Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sturm und Drang in Mozart

Sturm und Drang (German: "Storm and Urge", although usually translated as "Storm and Stress") was a European artistic and philosophical movement which ran counter to the Enlightenment rationalism of the times. It ran from 1776 (though it can be traced back as far as the 1760's) when it first appeared in common usage, through the early 1800's. Sturm und Drang is actually a better term to describe all the “classical” music which followed it commonly known as “romantic” music today, because counter to the false notion implied by the word romantic; i. e. fictional, Sturm und Drang represented an attempt at emotional realism, focused at an individual and personal level, which the movement's proponents considered to be neglected by the schools of “enlightened” rationalism, empiricism, and universalism.

A perennial favourite of mine is this piano piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) called the Fantasy and Fugue in C Major K394, which was written in 1782, clearly within the influence of Sturm und Drang. Almost all of Mozart's music is catalogued with what some have called K numbers, the more learned call them Köchel [KUR-shel] numbers after the man who created them, the Austrian musicologist Ludwig Ritter von Köchel (1800-1877).

Mozart was among the most prolific composers. He probably dashed this out, or as was more likely ... was just taking dictation, as few of his original manuscripts show any corrections of any kind. I want that point to sink in. Mozart was also clearly ambidextrous, able to use each hand independently of the other, as was demonstrated on many occasions, one good example being while sitting on a terrace behind a café in Linz, writing music with his left hand while writing a letter to his father with his right.

The date of this particular work, 1782, places Mozart in Vienna and established as a composer there; during the time he was being paid in solid gold snuff boxes if one remembers rightly from that mix of urban legends, etc. made of his life called Amadeus. He was already world famous before his big arrival in Vienna in 1781. From this point in his career, Mozart would have but nine years to live and would compose most of his greatest works within a span of ten years. I'd like that point to sink in too, because when one contemplates Mozart, there is just so much of it, a veritable ocean of music that literally poured through him. There's never been and probably never will again be another Mozart.

That being said, you will hear things under the strict playing of the inimitable Glenn Gould that you'd likely miss or take in another way, especially in the fugue. More than anything else I have always believed that this piece represents Mozart drawing directly from nature, especially in the mathematical games he plays with turns in the tonality; what are often called harmonic progressions, or episodic series. In the Fantasy you can imagine scenes from a country setting, perhaps the day is fair interrupted by an occasional pelting of rain or hail, or there is something arduous being done, perhaps something to do with animals, horses maybe, anything at all your mind can imagine. This is not music about anything in particular.

With the fugue Mozart is offering, as it were, a toast to the great Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) who was and is in “classical” music's sense of it, everyone's musical grandfather. But Mozart takes the fugue into harmonic territories Bach seldom dreamed of. This is truly modern music in ways that Bach was not. As usual, I have a few criticisms of Gould's interpretation, but one has to admit that he makes the work cohesive. And there are contours, more geometric games with the harmonic progressions which leap out at you, which can only be achieved if one plays the piece at this galloping gait of his.

Featured: Glenn Gould's performances on You Tube


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sixth Interview – Of Time, Times and The Times

Kanye West, Lets Have a Toast Runaway

"I went upstairs to my room, but I was not alone there. I could hear someone mellifluously playing Schumann. No doubt it happens sometimes that people, even those whom we love best, become permeated with the gloom or irritation that emanates from us. There is however an inanimate object which is capable of a power of exasperation to which no human being will ever attain, to wit, a piano."

