December 21, 2017

It was a mad, mad, mad world....

Madness, for the Romantic artist ... promised not only different insights but also a different logic.

Writing about Robert Schumann, Charles Rosen tells us that

Schumann was haunted from the age of seventeen by the fear of going mad.  Only at the end of his short life were these fears realized.  In 1854 ... Schumann voluntarily incarcerated himself in an insane asylum.*

Rosen's chronology is correct with respect to Schumann the man, but not Schumann the composer.  The latter should have committed himself to an asylum a couple of years earlier when he displayed undeniable symptoms of musical lunacy by composing piano accompaniment to Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin BWV 1001- 1006.  Had Schumann produced this composition a few decades later, it could have been considered a musical counterpart of Eugene Bataille's  La Joconde fumant le pipe or Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. in the visual arts, making Schumann (rather than Eric Satie) the father of musical dadaism.  But composed in the middle of the nineteenth century, this work of Schumann has always struck me as by far the most shocking (and, because it was Schumann, the saddest) case of madness from the Romantic period in the history of music.

Or so I thought until a few days ago when, to my great surprise, I came across a case of nineteenth century musical madness arguably more pathological than Schumann's.

November 29, 2017

A friend of a friend 4

Penderecki's most impressive score, To the Victims of Hiroshima: Threnody, for fifty-two strings, calls for a host of new methods of playing these instruments ... [and] ... the extremely violent, almost "anti-artistic" expression of the music justifies the means.
ELLIOTT CARTER, writing in 1963 about new music in Europe, Collected Essays and Lectures 1937-1995, U. of Rochester Press, p.36.

I must have heard at least a dozen concert recordings of Penderecki's Threnody (1960), and all but one presented this piece as a shrill Modernist tantrum of a young musical dissident behind the Iron Curtain.  Heard in such performances, the music amounts to little more than an echo of Xenakis' Metastaseis (1954), making it easy to think that its continuing survival on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire is due solely to its contrived anti-American title.
    Which is what I used to think before I discovered how poignant, even sensuous this music can sound when its avant-garde stylistic devices (swooping glissandi, tone clusters, behind the bridge bowing, etc.) are treated as background technical means to emotionally significant musical ends.  I owe this discovery to the performance of Threnody by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien under the impressively versatile Cornelius Meister, recorded in concert on 3 November 2016.

October 26, 2017

A friend of a friend III

With music, we must learn what to listen for—or, indeed, what not to listen for. After a 1964 concert in Berlin of Xenakis’s music in the 1950s, the great Nadia Boulanger ... said to the composer in her usual forthright, no-nonsense manner: “Xenakis, you don’t know how to develop your themes!” “What themes?” he replied reasonably.
CHARLES ROSEN, Freedom and the Arts, Harvard U. Press, p.237

I wonder if Nadia Boulanger's remark was simply a joke which somehow went over Charles Rosen's head.  Surely by 1964 Boulanger must have been familiar with the decades-old music of composers who "did not know how to develop their themes", e.g., Schoenberg's Erwartung (1909) or Varèse's works from the 1920s (Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation).  Or perhaps she was too shocked by what she heard and blurted out the first thing that popped into her head (thematic development may have been a subject of criticism she frequently directed at her many composition students).  Either possibility sounds more plausible to me than Rosen's (admittedly funny) portrayal of Boulanger as a musical dimwit.

Be that as it may, Xenakis' music may have been pretty shocking back then, but I doubt  it has much of a shock value today.  Not after half a century of exposure to Xenakis-influenced sonorities in concert halls (e.g., the fake-titled, frequently performed Penderecki's Threnody) and movie theaters (THX's audio trademark Deep Note).  Yet if the shock of Xenakis' music has worn off, its ability to thrill remains undiminished, at least when heard in the ambience of a concert hall rather than on poisonously equalized and (as a rule) poorly edited studio recordings.

But why take my word for it when you can decide for yourself with these live recordings of Metastaseis (1954), Syrmos (1959), Aroura (1971), and Voile (1995).  The first recording was made at a 2009 concert given by ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien under Bertrand de Billy, while the remaining three were recorded at a 2011 concert given by Amsterdan Sinfonietta under Johannes Kalitzky.

September 10, 2017

Bye-bye, the baby in the bathwater

[The music is] bizarre ... melodically as well as harmonically, and avoids natural flow ...  [Vocal writing] is overladen with surfeit of harmonies ... and tricky intervals which are often very hard for singers to remember and intone. 

