. Interchanging Idioms: August 2008

Friday, August 29, 2008

Classical Music is Changing it's clothes

"Classical Music Gets Sexy" is the title to an article in The West Australian. It begins by speaking about one of the best selling string quartets on the market, Bond. And a quick look at their site (or their legs, pictured here) shows just how sexy classical music can be (at least how sexy some of the performers are). The article then goes on to talk about Flautist Jane Rutter (with a picture to add emphasis to the sex-appeal). Neither of these artists are new to the scene, and the use of sex in their marketing isn't new either - but it's getting press (rather than their music), which is why I blog about it now.

Not everyone agrees with the articles comparison of Jane's sex-appeal with that of Bond. This article not only is evidence of the disagreement, but it also is evidence of the base language used by writers when speaking of these musicians, not in terms of their quality music - but rather using phrases like, "so smokin' hot". Listen to some of the tracks off the Bond site and you'll hear pretty good string playing, albeit the music is really cheesy - but then so is "Mamma Mia" and it's a huge hit. So, is it the music that's a hit, or the long legs on display? Or are the legs just there to get you to listen to the music???

The West Australian article does bring up some valid points. Opera audiences no longer accept the buxom (read: over-weight) soprano in the role of the frail Madam Butterfly. Deborah Voight, of London Royal Opera House fame has an amazing voice, but made headlines in 2004 when she was let go because she couldn't fit into the black cocktail dress which was to be her costume. She had surgury, lost the weight and is back on stage. But it shows that appears matters in the classical performance world.

Three things modern opera companies need to consider

I don't know if anyone is listening to my posts, or if just great minds think alike...

But there is a shift in the opera world, one I've been talking about occasionally on the blog.

Rufus Wainwright won't be composing for the Metropolitan Opera in New York because it takes too long (and they want it in English rather than French). Daniel J. Watkin of the New York Times reports the Met insisted the opera be in English and wouldn't be available for performance until at least 2014. Wainwright responds, “They work on that sort of scale; I wanted to get it out as soon as possible, because I’m an impatient pop star.” The opera is now slated to premiere at Manchester International Festival in England next July.

I find this new interested on three levels.

1. Opera needs to be more responsive
It can do this by getting new works out to the forefront faster than the typical 4-6 year schedule. Obviously Manchester International Festival gets this. They premiered "Monkey: Journey to the West" last year and it's getting rave reviews around the world now (and they've just released a CD of the music). That's fast response.

2. Opera needs to look toward popular forms of music to gain broader audience appeal
Both "Monkey: Journey to the West" and Wainwrights new work "Prima Donna" will feature a healthy blend of pop music. It helps that both were written by pop artists, but it doesn't delude the point that popular music will have more audience appeal.

3. Focus on the market
This might sound like the previous point, but this one is where the Met has a better understanding of market appeal than Rufus Wainwright. If the opera were to premiere in the US, and to initially look at getting a broad US listening market, the libretto would need to be in English. "Monkey" did this and it's getting a huge response. It would be nice if the boarder American market would appreciate music in a foreign language, but the truth is it doesn't. So, if what you want is large audience appeal, you need to think about who your audience really is. The Met is doing this.

The opera we're working on has all three of these points firmly in hand (although we don't have a premiere date, we are thinking about keeping the material timely - cutting edge). Our focus is to know the audience, write music and lyrics (with a subject matter) that appeals to the modern audience and they way they process entertainment. It may seem odd to be thinking about how an audience processes entertainment when creating a new work of art - but, (IMHO) the point it, by understanding the way the audience thinks we have a better chance of creating something that not only appeals, but connects. And that is what I feel art is really all about - connecting with people.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Listening to Classical Music

I try and not normally promote any specific sites or businesses. I certainly don't get paid for any advertising and don't think blogs are necessarily the right place for product placement. However....

Naxos is a great source for listening to classical music in a try before you buy senerio. In my recent researching of violin concertos, I have had the opportunity to listen to the following concertos over the past week:

  • Tchaikovsky (Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35)
  • Mendelssohn (Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64)
  • Elgar (Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61)
  • Barber (Violin Concerto, Op. 14)
  • Dvorak (Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53)
  • Prokofiev (Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 & Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63)
  • Miaskovsky (Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 44 )
  • Vainberg (Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 67 )
  • Shostakovich (Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 & Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129)
  • Sibelius (Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47)
  • Szymanowski (Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35 & Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 61)
  • Glass (Violin Concerto)
  • Adams (Violin Concerto)
  • Bartok (Violin Concerto No. 2)

From this list, I've heard at least three different versions of the concertos by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, four different versions Tchaikovsky's concerto, and at least a couple from Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 2. From this list I've purchased (or planning on purchasing) at least a half dozen CD's. Unfortunately, some of the CD's are not available, but at least the music is.

Why am I promoting Naxos? Well, if we (as classical musicians) want classical music to be wider accepted, to be listened to by a wider audience, part of that remit should be promoting ways in which the general public can hear our work (or that of others as none of my pieces has yet to be available on Naxos). We should also encourage people to listen to classical music more (even those of us that perform it on a regular basis). I can not express how much I have learned in just the past week having experienced so many different varieties of the Violin Concerto. Now all I need to do is find a good source for the scores....

Another website I find particularly useful for listening to classical music is Classical Music Archives. As it is an archive site, more modern compositions (20th Century) tend to be more difficult to find due to copyright restrictions. However, there are both live recordings as well as midi files of pretty much anything pre-20th century and a fair number of things within the last hundred years. You can register with the site for a nominal fee and download a thousand files a month, or go the cheap route and limit yourself to just five a day (it's a worthwhile organisation, so don't be cheap).

If, you're like me and like to look at the scores of music while you're listening, downloading the midi files and importing them into Sibelius, Finale or Noteworthy will give you some idea as to what the composer intended. It's not perfect, and you have to be careful as what the composer originally wrote, may not be what the person who created the midi file ultimately input. The other problem you might face is if someone put performance aspects into the midi file. This would skew the notes to place them where they "sound best", but not where they were actually written in the score. So, like I said above, I'm still looking for a good source for scores.

BTW, next week I hope to provide a review for the above listed concertos as to which ones I like and why. This will only be from a listening point of view, but should provide for some interesting discussion.

Also- if you have other concertos (and there are numerous more I have yet to listen to) that you might suggest, I'm open to hearing what you think should be on my list.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Getting a Younger Audience into Opera

According to Marcel Berlins of The Guardian the National Theatre is trying to gain a younger audience by offering £5 tickets to those under 19 years old. He goes on to report the Royal Opera House is doing much the same. It is only toward the end of the article where he describes an advertisment for Don Giovanni with cut-rate tickes that resulted in a soldout house within hours. The headline in the paper was "Sex, death, booze, bribery, revenge, ghosts. . . Who said opera is boring?"

Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Somehow, promoters think the price of tickets to opera is prohibitive and thus the reason the youth don't attend. T in the Park tickets are well into the hundreds of pounds, so why isn't that cost prohibitive? This festival is always a sellout, as is the Glastonbury. The young aren't attending opera because it doesn't attack them. Regardless of what the headlines read, for most of the younger generation opera is boring. The sex in Don Giovanni doesn't compare to the sex from Sex in the City. The booze is nothing compared to what is consumed at any number of campsites at the above mentioned festivals. If the concert sold out, chances are it was probably the same old customers purchasing the cut-rate tickets.

So, what can be done? Well, opera could take a different tone. I went to see the opera performance of "The Enchanted Wanderer" last night, and while I very much enjoyed the music, the singing was fairly standard operatic in style. Perhaps, if I could understand Russian, I might have been able to understand what they were singing, but I doubt it. That's not the point of much of the opera performed today; the voice is to be beautiful, lyrical, musical in every way and no real concern for being understandable. I've written several articles about language and opera and how opera moving forward needs to look at using language (and many other aspects) to reach a modern audience.

The youth of today are used to a media world, one filled with sound bites, fast moving action and dialog that is accessible and energetic. IF, we can get the younger generation into the theatres for modern productions that appeal to their interests - and yet productions that have quality music, then they will be inclined to consider other performances of the "classics".

