Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Open Response to "The Death of Classical Music?" Segment from TV-2 News

I am very troubled by misinformation, and when that misinformation is dissemination through lack of understanding and education, I feel it falls upon the public to correct that which is false. This is especially true when it appears in the form of a news-broadcast. Below are my responses to a TV-2 segment titled; "The Death of Classical Music?" which I felt warranted some comment. The critique is not meant as a detraction against those responsible for the broadcast, it is simply directed at the broadcast itself.

Classical music has had a steady decline in the past decade. Major record labels have gone from pumping out hundreds of records a year to a mere 2 dozen. TV-2 reporter Jeannette Reyes tells us what may be killing Classical music.

Like many things posted on the internet, this statement is presented as fact without citing any sources whatsoever. For the sake of discussion, however; let us assume that record companies are indeed cutting down on their proliferation of “classical” music CDs (the report makes no effort in defining what exactly “classical” music is). Did the writer even consider the numerous possibilities that might have contributed to this “fact?”  For example; if we are discussing “classical” music in its broadest sense, we would usually say that it is western (predominantly European) art music produced between 1600 at its earliest to roughly 1940-1950 with the final abandonment of “tonality.” This represents a finite amount of material, if record companies were producing hundreds of albums a year, simple arithmetic will inform us that it wouldn’t take very long to have the entire cannon of material at the disposal of listeners everywhere. New interpretations are always welcome, however; I feel a cogent argument could be made against having 500-plus recordings of the Well Tempered Clavir. Another simple explanation is that all record companies, not just classical labels, have produced fewer and fewer albums. Part of this has to do with digital media being so prevalent making sites like YouTube a very popular refuge for classical music lovers, who want to see playing as well as simply hearing. It doesn’t seem as if any consideration went into the introduction of this at all.

Mozart, Chopin and Debussy have all long passed away. But their music did anything but. until [sic] now.

I’m not even sure where to start with this sentence. The horribly cliché and redundant intro aside, it is simply not true. The camera pans away to show the Alfred Masterwork editions of the aforementioned composers – I can tell you confidently, as an instructor of piano, that these books are selling just fine. I will not state so brazenly that music education in the United States is any place where it should be. I personally feel that the public schools should have music, dance, drama, and art at least every other day, or better yet, part of the core curriculum. But the fact that people so readily recognize the names of these individuals speaks to their enduring popularity. I would also like to interject that the audio heard during this intro is Beethoven and not Mozart, Chopin or Debussy.

Many musicians believe the glory days of classical music may soon be over. Music Professor Dr. Jerry Wong believes Classical music is having difficulty fitting into today's fast-pace lifestyle.

It is very common for musicians playing older styles of music to lament the changing times, this can be traced through music history as long as the record exists. During the days of Palestrina there were intense debate over the usurpation of counterpoint over the simpler chant forms, this culminated in the Council of Trent (where counterpoint was thankfully saved). Another example was the outcry against the early Baroque opera’s use of recitative, now a mainstay of formal opera. True, times are changing, but times have always been changing.

Orchestras are trying to catch up to the changing times to fill up empty concert halls but with 75 percent of the countrys [sic] top orchestras posting a deficit in 2002 it seems to be failing miserably.

It isn’t just orchestras that are failing miserably, many organizations, people and companies are struggling financially – I don’t understand why arts groups, and particularly orchestras are singled out. But what is more problematic; is again, the author seems to know nothing about the history of western classical music, and it’s a shame too. If she had some awareness to the way this music was originally funded she would understand that historically (with the exception of Romantic Italian opera) the attending public has never really been called upon to be the primary source of revenue. In its development, it was the obligation of the ruling princes or other aristocracy to see that composers and performers were funded. Even still, most city orchestras receive some state/government support as well as private donations. If there is less money in circulation, then it stands to reason there would be less tax revenue and also less liberal giving on the part of the wealthy elite.  



What a bizarre segue.

He believes the future of classical music may lie in our children.

This statement is completely erroneous. The future of everything related to our species lie in our children. Again, the writer has composed something that is superfluous and redundant, not to mention overly pedantic as it assumes profundity where none exists. 

SOT: (Jeric)


As this is a quote, I won’t be too harsh in my critique. I will go so far as to say I am very pleased with Kent State’s commitment to exposing young people to western art music - however; what they ignore is an aspect of cultural relevance. European western classical music, as much as we Americans would like to think otherwise, is somewhat culturally removed from our society. It would be very difficult to engage children in understanding this music unless there were some reinforcement in the home or elsewhere. A silly notion to have, indeed, would be that simple exposure to Mozart, Debussy or Bach will institute a desire for life-long orchestral attendance, which is what the broadcast insinuates. 

