I posted this in a forum as a response to Alex Ross’s recent column “Why Do We Hate Classical Music?“, in the Guardian:

I’m afraid I find Ross’s argument hackneyed, as well as a bit confused.

First, the problem of new artists versus old masters. This isn’t unique to music at all. In fact the only exception to the rule I can think of is cinema, in which the mass audience generally dismisses anything over 20 years old. But then, in that field, there have been undeniable technical advances which make most earlier films look primitive – there isn’t really comparable technicological drift in other fields.

Second, the comparisons in other fields are in many respects invalid. Architects and painters in particular rely on an extremely small group of patrons for their success (or failure), whereas music really needs a mass audience.

Third, you will actually find people who disagree with the Modernist “icons”, despite the weight of conventional wisdom. For instance, we had a debate on the merits of Picasso in this forum earlier this year. I think a number of these icons remain so because of the strenuous vocalisations of a tiny minority, rather than their inherent values.

At the core of Ross’s piece is the same old controversy about “outdated” tonality suppressing “historically inevitable” atonality. If it is suppressed, it’s because people want it suppressed. And in my listening experience, it’s not even because atonal music is difficult, but because it’s boring. If the notes occur because of some extra-musical schema, their harmonic relationship is essentially random, and thus meaningless. And even outside this consideration, atonalists seem to me generally incapable of constructing a rhetorical or dramatic flow to a piece that makes it engaging. (But this is something even modern tonalists seem to lack.)

Indeed, it’s striking that film-makers have made lavish use of the same dissonances that concertgoers have found so alienating. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its hallucinatory György Ligeti soundtrack, mesmerised millions in the late 1960s. … If the human ear were instinctively hostile to dissonance, these and 1,000 other Hollywood productions would have failed.

This is a junk argument, partly because music accompanying a dramatic visual experience is processed differently to “pure” music, and mostly because atonal music in film always represents or evokes an alienating, horrific, or inhuman experience. It does this because it sounds “wrong”, and I would argue this wrongness stems from a cause that is biological, not “merely” cultural. (Inverted commas around “merely”, because I disagree with the Modernist idea that culture, particularly Western culture, must be undermined and overthrown).

Here are my thoughts on the biological necessity of tonally-based music:

1) Humans are wired to be pattern-finders. Presented with any complex, apparently chaotic system, we look for patterns and meanings. So strong is this instinct that we even find patterns and meanings in places where they don’t exist.

Music is complex, particularly classical music, and we derive pleasure from identifying and following its patterns, regardless of whether we identify these patterns as emotions or technical phenomena. There is an element of trust involved. We want to believe that there is some conscious intent behind the meanings we discover (just as we want to believe in God). For this reason, we have limited patience for music derived, or apparently derived, by chance.

2) Perhaps more controversially, I believe humans are programmed to find specific meanings in tonal relationships.

These meanings are both emotional and spatial. Two notes, the second a tone higher than the first, form a relationship which we cannot help but take as implying a change of elevation both physical and emotional. If the order of the notes is reversed, it must represent a decline or a reduction both physical and emotional. These meanings have value and interest to us, in as much as they are analogous to information about the real world.

If we introduce more notes, the meaning becomes more complex, thus more interesting and valuable. The use of several different tonalities/harmonies in close proximity brings a new dimension, which I suggest implies the simultaneous existence of multiple viewpoints, or places, in other words the complexities of community, or geography.

I assume you can see where I’m going with this. Tonality is a grid on which we can plot meaning. If we take away the grid, we are left with parts which are unrelated. Unrelated parts do not have meaning. Things without meaning are not interesting.

All this is not to say that tonal music cannot be incredibly boring, of course! The minimalists abuse tonality in another way, by repetition, but that’s an argument for another time.

