Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What is happening to my students?

I just finished grading a class of music appreciation exams. I have given pretty much the same exam on the baroque period for several semesters. Usually students do pretty well on this exam if they have been paying attention in class, have taken notes, and have listened to the music outside of class at least once. The class is a community college class so there is a wide range of ability. It is a true cross section of rural society. There are very few older students in this particular class this semester (the older students are almost always good students). Most of them are between 18 and 20 years old.

The average grade on this exam came out to 57 out of 100 points. In previous semesters the average grade for this exam was almost 20 points higher. I don't think that this has much to do with my teaching. If anything I am getting better with practice and experience. The only conclusion I can come to is that there is something dreadfully wrong, and I think that it, in light of the previous Stravinsky post, it has something to do with people having access to too much technology at too young an age.

I came across these excerpts from Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect our Children's Minds--for Better and Worse, and thought that they would be nice to share with other people who might be having similar frustrations with their college students.

Of course there are fine uses for computers (e-mail, blogging, finding information, reading news, using music notation programs), but I see far too many "computer generation" college students who, because of the encouragement of their schools, parents, teachers, and the computer-selling marketplace, have never developed the skills necessary to do the things they have to do the slow way. And I'm trying to get them to listen to music. What do I think I am doing?

The young people that can think, do read, know how to study, and can write well are like lighthouses in the middle of a vast and foggy sea.

Stravinsky's words from 1936 still ring true

This is from Stravinsky's 1936 Autobiography.
In the domain of music the importance and influence of its dissemination by mechanical means, such as the record and the radio--those redoubtable triumphs of modern science which will probably undergo still further development--make them worthy of the closest investigation. The facilities that they offer to composers and executants alike for reaching great numbers of listeners, and the opportunities that they give to those listeners of acquainting themselves with works they have not heard, are obviously indisputable advantages. But one must not overlook the fact that such advantages are attended by serious danger. In John (sic) Sebastian Bach's day it was necessary for him to walk ten miles to a neighboring town to hear Buxtehude play his works. Today anyone, living no matter where, has only to turn a knob or put on a record to hear what he likes. Indeed it is in just this incredible facility, this lack of necessity for any effort, that the evil of this so-called progress lies. For in music, more than in any other branch of art, understanding is given only to those who make an active effort. Passive receptivity is not enough. To listen to certain combinations of sound and automatically become accustomed to them does not necessarily imply that they have been heard and understood. For one can listen without hearing, just as one can look without seeing. The absence of active effort and the liking acquired for this facility make for laziness. The radio has got rid of the necessity which existed in Bach's day for getting out of one's armchair. Nor are listeners any longer impelled to play themselves, or to spend time on learning an instrument in order to acquire a knowledge of musical literature. The wireless and the gramophone do all that . And thus the active faculties of listeners, without which one cannot assimilate music, gradually become atrophied from lack of use. This creeping paralysis entails very serious consequences. Oversaturated with sounds, blasé even before combination of the utmost variety, listeners fall into a kind of torpor which deprives them of all power of discrimination and makes them indifferent to the quality of the pieces presented. It is more than likely that such irrational overfeeding will make them lose all appetite and relish for music. There will, of course, always be exceptions, individuals who will know how to select from the mass those things that appeal to them. But for the majority of listeners there is every reason to fear that, far from developing a love and understanding of music, the modern methods of dissemination will have a diametrically opposite effect--that is to say, the production of indifference, inability to understand, to appreciate, or to undergo any worthy reaction.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Lebrecht's "The Life and Death of Classical Music"

I have been reading the galley of Norman Lebrecht's new book The Life and Death of Classical Music, which is scheduled to come out April 10th. It is published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, and will be available just about everywhere.

I like reading Lebrecht because he is such a good writer, but I fear that he has pieced together a scenario about the death of classical music based on only the most visible aspects of upper echelons of the commercial market. Like The Maestro Myth and Who Killed Classical Music, this book is a serious (and very revealing) expose of the people and entities that push money around and make big decisions in the corporate levels of the classical music world. This book covers Lebrecht's view of the recording business from the beginning of commercial recordings until as close as he could get to the present before going to press. I have no doubt that much of what Lebrecht writes about is true, but he has chosen, while playing the role of classical music's coroner, to marginalize a good deal of what I find positive about recent developments in the business of recording and, by extension, classical music.

His list of the 100 most important recordings, or as he puts it "Milestones of Recorded History" does include some important recordings, but his list seems to concentrate on recordings put out by the biggest of the big league labels: Columbia (CBS), EMI, RCA, DGG, Decca, Nonesuch (Warner), London, Philips, and Teldec. There are single entries for record labels that I consider quite important: Hyperion, Supraphon, Vox, Telefunken, Wergo, Chandos, Harmonia Mundi, Naxos (!!!!), and Erato, and single entries for smaller labels who have recorded "name brand" musicians; Arte Nova, LSO Live, and Onyx. Most of the recordings are from "back in the day" (before the current century and digital recording technologies), and most of the recordings are orchestral recordings, operas, and recordings of big choral works. He does include Milstein's 1973 solo Bach, David Monroe's Ecco la Primavera, Glenn Gould's Bach Goldberg Variations, and a bunch of other recordings that are of undisputed importance, but I am surprised how little chamber music he has on his list.

