Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
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“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Important Panel Discussion

Last month I blogged about the upcoming changes on classical radio in the Boston-area market.


Most of my dire predictions about the merger of WGHB and WCRB radio - and then some - have come true. On December 1st, 2009 the surviving station (WCRB) has cut the Friday afternoon live-broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The programming has become less adventurous, and at least during the day has an easy listening "tracks to relax" feel. I actually heard them play Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D the other day. You can't get any more kitschy than that.

The hybrid commercial-public station seems to embody the worst of both worlds, with never-ending fund-raising AND blatant commercials (under the guise of "a message from our corporate sponsor").

What I didn't predict or foresee were the technical issues of broadcast signal-strength that have all but blacked out access to classical music for many former WGBH listeners. Fortunately, from my geographic location in the State, I can receive the signal well enough. However, WCRB appears to have some major issues with their transmission equipment. The other evening it inexplicably dropped off the air for a period of about 20 minutes. There was no explanation.

Now, the small but dedicated Boston-area classical music listening public is expressing their outrage. The fire of discontent is being fueled by The Boston Musical Intelligencer (found online at http://www.classical-scene.com/ ). The Intelligencer is an independent and professionally run music blog about activities in the vibrant musical culture in and around the Boston area. The Boston Globe has also recently published a story about this on-going controversy.

Last evening I received the following email from a third party announcing a public forum organized and sponsored by The Boston Musical Intelligencer under the title of :

WHAT CAN WE DO FOR CLASSICAL MUSIC RADIO IN BOSTON?

It will be in the form of a panel discussion held at Old South Church in Copley Square on Tuesday, January 5 at 6:00 PM.

I quote from the email:

Recent articles in the Boston Musical Intelligencer and elsewhere evoked widespread dismay over the changes in WGBH and WCRB programming and the lack of signal strength from the recently-designated station for classical music, WCRB. Come hear what the experts think, ask your questions and have your say.

The panel discussion moderator will be William M. Bulger (formerly President of the Massachusetts Senate, president of University of Massachusetts, and trustee of the Boston Public Library and Boston Symphony Orchestra. He also is the brother of Mafia boss on the loose"Whitey Bulger").

The panelists will include Richard Dyer (former classical music critic of the Boston Globe), Christopher Lydon (broadcast journalist on WBUR and WGBH), Dave MacNeill (announcer & former general manager of WCRB) and John Voci (general manager of WGBH radio).

Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers Mark DeVoto (a composer and musicologist), John W. Ehrlich, Brian Jones, Peter Van Zandt Lane, and Tom Schnauber have been vocal on this subject and may be on hand.

What are the Issues on the meeting agenda to be discussed?


· Friday afternoon broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra are cancelled.

· In Boston's Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and areas south of Boston, listeners are unable to receive a clear signal from "all-classical" WCRB.

· Much of the music on WCRB is programed by a Minneapolis syndicate.

· Area listeners have lost fifty hours a week of quality classical music.

· Do we really need more talk radio and duplicative NPR programming?

· Are WGBH contributors pleased with the changes?

· Are WCRB listeners pleased?

· Will the administration at WGBH reconsider?


While I don't expect the meeting to result in a Boston Tea Party, there is a discernible mummer of outrage in the normally acquiescent local classical music scene.

But I've been through all of this before. The trend that Public Radio has taken in recent years to become more populist has inevitable consequences. Even though the WGBH charter is "not-for-profit" - they act and function like any large corporate entity. They are profit-driven.

While members of the classical music sub-culture in Boston are expressing their outrage, the feeling of being in the minority is something I've long grown use to. As a producer, participant, and follower of so-called "modern classical" I'm already a victim of circumstances. Before WGBH ended their classical music programming, I rarely heard interesting contemporary classical music programming on their airwaves. I'd have to listen to countless hours of standard fare to finally hear a new work that I was interested in. Out of 100 hours of programming, perhaps I'd hear 15-minutes of really interesting and relevant new music.

When one of Boston's greatest composers died (Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Donald Martino), WGBH hardly acknowledged the fact. My understanding is that they only played a short recording of one of his very early clarinet and piano works. Their response wasn't in concordance with the true sentiments of the classical music community, let alone the values of new music enthusiasts such as myself.

