Thursday, January 31, 2008

The trouble with kids these days

My God, what does sound have to do with music?
-Charles Ives

Circumstances have led to me singing a lot of pieces of contemporary a cappella choral music recently, and noticed that much music being written in this genre is essentially interchangeable, and often of dubious quality. There's a definite aesthetic to this music, one which can be summarized as follows:

1) Little polyphonic interest. The textures are hymnlike, with a melody in the soprano and all other parts harmonizing in the same rhythm.
2) Rich choral sonorities, with liberal use of suspension dissonances and even
3) Chords with added seconds, fourths etc. resulting from unresolved suspension dissonances.
4) Formal simplicity. Brief, through-composed settings of (usually) contemporary poetry.
5) Bassploitation. The piece ends on a carefully voiced major chord with a root of E-flat or lower.

The exclusion of all other elements of musical interest (counterpoint, form, and rhythm) means that the substance of the music is pure sound. It stands or falls by the aesthetic pleasure of the choral sonority. And, when this music is well-constructed harmonically and when the chords are well voiced, the impact is considerable. It's hard to remain cynical when you hear a lovely, widely spread D-flat major chord blossom, perfectly in tune, from the voices of a well-trained choir.

And yet, and yet. Perhaps it's the bassploitation that bothers me most; I sing bass in choirs, and generally take the lower part in any divisi, which means that I'm the one struggling with the low D-flats which I can only sing about 20% of the time. (I often hope for head colds before concerts.) I think my gut reaction against this kind of music goes deeper than this, however. I find it hard to believe, for example, that it's a coincidence that this kind of music flourishes at the same time that sixteenth-century counterpoint is disappearing from the education of young composers. The a cappella chorus, after all, is a four-voice ensemble, and is most naturally treated in a contrapuntal manner. Worst of all is the almost illiterate manner in which many of these composers treat text - both in their selection of texts and in the way they are set. One particularly egregious example sets a Petrarchan sonnet by a well-known English poet, but brings the music to a screeching halt after the penultimate line of the octave. The result is that the structure of the poem is lost, and the meaning of several lines is made totally unclear.

The essential characteristic of this style of writing is voluptuousness - a deliberate emphasis on the sensual pleasures of musical harmony at the expense of structural rigour. And the flourishing of this kind of music has a lot to do with the size of the choral market; thousands of schools, community ensembles, churches etc. are looking for new choral repertoire and are happy to pander to their audiences with these sonic baths rather than challenging them with more serious repertoire. And the choral-industrial complex, with its stable of composers, is more than happy to continue to supply more repertoire in the style.

I've been hard on this music, and I've deliberately avoided naming names of composers or pieces because I don't consider such frontal attacks particularly productive. (Besides: love the sinner, hate the sin!) What's more, this style has become such a part of the North American choral scene that one can see traces of it in the work of otherwise fine composers. However, serious composers should take note, and should set chorally-inclined students suitable purging exercises. (Assignment: Set a nonsense text in an entirely heterorhythmic style, cadencing on a unison middle C.) But it's interesting to note that this exaltation of sound as an ideal in itself is not unique to bad early twenty-first century choral music. The empty virtuosity of many 19th-century display pieces serves the same function. So does flashy orchestration. Ives was right: sound and music should be kept carefully separate.

An interesting side note here is that this style of music is entirely European. That is, only our art-music tradition could produce a style of music which places so high a value on harmony and vertical sonorities and so low a value on the integrity of individual lines. After all, the subtle harmonic shifts which characterize this music lead to rather difficult and sometime unvocal parts for altos and tenors. Their parts are totally uninteresting and often unpleasant in themselves, but create nice chords. In contrast, every non-Western tradition I'm aware of (other than monophonic folksong) has a great deal of polyphonic interest between individual instrumental lines. The kind of choral music I've been describing is dependent on a Western ideal of submerging group identity into the realization of an individual's compositional artifice. I'm not taking a position against this, I'm just sayin'.


