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?

December 13, 2018


And then one day you find
ten years have got behind you.

ROGER WATERS, "Time", The Dark Side of the Moon

And so they have, these ten years of grumpy, grouchy blogging.  Not a big deal, perhaps, but then one does not need much of a reason to write a blog post.  The question of what to write about, however, gave me a pause.  All too often anniversaries are treated as an excuse for self-congratulation or sentimentality, and I have never been fond of either.  Yet when I asked myself what was the first thing that came to my mind when I reflected on my ten years in the Dungeon, the answer turned out to be sentimental in the end.

Since I started this blog, the world has lost several people none of whom I knew personally, but whose work has enriched my life beyond measure.  Now that they are gone, the world has become a much colder and lonelier place for me to be in.  So, sentimental or not, I decided to use this anniversary post to mention these seven people - Boom's Magnificent Seven - as a way of reminding myself how incredibly lucky I feel to have been among their contemporaries.

ELLIOTT CARTER (1908 - 2012)

CHARLES ROSEN (1927 - 2012)

ROBERT HUGHES (1938 - 2012)

ROBIN WILLIAMS (1951 - 2014)

JERRY FODOR  (1935 - 2017)

OLIVER KNUSSEN (1952 - 2018)

PIERRE BOULEZ (1925 - 2016)

December 3, 2018

The company we keep...

Bad company
I can't deny
Bad, bad company
Till the day I die

Buddhist monks, I'm told, are all good people.  Too bad I'm not interested in meditation, gardening, and other things with which they occupy themselves in their monasteries.  What I am interested in is what composers and musicians do.  Unlike Buddhist monks, however, musical artists are a checkered lot.  The ranks of even the most distinguished ones include murderers, supporters of totalitarian regimes, plagiarists, racists, pedophiles, fraudsters, pederasts, sadistic bullies, abusive husbands, habitual liars, and just plain assholes.  In short, with respect to variations in moral character, musical artists do not differ significantly from members of other professions, which is to say that, as a group, they are worse than Buddhist monks but better than convicted felons.

Despite its triviality, this sociological fact has given rise to countless hand-wringing think pieces by musicologists, historians, critics, and assorted cultural commentators, all asking if it is morally O.K. to enjoy musical works "when good art happens to bad people".  The need for such periodic soul-searching strikes me as strange.  After all, there have been no anguished think pieces about cases when, say, good plumbing happens to bad people.  And the reason there have been none is that no-one seems to think that the function of a plumbing installation has a moral dimension, or that one's use (appreciation, enjoyment) of a plumbing installation constitutes endorsement (if only implicit) of the plumber's private life.

October 1, 2018

Who gives a fuck about how it makes you feel!

Elliott Carter and Oliver Knussen

Formal analysis is not the only source of objective claims about music which are accountable to independently verifiable evidence.  A notable composition is likely to have a history, including its genesis from initial sketches to the final revision of the score, the evolution of its reception, the ways it may have been exploited for political propaganda or plagiarized in popular music, and more.  Then there are specific technical challenges the work may pose for performing musicians (including conductors).
     These, along with editorial matters pertaining to early musical notation and performance practice, constitute the domain of objective discourse on music.  The rest is impressionistic drivel which, despite the seeming objectivity of wording, is only about whatever it is that pops into the writer's head when he/she listens to (or reflects on) such-and-such piece of music.  When confronted with this kind of writing - whether in the form of metaphysical mumbling (Wagner), Marxist yapping (Adorno), feminist babbling (Susan McClary), or diarrhetic torrents of metaphors, free associations, and misused scientific concepts (insert here the name of any so-called new musicologist) - the only appropriate response I can think of is the one given by the title of this post.

September 15, 2018

Voyeurs. Stalkers. Biography readers.

I do not know which hand Tchaikovsky favored for the act of self-gratification.  I doubt anyone knows.  Still, it is conceivable (if by now very unlikely) that evidence concerning Tchaikovsky’s preference in that area may one day come to light.  Say, a fortuitously discovered letter from the composer’s brother Modest to one of Modest’s lovers in which it is mentioned that Tchaikovsky was a lefty.  Supposing this were to happen tomorrow, would you expect to read about Tchaikovsky’s left-handed masturbation in the composer’s updated biographies?