Waves; Fields or Spheres

In my post last week on blogospheric discussions of the future of concert music, I made this statement:

Most important, from my particular perspective, a thousand compositional flowers continue to bloom, despite ongoing style wars offensives from all points on the stylistic continuum.
We often think of style as a continuum, with x kind of music on one end and not x on the other. As a corollary to this, we tend to think of stylistic change (not of individuals over the course of a career, but in the larger, historical sense) as pendulum, swinging back and forth between the extremes.

I've been thinking lately of waves. Waves of sound defining musical structure or as musical events punctuating the discourse. It occurred to me that maybe that's how style and styles have developed in history, and that the impetus for these waves comes in the dichotomy of simplicity/complexity. One can easily find points in music history where the prevailing style or styles had become, to some ears, as complex as could be sustained. Or more than could be sustained: Just as simplicity too often devolves into simple-mindedness, complexity too often becomes mere complicatedness.

The wave crashes. Underneath, new simplicities are created, which then are developed until they are part of a wave, which crashes, and the process starts over again. There are times like our own when there are multiple waves, washing over each other so that no one wave dominates the shore. It's tempting to fix other dichotomies (consonance/dissonance or homophony/polyphony) to the wave idea, but history is more complex than that. The wave of late romanticism that crashed around the turn of the 20th century was fiercely chromatic, but the simplifying wave that began underneath was not purely diatonic, as one might think. Pantonalism came about as part of the simplifying movement of the time, in reaction to the crashing of the wave, may seem counterintuitive to those who think that simple always means diatonic or tonal.

I like the wave metaphor for the historical process of stylistic development. The idea of a continuum is equally inadequate for stylistic description, too. Its two dimensions are fatally inadequate for the task. I'm thinking of fields or spheres. What do you think?


Quiz Bang

Matthew Guerrieri posts another of his infamous quizzes. He's obviously amassing a database. To what end, we'll probably never know.

1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

Best? Beats me. My favorite is the trombone solo quoting Handel's "Joy to the World" at the end of the third movement of Charles Ives's Symphony 4.

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.


3. Great piece with a terrible title.

I'm going to have to pass on this one for now. It requires some thought.

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?


5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

Mrs. Gesualdo

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

Contra mortum et tempus, Rochberg.

7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

Das Rheingold Prelude in The New World.

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

Kiri does something or other.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?

Marvin Gaye

10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.

Georg Cantor

Blogging Composers

Added to the blogroll:

Matthew Whitall

Miquel Frasconi


Taste, etc.

In a comment on my post about John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, A. C. Douglas quoted from the post:

As always, my reaction to him says more about me than it does the music.

His comment: "Maybe not."

I believe I understand what he is getting at with this, but I was very careful in how I worded my response to Mr. Adams's music. When I said "it doesn't speak to me", I meant that and nothing more. I didn't state an opinion of the quality and/or value of his music because I've never studied it enough to feel qualified to render one. I was released from my duties as a columnist for the American Record Guide for similar ideas about how new music could be reviewed.

I didn't get Brahms until graduate school, and now he's one of my favorites. I didn't get Mozart until even more recently. But even before then, I had studied enough of their music to know better than to say that my dislike said anything meaningful about the music itself, but might reveal something about me. I've not had any experiences since then to change that fundamental idea. An up or down evaluation of a work of art or an artist tells me next to nothing about the art or artist, but it does tell me something about the evaluator. Enough of these data points from a critic/observer and I can get a pretty good idea about how their tastes may or may not align with mine.

Naturally, when the criticism goes beyond an overall evaluation, the criticism can tell me something about the work or artist in question. But most of the time, I learn more about the writer--and that's not necessarily bad, as I've indicated. When I have an opinion on something, I'll try to state it clearly and with backing arguments.

When I merely like something or don't especially like it, I'll say that, too.

John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007)

I listened to the streaming audio of Tuesday evening's premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, part of a Proms concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mr. Adams. The program began with a flabby and indifferent account of Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid, and continued with a performance of Mr. Adams's Century Rolls, for piano and orchestra, with Olli Mustonen as soloist. Mr. Mustonen was an able soloist and the accompaniment was crisp and precise.

The main event of the concert was, of course, the premiere. I have to say again, for the record, that I don't get John Adams's music. It doesn't speak to me. There are moments in almost every piece of his that I've heard (and I've probably given him more chances than any other composer) that resonate, but they are far and few between (as Stevie Wonder put it), and not big enough to make a whole movement or composition work for me. This was true of the new Symphony--there's an extended passage in the first movement that is reminiscent of the last movement of the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, but not as telling, and the trumpet solo near the end is very fine.

Many people whose ears I respect continue to sing the praises of John Adams, and I'll still listen to him. As always, my reaction to him says more about me than it does the music.

