December 30, 2011

Gödel's secret theorem

It was only months before his complete mental breakdown and subsequent death that the great Austrian-born mathematical logician Kurt Gödel discovered the proof of his last theorem which revealed to him a shocking crack in the foundations of mathematics.  After surveying the rather short proof he had written on the blackboard in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study, Gödel knew at once that his discovery, if made public, would cause immediate and permanent collapse of the world's banking system and financial markets, thus ending civilization as we know it.  He sat for several hours in the chair next to the blackboard, frozen with fear, his vacant gaze fixed on the empty space before him.  At long last he stood up, erased the proof, and went home a broken man, determined to take his terrifying secret with him to the grave.

Unbeknownst to Gödel every office at the Institute had a hidden security camera designed to take snapshots of the office blackboard at regular time intervals.  Somehow a copy of the security camera photograph showing  Gödel's blackboard with his proof still written on it - the photograph still classified "Top Secret" by the U.S. government - had found its way into the hands of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Today that photograph was made public:

December 22, 2011

The joys of anterograde amnesia...

A few days ago, while driving home, I played Jean Barraque's piano sonata on my car stereo to soften the boredom of a long commute.  About ten minutes into this 45-minute long complex serial composition I suddenly felt (rather than thought) that I have no idea of how the music got to the point where it was at that moment.   If the music I listened to at that time were to be considered the whole of my experienced reality (which would be not far from truth, as I was cruising in a nearly empty carpool lane with next to no driving-related distractions), then I failed to form memories of events experienced only a few minutes earlier.  It then occurred to me that listening to this kind of music - in which the organization of every parameter is perceptually inaccessible without a detailed knowledge of the score - is about as close as a neurologically normal person can come to experiencing what it's like to have anterograde amnesia.

December 14, 2011

Bach's works for unaccompanied violin

In my experience the average music lover is a reasonably open-minded person.  He may have Furtwangler Rules! tattooed on his chest, but still will agree (if grudgingly) that Toscanini and Szell each had something worthwhile to say in their performances of Beethoven's symphonies.  And what goes for Beethoven's symphonies, goes for Mozart's concertos, Schumann's piano music, and Wagner's operas.

Yet when it comes to Bach's works for unaccompanied violin, even middle-aged, bespectacled, balding men with advanced degrees in Accounting quickly turn purple of face and violent of heart at the mere suggestion that these works may be played differently from the one and only recording they have worshiped since their college days.  If you are old enough to have spent a serious amount of time in the classical wing of Tower Records on East 4-th Street, you might have overheard a brief exchange between two distinguished looking gentlemen loitering next to the "B"- labeled CD bin -- the exchange which quickly culminated in the loudly hissed

Fuck implied counterpoint! Fuck Baroque dance forms! And FUCK YOU, you fat fuck who can't understand that this music is about metaphysical depth and theological grandeur, and not about the anal-retentive articulation of double-dotted notes!

No wonder the sales clerks at Tower Classical kept a baseball bat under the counter (just to the right of the cash register) on the days when a new recording of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas was placed in the New Releases section...

December 5, 2011

And you thought you like Dostoevsky ....

Suppose you ask me who my favorite composers are, and I respond with the usual trio of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  I then add that
(a) the only works of these composers that I know are Bach's Cantata BWV 12, Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, and Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and
(b) the only performances of these works that I am familiar with are recordings by Leslie Howard.
       Knowing that Leslie Howard is a pianist, you give me that hard, squinty Dirty Harry look and ask if I'm fucking with you.  I assure you that I am being utterly sincere, and point out that Leslie Howard has recorded the complete piano works of Franz Liszt, among which are
(i)   Prelude for piano after Bach's Cantata BWV 12,
(ii)  Operatic fantasy Réminiscences de Don Juan on themes from Mozart's Don Giovanni, and
(iii)  piano transcriptions of all nine symphonies of Beethoven.
      At this point, if you are a kind and very patient person, your voice will fill with pity as you exclaim: Boom, you hopeless imbecile! These works of Liszt are at best only approximations of the original compositions, and at worst they are outright recreations whose ties to the original music are as tenuous and superficial as your apparent grasp on the concept of authorship in music!