Marcel Proust
Cities of the Plain
Chapter Two

We've made it to Spring, 2011 and you have finally decided to make a trip back down to New York at the end of this month.
You plan on going straight to piano row once you get there?
Yes. I kind of would like to take in a museum too, but we'll see. I'll only be there a few hours, then back home. Anyone who wants to meet up with me can contact me at dpbmss@aol.com.
OK. You're still reading Proust …
and other things …
and still practising?
Of course.
Nevertheless, you find your piano exasperating.
Even were my piano among the better ones it would be, but I put that Proust quote up to give pianists some idea of one of the most common obstacles to attaining pianism; the dislike for piano among others who have to endure a pianist's practise sessions.
Yes, that's a problem some think they've solved with electronic keyboards. You don't really agree though.
No, I don't, but then again my practise sessions may be quite different from others'. Any musician must rely on their memory one way or another, either the music is written out down to the individual grace note, or it is “charted” or is of some universal form, like a blues. It all requires some non-distracted memory. If playing with others, the musician has to know when to play and how to play and memory is always involved. As long as a musician plays with the intention of being heard by others, they will use their memory. When their memory fails a musician, intuition can sometimes pose “creative” solutions, and most people probably wouldn't know the difference in the music anyway …
Why is that?
Because they aren't usually listening hard enough to catch it.
Will they know if a musician blows it or if the performance …
Sucks? Yes, they'll know. If they don't know the music; what to expect next, they'll just experience a temporary disappointment, and may not even know why or even care to know.
Music for them is …
Ephemeral; it isn't really a prime concern, just something to do or something to keep the non-committed mind occupied while doing something else.
That's what music is to most people?
So your practise sessions …
often have to coincide with others not being around. And then there's the other problem, they may not like what you play.
You have that problem?
Yes, of course and it shouldn't be too surprising. Many find the music I play “too pretty” or even worse.
You would perhaps like to be playing more popular styles?
If I wanted to play them, I would learn how, either with a teacher or on my own. I have enough technique to grasp a lot of it at least in theory. But none of it is really me, so I don't. And even so, some of the music I play now isn't really me.
For instance?
Well Chopin is really a different style from say J. S. Bach. I'd say that Bach was a lot closer to “me” than Chopin.
You could play whatever you want, I don't really get it?
You mean why try and play Chopin? Because he was really the first composer dedicated to the piano and his achievements are associated with the instrument in many inescapable ways. Most people recognise his music immediately and like it. It's like learning anything, you have to master certain techniques to fully appreciate playing piano. Chopin was in his day a great piano teacher and he still is; if you really want to learn how to play the piano, you must master some elements of Chopin and make them sound convincing or accomplished. That's one possible goal to attain pianism; learn to play a few pieces by Chopin.
But others who might be bothered by your practising and your music have their music which you no doubt have heard.
Of course.
You wanted to say something about this?
Well, I'll start with something Andrew Violette told me years ago, something about class and musicianship; that most people tended to expect musicians to be from a lower class background than themselves, that it would have been unthinkable for a prince back in the day or these days for a corporate mogul, to commission any original musical work from a person of his own class.
You still think this idea has legs?
Look around, check out what we have now. We have a lot of different kinds of popular music these days. But it all has something in common. Every bit of it is projecting values from social strata that are below the level of the average American, European or Asian middle class, expressing a preference among the “market” for musical forms and styles, for what I'd pretentiously term the “sub-bourgeois.” This applies to all so called “world music” too, which is music usually from some local aboriginal group which again lives below the level of the average middle class from any of the first world countries.
You're saying that this preference for … low class music is …
It's largely unconscious, but it's part of a longer historical process. The other books I'm reading these days are history, particularly from the late Middle Ages into the present time.
You said you were making a study of the history of financial institutions.
Yes. I'm also trying to see historical events and developments from different perspectives than the rosy “progressive” slant they were given by my American “public school” education. Most people just blithely and thoughtlessly digest whatever attitudes, perspectives and outlooks they got from their teachers, while a few of us, who are often fated to be regarded as obdurate, obtuse or recalcitrant, or in my case profoundly sceptical and unconvertably cynical, must continue to ask why and demand to see things form different perspectives.
So, what lately … (much laughter)
Let's begin with the Renaissance as a huge misnomer. They weren't waking up from anything to anything else. In many ways the world is still asleep. We're in the same mess today that our ancestors were in the 16th century; war upon senseless war, regime after regime going into stupendous debt and declaring bankruptcy, the common people insensible to what was going on and being dragged along by events. There has been material and technical progress since then, especially concerning the means to kill more people faster and destroy more of the earth's surface faster. There are many more of us than there were then too …
and some still think there are too many …
and the people are essentially the same kinds of people in charge back then, with many of the same attitudes ...
So there's been no real progress?
Materially and technically, yes. Otherwise, no.
And this surprises you?
No, not really. The other day I saw something on You Tube where someone was asking people in the street if they knew the news facts of today and they didn't know any of them about their own country, let alone the rest of the world. Should I dare ask the embarrassing question here about WHY we should be paying for public schools that produce this shoddy level of performance? Or was that intended all along? Should I perhaps ask why people don't want to know the correct answers? Because it wouldn't matter to them if they did? Should I ask why they don't care about not knowing? Should I ask why they would be content with the rude “bread and circuses” the great republic turned empire (without their consent but certainly while they were kept sleeping and didn't ask why) is doling out to them?
and the music they listen to …
is part of the big picture and it agrees with Andrew's point about music and class consciousness; people want music and musicians to express an even lower level of social status than their already pretty abysmally low level.
They don't care about the smut that is part of the rap scene.
No, and why should they? They can and do usually just laugh at it. It gives them someone or something they can look down on whether consciously or not.
And so all the popular music is like this?
For the most part, yes. Even though, and this is really sort of interesting, most of the popular music of today shows evidence of great precision and intention, particularly evident in the percussive effects.
Those may all be mechanical or created by mixing sound tracks on a computer.
Well, we can all look down on computers as having lower social status than ourselves.
You said that this social status thing has all sorts of resonance in other areas of our lives.
It certainly seems to. Look we're in a worldwide depression that is being fought by those who are in control of the financial institutions who are afraid of being found out. If the average dumbed down person in the street knew, and some do only dimly, then those in charge fear they might be toppled from power.
And replaced by who?
Very good question. But in the meantime the average Joe knowing little or nothing about what's really going on way above his head can feel content to look down on someone else; some scumbag with billions of dollars is still essentially “lower class” than he and his six pack swilling friends with barely passing high school educations. They already consider everyone else below their own dignity except raw power, “the man” with his tazer or other implements of pain or destruction.
So this isn't really a good time for eh, “serious” music.
I don't believe any particular time has been really great for it. It's just that here and there in Europe and to a lesser degree elsewhere, once in a while, out of a culture that supported it, a few talented musicians were encouraged and provided with enough money to get them to produce what we have today as the miracle of so called “classical” music. How it manages to continue amounts to a “religious” effort among the “interested.”
And you can't get people interested if they aren't interested.
Which is why when they do get interested, it's usually like a religious experience; something awakens in them. If they aren't aware of it, then develop the thirst for knowing more, they may hear something and it only sounds “pretty” or “antique” or in whatever way not modern, current or popular.
And anyway all that's popular is only of limited interest to its audience.
Someone else I know said they don't listen to music by people who have died.
That would certainly cut out everything you play.  (laughs)
Yeah. It would. But I want to drop another bombshell of sorts having to do with the foregoing argument concerning music and musicians as traditionally looked down upon. The argument doesn't just apply to music.
It applied to the English as a nation from the time of Purcell (1659-1695) to Edward Elgar (1857-1934).
Well they were importing everything including their kings from elsewhere. Perhaps they admire the institution (which they put back up after tearing it down) whilst they look down upon those currently bearing its titles. It's possible.
You're stretching this to apply to human relations aren't you?
Well look around and what do you see? A lot of people are with people who are beneath them in dignity and attainments. They even seek them out. Some even set themselves up as persons of lesser social status just to get dates. Often the very good looking or well accomplished are among the loneliest.
They may not want the association of their equals. Too predictable, too boring.
Exactly. The people of lower orders, which would be the vast majority in their many faceted ways, are often more interesting and less threatening than those at one's own level. One looks up to those from whom one expects to gain something, and looks down to those from whom less is required. It gets weird when those one looks up to are worse than those one looks down upon.
You're saying everyone does it.
Giving some people more esteem and respect than others? It's done all the time. Watching people do it is highly instructive. The higher socially one goes, the more absurd the ingratiating becomes too. Nobody is sincere up there.  It is seen all the time in great corporations, large organizations, governments, academe, etc.
Well one can't just stand there and say nothing.
Indeed and the habitually silent among us often risk pejorative labels as sneaks, underhanded or back-stabbers, whether they are or not. It's always best to say something.
So an ingratiating comment …
is something to say in the hope of getting something beneficial from someone above yourself in social status. That could even include being otherwise left alone.
Yes. OK, well what about electronic keyboards for being left alone while practising?
They just aren't the real thing. Most don't even play like the real thing, with all its peculiarly exasperating qualities. Pull the plug and they're off. No electricity and you're without a piano. No, I own one, a good one, and I never use it. The piano I own, limited as it is, is still a piano.
So you insist that a person committed to pianism must work on a real piano?
People do whatever they can with what they can. If an electronic keyboard is what they can do, then that's all they can do and it will have to work for them until they can get something better. If I could get something better, don't you think I would?
But every committed pianist should have their own real piano.
It's something to work for, something to go out there and look for, something to aspire to. You wont really know what it's like to play a real piano if you only play an electronic keyboard and don't go out there and see what real pianos can be like.
You aren't making some claim that acoustic instruments are better than electronic ones are you?
One doesn't do that if one's discussing electric guitars as they are distinct from acoustic ones. One could do that when discussing electronic keyboards that attempt to reproduce acoustic piano sound and feel and what I said before wouldn't really apply to synthesizers that use the keyboard as an interface because we'd be discussing sound that wouldn't be acoustic piano sound.
This applies only to pianos that sound like pianos.
To unique piano sound, yes.
Some think maybe electronic pianos will take over.
If there is no “classical” piano music, or if interest in it dies out, as is possible, since the market for music that one looks up to rather than down upon isn't going anywhere and hasn't for at least 66 years (see my previous entry), with the possible exception of Nikolai Kapustin, then who cares how the “piano sound” is reproduced? Nobody will be listening that hard to care anyway.
You still working on your compositions?
Not right at the moment no.
Why not?
Isn't it obvious yet?
But surely someone might really want to hear them.
You think?  Well, let them grapple with the works of Andrew Violette first.