Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Panicking presbyters

Another year, another pandemic. Remember SARS?

The outbreak of H1N1 influenza, or whatever it's called, is another example of how easily an epidemiological curiosity can be manipulated to create widespread panic. And, sadly, people are once again doing exactly the wrong things to "protect themselves" from infection. Purchasing and wearing a face mask will not protect you from any virus, much less this new R2D2 strain of flu; after about half an hour, the inside of the mask will be completely coated with your own saliva, and the warm, moist air inside will be a fertile breeding ground for any microorganism you can possibly imagine. Even if you never go outdoors for more than 20 minutes, and discard your mask after each use, you'd be no better off than if you simply practiced common-sense hygienic practices - such as washing your hands frequently, and not licking strangers.

This is all basic stuff - isn't it?

Because the Eucharist is administered from a common cup in the Anglican Church, we learn to expect a concerned letter from the bishop to be read to us every time a new infection hits the headlines. The congregation listens attentively. The organist, if he's me, hides behind his music and rolls his eyes a lot. The gist of the letter is always the same: if you're not comfortable with receiving from the common cup, don't. Lately, the Anglican dioceses in Southern Ontario have begun to take strong stances against the practice of self-intinction, which I heartily endorse. There is no good reason that laypeople should be allowed to intinct the Host themselves; it's not an authorized practice in any of the major denominations. Or wasn't, that is, until the 1960s, when Episcopalians began campaigning for the practice on the grounds that seems more hygienic. (Newsflash: It's not.)

Lately, however, the Church's acquiescence to public hysteria has become more extreme, and we're starting to see bishops instructing the faithful not to shake their neighbour's hands at the passing of the Peace - or, in a neighbouring diocese, instructing the clergy not to administer the consecrated wine to their congregations at all.

It's easy to laugh at these sorts of developments, but they wouldn't be so widespread if they didn't address a genuine public concern. That concern, of course, is nakedly obvious: fear of death. It seems to me that there's something extremely wrong with this sort of behaviour: if worries about your own mortality so consume you that you fear to reach out to others, or to go outdoors without a mask, what sort of half-life are you living? If the K9B42L8whateveritscalled virus is foremost in your mind when you greet the person in the pew next to you, how can you possibly be part of a meaningful fellowship with them? And if you come to receive the bread of Life fearing that even this could bring death, what sort of meaning could the sacrament possibly have for you?

End of rant. It's Pentecost on Sunday - that means Messiaen!!!!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Requiescat in pace

I'm several days late, but wanted to make sure that I noted the recent death of British Composer Nicholas Maw (1935-2009). Maw's a composer whose work I've found interesting, but who I don't know as well as I'd like. I posted a while back on my experience listening to his massive orchestral work Odyssey, a continuous 90-minute span of music unlike anything else in the literature. I still can't make up my mind about the piece; is it too long for its own good, or have I just not cracked it yet?

Maw's obituary in the New York Times mentions his sole organ work, Essay (1961), which supposedly marked a transition from his atonal student works to his mature, Neoromantic style. The work does not appear to have ever been recorded, and I don't know of anyone that performs it. This, obviously, is reason enough for me to buy the music.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Telling it like it is

Composer James MacMillan has made a remarkable public statement in an open letter to Vincent Nichols, the incoming Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. In his letter, published in the Times, MacMillan charges the new archbishop to take a stand against the "sloppy practice [and] inappropriate, terrible music" that have made "a laughing stock" of Catholic liturgy.

The archbishop's response, whatever it is, will be symbolic. Since its foundation in 1895, the cathedral has been known for its high standards of music. Its first organist, Richard Terry, spearheaded the revival of Tudor polyphony, and commissioned now-classic liturgical works by composers like Lennox Berkeley, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, and Edmund Rubbra. In recent years, MacMillan himself has been closely associated with the cathedral: the Westminster choir produced a wonderful recording of his liturgical music, and two newly commissioned pieces will be performed at the consecration of the new archbishop.