Either way, classical music must make the decision to either reinvent itself or face the grim reality of becoming a part of history.

Again, the ignorance of the writer to the history or developments of western classical music is staggering, which I suppose, could be some argument in and of itself for increased music education in public schools. Classical music has reinvented itself with every generation. This is why composers no longer write in ancient organum, using neumes. It is why the imperfect consonance came to be favored by the British and later the French leading finally to the revolution of harmony. It is why tonality was expanded to include dissonance as a descriptive element in music and finally, it is why tonality was abandoned all together. Modern composers draw from electronics, from distant cultures, from the distant past and an imagined future – they are always (the good ones, anyway) attempting to produce something new and of merit. I will also add, that everything which happened in the past is "a part of history" and therefore seems an odd way to say what I can only assume is supposed to imply; "without a future."

For TV-2 News, Im [sic] Jeannette Reyes


Although Classical music is losing its popularity in the states, it has become a popular genre in countries like China, India and Japan.

All in all, the most problematic aspect of this piece is its overarching assumptions and blanket oversimplification of the issue of musical taste and patronage in the United States. In the final analysis we must also face the fact that we are moving further and further away from the time-period in which these composers produced. No one is terribly lamenting of the fact that ancient Greek theatrical chants are not regularly performed and attended by the masses. The reason for this is that its interest to us is really, strictly historical. Ancient Greek theatrical chants bear virtually no cultural relevance to our current lives. And this is really the point, more than any other – if the wealthy are unwilling to support orchestras, and if taxpayers are likewise unwilling to be the patrons of western classical music, then perhaps we might conclude that European art music has lived through its usefulness in the United States. A sad and tragic ending to be sure, but life teaches us that things are impermanent. But this end, has nothing whatsoever to do with western classical music’s ability to “reinvent itself” – whatever that means – it is simply at an end of its life cycle.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Electronics in Art and Popular Music

            Trying to choose just one aspect of electronic music is difficult for me. When I was 20 years old I decided that I would pursue the life of a pop musician, I had taken piano lessons for a long time and therefore I decided that my instrument would be keyboards. My first was a Korg Z1 then I moved to an MS2000, Yamaha DX27, and Rhodes Piano and Roland Hammond organ emulator. I learned to use recording and synthesis software (Sonar and plug-ins, usually Kontakt but also EastWest platforms, Vocaloid and Reason). I mention all of this because with the advent of music recording in the home, I think there is a tendency on the part of younger people to think that electronic music has only to do with their generation.  It was very interesting to me, to read about the long developments in the art world on the part of Stockhausen and Babbitt which contributed greatly to the development of electronic music studios where a great deal of groundbreaking research had been done.
          I suppose if I have to define “electronic” music, it would be music in which some kind of electronic synthesis was involved. It would be easy to define compositions for tape as electronic pieces because there is a mechanical device being used for music which operates on electricity. But electricity is the workhorse in this relationship and not the focus. In other words, electricity provides the means for an analogue sound to be transmitted, but the sound being produced is not electronic, it is simply a reproduction of a non-electronic origin. For this reason, I have to lump all samplers into the same category, therefore; the Melotron is not a focus for consideration because it was a tape machine that could be played like a piano. So, it appears as though I am left with the Theremin, the Odes Martinot, and the synthesizers of Buchla, Robert Moog as well as those of RCA.
          Almost everyone who does Hip-Hop, Slowcore, Trip-Hop, Funk, House, Techno, Jungle and every other genre of popular electronic music owns a T-shirt that says “moog.” This is a lasting testament to the legacy of Bob Moog. It is interesting that the company which bears his name is still producing analog synthesizers, except the new models are complete  with modern digital interfaces that make it simple to sync up to a computer (about 7 years ago, retrofitting an old moog with a new midi patch was all the rage, it seems like the company got the hint). What is truly interesting is that very rarely are stand-alone keyboards and synthesizers being used any more. For the most part, computers have become so powerful that the software emulators are almost every bit as versatile and pristine as the old models but in a very manageable form. Now, electronic musicians can access the sound of an old moog or vintage Korg by simply routing a plug-in to their sequencer of choice. This was unthinkable only 10 years ago (perhaps even 5 years ago) but now is common place. This is probably a byproduct of computers reaching upwards of 2 TB of hard-drive space, with 4-8 GB of RAM and multiple CPU. With all of this in mind, I find it miraculous that composers such as Stockhausen and Babbitt were able to do the kind of work they did on those old machines. I also feel a little saddened that Varese did not live to see an age that I truly think he would have enjoyed. 

