Lorenzo Da Ponte’s genius was that while he removed the social taboos and political messages of the Beaumarchais play that offended the royalty, he still pushed right to the edge of morality in nearly every scene of the opera. We sense a tension that the familiarity of the bedroom farce can go off the cliff at any moment into tragedy or irreparable offense. The Countess, Susanna, and Cherubino continually careen near the point of no return in sexual impropriety. But unlike Beaumarchais’ play, Da Ponte never lets them go over. Instead they flirt, they ignite jealousy, they come under suspicion only to be forgiven, only to do something that brings them under suspicion yet again. The battle of the sexes and the battle of the classes play out in the alliances, schemes, and continual regrouping of all the characters. This is comedy that illuminates the essence of human relationships.
And then it hit me...the most important musical invention was not among the subjects I most revered—counterpoint, harmony, sonata form, the string quartet, the piano, the orchestra. Forget all of those! They all relied on something more fundamental. The most important musical invention, by far, was——————the horizontal line! Yes, the line. Some anonymous genius way back in the first millennium C.E. devised a line to denote pitch. Music has never been the same since.
What do you regard as the most important musical invention? I had an interesting realization that I want to share. But first, I want to know what you think! So how about it?
If you ever wondered what it feels like to perform at Carnegie Hall…
first, the sound and energy on the stage are not to be believed. When we played three mighty chords near the end of the first movement of the Beethoven 8th, the following measure rest was not silence—not silence at all, but a shimmering resonance vibrating the embers of the harmony back, forth, and around the entire hall...
Schoenberg’s break with tonality at the onset of the 20th century was followed by other composers exploring the implications of harmonic freedom from a central musical key. Like Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok both realized the necessity of creating new structural paradigms to express their new harmonic vocabulary.
Impelled by his deep historic perspective and belief in the Hegelian dialectic, Schoenberg conceived the “next big step” in musical progress. He came to feel that the entire tonal system since 1600 had exhausted its possibilities, and that for music to survive, another system needed to take its place.
Moments of Glory:
The Second Annual Hear Now Festival of New Music by Contemporary Los Angeles Composers (2012)
From what I can tell, Los Angeles is the only major U.S. city with little interest acknowledging or promoting its local concert composers, this despite its pride in two resident world class orchestras and several fine contemporary music ensembles. Yet LA’s illustrious performing ensembles spotlight composer “imports.” Bulletin: LA is home to a very large population of passionate dedicated composers who focus on concert music. That’s why Hear Now: A Festival of New Music by Contemporary Los Angeles Composers is so important. Organized and initiated last year by composers William Kraft, Hugh Levick, and the musicians of the Lyris String Quartet, Hear Now held its second annual festival this last weekend of August with two concerts featuring fifteen composers, all either from LA, living now in LA, or working at some point in LA.
Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is simply the best- loved guitar concerto. The secret of its appeal is an imaginative fusion of 18thcentury Spanish-Italian guitar music, flamenco, and 20th century neoclassicism. The mixture of these three elements marks the trademark of Rodrigo’s style, an exoticism honed with supreme craftsmanship that gives all his works wide appeal. This concerto, with its iconic expressive slow movement, contributed a great deal to establishing the guitar as a bonafide concert hall instrument, a great irony considering that it was never performed by the guitar’s greatest proponent of the 20th century, Andres Segovia. But that’s another story.
Invariably, descriptions and analyses of Shostakovich’s music focus on the composer’s relation to Stalin and the intense political situation of the former Soviet Union, but this fascinating topic tends to obscure the actual music, and there is a lot to interest us in Shostakovich’s style....
This is a response to the many excellent comments on my last blog post—Steve Jobs and Apple: Creative Muse or Destroyer?
I particularly address Markus's challenge about whether the way artists adapt to our current software revolution is essentially no different than the way they have responded historically, and whether what I call the bias towards editing is indistinguishable from the traditional way artists appropriate and reorganize material. I will tie responses of this into Cliff's concern that he finds himself listening to music from the perspective of what synth or software version presets the composer is using.
