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The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Stanley Sadie - Obituaries 


Three obituaries this morning for Stanley Sadie, in The Times of London and The Times of New York, and Gramophone magazine.

UPDATE: There's also a tribute page on the Grove Music Online site.


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

RIP Stanley Sadie 


I've recently heard the sad news that Stanley Sadie, editor of the 1980 and 2000 editions of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, passed away yesterday from a rare form of motor neurone disease.

Even without his contribution to Grove, Sadie was a major figure in British musicology. He reviewed for The Times (London), Gramophone and Musical Times, of which he was editor for 20 years from 1967-87 and was general editor of the book series Master Musicians. His scholarly work (including several books) was chiefly on Mozart and Handel, and he was correcting his recently completed book on Mozart's final years before he died. He also prepared critical editions of works by Mozart (including the piano sonatas), J.C. Bach and Boccherini.

But his work as editor for The New Grove first edition, and as editor/editor emeritus for the second edition marked Sadie as a colossus in musicology. For those of us who have lived our whole musical lives with The New Grove around, it's hard to imagine the impact that its publication had in 1980. Suffice it to say that before 1980 there was no 20-volume encyclopedia of music, prepared to the highest possible scholarly standards; after 1980, it became hard to believe that we'd ever managed without one. The 2000 edition, which Sadie initiated and oversaw, became more than a simple revision, and expanded into a 29-volume behemoth. In between, he edited the three-volume New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, with H. Wiley Hitchcock the four-volume New Grove Dictionary of American Music, and the three-volume Grove Dictionary of Opera. For these reasons alone his name will remain on countless shelves and in innumberable bibliographies for many years to come.

RIP.


ArtsJournal: PostClassic 


Following up on his earlier short post on the over-importance of 12-tone/serial music in the teaching of 20th-century music history, Kyle Gann has written a a substantial, balanced contribution to the subject. The crucial point that he makes is that he is not asking for a fundamentalist expunging of 12-tone music from the history books and the classrooms. Rather, what is needed is a new, more historically honest approach to the music and its context. For 15 years before World War II, serialism was the second most important musical movement in European composition (neo-classicism, in terms of its reach, breadth, and quality of works was possibly the most important), and for about a decade after the war, it was the most vocally outspoken movement, producing half a dozen genuine masterpieces, and a handful of notorious bugbears. Now, like Kyle, I love a number of serial works - Gruppen, Il canto sospeso, Webern's Concerto, op.24, etc - but that love has less to do with the system itself than the new sound possibilities that the application of a radical system like serialism opens up.

Read Kyle's post, he talks a lot of sense. What I wanted to add was a little of my own experience in teaching serialism. For the last five years I've taught one quarter of a module on early 20th-century music. My chosen topic is music and national identity, so there are lectures on Bartók, Szymanowski, American experimentalism, and the last lecture - which I gave yesterday - is a speculative account of the neo-classicism vs expressionism/serialism story in terms of competing French and German national identity. The idea behind the course is largely to tackle some of the questions Kyle mentions - the fact that important composers like Partch, Szymanowski, Ives, Bartók (Bartók, fercryinoutloud!) all-too easily slip through the cracks of conventional 20th-century music history. I wanted to make sure that my students got a chance to hear some of this music before they left the course, and taking a national angle seemed a useful way of structuring that. The interesting thing about this angle from the point of view of serialism is that it immediately becomes one issue among many. Put into a national context with those two marvellous Schoenberg quotations
Today I have discovered something that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.
and the even more damning, but much less famous
Peace after the First World War granted political independence to nations which culturally were far from ready for it. Nevertheless even small nations of six to ten million people expected to be regarded as cultural units, nations whose national characteristics expressed themselves in many ways: in their applied arts, weaving, ceramics, painting, singing and playing and, finally, even composing music
, and the canonic place of serialism does start to taste a bit funny. The patronising tone of that opening, to his 1947 essay 'Folkloristic Symphonies', leaves me breathless - hopefully after a couple of hours in the company of Szymanowski's piano works and Bartó'k's string quartets some of my students feel similarly affronted. Yes, limp patriotic, 'folkloristic' music deserves its place in the footnotes of music history, but few composers knew that better than those occupants of 'culturally unready' nations, Bartók and Szymanowski themselves.

