Monday, August 13, 2012

Developing Our Listening Selves, and Understanding Classical Music


by Steve D. Matchett

When we apply the term "classical" to a piece of music, what does that say about that music?  It usually means that the music takes a larger form than most of the popular music that we are used to.  Popular music is recognized as songs, or what we could call the "minstrel" art.  Songs can be simple and they can be complex.  They can have strong instrumental content or very simple strumming to underlie the lyric.

Classical music has it's early roots in musical forms like chant, hymns, dances, minstrelsy, and many other smaller forms.  It developed over centuries into larger dramatic forms.  Symphonies, operas, extended sonatas, oratorios, and large scale chamber works, were the culmination of this development, although the smaller forms still remain vital too.  What we think of as "classical" music, could also be thought of as "drama" music.  This is why we hear so much "symphonic" music used as the soundtracks for films, because the symphony orchestra developed as the "instrument" of the large drama.  In opera, like in film, the music reflects on the emotions and feelings of individual characters and groups of characters in the drama, as well as the action.  The music "partners" in telling the story.  This flow of emotion and story can change moment by moment, and can have drastic shifts.  Changing tempos, shifts of key, changes of instrumental combinations and dynamic (volume) levels, all contribute to this changing dramatic flow.

Some writers have talked about the fact that purely instrumental music is like an "opera" for the instruments.  I prefer to think of it as a "drama" BY the instruments.  The instruments trade thoughts and gestures on the various topics (themes) contained in a piece.  In purely instrumental works there are no words to guide us; just the gestures of rhythm, key, etc., that the instruments convey to us through their interplay.  The music becomes self-defining; a unique world of it's own.  This kind of unfolding drama is not just the purview of classical music.  Larger works of jazz, rock "concept" albums, and individual songs themselves can have strong dramatic flow to them.  Classically oriented music tends to have a lot of this changing dramatic content since it developed this style over such a long period of time.  Contemporary Classical music has drawn influence from all kinds of music including jazz, rock, and world folk musics.  All of the different types of music that we listen to and enjoy draws influences from other forms of music.  This is what keeps the art of music constantly evolving, in all it's forms.

Music has become ubiquitous in our culture.  It's with us in electronic form almost every minute of the day.  At the grocery store, in the car, on the TV, at the doctors office, and hundreds of other places.  We learn over time to tune out the music, because it is often imposed on us, and not something we choose.  Our ears are assaulted everywhere we go.  It is hard to imagine a time when people only heard music when it was made by the actual human voice, hands and instruments.  If music were only made by real people, in our presence, we would probably have a very deep appreciation of it when we heard it.  It would be much more rare, and we would deeply value the efforts that it takes to make it, since it would only happen before our eyes.  This is how music was for millennia, and why it became so important to the cultures in which it developed.  I'm afraid we have become numb to it's constant and sometimes unwanted presence!  We hear it chopped up and predigested as the servant of every commercial scheme.  I hope we can put aside the constant background noise, and learn to hear and appreciate music anew, for itself.  It requires a leap of imagination and a willingness to be discriminating in our listening.  All music is not created equal and some music defies classified labels.  We all have to give ourselves over to the microcosm of experience that each piece of music creates.  This will help us develop our "listening selves" in order to find the full joy that music can give us.
- Steve D. Matchett, August 5, 2009
© 2009 Steve D. Matchett



Sunday, July 1, 2012

Striking a balance on Copland

Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man,
by 
Howard Pollack

Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY USA (ML410.C756P6)

This book exudes a tone of high admiration for the composer. The brilliant essays on the music reveal to the reader how Copland was able to integrate the modernism he absorbed in France with the varied moods of American musical culture. Pollack's deep appreciation for the music is catching. He balances this by giving candid reports of contemporary reviews of the music; good, bad and mixed. The book profiles aspects of the composer's personal life by discussing them topically. In all the detail Copland is revealed as a private and magnanimous man, and a sincere statesman of American music. Pollack also comments on the many recordings of the music, which can guide the reader in their listening and collecting. - Steve Matchett, Houston, TX USA - January 21, 2000

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Energy Surrogation Made Cheap


By Steve D. Matchett

We are assaulted everywhere we go with music that we may not want to listen to, and with distracting flashing images that we may not see.  Pop culture is fed to us whether we want it or not.  Many of us don’t want it imposed on us; some of us are neutral but take it for granted that it will be there; some desire it and would feel lost without it.