Reich and Glass Techniques in Composition

            The process of composing the phase pieces of Stephen Reich were, according to the composer, discovered by accident while trying to create a spoken canon using dual tape players. What Reich found out was that slowly the two audio tracks would drift apart until it became a reverb, then an echo, then a canon and finally the two would merge again. When I first read about this technique in regards to human performances, my first thought was one of impossibility and I marveled at the musicians (sometimes as many as 18 or more) able to achieve this effect. It reminded me immediately of Cowell and the Rhythmicon and later the pieces which originally Cowell believed were unplayable by human musicians became possible. Today, I attempted this on my own by recording a simple bell loop into Cakewalk Sonar and then trying play with the sound slightly faster, this proved very difficult the first couple of tries, then I managed to achieve a phase shift by playing slightly slower.

            The main thing that can be said about Reich’s music since the 1960s is that he has often increased the number of musicians he has used as he has gained more notoriety. The recent composition The Daniel Variations is for a sizeable ensemble with recognizable tonalities and triadic harmonies (as opposed to early tape compositions or percussion pieces that were melodically tonal but did not have any formal harmonic structure). The incorporation of Reich’s music into modern electronic music is notable and his commission of DJ’s to remix his pieces says something about Reich’s view of the viability of contemporary popular music.

            To my knowledge, Philip Glass has not employed any phase techniques in his compositions and furthermore it appears as though the music of Glass has always employed a tonal melodic and harmonic foundation without the heavy emphasis on percussion (as is present in the music of Reich). Philip Glass has also contributed greatly to the theatre, film and especially Opera (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and The Beauty and the Beast are three successful Glass operas).  Both the music of Philip Glass and Stephen Reich weave long pieces out of very simple melodic or harmonic material but the approach seems to be a fairly different one. Philip Glass’s compositions seem to rely primarily on the chord progression, or chord alternation. In a Glass composition it is not uncommon for there to be two repeated chords and chord arpeggios built off the pattern that go on for an incredibly long time. The music of Reich, more than anything seems to be centered on the melody (especially during his phase pieces) and if harmony is able to come out of the melodic material than all the better, but the pieces are not lesser if no distinguishable harmony emerges.

The Determined Indeterminate; Cage and Company

            I think it is safe to say that for most people, in late 20th century, the most famous indeterminate piece would be John Cage’s 4’33”. It is, however; difficult to say how indeterminate that piece really is, the sounds that occur during the musician(s) stillness changes from performance to performance, but the action (or non-action) of the musicians(s) remains consistent regardless of who is “playing” the piece. It lasts for a set amount of time and I think that modern audiences are inclined to honor the concept of “silence” although I don’t believe that absolute silence was ever Cage’s goal.

            I mentioned in the previous discussion that I feel that new notation styles cannot really (in my mind) be talked about separately from indeterminacy. It seems to me that the scores of the American composers were far more concerned with the esthetic beauty of what was on the page rather than the sound produced. The best example of this is Earle Brown’s piece December 1952 which looks very much like a modernist picture that might hang in a museum. Morgan notes that the sound/music produced by musicians interpreting this score is really just guided by whatever they feel the page is telling them to do, but it is mostly a “free improvisation.” When this kind of what might be called “ultra-indeterminate” writing was done by the European composer Stockhausen, instead of graphic representations he used verbal. The score for Intensity consists of directions for improvisation that take the form of a poem.

These two pieces might give some insight into the differences in thinking regarding indeterminacy, the American visual versus the European poetic, but this is very difficult when citing individual works by individual composers. Morgan mentions that Cage’s manuscripts had been put on display as visual works of art, and it doesn’t appear that this is true of any of the European composers.  On the other hand, if we examine the score for the String Quartet by Lutoslawski, what we see are numerous text comments on how to interpret and perform the manuscript, so it appears that while the pitches and rhythms are displayed in the notation, the true direction comes from the words written by the composer.  There are, of course, many pieces that have a profound visual aesthetic with regards to score which were innovations of European composers, the best among these appear on page 377 and is Bussotti’s  Siciliano. Morgan notes that there are no directions for interpreting the score but that the use of numbered parts might give some indication. Pieces like this seem as though the composer was setting forth a musical puzzle and the solving of that puzzle is related to the aesthetic power of its performance, as if to say that in figuring out how to play the piece the game is won on the part of the performer.