I've long grown accustomed to living in a cultural ghetto. The new music ghetto is a sub-genre that acquires its classification as a fringe subgroup under the marginally larger (but declining) classical music ghetto. As the larger system collapses under the weight of commercialism, so too will the new music scene suffer. New music interests are generally parasitic, and their biological host (mainstream classical music) is gravely ill.

The good news is that living in a micro-subculture has always been challenging - to say the least. You can't destroy something that hardly exists in the first place. The new music community is, and always will be, a small but zealous minority. We don't need "all-classical" radio to find our sustenance.

Perhaps I'm a Nihilist, but news of the demise of WGBH classical music radio is a symptom, not the disease itself. While WCRB is better than nothing, it can't be much worse than the inept programming that came before.

WGBH did not pay enough attention to local composers, and I had long abandoned them as a source for my musical fix. While WCRB is currently featuring inspirational sound-bytes about music from composers such as Andy Vores and Michael Gandolfi, the gesture is directed more toward fund-raising than as an act of sincere musical discussion and engagement.

WCRB, the remaining station should put their programming where their mouth is, and broadcast more than a smattering of adventurous and challenging new music. When that happens, I'll consider becoming a supporter.

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Starving Artists Group

Visual Art in the 21st century has gotten pretty weird.

Some people have lost the ability to distinguish between "original oil paintings" and mass-produced kitsch.

Every year around this time I see glitzy TV commercials announcing the arrival of the Starving Artists Group, Inc. - a Houston, Texas-based organization that travels from city to city selling their wares at suburban hotels. The Starving Artist Group is alleged to be a shady organization run by a husband and wife-team with questionable business practices.

These modern-day traveling carpetbaggers were exposed by the investigative work conducted by the folks over at Fine Art Registry dot com. It's a good read.


Here is a short quote from their blog:

When this fly-by-night outfit comes to town, it bombards local television stations with slick ads offering "original oil paintings" for $59.00 and less, and cheap frames manufactured in Mexico. I've checked the Texas corporation records and this company IS NOT IN GOOD STANDING.


My repulsion is not that someone would profit from selling garbage. We have all seen tacky imported merchandise for sale at the shopping mall. After all, this is America, and people sell and buy garbage everyday. Consuming garbage has long been an established American pastime. If someone is stupid enough to think they are purchasing an actual 24 x 36" landscape painting for $59, then what's wrong with that? All con artists know that there is a buyer for every seller, and there will always be suckers among us with money to spend.

It's also an example of marketplace capitalism at work when "garbage" is sold like a commodity out of the dark back rooms of a chain hotel for less than shopping mall prices. After all, if your are going to purchase garbage, why pay more?

But is it an honest transaction? And, what does it say about the general public's notion of art?

Perhaps the thing that disturbs me the most is the advertised premise that the product is in fact "art." How can that be disputed? The law appears to be on their side. The company probably pays their lawyers far more than their "artists."

Although it may be legal, it seems to me that the local media TV advertisement is exploitative and distasteful on several levels...

For starters, Starving Artist Group is probably exploitative of the creators of their product - and they make no bones about it. The so-called artists are undoubtedly slaving away in sub-standard factory conditions for pennies per day somewhere in the the third world. It would not surprise me to find that the "Starving Artists" are in fact child labor - exploited and indeed starving.

I have a dire image in my head of the actual assembly line where the mass-produced paintings are passed down from station to station along a chain of unhappy workers. It's most likely an efficient manufacturing process where each color is applied by a different painter. Working in teams, a large painting that goes to market in the US for $59 can probably be produced in less time than a pair of sneakers. It's a calculated repetitive paint-by-numbers process without a stitch of creativity involved. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the brand of paint they use in the factory is toxic to both humans and house pets.

The most disheartening aspect of the larger story is that there are actually hordes of starving artists living amongst us who are deserving of attention and recognition. They would be glad to sell their paintings, or even give them away to interested connoisseurs. For them, the concept of the Starving Artist Road Show must a major insult - a slap in the face.

Support your local artists, and stay away from scams like this. Please!

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Late Bloomers

"Why do we equate genius with precocity?"

In his recent collection of previously published essays from the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell investigated this topic in "Late Bloomers." His essay was inspired by a book by David W. Galenson titled "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity."

