Monday, September 29, 2008

A web of clashing blocks?

My new favourite mixed metaphor:
Edgard Var├Ęse, however, went entirely beyond the familiar; in such works as Int├ęgrales 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

Monday, September 15, 2008

Historiographical mythbusting

Part III of an occasional series.

One of my pet projects on this blog is the attempt to debunk the conventional historiography of music. While the facts of music history (Beethoven was born in 1770; Rubbra wrote eleven symphonies; Delius is a terrible composer) are objective and unquestionable, our interpretation of those facts has been shaped by changing fashions. If you went to university in the 1960s, your professors probably taught history with the preconception that twentieth-century atonality was the logical, inevitable outcome of all previous musical developments. If you go to university today, your professors probably teach history with the preconception that twentieth-century atonality was an interesting anomaly, and that the resurgence of tonality (in either minimalism, neoromanticism or some form of popular music) has restored us to equilibrium. I don't find either of these narratives particularly convincing, but I'm naive enough to think that it's possible to come up with another one that works better. Before I can get to the stage of actually building a version of my own, however, I need to clear away a few lingering bits of mythology that turn up distressingly often:

Myth #1: It is possible to write atonal music.
This is a leitmotif of mine (see here, and here). I've never quite bought into the idea of atonal music, mainly because I've always perceived some level of tonal logic in works that I'm told are completely atonal. So-called "atonal" music skews our sense of tonal centre in the same way that post-Romantic chromaticism does - by using so many different pitch-classes (simultaneously or in succession) that it is impossible to perceive one of them as a tonic. The only difference between a piece by Wagner and one by Webern in this regard is that any individual combination of pitches in the Wagner will sound more familiar than the combination of pitches in Webern. (In his book, The Evolution of Music Through the History of the Perfect Cadence, Alfredo Casella shows how the increasing elongation and complication of cadential patterns through the nineteenth century finally gave way to a twentieth-century language in which cadential patterns are sometimes almost imperceptible, but still definitely present.)

And so - to rephrase what I've written previously - atonal compositional methods do not prevent a listener from perceiving pitch centres in a piece. If the composer is truly dedicated to his atonal ideal, the only way to stop the listener from hearing pitch centres is to change tonalities so quickly that the listener is completely disoriented - an effect that Hindemith commented on with disapproval. But this doesn't eliminate the influence of tonality; it merely suppresses it, and if the music was played more slowly, the listener would begin to detect patterns and impose the idea of a tonal centre upon the music.

Atonal music, in other words, is just tonal music where the changes happen too quickly to follow. Which has nothing to do with the compositional methods used to write the music (I'm fairly certain that Webern would be horrified to find that his audience could infer tonal patterns in his orchestral music), and everything to do with the human tendency to impose patterns upon the external world.

Myth #2: Twentieth-century art music is preponderately dissonant and complex.
I posted this summer on a brief experiment I performed this summer - take a random year during the twentieth century, and see what sort of music was composed during that year. (All of the music came from my own Itunes library, so this was obviously a highly unscientific experiment.) Taking the year 1969, I discovered that composers' language varied widely: we had everything from academic serialism (Rolv Yttrehus), to the avant-garde (Elliott Carter, Ligeti), to neo-tonality (Malcolm Arnold) to early minimalism (Gavin Bryars). There was no apparent pattern, except in that the musical languages seem to "average out" to a extended tonal language somewhere between the two extremes (composers like Tippett, Shostakovich, or Messiaen.) The same happens if you pick another random year in the twentieth century; in 1947, for example, we learn that A Survivor from Warsaw coexists with Rubbra's Fifth, or Symphonies of Wind Instruments with Durufle's Requiem.

With the benefit of hindsight, the last century now seems one of the most varied in musical history; it's hard to think of two composers further apart than Vaughan Williams and Webern, for example, and yet they were contemporaries who came to maturity at approximately the same time. It's certainly true that many composers of complex, dissonant music held a disproportionate influence on the musical world, but it's also true that there were no shortage of composers who wrote in a tonal, accessible style. (I've lost count of the number of times I've read in CD liner notes and composer biographies how much some minor 20th-century figure suffered because of his or her position as a tonal composer at the mercy of an atonal establishment. If all the "neglected", "isolated" tonal composers had gotten together in the 1960s, they could easily have staged a coup and had all the "atonal" composers shipped off to Siberia.) As we gain a clearer perspective of the twentieth century, I expect that we will have a clearer picture of the true relationship between "tonal" and "atonal" composers. Rather than perceiving the period as an anarchic battleground, we should understand the wide disparity in twentieth-century styles as part of a centuries-long tension between simplicity and complexity.

Myth #3: Western harmony is normative.
Apologists for neo-Romantic tonality often base their views on the idea that Western harmony can be derived from the harmonic series - the combination of high overtone pitches that is present in any pitched sound. This is based largely on the fact that the harmonic series opens with the interval of an octave, followed by a fifth, another octave, and a major third - in other words, with the notes of the major triad. After this, however, the pattern breaks down. The next unique note in the series is a seventh, which would turn the chord into a dominant seventh chord, except that the seventh partial in the series is extremely flat. The series diverges even further from Western norms as more unique notes emerge - a ninth, an extremely flat tritone, and an extremely sharp minor sixth - until finally the series dissolves into microtones.

For Western purposes, the series has to be massaged and twisted into various shapes in order to produce the correct notes for our system of equal-tempered, triadic harmony. Most other cultures, however, have interpreted the series rather differently; in many folk musics, we find scales which require fewer notes to the octave than ours, or which include microtonal pitches smaller than we are used to perceiving. Western art music is separated from most vernacular traditions by the existence of polyphony, which requires a sense of vertical harmony in addition to a melodic sense. This means that the traditional Western model of functional tonality is our only pre-20th-century model for applying the realities of the harmonic series to organizing vertical sonorities. However, that does not make the alternatives devised by modernist composers any less valid - think of Messiaen's idiosyncratic modes and unique cadential patterns, the quartal harmony of Hindemith, or the contemporary French spectral school, which bases its entire musical language on scientific analysis of the overtones produced by musical instruments. All of these systems are very different from the norm of common-practice tonality, but they are grounded in an understanding of the harmonic series and have proven to be effective means of organization in their own right.

In other words, we can be fairly sure that some aspects of our musical language are universal. The idea of octave equivalence, for example, is a natural outgrowth of the harmonic series and, as far as I'm aware, is shared by all cultures with a system of pitch organization. Likewise, all music (and, for that matter, all art) has inherent in it an alternation of tension and resolution which is expressed in music by the motion towards and away from a pitch centre. However, we should not assume that the other artefacts of our cultural tradition, such as equal temperament or triadic harmony, are permanent, or will last forever.

The past three posts have been dedicated mostly to attacking other people's ideas (even if they're mostly strawmen). When I continue this, I hope to make some attempt at developing my own version of history to replace the one I'm trying to demolish. Comments welcome.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A modest proposal

When your organist friends ask you how your day went, why not save time by replying with hymn numbers? (Numbers in this post are taken from the Canadian Book of Common Praise, 1998).

Excellent: 300, 624, 529
Good: 1, 84, 330
Average: 167, 350
Not great: 60, 239
Bad: 423, 502, 532
Abysmal: 227, 128, 460.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The future of piano playing

Culled from the depths of the Internet: WARPS (World Association for Ruined Piano Studies). A project spearheaded by composers Stephen Scott and Ross Bolleter, WARPS is dedicated to exploring the sounds that can be produced by decrepit pianos; for example, instruments that have been left outside in the rain with no maintenance for forty years.

The "sounds" section, in particular, is worth a visit. Like the prepared-piano Sonatas and Interludes of John Cage, some of the piano notes sound completely normal, others are out of tune or tinny-sounding, and others produce only a dull thud.

Previously: Flaming pianos, shredded pianos.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like, #108: Appearing to enjoy classical music.
There are a number of industries that survive solely upon white guilt: Penguin Classics, the SPCA, free range chicken farms, and the entire rubber bracelet market. Yet all of these pale in comparison to classical music, which has used white guilt to exist for over a century beyond its relevance.

Though white people do not actually listen to classical music, they like to believe that they are the type of people who would enjoy it. . .
(hat-tip to Life's a Pitch.)

A devastatingly accurate portrait, which I recognize from attending orchestra concerts and watching well-dressed people fidget through the entire concert and dash out of the hall as soon as the final ovation begins. I'm less enthused about this article than Amanda over at Life's a Pitch, who headlined her post with "For Immediate Release: Classical Music is Mainstream". I beg to differ: an article which portrays the classical music industry as being sustained by "white guilt" and existing "for over a century beyond its relevance" is not exactly going to encourage the CBC to bring back Music for a While.

Today's moderately ironic observation: The word "iamb" is trochaic.

Edit: Moreover, the word "anapest" is dactylic.