Thursday, September 04, 2014

So much information, so little guidance

I was discussing the relative merits of the IMSLP with my non-computer-using father, and he pointed out that from what he has seen (i.e. what I have shown him), it has long lists of composers without any means of distinguishing the quality of one from the quality of the other. The library is excellent for looking up pieces by composers you already know or finding pieces for a particular instrumentation or from a particular country, but separating the great from the good in the IMSLP does indeed take considerable time, considerable knowledge, and considerable skill. Like any physical library, you really don't know what you have unless you remove a book from a shelf and begin to read.

Unlike a dipping into a physical library of books, reading music is a specialized skill. Consider the plight of a person fluent in a Germanic or Romance language or two being asked to separate the great from the good (or the lousy) in a library that only had books in Asian languages. That is akin to the plight of a person who is unable to read music trying to evaluate what s/he finds in the IMSLP.

The ability to separate the great from the good (and the good from the lousy) really requires a person to play pieces of music in real time. Keyboard music and songs with keyboard accompaniment can be played and evaluated by a single person, but many pieces can only really be evaluated by getting a group of people together and reading the music. That requires logistics, as well as the "carrot" of something wonderful like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, or Schubert to get the most out of the experience of actually playing together.

I have found some great music in the IMSLP. I have tried to get people interested in music I have found in the IMSLP by way of my blog, or by telling friends about it. Some people follow through, and some people do not. I have a feeling that some people see no hurry to follow through because they understand that the music will always be available from anywhere for free. Sometimes not being in a hurry translates into never getting around to it.

I am very lucky that my pianist friend, John David, loves to read through lesser-known pieces he finds on the ISMLP (and through interlibrary loan). He has always been interested in off-the-beaten-path music, so the IMSLP is a perfect playground for him. We get a particular kick out of performing our "finds" for dozens of people who marvel at the fact that they never knew about any of the composers we "dig up" (with the press of a button or two).

There's the huge amount of new music being written every day, the difficulty of finding places to play (with a decent piano) and audiences to play for, and the dearth of musically-literate journalists to write honestly about what they hear increases the effort of playing new music. Dedicated music journalists (reviewers), along with publishers (from the days when publishers were the main way music was distributed), were the trusted musical "gatekeepers." I'm not exactly sure who the "gatekeepers" are these days, but I have observed that they are often associated with "legitimate" publications, both online and in print. When I say (or really write) something as a reviewer for the American Record Guide (and I have had several CD reviews in every issue during the last 25 or so years), people tend to pay attention. When I write something as the keeper of this blog (which will be ten years old in February), people tend to think of me as a potential buyer for one of their products or services.

Now that we have this unheard of amount of musical material at our fingertips (literally), and we have more people than ever with the technical ability to play it, we need more in the way of specialized music education to help organize it, and more people willing to devote resources towards performing it. But reality rears its ugly head, and college classes in music appreciation are being eliminated because students are not interested in spending their time and money learning about music that doesn't matter to them already. Those who do have an interest in such things will just have to learn on their own.


Lisa Hirsch said...

But looking back, it's so easy to see how much the "trusted musical 'gatekeepers'" missed, because there's just so much music you can hear, and because so many good or great composers just aren't or weren't programmed.

Someone I trust writing on a blog is just as dependable as - actually, often more dependable than -people writing in newspapers. The key really is trust.

Elaine Fine said...

. . . and even more so, the key is competent people not getting discouraged from participating in the musical blogosphere.

gus said...

Thank you for bringing up the fascinating issue of "good" verses" "great" music. For many years I have wrestled with how to incorporate "second tier" (for lack of a better term) music into my musical life. In truth, I have always had more of an affection for it than many of my friends. I was always the guy at string quartet get-togethers who wanted to tryout Spohr Quartets. Such a request was usually met with eye-rolling; "there he goes again" I imagined they were thinking..."off on one of his mediocre composer jags"...

What my friends didn't realize is that my motivation was really an attempt to atone for something from my past that haunts me to this very day.

I describe this sad incident in my culinary-musical blog:

Please don't think I post this link out of bravado. I share it only because it seems to be compliment the ideas brought up in your post.

Plus, it lets the readers of this blog know where to go if they ever find themselves in Milwaukee hungry for good Chinese "takeout"...

Lisa Hirsch said...

There's a lot of excellent music out there not written by the absolute top tier of composers. That music needs and deserves to be heard, for all sorts of reasons: it's good stuff, and it gives us context for the greatest composers.

gus said...

Agreed. Among those who are not "top-tier" are composers like (off the top of my head) Boismortier, Corette, and Boccherini. There are thousands more...those three are just a start as I'm standing on one foot...

Mention of Boccherini brings to mind this: last week I played string quintets with a group that has been together for 35 years. Needless to say, these wonderful people are not in their first flush of youth. For them, the only string quintets to play are the Mozart quintets. If I had suggested that we venture into some Boccherini territory, I suspect that the suggestion would not have been greeted with not much enthusiasm.

To string players of their generation, (I'm not quite there yet) when you play chamber music, you only play the "top tier" composers. Unfortunately, in this situation, I do believe that my friends were not making a sound decision. The G minor a C major Mozart viola quintets are wonderful...but many of the others are not as impressive. I would go so far as to say that there are Boccherini quintets that are more diverting than some of the lesser Mozarts.

But I was the junior member of the ensemble, and a guest as well.

So I kept my trap shut.

Elaine Fine said...

I had Boccherini quintets on my mind when I made this post, Gus! And I think that Spohr was a terrific quartet composer.

Elaine Fine said...

. . . and your Dittersdorf faux pas is amusing. I used to make fun of his name all the time. My father used to play a concerto for viola and bass by Dittersdorf, and we used to call my younger brother Richard "Ditter" as a result of our fun with the name. Richard's response, "Don't call me Ditter." I was very impressed when I actually listened to his music. There are some fantastic Dittersdorf symphonies based on scenes from Ovid's Metamorphosis.

gus said... looks like we may need to form a Ditters von Dittersdorf Society.

I played the viola-bass concerto a generation ago with a buddy. I still have fond memories of the piece. Completely charming; and what better combination is there than bass and viola?

And look here:

I wasn't aware of these...perfect repertoire for my high school-aged viola students. I can hack away at the bass-cello part; a nice new chunk of repertoire for student and teacher alike.

The advantage of lots of "2nd tier" music is that it is useful as well as charming. This sometimes can't be said about first-rate stuff. That sort of high art is so busy being a masterpiece that sometimes it presents some dangers; it carries around lots of emotional baggage that sometimes isn't constructive. As a kid, I always felt that if I messed up Mozart or Brahms, I was committing some sort of moral-artistic crime.

Mangling up Dittersdorf seems more of a faux-pas than a capital crime.

As a matter of fact, I have the feeling that Mr. Ditters would probably be happy that to know that his delightful craft is being rescued from complete obscurity and being placed on the music matter how it is played.

Respectfully submitted,


Corresponding Secretary (self-elected)

International Ditters von Dittersdorf Society