Galenson, an economist with a passion for art, spent ten years crunching the numbers and quantifying the relative success of established artists in different phases of their careers. What resulted was something approaching a unified theory of art and an objectification of the creative modes of engagement. He believes that artists/creators fall into two main camps: Conceptual and Experimental.

Along the way Galenson debunks the theory that suggests different types of artists produce their best work in a defined age period: e.g. poets and mathematicians when very young, philosophers when they are much older.

For Galenson, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne are poster children for his theory. Picasso was the quintessential prodigy. He had a clear vision of his work early on, and pursued his art with energy and un-waving confidence.

Cézanne on the other hand was the classic late bloomer. He spent his entire life developing his technique. It finally came together near the end.

To investigate Galenson's theory, Malcolm Gladwell visits two well-established American writers (Ben Fountain and Jonathan Safran Foer) to investigate this theory, observe their personalities, and to see how they live. What he found was quite revealing.

One of the traits of the Conceptual type is a high degree of energy. They typically achieve greatness and success early in life. These individuals are not as dependent on background research or investigation for their work. Their relationship to their art is visceral, spontaneous, and immediate. They work quickly, with the fire of inspiration and discovery. According to Gladwell, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer is such an individual, and he falls into the Conceptual type classification.

The other genus of creativity is the Experimental artist. These individuals obsess about their work, do extensive research, continually hone their skills, and agonize about every step along the way. They tend to have a long trajectory - often revising their previous efforts and building upon them. They view art as an extensive life-long process that unfolds over many decades of exploration and laborious experimentation. Late bloomers are perfectionists.

While Gladwell does not explore artists working in the field of music, my mind naturally wandered into the domain of musical composition. How would the two definitions of creative type (Conceptual or Experimental) fare when applied to composers?

I do believe that the craft of musical composition is somewhat unique compared to many other disciplines. It seems like visual artists, writers, mathematicians and scientists peak early. And yes, while there is a list of child prodigies and precocious composers throughout history, many composers remain active well into their golden years.

Recently composer Elliott Carter celebrated his 101st birthday, and many people (but not all) believe that he has done his best work late in life. The same case could be made for Verdi, Strauss, Sessions, Boulez, Messiaen, etc (you can add your own favorites to this list). But it's not simply a matter of age, or the ability to attain it with enough sound mind to be rational and productive.

Malcolm Gladwell has a deep appreciation for both types of creative artists. The end-of-the-day results from either camp are formative. Yet I detect a sense of sympathy, respect, and awe regarding the struggles of the Experimental type of artist. They have more hurdles to hop over. Author Ben Fountain quit his job as a real-estate attorney in Dallas to pursue writing. It took him 18 years before he had his first breakthrough while his wife supported him. Being a late-bloomer has its consequences.

The Experimental artist, writer, or composer is an accidental miracle of sorts. If it were not for the blessing and protection of generous patrons and supporters (implicit or explicit), we'd never experience their work. For them to evolve to the stage where they can finally produce mature fruit, someone along the way bought them lunch, paid for an exhibition, or stood by their side. Late bloomers are not late starters, inherently lazy, or hopelessly inefficient. They just take longer to get the job done.

Fortunately, the results are well worth the wait.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Tis the Season

...to sell CDs

It's been a long time since classical musicians and opera singers have attained Mega-Superstar status in the eye of the general public. For this type of musician, it seems as if the very highest level of fame and notoriety has been reserved for only a hand full of greats (such as Caruso).

However, this year I have noticed a concerted effort by the recording companies to market their classical artists a more aggressively way - perhaps out of sheer desperation. For example, I've seen prominent television commercials promoting hefty CD box sets of music performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell. It's not everyday that one sees a spiffy Yo-Yo Ma TV commercial. Then again, his new box set of 90 CDs lists for $789.98. That's more than I paid for my first car!

Perhaps it is the Holiday Season that prompts the mainstream broadcast networks let a classical artist onto their set. High Holidays = High Culture.

Such was the case last evening when two-time Grammy winner Renée Fleming appeared live from LA on (of all places) The Late Late Show with Craig Furguson.

Clearly, her label Decca had arranged for Ms. Fleming to appear on the air to sell her new CD titled Verismo. The CD was released in September, and has already been a commercial success by classical music standards. Her new recording features a collection of rarely heard Italian arias with the Orchestra Giuseppe Verdi di Milano conducted by Marco Armiliato.