For ... melody we have searched in vain; nor have we even found any varieties of form, indicating an original fancy at work...  All seems worn and hackneyed and unmeaning.  ... if effect there be, it must be monotonous, and bizarre.

There is a vast deal of ugly music ... that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a coarse file.

[The singers] all carry on in indistinguishable, angular swoops and shrieks. 
[The opera] boasts ... avoidance  - as if on principle - of any hint of beauty, expressive content or sensual delight...  [T]there is something singularly horrifying about this new score... It's a dehumanizing brand of art ... and to see it applied to the warm-blooded genre of opera is enough to chill the bones.
Reading the above excerpts from reviews of contemporary operas, you may feel sorry for the audiences traumatized by sadistic composers.  You may also feel grateful to the critics whose unflinching reviews must have prevented many music lovers from becoming additional victims of these musical counterparts of Marquis de Sade.  And why wouldn't you feel this way, if the composer in these reviews is made to look like the defendant in a criminal trial charged with multiple counts of fraud, vandalism, and intentional infliction of pain and suffering?  (The defendant used false promises of an enjoyable experience to swindle hundreds of people.  He lured these people into a large building where he held them captive for hours while subjecting them to various forms of psychological and physical torture.)

But then suppose you learn that the first excerpt comes from a 1793 review of the then present state of opera and refers specifically to the operas of Mozart; the second comes from a 1844 article on the operas of Verdi; the third comes from a 1907 review of the American premiere of Strauss' Salome; and only the fourth and last excerpt comes from a review of an opera (Elliott Carter's What Next?) which is contemporary for both the critic and yourself.  Would you still feel sorry for the audiences? Grateful to the critics?
     Or would you instead begin to wonder if there is any line of work where incompetence and arrogance are encouraged and rewarded as much as they are in music criticism?

September 2, 2017

A friend of a friend II

... for me a Webern bagatelle is much more subversive and politically significant than all those requiems, cantatas and oratorios dedicated to the Holocaust, to 9/11 or to oppression in the Third World using depressive clusters, aggressive noises, threatening percussion orgies and sad nostalgic quotations.
"Sound Structures, Transformations, and Broken Magic: An Interview with Helmut Lachenmann", Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2010, p.341.

Back in 2011 I already voiced my contempt for mediocre composers who desperately try to mask the stale musical odor of their compositions with nauseatingly 'topical' titles, dedications, and program notes.  Little man that I am, I was certainly gratified to discover a similar attitude expressed by a composer whose music I greatly admire.

Not that I think it makes much sense to attribute, as Lachenmann does, "political significance" to (non-vocal) art music, if only because the relations between art music and politics have nothing to do with intrinsically musical values.  After all, in Nazi Germany the radical, cerebral Webern had the same 'political significance' as the jazzy Krenek, the derivative Shostakovich, and the bourgeois Mendelssohn, while in Stalin's USSR the 'political significance' of Webern's music was no different from that of Rachmaninov's sappy traditionalism and Stravinsky's acidic modernism (all were banned).  And in today's America all art music has the same 'political significance' - which is to say none whatsoever - since neither the government nor the people give a fuck about about it (except for a relatively very small number of 'faggots', 'weirdos' and 'eggheads' like myself).

August 26, 2017

Hearing is believing

My bottomless contempt for commercial recordings of art music is well documented in this blog.  Yet even I would not have believed that this level of incompetence could be found in a CD released by one of the oldest and biggest classical labels, EMI.
     Here are the last 12 seconds of the piano solo from the Siciliano of Bach's Keyboard Concerto BWV 1053, recorded (digitally!) in the late 1980s by Andrei Gavrilov and Neville Marriner.  What happens with the entrance of the orchestra is something for which (in my opinion) the producer and the engineer/editor of this recording should have been shot without trial (along with countless so-called record critics/reviewers who never mentioned such an obvious case of gross incompetence).

This industry, which has shamelessly fucked the paying public so much and for so long, surely deserves its nearly complete disintegration from online piracy.

August 1, 2017

A friend of a friend (so to speak)

I do like Helmut Lachenmann, for instance. His are noisy little pieces that are very cleverly done.
Elliott Carter, 30 May 2012.
Laura Emmery, "An American Modernist: Teatime with Elliott Carter", Tempo 67, 2013.