November 29, 2011

A nice first step...

The news making rounds in the classical music world is that the Cincinnati Symphony has just established a special corner in the concert hall where patrons can text during the performance.  That's a nice first step.
     Now how about a special corner for music lovers to masturbate during the performance?

November 20, 2011

Those who should have known better...

As pictorial as a tone poem, this documents one of the most horrifying moments in world history.  ...  Terror.  Screams.
Michael Steinberg on Krzysztof Penderecki's composition Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (For the Love of Music, Oxford U. Press, 2006, p.174)

Here is the well-known story about this composition's title:  Penderecki's original title was "8:37".  However, this being Communist Poland of 1960, Penderecki was advised by some music bureaucrat (either from the Polish Radio or from the state owned music publishing house) to change the title so as to put an ideologically more advantageous face on this extremely dissonant modernist composition.  Which he did.  The rest, as they say, is history.

October 29, 2011

How to recognize a major composer...

There are few ways to kill time that are more entertaining for me than exploring the Zeitgeist of our (relatively) recent past.  The sense of the surreal I get from brief archeological excursions into books and various archival databases is often stronger than what one could get from looking at Magritte's paintings, smoking dope, or reading Victor Pelevin's novels.  Here is one example:

October 1, 2011

A Perfect Pianist

Years ago I had  what must have been a Perfect Girlfriend: she was good looking, young (early twenties), intelligent (earned a Ph.D. from a top school a few years later), erudite in the visual arts, and musically informed.  She also was honest, kind,  and optimistic.  Not once did she have a headache or lose her temper fighting traffic on LA freeways.

Despite my Perfect Girlfriend's long list of virtues, what I remember most vividly about the time I spent with her is my persistent feeling of boredom.  She had everything I could ever ask for in a woman except personality.  There was something so anonymous about her that when our relationship ended I only felt a sense of relief as I went back to dating cynical secretaries, neurotic two-bit actresses, disillusioned MILFs, and tattooed heavy metal chicks - all so abundantly distributed along the coast of Southern California as if God himself wanted to make life easy for a young guy of modest means and immodest libido.

August 31, 2011

Natural selection my ass!

I would think it takes very little mental RAM space to figure out that sidewalks in Manhattan get copious daily deposits of urine, feces, vomit, spit, garbage, soot, grime, and God knows what other unpleasant stuff from millions of people (residents, commuters, tourists), dogs, birds, rats and other members of the local fauna.  So when it rains hard enough to create bubbling streams of water running along the curb toward the nearest storm drain, even borderline retards among us should know that this is not the kind of water you want to make contact with your skin, let alone your face and/or genitalia.
      Any adult who does not know this is a living proof that something may be wrong with the concept of evolution by natural selection.  The genotype of the two happy twenty-somethings in the photo below - taken in Times Square shortly after the hurricane Irene passed through Manhattan - should have been "de-selected" long time ago because it produces such staggering stupidity at the phenotype level.

August 26, 2011

Three things I hate to see coming my way

#3:  Minor neurological damage is likely from prolonged exposure to the loud and obnoxious jingle played over and over again:

Mr Softee Ice Cream Truck

#2:  Moderate property damage is possible, including lost roof shingles, shattered window panes, and disappearance of unsecured outdoor furniture:   

Hurricane Irene

#1:  Catastrophic damage to one's aesthetic standards is nearly certain.  Shattered faith in the future of serious music is highly probable.  After-effects may last for months, and may include such typical signs of post-traumatic stress disorder as bouts of nausea, recurrent nightmares, and panic attacks:

August 25, 2011

Where to sit in the concert hall for a piano recital

1.  With pianists whose playing is extroverted, powerful, and strongly projected, I would sit toward the back of the hall:

2.  With pianists whose playing is introverted and highly nuanced, I would sit next to the stage:

3.  And then there is one pianist who recently proved that the best place in the hall may actually be under the piano itself:

August 22, 2011


Four times (on three different days) I tried to listen to my favorite piece by the German modernist composer Helmut Lachenmann.   And each time Lachenmann's otherworldly orchestral textures were shattered by incessant ear-piercing shrieks of a bluejay sitting on a tree next to my house.  Naturally I hated the bird for its anti-modernist heckling, but also for bringing back memories of an even more annoying creature I once encountered on a half-empty mid-afternoon train I was riding back into the city some years ago.

