Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts

Monday, February 3, 2014

Unity of the Muses


Mozart encompasses the entire domain of musical creation, but I've got only the keyboard in my poor head. –F. Chopin

Most minds relish the familiar. We like familiarity, consistency, and sameness, whether it's in our television programming, house furnishings, or daily routines. Yes, some people seem to worship all things new, but that's just an attempt to relive the thrill of novelty. Smart people are not exempt either, most only holding a few stock ideas about which they ramble before attaining senility. Even the mind of a genius is usually confined to relatively tight quarters. Yet we have all-encompassing geniuses like Aristotle and DaVinci, and lesser polymaths from Cicero to Jefferson, but far-seeking minds are the most rare, and the most rare of them was Mozart. Mozart absorbed, innovated, and perfected with a speed which amazes and terrifies. The Greeks would have called him δεινός, marvelous, wondrous, and terrible.

21 piano sonatas, 27 piano concertos, 41 symphonies, 18 masses, 13 operas, 9 oratorios and cantata, 2 ballets, 40 plus concertos for various instruments, string quartets, trios and quintets, violin and piano duets piano quartets, and the songs. This astounding output includes hardly one work less than a masterpiece. –George Szell

Absorbed, innovated, perfected. Each of those words needs a little qualifying. Mozart absorbed the work of his models with astonishing rapidity, from his father's early assignments at the harpsichord, in which little Woferl delighted, to string quartets, concerti, and fugues. One story from April 1770, when Mozart was fourteen and impressing the Italian contrapuntists in Rome, paints the picture. Herr Mozart and his son attended a performance of Gregorio Allegri's Fiftieth Psalm, a passion piece for two choirs, four- and five-part, which concludes with a finale that interweaves both choruses in nine-part counterpoint. Shortly after the performance the teenage composer proceeded to write out the piece from memory. (W. A. Mozart by H. Abert. p. 135)

From this immense facility for absorption grew Mozart's own interpretations in his early maturity. Hoary polyphony and contrapuntal exercises became the ebullient Salzburg masses. Mozart devours set after set of Haydn's string quartets and again and again throws the spear from sight. The prettified keyboard tinkering of the galant becomes an endless parade of Mozartian characters. The snoozy nocturnes and pompous end-of-semester finalmusik become the serene lightness of the Gran Partita. Endlessly rhyming, sing-songy, and audience pleasing singspiels become the the giddy love of Die Entführung and a frightening, untamed spirit is breathed into old an workhorse text in Idomeneo.

Finally, perfection unto death. The body of Mozart concerti is one of most stupendous achievements ever, without qualification. The endless variety of melody, the relentless ability to tease excitement and novelty from sonataform and even rondo, shifting keys, moods, and characters, is nothing short of astounding. Not only do we find with glee intellectual rigor and structural novelty, but even in its most tumultuous depths, the cosmos-rending D minor, the Mozart concerto is life-affirming, pleasing the heart and the mind. And what love Mozart has for his instruments: the jovial horn, the oboe here sprightly there melodious, and the chimerical clarinet.

All the while, through the counterpoint and delayed tonal areas of the quintets and the vast sonataforms of the operas, and the ever more-delicate symphonies, always we find a unity of style and affect. We're never distracted by learned or simple elements for all is reconciled by the most perfect taste and order. We don't hear a contrapuntal marvel when we see finale to Act I of Don Giovanni, we see a carnival. We don't hear a north German choral in Die Zauberflöte but see the initiate poised before his sacred trial. We don't listen for fugato in Piano Sonata No. 18, but delight in the interplay between these wildly diverse themes. There is only the music, unifying as it goes: time, place, us, everything.

Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness. - Aaron Copland

Mozart's earthy side confuses many, whether it's by his priapic joke in the Champagne Aria, his song Kiss My Ass, or his bawdy letters to his cousin. It's not a side that would have confused, say, Catullus or Rimbaud, but it befuddles those who seek a clean idol. We need a pure font because we see time as expendable. We need to get and use as much of time and Mozart as we can. Yet it is time which is sacred, not the man Mozart. Yet he doesn't have to be because he has preserved the best of us in time, and we don't nee to horde it, nor do we even need to share it. We nee to be it. We need to feel his melodies in our step and his shapes in our thoughts. We need to feel his terror and chipper love, his lonely afternoons and sumptuous galas. Mozart is not the font, but the unity of the Muses, and beyond performance and beyond listening there is living, where the perfected goes on forever, though only for a time through us.

Mozart's music is the mysterious language of a distant spiritual kingdom, whose marvelous accents echo in our inner being and arouse a higher, intensive life. –E. T. A. Hoffmann

Sunday, December 29, 2013

All Too Simple


Ours is a complex age, contemporary wisdom advises. Everyone is so busy and there are so many people bustling about, doing different things. Manmade electronic satellites are whirling around the earth, for crying out loud. And that internet. No one ever exclaims, "What a complicated world: There are so many ideas!" The antidote to complexity is naturally simplicity, right? If we take a blade to complexity we can whittle it down to something more manageable.

This is the fool's game, for while simplicity is the opposite of complexity, its antidote is unity. People perceive the hustle and bustle of life, with all of its commerce and commotion, to be complexity because they presume there is some conglomerate entity, called society, which out to have a definitive character. The society which deviates from that character appears disordered. The phrase social engineer is often propped up by the paranoid and derided by political movers, but what does he do who attempts to move the masses of the polity?

Simplicity is harder to judge with respect to other aspects of life. Living seems complicated when it is not unified by purpose and the universe seems a maze of physical laws in the absence of a prime mover. Philosophy and physics are the tortured pursuits not for simplicity but for a principle of unification. As in philosophy and physics, though, it is challenging to comprehend the presence of simplicity in aesthetics because it is difficult to understand the unifying principle of complex art. How easily to explain that an overture is structured around the deviation from one expected note in the first few bars, or to trace out the vanishing point of a painting? Of course it is very easy to apprehend the purpose of great art and one, thankfully, need not be an expert to appreciate Bach and Shakespeare.

That nature tends to hide, however, does mean, though, that simplicity makes a dangerous mantra. Roger Scruton has pointed out that much simple modern art is simply a disguise for an artist's lack of creativity, from Duchamp's urinal to Koons' kitschy balloons. Artists have worked furiously to be creative within genres and limits; just compare Schubert's lieder, Mozart's concerti, Shakespeare's histories, or Rembrandt's portraits. And yet sterility persisted in the name of simplicity until it reached its apex, utilitarianism. One of the most egregious intrusions of this trend has been in architecture, specifically architecture with the most specific of purposes: churches.

Of church architecture, architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote that, "Every line, every mass, every detail, is so conceived and disposed that it exalts the altar, as any work of art leads to its just climax." [1] As a demonstration of this principle and the danger of adopting simplicity as a master, let us look at a church altar and its reredos, aka altarpiece.

