Monday, January 26, 2009

On getting it right

Alex Ross has a New Yorker piece on the new affordability of classical music. Even in a notoriously expensive city like New York, a person can take in some of the best music-making the city has to offer on a shoestring. Among the economical options investigated are the Family Circle seats at the Metropolitan Opera, open dress rehearsals at the Philharmonic, free concerts by Juilliard students, and . . . organ recitals?

Most music journalists seem nervous about covering organ recitals - they seem to feel that organ music is a specialist interest only. Like most musicians, they don't know much about the technical operation of the instrument or about its repertoire. So until the local symphony orchestra features an organ concerto, it's safe to ignore the instrument entirely. After all, our concerts are easy to ignore - most of them are poorly promoted, advertised only through the church community, and take place at unusual times. I've been very pleased, therefore, to read Ross's writing on organ performances, which is unusually plentiful and often extremely perceptive. After interviewing James Kennerly, the recently-installed organist of St. Mary the Virgin, Ross sums his work up as follows:
There are many other similarly gifted musicians at churches around the city; they exemplify a fairly large population for whom musical life is not a pursuit of international fame but almost a kind of grassroots activism, with aesthetic rather than political transformation as the goal.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Worth a thousand words

Most people find it difficult to understand purely verbal concepts. They suspect the ear; they don't trust it. In general we feel more secure when things are visible, when we can "see for ourselves." We admonish children, for instance, to "believe only half of what they see, and nothing of what they hear." All kinds of "shorthand" systems of notation have been developed to help us see what we hear.

We employ visual and spatial metaphors for a great many everyday expressions. We insist on employing visual metaphors even when we refer to purely psychological states, such as tendency and duration. For instance, we always say thereafter when we really mean thenafter, always when we mean at all times. We are so visually biased that we call our wisest men visionaries, or seers!
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

In the light of the recent JohnWilliamsgate scandal at the Obama inauguration, McLuhan's comments on Western visual bias seem particularly prescient. For an event like this presidential inauguration, the actual musical content of John William's commissioned work - a wholly innocuous bit of Americana - was trumped by the visual impact of the performance. (Indeed, the racial diversity of the performers attracted more comments than the commissioned piece itself.) Thus, it's almost irrelevant to ask whether the music you hear is actually coming from the musicians onstage. I am less troubled by the report that the performers "lip-synched" to a previously recorded tape (an understandable measure, given the weather conditions), and more troubled by the reports that at least one of the major US networks (CNBC) apparently opted to display the visual of the performance only, dubbing over the audio with a stock market update. His throne may be getting shakier, but the visual image still is king.

McLuhan's reaction to all of this, were he still with us, would probably be a simple "I told you so". If you wanted a more emotionally engaged response, you'd have to go to someone like the composer R. Murray Schafer, who would probably see the whole thing as yet another case of schizophonia; we are so used to hearing music emanate from concealed speakers in restaurants that we have become completely unable to distinguish a "real" performance from a "fake" one. For most of the people in the audience, the performance by Perlman, Ma et al. was probably the only live performance of "classical" music they would hear for some time; what a pity, then, that it turned out to be a mirage.

In case you're interested, I can finally play the Reger. All should go well on Tuesday, barring hurricanes.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A foray into Durufle

These days I spend most of my time hiding under a rock, frantically practicing repertoire I really should have learned two months ago. Projects at the moment include Reger's Halleluja! Gott zu loben, Jongen's Sonata eroica, and The Other French Requiem - which is, of course, the Duruflé. I've commented here and here on the challenges of playing orchestral reductions, particularly when I accompanied my first Fauré Requiem last year. The Fauré is in many ways a typical example of this sort of problem - the composer's original is for orchestra, but the score you actually play off is a piano reduction by Jean Roger-Ducasse. Performing the piece is thus almost a recomposition - as you rearrange Roger-Ducasse's score to get as close as possible to the original orchestral sound, without having the conductor tell you you're too loud. (All organ accompanists know the solution: nod, smile and reduce your registration when told to, then change everything back for the concert. Always register on a crescendo!)

With Duruflé's Requiem, however, I have the opposite problem; the composer carefully reduced his orchestral score for organ accompaniment, and so if anything the score is too idiomatically written for the organ. Duruflé's arrangement is fiendishly difficult, frequently calling for the organist to play on two manuals at once. (This technique, called "thumbing down", is easier than it looks, but not by much.) The score is covered with registration changes. And then there's the Sanctus, every organist's nightmare, with continuous running sixteenth-note sextuplets in the left hand. If you master the part and play every note correctly, the audience might perceive a barely audible burbling noise underneath the choir; if you can't quite hack it, the tempo sags and you drag the entire choir down with you. Doesn't this sound like fun?