My wife and I are writing an opera, "It Must Be Fate" with a focus on not just the words and music, but the entire package as it could be conceived in a modern marketing world. The point here is the modern audience doesn't just go to the theatre. They want a more interactive, multi-level engagement. "The Dark Knight" is just a film, but it isn't. It's a website, a video game, a soundtrack and even a role playing game. A modern audience demands more from its entertainment. Opera needs to step up to the task.

Pondering "The Enchanted Wanderer"

Last night, Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra in the UK Premier concert performance of "The Enchanted Wanderer." The opera was composed by Rodion Shchedrin in 2002 for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with three performers in multiple roles. While the performance was performed in Russian, the libretto was printed in the program, with extensive notes as to the story and concept of the work.

The music is lovely, moving and while very Russian in tone and color, very modern with extensive use of percussion. At the opening there are bells, indicative of Russia and they start so softly it is almost impossible to tell when the piece begins. This same tonal color ends the piece as the bells fade into the distance leaving the listener with a haunting memory of bells echoing in the silence. Add bells, gongs, chimes, a glockenspiel, a celeste, a harp, a balalaika, gusli, a harpsichord and chorus to a double wind orchestra and you only begin to get an idea of the rich tonal color used throughout. Shchedrin's use of the orchestra never outweighes the primary vocals, and yet provides a constant shifting tapistry to great effect. The chorus becomes precussive during the Tatar Captivity, an amazing use of the choral voices early on in the piece. During the Russian Shepherds, Orchestral Interlude No 1, the sounds of Russian pastoral scenes is evident. In the last interlude, Ships on the Volga, again the sense of Russia is ever present.

Sergei Alexashkin, Kristina Kapustinskaya and Yevgeny Akimov each had lovely voices, although Sergei struggled a bit with the extreme low notes in his role as Ivan. Kristina, whose primary role was that of Gursha the Gypsy, did a wonderful job with the gypsy melody incorporated into the opera. Later, her duet Yevgeny was one of the most beautiful duets of modern opera with a rich blending of the voices, often with tenor taking the upper voice and yet still maintaining both voices in the forefront. However, the first time we hear the gypsy theme, Gursha is working a drinking establishment and so I expected the music to feel fun and flirtatious. It felt more like a lament, and that is perhaps the biggest problem with the piece overall - it is dark pretty much from beginning to end. "The Enchanted Wanderer" is a tragic love story, so certainly I expected there to be dark moments, but, as with the gypsy theme, there seemed to be no respite from the gloom.

Another problem with the performance was the use of multiple characters for each vocalist. Sergei played, Ivan and the Storyteller. Kristina played Grusha and the Storyteller. Yevgeny played the Flogged Monk, Prince, Magnetiser, Old Man in the Woods and the Storyteller. Since this was a concert performance, unless you spent most of the concert with your nose in the program reading along with the opera (there were no supertitles used), you couldn't tell when the performers were one character or another, particularly with Yevgeny, who played so many different roles. The music and the characterization didn't create any differentiation and so, while the music was wonderful, gaining a sense of the story (without understanding Russian) was difficult at best. I had read the synopsis prior to the performance and certainly some moments during the performance didn't need the program notes, but overall I feel this opera would be much better fully staged.

Yet, the music is so wonderful, the singing, use of the voices, orchestration and overall experience was well worth the evening. I wouldn't give the performance 5 stars, but certainly a strong 4. I suspect this opera will be performed much more in the future.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Artists without Borders

That is how the Edinburgh International Festival billed their selection of works this year: "Artists without borders. Festival 08 reflects on an evolving Europe"

They didn't know how significant this title would be back in March and yet, Valery Gergiev, who grew up in Vladikavkaz North Ossetia, conducted a performance of Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko Act 3 last night - the story of a Ukranian town in 1918 under German occupation where the brutality of war is on display. Valery Gergiev is conducting a differnt concert tonight at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre with the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra. Valery Gerfiev is the same conductor I spoke about in my post on the Music of Politics. Tonights concert is Rodion Shchedrin's opera The Enchanted Wanderer. You can find a synopsis here.

For more insight into Gergiev's view of the events in South Ossetia click here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Things I didn't know about John Williams

Every now and then I come across an article on the Internet that is fascinating, informative and fun. This one by Andy Merey is just that - interesting tidbits about John Williams, the film composer.

The article then encouraged me to return to IMDB.com for reference...

There is a long history of composers learning from other composers and John Williams seems to continue this trend as he worked with a number of greats in his early days. I think what surprised me most was his pop composition work. But then again, he's a great film composer, so I guess it really shouldn't surprise me.

For more on John's (or Johnny's) early days, Wikipedia has a nice write-up. Of course, there is always the Official Site which lists a great deal of music that isn't film music. Where does he find the time?

John Williams

Is "English" Classical Music dead???

Steven Pollard, of the TimesOnLine wrote an article "The day English classical music died" He starts off by siting a couple of fairly unknown composers, and then a couple more only slightly more known composers - then goes on to speak about Ralph Vaughn Williams as the last great English composer.

He justifies this statement by speaking to the direction composers post Williams took in terms of music. He derides them for writing for small clique audiences who were/are more interested in music theory than they are in melody. (Ok, certainly the Darmstadt School and Serialism took a turn away from popular music toward more intellectual forms) However, I would suggest this was a natural evolution of music - albeit not one I find particularly successful, but still, one that was a necessary direction as composers and musicians strive to find something new in a world dealing with the aftermath of 2 world wars. As the Europeans moved further in this direction, American composers moved toward minimalism, which occasionally sounds more tonal or melodic and yet, was just as eager to explore new sonic worlds as their European counterparts were with serialism.

Of the composers Mr Pollard mentions in the opening salvo, Peter Maxwell-Davis is recognised world wide for his works. Maybe the non-classical music listeners don't necessarily know his name, but I doubt many of them would be able to distinguish between music written by Beethoven or Mozart. They may know the names, but don't really know the music, so not knowing the name of Maxwell-Davis isn't all that strange. It's also a mistake to think of Maxwell-Davis music as non-melodic or written for a small clique audience. Perhaps his music isn't to the taste of Mr Pollard, but that doesn't make in non-melodic.

Mr Pollard mentions Benjamin Britten whom Pollard feels is "the only contemporary (read modern - as Britten is dead) composer who had anything close to Vaughan Williams's recognition" - and yet Britten's Opera's are perhaps the most performed of any composer in British history. Michael Tippett isn't mentioned in the article, which is unfortunate. While Tippett didn't get the recognition of Britten, he does have a certain amount of international fame. Brian Ferneyhough is also not mentioned and yet is recognised as leader in a new movement of music (the father of New Complexity). That's a fairly major contribution (IMHO) and Ferneyhough is still writing music. Judith Weir (another omission) has several works performed regularly world wide.

Another reason Mr Pollard suggests English music died with Vaughn Williams is because Vaughn Williams was the last composer to sound English. Well, at the end of the Classical era (Mozart and Haydn), there was a move in music to create a "universal" sound, less regionally distinctive. Toward the end of the romantic era the shift moved back toward incorporating regional sounds and folk music to create something that had cultural character. Shifting between universal and regional music is probably something music will continue to do for centuries to come. New generations of composers will always strive to sound different than those before them; this is natural

At the end of Mr Pollard's article, he mentions James MacMillan and Thomas Adès as a new generation of composers looking to reconnect with the audience. Yes, both of these composers are gaining world wide recognition and both tend to write music that is melodic. However, both of these composers owe a great deal to those composers before them for without their experimentation, the intricate sounds and challenging rhythmic weaving of these new composers wouldn't be possible. Schoenberg remarked that nothing new is composed without leaning heavily on the past.

While agree with Mr Pollard, music may have taken a wrong turn for much of the twentieth century, I think he is unfair to say it died. There are more composers than just Vaughn Williams to give credit to British music (note: MacMillan is Scottish and it would be as unfair to call his music English as it would be to call Vaughn Williams Scottish). Only twenty years ago the music of Elgar and Vaughn Williams was considered slushy and overly sentimental. So, the tastes of the music listening public shift as well. There has been a great deal of good British music composed over the past fifty years (since the death of Vaughn Williams) and it will probably take another fifty years before we can really determine what works and what doesn't.

