December 19, 2015

Good riddance

The conductor Kurt Masur died today.  Some will remember him because they own his mediocre recordings.  I will remember him as the pompous asshole who, in 1996, embarrassed the New York Philharmonic by stipulating that a work commissioned by the orchestra from Elliott Carter would be performed only if he (Masur) personally approves it.

December 11, 2015

The Old Man and the Piano

Dialogues for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (2003) was one of two Elliot Carter's compositions conducted by Lorin Maazel during his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic.  (The other was Variations for Orchestra.)  Given Maazel's well deserved reputation as a superlative technician, it is not surprising that his June 2006 performance of Dialogues, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the soloist, is technically flawless.  Alas, technical polish alone does not guarantee  a musically satisfying performance; and in this case the orchestral playing struck me as being too chilly to do justice to the playfulness of Carter's music.  (Perhaps the very closely balanced and rather 'internetish' sound quality is partly responsible for this impression.  The recording came to me without any information about the broadcast's source and method of capture.)
     Still, Maazel offers a fascinating alternative to the more humane performances conducted by James Levine (with Aimard and Boston Symphony) and Daniel Barenboim (with Nicolas Hodges and Berlin Philharmonic).  I thought that adding this New York broadcast to my blog on December 11 would be a fitting way to celebrate Carter's 107th birthday.

November 28, 2015

A Polish musical joke

Does one have to be a Pole or just plain fucking nuts to sit through a full-length piano recital (see below) with nothing but Chopin's nocturnes on the program? This being Warsaw, and with Chopin being the only Polish-born composer of universally acknowledged genius, I can understand the collective lunacy of the audience as a masochistic expression of patriotism.  But I can think of no excuse for the (sadistic? delusional? dim-witted?) pianist Maria Joao Pires who has maintained a decades-long career with tidy, small-scale performances of the same two-three dozen pieces, all written before 1850 and learned by her in early childhood.  If there ever will be a poster announcing the death of classical music, I think this poster may well have Ms Pires' face on it.

21.00 Special piano recital
Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Maria João Pires Maria João Pires (piano) - Portuguese pianist - soloist and excellent chamber musician, appeared all over the globe with all the major orchestras. more »

news Julien Brocal (piano) - French pianist more »


Fryderyk Chopin

  • Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9 No. 1 Op. 9 No. 1
  • Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2
  • Nocturne in B major, Op. 9 No. 3
  • Nocturne in F major, Op. 15 No. 1 Op. 15 No. 1
  • Nocturne in F sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2
  • Nocturne in G minor, Op. 15 No. 3 Op. 15 No. 3
  • Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 1 Op. 27 No. 1
  • Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2
  • Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1
  • Nocturne in F sharp minor, Op. 48 No. 2
  • Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 No. 1 Op. 62 No. 1
  • Nocturne in E major, Op. 62 No. 2 Op. 62 No. 2

November 13, 2015

A cure for the common cold

Well, maybe not a cure but, in my case at least, a very effective remedy: the gentle and surprisingly sweet Clarinet Quintet composed by Elliott Carter in his 99th year.

Recorded live in Strasbourg on July 3, 2013, the affectionate performance by Armand Angster and Ardeo Quartet made me forget not only my sore throat and clogged sinuses, but also my earlier encounters with the studio recording by Charles Neidich and the Juilliard Quartet for whom this piece was originally written.

November 1, 2015

When musical America sided with Hitler and Stalin

LIFE Magazine, Nov. 22, 1943, reporting on the fee for first performance rights paid by Columbia Broadcasting Corporation for Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony

The first performance rights fee of $10,000 [1] paid in 1943 for Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony may not seem impressive in relation to a single concert fee of $3,000-4,000 commanded in the 1940s by top performers like Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifetz [2].  However, when compared to the typical first performance fee of $100 paid at that time for the music of American composers [3], the Shostakovich fee seems downright astronomical.

I have never encountered an explanation of this shocking disparity, but I am sure it cannot be explained by supposing that the princely sum paid for Shostakovich's symphony was a deliberately over-generous show of support for the music's role as a symbol of  struggle against Nazism.  Such an explanation would be doubtful for at least two reasons.

October 18, 2015

Diversity at work

... Stravinsky, Hindemith ... I have issues with them, but they’re not the same issues that I would find with the so-called contemporary composers of the late 20th century.  Elliott Carter, it was kind of pathetic what he was doing after 80 or 90 years.
The American composer George Walker speaking about his musical contemporaries, "In the life's coda, master composer George Walker has a symphony in mind", Geoff Edgers, The Washington Post, August 22, 2015.

