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


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.