And a discussion question: Why does schmaltzy music emphasize style (pretty harmonies) over substance (musical narrative, as expressed through form), while shmaltzy poetry emphasizes substance (narratives about tragic lives, dying puppies etc.) over style (euphonious combinations of sounds, pungent word choices, etc.)? Perhaps the answer's obvious, but I find this disparity very interesting.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Great Paradoxes of World History

Charles Wood's anthems are tuneful, solidly constructed, and masterpieces of text setting. His evening canticle settings are dull as all get out.

Michael Tippett's Concerto for Orchestra is a clever idea which loses nothing in the execution, and (more importantly) is eminently enjoyable even if you don't figure out the underlying structure. His piano concerto is one of the best of the century. How could this man write dreck like The Vision of Saint Augustine? I don't get it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Enigmatic Hymn Quotation of the Day

Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?

Huh?

Every time I play this I imagine the entire congregation making finger quotation marks. But they never do.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Imminent Demise of Organ-Playing!

Thanks to David Sinden for the link to this interesting article on the crisis in organ-playing and the changing trends of church music. I'm always amused by how much these issues seem to surprise newspaper reporters, even though church music has been "in crisis" for the past half-century: copy on these matters always seems to run as follows:
For years, the asthmatic groan of pipe organs has been the norm in churches throughout the Western hemisphere. Worshipers have clung tenaciously to their favourite hymns, like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Onward, Christian Soldiers". But in St. Bill's Presbyterian Church, Kapuskasing, members of the congregation are treated to a new and different sound: the sound of guitars and drums accompanying catchy, upbeat choruses. These changes may irritate more conservative members of their congregation, who generally are attracted to the tradition of traditional church music, but Pastor Adrian Smarmingham thinks otherwise. "All music is equal before God," said Smarmingham, "so questions of tradition, or purported musical quality, should be irrelevant." People may agree or disagree with St. Bill's new innovation, but one thing is for certain: this development will change the course of church music for years to come.
Riiiight. Any church musician knows this is old, old news.

The article attributes this change in part to a shortage of qualified organists, a trend which it explains as follows:
There's a shortage of trained organists because ...
Younger people are not pursuing it as a career because ...
They don't hear it played as much as their elders did because ...
There's a shortage of trained organists.
Return to Step 1 and repeat until the second coming.
This is true on one level, but on another, very misleading. Here's why:

Organists with a high level of training (say, a master's in performance or equivalent) are in competition for the most prestigious, well-paid and demanding jobs in the country. Paul Jacobs is not going to quit his job at Juilliard and become organist for the local Anglican church with an uninspiring two-manual organ (you know this organ: it's the one with three stops in the pedal division, soggy action and an antiquated console) and a volunteer choir (average age: 57). Even if the church somehow was able to offer a full-time salary, they don't want the position. This is the same in all areas of musical performance: the newest young violin sensation isn't going to join the Secondary Philharmonic (you know this orchestra: it's the one that gives four concerts a year, divided between Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and badly done arrangements for pops concerts) if there are openings in the New York Philharmonic. Highly trained musicians want challenging work. Regardless of the musical climate, the best-quality church musicians will always be working at cathedrals or large, affluent parishes. That's life. And this means that to hear really good organ playing, the kind that would inspire a young person to take up the instrument, you have to either go to one of those churches or attend recitals. And the quality of music at these institutions - the ones which represent the pinnacle of the profession - is as high as it ever was. There are no shortage of qualified organists at this level. It's the rest of the profession we're worried about.

Fifty years ago, the average parish church would have an organist with a moderate amount of training - often they'd be converted pianists or people who took a few organ lessons years ago. Thing is, though, that to learn the organ at all takes substantial effort - you need a fair amount of piano technique, and even if you never use the pedals you'll need some help, or a lot of experimentation, to figure out the mechanics of the instrument. Compare this effort to the amount of effort it takes to find someone who can play the guitar or drum kit, and one can see why contemporary music is so appealing to smaller churches. The people are easy to find, and they come cheap: "worship teams" at such churches are often made up entirely of pools of volunteers who rotate. This is insidious; the church saves a lot of money, gets to feel self-righteously democratic about it (our musicians work for free because they're real Christians!) and thinks they're attracting young people. This, I think, is the real motivation behind the move to contemporary worship music.