The altar and altarpiece below reside in the chapel at Alton Towers, home to the Early of Shrewsbury in Staffordshire. Anyone who doesn't sympathize with the Crawley's of Downton Abbey and their quest to preserve the estate should know that Alton Towers was sold in 1924 and, with the exception of Alton's chapel, the property is best known today as Alton Towers Resort, "Making Britain Happy" with eight roller coasters and five water rides. [2, 3]

Anyway, Alton's chapel is beautiful and in the following images I've progressively eliminated the visual complexity of its altar and reredos. Let us see what the simplification reveals.





We could have reduced the structure further, leaving only the altar, but the points are apparent. Notice foremost that contra complaints about baroque detail distracting us, our attention to the altar fades in proportion to the removal of the detail, especially the loss of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures, namely the vertical elements which raise the parallel dimension of the altar upward. We also can see how, far from being busy, the structures neatly scaffold atop the altar. Finally, even those tiny details first eliminated serve to exalt the altar, adding contrast by their shape, direction, and texture, and a unity by their symmetries. All of the detail points to one purpose: Soli Deo gloria.

In contrast we may say paraphrasing architect Duncan Stroik, [4] that architectural reductionism reflects a liturgical reductionism. While we have examined diminution, the opposite is true too, for neither by addition or subtraction can we impose meaning irrespective of form, but must pursue through creativity, with existing forms and in tradition, an exalting unity.



[1] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 84
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alton_Towers
[3] http://www.towersalmanac.com/history/index.php?id=1
[4] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 153
–– H/T to the Modern Medievalism blog for the picture of Alton's chapel.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top Ten: Polyphony for the Nativity


In celebration today I humbly present a small, choice sampling of my favorite polyphonic pieces for the Nativity. I've taken a few liberties listing a few pieces not specifically part of the liturgy for today, so I hope you'll pardon me. Contemporary and frivolous pieces have their places in our hearts, for sure, and while we don't have to reject Rudolph and friends, these pieces, their texts and the music which elevates them to that realm of purest expression, dwell at the centers of hearts which they elevate to the cosmic dimensions of this holy day.

These pieces, against the traditions of our day, remind us that solemnity, reverence, and joy are not contradictory, but in fact very much one and the same.


10. Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis. Thomas Tallis [YouTube]

9. Mirabile Mysterium. Jacobus Gallus [YouTube]

8. Ab Oriente Venerunt Magi. Jacobus Gallus [YouTube]

7. Hodie Christus Natus Est. Giovanni de Palestrina. [YouTube]

6. Videte Miraculum. Thomas Tallis [YouTube]

5. Jauchzet, frohlocket! J. S. Bach [YouTube]

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving, 2013


With apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Out with the schola and toss out the chant!
     Graduals down and hymnals up!
There's no tradition we can't replant,
     You'll love it til your all grown up!

Sunder the altar and rip off the rail!
     Hands apart and up in the air!
Now reach across and shake without fail:
     Pray by yourself? Now don't you dare!

So dump the trads in a boiling bowl;
     Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you've finished, if any are whole,
     Send them down the hall to roll!

That's what every Catholic does hate!
So, carefully! carefully with the faith!


This year I'm grateful for the Latin mass, for everyone who has preserved it, and for everyone with whom I have shared it. In thanksgiving, my Top Ten Chants.

10. Creator Alme Siderum [YouTube]

9. Pange Lingua Gloriosi [YouTube]

8. Asolis Ortus Cardine [YouTube]

7. Viderunt Omnes [YouTube]

6. Miserere [YouTube]

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: The Art of the Score

Film Week at the Philharmonic. 2013.

Some will bristle at the premise: why pay a pretty penny to see an old film with live music? It's a question that charts the gulf between cinephiles and audiophiles. To the film maven, movies are sculpted, perfected time, trimmed into a narrative shaped in sight and sound. Its finished, recorded status is part of its essence. Yet for most of music's history, it lived only in awakening from the hibernation of the score. Film's mix of sight and sound, though, bridges the cinematic and musical worlds to permit a synthesis of film's completed visual worlds with the frisson of music's fleeting vitality.

The marriage is not only an ideal one of virtues, but one of supplementing limitations. On the one hand, pure musical expression tends toward the abstract while even opera and musical theater are limited by the demands of the sets. On the other, film's recorded nature can make it rigid and subject it to the vicissitudes of production circumstances which aren't ideal.

Film Week at the New York Philharmonic was an exploration of these features of music and film, pairing films with live performances of their scores. In the first performance, Alec Baldwin hosted us through selections from six films from Alfred Hitchcock with Constantine Kitsopolous making his NY Philharmonic debut conducting Murray (To Catch a Thief), Herrmann (Vertigo and North by Northwest), Tiomkin (Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder) and Gounod (Marche funebre d'une marionnette.) What strikes first is the full, almost voluptuous, dimension of the music. Perhaps I noticed this more because it's not music I'd ever heard these scores in person, but it was as if hearing many of them for the first time. From the swooning Wagneresque Scène d'amour of Vertigo to the hefty swagger of Gounod's march, the music moved with an energy it imbued to the visuals and narrative.

The Carousel Scene from Strangers on A Train is a good example of a scene coming to new life with live music. Here, composer Dimitri Tiomkin mixes a dramatic symphonic score with carnival music for a shocking mix of tone, timbre, meter, and style as two men brawl over a runaway carousel. The shot is also ingeniously composed, with visual activity along three axes of the frame, and alternations among them. What came across most from the night of Hitchock, though, was the multiplicity of styles across the films, a directorial feat our host aptly sketched for us. Hitchcock reached across styles and forms to find the precise musical complement to the scene, with the result of almost indivisible expressive impact. Whether it's the swaying violins and crashing brass of Vertigo's theme, the playfully scampering tune to which Cary Grant outsmarts his pursuers in To Catch a Thief, or Hermann's bravura narrative finale to North by Northwest, we hear brilliant music incorporated to visuals, with excruciating editorial attention to pacing, into a thrilling whole.

If the theme of the Hitchcock night was drama, the theme to the screening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was rhapsody. Not in the music, of course, but in the music's role in shaping by sheer force Kubrick's contrasting four episodes of grandeur. While within scenes we see complementarity between sight and sound, the heroic grandeur of the monolith's arrival and the waltzing grace of space travel, it's the features of music qua music, the naturalism of its shapes and rhythms, which persuade us that the episodes form an equally natural, that is true, whole, even as they progress into increasingly distant realms.

Here too the live music brought the visuals to life. The resonant, sonorous echoes of Also sprach Zarathustra reverberated as motif like never before throughout the film. Most of all, the tortuous dissonance of Ligeti's Kyrie disoriented with the clarity of the inner parts.

Alex North's unused score to 2001,
on display in Avery Fisher Hall.
I can't pass over a curious non-musical feature of the 2001 performance, though, which was the voluminous humor Friday night's audience found in the film. Fighting monkey's? Chuckle-worthy. The death of an astronaut? Outright funny. HAL bargaining for his life? Hilarious. Maybe people feel the need to participate and so they ooh, ahh, and laugh. Maybe they have a sardonic sense of humor. Maybe they just missed out on the terrible grandeur of the movie. In any event, it felt quite unwarranted. During the credits the audience adopted the honorific of applauding the notables in the roll, a gesture which quickly degenerated into clapping ironically for people who weren't famous. A sophomoric end to a transcendent experience.

