Sunday, August 16, 2015

Musicians and composers can face pressures toward political correctness; a handwritten Bach organ manuscript

The newspaper of Virginia libertarian activist Richard Sincere led me to an article about political freedo of musicians to express their views in music.  The paper at hand concerns “post apartheid” South Africa, where songwriters feel forced to avoid political messages, link. That would probably be true in a number of other countries, most especially China. 

I’m reminded of the career of Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich (as here).  The first symphony was rather abstract, and the second and third had choral passages supporting communist revolution, but the fourth as an abstract continuation of the ideas of Mahler (and perhaps some Schoenbergian atonality) which apparently was viewed as elitist and bourgeois. Likewise the opera “Lady Macbeth” won disapproval.  The Fifth symphony is popular with the public, but somewhat rhetorical and politically correct (especially with the hollow triumph at the end).  The “Leningrad” is the most politically correct of all (as is the 11th), but the Eighth and Tenth show real artistic freedom (and the Tenth is often seen as one of the best.)

On another matter, I found a YouTube video showing the original handwritten score of J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541.  The somewhat sketchy penmanship (of sixteenth notes) is interesting (compared what I went through at age 16 when I submitted a manuscript in black ink).  Maybe there is something to be said by writing out some ideas by hand first.

The actual work was one of my favorites.  When I re-entered dorm life in the spring semester of 1966 at the University of Kansas, my first roommate had a stereo and one classical record – a Columbia with Biggs playing this work. The repeated-notes theme in the Fugue has real emotional impact.  The Prelude was played this morning in church (Mt. Olivet in Arlington VA).


Monday, August 03, 2015

Music industry business models, and artists' livelihoods

The New York Times has an interesting op-ed piece by David Byrne, “Opening the Music Industry’s Black Box”, Sunday August 2, 2015, on p. 4 of “Sunday Review”.  

The article discusses the complicated way that artists can get compensated when their music is streamed.  But it seems as though artists don’t get very much, despite the volume of din from the record companies in opposing “piracy”.

Musicians are indeed entrepreneurs, and I do wonder how some of them manage to live as well as they seem to. (OK, you don’t have to live in Manhattan – Brooklyn will do – or in LA, even Venice or West Hollywood.  You can base operations from medium-price cities.)

The best thing a consumer can do is go to their concerts (paying normal admission) and buying their CD’s (or Mpeg files) legally, for every new work that they release. And you can give to orchestras or music groups that they play with, some of them have 401(c)3’s.  

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Scriabin's 10 piano sonatas, with their progression toward atonality and compression

I picked up the complete piano sonatas by Alexander Scriabin on London (recorded from 1975 to 1987) played by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The first CD contains the first four sonatas.  #1 (F Minor), and #2 (G# Minor) sound the most influenced by the big Chopin Bb-minor sonata:  #1 ends with a funeral march, and the second movement of #2 resembles the presto finale from the Chopin.

Sonata #3 in F# Minor (Op. 23) is the biggest and most obviously post-romantic, in four movements, with a big climax (though reverting to minor) at the very end.   But Sonata #4, in F#, is maybe my favorite, short (two movements) but triumphant, as Scriabin’s later style starts to emerge.

The second disc has the last six sonatas, all in one movement (varying from 8 to 13 minutes each).  Each sonata has many tempo and time-signature changes, and they are all fascinating to follow on YouTube with a piano score.

Sonata #5 is in the odd key of D# Minor, and still has some vestiges of old post romanticism. But the work end on a single high D# note, fortissimo, after the big building.

The remaining sonatas omit key signatures, and show Scriabin’s interest in building themes out of certain interval relationships among the notes, especially using his “Mystic Chord”.  #6 was the “darkest” and Scriabin was superstitious about it. #7 is the famous “White Mass” and ends with a curious soft treble trill.  It also has an unresolved dissonance near the end with all 12 notes at once (a similar effect occurs in the slow movement of the Bruckner Ninth, probably inspired all the way back by such a shocking dissonance in Beethoven’s Eroica).  #8 and #10 did not impress me that much (#10 is more Debussy-like and has less reference to old post-romanticism). But #9, the “Black Mass”, while short, is one of the best.  The ear (mine at least) starts to learn it quickly with repeat hearings.  The four-note motto (built on intervals) seems striking, and recurs constantly in the passage work.  (Timo Andres gets a similar effect at one point in his “Good Composer” piece, as I recall.)  Unlike the first five Sonatas, all five of the last sonatas end quietly and somewhat abruptly, as if to ask the listener to respond.

Scriabin is said to have developed his own technique to achieve atonality, which is different from Schoenberg and Berg.  It sounds a little more “French” (not Russian) to me. 

The first CD has some other selections: “Quatre Morceaux, Deux Danses, Deux Poemes”, and the second has another “Quarte Morceaux”.

It's rather odd for iTunes to view these works as "songs".