Saturday 29 November 2014


I mentioned in an earlier posting the idea of obviousness in contemporary music, and I have been realizing lately just how important it seems to be to many people.  And not just for contemporary music, but for many kinds of musical experience.

To summarize, in that previous entry, I mention the fact that there are people who simply can't accept that a work of music is contemporary unless it is obviously contemporary, which always translates (for these particular people) into atonal, or ugly, or conceptual.  Looking at a work like the 4th Symphony by Tippett, I am amazed at the rhythmic complexity, which passes so easily by the ear.   Tempos apparently modulate, but in fact, the modulations are worked out in one tempo only, giving the impression of far greater flexibility and making the music extremely difficult to perform.  The Fugue from Corigliano's String Quartet is another example of contemporary complexity which is not immediately obvious-- the various strands of music all unfold in simultaneously different meters, but the group has to stay together.  But these works are not "contemporary" to many people in the new music world, certainly not as "contemporary" as the quartets of Carter, presumably because the rhythmic complexity of Carter is accompanied by aggressively atonal music.  It sounds "contemporary" to people who, apparently, can't actually hear what is going on in the Tippett and Corigliano.

But it is more than new music that is afflicted.  Recently, a colleague, who is one of the finest musicians I know, dismissed Mozart as being "simple".  He commented that he could hear "that kind of music" in his head "anytime."  If he can, he is truly a far better musician than I am.  I no longer argue with people about Mozart, because I have realized that they are simply not listening past the obvious.  Yes, there are some passages built with 4 bar phrases and periodicity, but the astonishing thing about Mozart is how completely unpredictable he is while remaining superficially fairly simple.  No composer until Brahms used rhythm in such a sophisticated way.  There are 3 1/2 bar phrases, where ideas start again in the middle of bars, completely naturally.  Ideas expand and contract without calling attention to the fact.  A few years ago, when I taught phrase structure to undergrads, I taught the concept of phrase extensions.  I took some Bach 5 bar phrases and deconstructed them to simple 4 bar phrases.  I took some Mozart 5 bar phrases and, much to my surprise, found that they simply cannot be deconstructed back to symmetrical forms-- the extensions are so sophisticated they defy "correction".  Mozart's magic is his ability to fool the ear into thinking everything is very simple, but it usually isn't.  I remember coaching a conducting student once in an early Mozart symphony, and having to point out that an apparently minor inner voice in the violas ended the first phrase on an 8th note, but ended on a quarter note the second time through.  These are not random.  It is sophistication like this which makes Mozart sound so eternally fresh-- the ear may not hear anything "obvious", but the brain responds unconsciously to the rich detail.

I had a student recently tell me that he had heard something for orchestra which didn't have interesting orchestration.  I pointed out that the piece he had heard had excellent orchestration, it just didn't slap you in the face with eccentricity.  The fact that it didn't sound like Stravinsky apparently made him feel that it wasn't creative.  To my ears, it was extremely well done and the orchestration was perfectly allied with the musical content.  But it wasn't "obvious".

The same problem with obviousness pervades programming, in a slightly different way.  We can programme the obvious without hesitation-- Beethoven 5 or 7.  If we programme Beethoven 4, audiences stay away.  We can programme music by Joachim Raff and know that, if an audience came, it doesn't matter that his language is pure Romantic, they will not like it because they don't know who he was and are not familiar with his music.  It's obvious to them that Brahms was a Romantic, but they have never heard of Raff.

I don't want to believe that most people really don't listen carefully, or that, if they do, they really don't hear much.  It's a depressing thought.  But even among musical professionals, it seems that most things need to be very obvious to have an immediate impact.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

true story

There is art, and there is money.

If you are an artist without enough money, there is career.

Thursday 17 July 2014


There is only one measure of success for a composer.  And it is impossible to prove.

Success is:  performers you don't know deciding to play your piece.