August 12, 2011

Schoenberg, Boulez, and the Schrödinger's cat

Arnold Schoenberg's grave

By now the story is old and tired: Soon after Schoenberg-the-man was buried Pierre Boulez proceeded to bury Schoenberg-the-composer in the infamously cold-blooded pseudo-obituary entitled Schoenberg is dead.  Temperamentally Boulez's unceremonious postmortem of Schoenberg's creative legacy was the work of a pathologically ambitious scoundrel, if not a borderline sociopath.  Intellectually it was an exercise in musicological triviality and ideologically motivated nonsense.

July 15, 2011

Grrrr... Grrrreat Pianists....

A theater actor who constantly forgets or mangles his lines because he can't stand the repetitive and boring activity of rehearsing his roles...   A mathematics lecturer who forgets  to present simple but important lemmas, and who routinely messes up his blackboard calculations - all because he can't endure the mind-numbing and time-consuming preparations for his assigned courses...
      I think that a reasonable person would have a healthy doze of contempt for such sorry "professionals" who willfully disregard the basic responsibilities of their profession.  And this contempt would not be diminished by loud assurances that, although such "professionals" screw up the details of Shakespeare and Chekhov (or Gauss and Hilbert), they convey the big picture, the spirit, if you like, of Macbeth or Uncle Vanya (or the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra) better than most.

Yet when it comes to pianists, such unprofessional behavior can be looked upon with tolerance bordering on affection, or even adulation, as witnessed by the axiomatic inclusion of Cortot and Schnabel among the so-called Great Pianists.   This is not about wrong or missed notes per se.  This is about the easily recognizable difference between wrong notes as neurophysiological accidents (which can happen to any musician) and wrong notes as the predictable consequence of willfully keeping one's technical equipment in the state of sad disrepair.

July 11, 2011

One reason for attending piano recitals

Long time ago I went to a few piano recitals for an embarrassingly non-musical reason.  One of my musician friends had the idea that if the pianist is a young and handsome guy, the concert hall will be packed with “hot babes” ready to be picked up during the intermission.  I thought the idea was worth a try, so we went to hear the perpetually sulking (and still young) Ivo Pogorelich at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Downtown Los Angeles.
      If any hot babes had plans to attend that concert, they all must have gotten stuck in traffic somewhere on LA freeways.  We did, however, get  into a conversation with two girls who were pretty but not too bright (and neither were we, for that matter).  Not suprisingly the conversation quickly devolved to the stereotypical Californian subjects of meditation, spirituality, and (finally) reincarnation.  At which point I blurted out that I wanted to come back as Ofra Harnoy’s cello.  I don’t know how far the girls had digested the nature of my spiritual longing, but they just kept staring at me in stony silence as if I were Chester the Molester himself.  And that was the end of my dating prospects for that evening.

July 4, 2011

Elliott Carter, apple pie, and the Fourth of July

On the fourth of July I always recall the resounding FUCK OFF! which in the late 1970s concisely summed up for me the immigration policy of Western European countries.  Not that I wanted to settle in France, Germany, or Holland.  For a youngster who was lucky to make his way to the good side of the Iron Curtain, Western Europe was not distant enough from the monstrous Land of the Victorious Proletariat.   And although I still remember the cold European shoulder, I now also understand that Western European countries had to reserve enough of their living space for all those radical Muslims they would welcome with open arms some years later.

So on this holiday I allow myself to get a bit sentimental about America - the country which took me in and made me feel at home as soon as I cleared the immigration and customs at JFK.  I forget the things I don't like about it and focus on the things I love.  Among the latter nothing makes me feel more patriotic than the music of Elliott Carter.