When I go to my gym, there is a constant barrage of rock videos playing on one of the TV screens.  This is the only screen with its sound piped into the room.  There are other screens with captioned news and sports shows.  The most essential pieces of equipment I take with me to the gym are my earplugs.  Alas, I’m not lucky enough to have a “soundless” gym like some people are, and switching gyms would be luxury I can’t afford.  Gyms are supposed to be “high energy” places, but for me I would like it to be a peaceful place where I can de-stress and think my own thoughts while I sweat.

All this unwanted saturation of pop culture makes me question the reason that we all put up with it.  This saturation is ubiquitous!  I guess in many ways it makes us feel included in the culture around us, but in too many ways it irritates us and “dumbs us down.”  I feel that so much of it is about our need for energy, and we turn over our ability to create energetic feelings in ourselves to the “energy surrogates” of the pop culture world.  We want to relate to the energy of others because they will make us feel energetic ourselves.  These false, airbrushed, packaged, and edited visions and sounds, which are put in front of us, remind us of powers that we don’t feel we possess.  Or we feel we possess them, but they can lie dormant and “toned down” within us until the moment is called for their expression.  We surrogate the creators of pop culture to become a representation of our dormant energy source, so we can feel that it’s always there, safely on call, if we need it.  We expect ourselves to be at peak energy.  Why?…because pop culture tells us we should be!  When we are not at peak energy, and only on “slow simmer,” we feel like we are betraying the culture we live in.  For those of us who are older, we want to be reminded of our youth when sexual energy propelled us.  Pop culture gives us that reminder galore.  The falseness of most pop culture blurs the impressions that help us decide what things are important in this life, and what our cultural priorities should really be.  In an “adolescence” inspired culture like ours, the worst aspects of our culture get unduly glorified to the point of nausea.  Instead of our kids “growing up to us” we too often “grow down” to them, or we get stuck in a far less mature phase of our past.  This doesn’t serve the generations well, as we all succumb to the lure of the advertiser who uses all this as a prime manipulation tool.

Wouldn’t it be heaven to go to most public places and be greeted with silence?  Silence while we shop, eat out with our friends, work out at the gym, or even just read at the bookstore!  Libraries are such great places aren’t they!  If for nothing more than too seek refuge from the storm!










© 2012 Steve D. Matchett

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Robert Muczynski: Complete Works for Flute



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This is a fine recording of many of the wind works of Robert Muczynski (1929-2010).  Although these pieces date from 1960 - 1992 a very consistent style is apparent.  I really related to these pieces because they are so nicely constructed and rhythmically dynamic.  I particularly enjoy the way that Muczynski juxtaposed angular and linear elements as a method of creating structure.  The two works on this recording for wind quintet performed by the Stanford Wind Quintet, the Quintet for Winds, op. 45, and the Movements for Wind Quintet, op. 16, reveal the composer's affinity for the wind instruments.  The winds really seem to suit Muczynski's mode of expression because they are so adept as a group with changes of harmonic color.  The lines grow out of the combination of kaleidoscopic harmonic shifts.  The composer's harmonic palette is a plentiful and provides a constant freshness.
The Movements for Wind Quintet would make a sophisticated introduction for a young performing group to the workings of American neoclassical sounds.  These miniatures would also serve as a launching point for Muczynski's Quintet for Winds, which is much more substantial work which has become a standard repertory piece.  This work has very strong solo lines for all of the instruments.  Even though the Quintet dates 22 years after the Movements the same stylistic traits can be recognized.
The Flute Duets, op. 34, are very nice miniature abstract inventions which involve more chromaticism than the other pieces.  They all create a gentle atmosphere, with an almost Far Eastern meditative quality, even in the faster movements.  They are performed here by Alexandra Hawley and Jean-Pierre Rampal.
In the Moments for Flute and Piano, op. 47, the writing fluctuates between a ?? [cagey - NO] rhythmic and a longingly lyrical central episode.  The darkly second movement seems to express like lonely thoughts in the night, but activates into pleasant memories, and back again to dark and distorted thinking.  Waves of introspection.  The last movement has a very assertive sense of movement and seriousness, with some brief episodes of calm.



Friday, February 17, 2012

John Williams Presents…The Sensation of Flight


By Steve D. Matchett

Composer John Williams has impacted the world like no other composer in modern times.  His brilliant film scores saturate the global consciousness…there barely being a person on the planet that couldn’t hum something that he has written.  Few composers can be described as creating an entire “musical iconography.” His music is as vital to the characters that it suffuses, as are their voices, costumes, and dialogue.  His music brings such power to the screen that audiences are washed along in its wake.  He is a composer who “nails it” so much of the time, that we forget that setting the right music to film, and by doing so, intensifying what we see, is an arduous process.  An entire industry of pops concerts has developed with the world’s symphony orchestras, which has his film music at the center, and has pulled other fortunate composers into the productions, along for the trip.  In many ways he has downright saved the symphony orchestra business, and given the public at large an important justification for the perpetual maintenance and support of a 19th century institution.  His music makes us feel that the symphony orchestra also belongs to all of us in our own day.


Of the many things I could say about his music (which would take several weeks of continuous commentary), I wanted to point out here that his music has so brilliantly expressed the sensation of “flight” in so many films.  His music manages to propel us all into aeronautical plunges and ascents without ever leaving our seat.  Of course as a kid one of my favorite shows (and sooo Sci-Fi) was Lost in Space (“danger Will Robinson”), for which he did the theme music.  The music so humorously depicts a rickety flying saucer trying to find a place to plop itself down (hopefully smoothly, so that June Lockhart’s hair doesn’t get mussed).  William’s use of chromatic flourishes to represent the topsy-turvy flight of the Jupiter 2, would be revisited later when he helps propel the also hapless Millennium Falcon to fly into an asteroid and settle there (barely digested!).

When Superman decides that it’s time to give Lois Lane the ride of her life in his arms, the composer is there to make us safe with a soaring theme and a smoothly orchestrated landing (whew!).  Stephen Spielberg decided to give Mr. Williams free reign in the flying sequence at the end of E.T. E.T.’s boy rescuers and their friends take flight on their bikes, under the charm of the alien’s spell, to get the gnomish and homesick creature to his launching area.  Spielberg edited the film here in accordance with the music; reversing the norm of "film first, music later;" doing this in order to honor the composer with a rare Hollywood creative salute, which is one of the best composed “long” musical sequences on film.

Hippogriff
I would say that my favorite flight sequence is in the third movie of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Harry is introduced to Buckbeak the hippogriff, and after making his “acquaintance” is very reluctantly placed on the imposing animal’s back and told to hang on. Harry’s flight is accompanied by music, which is effective thematically and colorfully embellished orchestrally, and produces an oceanic sense (in us and in Harry) as it reinforces the powerful flap of the mythic creature’s giant wings.  In the first three films of the series we also get the hyper-flights of the Quidditch players who travel dangerously fast on their broomsticks to play their airborne sport.  [I wish I could find the video with John Williams conducting the Boston Pops brass section in the Quidditch music! His fanfare/ceremonial music “nails it" here too!] The creative musical mind that concocts and coordinates this affect of flight, to such success, seems to be one with strong synesthetic abilities between the visual and the musico/sonic—his ability to hear harmonic and rhythmic structure in what his eye sees, represents an intellect that few of us can comprehend.  To do this in such a musically sophisticated way, helps the art form and elevates the taste of audiences. We all joyfully succumb to the ride that his music takes us on!