Note to Mr Pollard: I hope to be included in your list of emerging composers some time in the future.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Music of Politics

Earlier I posted a call for more fluidity in the Classical Music world, to allow for new works and responding to events of the day. I wasn't necessarily talking about responding to current events, as in news topics of the day - but that would certainly seem to apply.

In a world where news travels about the globe in the matter of minutes, people respond to situations with the same speed. So, even before the US started bombing Iraq in 2003 composers were writing music protesting with the statement "Not in my name." In 2001, when the Trade Towers fell, numerous compositions surfaced lamenting the loss of life pulling the world together, looking for answers and bonding people together across borders in search of hope amid the ashes. Music has been used for both protest and support of governments for years. Beethoven's 3rd symphony was initially suppose to be in support of the great liberator Napoleon, but when Napoleon named himself emperor, Beethoven ripped off the title page and renamed the symphony. Tchaikovsky would glorify Napoleon's defeat in Russia with his 1812 overture. In 1944, during the siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich had his 7th symphony performed with loud speakers set up in Leningrad so both the Russian and German troops could hear the symphony. It was a symphony showing support for the Russian troops and declaring a resilience to the conquering army. Russian musicians were called back from the front lines for this performance, so important was the political significance.

On August 7th Russian tanks rolled into Ossetia and the world wondered at the ramifications. Last Thursday, Valery Gergiev opted to perform the Leningrad Symphony on the steps of the bombed-out parliament building in the Georgian city of Tskhinvali. The above link questions the political statement of such a concert. Since Gergiev has close ties with Putin, is the concert attempting to glorify Russia? But the symphony is one of a people under attack and their resolve to come out on top. Gergiev is native to Ossetia, and Ossetia is perhaps the only board on which the political maneuvers of Georgia and Russia are playing out their strategies.

I would like to suggest Valery Gergiev is perhaps trying to remind both sides that a war, only 60 years ago left more than just two countries with millions dead. In the end, there are still borders, still enemies, still armies and still casualties. The concert was to honor the victims of war - that says it all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Film Composers in the Concert Halls

Variety posted an article by Jon Burlingame on how film composers are making their way into the concert halls, with commissioned works. Glad to see this concept is getting press, but they could have printed one of my articles on the same topic weeks ago...
New Directions in Opera
Elfman at the Ballet
Film Industry gets hold of Opera to name a few

Then again, maybe Jon read one of my articles and opted to write one of his own.

Learning to compose by listening to other composers

At TimesUnion.com, Joseph Dalton reports on an upcoming concert in Philadelphia which will feature a piece by Jennifer Higdon, Concerto 4-3, a 30-minute work for string trio (soli of two violins and double bass) and orchestra, completed in 2007. It was intitially premiered by Time for Three and The Philadelphia Orchestra on January 10, 2008. The trio, Time for Three, is typically considered pop performers, with the players coming from Jazz, Bluegrass, folk and hip hop. This concert gives them the chance to blend their style in a classical venue.

Higdon was the teacher in theory and composition at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia when Time for Three were students. So, there was already a relationship established when she began the composition. The piece was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the musical director, Christopher Eschenbach, specifically for Time for Three. While I have not heard the piece yet (it is available for download) and you can hear portions of it here.

Jennifer Higdon

This is not the first concerto Higdon has written. She also has a Trombone Concerto and speaks about the process of composing it here, on YouTube. She makes an interesting point about writing concertos for instruments that aren't typically done. There is a clammering from musicians to perform these pieces. Another video talks about Time for Three and the Concerto 4-3 with snatches of the music. It's fast and tonal (in her own words). She is concerned about writing interesting music, and that is utilitarian - more functional than just the one concert where it premiers or the initial performer for whom it's written (video of Higdon discussing her techniques with a portion of the Percussion Concerto).

Higdon is currently working on a Violin Concerto for Hilary Hahn. Both are very fortunate.

If you'd like to hear more from Time for Three, you can do so here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Russian Violin Concertos of the 20th Century

Yesterday, in further researching of violin concertos, I listened to a couple performed by Dmitry Yablonsky with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Nikolai Myaskovsky's Violin Concerto in D Minor (1933) and Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Violin Concerto in G minor (1959).

The first movement, Allegro ed appassionato by Nikolai Myaskovsky is extremely lyrical. There are a number of moments where the violin rises over the accompaniment in a very Tchaikovsky manner. The cadenza section in the middle has some very interesting double stop elements, where the violin is almost dueting with itself. Then, when the orchestra reappears, the virtuosic movement across the strings is done at a blistering pace. Later, as the movement comes to a close, the piece turns to a rich majestic sound of the orchestra. The "Russian" sound of this violin concerto is very evident and lovely, if not particularly modern in sound.

Myaskovsky's second movement, Adagio molto cantabile starts beautifully sweet, again with a Tchaikovsky air (heart rending). Use of the orchestra to play in an about the violin is, sometimes as accompaniment, sometimes carrying the theme (giving the soloist a much needed break). Some of the elements of this movement could be used in a ballet (if not the entire movement) - the themes are sweeping movement is simple, yet rich. However, it does tend to myander a bit - which is probably why it isn't played more.

The third movement, Allegro molto, is a mixture of number of different themes, all of them lovely, but how they are tied together is occasionally difficult to determine. Parts of this movement wouldn't be out of place in a Copland piece, so I'm not sure if there is a connection between what was influencing Russian music of the late 20's and early 30's, or if there is a Russian influence in Copland's music.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg is a Polish Jew who lived much of his life in Russia (from 1939) and yet, lost most of his family in the holocaust. His concerto is much different from Myaskovsky's. It is still very tonal, not at all like that Penderecki's Violin Concerto, but more angular than Myaskovsky's yet still with strong Eastern European sounding chords. He was good friends with Shostakovich and the influence is evident.

The first two movements, Allegro and Allegro molto feel like one longer movement. The solo violin work is rich with dark emotion. There is a wonderful, fairly lengthy cadenza in the first movement. In the second movement, it's almost as if the string of the orchestra are at a subtle war with the solo violin. The contrast is very interesting and colourful.

Weinberg's third movement, Adagio is an extended solo section with minimal accompaniment underneath. There are no fancy pyrotechnical violin work, just beautiful, heart-breaking music. At the end of the movement, the sorrow is almost unbearable.

Moving on, the fourth movement, Allegro seems a bit of a disappointment, a fanfare that initially feels as if it requires a fair amount of skill on the part of the soloist, but is such a sharp contrast to the third movement that it doesn't fit (IMHO). Having said that, as a separate piece, it's amazing! After the initial statement of the fanfare motif, the piece moves into an angular struggle against being a fanfare and battle you might find in Bernstein's West Side Story, ending quietly as if unresolved. Of the movements, this one is my favourite; I'm just not sure how it fits with the rest of the piece, except that the ending of the second movement and the 4th are very similar.

I haven't been able to get scores for these works, so this examination is just on listening. Hopefully, this weekend, I can compare them to the two violin concerto's of Shostakovich to get a fuller understanding of mid-twentieth century Russian Violin writing. Shostakovich has affected much of my orchestral writing, so I would am not surprised to find these other Russian composers having a similar affect.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Strings with Sex attached

Often I have mentioned ways in which Contemporary Classical Music needs to change in order to gain a larger share of the modern audience. And yet, there are some aspects of the modern marketing approach that I'm not sure are all that beneficial. It's working, but at what cost?

Sex - that's right, sex sells. It always has (and always will). For years the pop industry and put scantly clad females on display, regardless of the relevance to the music - because a bit of female flesh gets the attention of the male audience. Attention leads to sales and therefore profits. Now, it seems, classical music is taking a page (or three) from this book.

The Electric String Quartet is a group of 4 women, all very shapely, and if not quite size Zero, certainly very slender and easy on the eyes. Their music is classical, with electronics. They are reported to be some of the best string players in London, and certainly they are good; their shows are very entertaining - and they definitely have style. But, there is as much attention paid to their figures in the videos as there is to their music. Hilary Hahn, Nicola Benedetti, and Tasmin Little are three amazing violinists. While all three are absolutely amazing to listen to, they also tend to be marketed with an eye toward their appearance - all of these ladies are lovely.

