Friday, 25 March 2016

has it come to this?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the relevance of "Western Art Music".  We know that orchestras are having huge problems selling tickets, we know that classical music sales seem to be waning, we know that audiences are growing bored and disinterested.  There is some implication that pop music, on the other hand, is going wild, becoming more and more successful with each passing day.

I disagree.  Consider how pop music is used.  When I was young, a new Beatles album was a thing to be anticipated.  When the album came out, we would listen to it repeatedly.  I remember hearing Abby Road about 15 times when it was fresh.  Most importantly, it was listened to live, not through earphones, which were quite rare (and expensive.)  The fidelity was as good as the stereo you could afford.  You could jump up and down and dance around the room to the music, singing along with it, if you wanted to do so.

Where has pop music gone now?  First of all, it has become, plain and simple, a commodity.  No one-- absolutely no one-- can pretend that contemporary pop song writers are on the level of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc.  What are people buying?  They are buying a pre-packaged product off the shelf, one that will deliver no surprises, but which will give them exactly what they expect.  It's just like buying toilet paper.  The music is bland, folks.  Let's admit it.  It all sounds the same (within each genre.)  There are no great melodists out there.  The risk-takers are all gone (now that Bowie is gone.)

More importantly, where is pop music used?  Clubs, where it is not the central focus any more.  During the disco era, the clubs existed for the music.  People went to the clubs to dance and socialize using the music as a common ground.  Gradually, drugs crept in, and gradually, the experience of dancing to the music in a club became going to a club as an event that involved, among other things, some music.  Club-going is not a musical thing anymore.

And the other significant use of music is even worse:  portable players.  20 years ago, portable players were fairly large and fairly rare.  The miniaturization of these players into pods and phones has made them ubiquitous.  But it has done something much more insidious:  it has driven users into their own solipsistic world.  I remember very well having a Sony Walkman in the 80s, walking down Bay Street, listening to the Security album by Peter Gabriel.  It remains, to this day, one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had.  Hearing the Ghanese and Native American drumming, to the exclusion of all other sound, while walking through the Bay Street office towers, was beyond surreal.  I never did it again.

Every single younger person does this now routinely.  We live in an autistic world, where we cut ourselves off from everything around us.  We plug those phone ear buds in, crank up the 4/4 @ m.m.108 and withdraw.  Everything about our world is withdrawn.  People don't talk to each other anymore, they text.  The horror of the original Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie Pulse is coming true:  our souls are retreating into our electronic devices.  Is this really music, or is it a drug?  Or something worse?

I used to think that beer was Soma.  Now I believe that contemporary pop music is Soma.

Western Art Music concert music, especially orchestral concert music, is not comfortable the way Soma is.  Contemporary music is even less comfortable.  I repeat:  dissonance/consonance, tonality/atonality, these are not problems anymore; unfamiliarity is the enemy, and that goes for even the most accessible music.  Pop music, now that it has become homogenized, is a comfortable product, entirely predictable, without any nasty creative touches to upset people.

Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

conducting part 2

I grew up with the legendary conductors still alive.  I remember seeing Fritz Reiner and Leonard Bernstein on TV as a child.  Bruno Walter was still alive when I was 8 years old.  I didn't really have a sense of who they were, but I knew that the music they were making was remarkable.  And I have vivid images of both Reiner and Bernstein doing the most amazing things while conducting-- Reiner barely moving the baton, and Bernstein getting an orchestra to play by flaring his nostrils.

The "great maestro" began with Mahler, although he really just refined the image which had already been created by Wagner, Von Bulow, and perhaps a few others.  But Mahler is arguably the first contemporary "maestro".  He was supreme boss.  His word was law.

In my youth, this model was how conductors operated.  There are endless stories about conductors behaving badly, from torturing members of the orchestra through assaulting female soloists to staggering on stage so drunk they can't see.

The dynamics of the orchestra world have changed over the last several decades.  Conductors still behave badly, but the days of such ruthless entitlement seem to be over.  Players in orchestra will no longer tolerate abuse quietly.  A conductor who staggers on stage drunk will not get hired back.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the "great maestro" was something that a certain kind of person aspired to be.  I remember very well some conducting students who under no circumstances should ever have been allowed to conduct.  They were not interested in music-- they were interested in being a "great maestro".  This kind of person still exists, but it is more and more difficult for them to get serious podium time.  Contemporary orchestras expect respect, professionalism, and artistry.

The "great maestros" were surrounded by mythology.  I remember Erich Leinsdorf visiting a conducting class in Toronto, sitting across the room, and, without a score, referencing a specific horn problem on page x in measure y in a Brahms symphony.  The students were in awe.  But of course, Leinsdorf had probably conducted this work somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 times by this point in his life.  It would have been more surprising if he couldn't be so specific.

It has also been interesting to see how the teaching of conducting has changed.  "Old school" conductors continue to teach by emphasizing in depth score study.  Almost nothing is said of stick technique.  And while I deeply respect making the music itself the most important thing, the truth is that no one without the innate talent in the first place will evolve into anything like a conductor this way.  Most conducting students need a good swift kick to the butt about their technique.  Contemporary conducting teaching has recognized that knowing the score inside and out doesn't make you a conductor.  If the orchestra doesn't understand what you are doing, it doesn't matter how well you know the music.  Stick technique matters.  The days of Fritz Reiner moving the stick a millimetre in each direction are gone.

It is a changing world for conductors.  The job of Music Director has become incredibly complex, with boards, donors, governments, management, and all sorts of other non-musical matters looming large on a daily basis.  It will be very interesting to see how conducting evolves as the art changes, and as financial pressures become more and more of a burden on the institution of the orchestra.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

conducting, part 1

These next few postings are not really just about new music, but they are pertinent.  A few events occurred recently which got me thinking about the art of conducting, and my relationship to it.  A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of doing the "colour commentary" for a dress rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem by Sir Andrew Davis and the TSO and Mendelssohn Choir (impossible to explain what "colour commentary" is in a few sentences.)  This past Monday, I conducted a performance of the Pärt Cantus with a pickup orchestra of Toronto's best players, drawn from the TSO and the COC and National Ballet Orchestras.

Sir Andrew Davis is one of the greatest conductors on the planet.  He is musical, technically flawless, and has a personality which is perfectly suited to dealing with the massive forces required for a work like the Verdi.

Musical:

What does it mean to be "musical" as a performer, especially as a conductor?  This is simple, really.  A musical conductor has ideas about the music.  I know this may seem self-evident, but it cannot be taken for granted.  There are many, many professional conductors out there who do not have any ideas at all about the music they are conducting.  They can lead performances, flap their arms theatrically, and look good, but they bring nothing to the music.  In standard repertoire, it is possible to get away with this, because a) you can learn how the music goes from several great recordings and just copy them and b) the orchestra knows how the music goes and really doesn't need you if you have no ideas.  In new music, having no ideas is a disaster.  A conductor needs to bring an interpretation of even the worst piece of new music.  Just zooming through and playing exactly what is on the page is deadly dull, and turns a bad piece into a worse piece.  Boulez would claim that this is what he does, but of course, he doesn't-- his powerful personality is clear in the way he does things, even if he doesn't speak and purports not to interpret.  And by the way, many people believe his recordings are, to quote someone's poetic simile, like an x-ray of a beautiful corpse.  But I digress.

What is an "idea" about music?  It can be many things.  In a new work, it might involve trying to figure out how to make a longer line than might actually exist on the page.  How do I connect the beginning of this score to the end?  Can I find textural or motivic elements that I can colour similarly at the beginning and end?  The slow movement of Webern's Op.24 is an excellent example of how a conductor might shape an idea:  the drooping thirds in the calando passages can all be played the same way, or a conductor can make a psychological journey out of them:  the first few are more intense, the middle few are less intense, and the last few are the most intense of all.  This is just an example.  What is an idea in standard rep?  A conductor must decide on the character of a work and do what it takes to emphasize this.  For example, the opening of Mozart 40 could be dark, could be petulant, might even be slightly funny like Prokofiev, or it could just be the excuse to get to the major key second subject.  The conductor needs to know what he thinks, so he can ask for the right length of staccato in the accompaniment, the appropriate degree of accentuation in the main line, etc.