Renée Fleming is no stranger to the wider media. She has represented Rolex and launched her own line of fragrance, "La Voce by Renée Fleming." Her brand well-placed.

So it is natural that I stayed up past my usual bed time to hear one of America's great opera singers on television. Her latest CD is an interesting compilation that celebrates the composers of the "Verismo" style.

Verismo refers to a post-Romantic Italian operatic tradition. It is associated with Italian composers such as Giacomo Puccini, but its practitioners were greatly influenced by the work of Richard Wagner. Verismo advocates naturalism and realism on the stage as well as in the music. The score is written to reflect the scenery, action, or a character’s feelings, but arias are not tailored to wow the audience with catchy melodies or vocal gymnastics.

How often do we have the opportunity to hear one of these musical rarities, such as an aria by Umberto Giordano, on late night TV?


Umberto Giordano (1867 - 1948) was from Southern Italy and one of the great practitioners of the Verismo style. His opera Siberia had been a success. It is set in Russia during the first half of the 19th century. After the opera's New York première, it was suggested that the plot was based on Tolstoy's novel Resurrection.

The world-première of Siberia took place on December 19th, 1903 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The composer revised it in 1927. Little did he know that his music would later be featured on the Late Late Show with Criag Furguson.

The "Monday night run-up to Xmas Show" began in typical form. Furguson's monologue was on the edgy side. Apparently a member of the audience had just vomited in the studio before the program went on the air, and Furguson was a warehouse full of vomit jokes. Furguson rambled on insanely about a number of vomit-related topics, and then told a story about how he had pizza cravings when he was on heroin. He managed to slip in a joke about his penis before the first commercial break.

Then it was time for the glamorous Ms. Fleming to perform. Ferguson held up her CD for the camera, and said "Verismo is Italian for Alcohol Poisoning."

She looked a little out of place in her elegant low-cut black evening gown standing before a blood-thirsty, ill-mannered audience that had just been pumped up on raunchy jokes and metaphors about vomit. But the show must go on, and it did with Giordano's beautiful aria Nel So Amore from the opera Siberia...





After the performance the network immediately cut to commercials - including one with the following catchy jingle:

Nicorette - Makes quitting suck less


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Monday, December 21, 2009

Irving Berlin

The song "White Christmas" is running through my head.

It was written by Irving Berlin, who is one of my de facto heroes. One of the local PBS stations rebroadcast the first segment of a two-part series about the composer titled "Irving Berlin’s America." It was Ben Wattenberg's informative weekly show Think Tank.

The discussion about Berlin's limitations as a musician and how he was able to work with his musical secretaries to transcribe hundreds of hit songs was fascinating. He'd start with the lyrics and melody. At some stage in the game one of his musical secretaries would sit at the piano and try-out a series of possible chords. Berlin - a perfectionist - would eventually weigh in on the one chord that he liked. It was a laborious process, but in time Berlin became "the wunderkind of Tin Pan Alley." He was a spectacular financial success too. His theatre still stands in Times Square today.

Another interesting fact is how Berlin tailored his songs specifically for certain singers, such as Fred Astaire. Astaire had about a one-octave range. Yet he could make something of a song. Cole Porter, Berlin, and the Gershwins all considered Astaire "a composer's singer" - but one octave is a pretty serious limitation to work with. In the song "Cheek to Cheek" from the movie Top Hat (1935) with Ginger Rogers, Berlin exploited Astaire's limited vocal range, making him "really reach" for his upper notes...


(The melodic range in this song is actually well over an octave, reaching down to the lower pitches at the end of the melody. Notice the word-painting on the text "highest peak")

It was Berlin ritual to write a complete song every day. He did not believe in inspiration, but thought his success was just a matter of hard and diligent work.

The PBS TV program featured:

Philip Furia, professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and author of "Irving Berlin, a Life in Song"

Robert Kimball, co-editor with Linda Emmet of "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" and

Linda Emmet, the second of Irving Berlin’s three daughters, and co-editor of "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin"


Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irving_Berlin
http://www.pbs.org/thinktank/transcript993.html

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Where Pärt and I Part


The Estonian mystic minimalist composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) is having an Orgy.


On December 19th and 20th Harvard's WHRB radio 95.3 FM presented a two-day marathon featuring 19 hours of Pärt's recorded music.

I can't say that I listened from beginning to end, but I did tune in to hear a sampling of his work distributed throughout his long and still active career. The first piece in the Orgy [a registered Trademark of Harvard University] was Pärt's Opus 1 Sonatina from 1958. The Orgy concluded with Pärt's Symphony No. 4 performed in concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall earlier this year - a work that signaled the composer's return to the symphonic form. Pärt's 3rd Symphony was written some 37 years earlier, and while not yet available on CD, can be obtained as an iTunes download.

In the United States we have been aware of Pärt's compositions since about the mid-1980s when the jazz and new music label ECM Records released some of his works. He has steadily grown in popularity.

To be honest, his music never caught my fancy. From the beginning it seemed completely antithetical to my musical interests. His music is painstakingly slow, repetitive, sparsely orchestrated, soft, built entirely on a static single mode or scale, and relentlessly periodic. My preferences in musical expression are just the opposite. I have a penchant for fast, frenetic, densely orchestrated, pitch-rich, aperiodic, abrasive, loud, grab-you-by-the-balls high-octane music. Frankly, Pärt's brand of modernism (or mystic minimalism as they say) - pretty as it can be on the surface - ain't my cup of tea.

Granted, if musical success can be measured by the number of commercial recordings or making it to WHRB's Orgy list, then Pärt's notion of music is a hands-down winner and my preference for musical discourse is dead as a door nail. My hat is off to you Mr. Pärt. But this is where we Part.

Listening to Cantus In Memoriam for Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell (1977) makes my skin itch. The entire piece is based on a series of temporally shifted lines descending along adjacent tones of the Aeolian mode. Sure, if played in tune and by good musicians, this can produce a lush and pretty sound. But is it music? The thought crossed my mind that I could write out something quite similar with my music notation software (using the cut and paste function) in less than an hour. By contrast, I have spent up to a year and a half writing a single piece of my own music. I don't want to equate time spent composing with artistic value, but jeez, something that simplistic in my view is the definition of pure boredom. Perhaps listeners latch onto the purity of the idea, but I just can't ignore the boredom aspect it.

Call me a dinosaur, but I think listeners should be presented with a wealth of aural excitement for their entertainment dollar (figuratively speaking). What Pärt offers is a sparse and immobile sonic backdrop for listeners to zone-out. Music should assault you rather than facilitate or encourage passive daydreaming. The contemporary musical aesthetic that I subscribe to says that listeners need to be emotionally and intellectually engaged, challenged, and confronted. If a composer uses his or her art as a form of meditative prayer or devotion, that's fine, but it should be a private matter. I'm a stanch advocate of secular "headache music" (as some have described it).

Another series of works by Pärt that drives me up the wall is from the Fratres collection. Fratres I (1977, revised 1983) is for string quartet. It was orchestrated in 1980 by the composer for string orchestra and percussion. [This version I heard performed a number of times by the Amsterdam Symfonietta when they were on tour in the United States. My brother-in law is a cellist]. Pärt also created a solo violin version (Fratres II) and a version for cello ensemble (Fratres III). In my view, one version of Fratres is more than enough. The music just does nothing for me.

Clearly Pärt does not have to defend his music to me or anyone else. He has become very successful. In fact, a symposium on the composer will soon be held at Boston University titled "Arvo Pärt and Contemporary Spirituality Conference." It's scheduled for March 25, 26 and 27, 2010.

"...the conference will examine Pärt’s music using and developing cross-disciplinary methodologies drawing on media studies, theological studies and different analytical approaches to music. By working on issues of interpretation it endeavors to bridge the traditional gap between scholars and performers, and it directly addresses the largest group of people who come across Pärt’s music: the audience."


Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arvo_P%C3%A4rt
http://www.arvopart.info/
http://www.sinfonietta.nl/

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Friday, December 18, 2009

twitter invite






Hi, James


yokoono has requested to follow your tweets on Twitter!

A little information about Yoko Ono:
I love dancing. I think it's better to dance than to march through life.

644,078 followers

1074 tweets

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Henry Brant

The Canadian-born American composer Henry Brant (1913-2008) was a maverick who worked well within the constraints of practical practicality. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2002.

I recently came across a review of his 25-minute piece Orbits: A Spatial Symphonic Ritual (1979) in the NY Times (6/2/2009). The work is scored for 80 trombones, soprano, and organ. It had been premiered at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, but the East coast performance must have been a sensation. Two performances took place in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum for a select audience limited to 300 people each. The trombonists stood lined up on the spiraling walkways encircling the rotunda below. Each of the 80 dispersed brass players faced down to the audience and conductor. The texturing, cascading chords, and antiphonal effects must have been spectacular.

The part of the review that caught my attention was not about the "spacial" elements of the work that Brant became so famous for, but the polystylistic nature of his work. Brant was quoted to have written that music composed in a single style could not evoke the "stresses, layered insanities and mulidirectional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit."

Polystylistic? Hum. I've never given it much conscious thought. While at times I have veered into digressions of classic jazz from the primary perspective of a post-Schoenbergian atonal framework in my own music, I've always regarded the melding of opposing styles to be a tricky business. I've got an old school bias that says that works should be unified, fully-integrated, and organic at all levels. Somehow jumping around between cultural constructs or otherwise self-contained musical languages seems a bit like channel surfing on cable TV. Flipping suddenly between CNN and "I Love Lucy" does create a jolt, but does it contribute to the overall form and expression of the work in a meaningful and artistic way? I'm unsure, but willing to see if it can be done both tastefully and in holistic fashion (e.g. Luciano Berio's orchestral work Symphonia is one possible example of successful "polystylism").

By the way, Brant's orchestration text book Textures & Timbres has been published. It is the result of his lifelong work as a conductor, composer, and teacher. He worked on it from the 1940s up his death in 2008. Early on Brant found employment in commercial radio and orchestrated numerous films for Hollywood. Later he taught orchestration classes at Juilliard.

I never met Brant, but my wife Willemien did. On June 16th, 1984 she participated in his work Mass in Gregorian Chant for Multiple Flutes performing with hundreds of flutists situated in tour boats moving up and down the canals of Amsterdam. It was part of an entire week of Brant's music performed at the annual Holland Festival.

Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Brant


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Monday, December 14, 2009

Some thoughts on hearing

Neural Science may someday develop to the point where they will explain why we listen to music. But for now, the subject of how we listen to music is complex enough.

Although there is a theory that plants like to groove to Rock music, our fellow mammals don't seem to care for it. A neural scientist at NY University said, "...if you give monkeys a choice between music and silence, they choose silence pretty strongly."

Yet every human culture studied exhibits music in some form. It seems to have always been that way. An artifact of a 43,ooo to 82,ooo-year Neanderthal bone flute was excavated recently from the cave of our distant ancestor in Germany. It's tuned for "Do-Re-Mi."

Here are a few curious facts...

Humans come with eyelids which allow us to voluntarily shut out what we see. Why didn't we evolve with ear flaps? It would be nice to turn off an annoying sound - or a bad piece of music. (Those of us with hearing-aids thankfully have volume controls).

Of all our senses, hearing seems to be the most supercharged. We hear in the equivalent of a 60" LCD flat-panel HDTV with 1080p resolution in 3D. Compared to vision, hearing can differentiate between discrete temporal events much more accurately than the human eye. A percussionist playing on a snare drum can easily tap out a repetitive pattern of twenty beats per second. We will hear each tap on the drum as an individual event in time. But when twenty successive images are presented to the eye, we see it as a movie. The brain connects the images, unifies them, and interprets the string of visual events quite differently.

This means that music can potentially express ideas and relationships that the visual arts can not. Works that push the envelope of aural perception - such as Milton Babbitt's solo snare drum piece of 1987 - "Homily" - explore rhythm to the max. The ear is faster than the eye, and when the message includes stimuli from both senses, the ear usually wins.

But just how does the brain resolve conflicts between the senses? There is at least one example where visual cues override aural input. If you watch a film where someone on the screen mouths the word "bah" while the soundtrack plays the sound of "dah," your brain will perceive the word as "bah." However, when we are confronted with other contradicting pieces of information, such as rapid flashes of light and the sound of quickfire beeps, our brains usually defer to our ears for accuracy.

