be a somewhat uninteresting biography of a favourite composer of mine. What better portrait of a composer like William Walton - iron discipline hidden beneath a hedonistic, carefree exterior?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why Hindemith is the coolest

Among all the participants in the creation, distribution, and reception of music the individual with the keenest sense for the technique vested in a piece of music is always the performer. The impeccable technique of a masterpiece he transmits will be the most valuable stimulus for his own technique of re-creation; his performance will be carried along by the composition's perfection; his craving for the listener's satisfaction will most readily be crowned with success. Since, on the other hand, technical imperfections of a piece either prevent the performer from soliciting the listener's satisfaction or force him to cover by his own re-creative power the weaknesses the composer's inability has exposed, he is the one who suffers first and has to pay most dearly for others' faults. No wonder, then, that ordinarily he develops a judgment for technical quality which may at times appear biased, short-sighted, and directed by his own selfish purposes, but which in its uninhibited relation to practical needs is more realistic than the judgment of either the composer or the listener. The composer, busy computing the structural material, frequently loses direct contact with the effects his piece will release; and the listener is not interested in the technical arrangement of the dishes served as long as he derives any aesthetic satisfaction from consuming them.
Paul Hindemith, A Composer's World, 120.

That's RIGHT. And, I'd venture to guess, this is why most of the successful composers of history were also able performers. As a performer, I've often observed Hindemith's principles in action; many times I've listened to a piece, sometimes repeatedly, and decided to learn it and play it in a church service. If the piece is poorly constructed on a technical level, I'll know it by the time I've prepared the work to a performance standard. Many times I've snarked about this to people after church services ("Well, the performance went all right but it's not that great of a piece"), who had no idea what I was talking about; they thought it was terrific.

Moral: The performer always knows best.

Subsidiary moral: Hindemith is too cool for words. As a composer, he's one of the dozen or so truly major masters of the twentieth century, but as a thinker and all-around musician, he beats everyone else hands down.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Turangalila Symphony


Got back late last night from the Toronto Symphony performance of Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie, one of my favourite works ever. Performances of the work are few and far between, for practical reasons as much as anything else. First, you need a huge orchestra that can play at a high technical standard for eighty minutes. Then, you need a virtuoso-caliber pianist who's willing to learn an extremely difficult part and then blend unobtrusively into the orchestra with the rest of the musicians - there are only a few spots in the work where the pianist's technical wizardry is clearly audible. Then, you need to book one of the very few professional Ondes Martenot players in the world, because the ondes part in the symphony is extremely prominent. Then you pray that someone will come to hear the piece, because otherwise you've just wasted a heck of a lot of money.

To their credit, the TSO bit the bullet and put on this rarely heard work. As far as I know, this is the first time the orchestra has played a major Messiaen piece in my concertgoing career; ironic when you consider that its 1968 recording of the work under Ozawa is considered one of the definitive readings of the piece. But how fitting that this orchestra should complete the circle by performing the work again forty years later, in the centenary of the composer's birth.

Is it a cliche to say that you don't know Turangalila if you've only heard it on a recording? That's true of any piece of music, but it's true in spades of Messiaen's symphony. I've listened to my recording of the piece enough times to wear it out; I knew exactly what was around every corner when I heard the piece live, but still it overwhelmed me. At the most intense moments in the piece, I could barely breathe. I've obviously drunk the Kool-Aid and become a full-fledged Messiaen fanatic, but I don't care.

The work paired with the Messiaen on last night's programme was the recently composed Organ Concerto of Jacques Hetu (one of our best living Canadian composers and, incidentally, a Messiaen pupil) with Olivier Latry as soloist. If the pairing had been any other work in the orchestral literature, I would have gone home raving about this concerto; it's one of the best contemporary concertos for our instrument that I've ever heard, and deserves to enter the repertoire alongside the Poulenc and Jongen concerti. Hetu, a non-organist, writes for the instrument as a sort of Swiss Army knife of solo instruments, and the organist's solo lines enter into fascinating dialogues with the orchestral woodwind section. In this way, he deftly avoids the usual trap of the organ concerto repertoire (that is, having the organ's sound blend into the orchestral wind section and turn into mush). The central Passacaglia, the longest movement of the concerto, has tremendous emotional power, ending in a massive orchestral climax with the full organ blazing away; when the orchestra drops out to reveal the organ alone, the sound could practically flatten you against the wall. This is basically tonal music, and the audience seemed to genuinely enjoy it. Latry, as always, was splendid.

But the Messiaen was what made my evening. Superstar pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, who rarely plays in Ontario, ripped off the solo piano part like it was nothing; I've never heard anyone play the cadenza at the end of the fifth movement so fast. Jean Laurendeau made the Ondes Martenot sing beautifully, although I would have liked more volume from the ondes to hear him through the full orchestral texture. (I'm inclined to blame this on where I was sitting.) The TSO musicians acquitted themselves beautifully; the score is extraordinarily long and difficult and I heard no slips or mistakes anywhere.

