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Friday Miscellanea

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Friday Miscellanea

On an economics blog, a post recommending the reading of art books: In praise of art books. One interesting caveat:
These books tend not to be politically contentious, or if they are it is in a superficial way that is easily brushed off.  (Note there is a whole subgenre of art books, from theory-laden, left-wing presses, with weird covers, displayed in small, funky Manhattan or Brooklyn bookstores where you can’t believe they can make the rent, where politics is all they are about.  Avoid those.)
Yep. I have a recommendation for a general history of art that is a bit out of the mainstream, but very well done: Paul Johnson, Art: A New History.

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Back when I first attended the Salzburg Festival, in 1988, as a student, I was struck by their willingness to program integral projects. Then it was the complete Beethoven string quartets by the Alban Berg Quartet, the complete Schubert sonatas by Alfred Brendel and seven concerts of chamber music by Stockhausen. There may have been more, I am relying simply on memory here. In recent years these kinds of projects have been less common, but this coming August, Igor Levit will play all the Beethoven piano sonatas in a series of eight concerts at the festival and on August 21st, Alexandre Lonquich with the Camerata Salzburg will play ALL the Beethoven piano concertos in one mammoth concert, conducting from the keyboard. I mention this because Mr. Levit has a piece in The Guardian about the Beethoven sonatas and one that might be worth having a look at:
I sensed that Beethoven would mean a lot to me when I first heard the Missa Solemnis in concert. I was 14 or 15, and doubt I grasped much of its spiritual essence, but what I felt is hard to capture in words. I heard grandeur and internal struggle, friction and sheer awesomeness. Of course, I was swept away by the beauty of the Benedictus and held spellbound by the bleak brass of the Agnus Dei. The Missa Solemnis quickly became my favourite work. I must have listened to the early Gardiner recording dozens of times. The score became sacred to me in the truest sense of the word. Even today I could almost write it out by rote.
That was chosen almost at random. Have a look at the whole piece, which is not that long. As a eulogy to a great chunk of repertoire by a great composer it is pretty good. But if you want to read a bunch of pompous, smug and dismissive comments on it, then by all means hasten over to Slipped Disc. Honestly, don't these people feel any shame?

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And from the Annals of the Stunningly Obvious we have a piece on the possible effect of the Climate Crisis on musicians in, of course, The New Yorker: THE DAY THE MUSIC BECAME CARBON-NEUTRAL.
It’s also possible for musicians to share the financial burden of environmental responsibility with their fans. Dan Snaith, a composer and producer who records as Caribou, has partnered with PLUS1.org, a nonprofit founded by the indie-rock band Arcade Fire, which adds one dollar to every ticket sold and then consults with artists on how best to donate the money. “Over the past four years, our artists were mainly interested in supporting mental health, gender equality, and civil rights, with climate change much lower down the list,” Marika Anthony-Shaw, a co-founder and the C.E.O. of PLUS1, said. “Now that list is looking much different, with climate justice right at the top. There is obviously no easy or single solution or path forward for touring. It’s going to require a big shift in industry practice—production, energy management, tour routings, travel requirements—as well as cultural and policy practice.”
I'll leave it to my readers' finely honed critical skills to sort through that... "Climate justice..."

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Speaking of integral projects,  John Eliot Gardiner will conduct the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a series of concerts of all the Beethoven symphonies at Carnegie Hall over the coming week and the New York Times has a piece on it: A Revolutionary Approach to Beethoven: Period Instruments. Well sure, it was revolutionary--about thirty years ago!
For listeners who have grown up hearing their Beethoven played by regular modern symphony orchestras, our performances will present some striking differences. They may be surprised to hear more detail and more of the content of what’s in Beethoven’s score, as the different strands of the instrumental lines emerge with an enhanced clarity. The way the instruments were formed and constructed in that period make them much more distinct from one another than their more powerful modern equivalents. What you get in a period orchestra are three things: greater individuality of timbre, more transparency of texture and an increased dynamism once all the instruments are stretched to their absolute maximum capacity of volume and expressivity.
Just bear in mind the caveat expressed in a number of places by Richard Taruskin that the values of the early music movement rather remarkably share a number of things with the values of, for example, Igor Stravinsky: "enhanced clarity" and distinctness of timbre are dead giveaways. We like the style of Gardiner's approach to Beethoven because it suits our tastes. Oh yes, and some of it may even correspond to what Beethoven imagined.

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 Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir was a big winner at the Oscars for her score to the Joker. What is it with Iceland? They seem to have more musical clout than the whole nation of Canada with the population of a rather small city. Here she is, performing an older piece, Erupting Light:


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Mr Caird and Ms Chavrimootoo concluded that there was extensive criticism of the course, with some respondents of the view that it “over-reaches appropriate boundaries of behaviour, favouring some students over others and undermining the confidence of many students.” However, in a sign of how the course “sharply divides opinion,” they added that others regarded it as a “unique programme run with vision, invention and great social awareness”.
They added: “Despite a body of supportive opinion about the [head of programme], there is a significant weight of critical opinion, much of it very strong and over a considerable period of time, to give grounds for concern for the programme and its students.”
The review makes a range of recommendations, including a review of its complaints handling procedure, and the “active” discouragement of offensive stereotyping of any person or group.
Let's try and read between the lines. On the one hand, it is quite possible that an environment grew up at this school that was toxic and demeaning to the students. This can happen and I know of a number of instances. All you need is one unfortunate choice of a person in authority with skewed values who hires a number of friends with similar values and you have the breeding grounds for a very bad situation. This can go on for a long time because even bad institutions instinctively present a wholesome public face. But on the other hand, the situation here might be that a few demanding and charismatic teachers are doing a very fine job and it is rubbing a few untalented students the wrong way. From this article it is impossible to tell. The reforms might either dislodge some bad teachers or turn an excellent program into undemanding pablum. Here is the thing: in the arts, and music specifically, you can either design a program that achieves the highest results by challenging the best students and driving away the worst students, or you can design an unchallenging program that treats everyone very fairly and achieves only mediocre results. Guess which is the safest course?

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On the face of it this article in The Atlantic would seem perfectly suited for the full Music Salon treatment: The New Rules of Music Snobbery. After all, here is where music snobbery goes to relax and take its shoes off. But let's have a read:
A less perceptive reboot would simply have made Ed Sheeran the new sentimental, tacky crap, but Hulu has gone beyond grafting contemporary references onto Hornby’s tale of 30-somethings who are more adept at sequencing mixtapes than at maintaining healthy relationships. The series captures a fundamental reorientation in listening these days: Elitist condescension about musical preferences isn’t cool anymore, but maybe—die-hard fans fear—obsessing and connecting over music are no longer cool either. Barry-types once used their taste to prop themselves above the less erudite, mainstream-minded listeners they mocked. Cherise, by contrast, just wants to chat about a song—and the consumer, cozy in a private digital bubble, decidedly does not.
That's kind of interesting, actually.
Cloistered listening has become more common, as Spotify and the omnipresent earbud turn an entire art form into an on-demand, all-you-can-stream personal utility. Meanwhile, many of the remaining gatekeepers have mellowed into “poptimists” who say Taylor Swift and Radiohead can be equally worthy of praise and exegesis.
Oh lord, give me strength... Well, after reading the rest, all I can say is that if there is any snobbery there it is very small calibre indeed.

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Did you ever wonder why you write or create music? Here is a list that is remarkably different from the one I came up with a few posts back. It is from NewMusicBox: IN PRAISE OF UNREMARKABLE MUSIC: PART 1.
Why did you start writing music? Now, what do you hope to accomplish? This year? This decade? By the end of your life?
In response to these questions, you might envision your music’s success according to a variety of measures:
  • The awards, press, and publicity it receives.
  • The size of audiences it attracts.
  • The money it makes.
  • The joy you had in creating it.
  • The degree to which it meets a performer’s need or fits their skill level.
  • The experience shared by those in the room when it is performed.
  • The appraisal of your colleagues and other connoisseurs.
  • The social impact it has.
Really? I mean, really? Well, this explains a lot. Here is what I wrote about why and how I compose:
I was trying to explain to someone how one goes about composing a piece of music and described it in these terms: While it would be nice if everyone enjoyed it and gave me lots of money, that is actually completely irrelevant to the art object itself and the act of creating it. If you are trying to guess what will sell, you might or might not create something that will sell, but you will almost certainly create something that is not a good piece of music. Mind you, I am still puzzling over the strange nexus of the creative originality AND the commercial success of the Beatles. But let's set that aside!
If people like my music and want to perform it, I am delighted. If it communicates something important to them, I am delighted. If they perceive it as beautiful, or expressive, I am delighted. But I don't aim for any of these results when I am composing. I am trying to explore something about the nature of music, or one aspect of it. I am not trying to express how I am feeling at the moment, or generally. I am not trying to express my "philosophy." I am just trying to write a piece of music. I am trying to tread new ground, if I can find any. I am trying to see where a certain idea or sound leads. I am composing! Most of the time, the idea doesn't lead anywhere or proves to be empty or a feeble echo of some other piece of music. At that point, you throw it away and start again. There are lots of things that can provide an "inspiration" such as a random sound you hear, or a bird singing, or a strange rhythmic effect. Anything, really. But the inspiration is just a kind of happenstance.
Based on that, I am the most unsuccessful of composers! However, I doubt that most of the composers I personally admire were very much enslaved to those criteria.

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For our envoi, let's listen to the real pioneer of Beethoven symphonies on period instruments. Here is Roger Norrington conducting the London Classical Players in a 1989 recording of the Symphony No. 7:




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