Nonetheless, a splendid night: fine performances, an enlightening synthesis of mediums, and a vindication of live performance.







Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mostly Mozart, 2013: Closing Night

Avery Fisher Hall. August 23, 2013. 

It is often boasted that the arts are for everyone and likewise touted that more young people ought to attend concerts and too that music brings people together. This is at least partially rubbish, and I would like formally to wish the two young women who jabbered to their mortified boyfriends during six of the night's twelve symphonic movements, some period of banishment to the most beshitted pits of Tartarean hellfire and there to enjoy the tantalizing torment of hearing, amongst the rattling chains and spinning wheel and serpentined fury, the echoes of Elysian peace and, now and then, some fading chord from spurned Parnassus. (Henceforth known as The Curse of the Philistines.)


What those philistines missed was an agreeable if flawed performance of Mozart's final three symphonies by the Mostly Mozart Orchestra under the baton of Louis Langree. The same strengths and shortcomings pervaded all the symphonies of which the minuets came off the strongest. There, Langree's firm strokes brought the dances to shaped and lively, if not nimble, life. The syncopations of the G minor menuetto were especially off-balancing thanks to the basses who weighed in heftily there and the whole night. Sometimes their energy supported the piece, as in the their responses in the E-flat finale and their snarling kickoff of the G minor's 1st movement exposition fugato, other times they swallowed the other lines as they did at points in all the fugal sections.

Right on target the whole night, though, were the winds, especially during Symphony 39. There, whether for their spot-on dynamics or  punctuation during the first movement, for floating aloft the fleeting canonical passages of the andante, or cheekily chiming in during the symphony's finale, they earned their section's special applause. The songful lines of the menuetto were especially soft and sweet.

Though the fugatos lacked the ideal separation between voices, Langree brought off the slow movements of the last two symphonies with a special romantic fullness which didn't collapse into languor. The concert was well worth hearing these two slower movements, often hurried over in favor of their flashier bookends, treated so well. Concluding, the Jupiter finale traded in some articulation for exuberance, but not to the point of laxity. The movement's themes were well-shaped and thwacking around until they joined each other in the great polyphonic coda which brought deserved smiles and vigorous applause.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Where Are My Eagles!


Skeptical eagle is skeptical.
I don't want to talk about the coma-inducing sentimentality of this ridiculous piece of music, and I don't want to talk about its musical development, or lack thereof. I don't even want to kvetch about how boring and repetitive the song is, or its jejune imagery and pedestrian vocabulary. I just want to know what's going on with the birds in this song. Is that so much to ask?

The lyrics:

CHORUS:
And He will raise you up on eagle's wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

The snare of the fowler will never capture you,
And famine will bring you no fear;
Under His Wings your refuge,
His faithfulness your shield.

First, how will we be raised up on the wings? Does the author mean on top of wings? Clearly not, because you can't be on top of the wings which must be flapping if the eagle is flying. So what he must mean is "by means of" wings, but how does that work? In this thinking we must be transitively moved by the wings, since the wings move the bird which move whatever is attached to the bird. That's an awkward conception given how we don't say that we flew by means of wings if we take a plane, or drive by means of wheels if we take a car.

The whole vehicle is important, though, be it plane, car, or bird, because you can't raise someone up by wings alone: what about the rest of the eagle? You clearly need the body because the wings couldn't fly without the body. He must mean the whole eagle, then, which means that wings is synecdoche for the eagle, which is already a metaphor. Yowza!

Yet more problems arise since birds lift by grasping with their talons. This can't be how we are to be lifted, though, since the talons grip by piercing. Ouch! Maybe then, we're tied to the eagles. If so, who's tying everyone to the eagles? Do we tie ourselves? Who unties us?

Hold on, now I'm in the palm of his hand? We just established that eagles don't have hands, they have talons! So what is His Hand then? It can't be a metaphor for the bird because it is capitalized and it refers to something which the bird doesn't have. It must simply refer to God, but then why are we talking about birds?

Anyway, things don't improve in stanza two. Where did the fowler come from and why is he coming after me? Wouldn't he be going after, I don't know, the eagle? Also, why would I get caught by the fowler? Am I likely to get caught in a trap for birds? If the fowler is Satan, then why isn't he going after the bird? Or if he's going after me, not being a bird, why is he a fowler? Also, considering how many people are picky about using archaic language at mass: fowler, really? Maybe the fowler could help tie you to the eagle, ever think about that Mr. Author? Then the fletcher and the archer could be the bad guys and the tailor can cut you loose when you land. Just a thought.

So now I'm definitely under the wings, but am I just present anywhere beneath them or am I sort of nestled under them? I can't be nestled if he's flying, but then how am I protected if I'm not nestled? If I'm just hanging what happens if  the archer shoots at me? Also, if I'm tied to the eagle, how is his faithfulness my shield? Can he untie me? How? Would he try to maybe bash me against a rock to knock me off? If I'm tied, though, wouldn't that make him crash too? Finally, where's the eagle going. Is it a migratory eagle?

Wait, is there one eagle or more? Am I tied to two eagles? Are they the same species going to the same place?

I'm so worried now, what am I supposed to do? Should we try different birds? Falcons, owls, swallows? Help!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

John Williams: The Asteroid Field


John Williams is likely the most known and loved composer of movie scores in the last forty years. He's probably the most popular composer outside the world of movies, too. When folks think about Williams' work, though, they likely think of his great themes, from the galloping Raiders march and unfolding grandeur of Jurassic Park to the languishing violin solo of Schindler's List. Rightly regarded for their concision and expression, these themes tend to overshadow other aspects of the scores, namely the sustained mood and motion, and the instrumentation. We can find these virtues in full swing in one of Williams' best pieces, The Asteroid Field, from The Empire Strikes Back.



N.B. Since we don't have a digital score here to which we can jointly refer, I'll be less discussing syntax than style, color, and effect. In lieu of bar numbers I'll refer to time codes in the above video.


The open strokes in the cellos set both pace and scene, with the star destroyers in hot pursuit of the Millennium Falcon. These strokes then proceed at first just underneath plucked strings, then underneath triplets in the flutes, then with splashes of brass. This slow, soft opening, the drift into the asteroid field, is then smashed by a forte unison whose exclamatory effect is amplified by the cymbals which seem to splatter the energy throughout space, an effect which is picked up and maintained by the reverberation of the percussion's angular theme. Next the brass enters, all halting and herky-jerky like the rickety Falcon hurtling through space.

Now we're flying every which way. (:20) First the brass throbs along, hurrying and fleeing past the cymbal's starbursts and around the percussion's twisty theme, given torsion and tension in the strings. (:40) Then way up in the orchestra debris starts to whistle by. At (:55) the brass seems as if it's about to break away but it settles into an equally hasty, nervous version of its figure. (1:05) Next the strings get carried away in a torrent of rising frenzy but at (1:12) the brass reasserts itself with a slowly crescendoing figure whose last note bursts with a clash of cymbals. Asteroid field indeed.