Music ordered today 18/02/10

18 February, 2010

Ordered today from HMV.jp :

Requiem, Etc: Norrington / London Classical Players – Y701 / Y1,000

Got into the Requiem lately via the Kertesz recording reissued on Eloquence. A lot more drama and variety from Mozart than usual, which is why I like it. I’d like to hear the fugue that Sussmayr didn’t include in his completion, and from samples this sounds like a great version (much faster than Kertesz, but not stupidly fast).

Dudarova conducts Khachaturian, Kalinnikov, Miaskovsky (3CD) [3 CD] – Y1,279 / Y1,827
Kalinnokov: syms 1 and 2
Myaskovsky: sym 6
Khach: Widow from Valencia; Masquerade; Cello concerto rhapsody

I only know Dudarova from her accompaniments to Khachaturian and Kabalevsky concertos (Kabalevsky cello concertos are excellent, probably the best thing he wrote), but I want more versions of the Kalinnikov symphonies (Kuchar is overrated, Svetlanov sounds crude). This is also a chance to check out the Myaskovsky symphony, supposedly his best (I’ve heard his 24th and 25th, but was not converted).

Faure: Requiem – Y425 / Y500

The only version I have of this is Ansermet, which really sounds poor. Samples of this sound fine, plus I want more good requiems in my collection, plus it’s CHEAP! Easy decision to make.

TOTAL = ¥2405 = AU$30.07 [+ shipping] 4 discs

Despite the fact that I’m supposed to be saving to buy a flat, I caved in and ordered the following things:

ANIME [prices in US$]
First 5 items should be arriving soon.

Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars [series] $19.99
Moon Phase (Tsukuyomi) [series] $24.99
Hourglass of Summer Interactive DVD $14.99
Mobile Suit Gundam, Movie Pack $25.00
Comic Party [series] $14.00
FLAG [series] $23.99
Gundam 08th MS Team [series] $20.99

From Amazon.co.uk:

Lost In Austen [DVD] £7.98
The Mighty Boosh – series 3 [DVD] £5.20

Classic Frankenstein Triple – Frankenstein/Bride Of Frankenstein/House Of Frankenstein [DVD] £6.58
Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man [DVD] £4.98
Son Of Frankenstein [DVD] £4.33
The Ghost Of Frankenstein [DVD] £5.57

The Ligeti Project [5xCD set] £16.33
Hindemith: Orchestral Works [cond. Blomstedt] [3xCD set] £9.55

These are all bargains – but that doesn’t mean I can afford them!

I think they call it comfort-buying…

Details of What I’ve Bought

Shingu is a series about ordinary goings-on at a high school in a town where interstellar peace negotiations are happening.
Moon Phase is a story about an ordinary boy who gets involved with a super-cute (kawaii!) vampire.
Hourglass of Summer is a computer game/interactive novel adapted to be played on a regular DVD player. A schoolboy has no memory of the previous summer, during which his girlfriend died. If he can remember what happened, he might be able to save her…
Mobile Suit Gundam is the first series of the franchise, shortened into 3 two-hour movies. The series is alleged to be a classic, and supposedly the movie versions are good too. The movie Char’s Counterattack is also included, but this is related to the sequel series Gundam Zeta, which I don’t have and haven’t seen.
Comic Party has received mixed reviews. It’s about a manga fan club, so should be interesting, but probably not nearly as good as Genshiken.
Gundam 08th MS Team is often listed as one of the best of the Gundam shows – even people who disagree about Gundam Seed agree on this (but the opinions of people who loved Gundam Wing don’t count 😀 ). 08th Team is supposed to be more of a Real Robot show, which appeals to me.
FLAG is a gritty, realistic series about a photographer in a war zone. There is also a flag involved, apparently.

