Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday links

Friday, July 23, 2010

On not presenting concerts badly

I've had occasion in this blog to be critical of the writings of Greg Sandow, who blogs about the "ossification" and "irrelevance" of today's classical music scene, and how he thinks we can fix those problems. There are some fundamental issues on which I will never agree with Sandow. He thinks that classical music should become more like the general non-classical culture (as though that culture were exempt from criticism, and as though it weren't defined and shaped precisely by its relationship with the art of the past). More specifically, he thinks that classical music needs to emulate the musical language and presentation of pop music, which is a non-starter - the two forms are distinct, and serve different social functions. Luckily, there is little chance of such an outlook being accepted by practicing musicians - no-one could perform a Mozart piano sonata in public if they truly believed that the music was irrelevant and that everyone in the audience would prefer to be watching television.

Occasionally, though, Sandow hits upon an extremely important point, as here:
And there's something brain-dead about the way classical music presents itself. My favorite example: the instrumentation of orchestral works, as dutifully listed in orchestra concert programs. ("Three flutes, one doubling piccolo, three oboes, one doubling English horn, three clarinets, one doubling E flat clarinet and one doubling bass clarinet...") At least in our big orchestras, these lists don't correspond with what the audience sees on stage. The composer wrote the piece for four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones, but what's on stage are five horns, three trumpets, and four trombones.

Why? Because the principal horn and trumpet have the royal privilege of not playing some of the ensemble passages in their parts, so they can save themselves for their solos. An extra player sits on stage to play those passages. The top trombone part will sound better, in soft music, with two players on it instead of two [sic].

These are fascinating details of orchestral life. But they're never explained to the audience. And meanwhile the instrumentation lists -- night after night, week after week, year after year -- don't correspond to what the whole world can see on stage, and nobody seems to care. If that doesn't show a disconnect between classical music and the world -- even with its own world! -- I don't know what does. We've ossified. We've forgotten that we're a group of people, doing things for other people, who may have thoughts about what we do, and may notice discrepancies in what we present.
I think Sandow overstates his case. Any institution with a distinct culture is going to develop characteristic jargon that newcomers find difficult to understand. To a reader who can make sense of an orchestral score, those "two trumpets" signify two trumpet parts, not two trumpet players. These sorts of disconnects between the layperson and the professional are hardly specific to classical music.

But the broader point still applies: if you're going to present music to an audience, you should think carefully about what you're doing. If the way you present music leaves the audience with unanswered questions (like why there are three trumpets instead of two), you should do your best to answer them. And if you're going to give your audience a programme booklet to read, it should sufficiently well-produced to be worth reading.

Frankly, inconsistencies in instrumentation are the least of the problems in most concert programmes. Biographies of famous conductors and soloists often fill an entire page in the programme, but no-one would ever read them because they consist entirely of small-print lists of awards received and recent performance venues, presented in a manner that makes the "begat" lists in the Old Testament look like Reader's Digest. Programme notes vary widely in every aspect except for the quality of their writing, which is rarely better than mediocre. Composers contribute arcane analyses of their works which cannot be understood without following a published score. Harried interns, told to produce a brief note on some canonical composition, produce a patchwork of incorrect facts, apocryphal stories and dubious attempts at interpretation, all culled from Wikipedia. Well-intentioned performers describe their current repertoire in language that assumes advanced musical background, all the while failing to mention any element of the piece that a lay audience would find interesting. Then there are the performers who want to "help" their audience to learn more about classical music by stopping to define such musical terms as "Baroque" and "scale," so that everyone in the audience is either insulted or confused.

(I forbear to mention those performers who stand up in between pieces and read their programme notes word for word, even though the audience has already had time to read the notes, several times, while waiting for the concert to begin. This goes beyond mere negligence into the realm of actual evil.)

The great difficulty here is striking that golden mean where the audience can understand you but doesn't feel that you're insulting their intelligence. This problem isn't specific to programme notes, but applies to concert programming in general and to the question of whether to talk before a concert. A performer needs a frank appraisal from colleagues or friends if he's going to write his own programme notes or speak during a concert: is your writing good enough to offer for public appraisal? If not, how can it be improved? Are your spoken remarks between pieces concise, witty and informative, or do you ramble for twenty minutes, unaware that your audience wishes you were dead?