I would like to make mention of an area with which I have a fair amount of experience, that being Hindustani music. In realizing a Raga, there are essentially musical notes that are available for improvisation (especially in the beginning of the piece) usually there is an indication of which patterns will sound the most pleasing and therefore should be repeated a number of times. There are also two “most important” notes in the Rag which the melodies should gravitate towards. The middle section of a composition tends to be more structured but there is always room for interpretation. The idea is to make a piece individual to each performer as opposed to western conceptions of the traditional score.  To me, this is a prime example of indeterminacy going back a thousand or so years. We see similar notions in the music of the Arab people (although I am not very well versed on that system of music). Morgan mentions that virtually all of the Minimalist composers studied Indian music of some kind, but it is interesting that in this aspect of performance of pieces that there was not as much interest on the part of the indeterminists. 

Thoroughly Modern Schoenberg

            An argument for Schoenberg’s serialistic style being an extension of classical tradition could be made in various ways, I don’t presume that this will be an exhaustive list; they are merely thoughts that have surfaced in my study. One possibility is regarding the mathematics involved in 12 tone composition, it is completely feasible that one would be capable of composing a piece of music without “hearing” it at all, they could simply follow the agenda for churning out “chords and melody” until the row is used a specific number of time. The same could be said of western common practice harmony where chords move through stages of stability and instability based on their tonic, subdominant, and dominant relationships. There is also the more robust influence of science on music in the classical period. Common ideas regarding music’s influence on the human state were being changed from the “affections” of the Baroque period to an emphasis on complex relationships in the classical period. Dr. Margaret Hanning (the author of Concise History of Western Music) has argued that this stems from the emphasis for empirical study and scientific reform. Again, with the technological age advancing during the lifetime of Schoenberg, it was easy to see various classical ideas creeping up in the beginning of the 20th century. From these vantage points, the music of Debussy is considerably more “modern” than that of Schoenberg.  Therefore, the music of the post WWII composers could be seen as a logical extension of the Schoenberg tradition in that there was frequently a mathematical basis for the compositional style, there seemed to also be a distancing of the general emotional state which was often attempted to be conveyed.  This is not to say the pieces were devoid of any aesthetic purpose, it’s just that the pieces represented a much more intellectual aspect than the Romantics.

            With serial-note composition being so fertile for compositional innovation, it was only a matter of time before other aspects of music was to become numbered. In the music of Messiaen and Boulez not only pitches were serialized but also rhythms, dynamics and articulations. This gave way to exciting passages full of variety in sonic possibilities but also came with a great deal of rhythmic complexity.  The music of Stockhausen was something of a departure from the strict serialism of the above mentioned composers as he began thinking in terms of “whole” sounds made up on individual parts that would become another whole, Stockhausen did offer some classical input as he often sought contrast which Morgan likened to the practice of writing antecedent and consequent phrases. Milton Babbitt was a composer who did a great deal of work with rhythmic values in serial composition, creating disjointed rhythms which added small segments to otherwise pulse-driven music, an example of this kind of complexity can be seen in the Quartet No. 3 which is pictured in the textbook on page 353. Morgan notes that this kind of hyper-serialism was somewhat short lived, but its influence would be felt for generations, especially in younger composers.

           It might be that the greatest aspect of serialism’s validity in the classical tradition was its adoption by Igor Stravinsky as a compositional tool. Morgan notes that with Schoenberg’s passing serialism belonged to the past and therefore was fair game as inspiration for the composer who always seemed to draw from folk traditions and venerated musical styles. In this respect, serialist came full circle, from being a revolutionary idea based on continuation of classical functional techniques, to being adopted and revised as a legitimate compositional method, to being studied “post-mortem” by music historians as a style that belonged to a valid past.

Gershwin, Partch and Cowell; American Masterpieces?

            I was a bit disappointed in the textbook ("Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America") for not spending more time on Gershwin, I have always regarded “Rhapsody” to be a masterpiece, however; if it is not, I would say that Porgy and Bess is. I feel that as far as tapping into a native American vernacular and making it into something artistic; Porgy is about as far as we have come (I know this is something of a sweeping statement and should you want to discuss this further, I can elaborate). But for that matter, I also feel that the musical “Show Boat” by Kern and Hammerstein is a work of considerable achievement that warrants some consideration.  This led me naturally to Marc Blitzstein (another popular music and Broadway composer) as I am very familiar with his works from both a musical theatre background and from the 1990’s film by Tim Robins (although the film was very “Hollywood” in its approach to the way the story worked out).