My primary point in the essay is one of tempo, the current tempo of media evolution...
Computer technology has made us zombies—overawed, overwhelmed, and unconscious. We walk around unconscious because while we know what we want to do with the technology, we don’t recognize the more subtle nature of what it wants to do with us.
I’ve read many eloquent and perceptive writings on Steve Jobs and his legacy that focus on his impact on the consumer, with his revolutions in personal computer industry, the music industry, and the phone industry. But how about creative artists? Jobs and Apple changed the paradigm for those of us who primarily create content as well as those of us who consume it.I’m talking about how our dependence on the creative tools so central to Apple’s philosophy—an ideology that has inspired the leading software for virtually every creative endeavor—has changed our relationship to our work. For many of us, these tools affect not only how we create, but what we create and, further, how we find ourselves making different choices to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of these new tools. Yes, they provide great power and even a sense of magic, but there is also a dark side to this brave new world. We artists ride the back of a technological tiger. We steer our aesthetic course, but increasingly realize we’ve become passengers on a hell of a ride, sometimes just struggling to keep from being thrown. Think different indeed!
The beauty and complexity of Mozart’s final concerto is not in drama and surprise, but rather in grammar. My teacher Leon Kirchner was fond of saying that Mozart was the most intellectual composer and indeed this is a piece that bears out that impression, both for its complex phrase structure and its complex form.
This is the opening of a short essay I'm writing to discuss the powerful ways Steve Jobs and Apple products have fundamentally changed the way creative artists work, for the better and the worse! But before I complete it, I want to hear from all you composers and other creative artists out there how you feel it has affected your own process and aesthetic decision making! So please comment.
Music theory can reveal the secrets of the universe. Look no further than Bach’s four-part harmonized chorales. Within each of these jewels is the secret that brilliant solutions hinge less on a right-wrong dichotomy, and more towards an intuition to veer towards hundreds of fortunate choices and away from millions of less fortunate paths. At a time when our economic, political, and cultural values insist on a simple dichotomy, one side or the other, a right choice and a wrong choice, this kind of secret might provide valuable perspective!
What other piece do you know that begins with its most memorable melody but then NEVER revisits it again? The first movement of Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerto is a magnificent mess structurally. Most of us never remember any of the music after that opening tune and on a certain level, the first movement can’t really decide what it is or what it wants to do. Despite this confusion, Tchaikovsky’s concerto in fact wrestles with the very idea of combining piano with orchestra and develops a novel solution. Perhaps when hearing the music from this vantage point, it will be the opening grand melody we start to forget rather than the rest of the piece that follows!
A tactful email from my friend and former student Dorian Bandy gently informed me that the Mozart letter I quoted from my last blog entry—the one in which he describes how he composes—has been considered a forgery by scholars since the mid-19th century! He maintains from verified letters that Mozart struggled in composition much like other composers, even to the point of needing a piano to create. But I don't see an inherent contradiction with the content of the forged letter, which I still feel is a beautiful description of the general process that Mozart might have conveyed to non-musicians, leaving out the nitty-gritty details. In other words, maybe the deeper truth of the composition process lies somewhere between. Dorian's email led us into an interesting dialogue that I share here
When we think of Beethoven’s music, we often consider how he spins a single idea over the course of several movements. Mozart is far more subtle than Beethoven, but in his string quintet in G minor, there too is a single idea drawn out over the multi-movement structure.
A most astonishing and invaluable document exists in Mozart’s own hand describing his method of composition...
Prodigies are today’s news. You hear about them, but the next year it’s pretty much on to the next sensation. Transcending “prodigy-dom” seems as dicey as winning the lottery. The gap between technical wonder and highly regarded artist is not a matter of degree, but of a different order entirely. It’s sobering to realize that Mozart did not have an easy time of it either.