Lost In Austen, the fanfic version of Pride and Prejudice 🙂 , was surprisingly good, and emotionally affecting for reasons I don’t want to go into now. I worry the Australian release will have the problems of the early UK release (cut scenes, grainy picture) – plus it’s probably cheaper to get the import.
The Mighty Boosh – series 3. Got sick of waiting for the local price to drop to something reasonable. From what I’ve seen, this final series is superior to the patchy second series.
Frankenstein movies. I got the US complete set, but found the NTSC video quality really unacceptably poor (plus the disc programming was dodgy, and the flipper discs had some problems). I also wanted a copy of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, which wasn’t in the complete set. This purchase should mean I have the best of the 1930s/40s horror movies in my collection (inc. the wonderful Val Lewton films) (plus Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series – PAL format, of course).

Ligeti Project. I’ve been wondering about Ligeti’s music for a while now (he wrote the weirder stuff that was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and heard a bit of his Requiem on headphones at Fish records – extremely effective and surprisingly emotional. Compared with the 2001 soundtrack, I think these are better, more powerful performances, and certainly better recorded. Looking forward to five CDs of genius weird shit.
Hindemith Orchestral Works.
Hindemith is an acquired taste, and seems to be a mixed bag in terms of quality of work. His pre-1934 stuff, before Mathis der Maler, is clever but ultimately heartless stuff, and just not worth it IMO. I was disappointed by the DG set of music conducted by the composer, in terms of both sound and performance, and wanted better and more recent recordings of his symphonies, which I think are his best works (none of his concertos have worked for me so far).
I’ve been avoiding Blomstedt, after being extremely disappointed by his Dresden Beethoven set, but (a) his Hindemith set is widely recommended, (b) it’s much more cheaply available than Tortelier’s recordings (on always-expensive Chandos), and the Kegel recordings on Berlin Classics (plus, listening to samples of his Pittsburgh Symphony, the soft opening of the finale was mastered much too loudly). Also, I finally found some samples and was pleasantly surprised, particularly by the Swan Turner viola concerto, the Zimmerman version of which I find very unrewarding listening (thin tone; lack of feeling and convincing phrasing).
Seeing it so cheap on Amazon.co.uk, I had to grab it before the price went up again. Now I just need to find a cheap copy of the Symphonic Dances (Tortelier/Chandos).

Interesting interview with composer Gyorgy Ligeti here.

Two notable quotes:

The experience of extreme terror doesn’t lead to the creation of art.

I think this is extremely egocentrical idea, thinking the self-importance and thinking in the future… Wagner began this foolish way of thinking he’s the most important composer. He accepted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, but now he will create a music of the future. What he created was a contribution to the Nazi Germany, in fact. I’m against it. And also Schonberg . Schonberg who taught with the method of 12 tone rows – “I made sure the domination of German music for the next 100 years”, well this is extremely pretentious and stupid.

[From a discussion on the Modernity (or not) of Sibelius]

Greenberg’s essay really is piffle – his argument is really metaphysical rather than concrete. He asserts but does not demonstrate. He pretends to discuss Modernism in general, but is really only talking about the plastic arts, painting in particular. His argument is finally based on a Bohemian pose.

From the top: Greenberg says Modernism rose in response to the crisis of Romanticism, in particular to the degenerations of revivalism and academicism (he mentions this didn’t apply to music or literature, but doesn’t think this exception to his thesis needs explanation).

What actually made this new movement different from previous new movements is rather vague. Greenberg says:

Modernist innovation has been compelled to be, or look, more radical and abrupt than innovation used to be or look: compelled by an ongoing crisis in standards.

Over the past hundred and thirty years and more the best new painting and sculpture (and the best new poetry) have in their time proven a challenge and a trial to the art lover — a challenge and a trial as they hadn’t used to be. Yet the urge to relax is there, as it’s always been. It threatens and keeps on threatening standards of quality. (It was different, apparently, before the mid-nineteenth century.)

So Modernism may be defined as being especially radical and challenging, in response to a threat to “standards of quality”. (The phrase in brackets is particularly interesting – the word “apparently” suggests he doesn’t understand why things use to be different.) Is “the urge to relax” really the great threat to standards of quality?

