Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A part of our heritage


Glenn Gould as himself and as Karlheinz Klopweisser, from a CBC promo. Via the indispensable UbuWeb.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Communication problems

The pronunciation rwè for roi ('king') is attested in the late eighteenth century by the following anecdote, cited by Nyrop, Grammaire historique de la langue française, I, 3, p. 178. A woman was asked by the revolutionary tribunal if she had not said in front of witnesses that it was essential to have a king (roi). She replied that she had not been talking about a king (roi), but about a spinning-wheel (rouet).
from Saussure, Course in General Linguistics
[Pianist Krystian Zimerman] has had problems in the United States in recent years. He travels with his own Steinway piano, which he has altered himself. But shortly after 9/11, the instrument was confiscated at JFK Airport when he landed in New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Thinking the glue smelled funny, the TSA decided to take no chances and destroyed the instrument. Since then he has shipped his pianos in parts, which he reassembles by hand after he lands.
from this report on Zimerman's recent Los Angeles recital. The "big story" here, of course, was supposed to be Zimerman's unexpected onstage tirade against the American government. I, however, am far more interested in the implications of the above anecdote (they destroyed a piano? They can do that? Did they use a shredder, or set it on fire?) than in Zimerman's earth-shaking observation that certain aspects of American foreign policy have been somewhat less than ideal.

Also floating around the Internet, via Sounds and Fury: the astonishing revelation that the US Department of Homeland Security is into the music cognition business. According to DHS researchers, our brain waves naturally produce music of their own accord, which can be transcribed by scientists, recorded for future use, and played back in order to "boost productivity and energy levels, or trigger a body’s natural responses to stress". The audio sample on the website is worth a listen as one of the most hideous pieces of art I have ever come across.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Og, the king of Bashan

Psalm 136 is the appointed psalm for evensong in just over two weeks. Pointing the psalm on the computer this evening, I discovered a line of particular theological importance, one which seems to call for special musical treatment:

Monday, April 20, 2009

On a less important note

Steve Reich won a Pulitzer!

I hope he uses the publicity to speak out against unnecessarily harsh chorus reeds on small church organs. It is undoubtedly his distain for this sort of reed voicing that has hitherto dissuaded him from composing solo works for my instrument.

In all seriousness, this is a much-deserved honour for a composer who has not always been well-treated by the musical establishment. It is unfortunate that the committee did not see their way clear to recognize his achievements when he was producing his greatest masterpieces, errrr, thirty years ago.

Urgent! Urgent!

You can't read Adorno without coming across, on every other page, the word "reify", which, as everyone knows, refers to the mental act of giving a concrete form to something abstract. Anyone who's had Latin, moreover, should recognize the derivation from the noun res ("thing"). The OED confirms this - someone in the 19th century thought it was a good idea to take the stem of the Latin word (re), stick an -ify on the end, and hey presto! You have a verb that means "to make into a thing."

Except that the Latin res does not have the same connotation as the English word "thing". Generally, a better translation is something like "affair" or "matter". Here, for example, is a sentence you are unlikely to see in Latin:

Tum quando purgabat casam suam, Cicero nigram rem deformem in cubiculo invenit.
(While he was cleaning his house, Cicero found a hideous black thing in the closet.)

No-one ever uses the word res that way, because there's no need - Latin has a neuter gender, so it suffices to use an adjective substantively with a neuter ending, and it's understood that you mean "thing". So, for example:

Multa iucunda ad colosseum vidi.
(I saw many enjoyable things at the colosseum.)

or, in the Nicene Creed:

. . . per quem omnia facta sunt.
(. . . by whom all things were made.)

In both cases, there is no need to use the word res to indicate "thingness" - one understands by the neuter ending that "multa iucunda" means "many enjoyable things", and that "omnia" means "all things". The word res is necessary, therefore, only when you're using a purely abstract sense of the word "thing". Consider, for example, the expression "in medias res" (literally, "into the middle of things". It should be obvious here that res has nothing to do with physical objects; it would be better translated as "affairs" or "matters".

In short, the word "reify" is an etymological traffic accident. The dictionary definition says that it means to turn an abstract "matter" into a concrete "thing", but the connotation of the word res suggests the opposite. This is what happens when you let amateur etymologists start creating new words - an illiterate, macaronic mess that the rest of us now have to clean up. Ugh.

The preceding post was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my Pedant of the Year Award application. If you wish to commend my post for its unnecessarily picky scholastic distinctions and complete irrelevance to your life, please contact the competition organizers directly.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Advice to young readers

Although the experience of moving directly from The Imitation of Christ to a volume of essays by Adorno may seem interesting, I do not recommend it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Opus Clavicembalisticexpialadocious


I had some time on my hands, so what better way to while away four and a half hours than borrow the score to Opus Clavicembalisticum and have a listen?

Some background may be in order.

Opus Clavicembalisticum is a 1930 piano work by the notoriously eccentric British composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. It consists of twelve movements which vary in length from less than five minutes (the opening Introit) to almost an hour (the sixth movement, a theme with 49 variations). Although longer and more difficult piano works have since been written (several by Sorabji himself), this particular work is one of the most notorious in the repertoire - it was even briefly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The performance history of Opus Clavicembalisticum is complex: the composer premiered the work himself, but was so disgusted by the inadequacy of subsequent performances that he forebade any pianists to perform the work in public. (The injunction is still in the published score: "Public performance prohibited unless by express consent of the composer." The result was a 50-year period in which Opus (and almost all other Sorabji works) were never performed. Audiences knew of Sorabji, if at all, through his reputation as a recluse - a sign outside his house reportedly read "Visitors Unwelcome". Only since the 1980s have performers taken up his work again.

Interestingly enough, Sorabji has written three organ symphonies: the first, a mere two hours long, has been performed on several occasions, but the four-hour Second Symphony has never been performed in its entirety. The premiere performance by Kevin Bowyer, scheduled for June 7th, is projected to take between six and seven hours; if you're in Glasgow, make sure to be there!

It's easy to make fun of composers like this, of course - you shake your head at the quixotic madness that would lead a composer to write a seven-hour organ symphony, and switch the radio to a country station. When you actually listen to a work like Opus, then, everyone asks the same question: was it worth it?

Any opinion I present at this point must be taken with a grain of salt - I'm about halfway through listening to the work, and am writing this post as a break. I certainly can't judge whether a pianist, emerging from a couple of years in the practice room to perform the finished score, would judge his time well spent. I can only say, however, that Sorabji's music is much better than you'd expect. Yes, some of the fugues sound like Reger on steroids; yes, you do start to look at your watch once you get to the thirty-seventh variation of the sixth movement; but there's a real harmonic and contrapuntal invention here which kept me from throwing the score across the room. If nothing else, you have to be impressed by Sorabji's piano writing; the score is on three or four staves throughout, and with the sort of bravura writing that only a real virtuoso would be able to conceive.

Would I recommend Sorabji? Yes. Perhaps you should start with a shorter piece, however. If you insist on jumping right into this Everest of the piano repertoire, borrow a library copy like I did: a new copy of the John Ogdon recording will run you about $90.00.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Os justi

Most people know Anton Bruckner for his symphonies. However, like many other famous composers, Bruckner began his career as an organist, and wrote much a cappella choral music for the Catholic church. Here, for example, is his "Os justi", in a particularly fine rendition by a small vocal ensemble:
Liturgically, the work is intended as the Gradual for the feast of a doctor of the church; however, its text, from Psalm 37, is suitable for a variety of occasions. A good thing, too, because very few churches continue to use the Proper of the Mass in any recognizable form. The Alleluia at the end, however, means that it could easily find a place in the season following Easter.

Out of interest, I spent some time refreshing my memory about the life of this interesting composer. Bruckner's Wikipedia article provides this useful factoid:
A devout Catholic who loved to drink beer, Bruckner was out of step with his contemporaries.
Priceless! Thank you, Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

He is risen indeed!

A blessed Easter to all, from the staff of TBWCTW.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rejoice, heavenly powers

Today is Holy Saturday, which means that this evening marks the celebration of the Easter Vigil, probably my favourite service of the year. Beginning in the late evening, with the church in total darkness, the service takes us through the entire Biblical narrative in fast forward, from the opening of Genesis to the women's discovery of the empty tomb early on Easter morning. A fire, kindled at the back of the church, is used to light the paschal candle which will last for the rest of the year. Church musicians need to constantly keep on their toes to prevent their work from degenerating into monotonous sameness, but this service is the perfect antidote - a much-needed shot in the arm after the months we've spent scrupulously preparing for Easter morning. Tonight's service is also particularly meaningful on a personal level: a friend is being baptized during the liturgy, and it will be a tremendous pleasure to formally welcome her into the Church.

If you're not planning to attend a Vigil service this year, something of the mysterious and solemn mood of the service is captured in this motet by John Tavener, written especially for Holy Saturday:

Tavener is not a composer I'm wild about; the best of his work is enormously attractive, but I find that a little of it goes a long way. He seems to be best as a miniaturist; his "The Lamb", "Song for Athene" and similar choral works are precisely the right length for their material, but any time I listen to his large-scale compositions I end up bored. Perhaps it's the New Age overtones that weird me out. For instance, the cinematography of this video: why have the singers been photoshopped into the Hagia Sophia? And why have the sound engineers not done something about the strange, artificial reverberation that makes it sound as though the choir is in a fish tank?

I retract my earlier statement. This YouTube video is no substitute; go experience the Easter Vigil liturgy in person. It has all the mystery and wonder of the Easter season without the crowds, screaming children, and over-the-top hymn playing that characterize Easter Sunday services. And if you go to the Right Sort of church, there should be sherry afterwards.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
T. S. Eliot, from "East Coker"