All of which is to say: good job, TSO! You made this Messiaen-lover's evening; the performance was absolutely worth the drive to Toronto.

Which was why I was so annoyed to read this Toronto Star review by John Terauds. Terauds, whose writing I generally enjoy, doesn't seem to get contemporary music. In this review, as in his review of the previous concert in this Messiaen series, he seems to spend most of his time talking about the number of people that left during the concert. Reviewing last night's concert, he tells us that "half the audience sat riveted up to an ending that sonically raised Roy Thomson Hall's roof in fortissimo ecstasy", while "others fled as soon as they could."

Folks, this is not good classical music reporting. Here's why.

1) He suggests that approximately half of the audience stayed till the end, while the other half left the theatre. Roy Thomson Hall, which seats over 2,600, was practically full (so let's say there were 2,400 in the audience). I saw about fifty people leave from where I was sitting. There were probably more than fifty people who walked out, but there certainly weren't over a thousand.

2) He suggests that people walked out "as soon as they could", put off by the "complexity of the content" of Messiaen's piece. In reality, I didn't notice anyone leave until after the sixth movement, which is one of the least complex and most tonal movements. This means that the vast majority of the audience sat through the hyper-complex, modernist Turangalila I and Chant d'Amour movements. Why did they leave after the sixth movement, the beautiful Jardin du sommeil d'amour? Because it was a twelve-minute slow movement with almost no variation in mood. In other words, they weren't put off by the work's modernity; they just lost interest in listening. The movement also ended at exactly 10:00; by this time the concert had been going on for two hours and many of the people who left were carrying small children. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how Terauds came to the conclusion that a significant proportion of the audience "[left] as soon as they could".

3) But here's the broader problem: Terauds is writing from the perspective of a traditional classical musician, writing for a traditional classical-music audience. When he uses Italian terms like fortissimo or technical terms like "contrapuntally", he assumes we'll know what he means. He also assumes that we'll agree with him when he states that new music is challenging and its performance is not normative. I can't help wondering what a musician from outside the classical world would think of something like this:
The composer, who died in 1992, explained that Turangalîla is all about the tension of love. But you'd hardly know it from listening. Instead, it presents itself as an intricate study of rhythm and overtones layered on overtones that use Western instruments in conventional ways and augmenting them with the percussion of gamelan.
I tread lightly over the grammatical problems in this last sentence; newspapers have notoriously tight deadlines. But listen to how he analyses the piece. What lay listener, walking in off the street, would hear Messiaen's symphony as "an intricate study of rhythm and overtones"? This is the work of an analytical mind, trained in Western music, trying to apply traditional classical values to a modernist work, and getting hung up on the asymmetrical rhythms and odd sonorities. But I think an inexperienced listener would understand the "tension of love" in Turangalila in a way Terauds doesn't seem to; he'd simply allow the music to wash over him like a film score. He might love it or he might hate it, but he'd understand it on a much more fundamental level than just a "study of rhythm and overtones", which is in the end a very superficial and misleading description of the work.

The bottom line is this - we will never find a large audience for classical music as long as the critical establishment caters to the thought patterns, prejudices, petty snobberies and elitism of the traditional symphony audience. We need writing that allows for no preconceptions, drawing in people who know nothing about classical music. And, I firmly believe, it all starts with the way we write about new music. The rest of the repertoire branches out from there.

One more question before I sign off: where were all the organists? One would think that a programme with a new organ concerto and a major work by Messiaen - the contemporary composer most associated with the organ - would draw all of my Toronto colleagues out of their churches. Instead, as I walked around the lobby I recognized dozens of people I knew from the Toronto musical community, but not a single one was an organist. And they couldn't be going to the Thursday performance, because that's choir night for almost all Canadian churches.

Why don't organists support these sorts of events? I noticed the same thing earlier this year when Christopher Herrick performed here; only about six of the organists in town showed up. If Herrick's recital couldn't drag us out on a Tuesday evening, what will?

Oh well. I don't have any answers, and so I'm re-posting the fifth movement of Turangalila which always makes me happy again:

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Introducing the new music historiography

Here, in brief, is the history of Western music.

In the beginning was Gregorian chant, the beginning of our musical tradition. At first consisting of simple recitation formulae, the chant tradition became increasingly elaborate, with longer melismas and more adventurous melodic lines. The anonymous composers of chant found monophonic music too limiting, and so they experimented with adding additional voices. At first, the new voices simply doubled the existing voice in parallel fifths and fourths, but the independence of the new voices gradually increased until the polyphonic style was born. Through the medieval and Renaissance periods, polyphony became more and more complex until the vertical sonorities created by the superimposed melodic lines became almost as important as the melodies themselves. When this happened, we were in the Baroque, and it was good. Composers had a system for writing melodies, a second system - polyphony - for combining several melodies, and a third system - tonality - for controlling the succession of vertical sonorities that the melodies created.