So, anyhoo, my last class is a deliberate attempt to get my students to think properly about some of the canonic music history they've been taught thus far in the course by my colleagues, and to be aware that there is always more than one way to tell a story. That's why I spend time covering, once again, Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, in a new, national context.

Except that, for the first time, because of a staff reorganisation, none of this year's current crop of students have been taught serialism. What used to occupy four full lectures (a quarter of what is a compulsory module) has simply disappeared off the curriculum, replaced by four lectures on Russian music under Stalin. This is quite surprising, and it's a new experience to be faced with a room of 60 undergraduates who don't know what a tone row is, much less a hexachordal interversion. Needless to say it threw my final lecture somewhat, as half of its point relied on a gentle undermining of Schoenberg's position as the father of 20th-century music. For students who've yet to encounter serialism in their classes this looks a little daft, so I was forced into a swift rewrite, and a few minutes on the rudiments of serialism, and the place Schoenberg had ordained for it at the head of the German musical thrust into the future. All of which seemed a little silly in retrospect.

Sadly this year is the last that I'll be teaching this module as the whole course is being reorganised at the end of the year, so I'll never really come to terms with teaching within a serial-free 20th-century course. Shame.


Friday, March 18, 2005

Quack. 


Every once in a while a friend of mine organises concerts of baroque music in various churches in central London. I say Baroque, but I mean Bach. And I say Bach, but I mean the cantatas - which is fine and dandy because that's some good music. It's also nice, 'cos I've always thought London's old churches are a core part of its identity, but you hardly get in to see them properly. The next one is on April 2nd at St Paul's (not that one) in Covent Garden, and I've been pulled in on second oboe. It's a couple of years since I last played (and it was four years before that). The last time my mate asked me to play for him, I had to borrow an oboe since mine had seized up from lack of use. One expensive service later and it's getting a proper outing. I've already had the inevitable goose chase to buy some new reeds, but when practising last night I was pretty chuffed with how much still remains in muscle memory. I mean, my lips need some work, as do my cheeks, and lungs, even my supporting right hand wrist; but all the fingering's still there, right down to those annoying alternatives that flat keys always throw up. (C-D flat, that's a weedy little trill isn't it?) The cat seems absolutely horrified at the sound and evacuates promptly with the first squeak of the reed, only returning cautiously when I've long finished. Her taste is terrible anyway, so I'm not taking this as a bad sign.

However, I shan't be offended if, in search of blogging oboists, you follow your ears elsewhere - say here, to someone who actually does all this properly, for example.


Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Music Analysis and M.I.A. 


I popped a link to Clap Clap's major post on MIA up on my 'Topics of the Day' a week or so ago, but I've only just got around to reading the full post. At the risk of prolonging a debate that is rapidly running out (before the record's even released, natch), I'd like to say 'Wow'. Reading the ongoing debates (mostly at Dissensus, but also here, all over here and finally here) sparked by that Simon Reynolds piece a while back I've been unable to fully settle on which side I fall. Thanks to Eppy, my mind is made up. I mean, I like MIA's sound in any case - even though 'Galang' gets a bit tired after too many repeated listenings (and the original is permanently scarred for me anyway thanks to cry.con.my.console's Super Mario Bros. mashup) – so ultimately I'm with the ayes. But having watched the 'Galang' video a couple of times the other day I did feel a bit queasy at the seemingly super-naïve slogan overload. Fists born of mushroom clouds, tanks, camouflage, and CND badges??? I mean, come on, that’s just crap, isn't it? So while I'm deeply sceptical of authenticity debates of any sort (more of which in another post, probably), I thought this was just taking pop semiotics to new levels of crass superficiality. Logos, flags, screen-printed T-shirts, slogans - all of these are powerful slices of modern culture with a proud pop history, but aligning yourself with bombs and peace symbols at the same time just looks cynical and insulting.