Technically flawless:

Just what it sounds like.  An orchestra needs to understand every move the conductor makes.  If they don't understand something, the conductor is doing something wrong.  This is where we encounter some problems with the mythology of conducting, which I will deal with in a later posting.  There were so many conductors in the 20th century who had eccentric conducting styles that young conductors often start to believe that stick technique doesn't matter.  Just watch Fritz Reiner conduct.  But making a rule out of exceptions is not a good idea.  (I see red anytime some counterpoint student tells me "But Bach used parallel fifths."  Right, 100 times in a thousand pieces.)  Clear technique matters.  But expressive technique also matters.  There are many people who can wave the stick clearly, but can't modulate it.  Technique is also fluid-- a conductor needs to be so in control of his/her stick that it can sing.  This obviously also applies whether or not the conductor uses a baton.  Of course a conductor needs to know how to conduct and break pauses, do ritardandi, etc., but he/she also needs to know how to move from staccato to legato, how to encourage and discourage, how to release control and let the soloist play without hindrance, and a million other subtleties which lesser conductors cannot master.  I remember watching Jukka Pekka Saraste conduct many times.  In standard rep, particularly in Mozart, his moves were less about stick patterns than they were about expression.  But when he conducted new music in changing metres, his stick technique became a textbook of clear patterns.

Personality:

Ah, here we have it.  I cannot say how many people I know who are musical, can wave a stick fairly accurately, want to conduct, have experience, but who just aren't conductors.  There is a huge, huge difference between conducting and leading a performance.  Any good musician can lead a performance-- very few musicians have the right personality to be a genuine conductor.  The most classic case of the un-conductor is the ego maniac who just wants to be in charge.  Then there is the guy who knows he's right, and charges like a bull anytime any player challenges him or doesn't do what he's asked.  There's the mean guy, who isolates only the errors and keeps picking at them.  There's the nice guy, who just wants people to like him.  There is no end to the various wrong personalities that can afflict would-be conductors, and the most amazing thing is that these people typically remain oblivious for the rest of their lives as to why they didn't get to be a conductor.

Conducting is handling people, not just music.  Sir Andrew had a small problem with a soloist who was constantly rushing.  He never lost his temper.  He did not pick on him.  He carefully and respectfully corrected the error a few times, encouraging him to do it correctly, not badgering him.  In performance, it was fine.  Again, the foolish old-school mythology does not help any more.  Being a tyrant is not the best way to work.  Good musicians want to get things right.  I have seen idiot conductors stop constantly through the first reading of a score to point to errors.  For heaven's sake, let the players read the darn thing once or twice before deciding something is a problem.  When I conduct, I always assume an error is just a one-time thing.  If it happens a second time, I correct it.

It takes a lot to be a conductor.  After all the musical things, there is this question of personality.  And not just in the handling of the orchestra.  The life is a very demanding one, and survival is difficult for anyone not equipped the right way.  Being a composer is tough, too, but at least we can retreat into our autistic little world and pretend we're misunderstood geniuses and that we'll be recognized long after our deaths.  No musician is more visible than a conductor, and accepting the responsibility for all that is necessary is a huge strain.  I cannot communicate just how demanding it is to step onto the podium of the TSO.  Every single person in that orchestra is a superb musician and a professional, and they expect the same from you.

More to come.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

I didn't quite catch that......

I have been listening lately to a great deal of very new music with which I am not entirely familiar.  I try very hard to keep up with the unbelievable number of composers working in the world today, all of whom seem to be doing very solid work.  It is a big task, because there is so much music out there.