I have been reviewing chamber music recordings for the American Record Guide for 14 years, and I worked as the classical music director for a radio station for 13 years. I spend a lot of time listening to and playing chamber music. My list of the 100 most important recordings would be very different from Lebrecht's, as would many of the people who will be part of the book's first audience. Lebrecht's list of the 20 worst recordings is quaint. He has obviously not heard some of the recordings that I have heard.

In eulogizing classical music Lebrecht might actually be generating more interest in the market for classical recordings, particularly the ones on his list. When I first got my hands on the galley I went directly to Lebrecht's list. Who wouldn't? And who wouldn't be curious to hear the recordings he finds so important? He gives excellent cases for their quality, and interesting stories about the circumstances surround their existence as recordings. Who wouldn't want to hear the recordings on his list of worst recordings?

We'll see what happens after the book comes out in April. Knowing the scandals and the corporate history of the honchos in the recording business might actually get people interested in classical music that have never been interested in it before. I'm looking forward to the excitement.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Art of the States

Thorance at Classical Noise has a link to this very interesting (and useful) site called Art of the States. This site is dedicated to making performances of new and not-so-new music written by well-known and lesser-known American composers available on line.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Embracing the way "classical music" is changing

In light of all of the things I have been reading about the death of classical music, I have no choice but to acknowledge the way musical reality has changed during the last 100 years, and since I am in this musical life for the duration, I have chosen to look at the positive ways classical music has changed and is continuing to change. The alternative is to accept what is only a commercial death, in a world where success is often measured in money, as the death of an aural picture of the human experience throughout recorded history, and something I feel is the ultimate vehicle for personal expression and interaction. Here are a few things I choose to be positive about:

1. Tonality is back, but our attitude towards tonality is different from the way it was before atonality, for a short time, became the only acceptable musical language to use when writing new "classical" music. Musical possibilities have exploded exponentially because of what we have learned from dodecophiles and experimental composers who dared, and still dare, to think "out of the box." We also claim to be a post gender and post ethnic society, which reflects the attitudes (at least the attitudes that we acknowledge ) we have towards our composers.

2. We have access to more music than we have ever had before, or really we should have. It is not even possible anymore to know all of the literature from the Classical Period (c. 1730-1820), because there is so much music from that period (as well as its outer edges like Scarlatti and J.C. Bach at the front and the people who kept the classical spirit alive in the middle and later 19th century at the back) available on recordings. The powers that label periods have even pushed the beginning of the classical period back to 1730. We used to think it started in 1750. Thirty years ago we learned musicians all thought we knew the classical literature, but now we know that we only saw and heard the very tip of the iceberg. Music from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages that took lifetimes of research to find and transcribe is now published in modern notation, and record labels have made special efforts to record as much of it as possible. If you want to hear something by Alfonso X, all you have to do is click on a mouse. If you want to buy the recording, it will make it to your doorstep in a day or two. And then there's Youtube.

3. Maybe it is because of better teaching, sharing of information, better student instruments, or more available practice time, but there are an awful lot of young people who play extremely well. There are more excellent young players around than when I was a teenager thirty years ago. Because of this population explosion among musicians, there are a huge number of extremely good professional chamber music groups that have been able to record, tour successfully, and live up to the claims of their promotional material. Classical music no longer means "orchestral music."

4. There are people who have chosen to specialize on "unusual" instruments like the bass clarinet or the contrabassoon, and there are musicians who have have created ensembles that have unusual combinations of instruments. In order to have music to play they have to commission music from composers. If that isn't progress, I don't know what is. And it is great for those of us who enjoy the challenge of writing music for new combinations of instruments.

5. The commercial classical recording "industry" is in bad shape, but recordings are things. Actually recordings are quickly losing their "thing" status and becoming sequences of computer data. There is a whole lot of music making that never sees the inside of a recording studio and never gets marketed as either a thing or a sequence of computer data. Maybe some day in the not-too-distant future young people will find the idea of hearing unamplified music in a live performance space something novel, interesting, and meaningful. Maybe fifty years from now we will all laugh at the thought of people only listening to music by way of MP3 files on ipods. Maybe people will wake up and realize that amplified sounds are inferior to acoustic sounds. Maybe, when they find that digital experience is no longer as meaningful as the music "industry" led them to believe it should be, people who were not exposed to live music when they were young will search for substance in their lives and start seeking out live performances.