Look carefully, and you will see that most performances in the world today, including the very visible, very high profile ones, are the result of direct personal connections.  At the highest levels, they are often compounded by business connections (friends being managed by the same company, for example.)  Or they occur because one set of managers talks to another set of managers.

Is that success?  Of a sort, certainly.

But real musical success happens when you send a work on its solitary way into the world and somewhere, performers who don't know you personally decide to play it.

Why can't you prove it?

Because you simply never know what wheels there are within wheels.  You may see a list of performers who just did your work and not know any of them, but that doesn't mean they don't know someone you know.  You can never know if one of your friends was responsible for the connection.  Perhaps one of the performers was a student of someone you know.

Of course, that doesn't take away from the fact that people who don't know you decided to perform the work anyway.

The extension of this definition of success is being asked to compose a new work by someone you don't know.  Someone has either performed your existing work or knows it somehow, and wants a new piece.

It happens.

Saturday 12 July 2014

a little depressing, perhaps.......

I have been trying, over many years, to put together some kind of coherent understanding of music, composition, life, etc., and have never been able to do so.  Somehow, there is something elusive happening.

I believe I have completely grasped one important concept:  to be an interesting composer, first you have to be an interesting musician; to be an interesting musician, first you have to be an interesting human being.  Composition (all art, for that matter,) is a by-product of life.  You need a life to create art.

Composition, solitary as it is as an act, is inextricably interwoven with the world around it.  Much as some of us deny it, when the work is going well, life seems better, and when the work is going badly, life seems difficult.  As I have gotten older, this has become less and less true, but there is still a strong element of it present in my life.

But here is where it gets complicated.

It really doesn't matter whether or not the work is going well or badly.  It really doesn't matter whether or not our lives seem better or worse because of our work.  It really doesn't matter what we think or say about music, what we sacrifice to or gain from our work, or even whether or not we are "successful".

"Music" is only three things:  writing music, performing music, and listening to music.  Everything else "about" music is not actually music itself.  Whether or not the music we write is any good is completely beyond the control of any external reasoning, thinking, planning, expectation, philosophy, or technical control.  You can write music with any agenda you wish to engage.  But there is absolutely no relationship between your agenda and the quality of the music you write.  Composers with agendas (if you think about it, almost exclusively a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries) have written some very good music and some very bad music.  Composers with agendas have come and gone; some have made lasting statements, and most have vanished completely into the mists of time.  Just like composers without agendas.

Rich composers have written some great music, and poor composers have written some great music.  Composers who lived a long time have written some great music, and composers who died young have written some great music.  Debauchers and saints, arrogant bastards and generous mentors, starving artistes and fat cats, all have written both great and bad music.

I have seen many composers obsess over the importance of their work.  They lose sight of the fact that the process is more important than the product for them.  Composition ceases to be about music, and becomes about some kind of agenda, or, worse, an act of high vanity.  The next performance, huge applause at the end of the work, money, a recording, all become more important than the music itself.  Proving that their aesthetic is the "one true" aesthetic, proving that they are right and everyone else is wrong, proving that they and they alone have the secret of music, these are all agendas that have nothing whatsoever to do with music.  Music is wordless.

I know of one composer (long gone) who refused to teach or perform, because it compromised his work as a composer.  He took his wife with him on his lifelong voyage.  They died in absolute poverty.  His music has vanished.  I have seen his name once in the last 10 years.  I wonder if that would have been enough for him?

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Stravinsky, Part 2

It is a fact that it takes a long time to assess the importance of any composer.  We are too often blinded by our enthusiasm for a contemporary composer, and assume that they are more important than they actually are.  For example, I am completely convinced that Donatoni will be be remembered as one of the greatest composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but to honest, I can't really see beyond my own enthusiasm.  I can make an educated guess, but only history can judge.