The result? People who, a generation ago, would have only ever heard mediocre or poor organ playing, now hear no organ playing. This is partly sad: people don't hear the organ anymore! It's also partly encouraging: people don't hear bad playing, and therefore at least won't dislike the instrument! The adjectives people usually use to refer to the organ in bad newspaper articles ("solemn!" "stately!" "sombre!") are all true enough, but frequently carry a pejorative slant which makes it clear the author's mental benchmark is of very bad, lifeless playing. Unrelentingly loud, constantly legato with no change in registrations and with as many octave doublings as possible, down to the 16' register: this is what most people think of when they hear the instrument. (This is also the sound of "Pipe Organ" on most electric pianos, which may or may not be relevant.)

The way to change public perceptions, I think, is to arrange for the organ to be heard in flattering circumstances, with interesting performances of worthwhile repertoire. First engage with the broader classical music community, which is largely indifferent to organ playing, and the rest will follow. The "worship wars" will fight themselves if people's benchmark for organ playing is brought up to date.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Various and Sundry

Today's Silly Church Music Conceit:
Today was "Twentieth-Century German Neoclassicism" day at Osbert's church! Before the service, parishioners were treated to a partita by Ernst Pepping; afterwards, they exited to the strains of Hindemith's second organ sonata. One could almost sense the excitement. That nothing else in the service accorded with this theme bothers me not a whit - the contrast set off the two neoclassicists beautifully. The choir laughed when I explained to them that their Mozart anthem was intended to demonstrate the shared cultural heritage of both Hindemith and Pepping. Well, who's loffan now?

Today's Birthdays:
Happy birthday to Ernest Chausson, Walter Piston, and Yvonne Loriod, the brilliant pianist-wife of the late Olivier Messiaen. All wonderful people, so I'll forgive them for not inviting me to their birthday parties. (I am informed of the above by one of my new prized possessions, the Music Diary 2008 from Boosey and Hawkes. It is amazing, and has musician birthdays for every day of the year.)

Today's Unnecessary Label:
Pepping. Am I ever going to post on him again? It seems unlikely.

Today's Bad Pun:
Hahahaha! Llangloffan! Didya get it?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Boy, do I ever have a tough life

I am occasionally beset by strange, nagging doubts about why I bother playing organ voluntaries and what, precisely, their purpose is. If - as is the case at most churches - almost no-one actually listens to the organ prelude and postlude, what's the point of playing at all? This bothers me in particular because I, like most organists, spend a large proportion of my practice time preparing voluntaries - certainly much more time than I spend practicing hymns, psalms or most anthem accompaniments. If organ music before the service turns into Muzak to accompany congregational talking, wouldn't it be more appropriate to have silence before and after the service? I dunno.


The philosophical quandary, I think, is as follows:

One: Christian worship being an offering to God, the performance of organ voluntaries is, essentially, the organist's personal act of worship. Seen in this light, to offer anything other than the best possible repertoire and performance seems mingy - why would we offer God musical leftovers and save our best efforts for other occasions? In fact, it seems entirely pointless whether anyone's actually listening - the important thing is the sincerity and genuine labour you offer.

Two: Christian worship being a community activity, it is more important for the organist (or any other leader of worship) to serve the needs of the congregation than to indulge his or her own individualistic devotion. It doesn't matter how well-intentioned your musical offerings are, or how skilled your performance if the congregation can't understand the music, dislikes it, can't hear it, or simply isn't listening. Music's first priority should be communication, making itself quickly accessible to a wide variety of people.