The complexity of the ear-eye relationship in music is quite pronounced for the orchestral conductor. The conductor has an almost impossible task to stand before a hundred or so musicians who sit at varying degrees of distance from one another and relay a series of variable beats to them on a rather precise time-grid. Orchestral musicians all see the conductor from a different perspective, and hear the flow of the music in differing degrees of delay because of the room acoustics. They have to meld together both visual and aural information in the context of the written music sitting before them on the music stand.

For the conductor, something as simple as communicating a downbeat is fraught with complexity. The exact start-time with which s musical event begins and how it will ultimately sound has many variables. Unlike an oscillator, musical instruments don't have two states: ON or OFF. The complex and important micro-events that occur within the short attack of a single note exists well within the human perception of time.

Individually and collectively the complex acoustical soup of these events are channeled through the front-end processing of the listeners' middle and inner ear. The information is ultimately parsed, processed and interpreted by the amazing audio engineering burned into our brains.

Generally speaking, we find pleasure with what we hear. Talented and trained musicians and conductors have honed their visual-aural communication skills to maximize results and minimize collective error. Exactitude and clarity is the name of the game.

Composers often have to delegate the details of implementation of their works to conductors and musicians, but are well aware of the complexities of aural perception and the limits of human performance. It's long been known that we can hear far faster than we can physically perform.

As a consequence, some composers have ventured into the world of electronic music to exploit the full capacity of the impressive engineering of the human hearing mechanism. Computer-generated music can (and often does) move at a dizzying pace, and often outstrips even the most agile of musicians who perform on acoustic instruments. Perceptually, we can process music at a very rapid rate - taking in events far quicker than anyone can physically produce them. Some composers (such as Babbitt) have skillfully explored this rich territory of sound, and pushed both our hearing and what can be considered valid musical content right up to the limits of human perception.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Form and Function in Mozart

Last evening, as pain shot down my arm from a chronic slipped disk in my neck, I attempted to play through some Mozart sonatas on my beat up and out-of-tune piano.

Mozart's piano sonatas are old friends. They were pieces I worked on as an undergrad when I switched my principle instrument from guitar to piano. My old and tattered score is marked up with cryptic notations from countless analysis classes - including a memorable one with Andrew Imbrie at Brandeis regarding the B-flat major Sonata #13 (K. 333). I also remember an eye-opening analysis by Donald Martino of the Sonata #4 (K. 282) in E-flat major (hint: the first subject starts in measure three after an introduction).

The wide gulf between the sound I hear in my head, and what I can produce on the keyboard is at times frustrating. But it can often be enlightening. My mind wanders and I make interesting discoveries when fingering the notes that I wouldn't think about otherwise.

For example, the issue of deciding how to select a group of notes to phrase together as a unit is rather complex. It's not simply a matter of reading a phrase mark placed over a group of dots on the page. The true musical idea should emerge from the sound of music itself, and this information is not explicitly notated in the score.

How should a musician psychically divine musical phrases? Shouldn't the performer act like a sponge and receive information directly from the structure of the musical work? Often musicians proactively pencil in their markings based on long-held preconceived notions and externally acquired ideas. They assert themselves into music rather than let the music lead them. They seek to control it rather than be controlled by it.

This led me to an idea (which is probably not original): A performer should take some time to open up, become a neutral observer, and mechanically process the notes in the score in robotic fashion and without input or emotion. By playing through a group of notes on the page, the musical phrase should emerge, reveal itself, and become obvious.

Although the structure of the phrase is dependant on many factors such as pitch, harmony, melodic contour, and rhythm, the intention should be clear by listening carefully. I've learned that good composers are not ambiguous about this. The information held within the notes on the page will speak for themselves if we let them.

The notion that music "needs" a layer of interpretation is a fallacy. The music, if allowed to express itself, is the interpretation.

Well-constructed quality music is surprisingly durable and resilient to performer-induced distortions. For example, a former German Professor of mine was an amateur violist. He would perform in the university orchestra and really struggled to just play the notes. The orchestra was a far cry from performing at a professional level, but they attempted to play masterworks from the great orchestral repertory: symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The Vienna-born Professor (now deceased) confided in me that he couldn't actually play the notes, but that somehow the composer's ideas came through and were communicated despite this limitation. For some, it was a bad performance. But perhaps others were able to hear beyond the imperfections of the surface sound and take in the ideas that were implicit in the composer's musical structure.

I never forgot that.


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