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Friday Miscellanea

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Friday Miscellanea

Why do standing ovations now seem obligatory?

Over my lifetime, the cultural norm of standing ovations has gone from rare to common, which makes it hard to acknowledge an actual masterpiece. The now ever-present standing ovation seems to be part of the performance rather than a mark of appreciation for it. Has there been a single “Hamilton” show that did not get an ovation? 

Indeed, it often feels as if the standing ovation is anticipated before the first line is spoken or the first note sung. Maybe it’s steep ticket prices that create a self-fulfilling prophecy; a performance has to be great to justify spending a week’s pay on a night out. Perhaps it just makes for a better selfie if you are standing at the end of a performance. Or it’s done unreflectively because performances can be staged in such a way as to manipulate this response. It’s also possible this phenomenon is an extension of the “everyone gets a trophy” culture. And if today’s audience grew up knowing only standing ovations, then this behavior can seem as appropriate to them as knowing not to clap between movements at the symphony feels to my generation.

I think it also relates to the general decline in critical thinking which is now perceived as negative and hence bad. We don't need any stinkin' criticism! Also, a standing ovation makes the event more special and that fits with our feeling that we are super special. Sometimes though I think that everyone stands up at the end to get a head-start at getting out of the theater or reclaiming their coat at the coat check booth.

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Ted Gioia is off on more gnostic nattering this week: In this section from my new book, I unlock the secret history of the conductor. Even the little stick they hold is much stranger than you think.

Why do some musicians get called conductors? That’s a little odd, no? A conductor is a person who takes you on a journey—you find them on trains and buses. Their job description is a little vague, but they’re supposed to get us to the destination safely and on time.

But we learned something curious back in chapter one, namely that the oldest book in Europe describes extraordinary musicians exactly like that, powerful singers whose songs keep us safe and guide us on dangerous journeys.

Even stranger, this tradition can be found everywhere in the world. The most famous conductor of this sort was Orpheus, who in the well-known myth actually conducts a dead person back to the realm of the living. But there are hundreds of similar stories from various cultures, and they almost always involve music.

Is anyone else uncomfortable with Ted Gioia's claiming to know the secret history of something that he also claims "can be found everywhere in the world"?

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Taking a very different kind of approach is Popular Science with Who invented music?

Scientists will probably never be able to credit one person, or even a group of people, with music’s invention. But as a musicologist–that’s someone who studies the history of music–I’ve seen many artifacts and much evidence that can help us understand how and why the ancients played music. 

Some scholars say singing was the first kind of musical sound. Not that people back then were crooning full-length songs. Instead, they made simpler vocal sounds–perhaps just a few notes put together. If that’s true, perhaps early humans began to speak and sing at about the same time.

Why did they sing? Maybe they had an impulse to imitate something beautiful, like bird sounds. Vocal imitations of other animal sounds, however, may have been used for hunting, like a modern-day duck call.

Yes, this is just an essay introducing the ancient history of music for popular consumption--but the underlying assumptions are interesting. First of all is the idea that scientists should take up the historical problem of the origins of music. Scientists are not historians, after all, with an entirely different set of skills and techniques. Here they are offering archeological data, such as carbon-dating, to a historian. The problem, of course, is that this is not history, which relies on written accounts, but pre-history, which does not. So everything here is 100% pure speculation. No, we really don't know if singing was the first kind of musical sound--it could have been drumming. Nor do we know what early humans sang and for what purpose. We don't have a single, solitary piece of evidence. This is neither history nor science of course, just untethered imaginings.

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From the New York Times: Vaughan Williams: Complicated, but Not Quite Conservative.

Especially in the 1920s and ’30s, Vaughan Williams was amply capable of wielding ferocious, dissonant violence, most sardonically in his Fourth Symphony; Bartok admired his percussive Piano Concerto. His modal vocabulary, flecked with pentatonic and other outré accents, could be profoundly ambiguous — sometimes stark, as in “Job,” a ballet in all but name, and sometimes discomforting, as in the otherworldly Sixth. Even the “Lark,” for all its pastoral popularity, has an indeterminate form and a sense of “sonic freedom,” Saylor writes.

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Here is an interesting video clip:


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 Sometimes it is necessary to state the obvious: Taylor Swift Will Always Be Bigger Than AI
Consider music. If Taylor Swift’s or Beyonce’s songs had been made by a software program, with no star at the microphone, would they be nearly as popular? It is no accident that Taylor Swift has more than 227 million Instagram followers — her fans want more than just the music, and that extra something (at least so far) has to be supplied by a living, breathing human being.

In the world of the visual arts, too, collectors are often buying the story as much as the artist. Even the experts have trouble distinguishing a real Kasimir Malevich painting from a fake (he painted abstract black squares on a white background, with a minimum of detail). The same image and physical item, when connected to the actual hand of the artist, is worth millions — but if shown to be a fake, it counts for zero.

For me agency is important: AI has no human agency so we need to look at the agency of the programmers. At the base of all creativity is some form of human agency. Well, with the exception of God, of course.

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Looks like an investment of $550,000,000 did actually improve the acoustics of the new Geffen Hall: After Decades, the Philharmonic’s Hall Sounds and Feels More Intimate.

On Wednesday, the Philharmonic’s first subscription program in the space, the third movement of John Adams’s “My Father Knew Charles Ives” demonstrated that magical orchestral alchemy in a superb hall: the way dozens of musicians playing softly can feel huge. A low growl in the basses was palpable, not just audible. At quiet dynamics throughout the evening — like the brooding opening of the catacombs section of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” and the ambiguous haze of Tania León’s “Stride” — the sound was glistening and lucid.

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From the American Scholar: If the American symphony orchestra is to survive, it must rewired and reengineered

But orchestras’ activities are proscribed in union-negotiated contracts that need to be paid whether an orchestra is performing or not. The modern orchestra contract is breathtakingly inflexible in what it will and won’t allow, spelling out in painstaking detail the rules about rehearsing, performing, recording, and working that govern institutional life. In other words, the modern orchestra’s legacy operating system has become so encrusted with lines of code that it is wheezing under the strain of trying to compete in contemporary culture. Alas, what might have been an opportunity to rethink a creaky institutional model was instead largely regarded as accommodation to pandemic disruption until the return of a pre- Covid norm. One that may no longer exist.

Read the whole thing.

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Of course we need to listen to Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony. The performance starts at around the 2:50 mark:


 Here is a lovely performance of the Gesualdo Six at Wigmore Hall. The concert starts at the 4:00 mark:


And here is a performance by Pablo Márquez of one of the greatest guitar pieces:




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