I guess this leads me to wonder, are women just that much better at music than men? Certainly all of the women mentioned above are very good musicians, but if they weren't also very good looking would they get the same attention? While I am pleased at the fame they have each achieved... what sort of message is it sending to the youth you might be interested in studying music???

Yet, the Electric String Quartet and Nicola Benedetti are getting huge amounts of press in the UK and packing the houses when they perform. While I've not been to a concert featuring Hilary Hahn, I am sure she is doing the same thing. Tasmin Little is less well known, but in her own circle garnering a following of music lovers of her own. So, maybe this isn't such a bad thing.

Kim Sun-wook is a pianist from Korea and often publicize with a boyish sex-appeal. Daniel Okulitch in "The Fly" spends a fair amount of time on stage naked which got as much press as his voice. Men aren't necessarily excluded from the flesh marketing in classical music.

I'm undecided as to whether I should be concerned about this trend in marketing of Contemporary Classical Music. On one hand it get people in the door and that's a good thing. On the other, it objectifies the body when it ought to be about the music. I haven't spoken with any of these performers to see how they feel, as to whether they feel their appearance has too much focus. - Maybe one of them will read this post and feel encouraged to comment....

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Applauding between movments

There are lots of people that think you shouldn't - but I'm not one of them.

and to support this opinion is a snippet of a conversation between Hilary Hahn and conductor Eiji Oue (found on HilaryHahn.com)

"Q: Applause between movements (sections of a piece) in a concert?
A: Well, I think it's great. You know, if the audience is genuinely excited, and applause breaks out, that's good. I figure that if genuine emotion leads to applause, then why not.

There are a couple of stories to illustrate this:

A few years ago, a conductor performed Beethoven's 7th Symphony, and the audience was very enthusiastic. They applauded heartily after the first movement, but he was so upset by it that he turned around and stopped them. After the second movement, there was a small spattering of applause; he turned around and stopped them again. After the third movement, the audience was very tentative. And finally, after the great, rousing ending of the last movement, at the end of the symphony, nobody applauded – once they lost the opportunity to start clapping, they couldn't get back into it. The conductor had to walk offstage to silence.

Mozart, on the other hand, wrote a letter to his father after a performance of his Paris Symphony. He reported proudly that, after the second theme of the first movement, people applauded – and he was so excited. If it's good enough for Mozart, it's definitely good enough for me."

In another interview between Hilary Hahn and Grant Cooper of the West Virginia Symphony.

"GC: I actually think that there are certain pieces (such as the end of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto) in which it's very difficult for anyone wrapped up in the music not to feel that they've come to the end of a major musical statement, especially if it's been performed in a way that communicates with them. There's no question in my mind that an applauding audience's enthusiasm is genuine. In fact, between-movement applause used to be part of concert etiquette. When I have the chance, I sometimes tell the audience that nothing will happen if they clap between movements – no thunderbolt will strike them down.

I've never feel any degree of disappointment when the audience applauds before the piece is over. I'm just glad they're there, and it's my proof that the audience is awake, that they're alive, thinking, and enjoying. Enjoyment is good."


Although someone told me the time between movements should be kept quiet to allow the musicians that time to focus on the next piece - and I suppose some performers need this. Personally, I find the coughing and random noises from an audiences that's been supressing them for the last however long to be much more disturbing than applause.

So... if you ever get the chance to hear my music, and you feel lead to applaud at the end of a movement, please, let the performers know you appreciate what they're doing.

Writing a Violin Concerto

A concerto is typically "a three part musical work in which one solo instrument is accompanied by an orchestra." 1 Each movement should showcase a different emotional journey for the performer and the instrument - and yet be related in some way.

The path I am taking is writing the piece for solo violin and chamber orchestra. The movements will be:

  • Molto Allegro - dark, tragic and perhaps a bit ominous
  • Poco Andante - a lament
  • Presto - frolicking

I'd like to say the piece is has a tonal center of C, but I tend to be a bit more fluid in my approach to tonal centers, so saying it is in the key of C is the best way to describe it. However, saying that, neither Philip Glass or John Adams identified their violin concertos with a key. The key of C isn't typical for a violin concerto. The major and minor keys of D, A and G, with the minor key of B and major key of E tend to be more common. However, Saint-Saëns did write one in C major. As I will tend toward the minor mode for the first two movements, that would suggest I might be more focused on C minor which is not particularly a good key for the violin.

There are also a number of cross rhythms and syncopated sections in the first movement, with a large number of time changes. Right now this has me a bit concerned as, while the piece should be demanding, I don't want the piece to be so demanding the accompanying ensemble struggles to keep it together - and the soloist has a counting nightmare. (IMHO) One key to writing a good concerto is making the solo part truly organic to the instrument.

One way to do this is to examine previous works, in order to gain an understanding as to the different emotional paths other composers have taken. To get an idea as to who's done what, a list is helpful. Wikipedia has a list specific to Violin Concertos. But violinist.com has a list of 20th Century violin music which extends the list to beyond violin concertos and provides some interesting insight into violin music.

Numerous composers before me worked with virtuoso violinists to polish the violin part and make sure the writing was possible and yet challenging enough to showcase their talents. It is my hope to work with Tristan Gurney, the first violin for the Edinburgh Quartet. The concerto is well underway. It's not my first large work, nor my first piece written for the violin, so there are a number of things I can accomplish straight away. If Tristan is willing, I hope to have something for him to look at toward the end of the week - a fairly finished first movement.

My violin concerto is nearly finished. Click here for more information and mp3's you can listen to.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What it takes to be a Classical Music Composer

I sure this question has been answered by many an educator, and pondered by many a composer. In the process of learning to become a composer there are a number of things budding composers are exposed to in order to facilitate learning the art of composition. One of the reasons so many composers list who they have studied with is to demonstrate what arts they have been exposed to. If, one of the tutors is a famous, well respected composer, the exposure of how to write great music is far more likely than if no one on the list of composers is anyone of note. It also adds a certain amount of cache to the budding composer, as if something of known composer might rubbed off in the process. However, just being a good composer doesn't make the person a good translator, or educator in the arts. And, there are some very fine tutors who understand the art, but for any number of reasons haven't yet translated it into their own work. But none of this is really what I want to blog about today.

Today's blog is about Jay Greenberg, the 16 year old child prodigy who has written 5 symphonies, had his violin concerto premiered by Joshua Bell and has already secured a recording contract. His reviews have been glowing and speak of his tonal, almost romantic style music. If you read the bits from Jay's website, his isn't lush like Brahms and yet also isn't minimalist like Glass or Adams. Bach, Bartok and Bernstein are listed as influences, as are Stravinsky and Copland. (similar list as to my own... interesting)

He writes incredibly fast, producing his 5th Symphony in piano reduction in approximately a month's time (during his free time at school, about an hour-an-a-half per day). And he's prolific, having already produced more than most composers will do in their lifetime. Jay is often compared to Mozart and with good reason; he is writing amazing music at much the same age as Mozart was and in some respects even earlier (his Violin Concerto was written at 15 where Mozart wrote his first one at 19. In many respects I would liken Jay to Mendelssohn, who also wrote a great deal at an early age, had access to professional musicians for whom to write and was the darling of the music world before he was 20.

Mendelssohn unfortunately died at the early age of 41, and spent much of his adult years conducting. So, we don't have as much music from his as I would like. I don't know whether he "burned out" from composition because of the pressures to compose at an early age, or whether he just found something else he was more interested in. When Jay was asked where he expected to be in 20 years, he responded "I see myself about 34, 35 years old, and I'll probably be on the planet Earth unless they started offering private spaceship rides to the moon." When asked if he'll still be composing, "I don't know. I can't really see that far in the future. My crystal ball is not functioning."

In opposition to the child prodigies, there are the older modern composers, who took years to develop into their style. Philip Glass is 71 this year and is perhaps one of the pre-eminent living composers. He was in his early 40's when he turned to minimalism and developed his recognisable style. John Adams, another great living composer, is 61. His first major work, Nixon in China, was written in 1985-87 (when John was in his early 50's). John's later works have become more mature, showing depth in composition that was only a glimmer with Nixon.

So, what does it take to be a composers? I don't know. I'm still working on it. There is certainly some innate talent. All of the composers listed in this post have a sense of style that is fairly identifiable as their own (Jay's style is probably still developing). Their music is amazing and most people would agree they have obtained a place in the history of music - even Jay whose music isn't necessarily widely known just yet, but for what he's already accomplished at his age certainly means he should be in the history books.

Perhaps the only thing that we don't know about Jay at this point is what effect his musical style will have on future composers. Composers don't necessarily have to have an effect on future generations do be good composers. Johann Christian Bach was certainly a good composer, but whose style wasn't one which ended up having the kind of lingering impact as that of his father, Johann Sebastian Bach.

While I include Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Holst, Britten, Bernstein and Copland as some of my influences, I beginning to include Glass and Adams in that list. Perhaps someday Greenberg will be added. He may be thirty years younger, but I have a feeling he already has a wealth of knowledge I could learn from.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Violin Concerto

I am in the process of writing my first violin concerto (amid all the other projects on my plate). This came about when I woke up the other morning with a good portion of the piece formed in my head - and haven't been able to get it off my mind since. So, I figured I'd best get it down as obviously that's where my "muse" wants me to go.

When I write a piece, I tend to do a fair amount of research into other like pieces from other composers - to really get a sense of the medium and create a jumping off place. Well, in this process I studied the concertos of Beethoven, Debussy, Szymanowski and Glass. I figured this would be a nice broad spectrum of pieces from early romantic to modern.

What surprised me initially is the similarity between Szymanowski and Debussy's work, and the similarity between Beethoven and Glass. The 1st movements of the violin concertos of Szymanowski and Debussy have a variety of themes. Beethoven and Glass use layers of simplicity in the themes in their second movement.

Here is Steve Bingham playing a portion of the Glass Violin Concerto - and it's amazing beauty.

My violin concerto is nearly finished. Click here for more information.

New Directions in Opera

If you've been reading the opera posts on this blog, you'll notice that the directions we're taking with "It Must Be Fate" are those classical opera hasn't previously explored - Looking at other industries for style, focus on characters and then leveraging new markets.

Well, we're not alone. "The Rake's Progress" was done with a focus toward the film industry, with many effects more common in film than on stage (in opera). "The Fly" opened in Paris (early July) - a remake of an old film but only in terms of structure and basic storyline. The libretto is wholly new with a focus on characters. Now there is "Baywatch: the opera" which is a project to bring opera to the masses.

Each production took a very different approach to the opera art form. "The Rake's Progress" was mounted, in many respects, like traditional opera, although the artistic design has numerous new elements. "The Fly" was the collaboration of film industry professionals, whose work in film gave the music, the story, the feeling a very different viewpoint. With "Baywatch" the focus in drawing in the community, bring people who wouldn't normally be interested in opera to not only come see it, but be a part of the production, (according to the news article as there is little on the WNO website in terms of details)

There are other operas out there doing new and amazing stuff as well: John Adams' "Doctor Atomic", "Monkey King: Journey to the West" and "Adriana Mater" US premier in Santa Fe this year.

It's great to see the art form filled with so many new and exciting ideas, looking in new directions and thinking outside the box. It's also nice to think our own project has many "outside the box" elements in common with these other productions. Perhaps we're on the right track.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Another Reason Classical Music is suffering popularity in our Modern World

Most symphony orchestras, even amateur ones, solidify their schedules for the season (Sept through May) by March the previous year. Professional orchestras will have their schedules sewn up a year (or two) beyond that. This includes commissioned works and premiers - so works that have yet to be heard anywhere else.

Operas can take anywhere from three to five years from the point of first work to first major production. There may be workshop performances of the opera, portions of the opera performed to determine what works and what doesn't, but the full opera won't be performed for at least three years after serious work is started on it.

Chamber works can be a bit more flexible, with new works appearing in concerts within six month of conception. Even then, a composer trying to get a new string quartet performed by an established ensemble will find the ensembles schedules booked well into the next year (very similar to that of an orchestra). They may not get to including a new work into their schedule until at earliest, a year away. They may commission a work, but then they're scheduling that work into their season next year, giving the composer time to get the piece done and have it rehearsed - but mostly just to fit it into their schedule.

Universities may produce concerts of newer pieces (with less time between conception and performance) but this is for student compositional works. These concerts are determined well in advance, even if the pieces aren't. So, it doesn't really speak of responding to music trends as it does for staying with established schedules. These concerts are also of student works, not the perhaps more advanced professional composers whose music might be a step up from student works.

What this means is classical music is not responding to changes or current trends in the music world. The pop world is very different. In hip hop or urban music, if an artist comes out with something new, it's possible for other artists to capture some of that essence within weeks. Rock bands move a bit slower, but because the industry is in a large part based on labels promoting artists, if a new artist appears on the scene with a new sound, other artists with perhaps a similar sound will be put forward by other labels within months. Think of the boy band craze in the 1990's. Within 6 months there were five or six groups all releasing albums within the same year. Only a couple of these groups lasted - still, the industry responded to the trends. If a film creates something new that creates a huge interest in the world (the first Matrix film is a great example), it is less than a year other films appear using the techniques made popular by the original. Within two years the Matrix style of special effects and cinematography were in numerous films.

I am not suggesting that classical music start pumping out music at every whim of current trends. Part of what makes classical music classic, is the idea that it is something more than just a fad. And I certainly don't think a symphony written in a few weeks that can be rehearsed in a few days is the kind of music the classical world should be promoting.

However, I do think there should be more opportunities for the orchestras, opera companies and chamber ensembles to respond to new pieces. Part of the positive in the 'pop' model is the Zeitgeist effect - a given piece's popularity is driven by the global embracing of it. If classical music could find a way to harness this effect while remaining respectful of the classical form we would see a marked increase in audience, recording and merchandising sales, and the attendant attention in the mainstream press.

There are a number of ways this might be accomplished. For example, every major symphony orchestra would schedule a "new works" concert, with the idea of accepting new works (composed within the last year) then they could take advantage of recent popularity in new works. If the Berlin Philharmonic were to perform a piece in September that suddenly received rave reviews, then the New York Philharmonic could incorporate the same piece into their "new works" concert in October and so on...

In 1945, "Peter Grimes" was performed at Sadler's Wells, in London and subsequently 23 other opera houses within the next two years. That sort of meteoric rise of a new work is unheard of in modern terms, even though - with the advent of the internet and satellite communications - media is able to spread news around the world in minutes.

There are great new pieces of music being composed today. Yet, it may take a composer 10 years before a piece is performed more than a couple of times.

Why is it we continue to have dozens of concerts every year of Holst's "The Planets" or Bernstein's "Candid" and yet, Corigliano's Symphony No 1 (written in 1991, won a grammy in 1996) is performed less than a half dozen times a year? I love the music of Holst and Bernstein; they are a couple of my favourite composers. But Corigliano is also extremely good and current. He just premiered a new piece at the Cabrillo Festival. How long will it be before it's performed in London, New York, Berlin or Moscow? Too long in my humble opinion.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Gustavo Dudamel is making waves...

...and I hope I am the kind of surfer that can ride them! It looks to be a great ride!

A review of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian this morning speaks highly of Gustavo's approach to conducting classical music. The points she highlights as elements of his style are in many ways elements I have been ranting about on this blog for months - albeit, he's approaching it from the podium and I am coming from the vantage point of the score.

Rethink the hierarchies of the symphony orchestra

This is important in understanding new ways in approaching how the orchestra makes sound. Certainly there are composers who have sought the same thing. Xenakis certainly brought a new understanding in orchestral sound - but when looking at a standard orchestra with fairly standard looking music it is still possible to bring new colours to light by approaching the orchestra in sections, rather than as individuals.

Remember: it's supposed to be fun.