You see my problem. There's little to choose from between the pietistic idealism of Tweedledum, who doesn't seem to notice that there are other people in the room when he plays works by Ferneyhough and Milton Babbitt, and the creepy socialism of Tweedledee, who makes worship in the body of Christ sound like the cultural policy of Stalinist Russia. There's got to be a way to reconcile the two ideals, for when put so baldly I can't agree with either of them. My own tendency is, if anything, towards Tweedledum, but with the following caveats:

1) Organ music is not merely a personal offering by the organist; it also addresses the congregation to prepare them for worship and send them back into the world afterwards. (This is in contrast to choral music, which addresses God on behalf of the congregation.)

2) The congregation's reaction is not irrelevant; ideally, the congregation should find some of the music immediately accessible and enjoyable; other music might be too challenging to understand immediately. If I receive nothing but complaints, I rethink my music lists - likewise if I never receive any.

3) The repertoire shouldn't always be the best possible, but it should be at a sufficient standard that it could command a person's full attention in another setting. If a piece would never be performed in a recital or recorded because it's too insipid, I avoid playing it. At the same time, the music should be appropriate for worship: this means either specifically designated liturgical music or absolute music, and excludes all music with a secular program (ie: most of the Vierne Pieces de Fantaisie).


Ho hum. This is all well and good, and would probably be accepted by many organists without problems. It does leave me, however, with a few nagging problems which I have trouble resolving:

1) I can't help thinking that we play voluntaries just because that's what congregations expect - because they'd be confused if the service ended in silence. In other words, we are using organ literature as a method of traffic control. This bothers me, and segues into

2) When Buxtehude improvised sectional praeludia in church services, the organ sound was among the loudest things the congregation had ever heard. During the week, they would never hear music of that calibre unless they made it themselves. In the 21st century, however, when schizophonic music emerges from speakers in every public place, there is nothing special about hearing a musical performance. Is it any wonder, then, that people talk over the organ voluntary, when that's exactly what they are forced to do in restaurants? And when the human ear is so unused to the idea of actively listening to music, how can we continue to believe that the performance of organ repertoire prepares anyone for worship?

3) Much of the repertoire we perform is, essentially, concert music. From the 19th-century onwards, major works of organ music were without exception premiered in a concert setting and intended only secondarily for church performance. Although I plan my repertoire carefully for liturgical suitability and thematic correctness and congregation-friendliness and blah blah blah, the actual act of performing a prelude or postlude is almost indistinguishable from performing the same piece in a live concert. (After all, most organ recitals take place in church sanctuaries.) It is difficult for me to maintain perspective, and not to get caught up in the excitement of performance.

Interestingly enough, I've never had any problems with playing during the administration of Communion. At this point in the service, the church is silent and I have an opportunity to directly address the congregation for, perhaps, the only time in the service. With appropriate repertoire (one of my favourites is the "Priere apres la commmunion" from Messiaen's Livre du Saint-Sacrement), this can be one of the best integrations of music into the liturgy.

In other news, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Schafer predicts the ringtone

Who invented the telephone bell? Certainly not a musician. Perhaps it is just a bad pun on the name of its inventor? It may be that such an audacious device should have an obnoxious sound, but the matter should be accorded more consideration. If we must be distracted ten or twenty times a day, why not by pleasant sounds? Why could not everyone choose his or her own telephone signal? In a day when cassettes and tape loops are cheap to manufacture this is entirely feasible.
R. Murray Schafer: The Soundscape, p. 241-2. The date is 1977.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hurray for perfect pitch

It is beyond me why everyone assumes perfect pitch is such a wonderful thing. The nearest visual equivalent would be if everywhere you went, you saw a Cartesian plane projected onto the landscape which told you the approximate dimensions of everything you were looking at. While this might amuse people at parties ("Hey Osbert! How high is that mountain out the window?" "157.2 metres." "OMG THAT IS SO COOL DID YOU HEAR THAT EVERYONE HE DIDN'T EVEN NEED A TAPE MEASURE"), it would also tend to take some of the aesthetic enjoyment away from life.