I congratulate The Washington Post for allowing a black composer of serious music to prove to the world that, in America, one can be a certified asshole without being an uneducated white Republican voter.

October 7, 2015

Why stop with Shakespeare?

The American Association for the Advancement of Learning has decided that the mathematical language of physics is too difficult for today's students to understand.  In order to attract more students to science majors, the Association recently announced that, over the next three years, it will commission 36 physicists to translate all of basic physics into plain English, so as to make the discipline accessible to the widest possible audience.
     A typical example of proposed translations considered by the Association is the differential equation known as Newton's Second Law of Motion
translated as
If you push harder, the damn thing will move faster.

The above announcement would be easy to dismiss as yet another absurd and unfunny mental burp of Boom's deranged mind if it weren't for this very real news item in today's New York Times:

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has decided that Shakespeare’s language is too difficult for today’s audiences to understand. It recently announced that over the next three years, it will commission 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.  ...  Other venues, including the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the University of Utah and Orlando Shakespeare Theater, have already signed on to produce some of these translations.  (James Shapiro, "Shakespeare in Modern English?", The New York Times, October 7, 2015.)

Since 'modern English' beloved by 'today's audiences' is rapidly becoming Twitterglish, I expect the announced translations, when published, to look something like this:

How is my fantasy about translating physics into 'accessible English' more absurd than this reality?

October 1, 2015

Ivan the Queer

The 2013 Russian law against propaganda of so-called non-traditional sexual relationships criminalizes distribution of visual and reading materials

... causing minors to form non-traditional sexual predispositions, notions of attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relationships, ... or imposing information about non-traditional sexual relationships which raises interest in such relationships.

As with most things Russian, there is a palpably surreal aspect to this piece of legislation.  After all, this is the country where propaganda posters and photographs of political leaders from its still cherished Soviet past include images like these:

September 25, 2015

√2 hates π

And why not?  Although √2  and  π are both irrational real numbers, the former is a lowly algebraic number while the latter is transcendental.  Surely that is enough for √2  to envy and hate its much hyped competitor!

Before you decide that I have completely lost it, let me point out that the above ascription of emotions to numbers is no more imbecilic than ascriptions of emotions to temporally organized pitches (along with durations, timbres, and amplitudes) which constitute a piece of music.  A recent example of this dimwitted psycho-musicology can be found in The Guardian (Sept. 24, 2015) where one Kate Molleson had this to say about the music of the Spanish modernist composer Christobal Halffter (italics mine):
He lived in Spain during the Franco regime and his music burns with the desire for non-violence and human rights.

Why a newspaper that employs competent and perceptive music critics like Tom Service would give space to vacuous babbling of a fucking retard like Ms Molleson is beyond me.  But so long as Ms Molleson continues to receive regular paychecks from The Guardian, I hope she gets to write on other subjects as well.  This way the world may learn that because Isaac Newton was abandoned by his mother at the age of three, his laws of motion burn with the resentment of parental neglect.  Or that because Alan Turing was gay, his mathematical model of computation - the Turing Machine - burns with the desire for handsome young men.

September 18, 2015

The future of critical thinking

A few days ago I had to give my students a very informal explanation of the notion of logical possibility: an entity or a state of affairs is 'logically possible' if its description does not involve a logical contradiction.  As usual, I started with a trivial example.  I said:

"I'll tell you the beginning of a story - just a couple of sentences - and then I'll stop and ask you if I should continue because you accept the beginning as describing something that is possible.  So, yesterday I was at a garage sale where I saw a coffee table in the shape of a square circle, i.e., the shape that is both a genuine square and an honest-to-goodness circle.  I bought this coffee table and brought it home."

Then I stopped and asked if I should continue.  One student, a cheerful young woman, immediately raised her hand and declared "No!"
   "Good," I said encouragingly. "Now tell us why not?"
   "Because who on earth would want to buy such a weirdly shaped coffee table!"

August 23, 2015

There is no such thing as female orgasm

There is no such thing as female orgasm.  I've had sex with dozens of women and it never happened.