The first movement of Mozart's Piano Quartet in G minor ("Answer the telephone") is all about the energy unleashed from the octave!
By describing Mozart as a genius, we encounter a basic problem. Many people consider Michael Jackson to have been a genius too. But I don’t believe we mean the same thing. In one respect, though, there is the eerie notion that Mozart could have ended up with a life like Michael Jackson’s. Both Mozart and Jackson’s talents manifested at a ridiculously early age. Both their fathers were exploiting them at age 5. Like Michael Jackson, Mozart might have had a career as the greatest entertainer of his generation. As a child he was wowing royal audiences throughout Europe with his amazing feats, playing the piano upside down and backwards, blindfolded, and with his nose. Could he have become the 18th century ‘Kaiser of Pop’?
Orff’s Carmina Burana and Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3: Profound or Faux Profound?
I recently presented preconcert talks for two ambitious 20th century crowd-pleasing works—Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Audiences were deeply moved by both pieces. I came away perplexed. This essay is my wrestling with some difficult and unclear feelings…
Saturday May 14, 2011 was a piece of LA music history as the first HEAR NOW festival of Los Angeles Contemporary Composers took place on afternoon and evening concerts. Forty-five of LA's top musicians presented a variety of styles and aesthetics from 14 different composers. No LA reviewer came to the concert. Why doesn't LA care about its local concert composers?
Please feel free to add your comments and reactions to the HEAR NOW Festival of Contemporary Los Angeles Composers.
I inspired mild controversy last weekend with my UpBeat Live talks on the Tchaikovsky first symphony. After reading for years about Tchaikovsky's struggles to meld his melodies to symphonic form, I wanted to explore for myself some structurally weak moments in his first symphony. A few people were upset...
In the middle of this slow movement lies a sublime quiet passage for piano and two clarinets that stands out as a unique moment in the concerto. Time seems to stand still as slow rising arpeggios in the piano accompany long sustained notes in two clarinets. This is a musical moment as removed from the momentum of a concerto as one can imagine. But from where does this music come?
I recently played through an extraordinary piece that reveals a quality of transitions not often mentioned, the sense of loss. In other words, in transitioning from one area to another, we don’t always gain. Sometimes we lose something special.
On Musical Theft
Of all things, the subject of musical ethics became a slightly controversial topic last week during my first talk on Gustav Mahler. I was asked this interesting question: “How did Mahler get away with 'stealing' from other composers of the time? Weren't there any repercussions? And since he was such a stealer, how did he become so famous amongst those that love as opposed to hate him?”
This is my introduction to my series of talks on Robert Schumann for the La Jolla Music Society SummerFest 2010. Feel free to share your own comments on Schumann.
Music is being flattened, and no one talks about it. Concert music specifically seems increasingly to have trouble convincing audiences and programmers that it can stand on its own. For today’s audiences, the experience of just sitting quietly and listening to an involved abstract musical work seems no longer sufficient or complete. The ability to discern a narrative in a dynamic musical work is disappearing and addition of other media and crossover music is taking over. Witness the proliferation in programming today to either add visual components or include global or popular music or musicians. The pressure to incorporate or enrich classical music this way comes under the brand of creating concerts more accessible and appealing to wider audiences—to “save classical music,” as we frequently read in media headlines. But enrichment gained simply by multiplying or broadening sensory input is a lie. It markets itself as a hip way to illuminate, ornament, or refresh our notions of music, but instead it flattens music into background accompaniment by distraction and entertainment. We neglect to notice that a most profound quality of Western music—that of bringing an audience into deep focus and a state of active listening—is quietly slipping away.
In my "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Symphony," I asked the question “What makes us sit still for up to an hour listening to extended abstract music played by an orchestra?” I am struck how each person discovers a different doorway to this aesthetic pleasure. For me, it was four measures of chords played by the woodwinds in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. I asked my webmail community, "What specific musical passage first grabbed you?"
Here are the stunning responses: