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?

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.