April 22, 2019

Giving the C-word its due

chasm, n.,
a deep fissure in the earth, rock, or another surface;
 figurative.  a profound difference between people, viewpoints, feelings, etc.

In her review of a recent Netflix web series, Sophie Gilbert, a staff writer for The Atlantic, tells us that

... it’s hard to square the chasm between the philosophical comedy the show begins as and the discomfiting farce it becomes. (italics added) 1

Perhaps Ms Gilbert's observation reflects her conviction that, in this era of endless possibilities, we should be doing a lot more with chasms than just bridging or closing them.  If so, I'm one of those not yet convinced.  But if she proves to be right, I would love to learn how to sauté a chasm.  Especially the chasm between the supposedly high reputation of The Atlantic and the magazine's employment of incompetent scribblers like Sophie Gilbert.

Sadly, Ms Gilbert's illiteracy may not be her only professional shortcoming.  She also seems genuinely dimwitted for someone paid to spill her thoughts on the pages of a reputable magazine.  On her website she has a section where she shares with the world what people have said about her.  And the quote she proudly puts first is "Finally! A woman." 2

I leave it to you, my dear reader, to decide what should be done with the chasm between a writer's pride in the acclaim received by her work and Sophie Gilbert's pride in being praised for having two X chromosomes.

April 15, 2019

The limits of omniscience

I can't remember when was the last time I heard Beethoven's Pathétique sonata.  Must have been long ago.  But of course I still love this work, even if I do so the way we love Grandpa's stories of wars fought, women loved, and men bested.  We've heard these stories often since early childhood, know them by heart, and while we continue to think of them with affection, we'd rather not hear them again any time soon.

But lets pretend I do want to hear the Pathétique again, and imagine that God - the Supreme Music Lover - decided to reward my continuing affection for this piece by offering to take me back in time and arrange for me to hear this sonata performed by one of the following pianists (all known to have performed it in public recitals or private gatherings):

Ludwig van Beethoven
Felix Mendelssohn
Franz Liszt
Clara Schumann
Hans von Bülow
Anton Rubinstein

There would be no deliberation on my part.  I would ask the Almighty to let me hear Beethoven's performance.  This much I know.  What I do not know is why I would choose a performance I have no reason to believe would be musically the most rewarding one.  For one thing, Beethoven's playing could be sloppy.  Describing his performance of the Pathétique, his friend Anton Schindler noted that it "left something to be desired as regards clean playing".  On top of that,  Beethoven's highly theatrical projection of music - banging fortes, fluctuating tempos, wild gesticulation - would likely make him sound like a musical drama queen to my ears.[1]  And if I wanted to hear a messy performance of the Pathétique by a drama queen (which I don't), I could do better by asking God to take me to an Anton Rubinstein recital.

It is tempting to think that I would choose Beethoven's performance of his own work because it would have the absolute authenticity (Werktreue) denied to all other interpreters of his music.  But that's just comforting nonsense if only because Beethoven did not always play his own music exactly as written.[2]  So, unless 'authenticity' is taken as equivalent to the vacuous 'whatever Beethoven happened to play on a given occasion', his performance of the Pathétique could be no more 'authentic' than those of other musicians.[3]

Perhaps it is not Beethoven's performance I would really be after.  Perhaps I would choose it only to observe in the flesh the man I consider to be the most fascinating personality in the history of music.  But that can't be right either.  The personality of Beethoven-the-man has been pretty well documented, and there is nothing fascinating about a swarthy, rude egomaniac whose personal hygiene was as appalling as the squalor of his living quarters.  What is fascinating, of course, is Beethoven's musical personality which comes through all those brutal dynamic contrasts, surprising modulations, unbearably tense transitions, noble hymnal themes, and other aspects of his compositional style.  And that personality can be observed without any help from God by studying scores, attending recitals, or listening to recordings.

In the end I think I would ask God for an alternative reward.  I would say to Him: Dear God, I will be amply rewarded if You just tell me why, given Your original offer, I would choose Beethoven's performance.  And the omniscient Creator would reply:

March 19, 2019

Ludwig van Wotzefok

I can't be the only music lover to have had this experience: a performance of a well-known work - say, a Beethoven symphony - sounded all wrong, and yet there is not one reason I can think of that would convincingly explain my response.  The performance did not violate the score.  It did not suffer from technical defects of execution.  It was not sabotaged by noisy audience or unexpected headache. And yet it almost made me gag...