There are also problems of practicality. When I sing with less skilled choirs, I am forced to transpose the music down a semitone when the ensemble begins to go flat. And you can imagine what mental gymnastics I have to go through in order to perform at A-415.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Go read this book


I'm currently about halfway through R. Murray Schafer's study of The Soundscape, a book which should be essential reading for any musician. The first half of the book is an historical study of the development of our sonic environment before and after the Industrial Revolution; the second attempts to establish a framework for the study of soundscapes and to suggest an approach to acoustically informed design. Schafer, renowned in Canada as one of our foremost contemporary composers, is also one of the founding members of the World Soundscape Project, developed during his teaching career at Simon Fraser University. His own works ably demonstrate his concern with the natural soundscape around him, particularly the Patria cycle of musical theatre works. A visit to the Patria website is highly recommended; it now includes some short video clips from one of the Patria operas, performed on the surface of a lake in northern Ontario. As the opera unfolds, the musical sounds made by the performers mix with the sounds of the natural environment at daybreak.

Schafer's historical outline of the soundscape is riveting, linking musical and social changes to the sounds heard in our environment. He points out that humans in all periods have sought to reduce unpleasant noise but have identified certain sounds as above censure; thus, in the pre-industrial period anti-noise legislation targeted people shouting in the streets (mostly lower-class people, one presumes) but exempted the much louder sounds produced by churches, such as the ringing of bells or the playing of the organ. As the centre of gravity shifted from institutions such as the Church to middle-class industrialists, new sounds became exempt from censure. In the nineteenth-century, we read baffling accounts praising the "silence" of factories, since workers are not permitted to talk to each other - where in fact, everything done in the factory was accompanied by the sounds of machines. Industrial operations, the new power centres of their age, were above criticism for the loud noises they made, even as legislators passed laws banning the cries of street vendors. As the development of technology continued into the twentieth century, the association of loud noise with power continued unabated. Schafer cites the example of the snowmobile: experts advised at an early stage in its development that the motor was too loud and could cause hearing damage, even suggesting ways to make it softer, but it was felt that the full sound of the motor was more desirable. The result? Widespread hearing damage in the Canadian north and all other areas where snowmobiles are a common means of transportation.

The electric revolution further complicated matters, leading to the phenomenon of "schizophonia", a neologism of Schafer's referring to the splitting of a sound from its original source. Thus, one can walk through an empty room in an office building and hear the sound of a string quartet. The widespread complaint that music has become a product rather than an activity is a direct result of schizophonic technologies, making music increasingly divorced from its intended contexts. Another new phenomenon was the introduction of "flatline" sounds, such as the hum of a ventilator or car engine. Machines, unlike humans or anything in nature, can make unchanging, uniform sounds which have increasingly become the background to our lives. Almost inaudible in every indoor environment, Schafer writes, is the hum of electric current through the various fixtures, singing a continuous B-natural.

This is, to me, the creepiest part of the book. Schafer, who frequently leads workshops in schools, often performs experiments in which he has groups go through a relaxation exercise and then hum the pitch which comes most naturally to them. It is always in the vicinity of a B-natural. The one exception to this is in Europe, where the alternating current runs on a different frequency approximating a G-sharp. When Schafer performs his experiment with Europeans, this is the pitch they always select.

The horrifying thing about this for me is that I've always felt a particular resonance to the key of B major. The chorale-like opening of Brahms' B-major piano trio has always seemed to have a particular magic to it that's destroyed when you hear it in another key, and I noticed the same luminosity recently when I played a B-major section in one of Brahms' clarinet sonatas. I am now forced to face the unpleasant idea that my enjoyment of the music is largely dependent on my place as part of an electronic society - in other words, that it has nothing to do with the music. This is disturbing.

