I've added composer Judith Lang Zaimont's new blog to the blogroll. By sheer coincidence, I heard the performance of her Growler she refers to in her first post. It was one of the better pieces on the program. I share her concern about the the programming of the FSU Festival, but it's always been that way--safe and regional.

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Alex Ross has linked to the text of his keynote speech at the Chamber Music America National Conference. As always, he has a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things to say. This sentence struck me as shedding a particular kind of light on one important difference between concert-notational music and other kinds:

I can’t honestly say that Beethoven’s C-sharp minor Quartet is by any meaningful measure “better” than, say, Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday as sung by Mahalia Jackson.

I'm not saying that the difference here is a quantitative "better-or-worse" kind of difference, but rather a qualitative "nature of the beast" difference.


  1. What's the qualitative difference? Duke Ellington wrote it down. Mahalia Jackson sang it, and his orchestra played it.

  2. The difference is that the reference is to a particular performance of the Ellington, and the reference to Beethoven is to the work. Again, I think that's a different kind of artifact, not better or worse, but different.

  3. Cool! I got to know Judith when I taught at Minnesota. We had adjacent offices, with the lovely view of the Mississippi. Sigh.

  4. I think it might be safe to assume that, when referencing Op. 131, Alex was referring to a top-notch performance of it (obviously a dismal performance of it can't compare qualitatively or quantitatively to a stunning performance of the Ellington)....? But I can see your point as well, Steve.

  5. I see your point. It would have been better to cite Duke Ellington's Black Brown & Beige rather than a particular performance of it. No one will touch Mahalia Jackson's rendition, but the Wynton Marsalis band's performance last fall was extremely moving, and true to the work's sublime spirit.

    I've been meaning to write a post on my own blog about the whole notation issue. It's a good rough working distinction, but there are all kinds of hazy areas that point up the essential artificiality of genre boudnaries. For example, the entire popular song repertory rests on notation, as do Broadway musicals. This is all composed, notated music. But not "classical" music. Why not? I know instinctively, but it's hard to put into words. Most jazz players — nearly all, I'd guess — know notation, reference notation. Yet improvisation is the key. Any time a rock band uses strings, brass, what have you, notation enters the picture. There was quite a bit of notation hanging around when I was watching Björk make her last record. Obviously, a lot of famous rockers don't read music, the Beatles being the most famous examples. But notationalists will be somewhere on the scene of any big album project, and usually there's at least one member of any band who reads music. Conversely, in classical there are quite a few composers who tending away from notational practice even though of course they know it. And notation was a lot rougher and looser in implication in the pre-1800 days — more like the jazz playing-off-a-standard model.

    Hypothetical: Mozart's strolling around. Boulez is in one room, working on a piece. Ellington's in another, working on Black Brown & Beige. I'm guessing Mozart greets Ellington as the guy who's in the same business. Boulez wouldn't make sense to him. Not a value judgment there.

    Sorry, gone on too long. Just some thoughts thrown out there. Tentative conclusion? Our tradition is contingent on strands of conversation among people going back hundreds of years: it can't measured absolutely in terms of a particular practice.

  6. Thanks, Alex.

    I think these issues are both complex, in that there are a lot of moving definitional parts and overlapping traits between and amongst genres, and simple, because there are things we all "know" about music, but have trouble pinning them down verbally.