© 2012 Steve D. Matchett

The Houston Ballet takes on “The Shrew”

Publicity still for Houston Ballet's
production of The Taming of the Shrew
by Steve D. Matchett

The Houston Ballet performed The Taming of the Shrew June 9 – 19, 2011.  This comic ballet based on Shakespeare was premiered by the Stuttgart Ballet March 16, 1969 and has since entered the repertory of many of the world’s great ballet companies.  Houston Ballet’s staging of this work was outstanding and played to full houses during it’s run.

The Taming of the Shrew ballet is a brilliant and effective interpretation of the stage play and is very clever in the way it conveys it’s comic message.  The work combines the efforts of the brilliant choreographer, John Cranko (1927-1973), and the composer Kurt Heinz-Stolze (1926-1970).  The music for the ballet is strongly influenced by Stravinsky’s PulcinellaLike the Stravinsky work, the composer has relied on pre-existing music, namely that of Dominico Scarlatti (1685-1757).  Stravinsky’s work (premiered 1920) ushered in the master composer’s neoclassical period, and his work was based on music of Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736) and others.  We have to be careful when we say “based on” because both Stravinsky’s work and Heinz-Stolze’s music have transformed these Italianate pieces into something quite original. I define these works in a special category that I call "Re-Creations" (see Composer and Arranger). Heinz-Stolze clearly modeled his work on Stravinsky’s, using a very similar orchestra with one-to-a-part scoring in the winds.  The chamber orchestra Heinz-Stolze called for includes a few other instruments as well, notably piano and harpsichord.  Stravinsky also used harpsichord in his neoclassic operatic masterpiece The Rake’s Progress.  The instrument provides a wonderful flavor to the music, especially because it alludes to classical Mozartean era sources.  Heinz-Stolze was himself a pianist and harpsichordist and was well familiar with his source music by Scarlatti.

Much of the harmonic language that Heinz-Stolze uses is quite similar to Stravinsky, and the resemblance can be heard easily.  The frequent use of multi-meter also gives this piece it’s modern sensibilities, while at the same time giving a gentile feeling of the past.  This was the brilliance of the Neoclassical style in music, and Heniz-Stolze’s score follows this artistic course in first-class fashion.   In The Taming of the Shrew, music and choreography are matched perfectly in their sensibilities.

John Cranko had a brilliant choreographic career having worked with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (which became the Royal Ballet), the Stuttgart Ballet and others.  He worked with composer Benjamin Britten for the original production of The Prince of the Pagodas in 1957.  His choreography for The Taming of the Shrew is a sensational combination of classical ballet and modern dance.  The work incorporates movements like pratfalls, wrestling holds (as an hilarious means of controlling the shrew, Katherina’s impetuousness), drunken swaggers, prancing, and many others.  There are wonderful corps numbers which are beautifully aligned. This is why this work functions so well on both the musical and dance levels, the music and the dance blend traditional modes with telltale modern ones.  As brilliant as the choreography is, one is never overwhelmed by a stage that is too busy to be fully absorbed.

Sadly both the composer and the choreographer did not live long after the original production of The Taming of the Shrew.  The composer died just months after the premiere.  A good audio recording of this work is not extant as far as I can tell from research.  This work deserves a quality recording and the Houston Ballet Orchestra would be the perfect ensemble to produce it.

I can’t say enough good things about the Houston Ballet, which is truly a world-class company.  Their repertory is a powerful combination of works from the classical ballet repertoire and many of the great ballets of the 20th century, including Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and many others, as well as 21st century pieces.  I was taken aback at how incredible their production of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin was several years ago.  Ben Stevenson, their former artistic director, had created the production for Li Cunxin (see Mao’s Last Dancer).  The company toured with it and performed it at The Kennedy Center.  The orchestra performed the work with such precision and transparency that all the details of this difficult Expressionistic score could be heard.  I had never heard any recording of it played as well–the result of having perfected it through so many performances.  We could not be luckier to have this organization as part of our city’s cultural life!

© 2011 Steve D. Matchett