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If at first you don’t succeed …

July 31, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Gazillions of hours of human effort are spent trying to keep us motivated as we slog through life. We like the idea that if we work hard enough, eventually we’ll achieve our goals. We are told that “90%*** of life is just showing up,” that we should not give up, learn from our failures, and press on,

Sergei Rachmaninoff had a successful career as a pianist, conductor, and composer. Because his writing was relatively conservative during a time of great experimentation and fragmentation of styles, he was getting a lot of play time with major orchestras while other composers were causing scandals. His Fourth Piano Concerto was one of his later compositions – and as he was a highly-regarded composer, everyone expected another smash-hit (like his previous three piano concertos, his tone poems, and his symphonies.)

Well … the Fourth Piano Concerto was no hit. In fact, just about everybody hated it. Rachmaninoff was deeply hurt, but didn’t give up. He immediately cut nearly 10% of the work, hoping a shorter piece would be a little easier to swallow.

Nope. Another 10% was cut. The work was revised over and over again, until at last, 15 years after it was premiered, Rachmaninoff gave up, despite being unsatisfied with the final version. 90% of life might be just showing up – but that means there’s another 10% lurking around – and what should we do with that?

*** according to some experts, only 80% of life is just showing up.

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Musical Morality

June 12, 2017 at 2:08 pm

When I was a wee lad, my father gave me a CD of Bach’s harpsichord concertos as a birthday present. Yes, I was a nerd.

Fast-forward 25+ years to my middle-aged self, over-educated, and packed with esoteric tidbits of musical knowledge. I pull out the aforementioned CD for a birthday listen. Only there is something quite wrong about what I hear.

… this harpsichord is playing with sensitive dynamics!

You might have heard that the piano used to be called the pianoforte – literally, “soft-loud.” This is because before the piano’s keyboard predecessors (the organ and harpsichord) didn’t have velocity-sensitive keys (to oversimplify the matter). No matter how hard you hit the key, the resulting note will always be the same volume.

Now, those of us who play the harpsichord are used to creating the illusion of dynamics by altering our articulation and shortening/elongating notes, among other things. But this recording is not an illusion … there is some witchcraft here! If you listen carefully at 6:40-6:55, you can hear the harpsichord get gradually softer – it sounds as if someone is silently closing the lid of the instrument, muffling the sound. Or, perhaps the recording engineer just turned down a volume know to make the upcoming crescendo more effective.

 

The big question is, is this morally right? Ok, so this is not exactly a life-and-death situation here, but it does make you think. Possible arguments (in no particular order):

  1. Historic Authenticity: Bach certainly didn’t have a volume knob to turn down, and it’s unlikely he had someone standing next to the harpsichord to slowly close the lid in order to create a decrescendo. So this performance is “wrong”?
  2. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity: If Bach could have turned a volume knob, he would have. This performance sounds better with the added dynamics. So this performance is “right”?
  3. Musicality trumps Historic Authenticity, part 2: If Bach had access to a 13-foot Steinway, this would be a piano concerto instead. So it is equally “right” and arguably better to play this on the piano?
  4. There are hundreds of factors that go into every performance according to the resources available and needs of the performers/audience, blurring the lines of “right” and “wrong” into a big smeary gray area.
  5. Who gives a care anyway?

As for me, I’m with #4. I’m not sure a pure historically authentic performance (#1) can be achieved because we cannot help but look at the past through our present selves. Assuming a dead composer would agree with our ideals (#2 & #3) is dangerous, pretentious, and stupid. And as for #5 – I do in fact give a care!

 

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What shall we do with a Drunken Sailor?

May 24, 2017 at 10:13 am

Who says nothing good ever came out of the Soviet Union?

Once you’re through beheading the ex-ruling class and you’ve stripped the bourgeoisie of their property, what’s the next natural step for your revolution? Propaganda. Music, ballets, movies, and of course, amazing artwork:


The early Soviet artistic propaganda is either so bad it’s good, or so good it’s bad. Take this film about the great Russian medieval hero, Alexander Nevsky, who led the Russians in victory over the invading Westerners. At best, the cinematography ranks up there with Plan 9 from Outer Space; but I can’t help totally loving it, thanks to Sergei Prokofiev‘s awesome musical score. In fact, I find myself actually getting excited during this horribly stupid battle scene.

And then there’s The Red Poppy, a ballet with music by Reinhold Glière: the plot is a Soviet ship captain who tries to free Chinese laborers from their oppressive masters, thus earning the love of a fair maiden. If that doesn’t sound absolutely riveting, take heart, because the ballet includes a drunken sailors’ dance (of course).

So the question I leave you with today is, if Trump actually supported the arts, and created propaganda, what would it look like?

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