Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review Engaging music from Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi

More and more I'm convinced that the people who don't like contemporary classical music are those that haven't heard it. Atonality and serialism are often cited as the reason for their rejection of current classical fare, but those objections are about a half-century out of date. Contemporary -- and especially younger contemporary -- composers use the musical language of today to create works that aren't intellectual exercises, but actually connect emotionally with an audience.

A good example is the latest release by the conductor Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on their own label. Joined by the eighth blackbird sextet, they perform brand new works by two fairly young, yet established composers.

The orchestra's had a fruitful association with Jennifer Higdon, and On a Wire continues that trend. The work is a concerto for the members of eighth blackbird and orchestra. It's an exciting piece, and one that puts the virtuosity of the sextet to the test. And it's engaging. Sometimes the music is quite lyrical, at other times it's bustling with rhythmic complexity -- but it's always tonal in some fashion. If you can handle the outre sound of the "Twilight Zone" closing credits theme, you'll have no problem with On a Wire. Higdon's created an entertaining and good-natured work that I suspect is as entertaining to watch in performance as it is to hear in recording.

The longer work on the disc is  Michael Gandolfi's QED: Engaging Richard Feynman. This one's for the orchestra alone, although it uses a greatly expanded percussion section.  The work uses two anecdotes of physicist Richard Feynman as its inspiration. Gandolfi's music is much more tonal than Higdon's -- my impression was that of a post-Hovhaness/Copland composition.  Choral settings of Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman,  Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Joseph Campbell are both effective and moving. Gandolfi knows how to write a vocal-friendly melody!

 If you're looking for new music, this CD is a great choice. And if you think there's no new good classical music to be found, this disc is even a better choice. It just might change your mind.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What Makes a Good Opera?

What makes a good opera? Most of my non-classical friends would dispute that there's any such thing, but we'll let that pass.

The question arose yesterday when I revisited a work I hadn't listened to in a while: Franz Joseph Haydn's opera Il Mondo della Luna. Most people don't think of Haydn as an opera composer, but he wrote thirteen of them -- most for private performance at the Esterhazy estate.

While most people aren't even aware of Haydn's operatic output, those that are tend to dismiss it. The general opinion is that, compared to those of his younger contemporary and friend, Mozart, Haydn's works simply don't measure up. Some might say they're not even on par with those of Gluck, who was writing similar type works for larger audiences in Vienna (some of which have entered the repertoire).

I thought about all of that as I listened to Il mondo della luna. The first time I played the recording, I dutifully followed along with the libretto, and I can see the validity of the criticism. Like most of Haydn's operas, Il mondo della luna is basically a series of set pieces. There's an aria, then a duo, then a chorus, then another aria, etc. What's missing is any kind of dramatic impetus that drives the story along. That lack of drama keeps the opera from feeling organic.

In an Mozart opera (or others considered first-rate), there's a dramatic reason why the heroine sings an aria here, and then a chorus responds there. The audience is pulled along, carried by not only the beauty of the music, but the motion of the story as it unfolds.

So am I wasting my time listening to Haydn's operas? Hardly. While it may not work as a dramatic piece, it's still music by Haydn. So it's witty, charming, sophisticated, and well-crafted (as I believe these YouTube videos illustrate).

Yesterday I had to spend a lot of time concentrating on a big project, and Il mondo della luna made a nice accompaniment to my work. I don't speak Italian, so I couldn't hear how absurd/lame the libretto actually was. All I heard was one lovely melody after another.

And really, is that so bad?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Whose PI? Another classical copyright issue

My post this time was going to be about Michael John Blake. He recently posted a video on YouTube entitled "The Sound of Pi." In it he took the first 32 numbers of Pi, and using C for 1, D for 2, etc. created a melody using just the white keys of the piano. He then decided on a tempo (also based on Pi), and  recorded the melody on piano. Then did it three more times with three different keyboard instruments, and mixed them together creating an interesting a quirky canon.

My original post was going to have the video, and then talk about other ways composers have used numbers and mathematical equations to lay out music -- and not just in the late 20th/early 21st Century, either.

Instead, this post will harken back to one I wrote two weeks ago about the unintentional consequences of draconian copyright law. If you look at Michael Blake's YouTube channel, you'll find this immensely popular video has been deleted. Why? Because someone claimed copyright infringement.

YouTube lives under a sword of Damacles. In an unspoken agreement, the major media companies have agreed not to sue YouTube for allowing unauthorized copies of their content to be posted, if YouTube will immediately and without question yank any video that someone claims violates their copyright.

Because of the sheer volume of videos uploaded every day, YouTube could not afford to hire enough people to review every single clip that goes up. So if anyone complains, the assumption is guilty until proven innocent.

So why was Blake's work yanked? In 1992 composer and mathematician Lars Erickson composed a Pi symphony. This work is also based on the first 32 numbers of Pi.  Details are sketchy, but apparently Erickson claimed infringement and the video disappeared.