[Edited on 8 Mar 14 for spelling and usage.]


Topic A

The concert music blogosphere continues to be focused on the ongoing discussion of what is roundly called the "decline" of concert music. (In fact, one could argue that this issue is the reason the concert music blogosphere is as robust as it is.) Here are some links to recent posts on the subject, mostly from familiar players in the discussion (a tip of the fedora to Lisa Hirsch):

Matthew Guerrieri
Marc Geelhoed
A. C. Douglas
Alex from Wellsung
Greg Sandow

It's not clear to me that concert music is in "decline" in any meaningful sense of the word. There is today more of the music available in more formats than ever before and some musical institutions are reporting record ticket sales for the coming season, even while others report lower sales. Most important, from my particular perspective, a thousand compositional flowers continue to bloom, despite ongoing style wars offensives from all points on the stylistic continuum.

If "decline" or even "death" is not the issue, what is?

In the (increasingly distant) past, concert music held a place at the center of intellectual/cultural life in the West. That is no longer the case, and hasn't been for a very long time, probably since the West nearly obliterated itself in the Second World War. In fact, as Alex Ross masterfully demonstrates in his forthcoming The Rest is Noise, the centrality of concert music (especially opera) to the Nazi horror triggered a cultural backlash that continues today. From the other end of the political spectrum came stylistic requirements imposed on composers under penalty of ostracism, disappearance, and sometimes death. No such political strictures exist today, in part because music just isn't that important to the powers that be, though one could say that the part of the Composers' Union in the propaganda machineis now played by the Academy of Country Music and Clear Channel radio.

So it seems to me that the discussion is really about the place of concert music in our cultural and intellectual life is and what it should, or rather could be. I don't know the answers, but I do think it's an important conversation.


Bang the Drum Slowly

Inside the mind of a working musician:

I gave John Parks (for whom I am writing a concerto) a copy of the recent Pierre Boulez recording of the Mahler 2 the other evening. Here are some of his comments (from e-mail, published with his permission):

. . . listening to the Mahler right now. It's a shame that the percussion section really didn't think out their sounds. The cymbal playing makes me angry.

After I asked for specifics about the cymbals comment:

European orchestras typically use very old cymbals; usually what we call "Old K" Zildjian cymbals (pre-WWII), and there aren't tons of these instruments left because of the war and the collateral damage of bombing the opera and concert halls. Very dark sounds, which I really like and are totally appropriate for Mahler. In this recording, there's no blossom or body to any of the cymbal sounds, so the cadences don't really have the color, shimmer, and "arrival" that I think appropriate. When I hear cymbals, I want to hear Michael Bookspan with Philly. Anything else is just noise.

Zildjian has, in the past years, rededicated themselves to making new instruments that sound like these old ones-I have several pairs and love them.

Europeans are known for great timpani sounds, but some "schools" over there do not concentrate on the other instruments with the same degree of seriousness. [T]he way the cymbals are being played [in this recording] never allows them to blossom or open up.

"The cymbal playing makes me angry" is my new all-purpose rallying cry.

Here and There

Additions to the blogroll:

Intermezzo, a blog about music in London.

flyover, a group blog about arts journalism in the provinces.


ACD clarifies his view of recordings, and in no uncertain terms.

Matthew Guerrieri has an excellent post on the recurring discussion of the "death" of concert music.


Open Question

To ACD--

Since you don't have comments, I'll here. Are you saying that listening to concert music on iPods or via mp3s on computer is worse than not listening to it at all?


Perplexed in the Provinces


Langsam, Wozzeck! Laaaaaangsam!

What major work of Alban Berg are you!?!?!

You are Berg's masterful first opera, "Wozzeck", op. 7, a tragic and expressionistic tale of a soldier who goes mad and kills his mistress due to the lack of power and wealth. Society done did him wrong.You are compassionate, emotional and righteous. And a tad sentimental (for good reasons).
Take this quiz!

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Thanks, and a tip of the retrograde to Alex Ross.



String quartets (both the genre and the medium) are an obsession of mine, yet I never fail to be surprised and struck by the power of a really good performance of a really good quartet, given the right piece at the right time. So it was this morning when, in the normal course of my work day as I play discs mostly on a whim, I listened to the Juilliar Quartet's recording of the two Quartets of Leoš Janáček and the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg. The raw intimacy of all of three of these works is given full-throated expression by the Juilliards, with their often edgy sound especially appropriate in Janáček's sometimes rusticated soundworld.

Other listening:

Lee Hyla: Trans, Bass Clarinet Concerto, Violin Concerto. Tim Smith, bass clarinet; Laura Frautschi, violin; Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose.

Bohuslav Martinů: Symphonies 2 and 4; Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra/Arthur Fagen.