Thursday, May 31, 2007

Joy, Joy, Joy

Today my third child was born - my first son! He is beautiful and a delight already. As much as I stand in awe of the creativity displayed by the likes of Bach, Mozart, Horowitz, Gould, etc., all pale in comparison to the genius of the Creator who gave us these children - and those creators. We naturally tend to let normal supply/demand market values cloud our aesthetic values so that the routine but miraculous glory of a child can seem less noteworthy than the rare gifts of the great artists. Well, I'm not saying it's really a competition, but watching my two daughters grow, learn, and create each day is to witness something that is routine and yet surpassingly sublime. It's such a privilege to be a father again.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

MM's Magical Multimedia Musing Machine

In these first 100 or so plus days of blogging, I recently realized I've created a good bit of my own multimedia content. Then, I apparently had a stroke and decided to create what you see (hopefully) spinning to your right. I spent way too much time putting this silly little thing together; but, if you've stumbled on this blog recently, it's a fun way to stumble through interesting entries from the past. Just click on the crazily spinning icon and see where the magic takes you. You may hear music, you may see some oddly crafted image, you may get taken offsite. You never know, but hopefully I'll keep adding stuff as times goes by. Happy spinning!

P.S. I'll move it off the top of the page soon, just in case you're worried that staring at it too long will do you harm.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

today's eTime devoted to eMusic

Well, I went and wasted what time I could've been blogfully musing today by choosing this month's selections instead. I've written before about this strange download service with the strange pricing that makes long tracks such a bargain. So, if you're interested in trying it out and want a headstart finding some of the bargains, I've made a little playlist of some of them here. This only includes tracks I've downloaded; there are certainly many more possibilities if you do some hunting. This also includes only complete works, so I didn't put really long movements of larger works (such as Leon Fleisher's 20-minute 1st mvt of Schubert's last sonata; Elgar's Violin Concerto made it because all 3 movements are long). Most of these tracks are 15 minutes or longer. eMusic charges $9.99 for 30 track downloads per month. You do the math.

I haven't had a chance to listen to all of the selections yet. (They're long tracks!) However, most of them have been well-reviewed elsewhere and/or contain some interesting repertoire. If you're interested in trying out the service, some of these might be a good way to start. Unlike iTunes, there's no copy-protection built into the files (so they're easier to use in a variety of ways), and they're compressed at higher quality than iTunes. (On the other hand, iTunes has a much more impressive list of labels on its roster.) I'm not advocating this just as a way to "stick it to the man." Goodness knows, record companies and artists need our support; still, these bargains provide a fun way to experiment without fear of wasting much money. (Among other things, I've been indulging my taste for piano transcriptions of unexpected rep - more on that to come.) I have downloaded some less-than-10-minute tracks, partially to be a good team player, although I find it hard to choose many that are less than 5.

I still don't anticipate staying with the service for long, but maybe this will turn out to be a Dread Pirate Roberts situation (which, carried to its logical conclusion, means someday eMusic would become me).

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hard to Believe

Three quick things:
  1. I'm done with grading, and the grades aren't even due until Tuesday. This is some sort of record for me.
  2. I haven't had the urge to create a captioned cat/composer picture for more than 6 hours now. Also a record. I'm still taking it one hour at a time.
  3. The Red Sox currently have a 12.5 game lead over the Yankees, and an 11.5 game lead in the division. It's not even Memorial Day. Wow.

Classical Cats

It's apparent that these are going to need their own archive. I still haven't figured out the connection between cats and cheeseburgers, but I tried to work through that in my latest effort. If I were Captain Kirk, I would now shake my fist and scream towards the heavens, "DEEEEEEEEENK!!" (It's a good thing I'm married to a psychiatrist.)

[UPDATE: a sad one] [UPDATE2: hmm]

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Hiatus Loophole

See, this isn't really a blog post, so I'm still on hiatus (although I've already cheated thrice). It's just that Jeremy Denk recently issued a remarkably pointless and ridiculous challenge to the classical blogosphere. At first I just ignored it. "He's gone too far," I thought. [sigh] But I cannot resist the siren's song of the pointless and/or ridiculous, so now I've got this on my hands. We can only hope I heed the subtle message of Norm the Cat.

[UPDATE: Norman Lebrecht once said the nutritional value of a classical blog is "lower than a bag of crisps." Well, you know you can't eat just one, so now I've posted this over on Think Denk, mere minutes after the first one. Speaking of fiddlin . . .]

[UPDATE2: Here's one more. Now I have a matched set for my sonnetz.]

[UPDATE3: OK, this is really it. No more crisps for me . . . today.]

[UPDATE4: Now, all in one place!]

Grading in style

Allow me to take a slight break from grading to marvel at this modern world. I'm sitting in a very comfortable chair at air-conditioned Panera, far from my delightfully distracting daughters, enjoying excellent food and beverages while reading student papers that have been electronically submitted. This means I can easily put comments in the margins and make traceable corrections without making the poor students try to decipher my appalling handwriting. In many cases, students have referenced recordings that I can stream from my school's online classical music service which I can access via Panera's free (Starbucks, please take note) wireless. Some students have submitted very creative projects ('bout which more anon) on DVD, Powerpoint, wmv, etc. All, of course, easily accessed on this laptop, though the ambient music here isn't always an ideal accompaniment. Once a paper is graded, I can e-mail it to the student while saving a copy of all my comments, which makes future discussions about grades so much easier. Now, if I could just get software to do the actual grading . . .

Friday, May 25, 2007

Pops puts pianists to pasture

In this brief little update to the last post, I'll just note that I now see the Boston Pops' POPSearch rules explicitly forbid accompaniment for the auditionees. I had accompanied a few singers in the 2004 competition, so they obviously didn't have that rule then. I'm still curious as to the rationale here - if it's just to level the playing field (let everyone sound bad!), if it's to imitate American Idol, or if they really believe this is a good test for the singers. The whole competition seems a little half-baked - the rules and YouTube instructions look as if they were never proofread (as opposed to this blog, which is sometimes proofread). I also wonder if the fact that they extended the deadline means the whole YouTube thing didn't bring in as many auditions as they would have liked. Just to be clear, I'm not at all disappointed I wasn't involved in this process. Standing in the '04 cattle call line for hours last time was no picnic, and it's pretty clear they're not really looking for opera singers anyway. Still, the YouTube gimmick feels like a cost-saving measure as much as anything.

Searchin' a cappella

I know, I'm supposed to be on self-imposed blogging hiatus until my grades are turned in, but this doesn't really count because I'm patiently waiting for my toddler to drift off to sleep. She often requests that we sit in the "rocky" seat to get her nap going, and she now consents to let me bring the laptop along. The convergence of two great technologies - wireless internet and the rocking chair.

Anyway, I'll also blame my distraction on Geoff Edgers for posting yet a third time about the Boston POPSearch submissions on YouTube. I don't want to look, but I can't stop myself. Two things. 1) I'm sure others have commented on this in the American Idol context, but all these unaccompanied song renditions drive me crazy. It's not just that I happen to be a collaborative pianist who might be able to sell you a pulse and help center some tonal centers. OK, maybe that's part of it, but it's mainly an aesthetic thing.

I understand that it requires extra skill to sing successfully a cappella, so there is a wheat/chaff separation thing going on here; but the performances are almost never really even remotely successful because those underlying harmonies and rhythms matter, especially in some of the more sophisticated American Songbook tunes with lots of subtle chord changes. I always feel adrift listening to these ungrounded melodies. It similarly drives me crazy to hear instrumentalists audition for college without accompaniment. I'm sitting right there! Just hand me some music. (I remember hearing a Mozart flute concerto audition this year where the girl silently counted out a 16-bar orchestral interlude. Oh, but let's not go down the audition-stories road today. Save it for the dog days.)

2) What was the other thing? Oh yeah, when I scrolled down to one of Edgers' previous POPSearch posts, I noticed a post I'd missed about a 70's era album of children singing pop classics. Very sweet and, by odd coincidence, it inspires me to post an old recording of my then 6-yr-old singing "Yesterday." As if to prove that her old man isn't really necessary, she handles it pretty well a cappella. You could tell she had a good ear when she recited Madeline at age 2. Now . . . back to grading.