And of course, Murphy's Law of Organ Maintenance applies here; the organ will always wait to have mechanical problems when you have the most repertoire to prepare. Basically I'm all right unless I want to use any of the couplers, at which point it's cipher city - except for the Positiv to Hauptwerk coupler, which has been stuck on all week. Harrumph. Returning home, I listen to Schubert impromptus and manage more or less successfully to convince myself that the Reger will definitely be ready by next Tuesday, and I should stop worrying and enjoy life.

Complain, complain, complain. I suppose the long and the short of it is that 1) I will probably not be blogging a whole lot over the next little while and 2) Duruflé's Requiem is really awesome and you should listen to it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

On liturgy and Wittgenstein

I shall try to elucidate the problem discussed by realists, idealists, and solipsists by showing you a problem closely related to it. It is this: "Can we have unconscious thoughts, unconscious feelings, etc.?" The idea of there being unconscious thoughts has revolted many people. Others again have said that these were wrong in supposing that there could be only conscious thoughts, and that psychoanalysis had discovered unconscious ones. The objectors to unconscious thought did not see that they were not objecting to the newly discovered psychological reactions, but to the way in which they were described. The psychoanalysts on the other hand were misled by their own way of expression into thinking that they had done more than discover new psychological reactions; that they had, in a sense, discovered conscious thoughts which were unconscious. . . But it is not right to say that in any case the person who talks both of conscious and unconscious thoughts thereby uses the word "thoughts" in two different ways?
Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 57-8.

Wittgenstein's basic idea here seems to me to be that ideological and philosophical differences boil down to linguistic misunderstandings. Here, Freud's disciples argue with traditionalists over the idea of "unconscious thought" - really, however, their only substantial difference is that some define "thought" as a strictly conscious activity, and the rest don't. By pointing out this multifaceted, non-standardized nature of language, Wittgenstein offers us a way out of otherwise endless, circular argumentation.

But could this apply to any of the vocabulary we use in talking about music? Words like "atonal", "minimalist", "conservative", "reactionary", "revolutionary," or "traditional"?

  • "The real reactionaries are the revolutionaries who react against tradition!" (Edmund Rubbra)
  • "I hold that it was wrong to have considered me a revolutionary. . . If one need only break a habit to be labelled revolutionary, then every musician who has something to say and who in order to say it goes beyond the bounds of established convention would be known as revolutionary." (Igor Stravinsky)
  • "I personally hate to be called revolutionist, which I am not. What I did was neither revolution nor anarchy." (Arnold Schoenberg)
  • "Atonal music is, after all, nothing else but tonal music in which the tonal functions occur and permute in the shortest possible space of time." (Peter Jona Korn)
  • "[Most people] think of minimalism as connoting the orchestra music of Glass, Reich, and John Adams. . . [We no longer] have a word to specify what the Theater of Eternal Music, Phill Niblock, and early Philip Glass had in common, without falsely implying syncopated brass chords and big Romantic melodies." (Kyle Gann)
All of these, it seems to me, are examples of major linguistic confusion; the people I quote want to be able to restrict the meaning of aesthetic terms to a specific definition (their own), but they are continually flummoxed by a public that insists on giving it a different meaning, sometimes completely opposite. How else to explain the description of both Debussy and Ravel as "Impressionist" composers, or the time a parishioner described Andrew Carter's Toccata on "Veni Emmanuel" to me as "atonal"?

I'd like to unpack a specific word, though: "tradition". Working in Christian liturgy, this term is one absolutely fraught with peril; depending on the predilections of the person you're talking to, mentioning the word can lead either to enthusiastic approval or a fistfight. It's become a commonplace for clergymen to take potshots at "empty tradition" in their sermons - I've heard this trope several times in recent weeks. These comments seem motivated less by any desire to uproot older forms of liturgy and music, and more by an attempt to be down-to-earth and likeable. (In my experience, the clergy members most likely to make these comments are Anglican bishops - it's very rare for an episcopal visit to go by without the bishop making a joke about their mitre or crozier.) Yet the most interesting thing about all of this is the opportunity to look around the congregation when clergy comments about the need to "re-evaluate our traditions" or "adapt to changing times" - the response is generally either ecstatic approval or stunned horror.

What's going on here? It seems to me that we're working with (at least) two different meanings of the word:
  • tradition (A): slavish and uncritical devotion to past practices.
  • tradition (B): a process of considered dialogue with history, or in T. S. Eliot's words, a "sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together".
It should be obvious that I favour definition B. Any tradition - whether Eliot's literary tradition or the tradition of Anglican church music which I practice - is constantly refined and improved by continual pruning. Each element in the tradition speaks to its own time (the medieval tradition of plainchant; the age of Tudor polyphony; the Edwardian era; the present day), but is retained because it also contains something which transcends its period. Repertoire which fails to speak to this timeless sensibility falls out of use. (When was the last time you heard Maunder's Olivet to Calvary?) Other, new repertoire takes its place. That this process sometimes moves too slowly is demonstrated by the endurance of 19th-century hymns like "Amazing Grace" and "What a friend we have in Jesus" - clearly they have associations that still mean something to someone, but to my ears they reek of the worst aspects of the Victorian era. I apply the same standard to the 1970s "worship songs" which have begun entering hymnals - "Shine, Jesus, Shine" is objectionable not because it's too new, but because it's too dated. Looking through selections like these in 50 years will be embarrassing, but no more so than looking through most 19th-century hymnals.