The other aspect of presentation is figuring out what an audience of non-musicians finds interesting. This will vary widely within a given room, of course. But it's a major problem for organists, who spend a lot of time thinking about issues that laymen don't care about - registration, articulation, key touch, and details of performance practice. On the other hand, details of the work's history that may seem somewhat arcane are often of considerable interest - things like the circumstances under which the work was written, and the ways it might connect to more famous events in history. Trial and error is the only way to find these things out.

There are many other ways to ruin your audience's lives using programme notes, but the above will have to do until the official formation of an Anti-Awful Programme Note Guild.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Anglicans in the news

The Toronto Star reports: the priest at St Peter's Anglican Church, Toronto, is in hot water for giving a consecrated communion wafer to a dog. The circumstances seem particularly bizarre:
[The dog's owner] had been invited to the service after an incident where police heckled him as he sat peacefully on the steps of the church early one morning during the G20 weekend.

Angry over the experience, he called the church to vent. They invited him to come to church, and he did, bringing his dog with him.

When it was time for communion, the man went up to receive the bread and the wine, with the dog. “I am sure for [Rev'd Marguerite Rea] that was a surprise, like it was for all of us,” said [Deputy People's Warden Peggy] Needham. “But nobody felt like it was a big deal, because it wasn’t a big deal.”

According to the account [Bishop] Yu heard, the man asked the reverend to give the dog a wafer. But Needham says she doesn’t recall the man making such a request. Instead, she said Rev. Rea instinctively leaned over and placed a wafer on the dog’s wagging tongue.
The most charitable response to this is to assume that Rev'd Rea was so distracted during the administration of Communion that she didn't realize what she was doing. Her subsequent embarrassment and refusal to speak to the media support this interpretation. After all, it should be obvious to anyone with a basic grasp of Christian theology that giving the consecrated Host to a dog is completely inappropriate.


But apparently that's not obvious to Toronto Star reporters, or to the average St Peter's parishioner, or to the dozens of people who left vapid and ill-informed comments on the Star website.

The setup of the article uses the typical journalistic conceit of pitting two opposing sides against each other. On the one side, we have Bishop Patrick Yu, attesting that giving Communion to animals is impermissible, that the priest has been asked not to do it again, and that the matter is closed. On the other side, we have Deputy People's Warden Peggy Needham, who informs us that "it wasn't a big deal," that "Anyone might have done that," and that "Christ would have thought it was neat." (Needham is apparently confusing Christ with Dr Phil, a common mistake.) The question, in my mind, is why Needham would be asked for comment about a theological matter at all? A "deputy people's warden" is an elected position, one of four wardens responsible responsible for managing the temporal affairs of the parish; the position involves a lot of committee work and requires no theological training or expertise. She can offer a theological opinion if she wants, but a reporter should know better than to quote it as though it were authoritative.

The Star author, and most of the commenters, frame the question of animal Communion in terms of "inclusivity". Inclusivity is always a good thing, because if we exclude someone it always means that we hate them and wish them to be disempowered. There's a twisted logic to this point of view - after all, if we loved animals, why would we set them apart in a way that treats them as Other? Yet this view is too crude, as though there were no middle term between "God hates dogs and would like us to kill them" and "Dogs should receive Communion."

The point, though, is that humans are different from animals in important ways. Specifically, humans possess a highly developed rational intelligence. We have the capacity for abstract thought, and thus for language. While many animals have highly developed perceptual intelligence and can manipulate tools to perform advanced concrete tasks, they lack this additional level of conceptual abstraction. As humans, we value our intelligence and would never give it up - we can't even imagine existence without the capacity for speculative thought and linguistic invention. Yet there's also a sense in which self-awareness is a Faustian bargain, creating opportunities for wickedness and dissolution as well as virtue and growth. Animals may kill each other for food, or fight over scarce resources, but nothing they do can be properly considered "evil". Ostriches don't commit random acts of vandalism. Armadillos don't wipe each other out with atomic weapons. Iguanas don't build death camps to carry out the mass extermination of other iguanas.

The realization that self-awareness is a mixed blessing is at the heart of the Christian tradition. The Biblical narrative of the Fall tells us that something went wrong from the very beginning - that as soon as humans developed conscious awareness, they turned away from their natural end and toward their selfish desires. Because of this deliberate turn from the Good toward the self, humans require reunion with God, through a process of reconciliation which culminates in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Dogs and ostriches and sea urchins, on the other hand, don't require reunion with God because they are incapable of turning away from him. They don't need the medicine, because they're immune from the disease. Giving the consecrated Host to a dog is wrong not because it would hurt the dog, or because dogs are somehow evil, but because doing so is to pervert the entire message of the Christian faith, and to deeply misunderstand what it means to be human.