Pope: Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
Heraclitus: The only thing that is permanent is change.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Jacqueline Du Pre plays the violin

Don't miss this part of the film about the Trout Quintet performance and the long peek into the green room. Du Pre and Perlman switch instruments and play one another's parts (from memory, and probably for the first time) while Mehta plays the piano, and Barenboim plays the bass (also from memory). Zukerman, the lowly violist, is off camera playing his own part.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

When they were just a bunch of kids

Here's a portion of a film about a London performance of the Schubert Trout Quintet that is preceded by a whole bunch of backstage antics by Perlman, Zukerman, Mehta, Du Pre, and Barenboim. We even get to see and hear Perlman playing the Flight of the Bumblebee on the cello.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Stravinsky at Bayreuth

From Stravinsky's Autobiography:
The very atmosphere of the theatre, its design and its setting, seemed lugubrious. It was like a crematorium, and a very old-fashioned one at that, and one expected to see the gentleman in black who had been entrusted with the task of singing the praises of the departed. The order to devote oneself to contemplation was given by a blast of trumpets. I sat humble and motionless, but at the end of a quarter of an hour I could bear no more. My limbs were numb and I had to change my position. Crack! Now I had done it! My chair had made a noise which drew down on me the furious scowls of a hundred pairs of eyes. Once more I withdrew into myself, but I could think of only one thing, and that was the end of the act which would put and end to my martyrdom. At last the intermission arrived, and I was rewarded by two sausages and a glass of beer. But hardly had I had time to light a cigarette when the trumpet blast sounded again, demanding another period of contemplation. Another act to be got through, when all my thoughts were concentrated on my cigarette, of which I had had barely a whiff. I managed to bear the second act. Then there were more sausages, more beer, another trumpet blast, another period of contemplation, another act -- finis!"
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Saturday, February 17, 2007

12-tone natural history

I found this video on Roger Bourland's blog. The unnamed composer of the music for this film about natural history by Jan Svankmajer wrote a lively group of variations on a 12-tone theme, using dances to correspond to each group of creatures from the animal kingdom. I'd love to know who wrote the music.

(Did anyone else notice that the unnamed composer seems to have become a kind of recurring theme in many of these blog posts?)

Svankmajer's other films on youtube, like this one, are also fantastic, in the literal sense of the word.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Why I Love Kreutzer: true confessions of a practice addict

I admit it. I have been spending more time with Kreutzer these days than I have with either Sevcik or Dounis. The thing about practicing Kreutzer is that I feel like I am getting stronger and improving with every etude I practice. I guess every violinist and violist has his or her favorites. Here are mine (doing these takes about an hour for me):

I always start by playing #2 legato to tame my tendency to squeak on the open E, and then I do it with various articulations of the day to keep up the coordination between my fingers and bow. I find that applying Sevcik articulations works really well--and unlike Sevcik, Kreutzer makes you shift while working on bowing.

I also love #5 because it is in E flat major and in triplets: I can apply Sevcik bowings and work my fourth finger at the same time. I do #1 in order to work those vibrato muscles and to work on regulating my bow speed, but not every day. #6 and #7 are great for Martele, and #8 is great for all kinds of Dounis-inspired bowing alterations. It ends up sounding and feeling like a totally different etude with different combinations of slurred and separate notes.

Nothing works the fourth finger and the bow arm for me like #9. I do it beginning up-bow and beginning down-bow. It also gives me the mental space to concentrate on the structure of my left hand and making correct and careful bow changes. I also always practice #13 for the strength of my left hand position and clarity of string crossings.

For trills I can't live without #16. I can live without #17, but I do practice it sometimes. #19 is great for Dounis-type shifting, though it is not the most musically-inspired of the caprices. I alternate between it and 21 and 22, which always seems long. I guess that it's hard to write trill etudes that are interesting.

I imagine that 24 is a good octave etude, but I find that practicing scales in octaves is more useful. #33 and 34 are great for double stops, and #38 is really pretty.

I would love to hear some thoughts about some others that I don't practice. One of these days I'll need to start doing something new or something in a new way.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Mozart Requiem Basketball Shoe Commercial

Just as I was leaving the gym this morning I heard the Lacrimosa from the Mozart Requiem coming from the large television set that is always set on the sports channel. I had to stop to figure out what was going on, and I now understand, because of a commercial that is no longer available on YouTube, why people are so emotional about watching basketball.

I started thinking about the idea of basketball fans responding to this commercial (it ended up being a commercial for sneakers, specifically XX2 Air Jordans) and I decided to give a bit of encouragement to those people who might have been moved enough by the music to do an internet search.

So for all the basketball fans who have made it to this blog in search of the music for that remarkable commercial, I welcome you. I now understand your passion for basketball through my passion for Mozart. It is my hope that you might understand my passion (and lots of other people's passion) for Mozart through your love of basketball. I can't think of a better introduction to the miracle of music than the Mozart Requiem. You have your choice of many to buy online. Price isn't an issue with classical music recordings (unlike basketball shoes), so a less expensive recording on a lesser-known label could be just as rewarding as a more expensive recording on a better-known label.

UPDATE: A big thanks to the person who let all of us know (by way of a comment here ) that the Mozart Requiem recording used for the commercial was performed by Andreas Delfs conducting the St. Olaf Choir and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.