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Friday Miscellanea

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Friday Miscellanea

I don't usually do obituaries here, and I won't now, but I do want to mention that George Crumb just passed away at 92 years: How George Crumb became one of America's most surprisingly consequential composers
Crumb may not have been well known outside of new-music circles, but he mattered beyond those perimeters. In 1970 alone, he composed two new pieces that had sweeping implications, continue to resonate and challenge, and sound maybe even more radical and rational now than they did a half-century ago.

One was the string quartet “Black Angels: Thirteen Images From the Dark Land,” written, as Crumb indicated on his graphically arresting score, “in tempore belli (in time of war)” and “Finished Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970.” The Vietnam War raged, and the composer, for the first time in any major string quartet, invoked the horror of modern warfare, exposed the precipitous fall from grace inherent in battle and proposed a path for spiritual redemption. 
The other propitious work from 1970, and Crumb’s most famous, was “Ancient Voices of Children” for soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, electric piano and percussion. Intoxicated by Federico García Lorca, Crumb devoted much of his music in the 1960s to unusual settings that accentuated the sheer strangeness of the Spanish poet. He said he was drawn to Lorca’s essential concerns, in all their nuances, with primary things: “life, death, love, the smell of the earth, the sounds of the wind and the sea.”

Crumb had a quality of evocation that was lacking in most post-WWII avant-garde composers.

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Thomas Wolf comments: Why Should We Listen to Old Recordings (or Any Recordings for That Matter)?

One of the reasons I listen to old recordings more often than I listen to modern ones is to appreciate the range of performance styles that have existed over the last hundred years.  Today, of course, technical perfection is an overriding concern.  But there are other aspects of performance practice today, some of which are wonderful but others I find distracting after comparing them to recordings of certain of my favorite musicians of the past.  For example, I have a particular interest in string chamber ensembles (string quartets, quintets, sextets, string orchestras, etc.) and find that many musicians active today tend to over-exaggerate accents as well as over-dramatize the swelling on long notes or notes before a cadence. Alex Ross of the New Yorker noted the same trend among today’s orchestra conductors—what he called in a recent article, “the prevailing fashion these days (to) vie with one another to see who can drive ahead most impetuously and jab at accents most aggressively.”

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Researchers travel to the remote Hindu Kush to discover how culture influences how we listen:

When we listen to music, we rely heavily on our memory of the music we’ve heard throughout our lives. People around the world use different types of music for different purposes. And cultures have their own established ways of expressing themes and emotions through music, just as they have developed preferences for certain musical harmonies. Cultural traditions shape which musical harmonies convey happiness and – up to a point – how much harmonic dissonance is appreciated. Think, for example, of the happy mood of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun and compare it to the ominous harshness of Bernard Herrmann’s score for the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

There is quite a lot in the article. For example:

To our astonishment, the only thing the western and the non-western responses had in common was the universal aversion to highly dissonant chords. The finding of a lack of preference for consonant harmonies is in line with previous cross-cultural research investigating how consonance and dissonance are perceived among the Tsimané, an indigenous population living in the Amazon rainforest of Bolivia with limited exposure to western culture. Notably, however, the experiment conducted on the Tsimané did not include highly dissonant harmonies in the stimuli. So the study’s conclusion of an indifference to both consonance and dissonance might have been premature in the light of our own findings.

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She Used to Sing Opera:

Now that years have passed since I stopped, I don’t mind telling people that I trained to be an opera singer. I used to be ashamed of it, though I’m not sure what exactly felt shameful – the admission that I’d once wanted to be part of that world or the fact that I’d failed. Even now, I’m careful always to say briefly – I briefly trained to be an opera singer – because I want to make it sound like it was all a very long time ago and didn’t mean much to me anyway, and I often find myself putting on an expression of generic self-deprecation when I say it too, like, yeah, mad I know.

There are some interesting observations:

When you go to watch an opera like Bohème in a big opera house, there’s an unavoidable irony: in so many of these works – from The Marriage of Figaro to Tosca to Wozzeck – money, disempowerment (particularly of woman) and social inequality are repeated themes, and yet the contexts they’re so often seen in – at large opera houses with expensive tickets and dressed-up audiences – are rich and privileged. The rituals surrounding going to operas, its entire reputation as an art form, seem to me now so at odds with the spirit of the stories and the music.

I can remember feelings like this at the disjunction between the texts of some works and the formality of the dress of the performers. But I'm afraid that a lot of the experience recounted, the disappointments, are sadly very usual in music schools.

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The London Review of Books has a fascinating review of two books about a very important group of women that essentially rescued ethics from the dismissive clutch of positivism. Yes, I know this is a tad outside our usual stomping ground, but we do notice philosophy from time to time.

According to Ayer, only two kinds of statement are meaningful: (1) statements about the world that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by experience, and (2) analytic statements that are true simply in virtue of the logic of our language. This excludes all theological and metaphysical statements, and also, importantly, all moral judgments. The statement that stealing is wrong can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by experience, nor is it true by definition. It is neither true nor false, and can only be understood as an expression of emotion – in this case, antagonism to stealing. There is in consequence no such subject as ethics, if that means the search for true moral principles.

Whew, that's a pretty nasty position to be in. But luckily some begged to differ:

The content-neutral analysis of moral language fails at the linguistic level, but that is because the disconnect between fact and value on which it is based is false, and our language recognises this. The names of the virtues and vices refer to qualities that contribute to a good or bad life, which is not a subjective matter, but a consequence of what humans need to live well – a consequence of human nature.

The article and the concepts in it are complex, but it is worth noting that one of the women, Elizabeth Anscombe, wrote a paper, "Modern Moral Philosophy," that became the originator of virtue ethics, one of the most important streams of thinking on moral philosophy.

* * *

The astonishingly productive Ted Gioia has a piece on seven albums from seven unlikely places.

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Over at The New Yorker, Alex Ross weighs in on Spotify: Reasons to Abandon Spotify That Have Nothing to Do with Joe Rogan

It is good to see Spotify suffer, at least in the short term. The Swedish streaming service has fostered a music-distribution model that is singularly hostile to the interests of working musicians. It pays out, on average, an estimated four-tenths of a cent per stream, meaning that a thousand streams nets around four dollars. That arrangement has reaped huge profits for major labels and for superstars while decimating smaller-scale musical incomes—as perfect an embodiment of the winner-takes-all neoliberal economy as has yet been devised.

Read the whole thing. 

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Obviously we need some George Crumb. Here is Black Angels for electric string quartet. One of Crumb's most distinctive qualities as a composer was the remarkable graphic aspect of his scores.



And here is an historic recording of Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven, Piano Sonata op 13:


And while we are on piano music, here is the Opening of Glassworks by Philip Glass:





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