Is it a case of infringement? Hard to say. While the basic resource is identical, the methodologies are different. As near as I can determine, Erickson uses Pi to determine more than just the order of notes. Listening to excerpts of the Symphony side by side with Blake's Canon (that's not the name, but that's what it is), there's not only a significant difference in orchestration (which is a superficial difference), but also in tonal language, rhythms, compositional style, and many other factors.

To my ears, the two works in no way sound the same. So the question -- in my opinion -- boils down to this: is the concept of assigning notes to the first 32 digits of Pi something that is unique and copyrightable? Can a 12-tone row be copyrighted (not the finished composition, mind you, just the row)?

The major and minor scales have been around for centuries, as have the modes and other scales from other cultures. But what about the microtonal scales of Harry Partch? Are they copyrightable? Was Partch the only one who could legally use the building blocks of his music?

No one's gone to court on this one -- yet. Below are some links so you can decide for yourself. The first is an excerpt from Erickson's work. The second is the Blake video. The original has been deleted, but someone else has reposted it. At some point, I'm sure it will be removed -- so enjoy it while you can!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: Gavin Bryars refines his style with Piano Concerto

I've always liked Gavin Bryars' music, although I admit I was always more familiar with his earlier works, such as "Jesus' Blood Ain't Failed Me Yet," and "The Sinking of the Titanic." The latter was almost a study in sound landscapes and non-tonal sonorities, crafted to deliver a visceral emotional wallop. Bryars has continued growing as a composer, delving even further into the nature of sound, while refining his musical language.

All of that's beautifully illustrated in this new recording from Naxos. Pianist Ralph van Raat presents three of Bryars' recent compositions for the instrument, two of which are dedicated to van Raat. All three works share certain similarities. There are these long flowing arpeggios played with the damper pedal down. This causes these layered chords to overlap each other, creating an additional voice as sonorities fade in and out.

At first listen, I was reminded briefly of Philip Glass' music -- but only briefly. While flowing diatonic chords are prominent, that's where the similarity ends. Bryar isn't concerned with gradual changes over time. He's more interested in what's happening at the moment. His chords change quickly, although each chord often has several notes in common with the one before it. The result is music that organically flows from point to point, much like a vine.

While the two solo piano works on the album, "After Handel's Vesper" and "Ramble on Cortona" are compelling listening, the piano concerto is a real masterwork.

Subtitled "The Solway Canal" it takes the Edwin Morgan poem as its starting point and basis for organization. Like Smetana's "Ma Vlast," the piano concerto takes the listener down the canal, presenting scenes along the banks that drift past. The solo piano part isn't especially virtuostic, but it is the glue that holds the work together. The piano plays almost constantly, with the orchestra and chorus organized around its shimmering chordal cascades.

I would be hard-pressed to precisely describe the structure of the work, but I don't think it matters. "The Solway Canal" pulled me along from the first note to the final chord, and everything just seemed to fall into place.

If you think modern music has to sound like a toolbox descending a staircase, give Bryar a listen. You won't hear pretty little melodies, but you will hear compelling, accessible music that draws you in emotionally. And really, isn't that the point?

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Good news/bad news -- free classical downloads!

Brompton's Auction House caused quite a stir in the classical community. This firm specializes in historic musical instruments, and they provide an extensive amount of information on their website to help buyers learn more about -- and understand the value of -- the instruments that come up for auction.

Recently, Brompton's introduced a line of historic recordings that visitors could download for free. Again, the goal is to help prospective buyers better understand the instruments Brompton's offers by hearing them played by some of the greatest performers of all time.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that Brompton's is a UK firm, and folks in the US can't download these tracks because of copyright issues.

Now let's be clear: the works in question are all in public domain, the composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) long dead. These recordings were made back in the 1930's and 1940's, and all of the artists involved are also dead. Some of these recordings are out of print, and aren't readily available.

So what's going on?

A difference in copyright law. In the UK, recorded works are only protected for 50 years. After that time, they fall into public domain. So in this year of 2011, recordings released in the UK before 1960 can be reissued and/or remastered by anyone.

US copyright works a little differently. Basically, anything issued before 1923 is in public domain. Anything after (depending in part on renewal) could be protected until 2047, and works after 1978 could be protected through 2067!

Think on that for a moment. A 1940 recording of a Beethoven violin concerto remains under copyright in the US for over a century. And if the record label decides not to reissue it because the market's too small? Too bad. That recording ceases to exist -- and don't you dare try to get it someplace else!

Brompton's offerings are going to appeal to a very small audience -- even worldwide. Copyright law was originally designed to allow creators to reap the initial rewards of their works in the marketplace. And public domain was designed to eventually allow others to take those works and add their own improvements or innovations.

The UK's law makes much more sense. Consider this: if our copyright laws had been in effect all along, then works published in 1890 would just be coming into public domain this year.