Absolutely. So should the music be - for both the players and the audience. If the music isn't fun and challenging to play, the performers won't give it their all. If the audience doesn't enjoy it, they won't be back.

Play (and hear) every concert as if it is your last.

Every piece I write, I write with this attitude. It may be the last piece I write, so it needs to be the best I can make it.

Throw out tradition.

And yet, understand that tradition is the root of what you're doing. Be bold, be new, try different things. All of this with an understanding of all that has come before. Don't feel constrained to "do it as it's always been done" (for example: including rock idioms into a string quartet).

Don't be ashamed of classical music.

Be proud of it! It's amazing music and there is so very much of it. There is still more to come, some really great music just on the horizon if we only have the desire to get there.

Something new is coming. Maybe it's already here with Gustavo. I only wish I knew how to get him to take a look at my symphony. I believe it would truly soar in his hands....

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Studying Beethoven

Recently I have posted a couple of bits of analysis on modern composers and their music. Anton Webern, perhaps not quite current (having died at the end of WWII), and Brian Ferenyhough (who is certainly not only current but still at the forefront of what's happening in music). I've also stated (in other posts) that I'm not particularly a Webern fan; his music isn't something I would choose to listen to. Ferneyhough might also fall into that category, although I find more in his music which I enjoy than I do with Webern. Even with this preference to not listen to their music, there is a great deal to be said for studying their compositional styles, which is why I did the analysis.

Beethoven, on the other hand, is one of those composers pretty much everyone agrees is among the best composers to have ever lived. I have studied his works too, but oddly enough I have not studied any of his symphonies. During my courses at university, we did gloss over the 3rd, 6th and 9th symphony, with a bit more attention to the first movement of the 3rd to gain an understanding of the structure. But none of my courses went in-depth into how the pieces were constructed. To be fair to my instructors, there is a great deal of music from which to study and a Bachelor's degree only has so much time it can devote to any particular piece. The first two years of music history had to cover everything from pre-renaissance music to early 20th century with enough detail as to make it meaningful, and yet get through the volumes of information available. The next year of music history was devoted 20th century music with an eye on what led us to where we are now. The final year I took an analysis course, which again studied 20th century music in-depth with a focus on analytical styles, so while I did study mostly 20th century pieces (the Webern post was actually a paper submitted in this class), it was more a focus on the forms of analysis. Beyond this I did some study directed by my compositional tutors, looking at pieces by Handel, Hayden, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Holst and Górecki. The closest I came to in-depth study of Beethoven was a paper on Schoenbergian analysis of one of Beethoven's piano sonatas (and I didn't fare very well in terms of my grade on that paper).

Since I am interested in writing symphonies, studying Beethoven and Mahler might seem like a good idea, and I've always meant to grab one of their scores out of the library and give it a thorough going over. Somehow, that just hasn't happened yet.

Then I came across a review on ConcertoNet.com by Harry Rolnick of the performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony at the Mostly Mozart Festival at the Avery Fisher Hall on August 12th. Much of the review was devoted to how lovely this symphony is in terms of joy in three of the movements or the absolutely tragic funeral march of the 3rd movement. Did the review make me regret not attending the concert? Yes (although, I doubt I would have caught a flight from Edinburgh to New York just to attend - even knowing ahead of time how good the concert would be). Even more so, it made the decision that the 7th would be the symphony I intend to check out from the library this week. I'm not sure which Mahler symphony I will eventually look at, but I have to start somewhere.

Hopefully, I will post some of my thoughts on my studies in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Art of String Quartets by Brian Ferneyhough

When an artist sets paint to canvas, there are brush strokes used for different effects. Sometimes those strokes are subtle, imperceptible; they produce works of art like the Mona Lisa. Other times the very obvious nature of the stroke is the art, as in works by Van Gogh. With some composers of music, the notes on the page are their craft. How those notes translate into an aural experience is what defines some composers as great artists.

Brian Ferneyhough has a masterful command of the techniques of putting notes on the page. These techniques are sometimes so subtle, even though written in black and white, they escape detection. Some of what he attempts with his music is just that, to escape detection, to bury the framework, diverting the ear away from the structure, so only the music is heard. The subtlety is so fine it is almost imperceptible.

Even though he studied at several institutions, he is considered self-taught, studying scores from Boulez, Stockhausen and Webern. The 'miniaturist' style of Webern is expanded in Sonatas for String Quartet extending the intensity into 20 movements. The other two have their influence felt in his precise technical methods which creates Ferneyhough's complex style. He then employs serialist techniques, or brush strokes, to complete his compositions.

Ferneyhough feels there are three types of serialism: generation of material, the sedimentation process and finally channelling materials through a grid. It is the use and non-use of these processes played against each other that creates the extreme tension indicative of his music. By exploring his string quartets, Sonatas for String Quartet, Second String Quartet, Adagissimo and Fourth String Quartet the elements of texture, sound and structure in relation begin to expose some of his compositional approach and the intricate brush strokes he uses.

In the Sonatas for String Quartet, the opening bar starts with an example of the minute detail in rhythm which features in all of his works. The piece starts with a pair of semi-quavers played (example 1) as the middle part of two triplet figures (3:2), followed by a demi-semi-quaver as part of a quintuplet. Mathematically the start the third note in the cello is played slightly behind the start of the first two semi-quavers, so the piece begins with an ever so subtle ritardando. The second bar has quavers divided into 3:2, 7:4, 5, 6 for an exact rhythm.

Example 1

Ferneyhough is as precise with his use of texture by using a mix of harmonics and normal notes in the Cello, non-vibrato quasi sul ponticello sustain in the 2nd Violin and tasto pizzicato glissando in the Viola. It is this demanding exactness to the notation that led to the term "new complexity", a style of music so complex, so precise, extensive information is compressed into the first two bars. To listen to these works requires active concentration. In the forward to Brain Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, Jonathan Harvey describes the performers of these works experience "a new speed of thinking and feeling where hyper-intellectual meets manic raver." Ferneyhough feels it is this intensity of thought that is true beauty.

The Second String Quartet takes the level of precision a step further as he subdivides divisions. In example 2 the third bar has a quaver divided by three with one of the triplets into three again. The bowing is marked and accentuated with dynamic markings of sffz decrescendo to mf in just over half the space of a quaver. The tempo marking is 70 beats per minute, so from very loud to only moderately loud in approximately half a second and then back to sfffz (very, very loud) before that second is over.

Example 2

All of the same textural features in the Sonatas reappear in the Second String Quartet and he adds microtones (pitches a quarter up or down from the designated note) to his inventory of brush strokes. But it isn't just the individual notes or articulations that Ferneyhough uses to generate material.

Layered musical concepts are used to create an intricate, precise representation of sound. This technique is seen in the Fourth String Quartet, Section E of the second movement; the voice and strings are giving not only the note durations, but the point of departure at the end of a glissando in bar 1, example 3. In bar 3 the final note of each instrument is so precisely placed, any deviation would create simultaneously sounded notes. But in this instance, they are not simultaneous but instead, become an arpeggio across the ensemble. In solo works, such as Trittico (1989), the same effect is created using multiple staves to deal with complex representation of note events.

Example 3

In the Sonatas the instruments are all playing individual lines. As in example one, the 2nd Violin enters in between a pair of cello notes, the Viola's glissando falls into another cello note and when the 1st Violin enters, it does so alone. The glissando at the end of the 2nd bar with the 1st and 2nd Violins starts together but doesn't culminate together. In the first few pages there are few notes played mono-rhythmically among the four instruments. Yet, there is a melding of the instruments as one leads into another, or accentuates the separation between two notes. There is a unity of purpose.

In the Second String Quartet Ferneyhough was looking to extend this unity by creating a "super-instrument". The piece starts with a Violin solo. When the 2nd Violin enters the rhythms are exactly the same. At bar 22 the dynamics begin to vary between the two instruments and eventually, at bar 28 when the Viola enters there are occasional moments where notes not played by all three instruments, but certainly the unison effect is still very evident. It is the breaking down of the unison playing that generates tension.