June 24, 2011

Who can it be knocking at my door?

Until two days ago strangers who came to my blog via Google Search were all looking for music related things.  And then I got a visitor who yearned for experiences far more intense than those one can obtain by listening to music.   He was led to my blog by Googling "CLEVELAND + DUNGEON".
       Ah... the serendipity of internet search!  Probably a middle-aged man, in Cleveland on business for a day or two, away from his wife of 20+ years, and longing to spend an hour or so being suspended on chains and whipped by a leather clad, stern looking woman who answers to the name Helga ...   He saw the promisingly named Boom's Dungeon among the displayed Google hits, held his breath while clicking on the link, and.... found himself staring at one of my posts related to the Cleveland Piano Competition.

And so, after two years of keeping this blog, I suddenly feel compelled to ask myself (partly on behalf of the disappointed seeker of dungeons in Cleveland):

What kind of a fucking retard puts the word "Dungeon" in the name of a blog about serious music?
It will not help to point out that, as a grumpy, cranky misanthrope, I could not possibly have named my blog along the lines of "Friends in Music", with an obligatory bold-faced motto on the home page exhorting my readers to start each day by hugging a tree while humming Stockhausen's Stimmung.  True as it is, it surely doesn't explain why Boom did not choose to conduct his blogging business at his Place, House, Fortress, Kingdom, or some other less sinister-sounding environment.  And since I can't remember anything about the blog's baptism two years ago that would provide such an explanation, I offer this post as a permanent apology to all those who will mistakenly knock on the door of Boom's Dungeon in their quest for professionally administered pain and humiliation.

June 19, 2011

Listening to Elliott Carter's ASKO Concerto

There is something faintly sad about music lovers who know the relative merits of countless recordings of a Beethoven symphony, from multiple remasterings of some dimly recorded wartime concert by the Berlin Philharmonic to the last week's BBC broadcast from Manchester or Glasgow.  It is not comparative listening per se that is sad, of course, but that it usually limits one's musical explorations to well-established (and much recorded) "masterpieces" of the standard repertoire.  Life, after all, is short, and most of it is eaten up by activities incompatible with serious music listening: sleeping, working, drag racing, or teaching your kid how to shoot that new 9-mm Glock of yours.  So if you've spent enough time on getting intimately acquainted with all those  recordings of the Eroica symphony and the Brahms D-minor concerto, chances are you missed out on a great deal of contemporary music.   
Or perhaps it works the other way around.  When repeated exposure to established masterpieces eventually strips away their novelty, folks with firmly conservative tastes in music try to fight off boredom by immersing themselves in the potentially endless supply of different "interpretations" of these masterpieces (with progressively less significant differences among such interpretations being the principal object of interest).
Either way it seems that, in the end, a hyper-concentrated exploration of the standard repertoire is like a life dedicated exclusively to fucking every cousin in one's large extended family.  The reward amounts to little more than a long list of predictably similar experiences.

On the other hand, exploring multiple interpretations of a recent, challenging, and still infrequently performed composition is simply a way of getting an aesthetic grasp on the work that has not yet been taught in music appreciation courses, plagiarized by film composers, quoted in TV commercials, arranged to a disco beat, or sampled by hip-hop bands.  And I cannot think of a better way to get acquainted with Carter's exquisitely tart Asko Concerto than through several live recordings I have been playing almost non-stop for days.  In each of these live performances the music always sounds subtly but interestingly different because the choices of instrumental balances, dynamics, and phrasing are as different from one another as those found in performances of a Brahms symphony by Furtwangler, Mengelberg, and Szell.