Enough about this. It is, in fact, possible to physically hear the B-natural hum of electric current, and after several tries I have finally managed to hear it. The way that worked for me was to sit in a quiet room - not necessarily silent, however, as I finally heard the sound over the noise of my computer fan - and hum the sound of a B-natural. The hum, when it comes, will be at a low frequency; I think it's the B below the bass staff. Hum, and listen for a while, then repeat. For me, the electrical hum took weeks of trying to isolate - then suddenly jumped into the foreground of my attention as though it had been there all along. The shift was extremely rapid, and I'm now surprised that I could ever not have heard the electrical hum. As I write this, the sound is quite noticeable and, if anything, slightly distracting. The shift you will experience is, in essence, a psychological one in which a sound you have blocked out as part of the background to your life suddenly jumps into the foreground. Try it! Fun activity!

There are, of course, more implications to Schafer's book, particularly for organists: our instrument has gone from being the loudest known sound in the environment to becoming simply another musical instrument. Amplified sounds now have the organ easily beat in terms of sheer volume. How should this knowledge affect our approach to the instrument, particularly when accompanying a congregation? I don't know, and haven't thought about this at length, but thought I'd throw this out there.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS WEATHER I MEAN FOR GOODNESS SAKE

After having complained at some length about our cold, snowy winter about three weeks ago, I am now aghast at the strange turn the weather has taken. The thermometer now reads four degrees above freezing. There is no snow on the ground. The river has burst its banks and is sopping all over everything; the well-travelled bike paths along the shore are now about three feet underwater. And this is January! So much for the Canadian winter.

Ill-informed people blame our current abnormal weather conditions on global warming. But I know better: we have brought this upon ourselves. If churches had stuck to traditional music and liturgy, we'd be fine; but the publication of Beaumont's "Twentieth-Century Folk Mass" perturbed the order of the universe, and the very elements have begun to rebel against us.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A few announcements

Hello. Is this thing on?

(Taps microphone. Squealing feedback noises.)

Can you hear me? How about now?

(Everyone nods except for a woman in the back of the congregation, who yells "No!")

Oh. Errr. . . how about if I stand like this and talk into the microphone sort of sideways, like this?

(This makes no audible difference. Somewhere in Africa, children can hear the creaking of a massive glass mountain, swaying in the wind.)

Good. I have only a few announcements for you this morning, before the Rector dismisses us:

1) So the big project in my life at the moment is learning Leo Sowerby's Pageant, the only piece of organ music to come with a Surgeon General's warning. I am only slightly exaggerating - the pedal acrobatics of the part are basically ridiculous. Ridiculous! There's a bit near the end I am currently despairing of ever being able to play properly: a rapid descending chromatic scale in triplets which must be taken entirely with the left foot, because the right foot is holding another note in the upper register of the pedalboard. The whole piece is like this. Please make allowances for this traumatic experience if you have to deal with me in person.

2) Walton was amazing when I wrote yesterday's post, and guess what? He's still amazing. As I write this, the Sinfonia Concertante is playing in the background. Heady stuff. Early Walton with typically energetic, bouncy music but some uncharacteristically simple, gorgeous lyricism in the slow movement. Can't see pianists lining up to play it, though - it's not really a show piece, using the piano more as "a sort of interesting percussion instrument"* to add colour to the orchestra at key moments.

* I feel vaguely ashamed of myself for including this: the quote is from Hindemith's preface to the Suite "1922". Most obscure reference EVER. It sticks in my mind, I think, because it fits so closely with how I think of the piano nowadays. What, you have to actually hit the thing to make a sound? What poorly regulated action. And only one manual! Cheapskates.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Twelve

The Twelve: Anthem for the Feast of any Apostle
I

Recitative
Without arms or charm of culture,
Unimportant persons
From an unimportant Province,
They did as the Spirit bid,
Went forth into a joyless world
Of swords and rhetoric
To bring it joy.

Chorus
When they heard the Word, some demurred, some were shocked, some mocked. But many were stirred, and the Word spread. Dead souls were quickened to life; the sick were healed by the Truth revealed; released into peace from the gin of old sin, men forgot themselves in the glory of the story told by the Twelve.