With Adagissimo the unity comes in the pairing of instrument. 1st and 2nd Violins, while not necessarily in unison, play at a much faster tempo in terms of successive notes, while the Viola and Cello tend to play sustains, giving space to the piece. The complexity of music often needs the space of silence to allow the listener to ingest what has just been performed, to settle in with the audience. By using sustains rather than silence, Ferneyhough guards "against the dangers of information overload…"

In the Fourth String Quartet there is a shifting between rapid notes and sustained sections. The first bar pf example 3 starts with eleven hemi-demi-semi quavers (in the space of a quaver) followed by a "space" or opening just over a quaver in length where the sustained Cello and Viola ring out. Bar two and into bar there comes another series of repeated notes, followed by a sustained double stop in the 1st Violin half way through bar three and into bar four. This shift between rapid notes and sustains is continued through the first section which ends with a run of notes up to the break - another sustain but one of silence.

Example 4

This example also shows the extensive use of layered rhythmic intervals. The opening bar has eleven hemi-demi-semi-quavers in a 5/16 metre. Bar two for the 1st Violin is divided into 6:5 and then a quaver in 6 again, and then using demi-semi-quavers within that. At the same time the 2nd Violin has the first half of the bar (dotted quaver) give a ration of 5:3 with the second half divided into nine demi-semi quavers. Precise rhythmic movement opposite sustained tones presents sound with a multi-textural experience.

Add silence as a technique of sound and we see what the Second String Quartet is about. Silence, however, is not always the absence of sound. There are sections in the Second String Quartet where the rhythmic movement of the piece ends and a shift via a glissando or crescendo occupying the space does not provide any harmonic or relevance as we see in bar 40 (example 5).

Example 5

Silence also plays a large role in both the Sonatas for String Quartet and the Fourth String Quartet, particularly its second movement. In the Sonatas, the numerous movements are broken up by extended pauses yet the piece is to be considered one long movement. The Fourth String Quartet's second movement similarly is a collection of nine elements of the piece broken into smaller segments. It is interesting in the second movement there are only eight named segments (A-H) thus giving the impression the silence between the movements is the ninth and final element. Ferneyhough says, "I then cut the matrix into its nine constituent tempo areas and separated them with general pauses, rather like individual moments musicaux: they represent tiny kaleidoscopic alternative ways of realizing the nine processually distinct subsections of the original continuum."

As much as the Second String Quartet is about silence, it is also about the destruction of it. The piece "…disintegrate(s) in a profusion of tremolos, artificial harmonics, glissandos and noise effects-subtly articulated." The subtle shifts from quiet to extremely quiet are augmented by the notes he provides for the end of the piece, "From bar 156 onward begin all lower-string, double-stop glissandi 'sul tasto'; thereafter make a continuous transition to 'col leg. tratt' whilst remaining 'sul tasto' so that the "pure" wood (no hairs!) is reached at the moment this type of material ceases." Example 6 shows there are no unison movement, glissandi or attack. Silence is broken in every direction, but so very, very quietly.

Example 6

It is as if the exploration of sound, or sound verses silence is the way Ferneyhough allows the music to settle into existence.

Sometimes there is so much information contained within a bar or a piece, Ferneyhough needs to take a step back and re-examine the intensity expressed in Webern's music. Previously it was mentioned the effect Webern had on the writing of Sonata for String Quartet. But in 1983 Ferneyhough returned to write another "miniature" piece with Adagissimo to explore moment by moment invention.

Adagissimo was written three years after the Second String Quartet which is in many aspects the opposite of a miniature examination. In writing the Second String Quartet Ferneyhough used a predetermined numerical scheme which he presents over the first fifty bars, an expanded examination of a single idea. The elements of the idea were then to be separated by silent segments, which were later occasionally replaced with "sonic activity" such as glissandi or tremolo. Even though the Second String Quartet is considerably longer than Adagissimo, the elements function very much the same, small ideas presented in compact form. By using a grid like process he was able to create the over all structure of the piece and bind it together.

With the Fourth String Quartet the last movement composed was the Second, which was initially based on a 13-layer rhythmic matrix based on the overall structure of the piece. He also pre-organized the integration of the voice with the instruments so the voice is always derived from aspect of the instruments, highlighting certain pulses or re-presenting them. The final movement was composed with register, density of events, dynamic all processed linearly. His music is complete, from texture to sound to structure.

The music of Ferneyhough is complex. The players that attempt to perform his music speak of the intensity they feel both in the learning the piece and in the performing of it. The articulation, exacting rhythms, rapid shifts in dynamics all demand the ultimate in concentration for both listener and performer. Shifts between sound and silence, rapid movement and static tones, unison articulation to the "profusion of …noise effects" allows the music to move and still be heard, to be intense but not overwhelming. The structure that binds it all together becomes invisible, inaudible and imperceptible. By generating a variety of musical textures using extreme articulation and exacting rhythmic placement, then letting the sound of these textures together and in absence settle in with the listener and building a structure that allows them to move through space Ferneyhough paints with music pieces that are truly works of art.

Mohen, Menu & Mottin (2006)
Ferneyhough (1982) p118
Toop (2007)
Feller (2002) p252
Ferneyhough (1996) p3
Feller (2002) p257
Ferneyhough (1982) p119
Fanning (1987) p105
Griffiths (1995) p299
Ferneyhough (1992) p158
Fanning, (1983), p139
Ferneyhough (1988) p303
Ferneyhough (1982) p119
Ferneyhough (1992) p158-9


Fanning, David, (1983) Review of "Second String Quartet", Music & Letters 64(12), p138-139

Fanning, David, (1987) Review of "Adagissimo for String Quartet", Music & Letters 68(1), p104-105

Feller, Ross, "Resistant Strains of Postmodernism: The music of Helmut Lachenmann and Brian Ferneyhough", Postmodern Music Postmodern Thought, Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner ed, (New York) Routledge (2002)

Ferneyhough, Brian, Sonatas for String Quartet, (London) Peters Edition, (1968)

Ferneyhough, Brian, Second String Quartet, (London) Peters Edition, (1980)

Ferneyhough, Brian, Adagissimo String Quartet, (London) Peters Edition, (1983)

Ferneyhough, Brian, Fourth String Quartet, (London) Peters Edition, (1990)

Ferneyhough, Brian, "Interview with Joshua Cody, Artistic Director for Ensemble Sospeso" (1996) http://www.sospeso.com/contents/articles/ferneyhough_p1.html (6 April 2007)

Ferneyhough, Brian, "Second String Quartet" (1982), Toop, Richard and Boros, James, ed., Brian Ferneyhough Collected Writings, (London & New York) Routledge Taylor and Francis Group (1995)

Ferneyhough, Brian, "Interview with Philippe Albèra" (1988), Toop, Richard and Boros, James, ed., Brian Ferneyhough Collected Writings, (London & New York) Routledge Taylor and Francis Group (1995)

Ferneyhough, Brian, "String Quartet No. 4" (1992), Toop, Richard and Boros, James, ed., Brian Ferneyhough Collected Writings, (London & New York) Routledge Taylor and Francis Group (1995)

Griffiths, Paul, Modern Music And After, Directions Since 1945, (United States) Oxford University Press (1995)

Toop, Richard, Ferneyhough, Brian, 2. Works, Oxford University Press (2007) http://www.grovemusic.com/shared/views/article.html?section=music.09503.2#music.09503.2 (6 April 2007)

Mohen, Jean-Pierre, Menu, Michel & Mottin, Bruno, Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting, (Paris) Harry N. Abrams, publisher (2006)

Monday, August 11, 2008

If it's good, turn it into a symphony

San Francisco Opera premiered a new opera from John Adams in 2005, "Doctor Atomic", an opera about the Atomic bomb physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team in the New Mexico desert. This opera, unlike anything ever done (according to John Adams), has received numerous critical acclaim and helped earn Mr Adams Operas highest award. The haunting music of the opera is so good, Adams has turned it into a symphony which premiered at the Cabrillo Festival on Saturday.

Howard Shore won 2 Academy Awards for his score for the "Lord of the Rings" films and the result? You guessed it, a symphony. Shore also recently premiered a new opera "The Fly" in Paris and wrote a piece to commemorate Macy's 150th Anniversary.