June 15, 2011

Alfred Schnittke

Judging the aesthetic merits of serious music written in the post-Stalin USSR is a tricky business.  Yes, official reprisals for ideologically unhealthy modernism no longer included a bullet in the back of the head.  But there still were credibly threatened layers of consequences ranging from the loss of professional employment opportunities all the way to the (unlikely but not impossible) confinement in some KGB-ran psychiatric clinic - at least for those whose art had a significant socio-political dimension.  So, talentless hacks and political lackeys aside, I never can feel certain about the extent to which a Soviet artist's output is a compromise between the forward pull of his creative ambitions and the system's backward yanking on his leash.

Hence my ambivalence toward Schnittke's music.  I think there is a considerable but not fully realized talent behind the notes, and I've worked quite hard on trying to hear past the things that rub me the wrong way.  Yet despite my efforts, and despite my sympathy for Schnittke's predicament as a Soviet composer, I still do not respond to his music.  Worse, I actually dislike most of it.  Whether in the Darmstadt-flavored early Violin Concerto No.2, or in the simplistically cinematic middle period Concerto for Piano and Strings, or in the late String Trio with its crude allusions to minimalism - the music has a pervasive and (to me) unpleasant flavor of faux originality, as if the composer is trying to hide himself behind a carefully designed and thoroughly fake musical personality.  Attaching to this flavor the academic-sounding name polystylism does nothing to change my impression.

May 30, 2011

Is there a lo-fi gene in every musician's DNA?

Over the years I've come to know a few professional musicians, and not one of them (including those making really good money as studio musicians in Hollywood) owned anything like a decent sound system.   In most cases their sound reproduction preferences were downright indecent.  One listened to recorded music only on his (standard) Toyota car stereo.  Another was quite happy with a boombox in a distant corner of the living room (partially obscured by heavy furniture).  Still another was fully satisfied with a tiny clock-radio-cum-CD-player in the bedroom.  And these are the better cases!  Toward the bottom of the scale there was a musician who listened to recorded music in the form of fuzzy Youtube streams, using giveaway airline headphones.  And then there was a fellow who simply never listened to music at all (recorded or otherwise) unless he was performing, rehearsing, or practicing.
      I should note that this group is well distributed across different instruments (piano, strings, woodwinds, brass), forms of employment (symphony orchestras, Hollywood studios, private and college teaching), age groups (from the late 20s to the mid-50s), and levels of musical talent (from the average to the prodigious).  Moreover, these musicians were acutely aware of sound quality when it came to their instruments.  They could go on for hours discussing the sonic characteristics of strings, bows, reeds, and valves.  And choosing the right-sounding instrument seemed to be far more torturous for them than choosing a house live in or a person to marry.
These observations bring me to the fundamental question which lies at the heart of every intellectual inquiry: What the fuck is going on here?

May 11, 2011

Mother Russia in a snapshot

I can't think of a more concise way to capture the innermost essence of Soviet Russia than the above image: bleak, dilapidated, oppressive, yet thoroughly deluded in thinking that having lots of rusty military hardware is sufficient for being a great nation.

April 30, 2011

Mark Andre


The archive search for items related to Mark Andre in the leading American newspaper - based in the self-proclaimed "Cultural Capital of the World" - is downright depressing.  There is only one article (2006), reviewing a dance in which Andre's "ASCHE" was used as a soundtrack, with the music itself described only as "eerie whines and bleeps".
     Even more depressing manifestations of American musical provincialism can be found on the CD-reviewing website, especially in the reviews of recordings of contemporary European music written by one Daniel Felsenfeld - a frustrated music teacher from New York's City College.  The music of contemporary European composers reviewed there - from Helmut Lachenmann to Olga Neuwirth, Rebecca Saunders, and Beat Furrer - is invariably described with the same dismissively economic vocabulary of "whines", "bleeps", and "squeaks".
     After I checked out a few samples of Felsenfeld's own compositions on his personal website, the theoretical basis of his critical vitriol toward the European avant-garde became crystal clear: that kind of music must be shit because he, Felsenfeld, is utterly incapable of producing anything even remotely approaching its individuality and originality.  And the fact that conductors of the stature of Boulez never program anything by Felsenfeld and other victims of musical graphomania collectively known as New York's Downtown Composers (while regularly performing music by young Europeans)  only proves to the aggrieved Felsenfeld that contemporary music in Europe is infected by vicious anti-American bias.  No wonder he relishes the opportunity to strike back at those snotty, anti-American Euro-motherfuckers in his online reviews of every Kairos CD sent to him by the clueless editor of