I had a startling revelation during one of my listening sessions.  I realized that I couldn't actually tell if I liked something or not.  I'm not entirely sure what happens when we listen, but somehow, listening to new music is not the same as listening to music from the common practice era.  If I listen to a symphony by Anton Rubinstein, I can at least apply my expectations of a traditional Romantic work to the experience.  I might find it boring, or moving, or nondescript, or exciting, but these qualities will all be clear to me immediately.  Boredom might set in as time goes by, because the music does not have enough variety, but for the most part, my reaction to the music is instantaneous.

The same is not true of new music.  Why not?  And I don't mean just certain styles of new music, I mean any work from the last 70 years.  My example is the Piano Concerto of Boris Tchaikovsky (not related to P.I.), a Russian who died in the 90s.  This is one of the truly odd voices in music.  The Concerto begins with a bizarre movement of nothing but repeated notes that once in a while explodes into some triads, but for the most part, it is a machine gun of repeated notes that are played by the piano and doubled by the orchestra.  My first reaction was to smile.  It's typical contemporary Slavic head-banging.  Then I got irritated.  Then I got interested in where it was going.  Then I got irritated again.  Then I turned it off.  But I thought about it for days, and I am actually listening to it right now, as I type this text.

I think I like it.

Why do I not know for sure?

I find myself questioning the quality of the music I am listening to.  Obviously, this guy knew what he was doing.  He's doing it deliberately.  But is it any good?  Do I like it despite the fact that it's bad, the way I like some stupid action movies?

I listened to Carter's Instances, one of his last orchestra works.  I liked it far better than anything else I've ever heard by Carter.  Will I like it when I hear it again?  I think I liked it at least partially because in it, Carter moves very deliberately back towards my own aesthetic, embracing repetition and periodicity.  It was recognizably connected to traditional compositional practice.  Did I like it because I analyzed it?  Or did I really react to the music?  Am I able to listen without analyzing?  I would like to think so.  I listened to Requies by Berio, and it totally engaged me for about 4 minutes.  Then the next 4 minutes dragged.  By the last third of the work, I was so bored I couldn't continue, and turned it off.  My analytical thinking came afterwards, sometime around the 10 minute mark, when I realized I had heard everything the piece had to offer and there were still 4 minutes to go.  That was the professional composer in me speaking.  The listener had lost interest a long time before.

I am quite enjoying Boris Tchaikovsky's beautiful slow movement.

Is it impossible to listen to new work objectively because we have no yardstick to measure it against?  Each new work carries its own grammar, its own intention, and we have to decipher these things as the work progresses.  Or is something broader at work?  When a work like this Concerto simply ignores expectation, and produces a confused reaction, is it because it is genuinely unexpected and creative?  Does my initial positive/negative reaction indicate that there is something going on in this work?

I suspect so.  I suspect that anything that is just "there" is bad music.  Music I neither like nor dislike on first hearing is music I am simply not going to listen to again.  And frankly, this describes about 90% of the music I hear.  Even an irritating piece which forces me to react is doing something that most music doesn't do.  I am very bored with the next tonal piece, the next atonal piece, the next spectralist piece, the next snappy back-beat piece, because I've heard it all before.  So many composers the world over have so much craft that they can crank out endless faceless pieces.  It is the music that pokes us, prods us, makes us want to hear it again, that matters.  Everything else is just wasting valuable moments of my life.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

obviously....

I mentioned in an earlier posting the idea of obviousness in contemporary music, and I have been realizing lately just how important it seems to be to many people.  And not just for contemporary music, but for many kinds of musical experience.

To summarize, in that previous entry, I mention the fact that there are people who simply can't accept that a work of music is contemporary unless it is obviously contemporary, which always translates (for these particular people) into atonal, or ugly, or conceptual.  Looking at a work like the 4th Symphony by Tippett, I am amazed at the rhythmic complexity, which passes so easily by the ear.   Tempos apparently modulate, but in fact, the modulations are worked out in one tempo only, giving the impression of far greater flexibility and making the music extremely difficult to perform.  The Fugue from Corigliano's String Quartet is another example of contemporary complexity which is not immediately obvious-- the various strands of music all unfold in simultaneously different meters, but the group has to stay together.  But these works are not "contemporary" to many people in the new music world, certainly not as "contemporary" as the quartets of Carter, presumably because the rhythmic complexity of Carter is accompanied by aggressively atonal music.  It sounds "contemporary" to people who, apparently, can't actually hear what is going on in the Tippett and Corigliano.

