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Offline Crudblud

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Talkin' Classical
« on: December 09, 2015, 01:21:30 AM »
Snupes suggested that I start a thread in which I write about classical music and do reviews and stuff, so here goes. I reckon I'll be mixing it up between reviews and general articles to keep things interesting, and I'll try to avoid being didactic about it, that is to say I'm not going to try and create an overall guide that is going to take you from beginner to expert in increments, because that simply isn't going to work. No, don't let this first post fool you, I may be writing a general introduction today, but next time I could be reviewing Stockhausen's Licht, so don't get too comfortable.

I have no idea how regularly I'll update this and I doubt many people care, but here's another project to add to the way-too-many I'm already working on!

Getting Started

Classical music has a pretty bad reputation among a lot of people, it's elitist music for snobs, or worse background music for studying and relaxation, either way something to be handled at a considerable distance and even then largely ignored. This needn't be true today, where actually getting it and listening to it is so easy that there's practically no reason not to, unless you're deaf, in which case I apologise. However, that doesn't mean it's going to be easy to explore, after all, you're talking about a tradition which spans the best part of 1000 years, from early Gregorian chant through to live electronics and beyond. New listeners generally either find themselves swamped by trying to listen chronologically to the entire western canon, or they pick up a 100 Greatest Classics compilation featuring tunes excerpted from larger works, decontexualised and thereby stripped of value. Hopefully, this post will help you, the curious newcomer, get a basic idea of how to start and where to go.

First off, it's probably best to acknowledge and accept that there isn't really a good place to start. Whether your first listen is Beethoven or Berio, you're only hearing one piece that represents a very small chunk of the overall history of classical music, not to mention that different people have different musical backgrounds, and what hooks one person can completely bewilder and scare off another. Unfortunately there isn't a formula for what you'll like based on what you already like, and there's little in the way of 1:1 between classical music and popular music. For this reason, it is best to try a little bit of this and a little bit of that, see what works for you and what doesn't.

Having said that, and I assure you there is more than a little personal bias in this suggestion, it's hard to go wrong with the transitional period from romanticism to modernism, the fin de siècle. It is an especially vibrant period, as Wagner's popularisation of chromaticism, resulting in the blooming of German late romanticism, had brought the next generation of composers to consider tonality and form in new ways, from Mahler's increasingly dissonant and structurally expansive symphonies, to Debussy's neo-modal tritone based works, and eventually Schoenberg's Second Viennese School and so-called "free atonality." You don't really need to worry about what any of those terms mean right now, but what I'm getting is that this period has enough going on to suggest a general direction for the newcomer to go in, whether looking back towards the contrapuntal rigour of baroque and the formal simplicity of early music, or forward towards the turbulent and expansive mid to late 20th century and beyond, or even both.

However you decide to start, know that while classical music is very broad and dense, with hundreds of hours of great music that you can spend a lifetime exploring in full, it needn't be chosen over other kinds of music in an oft succumbed-to false dichotomy. It also needn't be a chore, which is easy enough to avoid by not setting the whole thing up for yourself as a Herculean trial for you to endure. Listening projects can be fun once you've gotten a handle on the tradition and know at least in brief your likes and dislikes, but as a beginner the minute you start thinking to yourself "I'm gonna get the Schubert Edition and listen to all 60 discs!" is the minute you set yourself up for a miserable experience — Schubert is a great composer and all, but seriously: don't. There's also very little need for a beginner to worry about hearing multiple performances of a given piece — chances are, you aren't going to notice the difference at this stage, and on top of that you'll likely sour yourself on comparing performances, which, once your ear is more experienced, is going to be very rewarding for you.

Lastly, I'd like to talk about taste. In classical music we have the western canon, this is basically the agreed upon list of "best" or "most important" works, mostly determined by critics, musicologists, and music historians. It sounds impressive, and indeed there are many hours of great music to enjoy within its confines, but it isn't the be all and end all of great music, nor is it something you should feel intimidated by. Just because a bunch of dudes you've never heard of think all this stuff is hot shit, doesn't mean you have to agree — don't let them dictate your taste to you. By all means use it as a guide, but don't ever let it tell you what it's okay to like or dislike, trust your own ears first and foremost — there's no shame in liking, for example, Satie more than Beethoven.

So that about wraps it up. I could go on for thousands of words about all sorts of stuff that doesn't really matter to you at this point, but just like I don't think it's a good idea to build a foreboding mountain of music for yourself to climb, I have no interest in filling your head with so many ideas that you are just as clueless about classical music as you were when you started reading. I hope this post gets you interested in exploring this great musical tradition, and I hope you find these selections an enticing introduction to it.
« Last Edit: December 09, 2015, 01:33:05 AM by Crudblud »

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Offline Snupes

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #1 on: December 09, 2015, 01:27:35 AM »
Aww yeah. I'm excited.
There are cigarettes in joints. You don't smoke it by itself.

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #2 on: December 09, 2015, 08:49:42 PM »
Composer Spotlight - Klaas de Vries

Composer spotlights are articles dedicated to a single composer. (No, really?) I will mostly be focusing on less well known composers that I feel are deserving of greater exposure. Obviously, I can’t do much to make these composers famous, but I’ll certainly try to get you interested at the very least.

Klaas de Vries is a Dutch composer born in 1944. I don't actually know much about him except that he makes very interesting, striking, and beautiful music ─ I hope you will find it just as enticing as I do.

Bewegingen (1979)
Bewegingen is perhaps the most unremarkable of all the de Vries works I have heard, sitting halfway between Berio and Dutilleux in general sound profile. This is not a bad thing, as it turns out the two worlds sit beside each other quite nicely, and interestingly there is little of the Darmstadt sound in it, which normally one might expect with the Berio influence. Of note are the almost Ravellian moments of orchestration, which recall in timbre moments of Une barque sur l’ocean and slow movements from Valses nobles et sentimentales, shimmering on top of the piece’s generally dark sound.

Murder in the dark (1985)
Set of five pieces for quarter-tone harpsichord. Beyond the novelty of the instrumentation, de Vries offers up rich, dense writing in all five pieces, and the result is diverse and surprising throughout. Mainly, though, it is the deliberateness and confidence with which he handles both the timbre of the harpsichord and the extreme tone-colour potential of the twenty-four note octave that makes this such a fun listen. The pieces go in some very unexpected directions, and the final piece may well be the greatest possible response to Ligeti’s Continuum.

Abdicaçao (1996)
A setting of the poem of the same name by Fernando Pessoa for a capella choir. De Vries continues to surprise, this time through restraint and an apparent yet deceptive tonal conservatism. In fact, this time around it is Messiaen that is owed a debt of gratitude, the inspiration here is fairly obvious, yet it does things Messiaen would not do either, some parts being far closer to Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden than something like O Sacrum Convivium. The harmonic language on display throughout the bulk of the piece is therefore highly advanced and incredibly supple, as exemplified by chords shifting in their tonality with a wonderfully subtle sleight of hand. A wonderful piece.

Violin Concerto (2005)
The Schoenberg influence returns, and is almost immediately felt, but it is far from the full story. De Vries seems to be the kind of composer who takes his inspirations, makes them obvious, then contorts them into his own distinct shape, Stravinskian in some ways, not least of all his seemingly chameleonic adaptation to new territory with each new piece. The concerto is extremely varied in sound, melds the violin and orchestra in exciting and unexpected ways, indeed they seem to operate as one solid unit with many different moving parts, whether this is testament to the writing or to the quality of the performance, I cannot say, but it is mesmerising to listen to. Following what sounds to me almost like a parody of Stockhausen’s brass section writing, the piece goes off into a space very much its own, and I encourage you to explore it for yourself.

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #3 on: December 11, 2015, 05:29:42 PM »
Review: Pierre Boulez - Répons (1984)

Note: To avoid “spoilers,” I wholeheartedly recommend listening to the piece before reading this article. Music is best when it is fresh and surprising, and I believe you should experience it for yourself before hearing it through the ears of another.

I could start out by writing a big biography of Boulez (BBB), but I won’t. Boulez is such a towering figure in 20th/21st century music, both as a composer and as a conductor, that there’s nothing I could tell you that you can’t find out for yourself elsewhere. Though he has composed some of the most important works of the post-WWII era, he is best known to classical music listeners as a 26 time Grammy award-winning conductor, with hundreds of recordings of works by modern and contemporary masters from Mahler and Schoenberg to Ligeti and Stockhausen, and for bringing the musical developments and triumphs of the 20th century to wider attention and fame that it otherwise would have had. His work with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra, in addition to many others, has brought modern music almost to the mainstream, though at the age of 90 he remains annoyed at the slowness of a supposedly “fast” era which loves progress and advancement to acknowledge and accept the new paths in composition he and others have explored.

Répons, though it uses a tone row, was written well past Boulez’s hardcore serialist* phase, and almost looks backwards in form as it is presented as an updated concerto grosso. The concerto grosso is a form developed in the Baroque period which consists of a concertino (Italian for “little ensemble”) and a ripieno (It. “filling”). Though the traditional form is essentially defunct now, it has been updated many times, often appearing under names like “triple concerto” (Beethoven, Brahms) or “sinfonia concertante” (Mozart, Haydn) in the Romantic and Classical periods, and in the 20th century was famously revived by Schnittke, who combined the traditional Baroque elements with Modernist compositional techniques and instruments such as electric guitar. Boulez’s take on the form is more in line with the former, adapting the basic idea to his immediate musical environs and effectively ignoring its history, avoiding use of the name and of the Baroque trappings associated therewith.

The opening of the piece is highly reminiscent of Messiaen, Boulez’s most important teacher and mentor, in its rhythmic and harmonic content, and especially Messiaen’s groundbreaking piece Chronochromie (1960). It soon breaks out into a lovely agitato full of absolutely gorgeous figures in the winds. Here there are some clear influences on Zappa’s late period orchestra works, featured on The Yellow Shark, especially parts of Pentagon Afternoon and Times Beach II. This highly energetic movement dies down and the concertino is at last introduced in a dazzling flurry of pitched percussion and live electronics.

To get a sense of what is meant by “live electronics,” I’ll break from the piece proper for a moment to talk about some of the developments which precede it. Varèse, in the 1930s, wrote Ecuatorial, which combines acoustic instruments with theremins (later Ondes Martenot), then, in the 1950s, he combined orchestra with musique concrète, electronic collage music pre-constructed and played back via tape, in his late masterwork Déserts. These were important developments, although ─ due to Varèse’s obscurity ─ they were not widely felt among the music world. However, some were listening, and composers like Cage and Stockhausen were keen to take a look at further developing the interrelation of the acoustic and the electric, and, especially in the case of the latter, the electronic. While Cage dabbled purely with amplification in his Catridge Music (1960), Stockhausen in the 1960s and ‘70s was among the first composers to seamlessly blend the two, and even more impressively to modify the signal input in a live setting and create with it an output that was distinctly electronic in nature. It has since proliferated into myriad forms, a discussion of which falls some way outside the purview of this article.

So here is Boulez, using live electronics in his Répons, which is French for “responsorial,” referring very specifically to the electronic response to the acoustic input. It is a work of transitions of information between two layers of technology, mechanical and digital, resting on a bed of yet more layers of sound. The piece is, for me, at least, very easy listening due to the seamlessness and softness of its sound. It is, like the micropolyphony of Ligeti, a music which operates as an atmosphere more than a progression of clear-cut ideas, material developments, and sections, yet Boulez’s flair for the dramatic and his penchant for gesture offer up tantalising contradictions that make it more than one or the other. The music is very fluid, timbrally rich and sensuous, a big comfy sonic bed, but certainly not the saccharine and platitudinous Classic FM repertoire one might associate with such imagery. Its ability to fuse this with moments of great tension is striking, and the piece never once becomes dull.

A section in the middle of the piece, sparse and “cadenzamente”**, is one of few moments in which Boulez seems to take breathing space, delighting in the slow decay of the instruments in his concertino and almost to break from, subtracting the aural sea which otherwise carries the music. As the larger structure of Répons becomes apparent, we will see that this is not the case, but for now it is one of the most surprising moments of the piece, as the electronics are laid bare. To the ears of the present day listener, a certain datedness of sound will be apparent, after all, the technology has advanced so much since then that this is positively primitive, but this is a superficial concern which one must get beyond to access the greater depths of the music and the rich rewards it offers to those who do so.

The second half of the piece recalls at first the opening agitato, not in material but in mood, but, as one might expect, goes further, becoming brash and intense, fiery. But it is the sheer layeredness of Boulez’s orchestration which captures my attention most even here. Boulez is a composer and a conductor, and like with Mahler, who was also best known as a conductor in his own lifetime, the composer’s intimate understanding of the orchestra and orchestration is apparent in every bar, is indeed exploited to the fullest extent, sparing no expense in the creation of this deep, dense, and rich sound-world. Yet for all its internal logic and atmospheric continuity, it does not let up any in the department of surprise. Consider for a moment that, in the final quarter of its duration, Répons returns to Messiaen, but contrasts it in a most fascinating matter with something almost approaching jazz. Of course, this is just how my ears pick it up, and at no point should you confuse my interpretation with a representation of the composer’s intent, which rightfully belongs to Boulez and Boulez alone. But why is this interesting, you ask? It may be little more than an in-joke for all my belabouring of the point, but Messiaen was known to not be fond of jazz, so to hear what I think of as Boulezian facsimiles of both side by side is something which makes a nerd like myself cackle internally.

As we reach the finale, I’m going to disgrace myself and indulge in shameless poetics. The last “cadenzamente” (yep, still using it) has both an insistence to its rhythms and an odd sparsity which, taken together, have a great sense of finality about them. The piece slows down, breaking up into fragments sporadically thrown out over a surprisingly simple and rigid meter, it almost sounds like a child’s music box fed into algorithmic processing machine and spat back out through loudspeakers, coming to rest ultimately like distant bells ringing out across vast fields.

Répons is, for me, one of Boulez’s towering works like Le marteau sans maître (1955), Rituel (1975), and the Notations for orchestra (1978, rev. 1999), and offers a great introduction to his post-serialist musical sensibilities, but it should also be noted that, like any of his pieces, it stands alone, as Boulez’s body of work consists not of one linear progression from the old to the new but of many distinctive and individual pieces which constantly unveil new facets of his musical thinking. Hopefully, between listening to Répons and reading this piece (and, I hope, in that order) you are interested in continuing to explore the work of this paradoxically famous yet forgotten master, who is surely among the most vital and fascinating composers of our time.

*I will be writing an article on serialism at some point in the future, so stay tuned
**My horrible attempt to restyle the Italian “come una cadenza” (“like a cadenza”) into a single word

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #4 on: December 15, 2015, 11:59:03 PM »
Noob Corner - Maurice Ravel

Noob Corner is basically Composer Spotlight but for composers that are already well known and “essential” for want of a better word. I won’t be covering every famous composer ever, because in some cases, Mendelssohn for example, I’m just not interested enough in the music to have much to say, and attempts to enthuse will not only come across phony, they actually will be, and I’m not interested in lying to you. The main purpose is to introduce newcomers to famous composers through selections of whole works while avoiding stuff everyone already knows, e.g.: if I talk about Beethoven don’t expect to see Piano Sonata No. 14. Alternatively you could pretend Noob Saibot is a big fan of classical music and has hijacked my account temporarily. As usual, I will provide links to recordings on YouTube, though it should be noted that YT will not necessarily have my recommended recordings available, so I will have to make a compromise in at least a few cases. I will also offer alternatives when recommending old recordings, as their lesser sound quality may make for unpleasant first impressions. But enough preamblery, let’s get on with the show!

Maurice Ravel was born in such and such a time and lived in such and such a place yadda yadda yadda. These days most people will know him for a piece called Boléro, which he spoke of dismissively as a “piece for orchestra without music.” Its status pretty much puts it in the pops (popular classics) repertoire these days, having been used in everything from Star Trek to advertising to famous figure skating routines, and for a time was even Koji Kondo’s original choice for the opening theme to The Legend of Zelda, and you’re guaranteed to find it on any number of Greatest Classics compilations played by orchestras from all over the world. You may well have heard its melody hundreds of times without knowing what it is or who composed it, because it has become so ingrained in popular culture that pretty much everyone can hum it regardless of their interest or lack thereof in classical music. A good performance is nothing to sneer at, as its gradual build up of timbre and colour must be executed with high precision by the musicians, yet its ubiquity within the amorphous blob of pretty tunes that is “classical music” in the public consciousness paints a rather one-sided portrait of Ravel, who both before and after its completion ─ though it is among his last works ─ composed many pieces of stunning diversity and originality. I’ve selected some of these, mostly my own favourites, but also balanced in variety of genre (genre in classical music, e.g.: string quartet, is typically tied to a specific instrumentation or form), to give a glimpse of the other side.

Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1930)
Written for Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) who had lost his right arm in the First World War, the piano part of this concerto is written to be played with the left hand only. Immediately Ravel’s masterful orchestration techniques are shown off with the unusual choice of double basses and solo contrabassoon, a warm and dark opening which leads into a grand orchestral crescendo to finally introduce, without accompaniment, the piano. At first the ear might be confused, surely this music is too complicated and dense to be played with only one hand? Well, no, but therein lies the challenge of writing a left-handed piano piece. Ravel is far from the first composer to write such music for a keyboard instrument, and he undertook a detailed study of Saint-Saëns’s études for the left hand in preparation. Although an arrangement for two hands and orchestra was made by the pianist Alfred Cortot, and even recorded with noted Ravel conductor Charles Munch, the arrangement was thoroughly denounced by Ravel, and today it is pretty much unheard of in the concert hall or in recorded music ─ hell, I didn’t know about it until I started researching for this article, and I’m fairly well read when it comes to Ravel. In any case, this is one hell of a concerto, and at just under twenty minutes it’s very easy to listen to it again and again and fall in love with it. I hope you do.

Shéhérazade (1903)
Named after the imprisoned storyteller from The Thousand-and-One Nights, this short song cycle for soprano and orchestra sets the poetry of Tristan Klingsor. Ravel had previously composed a concert overture of the same name in 1898, it was rather harshly received by critics at its première due to its heavy Russian influence, and was soon after dismissed by Ravel himself. That piece has largely been forgotten though can still be found on many box sets of his orchestral works, and is worth hearing for curious folks. The song cycle, on the other hand, was an immediate success, and again displays the composer’s great orchestrational skill. The first song, also the longest and perhaps most impressive of the three, Asie is something of a showpiece, dramatic, lyrical, flowing, contrasting, and full of fascinating treatment of timbre and orchestral colours, and was originally supposed to be the finale, but Ravel later ordered it first, and the cycle in its final form is one of gradual releasing of tension, as the music becomes simpler and calmer from one song to the next. I know not everyone, especially among newcomers, likes the styles of singing associated with classical music, and that’s fine, but it’s definitely something I recommend trying to develop at least a tolerance for, as otherwise you’ll be missing out on many wonderful pieces. This cycle is a great way to become acquainted with the classical female voice, written as it is in a lush and inviting style, and I find it hard to believe someone could not be enticed to explore further after getting to grips with it.

Miroirs (1905)
Ravel composed some of the finest suites of piano music of the first half of the 20th century, and this one is my personal favourite, though his Le Tombeau de Couperin and Gaspard de la Nuit are both very fine in their own right. Made up of five distinct pieces, the suite typically lasts around thirty minutes and displays Ravel’s diversity of stylistic interests, his technically demanding piano writing, and his ability to write “orchestrally” for solo instruments. This last is especially prevalent in the third piece, Une barque sur l’ocean, which, along with the fourth piece, was later orchestrated. From the busy opening of Noctuelles to the hazy and distant La Vallée des cloches, Miroirs is captivating and beautiful.

Note: For this piece I have chosen a live recording from 1965 by Sviatoslav Richter, but first time listeners may find the less than pristine sound quality and live setting off-putting, so I will provide a more recent though for me less interesting alternative by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. In actual fact my preferred recording is that of Samson François, but this recording has not been collected into a single video on YouTube, and the individual videos don’t seem to work anyway.

Piano Trio (1914)
A very delicate piece, the trio is sprightly, shimmering, and rich in melody and harmony. Ravel’s writing for piano, violin, and cello is typically dense and full of timbrel variety, though the bravura is offset by sections of considerable restraint and sparsity, showcasing his delicate touch and subtlety, as well as his perfectionist tendencies. Ravel completed some eighty-five works in his lifetime, often remarked upon as a small output in the grand scheme of classical music, and while it certainly doesn’t match Mozart or Schubert in prolificity, it more than makes up for it through its incredibly high levels of quality, thanks to the composer’s meticulous working processes and extreme, often obsessive attention to detail. Pretty much all of his mature works, whether large or small in scale and duration, feel like the work of a master craftsman and are ripe with subtleties that can only really be discovered through repeated listening. The trio is no exception, and I hope you find it every bit as captivating as I do.

La Valse (1920)
This is the last selection I’ll be writing about in any sort of detail. Ravel’s relationship with dance music developed over his career, eventually culminating in Boléro which, for all its apparent banality, is one of the forerunners of minimalism and is actually kind of fascinating to look at in detail, if you have the patience for that. La Valse, however, may be his finest dance piece, a roughly twelve-minute work for orchestra that focuses on a single subject, its namesake: the waltz. Like Boléro it focuses on a fairly narrow range of basic materials, however, here Ravel continually develops and reworks his building blocks, mutating them into increasingly warped forms as the piece goes on, culminating in one of the greatest climaxes in modern orchestral music. Listen and see for yourself, the selected recording conducted by Pierre Monteux captures the full colour and intensity of Ravel’s writing, and presents the controlled chaos of this piece in all its glory.

Further Listening

By Ravel:
Daphnis et Chloé (1913)
Piano Concerto in G major (1931)
String Quartet in F major (1903)
Introduction and Allegro (1905)
L’heure espagnole (1907) [opera]

By other composers:
Gabriel Fauré - Nocturne No. 6 (1894)
Claude Debussy - Nocturnes for orchestra (1899)
Igor Stravinsky - The Firebird (1910)
« Last Edit: December 16, 2015, 12:04:59 AM by Crudblud »

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #5 on: December 21, 2015, 02:19:57 AM »
Composer Spotlight - John Cage

This is a Composer Spotlight and not a Noob Corner because, while Cage is a very famous composer, he is famous for completely the wrong reasons. Most of you will have heard of the “silent” piece 4’33’’, which is typically used as grounds to dismiss Cage as a charlatan, in addition to a major example of the artistic bankruptcy of the post-WW2 avant garde ─ both by reactionary conservatives more often that not. After all, here’s a man laying claim to silence as if it were his own invention, right? Well, no, not really. Not at all, in fact. Cage’s interest in creating this piece was to put forward the point of view that there is no such thing as silence, that all sounds are music. In some sense he also seeks to satirise concert music, instructing performers to play nothing for the titular duration, which is further split into three movements with ad libitum breaks between each, which, dependent on the context of the performance and chance within that context, could either be distinct or indistinct. 4’33’’ could be the ultimate exploration of minimalism as a concept, consisting of precisely zero notes, or it could be the purest example of chance music, a framework in which potential sounds may occur. It is perhaps best considered in terms of Cage’s point in composing it than in the actual fact of its composition, but however it is viewed, its lasting relevance to music listeners, whether they appreciate it or hate it, cannot be denied.

But if a discussion of Cage centres on 4’33’’ to the exclusion of all else, it is a very poor discussion indeed. Of the hundreds of pieces he composed, few seem to enter the spotlight alongside this overemphasised work, but they are there, and while I cannot be exhaustive, that’s hardly the point of this thread. Here are a few selections from his vast body of work which I hope will interest you. Given that each selection is unique in focus and sound, I have opted to provide further listening recommendations on a per piece basis.

The City Wears a Slouch Hat (1942)
For this radio play, Cage collaborated with the writer Kenneth Patchen. The music is a great example of the percussion writing which dominated Cage’s early work, and Patchen’s surreal narrative only sweetens the deal, making this one of the most straightforward and “tangible” introductions to Cage’s music in general. The recording in the title link is not the original but I much prefer it, it is a much more recent recording with great sound quality and acting, both of which I find to be lacking in the original production.

Further Listening
Robert Ashley - Perfect Lives (Episodes 5-7 missing, but they’re pretty easy to find elsewhere these days)
Frank Zappa - Civilization Phaze III


Thirteen Harmonies (1985)
This is actually not an official Cage work. The music in it was composed by Cage, but this is actually by musician Roger Zahab, 13 pieces selected from a much larger work called Apartment House 1776 (1976), the result of chance operations applied to harmonies from works by 18th century American composers, and originally written to mark the 200th anniversary of the found of the United States of America. These 13 selections (out of an original 44) are arranged by Zahab for violin and electric piano, an instrumentation which relates back to Cage’s own music for piano and violin. The music is simple, easy, straightforward, almost naive. It is a fine example of Cage’s unique position in the avant garde of his time, he was a provocateur not only of the establishment but of the avant garde too, and delighted in music of great simplicity where other frontier composers of his time celebrated extreme complexity.

Further Listening
John Cage - Six Melodies
Antonio de Cabezon - Quatro Favordones
Johann Sebastian Bach - Sonatas for Violin and Piano, BWV 1014-1019


Aria (Fontana Mix) (1958)
A fairly simple and short introduction to Cage’s tape music and approach to vocal work. Cathy Berberian, the wife of the Italian composer Luciano Berio, sings the aria, which consists of twenty pages of notation, over the Fontana Mix. Or more accurately a realisation of the Fontana Mix, which is in fact a set of instructions for creating a tape construction rather than a tape construction in itself. If that sounds confusing to you, wait until we get to Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise! I have no idea if I will ever discuss that piece, but it makes the set-up for this look relatively straightforward, trust me. In any case, the piece is lively and varied, though first time listeners should be wary of the density of the tape construction and the exploitation of extended technique throughout, both of which can make for a somewhat “heavy” first impression.

Further Listening
Edgard Varèse - Poème électronique
Karlheinz Stockhausen - Gesange der Jünglinge
Jonathan Harvey - Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco


Seven² (1990)
In the last few years of his life, Cage focused on creating what he called “number pieces.” The works are essentially the culmination of Cage’s life’s work, combining chance operations, improvisation, rigid notation, and extended techniques into a single form. The title refers to two things, the number of performers and the number of pieces written for that number, so Seven² is the second number piece written for seven performers, while the full series of forty pieces runs from one performer to one-hundred-and-one performers. The number pieces were created with a very strict sense of time in mind, pieces last for a precise duration, and within this temporal framework there are time brackets, smaller spaces within which the notated events occur ─ a major exception to this is One³, which is a version of 4’33’’ in which the only instruction is to amplify the performance space to the brink of feedback, without actually crossing the threshold. Time brackets can be strict (e.g.: 2’30’’-3’00’’) or floating (e.g.: start 2’30’’-2’50’’ / end 3’00’’-3’30’’) and typically consist of small cells of material. In the case of Seven², the brackets consist mainly of drones, with only silence in between, resulting in a very sparse piece, almost the antithesis of the Aria.

Further Listening
John Cage - Sixty-Eight
Morton Feldman - Five Pianos
Alvin Lucier - Music for Piano with Magnetic Strings

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #6 on: December 27, 2015, 03:10:32 PM »
Noob Corner - Johann Sebastian Bach

Depending on who you ask, Bach is the greatest composer to ever live. Even people who have listened only to the Toccata and Fugue in D minor seem to agree, even though the authenticity of that particular work has been doubted for a very long time, since its publication in 1833 by Felix Mendelssohn, Bach’s champion in the Romantic period, whose advocacy resulted eventually in the absolute pedastalisation of Bach at the top of the western canon. Bach is fairly inescapable, so we might as well get him out of the way now before I can be accused of neglecting the important stuff. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Bach, I haven’t heard all the cantatas or the passions or Das Wohltemperierte Klavier I & II in their entirety, and I’m pretty much the worst person to ask for the best recordings of any of his works, so as usual I present to you a selection of favourites, with a little idiosyncrasy in the choice of recording.

It’s worth noting that Bach is frequently arranged for lots of different instrumentations, you can find his keyboard works performed on anything from a clavichord to a Moog synthesiser, or even arranged for ensembles such as string quartet, and I guess this is commonly cited as an example of the purity of his music. His lines are so well defined that they can be arranged for rubber band guitars and still sound right, basically.

Sechs Sonaten für Geige und Cembalo, BWV 1014-1019
While Bach and other baroque composers frequently have their keyboard works played on modern pianos these days, and while most people seem to like it that way, I much prefer the sound of a good harpsichord in this repertoire. What you lose in expressivity by choosing the harpsichord over the piano you gain in character and sprightliness, its sharp attack and bright tone are especially suited to the densely ornamented style of Baroque keyboard writing, be it Bach, Couperin, Scarlatti, or even Händel. The dense harpsichord writing complements the smooth and airy violin which, especially in the adagios, has a very spacious feel, though it is also given plenty of bravura moments in which to shine in a more virtuosic and obvious manner.

Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080
The Art of Fugue is one of Bach’s most famous works, and I have chosen a recording on harpsichord, this a fairly recent one by Sergio Vartolo. Fugue, in basic terms, is a contrapuntal form in which one voice ─ that is a melodic line ─ “chases” another through imitation, which is a kind of transposed repetition. Bach’s fugues are famous, considered by many to be the greatest exemplars of the form, and also highly complex, often using three, four, or sometimes even seven voices imitating and following each other, and even multiple subjects which may be dependent or independent. The form is differentiated from the canon, another “following” form, as the strict counterpoint that forms the basis of fugue sooner or later results in considerable divergence between each line, though the work also features pieces written in canon form. I’ve barely scratched the surface and you are probably already expecting fugues for these and other more complex reasons to be quite difficult to follow, but Bach’s penchant for clean lines make for accessible and compelling listening despite what might otherwise be an alienating level of complexity ─ never fear, trust your ear!

Goldberg-Variationen, BWV 988
Theme and variations has been a popular form for a long time, especially among the German tradition. In addition to Bach, sets of variations on both original themes and themes of other composers have been composed by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg and many others. The essential principle is to take the content of the principal theme and represent it in as many new guises as possible, thus the form has historically been a peacock-like display of compositional ingenuity, perhaps most famously in the Diabelli Variations by Beethoven, which is a set of thirty-three variations on a waltz by the Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli. The Goldberg Variations is roughly just as famous, and features thirty variations, but these are on an original theme of Bach, which is titled ‘Aria.’ For this article I’ve chosen a recording with accordion, though more commonly the piece would be performed on piano or harpsichord. I chose the accordion because, in addition to being a huge fan of the instrument in general, I want to try and showcase the universality which is commonly associated with Bach’s music, and to round out the array of keyboard instruments beyond the harpsichord which has so far dominated.

Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079
One of Bach’s most important contrapuntal works, originally written for solo keyboard instrument, this is yet another set of fugues and canons. More so than The Art of Fugue, where the through line is fairly well obscured on the superficial level, The Musical Offering has a very obvious thematic continuity, with each of the sections clearly exhibiting the principal theme or variation upon it. This is the thema regium or King’s Theme, given to Bach by Frederick the Great, and it dominates the entire composition, including the famous Ricercar a 6, a six-voice fugue commonly considered to be among the most important of all keyboard works. Instead of a keyboard performance, however, I’ve chosen an arrangement by Jordi Savall for his HIP ensemble Le Concert des Nations. HIP, which stands for historically informed performance, started in the 20th century as a means of performing early music with greater accuracy than is afforded by modern instrumentation, ensembles reflect those typical of the day in size and instrumentation, featuring instruments rarely used today such as the viola da gamba and viola d’amore.

Further Listening
Anton Webern - Fuga (Ricercata), Bach’s Ricercar a 6 arranged for chamber orchestra in Webern’s Klangfarbenmelodie style
Ludwig van Beethoven - Große Fuge, Op. 133
Max Reger - Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, Op. 132
Igor Stravinsky - Chorale Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her”, orchestration of Bach’s Canonic Variations
Sofia Gubaidulina - Offertorium, based on the deconstruction and eventual reorganisation of the thema regium from Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #7 on: December 28, 2015, 01:30:10 AM »
To break up the monotony of composer specific articles, here's something more general, and on a topic which a lot of people seem to have difficulty with.

Comparing Recordings

Classical music differs sharply from most musical traditions in that performance is in many cases just as important as composition. Many different musicians will interpret, perform, and record music in the standard repertoire, as a result there are quite literally hundreds of recordings of pieces like Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550 which may be fairly indistinguishable to most listeners. Whether that’s the Classical era culture of favouring elegance and clarity over expressivity or simply the ear is beside the point, the point is there are a lot of recordings out there, and whether made cheaply by no-name performers for obscure budget labels or with the utmost expense and attention to detail by a major ensemble for a major label (and it should be noted that these aren’t the only common cases, there are Naxos budget recordings from people you’ve never heard of that shit all over big name orchestras on Deutsche Grammophon) ultimately you’re going to have a bunch of recordings of the same piece of music all vying to be considered the best, and at first many of them may seem pretty much interchangeable. This is often the case with repertoire that has been around long enough and prominently enough to have built up a quasi-objective profile of public expectation, and as a result there tends to be a certain inflexibility of interpretation, so that from one performance, one recording to the next you’ll essentially get the same experience. New Beethoven symphony cycles, for example, are recorded and released every year, and there are probably something like 100 different sets readily available, multiple sets on the same label, right now as you’re reading this, and they all sound alike.

I’ve been asked many times by people who don’t have much experience with classical music: how do you tell the difference between recordings, it’s all the same music, right? It’s a tricky but vital question to answer. First, you have to consider that terms like “mezzo-forte” and “Allegro con brio” are not strictly defined, nor do they indicate rigid parameters that every musician will approach in the same way. A particularly famous example is the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, despite the tempo marking, which indicates a “diminished adagio,” that is to say the adagio (slow) quality is less strongly felt, so the overall pace should be closer to, though not exactly, an andante (roughly a sauntering pace, like if you’re wandering around a wide open space, not in any particular hurry), the typical recording runs for eleven minutes, where Mahler’s own standard was a fairly brisk seven. Just compare this near-authoritative rendition by Mahler’s friend and associate Bruno Walter (Walter is generally considered to be the closest to Mahler’s own conducting, though we will never know for sure as Mahler never got the chance to record) with this extremely popular and very slow take by Herbert von Karajan. I won’t give you any “guidance” on this, just remember to trust your own ear.

A more explicit example can be found in older repertoire, especially of the Classical, Baroque and yet older periods. In the 20th century, attention began to shift towards recreating the specifics of period performance, this movement, which has gained considerable popularity since its inception, is known as historically informed performance, or HIP. Among HIP’s most prominent features are its exclusive use of period appropriate instruments, more often than not new builds modelled on instruments of the period, but far from modern technique in performance and even farther from modern instruments in sound. Prior to the solidification of the modern orchestra following the expansions and innovations in orchestration that ran throughout the Romantic period from Berlioz to Wagner to Mahler, orchestras were typically much smaller, in some cases coming closer to what would be considered a chamber orchestra in modern times, and while non-HIP performances will often feature reduced forces to account for this, the difference between a period ensemble and a modern one is still very much obvious. As you’ll hear by comparing this Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin recording (HIP) with this one by James Galway (non-HIP) of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Flute Concerto in D minor, H. 425, the difference in sound alone is one of dramatic contradiction, and then there are the sheer differences in interpretation on top of that.

Orchestral music is all good and well, but what about different interpretations of chamber music, or music for solo performers? It can be seen as a bell curve comparing the democracy of performance with the size of the ensemble; at the tapered end on the left there is the orchestra, which is pretty much dictated to by the conductor; on the right-most end the solo performer, who has no one to hold them accountable but themselves. In the middle, at the crest of the curve, are the ensembles too small to require a conductor yet too large to allow for truly free interpretation, so these ensembles, though they may have a leader (e.g.: first violin leads a string quartet), tend to be more democratic in their approach, with near enough everyone having a say. This is also because the people who make up such ensembles are typically accomplished soloists in their own right, virtuosic beyond the capabilities of the average player in an orchestra, and will have plenty of insight to offer regardless of their overall status within the group. Try comparing the Borodin Quartet with the Alban Berg Quartett in Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135; right away you’ll notice that where the Borodins favour a brighter, slightly faster approach, the Bergs take it a little slower and emphasise dynamic contrasts, and that’s just in the opening few bars. For the ubiquitous solo piano, check out these interpretations of Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Dinu Lipatti has a very sharp attack and bold dynamic contrasts here while Jean-Yves Thibaudet takes a clean, moderate, relatively safe approach here.

If you’ve listened to all the examples, hopefully by now you’ve got a pretty good idea of just how much two recordings can differ from one another. While in some cases these differences can be put down to the personal taste of the performer, it’s also worth considering the era of the performance. You can see just how different Lipatti is from Thibaudet in the last example, but Lipatti’s brash and intense apprach was not necessarily unusual back in the 1940s, when performers would often take greater liberties and risk more mistakes for expressivity’s sake. In our time the performer has become less an interpreter than an executor, their performances are often cleaner, more accurate, but they are also often safer, blander, stripped of personality for the sake of appealing in a mass market. The commoditisation of classical music has hit pretty hard, and it can be very difficult to get past the interchangeables that make up Classical Music the Amorphous Blob of Pretty Tunes and reach the bold and unique statements which fulminate in the depths beyond. While the recordings may have become more homogeneous in the past couple of decades, the ease of access to recordings from the 1930s right through to this year is improving all the time, and the old stuff is even getting nicely restored and remastered to compete with the shiny new shit on an increasingly frequent basis. Yes, these days the classical music world is your oyster, and the situation indicates only further improvements for the listener, if not necessarily for the performer, so get out there and explore.

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #8 on: December 30, 2015, 03:54:12 PM »
Noob Corner-ish: Ludwig van Beethoven

Snupes asked if I could write about Beethoven, so here we are. I didn’t know what to write at first, but then I remembered something I had written about him earlier in the year, around June or so. That little bit of prose, unedited, makes up the bulk of the first paragraph, and serves as the basis for the rest of this (mercifully) brief article. In keeping with the usual deal around here, I’m more interested in sharing music with you than talking about it, so scroll down for yet more listening recommendations, this time in the form of a super duper all-Beethoven list, plus further listening from some of the most important early romantic composers whose work he so heavily influenced.

Beethoven. He’s everywhere. Can’t get rid of him. He gets millions of hits of YouTube, fills concert halls all over the world, every one of his works is recorded time and time again, and people keep on eating it up no matter how monotonous and uniform it is from one interpretation to the next. Why? I don't think it has as much to do with the music as one might hope, rather I would suggest that the mythologising of Beethoven is what does it. It may have started with the music, but today he is a larger than life figure, no mere composer, but a symbol of struggle and the triumph of the human spirit; a tormented, brooding figure who looked deep into the soul of man, and a writer of great masterpieces who had to wrestle with his deafness over every note. Beethoven's milkshake brings all the boys to the yard precisely because he has been remade in the public consciousness as a paragon of will and determination, to embody the "I can" in all of us, a towering inspirational figure who also has the human flaws that allow us to recognise him as one of us — he's in the gutter with the rest of us, but he is looking up at the stars. He's got it all, not even the grossly romanticised Mahler or Shostakovich or Tchaikovsky have had so much nonsense lavished upon them in popular analysis, there is no other composer who has been made into a myth on the same level as Beethoven.

Now, I don’t mean to paint Beethoven as a shitty composer coasting now on an overinflated reputation and a by rote forcing of his music into every corner in which it will fit, and even some in which it won’t. At least some of those things are true, but Beethoven was not a shitty or lazy composer, his music is not shitty or lazy either, it’s painstaking and forceful stuff that shocked the ears of the establishment at the time ─ even in his extremely tame early works he was seen as something of an enfant terrible by his teacher, the Classical era master Joseph Haydn. Yes, before his transformation from man to myth, Beethoven was busy being perhaps the first true revolutionary figure in classical music. Before him there was plenty of development, yes, but it was all fairly well in accord, an easily enough predicted path by which common practice tonality, sonata form etc. were developed, and you can fairly well imagine Monteverdi would have been able to follow Bach, and Bach so too with Mozart, but Beethoven broke with a lot of conventions, ditched the menuet for the scherzo, which remains a popular form to this day, experimented with expansions of form in his symphonies and string quartets, and where Mozart had masked his chromatic flourishes behind clever tricks, Beethoven’s were out in plain sight. His initial break with the established norms opened the floodgates, and so started a grand chain of individualist composers from Berlioz, Wagner, Brahms, and Liszt to Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Boulez, and many others besides, each with their own unique approaches, all of which opened up new and distinct directions for the future of music. We’ve flowed out from the river and into the ocean, and Beethoven was the right man in the right place at the right time who set it all in motion.

So yeah, big important dude, that Beethoven. Greatest genius composer/god to ever live? Well, you won’t hear that kind of talk from me, I don’t deal in absolutes, and I actively despise the pedestalisation of select elite figures who really could have been anybody anywhere had the slightest thing happened differently in the course of history. I don’t go in much for predestination, as far as I’m concerned Beethoven’s existence and career are the result of one coincidence after another, maybe if his school buddy Joe (just go along with it) had taken to music he would have been the greater composer, and we’d all be sat around talking about the symphonies and string quartets of the legendary Joe, heir to the throne of Mozart, but he didn’t, so we got Beethoven. Well, it turns out there are far worse things to have than Beethoven, and I’ve had quite a few, so here are some of my personal favourites.

Cello Sonata No. 5 in D major, Op. 102 No. 2
The five sonatas for cello and piano span Beethoven’s entire career. Nos. 4 and 5 were published together as Op. 102 Nos. 1 and 2 respectively, and No. 5 has always been my personal preferences of not only this last set but all five. It it isn’t quite full-on late Beethoven, not given over to the intensity of development and duration one encounters in the late string quartets, and was in fact written through the 1810s, which mark the transition from his middle late period. In particular the slow second movement feels like a distorted middle period work, and while parallels can easily be made with his Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 and the Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, Op. 30 No. 3, the dissonances here are sharper, the writing sparser, the tonality more exploratory. While the adagio dominates, it is bookended by two positively bubbly allegri which offer much contrast; like Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, the outer movements must not be forgotten, for they are just as vital as the inner movement despite their relative brevity.

String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op. 130
One of the big late quartets, No. 13 is bold, brash, and intense from start to finish, but begins in the most innocuous of ways, seeming to recall Renaissance polyphony in its airy introductory passages. It exists in two versions, one with the original ending, the famous Große Fuge, and one with a replacement ending, the last thing Beethoven ever wrote, as requested by his publisher after a performance of the original version was met largely with confusion. These days, the Große Fuge is typically performed on its own, and the quartet performed with the substitute ending, which is perfectly fine in its own right. I’ve chosen the version with the substitute ending, since it’s easier to find on YouTube in a decent performance, but curious parties may wish to seek out the Alban Berg Quartett’s Beethoven cycle which features an amalgamated version, featuring not only the Große Fuge but the new ending as well. That particular ─ and, it should be noted, scandalously improper! (all the more reason to check it out) ─ version is heady stuff and lasts almost a whole hour, but it’s a fascinating document and a hell of a ride.

Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20
One of Beethoven’s most highly acclaimed early works, the Septet is, as the name implies, a piece for seven instruments. As it is early Beethoven, its style is easily recognised as owing much to the music of Haydn and Mozart, both of whom can be seen as his immediate musical forebears. Nonetheless, it has some notable Beethovenian touches, and alludes to some of the directions he would go in later on during his middle and late periods, with examples of “that’s so Beethoven” tropes he would employ time and time again throughout his work. A breezy and lighthearted 40 minutes, the duration might prove to be a bit much for some, but there’s plenty to discover and enjoy for the patient listener. I’ve selected a recording by soloists of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, an orchestra founded in Beethoven’s time and with a long history as a “Beethoven orchestra,” in the same way that the New York Philharmonic is a “Mahler orchestra.”

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Aside from symphonies and piano sonatas, both of which you’ll notice are nowhere to be found in this article, Beethoven is well known for his cycle of five piano concerti. For those of you who don’t know, although it’s fairly self explanatory, the concerto is a genre in which the principal players are the orchestra and one or more solo instruments. If you read my article on Répons, you’ll be familiar to some extent with the concerto grosso, in which multiple soloists play against a larger ensemble, single instrument concerti are the same deal but obviously you only have one instrument, in this case it’s the piano. Beethoven would have actually written his concerti for the fortepiano (not to be confused with pianoforte), a keyboard instrument which bridged the gap between the dynamically static harpsichord and the modern piano. The recording I have selected, with Maurizio Pollini on piano and Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, features a modern orchestra and modern piano, though there are many notable HIP recordings to consider, as usual the John Elliot Gardiner set being perhaps the most prominent and easy to find.

Further Listening
Johannes Brahms - Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34
Hector Berlioz - Harold en Italie, Op. 16
Franz Schubert - String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810
Felix Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #9 on: January 02, 2016, 05:48:35 PM »
A couple of short reviews today. These are respectively No. 50 and 49 on the WXQR Q2 list of the fifty greatest works of the past twenty years.

Mini-Review: John Adams - Naive and Sentimental Music

Adams is one of the post-minimalists, branching out from the American minimalist school of thought which developed in the 1960s through the work of such composers as Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. Post-minimalism takes a broader harmonic palette, in Adams’ case usually a chromatic one, its main minimalist feature being the constant pulse around which all other elements are organised. Thanks to his stylistic inclinations Adams is frequently considered to be among the best living composers, if not the most important since the deaths of such towering figures as Stockhausen and Carter. His mature works are often deceptively simple, foregoing the looping microstructures and quasi-common practice tonality typical of minimalist composition, what loops there are typically evolving in a manner which suggests the influence of Morton Feldman.

Naive and Sentimental Music is one of his large scale orchestra works in the vein of his famous Harmonielehre (named for Schoenberg’s seminal treatise on music theory), and indeed it feels in large part like a retread. This is one of the unfortunate facts, for me, of Adams’ style, I feel often as though I am listening to the same piece of music reworked slightly because his treatment of materials is so predictable. His music is pleasant, sure, and even complex, and I don’t wish to paint him as a lazy composer or in any way undeserving of his status among living composers, yet I can’t help but feel I am hearing the same old thing, nice though it is, every time I hear a new piece of his. The same is true for me, of course, of other composers in minimalist and derived styles, for example: it seems to me that Reich has been tilling the same earth for decades. Unlike his fellows, Adams at least has the common courtesy to include some amount of surprise in his music, no matter how fleeting and insignificant it may ultimately be when considering the broader context of his body of work.

Mini-Review: Einojuhani Rautavaara - Harp Concerto

I’m not a big fan of Rautavaara, his music often sounds to me like second rate Sibelius filtered through Shostakovich and a meandering post-Darmstadt chromaticism. The Harp Concerto is very much all of those things to my ear, self-serious in the extreme but ultimately lame and ineffectual. The harp writing is full of dull arpeggio and octave banalities, and the orchestra is pretty much just along for the ride; as far as the concerto moniker goes there’s very little in the way of dialogue or interaction between the two: the individual says something and the collective agrees. It feels more like a soundtrack to a children’s fantasy film than anything, especially during its not-so-grand finale, and while it might be perfectly good accompaniment to a film about wizards and dragons and magical rings and whatnot, there is little substance to the music itself, it doesn’t seem capable of standing on its own.

The music becomes annoying for me long before even the first of its three fairly brief movements (the whole thing lasts around 20 minutes) is finished. From there it moves from one boring idea to the next, offering little of interest besides the occasional special effect which sadly does little to distract from the bland reality of Rautavaara’s soundworld. As the platitudes and clichés build to intolerable levels, this flimsy exercise in bad taste offers little in the way of a reprieve to the ear it has so unfairly been sicked upon. And then it ends with the same register of self-importance with which it started out, albeit now in the mode of blaring dissonant brass, and when it’s all over you wonder what the fuss was about. This is gutless, nauseating tripe.
« Last Edit: January 02, 2016, 06:32:34 PM by Crudblud »

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #10 on: January 06, 2016, 08:24:47 PM »
In memoriam Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

The last of the great Darmstadt composers has died at the age of 90. Pierre Boulez, notoriously divisive as a composer, renowned the world over as a conductor who worked with pretty much every world class orchestra of the 20th century, as well as being the founder of the Ensemble InterContemporain, the pioneering ensemble dedicated to performing and recording new music, and also founding IRCAM, the EIC’s home and a hotbed of development at the bleeding edge of electronic music. Boulez is one of the key figures of post-war music in the 20th century, and one of the most influential musical thinkers for the 21st century. Alongside his rivals and colleagues, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and many others, he changed the face and expanded the possibilities of music in our time.

Boulez first rose to prominence in the 1950s, not only composing radical integral serialist works such as Le marteau sans maître, but also penning notorious articles such as Schoenberg is Dead, and attacking composers of the old guard such as Stravinsky, whom Boulez deemed to have failed to live up to the promise of the famous Le sacre du printemps. His works were sharp and his tongue even sharper, and he courted controversy frequently, his iron fisted leadership of the European avant garde and politicised bullying of composers who did not toe the line being likened to fascism. The famous Darmstadt School (as in school of thought) which he had developed on the back of Messiaen’s developments in the serialisation of musical elements beyond pitch, and alongside Stockhausen, was perhaps the last great flourishing of dogma in music, for it was so extreme in pushing its agenda that ultimately it exploded under its own pressure, and the gaps between the fragments of what had been there before suddenly found themselves filled with a new order of the day: freedom of thought.

The ‘60s and ‘70s were one long cosmic release of tension, as the chain reaction set up, most people think, by Wagner with those first few impossibly tense bars of Tristan und Isolde, through Mahler, Debussy, and Schoenberg, to the constrictions of the absolutely prescriptive integral serialism of Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel and Boulez’s own Polyphonie X, reached at last its inevitable conclusion. From the ‘60s onwards Boulez embarked on his international career as a conductor, shaking things up at the New York Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras with his difficult programs of music from cutting edge composers, meanwhile tinkering quietly away at new music which itself would escape the strictures of his own formalisms and evolve into something entirely new, eventually again putting him at the forefront of classical music in post-war France, and indeed the world.

His phenomenally prolific career as a conductor has seen him tackle pretty much every important composer from Wagner through to almost the present day, not just the arch progressives but also Brahms, Ravel, and Stravinsky, as well as great eccentrics such as Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, and even Frank Zappa. His many recordings of the Second Viennese School composers Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg are frequently cited as the best documents of their work on record; his Mahler cycle and live performances are rigorous and full blooded; his Stravinsky witty, lean, and to the point; his Varèse an oft-forgotten alternative to the great yet perhaps unfair target of Varèsian monomania that is Chailly and the Concertgebouw. Not only was he prolific, he was also very popular, a hugely respected figure among musicians and composers, and the winner of almost thirty Grammy awards.

What remains to be seen now, once the mourning period is over, is where classical music goes from here. I’ve thought for many years that Stockhausen made the avant garde obsolete, after all, aside from gimmicky uses of new technology, where else is there to go? Now with Boulez’s death the end of an era is at hand, and there are any number of possibilities as to what happens next. Do we carry on as we are, swimming “out in the ocean,” as John Cage puts it, or are we destined to repeat the cosmic cycle of tension and release, beginning now with Boulez’s death and a sudden near Soviet reactionary response to the music, borderless in geography and style, of our time? Does classical music return to politics as national tensions flare up, and we head into an ideological retread of the nationalist schools of thought which dominated the 19th century? Who knows, but maybe in Boulez there lies the answer, because no matter how improbable it may seem, he has shown us that it is always possible to go one step further.

Recommended Listening
A selection of Boulez favourites, from his integral serial period to his late idiosyncratic works, in recordings conducted by the composer. They are presented in chronological order, but newcomers may be best served by checking out the Notations, a short collection of piano pieces arranged as orchestral showpieces, for a first taste. Boulez may prove challenging at first, but his unique style is highly rewarding and well worth a little time and patience

Le marteau sans maître (1955)
Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1975)
Notations pour orchestre (1978, rev. 1999)
Répons (1984) see also: live version
Dérive 2 (1988, rev. 2006)
« Last Edit: January 06, 2016, 08:26:34 PM by Crudblud »

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #11 on: January 14, 2016, 04:43:33 AM »
Review: Johann Jakob Froberger - Toccatas and Partitas for Harpsichord

Sergio Vartolo, hpschd. / 2005 / 2 CD / Naxos

Listen: Disc 1 / Disc 2

Froberger, aside from having an awesome name, was also a massively important figure in the early-mid Baroque period. He is one of the era’s most prominent composers of “programme” music, which is music intended to depict a story in some way, but differentiated from opera, ballet, song etc. in that the depiction is to be achieved entirely through instrumental means. It was hugely popular in the Romantic period, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major being one of the most frequently cited examples, and it remains popular today──stories, images, characters and other things alleged to exist within rhythmic configurations of abstract sound ─ of course, try figuring out what the story is from listening to the music alone and you’ll be at a loss. I consider programme music a fairly useless term, it is a music distinguished from other musics entirely by non-musical things, much like the short-lived crabcore fad, which was some kind of metalcore off-shoot differentiated from metalcore only by the fact that mobile band members such as guitarists would crab-walk while playing their instruments. It’s clown shoes shit, but in light of the fact that Froberg’ errs on the side of writing incredible music, I’ll give him a free pass on that one.

Froberger’s keyboard suites, or partitas as Baroque suites are often called for reasons which elude me, which we are listening to here, are among his most important contributions to music. He developed and standardised the most recognisable form of the suite, commonly known as the Classical suite, which consists of some combination of the dances allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, and typically in that order, this last owing to the publisher’s whim more so than that of the composer, and this established order may have ─ don’t quote me on this, influenced also the development of the ordering of movements in the Classical era genres of symphony and string quartet, both of which also had four movements. This is also a bit of a stretch considering that suites after Froberger’s time also added things like introductory movements, menuets and sometimes even finales, and the symphony, as observed in the works of C.P.E. Bach, typically had three movements until Haydn developed the four movement form.

Vartolo’s account of these partitas and toccatas is a two disc set on ─ what else? ─ Naxos. Vartolo seems to be their go to guy for the harpsichord repertoire, which is just great for me because Vartolo is probably my favourite harpsichordist after Scott Ross. His playing is precise but also sensitive, and his readings of Froberger capture a sense of spaciousness which befits the composer’s highly idiosyncratic keyboard writing. In Froberger dissonances seem to linger for a small eternity, some never resolved, or done so in bizarre ways; a harsh gesture in the upper registers answered by a single note in the bass consonant only according to the memory of what came before it, that’s Froberger. It is a strange and desolate kind of music, odd things lurk in dark corners of the environment, their being there engendering a two-step pairing of the cocking of the eyebrow and then the widening of the eyes as, revelatory but held back from anything approaching gratuitousness, crystalline facets are gradually revealed not so much by an exegesis in the music itself but by implication and hindsight. Such flowery bullshit is necessary when talking about music, because it’s the only way to talk about it while avoiding the traps of a) boring the reader with technical jargon, and b) admitting you don’t know what you’re talking about. Wait, oh... damn it.

The sound is rich and sumptuous, the playing totally free of pomposity and bombast, and helped in conveying the dark and off-kilter character of the music by Vartolo’s adherence to what is at least an attempt to recreate the kind of tuning that would have been employed in Froberger’s time ─ and I ain’t talkin’ DADGAD here, oh no, this is hardcore shit. Vartolo uses two different harpsichords, one is tuned in meantone temperament at A=415 Hz, the other in Werckmeister III temperament at A=390 Hz, these being alterations of the intervallic width of the pure fifths of just intonation. The fact of some intervals being wider than others with these temperaments led to the predominance of specific keys, as the innate level of dissonance could be reduced by writing in, say C instead of G; this is why Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier was such a big deal, as well temperament, while having irregular intervallic widths, was calculated to avoid impure intervals and make each key much more uniform with each other in terms of their inherent dissonance. The most common temperament in present day western music is 12-tone equal temperament (12-TET or 12-EDO ─ as in “Equal Division of the Octave”), and most of the music you’ve heard in your life will be tuned, with some margin of error, in accordance with it, at the modern “concert pitch” of A=440 Hz. Not so in the good old days, different regions of Europe would have their own tuning systems invented by local musicologists and composers, and a single piece of music could vary wildly in sound from one performance to the next if a composer was also a travelling musician as Froberger was. Vartolo’s tunings, whether or not they approximate the real tunings Froberger used or was forced to use, do reflect the variegated nature of musical standards in the pre-Classical eras, and offer a tantalising glimpse of the true sound of the early Baroque.

This is a really awesome selection of Baroque keyboard music composed by one of its foremost masters, played beautifully by one of the finest harpsichordists and experts on early music of our time. The sound quality is great, with a rich natural reverb sympathetic to the colourful timbres of the instruments that really elevates the whole thing to the next level, making for a quite lovely waste of 100 minutes. Whether you like or dislike, or even think you like or dislike, the sound of a harpsichord, or of Baroque music in general, Froberger deserves your time and attention. Not only is this just plain good, there’s nothing else out there quite like it.

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Offline beardo

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #12 on: January 14, 2016, 06:04:14 AM »
Hi! It's me! John Williams!
The Mastery.

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #13 on: January 14, 2016, 07:04:42 AM »
Hi! It's me! John Williams!

Are you the real John Williams or a sneaky impostor?

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Offline beardo

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #14 on: January 14, 2016, 01:52:53 PM »
Hi! It's me! John Williams!

Are you the real John Williams or a sneaky impostor?
My good fellow...



Yes.
The Mastery.

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Offline Crudblud

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Re: Talkin' Classical
« Reply #15 on: January 30, 2016, 06:14:14 PM »
Cool Symphonies Throughout History #1

Contrary to what some people think the name “Dan” means, I’ve started a million projects that I’ll never finish, and here’s another one to add to the pile, and the first one of 2016! I’m a little late ─ a whole month late, in fact ─ because jobs have a habit of getting in the way of the important things in life, but here we are at last. This time around we’re talkin’ symphonies and and that’s pretty much it. I’d been meaning to do something genre specific for a while, but hadn’t really had the time to think about what I wanted to look at or compile lists or anything. For those of you who aren’t aware, “genre” in classical music refers to instrumentation more than anything, “string quartet” being a pretty obvious example.

The symphony is a particularly difficult genre to talk about. “What?” you’re thinking, “how does that work, it’s just an orchestra thing, right?” Well, yeah, but no, not really. Certainly the most popular association with the word is of a large number of musicians playing something that goes like “da-da-da daaaaaaah, da-da-da daaaaaaah,” but that hasn’t always been the definition. The word is derived from symphonia, Ancient Greek for “sounding together,” and in that sense pretty much any music for more than one instrument could be a symphony, although “symphonia” was also used historically as the name for a bunch of different instruments from bagpipes to hurdy-gurdy to a clavichord type keyboard instrument, so I guess a piece for one of them is also a… as you can see, it’s already a clusterfuck and we’re only two paragraphs in.

“Clusterfuck” is probably the best definition of the symphony, at least in terms of its history. All through the Baroque era it was used for any number of different things, from collections of vocal works, to opera sinfonia (later replaced by the overture) to stand-alone instrumental compositions. Most of these had no definite form, though the opera sinfonia typically had three movements, and is probably the major precursor to the symphony as we know it. This is just my impression, given the commonalities of the opera sinfonia and the symphonies of C.P.E. Bach, being for orchestra, around ten minutes each in duration and having three distinct movements. Of couse, Bach’s symphonies are distinguished by being stand-alone rather than introductory.

Bach was not the only symphony composer around at the time, however. Indeed, at some point during the 1700s there were hundreds of composers of symphonies all over Europe, including the colonies in North America, and some 13000 symphonies being written at the time. That’s right: it was a clusterfuck. Every king, queen, prince, princess, earl, baron and whatever nobility important enough to have a title from the Muscovite guberniyas to Salem ─ and probably a few others elsewhere, because why the fuck not ─ likely had their own court composer who penned the court’s own unique book of symphonies. It’s hard to say how many of these have survived into modern times, there being no doubt that many of the courts would have treated the composers like garbage to be thrown out, and probably their works along with them. Think along those lines, there could be long forgotten masterpieces no one will ever hear again. More likely, however, they were kind of like Let’s Players on YouTube, lots of them, most of them pointing cameras at screens and breathing awkwardly into bad microphones. Or… at least the 18th century musical equivalent, whatever that would be.

Anyway… Our main interest today, is C.P.E., son of J.S. ─ one of many (dude was like a big ugly Catholic rabbit in a stupid looking wig) ─ and perhaps the most famous of the Bach sons, J.C. and W.F. and the fifteen or so others not getting quite perhaps the late baroque/early classical cachet they deserve. But we press on. Our inaugural cool symphony is actually three symphonies, one of which is a bunch of symphonies in its own right, by which I refer of course to C.P.E.’s Orchester-Sinfonien mit zwölf obligaten Stimmen, Wq. 183. Yeah, naturally… These are not exactly what springs to mind when you hear the word “symphony;” they are pretty short, being four symphonies totalling 40 minutes, each is in three movements, and the orchestra is pretty small. Not exactly ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne’ and subsequent bombastic choral utterances, not even a ‘da-da-da daaaaaah, da-da-da daaaaaah.’

To get to all that nonsense, you gotta hit up two more dudes first. The first of these is Joseph Haydn, known sometimes as “The Father of the Symphony” and “The Father of the String Quartet” and also as “Papa Haydn” because Mozart was a baby his entire life. Haydn was something of a trailblazer in the late 1750s, his third symphony being one of the first to have the four movement structure typical of the form from the Classical period onward. Haydn did not use four movements as standard until probably the mid to late 1860s, and at least one of his symphonies has more than four movements. To showcase Haydn at his best, I’ve chosen the ever popular Symphony No. 94 in G major, Hob. I/94, one of the so-called London symphonies which he wrote late in life in, of course, London.

To round out the early history of the symphony, we go now to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most overrated and underrated (as a reaction to his being overrated) composers in all of history. I’ve chosen Symphony No. 38 in D major, K.504 for a couple of reasons, these being that it’s a) a mature Mozart symphony, and b) in three movements. I also may have been swayed a little by the fact that it’s in a major key, which is relevant not to the topic of symphonic development itself, but I recall an exchange between an acquaintance and I on the topic of Mozart in which he lamented the overemphasis placed on the minor key works such as the Requiem in D minor, K.626, Great Mass in C minor, K.427 etc. when Mozart has just as many if not more great works in major keys ─ so I guess I’m doing my bit for major key Mozart or something. There isn’t really a single symphony of Mozart’s one can point to and say “here is Mozart devevloping the form,” but hopefully you can tell the difference between this and Haydn, and Haydn and the Super Bach Bros.

Anyway, thus concludes the first (and possibly last, because you know I’ll forget I even started this project by tomorrow) sloppily written article of this progetto della sinfonia, or whatever. Maybe you enjoyed the selections, maybe you didn’t, probably you didn’t even listen to them, I’m tired and hungry and beyond the point of caring. I’m not even going to proofread the article.