Saturday, August 25, 2018

My Ramble on the The New Yorker's Survey of the "New-Music Landscape"

This week's The New Yorker includes a book review by Alex Ross that is identified in the table of contents as (oh how I remember the days when The New Yorker stood apart from all other magazines because it didn't have a table of contents) "Surveying the new-musical landscape." You can read it on page 81 of the magazine, or you can read it here. Oddly the link gives the title of the article as "the sounds of music in the twenty-first century," but what's in a title anyway, right?

The book review concerns Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. Like Ross, I know Rutherford-Johnson from his blog "The Rambler". Rutherford-Johnson has a post on his blog about the book that includes a table of contents, a short summary, and a link to a bunch of glowing reviews. The book looks interesting, and I do plan to read it.

From reading his blog from time to time over the years, I know Rutherford-Johnson is interested in a lot of music that I know little about, and have found that he doesn't write much about music that I am interested in, which is fine. There is much to know in this musical world. The menu is vast, and there is only so much room in any reasonable human stomach during any meal to consume more than a fraction of its (table of) contents at a time. And there are many restaurants in many cities, and in many towns.

Alex Ross says that Rutherford-Johnson's book has changed the way he listens to music. Wow. No book has ever done that for me.

Making the transition from living musical life as a flute player to living musical life as a violist changed the way I listen to music. As a flutist, and even as a violinist, I would listen from the top (which is so often the tune) down. Once I started playing viola in ensembles, I could actively listen to the treble from a position in the middle and to the bass from above. Even the most familiar music sounded completely different, and it drastically increased the dimension of my experience. Composing changes the way I listen to music because I can't help noticing the way other composers (both past and present) use the same elements of music I use, but in vastly different ways. Practicing Bach and Haydn on the piano also changes the way I listen to music, as well as the experience of playing the viola part of a familiar orchestral piece for the first time. Actually, every time.

Ross has sprinkled his review with the names of many female as well as male composers in this piece, even stating parenthetically, "The suffocating maleness of music history is at an end, even if the news has yet to reach most big-league orchestras and opera houses." One of these days Ross might "step out" and make the same statement without the "cloak" of parentheses. Still, it's a big leap from the days of The Rest is Noise, which I wrote a post about back in 2007. He even spends several paragraphs quoting Susan McClary. Even though I have a very different "world view" from McClary (she is an academic, I am a practicing musician), I appreciate Ross making mention of her.

He quotes McClary in relation to Steve Reich's "Different Trains," (written one year before the time Rutherford-Johnson has for the beginning of his survey). Ross says "Different Trains" "typifies the late-twentieth-century return to fundamentals--what McClary describes as 'composing for people.'"

If composers didn't compose for people before, who (or what) were they composing for?

There is a contemporary trend that some careerist composers (i.e. composers who want to make a living from composing and seek out commissions and partnerships that will keep them involved the musical "economic food chain") use to their benefit. It's the notion that music should be immediately accessible to audiences. In order to be that way it should be programmatic, and draw upon subject matter that can be explained, so that it makes the listening experience "relatable." Unfortunately the people who get left out of this equation can be the musicians themselves.

When music is written in a way that does not allow for physical grace and instrumental resonance, it is not a joy to practice, rehearse, or play. When the purpose of a musical gesture of phrase does not involve the creativity of the musicians who will be playing it (either by recognizing where it is compelled to go by the way it is written or by having a handful of equally good choices to make) what is printed on the page is merely an arrangement of pitches, rhythms, articulations, and dynamics with programmatic directions.

The minimalist repetitions that hypnotize listeners can cause tension in musicians (either from the movement or from not knowing if you are counting the repetitions correctly). In some situations complex rhythms can create tension without the opportunity for physical release. When that happens, the physical tension gets transferred to the people who are listening, and nobody has a good time.

I guess you could take McClary's comment in reference to the era that followed the prominence of strict twelve-tone music. It could easily be said that in the second part of the 20th century a lot of strict twelve-tone music (and other serial music) was written for the enjoyment of the composers who wrote it. Twelve-tone music is a lot of fun to write, and while you are in twelve-tone limbo land, where dissonance is good ("dissonance good") and consonance is to be avoided ("consonance bad"), lots of unusual and pleasurable things can happen, particularly at the keyboard, where the uniform tempered scale helps with consistency. Once you have an ensemble made of instruments that are not tempered like the piano, and once you take away any sense of tonic or dominant, playing in tune becomes a problem. You need a lot of rehearsal time to have a successful and rewarding performance.

Composers who end up writing music that is a joy to play, a joy to rehearse, and a joy to hear, are usually composers who write music for the pleasure of the musicians who will be playing it. It is the way it has always been, and as long as people blow into tubes, hit things, sing, and either draw horsehair across strings or pluck them, I believe it is the way it always will be.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Confessions of a Recovering Recovered CD Reviewer

I suppose that during the 23 twenty years I spent as a CD reviewer for the American Record Guide, my opinions about music were valid. I did listen carefully to all of the recordings I received, and I did always try to write statements that were true. How I managed write more than 50 reviews every year is a mystery to me.