A few words about Mark Andre: Although he studied with Claude Ballif and Gerard Grisey before coming to Helmut Lachenmann, it is the latter's influence that I feel most strongly in Andre's music, even if Andre's musical aesthetic is entirely his own.  To my mind, Andre is the most interesting and substantial composer of his generation.  He certainly does not aim at being liked on the first hearing (as, for example, do Marc-Andre Dalbavie and Bruno Mantovani with their tonally centered and rather lushly orchestrated compositions), nor does he try to boost the "hip factor" of his music with rock-tinged electronica (à la Olga Neurwirth or Fausto Romitelli).  His splendidly otherwordly works for large orchestra have received a good deal of attention over the last two decades - Boulez has performed them often with EIC, and there also are recorded performances under Hans Zender and other well-known conductors of contemporary music. 

April 22, 2011


22 APRIL, 2011
After many years of unsuccessful efforts, the researchers at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) finally identified the set of giant pillows through which the celebrated sound engineer Tony Faulkner recorded many CDs for the Hyperion label.  The news of this amazing discovery spread like wildfire through the world of classical record labels.
     Said Dr. Gunther Editmann of Deutsche Grammophon: "We tried for years to duplicate that uniquely muffled, fuzzy, and disembodied sound for which Mr Faulkner is so famous.  Alas, no matter how hard we tried, our recordings still made the instruments sound somewhat similar to what they sound like in real life.  Now, thanks to the brilliant scientists at IRCAM, we can finally guarantee that the sounds on our recordings will bear no resemblance whatsoever to any musical instrument you may encounter in the concert hall."
     Dr. Editmann's enthusiasm was echoed by Nick Splicer of EMI Classics: "It is not only our new recordings, but also our extensive catalog of historical treasures that will benefit from Tony Faulkner's "pillow sound" technology.  For example, in our many previous remasterings of Schnabel's Beethoven sonatas we used tons of filtering, re-equalization, dynamic compression, and other radical sound-altering methods.  Yet despite our best efforts, one could still tell that Schnabel was playing the piano.  With the new pillow-sound remastering no one will be sure about that anymore - just as no one is quite sure about the instruments played on Hyperion recordings."
     Although Mr. Faulkner declined to comment, there are persistent industry rumors that he is trying to stay ahead of the competition by testing new materials through which to record music, including mattresses, rubber flotation devices, and heavy-duty thermal insulation.

April 19, 2011

Jonathan Leshnoff: "Double Concerto" for Violin and Viola

Now I have a pretty good idea of what it's like for people with Tourette syndrome.  Even with my affection for strong language, I cannot repeat here the long string of obscenities which kept exploding in my mind as I was listening to Leshnoff's Double Concerto (a concert recording by the Columbus SO).  This is not eclecticism, not even pandering.  This is musical grave robbing, pure and simple.  The long-dead but easily identifiable victims of Leshnoff's larcenous efforts include Barber, Shostakovich, and even Khachaturian.  I can't believe I am saying this, but the schlocky Piano Concerto by John Corigliano - which I maligned in an earlier post - sounds like an original and challenging piece by comparison!

In a world ruled by reason, the only reward for such musically felonious activities would consist of a few sharp smacks on the head with a rolled-up score.  But in our music world, the rewards include commissions from (and performances by) major organizations, a series of recordings on a well-known classical label, and a steady flow of saccharine praise from music critics.