All this to say that Westminster Cathedral is a Big Deal. The cathedral is already looked to as a liturgical and musical model by musicians throughout the Western Church - both within and without the Roman Church. The new archbishop thus has the opportunity to send a message to his diocese to the effect that dreadful music should not be tolerated; his example could lend support to the growing liturgical movement throughout the Western Church. On the other hand, if he chooses to ignore the problem, he will not only be setting a poor example for his flock, but also delivering a public snub to one of the greatest liturgical composers currently writing. It will be interesting to see what transpires.

The Telegraph article on the topic contrasts MacMillan's statement with the recent awarding of a major American honour to folk-mass composer Paul Inwood. I can't speak to Inwood's music, which I don't know beyond titles (like the vaguely Orwellian-sounding Gathering Mass), but the author points out the alarming, incestuous relationship that exists between Inwood's "Magnificat Music" company and the Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth. This is not a unique problem in Roman Catholicism, and the dominance of private, for-profit corporations in the world of Catholic liturgical music can be fairly described as simony.

For many Anglican musicians, the sandals-and-granola musical aesthetic of the post-conciliar Roman Church is merely amusing; some, more perceptive, realize that with a few more years of neglect the average Anglican church will be in no better shape. For those of us of a vaguely Anglo-Catholic persuasion, however, the situation is no laughing matter. The church of Rome represents the dominant branch of the universal Church; it should be setting the lead in liturgical matters. Perhaps, with time, it will do so again.

Mea culpa: [5/21/09]: A commenter points out that I have mangled the chronology above; the works I allude to by Rubbra and Berkeley were in fact commissioned by Terry's successor. One can also make a more charitable case for Inwood's professional ethics than that made by the Telegraph, although the less said about his Alleluia Ch-Ch, the better.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Medieval saint of the week


May 19th is the commemoration of St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 10th century. Noted for his "devotion to learning and his mastery of many kinds of artistic craftsmanship," Dunstan had an enormous influence on both the English church and on the secular state. Ending years of clerical corruption and widespread simony, he built new monasteries and enforced higher standards of churchmanship for parish priests. As the English monarchy was rather unstable during this period - particularly under the rule of the teenaged King Eadwig, a notoriously incompetent and morally dissolute ruler - Dunstan can also be held responsible for the improved law and order in this period, establishing a trained military to defend the country against invaders. Dunstan also devised the coronation for King Edgar the Peaceful, creating a format for English coronations which is still used in modern times.

Dunstan was the most popular English saint during the Anglo-Saxon period, and his relics were given a prominent place in Canterbury Cathedral by the Norman archbishop Lanfranc (himself a pretty cool dude). By the thirteenth century, however, he had been replaced in the affections of the English people by that young upstart, St. Thomas Becket. His tomb was destroyed by the Puritans during the Reformation.

Among his many other talents, Dunstan is one of the patron saints of musicians, perhaps because his activities were said to include the construction of "bells and organs." This fascinating tidbit provides rare evidence of the presence of organs in medieval England in the 980s or earlier. This saint also shares a name with one of the most famous hagiographers in all of fiction; I speak, of course, of Dunstan Ramsay, the title character in Robertson Davies's novel Fifth Business. One of the legends surrounding St. Dunstan has him getting the better of the Devil by seizing his nose with a pair of red-hot pliers; readers of Fifth Business will recall the unexpected way in which the fictional Ramsay reenacts this legend.

I feel a strong attraction to St. Dunstan; a perpetually overlooked saint, ignored by musicians in favour of Cecilia and by the English in favour of Thomas Becket. Plus, his first biographer was named Osbern - a difference of only one letter!

Multilingual aphorism of the week

Lex orandi, lex credendi could be concisely translated as "the medium is the message."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sketches for a more perceptive future post

I must be the last person in the world to come across Jonathan Rauch's hilarious article on "Caring for Your Introvert," from an issue of The Atlantic some six years ago. Introversion, of course, is nothing new: Carl Jung coined the term as part of his now-largely-obsolete theory of "psychic energy", but the term continues in broad circulation due, I imagine, to the popularity of the rather silly Myers-Briggs personality test. The Atlantic article, however, seems to have struck a nerve: many readers, including yours truly, were stunned at how closely Rauch captured their own experience. It all makes sense now! There's a reason why I leave social events feeling as though my brains have been sucked through my ears with a straw!

The world of performing musicians, it seems to me, is one where the dice are stacked in favour of introverts. Think of it: weeks of meticulous practice; hours spent travelling from one city to another, then the ephemeral performance itself. All solitary activities. After the concert, you make brief conversation with audience members before beating a hasty retreat; there's always another performance on the horizon, and so it's right back on the road and off to the next thing. Ironic as it may seem, public performance is tailor-made for people who are uncomfortable in large groups: the only social interaction required is in a highly prescribed form, and is over in an hour or so.

(This obviously applies mostly to solo performers, but it can be true of chamber musicians as well. The sort of social interaction required in chamber groups is extremely focused and businesslike, entirely unlike the rambling small talk that annoys introverts. Large ensemble performance, of course, can be a different bag entirely; many people join choirs or orchestras specifically for the social dynamic. Ironically, again it's the most public figure in the ensemble - the conductor - who often tends towards introversion. Some of the best conductors I've known are almost certainly introverts, their larger-than-life persona in rehearsal as much a performance as any of their motions the podium.)

I think this odd coincidence probably says something about our profession, but I have no clue what it might be.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reality ruins everything

Today marks the release of the movie version of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, a prequel to the same author's The Da Vinci Code ("the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate"). I was unfortunate enough to read Angels and Demons approximately five years ago; while the book was cleverly-plotted enough to make me want to finish it, Brown's prose is almost unbelievably awful. Not the hilarious kind of awful (c/f Eye of Argon), but the deadening, soul-destroying, Tofurkey kind of awful.

In any case. The plot of Angels and Demons revolves around a plot to destroy the Vatican with an antimatter bomb, stolen from the CERN laboratory near Geneva. Worn down no doubt by repeated inquiries from Brown readers, the real-life CERN scientists have put up a hilariously snarky debunking page. Highlights:
Do you make antimatter as described in the book?

No. The production and storage of antimatter at CERN is not at all as described in the book: you cannot stand next to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and see it come out, especially since the LHC accelerator is not yet in operation.

Does one gram of antimatter contain the energy of a 20 kilotonne nuclear bomb?

. . . you ‘only’ need half a gram of antimatter to be equally destructive as the Hiroshima bomb, since the other half gram of (normal) matter is easy enough to find.

At CERN we make quantities of the order of 10^7 antiprotons per second and there are 6x10^23 of them in a single gram of antihydrogen. You can easily calculate how long it would take to get one gram: we would need 6x10^23/10^7=6x10^16 seconds. There are only 365 (days) x 24 (h) x 60 (min) x 60 (sec) = around 3x10^7 seconds in a year, so it would take roughly 6x10^16 / 3x10^7 = 2x10^9 = two billion years! It is quite unlikely that anyone wants to wait that long.

Hat-tip to All Manner of Thing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Accessibility options

A pleasant May evening, and an argument with a friend about the music of Iannis Xenakis. (All in a day's work.) He holds that the music of Xenakis is inaccessible; I hold that it is, in fact, quite accessible and that our difficulties perceiving its structure are an accident of our musical training. If we listened to the music without attempting to divine its pitch organization, I burble, we would see it the way the composer intended - in terms of shapes and sound masses, not in terms of chords and melodies. To an untrained listener, therefore, the music is anything but inaccessible.

This is precisely the wrong way to talk about music.

Accessibility is supposed to mean just that - ease of access. A building is accessible to wheelchair users, for example, if it is equipped with an elevator or wheelchair ramp. It can also be accessible by public transit, by a narrow mountain pass, or by opening the door. The word's secondary meaning ('easy to understand') emerged only in the early 1960s - coincidentally, the same time its root word, "access", morphed from a noun into a verb. (You don't "access" a building, you "gain access" to it.)