(1:20) Here the brass is back but the tension remains as the percussion frenzies away until the winds puff along a stubborn version of the percussion's first theme. At last the strings snatch up the theme and spin it into a sprawling brass forte theme (1:36) which soars gloriously through the stars.

(2:00) We are all rhythmic variation here, building and prolonging the tension until the next swooning release of the main theme, which comes not at the false climax of (2:25) but at (3:16) with more fanfare than ever. Here, the concert ending vanishes into miniature scampering and a final crash whereas the film version flows into Williams' gliding, celestial theme, warm and atop on the winds, which plateaus the tension of the movement.


In conclusion, The Asteroid Field is one of Williams' most exciting and effective pieces, with rhythm and instrumentation so effectively complementary that the effect is downright visceral. A triumph of suspense, and vitality, the work is suited to its visual counterpart that the cinematic combination strikes the primeval spot between terror and wonder from where we look, ever childlike, upon a grand, wide horizon.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Charm


I vaghi fiori
Giovanni Palestrina
A heated debate followed one of The Atlantic's puffy articles this week when Benjamin Schwartz's The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men rang in the next bout of history's longest-running conflict. In fact the wrangling in the comments impresses, given the lightweight nature of the piece, and to me highlight a few points. First, no one is sure what charm is. Second, everyone thinks charm is desirable. Third, charm is lacking today and no one knows why. Let us see if we can lighten the befuddlement.

First off, while Schwartz never defines charm, the dictionary seems adequately to have done so as, a power of pleasing or attracting, as through personality or beauty. That's not half bad, for charm is certainly a magnetic force of attraction. Another definition clarifies further, saying that to charm is, to act upon (someone or something) with or as with a compelling or magical force, a property which emphasizes the natural, seemingly mystical, pull toward the charming.

A still better definition we find, though, in the more obscure source of a Renaissance treatise on beauty. Here, Florentine poet and man of letters Agnolo Firenzuola, leaning on Petrarch and Boccacio, calls our mysterious property vaghezza. From these poets he isolates three properties of what we broadly call charm: wandering, desire, and beauty. I'll depart from Firenzuola's analysis but consider myself these properties, which seem to me wisely discerned.

Rembrandt Laughing
Wandering is perhaps the most surprising of these traits, for why should that which moves itself, move us? Firenzuola wrote that what we see at ease moves us less than what we must work for, an observation which might figure into the raging gender war, but this seems at best a secondary property. First, though, we must clarify that it is not simply movement which charms us, for no one finds a swinging pendulum or spinning fan charming. Nor do we find sunsets or blowing leaves charming, although we might describe their motion as beautiful. Rather we find charming that which seems animate, that is, alive, and full of vitality. Too this is a property particular to people, for although animals move themselves we do not find them charming. It is the self-possession of an individual, moreover an awareness of his place in the world and an ease in that place, that we find charming. The charming man neither hurries or tarries, speaks too much nor too little, or suffers from want or excess.

He exists with joy in the order of the world, or even seems himself to order it, and thus we rejoice in the apparent excellence of both him and "his world." Such is why the charming are so desirable to others. The charming man extends his apparent good order around us, hence the propensity for the charming-and-devious to use their power for swindling others. We comply with charmers because we are so persuaded that the ease with which they move signifies the rightness of their order. Even the man of intelligence may be persuaded by a charming man, for in seeming to find the mean in personal conduct and himself to be happy, the charming man approximates wisdom. For this reason, charm may conceal a lack of wisdom, lead to wisdom, or flow from wisdom, and hence the various disputations about its essence and goodness.

In speaking of beauty I will quote Firenzuola, who writes that charm is, "a beauty that attracts and sparks the desire to contemplate and enjoy it." [Eisenbichler & Muray, 36] As alluded, at the personal level we seek to enjoy the company of the charming. We find enjoyment in their apparent harmony with the world and with us. Not inappropriately, we call this harmony beautiful, although not friendship per se, which has other requirements. Hence again the propensity to abuse charm, for it may simulate the appearance of friendship with simple friendly feeling.

At the aesthetic level too, though, we seek beauty. The beauty of the human face which charms us and moves eros through us may move us either toward love, friendship, and giving, or to lust and utility.

Finally, although we described charm as appropriate only to people, we might attempt discuss two potential qualifications. The first is for certain places, which are not properly called charming because they are not vital or self-possessed, but which draw us into their order and beauty. We call them charming nonetheless because we project ourselves into them and in doing so feel a part of order and beauty, and thus at peace. Hence the charm of a well-ordered farm, a cozy cabin, or a simple nook in nature where we feel at home.

The second potential qualification is for music, because a musical idea 1) exists in time, 2) has shape and character, and 3) seems to act and react. The seems there is the catch, though, for the musical idea is the will of the composer and not self-possessed. Still, though, but for that one qualification would we not call both the seductive and sensuous Adagio and the bumptious Rondo themes of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto KV.622, like Rembrandt chuckling above, charming?


Does that theme not seem at peace with itself and the world? Does it not call us?

Charm may be misconstrued and misused, but it's a call to something greater, for to charm one must know oneself and cultivate the good, and to be charmed we must be open to goodness and beauty. If we wish charm to return, that is where we ought to start.


Eisenbicher, Konrad and Murray, Jaqueline (trans. & ed.) On the Beauty of Women, by Firenzuola, Agnolo. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1992.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

App Review: Beethoven's 9th, by TouchPress

By TouchPress, 2013.

When I reviewed The Orchestra from iOS app developer TouchPress back in December, I wrote that while splendid, the format would better benefit a detailed study of one work rather than selections of several. Well, ask and ye shall receive. TouchPress now gives us its presentation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

All the polish that defined The Orchestra is back: the curated, scrolling score, the smooth seeking. On top of these refinements TouchPress has added a number of features, from the color-coded identification of the key area, to brief descriptions of the many moods and gestures, and the option to view the original manuscript, all at any moment in the performance.


In place, though, of the new performances recorded with multiple camera angles that made The Orchestra stand out, this time we get four full landmark recordings of the 9th: 1) Fricsay's 1958 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, 2) Karajan's 1962 also with the BP, 3) Bernstein's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1979, and 4) and John Eliot Gardiner conducting his own Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique in 1992. Three of the recordings are audio only and Bernstein's is a complete, taped performance. Aside from having four stellar recordings of the 9th, you can switch among them at any moment during the performance. It is of course revealing to hear the differences in conducting from performance to performance, but the differences seem even more stark than if you had simply switched CDs or even mp3s because the shift is so seamless. How much more varied the differences of shape, tone, and tempo when so closely juxtaposed.


While all of these features are available during a listening, the app also includes brief interviews which you can separately watch. In these shorts, experts reflect on a few important points about the 9th from their perspectives as conductors, scholars, and performers. Here John Eliot Gardiner analyzes a section, there Albrecht Mayer reflects on performance challenges, and Paul Morley on learning to listen. There is great variety among these discussion and they're genuinely revealing about the 9th, not just boilerplate about the greatness of the work or maudlin effusions about "what Beethoven means to me." The developers clearly edited down longer interview to brief discussions of specifics, a good call since a topic like Beethoven's Ninth will make anyone ramble.

One feature I would like to see developed is the series of short recordings in which an expert discusses the piece while himself listening to it. A staple of DVDs, these casual reflections are rare in the musical world and seem to stimulate more personal, frank, reactions because of the frisson from the performance in the background. It's treat enough to hear Sir John Eliot Gardiner talking about Beethoven, but it's just plain fun to see him perk up when a favorite part is coming up.

Overall, this is a brilliant app, a combination of CD recording, DVD performance, score, manuscript, program notes, and analysis, all wrapped up in a smooth, slick interface that lets you cycle through it all with ease and bring up exactly what you want at any moment during the piece. Not bad for $15.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Top & Bottom: James Bond Title Songs


James Bond needs no introduction, nor do the songs to the 24 films. In fact they've become a cornerstone of the franchise, giving each film the flavor of its age. While they all retain a certain charm, especially in the context of their title sequence and decade, some really are excellent, some are fun but flawed, and some are leagues away from the world of Bond in both tone and quality. Let's have a listen.


5. The Man With the Golden Gun

The swelling brass, scintillating percussion, and zippy, motivic figure give The Man With the Golden Gun an exotic vibe. The second Bond song not about the spy but his adversary-du-jour, The Man With the Golden Gun sketches a deadly assassin with his sights on Bond. And how does the song build up Bond's opponent into a fearsome rival? As far as I can tell, by a nonstop series of phallic references. Not including repetitions and variations, I count fifteen, sixteen if you include that brass figure. [YouTube]


4Goldeneye

Goldeneye was a gutsy return for Bond after a long hiatus. With those four opening notes peering out from the dark quiet, Tina Turner's sultry voice, and the dark imagery of the text, Goldeneye brings the indomitable and irresistible spy back out from the shadows. The text is also a novel woman's take on the 007 allure: raw attraction, defiantly resistant. [YouTube]


3. Goldfinger

Oh that wailing brass, classic yes, but the star here is of course Shirley Bassey, plucking those notes from nowhere and then weaving them out into seductive, sinuous lines up to a bravura finish. The text is simple but effective, mythologizing and building up a ruthless enemy who just may
spell doom for the unstoppable Bond. [YouTube]


2. Skyfall 

Here the brassy opening harkens straight back to Bond's origins, appropriate not only for Skyfall's subtle origins theme but as counterpoint to M's end painted in the text. All the vocal and instrumental leaps here paint a falling, an end shared by both M and Bond. [YouTube]


Monday, April 1, 2013

A Friend of Mine: Beyond Polyphony


As any APLV readers know, the classical music greats feature prominently on the blog. Please don't think, though, that we neglect that modern music which speaks straight to the heart. Right here we have a great 20th century hit which cuts past those nasty fugal complexities behind us for some toe-tapping elation. In a way this is purer song, finer expression through its liberation from complex harmonies and expressive means. Listen.



First, hear how the symmetry of those opening notes, three pairs of two, is broken by the seventh, lone note. One does not simply write such a groovy theme. One is inspired. Likewise, notice the triplet figure in the bass rolling on and on, as if eternally, reminiscent of a great passacaglia from Bach, Purcell, or Buxtehude. See lastly how yet another figure theme lays atop the bass, there.

Naturally we cannot ignore the text, which is deliberately emphasized by the lack of musical development. The text features rhyming couplets, emphasizing contrasting pairs such as different and same by their end-stopped placement and important concepts such as name, and same by the end-rhyme. Lastly, the imagery references everything from the ancient myth of Actaeon. "Once I tried to run," to the modern morality tales of Dudley-Do-Right, "He is like a Mountie, he always gets his man."

Complemented by the timeless look of leather vests and pelvic swaying, this video is simply electrifying. Zap!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Six Bach Dances: Part II: The B Minor Mass


And so flung wide are the doors of heaven.

IV. Gloria: Cum Sancto Spiritu



This festive trumpets-and-drums finale closes the ring of the Gloria which kicked off with another dancing D major fanfare. We begin vivace in 3/4 time with one of Bach's most rhythmically potent figures in the first of three sections of free declamatory material which sandwich the two fugues.

In the free sections dancing figures in the accompaniment leap and bound over sustained notes on patris  or ride virtuosic waves of ecstatic thirty-second notes on gloria, producing contrasts of texture and symbolism.

The two fugues utilize a variant of the opening figure for a theme against which he throws, "an animated countersubject, a weaving, conjunct idea on the word 'Amen,' which acts as a perfect foil for the leap filled main subject." [Stauffer, 93-94] The fervor and flurry of second fugue is charged by doubling instruments and false fugal entries, producing a feeling of spontaneous exuberance and, as Stauffer wisely observes, liberation.

It is one of soul's purest pleasures to be carried off in the glory of the Cum sancto stretti as they overflow into the rivers of amens and one grand affirmation: In gloria Dei Patris.

V. Credo: Et Resurrexit



Where the Cum Sancto Spiritu flowed easily and graciously from the noble bass aria Quoniam tu solus Dominus, the trumpets-and-drums Et Resurrexit is an epoch-making break from "the crown of thorns" that was the dissonant Crucifixus.

If the swelling elan of this movement, with rising figures every which way and a positively irresistible downbeat, don't quicken your pulse, check it. Bach has here combined the dignity of regal galanterie and the verve of spontaneous festal feast into a hymn of purest praise.

VI. Credo: Et Expecto



Like the Cum Sancto the Et Expecto flows without delay from the previous movement and like the Et Resurrexit this follows one of great gravity. Bach links the movements with an adagio bridge where a simple and declaratory anapestic figure on A in the first soprano which no sooner begins to fall through the voices than it falls into tempo Vivace e Allegro against a rising fanfare as the movement proper begins. 

After the orchestral ritornello of the fanfare figure the voices rejoin for a short fugato and every factor conspires to paint a clear sense of gesture, space, and scale. First, the leap of a fifth in the figure itself suggest the raising of one's senses to the celestial and divine. Second the rising entrances from the tenor to the second soprano draws the scale and gives a sense of graded escalation while the leap from the bass to first soprano suggests a spiritual vaulting to the heavens. 

The final fugal section achieves a similar sense of space and scale but here a contrast in both sustained and melismatic lines on saeculi, suggesting both the roll of ages and the constancy of the eternal firmament, all complemented by the heraldry of the paired fanfares in the trumpets above.



Bibliography

Stauffer, George B. Bach: The Mass in B Minor: The Great Catholic Mass. Yale University Press. 2003.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Six Bach Dances: Part I: Passion Sarabandes


The rhythms of dance are at once wax earthly and celestial, calling the listener to join his corporeal form to a timeless continuance. No dance wants to end and no composer understood this innate property better than Bach, whose dances not only in suites but also sacred choral works remain sculptures of rhythmic perpetuity as they within hold the most expressive harmonies. 

Here on this Good Friday I would take a look at three movements from Bach's two surviving Passions. All three are built on sarabande rhythms in 3/4 time and make use of the room within the sarabande for both gentility and passion.

I. St. John Passion, BWV.245: Tenor Aria, Ach mein Sinn

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site



The St. John Passion's counterpart to Matthew's more famous Erbarme dich, the tenor aria Ach mein Sinn is Peter's turmoil after his threefold denial of Jesus. Yet where the Erbarme dich is a haunting, twining torment in the memory, Ach mein Sinn is an extroverted display of furious self abasement. Where the twists and turns in the Erbarme dich seem as Peter's sin again and again trickling into his mind, they here seem daggers amidst the din of dissonance, halting dotted rhythms, and rising and falling phrases. 

II. St. John Passion, BWV.245: Chorus: Ruht wohl

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site



The stately sarabandes which close both of Bach's surviving passions have been variously referred to as  lullaby-like. This is somewhat appropriate, given the gentle flute and oboe parts above and the falling figures, suggestive of laying-down, which both pieces also share. Rising-and-falling figures, the lullaby-rocking, if you will, also contribute to the soporific mood, but the grieving leaps in the chorus and descending chromatic bass are bitter contrast to the sweet gentility of the rhythm.

III. St. Matthew Passion, BWV.244: Chorus: Wir setzen uns

Score & Text @ Bach Cantatas Site


Here the more regular sarabande rhythm creates a more persistent, sepulchral tone while the sudden shifts into dissonance draw an expressive interiority within the scene-painting of Christ's burial. The contrasting emotions of grandeur in the sarabande rhythm and tenderness in the falling figures, of personal grieving in leaps and communal grieving in vertical dissonance, and the death of Jesus the Man and Christ the Lord coalesce into one unfolding both immanent and transcendent.


Bibliography


Little, Meridith & Jenne, Natalie. Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach. Indiana University Press. 1991, 2001.

Stapert, Calvin R. My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Co. 2000.

Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide. Oxford University Press. 2005.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Mozartian Counterpoint: Addendum: KV.465


Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | Addendum


String Quarter in C, KV.465


I. Adagio-Allegro

The String Quartet Kochel 465 enjoys the most fame of Mozart's six Haydn quartets due to its dissonant 22-bar opening Adagio. The infamous dissonance of the introduction, however, has passed from hot topic of 19th century disagreement, inciting critical feuds and even re-written editions, to bearer of dissonances "mild" and "unproblematic to describe." (Irving, 54) Of course Mozart's music, here and everywhere, needs neither rewriting nor description, but understanding and enjoying. Robert Greenberg has also pointed out with humor and truth, "Only mild, vertical dissonance? As compared to what–a cat on a cactus?" Indeed there should be enough harmonic and melodic dissonance for anyone, but we're here specifically to talk counterpoint.

Adagio
KV.465. Adagio. 
Annotated by N. Vertucci.
Click to enlarge.

The Adagio divides into two sections of 15 and 7 measures, with the first section breaking down into units of 4, 4, and 7.
  1. 15 Measures
    1. 4 Measures
    2. 4 Measures
    3. 7 Measures
  2. 7 Measures
Section I.A begins with the cello vainly droning out quavers of Cs which fail to establish a tonic center because of the viola and 2nd violin entrances on A-flat and E-flat which create the A-flat major chord. The 1st violin then enters, but on A-natural, clashing with the previous A and contemporaneous G of the viola and forming a tritone above the 2nd violin's A. The polyphonic entrances of the upper three voices which bring these dissonances create a formless coming-into-being and the descending chromatic lines following the initial dissonances evolve a sinewy chaos. Yet at the same time the imitation by its nature creates a framework of stability.

Section I.B begins and functions much the same way with the same phrase rising up, though now a step below, a beat apart through the trebles over the now-descending bass line.

Section I.C breaks the symmetry with a chromatically ascending figure, again treated imitatively although not passing through the 2nd violin.

Section II. The final seven measures finally establish the tonal area of C before we enter the Allegro, although not without disruptive syncopations and passing dissonance.

Allegro

In the exposition we arrive at the long-sought after C major with a leaping, bounding theme. The imitation throughout this section amplifies the lush energy and vertiginous activity of the theme and scalar figures.

Exposition. mm.41-47
The development section begins with imitative polyphony of the main theme over a descending bass line which proceeds, in reminiscence of the chaos of the Adagio, to tug the whole polyphonic jaunt down into a crash of highly disjunct, forte, accented figures.
Development. mm.113-118
Whereas the imitation of the exposition magnified the energy and motion, the imitation here intensifies the drama of the minor tonalities.


This is extraordinary music, not just for its radical harmonies but for its wealth of contrasts and expression. Mozart moves from cosmic chaos to bounding human exuberance and concludes in a fusion of the two. The complex harmonies and contrapuntal frames don't stand out as learned and instead all but disappear within the effect.

Soloman concludes,
[Mozart] composes states of ambivalence that do not unfold successively, but occur at the same time, achieving the effect of simultaneity by chromaticisms, rhythmic shifts, modulations, registral contrasts. . . Mozart specialized in the representation of amalgams of opposed affects, of beauty and sadness, of consolation and terror, of longing and anger, of pleasure and pain, teaching us what it may mean when the object of desire is simultaneously the source of fear. [Solomon, 203]
Bibliography

Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. 2007.
Greenberg, Robert. The Chamber Music of Mozart. The Great Courses [Lecture]. 2004.
Irving, John. Mozart: The Haydn Quartets. Cambridge Music Handbooks. 1998.
Mozart, W.A. String Quartet in C, KV.464Score via IMSLP.
Solomon, Maynard. Mozart: A Life. 1995.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A 21st Century Mozart


". . . in modern conditions Mozart would make a fortune with the products of one side of his genius which he would lose in performances of works of the other side." 
–A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Arthur Hutchings, p. 160.

Arthur Hutchings' companion to the Mozart concerti is one of those densely perspicacious books in which one can find insight at every page and line. The one-off line I quoted above is one of many you could profitably unfold into a long essay.  At first look it seems a throwaway what-if to tantalize historians: What if Alexander the Great had lived, what if Cicero debated Demosthenes, and so forth. Yet the question is a little deeper, methinks.

You see, Mozart has rather unwisely been made the patron saint of starving artists, especially musicians. In truth, he wasn't the best servant to the Archbishop in Salzburg and afterward he made tidy sums throughout his ten years in Vienna. At the time of his death he was poised to explode on the opera world. So while we may be wrong to see in Mozart the subject of grievous injustice, we can't help and I don't think we're wrong to feel that he was let down. We who greedily lap up the masterpieces he produced-week by-week find unbearable the autocratic constrictions and lowbrow tastes with which he contended. Why should such a rare genius answer to anyone? Yet Mozart, very much the first freelance musician, responded to the demand and especially in the concerti and operas produced works both finely-crafted and appealing.

We should realize instead, from Mozart's experience, that ours is a liberated time. A 21st century Mozart wouldn't have to cater to the whims of a handful of rich patrons or the citizens of one city because the transportation and information revolutions have given every artist a global audience. Can you imagine the demand for Mozart's prolific universal genius? He'd have an opera premiering in New York, a new movie he scored opening every few months, he'd be on tour performing concerti and symphonies, and his serenades would dominate the Top 40. He would have commissions lined up for years and pupils lined up around the corner. Imagine a Mozart masterclass, and a Mozart not wasted teaching Franz "shithead" Sussmayr.

With his popular success Mozart would fund the projects of his heart. No more dense pupils and comissions for mechanical organ. What would we see? What would a mature, unfettered Mozart produce? Would he glory in the esoteric or elevate the everyday? Both, probably. What intimate chamber worlds and celestial symphonies might be. Surely he'd still be outraging the conservatives with his daring harmonies and befuddling the avant-garde with his knowledge of the old ways. I'm sure he'd still be giving cutting criticism of his contemporaries, and I can just see him walking Bimperl along Central Park on the way home to a private chamber recital with family and friends.

I would worry about his education, though. Would Mozart's father have been able to remain his private tutor? Could he have afforded to? Would Leopold have been dragged through the tabloids for exploiting his son? What scandals would have been cooked up in a media frenzy?  We should probably spare ourselves the thought of young Wolferl in a government school classroom of 30.

Aside from the fact that no musical education could replace that from his father, young Wolfgang's interest was almost exclusively musical. Would it have profited him, his family, or anyone, to have dragged him though a "Core Curriculum?" Yuck. Is not the disconnect between the thoughts downright offensive: Mozart and Core Curriculum. How different the associations. If the young Mozart was as attention-deficient as many of his sonatas, might he have been medicated dull as so many other spunky, innocent boys today? We rightly noted the virtues of our liberated culture, but it seems clear the young Mozart was a freer boy and the Mozart family a closer, freer family than most today. What Wolfgang might have gained in the technological revolution from looking at digitized scores of Bach he might have lost early in other ways and early on.

Of lessons we should be wary of drawing too many. It's all too easy to start pointing and wagging fingers at the alleged causes of the artistic lacuna in our society. The solution, however, is no political or social prescription, but the personal one to cultivate him in our lives through his music. Toward this end Mozart can have done no more, having left us his most perfect, universal art. The only appropriate responses, I think, are love and gratitude.

And more music. Especially opera.





Saturday, January 26, 2013

Music of Middle Earth: The March of the Ents


If the success of a romance like The Lord of the Rings in the postmodern 20th century is not surprising enough, consider the love of Tolkien's songs and poems therein. Beloved by Tolkien and Middle Earth aficionados, the songs showcase not only the author's wordsmith craft but also his affection for words. Yet they're no artist's conceit because they add veracity and authenticity to the larger narrative, enshrining the deeds of Middle Earth not just in history but in lore.

Many of Tolkien's songs have been set to music and in this series I would like to compare some interpretations. So to start, The March of the Ents, from The Two Towers.

We come, we come with roll of drum: ta-runda runda runda rom!
We come, we come with horn and drum: ta-runa runa runa rom!
To Isengard! Though Isengard be ringed and barred with doors of stone;
Though Isengard be stong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars - we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom, with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!
With doom we come, with doom we come!
The Two Towers. Ch. Treebeard


The March of the Ents. Stephen Olivier. 1981.



Here we have the whole of Tolkien's Entish war song thrummed out by a chorus of basses over a walking bass line. Probably the most faithful to the simple spirit of the story, this version itself derives its considerable effect from simple means.  The deep, earthy basses are a natural fit for the Ents and the bass line, aside from mirroring the march of the Ents, provides a sense of motion under the strophic, hymn-like phrases of the text. The syllabic and almost staccato treatment of the words brings out the hard-hitting consonants of Tolkien's thumping battle hymn. Lastly, the dynamics give a terrible urgency to the fury of the Ents:
For bole and bough are burning now,
the furnace roars - we go to war!
The Ents' Marching Song. The Tolkien Ensemble. 2006.



Here, the drums with their wild rhythms create a scene of primeval danger. The ensemble here remains quite faithful to the text, deriving the rhythms from Tolkien's words. They do, however, insert a dramatic scene voiced by beloved Tolkien enthusiast and performer Christopher Lee in which Sir Christopher, presumably as Treebeard, shouts rousing commands to the marching Ents. This trick opens up the music from a simple song to a scene of action. The following brassy fanfares play up the martial theme until the bass voices return with the text. The opening and Sir Christopher's monologue are the highlights.

Isengard Unleashed. Howard Shore. 2002.



Consistent with the Wagnerian dimensions of Shore's score, the war song of the Ents is nested within the Battle of Helms Deep. Like Olivier's piece, Shore begins with bass rumblings, however he quickly builds to a small rhythmic figure which, in contrast to a simple walking bass, creates a more specifically martial theme. Next, however, Shore makes a radical departure from Tolkien and Olivier and, with both text and music, paints the scene from a third person perspective. No longer do we hear the Ents themselves sing of their tale in the making, no longer a muscular war song, rather we hear high soft voices narrate in the Elvish tongue. Shore paints the image of a people rising from an ancient slumber with a long, melismatic, conjunct line culminating in a crescendo and the entry of a solo boy soprano high above, fulfilling and releasing the musical tension and completing the narrative of the Ents' attack.

Lastly, let us hear from The Professor himself.



Shore's interpretation stands out certain for complexity and for its departure from the text, but I would argue it is quite successful. The version from Olivier and The Tolkien Ensemble are admirably faithful but still vivid and engaging interpretations. Are there any other noteworthy versions or performances we overlooked?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Sacred Music VII: Canons and Constraints


At the heart of our various essays on the liturgy and musical style has been my argument that certain musical procedures, namely polyphonic ones, are by nature the most appropriate for liturgical music.

To further this point I would like to compare two contrasting developments of a theme from Johann Pachelbel. The first is the composer's own, the famous Canon/Chaconne in D, and the second is a contemporary arrangement by pianist George Winston. Please note that I'm not suggest Pachelbel's piece is by any means the ideal liturgical piece, but rather that his technique creates a far different effect with the theme than Winston's, and that effect is more amenable to the liturgy's needs.



Studying Pachelbel's work we observe two features at work: a canon in the violins over the ground bass in the cello.


These two procedures will provide an overarching sense of stability throughout, the counterpoint of the canon constraining the elements and weaving them into a texture and the ground bass serving as a rhythmic and harmonic touchstone. None of the variations steals the show. All of the energy is focused and balanced.

The effect is in great contrast to that of Winston's set of variations, which feels like a series of riffs and subdivisions rather than a cohesive whole with a sense of direction. Here the rhythms are unchecked and we are jerked by the variations rather then embedded in the texture. The result is a profoundly more free-wheeling feel, despite, incredibly, the presence of Pachelbel's ground bass.


Again, this comparison is not qualitative by a study in contrasts. How much more contemplative is Pachelbel's piece with it's Baroque aesthetic of constrained expressivity than the contemporary variations which seem to seize at you with every jingle and jangle. Pachelbel's rhythm's are vigorous, yet it is a fire refined by an aesthetic of balance, of harmony in the non-musical sense of conformity and congruity.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

App Review: The Orchestra, by TouchPress

by Touch Press. 2012.

Christmas comes early this year with another iOS app from Touch Press, who earlier this year brought us Shakespeare's Sonnets. Their latest offering, The Orchestra, brings Touch Press' characteristic polish to an app of musical exploration and appreciation. The Orchestra takes selections from eight orchestral works, from symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven to Stravinsky's Firebird and Salonen's Violin Concerto, and presents them supplemented by a host of tools.

The first of these tools is the video itself. At first this claim might seem an exaggeration, but we don't simply get a video of the performance, nor do we even get a superbly filmed concert performance. We get a performance during which cameras were able to float free and close to the performers, capturing close ups of all the sections, and which is expertly edited together to show sections and details at the appropriate time. Moreover, you can view up to three preselected angles at the same time, capturing, say, the conductor and two sections. Simply tap, pinch, and drag to cycle, expand, and arrange the videos as you please. You can also array the videos in miniature above the score. This is simply a blast. It's a treat to get such good camerawork but it is downright exciting to see so much going on in one view.

click to enlarge
The next of The Orchestra's features is the score, which scrolls along as the piece plays. A red line marks your current position and you can swipe back and forth to rewind or skip ahead. The scrolling is all perfectly smooth and if you have the videos playing at the same time there's nary a jitter out of them either. Even if you jump back or ahead several dozen bars the app picks up where you stop without a pause. Slick.

You can choose either a full score or one showing only the staves of currently playing instruments. This  feature, in conjunction with the auto-scrolling and the ease with which you can rewind, makes The Orchestra a tremendous aid to anyone learning to read a score. Beyond the score, though, are two visualizations of the musical selection. The first is a bar-graph style version of the score in which the parts are color coded and note values are represented not by different symbols but by lines of varying length. This increasingly popular visualization of the score helps emphasize the note lengths and shapes of the rhythms and it's gratifying to see it more formally welcomed into musical learning.

The second visualization, however, I had never seen before and makes clever use of the tablet's touch interface. Touch Press calls it a, "mesmeric synchronized BeatMap," and it consists of an overhead view of the orchestra, color-coded by section, with each instrument replaced by a dot. As the piece plays, the dots flash whenever the particular instrument hits a note. This is a splendid way to get a better sense of the orchestration of a piece, but one additional feature puts this tool over the top. If you tap the section, the app lowers the volume on the others. What a great way to study both rhythm and harmony, being able to isolate the sections and see which instruments play which rhythms and hear the timbres both by themselves and then in concert with the others. Due to space limitations this feature is only available for the Beethoven symphony, although you can enable and download it for the other apps with an in-app purchase.

Lastly, The Orchestra includes textual commentaries by Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and LA Times music critic Mark Swed. You can overlay both either as text or audio over the videos or score, which makes for a great follow up to the performance. Also, presenting these commentaries as overlays is much preferable to simply tucking them away as text files. Also included are descriptions of the instruments, accompanied with brief video descriptions from the principal players, a 3D model of the instrument, a MIDI keyboard letting you tap out notes on the instrument and see its range, and shortcuts to selections showcasing the instrument. These are nice touches, as smoothly implemented as the rest of the app, to material which could simply have been thrown in to fill out a features list.

These materials do, however, make me yearn for more scholarly information. I hope Touch Press considers following up The Orchestra with similar apps dedicated to specific pieces, with full performances, scholarly articles, and scores annotated with observations on harmony, structure, and so forth.

Still, this is a brilliant app. The Orchestra is exciting to use and takes a big and welcome step in app design. It doesn't simply put a lot of useful information at your fingertips, but it takes one topic and gives you many paths to and through it. The score and visualizations and videos aren't left as discrete bundles but are stitched together into the experience of hearing the music. The result is a dynamic app which feels less like a reference book and instead disappears into what becomes an enhanced experience of the music. Bravo and Encore.

N.B. The Orchestra weighs in at a hefty 1.8 GB, but that's to be expected with so much video.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Impossible Task


Throughout most of the year, arguing for traditional Catholic liturgical music, chant, is a difficult task. You have to contend with indifference, ignorance, philistinism, and, most fiercely, the inertia of the status quo. Yet Advent inertia is a whole different beast from the habits of the rest of the year. Advent is not like Lent, when you might be able to slip a solemn tone in amongst the usual assortment of dour hymns, or Ordinary Time when dropping On Eagle's Wings one week won't ruffle anyone's feathers. No, during Advent people have expectations, namely that of yuletide cheer peppered with a few minor thirds. Never mind the miracle and implications of incarnatus est et homo factus est, one must serve up the usual sweet fodder. The details don't seem to matter too much, as long as you serve the following courses:
  • twelve toe-tappers
  • eleven pop tunes
  • ten minor melodies
  • nine cheery carols
  • eight bobbing ballads
  • seven gooey lullabies
  • six wintry airs
  • five golden oldies
  • four rhyming refrains
  • two merry rounds
  • one Old Testament anthem
  • and Handel's Hallelujah chorus
You'll know you've pleased everyone if you see Fezziwig come jiggering out of the sacristy.

Now I'm not usually persuaded by the claim that parishioners want the music that's played at church. I don't think people would miss the Mass of Creation were it suddenly to disappear. Many people expect some kind of music, not unreasonably, but they don't care too much about style or content. Yet during Advent and on Christmas. . . So what to do? How does one finagle a sacred mass without a yuletide revolt in the pews? I have a few suggestions.

The first is to stay calm. There's a place in the world for people who have no musical taste (Arctic penal colonies), so don't get apoplectic because they prefer The First Noel to Puer Natus Est or some bird's nest from Rutter to a Byrd Gloria. This isn't the time to give lectures about textual primacy or voice leading to such parishioners. Just tie them up and leave them somewhere for the winter.

Second, be practical. This is also not the time to push your ideas, however beautifully developed and presented, on choir directors. They tend to be busy and frazzled during December. By now you're probably out of time to persuade them, so instead just throw away all the music you don't like. They're not organized enough to have extras.

Third, if you manage to incorporate proper music into a mass but expect Occupy Schola to show up demanding Go Tell It on the Mountain, consider ending the mass with something popular. If you give them what they want at the end, they might forget about what came earlier. A compromise.

Fourth, try offloading the cheesy music to a Lessons and Carols concert. You might not want to yield this occasion to the philistines, but better it than mass.

Lastly, people slip back into old habits, so you'll probably never improve things once and for all.