Then the Dark Lord, adored by this world, perceived the threat of the Light to his might. From his throne he spoke to his own. The loud crowd, the sedate engines of state were moved by his will to kill. It was done. One by one they were caught, tortured and slain.

II

Solo
O Lord, my God,
Though I forsake Thee,
Forsake me not,
But guide me as I walk
Through the Valley of Mistrust,
And let the cry of my disbelieving absence
Come unto Thee,
Thou who declared unto Moses,
I SHALL BE THERE.

III

Chorus
Children play about the ancestral graves: the dead no longer walk.
Excellent still in their splendor are the antique statues: but can do neither good nor evil.
Beautiful still are the starry heavens: but our Fate is not written there.
Holy still is Speech, but there is no sacred tongue: the Truth may be told in all.
Twelve as the winds and the months are those who taught us these things:
Envisaging each in an oval glory, let us praise them all with a merry noise.
W. H. Auden, 1964, as printed in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson

A terrific poem, I think: so many memorable turns of speech from this text have seeped their way into my brain. The second stanza in particular makes you sit up and take notice; this is almost shocking in its modernity and timeliness over forty years later. The speaker's target is not Sin with a capital S, but the far more insidious problems of apathy, inattention and loss of faith. It's a prayer for our time in the best sense: rather than simply "updating" old ideas with poorly written, colloquial language, this combines echoes of traditional King James English with the characteristic terseness of modern verse. What's more, it captures the condition of Christianity in the age of mass media. As Marshall McLuhan has written, it's easy to be in the world and not of the world when you live in an electronic universe. Separating ourselves from the mundane physical world, the first challenge of Bunyan's pilgrim, is now easily accomplished by everyone. Witness, for example, the spread of quasi-religious movements which, since the dawn of the electronic age, have successfully detached spirituality from any backing in reality. One can hardly change the channel without being urged to harness the spiritual forces within the core of your being, or some such nonsense. This sort of quasi-spirituality is the ultimate abstraction, attractive because it cannot be proven true or false, requires nothing of you, and can be fitted to any ideology. Christianity, having for centuries urged others to look to eternal things, is now in the odd position of having to tell the world to put its feet back on the ground.

Unless you're a really huge Auden fanatic, however, you probably encounter this poem first through the crackerjack choral setting by William Walton. In a perfect world, Walton's music would need no special pleading, because everyone would listen to it and find it immensely attractive, but for some reason he occupies a decidedly second-tier place in modern music at best. I honestly can't understand why; orchestra directors should be pouncing on a twentieth-century composer whose music is sophisticated yet immediately attractive. Maybe a large part of it is the lingering snobbery about music from anywhere other than France or Germany, or the assumption that anything so immediately enjoyable must be of suspect quality. But Walton's music is immaculately crafted, and beyond the shiny surface there's a lot going on. Just look at this propulsive rhythmic figure from "The Twelve":


I have a hard time imagining any rhythmic combination in a 9/8 measure with a greater sense of rhythmic drive. Just look at the way it builds up through the first bar, lashes out into the second and returns to its original position. Like much of Walton's music, I can't imagine it being conceived prior to the Industrial Revolution - its periodic, insistent motion sounds like the noises of heavy machinery. In the inexorable motion of the figure, you can see the Word spreading like wildfire through the world.

I could cite any number of other examples from the anthem: the horrifying harmonic shift on the word "kill", a sound suddenly cut off as though stifled, or the infectious paradisiacal dance at the end of the work and the way Walton introduces the organ's Tuba stop at the last minute - but I'm acutely aware of how close to babbling incoherence I become when faced with this music. I love everything by Walton that I've ever heard, and I've heard almost everything, from the early and much-plagiarized Portsmouth Point Overture (I'm looking at you, Godfrey Ridout) to the gnomic, tersely written late choral music. Obviously, I've long passsed the point where I have any sense of critical distance. But "The Twelve", I think, should have a place at the forefront of English choral music, and stands with the best of Walton's work. Is it a Masterpiece? I don't know what that means anymore. But I like it. Go listen to it.

