Saturday, March 31, 2007

Is the composer always right?

[Am I trying to get to 50 posts before the clock strikes April? Hmmm.]

My two earlier posts from today both touched on the question of constraints that may deter a creative artist from his/her vision. Now here's an even more interesting question: is the artist always right about what's best for his/her work? This is an especially knotty question in the context of classical music. The irony is that in a modern art universe that generally chafes at constraints, classical performers are expected to bow down at the altar of a tremendous constraint: the composer's intentions.

Ah, the composer's intentions. Through two years of DMA seminars that I shared with 8 or 9 fellow students, the topic that wouldn't die was the question of how well we can deduce a composer's intentions. (Especially difficult with the dead ones.) One of my most vivid memories from these seminars was from a day in which we were debating whether some articulation/pedal marks in a Beethoven piano sonata meant this, that, or the other thing. We had listened to a variety of performances that represented various levels of interpretive fidelity when I offered the suggestion that maybe Beethoven's marks weren't the best solution. Maybe Beethoven was wrong about what was best for Beethoven's music to be its best. I remember that the professor, a very intelligent postmodern sort, was quite shocked by this question. Of course, it was impudent of me to think I might know better than Beethoven, but it shows how well established is the notion that the composer is always right.

I was amused by a recent Bernard Holland review (now gone to pay-per-view heaven) of recent Rachmaninoff concerti performances by two different Russian pianists. I don't have the precise quote in front of me, but at one point Holland wrote something with the following underlying logic: "Pianist A took many more interpretive liberties with tempo and the like than did Pianist B, so Pianist B was much more musical." How odd that adhering strictly to the composer's wishes is considered being musical while taking liberties that are probably inspired by musical intuition is considered unmusical. Of course, what Holland meant is that a performer who respects the composer's intent is admirable (and musical) and a performer who follows his/her own way too much is irresponsible (and unmusical).

I don't necessarily disagree with that as a general principle, but it can create the effect that performance is less about making music in the moment than it is about serving the composer. This is in spite of the fact that performers should, in theory, be pretty good judges of what works in performance and what works on their instrument. There are many good examples of established masterpieces which were created in collaboration with performers: the Mendelssohn and Brahms violin concerti come immediately to mind. I've often had the experience of playing piano parts which could have benefited greatly if the composer had sought a pianist's advice. (Everything I've ever played by Libby Larsen falls into that category.) Yet a pianist such as Horowitz, who tinkered even with the piano writing of pianist-composers such as Liszt and Rachmaninoff, is viewed with great suspicion by the musical intelligentsia, most of whom have less than a fraction of Horowitz's musical intelligence.

I don't have the time or the inclination to try to prove it here, but I suspect most pre-1900 composers would be astounded at the degree to which we worship the printed score. I'm not saying they didn't care about what went into the score; rather, that they would probably have expected performers to put their own stamp on the music. We know that Chopin apparently would vary details when he played his own works, and yet musicologists expend enormous effort to establish as exactly as possible what notes and articulations he "intended" based on manuscripts, conflicting editions, etc. Such research is fine for giving us a clear starting point, but I just don't believe Chopin would be as concerned about a pianist dotting every I and crossing every T as we are.

This is another area in which I envy jazz musicians who are expected to reinterpret and even recompose as they go; classical musicians are pretty expressly expected not to expand on a composer's intent. Again, that's mostly a good thing when it comes to having a reasonably clear view of the past, but there are times when a composer directs me not to use pedal and I know that judiciously used pedal will help. Sometimes the music knows better than the composer.

a little more about that

Two more quick points about constraints:

1) In using Galen H. Brown's quote for my own purposes, I should at least have gone on to add his next statement:

The question then becomes “is it ethical to deviate from your personal aesthetic preferences in order to appeal to a larger segment of the public,” and that question has nothing to do with “taking advantage” of anybody’s “ignorance.” My answer to that question is that it’s a personal choice.

I want to be clear that in arguing for the appreciation of a constraint such as the need to communicate with an audience, I don't mean an artist should sacrifice "personal aesthetic preferences." What's fascinating about trying to communicate with an audience is finding a way to do that without pandering: one's own "aesthetic preferences" become yet another constraint to be reconciled with the desire to have an audience get the message.

2) I mentioned here that the idea of improvisation and making something good out of a "mistake" has life applications as well. The same is true of the "constraints" principle. Christian doctrine teaches us that living according to the discipline and limits of God's law is actually freeing and makes us more fully what God wants us to be. In fact, pretty much any moral code is based on the idea that adhering to constraints is good for us. Again, I don't mean to suggest that every possible creative constraint is good and that the absence of them is always bad. The most important point is that we tend to undervalue them; for example, the modern aesthetic tends to see rhyme and meter more as crutches for the uncreative rather than as tools of inspiration. For better or for worse, the fact that we have a much less established set of creative constraints in our age makes it more of a challenge for audiences to understand context.

I wrote here that I think the 16yr-old Mendelssohn's Octet may be as perfect as anything ever created by one so young; that's possible in part because he had the advantage of writing within such a well-established system of rules for tonality, counterpoint, form, etc. That's not to take anything away from his achievement, but though I can imagine a young composer today might create something as magnificent, it's hard to imagine that it could seem so perfect. There's not a clear enough context in which to make such a judgment. No, perfection isn't the only goal to which art should aspire as I've suggested here. But I'm glad we have that Octet.

The pros of constraints

This list of demands from the artist Christoph Büchel is hysterical. He's in the midst of an ongoing feud with MassMOCA about the completion of an enormous installation. The demands can best be summarized by this one: "There is NO negotiation about the scope of the project. It will be realized as proposed." Never mind that the scope of the project requires enormous expenses that he essentially wants to remain uncapped. For the purposes of this post, what interests me most about this is the idea that the creative artist's vision should be final. Note, by the way, that much as a composer depends on a performer to bring his work to life, Büchel is the type of artist who also relies on many others to do much of the physical work of putting his "artworks" together. He's not just painting a picture in his studio and then looking for someone to display it. He's involved in a highly collaborative enterprise, but he's insisting on complete control of the process and, effectively, the costs.

What interests me is the question of whether we should assume that "the creative customer is always right." Of course there's no simple answer to that, but it seems to me there's a pretty basic assumption out there that an artist must follow the old "to thine own self be true" principle. In a discussion about the ethics of pandering to an audience over at Sequenza21, the composer Galen H. Brown writes, ". . . how do I decide what kind of music to write, given the preferences of the audience, my desire to be loved, and my aesthetic preferences? The short, easy answer to that question is that you should write whatever the heck you want to write and be happy with what ever audience happens to like it."

Now it's much too simplistic to say he means he doesn't care about the audience, but both Brown's quote and Büchel's demands touch on another of my favorite Hofstadter-inspired topics: constraints. Le ton beau de Marot revolves around efforts to translate a tightly rhymed and metered French poem into English, and Hofstadter uses a host of solutions to show how creative and satisfying the artistic results can be, even when the artist is simply translating within a severe set of constraints (rhyme, meter, literal meaning, mellifluousness, etc.). Of course, the point is that translating like this isn't simple and that finding good solutions involves a special sort of creativity. Constraints come in all shapes and sizes. They can include such things as the size of a canvas, rules of counterpoint, principles of perspective, time signatures, budget for scenery, size of a stage, response of an audience, demands of a patron, union-specified rehearsal time, etc. Sometimes constraints are incredibly frustrating and annoying, but constraints also help to provide essential context for understanding most art.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules about when constraints are good or not, but I can't help but think there's something unhealthy about Büchel's attitude; Brown's quote also suggests a tendency for the modern composer to assume that he's writing much more for himself and art than for an audience. I suspect one advantage that contemporary theater has over music and the visual arts is the more natural understanding that the audience is part of the collaborative process. Out-of-town tryouts and rewrites are all about seeing how a show plays in front of a live audience; this isn't necessarily a question of pandering, which Brown is correct to be wary of, but of seeking out a real communication. Though every artist is constrained by budget to some degree, I'd guess that playwrights and directors accept that more naturally as part of their creative context than do composers and visual artists. I know I'm simplifying Büchel's situation, but his refusal to collaborate with MassMOCA makes me wonder how interested he is in collaborating with his audience.