No, the threat is not the urge to relax, but the cause at the root of this urge, which is:

the demands of a new and open cultural market, middlebrow demands.

the relative democratization of culture under industrialism

an opposition that hadn’t been present in the past.

these threats, which came mostly from a new middle-class public

So that’s the problem, you see. The common people became more affluent, and more interested in art. Their “middlebrow demands” precipitated the crisis, which could only be resisted by art becoming “a challenge and a trial”. What were these “middlebrow demands”? How were these demands made? How did they differ from demands of previous times? (“It was different, apparently, before the mid-nineteenth century.”)

From Greenberg’s argument we see the basic problem was that the new public existed at all. After all, the elite do not want to be associated with the pastimes of the plebians. Imagine an aesthete in a concert hall listening to Beethoven’s 9th symphony – and surrounded by suburbanites having a jolly good time. Intolerable! How could they possibly appreciate such a masterwork?

It is in answer to this crisis that art must become “a challenge and a trial”, in order to weed out those who desire to “relax” (this desire not being a problem before Modernism pronounced it so, “apparently”). This is in fact the archetypal Bohemian gesture, a ego-defensive attempt to shock the bourgeoisie (épater les bourgeoisie), and drive the impure ones from “our” temple.

What does this have to do with Sibelius? Not much. He began composing in the style of his time, and developed his individual voice, modifying his methods to facilitate expression. Nothing especially Modern about that. He wasn’t endeavouring “to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism”, although he was resisting the pressure of Modernism to atonalism and a general pose of radicalism.

The Modernist arc

6 February, 2009

[From a post about the problem of modern (visual) art]

I think it’s a fallacy to blame modern art on the invention of photography. After all, there are no analogical innovations to explain similar developments in music or architecture.

The roots of Modernist progressivism stretch back to the Enlightenment of the 18th century, when our modern scientific understanding of the world began, and when political revolution (in America and France) seemed a real and imminent possibility. From the scientific revolution we gained the idea of the world as mechanistic, that is, changing via observable material causes rather than by divine fiat. This concept led to things like science fiction and the big public health movements of the 19th century, but also shaped that period’s revolutionary mindset, which led to Marx’s notion that society was like a boat in the sea of history, that’s course could be altered at will, even (or especially) if the crew mutinied. This idea in turn fed back into the arts, leading to what we can call the Bolshevik art movements of the 20th century, which deliberately sought to insult their patrons, assault their audiences, and claim a privileged understanding of historical “necessity” (“anyone who has not understood the necessity of the dodecaphonic system is useless!”).

The revolutionary pose of Modern artists was always a pose, of course. Artists did their best to get comfortably settled into the art (anti)establishment, usually with support from the public purse, and aspired to bourgois comfort even if they proclaimed themselves to be Leninists. Architect Mies van der Rohe insisted his clients live in stark, undecorated boxes, but his own homes were always furnished in a most comfortable and old-fashioned style.

After their peak of public interest in the mid-20th century, the vapidity of “revolutionary art” gradually came to be understood, but still few artists and critics are prepared to expose themselves to ridicule by suggesting that art should sincerely attempt to be understandable and beautiful, without the pretense of attacking or sneering at its audience. Nor has the idea that artistic traditions are to be nurtured, rather than annihilated, gained much currency.

My Vaughan Williams collection isn’t comprehensive but it is pretty deep. Apart from various singles (too many to list), I have a number of the complete sets, except for:
Boult(Decca) – I’m not generally a fan of Boult; I already have his EMI set, and don’t wish to invest in another set, with inferior sound, and performances probably not much different.
Slatkin – this set is completely out of print.
Bakels/Daniel – The best CD contains 7 and 8 (excellent/good), but what I’ve heard of the rest of the cycle (2, 5 & 9) is unimpressive.
Norrington – recorded several of the symphonies; none of these recordings are in print.
Davis – reviewers panned this set, except for 6, which I have.