This was the beginning of "modern music" in the truest sense, and the history of music since then consists of the attempt to grapple with the ramifications of the tonal system, and to push its boundaries - just as the medieval composers sought to push the boundaries of monophonic chant by adding additional voices. And so through to the end of the nineteenth century, composers worked within the tonal system, adhering to the basic concept of a "tonal centre" around which music should be organized. But to make their music more original, to overcome these limitations, they edged farther and farther from the tonal centre. Sometimes they'd wander so far from the centre that you could hardly tell whether it was there at all; but the system demanded that they return to it eventually, so they always did.

Then there arrived a man, and his name was Schoenberg, and he saw the Truth, and the Truth was that tonality is merely a human construct. Why have a tonal centre at all, he asked; couldn't music get along with the old rules of melody and polyphony but without the newer rules about producing certain successions of chords? And so he created music which had no tonal centre, and which followed no harmonic rules, and when this happened, he had created Atonality, and it was good. And the people rejoiced in their freedom from the shackles of harmonic oppression, and hosted dance parties to Schoenberg's Moses und Aron.

Except we all know this never happened. Atonality wasn't the be-all and end-all of music, and no-one really believes it ever was. The history I just presented is totally old-fashioned. Here, now, is what really happened to Western music:

In the beginning there was the Harmonic Series, and from the Series sprouted music as we know it. Because of the physical fact of the Harmonic Series, tonality is ingrained into the mind of every human being. So when Catholic monks began to compose the earliest examples of polyphony, it was natural for them to use parallel fifths as their building blocks - since fifths are the purest intervals in the harmonic series. When John Dunstable began composing with major thirds in the fourteenth century, he was merely taking the next logical step by using the next consonant interval in the series as a building block. And so our harmonic system, based on thirds and fifths, is founded on physical fact; there is no other basis for pitch organization than the major triad. As music progressed to the end of the nineteenth century, its relationship to tonality became more and more distant. Finally, a man named Schoenberg decided to try to do without tonality, starting a strange historical aberration called the "atonal school". His disciples set out to indoctrinate a generation of musicians to their indefensible viewpoints, and succeeded in imposing nothing less than a musical Dark Age. Composers who believed in tonality had their careers destroyed, while talentless, mathematically-inclined poseurs filled the composition departments of universities everywhere. Now that Schoenberg's disciples are finally dying off, we can finally repudiate this horrific period to the past. The few musical works worth playing from the last century are those by composers who stood up against the atonal cabal. Thankfully, we have now reached a new golden age of enlightenment, when we realize that all musics - Western music, world music, popular music, and every other kind of music that isn't atonal - are equal!

As you may have gathered, I don't find this viewpoint particularly convincing either. The first one was orthodoxy at most universities in the 1960s, while the second one seems to have become orthodoxy now, but they both strike me as equally foolish. But, on the other hand, I've never come up with a narrative of my own to replace these two ideas, and usually end up advocating whichever one seems like the lesser of two evils at the time.

Well, no more! I'm going to take a crack at developing my own historiography of Western music, with the specific goal of explaining what happened to atonality. This is obviously too broad for one post, but I'm going to start by putting down two axioms:

1) Pitches separated by an octave are equivalent.
2) There is no such thing as atonality.

More later.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Many happy returns

An unusually interesting combination of composer birthdays today: Rachmaninov, Busoni, and Bergsma. ("How does he know this?" See this post.)

Sergei Rachmaninov is a composer I've tried not to enjoy for years. I was convinced he was a post-romantic hack, all sloppy emotion and piano pyrotechnics with no substance. On Sunday, however, I went to a performance of the orchestral Symphonic Dances, and I gave up. The music was too good, and trying not to enjoy it was too much work. This does not mean that I'm quite willing to forgive him for inflicting the op. 2 C-sharp minor Prelude upon the world, but progress is progress.

Ferruccio Busoni is just really interesting. His Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music anticipates compositional trends like microtones and electronic music. His actual music, while not quite as exciting as this would suggest, is quite forward-looking, bordering on atonality in places. I treasure his delightfully overblown Bach transcriptions for solo piano; occasionally I will take out his arrangement of the organ Toccata, Adagio and Fugue and try to play it. Once you stop laughing at the sheer audacity, his transcriptions are a musical world all of their own. One of the compositions I most want to hear performed is the Busoni piano concerto, which supposedly introduces a male chorus in the last movement. Any composer that would think of an idea like that is worth getting to know.

Who's William Bergsma? A forgotten American composer, that's who. I've heard one Bergsma work in my lifetime - the Chameleon Variations. It's very nice.

Since I last posted, I performed one of the scariest organ recitals programmes ever - the Allegro of Widor's Fifth Symphony, Bach's c- Trio sonata, Durufle's Prelude and Fugue sur le nom d'ALAIN, and Sowerby's Pageant. I am NEVER playing a programme like that again - there was nowhere in the entire programme where I could take a rest, just pages and pages of difficult music full of potential pitfalls. It went quite well, though, considering the circumstances.

As you were.