Not that I have some rigidly fixed idea of how a score - Beethoven's or otherwise - must be translated into sound.  I have no problem with Beethoven's music clad in heavy Teutonic armor, its structure buckling under the slow-moving extra weight.  I don't mind it being pumped full of steroids to give it restless tempos, cranky dynamics, and impatient transitions.[1]  Or when, medicated with Xanax, it sleepwalks lethargically [2] through what once were audacious modulations and startling dynamic contrasts.  My skin did not crawl when I was introduced to Beethoven the Foppish Metrosexual sporting skinny jeans, pointy shoes, and tight-fitting jacket, his expensively disheveled moussed hair cascading over designer eyeglasses.[3]   And if my blood boils at the thought of Beethoven the Circus Freak grotesquely disfigured by off-pitch amateurish playing of period-instrument bands [4], at least I understand clearly why I feel this way.

No, my problem is not with the variety of ways in which a composer's musical personality can be shaped by conductors and instrumentalists.  Rather the problem is that on rare occasions I find the results inexplicably repulsive.  My most recent experience of this kind was with Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony whose concert recording of the Eroica symphony still seems to me as perverse as a Netflix remake of Dirty Harry in which the title character is a bi-curious Asian-American detective who defends undocumented Mexican migrants from vicious Federal agents and, on his days off, distributes clean needles to cute heroin addicts in San Francisco's Tenderloin District.

Of course such experiences are not the only mystery of my musical life.  Those of the opposite kind - where I am awed by performances which violate the score [5] or suffer from defects of execution [6] - are no less mysterious.  It is just that people are not eager to scrutinize positive experiences.  After all, we don't pay psychoanalysts to help us understand why we have happy marriages, fulfilling careers, and well-behaved children.  Nor do we expect the pharmaceutical industry to develop drugs for treating cheerfulness and optimism.  So I suppose I am just being human here...

1.  As in this concert recording by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic.
2.  With assistance from Frans Bruggen and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra.
3.  All courtesy of Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic.
4.  E.g., in this concert recording of the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood.
5.  Sergei Rachmaninov's recording of Chopin's Piano Sonata in B-flat minor.
6.  As heard in recordings of Wilhelm Furtwangler, Edwin Fischer, or Alfred Cortot.

March 4, 2019

Long before Tristan und Isolde...

If Domenico Scarlatti's contemporaries heard the B-theme of his sonata K.208 (L.238) as less than outrageously unstable with respect to its key, it is hard to see why the key instability of Wagner's Tristan (composed about a century later) should have been greeted with much more than 'big fucking deal'.
Here is Scarlatti's proto-Wagnerian harmonic pretzel in a performance by the Korean pianist Soo-Yeon Ham recorded live at the 2009 Cleveland International Piano Competition.

February 18, 2019

Servicing the debt...

... [I]n the early years of the twentieth century ... the Russians ... determined much of the direction of modern music...  We all owe a great debt to such composers as ... Prokofiev...

If Carter included himself among the "we all" composers indebted to Prokofiev, he never, as far as I know, discussed in print the specifics of his debt to the Russian composer.  Nor is this debt obvious in Carter's works, except perhaps for the short piano piece Catenaires published in 2006 when Carter was 98.  This music's motoric, relentless forward drive has always reminded me of Prokofiev's Toccata Op.11, but then someone else may just as well hear it as a tribute to Schumann's Toccata Op.7.  Or to the Gigue in Bach's B-flat major Partita BWV 825.  Or to some of Scarlatti's virtuosic sonatas.

Be that as it may, Catenaires can be a hugely exciting encore piece, which is why it is regrettable that the pianist for whom this piece was written (Pierre-Laurent Aimard) plays it in the same dour, matter-of-fact manner he plays everything else.  Fortunately there are other pianists who play Catenaires, and I doubt I will ever hear a more thrilling performance of this work than the one given by Vassilis Varvaresos at the 2009 Van Cliburn Piano Competition.
1.  Carter, E., "Soviet Music", Collected Essays and Lectures, U. of Rochester Press, 1997, p.331.

January 27, 2019


Baby Asian elephant born at upstate New York zoo

January 26, 2019

Baby?  When has the world last witnessed the birth of an adult elephant?

How do such illiterate dimwits get writing (or editorial) jobs with major news outfits?  Have they been taught anything in their high school and college English classes besides their obligation to join the new Hitlerjugend cohorts clamoring for public executions of those who doubt the existence of white privilege, toxic masculinity, and global warming?

If the emergence of language was the most important development in our evolutionary history, perhaps its now on-going disintegration signals the approaching end of the human species?