Stravinsky occupies a strange place in history.  There is absolutely no question about The Rite of Spring:  it is one of the cornerstones of music, a turning point in music history, and a masterpiece from beginning to end.  But remarkably, our enthusiasm for the Rite has completely subverted any kind of objective assessment of the rest of Stravinsky's work.  I read a series of comments about Stravinsky lately from some of my colleagues, and absolutely every comment seems actually to be about the Rite:  "exciting music", "changed music forever", "rhythmically revolutionary."  Yes, some of these comments apply to other works by him, but really, when we talk about Stravinsky, aren't we really talking about the Rite?

I recently tuned in to his Symphony in E flat major, a work he wrote when he was quite young.  I was impressed with how completely he had absorbed Rimsky's influence, and I was dazzled, as always, with the orchestration, although in the Symphony what is dazzling about the orchestration is how textbook perfect it is.  But the work is not imaginative.

I like much of the Firebird.  I am largely indifferent, even slightly hostile towards Petroushka, although many people I respect very much consider it to be his best work.  From the post-Rite years, I adore the Octet, I enjoy L'Histoire in suite form, I like the Violin Concerto, and I worship the Symphony in C.  The first movement of the Symphony in Three Movements is one of the finest pieces of music written in the 20th Century.  The second and third movements are simply awful.  The ending is genuinely sleazy.

I conducted the Piano Concerto with a well known soloist several years ago.  He opined that no one plays it because it is so difficult.  I pointed out that no one plays it because it is terrible music.  Terrible, terrible music.

The Septet is a genuine abomination.  The much-touted serial works are just bad, with the exception of the Requiem Canticles and The Owl and the Pussycat, where the old Stravinsky shines through.  No one can tell me that Movements for Piano and Orchestra is good music.  It isn't.

And yet, we have a Stravinsky cult.  A few years ago, it became fashionable among European new music types to assert that serial Stravinsky was music of the highest order, better than his early music.  Nonsense.  In fact, I challenge the very notion that Stravinsky was one of the great composers of the 20th century.  Certain works of his are undisputed masterworks, and his influence was and is tremendous, but as a composer, I strongly suspect that most of his work, once the dust has settled, will disappear.  This is in contrast to the composers he is most often compared to, Bartok and Prokofiev, whose music is now so deeply woven into standard repertoire that it is impossible to imagine concert programming without it.  Think about it:  what Stravinsky do we actually hear regularly on orchestra concerts-- or for that matter, on any kind of concert?  The Rite, The Firebird, sometimes Petroushka.  Maybe the Symphony in C or the Symphony in 3.  Maybe, maybe the Violin Concerto.  Compare that to the regular appearance of Prokofiev concertos and symphonies, and Bartok concertos and the Concerto for Orchestra, not to mention the quartets.

Stravinsky asserted that he was a journeyman, taking work as it became available, doing the job as well as he could.  I believe this is a perfect assessment of him.  That he was capable of greatness is undeniable, although it seems to me that most of the greatness is early in his career.  But his catalogue is such a bizarre mixed bag that a complete assessment of his achievement seems to me to be impossible.

Time will tell.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Expect the unexpected

For reasons too difficult to explain, I have found myself lately listening keenly to a wide variety of music by composers who are virtually known today.  Among others, I have heard substantial works by Gustav Helsted (Danish, 1857-1954), Hakon Borreson (Danish, 1876-1954), Joseph Holbrooke (English, 1978-1958), Hamilton Harty (Irish, 1879-1941), Alexander Goedicke (Russian, 1877-1957), Hugo Alfven (Swedish, 1872-1960), and a number of others, all of whom span the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was an intriguing era.  These composers were schooled in high Romanticism, and probably never imagined where music would go in their lifetimes.  Almost without exception, they ignored the innovations swirling around them, and continued to pursue their musical ideals as they had imagined them in their youth.  Goedicke adapted to Soviet Realism when he had to, but remained close to his Romantic ideals.

I am astonished at the craft.  Not one of these composers was anything less than highly accomplished technically.  I would be eternally proud if any of my students could produce music as technically confident and well formed as these gentlemen.  Their grasp of traditional forms, their expertise at orchestration, their confidence with the control of their material, all these are beyond question.