Few people (especially women) would fail to see the joke in the above argument.  Yet the same faulty logic, which takes subjective experiences as reliable indicators of objective facts, seems to defeat the sense of humor in many music critics faced with evaluating the merits of new music.  Consider, as representative examples, the following excerpts from three different music critics reviewing new or very recent music (italics are mine):

August 13, 2015

The real "historically informed" performances

Music making doesn't get more "authentic" or "historically informed" than this: an orchestral work performed by conductors who knew the composer very well (and were responsible for commissioning the work in question) and by highly skilled musicians fully capable of meeting the composer's demands for instrumental craft.  And of course the instruments played are those the composer himself would expect to hear in a concert hall.  Compared to these credentials, it is hard to see how the allegedly 'historically informed' performances of works from the Baroque and Classical eras could be anything more than wishful thinking of delusional amateurs and egomaniacal charlatans [1] financed and promoted by record labels desperate to find new ways to sell recordings of already numbingly over-played and over-recorded music.

The work in question - Elliott Carter's Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993 - 1996) - also happens to be one of the great symphonies of the century, a work whose harmonic richness, rhythmic ingenuity, and (in the outer movements) sunny playfulness offer a seemingly inexhaustible source of intellectual and emotional rewards.  The five live recordings below (all from directly captured high bitrate webcasts) offer remarkably diverse perspectives on the music and, as a result, a proof that the very notion of "authentic" or "historically informed" performances is simply meaningless.[2]   (The last two of these recordings had been available on my blog before, but the old links are now dead and I thought it would be well to make them available again.)

1. Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin (2008 Berlin).  Barenboim, who premiered the first movement of this symphony (Partita) in Chicago, is the only conductor I know who sees a pronounced romantic streak in Carter's music.  (He is right.)  A good example is the hushed episode for strings and woodwinds about 4 minutes into the first movement, which Barenboim infuses with the sensuality of Mahler's Adagietto.

2.  Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1998 Manchester).  This is a BBC broadcast recording of the world premiere of the complete symphony. (Knussen's studio recording of this symphony for DG, fine as it is, feels rather lifeless by comparison.)

3.  Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (2014).  This performance comes from one of last year's all-Carter concerts in Glasgow.

4.  Jaap van Zweden and Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (2007,  Concertgebouw).

5.  Emilio Pomarico and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie (2009 Berlin).  Perhaps it is a matter of recording balance (or somewhat compressed dynamic range), but Pomarico - who works regularly with such cutting edge bands as Ensemble Modern and Klangforum Wien - conducts the edgiest (perhaps 'hippest' would be apt) performance of this work.

To end on a rather melancholy note, not one of the above performances is by an American orchestra.  I suppose the American idea of patriotism does not go beyond waving a flag and stuffing oneself with hotdogs on the Fourth of July...
[1]  Not long ago I listened to a live broadcast of Christopher Hogwood conducting his 'period instrument' band Academy of Ancient Music in an all-Beethoven concert given in Utrecht in 1996.  The very opening of Beethoven's 2nd symphony - feeble, stuttering, and painfully out of tune - would have been enough to convince anyone that the reputation of this conductor was created and kept on life support in the editing rooms of recording studios.   Taken off this life support even for a single concert, it died a swift death within the first few bars of whatever composition was played first on the program.

[2]   The notion of performing a musical work "in the way the composer himself might have heard it" should have been recognized as sheer lunacy by anyone familiar with unimpeachably authentic yet radically different performances of Mahler's symphonies by the composer's disciples Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer.      

July 30, 2015

Hitler loved 12-tone music

If you will insist that, as a matter of fact, Hitler did not like 12-tone music, you are an over-educated imbecile who clings to a hopelessly outdated notion of truth as somehow rooted in facts.  I suggest you wake up and get acquainted with the modern, de-factualized notion of truth long championed by the sanctimonious and perpetually self-congratulating New York Times - not only in its political coverage (going as far back as its Pulitzer-earning reports of cheerful and happy life in the USSR during Stalin's purges) but also in its music criticism (a, b, c).
     A good example of the latter is Vivien Schweitzer's review of recent concerts of contemporary music at the Tanglewood Festival.  In describing compositional preferences of the featured composers, she had this to say about Elliott Carter:

Some of the featured composers, like Mr. Carter, were partial to the 12-tone method — a system for atonal music invented by Schoenberg in the 1920s involving all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. [1]

As a matter of fact, although Carter appreciated the 12-tone music of the Second Viennese School, he himself did not use the 12-tone method and had expressed a rather dismissive view of the method's aesthetic significance with respect to his own creative goals: 

I have found that [the 12-tone method] is apparently inapplicable to what I am trying to do, and is more of a hindrance than a help. [2]