I started reviewing while I working at the local university's radio station. During the Thanksgiving break of 1992, Michael and I went to the library to get a bunch of periodicals to read over the break. With a faculty card he could take periodicals out for more than one day. I remember that I got a few copies of The Strad and several issues of the American Record Guide, which I had never read.

I took issue with an essay written by the editor concerning "historically informed performance," and wrote him a long letter. He wrote back saying, "Too bad you can't write for us." I wrote back asking why I couldn't. A few weeks later a box of flute CDs and a style sheet arrived by mail. After a few months I asked if I could (please) have recordings other than flute recordings to review, and I became one of the chamber music reviewers.

I used to play the recordings I received to review on the air, where I could listen using high-quality speakers. It was actually an ideal situation because our (very small and underfunded) radio station could finally play brand new recordings of often unusual repertoire, providing an alternative to the repertoire of classical “hits” played by the other classical stations (well, we were classical in the morning) in our listening area. I donated some of the review copies to the station's library, and I put them into regular rotation, which made our library current and good (my goal for the radio station library was to have only excellent recordings to play). The writing, which took far more time than the listening, was something that I generally did at home, while raising two children and trying to learn to play a new instrument.

In 2000, when I left the radio station and went to graduate school (with a "grading" assistantship), things became far more difficult. I listened using headphones and a portable CD player, and I had to sandwich my review writing between marathon exam grading sessions and general graduate school work, in addition to composing and practicing. I suppose it was good practice for my days teaching music appreciation (which I was doing concurrently with private teaching and freelance orchestral playing, not to mention practicing and composing).

There were a few years when I also worked as the advertising manager for the magazine, a job that I wasn't at all cut out for, and it was then that I realized how much I disliked the whole business aspect of recordings. I was a little embarrassed when things I wrote in the ARG as "FINE" were quoted on people's websites and on CD covers. People also treated me differently when I was a reviewer. Famous people called me. Really.

I also had a CD storage problem, and an American Record Guide issue storage problem (we reviewers were supposed to make reference to old reviews). I dispensed with the plastic CD cases, and kept the CDs in large loose-leaf binders. Those still took up a great deal of shelf space. Since I rarely listened to those CDs for pleasure, they mostly sat there.

I stopped writing for the ARG a few years ago. I moved the books of CDs to the garage, where they sit undisturbed. I cut out the pages in the ARG issues that had my reviews, and put those pages in a zipped binder where they sit in the garage, next to the CD binders. I might even throw them away one of these days.

I mostly listen to live music now, and have made a point of going to more concerts. I do sometimes listen to music on the radio when I am in the car, and I do listen on YouTube now and again. Now that I don't have to make judgements about what I hear, I have a far greater appreciation for music than ever before.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sleep Thou

This "fruit" (or flower) of the summer of 2018 sat around in my "abandoned music" file for about four years. I wrote in response to a call for scores setting the lullaby that Tatania sings to Bottom in Act IV, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night's Dream for flute and soprano without accompaniment:
Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
Fairies, begone, and be all ways away.

[fairies exit]

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!

[they sleep]
It was not accepted by the performers, so I put it in a file and forgot about it.

My life this summer has been enhanced by vines (cucumber, zucchini, and tomato, mostly), and I found myself singing this song while working in the garden. I dusted it off and made a lot of improvements, and now I'm sharing it here.

You can listen to a computer-generated recording here, and you can find a PDF on this page of the IMSLP.

The songs mentions woodbine, which is another name for the the European kind of honeysuckle (Lonicera peliclymenum), and not the invasive Asian kind that is my nemesis.

And, just to be complete, here's a nice botanical drawing of some Ivy (I'm assuming the female parts are the little curly tendrils):

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Red Hot Dots for Five Violas or Four Violas and Bass

I'm sharing a brand-new polka written for viola ensemble or viola ensemble with double bass.

You can listen to the version for five violas here, and the version for four violas and bass here.

The music is available on this page of the IMSLP.

Composer Diversity Database

Here's an interesting new database tool to help find composers who are not necessarily male, not necessarily female, not necessarily white, not necessarily American, and not necessarily dead.

The project, created by Rob Deemer, is in its beginning stages, so I am putting the link here for future reference.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Marshall Fine's "Missouriana"

In honor and in memory of my brother, Marshall Fine, I'm posting his Missouriana, a delightful short piece for orchestra that he wrote in 1985. Here is what he wrote about piece:
Missouriana, op. 44, is based on Missouri folk themes and fiddle tunes, developed in my style without ever sacrificing the hoedown premise--not even in the fully worked-out fugue in the middle. I wrote it in 1985 for Hugo Vianello, who premiered it the next year, repeated it in the fateful year of 1989, and revived it again in 1994. Yet it is Alan Balter’s interpretation, done in 1989 with the MSO, that I find the best. It is also the first orchestral work that I committed to Sibelius notation; and Carl Fischer, who had published the manuscript original on a rental basis, was overjoyed when I submitted the printed score and parts to them in the spring of 2013.
Here is a link to a recording that could be from either the 1989 Memphis Symphony concert with Alan Balter conducting or the 1994 performance.

The score is available to look at at the Theodore Presser website. I have written to the company to ask them to make it available to be purchased or rented (they don't seem to have a way to do that through the page they have for the piece). I hope that they make the necessary adjustments so that the piece can have more performances.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

La roue

Michael and I spent a few evenings watching the 2008 reconstruction of Abel Gance's La roue (1923) with music by Robert Israel, and it was a remarkable experience. The idea of watching a four-hour-long silent movie put us off for several weeks, but once we started watching I knew those four hours would pass quickly. The film is so visually compelling, has such superb acting, and has such engaging music, some of the time did pass quickly, and some of the time didn't. In this "modern day" Sisyphus story the weight of the moment or the full emotional exploration of a situation at hand is part of the quality of the experience.

The film was first shown with Arthur Honegger supplying the music (I happily noticed the influence of Honegger's "Pacific 231,").

Robert Israel (who shares my birthday, though he is four years my junior), did a fantastic job writing music for the film. He incorporates all kinds of techniques that were around during the time of the film like Poulenc-ish harmonies, and nods to Honegger and his colleagues in "Les Six." There are also tone rows here and there, and a striking fugue during a train-platform fight. One of the characters is a violin maker, so there is a lovely violin-rich musical subtext which provides a late-19th-century contrast to the "modern" steam engine music that surrounds it. We do get some film-music memes, like nods to Hermann's "Vertigo" here and there. Israel also incorporates a familiar pavane, a verse of Josquin's "El Grillo," a momentary homage to Sarasate, and a modified 1812 Overture.

A thrilling moment for me came during the first hour of the film. The violin maker imagines what it would have been like to live as a violin maker in days of yore (with costumes that looked like they could be used in a Shakespeare play), and on his bench he happened to have a seven-string viola d'amore, which he picked up and played. The instrument looked very similar to my viola d'amore!

The viola d'amore was making the first of its "comebacks" during the early part of the 20th century, and was considered to be an ancient instrument. We now know, of course, that the seven-string instrument wasn't around during Shakespeare's time, but Gance probably loved the way the instrument looked and the name it had (another set of obsessions that the characters of the film "enjoy"), so he used it in the scene.

[Just as an aside, the viola d'amore has a flat back like a viol, and it can fit really well in a Renaissance-era consort.]

You can see the unrestored silent film (without music) on YouTube:

And you can watched a few clips there of the restored film with the Robert Israel score:

Here's one:

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Applying Julie Landsman's rhythmic subdivision to practicing Kreutzer Etude #1

Though they share a common register, viola playing and horn playing are different animals. But all musicians share some similar concerns, and Landsman's Caruso method of subdivision is extremely helpful for understanding the most difficult part of playing any instrument: knowing exactly when.

I found it interesting to watch her subdivide while her student was playing long notes. She was not subdividing in constant sixteenth notes,

but instead she was mixing subdivisions within the measure like this:

or this.

I put that kind of subdivision (why had I never thought of consciously mixing subdivisions within the measure before?) into great use with the Kreutzer Etude #1 today (shown here in its violin form):

Using the mixed sixteenth note subdivisions during the long notes helps with bow distribution, and dividing the beat before the shift, and then during the last beat of the measure into secure sixteenth notes gives the shifted-to note a definite place to be in time, which helps it secure a place to be on the fingerboard.

It also reduces fatigue, both physical and mental.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Julie Landsman Teaches the Carmine Caruso Method of Subdivision

I am deeply impressed with the way that Julie Landsman teaches, thinks, and expresses herself. I believe that everything she has to say can translate to the viola, in some way (and to any other instrument), so I'm sharing this first video here:

Here's a link to a page that has the whole series of videos.

And here she is in 1985 playing Schumann with Claude Frank:

(We violists play this piece too, so there is much to learn.)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Mary Jane Waltz

A favorite candy from my Boston-based childhood deserves a sweet piece of music to honor it.

The Mary Jane, a peanut-butter and molasses taffy, was invented by the Boston-based candy maker Charles N. Miller in 1914. In 1989 the Miller candy company was sold to Stark Candy, and the recipe and rights for the Mary Jane were sold to the NECCO candy company. NECCO made the candy in Revere, Massachusetts until the factory closed abruptly in July of 2018. This "Boston" waltz (with its slight hesitations) seems appropriate to celebrate the Boston-based treat.

You can listen to this piece here, and the score and parts are available on this page of the IMSLP.

You can learn more about the interesting history of the Mary Jane here.