Here is one such "noisy little piece", Tableau for Orchestra (1988), in live recordings by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle (February 2015, Amsterdam),  and by the WDR Sinfonieorchester under Peter Rundel (2 October 2015, Cologne, and 3 October 2015, Strasbourg).

June 19, 2017

When smart people say stupid things IV

... chaotic, unpredictable... There are no themes and no 'form'.
David Schiff on Elliott Carter's Partita for Orchestra (1993), The Music of Elliott Carter, 2nd ed., Cornell U. Press, 1998, p.318.

Musicologists... the forensic pathologists of music who dissect musical works, examine the innards, and describe their findings in reports the general public never reads.  Except, that is, for occasional voyeuristic freaks like myself.  In our case, however, the motivation is not some morbid obsession of a man perusing reports from the Coroner's Office, but a harmless (if not particularly healthy) obsession with the music we find exceptionally rewarding.

May 20, 2017

A not so odd couple

I'm sure you've read about occasions when a great composer's work was performed by his contemporary fellow composer of comparable stature who also happened to be a distinguished musician.  Ever wondered what it would be like to hear such performances?  Vivaldi concertos played by Bach (in transcriptions for organ)?  Mozart's D minor piano concerto played by the young Beethoven?  How about Chopin's etudes played by Liszt?  Or perhaps Mahler's interpretations of operas by Puccini and Richard Strauss?

But why spend time on daydreaming when you can hear the real thing:

April 11, 2017

Blue Balls Lohengrin

In the middle of one his stand-up acts, the American comedian Steven Wright - whose onstage persona is by turns morose, dejected, or depressed - suddenly took a deep breath and said very slowly, very darkly, and with a deep sigh: I am soooo excited...  That was funny and the joke took all of two seconds.

Recently I was reminded of Steven Wright by what I thought (for a moment) was a similar joke, except that it went on for more than twenty minutes and wasn't in the least funny.  The joke in question was the Bridal Chamber Duet from Lohengrin conducted by Joseph Keilberth at the 1953 Bayreuth Festival (with Wolfgang Windgassen in the lead role).[1]  To say that Keiberth's tempo was sluggish would be a severe understatement.  It was comatose.  Had this been a piece of instrumental music, one could conceivably justify such a tempo as an exercise of 'artistic license', akin to Glenn Gould's catatonic recording of Siegfried's Idyll or Sviatoslav Richter's glacial performances of Schubert's piano sonatas. Alas, with opera musical decisions cannot be completely unmoored from the text [2]; and it is because of the text that Keilberth tempo struck me as being simply freakish.
     To explain:

March 14, 2017

When smart people say stupid things III

Our admiration for the great singers of the past is based on gramophone records. But what do we know about the precise circumstances in which they were made?  Undoubtedly performances by tenors like Max Lorenz and Lauritz Melchior were stellar events ... although I am inclined to doubt whether both these singers had such tremendous voices as is claimed for them today.
Christian Thielemann [1]

Perhaps only a German mind can so effortlessly misrepresent obvious facts and then raise doubts as to whether there are any such facts at all. (This, after all, is the principal characteristic of German philosophy from Kant to Heidegger.)  Coming from a highly experienced and internationally acclaimed opera conductor, Thielemann's doubt is worse than frivolous. It is delusional.  There is no gentler way to describe his state of denial in the face of readily available and utterly compelling evidence that Lauritz Melchior's legendary status as a Wagnerian Heldentenor is fully justified by the unmatched glories of his singing.

So lets take a quick look at the evidence.

February 15, 2017

Hurray for Musical Colonialism-Imperialism!

Mozart did it with the Rondo a la Turca finale of his piano sonata K.331.  Beethoven - with the Thème russe in his Razumovsky Quartets.  Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre alludes to the sounds of Balinese gamelan music, while Steve Reich's Drumming is a minimalist recollection of his trip to Africa.  Fortunately for art music, its pathetically low profile in today's American society has kept such colonialist-imperialist musical transgressions invisible to vigilant social justice warriors who are always ready to flood social media with indignant yapping about the evils of cultural appropriation - say, when they see a photo of some Caucasian celebrity bimbo wearing an 'ethnic' Halloween costume.  Lets hope things stay this way.  My Go-Fuck-Yourself List is already way too long to accommodate what must be nearly the entire Twitter-cum-Facebook generation of useless whiny assholes.