It does seem counterintuitive that constraints might be a good thing for art, but the example of J. S. Bach provides ample evidence. Not only did he delight in problem-solving within the tight framework of counterpoint, but most of this career was spent writing music that he was told to write for specific purposes. Yes, he chafed against this to some degree and maybe we could wish he'd had more freedom at times, but you can't argue with the results. And, yes, someone like Beethoven fought against constraints to a great degree, but the struggle in his music is significantly defined by the tension we feel against those very constraints.

Now if I could just set myself tighter constraints when it comes to the length of these posts . . . (Fortunately, my daughter's Saturday morning orchestra rehearsal is coming to a close, so I shall surrender to that constraint and hit Publish.)

[UPDATE (later that night): As evidence of the modernist disdain for constraints, I submit some of the comments on this Sequenza21 thread. I don't believe that all contemporary composers think this way, but this discussion about Schoenberg's and Debussy's emancipation of dissonance and consonance pretty quickly descends into a lot of talk along the lines of "Music is free, so was dissonance. It was musicians who were in chains." Some of us feel like those "chains" made for some pretty nice music. Of course, Schoenberg pretty quickly replaced the tonality chains with his own 12-tone chains, so I guess he didn't have an issue with constraints in general; I guess the moment you don't need chains is when you've got a Cage.]

[UPDATE 2 (the next morning): The NY Times has an article about the modernist composer George Benjamin which includes the following bit of refreshing apropos-ness:
In recent years, Mr. Benjamin has been immersed in an exploration of contrapuntal writing, especially canons, in which a voice is imitated by one or more voices at a specific interval or pitch. . . .“I used to be allergic to the idea of canons,” Mr. Benjamin said, especially the “didactic element.” But then he was hooked by the challenge of liberating his imagination through the constraints of the technique. “Shadowlines” (2001) was one result.]

Thursday, March 29, 2007

al...most..... there

My Lenten abstention from sports has continued to pass by with surprising ease - I find I've taken a sort of perverse pleasure in knowing absolutely nothing about what's going in the world of sports. (I don't mean to make too light of the spiritual discipline involved here, but I consider that to be a personal matter.) I guess missing out on the NCAA tournament has been the hardest, but there's something oddly satisfying about knowing I've managed to know nothing about it. I have no idea who's in the Final Four and I'm totally fine with that. In a normal year, I would've been glued to the TV for hours upon hours the past couple of weeks, and I would've read every feature story I could get my eyes on. I'm still trying to figure out what this means. If I were in a more philosophical frame of mind, I'd be tempted to muse about the human need to find meaning in 'safe' things like sports - things to care about and 'feel alive' about that happen to be completely nonthreatening because they really mean nothing. But that's a topic for another day.

Listening to Rachmaninoff on my last few commutes has put me in mind to watch
The Seven-Year Itch, so we're going to take advantage of one of my few recent off-nights in awhile to watch that. I've been thinking a lot recently about comparing the lives/careers/legacies of Schoenberg and Rachmaninoff who were almost exact contemporaries. One so successful with the historians and academics, the other such a hit with audiences and performers. I think as a pair they make for a fascinating case study. For now, I'll just ask, "What movie might I have been in the mood for if I'd been listening to this (a piece I've actually performed a couple of times), instead of Rachy 2?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


A month into my blogging career, I have to say that one of my favorite things about keeping this kind of journal is hyperlinking. I don't just mean the regular sort of blogroll links that connect blog to blog, but I love having the ability to connect thoughts so easily from one post to another. My psychiatrist wife has always thought I had a touch of A.D.D., but I like to think of it as a mind that is constantly hyperlinking. Of course, on some level, making connections from one idea to another is the way intelligence works. My hero, Douglas Hofstadter, is a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and much of his research has focused on analogy-making as a sort of higher level sign of intelligent life. It should be no surprise that he likes to address AI questions by using all sorts of analogies and illustrations from the worlds of math, music, language, art, etc. What interests me the most about that is the idea that creativity is also so often about making connections, something I happened to touch lightly on in a recent post.

The farther out I get from school, the more I seem to find myself interested in all sorts of different creative pursuits - in addition to musical performance, this has included writing music, writing poetry, translating libretti, making movies, blogging, etc. I don't make any great claims when it comes to creative abilities, but I'm always struck by how often the crucial creative moment comes when the mind makes an unexpected or previously unnoticed connection between two somethings. It's kind of like an accident you've been designed to make. I once would've assumed I needed much more specific training to try some of these things out (and more training wouldn't hurt), but I've been surprised to discover that finding successful connections is often more intuitive than I would have expected. It's not much different than finding that perfect analogy.

When I was translating Gounod's The Doctor in Spite of Himself, the moments when just the perfect rhyme would appear always felt like little miracles in which I suddenly married the right word or phrase with the right moment. In the case of translation, as Hofstadter beautifully illustrates, there's a sense in which one is always looking for the perfect analogy - how to express in English what Gounod's librettist expressed in French, for example. But whether it's writing a symphony or choosing colors for a quilt pattern, I think the heart of the creative process is generally the same. One's accumulated knowledge is used to help inspire the most interesting connections. It stands to reason that the creative mind is conditioned to be looking for connections, whether that's the task at hand or not, and I like to flatter myself that this is a reason I don't always focus well.

I don't mean at all to belittle the notion of more serious kinds of A.D.D., but one of the ways in which I have always experienced attention deficit has been with reading fiction. Attention-distraction is probably a better way of putting it, but when I'm reading a long narrative (especially novels), I find it hard not to keep thinking about things I've already read when my enjoyment would be better served by focusing on what I'm reading. I'm always worried that I've missed something, some important connection. That doesn't mean that people who read fluently aren't thinking about what they're read - it makes no sense to think of 'reading' a long work if there's not a running thread of thought - but I struggle more than I should with keeping my topmost focus in the right place.

This can also manifest itself when watching movies, which is probably a reason that I tend to prefer watching movies I already know. There's naturally less concern about 'missing something.' On a fairly trivial level, it used to drive me crazy to be watching a movie or TV show in which a familiar face showed up that I couldn't place; I might spend days trying to figure out where I'd seen that actor before. I used to dream about something like the Internet that would allow me simply to look up actors and see where else I might have seen them. Now that I know the answer to such questions is just a few clicks away, I find it easier not to get distracted by such things. So, this brings me back to my love for links and hyperlinks. They can actually put my hyper-mind at ease.

Even before the Internet came around, I had fallen in love with Apple's old Hypercard software which had it's own built-in programming language. I think it's also notable that I've always preferred in-text parenthetical citations to those bottom-dwelling footnotes. There's a sense in which a hyperlink functions like a really amazing and more transparent parenthetical reference. The reader is invited to dig deeper into an idea, find a definition, or follow a citation as part of the natural flow of the prose. At their best, hyperlinks can let a reader make some of the same sorts of connections that the writer has made.

Yes, there's also something to be said for a good writer taking the reader on that journey through skillfully constructed prose that connects all the right dots without requiring links; we certainly have a general bias towards the idea that a gifted writer should lead us and not just provide a bunch of data that can be connected in various ways. As with just about everything, the ideal probably lies somewhere in the middle. Again I return to Hofstadter's Le ton beau de Marot and it's patchwork structure. There's great delight in reading the chapters sequentially and I believe the author put a lot of good effort into connecting some very diffuse content. Still, many of the chapters also function pretty well on their own and the structure has a freedom about it that invites subsequent browsing. There's no question that I find this kind of reading more naturally pleasurable than reading fiction.

To summarize, let's just say that I waited more than half of my life for the Internet, and I'm so glad it's here - it fits my way of thinking to a T. Perhaps a better-ordered mind could keep a journal and also keep track of all the internal connections from entry to entry, but I much prefer this. That may mean I'm lazy or it may mean that I'm naturally creative. Or both. For me, it's great fun to be able to make those connections more explicit - and, yes, to send readers off to other interesting hyper-spaces. I've been saying for awhile that it can only be a matter of time before most textbooks are delivered online (or ondisc) exclusively because of the power of hyperlinks. For music textbooks particularly, with all the multimedia content, an online synthesis makes so much more sense than a big fat textbook accompanied by a big fat anthology of scores accompanied by a set of 12 CDs, etc. And, the resulting 'package' would look a lot more like how I think.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Great Moments in Bad Historical Analogies

The ongoing story of how synthesized instruments and entire virtual orchestras are taking over musical theater pits gets another look in yesterday's New York Times. There's some interesting speculation about whether this technology, which for now at least is almost always supplemented by live instruments, can actually help musicians in any way, but it's hard not to be cynical when apologists on behalf of the technology are quoted as saying something like this: "'Technology is always a threat to live music,' said Bruce Pomahac, director of music at Rodgers & Hammerstein. 'When the pianoforte replaced the harpsichord, every harpsichordist was out of a job.'" Really? Was there some sort of harpsichordists' union that wouldn't allow its card-carrying members to try out that newfangled piano with it's oh-so-mysterious keyboard layout?