And yet they are all but forgotten.  Most of the recordings are very second rate (except Alfven, who is enjoying something of a comeback.)  Live performances are fairly rare.

Is the music bad?  No, definitely not.

Is the music good?

I honestly don't know anymore.  There's no question that there isn't a Beethoven symphony in this group.  There's no question that there are some very bad choices about content-- silly dances, overwrought adagios, showpiece finales without any actual material, etc.  But I never, at any point, felt compelled to stop the music and go on to something else.  I sat and listened respectfully to several large works, and, honestly, I never lost interest.  But does that make it good?

It occurred to me that we need to try programming some of this stuff again.  Audiences are tired of the tried and true.  And yet, when we try to programme something off the beaten path, ticket sales dry up.  Marketing divisions run screaming from this kind of repertoire.  There is nothing in this music that a regular subscription audience would find difficult, except for its unfamiliarity.  A chamber music series could comfortably programme music by these composers, tucked in safely between more familiar works, but an orchestra would have to be very brave to try it.

When I was young, there were no recordings of anything other than the most famous works.  When the CD boom happened, the market quickly saturated with Beethoven 7's, and the labels began to look towards the less familiar.  Works that I had heard about but never heard suddenly got recorded.  Now, the catalogue is bursting at the seams with the unfamiliar.

Can this ever happen in live concerts?   Can we re-vitalize concert going with the unfamiliar?  I am listening as I write to Hugo Alfven's 4th Symphony.  I am enjoying it.  Most of my composer colleagues would probably call it a little obvious, but that doesn't bother me.  Wouldn't a subscription audience enjoy it too?  While I never grow tired of Beethoven 7, I need to hear something fresh once in a while, and not just new music.

Can we reinvent ourselves?  Can we recapture concert audiences with a fresh mix of new work, unfamiliar older work, and the warhorses?  It's worth a try.

Saturday 1 February 2014

Stravinsky, Part 1

I have a special problem with Stravinsky.  It has two parts.  In this posting, I want to talk a little about how annoying it has become to hear people quoting the balderdash that Stravinsky wrote.

It is, at best, dangerous to take too seriously what composers say about their own work.  I fully grasp the irony of saying that on a blog about music.  But some composers are more consistent in their writings than others.  Debussy, for example, was quite focused and articulate in his writing.  The writings of Tchaikovsky, almost unknown, are in fact incredibly perspicacious.  Busoni and Ives were thoughtful and even visionary.

The writings of Stravinsky are genuinely crap.  Stravinsky was, more than most, a product of his time.  A quick glance at his work confirms that he essentially went where the wind blew.  He reflects every major "ism" of the 20th century.  I am not saying he was not a great composer (more on that in Part 2.)  I am not saying that The Rite of Spring didn't change music forever, in as profound a way as the Eroica Symphony.  I am simply saying that, as a result of his need to endlessly re-invent himself, he embraced many approaches to making music, some of which were mutually exclusive.

This is not a crime.  So he started by hating 12-tone music and ended up writing it-- so what?  He changed his mind.  He had a right to change his mind.  He was an artist.

The problem is that, at every later stage of his development, he seemed compelled to write about what he was doing.  So while his musical approach changed, his writings got published and remained constant.  People now quote things he wrote in mid-career which completely contradict the things he did in later career.

And here's the thing that really bothers me:  I strongly suspect he wrote deliberately inflammatory things entirely for purpose of staying in the headlines.  Think about it:  he enraged the world with the Rite, and never achieved the same public impact again.  He was in his 30s when the Rite was premiered.  It can't be a coincidence that he didn't really start writing about music until much later in his career, when he had already become a "grand old man".  (He was over 60 when he wrote The Poetics of Music, and was already writing some of the least interesting music he ever wrote.)

I really can't stand having one more person say to me "Stravinsky said that his pieces were really just objects", or "Stravinsky said that music can never really express anything".  Stravinsky said a lot of things.  Put down the writings, and listen to the music.  It will tell you all you need to know.