           Harry Partch was very interesting to me, I think something must have been in the air regarding the “old instruments” with the way both him and Varese fantasized about more and more exotic sounds. The main difference is that Partch sought to do something about it by actually creating new instruments to fulfill his needs for compositions. I viewed the documentary from the link you posted and enjoyed it very much (I wish the sound quality was better) in part 2 (also on YouTube) an ensemble plays the composition: Daphne of the Dunes, which I found to be a quite enticing and elegant piece of music. In some ways it had something in common with Gamelan music (probably the emphasis on pitched percussion and flocculating rhythms so common in that music). With regards to the Varese, his portion of the textbook left me somewhat depressed, thinking about an old man who was just borne a little too early to see the innovations in electronics that were just on the horizon. On another hand, I came to the conclusion that I would view Varese less as a composer and more as a musical philosopher (this is in fact how I view Jon Cage). I listened to Ionization but much prefer the piece Hyperism (which is available in score form in the accompanying anthology to the Morgan textbook) for it’s more pronounced use of pitched instruments and (to my ears) greater dynamic realization.

           I would be fascinated to hear the piece for Koto and Orchestra by Cowell; I looked for a recording of the piece on but came up with nothing. I study the Guzheng (which is the parent instrument [sort of, really the Tse has a more legitimate claim as the parent] of the Koto). I also share very much Cowell’s affinity for eastern music, including that of Persia (I also study the Sitar and Dilruba, and while those instruments have become purely Hindustani over time they have some lineage from Persia – as does all Hindustani music). What I did listen to was, of course, The Banshee and the trio for harp, flute and violin. This music was actually my favorite because it resembles the kind of dreamy melodicism that appeals to my ears so much. The international aspect of his compositions is an absolute selling point for me; do you know if he included any Hindustani or Carnatic music theory in his pieces? 

Thoughts on Musical Censorship in the Soviet Union

            Society, and especially the ruling class (which to a large degree tends to speak on society’s behalf) has always had something of a dictatorial prescription when it comes to what can be created in terms of art. Plato and Aristotle’s writings on which modes should be played for young boys and the risk of feminizing men have survived through millennia (though not in regular practice anymore,) the Catholic Church (the great ghost of the Roman Empire) sought on very many occasions to limit the creativity of composers writing sacred works (the one that first comes to mind being the council of Trent) and protestant churches in the Americas sought to limit the amount of “passion” present in worship tunes (especially the “fuging” hymns so popular in colonial America). Even Haydn worked for a court where the aim was to please the aristocrat for whom he worked (still managing to produce profound works of beauty). Before recent history, on the whole, it seems that the only artists who were able to break free completely from public and ruling class sentiment were the artists who in fact members of that class of society. In this case, the censorship during the years of the Soviet Union, was not really anything new. What set it apart was on one hand, the degree to which the censorship was carried out and the other, the hypocrisy that went along with the “dictatorship of the proletariat” being ruled by a few individuals with what some might consider very selfish motives.

           We should consider though, that Lenin wrote about capitalist nations rising against a socialist state (in the pamphlet “Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder” now published by International Publishers) and the need to insulate culture as one step against such attacks. Therefore; from a soviet perspective, it is not too hard to see why some prescriptions needed to be made. If in fact, they were to produce the greatest and most efficient state the world had ever seen, they should be able to display the intellectual and artistic merit to match. Morgan talks about this in somewhat remorseful terms when discussing Prokofiev and Shostakovitch saying that the repressive nature of the communist leadership was a hindrance to their compositional output, and in fact he may be correct. I would submit that reasonable and rational limits placed on art can in many ways help the medium. For instance, we could examine 20th century music for film; film music is not a symphony, or a tone poem or any other genre associated with instrumental music, it is there to support the plot, therefore shining melodies and intricate melodies must be reserved for a time in the film where they are absolutely necessary. This in fact has helped the medium of composition by allowing composers the freedom to not be the sole pillar of the audience’s attention. In some ways social prescriptions on art can act in the same way.

            I read the article on Niezvestny which was a very compelling story. I would contend that the article was written from a stridently anti-communist perspective with something of a propagandist purpose. It isn’t to say that I believe there were any outright lies written in the piece, but the artist’s clear views on Christianity are consistent with the long held belief that a socialist state seeks to ban religion. It is worth noting that Soviet Union envisioned by Lenin, and that state that came to be under Stalin and Khrushchev were very separate things. Lenin was a fan of current art and many other avenues of intellectualism (as noted in The Life and Death of Lenin by Robert Payne) and I don’t think it stretches the imagination too much to think that there would have been some liberalization of ideas had he not died so soon after the founding of the state which he had such a hand in creating.