April 11, 2011

John Corigliano's Piano Concerto

Listening to a recent live recording of Corigliano's Piano Concerto (brilliantly played by John Lee with the Cleveland Inst of Music Orchestra under Sasha Makila), it took me only a few minutes to guess the "compositional" recipe behind this piece:

Start with one cup of Prokofiev (for the motoric piano part), add two table spoons of Copland (for a few pseudo-folksy themes), sprinkle with some Stravinskian rhythmic angularity (when you run out of whatever little you had to say thematically and harmonically), and then screw-up a few intervals here and there to create just a little bit of dissonance.
    Of course, the final product will have not one ounce of originality, but we can try to mask that by writing a politically and ideologically tailored program to explain the "inner meaning" of the work - say, as "A concerned artist's response to global warming".
    Alas, many concertgoers do not read programs, so a politically and ideologically appropriate short dedication to go with the work's title - say, "In Memory of the Victims of Nagasaki" -  will add some gravitas, and hopefully also will mask the stale musical odor.  (But never a dedication to the memory of those hundreds of thousands of American boys whose corpses littered the Pacific Rim islands.  That would smack of glorifying American Imperialism!  Nor will we ever dedicate any work to the memory of those many millions of innocent people murdered by the communist regimes - because Gergiev and Lang Lang will never touch a work with this kind of dedication.)

 So get busy with putting ink on paper, or the competition (Danielpour and Higdon) will get their "product" to the Pulitzer committee before you do!

March 22, 2011


What if Schumann had Prozac or lithium? Would his creativity have been helped or hampered by these modern, so-called wonder drugs? Would his autobiographical Second Symphony tell a different story? As it stands, I hear the music pulsing with Schumann's journey from abject depression to triumph and joy.
Conductor Marin Alsop, interview on National Public Radio.
... the interpreter must possess a special empathy for Schumann the man and troubled creator. ... It must never be forgotten that Schumann ... was desperately holding back the gates of madness. 
David Dubal, Art of the Piano.

Why is it that, when it comes to Schumann's music, musicians are expected to act as Schumann's self-appointed psychiatrists, and to treat performances of his music as exercises in postmortem psychiatric profiling?  Schumann's mental life wasn't pretty, true.  But then neither were those of good many other important composers:  rabid antisemites (Wagner), pedophiles (Saint-Saens), anguished closeted homosexuals (Tchaikovsky), Nazi sympathizers (Webern), Communist sympathizers (Shostakovich), or just plain mean and vindictive bastards (Britten).
       Why is it, then, that Marin Alsop does not hear Saint-Saens' "Egyptian" concerto "pulsing" with lust for prepubescent boys?  Why doesn't David Dubal insist that interpreters must possess "a special empathy" for Tchaikovsky "the man and troubled creator"?  (And troubled Tchaikovsky was, if anyone can be meaningfully called 'troubled'!)
       Why does it seem informative for Dubal to refer to Schumann's "highly personal and psychological formal shapes", as if the formal shapes in the music of Bach or Mahler are impersonal and carry no psychological imprint of the minds that created them?  (Surely Bach and Mahler were not composing with their kneecaps or livers.)
       And, most importantly, why is it that those who insist on placing Schumann's music on the psychiatrist's couch never bother to ask themselves such basic questions as:  What exactly is the perceptual difference between a sforzando marked by composers with bipolar disorder, and one marked by composers with 'healthy' minds? (Since the answer is clearly "None", such questions would be rather uncomfortable for those who indulge in the above kind of psycho-blabbering.)

I hold this wide-spread pseudo-musicological idiocy responsible for frequent maiming of Schumann's music on record and in the concert hall.  Fortunately, the young generation of pianists does not seem to see anything important (musically or otherwise) in Schumann's psychological condition.  Or so I think based on what I hear in their playing, which focuses my attention on the natural beauty of Schumann's harmonic and melodic imagination, while avoiding the hysterical dynamical and rhythmic excesses of Schumann performances from decades past.  Perhaps for young musicians, who grew up in the world where Prozac and Ritalin supplement Gerber Baby Food, a psychological case like Schumann's may be utterly ordinary.