Friday, January 4, 2008

A Query

Whenever I post on this blog, the Blogger software invites me to attach labels to my post for sorting purposes, and helpfully gives three examples: "scooters, vacation, fall". I can understand the other two, but what kind of blog would need a label devoted solely to "scooters"? I am agog.

Get out! Get out! Get out!

Today was a black day; I had to Go Shopping. I should qualify this. I am fine with shopping in certain contexts. For example, I will gladly shop in music stores, used book stores, or grocery stores. I understand them. But today was different; I needed to shop for a pair of boots and certain other miscellaneous items that I've been putting off getting. This meant a trip to the shopping mall.

I am out of my depth in shopping malls. They terrify me. When I'm in the halls of a mall, I walk as quickly as I can, casting nervous glances at the crowds that press in on either side. After a few minutes, a little voice in my head begins to scream "Get out! Get out! Get OUT! GET OUT!" I once, in my mad panic to escape from a shopping mall, walked into a plexiglass partition thinking it was a path to freedom. When I get into a store, the situation is no better; I am now terrified that one of the clerks will speak to me. I have a hard time believing that clerks in department stores, shoe stores and the like are actually human; their realm of knowledge is so estranged from my own that I can only smile and nod when they say things, cursing my own ignorance. What kind of boots am I looking for, you ask? Errrrrrrrm, the kind you put on your feet? I laugh nervously, helplessly. Their jokes and good-hearted attempts to make conversation could be in another language for all the good they do me. Even paying for my boots is a hassle; they always want me to subscribe to some kind of loyalty card service and although there is nothing that I would want to do less, I try to turn them down gently to spare their feelings.

I'm sure these people think of me the way I think of, say, the man who once buttonholed me after a church service to ask why I played such "dirgelike" music before worship. "I'm an evangelical," he told me confidentially, "so I prefer more upbeat music." The yawning chasm between his conception of church music and mine is so vast that I can't even begin to imagine how I could have reached him, and so my only solution was to agree that fast music is nice too and escape from the conversation as quickly as possible. No doubt I, to the clerks in a department store, seem equally strange, with my lack of knowledge of the ways of malls and boots and loyalty cards. But I can't help it. We all have our own brands of philistinism.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Gripe

My copy of Ligeti's Zwei Etuden has just arrived in the mail. The pieces are pretty cool - the first one, "Harmonies", calls for you to detach the organ from the blower motor and hooking it up to another source of wind, such as a vacuum cleaner. The reduced wind pressure creates strange, ghostly sounds at a very soft dynamic level. This is not the point of this post.

Here is the point of this post: The music is printed on paper of approximately 12' by 18'. This is dumb. This measurement puts the Ligeti just under double the size of all the other sheet music I own. It doesn't even fit in a normal-sized bag; you have to fold it.

Why do publishers do this? It certainly couldn't be to facilitate page turns, because no-one would ever perform these pieces without a page turner. (The first etude is continuous chord clusters using all ten fingers, the second is endless running eighth notes played as fast as possible with both hands.) Furthermore, you only see twentieth-century pieces printed this way; you would never buy an edition of Bach if the sheet music was the size of a coffee table.

I suspect that this all has to do with a desire to have the scores for avant-garde compositions look visibly modern, either to impress potential purchasers or to ward off people who only like tonal music with nice chords. I don't care; the music is simply an inconvenient size and I don't know how I'll ever store it. I feel like I should frame it.

Gripe over. Ooh, look at the back cover - I didn't know Gavin Bryars wrote organ music!

La Nativite du Messiaen

We reluctantly break the usual magisterial tone of this blog to offer the following:

IT'S 2008! THAT'S MESSIAEN'S CENTENARY! OMG OMG MESSIAEN, YAY WOO!

*Straightens glasses*

As you were.