You'll notice, though, that the process of critical examination and re-examination that I suggest is thoroughly "un-traditional" for the person brought up on definition A. The person who defines tradition as blind adherence to past precedent will naturally use the word in a different way than I do:

Parishioner X: This liturgy is too traditional.
Osbert: This liturgy is boring and stupid.

Parishioner Y: I don't like traditional music.
Osbert: Your music is not traditional; it is only played badly.

By making some attempt to reconcile the two definitions, we can come to terms with the underlying problems. Hopefully.

A message from Walter Benjamin

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert. Such fusion is of great social significance.The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.
Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", XII.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On congregational singing

Over at Soho the Dog, a jeremiad on the lamentable state of congregational singing. A look at the performance practice of hymns over the past hundred years or so will reveal two opposing trends: on the one hand, a steady lowering of pitch (hymns that once went up to high E or F are now transposed to top out at a D), and on the other, a steady increase in tempo. As editor of the English Hymnal, Ralph Vaughan Williams added glacial metronome markings throughout the book - 40 beats per minute for Ein feste' Burg, for example, where I would probably take it at about 66. If you went to an Anglican church around 1910, therefore, you would be expected not only to sing higher notes, but to hold them for longer. It's worth pointing out, too, that RVW was a staunch advocate of unison singing, and a number of his own tunes (Salve, festa dies, King's Weston, and Sine nomine, for example) can only be sung in unison. No refuge in a harmony part for the altos and basses - they have to shoot for the high Fs along with everyone else.

Matthew Guerrieri is almost certainly correct in attributing this to the decline of the choral tradition in churches and schools - if you never use your high register as a child, it's very difficult to develop it as an adult. The broader problem, though, is a widespread reluctance to sing at all, a lack of confidence in producing any vocal sound whatsoever. If the loudest you're willing to sing is a mezzo piano (any louder, and the person next to you might hear you!), it will be difficult to sing a range of more than an octave. Even at the best of times, congregational singing has a slightly embarrassed, reticent quality to it - no-one wants to sing until they're quite sure that their individual voice will be lost in a wave of sound, and so it usually takes a few verses for the singers to really get going. These days, I always set a piston with a solo reed in the right hand and accompaniment in the left, as an emergency measure - when the congregation is sounding particularly querulous, this is the only way to shake them from their stupor.

An anecdote. At a diocesan festival service I attended last year, the printed bulletin gave the texts for a number of hymns to be sung during the adminstration of the Eucharist, with an instruction to the congregation to join in. Having become separated from my church's contingent, I found myself the only person singing the hymns amid a crowd of stony-faced strangers. Finally a woman in front of me turned around and glared at me: "I don't think you're supposed to be singing," she said.

I'm confident that we can turn the tide on this stupefying trend - but we have a lot of work to do first.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Fun with memes

It's 2009 already? Must be time to do Daniel Wolf's meme:

1. Josquin or Palestrina?
Hmmmmm. Palestrina, I think.

2. Bach or Händel?
Bach, Bach, Bach, Bach.

3. Haydn or Mozart?
This is hard. Haydn wins by a hair, but only because it's a Friday.

4. Beethoven or Rossini?
Beethoven in a second. Ewww, Italian opera.

5. Brahms or Wagner?

6. Verdi or Puccini?
Ewww, Italian opera. But Puccini did write Turandot, so he takes this one.

7. Debussy or Ravel?
I don't find these two at all alike, but probably Ravel.

8. Strauss or Mahler?

9. Stravinsky or Schönberg?

10. Cage or Carter?

Bonus round:

1. Astaire or Kelly?

2. Yeats or Elliot?

3. Joyce or Mann?

4. Welles or Hitchcock?
No basis for judgment here, I'm afraid. (I blush in shame.)

5. Duchamp or Picasso?
Really? Picasso.

A message from Ruskin

There's no way of getting good Art, I repeat, but one - at once the simplest and the most difficult - namely, to enjoy it. Examine the history of nations, and you will find this great fact clear and unmistakeable on the front of it - that good Art has only been produced by nations who rejoiced in it; fed themselves with it, as if it were bread; basked in it, as if it were sunshine; shouted at the sight of it; danced with the delight of it; quarrelled for it; fought for it; starved for it; did, in fact, precisely the opposite with it of what we want to do with it - they made it to keep, and we to sell.
John Ruskin, inaugural address at Cambridge School of Art, 1958