(By the way, did they intentionally shoot Keith Lockhart's video invitations to be as unprofessional-looking as possible in order to inspire the YouTube in all of us? The camera NEVER stops moving. It's exactly what videos look like when my daughter gets her hands on the camcorder. I honestly have nothing against Mr. Lockhart; he's clearly a very talented musician who's worked hard to build a wonderful career, but he always looks so uncomfortable on camera to me. Yes, I'd look much more uncomfortable, but he's the conductor of the Boston Pops. Always seemed odd to me. Have you seen him try to hold a microphone? Maybe it's just that he was an incredibly wooden participant in the worst Peter and the Wolf product I've seen.)

Back on hiatus . . . now! (Yes, the toddler's been asleep for awhile.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Self-imposed blogging exile

I just can't get the focus together to blog right now since I've got way too much grading to finish up. Grades are due Tuesday. My wife is scheduled to give birth to child #3 next Thursday. I'm figuring I should get the grades finished up sooner than later (which should have been three days ago). However, the grading process has given me several ideas to write about . . . I'll be back soon.

Incidentally, and more on the subject of blogging than music, I noticed that famed Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan has just started his own blog. On the evidence of the linked entry, I'd say that's going to be a great thing. Ryan is a terrific writer, but more and more I find the canned newspaper article format to be . . . well, canned. Ryan also happens to be an excellent radio/TV talking head and the kind of writer who clearly still loves sports with a fan's heart. Those qualities come through beautifully in his first lengthy blog entry, which is full of many great tidbits that probably wouldn't have made the cut in a column. (Constraints aren't always a good thing, although Christoph Büchel still needs to learn to play nice. Oooh, I have so much to say about that . . .)

Among the many shortsighted and closeminded things asserted by Richard Schickel in this recent opinion piece is that blogging is more a form of speech than of writing. (Technically, he's quoting someone else.) Without question I think Ryan's skills as a conversationalist make him an excellent blogger - but so do his skills as a writer. It's a silly (and, of course, self-protective) dichotomy that Schickel endorses, but I'm glad to see an old guard type like Ryan is not afraid to try something new.

Oh yeah, I'm not supposed to be doing this right now . . . I'm supposed to be grading writing that, as it happens, is usually much too conversational and desperately in need of more attention to constraints such as logic, factuality, having-a-point, etc.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Free Music

I've been surprised to see in the past few days that the International Music Score Library Project is just now becoming news to many music bloggers. Since I'm pretty new to blogging, it wouldn't have occurred to me that this amazing resource wasn't already widely known among net-savvy musicians. It's been in my sidebar list of favorite free music resources since I moved in here, but then I've been snooping around for music scores online for years now.

Basically, there are two types of free scores to be found (legally, that is). The first would be scores of public domain music that have been notated in programs like Finale and Sibelius and posted online by the generous notators. I used to create a lot of my own editions in Finale for my church choir, and the enormous Choral Public Domain Library is evidence that I'm not the only one. Most of the standard choral repertoire is available there in editions that range wildly in quality. Although these scores are usually available in formats that can be furthered edited (transposed, for example) if you have the right software, they are almost always available in PDF format as well, so that pretty much anyone can print them out.

Oddly, the next wave of free online music featured the more old-fashioned approach of scanning public domain music and posting the files essentially as big pictures converted into PDFs. Because files created in notation programs are much "smarter," they can be converted into fairly small PDFs based on font information, etc.; the scanned files, which are necessarily much larger, didn't really catch on until the broadband revolution made them easily downloadable. To my knowledge, the first big scanned library was which charges a buck or two for their scans. It's a strange, convenience-based business model; basically, you're paying them for having taken the time to track down old scores and run them through a scanner. Their pricing schemes are rather inconsistent - some decent bargains and some that are really overpriced. They also have some very poorly scanned files, although they've been good about refunds in such cases. I've used several times when I needed music quickly, but it always struck me as a transitional business that couldn't last.

With the rapid, wiki-fed growth of IMSLP (also mostly scanned scores), more and more of the public domain standard rep is now available for free, surely to the chagrin of the EveryNote entrepreneurs. Whether free or not, it's important to remember that these public domain editions all date from the early 20th-century and before. There's a lot of variation in how much that matters depending on the music being considered, but these aren't state-of-the-art scores. It's also worth remembering that printing these scores involves ink/paper/time costs, so even free isn't necessarily free.

Still, I think Chris Foley is missing the point somewhat in his comparison of these free files with published sheet music; I don't see them as competitors, but I use IMSLP and other such sources extensively for three main purposes: 1) general reference, 2) class lectures, and 3) emergency situations. As an example of reference use, I've been grading music history (Classical Era) papers these past few days; most of the papers involve some sort of musical analysis, so time and again I've gone straight to either IMSLP or the Mozart Edition Online to check the score. (The Mozart edition is quite cool, of course, but not all that user-friendly. Following my link will save you significant time over going to their home page.)

As for class lectures, I use these resources all the time. It's so much easier than dealing with making transparencies or even using one of those fancy document cameras. I haven't yet used a tool like PDF Annotator, but I expect to add that to my teaching arsenal soon. Even without annotations, it's great to have, say, the full score of Beethoven's 5th so conveniently referenced from a laptop; one can zip around within the score or to other scores with such ease. I've also found free public domain scores useful in many other teaching situations. For example, they provided an easy and legal source of photocopiable songs for my Spring semester German diction class.

Emergencies? Well, they do happen. My department chair, music director at a big local church, was fretting three days before Easter that he was missing his trumpet parts for the "Hallelujah" chorus. I popped online and had them printed out for him in less than ten minutes. I've had many other occasions where it saved me significant time to get my music online. This has nothing to do with replacing the scores on my shelf.

My eyebrows also went up reading this from Foley: "Unless you're a paper-binding specialist, the binder you store your [printed-from-online] scores in won't be as reliable or attractive as a published score, and the three-hole-punched pages won't stay in as firmly as they do in a printed score." Actually, many published scores are a nightmare to keep open, whereas double-sided pages in a binder are easy to manage, and a simple black folder is perfectly attractive. Binding one's own pages in a three-hole notebook also allows for taking page-turns into account, something that many published scores do poorly. In some cases where I know the music well, I've used PDF files to print four reduced-size pages per page as a way of virtually eliminating turns.

In fact, I find many new editions to be much less carefully laid out than some of those ancient, public domain jobs. It's remarkable to see how painstakingly typeset many of the old editions were, whereas current editions are often the products of carelessly used software. Although notation software like Finale can yield fantastic results, it still requires a kind of care and attention that is often lacking. This seems like a good subject for another day, though. I've still got lots of grading to get through . . .

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Dread Inspirer Roberts

I mentioned at the end of that lengthy last post that I was glad to have ended it weakly so that I'd be sure to have a blogtopic for another day. I've been blogging for less than three months, but almost from the beginning I've had that sensation that one day soon all the ideas would be gone. Much like working for the Dread Pirate Roberts, I feel like the writing muse says to me after each post, "Well done. Thanks for hearing me out. I'll most likely abandon you in the morning." What's worse is that, whereas it might seem to be a good idea to save some posts up for the winter, there's a sort of manna-principle at work. I actually have quite a few saved partial posts, yet it's very hard to light a spark under them once they've been stuck in the drafts folder for too long. Meanwhile, if I let a couple of days pass, it feels like I can barely remember how to put two words together.

I know, I'm not expressing anything that any writer or other creative type hasn't experienced on a more or less daily basis but, hey, it's giving me something to write about. By the way, the Dread Pirate Roberts analogy works in many different situations. When, about six years ago, I first grew the beard that I still sport, I'd often look at it in the mirror and think, "Nice job, beard, thanks for making me feel more professorial. I'll most likely shave you in the morning." And it's still here, so maybe there's hope for my continued efforts to multiply words. In the mean time, I still haven't tidied up the end of the last post, so that gives me something to work on tomorrow . . . not to mention all the half-baked potential in that drafty folder.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A taste of 1825

I can't imagine trying to do this without the inspiration of the many excellent blogs that provide regular food for thought. (Speaking of which, thanks to Terry Teachout and OboeInsight for the kind mentions.) So it is that Matthew Guerreri's ever-informative Soho the Dog has two seemingly disconnected posts which have run together in my mind. The first has to do with Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the author of The Physiology of Taste. I'm going to confess that I'd never heard of Brillat-Savarin or his book, and I'm sure he and his fans would be offended by my unsophisticated palate. (I think I've lowered my brow enough with the Haydn-bashing, so I'm not going to reveal any diet details here.)

Guerreri's point is that Brillat-Savarin also loved music and spoke highly of its aesthetic merits, but judged the life of the gourmand to be more satisfying. The Frenchman reasoned that dining, with all its attendant sensual and social pleasures, is a dependable, every-day activity. "Music,' he counters, "has powerful attractions for those who love it; but one must set about it: - it is an exertion." This immediately struck me as odd, partially because when first reading it I didn't know Brillat-Savarin was writing in 1825. Here in 2007, very little exertion is needed to enjoy the highest levels of music-making - assuming, that is, that one is content with recordings.

I was thinking of this sea change while reading Guerreri's article about the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's upcoming "rock'n'roll" concert. The point there is to look at composers who've been unabashedly influenced by the rock'n'roll riff-raff, especially when it comes to exploring sounds beyond the typical acoustic palette of the concert hall. One could argue about the degree to which the classical types have accepted synthesized sounds and instruments; in my experience, the electronic stuff is still pretty peripheral, except in one hugely important area: recordings. Recordings have come to define classical music in so many ways, it's no exaggeration to say that it's already a very electronic world.

True, we like to pretend that recording is a transparent medium in which acoustic performances are transmitted to us unadulterated. Oh, except we might cut and paste them together from multiple takes, just so you won't have to hear the same mistakes over and over. Oh, and we might tweak the balances a little bit - just so you can hear every acoustic nuance produced by that beloved soloist. Oh, and we might speed things up a bit to make it more impressive - NO, that would never happen. But, the bottom line assumption is that classical recordings aren't about electronics - they're about the music.

Ah yes, that's an interesting distinction that opens its own can of worms. (I opened that can a little while back. I'm going to open it again. Hope you have a taste for worms.) First of all, it's much easier to think that a performance is mainly about the music (as opposed to such little elements as the performers, an audience, a shared experience, etc.) when it's disembodied into electronic form. To illustrate, let's return to that 1825 perspective [cue blurring visuals and whirring time-travel arpeggios]:

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: Oh t'cuisine! This dinner is delightful.
Jean's Imaginary But Engaging Spouse: Yes, I'd say this experience transcends the mere mundane function of providing nourishment.
JABS: Agreed. [pause] Remind me who you are.
JIBES: I'm not sure. You were quoted on Soho the Dog's blog as saying "A married pair of gourmands have at least once a day a pleasant opportunity of meeting . . . and have a subject of conversation which is always new; they speak not only of what they eat, but also of what they have eaten, what they will eat, what they have seen elsewhere, of fashionable dishes, new inventions, and so forth. Everyone knows that such a familiar chit-chat is delightful." However, Wikipedia says you were never married, so I'm here to be your theoretical spouse.
JABS: What a memory you have! I did say all that about the pleasures of table chat. You have to remember the TV hasn't been invented yet, so dinner conversation still serves a useful purpose.
JIBES: What would you like to discuss first? The food in front of us, the food we ate yesterday, or the food we'll eat tomorrow?
JABS: I think you may be overthinking this; our conversation needn't be so contrived. Now, did you happen to hear the one about the E-flat Major rondo theme that gets broken apart at the end?
JIBES: Is this a joke?
JABS: Well, yes, it's from the last movement of Haydn's Joke quartet. You see, a lively presto theme goes into a 6/8 bar -
JIBES: It's 1825, Jean. Haydn's a thing of the past.
JABS: No, no, you don't understand. He was a comic genius with appeal far beyond his time. If we did have TV, he'd have had his own sitcom for sure.
JIBES: Shouldn't we be talking about food?
JABS: I'm talking about food that nourishes the soul. As I once wrote, "Taste is not so richly endowed as hearing; the latter can appreciate and compare many sounds at the same time; but taste, on the other hand, is actually simple—that is to say, that two flavours at one are equally inappreciable."
JIBES: What about sweet'n'sour pork?
JABS: Never heard of it. But consider the pleasures of Haydn as he invites us to savor four parts at once independent, yet harmonious. Why, the rondo theme itsel -
JIBES: Nothing is so tiresome as hearing someone talk about music. It's like
cooking about architecture.
JABS: You're right. You need to hear this music to really get it. You play violin, right?
JIBES: Sure; being imaginary, I can be anything you want me to be.
JABS: Great. Now it's
been said that I was "good enough to play first violin in a New York theater orchestra," so I'll take violin 1, and I'll get my chef to play viola -
JIBES: I didn't know he played.
JABS: He doesn't, but it's just a viola part.
JIBES: But what are we going to do about a cellist?
JABS: Well, it's not like I just carry them around in my pocket. Perhaps I can get my valet to play the cello part on the piano. It's a compromise, but at least it should be in tune.
JIBES: Speaking of which, did you say this is in E-flat major; I always have intonation problems in the flat keys.
JABS: Oh, that's not a problem; we can play it in E Major and, assuming we're still working near Baroque pitch here in 1825, it'll come out more or less in E-flat.
JIBES: So now you're asking me to transpo -
JABS: Oh, sacrebleu! I just remembered the house viola isn't playable right now. Chef Kaga misunderstood a joke I made about the difference between a viola and an onion. I guess we'll have to cover both viola and cello on the piano.
JIBES: This sure seems like a lot of exertion just to hear a bit of music.
JABS: You know, you're right. [makes a note to himself]. Forget Haydn. Now, about this brie . . .

[cue more blurring and whirring. It's now 2007.]

JIBES: What's for dinner?
JABS: Well, it's Iron Chef night, so how about some Japanese take-out? I'm getting tired of French food.
JIBES: Maybe we should try some of that fusion cuisine. I saw Rachael Ray has a candy sushi
JABS: Great idea. Those inter-continental flavors always make me think of the exotic, Oriental influences one finds in the music of Debussy and Ravel.
JIBES: Speaking of international, I just read that Ravel wrote a little piece called Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn? A French salute to an Austrian, I suppose. Do you know it?
JABS: Know it? I'm crazy about it. I've got six recordings right here [pulling iPod from pocket], four on piano and two in the orchestral version. My favorite is Casadesus' restrained interpretation. I much prefer when the performer doesn't get in the way of the music. Just listen. [fitting her with headphones] Such taste. Such refinement.
JIBES: Mm-hmm. But it's 8 o'clock. We can listen to Ravel any time; Iron Chef is on now! [fade to black]

I had no idea that dialogue was going to happen until I typed the phrase "Let's return to that 1825 perspective." It's now a long time since I started this post, but I hope our little play has made its point. For 1825's Brillat-Savarin, the existence of music on a page was no guarantee that he could experience the pleasures therein. Now, virtually the entire standard repertoire has been converted many times over into electronic music that's ready on demand. But it is electronic, if not so much in sound as in what it means for our reception of it.

I love recordings, and I almost certainly wouldn't be a musician today without having been inspired by them. But, I suspect their existence has done more than anything to create this idea that we can listen to music objectively. That just as a printed score is something fixed (seemingly), so a library full of CD's gives us the impression that the score realized in sound can be fixed, permanent, authentic, etc. Thus, people were perplexed that recordings attributed to Joyce Hatto could have received less glowing reviews when previously associated with no-name performers. The fact is, it is now possible and quite common to listen to music with no regard for the performers. I find this happens with students all the time. I've had many submit papers in which specific recordings were analyzed with no mention made of the performers.

Still, knowing (or knowing about) the performer can add an important layer of meaning. I thought of this when Jeremy Denk posted his homemade recording of the Allemande from Bach's D major Partita as the culmination of his 7-day allemandethon. I'd already sampled many other recordings of the work throughout the week and had played through it many times myself, but I certainly listened to his recording differently knowing what I'd learned about his relationship to the piece. I don't see anything wrong with saying all of that context thoroughly enriched my listening, that my baseline empathy for his playing was higher than if I'd known nothing about him; but that seems to go against the prevailing wisdom that a performance should stand on its own.

The funny thing is that, in arguing for more openness about this kind of subjectivity, I'm accidentally making an argument in favor of the star system that has long dominated the classical recording industry. As much as I don't like that, it's helpful to realize that people want to put a face with what they're hearing. If that face looks like Joshua Bell or Janine Jansen . . . well, that shouldn't be the point. So, partly as an overreaction against it, we like to pretend that the music speaks for itself. But, Denk's insights into Bach aren't just insights into the music; they're insights into his conception of the music. That's an important difference, and it helps ensure that the electronic doesn't become inhuman. [UPDATE: I just re-read this and realized this conclusion could be a lot clearer. Well, now I have something else to blog about.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

L'amour est un calliope rebelle

Sometimes, the student is the teacher. For example, amidst yesterday's pre-exam buzz, a student mentioned that when she tries to think of one particular work from the listening list, she always hears another tune by mistake. I'm not sure this quite qualifies for my Tune Theft Archive; it's just the first three notes (a chromatic descent from the tonic) that the tunes share, but it's a striking connection nonetheless. Rather than post my normal side-by-side comparison, I did a quick little mashup to present the two at once. Here it is.

Of course, the work she was supposed to know is this. I had to look up the name of the other tune. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) I don't know if this melodic connection has been made many times before, but I was amused to see that both tunes show up on this album. So, conveniently, you can go there to hear both in their original versions - sort of. I wonder if the Flying Dutchman ever gets the two confused in the middle of one of his shows.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fun with exams!

One of my favorite parts of giving music exams is playing the Listening ID examples. I don't just mean that I enjoy the tortured looks on students' faces (although that's pretty cool), but I'm often struck by how much I enjoy hearing the excerpts (at least some of them; after all, there's often a little Haydn to be endured). First of all, there's the reality that one usually listens in a different, often heightened way when presenting music to someone else. It's that sense of trying to imagine what the other is hearing, and hoping they hear what makes the music worth listening to. (That's really more important than getting the answer right.)

For example, whenever I play the 2nd verse of Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden cantata for a class, I find myself getting virtually choked up (I don't really get choked up often, but if I did, this would be a time) both at the intensity of the music and the feeling of hearing it "through the students." I know that it's likely many students don't hear it the way I want - that, in fact, they can't hear it that way until they know it well, but still . . .

It's especially interesting to me, in a navel-gazing sort of way, to see which exam excerpts I find myself unexpectedly drawn into such that I feel disappointed at having to cut them off. From my "Survey of Musical Masterworks" exam, the ones that "got" me were: 1) Beethoven's 5th, opening of 2nd mvt., 2) Victoria, Kyrie from Missa O magnum mysterium, 3) O soave fanciulla from La bohème, 4) opening of the 1812 Overture. Let's take the last one first, since it's a bit embarrassing.

Frasier once said to Niles, "Remember when you used to think that the 1812 Overture was a great piece of classical music?" Niles solemnly replied, "Was I ever that young?" It wouldn't be my first choice for a class, but I gave in and went with what the textbook/CDs use. However, whatever flaws it may have, those gorgeous cellos at the beginning get me every time. Yes, my cello-playing days make me biased, but a few phrases of the old Orthodox hymn just had me wanting more. By the way, I hate it when this opening is sung by a choir - not only do I miss the cellos, but this is a case where the subtle suggestion of singing is more evocative than the real thing. And this piece can use all the subtlety it can get.

With the Beethoven, I actually couldn't help but let the theme carry through to m. 22. That takes about 55 seconds, but the beautiful way in which that melody unfolds and evolves requires its resolution. Beethoven is so demanding! I don't even know the Victoria very well; it was just a 'mystery' piece I'd hastily selected to test style-recognition skills, so I had the wonderful feeling of discovering it right there, and I didn't want it to stop. As for the Puccini duet, I'm putty in its hands.

What's my point? It's certainly not that the other pieces on the exam were failures; everything has its time and place, and on a different day I might have responded to other works. But this feeling of being caught up in the pull of the music is the point, after all, of so much of this art. What I love about Jeremy Denk's ongoing allemande analysis is the clear sense that he feels the music pulling at him and the analysis flows from that, even if it means goats get involved.

Sanitized Suites

Jeremy Denk's multipart inspection of an allemande has had me wanting to get to know the Bach partitas better. (Somehow, I've always spent more time with the English/French suites.) I'll admit I hardly had any memory of that remarkable allemande, and I'll refrain from commenting more on its wonders until Denk's 7-part series is finished. OK, one comment. It has to be one of the least danceable stylized dances ever. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) OK, one more. It has to be one of the longest binary-form dance movements ever. Wolfgang Rübsam spends 11:54 ruminating on it - that's almost longer than it takes to read Denk's blog entries.

Anyway, those wanting to expose young children to this and other crazy dances can take comfort in knowing that iTunes has given Maria Tipo's Bach the Clean Lyrics seal of approval. Perhaps that's to clarify that Ms. Tipo doesn't do any Gouldian humming. As I've said before (here, here), neither iTunes nor eMusic has any idea how to present classical music, so such glitches aren't surprising. (Maybe this will help.) Geoff Edgers mentioned the clean Neruda Songs some time back, but this is my first encounter with purged partitas.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Funniest . . . You . . . Tube . . . Ever

Via Chris Foley's Collaborative Piano Blog:

I suppose you have to really know Pears and Britten to fully appreciate, but I have to admit I didn't know Dudley Moore had this in him.

Jedi Master

I'm not as well-read as I should be, but my favorite writers about music would probably be Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein, and Charles Rosen. The first two are certainly best remembered as legendary performers; in Gould's writing, it's his one-of-a-kind quirkiness that I adore, even if he often resorts to being "clever for the sake of being clever." With Bernstein, it's the sheer inspirational fervor that jumps off the page, even when the page is a television script.

Rosen, also a performer of the first rank, is the most legit scholar among the three, but the quality I value most in his writing is the same as what I find in Gould and Bernstein - the sense that everything he writes comes from inside of the music. Now that's a pretty vague claim, and it will sound like I'm putting down other musicologists, but I just mean that all three have an extraordinary way of getting to the heart of the matter that I believe comes from their genius as performers.

Rosen just turned 80, and this recent NY Times profile (too short) makes me feel incredibly lazy. He's still practicing three to four hours a day, with a performing schedule and repertoire to match. I also learned, and I say this with respect, that he's beginning to look a bit like Yoda. That's somehow appropriate, given the ease with which he dispenses insider wisdom. For example:

[Rosen] describes “recording fright” as “worse than stage fright,” from which he still suffers. With stage fright, he explains, you start out a little frightened, and then it wears off, but with recording fright, you start out fine and then grow worried.

I'd say that's exactly right. Especially as a collaborative pianist, there's nothing more stressful than getting towards the end of a "good take" and fearing I'll blow it, whereas once I'm into a live performance, the terror tends to fade away.

It's been far too long (perhaps as evidenced by my Haydn problem) since I read The Classical Style, but from both The Romantic Generation and the much less formal Piano Notes, I've learned so much about the special qualities of the piano and the composers who mined its deepest potential. Soho the Dog recently found an amusing quote from a flutist who, speaking of the composer John Adams, said: "I sometimes wish he’d date a flute player just so he’d find out how hard his music is to play." I don't know anything about Adams' flute writing, but I do think the importance of composers understanding the instruments for which they write is significantly underrated. Furthermore, though I'll admit to being biased, the piano is surely the most difficult to understand from the outside.

Not surprisingly, pianist-composers understand it best. Rosen writes, "Chopin and Schumann, above all, arranged the accompanying harmonies to make the notes of the melody vibrate." (p. 37) That statement seems simple, but the art it describes requires a very intuitive sort of sophistication on the part of composers. (Incidentally, it also explains why digital pianos are often so unsatisfying, and why the PianoTeq approach offers some hope.) Anyway, Rosen's ability to articulate what makes the great pianist-composers tick surely comes in part from his own mastery of the keys. Clearly, the Force is with him.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

No Hidin' from Haydn

[Wow, that's a bad post title. Sorry.] It had to happen. Less than 48 hours after complaining about my dis-affinity for Haydn, we sang "The Spacious Firmament on High" in church this morning. Not only is this based on the famous "The Heavens are Telling" chorus from The Creation, but this is one of the worst examples I know of words that don't fit a tune. I don't have any big objections to the Haydn chorus - it's got a nice rousing choral fugue. The tune is rather on the square side, especially the second phrase that goes up the scale, but this is certainly one of the most successful moments in the oratorio, set up beautifully by the tenor recit that precedes it.

As for the hymn below, the words were written by Joseph Addison in 1712, The Creation was created by Haydn in 1798 and, around 1845, someone had the bright idea of supergluing the former to the big tune from the latter. The character of the tune fits the words just fine, but many unaccented syllables fall in accented places. The worst would be firmaMENT, OrigiNAL, and publishES. Still, I really can't blame Haydn for this. In fact, there's a long history of taking "great classical melodies" and turning them into hymns without really working out all the kinks, as if a highbrow tune will always carry the day. Anyway, here's what verse 1 of this unfortunate concoction looks like. [Click on it to hear the tune.]


I hope I didn't offend any pet-owning fans of House, Haydn, and hot summer days with my last post. (It's one of the annoying things about blogging - you feel like you're only as good as your last post.) For the record, I have good relationships with people who enjoy all of those things, and actually consider those contrarian tendencies to say more about me than the objects of my disaffection.

Anyway, I suggested a few posts back that it would be interesting to "speed up" Maurizio Pollini's already dazzling take on Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrouchka. The point is to explore what we're (I'm) listening for in such virtuosic music. Is it just the sheer excitement of the sounds, or do we need to know it's a legit, real-time performance? We pretty obviously don't care if the performance has been cut and pasted from multiple takes, but this takes editing to a new level. And, by the way, the fact that I could do this so easily shows how easy it would be for any performing artist out there to do the same with his/her own recordings. (See Hatto, etc.)

I think there are two larger points: 1) On the one hand, we should be careful not to lose sight of the fact that the meaning of most classical music is not just objectively encoded in the sounds we hear. We care about such things as who is playing, how old he is, how famous she is, what we know about the difficulty level, what kind of technique the pianist has, etc. 2) On the other hand, our commitment to this sort of "honest" performance has probably closed us off to all sorts of new expressive possibilities afforded by digital enhancement. (As I said before, pop music doesn't get dragged down by this sort of thing.) We're probably better off being honest, but, at a minimum, we're missing out on some fun.

Here's an excerpt from Pollini's actual (we assume) recording of the Danse russe from Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Now listen to it "played" 5% faster, 10% faster, 20% faster, and 40% faster. At 5%, the difference isn't that noticeable; at 10% it still sounds believable to me, if otherwordly. 20% is pretty unreal and 40% is just kooky. Of course, in some ways this piece is an odd choice for my experiment because there's not much fingered passagework, which can obviously be played faster than the sort of octaves and double-notes that predominate here.

Here's a bit of Signor Pollini playing Chopin's Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 10, No.4. Let me just mention that, having struggled through this etude myself many times, this recording already seems unreal. If some anonymous pianist posted this online as his own MP3, not only would I be suspicious about it's being stolen; I'd wonder if it had been artificially accelerated. With so many more new notes per second, the Chopin gets kookier even faster than the Stravinsky. Here's Chopin/Pollini plus: 5% , 10% , 20% , 40%. 40% is a far cry from hearing "the real thing," but I do get a kick out of it.

Strangely, my other interest in this process comes from my enjoyment of things that are ridiculous. I realize that some will object to this whole experiment as ignoring what's musical about this music. There's little question that Chopin+40% becomes extremely mechanical (some would say that about Pollini in general), but what's wrong with admitting that we musicians enjoy technique for technique's sake sometimes? To go a little further, I enjoy hearing the impossible for impossible's sake. Here we have something that would truly have been impossible for Chopin to have heard. What would he have thought?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Feelin' contrary . . .

Here's some things most people like that I don't like:

Heat - Especially the kind of unseasonably warm weather that seems to have most people so excited. Today, the combination of oppressive humidity and allergic lethargy has sapped my mental will to the point that this is all I can think to blog about. I'm bloggin' about the weather. Shoot me now.

House - I just don't get it. To me, Hugh Laurie isn't remotely convincing. All I see when I see him in action is acting. "Look, there's Hugh Laurie. He's playing at being curmudgeonly. He's chewing scenery. . . What are they selling on the shopping channel?" I can't watch it. I also think that Dr. House and Martin Crane both look really fake using a cane. (I'll feel really bad, though, if I learn that one or both of those actors actually uses one.)

Household pets - Actually, pets in general don't make much sense to me, but especially living inside with the humans. My children work just fine as lovably endearing critters, thank you, and they'll support me in my old age. I hope. (Unless they're mad that I never got them a pet. Uh-oh.)

Haydn - OK, that's a little strong. I like some Haydn. I understand his reputation. It's just that I don't feel a strong compulsion to hear any of his music ever again. I heard one of his piano sonatas played in a jury yesterday, and it reminded me of one characteristic that often drives me crazy; his quirky sense of metrical pacing. I don't have the energy (the heat, remember) to flesh this out much right now, but it often happens that a sudden shift in the predominant note-value will make it seem as if the bottom drops out of the pulse. Look at m.9 in this sonata that I heard played yesterday. [Hear here (excerpt). View entire sonata in PDF here.]

Now, I realize that bars 9-11 can be described as a phrase extension which, in theory, would prolong interest. However, those deadly dull 8th-note thirds in m.9 just kill the momentum for me. It's a small detail, but this kind of thing happens a lot with Papa Joe. Actually, this piece has its charms. It suggests to me a humorous type who can't seem to shut up, but just keeps blabbering on and on. If I had the energy, I'd summon to the witness stand many weaker sonata movements which reveal an even odder command (or lack thereof) of pacing. NEXT TIME ON HAYDN HATIN': A blissful Adam & Eve that will make you yearn for the Fall.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Faking Schubert/Faking Pianos

First of all, it should be noted that although the word "faking" has negative associations, and the way collaborative pianists such as I "fake" is sometimes deserving of negative associations, there is also a real art that can be defined as faking in my world. At its best, it describes a creative approach to all sorts of challenges that can arise in performing as a musician - such as staying with a singer when he/she goes off course. (Could this be jury day?)

Anyway, the ever-innovative Hugh Sung, who boldly carries his entire rep and page-turner in a Tablet PC setup, has some interesting suggestions for pianists trying to survive the Erlking. I think I've tried all of these suggestions at one time or another, all with mixed success. I really just need to practice more and raise my pain threshold, but in commenting on his post, I came up with an interesting connection between text and technique.

I'm sure other pianists have noted before that the first moment in the song which allows for a slight letup is the first time in the poem that the Erlking speaks. Not only does the music become sickly sweet here, but the right-hand actually has some regular little rests thrown in. (See second system of p.172.) I can't be alone in feeling a great sense of anticipation as that first respite arrives. The next 'break' (4th system of p.173), coinciding with the Erlking's second speech, is even more refreshing - innocent arpeggios that a child could play. Following that, it's every tendon for itself to the bitter end, but only today did it occur to me to think of those two oases as Screwtape-like, the wicked piano part drawing you into a momentary sense of comfort, just as the elf king seduces the doomed child. And that piano part is pure evil.

Hugh also has some video podcasts (this guy takes tech seriously) demonstrating a new kind of digital piano. It seems to offer a major step forward in simulating the way a piano actually produces sound. Whereas I find the virtual orchestra described below to be disturbing in many ways, this sort of advancement is quite exciting and has less negative aesthetic baggage.

Fake Your Tutti

Thanks to Sarah Marie for pointing out this article and online quiz. [You might want to take the quiz before reading further.] It's a story about the ever-improving digital synthesizing technology that's starting to make real-sounding virtual orchestras come to life. (Even more real sounding than these guys!) How real sounding? Well, two music professionals failed to pick the fake out of a lineup of Reiner, Zinman, Norrington, and RoboOrchestra. Now, I'm proud to report that I nailed the frauds the first time and was 98% positive I was right, although I listened to each example several times before committing to a final answer. (I also correctly ID'd all the others, though I could only confirm that by submitting them in turn as "answers.")

Like most such "tests," this one has some serious flaws. First of all, all of the excerpts are sampled at 32kbs; so, not only are we not getting to hear the real orchestras live, we're hearing them in a seriously compressed format (typical iTunes MP3s are 128kbs, and many consider that a significant compromise) which tends to take some of the bloom off the sound of the instruments, real or fake. The diginstruments are, of course, just sampled versions of real instruments in the first place; so, in this setup, the real instruments are having to compete in the digital domain, and at a very substandard level. As it happens, I was also listening on some pretty crummy desktop speakers. Since Paul Henry Smith, conductor of the software symphony, has the stated goal of 'performing' with his charges live, the real test is how his pseudorchestra would compete in an actual concert hall.

This reminds me of when I bought a digital piano while in grad school. I did most of my practicing at school, but wanted something affordable at home for note-learning, etc. I actually bought the piano at the local Steinway dealer, and I spent quite a bit of time trying it out first. However, I later realized that I spent most of that time practicing it at the store with headphones on. (I'm not sure if this was particularly encouraged by the sales staff, or if I was just too shy to play in earshot of others.) When I got the "piano" home, I was definitely a bit disappointed at the way it sounded played through its internal speaker, which no doubt produces a less realistic sound than the headphone effect. The piano still did its job, and I was glad I bought it, but I've never forgotten that lesson. Since then, I've heard and played many varieties of digital pianos and, at their most impressive, what I realize is that they can sound like really good recordings of pianos.

Otherwise, the main problem with the quiz is that the examples are so brief. The full recording of the movement that they later provide is woefully unsatisfying, but that's not to say Mr. Harris won't get there eventually. So, again we come to the question of why we listen in the first place, and what sorts of meaning we draw from what we hear. I miss Joyce Hatto, and all the furor surrounding that wonderful story, because it brought up so many great questions. For example, I was recently thinking to myself that, what with the relative ease of making recordings and distributing them as MP3s, it would be great if artists just started releasing their own regular live recordings on their own websites. Eliminate the record company middlemen and only a few audiophiles would really care. (Of course, many pop groups are doing this. Actually, the Borromeo String Quartet is doing this.) Except . . . what evidence would we have that all these homemade sounds were honestly produced? Not only would we need to be wary of Hatto-ing, but Hatto's husband also revealed how easy it is to speed things up digitally.

I was thinking of this driving home last night when, again, I was listening to Maurizio Pollini abuse (in the good sense) Stravinsky's Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka. Wow, is that ever astounding playing. Here's what odd. Although I know that Pollini's technique is legendary, we still all pretty much accept that his recordings will consists of multiple takes spliced together. I doubt he could get it quite that perfect in one live take. On the other hand, I suspect we wouldn't accept it if someone learned that the music was artificially sped up to increase the virtuosity factor. The question is, why?

Now that I'm listening to sports radio again, I can't help but connect this with the whole steroids issue in baseball; interest in that topic is ramping up anew as Barry Bonds, assumed cheater, is closing in on the all-time home run record. There's a lot of complexity in that issue that deserves its own post, but most can agree on the underlying assumption that baseball players shouldn't get credit for cheating because the game is defined by the rules. Is that true of music performance as well? What are the rules? Is there a rule that says a recording needs to be something the performer could actually accomplish without the aid of an editor? In terms of cutting and pasting, we've long since OK'd that, but I'm guessing most classical music folks would still say no to "artificial tempo enhancement."

Immediately, we need to qualify that, since there's been plenty of music written that takes intentional advantage of mechanical and electronic ways of doing the impossible. Conlon Nancarrow and his player-piano concoctions come to mind first, but there are many other examples, and in the pop world no one bats an eye at such things. In fact, they're much more honest and businesslike about the end justifying the means. (Milli Vanilli is just an exception that proves the norm.) The Beatles' wildly overrated In my Life (#23!) has a famous little "harpsichord" interlude that is really just a slow electric piano solo that was electronically double-timed. Of course, in those days that also meant it came out transposed up an octave. I remember hearing a probably apocryphal story about a cello teacher at some conservatory who played some famously fast solo (Elfentanz?) at a very deliberate tempo, then doubled the playback speed to produce a viola audition tape that wowed his colleagues.

Well, it's long since become possible to doubletime a performance without changing the pitch at all. So, for all the talk that came out of Hattogate, I'm surprised so little attention was paid to the fact that some of her spectacular "performances" were not just just stolen; they were artificially made more impressive by speeding them up. As I've written before, that most listeners would think of that as cheating just proves how much we listen to most of the core classical repertoire as being about more than just the sounds we hear. There is an important athletic component that we associate with hearing the music performed.

Do we have to think about music this way? Of course not. Glenn Gould tried his best to convince us that the performer should be transparent - that the resulting sounds are all that matter. But when I hear Pollini play Stravinsky, I get a real thrill at the thought that one person is actually playing all those notes in real time. Now what if the tempo was bumped up 10%? If I didn't know about the doctoring, I'd be really astounded. If I did know - well, I don't know. My reaction would be different, but hearing it would still be pretty cool. (I'll have to try this out tonight. I have the technology. UPDATE: Done.)

Sorting all this out is really complex: our brains learn to hear certain kinds of sounds as virtuosic because they are virtuosic; then, when an artificial way of producing the sounds is developed, our brains are still left with the old associations, so the meaning we take away is a strange blend of enjoying pure sounds and interpreting them according to our understanding of human limitations. Of course, once the impossible is established as possible, it's not really impossible anymore, and our associations change. No wonder aesthetics is such a difficult field.

By the way, I happen to believe that recording technology has also changed our conception of the "possible" just by the simple process of transmitting so many astounding performances so widely. I got in trouble during my DMA oral exams for a throwaway statement in one of my papers that suggested performance standards (especially in terms of sheer accuracy) are much higher now than they would have been in previous centuries. I wasn't very well-prepared to defend that statement at the time, and I'm still not now, but I'm no less sure of it. I think that regular exposure to high standards via recordings (standards that are artificially raised by editing out mistakes) has inevitably changed the global conception of what is possible.

As meager evidence, I'll return to the four quiz recordings. The first recording that jumped out at me was Fritz Reiner's, which presumably dates from the 50's or 60's. The wind playing was simply too out-of-tune and unblended to sound like a contemporary performance. Standards are just different. ("Better" is another question altogether.) Norrington's jumped out next because of the brisk, relatively uninflected tempo. As for the sythnony, the woodwinds sustain in a hollow, straight way that just doesn't breathe right. They're too smooth. and too blended. One hardly notices the different timbre of the flutes when they come in halfway through.

Still, I don't doubt that all of that can be worked out in time. On the other hand, where I can see the value of using these virtual orchestras in theater and opera pits, I'm baffled by the suggestion in the article that Beethoven symphonies would be performed this way for live audiences. The only reason that I can imagine I'd prefer that to hearing the same thing in my living room is if the acoustical reproduction was especially fabulous - just way better than a home stereo system could deliver. But still, I believe most people go to hear a Beethoven symphony in part to witness the remarkable ensemble achievement of well-trained musicians playing together. I can easily imagine that music of the future will not be about that, though.

Surprisingly, the pop world is way ahead of the classical world on this front. From mid-career on, the Beatles were no more about live performance than Glenn Gould. If you go to this fantastic site that analyses all of their songs, it's amazing how much of the analysis has to do with the recording techniques, not just the melodies and harmonies. Still, I hope there's always a place for appreciating musicians' technical prowess as part of what makes music meaningful. And I still will dream, however hopelessly, of being able not only to hear Stravinsky played by Pollini, but to play that piece that way myself.

[I stole the post title from an old grad school paper of mine. Too good not to use again.]

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

So bad it's good.

Having just written about performances that may be too good, I can't neglect mentioning how much I love things that are really bad. The fact is I've probably listened to my virtual singer croon "Hey, Jude" at least ten times in the past few days, and he's at it again right now. (Sadly the midi file on which it's based doesn't do all 19 repetitions of the closeout chorus, but I'd stay with it if it did.) When virtual Paul makes that stunning 2-octave arpeggiated ascent ("better, better, better, better, better, better, AHHHH") before the choruses, it gets me every time. Maybe it's just me.

I think my family thinks it's just me. For example, I much prefer watching home shopping channels to 90% of what's on TV - and it's not for the shopping. I just find the hosts fascinating; each product is presented as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so that, if you're patient, you get to see an unlimited number of once-in-a-lifetime moments pass by. What's astounding is the dedicated passion with which some of them do their jobs. The best/worst is this guy, Shawn Leflar. He doesn't just sell; he preaches with a borderline angry edge at times. If you don't buy this camera, he seems to say, then don't blame him that your life falls apart. You'll never get technology like that again, not at that price-point. When Shawn gets on the air with that scary coin guy, I tremble a little bit.

I am picky about what sorts of bad things I like, though. Some bad is good, but some bad is just bad. I don't find most Reality TV interesting or even watchable because the badness is too contrived (especially the ridiculous American Idol auditions). Yes, it's true that the hosts of shopping channels and infomercials are contrived, but . . . well, I'm not going to try to build some defense of this. It's not worth it, but let's just say I rarely fail to enjoy TV sales pitches. Jeremy Denk understands.

The other thing that made me think of bad things I love came from a rerun of Frasier last night. Frasier's depressed about being unemployed, and early in the show his denial is expressed in this great scene:

Martin: Morning, Frasier.
Frasier: Oh, good morning, Dad.
Martin: A little early for the piano, isn't it?
Frasier: Yes, I'm sorry about that. You know I woke up this morning thinking about that operetta I've been writing. You know, the one about Robert and Elizabeth Browning. I think, well, I had to get right to it.
Martin: Well, that's what you get living in a big city: If it's
not the horns waking you up it's someone writing an operetta about the Brownings.

Frasier talks his reluctant dad into helping him try it out, and we get just a taste of a bouncy little duet:

Frasier: What is it that you feel... (Martin: Love?)
Frasier: That fear which you conceal... (Martin: Love?)
Frasier: That powers that you heal... (Martin: Love?)
Frasier: Reveeeall. Take me in your arms... [Martin can't take any more]

Oh, how I'd love to hear the rest of that song. It's awful in that perfect way. If only they'd kept going, perhaps it could even have challenged that greatest of all sitcom songs, "Happy and Peppy and Bursting with Love." If you want to see "bad that's good," go here. Not only do you get Felix's and Oscar's fantastically bad song, you get a frightening 70's lounge singer, whose laid-back performance brings out the best in Tony Randall. Then, he sings it right. You can watch the odd couple write the song here. But, you know, maybe the words are enough:

Happy and peppy and bursting with love,
Dancing and singing to heavens above,
Jumping and rolling like a little pup,
If they knock me down, I'm gonna bounce back up.

Happy and peppy and feeling so swell,
I'm gonna answer when I hear the bell,
I'll knock down defeat with fury ferocious
Happy, precocious and swell.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Too good to be true?

I already mentioned that my recent class on The Rite of Spring reminded me of Edith Piaf, and that sent my mind here. From Stravinsky to the ridiculous in seconds flat. However, talking about the Stravinsky also reminded me of a fundamental tension in thinking about that work. Although it was created to evoke barbaric ritual, and although its premiere provoked a riot, it is now not just a happily settled musical masterwork; it is one of the ultimate orchestra/conductor showpieces. In other words, this scandalous depiction of low culture has become a signifier of success at the highest levels of culture. To pull this piece off (at least in today's terms) requires about a hundred meticulously trained anti-primitives. So, the question is, are we then left with something that really says anything about real primitivism?

Putting that question aside, it has me wondering if performances (and performances standards) can be too good. On one level, the answer is 'no,' but the question isn't so much a problem with spectacular technical achievement in its own right as it is how those achievements change the way we hear music. Since the classical world is, by definition, concerned with re-hearing repertoire over and over, it's only natural that the more we get to know certain masterworks, the more we'll notice whose performances stand out. There are established technical standards for works like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto or The Rite of Spring that couldn't exist yet for brand-new music. Thus, especially for the connoisseur, the ability to enjoy a performance can become more and more about how that performance stacks up.

In my early days of record collecting, I had no problem buying mostly budget label LPs with no-name performers. In fact, I had some marvelous live experiences hearing the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra debut various masterworks for me. This is not to put down those players (although the fact that I later became one of them doesn't improve my opinion of them), but I'm sure I'd hear them differently today. Still, my point isn't so much that "the more you know, the less you like," although that is a problem.

I'm just wondering if we underestimate the fact that some music has a certain appeal when it's not being immaculately transmitted. I thought of this first as I was telling my class about the riotous Stravinsky premiere while listening to an exquisitely controlled performance. Saint-Saëns supposedly stormed out at the premiere on hearing how the bassoon was being misused, but on most recordings that solo sounds divine. Maybe our ears have adjusted, but I suspect that in a pre-rite world, a bassoonist wouldn't have sounded so polished up there. It's probably fair to say that this unbassoonistic solo has become a solo every bassoonist aspires to play beautifully - but not shockingly or disturbingly. It's now very bassoonistic.

I thought of this issue again a couple of days later when I heard two very intermediate cellists rehearsing the Vivaldi Concerto for 2 Cellos in G Minor with a junior orchestra. I love that piece and have accompanied other intermediate-level cellists playing it several times - and I think it sounds great that way! There's a wonderfully scruffy/scrubby quality to the writing that makes inelegant playing pay off; I think I may honestly enjoy that piece more that way than I do hearing it played by professionals. Of course, this partially has to do with my association; maybe if I'd heard it first played by pros, I'd think otherwise. I made this point before in a more extreme way with this example.

So what's my point? I don't know. I'm not arguing for us to drop technical standards. I was just listening to Gary Graffman tear his way through Balakirev's Islamey, and the virtuosity is absolutely thrilling. It's just one of those every-gain-has-a-loss situations. We teach The Rite of Spring as something scandalous, but it's really lost all sense of scandal; if the NY Philharmonic performed it today exactly as it was performed at its premiere, there might be a riot, but only because the playing would be heard as severely substandard.

One of the first Jeremy Denk posts that really attracted my attention was this one about Charles Ives. Denk is basically struggling with the issue of music that sounds too composed and civilized:

Just the other day I was playing through Tzigane with Josh, in a rehearsal, and it was all a great deal of fun, and Josh sounded fabulous of course, and I was annoyed that I didn't sound so fabulous in that annoying passage with the repeated notes ... but I was thinking "it's good, but it's no Charles Ives." Even the "dirty" gypsy notes in that piece sound clean, organized, shiny; everything is polished, glittering, sparkling, lush, perfectly voiced: sanitized? It smelt of PineSol, if PineSol were French. But not with Ives; he captures the Down & Dirty better than almost anyone. If he errs, he errs on the Dirty side; but his dirt is not vulgar, it is transcendental fertile earth with lots of terrific spiritual manure. Perhaps the hyper-cleanliness of Ravel is somewhat vulgar, in comparison with the honest, sprawling dirtiness of Ives? ... at least that's the way I feel. Bring on the hate mail!

The subject of one of the twenty books I may never write is the tension created when beautifully crafted artworks are about awful things. In the fascinating book, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?, A. D. Nuttall talks about the problem of art that "glorifies the inglorious." (I'm not sure of the original source of that phrase, but I like it.) He quotes a C. S. Lewis article which, naturally, gets right to the point: "Can we wholly avoid the suspicion that tragedy . . . is our final attempt to see the world as the world is not?" ("Tragic Ends," Encounter, vol. xviii (Feb. 1962), p. 98). When a Shakespearean character gives a noble speech before dying, the problem may not just be that the situation is unreal; it's that the eloquence of the moment may cloud our vision with respect to the horror that's being depicted.

In the same way, composers and performers often find themselves straddling that line between communicating something rough and primitive (Beethoven's Pastoral peasants, for example) while being smooth and sophisticated. There are passages in Ives' Psalm 90, which I was listening to this weekend, that seem to defy any possibility of elegance. (e.g. "We are consumed by thine anger.") Even when they're right, they sound wrong. And maybe that's right.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Curious Case of

[UPDATE: I've created an eMusic playlist of lengthy single tracks here. The playlist is briefly described here.]

We live in a material world, so naturally the early stages of my love affair with the immaterial sounds of music quickly inspired a love for accumulating records. I amassed about 500 or so LP's before reluctantly switching over to the less tactile, but shinier CD format and amassed another 500 or so of those little discs. Curiously, as much money as I invested in these materials, I never cared much about audio quality. I was very proud when I arrived with saved cash in hand at a Service Merchandise to buy my first little Panasonic all-in-one record/cassette/radio player with its tinny, tiny little speakers. Proud, that is, until I happened to run into my high school band director, an audiophile whose questions about what I was buying had me soon pretending I had no interest in the Panasonic. (I slipped out with it after he left and never regretted the purchase.)

Through the CD years, I've never had anything more than unremarkable speakers and a weak, utilitarian amp/receiver; so, unlike many audio enthusiasts, I've had no trouble switching over to the inferior audio quality of the MP3 world. The convenience/flexibility factor is so great that I now spend probably 80% of my audio dollars at the iTunes store. There's a very small part of me that misses the thrill of 'holding' brand-new LP sleeves/CD jewel cases in my hands, and I'm mystified that program notes haven't been more routinely incorporated into the digital world. (What could be easier than slipping a little text into these files?) Still, the part of me that lives in a house that's too small for all of our accumulated possessions is just as happy to watch my collection grow by the invisible gigabyte rather than by inches on a shelf.

Of course, iTunes isn't perfect, but their classical catalog has gotten pretty deep. However, my post title refers to one of its quirkiest competitors, I'm now on my second go-around with the subscription-based model of eMusic. The biggest problem is that I hate the subscription model. This is both because of and in spite of all the years I spent as an off-and-on member of those old Columbia Record Club mail-order deals - the ones where they sent you a record each month unless you told them not to - of course, I often forgot to tell them not to so they got a lot of return-to-sender packages from me - and yet they kept signing me up.

eMusic provides you with a certain number of tracks to download per month, and it's clear from their setup that they wouldn't mind if you forgot to get your downloads in every now and then - the credits don't carry over to the next month, which is insane. But that's just the beginning of the insanity. What really makes no sense is that every track is of equal value, regardless of track length. As a result, a 1-hour recording of the Goldberg Variations would cost 32 track credits, while an 85-minute Mahler symphony might cost only 5 credits. The company apparently has done well enough to suggest that many are content with this model, but it drives me crazy as I find myself getting obsessed with finding the longest tracks to maximize value.

In a way that's silly, because they're already offering a better deal than iTunes. A basic subscription costs $10 for 30 tracks/month. Thus, even those overpriced Goldberg Variations would cost about $10, which is what an iTunes album usually costs. Also, eMusic offers less compressed (higher quality) MP3s, and there's no copy protection built into their files. Still, it just seems wrong to download a 2-minute track when it costs the same as a 30-minute track. And, in the classical world, it turns out there are quite a few long tracks available that become superbargains.

So it is that in my two brief membership periods (which have included two bundles of free tracks, first to get me to try and then to come back and try again), I've paid $20 to download 105 tracks totaling more than 16 hours of music. Honestly, I feel kind of guilty about that and will probably stay on for another month or two at least so I'm not completely gaming the system. However, the system is was it is, and I haven't done anything sneaky. I've just done a good job of finding all the long tracks that appealed to me. In fact, in trying to finish up the bunch of tracks I just had available to me, I finally gave in and downloaded a few albums with some very short tracks, partly just to get it over with. Still, I've averaged more than 9 minutes per track.

One thing this reveals is that eMusic is not really designed for classical rep, which is much more likely to have these marathon chunks of music; if classical was their main market, I'm sure the pricing structure would change. It's actually clear in lots of ways that eMusic isn't set up well for the classical world; the search/browse process is far too clumsy and there are all sorts of inconsistencies in how works, performers, composers, titles, etc. are listed. For example, it's not at all unusual for a composer to be listed as the performer. iTunes isn't perfect in this respect, but I find it much easier to use. Of course, iTunes also offers access to most of the main labels, while eMusic features an eclectic blend of mostly budget and independent labels that rarely feature the most well-known performers. However, the nature of the classical business is that that's not necessarily a bad thing, if one chooses wisely. (Just ask Joyce Hatto's husband.)

My all-time prize is a recording of Terry Riley's In C that clocks in at 46 minutes. Well, given that it's a pretty monotonous piece, maybe that's not the best value. I've also come away with 20+ minute recordings of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, Strauss's Metamorphosen, Beethoven's Eroica Variations, Bloch's Schelomo, and Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead. Oh, and Leon Fleisher's recent recording of the last Schubert sonata has a 20-minute first movement, although its other three movements (which I did stoop to buy) only average about 7 minutes apiece.

I haven't had 16 hours to hear everything in full, but among my favorite recent downloads is the Ravel Quartet, played gorgeously by the Borromeo Quartet. I'm embarrassed that I've heard them perform live far too seldom given that they play many free concerts as quartet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory. One of the few albums that I downloaded in full (in spite of many short tracks) features Sergey Schepkin, a fellow DMA student from my NEC days. I don't mind admitting that Sergei plays at a level I can only dream of, and his disc of Debussy (Book I preludes, etc.) is some of the most compelling playing I've heard in a long time. It's not at all sentimental, but it's also never remotely dull - he plays with such command and vision.

The great deals have also made it easier to take a chance on some unusual items, including a duo-piano version of Bolero, a solo-piano version of The Rite of Spring (only 2 tracks total!), and an orchestration of Schubert's sublime F Minor Fantasy. Oh, I also picked up a version of the Schubert in its original 2-piano setting. 17 minutes each - 2 tracks total. I could go on and on, but the point is that . . . well, I guess it's both that I've really enjoyed my eMusic experience, and it drives me crazy. I can't imagine staying on for all that long, but maybe I'll keep finding things to keep me coming back. A problem is that, especially in the standard rep, eMusic generally won't have the ideal recording. On the other hand, I don't mind picking up an extra Don Juan for what amounts to about 25 cents.

Other highly recommended eMusic picks: Jamie Buswell playing Barber's Violin Concerto, Julia Fischer playing Tchaikovsky's Valse-Scherzo, The Dale Warland Singers sing Ives' Psalm 90. In fact, I came to bury eMusic, but on reflection I should be much more grateful. Originally my subject heading was going to be "eMusic.con" (clever, huh?), but I wasn't sure if it was they or I doing the conning, so it was too confusing.

[P.S. It is annoying that eMusic will sometimes have tracks that are unavailable. Most oddly, this happened with a Vaughan Williams' symphony where I downloaded three of the four movements, only to realize that the 4th was never going to be available. I ended up getting that track the old-fashioned way - I checked the disc out from my local library and ripped it onto my computer. For the record, I don't make a habit of doing that with library discs. I've got my pride.]