This concept of turning previously popular material into a compact symphonic version (although Shores "Lord of the Rings" symphony is still 2 hours) is hardly new. John Williams did it with his score from "Star Wars." Shostakovich had his 8th string quartet turned into a symphony by Rudolf Barshai, a famous interpreter of Shostakovich's music. Robert Dearling in his book "The Music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Symphonies" (p75) suggests Mozart did the same with the opening Andante Grazioso of his opera Ascanio in Alba (K111) by adding a presto Finale. But the idea that it is still happening is exciting?

Why? This conversion of music from film and/or opera into a symphony shows:

1 - a desire to hear the music of these composers in a format other than the original music intended; the music earning a life of its own.

2 - a desire for symphonic works - symphonies to be exact. As one who wants to write more of this genre, this is great news!

I wouldn't be surprised if the next step was to find pop artists taking their "songs" and turning them into longer symphonic pieces. But then Lee Johnson has already done that with his "Dead Symphony No 6" incorporating tunes from the Grateful Dead (performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on August 1st).

Here is a bit from "Doctor Atomic"

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Story vs Plot

As I create the major story arcs and plot lines for our opera I have been doing alot of reading on the subjuct, and I came across this article about George Lucas that I read with interest. The writer has identified a problem with Mr. Lucas's output that I believe is shared by much opera writing. She says:

But what, exactly, is he? Visionary? Businessman? Gearhead? Showman? All those things, and probably much more. But it's time to admit it: He's not a storyteller. For all of Lucas's command of myth, symbol and sweep, the nuances of narrative still elude him.
Opera is the master arena for Myth, Symbol and Sweep, but where does story fit into it? Ms Hornaday goes on to say:
...the difference between plot and story may seem arcane, it's quite crucial: The plot is merely a sequence of events, whereas a story limns those events' deeper motivation and meaning. The plot gets characters from point A to point B; the story makes us care.
That is the crucial factor I am working hard to ensure is present in It Must Be Fate. The plot is the easy bit, rather like piecing a puzzle - A happens, then B, then C. Story however, is more complicated - how do my characters feel about A, respond to B, move through C? I am determined that my libretto will not be guilty of a Star Wars shortcoming! I am determined that I will find a way to weave Myth, Symbol and Sweep with genuine characters - real people, and a powerful story.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Classical Music needs to get off it's high horse

There is an article in The Australian by Susan Chenery about Andrea Bocelli. Much of the first part of the article speaks of Mr Bocelli's struggle without sight, but midway through the article turns into an examination of the musical world Mr Bocelli lives in - a world of Classical Music which, in many respects doesn't respect him.

There is quote after quote of musical snobs who critique Mr Bocelli (IMHO) mercilessly. They attack his ability, they attack his styles and they attack the idea that millions of people are listening to classical music because him. It sounds as if they resent him - as if they are jealous of his fame, his success.

Many of the comments made about his performance quality are to some extent correct. But if you go to one of the (many) minor professional orchestra concerts, or semi-professional opera companies (let alone the amateur ones), you'll find many of the same "problems", lack of precision, intonation and style. These are still good concerts, maybe not as good as the concerts of the New York Philharmonic or at the Met - but they are still enjoyable. And there are just not enough professional concerts (or they're too pricey) for everyone to enjoy.

Exposing classical music, even less than perfect classical music, to the masses is a good thing. It can only mean more people will want to listen to this kind of music, which means more demand, meaning more opportunities, more income and more jobs. How is any of this bad news for classical music?

Rather than lambasting an artist who becomes successful, I suggest we try throwing our support for those artists who have yet to achieve, or who are not yet the Itzhak Perlmans but are willing to perform for less money and as a result reach a much broader audience. Classical music is classic because it has stood the test of time, proven to be something more than just a trend. Let's continue to share this wonderful music with the world (now more than 6 billion people). Not all of us can be perfect, but classical music is still amazing music even when performed slightly off.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Elfman at the Ballet

PROPS: Conductor Ormsby Wilkins, center, who led the Pacific Symphony in the West Coast premiere of Danny Elfman's score for "Rabbit and Rogue" Wednesday night, takes a bow

Perhaps I should start off by saying I am not necessarily a fan of Elfman's music. Some of his stuff is pretty good, like what he did with "Spiderman" and "Edward Scissorhands". And then there is stuff like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Hellboy II" which fell flat (IMHO). He has lots of talent and certainly has a way with tunes, but, by his own admission, there are two composers living inside his body and they don't get along.

Danny Elfman's most recent musical expression is a ballet with Twyla Tharp creating "Rabbit and Rogue". Reviews are coming in from a variety of sources, but they seem to have a common thread - interesting, but scatters, a nice attempt, but lost in focus.

Timonthy Mangan of the Orange Country Register says, "It all ends up sounding rather like a musical soup constantly being stirred, motion for the sake of motion." Laura Bleiberg of the LA Times reports Elfman "supplied a composition so eclectic that it fueled Tharp's taste for smorgasbord." It seems there is Ragtime music, Gamelan music, a classical section and more. Paul Hodgins gave it this review, "There's more of a story percolating behind 'Rabbit and Rogue'...The only problem is we're not sure what it's about."

It seems that Elfman has done it again, come close but not quite hit the mark - but then again, this is his first attempt and to get to work with Twyla Tharp from the get go only bodes well for his career (not that this needs help, having achieved success with Oingo Boingo, film and TV score and an orchestral work two years ago). He sites influences of Stravinsky and Prokofiev and rhythm seems to be the one unifying factor through his pieces.

Perhaps where he fell down is in his schedule. "Hellboy II" just released and he has three more films, a broadway musical and music for Cirque du Soleil for their production for the Kodak Theatre. He's busy and it's hard to be successful with so many irons in the fire. Then again, the more attempts the more chances for success. For nothing else, Danny Elfman is bringing classical music (at least his version of it) to new audiences - and that has to be a good thing.

Friday Humour - a different look at Classical Music

Igudesman & Joo have been around since 2004, but they're still funny - and they have a DVD out now.

But if you haven't seen some of there videos, here's one of my favourites on YouTube.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Webern and his Melodic Motivic Development in Early Atonal Music - part 4

part 1
part 2
part 3


From classical training and influences to the initial exploration of atonality, Webern explores his new world using tools from his past. However, because he is exploring new sounds in atonality, he ends up creating new worlds of music. Through analysis we can see his classical background echoed in his development of motivic material, migrating from one motive to the next, making variations to the motives, but also retaining elements while moving forward.

Yet, in his use of harmony we see him break from tradition. Rather than create tonal centers or chord migrations, the pitch sets he uses end up being more melodic in nature, sometimes using subsets of the melody and other at other times using complementary sets. The harmonies move like his melodies and occasionally foretell what is to come melodically. At the end of each movement, harmony and melody combine to create the final culmination, each dependant on the other to achieve the end.

The death of his mother in 1906 had a profound effect on Webern during the time of this composition. He wrote to Schoenberg in 1912, "almost all my compositions have originated in her memory."1 He couldn't separate his compositions from the memory of his mother, so, too, his melodies can not be separated from his harmonies.

Appendix A

Relations for the melodic phrases for the 5th Movement

  2a 2b 2c 2d 2e 2f 2g 2h 2i
2a -   K K Kh K Kh Kh K
2b   - Kh Kh Kh Kh Kh    
2c K Kh - Kh   Kh   K K
2d K Kh Kh - K = Kh    
2e   Kh Kh K - K   Kh K
2f K Kh Kh = K - Kh    
2g Kh Kh   Kh   Kh - K Kh
2h Kh   K   Kh   K -  
2i K   K   K   Kh   -

Appendix B

Relations for the harmonic movement for the 5th Movement

  5-1(12) 5-z(18) 4-17(12) 5-30 4-5
5-1(12) --       K
5-z(18)   -- K   K
4-17(12)   K -- K  
5-30     K -- K
4-5 K K   K --

1 Letter of 17 July 1912, translated in Hans Moldenhauer and Rosaleen Moldenhauer,Anton von Webern: A Chronicle of His Life and Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 83.


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