March 20, 2011

My crocodile tears for the classical recording industry

Hans Heinsheimer - who was an executive at the music publishing company Universal Edition before WWII - emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1930s and spent the rest of his career working for American music publishing houses (Shirmer and, before that, Boosey & Hawks).  He wrote several wonderful books about the music world/business in America, among which his first - MENAGERIE IN F# - is hilarious, passionate, and, ultimately, rather sad.  In these books Hansheimer has much to say about the plight of the living composer in America, who cannot make a decent living because everyone in the classical music business - from performers to record companies - wants to make money at the composer's expense.  The details would be nightmarish if they weren't bathed in so much good humor, stoic sarcasm, and absolute, unconditional love of music as a living art.  With Heinsheimer's books in mind, here is what I think of the recent and still ongoing hand-wringing in the media about the imminent demise of the classical recording industry:

March 16, 2011

Life lessons...

Years ago my daily walks usually took me through a tiny city park called Tompkins Square, located in the slowly gentrifying but still filthy and smelly Manhattan neighborhood known as the East Village.  One time a young guy sitting on a bench asked me for a cigarette.  This he did with politeness completely unexpected from a typical Tompkins Square junkie: his hair had not been washed in months, some of his front teeth were missing, and his body was not far from reaching the state of a dessicated mummy.  I had about a quarter of a pouch of Drum tobacco with me (enough for about 5 cigarettes), so I gave it all to him since I was only a couple of blocks away from home where there was plenty more.  My "generosity" seemed to make the guy quite happy, and, perhaps as a way of showing his gratitude, he suddenly augmented his thanks with a cheerful "Lighten up, man!"

I suppose this parting bit of advice was inspired by my perfectly neutral but decidedly Eastern European facial expression, which most natives perceive as being somewhere between a frown and a scowl.  Be that as it may, the thought that kept spinning in my mind for the rest of my walk home was:

Fuck me!  I just received some life coaching from a mummified junkie with missing front teeth!

March 13, 2011

Kirill Gerstein

A Gilmore Award winner ($300,000.00 !), the Russian-born Kirill Gerstein has received much drooling critical praise. If his live recording of Bach's English Suite  BWV 807 from the 2009 Verbier Festival is representative of his musicianship and instrumental craft, the Gilmore Award jury must have been composed entirely of deaf people.  In that recording Gerstein's tone clatters like the dishes in an apartment next to the train station, his articulation is arthritic, and his melodic lines are spasmodic.  Aside from unpleasant tone, I could accept such struggling playing from the nonagenarian Horszowski, but not from a young pianist breathlessly described as an astonishing virtuoso. By the time Gersteine limped through the Sarabanda, I was simply laughing... 

Well, at least the Gilmore Foundation seems to be consistent in rewarding music making that is as memorable as a roadside motel in Kansas where you once spent a night on your way to California...

March 12, 2011

Honest lying...

I was simply curious to hear how much musical value Sony got for their $3,000,000.00 advance paid to this musical midget, so I brought the "Lang Lang live in Vienna" CD home from the library.  What I heard on this CD told me unequivocally that Sony got about as much for all that dough as (I would guess) one could get for a few hundred bucks from a Las Vegas whore: a cynical and vulgar substitute for the real thing.

March 11, 2011

BMG's special place in Hell

As part of the HOROWITZ: THE ORIGINAL JACKET EDITION, RCA (and Sony) included a CD of the pianist's 25th Anniversary Carnegie Hall Concert of Feb.25, 1953.  On the CD cover (presumably the original LP cover reduced in size) it is stated clearly and boldly, albeit in smaller print:
ACTUAL recording of the Carnegie Hall concert of February 25, 1953

As the first cursory listening of the Schubert B-flat Sonata revealed, this "ACTUAL" recording is full of post-concert edits.  The edits are not properly matched in "perceived volume".  And at least one splice - at 5:47 of the Finale -  MISSED THE LAST NOTE OF THE BAR (1/8th value)!

Any apologists for classical record companies out there, who want to explain to me why this does not constitute a clear case of consumer fraud? And if the present day re-issue "specialists" at BMG-Sony simply did not notice all the splices and botched editing before charging unsuspecting music lovers for this fraudulently titled piece of sonic garbage, their level of incompetence is truly staggering.