Which is precisely the point on which I think Eppy's analysis is strongest, I think.
What strikes me most about the lyrics is the way that political figures are addressed as social or cultural figures--more actors in pop culture, in other words. Bush and Blair appear, but as figures far less distinct than everyone else here, as background noise, undeniably part of the fabric of our daily lives, but not as primary players, just basically the same as the person who gives you your food or the girl on the cover of a magazine: unreal, separate, but still actually, y'know, real. ... This is a representation.

But ultimately MIA does not remain the watcher. The reason I have this vision for the song is because she refuses to remain separate from what she's describing. She rolls her sleeves up and plunges into the fray, positioning herself not as an observer but a part of this: not different, but exactly the same, on a certain level, as everything she's presenting to you, which in turns is an attempt to implicate the listener of the song in what's being described, to take all watchers and make them walkers. But this applies to everyone in the song, from Bush to unemployed Londoners to Iraqis. It's an attempt to find a leveled space where everyone can speak as equals, a perfect plan, perfectly plain: pop.

She has been building the case for this since before Arular. She's insisted from the beginning on situating herself within mass culture. On Piracy Funds Terrorism, she managed to narrow the difference between herself, the Diplomats, and baile funk to almost nothing. It is a quite intentional rejection of the provincialization of subculutral scenes. "I'm a west Londoner...but a refugee still." Both and therefore neither. "I don't have a side." If it's all pop, it's not all music, and so everything is like everything else: Kate Moss is a political figure and Bush is a fashion model. Both are salespeople.

But how can she not have a side? Aren't there intentional slogans in there? Sure. But that doesn't necessarily mean she's the one spouting them if everything else in the song is observation. You can evoke globalization without passing judgment on it because it's a part of our lives when we live in cities just as much as magazine ads or the search for employment. The very unoriginality of the slogans points to the fact that they're not in the authorial voice but are more description of the cultural landscape.

In his post, Eppy thoroughly analyses a MIA track (not 'Galang', as it happens, but the eponymous 'MIA'), giving musical and lyrical support to his assertions.

I think where I might emphasise most what Eppy says is in his observation of the space MIA's tracks allow for her voice. The songs, ultimately, and at a couple of authorial removes, are MIA herself (another authorial remove: the name MIA itself is, of course, pseudonymous). 'The personal is political' may be an old '70s slogan, but as current protest movements are only too fond of reminding us, America (and Britain, and Poland, and Australia) is embroiled in 'another Vietnam', so maybe it has some currency still. Eppy just shows how deftly MIA breathes new, complicating life into that particular slogan.

So yeah, I didn't really mean to add damp fuel to a dying fire. Really, I'm just bigging up Eppy's post as an example of why music analysis is great, and why it's a proud and noble pursuit. He's not trying to prove anything here (music's not like maths, it doesn't sit in space as a bunch of equations waiting to be proven, it's something to be admired, criticized, discussed, manipulated, canonised and junked). But what he does is to argue one of those admiring/critical discussion points with reference to the actual material itself. There's only so far batting ideas back and forth will get you - at some point someone's got to get down dirty and cut open the cadaver to reveal the blood and flesh and bones. We still get to argue the toss about what they're all for, what they do, but at least we can all see that we're talking about the same thing.


Monday, March 14, 2005

GUTTERBREAKZ 


Can I just say that when they write the history of Grime and Dubstep in ten years' time, Nick Gutterbreakz had better have a big part in it (if he's not writing it himself). Easily my favourite blogger of the moment. Nice one!


Wired News: The Hewlett-Packard DJammer 


Alerted by hiphopmusic.com, I'm somewhat sceptical about this development touted by Hewlett-Packard researchers as "the next-generation electric guitar". I mean, surely the real next generation electric guitar has been staring them in the face all throughout this project. If you're looking for an instrument that had the same revolutionary impact as the guitar, and invented an entire slew of genres in its wake, then it has to be turntables. So we've had that next generation Stratocaster for years now - and it works pretty well. The DJammer is just a digital imitation of something that works brilliantly well in its analogue version. It reminds me of that wave of digital saxophones that appeared in the late 80s. Apart from 808 State, whatever happened to those? Sure, there's a place for something that can mix multiple digital tracks live (if there's not already software that can do this), but after more than two years of development, the DJammer isn't it:
The team is currently researching how to let the DJammer mix more than one track at a time, including matching tempos from different songs.
Which would kind of be the main point.

Still, maybe we shouldn't get too worked up, as Bemused comments on Jay's post:
i guess this could be a good example of "talking something up"...

i happen to have a connection to HP- you know, friend of a friend of a friend - because i'm doing research on hip hop and information technology. the long and short of it is: the DJammer is nothing but vaporware right now. the prototype is NOT even close to being in production - it's still only breadboard. apparently the guy who came up with it is looking for talent to help him develop it, but he's on his own - not HP backed.

when it was first developed two years ago HP couldn't be convinced of the market potential...a situation which is unchanged as far as my sources go.


Friday, March 11, 2005

The Dark Side of the Funding Application 


I've filled most of my gaps in the last week applying for funding towards my Ph.D fees. The principal route in the UK for research students in the arts and humanities is to participate in the competitive lottery that is the Arts and Humanities Research Board grants scheme. By far the hardest part of the form is that cruel blank page at question 8 where in just 500 words you make your entire case. And strangely the hardest part of that is the implied question 'Why?' In the accompanying notes it is made clear that 'because it's there' isn’t a good answer. And when something tears at your bloody beating heart and it's love and you have to do something about it, that doesn't count as an answer either. Why am I spending five years focused on that one small slice of the world's music that puts a fuel in my veins like no other in order to understand it more thoroughly than anyone has before? The most rhetorical of all the questions asked in the application is the one that counts for the most, and is the most difficult to answer in just a few words.

My research is on the timbral compositions of Penderecki and Ligeti of 1960-66. In particular four of the works that bookend that period: Threnody, Atmosphères, the St Luke Passion and Requiem. The profusion of radical music from out of Soviet Europe during the 1960s has long magnetized me. As the West European avant garde reached its highest levels of pompous ambition the new sounds from the Eastern bloc shocked the world with a unique, brutal approach to musical material. In simple, standard parlance, East European composers - who were only opened up to developments in the avant garde after Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956 - heard the sounds of the Western avant garde, and rapidly co-opted them into a new musical style that expressed that new freedom from artistic constraint. On one level at least it is celebratory music, certainly. You only have to hear the ecstatic racket of pieces like Anaklasis or Scontri once in order to appreciate that. But, because it is so often thought of as music of free and celebratory excess it is often dismissed as a necessary but failed experiment, like the first adolescent term away from home. This conceptual ping-pong - Western avant garde feeds the ears of Eastern composers, Eastern composers hurl their new works at the West, the West ultimately condemns them as childish doodles - seems to me to speak very powerfully about the nature of Europe during (and since) the Cold War. In particular since the condemnatory attack on Western modernist values that lies at the heart of so much of this East European composition is overlooked by commentators to the point of being airbrushed out entirely. If composers were revelling in the freedom to compose in ways that had never been thought of before, they very quickly turned that freedom to a series of varied and powerful purposes: much of Górecki's music, for example, is tightly bound to the canon and frameworks of Western European art music, but in a work like Scontri (the title is a play on Nono's Incontri) he seems to be attacking (or at least having a cheeky dig at) the avant garde from which his music is drawing sustenance. The Harpsichord Concerto too, although it belongs to a slightly later period in his career, always sounds to me like an assault on the canonic Baroque continuo sound, if not an assault on the harpsichord itself. Not that I think Górecki is a particularly angry man - not at all - but his music does derive a great deal of its power from its teasing resistance to convention. Penderecki too, in his early works, is enacting something physical, almost damaging, upon his instruments and their performers (many string players have protested at the demands he makes of their instruments to squeeze out every new sound possible). It seems to me that behind this lies an intent that goes far beyond the 'mere sound effects' heard by so many critics of the 1960s. Ligeti figures heavily because he is the most significant composer to have physically left Eastern Europe and developed a career within a Western European framework. He's also the composer to have had most prolonged critical success for his music of the early 60s - while it's rare to hear any Polish sonorism live these days, performances of Atmosphères, for example, aren't so unusual - which makes him a provocative counterweight to the one-hit wonder impact of many of his Polish contemporaries.

So my approach is to reconstruct the reception histories of both Penderecki and Ligeti, as well as the Polish and Hungarian milieus from which they originated. From this I will get a sense of the terms by which West European commentators judged and understood this new East European music (and for a short time at least the two composers were grouped together like this). Armed with this, I then spend the second half of my thesis analysing the four works mentioned with respect to the responses of critics over the years. The result, I hope, will reveal new things about the works themselves, as well documenting the reception histories of two important composers. It will also go some way to exploring the use of reception history data in the analysis of musical scores, and the value of applying a geographical (rather than purely temporal) approach to music history. In bolder terms it's an application of several of my core beliefs about music: that it is as essential as any other cultural artefact in helping us understand historical periods; that musical acts are inextricably linked with social ones; that reception and criticism are as important in the process of making music as composition or performance; that the manner in which our listening prejudices colours the music that we hear is woefully disregarded and undervalued; that the relegation of sound as a compositional parameter to superficial colour is one of the most limiting aspects of the current classical music value system; that great works are born of the freedom to experiment and to fail. It also says something about the introverted nature of too much Western European thought that refuses to open its Eastern boundaries to its historical, but vibrant and different and exciting and dangerous, brothers. It's an ode to screams and squeaks and scrapes and crashes and music that throws open the ear.

My application doesn't look anything like this at all. It tries to strike the appropriately sober and professional tone, but I had just had to get this flip side off my chest.


troubled diva: Meme Aid: The Bloggers' Disco 


Hmmm. So much to choose from. So in the names of willful oddness, disco fun, slight topicality, and the fact that it was one of my favourite tunes of last year, I choose Bollywood Freaks - Don't Stop till You Get to Bollywood.

Nice one, Mike.


Wednesday, March 09, 2005


I'm slightly tardy on this, but I'm rather flattered to be included in the sidebar of infoshare, a weblog affiliated with the august Music Library Association. (In full, infoshare is a weblog of the Information Sharing Subcommittee of the Reference and Public Services Committee of the Music Library Association...) Much more to the point, though, is that they've collected together a pretty lengthy list of fine music blogs in that sidebar, which I urge anyone looking for new music writing to browse through.



Although not a music-related item, I thought this bit of local news was worth linking to in any case. Particularly since Carlisle is my parents' local town, and the fate of Carlisle United is dear to me. (Believe me, cursed sculptures are the least of our worries.)


Monday, March 07, 2005

KOMPAKT KITTENS 


A tribute to minimal techno, using the medium of kittens.

{features sound samples from
.Closer Musik
.Jurgen Paape
.Markus Guentner
.Michael Mayer
.Reinhard Voigt
.Sascha Funke
.Superpitcher
.Ulf Lohmann
.Wolfgang Voigt
}

[Hat tip: Voltage]


Memes 


I lack the imagination or energy to come up with Ten Things I've Done that You Probably Haven't, but here's just one, from this weekend:

Run down to the beach in winter, solely in order to witness the "snow falling with hail, mingled with rime" of Anglo-Saxon poem 'The Wanderer'.

Again, I can't be bothered with the full 5 required, but here are three film quotes that pop into my head:

"I think we know whose side the good Lord is on?"

"England, sir?"

"Precisely." (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Monte Carlo or Bust)

"You're a monster, and a monster. In that order!" (Peter Sellars, What's New Pussycat)

"Liverwurst!" (Ingrid Bergman, Spellbound).

Well, that's one small part of my desk cleared at least...


Friday, March 04, 2005

Oh, and two more things 


These have been bugging me for a while (hell, I was even dreaming the Jem vocal hook last night) but what are the classical quotes in Jem's 'They' (Bach, I think - is it a sample from a Swingle Singers album?)

and Imp Batch's 'Gype' (18 mins into Autonomic's mix)?

I'm terrible with 'name that tune' questions, so any suggestions gratefully appreciated. Ta.


Some things for the weekend 


Milady and are a scooting off for a well-earned break this weekend. Alongside fine cheese, Adnams beer and dinner tonight at my favourite restaurant in the UK, my soul will be cleansed with the assistance of:

autonomicforthepeople's current Grime/Dubstep mix. Short, but very sweet.

John Eden and Paul Meme's Eighties Dancehall in Excelsis mix. Big.


Upcoming new music events for March, London 


First up, a quick word for Opus 1 Classical, a new site that collates concert information for over 50 cities in America, Europe and Japan. Very handy if you're planning a weekend away and want to catch some music. Click and see - this could become a very useful resource indeed.

As for highlights of the purely contemporary variety, these are my picks for this month in London.

Wednesday 9th | Blackheath Concert Hall | 7.30pm | £5

Frederic Rzewski will be playing his Ballad no.5 (It makes a long time man feel bad), based on a Texan prison song. Part of the New Quays season of contemporary piano music (and terrible punning), it will be followed by an open discussion with Rzewski himself.

Friday 11th | Queen Elizabeth Hall | 7.45pm | £8-£22

London Sinonietta in a post-minimal mood play Reich: City Life, Turnage: Crying out Loud and Gordon: Gotham. Includes film projection malarkey.

Wednesday 16th | Purcell Room | 7.30pm | £10/15

The Nash Ensemble. New music by Brits Knussen, Colin Matthews, Birtwistle and Anderson, including world premières by Matthews (A voice to wake ...) and Birtwistle (Passing Measures). And there's also a new work by Elliott Carter, Mosaic, to round it all off. New music writer for The Guardian, Tom Service, will be hosting a pre-concert chat with Carter, Birtwistle and Matthews at 6.15.

Friday 18th | Goldsmiths College | 7.30pm | free

Goldsmiths' Contemporary Music Ensemble is a student performance group, but because of a strong contemporary music interest amongst the staff they get to play some really good stuff. There's usually a decent chance of seeing some future regulars on the London contemporary circuit here too. Cage: Seven, Brown: Novara, Andriessen: Workers' Union.

Sunday 27th/Monday 28th | Royal Festival Hall | 7.30pm | £15-25

You can certainly catch me at this one. London Sinfonietta and Johnny Greenwood (and rumours of Thom Yorke too). This is sort of an extension to the idea behind the Sinfonietta/Warp concerts of recent years, combining non-classical musicians with serious aspirations with some recent classics. The classics, it has to be said, are quite a rare bunch - Ligeti's Ramifications, Dutilleux's Ainsi la Nuit, Messiaen's La fête des belles eaux and Penderecki's Capriccio for oboe and strings, as well as Enta Omri by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, of whom I know nothing. Looking forward to all of that. Greenwood himself contributes two works - one as yet unnamed, the other smear. Then to keep everyone happy they round off with a collection of Radiohead numbers.

Enjoy!


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