All of this would have been taken for granted eighty years ago, of course, but the basics of Christian theology are now so little understood that few churchgoers, and almost no non-Christians, would be able to formulate a good reason why a dog shouldn't receive Communion. And this is a great pity.

Suitable music for a canine-themed service would include choral works and the great G+ organ sonata of Edward Elgar, one of the great dog lovers of music history.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beauty and stuff

Philosopher Roger Scruton stars in Why Beauty Matters, a BBC television production from last year. If you persevere to the end, you get a nice reward in the form of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.

Monday, July 19, 2010

1000 years in 122 pages

I was intrigued to learn of the Student's Guides to the Major Disciplines, a series of books currently being marketed by ISI Books. The books are intended for members of the general public who would benefit from a concise introduction to disciplines in the humanities that would otherwise have passed them by - a sort of do-it-yourself alternative to an institutional liberal arts education. The titles feature an impressive lineup of contributors - John Lukacs on history, the late Ralph McInerny on philosophy, and James V. Schall on "liberal learning".

I was intrigued enough to pick up the volume on music history, authored by Australian organist-composer and writer R. J. Stove. The book attempts to summarize music history from Hildegard of Bingen to the present in language comprehensible by non-musicians, all in a mere 122 pages. Many books have attempted this task, but closer inspection reveals that almost all of them are intended for university music appreciation courses. The most prominent such book is, of course, Joseph Machlis's apparently indestructible The Enjoyment of Music, now into its tenth edition and still a reliable cash-cow for W. W. Norton and Co. Music majors are more likely to encounter Donald Jay Grout's even more indestructible History of Western Music. Purchasers of either volume shell out up to $500 for a dizzying package of materials including the book itself, multiple volumes of scores and a large package of companion CDs and "multimedia learning tools," all of which are produced by committee and are so tightly geared to the requirements of college survey courses as to have no possible use or value after the final exam. More inviting for the average person, perhaps, are Harold Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers and Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise - but since the former is essentially a series of biographical sketches and the latter deals only with twentieth-century music, the need for a good-quality, readable single-volume history remains unmet.

It didn't take long to realize that Stove's history is one of those books that will leave you slightly out of breath at the end. The book's first six pages must suffice for the entire history of western music up until the high Renaissance; its last eight offer a précis of musical trends since 1945. This is not a book to read for detailed biographical sketches; the average speed is approximately one composer per page for most of the book, and often goes considerably faster. To bring history to any semblance of life under such restrictions requires the ability to say much in few words, and a flair for the well-chosen anecdote. Thankfully, Stove has both. I was particularly delighted by his summary of Ockeghem: "[H]e cultivated fantastically elaborate counterpoint, sang bass, and wore glasses." Indeed.

The organization and structure of this text is notably clear and free of jargon. A book on the history of any art form risks becoming a meaningless succession of book-jacket blurbs - decontextualized information that cannot possibly be retained without some broader organizing principle. The usual solution is to wash down the indigestible mass with soothing bromides about "periods" or styles, in the hope that by grouping three hitherto unfamiliar composers together with a simplistic label the reader has thereby learned something interesting. Stove's approach is so unobtrusive as to be almost unnoticeable - unexpected connections between composers are exploited to effect a transition from one to the other, sometimes in surprising ways. Handel, for example, is sandwiched between his English predecessor Purcell and his Italian colleague Corelli; the discussion of Corelli paves the way for a discussion of the Italian school which will eventually lead northwards to J.S. Bach. Such an approach does infinitely more to place the music in a meaningful context than the usual approach of pairing Handel and Bach. Equally memorable was the juxtaposition of Brahms, Bruckner, and Johann Strauss II, giving the reader a broad overview of the variety of music-making in late nineteenth-century Vienna.

A couple of insights are particularly striking, sending me running to listen to the music again - this on Couperin, for example:
Paradoxically, the greater Couperin's blue-blooded and periwigged elegance, the more widespread the sense of desolation behind it. His keyboard oeuvre is a masked ball that repeatedly threatens to turn into the Masque of the Red Death.
Also very fine are the discussions of Richard Strauss and of Carl Nielsen, who is finally beginning to receive the wide recognition he deserves.

There are some problems. Bach's music is unimaginable without predecessors like Pachelbel and Buxtehude, composers that deserve more coverage than the passing references they receive. More context is needed for the development of instrumental music in general, which is pushed aside in favour of vocal forms practically until the advent of Paganini. The most significant omission is a list of recommended works and recordings by each composer; a listener unfamiliar with the repertoire is not helped by the information that Hugo Wolf's songs are "frequently superb," for example, without being told which of his hundreds of songs are the superb ones.

Stove's assessments of composers and works are usually sound. The twentieth-century avant-garde receives spotty coverage, which is fine; this repertoire is the musical equivalent of blue cheese. Someone wanting an introduction to the Western musical tradition probably doesn't mean Xenakis, and someone who would enjoy Xenakis will find him without our help. The assessment of Stravinsky, though, leaves something to be desired - he tells us that the composer's "creative gifts had already peaked" by 1917, and that little of his later music "shared the quality of, or even appeared to come from the same hand as, his pre-1918 achievements." I've more or less given up on trying to understand why some people like later Stravinsky and others don't - there is no apparent pattern. For me, the bracing tragedy of Oedipus Rex, the awe-inspiring Symphony of Psalms and the alternately hilarious and touching The Rake's Progress can stand with any of his early ballets. For Stove, and for many otherwise intelligent musicians, the entire style is a closed book. Even more bizarre, for me, was the assertion that Brahms's chamber music is "on the whole, less performed and less attractive" than his other music. Far from being unattractive, Brahms's trios and quartets are among my favourite pieces of music, full stop, and seem to me to be at the heart of his entire output.

Yet the critical judgements in books like these are at best a mere crutch, helping the new listener to orient himself in a repertory before he develops particular tastes of his own. The cure to the errors of emphasis in this book, or any other, is more listening. It would be surprising if anyone could read this little book without being inspired to listen to some of the music Stove describes, and on that count it must be considered a success. Add to that the fact that the book can be comfortably read in an evening and is available in an extremely cheap paperback edition, and the book becomes self-recommending.

The joy of self-knowledge

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Help me out here, folks - is this a good or a bad thing? I've never read Lovecraft.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In defence of "classical"

Elissa Milne reports on the Classical Music Futures Summit, where keynote speaker Greg Sandow and a number of other participants expressed their frustration with the label "classical," and suggested that the term be banned "from advocacy, advertising and conversation". The idea is that the term has institutional and social overtones that turn people away. "Classical" doesn't indicate something significant about the music - its only content is social snobbery and smug elitism. A persuasive advocate for this position is Alex Ross, in his classic (heh) essay "Listen to This":
I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype.

I wonder, though, if our eagerness to ditch the "classical" label isn't misplaced? As a young, callow student, I was fond of reminding people that "classical" only means the music of the late eighteenth century, and shouldn't be applied to the Western literate tradition in general. Now, older and somewhat less callow, I realize that this was wrong - the term "classical" is applied to eighteenth-century European music only by analogy with the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, whose ideals the Enlightenment musicians tried to emulate. And the Greeks and Romans themselves were classic because later civilizations considered them to be classicus (that is, "of the highest class"). When we say that the Iliad is a "classic," we mean that, although it may be old, its quality sets it apart as still worth reading today. This is presumably also what we mean when we define a particular historic repertory as "classical."

There's another sense in which my younger self was wrong, though; to draw distinctions unnecessarily can be a form of intellectual one-upmanship. Your average person knows what he means when he says "classical music" - he means a work from the past, played on acoustic instruments by trained performers reading off notation. He may associate the term with various unpleasant aspects of the orchestral concert experience - sitting quietly in an uncomfortable seat with no legroom, surrounded by elderly people in suits who glare at him when he coughs or claps at the wrong time - but those aspects are not inseparable from the word "classical". That is, an informal concert of Beethoven in a park would still be "classical," but a U2 concert in Symphony Hall under the conditions I've just described is clearly not "classical." The essential, non-negotiable elements of "classical music," for our man-on-the-street, are its use of particular acoustic instruments and vocal styles, the fact that it's written in notation, and the fact that the work is being performed many years after the fact by a person other than the composer. One might quibble with this definition - it excludes improvised music, and much experimental and electronic composition of the last century - but there's no denying that these characteristics constitute a workable description of the literate Western tradition of classical music, from Palestrina to Ferneyhough. To turn to our hypothetical gentleman and tell him that, actually, we don't like the term "classical," and we'd like to use a different word of our own choosing that tells people just what we're all about, is to condescend to him, and he's likely to resent it.