But it is more than new music that is afflicted.  Recently, a colleague, who is one of the finest musicians I know, dismissed Mozart as being "simple".  He commented that he could hear "that kind of music" in his head "anytime."  If he can, he is truly a far better musician than I am.  I no longer argue with people about Mozart, because I have realized that they are simply not listening past the obvious.  Yes, there are some passages built with 4 bar phrases and periodicity, but the astonishing thing about Mozart is how completely unpredictable he is while remaining superficially fairly simple.  No composer until Brahms used rhythm in such a sophisticated way.  There are 3 1/2 bar phrases, where ideas start again in the middle of bars, completely naturally.  Ideas expand and contract without calling attention to the fact.  A few years ago, when I taught phrase structure to undergrads, I taught the concept of phrase extensions.  I took some Bach 5 bar phrases and deconstructed them to simple 4 bar phrases.  I took some Mozart 5 bar phrases and, much to my surprise, found that they simply cannot be deconstructed back to symmetrical forms-- the extensions are so sophisticated they defy "correction".  Mozart's magic is his ability to fool the ear into thinking everything is very simple, but it usually isn't.  I remember coaching a conducting student once in an early Mozart symphony, and having to point out that an apparently minor inner voice in the violas ended the first phrase on an 8th note, but ended on a quarter note the second time through.  These are not random.  It is sophistication like this which makes Mozart sound so eternally fresh-- the ear may not hear anything "obvious", but the brain responds unconsciously to the rich detail.

I had a student recently tell me that he had heard something for orchestra which didn't have interesting orchestration.  I pointed out that the piece he had heard had excellent orchestration, it just didn't slap you in the face with eccentricity.  The fact that it didn't sound like Stravinsky apparently made him feel that it wasn't creative.  To my ears, it was extremely well done and the orchestration was perfectly allied with the musical content.  But it wasn't "obvious".

The same problem with obviousness pervades programming, in a slightly different way.  We can programme the obvious without hesitation-- Beethoven 5 or 7.  If we programme Beethoven 4, audiences stay away.  We can programme music by Joachim Raff and know that, if an audience came, it doesn't matter that his language is pure Romantic, they will not like it because they don't know who he was and are not familiar with his music.  It's obvious to them that Brahms was a Romantic, but they have never heard of Raff.

I don't want to believe that most people really don't listen carefully, or that, if they do, they really don't hear much.  It's a depressing thought.  But even among musical professionals, it seems that most things need to be very obvious to have an immediate impact.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

true story

There is art, and there is money.

If you are an artist without enough money, there is career.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

success

There is only one measure of success for a composer.  And it is impossible to prove.

Success is:  performers you don't know deciding to play your piece.

Look carefully, and you will see that most performances in the world today, including the very visible, very high profile ones, are the result of direct personal connections.  At the highest levels, they are often compounded by business connections (friends being managed by the same company, for example.)  Or they occur because one set of managers talks to another set of managers.

Is that success?  Of a sort, certainly.

But real musical success happens when you send a work on its solitary way into the world and somewhere, performers who don't know you personally decide to play it.

Why can't you prove it?

Because you simply never know what wheels there are within wheels.  You may see a list of performers who just did your work and not know any of them, but that doesn't mean they don't know someone you know.  You can never know if one of your friends was responsible for the connection.  Perhaps one of the performers was a student of someone you know.

Of course, that doesn't take away from the fact that people who don't know you decided to perform the work anyway.

The extension of this definition of success is being asked to compose a new work by someone you don't know.  Someone has either performed your existing work or knows it somehow, and wants a new piece.

It happens.