I honestly don't know how a writer just leaves an absurd quote like that in a story without rebutting it at all. At any rate, one reason I'm glad that I care about the human factor in performance is that it makes me less worried that audiences will someday be happy to have laptops do my job. I know that no laptop can play Struass like me.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Conversations across time

After ten years of being a Presbyterian music director, I (and my family) have been attending an Episcopal church for the past six months. Discovering new hymns is certainly one of the joys of this experience. This morning I noticed our second hymn was entitled "To mock his reign," which did not strike me as a promising poetic beginning. (I have to admit that the evil side of me wondered if the tune would be the "mock-a-reign-a," and I'd like to go ahead and apologize for afflicting you with that thought.) However, I was delighted to see that this F. Pratt Green hymn was to be sung to Tallis's "Third Tune," which I quickly realized is THE subject on which Vaughan Williams' glorious Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis is based. I can't reprint the words here for copyright reasons, but it was a marvelous experience finally to get to sing this melody, and the text fits well. (It's #170 in the The Hymnal 1982. You can see the tune in something closer to Tallis's original setting here; the tune is in the tenor voice.)

I don't mind admitting that I felt surrounded by the sumptuous string sound of the Vaughan Williams while I sang this recounting of Christ's suffering on the cross. I think it's a good example of how a "tribute" work like the Vaughan Williams can help to illuminate something old and beautiful. Actually, I heard a student pianist audition yesterday with George Crumb's Dream Images that also reinterprets an old piece (in this case, fragments of Chopin's famous Fantasie-impromptu) in a new light. I hadn't heard that piece in years and had forgotten the Chopin was going to emerge; it was much more effective than I remembered, I'm sure in part because I didn't remember what was going to happen. My other recent encounter with a reimagining of something old would be Grieg's added piano part to Mozart's famous "easy sonata" in C major. The Grieg obbligato is played on a second piano and hearing it is hard to describe; worlds collide, but in an engaging way. You can hear it in this radio interview with my beloved former teacher, Alan Chow. The recording features Alan playing with his sister-in-law, Angela Cheng. It occurs at about 16 minutes into the interview.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Inspired by the 'missed take'

Speaking of improvisation, I can't help but mention that the instance of misspelling Strauss in that last post was originally a mistake. Although many mistakes go unfixed in this blog, I noticed that one pretty quickly, before I'd posted, and just as quickly realized that it worked that way. Since I was talking about faking my through Strauss, it seemed appropriate to describe the result as Struass. (Incidentally, there's also an amusing connection between my new word and my "Fake Your Tutti" idea.) In fact, that's a perfect illustration of one of the wonderful things about improvisation - "mistakes" can often be reinterpreted in the moment as creative inspirations. I know much less about jazz performance than I wish, but I know that the idea of "wrong notes" is much more fluid than in classical. That's not to say there's no concern for accuracy, but part of being creative is working with what you have - and sometimes what you have is a mistake.

Of course, one could easily expand this concept to all sorts of life situations; staying with music, one could say that what makes many musical works satisfying is the sense that the composer has taken something that seems unpromising and reimagined it in a way that is illuminating. How often, one wonders, is the reimagining inspired by a mistake or a wrong turn? Like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree, maybe the 'mistake' just needs a little 'improving.'

When I was compiling my very subjective list of favorite musical works, I mentioned my own surprise at choosing only Debussy's Violin Sonata from among his magnificent output. I admire Debussy tremendously and at other times might include many more of his works, but it was clear to me that the sense of struggle, improvisation, and even occasional awkwardness in that piece is something that brings it closer to my heart than beautifully refined pieces like Reflets dans l'eau.

No, that's not some fixed aesthetic principle for me; I adore lots of Bach that's as refined as could be imagined, but as a performer there's something especially gratifying about playing music where one feels the composer creating out of something less than perfect. I think that's one of the qualities I love about Schumann's Kreisleriana - there's a sense of discovery in playing it that I'm not sure I ever find in many more refined pieces by Chopin. (Not saying it's better than Chopin or that I love it more than, say, the F Minor Ballade or Barcarolle. Just sayin'.)

I can't leave the subject of improvisation behind without citing the three great Christopher Guest movies, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and, the best of the them all, A Mighty Wind. (Yes, I know This is Spinal Tap belongs there as well, but I don't know it as well.) They all feature mostly improvised 'scripts' that I find more enjoyable than all but a handful of real screenplays. So, when you notice 'typos' here and there in my posts, consider them 'moments of discovery' - and perhaps genius.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Being Strauss - or Struass

Two nights of operas scenes dress rehearsals reminds me that I'm possibly at my most content as a performer in just that sort of situation - at any rate, I feel as close as ever to the experience of being an improvising jazz musician. For example, last night there I am playing a wild quintet from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos that has way too many notes for me not to have practiced them. But, I really haven't practiced them and, anyway, they're certainly only an approximation of the sumptuous original orchestration, so I feel a strange sort of freedom knowing that I'm less about the task of playing exactly what's on the page than I am of simulating the Straussian sound as best as possible. Believe it or not, I enjoy it all the more knowing that I may have to chase a singer across a barline here or there and dealing with a piano where the keys are mysteriously sticking every now and then. It's kind of an a out-of-body experience to be flailing along and notice various keys staying depressed. "That's not right," I think to myself, so now there's the extra improvisatory task of figuring out how to get the key back up, making decisions about substituting other octaves, wondering if the pedal is causing the problem - all the while the music keeps flying by.

I'm not saying this sort of situation serves the music best, but there's a wonderful freedom in knowing perfection isn't so much the goal as is getting across the music against some odds. And, yes, I enjoy the thought of concocting my own bit of Struass on the spot - the Strauss that's right for that moment in time. Sometimes in a scene when a singer makes a wrong entrance I'll even think, "you know, from where he/she was on stage, that entrance made perfect sense. It was right for now." Of course I know how dangerous this sort of behavior can be; I even once explored it in a grad school paper called "Fake Your Tutti." Still, I think classical musicians, especially by way of training, often don't get enough experience improvising their way through the likes of Strauss. I know I learn something about the music by having to sort of co-create it on the spot. Now I'd better go learn some of the notes . . .

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

crazy week

I definitely won't be blogging much more this week. I've been sick and am catching up from that and I have two Opera Scenes programs this weekend - still a lot of work to do there, like writing program notes, learning Strauss that I've been faking, etc. so I'd better not spend much time here. The good news is that Jeremy Denk is back from a long blogging layoff with a long post which I haven't even had time to finish reading. I also posted a rather bizarre creative sampler down at the bottom of the right hand column. Rather than try to say anything about that, I'll just sign off and hopefully reappear soon.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


Two quick points. How odd that the episode of Caillou that my toddler was just watching should feature the word, "pulchritudinous." Here's where I'll be honest and admit that, like Rexy the Dinosaur, I had no idea that "pulchritudinous" means beautiful. Isn't that the least onomatopoetic word ever? Also, for those like me and my wife with Caillou questions, this post seems to have all the right answers.

a little more about that

A couple of extra thoughts I had about that last post while digging my poor car out from a block of frozen show:

1) The Gould reverse-engineered recreation is a great example of a solution to a problem that isn't a problem. At least for me, I've never felt regret about the audio quality of Gould's 1955 performance. And, as I've detailed at some length, I'm not that interested in hearing a computer-controlled piano recreate it live because Gould (no matter what philosophical objections he would surely have to my argument) wouldn't be there. The human engineering is what I'd actually want to be in the presence of. When I think of unneeded solutions, I always remember the pianist Nelita True saying once in a master class that some inventor had shown up at Interlochen with a metronome that could tick off the sort of 19 against 3 or 11 against 2 patterns one finds in Chopin. The absurdity is that those groups of 19 or 11 or 14 or whatever aren't intended to be measured in such a mathematical way. Thanks, but no thanks.

2) With respect to the opinions critics had of the Hatto recordings, Tommasini does in fact say that "context should theoretically not matter, especially in instrumental music." He goes on to admit to some of the exceptions that he's experienced, but it's the should that attracts my attention. Where did it come from? There's an implied moral component there; that a truly good, serious, objective listener can't let himself be affected by little things like biographical detail. I'd argue that it's impossible not to be affected, but how many reviewers delude themselves into thinking they remain objective? How much harm does this to do to good, honest thinking about music? Why shouldn't critics listen differently when they think a recording of a Beethoven sonata is performed by a woman who's also recorded all the sonatas of Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, and much of the rest of the piano repertoire? That's interesting and relevant.

like to play for classes three performances of the Haydn "Surprise" Symphony theme. The first is by the Vienna Philharmonic. The second is a video of my then 5-yr old daughter and three friends playing a simplified string quartet arrangement I made for them and that they'd spent one hour learning. The third is my computer playing that arrangement. Obviously, the Vienna Phil wins hands down on most levels, although the computer's version is probably the most pitch-perfect. The interest, of course, is in the little-string-quartet-that-could version. It's horrible on most levels, but the joy of music-making and the wonderful crunch of the surprise chord come through beautifully. They really communicate something of the meaning of this music. Even the tune itself (so lush and elegant in the VPO version), has a refreshing folksy ruggedness about it in the kids' take. If a bunch of adults self-consciously tried to emulate this, we'd be talking about a farce that wouldn't be very interesting. But, because of who the kids are, it's charming, musical, and meaningful. It even helps me hear the music in a new way. (Yes, it's even more meaningful when it's your own kid playing.) Context is huge.

[UPDATE: You can now hear and see (sort of ) the children playing here. I intentionally blurred the video to protect the innocent.]

Whoops, that reminds me of another thing I've been thinking about: how much we in the classical music world need to hear things in a new way. I just read this post in which a musicologist is waxing enthusiastically about the prospects of hearing and even playing Chopin's newly discovered piano. He's pretty honest about understanding that the ravages of time mean we won't learn all that much new from the instrument; but what the enthusiasm speaks to (in my opinion) is not so much a need to learn exactly what Chopin's music sounded like to him, although that's what every musicologist would say. What we really want is to be able to rediscover this music anew. Chopin's not going to be writing anything more for us, but perhaps we can learn something that lets us hear his music in a new way. In other words, we love the classics but we miss the fact that they're not new to us anymore. (The new music folks are jumping up and down saying, "we've got new stuff, we've got new stuff!" Aren't they cute?)

As much as the "performance practice" movement has done to help clear up our sense of history, I think what people have appreciated the most is the way it's let us hear old music in a new way. The first historically informed recordings of Handel's Messiah were such a breath of fresh air because we'd heard it the old way so many times. Now, I've seen that groups are giving authentic performances of Mozart's version of the Messiah, complete with added clarinets, etc. Time was, that would have seemed like something offensive to most musicologists, but now it's a chance to hear Messiah in yet another new way, and through Mozart's ears. Again, there's always the moral component; we need to have some good musicological reason to excuse these new versions (no one's interested in Michael Monroe's electropop version of Messiah) - and that's a good thing, generally speaking - but I still think the new experience is what's most important about these supposedly backwards-looking practices.

Great Moments in Stupid Headlines

The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini's late-to-the-game take on the Joyce Hatto situation begins with a truly stupid headline, "Can What You Know Affect What You Hear?" Well, of course it can; it can't not affect it. What you hear is completely and inseparably connected with what you know. He's writing about the apparent tendency of listeners to hear Hatto's playing differently because of what they believed to be true about her bio. Well, yes, that's an obvious point (that I made weeks ago, as I know others did), but I hope Mr. Tommasini didn't actually write that headline - that he doesn't think there's any actual question about our hearing music differently according to context.

More and more I think that so much of the confusion and misdirection that occurs when talking about classical music has to do with a failure to grasp just how complicated the process of "listening" is. As I mentioned a few posts ago, the whole idea of objectively reviewing a musical work or performance is absurd. This goes for all listening. We tend to forget that what our ears hear is filtered through innumerable mental pathways that have to do with our knowledge of the music, our past experiences hearing it, extra-musical associations, and a thousand other things, etc.

But when music enters more rigid worlds such as academia and journalism, there is a desire to talk about it in much more objective terms - namely, to pretend that we can listen to certain sounds (which acquire almost all their meaning through reference) and hear them just as sounds. This recent article by Edward Rothstein (also in the NY Times) touched on the issue from a different perspective. It concerns the efforts made to recreate a live performance of Glenn Gould's famous 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. A brilliant man has gone to an extraordinary amount of effort to design software that interprets the recorded audio to determine exactly (more or less) how the piano keys and pedals were manipulated by Gould; this information is then sent back through a computer that can "play" the performance on a modern concert grand. It's a miracle of reverse-engineering if it really comes close to its goal.

In reporting on his own response to this new recreation, Rothstein is correct to point out several problems with the idea; most importantly, that unless the new piano is exactly like the one Gould played, it will fail significantly to be a true Gould performance, because every pianist constantly is adjusting to the feedback from a given instrument and its acoustic environment. The "instructions" would have to change for every different piano. Rothstein also wisely asks if his somewhat cold response to the new live performance is partially due to his fondness for the old, less life-like mono sound that he has long associated with the famous recording. That's getting closer to the problem because it acknowledges that our own associations (in this case, with the results of an inferior recording technology) play into how we think about what we hear.

What Rothstein doesn't address is the most important point of all.
Hearing a piano "played" live by a computer is different from hearing it played "live" or recorded by a person because we listen differently, because of "what we know." Knowing that a human being is actually getting all of those spectacular sounds with only ten fingers working in real time colors what we think about the performance. And it should. The skill required to play a piece is often one of the very things the music is about. There's no question that the recording industry has had a big effect on the degree to which that's true for us; the opportunity to listen to the same performance over and over is a revolutionary thing and it has led us to believe more and more that we just listen to the notes and the sounds, without regard for who's producing them. That's because all we have to do is hit a button and the music is produced for us - it's hard to imagine thinking that way in a world where the music could only be heard played live. In such a world, we are sure to be more naturally aware of our indebtedness to the performing artist.

But for pretty much all of the classical repertoire, that indebtedness is still there. Gould's 1955 recording wasn't just important because it made us hear the music in a new way; it also amazed and still amazes those who hear it because of the prodigious skills that it demonstrates. (We'll ignore, for now, the whole "editing" question because most who hear it tend to think of it as a complete performance.) I found it almost sad that in this recent interview pianist Alfred Brendel says "no performer should be called a genius." His idea is that everything the performer does is in subservience to the composer in whom the real genius resides. That's ridiculous. As I've said, many works are created with the very idea of showing off a performers' skills, and the skills required to play the most difficult repertoire well are often just as remarkable as the music itself.

I do like the notion that the less-than-ideal audio quality of Gould's '55 Goldbergs is an inseparable part of its identity. I've never been much of an audiophile myself - I only care about audio quality to the degree that it interferes with my appreciation of the music. (Here's an interesting recent musing on that issue.) Of course, I suppose the more one trains oneself to be concerned about audio quality, the more one is likely to be distracted by its absence. However, I think this again speaks to the fact that music lives in our response to it - not in the sound waves that send it to our ears. This is why a Beethoven was able to compose when he was deaf. Of course it must have been awful for him not to hear what he wrote, but the meaning of the music he could still perceive using the same mental pathways that we use. He couldn't connect them to aural events - but he could, in many ways, still have an aural experience.

In summary, I don't have more than a passing interest in hearing a computer replicate Gould's playing on a state-of-the-art piano, even though it might allow me to hear the music in a wonderful acoustic environment. On the other hand, if by some miracle it turned out that there was a new, low-quality live recording of Gould playing the Goldberg Variations at a level similar to the famous recording, I'd be much more interested in hearing that. The sounds would be superior in the first case, but "what I know" would make the second case so much more interesting and meaningful.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Hatto Movie?

Geoff Edgers of the Boston Globe was kind enough to mention my sonnets a couple of days ago and I notice they've also been linked now at Andrys Basten's Hatto central. Of course, media interest in the Hatto story has definitely slowed way down now, as always happens with sensational stories. (I should've cranked out those sonnets weeks ago; they could've been the jump the shark moment for Hattogate.) I keep hoping to see the list of pirated recordings get longer, but new entries only trickle in little by little.

Still, I hope we get a movie out of this. I'm rooting to see Nathan Lane as W.H. Barrington-Coupe. He played a great lovable con man on Frasier once. If we could get just get Judi Dench on as Joyce Hatto, Oscar nominations would be guaranteed. Unfortunately, it would probably be ruined when they cast Julia Roberts as a composite of the guy who first made the iTunes discovery, the Gramophone reporters, the Pristine Audio guy, and Jessica Duchen. Inevitably, she'd fall in love with László Simon, played with transcendentally frenetic energy by Tom Cruise. I'm not saying I wouldn't watch it . . .

Anyway, since I'm supposed to be blogging less for the next few days, here's some links to Hatto posts past. She'll always have a place in my blogging heart.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Blogging breather

I'm planning to slow down just a bit for the next few days, especially with a very heavy rehearsal schedule over the next week. I've been loving blogging, although I've found it almost as disturbingly addictive as keeping up with sports had been before Lent. Interestingly, I've hardly missed the sports watching/reading at all, even with the full knowledge that March Madness began today. I'm generally a very impatient person, so when I started blogging, it bothered me that there wasn't a body of work here yet. Well, now I've actually churned out quite a few words, so I can live with a few slow days . . . but no one wants to read blogging about blogging, so I'll end here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Hatto Sonnets

My blogger profile mentions that reading Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot changed my life. How? Aside from provoking my ongoing fascination with the art of translation, it also resulted in a completely unexpected desire to write poetry. One of my favorite chapters explores a variety of attempts to translate Eugene Onegin, Pushkin's great novel-in-verse, into poetic English. I have since enjoyed reading this translation several times and, like many before me, have found the "Onegin"-style sonnet to be irresistible. There's now a little piece of software running in my brain that starts up every now and then (I think that's called a virus) and tries to convert interesting stories into Pushkin's delightful pattern. Given all that, the following was pretty much inevitable:

The Hatto Sonnets
by Michael Monroe

There's nothing like a stirring story
to make our list'ning ears believe
an artist scaled the heights of glory;
and so what better way to weave
an eager critical reception
than with a web of bold deception?
You see, this tale, upon review,
is wonderful, it's just not true.
But let's go back now and revisit
Joyce Hatto's curious career,
the one that once did not appear
to be suspicious or elicit
much int'rest from the British press.
That's how it started, more or less.

Her bio seemed a good predictor
of greatness since her teachers were
the likes of Krisch, Cortot, and Richter,
to name some to whom she'd refer.
She says she played some big recitals
that featured such imposing titles
as all the transcendental Liszt
(assuming that she did exist).
We're pretty sure she once recorded
a big concerted work by Bax.
There aren't a lot of other facts
from independently reported
news sources on which we can draw.
Her bio has that little flaw.

An illness meant she had to exit
the stage; she never would return.
Who knows if ever she regrets it,
but there was music still to learn.
There must have been a great profusion
of practicing while in seclusion
with Mr. Barrington dash Coupe,
her husband, for she would regroup
and start recording decades later.
Whenever ready, she could go
record in his own studio.
And what emerged was something greater
than anyone could comprehend.
She played the rep from end to end.

Complete surveys of each composer
soon found their way onto CD.
In every case, the playing shows her
to be a master; all agree.
Reviewers also all extol her
concerto discs with Maestro Köhler.
It's hard to say just who he is;
he's unknown in the music biz.
But skepticism’s overshadowed
by awe at what this woman's done.
She's outdone almost everyone.
So through discography Joyce Hatto'd
attained the fame she'd been denied
and left a legend when she died.

In death her name continued growing,
for art recorded still communes
with all who hear, and there's no knowing
just where we'd be without iTunes.
Computers don't succumb to stories
but they can access inventories
of discs from all around the globe.
A perfect match set off a probe
which showed her work was László Simon's,
and once that cover had been blown,
it seemed that nothing was her own.
I guess the lesson is that diamonds
that we discover in the rough
are more than likely other stuff.

But do not let this grim conclusion
to Hatto’s notoriety
result in general disillusion.
Remember it's a mystery
just what she knew about the scandal.
Perhaps it's true she couldn't handle
the truth her husband tried to hide.
(No doubt, he took us for a ride.)
And yet for those whose art was grifted
we need not shed a single tear
since all this means that more will hear
the evidence that they are gifted.
[That doesn’t mean that you are free
to steal my poem. Don’t Hatto me.]

I only started it yesterday afternoon, so I'm sure there will be revisions. I guess I wanted to be sure to get this out there before Jeremy Denk produces something similar. And yes, I know I'm probably butchering the correct pronunciation of László Simon's name with my tortured rhyme. Maybe I should go download his Liszt as an act of repentance.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Addendum: Honest Bias

One of my convictions about approaching the problem of classical music is to be as honest as possible about my own experience. As I've written elsewhere, I'd love to be able to say that I'm more emotionally connected to Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Ligeti's something-or-other than I am to Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, but the honest part of me has to admit it's not true. Let me hasten to add that this has more to do with my experience than the works themselves. I'm more proud to say that I think Bach's Double Violin Concerto is my absolute favorite-ever piece. I think I could lay out some good analytical reasons for that, but the honest part of me can't deny that, growing up with three violinist sisters, I heard that piece (1st mvt. especially) countless times attending Suzuki violin festivals, workshops, etc.

No matter what I might try to say about the formal felicities of the 1st movement, the tender intertwinings of the 2nd movement, or the chaotically close contrapuntal collisions of the 3rd movement, the music also has the advantage of speaking to me from inside. (Yes, I need an alliteration intervention.) Getting to know this music helped define who I am as a musician, so that personal connection is crucial. One of the problems I've always had with the "review" system in the music world is that we're not open enough about the inevitable bias of the reviewers. Bias isn't bad. Bias masquerading as objectivity is bad, although that's not to say all opinions are subjective. (Carly Simon's Pooh songs are objectively awwwful.) Even worse than bias is pseudo-intellectual pretense, at which I and most academics excel. Now I'm just babbling, so I might as well jump off the deep end by quoting this great scene from Love and Death.
  • SONIA: What prevents you from murdering somebody?
  • BORIS: Murder's immoral.
  • SONIA: Immorality is subjective.
  • BORIS: Yes, but subjectivity is objective.
  • SONIA: Not in a rational scheme of perception.
  • BORIS: Perception is irrational. It implies imminence.
  • SONIA: But judgment of any system of phenomena exists in any rational, metaphysical or epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.
  • BORIS: Yeah, I've said that many times.

The Classical Problem

Probably my most important reason for wanting to blog was to start to chip away at all the thoughts (some contradictory) I have about music, specifically Western art music, it's role, relevance, prospects for survival, etc. Having taught a few classes that touch on issues of aesthetics, I find myself trying to make sense of these questions a lot. The advantage (and disadvantage) of writing is that trying to set forth logical arguments in prose turns out to be more difficult than just thinking brilliant thoughts for my own benefit. In other words, once I start to put the words together, I find that my ideas need more sharpening than I tend to assume. (SUMMARY: I discover I'm not as smart as I think I am. I hate it when that happens.)

I know I'm not the only one doing this and I also know that the position I want to argue for isn't that sexy. I'm not arguing for a passionate embrace of the avant-garde and I'm not arguing for our musical institutions simply to cater to audiences. On all the relevant issues, there's a delicate balance (a phrase that I noticed I used here and here yesterday) that's required to describe where we are accurately. For example, with the problem of contemporary music, it's too simplistic to say that composers don't care about audiences and it's too simplistic to say that audiences don't want anything new. Assessing the situation requires much more nuance than that.

Here's a good place to start: As I was typing the first sentence of this post, I was faced with the dilemma of what to call our world of mostly Western art music. The most common term is "classical music" which presents one big problem: it doesn't apply to new music, by definition. However, "classical music" really is the best term because it exposes one of the fundamental challenges we face. Namely, we have an industry that is largely peopled by those trained to play music that has stood the test of time - that is "classical." (Obviously, this has nothing to do with the term as applied to 18th-century music: Chopin, Wagner, Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich are all safely in the classical fold.)

I'm sure this has been said before, and better, but indulge me as I work through this on my own. Among the fine arts, music is hardly unique for having a treasured history of classics. We are somewhat unique, however, for having most of our professionals trained primarily to recreate those classics. In the visual arts, obviously there's no need for artists to recreate the works of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso, Pollock, etc. In the theater world, we do need artists to bring classic plays to life but there's must more acceptance that such productions will often reflect something of the present, even if performed in period dress, etc. Plus, there's a pretty strong audience interest in new works, in part because the language of most theater is the language of the audience. (There's a lot more to be said about that, but I'm going to get off the theater tangent for now.)

That most music professionals are trained in the classics is perfectly logical because the classics are what draw most of us in in the first place. (Maybe that will change, but I think it's a pretty safe generalization for now.) Practicing four or five hours a day is generally motivated by a strong passion for the music. For many of us, when we're confronted with works that seem radically different in language and expressive technique, it can feel like a bait and switch. I know I've had that feeling before. Here I spent countless hours over many years learning to play Beethoven and Chopin, Brahms and Ravel, and now someone says, "Hey, you're a skilled professional pianist. Your obligation now is to play this work in which you'll kill yourself to get your fingers around a bunch of notes that don't sound much different to you than random banging and every now and then you'll also bang on the piano case. We need you, and not just anyone off the street, because you know how to decipher the incredibly complex notation thanks to your fine classical training. And did we mention that this is a moral obligation to your art?"

I know I'm not the first musician to feel this disconnect, even though this is by no means the only experience we have with new music. The thing is, I don't mind doing that sort of thing every now and then. It creates a very satisfying kind of challenge and sometimes the results are quite rewarding. However, underneath it all, I'm still built and conditioned to be most attracted to the classical works. It's hard to imagine that they won't remain the heart of what I do. Look at someone like Mstislav Rostropovich who has perhaps inspired more new classical music than anyone but for whom the Bach suites remain a core inspiration. I know there are many exceptions, but I'd guess that a healthy percentage of our best performers and our most supportive listeners will remain most devoted to creating/hearing reproductions of the classics.

I think that's the most fundamental problem with new music, although there are many other challenges. Every modern composer is competing with the past and the past has the advantage of being what snared most of us to begin with. By definition, new music is not classical so it will always have a certain outsider status. It's well documented that this was much less true until the 20th-century and that's when the most serious audience disconnect has taken place. I don't think there's anything earth-shattering about this analysis, but I don't hear it articulated very often. Just about any good thing carries with it disadvantages; the establishment of an industry centered on music of the past has made life difficult for composers who want to follow in that tradition and that adversely affects all of us. What's the answer to that fundamental problem? Stay tuned . . . (HINT: I don't know.)

Random thoughts on a sick day

With my poor toddler sick, I find myself sitting co-watching Piglet's Big Adventure. Ah, Spring Break! Two quick observations from the couch:
  1. Yet another incredibly annoying DVD menu. I was grateful that, unlike some Disney DVDs, this one allows a quick exit from the endless automatic previews by hitting the menu button. However, it turns out there's one of those long, clever video transitions before the menu arrives and then you have to wait about 30 seconds before the menu becomes active as a voiceover explains how to use it. I realize this is designed to help children, but there must be another way. Who is the person who signs off and says, "Yes, this is the way this DVD should be. It should take at least a minute for an adult to get the movie started. Ship it."
  2. Carly Simon's songs in this (and other Pooh movies) are awwwwful. This is not just some classical guy taking a swipe at pop music. (I've said in this blog that Aimee Mann's songs in Magnolia are one of the best integrations of music into any movie.) These are just awwwful songs. The lyrics are poorly conceived, the tunes are poorly conceived, and the singing is poor. Ugh. Too bad the Disney folks didn't hook up with Mieczysław Weinberg.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Yes, I'm conscious of my self-consciousness

Soho the Dog, a few days back, had a telling quote from Herbert Brün that addresses one of my favorite topics: the relative self-consciousness of the creative artist with respect to his/her place in history.
    Brün: "A composer of music has to be aware of, and to have a penetrating insight into, all the factors which converge to an ideology in the cultural make-up of his contemporaries. He has to come up with an idea, a musical idea, which just passes the accumulated past by not exactly belonging to it, by not conforming to its approved laws, by labeling its claim to eternal validity succinctly as a mere ideology."
I think this attitude sums up so much of how creative artists are taught to think, especially in the academy. I don't disagree at all that the most important works do just what Brün asks them to do; but is it because that's the artist's intention or is it because a gifted creator will naturally find new and interesting paths? Of course it can be some of both, but I think there's a delicate balance that has long since tipped too far in the "reach for greatness" direction, as opposed to the "let greatness find you" posture.

Brün is clear that this trailblazing should be an intentional goal of the compositional process. It's little wonder because most histories are designed to focus on those who found new paths. Schoenberg gets at lot more attention than his contemporary Rachmaninoff in any sort of music history text. I'm not even sure I disagree with that, but we have to accept that a consequence of this emphasis is to change how students think about what's important. I was petrified about the thought of even trying to compose anything when I was a student, partly because it seemed impossible to choose a musical language from so many choices, but also because of the assumption that I needed to have something new to say. Note that the problem was both the weight of historical precedent (how could I compete?) and the perceived need to redefine it in some way (how could I be relevant?).

As with most such matters, I blame myself here to a significant degree; nothing was really stopping me from writing, but I never was able to sit down and compose until I found myself in a very specific situation where newness wasn't a factor. For me, it was when as a church pianist I started to notice that a lot of the chorale-based organ pieces I liked to play weren't that complicated - and some weren't that good. Because I wanted more repertoire and was pretty lazy about going out to find it, I found myself instead writing my own little preludes (such as this fugue on "Duke Street") which were proudly derivative of the models I liked best. My main purpose was to have some new rep, not to reinvent the wheel or win a contest or anything. The point is not that I found my inner Bach or even my inner Paul Manz. It's simply that I approached the process as a craft with a clear purpose, with an attitude much different than the one advocated by Brün. In fairness, I doubt he would advocate that attitude for a beginning composer, but I still think it hits most of our composers too soon.

This attitude is instilled in so many ways. I remember in a high school summer arts program being presented with a "ratings" system for evaluating works that was very strongly focused on originality. As I recall, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat were big winners among the folks who developed the system. (Why that particular Stravinsky, I'm not sure.) I like and admire both of those works, but there are many "less original" works (whatever that means) that I'd rate much higher.

Whatever one thinks about them, though, there is certainly a danger in composing for history. We can't close Pandora's Box, but we need to understand that we lose something by not thinking in more humble, local terms. Tangentially, this reminds me of what Henry Fogel has been saying about the unexpectedly high quality of some of our nation's regional (more local) orchestras. He confronts the assumption that the important music-making only goes on with the major, name-brand orchestras. When we're conditioned to think globally, we can forget to appreciate that music is at its best connecting with a localized group of people - whether it also makes it into the history books should be secondary.

One of the things I adore about Douglas Hofstadter's Le ton beau de Marot is its exploration of the idea that inspired creativity can often result from facing the challenge of strict creative constraints. (The book is loosely centered around attempts to translate a tightly rhymed and metered little French poem into a satisfyingly rhymed and metered English poem.) Working within a somewhat closed system, the artist is more likely to be consciously focused on aspects of craft and technique; however, the sort of problem-solving that's involved can lead to unexpected and original solutions that may indeed redefine the system. J.S. Bach is the supreme example of someone whose genius was manifest in this way. True, it gets more complicated with some of our more "revolutionary" composers . . .
[This post originally went on a lot further(!), but the issues get so complicated that they deserve a more well-developed argument than I'm ready to make. I mainly just wanted to react to Brün's quote, which I do think expresses a pretty common and problematic ideal, and will just post the above for now.]

Applauding Applause

I think this article (thanks to Geoff Edgers for the link) is pretty much right on, at least when it comes to the tendency of the classical music industry to make people feel stupid. It concerns the question of clapping between movements and makes the point that the convention of waiting until the end of a long work is a relatively modern convention.

I don't think it's necessarily a bad convention, but the effect of making people feel stupid is a real problem. I was quite surprised to see the generally audience-friendly Ben Zander put up a "hushing" hand when a few people dared to clap after the first movement of the Beethoven violin concerto a few weeks back. Never mind that the movement is quite long, ends triumphantly, and had just been played miraculously by Stefan Jackiw (about whom I'll say more soon). Also never mind that at the premiere of this concerto, the soloist actually played one of his own compositions for upside-down violin between the 1st and 2nd movements. I'm not arguing for that sort of thing to come back and I do think the Beethoven concerto is so spiritually satisfying that it's nice not to have applause until the end. I wasn't thrilled when someone started applauding, but once it's started it seems best to let it go and appreciate it, especially since the clappers surely mean well.

It's a delicate balance that has to be achieved, but there's little question that many classical afficionados enjoy showing off their knowledge of etiquette just to feel smart. I've been annoyed that my college decided to call its new recital series "Abendmusik" as an homage to the evening concerts Buxtehude once held in his churches. I understand the value of acknowledging the past, but since Buxtehude's 17th century audiences actually spoke German, it wouldn't have seemed like a forbidding name to them. For every person who catches the reference and feels a happy connection with the past, there are sure to be many who figure "Abendmusik" means "not for me." At least they won't show up and clap between movements.

I warn you - he's a Fourierist

Ah, Spring Break. We actually got to watch a movie last night, Whit Stillman's Metropolitan. I believe I'm correct in saying that Metropolitan didn't make it to DVD until quite recently - at any rate, I only just bought our copy last week. This is a great example of a work that did not make a good first impression on me when I first saw it with friends in a New Haven theater in 1990. (No, I didn't go to Yale - but I married well!) Although I was probably surrounded by the kinds of characters the film explores, I was completely mystified by the whole preppy/debutante thing so none of the situations made any sense to me. I might as well have been watching a movie that assumed knowledge of social behaviour among sea monkeys.

I still find it be an oddly paced and unevenly acted movie, but Stillman does a great job of making these people both ridiculous and noble. It's a knowing nostalgia that sympathizes with its subject while also skewering it. Even the chivalric rescue scene at the end (Tom and Charlie storming a Hamptons' party with their preppy scarves flowing) is equal parts heroic and absurd. ("I warn you - he's a Fourierist.") So many great lines, but my favorites are always those delivered with deadpan simplicity such as when Tom and Charlie barge in on Sally's date. They exit and Charlie says, "That was really embarrassing - thank you for including me."

I understand that Stillman was probably working with a shoestring budget, but I also find the garage orchestra soundtrack to be unsatisfying. As with so many Woody Allen movies, it seems as if the director is just playing music he likes, but Allen does a much better job of choosing music that complements what's going on. Maybe it's just the jazz trombone title music that annoys me.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Seven is Enough for this Octet

In spite of the photo I've posted as my blog ID, I'm going to try to avoid turning this into an "aren't my children adorable and brilliant?" space. It's too easy. Still, since I just happened to have been blogging about the Mendelssohn Octet, I feel compelled (and overwhelmingly proud) to report that my 7-yr old has fallen for this music as well. Our family spent about 2 1/2 hours together in a car today and after the 15-minute 1st movement finished playing she immediately said, "Can we listen to that again?" She kept saying that until we'd listened to it four or five times. Naturally, the first time through I made of point of narrating the thrilling pedal point retransition that happens about 10 minutes in. The next time we got there, she did a preemptive, "Dad, you don't need to tell me about this part" exactly as it arrived. OK, so she sounded a bit like a teenager embarrassed by her crazy father, but I was much too proud of her engagement with the music to be offended.

Now I'm not saying she was listening with total active focus every time through, but it made me realize there probably is something particularly captivating about this work, especially in terms of making a strong first impression. While she does have a lot more musical exposure than the average 7-yr old, I often have to remind myself to be patient when she isn't that interested in listening to something I want her to love. Although I did do my annoying pedal-tone song and dance with her, I had basically chosen to bring the CD for my wife and me to enjoy and wasn't expecting to win a new convert. On some level, it might just be that soaring opening theme; it's basically little more than a series of skyscraping arpeggios, but what a way to open a piece. I know the opening theme was one of the things that grabbed me right away when I first heard the Octet. Still, my daughter clearly responded to a lot more than just the theme. There's magic in there somewhere.

Just to finish up what I was saying below about the scoring, I continue to be struck by how unique the rugged sound of 8 instruments is in comparison to a fuller orchestra. I'm second to no one in my appreciation for a big beautiful string section playing something like a Tchaikovsky tune, and in fact the sumptuous Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings is a great example of what I think the Mendelssohn should not be. When played by only 8 lucky souls, as full and vigorous as the sound can be, it never has that Mantovani or 101 Strings effect. In other words, to state the obvious, it's chamber music.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Great Moments in Pedal Point History

More Mendelssohn Musing:

First of all, whether he wrote it at 16 or 17, I was just thinking that my first hearing of the Octet took place when I was about 16 or 17, so maybe it was some sort of cosmic convergence across the centuries that helped me "get it" right away. Also, I've been noticing recently how many favorite musical moments from my youth are basically long dominant pedal points. Pedal points are one of my favorite teaching points when talking about tonality because they're based on such a simple, but powerful idea, and they figure quite prominently in music from Bach through the 19th century. The basic idea is that a bass note (dominant) that wants to resolve to the home key (tonic) gets held out for a long time while all sorts of activity takes places above (or, in some cases, below). This has the effect of creating tension because our well-conditioned ears are awaiting the delayed resolution that the stubborn pedal tone keeps refusing; also, lots of passing dissonances (tensions) usually occur as the other parts move through harmonies that clash with the pedal.

It all sounds so pedantic (Ha!), but in the hands of a great composer it shows us that tonal expectation is what often gives music a sense of direction and shape. (Of course, the idea of feeling long-range expectation can be described in all sorts of non pedal-tone contexts as well.) And yes, the passages that I can remember playing over and over (no doubt scratching up the poor record) from Mendelssohn's Octet are both classic pedal points: the retransition to the 1st mvt. recap (m.200ff) and the big buildup (m.327ff) at the end of the 4th mvt. (The score for the Octet can be downloaded for free here.) Interestingly, the former ends with a stunning passage of unison scales for all 8 instruments (during which we still feel the pull of the implied pedal point) that leads right back into the richly scored opening theme; the 4th movement passage is introduced by a brief moment in which all 8 madly fuguing parts join in rhythmic unison for scales down into the pedal. I'll get back to those scoring issues in a second. (You can hear these two passages, played by a crackerjack group of 1960's Marlboro musicians, here and here.)



There's a part of me that wants to feel embarrassed I never noticed, in my adolescent excitement at hearing those passages, that I was basically falling for the same old simple technique. (It's not quite "What's your sign?" but dominant pedals are used about as often.) Then I think of a wonderful little talk that Mstislav Rostropovich gives on his video-recordings of the Bach suites. Before playing the C Major suite, he sits at a piano and talks about the big bariolage pedal point in the prelude. He describes his feeling of real physical torture when playing such a passage and relates it to the image of a butterfly that's pinned to a board and is trying to escape. I play this little talk for students when I can because it shows them that even an aged musician who's seen it all can still be profoundly affected by this sort of thing.

I did my little "great moments in pedal tone history" talk the other day and also brought up the electric buildup in the finale of Beethoven's 7th and the approach to the cadenza octaves in the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto finale. That's a particularly fun passage to talk about. The octaves are so famous themselves (day 8 of my 12 Composers of Christmas!) that the long orchestral crescendo over a pedal F is heard by most of us as leading to the octaves even though the long octave passage turns out just to be a prolongation of the dominant chord which finally resolves at the big tune.

Of course, the big tune itself is great but most of us are probably left remembering the anticipation even more - which is true of just about everything else in life! That orchestral crescendo really is marvelously constructed. Not only does it feature the long pedal tone but Tchaikovsky keeps teasing us with the the first three notes of the big tune to come while the bouncy, dotted-rhythm idea keeps dancing around to fill out the texture. (Hear here.*) Once again, this is a passage that I'd listen to over and over years ago and the words "pedal tone" never occurred to me. Fortunately, Rostropovich is there to remind me it's still OK to fall for that old line.

    [*This is odd. I snipped that audio link from a free live performance stored on the Classical Archives, one of the pioneering Internet sites for classical music with its huge collection of MIDI scores. Now it also features tons of live performances, largely by Russian musicians, all still set against one of the worst, most painful to look at color-schemes in WWW history. Anyway, this pianist, Dmitri Ratser, does something I've never heard which is to play the very last octave of the famous cadenza as a full V7 chord. I suppose it confirms the obvious, that the entire passage is one long V7 prolongation, but it sounds wrong. As I describe with the Mendelssohn below, there's something right about not having full harmony return until the tonic chord arrives. Ratser's approach undermines the effect of all those rugged, bare octaves.]

I'd say that the Mendelssohn Octet and the Schubert String Quintet are the two pieces that make me wish the most that I'd worked up my cello skills a little higher. I'm not sure I'm ever likely to get to play either the way I'd want to, if at all. I even started thinking the other day about arranging the Mendelssohn for piano, 4 or even 8 hands, and then discovered that the composer made his own 4-hand version that's been recorded; sadly, from what I sampled on iTunes, the recording didn't sound like it had anything of the dazzling energy that the string version has. I actually think two pianos (and maybe eight hands) would be needed to get something of its unique sound world across.

Although I mentioned hearing the Octet first played by a larger string ensemble, I prefer the octet scoring because it shows how happily this work sits between the worlds of chamber music and the orchestra. There's something about the way all those contrapuntal inner voices take on their own independent identities when played solo; and yet the big united moments have a richer sound than a string quartet could provide. Several music appreciation texts I've seen use Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus to illustrate how a composer can effectively vary sections of imitative, fugal textures with big unified statements from the chorus. Mendelssohn shows the same flair in this work and the 4th movement even makes an obvious nod to Handel's fugal "And he shall reign forever and ever" theme.

Aside from the pedal tone trick, the 1st movement retransition is exhilarating because the scales that begin snaking over the pedal culminate in 2 1/2 bars of all 8 soloists playing the exact same running pattern (across four octaves!) until they arrive back at the rich chords of the opening idea, complete with its chordally conceived melody. It's as if the tension of the pedal can only be resolved by having all those independent voices joined into one, like the members of a tug-of-war team pulling together. The resolution of the tension re-releases the rich orchestral sound that the full ensemble can make. This feel for dramatic use of texture certainly owes a lot to Handel, but it also shows how much the young Mendelssohn enjoyed working with this unusual array of forces.

Speaking of transcriptions, I've had the idea for a few years of trying to play a piano recital in which I'd have a string quartet be the orchestra in some concerto transcriptions. I've thought specifically of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin. Bach would certainly work fine, but I was quite disappointed when I heard a chamber version of the Chopin F Minor concerto in a live radio performance recently. The piano playing was fine but the quartet+bass just didn't provide the right kind of foil, mainly because it sounded too much like a group of soloists. The frequent doubling of parts in Mendelssohn's Octet allows him to create a real tutti sound that can then be enlivened by and contrasted with soloistic detail. I'm honestly not sure why more works haven't been written for this grouping, but I'm pretty content with this one.

Friday, March 9, 2007

I don't take good first impressions

  • Current Commuting Company: Mendelssohn's Octet

After braving something new (Lieberson Neruda Songs) for almost half a week, I've returned to music I know well for my recent commutes: the miraculous Mendelssohn Octet. This is one of those rare pieces that I remember being completely taken in by the very first time I heard it - it was a live performance by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Pinchas Zukerman. I've since come to prefer it as a true octet as opposed to the fuller string orchestra version; but although I don't honestly recall any specific details of that performance, I remember being overwhelmed by the combination of soaring tunes, gorgeous sonorities, and almost ceaseless energy. I'm still awed by those qualities.

That Mendelssohn wrote it when he was 16 is one of its miracles. I don't believe Mozart or anyone else wrote anything this perfect at so young an age and I don't think the composer himself ever surpassed it. It's likely that, as with the sad Lieberson story or with the seemingly inspiring Joyce Hatto biography, this knowledge informs and colors my listening experience. And why shouldn't it? To pretend that music is just the sounds in the air is nonsense; music truly lives in how we hear it and what we know about the music is inevitably a part of that. So if I discover that Mendelssohn really wrote this when he was 17, I'm tossing out my CD.

It's somewhat embarrassing that I don't tend to experience good first impressions, even of works I later come to love. Obviously this is an issue for me with new music (for which I blame myself, not the music!), but I think it's mainly just that my basic attraction to music is so closely tied into the joy of anticipating something that I know is coming. Incidentally, I'm not that different with movies. Whenever I go to rent a movie, I always tend to want something I've already seen. Several of the movies on my Top 13 list made little impression on me the first time I saw them. I know that I slept through parts of Big Night and Junebug on first viewings and A Mighty Wind took a second viewing before I 'discovered' it. All three might have taken hold sooner if I'd seen them first in a theater, of course, but I don't think I would have caught all the wonderfully subtle moments that make them important to me.

Still, I think there are a lot of good listeners who have a better capacity than I do for absorbing something new right away. I honestly think it's partly a laziness thing. I wrote recently about how much I love Fauré's 2nd Piano Quartet, Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto, and Shostakovich's 1st (of 2) Violin Concerto and I remember thinking I have hardly any acquaintance with Fauré's other piano quartet or the other Prokofiev/Shostakovich violin concerti. And, rather than feeling a sense of great excitement at the prospect of getting to know them, that thought made me tired. "Well, learning those is gonna take some work." I do realize that in each of these cases the work I know is the better known of its pair, but you'd think (I'd think) I'd be more naturally enthusiastic to widen my horizons. The take-home lesson for me is that most things worth knowing/acquiring take some work to know well. (The fact that I'm lazy doesn't count as a lesson. I already knew that.)

UPDATE (11/2/21): Just re-read this and realized I meant I love Fauré's First Piano Quartet, which I believe is better known than the second - which I still barely know. However, since this post was written, I have fallen madly in love with Prokofiev's 1st Violin Concerto and now consider it the equal of #2. So I can grow...slowly.

Don't let it be forgot/that once Redgrave was not!

Now this is big news. I think that of all the musical theater works I know, Camelot is my favorite. My Fair Lady is the most popular of the Lerner and Loewe shows and it's pretty much perfect but I find Camelot to be even more affectingly effective. Now I'll have to admit that my exposure to the Great American musicals has been primarily through filmed versions, in which case My Fair Lady made out quite well, thanks especially to Rex Harrison. Sadly, the 1967 filmed version of Camelot is horrible, in spite of the presence of Richard Harris. (It's mainly a combination of a miscast Vanessa Redgrave, an awful Lancelot and some hallucinatory directing choices.)

However, back in the early 80's, during an odd time warp when my family first started subscribing to HBO but didn't yet have a VCR, HBO ran a filmed version of a fantastic Broadway production starring an older and wiser Richard Harris. Because there was no way for us to tape it, my siblings and I would watch it every chance we could get; we even made an audio tape of it to listen to in the car on long trips. Staged productions don't always translate well to the screen, but this one worked great as far as I was concerned.

A few years back I started a desperate search for a videotape and finally got a really bad quality dub from someone on eBay. In spite of the distorted sound and picture, it's better than watching frightening closeups of Vanessa Redgrave. I actually went to the trouble of transferring this tape onto DVD and, for the spots where the audio was unbearably detuned, I dubbed in parts of our old cassette tape version that we'd made with a cheap little Radio Shack recorder sitting in front of the TV. This turned out to be quite a job since the speeds didn't quite match, but it was satisfying in its way.

This morning when I was reading about a recent NY Philharmonic concert performance of My Fair Lady starring Kelsey Grammer (who I love as Frasier and Sideshow Bob, but who I fear would be too hammy for Higgins), I noticed that Mrs. Pearce was being played by Meg Bussert. Meg Bussert! She was Harris' Guenevere in the HBO version and I don't mind confessing that I was completely in love with her back when it aired. So, I did yet another search to see if this production had ever made it to market and see that it's coming out on May 1 ("Tra-la, It's May!"). I've already pre-ordered mine and can't wait.

Parenthetically, and in the category of subjects for another day, I don't understand why more "serious" composers of art music haven't tried their hand at musical theater. It's an odd bias that a musical setting of a dramatic story needs to be sung throughout to be an achievement at the highest level. I'm not saying that all the musical numbers would have to fall into the generally canned forms of Broadway, but sometimes talking would be much better than the stilted recitative that afflicts so many English-language operas. Copland's The Tender Land, for example, could be much better with natural dialogue instead of his awkward attempts to turn speech into music. (Benjamin Britten could pull it off, though. The musical conversations in Albert Herring are masterfully executed.)

I understand that we've had Gershwin, Weill, Bernstein and the like (among whom I wouldn't count Sondheim, but that's also a subject for yet another day), but it's funny how many "contemporary" composers seem determined to write in an idiom as old-fashioned as opera. Frederick Loewe was actually a concert pianist trained in the classical tradition before he headed for Broadway. It's tempting to say he took the easy way out, but I can't think of a lot of works by his more "serious" contemporaries that I admire more than Camelot. What if Schoenberg had decided that was his way forward instead of serialism?