The broader point, perhaps, is one of humility. No-one gets to pick his own nickname, and least of all does an artistic movement have the privilege of doing so. When you think about it, in fact, all of the terms we use to periodicize music history are factually incorrect. The Middle Ages are only "middle" if you believe they were an tiresome period of misery in which people twiddled their thumbs in between the ancient Roman Empire and the Renaissance; the "rebirth" of the Renaissance, meanwhile, was itself really just the culmination of a period of intellectual vibrancy in the late medieval period. "Baroque," "Rococo" and "Impressionist" were all terms of critical opprobrium, bitterly resented the artists who worked in those periods. The "Classical" period was really "Neo-Classical," and the Romantic period included many other intellectual strands besides Romanticism. "Modernism," meanwhile, is getting less and less modern with every passing minute. Yet all of these terms are useful in casual discourse to define a particular area of artistic endeavour. More experienced musicians quickly discover the limits of these terms - the lines between them are blurry, the specific traits they define difficult to pin down - but they provide a useful way of communicating quickly with others.

What is the real problem with the word "classical"? It's not that the connotations of the term "classical" fail to describe the works performed by "classical" musicians. If John Cage and Pauline Oliveros are difficult to reconcile with this Everyman's definition of "classical", that's to be expected - the point of their work was precisely to challenge musical conventions and stretch conventional barriers. If many contemporary composers fail to fit into the "classical" mould, that's probably just as well for them - they'll probably get more listeners without it. But in terms of the mainstream of performance practice, the repertoire that is taught at conservatories and university music departments, the music that is studied in music history and theory classes, there is very little music that stretches the average person's definition of the term "classical music".

No, the problem has more to do with the nature of the word itself. The words "classical" and "classic" are terms of approbation - they signify a work from the past that is of proven quality and value. But one doesn't have to be a particularly astute observer of modern life to observe that contemporaneity is valued more than permanence, current relevance more than past success. With an infinity of new entertainment options on the television and computer, what could Beethoven's Ninth have to say to me? It's not so much that anyone disagrees with the implicit endorsement implied by the term "classical"; rather, it's simply considered as irrelevant. This chronological bias is combined with a certain lingering antinomianism: can we trust the authority that deemed this symphony to be of lasting value? Isn't the idea of hierarchy inherently elitist?

The fact is, though, that old books and old music do still have much to say to us today. Their longevity is not a proof of irrelevance, but rather the opposite: an indication that they were found relevant in times and places far removed from the ones where they were written. But if we are to make a case for music written hundreds of years ago, surely the first order of business is to rehabilitate terms like "classical"? People aren't stupid - if they think that music from the past means music that is irrelevant and boring, they're going to stay away from your concert of Mozart piano trios whether you put "classical" on the poster or not.

The challenge, then, is not to come up with a new, snazzy name for music of the Western literate tradition. Instead, we need creativity in performance, marketing and concert programming. We need to show how music from the past can be related to today's realities, and we also need to show how it can be relevant in and of itself. It's not enough just to stress the "contemporary relevance" of Mozart operas without building a long-term audience that appreciates the music on its own terms; neither is it enough to simply present the operas as though they were self-explanatory without any further context or attempts at education. What we need, in short, is an Aristotleian mean between the extremes of ivory-tower insularity and pandering hucksterism, combined with the absolute highest standards of excellence in performance and scholarship. Attempting to rename the "classical" genre may be an interesting exercise, but in the long run it is likely to be neither possible nor desirable.

Modernist music and pop culture

First the Second Viennese School, now Varèse:

(h/t Mind the Gap)

This is so tasteless as to be really awesome, and I found myself wondering why this hasn't been done before. Much twentieth-century music - and I think particularly of my own favourite avant-gardist, Xenakis - has a strong spatial, almost visual appeal that would seem to offer limitless possibilities for video presentation. Unfortunately, this is usually done badly, as in the following example (danger: epilepsy warning):

I own the complete eighty-minute DVD from which this clip is excerpted. Only someone who has experienced it can possibly imagine how tiresome these visuals become after an hour. And so unnecessary, too, because the visual aspect of the musical performance is frequently so interesting - as in this hypnotic performance of Rébonds B: