Friday, October 28, 2011

John Sousa, the great aphorist

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy... in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape. - A submission to a 1906 congressional hearing. @

Also, Sousa on music piracy (a letter to the editor).

I also stumbled on a lengthy article how Victor, makers of the "talking machines," created its own audience - on the social construction of listening to recorded music. Good stuff; did not finish it yet though.

Monday, October 17, 2011

In the "insane far out crazy sh*t" category.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Giacinto Scelsi: Symphony de Uma Nota So

Articles about Giacinto Scelsi tend to begin with accounts of his biography and for a good reason: he is a fascinating character, a colorful figure in the tradition of great eccentrics and lonely visionaries, and his life makes for a great story. I will skip it: first, there is a number of articles that tell his story better than I ever could (see and, as well as an extended and thorough obituary). A second, and more important, reason is that it would have been the wish of Scelsi himself. He was a recluse, granting no interviews and refusing to be photographed - not as a whim, but as a natural extension of his vision of himself and his role in composing:
"Scelsi believed to be a postman, someone who delivered a message, considering himself as a medium between different worlds. [...] Scelsi's unorthodox methods of working proved to be controversial as seemingly questioning the very notion of authorship that even someone like Cage never relinquished." @
"The method used in the pieces for which Scelsi is famous [...] was to improvise extensively on one note and record the results onto tape, this later being transcribed in score by an assistant. Scelsi did not think of these works as compositions with an author in the conventional sense but as snapshots of something more profound and of which the composer was something of an intermediary." @
This approach lead to claims that the music was not, in fact, his, but rather written by his many assistants - although there is an originality and unity of vision behind his output that has to come from one person.

So, if it's all about the music, what is the music like? A common adjective is "monotonous," and it's not derogatory, but directly descriptive. Indeed most of his compositions are based on exploration of a single tone. Yet, the music manages to be engaging, fascinating; it feels like you are hearing a great story told in a foreign language. Scelsi's musical language is completely original and unconventional: completely devoid of melody, yet infinitely rich in timbre, texture, and dynamics; there is no pulse, and rhythm is used only in the most general sense of ideas developing faster or slower; harmony is completely foreign to the classical tradition - it is based on a single note and a multitude of its overtones, so one can occasionally recognize triads and chords, but more often there are microtonal shifts or larger note clusters that may sound dissonant, but not jarringly so.
The entire impression his music makes is like that: dissonant, but not jarringly so; foreign, yet vaguely familiar. His language is not otherworldly, not alien, not futuristic like electronic bleeps and glitches tend to sound. Quite the opposite: Scelsi is reaching into the past, into the history and sometimes prehistory to connect to the deepest human musical impulses. This is how Scelsi himself saw his music: the composition titles are in Latin, Sanskrit, Sumerian; they refer to characters and concepts from Near Eastern, Mayan, or ancient Greek mythology.
My personal aural association is different; once upon a time I read an article on diddley bow - a one-string homemade instrument played with a slide - which said that in early African-American folk music there tends to be little use for pure timbre, and homemade instruments are often augmented with buzzers and rattlers attached to the string to dirty up and fuzzify the sound. The Afro-American folk tradition was completely unknown to Scelsi, yet again they seem to produce convergent results.

To connect to another previous idea, while Scelsi was not an orthodox believer like Pärt or Bach, he definitely was a mystic and saw his work in spiritual terms; music for him is something external to and something greater than a man; and I think that his attempts to remove his ego from the process of composition improve results dramatically.

See also essays on AION and Konx-Om-Pax.

Links: the source, AION / PFHAT / KNOX-OM-PAX on depositfiles

A three-CD collection of his Œuvres Pour Chœur Et Orchestre (including the material on the disc above) at uaxuctum (incidentally, the blog is named after a Scelsi composition)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Kronos Quartet - Winter Was Hard

I recently got me a new hard drive and went on a downloading rampage; mostly modern classical, but other stuff, as well. I'll try to go through some of it and perhaps will be posting my listening notes as I go along; possibly with the links stolen from where I got the music.

This one was an easy choice for a start - I could have written a review without even listening. What Kronos are trying to do here is to give a panorama view of the modern string quartet repertoire, and doing so admirably. They pick out samples from all the extremes of the modern string quartet tradition: the last of the American Classicists (Barber's 'Adagio') is balanced by the 'pop' people dabbling in strings (John Lurie's 'Bella by Barlight,' Piazolla); dodecaphonic Webern sits opposite melodic Salinen; Zorn's cold and clinical genre manipulation is counteracted by the earnest and direct 'Fratres' by Arvo Pärt. This album might be a good starter for a hipster trying to cover all his classical bases in one strike.
As an interesting aside, Kronos spent the rest of their career breaking out of this modern string quartet canon by collaborating with anybody and everybody, from the Tiger Lillies to Asha Bhosle.

Now, as far as specific comments after actually listening to this, I got the following:
I don't like Zorn, never have, and probably never will - despite the fact that most of the modern musicians I love, respect, and admire collaborated with him at some point. His track here is yet another reminder why. He does not play music, he plays with music. His usual genre juggling is here on full display, and, as before, it does nothing for me. There is so much attention to the form that content gets completely lost (if there ever was any content behind the form).
Arvo Pärt, on the other hand, I really dig (I only wish he was a little louder and a little faster). Interestingly, composer's faith seems to have a positive correlation with the quality of music: e.g. Bach and Pärt. I guess the difference is that they are not writing for a specific audience and not trying to impress anyone - they are writing from their very core and are only accountable to their God (or to themselves).
Lurie's track is a bit predictable; it sounds like something he could have written for the Lounge Lizards and just happens to be performed by KQ, rather than an authentic string quartet piece. The title is a play on 'Stella by Starlight,' but I don't remember it well enough to tell if there are musical references to it in the piece.
Another interesting thing is how surprisingly similar are the Riley and Piazolla pieces. I had the album on shuffle; one followed the other and the transition was completely natural. From tango one would expect the energetics that comes from it being, ultimately, dance music; Riley's piece should serve the abrasive edge of the modern experimental music; yet, both reach outside their genre confines and meet in the middle - 'Four, for Tango' with transitional dissonance, scratching and sawing; 'Half-Wolf' with truly rock'n'roll energy, a pulse that goes through the piece.
Webern stuff I did not get, period. Schnittke I think I need a few more listens to say anything meaningful about.

Another review

Kronos Quartet - Winter Was Hard (1988)
The source, depositfiles
1. Winter was Hard, for chorus & orchestra, Op 20 (Sallinen) 1:40
2. Half-Wolf Dances Mad In Moonlight(Riley) 8:21
3. Fratres, for string quartet (Part) 9:23
4. Six Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9 (Webern) 3:57
5. Forbidden Fruit for voice, string quartet & turntables (Zorn) 10:20
6. Bella by Barlight, for string quartet (Lurie) 2:47
7. Four, for Tango, for string quartet (Piazzolla) 4:41
8. String Quartet No.3 (Schnittke) 19:06
9. Adagio for strings (Barber) 7:09
10. A Door Is Ajar (Traditional) 0:03