 Of course I do not suggest that Ms Schweitzer was deliberately lying in her review.  With no formal musical training and with only a superficial understanding of musical composition she is simply unqualified to write about serious music, let alone the complex post-War avant-garde music of Carter, Boulez, and Wuorinen.  Which, I would guess, is precisely what makes her such a valuable long-term asset to the New York Times - a sinking outfit desperate to plug its financial leaks by replacing highly competent but costly critics with cheap but incompetent freelancers.
[1]  "Tanglewood's Contemporary Music Fest Milks Many Sources", New York Times, July 26, 2015.
[2]  Elliott Carter, "Shop Talk by an American Composer", in Elliott Carter: Collected Essays and Lectures, J.W. Bernard (ed.), U. of Rochester Press, 1997, p.220.

July 4, 2015

Ovid is already fucked. Mozart is next...

Here is an excerpt from an Op-Ed piece in the last April issue of Columbia University's daily newpaper Columbia Spectator:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation.
     [The Multicultural Affairs Board] proposed that the [University] issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students. ...that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the [University] should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.
This expression of Fascist Infantilism, typical of today's American universities, made me wonder how long it will take before Mozart's Don Giovanni is dropped from Music Appreciation courses.  Why would music professors want to jeopardize their jobs by "triggering" survivors of domestic violence with Zerlina's famous aria "Batti, batti":

Beat me, beat me, dear Masetto,
beat your poor Zerlina!
I’ll stand here like a little lamb,
to await your blows.
You can pull out my hair.
Pull out my eyes,
and I’ll still gladly kiss
your dear hands.

Come to think of it, the so-called trigger warnings will have to be slapped on just about every opera in the standard repertoire, which obviously makes this emotionally harmful art form unsuitable for today's college students.

I suspect that many of the same students, who run to the Dean's Office in tears as soon as they encounter the word 'nigger' in a Mark Twain novel or a slight of womanhood in a Renaissance painting, will enthusiastically shake their bodies later in the day to Rihanna's  glorification of kidnapping, torture, and sexual degradation in her new song Bitch better have my money.  Which, of course, is as it should be.  After all, Rihanna is hot (hey, the camera zooms in on her crotch every five seconds!), while Ovid, Caravaggio, and Mozart are boring, stuffy, and offensive relics of the oppressive, patriarchal, white male hegemony.

June 19, 2015

Fiddlers under the same roof

In the last three decades or so music critics have frequently complained (or at least noted) that the arrival of the jet age and the fall of the Iron Curtain have pretty much erased the distinctly national characteristics of music making.  Musicians and ensembles around the world, we are told, tend to make music in much the same "international" way regardless of whether  they hail from Moscow, Prague, Paris, or New York.

To me the empirical basis of such claims remains elusive.  Recordings of orchestral music from an earlier era suggest that styles of music making depend almost entirely on conductors.  Conductors who were trained within the same geographical borders (e.g., Klemperer, Walter, Furtwangler, Strauss, Karajan) and worked with the same orchestras (e.g., the Vienna or the Berlin Philharmonic) interpreted the same compositions in ways which differed from one another so much as to make the idea of a 'national style of music making' vacuous at best.   And when some of these conductors moved to other countries (e.g., Klemperer to London, Walter to New York) their ways of music making crossed the borders along with them.  The only empirically meaningful difference between performances of, say, a Mozart symphony conducted by Bruno Walter in New York, Vienna, and Paris in the 1950s is that the standards of execution maintained by the French orchestra were abominably low, those of the Vienna orchestra barely adequate, and those of the New York orchestra were at the highest level.

June 10, 2015

"Me Tarzan, you Jane" English wins...

The syntax in this headline from USA TODAY convinced me that in  today's America the words "journalist" and "fucking retard" have become synonymous.  I wonder if such degradation of language in mainstream media is exclusively an American phenomenon...

Texas teen who cop pulled gun on at pool party speaks

May 25, 2015

From "Fuck no!" to "Hell yes!"...

The title of this post refers to what is arguably the most rewarding, if only too rare, response to a musical performance.  In my entire life I had only two listening experiences of this kind.

April 12, 2015

The face of evil

Meet Philipp Nedel, the remastering engineer for the 2012 DVD issue of "Horowitz in Vienna" - the first DVD release of the recital previously available 'officially' only on a VHS stereo tape.  Since I have a copy of that VHS tape (in a pirate DVD transfer from Japan), it took me only a few minutes of listening to Mr. Nedel's work to appreciate the remarkable consistency with which major classical labels (in this case Sony) entrust restoration of historically invaluable recordings to incompetent and evil motherfuckers like Mr. Nedel and the issue producer Robert Russ.  (Unfortunately the latter's photo could not be found on the web.  Perhaps Mr. Russ suspects that the quality of his work makes it prudent for him to do what he can to remain maximally anonymous.)

April 8, 2015

Mother-in-law's ultimate revenge...

I still remember mother-in-law jokes I heard as a kid growing up in Russia.  Many were predictably homicidal:

A man stands on a high floor balcony, holding an older woman just over the railing.  
The man says, "Ivan shot his mother-in-law.  Fyodor strangled his.  But I am letting you go."

A few were downright surreal:

Late at night.  A room in a communal apartment.  Mother-in-law sleeps in the corner partitioned off from the rest of the room by a curtain.   
     Son-in-law loudly whispers, "Mother!  Mother!"
     Awaken mother-in-law responds from behind the curtain: "What?  What is it, Vasili?"
     "Mother, would you like some fish?"
     "Sure, I'd love some, Vasenka."
     "Then get up and fry some."
     "But Vasenka, we don't have any."
     "Then shut the fuck up and sleep!"

No wonder I was startled when I saw the news item below.  Truly a metaphysical case of the ultimate revenge...

Mother-in-law's tombstone topples on Pennsylvania man, killing him

Reuters March 30, 2015 6:48pm EDT
A Pennsylvania man was helping decorate his mother-in-law’s tombstone on Monday ahead of the Easter holiday when it suddenly toppled over, pinning him underneath and killing him, a cemetery caretaker said.
The 400-pound stone fatally injured Stephen Woytack, 74, of Scranton, said Edward Kubilas, caretaker of St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Throop, just outside of Scranton.

April 2, 2015

Cute puppies sell anything...

I have nothing against cute boys and girls exploiting the advantages of their phenotype, be it in modeling or in soliciting sugar daddies on Craigslist.  But when it comes to serious music, I would expect a musician's success to be based on more artistically relevant factors than just 'cute puppy' looks.  Which, of course, makes me a hopeless imbecile - a depressing self-assessment, true, but amply justified by the meteoric career trajectory of the Canadian-born, still very young,  and singularly mediocre pianist Jan Lisiecki (b. 1995).

March 25, 2015

Charles Rosen was right...

Those who dismiss contemporary art music on the grounds that it has failed to attract a large public conveniently forget to ask whether attracting a large public is an accurate (or even meaningful) measure of the music's aesthetic merits.  History shows that it is not

March 7, 2015

Rrrrreading the news

Sept 12, 2014
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Man died in a fatal accident early Friday
Man died in a fatal accident early Friday

Man died in a fatal accident early Friday

Can one survive a fatal accident?  Or die in a non-fatal accident?
     Well... since Fox News, especially in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, caters to America-loving microcephalic neanderthals (presumably to counter-balance MSNBC, which caters to America-hating hydrocephalic imbeciles), I didn't think much of that sorry linguistic encounter and have completely forgotten about it until yesterday, when I came across  this:

06 Mar 2015

Angry mob lynches rape suspect to death in India

Lynch to death?  Where do they get such illiterate journalistic retards to write headlines for a supposedly respectable British newspaper?  And where do they find editorial mongoloids who approve such headlines?

Whoever these dimwits on both sides of the Atlantic are, let's hope they will soon be assassinated to death by murderous killers, and their lifeless cadavers buttfucked in the ass by villainous evil-doers.

February 4, 2015

How to make it to the age of ninety-seven?

Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970), one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, shares his secret.

February 1, 2015

Eine kleine Wintermusik

On conversing with paradise (2008), for baritone and ensemble.  Evan Hughes (baritone), Orchestra of the League of Composers conducted by Louis Karchin.  June 7, 2010, Miller Theatre, Columbia University.

Matribute (2007) for piano solo, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Fraser Performance Studio, WGBH Boston in May 2010.

January 5, 2015

More homicidal than Taliban and Somalian pirates!

Somalian pirates kill four Americans

(The Telegraph, Feb. 22, 2011)

Taliban kill seven Afghan police

(Los Angeles Times, Dec. 21, 2014)

New Year rice cakes kill nine in Japan

(BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat, Jan. 5, 2014)

Homicidal rice cakes? Couldn't the imbeciles at BBC News have worded the headline in a saner way, e.g., "9 choke to death in Japan while eating New Year rice cakes"?  Oh well...