Of the complete sets I have, I would order them this way:


I put Previn first because his 7th is probably the best on record, while Handley’s is the failure of his set, being brash and superficial (I wouldn’t rate any of Previn’s performances as failures – 6 is his weakest; otherwise I usually prefer him to Handley for his warmth and care with detail). Haitink is warmly played and efficiently managed but often borders on bland and dull. Boult’s “authority” in this music is often touted (he knew the composer and recorded the first complete cycle of symphonies), but in his EMI set he has the worst orchestra (except in 3, 4 and 6), the most unnatural sound, and a heavily “macho” style too often at odds with the music, or at least insufficient to its content – he is best in the darkness of 6, worst in the celebratory 8. Thomson is always broad and monolithic, and too often seems to have nothing to say, but his 5 and 8 are excellent; 6 and 9 have their qualities.

Finally, a caveat: I will not rate the Sea Symphony, as its kitschy Victorian atmosphere has thus far appealed to me not at all. If you think you will enjoy a cantata which begins “Behold – the SEEEEAAAA!!!!!!!!”, then by all means investigate it yourself.


Symphony No. 2 “London”

An exciting and poetic depiction of London in the composer’s time (before WWI). Some rate this Edwardian monument as Vaughan Williams’ best symphony (as his first “proper” symphonic achievement, it was the composer’s favourite), but it’s less individual than his later works. Previn (LSO/RCA) is excellent, unmatched in detail and shaping. The others lack atmosphere in comparison. His remake is also good, but may be too amorphous for some.

Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”

Inspired by the ruined landscape of France during World War 1, this “symphony in four movements, three of them slow” (RVW) is subtle and introspective; definitely not Edwardian. Previn is great, Handley is great, Boult is typically powerful but surprisingly sensitive, albeit swifter than most.

Symphony No. 4

Vaughan William’s most overtly “Modern” work, this most strident symphony begins with a crisis and ends with a slammed door. Previn is powerful but perhaps a little slow for some. Handley is less inhibited, but perhaps lacking a little in character. Boult is good and quite fierce (albeit in unnatural sound) but lacks energy in the 4th movement. Apparently his earlier version is superior, but in trebly early-1950s sound. Berglund in this and 6 is good but ultimately too generalised.

Symphony No. 5

Perhaps VW’s most beautiful symphony. Beginning with this symphony, VW became a “serious” symphonist (whereas previously it was only an occasional inclination). Previn is very emotional, Handley is more spiritual, Thomson (best of his set, along with 8) is transcendant; they are all very fine. Boult is good but a little stiff and insensitive by comparison. Gibson is good in the 1st and 3rd movements, less convincing in the others. Barbirolli is always mentioned as THE one to get, but this is wrong. Compared directly with the above recommendations, he is surprisingly stiff and unromantic (Previn is the more Barbirollian option!). In fact, I find Barbirolli generally disappointing in this composer (though I may get lynched for saying so).

Symphony No. 6

I think this is one of Vaughan Williams’ lesser symphonies. It has a strong concept, but the music itself doesn’t much hold my attention. The famous quiet last movement bores me. Boult is best overall, fierce, coherent and convinced, but his finale was mastered a little strangely (it gradually gets louder and hissier, or perhaps that’s my stereo). Haitink provides some interest by playing this turbulent score very urbanely, giving the impression of turmoil beneath still waters. Handley is generally good but doesn’t convince me of this work’s worth. Previn is exciting until the crude finale (Berglund also falls down here). Andrew Davis is often wheeled out as the recording to own, but I think this may only be due to its interesting sound, unusually dark and distant – the performance itself is not especially committed or insightful.

Symphony No. 7 “Sinfonia Antartica”

A fine work sadly lumbered with a silly title, a wind machine, and some illustrative quotations in the score which add little to the musical experience. Previn is slowest, grandest, scariest, but you’ll need to program the spoken parts out of it. Bakels‘ “objectivity” works here – he is scary and heavy but swift. Between them, Previn and Bakels most successfully present this music independent of its filmscore origins, instead an evocation of the fragile human psyche dwarfed by a vast and dangerous universe.
Boult is very heroic and “stiff upper lip”, which is a rather limited view on this work. Thomson is a bit generalised, has some uncomfortable phrasing in the first movement, and a terribly underwhelming organ in the “ice-fall” section. Haitink is well played and recorded but rather anonymous, with a fake-sounding wind machine. Handley falls flat, with no atmosphere or emotion, just a spectacle for orchestra (and the recording isn’t spectacular enough to get away with that). Barbirolli’s is good for a first performance, but now sounds like a recording of mere soundtrack music.

Symphony No. 8

The least programmatic of the symphonies, and also the most fun. I like Thomson best because his broader tempos enable him to show greater detail – the impression is of ‘more music’ rather than ‘slower music’. It’s an excellent, committed performance too. Previn, Handley and Bakels are good, but Previn is probably the most joyous, and does best with the ending, being the most emphatic. Boult is roughly played, unsubtle and ultimately dull, even duller than the blithely efficient Haitink.

Symphony No. 9

On the advice of Boult, Vaughan Williams planned to revise the finale, but died before he could do so. This is a shame, as it is obvious what needed fixing: the structure as it is seems diffuse, and the apotheosis arrives too suddenly, without adequate preparation. The structural problem can partly be overcome by taking the movement allegretto (as opposed to the designated andante), but then the apotheosis is even more of a problem, as it obviously requires a slower tempo (I would suggest some surging rubato to accommodate the transition).
Handley is fairly successful in the finale, and his overall performance has something of a flowing narrative feel (appropriate in as much as the symphony was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels), although, as usual, he rushes his fences too much for my taste. Boult, on his second time around, does pretty well in the finale, but the ending is hampered by unsubtle recording, and the overall playing and recording quality is second rate; his scherzo lacks energy too. Previn is very atmospheric and characterful, and most gleefully wicked in the 3rd movement; his finale is perhaps more disconnected, but his slower tempo makes it sound more momentous (a good thing).

A note on the programming of discs

The effective arrangement of the Vaughan Williams symphonies on CD seems to be an almost insurmountable problem for record companies, who are insensitive to the negative effects ill-considered juxtaposition can have.

For instance, if you program the 7th followed by the 8th, the epic Antartica will swamp the smaller, more subtle 8th (see Previn, Bakels). Programming any music at all after the long hushed ending of the 6th is tactless (all but Boult offend). Following the meditative 3rd with the caustic, rage-filled 4th is also a miscalculation (Previn, Handley). The Boult set is best in this respect, tastefully pairing 3 with 5, 4 with 6, and 8 with 9.

Other works

Along side the symphonies, Boult presents a very powerful performance of the Tallis Fantasia. Sadly the other non-symphonic works are less impressive: his Wasps overture pales besides the account in Previn’s set. The Wasps and Job suites are lumpy and dull; Handley’s performances (not in the complete set) are a better option. The concerto for two pianos is duller than the original version for one (at least under Boult’s direction). Boult’s Norfolk Rhapsody and In Fen Country are also misses, even compared with the complacent Haitink.

Haitink includes some songs sung rather gratingly by Bostridge.

Previn includes a decent account of the violin solo, but the soloist is too forward and rough-sounding. The tuba concerto soloist is a bit breathy and parpy (though infinitely better than the original under Barbirolli – Barenboim is probably your best option in this admittedly short and slight work).

For the non-symphonic (and non-balletic, non-concerto) orchestral works, your best option is a two-disc set conducted by Marriner (the Australian Eloquence set is more complete than the Decca). All the performances are really top-notch (a nice change for Marriner) – warmly shaped and beautifully recorded. This collection comes with the best recording of the rarely-heard Romance for Harmonica. You might want to supplement with a more emotive performance of the much-recorded Tallis Fantasia.