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.