Observe, however, the effect of using "inaccessible" to mean "difficult to understand", rather than one of its near-synonyms like "complex" or "challenging". The listener "challenged" by a "complex" Xenakis piece is temporarily failing to engage with it. He has the choice to continue struggling to make sense of it, or to give up. The listener who confronts an "inaccessible" musical work, however, is a victim. There's nothing he could have done; by playing Xenakis for him, I have clearly failed to take into consideration his differing musical ability. He will never understand anything in the score, because Xenakis presents obstacles he is innately unable to surmount.

Note also: it's easy to argue that a work of art can be "complex". It's difficult, however, to argue that it should be "inaccessible". By defending "accessibility" as a desirable trait in pieces of music, you make the counterargument untenable. ("So you're saying that accessibility is bad?")

The move to the vocabulary of "accessibility", therefore, is a political move. Under pending Ontario legislation, all public buildings must be fully accessible by 2025. For older buildings, including most churches, this means renovating the existing structure to make it wheelchair accessible. This is not optional; having an inaccessible building amounts to discrimination, and failure to comply will lead to heavy fines.

The same argument, applied to music, is invidious. Consider: under proposed legislation, all musical performances must be accessible by 2025. For older performing groups, including many church music programs, this means replacing older, inaccessible repertoire with new, accessible repertoire. This is not optional; performing inaccessible music amounts to discrimination, and failure to comply will lead to heavy fines.

The situations are not remotely analogous, and shouldn't use the same vocabulary: a piece of music isn't a department store, where you should be able to whizz through the doors and ask to speak to the manager. Indeed, a large part of the delight of music is the enjoyment of gradually uncovering its secrets. Unfortunately, the language of "accessibility" is everywhere, most especially inside the established Church, where it takes a broadly populist form. ("We need to have service music that people will find accessible; otherwise, the effect will be lost on them, however high the quality might be.")

Remove the word "accessibility" from these formulations, and you end up with either shocking snobbery and condescension ("You and I might understand the music of Bach, but the plebes in the pews are too stupid") or total nonsense - subjective personal impressions, easily discarded. We will be well on our way to reclaiming a reasonable standard of musical discourse if we manage to get rid of this ridiculous buzzword.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Living in an atonal world

If the fight against a world proceeds by way of undermining its "point", the feature that sutures it into a stable totality, how are we to proceed when (as is the case today) we dwell in an atonal world, a world of multiplicities lacking a determinate tonality? The answer is: one has to oppose it in such a way that one compels it to "tonalize" itself, to openly admit the secret tone that sustains its atonality. For example, when one confronts a world which presents itself as tolerant and pluralist, disseminated, with no center, one has to attack the underlying structuring principle which sustains this atonality - say, the secret qualifications of "tolerance" which excludes as "intolerant" certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a "threat to freedom" questions about the limits of the existing freedoms.
Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, 31.

And I forgot to buy a present

I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. Why, in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to speak of Rubinstein, who is after all a live and important human being, while Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, diary entry, 9 October 1886.

Tschaikovsky sat down and listened till the Trio [Brahms's C- trio, op. 101] was finished. The personality of Brahms seemed to please him, but the music left him quite cold, and he was too conscientious a man to say anything pleasant to Brahms which he really did not feel about the Trio. A certain unpleasantness, or at least a want of harmony, might have been caused by this circumstance, but at that moment the door opened and Grieg and his wife entered! These two had the art of always spreading around them a pleasant and sunny atmosphere, and this was the case now. Tschaikovsky had never seen them before, but he loved Grieg's music, and he was immediately attracted to him. In most cheerful mood we all sat down to dinner, Madame Grieg being placed between Brahms and Tschaikovsky. It was not long, however, before she rose and said that it made her much too nervous to sit between them. Grieg sprang to his feet and changed places with his wife, and said: "But I have the courage." So the three composers sat together and there was a great deal of fun. I seem to see Brahms now as he drew towards him the dish of strawberry jam and said that no-one else should have any, and how Tschaikovsky laughed. It was more like a children's party than a group of great musicians.
The first meeting of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, as recounted by violinist Adolph Brodsky (Musical Times, April 1903).

Johannes Brahms: born May 7, 1833
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: born May 7, 1840

I wonder if they ever realized? It seems unlikely.